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a blog of painting, abstraction, and contemporary art
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Merrill Wagner

Merrill Wagner / Large Flower Small Owl / 2006 / Paint on steel / 87.75 x 82.25? / sundharamtagore.com

Merrill Wagner / Large Flower Small Owl / 2006 / Paint on steel / 87.75 x 82.25″ / sundharamtagore.com

I checked out this show this past week. I wasn’t familiar with Merrill Wagner’s work, but I loved how she painted with the steel. It’s interesting, Richard Serra’s work makes you really feel the presence and the weight of the steel, whereas with Merrill’s work I found myself enchanted with the surface, the rust, the marks left by the heat of forging, etc. There was a delicacy and lightness about the steel.

Wagner’s oeuvre explores the possibility of steel and slate as a painterly surface. Wagner begins with found materials, either die-cut scraps of steel, or pieces of slate, and transforms them into abstract landscapes or flowers. She imbues the surface with an unexpected softness yet still maintains an architectural form. Painted directly from nature, her forms allude less overtly to geometry than to a structural topography. Her assemblages are suspended by magnets giving them a floating quality. Her innovative utilization of the dichotomy between the softness of the pigments and her subject and the rigidity of her surface has earned her the acclaim of the art world.

Merrill Wagner @ Sundharam Tagore, 547 West 27th Street, through 10/15

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October 6, 2008   No Comments

cecily brown @ gagosian

Cecily Brown / Untitled (#38) / 2007 / Oil on linen / 12-1/2 x 17 inches (31.8 x 43.2 cm) / www.gagosian.com

Cecily Brown / Untitled (#38) / 2007 / Oil on linen / 12-1/2 x 17 inches (31.8 x 43.2 cm) / www.gagosian.com

A number of people have been asking lately why I haven’t posted anything recently. The answer is that I have been meaning to, but I’ve just been super busy and the blog has gotten the short end. Anyway….

I’ve been down to Gagosian a few times over the last couple of weeks to see the Cecily Brown show. The first time I went I was impressed with the work but something bothered me and I couldn’t figure out what it was. After going back and spending a good amount of time looking at the work and being in the space I realized the problem, the lighting in the gallery kills the drama of the paintings. It is just too bright in the gallery to really enter into the paintings. The drama of her paintings is in the swelling volumes and the internal character of the light she creates. The bright lighting of the gallery illuminates the dark areas, renders visible all the brush strokes, and the reflected light off the white walls of the gallery overwhelms the light areas of the canvas. The overall effect is to flatten the canvas into a collage of energetic brushstrokes with color.

This actually struck me when I was looking at some of the smaller canvases in the show. Looking at these works I could really see the connection to Rubens, Tintoretto, El Greco, both in the compositional structure and the swelling weightless forms hovering and suspended in space. I also began thinking about how those paintings were painted for candlelit cathedrals and castles. How the dim lighting of the space really elevated the drama of the darks and lights, allowing the swelling figures to really explode out of the canvas. When I turned around to look at the larger works in the show, especially the Sam Mere series, I really felt like I was missing something.

I’ve often read Cecily Brown’s work compared to De Kooning’s, and while they both engage in figurative abstraction, I think it will be interesting to examine their approaches over the next few days to see how differently they put paintings together. In the meantime, definitely check out the show.

Cecily Brown @ Gagosian, September 20 – October 25, 2008, 555 West 24th Street

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October 6, 2008   1 Comment

Makoto Fujimura

Makoto Fujimura / Mountain Memoir - Columbine / 12 x 12 inches / gold and mineral pigments on paper / Dillon Gallery
Makoto Fujimura / Mountain Memoir – Columbine / 12 x 12 inches / gold and mineral pigments on paper / Dillon Gallery

I’ve been lazy on my posts lately and I’ll blame it on the holiday and the hot summer weather.  Before I left town for a couple of days last week, I got down to Dillon Gallery and saw a great show of Makoto Fujimura paintings. The work is a visual feast. Shimmering sparkling pigments, gold, platinum and silver leaf create rich decadent colors and surfaces. Looking at these paintings I could really appreciate fine hand-ground pigments. It adds an energy or visual interest that can’t be obtained with tube paint off the shelf. With tube paint the pigment is mechanically ground to such a fine powder and mulled to such an even consistency that you don’t see individual pieces of pigment. These suspensions, especially in oil, acrylic or latex are great for painting flat even coats of paint that read as fields of color.  However, when pigments are hand ground, there is an inconsistency in the sizes of the particles of pigment. There are fine powdery pieces and bigger chunkier flecks. When they are applied to the canvas, they catch and reflect the light differently. It is a subtle difference, but the overall effect on the life of the painting is huge.

