11/18/12

BEAUTY IN THE VORTEX : THE PAINTINGS OF CARTER HODGKIN


The nature of abstraction is that it diverges from a representation of the natural world in order to achieve its aims. It may begin with the real—with what we accept as a real object, event, or fact, and then break down into constituent parts that in themselves hold as much realistic value as the quarks that make up all matter, but for whom we can ascribe no specific appearance. The distance between an object and its portrayal in art is a degree of abstraction, and likewise the distance between knowledge and experience is also abstraction.
In the new series of paintings by Carter Hodgkin, we are presented with an abstract aesthetic borrowed from a sphere of encounter not belonging to everyday life. Hodgkin likes to mine real localities that result in forms that she can pick depending upon their rate of natural occurrence, their material state, and their usefulness to us as facts.

Hodgkin refers to the designs in her paintings as referencing “cosmic collisions,” in which a locus of gravity between certain planetary bodies causes random attraction of smaller fragments, as well as gravitational interruptions by asteroids shooting away from suns that have gone supernova millions of miles apart from one another. All the various elements are pulled together by these gravitational arenas, creating a dense inertia that creates endless interactions with explosive and colorful results.

Hodgkin is specifically attracted to what I call the “esthetic of the non-event’ which could otherwise be described as any event, however distant or miniscule, happening in a location or zone far removed from the sensory or causal context of the everyday. It could be the formation of cells in the blood or the destruction of random elements of the concrete universe at great alienation from life on earth. The merging, metamorphosis, and dissolution of matter, are of primary interest to an artist devoted to the medium and practices of abstraction because they root out the actual bases  for it, connecting the artist to the world.

The practice of painting in Hodgkin’s case becomes more than an immersion in idealized form, but a partnering with real events that require their depiction in art in order to be understood as real and symbolic. Her new body of work is comprised of drawings and paintings that are matched to a series on ongoing digital animations that actually track, and stylistically narrate, the material transformations themselves. However, there yet remains a variable of the unknown, even of the pictorially impossible in her new work, and it is this degree of uncertainty, as well as the forms themselves, that drives her to explore them. 

There is an evolutionary spirit alive in this work, tracking the variables of creation and destruction, and the appearance of disorder in a greater order than can nominally be imagined. Hodgkin starts at the periphery of the imagined event, taking one color of paint at a time and tracing a gesture toward an unspecific latitude where she feels the event must occur. Each step toward the event is a single mark and all the marks of a single line are by necessity uniform and precise. As random processions of marks converge at a single location, it becomes cumulatively massive, alternating in the approaching materials, and then darkening and becoming dense and mysterious. This is the very beginning of what will become a planet. Yet for now all it needs be is a miracle in the making. Hodgkin is alone in the vortex but takes us with her. There is beauty here which she alone can show us. 

8/8/12

SHELF LIFE: THE CATCHER IN THE RYE


Copyright Little Brown and Company 1991



This column focuses upon those books that have had a role in developing how we think about the world.


In my particular experience they tend to be novels, with a book of poems or nonfiction work on intellectual history thrown in. But by and large I have lived my ‘life of the mind’ through Fiction—a misnomer if there ever were one. What this implies is that I prefer fantasy to reality. Rather, I find more reality in what are essentially stories, than I do in factual accounts, because a novel involves a degree of artifice, whereas a newspapers or history books present facts, but mask their intentions by what they specifically say. The novel speaks about the world; about the minds of men and women, children, sometimes animals; about landscape and climate; history and memory; while at the same time also presenting facts and poetry in the service of truth.    

Each novel has in turn its own truth, characterized by the author’s choice of language used to depict characters, find their voices, and carry the plot forward. I can think of few novels that I read during my youth that carried more emotional weight than J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. It is an extremely banal story told by a seventeen-year-old home for the holidays and waiting to tell his parents that he has been expelled from yet another prep school. We have him in various experiences meeting up with girls he knows, getting drunk, and taking cabs everywhere.
Banal action combined with active reflection is in fact the hallmark of the accepted literary masterpiece, for even though events may not seem special, it is the person involved in them who compels us, and how the accrual of emotional responses they have to such events produces an emotional response that forces them to interact either with the social dynamic inherent in their surroundings, or the regard for truth in themselves. The process of self-recognition lends even the most ignorant of souls through a continuum of revelation. 

