On Christopher Street | Mark Seliger

Diana Tourjee stares straight into your eyes, pensive, resolute. There’s a slight twist of her mouth, eyebrows are raised—not confrontational or questioning, but resigned—the tenseness of her brow indicating a degree of apprehension. There is extensive lived experience etched into Diana’s face. Not all of it has been good. Her hands, only barely visible at the bottom of the frame are clasped together, for comfort, perhaps.

Octavia McKinney is seated on the first step of three leading to a doorway just behind her. All the muscles in her face appear relaxed, yet there’s a complex inner life reflected in her eyes. Her legs are splayed, toes pointed outward. Long, highly polished steel heels with rigid arcs point toward one another and are planted firmly on the ground positioned closely to the base of the first stoop. McKinney’s legs are up high because she’s sitting so close to the ground, which place her knees wider than her shoulders. Just down–center from the mid–point of the picture, it’s easy to follow the line of her long, bare legs to the focal point of the image, her crotch. Scant material runs taut over clearly defined female anatomy.

Anastasia Jackson and Friend stand side–by–side in mock stupefaction. Their toes are pointed inward bringing their knees together giving them a slightly off kilter stance; arms hang loosely, inertly to their sides. Both Anastasia and Friend are wearing the same high waisted dresses. Socks are pulled in self–conscious bedraggled fashion, one over the knee, the other, strategically rumpled, below. Both friends’ heads are cocked toward one another, not mockingly and without attitude, but presenting matter–of–fact, “This is who we are, wanna hang out?”

Benjamin Melzer is at the gym. It looks like he’s just finished a few sets of flat bench presses on the Smith machine. Two 45lbs plates on each side, no big deal. He looks competition ready, ripped, serious, middle–weight contender. Boxing, bodybuilding, wrestling? Who knows? Don’t mess.

Jamel Young and Leiomy Maldonado stand in intimate embrace. His arm is plastered around Leiomy’s waist, her arm flung across Jamel’s shoulder. They look glued together, like they belong to one another. Jamel is dressed in a tidy black shirt and black jeans. Leiomy, not to be outdone, accentuates her perfect body in a tight fitting black dress. Her startling features compliment Jamel’s quiet repose.

Mark Seliger captured these and other startling images using a medium format Hasselblad 500C/M, with Kodak TRI–X 400 film. The 500C/M is the newer version of the 500C first launched in 1957. Both cameras are no longer in production. Photographs using this particular camera create astonishing clarity giving the subjects an immediacy and hyper–real presence. Images are square, 91.4 x 91.4 cm. It is my assumption that Seliger used Carl Zeiss Planer lens, 80mm focal length, which create stunning contrast, excessively sharp images, with the range being a close approximation of how the human eye perceives the landscape. Seliger used only natural light for this particular body of work with the aid of a simple halogen light for ambient fill–in for night shots.

Seliger, who lives in Greenwich Village, NY, spent three years, from 2013 to 2016, documenting members of the transgender community in the West Village of New York City. The Village has for decades been a safe haven and migration endpoint for members of the LGBT community. People have come from all across the country to see members of their own tribe reflected back to them. Christopher Street has a unique history for the LGBT community with the Stonewall riots of 1969 acting as the catalyst for policy and legislative change that would take decades to enact.

It was the drag queens who were instrumental in resisting police raids that took place on a regular basis, harassing and arresting queers for having the gall to gather and socialize. The Stonewall Inn proved to be a place of resistance. Patrons finally had enough of the constant police harassment and rioted for several nights wanting to establish a legitimate place to gather without the fear of reprisal.

Seliger, who is primarily interested in imagery, focused his attention on this particular demographic because it was readily available around where he lives. “Tiny,” his first subject was one of many that Seliger would shoot. It was after several encounters with others and gaining their trust that he and a collaborator realized they had an interesting demographic that would later become a 72–portrait book, On Christopher Street: Transgender Stories (Rizzoli, New York).

The documentation of these lives is so important because The Village and Christopher Street is gentrifying fast. Casualties always go along with gentrification and at great cost to the centralized and established communities. Those most vulnerable are pushed further to the margins; no longer able to afford housing in the communities they helped forge. Already disenfranchised, they look for cheaper places to live in the attempt to reestablish themselves and create new networks of shared experiences. Seliger’s project gives voice and exposure to a particular group at a point in time.

It is so easy to put up walls and dismiss “other” as people living far outside our experience. Seliger’s images are a stark reminder that behind every face is a life lived. Our collective humanity is bolstered when seeing and accepting others as they are without the attempt to marginalize, vilify, and ostracize those who don’t fit our worldview. The trans communities represented in Seliger’s exhibition are people who are looking for much the same as any of us, love and acceptance.

On view at Von Lintel Gallery, Los Angeles through February 25, 2017.

