June 2006 Archives

Summer has arrived, although you wouldn't know it from the weather here in New York City. New York is beastly hot in the summer and frigid in the winter, but spring and fall are heavenly; of course, they last about two weeks each. Somehow this year, though, we've had springlike weather long after the miasma usually descends. This miasma, in theory, sends wealthy art collectors out of the city to their summer haunts, wherever they might be. I wouldn't know, since my family has always had to work for a living keeping the city running, and we don't get to escape the heat.

And anyway all of that was before widespread air conditioning. Now you barely need to go outside for any reason, and so the art season, which should be winding down for the summer, is in fact still going. I guess it's slowing a bit -- more group shows are on the schedule than usual -- but there's still plenty of new stuff every week.

Jim Wolanin is in the city this month, too, up from Bon Jovi Land, since he was granted a summer residency at the School of Visual Arts. I picked him up outside his studio -- I wasn't able to go up and see his current work owing to Manhattan's post-September 11th armed camp mentality -- and we went crosstown to see what was showing.

We started at McKenzie Fine Art's World without End, a group show on the theme of "iteration." Or infinity, or something. You know I never pay attention to gallery verbiage. Well, this is an interesting show with some very good work in it.

Barbara Takenaga, Celen, 2006, acrylic on wood panel, 24x20 inches I immediately recognized one of the paintings but couldn't place the artist. I looked over the postcard and the name didn't jump out; on the way home I managed as much as Barbara Nagasomething, because I remembered trying to memorize her name by thinking of a sea snake. It wasn't until I was home that I saw her name on the card: Barbara Takenaga. I saw a number of her meticulous paintings at an opening a couple of years ago where she was showing with Amy Yoes. I really like Barbara's work: It's obsessive and interesting, abstract and yet somehow concrete. There's an area where I tend to really like art, balanced between realism and total abstraction, and Barbara has taken up residence there. I like her colors and the contrast she achieves between different tones. This particular work is more entrancing than usual, too, because -- although it's not clear from the reproduction -- the green ovals are pearlescent and shimmery.

David Mann, Rhapsody, 2005, oil, alkyd, acrylic and wax on canvas stretched over panel, 48.75x43.75 inches The only other artist I recognized was David Mann, and only because I've seen his paintings in the office at McKenzie every time I've been there. David is one painter who has, as near as I can tell, found what he likes to do and keeps doing it over and over: Little cell-like swirls. Every painting of his is pretty much the same except for color. Blue cells on a dark blue background, pink cells on a brown background, and so on. This one is light blue cells on a background which looks like a photo emulsion but is apparently built up from -- and I quote the painting's online listing here -- "oil, alkyd, acrylic and wax". David's paintings don't move me deeply but they are worth looking at.

Sara Walker, Transporter, 2005, acrylic on paper, 20x20 inches Sara Walker has a good painting on paper. I want to say it's nice without being insulting; it's nice, it's good, it's interesting. I don't want to damn it with faint praise. I'd like to see more by her.

Sara Eichner, Hexagon Floor Pattern, 2006, oil on wood, 13.5x24 inches Another Sara, Sara Eichner, has a couple of very neat little paintings where a plane of hexagons marches off into the distance. Jim and I agreed that in large scale they'd be stunning; their small size weakens their impact, but they're still excellent explorations of perspective. They reproduce completely flat but what I appreciate about them most is their lack of perfect flatness; the paint has a faint but definite blobbiness at the start and end of brushstrokes, and the tiny differences in paint thickness throughout lend the paintings a life they might not otherwise have. I can imagine trying to do these larger would drive someone insane, but I have a feeling Sara can do it, and I'd like to see the results.

Michelle Hinebrook, Blushed, 2005, enamel on wood, 48x48 inches Michelle Hinebrook has a similar painting up; in this case, a dizzying web of pinkness undulates in and out of focus. This is one of those "How did she do that?" kind of paintings -- my guess is spray (airbrush or spraypaint) over folded netting. The layers of darker and lighter colors give this a depth impossible to reproduce here, and the spray pattern is likewise unreproduceably delicate.

Ivan Navarro, Wall Hole, 2004, fluorescent tubes and fixtures, painted wood box, mirrors, 28x28x5 inches The rest of the show is less interesting but still good and solid. I enjoyed my walk around. The only total dud in the show, I'd say, is Ivan Navarro's Wall Hole, an old idea which looked much better hanging in Mr. Spock's quarters in the fourth Star Trek movie. Only its crudeness makes me think it was intended as something other than what it is; the fact that the light fixtures are so obvious makes me think it might have been intended as some kind of commentary on Spencer's Gifts cheesiness in our society, or something. But, really, I think it's just lame.

Amanda Besl, Sycamore, 2006, oil on panel, 10x6 inches Next door, Lyons Wier-Ortt is showing Amanda Besl. I was surprised to see just how tiny Amanda's paintings are; I'd thought they'd be regular painting-sized paintings but they turned out to be really small, in some cases about the size of an index card. But in that little space Amanda packs a ton of detail and feeling. Her subjects are mostly women (the paintings appear photo-based). The women lounge in the crotches of trees, stand around, sit, sometimes in their underwear, sometimes with veils, in forests, in rooms. Amanda's technique is good but not flawless. There's a detachment in these images, like they were photos taken with a long zoom. The subjects often look directly at the viewer out of the painting, as if making some comment on the nature of viewing. But what, exactly, is unclear to me. Are they happy, are they sad, are they just friends of the artist? They're not quite cheesecake, not quite sexy, not quite asexual -- they're ambiguous. Or maybe they're just too subtle for me. Still, I liked them.

After that Jim and I headed up a block, where we found a huge crowd milling around outside. "Should we fight our way in?" I asked, and Jim assented, and in we went, immediately losing each other when I got caught standing next to Tatum O'Neal while someone took a photo of her. I love her in Rescue Me and in real life she looks exactly the same. I wonder if she's really batshit crazy, too.

