Archives for category: reviews
Don Voisine Pan

Pan, 2011 Oil on wood 13 x 24 inches, © Don Voisine, Courtesy McKenzie Fine Art, Inc.

On a mini gallery crawl in Chelsea, topping my list was McKenzie Fine Art, Inc., where I stopped by to see Don Voisine’s show just before the opening. I was disappointed to not be able to take in all the energy of the opening, but there was a great advantage of having the gallery to myself – the calm before the storm. It was electrifying!

Voisine is a notable player in an increasingly visible contingent of artists painting in an abstract, hard-edged geometric style. Neo-geo, minimalism, I’m not sure what the current tag is for this work, but the jargon and semantics hold little interest for me, especially when the work itself is so compelling. I believe the loosely connected group of artists, if one would call it that (more like a Facebook friends’ mutual admiration society?), might be clustered around a vision of  ‘reductive abstraction’ or something like that. I suppose labels are effective marketing tools, but that’s not the point of what’s going on here.

Don Voisine

Off Register, 2011 Oil on wood 16 x 17 inches, © Don Voisine, Courtesy McKenzie Fine Art, Inc.

The artist and blogger Joanne Mattera is among the ranks of these seasoned and sophisticated painters, and happily she has found a way to use Facebook for good instead of evil. Recently, she asked her Facebook friends who are working with geometric abstraction to send her images of their work featuring rhomboid shapes. Mattera then curated a wildly varied and potent on-line exhibition of these works.  A piece by Voisine is included, and the grouping is a great overview that demonstrates the startling variety of approaches and visions within this relatively cohesive bunch of contemporary artists. Introducing the show, “Rhomboid Rumba,” Mattera writes, “The works in this scroll-down reflect a variety of ideas: tectonic shift, Archimedian displacement, spiritual thinking, a textile sensibility, references to the body, constructivist principles, optical challenge, formal push/pull, and the pure pleasure of geometric abstraction. Materiality, another of my interests, is very much in evidence here as well.” Minus Space is another place to visit to extensively explore work in this vein. (Voisine can be found here too, along with some others worth knowing about like Karen Schifano and Douglas Witmer.)

Don Voisine

N, 2011 Oil on wood 20 x 16 inches, © Don Voisine, Courtesy McKenzie Fine Art, Inc.

Voisine’s bold blacks and crisp compositions have enough of the artist’s hand visible and enough sensuality to engage the viewer immediately. The work is hard-edged but with a dry wit instead of just being dry. It says HEY to get your attention, but the conversation immediately gets deep.  The paintings slyly change as you move in front of them, rewarding the patient eye over and over with their idiosyncratic symmetries, subtleties and shifting planes and voids. Voisine’s self-imposed limitations result in a flourishing body of work that feels anything but restrictive and repetitive. These are paintings made to stand up to a lifetime of looking.

I recently saw Voisine’s work at the American Academy of Arts & Letters Invitational exhibition, and had hoped to have a chance to write about it then. Happily, I heard he received a coveted Arts & Letters Purchase Prize, so the work can still be seen at the gallery on Audubon Terrace until June 12th, as well as at McKenzie until June 11th, and I will definitely be making another trip to revisit this show before it closes. Here’s congratulating Don Voisine for doing terrific work and garnering well-deserved recognition for it.

Don Voisine

Otto, 2011 Oil on wood 32 x 60 inches, © Don Voisine, Courtesy McKenzie Fine Art, Inc.

I sometimes make note, at least a mental note, when gallery owners or staff are either exceptionally talented or awful in their dealings with the public, collectors, press, and/or artists. In this case I would like to recognize gallery owner Valerie McKenzie for her friendly and knowledgeable interaction. Her enthusiasm and astute conversation about the work she is representing are superbly refreshing. She sets the bar a little higher for others in the field.


Timed nicely to dovetail with my open studio this Sunday, Manhattan Times, our city’s only fully bilingual paper, has featured my work in their hot-off-the-presses home delivery edition (this image on the cover, and article p.15).