Maniacal Insurgency | Peter Saul

Every now and then a painter comes along who has the audacious power to say as they please, with no care as to how their visual assertions are perceived. You can imagine the artist staring right back at you, arms akimbo, “Here’s what I have to say, like it or lump it,”—or worse. You know one thing for sure, those types didn’t do well at school, they’re incapable of following rules and no doubt ruffled the feathers of tight lipped, toe–the–line professors. From the viewer’s perspective, these rare kinds of painters are exciting, enthralling, and produce mutters of, “I can’t believe this,” from slack jawed gapes of amazement. Peter Saul is such a painter; he doesn’t care what you think, and more power to him.

CB1–G is a guest venue of CB1 Gallery featuring art from national and international dealers showcasing work not often seen in Los Angeles. This fair sized room can barely contain the rollicking, bodacious pop to politicking of Saul. Twenty works are on display (with one in the back room), from oil paintings to drawings to a lone balsa wood sculpture of his early period produced in the 1960s. Saul was born in 1934, so most of the work in the exhibition was made when he was in his mid to late twenties.

Early 2011, I was fortunate to hear Peter Saul give an artist talk at the San Francisco Art Institute. After 30 minutes or so, when talking about his education—he briefly attended Stanford and San Francisco Art Institute (California School of Fine Arts)—a school representative tried to remind Saul that he was a graduate of SFAI, to which he retorted, “No, I’m not, I was kicked out before the end of the first semester.” The representative demurely tried to suggest that he was indeed considered a graduate, to which Saul emphatically countered, “I’m not a graduate of this school, I was only here briefly.”

Saul’s sardonic humor was already present in his early work. Huge unmoored phalluses roam the open air looking for wet hungry orifices to fill — I torture Commy Virgins, 1967 — willing or unwilling, it doesn’t matter—paintings are harmless. Everyone is plugged, from all angles, juices flow uncontrollably from every conceivable opening; guns, knives, and swords slash and rip at all available fleshy protrusions, tongues lash and lick accessible salty flesh.

Gun Moll, 1961, is arguably the first Pop Art painting, except that it’s too fleshy, too painterly, too much roughhousing for pop’s sanitized cleanliness. Saul got clean too, not in subject matter mind you, but moving from unruly oils to the faster drying, easy to layer acrylic paint in the 1980s, which Saul considers to be his mature period. During the sixties, Saul was heavily invested in critiquing the Vietnam War, and much of the imagery at the CB1–G show is from that period.

Saul is a pop painter, who repeatedly asserts that once pop was dead and minimalism became the standard, he was advised to drop the cartoony caricatures and deal with matters at hand. Saul refused this advice and continued doing what he did best: ridiculing everyone and everything, hating the boredom of academicism, seeing the pursuit of truth in art as stifling, tedious, and the destruction of the imagination by dull, miserable people with nothing to offer art but the antidote of freedom of expression, fun, and slightly unhinged imagination.

CB1–G tells me that Peter Saul is to have a major retrospective in Frankfurt next year. If you’re so inclined to get a good visual kick in the gonads, book a flight, and I’ll see you there.

Vanishing Point | Gregor Gleiwitz

Sometimes all that’s needed is one painting and a monograph. I was fortunate to see one of Gregor Gleiwitz’ paintings, “15.03.2016,” in person having missed his first US solo exhibition at ACME Gallery in the summer of 2016.

Gregor Gleiwitz is a young painter whose work is refreshingly unfamiliar, idiosyncratic, and mindful. Polish born, Gleiwitz lives and works in Berlin. Paintings are finished within a day, and the date of completion becomes the title of each piece. Clues to their meaning are not freely given: no indication, no allusions, and no explanations. Everything is left to the viewer’s imagination. Paintings materialize through a few distinct steps, or a series of acts—a three act play—a performance without words—painterly movement distilled into psychological interiority. First, layers are applied thinly and loosely with a slightly muted European, Anders Zorn palette. Through scraping and virtuosic paint handling, a type of Rorschach psychological emergence signals the end of the first act.

As soon as nebulous structures emerge that only the artist can comprehend, he solidifies and emphasizes certain areas with thicker layers of paint. At this juncture the artist makes the usual painterly decisions; value–to–form relationships are encouraged and nursed into existence, which Gleiwitz does so well, giving his paintings their naturalistic tone. Further, color associations fortify neighboring choices, which in turn compliment, as well as signal their kinship to the first act—the environment. Blackout.

Curtains don’t come down. The artist doesn’t wait for applause. Instead, a flurry of movement from skillful hands reinforces certain areas with more painterly precision. With greater visual foci, Gleiwitz modifies overall unifying factors of the painting. However, even though certain areas have greater visual coherence, they offer no further clarification to specific meaning or resolution. You’re on your own. Ambiguity predominates as hazy memories emerge in the viewer’s mind’s eye while gazing at otherworldly forms, shadowy figures, entropic collapse, or perhaps creatures with impossibly long limbs emerging from the nether regions. While there is structure, and form, and even depth, with no pretense toward illusion, the paintings beckon you to look deeper into the chasm.

