Author Archives: Mario Naves

Tender, Tenacious and Forceful: The Prints of Paul Resika

DCF 1.0

Paul Resika, Three Sailboats (1997), etching, 17-2/4″ x 26″; courtesy VanDeb Editions

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Scan the literature on veteran New York painter Paul Resika and you can’t help but note the repeated plaudits for his skills as a colorist. A student of Hans Hofmann, Resika absorbed the older artist’s emphasis on color as the prime motivator of the painter’s craft. But Resika’s gift for color may be most fully realized in his prints. That the majority of them are in black and white isn’t a back-handed compliment. “Black is a force”, Matisse declared. Resika, no mean devotee of the French Master, explores black in a manner that is, by turns, tender, tenacious and, yes, forceful.

In Resika’s intaglio prints, gritty fields of aquatint are emboldened by staccato hatching; clubby lines dance upon zooming, milky expanses; and dense swaths of texture both set off and engulf Resika’s motifs: boats, lighthouses and nudes on the beach. All the while an encompassing range of gray, black and, at times, electric white imbue the proceedings with drama, mystery and, here and there, comedy. What else are we to make of the Surrealist forms galumphing through Clouds (2001) or the Thurber-esque whimsy informing White Cloud (1997)?

DCF 1.0Paul Resika, Vessels Meeting (2001), etching, 20″ x 25″; courtesy VanDeb Editions

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Elsewhere, severity presides—Resika distills his forms with iconographic concision—and antiquity is touched upon. Endymion (1995) refers to the Greek tale of the moon falling in love with a mortal, but the preternatural disc that regularly hovers over Resika’s panoramas taps as much into the enduring power of myth as it does to the nighttime sky. The moon allows Resika poetic wiggle-room to amplify the associative capabilities of even the most bare-bones geometry.

If Matisse is the touchstone for Resika’s palette, then Picasso is the signpost for Resika’s dedication to printmaking. Like the inescapable Spaniard, Resika is an artist for whom the medium is considerably more than an addendum to working with oil on canvas. Printmaking is a vital—indeed, inseparable–component of his vision. Newcomers to Resika’s prints will glean that much in short order and revel in the amplitude he brings to the venerable artform.

© 2013 Mario Naves

The essay appeared in a catalogue that accompanies Paul Resika; Silent Poetry, an exhibition at VanDeb Editions.

“Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis” at The Philadelphia Museum of Art

The City

Fernand Léger, The City (1919), oil on canvas, 7′ 7″ x 9′ 9-1/2″; courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, A.E. Gallatin Collection

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“Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis” is, in focus and scope, an ambitious enterprise and, as such, often exhilarating. Anyone fascinated by the trajectory of, and crosscurrents within, early Modernism will count this exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art as a “must see.” Be aware, however, that it isn’t a typical monographic overview. Only a third or so of the pieces on display are by Léger. The majority of items—drawings, paintings, sculptures, architectural maquettes, theater designs, films, and posters—are by his friends, colleagues, and contemporaries. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more impressive Who’s Who of the Avant-Garde: among those included are Piet Mondrian, El Lissitzky, Robert Delaunay, Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Pablo Picasso, Le Corbusier, Francis Picabia, and lesser lights like Amédée Ozenfant, Theo van Doesburg, Gino Severini, Georges Vantongerloo, and Marcel Duchamp. By the time viewers reach the end of this sprawling exhibition, they can be forgiven for wondering if its emphasis has been misplaced. “Modern Art and the Metropolis, with Special Guest Fernand Léger” is more like it.

Make that “With Special Guest Painting, The City.” Here is where the exhibition is brazenly Philly-centric. Anna Vallye, the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow in Modern and Contemporary Art and exhibition organizer, is on a mission. She wants to posit The City (1919), a cornerstone of the museum’s collection and already an iconic painting, as a cultural game-changer on par with Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). The Léger picture, after all, “capture[s] the shifting ground of knowledge of the modern self and world”:

Everything that in the Demoiselles concentrates and amplifies with the heated immediacy of sexual initiation, in The City shatters and disperses with an alienating force, like an approaching locomotive.

That The City takes as its subject “a public, collective, and disunited subject” is key to understanding Vallye’s attempt at taking Picasso down a peg. Léger, having brought modernism out of the studio—and, lest we forget, out of the boudoir—and into the streets, proved himself down with the people, or so the reasoning goes. At a time when the definition of art is increasingly elastic, being a populist is preferable to anything so sniffy as a mere painter.

