High + Low: A 45-Year Retrospective of the Work of D. Dominick Lombardi

by Eric Nord

D. Dominick Lombardi, “Whistling Bird”, 1998, courtesy of the artist.
Whistling Bird 1998, acrylic, wood, papier-mâché, acrylic medium, flower hair clip, 16 1/2 x 17 x 13 1/2 inches

For nearly 250 years, since the first documented occurrence in London in 1775, the artist retrospective has evolved and grown in significance to become a rite of passage within an artist’s career. Arguably, it is now considered an essential accomplishment for any serious artist, legitimizing their inclusion within the canon of art history, and signaling their arrival to a level of public, or at least academic, acknowledgement and recognition. Unfortunately, this standardized format can often feel stodgy, resulting in dry, passionless scholarly surveys at one extreme, or blockbuster sensations that have the intellectual weight and emotional depth of a greatest hits medley, at the other. However, there are rare occasions when a retrospective is able to accomplish the invaluable task of reassessing an artist’s body of work, and offer a larger context through which to better understand and appreciate the true impact of their contributions. Even rarer still is the retrospective which can demonstrate the influence of entire artistic movements upon subsequent movements and the contemporary artists working within them. Fortunately, “High + Low: A Forty-Five Year Retrospective” featuring the artwork of D. Dominick Lombardi, at the UCCS Galleries of Contemporary Art, in Colorado Springs, through December 12, 2021, lies solidly within these last two categories.

Installation View, High + Low: D. Dominick Lombardi Retrospective, Photo: Wes Magyar
Installation View, High + Low: D. Dominick Lombardi Retrospective, Photo: Wes Magyar 

Originally organized and curated by T. Michael Martin, and further curated by Daisy McGowan for the GOCA space, the retrospective is comprised of over eighty different artworks spanning twenty distinct chapters of Lombardi’s extensive career. The task of contextualizing these highly divergent styles and aesthetics must have been challenging, given the breadth of the work. The result is surprisingly well balanced between establishing a chronological timeline of artistic development and providing the viewer an opportunity to see the cumulative impact of the artist’s varied explorations. Each distinct chapter of Lombardi’s practice is given a moment of focus, with several examples from each period shown within small groupings. However, for the current iteration, McGowan has also added an overview wall, hung salon-style that features an example of each of the chapters displayed in conversation with one another. This allows the viewer to compare and contrast each style, and discover an elusive but important thread that weaves throughout the entire body of work.

Vegetarian Earthquake (1985), oil, canvas, 36 x 50 inches
Vegetarian Earthquake  (1985), oil, canvas, 36 x 50 inches

Lombardi readily admits that his artistic influences have run the gamut, from Picasso’s “Guernica”, considered by many to be one of the highest accomplishments of fine art, to Zap Comix, the 1960s subversive zine that introduced the world to the irreverent and enormously influential illustrations of Robert Crumb. Evidenced within Lombardi’s paintings and sculptures are myriad stylistic prompts, from Daliesque surrealist figuration in his “Cyborg Sunbathers” from 1975, to the angular and angsty forms from the 1980s “East Village” period, which for me, evoke the prickly edge of German Expressionists like Ernst Kirchner and Otto Dix. Among the sculptural artworks from Lombardi’s “Early Sculptures” and “Vessels” of the early 1990s, are assemblages of ready-made and found objects reminiscent of Raoul Hausmann’s “Mechanical Head” from the 1920s. While more recent three dimensional cartoon-like creations from his “Post Apocalyptic Tattoos” and “Cross Contamination” periods, though disguised with smooth and bulbous painted papier-mâché surfaces, contain hidden armatures comprised of random objects that are equally eclectic.

Il Pagliaccio 1990, wood, bowling pin, traffic sign, metal, 28 x 18 x 18 inches
Il Pagliaccio 1990, wood, bowling pin, traffic sign, metal, 28 x 18 x 18 inches
Head #1,030 2004, India ink, acid free paper, 14 x 14 inches
Head #1,030 2004, India ink, acid free paper, 14 x 14 inches

Subsequent chapters in Lombardi’s career experiment with and exploit an array of pop culture currents, among them graffiti, tattoos, and stickers. I say currents rather than trends because these particular types of artistic expression were initially subversive undercurrents, born from counterculture. Their ascendance to pop culture status occurred gradually, across multiple generations, perhaps from the shear pervasiveness of their imagery and our very American fascination with anti-establishment individuality. But what is the thread that ties all of these divergent stylistic explorations together?

Blue Boy (bust) 2001, acrylic, gesso, rags, laundry soap bottle, wood, papier-mâché, acrylic medium, 22 x 12 x 8 inches
Blue Boy (bust) 2001, acrylic, gesso, rags, laundry soap bottle, wood, papier-mâché, acrylic medium, 22 x 12 x 8 inches

The addition of the overview wall, which developed as a result of adapting the exhibition from its original home at the Clara M. Eagle Gallery, at Murray State University, to the configuration of the GOCA space, is perhaps an essential element to the exhibition’s success, allowing the viewer to grasp an important constant among the stylistic chaos. While engaging with this assortment of artworks, I began contemplating the physical work behind the objects. Lombardi’s artistic process, his utilization of materials, and his choices of technique, include assemblage, collage, and scraffito. What emerged was the idea that Dadaist and Surrealist philosophies were literally “at play” within this body of work. My assumption was further confirmed after listening to the talk Lombardi gave at the UCCS campus, in which he described challenging himself to approach his paintings with an entirely new style each day, like an Exquisite Corpse exercise, or Automatism.

Street Urchin #36 2011, sand, acrylic medium, objects, electric light, 27 x 26 x 21 inches
Street Urchin #36 2011, sand, acrylic medium, objects, electric light, 27 x 26 x 21 inches

But how are two early 1900s European artistic movements, prevalent in Lombardi’s artistic practice, relevant to American culture in the latter half of the Twentieth Century and into the new millennium?

I believe that Dadaism and Surrealism may have been appreciated as foreign artistic movements, but they remained primarily irrelevant to American culture for several decades. The excess of the 1920s gave way to the Great Depression and then the Second World War. Following the defeat of Nazi Germany and Japan, the U.S. experienced tremendous economic growth and new found optimism. Concurrently, Abstract Expressionism was being aggressively promoted and exported by the U.S. government as a distinctly American art form. It wasn’t until the late 1960s and early 70s, following America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights Movement exposing the hypocrisy of freedom and equality, that American society possessed the skepticism and subversive edge to fully understand what these movements were about. The anti-war and pro civil rights youth culture of the period gave rise to new artistic movements that aligned with these rebellious philosophies. And while they may not have been directly connected, they shared a similar psychological baseline, and spawned artwork that resonated. Lombardi’s artistic output over the past forty-five years epitomizes a dichotomy within American culture. It aspires to the highest of artistic ideals, while mischievously expressing its distrust and disdain for established institutions.

Witness Against Logic 1987, oil, canvas, found carved wood, 43 x 39 x 3 inches
Witness Against Logic 1987, oil, canvas, found carved wood, 43 x 39 x 3 inches

Eric Nord is an artist, curator, and writer. He received his degree in Art History from the University of Denver. He previously worked for Sperone Westwater Gallery, The Brooklyn Academy of Music, and was the Executive Director of the E. E. Cummings Centennial Celebration while living in New York City in the 1990s. Currently he is the Executive Director of Leon Nonprofit Arts Organization in Denver, Colorado.

