Assembling a House of Cards from Shards of Art

Making Print Editions of dArt Magazine into the Subject of a Single Work of Art

by Steve Rockwell

Steve Rockwell, House of Cards, 2021, computer enhanced rendering of photo
Steve Rockwell, House of Cards, 2021, computer enhanced rendering of photo

I don’t have an exact date for the genesis of the playing card theme that is featured in this 2021 edition of dArt magazine. It’s possible that the subject as an expressive idea has been simmering in the magma of my unconscious from the very start of my art making. With the crust of culture now universally in its brittle phase, the card idea seems to have bubbled up through the fissures.

To drive home the point, some biographical notes might lend gravity. As suggested in my Gothenburg narrative piece, erecting a house of cards can be be fun pastime for a kid. Missing from the story, was that it had been been introduced to keep me from scribbling on the window sills of our all-white hotel suite. I had discovered that dragging a metal object such as a coin over the lead-based paint produced lovely, grey squiggles. 

Steve Rockwell, Gothenburg Story, 2020, word composition, dimensions variable
Steve Rockwell, Gothenburg Story, 2020, word composition, dimensions variable

Having quickly tired of making card houses, my mother twigged onto a diversion that fed into my impulse for drawing. In a nice bit of improvisation of her own, she smoothed and cleaned off the wrappers that had held spatula scoops of butter from the nearby market. Parchment-like and transluscent, these made for excellent tracing-paper. The newspaper became my subject, its attraction the back pages, where islands of black line illustration floated in oceans of cryptically-pebbled Swedish text. 

What all this might speak to is the human need to funnel experiences  that we cannot always verbalize through one sort of activity or another. Somewhere, I suppose, in the space between the mindful and the mindless wriggles meaning.

Since this present print edition of dArt magazine is intended as a summary and reflection on what had gone before, at the heart of the publishing project as personified, lurks an urge for something new altogether. 

Steve Rockwell, 22 Card Shuffle, 2021, digital composition
Steve Rockwell, 22 Card Shuffle, 2021, digital composition

Twenty-two images sized as standard playing cards from dArt’s back issues might stand as core samples through which the corpus of the print version of dArt may serve as probes in the hope of fulfillment of this aspiration. We might call it a pair of eleven-card “hands” dealt from a full deck of images. Since the period of publication we are considering spans 22 years, each card image stands in for a year of publication. In a house-of-cards construction, it is essential that all units be uniform in size and weight for stability. In a card game, this equivalency, in terms of imagary is true for the back of the card only. Without a graduated scale of values for each card there can be no game, and for the game to work fairly, the assigned values must be fixed.

In regards to the construction of the house of cards, without a stable base its collapse is not just probable, but inevitable. Were we to assign a universal value say, to the theme Mortality, against which all picture cards might be measured, it’s possible that this house of images might cohere in our minds. Should our attention hold, it just might stand.

With its publication, Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations acquired the status over time as being the first modern artist book, speaking to the medium of print itself as potential for art practice. In the Summer/Fall 2003 edition of dArt, Bruce Bauman asks the question: “…is it possible, necessary, for an artist to create work to stop the madness of the approaching nuclear explosions and future holocausts?” His Art of War article was written in the shadow of the conflict in Iraq, finding a kind of solace in Ruscha’s Gagosian Los Angeles exhibition: “And I dream of the art of Ed Ruscha where I hear the words of Bertolt Brecht: In these dark times, Will there be singing, Yes, there will be singing, Of these dark times. “

Further to the theme of mortality in relation to Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Ruscha himself has accepted that “..there is a connection between my work and my experience with religious icons, and the stations of the cross and the Church generally.” The last book image, of a Fina station, has been interpreted as a pun on “Fin,” the French word for end.