There is the desire to see forms, because that’s what humans seek, greater understanding and clarity from ambiguity, and the ability to categorize the unknown. It takes effort to meet the paintings as they are without attempting to make sense of them, allowing the eye to wander effortlessly across the canvas letting the artist take us on a journey with no clear beginning, middle, or end.

Autonomy Beyond Affirmation

Theodor W. Adorno believed in increased autonomy in art. The pendulum has swung back since Adorno wrote, Aesthetic Theory in 1970. Art making is in many ways more restrictive today, in part, because of the professionalization of the field. Its production and proliferation may appear more pluralistic, but art’s development is restrictive in the absolute abandonment of pleasure seeking discovery. Choices are tested to fit the larger “conversation.” MFA programs are rife and artists are taught to make work that looks professional. Truly great artists are talked out of radical ideas because professors won’t accommodate concepts that are too difficult, strange, or perverse. The reason isn’t because the ideas are incomprehensible, but because there is an intrinsic understanding that the market won’t accommodate the work. This result is seen as detrimental to the artists and not in keeping with the school’s marketing strategy. Therefore, choices are safe, watered down, focus group tested, peer–reviewed, filled with permission seeking artists scared their careers will be ruined if their work is ill received by the larger community of writers, critics, collectors, and dealers. The result is too often mendacious, mundane, mediocre work.

Adorno’s, Aesthetic Theory (University of Minnesota Press) was first published posthumously in 1970, and translated into English in 1997. The condition of art at the time Adorno wrote in the 60s was very different from what it is today. There were fewer mid–level galleries. MFA programs were scarce—from a handful then, to hundreds today, with undergraduate degrees doubling that number. “Art” and “career” weren’t muttered in the same breath; today, one utterance is inextricably tied to the other. While the landscape has changed, Adorno wasn’t focused on this problem in exactly the same way, precisely because it didn’t exist. Adorno wrote about the emancipation of art from the very system that binds and constricts it. A system of constriction is a similar concept for today’s artist, but with vastly different consequences. Adorno:

Blindness was ever an aspect of art; in the age of art’s emancipation, however, this blindness has begun to predominate in spite of, if not because of, art’s lost naïveté, which as Hegel already perceived, art cannot undo. This binds art to a naïveté of a second order: the uncertainty over what purpose it serves. It is uncertain whether art is still possible; whether, with its complete emancipation, it did not sever its own preconditions.

It is so interesting to think about art as self-referential, a condition all art is subject to. Not only is the artist self–reflexive of his or her own work in terms of an overarching dialogue—the belief that current input will build upon historical exemplars—the act of making is also weighed against the market. Radical art is increasingly difficult to produce, has no precedent, and likely no profitability. Therefore, these ideas are purged during the introduction and indoctrination phase of the artist’s development. Fitting work into the “conversation,” is code for the “market.” The idea of building on recent historical lineages is neither, 1) possible or, 2) truly the objective. Artists and institutions have very different objectives than just 30 or 40 years ago. Adorno rejects the logical, or as Fredric Jameson would say, “periodizing,” lineage of art for a heuristic understanding of art’s past as a coherent building upon its development and self–determination:

Artworks detach themselves from the empirical world as if this other world too were an autonomous entity. Thus, however tragic they appear, artworks tend [,] a priory [,] toward affirmation.

Art is not synonymous with a theology of salvation. Art is a secular development necessary toward its own autonomy. However, art, according to Adorno, severs itself from the empirical world, not merely to escape from the laws that bind it, but exalting and affirming its preeminence, thus locating its primacy. Helmut Kuhn, referenced by Adorno, asserts that art’s each and every work is a paean unto itself. Most telling, and the crux of Adorno’s thesis, “Art must turn against itself, in opposition to its own concept and thus become uncertain of itself right into its own fiber.” Therefore, a logical art lineage cannot be excavated to find empirical answers. This line of reasoning is not possible when assuming the act of reduplication as a form of renewal is affirming its passage. Works can be separated from their creators and exist as autonomous, evaluated on their own processes and suppositional merit, notwithstanding the artist’s intentions. Finally, the ontology of art starts with each ensuing generation building and fashioning its own method, validity, and scope rather than expanding on previous suppositions.

It seems impossible for artists to work outside a system of support. Yet, for art to turn against itself, unmooring its tenacious connectivity to superficial ambitions, it must reify its own practice outside the bounds of obvious dissemination processes. Artists silenced by the educational system will likely not continue making art because avenues of proliferation (the market) are through the institutions they attended. This has been the obvious route, but by no means the only one. The hand in glove relationship of artist production and the market are inseparable and in many ways indispensable. Unless supported by the state, or adamantly self-determined, artists will continue to redirect their creative impulses to make work that reflects the dictates of a larger emporium.

