Classical music and contemporary jazz is wound tightly into every thread of the weave of Mike Hansen’s “Spot-o-fi” installation of watercolours, canvases, and plaster sculptures at Lonsdale Gallery in Toronto. Scan the QR code on the exhibition labels, and hear the music that gave life to the artist’s visual output. Yet, there is no necessary chain here that binds one to the other. Hansen admits that his painterly output amounts to a critique on abstract expressionism and its latter day emotional hangover, a purely visual art conversation between modernism and its post-painterly derivations. Consequently, the “Spot-o-fi” visual wall art stands alone against the welter of Hansen’s “wall of sound” references.
If Hansen has a go at abstract expressionism’s watered down derivatives, he also manages to save some powder for the music streaming platforms of our day. His exhibition title, “Spot-o-fi” is a dig at the prevalent algorithms, encouraging a type of lazy listening that tend ultimately to denigrate the sonic masterpieces he references to background noise.
No better example of a modernist painter steeped in music, who succeeded in as tight a threading of sound and image as anyone, was of course, Paul Klee. The 2008 “Melody and Rhythm” exhibition at Museum der Moderne in Salzburg, Austria was a tribute to the Swiss artist’s uncanny ability to evoke “sound composition” from colour, line, and texture.
I make the Klee reference since the painted forms of Hansen’s four-panel “A Love Supreme (Jazz Series)”, for instance, a tribute to Coltrane’s opus, draw no obvious parallel to the music that may have inspired them. Brightly coloured, amorphic cutout shapes that waft and melt in airy layers, possess a graphic life independent of sound – unless of course, a conscious inference is made to connect them. The positive for Hansen plays to the materially visual art in the exhibition, and that the gloss-candied surfaces of his sculpture production appear good enough to eat, can’t be held against the artist.
This fall in New York, the work of sculptor Sophia Vari (1940-2023) is the focus of a retrospective exhibition in Chelsea, and an installation of twelve large-scale sculptures on Park Avenue. Together they give us a picture of this artist’s development, and its culmination in work created from 1997-2011.
In the exhibition at the Nohra Haime Gallery, the earliest pieces, from the 1980’s, are flowing, rounded depictions of small figures. These works anticipate the abstract works that followed through the 1980s – intriguing, beautiful sculptures whose curved forms intertwine, suggesting organic growth. The mythological titles of works evoke the birthplace of the artist in Attica, Greece. A prime example is CENTAURE ELEVANT DEIDAMIE [Centaur Kidnapping Deidame], with its golden, sensuous bulges suggesting the struggle of Deidame, (also known as Hippodamia, “tamer of horses”) with one of the centaurs who attacked her bridal party, attempting her abduction and rape.
In the 1990’s Vari’s work incorporated a new set of influences. There was an emphasis on intersecting planar structures that seem like a hybrid of the organic and the mechanical. They suggest the artist’s absorbing the examples of both Cubism and the Olmec culture of ancient Mexico, whose art included massive heads sculpted in stone. FORMES DU SILENCE [Forms of Silence] combines soft-edged geometry with curving shapes that suggest plant or animal life.
From the earlier compact works, Vari progressed to sculptures that stood vertically, suggesting abstract figural movement, and a winding, knotted energy. Polychromed planes, evident in the previous pieces, become defining characteristics here, lending a kind of painterly verve to these resolutely sculptural works. The presence of color and strong form are reflected in the collages from the 1990s through the 2000s, with their canted, rectilinear elements in paper and cardboard, enhanced by trompe l’oeil shadows in charcoal.
The twelve sculptures installed on the mall on Park Avenue from 53rd to 62nd Streets represent a quantum leap in Vari’s work, both in scale and artistic ambition. Tragically, the artist died just three days before the installation was completed. The work is presented by the Nohra Haime Gallery in collaboration with The Sculpture Committee of The Fund for Park Avenue and the NYC Parks’ Art in the Parks program. This suite of sculptures arrives in New York after having been shown in cities across the world including Paris, Rome, London, Beijing, Athens, Cartagena, and Geneva.
These are muscular, fully embodied works, reductive and staunchly modernist in their visual language of twisting, arced cubic elements. There are echoes of the rigors of Cubism and Constructivism, but a playfulness is at work here too. The sculptures are full of movement and compacted energy, and often suggest human conundrums or even individual personages. The bronze has a black patina, and selected planes are painted, usually in white, but at times red or yellow. The effect is strongly graphic, accenting the choreography of striding, reaching, and locking together.
The sculptures range in emotion from jaunty, to ominous, to satirical, all expressed abstractly. In the piece Point immobile [Still Point], the moment of equilibrium is reached, but paradoxically not by the reconciling of opposites. Rather, like for warring lovers, the quietude begins when the forms are so tightly bound that no further struggle is possible.
