Erika Verzutti – Ex Gurus @ Andrew Kreps Gallery / March 3 to 31, 2018

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Erika Verzutti – Homeopatia, 2018 Bronze, oil and acrylic paint 40 3/16 x 32 11/16 x 2 3/4 in (102 x 83 x 7 cm) Unique edition of 3. Image courtesy of the Artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, Photo: Everton Ballardin

When I wrote the very first article for this website in December 2015, about Brazilian artist Erica Verzutti’s show at Alison Jacques London, I felt more inclined to refer to her as a painter than a sculptor. (Click here for the 2015 article) At the time I was struck by Verzutti’s use of bronze to create deceptively simple panels, any one of which could quite possibly have been produced with less effort in less permanent material. Added to the pleasant surprise of discovering that these panels were bronze was the willful irreverence the artist had shown towards that very medium by adding patches of acrylic paint here and there. The cheapening plastic dullness of acrylic served in this case only to strengthen the effect of bronze being used in such an unusual context, as a kind of surrogate for canvas. Verzutti’s confident handling of material, no small measure of humour, plus a gift for distilling complex questions of perception to produce irresistible objects of beauty, combined to deliver what I considered to be one of the best exhibitions of painting I had seen in recent years. And the question of whether Verzutti’s work is more painting than sculpture remains as delightfully infuriating in the artist’s most recent show – Ex Gurus – at Andrew Kreps as it was in her 2015 show in London.

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Erika Verzutti – Oblique Strategies, 2016 Papier-mâché and wax 21 1/16 x 26 x 3 1/2 in (53.5 x 66 x 9 cm) Image courtesy of the Artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, Photo: Everton Ballardin

In Ex Gurus we see the same deft associations of material (bronze, paint, papier mâché, wax, clay, and stones) with subject matter – although the artist’s subject matter can often appear to operate in the service of the material. In Ex Gurus, as in Two Eyes Two Mouths – the title of her 2015 London show – I hesitate to refer to Verzutti’s conceptual material as subject matter but rather as a starting point. The concept is often a self-contained conceit on which the artist riffs with enviable ease with her physical material. One of the neatest examples from the 2015 show is a two-part painted bronze entitled The Dress. Two more or less identical bronze casts hang side by side, one gold, one black. The gold cast is streaked with white acrylic paint, the black cast streaked in its corresponding sections with blue. The identically distressed and chiselled surfaces of the bronzes mean that the streaks of paint look like a rubbing is being taken from two rocks. For anyone who remembers the visual paradox which was trending on social media at the time about a dress which appeared to two groups of viewers as alternately white and gold or black and blue, the spark of recognition and humour is immediate.

While the artist tells us that the subject matter of Ex Gurus is more personal – taking ideas from various “…immaterial things: astrology, homeopathy, feng shui, positive thinking.” and that the body of work in the exhibition “…started as a digression on synaesthesia, on the translation between senses.” – she has managed to maintain the same tight control over subjects with such potentially rampant humorous possibilities and created a series of superbly balanced works.

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Erika Verzutti Pilates, 2018 Bronze, oil and acrylic paint 48 x 40 3/16 x 4 3/4 in (122 x 102 x 12 cm) Edition 1 of 3, with 2 APs. Image courtesy of the Artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, Photo: Everton Ballardin

There is never too much attempted in any single piece. Where a bronze has been left unpainted, it is because to have added more to the surface would likely have suggested that the sculptural component of the work on its own was not strong enough. Conversely, where paint has been added, as in the neatly arranged depressions on the surface of Homeopatia, it is only because these brightly coloured additions sit in clear distinction to the base on which they rest. In this case the addition of painted elements is governed by the availability of areas on the bronze surface on which paint can rest without losing its essence as just that – paint.

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Installation view of Erika Verzutti – Ex Gurus. Image courtesy of the Artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, 2018. Photo: Dawn Blackman

And yet almost every visible aspect of the work speaks of sculpture and rough manipulation of material. Surfaces are pockmarked, slashed, gouged, and essentially duffed up. So, what is it about these panels that identifies them more as paintings than sculptures? And if we want to see them as painting entirely, then is it the evidence of a kind of crudely-worked clay form which has been manipulated just prior to the memorializing bronze casting stage which keeps dragging our thoughts back to sculpture, or is it simply the shock of the bronze itself?

A clue to the oscillating effect between painting and sculpture in Verzutti’s work lies in the relative segregation of all the individual elements of the work and their casual, but never contaminating, interaction. One of Verzutti’s talents is to be able to take otherwise irreconcilable components and distil them down to their essence so as to enable them to operate together. Sculpture here is represented by bronze, just as painting is invoked more than explored through the artist’s spare application of paint. And the third, and no more or less significant component – the conceptual spark – likewise lingers over the work as it develops physically, in the end becoming an intangible participant in the whole.

Ex Gurus at Andrew Kreps, New York

Two Eyes Two Mouths at Alison Jacques, London

About theglazelondon banner image / Hans Hofmann’s 1958 mural for the New York School of Printing, 439 West 49th Street, New York.