In an effort to be helpful, I provided more information than the Editor could ever possibly use, given space considerations.  I’ll try to get a copy of the article posted on my website soon.  In the meantime, here’s a recap of the Q and A.

Title of artwork: This piece is so new, it’s not titled yet.  Occasionally a title will come to me while I’m working on a drawing, but mostly I have to wait and live with it a while before the title becomes apparent. For now, I just refer to it as ‘the new brown one.’ If you said that to me, I’d know what you’re talking about.

How did you create this piece? I draw working on the floor.  Starting with handmade, colored paper from Japan, I draw each bubble one at a time by bending over the paper and blowing a mixture of ink and water very carefully through a tube. I create my composition by crawling around the paper on my hands and knees, stopping from time to time to put the piece up on the wall, so I can check how it will look from the proper perspective. If you came in and saw me engaged in this activity, you might kindly suggest that I get my head examined.

Special materials or process: I had to create a formula to facilitate making bubbles with the ink and water.  But like many formulae, it’s secret! It took a lot of experimentation to get the formula just right, and I adjusted it and my technique frequently to get different effects in the drawing, such as tone, depth, and line.  There were some happy surprises along the way, but also many frustrating disappointments.  The humidity and temperature affect how the materials behave when I’m working, and I always have to take that into account or risk ruining a piece that has taken a very long time to make.

How long did it take to create? All my work tends to be very labor intensive and time consuming to make.  I dream about being able to just dash off a brilliant drawing one day, but in reality, the methods I come up with all seem to take forever.  In the studio, I am very unaware of the passage of time.  I often work concurrently on more than one piece, moving from one to another, which makes it harder to gauge how long it takes to complete any single work.   A California ceramic artist, Liz Crain, gives an excellent description of the two kinds of time that each piece requires. To paraphrase what she wrote: One part, hard time, is more active, involving the hands-on time actually applying ink to paper and dealing with creative and technical challenges posed by the piece and test pieces.  The other, equally important soft time that one puts in it is more hands-off, and involves research, contemplation, looking, waiting (for clarity, inspiration, the ink to dry), and a lifetime of learning and experience.

What’s the meaning of the work to you? A fascination with the abstract essence of nature is at the core of my work. I find that drawing helps me understand a deeply felt personal bond with nature: our place within it, our relationship to it, and our responsibility to care for it.  Lately, I’ve been contemplating water as both an inspiration and a drawing material. The bubbles are a means of making marks on the paper, yet they also become evocative of other things, like eggs perhaps, or clusters of stars or galaxies.  Blowing bubbles is one of the joys of childhood (and adulthood, for some of us), but it’s impossible to ignore that they are heartbreakingly fragile and short-lived – a metaphor, if you will. By using art to investigate and interpret the systems, structures, and wide-ranging ways that we connect with the natural world, I hope we might come to understand our crucial vulnerabilities and respond meaningfully.

What do you want people to see when they look at it? I would like people to see something that engages and excites them.  I hope to encourage a feeling of possibility, and perhaps wonderment.  Our sense of vision, like our sense of smell has the power to connect to things deep in our minds in a way that has nothing to do with spoken language.  I would like people to see something in the work that they realize they somehow recognize, without necessarily having the need or ability to name what exactly it is.

Why did you want to exhibit this piece in this location (at my open studio)? For me, the studio is the place where curiosity always trumps cynicism. The fun of having an annual open studio is that I can meet art-lovers in person in a more casual setting than a formal gallery show.  In the studio, people get a chance to view not only my current work, but some earlier work as well, and even some things that may have never been shown elsewhere.  Seeing the variety of ideas and approaches affords a broader understanding of how the work has evolved. An open studio provides a valuable opportunity to interact with the public about the work and its many layers of meaning.  In my experience, these exchanges strengthen the appreciation of both the creative process and the importance of the arts as part of any dynamic society.