When I was able to escape the photo session I found myself in the midst of Jack Pierson's "The name of this show is not GAY ART NOW." Perhaps it isn't, but I'll say this: I don't ordinarily feel exceptionally heterosexual. In most social situations I'm kind of borderline. But in Paul Kasmin Gallery, with that art, with those visitors, I felt like I was...I can't even think of a comparison. Who's the straightest man ever? I felt I was the straightest man ever.

Maybe I'm the most art illiterate person ever, also, since I couldn't place a lot of what was on view. Most of it was forgettable anyway, so I have to apologize to such art luminaries as Matthew Barney, Stephan Tashjian, Robert Indiana, and Elizabeth Peyton: I didn't recognize your work and I didn't care. There really was only one thing in the whole show I slowed down for and I know I've seen the artist before but I couldn't place it. Unfortunately the Paul Kasmin Gallery is so far beyond cool their Website isn't up to date on this show and they had no papers to take from the show itself, so I'm completely devoid of useful information. If I accidentally happen to go back I'll let you know.

I couldn't find Jim anywhere inside so I went outside and around the corner and called him on his cellphone. Now that's a well-attended opening.

Christina Mazzalupo, The Big Blow, 2006, graphite on paper, 9x12 inches Around the corner at Mixed Greens we made it to see Christina Mazzalupo's drawings. If you've read one of my reviews of shows of drawings before, then you know I'm ambivalent about them: On the one hand I love drawing, but on the other, I still find myself thinking drawings belong in notebooks, not on gallery walls. Christina's work didn't make me change my mind, either. Jim pointed out that all her drawings in the show have the same basic composition, empty in the lower left corner, filled up in the upper right. Now, the show is titled Hey! Get Mental!, so maybe the drawings are all supposed to be dreams, and they all emanate from a dreamer in the lower left corner as a sort of choice of Christina's; but all the same it's a little monotonous.

The drawings themselves are kind of neat, filled with little details of young girls looking downcast and fantastic animals and religious symbols and, I don't know, UFOs and stuff. After a bit they all kind of blend together. And no wonder: Christina is bipolar, or obsessive-compulsive, or depressed, or all three at once, and I know this because -- in addition to her drawings -- she was giving away little booklets filled with her tiny handwriting telling me all about how crazy she is. It was kind of cute, actually, the sort of booklet we used to put together in college and randomly leave under people's windshield wipers in the parking lot, just a random collection of weirdness. It made me feel very close to Christina (we take a lot of the same medications) and kind of protective of her. It made me want to like her drawings a lot more.

In the end, though, I didn't like them that much. They're okay.

Howard Fonda, The Secret, 2006, oil on canvas, 74x59.5 inches The other side of Mixed Greens is showing Howard Fonda, whose paintings I liked quite a bit. At first glance they look like abstracted stands of trees, but when you look at them a bit longer the illusion breaks down. I like the way Howard disrupts the figure/ground relationship by sometimes having a green stripe (which might be seen as grass behind a tree) or a blue stripe (sky) actually in front of one of the treelike things. Also, I really liked the way the texture of his paint stands in for the detail of the actual object; at first the impression is one of carefully painted nuances, but if you really look, you see his paint is all over the place, scratched back into, goobery, messy. In all, Howard's work is just confounding: As soon as you think you know what it is, it isn't that any more, and it turns into something else. And it does all that with energy and presence. It's actually a little exciting being in front of Howard's paintings.

While Jim and I were standing in front of Howard's work, Jerry Saltz came up and introduced himself to us. He wanted to tell me he liked my shirt. Jim had just attended a lecture given by Jerry at SVA as part of his residency so we talked about that for a bit. Of course art bloggers in general love to bash Jerry, or pick on him, but every time I've seen him he's struck me as an intelligent, decent person. There's this unnamed art writer and sometime curator who says that's Jerry's thing, populism, man of the people; I don't know if he means that in a bad way, but I don't take it as such. Jerry really seems to be what he seems to be. I certainly wouldn't mind being Jerry Saltz when I grow up.

Chad Marshall, Painting 20a, 2006, oil and flashe on linen mounted on plywood, 48x60 inches Jim and I eventually moved on to our next and last stop, Chad Marshall at Priska C. Juschka Fine Art. Chad turned out to be perfect for inclusion in an online discussion over at Jason Laning's art soldier: Jason actually liked Dawn Mellor's show, which I of course despised. And I wrote there that there's a difference between a painting which evokes revulsion and one which causes it. Dawn Mellor's works cause revulsion by being themselves revolting and awful; but Chad Marshall's paintings evoke revulsion by being about revolting characters, while being themselves beautiful. In their way. I totally fell in love with Chad's paint handling: It's confident, bold, forward, sweeping, amazing. In the image I've got here, look at the jowls: There's pure, straight blue in there (Jim corrected me at the opening. "Cerulean," he said). No human has that much blue in their skin tone. But hot damn if Chad doesn't pull it off.

That said, I didn't for an instant actually like viewing his paintings. They're unpleasant things. Chad likes to show the background color through his figures' orifices, giving everyone the appearance of a rubber mask or suit. Everyone is corpulent and bloated with an air of perversion and sickness. Grotesqueries abound, frolicking and cavorting like happy demons. There's an element of Egon Schiele but taken to another level of disgust for the human form. As usual for me, I'm not sure why -- maybe I'm not supposed to ask. Whatever is going on, it's disturbing.

So I like the technique but not the subject matter. Too bad, really. For me or for Chad? You decide.

I dropped Jim off at Penn Station on my way uptown so he could return to Bon Jovi Land (apparently the "residency" part of "summer residency" is nominal). I'm hoping to get to visit his studio before he's kicked out at the end of June. Here's to hoping.

