It has been nearly 15 years since dArt magazine has stuck its digital fingers into the design and look of its online presence. It’s hardly late-breaking news that the torrent of information flowing through our devices is ever-massing. Its invasive waves lap freely into our private and public spaces. Much to the annoyance of any attendant host, a popular course at restaurant and dinner parties is digital streamfeed. True, the yen of it does offer a nourishment of a kind, but generally it comes at a social price, where its consumer is consumed in return. Yet, therein lies its power, a peculiar kind of omniscience – a social network that alternately connects and divides.
As co-publisher of the Toronto-focused publication artoronto.ca, along with dArt editorial contributor Emese Krunák-Hajagos, and Gallery 1313 director Phil Anderson, we have come to value the flexibility of Word Press as a platform. My aim has not been to reinvent the digital wheel, but rather seek the most efficient way to upload content. As it has been with the print version of dArt from the outset, content ought to trump clever design licks. This is not to say that this particular online incarnation is carved in stone. As the old modernist maxim averred, “form follows function.” dArt online will have to prove itself by living up to the old hackneyed credo.
D. Dominick Lombardi suggests that: “dArt International magazine’s on-line component will allow our practicing artist/writers to better cover more exhibitions without losing our ability to express our thoughts not just on the big blockbuster shows, but to continue to embrace the out-of-the-way towns and cities that have vital and thriving art scenes. Since most of our contributors are practicing professional artists, they tend to have a far different way of looking at art critically than someone who hasn’t picked up a brush, chisel or piece of charcoal since college. We know what it takes to go from inspiration, through the process of numerous challenges and decisions to the creation of something that can expose our deepest thoughts and fears. Artists put it all out there, and we know and appreciate what it takes to make the plunge into the studio and out into the public arena.”
Anyone who is an attentive reader of the Editorial Contributors column of dArt will readily learn that dArt’s U.S. editor, D. Dominick Lombardi is a serial curator. Here is a quote lifted straight from the said column “Since 1978, Lombardi has curated over 100 exhibitions in a variety of museums and galleries.” Do the math and we get a number averaging nearly three shows a year. At first glance, that may not seem like a lot – but every year for four straight decades – please! Where do you get the energy? Since no one seems able to curb Lombardi’s curating enthusiasm, we asked him to outline his ongoing curatorial projects. Here is the plan as stated in his own words:
“The group exhibition I have opening this May at the Morean Arts Center in St Petersburg, Florida, Water Over the Bridge, is the third of three shows that look at how the contemporary artist is responding to the landscape, the environment and climate change. The first show, Pattern Power, Chaos and Quiet, opened this past February at the Housatonic Museum of Art in Bridgeport, CT. The second, Natural Impact, was held at the Arsenal Gallery in New York City from March 8th through April 26th.
Coming up this spring and fall is an exhibition I am curating for Lichtundfire, which is located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. That exhibition, Parallel Fields, will show how three artists extrapolate their thoughts and observations, building a very personal iconography that nicely balance mystery with clarity. In September I will have the second version of Where to Draw the Line, a show that had its first installment at the Walter Wickiser Gallery in Chelsea from March 31st to April 25th. This second show will be held at OneWay Gallery in Narragansett, Rhode Island, and will feature the work of thirteen artists including four from the gallery’s current roster. That one opens September 14th. Then it’s out to Brooklyn for a photo-based exhibition at SRO gallery where I will select works that utilize photography in some way, while challenging the boundaries of what one would expect to see when considering the photographic image. The title of this group exhibition is pending.”
Musée national des beaux-art du Québec, Québec City, Québec, October 12, 2018 – January 7, 2018 Art Gallery Ontario, Toronto, Ontario, February 18 – May 6, 2018
by Emese Krunák-Hajagos
On my way to this exhibition I was thinking of Joan Mitchell and Jean-Paul Riopelle as a Golden Couple of a Golden Age. The Golden Age is true. Paris still had its charm and New York was rising into its future glory. Riopelle was a golden boy, irresistible and charming with his expensive race cars – including Bugattis – boats, properties and artistic success. Mitchell was a very confident person, athletic and not shy about her body at all. Looking at photographs with her lovers we can’t miss seeing the sexual magnetism radiating from her. It was a good match in many ways, but they were everything but a golden couple.
Both Riopelle and Mitchell came from middle-class backgrounds, with Mitchell from Chicago, Riopelle from Montreal. Riopelle exhibited with Les Automatistes in Montreal in 1946 and signed the manifesto Refus global, written by Borduas in August 1948, gathering a group of abstract painters who wanted to break free from the strict Catholicism of Quebecois life. After WWII artists came to Paris longing for a bohemian life and Andre Breton ruled like a pope, surrounded by a large group of painters and writers. Riopelle met him in 1947 but remained independent, never associating himself with any group. His circle of friends in Paris included Sam Francis, Samuel Beckett and many more of the geniuses of that era.
The artists of the first generation of Abstract Expressionism in New York, like Willem Kooning, Hans Hofman, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock and the poet Frank O’Hara among others, created an important movement and a new centre of visual art started to build up around them. The New York art world in the early 1950s was dominated by men but Mitchell, who spoke frankly, aggressively and emphasized that her gender was not important, but being a painter was, established her significance among them.
When Mitchell and Riopelle met in Paris in 1954, he was already a well-known and successful artist, while Mitchell was just exploring Paris on a grant. They remembered differently about the place they first met but their 25-year relationship started with Riopelle showing up at Mitchell’s studio with “a huge bouquet of rolled canvases” as curator Michel Martin writes. Mitchell divided her time between New York and Paris from then on.
When she was gone, Riopelle missed her. When he lacked inspiration in oil, he turned to gouache and tried to follow the transparency and unique textural effect of Mitchell’s work. In a letter in 1956, he confesses to adopting her materials and technique: “I’m happier because ultimately (my work) resemble(s) your painting, my love.” Sans titre (La Fontaine) (1957) also reveals the complex bonds between them. Mitchell discreetly wrote in the upper left-hand margin of the painting “Le Laboureur et ses enfants, La Fontaine!!” referring to the well-known fable but also to Labours sous la neige, a work that Riopelle had recently produced. Mitchell kept the painting for a long time, as a message of affection for Riopelle. Riopelle stated, “Friendship is a special kind of solitude, a solitude split in two.” Their lifestyle was anything but lonely. They socialized a lot, people visited and stayed in their studios and they went out dining and drinking all night with friends.
The AGO’s exhibition follows a dual chronology focusing on points of mutual influence. As Martin says, “these two sensitive and extremely powerful personalities could not have evolved without being affected by the singular context of their relationship as it developed over the years.” Sometimes the artistic influence is unmistakable as in the pair of small-scale gouache on paper works (Mitchell: Untitled, 1958 and Riopelle: Gitksan, 1959) that share the same palette and gestural approach.
They were abstract painters but critics claim that both Mitchell and Riopelle got their inspiration from nature. Mitchell disagreed. She said: “I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me, and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed. I prefer to leave nature where it is, it is beautiful enough, I wish not to improve nature, I could certainly never mirror nature. I would more likely to paint what it leaves with me.” She was not interested in reproducing nature but in “painting the feeling of the space.” Riopelle stated in an interview, “Nothing abstract, nothing figurative. My most abstract paintings, according to some, are for me the most figurative, in the true sense of the word. Abstract: “abstraction,” “to abstract” “to derive from” … My approach is the exact opposite. I don’t take anything from Nature I move into Nature.” Mitchell and Riopelle shared the same vision, and their works were both infused by the powerful evocation of nature.
