Incomparable: The Quilt-makers of Gee’s Bend

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Annie Mae Young, Strip Medallion Quilt (1976), cotton and cotton/polyester; 8′ 8-1/2 x 77″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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This review was originally published in the June 20, 2005 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of “History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (until September 23rd). My review of the exhibition will appear in the September edition of The New Criterion.

New Yorkers who missed “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend”, an exhibition seen at the Whitney Museum of American Art during the winter of 2002-3, should have their collective knuckles soundly rapped. There can’t have been an excuse good enough to merit by passing a show that documented not only the triumph of American vernacular culture, but the resilience of the human spirit.

Gee’s Bend is a rural community located in Wilcox, Alabama, an all but inaccessible patch of land created by a loop in the Alabama River. Prior to the Civil War, two families, the Gees and the Pettways, took advantage of the area’s rich soil to grow cotton, using slave labor in the harvesting of crops.

After the war, and with emancipation, the Pettway slaves remained in Gee’s Bend as tenant farmers. Though touched by world events–Gee’s Bend was a beneficiary of the New Deal and a stop on Martin Luther King’s 1965 march to Selma–the residents lived in relative isolation for five generations, developing their own patois, religion and music. It is with their quilt-making that the inhabitants of Gee’s Bend–the women, really–have made an incomparable contribution to our common culture.

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Mary Elizabeth Kennedy, Log Cabin quilt (ca. 1935), cotton and rayon, 81-1/4 x 79-1/2″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The nine quilts on display at Ameringer Yohe Fine Art, some of them created within the last few years, are typical of Gee’s Bend–which is to say, not typical at all. Knowledge of established quilt traditions won’t prepare you for the work’s audacity. The Alabama artisans hew to no established pattern; idiosyncrasy is the standard. Maxwell Anderson, former director of the Whitney, lauds the Gee’s Bend quilters for their “unexpected informality in a genre associated with prim formulas.”

Loose-limbed improvisation is an integral component of the Gee’s Bend quilts, as is material necessity: poverty, in this case, is the mother of invention. The fabrics employed (corduroy, paisley, textile remnants from the 40’s onwards and, most memorably, blue jeans) are determined as much by availability as by sensibility. Do we romanticize the women of Gee’s Bend–and, by fiat, the notion of the inspired, untutored outsider–in claiming them as de facto aesthetes? Probably, but that’s not to say romance can’t be predicated on fact.

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Louise T. Pettway, Housetop and Bricklayer with Bars quilt (ca. 1955), cotton and acetate, 91-3/8 x 80-1/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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And beautiful fact it is, too. Little wonder that Ameringer Yohe, a venue dedicated largely to modernist abstraction, chose to feature the quilters of Gee’s Bend. Their expansive geometric patterning, startling and subtle colors, and sophisticated sense of design are reminiscent of the work of any number of renowned abstract painters–none of whom shall be mentioned here. The reputations of those men and women would only be diminished by the comparison.

Pettway–now there’s a name to take note of, particularly as it applies to quilters like Loretta (subtle, resilient), Katie Mae (talismanic, intense) and Allie (quirky, vulnerable). As for Bars variation (c. 1940-50), a magisterial parade of alternating blue and tan stripes: Who would have dared to predict that the back pocket of a pair of pants could achieve the density and emphasis of a slurred dab of oil paint? Amelia Bennett, that’s who; you’ll remember her as well. As for the names Ameringer and Yohe–they should be commended for a public service splendidly performed.

© 2005 Mario Naves

“Glenn Goldberg: Plums and Breezes” at The New York Studio School

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Glenn Goldberg, Guy 2 (Snow) (2011), acrylic and ink on canvas, 9 x 12″; courtesy the artist and The New York Studio School

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To get an idea of the curious byways an artist might find himself exploring, here, in the twenty-first century, you can’t do better than head to the New York Studio School’s “Glenn Goldberg: Plums and Breezes,” an adumbrated, if somewhat bumpy, overview spanning forty years. “Plums and Breezes” begins in 1977, when Goldberg entered the Studio School as a student, and works its way to pieces of a more recent vintage by the now–Associate Professor of Painting at Queens College. Goldberg’s trajectory, and more so his landing place, offer an example of how quixotic the artist’s lot has become . . .

