Contextualizing Fudge’s novel, graphic language can prove daunting. There’s the original appeal of the Japanese flatness, which ballasted Modernism. Then there are some parallels with the hard edge abstraction of someone like Jack Youngerman, (who also made prints referencing the Floating World). Also felt are the crisp digital lines of Manfred Mohr. Otherwise, one’s mind goes not to canonical contemporary art, but to maverick practitioners such as Lisa Alvarado, with banners inspired by Mexican weaving. Additionally, loosely invoked are ethnic textiles such as Ikat, religious architectural iconography, and even water patterns. Mirror-image concatenations of organic rhombuses brocade the upper corner of Tattooed Blue. Meanwhile, a shungafigure shape-shifts into a pale blue inlet, spilling across the composition. Then, in They’re Everywhere, curved and straight-edged minarets form an open weave. Echoing rhythmically across and down the square, they mesh into an unorthodox geometry. Mapless, one feels intoxicated by an exotic city.
Puns abound in Carl Fudge’s work. An initial loom is formed of Japanese anime and Ukiyo-e prints. Child luminaries radiate mystical powers, while behind screens, kimonos beckon. To transmit the electricity felt in these genres, the artist wrote a program to simulate children’s paper cutouts. Thereby, applying the algorithm, hereconstitutes the Japanese visual systems into new offbeat schema. In Komposition B, snowflake-y shapes appear in punchy pinks and oranges. Then puzzle-piece lacunas recall Japanese usage of negative space,ma. Fudge’s use of this emptiness amidst the vibratory hues, makes the piece seem bigger than it is. The patterns are given to us close up, evoking a here-ness.
Finally, Mobile Suite 5 is cut from a different cloth. Here, Fudge toys with another mesmeric lure, Transformers (also originating in Japan). More hinged to concept though, this piece lacks rich interplay among the spatial layers. Yet, on purple ground, the green spires and other inscrutable patterning still draw us in. All in all, not absent behind Fudge’s arch wit, is an underlying mirth, a relishing of visual pleasure – as if art can be indeed, a game of seduction.
The exhibition A Beautiful Day with a Small Storm at the Christopher Cutts Gallery is a unique one. A month before its opening in June, the paintings by Madrid artist José Manuel Ciria were a mere glimmer in the artist’s eye. The works were in fact created in a studio directly above the exhibition space. In that sense, what is on display has descended from above, their generation a touch miraculous in the speed of their execution.
José Manuel Ciria in studio at Christopher Cutts Gallery, 2019
Ciria exudes the personable confidence of someone who is at ease in his own skin. This is a way of saying that Ciria inhabits his work, and that the life and breath of his canvases are closely woven into the artist’s own persona. The bright explosions of paint on the walls of the gallery are the visible traces of the artist’s lived experience. The work is proof of his stay in Toronto. If we want to ask, “Who is José Manuel Ciria?” – the artist might reply, “Look at my work.” Since Ciria believes that we all wear masks, it makes the question a bit more complicated. “We are three people: the person we think we are, the person we really are, and the person others see.” In artistic terms, this translates into: “What an artist sets out to do, what the work really becomes and what the viewer sees in it.”
South Gallery installation
A clue to unlocking Ciria’s layered creative self lies in a closer examination of the individual paintings in his A Beautiful Day with a Small Storm. First of all, any notion that the paintings are casually “dashed off” ought to be expunged immediately. Ciria is disciplined and organized. There is a reason for each painting having either a grid, horizon, or some static basis point. His spontaneity is firmly grounded in a method. He can be wild, yet controls his passions. The drying time of splashes, their thinning out, and the reaction of pigment with gesso and painted ground have been carefully considered. To achieve maximum impact, he employs a strategy of dark to light and neutral to bright colours. Viewed with a squint, the paintings become amazingly 3D. The gridded It’s Getting Better is a good example of the effect.
It’s Getting better, 2019, oil and mixed media on canvas, 78.75 x 78.75 inches
Beauty Puzzle is a virtuoso painting that showcases all of the artist’s gifts. His rockets are exploded into a single fireworks display: the chemistry of liquidity and drying with an arabesque of colour and splash into the sky above a strip of red and white carnival tent.
Beauty Puzzle, 2019,oil and mixed media on canvas, 78.75 x 78.75 inches
The Bridge attempts to span a fractured horizon. Things don’t quite line up, as they must not. Difficulty is the point. After all, a leap of faith may only be actualized in the effort.
