Irrepressible: The Paintings of Melissa Meyer

Meyer 1

Melissa Meyer, Inky (2013), oil on canvas, 60″ x 78″; courtesy Lennon, Weinberg Inc.

* * *

A version of this essay originally appeared in a brochure accompanying Melissa Meyer; New Paintings, a 2001 exhibition at Elizabeth Harris Gallery. It is posted here on the occasion of Melissa Meyer; Recent Work at Lennon, Weinberg Inc. (until February 15).

Few brushstrokes in contemporary art declare themselves as irrepressibly as those of Melissa Meyer.

Translucent and expansive, Meyer’s signature squiggles move across the canvas with a lighter-than-air élan. These marks can be likened to calligraphy or doodling, but only if it’s understood that such comparisons are convenient rather than conclusive. Her brushstrokes are, after all, too independent to relinquish themselves to symbol and too driven to be tagged as automatism. They may unfurl, stretch, shimmy and skitter, but they do so with purpose and personality. One of Meyer’s clubby lines will snarl itself into a bewildered knot; another wiggles with brazen impetuosity. A third lopes nonchalantly, holding its own between neighbors who are, if not quarrelsome, then muscular enough to brook any guff.

Mayer 2Melissa Meyer, Devlin (2013), oil on canvas, 70″ x 80″; courtesy Lennon, Weinberg Inc.

* * *

Each of the canvases is predicated on a grid that, however informal in delineation, retains a compositional authority. This structural arbiter is then overlaid and augmented by Meyer’s brushwork. She handles the disjunction between organization and abandon with a dexterity so exuberantly off-the-cuff that it ceases to be a disjunction at all. Amiably insisting that discipline and freedom need not be absolutes, Meyer reconciles the irreconcilable. When a rush of red overlaps its box-like compartment, it states its case decisively but doesn’t dishonor its surroundings. Similarly, when a wash of blue envelops a drawling skein of green, it does so with the calm embrace of a blessing, not the admonishing finality of negation. Meyer posits a pictorial and, by inference, philosophical concord that is forever open to flux.

Meyer’s work refuses to buy into the shopworn argument that the harsher the medicine, the better it is for you. She knows that artistic worth isn’t measured in provocation alone and that pleasure can be its own profound reward. Her paintings–jubilant, buoyant and often tender–are a source of sustenance. We willingly lose ourselves in their tangled delights.

© 2001 Mario Naves

“Mike Kelley” at MOMA/PS1

Mike Kelley #1

Mike Kelley, Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites (1991-1999), plush toys sewn over wood and wire frames with styrofoam packing material, nylon rope, pulleys, steel hardware and hanging plates, fiberglass, car paint and disinfectant, overall dimensions variable; courtesy The Estate of Mike Kelley and MOMA/PS1

* * *

As much as art criticism can be defined by rules, there is one rule that has proven fail-safe: Be skeptical of any exhibition that comes with a soundtrack taken from the haunted house attraction at an amusement park. Ambient drones, scattered voices (sometimes intelligible, often not), the generalized rustle of forces knocking about—leaven them with an underlay of rock music and imbue the proceedings with mood lighting, and you can wager that the resulting objet d’art is impossibly portentous. That it should also be of minimal aesthetic value is likely—or so one would think. But “Mike Kelley,” a thirty-year overview of the California-based artist’s work now on view in Queens at MOMA PS1, is the exception that proves the rule. That is, at least, the verdict of Holland Cotter at The New York Times. He writes that the exhibition is “a huge show that should be huge” and that the work is “great.” Cotter doesn’t mention the exhibition’s audio component. Given his track record as cheerleader for the temporarily outré, maybe Cotter is inured to such things. For some critics, spooky noises are par for the course.

Cotter’s “great” recommendation is prefaced by a description of Kelley’s art as “perfectly horrid.” This phrase isn’t a condemnation. It is high praise. Kelley is among the more notable purveyors of “abjection,” a school of art dedicated to exploring the furthest reaches of anomie. Add to this brew the disappointments of childhood, as well as obligatory homages to seamy sex and bodily functions, and you’ll have an idea of the overriding tenor of Kelley’s vision—a chilly admixture of nihilism and nostalgia, of sentimentality glossed over with rank self-indulgence. “My entrance into the art world was through the counter-culture,” Kelley wrote, “where it was common practice to lift material from mass culture and ‘pervert’ it to reverse or alter its meaning.” Admirers laud the “unashamed intellectuality” of this “giant,” of his Barnum-esque embrace of physics and metaphysics, social constructs and gender identity, punk rock and Superman comic books. PS1 extols Kelley’s “dark and delirious” exploration of the “fault lines between the sacred and the profane.” Hardly an exhibition of contemporary art comes down the pike without high-flown theorizing. Kelley had no small role in codifying its parameters.