American Earth Landscape

by Christopher Hart Chambers

Alan Sonfist, American Earth Landscape, 2019-2021, Primal Earth sealed on canvas, 10 x 15 ft. (3 x 4.6 m.)
Alan Sonfist, American Earth Landscape, 2019-2021, Primal Earth sealed on canvas, 10 x 15 ft. (3 x 4.6 m.)
Alan Sonfist, Mud Slide California, 1991, mixed media on canvas, 48 x 48 in. (121.9 x 121.9 cm.)
Alan Sonfist, Mud Slide California, 1991, mixed media on canvas, 48 x 48 in. (121.9 x 121.9 cm.)

Legendary earthworks artist and forerunner of the movement Alan Sonfist rarely mounts gallery exhibitions. However, this fall his showing at Shin gallery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan is truly brilliant. It features a brief overview of his thought process since the early 1960s via tangible indoor pieces, most hanging on the walls in a variety of media. Saliently, one large new work (10 by 15 feet) consists of native soil and sand samples adhered to a rectangular flat surface in a map formation of the 48 contiguous United States, plus a bit of Mexico and Canada – demarcated not by borders but by the areas those samples are naturally indigenous to, and looking a bit like a topographical map. Sonfist’s work is essentially an outcropping of minimalism, so therefore one might not expect a lot of sensuality. Yet particularly, this new tour de force is simply lovely to behold with its brown and tan tones smoothly transitioning from passage to passage, or field to plain; mountain to valley. Other pieces include canvases featuring monochromatic native dirt(s) with branches attached. As the artist has often commented, “My work is about the history of the land.” There are photographs such as a diptych that depicts his hand held to resemble the shape of the tree leaf on the corresponding panel, and bronze sand castings of various natural forms. Sonfist is arguably the original progenitor of the ever expanding genre of conceptual land art which becomes increasingly popular each passing decade in tandem with our growing acknowledgement of the damage our species is perpetrating on the environment; and its ultimate purist. It is an unusual pleasure to view his efforts indoors at a Manhattan art gallery as the majority of his efforts are in the field and spread about the planet in monumental projects. 

Alan Sonfist, Leaf Met the Paper in Time, 1974, mixed media on paper, 11 x 14 in. (27.9 x 35.5 cm.)
Alan Sonfist, Leaf Met the Paper in Time, 1974, mixed media on paper, 11 x 14 in. (27.9 x 35.5 cm.)
Alan Sonfist, American Earth Landscape installation view
Alan Sonfist, American Earth Landscape installation view

American Earth Landscape at the Shin gallery in New York City, October 26 to December 4, 2021

Bobbie Moline-Kramer: The Power of One

by Jen Dragon

Bobbie Moline-Kramer’s solo exhibition The Power of One at Lichtundfire Gallery is an installation that spans both time and space using the study of constellations as a touchstone. The artist begins with the unique position of stars relating to various leaders during specific historic moments over a geographical point on earth. These “heroes” are individual subjects selected because of their courage to make a difference in the world. A chart of the heavens upon the birth of Greta Thumberg is the subject of one painting, as well as the moment of death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg is depicted by another.

Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Washington D.C. 2020, 2021, oil, acrylic, gold on wood, 24 x 24 inches
Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Washington D.C. 2020, 2021, oil, acrylic, gold on wood, 24 x 24 inches

Dolly Parton’s contribution to the development of a Covid vaccine earned her inclusion and the moment of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination is the subject of a more somber, clouded painting. 

Moline-Kramer immortalizes these individual portraits as constellations in their own right, shaped and guided by the astrological forces that brought them into being. Using 16th century glazing and gilding techniques, Moline-Kramer incises these sky charts with the same precision that antique celestial maps were prepared and painted by Italian and Dutch Renaissance masters.  The luminosity of Moline-Kramer’s cobalt blue layers recreate the light and depth of the starry night with the shadow of a portrait of the subject hovering among their specific constellations.  

However, the artist does not just linger in the past but creates an adjacent installation that employs cutting edge technology to deconstruct each constellation painting into 3-D computer printed layers. Each layer of this installation is suspended from the ceiling and appears as ephemeral, variously hued flakes of sky floating down.  

Al di Là © Bobbie Moline-Kramer 2021 computer 3-D printed sculpture detail and installation view for Bobbie Moline-Kramer: The Power of One at Lichtundfire Gallery
Al di Là © Bobbie Moline-Kramer 2021 computer 3-D printed sculpture detail and installation view for Bobbie Moline-Kramer: The Power of One at Lichtundfire Gallery

These magical, translucent forms invite the viewer to not only become part of the fabric of the artworks but to feel their own involvement in the unseen forces that guide us all in relationship to one another. This paradoxical synergy combines facts with mysticism, mythology with mathematics, and traditional Renaissance technique with 21st century computer printing technology that renders this exhibition not only about time and space but most importantly, about being.

Bobbie Moline-Kramer
Bobbie Moline-Kramer

“Bobbie Moline-Kramer: The Power of One” at Lichtundfire Gallery 175 Rivington Street, New York, New York  on View Through October 30, 2021. General Gallery Hours: Tuesday — Saturday, 12 — 6 pm. More info: Priska Juschka at 917.675.7835, info@lichtundfire.com

Winfred Rembert: 1945 – 2021

Fort Gansevoort, New York City – October 8 – December 18, 2021

by Christopher Hart Chambers

We are animals. We do cruel things to one another. Indeed large galaxies engulf smaller ones. It’s physics. That doesn’t excuse horror: it exists. As an art critic, social justice is not my forte. I write about Winfred Rembert‘s artwork because of its unique graphic sensibility, tactile sensuality, and rhythmic musicality, regardless of its poignant social critique and the obscene hardships the artist endured. 

Winfred Rembert, All Me, 2002, dye on carved and tooled leather, 25.25 x 25.25 inches
Winfred Rembert, All Me, 2002, dye on carved and tooled leather, 25.25 x 25.25 inches

Inarguably this is folk art for the sincere, unschooled naif figuration. These paintings on tooled leather almost fall into the category of bas relief for their meticulous textural quality. Three dimensional modeling is sometimes achieved by pressings into the leather and outlines are burnished into it. The intricately repetitive patterning is reminiscent of surface and textile design. For the most part the colorful dyes are applied in flat, hard edged sections, although here and about a little brushwork remains evident.  Formal perspective and color theory are completely ignored; horses, human figures, and other organic elements are the same size regardless of where in space our common sense tells us they must reside. These aspects amount to remarkably charming compositions, full of joy and light despite the awful story of repression and abuse they manifest. The work is original and genuine. In fact, Rembert learned his skills from a fellow inmate while doing time in jail down south during the shameful Jim Crow era of American History.

Winfred Rembert, Picking Cotton with Boss Man, 2007, dye on carved and tooled leather, 58.5 x 30.25 inches
Winfred Rembert, Picking Cotton with Boss Man, 2007, dye on carved and tooled leather, 58.5 x 30.25 inches

I never liked the highbrow term, “outsider art.” Insider in this context only means one studied a particular set of directives set forth by an agreed upon body of others. We all use what is at our disposal to the best of our abilities. Winfred Rembert‘s art is not endearing and appealing because of formal schooling or the lack thereof. It is likable and very good because of the artist’s natural talent, unique vision, and persistent hard work.

Fred Gutzeit: Deep Nature Unfolded

A Retrospective, 1966-2021 at theCatherine Fosnot Art Gallery and Center in New London, CT  from September 23 to November 13, 2021

by John Mendelsohn

Fred Gutzeit exhibition installation view
Fred Gutzeit exhibition installation view

To create a retrospective exhibition of an artist’s work is to tell a story. It embodies a desire to shape the raw material of work made over many years into an inevitable, convincing narrative. The challenge is to not tell a tale so intriguing that it becomes more compelling than spirit of the art itself.