The rest of this review can be found at Dispatch, the blog of The New Criterion.

Tangible, Fleeting and Permanent: The Art of Alberto Giacometti

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Alberto Giacometti, Nose (Le nez), 1947 (cast 1949). Bronze, wire, rope, and steel, 81 x 71.4 x 39.4 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 66.1807. © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP/FAAG, Paris

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The following review was originally published in the November 27, 2005 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of “Giacometti”, an upcoming exhibition at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

The Women of Giacometti, an array of paintings and sculptures by the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), on display at Pace Wildenstein, prompts a kind of yearning that has become familiar at the 57th Street branch of the gallery. Past shows bringing together Bonnard and Rothko, de Kooning and Dubuffet, Mondrian and Ad Reinhardt, and the near-holy trinity of Hans Arp, Isamu Noguchi and Alexander Calder were so good that many wished they could be permanently installed. Now The Women of Giacometti shines a clarifying spotlight on yet another modern master.

On the morning I went to see it, each visitor accorded Giacometti’s art an almost religious obeisance, whether it was a student clad in tattered jeans or a well-heeled gent with (one imagines) money to burn. Everyone spoke in whispers; the stray ringing of a cell phone set off reproachful looks and ardent apologies. The installation, deliberately paced and dramatically lit, encourages reverence. And the work itself commands the sort of grave attention that cuts the chatter.

If the unhurried tour offered by The Women of Giacometti doesn’t glance upon every facet of the artist’s career, it comes close. The earliest piece on view was painted when he was 19 years old; it’s a Cézanne-like painting of his sister Ottilia. Early efforts in sculpture—a plaster bust of Ottilia; a roughhewn, Cubist-inspired portrayal of Flora Mayo, an American who studied alongside him—are more convincing. (Both pieces date from around 1926.) A preternatural, if still unrefined, gift for working in three dimensions is clearly evident.

A representative sampling of the primitivist sculptures that put Giacometti in good standing with the Surrealists is on display, including the Guggenheim’s renowned Woman with Her Throat Cut (1932). There’s a better selection of the late work, with its anxious, skeptical tone and solitary figures (elongated in the sculpture, ghost-like in the paintings). These latter pieces famously induced André Breton’s ire. The “Black Pope of Surrealism” found them insufficiently radical and booted Giacometti from the camp. Giacometti happily took his leave: He’d had his fill of what he called Surrealist “masturbation,” pegging the failings of that crowd with devastating accuracy.

Few painters in the history of art have been as relentless as Giacometti in exploring the meaning of perception. His self-appointed task was the accurate transcription of observed phenomenon, but it was his belief that attempting to fix an always-mutable physical reality, whether it be in oils or plaster, was folly. It’s well known—among his admirers, at least—that he considered himself a failure. A profound sense of despair permeates the work, but it wasn’t the existentialist romance foisted upon it by Jean-Paul Sartre, Giacometti’s friend and booster. Rather, it was occasioned by the vexing pursuit of giving tangible and permanent form to fleeting, ever-changing incident.

Alberto Giacometti in the studio; © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

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In paintings like Portrait of Caroline (1962) and Caroline Seated with a Red Dress (1965), he entombs the title character within jittery skeins of oil paint. Overlapping and lilting lines are typically left loose in the torso, but they coalesce into an almost sculptural mass in the face. The effect is discomfiting, even nerve-wracking, but irresistible in its pull. Giacometti makes his doubt plain. No brushstroke is arbitrary; no hesitation escapes comment. Caroline Seated with a Red Dress has an almost expressionist fervor, yet it stubbornly retains a clinical adherence to physical fact—a thrilling paradox.

