Janghan Choi at the Korean Cultural Center in Tenafly, New Jersey

by Thalia Vrachopoulos, Ph.D.

Human evolution II

Choi’s multifaceted installations employ the abstracted human form in movement as sign language thus demonstrating a relationship to collective memory and Jungian archetypes, and in their essentialized forms, to cave painting also. Human Evolution I, 2019 which a triptych of neutral background with navy and puce colored signs and a central tondo with rune-like shapes, reveals the artist’s interest in pre-historic cultures. His works in general and this work in particular, can be read in terms of the four main Jungian archetypes the anima/animus representing our true self, the shadow or our negative side, the persona which is our public side, and the self that is a unified whole symbolized by a circle such as the ones in Choi’s works. As Jung believed, these archetypes represent globally accepted innate forms that are part of patterns of human behavior. In addition, the psychologist found that the idea behind these ‘primordial images’ or mythical/archaic archetypes were part and parcel of any human.

These types of archetypical forms are used by many well-known contemporary artists including the Israeli Michal Rovner. But, whereas Rovner works with new media as in her Tablets, 2004, Choi for the most part, works with mixed media and painting. Rovner references specific traumatic events like the Palestinian crisis, Choi looks to engage with the history of humanity in general. These cyphers act as foil for Choi to examine and deploy cultural sign as language that involves looking into the human past to find the present. Both Rovner and Choi use what appear to be letters but which are abstracted human forms in dance-like movement that leave their trace on the page as does writing or inscribing on a page. Whereas Rovner re-interprets history through new media, Choi re-discovers and pays tribute to it.

Choi’s drawings can be seen as marks of communication and at the same time as cave painting and human evolution or traces of human presence. In his wall installation Human Evolution II, 2019 Choi uses a puce color background upon which are inscribed simplified human figures in shades of brown, rust and white. Because both the white and the colored figures depict human forms through linear networks much like cave paintings or Greek geometric vase paintings, there is a resultant figure ground ambiguity that takes place where we read the white as background and as figure and vice versa. This type of inscription is similar to sgraffito used on Greek pottery but also has a relationship to ancient Chinese oracle bones. These sgraffitoed bones were usually animal scapulae that were inscribed by the King in order to divine the seasonal cycle’s production a practice that began in the Shang Dynasty. Oracle bones were also known as dragon bones. This practice after the Chou Dynasty was abandoned by the King but was continued by Shamans who were more often than not women. The King or Shaman would carve the questions onto the bone, apply heat with a metal rod and then read the patterns of the cracking produced by the heat. Because these markings in the early 20th century, proved to be historical characterized by writing, we can say that Choi’s engagement with them segues from the pre-historic into the historical eras. Consequently, Choi traces human existence through its traces or signs.

Like the Egyptian Palette of Narmer (c.3100 BC) or the Akkadian tablet of Naram-sin (c. 2254-2218 BC) Choi’s tablets are executed in relief sculpture but the latter is not about famous battle victories like the earlier. Choi’s figures are not engaged in battle or proudly depicting a larger than life leader, they are evenly spaced and sized. The ancient tablets were sized hieratically whereas the King is the largest figure and everyone else was sized according to their importance in that society. Choi’s evenly sized figures are concordant with the idea of democracy wherein individual figures are evenly configured. Marxist critic Linda Nochlin discusses George Seurat’s divisionism in terms of political allegories of parity and the ‘anti-Utopian’ modern condition. 

The floor installation piece Human Evolution III, 2019 because of its orientation holds similarities to Carl Andre”s minimalist sculptures. Both Choi and Andre used grid formatted structures to give order to their language. They also used repetition as a way of emphasizing their linear forms and placed their sculptures on the floor. But whereas Andre emphasized the space above his works that could even be read as column, Choi focuses on the solidity attained from carving elements in relief that depict the exchange relationship between solid and void. This idea relates to the Korean concept of yin yang found in Taoism one of the religious philosophies combined with Buddhism and Confucianism prevalent in Korea of today. To Taoism and consequently to Choi who is Korean, they represent the yin and yang sign that is both solid and void simultaneously.

Human Evolution III, 2019 appears like a checkered black and white pattern comprised of tiles inscribed by similar figures as in his wall works. In keeping with the legend of the grain of wheat and Zarathustra’s game with the King, chess is a game of power. Thus, this work can also be compared to chess and brings us full circle to the start of this essay regarding cosmic archetypes as the required element necessary to battle our own egos.

A Few of My Favorite Things: An Eclectic Show

by Siba Kumar Das

Richard Humann, Sirenic Cauldron

The Elga Wimmer favorites on display in her Chelsea gallery from December 7-21, 2019 are an eclectic group. But they also embody a unifying theme. What unites them is this:  Conceptualism is still an important force but ideas must go hand in hand with physical product.

Richard Humann exemplifies the adventurousness of a neo-Conceptual artist who has taken to the technology of Augmented Reality to push viewers into a new artistic frontier – as The New York Times’ Ted Loos suggested on November 27, 2019 in a review of an AR show projected above the High Line. That projection threw up 12 imaginary constellations in the sky. Of these, one – a constellation providing an armature to a partial image of the Statue of Liberty – was again projected above the High Line at the opening of A Few of My Favorite Things exhibit on December 7. The show displays a photograph of this AR art work, Sirenic Cauldron Over Hudson Yards. The wonder of the image bewitches you to ponder about Lady Liberty enlightening the world in today’s political climate.

Also provocative is the work of New York-based German artist Heide Hatry, another neo-Conceptualist who makes novel use of materials such as animal skin, flesh, hair, and human ashes. Photographs of seven sculptures created this way are on show in the Elga Wimmer exhibit – all photographs included in Hatry’s artist books that have attracted contributions from many writers and scholars and scientists. Look intently at, say, “Caudae, oculi piscium paullarum” (tails and eyes from small fish), and you will see the artist applying the fractal geometry that permeates nature. Nature’s creative force lives even in death and decay, she seems to say.