In the case of Fred Gutzeit: Deep Nature Unfolded at the Catherine Fosnot Art Gallery and Center in New London, CT, the narrative focuses on the artist’s fascination with the visible world and the invisible mathematical structures that lie beneath it. Seeing the world as an energic matrix is described as an animating motivation for Gutzeit. But equally, when looking at the art, we intuit the artist’s need to make something that looks like the mind at work. His art is an immersion in the swimming, propulsive movements of both nature and human nature, with all their contradictory impulses on full display.

Barbara’s Falls Fred Gutzeit (1999) Acrylic on canvas (composite of 15 canvases) 108” x 168” Courtesy of the artist and The Catherine Fosnot Art Gallery and Center, New London CT
Barbara’s Falls, Fred Gutzeit (1999), acrylic on canvas (composite of 15 canvases) 108” x 168.” Courtesy of the artist and the Catherine Fosnot Art Gallery and Center, New London CT

The exhibition covers 55 years of paintings, drawings, and prints, beginning with a series of fifteen finely executed watercolors of the wild environment – rocks, trees, and waterfalls. The same scenes are also depicted in Barbara’s Falls (1999), a similarly formatted grid painting in oil, whose disjunctions of time and perspective are incorporated into the composition. Not in the exhibition are the artist’s meticulous paintings of sidewalk pavement from the mid-1970s and portraits of dogs from the early 1990s. All of this work has a keen sense of close, almost obsessive looking, along with a compulsion to record it.

Lee Waves Binary Fred Gutzeit (2009) Digital Vector print laminated onto aluminum, 17” x 17” Published courtesy of the artist and The Catherine Fosnot Art Gallery, New London CT
Fred Gutzeit, Lee Waves Binary (2009), digital vector print laminated onto aluminum, 17” x 17.” Published courtesy of the artist and the Catherine Fosnot Art Gallery, New London CT

A curious, momentous realization for Gutzeit in the early 2000s was seeing into nature’s visually rhythmic phenomena, such as rippling water and the bark of an oak tree, and reimagining them as graphic patterns that resembled the waves and distorted grids of Op Art. Simultaneously, two more factors were influencing Gutzeit’s paintings: mathematical representations of space/time, and the digital processing of images. The mathematical models that intrigued him were of Calabi-Yau Manifolds, representing folded space, whose properties apply to theoretical physics, particularly in superstring theory. These forms appear in the work as vortexes of energy, bulging, twisting, and reforming in constant flux.

Viva Calabi-Yau Binary Fred Gutzeit (2009) Acrylic on paper on canvas, Diptych 72” x 144”
Published courtesy of the artist and The Catherine Fosnot Art Gallery, New London CT
Fred Gutzeit, Viva Calabi-Yau Binary (2009), acrylic on paper on canvas, diptych 72” x 144.” Published courtesy of the artist and the Catherine Fosnot Art Gallery, New London CT

Gutzeit’s paintings in the exhibition’s largest gallery have this quality of manic transformation fully revealed. Digital images of unfurling geometric patterns are bent and deformed as if slow moving plasma. The original digital outputting has been tiled and affixed to the canvas, and made into a continuous image. However, Gutzeit is not content with the complex elegance of the original geometry. Rather forms are often mirrored, but with unexpected shifts from one side to the other, and with fractal-like repetitions appearing at radically changing scales. 

Additionally, the artist displays in his paintings a range of realities of representation: computer-aided alteration of liquid geometry, painted areas that are then scanned and outputted, and painting directly onto digitally printed surfaces. The result is a kind of delirium of perception, a conundrum of what is actual. In his use of computer graphics in his art, Gutzeit shares with a growing number of contemporary artists an interest in melding digital technology with the analogue tactility of painting.

Otter Falls #13 Fred Gutzeit (2004) Acrylic on Canvas 50” x 50” Published courtesy of the artist and The Catherine Fosnot Art Gallery, New London CT
Fred Gutzeit, Otter Falls #13 (2004), acrylic on canvas, 50” x 50.” Published courtesy of the artist and the Catherine Fosnot Art Gallery, New London CT

In the most recent works in the exhibition, Gutzeit uses the signature of individuals writing their initials as the basis for drawings and paintings. The signatures turn into multi-colored arabesques, arrayed against flooding watercolor or intensely patterned fields. While capturing something of each person who has provided his or her initials, we sense that individuality is being subsumed in a coloristic spectacle, the self is lost to abstract transfiguration. Larger grid paintings combine many of the signature pieces in miniature, and overlaid by linear tracery, with the individual joining a mass of impersonal energy. The eccentric play in these works is central to Gutzeit’s infatuation with permutation and perpetual making that is its own reward.

There is a sense in this artist’s paintings of a consciousness at work, revealing itself through the warping of form and feeling. A joyous, driven quality of over-muchness expresses itself in these paintings. The ordered and the organic, the grotesque and the elegant, anxiety and a kind of high-spirited humor all go hand-in-hand. These poetic works constitute a waking dream: geometry dances with wildness and the self is reunited with the natural.

Future Life PC Fred Gutzeit (2021) Acrylic on paper on canvas 72”x72” Published courtesy of the artist and The Catherine Fosnot Art Gallery, New London CT
Fred Gutzeit, Future Life PC (2021), acrylic on paper on canvas, 72”x72.” Published courtesy of the artist and the Catherine Fosnot Art Gallery, New London CT

For all the evocations in this exhibition of folded space, multi-verses, and deep nature, we are finally left with the paintings themselves – personal, emphatic expressions in whose art is an intimation of human mysteries beyond ordinary apprehension.

Bounty

A Virtual Exhibition at Rhombus Space

by D. Dominick Lombardi

Jean Rim, August (2021), mixed medium and dried flowers on wood, 36 inch diameter
Jean Rim, August (2021), mixed medium and dried flowers on wood, 36 inch diameter

I have been asked a number of times to write a review of a virtual exhibition, and have never felt quite right about it. In the past, and certainly prior to COVID, I would cover an exhibition that I witnessed in person if it inspired thoughtful contemplation. I never saw that as a possibility in the virtual world, but I never closed the door entirely, as the pandemic seems to be as stubborn as the folks that are choosing to forgo getting vaccinated. So here we are – my first attempt.

Bounty, the current virtual exhibition featured at rhombusspace.com is designed to offer “the fall harvest, the fruits of earlier seeds planted” as it relates to the time spent in the studio these last 18 months. The exhibition wonders, what were artists thinking before and during COVID, what changed or didn’t change, and how did it affect an individual artist’s studio practice. There, I’ve already done something I rarely do, I read the first paragraph (after the artist’s names) of the press release before I started writing. I usually prefer to just go by what I see and not read the press release prior to my writing, unless I have had some sort of forewarning that I really need some background before I view the work.

Getting back to the exhibition – there are eight artists: Enrico Gomez, Rachael Gorchov, Adam Novak, Jean Rim, Corrie Slawson, Karla Wozniak, Holly Wong, and Etty Yaniv. Since I am only familiar with a few of these names, I will limit my commentary to the works in the exhibition, and not speculate on any changes due to COVID unless it is obvious in the work or titles.

