GALLERIESby Tomassio Longhi, John Hawke, and Jennifer Coates
LESLIE BRACK: ART IN AMERICA | PLUS ULTRA GALLERY
When an artist makes a painting of a collage they betray their split personality. The evil collagist is often a voracious and perverse consumer of mass-produced images, erasing value distinctions between beer and spirituality, pets and minimalism with sharp scissor cuts and suave glue jobs. Conversely, the angelic depiction faithfully observes and records their two-dimensional still life, creating a smoother, slower version of the glossy original. Leslie Brack’s recent show of small oil paintings of collages, entitled Art in America, depicts an idiosyncratic array of images (a Led Zeppelin album cover, a postcard of Miami at sunset, a Gerhard Richter painting) that serve as grounds over which figures, both animal and celebrity, or text, cut and pasted, ransom-note style, are overlaid.
For instance, in “My Name Is” the self-referential phrase, repeated twice, is superimposed on a grisaille highway landscape. The letters were carefully excised from magazines, each in a different font, each with their own past life: Their histories are evident from bits of background left surrounding them—a yellow E came from a hot red zone, a white N sat on pink jellybeans. “My Name Is” is apparently a quote from an Eminem song, and the grisaille landscape was originally a black and white Jack Pierson photograph. “My Name Is” certainly does not belong to Eminem, so does it matter that he is being quoted? And a black and white, generic highway to nowhere is a common enough image, so does it matter that Jack Pierson is the art reference? Maybe, maybe not. What does matter is that someone once stood in front of that highway and honored its empty, affectless melancholy, and Brack wanted us to know it wasn’t her. And someone or something was trying to tell us their name in order to be locatable, recognizable, but again, it wasn’t the artist.
Yet for all of this postmodern remove, Brack’s paintings remain warm and chatty. Her dutiful renderings are painted with a buoyant, casually precise hand and incorporate a limited and autobiographical continuum of subjects such as fashion, beer drinking, pot smoking, and pop music in addition to art. For Brack, painting a collage seems to be one link on a complicated chain of visual consumption and recycling where leisure time preoccupations stand in for meta-commentary. —Jennifer Coates
ELIZABETH CAMPBELL: SAME AS ME | ROEBLING HALL
In her exhibition at Roebling Hall entitled Same as Me, Elizabeth Campbell enacts secret other lives and lingers on their attendant details. Self-effacing despite being the focus of the camera, alone even amongst others, and resigned to her existential predicament, Campbell appears in three simultaneous video projections as alternate versions of herself through the course of a day. The 15-minute loop follows her through the daily rituals of an artist, a vacationer, a suburbanite, and a career woman, all plausible roles that the artist plays with casual familiarity. The parallel action unfolds on three walls in humorous syncopation with landscapes such as Monument Valley, a generic American suburb, and a nameless European city serving as passive settings. Loosely divided into sequences, the video chronicles behavior like hair adjusting, eating, and walking, in slight variations and loose synchrony. At times the action reads from left to right: Three different Campbells in three different outfits lay on three different beds, itching then tapping their legs in a staggered phrase. Or three cars parked at three totally different parking meters: As the coins are dropped in the slots, you realized how you have previously taken parking meters and their singular, sculptural functionality for granted.
The three Campbells seem inured to their environments. They are anonymous, self-contained entities, until their seemingly random and unfocused behavior coheres into a silent mini-epiphany. During a calmly paranoid mise-en-abyme, they focus their attention on something outside their immediate tasks. The multiple Campbells work quietly at their respective computers until yelling swells in the background. Tentative but curious, they look around and get up to investigate. Exiting their work spaces—a loft office, a corporate building, a shed-like studio—and never determining the source of the yelling, they are each distracted by flowers. The corporate woman finds a weed in the gravel near the entrance to her building, the artist finds a flower in a garden outside her studio, and the loft worker finds a flower in a vase on the floor. They lean over, one at a time, to slowly take in the scent and look closely.
Campbell is obsessed with counting, but not the excessive, numbing kind that siphons away content. Rather than using repetition for its own sake, she subdivides and multiplies human behavior and its ecosystems by poignant twos, threes, and fours, making unlikely comparisons and creating engaging visual poetry. She notices everything and it is happily contagious. —Jennifer Coates
THE TRUTH IN PAINTING
METATEXT | GREELEY SQUARE GALLERY
Why Jacques Derrida would choose painting as a vehicle through which to play his parlor games of deconstructionist rhetoric is an odd question. Perhaps it is an ironic reference to Picasso’s statement that “art is a lie that helps one see the truth.” The above-mentioned Derrida essay “The Truth in Painting,” in actuality has everything to do with language and its manipulation, and virtually nothing to do with paint.
