Monday, November 24, 2014

Martin Puryear at Mathew Marks

Stand amidst the sculptures of Martin Puryear and you are aware that he is one of the few living artists whose work consistently communicates wit and visual eloquence. On exhibit at Matthew Marks (through January 10, 2015) are ten recent sculptures executed in a variety of woods and metals. Although these pieces do not have the monumental impact of works in his 2007 exhibit at MOMA, they are enormously satisfying.  Puryear's devotion to craftsmanship is evident in the meticulous and elegant realization of each piece. His manipulation of materials serves to expand our expectations of their properties, while his manipulations of a single form suggest new ways of seeing it. In this exhibit, Puryear takes the form of the Phrygian cap (more on this below) and offers it up whole and in parts--sensuous, obstinate, uncertain, decorative.

Begin with Up and Over, a modestly sized piece in cast ductile iron. The form is organic, almost anthropomorphic, as it curves over and presses tightly against itself. There is a tenderness to this piece that completely subverts the hardness of the iron. I find it captivating from every vantage point.  
UP AND OVER  2014   cast ductile iron    18 5/8 x 26 1/2 x 12 3/4 inches


Contrast that with Big Phrygian in the next room. It is a hulking piece of painted red cedar that sits heavily and unyielding. Constructed from multiple layers of wood veneer, it is stubborn in its redness and has a cartoonish quality to the shape. Nothing about it entices me to linger. Yet when I draw close, I see the irregularities in its surface, perhaps a hint of vulnerability. This piece also represents the most overt representation of the Phrygian cap (see more on this below).

BIG PHRYGIAN  2010-2014   Painted red cedar   58 x 40 x 76 inches

Another of the variations on the form is evident in the open network of Untitled, one of the larger pieces on exhibit. In this piece, although the saplings have been bent and tied together, Puryear has left the wood in its most natural state.

UNTITLED  2014   Hardwood saplings, cordage   174 1/2 x 148 x 52 inches

Puryear is known for his exquisite craftsmanship with wood and in this exhibit he puts his skills on display. He makes use of a variety of woods (among them tulip poplar, pine, ash, holly, ebony, yellow cedar, and red cedar). Puryear works the wood to various effects -- in several pieces, paper thin layers of wood are joined into curving forms, while elsewhere, thicker pieces of wood are joined to build torqued arches and bulbous volumes. 

CASCADE, 2013  Alaskan yellow cedar,  66 x 54 3/4 x 17 inches

CASCADE  detail

QUESTION  2010,  Tulip poplar, pine, ash     90 x 109 1/4 x 34 1/2 inches
QUESTION  detail

PHRYGIAN PLOT  2012   Inlaid holly and black dyed veneer   60 x 74 x 4 inches

Puryear paints some of his pieces, some to a delicate and organic effect as seen in Shell Game, in others (as in Big Phrygian) with a heavy intensity, and in still others (such as Faux Phrygian), his brilliant colors serve to emphasize the geometry of the forms.

SHELL GAME  2014   Tulip poplar, milk paint    56 1/4 x 72 x 9 1/2 inches

Puryear's wit can be seen in how he titles each piece. The word cascade generally evokes a powerful downpour, while Puryear's Cascade is delicate and turns back up on itself, defying the downward pull. Rather than concealing something, as usually occurs in a shell game, his Shell Game is cut open to reveal its hollowed out and delicately painted innards. Puryear pulls out all the stops with Faux Vitrine, a display case that tilts in such a way that anything placed on its shelves would slide right off.  Approach it from the another side and this colorfully painted piece morphs into something else entirely--devoid of color and optically confusing with shelves of polished stainless steel. Many people in the gallery did a double-take, perhaps thinking they were looking at two different sculptures.

FAUX VITRINE  2014   Mirror polished stainless steel, curly maple, black walnut, marine plywood, Japan color     73 3/4 x 46 1/2 x 40 3/4 inches


Another element of Puryear's work is its political/historic content. Historic references were noticeably present in several of the pieces in the retrospective at MOMA. (For more about that as well as other insights into Puryear's work, read sections of John Yau's recent article in Hyperallergic).    

In this exhibit, the Phrygian cap (also called a 'liberty cap') is a recurrent reference point. This soft, conical cap, often depicted in red, first appeared in antiquity and can be seen in Greek sculpture and vase paintings. It was also associated with a felt cap worn by emancipated slaves of ancient Rome. Later worn by the sans-culottes during the French Revolution, it signifies freedom and liberty. (For the trivia nerds among you, the Phrygian cap also appears in the coat of arms of Haiti, the Seal of the US Senate, the War Office seal of the US Army, on several state flags and in the coat of arms of Argentina. Small images appear at the end of this post.)   

