Saturday, June 15, 2013

Bushwick, The Golden Age; reviews of Resurrection, Art Guerra, Katherine Powers

There’s been some commentary recently that Bushwick has become primed for takeover by the capitalist ruling class (or “The Man” as they would say in my day), and there are certainly indications that may be imminent. But I'm also glad to report that there still is enough youthfully exuberant, funky goofball art being made in the byways of Bushwick to support the notion that a bohemian left bank still thrives.
An important part of Bushwick’s appeal to me is that a bunch of post grad artists of varying interests can still manage to scrape along learning the hard lessons of an art making lifestyle. Those few lucky enough to get through the early struggles of an art career will learn the true meaning of dedication, and have poignant memories of Bushwick’s golden era.
There are elder statespeople in Bushwick that have provided a key role by instituting infrastructure to support a youth movement. Debra Brown, Jason Andrew, and Fred Valentine have pitched in with grass roots exhibition spaces that forego the traditional model of “representing” artists to show an ongoing selection of a wide range of age and experience.
Burr Dodd’s bold entrepreneurial endeavors have made his Temporary Storage exhibition and performance space, along with the Brooklyn Fire Proof CafĂ©, into a salon style beehive of artistic interaction.  
3rd Ward has evolved into “The College of Bushwick” with a variety of distinguished curricula including innovative courses such as “drink ‘n draw”.
But I find the real spirit of a freeform interchange of artists and exhibitions in Bushwick is encapsulated by the plethora of informal group shows and studio art seen before, during, and after Bushwick Open Studios. Although BOS is the annual nexus of activity, the premise of an art scene unencumbered by a big money collector base and over priced real estate permeates an atmosphere of potentiality.
In light of this lively ‘hood I’m including a brief synopsis of a few of the more groovy efforts I’ve seen recently: 

“Resurrection” put together by James Prez at Active Space.

Making the best of Active Spaces’s fluorescent lighting that tends to bleach out the window-less and harsh white architecture, Resurrection managed to fill out and warm the room.
Although I’m not sure how the title related to this decidedly athletic looking group of largely 3D art pieces (perhaps the bare boned nature of some the sculpture by the likes of JP Larson, dug up and reborn?), but it doesn’t really matter. If you know James, then you know its all about eclectic, and this exhibit certainly fit that Prez aesthetic.
The space is anchored by Matt Miller’s crudely carved blocks of styrofoam that have been melted or otherwise mutated in what might have been a chemistry experiment gone awry. Slapped on paint just adds to the gee wiz bang of these manly art chunks. 

 Matt Miller

Miller’s smaller scale pieces then turn the table on bravado and display his sensitive side. The wavy grid mounted on top of a photographic image magnifies an intimate reference to portraiture. This distorting manipulation could connote an aged connection to relics long past, while suggesting bad reception on an old TV. 

Matt Miller

On the gentler side of the gender geneses Rachel Hayes’ rolls of delicately transparent fabric flow gracefully into the room, conjuring up Tibetan prayer flags fluttering towards a rarified realm.

Rachel Hayes

The clunky, yet intricate jumble of clothes hangers by Bridget Mullen teeters down to the floor making a Klee-like clatter, and good use of the assigned cubicle.

Bridget Mullen

Prez has enthusiastically assembled an iconoclastic conglomeration of objects with a physical panache, and little regard for typical curatorial reliance on the contrived thematic premise.

Art Guerra, "Slippery At Dusk" at Sugar.

At the deep end of the generational pool is the primordially elegant monochrome of Art Guerra. Ostensibly paintings, these glowery meditations on nocturnal quietude, could also cloak a reference to fashionably luscious eveningwear. The sparkly spirit of Liberace might be lurking beneath those obtuse monoliths.  

