11/3/09

PRESENT TENSE

Available Potential Enterprise / Northampton, MA 

We don’t like to think that such differences exist, but artistic expression can be characterized by exceptions in gender. Both women and men have separate but equal agendas, temperaments, and as a consequence of this, their formal and esthetic results may widely differ. This is certainly the case in the exhibition “Present Tense” which brings together the work of Yvonne Estrada, Sean Greene, Clint Jukkala, Barbara Neulinger—four painters who each exemplify a divergent strain in contemporary currents of abstraction. Taken individually, the fusion of four unique talents would be enough reason to warrant attention—even fascination—with the attempts and achievements each makes into the formal ground of painterly abstraction. Yet as gender based pairs, and as practitioners of divergent inspiration, they each add to our understanding of what painting can mean for us.

The men in the show are involved with bright colors and hard edges, while the women are involved with gesture and depth of field. Sean Greene’s paintings are a compelling amalgam of gestural forms, but as they will appear in the future. Greene claims to be inspired by the signatures of graffiti and the fractured, though presumably articulate and soaring movement of skateboarding. They take on a gracefulness that they do not possess in life, unless the ardent practitioner strongly resembles the dedication of a talented musician or dancer. They are the shadows of past gestures choreographed for the use of future generations.


Clint Jukkula’s paintings intrinsically evoke the kind of resplendent environment dramatized within early versions of video games, epitomized by the film “Tron” (seeing a remake this year), with their given visual complexity, and the distance they possess from the landscapes of everyday life. Even when they break down, seeming to melt on the screen, it is not unlike the event of paint running too thinly on a canvas. Given the rugged materiality of Jukkula’s work, this shows the work’s relationship to its exterior environment, how paint may look like pixels but is still an organic medium relative to the human condition.



Barbara Neulinger’s forms are inspired from seaman’s knots, the type which any young boy completing for achievement badges in the Boy Scots would be required to prove proficiency. Such knots are a system of order, but also they inhabit a world of chance, of gesture, and of the intimations of design. They represent exactly the sort of real-world problem solving which is often at home in the hands of an artist. To solve the visual appearance of such knots, to place its squarely within the language of painting, is to understand how they exist in everyday life, in history, and in the life of the mind.


Yvonne Estrada deals with the expression of helixes, which are used in mathematics to explore the dynamic of quantum events, such as those in weather or the swirling forms of cosmic narrative beyond the comprehension of imagination despite appearing to resemble forms as the artist would naturally depict. Her work is primarily improvisational, having been generated from a simple calligraphic gesture, but this also connects it to a source of knowledge, as well as to stylistic determinations. Her works include both minute forms that preclude the use of large areas of negative space, and right at the tangent where automatism is wed to discipline, immediacy and detachment.



The words in the title of this exhibition are both succinct and deft. Each artist’s oeuvre is intensely displayed, suggesting the vicissitudes of temperament, talent, and cooperation with divergent trends in pictorial abstraction. Yet they also deliver a tension between their formal destinations which are not shared either across gender lines. The more time one spends in their company, the more they will all make their points clear.


9/1/09

THE BUSHWICK BIENNIAL

The constant flowering of bohemia is not a construct of advertising, nor of the whims of a dozen infamous gallerists. It is the generational engine of youth culture, alive and well, striving at the border of the mainstream, throwing out its various statements while at the same time contributing to a community that has registered a similar creative echo for at least 25 years. Bushwick is the locus of new creative energies, the same ones that are active in many other parts of Brooklyn, especially its neighboring wards of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. This year saw the emergence of its first official celebration, The Bushwick Biennial, brainchild of NURTUREart gallery director Benjamin Evans, in collaboration with Austin Thomas of Pocket Utopia, Chris Harding of English Kills, and Jill McDermid of Grace Exhibition Space. I first heard Ben utter these two words over a year ago, and since then he has worked hard to make it a reality. As the director of NURTUREart, he has seen first-hand what sort of influence the art community as a whole can exert when given proper focus within the scheme of the larger art world. Certainly the word ‘Williamsburg’ echoes out into the international art world, and so should its generative offspring. Just as Soho created the possibilities for Tribeca and Noho, Williamsburg has spread into the outlying areas of Greenpoint and Bushwick, and further, all along the corridors of the L train and the B61 Bus, and into the minds of New Yorkers, Americans, and people around the world.

