Debra Priestly: black

by Jen Dragon

© Debra Priestly, hymn, 2022 at Jane St. Art Center, Saugerties, NY
© Debra Priestly, hymn, 2022 at Jane St. Art Center, Saugerties, NY

Saugerties, NY – Debra Priestly’s latest solo exhibition of new paintings, drawings, and sculpture along with an immersive site-specific installation explores the color black in many different ways including as pigment, symbol and potential object.  As a pigment, black richly glows as a matte finish on black vessels 1-3. Free standing in the gallery, these urn-shaped sculptures serve as elegiac cenotaphs with small, modeled faces emerging from around the mouthpiece under a matte black shroud.  In other works, totem 1-3, and hymn, black is a bold, symbolic object that participates in its own geometry and asserts a solid, non-negotiable presence.  

Apart from the metaphysics of the color black, Priestly considers the reductive symbols that are possible in a black and white world. One recurring leit-motif is the humble canning jar.  This ubiquitous kitchen container, used to preserve food over winter and thwart decay, the jar resonates with the analogy of the living body containing the soul, or of the mind preserving memory. In mattoon 17.1-17.9, Debra Priestly places black cut paper silhouettes of mundane objects in a square of paper lace meticulously cut with traditional floral patterns and encompassing the form of this canning jar. The black objects set inside the jar can be identified as a vinyl record, a cup, a roll of string, or an egg, but are so redacted that they emerge as the essential symbols of larger meaning. The flat 78 rpm record can represent the geometry of a planet’s circumnavigation; the cup becomes a symbol of offering and the string, the gyration of objects in response to gravity. These mysterious objects placed on an intricate representation of handmade lace references the clarity of overall design carefully balanced on the realities of painstaking execution – and the delicate dance between what is and what is not.

black (installation view) © Debra Priestly, 2022 at Jane St. Art Center, Saugerties, NY
black (installation view) © Debra Priestly, 2022 at Jane St. Art Center, Saugerties, NY

The most open-ended of Priestly’s works are the studies for black totem 1 -3 and her large, site-specific  installation, black. The 12” x 9” inch multiple studies for black totem 1-3 are the scaffolding for a proposed group of three 7-foot high free-standing pillars made from ceramic components. Reduced to simple black and gray geometric shapes, this “blueprint” has gaps which invite the viewer to complete with their mind. The depth of the spaces created by the totems oscillates from near to far creating a physical sensation within the viewer as they experience proposed objects of towering height. Standing alone, these inked sheets of paper record the process of symbol to eventual substance. 

black (installation view) © Debra Priestly, 2022 at Jane St. Art Center, Saugerties, NY
black (installation view) © Debra Priestly, 2022 at Jane St. Art Center, Saugerties, NY

black is a site-specific installation unique to Jane St. Art Center. This elegant, light-filled performance space has been completely darkened with the smallest illumination perceptible at the farthest end of the stage. The strange smell of tar paper guides the viewer’s bared feet towards a miniature display supporting a circle of tiny sculpture stands, each displaying a miniature form. These minute turntables encircle the smallest one in the center of the diorama and seem to give it their full attention. The drama of the low light and the naturally enveloping black environment make for mysterious interpretations with a simultaneous sense of both utter vastness and particular miniaturization. In this installation, black serves as a comforting presence as an invisible audience is slowly imagined while the tiny theater itself slowly evolves.

patoka hill 26 © Debra Priestly, 2022
patoka hill 26 © Debra Priestly, 2022

Debra Priestly’s artwork is ultimately about dimensional shifts and associative illusions to create the magic of space. What may sum up the entire exhibition is the mixed media on panel, patoka hill 26. The only painting in this exhibition, pakota hill 26 depicts the ancient game of snakes and ladders. The game was originally a game of morality where snakes represent “envy” and “jealousy”, (vices) while ladders represent virtues such as “charity” and “kindness”. In this ubiquitous child’s game, the roll of the dice can send the player up the ladder to win and another roll can just as easily send that player all the way back to the beginning via the snakes – and throughout these ups and downs in Priestly’s painting are the attendant canning jars that simultaneously hold all memory, space and being. 