Alas, The Women of Giacometti also makes plain what MoMA’s 2001 retrospective intimated: History has been kinder to the painter than to the sculptor. You hate to say it, particularly given the somber majesty of Giacometti’s achievement, but, boy, are those lumpy, spindly figures looking hokey. They’re even worse when they’re placed atop carriages or inside boxes: Giacometti’s attempt to locate the sculptures in space can be self-conscious and, at times, alarmingly arch. The paintings can come precariously close to mannerism; the sculptures don’t fight it off at all. An innate knack for sculpture led to a slackening of aesthetic vigilance, which in turn led to indulgence—albeit of a dour variety.

The extreme exaggeration of anatomy, the frazzled and theatrical textures, the bathetic dénouement—the sculptures aren’t much ado about nothing exactly, but Giacometti striving for effect is something less than Giacometti the master. When comparisons to Rodin flit into one’s mind, second thoughts follow soon thereafter. Fortunately, the painter responsible for canvases as unflinching and grand as The Artist’s Mother (1950) and Seated Woman (1958) emerges unscathed. That’s reason enough to cherish this splendidly conceived, intelligently executed exhibition.

© 2005 Mario Naves

 

Open Studios 2018 @ The Clemente

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I will be participating in Open Studios at The Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The event takes place on the evenings of Thursday, May 17th, and Friday, May 18th.

The hours are 6:00-9:00 p.m. on both nights. Open Studios is free to the public.

​Please click here for more information.

I hope to see you there!

“Leon Golub: Raw Nerve” at The Met Breuer, New York

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Leon Golub, Giantomachy II (1966), acrylic on linen, 9′ 11-1/2″ x 24′ 10-1/2″; courtesy of The Met Breuer; Gift of The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts and Stephen, Philip, and Paul Golub, 2016

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Say this for the brutalist environs of The Met Breuer: its limitations encourage curatorial rigor. When you’re stuck with a shoebox, expansiveness isn’t an option, particularly when the works on display are encompassing in size. Take “Leon Golub: Raw Nerve.” The canvas greeting viewers as they enter the exhibition, Gigantomachy II (1966), is typical, measuring close to ten by twenty-five feet. As a consequence, Kelly Baum, the Met’s Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon Polsky Curator of Contemporary Art, couldn’t indulge the scope of the artist’s achievement or memory. (Golub died in 2004 at the age of eighty-two.) Choices had to be made. As a retrospective, then, “Raw Nerve” is sharply circumscribed: a rat-a-tat-tat overview rather than a scholarly accounting. Not ideal, you might think, but Golub’s work benefits from the approach. Once he hit his stride, Golub didn’t evolve much as a painter. A career-making turn to political content in the 1970s added density and context, but not nuance or variety. Golub’s art was forever astringent in its pictorial strategies and relentless in its vitriol. His work would be poorer without either, but how much righteous hammering can a body stand?

Numbness is never an enlightening aesthetic response, and, as the exhibition’s title insinuates, Golub insisted on its opposite. “The nightmare of history” was his subject, and the canvases are embodiments of “how power is demonstrated through the body and in human actions, and in our time, how power and stress and political and industrial powers are shown.” The body came before the nightmare or, to be precise, the figure before ideology. Golub never trafficked in abstraction. For an artist coming of age during the heyday of The New York School, this marked him as an outlier, not least geographically. A native of Chicago—he studied at the University of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute— Golub was keenly aware of his hometown’s second city status. Chicago was, in fact, host to a number of painters and sculptors dedicated to an idiosyncratic brand of figuration, including the “Monster Roster”: an informal group that included Golub, his wife Nancy Spero, Seymour Rosofsky, H. C. Westermann, and June Leaf. For inspiration, they looked to artists whose work fell outside the AbEx orbit: Jean Dubuffet, Georges Rouault, Max Beckmann, and the local fixture Ivan Albright.

