I'm a bad person. I've seen some shows and failed to write them up. In particular I saw a show from an artist I like, whose shows I've reviewed before, and who personally invited me, and didn't write a single word about it. How ungrateful! And it's not even as if I didn't like the show.
I've just been sincerely and entirely unmotivated. The few times I've tentatively extended my snout from my burrow it got smacked by one thing or another, so I've stayed snug in here, catching up on my reading and, um, watching the housework pile up. Every so often I observe with interest as my wife vacuums the living room or mows the lawn.
Just a moment ago, however, I got e-mail from that artist again. Not personal e-mail, just something for his mailing list. He notes that his show is coming down this Saturday -- two days from now, in fact. And suddenly guilt washes over me. So I began typing this up.
Last month I went to the Jonathan LeVine Gallery for the opening of "Three Handed" (until May 7, 2010), a show of painting featuring, rather pedantically, three artists: Eric White, Nicola Verlato, and Fulvio Di Piazza. Eric invited me, I've seen Nicola's work before (but didn't write it up) and had never heard of Fulvio. Also, in the other half of the gallery, painting duo the Date Farmers -- Armando Lerma and Carlos Ramirez -- had a show called "Smother Your Mother" (also until May 7, 2010).
The gallery loses points for not letting me in early for the opening. I understand they were still setting up for the party, but, come on, the paintings are on the wall and I was over a half hour too soon. What was I supposed to do for thirty minutes in Chelsea when all the galleries are closed and opening parties haven't begun?
Enough whining from me. I needed the exercise of walking around the block anyway. I came back on time and took in the show, not to mention two bottles of ice cold water for the road. Take that, free gallery show!
Even with three painters this is a tiny show. Eric only had two paintings in it; Nicola two paintings and two small sculptures; and Fulvio had five paintings or so. Anyway there are five on the Website now.
Eric White, Massacre of the Innocents, 2010, oil on canvas, 4x16 feet
Eric makes up for his small numbers by having one of them be a very large painting, and obviously the one of which he's most proud, since he didn't mention the other one in his invite. It's titled Massacre of the Innocents and measures sixteen feet by four. I can't match the description from the gallery verbiage so I'll quote it here:
For his largest work to date, Eric White takes inspiration from Bruegel’s Massacre of the Innocents -- which documents Spanish infanticide in 16th century Flanders, and stands as a condemnation of war and its resulting atrocities. White’s version translates these ideas into contemporary terms, as American involvement in war has become so established and enduring that it ceases to be shocking. In the painting, idealized monochromatic female figures referencing '40s-era Hollywood starlets wander nonchalantly across a war-torn cinematic landscape. The war motif is paralleled by themes familiar to the artist’s work, including psychological dysfunction, nostalgia, the dream state, and the limits of perception.
(Not only does Bruegel's painting reference Spanish (and Walloon) atrocities in Flanders, of course it also references the story from the Gospel according to Matthew where King Herod orders the execution of all male children in and around Bethlehem in an effort to kill the baby Jesus. It was the practice in Bruegel's time to portray Biblical events in contemporary costumes and locales.)
I've come to think over the past few years that a larger painting sort of automatically gains a certain extra power. At least in my case, I think having a painting fill my field of view puts it partway to giving me that indescribable feeling I get from looking at great art. Size isn't all of it -- I've seen plenty of big paintings I didn't like and some small ones I did -- but I'm starting to feel it's part of it. So I can say Eric's Massacre of the Innocents gave me a little jolt just from its size.
Eric White, Massacre of the Innocents (detail), 2010, oil on canvas, 4x16 feet
Then I looked at it some more, let it unfold, and was less moved. As the gallery verbiage says, this painting contains Eric's standard figures, these sort of Lana Turner women considering the world with solemn faces on a surreal kind of stage set. Over the years I've grown suspicious, in a way, of artists who repeat rather theatrical motifs. Having an obsession is okay, I suppose, but I've ended up wondering if so many artists are truly obsessed -- or have merely found an appropriate vehicle for their concerns -- and how many are just attempting to build a brand name. When you say this to artists they get really huffy -- understandably -- but the thought nags me just the same. So when I saw that the largest figure in the group is holding a scrap of a newspaper comic page -- with a bit of Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy (straight, as I found out while researching this review, from the Nancy Wikipedia page) -- I was actually mildly annoyed. Leave it to some hipster slinger of irony to take a weighty theme like the Massacre of the Innocents and slip in some pop culture idiocy!