If we scratch deep enough into the phrase “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” its meaning and satisfaction at each rung is a prize wrested from an evident challenge to our mortality.

dArt’s 22-YearTrain Ride: Trying to See the Forest for the Maze of Printed Trees: 1998–2019

Since dArt, in its 22-year life hadn’t stuck to a consistent schedule of publication, I began to liken my take on the subject to a train ride – the magazine wouldn’t leave the station until all the passengers (whether ad or article) were on board.  

Now in the process of sifting and weighing the volume of pulp that’s been freighted, the load of 37 published editions is more than adequate for dArt’s present phase. My challenge has been the judicious unpacking (to use a popular cliché) of what has been delivered over the years. The solution to sampling images from the full array dArt content arrived as playing card format – think glorified emoji.

Launching card image probes into the magazine’s black box of content has stimulated chain reactions. One image sparked another. Previously inert writing sprang to life. Taken together, streams of images are acting as a coda. Criss-crossing glimpses coalesce into view from an otherwise shapeless mass. With sinews and bones knitting together, it is not clear if this nascent Frankenstein will birth as friendly.

Limited edition copies of each Spring/Summer 2021 dArt magazine are signed, featuring a unique playing card cover image. The numbers 1–176 fulfill a practical function. dArt was built over the conceptual framework of my narrative book work, Meditations on Space – an Artist’s Odyssey through Art Galleries in Europe and North America. The notes on visits to art galleries in Paris, New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto from 1995 to 1997 amount to 175. Designating a joker to my edition length gives us that 175 + 1 correspondence – a nod to aesthetic symmetry.

Attention to dates and numbers permit threaded connections between otherwise disparate content. The last page of the premier dArt edition carries a photo of Los Angles artist Kyle Lind, the subject of the 175th and final Meditations on Space entry. I photographed him at 01 Gallery, and asked about the meaning of the gallery name. “Are the zeros and ones a reference to computer language?” Kyle replied, “No. A lot of people think it’s binary. Zero is when there is nothing. One is when there’s something. The space between the zero and one is the creative act.” This latter day John the Baptist’s cry in the Los Angeles art wilderness has since served as a punctuation to my book project, smoothing the path for the creative act that ensued a year later– dArt International magazine. 

Top: Steve Rockwell, Premier Edition of dArt, 1989, page 26 and inside back cover. Above: Gordo (inside front cover) with facing editorial page, 8.5” x 7” each
Top: Steve Rockwell, Premier Edition of dArt, 1989, page 26 and inside back cover. Above: Gordo (inside front cover) with facing editorial page, 8.5” x 7” each

Kyle Lind bears a kind of witness to the current phase of dArt as well. The advertisement to his right was created for the data management company, Inquiry Management Systems. What appears as strewn paper fragments are squares of a chopped-up copy of Artforum. In the ad copy, IMS promised to collect, clean, process, distribute, and exploit its data on behalf of its clients. This, of course, is the stage at which dArt magazine now sits, as it shuffles and deals out its own image shards.

dArt’s premier cover has Regen Projects Stuart Regen posing his dog for my photo. On the inside front page Gordo is looking up toward the dArt masthead, suggesting the canine as unofficial mascot for the magazine – overseer to dArt’s Los Angeles launch January 1998. 

Top: Steve Rockwell, Premier Edition of dArt, 1989, back and front covers.
Above: Premier Edition of dArt (sans text), 2021, collage, 8.5” x 7” each
Top: Steve Rockwell, Premier Edition of dArt, 1989, back and front covers. Above: Premier Edition of dArt (sans text), 2021, collage, 8.5” x 7” each

The back cover ad for Jaan Poldaas in first edition of dArt is not a reproduction of a work of art, but a conceptually-derived unique work. While it is based on the Poldaas enamel on canvas work, Half of Twelve Colour Twelve #4 (1997) painting, there are differences. As detailed in the ad copy, the image was “spoken” into existence from numerical color matches. While the Poldaas painting itself is square, the stripes in the dArt ad fill the rectangular page dimensions, the blue bar being slightly wider to account for page trim. The ad is the outcome of a dematerialization of its original – making abstract the actual Poldaas painting. This aligns with the Mortality theme of this present edition. Curator, Donald Kuspit noted that abstraction is that which “is hidden behind the scenic representation it supports.” 

