By James Kalm
I’ll start this review with a disclaimer. Normally when a writer inserts a disclaimer there’s a smarmy, unctuous note that follows, but in this case I’m proud to say that Thomas Micchelli was my editor here at the Brooklyn Rail for five years, and more importantly, I learned a heck of a lot from Tom. Any of you who have an inkling as to how the Rail operates, or what kind of time commitment an editor makes, can appreciate his productive, long and loving commitment to this publication. Last year one phase of the Rail’s life cycle ended and another began, with not only Micchelli’s departure but with those of the Chief ArtSeen Editor John Yau and long time Associate Editor Ben La Rocco as well. We’ll avoid the maudlin, nostalgic memories for now, and simply wish them all well with their future endeavors.
I bring this up as a preface in the context of Micchelli’s latest exhibition, Portfolio x Appunti, to highlight the dichotomy between his life as a person of letters (Micchelli is also a librarian at Cooper Union and is continuing his extensive writing on art at Hyperallergic and his practice as a visual artist. The three projects presented in this intimate show at Centtoto focus mainly on drawing—specifically figure drawing. Surrounded by bookshelves, Paul D’Agostino’s Centtoto is located in the living room/library of his Bushwick apartment, and as a scholar of Italian he’s made it a practice of asking artists to present projects that have a written component. Even the title of this series of salons literally translates to “a portfolio with notes.” So not surprisingly, two of the pieces in this exhibition were created as companions to writings by the artist’s friends, Lacy Schutz and Claudia La Rocco.
Micchelli employs a sure, sensual line, and he uses it to delineate mass and form with an almost baroque amplitude. His facility and grasp of anatomy is apparent, and I’m thinking many of these works were composed from memory or imagination rather than from actual observation of a model; cropping is used as a compositional tool with heads often running off the page or turning away as if to avoid recognition. While maintaining anonymity, this device provokes a more focused attention on the figure, its abstract shapes, and its placement in relation to the various sheets making up the drawings. During an impromptu interview at the opening, I asked Micchelli about the ancient distinction between those artistic sensibilities favoring line and those favoring color:
I tend to like highly articulated structures in art… I’d rather look at a cubist Picasso, than say a Kandinsky, for that reason…When working with imagery, I need a certain architectonic quality, and I feel I can create that with line by getting down to a real bare bones aesthetic. It’s a matter of paring down your tools.
The major piece in the show is a wall-sized installation—a grid of nine oil-on-paper paintings; these works are responses to a group of poems by Schutz, and have, as a general title, “Swimmers, sleepers and rain.” Applied to roughly cut sheets of a pale salmon hue, the paintings are held within a gesso-primed central rectangle that maintains a look of rugged, unfinished freshness. All but one image depicts couples, some clutching or otherwise entangled within each other’s limbs, others with only parts of their bodies placed at the picture’s periphery. The use of a subdued palette of thin washes ranging towards blue, and their dramatic placement, imply these bodies could be floating under water or viewed through the opaque lens of memory, or in dream. Arrangement and poetic adjustments in the character of line create melancholic allusions to presence and absence. The single figure composition, a squatting woman seen from the back with well-rendered musculature, calls to mind a famous Degas pastel of a dancer bathing in a shallow tub. The comparison is not frivolous as Degas holds high stature in our pantheon of draftsmen, and Micchelli sites him as an influence in the accompanying literature.
Another series bares the Cageian title of “24 drawings for clr,” and are inspired by the writings of Rail contributor and sister of Ben La Rocco, Claudia La Rocco. Each image is composed of a tiled grid of six drawings in graphite on what appears to be standard 8 by 10 inch writing paper. Compositions focus mostly on male torsos, with a special emphasis on dramatic hand gesture. These bodies are depicted with sharply rendered textures of sprouting blades, spiky leaved plants, or costume forms. One presents a strange bird, its beak latched onto a subject’s forearm. The elegance of design and restrained use of the contrast between congested and open space recalls classic Japanese wood cuts depicting noble Samurai warriors.
With “Drawings for Mostro” (“monster: from the Latin monstrum [derived from monere: to admonish, to warn]”), the pieces are taken directly from the artist’s sketchbook and a selection is displayed on a tabletop. Though verging on caricature, these craggy and wrinkled heads, sitting atop white collars and neckties, reveal a gamut of facial expressions, creating an index not unlike the sculptures of the eccentric Austrian, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. (D’Agostino was impressed enough with these small portraits that he suggested publishing a chapbook documenting the collection, which is available through the gallery.)
In our discussion, Micchelli also mentioned his desire to work with the texts of his friends, but without using the actual letters or words. He alluded to using paint thinner to remove a brushstroke, and how the initial dousing caused the pigment to swell before it’s wiped away. Perhaps, like the homeopathic theory that by diluting a substance in water to a state of invisibility its power to heal is enhanced, an unconscious memory, echo, or vibration of the texts remains present in the images through their absence.
With the advent of Post-Modernism, one of the most prevalent developments in contemporary painting has been the ever-increasing use of words, language and text as visual subjects. I myself have been fascinated with the nexus between written text and visual art, and, intrigued with how a writer/librarian might conceive of their visual world. Writing and drawing are analogous acts, generally using paper and pencil. But how and when did images of hunted deer or fertility goddesses on cave walls morph into hieroglyphs and hence into letters on a page? How does one create text-based works without employing text itself? Is the exclusive use of a drawn line related to a written one? Is there a correlation between the physical act of using a pencil or pen—their feel as they write out literal meaning—and using them to grind out a picture? How far is the linguistic part of the mind separated from the section that registers and decodes pictorial images?
Not only will this group of works by Thomas Micchelli do little to quell such debates, it also complicates the matter by injecting an aspect of literary content. Thankfully, the answers presented are usually less interesting than the questions asked.
A video tour and interview with the artist is available at: http://youtu.be/EP2FPhio1Xw.