Debra Priestly: black (September 17 – October 23, 2022) at Jane St. Art Center, 11 Jane Street Suite A, Saugerties NY  12477 (845) 217-5715.

Stephanie S. Lee’s “Ouroboros” at the Flushing Town Hall

by Jonathan Goodman

Stephanie S. Lee, Beautiful Lady Smile & 아름다운 아가씨 웃어요, 2020, Color pigment and ink on linen, 25 1⁄4" H x 17" W x 1 1⁄2" D each
Stephanie S. Lee, Beautiful Lady Smile & 아름다운 아가씨 웃어요, 2020, Color pigment and ink on linen, 25 1⁄4″ H x 17″ W x 1 1⁄2″ D each

“Ouroboros,” the solo show by Korean-born, New York-based artist Stephanie S. Lee, can best be described as an amalgam of influences. The Ouroboros, an image of a snake swallowing its own tail, dates back to ancient Egyptian and Greek mythologies. It symbolizes eternity and is wholly associated with Western culture. At the same time, Lee regularly uses the minhwa, or folk art, associated with presenting traditional Korean narratives, wishing and sharing good fortune and well-being among commoners in everyday life. In such work, traditional animals – tigers, dragons, and magpies – appear in the midst of modern New York City. Lee, a highly active resident in her community, to the point of having her own gallery called The Garage Art Center ( (her garage transformed into a showing space!), shows artists from around the city. Besides curatorial, design, and teaching Korean folk art, she paints regularly and considers herself an active artist. This show, very nicely installed within the spacious Town Hall gallery, indicates Lee’s sense of received form and an ongoing belief in doing good things, as demonstrated in her involvement with other artists and the community.

In this show, Lee combines Korean and English letter forms with images such as traditional animals, diamonds (a symbol of pure goodness that overcame hardships), or Ouroboros (the symbol of eternal destruction and reincarnation).

This series depicts her journey to finding happiness and hope while going through repetitive everyday life as a mother, wife, and middle-aged female artist. A good deal of the work in this show consists of diptychs with Korean characters, usually expressing Confucian terminology in one painting, which is then accompanied by a second, often spelling out the meaning of the Korean language in English. Other works of art include characters depicted on black diamond-shaped faux leather canvases or hanging scrolls. In her wish to merge imagery, textual references, and a nearly palpable sense of moral integrity, Lee is pursuing a language that owes its depth to Korean thought despite having lived in New York City for two decades.

Ouroboros, Solo exhibition of Stephanie S. Lee, 2022, Flushing Town Hall, Flushing, New York
Ouroboros, Solo exhibition of Stephanie S. Lee, 2022, Flushing Town Hall, Flushing, New York

Korean life in New York City, both in Manhattan and the outer boroughs (especially Queens), often determinedly remains Korean. Yet, inevitably, the city’s social structure and international culture makes its impact on all foreign cultures, no matter how insulated its immigrant inhabitants may wish to be. Certainly, this does not describe Lee’s own outlook. Instead, she embraces the diversity of New York City, even as she relies on the suggestion, sometimes overt and sometimes not, of Confucianism and Christianity for an approach to life and art. Lee studied graphic design for her BFA in Brooklyn and Museum Studies for her MS in Manhattan at Pratt Institute and learned folk art painting at Busan National University. Her work in school is reflected in her art; her paintings are exquisitely designed and are usually rendered in the naive style of the folk art she follows. In her ‘Munjado’ (Pictorial Ideograph) series, English alphabet and the Korean lettering is beautifully expressed, being indicative of the calligraphy of both culture she experienced.

