Small Standing Tall

by Dominique Nahas

Stop and take note of Small Standing Tall a noteworthy group exhibition of 12 artists’ works curated by Jen Dragon at Joyce Goldstein Gallery in Chatham, New York. It’s a teasingly suggestive show that’s been put together with evident sophistication.  Experientially Small Standing Tall contains a multitude of diverse, small-sized artworks that, somehow, loom large in your consciousness as a viewer while you’re in the gallery space and lingers within you long after you’ve left the gallery premises. I say “teasingly” as the works in the exhibition give off more energy than they consume, as the compactness of the works is deceptive. Each artwork, carrying a powerful punch, is selected by curator Jen Dragon with an eye towards intimacy. This sense of interiority unveils slowly enveloping conditions of unknowingness, exhilaration, mystification and, finally, joy. The art in this exhibition, while being of a small scale (most, but not all, works are about the size of a sheet of typing paper) induces sustained contemplation. To this point French philosopher Gaston Bachelard in his book of essays “Poetics of Space” suggests that such contemplation allows the mind and psyche to launch into what he termed a “reverie” mode, a sustained connection with feelings of well-being.  This in turn overwhelms the psyche as it gives way, Bachelard asserts, to a subsequent condition of revelatory “intimate immensity.” Such imaginative play lends credence to German philosopher Friedrich Schelling’s delightfully accurate insight that art was the resolution of an infinite contradiction in a finite object. 

Sarah Hinckley, "after the wind 14, 18, 12" ,  installation view
Sarah Hinckley, “after the wind 14, 18, 12” , installation view
Sarah Hinckley "after the wind 14, 18, 12"  - 2 versions- 1 installation view and 1 joined
Sarah Hinckley, “after the wind 14, 18, 12“, joined

The forms in Sarah Hinckley’s gracefully languid and reductivist watercolor collages, with their intimations of tender vitality, lightly suggests the blooming of water lilies. The totemic, concentrated simplicity of each of her three abstract artworks work holds a nearly talismanic essence, a directness and freshness of approach that indirectly reminds this viewer of the essentialness of fluttering Tibetan prayer flags. Hinckley’s contributions to this exhibition sets a grace-note to Small Standing Tall that reverberates throughout the gallery.

Michel Goldberg and Gail Hillow Watkins, installation view
Michel Goldberg and Gail Hillow Watkins, installation view

Michel Goldberg’s wall work aesthetic of using only black and white coloration is advanced through a sophisticated use of unique one-of-a kind techniques ranging from monotypes with unique textural qualities to flat assemblages on wood assemblages, to India ink-on-paper drawings. Goldberg treats each surface with a radical intensity. His pictorial surfaces are buzzing with activity: we see his applied, nearly miniaturized skeins of paint, his staccato stippling of tiny tremulous brush strokes as constitutive elements suggestive of overlaid handwritten secret alphabets. The artists painterly marks vacillate ambivalently between appearing to be self-effacing, mechanical and constructive at times; at other times they give the appearance of expressive randomness, of idiosyncratic, ostentatious deliberateness. A rigorous, visual poetry of interiority pervades.    

Kaethe Kauffman, Palms Black 4-S&X © , 2021, collage, mixed media,  12" x 14"
Kaethe Kauffman, Palms Black 4-S&X © , 2021, collage, mixed media, 12″ x 14″

Kaethe Kauffman’s yogic-inspired, mixed media photo-collages are enigmatic, systematized and provocative abstract compositions. Appearing at first to be anxious puzzles, they contain stylized repetitive motifs and visual cadences of free-floating patterns incorporating recognizable body parts such as toes, fingers and palms. All of these forms and passages brings us up as viewers to a point of intense meditative release.

Victoria Lowe, Mindscape Sanctuary-Dream,  © Limited edition: print on metal with electro luminescent light,  20" x 16"
Victoria Lowe, Mindscape Sanctuary-Dream ©, limited edition: print on metal with electro luminescent light, 20″ x 16″

Victoria Lowe’s three limited edition metaphysical metal prints from her Sanctuary Series are experiential to the core. Her three artworks in Small Standing Tall are prints on metal with electro luminescent light that allows the work to throb with an interiorized, irradiated glow. Corporeal and perceptual marvels, Lowe’s artworks in the exhibition at the Joyce Goldstein Gallery compositionally include rigorous geometric forms that suggest otherworldly doors or windows glowing and primed to be open.  Overall her works invite cognitive and intellective suspension given over to meditative intensity, an indwelling space suffused with the resonance of the transcendental as well as of the here-and-now. 

Francie Lyshak’s contributions to Small Standing Tall consists of a small minimalist oil on linen diptych entitled “Circle and Turf” on which is inscribed random and repeated patterns that seem to emerge from the depths of the surface of the pictorial plane.  Additionally, there are two sensationally intriguing small ink on rice paper drawings in the show that use tiny, nearly unreadable handwritten words – micrographia –  as a private, hermetic language of the self and as building blocks to create abstract visual field patterns and shapes. Such intensive works indicate a meticulous, concentrated mind verging on nearly complete introversion. In all instances Lyshak’s stated artistic intention is to use the activities of painting and drawing to know emotions. 

Nicki Marx, Elan Series #22/19 ©,  cut silver pheasant feathers, acrylic, sand, 18" x 18"
Nicki Marx, Elan Series #22/19 ©, cut silver pheasant feathers, acrylic, sand, 18″ x 18″

Nicki Marx’screates reduced, patterned compositions using feathers, suede and sand applied to board. She causes tinymeticulous collaged creations are fascinating examples of work created by an artist who has for years has followed the beat of her own drum. Marx is the maestro of the feather and she uses the term “feather mosaics” as an apt term to describe her aesthetic impulses. She uses entire feathers or parts of them (the barbules and barbs )( flamingo feathers are a favorite of hers), sorting them out, isolating them, adjusting them (using tweezers and magnifying glass, I assume) and affixing the small parts with the delicacy and precision of a watch maker on black undifferentiated fields to create unique jewel-like creations that catch the light  just so. Marx uses her feather sections as individual brush strokes, and one gets lost in these nearly mystical creations. 

Deborah Mastersis a master sculptorand painter equally comfortable making free standing monumental sculptures using clay and fabric as well as much smaller wall works made of painted and shaped wood.  “Small Standing Tall” includes two works from her extensive series of Crosses which critic John Mendelsohn has described as “…like diary entries that capture the inner concerns of the artist.”  Masters’ artworks Luna Moth Cross and Tsunami Cross act as auratic sacral votive offeringsthat have homespun, folkloric qualities of fervent directness and whimsy.

John A. O’Connor ’scontribution is “Columbus Discovered America, Right?” a compact and colorful archival pigment print from his black-board style textbook prints from his ongoing Chalkboard Series that he originated in 1985. As the title suggests O’Connor uses the old-fashioned child’s blackboard slate as the signifier of societal learning, accumulated knowledge, historicized claims and the inculcation of values and mores. He applies a variety of collaged and appropriated motifs, insignias, patterns, heraldic cartouches, and other ersatz memorabilia (such as flags, cards and maps) onto the slate format to create an ideational or mental setting and to make poetically incisive commentary on social conditioning.  

Eric Sanders, Silhouette Print No. 1 ©, 2021, monoptint, 10" x 8"
Eric Sanders, Silhouette Print No. 1 ©, 2021, monoptint, 10″ x 8″

Eric Sanders’sthree monoprints on paperfrom his 2021Silhouette Series have a remarkable presence for their elusive uneasy relation to the self-portrait that always both asserts itself and seems to be in retreat, simultaneously. With their vivid blue tonalities’ sections indicating oceanic memories that are overlaid with black sections that serve as jarring interference factors and their black sections that are overlaid, indicating slashed or redacted memories, the overall effect is startingly poetic and hauntingly vulnerable. 

James Singelis, as a portraitist is acutely aware that the human face is the primary field of expressive action, replete with a variety of looks whose meaning is open to interpretation. The artist’s achievement rests in his works’ evoking meditative questions for the viewer of what constitutes the authority of the likeness of the self, and how portraiture is the realm where the identity of the self is both fashioned and fabricated.  Embedded in each of the artist’s portraits is the difficult inquiry of what constitutes the projection of the quality of authenticity and why do we so value it when we perceive it (correctly or not) in others. James Singelis ’sdelicately nuancedartworks using watercolor and pencil on paper evocatively addresses issues of portraiture as a particular challenge of artistic ingenuity and empathic insight. 

