Saturday, September 15, 2007


Last Saturday my daughter and I made the rounds of some galleries in Chelsea. A week later, here are some of the things I looked at most intently, that stayed with me:

First there was Aaron Noble's abstract comic-book art. Which is to say, these are large framed prints using the traditional colors and the look of inking techniques found on the pages of Marvel Comics, while the shapes -- which are in most cases biomorphic, or rather an amalgamation of limb-like forms and what would be background configuration in a typical comic panel -- twist and undulate and duplicate, but don't ever constitute a legibly rendered "figure and background." The background is white and the colored shapes stand out at times as unfinished renderings, or as completed pictures from which whole sections have been removed. The fascinating thing to me, who read Marvel Comics avidly in my pre-teen years and tried to draw like the master Jack "King" Kirby, was that the conventions of comic-book rendering -- which, for all their variants, are fairly uniform -- have here created a new form. Comic Abstract? Whatever, Noble's work is an interesting, visually appealing conflation of high art and popular art. And that's the name of the game, isn't it?

Then there were the photographs by Alen McWeeney of Irish nomadic travelers, essentially gypsies of the automotive age (the photos date from the late '60s). I'm not generally fond of photo-documentary type shows; y'know, like Larry Clark: find some subculture (preferably in CA), take some static, vapid photos of it that look like GAP ads, and confront your viewers with some slice of life they wouldn't normally see. McWeeney's photos aren't like that because they're all excellent photos. The artistry of these pictures rubs right up against the eerie otherworldliness of the people depicted in an amazing act of photographic rendering: we see the truth that an image can make known, even though the content of the photo is staged or planned. It's not that these are stolen moments, so much as these are stolen views -- stolen by art -- of a life that exists independently of any and all such frames. Each photo shows something ungraspable. That is, the photos assert, by showing it, that "something" ungraspable but wholly individual and still, somehow, emblematic that makes these people unique. Riveting.

Next, the assemblages by Stephanie Pflaum of Vienna. These consist mostly of various kinds of stuff doused in plaster and in some cases burnt and then treated to an overlay of fabrics, or fake gems, or paper flowers, or leaves, or wig hair. In some cases the overlay is further overlaid -- in situ -- with more wet paint or plaster dousing: thick, frosting-like slathers of white lather. The ones I liked best were configurations of oddly shaped stretcher-frames set upon one another, sometimes with bits of canvas still adhering to the frames or dangling picturesquely, with areas of the white coating blackened from burning. On one a central section of cheap shiny junk "jewelry" created a kind of buried treasure feel at the heart of the structure. A vaster but related piece had a window fastened, behind which lace matted with plaster boasted some paper butterflies. I didn't like the kitschiness of the butterflies, but in general I liked the mix of textures in each piece and the compositional brio. As I remarked to my daughter: "one of the dictums of modern art: if you can't paint, learn textures." Pflaum knows textures.

But let's turn to painting. The reason for the trip into artville was to drop by Eva Struble's opening at Lombard Fried. Struble, whose MFA show at Yale I saw two years ago, has come along quite a ways. The paintings are generally the size she worked on then, and they still seek out those areas of a city that show the traces of industrial processes, the leftover badlands and bad waterfields of chemical dumping, but the paintings themselves seem no longer tied to the dreariness inherent in such topical rendering. Why? Because of those great mainstays of painting: abstraction and the liberated palette. Struble's handling of paint was strong as a student and has grown more confident -- there are many delightful passages of dripping, thinly washed painting scattered across these canvases -- but what really pleased my eyes was the strides forward in color sense in paintings like "Pulasky Bridge," "Black Water," and the show's crowning achievement -- which gives the show it's name -- "Newtown" -- arguably the most abstract painting here, where the vivid yellows, greens, oranges seem to exist in their own right, though the context of the other canvases lets us know that we are looking at the oddly aesthetic, if biologically poisonous, effects of mankind on its environment.

Finally, installations: Friedrich Kunath has assembled what appears to be a partial wing of the museum of surreal objects for his exhibit. The TV bisected by the water of the bathtub in which it sits -- an image of a sailboat playing on the surface of the water on the set at the exact level of the water in the tub; a coffin covered in denim-patches; a table full of framed photographs of subjects with their backs to the camera; half a piano affixed to a mirror in which we see the "other half," and so on. Unlike the surrealists, I don't see any real provocation in these artefacts, but they do harken, perhaps nostalgically, to the era early in modernist art when the fixtures of bourgeois life could be pulled apart and put back together as something else for the sake of the new century's sense of upheaval.

For our new century, I didn't see any art that carried any really challenging sense of contradiction, but I could feel enough of it to be admiringly rooted looking at Pflaum's beauty of derelict detritus and Struble's beauty of waste spaces.

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