"John Graham Sum Qui Sum at Alan Stone Gallery," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

John Graham, born Ivan Gratianovich Dombrowski in Kiev, in 1887, stands as an avatar within the formative first half of the twentieth century in New York’s burgeoning art world.  His biography reads at turns like “Dr. Zhivago,”  “Concerning the Spiritual in Art,” and “The Confessions of Aleister Crowley.”  He was trained as a lawyer, became a cavalry officer and ardent anti-Bolshevik, and fled Russia just ahead of the revolution.  He landed in New York in 1920 and through his studies at the Art Students League made connections with artists who would become the foundations of the “New York School.”  He was a connoisseur, a hustler a, pedagogue, a womanizer and, from the evidence of this enlightening show, an intriguing painter who embodied a startling divergent aesthetic.  This museum grade exhibit, lovingly assembled by Alan Stone and gallery director Claudia Stone, is accompanied by a beautifully illustrated catalogue with essay by Harry Rand, which should become a benchmark for Graham scholars in the future.   

 It is perhaps as a result of Graham’s fascinating biography, with its many unexpected twists and turns that has confused and confounded the institutional establishment leaving him in a kind of critical no-mans-land. He was an early convert, and zealously promoted modernism, particularly Picasso’s Cubism.  His efforts as a talent scout give the first exposure to Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, Lee Krasner and others.   Through his associations with a broad swath of the downtown scene he was able to introduce young artists like De Kooning to the reining masters Gorky and Stuart Davis.  The ultimate renunciation of many of his own principles, which he chose to relinquish so as to complete his final and most unique series of paintings, seems too complex, too esoteric for the simpleminded marketing strategy that in our age “major talents” require. 

As evidenced by recent exhibitions, many young artists seem fascinated by the idea of the “outsider” artist, the likes of Henry Darger or Adolf Wolfli.  An “academy of the naïve” ironically has appeared in the graduate art departments at several local universities.  Graham, however, represents the other end of the “outsider” spectrum.   He was an artist and intellectual who achieved this status not by holding himself apart from the art world in some hermetic isolation, but rather by approaching it directly, invading it to the very core, then once becoming the insider’s insider, being excreted, or intentionally progressing on to a position that was incomprehensible to those uninitiated in the strange alchemy of art.              

The earliest pictures here show a clear debt to the cubist-still lives of Picasso and Braque, but with little of their subtlety.  Graham does have an authentic color sense that overrides this seeming lack of compositional facility.  Progressing rapidly to a state of late cubism combined with surrealistic fantasy, Graham begins to produce equestrian studies, perhaps in homage to his cavalry days and love of horses, but also in admiration of the Renaissance masters Paolo Uccello and Giotto.  “Untitled” (1933), a pen and ink drawing of horse and rider, employs the heavy crosshatching and cubist planes that Gorky would adopt to such effective ends in works like “Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia” (1934).  Though a booster through his writing, curating, and socializing with the originators of Abstract Expressionism, Graham pulled back from the leap into total abstraction, but there are examples here in his mystical and metaphysical symbolism that approach it.  “Metaphysical Study” (1942) is a small painting which melds ancient and invented Jungian symbols on a field of diagonal lines.  It could be seen as a precursor of both stripe and “Pattern and Decorative” painting that became popular decades latter.  Sexual tension becomes more pronounced, and with the selection of erotic drawings presented in the back gallery and the “Women” series of portraits, Graham makes his break with the prevalent trends in Modernism that he’d proselytized so ardently for.  “Marya (Donna Ferita, Pensive Lady)” (1944) and “Two Sisters (Les Mamelles d’outres-mer)“ (1944) are pictures that alone should establish Graham as a protean force in American painting.  At a time when the Ab-Ex bandwagon was just getting rolling, these weird pictures with their classical subjects and handling must have seemed like the ultimate treachery to his fellow avant-gardists.  On closer viewing these “classic” subjects reveal a disquieting uniqueness of vision.  Though “original” these women are composed from quotations or paraphrases of Renaissance masterpieces.  Through a process of repeated tracing and the use of templates, the artist distilled the lines and forms to their essence.  The accompanying drawings reveal the underlying proportional designs as well as strange symbolic, alchemical, and phallic notations.  The presence of gashes on the throats and arms of the women have a sadistic sexual connotation, while the crossed and cock-eyes allude to the questions of sight versus perception.  It may be overstating the case but these late figure studies do provide a guide for the Post-Modern practices of recent figurative painting.  Artists as diverse as John Currin, Ion Birch, Tim Mensching, and Lisa Yuskavage owe much of their relevance and liberty to encode personal mythology into their images to the precedents set forth by Graham.  It’s little wonder that forty years after his death, the artist John Graham, is still under appreciated and misscategorized.  He appears like the alpha and omega of Modernism.  In a community founded on an agreed upon myth we call “art history” Graham created his own, a kind of shaman warrior of art, questioning all accepted wisdom, always on the move, always on the attack.  What greater threat to our comfortable complacency could there be? 

