The late twentieth century saw the end of quietism as that singular assumption of western art that required in the viewer a state of annihilation of self or absorption with self while looking. For a thousand years it was required of the art experience that one abandoned all conscious reason in order to enter that otherworldly view of things the artist laid out for you. To do so, it was assumed, led us out of the quotidian cares of our obdurate world. But the world has changed in the last half century and with it the visual sound of art. Today the timbre of the techno-baroque in which we move has imbued visual art with new sharps and flats. Art has gone atonal. S/ART/Q, a group of young art rebels, make this current meme very real in their provocative exhibit THIRTEEN at the GWIZ Blivas Science and Technology Center on view through January seventh. A second exhibit by the group entitled Avant Garden will be on view at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, with an opening reception January 13Th from 5:30 to 7:30 pm. THIRTEEN is S/ART/Q’s first exhibition since March 2010.
The 22ft high walls and 5,500 square feet of open planned exhibition space at the GWIZ make it one of the most appropriate locations for contemporary art in the region. Executive Director Molly Morgan explained that she is “always willing to use the gallery for advanced contemporary work.” Many of the techniques in this exhibit underscore Morgan’s intention to demonstrate that “creativity happens where art and science intersect.” The primacy of industrial chemistry in art is the clearest example of her point.
Two characteristics set this exhibit apart from the other two local venues for contemporary art, namely the Ringling Museum and the Selby Gallery at the Ringling College of Art & Design. Free of censorial public sensitivities and political/curatorial agendas, THIRTEEN presents truly contemporary ideas ahead of institutionalization. Here we see a return to good drawing as the conceptual basis for much of the
work and a genuine desire to do raw unfiltered art as a premise for reenergizing an art community that due to many social forces has become moribund.
Jeff Schwartz is an example of this restoration of drawing. His graphite, solvent transfer and china marker drawings unify two long-standing interests in American topographical art: the accidental harmonies of everyday events and places- such as people at a diner- and the architectural nuances that frame their activity. He is interested in the relationship between the curvatures of people, cars and signage- particularly public commercial signage- as a signifier of a long-standing cultural
ritual like eating out or visiting an amusement ride. Schwartz is channeling the Ash Can School by way of Pop Artists such as Richard Hamilton to arrive at a balanced deconstruction of both traditions.
Amy Williamson Miller’s mixed media sculpture displays a knowledge of and absorption with the last thirty years of Post-modern aleatory art. But her objects are made less ponderous than much art of the 90’s because of her cheerful colors and object choices: she is fond of ribbons and forms made with “secret recipe icing”. Her adventure into energized snake like swirls and menhirs of cast urethane suggest future sojourns into more compact sculpture. Walking around her large pieces, the art of Theodore Roszak and Nancy Graves comes to mind. Williamson Miller has originated a vocabulary of forms that conjoin the free wheeling play of the found object sketch with a conceptual scale that references public monumental art. Perhaps public sculpture will be her eventual occupation if she can stand the politics.
Brian Haverlock’s intimately scaled mixed media constructions guide the viewer into that hidden territory of the mind first mapped out by Freud and Jung. After their psychoanalytical insights, it became an artistic space inhabited by Surrealists and those that have shared their intentions. In Haverlock’s chronicle of this terrain it is an emotionally fragile place overgrown with doubts about the buoyant nature of the human condition. He gives form and color to the doors of fear opening on images that are visual soliloquies about the limits of human understanding: anxiety personified in small, slightly damaged, scribbled old portrait photos surrounded by nails and garage sale detritus. The photographs are records of once innocent lives, now reconfigured into dainty grotesque dreams about the end of feeling. The artist has the same sensibility for line (as filigree) as one finds in the work of the late German painter/ printmaker Paul Wunderlich. Like the German master, Haverlock luxuriates in the tensile strength of his line like a Trappist monk painting humorous devils and goblins in the margins of a sacred text.
