Notes from underground

In 2004, for his MFA thesis at the University of Maryland, Matt Klos painted a series of underground studio spaces. In these White Paintings, he paid homage, in his own idioms, to the work of Antonia Lopez Garcia. He represented various aspects of a drab and artificially lit basement studio. All of these interiors were spare and utilitarian and slightly abandoned-looking. The subtle complexity of their white walls fascinated him, as well as their blank, apophatic humility, the quality of erasing themselves, reflecting maybe just enough light to direct your attention to the muted color of other charmless things in the room: a utility sink or a chalkboard or a skeleton. As Klos put it in his thesis, in this small series of studio scenes, he wanted to evoke “the ethereal beauty inherent in the visible.” That doesn’t seem quite right. Most painters I know have signed up for that mission. It’s more as if, in his work, he wants to create a way of tapping the potential for a pictorial beauty inherent in a place, a beauty that wouldn’t be quite visible anywhere except in the quality of a painting of it. The beauty of a Matt Klos painting lives in the intensity of his gaze, and the insistence of his struggle to make paint retain its character as paint on a particular surface while conveying the life of what he sees. (This seems like a core axiom of the perceptual painters with whom Klos has aligned himself.) Mostly, like Antonia Lopez Garcia, he likes the challenge of representing what wouldn’t instantly be recognized as lovely or appealing. The beauty of his painting rests in the uncompromising passion that drives this assiduous and painstaking attention to what most people might not bother to let their eyes rest on for more than a few seconds.

It would appear Klos hates to come up out of the basement. For a decade and a half, he keeps returning to these underlit spaces, some of them cluttered and crammed with antiquated objects or the tools he relies on. (He does come out of Plato’s cave now and then, though. When he ventures above ground, as he does regularly, his work is quite different, often bright and stunningly expansive even in the confines of very small canvases. His little painting, Belfast Bay, is a marvel in which he creates qualities of scintillant light and a sense of a vast brilliant stretch of water simply through the way he magically scumbles the paint.) His new solo show, Contents of a Cabinet, at Gay Street Gallery is virtually a catalog of the many antiquated things left behind by a previous resident in a basement he adopted as his studio in Maryland more than a decade ago. He paints in a working-class neighborhood near the “recently closed Bethlehem Steel plant in Sparrows Point.” (The most startling word in that artist’s statement is “recently.” How did an American steel plant survive so long?) As he wrote for the first installment of this series of studio paintings at Gay Street in 2017, when he moved into the space more than a decade ago, “Dust and disorganization obscure the objects. Even when the objects are clearly defined their meanings may be lost to our current generation. In an age when so many answers are at our fingertips, I marvel at what seems to be a disconnection with our recent past.”

 At the gallery’s website, the paintings aren’t titled, nor are their sizes indicated, though it’s clear from the texture of the surfaces that some are quite small. The larger paintings are the most intriguing. Klos paints the sort of things that look as if they stayed put on their shelves after an estate liquidation and weren’t snatched up by survivors of the owner’s death. He shows an old Sanka can, probably full of nails or bolts, and then something that looks like an improvised vise for squaring a frame, and shelves full of Depression glass and old dishware, a teapot, dolls, candles, a box full of wrench sockets, and an old landline wall telephone. These objects mostly give the impression of physical weight and mass, and they cast harsh shadows. They look stubbornly resistant to current culture, popular style, feng shui, ergonomics, and the virtualization of human experience: in other words, they are immune to everything contemporary, with one eccentrically lovely exception. Somehow, Klos gives us the guts of what appears to be a desktop computer being scavenged, its little green circuit boards (a video card maybe, or a wafer of RAM) glowing like grass in a university quad, lodged into a composition arranged as a wheel of muted, subtle colors: coral, ochre, olive green, blue-grey, and dark apricot. Against this parade of lumpy physicality, there is one painting in the series that looks as if it crashed this party from another dimension. In what almost qualifies as a Diebenkorn vision of a Santa Monica ocean view, Klos shows the viewer two blank turquoise panels, side by side, bisected by a small crease through which you can see vague gray details of what’s hidden behind the panels, a small and vibrant wound around which everything pivots, with a little bleeding sliver of brilliant red near the bottom. A rectangular streak of blue sweeps across the base of the canvas, and along the left border (bringing the viewer back to earth) what appears to be a sheer robe or apron hangs to the left of the panels. It’s a brilliant, luminous study, minimalist, almost non-representational, full of joy, as if all the expansive green and blue of sea and sky and mountains beyond the walls of this work space had flooded into his basement through this one canvas.

What keeps me coming back to look at the paintings in this show is a jumbled interior scene with what appears to be a child’s brilliant painting on paper that has come loose from its anchoring tape and rests askew behind and above a fat red candle resting on a flat surface shared with a couple dolls and a Kleenex tissue cube. In front of these objects is what appears to be the upholstered backrest of an antique, carved hardwood chair. The surface of the wood is conveyed with precision, the cataract glaze of its old glossy finish gone dull and gray, all of the cordovan-colored wood in bad need of being stripped and refinished. The whole composition, like the neo-Diebenkorn canvas, is structured in concentric rectangles shaped by wires and lumber, these elements criss-crossing themselves into a firm grid around the red, unlit candle that looks votive given the fact that it’s sitting just below a crucifix hanging on one of the exposed studs in the upper right corner. The whole image inhabits a sort of tattersall of crosses. Klos includes two paintings of this scene in the show, the other one a quick study of these central objects, including the crucifix. As you absorb these circumstantial indications of spirituality, you look again at the Kleenex tissue and it seems to be floating up like smoke or a ghost or rising like a shrouded figure from its cube. It all offers just enough of a signal of Matt’s faith: it doesn’t overwhelm the painting, but makes itself felt and appreciated and respected as a quiet affirmation of something that seems to be at home among things discarded and overlooked by contemporary culture. It would be interesting for someone to do a study of how current painters tackle the struggles and disciplines of faith, from any tradition, and the parallels to the work of painting itself: the requisite mindfulness, humility, and patience. In my own work, faith is entirely subliminal, a motive for painting without being the overt subject of anything I depict. This may be Matt’s situation as well: painting as a corollary of prayer.

