Spring Round-Up: Ronald Bladen, Willard Boepple, Anne Peretz & Stephen Westfall

Ronald Bladen, Coltrane (Model)

Ronald Bladen, Coltrane (model) (1970), painted wood, 30″ x 16″ x 16-1/2″; courtesy P.S.1

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Few venues embody the free-for-all that is today’s art world as fully as the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens. An old school building located in industrial Long Island City, P.S.1 is an institution dedicated to the anti-institutional. Providing ample space to the jumble of current artistic practice, the art center still hearkens back to its original function. This is part of P.S.1’s appeal: one can’t help but experience a nostalgic disassociation in encountering, say, an inflatable Tyrannosaurus in a gallery vaguely reminiscent of one’s fifth-grade math class.

P.S.1 milks the underlying impulse of public education, albeit subliminally, by advocating any and all brands of artistic endeavor. That the work on view rarely transcends the diverting (or the annoying) doesn’t make the best case for democratic principles, however. A friend suggested that P.S.1 would better serve the culture at large if it were turned back into a school. My son recently spent an afternoon there and thought the place, with its sinister stairwells and finches in the gallery, a blast. Which goes to prove, I suppose, that much of what passes for art nowadays is best appreciated by a five-year-old child.

In this context, the austere sculpture of Ronald Bladen (1918–1988) looks as if it were that of an old master. The exhibition Ronald Bladen: Selected Works alludes to the minimalist’s oeuvre without giving it shape. We are left to intuit a sensibility responsible for objects as diverse as gargantuan monoliths, smudgy romantic drawings and canvases encrusted with oil paint. An attempt at even a barebones chronology would have given the aesthetic shifts of Bladen’s art import. As it is the show is haphazard, a condition due, in part, to architecture that doesn’t lend itself to museological flow.

Admittedly, one has to sympathize with any museum given the task of displaying sculpture whose scale can strain the parameters of even the most spacious of galleries. (One huge work, Rockers [1965], can be seen in the center’s courtyard.) Installing Bladen’s work must have been a challenge, a challenge P.S.1 hasn’t always met successfully. Curve (1969), for instance, is shunted in a space that makes it less a sculptural experience than a traffic obstacle.

Bladen’s mature work is, in its rigor, uptight and solemn. Comprised of a simplified and often symmetrical geometry, his sculpture has an inherent tension that holds firm—what the sculptor Joel Shapiro refers to as a “lean.” Bladen’s forms turn back on themselves, seemingly driven by magnetic force. His art doesn’t have the mute authority of Donald Judd’s boxes or the environmental drama of Richard Serra’s arcs. But Bladen was after something more elegiac, and the resulting work is handsome and implacable.

Although he was personally involved in the construction of his pieces, this physical and, one senses, meaningful investment is abrogated by the anonymity of the seamless surfaces and black eggshell housepaint. In the distillation of his self-admitted romanticism, Bladen forsook shabby pleasures— for example, Coltrane (1970), an “unfinished” model and the most satisfying piece in the show—for the dictates of absolute form. This resulted in a minimalism conducive more to interior decoration than to aesthetic rumination.

The most rewarding moment of Ronald Bladen comes in an expansive, light-dappled space where a dozen or so sculptural studies bump off each other in a manner that is more engrossing than any one piece taken individually. Here installation animates art by denying its autonomy. This would have chagrined the artist but it speaks to the narrow scope of Bladen’s art.

Willard Boepple, Sense of things #7

Willard Boepple, The Sense of Things #7 (2002), wood and resin, 7-1/2″ x 8″; courtesy The New York Studio School

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Most of the sculptures in Willard Boepple: The Sense of Things at The New York Studio School were box-like containers placed, for the most part, on the wall at eye level. Inside the boxes, objects shift and conjugate. The format serves as both a literal support for things—a shelf—and a metaphorical vessel wherein events unfold. The pieces are made from pine, and Boepple burnishes his surfaces with graphite and wax, giving the work a steely, machine-like presence reminiscent of woodshop leftovers or the contents of a toolbox.

His containers are scaled to the human form or, rather, to human usage. Their surfaces and construction connote the carpenter’s craft and, concomitantly, the human hand. Indeed, Boepple’s sculpture has an inherent—how does one put it?—graspability. In each piece, the act of packing, stacking, removing, and joining is made palpable. There is a gritty satisfaction in the heft of these pieces. In a culture as “virtual” as our own, Boepple returns to us the hard-earned satisfaction of the handmade object.