Much of what we need to know of our protagonist is limited by his vocabulary, but even at that level, he tells us about his frame of mind in every phrase. There are facts that he announces about his family despite his initial unwillingness to do so. One assumes these are the facts he cares about.  He has an old brother named D.B. who writes terrific short stories but who sold himself out by moving to Hollywood to write screenplays. He had a brother named Allie whom he really loved but who died of Leukemia, and he has a little sister named Phoebe who he’s crazy about.
Everything in Holden’s perspective falls under a few basic descriptions, and though his experiences are vivid, and he feels the repercussions of them even before he is finished having them, people are either ‘grand’ or ‘phony.’ Holden likes things that are real, and people who are without pretention. He is unfazed by the movies or theatre, or any who’s really an authority in what they do because sooner or later they start taking themselves too seriously and become a ‘phony’. He sees people trying to become more than they are, and he despises them for it. Likewise, he is appreciative of anyone who is sincere, and likes to do simple things, and does them well, like playing checkers, dancing the two step, or whistling. It’s clear that this is the perspective of someone who has not yet graduated to adult life.
The world that we see through Holden is mostly the one he has no choice but to inhabit, and there are few joys for him, as he has barricaded himself away from the usual distractions. There are girls that he likes, and there is his kid sister, Phoebe, who ‘knocks me out’. He is always judging someone’s actions, and he turns every encounter in the novel into good and bad versions of people. He very much lives inside his own head, and he is always dreaming up film-like scenarios in which he gets shot and has to stumble around holding his guts in when he’s really just drunk and lonely and walking in the rain; or he has a fantasy of running away with a girl he likes, and they both end up living like deaf mutes, not talking to anyone else and only communicating by writing each other notes. He only comes to his senses when he realizes that his most recent fantasy has inspired his sweet little sister to join him in his fantastic adventures. He knows they’re all folderol, just stories he tells, and because she loves him so, she believes him. That’s when he decides to go home and admit to his parents his most recent transgression, and take the consequences, which result in therapy.
Holden is in love with innocence, with the sentimental utility of his own memories, and with certain abstract facts, like where the ducks that live in the lagoon in Central Park go when it freezes up. He is, if anything, an essentialist, and is always a measuring stick to guide us through a hall of fame of past ‘phonies’. His perfect touchstone in all this is his dear little sister Phoebe, and the final scene has him watchng her riding the carousel in Central Park, trying to catch the brass ring which, as anyone knows, gives you a free ride.
I will admit that when I was fifteen years old I had a minor obsession with this book, so going back and reading it was a bit of a revelation. It was charming and funny and silly and youthful, and instead of reminding me of lost youth, it made me realize how much I still have in common with myself when I was teenager. Holden and I are brothers of the city after all, we both went to private high schools, had to be adults before our time, and had an idea about how rebellion could shape us, though we didn’t yet have the sophistication to manage it. 
Emerson said it best in Self-Reliance: “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members.” Holden Caulfield is a man in the making, a boy shaking himself off from his childhood while still revering the things that make childhood worthwhile and adulthood suspicious. He’s conscious of the conspiracy against his own manhood, as he itemizes the ‘grand’ and the ‘phony’ types en route to a place of relative peace.

6/15/12

THROUGH THE VEIL: THE PAINTINGS OF DANIEL SEWELL




The contemporary artist, given a particular education and overall attitude toward what is considered historically important today, may struggle to communicate in terms that challenge them formally while at the same time addressing the need for a creative language. They may find themselves reacting to the scene overall or to specific artists who are lauded as the paradigmatic models for ‘quality’. In this situation, one expects to compete not for a position of mastery, or to produce a new generational legacy, but only to hold onto whatever degree of notoriety is bestowed upon them. Although genius is still a prized quality, it has become a quantifiable commodity, and not the ambiguous measure of idiosyncrasy that it once was. It becomes necessary for the artist of vision to look back upon art history for cues as to how to express oneself. In the case of Daniel Sewell, he chose Cubism as a creative language to reinvigorate a contemporary dialogue on form, esthetics, and the uses of history. 