During the Renaissance the question of faith was quite simple: it was the reason for painting anything, the system in which painting made sense. After the advent of modernism, with a few exceptions like Rouault, faith seems to have little place in most painting, especially now, given the West’s intellectual antipathy to Christianity. Even though more than two-thirds of Americans identify as Christian, do painters need to work little samizdat signs, like this basement crucifix, into their images as a code to other spiritually devoted types? Being a Christian can’t be an effective calling card in Chelsea—more a quick way to get ostracized and banished from sophisticated society. Which makes these indications of it just as much a signal of artistic integrity as a predilection for painting things underground.

Alice Carpenter’s tiny, enormous dream

Alice Carpenter, monotype, relief inks on paper, 4″ x 4″

This monotype was selected for the 2021 Butler Midyear, another of the remarkable pieces included in one of the best Midyear exhibitions Butler has assembled in quite a while. I’m dumbfounded by the way Carpenter can convey a dreamlike, timeless, and utterly haunting world, a world that feels both slightly oppressive and yet spacious and expansive, all within the confines of a tiny square of paper.

Marc Ross

Marc Ross, Make Me That Happy 2, Acrylic, pastel and color pencil
53″x 55″

Another work from Marc Ross won Best in Show at the Butler Midyear exhibition. His exquisitely executed abstractions refer back to Rothko, minimalism and the ghostly, incremental discriminations of Agnes Martin’s bands of faint color, but his work is all his own.

Frederick Fochtman

Frederick Fochtman landscape.

Fred Fochtman’s website is so minimal that I was unable to find a title, size or medium for any of the work there, but it’s fairly clear this is a small oil or acrylic. I discovered Fochtman’s work through the two paintings of his in the 2021 Butler Midyear. I went back through the past few years of his painting and quit clicking when I came to this one. It evokes for me what C.S. Lewis talked about in his autobiography: a feeling of joy fused with a sense of the unattainability of lasting happiness in a temporal world. He had this experience as a child when it seemed as if the eye of his soul was able to glimpse the “idea of autumn,” in a Platonic and eternal sense, the isness of autumn. This little painting opens a window on both winter, with the roadside snow, and somehow spring or even early summer in the color of the lake in the distance. Yet the color in the trees along the road look like autumn. My vision of these mixed seasons only heightens the effect this scene has: a deeply familiar mild winter day, the road with shadows reaching across it could be warm from the sun and the wind maybe fragrant with the thawing soil. It’s the perfection of a normally unregarded moment except that you suddenly feel as if everything is exactly as it should be, a gift, if something causes you to actually quit thinking and just notice everything. Easier said than done. The humility that undergirds everything in this painting is what makes it what it is: the simple act of putting paint on canvas in the hope that all of this will be conveyed, as it inexplicably is here. It’s an act performed for no other reason than that a warming winter day on an empty road with a lake too distant to make a difference, and with nothing ordinarily considered worthwhile going on, can be perfection itself. A moment like this of utter insignificance can somehow give you a glimpse of who and what you are, especially if you see it in a little painting like this.

 

Color field candy

Taffy #3, oil on linen, 46″ x 46″

Taffy #3, which I refer to now as Happiness, is going to be included in Manifest Gallery’s INPA 10. If I were clever and a careerist, with a little sophistry, I might argue that my series of salt-water taffy paintings represent a nostalgic, ironic commentary on a lost period of art. They do remind me of the Sixties, full of hope, full of clarity about America’s primacy in everything, all those paintings filled with confidence in the advance of art history toward new discoveries. It’s true, I’ve been calling them “color field candy” informally for quite a while, because my deepest inspiration for these images comes from the work of painters like Stella, Rothko, Agnes Martin, and Frederick Hammersley. One might be more inclined to suspect my hope is to honor the influence of Wayne Thiebaud, that my real allegiance is to Pop, that I am engaged in a kind of re-interpretation (in a soft, wistful minor key) of what’s happening in Roberto Bernardi’s current hyper-realistic images of hard candy. But, as much as I revere Thiebaud as a serious artist engaged in discovering ways to do things with oil that others haven’t done, the work of other painters of candy is rarely on my mind when I’m making crucial decisions about these paintings. I see these paintings as realistic depictions of what amount to little abstract sculptures.

The choices I make with each painting sound amusingly absurd and trivial: what candy to use, whether and how to unwrap and re-wrap it to my liking, what to do about that squiggly Taffy Town logo printed on the waxed paper when I use that brand of candy (see what I mean?), what lighting to use to on these little chunks of colored sugar, and how to crop and then develop the photograph I take of them, using Lightroom.  I began to paint this candy as an offshoot of the jars I started doing a decade ago, where my aim was more abstract: to create a kind of honeycomb grid defined by the shape of the bulk candy poured into a small pasta sauce jar. I would use the slightly irregular grid formed by jelly beans (if you viewed the jar directly from the side) to improvise with the colors in each cell of the grid—in other words, each Chiclet, or jelly bean, or M&M. My struggle was to create an image that was a three-dimensional representation but it also worked as a flat, minimalist pattern where I could completely choose and control the colors in the pattern, mostly by picking the candy. With some smaller candy jar paintings I worked from an image of all-white Tic Tacs and depicted them using whatever arbitrary colors I needed to make the image come alive in a certain way.