Enrico Gomez, Cuervo IV Redux (2020) charcoal on paper, 11 x 11 inches unframed
Enrico Gomez, Cuervo IV Redux (2020) charcoal on paper, 11 x 11 inches unframed

Enrico Gomez’s two drawings are from the Redux series. They feature somewhat complex geometric forms that bleed out, as if over-saturated in charcoal pigment and swept, or, are they sucking in errant medium like metal shavings to a magnet? You know, like those Wooly Willy toys with the little metal shavings behind the plastic barrier where you can guide with a little magnet, to add hair and a mustache to Willy’s hairless face. On the other hand, if you look at that directional dust as movement, it gives the work a feeling of weightlessness, while the areas left untouched adds more than a bit of finesse and control in these otherwise, curiously formed compositions. Rachael Gorchov’s two acrylic paintings on panel are comprised of multiple layers of thinly applied washes and bold brush strokes. Again, like Gomez, movement comes to the fore, while here, we see somewhat obscured faces in both, resulting in a sort of crossing out of any representation with forceful non-representational brushes of abstraction. Perhaps this is the change the press release is referring to?

Adam Novak, Run1 (2021), oil on canvas, 72 x 48 inches
Adam Novak, Run1 (2021), oil on canvas, 72 x 48 inches

Adam Novak’s two oil paintings, Run1 and Run2 feature the word ‘RUN’ from the title, atop and amongst very loosely suggested bodies that move through the picture plane. The simplicity of the content is complicated by the elusive approach to word and form, while the energetic painting techniques brings excitement to the eye. Jean Rim offers two multi-media works that utilize a variety of techniques including collage and assemblage. I am particularly drawn to August (2021), for its obsessive and meditative approach to the content, while the overall composition, which is in a tondo format, keeps the eye moving and one’s interest piqued. 

Corrie Slawson, Blue Footed Boobies are endangered; Harlequin Toad, now extinct. Rabbit is distraught (2020), oil and mixed media on plywood, 24 x 48 inches (Corrie's work appears Courtesy Shaheen Modern and Contemporary)
Corrie Slawson, Blue Footed Boobies are endangered; Harlequin Toad, now extinct. Rabbit is distraught (2020), oil and mixed media on plywood, 24 x 48 inches (Corrie’s work appears Courtesy Shaheen Modern and Contemporary)

Corrie Slawson has strong concerns for the state of the world. Using oil and mixed media on plywood, Slawson shows the influence of James Rosenquist, and his signature Pop Art panoramas. Conversely, while Rosenquist focused primarily on popular culture and advertising, Slawson broadens the range adding extinct animals and the sadness that ensues, as with Blue Footed Boobies are endangered; Harlequin Toad, now extinct. Rabbit is distraught (2020). Karla Wozniak’s paintings are more in the Paul Klee and Adolph Gottlieb realm. Patterns, colors, textures and shapes all compete for our attention, as light brings hope in Fire, Shapes, Silverware (2021), and night brings dreams, as in Egg + Shoe (2021).

Etty Yaniv, Terrestrial 8 (2020),  acrylic, ink, stucco, graphite, flashe, gesso, plastic, paper on canvas, 8 x 8 inches
Etty Yaniv, Terrestrial 8 (2020),  acrylic, ink, stucco, graphite, flashe, gesso, plastic, paper on canvas, 8 x 8 inches

Holly Wong’s beautiful mixed media works immediately brought to mind Frank Stella’s prints from the early 1990’s that were inspired by the cigar smoke rings he blew, captured, computerized, then turned into 3D renderings. In both instances, with Wong and Stella’s compositions, there is this seemingly endless level of movement and gesture that is clearly amplified by attention-grabbing color and graceful line. Etty Yaniv’s two painterly canvases also have indications of organic forms, only in this instance, the mixes of media and the turbulent techniques are much more mesmerizingly tactile and demanding of our attention. Utilizing a number of curious materials, including the application of bits of plastic, we are witness to a wild ride through the spiritual essence of the natural, as opposed to the literal representations of one’s first impressions.

Text In Art

at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities in Colorado

by D. Dominick Lombardi

Roland Bernier: In Other Words, Installation View (2021), all images courtesy of Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities unless otherwise stated
Roland Bernier: In Other WordsInstallation View (2021), all images courtesy of Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities unless otherwise stated

Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Ed Ruscha, and Christopher Wool are just a few of the most renowned artists who have very successfully used words as key elements in their art. After all, visual art is a form of communication, and the addition or focus on text in the creative process can be a very powerful tool. Currently, the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities in Arvada, Colorado is presenting two excellent exhibitions curated by Emily Grace King and Collin Parson that focus on a number of contemporary artists who too address the import and range of text in art. 

In the main gallery, on the first floor of this long-standing, unique, multi-purpose arts center is the solo exhibition Roland Bernier: In Other Words, which features many years of compelling text inspired art. What I find most alluring here, is the artist’s focused and unwavering intent, and the variety of materials employed to project humor, optimism, cynicism and social commentary through words and text.

Left: Roland Bernier, Untitled (Cluf) (1969), 19 x 24 inches, pen and ink drawing; Right: Roland Bernier, Untitled (Sompf) (1969), 18 x 24 inches, pen and ink drawing, (Represented by Walker Fine Art)
Left: Roland Bernier, Untitled (Cluf) (1969), 19 x 24 inches, pen and ink drawing; Right: Roland Bernier, Untitled (Sompf) (1969), 18 x 24 inches, pen and ink drawing, (Represented by Walker Fine Art)

Two of the earliest works in the exhibition, Untitled (Cluf) and Untitled (Sompf), both from 1969, show something of an underground, counter culture feel with hints of Edward Gorey. In Untitled (Sompf), there seems to be a protest going on, one with security forces attempting to squelch the momentum, while both works feature a jumble of legible and illegible demands that add up to the captivating mayhem of these dream-like scenes.

Center Foreground: Roland Bernier, GPT (2003), 32 x 48 x 48 inches, mixed media, wood, paint and rope, (Represented by Walker Fine Art)
Center Foreground: Roland Bernier, GPT (2003), 32 x 48 x 48 inches, mixed media, wood, paint and rope, (Represented by Walker Fine Art)

The lion’s share of the exhibition are works from the past 25-30 years, where Bernier’s relentless dedication to the word or letter totally dominates his oeuvre. Visitors may find the more Pop Art suggestive works in this exhibition reveal the real genius of this artist. For instance, GPT (2003), which is dominated by a park-bench green box-like cart, sporting spoked go-kart wheels and a rope, and carrying systematically stacked oversized wooden letters, is noticeably impractical, yet playfully awkward. An excellent commentary on how communication can be burdensome and hyperbolic.

Left: Roland Bernier, Soap Opera (1997), 50 x 120 inches, mixed media, Xerox and wood, (Represented by Walker Fine Art)
Left: Roland Bernier, Soap Opera (1997), 50 x 120 inches, mixed media, Xerox and wood, (Represented by Walker Fine Art)

Soap Opera (1997) is composed of 35 to 40 words made of block letter collages covered with colorful laundry soap box cardboard. Brand names such as CheerBold and Tide brilliantly contrast the words they decorate such as ‘indifferent’, ‘silence’ and ‘negative’, suggesting much more than just commentary on the culture of this daytime genre. With work like Chit Chat and Word Works 2, both created in 1997-98, it is easy to see the incredible dedication to quality and craft Bernier brings to the table in this very important exhibition.

Continuing the theme on the upper floor galleries is the group exhibition Word Play, which features the works of 15 contemporary artists. What is most notable here is the curatorial approach taken by King and Parson to offer an expansive variety of approaches to language and text, while the materials used vary from digital to straight up graphite on paper. 