In order to properly investigate his work, it becomes necessary to both unearth the systematic approach Sewell has toward epochal forms of artistic expression that are alienated from contemporary aesthetic ideologies. Sewell investigates Cubism as a model for his own creativity while also providing a template, or parable, for the comprehension of Cubism from the chronological and ideological distance of a century later. In terms of progress, there has been as much change in art, its ideas, and the perception of it since then as there was at that moment. Sewell’s process combines an intentional historicity with re-investigation of the formal terms of depiction in Cubism as simultaneously portentous and playful. 




Sewell’s initial attempts to model a style of image-making through the veil of Cubism include ‘Musketeer’ (2004) and ‘Head’ (2006), both simple images of a face in black on a white background. The directness of the image works against its visibility, as the overlapping stencils and the random spray of air sensitive paint create moody halos or shadows, like dirt on a relic, transforming them despite their mutability into instant classics. 

Three years later, Sewell arrived at the body of work he initially called “What Would Pablo Picasso Do?” (exhibited under the title “PP Chop’d and Screwed”). These consist of a set of four heads, which are the most human part of any anatomy. They imply scale of the implied figure, a staging of emotional expression, and themes such as pathos or bathos, the sublime or the grotesque, in ways that an oblique figure or an empty landscape would lack. The four heads included here were all completed in one sitting, and the idea was to treat all of Picasso’s forms not as warped caricatures but as structured illustrations with a satirical bent, much as Dante or Bocaccio drew mocking caricatures of people from society into their epic poems. 

A perspective on the social role of the images themselves mirrored and complemented by their grotesque departure from the real allowed Sewell to understand how he could use them. Because he was working from a template based on a historically recognized body of work, Sewell could ‘play around with choices that are possible but not made yet. I could play with a possible decision of his, because all the parameters are ready and in-place. The playing is improvised and results in changing an angle, changing a series of profiles, or perspectives, or even reversing positing and negative spaces. But with these four heads I built up the axes of the eyes nose and mouth, and just improvised how those axes could be stacked up.’ Figuring out a system for the gestures and working them into a range of compositions that idiosyncratically juxtapose Picasso’s discipline with Sewell’s own choice of forms is the representative breadth of his accomplishment. Watching a studio visit with the artist in which he presents the basic materials for his spray paint stencils and then sketches out the process by which he conceptually and structurally builds the stencil forms, one is made to feel that we are talking in an entirely different language; that he is somehow incorporating not only physiological but also architectural plans or geometrical diagrams into it. The parts themselves are born in complexity, mechanical yet mute artifacts in a remaking of historical imperatives. The finished product is transformative of their combined use. The scaled, dimensional, and shaded elements of the rendering itself are central to any real appreciation of what Cubism achieved in its time. Sewell reduces them by making the collaged elements into a stencil and then alternating the silhouette of his stencil to give gradients of shadow to his images, which he combines sometimes with a flipping or rotation or doubling of the image to create a funhouse esthetic. 



Sewell’s “Two Nudes” (2011), for instance, are mirror reflections of the same form creating a chorus line of grotesque plays on the modernist ideal fracturing the classical ideal of the Nude with all its references to sensuality immersed in systemic thinking about the depiction of beauty; technique overrides passion; here a passion for ugliness imposes itself upon our perception of a nude. We take it on faith that the form is what Sewell says it is, even as his depiction resists the luxury of sensuality. 

Likewise, “Double Portrait” depicts what seem like crystalline or origami approximations of a moon-faced geisha girl, a nod to the hushes sensuality of Romantic source material while its start simple black lines upon a golden yellow paper are reminiscent of gift wrapping, so the alien sexiness is both a distancing and a seduction at the same time. 