Francine Tint, Tangerine ©,  2021, acrylic on canvas, 12" x 12"
Francine Tint, Tangerine ©,  2021, acrylic on canvas, 12″ x 12″

Francine Tint’sBlack Luxury”, “Black Swan” and “Tangerine” in Small Standing Tall are three abstract expressionist acrylics on canvas. After years of applied concentration Francine Tint has become a recognized master painter gifted with an acknowledged virtuosity in paint handling that suggests smolderingly immersive abstract energy systems. These systems invoke the sensations of uncontrollable expansion with its opposite: resistance and limitations. With their suggestions of disintegration and loss as well as with those of transformation and renewal the artist’s small paintings capture an unmistakable and unforgettable mood of outsized sensual and savage vitality. 

In Small Standing Still, artist Gail Hillow Watkinspresents two small-scale hand-made abstract low-relief icons with distressed surfaces of fragmentary and faded letters or words. The artworks, heavily worked and re-worked, are made with mixed media, plaster, gold-leaf, plaster and wood.  They sustain a riveting fetishistic quality and hold considerable aura. So much so that demand close-up viewing for full appreciation of the complexity of the interplay of their compacted and weathered surfaces. The artist in her notes has remarked that she considers her artworks as contemporary palimpsests where layers of information and memory slowly rise from below to the level of revealment.  Indeed, there is a timely and timeless aspect to Watkins’s aesthetic as she combines the look of an ancient artifact like a cuneiform relief extracted from a ruin or excavation. Similarly, her artworks have the look and feel of modern-century keepsakes rescued from the depredations of, perhaps, a man-made or environmental disaster. 

The exhibition quality of Small Standing Tall induces a surge of pleasurable energy in this viewer, affording me an aesthetic reverie of sorts, as I gazed at each of the artworks each fitted so carefully in the gallery’s limited precincts and each projecting an outsized presence. Every artwork presents itself in its own way and in its own terms as an undefinable yet exhilarating puzzle.  What’s in play and what’s at play in the works in Small Standing Tall are individual, private multi-universes of seemingly infinitely expansive readings and poetic potentialities.  More about the exhibition here: https://bit.ly/smallstandingtall

LandX

by D. Dominick Lombardi

It is commonly thought that in Western Art, the interest in representing the landscape as part of a paintings composition cropped up during the time of the Renaissance. From the beginning, representations of the landscape have brought the viewer to virtually experience new places throughout time, offering a sense of discovery, a feeling of hope for a better more peaceful world. More recently, a truer understanding of the force and fragility of nature has come to the fore motivated by politics, profit and pleasure. For this exhibition, I have selected paintings, sculptures, archival pigment prints, ceramics, dioramas and collages that offer a variety of contemporary views regarding the state of the genre.

Beginning with the shear awesomeness of nature and all its endless contemplations, Todd Bartel offers Garden Study (Surrender to Vastness), 2002, where we find a lone figure standing in stereoscope, at the edge of a great canyon. One quote in the composition reads: “…to reach the limits of space would be to arrive at our own origins, at the place where life began.” – Jean Clair. Contrasting this great work are two more humorous objects that blatantly addresses a concern for the environment as Bartel channels Man Ray’s iconic sculpture, The Gift, 1921.

Cecilia Whittaker-Doe takes us through a wooded walk as horizons shift, planes tilt, rivers reappear and color intensifies. Despite the cubist calamity, there seems to be an odd sort of order to it all, as if each part both supports and contrasts the other. In the end, we are left with a far more sensory experience than we might expect, as our attention is rewarded with a beautifully composed, tactile trip.

Don Doe focuses on the strain of our rising rivers in two paintings: Johnstown Flood No. 91 (1995) and June with my GTO in the Rising Mississippi Delta Flood No. 10 (1993). Employing dark humor, Doe’s subjects seem to be unaffected by the imposing destruction of the rushing water long enough to record the scene on canvas. The overall impression is acceptance, especially when looked at through the lens of current day political ploys and punditry.

Inness Hancock, Into the Falls, 2016, oil on canvas, 60” x 48”
Inness Hancock, Into the Falls, 2016, oil on canvas, 60” x 48”

Into the Falls (2016) by Inness Hancock takes us to a place where representation and abstraction coalesce. Movement is key here, as thin veils of blue rain down upon the depths of a deep darkening pond. The contrast between the thin washes at the top and middle of the canvas, and the weight of the deep blue pool below anchors the composition and our thoughts as both time and thought wonder.

Patrick Jacobs has the unique ability to take the most complex and compelling fantasy and turn it into an intimate physical reality. His dioramas redefine the genre with otherworldly color, light, form and space resulting in stunningly spectacular worlds that only he could imagine. After seeing Jacobs work, one’s general state of mind may experience a shift, more likely the memory of the work will become fixed in your subconscious, and very possibly dreaming will become easier.

Patrick Jacobs, Fly Agarics with Eclipse, 2021, diorama viewed through 2 in. (5 cm) window, Styrene, clay, paper, foam, wood, acrylic, steel, lighting, BK7 glass, 11 1/4” (H) x 14 3/4” (W) x 9 1/4” (D)
Patrick Jacobs, Fly Agarics with Eclipse, 2021, diorama viewed through 2 in. (5 cm) window, Styrene, clay, paper, foam, wood, acrylic, steel, lighting, BK7 glass, 11 1/4” (H) x 14 3/4” (W) x 9 1/4” (D)

China Marks makes beautifully constructed, fantastical narratives that delight the eye and broaden the mind. Her way of capturing a complex moment with such dizzying directness is key, while her sense of color, composition and actual conversation makes the trip all the more worth while. I can’t imagine any point in one’s life where you could not gain insight or enjoy looking at Marks’ work. – it’s all just a matter of time and willingness to seek and find.

The archival pigment prints of Creighton Michael reside somewhere between consciousness and subconsciousness – an in-between state that is not unlike Surrealism. More importantly, Michael’s art reflects something of a waking-dream state where reality and memory prove to be deceiving. It is hard to pinpoint exactly what part of Michael’s art takes us to this place, but we know we are there and it is simultaneously, both otherworldly and familiar.    

Brant Moorefield’s paintings teeter between perception and reality. Perception, meaning the artist’s inner thoughts, what is internalized and later expressed, even if it does not directly relate to the reality. As a result, we find ourselves caught between dimensions, in a place where the psychological supersedes the actual. There are references to displacement, disorder, deconstruction, and yet there seems to be an overriding sense of resolve and perhaps a bit of redemption to it all.

Maggie Robertson, Westbury White Horse , 2021, hand built stoneware ceramic, hand glazed, 6” x 13”
Maggie Robertson, Westbury White Horse , 2021, hand built stoneware ceramic, hand glazed, 6” x 13”

Maggie Robertson’s ceramics blend the stature of fine china with a sort of organic, ‘wabi-sabi’ imperfection that is oddly comforting. The traditional blue and white glazed bucolic scenes atop the hand-formed utilitarian objects makes for the perfect blend of new and old. Seen in the context of an ‘exhibition’, the works of Robertson become something else, more contemplative and sculptural.

Pacific Crest Trail: Sierra Snow Bridge (2018) by Annie Varnot is a bold and brilliant work that essentially communicates two truths. First, that our planet is home to countless awe inspiring vistas – at times indescribable beauty that we can not live without. Second, what we hold dear, what many of us live to experience, to feel, to see and touch is quite fragile, and what we do, how we over-consume, has a lasting negative effect on our environment.

Martin Weinstein’s paintings define the beauty in the rhythms of the seasons – the endless (hopefully) return of life in the spring, the brilliance of the summer, the temporary demise the fall brings to our vegetation, and the clear, crisp chill of winter – all that defines the Northeast is exquisitely expressed in Sun Dogs, 3X (2013) and Winter under Summer, Summer under Fall (2019). In each instance, Weinstein brings heaven back to earth.

Shari Weschler, Bear Stand, 2012, watercolor/graphite on paper, 12” x 9”
Shari Weschler, Bear Stand, 2012, watercolor/graphite on paper, 12” x 9”

The compelling, albethey strange interactions with nature some of us humans might have or imagine come to life in the paintings of Shari Weschler. In Bending #1 (2017) we see what appears to be a burgeoning suburban backyard in spring-thaw mode. Bear Stand (Needs date) shows a young woman creating a sort of ‘Mother Earth’ in-body experience representing the sky, animals and land. Bridging (Needs date) is an obvious play-on-words with a twist, which has a vastly different read in these days of Covid.