Formalist Interiority of Outbound Nature: Claude & François–Xavier Lalanne

François–Xavier Lalanne was born in Agen, France. After receiving a Jesuit education he moved to Paris at 18 to study sculpture and painting at Académie Julian. François–Xavier rented a studio in Montparnasse close to Constantine Brâncuși whom he met and befriended. It was Brâncuși who inspired François–Xavier to switch from painting to sculpture. Claude Lalanne studied architecture in Paris at École de Arts Décoratifs.

In 1952, François–Xavier met Claude Lalanne at his first gallery show and the two married and started working and collaborating together. In 1960 they exhibited as “Les Lalanne.” While abstraction dominated the art scene during this time, François–Xavier focused on animal themes and Claude Lalanne enjoyed delicate flora, leafage, and vegetation. Together they started co–creating rather than collaborating. This specific way of working produced two distinct bodies of work that complemented one another and were shown together.

It’s rare to walk into a space and catch your breath because you know you’ve stumbled upon something exciting and scarce. Ben Brown Fine Arts is located at the end of Brook’s Mews in Mayfair, London, with a space that’s essentially one large room divided with temporary walls. Immediately, upon walking in, there is a cacophony of visual stimulation with the sound of trickling water emanating from somewhere in the distance. The water is from a bronze statue, one arm victoriously raised, water gently flowing from the young man’s fingers cascading down his body onto a bed of egg rocks.

Slowly, I wanted to drink in the sensory stimulation, allowing the joy of discovery to last as long as possible. There are forms of both animal sculptures and nature inspired furniture superimposed on stunning visual backdrops: expansive canyons, desolate open spaces, and thickly dense flora serve to momentarily disorient your sense of time and place. To add a little more trickery to the visual harmony, colored carpet matching corresponding environments further enhance the pleasure principle. As you bask in the pure frivolity of Eden personified, it’s hard to forestall applause. There are life–size sheep made by François–Xavier in epoxistone and bronze, Moutons Transhumant (1991); 8–10 figures stand in rapt attention on tiered platforms looking toward something (or someone) beyond the viewer’s sightline. Is there a performative aspect? Almost expectantly there’s the hope there is, and if not, imagination easily takes you there. Will a Shepard step forward and command his flock come nigh? The enveloping realism is palpable, made possible because objects compliment their environments, stand in relation to it, and place the viewer behind the proscenium.

There’s a practical aspect to the work alongside its visual virtuosity. Inspired by the family of Cervidae, red or sika deer are meticulously crafted and cast in bronze. These sculptures stand pensive, doubling as storage spaces or cabinets, bringing nature into the home. Alligator skins drape over stool armatures, Crococurule (1992/2002), forming seats in reptilian grandeur. Using modern electroplating processes, forms are moulded from life and cast in aluminum, bronze, and brass. While François–Xavier made most of the larger animal sculptures, including a sizable cast iron baboon with a fireplace in its belly, Babouin (1984), Claude Lalanne continues to undertake the making of diaphanous mirrors, lamps, benches, and monkeys holding trays above their heads, which double as tables.

The furniture, animals, and statues are Art Nouveau inspired blending the lines between art, decoration, interior design, and functional furniture. Most iconic is Claude Lelanne’s, Choupatte (2015), a head of cabbage with chicken legs cast in bronze with green patina, stands in farcical pointlessness. The version inside the gallery is about 21 inches tall, while another version outside stands closer to 6 feet. The head of cabbage is there to greet you upon arrival, and bid you farewell as you step back into reality.

The Prevailing Narrative: Abstract Expressionism | Royal Academy of Arts

Abstract Expressionism was a movement of art developed in America in the 1940s, specifically in New York. The group was diverse and consisted of artists ranging from European émigrés, native New Yorkers, and others born in the American heartland.

History is replete with stories about this time of great development in American art. Artists working during this period developed an “all–over” effect, denouncing illusion, flattening space, expressing inner feelings, turmoil, angst, and expressive agitation. Abstract Expressionism was born and the term coined by art critic Robert Coates. However, the term can be traced back as far as 1919 in the German publication Der Sturm. In 1929, Alfred Barr used the term to describe works by Wassily Kandinsky, who was also credited with being the first abstractionist. Clement Greenberg further championed the Abstract Expressionist movement, and Jackson Pollock in particular. Perhaps because of Greenberg the story behind Abstract Expressionism has become the prominent narrative it is today.

This development in American art served to place New York at the center of the art world, which, until then had firmly belonged in Paris. History is but a series of carefully constructed narratives via articles, catalogs, and journal essays, further reinforcing and solidifying its validity and historical fecundity. Other narratives and realities were taking place that for the sake of economy did not get the same level of scrutiny or attention; work too distant or remote from the developing story couldn’t, perhaps, be incorporated, strung together, or held up as its own coherent movement.

