June 2, 2016

“Currents in Photography” at Walter Wickiser Gallery, New York, May 26-June 21, 2016 -- Review by David Gibson

SANDRA GOTTLIEB: October Waves #23 (2013)
 This exhibition hides behind a prosaic title that only slyly serves its ultimate purpose: to present the advanced visual agendas of a crop of mature artists working in a field only vestigially related to what one commonly refers to as photography. Their cumulative inventiveness is a breath of fresh air within the overcrowded milieu of the current demimonde.  
 Sandra Gottlieb is a portrait painter of nature’s wildest manifestations—the waves that thrash upon the shore, and which form a seemingly endless landscape beyond the reaches of solid earth. Her images run the gamut from explosive to contemplative. They are unique in that they treat their subject with indifference toward anything but discoveries of serendipitous design. Her favorite hunting ground for capturing these images is 500 feet off the sand in Brighton Beach, where her telephoto lenses capture the minute and the grandiose alike, each swirl or crest a gesture unique as a snowflake. But for Gottlieb there is no need for metaphors. The ocean is self evident, a territory connected via water to every land mass and even in the air itself. It’s like taking a picture of a single gargantuan soul in motion toward its fate.  

BERT GF SHANKMAN: Beginning Hydrangea (2005)

A maniacal focus upon subject matter is so completely fused into the creative personality that it had to occur elsewhere in this exhibition. The photographs of Bert GF Shankman take as their focus the genre of flowers, though imagined as if seen at a molecular level, or from the ephemeral dimension of the pixies. All the great and intimate moments of life are available to mesmerize and bemuse us in Shankman’s photographs. He begins his images by culling them from the fold of nature and then suffuses them with elements that are already present in the original image. They are simple scenes: the first buds upon a hydrangea plant, a few white petals on each limb soon to multiply but at this stage fragile and peremptory; sunlight hitting the thick petals of a mature flower, heavy with growth they are no longer transluscent but the light reflects the deep yellowish pigmentation, alive like blood in its floral veins. The resounding flash of color is like a new dawn.      

SOL HILL: Urban Figure/ Red Shirt (2011-14)

As distant from the kind of nature we expect to see, Sol Hill’s photographs depict the environmental qualities of urban life: the buildings, streets, and people, and a secret dimension as well, in which exist invisible energies. One might assume from a straightforward viewing that his works are intentionally blurred, but what we are seeing is the diffuse atmosphere in which millions of signals are constantly passing, from one cell phone to the next, one laptop computer to the next, from system to system, everything a binary cacophony of vital energy pressed into the service of world that no longer needs the written word, or the sound of a voice, to cross time and create ritual. We are the space we take up, but we are also dimensional exceptions to the energy we make and which runs our lives.


KAETHE KAUFFMAN: Meditation #4: Dark and Light (2015)
 The other two artists work less in concert with the real and instead seek out a symbolic relationship to meaning, a speculative rather than a categorical order to impose upon the real. Kaethe Kauffman is initially inspired by how meditation techniques in Yoga class led her into a fascination with the body itself, its range of symbolic form, and how motion alters, even in a minute degree, depictions of the body as a symbol for universality. She has sampled certain iconic Yoga poses and collaged them to create a hieroglyphics. The form itself, such as a person sitting with long flowing garments following the rigidity of pose in concert with a meditational repose so strong it represses consciousness, takes on a symbolic intensity such as that contained in an idol or in images from art history depicting mythical figures such as the Virgin Mary, whom artists as diverse as Raphael and Picasso have depicted in their work. She plays with the universalism of the sitting form, carving into it with color, diffusing it with layers of gray and black, turning it upon its head. Yet she refrains from caricature. These are ancient forms, presenting strength through belief, but beyond words she spells out their future importance.    

NOLAN PREECE: Chemical Tiffany (2012)
 Nolan Preece is perhaps the most experimental artist in evidence, athough he discovered his genre by rummaging through forgotten methods of art history and giving new life to something called a Chemigram. Though not the inventor of this process, Preece has pioneered its use to the exclusion of all other methods, and in so doing has made it his own. It’s achieved by painting directly upon photographic paper and applying to the painted surface the traditional transformative agents of Developer and Fixer. One can vary results by adding materials from painting such as varnish, wax, or oil to the surface before submerging it, so that primary and residual chemicals combine to create an effect similar to that of a watercolor as one might find in the works of Paul Klee, Max Ernst, or Antoni Tàpies. Preece’s works are characterized by a mass of dark weblike forms that enclose or cover sections of a naturalistic scene in which shadowlike figures, forests at dusk, and the blue night sky around an incandescent full moon are the only exceptions. The painted gestures can form a mass that envelops the landscape, partially obscures it, or stands in for a copse of trees by an anonymous path. We find ourselves not in the gallery looking at a picture, but in the picture looking out.


December 22, 2014

"100 Paintings: An Artist's Life in New York City" by Rob Mango -- Review by David Gibson

