Thursday, August 27, 2015

Art Encounters from 2014: Painting

The following photographs of twenty-four paintings were taken during my wanderings through New York City over the past year, 2014. Each work caught my eye, whether seen at a museum show, while gallery-hopping, on the way to a movie or restaurant, or--in the case of the first photograph below--attending a musical performance in one of Manhattan's major churches.

These paintings share neither a single period, genre or style. To put it most simply, they represent the arbitrariness of my chance encounters, even as each also may reveal something about my personal taste. May you, too, find something of interest in these works.

I present them in an order which progresses from representational to abstract (which I define as still having discernible objects) and on to non-objective. However, I do end with one genre group--urban murals/graffiti--which tends to run the gamut from representational to non-objective.

John La Farge, The Ascension of Our Lord, oil/canvas, 1888, The Church of the Ascension, NYC, Manhattan

New York born and French Beaux-Arts trained John La Farge gave his city this painting of the Ascension that powerfully emulates Italian late-Renaissance and early Baroque versions of this subject. La Farge would later serve as the President of the National Society of Mural Painters as well as teach advanced painting courses at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Schools.

Edwige Fouvry, Allongee Jaune, 2014, oil/canvas, J Cacciola Gallery, Manhattan, NYC

Edwige Fouvry was one of four painters featured by the Cacciola Gallery in a show entitled "Women Painting Women." Allongee Jaune may be horizontal and sleeping, but "Elongated Yellow," to translate her French title, is no saloon nude. In fact, Fouvry merely suggests the upper torso of her subject, leaving most of it as untouched canvas. She reserves her expressive brushwork for the model's head and that yellow scarf, understandably for a show countering the tradition of the "male gaze."

Daze (Chris Ellis), Hotel Amazon, 1988, acrylic/canvas, Martin Wong Collection, Museum of the City of New York, Manhattan, NYC

Lady Pink, The Death of Graffiti, 1982, acrylic/masonite, Martin Wong Collection, Museum of the City of New York, Manhattan, NYC

These two paintings are part of the collection of the East Village painter, Martin Wong, who had befriended many of New York's graffiti artists.  In 1994, Wong donated his collection to the Museum of the City of New York. I photographed these at the Museum's show, City as Canvas: Graffiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection, in the fall of 2014.

Daze captures a raucous scene of late-night partying in a style of exaggerated caricature. Lady Pink depicts herself, nude, atop a mountain of spray cans watching a tagged and a clean subway car roll past.

Lady Pink (Sandra Fabara), like Daze and so many graffiti writers, began subversively by painting subway trains. As she later said, "we specifically went for the trains...we didn't write on people's buildings."  And, of course, there was the thrill of "seeing your work rolling by on a massive train....[and] knowing that you were naughty and you got away with it."

Anonymous, Flag Gate, ca. 1876, painted wood, Jefferson County (New York), American Folk Art Museum, Manhattan, NYC

This wonderful piece of American folk art, a farm gate, was likely made in 1876 for two main reasons.  First, this was the year of Centennial celebrations throughout the country.  Second, it contains thirty-eight stars, and in 1876 Colorado entered the Union as the thirty-eighth state.

It also proudly stands as the great grandfather of a genre of flag art that is best known through the many examples of Jasper Johns.

Carey Clark, Portrait of Hunts Point, 2014, acrylic/wood panels/projected images, Armory Show (2014), Bronx Museum of Art, Bronx, NYC

Carey Clark, Portrait of Hunts Point, 2014, acrylic/wood panels/projected images, Armory Show (2014), Bronx Museum of Art, Bronx, NYC

In an exhibit titled, "Bronx Speaks: No Boundaries" held in March during the Armory Show week, artist Carey Clark took up the challenge of "no boundaries" in a most interesting and creative way. She painted Hunts Point cityscapes on two large panels, overlapped the panels in the corner of the exhibit room, and then allowed projected images of the same area--dating from 1910 to the present--to wash over the two painted scenes.

As Clark explains, "my experience as a painter and set designer in theater inspired this stage set in which a series of serendipitous moments happen as the various elements combine, creating a picture and a statement that I couldn’t possibly have thought up on my own."

I would argue that Clark has created a new, hybrid artistic genre in which painting and video art coalesce. I find it wonderfully ironic that, as her painted art spills out of its boundaries, she also owns and runs a high-end art framing business--which is all about creating precise and elegant boundaries.

Here is a brief [3:24] interview with Carey Clark, talking about her experiences in a third role--as art teacher and director of the visual arts program at The Point.

Jasper Johns, Untitled, 2012, monotype with watercolor & crayon, Matthew Marks Gallery, Armory Show (2014), Manhattan, NYC

There is a spare elegance to a Jasper Johns print, here depicting two globes, the outline of two standing figures, two vases, and a yellow napkin seemingly "tacked" on to the support a bit off its center. Those vases, known as "Rubin's vases," appear either as profile faces or vases and so create a dialogue about representation and abstraction, illusion and reality, surface and spatial depth.