In Fujimura’s paintings, the effect is accentuated as the grind of the pigments is very course is some cases and almost has the texture of sand. As you stand in front of a piece and shift your position, the light reflecting off the pigments shimmers and the surface feels alive and moving. Unfortunately, you can’t see this difference in photos on the web :(

Makoto Fujimura @ Dillon Gallery, 555 West 25th St., through August 2nd.

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July 8, 2008   1 Comment

Kansuke Fujii

Kansuke Fuji / Banana / 860 x 610 / Ippodo Gallery

Kansuke Fuji / Banana / 860 x 610 / Ippodo Gallery

I stumbled up the Ippodo Gallery today on 26th Street. A nice little space in the basement of the building that it shares with the Onishi Gallery. Kansuke Fuji’s work felt very still and serene. Strong negative shapes and visually pleasing surface geometry. While the work is representational, the pieces really move toward abstraction as the shapes and forms in themselves take on more importance than their identity as objects.
Kansuke Fujii @ Ippodo Gallery, 521 W. 26th Street, through July 3rd

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June 26, 2008   1 Comment

stan gregory

stan gregory / solitary dime / 2007 / oil on tinted gesso on canvas / 64 x 64 inches / sundharam tagore gallery

stan gregory / solitary dime / 2007 / oil on tinted gesso on canvas / 64 x 64 inches / sundharam tagore gallery

I hadn’t been to see any exhibits in about a week or two…Today I went down to Sundharam Tagore Gallery to see the show of Stan Gregory’s work, whose work I’ve been waiting to see for a while now. His paintings are deceptively simple. I found myself drawn into the fluctuating shapes and the interpenetrating spaces. The arabesque lines of the paintings and the dynamic positive and negative shapes call to mind Islamic calligraphy and images of whirling dervishes. The paintings are joyful and both the lines and the colors have a lot of movement and energy. However, and maybe this is just because I am a painter, I found myself drawn past the lines, the shapes and the colors, right up and into the surface. The thick heavy layers of paint smoothed down with a knife and sandpaper to create a soft luminous ground. The contrast with the thin impasto lines. Semi-transparent colors, subtle brush marks next to smooth matte flat areas. Paint mixing around the lines, layers upon layers of paint, giving the feel of smooth heavy fresco. I could go on, but what the surface revealed to me was a painting that took time. It grew and evolved and changed…and will continue to do so as the painting ages and the layers become more transparent.

From the catalogue:

These are the paintings of a sensualist.

Admittedly when looking at Stan Gregory’s work from across the room that might not be the first adjective that springs to mind, though at any distance the standard terminology of styles and “isms” is mostly misleading. The spareness of these paintings will sooner or later suggest the labels “minimal” or “reductive” as well, but only to those whose tolerance for overall abstraction is contingent on bravura effects or atmospheric auras. Gregory doesn’t invite such associations, and they don’t take the attentive viewer much of anywhere except back to the same starting point…

That is what paintings like Gregory’s are all about. Looking once and getting you bearings, looking longer and losing them, looking away and then back and finding a new optical purchase or path, looking at one part and then jumping to the furthest point from it and trying to account for all the transitions and liaisons that map their connection. The best thing about doing this is that there is no “X marks the spot” to these mazes, no predetermined course through them, no one way traffic, no privileged entrance or exit, no inside or outside and no price to pay for perceptual or conceptual pleasure except that of paying attention. These are the works of a rigorous sensibility but also of a generous one, and they are delivered to the viewer in move-in condition without further explanation needed and with no theoretical strings attached. To spurn an offer made with such painterly know-how and conviction would be foolish; to accept it is to yield to that intelligence and that commitment and so make a self-rewarding commitment of one’s own.

Robert Storr – 2008

Stan Gregory @ Sundharam Tagore Gallery, 47 West 27th Street through July 19th


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June 25, 2008   No Comments

alastair michie

Alastair Michie / Crows Nest / Acrylic on board / Shirley Crowther Contemporary Art
Alastair Michie / Crows Nest / Acrylic on board / Shirley Crowther Contemporary Art

I am not familiar with Alastair Michie’s work, but after reading his obituary in today’s Guardian. I thought I would check it out. This piece has a wonderful palette and sense of rhythm. The composition and division of space is pleasing and draws me into the painting.