Red Fox Contemporary art is located at 55 Westchester Avenue, Pound Ridge, NY 10576. LandX runs from May 22 through July 4, 2021. There is an opening May 22 from 3 – 6 pm. (475) 205-8956

dArtles: Weekly on the Arts

by Steve Rockwell

Weekly on the Arts hosts Irina De Vilhina and Kyle Shields at Pie in the Sky Studios
Weekly on the Arts hosts Irina De Vilhena and Kyle Shields at Pie in the Sky Studios

In Toronto’s cultural kitchen, a dish named Weekly on the Arts has begun to bubble. Hosts for this upcoming weekly TV show are Irina De Vilhena and Kyle Shields. Featured segments cover visual artists, collectors, curators, museum directors, art magazines, auction houses, art galleries and art dealers. Shooting began this spring at Pie in the Sky Studios, with rushes from the first batch of digital reels already in post production.  

While neither hosts are visual arts specialists, they bring their own unique areas of experience to bear on the subjects covered. From Angola-Luanda in Africa originally, Irina De Vilhena speaks Spanish and Portuguese, is at work on her second children’s book, and has worked in health care for the past seven years. Actor Kyle Shields is excited to be involved with this project, aware that his skills can be of use as host: “The most rewarding work I’ve had the chance to do has been in the creation of new Canadian plays, from workshop to stage. At the core, it’s always about compelling storytelling.”

Irina De Vilhina and Kyle Shields photographed in one of the many graffiti-laden laneways in Toronto
Irina De Vilhena and Kyle Shields photographed in one of the many graffiti-laden laneways in Toronto

Host Irina has already a tale to tell worthy of Mary Shelley: “I had the privilege to go to the studio of John Scott. It was amazing. His work was all over the place, piled on top of each other, yet organized in its own way.” She tells of John being hit by lightning twice in his life – once as a kid playing on a beach, where its charge burned little holes in his feet from the heated metal eyelets of his runners. More recently it occurred on the roof top of his studio building during the memorial for the tragic passing of an artist friend. A thunderstorm had come up as he was about to pour out a libation on the ground for those who had gone before. Perhaps he had it coming, the artist had felt, surrounded as he was by broken antennas and metal things. It was at that moment that lightning struck, knocking him out temporarily. For Irina, Weekly on the Arts has kindled a love affair with the arts, its artists and their history.

Artist John Scott with an image of his studio imposed on green screen background
Artist John Scott with an image of his studio imposed on green screen background

The visit that Kyle Shields paid to Alex Cameron in his studio was memorable. Alex’s wife Lorna Hawrysh recounted that, “for Alex, it’s always been about the art. It’s always been about painting, despite the ups and downs of the art industry.” Kyle saw that the studio itself of an artist tells its own story. “I’m sure this can make it challenging for living artists to sell their work for livable sums of money. So to see Alex’s studio, modest in size (he’s been at the same one for decades), filled with bright canvases, tables full of paint tubes, impasto practice swatches laid about, and what seems like a floor entirely covered in thick, multicolour, smatterings of paint from years of effort. It was a very vivid experience.“ From 1972 to 1976, Alex worked as a studio assistant to Jack Bush, who influenced the artist’s own painting style towards a lyrical semi-abstraction. Through the association with Bush, Alex developed a close friendship with critic Clement Greenberg and members of the Painters Eleven group such as William Ronald.

Alex Cameron in his studio
Alex Cameron in his studio

For several years now, Alex has been grappling with the lingering effects of a stroke. Though ambidextrous, he has painted with his right hand for the course of his life. Before leaving the hospital he had turned to Lorna to say that he thought that he had figured out how to paint with his left hand. She recalled often seeing him paint in his head, practicing before committing to canvas. Now he paints just as prolifically as before. Lorna said “painting for Alex is physical.” This accounts for the sculptural quality of his work. He primes his canvases with red rather than white. To Alex, it’s the red that makes him feel right. 

Lydia Abbott and Rob Cowley and the Lawren Harris, Algoma, (Algoma Sketch 48), which sold for $977,500
Lydia Abbott and Rob Cowley and the Lawren Harris, Algoma, (Algoma Sketch 48), which sold for $977,500

A December 2020 web article from auction house Cowley Abbott spoke of continued strong results for Canadian historical and contemporary art at auction. Solely online at first, Rob Cowley and Lydia Abbott only started doing live auctions because of demand. Online focus had prepared them for the age of COVID. “Finding a rare Lawren Harris painting in Australia and getting the chance to bring it home for auction was exciting – the delightful confluences of a storied artist, a pristine specimen, and a great anecdote to accompany the sale. Exciting also was to have broken records in the past year, particularly for the Jack Bush Column on Browns (1965), which sold for $870,000, a record for any work by him.”

Jack Bush, Column on Browns (1965) – selling price $870,000
Jack Bush, Column on Browns (1965) – selling price $870,000

What remains now is the stitching together of its parts and the release date of Weekly on the Arts.

Mortality: A Survey of Contemporary Death Art

by Steve Rockwell

Lynn Stern, Spectator #14-94a, 2014–2015. Archival inkjet pigment print, 32 x 43 in. Ed. 1/6. Courtesy of the artist.

Mortality: A Survey of Contemporary Death Art was to have opened spring 2020 in Washington, D.C. The intended exhibition venue was Katzen Art Center’s American University Museum. It’s cancellation is a familiar, shopworn story over a grim span of time when it comes to public events of any kind. To say that it was a disappointment doesn’t quite cover it. When considering the energies, hopes, and labors expended by so many people over a considerable time, something vital within the its participants was cut off. In its reaping, the fruition of it produced an unfortunate synchronicity with Mortality, the exhibition theme.

Curated by Donald Kuspit with assistance from Robert Curcio, the exhibition that was not-to-be maintains, nevertheless, a robust afterlife in the pages of its catalog. Like the general public, I never got to see the exhibition as it would have been mounted. My responses, while not visceral to the works of the artists represented, arise from the images provided and the statements that accompany them. In that respect, these and my supporting researches breathed life to my efforts rather as digital avatars.

Anonymous artist, Skull Bracelet and Key Chain, 1990. Sterling silver, dimensions variable. Courtesy of Robert Curcio. Photography by Sebastian Piras.

Not surprisingly, our relationship with Death in its personification, is variously seen as a dance, courtship, or even marriage. Kuspit chose Death Mon Amour as his essay title, yet, I assume that author is not suicidal. Could this just be his blunt acceptance that death is never more than a breath away – in that sense, our closest friend? Like grains of sand in an hour glass our time on earth is meted out particle by particle, its remaining specks mercifully obscured. Without exception, we are lively patterns in the cloth of existence, “where time and chance happens to us all,” as the writer of Ecclesiastes pointed out. Much as the notion of something universal presents a Gordian knot to philosophers, each must confront their mortality in the end, just the same. We know this to be true intuitively, the image of an impersonal skull being its testament. 

The selection of the works in the Mortality provide a meditation on the dynamic tension in art between figuration and abstraction. Kuspit uses the word “obscene” in reference to abstraction. The word generally implies something offensive to the senses. Yet, making something abstract may be seen as a dying, the removal of physical existence, and the blanching out of the concrete and corporeal. The author notes that abstraction is that which “is hidden behind the scenic representation it supports.” In terms of Plato’s philosophy, it could be regarded as the idea that wafts behind the veil of fleshly depiction. With Clement Greenberg’s abstract expressionism, painting was made “pure,” any reference to visual imagery purged and eradicated. Erasure in the broad sense is a death, where the visible world is annihilated as if by a culturally-detonated atomic bomb.

Vanitas works of art inherently raise the flag of impending oblivion. Citing Ecclesiastes again: “I have seen everything done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” Kuspit’s own presage is a call for accounting and evaluation of what is meaningful. His curatorial intent was fulfilled in having the works in Mortality “read convincingly as abstractions – even as they convey the nihilistic meaning of death.” A requirement for the artist was in his words, a nuanced juggling of these two faces, never using one to deny the other. My own consideration necessarily draws its nourishment from the underpinnings of a digitally-laced matrix, not a full sensory engagement with the Mortality works – not its living body.