The memoir of the artist is often considered to be a compelling story. For those who are interested in the private lives of cultural figures, specifically those who have entered into the annals of history, a book by anyone of note lends a palimpsest of dimensions to our current understanding of who they were, and how their own model can act as a symbol for our shared self-knowledge. This is what constitutes the basis for Rob Mango’s memoir, a story worth telling about all the experiences in his life, up until now, that have built him as a person and ultimately as an artist. The voice that does the telling is inimitably his own, virile and dynamic, the voice of an athlete who became an artist, and for whom the physical environment and the physical bodies around him were a continual source of inspiration, reflecting personal and mythical realities. Place also has been an important part of Mango’s story, specificallly the Lower Manhattan area which only since he lived there has come to be known as Tribeca, and has emerged out of history and created its own myth. Lastly, this is a book about his relationships, about the meetings that precipitated them, and about what happened in his life because of them. Lastly it’s a story about the progress of a man from child to man, including all the roles that it encompasses, such as father, husband, provider, and role model, all wrapped around the soul of an artist.
Everyone is responsible for their own myth. But most people are passive about the truth. Not Rob Mango. Since an early age he has been a competitive runner, and the discipline needed to keep in shape is a form of self-evident knowledge that has guided his dedication to art as well. 100 Paintings runs us through the artist’s life in the last three decades, starting in Chicago where he grew up, while running competitively, attending the School of the Art Institute, and his early inspirations and challenges. Mango’s story begins when he is young, growing up on the south side of Chicago, beginning his education in the world of ideas and of artistic self-expression. He visits The Art Institute when he is 14 and sees a painting by Larry Rivers that sets his mind on fire. Soon afterward he chances to meet the famous Dada agent provacateur Marcel Duchamp, who signs a poster for him using his famous pseudonym, Rrose Selavy, inspired by the word games of Gertrude Stein and e.e. cummings. He is inculcated in the ways and means of contemporary poetry by his mother, who reads aloud at the breakfast table. He applies and is accepted at The School of The Art Institute, later completing his graduate studies at The University of New Mexico. Much of this is a sketch, a preamble to his life in New York, which is where the story truly begins in earnest.
Mango’s story is prefaced by a crisis, an unlikely point of origin but one innately endemic to an artist’s career. After working and struggling for years, he finally gets his time in the spotlight when a young art dealer named Valerie Dillon offers him not only a solo exhibition but gallery representation. The gallery director is an intense individual, who pressures him to make endless versions of a single set of figures, shortens his solo exhibition to organize a group show of other gallery artists, ignores the rest of his ideas and works, and sells his work for much less of a percentage than he has become accustomed to when representing himself. When a sale goes awry, she snaps and returns all his work en masse. His story begins with the arrival of the works and the state of mind Mango experiences as witnessed by his family, a “what now?” moment punctuated by awkward silence. Yet despite this circumstance, this one moment of freefall, 100 Paintings is a story about success on one’s own terms. This moment is recalled as if to say “so what!” and move on.
The first few chapters deal with his youth and his origins as an artist. He grows up on the south side of Chicago, with a father who is an industrial designer and a mother who he describes as a “self-educated reader.” Mango comes to the idea of being an artist from the age of 14 when he views a painting by Larry Rivers on a visit to The Art Institute of Chicago. 
“From that moment on, painting for me was breathing. I filled volumes of portfolios and rooms with canvases, objects and drawings. Many of these works have survived, but I did not consider myself good enough to sign a painting (In spite of my vociferous objections, my wise and caring father often added my name in the lower right hand corner) (page 39).”
Mango goes through several influences including Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and Surrealism. Though he remains devoted to the work of Larry Rivers and Jasper Johns in particular, he lost interest in others because they in turn lost touch with what originally inspired them and became figureheads for either a political stance or the partying elite. Ultimately he is inspired by Mercel Duchamp (whom he met when Mango was 16) and by the sculptural accomplishments of he and his fellow Surrealists. 
“To embody the surreal, of course, is a dicey undertaking. Surrealism’s domain is the mind’s deepest recess, where the death instinct resides, along with sex: Surrealism takes much of its power from Eros and Thanatos. I had existential needs that surrealism spoke to, but I wanted to transform those needs and insights from literature and theater into an art object that would live on the wall (page 47).”

The artist accumulates a visual library of persona based mythologies, and Mango is no different. His myths form a history of their own, and a quality of formal reckoning that can only be answered by an engagement with what he has accomplished. Starting with his Dadaist assemblages (1975-1988), we have him confronting models of creativity that hearken back to the turn of the century, creating a conversation with idols of mystery like Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, and Jean Tinguely, and pitching him completely into an endeavor that fuses sculptural hermeticism with cerebrality. He is overtly going against the grain of the education in classical painting he received at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, putting off his inevitable return to the role of the great painter. The assemblages take of part of his studio practice until the mid-Eighties, at which point he switches over to panting while tinkering with one last piece until 1988.

