"Erik Guzman “The Lost Sense” Front Room Gallery October 20 - November 19," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

The objects produced by Erik Guzman leave this viewer in a conundrum.  Are they machines that want to be sculptures or sculptures that want to be machines?  The Futurists theorized about sculpture that would incorporate mechanical motion and celebrate modern life.  Shortly thereafter Duchamp stuck the front fork and wheel of a bicycle on a stool and the world of sculpture has never been the same.  But where the Futurists envisioned a technological utopia, and Duchamp created a whimsical sexual metaphor, Guzman’s “The Lost Sense” seems to represent a philosophical cul-de-sac for both these directions.

Walk past the two tall sheets of sandblasted aluminum with their oddly decorative symmetrical cutouts propped against a wall of the first gallery and proceed into the darkened second room.  You are confronted by a strange, space-age contrivance, attached to the far wall just below eyelevel.  This “machine” features a centrifuge-like device with a thick, sleekly milled spindle axis, measuring about three feet across.  A solid steel sphere, slightly smaller than a hardball, is mounted on the end of one arm.  This is counterbalanced on the opposite end by a broad, polished metal strip with curving eyelets, countersunk screws, electrical wiring and a bank of 650-watt theatrical light bulbs.  A sleek white aqua-resin cowling with a circular channel encases the rear two-thirds of the object.  On the floor is a carpet of Beuysian felt extending about eight feet in front.  At this point “Lost Sense” appears to be a static group of beautifully crafted objects, all of the metal parts having been fashioned from the cutouts from the larger of the two aluminum sheets in the front gallery.

Now the fun begins.  A sensor pad under the carpet activates “Lost Sense” when an unsuspecting spectator approaches within a meter of the thing.  Slowly the arms start to rotate within the resin cowl.  In a moment the light bulbs begin to shine with a dim, red-orange glow.  As the rotational speed increases, so does the brilliance of the lights.   Within thirty seconds light reaches a blinding level. You can feel the blast of radiant heat with each rotation of the lighting bank.  The entire gallery is engulfed in the zooming, strobe-like beams projected from the rotor.  The lights blast, the axis whirs, the wall begins to vibrate.  The gleaming aerodynamic forms start to look threateningly like weapons.  At some point most observers standing close to “Lost Sense” begin to move back for fear that something bad is about to happen, an over-amped piece of high-tech art accelerating into the danger zone. 

This fearful awareness is exactly the response the artist is seeking.  Mankind, it seems to Guzman, has lost much of its innate sense of self-preservation.  The technological utopia, dreamed of by the Futurists, has become a nightmare overwhelming us in a sea of useless stimulation.  It’s too late for clever polemics or philosophical demonstrations; only a threat to life and limb can hope to penetrate the ennui and register the urgency of the situation.  But it’s not just a fight or flight response that “Lost Sense” triggers.  It also exerts a curious magnetism, a desire to experience the flat-out power of a work of art and the possible disaster it might cause.

As for the question of whether “Lost Sense” is a machine or a sculpture: traditionally sculpture is defined as an aesthetic treatment of three-dimensional form in space, while a machine is any combination of interrelated parts that employs energy to perform a task. Therefore, in traditional terms, “Lost Sense” is a machine, but a machine whose function is to produce a specific aesthetic result.  Can a jolt of fear and trembling be valid responses to visual art? Perhaps. Just don’t stand too close.

"Peter Caine “New Works” At Jack the Pelican Presents September 8 – October 8," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

Time was there were things that one just didn’t discuss in polite company: bodily functions, religion, and politics.  Culture, at large, was supposed to filter out the grosser elements of life, but now we brandish our expertise in the latest and greatest outrages with pride.  Aw shucks, doesn’t the obscene shock and awe us any more?

With this, his fifth solo show in New York featuring his animated sculpture, Peter Caine welcomes us into the new millennium.  In his “George Washington Crossing the Delaware” (2006), a rollicking Marquis de Sade, with a face like a pile of gravel, straddles the bow of a battered rowboat.  On his left sits an economy-sized jar of Vaseline next to a Bible open to Deuteronomy 23-24.  His britches are open and his erect penis gushes an endless flow of simulated semen, while a silver-faced George Washington dangles Barbara Bush’s decapitated head over the frothing fountain, “I don’t know if I can fit that in my mouth.  That’s naughty, so naughty, lip-smacking naughty,” squeaks Caine’s voice in his best First Lady imitation on an endless tape loop.  Behind them, an aroused Honest Abe in blackface flails a Confederate flag over the portside gunwale.  Other crew members on this macabre boating party are Dorothy from the “Wizard of Oz,” her head a cluster of flashing, gyrating gadgets, the axe-wielding Tin Woodsman, and Prince Whipple covered in a skin of Wheat Chex.

After “Crossing the Delaware,” we pass through a grove of tall, irregularly cylindrical columns called “Cabana Boys” that seem to mock the existential austerity of Giacometti and Brancusi, by twisting and jutting about like fabric-covered hoochie-coochie dancers.