Given that her art, inspired by folk tradition, reintroduces a historical Korean tradition, Lee’s work travels a long distance, both geographically and culturally. But Lee’s message is hardly antiquated; her work shows a very good sense of contemporary design and thought. On one wall, facing the viewer walking into the show, three pieces occur: in the middle, we see a large hanging scroll created in 2022. Its twisting, vertical shape establishes the symbol of infinity, with its mouth grasping its tail near the top of the hanging canvas. There are the words “useless” and “unproductive” in Korean on each snake, representing unanswered questions to herself on why she keeps creating artwork despite hardships. The symbol’s center is an open sphere created by the curves of two thin, interwoven Ouroboros, held together in the middle by a horizontal circle. On either side is a black diamond, serving as a background for single words. On the left, we see the neon-lit word “Value” in a script, and on the right, we come across the word “Art,” also in neon and written in script. When Lee presents the word “Value” on the left work, she clearly intends for the word to be understood in a non- commercial sense. (But Americans, accustomed to the economic worth of things, may take the term differently.) Her use of the word “Art” is universally understood in a moment. As for the Ouroboros, the snake symbolizes infinite possibility–from a Western point of view.

Stephanie S. Lee, Ajumma & Mother, 2022, Natural mineral color pigment and ink on linen, 46 1⁄2" H x 24 1⁄8" W x 1 1⁄2" D each
Stephanie S. Lee, Ajumma & Mother, 2022, Natural mineral color pigment and ink on linen, 46 1⁄2″ H x 24 1⁄8″ W x 1 1⁄2″ D each

Lee is giving the nod to different traditions as she works. It can be asked if the incorporation of Western mythology with the Asian folk imagination is a bit awkward; my own feeling is that, in the case of the work discussed in this show, Lee’s strong skills in design allow her to make use of the different cultures. She incorporates the imagery that is familiar to her into a vocabulary of her own making. The piece called Ajumma (2022) of the Korean characters

meaning ajumma, which in English can be understood as a married or a middle- aged woman. In Ajumma, Korean writing is intertwined with a snake made out of gems, while on the periphery of the image, several peonies, in dark or light blue, ornament the composition. In the painting Mother (2022), the word “mother” is presented in capitals and is less difficult to see. On either side of the English word, two white snakes, vines circling their bodies, mirror each other’s curves to form the shape of a uterus. On the lower half of the snakes’ bodies, luxury jewelry in reds resembling the color of blood is hanging, while at the top, a crown of brown thorns is also decorated with them. Religion is strongly followed within Korean life, and the artist agrees with both Christian and Confucian thought.

Stephanie S. Lee, Traditional Wish, 2015, Natural mineral color pigment and ink on Hanji, 48" H x 36" W x 2" D
Stephanie S. Lee, Traditional Wish, 2015, Natural mineral color pigment and ink on Hanji, 48″ H x 36″ W x 2″ D

Animals like tigers take up Lee’s imagination, as the artist remains devoted to the minhwa style and themes she admires. They represent strength and power and are perceived in a supernatural fashion as a guardian spirits. It is exceedingly hard to take a folk art theme and contemporize it in a way that does not do damage to the subject’s original implications. Sadly, we are living in a time when human overpopulation and subsequent development of natural lands are depriving wild animals of their habitat. But the large cats remain large in Lee’s imagination, often standing for human virtues that remain as guides to bravery or even a heroic stance. In the tigers I have seen portrayed by Lee, their fierce vigor is softened to some extent by the artist’s affectionate presentation. This does not mean that Lee is giving up on the tiger’s reputation for ferocity, only that within the folk tradition she is following, the animal is usually represented as less wild and friendly. So Lee’s representation is gentle and humorous rather than fierce. In her tiger paintings, she may be closest to the Korean imagination.