Golub_2.jpgLeon Golub in the 1950s; courtesy The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts

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Golub was a prickly member of the opposition; vocal, too. He had little patience for the grand claims made about Abstract Expressionism. Writing in 1954, Golub averred that “the creative act is a moral commitment transcending any formalistic disengagement.” Which isn’t to say that Golub rejected everything “formalistic” about The New York School—an argument could be made that he effectively gleaned its brute use of materials and sweeping scale. Golub’s first mature works—cobbled amalgamations of body parts—looked to antiquity and pre-Columbian art for impetus: the former for its majesty; the latter because of its abrupt distillations of form and unyielding frontality. Golub steeped himself in history, making sojourns to Italy in the mid-1950s and later Paris, where he lived from 1959 to 1964. By then a signature manner of working had been arrived at: imagery pitched to a towering scale; terse juxtapositions of figure and ground; and surfaces that were scabby, tenuous, and abraded. Golub’s compositions owe much of their grit to having been repeatedly scraped down with, of all things, a meat cleaver. Not for nothing do his paintings recall the dried skins of animals.

This latter association became more pronounced when Golub began displaying the paintings on unstretched canvases punctured with grommets and hung from hooks. This move added considerably to the work’s potency. For Golub, stretcher bars were too conventional, too polite; a degree of material aggression was required. When the art became political—roughly congruent with his return to the United States in the mid-1960s—Golub’s vision became more specific in focus. Haggard universalism gave way to exegesis on the abuses of political power, inequities in justice, war and its calamities, and, most disturbingly, the tension-filled interstices that can accrue between race and sex. Granted, few of Golub’s paintings fail to underline the moral limitations of mankind. (And I do mean mankind; Golub’s ire was aimed primarily at his own gender.) Still, paintings like Horsing Around IV (1983), with its drunken white protagonist groping at an African-American woman, and Two Black Women and a White Man (1986) are infused with queasy ambiguity—they put into question just how much our own preconceptions might skew the image. Absent a clear-cut target of approbation, these pictures get beyond rage, arriving at places more unsettling.

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Leon Golub, Two Black Women and a White Man (1986), acrylic on linen, 120 x 85″; courtesy The Met Breuer

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Still, the work is unsettling enough, and it’s to Golub’s credit as a painter that the pieces earn their ugliness. The grating play of complementaries in Horsing Around amplifies its synthesis of threat and sexuality. The grubby pinks and yellows in The Conversation (1990), a disjointed composition that is both an avowal of radicalism and an indictment of it, underline its caustic ironies. As Golub aged, he was less physically capable of distressing the surfaces of his paintings. He consequently engineered a manner of working that created a similar sense of wear-and-tear: the meat cleaver was supplanted by a dry brush. Paintings like All Bets Are Off (1994) and Bite Your Tongue (2001) are characterized by expanses of raw linen and washes of paint applied with knowing theatricality. Backtracking from the topical, late Golub opted for doom-laden patchworks of skulls, tattoo designs, propaganda (“Loyalty/ Discipline/ Renewal”), and dogs, all of which are grounded in brushy swipes of black. As compositions, the late paintings are adroit in their making and pat in their symbolism; as elegies, they all but come off as admissions of defeat. Given how thoroughly Golub explored and excoriated the thuggish depths to which the human animal could descend, it’s a wonder he was able to keep at it for as long, and as convincingly, as he did. “Raw Nerve” is testament to one man’s indomitable rage, as well as to its limitations.

© 2018 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the May issue of The New Criterion.

“Joseph Fiore: Small Collages” at Meredith Ward Fine Art

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Joseph Fiore, Untitled (c. 1995-2000), collage on board, 8-1/2 x 11-1/4″; courtesy Meredith Ward Fine Art

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I’m pleased to announce that an essay of mine is included in the catalogue accompanying “Joseph Fiore: Small Collages”, an exhibition currently on display at Meredith Ward Fine Art. The online catalogue can be found here, an excerpt of which follows below:

“Attempting to deduce the personality of an artist from the art itself is always an iffy proposition, but Fiore the man comes across as something of a mensch . . . The good cheer Fiore’s collages radiate is impossible to deny and harder to resist. Even at their most austere–which happens when the collages are explicitly representational–the pieces have a dreamy, offhand elan.”

“Joseph Fiore: Small Collages” continues until May 25, 2018.