John Grande, The Residue of Time, 2016. Oil on canvas, 30 x 60 in. Courtesy of the artist.
John Grande, The Residue of Time, 2016. Oil on canvas, 30 x 60 in. Courtesy of the artist.

The decay and deterioration of New York City billboards fascinates John Grande. This sloughing away of the papery skins of advertising is a bit like the application and scraping away of makeup, the faces of billboards perpetually promising the new and fresh. Their creases and tears constitute a restless ephemera, mirroring our own mortality and vulnerability.

In the It’s All Derivative series by Bill Claps, the sentence is tapped out in Morse code – the mechanically generated impulses, a repetition of blips from which life has been drained, reduced to a lifeless miming having lost the hope of birthing the new. A leering skull is a triumphant witness to the failure of genuine originality in the creative act.

Bill Claps, It’s All Derivative, The Skull, Negative, 2014. Mixed media with gold foil on canvas, 15 x 16 1/4 in. Courtesy of the artist.

In the It’s All Derivative series by Bill Claps, the sentence is tapped out in Morse code – the mechanically generated impulses, a repetition of blips from which life has been drained, reduced to a lifeless miming having lost the hope of birthing the new. A leering skull is a triumphant witness to the failure of genuine originality in the creative act.  

Paul Brainard, Cyborg Space, 2010. Oil on canvas, 26 x 32 in. Courtesy of the artist.
Paul Brainard, Cyborg Space, 2010. Oil on canvas, 26 x 32 in. Courtesy of the artist.

The landscapes of Paul Brainard’s “fractured schizophrenic existence” are ticker-tape slashes and pulses pumped through the senses as intravenous drips. Big-city dwellers in particular are vulnerable to the integration of body circuitry and machine in their daily routines. In his Cyborg Space, Brainard poses the problem of parsing this mingling of lifeless pixel and living neurone. 

Danielle Frankenthal, Tree of Life, 2019. Acrylic paint
on acrylic resin panels, 48 x 36 in. Courtesy of the artist.
Danielle Frankenthal, Tree of Life, 2019. Acrylic paint on acrylic resin panels, 48 x 36 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Danielle Frankenthal admits that her paintings are ambiguous. Which tree is being depicted? She understands that one represents knowledge of good and evil and leads to death, while the other connects to eternal life. While these are Biblical trees, she also cites Buddha’s Bodhi tree, which leads to enlightenment and release from the cycle of life. The artist considers the promises that each present. Jesus gained immortality, Frankenthal admits, through a sacrificial death. It is not clear if Buddha’s awakening is merely an end to the cycles of suffering and nirvana just another death.  

Noah Becker, Tune Out #2, 2017. Acrylic on board, 42 x 32 in. Courtesy of the artist.
Noah Becker, Tune Out #2, 2017. Acrylic on board, 42 x 32 in. Courtesy of the artist.

For Noah Becker, how a painting is completed is crucial. As in life, the work of art has a birth, life, and a concluding gesture. This sense of finality is poignantly conveyed by a gilded skull as in Tune Out #2. If a bite of the apple brought death, then the gleam of gold may deliver hope of immortality.

Left: Donald Baechler, Skull & Crossbones, 2009. Acrylic and fabric collage on canvas, 24 x 24 in. Right: Skull, 2009. Acrylic and fabric collage on canvas, 24 x 24 in. Courtesy of Donald Baechler Studio.
Left: Donald Baechler, Skull & Crossbones, 2009. Acrylic and fabric collage on canvas, 24 x 24 in. Right: Skull, 2009. Acrylic and fabric collage on canvas, 24 x 24 in. Courtesy of Donald Baechler Studio.

Interestingly, Donald Baechler eschews the narrative and “symbolic load” of skulls, while pleased to grandfather said associations through his own research. Yet, it’s difficult to stem the flow of pirate imagery, knowing that the source is clearly a sailor tattoo. In that respect, Baechler is rather a channel or clairvoyant through whom the lore of culture is transmitted, here assuming the pose of departed spirit. 

Jinsu Han, Dream Fiend 5C, 2009. Plastic model, steel, wood, epoxy resin, ABS plastic, copper, silver cup, speaker, radio receiver, motor, feather, steel wheel and chalk powder, 30.7 x 25.6 x 19.6 in. Courtesy of Marc Straus Gallery.
Jinsu Han, Dream Fiend 5C, 2009. Plastic model, steel, wood, epoxy resin, ABS plastic, copper, silver cup, speaker, radio receiver, motor, feather, steel wheel and chalk powder, 30.7 x 25.6 x 19.6 in. Courtesy of Marc Straus Gallery.

The mechanized sculptures of Jinsu Han are built to make art. Through clever, but otherwise crude assemblages of junk and an assortment of spare parts, Han has succeeded in manufacturing a series of artist automatons. Each are programmed to demonstrate the law of perpetual change. If they could speak, it would be the mantra of Heraclitus to perpetuity: “All is Flux, Nothing is Stationary,” In Han’s universe, the robot artist will no doubt prevail, with the flesh and blood counterpart just flotsam in the rinse cycle.

Chris Jones, The Trader, 2016. Book and magazine images, board, and polymer varnish, 34 x 23 x 22 in. Courtesy of Marc Straus Gallery.
Chris Jones, The Trader, 2016. Book and magazine images, board, and polymer varnish, 34 x 23 x 22 in. Courtesy of Marc Straus Gallery.

Sculptor Chris Jones comes close to achieving the concrete realization of memory. In our minds, slippery image fragments tend to flit from place to place, mingling and morphing into unexpected constellations. In the work of the artist, fragments culled from magazines and books are surgically grafted into fantastic, labyrinthine heaps. Rich in detail and association these works evoke a sense of the tableau vivant at a state of decay and corruption. The Trader sculpture by Jones is a vanitas in every sense of the word.

Trevor Guthrie, Myself as a Specimen, 2009. Charcoal, graphite on paper, 55 x 57 in. unframed. Private Collection.
Trevor Guthrie, Myself as a Specimen, 2009. Charcoal, graphite on paper, 55 x 57 in. unframed. Private Collection.

Striking singularity is a dominant feature in the charcoal on paper works produced by Trevor Guthrie. In a fragmented world, the artist displays a monk-like dedication to the transcription of verisimilitude of the images he produces. His “symphony of mistakes” cohere at a distance. Presented perhaps as a balm to a public riddled with a “sickness of the soul,” Guthrie hopes that his patient application of flickers of grey may untangle a mystery to someone. As the artist labored, some of life’s enigmas revealed themselves, though by his own admission they remain unsolved.

Chris Klein, Phantom of the Opera: Mask of the Red Death, 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 30 x 60 in. Courtesy of the artist.
Chris Klein, Phantom of the Opera: Mask of the Red Death, 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 30 x 60 in. Courtesy of the artist.

The subject of Chris Klein’s inclusion to the Mortality exhibition is topical. Titled Phantom of the Opera: Mask of the Red Death, it depicts the costume worn by the actor for the Masquerade scene in the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical. The scene was inspired by the 1842 Edgar Allan Poe short story, The Masque of the Red Death. Its plot line is worth a perusal in the context of our Covid 19 times: “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” 

Bobbie Moline-Kramer, All That Remains (4 of 11 panels), 2010. Oil, graphite, gesso and wood burning on wood, 10 x 10 in. each. Courtesy of the artist.
Bobbie Moline-Kramer, All That Remains (4 of 11 panels), 2010. Oil, graphite, gesso and wood burning on wood, 10 x 10 in. each. Courtesy of the artist.

Bobbie Moline-Kramer conveys the themes of family fragmentation and loss by combining the symbolism associated with trees, birds, and wood. Birds imbue expressive form to something difficult to depict visually otherwise – the soul. The birds in her All That Remains series of wood panels perch somewhat uneasily on stick-like branches. The vicissitudes and fluctuations between rest, nest, and flight have correspondences with most family trees.

David Ligare, Still Life with Skull and Polaroid, 1983. Oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in. Collection of the artist.
David Ligare, Still Life with Skull and Polaroid, 1983. Oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in. Collection of the artist.

