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

Masterful Shortcomings: The Art of Ken Price

Met PriceInstallation view of Ken Price Sculpture; A Retrospective; photo by Suzanne DeChillo and courtesy The New York Times

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The following reviews originally appeared, respectively, in the March 10, 2010 edition of City Arts and the November 29, 2004 edition of The New York Observer. They are posted here on the occasion of Ken Price Sculpture; A Retrospective at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (until September 22, 2013) and Ken Price: Slow and Steady Wins the Race, Works on Paper 1962-2010 at The Drawing Center (until August 18, 2013).

Animism has never been Ken Price’s strength. The ability to endow inert material with the stuff of life has eluded the veteran ceramicist to the frustration of those of us admiring of his streamlined variations on biomorphic abstraction. The sculptures are, admittedly, fetching: Who could resist those precisely calibrated gestures, fluid contours and breathtakingly abraded surfaces? Would that these virtues encouraged adoration, but Price’s unremitting elegance tamps down our enthusiasm and any vitality the work itself might embody. You get the feeling that life is altogether too base and vulgar to suit Price’s artistic program.

Well, maybe vulgarity suits him. That Price has embraced turds and orifices as inspiration isn’t revelatory or revolutionary—Surrealist scatology has a long and relatively noble tradition. Severity of formal purpose, probably gleaned from Minimalism, imbues Price’s work with no-nonsense principle. Add a distillation of shape that takes off from Hans Arp and stops just short of being cute, and you have an artist who skirts overt ickiness.

Which doesn’t mean that Price doesn’t have it in him: Eeezo is genuinely repulsive. A fleshy swaddling of upright tubers punctuated by a gaping maw, Eeezo generates clammy élan through its pearlescent veneer, pimply surface and milky pallor. The work is something between ghastly, garish and tacky, which, for this artist, is some kind of achievement.

Eeezo has wisely been segregated from the rest of the work; its brute presence would only distract from Price’s usual run of stylish blips and blobs. Unfortunately, three sizable sculptures—Lying Around, Simple-istic and Percival—are displayed front-and-center. There’s no compelling aesthetic reason for their bigness unless price tag counts; this tabletop intimist has yet to get a handle on a larger scale. It’s enough to make you love Price’s more masterful shortcomings.

© 2010 Mario Naves

Ken Price Drawings

Drawings by Ken Price; courtesy Art Fag City

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If you’re familiar with the ceramic sculptures of Ken Price–those overrefined glosses on the tradition of biomorphic form–you’ll want to check out his drawings at Matthew Marks’ shoebox gallery on 21st Street. They’re not recommended, mind you, just odd: They depict erupting volcanoes, lightning, the ocean, and blobby, aquatic-like creatures in the company of buxom young women–not-so-distant cousins of Gauguin’s Tahitian nudes.

The pictures are reminiscent of underground comics, the animated film Fantastic Planet, and the fervent imaginings that line the margins of a high-school student’s notebook. Rendered in a flat-footed, psychedelic style, they pay little attention to the niceties of line or shape. (Color fares a mite better.) The drawings aren’t studies for sculptures; they tell us less about Mr. Price’s art than Mr. Price the artist. It turns out he’s a guy given to rather pedestrian daydreams. Mr. Marks felt that was reason enough to mount an exhibition–depending on your frame of mind, you might grant that he has a point.

© 2004 Mario Naves

Unbending Conviction: Bill Traylor and William Edmondson

Traylor 2

Bill Traylor, Untitled (ca. 1939-1942), poster paint, crayon and pencil on cardboard; courtesy The High Museum of Art

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This following article originally appeared in the June 13, 2005 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of the exhibitions Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts and Traylor in Motion: Wonders from New York Collections, both of which are on display at the American Folk Art Museum (June 11-September 22, 2013).

Sometimes the surest marker of artistic worth is the flow of traffic. Standing on the mezzanine landing of the Studio Museum in Harlem, overlooking the ground-floor gallery, I was struck by the decisiveness of its visitors. One glance at the exhibition featured downstairs, Chris Ofili: Afro Muses 1995-2005, and–hup!–straight to the staircase and up they went.

How many of the gallerygoers remembered Mr. Ofili as the pornography-recycling, elephant-dung-wielding, Rudolph Giuliani–enraging artist of Sensation fame is anyone’s guess. One thing that’s certain is that the majority of them chose not to waste their time with his art. In bypassing 100-some-odd of Mr. Ofili’s “treasured archetypes”–watercolor portraits notable only for their haplessness–visitors to the Studio Museum voted with their feet. In doing so, they exhibited considerable aesthetic acumen. Afro Muses? Afro-kitsch is more like it.