James Wolanin


Over on the right side of this page there's a list of links to artists' pages. It's kind of arbitrary whether I classify a page as an art blog or an artist's page; I kind of try to get a feel for what the page is for, and what the author is trying to do. In either case, I'm picky about who I put there: They're not just people whose pages I frequent, not just people I find mildly interesting; they're people I find intriguing, both as people and as artists.

If you look over there, you'll see James Wolanin listed. I like his blog, I like his Website, and he works in New Jersey, so I like having him around. He reported he was having a show in Philadelphia, at the Chapterhouse Cafe & Gallery. I try to get down to Philly every so often, mainly because my very good friend Scott Larson lives there, and since he's executive chef at Tír na nÓg, I can get free food. I had finished a painting back in December I wanted to give to Scott, too, so there was another reason to make the trip.

Scott and I found the Chapterhouse without too much trouble. (It was finding my car after that turned out to be the problem, because we're both idiots who forgot where we parked.) It's just off South Street, which is sort of the Greenwich Village of Philadelphia. Sort of, but sort of not. It's like Greenwich Village used to be, back when the Village had a bit of an edge, before Manhattan Island became all Disneyfied. South Street is where Philly stores its tattoo parlors, alternative music stores, vintage clothing shops, and generally weird crap. Starbucks has made its inroads, though. I'm convinced that if we ever send a manned mission to Mars, the astronauts will be greeted by a Starbucks.

Scott, who knows Philadelphia cafes better than I do, declared the Chapterhouse to be a pretty cool place. It's definitely large, which made us think with the rents being what they are, if you want to visit you'd better go quickly. The counter was manned by your typical pierced and tattooed Philly girl. When I was taking photos of the installation, she came up to me and scolded me like a young and exceptionally dim child: "Don't take pictures of people's art." I explained I knew the artist. I refrained from explaining that I'd been in more professional art venues in the last six months than she'd been in her whole life, and more, I've never met an artist who didn't want their work photographed.

James Wolanin, installation view, Chapterhouse Cafe & Gallery, 2006 About the worst thing I can say about James' paintings is that they reproduce well. If you've been to his site, you've got a really good idea of what his paintings look like in person. I'd almost say it's not worth seeing them. Almost. Of course the colors are more vibrant, and size does matter, so of course the online versions aren't quite as good as the originals. But his paintings reproduce better than anyone I've seen since Brian Alfred.

James Wolanin, One Thousand Virgins, After Ingres, 2006, acrylic on oak panel, 40x30 inches James' paintings are more interesting than Brian's, though. I like them a lot. I've written before that I don't like the use of text in paintings; and let me go on record right now as saying I also don't like paintings which reference other paintings. I think both techniques are too damned easy. If you can't say it visually, you write it; and if you can't think of anything yourself, you copy it. But here's the thing: James makes both techniques work. I don't mind it when he does it. I get the feeling from his paintings that both the words and the images emerge from some place inside him in the same way shapes and colors do.

James Wolanin, installation view, Chapterhouse Cafe & Gallery, 2006 I can't quite figure out what's going on in James' paintings. Are they pro-war, anti-war? Does he like soldiers and warplanes? What's "The New Heaven"? But that's okay. The images themselves carry their own meaning. It seems like they come from James' subconscious and I'm willing to let them seep into mine. His paintings are retinal, as Duchamp would say, but unlike Duchamp, I don't consider that an insult. They please my eye, and I'm good with that.

James Wolanin, installation view, Chapterhouse Cafe & Gallery, 2006 James falls into that category of artist where I think I could physically create his paintings but his ideas are so far beyond me I'm impressed. He makes his actual painting look easy: Stephanie and I joked about how nice it would be to be a taper, marking off areas of the canvas to fill in with flat color. And that's what James does (although I don't think he uses tape). But his work is in his concepts and his choices, which aren't obvious. For example, in "Ascension," where are the woman's nipples? I would never have painted a woman without nipples. And yet there she is. Maybe that's a trivial choice, but if you look, James chooses like that all over the place. Which shadows make up a face? How little detail does a viewer need to imagine lips pressed in a grim line? What shapes say "flower"?

If you can't tell, I'm a little jealous of James. I'm not often jealous of other artists, but James has found a great style and subjects which suit it. I wish I could steal his painting ideas.

I highly recommend making the trip to Philadelphia. You can see James' show, and then go to Tír na nÓg for dinner. Tell Scott I sent you.

Denis Peterson

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Something a little different this time. I got e-mail from an artist asking me to check out his show, so I wrote back and we ended up arranging a meeting where he could tour me through his paintings and we could talk extensively about them. And that's what we did.

I'm not sure why Denis Peterson wrote to me. Maybe it's because I mentioned in passing once that I used to airbrush. Maybe it's because of my frequent use of the term photorealism. I'm not sure and I forgot to ask. But I'm glad he did.

First, I must confess: I use the term photorealism a lot, but I'm actually not that deeply familiar with it. If you asked me to name a photorealist, for example, I wouldn't have been able to (I can now, because I did some research on it). But I'm roughly familiar with the basic idea of photorealism and where it falls in the art timeline, so I can toss the term around and sound like I almost know what I'm talking about.

Despite my ignorance, I've had something of an affinity for the concept of photorealism for a long time, because -- as I hinted in an earlier post -- I took a long detour into being an airbrush artist. I had my Paasche and my compressor. I spent a summer airbrushing t-shirts on the boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey. I wasted many hours of my life poring over issues of Airbrush Action and books on the work of Vargas, Olivia, Giger, and Sorayama (to say nothing of Big Daddy Roth and Robert Williams). I put my time in cutting friskets and cleaning machinery. I used to blow my nose and get a rainbow of gouache. I shudder to think of all the formaldehyde I inhaled. It wasn't until I had worked my way up to an Iwata and started having massive air quality problems that I finally got so fed up with airbrushing I quit. Blues One Two Three has my last touch of airbrush: I sprayed the underpainting of the saxophone, then did the rest by hand in gouache. After that I switched over to oils and never looked back.

