Category Archives: Painting

Artist Snapshot

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Mario Naves, Dominant Cultural Narrative (2020), acrylic on canvas over panel, 24″ in diameter; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery, NY (Photo: Adam Reich)

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Thanks to the good graces of painter Jill Nathanson, I’ll be teaching this spring at The Art Students League as part of “Visiting Artists and New Abstraction“. ASL has posted an interview with me on its website as part of the Artist Snapshot series. It can be found here.

“Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Felix Vallotton, The White and the Black (1913), oil on canvas, 44-7/8 x 57-7/8″; courtesy the Kunstmuseum Bern, Hahnloser/Jaeggli Foundation, Villa Flora, Winterthur

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If only for the inclusion of The White and the Black (1913), the retrospective of the Swiss painter and printmaker Félix Vallotton (1865–1925) merits its subtitle. The Met has given special emphasis to the painting, and can you blame it for doing so? It’s an arresting picture. Toward the right of the canvas, a black woman, clad in blue and smoking a cigarette, sits pensively on a bed. The object of her attention is a reclining white woman who is nude and—what exactly? Sleeping, maybe; posing, perhaps. (Her posture suggests a degree of self-awareness.) The title conjures a Whistlerian focus on color harmonies, and the image bears a knowing resemblance to Manet’s Olympia (1863). The relationship between the two women is provocative in its ambiguity. Was Vallotton, a committed leftist and anarchist sympathizer, commenting on class divide—exploring unstated tensions between mistress and servant? He didn’t leave a paper trail regarding intent; the exhibition catalogue is mum on the subject. We are on surer footing in guessing that the curators are keying into contemporary woke culture by bestowing a prominent berth to The White and the Black.

As a feat of painting, The White and the Black owes nothing to Whistler, only nods to Manet, and strays far afield from Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, both of whom Vallotton counted as friends. Paul Gauguin is the nearest correlative, partly for the confluence of eroticism and race, mostly for the elasticity and import given to color—the expanse of sea green serving as the backdrop, especially. That, and the painting isn’t . . . good. Or, rather, not as good as it portends. The longer one stays with The White and the Black the more its shortcomings are revealed. The nude feels as if she has been airlifted from another galaxy. (As a variation on Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, it likely was.) The concomitant disconnect suggests that we’re looking at a painter who hasn’t altogether mastered the intricacies of pictorial space. The disquieting thing about “Painter of Disquiet” is, in fact, how consistently Vallotton misses the mark set by his not inconsiderable ambitions. The critic and artist Patrick Heron memorably dubbed Gauguin a “great bad painter.” Vallotton doesn’t rank that high. Still, the exhibition should pique the interest of those with a taste for idiosyncratic talent and fin de siècle culture.

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Felix Vallotton, Self-Portrait at the Age of Twenty (1885), oil on canvas, 70 x 55 cm.; courtesy Cantonal Museum of Fine Arts, Lausanne

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Born in Lausanne to a middle-class Protestant family, the sixteen-year-old Vallotton forsook his studies in Greek and Latin, heading, instead, to Paris in order to pursue art. He enrolled at the Académie Julian and haunted the galleries of the Louvre, becoming enamored with the paintings of da Vinci, Dürer, and Ingres. With a boost from the painter Jules Lefebvre, his teacher at the Académie, Vallotton’s work was exhibited at the Salon des Champs-Élysées in 1885. It wasn’t long before the young artist began exploring less traditional byways. Working as an art critic for the Gazette de Lausanne, Vallotton singled out Henri Rousseau for special praise, and he began doing woodcut illustrations for a variety of periodicals. These caught the collective eye of the Nabis, and Vallotton was invited to join a group that counted among its members Vuillard, Bonnard, and Maurice Denis. Subsequently ensconced within the Parisian avant-garde, Vallotton exhibited in the Salon des Indépendants and socialized with the likes of Félix Fénéon, Gertrude Stein, Paul Verlaine, and Thadée Natanson, the publisher of the influential literary magazine La Revue blanche. Radical politics were a continuing fascination for Vallotton, albeit one tempered by his marriage to Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques, a widow of considerable wealth and influence.