With taffy, I’m not thinking in the same way, or if I am, it’s at an ironic remove from any intent to honor the notion of flatness. When I bought a bag of salt water taffy many years ago, I was thinking of getting a larger jar, tumbling the taffy into it and then addressing the patchwork color composition it would create through the shine of the glass and the haze of waxed paper between glass and candy. It’s still an interesting challenge, but it put me off for many years, partly because it was hard to imagine a comparable jar, as wide as it is tall, with threads at the lip for tightening a lid, large enough to contain enough of those twists of taffy to be interesting. A few years ago, I thought again of the taffy and found websites where I could order specific color combinations and began to stock up, filling boxes with the bags that arrived. I finished one, a large, loosely executed image of three pieces of taffy stacked like a cairn. I promptly went back to my more traditional still lifes, concentrating on bowls decorated with Indonesian Ikat patterns. About eighteen months ago I finally returned to the taffy, and I have finished a dozen of various sizes. A dozen means I’m only about halfway through the series, which I intend to propose as a solo exhibit when this suite is mostly complete. It’s taking far longer than I anticipated when I began the project.

The taffy calls out to me primarily with its color, which is where I am haunted by the Sixties: the beautiful tones in the work of Stella, Hammersley, Noland, some of Blinky Palermo, Diebenkorn, Martin, even Bridget Riley, it’s a long list of painters who had an unabashed love of color for its own sake.  With taffy, that love is slightly unrequited by the painting. It holds itself back. The evocative hues are partly hidden, bound inside the translucent waxed paper, in shapes and with colors that reflect my yearning for the minimalist simplicity of a Matisse cutout, the vibrance of a Stella protractor painting, and the sometimes quirky shape of a little Hammersley etude with its organic lobes of orange and yellow. Sometimes, the three globes, two on top of the surface, one the reflection of the bottom candy, remind me of Rothko’s landscape format: the sky, the horizon, and the earth. Again, I know this must sound funny, but I hope it’s funny in a self-effacing way: Rothko’s epic, sometimes tragic moods revisited as candy. Yet this love affair with flat minimalist color is ironically (yet with no snarky intellectual commentary intended) given weight and three-dimensional form, as if a color field painting had been melted down, compressed and molded into a nugget the size of a large walnut.

I was intent on numbering these paintings so that their status as variations on a partly rigid format, and their kinship with abstraction made a little more central, but in looking at the ones I’ve done, they evoke a plethora of moods, predicaments, epiphanies, times of day, spiritual states, and even myths. So I’ve gone back and taken away their number and given them a name (to turn a song lyric from the Sixties inside out). So, when I’m done, I’m looking at a little imaginary seed, which, when immersed in the mind of a viewer, I hope will unfold and expand into a vision of flat patterns of color as large as anything, the way memories are big without really having a size. Yet the waxed paper keeps it real, tethered, with forms that echo the heaviness of a clothed human body, fixed but not rooted to its place on my kitchen countertop, near the sink window, where I place the candy to photograph it. It’s earthbound, maybe yearning for flight with those waxed paper wings that would certainly droop in the summer heat as the taffy began to ooze in the sun. But while it’s poised, doing its balancing act, these little hunks of sugar seem full of hope, love, submission, longing, thwarted ambition, and even more defiant feelings, not always definable, the way a certain hour of the morning or a post-midnight walk on a deserted city street seems full of a particular mood, a sense of all human possibilities, without being about much of anything at all.

Visual poems from the pandemic

On The Map, Jean Stephens, mixed media collage

The pandemic had some upsides. My son and his family moved from California to live a mile away from us here in Pittsford, N.Y., after they discovered they could keep working in movies and television from thousands of miles away. It’s suddenly the Zoom era, and we couldn’t be happier about it. Jean Stephens, already living here in Western New York, took advantage of her self-imposed isolation to liberate her imagination through the act of simply paying attention to what she was enduring: both her physical confinement and how it launched her imagination into a series of soaring and lyrical new collages.

It’s a major shift in the way she makes art.

She does gelli monoprints and then uses the patterns created on the paper she applies to the acrylic-impregnated gel to carve out the shapes of houses and buildings. These are applied to a substrate of colored patterns Stephens pulls from her medium when applied to textured surfaces—the textures she has discovered in objects from a variety of sources, including a hardware store. Into the mix, she works the curving lines of script from old letters or other printed material. She collects objects wherever she finds them in her travels—stamps, letters, cards, as well as anything that has an interesting surface from which she can pull a pattern, including something as mundane as drywall tape. She uses all of them, picking just the ones that seem to work in juxtaposition with one another to create a little visual song of memory, imagination and yearning. Each image is like a visual poem, and in one, an Irish postage stamp floats in the sky above a house perfectly evoking the thwarted longing for freedom everyone felt last year. Her luminous color harmonies are marvelous.

Her work is on view at the Stephen Merritt Gallery, Merritt’s stand-alone studio situated behind his home on a densely wooded hillside north of Rochester. He converts his studio into a gallery for occasional shows. This one features, in addition to Stephens, fascinating new drawings from her husband Bill Stephens, Loraine Cooley’s beautiful jewelry and Dick Westfall’s amazing woodwork.

Stephen Merritt learned how to create his assiduously crafted terra cotta vessels in the late 1960s and early 1970s, studying in Japan under the guidance of Ishikawa Seiho and Inoue Manji. He has been deepening his understanding of the techniques he acquired over the past five decades. While the vessel is still moist, he brushes it with a variety of clay slips—watery solutions of different kinds of clay. His surfaces have a lustrous semi-gloss, or even matte, finish that suggests layers of subdued color, in the way living tissue reflects from various depths to create complex flesh tones. Each vessel seems to vibrate differently to the eye, but all of them emanate a balanced, meditative tone, a kind of spiritual energy that’s contained, withheld, but alive. His work is in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, The Burchfield-Penny Museum, the Memorial Art Gallery and the Everson Museum.

Patrick Lee

The Blue Side, Patrick Lee

One of Lee’s interiors is on view at the 2021 Butler Midyear exhibition.