Art Guerra

Guerra is well known among pigment aficionados as the purveyor and professor of rare and precious colored powders and concentrates that may be assembled into actual artist paint. This esoteric practice has merged nicely into the substance of the artist’s method. Ironically enough, you won’t find brushstrokes in these formal and somewhat imperious compendiums of pigment. Guerra’s mysterious process incorporates glass beads to produce juicy, yet serene dimensions of chromatic purity that could extend inward towards fluid biology, or move forcefully into a concrete realm reminiscent of sculptural relief.   

Art Guerra
Apparently Gwendolyn Skaggs who’s the brainchild behind Sugar, likes to find unique ways to present the art she exhibits. In this case Guerra’s stretchers were propped up off the floor on small oak pedestals so that the works leaned against the wall. I liked the way that magnified the weighty mass of art.
A list of Guerra’s ingredients:
Canvas, acrylic, urethane, glass beads, tire rubber, interference and magic effect pigments, pigment dispersions.

Katherine Powers, Schmatte at Store Front.
schmatte (from the Polish szmata):
a Yiddish word meaning rag, old garment, an item of clothing in fashion and clothing-industry slang.

The clever moniker for Storefront’s backroom project space belies a marvelous radiance of freshness that emanates from Power’s light and airy collage. The plethora of interpretive references range from Rorschach-like symmetry, to a banner deconstruction of late Matisse cut outs. Actually assembled in 8 different plastic envelopes, this collage within 8 collages still unifies gracefully into an elusive totality not unlike the way clouds morph in the minds eye.
This is what Bushwick should be all about, giving credence to the finest of art that might otherwise remain unseen in a preoccupied art world that all to often lets unspoiled beauty go unnoticed.

Katherine Powers


Phillip Taffe, Recent Work Luhring Augustine

The temptation with Taffe is to surrender to his beguiling charms, and who wouldn’t succumb? Entering into this artist’s rarified realms is like a mission quest to view the original picture.  The canvas is his archetypal Garden of Eden populated by fanciful (and fancy) marks that hearken back to an archeological sensation, while providing a beatific abstract sheen.
Fortunately Taffe doesn’t take it for granted that his sinfully delicious mastery of decorative painting shouldn’t be challenged.  If you can get around Taffe’s insistent need to keep things clean and tidy, there is a prodigious level of compositional insight and suave integrity that saturates his picture plane.
One of the more bold pieces in the show, “Sardica II”, must have taken some intestinal fortitude to paint and exhibit. This is not a pliant picture; the twisted configurations that summon up supple serpentine tripe, writhe disconcertingly, while their molten core could melt down any minute. Yet the figure/ground relationship also refers to tapestry, and this daring magic carpet ride ends up rewarding the viewer who goes along for the trip.

Sardica II, 2013
Mixed media on canvas
55 1/2 X 80 inches

A standard take on Taffe is that he reinvents historical scripts and calligraphy by blending background washes with precision draftsmanship to achieve a flat field graphic interface. 
But when he relaxes his technical prowess a less inhibited flourish can be employed, as seen to wonderful effect in “Imaginary Landscape I”
This is my favorite artwork in the show, served up as an exquisitely loose concoction of instinctual biological forms. Diaphanous creatures from under the psyche/sea hover about, crowded together in a thoroughly random jumble. Possibly we are viewing their detailed nuance under a microscope, their origins obscured by a mist of dilute pigment that serves as an ethereal suspension.  