The four cover pages of the first edition work as binary opposites: front/back, inside/outside, image/abstract, order/chaos, and so on. A front/back dynamic is also present in the Winter 2002 edition of dArt. Its cover features Roy Lichtenstein’s I… I’m Sorry, a painting part of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition that displayed four decades of art from the Eli and Edythe L. Broad collection. The work was selected as cover art because it depicted a teary regret. The country and the world were then trying to cope with the shock and horror of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. Lichtenstein’s thought bubble came across as jokey and emotionally thin to me. I had hoped that under these circumstances, this irony-tinged sentiment might somehow be sublimated into genuine emotion – a heart-felt reaction to real tragedy. 

Steve Rockwell, Winter Edition of dArt, 2002, back and front covers, 8.5” x 7” each page
Steve Rockwell, Winter Edition of dArt, 2002, back and front covers, 8.5” x 7” each page

For this edition, the Robert Berman Gallery submitted an ad featuring the work of Lauren Bon. Her photo presented a gazing ball before the Andrea Mantegna Renaissance painting, Agony in the Garden. Might this pairing of images punch depth into the Lichtenstein comic book tears, when considered against a backdrop of Christ sweating drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane? How deep can the regret of our pop subject go, standing as she seems to be under a tree in her own garden? 

Michael Meads, Eastaboga, 2002, dArt magazine ad for Nikolai Fine Art and Playing Card Elvis (double), 2021, collage, 2.25” x 3.5” (from Andy Warhol’s 1963 Elvis)
Michael Meads, Eastaboga, 2002, dArt magazine ad for Nikolai Fine Art and Playing Card Elvis (double), 2021, collage, 2.25” x 3.5” (from Andy Warhol’s 1963 Elvis)

The twinned playing card Elvis repro was cropped from Andy Warhol’s 1963 Elvis, also part of the LACMA Broad exhibition. My paired doubling of Elvis echoes an ad submitted by Nikolai Fine Art to dArt’s Fall 2002 edition. The photo by Michael Meads has his Eastaboga boys point their guns at the viewer in a bit of play violence. Under the fun and games, however, slithers the genuine act, as it did on a grand scale with the 9/11 tragedy. 

Fire and Dust at the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival at United Contemporary, Toronto

by Emese Krunák-Hajagos

Browsing through Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival’s website Fire and Dust caught my eye at first glance. What strange pictures! Ryan Van Der Hout’s dark, monochromatic photographs create an inescapable mood of death and sadness, but having Amanda Arcuri’s colorful pieces displayed with them gives hope—at least for a short time, until we see what it’s all about. Fire and death – again. After looking at the whole exhibit it is hard to decide whose photographs are more disturbing.

Burke Paterson, Director of United Contemporary curated this show and pinpointed its connection to our current situation with COVID, as a period of great upheaval. He starts the gallery’s introduction to the exhibition with a question, “What happens to the artifacts of the civilized world when they no longer serve a purpose? Are they burned to the ground or left to collect dust?” This question goes back centuries and is not an easy one to answer. However, in their exhibition, Arcuri and Van Der Hout give a “unique yet complementary interpretation of destruction as a form of creation”.

Installation view of Fire and Dust at United Contemporary, 2021
Installation view of Fire and Dust at United Contemporary, 2021

The two Toronto based artists met through their education and as Van Der Hout said recently on United Contemporary’s Instagram, they were brought together by similar subject matter: the darkness, the lightness and destruction. Their processes are related and Van Der Hout was interested in how their work would show together.