Vallotton’s work for the popular press generated notoriety and won admiration. A critic of the time dubbed him the “Baudelaire of wood-engraving.” As a presumed nod to this honorific, the Met exhibition opens with Vallotton’s starkly configured black-and-white prints, largely of events taking place in the streets of Paris. Truth to tell, their cumulative effect is underwhelming. The high-contrast pictures devoted to the World’s Fair have a punchy appeal, as does Vallotton’s use of caricature. But the images are muddled—puzzle pieces that don’t snap into place—and one is reminded that the best cartoonists stylize form with flair and rhythm. The good bourgeois citizens of France, as pictured by Vallotton, are ill-configured stereotypes in compositions with little interior logic. Vallotton was better when sticking to nineteenth-century academic standards of figuration. Self-Portrait at the Age of Twenty (1885) and The Sick Girl (1892), though stiff and stagey respectively, are more convincing. Not convincing at all is The Five Painters (1902–03), Vallotton’s portrait of himself, Vuillard, Bonnard, Ker-Xavier Roussel, and Charles Cottet. A cut-rate Madame Tussaud wouldn’t settle for the dour and dusty mannequins Vallotton has shuffled into place.

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Felix Vallotton, Box Seats at the Theater, the Gentleman and the Lady (1909), oil on canvas, 18-3/16 x 15″; courtesy Private Collection

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A suite of prints titled Intimités, along with a group of related paintings, explore the quiddities of (mostly illicit) romantic intrigue: men and women, ensconced within well-appointed interiors, rendezvous and embrace. The hothouse atmosphere of The Lie (1897) generates erotic ten- sion, and the stately tones sweeping through The Visit (1899) underscore the unseemly machinations of seduction. Composition, more than mise en scène, was a strong suit. Vallotton employed asymmetry to striking effect, and his cropped vistas and subtle shifts in vantage point add a welcome frisson of modernity. The Bon Marché (1898), a tripartite homage to the venerable department store, is remarkably gutsy in how a slurry of figures is clearly situated within a centralized area of darkness. Box Seats at the Theater, the Gentleman and the Lady (1909) is a study in structural concision and skewed geometry that would have made Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec smile—Guy Pène du Bois, too. And that’s the problem: the work can’t help but recall better painters. The Met’s decision to hang Vallotton’s portrait of Gertrude Stein side by side with Picasso’s depiction of the collector points to how relatively stolid and unadventurous Vallotton was as an artist. The oeuvre, though not without its diversions, makes for a bumpy ride. “Painter of Disquiet” is best considered a curiosity that’s never quite as curious as it wants to be.

© 2020 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the January 2020 edition of The New Criterion.

“Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory” at The Met Breuer

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Vija Celmins, Envelope (1964), oil on canvas, 16 x 19″; courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery and The Met Breuer

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What a curious painter Vija Celmins is, so vexing and dry. Two floors of the Met Breuer have been dedicated to an oeuvre spanning some fifty years and not a lot of acreage. The modest size of Celmins’s canvases will come as a surprise to audiences accustomed to the bigger-is-better ethos typical of contemporary art exhibitions. (A smattering of sculptures on display take on a larger scale.) “To Fix the Image in Memory” begins with Envelope (1964), a sixteen-by-nineteen-inch painting sequestered in the entryway to the museum’s fourth floor galleries. As we traverse the show, the work stays within easel-painting range; the largest picture measures about five feet square. The installation is spare and, I’m guessing, was a challenge to choreograph. Certainly, you’d be hard-pressed to recall a show that reinforces just how stark and clean and airless Marcel Breuer’s Seventy-fifth Street edifice is. Celmins’s paintings, drawings, and prints are notably at home in these environs. It’s worth pondering what it is that makes a fairly traditional talent simpatico with the proverbial white cube.

Celmins has long been a steadfast, if decidedly under-the-radar, art world fixture—initially on the West Coast and, later, in New York. Born in Riga in 1938, Celmins had an unsettled childhood. The Soviet invasion of Latvia in 1940 forced the Celmins family—mother and father, along with Vija and an older sister—to seek refuge in Nazi Germany. (“History,” as the artist later noted, “was brutal.”) Having been shuttled from one refugee camp to another, the Celminses came to the United States in 1948 under the auspices of the Church World Service, settling in Indiana. It was the first time, as Celmins told Calvin Tomkins in a New Yorker profile, “that I realized being in fear wasn’t normal.” Celmins attended the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis and found a welcoming niche within its student body. She attended Yale University during the summer of 1961, befriending future art scene mainstays Chuck Close and Brice Marden. Celmins eventually traveled west to study at UCLA. As with many artists of the time, she grappled with the legacy of the New York School even as she kept an eye on recent trends.

