Christy Rupp’s Leaf Litter

by Jen Dragon

Installation view of Christy Rupp: Leaf Litter at the Ildiko Butler Gallery, Fordham University Lincoln Center Campus
Installation view of Christy Rupp: Leaf Litter at the Ildiko Butler Gallery, Fordham University Lincoln Center Campus

Christy Rupp’s latest solo exhibition Leaf Litter at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center Campus is an installation that comments on the environment while creating its own environment. Large printed digital versions of Rupp’s collages cover both end walls serving to expand the width of the gallery while sculptures of indicator species distort space as the perspective shifts dizzyingly from micro to macro organisms. 

Aquatic Larvae, 2020 welded steel and single use plastic debris, each approximately 33 X 13 X 8 inches
Aquatic Larvae, 2020 welded steel and single use plastic debris, each approximately 33 X 13 X 8 inches

One wall-sized collage depicts housing construction in a forest with a three-dimensional sculpture of an extinct Quetzel bird perched above. This bird, once common in Central America, is made of credit cards; a commentary on borrowing from the future at the expense of the present. The other wall features a depiction of an oily mess of broken pipes under water with small planktonic crabs flowing through. A large Forest Newt made of burnt matches is installed above symbolizing the connection between air and water pollution made possible by the destabilized levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. Bridging the two walls is an installation of eight enlarged aquatic larvae made from single use plastics representing the omnipresence of micro plastic particles now evident in all stages of organic life. 

Detail views of Christy Rupp’s installation Leaf Litter
Detail views of Christy Rupp’s installation Leaf Litter

Christy Rupp’s artwork has long shown a light on fragile ecologic systems and threatened species. As climate change accelerates, her work has taken on more urgency as she turns her attention to the unseen casualties of disrupted environments from minute larvae and plankton to immense forest and aquatic ecosystems. Rupp also engages the ghosts of extinction such as the Quetzel bird with the implication of possible mass death for other life forms. 

Leaf Litter is an exhibition that is clear and direct yet the installation is infused with ironic humor. The large-scale wall piece on the East wall depicts a nostalgic, cheerful cooperation of blue-collar construction workers together with suited-up architects and engineers while underground pipes leak sewage and towering trees are poised for felling. On the west wall, the whimsy of helplessly floating zooplankton in whirling oil and water underscores the horror inherent in the beauty of these non-miscible fluids. And in the center, a school of eight larger-than-life aquatic larvae stuffed with colorful plastics that permeate their beings swim obediently in formation. 

Detail views of Christy Rupp’s installation Leaf Litter
Detail views of Christy Rupp’s installation Leaf Litter

Leaf Litter coincides with the publication of Christy Rupp’s monograph, Noisy Autumn. This art book is a survey of over 45 years of Rupp’s ecological sculpture and works on paper. Her perceptive message has been consistent throughout her career and becomes increasingly relevant as time goes by. As climate change accelerates, Christy Rupp’s artwork urgently demands that we consider both the seen and the unseen as well as what has happened and is poised to happen – unless we take action. 

Christy Rupp: Leaf Litter on view through February 27, 2022 at the Ildiko Butler Gallery, Fordham University, 160 W 60th Street, New York, NY 10023 United States. The galleries are open everyday from 9–9, except during University holidays. More info: contact@fordhamuniversitygalleries.com


Jacqueline de Jong and Violence at the Border-Line

by Carol Bruns

Jacqueline, de Long, Locked in and Out, 2021, oil stick on paper, 55 1/8 x 79 7/8 inches (140 x 203 cm)
Photo: Tim Doyon. Courtesy of the artist and Ortuzar Projects, New York
Jacqueline, de Long, Locked in and Out, 2021, oil stick on paper, 55 1/8 x 79 7/8 inches (140 x 203 cm) Photo: Tim Doyon. Courtesy of the artist and Ortuzar Projects, New York

Our culture is permeated with violence. By media or in person we regularly experience violent economics, massacres of children in schools with automatic weapons, relentless assaults on the natural environment, widespread domestic violence, and even violent car driving, movies, games and songs. In an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon the character Tarantino remarks, “It’s even in breakfast cereals” and we guiltily laugh along with children at their absurd and extreme ferocious capers. It seems we’re wired onto its electric horror and excitement, while its production of suffering in real life is staggering and immeasurable, leaving no one unharmed, usually the direct result of policy choices.

Not new but never old hat, painting violence has a continuous historical thread. In Modernism Manet, Beckmann, Dix, Picasso, and Golub, among throngs of others, have roped social brutality and suffering to a wide scope of aesthetic means. Dutch artist Jacqueline de Jong, an important artist of the post-war avant-garde, is now showing paintings at Ortuzar Projects in Tribeca highlighting the violence of the world-wide refugee crisis.

At age 82, the artist has a long and notable past. She was born in 1939 to a Jewish family of art collectors. Soon after when the Nazis occupied Holland, the French Resistance aided de Jong and her mother to escape from Amsterdam to Switzerland while her father remained behind in hiding. In 1947 after the war the family reunited when she was about eight years old.