 

 

Brian Ballenger

Sampler, Brian Ballenger, oil on canvas, 26″ x 34″

The question of how Ballenger creates these abstractions has puzzled me since I saw another of his paintings in the 2021 Butler Midyear. Here, the surface appears to be wet-on-wet bands of paint, created with uniform passes of a brush across the wet surface, guided by a straight edge tool. The way the bands seem woven together must be an effect of the order in which he applies them, and the complexity and number of the swipes across the canvas give the impression of wicker’s in-and-out network. He must work quickly, keeping the paint wet from start to finish. In this particular painting it looks as if he began with horizontal marks of black, orange and a kind of faint damask surrounded by white negative space, and then worked the completely coated surface with his rigid criss-crossing marks. The sense of three-dimensional depth is marvelous, a beautiful affront to Clement Greenberg, more than half a century since his celebration of flatness both supercharged and narrowed the way America thought about art. Obviously, we’ve recovered.

William Reed Simon

The Enigma of a Street, William Reed Simon, oil on canvas, 22″ x 27″

This is the first of several posts featuring the work of artists chosen for the 2021 Butler Midyear exhibition at the Butler Institute of American Art.

Frank Bowling

Texas Louise, Frank Bowling, acrylic on canvas, detail

You can get a powerful overview of Frank Bowling’s work at Hauser and Wirth on 22nd St. in Chelsea. His efforts in moving paint around can be epic, but he also imported into his abstract expressionist technique images from the world map. A triptych visible as you walk into the gallery shows three images, not of Africa, but of South America, repetitive as a Warhol portrait, but in subtle and rich earth tones, striking and simple. The show runs to the end of July. From the gallery’s website:

The exhibition charts Bowling’s life and work between the UK and the United States. Born in Guyana (then British Guiana) in 1934, Bowling arrived in London in 1953, graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1962. He later divided his time between the art scenes in London and New York, maintaining studios in both cities. London is the city where Bowling trained as a painter and achieved early acclaim. New York is the city that drew him to itself at the height of the Civil Rights movement, where he became involved in discussions of Black Art – New York was a place of fresh energy and ideas for an artist in search of new ways to make paintings.

Santelli, from the vault

Bill Santelli, Appearance of White, acrylic on canvas at his home

I saw this painting, Appearance of White, completed years ago, at Bill Santelli’s home on my recent visit for coffee with him and Bill Stephens. I was stunned by the mastery of his paint handling here, the restraint of the color, and the rigorous simplicity of the composition. It looks like a visualization of both an internal state of illumination but also simply an evening sky, with the abstract and representational elements so resolutely distinguished from each other, Santelli forces them to wrestle for dominance, the black geometry jutting up from below and also sweeping down across what seems to be a beautifully, naturally executed image of a cirrus-swept evening sky. The long black rectangle, like a squeegee, seems to swipe across the sky from the upper corner, turning that muted purple atmosphere to rusty orange, as if the sun has broken through just at the horizon to immediately tint everything with one last memory of warmth. The angular black voids reach a minor truce with this abstract sky in the bottom right corner, where the sky bleeds into the black and offers a gradual, lovely but precipitous fade into night. The little strip of white, along the edge of that squeegee blade, hints at a greater illumination, and I imagine it takes pride in the fact that the title’s more interested in it than anything else in the painting.

Chance, the painter

Gerard Richter, the Cage paintings.

In the May issue of AEQAI, Ekin Erkan makes an interesting argument against the role of chance in Gerhard Richter’s paintings. He’s responding to an exhibit of Richter’s Cage paintings, a series of abstracts produced according to John Cage’s guidelines for composing music randomly. This sounds like a dry and cerebral exercise, but the paintings themselves are anything but. They’re gorgeous, in large part because, like Rothko, they reach back and employ some of the basic structures of landscape painting and conceal/utilize them in these square fields of smeared, squeegee’d paint. What’s most powerful about this particular series is Richter’s lyrical restraint in the use of color. Deep, rich, and subtle blues and greens peer at you through the gray fabric, the haze, that dominates a canvas. You feel as if you are trying to find your way through a wilderness in the fog, where you get disorienting, tantalizing glimpses of the forest’s beauty, while thoroughly lost. In other words, Richter’s abstraction here seems much more rooted in the the brain’s prehistoric training to look for sky, horizon, land and water, the brain’s predisposition to spot both predator and prey. It isn’t hard to imagine a horizon line across the center of these canvases and see woods, sky, reflections in a lake, evoked by the smears of Richter’s intentionally limited palette.

Erkan seems intent on debunking the role of chance, the “aleatory” element in the production of these, or any paintings, because what evolves in the process of making them has been structured and determined in large part by the rules, conscious and unconscious, the artist observes in the use of paint. This is accurate, and applies even to Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, which have to be the most random canvases ever produced. But any painter knows how, in its most crucial ways, a particular painting is utterly unrepeatable. The exact proportions of paint in any mixed color will always be subject to the accidents of mixing them in the heat of a session at the easel: there is no way to precisely duplicate anything that happens in the execution at any point in the making of a painting. The Pointillists may have tried. Conceptual artists who simply write out the instructions for the production of a particular work, like Saul LeWitt, might be said to have eliminated chance from the game. Or someone who devised elaborate, scientific guidelines for how to mix favorite colors and how to apply them. Yet ordinary mortals who have only once done an entire painting in one sitting, alla prima, know how magical the process can be when it turns out exceedingly well. What goes into these results, what produces them, remains mysterious: a certain intense quality of attention, a compelling desire, a hunger, to put certain colors in certain ways on a canvas, a certain level of pleasure in the unfolding results that intensifies the desire, and so on, all of which have as much to do with unrepeatable happenstance as they do with conscious control over the process itself. In other words, it’s a state of flow, which is as difficult to achieve as a great painting–they are one and the same, the flow and the outcome of it. Yes, years of practice and discipline make it possible. Yes, it’s the outcome of rules and intentions. But no, it is not without dozens or hundreds of unpredictable and happy accidents, unrepeatable because they weren’t learned and can’t be taught. What’s most crucial in a great painting isn’t the outcome of empirical knowledge and can’t be predicted: otherwise you could teach anyone with a certain level of skill how to make a great work of art. The act of painting can also involve moments of despair when the entire thing seems hopeless and lost only to emerge again in success–by misdirections you find your direction, to paraphrase Hamlet. None of which is predictable. The unintentional results, the moments and outcomes that surprise the artist, as well as the viewer, are what make painting such a life-affirming calling, why it is a quest, not a job.