Heide Hatry, Caudae, oculi piscium paullarum

Ideas about harmony between humankind and nature permeate the art of Soon-yeal Young — a Korean artist whose work was spotlighted in Elga Wimmer solo shows in both 2018 and 2019. Anchored in the symbolized visuality of East Asian painting, Young’s art is currently moving towards neo-Conceptualism. The “favorite things” show has two pieces of hers: a Scarlet Gomujul painting and an Ottogi sculpture. Both allude to peace, harmony, and spirituality, but the sculpture is especially evocative. Presenting a stylized, simplified female body, the piece, in line with Young’s other Ottogi sculptures, embodies the idea of Mother Earth – an archetype, a primordial image, that the Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann explored in his magnum opus, The Great Mother. An Ottogi sculpture is like a roly-poly toy or a tumbler doll but it is more than a whimsical thing. At a time of existential angst arising from climate change and other burgeoning problems, it gives you instant access to a hugely significant intuition.

Soon-yeal Young, Ottogi

In part, the show in Elga Wimmer PCC is an homage to two celebrated artists who have recently passed away. On display is a panel of nine images recording Carolee Schneemann’s favorite cat waking her up with a kiss. When the artist died in March 2019, The New York Times obituary saw her as “one of the most influential artists of the late 20th century.” Think also of her achievement in the following terms: in pioneering performance art, Schneemann used her body as an artistic instrument reminding us thereby that artistic creation is an embodied thing. Moreover, Schneemann’s sensual interaction with her cat tells us that all biological life is a single phenomenon. Elga Wimmer’s close association with Schneemann spanned three decades and was instrumental in spreading the artist’s influence. In 2017 Wimmer curated at the Venice Biennial Body and Soul — Performance Art Past and Present, which included Schneemann. The same Venice Biennial 2017 awarded the artist the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement.

Jonathan Singer, who too is being memorialized by Favorite Things, met Ansel Adams in the 1970s when he was a podiatric surgeon and found the encounter a life-changing experience. Years afterwards he devoted himself completely to photographing flowers and plants. In 2009 he published Botanica Magnifica: Portraits of the World’s Most Extraordinary Flowers and Plants. In 2012 came Fine Bonsai: Art and Nature, which included the triptych that the Elga Wimmer show has now spotlighted along with a solo Bonsai photograph. The same year a New Jersey State Museum exhibit of a selection of Singer’s photographs was curated by Karen Reeds, a historian of science. In discussing Singer’s art, she said, “I see Jonathan as belonging to the tradition of the Dutch masters.” This tribute surely speaks for itself. It is entirely appropriate that this short account of the artists selected by Elga Wimmer for her presentation of favorites should conclude with Lydia Dona, an American artist born in Romania. She is widely seen as a conceptual abstractionist – a neo-Conceptualist, in other words. Integrating line drawings into compositions dominated by gestural, expressive brush strokes, Dona combines abstraction with representation to give body to ideas thrown off by urban spaces that are at once pervaded by energy and rhythm and decay and breakdown. You could see her product as a metaphor of where we are today with this world of ours.

Lydia Dona, Bold Assessments

High + Low: A Forty-Five Year Retrospective of D. Dominick Lombardi 1975 – 2019

by Antje K. Gamble

High + Low: A Forty-Five Year Retrospective of D. Dominick Lombardi 1975 – 2019, installation view at the Clara M. Eagle Gallery, Murray State University, Murray, KY

Curated by T. Michael Martin, the large retrospective at the Clara M. Eagle Gallery allowed for a deep look at the shifts throughout D. Dominick Lombardi’s almost five decade long career. From the more Surrealist inspired paintings to assemblage sculptures, High + Low engages with Lombardi’s playful experimentation of art and found materials and highbrow and lowbrow visual references.

The installation of High + Low at the Murray State University Eagle Gallery created cross-decade perspectives on developing themes in Lombardi’s work. (For full disclosure, I am on the faculty of Murray State University.) For example, in the opening space, Martin placed Lombardi’s earliest works from the 1970s with those just completed in 2019. This juxtaposition highlighted developments over time and, importantly, connections between Lombardi’s earliest and latest works.

Among his earlier works like Cyborg Sunbathers (1975), the use of the cyborg, like the Surrealist use of the automaton, engages a sense of the uncanny. The large central female figure casts a ominous shadow on the headless foreshadowed male laying at the bottom of the canvas. The main pair are of comparable size, while the others in the composition are much smaller in comparison. At the same time, the large ominous female figure’s import is in the visual effects of her present, which contrast with the logic of the rest of the painting. As a femme fatale type, her shadow looms large and in contrast to the logic of the rest of the painting. At the same time, the series of circles throughout the canvas from the figures’ joints, to the clouds, to the sandy footprints, carry though as a repeated pattern throughout a number of the later works in Lombardi’s oeuvre.

D. Dominick Lombardi, Cyborg Sunbathers, 1975, acrylic on canvas, 51 x 36 inches

There are a number of larger currents to connect Lombardi’s career, which were already present in the early Cyborg series, where humanity has survived through the evolution and mechanization. Things like conspicuous consumption, pollution, and climate change show up in various ways throughout the exhibition in both his two and three dimensional works. For example, in the Need is Chance Rising (2015), Lombardi integrates found objects into an inventive tabletop sculpture. This simultaneously evokes humor and whimsy, but also unease. The detritus of a capitalist consumer society recycled out of necessity to create a monstrous, hybrid new figure. Like the cyborgs of his earlier series, his sculptural figures are ad hoc survivors.

