Assembling a House of Cards from Shards of Art

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

by Steve Rockwell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mortality: A Survey of Contemporary Death Art

by Steve Rockwell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real Abstraction: Five Painters Beyond the Picture

by Peter Frank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scot Borofsky: The Language of Street Art

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

by Christopher Hart Chambers

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

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

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

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

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

Acts of Erasure: Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto

by Emese Krunak-Hajagos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adrian Ghenie: The Hooligans

by Mary Hrbacek

Adrian Ghenie, The Impressionists, 2020, oil on canvas, 86-5/8″ × 118-1/8″ © Adrian Ghenie, courtesy Pace Gallery.

Pace presents “Adrian Ghenie: The Hooligans,” an exhibition of nine large-scale semi-abstract oil paintings and three charcoal drawings rendered on paper. The term “hooligans” refers to an underground group of individuals who ignore the limitations of polite society, shaping their lives to be free of constraints. In his powerful new works, Ghenie explores the artists who formed movements that rocked established academies, challenging the status quo of their times with new visions of transformed realities, reinvigorating art in the process. Ghenie has identified J.M.W. Turner, the Impressionists, especially Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin as the artist “hooligans” whose activities he chooses to emulate.  His focus is on the primacy of oil paint in a semi-abstract approach which downplays figurative imagery. This daring exhibition is beautifully installed, presenting bold monumental paintings and intriguing charcoal drawings, but it is unfortunate that it is located on the second floor, where it is possible that the public may overlook it.   

Adrian Ghenie, Self-Portrait, 2020, oil on canvas, mounted on board, 19 11/16 × 16 15/16 × 13/16 in. © Adrian Ghenie, courtesy Pace Gallery.

Adrian Ghenie was born in 1977 in Baia Mare, Romania; he now lives in London, Berlin and in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. Ghenie studied art history and mastered the formal techniques of European painting. In his new works the artist incorporates concepts from the Dada movement, along with the semi-recognizable figures of Turner, Van Gogh, and Gauguin in mysterious absorbing formats.  

Ghenie’s eloquent paintings require viewer concentration and engagement; they are not prefabricated or manufactured. He doesn’t even use brushes to apply the paint.  He creates the works by scraping paint strokes with palette knives and stencils; this technique produces emotionally charged picture surfaces. He pushes the limits of the painting genre further by using suggestive loosely defined non-descriptive shapes in complex configurations that assert the immense power of his works. Ghenie’s networks of deep layered and redrawn shapes, photos from magazines and mysterious roaming lines provide the viewer a fresh experience, not easily described, with a mournful edge which alludes to the strange times in which we live.  

Adrian Ghenie, Mr Turner, 2020, oil on canvas, 78-3/4″ × 118-1/8″ © Adrian Ghenie, courtesy Pace Gallery.

The intriguing work “Mr. Turner” (2020) appears to display at least the edge of one of Dante’s circles of hell as described in “The Inferno.” Ghenie often mingles confounding, tangled layers of dream-like shapes, that he fragments into myriads of heaped interlocking forms, whose harmonious colors integrate the disparate surface formats. He applies the paint as if a strong wind has blown it through the four corners of the picture, covering each section in varied thickness and transparency, in an absorbing round of texture and opacity. The red hues whose underpinnings dominate the piece with tattered body parts may reference the Covid 19 pandemic. Today, the sight of ambulances adds a macabre aspect to everyday life, sending a somber message that the picture echoes. The work furnishes an encounter that reaches well beyond the visual, to a deep place inside which responds to the primordial processes enmeshed in the canvass, projecting the viewer forward into the unknown.  

Adrian Ghenie, Self-Portrait ‘en plein air’, 2020, oil on canvas 74-13/16″ × 90-9/16,” © Adrian Ghenie, courtesy Pace Gallery.

Ghenie’s “Self-Portrait ‘en plein air’” (2020) presents an ironic take on the concept of “plein air” that displays an unrecognizable artist apparently experiencing the agony which often accompanies creative outdoor pursuits. The artist in the picture employs muted modulated colors accentuating the serious tone of his efforts while he scrambles to keep his tools and materials organized. As he experiences the pain of his isolation and the hardship of his existence, Ghenie seems especially to identify with the enduring creative spirit of the solitary Van Gogh. Van Gogh occupies an unusual position in the body of works on view.  He is seen as a figure of suffering and redemption who sacrificed his health and eventually his life to his work, which by its intrinsic character revitalized painting. In “On the Road to Tarascon 4,” 2020, Ghenie pays homage to the artist in a re-created image of Van Gogh who is seen in transit, moving as if the portable easel were a part of his anatomy, on his way to paint outdoors in the open air.  