To this day, though, I maintain an appreciation for airbrush. I do love it. As a tool it seems to be dying out; airbrush was always more of a commercial art tool, and it's been mostly replaced by Adobe Photoshop and digital tablets. But airbrush still holds a special place in my heart because I know how hard it is to be good at it.

So when Denis contacted me there was no way I could say no. After all, here's an artist who's been using airbrushes almost as long as I've been alive, and look at the work on his Website: Could you tell they aren't photos?

Denis Peterson, installation view, MCNY Next Gallery, 2006 I arrived at the Metropolitan College of New York's Next Gallery twenty minutes early so I could have a look at Don't Shed No Tears before meeting with Denis. I was surprised to find that the Next Gallery is a gallery in the old sense of the word, which is to say a hallway. It's just a section of the offices of MCNY with students and administrators passing back and forth and paying nowhere near enough attention to the art on the walls.

And the art on the walls: I was immediately overwhelmed by questions ranging from the highest and most abstract down to the smallest and most detailed. These paintings are truly marvelous examples of craft: If I didn't know they were paintings, I would have thought they were color photos inkjet printed onto canvas. From a viewing distance each one is indistinguishable from a photo; up close, the fidelity is astonishing. Each painting has that quality that lower quality digital video can have, where lines resolve into slightly off-register multiple colors, deep colors are flattened, and the dynamic range of saturated colors is clipped.

So many of the questions swirling through my head were practical questions on technique: How were these made? What kind of photos are they based on? What model of airbush was used? What kind of paint? What artistic process was followed? What choices were made?

At the same time, the content of the paintings is overwhelming. Each painting depicts a person or people (or, in a few cases, a neighborhood) suffering. It's not always apparent from the image itself, but the context of the images makes it clear: These paintings are about genocide, death, displacement, pain, survival.

Denis Peterson, installation view, MCNY Next Gallery, 2006 I was most drawn to an arrangement of paintings set up like a photo array. Asians look out at us from poorly developed monochrome photos like mug shots, each wearing a badge with a number pinned to their chest. One woman holds a baby. One woman holds a small child by the hand. There's no defiance, no shows of strength; there's no despair, either, no evidence of hopelessness. There's just the air of an institution, albeit one in great disrepair. Except one color image shows a grinning man in a casual shirt.

We've seen enough evidence of holocausts past to know what this is: These are photos of victims. The explanatory text on the wall beside the image explains but does not explain. These people were Cambodians, imprisoned, tortured, and then murdered, all on the orders of the grinning man.

Viewing these images, any rational being asks why. Why do people do these things? What's the full story behind each of these paintings? And why would someone paint them?

It wasn't long before Denis Peterson arrived and I could ask him some of the many questions I had. We spoke for a couple of hours, and as you'd expect, the bigger questions were never really answered, and the smaller ones, well, they didn't seem as important.

I had expected Denis to be some kind of intense, crazed artist, the kind of person who would pursue a quixotic medium like airbrush and then tackle a huge and difficult subject like genocide. What he turned out to be was a quintessential New Yorker, the kind of man on the street you might ask for directions; he has an air of easy intelligence and the assured physical presence of a craftsman. When he spoke it wasn't with the air of a prophet or madman. In fact he seemed as surprised as anyone that his work turned out the way it did.

It is certainly true that Denis' career in art has taken some turns. Over the course of his conversation I pieced together a rough sketch of his art life. His grandfather was an artist and art restorer who taught him about art, drawing, and painting. His father, on the other hand, steered Denis away from a career as an artist. It didn't work out, though: He went to school for his BFA and MFA, then went into commercial illustration. For years he maintained an art studio on the side, but as his family and his responsibilites grew -- he has six children, two of whom called on his cell while we were talking -- he shut it down. In fact he moved all of his studio -- furniture, easels, paintings, paints -- out onto the lawn in Brooklyn and put up a sign reading, "FREE". And you know how artists are when anything is free; his entire studio was gone in no time.

Now here he is, twenty years later, returning to fine art. He started painting again and doing different things, approaching different subjects. He did a number of large oil paintings in a more classical style, figurative works, sort of portraits. He had enough for an exhibition, in fact, when he started talking to people about putting something up at MCNY.

But as he was planning some kind of exhibit, he thought, "You know, everyone's seen paintings like these. I want to show people something they haven't seen, something really interesting." So Denis began looking for more exotic and interesting subjects. As he did so, he found himself drawn to photojournalism and work from the dangerous places in the world. He began to read more about these places, far away from New York City, where terrible things happen. In spite of himself he began to look, and looking, he couldn't stop. He started writing to journalists and institutions for material; he was surprised to find how interested they were in his work and how much they were willing to support him. They sent him more photos than he could ever use. Pretty soon he was creating the paintings in this show.

Perhaps some of the compulsion comes from Denis' past: His great-grandmother came to America fleeing the inaugural genocide of the 20th century when the Ottoman Turks systematically murdered 1.5 million Armenians. As Denis pointed out, when Hitler was planning his campaign, he asked, "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

Of course today information about such things is easy to come by. The Armenian Genocide has a Website. So this leaves the question of what Denis hopes to accomplish with these paintings. I don't think he knows for sure. He's found a subject which interests him; no, interests is the wrong term. He's not interested. Even he asks: "Why would anyone want to look at this stuff? It's ugly, it's horrible." He seems tired of it, weary of being involved. But he also feels he has to do something, however small. When he started, his hope was that, if a painting sold, he could somehow get some of the money from it to whoever is in it. Now, I think he's happy that people are learning from his work, seeing something they haven't seen before.