I assume Stephen Strenk must have been one of those kids that pulled apart toys and electronic devices and reassembled them just to prove he could. He has certainly taken the mischievous in art to a new level in sculptures that are small in size yet monumental in their aesthetic: a difficult conceptual strategy that Strenk pulls off. Strong color and geometric abstraction (as a platform for miscellaneous toy objects) is of central importance in these plexi-glass and mixed media constructions. Here we are in the realm of Neo-Plasticism and the zany imaginings of Rube Goldberg. What is particularly rewarding with this sculptor is craftsmanship- the orphan of Post –Modern theory- so evident in his finely assembled and slightly insane, humorous forms. His scale choice, surmounted by found plastic kitsch objects on brightly colored but intimate architectonic plastic masses, slyly pays attention to the central concern of artists, which is to impart defamiliarization in the viewing audience. That is to create forms that in regard to the viewer introduce things as they are perceived and not as they are known.
Daniel Perales’s Giclee photograph of the University Club on Main Street is in essence a triptych in its organization of forms. The image is a classically restrained meditation on direct and diffused light in a pale gray and cream/ green dining room. At far left, we see what appears to be a large portable screen while in the central section are a number of tables prepared for dinner. The far right section is a flat plane of a pale green wall as it opens up into the central space where the tables are illuminated by pale gray light from tall windows at right. The glassware and silver upon the white tablecloths shimmer with the light of a 17Th century Dutch still life. It is approximately late morning and the lunch crowd is about to arrive, allowing the room to briefly rest in the bright orange warmth of the sun seen through a chink in the double doors directly before us opening into another dining room where a figure whose head we cannot see sits alone. In this scene Perales’s visual editing gives us, aside from a Dutch sensibility to light, the soft melancholy of a painting by Edward Hopper, while making reference to the Clarence White School of photographers such as Ralph Steiner. Perales is not only appreciative of and references the history of painting in his art but clearly that of photography. And like his predecessors he unifies painting with the lens through a visual language of his own.
Like the surrealists before her, Sabrina Small has a thing about hair and the erotic implications of long hair on pubescent girls. Her pastel and colored pencil on paper images of wigs, disembodied braided locks and young, slightly threatening looking gamines are sinister in their strength. Churlish girls visualize as a race of femme fatales in waiting. Small is a tremendously gifted draughtswoman. Her art has the same frission of uncomfortable allure as seen in the perversely articulated dolls of the German artist Hans Bellmer whose “bachelor machines” of the 1930s have no equal in the history of 20th century western erotic art. She is a neo-surrealist friseur, illustrating the unsettling truth that hair is dead matter made to signify life through artifice. Her drawing is deceptive in that ostensibly she uses the self-conscious frou-frou patterns of arte nouveau while drawing attention to the complexities of a woman knowing the truth of her own inner dialogue against the clichés of femininity fostered on her by the world in which she lives. Each time I see new work by this artist, I am more convinced her art will deepen over time and reveal many troubling aspects of current sexual politics. Small’s narrative of artifice and allurement, and the prototypical icons of that drama, transmit serious issues of female autonomy and the fatal consequences of not addressing them.
Ariana Franco has always had a thing for white and her new assorted white paper installation continues this preoccupation. The objects in this case consist of a string of moth like cutouts hung from the ceiling to the floor where a chair made of cardboard and paper lies on its side. In structure the sculpture is pleasing, direct and simple. In mood the work has an appealing level of ambiguity, which imbues her creation with haptic complexity. The cascade of lace-like paper shapes entice the viewer to touch them while the nature of its delicacy and normal reticence of a viewer not to touch a work of art sets up a surprising emotional push and pull in a sympathetic viewer. Her inversion of the usual association of a silhouette as black to white gives the construction a spectral quality that I have seen in her work before. Her objects are often presented as existing in a realm suspended between materialization and deliquescence. The paradox of her sculptural sensibility can be defined as poetic form expressing the intangible nature of subliminal feelings. Fairy tales half realized are fully explicated through lovingly made props. In this installation lighting becomes a third element due to dramatic shadowing of the paper cutouts on the wall behind. The whole ensemble has the feel of a 19Th century phantasmagoria show.