In 1954-55 Riopelle painted a series inspired by the Austrian Alps. Saint-Anthon (1954) is a bird’s eye view of the snow-covered peaks. The abstract landscape is built upon a large white background, unusual in Riopelle’s palette, interrupted by dark knife painting directly from the tube to give texture, and modified by occasional red and blue calligraphy. Mitchell’s Untitled (1955) uses similar colors. She catches a memory image and depicts it in fluid translucent strokes, with the presence of color at its center: a patch of dripping light-rinsed and storm-tossed blues skimming across viscous grey whites. It seems to be coalescing into the shape of a tree – Mitchell talked about mentally losing herself in trees – as the painter subverts the traditional relationship between figure and ground, never allowing the image to come together as a tree. Throughout her career, this tension remains inherent in ambiguous figure-ground relationships.
Energy and power radiates from Mitchell’s brushstrokes in Piano mechanique (1958). While the white background is present, bright colored lines and marks move in every direction, instead of a centralized composition, following the energy of the artist’s hand. She also changes her vertical canvas for a horizontal one, Riopelle’s preferred format. Riopelle also physically engaged in his works, as we can see in Landing (1958). He covers the entire surface with layers upon layers of strong colored paint, as he throws himself into the painting, sculpting the surface of the canvas until the paint seems to overflow – then he uses a knife to give texture to the paint and finishes it with a gloss to direct the light. He prefers to finish a canvas in one stretch, sometimes working 12 hours straight; as he said, “when I hesitate I do not paint, when I paint I do not hesitate.” Mitchell, on the other hand, made many sketches before painting.
The relationship between Mitchell and Riopelle was very rich, combining all the elements of life and art. They talked about art, their experiments, accomplishments and successes, their struggles and their ecstasy – their state of mind and their artistic practise. That must have been a wonderful journey for two such great artists. There was love too, both physical and intellectual. Throughout their journey together they crossed into each other’s territory, friendly, gently and lovingly but also screaming with anger. They were annoyed by unfulfilled promises, and not getting what they desired out of the relationship. Mitchell’s hope for a fully shared life seemed to be close to realization when they moved into a studio in Frénicourt, Paris in 1958 but it didn’t work out. Even after Riopelle’s divorce from his wife in 1962, the relationship between Mitchell and him remained turbulent and they both had many lovers on the side. Mitchell put her unhappiness into a few violent and angry paintings throughout these years.
The early 1960s was a relatively happy period in their life and their styles visibly intertwined. Riopelle got a boat, Serica, as payment from his New York dealer, Pierre Matisse, and they went sailing in the Mediterranean. Their large triptychs, both from 1964, show many similarities. They both build on the color of white, using a symmetrical structure, such that the painting on the left is mirroring the one on the right, so the panels seem to communicate with each other. The left and the right panel of Riopelle’s Large Triptych depict the rocks of the seaside in their whitish greyness with the buildings of the small villages in earthy browns, greens and reds, surrounded by the blue sky and sea as the colors shine in the strong sunlight. The middle panel departs from all reality and abandons strong colors, showing something like a map. Riopelle uses his signature technique so the different layers create a strong texture in which he literally carves the edges of the rocks. Mitchell’s favourite multi-panel format was the horizontal triptych composed of vertical modules. She liked the way the vertical divisions undermined the continued effects of a landscape. Girolata is a good example of this. In front of an atmospheric whitish background patches of mossy greens, dusty silver greens, cerulean blues, violets and all imaginable shades of grey cover the panels in a soft, dance-like movement. Here too, the central piece seems to unify the others into one, more balanced, composition. It feels like the metamorphosis of a landscape but Mitchell said she didn’t want to portray the landscape but to transpose to the canvas the effect of the complex sensation of her memories of the time she spent with Riopelle. When placed face to face on the walls in the AGO, these works illustrate the dialogue that developed between the two artists and compare Mitchell’s poetic and sensual gestures to Riopelle’s more virtuous spatial strokes. It seems that a sense of harmony had been archived.
But it was more likely an illusion. While their careers skyrocketed – Mitchell had her first retrospective in the Whitney Museum (1974), Riopelle became an international artist whose paintings sold for high amounts – the distance between them deepened. Mitchell, using her inheritance after her parents’ death (1969), bought Monet’s property La Tour in Vétheuil, where she settled for the rest of her life. Riopelle built a studio in the Laurentians (1974) and divided his time between France and Quebec where he fished and hunted. They still spent time together but less and less often and their styles no longer show the similarities of the 1950s and 1960s. Mitchell, accompanied by her dogs, enjoyed the solitude of her gardens. She dedicated the diptych, Un jardin pour Audrey, (1974) to her friend Aubrey Hess, who recently passed away. In the left panel, we are guided into a beautiful garden with light pouring in, flurries of blazing gold against a radiant white – a composition that reminds us of Monet, without becoming a still life or a landscape. The right panel juxtaposes the lightness of the left with a heavier composition and a darker palette. Together they seem to depict paradise lost and found, radiant with the love of nature.
The tension between the couple grew and Riopelle called Mitchell “Rosa Malheur” – Rosa Unhappiness. He started to spend more and more time in Canada. Mitchell painted Chasse interdite (Hunting is forbidden) (1973) to let Riopelle know that she doesn’t approve of his hunting trips because it takes him away from her and she misses him. Riopelle embraced Quebec’s vast landscapes with its wildlife, fishing and hunting, depicting First Nations cultures that resonated with him. The title of the painting Micmac (1975) or Mi’kmaq comes from the Indigenous peoples in the Gaspé Peninsula, but in French the word means confusion or disorder. It is a very intriguing work. As the story goes, the artist painted one of the panels then transferred it into a blank canvas. Then he extensively reworked both until they seemed to be different. The left panel has a shining dark area at the top contrasted with a matt white on the right. Darker, warmer colors on the left seemingly oppose the lighter, colder palette of the right. Both panels have hidden crosses (a reminder of Riopelle’s struggle with the Catholic religion) and the elements of the paintings are organized around them. Chaos rules the surfaces with a little bit hope in white light of nothingness at the bottom of the right panel.
In late 1974, when Riopelle stayed longer than usual in Canada, Mitchell visited him and created her Canada series, dominated by disorderly shapes of browns and greys. In Returned (1975) she reduced her palette and used almost geometrical shapes, echoing Riopelle’s tendency for structure. Riopelle in his Iceberg paintings also abandoned his rich color range, until only black and white prevailed (Iceberg No.3, 1977). As he said, “If I dared to paint my series of icebergs in the 1970s, it’s because the color white doesn’t exist in nature. If snow were white, no painter would be able to render it.” As later added, “In the arctic nothing is clear cut, all is not black and white. The sky, though, seems black, really black, and on the ground is not even white snow, there it is ice that is grey and transparent.” The paintings don’t give us any direction in these strange landscapes where white ice rules, distracted by the black calligraphy of cracks and trees under an overwhelmingly black sky. Meanwhile Mitchell, enchanted by nature in her garden, painted single sunflowers, weeds, rain and her favourite linden tree Tilleul (1978) with dramatic intensity.
They saw each other less and less often and when they did, they argued more, until their final separation in 1979. It was a stormy relationship by all accounts. They were both heavy drinkers, Mitchell was an alcoholic and often depressed. When drunk they became abusive, as many of their friends wrote: they were violent, crazy and scary. They were a perfect match, both in the strength of their characters and the quality of their paintings and above all theirs was a great love. The chemistry between them was strong, creating a shining glow of happiness sometimes and deep craters of anger on other occasions. Meanwhile their lives went on, and they both became icons of the art world in their own right. Their interaction can be compared to two stars shining at each other until, at some point, they parted ways, still rising, without outshining each other.