It's difficult work. I know from my experience -- I don't think all artists are like this, but it's certainly true for me -- when I paint a person, I fall in love with them. Even if it's a person I've created, just an image on a canvas from my imagination, some part of me falls in love with them while I'm painting them. I can only imagine the emotions involved in painting someone you know has suffered, been tortured, who may be dead, someone you can never know.

So Denis' work is really in spite of his own desires: He'd rather be painting horses at Belmont, or doing sunsets or something. But what he's accomplished is different, more difficult, more powerful, more painful. It may not be something he'd choose for himself, but he's done it anyway.

As to how he does it, well, that's an easier thing to discuss. Denis starts from digital photos. From these he makes changes: He crops them differently, considers different color schemes, removes people, alters compositions. Then he uses an Iwata airbrush through which he pushes various acrylic paints, often using thinned housepaint. He doesn't use paints formulated specifically for airbrush; when he started out in the early 1970s they didn't exist, and he hasn't switched. Denis has an extraordinarily steady hand. There's a story of Leonardo da Vinci drawing a perfect circle at arm's length. I don't know if Denis can draw a perfect circle but he tells me he can freehand a perfectly straight line.

He builds up what he considers thick layers of paint as he goes, getting effects from different levels of transparency. He also goes back in with colored pencils and paintbrush. If you look very closely you can see pencil marks here and there. The effect is miniscule but it all adds up.

Denis Peterson, Waterfront (detail), 2006, acrylic on canvas Denis Peterson, Waterfront (detail), 2006, acrylic on canvas At first glance his paintings seem marvels of precision and in many ways they are. But some of his effects are developed through surprisingly messy work: In one painting there's an almost perfect looking smashed plastic bucket, but if you look very closely you can see a big spray of paint right in the middle of it. You wouldn't think this would work but it does.

Denis told me about a curious technique he learned from his grandfather. Each line you see, he said, is actually three lines. He had some trouble explaining exactly how that worked, but the gist of it is where you think there's only one line, there's actually the end of one material, the beginning of the next, and the edge between them. He applies this to his paintings and it gives his work an interesting shimmer: The lines don't always match up flawlessly and that accounts for the off-register digital video coloration.

Denis Peterson, Journey of a Thousand Nights, 2006, polyvinyl on canvas Of course it may also be fidelity to his source materials. The photos Denis works from are sometimes heavily compressed and full of digital artifacts, and Denis, when he likes the effect, faithfully reproduces them. It's actually quite amazing. I've worked with digital image formats for years and have a very good eye for picking up certain features, so when I looked at Denis' Journey of a Thousand Nights, I was astonished to see what was clearly JPEG compression artifacts in the background grass. I wouldn't have believed anyone could reproduce them by hand, but Denis has.

As I mentioned earlier, though, Denis doesn't just reproduce photos. In fact one of my biggest questions was, "Why paint a painting which could be a photo?" Denis' answer involved some handwaving, but in the end it all comes down to the basic premise of art: That an image filtered through the mind of an artist has a value over a mechanical reproduction. The photos from which he works, Denis says, are just part of what he uses to create his paintings. Many details are added by his imagination; elements are emphasized, some are removed entirely. In Waterfront, the original photo had families posing in the foreground; Denis didn't put them in his painting. He's very conscious of the art involved in composing his images. He's very thoughtful regarding things like facial detail -- "I left these undefined because I wanted them to be timeless, like this scene is endless, just an endless line of women bringing firewood" -- and balance -- "I added this necklace because I wanted something detailed over on this side of the painting".

Denis Peterson, Don't Shed No Tears, 2006, acrylic and oil on canvas, 24x36 inches Denis taught me a little about photorealism, too. The photorealists, he told me, only painted as much detail as was needed to get the idea across. They sought the absolute least amount of fine detail which would make a viewer think they were seeing a photo -- and no more. Denis calls his style hyperrealism because he adds more detail than any photo would ever show. In Don't Shed No Tears, for example, he was painting the wrinkles under the woman's eye as he saw them in the photo. And then he added some, thinking, if these are here, why not these?

In sum, then, these paintings might appear to be photos, but they depart significantly from being mere reproductions of photos. And I think, too, there's a feeling from them best described in a lyric from Don McLean's song "Vincent": "Weathered faces lined in pain/Are soothed beneath the artist's loving hand". When Denis paints the portraits of twenty-nine Cambodian prisoners, he tries to paint them the way they might want to have been seen. These are people to him, not just masses of color to be blocked in.

There's not much more to say that the paintings don't say themselves. They are extraordinary paintings from an extraordinary artist.

Denis doesn't want to be known as the Genocide Painter. Who would? He's afraid of being pigeonholed: He can't take much more of this topic, he told me. But I have to wonder, how do you step away from something like this? How do you go back to painting horses at Belmont? Denis might say, with relief. Maybe. Maybe the subject's not important. Maybe an artist can make important art out of commonplace things.

But then maybe we need people to look at the bigger things, the darker things, the difficult things. Maybe we need people who can look on these things with compassion, with love, with care; people who can bring back something of beauty from the places where life is at its ugliest. Maybe we need people who can remind us what being human is all about, its best and its worst.

Denis Peterson may not want to be one of those people. But then he may not have a choice.

Chelsea Gallery Slog 2


It was time for another Chelsea gallery slog. I'd missed too many openings I wanted to see; there was nothing else to do but set aside a day to go from gallery to gallery. There were shows I simply couldn't miss, paintings I had to see for myself.

My partner in this venture was Stephanie Lee Jackson, also known as Serena. (Online she's more of a Serena than a Stephanie; in real life, she's more of a Stephanie. Serena has some sharp corners and rough spots, but Stephanie is pleasant and less serious.) She made the mistake of agreeing with me across a few blog comments and I liked her writing on her blog, so she got invited. Some of the shows on my list overlapped with shows on hers so she accepted. We met at the Empire Diner, a landmark so obvious tour buses stop there for photos; then we started at the bottom end of Chelsea, 18th Street, and worked our way uptown to 27th.