The recent paintings of Chris Chambers, though fabricated by a painter who also writes extensively about art, seem to evade simplistic linguistic explanation and instead rely on a very specialized vocabulary of painted pictographs, emblems, and icons to express their content. As a working critic as well as painter, Chambers is perhaps more conversant in the current practices in painting than all but a rare few who have vested interests in staying abreast of prevailing developments. Even the artist, who regularly writes thousands of words reviewing and critiquing various shows and personalities in the art world, seems somewhat at a lack of words when it comes to describing the goals he’s after with his recent series of work. Perhaps this represents the dichotomy that painting finds itself in today, in this age of “new media.” Much of this “new media” art production (as opposed to art creation) is involved with language, narrative, philosophy, or politics, and it functions first and foremost as an extenuation of literature. This does present a conundrum for those of us who endeavor to write about painting in a way that is understandable to the average person, not steeped in the syntactical machinations of modern French philosophy. Chambers admits that he’s trying to develop new techniques and motifs that will delineate his unique place in the current scene, while at the same time remaining devoted to the ten thousand-year tradition of painting. When asked if he had doubts about the position of contemporary painting he stated, “In light of the developments in ‘new media’ it’s like the challenge of John Henry, I can’t beat technology. If you don’t ride the wave you get crushed. The novelty (of ‘new media’) will wear off and there’s not that much difference between painting, photography, or video anyway. I personally like the tactile sensation of paint. I like the way it feels, the way it looks, the way it smells. Everyone paints in kindergarten, but few continue on to mastery, and from there on to magic.”
It became apparent as we continued the conversation that there has also been a spiritual aspect to the work that has become more manifest with maturity.
“I was never an Abstract Expressionist. It’s not splashy abstraction with freeform drips and stuff. The paintings are not illustrations, they are more surrealist in their assigning meaning afterwards, allowing things to happen, allowing figures and symbols and stories to be told, and figuring out morals afterwards. There is a sort of sci-fi aspect to the work, basically the same as I’ve always done, sort of like a universal life presence. There are three aspects of imagery to the work: plants, animals, and technology. The technology isn’t like rocket science, but more biological, who and what we are, and what our intellects have rationalized, the cosmic relationship of everything. Frequently things are in pairs, which can create dichotomies. For example, the halo over the evil-looking mask. The mask has developed from this universal spirit or being I’ve been painting my entire adult life in various forms. I feel like I’m approaching my life’s work. I’m not quite there yet but I can see it looming on the horizon. Someone like Keith Haring was able to reach his apex very young and really achieve it 100 percent and do some very powerful and strong stuff. He was able to pull off something that was very simplistic, aimed at the very base level and it had mass appeal. I think that I’ve always aimed for something a bit more lofty, and it’s taken me a while to get there. I read somewhere that style is what happens when you aren’t trying. I have a certain level of comfort and confidence that I can pull off a good painting without having a preconceived notion of what it’s going to be. There’s a certain amount of faith involved.” If painting can be a record of a certain time and place then perhaps the truths embodied in these works are truths that give up their meanings to those receptive to the idiom of contemporary painting in New York in the year 2002. —James Kalm
KAREN DOLMANISTH AND DEBORAH MASTERS: SACRED MATTER | SMACK MELLON STUDIOS
Karen Dolmanisth and Deborah Masters serve up spirituality by the dumpster load in this ambitious exhibition. As one enters, one is immersed in their private world of personal icons and pantheist mysticism, an experience that quickly recalls having your head held underwater. Mandala arrangements of corn, bone, and broken glass cover the floor, and tables crowded with totemic objects line the walls. From the ceilings, polished cherry sticks and giant lumpy heads hang by fishing line. One has to admire the manic energy which went into clotting the enormous Smack Mellon space to such a fantastic degree, and if the exhibition had been leavened by a little bit of humor the show could be accepted as people just “doing their thing.” But this is not the case. Instead these artists’ soupy mix-mastering of every spiritualist cliché aims to “lead us through an exploration of finding what is sacred in living and dying.”