Joseph Arnegger, like afore mentioned artists in this exhibit, is a fine draughtsman. The thematic content of his oil on wood or oil on Formica supports concern the complex iconography imbedded in nostalgia. The immediate imagery is the graphic possibilities present in montages of commercial icons revised in the distant present, but his subtext is not so much the images of B-movie monsters or beach blonds as how our sense of an epoch is often appealing for being a fiction we can live with. In Arnegger’s case, this nostalgia is not only for Pop Art, but also the memes of the 60’s as expressed in the commercial imagery of those prosperous, happy days. The paint is applied like honey: the pinks, spearmint and cream remind one of chewing gum. His large diptych “Aren’t You Lucky” is a chef d’oeuvre of Post-Modern de-constructed imagery rendered in neo-pop brushwork together with collaged blue and white cut-up plastic adhesive wall covering. The central image is a sea monster carrying a beach blonde whose form is created with this adhesive paper and decorated with a pseudo blue Wedgwood china motif. The artist is implicitly ruminating on past mores, as well as celebrating his personal fascination with America at mid-century. With Arnegger the kitsch imagery of popular entertainment and advertizing morph through his paint and drawing technique into parables on the brevity of life, ideals of beauty and sexual potency. He has reinvented the vanitas painting. Because of this, in spite of the bon vivant imagery, there is something a little sad about his journey down memory lane. His art celebrates the romance of relationships as well as history. Using a well-developed understanding of the graphic styles and compositional devices of that period, he evokes a great deal about the fragility of life by revisiting the past in a very waggish way.
Daniel Miller, like Arnegger, revisits the recent past of art history to hold a mirror up to the present. But for Miller it is the recent past of video art. His “untitled” continuous video loop has the feel of the early days of this medium. The quiet, Zen like simplicity of works by Terry Fox and the Neo-Dada video antics of Vito Acconci from the 1970’s come to mind. Miller has a grasp on the grainy off kilter hand-held auteur tradition that Fox and Acconci personify. Miller’s video is a montage of two related events: a man’s hand nervously fingering a table top or ballet bar and a male and female dancer at times leaping or moving through a blocking out of a pas de deux. The work has a feeling rather than a clear narrative in the commercial sense of film. There is no sound and the large scale of the projected image as well as its imagery absorbs the viewer, as would a romantic 19Th century painting. The silence underscores the careful pace of the work and acuity of the artist coming to terms with (for him) a new medium of expression.
Tom Stephens’s incremental deliberations on the correspondences between abstraction moving to representation and vice versa have been steady over the last few years. His present oil and acrylic on canvas expressionistic abstract paintings have no hint of observable reality and display proof that Stephens’s ruminations on these antipodes of modernism have been fruitful. In the past his cityscapes at night, seen from a boat on the inland waterway, crackled with the distant faceted sparkle of downtown high-rise lights beneath a star sprinkled sky. Later he investigated the effects of a Mondrianesque geometric format supporting multiple, bright impasto, jewel-like colors. Now the light and color of the city has gone down into the inner universe of his subconscious and become disembodied clouds of psychedelic color and pattern. The new paintings have the audacity of a fresh direction based on his previous work. Now the light of the city- like a camera zoom into the interior of the self- has become the light of an imagined universe of swimming cloud colors mixed with sparkling splashes of white paint. Stephens has gone from topographical painting to abstractions on the nature of light in astronomy or subatomic particle physics, depending on your preferred analogy. The earlier necklaces of urban streetlights have become the ambiguous scale of distant stars or nucleophilic life. These new investigations are essays on the aleatory dynamics of poured and splashed color. Their gestural flourishes hark back to Tachiste painters such as Hans Hartung and Wols, while reinventing these action painters for new eyes by using a palette reminiscent of hippie T-shirts and thin washes of Popsicle color. His canvases are a quixotic gesture in the face of so much uptight contemporary cerebral art, a healthy screed directed at the ossified ramblings of Post Modern theoreticians.