Traylor 1Bill Traylor, Untitled (1939-1942), poster paint, pencil and colored pencil on cardboard; courtesy The High Museum of Art

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In marked contrast to the sprinting occasioned by Mr. Ofili, Bill Traylor, William Edmondson and the Modernist Impulse, the exhibition seen on the museum’s mezzanine, encourages and sustains deliberation. Little wonder: Bill Traylor (1854-1949) and William Edmondson (1874-1951) are among the most significant exemplars of American folk art. The two men–one born a slave, the other the son of slaves–epitomize the attribute we have come to value most in “outsiders”: vision propelled by unbending conviction.

Edmondson, for instance, had no say in taking up sculpture: God told him to get busy. Given the stolid gravity of his limestone carvings, you can believe it.

Traylor has, in recent years, emerged as a favorite among connoisseurs of folk art. His silhouetted depictions of men in top hats, pointing women and animals of all stripes are delights of pictorial economy. He had an impeccable gift for placement: Hieratic figures, structures and designs occupy the page with an almost balletic lilt. Narrative is winnowed to a potent minimum. A stylish woman moves her arms in an accusatory manner, heaping frustration upon a one-legged man slumped on his crutches. A reptilian creature is trapped at the bottom of the page, its expression unnervingly self-aware, as if it realized that extinction was its fate. These are startlingly evocative images, urgent and whimsical.

EdmondsonWilliam Edmondson, Bess and Joe (c. 1930s), limestone; courtesy the Cheekwood Museum of Art

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Having said that, the narrowness of Traylor’s art–and it’s prudent to remember that we shouldn’t expect breadth of vision from a folk artist–becomes all the more pronounced when placed side by side with Edmondson’s sculptures. It’s not that they aren’t narrow, but Edmondson’s narrowness feels deeper, more rounded. Certainly, his simplified, monolithic figures resonate, due not least to their good humor and the close attention paid to the foibles of humankind. In one work, Edmondson bestows (or maybe burdens) Eve with a hilariously oversized fig leaf. Elsewhere, an angel glares with admonishment, two doves nuzzle lovingly, and a crucified Jesus gestures forgivingly. Edmondson wasn’t a master of his materials–limestone never quite yields to his touch; he did the best he could with it–but the sense of contained malleability typical of the work is no mean accomplishment.

What this all has to do with a “modernist impulse.” as stated in the title of the exhibition, is unclear. Could it be an implicit argument that Traylor and Edmondson be ushered into the company of, say, Constantin Brancusi and Elie Nadelman as equals among modernists? Lowery Stokes Sims, the executive director of the Studio Museum, intimated as much in writing about Edmondson’s work that “the distinctions between self-taught and mainstream artists [are]… specious.” If that’s the case, the argument could’ve been framed in a more up-front and provocative manner. If you’re going to strong-arm art into being an adjunct of politics, then for God’s sake, don’t be namby-pamby about it. Still and all, that plaint is easily ignored: Modernist impulse or not, this is a charmer of a show.

© 2005 Mario Naves

A Collage Compendium


Austin Thomas, Round Placed Square (2010), collage with pen and pencil, 42″ x 42″; courtesy the artist

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On the occasion of Remix: Selections from the International Collage Center, an exhibition at the Katonah Museum of Art (on view until October 13), herewith is a variety of links that lead to articles on artists who do the tradition proud, among them John AshberyRomare BeardenJessJosh Dorman, Bruce HelanderLance Letscher, Conrad Marca-Relli and Austin Thomas.

JessJess, Blasted Beauty (1954), collage, 30″ x 24″; courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery

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Anyone who talks about collage without mentioning Dadaism or women is oblivious to the history of the medium. And then there’s Joseph Cornell, the outsider sophisticate and mama’s boy from Flushing, who is a genre unto himself.


Joseph Cornell, Madame Mallarme’s Fan (1954), collage on board, 11-1/2″ x 8-3/4″; courtesy The International Collage Center

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Art critic, professor of philosophy and inveterate bloviator Donald Kuspit wrote that “collage . . . involves condensations and displacements, and also seems like a mistake of consciousness, which is why one tends to forget it, confirming its transience–unless one forces oneself to remember it–when one awakens from its spell.” Cornell puts such specious theorizing firmly to rest, as do any number of artists whose collages continue to cast a spell long after our first acquaintance with them.

© 2013 Mario Naves


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