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.
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.
“Stuart Regen, a prominent art dealer and the executive producer of the highly successful film Leaving Las Vegas, has died. He was 39.” So read the August 20, 1998 obituary in the Los Angeles Times. Earlier that year Regen had been featured on the cover of the premier issue of dArt International with his dog, Gordo. Regen was delighted to have had Gordo as the cover dog for the feature story, Gallery Dogs. Shaun Caley, Regen’s widow confided in me that he had proudly showed it off to the nurses in the hospital.
dArt International, really an afterthought to the bookwork, Meditations on Space, ended up serving as a continuation of it – the magazine now a basket into which leftover material might be tossed. The photos of Stuart and Gordo being prime examples. The Gallery Dogs cover story was inspired by the many dog lovers that I encountered in the gallery world through the book project. My Regen entry read, “I walked from North Almont and down the lane to the Regen Projects Gallery. Gordo the dog observed my approach. Chip said, ‘Gordo is like the symbol of the gallery. He’ll lick you to death.’ Gordo jumped up on me. Chip said, ‘Down, Gordo! Down…’”
In my opening editorial column I described the dArt project as a whim, missives that would have to be fired, one dart at a time. The seeming casualness of tacking together these “darts” has long since evaporated. I’ve had to climb into the silo, from time to time, in order to recalibrate the launch coordinates. The current flipping over dArt back pages has much to do with this recalibration and foundational inspection process.
Looking back, without my visits to 175 art galleries in Europe and North America between September 1995 and January 1996, it is unlikely that there would be a dArt magazine. The compilation of material for the book served as an introduction to the gallery world as a whole. As Los Angeles art dealer, Dan Bernier, observed after I suggested that my project was really a performance, “Well, if you look at it that way, you’ve got yourself a hell of a resume.”
Going back even further, those Meditations on Space gallery notations have a direct link to the 1988-89 Gallery Space project, a floor sculpture shaped by the documentation of 64 visits to art galleries in Toronto. The threads of these works spring from an interest in Sol LeWitt’s oeuvre, particularly his Location of a Square drawing and Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes. While I liked that LeWitt’s forms were executed by means of a set of instructions, I found their wording needlessly complicated. By limiting variables and enlisting galleries to participate in the filling out of a simple form, Gallery Space, the sculpture, would develop over time through the data it generated. Not only did structural details take shape, such as the positioning of door in an open cube, but the project turned out to be a machine to fulfill its own exhibition. Gallery Space and other information-based works of mine had their solo exhibition at the Arnold Gottlieb Gallery in Toronto January 1989. Tom Gottlieb, the 63rd participant, had asked me, “Are you exhibiting these anywhere?”
The Gallery Space piece had been my response to the proliferation of personal computers. I had hoped to show how data collection framed as a simple program might produce a work of art. The gathering of information had been made personal through their performance. In order to have the form filled out by the gallery personnel, it was necessary to make a successful pitch. Out of 69 of my presentations in the gallery project, five had declined to take part. A vital component of the piece had been a participation that somehow needed to be wrested by means of a contest. The arena of action had been a 64-square game board, the model of which I carried around with me when making my pitch.
On the other hand, Meditations on Space, having been global in scope, simulated surfing the net. Instead of a virtiual hit, my plan was to show up in person. The encounter was subsequently recorded in my book, Dominique Nahas noting that it resembled a “Tweet.” In his introduction to Meditations on Space, Earl Miller viewed the documented gallery visits as a “…meditiation to satirically critique the stereotype of the art gallery as a self-contained space for an Essentialist, spiritual experience.”
The premier issue of dArt was collated and stitched at our dining room table with the help of a group of friends. A few days later I was on a plane to Los Angeles for its release. From the list of art writers provided for me by Lynn Sharpless at Angles Gallery, I drew my first dArt editorial contributors. Michael Darling is now Chief Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Jan Tümlir has accrued multiple teaching credits throughout California, and he maintains his contributions to leading art publications.