Fire in the title of the show stands for Amanda Arcuri’s work as each piece depicts flowers on fire. All the images are beautiful in their vivid colors but looking at them still gives me mixed feelings. Fire is an ambiguous symbol. Humans have always been amazed by it. We give the flames the status of a god, and admire it more than fear it. But fire is a two-faced god, giving life on one hand, but also taking it. It also has a cleansing power; in some places people burn the undergrowth and unwanted vegetation each year so it will enrich the soil for next year’s crops. Fire is also a metaphor for death and rebirth. One of the best examples of it is the phoenix, a mythological bird that dies in flames and then is reborn from its own ashes.

Amanda Arcuri, A Shot in the Dark 17 (The Rainbow), 2020, dibond mounted, C-Print, 30” x 24”
Amanda Arcuri, A Shot in the Dark 17 (The Rainbow), 2020, dibond mounted, C-Print, 30” x 24”

A major part of Arcuri’s exhibited work is the series A Shot in the Dark, that won her the Best Photography and Digital Media Award at the Toronto Outdoor Show in 2019. This work began in 2018 when she was still able to collaborate with a lab. Arcuri said that this series she worked “through failed hopes and rituals of letting go or bringing new life”. When some of the flowers she received as birthday gifts withered, she wrote on Instagram that sometimes you just need to let some things die. The tulips (A Shot in the Dark 07) and irises (A Shot in the Dark 15) are still beautiful even as they decline. They seem to be dying with such grace. In another photograph (A Shot in the Dark 02), the leaves of a plant and the fire consuming it create a rather attractive, imaginary flower.

Amanda Arcuri, A Shot in the Dark 02, 2018, C-Print, White Shadow Box Frame. 12” x 15”; 17” x 20" with frame
Amanda Arcuri, A Shot in the Dark 02, 2018, C-Print, White Shadow Box Frame. 12” x 15”; 17” x 20″ with frame

In A Shot in the Dark series dead floral bouquets or plants are ignited by flame in darkness and then lit through a stained-glass window to contemplate transcendence. Arcuri only makes two shots of each on large format film. She said about her subject matter that “there is something about the texture of dried or dying plants that gets me every-time.” Her place is filled with flowers waiting to be photographed and she finds herself attached to them—she just can’t let them go. When asked if she arranges the flowers for the shots, she said, that she never touches them but leaves them in the same position they were when they died. She admires the hand of nature in their wilting and thinks it “shows more emotion and heaviness” than she could impose on them.

Each flower is unique and they react to fire in different ways. For example, dried roses burn at the tips of their petals and leaves and water droplets hidden in them explode in little stars. She also finds it very interesting how flowers move slightly from the first burn to the second, creating a real vs. not real, sometimes even surrealistic look. A Shot in the Dark 11 is a wonderful example of this. The dried-out bouquet is a beautiful arrangement of roses, wild flowers and decorative plants—very life-like with their vibrant colors. However, the flames burn brighter than any of the colors, since it has a different, living quality. This particular photograph captures movements in the flames of the fire and the fall of some flowers, caused by the burning. 

Amanda Arcuri, A Shot in the Dark 11, 2019, C-Print with Plexi Pink Frame, 50” x 40”
Amanda Arcuri, A Shot in the Dark 11, 2019, C-Print with Plexi Pink Frame, 50” x 40”

The Remix series was created during the COVID lockdown, so Arcuri had to invent a different method. It is a continuation of the work in A Shot in the Dark series, but re-worked as the title suggests. “Remixing” two negatives of her older shots created colors that mimicked oil paintings, and, as she said, almost look infected. Comparing the images of A Shot in the Dark 11 and Remix 01, we can see the differences clearly. The colors of flowers in the earlier piece look real, even when touched by the fire, while in the second they are metallic, almost ice-like colors, even though the fire is consuming them. They are further from real, almost to the point of being abstract. In Arcuri’s work, as Burke Paterson commented in the Artist Talk (June 29, 2021), fire is disturbing the peace but the light brings it back.

