Feelersby Linnea Kniaz
SOLOWAY GALLERY | JUNE 12 – JULY 17, 2011
The East Williamsburg Soloway Gallery’s eighth exhibition since opening in August 2010, Feelers, confronts art that emphasizes sentiment. Curated by Annette Wehrhahn, one of Soloway’s four founders, the show's three feelers—Branden Koch, Dani Leventhal, and Kevin Hooyman—blithely abandon (etc.) the protection of an intellectual shield conventionally used to prove a work’s merit and elevate the artist’s status (think past today’s conceptual artists to Dürer, Rembrandt, Velázquez, Reynolds, and the like who so deliberately portrayed themselves in self-portraits thinking, not making). This is not to say that the work is simplistic or, conversely, effusive; it is simply to say that through painting, video installation, and drawing, these three artists encourage a relevant dialogue through emotionally candid means.
In a similar vein, Soloway—its physical configuration, its principles—refuses to conform to pretense. In an effort to establish an alternative venue that showcases under-represented talent, artists Wehrhahn, Munro Galloway, Pat Palermo, and Paul Branca transformed the scanty storefront (preserving its tiled floors and a touch of its unsightly wood paneling) of Wehrhahn’s home from a plumbing store named Soloway into a versatile, DIY gallery that adheres to the maxim articulated by Dan Graham: “All artists are alike. They dream of doing something that’s more social, more collaborative, and more real than art.”
Fortunately for Wehrhahn, who smoked freely while lounging on the floor the day I visited, the gallery’s intentionally unkempt personality does not detract from Feelers (though, I imagine it could for a different show). Rather, the seductively vulnerable art sits in the equally fragile space, exposed for you to observe, empathize with, ridicule.
Expecting the profusion of lurid colors and abstracted, emotive marks one would expect from artists unburdening their feelings, I was disarmed to find that Wehrhahn selected artwork that makes use of objects in the material world—weather, water, animals, people, language—as a means of expressing the internal and the intangible. Branden Koch’s four 50 by 40-inch oil paintings on canvas from his 2010 weather series evoke, by shifting between abstraction and figuration, the invisible collision of weather fronts and the ensuing physical and emotional calamity on Earth. Yet, despite fissures of overly familiar, unsightly weather symbols, blocks of color obstructing the surface, and a fragmented figure-ground relationship, Koch’s approach imparts clarity: with the composed and confident laxity of a—dare I say—cerebral painter, Koch discards his usual density and applies single layers of paint, preserving areas of exposed canvas with a minimum of compositional reworking. Disappointingly, Koch’s representational elements demand extensive interpretation, and thus detract from the viewing experience. Therefore, while examining “Spring Handbag for Cobblestone (stationary front),” for instance, I felt disinclined to dissect the distorted figures, staring eyes, aimless limbs, and allusions to other paintings, and felt even more reluctant to seek out the imagery referenced in the title’s surplus of nouns. Instead, I observed the work’s eloquent physicality—the relentless, limber, dry, wet, quick, or methodical quality of Koch’s strokes, and the canvas-residue submerged in murky washes. By avoiding the narrative elements, I could better see, and feel, the painting’s inherent turbulence.
Dani Leventhal’s video installation, “Here I am Ready and Willing” (2010), echoes Soloway’s authentic clumsiness: the video, screened on a clunky television favored by Leventhal, follows a man, viewed from the legs down, trudging through dingy, shallow waters in socks and shoes. The work’s title—a prayer recited during the Jewish New Year that refers to Abraham’s devotion to God after leading Isaac up Mount Moriah for sacrifice—is suspended like a neon red headline by wires extending from the television. It provides context, but does not speak on the video’s behalf. The biblical reference to parent-child relationships, a central theme of Leventhal’s oeuvre, helps focus the work but allows the video’s sloshing water and volatile bubbles to better inform my senses. A more visibly personal work, “Shine, Shine” (2009), one of eight 18 by 24-inch mixed media drawings originally unintended for public viewing, is a guttural testimony consisting of painted words, a scribbled figure, and some reckless water and oil stains. And even though an attractive, yet protective, white frame eliminates some of its exquisite rawness, one feels less empathetic than intrusive while examining something never meant for a gallery wall.
Using readily available materials—found stationery, colored pencils, watercolors, pens—Kevin Hooyman composes delicate cartoons depicting displaced figures surrounded by bare environments that emphasize their isolation. Simultaneously facetious and charming, the 12 drawings on view (all from 2010) comment on identity, loss, and other realities through a cast of cowboys, medieval queens (who consult their mops for advice), and talking pets. With a steady, contemplative energy and less angst than that of his fellow feelers, Hooyman’s economical and quiet, yet decisive, drawings speak to the artist’s complex fixations, which can be gleaned from the comment in Hooyman’s “Lies” by a naked woman out at sea with her dog: “You simply can’t live with even one lie… I mean for me anyway, I feel like it just sort of ruins it all.”
This allegiance to candor, perhaps, was what mitigated the onrush of feelings unleashed within such a tiny space. Upon leaving, rather than feeling awash in sentiment, I felt clear-headed—able to think and then ready to think some more.