Todd Gordon: the plenitude of life

View of Norra Djurgardsstaden reurbanization project around Gasklockan 1 and 2, oil on linen, 33″ x 77″

On my brief visit to New York City, to spend a few hours at the New York Public Library’s J.D. Salinger exhibit a few days before its final weekend, I caught the new installation of work from three artists at George Billis Gallery. It was the only exhibit of new painting I was able to see, because I timed my visit on the worst possible day—between exhibitions at almost all the galleries in Chelsea. Billis had a leg up on all the others and was already prepared for the following night’s opening.

I was the only visitor at the time, with Billis himself clicking away on the computer in back, and Todd Gordon—the painter whose work had been hung in the main gallery space—standing at the window on a call with his wife who was arriving at the airport, having flown in from Sweden with the kids. I didn’t realize he was the exhibiting artist until I’d toured the entire gallery and wandered back to ask him, in my own charming way, where to find a rest room. I’m relieved to report that I never got to my question, because he introduced himself, and we launched into a discussion of the state of the art world at the moment—a delightful series of agreements about almost everything. He was intense, making his points without belaboring them, as I was more likely to do, but amiable and generous in his eagerness to endorse some other contemporary painters whose work would be on view at galleries he directed me to visit.

He’s tall, fit, with the bearing and aura of a guitarist who would prefer to be considered alternative, a good sense of humor, quick to pick up on the slightest irony and add his terse two cents. He had the quality of attention, the alert bearing, of someone who is out in the field, engaged in the hunt, a fellow soldier, not just someone making observations about the battle from a safe distance. I had the sense that, he was doing what we’re all doing: trying to puzzle out, not just from year to year, but from minute to minute, whether or not genuine art can rise up and float over the slippery, unreliable ocean of wealth that grants painters an income and makes a few rich, for better or worse. It’s an experiment with as many possible outcomes—and few, if any, are repeatable—as there are painters.

His painterly landscapes and cityscapes, many similar to urban scenes that he has been doing for quite a while, were compellingly intricate and fresh. In addition, he’d included some more traditionally rustic wooded settings, all of them just as unsentimental and exacting as the city scenes. He works from direct observation, and though he describes himself as a Brooklyn artist on his website, he resides in Sweden and paints both there and in Italy. Aside from his considerable skills at capturing tone and value and conveying the volume of what he’s depicting, what I liked most was the panoramic aspect ratio, as it were, of the work—extremely wide and shallow, like a sideways scroll. It gave me the sense of the proliferation of the world, the seemingly superfluous expanse of natural life and fabricated objects. It’s a meditation on the plenitude of every big and little thing out there—mundane, wonderfully ordinary, and suited to whatever it happens to be doing, or not doing, wherever it stands in the scene. 

“This is great work,” I said. 

“I’ve got more. I’ve got enough to fill the other two rooms,” he said, smiling ruefully, motioning toward the other smaller solo shows with a slight air of frustration. 

It was a nice space, on an upper floor with plenty of natural light, and though I liked the way Billis was able to organize three solo shows simultaneously, I could sympathize with Gordon’s eagerness to get as much exposure as possible, if he had so much other new work not on view. We were actually occupying temporary quarters, next door to George Billis’s permanent gallery, which was undergoing a reconstruction. This space was on loan to him for the current shows. 

I asked Gordon what it was like to live in Sweden.

“Expensive,” he said.

“Even in Sweden.”

“Yeah, socialism or not, we can still just barely afford our apartment,” he said, which measures around 500 square feet for the whole family. The price per square foot sounded comparable to the rates in any of a dozen large metros in the U.S. I ranted briefly on the rampant inflation in real estate there—the migration of people escaping it to live in secondary U.S. locations, like Boise or Birmingham, driving up real estate prices there. The illusory elan of financial speculation keeps bleeding out from Wall Street into real estate and any other market that could sustain higher and higher prices. Like, say, tulips. But if all this is as much of a bubble as it seems, no one believes it’s going to burst any time soon. 

“There has to be a correction coming,” I said. “It’s a little insane, and the people in the middle of it aren’t quite aware of how unreal it is.” 

“Have you seen Hudson Yards?” he asked, incredulously. “It’s ridiculous.”

I’d just walked south past the periphery of those new sky-blue stalagmites of glass on my way to the gallery, the futuristic Fortress of Solitude pointing toward the clouds just north of Chelsea, erasing the old haunts of Hell’s Kitchen. A nice little 500 sq. ft. studio apartment there will run you around $3,000 per month. As I passed that block, I’d wondered what sort of mood stabilizer Maeve Brennan would have needed to be able to document, for the current New Yorker, the razing of individualized old architecture to make way for these charmless, Neo-Robocop glass palaces—as she had done for The New Yorker in her day, commenting on the impersonality of the architecture going up half a century ago.

“It’s like what’s going on in the art world,” I said.

“Exactly. It’s all about the price now. Do many of these people who buy art even spend much time looking at it?”

“There’s so much speculation. Buy whatever seems guaranteed to go up in value and then auction it off in six months. It’s just an alternative to buying stock. Or houses to flip.”

He asked about my own work, and we talked a bit about painting in general, and about his career. He mentioned his roots in Ohio, and I spoke highly of Ohio as a state that devoted more attention to visual art than most—how I’d lived for nearly a year south of Cleveland and how I exhibit regularly in Ohio. He spoke of his history as a teacher, and how most artists have to teach in order to be able to afford to make art: often without an institutional affiliation, organizing independent workshops. He himself has always made it work, even in Brooklyn, apparently, where the median price of housing is nearly four times what it is throughout the rest of the country. We pledged to find one another on Instagram, and I headed out, only to find that many galleries were closed to install new work, or the work on view didn’t move me to want to spend much time with it. I had to get to my car in time to make it home to Rochester late in the evening, and I regretted not being able to spend more time with Gordon.

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