The two digital video artists in the exhibition are Jeff Page and Joel Swanson. Page offers us a fast moving video where a pile of coarsely cut out letters move stop-action style, up and down onto a corner created by two adjacent angular walls. The text is nearly impossible to read in situ as it moves too quickly, however, one may decipher some of the phrasing by videoing the projection with a camera phone, then go frame by frame to read the words: “vocal fry,” “kinda dark,” “girly voice” and “2 gay 4 work.” Whether or not anything here indicates conflict or identity concerns, the overall visual presentation before my stop-action analysis reminded me of the 1920, silent horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, due to this work’s awkward movements and abrupt angles.

Foreground: Joel Swanson, NO/NOT/NOTHING (2021), powder coated aluminum and cable, approx. 72 x 72 inches; Right Middle-ground: Merriam Webster, 1995 (2021), (Represented by David B. Smith Gallery), found dictionary illustrations and digital animation,3:46; Background: Jeff Page, 39 Facepalms (2018), digital video
Foreground: Joel Swanson, NO/NOT/NOTHING (2021), powder coated aluminum and cable, approx. 72 x 72 inches; Right Middle-ground: Merriam Webster, 1995 (2021), (Represented by David B. Smith Gallery), found dictionary illustrations and digital animation,3:46; Background: Jeff Page, 39 Facepalms (2018), digital video

Swanson’s five part room installation, with its four vertical video monitors and central mobile-like hanging letters titled Merriam Webster, 1995 (2021) and NO/NOT/NOTHING (2021) is much about how language is acquired randomly, then meaningfully. The central hanging black letters, which, depending on the movement of the mobile, will occasionally spell out the words in the title, suggesting how language and the meaning of words can change depending on the angle you take. This could go a long way to explain how information, or disinformation can change so drastically in part, from source to source.

Donald Fodness, Landscape 2021 with Icons (2021), graphite on paper, 12 x 24 inches, photo: courtesy of the author
Donald Fodness, Landscape 2021 with Icons (2021), graphite on paper, 12 x 24 inches, photo: courtesy of the author

During these past several months of COVID there have been a number of odd and often divisive headlines throughout various media. Donald Fodness takes some of the most bizarre captions, and rolls them into balloon-type lettering creating buoyant fields of endless insanity. In Landscape 2021 with Icons (2021), where we see familiar entertainment icons, Fodness adds a bit of Pop to the spectacle of peculiarities as his subtle and sensitive drawing techniques reveal potent portrayals that inevitably reference a sort of subconscious cynicism that bubbles to the surface.

Jim Johnson’s meticulously drawn words done with charcoal on paper, boast beautifully rendered cursive captions such as Never Say NeverTalk is Cheap and Mumbo Jumbo. At first glance they appear to be as much about a tattoo aesthetic as they are referencing familiar sayings. However, after further consideration, the entire installation, which is presented on a matte black wall, gives the entire design a classic and highly cultivated look leading one to believe there is enlightenment beneath the cliché.

Jim Johnson, Installation View (2021), charcoal on paper, sizes variable (Represented by Rule Gallery, Denver/Marfa)
Jim Johnson, Installation View (2021), charcoal on paper, sizes variable (Represented by Rule Gallery, Denver/Marfa)

Joe Norman’s Faith/Doubt Model (2019) is the 3D maquette for a much larger outdoor installation in the expansive sculpture field nearby. Using five letters constructed in such a way as to change when walking around the sculpture, visitors will see the word ‘faith’ turn into ‘doubt’ then back to ‘faith’. Some may take away a certain commentary on how religion often conflicts with science. However, Norman turns the conflict-ridden conundrum into a playful and thought provoking transition through insightful simplicity.

Masha Sha, Homo Homini Lupus (2021), graphite and black lead on tracing paper, 8 x 12 feet
Masha Sha, Homo Homini Lupus (2021), graphite and black lead on tracing paper, 8 x 12 feet

Sammy Lee’s two organic looking multi media relief-like works add an abundance of mystery and tactile quality to the exhibition, while Masha Sha’s graphite and black lead on tracing paper drawing titled Homo Homini Lupus(2021) revels an incredible intensity in technique, coupled with references to graffiti and the effects of tag bombing. The distinctive untouched areas in the corners and edges is something of an homage to Clifford Still, while the energy and focused mark-making is mesmerizing.

Trey Duvall’s Repeat That Again (2021) is perhaps the most conceptual work in the exhibition, reminding me of the sort of thing I would occasionally come across in the SoHo galleries of Manhattan back in the 1970’s. Jade Hoyer’s20 Ways of Saying No (2021) is a powerful, albeit delicate balance between humor and sexual harassment, skillfully disguised as benign beauty. Many will be struck by Scott Young’s Human(e) (2021), a neon work that sporadically fluctuates between ‘humane’, with an occasional failing of the letter ‘e’ to ‘human’ – as we all must remember that humanity is both a right and a responsibility. Paula Gasparini-Santos offers a familiar take on street art referencing Jean-Michel Basquiat, adding sweeping text to the wall beneath the paintings, with such lines as: “you dear are not the tide or the rain…” suggesting excerpts from a novel or some such revelatory text, while Tom Mazzullo offer a series of exquisitely rendered Type Improvisations that reflect a dimensional aspect to the old lead or wood block letters once used for type-setting. 

Left: Scott Young, Human(e) (2021), neon; Right: Paul Weiner, Motion for a Certificate to Compel Attendance (2021), oil and acrylic on canvas, 84 x 66 inches
Left: Scott Young, Human(e) (2021), neon; Right: Paul Weiner, Motion for a Certificate to Compel Attendance (2021), oil and acrylic on canvas, 84 x 66 inches  

Paul Weiner’s Motion for a Certificate to Compel Attendance (2021) riffs off of his smaller redacted text-type piece Jurors Questions for Witness (2021). In the larger painting, the blocked out text becomes a hard edge painting sporting a unique rhythm of dark and light, not so dissimilar from the old computer key punch cards of the early 1970’s. Rounding out the exhibition are Cherish Marquez with an interactive video game that interjects words into an otherworldly environment; and Lares Feliciano, who offers a digital collage presenting the word PALANTE as a magical, tropical paradise.

For more information about either exhibition, go to https://arvadacenter.org

A Temple Most August

A Group Exhibition at Clint Roenisch Gallery in Toronto

by Emese Krunák-Hajagos

I was looking for exhibitions to visit when one of the artworks on the Clint Roenisch website caught my eye. At the gallery, Roenisch told me that the exhibition actually started with that image. He had seen it in an auction in New York. It was a photographic work by Willard van Dyke, a famous photographer and documentary filmmaker. He was also the director of the film department at MOMA between 1965 and 1974, where he started two programs for showing the art of avant-garde and documentary filmmakers. The influence of avant-garde is unmistakable in the composition of Performance by the Hanya Holm School of Dance. In addition to being figurative, as both Hanya and the group of dancers are actually photographed and the image was not manipulated in any way – the picture is surrealistic. The shallow indentation of the building makes it a kind of a stage set. The shadow of the building precisely points to Hanya and continues in her own shadow on the ground. She stays there in the bright light in a dance pose as a priestess might in front her acolytes, the group of dancers kneeling and bending their heads. Hanya Holm, a German-American dancer, was also a choreographer and dance educator, and one of the “Big Four” founders of American modern dance. Her technique emphasized the freedom and flowing quality of the torso and back but also involved the emotions of the dancers that led to improvised, rather than choreographed, performances. I expected this to be a very large-scale photograph, so I was really surprised seeing that it was a tiny, 6 x 8.75-inch print – yet so monumental and surprising with its layered composition. It is a mesmerizing piece.