“M.C. Escher: Infinite Dimensions” at The Boston Museum of Fine Arts

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M.C. Escher, Hand with Reflecting Sphere (1935), lithograph, 12-1/2 x 8-1/2″; courtesy The Boston Museum of Fine Arts

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Is it permissible, at this late date, to prefer the art of Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898–1972) to that of Salvador Dalí or René Magritte, his contemporaries in chronology if not historical standing? At the entrance to “M. C. Escher: Infinite Dimensions,” a wall label tells us that, during his lifetime, the Dutch draftsman and printmaker was “underappreciated by much of the mainstream art world.” As a student, I distinctly remember one of my instructors pooh-poohing Escher, waving his hands and wiggling his fingers to suggest otherworldly hokum. Clearly, here was an artist to be held at a distance. Escher’s mass popularity, an easy mark for the cultivated few, didn’t help. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts makes a point of how Escher is esteemed by “mathematicians, crystallographers, and psychologists,” as well as “experts in fields that range from design to aerospace.” Everybody, that is, except artists. Encomiums to Escher accompany the work on display. Among those extolling his virtues are chefs, poets, astronauts, scientists, communications strategists, and musicians both classical (the cellist Yo-Yo Ma) and not (the proto-punk Ian Hunter). “From dorm-room posters to book jackets,” Escher’s art “has delighted millions of people around the world.”

If the logjam of pedestrians throughout “Infinite Dimensions” is an indication, visitors to the MFA are taking delight as well. For Ronni Baer, the William and Ann Elfers Senior Curator of Paintings, Art of Europe, Escher was a harder sell. She’s a recent convert, if a seemingly recalcitrant one. In an interview with the local public radio affiliate, Baer ad- mitted she once “disdained” Escher, but now she finds that his pictorial obsessions evince “signs of a real artist.” Signs are one thing, achievement another, and it’s worth mulling how much name recognition was a factor in mounting the show. A lot, I would think, though Escher’s notoriety is of a different sort than that of Takashi Murakami, who is the subject of “Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics; A Collaboration with Nobuo

Tsuji and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,” a concurrent exhibition at the MFA. Escher achieved gradual renown through the canny deployment of puzzle-like fantasies, Murakami by exploiting an arts establishment that considers the lowest common denominator a badge of courage. Sometimes art is audience-driven; at other times it drives the audience. Not all popular artists are created equal.

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M.C. Escher, Reptiles (1943), lithograph, 13 x 15-1/4″; courtesy The Boston Museum of Fine Arts

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In our post-Warholian age, celebrity isn’t the bugaboo it once was, but it’s worth pondering if Escher’s renown distinguishes itself by being—how does one put it, exactly?— commonsensical. In a 2015 interview, Mickey Piller, the former curator of Escher in Het Paleis, a museum located in The Hague, pointed to an insular art world as one factor determining Escher’s appeal. Compared to errant splatters of paint, mute blocks of steel and concrete, and heady admixtures of this, that, and the other thing, who wouldn’t prefer immaculately limned dreamscapes in which the eye is not only entertained and perplexed, but acknowledged? Escher’s work “seemed simple and easy to understand.” The days of dismissing Escher as middle-brow entertainment—the province of stoners, video-game enthusiasts, and science nerds—are on the wane. Blame a value-free culture, if you like, but also credit the march of time, which provides the distance to approach certain artists with a sobriety that may not have been forthcoming during their lifetimes. Yesterday’s snobbery might well be concealing today’s addition to the canon.

Born in Leeuwarden, a city in the north of Holland, Escher was the fifth son of a well-to-do civil engineer. A sickly youth, “Mauk”—Escher’s family nickname—proved an iffy student, excelling only at mathematics. He eventually attended the School for Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem, where an abortive go at architecture led to more fruitful studies in the decorative arts. Notwithstanding the discernible influence of his teacher, the graphic artist Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita, Escher didn’t blossom as an artist until he traveled through Italy and Spain in 1922. A trip to the Alhambra, with its Moorish architecture and elaborate tile work, proved decisive. Escher settled in Rome for thirteen years, leaving only when Mussolini’s rule made itself felt on the most apolitical of men. A return to the Alhambra—“the richest source of inspiration I have ever tapped”—intensified Escher’s self-described “mania” for tessellated patterning. The interlocking back and forth of pictorial space defined the work from there on out, albeit cast with a dour Symbolism that is nothing if not northern European in temper. (Think Dürer and Bosch; Van Eyck and Klee.) In the 1950s, Escher became a favorite of mathematicians, who gleaned a kindred spirit within the exacting incongruities that gave structure to the imagery. The work’s trippy elasticity found a new group of admirers in the generation formed by the mind-expanding excesses of the 1960s.