Our odyssey began at Bellwether Gallery with

the Clayton Brothers

More than one person has asked me what I know about the Clayton Brothers: Is there more than one person really? Are they really brothers? As near as I can tell there are two of them and they are, in fact, brothers. But I don't really know them, either. One thing I know for sure is that they're angry about something. You can tell from their paintings. They're just obviously pissed off. About what I have no idea.

The Clayton Brothers, Fluff, 2006, oil on canvas Their current show at Bellwether tackles a very important subject too often ignored by mainstream art: Laundry. The show is titled Wishy Washy, just in case you couldn't tell from all the Pop Art-inspired boxes of Tide and bottles of Clorox and, you know, washing machines. And Lysol, although what Lysol has to do with laundry I am unsure. In case the clothes washing doesn't quite get through to you, though, the little laundromat installation in the middle of the main room will bring it home to you. As usual, I can't tell what the Clayton Brothers really feel; they seem angry, as I said, but in a very non-specific way. I don't think they're angry at people who do laundry, but maybe they're mad about the very fact that anyone has to do laundry; I find their paintings totally opaque. Everything seems weighted with some kind of symbolism but the meaning is unclear to me. And as the great sage Roger Ebert teaches us in his Law of Symbolism: If you have to ask what something symbolized, it didn't. What are we to make, for example, of the numerous squirting eyedroppers being wielded in several of the paintings? The obvious thing is to say they're phallic symbols. But then what? Whose phalluses? Why?

Visually the Clayton Brothers are as entertaining as ever. In fact I like these better than their previous works; from what I've seen, their paintings tend to be cluttered with far too much detail, as if they figured they could throw in everything they'd ever imagined into each and every painting. There's usually way too many things going on in all corners of the canvas for me to really feel good about their work. The paintings in this show are more focused, more pared down. There's still a lot happening, but at least each work now feels like it has one or two points of focus instead of a hundred little scattered spots. Of course their wild style is still in evidence: 1950s linoleum patterns, objects breaking out into geometric explosions, strange ethereal tentacles of color extruding themselves across the space, words emerging from the background noise. The surface of the canvases show evidence of collage and so many layers of paint you have to wonder how they know when to stop. There's airbrush and oils, splatters and drips, careful drawings and chaotic passages. And of course they still have a great sense of color.

The Clayton Brothers, Wishy Washy installation view, 2006 The laundromat installation is completely superfluous. I don't know if it's there to pad their resume or maintain some kind of Conceptual Artist membership, but it's not especially interesting, except in bringing up those practical questions I love to ask: Does the gallery give the artist a budget for this kind of thing, or does the artist save up to pay for it themselves? Where does it go when the show is over? Are there collectors who buy these things and put them in their living rooms? Stephanie said it was very nearly a rip-off of another artist who apparently does these kinds of things all the time; I forget the name. It doesn't really matter to me. I don't think it's worth attempting to assign blame for installations.

Ultimately both Stephanie and I kind of liked the Clayton Brothers show but didn't feel very strongly about it. The work is interesting, nice to look at, not bad, but in the end nothing very exciting, either. The next gallery was totally different, at least for Stephanie; as soon as we walked into Feigen Contemporary she fell in love with the work of

Jennifer Coates

I'm afraid I have to admit Jennifer Coates' show wouldn't have been on my list if it weren't for Ed Winkleman. He posted about how much he loves her work and, because I take recommendations seriously when they come from people I respect, I put Jennifer on my list. The images of her work online don't excite me, honestly, and her style is not one I'd go out of my way for.

Jennifer Coates, Creeper, 2006, acrylic on canvas, 60x72 inches But this is why I follow recommendations: I was pleasantly surprised. I found I actually do like Jennifer's work. I think the show's signature image, Two Trees -- apparently her latest painting, and the one you can see on Ed's blog entry -- is the weakest of the group; she has two larger paintings which work much better, to my eye. Each painting in this show combines vast sweeps of color with tiny, obsessive passages of great detail. And each one has vague intimations of landscape. Two Trees is the most obvious and that, to me, is a drawback. I prefer her Creeper, which has subtleties you can't make out in the reproduction: The middle section looks like an eruption of worms, boiling out of the filmy atmosphere of the place-no-place of the painting.

Jennifer's paintings are all slightly unsettling, like viewing an alien world which isn't so much malevolent as simply indifferent. There's a jungly closeness to them. I like the way she moves back and forth between slapping down huge swaths of paint with a big brush and carefully dotting in tiny spirals with such care I can see the shape of the brush tip and tell when she stopped to repoint.

That said, I didn't think Jennifer's work was the most extraordinary thing I'd ever seen. Stephanie, however, stood rapt. She spent ages in front of one painting. When I had told her Jennifer's show was on my list, Stephanie said she had to go because she felt Jennifer's paintings "had something to tell" her. Stephanie therefore went to listen and listen she did, and I don't think she was disappointed. While Stephanie communed with Jennifer's art I took a wander around the rest of the gallery.

Susanne Simonson, Winter-silence, 2006, oil on panel, 49x48 inches Susanne Simonson's work has the feel of a dream, in that you think there's more detail there than there really is. At a glance there's something photographic about her paintings, but when you really look, it turns out to be vague and amorphous. Some of the paint is laid on very thickly and stickily; other areas look almost like watercolors. The feeling I got was a touch of Francis Bacon, only without the anger; Bacon without anger doesn't leave much, though, and that's how I felt. There are some distant vibrations here -- puberty, childhood, being a young girl, uneasiness -- but everything is so vaporous, tentative, and indefinite; I felt like my hands were closing on smoke.