Leger Photo

Fernand Léger circa 1916

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Truth be told, Léger (1881-1955) was a populist. A relative latecomer to Cubism, Léger brought to the style a voluble, robust, and rambunctious—dare one say masculine?— character. In the introductory galleries, Leger’s distinctive riffs on Cubism, derisively referred to as “Tubism” by a critic of the time, barrel over the competition. The propulsive rhythms and insistent convexities of Houses Under Trees (1913), Contrast of Forms (1913), Acrobats at the Circus (1918), and even the relatively restrained Smoke Over Rooftops (1911) don’t crash the party; they dominate it. It’s clear that the parameters of easel painting were something of a constraint on Léger’s vision. (“Abstract art,” he would write, “is in trouble when it tries to do easel painting.”) Léger looked to Renaissance murals and modernist architecture as means of giving pictorial form to societal shifts brought about by advances in technology. Not that all these advances were beneficent. Having served in the military during the First World War, Léger witnessed the industrialization of combat and the “blinding and new” reality it ushered in.

But how much of an effect did the war have on Léger? Any feelings of despair or cynicism provoked by first-hand contact with its carnage are markedly absent from the work. Léger was, in fact, invigorated by the contact with his “new companions” in the Engineer Corps—“the whole of the French people”. Then there was the “dazzling” sight of “the breech of a 75-millimetre gun which was standing uncovered in the sunlight: the magic of light on white metal.” World War One didn’t alter Léger’s take on the machine. If anything, it emboldened a sensibility already entranced by the machine’s regularity, precision, and power. Admittedly, a revived humanism did enter the work, if not always in imagery—Léger’s figures are always robots or symbols, never flesh-and-blood entities—then in spirit and reach. Compare Leger’s art with that of post-war contemporaries like Otto Dix, Max Ernst, or Max Beckmann, and Léger comes off as positively sunny. Not every artist who has experienced suffering has to suffer in the studio. Léger remained something of a utopian until the end of his days. You can’t help but think: More power to him.

The exhibition’s most literal moment of angst is found in The City. Just below center is a hulking figure rendered in a smudgy array of grays—engulfed in shadow, presumably— stalking a more individuated silhouette. This vignette is of a piece with a panorama that is, if not typified by threat, then overwhelmed by impersonal phenomena: maze-like passageways, towering shards of architecture, cluttered purviews and fractured words, signs and figures. During the war, Léger pined for Paris: “If I’m lucky to go back there . . . I’ll walk about in it like I’ve never before walked about there.” Though the poet Blaise Cendrars likened The City to Paris’s Place Clichy, where he and Léger wandered the streets after war’s end, the painting doesn’t depict a specific location. Rather, The City provides an unmistakable sense of (to use a contemporary phrase) information overload. In Léger’s hands, the urban environment is a monumental entity whose components disassemble even as they demand our attention. Notwithstanding subtle shifts in space, the composition is relentlessly frontal. The City brings to mind Yeats’s “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold,” albeit without the Biblical intimations. It is a testament to Léger’s talent that the composition holds together without sacrificing its compellingly disjointed energy.

RMN106726Fernand Léger, Composition à le main et aux chapeaux (1927), oil on canvas, 97-3/4″ x 73″; courtesy Centre Pompidou, Paris

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Léger’s contemporaries did not miss this accomplishment. The critic Maurice Raynal called The City “a performance more than a painting.” Cendrars remarked upon the thoroughness with which Léger tapped into the dynamism of industry: “The painting becomes an enourmous thing that moves.” Yvan Goll, another poet, described the canvas as “a monstrous entity striding toward us.” Vallye commends The City for ingraining the social transformation of post-war Paris, and for having “opened painting to a fateful and exhilarating contamination”—that is to say, popular culture: “As painting ushered in cultural practices traditionally foreign to itself,” she continues, “the work produced became an uneasy hybrid, laced with generative frictions.” The curator’s up-to-the-minute jargon—can we please excise the word “practice” from the lexicon of art?—is enough to make one think she values the art of painting for everything it isn’t. Still, you don’t have to completely buy into the line about Léger’s “new ethics of modernity” to find truth in Vallye’s assertions. “Modern Art and the Metropolis” makes a heartening brief for the inclusivity of influence, of art as an absorptive and transformative endeavor.