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M.C. Escher, Order and Chaos (1950), lithograph, 11 x 11″; courtesy The Boston Museum of Fine Arts

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Escher, in other words, became hip. Mick Jagger sought his talents for a Rolling Stones album cover. Stanley Kubrick asked Escher to help design a “fourth dimensional film,” presumably 2001: A Space Odyssey. Escher demurred on both counts, finding, perhaps, that the pull of his topsy-turvy world proved absorbing enough. Since then, images like Relativity (1953), with its Piranesi-like play of perspective, and the self-generating conundrum that is Drawing Hands (1948) have seeped into the common culture. What’s surprising about “Infinite Dimensions” is how familiarity breeds not contempt but the freedom to focus on aspects other than Escher’s clever machinations of image and space. His touch, especially in the lithographs, rewards close attention. Rarely has a crayon been manipulated with such tender diligence. Yes, tender: the surfaces of Contrast (Order and Chaos) (1950) and the warp-and-weft illusionism of Hand with a Reflecting Sphere (1935) have an underplayed sensuality that offers recompense for the hermetic nature of Escher’s work. Who knows? Perhaps Escher will be adopted by the art world as an outsider—a loner ineluctably caught in a web of his own distractions. Stranger things have happened. In the meantime, “Infinite Dimensions” is a welcome exception to the run-of-the-mill iterations of our oh-so-tired and increasingly politicized status quo.

This review was originally published in the April 2018 edition of The New Criterion.

© 2018 Mario Naves

Catalogue Essay Accompanying “Half Human”, a group exhibition at The Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center

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Installation shot of “Half Human”, featuring works by (from left to right) Stephanie Hightower, Pat Lay, Laura Dodson and Artemis Alcalay; photo courtesy Nikos Seferiadis

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Few questions are as persistent—or frustrating—than those surrounding the meaning of what it is, exactly, to be human. Given the run of opinions and theories over the span of history, the human has proven a subject prone to perpetual re-definition. Philosophers, politicians and religious leaders have attempted to interpret human nature and, in more than a few cases, codify it–sometimes for salutary purposes, sometimes not. If anything is constant about the “human”, it is inherent unpredictability, a slipperiness of need and ambition.

As we continue into the twenty-first century, how is the world we helped to shape shaping us? Every artist–at least, any artist worth her salt–works in response to the surrounding culture, if in ways that are closer to osmosis than reportage. Historical context doesn’t determine aesthetic worth, but it would be foolhardy to deny its influence. There is no escaping our self-awareness as a species. The artists featured in “Half Human” elaborate upon this predicament in ways that reaffirm its primacy.

The sculptures and assemblages of Pat Lay make a point of how technology is transforming the collective body and mind: her totemic visages combine the mechanical and the iconic, suggesting a dystopia that is less futuristic than we might like to admit. Diyan Achjadi’s works-on-paper, in contrast, encompass the natural world: her kaleidoscopic amalgams of East, West and cultures yet to be imagined offer stages in which myth and magic are allowed a fierce independence.

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Diyan Achjadi, Sinking (2018), gouache, ink and graphite on cut Kozuke paper, approximately 60 x 42″; courtesy the artist

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The art of Maria de los Angeles transforms biography–in this case, that of a child born to Mexican immigrants–into a rambunctious brand of agit-prop that takes significant (and surprising) forays into fashion. De Los Angeles looks to German Expressionism for inspiration, as does Marsha Gold Gayer, whose drawings are as nuanced as they are mordant. Working from the live model, Gayer uncovers a discomfiting eroticism within her taxonomies of likeness, body-type and mark-making.

