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.
Earlier in February photographer Leah Oates opened her Transitory Space # 9 exhibition at Black Cat Artspace, a small storefront gallery near Dundas and Roncesvalles in Toronto. Now a resident of the city, Leah Oates had founded and run Station Independent Projects, a Lower East Side gallery in New York City. Her recent work centers on Toronto’s Cedarvale Ravine and Don Valley, the ninth in the Transitory Space group of works. Other sites have ranged from Nova Scotia, Pelham Bay, the Bronx, and Jamaica Bay, Queens, to as far away as Beijing, China. She has stated her intention to observe, “urban and natural locations that are transforming due to the passage of time, altered natural conditions and a continual human imprint. In everyone and in everything there are daily changes and this series articulates fluctuation in the photographic image and captures movement through time and space.”
A persistent motif for Oates, the tree, anchors her exploration of the effects of light and colour in the photographic and printing process much as Monet fixated on specific subjects. His attention might have fallen on haystacks, the Rouen Cathedral or his Giverny pool. Regardless, it allowed for an in-depth investigation of the nuanced transit of time from daylight to dusk. In corralling her subject, Oates frames her gaze where best to record the intricate lattice play between a blood vessel burst of branch with sky. The Don Valley suite of works in particular, take us to an acid-soaked Kubrick kind of hyper-space, as much inner as outer. There is a restless, kinetic quality to the work. Where exactly do these images reside? Solarized circles appear to telescope, moving from the human cornea to camera lens, cupping the subject in a hazy biosphere, orbs favouring flora over fauna. More drama-infused than placid, the spaces arrested by the eye of the camera, nevertheless, convey an idyllic of unspoiled innocence at times, particularly the images eschewed of human traces.
The observed impressions that Oates presents to the viewer is less a detached, dispassionate record of the visible world, than an attempt to come to terms with and perhaps reconcile “contradictory realities.” To achieve this, it’s helpful to understand her working process, and while it may appear to be digital at first sight, it has its basis originally in film, “then either printed as its with some tweaking of color in the darkroom or the negative is scanned, altered and colour corrected digitally, then printed as a pigment print. Whatever the final print process, there is always a connection to location, place and yet a playful randomness and flux.”
The over-arching ethos animating the Transitory Spaces of Oates has to fall on the side of beauty. While she admits that the human energy tends to be messy, her chosen spaces “are endlessly interesting, alive places,” and there is more than hint of an idealizing imperative in her summarization of the work as ”temporary monuments to the ephemeral nature of existence.”
Leah Oates, Transitory Space # 9, Black Cat Artspace, 2186 Dundas Street West, Toronto, Ontario M6R 1X3, from Feb 7-20th, 2019
The Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art stands as a consistent reminder that a regional museum can play a major role in the presentation and understanding of Contemporary Art, as well as offering a showplace for antiquity and Modern Art. Currently, the museum features four outstanding exhibitions that are presented thoughtfully and with a very high level of professionalism.
First, is the energetic and inviting painting exhibition Just My Type: Angela Dufresne. In it, are a number of life-sized portraits that begin with a half dozen multi-layered room-scapes dominated by a lone and oft times luxuriating figure. In each, we see overlapping veils of color, line and wash-based abstraction executed in thin, fluid oil paint. Gradually and effortlessly Dufresne’s painterly references directly and indirectly elicit form and depth, ultimately translating into an interior setting. This all comes about much in the same way a sculptor may work, beginning with a wire or wooden armature with the intent of adding more ‘solid’ materials to flesh out the forms. When considering the narrative elements here, paintings such as David Humphrey (2009) and Leigh Ledare (2007) show figures in repose, as one can assume, after a long day of exhausting creative activity. That unique combination of semi-transparent representation and ‘artist as subject’ gives these works their characteristic unpredictability – as they are more like a conversation between two creative minds than a portrait of a lone, posing or distracted individual.
Other examples of portraiture, such as Tomaso de Luca (2017), Kerry Downey (2016) and William E. Jones (2017), have much simpler backgrounds than the aforementioned works. With the subjects surrounded by one color, you may begin to register certain details such as the strong spindly fingers and the bigger than life personalities that may lead one to consider the influence of Egon Schiele or Alice Neel. As a result, this more emotional type allows the personal traits of the subjects to dominate, thus enhancing the their individuality. On the other hand, the use of a monochromatic wash of color to surround the figures intensifies their focus, which in some instances, as in the portrait of Kerry Downey, puts forth a hint of anxiousness or impatience – not an unusual response to sitting still for a portrait.
Around the corner from this first exhibition is a show that features a new addition of art to the museum. In Celebration: A Recent Gift From the Photography Collection of Marcuse Pfeifer is a stunning display of intensely alluring black and white photography from the apex of Modernism to the late ‘80’s. Included is Bernice Abbott’s famous portrait James Joyce (from the series “Faces of the ‘20’s”) (1928), which combines the dynamics created by a subtle gesture, opposing angles and corralled visual voids with more than a bit of fashionable flair. Also from the same series, and in stark contrast to Joyce, is the imposing form of Princess Eugene Murat (1928) that forcefully divides the composition into two corresponding triangles. Alternatively, and from the same series, is Buddy Gilmore (1926-27) where we see the projection of pure joy through an obvious celebration of life and a love of music that shifts up and out of the picture plane in a series of circles, shadows and suggestive signals.
Max Yavno’s Muscle Beach, Los Angeles (1949) and Cable car, San Francisco (1947) are wonderful, classic West Coast moments that are beautifully composed and impeccably nuanced. The work of Peter Hujar shows great versatility as he moves from the stone cold daunting geometry of New York: Sixth Avenue (I & II) (1976) to the thought filled serenity of Susan Sontag (1975). In both instances, the texture of the numerous parallel lines in Sontag’s sweater and the striations in the New York City’s looming behemoths links the aesthetic, while the starkness in the background above the skyscrapers and the reclining figure creates a palpable level of quietude.