Together and separately, they lived an extraordinary life of extremities – nothing in moderation.
Group Exhibition Curated by Karen Gilbert with Penny Byrne, Kathy Stecko, Claire Curneen, Cathy Lewis and Keun Woo Lee at Jan Kossen Contemporary in New York City
by Christopher Hart Chambers
This exquisite little exhibition of recent, international, narrative sculptures demonstrates the technical virtuosity and wit of the five artists whose works are included. Four are figurative, one implies abstract landscapes.
Directly ahead as one enters the gallery, on the far wall, Penny Byrne’s Operation Falconer and Operation Slipper face us side by side; both standing just over two feet high over their pedestals. They both look at us pertly, coquettishly wearing Victorian hairstyles and outfits, yet their garments are carefully painted in military camouflage patterns and they sport army boots in contrast to their coy countenances. However, each has a prosthetic leg and at least one arm replaced by a hook or, what looks like an electrical plug. They both wear heroic ribbons of valor: an obvious jab at the impropriety of social graces and gallantry disguising the ill gotten gains of their social classes. To the left is a bobble headed Donald T dressed up in stars and stripes like the spirit of ’76, while on the other side is a quintet of vintage Dutch porcelain figurines on a plate that look like they have chili peppers for scarves on.
The gallery consists of two fairly small show rooms and an office area (I think there is a bit of storage space tucked away somewhere too). The largest sculptures on display here are by Cathy Lewis. The are made from shards of white porcelain crockery. Two prepubescent figures, a girl and a boy, stand almost four feet tall; next to one another. Strange little curls emanate from their foreheads quizzically (which are actually teacup handles). They are extraordinarily well made and lifelike, formed in accurate simulacrum anatomically, except shattered, fragmented – like fragile elfin jigsaw effigies.
Kathy Stecko’s anthropomorphic figurines have weird doggy or rabbit heads on humanoid bodies with hunched shoulders and attenuated limbs and gobs of glazed color here and there hanging down from a shoulder through hips or pelvis; with oddly existential, vacantly petulant countenances and stances. Other otherworldly creepy aliens have strange ears or antennae. Some of this coterie of etherial, phantasmagorical characters are mounted back against the wall, while a few loiter about on their sinewy legs. Their presentation makes me think of pinned butterflies. The entire exhibition is full of strange pixie-like presences; nymphs and oddly magical creatures that may be winking at one another betwixt the viewers’ gazes, and who knows what they are up to after hours when the gallery’s door are shuttered.
Claire Curneen’s work is completely strange. Ms. Gilbert, the curator, in my presence suddenly decapitated one figure of it’s owl head, revealing the face of a hominid of sorts lurking beneath. Another, matte black stoneware figure of Curneen’s creation has wide sloe eyes and a generally eerie Edvard Munchian face, or perhaps, it’s the artist’s friendly subconscious nemesis – yes, that is a contradictory and oxymoronic description – and that is precisely why this is such an intriguingly different and special exhibition of similar artworks from widely different cultures worldwide. It indicates how we are all similar way down in the recesses and catacombs of our psyches, and how unusual that our curator managed to assemble this group from such disparate origins that are pervaded by comparable tricky impish gnomes engaging in ironic, humorous, and spooky social commentary.
Keun Woo Lee is our landscape artist. This work relates to the rest of the show mostly in terms of material rather than content, being artfully glazed nonfunctional ceramic. I mention “nonfunctional” because utilitarian functionality is brought up in the press release as the primary traditional use of these materials (kiln fired clay, basically), jugs, plates, cups, etcetera – but it is certainly a legitimate medium for fine art; as if anything imaginable isn’t. Lee’s works are small rectangular and square panels of subtly hued blurry horizontal stripes inherently implying landscape and atmosphere: granting an obscure environment for the characters in the rest of this show to inhabit. She also contributes a more abstracted three dimensional piece that might be an anthill type of a catacomb for when all of these spirits transmogrify and crawl in it together at night to get about whatever they do when human beings are not there to observe their activities – that is if any of them are even operating within mankind’s concept of inter dimensional time and space whatsoever.
The Tatsuo Kawaguchi–Beyond Viewing Exhibition at the Kanaz Forest of Creation in Japan
by D. Dominick Lombardi
Kanaz Forest of Creation is an excellent example of an art institution that beautifully and elegantly bridges the gap between art and nature. A must see if you happen to be traveling through the city of Awara in Fukui Prefecture, where you will experience a ‘rebooting of the spirit’ that only the right combination of inspiring creativity and the serenity of an unspoiled forest can produce. There are works here placed in intimate clearings such as Kimio Tsuchiya’s 2005 Hidden Pyramid, a three-sided mound comprised of a variety of materials that is slowly and quietly being reclaimed by nature. You can read this work as a metaphor for any previous civilization that had achieved great wealth and power, only to fall over time to the winds of change. Or, it can be seen as a reminder that no matter how well we build something with steel and concrete, that there is no such thing as permanence when faced with the will of nature. Then there is the fallen tree that was mindfully carved by Shigeo Toya in 2000. Seen as a substantial sculpture left along the sinuous path to the nearby lakes, this delicately shaped object is a constant reminder that anything can be re-imagined, repurposed, resurrected or made anew if only we take the time to open our minds.
The current one-person exhibition at the Kanaz Forest of Creation is Tatsuo Kawaguchi–Beyond Viewing – a show that I found to be profoundly thought provoking and visually stunning. Imagine a room filled with 1,450 small cast-iron containers spread precisely and methodically across three walls and floor of a large windowless room. Relation–Small Darkness of the 1450 Days (2013-2017) is the work of the acclaimed 70-year-old Conceptual Artist Tatsuo Kawaguchi, who sees nature to be much more than what we can observe and understand in our world. His nature is far more expansive, and of the entire universe.
Relation–Small Darkness of the 1450 Days can be taken in a number of ways. We may understand the darkness in each box as collectively representing the dark matter that fills the blackness of the vast spaces in and around our galaxy – a thought made even more precise as we can not directly observe dark matter out there in outer space, or in the absence of light in any of Kawaguchi’s boxes here at the museum.
One might also see each box as containing death represented by the end of light or life but that may be assuming too much. My personal feeling is that we are looking at something that is oddly romantic. That the capturing of the darkness of night when all is quiet and heartbeats become more pronounced is a time when one’s soul is calmed by the release of daytime activities and responsibility. In addition, there is another connection to nature in this room, as the artist has added bamboo sections covered in metal that comprise Darkness in Bamboo (2015).
Darkness in Bamboo is installed on a long white shelf that runs along the one remaining wall of the Relation–Small Darkness of the 1450 Days installation. Darkness in Bamboo is based on the experience of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011, when vast amounts of bamboo washed up on the beach near the artist’s studio. Like the sealed boxes in Relation–Small Darkness of the 1450 Days, the various naturally closed segments of the displaced bamboo forms an air-tight barrier, while its numerous joints inevitably contain darkness. Seeing these sections on Kujukuri-Hama Beach, Kawaguchi presumed the air inside each segment of bamboo had not been contaminated by the fallout from the Fukushima disaster. In this instance, the sealed darkness becomes clean air and, representing by default, a giver of life and not a metaphor for an end or death.
Moving through the museum you will find another profoundly impactful installation titled Star of Light, Star of Darkness, Reversed Universe (2012). From one side of the room visitors will find a number of large, equally sized and framed high-contrast photographs of the nighttime sky suspended from the ceiling. From the opposite side of the room, the back of each photograph becomes visible as a reverse of what is seen from the front side. This ‘negative’ appearance is created when Kawaguchi fills in with pencil, the corresponding light or stars from behind – visible when the print is backlighted becoming semi-transparent.