There’s a great summary of John Cage’s approach in the essay:

What is distinct in Cage, and something difficult but not impossible for a visual artist interested in “chance” to capture, is that in Cage’s “chance” works—e.g., Music of Changes (1951), Two Pastorales (1951-2), Seven Haiku (1951-2), For M.C. and D.T. (1952)—Cage utilizes a compositional tool over which he does not have control. In 1958, Cage introduced his ideas regarding indeterminacy in Darmstadt, Germany, in a lecture entitled “Composition as Process.”[1] At this period of his life, Cage had discarded the ideas and methods underlying his earlier compositions, which had included: numerical structures, considered improvisation, unambiguous notation, and preconceived form. In this lecture, Cage presented his ideas of “non-intention.” In “Composition as process,” Cage lectures on composition that is indeterminate with respect to its performance, remarking that:

“… [t]hat composition is necessarily experimental. An experimental action is one the outcome of which is not foreseen.”[2]

“… [t]he early works have beginnings, middles, and endings. The later ones do not. They begin anywhere, last any length of time, and involve more or fewer instruments and players. They are therefore not preconceived objects, and to approach them as objects is to utterly miss occasions for experience.”[3]

“… constant activity may occur having no dominance of will in it. Neither as syntax nor structure, but analogous to the sum of nature, it will have arisen purposelessly.”[4]

If Cage aims at music which is unforeseen and purposeless, it is because this music is free from the intentions and expressions of the composer’s mind. But this is not something simply left up to improvisation—for one’s “feeling” of being a conscious driver of their artistic process does not mean that they are not acting out of intention, wittingly or not. Thus, Cage implemented models for the realization of this kind of music.[5]

Chance in music, and in visual art, cannot simply “happen” due to the improvisational whims of the artist and their “feeling” of not being in control. It is necessary to provide a mechanism within which it will operate. Thus the composer of a “chance work” or the artist of a “chance painting” must first design some system in which chance has a role to play. A system must therefore provide for certain “givens,” or fixed elements: e.g., collections of musical materials that are to be manipulated, such as the overall structure of the work. This system must have a collection of rules or procedures to be followed so as to produce the final score (or painting), where these rules draw upon the given materials and structures to make decisions based on some random factor, such as the toss of a coin or a computer-generated random number.

Designing the system in which chance has a crucial role in the outcome is not the same as controlling the outcome, nor does it create the other extreme, where the results are entirely random. Painting is a balance between intentions and fortuitous accidents. The optimum spiritual or mental state for an artist to achieve while painting is a perfect balance between what can be predicted and repeated and what cannot–like a surfer staying upright on an enormous wave. What makes a painting strong, up to a point, can be duplicated again and again–what makes it great is another matter entirely. And that factor may not entirely be aleatory, but it can’t be controlled. It’s a gift.

Incomprehensible beauty

Woman in White, Picasso, oil on canvas, 1923

If you can say what beauty means, then you’ll be able to explain what any great painting means. But, as Iris Murdoch observed, the more clearly you see beauty, or truth, or goodness, the more mysterious it becomes, the more inaccessible to the easy manipulations of reasoning–and the more it becomes something you serve rather than understand and control.

The reactionary, neoclassical work Picasso did after the cataclysm of World War I represents his greatest and most heartfelt struggle to capture what drove him to paint again and again: the beauty and allure of women. He expressed this in so many ways, some far more impressive in hindsight than others.  In the neoclassical work, his only showmanship was in easy ability to convey profound gratitude through a series of edges drawn with brilliant, childlike simplicity and proportion. I came upon this example during my visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently. Every time I see work like this from the past, I feel I’ve never really fully appreciated it until now, which is exactly how I felt when I saw another example of this period and style from Picasso at my last visit to LACMA . In such a delicate image, I am always surprised, up close, to see how rough he could be in the way he applied the paint, applying it more like joint compound or spackle, smeared, scraped, and generally handled with expedience and no regard whatsoever for how the marks will look up close. Velasquez and Sargent would weep at his heedlessness, and I almost did as well, but not in disappointment. Picasso’s gift was nearly unique, a line as rare as Ingres, but there’s so much more heart here, so much more of a surrender to the essential mystery of what he’s yearning to show you. Beauty like this silences you on the spot, this post notwithstanding.

Anyone who wants to understand Picasso’s comment, sent along to me months ago by Bill Santelli, about the meaning of painting has only to look at Woman in White to understand that a great painting can be utterly meaningless and also the embodiment of everything you most need to see:

Everyone wants to understand painting. Why not try to understand the songs of a bird? Why does one love the night, flowers, everything around one, without trying to understand them? But in the case of painting people have to understand.