In 1959 when de Jong was 20 she became romantically involved for ten years with the older Danish painter Asger Jorn (1914-1973), a friend of her parents. He was 45 then and had founded the avant-garde group CoBrA and the Situationist International, both European organizations of social revolutionaries who were anti-authoritarian, radical leftists. She met Debord of the Situationist International, author of The Society of the Spectacle, and in 1960 joined them as one of two women, becoming a central member. She was expelled in 1962 and commented,

“I was in solidarity with (the German branch) Gruppe SPUR. It was very simple. The magazine was on trial in Germany for blasphemy and pornography but, instead of defending it, Debord, Attila Kotányi and Raoul Vaneigem made a pamphlet denouncing the group. They said the magazine was financed by a capitalist, which was absolutely ridiculous because this capitalist was the same big collector that bought all of Jorn’s paintings. And Jorn financed the situationists. I mean, it was hilarious: so totalitarian – and totally hypocritical. I sided with Gruppe SPUR and so did the Scandinavians, and that was that.

Jacqueline, de Long, Sous-Terrain, 2021, oil pastel and acrylic paint on unprepared canvas, 73-31/50 x 96-3/50 x 1-97/100 inches (187 x 244 x 5 cm). Photo: Tim Doyon. Courtesy of the artist and Ortuzar Projects, New York
Jacqueline, de Long, Sous-Terrain, 2021, oil pastel and acrylic paint on unprepared canvas, 73-31/50 x 96-3/50 x 1-97/100 inches (187 x 244 x 5 cm). Photo: Tim Doyon. Courtesy of the artist and Ortuzar Projects, New York

”De Jong’s next move was to originate, edit and publish The Situationist Times for the five years of its existence from her Paris apartment until it went bankrupt. She said, “The point, for me, was to offer a platform for publishing things that couldn’t be disseminated anywhere else” while Jorn continued to collaborate with SI under a different name. The six issues between 1962 and 1967 had a very lively appearance with colored papers, expressive drawings, and a variety of content such as an exquisite corpse game, an algebraic text, and a composer’s score. It was inexpensively hand printed in a process between duplicating and offset and then bound. She said of this involvement, “What I was interested in, quite simply, was changing the world.”

During the May, 1968 uprising de Jong was active, pasting posters throughout the streets of Paris. It was a crucial moment personally and politically. When the radical humanism of student power was smacked down she reflected, “The Communist Party came out against the students and told the workers not to support them. That was pretty much the end of it. We felt immensely betrayed. It was three weeks of total euphoria – such a feeling of possibility – and after came a huge hangover. Complete disillusionment. In a way, it was also the beginning of the end of my relationship with Jorn; it was the moment at which I realized that he was of a different generation. He didn’t want to be involved (although he did also make posters in support of the students); he said he had already been through the Spanish Civil War.”

Fifty years and a life replete with exhibitions, monumental commissions, and lectures followed.

Recently, during the corona virus lockdown, the artist was struck by news of refugee crises in Idlib, Syria and the Mediterranean. In response, she wove its humanitarian and political catastrophes into a group of new paintings, Border-Line, commenting, “They are about refugees mainly, Syrian not from Afghanistan, because I made work about that not so long ago. Also, there are South American refuges. What I used are mainly newspaper and television images and I just made a story out of them – not my story, but their story via me.”

Jacqueline, de Long, Refugees (Bogota/Venezuela) (Border Line), 2020, oil stick and nepheline gel on canvas, 39-37/100 x 51-9/50 x 1-97/100 inches (100 x 130 x 5 cm) Photo: Tim Doyon
Courtesy of the artist and Ortuzar Projects, New York
Jacqueline, de Long, Refugees (Bogota/Venezuela) (Border Line), 2020, oil stick and nepheline gel on canvas, 39-37/100 x 51-9/50 x 1-97/100 inches (100 x 130 x 5 cm) Photo: Tim Doyon
Courtesy of the artist and Ortuzar Projects, New York

Upon entering the elegant Ortuzar Projects gallery, the paintings’ formal mastery lept off the wall. Using oil sticks, pencil, brush, finger, and cloth, de Jong constructed bold spaces on the canvas such as in Refugees (Bogota/Venezuela) (39 3/8 x 51 1/4 inches) where a table and folding screen corral the international crisis into a domestic format with three refugees huddled under the table painted in brown, red, yellow, pale blue and green while an anguished refugee four times larger anchors the right side in pink and magenta. A decapitated head lies on the table and behind the screen a long queue of refugees are roughly indicated in back and white. Her style of drawing repudiates naturalism and convention as did CoBrA artists, the art of the insane, and indigenous art pointing to a truth beyond appearances, one from a deeper place. I imagined de Jong painting with an athletic stance, from the shoulder, using her entire arm to register the deformations of violence in a process of constant invention.

The painting Devils Morgate (55 x 90 inches) seduces the gaze to enter a demonic scene by beautiful color including both pastel shades and primary hues. Set in a crowded imaginary space the figures recline, sit, span foreground to background, while grimacing, grinning, laughing, and emerging from ambiguous places. A toothy grin, scrambled hair, and claws keep the eye focused on savage details that present the viewer with the simultaneous existence of high culture and the barbaric.