Clement Greenberg was incredibly influential and became Abstract Expressionism’s primary proponent cementing the movement and charting its course through history. The bridge between German Expressionism, circa 1905, with its various iterations (Die Brücke—Ernst Ludvig Kirchner, Fritz Bleyl, w/Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, influenced by the work of Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Henri Matisse, and James Ensor; Der Blaue Reiter—Franz Marc, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Auguste Macke—leaning toward abstraction), and Neo–Expressionism (Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Julian Schnabel) are bookends of Abstract Expressionism. While The Irascibles, as they became known, protested the Museum of Modern Art’s 1950, “American Painting Today,” in an open letter (giving them much notoriety), each of the 18 artists defended their individuality and resisted then Director of Museum Collections, Alfred H. Barr’s unifying terms, “movement,” and “school.”

Work not meeting Greenberg’s exacting prescriptions didn’t see the light of day. Later, Greenberg vehemently attacked the rise of Pop and Dada for their cool, aloof, unemotional presentation, which stood in direct opposition to the explosive, emotional canvases he championed. While Pop and Dada were Avant–garde, an avant–garde that Greenberg saw as the essential antidote to consumerist values, the development of these new approaches to art making ultimately foreshadowed the end of Abstract Expressionism.

While it’s impossible to understand the tenor of the time without having lived through it personally, history gives us clues of a period of great upheaval, devastation, and extremes and the impact those conditions had on the development of art. The Great Depression from 1929 to 1939, caused by the stock market crash, wiped out millions of investors and subsequently jobs. Consumer spending dropped as did investments, which in turn curtailed industrial output. Millions of jobs were lost as a result of diminished output with 15 million unemployed by the mid-1930s. The individual sense of hopelessness, loss of dignity and autonomy surely eroded the familial sense of security. For Americans, World War II started December 7, 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. For Europeans, World War II started in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. In May, 1945, World War II ended in Europe. In August of the same year, the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. These events give insight to the devastating global turmoil and act as linchpins leading to a dramatic rupture in artistic conventions.

The zenith of the Abstract Expressionist movement was commemorated with a comprehensive show organized under the “auspices of the International Council at the Museum of Modern Art” in 1958, curated by Dorothy C. Miller, then Curator of Museum Collections. Entitled, The New American Painting, four to five examples of each of the seventeen artists would travel to Milan, Berlin, Brussels, Paris, and London. The artists represented in the 1958 show were: William Baziotes, James Brooks, Sam Francis, Arshille Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston, Grace Hartigan, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Theodoros Stamos, Clyfford Still, Bradley Walker Tomlin, and Jack Tworkov. The exhibition opened at the Kunsthalle in Basel on April 19, 1958. The Tate Gallery in London showed the exhibition in 1959, which was to be the last year Abstract Expressionism was given a concentrated focus in the United Kingdom, until the Royal Academy of Arts, 2016 exhibition.

The Royal Academy of Arts loosely reproduced the 1958 landmark exhibition. Included are notable movement outsiders such as Mark Tobey, whose intricately structured, Asian inspired, calligraphic paintings resemble Abstract Expressionist tenets, without necessarily adhering to them. It is interesting to note his uniform all–over approach, which might be interpreted as having been influenced by Jackson Pollock, mostly because of Pollock’s historical gravitas. However, given Tobey’s age, his extensive and frequent travels to Turkey, Japan, China, and Lebanon, it is likely the influence was actually reversed.

One of the most iconoclastic figures to be included both in the original iteration of the 1958 exhibition, and its current resurrection is the truly irascible Clyfford Still. Irascible not in the literal sense, but in terms of repudiating ideas put forth by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art on his visit in 1924 when he was just 20 years old. He was disappointed by what he saw and decided to study formally. He enrolled at the Art Student’s League where his disappointment deepened and left after just 45 minutes. His stay in New York was similarly short lived clouded by disappointment and disillusionment. He returned west.

Clyfford Still, a non–objective Color Field painter, juxtaposed dark with light, deep reds with cobalt blues, agitating large areas of uniformity with oppositional color interruptions. Horizontal jaggedness is described by the Royal Academy as Still “Start[ing] with sparse landscapes, verticality became Still’s most enduring leitmotif, which he associated with upright living being and spiritual transcendence.” I personally think that’s hokum. Still wasn’t thinking about open space or spirituality (when he was painting), his cynical discontent is etched in every expressive mark, not only on the canvas, but also in the gaze he returns when facing the camera. It is written again and again that he’s reflecting the North Dakota landscape where he grew up. Yes, our formative years greatly influence our perceptive outlook, but I believe he was a deep, committed abstract painter outside the conventions associated with Abstract Expressionism as a unifying philosophical movement and sought, as his primary concern, color relationships, juxtapositions of line and shape, with no thought whatsoever of phenomenon occurring in the natural world. “Sublimity” is used to describe the work of Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko. There is nothing sublime about Newman’s raggedly painted canvases, and Rothko’s swaths of paint are interesting color explorations, but have no relation to the sublime. Perhaps Rothko and Newman are exalting infinite size and infinite space in the overwhelming experience of nature, but neither capture this existential experience in the limitations of paint on canvas, no matter how large the paintings became. Still wrote in 1963, “The sublime? A paramount consideration in my studies and work from my earliest student days. In essence it is most elusive of capture or definition—only surely found least in the lives and works of those who babble of it the most.”

