Tag Archives: Contemporary Abstract Painting

“Mario Naves; Paintings” at Pratt Institute

2. Reason in the Grass.jpeg

Mario Naves, Reason in the Grass (2015), acrylic on panel, 28 x 26″; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery, New York, NY

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I’m pleased to announce that an exhibition of my paintings will be on display in The President’s Office Gallery at the Brooklyn campus of Pratt Institute. The exhibition will run from January 30 through April 14.

An opening reception will be held on Tuesday, February 7, from 4:30-6:30 p.m.

More information can be found here.

“Wit” at The Painting Center

witJoanne Freeman, All Is Not What It Seems (2012), oil on canvas, 48″ x 36″; courtesy The Painting Center

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The following is an essay from the catalogue accompanying Wit, an exhibition curated by Joanne Freeman that was on display at The Painting Center from January 29-February 23, 2013.

Wit, huh? It seems an unlikely peg on which to organize an exhibition of abstract paintings and sculptures. We’ve been taught, after all, that abstract art is serious business. Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich, the holy trinity of modernist abstraction, scuttled representation in the cause of philosophical and sociological ideals–as a means of changing the world. The New York School, having seen how resolutely the world crushed their aspirations, redefined abstraction as a conduit for interiority–as a forum for primordial longings, universal symbols, that sort of thing. They did so to impressive effect—until, that is, the world went pop!

witRuth Root, Untitled (2009), enamel on aluminum, 24″ x 39″; courtesy of the artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery

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Here in the wobbly days of the early twenty-first century, abstraction is no longer viewed as a driving historical force or the necessary culmination of twenty thousand years of creative endeavor. Though you might hear otherwise from isolated outposts—variations on “my kid could paint that” being the most predominant—abstraction is pretty much a non-issue, and not a moment too soon. Shouldering the burden of tradition can occasion significant art, but it can also stifle artistic independence and skew perception, public and otherwise. Be grateful that abstraction with a capital “A” is over and done with. Painters and sculptors dedicated to the cause can now work with astonishing freedom. The King is dead. Now let’s see where we can go with this thing.


Stephen Westfall, Forest (For Franz Marc) (2010), 59″ x 59″, oil and alkyd on canvas; courtesy Lennon, Weinberg Inc.

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Eschewing the purity that was once abstraction’s sine qua non, the artists featured in Wit opt for an almost promiscuous inclusivity. No inspiration is suspect. High-flown ambitions–sure, we got ‘em; historical cognizance, too. But these artists are also characterized by a willingness to embrace a veritable laundry list of references: nature, narrative, comics, design, technology, science, representation and, not least, humor. Not that humor has been entirely absent from the history of abstract art: Malevich pranked Mona Lisa five years before Duchamp and Mondrian paid winning homage, in oil and canvas, to his beloved boogie-woogie music. Still, abstraction nowadays is more and more a repository of quirks, tics and pictorial double entendres, having as much in common with Buster Keaton, say, as Neo-Plasticism.

witMario Naves, Tart and Toff (2012), oil on canvas mounted on board, 20″ x 24″; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery

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Just don’t hold your breath expecting Marina Adams, Polly Apfelbaum, Joanne Freeman, Joe Fyfe, Barbara Gallucci, Phillis Ideal, Jonathan Lasker, Sarah Lutz, Doreen McCarthy, Thomas Nozkowski, Paul Pagk, Ruth Root, Fran Shalom, Stephen Westfall and myself to sign a manifesto of purpose. Making art is hard work and individual visions aren’t easily won; few of us like (or want) to be pegged. But the work here is unified and engaging in ways that are somewhat sneaky, maybe contrarian and decidedly offbeat. Watch as these artists juggle forms, tweak relationships, disassemble materials, cajole surfaces and elicit a staggering amount of allusions. It’s enough to make you think that abstraction, as a historical and artistic phenomenon, is barely off the ground. At the very least, we should be grateful that it’s being carried on with clarity, sophistication and, yes, wit.