Influenced by Marcel Duchamp’s “Large Glass,” these Dadaist sculptures combined painting, drawing, working lights and moving parts, including light sources. They were like Wunderkammers. Yet what at first may have seemed a tribute to his creative forebears and an experiment in widening the context for his own artmaking, might have soon seemed more like a gimmicky agenda for big city art world notoriety. These sculptures excavated some part of him, but they did not reflect his relationship with the vibrant environment unfolding all around him. It was on his frequent runs around the city that he received the majority of his stimuli to bring the city into his work, and the only way to do that was to paint.
One aspect of Mango’s life that would otherwise receive little regard is his background as a competitive runner. In fact it is something very central to his identity that has shaped him as a person and has even become a part of his creative process. From his teen into his late 20’s Mango ran in and won many regional and even national competitions as a middle distance runner. He came very close to qualifying for an Olympic team at one point, and it was his choice not to pursue that goal further that led him to get behind his other aspiration as an artist. In painting as in running there is no perfect score, only a personal best. However, once Mango had given up his pursuit of running as a competitive sport it still remained a part of him and became a way of encountering, musing, and reflecting his themes and subjects as a painter. In 100 Paintings we often see Mango running. He does it every day. It jump starts his brain and gets his blood flowing. He has been running for years and so does not need to focus on his physical activity, but can instead spend his time looking around him, seeing the city for what it is, a vast physical environment, constantly in flux and constantly in motion, all of its parts and participants simultaneously actual and symbolic.
In one section of the book titled “Sprinting the Streets of New York City” he describes the role that running has in his artistic process. Not merely a self-expulsion from the intellectuality of the studio, running provides Mango with an equally intense state in which he can encounter, muse upon, and be inspired by what surrounds him. The forms that occur in painting exist in the world, and the city itself is a world made of forms that are constantly being constructed, reorganized, and justified. It’s as if a forest were grown, torn down, and re-harvested every time one looked out the window. The city is, to Mango, inspiration personified, and running is the best way to interface with it.
“My runs provided the mental state in which my paintings were visualized. I saw the evolution of future paintings with all their complex internal detail. These were works of art I had yet begun or those still in progress. They were visualized and hovering in my mind, waiting for a canvas to land on, like so many jets at JFK. I switched pictures on and off in my mind with facility. By the late 70’s , the infusion of oxygenated blood to my brain was something I’d done on a consistent basis for more than a decade. Invention was fueled by extreme physical output (page 78).”
Physicality has always been a vibrant aspect of Mango’s work, and he has chosen figures to represent different ideals of the physical, even while they also served as metaphors for a foil for the artist, like his Samurai and his Jester paintings. Physicality is both a metaphor and a presence, an ideal and a passion. As a classically trained painter, the uses and roles of the human body have always been very important to him.
Place emerges as a constant theme in Mango’s life, and subsequently in his art. He is in his own words a “pioneer” of the Manhattan neighborhood now known as Tribeca. It is here that he first settled and here he has stayed, made his art, raised a family, and made all of his other important relationships. Tribeca was a product, to some degree, of neighboring Soho, an area once lain desolate, used mainly as storage, and inhabited by few actual residents, the landscape dotted here and there by a bodega here, a deli there. Though many artists moved there at the same time, it remained a no-man’s land to most others, and was surrounded by a vast landfill off the side of the West Side Highway, and to the south sat the recently constructed World Trade Center. Several of his most epic paintings have had the city itself as either their immediate subject or as a fabric if reality. Though there were certainly precursors, the first of these that Mango talks about is RETURN TO THE CITY (1985), which renders the landscape of the city as resembling an archeological excavation. Mango call it “My first attempt to capture the most difficult subject in my imagination’s domain.”
I had just built and stretched a 60 by 84 inch canvas and stained it with pale umber primer, an earthen hue. I did so because there was dirt below the streets, tunnels and century-old layers of crumbling brick foundations….I wanted to create a picture illustrating the dominant visual features of lower Manhattan as body parts; what lay below the streets would represent the unconscious mind. Like the psyche obscured and unseen within us, the unconscious smolders under the asphalt, its hidden power animating the surface, like the rumble of the subways under your feet or the scalding manhole covers, apparent on any day in New York. Manhattan had become my muse, and she was almost too much to handle. But for one who craved work, with years of racing wins behind me, that was the only game worth playing (page 77).”

New York City in the 1970’s had one foot in the past and one in the present, which is to say that it was a vibrant city mired in its own ruin. The romance of its past was still there if one squinted. The neighborhood that would soon become Tribeca was one of the oldest in the city, containing mainly loft buildings dating to the mid 1800’s. Many of these were vacant and held storage. Rob Mango’s presence, with a street level studio window must have been quite the curiosity to tradesmen and property owners alike. He was one of the most visible members of a mostly shadow community of artists who had not found likewise space in an already heavily colonized Soho. They became the founders of the Lower Manhattan Loft Tenants Association, comprised almost completely by his neighbors in the Washington Market district. The reality of city living is that the city itself is a complex organism constantly undergoing flux and change. Generations have passed over the same ground that we walk today, a century or more removed, and there is little left to mark their passing except for an old building or the name on a street sign. So much the better. The city grinds its past like old bones, into a fine dust that coats everything. If one wakes early enough and chances to walk down a street in a neighborhood such as Tribeca, squinting just enough, one sees the past clearly, not through a film of myth, but as a real place where people struggled and strived, where generations and families staked a claim the future of which was unsure. This was the reality into which tenants of lofts in Tribeca were thrust. Mango has made his way with the full knowledge that not only could be accomplish so much as an artist, and subsequently life his life as he saw fit, but that he might, as Walt Whitman said, contribute a verse.
Another role that Mango had during his lifetime was that for a period of five years, with the unstinting support of a patron, he ran a gallery called Neo Persona located just around the corner from where he lived, and it was this singular activity that not only connected him to every other artist living in Tribeca, of those he exhibited, but it was also a driving force behind the manifestation of many of his own paintings, which had to be made despite the full time pressures of being an impresario, gentleman director, and in his own way a professional visionary aiming to raise the bar not only for local artists and their potential collectors, but for the image of Tribeca itself. Not only did Mango unite the community of like minded artists around the locus of his own curated exhibitions, but the ferment of tangentially presented talents created a wellspring for his own creativity, forcing him to stretch himself beyond comfortable boundaries. One work that resulted from this internal pressure was VESSELS, which began as an epic depiction of Lower Manhattan along the Hudson, where he often saw immense ships moored along piers, tilting in the slight current, bound for parts unknown. He wanted to show their grandeur and age next to the new modern buildings of the Financial district abutting Tribeca, but something else emerge from his perspective, something glittering and special. He painted a crystalline vase standing atop one of the stanchions where the ropes that held the boats fast would be tied. This was by no means a real thing, it was almost like a lost antique that could be a fortune teller’s ball, an urn carrying ashes, or a good luck charm. The viewer’s attention would naturally turn from the distant horizon, to the looming boats, and over to this mystery that glittered in the last rays of dusk. It is as if Mango is creating a mysterious narrative in which the idiosyncracies of dramaturgy run smack up against a battle between the story of the future and the story of the past.