Stephanie S. Lee, Traditional Virtue - Filial Piety, Fraternity, Fidelity, Reliance, Propriety, Righteousness, Integrity, Conscience, 2019, Natural mineral color pigment and ink on linen, 33 1⁄2" H x 12 1⁄2" W x 1 1⁄2" D each
Stephanie S. Lee, Traditional Virtue – Filial Piety, Fraternity, Fidelity, Reliance, Propriety, Righteousness, Integrity, Conscience, 2019, Natural mineral color pigment and ink on linen33 1⁄2″ H x 12 1⁄2″ W x 1 1⁄2″ D each

There is a question implied by this show: Can Lee’s audience, either Korean or non-Korean, be able to effectively appreciate the painter’s merger of cultures? Can a crown of thorns coexist effectively with a folk rendition of a Korean tiger? Is the Ouroboros an image dispersed widely enough that it would make sense to Lee’s Asian followers? These questions might come close to taking over the real achievement of the art. Yet Lee’s visual skills, her adept use of both Korean and English words to complicate her message (in a useful way), and her unspoken insistence on principles provide her with the means to surpass the difficulties of a hybrid existence. In the poster announcing the show, the words “Mother, Wife, and Artist” are prominent, indicating the several roles someone in her position plays. Here the language is not politicized; rather, it is descriptive of a modern woman’s life. “Ouroboros” is of high interest not only because Lee merges influences but because she has dedicated herself to image-making despite the pressures of her daily activities. It is a good thing she pays so much attention to her art, which rewards its viewers with both visual elegance and honorable consideration.

Sunhee Kim Jung at Paris Koh Fine Arts

by Jonathan Goodman

Sunhee Kim Jung, American Dream, 2005, oil on canvas, 40" (h) x 50" (w)
Sunhee Kim Jung, American Dream, 2005, oil on canvas, 40″ (h) x 50″ (w)

Sunhee Kim Jung’s show of paintings explodes with color and vitality. The exhibition, presented at Paris Koh Fine Arts, located just beyond the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey, consists of a group of floral works of art, notable for their density of effect, their intensity of hue, and their open optimism, the result of an outlook devoted to beauty. Although she is from Korea, Kim Jung studied in the Washington, D.C., area; she received her BFA from the Corcoran School of Art, and then went to American University to take her MFA. Since then the artist has moved to Maryland. Although her show takes place very near to a major bridge spanning the Hudson, her work does not reflect the asphalt streets, tall apartment buildings, and steel bridges that turn New York into a site of industrial density. Instead, Kim Jing relies on an accurate but also romantic natural vocabulary: trees, flowers, dense arrangements of foliage. It looks very much like Kim Jung is painting from real life, not from her imagination. Yet the imagery possesses a vividness that results from the way she envisions, on her own terms, the particulars of her subject matter.

One of the strongest attributes of the artist’s floral projects is her attention to detail. Kim Jung’s gaze is highly focused, although not to the point of scholarly obsession, providing her with artistic freedom. Her studies present a strong interest in natural form—the work is usually strengthened by a precise understanding of the flowers’ shapes and hue. This precision results in a language of highly specific elements. There is a larger question, a critique, that can be noted: Is Kim Jung’s orientation anachronistic? This kind of work has been part of both Western and Asian art history for a long time, Painting flowers in detail has long been the basis of still life, an established way of working for hundreds of years. Its historical hold on contemporary art has been freed by the idea that today anything is possible, even if the concept or the form has not yet been developed or is already known. One remembers the flowers painted by the modernist Mondrian, which stand out as examples of the tradition. They have an excitement and energy that makes them new, despite the well-established nature of the motif. Kim Jung follows this path. She finds excitement in a realist, but also independent, reading of nature. Her interest in floral forms, modified to a degree by her own imagination, results in an enthusiastic treatment of the garden and the expanse of the woods.. 

Sunhee Kim Jung, A Bearing Life, 2005, oil on canvas, 50" (h) x 40" (w)
Sunhee Kim Jung, A Bearing Life, 2005, oil on canvas, 50″ (h) x 40″ (w)

The individual images tell their story—without a romantic reading. They become expressions of energetic beauty kept from visual overreaching or excessive sentiment by Kim Jung’s close detail. One can study the paintings the way a botanist would, with an eye for factual visuals whose elements seamlessly create the entirety of a flower. In A Bearing Life (2005), the entire composition is devoted to an upward gaze that rises to meet the top of a palm tree. There a canopy of fronds takes up a good part of the picture. The brown trunk rises to the rounded central core of the tree, from which the branches supporting the fronts extend outward, away from its center. Coconuts, green and brown, occur in the painting’s upper register. As an entirety, A Bearing Life is impressive. It is true to life, but the way the image is presented makes it necessary that we look upward, as if we were standing underneath the tree. The originality comes from the upward point of view Here Kim Jung’s work is made more interesting by her idiosyncratic manner of painting, which transforms our knowledge of plants into something original.