This action of filling in or cancelling out the light is in keeping with the premise of the Relation–Small Darkness of the 1450 Days and Darkness in Bamboo, however, the playfulness of the approach of hand-coloring in with a pencil the stars gives this installation a sense of the individual as being a part of the universe. To quote Neil deGrasse Tyson: “The atoms of our bodies are traceable to stars that manufactured them in their cores and exploded these enriched ingredients across our galaxy, billions of years ago. For this reason, we are biologically connected to every other living thing in the world. We are chemically connected to all molecules on Earth. And we are atomically connected to all atoms in the universe. We are not figuratively, but literally stardust.”
There are a great number of other incredible works in this exhibition, far too many to list and discuss individually, therefore I urge you to see and experience it first-hand if possible. With that said, I would like to point out a few works that really hit home for me. The first is Relation–From Light to Darkness (1989), which is comprised of two sealed flashlights, one of which looked something like a miniature replica of Statue of Liberty encased in lead. Created in 1989, the concealment of light, and in my mind liberty, speaks volumes about the mindset of far too many individuals, while simultaneously showing how art communicates with individuals colored by what they bring to the conversation.
On a lighter note, it is a great privilege to see some earlier pieces, most notably Work 65-32 (1965) that brought a smile and a sense of mischievousness to the exhibition.
From 1967 there is Interrelation that shows an approach to art making that has tinges of Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism while adding a nod to science, space travel and technology in general.
Finally, there is Existence–Stone or Stones (1974) placed perfectly on an elevated platform just outside the museum walls. In carving a large rock to create two new stones, and being left unfinished, is a piece that will get most thinking about the relationship between nature and creativity, or nature ‘as’ creator. How much of what we see, our vast canyons, our majestic mountains and our endless forests are the ultimate creations by the forces of nature. How one person in Kawaguchi, can remind us of our basic physical, mental and spiritual relationship to nature in a simple and profound way is a joy to behold.
Francine Tint’s solo exhibition at Cavalier Galleries aptly titled Explorations consisted of twelve acrylic-on-canvas gestural abstractions ranging in size from an intimately scaled 25”x 25” to a whopping, in-your-face 52” x 210” work. Most of the art in Explorations, with one exception, was done between 2017 and 2018 and this exhibition showcases Tint’s capabilities of poetic invocation to the hilt. This artist is a senior member of the ab-ex boy’s-club movement and over the years has not relinquished her steady hold of gestural abstraction. Instead she has consistently re-invigorated expressionism with new energy and vitality, as this show demonstrates. There are numbers of surprises in the exhibition and they fall under several categories. One of them is how moodily poetic this artist’s work can be and how charged her visual poetry actually is through Tint’s exploratory surfeit use of a variety of material traces and a comprehensive array of different painterly marks wielded by the painter to suit various internal needs of expression. These gestural marks are generated from a spectrum, ranging from those that are relatively random, mechanical, self-effacing, or constructive to those that are provisionally expressive, eccentric, deliberate or flamboyant. What is more, Tint is apt to combine all these marks at once and sometimes her mark or marks purposefully vacillate equivocally between oppositional poles. A good example of this application of visually expressive polyphony and tonal multi-vocality is Tiger (2017). Here Tint’s dynamic spatial play, engendered by the loose geometry of the tri-partite ordering of the pictorial surface, is enhanced by a persuasive ambiguity. Long, dark sinuous horizontal lines seem to be embedded within languid, opulently levitating, interstitial, ribbon-like brush marks that seem to quaver between front, middle and background positions vis-à-vis the three upright-positioned rectangles.
There has always been a sense of urgency in the way Tint handles her colors and hues that were described a few years back by an observer as “acerbic. ” I think this is a good thing. The irascibility, such as it is, in Tint’s art as part of her style gives her work a decisively pungent quality that obviates false conviviality or sanctimony or sweetness. The poetry that is discharged or deployed in her work is both sweet and sour, inducing a jolie-laide ambience filled with complexity and uncertainties, tinged with what W.B. Yeats would call “terrible beauty.” There is a drama that arises out of all of Francine Tint’s paintings, large or small, and that is the drama of suggesting through her legerdemain of paint handling that there is an animated visual event that is in the process of unfolding in front of your eyes, of unveiling itself. A sense of anticipation clings to her works as a palpable sovereign state of perception assumes ownership of your sensibilities as the participating viewer. Rebirth, 2017, is such a painting that is charged with that energy of an apparition. So is Bloom of Darkness, 2018. These artworks and others offer us a vision of an animated force. John Berger encapsulates this feeling and corresponding sensation in a group of essays entitled The Sense of Sight. He writes, in the chapter On Visibility: “Visibility is a form of growth. Aim: to see the appearance of a thing (even an inanimate thing) as a stage in its growth – or as a stage in a growth of which it is part. To see its visibility as a kind of flowering.” Francine Tint has been painting for so many years now that she is a master at her métier, which is to engage, induce, and seduce the viewer while sustaining a healthy sense of mystery about the sense of sight. Apart from (and as part of) her mark-making, coloristic and compositional acumen she also has a way of working her paintings so that they hold securely within themselves an aura of
authenticity, of original facticity born out of ritual intent. Towards that purpose Francine Tint doesn’t merely make paintings, she makes entities and charges them with vitality. One is immediately attracted to her paintings from far away and from close-up observation. You see different things in her work from variable distances as much of her visual process is imbued with a strategy of accumulation. The additive quality of her canvases results in a growth and intensification of feeling through layering and collaging. This working process is enhanced through Tint’s tendencies of working her colors and gestural strokes by layering of fields of colors, varying their lengths and girth and intensities. Such inventories of lines, marks and gestural strokes are a way of accruing physicality and depth. By getting in close to the weave of her canvases we see how the physicalizing is furthered by her adding of elements underneath the top layer surface of paint: the pearls in Blooms of Darkness (2018), the sand incorporated as texture in Sea Garden (2017), thick splays of paint extending over the edges of Wonky (2012). Explorations at Cavalier let’s us experience Francine Tint’s unique expressive abstractions for what they are: constituting the merging of the intuitive with the intentional, while setting the tone for compositions that are texturally rich, startlingly diverse and poetically resonant.
Michael Zansky at Herron School of Art+Design, Indiana University, Indiana
by Dominque Nahas
At the Herron School of Art + Design Galleries students and faculty at Indiana University were lucky enough to become immersed and enmeshed in the exhibition Deep in the Shallows curated by the galleries’ new director Max Weintraub who has an eye for installation. This remarkable show brings together a series of 2016-17 art works on burnt paper and carved plywood and acrylic produced by the New York based artist Michael Zansky who draws and carves using both hands equally. Eleven of Zansky’s works belonging to his Saturn Series, plywood paintings measuring 16 feet by 12 feet, are showcased at Herron. Also included as part of Deep in the Shallows are Zansky’s burnt-paper artworks from his Flatlands series, each measuring 72”x 52”; there are seven of these. Completing the show are a six works from Zansky’s series of smaller Saturn works made of carved wood and acrylic measuring 40” x 30.”