Amanda Arcuri, Remix 01, 2020, Archival Digital Print on Rag Paper, White Shadow Box Frame, 12” x 12”; 17” x 17” with frame
Amanda Arcuri, Remix 01, 2020, Archival Digital Print on Rag Paper, White Shadow Box Frame, 12” x 12”; 17” x 17” with frame

Van Der Hout works are philosophical questions of life and death, focusing on the afterlife. Does it exist at all? What happens after falling into the abyss? His images depict objects that are already dead and covered with black dust. Death is unmistakable and final here. As the gallery introduction states, they remind us of the relics of Pompeii. The artists explains that he was six years old when his parents went to Pompeii and brought back “photos of a society encapsulated in rock and dust”. Those dramatic depictions stayed with him and influenced his latest series Collecting dust where he tries to “imagine what art looks like after us, what is time after time” and what future generations will see in his work. This series was created during the COVID lockdown and that explains their dark vision.

Ryan Van Der Hout, Ascension, 2021, Archival Pigment Print, 24” x 20”
Ryan Van Der Hout, Ascension, 2021, Archival Pigment Print, 24” x 20”

Van Der Hout’s work indeed reminds us of Pompeii’s remains. These images are manifestations of how everything perishes and enters the afterlife (if there is one) or remains dusty and overlooked, considered as memento moris. They are nothing like a classical still-life, but more like, as the gallery states, ”natures morte”. They tell a story about the passage from past and present to the future, and we are looking at these images as though we are part of the future. Beyond their aesthetic appearance, we still keep wondering about their hidden narrative.

Ryan Van Der Hout, Extinguished, 2021, Archival Pigment Print, 50” x 40”
Ryan Van Der Hout, Extinguished, 2021, Archival Pigment Print, 50” x 40”

Van Der Hout’s compositions are reminiscent of Dutch vanitas paintings as they are very layered and heavy with symbolism. Feast (2021) is one of his most still-life-looking images, including many meaningful symbols. The skull represents death and mortality, as we all die, but without death life would be meaningless. Grapes are for fertility, so life will go on. Roses are more complex symbols as they combine death and renewal, while butterflies promise rebirth. All covered with black dust they are, without any doubt, dead, but some hide a hint of hope.

Ryan Van Der Hout, Feast, 2021, Archival Pigment Print, 24” x 20”
Ryan Van Der Hout, Feast, 2021, Archival Pigment Print, 24” x 20”

Three Graces (2021) is different from the other photographs since it is centralized around a sculpture of the three graces. Talking about his composing method in the Artist Talk, Van Der Hout said that handling an art object (even a copy) is very important for him, not just because of what it embodies but also the feelings it evokes in him. In this photograph the bust on the left side and the three graces represent beauty and show how art is timeless. There is a book for knowledge, as printed words survive the ages, grapes for fertility and a pitcher and glass bottle for drinks in good times.

Ryan Van Der Hout, Three Graces, 2021, Archival Pigment Print, 10” x 8”
Ryan Van Der Hout, Three Graces, 2021, Archival Pigment Print, 10” x 8”

As the artist mentioned, his works are all about transformation and, often, destruction. However, while the objects in his photographs are transformed from life to death, from light to dark, they are still not destroyed as they forever encapsulate their meanings and beauty.

In United Contemporary’s exhibition, Arcuri’s and Van Der Hout’s images hang side by side, mixed together instead of separated by artists. Arcuri’s brilliant colors pop out when paired with Van Der Hout’s monochromatic compositions. Together they generate a dynamic opposition, that both unites and highlights their themes.