Sunhee Kim Jung, Silver Surfer Baby, 2007, oil on canvas, 20" (h) x 20" (w)
Sunhee Kim Jung, Silver Surfer Baby, 2007, oil on canvas, 20″ (h) x 20″ (w)

Silver Surfer Baby (2007) is a complicated painting. It presents a frontal tangle of brown leaves, which look like they are in the late stages of decline. They make it difficult to see an important part of the painting: the silver image of a baby, rotated so that its head is facing downward, as if ready for birth. This ambiguous image is surrounded by a yellow-gold oval frame. The painting’s background is a light green, which contrasts with the brown of the leaves. We can read this work as an emblematic rendering of the beginning of life, in the form of the fetal baby, and the final stages of life, indicated by the lifeless leaves. Most of the time Kim Jung is given to description, but flowers and blooms can easily take on symbolic meaning if the artist intends them to be seen in that way. In this painting, with its infant, Kim Jung has developed an approach that complicates the floral imagery she is so good at rendering. The baby is capable of representing a meaningfulness greater than itself, an embodiment of possibility, and as a symbol of the start of life, it is a highly optimistic image. The brown leaves might well be seen as the loss of nature. Together the two images extend across the duration of life.

Such a combination of objects underscores the complexity of Kim Jung’s production. As an Asian artist who has lived in America for many years, Kim Jung is an artist who cannot but help bring differing outlooks and visual styles together. Of course, floral painting has been central to Eastern art for centuries, although the high point of such work occurred a long time ago. Still, the impulse to paint a strikingly attractive flower, and to describe it within the context of deliberate beauty, is strong. But Kim Jung has foregone the use of brush and ink in favor of Western materials, which she uses in a way that emphasizes detail as much as expressive lyricism. 

But that does not mean the details are unable to express their own sense of beauty. How can one not paint a flower without paying attention to its innate elegance? The point is that Western and Asian culture have done this in different ways, while an artist like Kim Jung, having lived in two very different worlds, has been able to combine the two ways of seeing. We are living in a time of extreme eclecticism, which could explain the formal aspects of this art. But eclecticism doesn’t truly apply to the artist’s work. Instead, the combination suggests a mixed understanding of traditions that enforces our sense that the art has been merged by Kim Jung’s creativity.

Sunhee Kim Jung, Red Leaves, 2005, oil on canvas, 42" (h) x 64" (w)
Sunhee Kim Jung, Red Leaves, 2005, oil on canvas, 42″ (h) x 64″ (w)

The work Red Leaves (2005) is a densely painted presentation of red leaves and gray, veined ones; their numbers make the composition condensed enough that the ridged green stalks the artist includes are slightly hidden. Above the welter of leaves, at the very top, one can see a slight horizontal sliver noticeable for its brightness, consisting primarily of stalks. The deep red of the leaves, spread across the expanse of the canvas, develops a striking contrast with the gray leaves and the green stalks. Red Leaves is a work dedicated to artistic and natural profusion, leaving us fully taken with the imagery, which seems, because of the freedom of the plants’ placement, to occur more in the exterior world than in the controlled circumstances of a private garden. This reading may, or may not, be correct; perhaps the ultimate purpose of the painting is the display of the deep red, cupped forms that quietly take over the rest of the imagery. Their intensity of color makes them highly noticeable in comparison with the quieter hues surrounding them. Visual art often works with contrasts—noticeable differences leading to original juxtapositions of forms and colors. In Red Leaves, the red color operates as a means to intensities of feeling, which is a good way of describing Kim Jung’s work generally. She uses the forms and colors of the flowers as a stand-in for emotional involvement. This way of working is especially successful by virtue of its indirect assertion.