August Sander offers a different level of contrast between the bleakness of the woman in Rural Bride (1921-22), and the sophisticated citified form in High School Student (1926), both clearly defining the era’s varied levels of poverty and privilege.
Of the other two exhibitions, one is a tribute to the 150th anniversary of nearby Mohonk Mountain House featuring wonderful archival photographs, plus student interpretations of various images of the past. Then there is an incredible, multi-faceted one-person exhibition by Linda Mary Montano titled The Art/Life Hospital. This exhibition references Montano’s stellar career as a performance and installation artist, coupled with intriguing mixed media sculptures, wildly suggestive drawings, fascinating videos and a very active set of participatory chalk boards that key off the colors of the chakra. Much of what is here is the artist dealing with late-in-life issues and realizations as well as her life-long spiritual and faith based beliefs that fill the space with a very potent reality. The Art/Life Hospital was organized by Anastasia James, and runs through April 14, 2019.
Mohonk Mountain House at 150; Just My Type: Angela Dufresne, which was curated by Anastasia James and Melissa Ragona; and In Celebration: A Recent Gift From the Photography Collection of Marcuse Pfeifer, which was curated by Wayne Lempka, all are on display through July 14, 2019. The Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art is located on the campus of the State University of New York at New Paltz at 1 Hawk Drive. There are a number of events planned during the run of these four exhibitions, so please visit the museum’s website for more details: https://www.newpaltz.edu/museum/
My father had a brain tumor. His little sister, my aunt Peg, also had an acoustic neuroma. Her’s went malignant and she died. The fifth neurosurgeon screwed a specially built helmet onto Dad’s skull to blast his growth with radiation from 360 degrees. It saved his life but left him incapacitated. He died ten years later from diabetes after laying around on the couch depressed and getting fat – for ten years. He had been a dashing sorta’ guy. How much television can you watch?
Mary Jones’s exhibition combines x rays and attractive abstract art. Brushstrokes. Hazes. Painting. Stencils. Scans. One layered over another: Renaissance Portrait #2, Beauty and reality. Fate and frailty. At the opening reception at this tiny gallery visitors bumped into the larger canvases hanging on the walls. I could not help but notice. Dream Screen Patrick. I said nothing at the time. What good would that do after the fact? Like beeping your scolding horn at a car after they already made a dangerous move on the road. Everything is abstract. What is more real than a Xerox of your insides? A bunch of lines and shapes that make up your life. Everything you are. Then there are the colors. Mensch. The fleeting forms that become our existences, our lives; everyone, everything you will ever know. Every flower, every eye, nose, foot – abstract shapes that come to mean something to us, those figments of bones and tumors and cells and, that is what we are. Pretty colors and brutal facts. Melancholia. This exhibition lays it out quite plainly: Beautiful, magnificent, sad, painful, over. All of the colors of our lives, the shapes of our bones, the contours of our minds – because several of the x-rays are of brains. The abstract expressionist gestures and flailings, Diana’s Beautiful Brain, that’s us. The hues, shapes, that become all that we will ever know or understand, and what is inside of us, what comprises us, are more of the same; however banal the photo imagery of our insides are. Inside and outside, or, perhaps more accurately, the other way around. The Here Thing, That those carnal, factual images can behove the imaginings, the days, the entireties of us, as individuals, of all of mankind’s history, of all the universes, of all of everything . . .
Mary Jones, Travel Light, High Noon Gallery, February 7 – March 10, 2019, New York City
It’s not often that a new art movement shoots into life just as a nation needs it socio-politically. This is exactly what happened in 1947, the year India threw off the yoke of British imperial rule, when a group of young artists banded together in Mumbai (then Bombay) to launch the Progressive Artists’ Group with a view to creating, in the words of its manifesto, a “new art for a newly free India.”
By organizing from September 15, 2018 through January 20, 2019 a show comprehensively presenting the group’s vision and achievements, the Asia Society Museum in New York is making an indispensable contribution to art history. The group’s many achievements still reverberate today. Seven decades later, the Progressives’ ideas and legacy provide a lodestar for India and a wider world beset by the politics of insularity, division and exclusion – a world in which cultural freedom is under threat.
In the catalog accompanying the Asia Society show, curator Boon Hui Tan, also Museum Director and a Vice-President of the Society, complements the essay contributed by guest curator Zehra Jumabhoy by contextualizing the legacy of the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) within a wider Asian context. He concludes in his essay, “The battles over the art of postcolonial Asia are essentially battles over the ideological basis and values of the new nation, which are shaped by the changing structures of power over time.” In her essay’s conclusion, Jumabhoy, also Associate Lecturer at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, calls for reclaiming the core message of hope embedded in PAG’s “progressive vision” – a message applicable, she believes, to the political landscapes of both India and the United States. In essence, the group’s vision and accomplishments, as articulated by the Asia Society show, have ramifications extending well beyond India’s political and cultural geography.
Back in 2010, art historian Iftikhar Dadi saw in PAG’s artistic adventure an aspiration to
go beyond the boundaries of the national to open up “the self and the nation to a wider
dialogue with universalist aspirations of equality and freedom.” How right he was, the
show tells us. Discussing its timeliness and importance in a recent article, writer Tausif
Noor suggests that it has become vital “to re-examine the Progressives’ vision of India as
a nation of commingling and complementary differences.” But, taking our cue from Dadi,
we might also assert this: the same vision throws light on the sustenance of pluralist
democracy and cultural diversity amidst challenges now emerging not only in India but in
many regions of the world.