Masters has created 15 individual altars devoted to individual themes such as the Power Woman Altar, Otto’s Altar, the Mexican Childhood Altar, and the Machismo Altar. It is hard to differentiate the altars, and if you don’t come across the title list at the desk, you might easily mistake the entire gallery room for an East Village junk shop. Contrary to the artist’s intent, the objects on display do not create resonating sacred presences but instead bombard the senses with myriad eclectic varieties of religious bric-a-brac and personal memorabilia. It is impossible to sort through the associations and implications of the literally hundreds of objects on display, and one soon wearies of the effort, as the objects, being grouped by their personal associations of the artist, are imbued with only tangential contextual significance to the altar’s theme. Instead of the feeling of quietness and potency which one might associate with sacred objects, the habits of voracious acquisitiveness and overabundance are instead displayed—peculiarly American sacred values. This concatenation of objects may be appropriate at an impromptu memorial, like the one which sprang up at the Shanksville, Pennsylvania 9/11 crash site, where the field of objects becomes a space for collective private remembrance; in an art gallery, however, the expectations are different, and there we rightfully expect a degree of criticality and historical consciousness beyond the diaristic gesture, however heartfelt.
Dolmanisth’s floor accumulations, mandalas, and hanging branches are accompanied by a long performance/ritual by the artist, in which she crushes purple berries, makes hand prints with the ink, and pushes loose corn around with her feet, all of which is accompanied by warbling Celtic music from a sound system. Some of her arrangements are elegant and engaging, such as some dot paintings executed on leaves as well as the color-coded floor scatterings (á la Tony Cragg). However, the heavy rainbow gathering sentiment which hangs in the air like cheap incense makes it difficult to view the objects separate from their pretentious, yet vaguely defined, aspiration to “channel higher, deeper truths, realities, meanings, and mysteries.” The problem with organizing work around “ancient beliefs” is precisely that the values and culture that informed such practices are no longer extant. Ritual based on hollow totems is merely exhibitionism, and despite the sacred pretense, this seems to be largely the case here. —John Hawke
SCI-FI AND GARDENS: SUSAN GRAHAM AND JULIANNE SWARTZ | SCHROEDER ROMERO, THROUGH OCTOBER 21
Susan Graham and Julianne Swartz offer two different visions of ethereal, tenuous realties that meet momentarily in passing. Graham presents small, dreamy cyanotypes, delicate sculptures, and hypnotic videos. Swartz assembles an elegant installation with a pitiable life span out of simple elements.
Graham’s show, New Small Works, is dominated by 15 attractive cyanotypes of romantic sci-fi dreamscapes. The spare, monochromatic images, done in small editions of three and five, depict futuristic devices in a barren, desert-like landscape. Planets, satellites, observatories, and skyscrapers shimmer in the atmospheric vistas. Graham’s grainy images, as if pulled from a live video feed, evoke a real sense of place, however imaginary.
Her two videos, super-8 transfers, add to the cinematic feel of the cyanotypes, and extend the narrative possibilities. In “Approximations-Dream Sequence 1,” a woman looks blankly at a mysterious, darkened doorway. In the flickering light, her features appear apprehensive. Nothing happens, only the possibility of passing through or beyond. Meanwhile “Squall,” a video projection on a small transparent cube, captures a storm of color and light in Graham’s odd world. Both films appear to be made very simply. They speak to the economy of Graham’s process, as she makes a world out of simple means, without expensive technology.
Similarly, Julianne Swartz spins a delicate web of illusion and perception out of a garden, mirrors, lenses, and glass. The site-specific installation, “Garden Details, Imported and Compressed,” creates an ethereal reality out of the commonplace. By merging two separate gardens into the gallery space through mirrors and lenses focused on translucent glass, Swartz creates “painterly” compositions. On three progressively smaller glass plates, inverted views of two rooftop gardens are projected by small lenses. The projection devices are delicately hung with filament. As the viewer approaches the gardens, the faded illusions retreat, growing smaller. The installation engages art history on a surprising number of levels, from its relentless comparison of image and reality to painting’s relationship with photography. The installation seems to grow out of the very real confines of New York living, and the necessary invention of distorting, stretching, and moving space. Swartz brings the garden around corners, an impossible view made real, and this is exactly what Graham does in another way.