The Bridge, 2019, oil and mixed media on canvas, 51.25 x 51.25 inches
Ciria hits the piano keys hard in The Concert. The bursts of colour at the centre are laid over pulses and beats in pounding staccato. In this, Ciria makes sound visible. The Party, on the other hand, is cool and measured. A wide band of light grey in the foreground distances the observer from the tidy row of splattered blots near the top like beads on an abacus. An accountant would be pleased that there are enough splashes for each day of the week.
The Concert, 2019, oil and mixed media on canvas, 51.25 x 51.25 inches
Ciria gave me a tour of his exhibition the day before it opened. The exchange that stuck with me occurred before Scarecrow. It seemed that the image of the scarecrow had emerged in the course of the painting’s creation like a phantom. The moment had somehow been startling to the artist. In an exhibition of abstract paintings, a figure is the guest you didn’t invite to the party, but introduce to everyone anyway. It’s the guest you end up talking about the next day.
New York City is constantly pushing the world of art to reboot itself. To see how a young Korean-American artist is contributing to this ceaseless reinvention in a promising way, go to 69 Eldridge Street in Lower Manhattan and there, in a popup display space exemplifying cultural entrepreneurship, you will encounter sixteen paintings that will give you a memorable viewing experience.
Nurtured by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and then by Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, Jung Ho Lee is an artist drawn to multiple genres – sculpture, painting, collage, and photography. While sculpture initially dominated his professional life, he is now exploring a freedom that painting has opened up for him. From a practice where he found himself driven towards a fixed destination he has transitioned to a style where he is more impelled by process and the signals thrown up by his materials. This liberation has given us the paintings on show, from June 12-23, 2019, at the Eldridge Street exhibit, curated by Robert Curcio.
Jung Ho Lee has thought deeply about the course of Korean art and its crossover implications for American art. He is also trying hard to understand better the world he lives in. Doing so in a quotidian way, he applies to this challenge a sensibility enlivened by an omnivorous visual imagination. Going about his day-to-day life, he imports into his image bank scenes of decay, decline, and disorder. Allan Kaprow, a significant influence on Jung Ho Lee, saw in the everyday world “the most astonishing inspiration conceivable.” He said, “A walk down 14th Street is more amazing than any masterpiece of art.” Look now to the paintings Jung Ho Lee has spotlighted for us not far from 14th Street. Metamorphosed in them is entropy’s materiality sublimated into growth and renewal.
In Self-Portrait (2018) you discern many influences transformed into a veiled, allusive picture of this first-generation Korean-American artist possibly looking for an aesthetic or philosophical breakthrough. You see street art, Art Brut, Art Informel, and the art of Jean Dubuffet. You see color throwing off symbolic associations, just as it did for Vincent van Gogh when he gazed at Delacroix’s paintings. There are ideas derived from the Abstract Expressionists, especially Hans Hoffman and Willem de Kooning.
A very recent innovation of Jung Ho Lee’s is his use of plastic netting as a support in place of canvas and the application of a painted grid as a final layer. An example is Untitled D (2019), where you see a gray-black landscape lurking behind a blue-gray grid – the latter so shaped it seems to be an object extracted from the natural world, not a geometrical abstraction. You again think of Jean Dubuffet, especially his extraordinary landscapes. You see vestigial references to Asian landscape painting, a genre so universal and durable in its impact it is being reinvented in contemporary times. A similar remembrance was at work in the art of Nam Kwan, one of the first generation of twentieth-century Korean modernists. You see his influence in Untitled D.
Jung Ho Lee’s art represents an emerging episode in the encounter between Western and Eastern art. As for subject matter, his paintings express metaphorically the possibility of growth and renewal even as entropy remains insistent. At a time of political disorder and environmental decay, the Eldridge Street exhibit may be telling us that art can be an ecological force.
Solitude surrounds the guest when entering Emmanuel Monzon’s exhibition at Robert Kananaj Gallery in Toronto. All the photographs seem similar at first glance in their quiet compositions and monochrome colours. Taking a closer look, one recognizes their nuances – and becomes mesmerised by their magical beauty. They radiate an ephemeral, almost surreal tension that captivates the viewer.
Monzon, a French born artist graduated from the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris and started his career with painting, and his painterly values still dominate his photographs. They look like watercolours and are printed on watercolour paper. Moving to Seattle was a turning point in his life. As he said, “I had the feeling that my work could only be photographic for this space, which creates its own mythology.” Indeed, it did, as Monzon’s photographs are very unique in their themes, depictions and colouring.