What did the PAG artists mean by declaring themselves progressive? The deployment of the term in the context of culture had already become current in India since the 1930s with the founding of the Progressive Writers’ Association, which, as Dadi reminds us, “had rapidly emerged as a highly influential group of writers producing literature of socialist realism and critique across India in numerous languages.” Francis Newton Souza, the main driver propelling PAG’s creation, was, in his early youth, briefly a member of the Communist Party of India. Yet, within a year of PAG’s birth, in 1948, he wondered why his group still called itself progressive. “We have changed all the chauvinist and leftist fanaticism which we incorporated in our manifesto …Today we paint with absolute freedom for contents and techniques.” Over a decade later, when he was resident in London, having migrated there in 1949, Souza even said, “I don’t believe that a true artist paints for coteries or for the proletariat. I believe with all my soul that he paints solely for himself.” In saying this, Souza spoke for himself, and PAG had in any case disbanded in 1956. The Progressives clearly followed diverse, distinctive agendas that could not be distilled into a single artistic program. Yet, all of them willy-nilly responded to their socio-political milieus even as they expressed themselves, some clearly addressing issues with social implication, and, in the process, they evolved an aesthetic that spoke to the cultural needs of their time even as their personal artistic vocabularies diverged.
Present at PAG’s creation, as founding members, were Souza and five other artists: K.H.
Ara, S.K. Bakre, H.A. Gade, M.F. Husain, and S.H. Raza. The six came from diverse
social and religious backgrounds and were for the most part quite poor when they began
their careers. Over time the group expanded to include six other artists: Akbar Padamsee,
Tyeb Mehta, Krishen Khanna, V.S. Gaitonde, Ram Kumar, and Mohan Samant.
Unfortunately, the only woman artist associated with the group, Bhanu Rajopadhye, did
not maintain the link beyond 1953.i
The Progressives succeeded in their agenda of progressing beyond the artistic paradigm set by the cultural institutions founded during the British Raj, especially the Sir J.J. School of Art, as well as the achievements of twentieth century artistic predecessors – the Bengal School and Amrita Sher-Gill most prominently – by internalizing in a transformative way the insights of Western high modernism. This assimilation, as the Asia Society show brings home to us, became a profoundly imagined Indian construction because PAG artists integrated modernist concepts, especially things pushing outwards formalist possibilities, with ideas they inherited from India’s cultural history, an ancient history spanning many millennia. Two more influences need mentioning. The Progressives borrowed ideas from India’s extremely diverse folk art and culture. What’s more, they took ideas from sister civilizations in Asia, especially the arts of China, a country with which India has interacted for at least three millennia. To the Asia Society show’s curators we owe a big debt of gratitude for an art history contribution of great significance: their spotlighting of a significant intra-Asian connection.
Many factors enabled the Progressives’ achievement of a cross-cultural synthesis. This
essay will address this issue in an attempt to extend the ground so well covered in the
exhibition catalog. Three integrating factors are especially worth noting.
Iftikhar Dadi has identified one of these by saying that formalism–that is, formalism such as that catalyzed and promoted by modernism – “is itself more amenable to Indo-Persian aesthetics than is academic realism,” the nineteenth century European realism promoted by colonial British policy. Here, Dadi was of course referencing the great tradition of Indian miniature painting that reached its apogee in the sixteenth century through an integration of two traditions that were themselves products of centuries of cultural hybridity – Persian painting, embodying an Islamic aesthetic building upon earlier traditions, and an Indian art that represented the meeting of three streams emanating from the needs of three religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, especially the latter two, given the strong possibility that Indian miniature painting first sprang to life in the eighth century in the eastern part of India, under the umbrella of the Pala dynasty. Emerging from this immense, ancient, swirling backdrop was a natural desire for harmony and emotional balance. Formalist aspects of modernism in art were seen to respond well to this aspiration, especially through abstraction.
In thinking about this, one might recall the principle that Henri Matisse laid down when he said in his Notes of a Painter (1908) that even as color is used expressively, the content being expressed should be stable and harmonious. Discussing Matisse’s goal in a witty, wonderful book – What is Painting? – Julian Bell suggests that Matisse’s goal, while pursuing his intuitions about color, was “to reach beyond transient emotions: to arrive at a transpersonal, by way of the personal.” Surely, similar goals animated the numinous, transcendent art of both S.H. Raza and V.S. Gaitonde. In his memoir-essay Looking Out of the Looking Glass, published in 2013 as part of a substantial book on PAG published by DAG (Delhi Art Gallery), Krishen Khanna speaks of Raza’s engagement with symbolic metaphysical forms. Of Gaitonde, he says, “His gradual exploring of a colour with all its tonalities is reminiscent of a Vilambit Khayal.” This is the slower of two main stanzas of a North Indian vocal musical form embracing cycles of improvisation that, through melody and rhythm, transport you to a world beyond words.
A second area of congruence arose from Indian miniatures employing color –frequently vibrant, intense stains – in both symbolic and expressive ways. Towards the end of the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth century, the desire to allude to a world beyond the arena of the painting as well as the desire to stimulate feeling in the beholder pushed European artists to shift boundaries. Eventually they crossed the frontier into modernism, brandishing a passport called color. Think of Vincent van Gogh now, and his friend for a while Paul Gauguin, whose colorism was a big influence on Amrita Sher-Gil. The PAG artists rejected her legacy but, in practice, succumbed to the logic that moved her artistic practice. Color’s expressiveness and its ability to create feeling played into their agenda of responding to a new nation’s concerns, which they personally felt to be their own. So, for example, M.F. Hussainii drew upon the colors and images of Basohli miniature painting (and other Indian sources) even as he borrowed ideas from Picasso and other Western artists.
