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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

 

THE BIGGEST LITTLE SHOW IN TOWN

"Sideshow Nation" (works by Bornstein & Krynski in the foreground).
So, it is with us once again – the greatest little show in town, the annual extravaganza at Sideshow in Williamsburg (closes March 3). This year, it’s called “Sideshow Nation.” The title was suggested by Nancy Haynes, one of the 476 artists listed on its incredible checklist, because, according to Sideshow’s mastermind, Richard Timperio, she sees the show as a country or a tribe of creativity “that has reached the status of an all-inclusive nation.” Another artist in the show, Kim Sloane, has written a very informative piece online about how the show is put together, and Timperio’s rationale for creating it. You can read it at http://thought-form.net/

I am here merely to state that once again, the general level of accomplishment is high, and to outline what I see as the more outstanding works in the exhibition, but I can’t pretend that this is the one and only possible list of highlights. It is only a personal selection, and one that is inevitably bounded by the limits of my individual stamina. I was there, looking at & evaluating the show, for between two and three hours. In that time I found 50-plus works of art that to me were of particular interest, but I am sure that there are others that I really would have liked, too, if I’d could have brought myself to focus on them, at a time when my eyes instead were glazing over. (There were also a number of worthy works by artists whom I’ve mentioned fairly recently elsewhere and whom I therefore consider hors de concours.)

SCULPTURE & ASSEMBLAGE

The first work that one sees, in the window on the street, is a wondrous mini-assemblage by Steve Gerberich, composed of a rotatating plastic wheel with little plastic human figures like spokes on it, and additional, smaller plastic human figures standing clustered on the floor of the window below the wheel, while a spooky light illuminates everything from below. “One Nation Under Glass,” it is appropriately called.

As one enters the first of the two spacious galleries, one’s eye is next caught by the smattering of large assemblages/sculptures standing in the middle of the floor. One is “What About Me, Pig?” by Noa Bornstein, and that’s exactly what it is – a large white porker posed on a plinth, made of burlap and plaster over wire mesh and an armature, with white paint & aluminum in there somewhere. It’s a hell of a lot cuter than the insufferable beast in the Geico commercials. Also of interest is Michael Krynski’s “2 Dance,” an assemblage consisting of a vertical bundle of slender branches rising up out of a well-filled-out pair of blue jeans. A third centerpiece (although standing close to a wall) is an oval table, skillfully carpentered by Christopher Yeatman, its top made of many different little slabs of wood, remarkably joined, sanded and finished to create a sensuously smooth surface. Its title: “Jupiter #2.”

Indeed, this show has a lot of smaller sculptures that also appeal. Five that I noted in particular were 1) a deft, untitled terracotta figure study by John Mandile; 2) the neat abstract painted maple “Snack (Series #29)” by Bix Lye, with its blue top, black bottom & triangles of yellow & green in between; 3) “Despair,” a poignant painted urethane head of a weeping man by Howard Kalish; 4) “Link,” by Lee Tribe, a semi-abstract welded steel which appears to synthesize some sort of musical instrument with a similarly generic piece of machinery; and finally, 5) “Shameless,” a white resin, lifelike doggie playfully rolling over, by Cynthia Eardley.

REPRESENTATIONAL PAINTINGS & DRAWINGS

Moving on to the works on those splendid, 12 ½-foot high walls, I come first to the representational paintings and drawings, of which eight stood out for me. Right inside the front door, there’s “Gray Splotch on Left,” by Judy Simonian, an acrylic which looked like a sweet little semi-abstract interior to me. Over the door leading to the stairwell is a sizeable & dashing, black-and-white drawing/painting of Jules Dassin, the Franco-American movie director, by Ron Anteroinen. On the right-hand wall of that front gallery is a small, wistful self-portrait pencil and watercolor by Yoshiko Kanai, and across from it, on the left-hand wall, is a sizeable, gold-framed oil on linen semi-abstract portrait of “The General,” who looked to me rather like Mussolini as Marsden Hartley might have painted him; it’s the handiwork of Clayton Mitropoulos.