[image above, Untitled, copyright Sky Pape, ink on handmade paper, 39”h x 25-3/8”w, 2009. Photo: Jean Vong.  See more like this here:]

To tell you the truth, I thought it was supposed to be an interview with one guy bearing notepad and pencil.  Then they showed up with cameras!  Good thing I had my Minnie Mouse gloves at the ready.

For those of you who know me, you know I adore my neighborhood, Inwood, here at the far northern reaches of the island of Manhattan. does a wonderful job chronicling the people, events, and rich history of this area.  I’m flattered that they came to visit my studio, and went to such an effort to feature it on their site.

As part of the Uptown Arts Stroll, I will be having an open studio this Sunday, from 3-7 pmDetails are here.  I welcome you to stop in and say hello, and make a day of visiting the studios of other local uptown artists.  Music lovers will not be disappointed either! (Again, see details.)

Apologies for the prolonged absence.  Chalk it up to writer’s block, or more accurately, to having too much else on my plate.  I seem to be wearing many different hats, and none of them especially stylish.  But I don’t want to bore you with excuses as to why words have escaped me.  I will just dive back in, as if I’d never left the conversation.

The gallery crawl back in late March, which I never got around to writing up, had some surprising highlights.  The most memorable to me were Laurie Anderson’s show at Location One, which achieved very high-tech seeming results using very low-tech methods.  In a darkened room, a miniature Laurie, with her dog in a chair beside her, appeared as convincingly as a hologram.  Her storyteller’s voice mesemerized as much as the visual experience.  In fact, it was not a hologram at all, but a tiny white plaster sculpture of Anderson and her faithful pooch, upon which a video of the two was projected.  Part two of the installation duet: In another dark space, standing on a white spot on the floor, one was treated to an extraordinary auditory experience.  Also achieved with low-tech means, the sounds of nature seemed so real as to almost emanate from within one’s head.

Showing nearby were two noteworthy videos by  Sun Xun showing at the Drawing Center’s Drawing Room.  “The Lie of the Magician” was an especially captivating piece that made use of a frame-by-frame technique in which the artist used his own body as a canvas on which he drew and animated images of nature (rain, clouds, seeds, roots), moving through a cycle of life and creation. (Here’s an incredibly small, hard to see version of it.)

And since then, there’s been a lot more that I’ve taken in, about which I’ve neglected to write.  There was the utterly superb show of Georgio Morandi‘s work at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, for instance – the mere memory of which sends me into rhapsodic reverie.  Also in DC at the same time, worth seeing and worth mentioning, were Philip Guston in the Tower at the National Gallery of Art (up until October 2009), Robert Frank’s monumental show “The Americans” (also at the National Gallery, coming to NYC’s Metropolitan Museum in September 2009), and Kathleen Kucka‘s new paintings at Marsha Mateyka Gallery. Maya Lin’s show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art had two intriguing room-sized installations, one of which was quite magnificent in its monumentality, but the rest of the show felt a bit scattered, unpolished, and disappointing.

I hadn’t been to DC in a long time, and was happy to visit some of the gallery spaces there, including Hemphill Fine Arts, and Andrea Pollan’s space, Curator’s Office, which is perhaps the tiniest gallery I’ve visited – but don’t make the mistake of underestimating it!

There was also a field trip, on my list for many years, to visit the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in The Springs, near East Hampton, Long Island.  The P-K House’s Director, art historian and critic Helen Harrison, gave an lively, informative tour of the house and studio used first by Jackson Pollock, and later by Lee Krasner, until the end of her life.  Harrison knows about all there is to know about Hamptons Bohemia, and has a gift for doling out some of the juicy bits.  Currently on view in the house was a small but strong exhibition of portrait drawings by Hedda Sterne, the one female pictured in Nina Leen’s famous Time/Life photo from 1951 of  “The Irascibles.” (That’s Jackson in the center, second row from rear, and one of my teachers, Richard Pousette-Dart all the way on the left.)

Back in SoHo, which is now practically off the beaten path unless you are shopping for shoes or hitting the Apple Store, The Painting Center has been putting on several outstanding shows lately, and James Little’s exhibition of large oil and wax on canvas works at June Kelly Gallery was a knockout (See Joanne Mattera’s write-up.)