Monzon travels a lot in the American West, around the deserts where urban settlements, surrounded by suburbs, meet industrial areas and a no-man’s lands of rocks and sand. All his images are entirely devoid of humans. Some suggest human occupation such as Urban Sprawl 167, with a parked trailer, parking spots, a strong outline of a building. The grey surface of asphalt ends abruptly at a rock and the landscape takes over. The pervasive colour is burnt sand – the whole area is covered with it, even the building seems to be made from bricks carved from the rock. There are traces of people, the neon sign at Jazzercise is on, there is a light inside the shop and in the building in the background, cars are in the parking lot – but not a single person or animal is around (Urban Sprawl 165). The only living thing is the large cactus, standing in front of a traffic light. The light has turned green – but for whom. Who had to stop and why at the stop sign (Urban Sprawl 164) and walk over the pedestrian crossing? As far as the eye can see there is nothing in that flat landscape that surrounds a sand rock – except emptiness. One can almost hear the moan of the soil cracked by heat, beaten and barren, or the silent cry of a lonely tree fenced out of the garden behind it (Urban Sprawl 165).
Where are these places? Where are the people and animals? Even the shadows are not there. What’s happening? Did the people leave or is this a post-apocalyptic world? Maybe none of these. Rather I think it is a landscape with its “own mythology.” Monzon captures moments that can best be described as “in-between” moments, in which the activities of the town stopped for the day and haven’t started for a new one, where everyone sleeps or hides, where the place is left by itself.
Monzon’s landscapes are heavily modified, desecrated even destroyed by our hunger for expansion, making the land banal and ugly. Still we can’t deny the beauty in these photographs, but such a cruel beauty it is. As Monzon stated in his latest interview, “the American natural landscape has redefined this space and has become itself a ‘non-place’. The transition from one site to the next: You have arrived and at the same time you have never left.” Whatever this place is, it is not the place you want to be. French anthropologist Marc Augè defined “non-place” as a place of anonymous solitude, like airports, motorways, parking lots where people meet in an illusion that they can be socially engaged, but actually it is not possible. Monzon photographs depict these “non-places” in their true nature: as timeless places where there are no sounds, only emptiness.
However beautifully depicted, this emptiness is sad, even painful. Urban Sprawl 162 portrays a dinosaur figure that would be more appropriately found in Disneyland. In its poor surroundings he almost smiles rather than snarls, his maker must be an amateur. He is definitely in limbo here, no one looks at him, he is totally isolated and his being is meaningless.
Urban Sprawl 182 reminds me of an ancient outdoor shrine in an old landscape, something like Stonehenge. Surrounded by ageless landscape there is an altar. That altar is made of concrete and an asphalt road leads to it. What kind of cruel joke is this? However, there is still a spiritual power surge about it. What God is worshipped here? Will he or she lift or destroy the soul? There is something sacramental in this uneasy emptiness and the unconscious mind resonates with the spirits occupying the shimmering whiteness of this place. Monzon captures the moment of eternity and the eternity in the moment at the same time. His photographs show a void, a void that can not be filled.
Images are all 30 x 30 inches, digital print on Canson Arches Infinity watercolor paper (acid free), framed, Limited edition (1/3 ed of 3 +1AP), 2018, courtesy of Robert Kananaj Gallery and the artist.
*Exhibition information: Emmanuel Monzon, Urban Sprawl Emptiness, March 16 -May 18, 2019, Robert Kananaj Gallery, 172 St Helens Avenue, Toronto.
Humans have always wanted to save their memories. From the beginning of history, they carved them into stones, wrote them on parchments, made millions of photographs or selfies. Iris Häussler buried the items that hold her memories in wax – literally. You might think: a nice try, but it won’t hold, it’ll melt – but you’re wrong. A wax object, like a candle, doesn’t melt that easily, not even on a window sill or on a mantle above a fireplace. Unless you put a torch directly in front of it Häussler’s work would hardly melt or drip, not even the smaller pieces and especially not the larger ones ‑ they’re so heavy that more than one person is needed to move these blocks of solid wax.
Wax has been used in encaustic painting for a long time but Häussler uses wax in a very unique way. She melts the wax, pours it into containers of various shapes and sizes then put clothes in it like you would put them in warm water to wash them. Her original idea, as she mentioned in an interview, came from looking at laundry, at very ordinary objects such as bed sheets, curtains and clothes we wear. However, these objects, that we usually ignore, have much more to them than we can see at first sight. Bedclothes for example, save your shape and warmth for about half an hour after you abandon them. Undergarments are very intimate as they touch the skin on the surface, but on a deeper level they absorb the perspiration and the scent of the body, getting under the skin as well. Clothes are also personal, their style and colour tell a whole story about the person, their age and social status. Häussler mentioned, that she focuses more on the relationship to the people whose clothes she uses, and not on memories, but of course the two easily overlap each other. Her works are open to multiple interpretations as they are heavily loaded with narratives.