On the other end of the perceptual spectrum are his “Skull” series, in which a cranium shaped stencil depicts the mortality of a face while somehow still implying both the face and the presence of humanity in the most minimal details, along with a skewed perspective in which we view the skull as if down a deep well, or a shallow grave on a foggy night. In one composition we even spy the face of the Minotaur, Picasso’s own myth of the godhead. 


In his most recent series, Sewell does away with the spray paint altogether and uses the stencils themselves as shadow puppets, scanning them in close up to depict both the sectional arabesques they are used for and to imply a ghostly anthropomorphism. Both “Nude” and “Reclining Nude” (both 2012) utilize the received wisdom of forms that the artist names and therefore bestows upon them the authority of presence even if only the barest of means are materially present. These few scraps of paper, painted over and over again not for their own sake as decoration, but as the skein through which a language of forms can be delivered, are symbolically pure and loaded at the same time. They bear the markings of their role and are yet imbued with a persona by their unorthodox portrayal. 

Daniel Sewell places his talents at the service of art and not the market; but he has transformed himself into an archivist and anthropologist of art historical ideas that he deems necessary to the continued understanding of what role art can possess today. His remodeling of Cubism creates a new dialogue for the understanding of form, an appreciation of the limits and biases that construct beauty, and how history presents us not only with knowledge but with mysteries that it is our role to unravel. 

5/10/12

PROFILE: HRVOJE SLOVENC

The photographs of Hrvoje Slovenc are partly molded by his immigration from Croatia to the United States and the accumulated social attitudes from an outsider’s perspective, as they also are by the formal models of Yale mentors Gregory Crewdson and Philip Lorca diCorcia. A master’s degree in biochemistry from The University of Zagreb in 2000 prior to emigrating here to pursue a passion for photography perhaps led him to exactly the sort of understated link between appearances and relationships and the social attitudes that underlie them, codifying and commingling the degree of meaning that is unseen except after long study. 
Untitled IV (Tea Party), 30 x 97 inches

“Home Theater” presents a series of photographic narratives with its characters mainly absent. The spaces are charged with an off-stage dramaturgy that is revealed as the daily and ritualistic practice of S&M. The role-playing becomes more important than the terminology as we are made to understand that the setting, combined with the aesthetic fetishizing of all places and appearances leads the viewer to a greater understanding of what intimacy means. Certainly these roles, magnified by the specificity of their role in sexual gratification, exist in otherwise “normal” situations, though they are nebulous and undefined, relating to the social relationship extending beyond private quarters rather than between two people with desires that do not mix with their communal roles outside the home.
Untitled VIII (Squeaky Clean), 30 x 79 inches

One photograph, titled October Bliss depicts a room that contains a wildlife mural like something out of a 1950s issue of Field and Stream: deer and ducks frolicking in the tall grass. In front sits a low-slung office chair with manacles hung from the ceiling on either side, just above shoulder height. The room has drawn curtains with a single bare bulb on one side surrounded by neat stacks and obsessive piles of hundreds of books. The empty chair suggests the seated person may be subject to either humiliation or inculcation. In Squeaks Clean we are presented with an image of a basement, replete with the meters that measure electricity and heat in the house above, and a copse of standing mops, their heads up, looking like a clique of whispering teenagers. A black metal pole bisects the image into two planes, with an ominous pile of full black garbage bags directly behind it, and a makeshift bed made from a thick wood table. Tea Blessing presents a triptych of a crumbled bed with ornate chinoiserie sheets, cupboards filled with fine china bowls arranged with obsessive orderliness, and between them, a naked man facing toward the far wall, his back covered in scars presumably from beatings.

Untitled IV (Tea Party), 30 x 97 inches

Slovenc is fascinated with the hidden world of socialized interaction, in which minute details that make up a perverted domesticity are the dramaturgical chemistry of our real vitality. His “Home Theater” provides a close look into the subversive sexual world, not as symptom of everyday reality, but as the decoration of it. 