Each of the three galleries I visited that weekend had a different focus of interest. The show Fortress to Solitude (an event that was actually part of the yearly organized Bushwick Open Studios, overlapping this year with the Biennial), curated in an independent studio space by Guillermo Creus and hosted by Brooklyn Fireproof landlord Burr Dodd, featured the work of some 22 artists, many of them working out the formal strategies of abstraction, some figurative, and some with text and a combination of elements. Paintings by Amanda Church, Peter Fox, Lisha Bai, and Anna Pedersen presented drippy phantasms that were either visceral, limpid, or gossamer. Other abstract works were more structurally based, combining radically different mediums such as oil and spray paint (Guillermo Creus, Baptiste Ibar), making naturalistic allusions (Diane Carr), and stretching into hard edge materialism (Tom Meacham, Gary Petersen). Another work by Peter Fox is a pale light blue canvas with two words painted in bold red letters, spelling out the expression ‘Idiot proof’, which is to say, anyone can get my art, and anyone could have made it. One very iconic portrait of President Obama by Tom Sanford is overlaid with the words What You Believe Is Already True emblazoned over a half quizzical facial expression of our fearless leader; is this just sloganeering, is the artist poking fun at authority, or is this just a painting about painting? Perhaps we will never know. The title of this exhibition, a play on words originally describing the re-birthed spiritual home of the comic book legend Superman, is a telling narrative about the nature of creativity and how it is specifically vested in areas such as Bushwick. The overwhelming presence of abstraction in the exhibition can be characterized not only as the aesthetic bent of its curator (a painter him self), but also as a statement on the manic focus of Bushwick artists, whose concern is with forms of expression, and though they are a fairly idealistic bunch, such values do not always lead them down the primrose path of ideology. They remain committed to the formalism which inspires them. Hung randomly with a lot of white space between them, we get the effect that spatial concerns still matter in the Bushwick of 2009 as they did in the Soho of 1969, and that giving artists room to think, and showing their work as existing within a systematic but disinterested locality is the best thing for them. Finally Utopic is not just a pun, it’s the last show in the space that was once the studio of its director, the conceptual artist Austin Thomas, and features work by all the artists she has championed since her project began only two years ago. It has always existed as a sort of playground for artistic intentions, not taking itself too seriously, looking at art as if it were a form of conversation rather than a political slogan or commercial advertisement. Molly Larkey, who is usually a sculptor, here presents gestural rather slapdash gouaches that intimate the beginnings of an idea that may later take physical form; Valerie Hegarty cracks the plaster of the wall before pasting a poster over the hole, that will ultimately rip the image along its ragged edge; Rico Gatson installs Systemic Risk Funky Revolutionthat is one part tautology and one part puzzle. The air overall is one of tentativeness, as if no one statement should predominate and none will last beyond the end of the space itself.

A strong tenor of idealism was evident in works at NURTUREart, curated by Benjamin Evans, though this motif was not always comprehensible in the same way; the works here were by and large non-abstract, or at least not within the limits of a formalist bent. His own curatorial statement states that “These fourteen artists in- volve both optimism and melancholy, and reflect the tensions between doomed worlds, better places and personal mythologies. Themes of transformation and strategies of transformative experience run through the work and link it to the neighborhood that is transforming all around (and partly because of) them. Mike Estabrook’s video loop The Road to 'Nam is both entertaining and pensive, as it combines images of brutality in war and the dour countenances of Kissinger and Nixon with a Bob Hope and Bing Crosby song "If I Knew You Were Coming I’d Of Baked A Cake." We recognize the images from the front page of The New York Times, of a US Okie aiming his gun at a Viet Cong, with politicians thrown in for good visual sense; but the whole arrangement falls apart with the song resounding. It’s so cheery and chummy that war can almost be seen as a big party in which we laugh until we have to cry. Audrey Russel made a special installation on the adjoining rooftop that created a visual and physical spectacle which gallery guests had to step around as they talked, drank, and shared their experiences of the past evening’s activities. Made from pink foam insulation, a large wooden pylon and Xmas lights, Beam Tower with Pink Grass waved around the roof like the froth of an ever renewing tide. There is something very energizing about always living on the edge, engaging with what seems newly relevant. The Bushwick phenomenon has us looking for the next aesthetic event around every corner.

6/22/09

ANGIE ARLENE SMITH: SHADOWS OF THE HEART

In the tradition of the artist there are many aspects which make up a picture, many procedures and specialties which combine to create that specific illusion of reality called artifice. Yet not every artist is called upon to master them all, not even to become fascinated with a few of them. Some take it upon themselves to discern the qualities which prove the importance of only one specialty. For Angie Arlene Smith that has been landscape, or rather the paradox of perspectival contingencies which we usually regard as the backdrop for dramatic action. Smith is fascinated with the pictorial qualities which construct a scene possessed of mystery, foreboding, and complexity even when there are no persons present.