Iris Häussler, a German born artist who presently lives in Toronto, has had numerous exhibitions worldwide. This is her second show at Daniel Faria Gallery. Upon entering the gallery, we are welcomed by Häussler’s larger pieces. Natural wax has a special colour, the color of candles. Indeed, these works radiate solitude, the silence of candles placed in churches. As the show’s title Lost Gazes suggests, you need to look deeply at them to actually see what lays beneath the surface. Verlorene Blicke (Lost Gazes, 2000) uses a curtain, its texture recognizable if you study them long enough and have a clue what to look for. They reminded me at first of antique friezes that the artist might have studied at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin as they have the same delicate surface pattern of weathered stone. The curved parts of these “friezes” cast an almost white shadow, hardly visible, making them sculptural. Even though they are large, they look very vulnerable in their beauty and that’s the moment when we recognize that they are actually made of wax.
Most of Häussler’s works are titled after a relative such as mother, sister, great aunt. Two works are titled Schwester (Sister) however they are very different in their colouring and possible narratives. The one in the main space of the gallery is lighter in color and more abstract. Even though we know that clothes are the essence of the image, it looks like a child’s broken kaleidoscope, where all the colorful shapes have escaped and become frozen in wax. The back space of the gallery displays smaller, more intimate pieces dedicated to relatives. They all favour clothes that cover the body and it may be symbolic as the wax is the color of skin. Schwester (Sister, 1998) is so red, that at first sight you can’t see anything else, just that color of blood, reminding you of blood in real life, that you can associate with blood ties. It immediately brought to my mind my “bloody” sister Ilona, her temper, her tantrums, her love, all her wonderful, overwhelming self. Stepping closer and looking harder I discovered pieces of vividly colored, happy patterned, flowery or red dotted girl’s dresses in a carrousel like cavalcade.
The two pieces dedicated to Mutter (Mother) are very contrasting. One is soft like a watercolor, pinkish and dreamlike, so abstract that we can’t even guess what kind of garment is hidden in the wax. The other is colorful, composed mainly of greens and reds, and has a happy, almost dance-like movement, like playing with a child.
Gross-Tante (Great Aunt)’s dress is close to the surface and very recognizable with all the little flower patterns. My grandmother used to wear very similar ones. The clothes mostly disappear into the deepness of the wax, giving the artwork a hazy, mystical look. As Häussler stated, her works are biographies that come to her and build up in her mind. The stories emerge in relationship to the clothes she casts in wax as they disappear and reappear again and again – a fragment of a human life – briefly touching the surface, “emerging and submerging.”
It might sound like an improvised procedure but Häussler plans her pieces painstakingly. From previous experience she calculates how the textile, cotton or synthetic, will interact with the wax and how the colours will blend into it. Then she shapes the clothes, sinking them or trying to keep them closer to the surface – but, of course, there is still a role for happenstance. The final product is seen after three days when the wax has solidified and the pieces turned upside down then released from the boxes in which they were cast. The reveal holds many surprises. The most prominent of them is how painterly they are. Despite the pieces being very planned in the artist’s mind, there is always a chance through the transitioning period inside the wax that the final piece will turn out differently. Häussler starts with a concept that is mainly sculptural but ends up in the realm of painting, sometimes even in the abstract.
The central issue in her work is the person, their “fictive legacies” – as Häussler says – and not herself. She interprets her work as conservation, even as a kind of mummification that protects, stopping the movement of life. As she says, “the work I do lays in the field of associations where death is again and again very close.” It can be frightening, leading us into the territory of the unknown, the mysterious. Häussler creates a strange balance in between those worlds when ordinary objects go through a metamorphosis, breaking into pieces as the wax swallows some of their parts but their original substance is still there, buried deeply but still holding their entire essence.
Images are courtesy of Daniel Faria Gallery in Toronto.
Art objects are storytelling machines. That’s because we are hardwired to tell and listen to stories. All art, no matter how abstract, must respond to this fundamental human trait. Viewing the show (September 15-October 31, 2018) of Brooklyn-based painter and sculptor James Greco’s new work at Elga Wimmer’s Chelsea Gallery in New York, you would have been transported to narrative worlds even as you gazed at his gestural abstraction. Employing an improvisational mark making and painterly freedom that is singularly his, Greco discovers pictures that traverse the gap between the gestural and the referential.
Six tarpaulin paintings, together forming the show’s piece de resistance, were hung on the walls of the gallery’s main display space, together with two more traditionally made paintings created on cotton cloth the artist had stretched on wooden fames he himself had made. A third painting from this category was on display in an adjacent smaller space. Four sculptures were distributed between the two rooms.