Given its central role in “Modern Art and the Metropolis,” The City pops up curiously early, following quickly on introductory galleries placing Léger within the context of Cubism and Futurism. The painting itself is surrounded by myriad studies, done on canvas and paper, which emphasize how Léger went about bending both styles to his will. At this point the exhibition dedicates itself, in a series of discrete and didactic segments, to the aforementioned contaminants or, as the wall texts have it, “Publicity” and “Spectacle.” We see Léger’s art in the midst of advertising, print illustrations, movies, designs for the theater, and “Space,” a category reflecting the artist’s faith in the “simple and rational architecture that is going to conquer the world.” Ballet Mécanique (1923–1924), the experimental film Léger made with Dudley Murphy, is highlighted, as is Charlot Cubiste (1924), the painted plywood relief of Charlie Chaplin in which it figures prominently. Léger had mixed feelings about the cinema, fearing that money and celebrity, along with the “frightful ‘good taste’ of the French,” would stunt the art form. In many respects, the amateur film critic proved prescient.

Murphy

Gerald Murphy, Razor (1924), oil on canvas, 32-1/4″ x 36-1/2″; courtesy Dallas Museum of Art, Foundation for the Arts Collection

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Displayed near Ballet Mecanique are additional films celebrating speed and rhythm, including Abel Gance’s The Wheel (1922) and, in a gratuitous byway dedicated to Parisian Dada, cinematic efforts by Duchamp, Picabia, René Clair, and Man Ray. (That Léger loaned his work to some of the Dadaists’ stunts doesn’t mean their nihilistic trivialities have to be vindicated for, like, the umpteenth time.) Vintage posters by Cassandre, Jean Carlu, and Francis Bernard are juxtaposed with Léger’s own studies for posters, his set designs for the film L’Inhumaine (1924), and canvases like Composition with Hand and Hats (1927), with its droll orchestration of hats and playing cards, and the steely grandeur of Mechanical Element (1924). Razor (1924), a proto-Pop canvas by the underrated Gerald Murphy, an American expatriate and friend of the artist, holds its own in this heady milieu. Then there is Leger’s delightful work for the theater. The reconstructed backdrop for Skating Rink, a ballet commissioned by the Ballet Suédois in 1921, would seem to capsize the exhibition through size alone—it measures 16’ x 32’—but is dwarfed, in aesthetic terms, by the playful primitivism of Leger’s costume designs.

It is at this point, however, that “Modern Art and the Metropolis” loses steam, at least Léger-wise. What can it mean that the theatrical studies, at least as seen in Philadelphia, are considerably less engaging than those of his peers? As charming as Curtain Design for Skating Rink (1922) might be, it can’t hold the proverbial candle to, say, El Lissitzky’s Victory Over The Sun (1923), a suite of ten lithographs done for an opera, endowing the conventions of Russian Constructivism with unexpected comic sprightliness. Man Ray and Delaunay-Terk bring a crystalline eye for color, counter-point and interval to costume design. And then there’s Alexandra Exter, who is, for this critic anyway, a find. A trio of Exter’s marionettes bridges the folkloric and the modern with consummate ease. If her poichoir studies of stage lighting are for specialists only, Construction (1922–23), a brash orchestration of geometric forms done in oil on canvas, deserves greater renown. The Museum of Modern Art owns the picture and could do worse in establishing its PC-bonafides than placing the Exter on public view in the permanent collection. Perhaps Curator Vallye’s next project will be the resuscitation of this intriguing figure’s “practice.” We can hope as much, anyway.

Exter

Alexandra Exter, Construction (1922-23), oil on canvas, 35-1/8″ x 35-3/8″, courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, The Riklis Collection of McCrory Collection