The third integrating factor is this: the PAG artists operated in a cultural milieu that was
decisively influenced by thinkers like Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European to win
the Nobel Prize in Literature. Not only a writer and educator, he emerged late in life as an
innovative artist. In 1921, Tagore claimed that the ‘idea of India’ militated “against the
intense consciousness of the separateness of one’s own people from others.” Discussing
Tagore’s statement in The Argumentative Indian, a collection of essays on Indian history,
culture and identity, economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, another Nobel laureate,
suggests that it has implications within India and the arena in which India relates to the
world. Sen’s suggestion is that, both internally and externally, Tagore’s claim “proposes
an inclusionary form for the idea of Indian identity.” Sen admits, “It would be hard to
claim that there is some exact, homogeneous concept of Indian identity that emerged
during the [country’s] independence movement as a kind of national consensus.”
Different leaders and thinkers, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s
first Prime Minister, took diverse approaches on many aspects of the idea of India. But all
of them shared “an inclusionary reading of Indian identity that tolerates, protects and
indeed celebrates diversity within a pluralist India.” It is this inclusionary idea that
brought the Progressives together, in terms of their art and the social legitimation they
aspired to in different ways. And along with it, hand in hand, came their openness to a
millennia-old Indian cultural syncretism that fertilized their absorption of modernist
In the early twentieth century, thanks to developments in the West, a paradigm change had taken place in the world of art, and it was only appropriate that Indian artists should engage with the new paradigm. In fact, well before PAG, as art historian Partha Mitter has shown, Indian artists such as Rabindranath Tagore and Jamini Roy found in Western avant-garde thinking ammunition for their anti-colonial resistance. Mitter also reminds us that, in the nineteenth century, Western Romanticism received from Indian philosophical thought a most important infusion, and the resulting synthesis had produced many mutations all the way to the twentieth-century Existentialists as well as Henri Bergson and Wilhelm Worringer. This stream of influence and confluence affected artistic modernism, by contributing to the cultural climate that created and sustained it. It was reflected, for example, in the thinking and practices of Wassily Kandinsky and other modernists in their development of a flat, non-figurative art and their search for an alternative to materialism.
Already by the eleventh century, as art historian John Guy has shown, a Pan-Indian artistic sensibility had developed in the subcontinent. This “shared style and expressive language” was dominated by two aesthetic concerns: “a striving for fidelity to nature” that was balanced by “a desire to generate powerful emotions through pictorial imagery and literary allusion.” Let me now suggest that this Indian aesthetic came into play most vividly and expressively when, in the sixteenth century, Indian art absorbed an earlier infusion of European artistic ideas via contact with the European Renaissance – a topic addressed in a most original way by art historian Kavita Singh. Painters of miniatures at the Mughal court took readily to European ideas regarding naturalism, chiaroscuro, and perspective but did not progress in linear fashion towards a full-fledged adoption of European practices. Rather Mughal painters preferred a hybrid aesthetic wherein these ideas were imaginatively combined with an art that continued to draw upon Persian conventions with regard to symbolism, allusive practices, and composition. Moreover, given the fact that most Mughal court painters were not Persian expatriates but indigenous Indian artists, it seems to me that the Pan-Indian style identified by Guy was still a living force, especially with regard to the importance of symbolic imagery and artful allusiveness.
Let me now go on to suggest that this Pan-Indian style was a vigorous force even in the
second half of the twentieth century. Subliminally and perhaps even overtly, it directed
the hands of the PAG artists as they sought the ‘new art’ they proclaimed in 1947. It
guided them as they selectively took ideas from Western modernism to create a
‘decentered’ modernism in India. It guided them as they propelled the forging of a new
synthesis, which also absorbed ideas from other Asian artistic traditions. If you visited
the Asia Society show and took it all in one sweep, albeit a slow one permitting deep
looking, you would be struck by the salience of a few themes.
To varying degrees and in different ways, the PAG artists showed that there is but a porous frontier between abstraction and figuration. Applying the previously noted syncretism of Indian culture, the Progressives created different combinations of the two styles. Think of Souza’s symbolism-laden figures embodying an intense experience of alienation and suffering – here was an artist who stretched the possibilities of painting. Think of Husain’s admixture of simplified, Cubism-inflected figuration with an expressiveness arising from his use of color to create feeling and to compose the picture; think too of his employing color in combination with imagery to allude to ideas emerging from Indian art and culture, including the quotidian culture of ordinary Indian people. And now think of the forms of abstraction towards which Gaitonde and Raza and S.K. Bakre gravitated – abstract styles that were also in their own ways highly suggestive and allusive, pointing to Indian and, in Gaitonde’s case, other Asian artistic and philosophical ideas, and even transporting you beyond the picture frame. During your visit to the show, make it a point to look intently at a Rajput miniature painting from ca. 1690 titled Krishna and Balarama in Pursuit of the Demon Shankashura, which the exhibition’s curators have juxtaposed with S.H. Raza’s Bindu (ca.1980s). It’s astonishingly close to a modernist painting. Consider its flatness, its simplification of landscape elements, its employment of color at once to stimulate delight and compose the picture, its juxtaposition of multiple narratives, its suggestiveness and symbolism – modernism is not a stone’s throw away, but it is not far down the road. Yes, Raza’s painting could be seen as a response to the aesthetic embedded in the Rajput miniature. But, applying your imagination adventurously, you could even say that the Progressives’ entire oeuvre, broadly speaking, is just such a response. All in all, a glorious creativity arose when the Pan-Indian aesthetic, incarnated in the sensibilities of the PAG artists, encountered the ideas that these artists took from Western modernism.
The Progressives succeeded in creating “a new art for a newly free India” by marrying their individual imaginations to their commitment as a group to a pluralistic India, an idea completely in accord with the inclusionary syncretism they inherited as Indians. Their art solidified and enlarged a new edifice – Indian modernism. Some of them pursued career trajectories abroad, carrying forward their creative evolution through the urgency and stimulation that came from their interaction with new influences. Over time international recognition and impact followed for them and the PAG artists who stayed home. The art world has come to accept the reality that modernism had many centers.