Charles McGee, Noah's Ark #8, 1984, mixed media/collage/canvas, Marlborough Chelsea, Manhattan, NYC

Contrary to Jasper Johns' spare elegance, Detroit artist Charles McGee's collage exudes a rough and wonderful messiness. This is a vivacious piece, full of energy and optimism.

In one sense, the Old Testament narrative is hardly McGee's main purpose: as he says, "I have no idea what's going to come out."  But surely we see the ark, now beached on Ararat. The flood recedes; and perhaps McGee's many versions of this subject form an allegorical reference to the Detroit riots of fifteen years earlier.

Tim Kent, A Light Rush, 2014, oil/linen, Slag Gallery, Volta NY, Manhattan, NYC

Tim Kent's sensual canvas plays off large areas of abstract, sweeping brushwork against a sudden portal frame that offers a glimpse into a deep, perspective space--a stairway into another realm. It's as if the viewer confronts a half-remembered dream, with no way to recapture its full memory.

Kent's merging of a domestic interior with the broad, slashing brushwork of action painting makes for a disturbing and seductive piece. I keep returning to it with questions, for which I have no easy answer.  That's just what a painting ought to do.

Laura Gadson, On the Block, 2014, quilt, No Longer Empty: "If You Build It" exhibition, Manhattan, NYC

Harlem-based quilt and fiber artist, Laura Gadson, exhibits what I would call a "double portrait:" Not in the normal sense of a portrait of two people, but of a person and of a city.

I am guessing that the man portrayed in the center is her husband, Raymond. Surrounding him is a frame of words that identify at least three of the city's boroughs and, beyond them, we find the second "portrait:" Manhattan seen through its iconic architecture. 

John Lawson, Tempest 14, 2014, collage with Mardi Gras beads/encaustic, No Longer Empty: "If You Build It" exhibition, Manhattan, NYC

John Lawson appears to have made many Tempests since Hurricane Katrina flooded his New Orleans house while he was away in Maine. Many of these works incorporated material that he salvaged from his studio.

Even prior to Katrina, Lawson had made his name by applying leftover Mardi Gras beads onto his art.  Tempest 14, which he actually spells out in letters at the top as Tempest in a Teapot, uses those beads to build up most of the figurative elements in this work.  Among the other collaged material are fake bullet holes, toy figures, buttons, a map and plastic letters.

More than the devastation of a hurricane, this work captures the cacophony and magic of a Mardi Gras celebration. As Lawson explains his choice of material, "I didn't find colors vivid enough until I started using Mardi Gras can't get that in any other way, not in oil, not in acrylic."

Ekaterina Panikanova, Giardini Infantili, 2013, ink/acrylic/books, Converge Gallery (Williamsport, PA), Scope NY, Manhattan, NYC

Ekaterina Panikanova, born and educated in St. Petersburg, Russia, now lives and works in Rome.  She collects old books, which she nails to a wooden support to act as her "canvas;" she then sketches and paints on the open pages of the books. Her figures are mostly representational. They are well-modelled through a controlled use of light and shade so that they tend to "jump off" the page. They also are mainly shown frontally or in profile, which gives them an iconic presence.

I wonder if she is developing an iconography with her paintings. Is there some relationship between the books she selects and the images she paints on top of them? Are the images drawn from her own life, possibly from childhood memories?

I have no answers. However, Panikanova does offer this insight to her work: “I like working on old books: I like the way the wear and tear, underlinings, notes and scribblings enable me to perceive the personalities of the people who have read them."

Duncan Wylie, Chesterfield, 2013, oil/canvas, JGM Galerie, Armory Show, Manhattan, NYC

Duncan Wylie composes large canvases in which he unites the  bold and painterly mark-making of action painting with some representational elements. In Chesterfield, those latter elements appear in its upper-left quadrant. A man (Chesterfield ?) sits, leaning forward. His left arm disappears somewhere above its elbow into the painted ground; the arm reappears, seen from a different angle, as forearm with hand resting on his left knee. His right forearm also is visible, resting on the other knee. Angled up behind him, we see the underside of a bed frame. The rest of the painting and its other three quadrants consist of explosive, colorful, non-objective brushwork.

Wylie's lighting suggests the possibility that this figure is sitting in  a somewhat cohesive interior space; but his brushwork and a general fragmentation of forms create a completely deconstructed space. Abstraction and figuration are in conflict, and clearly the former has gained the upper hand.