By any measure Deep in the Shallows is a hard-to-miss, impossible-to-ignore standout event. There is a decidedly provocative aspect to Zansky’s vision that constitutes a type of dare. How big a work can you make that doesn’t lose its vitality by being in a giant exhibition space that threatens to swallow up anything that is put in its way. The vestigial shapes and references to human-bestial objects that the artist conjures up through his mark making stay with you, pressing themselves into your brain like pesky eidetic image-floaters that simply refuse to vacate your mind’s eye. In Zansky’s case his giant-sized wall works, with their billboard scale has undeniable presence. And this presence is made all the more intense due to the works’ bizarre imagery, essentially carved, line-work drawings on a Herculean scale placed against vast, undifferentiated white (read: blank) expanses. This whiteness gives the visual and spatial sensation of an endless extent of space thus amplifying the grotesque conundrums, arcane signs, nearly-hermetic symbols and fantastical creatures that populate it: a giant ear standing upright on a meandering design, an ancient Egyptian half-man/half elephant sprightly hopping over crystalline forms on an upraised dais, a bowing monster-man with corkscrew head and deformed hands, wearing the linen kalasiris, a loose pleated skirt that was the main garment worn by Egyptian men in ancient times. Zansky draws inspiration from a spectrum of historical and artistic sources ranging from ancient Egyptian and Assyrian art, to Piero della Francesco, Francisco de Goya and Vincent van Gogh, to alchemical symbology and symbols drawn from the medieval hermeticism, to perhaps iconology borrowed from the occult wisdom of Renaissance Neo-Platonists and magical cosmology. His uncanny images are pieced together, collage like, and remind me of the odd results that play themselves out after a game of Exquisite Corpse. What are we to make of all of this truly staggering image-play? Zansky’s arcana-filled, surrealistically elliptical, obtuse imagery pertains perhaps, to the unknowable as much as it points to our collective hunger for resolution and certainty through science, reason, faith and art. Apophenia is the tendency to perceive connections and meaning between unrelated things, so perhaps Zansky’s art in Deep in the Shallows is an existential ode to the collective unconscious, to the crazy wisdom of drives or urges driving human imagination and fantasy.
There is an austere grandiosity to the largest of these Saturn wall-works, and they resist any charge of pomposity, I contend, because of their quirky, out-of the-box, amusing/puzzling inscribed iconography that, while being blatantly obvious and legible from from great distances, are in the final analysis so resistant to straightforward interpretation (as per the intentions of the artist). A mystifying aura pervades, saturating the Herron Galleries, as the Sphinx-like secrets of Zansky’s intractable giant artworks remain hidden in plain view, the artist’s craftily cobbled-together, closed-system, imagistic fragments loom over the viewers, teasingly.
Looking at all this indwelling imagery in Zansky’s art that is so resolutely poetic yet regressively intractable, F.W.J. Shelling’s comment that art was the resolution of an infinite contradiction in a finite object seems valid. By turn noumenal and phenomenal, knowable and unknowable, and alternating between the reverie-like and the nightmarish, the normal and the abnormal, the tragic and the ludic, Zansky’s vision is poised between the extremes of public address and private torment. Indeed Zansky has always been alert to the conditions, to the thin interface that separates the human from the subhuman, the so-called thin veneer of civilization that Freud brings up in his Das Unbehagen in der Kulter (Civilization and Its Discontents); Zansky’s art in its individuated way nearly points to this deep-structured irresolvable struggle, a fight that continues and continues. His work, his working style, and his metaphoric conceits are perpetually pointing to and pointing out the clash of oppositions and contradictions in himself and in the world. In the press release to Deep in the Shallows Michael Zansky is quoted as he refers to his enigmatic tableaux as “fragment frames in some ongoing drama from an unknowable storyboard”…in order to express…”how inexplicable human existence is, how strange it is.” hat continues and continues. His work, his working style and his metaphoric conceits are perpetually pointing to and pointing out the clash of oppositions and contradictions in himself and in the world. In the press release to Deep in the Shallows Michael Zansky is quoted as he refers to his enigmatic tableaux as “fragment frames in some ongoing drama from an unknowable storyboard”…in order to express…”how inexplicable human existence is, how strange it is.”
D. Dominick Lombardi is represented by Kim Foster Gallery in New York, NY and Prince Gallery in Copenhagen, Denmark. Since 1978, Lombardi has curated over 100 exhibitions in a variety of museums and galleries. Titles include: Water Over the Bridge, Tondo, Tondo, Tondo, Duchamp’s Plumbing, Shaky Ground, reVision, Through the Veil of the Soul, HEAD, Eye on the Storm, In Their Own World, Monkey Spoon, Anonymous, Bóm: How art can disrupt, reorient or destroy, Fear is a Four Letter Word, Speaking in Strings: Ken Butler and Kurt Coble, Critics Select I & II, Over the Top – Under the Rug, FUNKADELICIDE, The Impact of War, The Waking Dream, The Tradition of Icons and Champions of Modernism: Non-Objective Art of the 1930s & 40s and Its Legacy. For past 21 years, Lombardi’s 400 plus features, interviews and art reviews have appeared in such publications as as The New York Times (1998-2005), The Huffington Post (2012-present), ARTslant (2012-14), Art in Asia (S. Korea) (2007-09), Public Art and Ecology (China) (2011-12), Sculpture (1999-present), dART (2005-present), Art Papers (2004), ARTnews (1997), ARTlies (2004-09), Juxtapoz (2002), New Art Examiner (1997-98), Night (1996-97), Art New England (1997-99), NYARTS magazine (2004-09) and culturecatch.com (2006-present) among others.
Dominique Nahas is an independent curator and critic based in Manhattan. He teaches critical studies at Pratt institute. He is currently writing books on the work of artists Allison Stewart and Amer Kobaslija.
Christopher Hart Chambers
Christopher Hart Chambers is an artist based in NYC. He also writes about art for several periodicals and occasio-nally curates exhibitions. Last year the Nassau County Museum of Art’s Contemporary Gallery featured a solo exhibition of his work. Also last year he co-curated with Al Diaz the Graffiti Street Art exhibition at the Bishop Gallery in Bedstuy, NY. www.christopherchambers.com
Emese Krunák-Hajagos is an art writer with publications in dArt International magazine (Toronto/Montreal/New York/San Antonio), NY Arts (New York), Artes Magazine (Connecticut), Huma 3 (Madrid/Venice), Balkon (Budapest), Interpress Graphic (London/Prague/Budapest). She writes in English and Hungarian and a few of her articles are translated into Spanish. She is member of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA). Emese is co-founder and co-publisher of artoronto.ca, an online art magazine covering the visual art scene in Toronto. Her holistic approach brings together the history, philosophy and cultural atmosphere of the times, providing a more complex understanding of the art. She lives in Toronto.
Siba Kumar Das
Siba Kumar Das is a former Indian diplomat and a United Nations official who writes about art – an interesting thing to do when a global art is coming into being. Serving the United Nations Development Program in New York and several developing countries, he addressed global development challenges at international and local levels, concentrating on poverty eradication and the reduction of inequalities and exclusion. He now lives in the United States as a citizen, splitting his time between New York City and upstate New York. He has published articles on artists living in the Upper Delaware Valley, and is presently focusing on art in a more global context. His experience in development and interest in art has brought home to him that artistic creation and development success are born in similar crucibles.
Gae Savannah is a sculptor/writer based in New York City. She works
in new materials including plastics. Savannah also writes for Sculpture magazine. She teaches Contemporary Art, Film, and Writing in the MFA program at School of Visual Arts.
A Largo High and USF grad who’s currently enrolled in University of Tampa’s Creative Writing MFA program, Julie Garisto is an assistant editor/contributor at the central Florida nonprofit arts agency Creative Pinellas, where she covers arts and music events. Julie also contributes to the Tampa Bay Times as well as other publications. She served as arts and entertainment editor for Creative Loafing (2010-2015).