But I returned to the painting after circling the gallery and suddenly was struck by a wave of sadness. Massacre of the Innocents: The woman isn't holding a burned fragment of a comic strip so the artist can keep an ironic distance from the subject. It's a fragile memento of a child.
This changed my feeling towards the painting. I now feel it's more sincere. Its sincerity is couched in the tropes the artist has been working with, and I feel those tropes are unnecessary and diminish his efforts slightly, but still it is sincere.
Certainly Eric is, technically speaking, an excellent painter. He lacks the high gloss of a true academic realist, but that's his strength: His paintings are much more alive than most stuffy realism. There's a lot of empty space in this painting but none of it is dead -- the whole surface is active. And of course his control of tone and composition is very good. In terms of the mechanics of painting, you could hardly find anyone better.
This shows in his other work here, a smaller painting, monochrome like the other, titled Portal. Once again he's got his atavistic woman right up against the picture plane and drastically cropped, but the rest of the painting consists of an evocative winter scene of concrete steps ascending a wooded hill and a pair of bare legs descending. It's quite lovely, and a bit wistful seeming, and I really wish he hadn't put that 1940s starlet in it at all, but she is rendered well.
Nicola Verlato, Cleveland Mississippi, 1932, 2010, oil on linen, 78x96 inches
The other two painters don't acquit themselves as admirably. I loved Nicola's previous show, at Stux back in 2007, and in fact was writing something new about him when Eric wrote to me. So I had been looking forward to seeing more from Nicola; but the work here disappointed me. He's still a fantastic technician, pulling off the kind of elaborate tableaux of twisting musculature you might find on a Late Renaissance ceiling, with a good sense of color and form. But to what end? The one full-size, finished painting here -- the other one looks more like a grisaille with pencil lines showing -- shows an incredibly well-muscled Robert Johnson selling his soul for guitar greatness, here symbolized, I suppose, by the flying tangle of ripped dudes in masks wrestling with a flaming Stratocaster. The Devil meanwhile strums out a smokin' chord of his own. Er, okay. I'd like to say this scene vibrates with the energy of a Clapton solo, but it actually sort of sits there, overstuffed, like a Joe Satriani song. It's loud, it's fast, it's bravura, and ultimately it goes nowhere, does nothing. Aside from shout "modern-day myth"!
Nicola's other painting, the title of which is probably longer than the painting is wide, is even more noisy and less interesting. A gaggle of naked people wearing masks are invading a room, mostly from the left, and shooting at some guys in clothes. I imagine I could read the title and make up some sort of drama for the whole thing but I really don't want to.
Nicola has two sculptures here, also, proving that he can sculpt almost exactly the same as he can paint. Which is fairly impressive when you look at it one way, and entirely uninteresting if you look at it the other. Which is mostly how I saw it.
Fulvio Di Piazza, Untitled 1, 2010, oil on board, 15.75x11.75 inches
Fulvio Di Piazza, meanwhile, has the most work in the show and yet the absolute least quality. Technically his paintings of fantastic and impossible landscapes which also resemble faces are good -- the colors are realistic, compositions balanced, and there's lots of fiddly little detail like leaves and roots and tiny, tiny pebbles -- but they add up to even less than Nicola's figures. They're fantasy worlds just waiting for twee fairies and grumpy dwarves to be laid over them on acetate. Or maybe for Greg Hildebrandt to paint some guys with glowing swords over them. In fact either fate would greatly improve them. As it is they're just background without foreground and not terribly interesting.
The Date Farmers, Don't Give a Damn, 2010, mixed media on metal, 21x23.75x1.5 inches
After going through the main show I went over to see what the Date Farmers had on offer. As near as I can figure their main purpose was to make the other room look really, really good. At this they succeeded wildly. Their messy, graffiti-inspired, clunky, incompetent, wheatpaste and collage work simply made the more traditional painting next door look like the second coming of Michelangelo. If there are dumpsters out behind the Apostolic Palace, this is what the graffiti on them looks like. Armando, Carlos, seriously: The palm dates are calling.