Nick Blinko, purple ember chamber, c. 1998-2006, color inks on paper, 16.5x11.5 inches Nick Blinko, purple ember chamber (detail), c. 1998-2006, color inks on paper, 16.5x11.5 inches By contrast, the drawings of Nick Blinko, hiding in the back of Feigen, are intensely detailed and frenzied. And where Susanne's paintings are ambiguous, Nick's drawings are pretty clear. I guess you can't just write "RELIGION BAD" over and over, but Nick's heavy-handed use of religious imagery is close. Still, as I've mentioned more than once, I love obsessive drawing, and these drawings are pretty insanely obsessive. If ever there was someone who could wear out a 0.13mm Rapidograph, it's Nick Blinko. A couple of the drawings had so many tiny faces I had to stop looking because my brain was full. Sure, they look a little like the schoolbook of a Mexican Goth in Catholic school with ADHD, but that's not such a bad thing.

Meanwhile Stephanie was still standing agawp in front of Creeper. I managed to wake her up and get her moving again, but she just wasn't the same.

Next we went up to 23rd Street and Leo Koenig where we got a look at

Nicole Eisenman

Unfortunately, due to Edna's blog entry, I will now always think of Nicole Eisenman as being "equipped." I wanted to see Nicole's show mainly because of Edna's entry; the painting also looked interesting. The show is essentially one painting: There's some other stuff, but the main attraction is Progress: Real and Imagined, an enormous diptych, fifteen feet long and eight feet high.

Nicole Eisenman, Progress: Real and Imagined, 2006, oil on canvas, 96x180 inches I wish someone would break up this diptych. The left side is pretty good: An artist (I assume Nicole) is surrounded by pressures and influences, including painted and unpainted pieces of canvas added collage-like to the surface of the larger painting and a big globby mess of paint meant to symbolize, I'm pretty sure, a big globby mess of paint. There's a lot of detail, some abstract passages and some realistic; there's plenty to look at and think about. Nicole's technique is good and I was drawn in.

The right side, alas, is a repulsive wreck, more in keeping with Nicole's somewhat childish and obvious oeuvre. In a big painting with a lot going on, the most glaring vignette, to my eye, is near the lower left, where a nude woman who appears to have been shot in the head is giving birth; she is attended by two people who appear at best diffident, and the baby's head seems to be tearing apart the mother's vagina. I couldn't make out too many other details as well as that. Stuff is going on. None of it is even remotely nice. Nicole's technique is brutish here. I can't say much more beyond that because I can't make out the tiny reproduction and I didn't examine the original more closely. Some artists apparently think if they work large enough, it lends their otherwise shallow ideas some gravity. Some artists are wrong.

The rest of the work in the show is, again, more in line with Nicole's established work, which is to say messy and not very engaging. In fact I have no direct memory of any of it and Koenig's Website isn't helping. Stephanie picked up negative vibes immediately and didn't want to hang around.

We next found ourselves on my favorite street, 25th, where we started at Gallery Henoch which was showing

Stephen Wright

I'm starting to think of Gallery Henoch as the Home of Technique. The director, George Henoch Shechtman, has made his taste in painting pretty clear: He likes realism and he likes artists who can draw and paint, and he's not having any truck with abstract nonsense. This makes any visit to Gallery Henoch a good one for me because I'm always so easily seduced by academic painting.

Stephanie was drawn to the downstairs part of the gallery, for reasons beyond my understanding, so we actually started off sampling the many artists of the gallery. You can go to their Website and get an idea of what we saw; I was struck particularly by Eric Zener (whose show I already wrote about briefly) and Trey Friedman. Popliteo (Luis Montoya and Leslie C. Ortiz) had a neat sculpture of asparagus; Henry Richardson had a stack of glass plates pressed against the ceiling which I nearly tripped over.

Stephen Wright, Waiting, 2006, oil on canvas, 66x44 inches Eventually we made our way upstairs and to the main gallery. Stephen Wright's work is absolutely fantastic. Some of his larger figurative work (like what I'm showing here) is edging towards Lucian Freud, but with a little more humanity. Some of his other paintings are flatter and less dense. Sometimes it looks like he's working from photos; other times he's so painterly it's almost frightening. All of his work feels a little detached, as if he's capturing what someone looks like whether they like it or not. But his feel for skin and light and shadow is so emotional.

His drawings in the show are more informal and relaxed, almost like cartoons or caricatures. That makes me feel even more as if Stephen works from photos; the drawings are clearly done without photo references, and his anatomy is all distorted. Also, and unfortunately, he's drawn some cats.

I came away from Stephen's show wanting to be a better painter. I'd prefer to take away something more powerful, something really profound. But I'm still happy to see what human beings can accomplish when they put their minds to it. Sometimes excellent craftsmanship is enough.

Next door at Betty Cuningham we wandered in to a show which was not on my list, namely that of

Judy Glantzman

Judy Glantzman, Untitled, 2004, oil on canvas, 80x90 inches I'm sorry to say that Judy Glantzman's work is the opposite of anything you'd find in Gallery Henoch. It is, in fact, blobby, indistinct, interchangeable, forgettable work. Included in the show are a number of blobby, indistinct, interchangeable, forgettable sculptures, too. Hundreds of badly formed faces peer out of the morass of paint at us, crying out, "Save us! Free us from this blech!" But they will never be freed.

"I'm not inspired," said Stephanie.

"I am," I replied. "I'm inspired to leave."

Which is how we ended up at 511 West 25th Street, my favorite address in Chelsea, because I can always stop in there and see Valerie McKenzie. First, though, we went through George Billis to see

Stanley Goldstein

Stanley Goldstein,  Developé, 2005, oil on panel, 22x31 inches I'm not sure now what made me want to see Stanley Goldstein's show. Some image must have caught my eye. Looking over the Website now, and trying to think back on the show, I can't imagine what that was. I actually completely forgot the entire exhibition almost while I was looking at it. It's not bad; it's just not really anything. I can't say a lot about it. It's, like, motel room art.

