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.
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.
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.
Up front by the gallery’s storefront window on the Orchard Street strip on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which is now perhaps the premier location for current fine art, stands a construction of sheet brass shards, with straight, thin brass rods projecting outwards in all directions, extending like rays of light or exclamation points. Each has a pearl at the end. Two life sized cut outs of female hands gloved in black spray paint are scratched with squiggly linear designs revealing the underlying brass color. Towards the base, wingy thingies repeat the five fingers, and other formations of cut out metal sheeting describe a face, a horse’s leg and hoof, a braid, and assorted crumpled abstractions. This all stands atop a black metal dowel welded to a waist high, four legged pedestal. This display device is used throughout this exhibition of ten free standing sculptures. One piece describes a horse head, another a goat with a hairy beard. The entire showing has a feathery feel, and in fact there are a few feathers involved in constructing the work, as well as reindeer fur, wool, and sea urchin spines. Birds are a frequent theme; and human faces or masks, and the ever present female hand, either painted black or in blue velvet. Spikey protuberances abound and swirling appendages all allude to something about space and time. The work has a sketchy ornamental flavor; she avoids solid concrete form, instead indicating presence through innuendo in whispy renditions wherein the animal and human subjects are dreamlike stand ins for intention. They’re like like a glam rock fashionista Max Ernst. There are also a few small works along the same vein mounted on the walls.
Ms. Highfield hails from Sydney, and the work gives the impression of spiritual or mystical, even metaphysical allusions. The exhibition’s title, Spirit Faces, clearly refers to aboriginal culture. (Ms. Gruin, the gallery director, hastened to inform with a wink, “We are not a marsupial gallery. We do show some of the best work coming out of Australia, but we also represent talent from all over.”) Mounted on the back wall of the gallery is a life sized rendition of a roaring male lion’s head. Dangling rope and yarn complete his mane. So, indigenous wildlife is not Ms. Highfield’s exclusive inspiration, it is more about chimera. Near the lion, a fragmented human mask has a couple of tweety birds flitting about it. Loopy wires suspend the little birds while visually acting as trails to their paths of flight. Throughout the exhibition whirling brass wires enact an indication of the invisible made tangible; indicating time and motion. The recurring theme of feminine hands lends an element of self portraiture to the work; a portrayal of the interaction between the physical act of the artist’s creative practice and the more ethereal nature of her subject matter.
JIZI: Journey of the Spirit is an eye-opening exhibition of exhilarating contemporary shanshui style works made of ink on paper by one of the originators of China’s “New Ink Painting” school of artists, Wang Yunchan (1941- 2015), otherwise known as Jizi. Jizi was not academically trained but was an erudite self-educated individual steeped in Eastern and Western traditions of literature and painting. His own mature paintings have multiple ideational provenances. One of their origin points is a style of fifth century Chinese painting that emphasizes fantastical imagery to with mountain and water images, and are further grounded in later tradition of formal brushstroke developments exemplified through the work of landscape painter Shi Tao (1642-1707) and his canonical writings Thoughts on Painting. Jizi only became known to a wider public in the Chinese art world and beyond in the last ten years of his life, that period of production taking place in his modest studio in the Guanzhuang district of Beijing. By that period of his life he was consistently honing his works, eliminating all unnecessary elements, making monumentally dense, powerful works, “…whose large brushstrokes…” as described by art historian, museum curator, critic and the artist’s son Wang Chunchen in his monograph on Jizi’s life and art, “…made the voids seem like strokes and the strokes seem like voids.”Dr. Wang continues, “…Naturally, my father’s life was devoted to exploring his own art, but when he found a form that he believed to be his own, it was an art that belonged to China.” Such a statement also confirms my feelings about how unique Jizi’s aesthetic achievement – taking traditional ink painting, remaining true to a great degree to its originary principles, rules and objectives as written down in theses by