Both shows engage time and notions of reality, but they start and end in very different places. Graham travels through her imagination, capturing a reality through photography and sculpture. Swartz inhabits the everyday, transforming it, however briefly, into something poetic. Swartz’s installation provokes a deeper reaction by its brief lifespan. Even though temporary art is a trope, that the unique perspective will disappear without being experienced by a larger audience is a shame. It’s actually reassuring to know that Swartz’s sculpture, “Camera-less-Video,” a distillation of her idea, is on sale. The artists’ are generous, making the exhibition easy to like. The real strength is not in the immediate attraction but in its haunting impression and the desire for more. —William Powhida
FERNANDO MOLERO | STUDIO FACCHETTI
A few days before I paid my first visit to the Prado in Madrid, I ran across a beautiful observation by Jose Martinez Ruiz. “Facing reality,” Martinez Ruiz wrote, “Velasquez sees what he really sees, El Greco sees what he doesn’t see, Goya sees what nobody sees. …Velasquez presents a human reality, El Greco a celestial reality, Goya a demoniacal reality. …Velasquez gives us serenity, El Greco anxiety and Goya troubles us.” As one would imagine, I was more intensely interested in Spanish painting thereafter.
At first glance, the paintings of the Spanish artist Fernando Molero give us an impression which evokes all those aspects of the great Spanish masters. However, if we were to try to place his work in a political, moral, or even social context with regard to contemporary culture, those fixed categorizations would inevitably feel inadequate.
Unlike his previous paintings, where the depiction of the human figure had a significant presence, this recent body of work focuses mostly on the so-called “inscape,” a term invented by Gerard Manley Hopkins and later adopted by the Surrealists. Molero’s masterful control of his monochrome palette gives his charred earth tones a weight of catastrophic ruin and somberness, but there also exists a feeling of lightness that illuminates the festive sky like a dancing constellation.
We do not necessarily equate the poetic use of words with a precise philosophical point of view any more than we do with painted imagery. And since Molero’s intentions neither assert nor demand definitive criteria, he allows us to enter into his painted inscapes the way we read poetry: We should forsake our inhibitions and easy interpretations in order to submit ourselves to his rich imagination.
Despite Molero’s reluctance to invite any critical response to his work, the dialogue which he creates in his paintings between the past and present remains a beautiful poetic construction. Molero is willing to give up sensuality for a more anxious, ambivalent, inner realm. It would be even more challenging and compelling to see the paintings on a larger, more epic scale. Meanwhile, Molero’s work deserves sustained contemplation without hasty judgment. —Tomasso Longhi
FORREST MYERS AND MICHAEL TALLEY: ULTRA DELUXE | SIDESHOW GALLERY
Not that one needs to reevaluate in depth the different attitude that modern artists have had towards machines, or to be more specific in this case the car, before beginning to contemplate a certain obsession with speed. It is fairly obvious in the last few years. There seem to be an increased interest in this particular obsession. Again, Hollywood is trying to popularize car racing, skate boarding, and the like. I will not even bother to name the four movies, but I must confess that Vin Diesel is not in the same league with Steve McQueen. Forgive me if I sound too nostalgic.
What’s so compelling about this two-man show of Forrest Myer and Michael Talley is that one is immediately taken by both of the artists’ astute yet strange and marginal relationship with speed, or “wheel culture.”
Myer’s wonderful polarity is well demonstrated here in the two works, “Marker” and “Unocycle” (the artist has shown his work with the legendary Green Gallery, and it was also marvelous to see one of his pieces installed at Spoonbill and Sugartown Bookstore last winter). While the former alludes to the sensual and spontaneous connection to junk or found objects and is made in the manner of assemblage, the latter displays Myer’s dazzling technical virtuosity and his passion for machine aesthetic.
Talley’s singular obsession, on the other hand, suggests a distopian view of “wheel culture” portrayed with humor and irony. As one observes Talley’s “Helmet” and “Walking Prints,” one realizes that the hand-leg figurines he constructed would not be the perfect driver for his stunning “Adrenaline,” a streamline vehicle built to race on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. “Adrenaline” in fact reminded me of Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Car, made in 1933.
Ultimately, one comes away from the show with mixed feelings, from deepest pessimism to admiration, reluctant despair to devotion, idolatry to excessive drive to overcome some personal void. As Tristan Tzara said, “No one can escape from the machine. Only the machine can enable you to escape from destiny.” —Tomassio Longhi