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Bridge

Screen shot from Bridge

I met a young artist at the Chautauqua Institution in August, Ali Georgescu, through her grandparents, who visit during the lecture season every summer. Having recently earned her degrees at Kenyon and Columbia College Chicago, and still looking for a path out into the world, Ali was working the front desk at one of the galleries. She’s a “lens-based” artist herself, but her work wasn’t on view in the student show at the Fowler-Kellogg Art Center. Having toured that show and then later in the day viewing one of Georgescu’s videos, I was more taken with her work than with anything I saw in the exhibit, except maybe an archival inkjet print, Truth or Consequences, by Furen Dai.

Georgescu is an observant young woman, laconic, skeptical, but personable and quietly intelligent. Her video, Bridge, is a montage of short excerpts from archival video and film. With software she’s constructed a dream sequence that reminded me a little of the deadly video in The Ring except that with the VCR footage in The Ring it’s actually easier to deconstruct what you’re looking at by the end of the movie. (I didn’t get a dreaded phone call, with Bridge, and haven’t yet died after watching it several times.) I’ve been charmed enough to keep going back and trying to make out what I’m seeing and though I haven’t made much headway, I’ve enjoyed it more each time. It seems there are maybe a couple dozen excerpts fused into one surreal narrative: a road rolling under the camera, a knife-thrower using a child as a target, houseflies flickering into view, ocean waves, large fish swaying against one another, a close-up of a woman’s eye—all of it slightly out of focus and most of it washed out, as if the lens were pointed toward a setting sun. Behind the entire video is a tubular white noise, eerie and hollow, affectless. You look at this sequence of imagery as if through a strange, throbbing, square tunnel. In the end, everything is swallowed by that oncoming light. I wanted to see and recognize more of what she was showing me, have something come into focus at last, but nothing ever did, and yet as a result the seven-minute video—for all it’s remote and chilly imagery—felt almost nostalgic and wistful, like the fragmented memories from a child of itinerant parents. It’s haunting and assured and maybe an indication of even more interesting things to come.

Notes from underground

In 2004, for his MFA thesis at the University of Maryland, Matt Klos painted a series of underground studio spaces. In these White Paintings, he paid homage, in his own idioms, to the work of Antonia Lopez Garcia. He represented various aspects of a drab and artificially lit basement studio. All of these interiors were spare and utilitarian and slightly abandoned-looking. The subtle complexity of their white walls fascinated him, as well as their blank, apophatic humility, the quality of erasing themselves, reflecting maybe just enough light to direct your attention to the muted color of other charmless things in the room: a utility sink or a chalkboard or a skeleton. As Klos put it in his thesis, in this small series of studio scenes, he wanted to evoke “the ethereal beauty inherent in the visible.” That doesn’t seem quite right. Most painters I know have signed up for that mission. It’s more as if, in his work, he wants to create a way of tapping the potential for a pictorial beauty inherent in a place, a beauty that wouldn’t be quite visible anywhere except in the quality of a painting of it. The beauty of a Matt Klos painting lives in the intensity of his gaze, and the insistence of his struggle to make paint retain its character as paint on a particular surface while conveying the life of what he sees. (This seems like a core axiom of the perceptual painters with whom Klos has aligned himself.) Mostly, like Antonia Lopez Garcia, he likes the challenge of representing what wouldn’t instantly be recognized as lovely or appealing. The beauty of his painting rests in the uncompromising passion that drives this assiduous and painstaking attention to what most people might not bother to let their eyes rest on for more than a few seconds.

It would appear Klos hates to come up out of the basement. For a decade and a half, he keeps returning to these underlit spaces, some of them cluttered and crammed with antiquated objects or the tools he relies on. (He does come out of Plato’s cave now and then, though. When he ventures above ground, as he does regularly, his work is quite different, often bright and stunningly expansive even in the confines of very small canvases. His little painting, Belfast Bay, is a marvel in which he creates qualities of scintillant light and a sense of a vast brilliant stretch of water simply through the way he magically scumbles the paint.) His new solo show, Contents of a Cabinet, at Gay Street Gallery is virtually a catalog of the many antiquated things left behind by a previous resident in a basement he adopted as his studio in Maryland more than a decade ago. He paints in a working-class neighborhood near the “recently closed Bethlehem Steel plant in Sparrows Point.” (The most startling word in that artist’s statement is “recently.” How did an American steel plant survive so long?) As he wrote for the first installment of this series of studio paintings at Gay Street in 2017, when he moved into the space more than a decade ago, “Dust and disorganization obscure the objects. Even when the objects are clearly defined their meanings may be lost to our current generation. In an age when so many answers are at our fingertips, I marvel at what seems to be a disconnection with our recent past.”