At work in the paintings was the energy and effort of an embodied mind, concentrated in a painter’s hand. Greco says he has an elemental, passionate relationship with paint, and you see this in the sheer physicality he imparts to his imagery. Driving his work is an immersion in spontaneous process, not the finished product – nonetheless, the product emerges as a compelling object that reverberates in you, a hard-won image that takes you to the continuity between gesture and reference. This is akin to mindfulness. You become one with the painter’s experience, the embodied experience that created the painting.
Let’s take a look at two of the paintings in the show, starting with one of the three more traditional paintings so as to see more clearly the leap forward the tarp paintings represent. The name of the piece 1968, no.14 was initially a reference to the year in which Greco was born, and it sprang to his mind while the painting was still in process. Once this light came on, he also recalled the political and social turmoil that erupted in 1968 in many parts of the world. The clash between the grays and whites and reds of this highly energetic painting evokes a violent turbulence that makes you think of Francis Bacon’s paintings as well as Chaim Soutine’s. Coming to mind, too, is the volcanic energy and sinister violence of the paintings of some members of the Gutai group.
Greco in fact celebrates the affinity between his artistic practice and the ideas that drove the revolutionary art of these Japanese artists, who were active as a group between 1954 and 1972. When you regard his tarp paintings you see this affinity right away.
In terms of both Japanese culture and the global art world, the Gutai group sought a new beginning and aspired to a strident originality, especially with regard to choice of materials and processes. Such a radical departure was a natural response to the national disaster the Second World War brought to the Japanese people. The group wanted to turn away from the country’s past and consciously adopted an internationalist outlook. Yet, while the Gutai pioneered new ways of art making that prefigured and catalyzed such later global art forms as happenings and performance art and conceptual art, they achieved, especially in painting, an immediacy, spontaneity, and free expressiveness that was also a hallmark of traditional Japanese art inspired by Zen Buddhism. Look at Tarp Painting 14. The vitality Greco generates in it through his gestural use of wine red, black, gray, white, and earth brown pigments create in you a Zen like experience that is at once numinous and embodied. The play of the colors pushes and pulls, affecting you viscerally, pulling you into a narrative drama, while also pushing you imperceptibly via a subtle allusiveness that seems to harbor a “sudden awakening”– the very essence of Zen. For centuries Zen painters aspired to bring a painting’s core into existence through a single stroke. You see that idea pervading all of Greco’s tarp paintings.
Greco creates a grid in each tarp by folding it into squares he embeds into the canvas by using an iron. The resulting “ghostly geometry”, as he calls it, provides a structure that helps give direction to his brush strokes. Over time, the folds relax and spread out, creating undirected change. The outcome speaks to you of simplicity, artlessness, and even imperfections wrought by time and usage.
The sculptures in the show were made with the same spirit, energy and aspiration that animate his recent paintings. Made of wood, plaster, cement and resin, the forms come together rather quickly with little thought or preconception. Greco tries to feel the physical space they occupy and the independence they claim. Once realized, they are shaped with plaster or cement bringing it all into unity with the mechanical aspects of the binding process being well hidden, inclusive of the armature materials. Greco then applies resin to seal the surfaces and leaves them alone.
Elga Wimmer PCC is currently promoting a new show devoted to the abiding greatness of Asian landscape painting and the reinvention of this genre in contemporary art. Greco, now signing his paintings with a traditional Japanese-style ink stamp – this with a view to signifying not so much their origin in his hand but rather the process that brought them into being – will be a contributor.
The James Greco show discussed in this article ended in October 2018. Those seeing it would have found transformative his distinctive narrative abstraction. The signals they would have received from the liminal space his art occupies would have beckoned them into a heightened awareness.
It’s no secret that water has its own unique attraction. Some of our best memories of youth often center around water, especially in moments when the summer’s oppressive heat is quelled by a dip in a cold lake, stream or pool where games and adventures, big and small, take place. Then there are the socio-political aspects of water: chemical pollution, climate change and even the damage that plastic water bottles can cause – some, even disputed facts that can separate us as much as it unites us.
The eight artists in this exhibition touch upon the above issues as well as add new and deeper ways of thinking that feature varied aesthetic or symbolic characteristics, as they offer distinctive jumping off points to view the world for all its beauty and frailty.
Tim Daly has, for as long as I have known him, been wholly concerned with environmental issues. His two paintings, which address the impending disaster of the Salton Sea in California, present a very real and startling symbol of how past abuses never lose their potential to reap havoc with our health.
Cecilia Whittaker Doe sees water through a complicated lens that challenges the viewer to put the pieces together the same way the Cubists once confronted their audiences. With Whittaker-Doe we see more of a subconscious, day-dreamy quality and a bit softer deconstruction than her predecessors.