In recent years, Mango has devoted himself progressively to a series of paintings depicting women in impossible poses. These range from the formal to the mundane but the essential femaleness of their outward appearance and the struggle to do it justice are achieved by a variety of effects, as if Mango were attempting to alchemically translate the real woman into an ideal one and back into a new form of the real. For the sculpted canvases, which had their origin the first moments of clarity following the return of his canvases from Dillon, when he decided to rip them to shreds and reutilize these damaged goods by placing them over a base constructed from a frieze of bodily forms, Mango added a dozen years later a series of dramatizations of intimate moments caught on the fly while sitting in area cafes. Each addition to his oeuvre in both of these cases followed a crisis. The second rupture was in two parts” 9/11 reduced the World Trade Center to a cemetery, and the surrounding neighborhood, once the playground of artists and yuppies alike, had now become a dead zone. Few New Yorkers except those living within the bounds of Tribeca or near enough to see what happened on that day, and be forced to live in its aftermath, can understand the emotional consequences that followed. Yet Mango decided to stay home, to make the best of it, and pitch in wherever he was needed.
The crisis of the 9/11 period, and the years following it were spent both participating in the struggles of his community and focusing upon regaining the authority of his own life, both in terms of family unity and in creativity. As anyone who has witnessed a great tragedy, and has their life subsumed by it can attest, there is more than a physical rebuilding involved. Emotional violence breaks apart our lives on a grand scale, shattering the peace of our days, and creating eddies of doubt in every corner. This is what Mango experienced. It led him out of his studio, or rather our of the sacred space he had fed for so many years, into the street, back into the world of bodies, where he could find new ferment.

It’s difficult to fully encompass all the events that occur in 100 Paintings. Many of them are meetings between the artist and the various people who are to become his friends and patrons and who each lead him into a new experience that will expand his consciousness, his facility in expressing himself to others about his creative endeavor, and the very ‘life of the mind’ that makes him who he is. Some of the people he meets are famous, and some are people who pass the front window of his studio and enter to engage him in discussions about the work, often leading to a sale. These are not just opportunities for income, they are the beginning of friendships, aesthetic relationships that will inform his thinking about the minds of others, and how he can relate to them. This is another of Mango’s various talents: he can talk to anyone about his art, his mind, and his life, and never appear haughty or esoteric. Something seems to happen when new visitors gaze upon his work, a fusion of fascination with internal reasoning. Likewise I feel that is what is present in his memoir. 100 Paintings is presented as an appreciation of what is most valuable in life. Mango is neither interested in a mere parable, nor is he interested in promoting his own myth. The paintings do that successfully enough. His story is his voice, speaking about the character, dimensions, and details of his own life in the last few decades. The life of an artist, for whom 100 Paintings is a good idea, is just par for the course. The finish line is nowhere in sight.

December 20, 2014

"Resonance and Memory: The Essence of Landscape" curated by Robert Curcio at Elga Wimmer PCC, New York -- Review by David Gibson

There are a few specific concepts that are made comprehensible through art. These are endemic to the basic process of creative vision, and they tend to construct a bias, or force the flow of a specific passion, so that one can become devoted to one choice over another. In the world of traditional painting, the divergence begins in school, where classes are taught in either body or landscape painting. Or to put it in other terms, a choice between depicting the intimacy of bodies in all their brick and mortar realness or the intimacy of the living environment which envelops us. No painting can put another’s flesh in our hands, or present us with the experience of standing upon a mountaintop or running barefoot through the grass. But art can both depict and enact a quality of perception that allows us to live beyond the banality of the moment. The image of a landscape is what we think about when we hear the word itself. Yet what is attempted, and in many ways achieved by “Resonance and Memory: The Essence of Landscape” is a more comprehensive idea that directs the viewer to recognize how Landscape functions as a cultural influence. 

The translation of nature as both a language of beauty and one of appearances is the active dynamic in Martin Weinstein’s oeuvre. What is not apparent from any printed image is the method by which Weinstein makes something accepted as traditional and straightforward into something ambiguous and diverse. He paints disparate elements of the same composition on separate sheets of acrylic and layers them to create a scene. Full knowledge of his process lends the work a fullness and ambiguity which it could not have if the effect were merely achieved with the use of paint itself. Clearly Weinstein is after an engagement with the allure of perception and not only the magisterial and ecstatic beauty of his settings.  

Gerry Tuten’s paintings resemble random photographs of naturalistic aesthetic moments taken from the raw material of the senses: a section of a frozen stream covered in random twigs, cold water rushing under colder ice, the dark water of gulley and water banks where loamy earth waits to grow; a misted meadow in early morning, the air diffuse with dew and the first glimmers of sunlight, colors of random flowers and birds sifting through a haze of perception; and so forth. There is an allover quality to her paintings that engenders a natural ambivalence: they could be either natural scenes natural or memories or dreams of the same. 

Rebeca Calderon Pittman makes drawings she calls “recombinant” because they are comprised of different sheets lain one over the other. Yet even despite this, they are amorphous and elliptical, with lines leave off abruptly, creating blank areas that perhaps reference the idiosyncrasy of memory. Her titles are vaguely metaphysical, like Empty Freedom, Eternity in an Hour, and Anatomy of Sharing, but with no persons actively depicted to manifest the narrative aspect of their disparate meanings, it’s clear that her scenes are evidence of intimate human history as a landscape of what remains.  

JJ L’Heureux and Sandra Gottlieb each use a singular subject to broaden our immediate attention span and avoid overtures of pleasantness on the part of the viewer. L’Heureux does this by achieving a degree of emotional aplomb in her  subjects, which are overall the myriad types of Penguins to be found on every landscape in or near the South Pole. As an artist focusing exclusively upon a certain species, geographically limited and contextualized by needs of survival but also those of what in any other situation one would call ‘character-building,’ L’Heureux elevates his subjects into a population with its own quirks and graces. L’Heureux presents them as almost fledgling humans, reaching for an interiority that manifests as symbolic if not as biographical. Though no one can speak for the animals themselves, the images can tell a story that is loaded with poignant interpretation. In one image, two Emperor penguins stand in the middle of a snowy expanse that is extremely flat, limited only by a cloudless horizon that holds no sun or clouds. They both stand facing left though photographed in reverse perspective, and one penguin arches its neck backward over its left shoulder, as if to tell the other penguin something important before leaving. They are like two actors on a stage, waiting for something to happen, animated by a slow and urgent gesture.