Is that an insult?

Can I temper it by saying at least Stanley isn't

Salvatore Federico

Salvatore Federico, Hannah, 2005, acrylic on canvas, 36x83.25 inches "You know, sometimes I think it'd be so nice," Stephanie said, upon viewing Salvatore Federico's paintings, "It'd be so nice to be an abstract artist. You get up in the morning, tape off a section of canvas, fill it in, and you're done for the day."

I agree. I could never do that, day in and day out, without my final work being what hits the canvas after I shoot myself in the head, but on the days when painting goes badly, the idea of being able to just mark off geometric shapes and color them in is so tempting.

Also in 511 is the Robert Steele Gallery, which was showing

Carole Robb

Carole Robb, Roof-Top Fountain, 2005, oil on linen, 62x62 inches Carole Robb is another artist I can't say a lot about. Her work looked kind of interesting online, and it looked slightly less interesting in person. Women, sphinxes, Greco-Roman decorations, it went in my eyes, sat in short-term memory, and then got lost. But standing in the back of the gallery was a really fantastic work by

Josh Garber

Josh Garber, Aloft, 2005, stainless steel, 106x68x53 inches Josh Garber's dynamic steel sculpture, Aloft, simply stole the whole gallery. It's vibrant and exciting and just really, really cool. Like a crazed rollercoaster or insane Hot Wheels track. You look closely and you see two layers of steel tubing welded into a skeleton-like framework; step back and it twists all around itself. It's Giger and it's minimal and it's fast.

Eventually we made our way upstairs to see Michael Lyons Wier, like I always do, and also Valerie McKenzie, because I love her. I've already reviewed both of their shows; Stephanie totally fell in love with Julie Allen's work, apparently having more of a context for it than I did. Stephanie and Valerie walked around the gallery several times discussing and praising the work while I trailed behind, woefully left out. Lyons Wier-Ortt has Amanda Besl coming up, and McKenzie Fine Art will have a group show, World without End; both look worth a trip.

We left 511 and went around the block to 26th Street, back to the building with the old manual elevator, to see

Anne Thompson

Anne Thompson, Plaid/Volume Notation, 2005, acrylic on canvas, 60x48 inches at Hudson Franklin. Again, I'm not sure what I saw online that made me think I wanted to see Anne Thompson's paintings, but she was on my list, so we went in. Stephanie almost immediately needed to leave because the paintings made her dizzy. I had to agree; while they weren't as inventive or insanely complex as Susie Rosmarin, Anne's paintings are indeed likely to induce headaches. Susie's work is mostly about geometry and less about color; Anne's work is all about color, and how clashing hues and mismatched patterns can affect perception. Neat Op Art. And to one side Anne had two absolutely massive sheets of paper carefully filled with curious symbols, like some giant Rosetta Stone in an unknown cuneiform. Also neat. Not too exciting, but good if you like that kind of thing.

After that we tried to go see Toshio Iezumi at Chappell Gallery; alas, the show had closed, so all we could do was eyeball what we could through the gallery's glass door. Toshio's glass sculptures looked beautiful even from our distance. We were sorry we missed the show.

Next up was a show we were sorry not to have missed, namely

Dawn Mellor

I think I just have to accept that whoever's running things over at Team Gallery and I would not get along. This is the second show I've seen there where the art was so dreadful, so crass -- I've seen a lot of art in Chelsea which was not, to my mind, very good, but generally I feel, if that's what you want to make, then make it. If sculpting poodles out of aluminum and Cracker Jacks is your idiom, then by all means go for it. I don't want or need to see it but then I don't have to. But this is the second time at Team I've seen paintings where I wish someone would talk to the painter and convince them to take up a profession where they can't do any more damage, like chimney sweeping or dry cleaning. I really think the world would be a better place if people like Lisa Ruyter and Dawn Mellor would stop painting.

Dawn Mellor, Fuck the Mothers, Kill the Others, 2006, oil on canvas, 90x102 inches Dawn's paintings are just plain ugly. Nasty, stupid, shallow, worthless -- even to compare these paintings to crap would be unfair to crap, which after all has its uses. One denizen of a painting had a fistful of paintbrushes shoved up their ass, and I honestly can't find a better metaphor for what I thought of these works. I want to put the word "art" in quotes when discussing them. They're hateful and awful. Now, you might be saying, but Chris, the name of the show is We Hope You Choke. What were you expecting? Good question.

Art doesn't have to be pretty. It doesn't have to be pleasant. Art can be angry and ugly. But art has to be adult. It has to have maturity. A childish tantrum isn't art. An adolescent stomping her foot and slamming her bedroom door isn't art. And Dawn Mellor's paintings are just that, in paint. Puerile hissy fits frozen forever in polymerized vegetable resin so we can look at them and think, "Grow up, loser."

Team's Website asks this question of Dawn's work: "Is this a mature or appropriate response to the problems at hand? An answer in a roundabout way might be provided by a return to the initial moment of the punk formation...." What the dopes at Team fail to realize: The Ramones and the Clash didn't have MAs from the Royal College of Art.

Stephanie was immediately turned off, of course, and made dismissive noises about student-level work. We migrated into the back room. For a moment we stood there talking. Stephanie was telling some story about a gallery director she'd worked with and the room was very quiet because we had Team almost entirely to ourselves. The room was cool and far from the street. I could hear Stephanie really clearly for the first time that day and so I listened, trying to enjoy this moment.

Stephanie stopped midsentence and said, "Can we leave this place?"

She was right. The paintings actually oppress the space in front of them. Just standing there we felt like we were being bombarded with radioactive badness.

Lucky for us our best stop was our last stop: We visited Ed Winkleman and ended up talking to him for almost half an hour. And not about art -- about politics. It was a good way to wrap up the day.


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