Zehra Jumabhoy rightly asks, “Is it not time to give the Progressives’ visualization of a plural India a second chance?” At a time when India is experiencing a high economic growth rate but finding challenges in making that growth inclusive and environmentally sustainable, the pluralist vision embodied in India’s constitution is not simply a desirable, aspirational idea but a critical necessity for generating the innovation and creativity at all levels without which India could not create widespread prosperity for its citizens. And those citizens now comprise a share of world population that will soon reach 18 per cent. Jumabhoy’s question has ramifications for India and the world.
i We know of Bhanu Rajopadhye’s association with PAG because of some smart
sleuthing by Zehra Jumabhoy.
ii Worth noting is M.F. Husain: Restless Traveler, an exhibition mounted by New York
City’s Aicon Gallery from October 26-December 1, 2018 partially paralleling the Asia
Society show. Themed around Husain’s constant travels throughout the world and the
inspiration they had upon his work, the exhibition’s centerpiece is a monumental nearly
sixteen feet long acrylic-on-canvas painting called “Beyond Theoria”.
Of Armenian descent but born in Greece, where she now lives (with regular visits to New York), Eozen Agopian was educated in the United States – at Pratt Institute for her master’s degree and at Hunter College for her bachelor’s of fine arts. Her recent show, expertly curated by the art historian Thalia Vrachopoulos, The Fabric of Space, at the Greek consulate in New York City, enabled visitors to experience her highly worked art, dependent on cloth and thread, nearly as luminous as a Russian icon but also dedicated to the complex vectors and planes of modernist painting. Agopian is an artist of unusual skill, being someone whose textural surfaces are as involved and intricate as embroidery. Her artisanal vision will inevitably tie her to artistic craft, but that term will not do justice to the jewel-like, but completely art-oriented, work she makes so well.
In Presently (2016), Agopian creates a surface of extreme density, helped by a rectangular set of banded threads that frame two small abstract images. Outside this construction, we see a variety of colored planes–mostly blue, green, and gray–taking up the rest of the space. The density of the image’s architecture is remarkable and creates a space that is of strong interest in its variety of textures. Crowded with forms that fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces, the composition comes close to exploding beyond the confines established by its frame. Fine art like this relates historically to collage — in particular, the work of Kurt Schwitters, the German founder of merz art. Its impact is derived from the contrast between one form and the next within a relatively small space. This happens on a regular basis in Agopian’s art.
In Nicholas’ Space (2018), the lines take over the entire space of the composition, with forms lending complexity underneath. It feels like an allover composition, with attention being paid to texture. The rhythmic emphasis brought about by the rows of strings also structures the image, which is complex and self-contained. A word of caution might be said about the relentless modernism of Agopian’s vision — some viewers might say the work looks backward too often, relying on a sense of the past that is no longer energetic as an outlook. But this is highly formal work whose manufacture is done so well, we can only marvel at the intricacies of its parts. This is generally true of the artist’s efforts, which are exquisitely put together in ways that remind us of our need to see something well made. As time goes on, and we move further and further away from a sense of craft, Agopian’s art will maintain an integrity that in fact comes from craft, at the same time successfully presenting its high art intentions.
My Departure (2013), the last work to be discussed, consists of thin canvas folded in a vertical fashion, held together by six bands of horizontal, light-colored strings. The colors of the folded, painted canvases give the work a vibrancy that is deeply satisfying. Maybe texture is the true center of Agopian’s focus, which tends to emphasize the exterior of the image–to the point where it takes on the feeling of a sculptural surface. This work, like all of Agopian’s pieces, is self-sufficient in its autonomous abstraction. It communicates feeling as well as highly considered design. This combination of emotion and facture supports our experience of the artist’s thinking, which is original and achieved in the extreme. We live in a time when a kind of manic expressiveness, triumphalist and egotistical, has taken over in art. Such an attitude leads nowhere, although its inherent selfishness may lead to momentary euphoria. But it does not last. The remarkable thing about Agopian’s art is that it is alive to modernism, that is, the recent past, even as its experience leads us ahead, to an esthetic as yet unknown. Thus, we must hope that this show, and Agopian’s art in general, do not go unnoticed, given as the artist is to forging ahead.
Once in a while I stumble upon an exhibition that really opens my eyes and reorients my thinking and understanding of the creative process. The Cove Pop Up exhibition here in Providence, RI, which includes paintings, drawings, sculptures, ceramics and utilitarian objects, offers a great number of art works by talented individuals who are dealing with varying degrees of debilitating issues. The exhibition theme is one that should enlighten many, revealing how creative and honest one can be as an individual when unencumbered by thoughts of High Art or fashionable trends. These free-thinking and enlightening individuals are working with the very successful programs offered through The Cove, RHD-RI, Flying Shuttle Studios and edge+end where “adults with developmental disabilities reach their goals” with the creation of some pretty amazing and illuminating works of art.
Walking through this salon style exhibition I am immediately reminded of Adolf Wölfli when looking at the work of Paul A., who manages to find that same sort of “alien” vocabulary of markings and images within an organized composition in one work, then moves toward the brutality of a late Philip Guston in another painting. Then there’s the work of Kevin G. who manages to find that sweet spot where Fauvism becomes somewhat musical or lyrical when lightened by the strategic presence of unpainted surfaces.
My weakness is that I can best describe what I am seeing using established art world labels, but I have to say at this point that these labels are simply a way of describing what I am seeing, but not nearly articulating what I am feeling. There is such a sense of the individual here, something that artists strive to achieve and sometimes do manage when they are able to shed all outside influences. That seems to be far less of a problem here with these artists who have directness and a rawness that bleeds passion.