 At the gallery’s website, the paintings aren’t titled, nor are their sizes indicated, though it’s clear from the texture of the surfaces that some are quite small. The larger paintings are the most intriguing. Klos paints the sort of things that look as if they stayed put on their shelves after an estate liquidation and weren’t snatched up by survivors of the owner’s death. He shows an old Sanka can, probably full of nails or bolts, and then something that looks like an improvised vise for squaring a frame, and shelves full of Depression glass and old dishware, a teapot, dolls, candles, a box full of wrench sockets, and an old landline wall telephone. These objects mostly give the impression of physical weight and mass, and they cast harsh shadows. They look stubbornly resistant to current culture, popular style, feng shui, ergonomics, and the virtualization of human experience: in other words, they are immune to everything contemporary, with one eccentrically lovely exception. Somehow, Klos gives us the guts of what appears to be a desktop computer being scavenged, its little green circuit boards (a video card maybe, or a wafer of RAM) glowing like grass in a university quad, lodged into a composition arranged as a wheel of muted, subtle colors: coral, ochre, olive green, blue-grey, and dark apricot. Against this parade of lumpy physicality, there is one painting in the series that looks as if it crashed this party from another dimension. In what almost qualifies as a Diebenkorn vision of a Santa Monica ocean view, Klos shows the viewer two blank turquoise panels, side by side, bisected by a small crease through which you can see vague gray details of what’s hidden behind the panels, a small and vibrant wound around which everything pivots, with a little bleeding sliver of brilliant red near the bottom. A rectangular streak of blue sweeps across the base of the canvas, and along the left border (bringing the viewer back to earth) what appears to be a sheer robe or apron hangs to the left of the panels. It’s a brilliant, luminous study, minimalist, almost non-representational, full of joy, as if all the expansive green and blue of sea and sky and mountains beyond the walls of this work space had flooded into his basement through this one canvas.

What keeps me coming back to look at the paintings in this show is a jumbled interior scene with what appears to be a child’s brilliant painting on paper that has come loose from its anchoring tape and rests askew behind and above a fat red candle resting on a flat surface shared with a couple dolls and a Kleenex tissue cube. In front of these objects is what appears to be the upholstered backrest of an antique, carved hardwood chair. The surface of the wood is conveyed with precision, the cataract glaze of its old glossy finish gone dull and gray, all of the cordovan-colored wood in bad need of being stripped and refinished. The whole composition, like the neo-Diebenkorn canvas, is structured in concentric rectangles shaped by wires and lumber, these elements criss-crossing themselves into a firm grid around the red, unlit candle that looks votive given the fact that it’s sitting just below a crucifix hanging on one of the exposed studs in the upper right corner. The whole image inhabits a sort of tattersall of crosses. Klos includes two paintings of this scene in the show, the other one a quick study of these central objects, including the crucifix. As you absorb these circumstantial indications of spirituality, you look again at the Kleenex tissue and it seems to be floating up like smoke or a ghost or rising like a shrouded figure from its cube. It all offers just enough of a signal of Matt’s faith: it doesn’t overwhelm the painting, but makes itself felt and appreciated and respected as a quiet affirmation of something that seems to be at home among things discarded and overlooked by contemporary culture. It would be interesting for someone to do a study of how current painters tackle the struggles and disciplines of faith, from any tradition, and the parallels to the work of painting itself: the requisite mindfulness, humility, and patience. In my own work, faith is entirely subliminal, a motive for painting without being the overt subject of anything I depict. This may be Matt’s situation as well: painting as a corollary of prayer.