© 2013 Mario Naves

Mario Naves; Recent Paintings at Elizabeth Harris Gallery

Mario Naves, Timpanogos (2011), oil and acrylic on panel, 24″ x 28″; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery

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I’m pleased to announce that my sixth one-person exhibition at Elizabeth Harris Gallery will be on display from January 4-February 2, 2013. The gallery is located at 529 West 20th Street in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. The opening reception takes place on Friday, January 4th, from 6:00-8:00 p.m.

Aesthetic and Biographical Imperatives: The Art of Helen Miranda Wilson

Helen Miranda Wilson, Girlfriend (2012), oil on panel, 11″ x 15″; courtesy Lori Bookstein Fine Art

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This review was originally published in the October 31, 2005 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Helen Miranda Wilson; New Paintings at Lori Bookstein Fine Art.

How much experience can be embodied in a rectangular patch of color? If we’re to believe Helen Miranda Wilson, whose recent paintings are on display at the DC Moore Gallery, quite a lot.

Each of Ms. Wilson’s smallish panels (the biggest is 16 by 20 inches) is an accumulation of smaller rectangles of various hues. A solitary monochrome, it turns out, isn’t an option given the aesthetic and biographical imperatives informing the work.

In the press release for the exhibition, DC Moore refers to Ms. Wilson’s new body of work as “calendar paintings.” Certainly, reliance on a grid—albeit one that’s loose-limbed and prone to fluctuations in proportion and rhythm—will recall the layout of a typical calendar. Ms. Wilson’s appointment book, in fact, serves as a recurring point of reference. 

Yet this association has as much to do with painterly process as with determining composition.

Helen Miranda Wilson, Rooster (2012), oil on panel, 8″ x 8″; courtesy Lori Bookstein Fine Art

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The steady accretion of colored rectangles can be likened to a series of diary entries, with each color signifying an event or an emotion specific to a given day. Given the unhurried, meditative character of Ms. Wilson’s jewel-like panels, one can assume that they are the cumulative result of weeks, and perhaps months, of sustained painting. Indeed, the passage of time seems to be a primary concern for Ms. Wilson, as indicated by titles like “Year,” “Two Years,” “Winter” and several listing specific dates. Other pictures are named for people (“Rembrandt,” “for Pat Lipsky”), places (“Brooklyn”) and things (“Lunch,” “Cupcake”).

Best known as a representational painter—for many, her 1995 exhibition of cloud paintings at Jason McCoy Gallery remains a high-water mark for contemporary art—Ms. Wilson has adopted abstraction in response to recent changes in her life. Her duties as an elected official in Wellfleet, Mass., as well as the responsibilities attendant to her livelihood as a beekeeper, have prompted Ms. Wilson to rethink her priorities as an artist. 

“I spend many long hours at meetings …. I absorb relevant data in the same way I used to paint objects or skies. This has diminished my desire to work from observation.” An abstraction of purposefully limited means has become, for Ms. Wilson, an agent for tempering the demands—often unpredictable, sometimes humdrum—of day-to-day life.

Helen Miranda Wilson, Whisper (2011), oil on panel, 11″ x 14″; courtesy Lori Bookstein Fine Art

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Notwithstanding the turn away from representation, much remains the same: Ms. Wilson’s approach is, as ever, meticulous; the surfaces are lustrous and dense; and her colors are absorbing in their gentle shifts of tone and temperature.

How much the viewer, coming in cold off the street, will take away from the pictures is a potentially vexing question. Is a back-story necessary to connect with and take pleasure in them? 

In the hands of a lesser artist, probably. But Ms. Wilson is one of our best painters; she knows well enough that a painting lives or dies by the qualities inherent in its crafting. While it’s too early to take a full measure of the recent work—Ms. Wilson’s abstractions still seem a bit unsteady, as if they weren’t quite sure of their place in the world—the DC Moore exhibition, in its beauty and poise, must nonetheless count as one of the season’s happiest events.