David Ligare’s Still Life with Skull and Polaroid puts on a brave skull face. Whether withered laurel leaf or fresh, the crisply-painted profile of the Ligare skull tilts defiantly upwards, catching the sun’s rays full-frontal. The pose is one of Stoic victory, struck with a full-throated acceptance of the fleeting parade of life.

Frank Lind, Vanitas, 2017. Oil on panel, 20 x 14 in. Courtesy of the artist.
Frank Lind, Vanitas, 2017. Oil on panel, 20 x 14 in. Courtesy of the artist.

The Vanitas by Frank Lind is offered uncorked to the viewer, yet discretely. Employing a range of painterly Low Countries genre licks, the effect is slightly soft-focus – not quite a crisp, hyper-detailed Jan van Eyck requiring magnifiers. The skull in Lind’s oil on panel coaxes a reminder to “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”  

Frodo Mikkelsen, Untitled (Skull #3), 2018. Silver-plated mixed media, 9.6 x 5.9 x 7.9 in. Courtesy of the artist.
Frodo Mikkelsen, Untitled (Skull #3), 2018. Silver-plated mixed media, 9.6 x 5.9 x 7.9 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Hardships may come, but Frodo Mikkelsen promises to smile even in death. Pop detritus has been the fodder for Mikkelsen’s career from the start. Color and glint at its most intense seems to have been the spark that lit his work. It’s this brand of joie de vivre that must be keeping the fireplace in his cranial cabin burning. 

Left: Lynn Stern, Spectator #14-65, 2014–2015. Archival inkjet pigment print, 32" x 29". Ed. 1/6. Right: Spectator #14-70, 2014–2015. Archival inkjet pigment print, 32 x 34.5 in. Ed. 1/6. Courtesy of the artist.
Left: Lynn Stern, Spectator #14-65, 2014–2015. Archival inkjet pigment print, 32″ x 29″. Ed. 1/6. Right: Spectator #14-70, 2014–2015. Archival inkjet pigment print, 32 x 34.5 in. Ed. 1/6. Courtesy of the artist.

The photographs of Lynn Stern send shivers, carrying with them a sense of profound apprehension. In the Doppelgänger and Spectator series in particular, shrouded skulls rise into view from below in an eerie kind of resurrection, grainy and imprecise in an indefinable hue. Are they dusted in sepia, umber, or pewter? The 19th century writer George MacDonald may have said it best in his book The Portent, “…an airy, pale-grey spectre, which few eyes but mine could see.”

Michael Netter, Regeneration, 2016. Mixed media on canvas, 48 x 60 in. Courtesy of the artist.
Michael Netter, Regeneration, 2016. Mixed media on canvas, 48 x 60 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Successive cultures are necessarily layered into the surface of the earth like coats of paint. Masterworks may also reveal multiple compositions, one superimposed over the other. Michael Netter likes the notion of covering and discovering, much as it occurs in the archeology he references. As in archeological digs, his Regeneration painting share the qualities of a burial pit. The view we have here is strictly celestial – all gold, silver, infused with blue throughout. The spirits of the departed souls in this particular mound of bones are at rest in heavenly realms.   

 Stephen Newton, The Wake, 2018. Oil on canvas, 26 x 24 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Stephen Newton, The Wake, 2018. Oil on canvas, 26 x 24 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Stephen Newton rendered his Wake painting in clumpy oil on canvas with utmost simplicity. We take in the work as we might a freshly-baked oatmeal biscuit. There are no ambiguities with a coffin on a table below a window showing grass and sky. The pleasure of its ingestion is having been spoken to directly. That’s meaningful.

Sigrid Sarda, Lothario’s Vanity, 2014-2018. Wax, human hair, cotton, bone, gold leaf, crystals, opals, 21 x 31 x 14 in. Courtesy of the artist.
Sigrid Sarda, Lothario’s Vanity, 2014-2018. Wax, human hair, cotton, bone, gold leaf, crystals, opals, 21 x 31 x 14 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Sigrid Sarda’s Lothario’s Vanity interlaces the busts of a man and a woman in a spill of crystal. The woman is somehow a gush of the man’s chest cavity, the eyes of both closed as if united in a moment of ecstasy. It seems that the woman has been released from the man’s rib cage, if but for a moment. This cycle of obsessive desire is an unbroken chain of little deaths, with a yearning for life’s fulfillment at each turn of the wheel.

Sonia Stark, Three Female Skulls, With Lipstick Smear, 2020. Oil and pastel on arches paper, 26 x 19 in. Courtesy of the artist.
Sonia Stark, Three Female Skulls, With Lipstick Smear, 2020. Oil and pastel on arches paper, 26 x 19 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Sonia Stark’s Three Female Skulls perform a dance of the red veil. It’s a gestural smear, binding and tugging of each into a danse macabre, a jig that unites us all. Their invitation is to the living, “Come join us. Feast on pleasure while there is time.”  Those now stripped of flesh rest in the certitude of cessation of blood’s pulsation.

Paul Pretzer, Dead Idiot, 2019. Oil on wood, 17.1 x 15 in. Courtesy of Marc Straus Gallery.
Paul Pretzer, Dead Idiot, 2019. Oil on wood, 17.1 x 15 in. Courtesy of Marc Straus Gallery.

If there is an empty space between comedy and tragedy, that would be where Paul Pretzer would stick a piece of fruit or mouse with a dangle or a hover. His Dead Idiot awaits in the hope of a punchline that never delivers. As it is here, it’s a buzzing bee that never lands, whose sting arrives too late to be of any consequence. 

Diane Thodos, Skull, 2007. Oil on linen, 55 x 41 in. and Weeping Skull, 2007. Oil on linen, 55 x 41 in. Courtesy of the artist.
Diane Thodos, Skull, 2007. Oil on linen, 55 x 41 in. and Weeping Skull, 2007. Oil on linen, 55 x 41 in. Courtesy of the artist.

The traumas of history that Diane Thodos refer to: war, market collapse, depression, and the rise of neofascism may be embodied collectively as a Leviathan, dipping in and out of consciousness with abandon. As the artist noted, the sense of angst and helplessness which accompanies their meander found a demonstrative force in German Expressionism, inspiring her art. The impact of the splintered Thodos skulls on the viewer is bone-crushing.

Conor Walton, Lego Mondrian, 2019. Oil on linen, 10 x 14 in. Courtesy of John Kelley.
Conor Walton, Lego Mondrian, 2019. Oil on linen, 10 x 14 in. Courtesy of John Kelley.

When Conor Walton describes his practice as “dancing along cultural fault-lines,” it brings to mind something acrobatic that one might attempt on the rim of an active volcano. The artist seeks answers to questions that Gauguin famously raised: “What are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?” Considering the subject of Walton’s Lego Mondrian, barely 20 years separate Mondrian’s arrival at his iconic grid from the time of Gauguin’s query. Art then became transgressive very quickly, if not polemically dangerous. Today, art excites very little passion publicly. The land mines these days have been dug deep into the social and political landscape.

 Michael Zansky, Three Studies for Marathon, 2006-2017. Oil and acrylic on carved plywood, 26 x 21 in. each. Courtesy of the artist

Michael Zansky, Three Studies for Marathon, 2006-2017. Oil and acrylic on carved plywood, 26 x 21 in. each. Courtesy of the artist

The skulls rendered in Michael Zansky’s Three Studies for Marathon exhibit uncommonly protean bursts of energy. Missing hands and arms, Zansky has opted to weaponize legs and teeth in his animated figures. In the first study. Lock-jawed mandibles chafe at the constraints of the bounding frame, nearly losing its contorted head in the process. Next, an abyss awaits the subject’s jacked-up leg, the yawn of its evenly-cleaved skull a gaping sink-hole. Exits within and without the figure have turned to voids – the torso having wound into a straight-jacketed fist. The successful leap occurs in the third panel. It’s bridged with a wide-scissored gallop, the skeletal Marathon runner biting hard into the wood of the brush – the goop of its bristles rising like gelled smoke. 

Robert Zeller, The Courtship, 2019. Oil on linen, 48 x 60 in. Courtesy of the artist.
Robert Zeller, The Courtship, 2019. Oil on linen, 48 x 60 in. Courtesy of the artist.

A Gothic strain undergirds Robert Zeller’s painting practice. Ravens, skulls, and ruins would naturally tie his literal associations to Edgar Allen Poe. The artist welcomes the narrative aspects of his craft, appropriately embracing a Surrealist aesthetic. Zeller leaves the threads of his storylines open-ended, its forms woven into the many-layered, ethereal backgrounds. The tales we might educe from the artist’s oils on linen works are whispers floated from an unseen world.