The only sculptor included in the RA’s show is David Smith. During the 1930s, Smith participated in The Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project in New York. Friends with Adolph Gottlieb and Milton Avery, Smith’s prodigious output between 1945 and 1946 were a result of renewed energy after the Second World War’s stifling effect. Works by Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and other less prominent figures are also included. Clement Greenberg had an affair with Frankenthaler beginning early 1950. Also, during the 50s, Greenberg mentored Louis, which most assuredly had great influence on the artist’s output. After both Morris Louis and David Smith’s death, Greenberg altered much of Louis’s work, personally changing lines and widths of color bands and even the size of some of the canvases. David Smith painted some of his sculptures. Greenberg removed the paint with justification that Smith wasn’t a true colorist and having his sculptures refinished in uniform brown “weren’t hurting Smith’s work.”

This loosely flung group of artists with different ideals and ideas radically transformed the history of art. Whatever the narrative behind the work, however its told, the experience of standing in front of some of the world’s best works of this period is transformative and exhilarating. Words will always falter in the face of ineffable execution.

Compression Abstraction: Michael Krebber, Sergej Jensen, Luc Tuymans

Giorgio Morandi was possibly the greatest abstract painter of all time, albeit, he didn’t know it. Morandi focused on nature. If something was observable, it was knowable (insofar its form), and therefore an “accurate,” or interpretive rendering could be executed. The level of interpretation of how the eye perceives form, or discards it altogether, subjectively delineates realism from abstraction. Looking at Morandi’s paintings, it can be reasonably argued that he strove for realism. He admired Cézanne who was focused on form and structure as well as color. However, Cézanne was flattening the space between foreground and background allowing form to nudge closer toward yet unnamed Cubism.

Morandi painted the same bottles and vases in different compositional arrangements again and again, day after day. Whereas Cézanne’s paintings exploded in color, Morandi’s limited palette only added to the poetry. The fact that Morandi focused on the physical world and strove to depict the essence of its true nature (and form) precludes him from being a true abstract painter. He wasn’t looking to eliminate form for emotive color or the dissolution of formal rules for explosive or interpretive brushwork. However, Morandi is the forebear of much innovational figurative and abstract painting seen today. Some of the most interesting contemporary painters seek to unify form with an emotional, sensorial inner life—marrying imagination to nature—departing from figuration as the only descriptor of realism toward what I’d call, Compression Abstraction.

Compressive abstraction doesn’t seek to destroy or negate the physical world, as say a monochrome might. Moreover, lyricism and geometry aren’t central to the execution of these paintings even if elements of both are present. Luc Tuymans roomful of portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London, 2016, is an example of how the figure is used as an armature to break up the picture plane. These portraits are a continuation of what has become for many painters a moribund fascination with provisionality in painting.

It was shocking, circa 2005, to see a bleached out, cropped close-up portrait of Condoleezza Rice at MoMA. Then secretary of state Rice looks out, past the viewer into the distance toward yet unknowable wars. We can surmise the scenario because Rice had just left her position as national security advisor to replace Colin Powell for the new position within the Bush administration. Tuymans also says of his work, “Violence is the only structure underlying my work.” MoMA’s description of Tuymans’ Rice is worth repeating. “Rice’s likeness is heavily cropped and faded in color, as if she has already been relegated to history, but her physical presence is undiminished.” Tuymans isn’t interested in the psychological underpinnings of his subjects, he is interested in the presence of paint; lines that excavate recognizable mammalian ancestry serving to demarcate and compress subject and object toward a structural fusion with plasticity.

To further the logic of structural compression, Michael Krebber resists stylized brushwork, instead he focuses on form, and “research,” to evince compositional reduction and further negate depth of field. The fact that Krebber is firmly grounded in the world make his marks so important. Devoid of effete brush marks that plague so much of the Williamsburg scene, Krebber carves knowing into seeing, which curtails unnecessary detail. As a student of Markus Lüpertz and assistant to Georg Baselitz and the late Martin Kippenberger, Krebber throws cold water on much of the hot headedness found in his teacher’s over emotive contentions. Almost calligraphic, Krebber’s marks fill in as much as they leave out. Stops, starts, and negations are his modus operandi. While there is underlying cynicism, Krebber resists the temptation to be enveloped by its repudiation.