Cynthia Packard, Spectrum, (detail), 2014(?), oil/encaustic/mixed media/board, National Arts Club, Manhattan, NYC

Cynthia Packard, Renewal, 2014(?), oil/encaustic/mixed media/board, National Arts Club, Manhattan, NYC

The National Arts Club, that venerable, private club in Gramercy Park, hosted a mother-daughter show in February, 2014: Anne and Cynthia Packard: Daughters of Provincetown. These two paintings by the daughter, Cynthia, are powerful, wonderfully dynamic works.  

Spectrum captures the energy of the body in motion and falls more on the representational side of abstraction.  Renewal hints at a languorous figure asleep or at rest; here, it is the ground which surrounds her that explodes with energy and pushes this work more towards the non-objective.

I very briefly visited Cynthia Packard's second studio in Dumbo several years ago (which is why I sought out the Arts Club show). "In the flesh" so to speak, the messy surfaces of her paintings totally seduced me. I was even more intrigued when she told me she even uses tar and a blowtorch on them; and so, to get a sense of her process, please open this link, scroll to the bottom where you will see two video screens. One will open to Tugboats, a video (2:22) done outside her Dumbo studio in Brooklyn. The other, titled Cape Cast: Cynthia Packard's Art Attack! (3:54) shows her working on a painting in her home studio in Provincetown.

After the videos end, for another treat, watch the two videos she did in response to the Trayvon Martin murder!

Avner Sher, The Speech, (detail), 2013, scratched & etched cork & wood, Koninklijke villa Gallery (Belgium), Scope NY, Manhattan, NYC

Avner Sher, an Israeli architect and painter, also works, like Packard, with what can be termed "distressed" supports. His main supports, however, are sheets of cork. He begins by burning, scratching, dirtying, leaving the cork outside, or otherwise damaging it. Only then, out of this "chaos," does he begin to paint images and write or burn marks on the cork.

Sher's art looks like some ancient, sacred, millenia-old text. Much of the writing uses the Hebrew alphabet, which bears similarities to other Near-Easten texts, whether Phoenician, Assyrian or Egyptian.  The scholar, Smadar Sheffi states that Sher is "creating an archaeology and history" in his mark-making, and the cork contributes to his "evoking tortured skin or distressed parchment."

Cork is much more than a surface on which to paint. It plays an active role and gives meaning to these paintings. Here is what Avner Sher says about it:  "To me this material embodies history with rejuvenation as its primary trait, and the choice in cork is a metaphor to a universal wish to mend that which is broken and settle the chaos. It is a manifest of hope for the future."

Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled (Combine Painting), 1954, oil/collaged paper & fabric/novelty light bulb, Craig F Starr Gallery, Manhattan, NYC

This painting was one of fifteen assembled from private collections by Craig Starr in order to mount a show entitled, Robert Rauschenberg: The Fulton Street Studio, 1953-1954. This studio was Rauschenberg's first workspace after his return in 1953 from eight months of travel in Europe. In a bit over two years here, he broke new ground, making his Erased de Kooning Drawing, his Automobile Tire Print, and his first "combine paintings."

This early combine painting seemingly begins with that central "nipple," actually the top of a red silk umbrella that Rauschenberg stretches over his support.  Collaged on top of that umbrella are layered pieces of cloth, Sunday comic strips, a pin-up card of a bikinied woman on a swing, and a Boston-to-Haverhill commuter train ticket.

Of course, there is also plenty of paint.  But what makes this a combine painting--that amalgam in which the boundaries between painting and sculpture blur--is that novelty light bulb mounted on top. In the following years, this small and cautious experiment will take root and flower into such iconic and well-known combines as Canyon and Monogram (below).

Rauschenberg Canyon, 1959

Rauschenberg, Monogram, 1955-1959

Danny Simmons, Jr., Noisy in the Next Room, 2012, acrylic/canvas, No Longer Empty:" If You Build It" exhibition, Manhattan, NYC 

In combining the sweeping gestures of graffiti street art, some vague hints of African tribal masks, and the brushwork of abstract expressionism, Danny Simmons, Jr. has named his paintings Neo-African Abstract Expressionism.

Besides being a painter, Danny is co-producer of the HBO series Def Poetry Jam (with brother Russell) and co-founder of the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, which provides exposure and access to arts for disadvantaged urban youth.

Juan Uslé, Eco (the Bird), 1999-2000, oil/canvas, Cordeiros Gallery (Portugal), Scope NY, Manhattan, NYC

Alexander Kroll, Large Poem, 2014, acrylic/flashe/linen, James Harris Gallery, Volta NY, Manhattan, NYC

Louise Fishman, Ristretto, 2013, oil/linen, Whitney Biennial 2014, Cheim & Read Gallery, Manhattan, NYC

These last three painters, all of whose work is clearly non-objective, offer three approaches to what can be termed abstract mark making. For me, the quickest way to assess their work is comparatively.