Real Abstraction: Five Painters Beyond the Picture

by Peter Frank

Can we see past what we see? Can we see more than we see? Can we see in a way that not only reveals what we haven’t been seeing, but has us see a whole different reality? These are the questions that abstract art, after more than a century, still poses us. Art that does not replicate or even approximate the seen world is no longer a challenge to aesthetic conventions; it is by now universally regarded as an invitation to comprehension of a different kind, a comprehension at once more personal and more universal than is possible with representational art. Abstraction moves its makers and its viewers alike, in unique ways.

In strict terms, still favored in Europe, “abstraction” is an umbrella term for all non-realistic artwork. That artwork that does not seem to refer at all to the seen world is considered “non-objective” – and the five artists in this show are self-acknowledged non-objective painters. But if none of them recapitulates the appearance of the world around them, all of them take their cues from it. Shapes, sizes, colors, rhythms, all the visual characteristics of their art, after all, generate from lifetimes of observation. What these painters paint comes out of their heads and hearts, but it was nature that put those things in their heads and hearts to begin with. The abstract expressionists insisted their non-objective compositions had meaning – they called their public discussions “subjects of the artists” – and were rooted in natural reality (as Jackson Pollock famously insisted). The five artists here, clearly inheritors of (among others) their abstract expressionist forebears, continue this tradition – this impulse – of answering “mere” reality not by rejecting it but by reformulating it. Like a tree or a mountain, a painting here is its own entity, with its own identity, within a context of myriad entities and identities. 

Gail Hillow Watkins, GARDEN GATE, 2017, mixed media, 12 x 12 inches
Gail Hillow Watkins, Garden Gate, 2017, mixed media, 12 x 12 inches

While all five painters adhere to non-objective vocabularies, some appear abstract more readily than others. Gail Hillow Watkins, in fact, seems to be fabricating identifiable, or at least culturally sited, objects, pouches and scrolls and other artifacture conjured from ancient (and/or imagined) civilizations. But these are not replications, much less depictions: they are inferences, exploiting our fantastical associations so that Hillow Watkins’ painting takes on an extra-painterly quality. Ultimately, once we acknowledge the eerie, impossible-to-pinpoint resemblances to things we think we’ve seen, the artist’s brushwork and detailing comes to the fore as predominating elements, not so much obliterating the frisson of antiquity as subsuming it into a greater formal emphasis.

Francie Lyshak, REVOLUTION, 2020, oil on linen, 61 x 101.6 cm
Francie Lyshak, Revolution, 2020, oil on linen, 61 x 101.6 cm

Something similar operates in Francie Lyshak’s works, but in Lyshak’s case the evocations are latter-day, temporal, even fleeting, writing on water you might say – and, indeed, several works incorporating scribbled notations do seem to be swallowing those notations into seas and mists of translucent or opaque monochrome. These atmospheres wear skins of well-worked brushstroke, so many inflections of otherwise unmodulated surfaces. Lyshak’s paintings in some manner present themselves as objects no less than do Hillow Watkins’, but the objecthood is finally self-referential: Lyshak is painting paintings of painting. This is not a tautological exercise, but an exploration of perception and presence, even function and identity.

Susan Sommer, Pink Light, 2020, oil on linen, 20" x 16” inches
Susan Sommer, Pink Light, 2020, oil on linen, 20″ x 16” inches

Their richly painted segments and sections jostling one another with abandon, Susan Sommer’s canvases would seem pure visual invention. Visual invention they are, but hardly pure. Sommer attests to the inspiration she takes from observed nature, from the forms and colors of land and sky, trees and flowers. Sommer does not show us the vegetation, the weather, or animals; she shows us their energy, their vitality, the essence that drives them and the natural balance that harmonizes their spirit(s). Sommer calls herself a “plein air abstractionist,” responding spontaneously to the nature around her by celebrating its inner and outer force rather than its most evident details.

Francine Tint, Crucifixion, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 132.1 x 101.6 cm
Francine Tint, Crucifixion, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 132.1 x 101.6 cm

Even painting that does not take direct inspiration from observed nature can suggest the forms it takes and the effects it has on our sensibilities. Nature, after all, is all that acts upon us, so painting – abstract painting in particular – serves to synthesize our sense of being in nature (indeed, our sense of being overall). Francine Tint, long associated with color-field painting, allows the natural to enter into her expansive engagement of pigment and movement without it dictating what the outcome may be. Tint trusts that, as she (like Pollock) is part of nature herself, the interplay of her form and color decisions will take its place in the natural world no less than in the manmade. Still. The breadth of certain of Tint’s canvases, roiling with color eruptions and lyrical flows, present us with a kind of environmentalized drama that demands its own meteorology.

Sarah Hinckley, Language Is Leaving Me 1, 2019, oil on canvas, 58" x 62” inches
Sarah Hinckley, Language Is Leaving Me 1, 2019, oil on canvas, 58″ x 62” inches

Sarah Hinckley, too, allows her art to “be” nature by tapping into the logic and fury of the inner and outer worlds. Perhaps the most purely formal artist in this exhibition, Hinckley composes her works of shifting color (and seemingly non-color) planes, modifying these planes with stark interruptions that seem cut or torn from the edges – by opposing planes, it so often seems. If Sommer and Tint capture the weather in their work, Hinckley, it could be said, is capturing geology, proposing an art of tectonic planes/plates constantly moving, wearing, and shattering against one another. This metaphor, then, would have Hinckley realizing an abstraction born of the unseen – but, of course, not of the unfelt. Hinckley’s painting is actually fairly quiet and restrained – a result chiefly of her nuanced palette – but the fissures in the composition suggest a visual earthquake could be close at hand.

This consideration of five artists’ abstract painting has relied on association and simile, and on the response(s) of the writer more than on the expressed intentions of the painters. All art invites subjective regard, but – as its label would imply – non-objective painting does so as a matter of principle. What we see in this show are the “subjectivities of the artist,” you might say, statements in pre-, non-, or anti-realism that invite and reward interpretation. These artworks have to stand on their own, as visual propositions; their possible inferences cannot justify them or even explain them. But those inferences can give them context, and they can give them presence, and the world can look that much richer for them.

Scot Borofsky: The Language of Street Art

Van Der Plas Gallery, New York City – April 9 – 29, 2021

by Christopher Hart Chambers

Scot Borofsky, Arena (Sand), 2019, oil on canvas, 1 of 100, (1)
Scot Borofsky, Arena (Sand), 2019, oil on canvas, 1 of 100, (1)

Scot Borofsky was born in 1957, raised and still lives in Vermont. Since the mid 1970s he has traveled extensively throughout the Americas, and the influence is salient in his artwork. Borofsky attended the Rhode Island school of Design. Like several other street artists, when he moved to New York City after graduating, he found his art school learning dry and lifeless in comparison to the visual stimulation blooming on the urban streets – that was not yet even considered art from whence he hailed. Other influences are Ancient Asian works and African masks, resulting in an assortment of symbolic motifs rendered in a simplistic, stick figure-like format that lends itself well to his signature street art style; a recognizable and readable alphabet that is his own language. His street art and studio practices grew and merged together as demonstrated in this current exhibition on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The show consists of recent collages and an overview of oil paintings from the past couple of decades, comprising tangled linear elements over fields of color. This is his first solo in 22 years. In his first few solos Borofsky employed mostly found materials. For his show at La Casa Nada on Rivington Street in 1984 almost all of the materials came from the burnt out, rubble strewn vacant lot directly adjacent to the hard scrabble gallery. Those pieces were obviously more sculpturally oriented, yet the same cobbled aesthetic is still evident in his more recent works.

Scot Borofsky, SUN WORSHIPPER, 2018, acrylic on collage on canvas in welded iron frame, 25″ x 25″

Borofsky was among the first dozen or so artists to make the streets their primary venue and his savage large scale paintings on the streets of grisly animals and abstract motifs representing natural elements became iconic images for the East Village during the 1980s. It is important to note that these were unsanctioned murals in spray paint, some taking all night. Taking the cue from graffiti artists, but coming from a completely different school of thought, the pioneers of street art set a new standard for artistic activity, questioning the commodification and consumeristic notions of what is or is not legitimate art and how one might go about it. These ideas have grown from a few radicals on the Lower East Side risking arrest to a world wide phenomenon including corporate sponsorship. But that is certainly NOT how street art started, and sponsored murals are not of the same spirit or energy that drove the movement in its incipience.