Imaginary Landscape I, 2013
Mixed media on canvas
37 1/2 x 37 5/8 inches

John Yau's comments in his essay on Hyperallergic suggest that Taffe’s work connects to a “tribal” imperative. Certainly Taffe’s informed references to cross cultural sources rooted in ancient language and symbols may conjure up associations to indigenous groups and spiritual practice, but I don’t think tribal fits here, at least in the sense of a communal dialogue.
Appealing to a truly tribal instinct would seem to impel a more urgent, rigorous pulsation and collective reverberation of primal ritual than we see in Taffe’s deliberate and entirely civil sensibility.
The artist tends to work on an immediate, schematic level of perceptual sight lines, so despite a labor-intensive process his intricate, stenciled motif can invoke “pretty” more than substantive. Inevitably my opinionated eye is lead toward floral arrangements and wallpaper.
The work could also be seen as succinct to a fault, and risk averse. There is little room for trial and error when employing such tight mark making. Then his pension for design can gift-wrap the visual delivery, and in a contemporary context may refer back to pattern painting in a predictable manner.
Ultimately though, this work contains an essential vitality that redeems his meticulous approach, celebrating painting as formal craft. Even if you might prefer representational imagery, or a more expressive gesture, Taffe has worked hard to earn your respect, and I believe he deserves it.

Imaginary Garden with Seed Clusters, 2013
Mixed media on canvas
97 7/8 x 61 7/8 inches 

Judith Simonian, Recent Work at Ed Thorpe

I was glad to see Simonian’s casually attired paintings on display in Chelsea. Their relaxed fit suited my eye nicely after the formal rigor of Mr Taffe’s well coiffed wardrobe, and the general slick-a-tude of most big money galleries in the area.
Not that Simonian is fashion conscious; au contraire, her art originates from workman-like diligence, and dedication to her painterly identity. But the show is a departure from earlier work that focused on looser picture plane architecture.
This exhibit features compositions venturing into more ambitious territory including theatrical, and still life elements that combine less strictly representational schemes with a dream-like narrative.
These paintings seem like a natural extension of what the artist has witnessed, filtered through various sensations of mood and atmosphere, finally emerging as a quasi-fictional scenario.  
Judith Simonian, 2013, Extreme Ikebana, Acrylic on canvas, 64h x 84w in.

  Perhaps not particularly cognitively acute in their conceptual origins, the work relies primarily on a keen sense of time and place, coupled with an astute comprehension of pictorial texture. This is the artist’s strong suit; letting her native abilities coalesce into well-construed images that succeed on their own terms, wavering between the here and now, and less defined stratifications.
My favorite paintings in the show were the still-life pieces in the last room that got right to the point of what the joy of picture making is all about. Slippery fish glisten on layers of softly undulating tints of thinly applied pigment, slathered on with a deft touch. Convincing volumetric fleshiness provides a dead fish with a fresh nod to Chardin’s forte.

Judith Simonian, 2012, Big Catch Acrylic on canvas, 44h x 60w in.

But there is more to Simonian’s craft then just painting from lovely, though unprepossessing scenery. The larger scale canvases delve into a montage format that must have been tricky to paint, but Simonian manages to pull it off. This is a good example of how a mature painter with many years behind the brush can achieve a symbiosis of sorts. Although they might not be the most graceful of gestures, there is an engaging overall charisma resulting from a savvy grasp of painting fundamentals.
The montages use an effective picture-within-a-picture conceit, slippery dimensions of tight edged planes containing crisply painted ’scapes shuffle over a background of more diaphanous regions inhabited by less defined relationships. This contrast of context and content sets up a nice tension that could relate to moments theatrical or filmic drama. 

Judith Simonian, 2010, Sperlonga in Norway, Acrylic on canvas, 54h x 46w in.

Dream imagery also enters into the equation, not so much on a psychological level as much as sensory. Since dreams are the most primal creative act, a less literal narrative in the artist’s work lends an authentic feel to the ample interpretative possibilities found herein relating to non-waking inspiration.

Judith Simonian, 2013, Blue Feast, Acrylic on canvas, 61h x 72w in.

Simonian epitomizes the “painters painter” ethos, working for her own edification more than a market. Of course, we all aspire to exhibit in a space as beautiful as what Ed Thorpe provides, and we also hope to sell enough work to establish a niche.
But I’d imagine the most important reward for this artist and others lucky enough to have found a way to make art all their lives, is to continue the marvelous adventure any way we can.

Little Willie John - I'm Shakin & The Blasters perform Little Willie John's classic, "I'm Shakin" live, 1981

 Prepare to shake!