Remarkably, Sergej Jensen’s paintings couldn’t have been painted (or constructed) just fifteen years ago. They are read through a digital lens that is ubiquitous to our experience. Born in 1973, Jensen is old enough to have been born prior to the Internet, but its pervasiveness almost certainly impacted the type of images he creates. Almost pixilated, lines are suffused with sewn offcuts from past works, reapplied to canvas, linen, jute, or other interesting materials such as moneybags. While his titles give meaning to those in search of linguistic anchors, it is far more interesting to examine his cool, calculated, oftentimes unfettered placement of line in relation to ground. Unlike Krebber, who still hints at depth and the recession of space, Jensen brings the viewer to the surface of his textured, bleached, bucolic paintings. It’s hard to call them paintings as they act more like placements. Fabric, paint, and line placed jaggedly, pointedly, haltingly, with trepidation, to bring to the surface the destruction of illusion, replaced instead with human interaction.

Wolfe von Lenkiewicz | Riflemaker

Walking through the throng of bodies in London’s Soho is at once invigorating, as it is unsettling. Stopping isn’t quite so easy as the pulverizing force of bodies advancing from behind move relentlessly onward. Ducking into doorways, making a sharp left or right turn, dodging behind walls are almost the only options for avoiding getting crushed. Navigating the crowd becomes a skill. What at first seems daunting becomes exhilarating. The multitudes coming together in shared synchronicity. Personal boundaries are modified to suit the onslaught of movement.

Beak Street. Riflemaker. Encountered by accident, the gallery is instantly recognizable as the antithesis of the typical sleek, whitewashed walls of contemporary art presentation. Instead, Riflemaker’s wooden floors, unfinished for the past hundred years or so, deluged with the groan of time, flawed and scuffed, creak and rasp underfoot. Walls are paneled, off white, piebald, mottled and bespattered from past shows. No attempt is made to hide pencil marks, scuffs and scratches that become part of Riflemaker’s show history.

For Riflemaker’s December, 2016 show, Wolfe von Lenkiewicz presents as modernist. Emphatically. However, on closer inspection, it’s clear that earnest genetic lineage is at play. There’s no aping of style, no fawning over the master’s brushstrokes, no gushing evocation of bygone eras and name–dropping. Instead, Lenkiewicz is a subtle pioneer, employing the tenderness of figuration found in the renderings of John Singer Sargent, Manet, and Mary Cassatt. Then there’s the seamless integration of Russian Constructivism—enveloping and blotting out the figure, which in turn, reasserts itself on the very structural systems intent on enacting themselves somatically, emotionally, and sensorially on the body.

Lenkiewicz hints at struggle from the perspective of art history, as well as the artist’s search for meaning and subject. This struggle does not leave the viewer in disarray, on the contrary, Lenkiewicz’s work asks for a quiet re–visiting of the past while firmly situating itself in the present. Therefore, the polarity of time is compressed and brings the conversation about abstraction’s possibilities and figuration’s validity into the present. Lenkiewicz struggles to let go of the figure. He’s a master in rendering sympathetic representations of human want, greed, jealousy, and desire. Lenkiewicz’s figures sometimes include Rodin–like contortions amid indefinable, sometimes fantastical, and almost always imagined structural environs. What once was is lost to history—adamantly—unabashedly reasserts itself into contemporary consciousness.

Janet Sternburg: Sensuous Ethnography, Cultural Migrations, Inimitable Praxis

Depending on the city you live in, there are any number of ways to traverse the cityscape. If living in a major metropolis with sound infrastructure, there are numerous options: public transportation, overground and underground, ideal for longer trips without the hassle of parking, walking, or, if you so dare, unfold a trusty Brompton and cycle the congested streets. The crush of activity, the sensory overload, our determination to get from point to point, oftentimes override the time it takes to take a closer look at the very environment that supports the foundation of what we call culture. While organizational structures are invisible to retinal perception, ethnographic observation, for those who care to engage, is practiced, learned, and exhibited. Exhibiting perception may be construed as the domain of writers, artists, and academics. However, perception is shaped through complex filtration systems made up of marketers, entrepreneurs, and pundits. Everyone is exposed to the myriad ways information reaches us, how it’s processed is dependent on any number of personal variables.

The trouble with Janet Sternburg’s work is there’s nothing to see. Confoundedly so. And so we look again. The closer you look, the more the images dissipate. Depth of field is expansive and at once compressed. There’s the realization that it’s not about formal composition, or looking, or knowing, or acknowledging the image’s subjectivity, it’s recognizing our own perceptive near misses. Sternburg isn’t interested in verisimilitude because there is no such thing. It’s about placing the body in relation to fleeting glances, a mirage, reflective dissipations that occur often but are uniquely underscored by location and date stamp. A passer by who catches our eye, no matter how hard we try, within minutes their features dissipate, ephemeral glimpses of unknown objectives that mark the passage of time.

