Doppelgangers

Introspection, Dario Tazzioli, carrara marble.

Introspection, Dario Tazzioli, carrara marble.

I had some fascinating conversations with fellow artists at the reception for Doppelgangers at Oxford Gallery, where Jim and Ginny Hall have assembled another fine group show. It drew a large crowd, and it may have offered the largest number of pieces of any show they’ve ever put together, more than sixty. Many of the contributors took the theme as a pretext for submitting a pair of works, some two- and some three-dimensional, and yet everything seemed to fit perfectly into the available space. The idea of doppelgangers inspired or at least drew some exceptional work that had already been completed. As always, it’s impossible to do justice to everything on view, but again Dario Tazzioli’s sculpture was a magical affirmation that the artistic past is also its present and future. His Introspection, the bust of a young woman with a mane of flowing, wavy hair, carrara marble carved with a hand-turned bow drill—delivered to the show from Italy—stands as a quiet traditional tour de force, a testament to how nothing is off the table in art now. “Anything goes in art” used to mean that Warhol could fill a room with balloons and call it a masterpiece; now it means that the heritage of Donatello can still speak powerfully to a contemporary audience.

Tom Insalaco’s two paintings of faces offer the same lesson in a darker mood. They are the work of a man who has, for decades, been inspired by and driven to honor the Renaissance and baroque periods. He continues to quietly labor at his home studio in Canandaigua, NY, with more than one room turned into warehouses for his past work, all of it deserving a serious retrospective, but as if often the case with brilliant work done in obscurity, no one seems to be knocking on his door offering to revive interest in his remarkable career, which moved over the years from photo-realism to a reverence for the Old Masters. Since last year I’ve been studying and reading about Piero Della Francesca, whose work, especially, toward the end of his life, strikes me as powerfully alive and evocative and stylistically individuated in a completely contemporary way—which again suggests that emulating the mannerists or the Old Masters or the early Renaissance, or any other period, doesn’t need to be even a quasi-ironic undertaking, as it is with John Currin or Kehinde Wylie.

I had a long, probing conversation with Phyllis Bryce Ely about the recent work of hers I’d seen earlier in the day at Main Street Arts in Clifton Springs, NY: a pair of iceberg paintings from photographs her father took when he was serving as a Navy photographer documenting the construction of the DEW line in the arctic. These ghostly forms fed into her preoccupation with water—frozen water in this case reflected in the surface of the unfrozen kind—resulting in remarkable evocations of stillness and disembodied space, reductions of complex scenes into simple and flowing strokes of paint, that seem like fluid reverberations of what they represent—water shape-shifting into paint. I had a chance to finally meet Daniel Mosner, whose contribution to the show is an eerie depiction of what appears to be a woman whose face is moving from side to side so frenetically it’s nearly a vibrating blur—like those liminal, ominous figures who haunt the central character in the movie Jacob’s Ladder. In the background, through a doorway, you can catch a glimpse of what looks like a large, glowing flat-screen television. The paint is beautifully, confidently handled, luxuriant and full of subtle color. Mosner talked of how he works in isolation near Binghamton, NY, and how good it was to be with other artists for a while, and how he’s currently building a painting that sounds like a commentary on the history of modernism—a scene in which objects at different distances from the viewer will be rendered in ways appropriate to different movements from the 20th century, like striations in different depths of rock: realistic up close, Cubist in the middle distance, and expressionist in the most remote areas of the scene. “All of it will be unified by the light source,” he said, as if it were a matter of routine. He’s an exceptionally gifted painter, so I expect interesting results. Bill Santelli offered two paintings, from two of his four main bodies of work, one of them being the focal point of the entire show, as you walk in, the first work you see—a swirling abstracts, where the colors curl upward like smoke, highly simplified into the near-symmetry of a Rorschach blot, a red wound or flower in the center surrounded by a rococo sea of blues and greens. It’s one of his best from this ongoing series. Tony Dungan contributed an image of multiple human figures, built around his current obsession with a particular yellow-green hue, close to the one you’ll find on the backs and feet of runners as a warning to traffic. In Dungan’s hands this color is like a captured bird, pressing out against its confinement, full of energy—a glimpse of the life force itself. He works quickly and prolifically, and isn’t afraid to keep painting over whatever doesn’t please him, and he pulled out his phone to show me a large portrait that gave him such fits that he sanded it down, in an attempt to start over, but liked what he was seeing as he subtracted rather than added to the image. His experiments are always powerful: he’s someone who wrests unity from images that can be incredibly complex and, at first, seemingly fragmented.