I could spend more time catching up, but that would only serve to point out all you’ve missed, and how lame I’ve been about keeping up with posting.  So instead, I will look ahead, and begin afresh.

[above images: Sun Xun, Still from “Lie of the Magician,” 2005. Single channel video, 4:14 minutes. Courtesy Fortune Cookie Projects, copyright Sun Xun; Kathleen Kucka, “Ephemeral Apparition”, 32″h x 28″w, acrylic on linen, 2009, copyright Kathleen Kucka, courtesy Marsha Mateyka Gallery, DC.]

Traversing the vast expanse of Audubon Terrace always brings on a sense of exhilaration.  There just aren’t that many  wide open public spaces surrounded by imposing Beaux Arts architecture to be found these days.  So, last Tuesday night, passing the statue of El Cid on a rearing stallion, I took a deep breath of brisk air and soaked up the scene as I made my way to the American Academy of Arts and Letters for the opening of their annual invitational exhibition.

The Academy’s premises have just undergone an enormous expansion, and the new exhibition space is impressive.  There’s a lot of work in this show (116 paintings, photographs, multi-media works, sculptures, installations, and works on paper by 30 artists), up until April 5th, so I’m just going to point out a few highlights:

A trio of neon pieces by Stephen Antonakos infused the east gallery of the new space with their jewel-like glow.  This mature artist not only knows how confident, modern,  & minimal can still be engaging, warm & welcoming in terms of art, he lives it!

In the south gallery, three portraits (one of herself) by Ann Gale assert a subtle, yet undeniably strong presence.  The canvases coalesce animism of paint and the energy of the living human.  These paintings evince a kindred connection to Lucien Freud, but perhaps more importantly to both Cezanne and even Giacometti in the attention paid to locating a mark or bit of paint in a very particular physical space, with the paint simultaneously describing and deconstructing.  When much portraiture relies on photography and digital resources, becoming flat and lifeless, these portraits hum and buzz and bristle with the intensity of living and looking — the experience of the eyes, interpreted by the mind behind them, without any intervention.  The portraits’ subjects are rendered alive and real, and the recognition of  these daubs of paint coming together to convey an individual with such psychological power is to wonder at how our own cells happen to hang together to create the assumed reality of self.

Artists ultimately selected to participate in this exhibition have first been invited by one of Academy’s members to submit work, so it’s a generally high bar of peer recognition.  In this year’s show, there are a number of big-name artists such as April Gornik, Gregory Crewdson, Roxy Paine, and Beverly McIver.  To these eyes, the biggest surprise and stand-out of the exhibition came by way of paintings bearing titles like “To Crack a Smile,” and “Vaudeville Hook” by David Nelson, an artist with whom I was not familiar.  Nelson’s non-objective canvases are both technically and aesthetically seductive in a manner as modest, genuine and self-effacing artist as the artist himself.  I’ve rarely met anyone who seemed so truly touched and surprised to receive well-earned compliments and congratulations.  Unfortunately, my camera was out of juice, and I couldn’t find any other images of his work on-line to show you, so you’ll have to take my word for it or go see for yourself!

[images above: Audubon Terrace looking east, c. 1950, courtesy American Academy of Arts & Letters; Installation view of work by Stephen Antonakos, “Departure” 1993-2007,  61 x 51 x 5″; “Arrival” 2008, 88 x 46 x 5″, and “Respite” 2000-2001, all pieces white paint on versacel, neon, copyright and courtesy of Stephen Antonakos; Ann Gale, “Self Portrait with Blue Stripes”, 14 x 11″, oil on masonite, courtesy of Hckett-Freedman Gallery, San Francisco, copyright Ann Gale.]

I confess:  I know less than nothing about sports.  In fact, my closest connection to any football field came last Thursday at Marlborough Gallery in Chelsea, where I went to see Jane Dickson’s show Night Driving, an exhibition of about twenty recent oil paintings on astroturf.  Yes, that’s right.  Astroturf.  Think pointillism meets the playing field.   It’s difficult to capture in reproduction, but the effect is quietly mesmerizing, even hypnotic.