The sculpture Les serpentes de la guerre [The Serpents of War] features sinuous, vertical tentacles whose melding and separating are emphasized by long, white planes that contrast with the black, snaking curves. The planes end in two circular “heads” which hold a single white sphere, a form which Vari repeats, seemingly connoting a node of consciousness embedded in the physicality of form.
L’Homme (The Man), which like many of the sculptures is over ten feet tall, conveys the presence of a figure all wrapped up in himself, a monument to his self-possessed identity. His blindness to his pretention to power is signaled by the two tiny eyes in his massive cockscomb head, one a protruding orb, the other an unseeing concave space.
Sophia Vari: A Retrospective at the Nohra Haime Gallery, August 7 to September 30, 2023 and Sophia Vari On Park Avenue: A Tribute, Twelve Monumental Sculptures on Park Avenue, 62nd to 53rd St., New York, May 20 to November 5, 2023
By its nature, painting is a deceptive art; it seeks to present three dimensions with only two spatial planes. The perceptual shifts between these two and three dimensions create the optical illusion which in turn animates visual art. Two artists, Jenne Currie and Tracy Phillips present their paintings at the Associazione Culturale Castello 780 gallery venue in Venice, Italy. Although Currie works with collaged, sculptural shapes and Phillips paints nuanced, luminous forms, both artists confront the puzzle of the third dimension with comparable determination.
Jenne Currie’s paintings balance sculptural space against the limits of the flat substrate. The shadows made by the suspended forms are influenced by the shifting ambient light. These ever-changing silhouettes allow the passage of time and its accompanying penumbra to serve as painterly components alongside with her pigments and mediums. The artworks all share an intense musicality as they collectively invoke the rhythm of dance, the convergent harmonies of sound and the suggested contours of instruments. The restricted palette and exuberant forms make for paintings that demand multiple viewings to determine the constantly shifting space.
In contrast, Tracy Phillips’ complex and vibrant oil paintings straddle a universe that sways between within and without. Naturalistic light effects illuminate Intricate passageways while chromatic configurations balance on the cusp of the known and unknowable. The sensation is of an oneiric world originating somewhere deep inside the viewer and traversing beyond the self into more obscure realms populated by sensations. There is a familiarity with some edges and textures: a feather, a velvet cloth, a jewel or a shell; however, on closer inspection, recognition rapidly melts away and the viewer is left with visual memories. In Phillips’ hallucinogenic environment, we see the possibilities of an alternate biology that is neither inside of us nor outside but rather in the realm of the senses.
With paint and wood, Jenne Currie and Tracy Phillips unite as they harness the power of an intuited third dimension: Currie, by forging the forms and shadows of her sculptured paintings and Phillips, with intricate brushwork that animates fantastical worlds. Together, these painters make dynamic paintings that invite space and being.
Jenne Currie + Tracy Phillips. Castello Spaces, Castello 780 Gallery, Fondamenta San Giuseppe, Sestiere Castello 780, 30122 Venice, VE Italy. Gallery Hours: Thurs – Sun 3-7pm or by appointment Exhibition through September 10, 2023
Self: Portraits + Places is a three-woman exhibition of paintings recently at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts in Woodstock, N.Y. The artists in this exhibit, Brenda Goodman, Julie Heffernan, and Elisa Jensen, consider the myriad senses of being within the confines of the painted portrait.
For Brenda Goodman, the notion of Self is mirrored by the unflinching gaze of the canvas as the artist paints herself naked and standing alone in her studio. These artworks predate the abstract paintings she is now known for yet underline the very personal foundation of all her work. In these Self Portraits in the Studio, the crushing space evokes a loneliness and vulnerability that is almost unbearable as haunted masked figures surround a terrorized woman (No. 1) while other paintings feature the artist gazing at herself or at the viewer in clothed curiosity (No.5).
Julie Heffernan weaves a different version of selfhood from the chaotic skeins of dreams and visions. The fluidity of the female form merges with the botany of the natural world, presenting an allegorical tableau vivant. In Self Portrait as the Mad Queen, the subject possesses a strength that controls telluric currents while funneling a white-hot intensity that can bend destiny. All of Heffernan’s paintings merge artifice with nature ; what is supposed to be wild and savage (the woodlands) are intricately ordered while the protagonists present as inscrutable actors posing as timeless archetypes.
Elisa Jensen turns away from both figure and fantasy as she places the Self squarely in the geography of light and object. Her subject matter is the serenity of interior space and the intimate connection to the forms that shape our world. Jensen depicts humble domestic objects and phenomena, such as a beam of light through a window, as a stage setting for an internal drama. Her dark interiors parallel the depths of the mind’s eye while the views out the windows become the portals that link the inside experience to the vast world beyond.
