4.14.17 — Saddling Up

If you want to elevate a medium associated more with craft than art, some might say, you have two choices. You can make it artier, or you can make it funkier—anything, in other words, to destroy its use value.

When it comes to ceramics, I could be speaking of its leading lights, in Ken Price and Arlene Shechet. Yet it also describes Elizabeth Jaeger and Bruce M. Sherman. Altoon Sultan's Convergence (McKenzie, 2016)As it happens, their galleries share an entrance on the Lower Side, and ascending the two-tier space is all about exploring the possibilities. Yet they also share a fascination with the medium and the human body.

Jaeger offers one body after another, and they do not look happy, at Jack Hanley through April 16. Female torsos lie draped over steel bars as if skinned alive. The lack of heads and feet underscores the objectification of women in her art and, by extension, a dominant art and culture—and she has in the past portrayed the sex act and animals. The sheer array adds to the anonymity of its subjects, and the slices lead to an asymmetric placement of breasts that adds to the discomfort. They avoid big boobs, too, refusing to play to male expectations. If they offer any comfort, it is in a woman’s art.

Still, there is no getting around the art and craft. They retain the smooth surfaces of both female beauty and stoneware, with neither scars nor blood. The slim black bars and their twin supports are just as elegant and minimal. Jaeger calls the installation Pommel, evoking the saddle shapes, as if women should expect to be ridden, and the pummeling of naked flesh. Yet it also evokes gymnastic equipment, with women capable of athleticism and grace. Besides, the word alone sounds sophisticated.

Sherman takes things back to ceramics in another way—not with stoneware but with its shapes. One or two even look like vases. Yet he makes them fun, funky, and punning, at Nicelle Beauchene. They have sharp edges, irregular outlines, and bright colors from their glazing. They morph easily into bodies or architecture, like castles, and in real life both are inhabited. A woman’s face appears on the vase.

One could call the opposition modern and postmodern, much as for Price and Shechet, although those categories are as slippery as ever. Price has his contoured shapes, but speckled with color and riddled with cuts, like Isamu Noguchi or Constantin Brancusi and his tea ceremony after an encounter with pattern and decoration. Shechet has her crusty textures and Pop imagery, but also a closer approach to tradition—because now, after Modernism and the demand to “make it new,” anything from any time is available. She curates a collection of Rococo porcelain and her own at the Frick. Jaeger and Sherman recap a similar history, but with a difference. Here the modernist is the imagist, the feminist, and the threat.

Then, too, history keeps reversing expectations. Modernism embraced design and use from the very start and, by the end, industrial materials. The present, in turn, has been relishing fine design and folk art, including tapestry. Altoon Sultan, recently at McKenzie through March 26, has three concurrent approaches to abstract art—in rug-hooked and hand-dyed wool, porcelain bas reliefs, and egg tempera. The tapestries have the nested geometry of Minimalism, while the paintings and sculpture borrow from both industrial parts and the Renaissance sculpture of Lorenzo Ghiberti, and she titles one work Convergence. Jaeger in particular, though, makes all the possibilities personal, pressing, and one.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

11.30.16 — Breaking Rhythm

Part of the pleasure of painting is the mark of the artist’s hand. This long after Modernism and Postmodernism, is that enough?

Fortunately, it does not have to be. Part of the pleasure, too, is seeing that personal gesture take shape in a uniquely public space. Suppose I take that as a theme for one last gallery tour of abstract painting this fall, which I also wrap into preceding reports as my latest upload.

Gary Petersen's Far Away (Theodore:Art, 2014)A public space for art could be the space of a big canvas and geometric form—or of found objects and found images. It is necessarily the space of the artist, the viewer, and the gallery. The tension between public and private is also a tension between convention and authenticity. It animates conflicting interpretations of Abstract Expressionism, as formalism or “action painting.” It animates the transition from there to Pop Art, Minimalism, and beyond. It persists through skepticism about such loaded terms as originality and the avant-garde.

It takes on new dimensions with the return of painting, now for big markets, with everyone out to make an impact at all costs. I fell for it once again this fall with Agnes Martin, for whom repeated traces add up to a glow. I fell for it with a single work by Debra Ramsay, which ran at Odetta through October 9, that unfolds over more than twenty feet of color while tumbling from ceiling to floor. Zipora Fried even manages to combine the two strategies, at On Stellar Rays through December 11. Paper up to thirty feet long drapes over something like towel racks overhead, so that its single colors are visible from both sides. Only up close do the apparent washes resolve into colored pencil.

Not every display of excess requires a mural scale, and not every display of detail has to be fussy or compulsive. Reed Danziger mounts paper on panel, for the intimacy of drawing or easel painting, at McKenzie also through December 4. The work becomes more detailed the longer one looks, but with every sign of spontaneity. It also subordinates detail and gesture to imagery that traditionally stands for spontaneity, that of nature. Her swirls may look like eddies, storm clouds, or breaking ice. One could call them oceanic, calligraphic, or crafted.

Titles encourage associations with nature, like Folding and Faulting or Renewal. They also suggest a deliberate or spontaneous symmetry breaking, like Expand/Disperse, Unstable Entanglement, or Break/Down. The image tends to stop short of filling a white or pale blue field, again suggesting both objects in a landscape and works in progress. Brighter colors appear like accidents of reflected light. The swirls, mostly in white, remain dominant for all the action. It cannot be easy.

Danziger builds toward the swirls in layers. First come watercolor and powdered graphite, with contrasting textures and a contrast between color and detail. Then comes oil, in narrow rectangles and arcs. Finer strokes in white look less like grids than skeins or microchips. Compared to her earlier work, they have become less hard-edged and less isolated at the painting’s center. That helps integrate the layers.

The gallery’s previous show relied similarly on broken symmetries and layering, through October 16. Gary Petersen paints progressively off-kilter geometries—quadrilaterals piled high, slipping against one another and crossed by colored disks, lines, or curves. Patterns like these could end up merely arbitrary, but a recent wall painting may have helped push him toward both control and excess. Typically he gets the patterns started, paints over them in translucent white, and then picks up the patterns again. The same signature colors appear twice this way, first muted and then bright. He, too, is reaching for complexity without breaking rhythm.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.