Dickson is no stranger to the exploration of unusual painting grounds, having already used sandpaper and carpet surfaces for her paintings.  The astroturf bears a certain relationship to velvet paintings, imbuing an eerie luminosity to the works, but these lack any overt sentimentality or kitschiness.

Dickson provides views of cars on highways, bridges, garages, and sights so familiar they might seem bland.  However, as the artist states, she is “…drawn to represent the uncanny, defined by Freud as, ‘the familiar grown strange,’ aiming to pull the unnoticed, the unquestioned, into the foreground, aiming to provide a space within my work for reflection on where we now find ourselves and what that tells us about who we are.”  These stated intentions are extremely well-realized through her new paintings.  Slightly three-dimensional and definitely tactile, these works, not just for their scale, demand to be seen in person.

From afar the paintings appear to be realistic, but with each step closer, shapes dissolve into a shimmering surface of color.  Depth perception disappears, and indeed the familiar grows wonderfully strange.

This show is up until February 14th at Marlborough Gallery in Chelsea, 525 W 25th St., New York, NY.

(FYI, Jane Dickson is also the artist responsible for the mosaic of New Year’s Eve Revelers, permanently installed in the NYC subway tunnel between Port Authority and Times Square.)

[image above: Blue Tunnel 2, 2006-2008, Oil on astroturf, 29 x 36 in., 73.7 x 91.4 cm. Copyright Jane Dickson, courtesy Marlborough Gallery, New York.]

Sure enough, people were lined up down the block on January 10th, waiting for Metro Pictures to open their doors.  If I were Bill Cunningham of The New York Times, I would have had lots of material for a feature on stylish glasses and fabulous winter hats.  Just marvelous! There was an idea floated out that there was a small fortune to be made if one were prepared to back up the offer of “Cocoa! Get your hot cocoa here!”  But at that moment, the crowd began to flood into the gallery for Postcards from the Edge, the benefit for Visual AIDS.  Obviously, at the preview party the night before, many savvy collectors had pinpointed the pieces they were intent on buying.  In a nonstop blur of activity, things flew off the walls.  My little drawing was purchased before I even located it myself.  This annual benefit not only presents work of surprisingly high quality, but it tends to be managed extremely well thanks to smart staff and va-va-voom volunteers.  The atmosphere is like a big party, and there really does seem to be something for everyone.  My hope is that Visual AIDS raked in scads of dough, and I’ll look forward to the recurrence of this event next year.

Our next stop was just down 24th St at Fredericks and Freiser, for John Wesley‘s show A Question of Women (through Feb 7).   My biggest exposure to Wesley‘s work in person was at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, and perhaps then my mind was just too caught up with the overwhelming presences of Donald Judd and Dan Flavin to be able to fully appreciate him.  This well-curated show was my Wesley moment of enlightenment.  It brings together a number of canvases from private collections that have not shown in New York before and some from the artist’s studio that have never before been exhibited.  Their collective impact is disarming, disturbing, and delightfully captivating.  Painted between 1992 and 2004, these paintings should be considered in context from an artist who, born in 1928, has been perfecting this style for over 50 years.  As cool and controlled as they may be, given the tightly drawn lines, the flat application of paint and the specificity of palette, they are startlingly dramatic.  Naughty and erotic in a slightly Betty Boop kind of way, the abstract elements of the canvases — the colors, the quirky shapes (those eyelashes!), the negative spaces — hold powerful sway in the overall experience of the paintings.  It is tempting to think that the simplicity of art employing a comic-book style makes it easy for digital images on the web to adequately stand in for the in-person experience.  That notion is particularly false with Wesley’s paintings and although I’ve included links, I would strongly urge you to go see the show before viewing all the images on the gallery’s website.  With 65 solo shows under his belt, this may be one of Wesley’s best yet, and that’s saying something.