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A loss of vigor continues in the galleries dedicated to “Space,” an exploration of the relationship between color and architecture that constitutes the exhibition’s finale. (Léger’s studies for a never-realized mural at Rockefeller Center, seen in a side gallery directly before the exit, are the stuff of self-parody and barely count as a postscript.) As seen in the company of de Stijl, Léger comes off as an adept and not altogether convinced follower; he’s fairly knuckled under by the rigorous élan of Mondrian and Van Doesburg. Léger’s omnivorous love of architecture—he considered himself the Modernist painter “closest in contact with the new builders”—seems to have coincided with a diminution in invention and purpose. Modernist innovation consequently became reiterated, not transfigured, and the loss of tone is palpable. When ticky-tacky contrivances by Ozenfant, Le Corbusier, and Willi Baumeister encroach upon Léger’s star-power you know something’s gone awry. Still, Léger’s increasing pictorial flabbiness shouldn’t detract from an exhibition replete with significant pleasures. Whether The City will ascend to the rank of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon remains to be seen. In the meantime, The Philadelphia Museum should be encouraged to stick out its curatorial neck more often if doing so results in exhibitions like “Modern Art and the Metropolis.”

© 2013 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the December 2013 edition of The New Criterion.

Ho, Ho, Ho

Holiday Delights* * *

I’m pleased to announce that a painting of mine will be on display in Holiday Delights, a group exhibition at Elizabeth Harris Gallery. You’ll find all the pertinent information above. Hope to see you at the opening/holiday party on December 7th.

Everyone’s A Critic

Art Critics

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An assignment I give my Fine Arts students at Pratt Institute is to pick ten artists or works-of-art that (a) they don’t like or (b) don’t understand, and then speak to the qualities that leave them wanting.

The exercise is intended to explore, articulate and, hopefully, strengthen their aesthetic identities. Regular offenders on these hit-lists include Duchamp and his progeny (Warhol, Koons, Banksy, etc.), geometric abstraction, Minimalism, Conceptual Art and, oddly, Gauguin. This semester a student asked just who and what would I include on a docket of “crimes against art”?

As a longtime fan of lists, I couldn’t resist putting something together. So, here, in no particular order, is my Ten Most Wanted List–or do I mean “Least Wanted”?

Baldessari

John Baldessari: Mistaking cleverness for profundity and encouraging a generation (or three) of students of the same–only to do it with a greater degree of smugness.

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        Johns FlagTR14473

Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg: Rendering a period style–that is to say, Dada–easily digestible

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Nakadate

Laurel Nakadate: Making Narcissus seem humble

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El GrecoEl Greco: Sacrificing pictorial structure for needless distortion and the overuse of white

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GirodetFrench Rococo Painting: Pornography (Soulless technique, frivolous spectacle and an overriding lack of empathy)

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                jo_27Van_gogh-photo

Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger: Promoting a minor painter as a major artist by insisting that his work was “the illustration of [a] sorrowful life drama”

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CourbetGustave Courbet: Making Narcissus seem humble, Part II, and over-emphatic surfaces indistinguishable from bacon grease

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KrugerBarbara Kruger: Gucci Marxism, hypocrisy and bullying

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Stella

Frank Stella: Not knowing the art of painting from a hole in the ground

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Abstract Painting (726) 1990 by Gerhard Richter born 1932

Gerhard Richter: Providing eye candy for audiences damaged by Conceptual Art

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© 2013 Mario Naves

“Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938” at The Museum of Modern Art

Magritte 1

René Magritte, Clairvoyance (1946), oil on canvas, 54.5 x 65.5 cm.; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, New York

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The most damning criticism of Surrealist art is also the most ironic given its source: the pioneering psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. After meeting Salvador Dalí, Freud stated that he found the Spaniard’s conscious mind of greater interest than his unconscious mind. Freudian theory was, if not the sine qua non of Surrealism, then an inescapable touchstone. His comment, then, was a veritable dismissal of Dalí’s attempts at tapping into “the mystery without which the world would not exist.” Dalí isn’t the whole of Surrealist art, of course, and shouldn’t be the gauge by which the genre is measured. But his example did come to mind while I was viewing Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938, an overview of paintings and works-on-paper by the Belgian artist René Magritte (1898–1967). Both artists pursued a brand of Surrealism that rendered the bizarre plausible. There would be no plumbing the depths of the psyche through painterly means à la Miró and André Masson. Instead, dutiful attention would be paid to the concrete and recognizable, however unlikely, icky, or weird.