So Kim Jung is a highly talented artist proceeding within a highly developed tradition. Her work cannot be called Asian, yet the very act of painting flowers lies deep within the history of her original culture. The boldness of her paintings may originate with her education and long stay in America. The work is devoted to detail as much as it concerns the general energies of the flowers. Yet her efforts are far from scientific study. Instead, it projects a visionary energy. The vitality behind her work is expressed by visual decisions that emphasize particulars, vivid hues, and forms that stay close to the actual shape of the flower. But while she is an artist determined to present nature in actuality, Kim Jung is also an artist of considerable passion; her emotions find their expression in her art, which acts as a bridge between her internal life and the rest of the world—the people who look at her paintings. Her feelings are presented by forms that remain with her audience because they are so sharply rendered. It is clear that, over time, these works will retain their vehemence and attraction. Being both accurate treatments of nature and clear statements of emotion, the paintings become memorable portraits of what the artist sees and feels.

Sunhee Kim Jung Solo Exhibition (September 6 – 29, 2022), Paris Koh Fine Arts, 201 Bridge Plaza North, Suite 1, Fort Lee, NJ 07024

Thomas Demand’s House of Card

by Steve Rockwell

© Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery / Galerie Sprüth Magers / Esther Schipper, Berlin / Taka Ishii Gallery
© Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery/Galerie Sprüth Magers/Esther Schipper, Berlin/Taka Ishii Gallery

Thomas Demand’s practice of building models and photographing them has produced a child in “The Triple Folly,” a baby that has grown into an actual building in Denmark. By the artist’s own admission, it may turn out to be an only child. It’s a genesis story that gave Demand an opportunity to explore a tent-to-pavilion aspect of human habitation through postcards, prints, and publications in the wall vitrine facing “The Triple Folly” model on the second floor at Toronto’s Museum of Modern Art. The model was realized through the London firm, Caruso St John Architects with their client, Danish textile firm Kvadrat, as a “breakout” space from the company’s nearby headquarters, suitable for house meetings, seminars, or even a concert, but light on heavy, practical use – a folly, in other words. 

Thomas Demand, installation view, House of Card, M Museum, Leuven, 2020
Thomas Demand, installation view, House of Card, M Museum, Leuven, 2020

This collaborative interface aspect of Demand’s work is a dominant feature of his “House of Card” exhibition at MOCA, beginning with Rirkrit Tiravanija’s 2013 “Thomas Demand’s Here” on the main floor, a life-size model of the karaoke bar Black Label in Kitakaushi, Japan, the exterior of which Demand repeats on the third floor in flimsier board and digital output in paper. The Black Label homage to the artist arose from Demand’s discovery and rendering of the bar at a 2008 residency at Kitakushu’s Centre for Contemporary Art. Tiravanija’s model imbues “life” to an otherwise empty shell, offering karaoke and social ambiance to participating museum attendees.

Thomas Demand, towhee, 2020 Framed Pigment Print, 135 x 172 cm
Thomas Demand, towhee, 2020 Framed Pigment Print, 135 x 172 cm

The model as a latent force that delineates our lived environment is given expression by Demand’s photographs of model details by architects SANAA (Kasuyo Seijma and Ryue Nishizawa) and John Lautner. In Demand’s photos, the pattern template files of the late fashion designer Assedine Alaïa come across as magnified strands of DNA, worn down by years of use. Alaïa’s runway creations and the flesh and blood mannequins that inhabited them may only be inferred in the photos, as are the string of celebrities that came to champion them. SANAA’s contribution to the architectural skins that clothe the art of significant galleries and museums across the globe typifies this crossing of the aesthetic from one discipline to another. Very likely, the inconspicuous site-specific ceiling installation by Martin Boyce on the second floor plays interference on the acoustics of the exhibition space. Its vane-like shapes in muffling the echoes of MOCA’s concrete architecture are a further interface of disciplines.