Early on, his paintings begin to incorporate remnants of older canvases, newspapers, stickers, and even plexiglas to create a rich layering of images and meaning. Some of the most exciting aspects of these works are reminiscent Pop and Assemblage, from artists like Eduardo Paolozzi and Robert Rauschenberg. Starting in the 1990s, Lombardi’s Reverse Collage series creates visually dynamic layers of form and language. His use of newspaper clippings, create ghosts of the physical object whose materiality have been rubbed away. This creates an oscillation between recognition (like Jackie Kennedy in Reverse Collage #26, 1995) and obfuscation. Similarly, the Cross Contamination series channels the popular counter cultural use of stickers to cover the public visual landscape. The underlying paintings and digital prints serve, in various ways, to signal the past cultural norms being covered, updated, and altered by the younger generation and/or the new popular culture. The designed stickers have formal comparisons to his other works that come before; and serve, like the material manipulations in Reverse Collage series, to both reveal and hide layers of meaning.

D. Dominick Lombardi, Tattooed Tokyo #5, 2008, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 56 inches

The centrality of the idea of the “collective unconscious” in Lombardi’s conception of the work is used to explain all these aspects; and the exhibition includes a series of works titled Collective Unconscious. The Jungian concept focuses on the idea that archetypical imagery connecting humanity. Lombardi’s divergence from the Surrealist canon, which favored Freud’s more individualistic ideas, however, is still connected to an early twentieth-century Euro-American psychological discipline. In the end, Lombardi’s “collective consciousness” is decidedly from a particular American perspective. This, sometimes uncritical, American perspective is most clearly apparent in the Tattooed series. In the 2000s Tattooed series, Lombard uses overlaid designs reminiscent of popular tattoo designs on new or recycled canvases. According to the artist, the Tattooed series imagines a future breakdown of society when only children survive. In this future, the most important aesthetics are American tribal tattoos, which were designs originally culturally appropriated from Polynesian indigenous rites and popularized in the U.S. in the 1990s and 2000s. Here the tattooed overlays are painted as signals to the childish, debased, popular visual culture, but without a critical engagement with the nature of the source images as colonialist. As in the later the Tattooed Tokyo sub-series makes even more apparent, these serve as another form of colonial imperialism. Inspired by his trips to Japan and South Korea, this series reads as a kind of contemporary Japonisme.

D. Dominick Lombardi, Tattooed Tokyo #5, 2008, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 56 inches

A Rich Imagination: Madhvi Parekh, an Artist for Today

by Siba Kumar Das

Flying Figure, 1974, sketch pen on paper, 15.0×11.0 in./38.1×27.9 cm., photo courtesy of gallery

Madhvi Parekh’s art embodies an intuition of significance that is wholly relevant to a world in the grip of a global ecological crisis. She is an artist for our times. 

Susanne Langer, whose path-breaking work on aesthetics is again enjoying currency, thought that in a successful work of art “symbolic form, symbolic function, and symbolized import are all telescoped into one experience, a perception of beauty and an intuition of significance. “Look at Parekh’s paintings. You will see, possibly in a flash, that they exemplify Langer’s great insight. 

Madhvi Parekh was born and grew up in Sanjaya, a village in the Indian state of Gujarat. Her father was simultaneously headmaster and a teacher at the local school and, in parallel, the village postmaster and apothecary. A devotee of Mahatma Gandhi, he spoke about the great Indian leader’s ideas and actions to fellow villagers and members of his family. As Parekh told me when I met her in New York in September 2019, she was deeply affected by the Gandhian thought her father passed on to her. 

Madhvi Parekh, Head B, 1976, Oil on canvas; 20.0 x 16.0 in / 50.8 x 40.6 cm 

The colors and images Parekh saw as a child have stayed with her all her life. Art critic Kishore Singh, curator of the Parekh retrospective currently on show (September 12-December 6, 2019) at the New York space of DAG, a major Indian art gallery, says, “She was a dreamer and an observer.” The rich imagination that grew inside her melded with a sensibility that became at once artistic and ecological. Singh once asked her to close her eyes and tell him what color she saw. “I see green,” Parekh said, “It’s part of nature. Have you noticed how beautiful a tree looks in a village?”

Fantasy (Under Sea), 1979, oil on canvas, 42.0×36.0 in./106.7×91.4 cm., photo courtesy of callery

Gandhi was an environmentalist before the term was invented. Because of his legacy and other factors, a modern environmental movement started in India well before similar movements elsewhere in Asia. Historian Prasenjit Duara thinks that outside the West the Indian movement may be the most diverse and robust in the world. Today’s Indians are environmental sinners just like people elsewhere, but counteracting forces are strong and are buttressed by multi-millennia old philosophical and spiritual thinking. Parekh is not an environmental activist, but she is a Gandhian. 

Psychoanalyst and writer Sudhir Kakar sees in Parekh’s art a “magical humanism.” When you see a Parekh painting you grasp its presence instantly.  It gives you transcendence, an experience of beauty that takes you beyond yourself. It also gives you an intimation of the interconnectedness of all things, inclusive of humanity, an insight that found a home in India’s ancient philosophy. It’s part of her Gandhian heritage. 

Look at two early works of Parekh’s, both sketches: Running Figure(1972) and Flying Figure (1974). A DAG wall-note highlights the “innate synergy” that connects the myriad elements of each. Wholly apt is this reference to innate synergy. The hybrid figures populating both pictures are whimsically delightful; they also tell you that a form of self-organization may be at play in the world of the biosphere. 

Parekh is not an academically trained artist, unlike her husband, Manu, whom she married very young and who took an art degree from India’s famed Sir J.J. School of Art. He was her art mentor during the early years of their marriage – in which task he used Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook. You see the Swiss artist’s influence in these two sketches even as you see Parekh striking out on her own. You see her responding spontaneously to Klee’s dictum: “For the artist communication with nature remains the most essential condition. The artist is human; himself nature; part of nature within natural space.” 