© 2005 Mario Naves

Celia Gerard at Tayloe Piggott Gallery

Celia Gerard, The Diver (2012), mixed media on watercolor paper, 40″ x 60:; courtesy Tayloe Piggott Gallery

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The pleasure of Celia Gerard’s art, and its challenge, lies in the equilibrium achieved between improvisation and certitude, between a malleable process and imagery that is finite and clear.

With their clusters of diagrammatic geometry, grainy scrims of pigment and I-dare-you-to-follow-my-steps compositions, the images evolve, shift, double-back and march forward—right in front of our eyes. Remember: drawing is a static medium. Movement, rendered ongoing and unstoppable, is an illusion. It’s a measure of Gerard’s gifts that this momentum is realized and sustained.

Her painterly explorations recall Abstract Expressionism in their density and facture–Willem de Kooning is a point of inspiration. But the work’s architectonic clarity and spatial pull bring to mind touchstones that predate Modernism and lie outside the Western canon.

Celia Gerard, Khora II (2012), mixed media on watercolor paper, 40″ x 60″; courtesy Tayloe Piggott Gallery

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Poussin’s crystalline meditations on the landscape can be intuited in the unfurling geodesic vistas glimpsed in Khora and The Diver (both 2012), as can the supple linearity typical of Islamic art.  A habitué of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum, Gerard has communed with the crisply articulated dioramas of The Master of Osservanza, William Blake’s heady mysticism and the elegant concision of Japanese scroll painting. Gerard’s aesthetic compass is kaleidoscopic and voracious.

The longer you look at a Gerard painting the more its allusions accumulate, expand and cohere. The prerogatives of individual vision can do that; so, too, can an understanding of art’s formal possibilities. That Gerard puts them into practice without a lick of irony and to lyrical effect makes for art of uncommon and welcome grit.

© 2012 Mario Naves

Published on the occasion of Celia Gerard: New Work at Tayloe Piggott Gallery.

Lumpish, Monumental and Endearing: The Art of Douglas Florian

Douglas Florian, Dawn Thief , oil on wood, 18 x 18″; courtesy Bravin Lee Programs

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The following article originally appeared in the May 5, 2010 edition of City Arts. It is posted here on the occasion of Douglas Florian; Dawn Thieves at Bravin Lee Programs (until May 5).

You don’t need to know about Douglas Florian’s accomplishments as a poet and children’s book author to intuit the playful lyricism informing his works-on-paper, subject of an exhibition at BravinLee Programs in Chelsea.

In fact, a buoyant-bordering-on-goofy élan positively radiates from each page or, rather, from each paper bag. Recycling isn’t necessarily the reason Florian prefers working on this mundane material; rather, it’s the humbleness it confers upon, and elicits from, his painterly process. You can’t for a moment imagine Florian doing his thing on a virginal sheet of Arches paper. A classy support is contradictory to his loose-limbed and unassuming improvisations.

A self-proclaimed “abstract regressionist”–the work is, the artist tells us, “bottle-fed and battle-torn”–Florian creates heraldic images that simultaneously bring to mind the natural world, the Hebrew alphabet, Indian miniatures, graffiti and astronomical diagrams. Made with gouache and spare oddments of collage, the works are swiftly realized, but not always fast in final effect. For every and bye and bye, with its sweeping rush of gritty gray pigment, there are hypnotic pieces like QQ, wherein Florian channels both the cosmic and the microcellular with breathtaking economy.

Douglas Florian, Bewail and Weep (2010-2011), oil on wood, 24″ x 20″; courtesy Bravin Lee Programs

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Elsewhere, the alphabet is cut-and-cobbled, calligraphic forms are transformed into lumbering giants and errant lines spin spidery traceries of incident. Florian’s single-mindedness of purpose and wide-eyed sophistication is reminiscent of Paul Klee.