The body–or, rather, its limitations–figures prominently in the photographs and assemblages of Artemis Alcalay. Disassociation is her leitmotif, and Alcalay divines an almost counterintuitive tenacity of spirit within weathered textures and starkly configured compositions. Divination of a different sort marks the photographic tableaux of Laura Dodson, in which the malleability of memory is elaborated upon with ghostly specificity. In Dodson’s art, narrative structures arise from the promiscuous convergence of the documentary and the invented.

The puzzle-like compositions of Stephanie Hightower–schematic overlays of iconographs and panoramic vistas–are rebuses that promise no ready answer. Hightower’s paintings underscore the nature of this exhibition’s thesis, suggesting that an integral component of the human is its ability to not only brook contradiction, but to welcome it. In this way, “Half Human” posits an optimism without which we are not human at all.

© 2017 Mario Naves

The online catalogue for “Half Human” can be found here.

“Half Human” @ The Clemente

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Marsha Gold Gayer, Philip’s Head and Feet (2010), charcoal and pastel on paper, 11-1/2 x 9″

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I’m pleased to announce “Half Human”, a group exhibition I’ve curated for The Clemente Soto Velez and Cultural and Education Center on The Lower East Side of Manhattan.

“Few questions have proved as persistent—or as frustrating—than those that surround the meaning of what it is, exactly, to be human,” I write in the essay included in the accompanying online catalogue. The artists featured in “Half Human”–Diyan Achjadi, Laura Dodson, Pat Lay, Maria de los Angeles, Artemis Alcalay, Marsha Gold Gayer and Stephanie Hightower–elaborate upon this predicament in ways that reaffirm its primacy.

The opening reception takes place on Saturday, March 3rd, from 6:00-8:00 p.m. The exhibition continues until April 6th.

“Laura Owens” at The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

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Installation of “Laura Owens” at The Whitney Museum of American Art; Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

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Wandering through “Laura Owens,” I couldn’t help but wonder when The Whitney (or MOMA) (or The New Museum) (or name the venue) will be mounting a retrospective of paintings by James Havard. Should the name not ring a bell, perhaps the art movement of which Havard is an exemplar will: Abstract Illusionism. Should that strike a similarly muffled note, consider the floating brushstroke—a thick slur of paint, typically rendered in acrylic, with a cast shadow airbrushed below it. During the mid-1970s, Abstract Illusionism—a showy amalgam of The New York School, Pop Art, commercial illustration, and trompe-l’oeil painting—was, if not the rage, then notable enough to elicit its fair share of adherents and collectors. The style isn’t without its gratifications—an attraction to novelty seems to be woven into our DNA—but there’s a reason Abstract Illusionism has a slim purchase on popular memory: contrivance and trickery don’t tend to have legs. Illusionism may be an integral component of the art of painting, but when it’s put forth as style—denatured, slick, and wholly self-referential—it can make for vacuous going.

How familiar Laura Owens (b. 1970) is with Abstract Illusionism, I don’t know. She must be: the correspondences between her work and that of Havard are uncanny. The most consistent motif in Owens’s oeuvre is, after all, the floating brushstroke—endowed, at this historical juncture, with a glossy sheen redolent of digital technology. Impastoed patches of oil paint hover over the surfaces of the pictures; “under,” too—Owens enjoys trading in now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t perceptual games. How the accompanying shadows are painted is a mystery. In the age of Photoshop, do people still use airbrushes? In terms of media or genre, Owens is up for anything. No methodology or style, whether high tech or old school, is out of bounds. Threading needle through canvas and color correcting on the computer; imagining Morris Louis by way of Damien Hirst; advertising intimacy while embracing anonymity; flouting idiosyncrasy and poaching upon the industrial; positing superficiality as abundance—it’s all good. “I really believe,” Owens stated in a recent interview, “that art can do things that other things don’t do.” So how come “Laura Owens” is marked by a fizzy air of desperation?