But there are no simple pastoral scenes here, everything is angle and shadow. Sometimes one little element of the picture seems to be coming to life, as if a tree branch or an outcropping of rocks were so vividly drawn they were beginning to move of their own volition. At other times we are certain, given the angles of the scenes, that no one passive or uninteresting could possibly inhabit them. There must be a conflict unfolding in such a place as she draws for us.


In one image a flower or shell like structure sits at the edge of a cliff, looking as if it is about to give birth to a new creature. There is no movement, no narrator to set the scenario up for us. The “pod” seems to balance on the edge of a cliff or float down a stream that’s about to pour out over the edge into illicit depth. Will it open and reveal its secrets, will it be dashed on the rocks below, or will it somehow float onward, opening not for us but for others?


In another image a strange mawkish hut sits amidst cragged rocks, holes in its roof showing it to be empty, but who knows? We can’t see everything from where the artist has situated us. Everything in the image is hardness and sharpness and there is a breathless quality to the very air surrounding the physical elements presented here.


In Smith’s largest work, she depicts a scene that is so complex it is nearly a microcosm. We see what appears to be a pier, with columns standing in deep water and streetlights barely illuminating the walkway above. Curving steps lead up from the water’s edge to a jumble of paved paths, winding caves, and above them all, an aerie from which a stranger looks out—but not over us, rather into the pale distance, into further areas of mystery yet undiscovered. At the far left side of this scene, following the pier, is a sheer rock face broken only by a high door with what look like prison bars inside, and above a set of empty cages and still further up, two more openings with craggy orifices, the shadows of which resemble figures; and with steps that seemingly lead nowhere.

Smith is a spinner of tales which have a mastery of dramaturgy at their core. Her images direct us to a place where knowledge is not as important as adventure; her shadows are the corridors of our own hearts.

5/19/09

TANEY RONIGER AT SLATE GALLERY

There is something very obstinate yet enduring in the work of Taney Roniger. Her recent exhibition “Stones and Ciphers” at Slate Gallery in Brooklyn brings together two bodies of work which share a similar aesthetic interest informed by scientific ideas. They manage a specific aspect of abstraction in which method is equal to madness. How else are we to perceive the finitude which characterizes this work, in which all color is limited to hues of black, white, gray, and sometimes sepia, as if the painting were no more than the printout of some military-industrial computer bank? Roniger doesn’t need words to transmit the values in her paintings. Perhaps because she wants to achieve the status of a document or an artifact--both products of excessive effort and detritus relevant to the passing of time.

We look into these images and we see both information and mystery. It makes perfect sense for an artist to be attracted to matters of abstract reality, yet the degree to which Roniger has extended this interest begs further analysis. Nature at this level offers an amazing clarity and symmetry that no other model can teach. The attraction of artists to elements of design is one aspect of this work. But Roniger is also fascinated by the appearance of scientific printouts, and on the algorithmic procedures which emerge from the systems used to measure random natural events. Despite their serial quality, their streamlined and machinelike structure, the fact that these images exist as the demonstrative subset for a sequence of otherwise unknowable events, they are especially admirable as a form of artistic expression.




Roniger gives her works oblique titles which resound with the respect she has for puzzles, whether logic or theory derived. One vertical work within The Cipher Series is titled Prisoner’s Dilemma and the reference is to a logic game in which two people, each of them accomplices in a crime, both tell exactly the same story, making both of them innocent and canceling out the notion that competition is the primary urge in normal social relations; that we have an instinctive need to protect ourselves. Perhaps Roniger is telling us that even at a molecular level, competition, i.e, the concept of kill or be killed, is not just the law of averages, but is the law in word and name. Matching system for system and obliqueness for obliqueness we cannot fail but we drawn into the web of aesthetic expectations that shrouds these works and keep us from being alienated by the streamlined and transparent quality they so easily evoke.





Of Roniger’s second body of work on view, The Stone Series, the best example was titled Embedded Form #1 which most resembles a hill, or even a mere stone, with its edge torn away to reveal a vein of some other ore, perhaps coal or gold, which reaches from one side to the other like the lines in a person’s hand, giving innate dimension to an otherwise consistent substrata of bubble forms that press together, creating a linkage of tangencies which seem to infer density and content. The less consistent vein interrupting them represents a void instead of an exception, a gesture of something flowing from one unknown origin into an uncertain future.