During the Renaissance the question of faith was quite simple: it was the reason for painting anything, the system in which painting made sense. After the advent of modernism, with a few exceptions like Rouault, faith seems to have little place in most painting, especially now, given the West’s intellectual antipathy to Christianity. Even though more than two-thirds of Americans identify as Christian, do painters need to work little samizdat signs, like this basement crucifix, into their images as a code to other spiritually devoted types? Being a Christian can’t be an effective calling card in Chelsea—more a quick way to get ostracized and banished from sophisticated society. Which makes these indications of it just as much a signal of artistic integrity as a predilection for painting things underground.

Alice Carpenter’s tiny, enormous dream

Alice Carpenter, monotype, relief inks on paper, 4″ x 4″

This monotype was selected for the 2021 Butler Midyear, another of the remarkable pieces included in one of the best Midyear exhibitions Butler has assembled in quite a while. I’m dumbfounded by the way Carpenter can convey a dreamlike, timeless, and utterly haunting world, a world that feels both slightly oppressive and yet spacious and expansive, all within the confines of a tiny square of paper.

Marc Ross

Marc Ross, Make Me That Happy 2, Acrylic, pastel and color pencil
53″x 55″

Another work from Marc Ross won Best in Show at the Butler Midyear exhibition. His exquisitely executed abstractions refer back to Rothko, minimalism and the ghostly, incremental discriminations of Agnes Martin’s bands of faint color, but his work is all his own.

Frederick Fochtman

Frederick Fochtman landscape.

Fred Fochtman’s website is so minimal that I was unable to find a title, size or medium for any of the work there, but it’s fairly clear this is a small oil or acrylic. I discovered Fochtman’s work through the two paintings of his in the 2021 Butler Midyear. I went back through the past few years of his painting and quit clicking when I came to this one. It evokes for me what C.S. Lewis talked about in his autobiography: a feeling of joy fused with a sense of the unattainability of lasting happiness in a temporal world. He had this experience as a child when it seemed as if the eye of his soul was able to glimpse the “idea of autumn,” in a Platonic and eternal sense, the isness of autumn. This little painting opens a window on both winter, with the roadside snow, and somehow spring or even early summer in the color of the lake in the distance. Yet the color in the trees along the road look like autumn. My vision of these mixed seasons only heightens the effect this scene has: a deeply familiar mild winter day, the road with shadows reaching across it could be warm from the sun and the wind maybe fragrant with the thawing soil. It’s the perfection of a normally unregarded moment except that you suddenly feel as if everything is exactly as it should be, a gift, if something causes you to actually quit thinking and just notice everything. Easier said than done. The humility that undergirds everything in this painting is what makes it what it is: the simple act of putting paint on canvas in the hope that all of this will be conveyed, as it inexplicably is here. It’s an act performed for no other reason than that a warming winter day on an empty road with a lake too distant to make a difference, and with nothing ordinarily considered worthwhile going on, can be perfection itself. A moment like this of utter insignificance can somehow give you a glimpse of who and what you are, especially if you see it in a little painting like this.

 

Color field candy

Taffy #3, oil on linen, 46″ x 46″

Taffy #3, which I refer to now as Happiness, is going to be included in Manifest Gallery’s INPA 10. If I were clever and a careerist, with a little sophistry, I might argue that my series of salt-water taffy paintings represent a nostalgic, ironic commentary on a lost period of art. They do remind me of the Sixties, full of hope, full of clarity about America’s primacy in everything, all those paintings filled with confidence in the advance of art history toward new discoveries. It’s true, I’ve been calling them “color field candy” informally for quite a while, because my deepest inspiration for these images comes from the work of painters like Stella, Rothko, Agnes Martin, and Frederick Hammersley. One might be more inclined to suspect my hope is to honor the influence of Wayne Thiebaud, that my real allegiance is to Pop, that I am engaged in a kind of re-interpretation (in a soft, wistful minor key) of what’s happening in Roberto Bernardi’s current hyper-realistic images of hard candy. But, as much as I revere Thiebaud as a serious artist engaged in discovering ways to do things with oil that others haven’t done, the work of other painters of candy is rarely on my mind when I’m making crucial decisions about these paintings. I see these paintings as realistic depictions of what amount to little abstract sculptures.