“Rudolph and Friends” (2006) depicts our red-nosed hero as a dope-smoking reprobateridden by a stovepipe-hatted Lincoln brandishing a Hitler mask and a bloody, head-shot, chocolate-brown Shirley Temple with a popped-out eyeball.  Rudolph’s sleigh is a ratty shopping cart filled with white fleece and trashcan pickings.  Bringing up the rear is a green-lipped, hip-swiveling Rasta-Santa toking a huge joint and singing Christmas carols.

“USS Sperry” (2006) is the showstopper.  Its black lights and fluorescent paint engulfs the entire back gallery, submerging the viewer in a cartoonish, radioactive lagoon.  Glowing barrels imprinted with nuclear symbols litter the ocean floor between rock outcroppings and coral blooms.  A frogman monitors atomic levels with a Geiger counter as schools of brilliant tropical fish swim among floating bubbles and anchor chains.  This scene is based on Caine’s own experiences while serving in the Navy aboard the USS Sperry and, aside from a bug-eyed sea horse, should be viewed as a serious take on radioactive waste disposal by way of his trademark insouciance.

As a child, Peter Caine dreamed of three career paths.  One was to be a veterinarian, which he’s pursued through a love of, and caring for, animals.  Second was to be a stand-up comedian.  He’d stay up late and tape comic routines from the “Johnny Carson Show,” then work up his own acts.  Third, after visiting a Van Gogh exhibition, the child Caine knew he wanted to be an artist.  (Poor Vincent.  If he could see what his work inspired, he might well chop off his other ear.)  A fourth career the artist might have picked is cinematographer.  Each of his ambitious tableaux is designed with an eye for the dramatic.  Characters are cast, the staging is blocked, actions programmed, costumes chosen, props selected, lighting devised, dialogue written and recorded.  Smoke and bubble machines, electric balls, antique fans, and mechanical gizmos of all kinds lend the shebang the sensation of a grungy mad professor at work on some diabolical passion play.

After a couple of visits and a period of Kantian contemplation to clear my aesthetic pallet, I realized that much of this works staying power springs from a double-edged nostalgia. To one side are innocent memories of visiting Christmas window displays at places like Macy’s, featuring Santa and his elves making toys, Mrs. Claus baking cookies, and reindeer flying over rooftops.  The darker, more magnetically disturbing side recalls the bawdy humor of bathroom joke books, or the pioneering, sexually explicit provocations published in Zap by the great underground comic artists S. Clay Wilson and R. Crumb at their most puerile.  Childlike ingenuity and the desire to create a fantasy world slam up against an over-the-top indecency that rivets the viewer with an almost masochistic challenge to probe his or her levels of personal propriety.

Despite the popularity of high-tech art and “new media,” the realm of animatronic sculptural installations is still fairly small.  Paul McCarthy and the brothers Jake and Dino Chapman come to mind, but Caine has claimed ignorance of both these oeuvres until six months ago.  Although largely self taught, Caine shies away from the from the more naïve classification of “Outsider” artist preferring to be considered as a contemporary rather than folk artist, and like many of today’s TV pundits he knows which buttons to push and he’s merciless in confronting social norms, sacred cows and the overly sensitive looking to be insulted.  

The recently closed Dada exhibition at MoMA, with its rugged materials and abundance of repugnant subject matter, exposed one root of Caine’s anti-aesthetics.  Pollock’s piss-like dribblings or Twombly’s fecal-like globs, which morphed during Proto-Pop into Peter’s Saul’s garish cartoon heads, might be another.  Satirizing racial stereotypes has been acceptable when it comes from the studios of established African American artists like Robert Colescott or Michael Ray Charles, but what kind of response can we expect when these jibes are posited by a white guy?  Beyond that there is a quaint folksiness from the heartland quality, like listening to the grizzled local eccentric at a truck stop whose caffeinated rants begin to bare striking similarities to the deconstructivist ideas of Adorno and Derrida. 

Among the questions taunting the viewer is whether Caine is a cutting-edge transgressive bad-boy, tweaking both the middle class and intelligencia, while also making a mess of art market cordiality, or a wacky overly energetic hayseed with a perverted sense of what sophisticated humor entails?  Whether the world beyond the precincts of Williamsburg is ready to validate Caine’s vision, who can tell.  Meanwhile, we can amuse our selves by taking bets on whether the avant-garde’s covenant with unbridled creative expression trumps its current commitment to the politically correct.

"History by Exclusion, Illuminating the “Dark Matter” of the Art World," written in conjunction with the exhibition “We Are Our Own Art History” at Dam & Stuhltrager Brooklyn, New York by Fredrick Munk

By Loren Munk

Whether you want to admit it or not, if you’re reading this, you like me are probably a minute part of the “art world.”  Now that doesn’t mean we get the attention we deserve from the likes of ARTFORUM, Flash Art or Art in America, have our works installed in major museums or get personality profiles published in the glossy “Art Press.”   No, what it means is that we partake in the reception, exchange and generation of the energy which is manifest as art.  The paintings, sculptures, music, poetry, photography, dance, drama and what ever else defined as “art” is merely the residual matter left over from the human expenditure of the energy that is “art.”  As energy, I believe, that art may be governed by forces that that can be analyzed and calculated, indeed that there is an extra-aesthetic nature to art that lies more within the realm of rational science than in the ephemeral mystical world of “taste,” or “quality.”  This branch of thought I call the “physics of aesthetics,” and it encompasses the whole spectrum of cultural activities from economics, to social relationships, artistic production, and finally history. 