Each of these works combines structural with esthetic perspectives on a field of endeavor which is essentially abstract only because it exists below the level of an everyday visual commonplace. We cannot sense these images via sight, touch, or smell, and therefore we can only know them as textbook illustrations. What an artifact and a cipher both share is the quality of evidence, which adds to their beauty and also lends them a degree of authority that moves beyond cultural reference, manifesting equally as knowledge and inspiration.

For the gallery: www.slategallery.com

For the artist: www.concatenations.org

1/19/09

WOMEN OF TWILIGHT: THE PAINTINGS OF ADELA LEIBOWITZ

Life is a struggle for meaning. Sometimes we choose the struggle and sometimes the struggle chooses us. In the new exhibition of paintings by Adela Leibowitz, Rites of Passage, we are presented with various mise-en-scene in which a certain existential situation, heavily reliant upon dreams and myths, is provided for our elucidation. Whether they are treatises on the nature of being and existence, or dramas to titillate and mystify, they recommend a set of aesthetic and ontological prejudices, engaging with the vicissitudes of a socially constructed reality while not abandoning more nebulous states of being. Formally, the artist covers new ground, introducing experiments with dimension and scale, working smaller than she ever has before, which allows her to focus upon the actions of her characters as much as the settings and details which surround them. They may become reduced to pale ciphers but their circumstances are no less important. External reality is never what it seems in Leibowitz’s paintings, because certain layers of metaphor complicate an interpretation of personal and societal readings, which would otherwise expand the work’s cumulative meaning from within. 

THE HISTORY OF SIN (2008), Oil on linen, 16 x 20 inches




The History of Sin is a cornucopia of combined dramas in a typically Hieronymous Bosch-like view of reality, in which multiple human interactions commingle with nightmarish scenes, all within an idealized setting, a pond in the middle of the woods at the bottom of a huge tree. In one, two naked girls enact a lover’s quarrel, one of them kneeling in submission and repentance while the other, standing with her back turned to the other, her hands crossed behind her, looks back toward her repentant lover either in pity or judgment. Behind them a family lounges around as if on the grass, when in actuality they are portrayed within or upon the pond itself, in a manner reminiscent of Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur L’Herbe or Seurat’s La Grand Jatte in which bohemian couples and groups enjoy a visit to the manicured gardens of the Bourgeoise middle-class. On the far bank, two women engage in a rather violent sexual act, animal style, with one woman endowed with a penis and her head looking like a ravenous wolf, and the woman on the bottom at the other’s mercy, her limbs sinking into the soft ground, her head turned to the side as if in mourning, the face covered with a shroud like the figure of two people kissing in his 1928 painting The Lovers. Beside them, two parts of different bodies are painted in such complete ignominy, the upper torso and head of a woman, only her head, hands, and breasts visible below a protruding pike, like the kind used by medieval kings to display the corpses of hated enemies at the city gates, or for showing the plague-ridden bodies of the recently deceased as a warning to itinerant travelers against entering a forbidden zone. Next to it lays the front leg, from thigh to hoof, of a horse or goat. Beside all of these, nestled within a copse of trees, lies a large woman’s head depicted in black and white, this being the corporeal presence of the dreamer herself, the artist in an alter-ego, or some idealized heroine. The head is scaled larger than anything else in the picture except for the giant tree above them all, which may seem to intimate its role as a point of origin, symbolically and mythically, for the “nature” of the humanness on display. It also infers Ygdrasil, the great ash tree that holds together earth, heaven, and hell by its roots and branches in Nordic mythology. Despite the jumbled quality of these scenarios within the larger setting, and despite the off scale of their depiction, we encounter them as we would the flitting images of R.E.M sleep, half glimpsed from between closed eyelids, or invading the brain from various image banks such as great art from history, pornography, and repressed memories or tales of them read in books. 


MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (2008), Oil on linen, 12 x 16 inches

SCHADENFREUDE (retitled as "Masque of The Red Death") depicts a large, ornately decorated ballroom with a black and white checked floor pattern and a high balcony above it, ringed by entrances with arches and cupolas. In the middle of the room stands a large shelf split into equally square sections, and within each berth stands a single woman. Every berth is full but there are a few women left standing in the middle of this very large room, while others gather on the balcony far above, watching to see what they will do. Like the childhood game of Musical Chairs, in which people walk around a circle of chairs, waiting for the music to end before dashing to grab a seat, always leaving one person with nowhere to sit. The social embarrassment caused by always being the one left out is strikingly similar to those unhappy souls who are the last to be picked for sports teams, the ones left sitting at dances, and the ones who are never asked out, left to pine on their own, dispossessed before having ever had a chance to succeed. The grandiosity of the shelf structure in this painting infers the endless tiers of a tower of Babel, or the stacked walls of an exhibition at the Louvre, each image no greater than any other. The fact that no faces are obvious in this painting, not of the players themselves whether caged or free, and neither of the spectators, shows us that its theme is not about individuality, but about the m├ętier and the vicissitudes of a socially constructed game, whose only result is the realization that one never stop playing. 


