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”?


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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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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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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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.


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


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


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).


Hunting and Gathering

Warrington Colescott, Hunting and Gathering (1997), color soft-ground etching and aquatint, with vibrograver, roulette and relier rolls through stencil, 17-1/2″ x 23-5/8″;  courtesy The Milwaukee Art Museum

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“To the man who loves art for its own sake it is frequently in its least important and lowliest manifestations that the keenest pleasure is to be derived.”

–Sherlock Holmes from “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A Welcoming Impurity: Contemporary Abstract Painting

LaCalleAbraham LaCalle, Saracine 4 (2003), oil on linen, 65 x 50 cm.; courtesy Galería Manuel Ojeda

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The following review was originally published in the February 9, 2004 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Reinventing Abstraction, an exhibition curated by Raphael Rubenstein at Cheim & Read (until August 30).

This is a good time for abstract painting.

(The loud thwack you just heard is the sound of abstract painters all over the city smacking their foreheads in disbelief: What is he talking about?)

Take a look at what dominates the scene: big-budget installations, obscurantist videos, interminable performances, conceptualist novelties, anti-art hi-jinks and photographs by photographers who don’t know how to focus their cameras. The best-known contemporary painter at the moment is a figurative artist: John Currin.

Painting itself is not having an easy time of it: Though news of its death has become a joke even to those who pine for the day, many artists continue to view painting as a plaything to be mocked rather than its own independent pleasure. Try putting brush to canvas with sincerity, passion or ambition and you’ll be shown the door and given large-type directions to the nearest pasture.

JaffeShirley Jaffe, Swinging (2012), oil on canvas, 130 x 97 cm.; courtesy Galeria Nathalie Obadia

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As for abstraction, it’s no longer the engine of culture or the culmination of Modernism; it’s now a specialist’s pursuit. The minimized status that abstraction was given in the millennial exhibitions mounted by MoMA only ratified current opinion: Abstraction is just there, another byway of artistic pursuit in the anything-goes bazaar of the contemporary scene.

So what’s good about all that?

Out from under the burden of historical necessity and away from the limelight of successful innovation, abstraction is free. Having been marginalized by Pop, politics, fashion and theory, abstraction has retrenched and set off on pathways that might once have been thought inappropriate, untenable or ridiculous. The quest for “the final painting”–a goal once considered the hallmark of Modernism–degraded the form into a feeble simulacrum of itself. (Just stroll through the gallery at Dia:Beacon devoted to the austere pseudo-paintings of Robert Ryman; you might as well be visiting a tomb.)

Purity, having been achieved, was not the apogee of painting, but a dead end masquerading as artistic truth. Having seen how much could be taken out of a painting and still leave a painting (or something like it), many contemporary painters want to discover how much you can put back into a painting and still have an abstraction. In fact, the best abstract painters working today are a rather impure lot. Inclusiveness is their watchword: They’re willing to try anything once, maybe even twice. They take the whole of human experience as their inspiration.

USleJuan Uslé, MIRON (2006-07), vinyl, dispersion and dry pigment on canvas, 12″ x 18″; courtesy Cheim & Read

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This inclusive approach is not brand-new. Robert Delaunay, Arthur Dove, Stuart Davis and Piet (“Boogie-Woogie”) Mondrian all invited the world into their abstractions, and the results were salutary. The list of today’s abstract artists who favor a welcoming impurity includes Thomas Nozkowski, Shirley Jaffe, Laurie Fendrich, Bill Jensen, Ross Neher, Juan Usle, Andrew Masullo, Harriet Korman and Pat Adams. Their efforts constitute a healthy, if unheralded, artistic moment.

And now we can add Abraham Lacalle to the list. Mr. Lacalle is a youngish Spanish painter (he’s in his early 40′s and hails from Madrid) who’s having his first one-person show in New York, at Marlborough Chelsea. Knowing that inspiration is various and eternal, Mr. Lacalle looks for it everywhere. The paintings are mix-and-match accumulations of pattern and geometry and, less so, color and representation. He makes a brusque patchwork of cross-hatching, dots, stripes, lozenge-like forms, doodles and drips, as well as cacti, hats, fish and hands.

JensenBill Jensen, Images of a Floating World (Passare) (2009), oil on linen, 26″ x 20″; courtesy Cheim & Read

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The juggling of pictorial motifs is reminiscent of any number of contemporary painters who promiscuously lift and juxtapose motifs from history’s warehouse of style. But no one will mistake what Mr. Lacalle does for appropriation. Like the proverbial child in a candy store, Mr. Lacalle surveys 20th-century art (particularly, though not exclusively, Cubism) and likes what he sees. His enthusiasm is infectious.

The paintings, with their distinctly Spanish palette of scrubby ochres and grays, revel in disjunction. Mr. Lacalle’s touch, unencumbered and endearingly clumsy, evens the temper of the fragmented compositions. The bigger canvases are overcomplicated machines; their size and ambition can’t disguise a certain flimsiness or a bent toward formula. The less-cluttered smaller pictures are playful and loose; a minor key suits Mr. Lacalle’s informality. Particularly smart are Sarasine 4 (2003) and Sarasine 6 (2003), both of which neatly mark the distinction between sophistication and amateurishness. At the moment, Mr. Lacalle is less a fully formed painter than a precocious talent; his best work lies ahead of him. Still, you’ll be happy to make his acquaintance.

© 2004 Mario Naves


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