Playing With Animals, 1989, oil on canvas, 44.7x55.0 in./113.5x139.7 cm., photo courtesy of gallery
Playing With Animals, 1989, oil on canvas, 44.7×55.0 in./113.5×139.7 cm., photo courtesy of gallery

Imbued with a mysticism linked to the nineteenth century German Romanticists, who were influenced by classical Indian philosophy, Klee was attracted to children’s art and so-called Primitive Art. So was Joan Miro, whose approach to shape and form also influenced Parekh. You see Klee’s influence and Miro’s in Playing With Animals,a 1989 oil-on-canvas painting. In this, Parekh is recalling childhood images from Sanjaya. And, as the retrospective’s wall note says, “animals and humans freely commingle, echoing each other in color and line.” The color commingling makes you think of Matisse saying that a goal of his was to make colors sing together. You also recall the colors of Indian ragamalaart, miniature paintings that incarnate visually the modes of Indian music known as ragas. Like Klee, Miro thought that an artist should remain “close to nature.” He said, “Each grain of dust possesses a marvelous soul. But to understand this it is necessary to rediscover the religious and magic sense of things…” Once you’ve seen Parekh’s marvelous painting, you understand Miro’s point straight away. 

Sea God, 1971, oil on canvas, 48.0×72.0 in./121.9×182.9 cm., photo courtesy of gallery

If you keep looking at Playing With Animals and look also at other paintings of Parekh’s, such as Sea God (1971) and Fantasy (Under Sea) (1979), you will understand how insightful art critic Gayatri Sinha is when, in a catalogue essay, she sees as “cognate creatures” the human, animal, and hybrid life forms (tree snakes, snake flowers, etc.) that populate Parekh’s ecosphere. These cognate creatures live in a “flattened perspective” that Sinha highlights – a setting in which they enjoy equality and kinship, gods included, in accordance with the previously noted Indian thinking. 

The imagery Parekh carries with her through her childhood memories include not only forms derived from the natural world but also the folk stories and village legends that were a part of her day-to-day life. They include, too, the traditional folk art – such as the floor decorations called rangoli – that enliven the religious rituals and the myriad festivals that punctuate the Indian calendar. She also draws inspiration from traditional Indian textiles, such as the hand printed or block printed Kalamkari cottons. Equally inspirational for her: Pichwai paintings made on cloth or paper, devotional pictures that tell stories about the god Krishna. 

Critical commentary on Parekh’s oeuvre often asks questions such as these: Is she a folk artist? Or is she a modernist painter? Such binary thinking does a disservice to Parekh’s achievement. Embedded in India’s folk art traditions as well as in classical Indian painting and sculpture is a deep culture that has endured over millennia even as it has absorbed and metamorphosed ideas injected by successive waves of external influence. Parekh has synthesized the diverse influences she has taken from both inside and outside India, drawing upon this profound wellspring. Emerging from this is a distinctive modernist idiom. Kishore Singh says she belongs to India’s modernist pantheon, and he’s surely right, it being understood her roots lie in the country’s deep culture. 

When I met Parekh in September 2019, I asked her about her artistic connection to Francesco Clemente, the Italian modernist who has engaged with India over four decades. She drew my attention to the long, attenuated figures that began to dominate her art in the 1990s, particularly in her depiction of Hindu goddesses. Looking at them makes you think of long, fluid sea creatures, the sea being the earthly kingdom where life most likely began. 

Clemente interacted with India’s craft traditions in a highly original way, giving inspiration to art critic Girish Shahane speaking insightfully of India’s deep culture in an essay about the Italian artist. Indeed, it is Shahane who set me thinking about this enduring reality. Each painting of Parekh’s is an independent, freestanding thing: a world unto itself. Yet, instantly, magically, it immerses you in the waters of a deep river. 

The Last Supper, 2011, reverse painting on acrylic sheet, 72.0×240.0 in./182.9×609.6 cm., photo courtesy of gallery

Writing in a catalogue essay about Parekh’s monumental painting The LastSupper (2011), an interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci’s monumental masterpiece, art historian Annapurna Garimella discusses the strategies Parekh uses “to foster identification and empathy” between the viewer and Christ and his disciples. These include depicting Christ holding his left hand in the abhayamudragesture, which represents protection, peace, and the dispelling of fear. Garimella also draws attention to the figures in Parekh’s painting being linked to her earlier efforts to create “animal-like human bodies.” India’s deep culture is at work in the painting, refracted through the prism of Parekh’s great imagination. 

In his book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, novelist Amitav Ghosh makes this striking remark: “The climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination.” Ghosh calls upon the novel to transform itself as a genre, the better to negotiate the challenging terrain that this crisis represents. Surely, visual art must also rise to the challenge. Environmental art is a growing sub-genre, but much of the art being produced tends to be instrumental. It does not quite live up to the great insight of Susanne Langer’s that I referenced at the start of this article. Madhvi Parekh’s art, on the other hand, gives us visual delight even as it symbolizes our kinship with all other beings in the world. In a time of global crisis, she shows us that art can be a positive ecological force. 

Seeing, Believing and Understanding

by D. Dominick Lombardi

Brandon Donahue. Rest in Peace, 2019 (detail). Airbrush acrylic on panel, 96 x 144 in. Courtesy of the artist. © Brandon Donahue. Photo: LeXander Bryant
Omari Booker. The Writing’s on the Walls, 2019. Housewrap, oil, plastic tubing, razor wire, and sand on panel, 96 x 144 in. Courtesy of the artist. © Omari Booker. Photo: LeXander Bryant

The Frist Art Museum in Nashville does two things remarkably well. Like other capitol city museums throughout the United States, they present fully resolved, educational exhibitions filled with extraordinary works of art supported by thoughtful text and labeling. Most recently, the exhibition, Monsters & Myths:Surrealism and War in the 1930s and 1940, which features works borrowed largely from two prestigious institutions; The Baltimore Museum of Art and The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, offered a great number of iconic works such as the mesmerizing Europe After the Rain II (1940-42) by Max Ernst. In addition to this, the Frist offers a very special form of community outreach in their programming that speaks directly to the citizens of Nashville, giving a much needed public forum to those with perpetual urgent concerns. One of their current exhibitions, Murals of North Nashville, which closes January 5, 2020, is a strikingly energetic and social-political collection of murals created by local artists. Each participant has, in some very personal way, a deep connection to North Nashville’s African American neighborhoods – areas that are in the midst of great change due to encroaching gentrification. Curated by The Frist’s own Katie Delmez, this exhibition sheds much needed light on “both the persistent problems such as displacement, gun violence, and incarceration, as well as positive elements like thriving black-owned businesses, a revitalized art scene, and valued educational institutions”. 