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Mosaic mural for the New York School of Printing, 439 West 49th Street, New York, Hans Hofmann, 1958. Image: Robbie O’Halloran, 1999.

The banner image for theglazelondon might not be the most arresting one to use to brand a website devoted to visual art, but I chose it because it is a photograph of one of the few public art projects by the great Abstract Expressionist painter Hans Hofmann, and for the fact that so many people walk past it every day without realizing the significance of the artist behind it.

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I took the photograph in April 1999 – the same month that I first saw Hofmann’s paintings in the flesh at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The two visits – first to the Met to see the paintings, then to West 49th Street to see the mural – constituted, as much as I am comfortable calling it such, a kind of pilgrimage. Hofmann’s position in 20th century American art, and the story of Abstract Expressionism specifically, has always seemed to me to be more peripheral than it ought to be. At about the same time that I was looking at his work in New York, I had been reading a lot of what has been written about Hofmann, and of course the artist’s own writings on art. Hofmann was one of the most respected and vocal teachers of the time; a fact which may have contributed to the diminution of his reputation as a serious force in the community of his painter peers.

Hofmann’s thoughts on painting were quite well formed even before he moved permanently to America from Germany in 1932. And it is not so much his having such a direct connection to European Modernism that made his work difficult to incorporate smoothly into the emergent critical space of Ab Ex, so much as the fact that Hofmann attached to his work, so vocally and with such conviction, unfashionable interpretations of what he was doing. The story of American Painting in the 1950s is very much owned by the critics who made the work visible and not by the artists.

At its heart, Hans Hofmann’s art was about pure visual sensation, the way color and form operate, interact, and the effect this has on the viewer, at first optically, but ultimately on a more subjective level. I like the fact that Hofmann has never been a household name, even in certain houses whose walls are lined with art books. For painters however, every square inch of his canvases is an object lesson in getting on with the job, and enjoying it in the process.

Further links:

Walls of Color; The Murals of Hans Hofmann at Bruce Museum

New York Times article on Walls of Color – Roberta Smith

200 words #18 / Ernest Mancoba

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Ernest Mancoba, Untitled (3), 1957, Oil on canvas, 16.5 x 13 in., Image courtesy of Aicon Gallery and the Estate of Ernest Mancoba

Ernest Mancoba (1904 – 2002) was born in South Africa, but spent the greater part of his life in Europe, moving to Paris in 1938, and to Denmark after the war, where he was a founding member of the COBRA movement. In Johannesburg Mancoba first trained in wood carving. One of his early sculptures depicted the Virgin Mary as a black woman. Despite the controversy this generated, Mancoba managed to remain above any limiting debate, always holding firm to “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”.

Mancoba carried with him to Europe a very African treatment of figuration, which comes across in the decorative fragmentation of the totemic figure which is central to his work, and which reappears in multiple subtle variations. Mancoba’s training in wood carving too seems to have informed the very application of the paint itself to the canvas; often a series of discrete all-over marks applied to the canvas with the patience of a sculptor chipping away at a wooden panel. The painted surface acts more like a solid block of undifferentiated marks, from which the central figure slowly emerges, and back into which it can just as easily seem to recede.

Ernest Mancoba at Aicon Gallery New York

Anne Ryan / Collages @ DAVIS & LANGDALE COMPANY INC. / New York / January 31 – May 20, 2017

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Untitled (no. 327), Collage, 7 1/2 x 6 3/4 inches, Executed between 1948 – 1954, Image courtesy of Davis & Langdale Company, NY.

For 37 years Henri Matisse owned a small canvas, The Three Bathers, by Paul Cezanne, regularly drawing from it intellectual strength and vindication for his own experiments with the painted surface. “If Cezanne was right, then I am right.” He observed, in acknowledgement of the lessons he had learnt from this small painting, before he finally donated it to the City of Paris. Matisse’s gift was a characteristically generous gesture, and a good example of his belief in the formative importance of research in an artist’s development. Matisse had by no means reached an end point with Cezanne, but simply wanted to share with others the source of so much of his artistic conviction.

Occasionally, an artist’s introduction to the work of another can have such a profound effect that it can shape their work from that moment on; very much like discovering a vocation. And if a vocation is founded as much on an intangible sense of compulsion as it is on compatibility, then the attraction one artist can feel to the work of another is driven by a combination of equally mysterious forces. Continue reading “Anne Ryan / Collages @ DAVIS & LANGDALE COMPANY INC. / New York / January 31 – May 20, 2017”

200 words #7 / Jessica Stockholder

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Installation view of Jessica Stockholder: The Guests All Crowded Into the Dining Room at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY. © Jessica Stockholder; Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY. 

When certain critics asked Jackson Pollock why his paintings stopped short of the edges of the canvas, as though the looping paintwork was turning back on itself, they were exposing a fictional boundary between painting and the world beyond the canvas. In asking the question they seemed to be willing the paint across the edge, perhaps to see what would happen and what it would mean.

