January 2009 Archives

Just a quick trip into Chelsea, a surgical strike, as it were, zipping in and out as quickly as possible while still, one hopes, giving the art its due. I probably would've skipped it if not for my new Facebook friend Gary Petersen, who happened to have a couple of paintings in a new show at McKenzie Fine Art, which is pretty much irresistible to me.

Gary Petersen, Departure, 2008, oil on canvas, 50x36 inches

Gary Petersen, Departure, 2008, oil on canvas, 50x36 inches

Gary's a hard-edge abstraction painter, I guess you'd say, with his curving lines and bands of color. He's sort of like Frank Stella without the bombast -- Stella seems to demand that you like him because he's so IMPORTANT while Gary is just there, and you can like him if you want. Maybe that's a function of the scale of the work, since Gary's two paintings together probably don't make a quarter of the area of a typical Stella.

So the paintings won't blow your hair back but they are good, solid works. Jazzy enough to keep from being wallpaper. And I like Gary's color choices. I asked him how he works out his color schemes and he confided in me -- I hope it wasn't too confidential -- that he makes it up as he goes along. He said one of his teachers once told him his color sense was dreadful and he needed a course in color theory, but Gary managed to avoid it, and I like the results.

I wish there were more of his paintings in the show so I could have more to write about them, but there are just the two; and they're the best things there. I can't even be critical of the other work because it slid right past my consciousness like an overcooked egg off a plate.

Next door at the usually uninteresting Jeff Bailey Gallery things weren't much better: A few interesting things sprinkled between some deeply boring things, with a set of paintings kind of in the middle.

Zohar Lazar, Slow Peel, 2008, gouache on paper, 15x22 inches

Zohar Lazar, Slow Peel, 2008, gouache on paper, 15x22 inches

On the interesting side is Zohar Lazar and his part Surreal, part James Rosenquist gouaches. Right there you're thinking wackiness, but somehow the mix is less wacky and more intense, although not, to my mind, as intense as it wants to be. These paintings have all the self-seriousness of classic Surrealism but lack its creepy inscrutability; they don't exactly make sense, but they seem to fit together a little more comfortably than they should. The gouache certainly robs the paintings of some of their impact. Zohar's technique is excellent but the inherent flatness, the heaviness of the medium drags down his imagery. No matter how much you work at it, it's hard to make a car shine in gouache.

Chris Gentile, End Times/Amend Times #2, 2008, C-print, ed. 5, 14x11 inches

Chris Gentile, End Times/Amend Times #2, 2008, C-print, ed. 5, 114x11 inches

Chris Gentile, meanwhile, holds up the bottom end with a short series of hilariously pretentiously titled photos. Photos of...I don't know. Stuff. Maybe not even photos. Maybe Photoshopped images. Maybe raytracings. I have no idea and have no interest in finding out. They're visually inert.

Joshua Marsh, Pitcher (square), 2008, oil on panel, 16x16 inches

Joshua Marsh, Pitcher (square), 2008, oil on panel, 16x16 inches

Somewhere in the middle is the work of Joshua Marsh, whose simple but blazingly bright still lifes invite further inspection and then turn out not to be as interesting as you thought. They look sort of like photo negatives, and studies of negative space, and there's some exploration of shapes within shapes, and then it all sort of fails to come together in any kind of coherent way. There's something here, and I hope Joshua goes digging for it, but at the moment it's not enough.

Finally I stopped in Lennon, Weinberg because I saw some more hard-edge paintings and thought I'd see what it was. It turned out to be Off the Wall, a show mainly interesting for the large number of French people at the opening, there to see, I guess, the five French artists in the show.

The show's gimmick is a lot less fun than that, though. "Off the Wall" -- this one guy, he painted right on the wall! Far out! And this other guy, his sculpture grows, like, out of the wall! Sort of! And this other artist, they piled a whole bunch of boxes!

Maybe Mr. Lennon's dad or Mr. Weinberg's father-in-law is in the housepaint business or something and the gallery's just a showplace for painting over different types of stains -- acrylics! graphite! oil pastel! -- since Stephen Westfall had just painted the back wall of the room which now hosts the pointless scribblings of Gilgian Gelzer.