Willard van Dyke, Performance by the Hanya Holm School of Dance, vintage gelatin silver print, 6 x 8.75 in
Willard van Dyke, Performance by the Hanya Holm School of Dance, vintage gelatin silver print, 6 x 8.75 in

Night at St. Anne’s by Heather Goodchild, depicts the Byzantine revival Anglican church on Gladstone Ave in Toronto, five buildings away from the artist’s house. She looks at it as a portal to another realm. She was thinking about her father, who had recently died and was a Scorpio – so she combined the image of the church and the sign of Scorpio in honor of his memory.

Heather Goodchild, Night at St. Anne's, 2020, wool and burlap, 33 x 53 in
Heather Goodchild, Night at St. Anne’s, 2020, wool and burlap, 33 x 53 in

Anna Torma was watching her grandmother working on embroidery and that inspired her to become a textile artist. She comes from a Hungarian background and draws from folklore and children’s stories. Green Saga (2021) is a recollection of childhood tales. As Torma pointed out in conversation about her solo exhibition, Permanent Danger at the Textile Museum of Canada (2020), these stories have a real influence on a human being and it is also important to tell your story with your own method, in your own tune. Her tune is the textile arts. Many motifs in Green Saga go back to bedtime stories, from nice fairytales to Prince Árgyélus, a favourite Hungarian character, as well as to a good king who lets a bird use his crown as a nest but also scarry ghosts, creatures wearing more than one animal features with sharp teeth – not a happy company.

Anna Torma, Green Saga, 2021, 2 layers of linen with silk threads, appliqué and reverse appliqué, hand embroidered collage, 39 x 55 in
Anna Torma, Green Saga, 2021, 2 layers of linen with silk threads, appliqué and reverse appliqué, hand embroidered collage, 39 x 55 in

Torma collects pieces of textile from the past as representations of history and includes them in her embroidered works. As an immigrant, she went through difficult times and lived in many places. The series Abandoned Details reflects her diasporic experience and fragments of memories from the past she had to leave behind. All the motifs in her compositions are represented equally as the outcome of a very intuitive process.

Anna Torma, Abandoned Details VI, 2008, hand embroidery with silk threads and appliqué on linen, 58 x 58 in. Produced with support of the Esker Foundation Commission Fund
Anna Torma, Abandoned Details VI, 2008, hand embroidery with silk threads and appliqué on linen, 58 x 58 in. Produced with support of the Esker Foundation Commission Fund

Two paintings on silk by British artist Emma Talbot, address ecological mourning, the destabilization and instability of our time, in which social systems are breaking down. Talbot quotes Arundhati Roy who describes capitalism as a train wreck and we have to decide to fix it or “look for a better engine”. As Talbot states, “It’s the idea of a portal to a different, more caring, responsible future that seems visionary to me.” She envisions a new, female empowered culture. Faceless female characters occupy her work. They are simultaneously abstract and figurative; body parts sometimes disconnected from their bodies to resurface over ornamental elements.

Emma Talbot, Island Of Grief, Don't Let Your Dreams Die, 2021, acrylic on silk, 75 x 57 in
Emma Talbot, Island Of Grief, Don’t Let Your Dreams Die, 2021, acrylic on silk, 75 x 57 in

Brussels-based painter/artist Sarah Cale also addresses the female figure but in a different way. Her works are very eye-catching. They are a mixture of sculptural and painterly motifs. In Buffer, the string hanging in a 3D space could easily be just a paint flow. In Inversion the hands are emphasized with oil paint while jute flows freely representing the hair. There is a sense of humour in these pieces in the way the figures are built up, especially in Buffer where the breasts are empty and remind me of ruined pantyhose juxtaposed against the covered hands. Movement plays a role as well, as the woman holds her hand in a gesture of rejection in Buffer or bends in Inversion. There is a collage aspect in Cale’s work and here the way the jute behaves is dictating the way the figure turns out.

Sarah Cale, Buffer, 2021, jute, oil, linen on linen over panel; 39.7 x 31.5 in
Sarah Cale, Buffer, 2021, jute, oil, linen on linen over panel; 39.7 x 31.5 in

Abdul Sharif Baruwa created seven new paintings for this exhibition. He is a London born artist who lives in Vienna but often spends summers in the Alps tending cows as he did when he was a child. The series record an afternoon spent in a forest outside of Salzburg, but it could be anywhere in Canada. The artist just stapled the pieces to the wall so it is some kind of footage. These pastel drawings are very ephemeral; what is left out of the composition is just as important as the elements actually depicted. For example, in Swimmer the body of the man is hardly visible, the human body and the element of water presented equally. The postures of the figures and the surrounding landscapes are very peaceful and meditative – creating a harmony between man and nature, a rare occurrence in our turbulent times.

Abdul Sharif Baruwa, Standing (in the summer on a river), 2021, pastel on cotton textile, 83 x 56 in
Abdul Sharif Baruwa, Standing (in the summer on a river), 2021, pastel on cotton textile, 83 x 56 in

The glass bottles in the middle of the room are by Lorna Bauer from Montreal. She had a residency in Rio de Janeiro (2017-18). She was really struck by the amount of plastic water bottles littering the streets or scattered on the beaches. But she was also inspired, slightly more positively, by the way people were growing orchids in them or using them to provide water for stray cats. She took the plastic water bottles as a motif to make these mold-blown glass vessels. She was hoping that they might reflect the shape of the lung that give them existence. Bauer wrote, “The blowing lung that created the vessels themselves is meant to be a visual analogue for the bottles as life form and form of life.” She incorporated stoppers inserted into them loosely based on the botanical illustrations of Margaret Mee.

A series of glassworks by Lorna Bauer from her Sitio Bottles, 2018- 2021
A series of glassworks by Lorna Bauer from her Sitio Bottles, 2018- 2021

A Month of Single Frames by Lynne Sachs is a 14 min coloured film made with and for Barbara Hammer (2019). In 1998, filmmaker Barbara Hammer had a one-month artist residency in the C Scape Duneshack in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The shack had no running water or electricity. In her solitude, as she says in the film, she tried in the dark shadow of the shack to project coloured lights on the dunes. She wanted to try a steady image on the sand dunes. Try a moving image, the sea. In 2018, Hammer began her own process of dying by revisiting her personal archive and she gave all of her Duneshack material to filmmaker Lynne Sachs who edited it into this film, on display now at Clint Roenisch.

Lynne Sachs, A Month of Single Frames (made with and for Barbara Hammer), 2019, 14 min colour film with sound
Lynne Sachs, A Month of Single Frames (made with and for Barbara Hammer), 2019, 14 min colour film with sound

A Temple Most August brings together international and Canadian artists presenting their ideas in various medias. However eclectic the artwork, they all address similar issues regarding the social and emotional conditions of our human race, whether distressing or harmonious. The artists tell stories about ecological or social disfunctions and their dreams about a better, more caring future. They share their joy of nature and the peace of meditation. I highly recommend a visit to this Temple.

Installation view of the A Temple Most August at Clint Roenisch Gallery
Installation view of the A Temple Most August at Clint Roenisch Gallery

*Exhibition information: A Temple Most August / Group Exhibition showing artwork by Abdul Sharif Baruwa, Anna Torma, Emma Talbot, Heather Goodchild, Jennifer Murphy, Lorna Bauer, Lynne Sachs, Sarah Cale and Willard van Dyke, June 12 – September 11, 2021, Clint Roenisch Gallery, 190 Saint Helens Ave, Toronto. Images are courtesy of Clint Roenisch Gallery.