When I first saw Jessica Stockholder’s work about 20 years ago, reproduced in a generously illustrated large format Phaidon monograph, I realised what it meant to take the challenges faced by painters every day in front of their canvases and to thrash them out in three dimensions. The issues of painting are portable I discovered, and could just as well be investigated without easel or paintbrush.

Using the most commonplace of items such as plastic laundry baskets, refrigerator doors, lightbulbs, fans, mirrors, and shower curtains, Jessica Stockholder creates irresistibly lush environments. Where she uses paint, it is to consolidate disparate objects under the same colour. In other places similarly coloured, unpainted objects seem to mimic the painted surface. Her immersive installations, sometimes resembling a latter day merzbau, are cerebral and poetic in equal measure.

JESSICA STOCKHOLDER / THE GUESTS ALL CROWDED INTO THE DINING ROOM
is at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York until October 1, 2016.

Roberto Burle Marx – Brazilian Modernist @The Jewish Museum, New York, May 6 – September 18, 2016.

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Avenida Atlântica, Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, pavement designed by Roberto Burle Marx, 1970. © Burle Marx Landscape Design Studio, Rio de Janeiro. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.

Amongst the multitude of artefacts in the architect Sir John Soane’s house on London’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a bust representing Soane has been positioned above those of both Raphael and Michelangelo. It is said that Soane chose this symbolic arrangement to suggest that the greatest of achievements in either painting or sculpture were lesser than those of architecture, albeit the type of architecture which was based on classical principles.

Nowadays, in the absence of such guiding principles, it would seem a redundant exercise to choose sides according to which art form one believed best expressed the same ideas or best achieved the same end. Better perhaps to accept what each art form does best. The practice of jumping between disciplines, if it is done well, and the resulting cross-pollination, is today considered a sign of sophistication in an artist.  It is arguably because of the divisions and differences between practices, rather than in spite of them, that it has become so attractive to be able to switch from one discipline to another with ease.

Yet the impulse towards a hierarchy of the arts persists. A ceramicist for example will only be brought into the context of a contemporary art gallery once the larger portion of functionality in the object has been relinquished. As a subject for painters, a garden, or a chosen vista onto a pastoral landscape, has long allowed artists to say at least as much about paint itself as about the landscape being painted. The notion of the primacy of paint (above a great many other mediums) is deep-rooted. Claude Monet might not be as celebrated as he is had he not come to his enthusiasm for cultivating gardens through the medium of paint with its immanent philosophical potential. Continue reading “Roberto Burle Marx – Brazilian Modernist @The Jewish Museum, New York, May 6 – September 18, 2016.”

Mary Heilmann – Looking at Pictures @ Whitechapel Gallery, London, June 8 – August 21, 2016

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Mary Heilmann, Cup Drawing, 1983, Oil on ceramic, 30.48 x 48.90 x 4.45 cm.
©Mary Heilmann
Photo credit: Pat Hearn Gallery
Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth

Lucio Fontana thought of ceramic as the most aristocratic of sculptural materials. And it is likely that at about the time he began to work with ceramics at the Manufattura Mazzotti in the 1930s, the medium was still held in some degree of reverence for the delicate craft it often demanded. Fontana was one of the first of several modern artists to appropriate ceramics as part of their wider body of work, to stand alongside paintings even. In turning their attentions to it however, they also tended to drift far from the aristocratic.

Mary Heilmann has also built up a body of work which incorporates ceramics and painting, but one in which the presumed appropriation of the traditionally ‘craft’ medium belies a more intimate relation between the two components in the artist’s work. Heilmann studied ceramics and sculpture at the University of California at Berkeley from 1963 to 1967, before moving to New York in 1968, where she took up painting. It is easy to see ceramics as an adjunct to the artist’s painting, especially given the scale of some of the early paintings we encounter as we walk into the first room of the Whitechapel Gallery. But it would be negligent to assume that this formative period spent working with such a raw and pliable medium did not have a sustained influence on Heilmann’s painting.

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Mary Heilmann, The Thief of Baghdad, 1983, Oil on canvas, 152.4 x 106.68 cm.
©Mary Heilmann
Photo credit: Pat Hearn Gallery
Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth

The exhibition opens with some canvasses in which the impact of the male-dominated New York painting scene is tangible. There are some large and loose colour field works which seem to riff off the experiments of Joseph Albers or Mark Rothko. While the scale is substantial and the effect from a distance is one of a solid, carefully built up surface, these paintings are surprisingly unkempt. The slightly wobbling edge of an area of painted surface indicates hurried execution, as do the splashes and drips which enliven the chunky sides of the canvas. There are experiments with the square; often blocked in with thick satin interlocking strips of black acrylic over candy striped washes which bleed into each other like distinct river currents. These are nominally investigations into the kind of optics which occupied Albers over the course of a lifetime. With the newly arrived Heilmann however, we see a bold and almost irreverent hunger to work through what was current or recent in American painting. Continue reading “Mary Heilmann – Looking at Pictures @ Whitechapel Gallery, London, June 8 – August 21, 2016”