Owens’s art doesn’t usher in an era of meaninglessness; it serves as blissful confirmation. Postmodernism, having undergone an ignoble passing, has nonetheless left an indelible mark on culture. Descriptors like “kitsch” and “pastiche” don’t signify for a generation weaned on value-free nostrums. Over-intellectualization in the cause of self does. In the exhibition catalogue—an immaculately designed production that aspires to being slapdash—we encounter a 1994 notebook in which Owens lists “things my paintings mean to me.” Coming in at numbers 1 and 2 are “Fuck Everyone!” Dismiss this as pro forma juvenilia if you’d like, but, in the end, isn’t Owens’s mot the operating theory behind Postmodernism and its forebear Conceptual Art—that is to say, a distinct turn away from engaging with an audience to the me-me-me imperatives of The Artist? Reading on, we learn of Owens’s goal to create “nothing whole/nothing completely convinced” and of a “short attention span & my self consciousness towards mark making.” Credit goes where dubious credit is due: Owens has fulfilled these ambitions. At the Whitney, ADHD has been transformed from a quantifiable medical disorder into guilt-free entertainment.

Owens

Detail of Laura Owens, Untitled, 2014. Ink, silkscreen ink, vinyl paint, acrylic, oil, pastel, paper, wood, solvent transfers, stickers, handmade paper, thread, board, and glue on linen and polyester, five parts: 138 1/8 x 106 ½ x 2 5/8 in. (350.8 x 270.5 x 6.7 cm) overall. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from Jonathan Sobel  2014.281a-e. © Laura Owens

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Owens puts one in mind of Robert Rauschenberg. Like Rauschenberg, albeit with less bonhomie or grit, Owens is a work-horse with a “can do” attitude, an omnivorous temperament for whom no medium is off limits and collaboration is a token of democratic goodwill. The materials that go into a single Owens piece can be dizzying. An untitled work from 2014—seemingly based on a Hallmark card— was made with ink, silkscreen ink, vinyl paint, acrylic, pastel, paper, wood, solvent transfers, stickers, handmade paper, thread, board, and glue-on-linen—done in five parts, no less! Overall, Owens’s paintings skew large—a typical canvas measures around six by eight feet. When the work isn’t large, it’s copious in amount. An untitled suite of canvases, each measuring twenty-four inches square, numbers in the nineties, although only fifty-four are on view. These smaller works either line the upper reaches of the gallery or are cordoned off in a darkened passageway. (Actually seeing the paintings is, apparently, beside the point.) The entirety of the eighth floor contains an installation of five huge, freestanding paintings. Set apart at intervals of several yards, these pictures—done on “powder-coated aluminum strainers”—feature, on one side, oversized reproductions of a handwritten story by Owens’s son, Henry; on the other, silk-screened marks and notations, oversized again.

356 Mission Road

Installation of “Sunlight arrives only at its proper hour”, 2017; courtesy 356 Mission Road

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Stand at a specific angle in the gallery and you’ll see how the disparate panels align into an M. C. Escher–like orchestration of thwarted perspectives. Elsewhere, Owens mixes and matches cartoonish paintings of beehives with bedroom sets designed by Jorge Pardo, and welcomes the assistance of sundry technicians and craftsmen, not least the carpenters who custom made the benches at the Whitney—each of which serves as a repository for the exhibition catalogue. The most newsworthy of Owens’s partnerships is 356 Mission Road, a community art center in Glendale, California. A joint venture with her dealer Gavin Brown and Wendy Yao, a friend and bookseller, 356 Mission Road has been the subject of criticism by the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement, a community-activist group “born from the complex specificities of Los Angeles.” This free-form coalition has accused Owens of aiding and abetting the gentrification of the surrounding working-class neighborhood. In a statement, Owens responded to the group’s protests with deliberation and evident sensitivity. Which may be the only time the artist has, albeit under a cloud of bad PR, acknowledged an audience—any audience—in a constructive manner. At the Whitney, in distinct contrast, out-reach isn’t in the mix—unless, that is, one derives satisfaction in the pretensions of official culture indulged in at their most willful, overweening, and gratuitous.

© 2018 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the January 2018 edition of The New Criterion.