It should be reiterated that Boepple’s shelves aren’t neutral receptacles. The concrete limits of his boxes generate as well as sequester the objects they contain. This is as true for a piece as jam-packed as Meaning (1998) as it is for the demarcated spaces of The Sense of Things 2 (1995). In both cases, the eye is gently guided, and just as gently redirected, by subtle modifications in our angle of vision.

In Boepple’s art there is a tug, if you will, between a systematic unity and the multifarious component. This “tug” can be acrobatic as in Cucullan (1998) or slow and spooky as in the magnificently corporeal Casual Water 3 (1997). The compression of the box gives the work its knotty intensity. An “unboxed” work like Gearless (1998), in comparison, falls flat because its space is neither engaged nor complicated; the sense of expansion it implies lacks muscle. (Need I mention that an object without gears is one that probably won’t work?) Still, this is minor carping. Willard Boepple’s sculpture—arresting, mysterious, and stubbornly itself—made for one of the outstanding shows of the season.

Anne Peretz’s landscape paintings—seen at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries in March— are those of a painter for whom the natural world is awesome and inscrutable. Peretz’s work has an implicit drama, often operatic in nature. In her paintings, rocky cliffs congregate like actors entering a stage, trees tower forebodingly, and rivers rush in a torrent right into the viewer’s space. (One would tread cautiously in Peretz’s woods.) Joseph Leo Koerner, writing in the catalogue, locates the turbulence of the paintings in the artist’s discovery of “the tragedy of landscape.” This melodramatic flourish rings a bit false, particularly when the artist herself flatly proclaims: “I don’t like cheerful.”

Indeed, one wonders if Peretz’s art wouldn’t benefit from an ample dose of good cheer. One doesn’t doubt that the artist’s romantic streak is based in fact, but the paintings are dour rather than sublime. Her surfaces are scruffy and the painthandling is overly insistent, particularly when a palette knife was used. More debilitating is the absence of pictorial light; the work’s overall tonality is muffled, as if her range of values had been filtered through a scrim. Peretz states that she “winnows” the experience of landscape into the act of painting. One wishes, however, that she spent less time winnowing and more time amongst the trees. Perhaps a portable easel would do the trick.

Stephen Westfall, Blown ForwardStephen Westfall, Blown Forward (1998), oil on canvas; courtesy Lennon, Weinberg Inc.

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“The thing about Stephen is that he knows everybody in the art world.” I overheard this statement while attending the latest show of paintings by Stephen Westfall—seen at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc. last February and March. As someone who doesn’t know the artist, I can nevertheless attest to Westfall’s ubiquity. His isn’t a household name, to be sure, but Westfall has been for the past fifteen years or so a reliable presence in the art world. He’s exhibited regularly and also writes about art, contributing to magazines such as Art in America and to numerous exhibition catalogues. The images for which Westfall is best known are flat, gridded fields, variations on the delicate alliance between figure and ground. These grids, however, aren’t stable structures; they’re wobbly and fidgety—scaffolds of dubiety. Tweaking the conventions of classic geometric painting, Westfall has proven to be a good-natured formalist.

Westfall’s love for the clarity of, say, Mondrian’s art has always been clear; it’s also plain that he finds the aesthetic (and philosophical) certitude of the Dutch master a bit alien. A cultivated skepticism has marked Westfall’s art. His paintings are always smart, but often tepid—proficient with little followthrough. Until now, that is.

With his recent pictures, Westfall has given his casual geometry a reason for being. He has complicated—enriched, really—his paintings by superimposing one evasive grid upon another. This may seem a simplistic tack, but it is one that is surprisingly riveting. With the pulse between positive and negative space having been augmented, Westfall has created images that are, often times, hard to look at. The eye traverses his compositions looking for connections that aren’t forthcoming. Westfall’s linear networks skittishly dance in a way that keeps the eye moving and delighted. He’s shaken the modernist grid like a snow globe and found that its authority is not altogether diminished. In the process, Westfall has given his wit weight and discovered that painting is more than just a parlor game.

© 1999 Mario Naves

Originally published in the May 1999 edition of The New Criterion.

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