The strength of Sternburg’s work is that she never tries to be clever, cajole for the sake of reaction, or teach. Her images are like being simultaneously underwater, above ground, and looking back into the abyss without oxygen. They’re disconcerting, distracting, nebulous and at once painterly. A glimpse of life unfolding, caught in the memory of touch—redolent—and the remembrance of familiar sounds that place the body in specific historical contexts. The edges of objects are blurred, mercurial, inky. Photographs are taken with disposable cameras and iPhones. Point and shoot. Zero manipulation. Instant gratification, without fussing about over or under exposure, depth of field, or focus. A collection of lucky glimpses that we all have but few actually notice.

Overspilling World, is a monograph documenting Sternburg’s last two decades of work. As an accomplished writer, Sternburg first picked up the camera in 1998 while visiting San Miguel de Allende. Since that time, Sternburg reinforces Wittgenstein, “The human body is the best picture of the human soul.” When the limits of language limit the world in which the author can no longer express through words what may be better stated through images, she placed her body in the environment and into culture. The return of the body is not an exaltation of its sensuous functions, but rather the placement as documentarian within a world of fleeting moments.

When thinking about Sternburg’s work through an ethnographic lens, it is Dwight Conquergood who emphasized the importance of rigor, especially through length of time spent in the field and the “depth of commitment, and risks (bodily, physical, emotional) taken to acquire cultural understanding.” Fieldwork, as Conquergood states, is always “open air,” rather than “arm chair.” In other words, Sternburg’s documentation is always through the placement of herself within culture rather than researched cerebrally. What becomes evident, and differentiates her work from investment and placement in one particular location, is that her images are collected from many different cities throughout the world over a twenty year period. What is perhaps an unintentional observation is the timelessness of her imagery. Sternburg’s interest in old cars, their reflections in shop windows naturally superimposed on naked mannequins, becomes a guessing game as to when and where the images were taken. Sternburg’s participation is clear; her investment is measured both in volume, but perhaps more importantly, corporeal exposure over duration.

Arnold Van Praag at 90 | The Redfern Gallery, London

Timelessness in painting, poetry, performance, music, and playwriting is found in works that emphasize the human condition devoid of date–specific events and artifacts. When Pina Bausch raised her hand and touched her face while stumbling to collide with chairs in Café Müller, Bausch was inherently expressing what Edvard Munch composed statically in the thematic through line of his work—the inexpressible yet genetically encoded Erinnerungsfragmente, or fragments of memory.

When Van Gogh painted a self portrait, a sunflower or chair, he painted universal objects known to all and transcendent of time. The elements of figurative painting, painterly mannerisms — “brushmanship” — value, compositional expansiveness, unorthodox cropping, and memetic practices, are all indicators of date.

It can be argued that Odd Nerdrum paints like Rembrandt; Jenny Saville’s imposing canvases are looser versions of slightly more diminutive Lucian Freud’s, and while Cecily Brown doesn’t share the same palette as Catherine Goodman, both employ a disfiguration of form that is violent, disorienting, and disconcerting.

Born in 1926, Arnold Van Praag’s contemporaries include United Kingdom based Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Lucian Freud, and the Ukrainian born and New York resident, Milton Resnick. Chaim Soutine, born just thirty three years before Van Praag entered the world, wrote of his own work, “Once I saw the village butcher slice the neck of a bird and drain the blood out of it. I wanted to cry out, but his joyful expression caught the sound in my throat…This cry, I always feel it there. When, as I drew a crude portrait of my professor, I tried to rid myself of this cry, but in vain. When I painted a beef carcass it was still this cry that I wanted to liberate. I have still not succeeded.”

Layer, upon layer, upon layer, Auerbach, Kossoff, Freud, Resnick, and their forebear, Soutine, labored. Toiling to express the ineffable. Later, on stage, Bausch exploded in movement extending her limbs in grotesque repetition while others sharing her space stood in silent repose. A shuffle, a twist, a slash, a mark erased, thwarting perfect utterances. Van Praag entered relatively unnoticed. Silent. Withdrawn. Ebullient, but only superficially—of color, that is—using fauvist vibrancy belying the dreary European palette that made up much of 19th and early 20th–century realism. He made his mark. Dangerously. A performance in paint. Fish writhe and seethe in disquieting piles one atop another in the appropriately named, “Fishmonger.” Cadmium red oozes front and center in, “Butcher: Rack of Birds.” There is a slash of sadism decoded from the upmost layers; paint applied later in life but with the vitality of a man at the height of his powers. Horizontal and vertical thrusts intersect adding structure to membranous skins that intertwine one into another while mocking the viewer’s sense of fixity.

Tradesman, butchers, and fishmongers predominate in Van Praag’s work. Then there’s “Susannah and The Elders,” painted not once, but repeated many times. A timeless story of lasciviousness, betrayal, damnation, and the triumph of truthful innocence. On some level Van Praag’s marks seem familiar, yet instantly recognizable as great. While his work is not as well known as some other art historical giants, his paintings hold their own with the best of them.

6 December, 2016, extended through February, 2017

The Redfern Gallery                                                                               London W1S 3HL