Keryn Huang reveals with her images the magic one can harness with a black and white photograph, especially in setting a mood. Even the simplest of juxtapositions and angles can become overtly transformative or quietly compelling in the hands of a patient observer who waits for just the right moment.
Jim St Clair paints solely from his boat, most often along the shores of the five boroughs and New Jersey, as a he captures the beauty as well as the beastliness of large hulking ships, decrepit docks or wobbly walkways that have succumbed to nature and man’s relentless insults, all set against a quickly changing skyline.
William Thompson finds great concerns for what confounds our seas, reaping both physical and psychological harm. As a result, the sea is becoming angry, hot, even molten and we can feel in his intimately sized paintings centuries of abuse bubbling up to the surface as the day of reckoning approaches.
With their timeless sepia toned surfaces, Roman Turovsky creates photographs that feature awe-inspiring angles of some of New York’s most majestic bridges. That mix of time and testament to human kind’s ability to overcome great gaps is much needed today when considering our divisive socio-political climate.
Martin Weinstein looks at nature over days, months even years to collect illuminating imagery on layers of overlapping Plexiglas. Each painting is done from life as it leaps from moment to moment like the pages of a novel, unfolding through beauty, brilliance and the quietude present in each brush stroke.
Patrick Winfield’s Driftwood (2017) holds snippets of a story that reveals itself sequentially in recognizable elements veiled by raking sunlight. Each frame spawns memories in us of similar circumstances when we too have stopped to look and breathe in the timeless moments of everyday life.
Water Works runs from April 27 to May 22, 2019 at the Walter Wickiser Gallery in New York City’s Chelsea District.
The Artwork that Led to the Publication of a Magazine
by Steve Rockwell
I had dropped out of the art scene already in 1972. When I came up with the idea for Pick a Number Between 1 and 99 in 1987, my contact with people I had known from art school and the early studio days had all but ceased. To quote Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone, professionally I was essentially “…a complete unknown.” Distanced from my past efforts, my future presented a blank slate. The situation was at once liberating, yet tinged by a sense of urgency.
Work on Pick a Number was designed to progress incrementally in the expanse of a public arena, not the hermetic, catacomb strictures of a studio. From this point, my normal working space would be consigned to the finishing aspect of the art – its fabrication. The approach felt fresh and invigorating in a way that I imagined, the impressionists may have experienced working en plein air. Essential to the project was an intent to make the endeavor as idiot proof as possible, allaying the burden of having to plumb any arcane pretensions that the participant may have associated with conceptual art. It really came down to just picking a number and selecting a square. With profundity and import deferred, I soldiered on, adopting the habit of toting my half-letter-sized paper forms as I went, a bit like a photographer with his camera, I suppose – at the ready to frame and capture my subject anywhere, any time.
In point of practice, the project unfolded in a predictably routine way: supported by friends, family, and work colleagues – the low-hanging fruit. Even then, I found myself in an awkward role as somewhat of a huckster in having to sell people on the idea. I needed a cover if I hoped to carry this thing off. In my mind, the right persona might be just the ticket. Steve Rockwell was born April 12, 1987, just two days after Bea Egolf, a typesetter at the company for which I worked, scribed the number 32 into the first Pick a Number grid.
Good or bad at this point, the initiative had at least brought me into a fresh consideration of my creative approach. How far can I stretch this artist character? How will it affect my working method as I progress? Admittedly, all this had been a wry jab at the solemnity and, in my view, needless complexity of Sol Lewitt’s approach to conceptualism. His Wall Drawing #232: The location of a square had been the singular springboard for this new direction. The 19-line geyser of a sentence in Lewitt’s set of instructions, however, gave me a headache. I would rather have assembled an IKEA bookcase. “A square, each side of which is equal to a tenth of the total length of three lines, the first of which is drawn from a point halfway between the center of the wall and a point halfway between the wall and the upper left corner and the midpoint…” and so on. Nevertheless, I did like its precision and aura of certainty – its final executive clarity.
Looking back now, I see that the complexity that I had dispensed with in Lewitt’s instructions, had merely been displaced by the Steve Rockwell character, as played out in the 139 separate negotiations with the participating individuals over the eight month period required to complete my Art Involvement Form #001 project. An important distinction lay also in the final product. While Lewitt employed fabricators and assistants to complete his work, following detailed instructions to a specific end, the final product in the Art Involvement pieces were provisional and generally arbitrary. Decisions about the look of these pieces could be made once the information had been collected. There were two key aspects to my approach – data generation and data implementation, necessarily facilitated by a social network. It wasn’t lost on me that their conception occurred in tandem with the 80s development and proliferation of the personal computer. It’s worth considering the role that Steve Jobs played in hyping the warm, human aspects of computing, made conspicuous with the 1983 release of the Apple Lisa, named for his daughter.