All nine of the 8 x 12 foot works for the Murals of North Nashville exhibition are installed in the Conte Community Arts Gallery. This is a very important feature of the Frist, since this space in the museum is accessible to all visitors, as it has no entry fee. All of the installed works have very powerful messaging ranging from violence and despair to hopeful progress. Omari Booker’s The Writing’s on the Walls, features a woman in a rocking chair on the front porch of what looks to be a home built during the Arts and Crafts era. The house, which has its outline overtly defined with red razor wire, refers to “redlining,” a process used by certain institutions, primarily in the financial and real estate fields, in order to separate out minority neighborhoods for the sole purpose of perpetuating their economic woes. The subsequent encroaching gentrification takes up the entire background of this work, as it is covered with newly placed construction materials, while the somewhat less obvious pink-vest-wearing upscale pooch enters the picture plane from the bottom right corner, a detail that is contrasted by the fiery shaped, dying bushes in front of the porch on the left side of the house. This more than metaphorical battle between the underrepresented and oppressed, and the more privileged ‘protagonists’ in this never-ending drama speaks volumes of the inequities based on wealth, which brings political and private access, and race. 

Brandon Donahue. Rest in Peace, 2019 (detail). Airbrush acrylic on panel, 96 x 144 in. Courtesy of the artist. © Brandon Donahue. Photo: LeXander Bryant

Brandon Donahue’s Rest in Peace lists all the names, in various styles of eye-catching graffiti, of all the individuals struck down by guns in North Nashville. What first appears as a joyful and celebratory list of local names ends up leaving viewers with a strong feeling of loss and thoughts of what could have been. Conversely, hope and change comes in the form of energetic children and strong women. Elisheba Israel Mrozik’s Unmask ‘Emshows the power of women who will lead the way, being best equipped to overcome the many sides of suffering built upon the unfortunate truth that justice is not blind. The central figure in the composition, which is a cross between the Madonna and Childand the Pietá, has an otherworldly feel, while the corruption that surrounds is about to be uncovered by righteous disciples. In the end, there is a path to the Promised Land, once the spoilers of future fairness are eradicated. 

Forever, created by the Norf Art Collective, also holds quite a bit of promise, as it features children who will continue the work of all those who have come before, aided by greater opportunity and better education leading to the promise in true equality. The dominating figure, a girl in a yellow dress, runs through the composition as she leaves her tag in ecru paint across a world of blue chiaroscuro painting that clearly defines her path to happiness and success. LeXander Bryant’s Opportunity Co$t is a six-stationed stream of powerful graphics and unifying text in red, black and yellow – all making one think of revolution at first. Only this time, the revolution is about progressive, positive change for people of color; community outreach for all, and the kept promise of a sustainable and sustaining jobs. Additional works by XPayne, Nuveen Barwari, Marlos E’-van and Courtney Adair Johnson round off this field of powerful and compelling murals at the Frist, while other public sites can be found with the exhibition’s accompanying map, which locates numerous outdoor wall paintings throughout North Nashville.

Murals of North Nashville Now. Courtesy of the Frist Art Museum
Murals of North Nashville Now. Courtesy of the Frist Art Museum

Provocative Lattice

by Gae Savannah

Carl Fudge, Komposition B,  2004, 39 1/2 x 39 1/2 inches, 100 x 100 cm, framed screenprint on paper, edition T.P. 1/6, published by Risd Editions

Puns abound in Carl Fudge’s work. An initial loom is formed of Japanese anime and Ukiyo-e prints. Child luminaries radiate mystical powers, while behind screens, kimonos beckon. To transmit the electricity felt in these genres, the artist wrote a program to simulate children’s paper cutouts. Thereby, applying the algorithm, hereconstitutes the Japanese visual systems into new offbeat schema.  In Komposition B, snowflake-y shapes appear in punchy pinks and oranges. Then puzzle-piece lacunas recall Japanese usage of negative space,ma. Fudge’s use of this emptiness amidst the vibratory hues, makes the piece seem bigger than it is. The patterns are given to us close up, evoking a here-ness.  

They’re Everywhere,
They’re Everywhere, 2002, 37 3/8 x 40 1/8 inches, 95 x 102 cm, screenprint on paper, edition 6/9 A.P., published by Columbia University

Contextualizing Fudge’s novel, graphic language can prove daunting. There’s the original appeal of the Japanese flatness, which ballasted Modernism. Then there are some parallels with the hard edge abstraction of someone like Jack Youngerman, (who also made prints referencing the Floating World). Also felt are the crisp digital lines of Manfred Mohr.  Otherwise, one’s mind goes not to canonical contemporary art, but to maverick practitioners such as Lisa Alvarado, with banners inspired by Mexican weaving. Additionally, loosely invoked are ethnic textiles such as Ikat, religious architectural iconography, and even water patterns. Mirror-image concatenations of organic rhombuses brocade the upper corner of Tattooed Blue. Meanwhile, a shungafigure shape-shifts into a pale blue inlet, spilling across the composition. Then, in They’re Everywhere, curved and straight-edged minarets form an open weave. Echoing rhythmically across and down the square, they mesh into an unorthodox geometry.  Mapless, one feels intoxicated by an exotic city.  