The revelation of the show, for me, was Kenopsia, by Ryan Schoeder, hung brilliantly beside a pair of paintings by Matt Klos. Klos had a show not long ago of a series he did of abandoned homes in Fort Howard, Maryland, which was once a military installation and is now essentially a ghost town. Klos submitted two paintings from this period: one the image of a green house with a surrounding pillared veranda, an osprey’s nest in the eaves. It’s a plangently lovely image, a study in green, blue and brick, with the blue of the sky reflecting delicately off a shadowed wall, almost entirely angled away from the viewer—as if the actual house were slowly melting into the air, which in a way it was. Klos paired the painting with another scene from his studio, with this same painting sitting on a shelf, a clearly discernible object among many others lost in the ambient light. Both paintings pit the beauty of the image itself against mortality’s song of loss and decrepitude. Perpendicular to these two pieces, Schoeder’s large near-abstract actually seemed like a doppelganger of sorts for Klos’s unobtrusive, soft-spoken mastery. Schroeder’s large painting has a glowing, symphonic presence, drawing you in with the grandeur of its light, as you squint and turn your head trying to make out what you’re trying to see. Gradually, as you adjust your expectations, you begin to recognize an immense interior volume, a structure that seems to have been hollowed out, half full of rain or a storm surge or the massive dregs of a fire hose. This vacant, ghostly and cavernous space is intensely, brightly illuminated, as if you’re in a psychic waiting room for a near-death experience. In the center of this space rises a ragged, formerly-load bearing piling, like a pillar of salt or limestone but likely just cement. I was standing beside another visitor to the show, who was fascinated and bemused by the elusive quality of the painting, “I don’t know why, but it reminds me of the 911 memorial. Have you been there?”

“No, but I’ve seen images of it. I’ve written about it. It’s remarkable. The falling water,” I said.

“This feels like that, to me,” he said.

It was an amazing, intuitive leap to make about the painting since it looks almost nothing like that memorial, but it did evoke a feeling similar to the effect of that excavated crater, and the hint of water—not falling but motionlessly reflective—brought to mind the same kind of uneasy and yet serene gravity. I immediately got out my phone and looked up the word kenopsia: “the eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that’s usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet—a school hallway in the evening, an unlit office on a weekend, vacant fairgrounds—an emotional afterimage that makes it seem not just empty but hyper-empty . . .” So it struck me that, with the work form Matt Klos nearby, one corner of the gallery had been invisibly roped off as a shrine to kenopsia, a curatorial choice that only magnified the central qualities of all three paintings.

With this painting, I finally was able to make sense of what has been driving Schroeder in most of his recent work over the past few years: as if the title of this painting had arrived belatedly to lend perspective to his entire body of work up to now. He’s basically been trying to depict what can’t be seen, this kenopsia, over and over and over: in derelict spaces, long abandoned, with their jumble of deteriorating walls and floors and beams. In a tiny chapel with rows of empty pews. In subjects so crepuscular you can hardly make out what he’s trying to show you. He’s aiming his eyes at what can’t really be seen, maybe as a sort of analog for a Buddhist or existentialist void, but with this painting suddenly that space is illuminated like a stadium at night. I’m eager to see where this new light leads.

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