Scot Borofsky, Summer Hay, 2008, oil on canvas, 50: x 60"
Scot Borofsky, Summer Hay, 2008, oil on canvas, 50: x 60″

Acts of Erasure: Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto

by Emese Krunak-Hajagos

Fatma Bucak, And so we were told, 2020, (installation from the series Remains of what has not been said, 2016), installation view: Acts of Erasure, MOCA Toronto, 2020. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid
Fatma Bucak, And so we were told, 2020, (installation from the series Remains of what has not been said, 2016), installation view: Acts of Erasure, MOCA Toronto, 2020. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid

Acts of Erasure at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Toronto is a stunning installation that brings two prominent artistic practises together into a dialog. Fatma Bucak and Krista Belle Stewart come from different geographical areas and heritages. Bucak was born in Iskenderun, on the Turkish-Syrian border and identifies as both Kurdish and Turkish. She now resides in London, UK. Stewart is a member of the Okanagan Nation in British Columbia. Their thoughtful work integrates interlocking layers of the historical, the political and the emotional.

Stepping into the warehouse-like exhibition hall at MOCA, Fatma Bucak’s installation caught my eye immediately. Titled And so we were told (2020) is mounted on fifteen curving layers with nine images in each row. It gives the impression that it might rotate so the images would come up to eye level. However, that proves to be an illusion. I have to kneel to see the pictures. They each show the artist’s arms holding a glass jar containing dirty water. The work itself doesn’t send a clear message, so it seems that we need to uncover the layered narratives within. The stained water from the washed-out ink of 84 Turkish newspapers – published in the days following the “basement massacre” without talking about it — is bottled and held for all to witness. Bucak said she wanted to turn the government propaganda into liquid, to transform it into different layers, showing how intimidating she finds the way propaganda manipulates society. 

Bucak’s works are often poetic and beautiful. As she explained, she is not afraid of beauty and talking of politics doesn’t require ugliness as the stories are already ugly. A Study of Eight Landscapes (2012 – 2016) is a photo series where Bucak reconsiders how some governments use borders to physically suppress people from certain national, ethnic or gender backgrounds. Her images capture experiences she shared with people who lived at borders or tried to cross them, often facing political and military violence.

Fatma Bucak, An incomplete history, 2014, installation view: Acts of Erasure, MOCA Toronto, 2020 Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid
Fattma Bucak, An incomplete history, 2014 Installation view: Acts of Erasure, MOCA Toronto, 2020 Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid

The series depicts discarded objects found along the borderlands of Turkey-Armenia, Syria-Turkey and US-Mexico. Bucak collected and organized them into sculptural compositions in her studio. The depicted items seem real at first but they are more abstract and layered. An incomplete history (2014), shows a bread beside the stone in which it was baked. The cracked stone form has been used many times — a history in itself. Bucak treats her subjects with such respect, their silence is so meditative that it feels like a prayer. Regardless of the absence of people, these artifacts talk about human lives and objects sometimes unveil aspects of history that humans can’t. Beyond their aesthetic appearance we still keep wondering about the hidden narrative. 

Fatma Bucak, De Silencio, 2015, installation view: Acts of Erasure, MOCA Toronto, 2020 Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid
Fatma Bucak, De Silencio, 2015. Installation view: Acts of Erasure, MOCA Toronto, 2020 Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid

There is a rich and sorrowful story behind De Silencio. The artist travelled the path of Latin-American migrants across the US-Mexico border in August, 2015. These people were pressured into leaving their country and entering a state of limbo. It is a difficult journey and people often discard their unnecessary belongings, especially clothes, along the road. Bucak collected many of them and a Mexican migrant woman cut them into small pieces and sewed them together into a patchwork quilt. The quilt is colorful and happy looking, the stories behind it are not. Together they create a juxtaposing, cruel beauty.

Fatma Bucak, Blessed are you who come – Conversation on the Turkish-Armenian border, 2012, installation view: Acts of Erasure, MOCA Toronto, 2020. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid
Fatma Bucak, Blessed are you who come – Conversation on the Turkish-Armenian border (detail), 2012 Installation view: Acts of Erasure, MOCA Toronto, 2020. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid

Blessed are you who come, another video performance (2012, 8’42”), takes place in a Turkish border village; a place of a contentious genocide. There is a lot of tension in this complex scenario. A young woman dressed in black performs the ritual of breaking bread and passing the pieces around. Her actions remind us of the Catholic ceremony of communion. In front of a bombed-out Christian church thirteen old men stand expressing confusion over the woman’s gestures. We can feel the estrangement of the participants, the mistrust between Armenians and Turks, the vulnerability of the young woman who couldn’t predict the reactions of these traditional Muslim men. This performance is very disquieting, but it also gives us the hope of human reconnection.

Installation view: Acts of Erasure, MOCA Toronto, 2020, with works by artists Fatma Bucak and Krista Belle Stewart. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid
Installation view: Acts of Erasure, MOCA Toronto, 2020, with works by artists Fatma Bucak and Krista Belle Stewart. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid

Krista Belle Stewart also addresses rituals, however very different ones. Truth to Material (2019 – ongoing) is a project that involves two artifacts, a video and a series of large photographs printed on vinyl, covering the concrete floor. As a European the respect for art is deeply rooted in me and stepping on artwork is a taboo. Stewart’s work was a challenge for me that I could not overcome without knowing how and where these images were taken and the cultural and ethical layers within them. Understanding this work, with its complex context, was the real challenge.

Stewart visited Germany in 2006 and 2007 when she started to research a subcultural group calling themselves “Indianers”. The “Indianers” belong to a cult built around Karl May, a 19th century writer who created an idealized vision of First Nations people. May’s series of novels depict the adventures of Winnetou, an Apache youth and his German advisor Old Shatterhand – two fictional characters. May’s stories were created under the influence of German romanticism. He was looking for innocent and heroic people, so he invented them and put them into a past before colonialization would ruin them. These ‘bands’ imitate North American Indigenous nations, painstakingly copying their costumes and living in teepees for a week while re-enacting their rituals. I wonder why these invented ‘heroes’ are so popular in Europe even these days. What is it that people appreciate so much in these stories? Honestly, I don’t get it; I guess it’s a boy thing.

Stewart attended a summer gathering with the “Indianers” in 2019. Returning to Germany after thirteen years she still found their ceremonies challenging. As an artist, she wanted to witness what these “Indianers” do and found it very difficult emotionally. “What’s weird about the experience,” she told Philip J. Deloria in an interview for Aperture (2019) “is that they are real . . . but I can’t quite believe it. Because we are real too.” It is a contradiction she still hasn’t overcome. But no matter how uncomfortable she felt in the situation, she has always engaged her subject in good faith and with an open mind.

Krista Belle Stewart, Truth to Material, 2019-ongoing, installation view: Acts of Erasure, MOCA Toronto, 2020. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid
Krista Belle Stewart, Truth to Material, 2019-ongoing. Installation view: Acts of Erasure, MOCA Toronto, 2020. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid

The title of the project Truth to Material comes from Susan Hiller’s theory of ‘truth to materials’ indicating a complex negotiation between an artist’s idea and the one, very particular way it could be realized. Stewart found the true way of presenting her photographs by mounting them on the floor of MOCA. The viewers have to walk on the photographs, scuffing the surface with their feet. The cracks caused by their steps become symbolic as images of faces and rituals of the Indianers become blurry – an act of erasure.

In 2019 she was presented with a dress made by a friend she met in 2007 specifically for Stewart. The Gift (2019) is displayed in a vitrine, so much like regalia in a museum but here it is clearly a faux relic. For Stewart it involves the past, present and future of Indigenous people with all their historical and political issues – not an easy thing to bear or wear. 

What makes German people dress up like Indians and try to copy their ways for a week? It is much more than a summer camp, as the Indianers have 40,000 members in 40 groups. A “hobbyist” group could be considered innocent. The truth behind Indianers is less faultless. Their enactments are built upon their fantasies and truly misrepresent the old and rich cultures and nations who faced colonial displacement and undergo racism even now. There is also a danger that their false representation will overshadow or even replace the true history and present life of these Indigenous people. For those German “Indianers” their own history is difficult to face too. Their present life may be boring and taxing. Their desire for escapism is understandable. But as Stewart concluded in her conversation with Gabrielle Moser of MOCA (October, 2020), what the Indianers do “is not funny, it is not OK. They should find a different hobby.”