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Vija Celmins, Heater (1964), oil on canvas, 47 9/16 × 48″; courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery and The Met Breuer

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“To Fix the Image in Memory” begins promisingly with the aforementioned Envelope, a dexterously executed still life in which understatement vies with painterly sensuality. Comparisons to Morandi are not unwarranted. As we enter the exhibition proper, the focus shifts—not in terms of imagery or composition, but in affect. With two notable exceptions, the images are wan and virtually monochrome, tending toward gray; the painterly approach is detached, muffled. Single objects are set within fields of flattened sfumato. To-the-point titles tell all: Heater, Fan, Two Lamps, like that. Painted from observation, these pictures testify to Celmins’s goal of “get[ting] back to some kind of basic thing where I just look, and paint.” She was nothing if not dutiful in her ambitions. Too dutiful, really. Absent is any sense of discovery. An unforgiving literalism takes precedence. Hot Plate and Heater (both 1964), the coloristic exceptions mentioned above, emit heat with appropriate placements of reddish orange in the grills of each appliance. In both cases, it’s an effective pictorial fillip, but, in the end, devoid of imaginative reach. Magic? It’s not on the agenda.

Painting from observation didn’t last long or, rather, became circumscribed. Three dimensions were winnowed down to two: Celmins began using photographs as source material. Gun with Hand #1 and Gun with Hand #2 (both 1964) are predicated on pictures taken by the artist and depict a bare arm jutting in from the side of the canvas firing a revolver. The lone moment of painterly embellishment is the puff of smoke that gives the images an oddball quietude. TV (1964) and Train (1965), installed nearby, are similarly centered on time and movement having been stifled. What Celmins does to the photo, whether working in graphite or oils, is far from flashy. Photo-realism isn’t quite her métier. Celmins is less overtly crowd-pleasing—less superficial, too. Images of trucks, deserts, war planes, forest fires, and, in recent years, the cosmos evince a Magrittean sense of displacement and a frangibility that a charitable soul might describe as Chardin-esque. “Redescription” is Celmins’s preferred terminology for her use of photography. What might seem a semantic hedge against potential complaints about copying or imitation is, in point of fact, a marker of how an artist can generate poetry through deliberate technique and force of will. Celmins’s way with graphite, especially, is admirable in its subtlety and softness.

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Vija Celmins, Web 2 (2000), mezzotint, 18 x 14-3/4″; courtesy The Met Breuer

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Resistible, too. As poetry, Celmins’s work is distilled and dour—haiku devoid of evocation or resonance. Writing in the catalogue, Briony Fer, an art historian at University College London and a Fellow of the British Academy, cautions against allusions to poetry, preferring “conceptual abstraction” as a more suitable peg on which to hang Celmins’s “haptic, creaturely logic.” Well, maybe. Minimalism is more to the point, I think, and goes to the heart of the art’s metaphorical intractability. Celmins’s pictures of pictures hint at provocation and meditation; what they deliver are immaculate dead-ends. Even within the series of drawings devoted to waves and spider webs—the most evanescent of her subjects—an overriding sense of closure stunts engagement. “What you see is what you see,” indeed. Passive-aggressive is the signature M.O. of her generation, and Celmins partakes of its insolence. Abandoning Abstract Expressionism because “there was no meaning in it for me,” Celmins pursued an artistic strategy in which “no meaning” was both a jumping-off point and final destination. All of which goes some way in explaining the forbidding purity within which Celmins has barricaded herself, as well as the ready adaptability of her work to the Met Breuer.

© 2019 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the November 2019 edition of The New Criterion.

Pratt in Venice 35th Anniversary

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I’m pleased to announce that two of my paintings will be displayed in the exhibition accompanying the 35th anniversary of the indispensable Pratt in Venice program. The opening reception takes place on Monday, October 21st, between 5:00-8:00 p.m. with celebratory remarks at 6:30 pm. The exhibition continues until November 1st.

The exhibition will be in Steuben Gallery on Pratt’s Brooklyn campus; the school is located at 200 Willoughby Avenue in Clinton Hill.