Sandra Gottlieb’s photographs of waves in the ocean, specifically documented during the month of October, present us with a stage upon which all motion is emotion incarnate, like a canvas upon which the forms are constantly emerging. The lack of a human presence in her images only serves to allow the viewer to place themselves into a relationship with the watery action, which like the painterly dynamic for which it is an obvious stand-in, pulls and pushes us in every direction possible. The strongest impression it gives us is a feeling of overwhelming presence, of what can only be described as sublime; the strength and heaviness of water out in such alien expanses, coupled with its minute and effervescent spray, its rolling waves, crashing only on some shore hundreds of miles distant. There is no way not to feel the very pull of nature’s will and the artist’s service to its overt authority.     

 Kathleen Eliot is a sculptor who works in the difficult but rewarding material of glass. Yet unlike many who work in that material, she does not allow it to end up looking like something decorative or useful. Her glass sculptures resemble monster forms like those in early Sixties Godzilla films, mutant plants, or fractals. There is much background work that goes into these theoretical and formulaic construction of her sculptures, including linguistics, biology, and spirituality. Fragments of her sculptures give hints at symbolism or narrative, like the unopened brackish petals of one, with crimson extruding tongues or beaks; or the ballet shoes upon which another sculpture stands. For the most part they are weblike or chromosomal, presenting forms that hint at the inherent undercurrents or building blocks of reality, bringing the unseen into the visual realm with vibrant color, muscular limbs, and a regard for the visceral strength of form that is never truly abstract as long as we recognize the links between real objects and how they make us feel. 

Gail Watkins makes paintings that are friezelike upon structures that remind one of cenotaphs, scrolls, and cemeteries. Yet they are very much alive. Watkins is fulfilling a desire to marry the ancient with the contemporary. Her pigments come from a market in Egypt where, one may imagine, the same colors have been applied to ritual make-up and to the surfaces of sarcophagi for millennia. They are best described as dense, interwoven layers of paper, pigment, and dyes or inks as applied to media including comic books and featuring imagery such as forgotten languages and scientific markings, and featuring a build up and erosion of materials that seem like stone rather than paint. Watkins seems less interested in facilitating an illusion than of uncovering and re-manifesting an object with loaded meaning to which only she has the key.    

John Lyon Paul’s paintings likewise traffic in a type of mystery that emerges from an engagement with the appearance of motifs usually reserved for an ancient art form preceding the act of applying a brush to a canvas. In his case it is the structured and translucent look of stained glass, which he achieves with acrylic and collage on mylar. The combination of a easily acquired and chromatically dynamic pigment aided by sections of mixed media that accentuate the painted forms without ever interfering with their use atop of surface that is both hard and slick like glass but which also more porous and less heavy or fragile, produces imagery that grows out of the abstract but distracts with its air toward evoking a spiritual fervor. Mosaics that sometimes include an animal loaded with symbol meaning, like a flamingo, X’s which were always used on maps or contracts in place of a real fact or name, and a style of leaving a glossy undercolor that is bronzed or burnt toward the middle and burnished on the edges of tangent shapes gives an incandescence to his works. Other works actually painted on plate glass achieve an effect so similar so as to create instances of aesthetic doubt on the part of the viewer. Everywhere in these paintings is a feeling of suffused rejoicing, as if hymns were sung over every mark as it was being made. The landscapes in these paintings are emotional ones, but no less poignant for not possessing a tree, a room, a bird, or a wave. They possess us in the act of gazing into their endless light.  


Landscape is a strange word because it suggests a different ideal for everyone who hears it; and every landscape is different, just as every inner reasoning is limited not only by the forms that reflect it, but by the logic that reigns in an understanding of its cultural importance. The idea of landscape in art was, until the era of Impressionism, largely symbolic or historical, and it was not until the social and industrial use of landscape changed that art forms followed in stead. At the same time as painters were leaving mythology behind and relying upon the senses and the imminent authority of natural surroundings, various other forces were creating the locomotive and the photograph, which altered the role of there where and the what. Artists today have moved well past the technological accomplishments of their particular era and actively seek inspiration not only from the nature, or what is not human; from the ancient past, or what is not present; and from physics, religion, and chromosomes, or what is not evident to reason or obvious to the senses. They create a resonance for found and excavated forms that lead to new memorable facts, and we are left to unravel and abound in the consequences.

November 16, 2014

Gloria Garfinkel "Origami Interpretations" at The George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, November 18, 2014–April 26, 2015 -- Review by David Gibson

The nature of inspiration is intertwined with idiosyncrasies of chance. When something as simple as an air flight layover leads an artist to encounter a single image that alters the course of her creative endeavor forever, one cannot discount the idea of fate. In the case of Gloria Garfinkel, this circumstance led to an ongoing body of work at The George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts. Garfinkel’s discovery and continued reckoning with an unusual work of art by 16th Century printmaker and painter Utagawa Hiroshige led to an esthetic grounding that motivated her to produce ten successive groups of work; each continuously revisited the traditional modes of Japanese art and design, especially those that have informed modes of dress including the kimono and the obi, a sash used to close it, which itself has different social and economic associations.

Since that day, Garfinkel has devoted herself to an esthetic suggested by Japanese art and design. Her inspiration has been taken not only by Hiroshige’s “Chrysanthemums in Fan-Shaped Design” but also by the variety and complexity of women’s kimonos and the sash (obi) that is worn with them. Garfinkel has combined the qualities inherent to her inspiration sources with a fascination with the generation of Color Field painters, who include Ellsworth Kelly and Ron Gorchov, artists who utilize the shaped contours of the canvas itself, manipulating it to project a visceral effect upon the viewer, merging the optical effects married to flatness with a participatory aesthetic to ignite the attention of the viewer. “Origami Interpretations” combines several distinct bodies of work that each achieve a heightened aesthetic despite a hybridization of means.