Despite my best efforts to manage the progress of the Pick a Number piece, a fly dropped into the ointment with author Jerzy Kosinski’s contribution. After a lecture he had given in Toronto, he either didn’t catch, or simply ignored my instruction to mark a single number into the space of his choice. Instead, he gobbled up all of six squares, scribbling in three combinations of sixes and nines with an obvious eagerness. At the time, I thought that the blunder had spoiled the intended symmetry of the piece. Participants in the 12 by 12 grid project ought to have generated a tidy 144 completed forms. When displayed at their exhibition, the wall installation of Pick a Number sheets were arranged into 24 rows six deep as planned, but with five unintended blanks spaces remaining at the end. Kosinski had inadvertently blocked five people from taking part in the project and given the piece something of an unfinished look. In retrospect, the “mistake” may have turned out to be fortuitous. It had bothered me somewhat that the white square on the last participant’s form would remain without the blackening. In the preparation of this article, and seeking a way to best configure the 139 sheets of paper, a possible solution presented itself. Why not ink in that last counter and punctuate the form by my own signature? This would make it an even 140 and allow for its display as a grid arranged five forms deep with 28 rows across.
Not surprisingly, given its social aspect, the Pick a Number project had quickly edged towards a narrative, the generation of ciphers progressively threading disparate individuals into a kind of information tapestry, even more so with the passage of time. The first tragic instance of it, as I recall, was the sudden passing of a work associate, Leo, who had once played Olympic hockey for Italy. Hearing the news affected me in a strange way. His contributing datum had made him inadvertently part of a larger story, the transcription to which I had served as a witness. Leo’s number pick had been a peg driven into the tent of a specific moment in time and place.
To be expected, life passages are the Pick a Number events that etch the deepest into relief. Represented on the form as a fade from white to black, they analogize the nakedly sharp edge of our existence. From the beginning on April 10th, 1987 to its completion on December 2nd of that year, various personal stories constitute an ever-expanding tableau vivant, the forms serving as delineating markers, a canvas upon which a mélange of dramas continue to play out into the present. All along, it had been the personal part of the information gathering that had made the simple act of selecting numbers into something of a life moment – and as long as narratives are being tracked, Pick a Number seems never to close out.
I have come to appreciate the project as a private diary – people clustered into specific times and places, a sequential log of family, friends, and people that I knew, worked with, and met casually in 1987. Two Toronto mayors became part of Pick A Number. I bumped into Art Eggleton, the longest serving Mayor of Toronto, striding past Henry Moore’s Archer and across Nathan Phillips Square, the mayor presumably fresh from a council meeting at the adjacent City Hall. After a brief verbal joust, he relented and signed the form. Then mayor of North York, Mel Lastman signed my form without hesitation at a public function. He would preside over an amalgamated Toronto from 1998 to 2003.
I can see from the dates on the forms #11-20 that Thursday evening on April 16 would have involved a drive with the family to parents in Northern Ontario for Easter. The next day on Good Friday seven family members signed forms at our stay at my parents. Three more were numbered on Easter Sunday, indicating that we had paid a visit to the in-laws.
All of 22 forms were inscribed on a single day, August 30th at Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition. The North York Arts Council had provided some booth space for artists, giving my outing there a carnivalesque step-right-up-folks flavor. While at the exhibition, I took in a set by rockabilly legend Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins, who obliged me with a 69 on his Pick a Number form. The three members of another CNE act, the Aussie band, Mind The Gap, also picked numbers. A quick Google search just revealed that their head-banging anthems and reflective ballads are still reverberating. Before his success in Canada, lead singer, Patrick McMahon, had arrived at the Vancouver Airport in 1986 with a suitcase and a guitar, not knowing a soul. My recollection is that McMahon had picked the name for his group from the caution signs that he observed riding on the Toronto subway.
My local in 1987 was the Ben Wicks – a lode rich in Pick a Number participants, which included a former Playboy bunny who had apparently once worked at Hef’s Chicago club, and Maury Mason, a Greenpeace spokesman who now manages the Vipassana Meditation Center in British Columbia. It was Mason who had reported on the six Greenpeace members who were chained to the British vessel The Gem in the protest of the dumping of 5,000 barrels of radioactive waste into the Atlantic.
Pick a Number was the first of several art involvement projects that would sprout from the original seed idea, the second being Decade, which had its showing as part of a group exhibit in December 1988. This work involved putting up for sale days of a purchasor’s choice of the ten years leading up to the year 2000. Although begun and created in December 1987, Color Match Game would not be exhibited until 2004, undergoing refinements and developments that continue into the present. In that respect, the work shares a characteristic common to all of these pieces. Since the final visual appearance of each is provisional, there is a regenerative aspect to the works that lends unpredictability and frequently a surprise of outcome.