There are many parallels between the “physics of aesthetics” and the world of regular physics.  For example, astrophysicists tell us that within our own universe ninety percent of the material out there emits no light, and is therefore called “dark matter.”  Yet because of the huge amount of this “dark matter” it obviously produces the bulk of forces which though invisible, nevertheless shapes and influences the nature and destiny of our cosmos.

Likewise in our art universe most of the artists and their production are invisible to the broadest sections of society.  The reasons for this are as varied as the individuals the circumstances and attitudes of those who practice art.  Yet their influences are felt and the forces generated by their creations shape the perceptions of art.  Till now the final arbiter of value and influence has been the receptacle of art history, you could call it the light of art.  Tragically the arts community has been subjected to a set of criteria for inclusion within that history that has been set by academicians and intellectual “specialists” who were themselves non-artists, responding to their own biases and other unknown motivations, and are generally outside the artistic community. 

Perhaps these musings are symptomatic of the Post-Modernist challenge to the meta-narrative that was Modernism, an effort to question the establishment’s hegemony.  Perhaps it is time for society at large to broaden its views, to begin a more rigorous observation of cultural production, to question the notion of the “mainstream theory” of what and who constitute a serious “history” of art.  And perhaps it is time for the arts community to break the repressive stranglehold of the elites, who have dictated the standards and definitions of what should be illuminated as relevant art. 

It has been argued that because of the messy business of art and life that to present a clear and understandable narrative to the uninitiated, (not to mention a more succinct sales pitch) its history must be manicured and trimmed like a topiary bush.  Many museum curators, historians and critics see their jobs as gatekeepers to the realm of history and “good taste,” akin the death-camp guards whose job it is to decide who goes directly to the gas-chambers, and who lives another day.  Meanwhile the people who make up the bulk of the arts community have little or no voice in deciding their own fates. 

There is too within this new awareness a sense of memorial, a desire to extend the ever contracting attention span of the arts audience. We wish to honor, however humbly, those on the margins, the disenfranchised and those who have previously achieved notoriety, but through the machinations of current historical and marketplace practices have been erased.

It was with an eye to the above ideas, however vague or inarticulately expressed, that about eight years ago I began to develop a series of text based works that would illustrate some of the principles of the “physics of aesthetics.”  As a conventional painter with little science or history background I’ve sought to use the sensual qualities of paint to illustrate the narrative of painting, to make a self-referential framework within which to examine the media, the networks of relationships and extra-aesthetic factors that have created our contemporary perceptions of “painting,” and art.  I can only hope, with these feeble efforts to attempt to illuminate some small portion of the “dark matter” of the art world.  Perhaps now we may begin to question what is art, who gets to decide and what’s the artist’s place within society?  As self-selected members of the art world it is time we declared, “we are our own art history.”

"Rosa Loy “9 Wege” at David Zwirner June 27 - July 28," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

Imagine one of Balthus’s pubescent models running away from the chateau, joining a band of gypsies or a bizarre cult of female smugglers, and ending up in a university town behind the “Iron Curtain”. Later, she begins to paint, inspired by the dreamlike experiences of her exotic life.  And, to complicate matters further, there’s a mysterious twin sister who may or may not be real but who still holds influence over the complex comings and goings of these painted narrative tableaus.  While, to my knowledge, none of this ever happened to Rosa Loy (although she did attend the Academy of Visual Arts in Leipzig, the legendarily liberal East German city, where she later became one of the few women painters associated with that boys’ club marketed as the “Leipzig Schule”), her paintings do invite overwrought interpretations to explicate their oblique happenings.

In “Disorientierung” (2006), Loy depicts a chilly, moonlit landscape in which two ash-blond women, mirror images of each other, struggle with a long, thick, entangling crimson vine.  Dressed in contemporary jeans, boots and winter coat, the figure on the left appears in control of the tussle, with both hands pulling on the single vine that loops around her waist.  The woman on the right, wearing what appear to be white medieval pantaloons, is enwrapped in several maroon coils that lift her off the ground.  Perhaps this isn’t a fight between twins but a rescue attempt, the sister of the world saving the sister of fantasy from the grasping tentacle of reality. 
Beyond this struggle-filled narrative, there is another battle waged here between the artist’s need to render a figure precisely, to model form and to depict a traditional sense of depth, and her desire to sprint past the fill-in phase of the painting in order to concentrate on the visual focal points of her complex compositions.  Loy, like Balthus’s late works, utilizes casein, a water-based binder with a short drying time, which requires her to work fast and make decisions on the run, so to speak.  As with watercolor, the image’s highlights seem to be the white of bare canvas, with shadows built up by overlaying glazes of pigment.  This classic technique provides a vantage point into the painterly process, which, in Loy’s case, is a precarious balance between fresh, spontaneous paint handling and a perfunctory casualness that leaves one with a sense of raw uneasiness.  Any kind of overworking deadens the surface and reduces the colors to milky mush.