Further down on that same wall (only in fact, inches from the floor) hangs “Maryland in Winter,” a tender little landscape study of trees in a forest interior, by St. John (S. J.) Lye. Elsewhere to be found are a Magritte-like “Red School Door,” a small, crystalline gouache by Janice Bridgers showing the shadow of a street lamp falling across the door; also “Cinnamon Rose,” by Olive Ayhens, an ambitious collage-like oil on canvas combining different buildings and trees, with a street in the foreground. Another one I went for is Jayne Holsinger’s “Profile,” a modest small gouache with the haunting image of a Grecian statue’s head against a blue sky; it summoned up memories of de Chirico for me.

COLLAGES, PHOTOGRAPHS, CONCEPTUAL

The collages on view range from representational to abstract. On the wall facing the entrance is a hilarious one by Tom Bevan whose outstanding features are a horizontal row of female nudes balanced by a muscular row of boy toys in red briefs and improbable heads sutured on. It’s called “Three Found Images.” On the same wall is a striking image by Ambrosia Sullivan, “The Sweet One,” showing a skull made of shiny glass beads with floral designs surrounding it and a heart on its forehead (the perfect Valentine’s Day present). Siri Berg contributes “Santa’s Workshop,” a cute little black-and-Plexiglas abstract, while a festive untitled number by Tamara Gonzales also summons up Yuletide with its glistening tinsel frame, to say nothing of its red-and-green color scheme combining little hearts, faces, orbs and trees.

Photography, it turns out, can be used for artistic purposes, or narrative, or shading into conceptualist. Starting first with the artistic, I liked the dark, rich large “Homage to Zurburan,” by Renan Dario Arango. It shows a homeless man stretched out on his back. While the title suggests this 17th century Spanish master, I didn’t see anything by Zurburan on the web that resembled this photograph, but I was vividly reminded by it of the “Dead Toreador” by Manet. Still, Manet at that moment was drawing inspiration from the dark, rich colors of 17th century Spanish painters (most notably, Velazquez), so there’s a community of interest here. I also suspect a historical reference, or at least a historical precedent, in Kendra Heisler’s “The Milkman’s Sin.” It shows a pregnant woman and some spilt milk, suggesting the old saying “No use crying over spilled milk,” and more specifically an 18th century painting, “The Broken Eggs,” by Greuze, in the Met, where the broken eggs of a servant girl symbolize the loss of her virginity.

The most purely and cheerfully narrative photograph (and one I especially liked) is “Swing Her,” by Nancy Wechter. It shows two pubescents dancing at a party. The boy is smiling, while the girl is just a blur, because she's moving so fast….what fun they are clearly having!

Shading into conceptualism, we have ”Betty Hirst,” by Heide Hatry. This photograph shows a woman with her legs spread, apparently masturbating, except that her genitalia are red instead of a normal pink. Could she be holding a red shiny sculpture of genitalia in front of her crotch, instead of grabbing her crotch? This is one possibility. As best I can unscramble the feminist jargon on the web, Hatry is one feminist neo-conceptualist artist & Hirst is another, so this image has become “a feminist icon.” It may be the most famous image in "Sideshow Nation." God! What a commentary on the taste that prevails on the web..

Other, and more attractive, photographs that appear to shade into conceptualism have been contributed by Jeanne Wilkinson and Ralph Raphael Fleming, both of whose pictures are dominated by delicate shades of gray. “Feer Euphoria,” by Wilkinson, suggests to me nothing so much as the beat-up back of a car, but it is hung so high that I can’t be sure of what I’m seeing. Fleming’s “Met’s Detail Shots” are close-ups of Assyrian reliefs, but appear to have been subtly altered – one character appears to be holding a 21st century-looking ladies’ purse.

The best example of conceptualist painting is by Nancy Haynes. Entitled “Indeterminancy Zen Cage,” it combines watercolor, graphite and labels on paper to create a “color chart” on which no colors appear, being denoted instead by their written names. It is very clear and neat. A pencil drawing which has the scent of conceptualism about it, even if it contains no writing, is “unlisted,” by James Castelluzzo (1934-2012). It copies the famous Michelangelo painting of God touching the hand of Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, only instead of God, a skeleton is reaching out to Adam – the touch of death, instead of the touch of life. Did the artist feel the end of his own life approaching?

ABSTRACTION, ABSTRACTION

Most of all, however, Sideshow’s big attraction is its generous exposure of contemporary abstraction. That is not too surprising, since Timperio is himself an abstract painter., and somehow his sympathy with this form of expression has leaked out onto the art world grapevine, so that practically every abstract painter in creation seems to know this, and to bring his or her own work to Timperio’s attention. Since I, too, am perennially interested in abstraction, I found twenty examples of it worthy of mention.