Magritte, like Dalí, achieved a fame that continues to extend well beyond the parameters of the art world. The Beatles based the distinctive logo for Apple Corps. Ltd., their multi-media corporation, on Magritte’s Le Jeu de Mourre (1966), and the iconic Man in the Bowler Hat has become a staple of popular culture, inspiring everyone from fashion designers to the creators of The Simpsons. But if The Mystery of the Ordinary proves anything, it’s that Magritte wasn’t Dalí or, for that matter, any number of lesser figures given to delineating portent-laden vistas inhabited by spooky goings-on. You don’t have to know that Magritte lived a life of bourgeois predictability to glean a welcome lack of flamboyance. It’s there to see in the work’s uneventful, even-handed craftsmanship. All the same, Magritte did put on a show. A drab hand had better hone his vision if he expects anyone to give it the time of day. Tightlipped absurdism was yoked to concise means. Magritte had his moments.

MOMA makes damned sure those moments set the tone. The primary reason The Mystery of the Ordinary succeeds is its focus: the twelve years during which Magritte created and refined his Surrealist “Lifeline.” “La Ligne de vie” was, in fact, a lecture delivered by the artist in 1938 at Antwerp’s Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunst. In it, Magritte traces his development as a “skeptical” artist who, having convinced himself to “live with danger”, sought to create art that “puts the real world on trial.” Though he lived almost another thirty years, Magritte pretty much concluded this “trial” by the exhibition’s end-date. From that point on, he became a painter adept at gratifying public opinion—Magritte the Brand. You can’t blame him. After years of hardship it’s difficult to resist the comforts renown can bring. (Though you can blame Magritte for the financial gains earned by forging paintings by Picasso and Renoir during the Nazi occupation of Belgium.) Still, those craving a Surrealism that retains its integrity could do worse than visit MOMA’s crowd-pleaser.

The_Menaced_AssassinRené Magritte, The Menaced Assassin (1927), oil on canvas, 59.2″ x 76.9″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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The Mystery of the Ordinary begins with The Menaced Assassin (1927), a staple of the museum’s permanent collection, and culminates with On the Threshold of Liberty (1937), a monumental canvas in which the artist juxtaposes a cannon, poised to shoot, with an inventory of favorite motifs: the female nude, blue skies and idyllic clouds, a decorative paper cut-out, a verdant forest, and metallic spheres hovering in front of an array of vertical pipes. In between, there are signature pictures like The Lovers (1928), wherein a man and woman kiss between layers of fabric, Titanic Days (1928), Rape (1928), and The Treachery of Images (1929), or, as it is commonly referred to, “This is not a pipe.” A generation of art history students can attest to the revolutionary nature of the latter image—it questions, don’t you know, the nature of reality. At this late date, Magritte’s one-liner comes off as blandly tendentious. Tell us something we don’t know, René.

One-liners were Magritte’s specialty and he deployed a stockpile of ready motifs to create a deadpan sense of mystery—not quite poetry, but akin to it. Though he sought to make “everyday objects shriek aloud,” the appeal of Magritte’s art lies in its enveloping quietude, as well as a blunt tendency toward punning—take, for instance, the shameless nose-as-phallus trope in The Philosopher’s Lamp (1936). Clairvoyance (1946) is cute: Magritte is seen at his easel, observing an egg but painting a bird. Surrealism’s promise of liberating the viewer from the tyranny of rationalism is, here and there, fulfilled. Love Disarmed (1935) depicts a pair of women’s shoes in front of an oval mirror; reflected in the glass is the hair which streams from out of them. As an imagistic non-sequitur, the painting has a hypnotic appeal. It’s as creepy, if not as epochal, as Meret Oppenheim’s Breakfast in Fur (1936).

L'amour désarmé_Magritte_Love disarmed_1935

René Magritte, Love Disarmed (1935), oil on canvas, 72 cm. x 54 cm.; Private Collection

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An illustrator by trade, Magritte didn’t extend himself when putting brush to canvas. The requisite job and nothing more—technique wasn’t allowed to intrude on the artist’s dreamscapes. But neither were they endowed with life. Signs are designed, not to entrance, but to communicate effectively, and so it is with Magritte’s conundrums. Give him this much credit: Magritte did get better. The initial galleries feature canvases notable as much for an oppressive lack of tonal range as for their morphing bodies, fractured dioramas and enigmatic rebuses. Round about 1929, not a few years after arriving in Paris, the lights get turned on: The images become illuminated. Perhaps it was close proximity to the Surrealist group and crystalline artisans like Dalí and Tanguy that spurred Magritte’s art. Whatever the case, a consequent variability in value and an increased finesse in execution do much to end The Mystery of the Ordinary on a happy note. That Magritte filled out the rest of his life with more of the same constitutes a deflating artistic denouement MOMA spares us. For that we should be grateful.