Susan Schwalb is at once an artist of this world and a transcendent artist. Her drawings and paintings are abstract, decidedly manifestations of the world’s geometry; they echo the belief of Latin American modernist Joaquin Torres-Garcia that geometry provides the artistic and spiritual scaffolding for all true art, in all ages and cultures. Deploying minimalism in lyrical mode, Schwalb’s art is also allusive and suggestive – a contemporary reinvention of the Symbolism of the late 19th century. It extends with great virtuosity the potential of metalpoint to evoke a numinous effect through delicacy, fineness, and a shimmering luminousness. Take an attentive look at a work of hers and you will be transported.
Back in 2015, Schwalb was the only woman artist and one of three living artists to be featured in Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns, the first exhibition – jointly organized by the National Gallery of Art and the British Museum – ever to present the history of metalpoint drawing, a history spanning six centuries of Western art. In an accompanying book, curator Bruce Weber calls her “the most widely known American artist working in metalpoint today,” and says, “She has enlarged the boundaries and possibilities of the medium.” In a book published in 2013, art historian Thea Burns pays tribute to Schwalb’s artistic achievement as well as her promotion of metalpoint, saying she’s “probably the most prominent metalpoint artist working today.” Margaret Mathews-Berenson, independent curator, writes in an essay accompanying a metalpoint drawing show she curated in 2010, “Schwalb has become the Pied Piper of metalpoint.”
Upon graduating from Carnegie Mellon University, Schwalb devoted herself to an art career dominated by brush and watercolor and pen and ink till 1974, when, inspired by an artist friend, she began drawing in silverpoint. Exploration of other metalpoints followed and, since 1975, she has worked mostly in metalpoint, pushing the medium in recent years to move it towards painting. In personal conversation with me, she has said she was looking for a fine line when she found silverpoint a revelation. Schwalb prefers to discuss her art technically, eschewing metaphysical and speculative thinking. Yet she feels that a spiritual force drives her work.
Metalpoint, especially silverpoint, took off in the world of European art when, in the 15th century, artists in Italy and northern Europe took a medium used for writing in ancient Rome and, in medieval times, for ruling and underwriting in illuminated manuscripts, and transformed it into an artistic instrument carrying a huge cultural charge. It enabled the creation of naturalistic effects, such as depicting surface textures, capturing the fall of light on objects, especially human skin and drapery, conjuring the illusion of three-dimensionality on a flat surface, and the suggesting of human emotions – the last-mentioned having the by-product of intensifying spiritual devotion. Renaissance artists utilized metalpoint to launch an artistic revolution, as Martin Gayford says in a review interpreting the show in the British Museum and the National Gallery of Art.
Its revolutionary impact realized, metalpoint usage fell away in Italy after Raphael’s death in 1520. Almost the same decline occurred in the Northern countries, though there the medium survived through intermittent usage till the end of the seventeenth century. Then during the 18th century, only miniature portraitists employed metalpoint. For the medium once again to become an important propellant of artistic creativity, we have to wait for the nineteenth century.
Catalyzed by an interest in early Renaissance art inspired mainly by the Nazarenes, a German artistic group, and by the Pre-Raphaelite painters in Britain, a metalpoint revival took root during the 1820s and, as the century progressed, became quite widespread, even entering popular culture. Mainly a British phenomenon, this revival adhered closely to Renaissance precedents but by the end of the century, with the Pre-Raphaelites having created ground for Aestheticism and the British variant of Symbolism, preludes to modernism, British artists discovered metalpoint’s potential for transcending naturalism and used it in innovative ways, building upon the art and teachings of Alphonse Legros, a French-born artist who became a British citizen and worked in the pre-Raphaelites’ slipstream. Thea Burns says that he used metalpoint (and graphite) with subtle virtuosity to show that art could respond to suggestions emitted by its materials and thereby create “a newly created reality juxtaposed to or coexisting co-equal with the objects of ordinary reality.”
The impress of this revitalization crossed the Atlantic as well and, soon after the century’s turn, leadership in metalpoint drawing became a North American phenomenon. Metalpoint usage pushed American draftsmanship onto a high ground of technical achievement and propelled that usage in new directions. Yet, possibly because American art did not break through into geometric abstraction till the late 1950s, American metalpoint exponents of the early modernist period – artists such as Thomas Dewing, Joseph Stella, Marsden Hartley, Ivan Albright, and John Wilde – produced superbly crafted metalpoint art that was innovative and experimental but not radically so.
It is only in the 1970s and thereafter that a greater transformation occurred, not only in the U.S., but in Europe as well. Referencing contemporary artists in both regions, Bruce Weber says that metalpoint is being used these days by a large and growing number of artists “in ways [the old masters] could never have contemplated or imagined.” Whether this amounts to a full-fledged metalpoint renaissance cannot yet be known, but something significant is going on. A Facebook group focusing on silverpoint/metalpoint drawing has attracted well over 600 members.
Schwalb began her metalpoint career making drawings of orchids, a motif carrying for her deep personal resonances. When you gaze at her Orchid Transformation #2, which she drew in 1978, you will be struck by the flower’s beauty and nearly muscular power and vibrancy, and as you keep looking, you will feel that it is not just alive, as if it were an actual organism – it is also a symbol for life or rather the way in which life embodies stillness amid rhythm and vitality. Close to Georgia O’Keefe’s flower paintings. Schwalb’s orchids are both naturalistic and abstract.
In the year after Schwalb made Orchid Transformation #2, she moved deeper into abstraction by removing the orchid as her direct subject and focusing more on the shapes behind or underlying the flower. A striking, strongly expressive example is Kahili I – a silverpoint and copperpoint drawing she made in 1980 incorporating the effects of melted wax and smoky marks created by singeing the paper. In this we see abstracting influences the artist took from tribal art, a spell she explored for some time. In the fifteenth century, Renaissance artists deployed silverpoint to reinforce a shift from allegory and symbolism to pictorial realism. Schwalb has moved in the opposite direction. Marc Chagall said, “You should not start with a symbol, but end up with one.”
Schwalb became more radical in the mid-1980s, when she made drawings that were geometrically abstract or nearly so, transmuting memories of landscapes she had seen. Ideas originating in the world of music contributed to the metamorphosis together with influences drawn from Rothko and other Abstract Expressionists – all gradually morphing in the 21st century into an even more minimalist aesthetic that dominates her artistic practice today.
For an early example of this aesthetic, let’s look at Madrigal #14, which Schwalb made in 2010. Bands and lines drawn in shades of dark grey with a bronze wool pad and a silverpoint stylus intersect horizontally a Plike-paper ground colored in a rich Venetian red. The bands and lines change their tones with exquisite subtlety. And the counterpointing tonality between them and the red background transports you into intense visual pleasure. Schwalb sees in her drawing an incarnation of a madrigal, a musical form that in the Renaissance served as a platform for poetic expressiveness. She makes you think of Matisse saying in A Painter’s Notes, “When I have found the relationship of all the tones the result must be a living harmony of all the tones, a harmony not unlike that of a musical composition.” In Madrigal #14 two voices interplay in a harmonious process that seems an endless becoming. This is art embodying allusion, implication, suggestiveness.
A drawing Schwalb made in 2012, Madrigal #41, applying a copperpoint stylus and a bronze wool pad to white Plike paper, signifies a deeper move into a meditative minimalism. The three empty bands in the middle of the image seem to imply an immanent presence and make you think of Whistler’s Nocturnes, particularly his Nocturne in Blue and Silver – Chelsea. These paintings “relied almost entirely for their effect upon the contrast between two principal colors and their variations”, as art historian Peter Vergo says in his book The Music of Painting. Schwalb employs white and gray to similar effect. But, building upon the modernism that bridges the century between her and her late nineteenth century predecessor, she goes further in making nearly invisible her subject matter. Her empty bands are allusively liminal in a symbolic way. Many art critic contemporaries of Whistler attacked his vaguely abstract paintings, their subjects veiled in colors inspired by Japanese woodblock prints, as lacking in substance and representing nothing. Today we find affecting the stillness and mysterious emptiness they allude to. Magnify this stillness and mystery and you will get an inkling of the numinous effect Schwalb achieves.