There were at least a couple of abstracts whose approach harked back to earlier days. The lively untitled yellow-and-black oil by Rudy Gyselings reminded me of de Kooning from the later 40s—which in its way is a compliment, since this was de Kooning’s very best period. Marina Adams’s acrylic, “Peace 36,” looked like a baby Kenneth Noland target, with concentric circles of green, gray, pink and black – again, a form of compliment, since I admire Noland. On the wall in the front gallery, facing the entry, hang three appealing and complementary abstracts: the colorful ”Yankee Toys,” an oil by Michael Volonakis; a more subdued oil by Michael Moneagle entitled “It’s Good to Know When You’re on Fire;” and (if I remember its location correctly) “Bisti 1,” two adjoining panels in mixed media with lots of squiggly little figures by Kent Peterson,

I was very happy to see that Fran Kornfeld is exploring a new palette with her two-piece “Pas de Deux,” flower-like forms in handmade paper, now tinted with all manner of pink, white, and off-u, as well as her more familiar dark and light blues, and look forward to seeing her upcoming show at Art 101. I was also taken by the way that David Hixon scraped his orange on over his white and blue, in his encaustic on wood, “From a Day of the Same Name,” and by the sweet, very small, all-red silk and resin panel by Donatella Quindavalle aptly entitled “Red” (any larger and it might have been a bore).

And then there are the legitimate celebrities, among them Kim Uchiyama, Tine Lundsfryd, Thornton Willis, and Dorothea Rockburne (I say “legitimate” to differentiate between them and Heide Hatry). This time around, I noticed particularly Rockburne’s small “Venus, Copper, 29,” oil paint on copper on Masonite panel, a vertical bronze-colored field with an off-centered shiny red oval on it – more interesting than most Rockburnes that I’ve seen. I also noticed Willis’s jaunty little plaid untitled “study,” made with Crayola on top of a scanned image on 20-lb.paper, though it was hung so low that I had to stoop to see it.

THE RAISED-SURFACE BRIGADE

At long last, we come to a group of artists who are always among my special favorites. In some cases, I’ve been following their careers for so long that I may have lost my sense of perspective about them, but they are all artists who continue to explore the seemingly endless possibilities of working with generous dollops of gel or molding paste combined with pigment, and they continue to create beautiful effects quite unlike any others I’ve seen.

These raised surfaces date from the 70s and 80s, when Jules Olitski and Larry Poons pioneered with them, and, in so doing, proved decisively that Clement Greenberg has been many times misquoted when he is supposed to have said that painting must needs approach to “flatness.” Greenberg approved of Olitski and Poons, and I think that if he were alive today, he would still approve of raised surfaces, though the artists who today explore them no longer restrict themselves to the close-valued color schemes that were so widely employed in the 70s and 80s. Quite the contrary, the current exhibition shows these artists exploring a rich and varied range of color.

The four exemplars here are “Borrowed Momentum,” a glorious, magisterial panoply of red, blue, green and gold by Paula De Luccia; “Station Exp,” by James Walsh, a sophisticated symphony in black, blue, white, pink, green and yellow; Roy Lerner’s “Kick Swing,” a rollicking orange field with silver and blue laid over it in thick sweeps and globules; and (last but not least), “Stack of the Mock,” with its luxuriant gilding atop an orange field with a black grid, the vibrant handiwork of Lauren Poster.

Not all of the artists who once lathered on the gel still do so. Some have evolved so that, although they may employ similarly free forms and loose sweeps of color, now lay their paint on more thinly and achieve subtly different effects. The outstanding example here is Francine Tint, whose quietly dignified tall vertical, “Black Opal,” combines soft pink and black with accents of alizarin crimson and lime. David Crum, an artist who never, to the best of my knowledge, attempted the heaviest of gels, modestly shows what a careful and melodic drip can do with his elegant small acrylic on paper with a restrained color scheme of green, red and gold.