Installation view of Fire and Dust with Ryan Van Der Hout, Extinguished (left) and Amanda Arcuri, A Shot in the Dark 11 (right)
Installation view of Fire and Dust with Ryan Van Der Hout, Extinguished (left) and Amanda Arcuri, A Shot in the Dark 11 (right)

 Our outlook on life has been rather dark throughout the last year and a few months. COVID has caused more harm to the mental health of people than in its death toll. Fear is difficult enough, but being locked down, kept away from our loved ones and not being able to live our lives to the fullest has been even more dreadful. The quality of our lives has been reduced. Our cultural entertainment became virtual like an online exhibition. Arcuri’s and Van Der Hout’s work resonate with our state of mind—depression, repression and confusion—wonderfully well. Their photographs engage our minds and shake us to the core – and will stay with us for a long time.

Images are courtesy of United Contemporary

Intercessions: James Singelis and Bobbie Moline-Kramer Portraits

by Dominique Nahas

Little Boy © James Singelis oil on paper 8.5" x 9"
Little Boy © James Singelis oil on paper 8.5″ x 9″
Glass Eye © James Singelis, oils, collage on paper 18" x 12"
Glass Eye © James Singelis, oils, collage on paper 18″ x 12″

Intercessions, a two-personexhibition at the Joyce Goldstein Gallery, curated by Jen Dragon, is a tidily concise, intensely combustible, portrait exhibition. Included in the exhibit are twenty oils by James Singelis, all wall works, ranging in size from 36” x 24” to 10” x 8”, and Bobbie Moline-Kramer’s twenty-one oil and mixed-media wall panels ranging in size from 10” x 10” to 6” x 6” (and three table-top constructions). Highlights within Singelis’s artworks would include “Later Self” a black-and-white self-portrait made of charcoal, graphite, and tape, “Glass Eye” a work incorporating collage elements and oil paint, and the oil-on-board work “Little Boy.” Standouts among Moline-Kramer’s contributions to the exhibition include “All that Remains” (2010) a metaphoric family- tree wall installation of 11 incised and painted 10” x 10” wood panels. These breathtakingly exquisite painted wood panels replete with avian-and-tree-branches imagery used throughout pertains to Moline-Kramer’s family members remembered and dis-remembered. Also visually arresting are “Words” (2019), “Untitled 1” (2021), and “Wowza” (2018).

Wowza © Bobbie Moline-Kramer 2018 oil, goldpaint on wood panel 6" x 8"
Wowza © Bobbie Moline-Kramer 2018 oil, goldpaint on wood panel 6″ x 8″

The press release of this exhibition claims that “Intercessions…is an exhibition of spiritual portraits that act as a conduit between inner and outer worlds.” The intimation that the artwork and the artists in this exhibition serve as mediators, or conduits, to and from an ineffable essence that is yet also grounded in the reality of the human visage strikes me as a fruitful way for me as a critic to begin making remarks describing the artworks in the exhibition itself and the experiential takeaway of the show. Intercessions, in using a term such as “spiritual portraits”in its press releaseoffers a gallery experience that suggests that the visitor will be struck with the power of the auratic presence of the artworks themselves as well with the impact of the artists’ incarnating of this aura through their pictorial activities. Towards that end, Bobbie Moline-Kramer and James Singelis approach the act of image-making as a mediatory device in different ways. Moline-Kramer’s artistic activity at its core serves to inculcate the activity of calling forth, an evocation, of ineffable and mysterious essences. These inmost substances conjured up through her activity of art-making points to the needs of human attachments and detachments to and from things as friendships, memories, and longstanding if painful personal family histories. James Singelis’s art, by contrast to Moline-Kramer’s, functions as a mediatory device or structure of the imagination through invocation whose purpose is to engage in a calling-in, a summoning of feelings that are triggered by each portrait as it emerges from his hand and soul. To this very point, Singelis writes in his artist’s notes “…I see each painting …not [as an] illustration or snapshot of an emotional moment, but rather a history of the interior cross-currents that occur while I paint.”