"Luc Tuymans: Proper at David Zwirner," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

“Not much” was the terse evaluation of these paintings that I elicited from a fellow spectator.  This might not account for much in the hyper-opinionated Chelsea art audience except that the speaker was one of our most renowned painters, a guy who knows a crock when he sees one, even if he has to break it.  Tuymans is one of the current darlings of the European art establishment, and has the resume to prove it. He’s been included in every major show from the Saatchi Gallery’s “Triumph of Painting” to “Undiscovered Country” at the Hammer Museum in LA, with multiple appearances in “Documenta,” a one man exhibit at the Tate Modern, and favorable mention in “Vitamin P, New Perspectives in Painting” Barry Schwabsky’s recent overview of emergent painters.   I wanted to like this show…but… 

I was put into mind of that other super-star bad boy of Belgian art, Wim Delvoye, and his major sculpture installation exhibited here at the New Museum a couple of years ago, “Cloaca,” affectionately referred to as the “Shit Machine.”  This “machine,” which had its own chef cooking two meals a day for it, would pump and process ground up food through a series of beakers containing acid and enzymes, and in two days produce simulated turds that were signed and sold for $1,000 a pop.  In that case one had to admire the chutzpah and direct honesty of the enterprise.  Perhaps not all together without merit, Tuymans is a bit more problematic, though there is still a hint of the toned down raw umber anal in some of these new paintings. 

As Raphael Rubinstein postulated in “A Quiet Crisis,” we have a couple of generations now who, thanks to TV and computers, have lost their ability to “see” painting, to read the intricate forensics of the painters hand, eye, and mind.  Add to this the Duchampian, Post-Modernist tendency to translate every object into a text and you’re left with what is perhaps the most disappointing aspect, not only of Tuylmans’ enterprise, but of so much current “art production.”  “It is weak visual matter in an envelope of aggressive critical language,” as Harold Rosenberg defined a related problem regarding the paintings of Helen Frankenthaler.  It’s rhetoric attempting to overpower the eye.

Having watched the development of Tuymans’ painting for some time, I was initially charmed by its clunky naive distortions, bold handling, and rich surfaces.  These latest examples seem both more facile yet less substantial.  Several critics adore this wane banality and the “dream like” nature that combines the technique and the images.  As for subject matter, defined in the press release as, the “image of a fragile America and a crumbling state of current affairs” seems at this point a bit tired indeed.  If these depictions of table settings, bed canopies, wall mounted thermostats and empty ballrooms can somehow be read a critiques of American foreign policy then Tuymans represents a contingent of “conceptual painting” wherein mimetic images are unmoored from the explicit meanings of their subjects, and there is a subversion of interpretation which elicits readings in whatever way deemed most relevant by the spectator.  Deconstructivism run-a-muck or aesthetics replaced by guilty political correctness?   In short, the crux of the issue is the debate and polemics engendered by the supposed subject matter (however weak their rendition, or tangential their relationship) which is far more interesting than the paintings themselves.  Yet I would gladly welcome the polemics if the decision was to make really “bad” paintings, vigorously bad, disgustingly bad, horrendously bad, and not just limply, bloodlessly not very “good.” 