The choices I make with each painting sound amusingly absurd and trivial: what candy to use, whether and how to unwrap and re-wrap it to my liking, what to do about that squiggly Taffy Town logo printed on the waxed paper when I use that brand of candy (see what I mean?), what lighting to use to on these little chunks of colored sugar, and how to crop and then develop the photograph I take of them, using Lightroom.  I began to paint this candy as an offshoot of the jars I started doing a decade ago, where my aim was more abstract: to create a kind of honeycomb grid defined by the shape of the bulk candy poured into a small pasta sauce jar. I would use the slightly irregular grid formed by jelly beans (if you viewed the jar directly from the side) to improvise with the colors in each cell of the grid—in other words, each Chiclet, or jelly bean, or M&M. My struggle was to create an image that was a three-dimensional representation but it also worked as a flat, minimalist pattern where I could completely choose and control the colors in the pattern, mostly by picking the candy. With some smaller candy jar paintings I worked from an image of all-white Tic Tacs and depicted them using whatever arbitrary colors I needed to make the image come alive in a certain way.

With taffy, I’m not thinking in the same way, or if I am, it’s at an ironic remove from any intent to honor the notion of flatness. When I bought a bag of salt water taffy many years ago, I was thinking of getting a larger jar, tumbling the taffy into it and then addressing the patchwork color composition it would create through the shine of the glass and the haze of waxed paper between glass and candy. It’s still an interesting challenge, but it put me off for many years, partly because it was hard to imagine a comparable jar, as wide as it is tall, with threads at the lip for tightening a lid, large enough to contain enough of those twists of taffy to be interesting. A few years ago, I thought again of the taffy and found websites where I could order specific color combinations and began to stock up, filling boxes with the bags that arrived. I finished one, a large, loosely executed image of three pieces of taffy stacked like a cairn. I promptly went back to my more traditional still lifes, concentrating on bowls decorated with Indonesian Ikat patterns. About eighteen months ago I finally returned to the taffy, and I have finished a dozen of various sizes. A dozen means I’m only about halfway through the series, which I intend to propose as a solo exhibit when this suite is mostly complete. It’s taking far longer than I anticipated when I began the project.

The taffy calls out to me primarily with its color, which is where I am haunted by the Sixties: the beautiful tones in the work of Stella, Hammersley, Noland, some of Blinky Palermo, Diebenkorn, Martin, even Bridget Riley, it’s a long list of painters who had an unabashed love of color for its own sake.  With taffy, that love is slightly unrequited by the painting. It holds itself back. The evocative hues are partly hidden, bound inside the translucent waxed paper, in shapes and with colors that reflect my yearning for the minimalist simplicity of a Matisse cutout, the vibrance of a Stella protractor painting, and the sometimes quirky shape of a little Hammersley etude with its organic lobes of orange and yellow. Sometimes, the three globes, two on top of the surface, one the reflection of the bottom candy, remind me of Rothko’s landscape format: the sky, the horizon, and the earth. Again, I know this must sound funny, but I hope it’s funny in a self-effacing way: Rothko’s epic, sometimes tragic moods revisited as candy. Yet this love affair with flat minimalist color is ironically (yet with no snarky intellectual commentary intended) given weight and three-dimensional form, as if a color field painting had been melted down, compressed and molded into a nugget the size of a large walnut.

I was intent on numbering these paintings so that their status as variations on a partly rigid format, and their kinship with abstraction made a little more central, but in looking at the ones I’ve done, they evoke a plethora of moods, predicaments, epiphanies, times of day, spiritual states, and even myths. So I’ve gone back and taken away their number and given them a name (to turn a song lyric from the Sixties inside out). So, when I’m done, I’m looking at a little imaginary seed, which, when immersed in the mind of a viewer, I hope will unfold and expand into a vision of flat patterns of color as large as anything, the way memories are big without really having a size. Yet the waxed paper keeps it real, tethered, with forms that echo the heaviness of a clothed human body, fixed but not rooted to its place on my kitchen countertop, near the sink window, where I place the candy to photograph it. It’s earthbound, maybe yearning for flight with those waxed paper wings that would certainly droop in the summer heat as the taffy began to ooze in the sun. But while it’s poised, doing its balancing act, these little hunks of sugar seem full of hope, love, submission, longing, thwarted ambition, and even more defiant feelings, not always definable, the way a certain hour of the morning or a post-midnight walk on a deserted city street seems full of a particular mood, a sense of all human possibilities, without being about much of anything at all.