Thomas Demand, Refuge V, 2021, C-Print / Diasec, 160 x 200 cm
Thomas Demand, Refuge V, 2021, C-Print / Diasec, 160 x 200 cm

Viewers of Demand’s 2021 “Refuge” installation on the third floor at MOCA are afforded a taste of the confinement that NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden is likely to have experienced in his Sheremetyevo hotel room in Russia as an exile from US authorities. The artist, it seems, had obtained detailed, firsthand experience of Snowden’s presumed room in Russia, upon which his paper and card version of it was based. The journalistic narratives constructed around the whistle-blower as either traitor or patriot exemplify just one front in our current war of information. The re-constructed details of Demand’s “Refuge” series provide an eerie simulation of the “cell” of its protagonist as casualty of this conflict, and his five weeks of isolation.

The subject of Demand’s minute-and-a-half 2001 film, “Yard,” is Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević and his arrest on charges of war crimes against humanity. In the video, the staccato click of paparazzi camera shutters illuminate a wall behind a chainlink fence as the prisoner is handed over to authorities at the International Criminal Court at The Hague. Since Milošević isn’t visible in the film, we are left to imagine, not only his presence, but any details of the arrest itself.

Rudolph Weigel's Judith and Holofernes
Rudolph Weigel’s Judith and Holofernes

In the wall vitrine above his postcard display, Demand hung a print of Rudolph Weigel’s “Judith and Holofernes.” The subject of numerous depictions through art history, Weigel has Judith standing in the doorway of a tent, calmly dropping the head of Holofernes into a sack after her decapitation of the Assyrian general. Implicit in the Biblical story is seduction coupled with its fatal deception. The roof of Demand’s “Triple Folly” model was inspired by a creased legal size paper, a nod to the laws and regulations governing the realization of any actual building. As they say, “All is fair in love and war.” Yet as Demand has demonstrated in numerous past works, “folly” arrives in three dimensions, and who is to account for what happens inside the things we build?

HOUSE OF CARD: Thomas Demand & Martin Boyce, Rirkit Tiravanija, Caruso St John at MOCA, Toronto, Canada September 16, 2022 – January 8, 2023

Framing the Stretcher: Adventures and Misadventures of an Idea

by John Mendelsohn

Daniel Dezeuze, Untitled, 1981, acrylic on gauze cut-out, 22-1/2” x 18-1/4”
Daniel Dezeuze, Untitled, 1981, acrylic on gauze cut-out, 22-1/2” x 18-1/4”

In the intriguing exhibition, “Framing the Stretcher: Adventures and Misadventures of an Idea”, the curator Gwenaël Kerlidou has assembled pieces by a variety of European and American artists that use the painting stretcher as an independent, visible element. In thirteen works by eleven artists, this show traces how artists have deconstructed the received form of the stretched canvas, exposing and transfiguring its constituent parts. In the process they have reconceived painting itself, as both a physical presence in the world and a mysterious medium of shared awareness.

Kerlidou writes in an essay for the exhibition that he sees in this work, “the stretcher as a formal device on equal footing with the painted surface.” Not only does the stretcher become a self-sufficient entity, but the support for painting undergoes a promiscuous metamorphosis into netting, transparent film, translucent plastic, and other materials. The result is both a questioning of the viability of the painted image, and a transformation of painting that opens it up to new expressive possibilities.

The curator sees this tendency as a process in time that has among its origins the Supports/Surfaces movement in France in the 1960s whose artists took the elements of painting and created work that was without precedent, materially and conceptually. In the exhibition, the earliest work by two French artists represent this movement: Christian Bonnefoi’s hazy gestures in black graphite and gray acrylic floating on stretched gauze, from 1981, and Daniel Dezeuze’s irregular teardrop of gauze, whose zones of charcoal and green zones are pierced by a hexagonal opening, from 1979. 