As three Fates, these artists present separate visions of Selfhood as an embodied physical emotion, a mystical mythology, or a subject-less experience bound by the very rooms we inhabit. These intangible self-portraits eclipse the subject in meaning as the paintings in SELF: Portraits + Places capture the paradox of individuality and the reality of a universal human experience.
Carol Bruns’s work first caught my attention in 2018 at SRO gallery in Crown Heights. Her exhibition showcased a mix of sculpture and works on paper. Her figurative sculptures conveyed the presence of human bodies in space, twisting, straining to emerge from their own materiality. Despite the rough construction and exaggerated physicality of those figures, one could still discern vestiges of humanist dynamics or perhaps a loose tether to drawing or sculpting directly from a nude model.
In her new, expansive show at White Columns, Bruns has departed entirely from the figurative tradition and embraced a kind of archaic, mythic approach. The gallery is filled with oversized masks, slender stacked totems, and distorted effigies. While these figures and heads still seem to struggle to emerge from the process of their making, once emerged they say less about the figure and more about the psyche.
As is true for many sculptors, materiality and process cannot be taken for granted, and Bruns has developed a unique process over several years. Her approach produces a papier mâché-like material that is thinner, lighter, and more malleable. It’s flexible enough for her to incorporate other materials such as hair, fibers, plant matter, and Styrofoam. The pieces are predominately painted in monochrome black or white, adding to their stark, confrontational presence while unifying the disparate elements. The final effect is disarmingly fresh, unpretentious, and incredibly present.
A cursory viewing evokes the art of West Africa, Polynesia and other pre-industrial cultures, including archaic Greece. While those connections to the art of past are clear, these pieces go beyond homage or derivation, for the clear influence of psychology and contemporary ideas about the self that are immanent in the work. Bruns cites early twentieth century modernists as an inspiration, in addition to the original, unnamed artists that inspired them, but her work is firmly rooted in the twenty-first century.
Every artist begins with intentions, and for Bruns I suspect the intention is to evoke mythos, to mine the archetypal psyche, to connect with the root forces and human experience that unites us simultaneously to pre-industrial, tribal artists as well as the early twentieth century modernists who referenced them. But, despite all intentions, none of us can help but be mediums for the zeitgeist, and the same is true for Bruns, whose work channels our contemporary state of being, clinging to individuality, polluted by industrialization, and disenfranchised by the post-industrial economy.
Consider Archaic Man, whose title and direct advancing aspect forces us to consider it relative to the Greek Kouros. We can take this to be a representation of a God in human form but unlike the ancient ones, this is one infiltrated by industrial elements. The classic forward stride of the Kouros is replaced by found objects stacked to an absurd approximation of an articulate leg, rendering a figure that one would more likely associate with having survived a terrible accident than a God descending from Mount Olympus.
Or Seeing in the Dark, which speaks to subjective, interior truth dissociated from shared sensory perception. Here’s a figure that is so totally inwardly focused that their sensory organs have essentially been swallowed back into the head, a totally modern idea that assigns priority to individual, subjective experience over shared truth.
The White Columns’ exhibition alternates free-standing totems, wall-hung objects, and pedestal-mounted head-like figures. This installation approach emphasizes variety and contrast among Bruns’s work and highlights subtleties among the pieces. This enables us to read the emotional and mental states depicted: Faces that appear crushed, silenced, or occluded, reduced to a mere gash for a mouth or two small holes for eyes. In these pieces the subject is always the interior self while the form is the distorted, tortured body.
Bruns selectively employs a non-transformative approach to materials, often incorporating recognizable found objects like Styrofoam packing into her work. This suggests a fluid connection between cultural vocabularies and expectations. Unlike her earlier work that maintained ties to traditional representation of the human body, Bruns’s new creations invest in the ability of myth and cultic power to transform materials as opposed to representation. Bruns is tapping into the realm of expression that flirts with primordial and introspective emotional states that don’t easily translate into language, evoking at once a sense of ancient mysticism, ritualistic power and contemporary psychology. Her pieces resonate with traditional objects from the distant past, yet they remain palpably contemporary and enigmatic.
Carol Bruns’s exhibition at White Columns serves as an invitation to explore the intersection of ancient symbolism with contemporary concepts of self. Her pieces remind us of the enduring potency of myth and ritual, while mining the contradictions of the contemporary psyche.
Carol Bruns at White Columns from July 13 – August 26, 2023. White Columns, 91 Horatio Street, New York, NY 10014. Tuesday–Saturday, 11AM–6 PM.