Off the Wall, installation view (Pierre Mabille, Philippe Richard), 2009

Off the Wall, installation view (Pierre Mabile, Philippe Richard), 2009

Pierre Mabille's paintings -- and don't forget the parts that are Off the Wall! -- are a little better, if, I guess, you really like those little wooden plugs used to repair knots in plywood. In different contrasting colors. Frederique Lucien cuts up her canvas -- exciting and transgressive. And Philippe Richard has a tangle of multicolored sticks which reminds me strongly of something I've seen somewhere else but can't place. Maybe a kid's construction toy.

Altogether deeply shallow. Time to go home!

Josh Garber

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Josh Garber, Fervent, stainless steel, 78x44x34 inches

Josh Garber, Fervent, stainless steel, 78x44x34 inches

I just wanted to mention that, as of my most recent visit to Chelsea last Thursday, Josh Garber's wonderful sculpture, Fervent, as featured on this very page two years ago, is still available from the Robert Steele Gallery. Every so often when I wander by I see it sitting in the gallery and I think, how is this still here? Because it can't possibly be overpriced. It's too good at any price.

I'd miss seeing it, I suppose, but someone should really buy it already.

Marlene Dumas


I wasn't in the Museum of Modern Art to see Marlene Dumas' show there. I was there, along with apparently half of everyone in New York City, to see the Van Gogh show on its second-to-last day. While I was waiting for my Van Gogh ticket time to roll around, I wandered through the building, starting with Marlene. Why not? I'd expected to really dislike it. I've seen her work online and it looks like something I'd despise. Jerry Saltz said it was dreary.

The first thing I thought of at the show was Jasper Johns. The work reminds me strongly of Johns, particularly the recent Gray. One thing Marlene has in common with Jasper is their touch: Marlene has a lovely painterly brushstroke at times, the kind of gestural calligraphy that cries out "I'm a serious painter!" It's the kind of thing that makes me realize why some painters are lauded in excess of their gifts -- if you don't know anything else about painting, if your eye is completely blind to real quality, this kind of brushstroke can appear to be genius.

Marlene Dumas, Self Portrait at Noon, 2008, oil on canvas

Marlene Dumas, Self Portrait at Noon, 2008, oil on canvas

Another thing Marlene has in common with our old pal Jasper is contempt for other people. It radiates off of everything they do, a disapproving frown hanging over all their work. However, Jasper's disdain results in paintings that have little or nothing to do with humans at all -- no relation to their concerns, feelings, or thoughts. In fact I feel his paintings float out in this intellectual vacuum with crystallized vapors of composition and color theory hanging around them in the void.

Marlene's contempt instead seems to have made her very angry. She seems determined to paint the ugliness of people, whether dead or alive, young or old. Her anger even affects her colors: I got the feeling that she looked at the beauty and subtlety of pure, unmixed pigments and thought, "I can't paint the horror and agony of human existence with these. I must make them as unpleasant as possible!" That's how these works are like Jasper's Gray show: Every color has been dragged down towards the low end of the chroma scale. They've all been pounded flat and lifeless, the better to portray the existential anguish of being human.

In this, Marlene is lucky: In the current art climate, ugliness equals honesty. Because her paintings are unabashedly nasty and unpleasant -- even images of babies and pregnant women, and really how much must you hate people to make even them grusesome? -- her work can be freely embraced as being honest, expressive, dripping with meaning, drenched in content, and, as she's female, larded with commentary on the state of bourgeois male-dominated society.

Sadly, this all appears to me to be a pose. If it's not a pose, then it's pathological: Marlene needs Prozac. And if she's not depressed or faking it, then I'd have to say maybe she's just not that good a painter. Maybe this is a case of someone making ugly work because it's the best they can manage. The online verbiage actually uses the phrase "extraordinary technical quality" which is either hilarious or very sad depending on how you look at it; either our civilization's declined so precipitously no one knows what quality looks like any more or the verbiage writer went batshit crazy trying to make Marlene sound fantastic. There isn't even the hint that Marlene can draw very well.

But there is that touch, that brushstroke. It's nice. When it's working for her, it can be quite evocative, elevating yet another painting of a dead distorted person into something, while not exactly beautiful, at least approaching bearable. When the touch is absent, however, the work melts into a distasteful morass of bile.


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