“Town: The Muscle Show” at Christopher Cutts Gallery in Toronto is a display of Harold Town flexing his own creative muscle in the closing decade of his life. I admit that I couldn’t suppress a smile at his zesty full throttle tackle of a subject that was not “in” or popular in any refined, cultural sense. His building up to this painterly leap is revealed in a statement that he made in the late ‘70s, “It’s time for me to become unpopular again.” Predictably, the works were disparaged as trivial by the art establishment.
Town stuck to his guns, insisting they should be included in his 1986 retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario. As painting subject, his musclemen paintings here have proven resilient, being also prescient. Bodybuilding itself at that time underwent a rehabilitation from the freakish to a somewhat respectable arm of the physical fitness movement that took off in the 1980s. The acknowledged catalyst seems to have been the 1977 bodybuilding documentary, “Pumping Iron,” that introduced Arnold Schwarzenegger to popular culture. Shelley Town cites “Pumping Iron” as an inspiration of her father for the Muscle paintings. The artist would subsequently go on to collect 1970s muscle magazines.
A liberation from the constraint of “taste” fuelled a sense of the heroic in Town’s “Muscle Man” series of paintings, that included an occasional “Muscle Woman.” The artist’s “Muscle Man #1” stands out as a gesture of defiance, featuring a subject with flexed bicep and clenched fist raised high. Town dated the work April 1, 1981 as perhaps a sucker punch to his critics, as if to say, “Plenty of time for history to sort out where the joke lands.”
Apart from the anomaly of bodybuilders as subject, Town’s “Muscle Men” paintings possess an exuberance independent of their images. Their allusion to the landscape is clear in their unshackled freedom with brush, color and form. Similarly to the artist’s 1970s “Snap” series of paintings, “The Muscle Show” is a prime example of a Harold Town career shift on steroids, energized here by a supporting tactic, “pumping irony.”
Harold Town: The Muscle Show (October 15 – November 19, 2022) at Christopher Cutts Gallery, 21 Morrow Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M6R 2H9 Phone: 1-416-532-5566 Email: email@example.com
(New York, NY) In a New York art world that has long favored male artists, Francine Tint has always been an unabashedly female abstract expressionist painter. Once ushered into this Cedar Tavern boys’ club by the curator and art writer Clement Greenberg, Tint has held her own ever since. Her immersive painting style was not just about fierce focus and pure energy but also physical prowess as she dons fisherman-style rain gear to throw paint around freely, using large house painting brushes to create a maelstrom of paint, pigment and passion.
Tint’s most recent work in the solo exhibition Life in Action at TheNational Arts Club (November 7 – December 2, 2022), is a departure from her well-known bold surfaces and powerfully deep canvases to focus instead on shimmering color and effervescent light. In Pink Pearls, Tint’s gestural swirls of warm white paint dance across raw canvas acting at once as shape and form. The iridescent paints shift from lightest pearlescent lights to darker rainbow hues that compel the viewer to move back and forth in space to fully experience and encompass the light changes. Strawberry Fields reaches for bold greens and luscious pink madders that circle one another on the bare cotton canvas. A virtuoso drawn charcoal line guides and accelerates the viewer’s gaze, preventing it from resting too long in a visual stanza or traveling too far down a vortex.
Fallopian forms abound shaped by bold brushwork that describe both void and form. There is a constant balance but never a stasis as Tint rocks steadily from one end of the canvas to the other ,reaching out in all directions, embracing space and being and leading the way to the sheer pleasure of vision and the divinity of true light. In the painting, WomanSoul , Tint introduces mesh fabric elements that undulate softly with the alizarin pink brushwork. Flecked with touches of ochre, the painting presents an aquatic suspension of time and the comfort of open, embracing light.
If there is a common thread in all of Tint’s 50 year career as a painter, this would be found in her masterful ability to weave space. Moving from left to right, top to bottom, Francine Tint allows forms to undulate from front to back, and again from in to out. Whether she is building space or flying free across raw canvas, Francine Tint harnesses a powerful life force that embraces and channels the power of paint and the grace of the human spirit.
Francine Tint: Life in Action (November 7 – December 2, 2022) at The National Arts Club, Gramercy Park, New York City, NY
Ginette Legaré’s “Supply Chains” exhibition at Birch Contemporary in Toronto speaks to the moment, a time when the links to the network of things necessary or desirable to our lives are showing strain. Their pain has arrived in the form of higher prices for fuel and food, and frequently an empty shelf – the canary in the coal mine. Legaré’s “Hardwired” wall sculpture personifies want at its extreme, a skeletal Dickensian Oliver with an empty begging bowl who pleads, “Please sir, I want some more!”
Answering to any crimes associated with breaks in the supply chain may be educed from the artist’s “Lineup,” a sculpture that commands an entire wall. The viewer is invited as detective to ferret out the usual suspects from this motley crew of 21 danglers. The innocent one might be the lightbulb in the very top center of the lineup, its sole felony being one of omission, the poverty of illumination. It brought to mind Picasso’s “Guernica” with its exploding eye, similarly positioned to Legaré’s lightbulb. A further analysis of the eye and its perceptive properties is the artist’s “Le compas dans l’œil,” mounted on the wall of the gallery’s overflow office space. We accept “Guernica” as potent protest art against the heinous barbarism of war, with the understanding that an economic war may equally unleash untold global miseries through crippling disruptions in supply chains.
Legaré’s floor sculpture “Urban Strands” is reminiscent of a Rube Goldberg machine, which describes a chain-reaction contraption made to perform a simple task in a complicated way. In any case, “Urban Strands” seems to be a mash-up of the supply chain logistics from conveyor belt, packaging, shipping container, to shelf and display, equipped with a wire-frame that may have once held a mirror. The last item may be a bid to the viewer for a moment of reflection on the object’s wonder, as the consumer is simultaneously head and tail of this chain, being the ox that grinds the grain and also one who devours it.
Suspended from the ceiling of the gallery positioned to roughly its center was the wire sculpture “Upheld.” Sweeping upward above the walls of the show space gave it the properties of a tornado, as if harnessing into a funnel the charge emitted by the works, particularly from the densely-packed “Lineup” piece. If something purely visual could emit audio, this work might be likened to a “wall of sound,” something record producer Phil Spector achieved famously in pop music. Legaré’s “Lineup” as an LP has its A and B side of 20 works in grooves simulated by the suspended wires, each side evenly divided by the mute lightbulb.
Ginette Legaré’s “Supply Chains” exhibition is a patiently assembled body of primarily wire objects that have undergone a kind of excavation by the artist as found remains of a still-living civilization, their skins having sloughed to reveal something essential and new in the articulation of a language. The keys to its translation involves a mixing and matching the wire letters of the artist’s alphabet with our own experience as a way of “sounding out” the material world around us. It is through this process that Legaré’s lightbulb illuminates.
“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 (www.garageartcenter.org) (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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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..
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.
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.
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