By the time the third dArt had been lobbed, the L.A. roster had grown with the addition of Michael Duncan, Jody Zellen, Christopher Miles, Jeremy Rosenberg, and novelist Bruce Bauman. Later contributors included Clayton Campbell, Shana Nys Dambrot, George Melrod, Craig Stephens, and Peter Frank. The acid intonations of Duncan’s cover story in dArt #3, Testing the Fabric of the New Color Field, burned holes, not only in the then much-hyped New Color Field, but into the prevailing 90s culture mores generally. Of it, Duncan wrote, “with its fear of emotion and penchant for easy cynicism – has turned vacuous simplemindedness into a comic, nihilistic style: the slacker esthetic.” His critique on the Luckman Gallery, Cal State LA show, Color Fields, tagged Monique Prieto, Laura Owens, Ingrid Calame, and Pae White, as slackers. Duncan rather championed the work of artists Linda Besemer, Polly Apfelbaum, and Penelope Krebs.
My first New York contributors came about through a meeting with Gail Swithenbank through artist Carl Skelton. Gail had worked with Review magazine. From the list of art writers, with which she had provided me, April Kingsley and Dominique Nahas had responded. I had a positive meeting with April at a wine bar in Soho. She had liked that I didn’t muck up my type with superfluous graphics. Dominique invited me to the studio of his wife, Margaret Evangeline, in Chelsea. He assured me that it would be fun. Once past the clunky, metal door, and into Margaret’s studio in the Starrett-Lehigh Building on 26th Street, it was a transit from dimly-lit concrete into this blinding white, expansive space. On a hot Manhattan summer afternoon, a selection of cold beer and white wine was welcomed. Joining us was early dArt contributor and friend, artist Carl Skelton. We perched on stools in the studio’s galley kitchen. Dominique wanted to know a bit about the philosophy behind dArt. After my hopscotch from floor sculpture to book, and from book to magazine, Dominique made the request to be my New York editor. My reflexive response was, “Sure,” to which I received a kick from Carl, sitting next to me. Leaning forward, he mimed under his breath, “You don’t know who he is.”
From here, dArt’s New York contingent grew. Jeanne Wilkinson, like April and Dominique, had written for Review, while Robert Curcio had contributed to Cover, both journals having long since ceased publication. Christopher Chambers contacted me soon afterwards. Robert Mahoney had been recommended by Dominique. Gae Savannah, Kóan Jeff Baysa, D. Dominick Lombardi, Valery Oisteanu, Thalia Vrachopoulos, Mary Hrbacek, and Edward Rubin continue to contribute for dArt. I got to know Ed at San Antonio’s Luminaria event as part of an art press group. I met Dominick Lombardi, dArt’s U.S. editor, at one of Roger Smith Hotel’s Lab Gallery dinner openings. We got together in Chelsea the next day and came up with a plan to reach other U.S. art centers. Dominick made the connections. With the help of Joe Seipel in Richmond, Virginia, and Bill FitzGibbons in San Antonio, Texas, we put together theme-based issues of dArt focusing on each city’s respective art scenes.
From the start, art fairs fit the dArt mandate and gave it a boost. Just as the internet had been a formative influence on the magazine, doubtless the art fair phenomenon was greatly helped by the connectivity that the internet made possible. Robert Curcio, co-founder and co-producer of the Scope Art Show, described the conditions that gave rise to the art fairs as being, “a perfect storm.” Scope debuted their fair in May 2002 at the Gershwin Hotel in New York. It was here that dArt caught the east coast art fair wave that washed up in Miami later that year.
A few years earlier, the Absolut Vodka-sponsored L.A. International Biennial Art Invitational had helped give dArt some West Coast exposure. The fair had been an opportunity for local galleries to work with international galleries, and for artists to show internationally. For many it would have been the first time. The fair’s co-founder, Robert Berman regards it as “a success for all. It should happen again. Let’s find another Absolut!” His partner in the project, William Turner would, no doubt agree.
With dArt now in its 20th year of publication, I’ve had the nagging feeling lately that its founding blocks are being papered over by the pages of the magazine itself. Yet, dArt was never intended to be a work of art in the conspicuous sense. However, I continue to make it the subject and substance of my own art practice. Lately, it has taken the form of paper-making. There is enough of an accumulation of back issues to lay the groundwork for a new body of work. In that sense, it’s a return to the beginning. My effort has been, it seems, about the ground of art itself – its making, exhibition, and subsequent written critique.