Mike Kelley #4

Mike Kelley, Pay For Your Pleasure (detail) (1988), oil paint on Tyvek; courtesy MOMA/PS1

* * *

The work that typifies Kelley’s vision—“oeuvre” isn’t right word given his stylistic capriciousness—is Pay for Your Pleasure (1988), a series of towering banners featuring painted portraits of poets, philosophers, artists, politicians, and religious leaders emblazoned with quotes specific to the individual pictured. Affectlessness of craft coincides with the cynicism of the accompanying sentiments (often taken out of context). A perfect marriage of form and content, you might think, but Kelley’s miserabilism—there’s no other word for it, really—places him above such potentially redemptive concerns. “Everything bad that happens happens because of a conscious, intelligent concerted ill-will”—this statement from Antonin Artaud defines Kelley’s distinctive brand of tunnel vision. Kelley mandated that any institution displaying Pay for Your Pleasure include an artwork made by a local criminal. At PS1 this honor goes to Arthur Shawcross, also known as the Genesee River Killer. Shawcross raped, killed, mutilated, and claimed to have cannibalized his victims—most of them prostitutes, but also children. Donation boxes for victims’ rights groups, another Kelley mandate, are placed nearby. Does a wan nod to empathy compensate for sick sensationalism? “Since no pleasure is free, a little ‘guilt’ money is in order.” We’re all implicated, don’t you know.

The novelty of PS1 as a cultural institution lies in its former role as a public school and the degree to which it retains an institutional grittiness. Much of the building has been left “as is,” replete with weathered surfaces, cavernous spaces, period linoleum flooring, and raw, unfinished rooms. (The basement galleries are an irresistible draw for children thanks to their scariness.) A self-conscious romanticism is inherent in the decor of PS1 and, as such, often trumps the art to which the museum is ostensibly dedicated. Kelley, being a consummate showman, holds his own against this setting. His pieces—through scale, yes, but also force of will—dominate the surrounding spaces. Whether using means that are traditional (oil paint), technological (light boxes, gas tanks, projections, videos), homely (stuffed animals retrieved from a thrift shop), or piecemeal (color-coordinated mosaics), Kelley deals in brutalist theater—a my-way-or-the-highway descent into ugliness. Art as engagement? Forget it. To paraphrase an old New Yorker cartoon, Mike Kelley suffered for his art and now it’s our turn. Kelley’s work, in its insistence on sensory overload and emotional submission, is as unremitting and slick as a Hollywood blockbuster.

Mike Kelley #2

Mike Kelley, Mike Kelley as the Banana Man (1981); courtesy The Estate of Mike Kelley and PS1/MOMA

* * *

Unlike the typical Hollywood product, however, Mike Kelley—the artist, not the exhibition—didn’t have a happy ending. The “tragic death” mentioned in an introductory wall label is an elision meant to obscure, out of curatorial politesse presumably, the artist’s suicide last year at the age of fifty-seven. Knowing this biographical particular can’t help but color one’s perception of the art, but even friends who weren’t aware of Kelley’s passing found themselves disconcerted—“moved” seems too positive an emotion in this context—by “Mike Kelley.” Whatever else you can say about the man and his art, this much is true: He wasn’t a con man out to milk the prestige of art. He wasn’t, in other words, Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst or Banksy or fill-in-the-blank. There is, at the core of Kelley’s art, something real—something unappetizing, sure, but also genuine. Sincere self-disgust is better than the usual posing, but not much better and, from all appearances, not good at all for Kelley. Perhaps we should be grateful that Kelley found an outlet for his demons—for a time, anyway. Those of us disinclined to indulge (or celebrate) life’s miseries are free to seek our pleasures elsewhere.

© 2014 Mario Naves

This article was originally published in the January 2014 edition of The New Criterion.

The More The Merrier


The Cultured and Huddled Masses at Sideshow Gallery

* * *

I’m pleased to announce that a painting of mine will be included in Sideshow Nation II; At The Alamo, Rich Timperio’s annual extravaganza at Sideshow Gallery in Williamsburg.

The opening will, if history tells us anything, be swamped with art-lovers of all stripes.

This time around the opening takes place on Saturday, January 4th, from 6:00-9:00 p.m. The exhibition runs until March 3rd. Additional information can be found here.

Tender, Tenacious and Forceful: The Prints of Paul Resika

DCF 1.0

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

© 2013 Mario Naves

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

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

The City

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Leger Photo

Fernand Léger circa 1916

* * * 

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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


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

* * *

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

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


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

* * *

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

© 2013 Mario Naves

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

Ho, Ho, Ho

Holiday Delights* * *

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

Everyone’s A Critic

Art Critics

* * *

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.

   * * *

        Johns FlagTR14473

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

* * *


Laurel Nakadate: Making Narcissus seem humble

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *


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”

* * *

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

* * *

KrugerBarbara Kruger: Gucci Marxism, hypocrisy and bullying

* * *


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

* * *

Abstract Painting (726) 1990 by Gerhard Richter born 1932

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

* * *

© 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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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.

* * *

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

* * *

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


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 170 other followers