One very important aspect to consider in viewing these works is the model from which they originate their aesthetic. It is important to remember, comprehend, and qualify the terms by which an image based in Design differs from that meant as Art. Perhaps we are talking apples and oranges here, but I feel that to be indiscriminate in our assumptions, and to commingle the two without an effort at parsing their alteration would be a disservice not only to the artist herself, and to the forms, but to the process and complexity of looking at both. Both art and design may be initiated with the sole purpose of establishing an esthetic for their shared era, and to reflect societal values as visual forms. Yet art so often represents a departure from authority, while design is used to underscore, and keep prevalent, aesthetic values that also become part of the social contract, supporting the identity of a man, woman, or child, stamping it with images, colors, and a mood or tone of social signage. Whereas art unless purely decorative can exist in and for itself, design always serves a larger master. Garfinkel identifies herself formally as a printmaker instead of as a painter, and she describes her process as essentially inductive, more based on emotion than on logic. The choices she has made to explore each of the stages in her progression of forms borrowed and inspired from Hiroshige.

We begin our investigation of her production in the late 1980’s when she was creating her Ginkgo Kimono series. Of all her works these are characterized the most by a handmade, casual use of line, a collage-oriented sensibility, and a similar combination of natural images and minimal abstraction. The casual almost earthy quality of the lines demarcating each section one from the other and the structuring of line, in straight yet diagonal lines working at counterpoint to the square format of the base, like the contours of a fan, are other common qualities that identify it as related to the wellspring of her original inspiration. Yet the compression of detail and the effusion of contrapuntal colors identifies it as succinctly modern. There is both a merging and torsion of effect in Garfinkel’s version that plays to her own need to stamp the source material with her own vision, and perhaps in her desire to honor it, as a means of putting as much in each version to create a paradigmatic quality that plays to the heroic in Hiroshige’s original image. It’s as if she were not only evoking his work, but creating a mini-history of Japanese design commingled with folkloric iconology.

The Kimono Hanabi (1992) series was created by combining fragments of previously produced etchings so that they would construct a small and intense yet complex work measuring no more than an average of 30 square inches. There is a patchwork quality to these works, which although maintaining a highly ordered sensibility were also constructed with sensuousness in mind, and they convince most in person, where one can perceive both the illusionistic qualities of crosshatching, wood grain, flower petals, manic stripes, and opulently layered solid colors such as red, green, and fuchsia as an interplay between a casual placement and the use of negative space to make the entire work float or vibrate. One could easily imagine these as immense paintings, though they need not be larger to either convince or charm us. The second series create a similarly intense impression but are flatter, shinier, and less diffuse.

The Kyoto series (1994) is likewise inspired by design, but in this case they are organized around a grid structure that both makes an orderly image and creates a visual tension out of which the subtler background images, for the most part monochrome, generate an optical frisson that reminds me of sunlight playing off the iridescent interior of sea shells. Each image is identified with a specific color that characterizes the majority of the ground area of the etching despite being split into multiples squares by a grid of wide dark lines usually in some adversarial color, such as Orange Squares and Purple Lines, or Purple Squares and Green Lines. This initiates a visual clash that manipulates the viewer into looking it the squares and noticing every minute difference between each one. If that were not enough Garfinkel likes to throw in a third color, something off the scale of the others, like a greenish yellow on the Purple/Orange axis, and a Tangerine Orange on the Purple/Green axis. These thrown off the viewer’s tendency to become obsessively embroiled in the magnetic quality of her etchings, which are both a micro verse of diverse designs using the same colors, and a macro verse, made large by being given a scale altered by the aperture of the print, which shows a protracted and intimate view of each one, hinting at the complexity of diverse unseen areas beyond the visible.

In 1994 and 1995 Garfinkel begins her Hanabi series, which are small scale mock-ups meant as large scale sculptural installations in both interior and exterior areas. They are constructed by combining multiple isosceles triangle forms in an arc or network, an animal, or an architectural structure. On each triangle is a different design evocative of the sorts of abstract images common on kimonos. Though it is not entirely necessary to know this fact to enjoy them as objects, it does fill in the blanks as to the sources from which the images come, and their combination, not only an illustration upon a flat surface, animated by the interlocking and flowing of triangular plates, the scale of the actual sculptures, and the synergy they have with the environments into which they are placed, expands and compounds the sense of intense detail and overall wonder that they bring.

Next follows the Kiku series (1998), which diverge yet again but keep true to the combination of organic and synthetic forms combining to give a version of the world in which sensuality and phenomena play an equal part. At first she applies a large mono print consisting of wide blue lines similar to the ones appearing in Chrysanthemums, and then she treats the finished surface like a canvas, grouping, alternating, and layering sections of etching and mono-printing in chromatic clusters, like sections of leaves in progressive psychedelic decay, right next to one another, in some cases so tightly that they merge and overlay with one another. It resembles a form of abstract map-making. The central image has an overly mottled appearance, like a multicolored relic from the dim ancient past. These are perhaps Garfinkel’s most impressive works up to this point, for not only do they reach an apex in expressing the timeless ideal found in Hiroshige’s Chrysanthemums, but they also do so with a very modern feel. There is nothing homespun about them. If anything they are proof positive that the artist has achieved a level of expression idiosyncratic and polished and radically different from her source material.

Garfinkel begins the new millennium with two series, the Kado (2000) which appears quite restrained, almost a throwback to elements of her Ginkgo Kimono series, and the Obi series (2001-02), which is her most daring yet. The Kado prints are split into two sections, severed diagonally, and are characterized by a strong flatness of color adjoined by strong, clear lines that suggest skin, shells, veins, and feathers, while the colors used reference age and decay. They are both strong expressions of elemental qualities and in some way represent a punctuation, a pause, and a release from the linear and imagistic work of her past.