SOME REALLY DARING SOULS

….have not necessarily dispensed with the gel or the paste, but have definitely abandoned the free forms that once went with it. They are discovering – or perhaps rediscovering---the joys of highly-colored geometric abstraction, of a sort that finds its roots more nearly in the 1960s than in the 70s or 80s. Not that these new paintings look like their predecessors: they are all new and inventive, but still, as an aged person, I see the lineage there.

And in this rarefied environment a competitive atmosphere seems to be developing, a situation that reminds me somewhat of the kind of friendly competition that, so I understand, can also develop in a workshop situation, with everybody striving to get the most out of those few sweet, stimulating weeks of proximity. As I see it, the current Sideshow exhibition has two sets of these friendly rivals, with all four artists offering a very interesting set of alternatives.

One set is comprised of Randy Bloom and Louise P. Sloane, who exhibited together at Sideshow in the fall of 2011, and who are represented in this show by paintings not unlike those in their two-person show. Sloane’s, a very large & eye-catching painting, is exhibited high on the wall facing the entry. Entitled “Ooumbls,” it employs Sloane’s signature rigidly-perfect, five-rectangle composition in blazing shades of orange and blue.

Bloom’s, which bears the rather unsatisfactory title of “41264,” is smaller & harder to find, high on the left-hand wall of the second gallery. It employs one of several recent formats that this artist has tried (her paintings have evolved considerably over the years, as she is continually experimenting). In this case, it’s two soft, freely-shaped & vertical somewhat hesitant yellow panels on a soft yellow field, with three multicolored discs on each panel, and a narrow green framing all.

The other set, it seems to me, contrasts Ann Walsh with Forrest (“Frosty”) Myers. Both receive prime display space in the back gallery. Myers started out as a minimalist back in the 60s, but (to judge from his previous contributions to these big Sideshow annuals) has gone through many permutations since. For this show, he (it seems) is back to his roots, with an untitled, nearly 6-foot high, triangular wall piece composed of pale pink and black flat squares and rectangles of powder-coated steel, shiny and rock-hard.

Walsh has contributed “Even,” a free-standing, intricately-made two-sided “painting” of her usual vinyl on Plexiglas, with concentric squares of a soft blue, green, and crisp magenta, a color combination that, despite the vehemence of the independent colors, remains surprisingly sleek, elegant and vulnerable as a whole.

What are we to make of these two sets of contrasts? I confess, I mistook the Myers for a Walsh at first, but upon re-examining them, I could see a difference, and it reminded me of two things. First, the parallels between this pairing and that of Bloom/Sloane, and secondly, my previous experience with the earlier forms of geometric abstraction, back in the 1960s.

My first big discovery, in the fall of 1967, was the brightly-colored “Protractor” series of Frank Stella (I’d been writing the art page for Time for less than a year at that point). I scheduled and wrote a whole story on them, with a page of color photographs (unusual in newsmagazines inthose days). When we scheduled the story, my editor (who knew a lot more about art than I did) asked me gently, wasn’t there anybody else who we ought to be including? Oh no, I said—totally forgetting that at about the same time, I’d seen the Noland show of horizontal stripe paintings at Emmerich—forgotten, most likely, because I hadn’t known what to make of them.

It took me another 18 months to grow up to Noland, but when I did, and ran a page of color photographs of his work, my enthusiasm was such that my square Time readers reacted with horror and rage (thereby confirming my belief,which I hold to this day, that abstraction was -- and remains-- our most radical art form).

My somewhat more guarded treatment of Stella, on the other hand, had helped his sales no end, and to this day, I’m sure that the Protractor series is in far greater demand than the Nolands. Even some of Greenberg’s greatest admirers (David Mirvish, Michael Fried) thought Stella was terrific. There’s no doubt that both the colors and the composition of the Protractor series are bold and dynamic—very impressive, if also slightly cold and mechanical. The Noland stripe paintings, while seemingly just as hard-edged and geometric, nonetheless offer a sophistication, sensitivity and humanity that the Stellas just don’t have.

To me, the Sloane & the Myers offer the mostly very positive qualities of the Protractor series—while the Bloom and the Walsh share, at the very least, some of the poetry & human qualities of the Noland stripes. Greenberg preferred the Nolands, and I prefer Bloom and Walsh, but hey, I have plenty of respect for Sloane and Myers, too. Can it be that the four of them together (and not excluding John Griefen, even though he is absent from this particular arena) constitute a new movement, a new hard-edge push into the Great Beyond?
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