Alexi Worth, Yellow Leaf, 2022, mixed media on mesh, 36" x 27". Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, NY
Alexi Worth, Yellow Leaf, 2022, mixed media on mesh, 36″ x 27″. Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, NY

In the exhibition’s opening sequence, these works find kindred spirits in works by Pierre Louaver (1954-2019), architectonic painted cut-outs suspended on polyester and plexiglass, and Alexi Worth’s painting of fingers reaching for a yellow, mottled leaf, rendered in pigment on layers of mesh.

In the gallery’s larger space, the full range of novel stretcher/support possibilities become apparent. And we see how contemporary artists combine a deconstructive energy with minimalist, optical, and imagistic impulses. 

Max Estenger, Black See-Through Painting, 1990, clear vinyl on wood, acrylic on canvas, 40" x 40"
Max Estenger, Black See-Through Painting, 1990, clear vinyl on wood, acrylic on canvas, 40″ x 40″

On the minimal end of the exhibition’s spectrum is Max Estenger’s painting with its sculptural evocation of stretcher bars in wood. Replete with clear vinyl stretched over it, and insets of small canvases painted black, it recalls the deadpan meta-objects of Richard Artschwager. Heather Hutchison’s two box-like paintings both have open faces of translucent color made with layered plexiglass, pigment, and beeswax. The works’ structure is like a theater proscenium, enveloped by a scrim that is lit to evoke the effulgent light of the natural world.

Heather Hutchison, Camp Fire, 2019, Plexiglas, birch, beeswax, pigment, tape, 8-3/8" x 27-7/8" x 3-3/4"
Heather Hutchison, Camp Fire, 2019, Plexiglas, birch, beeswax, pigment, tape, 8-3/8″ x 27-7/8″ x 3-3/4″
Mark Dagley, Untitled, 1991, oil, acrylic, polymer resin on canvas, steel, wood construction, 80" x 60” x 2-1/2”
Mark Dagley, Untitled, 1991, oil, acrylic, polymer resin on canvas, steel, wood construction, 80″ x 60” x 2-1/2”

The emotionally fraught notion of exposing the anatomy of a painting, with its skin stripped from the skeleton of the stretcher is embodied in two works. Mark Dagley’s turbulent atmosphere of painterly gestures in pink, black, and gray are on a canvas support that abruptly ends in one corner, revealing the bare reality of the stretcher bar, chicken wire, and the wall behind it. Fabian Marcaccio similarly has an exposed corner of a 3D printed stretcher that has yet to be overtaken by a multi-colored profusion of organic growth that reads as nature’s revenge on exhausted culture.

In the work of Laurence Grave, a canvas turned to the wall and then painted in low saturation colors on the reverse side suggests both refusal and renunciation, and a declaration of artistic and personal independence. Similarly charged with contained yet erupting feeling is Chris Watts’s painting with raw clouds of black and blue-purple on transparent, resin coated mesh.

Mike Cloud, Spade, 2018-19, oil on canvas with mixed media, 42” x 16”. Courtesy of Thomas Erben Gallery, NY
Mike Cloud, Spade, 2018-19, oil on canvas with mixed media, 42” x 16”. Courtesy of Thomas Erben Gallery, NY

Mike Cloud’s triangle of stretcher bars – partially broken apart – hold within them three agitated passages of painting in impasto. The whole work has a sense of emotional extremity, with two dog leashes that hang from the bars, upon which is inscribed a link to a website that recounts the suicide in 2018 of the fashion designer Kate Spade.

The exhibition’s relatively modest scope suggests much larger possibilities for exploring the art of the past decades through its historical lens. In his essay, Kerlidou points to European artists to consider in this light, including Lucio Fontana, Carla Acardi, and Imi Knoebel, and others who were discovering, as he writes, “a sort of ‘zero-degree’ approach to painting”. American artists who relate to this radical reexamination of the physical means and psychic ends of painting might include artists as varied as Robert Rauschenberg, Alan Shields, Steven Parrino, Meg Lipke, and many others.

Framing the Stretcher: Adventures and Misadventures of an Idea: October 12-30, 2022 at Mizuma & Kips Gallery, 324 Grand Street, New York, NY