Robert Kananaj Gallery is 10

Interview by Emese Krunák-Hajagos

Robert Kananaj and Roberta Laking Kananaj, Directors of Robert Kananaj Gallery
Robert Kananaj and Roberta Laking Kananaj, Directors of Robert Kananaj Gallery

On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Toronto’s Robert Kananaj Gallery Emese Krunák-Hajagos (EKH) interviews Robert Kananaj (RK) and Roberta Laking Kananaj (RLK).

EKH: You first opened your doors in the summer of 2011. Ten years is a long time in a gallery’s life. Looking back at it what do you think was your greatest accomplishment? 

RK: Giving and receiving as we morph in sharing brings up the gallery’s vision.

EKH: In an earlier interview you said that the gallery was intended to be the extension of the artists’ studios. Does that still apply?

RK: That has always been very much so, to the point now that the artists have the upper hand of the gallery’s extension.

Bruce Eves in front of his Work #901/Seven Days in February, 2018
Bruce Eves in front of his Work #901/Seven Days in February, 2018

EKH: Your choice of artists seems to be very unique. Most of the installations you show are one-of-a-kind, like Oscar Figueroa’s collection of Slides (2018) or his multimedia exhibition BLUE (2020), the installation by Raffael Antonio Iglesias (2018), Bruce Eves’s works, Istvan Kantor’s mural on the exterior wall of the building as part of his exhibition Etude To Asylum (2015) and his performances, among others. How did you get to know these artists and curate their shows? 

RK: It’s the easiest part to find artists in the endless pool of artists in the city and beyond. The only sensitive work is to place certain emphasis as the gallery carves a path moving along.

Installation view of Oscar Figueroa, Slides, 2018
Installation view of Oscar Figueroa, Slides, 2018

EKH: You are a sculptor and your installations like Garbage Heaven (2014) or State of Being (2016) fit well into your programming, as they are challenging. Please tell us more about yourself as an artist.

RK: I think of the artist in me as being always present in the gallerist as we morph into being. Life schools us via art to ease our existence, with its unpredictable pulse.

Being in service of the gallery has been an art form to me. I treat the gallery’s life as an art project in itself; the only thing is, you can’t claim it as an object, but as an experience in the making. It has been the activism that incorporates many elements in my artistic vision that had been suppressed in my upbringing as an artist: liberating me traditionally, conceptually, allegorically, metaphorically — elements always present in my object-making.

Installation view of Robert Kananaj, State of Being, 2016
Installation view of Robert Kananaj, State of Being, 2016

The running of the gallery has taught me quite a bit about both simplicity and complexity within the environment that we all share. With the gallery, I have revisited the same places and states of mind, taking a chance to break from certain traditional ways not only of thinking, but of doing and perceiving as an artist.

EKH: You had an artist-in-residence program during which Francesco Albano’s workshop was placed on the top floor, above your show, followed by his amazing exhibition After Grünewald (2016). Will you continue this practice?

Installation view of Francesco Albano After Grünewald, 2016
Installation view of Francesco Albano After Grünewald, 2016

RK & RLK: Since then, we have had residencies involving artists from within Ontario: Raffael Antonio Iglesias, Tess Martins, Natalia Laluq. They camped out at the gallery for periods of time and worked in the space during and after hours to mount their shows.

The future is loaded with uncertainties brought by the pandemic, so we move with the new normal as that “maybe.”

Installation of Tess Martens, Living Diary, 2019
Installation of Tess Martens, Living Diary, 2019

EKH: You moved into this spacious gallery space on St. Helens Ave before this area became an artistic hub. In September 2018, MOCA reopened nearby and many galleries have now relocated to the Lansdowne/Dufferin area. How has this affected you?

RLK: We saw a noticeable increase in weekend traffic as people came to see MOCA and then explored the surrounding area. Pre-pandemic, there were also a lot of visitors from outside Toronto, and from outside Canada.

Since 2020, many people moved into the area and now work from home. They were surprised to discover that there are many art galleries within walking distance. Because of the lockdowns, they had seen only the closed doors of industrial spaces. 

Many people now pass by during the day, and with our roll-up door open and an ongoing garage sale project — “Social Commentary”, they feel comfortable coming in to see, experience, and buy the works on display.

Installation view of Robert Kananaj, local light 2020-21
Installation view of Robert Kananaj, local light 2020-21

EKH: What was the most difficult situation you faced during these 10 years? How did you overcome it?

RLK: When it became clear that our first location wouldn’t work long-term, we needed to find a new space — preferably larger and still in the same area. Many of the old industrial spaces were being snapped up by developers and big tech firms. It was a blessing when Robert biked past this building and spotted the ‘For Lease’ sign, and the door standing open. We have been here ever since.

Installation view of Anton Shebetko, common people, 2018
Installation view of Anton Shebetko, common people, 2018

EKH: What is your most ambitious dream for your gallery? Have you fulfilled it?

RK: I didn’t have any dreams for the gallery, but I have created and fulfilled quite a few dreams during the gallery’s existence, revealing to myself a project that lives independently, as an artwork does, from the artist who creates it.

EKH: It is said that if a gallery survives the first 10 years it will last for a long time. What are your future plans?

RK: We never considered the gallery as a means to anything. The gallery has a life of its own and we just provide that. Curiosity and openness are as they were when we initially opened the gallery. From the beginning it has been a gesture of goodwill.

RLK: For now, we keep the door rolled up when the weather permits, and welcome people in.

Robert Kananaj Gallery, 172 St Helens Avenue, Toronto. Gallery hours: Tue-Sat 1 – 6 pm. Images are courtesy of Robert Kananaj Gallery

Elizabeth Murray: Back in Town

by Gwenaël Kerlidou

Elizabeth Murray, Back In Town, 1999, oil on canvas, 97 x 92 inches
Elizabeth Murray, Back In Town, 1999, oil on canvas, 97 x 92 inches

Thirteen years after her passing, a survey of her work  in Buffalo, New York, is shedding new light on the formative years Elizabeth Murray (1940-2007) spent teaching at the University of Buffalo, from 1965 to’67. It also offers a timely opportunity to reassess her legacy in the light of the ongoing discussion on the state of painting.

Borrowing from Murray’s 1999 painting “Back in Town,” the exhibition’s title seems to be taking its cues from Everybody Knows, Kristi Zea’s 2016 documentary film on Murray’s work, the title of which was also lifted from a painting, her last in this case. In a happy juxtaposition, both paintings are included in the exhibition, providing useful markers, beyond those of pure historicity, for a non-linear overview  of her work.

I have been a big fan of Elizabeth Murray’s work from day one (which, in my case, was her 1981 show at Paula Cooper Gallery), but stepping into this exhibition, I wondered how well her work had held up over the years, especially regarding her use of large formats, which often seemed bigger than necessary.

Elizabeth Murray, Sandpaper Fate, 1992-93, oil on canvas, 104 x 102 inches
Elizabeth Murray, Sandpaper Fate, 1992-93, oil on canvas, 104 x 102 inches

In the fifties and sixties, some women artist  were said to overcompensate for their lack of recognition from their male counterparts by overdoing macho bravado. Joan Mitchell’s heavy drinking and horsing around, or Louise Bourgeois’ famous emphatic rudeness, have been explained as personas they developed in order to survive as artists in a male world. The question of whether the “size matters” aspect of Elizabeth Murray’s work was a similar symptom, loomed on that horizon. 