A visit to the Venice Biennale in 1962 dramatically changed Michie’s amb-itions and professional life. It was there he encountered the work of the great American abstract expressionists: the scale and sheer energy of Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline and Mark Rothko were decisive in him becoming a painter. He always maintained that he was never influenced by his mother’s work, though he shared something of her facility and strong feeling for colour and texture. His belief in the power of abstract art to convey strong emotions was confirmed by a meeting with Rothko at an exhibition of paintings by his friend John Plumb at the Axiom gallery in London in the late 1960s.

Michie’s abstract works, whether sculptures or paintings, were always influenced by his own experience. He believed that the two activities complemented and cross-fertilised each other, and much of his work, whether in two or three dimensions, is closely linked to the coastal landscape of his beloved Dorset. His abstract paintings can be read as images of land and sea viewed from the air. A favourite haunt, Studland beach, proved a rich source of found objects, including driftwood and wartime remnants such as shrapnel, which formed the basis of most of Michie’s sculpted pieces from the 1950s onwards. [Read More...]

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June 18, 2008   1 Comment

The freedom of philip guston

Philip Guston / Untitled / 1968 / Courtesy McKee Gallery, New York/Morgan Library
Philip Guston / Untitled / 1968 / Courtesy McKee Gallery, New York/Morgan Library

I’ve must admit I wasn’t too familiar with Philip Guston’s work until the big retrospective at the Met a few years ago, but have become a huge fan since. If you haven’t read Musa Mayer’s biography of her father, Night Studio it definitely a great read. Anyway, as with Nick Stillman in his recent essay in The Nation, I find that what draws me to Guston is his movement between figuration, abstraction, back to figuration. The freedom not to be stuck in a style, a motif, or direction. A process unfolding from personal dictates or needs. It goes without saying that the circumstances of the art world are much different now than they were back in the ’60s and ’70s. More than at any other time today artists have a freedom to choose their own direction, their own materials, process, etc., some have called it a free for all. However, there is a pressure to settle on a style, develop a personal brand, and stick to it. This satisfies both the expectations of the market and helps prevent a type of emotional paralysis in the face of an overwhelming array of decisions and choices by providing a sense of direction. I think it’s an unreasonable expectation for artists to remain committed to a certain style for their entire career. First, with a few exceptions, I don’t think anyone is naturally that obsessive or rigid. Second, it would be no fun to be that rigid. For me it is fun to jump around between abstract, figure, landscape, etc. It helps me maintain that element of play necessary to my own work, which is not to say its not work, it just has to be playful.

Anyway, check out Nick Stillman’s review of the Guston exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum through August 31. Here’s a brief excerpt:

If, like in Clement Greenberg’s ’50s, art critics were still considered arbitrators, I would argue that Philip Guston’s art got better as he got older. His transformation late in his career from a successful and comparatively polite Abstract Expressionist into a conjurer of cartoonish tableaux of internal unrest and lowbrow humor garnished with uncomfortable personal admissions was an act of bravery, especially given the public’s lack of enthusiasm for his ribald new direction. As long as he is remembered, Guston’s need to reintroduce concrete subject matter into his art will be his legacy. This is ground firmly trod on by a gaggle of essayists, biographers, critics and friends of the artist; there’s no shortage of recent literature on Guston’s late work that praises it as deliciously, perfectly, bathetic–work that never descends into the flippancy that tends to mar the majority of art that is expressly funny, explicitly political or both.

Honestly, though, it’s difficult for me to think about Guston from an art critic’s perspective. Among the countless explanations of Guston’s return to figuration, the one I most agree with was pronounced by an artist, Willem de Kooning: “It’s about freedom.” Guston’s black humor, his exploitation of the absurd and grotesque, his merger of the political with the personal and his spirit of defiance in the face of complacency and aging is something to be appreciated on a gut level. You get it, or you don’t. I’m not suggesting that Guston’s work is anti-intellectual or even particularly populist. What I’m saying is that Guston’s work–especially from 1970-1980–is borne of intuition and inexorability, qualities that can be alienating as often as they are inspiring. [Read more...]

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June 18, 2008   No Comments