 British painter Francis Bacon’s dark iconic works have been a major influence in contemporary art; he seems to have inspired some of Ghenie’s enigmatic disturbing visions. Bacon himself owes a debt to Abstract Expressionist Wilhelm De Kooning, whose conflated brush strokes spurred Bacon’s visceral interpretations. “The Impressionists” presents a grim kneeling black-robed figure in an unexpected example of an elusive work that expresses the antithesis of the ethereal light-drenched works of Impressionism; Ghenie’s palette is comprised of subdued mixed hues that recall dim Eastern European light. “The Haystack” is another unfathomable large-scale work that defies immediate interpretation.  

Ghenie’s engaging charcoal on paper portrait drawings employ the medium in techniques that mirror his oil on canvas portraits. The drawings are somber, visceral evocations of masters who have experienced hardships in their efforts to bring their art to fruition.  In Ghenie’s portraits, Turner, the artist himself, and Gauguin are constructed with truncated body parts in which the condensed power of their creativity seems to have reached its peak. Nothing about the images is contemplative; the urgency of their intentions seems to have spurred them to epic personal transformations and subsequent achievements. The artist reverses traditional portraiture by displaying images that reveal the dark depths of his subjects’ psyches rather than pleasant looking facial features.

Ghenie is influenced by Charles Darwin’s text “On the Origin of the Species” (late 1850’s), with its emphasis on the survival of the fittest.  It seems that a similar dictate applies to the field of painting; if it is not periodically reinvigorated, its meaning and relevance will fade from our culture. Ghenie believes that painting is now in a cyclical crisis that repeats itself historically, as demonstrated by the oeuvres of the Impressionists, Turner, Van Gogh and Gauguin, artists whose works he explores in this show. Recycling adds a new spin by extending art and regenerating the media. Turner dissolved a train into a cloud of mist in a convincing painted atmosphere. Picasso and George Braque revamped Cezanne’s geometric brushstrokes to forge the Cubist movement, which contributed to the founding of abstract art. The Impressionists, through their reductive multitude strokes of luminous light foresaw the onset of the Atomic Age. 

It is rare to find an international art star who cares profoundly about the progression of art, who seems to love the act of painting enough to make pictures whose sole subjects are the painters who have contributed to its evolution. It is prescient that Pace has brought Ghenie’s works to share with worldly New York audiences, who have experienced the development of contemporary art first-hand. Whether one appreciates it or not, this heroic exhibition offers an example of works that probe the ominous side of progress to help unfold a struggle that challenges the omniscience of technology.

Church and Rothko: Sublime

by Mary Hrbacek

Frederic Edwin Churh, "After the Rainstorm," oil on canvas mounted on panel, 22 1/2 x 33 1/2, 1875
Frederic Edwin Churh, “After the Rainstorm,” oil on canvas mounted on panel, 22 1/2 x 33 1/2, 1875. Courtesy of Mnuchin Gallery, New York.

 “Church and Rothko: Sublime,” an exhibition of twenty-seven oil paintings on canvas, brings into focus, in the context of the ‘Sublime,’ the similarities and divergences of two deeply contrasting artists who extended the art of painting to suit their overriding visions, separated by a span of nearly 100 years.  Michael Altman Fine Art and Christopher Rothko collaborated with Robert Mnuchin and the Mnuchin team to present this respectful, comprehensive and deeply appreciative journey through the pictorial language of a 19th and a 20th Century master, who succeeded in transmuting their art to the level of the emotional and psychological sublime, through purely visual means.  The show adheres to an expanded, unconventional definition of the ‘Sublime,’ which includes not only the sense of the majestic but also its frightening, perilous dark side. There are ten abstract Rothko works and seventeen Frederic Church oil paintings on view.

Mark Rothko, "Browns and Blacks in Reds," oil on canvas, 91 x 60,” 1957, Courtesy of Mnuchin Gallery, New York
Mark Rothko, “Browns and Blacks in Reds,” oil on canvas, 91 x 60,” 1957, Courtesy of Mnuchin Gallery, New York

The handsome, risk-taking installation presents Church’s portrayals of concrete outer reality contrasted with the ephemeral inner reality of Rothko’s images, in juxtapositions that compel the viewer to reorient mental and visual comprehension with the aid of color as the harmonious interconnecting link. The wide differences in the underlying structures of the two artists’ works reveal the extent to which humans have transformed society, culture and art in a span of less than 100 years. The challenges of the exhibit offer an expanded experience that has the potential to broaden the viewer’s visual scope.  The traditional toned walls which reflect Church’s era, work to his advantage, while Rothko’s dark works are sometimes subsumed by their gray surroundings; white walls might serve his radical images more favorably.