(C) Artillery Magazine, June-July 2012

3/8/12

Jason Middlebrook at DODGE Gallery



Like abandoned totem poles, the woodbased sculptures that comprise Jason Middlebrook’s first solo exhibition at Dodge mostly lean against the broad white walls like the planks that they are. He turns a simply serviceable object into an example of nature as a source for abstract form, marrying its original silhouette and texture to a series of colorful and evocative markings that accrue the potential for esthetic enjoyment.

In Once again a version of nature through my eyes (2011), Middlebrook turns a randomly selected silhouette into a metaphorical rendition on the nature of wood. In its simplicity of line and its denial of illustration it brought to mind the early white-and-black line paintings of Frank Stella; but there is a visual heaviness in the raw surface. A plank becomes a seismic map of time as recorded in the pulp of the wood itself.

Vertical Landscape Painting (2011) possesses a certain feminine grace as it reaches gracefully from root to branches from which one can trace the structure of its growth. Middlebrook has matched this one with symbols that suggest cosmic or molecular motion, a sequence of linked diamonds over a hush of spiraled lines, all of them in the black and green shades of a Malachite stone. These simple forms, immanently drawn, throb from within the imagined spirit of the tree.

Finding Square (2011) is perhaps the most intentionally constructed. Four planks have been cut and beveled to form a square with a center that is delineated by the rough bark normally associated with the exterior of a tree. Between the bark and the outer edge are a series of straight red lines that look like they are echoing the force of an event which, unseen by human eyes, is taking place in symbolic rather than real space. The forest is a place of symbols, and in Freudian language, it is the origin of innocence, where we return to be born again. Middlebrook’s planks resolve to be symbols for an en masse forest, where we discover what content really means. 

3/6/12

MICHAEL ZANSKY "AMERICAN PANOPTICON" AT HAMPDEN GALLERY, AMHERST MA




The installations of Michael Zansky achieve a high degree of empirical encounter that combine paradox and spectacle with an air toward transcendence. “American Panopticon" at The Hampden Gallery of The University of Massachusetts in Amherst presents the karmic transgressions a of a popular sports figure as a rumination on the shortcomings of hero worship, presenting a vivid and macabre scenario combining dramaturgy and totemism into a metaphor that questions the very fate of the soul.  
   The person’s name in the title of this artwork was a popular sports figure, a quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons football team, who was tried and convicted of running a corporation of kennels that were a front for the criminal enterprise of running dog fight clubs. As a sports figure, a success story in his own right, it was not only ethically negligent for him to be involved in such a venture, but it was also a betrayal of the values that contribute to our appreciation of such persons as role models in comparison to our own workaday lives. Not only did Vick break laws and transgress ethical boundaries, but did so with little regard for the sensitivities of his many fans or for the lives of the many dogs which he put into jeopardy.    
   Two elements make up the installation: a projection of a silhouette of a dog obscured on the side and magnified on the other by large industrial lenses, with its brooding shadow spread out on the wall behind it. The other is an extremely bright and intense searchlight that wanders across an opposite wall, floating down to the floor; disappearing momentarily; appearing and rising, then traveling to the right; eclipsed by the corner; moving back out again; and then up and away.
   These two projects are each a depiction of karma, and so referred to as “the transmigration of the soul” and what Buddhists in particular describe as “stream of consciousness.” One, the light, is the soul in motion, wandering through the universe, limited by the frame of mortality, but always moving from birth to rebirth. The spotlight is large and bright and seems to love quirkily, with meaning but without specific intent. Many times it disappears from sight, and eventually it fades altogether, or at least our understanding of it does. The spotlight is radically contrasted with the refracted and projected image of the dog. If we look close we can see the transformation that Vick takes from humanity to beastliness. There is a trace of pain in the eyes of this effigy, and a weariness as it leans down to stand on all fours. From afar we see only a slim and penitent creature that exists to fulfill a specific bidding, whether as a beast or burden or as man’s best friend. We gaze back and forth between the light and the shadow, slowly discerning their obscure connection, distracted and compelled by each.

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.