Carl Fudge, Mobile Suite 5
Mobile Suite 5, 2001, 60 x 44 inches, 152 x 111.7 cm, framed screenprint, edition 1/1, published by the artist

Finally, Mobile Suite 5 is cut from a different cloth. Here, Fudge toys with another mesmeric lure, Transformers  (also originating in Japan). More hinged to concept though, this piece lacks rich interplay among the spatial layers. Yet, on purple ground, the green spires and other inscrutable patterning still draw us in. All in all, not absent behind Fudge’s arch wit, is an underlying mirth, a relishing of visual pleasure – as if art can be indeed, a game of seduction.

José Manuel Ciria and a Beautiful Day with a Small Storm

by Steve Rockwell

The exhibition A Beautiful Day with a Small Storm at the Christopher Cutts Gallery is a unique one. A month before its opening in June, the paintings by Madrid artist José Manuel Ciria were a mere glimmer in the artist’s eye. The works were in fact created in a studio directly above the exhibition space. In that sense, what is on display has descended from above, their generation a touch miraculous in the speed of their execution.  

José Manuel Ciria in studio at Christopher Cutts Gallery, 2019

Ciria exudes the personable confidence of someone who is at ease in his own skin. This is a way of saying that Ciria inhabits his work, and that the life and breath of his canvases are closely woven into the artist’s own persona. The bright explosions of paint on the walls of the gallery are the visible traces of the artist’s lived experience. The work is proof of his stay in Toronto. If we want to ask, “Who is José Manuel Ciria?” – the artist might reply, “Look at my work.” Since Ciria believes that we all wear masks, it makes the question a bit more complicated. “We are three people: the person we think we are, the person we really are, and the person others see.” In artistic terms, this translates into: “What an artist sets out to do, what the work really becomes and what the viewer sees in it.”

South Gallery installation

A clue to unlocking Ciria’s layered creative self lies in a closer examination of the individual paintings in his A Beautiful Day with a Small Storm. First of all, any notion that the paintings are casually “dashed off” ought to be expunged immediately. Ciria is disciplined and organized. There is a reason for each painting having either a grid, horizon, or some static basis point. His spontaneity is firmly grounded in a method. He can be wild, yet controls his passions. The drying time of splashes, their thinning out, and the reaction of pigment with gesso and painted ground have been carefully considered. To achieve maximum impact, he employs a strategy of dark to light and neutral to bright colours. Viewed with a squint, the paintings become amazingly 3D. The gridded It’s Getting Better is a good example of the effect.

It’s Getting better, 2019, oil and mixed media on canvas, 78.75 x 78.75 inches

Beauty Puzzle is a virtuoso painting that showcases all of the artist’s gifts. His rockets are exploded into a single fireworks display: the chemistry of liquidity and drying with an arabesque of colour and splash into the sky above a strip of red and white carnival tent. 

Beauty Puzzle, 2019, oil and mixed media on canvas, 78.75 x 78.75 inches

The Bridge attempts to span a fractured horizon. Things don’t quite line up, as they must not. Difficulty is the point. After all, a leap of faith may only be actualized in the effort. 

The Bridge, 2019, oil and mixed media on canvas, 51.25 x 51.25 inches

Ciria hits the piano keys hard in The Concert. The bursts of colour at the centre are laid over pulses and beats in pounding staccato. In this, Ciria makes sound visible. The Party, on the other hand, is cool and measured. A wide band of light grey in the foreground distances the observer from the tidy row of splattered blots near the top like beads on an abacus. An accountant would be pleased that there are enough splashes for each day of the week.

The Concert, 2019, oil and mixed media on canvas, 51.25 x 51.25 inches

Ciria gave me a tour of his exhibition the day before it opened. The exchange that stuck with me occurred before Scarecrow. It seemed that the image of the scarecrow had emerged in the course of the painting’s creation like a phantom. The moment had somehow been startling to the artist. In an exhibition of abstract paintings, a figure is the guest you didn’t invite to the party, but introduce to everyone anyway. It’s the guest you end up talking about the next day.

Jung Ho Lee: Entropy’s Painter

by Siba Kumar Das

Jung Ho Lee, Self Portrait, 2018, acrylic on linen, 76" x 51"
Jung Ho Lee, Self Portrait, 2018, acrylic on linen, 76″ x 51″

New York City is constantly pushing the world of art to reboot itself. To see how a young Korean-American artist is contributing to this ceaseless reinvention in a promising way, go to 69 Eldridge Street in Lower Manhattan and there, in a popup display space exemplifying cultural entrepreneurship, you will encounter sixteen paintings that will give you a memorable viewing experience. 

Nurtured by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and then by Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, Jung Ho Lee is an artist drawn to multiple genres – sculpture, painting, collage, and photography. While sculpture initially dominated his professional life, he is now exploring a freedom that painting has opened up for him. From a practice where he found himself driven towards a fixed destination he has transitioned to a style where he is more impelled by process and the signals thrown up by his materials. This liberation has given us the paintings on show, from June 12-23, 2019, at the Eldridge Street exhibit, curated by Robert Curcio. 

Jung Ho Lee has thought deeply about the course of Korean art and its crossover implications for American art. He is also trying hard to understand better the world he lives in. Doing so in a quotidian way, he applies to this challenge a sensibility enlivened by an omnivorous visual imagination. Going about his day-to-day life, he imports into his image bank scenes of decay, decline, and disorder. Allan Kaprow, a significant influence on Jung Ho Lee, saw in the everyday world “the most astonishing inspiration conceivable.” He said, “A walk down 14th Street is more amazing than any masterpiece of art.” Look now to the paintings Jung Ho Lee has spotlighted for us not far from 14th Street. Metamorphosed in them is entropy’s materiality sublimated into growth and renewal. 

In Self-Portrait (2018) you discern many influences transformed into a veiled, allusive picture of this first-generation Korean-American artist possibly looking for an aesthetic or philosophical breakthrough. You see street art, Art Brut, Art Informel, and the art of Jean Dubuffet. You see color throwing off symbolic associations, just as it did for Vincent van Gogh when he gazed at Delacroix’s paintings. There are ideas derived from the Abstract Expressionists, especially Hans Hoffman and Willem de Kooning. 