Locked in and Out (55 x 80 1/2 inches) employs emphatic drawing to fracture the canvas into areas where some figures are contained within and others escape to the outside of shard-like borders. In the mayhem a skeleton figure reclines. One pink figure is upside down, one painted entirely in shades of green. All the figure depictions are animal-like, agonized, deformed, possibly demented. The palette of purple, black and white zones, yellow ochre, red, the palest yellow, and a primary yellow enchant while the monstrous figures repel. On a personal level this tense situation seems to demand that opposite energies within can be acknowledged and their tension tolerated in a search for the truth, that our hideous and cruel shadows can be transformed. The political arena is ourselves multiplied.

UK public intellectual Terry Eagleton has said that tragic art is a perverse blend of terror and delight, and that because cast in symbolic form, the audience can reap pleasure from it. Tragic art is both an acceptable form of obscene enjoyment and an art form of great moral depth and splendor. De Jong told a New York Times interviewer recently that she listens to Bach while painting in her sky-lit Amsterdam townhouse attic, and that she does not do yoga or exercise. “In the old days I said there are two important exercises: painting and making love.”

Jacqueline de Jong’s Border-Line Exhibition opened November 11, 2021 and continues until January 8, 2022 at Ortuzar Projects, 9 White Street, New York NY 10013

A Photographer In Her Garden: Featuring Sandi Daniel

by D. Dominick Lombardi

Installation View
Installation View

The pandemic has had an incalculable effect on so many lives that it’s hard to think life will ever be normal again. Culturally, creatives have had the trajectory of their careers, their way of thinking and processing drastically altered in ways that we may never be able to fully process or understand until years from now, when we can look back and analyze the related output. One such artist, Sandi Daniel, whose usual approach to her craft has been completely altered by a lack of movement or travel, leading her to investigate the only option left to explore – her own immediate natural environment – to look for that elusive magic that so often accompanies the act of far-flung exploration.

With the unfortunate addition of a broken printer, Daniel had to find a new path forward to creating prints. The cyanotype, that blue and white, blueprint-type image generated by contact printing with any variety of liquids including cyanide on photosensitive paper was her choice, bringing back to Daniel’s art, a distinctive dreamy quality that has often defined her work.

Weeds (2020), double exposure wet cyanotype, 20 x 16 inches
Weeds (2020), double exposure wet cyanotype, 20 x 16 inches

Daniel’s exhibition at the Coastal Contemporary Gallery is a beautiful, fluid, and fanciful interpretation of indigenous flora that typifies the ages old expression “stop and smell the roses,” as she looks more deeply and thoughtfully into her very own garden of delights close at hand. Leaves and light form lyrical passages that can cascade down a wall as an unfolded, handmade artist’s book or in multiple layers that produce on one sheet, where faux flashes of filtered sunlight come to mind, as best experienced in the wet cyanotype titled Weeds – a look that was more than likely created using multiple layers of shifting exposures.

The Lake, I am thinking, is a bridge work between the previous transfer work and the cyanotypes, and one of the more haunting works that remind me of pinhole photography set into an artist’s book bound with toned cyanotypes. The intimacy, and perhaps the voyeuristic feel of the elusive presentation, gives this object its distinctive visceral affect. 

The Lake (2021), 5 x 5 inches closed and approximately 5 x 20 inches open
The Lake (2021), 5 x 5 inches closed and approximately 5 x 20 inches open

Also striking, are the aforementioned color photo transfers on Sekishu Paper where an even more delicate representation of wittingly withering flowers nearing the end of their beauty cycle actually become more attractive and engaging. It’s not hard to understand when walking through this exhibition that Daniel is pairing the timelessness of nature with a deeper understanding of its predictability as a metaphor for our own time on earth. What we see in nature, if we take the time to experience the subtleties, is so much about being present and never taking for granted the strength there is in its wisdom. 

Purple Beauty #2 (2021), 24 x 16 inches
Purple Beauty #2 (2021), 24 x 16 inches

A Photographer In Her Garden: Featuring Sandi Daniel will be on view at Coastal Contemporary Gallery in Newport, Rhode Island until the end of January, 2022. For more information visit https://www.coastalcontemporarygallery.com

American Earth Landscape

by Christopher Hart Chambers

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

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

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

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

Bobbie Moline-Kramer: The Power of One

by Jen Dragon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bobbie Moline-Kramer
Bobbie Moline-Kramer

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

Winfred Rembert: 1945 – 2021

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

by Christopher Hart Chambers

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

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

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

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

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

Bounty

A Virtual Exhibition at Rhombus Space

by D. Dominick Lombardi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Text In Art

at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities in Colorado

by D. Dominick Lombardi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Temple Most August

A Group Exhibition at Clint Roenisch Gallery in Toronto

by Emese Krunák-Hajagos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth Murray: Back in Town

by Gwenaël Kerlidou

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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