In order to  impose more phenomenological presence on the viewer, Minimalism made systematic use of the Abstract Expressionism’s existential fondness for large formats. In painting, from Robert Motherwell to Frank Stella, to Julian Schnabel, the result of that trend has been an overproduction of oversized works coming up short as convincing paintings. Not too big to fail, but too big for their own good. Could something else be at play here? 

Elizabeth Murray, Everybody Knows, 2007, oil on canvas, 87.3 x 97 inches
Elizabeth Murray, Everybody Knows, 2007, oil on canvas, 87.3 x 97 inches

Starting in the early 70s Thom Nozkowski’s commitment to small formats is perhaps the best example of the rejection of the pervading use of large formats in American painting. For Nozkowski, large formats were ideologically tainted with Cultural Imperialism. If in the discussion of size versus scale, scale can prevail in small paintings, in big paintings scale is irrelevant. Big paintings cannot suggest a scale bigger than their size. So, the question became whether the use of big formats by a female painter brought something else to the table, besides an imperialist scale. A question recently underlined in Julie Mehretu’s survey at the Whitney.

A promising young abstract painter through the 1970s, Murray came into her own at the beginning of the 1980s, with a unique combination of image and fragmented support. At that time, the resurgence of the image was easily attributed to the aesthetics of the times (the Whitney Museum organized a major exhibition titled “New Image Painting” in 1978, the Metro Pictures Gallery opened in 1980), but her treatment of the multiple shaped stretchers did not fit into neat categories.

The origins of the transfer of the figure from the painted space to the literal shapes of the support, her major breakthrough of the early ’80s, can be traced back to her 1972 painting “Madame Cézanne in a Rocking Chair.” This was the first iteration of a “primal scene” (so to speak) —repeated in so many subsequent paintings — of a closed interior space diagonally divided by a beam of light coming through a small window or door opening. In that painting, structured like a comic strip with multiple panels, the rocking chair kicks Madame Cézanne out of the painting, in the final panels. The Figure, here symbolically ejected from the space of representation, will reappear a few years later in the guise of the shaped stretcher.

Elizabeth Murray, Midnight Special, 2000, oil on canvas, 93 x 129.5 inches
Elizabeth Murray, Midnight Special, 2000, oil on canvas, 93 x 129.5 inches

In the meantime, that primal scene of the closed interior, where the human figure has been evacuated, has turned into a zone of accidents. On a table surrounded by chairs, a coffee cup is inadvertently spilled. Painting after painting, this minor incident is magnified to the epic scale of a cataclysmic event, with such cathartic insistence that it’s reasonable to interpret the metaphor as the overturning of the vessel of male Modernism.  

Even though it had been lurking in the background forever, when the painted figure returns circa 1983, it is as a goofy cartoon form straight out of the Chicago Imagist, an ectoplasm lost in a maelstrom of shapes and colors, the ghost of a splintered self, a spirit — or a conscience — haunting the shaped body of the painting.

In his introduction to the survey of her work he organized for MoMA in 2005, Robert Storr made a strong case for Murray’s inclusion in the canon. But for all its good intentions, that text — the reflection of a paternalistic institution obsessed with establishing filiation — only produced a linear narrative, ultimately meant to reinforce its own relevance: Cézanne, Van Gogh, Juan Gris, Philip Guston, The Hairy Who, Claes Oldenburg, Frank Stella, Brice Marden, Ron Gorchov, and so on.

Like any ideological discourses, Storr’s essay operated on two levels, attempting, first, to tame the wild beast of a work that did not fit into any of its standards (and as such threatened the status quo) by “explaining” it, and second, to recuperate its subversive potential by giving it a place and status within the pantheon of white male Modernism. The taming is successful when the institutional narrative is so convincing that it appears as the last possible word on someone’s work, shutting off any future alternative readings. 

Elizabeth Murray, Riverbank,  1997, oil on canvas (four parts), 112 x 120 in. (284.5 x 304.8 cm). Collection of the @albrightknox, Sarah Norton Goodyear Fund, 1997 (1997:10)
Elizabeth Murray, Riverbank, 1997, oil on canvas (four parts), 112 x 120 in. (284.5 x 304.8 cm). Collection of the @albrightknox, Sarah Norton Goodyear Fund, 1997 (1997:10)

But, in the spirit of Murray’s own approach to painting, let’s think outside the Formalist box of filiation for a minute. Let’s posit the artist as product of a community of kindred spirits, all working in the same cultural context with different responses. For Murray, this community could be, upstream, on the ascendant side: Zilia Sanchez , Jay DeFeo , Lee Lozano , Deborah Remington , Lee Bontecou , Gladys Nilsson ; All working their way out of Abstract Expressionism without veering into Minimalism. And downstream, on the descendant side, so many artists who have referenced, emulated, or borrowed from her approach one way or another, such as: Amy Sillman, Carrie Moyer, Joanne Greenbaum, for their deliberate mixtures of abstraction and figuration, but also to some extent, Joanna Pousette-Dart, Susan Frecon, Charline von Heyl, Laura Owens, etc…

And to return to the “size matters” issue, let’s usher in Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) and her “Ten Largest” paintings from 1907, exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in 2018, and look at the issue of size through a different lens. Af Klint, a psychic medium, certainly could not be suspected of rivalry with Ab-Ex male prerogatives when she settled for the size of that series of paintings. Could something else be at play here other than competition? Perhaps Murray’s large formats are instead a measure of her confidence in her enterprise, just as af Klint sized her paintings proportionately to the importance of their message.

Perhaps should we also revisit her connection to Frank Stella and Brice Marden, as laid out by Storr, from a different angle. The unfinished edges of her shaped paintings seem to echo Brice Marden’s early paintings. The deductive structure of Stella’s “Black Paintings,” moving centripetally from the painting’s edge toward its center, establishes the dominance of the outer edge over the internal space of the painting. In the opposite impulse, Murray’s images radiate centrifugally from the center towards the edges. Asserting, with their unfinished character, an independence from the dictates of what Michael Fried called the  deductive structure, they call for the image to be considered a separate entity from its support. Turning tables on Modernism, and without falling back on illusionism, Murray developed a pictorial space where painted shapes and shaped support relate to each other as equal partners rather than co-dependents. 

What Murray ends up bringing to the table is a transmutation of shapes and identities, from painted figure to shaped support and back. An ever-changing game of give and take between the rhetorical (including size) and the poetical, taking the viewer on a wild ride, from the whirlwind of our visual culture to the whirlpools of the unconscious. A sort of Butterfly Effect approach to painting, where small decisions ripple through paintings to be slowly amplified into major aesthetic choices. 

Elizabeth Murray, Photographer Nicholas Ostness, 1990
Elizabeth Murray, Photographer Nicholas Ostness, 1990

Painting after painting, it seems that Murray’s gamble paid off. She combined it all: Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop-art, and Formalism, wrapped up in one painting. In a clear departure from reductive Formalist tactics on one side, and from the easy Postmodern ironies of citation and appropriation on the other, she substituted an all-inclusive approach for the formal and conceptual restrictions of both.

In hindsight, what comes through more clearly today is her constant position of independence, and even of dissidence, from post-Minimalism in the early 1970s, from the New Image movement in the late 70s, from Neo-Expressionism in the 80s and post-Modernism in the 90s.

This inspired exhibition makes clear that, with her large-format paintings, what Murray seemed to be aiming for, more than “presence,” was a power of persuasion, a kind of unexpected charismatic dimension. Something that Schnabel, for example – or Mehretu, for that matter, can only envy.