The pictures do poses an odd physics that creates a visual vacuum, a kind of black-hole which tends to suck the viewer’s mind in to try to fill the void.  Admittedly, Tuymans has a light touch, is able to depict an image with minimal means and has an eye for provocative subjects.  “Demolition” (2005) is a painting ranked by Jerry Saltz as “one of the best paintings Tuymans has ever made.”  On first viewing, I was convinced it was a close up view of a serving of cauliflower au gratin.  A tiny street light cowling in the lower left-hand corner led me to think that a miniature train accessory had somehow gotten mixed in with dinner, presenting a tragic potential for chocking.  The dangers of childhood death from choking, when viewed as a world wide threat, dwarf even the dangers of terrorism and the fallout from 9/11.  It could happen anywhere!   Given the above mentioned free-range elucidation of “conceptual painting” one could therefore state this interpretation might be more “profound” than others, raising the “correctness quotient” of said painting.

  Perhaps the most discomforting quality of these paintings is their drifting sense of ennui, a state where everything is of equal interest or disinterest, total moral and aesthetic stasis.  If I had wanted to like these pictures, it would have been a misreading as their essence seems to be an attempt to present the current state of a boring repellant societal banality.  This state of intellectual indolence may be the fashion, or a malady of our cultural commissars.  Whether out of laziness or conceptual subversion, this shifting of responsibility for the creation of content or meaning from artist to viewer seems like just the latest blow to the idea of the “heroic individual artist,” obviously an anachronism long overdue for extinction in our brave new art world.   Yet I still long to really feel, to think some things still matter, that some things are still worth the grime and sweat of expressing in art.  I refuse to surrender to the blasé, and therefore must state that my finds regarding these paintings to be decisively and unequivocally…inconclusive.

"Maureen Cavanaugh “Lovey Loverson” At 31 Grand," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

Girls are different from boys.  I’ll admit it; I’m a guy from a family of guys.  I don’t know what life is like for girls.  That realm was, and still is, as mysterious as life in Tibet or perhaps on Venus.  But like most guys, I’m fascinated by the motives and desires of and the influences on contemporary women, particularly those women who make it a priority of exposing their feminine world to us, the uninitiated viewers.

Maureen Cavanaugh’s “Lovey Loverson” is a selection of paintings and small works on paper that initially seems to reinforce the common clichés of much “Post Feminist” or more recent “Chick Art.”  These works however, present a tightly knotted bundle of supposed contradictions: a cuteness that verges into the grotesque, an erotic voluptuousness that transforms into a Gothic severity, and a naïveté hiding a knowing cynicism that isn’t afraid to play the kitsch card when it suits her purposes.  Many of the subjects and poses of these paintings are a subversive codex of iconic female images: the bather, the dancer, the lounger, the seductress.  Popular fellow painters tilling similar areas in the fields of “Post Feminism” like John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage and Karen Kilimnik seem to relish a pimp-like condescending approach to the viewer.  Yet for the breadth of historical and contemporary references in these works, there remains in Cavanaugh a stylistic sense that is at the same time more authentically expressionistic and, what Irving Sandler has quantified as, “pathetically” funky.

In “Taking Off the Pink 2” (2005) an anorexic female figure, back to the viewer, pulls a white blouse off over her head.  Her transparent pink skirt arches out stiffly like a tutu, revealing her panties beneath.  But for the accentuated contours of the attenuated body and the white daubes that highlights the spine, like an anatomy chart, this would approach classis cheesecake.  A group of “cuddly” critters including a fawn, a squirrel and an abstract peacock watch from the front in a swirl of pastel clouds.  A bucolic semi-nude gloss on the Rococo appeal of Watteau and Fragonard, or cuteness gone creepy, akin to big eyed Keane Kids on crank? 