Let’s now go to another work of Schwalb’s, this time a painting, Polyphony XIII, which she made in 2016. Using copper, silver and goldpoint together with black gesso on Museum Mount Board attached to a wood base, she interweaves a composition of squares, a banded cross, and finely spaced gray-brown horizontal strata that are faintly mauve, especially in the middle of the image. Subtle tonal variations move some squares to the painting’s surface while others recede, creating a dynamic spatial counterpoint on an otherwise flat surface. The longer you look the more the changes in tonal variation; the more – or less – the mauve you see, and the more the interplay among the squares. And when you vary the distance between you and the painting everything changes again, especially the tones. Schwalb is echoing here Joseph Albers’s magnificent achievement in his great series of paintings embodying his Homage to the Square. Like Albers, Schwalb has made a painting that liberates light from within. Curator Heinz Liesbrock says of Albers: “…color became the medium for him that could allow the complexity, indeed unfathomability, of reality to be experienced pictorially…” Enhancing the possibilities of metalpoint through skillful artistry, she achieves something similar, offering the beholder a profound experience of reality’s slipperiness.
A few years ago Schwalb began giving her works musical titles. When Walter Pater said in 1873 that “all art aspires towards the condition of music”, he crystallized thinking pioneered by the French Symbolist poets, who found in music the suggestiveness they wanted of their poetry. Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarme, et al. prefigured intuitively something that neuroscience is telling us today. According to cognitive neuroscientist Aniruddh Patel, “language and music overlap in important ways in the brain” and are closely interconnected. Pater’s essay was not so much about poetry but about art (he was writing about Giorgione), and in the 20th century, under the influence of Kandinsky, Paul Klee, John Cage and many others, music and abstraction in art were seen as participants in a confluence. Schwalb inherited this heritage. By accentuating metalpoint’s strengths through a variety of technical strategies, and by yoking Symbolism to Minimalism, she has created an intensely evocative art that indeed “aspires towards the condition of music.”
Hugh Moss, art dealer, expert in Chinese art, and a painter and calligrapher, has argued that modernism’s great contribution to art was to show that art is not just the art object but a more inclusive process that embraces the act of creation, the thing created, as well as the interaction that takes place between the art object and the viewer. Whereas a focus on the art object may have sufficed prior to modernism, the impact of modernist art depends crucially on the attentiveness the viewer brings to the art object. My feeling is that Moss is saying something important though he may have attributed to the break between modernist art and pre-modernist art too complete a rupture. Surely, pre-modernist art also demanded attentiveness. Surely, there was between it and modernist art no break but a hinge. Another way of looking at Moss’s position is to recall what Philip Glass said about an insight he received from John Cage. Glass wrote in his memoir Words Without Music, “I got to know Cage in New York. Even before I met him I knew his writings on music. He brought ideas from Duchamp and Dada and surrealism – that music didn’t have an independent existence. It was a form of communication between the performers and composer and the audience. It totally reshaped the role of the listener.” In essence, the music comes into being when the listener completes the work. Putting Moss and Cage and Glass together, we could say it is the viewer who completes the work of art through attentiveness. We might also think of a great insight of Jed Perl’s that he set out thus in his essay The Art of Seeing: “Artists have to find ways to find ways to pull the audience in, for only when people come to understand that within a painting or a sculpture they can find a time that is outside of time will they want to keep looking.” Schwalb’s art snares you in this way.
She does this not just through her virtuoso artistry; she does it too through the disciplined industry she brings to her process. For her grounds, she goes back and forth between commercially prepared papers and grounds she prepares herself. In the latter case, while she has utilized other materials before, she currently uses acrylic grounds in white or black or colored Holbein gesso. She says that while she uses graphite and colored pencils to accentuate some of her drawings, “metalpoint is the only tool that permits me to draw with great precision and exactitude.” She is guided by her materials’ suggestions but also enhances their vitality through such strategies as incorporating metal leaf, using paint to color her grounds, and then exposing underlying paint.
Of the contemporary metalpoint revival, which she also highlights in her 2013 book, Thea Burns says it has “attracted artists who enjoy process and careful mark-making, and value precise refined draftsmanship and the technique’s exacting, labor-intensive yet quiet and meditative discipline.” These are the very hallmarks of Schwalb’s practice, and it is perhaps not surprising that she is seen today as metalpoint’s Pied Piper. Along with other artists, she is administering the previously noted over 600 member strong Facebook group. Metalpoint’s spreading use is indicative of something important. It is responding to a burgeoning need that surely includes, in an age when the growing ubiquity of Artificial Intelligence even includes its application to the arts, the showing of the artist’s hand as “an affirmation of human presence” (Burns).
If all art calls for a viewer to complete it, Minimalist art depends even more on the beholder’s attentiveness, as art historian Michael Fried has shown us. By bringing to Minimalism the suggestiveness and allusiveness of Symbolism, Schwalb has given to metalpoint a path to the sublime. She has been enormously innovative within a long tradition. Employing attributes and qualities of the metalpoint medium, especially silverpoint, that were apparent even in the 15th century but not developed at that time as well as reimagining new ideas that came into the tradition in the late 19th century and thereafter, she has driven a medium geared to naturalistic verisimilitude to convey expressive effects that have more to do with inner vision and an immanent perception of the world. In Symbolist mode, let me say that another way of viewing Schwalb’s achievement is to contemplate it applying these words (Stephen Batchelor’s translation) of an ancient Indian philosopher, Nagarjuna: “Without relying on convention/You cannot disclose the sublime;/Without intuiting the sublime/You cannot experience freedom.”
Located on a quiet street slowly stirring into economic life after years in the doldrums, Aicon Gallery has taken on a task that surely would have pleased Andre Malraux. Novelist, art theorist, Minister of Culture under Charles de Gaulle, Malraux said half a century ago, “In our imaginary museum [that is, the world of art] the great art of Europe is but one great art among others …” Located on the Western edge of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in Great Jones Street, Aicon is promoting modern and contemporary non-Western art with an emphasis on South Asia. While it is doing this at a time when a global approach to art is a growing reality, its strategic goal remains supremely necessary. Knowledge and appreciation of modernist and contemporary art outside Europe and North America is even today but an infant phenomenon.
Take the case of Minimalism. A 2016 Aicon show on Minimalism in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa caught the eye of Holland Cotter of The New York Times, who said in a review that this exhibition, together with a Metropolitan Museum survey of work by Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi, had brought home to New Yorkers that a Minimalist strain was a substantial feature of contemporary art in South Asia. Cotter also noted that two Middle Eastern artists included in the Aicon exhibition were featured in a New York Guggenheim Museum group show But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa. One of them, Mohammed Kazem of the United Arab Emirates, is again the subject of an Aicon exhibition – a topic to which I’ll turn shortly.
Cotter also referenced the inclusion in the Aicon show of Pakistani-British artist Rasheed Araeen whom he saw as an “exemplary senior figure … who is still going strong in his 80s.” The previous year Aicon had put up a solo show devoted to Araeen. In a review at that time, Cotter noted this: “In the early 1960s he [Araeen] developed a version of what would come to be called Minimalism before its introduction in New York by Donald Judd and others.”