© 2013 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of The New Criterion.

Prickly Intimacy: The Art of Sarah McEneaney

Studio 2013

Sarah McEneaney, Studio 2013 (2013), egg tempera on wood, 36″ x 48″ courtesy Locks Gallery

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The following review was originally published in the December 5, 2004 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Sarah McEneaney; Trestletown at Locks Gallery, Philadelphia, PA (until November 23).

There are plenty of nits to pick in the art of Sarah McEneaney, the subject of an exhibition at Gallery Schlesinger. Ms. McEneaney, a figurative painter based in Philadelphia, employs egg tempera on panel as a form of autobiography.

Look at the paintings and you’ll get to know her home, her dog, her two cats, her neighborhood (Callowhill/Chinatown), her political inclinations (anti-Bush) and the artist herself. Is there any aspect of Ms. McEneaney’s day-to-day existence that isn’t depicted? We see her napping, bathing at the Boulder Hot Springs, hanging out with friends, trespassing on private property and happily ensconced in the studio. The unapologetic, diaristic tone brings a prickly strain of intimacy to the fore.

Animal Thirst

Sarah McEneaney, Animal Thirst (2012), egg tempera on gessoed panel, 24″ x 24″; courtesy Locks Gallery

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What are the nits to pick? Ms. McEneaney’s art isn’t particularly fluent. You can’t call her a folk painter–Ms. McEneaney’s sophistication with composition, color and surface gives the lie to the label–yet the pictures are prone to the genre’s limitations, in particular an uneasiness with navigating pictorial space.

Planes and angles are tilted, stilted and awry; objects don’t always “sit” within the composition. Textures bedevil the work. In Ms. McEneaney’s depiction of the studio, paint splatters on the floor sit on the surface of the painting, rather than in the image itself. Her handling of the human form is pinched and awkward.

Having rattled all that off, let me add that Ms. McEneaney is nonetheless an engaging and, at times, irresistible painter. You don’t need to buy into the myth that intensity of vision redeems shortcomings of form in order to acknowledge that sometimes myths are predicated in fact. Besides, Ms. McEneaney has enough control of her medium to invest it with psychological and, yes, pictorial necessity. When meticulously delineating each and every brick in a wall, she proves her artistic mettle, stubbornly hewing to fact rather than capitulating to obsession.

TrestletownSarah McEneaney, Trestletown, 10th and Hamilton 10th Floor (2012), acrylic on linen, 36″ x 48″; courtesy Locks Gallery

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Ms. McEneaney’s art is steadfastly personal, yet not merely personal. It gets beyond the boundaries of self by embodying sensations we can all understand, or at the very least recognize. Ms. McEneaney may use painting as a forum for autobiography, but it is also, in an odd way, her means of escaping from it. This is tough work, fragile too, and, in the end, singularly compelling.

© 2004 Mario Naves

Putter and Dabble: The Art of Robert Ryman

Ryman InstallationInstallation of Robert Ryman’s paintings at Pace Gallery.

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The following review was originally published in the June 28, 2004 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Robert Ryman: Recent Paintings at Pace Gallery (until October 26).

Robert Ryman has never been as approachable as he is in the exhibition at Peter Blum Gallery, the first devoted to his works on paper.

Mind you, I said “approachable” with a proviso: If you’re of the opinion that Mr. Ryman’s 40-odd-year investigation of the color white has been an exercise in futility, don’t expect to undergo a change of heart. Blum’s exquisitely appointed show can’t conceal the fundamental skimpiness of the Ryman aesthetic. Stepping off from Philip Guston’s abstract impressionist phase, Mr. Ryman took its constituent parts–in particular, the fleshy slurs of oil paint–and distilled them until they became shells of their former selves. He operates under the assumption that style is a buffet from which you pick and (barely) choose. He mistakes puttering for painting, dabbling for the real thing.

Ryman

Robert Ryman, Untitled (2010); photo: Bill Jacobson, courtesy of Pace Gallery

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The works on paper are more of the same. A bit of green here, a piece of masking tape there, a wallpaper sample, a scratchy grid and an abundance of white–these are artful maneuvers, clumsily stated yet unfailingly elegant. The pieces do benefit from a modesty of scale and demeanor. They date between 1957-1964, the years Mr. Ryman was settling into his signature style. The inquisitive playfulness is welcome. You even forgive him the use of his signature, childlike and teetering to the right, as a pictorial element–it gives the eye something to hang on to.

