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
Fatma 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, 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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