*Exhibition information: Acts of Erasure, Perceptions of heritage, indigeneity, and political identity, Fatma Bucak / Krista Belle Stewart at Museum of Contemporary Art, Toronto, October 1, 2020 – ongoing. The exhibition is organized in partnership with Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival.

Liz Larner: As Stars and Seas Entwine

Regen Projects in Los AngelesMarch 27 – May 22, 2021

Detail of Liz Larner work combining plastic refuse with acrylic paint.

“Plastics…were used in furniture, clothing, containers, appliances, just about everything. Sometimes the poisons leached into food or water and caused cancer, and sometimes there was a fire and plastics burned and gassed people to death…. The only place that has enough of it to be a real danger is right here.” — Octavia E. Butler, Adulthood Rites, 1988

Excerpted from the Regen Projects press release: The works on view reveal Larner’s acceptance of Posthumanist thought that the Anthropocene induces as the world becomes beleaguered by rapidly depleting resources and the massive waste that accompanies our extractive industries. The large low floor sculpture, a sea foam/meerschaum drift, seems to billow and surge through the space. The undulating form constructed of conjoined plastic refuse was collected by Larner over the course of three years. Serving as a meditation on the pervasive and exponential presence of plastic in the world, the sculpture is at once beautiful and horrible, a complex combination that evokes the pathos of its material. This Meerschaum Drift’s materiality belies its intricate form and supposes a transformation of crude material into an art object. Plastic-derived acrylic paint applied to its surface gives the sculpture the overall sense of movement in color from deep blue to green to white, evoking the ephemeral quality of sea foam for which it is named.

Liz Larner’s As Stars and Seas Entwine exhibition at Regen Projects in Los Angeles presented itself as an opportunity to revisit her much earlier exhibition at Regen Projects, one that I wrote about almost 24 years ago. There was a need, I felt, to “correct” my earlier impressions of her work. Admittedly, my reading had been a limited take – the siphoned sliver of an aspect of the work of a seriously-minded artist. It seemed incongruous for an artist undergirded by a weighty philosophical base to produce something so light and fun.

Scanned page from the Fall 1998 print edition of dArt International featuring reviews of Kenny Scharf at the Kantor Gallery and Liz Larner at Regen Projects in Los Angeles.
Scanned page from the Fall 1998 print edition of dArt International featuring reviews of Kenny Scharf at the Kantor Gallery and Liz Larner at Regen Projects in Los Angeles.

Beverly Buchanan: Shacks and Legends, 1985-2011

Opening at Andrew Edlin Gallery in New York, curated by Aurélie Bernard Wortsman https://www.edlingallery.com
March 20 – May 1, 2021 

An excerpt from the gallery press release: “A storyteller, Buchanan often attached to her sculptures handwritten or typed narratives, which she referred to as “legends,” that gave voice to a cast of characters, some remembered and others imagined. Sometimes she stapled them to the underside of a piece. In one of her favorite works, Orangeburg County Family House, 1993, Buchanan wrote in Sharpie on the outer sides of the structure the names of families from her hometown which she took from her high school yearbook and a calendar from her local church.”

Most likely it was the summer of 1989 that I took in the Beverly Buchanan exhibit at the Steinbaum Krauss Gallery in New York City’s Soho district. At that point in time, dArt International magazine had barely rounded out its first six months of publishing life. What had impressed me about the work was Buchanan’s “gift of transporting herself to the place where the haziness of time generalizes events.” We believe Buchanan because “…she is her own truth, an embodiment and fruit of the soil that she portrays. The shacks of wood, tar paper, tin, and oil pastel serve as proof of the passage and are convenient emblems of her journey.”

The Spring 1998 edition of dArt, highlighting page 36 with reviews on Beverly Buchanan and Vito Acconci.
The Spring 1998 edition of dArt, highlighting page 36 with reviews on Beverly Buchanan and Vito Acconci.

The Universe-Makers

The Work of Bassmi Ibrahim, Dellamarie Parrilli, Victoria Lowe, John Lyon Paul, and Anne Marchand https://bit.ly/ccpunimakgrp

by Dominique Nahas

Bassmi Ibrahim, Isness 136, 2016, mixed media on panel, 48 x 36 inches
Bassmi Ibrahim, Isness 136, 2016, mixed media on panel, 48 x 36 inches

Bassmi Ibrahim, Dellamarie Parrilli, Victoria Lowe, John Lyon Paul, and Anne Marchand are our universe-makers. To place their highly differentiated abstract aesthetic visions together so that they seem to react and inspire each other reminds me that this exhibition of visual persuasions is perhaps like visual chamber music of individual voices, heard collectively. These individual voices, passionately unique, create indelible experiences for the beholder.  

Bassmi Ibrahim’s Isness series are meditatively induced visual exaltations (he would perhaps call his artworks “emanations” as they draw you into his soul-world). Using giant soft Chinese brushes Bassmi creates extraordinarily suggestive, sonorously layered liquid forms – entities possessing, seemingly, individual personalities. Each softly shaped abstract form, like a taxonomic laboratory specimen plucked out of an imaginary collection of gigantic organisms, floats in stillness, on an undifferentiated white expanse. Taken together Bassmi’s color fields are paradoxical in appearance – mesmerizingly so.  Vaporous, veil like yet robust, his open-ended forms easily elicit the suggestion of after-image contours of a flower or a sea creature, or of an air-bound and fleeting entity. 

Dellamarie Parrilli, Blue Iris, 2016, watercolor on canvas, 72 x 60 inches
Dellamarie Parrilli, Blue Iris, 2016, watercolor on canvas, 72 x 60 inches

Dellamarie Parrilli’s painterly abstractions are compositions that are all at once structured, experimental and playful. Works such as Blue Iris and Heart Connection (both 2016) bespeak of a vision that passionately attempts at grasping an essence, a central nature that is then extended outward from centrality to peripherality. In later works produced in 2017 as in Aperture, Seek, and In Search Of  Parrilli creates painterly emanations suggestive of energetic systems whose intensely colored paint strokes are thickly layered to create the illusion of relief, a dimensionalized world of gritty punk- lacework. 

Victoria Lowe, Ener-Space VI , 1985-2020, giclee print, 20 x 20 inches
Victoria Lowe, Ener-Space VI , 1985-2020, giclee print, 20 x 20 inches

Victoria Lowe’s exquisite works on canvas and on paper glow with saturated auras and colored coronas. Her Ener Space series of giclée prints have a rapturous other-worldly quality that seem to ask how do we experience, how do we dream, how do we conjure up the immateriality of time and space as well as of timelessness itself? Lowes’s abstract realms suggest purely eidetic manifestations of ambient becoming, of boundless expansion. Equally marvelous her artworks are so radically reduced and understated they seem to resonate with moments of quiet revelation. 

John Lyon Paul, Morningstar Gateway, 2019, acrylic and collaged elements on plate glass, 32 x 32 inches
John Lyon Paul, Morningstar Gateway, 2019, acrylic and collaged elements on plate glass, 32 x 32 inches

John Lyon Paul’s immersive abstractions painted on glass seem to be meditations on the tension between dispersed fragmentation and harmonious togetherness. His combination of illuminated micro-spaces and patterns recall filigreed intervals and retinal floaters that have the ethereal radiance of stained-glass windows. Paul’s artworks are hushed visual meditations as well as measured reflections of possibilities. 

Anne Marchand, Overview Effect, 2019, acrylic enamel, ink on canvas, 60 x 60 inches
Anne Marchand, Overview Effect, 2019, acrylic enamel, ink on canvas, 60 x 60 inches

Anne Marchand’s colorful aesthetic vision is an involvement in an overall sensibility that delights in an abandonment to sensuous immanence and no small sense of mystery. One senses an enormous physicality in this work. As in Overview Effect (2019) Marchand conveys a near-ecstatic concern animating universes of swirling, congregating, interacting forms.  The artist’s acrylic, enamel, and ink brushstrokes constitute veils and swathes of colors comprised of different viscosities. They converge in a play of presence and absence on what might be immense, restless fields of time and shifting space.