First Hand: Ibrahim El-Salahi

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Ibrahim El-Salahi, Alphabets No. 2 (1962/re-worked 1968), oil on canvas, 29-3/8 x 24-3/4″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Among the run of Neo-Conceptualist bric-a-brac that is “Home is A Foreign Place; Recent Acquisitions in Context”, currently at the Met Breuer, Alphabets No. 2 comes as a welcome moment of introspection, quietude and reverie. The Sudanese painter Ibrahim El-Salahi (born 1930) is among the chief proponents of hurufiyya, a mode of abstraction in which Arabic script is subsumed within compositional structures derived from Cubism and Surrealism. “I began to break down the letters to find what gave them meaning”. Disassembling the word in service of truths that are expressly visual is a tough row to hoe. El-Salahi does so with becoming modesty.

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Gary Petersen

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Gary Petersen, Split Screen (2018), acrylic on canvas, 64 x 84″; courtesy McKenzie Fine Art, New York

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Linear perspective–long a mainstay of Gary Petersen’s distinctive brand of geometric abstraction–gives way to stacking-and-packing in Split Screen (2018). This shift in emphasis can be gleaned from a title that references the digital revolution and, by fiat, how it has come to both dominate and upset the social fabric. If that seems a lot to chew on for paintings whose color palette seems to have been co-opted from The Jetsons–well, that’s how one observer put it–so be it. Better to confront the brave new world with humor than despair.

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Konstantinos Volanakis

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Konstantinos Volanakis, Seascape, courtesy the Historical Archives Museum of Hydra and Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation Collection, Hydra, Greece

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Think Canaletto by way of Turner and you’ll get an idea of what Konstantinos Volanakis (1837-1907) brings to the table. A national treasure in his home country, “the father of Greek seascape painting” was also admired by Franz Josef I–so much so, that the Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire awarded Volanakis two years of free travel (courtesy of the Austrian navy) on top of the 1,000 florins paid for a canvas commemorating the imperial rout of an armada from Italy. An exhibition at the Historical Archives Museum of Hydra shines an appreciative light on the specialized niche Volanakis made his own.

© 2019 Mario Naves

 

First Hand: Pablo Picasso

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Pablo Picasso, Silenus in the Company of Dancers (1933), gouache and India ink on paper, courtesy of the Staatliche Muzeen zu Berlin, Germany, and the Cycladic Museum, Athens, Greece

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The central figure in this Dionysian reverie–he of the ample-bellied contraposto and oddly distant stare–is Silenus, tutor to Dionysus himself. Something of a dirty old man, definitely a drunkard, and a seer, Silenus was a salacious semi-divinity tailor-made for a man of Picasso’s inclinations. It’s Silenus you’ll want to thank for yoking the lyrical side of the Spaniard’s (not always generous) sense of humor.

My thoughts on “Picasso & Antiquity”, in which Silenus in the Company of Dancers serves as both culmination and aperçu, will appear in an upcoming edition of The New Criterion.

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Avigdor Arikha

Arikha BreadAvigdor Arikha, Bread and Knife (1973), Sumi ink on paper, 11-4/5 x 15-3/5″; courtesy the Benaki Museum, Athens, Greece

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As scrupulous (if not as tenacious) as Giacometti and as terse (if more substantive) than Luc Tuymans, Avigdor Arikha (1929-2010) dubbed himself a “post-abstract representational artist”. A survivor of the concentration camps and Israel’s War of Independence–where he was almost left for dead–the Romanian-born Arikha studied art in Jerusalem and Paris, eventually establishing an international reputation as a painter and draftsman. Though sought after as a portraitist–among his sitters were Queen Elizabeth and Catherine Deneueve–Arikha found his true forte when depicting objects, divining within them a tenderness and wit that was no less apparent for being anxiety riven.

© 2019 Mario Naves

 

 

First Hand: Saint George

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Unknown Artist, Saint George (14th Century), oil and gold on wood, 29-1/2 x 19-1/2″; courtesy the Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens, Greece

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There’s a reason these posts are called “first hand”: the reproduction above doesn’t do justice to the real thing, not even close. Forget surface attributes like the crystalline hatching of pigment or pictorial quiddities like the suit of armor with its contradictory architectural allusions. It’s the overall tonality of the picture that’s absent. The chromatic depth of Saint George is staggering, suffused, as it is, with a coppery resonance that seems impossible even as it meets the eye. There are myriad icons vying for attention at the Byzantine and Christian Museum. None are quite as fulsome as this one.

© 2019 Mario Naves