Jung Ho Lee, Untitled D, 2019, acrylic on mixed media, 94" x 51"
Jung Ho Lee, Untitled D, 2019, acrylic on mixed media, 94″ x 51″

A very recent innovation of Jung Ho Lee’s is his use of plastic netting as a support in place of canvas and the application of a painted grid as a final layer. An example is Untitled D (2019), where you see a gray-black landscape lurking behind a blue-gray grid – the latter so shaped it seems to be an object extracted from the natural world, not a geometrical abstraction. You again think of Jean Dubuffet, especially his extraordinary landscapes. You see vestigial references to Asian landscape painting, a genre so universal and durable in its impact it is being reinvented in contemporary times. A similar remembrance was at work in the art of Nam Kwan, one of the first generation of twentieth-century Korean modernists. You see his influence in Untitled D

Jung Ho Lee’s art represents an emerging episode in the encounter between Western and Eastern art. As for subject matter, his paintings express metaphorically the possibility of growth and renewal even as entropy remains insistent. At a time of political disorder and environmental decay, the Eldridge Street exhibit may be telling us that art can be an ecological force. 

Emmanuel Monzon: Urban Sprawl Emptiness

by Emese Krunák-Hajagos

Emmanuel Monzon, Urban Sprawl 167

Solitude surrounds the guest when entering Emmanuel Monzon’s exhibition at Robert Kananaj Gallery in Toronto. All the photographs seem similar at first glance in their quiet compositions and monochrome colours. Taking a closer look, one recognizes their nuances – and becomes mesmerised by their magical beauty. They radiate an ephemeral, almost surreal tension that captivates the viewer.

Monzon, a French born artist graduated from the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris and started his career with painting, and his painterly values still dominate his photographs. They look like watercolours and are printed on watercolour paper. Moving to Seattle was a turning point in his life. As he said, “I had the feeling that my work could only be photographic for this space, which creates its own mythology.” Indeed, it did, as Monzon’s photographs are very unique in their themes, depictions and colouring.

Monzon travels a lot in the American West, around the deserts where urban settlements, surrounded by suburbs, meet industrial areas and a no-man’s lands of rocks and sand. All his images are entirely devoid of humans. Some suggest human occupation such as Urban Sprawl 167, with a parked trailer, parking spots, a strong outline of a building. The grey surface of asphalt ends abruptly at a rock and the landscape takes over. The pervasive colour is burnt sand – the whole area is covered with it, even the building seems to be made from bricks carved from the rock. There are traces of people, the neon sign at Jazzercise is on, there is a light inside the shop and in the building in the background, cars are in the parking lot – but not a single person or animal is around (Urban Sprawl 165). The only living thing is the large cactus, standing in front of a traffic light. The light has turned green – but for whom. Who had to stop and why at the stop sign (Urban Sprawl 164) and walk over the pedestrian crossing? As far as the eye can see there is nothing in that flat landscape that surrounds a sand rock – except emptiness. One can almost hear the moan of the soil cracked by heat, beaten and barren, or the silent cry of a lonely tree fenced out of the garden behind it (Urban Sprawl 165).

Emmanuel Monzon, Urban Sprawl 165

Where are these places? Where are the people and animals? Even the shadows are not there. What’s happening? Did the people leave or is this a post-apocalyptic world? Maybe none of these. Rather I think it is a landscape with its “own mythology.” Monzon captures moments that can best be described as “in-between” moments, in which the activities of the town stopped for the day and haven’t started for a new one, where everyone sleeps or hides, where the place is left by itself. 

Monzon’s landscapes are heavily modified, desecrated even destroyed by our hunger for expansion, making the land banal and ugly. Still we can’t deny the beauty in these photographs, but such a cruel beauty it is. As Monzon stated in his latest interview, “the American natural landscape has redefined this space and has become itself a ‘non-place’. The transition from one site to the next: You have arrived and at the same time you have never left.” Whatever this place is, it is not the place you want to be. French anthropologist Marc Augè defined “non-place” as a place of anonymous solitude, like airports, motorways, parking lots where people meet in an illusion that they can be socially engaged, but actually it is not possible. Monzon photographs depict these “non-places” in their true nature: as timeless places where there are no sounds, only emptiness.

However beautifully depicted, this emptiness is sad, even painful. Urban Sprawl 162 portrays a dinosaur figure that would be more appropriately found in Disneyland. In its poor surroundings he almost smiles rather than snarls, his maker must be an amateur. He is definitely in limbo here, no one looks at him, he is totally isolated and his being is meaningless. 

Emmanuel Monzon, Urban Sprawl 182

Urban Sprawl 182 reminds me of an ancient outdoor shrine in an old landscape, something like Stonehenge. Surrounded by ageless landscape there is an altar. That altar is made of concrete and an asphalt road leads to it. What kind of cruel joke is this? However, there is still a spiritual power surge about it. What God is worshipped here? Will he or she lift or destroy the soul? There is something sacramental in this uneasy emptiness and the unconscious mind resonates with the spirits occupying the shimmering whiteness of this place. Monzon captures the moment of eternity and the eternity in the moment at the same time. His photographs show a void, a void that can not be filled.

Installation view of Emmanuel Monzon, Urban Sprawl Emptiness
Installation view of Emmanuel Monzon’s Urban Sprawl Emptiness

Images are all 30 x 30 inches, digital print on Canson Arches Infinity watercolor paper (acid free), framed, Limited edition (1/3 ed of 3 +1AP), 2018, courtesy of Robert Kananaj Gallery and the artist.

*Exhibition information: Emmanuel Monzon, Urban Sprawl Emptiness, March 16 -May 18, 2019, Robert Kananaj Gallery, 172 St Helens Avenue, Toronto.