GHOST TOWN (2008), Oil on linen, 12 x 16 inches

In ANNIE OAKLEY CLAN (retitled as "Ghost Town") we have a scene out of history and myth both. The setting is an anonymous Old West town, replete with blind shop windows, a stage coach, and a dusty main street only scant yards away from the endless American desert. At this point, however, the similarity to folklore and Hollywood movies ends, and a curious reversal of values intervenes on behalf of a need to perversely skewer traditional imagery. In the middle of the serene main street, along with a stagecoach bereft of horses or a driver, as well as the image of a fully clothed woman seemingly pining away for some absent hero, there is a large fire burning with twenty foot flames, around which stand or crouch a group of lithe and beautiful naked women. They are completely oblivious of the sad woman, and of any other implied narrative, or mythical drama, which such a setting naturally implies. Like cowboys sitting around a fire at night, they have a sense of repose, and an engagement with the hypnotic quality of the fire, which is assumed to be prototypically masculine. They are anti-heroines, typifying the tenacity of men, whose reliance upon temperament keeps them safe. Yet the statement here is a feminist one, a revision of sexually imposed standards of male-versus-female roles. 

A VISION (2008), Oil on linen, 12 x 16 inches

In THE LITTLE DEATH (retitled as "A Vision") we have what, in any other context, might be termed a domestic setting, but which in this instance is a statement on matters of existence. Two women stand at opposite ends of the same large room, an upper floor with atelier windows and wood paneling. The one in the background looks to be older, possibly a mother, governess or even a landlady, though she has a less-than matronly quality about her. Her type of dress is a generation removed from that of another woman in the foreground, whose girdle is less extremely buttressed, and whose style of address identifies her as more modern in sensibility. Yet the grimness of the older woman is matched in the younger’s expression of distraught horror. Leibowitz has painted her head of a sync with her body, as if she were undergoing a transformation which surprised even her. The disjunction of her mental state from her social surroundings, as if she were trapped in a moment of esthetic stasis. 

I DREAMPT I WENT TO MANDERLY AGAIN (2008), Oil on linen, 28 x 38 inches

THE MIDDLE SISTER (retitled as "I Dreampt I Went To Manderly Again") represents a transitional model from her previous body of work, in which psychological dramas are presented with the interior reality of the character either in jeopardy from, or psychically enhanced by, a comparison with the visual aesthetics of architecture, dress, and landscape. The setting is the English countryside, properly trimmed and lush, yet with everything just a little too neat, the lines too sharp, the flowers lacking color. The scene takes place in the wide front yard of a country estate, with the mansion looming in the background, mist rising in the early morning to make dew in the grass, and two members of the family looking at a figure in the immediate foreground, a young girl in a white dress who appears to have died in the weeds by the side of the road. The house itself represents the standard of Enlightenment thinking, nearly square, with every window exactly scaled to present a series of golden means. The women looking on from center stage are seemingly sisters, their strict decorum and similarity of dress the result of a familial responsibility to the manner of appearances. Their sister, the one laying wanly in the gutter, is perhaps the one who didn’t matter, whose role was neither as scion of the family or as younger caretaker, but as emotional filler for the dynamic between them. She has perished, like Ophelia did, for being typically irrelevant despite her own needs. In escaping her own reality she infuses it with a drama that is all her own, even if it can have only one final result. 

In the paintings of Adele Leibowitz we are at first greeted with a world of fantastic happenstance and narrative that is divorced from the mean and the mundane. Leibowitz has the innate ability to connect with degrees of metaphor which have not been typically allowed into the interactions of daily life, which are usually buried under academic models of psychology or sociology, or repressed for being essentially metaphysical or perverse. Her images invade the real while they accrue meaning, giving us due access to both the language of artistic influence and the language of female reflection--a profound link to the sources of consciousness.

Press Release text for the solo exhibition "Adela Leibowitz: Rites of Passage" at 33 Bond Gallery, New York, January 19-February 21, 2009




BIO AND INFO

David Gibson is a writer and curator native-born and bred in New York City, the New York Art World, and the greater world extending in all directions. He and Jennifer Junkermeier recently curated the exhibition “Beauty’s Burden” at The Ernest Rubenstein Gallery of the Educational Alliance. He is availlable to write essays for artist and gallery websites and catalogues.