American born Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) brilliantly observes and records the particulars of the skies, clouds, mountains, trees, flowers, rivers and the sea that fall before his wide grasp of meaningful detail.  His inspired recreation of light as it morphs from sunrise into daylight, and into the atmospheric effects that illuminate clouds at sunset, instills the viewer with feelings of revelation and discovery.  His encyclopedic panoramic landscape views are emotionally charged by his dramatic use of pure warm hues.

Frederic Edwin Church, "Scene on the Magdalena," oil on canvas, 28 1/4 x 42 inches, 1854, Courtesy of Mnuchin Gallery, New York
Frederic Edwin Church, “Scene on the Magdalena,” oil on canvas, 28 1/4 x 42 inches, 1854, Courtesy of Mnuchin Gallery, New York

Church traveled extensively, painting in plain air, but he also worked in his studio at his home Olana in New York State. He was a recognized master of the Hudson River School of landscape artists. Church was intrigued by incidences of human courage in scenes of ships trapped by icebergs, or while in danger of sinking at sea.  He carried his vision to tropical landscapes that speak of fantasy and ecstasy through their sublime auras, their intricately ornate foliage and plant-forms, luminous mirror-like rivers and lakes, and divinely illuminating light.  Church’s sensitivity to the changing hues which evolve in sunsets provides a rich evocative subject he explores in many of his works. The painter’s use of saturated red, displayed in “Marine Sunset (The Black Sea),” 1881-1882, seems to hint at a prescient apocalyptic vision of the sun setting on civilization as it descends into the netherworld, a harbinger of the Atomic Age that predates the devastating human and environmental global crisis to come in the next century. There are few people on view in these abundant tableaux. Fortunately, he took the opportunity to record the beauties and subtleties, the dramas and innuendos of our deteriorating Earth.

Frederic Edwin Church, "Marine Sunset, (The Black Sea)," oil on canvas, 30 1/8 x 42,” 1881 - 1882, Courtesy of Mnuchin Gallery, New York
Frederic Edwin Church, “Marine Sunset, (The Black Sea),” oil on canvas, 30 1/8 x 42,” 1881 – 1882, Courtesy of Mnuchin Gallery, New York

Church’s painting “Twilight in the Wilderness,” punctuated by deep cadmium red hues, perhaps expresses his unconscious awareness that traditional beliefs about natural life were waning. Darwin’s “The Origin of Species,” which appeared in the end of the 1850s, weakened the belief in the existence of the spiritual in nature. Church’s cognizance of the unprecedented carnage of the American Civil War also played a role in some of his apocalyptic landscape visions that portray nature on the brink, at its most turbulent.

The ‘Sublime’ is an emotionally charged term that conjures feelings of wonder and amazement incited by an awareness of God’s providence in the majesty of our abundant natural world.  The dictionary defines ‘sublime’ as an adjective that indicates grandeur, excellence, or great beauty inspiring admiration or awe. In Edmund Burke’s book, “A Philosophic Enquiry into the Origins of the Sublime and the Beautiful,” (1757), Burke extends the definition of the ‘sublime’ to include opposing forces, defined as “compelling and destructive, provoking a fear of death, and vastness, infinity and magnificence. It evokes God’s creation of Satan, and its polar opposite, the Beautiful, as well formed and aesthetically pleasing….” In the context of this exhibition, Burke’s definition, which references negatives such as evil and the fear of death, makes sense of the contrast of Rothko’s dark memorial paintings with Church’s bright yellow, orange and cadmium red pieces.  

Mark Rothko, No. 5 (Untitled), oil on canvas, 90 x 69 inches, 1964, Courtesy of Mnuchin Gallery, New York
Mark Rothko, No. 5 (Untitled), oil on canvas, 90 x 69 inches, 1964,
 Courtesy of Mnuchin Gallery, New York

Mark Rothko was born in Dvinsk, Russia (1903-1970) and came to the US with his family in 1913. He began painting in 1926; and developed his abstract signature vision around 1947, shortly after the end of World War II.  Rothko’s paintings comprise several framed, stacked color fields with harmonious atmospheric layers that shift hues from one rectangle to the next, to establish auras of calm and moods of serenity.  Many of his works achieve a sense of the transcendent sublime in a level of intensity that syncs with Church’s landscapes, especially through the means of atmospheric color and ethereal moods, which link his enveloping non-objective oeuvre to the tableaux of Church’s brilliant evanescent skies.  Rothko’s formats can be said, in an imaginative leap, to make subliminal suggestions that parallel landscape art. He favors a vertical structure that mirrors the upward sweep of trees, he uses wide rectangular planes reminiscent of the expanse of meadows, and makes a stack of fields that form horizon lines, with a sliver of sky above.  His piece entitled “No. 1” (1949) is a transition work displaying remnants of earlier figurative efforts, combined within the format of his stacked rectangles, that speak to Church’s representational oeuvre.