The next stop was BravinLee Programs on 26th Street, where John Lee treated us to a fascinating walk-through of Bhakti Baxter’s exhibition After Certain Amounts of Breath (through Feb 14).   In order to enter the main room of the gallery, you must detour around the remaining fragments of sheetrock and metal studs that once comprised a dividing wall.  There’s a short, vicariously cathartic Youtube video of the artist creating (or should I say deconstructing?) it.  The wall, and all the pieces in this show, relate to themes of temporality, mortality, and the pure energy of matter as it relates to existence.  The featured work in the main gallery is a sequential series of large drawings on mylar depicting the gradual dissolution of the skeletal remains of a human couple, and their transformation or return to a kind of cosmic energy.  The back gallery continues the idea, but on a more conceptual level.  It has the makings of an intimate, yet spare, living room, in which one can sit and reflect a while.  The decor of the room is subtle, yet purposeful:  an Eames rocker invites the visitor with a possible reference to Charles and Ray Eames’ film “The Powers of Ten”, a film that looks at similarities of macro- and microcosmic views (Baxter offers another way to rock as well: there’s a cassette deck playing, for those of you who remember what cassettes are); wall murals channel Albers’ extensive series Homage to the Square, and ideas of harmonious proportions; there’s even a drawing of an agave plant to bring to mind the wonders of the Fibonacci sequence (a plus for this Fibonacci fan).  The references may be a bit obscure, but the ambition to coalesce themes of love, life, death, decay, harmony, scientific phenomena, art history, and even some gentle humor, is heartening, particularly in that cynicism and fear are nowhere to be found here.

Beating me to it, the New Yorker just highlighted Emna Zghal‘s exhibition at M.Y. Art Prospects. Emna’s work may have been under your radar, but not long ago, she won a coveted purchase award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. This was her first solo show here of oils on canvas (as opposed to works on paper), and in the dead of winter, it gives you hope that Spring will indeed return. Without sticking to earthen tones or expected shapes, the bold colors and non-representational marks, lines, and gestures of these poetic canvases convey a love of nature: The rustling of leaves, the flow of water, the movement of a creature not quite seen, but sensed. They feel like fresh air and the outdoors without being sentimental or sweet. They express an energetic and layered space in a way that would have been impossible without Pollock, but which in no way seems derivative of him. This selection of work, finely done but never fussy, feels as refined and carefully edited as a sonnet.

Upstairs in the same building at Aperture Gallery (3rd floor) we saw It’s beautiful here, isn’t it…, photographs by Luigi Ghirri (through Jan 29).  This show views like a romantic symphony in several movements.  It is breathtaking to see the breadth of work by this important yet under-known photographer who died in 1992 at the age of 49.  The show is extensive with too much varied content to cover here, but if perhaps you’ve recently been to see the Morandi show at the Met Muse, Ghirri’s photos of the artist’s studio will likely seem especially poignant.  It’s beautiful here?  Yes, Ghirri shows us how true that is.

We braved on through the snow and weren’t disappointed when we arrived at Sean Kelly for Ressonância Resonance Resonanz, a three-artist exhibition by Iran do Espírito Santo, Callum Innes, and Wolfgang Laib (through January 31).  Missing from the show’s press release is a curatorial credit, and the pieces here have been selected and installed so successfully that credit is certainly due to the people behind the scenes as well.  The exhibition brings together paintings, drawings, sculptures, and installation pieces from three accomplished artists whose approaches, as the press release states, “…whilst seemingly very different, share many conceptual, intellectual, formal and emotional resonances.”  All three artists, whether using paint, granite, glass, crystal, beeswax, rice, or hand-collected pollen display an almost reverent love and sensitivity to their materials that emanates from the completed works.  The gallery seems transformed by this resonant exhibition into a sanctuary for contemplation.

It will be difficult to follow-up such a winning line-up of shows with the next gallery crawl, but I’ll see what I can come up with for February.  Advance notice of next month’s crawl will be posted here, and as always, all are welcome to come along!