The Obi series, by comparison, are dynamic and almost heroic. These are the first of Garfinkel’s series to take its concept directly from the traditional mode of dress practiced not only by Chinese and Japanese women but common all over the Asian world for the last several centuries. In each work the small consistent pattern above represents the kimono itself, while the larger section below represents the Obi. What is important to remember in gazing at these works, is that for all their intensity, they are inspired by, and modeled after a type of clothing that was specifically designed not only to differentiate unmarried from married women, but to place them in a hierarchy of institutional possession, and that the degree of design imparted to each individual Obi was a means by which they married woman in question had some power over how she might be perceived socially. The colors act both as patterned plumage and also as clannish markings similar to a Scottish tartan or the shield ornaments of European Medieval armor. They are also a form of social armor, a statement of idiosyncrasy within the embattled and circumscribed role of the supreme woman of the house, honorably presenting her husband’s honor while at the same time making a presumptuous and self-entitled statement about her self-worth to the entire community. The presence of flowers and stripes in the Obi series straightforwardly references Hiroshige but does so with aplomb and grace.  

Just ahead of the new decade, Garfinkel begins a new series that departs from the Hiroshige work but takes a partial inspiration from many of the combined series that have emerged from under its shadow. Her Flip and Circle paintings (2008) are her most contemporary. They each use metal surfaces that are painted using the sort of industrial pigment used to cover automobiles and motorcycles, giving a hard, sharp, and solid feel to the colors. Both series are arranged so that viewers can interact with them, either moving on or more panels up, down, fold it inside another, or turn different panels so that the visual reading from right to left, changes with each random gesture.

These works depart greatly from her past ones both because of the metal understructure, the solid chromatic quality, the choice of the viewer to affect what they are seeing and how the color will affect their memory of the primary aesthetic experience, and finally, the only thing to remind them of her past work is the use of pattern; the alternating, ambivalent, nearly counterintuitive ability Garfinkel has to let the eye make its own decisions. No matter how many options she throws into the mix, there is always an option to reduce via optical distance the forms and methods used to achieve a lasting impression. The Japanese of Hiroshige’s era perceived Chrysanthemums as a symbol of honesty, and Garfinkel has reinvigorated the idea of visual honesty for a generation of Western viewers who in looking at a work from the 16th century might be only apt to see an alien sensibility framed by spiritualism, traditions in artistic practice, and the desire of Hiroshige himself to create something idiosyncratic if not radically new. It took 20th century eyes like her own to bring it to bear in the modern world, and Garfinkel’s view has been clear from the start.

November 4, 2014

Rob Mango "A Retrospective" curated by Robert Curcio at Elga Wimmer Gallery, New York, November 6-29, 2014

The dozen works which comprise the retrospective of Rob Mango each in their own way represent a watershed event in the artist’s development or life experiences that he unknowingly shared with others. If the artist is the representative idealist for our time, believing in ideas and manifesting expressions that are purer and more primal than the product of any other industry or milieu, then Rob Mango is one of the best versions of such a figure. His work is emboldened by the idealism associated with formalism, its relevant social conscience, and a measure of idiosyncrasy, all without equal. Each of the works on view has a specific story to tell.

The Superman Theory (1984-88), is both a cabinet of curiosities and a hall of heroes. It occurs quite early in Mango’s artistic career, shortly after he first moved to New York, a period when he was momentarily breaking with the realistic painting that was his known métier in order to allow himself to be influenced by an alternative set of esthetic parameters: to create objects instead of images. This is a most radical move for someone who actively identifies as a realistic painter, in that it operates as a functional object, a system of drawn icons, anchored by an abstract totem in the middle. It opens and closes, has interior illumination, a classification of heroic depictions, and the belief that truth can emerge from a morass of agendas. The hero-worshipper in Mango could not reasonably divorce himself from the figures who preceded him. To create a closet of sorts he has to fill it with something and if memories would not do, then heroes were the next best step he could make to reveal himself without making the plain facts known, but instead to present the varied opaque figures who had influenced him individually and en masse, each one contributing to the person he was. 

Amiss in the Abyss (1989) presents the very first manifestation of a figure that was to loom large in Mango’s personal mythology: The Jester. Born out of the bleakness of Medieval European life, the Jester is the origin of today’s circus clown, though his function serves more than mere comedy. It relates to a perverse view not only of everyday life but also of the authority of kings and princes. The Jester wore a crown and carried a scepter, placing him in the role of ruler or wizard, an authority over frivolity and distraction. Yet the Jester was also used to mock authority to its face, and many of them were employed by courts of kings to provide a sly commentary on the issues of the day, even going so far as to criticize the ruler to his or her face, which was in some cases encouraged and welcomed despite the outcome. In Mango’s work the Jester is a totem for the possibilities of inspiration, a madcap reactionary who is also an artist—painting directly out of their soul onto the very fabric of reality. In this work the Jester carries a paintbrush, and its antics are depicted as if it were a dance. All around the Jester is the veil of existence, a void of darkness behind it, and the colors it paints lighting up the road ahead. This jester is Mango’s foil and the void is his soul.

Self Portrait with Swans (1992-93) is a further manifestation of spiritual reality, a scene that emerges out of the fantasy that is Venice, with regal homes supported over canals that are populated with graceful swans. They are a spectacle of effervescent beauty stared at by a masked figure who may be Mango himself, or the entire painting may be intended as the Self Portrait, a dynamic of introspection and absorption with the sources of inspiration, real and mythological, that such a place can impart to the passive mind. The face that looks out from the middle section as if out of a dream looks curious, malevolent, and masked it evokes a Commedia della Arte dramatic persona, not exactly a person. A dreamy and intense image this still feels like a mental footnote among images dedicated to larger themes. 