Nathan Skiles’s thirteen small foam rubber bas –reliefs hang together in a line across a high beam about twenty feet above the viewer. The core shape is that of a cuckoo clock but the new sculptures have encrustations of miscellaneous drafting paraphernalia. Six of the sculptures are surmounted by brown plastic stag heads that make oblique reference not only to the kitsch nature of many cuckoo clocks but also to Sir Edwin Landseer’s masterpiece “The Monarch of the Glen”, the most famous Victorian painting of a stag. Skiles’s palette of colored rubber in this exhibit is brown, gray, orange and blue. His unique take on Post-Modern practice utilizes a laser to cut out his shapes and fabricate them into truly intriguing assemblages. On the front of his cuckoo clock motif, scissors intersect French Curves and right angle triangles; rulers and other drafting equipment swirl about like the façade of a Post-Modern building. In this exhibit, consciously or otherwise, he alludes to portraiture, particularly the Mannerist portraits of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the 16Th century Italian painter whose fantastical portraits are made through the manipulation of fruit or vegetables. In his use of kinetic fragmented planes and color, he aligns himself conceptually with Analytical Cubism, while the playful nature of his simulacra of soft cuckoo clocks is pure Dada. In short, his art is visually arresting and conceptually sophisticated.
Jen Nugent’s small ink and acrylic on paper cityscapes attest to the real pleasure harmoniously arranged line and color has regardless of the paintings subject matter or style. Her primary and secondary palette is encased in delicately drawn architectural lines describing windows, walls, eves and gables, trees and shrubs. Patience is crucial while viewing these small paintings. Their unassuming scale and familiar subject matter can easily distract a viewer away toward more exuberant works. Her art needs time and the reward comes slowly as she remakes a familiar subject into an unfamiliar one. Her aesthetic is not only in the consciously posed unfinished look, but the jazz like vibrancy and speed of her collected shapes as they rush together to form a restive vista of urban environments. Her eclectic style echoes precisionist painters such as Charles Sheeler and the Pop sensibility of David Hockney. These small cityscapes are visual haikus. They have less to do with deliberations on architectural form in the landscape as they do rhythmic interludes and crescendos of color, where color is used to separate geometric form from organic space in the same composition. This is achieved, for example, when a fragment of a building is harmoniously completed in an adjoining fragment of landscape. She leaves a lot of the paper un-worked and clean, allowing emptiness to be a powerful silence against the strong coloration. Emptiness or a quiet area in art has purpose: it is where the viewer rests as the whole composition is being absorbed. It is likely her color choices will either become broader or more reduced in time but the emotional arc of her paintings suggests she will not keep her present palette for long. Together with Ariana Franco, Amy Williamson Miller and Steve Strenk, she is a new voice in this group and, like them, a welcome one.
Tim Jaeger can’t be still in his explorations of the various memes of current painting. Each of his many stylistic incursions presents another facet of his energy and willful eclecticism as a base from which to broaden and deepen his visual vocabulary. Like Stephens, this time around he investigates the dynamics of Tachism. His acrylic on printed fabric and acrylic and pastel on picnic blanket (with a pile of fabrics on the floor beneath each of them) in “Laundry Series” is yet another risk-taking recapitulation of the last half century of advanced art. Each new direction is a tap on his inner compass toward a distant idea of painting released from observable fact, as in his previous work based on the head of a cock. The new abstractions vibrate not so much with his use of color (although there is a lot of that) as with a heightened confidence in the manipulation of paint combined with drawing. His tangled brushwork oscillates behind and before, but not on the picture plane and calls out the importance of painting for its own sake. Abstract gestural painting is still cool. It is easy to forget that for this generation of artists (whose teachers ranged in temperament from Pop to Neo-Expressionism and Conceptualism) mid-century action painting is distant in philosophy as well as time. Like Stephens, Jaeger is visiting the language of pure abstraction not so much out of nostalgia for the heroic, but to reclaim it as a known studio practice for making art brimming with unfettered energy and optimism, reconfigured here for an audience that for the most part knows mid-century painting only through reproductions and an occasional museum show. With Jaeger’s interpretation, it is a visceral event suffused with jagged and kinetic emotion.
Given the present dismal economic circumstances, there is little commercial temptation among artists to slow down their experimentations. For the general audience this is a good thing, because as in the pre-World War II period, shrinking markets stir risk taking and new ideas. Then as now, if THIRTEEN is any indication, the tenacity of young artists to go on regardless of a buying public suggests yet another rich artistic tomorrow.