From Christian Zervos, “Conversation avec Picasso” in Cahiers d’art, 7/10, Paris, 1935, p. 178

Insalaco transformation

Tom Insalaco, one in his new series of studio paintings

For quite a while now, Tom Insalaco has been working on a suite of paintings that remind me of the world Braque inhabited–both pictorially and spiritually–at the culmination of his career when he was painting abstract images of his studio. Braque spoke in his notebooks about transformation as the essential thrust of painting: to take what’s seen and magnetize paint around the imagery the visible world lodges in your soul. Insalaco has immersed himself in painting after painting of artists at work in various studios, finding sources in films on the Internet and then transforming what he observes into what could be interpreted literally as double-or-triple exposures, scenes superimposed upon one another. But he’s after something outside time and space, indefinable, one’s true life, in accessible to the daily conscious mind. And focusing on the studio as the portal, a window, into this extra-temporal reality, he’s trying to get at why we paint at all. It isn’t to change the world. It’s to witness what’s actually there, everywhere, inaccessible to our chattering, busy minds. Of course, every painter I know and love is trying to do exactly the same thing, but in his or her own way.

Here what appears to be a dancer either stretches or practices in the center of the painting. Layered over this, a remote scene of a performance on stage, a singer or actor, like a remote, lonely puppet, and finally what gives the painting its structural coherence, a studio where two sculptors are working from a nude male model. What’s easy to miss is what appears to be a little quote from Velasquez, as it were: a slightly jumbled hint at Las Meninas, maybe the greatest studio painting in Western art. Insalaco didn’t consciously put that there, but he saw the unintentional reference himself, when I pointed it out. The seated woman in the foreground seems part of the scene with the dancer. Everything melds together into a unity that has its own dreamlike disengagement from familiar time and space, which is Insalaco’s true north, the disorienting transcendence of the surrealists, but closer to Chagall’s ecstatic Cubist-influenced dreams of his love for Bella, his heart’s home, where gravity knocked but never got in. Time here is Proustian, and space is both as small as the amount occupied by a mosquito arrested in amber and as large as the Milky Way.

 

 

 

I love New York. Again.

Social Network, Bernard Siciliano, oil on canvas, 2019, 76″ x 100″

I had an exhilarating visit to Manhattan three weeks ago. It’s been a year and a half since I went into the city to see the Salinger relics, as it were, at the New York Public Library. (I have yet to finish a post about that, though it’s nearly done.) The pandemic started a few weeks later and the world seemed to come to a halt. Time stopped. It has restarted. On my weekend in the city, things were hopping, much more alive and back up to speed than I’d thought the place would be. Saturday foot traffic was actually pretty heavy throughout Chelsea and SoHo. Midtown, where I stayed a couple nights, was sketchy and a little weird, as if the idleness of the pandemic drew people into stagnant eddies in alcoves, on corners, everyone just idling in public, harmlessly enough, people discarded by that more purposeful river of humanity to the north and south. Trash everywhere was overflowing nearly every visible container. That New York scene of urine was detectable at regular intervals. A mile uptown, in Central Park and along Fifth Avenue, as well as on the West Side, things seem quietly jubilant and populous.

The galleries were open but not packing anyone in—in other words, back to normal, but with masks. Zwirner had plenty of visitors, but I didn’t want to stick around. Ray Johnson’s solo exhibition was amusing. The motto on the wall as you walked in: “If you take the cha-cha out of Duchamp you get what a dump.” On display in a glass case were some rubber stamps he’d created that made me laugh. With them you could ink some labels onto an envelope or sheet of paper: Collage By A Major Artist, Toilet Paper, Odilon Redon Fan Club. Somebody could make some extra money with an extensive line of rubber stamps in that vein, if people only used paper to communicate now. I spent most of my time at Arcadia, Meisel, Hauser and Wirth, Paul Kasmin and wherever I could find representational painting of one sort or another. Much of what I saw in the galleries I visited was rewarding and, in the galleries I didn’t check out, much of what I could see through the windows seemed clearly avoidable. I caught the last day of the curated group show of figurative painting at Sugarlift, which was the highlight of my weekend. If Sugarlift can make a go of it in Manhattan, after holding its own in Brooklyn, good things remain possible in the world of painting. I rode the elevator up at Pace (what next, an escalator like the ones at Target a few blocks away?) to see the Agnes Martin show, a selection of nearly all-white stripes with only one or two bearing the faintest colors. I felt as I’d felt seeing her retrospective at the Guggenheim. She’s such an enigmatic figure, her abstraction seems intensely personal, cherishing her Platform Sutra, periodically living in isolation, creating one horizontally striped canvas after another, paintings that seem to belong at Dia Beacon next to Robert Ryman. Somehow, though, they are more poetic and wistful, albeit almost as minimal. Why her painting works this way for me, I have no idea, other than the general mystery of painting and what undetectably goes into it and then comes back out. Yet again I was struck by how idiosyncratic her paintings felt, the lines she seemed to have drawn free-hand in graphite to define the stripes, so that the pencil meandered like a lady bug leaving a trail around the little irregularities in the surface, a tiny trickle of graphite (it would appear) that looked serpentine from a few inches away but straight from six feet. Seeing a small collection of her work on view together, the repetitiveness, the sense of slight variations within the confines of a voluntarily apophatic format, gave me courage to keep painting my repetitive images of taffy, seeing where it will lead. (But the work proceeds so slowly, like Issa’s snail. I told Tom Insalaco when I went to see him in his studio last Friday that doing this series takes so much time, it feels like trying to sprint through a swamp.)

My visit to the Metropolitan on Sunday, more than at any previous time, made me feel as if I hadn’t ever understood paintings I’ve looked at many times before, either there or in reproductions. Again and again I thought, I’ve never really seen what was going on in this painting as clearly as I do now. It’s a great state of awareness, to look with that kind of fertile attention, especially in that museum. I spent a lot of my time in the gallery spaces devoted to the evolution of Degas, an artist I’ve begun to admire more and more, though I hardly gave him any attention when I was younger. It was humbling and awe-inspiring to see him grow from a conservative realist to a man who succeeded in getting pastel to do things it hadn’t done before through candid and intimate images of women rendered in long parallel single-hatch marks. But these long lines of color, furrows almost, with the gauzy effect of pastel rather than the crisp marks in a Durer, say, using the tools of drawing or print-making. Those parallel lines that surfaced and receded across the image gave it a vibrating energy, a pulse, that worked in counterpoint to the soft, diffuse light pastel typically gives off. Seeing his transformation from earlier and brilliant academic work to these late, radiant studies drenched in rich color, as I moved from one work to the next, was like watching a caterpillar shape-shift into a butterfly in a time-lapse film.