The palette tends toward earthy, but is given to flashes of exotic reds, pinks and purples, crystalline blues and encompassing yellows. The forms are lumpish in definition, monumental in scale and endearing in character. Would that the installation emphasized, rather than streamlined, each picture’s idiosyncrasies. But Florian’s wit and whimsy thrive all the same. This is a lovely and lilting exhibition.

© 2010 Mario Naves

Hester Simpson at Ricco Maresca Gallery

Hester Simpson, Lush Life (2011), acrylic on panel, 12″ x 12″; courtesy Ricco Maresca Gallery

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The following essay is included in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Hester Simpson at Ricco Maresca Gallery (until April 7, 2012).

Having followed the art of Hester Simpson for twenty-some years, I can, without hyperbole or equivocation, state the following about her abstract paintings: Beauty is guaranteed. “Beauty”, in this case, is a condition of an artist who has mastered her craft while remaining open to, and driven by, its challenges.

Simpson coaxes from acrylic paint a remarkable suppleness—remarkable because synthetic materials don’t inherently lend themselves to sumptuousness of tone and surface. Her patterned geometric shapes and calligraphic structures are luxurious in a way that seems incommensurate with the medium. The surfaces of Simpson’s paintings have a distinct tactility–a warmth and luster–that is akin to, if not flesh, then something close to it. Ask yourself this: When was the last time you longed to trace your fingertips over plastic? The paintings beg for an appreciative touch.

Through ongoing and thorough experimentation, Simpson has discovered technical means by which acrylic paint is both a sensual substance and the carrier of metaphor–of sensations that transcend the blunt physical fact of mere stuff. Big deal, right? We should expect the same from any painter worth her salt. But in an age when virtual wizardry can obscure material pleasure, Simpson’s achievement–a kind of alchemy, really–is worth elaborating upon. The pictures, though hushed in demeanor, are adamantly anti-virtual.

Hester Simpson, Green Links (2011), acrylic on panel, 5″ x 5″; courtesy Ricco Maresca Gallery

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There is, of necessity, a prosaic side to life in the studio–stretching canvases, washing brushes, mixing pigments and allowing the requisite time for paint to gel and harden. Simpson can undoubtedly enumerate the recipes and procedures by which she creates her signature runs of pictorial incident. But if the images were little more than compendiums of expertly contrived effects, it’s unlikely they would be as absorbing. Creating fetching surfaces is vital, absolutely. But endowing them with metaphorical resonance is another thing–and no mean feat. Simpson has, with impressive consistency, proved up to the task.

The paintings offer a vivid rejoinder to those skeptical of abstraction’s ability to embody specific states of being and emotion. Highflown talk has surrounded abstract painting from its inception; Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian talked up a good—if, at times, specious–game. It is heartening, then, to learn that Simpson approaches her art with marked humility. The work (she writes) celebrates “the ordinary rather than the dramatic”, “acknowledging imperfection [and] reflecting the lived life.” Abstraction is as much, and perhaps more, a matter of the here and now than of metaphysical aspiration. Simpson is an abstractionist who keeps her feet on the ground.

Which isn’t to say the work elides the metaphysical. It’s just that Simpson’s approach is absent of portent and pretension. A degree of sobriety, of practicality and routine, inflects the paintings, and can be gleaned in the manner in which countless scrims of paint have patiently been layered. (The waxy accumulations of pigment on the edges of each canvas also testify to Simpson’s painterly tenacity.) But sobriety doesn’t define the art. Its rhythms are too hypnotic, the palette vivid-bordering-on-libidinous and the imagery palpably human in its heady embrace of “imperfection”. A Freudian could hold forth on the hard-won synthesis of id and super-ego—minus, that is, the ego’s supplications. The rest of us will marvel at the détente brought to the dialogue between chaos and order. That it’s barely a détente at all is what makes the pictures thrilling.