These three columns of type constrained by the pages of dArt magazine owe their direct genesis to the burgeoning line of art involvement projects, the eighth being the sculptural Gallery Space, which led to the book work Meditations on Space in 1996, and finally dArt International magazine in 1998. In the strictest sense the subject, of course, is still space.
Gallery Space was part of the first Steve Rockwell solo exhibition at the Arnold Gottlieb Gallery in January 1989. That summer, Gottlieb featured the Steve Rockwell Sandwich, driving home the idea that the application of a program, or menu retains its freshness in the perpetuity of production. Since then, the sandwich has appeared on restaurant menus and been featured at a 2004 Arts and Eats fair in San Antonio, Texas. The sandwich inspired a new food product, the dArt Burger, made available to order from a Toronto restaurant menu in 2011.
Long before Pick a Number and all that followed, is an ink and water color sketch that I came across by Jouko Salomaa done in 1973 that foreshadows the reflections on space that found expression in the late 80s, created by the individual who would rebrand his art in the persona of Steve Rockwell. Originally an untitled sketch, I decided to name it Field Work in the preparation of this article, as a way to knit together what went before with what came later. At the moment of its rendering, not much context could be inferred, that is until the current reconsideration of Pick a Number, where the arena of my labor would drift from one side of the studio wall to its exterior.
Little did I know when I sat down for the lecture by The Hermit of 69th Street, that strands in the narrative of a writer of “autofiction,” would eventually be woven into the visual art of another fictive persona. Since Kosinski spent a good part of his late career dodging accusations of plagiarism, the questions that arise have validity and currency. How much of what an artist reflects is genuinely his own? Admittedly, by Kosinski’s definition, the writer of autofiction was a teller of neither truth nor lies. I’d like to think that Steve tells truths.
The current offering at John Davis Gallery is the ideal combination of excellent art and a carefully prepared and perfectly installed exhibition. As a result, Ron Milewicz strikingly beautiful landscapes immediately capture and hold your attention as you enter the space. Opposite the entrance of the gallery hangs the most spiritual work in the show, Sun and Oak (2019). This modestly sized oil on panel will at first remind some of the visionary works of Charles Burchfield. The difference in Milewicz’s art lies in the more earthly nature of his scenes, which are most often about the exceptionally quiet moments one can experience on this earth when communing quietly and alone with nature. In a way, both Burchfield and Milewicz have that innate ability to enlighten the viewer, only with Milewicz you have a more subtle transition that relies more on the viewer’s past experiences than any otherworldly presumptions one might have. In that way, perhaps Milewicz’s landscapes are closer to Peter Doig’s paintings than Burchfield, sans the trippiness of Doig’s intense palette.
Take for instance Three Trees (2018), perhaps a nod the ages old subject The Three Muses, where we see a most subtle mastery of a moment when space and time meld harmoniously into veils of consciousness. Our attention is subtly held as we are methodically brought to the fore from the left – then across – moving back through the quietly chilling space from the right as our eyes hop along a slowly fading arc. In paintings like Tree Stand (2017) you can really see the artist’s mastery of his medium in the way he slowly, carefully and ever so lightly delivers his paints across the prepared textured surfaces of each panel. There is much movement here as well, as one of the far trees bows and bends to a sinuous path of light that plumes up and into the heavens.
Fall (2017-19), which has a double meaning with its late autumn colors and an obvious silhouette of a fallen tree, is one of the more complex works in the exhibition. Mostly invigorated by overlapping triangle shapes of the distant tree line, the alternating angles and uprightness of the white, black, brown and gray leafless trees dance across and divide the composition into stages while that one dead tree and its hump of a root system adds more than a bit of life/death cycle to one’s thoughts throughout. Late Winter Pond (2018) is the one work that has a bit more darkness to offer than Fall, as the oddly shaped pool of water is more like a heart shaped pit that blackens the earth while the soft moonlight disorients passers by wondering only where they might make an inconvenient misstep in this hauntingly serene setting.
Hanging in the lower level of the gallery are Milewicz earlier works, which are steely cityscapes of New York City’s more industrial aspects contrasted by formidable skylines and an occasional tree or grassy hillside. In these works, the overlap with Milewicz landscapes is in the striking way the artist handles and distills detail, form and color to drive all of his oddly romantic narratives without a single soul in sight.
Ron Milewicz: Circumstances at John Davis Gallery, Hudson, NY. The exhibition ends March 24th. If you are in Hudson, be sure to see it.