[images starting at top: John Wesley, Question of Women, 1993, Acrylic on canvas: 42 x 49 inches; Bhakti Baxter, left to right: After certain amounts of breath 2008 india ink and dirt on mylar 59.25 x42 inches; Residual bodies 2008 india ink and dirt on mylar 61×42 inches; A dispersed way of being 2008 india ink enamel and dirt on mylar 61 x 42 inches; Emna Zghal Tree Threads, 2008, oil on canvas, 25 x 37 inches; Photograph by Luigi Ghirri at Aperture Gallery; Gallery view of Sean Kelly Gallery, detail of Wolfgang Laib’s piece The Rice Meals, 1983, 33 brass plates, rice and hazelnut pollen approximate length: 640 inches (on floor), and two Callum Innes paintings Untitled No 13, 2008, oil on linen 81 1/2 x 79 1/2 inches and Untitled No 30, 2008,oil on canvas, 81 1/2 x 79 1/2 inches.]

E.J. McAdams ChapBook, 4 X 4

E.J. McAdams' ChapBook, "4 X 4", copyright E.J. McAdams

Admittedly, I’m more than a bit obsessed with the upcoming election, but please banish the thought that this post has anything to do with the candidate who sneeringly called the opposing candidate “THAT ONE,” during last night’s debate.  Nope, you can breathe a sigh of relief because, exercising extreme self control, I can guarantee this has nothing to do with politics.

A couple weeks ago I ran into poet and environmental do-gooder E.J. McAdams at an event for The Nature Conservancy.  I admire E.J. for directing his dedication, discipline, and talents toward the concurrent goals of helping nature and creating art.  His recent good news included the publication of a chapbook of his poetry, entitled 4 X 4.  Of particular interest to me is the purely visual impact of the work (as it relates to concrete poetry), which got me thinking about the intersection of words and drawing; abstract lines and dots on a page with perhaps specific references, also capable of conveying many layers of meaning.

There’s a full review of 4 X 4 worth reading over on the blog “Behind the Lines.”  The chapbooks sold out quickly so regretfully there are none left, but I know E.J.’s been busy and I’ll be looking forward to see what comes next!

An aspiring writer, one of my towering, affable nephews blew through town recently.  We decided to grab some grub at the writer-owned-and-frequented watering hole The Half King (good brunch!) and then see what there was to see at the “art mall” at 529 W 20th Street.

I’ve been frustrated of late by encountering a lot of work that relies on accompanying written materials to justify and explain the artists’ intentions.  I’m well-versed enough in the language of art that I figure I should be able to “get it” without reading the manifesto, a.k.a Art Babble.  However, this recent visit to Chelsea had me thinking a bit differently about the pros and cons of the additional reading material and how it affects my experience and assessment of the work.

Walking into bitforms gallery, there was a show where the work itself was all about reading. Up until October 11th, the gallery is presenting Politics As Usual, the first US solo exhibition of composer, artist and performer R. Luke DuBois.  The room is filled with letterpress prints formatted like eye test charts, with large-lettered words at the top which decrease in size with each line.  A droning sonic hum permeated the gallery.  I looked around and my first reaction was to heave a sigh as I reached for the printed materials.  “Okay,” I thought, “bring on the manifesto.”  But in this instance, the written materials were concise and useful.  The letterpress pieces, it explained, comprised a series called Hindsight is Always 20/20, which “examines the history of American political discourse through the metaphor of vision.  Drawing from the annual State of the Union addresses given by Presidents to Congress,” each print culled words from their speeches, with the largest words being the most frequent to the smallest, least frequently used.  “The result is a startlingly clear snapshot of the lexicon of each presidency, containing a mix of historically topical keywords and rhetoric unique to each president and the time period in which they served in office.”  I couldn’t say it better.

George Walker Bush (2001-2009)

R. Luke Dubois, "George Walker Bush (2001-2009)", copyright the artist

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945)

R. Luke Dubois, "Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945)", copyright the artist

The exhibition’s soundtrack called SSB, is a recording of the national anthem as performed by soprano Lesley Flanigan and then “digitally stretched to last four years (the length of an American election cycle).”  For a dose of irony, “the resulting sound, with its repetition, echo, and microtonal nuance, is reminiscent of an adhan, or Islamic call to prayer.”