In smaller works Cavanaugh is less concerned with the overall composition and finish, and lets the rawness of pencil drawing on bare primed canvas contrast with more heavily worked details.  In both the small works “Ski Mask” (2005) and “Skull Cap” (2004) faces of friends appear behind masks, an oft used device, that here is brought to a spooky crescendo through aggressive brush work and an odd distortion of intent.  Though no ponies or puppy dogs are depicted, Cavanaugh does have her animal favorites inhabiting the paintings.  Odd looking birds that could be kingfishers or blue jays appear often, a kitty cat lounges on a chair back as it watches over “Kim” (2005), and a pair of“Cheetahs” (2005) rest under a sketched-in branch full of cardinals. 

Life is becoming ever more complex.  The demands that society and the media place on young women through their conflicting imperatives are unrealistic.  Perhaps it’s this that Cavanaugh is confronting in her recent quirky paintings, a desire to be simultaneously a sexy vamp, and a cuddly kid, an unsophisticated outsider and a knowing art world initiate.  Beneath the rainbows and flowers, the babes in thongs and the swirling puffs of cotton candy, be careful.  There might be razor blades hidden inside this pretty package from the “Valley of the Dolls.” 

"Leslie Roberts At Holiday," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

“Ever since that September, time has gotten away from me.  Doubts plague me…”  Thus begins a line of text that, through the intricate imaginings and calculations of Leslie Roberts, is translated or encoded into a grid based painting called “Bad Attitude” (2004).  The painting is small, with a pale yellow ground.  The left quarter of the canvas is filled with columns of letters, the graphed text.  A tall rectangle of solid color blocks of acrylic gouache fills the central half, while the narrow grid on the right is made up of squares filled with diagonal and horizontal lines, circles and crosshatchings of various colors.  Without the key (the lines of text, numbered and color coded), the central grid pictures are satisfying as pure meditative non-objective paintings, perhaps a type of color exercise or digital abstraction.  Once the viewer realizes that these pieces can also be deciphered as linguistical codes, a swarm of questions engulfs the previous quietude. 

“Content is ineffable” was a slogan of the formalist abstractionists, but what if a supposed abstract work did have precise meaning, did mask a realm of covert content that without the key remained “ineffable?”  Would that work still be “abstract?”  Roberts, with this group of works delves into a Deconstructivist mode of re-interpreting text but translates it into a visual syntax that further stretches the notion of “text.”  As we transition from an analogue world to a digital one, the potential for a new gloss on visual abstraction becomes an imperative.  The presence of the grid, an aestheticized device that came to prominence with Minimalism, carries a natural capacity to express numerical, chronological or quantitative information, as well as flatten visual space.  This kind of calculus could rapidly turn into dry math and it’s a statement to Roberts’ mischievous sense of the whimsical that she’s able to keep things light.  Having watched this artist’s work over that past several years, I’ve written about a previous body of work in which she fabricated puzzles (another way to confound the viewer) usingfragments from various historical art works juxtaposed with puzzle pieces of her own photos and paintings, a type of Post-modern statement on the fracture of the image within history.  This new body of work began about eight years ago with tiny drawings made while Roberts commuted on the subway.  The development from the simple pastel colored patterns of the small works gives way to a more complex series on larger graph paper which includes notes, keys, color notations and texts forming an informational framework around the grid picture.  As the works increase in size they also increase in complexity.  The codes become denser, color blocks are overlaid with lines, triangles and circles, till they begin to weave themselves into a nearly homogenous field of marks.  Because the works are based on language there seems to be an even greater randomness of design when compared to the grid paintings of Alfred Jensen or the geometrically symmetrical designs used by some of the Pattern-Decorative painters. 