Loy populates her narratives almost exclusively with women engaged in indecipherable activities.  “Exorzismus” (2006), depicts a boxing match in which the combatants wear color-coordinated gloves and miniskirts, while the image of a female archer hovers behind them as if projected on the wall.  In “Mitgefühl” (2006), a magisterial redhead, holding a crystal scepter, kneels beside a reclining girl as if ministering to her. In “Träumen” (2006), two young women wander through a dreamlike landscape amid lush hedges of tropically hued foliage. Loy’s color sense is often split between translucent scrims of neutral or pale pastel tones and slabs of saturated synthetic hues dense enough to induce claustrophobia, as with the tangle of eels in the phthalo-green-keyed “Orientierung” (2005).  The eels float up a bedroom wall like freeform calligraphy, their sickly castexacerbating a creepy dreadfulness, as the attending women wrangle their slippery prey with gray-green stained hands.  In “Septemberglocken” (2006) two women stride up a muddy umber road accompanied by a pair of triangular cobalt blue shadows so opaque they could be ridden like skateboards.

While many critics have noted the influence of not only Balthus and Giotto but also Neo Rauch, Loy’s husband, on the artist, I also see strong parallels with the enigmatic films of David Lynch, and the classically inspired paintings of Hans von Marées (1837-1887).  Like Lynch, Loy cobbles together pictures from disparate pictorial sources, twisting slightly the accepted meanings of symbols and signs to fit a new storyline.  And as inLynch’s Mulholland Dr., Loy wrests her potential shocks from the split between the fantastical and the real-world personas of contemporary women.  Loy’s struggle to unite a venerable figurative tradition within a modern painting criterion, and her placement of frontally lighted, stylized figures within a shallow space or landscape, lends her pictures a mythical northern chill that echoes the heroic late works of her fellow German, Marées. 

The hype surrounding the “Leipzig Schule,” perhaps reflecting the neo-conservative tendencies within the academy, has focused mainly on the male members.  Loy has sidestepped the clichéd sensationalism and swaggering bravura of the “bad boys” and, by offering a more authentic, less bombastic vision to the movement, she has widened its appeal. Leipzig should be glad. 

"Elizabeth Cooper at Thrust Projects June 2- July 30," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

Painterly painting flat-lined, time of death, the late fifties.  Since then it has been resurrected from time to time, but these attempts at resuscitation seem more and more like picking over a carcass, trying to find organs that are still viable for transplant into some geriatric practice.  Now, in a Frankensteinian project to re-animate the dead tissues of “Tenth Street touch”, young artists are grafting together the reconfigured parts of that genre and releasing them on to an unsuspecting public.

Elizabeth Cooper has stated that her painting deals with various types of abstract “tropes” and involves a rigorous commitment to “process.”  As evidenced in her paintings, Cooper’s “tropes” are a type of Post-Modernist deconstruction of the devices, techniques and mannerisms that have been established as norms in Gestural Abstraction. Through her subtle manipulations of these established forms, the artist both demystifies and draws attention to our acceptance of them. Typically, Cooper’s painting employs drips, splatters, stains, squeezing, splotting, puddles, pouring, oozing, bleeding, gushing, flicking, squirting, and drizzling.  Their surfaces appear wet, dry, flakey, shiny, slimy, puckered, wrinkled, anodized, flocked, clumpy, chunky, blotted, clotted, cracked and dusty.  These processes and qualities are not merely lists of words, but painterly incidents, a part of the language of painting that has been encoded with specific emotional associations.  For Americans, the Abstract Expressionists were the first to impart emotional resonance to abstract painterly facture—the existentialist angst of Pollock’s urgent drips, or the tragic melodrama of Rothko’s floating fields of closely valued colors.  Cooper has studiously isolated and catalogued many of theses techniques, adding a few of her own to produce paintings that while contemporary and fresh, nonetheless ring with  historic precedents. 

The eight paintings in this exhibition, all untitled and from 2006, share a vibrant palette that might initially appear discordant yet is satisfyingly rich.  Cooper’s forms seem to ejaculate and gush forth from an edge, usually near the bottom center, across shiny grounds of monochrome enamels in designer colors like turquoise, terra cotta or harvest gold. There’s a sense of velocity and momentum in the tangles of paint as they shoot upward on the field.  Some approach a feeling of still-life, bouquets not of flowers, but of painterly material occurrences.  In “Untitled, 2006 (Pink)” puddles of thinned light blues and off-whites seep wanly up the canvas, with branches extending out diagonally like the unfurling leaves from a sprout.  Chemical reactions from the pigments, driers, gels and mediums cause the skins of some puddles to wither and pucker, changing once shiny passages to something resembling suede or orange peel.  These reactions sometimes also affect the textures of overlaid or abutting bodies of paint. 