As we gear up to this election, what a fascinating perspective to have on our country’s history.  In spite of my initial resistance to reading the fine print, it made all the difference in this case.

I have found Howard Scott Gallery an inviting, intimate environment where I can reliably count on seeing sophisticated, strong work by confident, mature artists.  Encountering Tom Schmitt‘s works on paper seemed to confirm that expectation.  The works, mostly under 8″ square, were mostly from the past few years, with a couple of slightly larger early pieces from the 60’s as well.  The reductive, minimal works were full of nuances that engaged the viewer.  Colors, carefully considered edges, and subtle gradations were used to maximum effect, imbuing the small pieces with depth and mystery.  Architecture, nature, and iconic symbolism all came to mind from these non-objective starting points.  I looked at the exhibition check list, and all the recent drawings were listed as “ink on paper.”  The precision of the handling of the ink, especially the gradations really amazed me.  It was hard to imagine that even the steadiest hand could master such technique.  Turns out I was right.  Reading more of the gallery’s materials on the show, Arnold Lehman’s essay in the press materials states, “Forty years have passed since I first saw and admired Tom Schmitt‘s work. Since then, everything around us has changed. On first glance, so had Schmitt’s work, now created by computer instead of his steady hand.  Technology had been harnessed by the artist to serve the intrinsic nature of his work.”

Black Grey, 7.5 x 7.5 2008 (2006?).  Copyright Tom Schmitt

Tom Schmitt: Black Grey, 7.5 x 7.5" 2008 (2006?). Copyright the artist

I concur that the pieces Schmitt has created and printed using computer technology are powerful and in keeping with his overall artistic sensibility.  However, something about this didn’t sit right with me.  While on-line some of the work is noted as “computer ink on paper,” in the gallery, these pieces were identified as ink on paper, implying they were one of a kind drawings, which they were not.  These were, in fact, digital inkjet prints, which should bring up archival questions for potential collectors.  Also, I would think potential collectors would want to know if the artist plans to reprint an unlimited number of these pieces, and if not, shouldn’t each one be presented as a signed and numbered limited edition?  At any rate, they are not unique pieces, and not made by hand.  I had to ask myself, how much of the value, intrinsic merit, and importance of the work is tied up in its being a unique artifact made by a human hand?  It’s a thorny question that I’m still pondering, but the truth of my gut reaction was that I felt differently about the work once I had discovered the means of its production.  It also made me feel that, intentionally or not, there was some deception implicit in presenting the digital prints as unnumbered pieces of “ink on paper.”

What could be more pleasing than such an invitation? I paid a visit to David Byrne’s installation “Playing the Building.” If you don’t already know, he has set up an organ in the cavernous and semi-decayed Battery Maritime Building on the southern shore of Manhattan. Playing the organ triggers various sounds from the building’s elements – thrumming fans, whistling pipes, knocking radiators and more – producing an eerie, haunting, and thoroughly delightful symphony! The playful enticement above is stenciled on the floor in front of the magical instrument.

If the thought of contemporary art has begun to make you cringe, becoming synonymous with pretension, cynicism, and consumerism, then you can thank Mr. Byrne for the antidote. This imaginative, musical interaction with a classic New York space is a gift to all who care to partake, and it’s FREE (until it closes, August 10th). Anyone can have a turn. The only merch in sight is a large, beautiful poster depicting the installation – yours for the whopping price of one American dollar. I assume Damien Hirst is thinking, “What a fuckwit that David Byrne is!”

After that, you can wander over to the stunning gardens in Battery Park, where you can visit Zelda, and there are outdoor musical devices you and your friends can play with your legs and feet. FREE! FREE! FREE!

But even if you don’t get down to South Ferry anytime soon, do yourself and everyone else around you a favor, and fer god’s sake, please play.