Lost Gazes: Iris Häussler’s Wax Works From the 1990s

by Emese Krunák-Hajagos

Iris Häussler, Schwester, Sister, 1998, fabric, wax, 12x16 inches
Iris Häussler, Schwester (Sister), 1998, fabric, wax, 12 x 16 inches

Humans have always wanted to save their memories. From the beginning of history, they carved them into stones, wrote them on parchments, made millions of photographs or selfies. Iris Häussler buried the items that hold her memories in wax – literally. You might think: a nice try, but it won’t hold, it’ll melt – but you’re wrong. A wax object, like a candle, doesn’t melt that easily, not even on a window sill or on a mantle above a fireplace. Unless you put a torch directly in front of it Häussler’s work would hardly melt or drip, not even the smaller pieces and especially not the larger ones ‑ they’re so heavy that more than one person is needed to move these blocks of solid wax. 

Wax has been used in encaustic painting for a long time but Häussler uses wax in a very unique way. She melts the wax, pours it into containers of various shapes and sizes then put clothes in it like you would put them in warm water to wash them. Her original idea, as she mentioned in an interview, came from looking at laundry, at very ordinary objects such as bed sheets, curtains and clothes we wear. However, these objects, that we usually ignore, have much more to them than we can see at first sight. Bedclothes for example, save your shape and warmth for about half an hour after you abandon them. Undergarments are very intimate as they touch the skin on the surface, but on a deeper level they absorb the perspiration and the scent of the body, getting under the skin as well. Clothes are also personal, their style and colour tell a whole story about the person, their age and social status. Häussler mentioned, that she focuses more on the relationship to the people whose clothes she uses, and not on memories, but of course the two easily overlap each other. Her works are open to multiple interpretations as they are heavily loaded with narratives.

Installation view of Iris Häussler at Daniel Faria Gallery, 2019
Installation view of Iris Häussler at Daniel Faria Gallery, 2019

Iris Häussler, a German born artist who presently lives in Toronto, has had numerous exhibitions worldwide. This is her second show at Daniel Faria Gallery. Upon entering the gallery, we are welcomed by Häussler’s larger pieces. Natural wax has a special colour, the color of candles. Indeed, these works radiate solitude, the silence of candles placed in churches. As the show’s title Lost Gazes suggests, you need to look deeply at them to actually see what lays beneath the surface. Verlorene Blicke (Lost Gazes, 2000) uses a curtain, its texture recognizable if you study them long enough and have a clue what to look for. They reminded me at first of antique friezes that the artist might have studied at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin as they have the same delicate surface pattern of weathered stone. The curved parts of these “friezes” cast an almost white shadow, hardly visible, making them sculptural. Even though they are large, they look very vulnerable in their beauty and that’s the moment when we recognize that they are actually made of wax.

Most of Häussler’s works are titled after a relative such as mother, sister, great aunt. Two works are titled Schwester (Sister) however they are very different in their colouring and possible narratives. The one in the main space of the gallery is lighter in color and more abstract. Even though we know that clothes are the essence of the image, it looks like a child’s broken kaleidoscope, where all the colorful shapes have escaped and become frozen in wax. The back space of the gallery displays smaller, more intimate pieces dedicated to relatives. They all favour clothes that cover the body and it may be symbolic as the wax is the color of skin. Schwester (Sister, 1998) is so red, that at first sight you can’t see anything else, just that color of blood, reminding you of blood in real life, that you can associate with blood ties. It immediately brought to my mind my “bloody” sister Ilona, her temper, her tantrums, her love, all her wonderful, overwhelming self. Stepping closer and looking harder I discovered pieces of vividly colored, happy patterned, flowery or red dotted girl’s dresses in a carrousel like cavalcade. 

The two pieces dedicated to Mutter (Mother) are very contrasting. One is soft like a watercolor, pinkish and dreamlike, so abstract that we can’t even guess what kind of garment is hidden in the wax. The other is colorful, composed mainly of greens and reds, and has a happy, almost dance-like movement, like playing with a child. 

Iris Häussler, Mutter, Mother, 1998, fabric, wax, 12x16 inches
Iris Häussler, Mutter (Mother), 1998, fabric, wax, 12×16 inches

Gross-Tante (Great Aunt)’s dress is close to the surface and very recognizable with all the little flower patterns. My grandmother used to wear very similar ones. The clothes mostly disappear into the deepness of the wax, giving the artwork a hazy, mystical look. As Häussler stated, her works are biographies that come to her and build up in her mind. The stories emerge in relationship to the clothes she casts in wax as they disappear and reappear again and again – a fragment of a human life – briefly touching the surface, “emerging and submerging.”

It might sound like an improvised procedure but Häussler plans her pieces painstakingly. From previous experience she calculates how the textile, cotton or synthetic, will interact with the wax and how the colours will blend into it. Then she shapes the clothes, sinking them or trying to keep them closer to the surface – but, of course, there is still a role for happenstance. The final product is seen after three days when the wax has solidified and the pieces turned upside down then released from the boxes in which they were cast. The reveal holds many surprises. The most prominent of them is how painterly they are. Despite the pieces being very planned in the artist’s mind, there is always a chance through the transitioning period inside the wax that the final piece will turn out differently. Häussler starts with a concept that is mainly sculptural but ends up in the realm of painting, sometimes even in the abstract.

The central issue in her work is the person, their “fictive legacies” – as Häussler says – and not herself. She interprets her work as conservation, even as a kind of mummification that protects, stopping the movement of life. As she says, “the work I do lays in the field of associations where death is again and again very close.” It can be frightening, leading us into the territory of the unknown, the mysterious. Häussler creates a strange balance in between those worlds when ordinary objects go through a metamorphosis, breaking into pieces as the wax swallows some of their parts but their original substance is still there, buried deeply but still holding their entire essence. 

Images are courtesy of Daniel Faria Gallery in Toronto.