I had dozens of surprises like that: a Lee Krasner that was reminiscent of Matisse, painted a decade or so before she died; a de Kooning that, up close, revealed that he’d pressed newspaper pages into his gesso, or whatever ground he was using, to leave a ghostly image of the words and pictures pulled from the newsprint, reversed, the way kids once did and maybe still do with Silly Putty; a pair of worn shoes from Van Gogh that reminded me of Heidegger’s famous quote; a vertiginous overhead view of a long table and floor from Sheeler that was part of my inspiration for the series of large tabletop still lifes; one of Braque’s great paintings from his middle period, along with the gueridons, a pool table also seen from directly above, but shaped like an hour-glass; one of the Ocean Parks from Diebenkorn; and maybe my favorite paining from Cezanne, View of Domaine Saint-Joseph, a painting closer to the work of the Impressionists than most of what he did, but with an utterly unique sense of color. He knew how to create a network of marks across a canvas, where every spot of color lives in its own subtle purity, no going-over, no pentimento, once and done, each mark unique—creating maybe the most complex and lovely greens of any landscape ever painted—and yet despite all that energy and perfection in the mark-making, considered on its own, it also serves to convey the humming, brilliant energy of a summer day in the hills. The Metropolitan was full of people. The line for the Alice Neel show was half an hour long, according to the guard. Skipped it, but nice to see things are heating up. All that waiting-in-line patience has been honed by deprivation, probably. On the other hand, the guard told me that shows in the near past have drawn lines that snake out the front door and around the block.

I got the distinct impression that right now might be a rare opportunity for a gallery that wants to open or re-open in New York. For years now, art galleries have had to make more and more money to remain operational in Manhattan. George Billis has left, moving his space to Westport. OK Harris closed a while back, though not simply because of the cost of renting the gallery space. Danese/Corey ended its brick-and-mortar exhibitions, which felt like another Gotterdammerung blow to anyone who longed for islands of sanity and taste in the anarchic and often underwhelming sea of visual art. Five years ago, Steven Diamant packed up and left his gallery in New York to open exclusively in Los Angeles, first in Culver City and then in Pasadena. Both of those locations looked bigger and brighter than the one he’d had in SoHo. He spent five years trying to adapt to California. When I came into the gallery he was in his office, available to visitors as always. I asked about his move back to New York and he said he hated California. I went down the checklist sardonically, after he said he didn’t do yoga. Sushi? Never eats it. Pilates? As if. Charlie don’t surf, and I gather neither does Steve. I found him, as usual, on site in his office, there to answer questions and talk about the show, and his other artists. And this is where he told me some things that ought to signify a little inflection point for the art scene in Manhattan—or maybe a window of opportunity this year, at least. He said that his location is far better than he’d ever had in Manhattan and his exhibition space on W. Broadway at the edge of SoHo is now larger than any space he’s previously had and yet the rent is lower than what he paid twenty years ago.

People should be flocking back and locking in long leases. In major cities and across the country, the real estate mania is driving inflation in housing prices—even as commercial real estate looks more and more like a graveyard for burying cash. The pandemic drove people out of the cities, many of them for good, and is still driving them out, because so many city dwellers learned they can work remotely. Offices are emptying out. The pleasant surprise is that, commercial real estate is getting cheaper. It would seem to be the time to get a deal and open galleries like Sugarlift, dedicated to genuinely good new art, for those who love good art, rather than investors seeking an alternative to precious metals. To put it precisely: do all the gallerists out there realize that this represents an opportunity to move back into a prime location at a much lower rate than before? This undoubtedly won’t last, with all the money the government is pumping into the economy. But, as the city opens back up, maybe some galleries can move back in.

Ali Banisadr’s dark, gestural menagerie

Detail from The Healers, Ali Banisadr, oil on linen

After a year and a half of not having crossed a bridge or driven through a tunnel into Manhattan, the most impactful exhibit I saw on my quick tour of Chelsea and SoHo two weeks ago was Ali Banisadr’s work at Paul Kasmin on W. 27th. The Iran-born Brooklyn painter has found a way to tap into the period when European Surrealism morphed into American Abstract Expressionism, and by re-inhabiting that fertile sea change, he’s uncovered something exceedingly rich and strange. In a way, he’s put himself back into the same position as Arshile Gorky, halfway between the two movements, exploring missed opportunities that could have emerged then, using the fulcrum this gives him to create his own eerie and strangely riveting canvases that have more than a little in common with Gorky’s.

Banisadr paints slow-motion and silent battlegrounds or communities of unnatural creatures, the spiritual equivalent of a Star Wars cantina. They’re the sort of beings a feverish child fears or covets in the closet or under the bed at night, little exotic pet-like entities with no recognizable morphology. They don’t look fierce; but they don’t look innocent either. Soft maybe, but not cuddly. They’re too uncanny to completely trust, more like random mutations of a fantasy video game cast or some occult catalog of spirits. It’s as if Hieronymus Bosch had returned and found a new way to embody human impulses as creatures from a weird children’s storybook. Yet there’s none of the repellent suffering you see in Bosch; instead, everything is as quiet and lovely as life in a tropical fish tank under black lights.