Although the paintings proceed with a very controlled and articulate process of fabrication, the artist seems at pains to avoid any overt evidence of actual touch.  All the pools, drips and squibs appear to have been applied from a discreet distance above the picture plane as if to avoid altering the natural finish of the drying liquids.  Even the thick, slathering incrustations of knifed and tube-squeezed paint have an unconscious artlessness and seem to have applied themselves to the canvases.  In this creation of imagery without visible hand manipulation, Cooper shares an affinity with others of the “poured painting” school, like Carolanna Parlato or Jane Callister, but avoids a homogeneous, slick overall integument by allowing the different properties of the various mediums and pigments to manifest their own unique alchemical destinies.  In “Untitled 2006 (Turquoise Vertical),” through the intentional or unintentional process of inconsistent drying times, a centrally located amoeba-shaped sheath of light blue with black dappled paint almost succeeds in pulling itself free from the underlying slab of transparent black gel.  Likewise, one senses an affinity with what has been called “Pop Abstraction”—painters like Giles Lyon and Jonathan Lasker who parody and critique Gestural Abstraction and the New York School by giving their brushstrokes an almost anthropomorphic character.  This mannered isolation of brushstrokes, drips and other painterly elements replaces the notion of the gut-wrenching hard-won incident with a pragmatic matter of factness that holds the potential for dumb deadpan humor, like the mischievous paint drips from a Road Runner cartoon. 

With their unique paint mixology, glistening enamel, trendy coloring and splashes of mucus-colored gels, the works of Elizabeth Cooper seem petrified in time, somewhere between the present and the near future.  Watching paint dry has never been more absorbing. 

"George Condo Existential Portraits at Luhring Augstine May 5 – June 3," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

“How low can you go?” was the question Chubby Checker asked in his 1962 dance hit Limbo Rock.  No doubt the ghost of Clement Greenberg would be doing its share of twisting and shouting if it could witness the current situation that has turned his theories of high art versus schlock as expressed in Avant-Garde and Kitsch into “Avant-Garde is Kitsch.

Regarding the kitsch quotient, few exhibitions in recent memory have roused the debate of just “how low can you go” more than George Condo’s “Existential Portraits.” As a self-proclaimed aficionado of “Kitsch Art,” particularly that most vulgar American hybrid that evolved during the heyday of the East Village art scene, I’ve often wondered just what the parameters and limitations truly are of kitsch.  Painting, because of its time-honored position as the epitome of beauty in the visual arts, is the prime target and punching-bag for “advanced” critics, who hope to subjugate it to socialist critical theory, as well as for subversive artist types who want to use it to shove the disgusting, pathetic mess that is life into the faces of their audience.  The Greenbergian canon of “quality” was elegantly explicit (though flawed) in its principles of evolution and ideals.  But the idea of kitsch is more nebulous, more pernicious, existing as a kind of aesthetic cockroach, impervious to nuclear strikes by the most erudite and strident of contemporary art critics, and thus able to thrive in an environment of the harshest slash-and-burn political correctness.  Still, to attempt a logical analysis of the criteria of kitsch would require answers to some of the following questions:  in a culture that for generations has succumbed to the decadence of “bad taste,” of which kitsch is a manifestation, are there still limits to what’s considered acceptable?  (In “Maja Visida” [2005] Condo seems intent on dishing out a double dose of “bad taste” clichés by combining a cheesy cigarette smoking “seductress” lounging in a revealing negligée with a cubistically fractured clown face.)   Is there a point at which a maximum saturation of kitsch is reached, and the “bad” begins a transmutation into the “good?”   (In “Jean Louis’ Mind” [2005] and “Young Architect” [2005], Condo displays such apparently effortless facility and dexterity in the execution of these “portraits” that he approaches a slickness that might just be too “good” to be truly or at least provisionally “bad.”)  Can there be a school of kitsch, a priesthood, a cult, or will that make it become academically bloodless and therefore worse or better depending on the physics of aesthetics?  (Carroll Dunham, Lisa Yuskavage, Rhonda Zwillinger and Dave Humphrey all maintain a practice within the more sophisticated realm of kitsch, and Condo’s “Big John” [2005], a cock-eyed snaggletoothed smoker in a striped shirt bears a striking resemblance to some of the inhabitants of Keily Jenkins’ bizarre world of characters.  Could these artists be considered part of a movement?) Is “good” kitsch really “bad” kitsch?  (Can Condo’s paintings eventually transverse the aesthetic spectrum and return to high art tastefulness?)  Can there be abstract Modernist kitsch or Minimal or Conceptual?  (Remove the goofball figures from some of these paintings and you’re left with atmospheric hazes or monochrome slabs that could pass as pseudo Olitskis or Mardens).  In our brave new kitsch-o-licious world, have we finally overthrown the culture commissar’s hegemony and rendered “good taste” and “high art” as derogatory epithets, establishing kitsch as the current aesthetic standard?  (Could Condo and the kitsch clan now be the latest targets for an artistic coup dé-tat by who knows what outrage?)  The list could go on, but the point is, kitsch has its own canon of values and virtues and seems to operate in an aesthetic field apart from art or anti-art, a world through the looking glass where success is failure and second-guessing the essence of “good taste” must be third- and fourth-guessed as well.