Mark Rothko, "No. 1," oil on canvas, 18 1/4 x 39, 5/8,” 1949, Courtesy of Mnuchin Gallery, New York
Mark Rothko, “No. 1,” oil on canvas, 18 1/4 x 39, 5/8,” 1949, Courtesy of Mnuchin Gallery, New York

Rothko dispenses with all overt recognizable forms to achieve a direct psychological impact that bridges the core of viewer’s consciousness. In order to comprehend his art, one must release pre-conceived notions to make space to experience fresh emotions and conceptual content that is stimulated by the pure pigment on canvas. “No. 5 (Untitled)” (1964) uniquely resonates with a distinct sensation of the dark sublime. Rothko attempts to align the viewer with a modern zeitgeist, in a connection with unadulterated states of pure being. He was perhaps influenced by Buddhism or by meditation, as his subtle pictures come into more lucid focus with concentration.

After WW II with the experiences of the most heinous crimes ever committed by humanity, it became impossible to trust in a human capacity for evolved states of moral and spiritual being. Moreover, due to the direct onset of the Atomic Age, the world and humanity became equally vulnerable to instant annihilation. Rothko may well have factored these perceptions into his new postwar painterly efforts.

Frederic Edwin Church, "Icebergs and Wreck in Sunset," oil on paperboard mounted on canvas, 8 1/4 x 12 1/4 inches, 1860, Courtesy of Mnuchen Gallery, New York
Frederic Edwin Church, “Icebergs and Wreck in Sunset,” oil on paperboard mounted on canvas, 8 1/4 x 12 1/4 inches, 1860, Courtesy of Mnuchen Gallery, New York

The two artists, working almost 100 years apart, demonstrate beautifully the eras in which they established and developed their visions. While the human impact on nature was becoming more apparent, the 19th Century still retained a sense of hope in the future, and a shaky reverence in the present. Rothko’s 20th Century vision seeks to engage the core of human awareness, separated from nature, which could no longer be referenced as a constant to be experienced with the joy and trust in the future.  His is a vision of the timeless and eternal ‘Now,’ which potentially imbues the spirit with a peace that is isolated from an ephemeral world. Rothko’s works present fields which enable viewers to explore their moods and states of mind, with each painting.The absence of traditional pictorial space in Rothko’s art makes at first glimpse a challenging chasm between the two oeuvres. But the notion of linking the works through both color equivalents and the expanded concept of the Sublime, creates an almost playful, experimental arena that accentuates the divergences and similarities of the art of the 20th and 19th Centuries. Church’s “Marine Sunset (The Black Sea)” and Rothko’s “Brown’s and Black’s in Reds” (1968) epitomize the intent here of the comparison of the ‘dark’ side of the Sublime. Whether one senses that the works enhance one another, or whether they distract from their intended meanings, depends on the viewer’s depth of commitment to seeing art from an expansive, inventive viewpoint.

Still Sizzling… Top Ten Artists from the last live Art Basel Fair week

by Gae Savannah

Detail of Gabe Brown, Flow,  2019, oil on linen over wood panel

I’m dreaming of Miami. Art is a living presence, an intelligence outside of that which we already possess.  Among the blows of this pandemic year, the loss of experiencing art in real space is a deep darkness.  In the ecstatic buzz of a live fair, one answers the call of one booth, one artist, one artwork at a time.  Dumbstruck, you feel the materiality open up in heart and mind, change, and grow. 

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Jaroslava Prihodova’s Measured Confluence

Interview of the Artist by D. Dominick Lombardi

Detail of Jaroslava Prihodova, Table Light (2015), pine, glass, plastic work

Raised in Velký Šenov, in the Bohemia section of the Czech Republic, and currently living in Cortland, New York, Jaroslava Prihodova’s life has truly been a tale of two cities. Growing up in a Communist state, with her parents, an aunt and uncle and her grandparents, Prihodova has largely happy memories of those early days.

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