Visual poems from the pandemic

On The Map, Jean Stephens, mixed media collage

The pandemic had some upsides. My son and his family moved from California to live a mile away from us here in Pittsford, N.Y., after they discovered they could keep working in movies and television from thousands of miles away. It’s suddenly the Zoom era, and we couldn’t be happier about it. Jean Stephens, already living here in Western New York, took advantage of her self-imposed isolation to liberate her imagination through the act of simply paying attention to what she was enduring: both her physical confinement and how it launched her imagination into a series of soaring and lyrical new collages.

It’s a major shift in the way she makes art.

She does gelli monoprints and then uses the patterns created on the paper she applies to the acrylic-impregnated gel to carve out the shapes of houses and buildings. These are applied to a substrate of colored patterns Stephens pulls from her medium when applied to textured surfaces—the textures she has discovered in objects from a variety of sources, including a hardware store. Into the mix, she works the curving lines of script from old letters or other printed material. She collects objects wherever she finds them in her travels—stamps, letters, cards, as well as anything that has an interesting surface from which she can pull a pattern, including something as mundane as drywall tape. She uses all of them, picking just the ones that seem to work in juxtaposition with one another to create a little visual song of memory, imagination and yearning. Each image is like a visual poem, and in one, an Irish postage stamp floats in the sky above a house perfectly evoking the thwarted longing for freedom everyone felt last year. Her luminous color harmonies are marvelous.

Her work is on view at the Stephen Merritt Gallery, Merritt’s stand-alone studio situated behind his home on a densely wooded hillside north of Rochester. He converts his studio into a gallery for occasional shows. This one features, in addition to Stephens, fascinating new drawings from her husband Bill Stephens, Loraine Cooley’s beautiful jewelry and Dick Westfall’s amazing woodwork.

Stephen Merritt learned how to create his assiduously crafted terra cotta vessels in the late 1960s and early 1970s, studying in Japan under the guidance of Ishikawa Seiho and Inoue Manji. He has been deepening his understanding of the techniques he acquired over the past five decades. While the vessel is still moist, he brushes it with a variety of clay slips—watery solutions of different kinds of clay. His surfaces have a lustrous semi-gloss, or even matte, finish that suggests layers of subdued color, in the way living tissue reflects from various depths to create complex flesh tones. Each vessel seems to vibrate differently to the eye, but all of them emanate a balanced, meditative tone, a kind of spiritual energy that’s contained, withheld, but alive. His work is in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, The Burchfield-Penny Museum, the Memorial Art Gallery and the Everson Museum.

Patrick Lee

The Blue Side, Patrick Lee

One of Lee’s interiors is on view at the 2021 Butler Midyear exhibition.

 

 

Brian Ballenger

Sampler, Brian Ballenger, oil on canvas, 26″ x 34″

The question of how Ballenger creates these abstractions has puzzled me since I saw another of his paintings in the 2021 Butler Midyear. Here, the surface appears to be wet-on-wet bands of paint, created with uniform passes of a brush across the wet surface, guided by a straight edge tool. The way the bands seem woven together must be an effect of the order in which he applies them, and the complexity and number of the swipes across the canvas give the impression of wicker’s in-and-out network. He must work quickly, keeping the paint wet from start to finish. In this particular painting it looks as if he began with horizontal marks of black, orange and a kind of faint damask surrounded by white negative space, and then worked the completely coated surface with his rigid criss-crossing marks. The sense of three-dimensional depth is marvelous, a beautiful affront to Clement Greenberg, more than half a century since his celebration of flatness both supercharged and narrowed the way America thought about art. Obviously, we’ve recovered.

William Reed Simon

The Enigma of a Street, William Reed Simon, oil on canvas, 22″ x 27″

This is the first of several posts featuring the work of artists chosen for the 2021 Butler Midyear exhibition at the Butler Institute of American Art.