It’s one thing to assault the prevailing norms and another to challenge them with verve, originality and sophistication.  Condo seems content to expose us to the instantly graspable ”funny paper” version of cubo-surrealism, rather than delve into the more exotic and complex pictorial devices of a Francis Picabia, a Giorgio De Chirico or an Alberto Savinio.  Perhaps this flat footedness is part of the appeal, a further lowering of the limbo bar.  Hermann Broch states in his pioneering 1933 essay, Notes on the Problem of Kitsch, that kitsch is the result of the effects of the industrial revolution on the middle class, and the resulting perversion of the “Romantic.”  This condition is brought about through the commodification of sentimentality and the fluent use of mechanisms designed to arouse the desires for romantic love, spiritual transcendence and the struggle for individuality.  In short, kitsch is a knowing art that plays the heartstrings for hard cash.   Perhaps then, the best kitsch is not being produced by the likes of Condo, Kippenberger, or Ashley Bickerton, who with a wink and a nod, tease us with their intentional trickster shenanigans, but is instead the work of those “holy shamans” of the art world who create in a more open aesthetic system and haven’t the vaguest idea they’re creating kitsch. 

It seems kitsch, like our own universe since the “Big Bang”, is constantly expanding and with Wagner, by Broch’s reckoning, as the greatest of kitsch artists, perhaps that’s not such a bad end of the galaxy to be in.  

"Inka Essenhigh 303 Gallery March 4 – April 15, 2006," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

You get it? That “it” is the punch-line to the joke, the plot of the narrative, the moral to the story. With this latest group of paintings at 303 Gallery, Inka Essenhigh wants to make her points clear and tell her stories more explicitly. To those ends she is probing the boundaries of one of the last taboos of advanced contemporary painting, “illustration.” In our weird world, for an image to carry more literal content, it seems bound by the physics of perception to devices most closely associated with realism, namely perspective, chiaroscuro, modeling, etc. In Essenhigh’s case, with her stretched, bending and undulating forms, there are the added requirements of the highly delineated detail, the sleek contour and the precisely illuminated blob in creating her believably Surrealistic illusions.

Over the past several seasons we have witnessed a satisfying, if at times troubling, course change in Essenhigh’s development. This might be due to the fact that she emerged early on as one of New York’s freshest hopes for painterly stardom, and as such her artistic, business and social circumstances—like the affairs of starlets on the covers of supermarket tabloids—are under constant public scrutiny. Perhaps with these paintings it’s payback time, her opportunity to poke at the gawkers. But in doing so she has individuated the more ambiguous characteristics of her figures into sharply articulated—though distorted—faces and bodies, injecting cheesy humor into images that had heretofore retained an abstract reticence. Peter Saul’s garish, bulbous and contorted comic figures come to mind. However, whereas Saul’s pictures carry the brash, flatfooted excesses of Proto-Pop and the Katzenjammer Kids, Essenhigh’s wacky images possess a distinctly feminine sensibility—a kind of fantastically mannerized Rocco, a Middle-earth Elfin princess with a mischievous attitude.

Since switching from the glossy enameled finishes and subtle designer color schemes that brought her initial recognition, Essenhigh has maintained her immaculately homogenous surface and crisp rendering through a traditional matte oil medium. Each picture is keyed to a specific range of analogous hues. Contrasts are achieved through tonal rather that chromatic variation. In “Setting Sun” (2005) a jubilant figure strides forward through an arcing curtain of greenish-yellow light, a glowing mass of Art Nouveau tentacles at the apex of the arc illuminating the scene. Long undulating leaves, curling elongated feet and an overall murky, sea-green cast all lend the impression of an underwater tableau as seen through the plate glass of an aquarium.

These new works, rather that embodying notions of taste, fashion, and style, have instead passed through these criteria like a Trojan Horse to a more subversive and satirical content. With her eye for the telling detail, Essenhigh uses these concepts to parody and lambaste those for whom they are still relevant. In “Wrestlers” (2005), under the vast dome of a beige-brown sports arena, an enthralled female spectator watches grapplers from a corner of the ring. The length of her beautifully manicured, curling pink fingernails reduce her hands to mere decorative claws, echoed by the shoulder straps of one contender’s leotards as he struggles in knotted conflict. Is this a jab at fashion affectations that approach the life threatening, or at our culture’s infatuation with the grand spectacle of phony combat?

A hard driving go-getter in his summer whites is seen in “Subway (2005). In a rush with his nose held high, he seems to melt his way down a staircase to jump in a subway car. He cuts his way through a milky tide that only reveals itself to be yet other figures through the depiction of an exposed butt-crack and feet stuffed into conical shoes that look like torture devices. The erotic glimpse is here mingled with a comic exaggeration that says as much about the horney viewer as the overwrought seductiveness of this willing subject of the desirous glance.

The best social critique ought to be so sharp that the pain isn’t felt until the scalpel is pulled out. Through her technical prowess and stylistic panache, Essenhigh has attracted a considerable following; are her bursts of satirical shrapnel mangling the hand that feeds her? To tabulate her current effectiveness, do we need to take fashionista body count?

"Yvonne Jacquette, Arrivals and Departures, DC Moore, March 15 – April 22, 2006," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

Seeing in the dark is not a simple matter.  Because of the physiology of the cones and rods connecting to the optic nerve at the back of the eyeball, in the darkness we have a literal blind spot in the center of our field of vision.  Hence to avoid this, to actually see in the dark, we have to glance slightly to the side.  The recent nocturnal paintings by Yvonne Jacquette (at DC Moore through April 22nd) also seem contain a blind spot—a gap between the expected representation and the actual representation—and to see past this breach requires the viewer not only to see slightly off kilter but to think a little less straight as well.