So, I can describe the bold, near Fauve-like clarity of Nissah A. art as having a blend of George Condo’s aggressiveness in how he establishes the features of his figures combined with to heavy application of black contour line that Georges Rouault once championed. That would describe the technique and style somewhat, but not the visceral effect of this small painting, which is unforgettable. On the other hand, Jennifer B.’s Cedar Waxwing Adult and Seeds have a rawness of form and an awkwardness or wistfulness of technique that resonates deep within the memory of any viewer who has experienced the ‘depth’ of ‘reality’ of a natural environment without definitively suggesting the work of another ‘insider’ artist.
Koury D. records ghostlike harbingers that shutter through space, maybe not so much eliciting fear as much as they remind one of the spiritual aspects of representation. Holly T., who seems to be channeling that late career imagery of Pablo Picasso, injects humor with text in the most beautiful way in her pencil drawings, while Raymond J. shows me and any artist who is willing to look how to utilize a predominately red palette with accents of yellow, green and black to achieve some of the most remarkable transitions of space, form and texture on a two dimensional surface. His approach to his media, color pencil, and his representations of space and perspective are nothing less than miraculous and surprising.
By the time this review is published, the exhibition will be closed, however, I urge any contemporary artist to take the time to look at the art that comes from the aforementioned programs to learn just what a contemporary outsider’s mind can produce.
For more information visit www.grodencenter.org/covepopup or follow their endeavors on Instagram @covepopup
The current exhibition at Kim Foster Gallery in New York City allows us to experience the states-of-mind that pre-occupied, and occupied the late, remarkable artist Jacques Roch (1934-2015). In his notes Roch writes: “… I was born with the condition of the wide-awake dreamer…. The drawn line, clear on a colored ground, held the systems of shapes like a luminous net. The slapstick mood and lushness of color rendered less threatening my private bestiary of violent instincts, bawdy manners, diffuse fears, contagious glee, and even, sometimes, serenity…” This extraordinary exhibition, at the onset of 2019, offers the viewer an unparalleled opportunity to see the development of Roch’s range and styles and his openness to experimentation and change. The show presents nine works on view. They include a selection of previously unseen drawings from the 1970’s, four major paintings from the mid 1980’s, two early works from the 1990’s (Ma Jolie and Love Story) and concluding with two small, intense realized paintings dated 2013: Lucky Knight and La Belle Dame.
If one were to point to one facet of continuity in his work it would be the remarkable musicality of Roch’s private fantasy-worlds, emerging through a highly structured and rigorously spontaneous art, where a sensuous control of radiantly vibrant tonalities in his paintings seem to glow from within. These tonalities illuminate his digressionary visual cadences comprised of small, intricately detailed pen-and-ink fantasy creatures and spaces whose features and renderings were not so much sung or recited but scatted – the visual equivalency of vocal improvisation of jazz singers using nonsense syllables, improvised melodies and rhythms while using the voice to mimic an instrument. Roch drew and painted his irreverent frenzies, mischievously, as in a reverie. This vision, with all of its unexpected freshness, shows Roch’s profound awareness of the advocacies of chance and the delimitations of the improvisational forwarded by Marcel Duchamp and John Cage.
Roch, famously, was a political cartoonist in Paris with deep affinities with the Situationist Movement during the volatile period of civil unrest in May 1968 and beyond. He left for the United States in 1979 making his way to the Brooklyn’s Williamsburg area long before it became a hub of shabby-chic. The artist was innately an elegant and erudite man scrupulously tending to his intellectual and imaginative life by reading and re-reading his well-thumbed, underlined, mark-filled, and margin-scribbled copies of books of the collected works of his favorites: Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, Alfred Jarry, Gerard de Nerval and Paul Verlaine, precursors to Dada, Surrealism and the Theatre of the Absurd.
Jacques Roch lived and worked for decades in a gritty, plank-floored, light-and-plant-filled fourth-floor walk-up and floor-through apartment that substituted, with its torn-down walls, for a modest semblance of the converted industrial lofts that were being colonized across the river by the nascent art scene-sters at the time in Manhattan’s once-abandoned Soho area. In that south-of-Houston Street district, soon-to-be international art stars and their equally prestigious dealers like Sonnabend Gallery, Paula Cooper Gallery, and Leo Castelli Gallery (among many others) were capturing, rightfully, the international news limelight. By contrast Jacques Roch was an early pioneer of the Brooklyn Williamsburg scene, then in its infancy. He was in place there years before Brooklyn became recognized by the media, by the market, by Hollywood, as a vanguard art community. Roch was a Romantic and an Absurdist rolled up into one complex, lovely soul. To complicate/implicate things even more I’d say he had leanings that were temperamentally and oppositionally divided by Arcadian and Utopian impulses. He was a traveler at heart, always on the go psychically, emotionally, intellectually, sensorially. He savored the erotic and the exotic and he discovered these in unlikely places. Roch sought in his own uniquely non-dogmatic way to seek a return to an innocent past and a desire to press forward to a perfected future – a future in which a sensualized heterogeneity and an eroticized heterological co-exist in some space in the mind, where incompatibilities reign supreme.
Jacques Roch loved living in the United States as an expat from France. A true flaneur he celebrated diversity and plenitude, and welcomed incongruities, the unexpected, the non-fitting. These contrarian tendencies were aided and abetted by the opulence and sensuous radiance of his diverse, ribald sign-systems, his often-mischievous forms and his colors. In his paintings meaning risks losing the battle to the unforeseen and to contingency, scattered disseminations, dispersals, digressions and divagations of form and content. Turbulent sensuousness ensues in his drawings and paintings. Roch had a preternatural awareness of digressionary plenitude and was a master player of the impishly impertinent and the metamorphic.