Still one returns to the idea of the visual nature of language.  The simple phrases, lists and fragments of e-mails that Roberts chooses to make drawings or paintings from have the subtle starkness of an Emily Dickinson verse, or a line from e. e. cummings.  The transcription of these mundane features of everyday life, through the use of color, codes and numbers, somehow elevates them by means of a mysterious process to the state of relevant contemporary abstract paintings.  Perhaps for Roberts the use of puzzles, codes and ciphers is a subversive means of embodying within the context of abstraction those parts of life that had been excluded as unimportant, the messy, sensual, boring or frustrating.  Things unimportant, at least til they’re gone.  

"The Very, Very Best of Thomas Trosch At Fredericks Freisure Gallery," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

"Easy access," I've heard art dealers say that's what their clients are looking for in their art excursions these days.  Problem is, with the glut of galleries, fairs, and massive "new talent" shows like The Armory Show, Scope, Working in Brooklyn, The Whitney Biennial, and Greater New York, (which despite curatrorial efforts seems to keep serving up homogenized predigested versions of the same three paintings), it's gone beyond "easy access" to something approaching force-feeding.  If we were French geese, our aesthetic livers would explode.  Fortunately, for those with a more adventurous nature, art observers pursuing the more extreme off the tourist track fair, there are occasional opportunities to catch a glimpse of artwork that doesn't fit the "taste of the week" club.  Recent shows by both Chris Martin uptown at Uta Scharf, and Geoff Davis at Andre Zarre in Chelsea demonstrate that sometimes the gatekeepers of good decorum, and the bottom line are asleep at the switch.

Thomas Trosch is another example of an artist who, though not a household name, is held in high regard by enthusiasts of the marginal, eccentric, and totally personal statement.  Trosch is an acquired taste, and though not a taste of the week, he could be of next year.  "The Very, Very Best of Thomas Trosch" is a miniretrospective covering work from about the past fifteen years, and though there are progressions, developments, and changes the uniqueness of his vision is clear. Trosch, for all his cultivated kinks, and excruciating mannerisms, shows he's in possession of painterly skills that can convincingly combine a variety of techniques from wispy pencil lines on bare canvas, to drippy opaque washes, to peanut-butter thick knifing, to thrown and tube squeezed paint blobs.  This diversity of surface incident recalls the better periods of Cy Twombly, and his scrawling drawings enhanced with turd thick clumps of paint.

The feminine focus on ladies who lunch, who visit artists studios and vernassages, who sip cocktails and have lovely matching accessories, reduces the males present to mere extras.  The extravagant almost sculptural thickness of the figures, the unapologetic decorativeness and the exceedingly sweet colors have linked Trosch's work admittedly with that of Florine Stettheimer, the 57th Street heiress and hostess of one of New York's grand "Jazz Age" solons.  A more contemporary comparison might be made to the dramatic narrative pieces by Nicolas Africano. "Japanese Lesson #17" (1992) is the earliest and one of the largest pieces in this show.  And it combines women with large bug-eyes, and text bubbles filled with conversations from phrase books designed for visiting businessmen.  Though both of these devices seem to have disappeared in the more recent pieces, considering the dates, they should be seen as precursors to the anime fad of characters with over sized eyes presented so often recently, as well as the rant containing bubbles produced by Amy Wilson, that when seen in quantity, read as left-wing schtick.  Trosch seems to revel in the discordant contrasts thrown up between his style of free wheeling paint slinging (yang) and his depictions of doll-like society ladies (yin).  As these ladies mingle, strolling amongst a collection of art objects displayed as prestige commodities, the artist uses backgrounds of Abstract Expressionist paintings and biomorphic sculpture as a painterly foil to the elegant women in pastel evening gowns, and platinum blond hairdos.  This disturbing discrepancy reads like an image of the 1950's layout wherein "profoundly ugly" Pollocks are props for fashion models, rendered by a painter channeling both Stanley Kowalski and Blance DuBois.