Jacquette is a journeyman painter who, along with a dedicated cadre of artists like Philip Pearlstein, Alex Katz and Chuck Close, has established a type of realist rebuttal to the trends of abstraction that have dominated the cutting edge of discourse in New York painting since the early forties.  Like the above-mentioned artists, Jacquette has also maintained a narrow focus since the early 70s on her signature image, the aerial landscape, and it is perhaps through her mastery of this constant image that the oddness of these paintings can begin to be understood. 

We see what we want to see, and Jacquette uses this predisposition the way a judo wrestler converts an opponent’s momentum, using it against them, for a decisive throw. At first glance her pictures appear to possess an almost photographic fidelity, especially in the small pastels.  We see views we can recognize or conceptually identify.  Streetlights, headlights and illuminated rooms glimpsed through windows—depicted as pointillist dots or blocks of light yellow, orange and red—converge into compositional vectors in the form of roads, building facades or parking lots.  It’s only after we get past this skillfully crafted artifice that we begin to look askance and see the nuts and bolts of these paintings, all the futzy, funny and funky stuff hidden on the other side of our blind spot. Suddenly Jacquette’s wit and humanity begins to seep in, and everything that looked so serious and rational takes on a cast of humor and a naïve yet sincere pathos.

“Third Avenue (With Reflections) II,” (2004) is a scene rife with pictorial gambits.  Look closely at the ochre and orange avenue receding from the lower right corner to the upper center edge and you’ll notice that it’s cut two thirds of the way up by the side of a mirrored high-rise, its reflection cubistically extending its thrust, albeit warped and in reverse.  The cars rushing downtown in the rain are as stubby and chunky as handmade toys, and the blocky perspective of the apartment buildings, bathed in receding shades of earthy red-orange, recalls the faux naïve imagery of the great Chicago painter Roger Brown.

Though actual figures are rare in these pictures—I spotted only two black strollers on the lower left side of “Dark Basilica,” (2004)—the presence of people is hinted at through lit windows, a lone tugboat or the zipping cars.  The Times Building, crowned with its ball and clock tower, is the main subject of “Above Time Square,” (2003).  Behind it, the green iron skeleton of what will become a massive skyscraper stands strangely out of proportion.  Still farther back, from a single window in a mostly dark nondescript building, the cold video glow of a massive TV is the only sign of life.  The skin of roofs, roads and sidewalks are woven from a network of fluttering brush strokes that seem to give the impression that these images are themselves reflections on the surface of a rippling pond.  Is Jacquette’s use of these “overviews” related to a desire to share a sense of omnipotence, an invitation to join her as she floats above the grubby struggle of life in the street? Or do they proceed from an impulse to depict 21st century society with all the aplomb and trappings of Bruegel’s “Return of the Hunters” or “Tower of Babel”?  What could be more explicitly modern that to be awakened from a nap with the sound of a stewardess saying “we are beginning our decent please bring your seats to their upright position and close your tray tables?”  With a drowsy peek we look through our window as illuminated neighborhoods slip past below.  Jacquette’s intentions, like the paintings themselves, might be viewed most clearly when not looked at directly.

"Nick Lawrence “Bloopers, Gaffs and other Rough Patches” at ATM Gallery," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

Profiles of scrappy looking heads, some chewing on shoes, guzzling booze, or eating cell phones are rendered with a ham-fisted neo-cubistic bravado that is at once repulsive and yet comically endearing.  Color is sometimes dark and turgid and at other times light and vaporous.  As a long time member, both as an artist and gallerist of the Provincetown and Chelsea art scenes, “Bloopers, Gaffs and Other Rough Patches” is Lawrence’s New York debut exhibition.  Relaying on personal experiences gleaned from observing the singles scene, he specializes in the   depiction of uncomfortable social or personal happenstances that are rendered in a brusque and aggressive materiality and facture that seems as abrasive as their motivations.  Lawrence appears to have captured the churlish attention viewers might have when, seeing a drunken hissy fit between rumpled lovers, they are nevertheless unable to look away, worried they might miss some unmentionable act, or at the least, the opportunity for a favorable self comparison.

Plying the waters of “Transgresive Art” is a popular trend, witness the response to Peter Cain’s masturbating automatons, or the glut of art dealing with sexual taboos, stereotypes, or body excrement of all kinds.  Lawrence, though, plays a more subtle game and through his connoisseurship in tainted stylistic conventions assaults more directly the observer’s pictorial tastes rather than their moralistic mores. 

In “Girlfriend Experience” (1999-2002), a one eyed female figure pours fluid from a pitcher into a fish bowl planted on a male torso’s shoulders, a swimming fish replacing the boyfriend’s head.  A clear jell of viscous resin pools over slabs of collaged paper and fabric, and clumps and blobs of modeling paste give an altogether synthetic unpleasantness to the general texture of the painting.  Shapes are inscribed with a meandering line that zips along contours, dribbles at turns and pauses to intensely pattern areas with hippy paisley.   This line is akin to Pollock’s, as it sits on top of the picture plane like chocolate syrup.  Echoes of Picasso’s late cloisonné cubism are mingled with a kind of commercial cartoon imagery popular in the late 50’s that one might see advertising cheap bourbon in Argosy Magazine.