The Healers

These scenes lure you with the pleasure of their silky transitions from one rich color to another, the energy of their execution, the velvety quality of the paint that looks as if the support itself is plush and black. Everything seems to emerge from that black ground. What you see at first is just the quality of the paint—smeared, speckled, striped, MORE

Figurative states of being

Lacoon, Julio Reyes, egg tempera on panel, 16″ x 16.5″

You have a few more days to catch the exhibit of egg tempera paintings from Julio Reyes at Arcadia on W. Broadway in SoHo. They are well worth the visit. He has an ability to use figurative painting to convey internal states of mind and heart. He searches for objective correlatives, as T.S. Eliot referred to the poet’s quest, for these complex internal worlds. Some of his oils are included in the show, but mostly you’ll see his recent efforts in this medium that’s been around far longer than oil. Steve Diamant, who is almost always at the gallery when it’s open and ready to offer commentary on the artists he has chosen to represent for years–the old-school way–shook his head with admiration when I asked about the process. He said it’s arduous, time-consuming and requires the building up of an image through many coats of paint, mixed from pigment and raw egg yolks. The medium was used by artists as diverse at Botticelli, Thomas Hart Benton and Andrew Wyeth. Up close, the mark-making is a marvel. It’s essentially an impressionist technique, where Reyes builds up his forms through thousands of repetitive marks, but each one has its own distinctive and precisely defined shape. The images are luminous, dreamlike and suggestive of heightened states of perception and feeling, and the workmanship is masterful, personal, fully-realized.

New work, Bill Stephens

New work from Bill Stephens

I sat down last week with Bill Stephens and Bill Santelli, outside Santelli’s home studio near Powder Mill Park. We talked for three hours about many things including my exhilarating recent visit to New York, and their work. I saw one older painting from Santelli hanging on his wall that knocked me out–I’ll post it next. Stephens sent me these two recent pieces, continuing evidence that he and his wife, Jean, are the most experimental painters I know at the moment. Their work continues to morph into new areas, sometimes gradually, but also abruptly and unpredictably. These two acrylics by Bill are marvelous in entirely different ways, the one Rothko-ish and the other drawing comparisons to Monet from Santelli. Yes, if Monet had been at the bottom of his water lily pond looking up toward a sunny sky . . .

Zoey Frank’s counter-cultural party

Zoey Frank, Pool Party, Oil on canvas, 114 x 96”

Art isn’t a contest. There are plenty of art competitions, yes, and there are hierarchies of talent, but the idea of scoring Piero against Giotto . . . what would that even mean? However, if painting were a competition, after seeing Zoey Frank’s current work, painters with a competitive itch might want to consider something comparatively easy as an alternative, like running a three-minute mile.

Frank is freakishly talented, a technical virtuoso whose work often has a cool, emotionally remote tone. Her chill facility hasn’t exactly been a hindrance. It was no surprise when Danese/Corey decided to sell her work. As I’ve followed her, I’ve often felt her greatest strengths were the ability to capture and convey fine gradients of inarticulate feeling—my favorite kind—where it’s almost impossible to distinguish between feeling and perception. She achieves this through her amazing discriminations of how light falls in different ways on objects depending on their distance from the viewer and position in a particular space. Her spaces seem quietly more alive than the objects that occupy them, her scenes hauntingly discernible, but in an indeterminate way.

She’s never content with representational prowess, constantly requiring the viewer’s visual understanding to flip back and forth between two and three dimensions, flattening her image into abstract patterns and then popping it back out into what’s easily identified, often without feeling the need to make the image entirely coherent. Much of this is at the core of what the perceptual painters tend to do, but she does it in an especially complex way, and the complexity often feels like something she has pursued for its own sake. Her surfaces are intensely alive, offering no place to rest. She gives her scenes an allover quality that dispenses with anything like a focal point, in the way a Persian rug greets the eye, but without its regularity and symmetry. She wants that middle ground between verisimilitude and geometry, but she also wants to create an almost Escher-like visual tension in a scene that often seems visually impossible so that the abstract and representational elements don’t quite abide each other. This strategy disorients the viewer, taking you out of familiar time and space, pushing you into a waking dream, vaguely nostalgic, that sometimes just flattens into a pattern that might as well be a strip of contact paper stuck to the canvas. With her, it’s sometimes like seeing the world whilst being a tad high on a controlled substance. It isn’t surrealism. She has none of that dark weirdness. Looking at her epic scenes of social gatherings, her teeming hives of cheerful and happy human activity, it’s more like remembering a sunny summer love-in from the Sixties than some episode from the subconscious. It isn’t about the recesses of the mind. She’s is an intensely outward-looking painter.

Her latest post on Instagram won me over. It’s one of the large paintings she will be showing, starting Thursday, at Sugarlift, a thrilling little operation, full of hope, piss and vinegar–the breakfast of all champion painters and gallerists–in its view of the current art scene. There’s a bit of Artsy in its business model, I think, but it has a new, cool brick and mortar space on W. 28th St.  It seems to operate less like a traditional gallery and more like a continuous flash mob of quality painting outside the mold of the big white cubes where the most ridiculously priced work gets shown. (Pay a visit to Zwirner in Chelsea right now, if you want to see a depressing contrast of big money chasing diminishing returns for the viewer. It will intensify the glimpse of sanity that Sugarlift represents.)

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New work from Jean Stephens

Through the Hedgerow, Jean Stephens, encaustic on board, 8″ x 8″

Jean Stephens has one of her newest paintings on view at the Annual Spring Member’s Exhibition at Mill Art Center and Gallery in Honeoye Falls. It’s a small landscape in encaustic, Through the Hedgerow, an example of how she’s working more loosely with her medium, with impressive results. It’s a more experimental phase for her, part of a transformation in her work over the past couple years, and she’s getting some remarkable results. The show includes the work of a couple dozen member artists, all of it interesting. Stephens also has an excellent figure drawing chosen for a national show at Main Street Arts, on view now as well in Clifton Springs, juried by Steffi Chappell, assistant curator at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse. Both exhibitions close on June 11.