Hester Simpson, Rip Tide (2011), acrylic on panel, 12″ x 12″; courtesy Ricco Maresca Gallery

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Gallery-goers in need of a quick fix will find themselves unsettled by Simpson’s paintings; they don’t lend themselves to a once-over-lightly treatment. True, the work’s appeal is fairly patent–only a theory-addled curmudgeon could deny the instantaneous attraction of Simpson’s palette, with its lucid array of radiant reds, breezy purples, aquamarines and bottomless blues. But give this or that image the time of day and you’ll be pulled into a slippery, allusive and, at times, unnerving experience. Simpson’s looping skeins of color mutate and shimmy before our eyes, establishing connections, setting up rhythms, missing a beat and then righting themselves as if—well, as if by magic. Simpson the paint-handler doesn’t overplay her hand.

The ease with which the paintings announce themselves is an illusion, of course. (Simpson would be the first to admit as much.) That’s the point. Was it Fred Astaire who claimed “the trick” was in not letting the audience see you sweat? Much in the way Astaire defied the burdens of gravity and the limitations of the body, Simpson brings a profound calm to images that have been realized through a prolonged, sometimes exasperating and utterly necessary process. The work is nothing if it hasn’t encapsulated the sundry decisions that went into its making—in the application of a particular color, say, or the constant accounting for shifts in tempo and space. Simpson doesn’t advertise her labors. The painting is the thing—an entity with its own peculiar and independent life.

Simpson’s recent efforts are more of the same and a brand new thing—familiar turf that has been extended, made vibrant and, in the end, rendered altogether unfamiliar. Constitutionally incapable of coasting on her considerable expertise, Simpson has deepened the scope of her art even as she distills the particulars of its vocabulary. Paintings like Green Links, Seamless and the whiplash intricacies of Lush Life (all 2011), not only give a good name to the notion of continuity of vision, they give it body, truth and, yes, beauty. The latter is a rare and welcome entity, as recognizable (and undeniable) as it is impossible to define. That Simpson has embodied not a few of beauty’s many contradictions is ample reason to relish her hard-won and stunning achievement.

© 2012 Mario Naves

Howard Buchwald at Nancy Hoffman Gallery

Howard Buchwald, In or Out (2008), acrylic on canvas, 84″ x 120″; courtesy Nancy Hoffman Gallery

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The paintings of Howard Buchwald, on display at Nancy Hoffman Gallery, are as much a call to arms as an exhibition of art.

Listen to Buchwald tell it: “Painting is not in the service of some purpose, objective, image or idea residing outside, prior to, and independent of the specific work”. Momentarily commiserating with the aesthetically challenged, he does admit to “understand[ing] the anxiety that direct looking and feeling still produce.”

But? Any “attempt to overcome this feeling by supplanting what is right there . . . is largely beside the point.” Don’t come to Buchwald, then, with high-flown theoretical flourishes or pressing sociological agendas. Codifying art by means other than direct visual engagement stifles its integrity. Why don a straitjacket when you’re given free agency?

Howard Buchwald, Mapped (Large Red) (2010), acrylic on canvas, 84″ x 90″; courtesy Nancy Hoffman Gallery

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A fixture of the New York art world, Buchwald believes in the eye above all. His rigorously choreographed arrays of wriggling, rubbery lines and declarative, eye-rattling colors couldn’t kowtow to extra-aesthetic imperative if they wanted to. The rhythms are too headstrong, the compositions too unpredictable, the sense of purpose fiercely independent.

The pictures have the graphic clarity of superhero comics—you know, KA-POW!—and recall The New York School in their scale and ambition, though Buchwald’s firm sense of humor is entirely his own. The black line muscling its way through Mapped (Large Red) (2010) would steal the show if it weren’t for the acidic tonalities of In Or Out (2008), a monumental canvas whose title is both plain-as-day descriptive and a challenge to the viewer.

© 2012 Mario Naves

Originally published in the February 8, 2012 edition of City Arts.

Tom Evans at Sideshow Gallery

Installation of Tom Evans’ paintings at Sideshow Gallery; courtesy White Elephant On Wheels

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Maybe it’s the season and the dropping temperatures. Maybe it’s Sideshow Gallery and the haimish atmosphere it cultivates. But mostly it’s the paintings of Tom Evans. How else to explain the wave of heat radiating from far-off Williamsburg?