literati masters of eons past while simultaneously taking ink-painting out of its culturally-circumscribed Asian identity and making it, somehow, come alive in a universal way to audiences in the East and West has not gone unnoticed. Jizi’s mature work took decades of devotion and intense willpower to achieve. His legacy is quite remarkably a brilliant amalgamation of traditional brush effects brought to the point of intense expressive urgency that while remaining securely rooted in centuries-old Asian ink-wash painting tradition, also tips the work into the realm of spectral imagination, into what Westerner art-historians would call romantic, even symbolist territory. Jizi’s artworks, like their ancient predecessors, are philosophical musings infused with Daoist imagery and motifs and stress the interrelationship of the human presence vis-à-vis the cosmic universe. In order to make this point such paintings have traditionally depicted tiny figures in vast landscapes (although Jizi does not included direct depictions of the full human form in any of his work;) to depict the vastness of the cosmos that is beyond human comprehension. Again, traditionally, such paintings depict natural forces by suggestively painting the landscape using a variety of naturalistic patterns, outer conditions suggestive of inner states of mind or moods, all of which invoke the way of the Dao. Jizi takes on this painterly tradition, remains true to its essential primordializing and essentializing spirit, but ramps it up, hybridizes it. Jizi has tremendous powers of invention, even wit, but without a hint of irony. Through his
astounding brushwork he finds ways and means of anthropromorphisizing the Dao (for example using the image of the boat in Ark of Heaven of 2013, and the use of a radiant human profile set against celestial halo in Sky Aura, 2009) as he teasingly inflects transhistorical cultural Western snippets in the work. For example in Between Earth and Sky of 2009 his global landscape places that might as well be drawn from an interplanetary sketchbook one sees crenelated structures referring to the great Wall, crumbling, set against drawn the ruins of Greco-Roman pediments and entablatures. It is impossible to see such passages in Jizi’s work and not reflect on Thomas Cole’s 1837 Course of Empire: Desolation painterly masterpiece, a meditation on the forces of history and eventual disintegrating passage of earthly ambitions and powers. In many of Jizi’s later work we sense that he invokes a circulatory stream of Western influences that reverberate through his works. When we gaze at Jizi’s exalted, ferocious brushstrokes, his cascading, swirling line work that captures the interplay of voids and plenitudes we feel something ancient but also remarkably alive and pertinent to our own time, something cinematic. Jizi’s works have kinship with the mystical throbbing of visionary science-fiction movies of the like of Andrey Tarovsky. In Jizi’s paintings we feel the space age and space traveling to the infinite reaches of the cosmos just as much as we are in the presence of Ming and Sung masters of the brush and ink. Whipsawed into yet other time and space continuums Jizi’s artworks also lead us into the imaginal depths of demiurgic worlds and underworld scenes with their concomitant sensations of dread and oceanic awe in the drawings of William Blake, the scintillating glints of clouds and air in the most numinous engravings of Gustave Doré and the mezzotint illustrations of John Martin. His visual energetics that compel the postmodern mind’s eye to take in what he has to offer, which is unnervingly complex and contradictory. Jizi’s artworks are unexpectedly large–scale while his brushstrokes, depictions and compositions have an exhilaratingly fierce quality to them that bespeaks both of estrangement and deeply sonorous feelings of rapture. The apotheosis of Jizi’s aesthetic mastery and fervid complexity is embodied in his monumentally sized masterwork The Great Scroll of Dao which is 1 meter high and 40 meters long. This artwork giant scrollwork contains no images of humans but is strictly confined to multi-dimensional shifting perspectives of changing landscape elements pertaining to air, water, sky, water and rock. The Great Scroll is staggering in its complexity and rapturous beauty with passages that stun the mind with their imbricated passion and delicacy. In this work all of the varying passions, sensations, feelings, sensations, thoughts of Jizi are embodied through the application of his brush and ink on paper. In doing so he created a self-portrait of his innermost being, depicting a variety of patterns that refer and infer to cosmic and vital chi energy that courses through this, what is essentially an abstract painting that crackles with devotional intensity and psychical alertness.