In these selected artworks extending over decades we feel from the very beginning that Roch engendered an intense vision of play-filled lubricity and turmoil, topped-off with a mixture of frenzy and sensuous delight. His complex vision, while it entices and charms with its surfeit of jitteriness and pliability, has equal parts smoothness and scratchiness and darkness. His imagery (like gnats buzzing at your face, a thousand little tongues haptically engaging your eyes and mind) offers us something strangely comical, yet insistently askew. His feverish imagery (a lot of encrypted doodles, naughty bits, monsters and imaginary beasts, private formulations pertaining to the insouciant pleasures of voyeurism and the carnal) straddle coherency and chaos, control and dissolution. What is astonishing to experience as a viewer is Roch’s aliveness to that liminal consideration where coherence and incoherence coalesce. His controlled dissolutions suggest sprawling, proliferating mini-universes of marks and lines, engaging the eye with conditions of mutability and alterity. Roch’s manic, zany linear iterations and re-iterations fragment and coalesce in alternating arrhythmia; his graphic and painterly surfaces recall voluble, energetic force fields of automatic gestural graphism and of writing propelled by surges of involuntary memory.
The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, in one of the essays entitled L’invitation au voyage (Invitation to Travel) that forms part of his 1943 collected essays “L’air et les songes” (Air and Dreams) writes movingly on poetic expression and its grounding in what he calls “…. the immanence of the imagination in the real, the continuous passage from the real to the imaginary…” Bachelard makes observations that seem remarkably well suited to describe Jacques Roch’s unique aesthetic susceptibility of fusing differences, of exalting the dismantling of a universe as an intricately related activity as the creation of one, of attempting to emerge in a new place, in an unforeseen and unforeseeable place as different as possible from the place you started from. In this sense it’s perhaps right to legitimately consider Jacques Roch’s aesthetic vision a radiant and exalted ode to visual vagabondage. In this sense the vagrant–like way his mind worked, aesthetically speaking, exemplifies the creative faculty described by Bachelard. The French philosopher writes (as if using Roch a case-study to present his findings):“…Imagination is always considered to be the faculty of forming images. But it is, rather, the faculty of deforming the images offered by perception, of freeing ourselves from the immediate images; it is especially the faculty of changing images. If there is not a changing of images, an unexpected union of images, there is no imaginative action if a present image does not recall an absent one, if an occasional image does not give rise to a swarm of aberrant images, to an explosion of images, there is no imagination…The value of an image is measured by the extent of its imaginary radiance. Thanks to the imaginary, the imagination is essentially open, evasive. In the human psyche, it is the very experience of openness and newness…”
As someone who has kept a sharp eye on the New York City art scene since the early 1970s, I must admit that some of my most memorable experiences have occurred in Tennessee. In 2012, it was the Tennessee State Museum where I saw and reviewed an exhibition of the politically charged, multi-media works of John Mellencamp. Later that same year it was the powerful and moving retrospective of the photography and videos of Carrie Mae Weems at The Frist Center for the Visual Arts, both in Nashville.
This time around I find myself in Knoxville, as I visit three different institutions featuring four very diverse selections of art and ideas. Ewing Gallery of Art, which can be found on the campus of the University of Tennessee, features Blurring Boundaries: The Women of AAA from 1936 – Present. The exhibition is comprised of art by 54 female members of American Abstract Artists. An institution begun in New York in 1936, at a time when the pioneers of abstract art, and to a much greater extent, their female counterparts were having a near impossible time finding a gallery to exhibit their work.
Blurring Boundaries: The Women of AAA from 1936 – Present begins with few formidable examples of the earliest work from AAA’s archives. Initially, I am drawn to the painting The Red L Abstraction (1940) by Esphyr Slobodkina, an intimately sized spatial narrative that traverses an advancing perspective with active shapes and a sophisticated color scheme. You can just see the artist’s mind working here, wrangling with representation and abstraction in the pursuit of a purer, more universal and timeless aesthetic. Alice Trumbull Mason’s Magnitude of Memory (1962) has a similar feel with far less representation and increased rhythmic transitions that are suggestive of the kind of visual variances one sees on screen at the end of an old color film projection as it breaks free of its reel and quickly blurs into wiggling bands of color.
From here, the early work quickly moves to the diversity and the vitality of the current day and how well every piece here, despite the various media and messages, all fit together exceedingly well. Susan Smith’s 2 ½ lb Irregular Grid (2012) is a reactive, jazzy jaunt of red lines as she riffs off of a flattened out, crisscrossed fast food container in surprisingly systematic and seamlessly expanding tangents. The wall label lists the media as collage, but I definitely see ball point pen lines and a slightly different color red in the areas surrounding the more obviously printed pattern on the crushed container; both indicating elements of added drawing. The painting Laughter and Forgetting (2017) by Cecily Kahn reveals an odd sort of control somewhere between the chaotic and the meditative. It almost seems as if when making this painting, the artist was moving back and forth mentally between a waking dream and focused frenzy.
Blurring Boundaries: The Women Of AAA, 1936–present, curated by Rebecca DiGiovanna,runs through December 10, 2018
The second exhibition is titled Mutual Muses. Here visitors will experience the work and vision of two late-career artists who inspired and complimented each other’s productivity virtually their entire adult lives. Individually, they both are leaders in their chosen fields. Both are living examples of the transition between Modern and Contemporary Art. Mimi Garrard today, is an award-winning creator of videos that feature her beautiful and elegantly choreographed dance performances. James Seawright, her partner, who currently has his ground-breaking, multi-media light based work Searcher (1966) at the Whitney Museum of Art’s exhibition Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965-2018.
For this exhibition, the artists have created a number of collaborative prints that reflect a variety of sources including video stills that fracture and re-form into largely geometric or symmetrical shapes. Comprised mostly of curious marks that almost jump off the surface of the paper, each image represents a cross between organic and mechanical mapping. When looking at prints like Untitled (KY5) (2018) I keep picturing an army of artist/ants controlled by M. C. Escher in the rigorous pursuit of symbolizing a perfect balance between mind and body resulting in incredibly intricate patterns.
In addition to the optically opulent prints are intriguing examples of Seawright’s more intimately scaled kinetic and light based art and Garrard’s multi-layered videos of her stunningly choreographed dance performances.