I’d recently visited an exhibition of works by Byron Brown, a founding member of New York’s first generation of modernists.   With their use of Picassoesque pastiche, a self-dramatizing use of artistic flourishes and an odd naïve humor that seems more an affectation that a true stylistic insight, there’s a parallel sensibility in their extravagantly misguided version of Modernism.  In Brown’s case it lead to tragic consequences, a fall from artistic stardom, and an early grave.  For Lawrence, when viewed from our current state of Post Modern cynicism, it leads to a chuckle of guilty recognition and a jolting reassessment of our standards of “good taste.”

Because of his innate understanding of pictorial syntax and cliché, derived from close readings of sources as diverse as early Modernism, classic commix and Abstract Expressionism, Lawrence hasn’t limited himself to figuration but has decided to test the efficacy of his language by also delving into a type of surrealistic abstraction.    In recent works the line has thickened and an increased painterliness has developed. His bio-morphic shapes nevertheless have a similar klutzy insolence and goofy brashness displayed by his desperate figures.     “Bloopers” (2005), is a grouping of small abstract paintings that could be a parody of those very serious canvases seen as props in B grade short features about life in Greenwich Village from the Beat era.  Ameoba forms dance and undulate as if in preparation for cellular division.  A ground of modeling paste is puddled and sculpted into ribbed textures, then painted and glazed over to enhance the appearance of substance.  A palette of ochre, black and white is combined with a gaseous yellow and spots of red and blue.  Strangely these little “bloopers” seem to manifest a wide spectrum of emotions like: anxiety, pictured by repeated nervous tick lines, stress depicted with squirting drops of cartoon sweet, or pride and joy related with broad brushed beams of radiance.  Though their clunky fabrication is totally contemporary, they do recall the biomorphic designs of Baziotes and Miro, but with the added connotation of comic self-consciousness received no doubt through self actualization therapy.

"David Kapp Recent Paintings at Tibor de Nagy Gallery," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

Mini glaciers of frozen snow still dotted the side streets of Midtown, remnants of the record-breaking snowstorm of ‘06.  As the elevator door opened on David Kapp’s selection of recent cityscapes, I was convinced that if the radiant heat generated by these works could be harnessed, it would’ve melted the last remains of winter.

Beginning with the influence of Carot and continuing through the works of Manet, Monet and Pissarro a range of pearly and silvery greys used by these Impressionists has come to typify a quality of the Parisian atmosphere.   Likewise, Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” series with its subtle aquas, greens and golds has come to stand in for the light and space of the Southern Californian landscape.  Kapp has with these works distilled an ambient quality that resounds  uniquely  to New York, especially summertime New York.  “Summer in the City” isn’t just the name of a song, it paradoxically combines aspects that Kapp uses to create his strong abstract statements in the guise of landscape.  First, the high vantage point views from high-rise windows or tall overpasses, whose downward gaze removes the horizon-line and flattens the scene to an almost map-like topigraphicality.  Secondly, brilliant sunshine on a clear afternoon casts shadows so strong that they can upstage the light and carve unexpectedly intriguing shapes as they hug forms and tail away on pavements.

As a colorist, Kapp has honed in on a spectrum of greys that range from a warm dove to a dark blue-black granite.  Although the indiscriminant use of grey can be problematic, deadening hues and neutralizing differences, Kapp instead, seems to energize it and creates upbeat harmonies through the use of orange under painting and bold tonal contrasts.  Compared to earlier shows, these pictures are more thinly painted, more tonally nuanced, less scumbled, with some passages as dry as a sun baked slab of slate on Broadway.

The ubiquitous scenes of urban highways, clogged with masses of chrome and enameled automotive color and traffic stripes, are symbolic images that express our current car culture like few others.  Kapp has employed this motif consistently, yet his development of various perspectives, compositional structures, and surfaces show the vast potential of the subject.

In “Fifth Avenue South II” (2005), a tapering swath of street is visible between tall banks of skyscrapers.  The cool light grey of the illuminated asphalt is dappled with yellow stroked cabs and the blue and white blocks of trucks.  Shadows cast from encroaching buildings stream from left to right, cutting and pinching the central shape. Space is palpable and one almost expects to hear the muffled sounds of tires hitting construction plates and distant horns honking. 

“Ticket Lines at Shea Stadium” (2005), is perhaps the most abstract painting in the show.  Viewed standing close it is a confetti flutter of whites, dark blue, cobalt and powder grey over a Naples-yellow and peach ground.  Stepping back, the planes congeal figures solidify and a teaming crowd in a parking lot appears, weaving their way between traffic barricades on their way to the game.  The velocity of Kapp’s brushstroke and the skidding scrapes from knives seem to blur the figures and impel the forward-like distortions of slow speed photography.  Add the smell of mustard and hot asphalt and it doesn’t get more New York.