Juan Uslé's paintings, typified by Eco (the Bird), strike me as quite cerebral. He works with repeated forms and repeated, discrete brushstrokes. Some forms may be geometric, others organic, but he arranges them in sequence; here they line up as vertical rows. The semicircles and the wavy lines behind them remind me of some primitive text, and the obvious control that dominates all of his marks, lead me to think of his work as a modern combination of Pierre Soulages (whose abstract expressionist paintings were so controlled in comparison to those of the Americans) and Adolph Gottlieb (who created a language of pictographs, often gridded across the picture plane.

Los Angeles artist Alexander Kroll's paintings, much as in Large Poem, clearly are much looser than Uslé's. "Control," in fact, is not a word one would use to describe his process of mark making. As Kroll, himself, says, "I never plan these paintings...they're really a lot like Los Angeles: there is a total lack of concern with planning." He starts with thin washes of pigment, and even some of his later layers of paint remain fairly thin. His propensity to brush-in more-or-less oblong, right-angled forms and his tendency to reserve areas of this washes lead me to think of his work as a modern combination of the color washes of Helen Frankenthaler and a (looser) application of the oblong and right-angled color areas of Hans Hoffman.

New York artist Louise Fishman's paintings moves even farther from the embodiment of "control." Ristretto, an Italian term for an espresso order made only with half the amount of water, may have a bit less caffeine, but it attacks the tongue more boldly. Ristretto, done after a residency in Venice, is the most energetic of these three paintings. Its pigment is laid on more thickly, and one sees clear evidence of the use of scrapers and trowels as well as brushes. This is a powerful work of gestural abstraction, or what would be called the action painting side of American abstract expressionism. I see her work as combining aspects of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline.

Tats Cru, Battle Proof wall, 2013, Lower East Side (2nd Street & Avenue A), Manhattan, NYC

Tats Cru, Battle Proof wall, (detail), 2013, Lower East Side (2nd Street & Avenue A), Manhattan, NYC

COPE2, Arrested Motion, Bowery Mural, Houston Street at Bowery Street, Manhattan, NYC

I ran into the work of two different Bronx-based muralists last year on the Lower East Side.  The top two pictures are from what I am guessing is called the Battle Proof wall, done by TATS Cru. The one directly above is a more recent painting of the Bowery Wall by COPE2.

Allow me to describe Battle Proof, because I consider it to be a monumental piece, and it covers quite a bit of ground, making my overall shot hard to read. It's set against a background done in a light-tinted Army green, and what one sees in that background is the devastation of war. The foreground consists of three signature tags of members of TATS Cru. Each of these is in an intense (might we say "living"?) color: red, blue, and pink.  Clearly, that which is "Battle Proof" is the Bronx-based Cru itself.

I'm not sure which is which, but one sits on the far left tag, a flaming aerosol can in hand, the edges of the tag also in flames. Between this and the central (blue) tag is a transition view into perspectival, deep space, all in Army green and revealing a bombed-out city. That central blue tag fronts an explosion of orange-yellow. Another of the Cru leans against the right side of this tag wearing camo pants and a t-shirt with the title, "Battle Proof."  Sitting atop the end of the right hand tag is a third member in full fatigues, holding a molotov cocktail.

Along the bottom are signatures for BG 183, Bio and Nicer as well as a few other iconographic hints. I won't hazard an interpretation right now, but I think this work can be read on several levels. What I will say is that, with this monumental work, TATS Cru shows a revival of the genre of History Painting that late 19th and 20th century modernism had rejected.

The third photo, above, shows a detail of the Bowery Mural Wall, which is now a curated space with changing exhibits, due to the initiatives of gallerist Jeffrey Deitch and the wall owner, Tony Goldman. The first to mark this wall--illegally, some thirty years ago--was Keith Haring.

COPE2 offers a very different compositional style, what could be called horror vacui, in which the entire area is filled with painted forms. There is no background. All is foreground marks and tags. Letters and shapes overlap and weave together. It's an all-Bronx, "in your face" mode sometimes called Wildstyle.

Banksy, The Grumpier You Are..., Tagged Panel Truck Door, ArtNowNY Gallery, Scope NY, Manhattan, NYC

Finally, the most controversial and elusive street artist, Banksy, suffers the ultimate irony of having a tag torn out of its context, framed, and put up for sale by a gallery.  To this day, nobody can definitively identify who Banksy is, even though it is commonly known that he began as a freehand graffiti artist around 1990 in Bristol, England.

Sometime in mid-October of 2013, Banksy tagged this rear door of a panel truck in the Sunset Park area of Brooklyn. The next morning, people gathered with their cameras, the truck owner, sensing he had something special, put it up for sale: "call Israel with your offer..."

"The rest [as is often said] is history."

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