It doesn’t hang long, though. Why should it? Mr. Ryman intimates relationships but can’t bring them to fruition. The work is all beginnings, loose ends and no tension. The exhibition is recommended to people who profess a love for art but don’t much enjoy looking at it. The rest of us can attend to more important matters–doing the laundry, putting out the cat, that kind of thing.

© 2004 Mario Naves

Didn’t You Just Know It?

Me Worry?

A precursor of Mad Magazine‘s Alfred E. Newman, circa 1910′s

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A friend sent along an article that gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “Stupid as a painter.”

Gallery Talk at The Katonah Museum of Art

gail-icc-katonah1-web_med

Installation View of Remix; courtesy Gail Skudera

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Judy Pfaff, Michael Oatman and I will be discussing the art of collage at The Katonah Museum of Art in conjunction with the exhibition, Remix: Selections from the International Collage Center. The event takes place on Saturday, October 5th at 1:00 p.m. For more information, click here.

Shared Experience: The Paintings of Rachel Youens and Sydney Licht

Altar

Rachel Youens, Altar (2010), oil on linen, 22″ x 48″; courtesy the artist

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Pair the work of any two artists and you’re likely to strike sparks of one sort or another. It’s human nature to divine commonalities of temper, style and imagery even if the evidence for them is slim. But what happens when the bonds between artists are self-evident and inescapable? The still-life paintings of Rachel Youens and Sydney Licht announce deep-seated commonalities–working from observation, not least–that nevertheless lead to telling divergencies of form and vision.

Youens and Licht are nothing if not specific in their choice of motifs. The natural world informs Youens’ panoramic canvases. Whether working from corn husks, chunks of stale bread, bundles of fabric or oddments seemingly retrieved from a construction site, Youens favors objects marked by time and use–of age and inutility, really. Licht, too, takes inspiration from discards, but her’s are culled less from nature than from culture: patterned tablecloths, packets of Sweet-and-Low, take-out cups of coffee, the stray piece of fruit and gift boxes, lots of gift boxes.

Visiting the studios of each artist, you might mistake them for undercover sculptors: significant expanses of space are devoted to stuff. Youens’s accumulations of detritus, simultaneously chaotic and impeccably orchestrated, expand laterally across a sizable painter’s table. As for Licht: not far from her easel are pseudo-Minimalist totems, often teetering at imposing heights, assembled from an impressive collection of boxes. But you don’t need direct contact with these objects to realize the importance they carry for Youens and Licht. It’s there to see in the paintings, wherein the physical is confirmed and, more important, transformed into something poetic and meditative.

Sydney Licht

Sydney Licht, Still Life with Pomegranate (2013), oil on panel, 12″ x 12″; courtesy the artist

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Youens trades in abundance, Licht in compression. Youens has stated that she has a need to feel “overwhelmed” by the subjects at hand. A significant amount of the pleasure derived from the paintings is, in fact, watching how she navigates from one object to another, taking into account shifts of texture, rhythm and light. Youens’ brush, brusque but nuanced and given to playful fillips of touch, endows the pictures with a definite sense of choreography.

Licht is more architectonic, frontal and abrupt, not to say “abstract”. Her forms press toward the viewer, creating stepped relationships wherein subtle juxtapositions of space, pattern and definition are rendered monumental and allusive. Licht wields a palette knife with decisive sensitivity. The surfaces of the pictures are densely worked, lush in color and attuned to spare transitions of incident.

Perhaps the strongest attribute that connects Youens and Licht is their relationship with tradition. It’s worth recalling that the still-life, as an artistic genre, is cross-cultural and longstanding, and, as such, points to the unceasing inquisitiveness of the human animal. There’s never been a time when artists haven’t explored the world around them as a means of endowing it with clarity, order and–how to put it?–a measure of grace. Youens and Licht, painters of uncommon probity, tap into that rich tradition and contribute something real to our understanding of shared experience.

© 2013 Mario Naves

A version of this essay appears in the brochure accompanying Sidney Licht/Rachel Youens, an exhibition at Salena Gallery at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University (September 3-27).

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