Krishna Passing the Wheel of Fortune on the River Ganges (1993) presents a vague and complicated symbol that is an admixture of questions about spirituality; the nature of existence; and the connection between belief, culture, nature, and locale. It reads as a mental game the artist is playing to drive questions to the surface rather than to merely present a demonstratively oblique scenario, though there is that too. From what I have read about the legends surrounding Krishna, he is identified either as a divine figure or as the messenger or servant of one, and there is a lot of commentary (read:doubt) as to the veracity of his existence, except that in various cases Krishna serves the purpose of combining various historical myths and their related agendas. The purity of a symbol and the complexity of its authoritative reception over time are two contexts that attract Mango. The painting itself, which depicts the person of Krishna standing at the base of a raft that also supports a Wheel of Fortune, which in the nomenclature of Tarot, represents the intercession of random chance into the Fool's path (the Fool being all that is human). Atop the wheel, as if waiting en masse at the edge of the Ganges, is a mass of men, or spirits of men, mulling in mindlessness, looking on but only spectators of the scene before them. They are perhaps all the others, those who are not the artist, who autobiographically casts himself as the Warrior/God/Messenger/Fool. The complete symbol that the painting suggests is oblique and loaded, and is left up to the ages to be interpreted or fulfilled.

Strong Jester (2003) was the last known version of the jester that looms large within the known pantheon of Mango’s preferred symbols. He paints him as a modern strong man, a stern countenance matched by his rippling muscles and the heroic stance he takes with his paint brushes, coloring a roll of cloth to match the rainbow of his crown, as if illustrating the dimension from which he first emerged, and the world he must inhabit to remain a potent presence: celebrating joy while challenging authority. He shows how he has grown strong, with the power to survive oblivion.

Burial at Sea (2004) is a symbol for emotional closure in dealing with the tragedy of 911 and the many deaths, the suffering of multitudes, and the chaotic transformation of his home and neighborhood into a burnt offering for the clash between cultures. The painting depicts the whole city seen from the perspective of Lower Manhattan, of which Tribeca is a part, and what is specifically narrated is the mass floatation of carriers filled with innumerable dead, offered up in the spirit of the moment by King Tut, a boy king who lived and became legend, like many of the people who died on 911. Mango depicts his huge form, his face frozen in a mask of mourning, his bronze body glowing like gold and he lays mass coffins into the New York harbor to be towed away by the Staten Island Ferry. The Hudson River flows down to the harbor in long graceful currents that immediately become chaotic eddies, wakes from boats, and mini maelstroms all vying to carry the vessels away into the netherworld. The city behind Tut compresses all the major skyscraper monuments that seem to blow like wheat in the wind, bowing in honor to this final event. 
No Room For Doubt (2012) this very recent work by Mango is considerably simpler in overt subject matter: a female body, depicted in the nude, yet abstractly realized. It’s necessary to look beyond the simplicity of the subject, which is not just woman’s body, but also the artistic process of perceiving and realizing its representation in a mode other than straight depiction. The title of the work has to do with the formal structuring of the work mingled with his stated dedication to a subject which has proven divisive among different viewers of his work. The depiction of women as objects, specifically as morphed and manipulated forms, has generated some criticism of an unwelcome nature. Yet for Mango he considers it a return to dedicating himself not only to a matter of form, to art historical eras and figures such as Pablo Picasso and Willem De Kooning, whose work informed his own, and in adding to the sum total of what he can create. Yet I feel that Mango goes beyond all these things. He creates a contemporary manifestation about an idealized subject, adds a contemporary form and materials, and in the end the theme is not only the subject, but the attitude to which the work itself contributes. It becomes a form of self-affirmation. Since this work he has created many other versions that have yet to be seen. 

Woman in High Backed Chair (2014) was painted a full two years after “No Room For Doubt” and it presents us with a version of the same process but an example in which the artist is more comfortable with his subject, and can say as much with the background as he can with the figure and its composition. The thick color of the background matches the seeming heaviness of his materials, which are in fact the exact opposite, and the woman in question, who sits with legs crossed and her head resting on one shoulder, contemplating a subject known only to her. Mango takes nothing away from the woman as a figure because he invests her with an interior life which we cannot doubt. Her beauty is a combination of body, soul, and the world that swirls around her, making a locus of intense personal energies.

Samraat Running Free (2014) is painted in a similar but much more idealized form, a paean to the purity of athleticism, a love for the domesticated or trained animal that despite the specificity of its training and the end to which purpose it is directed, can yet be appreciated in both intimate and grandiose terms; a type of idealized competition that takes much of the ego out of the game. A horse runs races. There is something very noble and yet primal about this, something envious and appreciable, even to someone as tyro as Mango himself. He can project himself, as a runner, upon the form of the horse, and appreciate the duty and challenge it faces. It is merely being trained to do something its body is made to do, but do it in an extremely efficient and dynamic fashion. It doesn’t take much to find ourselves on equal ground with Mango’s appreciation for Samraat. The role of the horse in contemporary sport is timeless and yet also unique. Far back in history, horses were a part of many aspects of daily time. They were used to pull the plow in farming, the carriage or rider in the street or road, and they were used in competitive sports such as racing and polo, some of which date back to the origin of the Olympics in Classical Greece. Man’s relationship to nature was defined almost solely by his use and love of horses which, among all the animals of the farm, most embody strength, intelligence, and emotional response to their environment. His painting is not only a depiction of a champion but also his wish that Samraat can earn his due, to run free, happy and natural in the world that was made for him.

While some may view the consistent manifestation of symbols in ROB MANGO: A RETROSPECTIVE as a form of idealistic expression, and as a way of avoiding a personal statement, it is perhaps indulgent to expect an artist to make mere declarations of his works. Mango needs to create his own versions of the symbols that populate them, making them idiosyncratic, and allowing the world to peer into his reality. If the view they provide is ambiguous or complex, then that is the struggle of the viewer. Mango leaves it up to them to make of it what they will.