Notwithstanding this advocacy, a recent show in New York recapitulating and analyzing Minimalism’s long history from the 1960s to today – the Mnuchin Gallery’s Minimalism and Beyond (September 13-October 18, 2017) – included not one non-Western artist save for On Kawara. In a major new study, A Theory of Minimalism, published in 2017, Marc Botha of Durham University, U.K., and the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, drew up a canonical list of Minimalist artists. With the notable exception of Ai Weiwei, he did not include a single non-Western artist, not even Araeen.
That Aicon Gallery is carrying out a much-needed mission no one could possibly doubt. And so it is greatly to be welcomed that it is following-up its 2016 Minimalism show by a solo show featuring selected works from the oeuvre of Mohammed Kazem. Ways of Marking (January 18-February 24, 2018), curated by Murtaza Vali, a critic and curator who divides his time between Brooklyn and Sharjah, concentrates on one strand – a primarily Minimalist strand – of Kazem’s artistic practice. Kazem’s still-evolving oeuvre spans multiple things: mark-making on paper, conceptual and performance art, photography, video art, etc. The current exhibition showcases a selection of his works on paper – artistic outcomes embodying a subtle lyricism and an allusiveness that is quite mysterious. Back in 1964, iconic Minimalist Frank Stella famously said of his own paintings, “What you see is what you see.” Kazem, born in a region at a crossroads of history and inheritor and acquirer of multiple cultures, is a different kind of Minimalist. He makes paper images that transport you beyond his marks.
When still a youthful artist and yearning to transcend the boundaries of oil painting, especially the thick short brushstrokes he was then applying to canvas, Kazem began to experiment in 1990 with creating forms and patterns on paper by methodically scratching it with the point and edge of a scissor. To this day he is developing this technique, which enables him to make art in a meditative way that recognizes the artist’s hand. By combining scratches resembling a line with parallel and crisscrossing strokes similar to shading and hatching, he produces effects similar to those emanating from metalpoint drawing. He has so mastered this technique, he makes today art that is so subtle, so suggestive, so liminal you cross a threshold as you look at it intently. To do it justice, you must gaze at his work and not pass it by after a brief glance. The celebrated Middle Eastern artist Mona Hatoum recently said she “likes her art to offer a physical experience in the first instance and then certain thoughts … almost as an afterthought.” She might as well have been thinking about Kazem’s work.
Let’s start a concrete look at Kazem’s scratch mark oeuvre by gazing at his 2013 piece Sound of Angles, a set of six drawings comprising scratches on paper. His friend and mentor for more than three decades, Hassan Sharif, questioned early on what curator Reem Fadda calls “the spread of calligraphic abstraction in its most simplistic forms within the Arab world” as an Arab response to Western modernism. Brice Marden riffed on Chinese calligraphy in Minimalist vein. You could say that Kazem riffs on Arabic calligraphy even more infinitesimally. By moving closer to zero or nothingness, he is, paradoxically, creating space for a profound experience akin to epiphany. He transcends by far the simplistic aesthetic that Sharif derided.
See now Kazem’s Acrylic on Scratched Paper (Copper), which he made in 2008. Does it make you think of a desert landscape of the sort you find in his country? Of course, it does. But think also of the nearly imperceptible superimposition he has added to the landscape, which was starkly beautiful to begin with. By carrying out this addition so minimally you can barely discern it, Kazem makes evocative an image that integrates the riffing discussed above with a color sensibility honed by millennia of life and art in his native region. Andre Malraux said art’s purpose is not to represent reality, but to transform it. Think of this and look afresh at Kazem’s work.
A similar piece Kazem made in 2008, Acrylic on Scratched Paper (Gold), seemingly depicting a gilded desert scene with undulating rivulets radiating from a crater-like geographical feature, throws additional light on his art. It makes you think of Roni Horn’s Gold Field (1980-82), which was part of a solo show in 1990 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. As recounted by Pac Pobric in a catalog essay accompanying the previously discussed Mnuchin Gallery show, when fellow Minimalist Felix Gonzalez-Torres saw it the first time on a visit to the show, he said, “It didn’t need company, it didn’t need anything.” In discussing her own work, a rectangular sheet of compressed gold lying on the floor in an otherwise empty gallery, Horn said, “I wanted to put the gold out there, self-sufficient, purified to the fullness of what it is and laid out on the floor – not as an accompaniment to some other idea, but just in itself.” Gonzalez-Torres’s initial reaction was entirely in accord with Horn’s intent. But then he went on to have an epiphany, as Pobric says. What ensued was a deeply lyrical response to Horn’s golden sculpture. He saw it as this: “A new landscape, a possible horizon, a place of rest and absolute beauty. Waiting for the right viewer willing and needing to be moved to a place of the imagination.” That’s exactly the kind of place to which Kazem takes you with his field of gold.
Let’s look now at Kazem’s Receiving Light III (2016), which consists of scratches on an inkjet print on Hahnemuhle paper. The print depicts a geometrically reductive scene extracted photographically from built and natural surroundings lit by sunlight. The artist’s scratches have the effect of de-familiarizing and rendering evocatively strange this day-to-day scene – so much so the shadows resulting from the scratches allude to the passage of time even as you, the beholder, look at an underlining photographic arrest of light and time. The magic Kazem creates is spellbinding because you contribute to it. The two of you together create a transformative experience. The great Minimalist painter John McLaughlin wrote to Jules Langsner, art critic and psychiatrist, in 1959: “ ‘Art’ then is not in the canvas but in the mind of the beholder.” This was a great insight but McLaughlin was not totally right. We need both the canvas and the beholder.
Kazem’s scratch art not only alludes to the passage of time; it also recreates in the beholder’s mind a sense of the sounds that arose from the scratches being made. The art has a synesthetic quality. Kazem studied painting at the Emirates Fine Art Society in Sharjah and, more recently, took a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA. But it is also important to note that he is a trained musician who continues to sing and perform the oud privately.
If you apply your mind attentively to the five paintings displayed in the Aicon Gallery show with the common title Soundless, you will find in them, too, the working of a musical sensibility. Composed of thousands of tiny pastel scribbles overlaid with washes of acrylic paint or ink or both, the top parts of these works have reminded beholders of Mark Rothko’s color fields. But the resemblance to the great Abstract Expressionist has another dimension. Christopher Rothko says in his 2015 biography of his father that Rothko Sr. was not only a ‘philosopher who painted’ but also a ‘painter who aspired to be a musician.’ Their title notwithstanding, the Soundless pieces sing out as you look at them. Look at Soundless I and absorb the effects evoked by the painting’s different densities and hues of magenta and by the allusive lyrical beauty of the flows in the bottom part.
Marc Botha reminds us: “The most radical minimalist works seek to eschew all external and mimetic reference.” No illusiveness therefore – but going beyond this, no allusiveness is possible either. Yet, as early as 1966, as Pac Pobric tells us, Rosalind Krauss argued persuasively that, despite Donald Judd’s stated intentions, this iconic radical Minimalist created art objects that were both illusive and allusive. And years later she recalled Judd’s work as having “beauty” and “strength” and unsuccessful in abandoning “meaning.” Mohammed Kazem says, “My work has two aspects – objectivity and subjectivity.” His mark making on paper creates art objects that draw attention to their own presence. In that sense, they are self-referential. But they also embody and draw attention to the processes that bring them into being, and it is indeed striking in this context that Kazem says he gets new artistic ideas not from some preceding inspiration but through the physical act of art making. His paper creations are beautiful and allusive, and the Aicon Gallery show brings home to us that they are not merely objects in themselves – they are expressive in a transcendent way. Minimalism is alive and well in the world at large and the artists practicing this style in non-Western regions are confirming to us something that Minimalists like Agnes Martin and Anne Truitt knew very well. In making art, “meaning” cannot be abandoned.