Collette Blanchard Gallery March 5 – April 18, 2010
It was about two years ago that the Unmonumental show at the New Museum was drawing to a close, sparking hopeful chatter about the end of “Home Depot-chic,” “neo-Arte Povera,” or whatever your personal moniker is for it. It was the nail in the coffin for the nail-in-the-plywood-coffin school of art making. Those bells tolled prematurely, though, because two years later artists are still busy transforming plaster, spray paint, splintered wood, neon tape and other forms of gaudy industrial waste into mystical art objects on the Lower East Side. While some artists (Jessica Jackson Hutchins comes to mind) manage to reach surprising heights via lowly means, many more produce work that simply looks trashy. But, whatever; to each their own. Critically, though, if one were to seek an overarching virtue in the Unmonumental trope, it would be that it is difficult—difficult to appreciate, difficult to categorize, and difficult to consume. The content of such work seems to be difficulty itself, inasmuch as that difficulty reflects a kind of experiential martyrdom that its faithful hope will lead to visual transcendence.
In the wake of my recent exercise in Lower East Side futility, which I documented in the last issue of the Rail, I felt obliged to return for another round, where, despite being at difficult art’s ground zero, I stumbled on a show that looked congenial enough at first to raise suspicions that it might be something more subversive than what it appeared to be, which was simply a dozen-or-so well-executed paintings. (Too many trips to the LES can cause you to suspect difficulty where there is none, mistaking remodeling projects for site-specific installations and Chinese laundries for galleries.) From the open-air, surprisingly welcoming exterior of the Collette Blanchard Gallery, the paintings in Dean Monogenis’s exhibition, Above the Railing, Above the World, look as clean, sharp and bold as the finish on a commercial airliner. Further viewing suggests a surprisingly determined and strenuous battle waged by the artist with his imagery and pictorial space that leaves the work feeling as substantial as it is seductive.
Monogenis’s paintings initially read as stills from an interior narrative, or scenes from a fever dream, perhaps the sort that are chemically induced. With a common vocabulary of surreal vistas, futuristic buildings, rocky outcroppings, and looming celestial bodies, each painting appears to be a unique episode from an interrelated fictional dimension. But despite their basis in landscape, they feel surprisingly unnatural. For instance “The Day Came Slow” pairs a pagoda-ed, cliffside dwelling against an ominous gray-blue sky twisting above a horizon so synthetic that it behaves more as a formal element than a spatial one. The painting’s hyperspecific title and overtly artificial imagery flirts with sci-fi fantasy but escapes that categorization through sophisticated compositional maneuvers and a palpable appreciation for what layered acrylic paint can do.
With its determined title and imagery, “Eloping on Destiny’s Credentials” begs to be read first and looked at second. When one is done deciphering, though, and begins to scan the composition as a whole, the generous painting opens up, offering gifts like the slight imperfections in its intricate red latticework at the bottom of the canvas, or the washy ochre and powder blue that shoves off the foregrounded architecture, recoiling into an abyss of atmospheric space.
Other successes include “Leviathan” and “Memento Mori,” with an eclectic array of architecture, nature, and graphic design. Despite the identifiable objects and the stories they imply, these are paintings that, like the legendary painting that turned Kandinsky toward pure abstraction, might be equally gripping if viewed upside down. The eccentric narratives are a fine opening act, but it’s Monogenis’s formal sensibilities and inventive paint applications that resonate. The remainder of the paintings in Above the Railing, Above the World continue to unpack surprises even after their literal exteriors are enjoyed and discarded, giving way to an enduring, uninflected absorption.
Despite the lofty implications of the show’s title and Monogenis’s imaginative imagery, these paintings feel completely grounded, the product of heightened imagination and technical facility. They don’t seek the metaphorical heights that occasion transcendence. There are two kinds of people in the art world: the secular viewers and the religious ones; the secular appreciate well-conceived terrestrial efforts to visually parse the known universe, and the religious look to be lifted to a more exalted dimension, often with the help of a difficult aesthetic experience. I go back and forth about religion; for every Jessica Jackson Hutchins, it seems there are dozens of charlatans trying to sell me God on a 2 × 4. You might not reach enlightenment through Monogenis’s work, but you’ll be visually satisfied. If your eyes have been ailing like mine have been lately, you’d be better served by a good visual artist than a witchdoctor promising enlightenment by way of a pile of garbage.