Far-off? Williamsburg is a quick jaunt on the L train. No, we’re talking aesthetic distance, not mileage. While Evans’ robust brand of gestural abstractions would look fine in this or that Manhattan venue, their plainspoken sincerity stand in stark contrast to the sleek, chilly ambiance of the Chelsea Standard. A longtime inhabitant of the New York scene, Evans is heir to the New York School and an unswerving advocate for the art of painting. The untrendy niche he’s carved for himself can be traced, at least in part, to a perpetual embrace of risk and the vulnerability it signals.

Evans is a romantic who isn’t afraid to fall on his ass. The paintings are muscular conflagrations of brusque brushwork and overripe color. Fields of dotted pigment and unexpected bursts of light move fast and burn slowly. Effulgent blues, acidic purples, operatic reds and shocks of green—Evans hasn’t met a saturated color he doesn’t like. Chromatic indulgence is offset by compositional poise. Each time a painting threatens to disentangle (or explode) into its constituent parts, it’s held in sharp, if sometimes tenuous, check.

The majority of pictures are scaled to the human body—around 6 feet by 5 feet. Their roiling trajectories are determined by the arm’s reach; enlivened by it, too. The few occasions when Evans works on a smaller scale, the results are less allusive, more reigned-in. An artist who thrives on letting it all out should give himself ample space to do just that. When that artist hits the mark—as Evans does in the magisterial St. Adrian’s (2008)—the results generate not only heat and light, but also something distinctly humane. Evans’ paintings are a welcome respite from the professionalism that surrounds us.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Originally published in the December 13, 2011 edition of City Arts.

Barbara Takenaga at DC Moore Gallery

TakenagaBarbara Takenaga, Whiteout (2011), acrylic on wood panel, 42″ x 36″; courtesy DC Moore Gallery

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The paintings of Barbara Takenaga are easy to admire and hard to love. Straddled between these polarities is Takenaga herself, an artist cruising on pictorial stratagems and touched by personal tragedy. The relationship between the two curbs our judgment of the work.

Immaculately contrived and spectacular in effect, a Takenaga abstraction would enhance any mantelpiece over which it hung. Undulating patterns, typically comprised of dots, expand over the surface of each canvas. Takenaga’s methodology is impressive: The deliberate application of myriad blips of acrylic paint endows the pictures with a steely, photographic shimmer.

Funneling Op Art’s sensory overload through a stately vein of mysticism, Takenaga propels us to the outer reaches of the galaxy even as she recalls the microscopic doings of subatomic particles. Linear perspective establishes zooming, heady spaces; atmospheric perspective, an unearthly glow. There’s a cartoon element involved as well. The work’s rhythmic verve and rubbery plasticity brings to mind Kenny Scharf’s goofball riffs on Hanna-Barbera cartoons.

Reading the catalog, we learn that Takenaga’s recent pictures are influenced by events considerably less sunny: the death of a sick parent. “There is,” critic Nancy Princenthal writes, “nothing literal” about the connection between a mother’s dementia and her daughter’s “twilight palette.” All the same, it’s there, “run[ning] deep below the surface like a big, dark shadow.” There’s no doubting that Takenaga has evoked something elemental, hard and true from her unearthly runs of black, gray and white. (When saturated colors do make an appearance, a palpable diminution of feeling takes place.)

It’s to Takenaga’s credit that her art pinpoints, with uncanny specificity, “that sense of fading—shiny, hazy shifting” typical of a person afflicted with dementia. What Takenaga can’t entirely enliven (or redeem) is the dulling prerequisites of formula. A canvas like Doubleback (2011) would benefit from the aforementioned mantelpiece—seen on a piecemeal basis, Takenaga performs wonders. Seen en masse, you realize just how mechanical wonders can be.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Originally published in the October 26, 2011 edition of City Arts.