Mutual Muses, curated by T. Michael Martin, ends February 20, 2019
At the UT Downtown gallery is an excellent show of portraits by Joseph Delaney (1904-1991) titled Face to Face. Most of the work here ranges in dates from the 1950s to 1970s when the Knoxville born Delaney lived in New York City. The portraits featured throughout the gallery come from the time he spent at his beloved Arts Students League or participating in many of the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibits. I am told the subjects that are forward facing were made during his idle time at the Washington Square exhibitions, while the three-quarter and near profile views are most likely of the models at the League.
Delany an accomplished artist who painted numerous city scenes like his wonderful renditions of parades and nightlife despised abstract art. I sense, hearing stories about him, that he felt there is more than enough one can do with representation to expand the critical course of art making, therefore abstraction was an unnecessary endeavor, even an abomination in his eyes.
Being an artist myself, I know how my skills and level of concentration can vary from day to day and in these mid nineteenth century portraits by Delaney in a wide spectrum of styles and materials, anyone can see how the media and the mood of the moment can yield such different approaches and results. There is something iconic about the images rendered in charcoal; the overwhelming honesty in the graphite drawings, his distinct flair in the lines he produced with ink and brush; that wispy weariness in his watercolors and that odd sort of awkwardness in his pastels that all the results, somehow, reveal the substance of his subjects and the seductiveness of their souls.
Curated by Sam Yates, Face to Face ends December 8, 2018.
The University of Tennessee’s graduate student gallery, Gallery 1010, maintains a very vigorous schedule with quickly changing exhibitions. This time around it is Dana Potter’s No Good, Know How, an interactive, mixed media installation that challenges the senses while recording your responses. The basic set-up here is quite impressive as all the elements and states of her art-making process are present for everyone to see. From the computer cutouts that graphically represent artist’s equipment and every-day tools to the multi-layered prints they eventually make, Potter reveals a keen vision layered in mysterious methodology that slowly deepens with most onlooker’s involvement.
At the core of the installation is the mapping of eye movements via computer relative to the instructions devised by the artist, a process that results in limitless possibilities as printouts. The way I end up dealing with the stresses of the challenge – the self-imposed anxiety of playing a game on an interactive computer screen is a very effective and somewhat disorienting or reorienting experience for me. Additionally, Potter’s prints create a new sort of edginess to the concept of aesthetic beauty – and one that I can easily live with. I very much look forward to seeing what comes next in the promising career of Dana Potter.
Confluence is an unassuming yet poignant and sincere exhibition featuring Keith Kattner with seven American and Korean artists that are working in parallel only to converge at this moment of exhibition. The exhibit joins together a variety of cultures, memories and traditions with innovation to address underlying personal, artistic and world view concerns.
Kattner’s fourteen paintings are the heightened convergence of the exhibit with seemingly subdued scenes that in fact are energetic interventions of art references, modern life versus an idealized “good old days”, and pastoral mingling with urban. All coming together in Kattner’s structural theme of entropy with its uneasy transfer of imagery in equal measure of disorder and diversity/destruction and creation. Kattner creates a pictorial leveling off of all differences within the painting while falling into a more complex and highly ordered system.
In Kattner’s Thor and the Little Red Rooster, the background is typical Hudson River School trees, a threatening sky and a bolt of lightning, but with a monolithic modern building directly in the painting’s center. Off to the left there is an all-American Hooper-esque house where a woman(?) and cat are on the porch. While in the foreground a municipal work crew at a train crossing is removing a downed tree, complete with chainsaw, truck, safety cones, tree chopper and a few guys standing around. And the little red rooster, well he’s right up front.
Throughout history artists have painted the four seasons and Kattner’s The Four Seasons are sublime kitsch. Spring is a bucolic scene of people enjoying the day by a body of water nearby stands a group of farmhouses with some type of modern looking metal contraption. A luxurious day by a body of water is captured in Summer with thick black/reddish smoke billowing from stacks. Fall is a depiction of a crisp day by a body of water where people gather pumpkins, bundle the harvest and skin an animal while jutting into the sky is a metal tower with a light on top; possibly a cell tower. The trees are bare and the ground covered by snow in Winter as people by a body of water build a snowman, huddle by a fire, play on the ice and there is a warm glow coming from a home with someone’s red pick-up just protruding into the left of the painting.
The little red rooster is equal to the god Thor’s lightening bolt, an almost identical body of water in each painting, people with no discernable faces, the colors and lighting have a similar tonality and quality throughout all fourteen paintings. The sense of randomness and order in near uniform extent affects every inch of Kattner’s canvases, as well as our seeing and comprehension of the paintings.
The totem-like sculptures by Hoo Chang Lee are reflections of light representing the illusory nature of visual experience. Raphaele Shirley’s large photographs from her Artic Lights series documents a light environment where one’s understanding changes depending on the viewer’s position in relation to the work. Yong R. Kwon’s “paintings” are not seen until the lights come on when hundreds of handmade stainless-steel discs reflect and disperse the light.
The bundled metal shells arrayed in Kyung Youl Yoon’s Cubic Inceptions paintings are metaphors for today’s concerns whether it is global climate change or materialistic goods. Likewise, Chuck Davidson’s discarded pieces of urban life are reassembled constructions reflecting our own contrasting relationships.
Gwang Hee Jeong and Ham Sup begin by transforming hanji, traditional Korean handmade paper, from its original state by re-assembling the paper into a heavily textured support for their paintings. Ham collectively brings an East-West synthesis into his abstraction, while Jeong’s practice brings traditional calligraphy in concert with abstraction into one telling moment.
Confluence at The Sylvia Wald and Po Kim Art Gallery, 417 Lafayette Street, 7 floor, NYC. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 11am to 6pm. Confluence runs through December 21