Untitled I © Bobbie Moline-Kramer ink, charcoal, gold paint on wood board 8" x 8"
Untitled I © Bobbie Moline-Kramer ink, charcoal, gold paint on wood board 8″ x 8″

Singelis’s aesthetic practice has an uplifting, almost early-Matisse freshness to it as he works expressionistically and intuitively using unusual color combinations. A hazily vaporous glow clings to his work giving it a dreamlike, even tender, evanescent quality that is captivating in ways that are unique to him. Outside of the self-portraits he produces, Singelis makes up the portraits as he goes along. He’s challenged by creating an optical zone of recognizability that coalesces into what one would call a human “face” whose features slowly emerge from myriad marks and lines and colored brush marks that end up as participating in the codes of representation, one might say, by default. His free-falling or free-floating into and through the codes of representation are evidentiary indications that Singelis’s tendencies lead him to the habit of an eternal return, a perpetual attempt to break free from historic models of image-making again and again. He reverts to a state of mind that attempts to build a human visage from point zero, a starting point of the imaginary that entirely precludes a one-on-one relationship with a sitter. James Singelis’s picture-making has a lingering unfinished look, a de facto memento-mori aspect, a pathos intimating his mission as an artist of properly recording or memorializing the facial characteristics of the human entity emerging from the center of his mind’s eye could never be adequately completed.

Later Self © James Singelis, charcoal, graphite, tape 24" x 18"
Later Self © James Singelis, charcoal, graphite, tape 24″ x 18″

Moline-Kramer’s precise naturalism, on the other hand, while engaging with the codes of mimetic fidelity and fealty towards exactitude that is pushed to the limits attends to spontaneity, somehow, in unexpected surgical-strike ways. As a result, her works resonate with haptic and sensorial impact as she flecks and spikes her otherwise meticulously planned pictorial surfaces to give rise to under-the-radar variegated visual intrusions that tickle the eye and keep it moving. Moline-Kramer’s art career began decades ago as a medical illustrator and her rigorous observational training in depicting the body (inside and out) with intense verisimilitude has stayed with her as a residual part of her aesthetic modus-operandi. Moline-Kramer makes a point of only engaging in portraying individuals she has observed intimately. Even if she does refer to photographic studies of her subjects in the completion of her artwork, she takes these photos herself. When she is in the presence of her subject for future use, in-studio purposes, she takes careful forensic notes using colored pencils to make sure that the skin tones on paper are precise matches with the living entity. The upshot of this process is that Moline-Kramer’s art involves a precise form of meticulously planned naturalism, a type of verisimilitude with affinities to trompe l’oeil. Yet there are additional abstract free-standing mark-making elements that are superimposed onto this pictorial precision that paradoxically alludes to a notion of identity that is fluid and not fixed; a shape-shifting sense of self that is at its core at variance with itself.

Untitled I © Bobbie Moline-Kramer ink, charcoal, gold paint on wood board 8" x 8".
Untitled I © Bobbie Moline-Kramer ink, charcoal, gold paint on wood board 8″ x 8″.

Intercessions showcases the inner worlds of Bobbie Moline-Kramer and James Singelis, artists whose works diverge in terms of painterly application and approach to the subject matter of the face. Yet these vitalistic differences joined in the same viewing circumstances at the Joyce Goldstein Gallery create a visual momentum, a psychical vivacity that left this viewer in a deeply satisfying state of exalted, enlightened mystification.

More about this exhibition: https://bit.ly/ccpbmkjs

Small Standing Tall

by Dominique Nahas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LandX

by D. Dominick Lombardi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dArtles: Weekly on the Arts

by Steve Rockwell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Cameron in his studio
Alex Cameron in his studio

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

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

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

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

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

Mortality: A Survey of Contemporary Death Art

by Steve Rockwell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real Abstraction: Five Painters Beyond the Picture

by Peter Frank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scot Borofsky: The Language of Street Art

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

by Christopher Hart Chambers

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

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

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

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

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

Acts of Erasure: Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto

by Emese Krunak-Hajagos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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