In the press release for this exhibit, Puryear states "Although I was certainly aware of numerous depictions of this cap in European and early American art when I began work on the Big Phrygian sculpture, I only discovered the engraved image of the black man wearing the read Phrygian cap.... years afterwards." The engraving, which dates from 1794 when slavery was first abolished in France, includes the caption "Moi libre aussi" (I am free too).

The cap appears in its most visually explicit form in the large, red Big Phrygian. With Shackle, Puryear combines a reference to the shape of the cap with a ring evoking the chains which shackled the slaves. Executed in iron, the sculpture is small but emphatic, with a subtly textured surface. 

SHACKLED  2014   Iron   27 1/2 x 30 5/8 x 8 3/8 inches

While clearly referencing both the historic symbolism of the Phrygian cap as well as its shape, perhaps Puryear is also making a personal statement about his freedom as an artist.  But whether or not you choose to consider his intentions, go see this exhibit for the joy of his artistry.  

A selection of Phrygian caps in art and politics .......


Saturday, October 18, 2014

Altoon Sultan | McKenzie Fine Art

After following Sultan’s work for several years via her blog and FB, I was delighted to see the exhibition at McKenzie Fine Art in New York (up through November 16).  I first wrote about Sultan’s work two years ago here, highlighting her prints (potato and cardboard) and textiles (hooked wool drawings and textiles), which demonstrated her facility working with simple forms and at times pedestrian materials to produce bold and playful images.   

Sultan is an artist whose work cannot be neatly categorized, whether one considers her imagery or the medium. Rather than confining herself to one primary direction, she pursues several parallel bodies of work. What they all share is her pursuit of elegant geometry, subtle use of color, as well as her expertise and delight in the process of making. 

SULTAN, Curves and Square, 2013   Egg tempera on parchment stretched over wood panel    6 1/2 x 7 1/2 inches
This show, which includes nearly thirty pieces, offers quite an array of work by this versatile artist – intimate paintings executed in egg tempera, drawings on hand-toned paper, and hooked wool wall textiles.  Although linked by her attention to balancing form and color, each medium offers Sultan a different expressive vocabulary. It is also clear that for Sultan, preparing the materials is an engaging and meaningful part of her practice. The egg tempera paintings are executed on calfskin parchment stretched over wood panels; she hand dyes the wool for the textiles, and hand-tones the paper for her drawings.

The hooked wool textiles are the most reductive and visually striking of all Sultan’s works.  While the geometric forms are bold, the hooking process yields a rich surface texture comprised of numerous small strokes, gently undermining the minimalist sensibility of the compositions. Additionally, the size of each ‘stitch’ is such that the forms are often imperfect, with irregular edges. Although Sultan sometimes dips into illusionist space in this body of work, most of the textiles are strong figure/ground compositions. So while many of her textiles give a hat tip to Russian constructivism, those formal inclinations are balanced with a bit of whimsy.  (It is unfortunate that only five of Sultan's textiles are included in the exhibit, not giving them the presence they deserve).

SULTAN, Red Bars, 2014   Hand-dyed wool on linen    12 x 10 inches

SULTAN, Blue Arc, 2014   Hand-dyed wool on linen    25 3/4 x 12 inches

The drawings (egg tempera and graphite) on hand-toned paper seem to reflect another aspect of Sultan’s aesthetic—and I find viewing them to be somewhat spiritual, not unlike the meditative effect of Tantric drawings. In various interviews, Sultan mentions that this body of work was prompted by time spent at the Islamic wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Sultan tones the papers in hues ranging from subdued to saturated, and each sheet is rich with the irregularities of the dying process. Along with the overlay of painted forms, the networks of intersecting circles (drawn in graphite) remain quietly visible, hinting at the many possible directions inherent in each piece. These drawings have an air of mystery and merit slow looking.


SULTAN, #5, 2012   Egg tempera and graphite on hand-toned paper   15 x 15 inches
SULTAN, #31, 2014   Egg tempera and graphite on hand-toned paper   15 x 15 inches
SULTAN, #9, 2014   Egg tempera and graphite on hand-toned paper   15 x 15 inches

Sultan’s very intimate paintings (several as small as 6 x 8") are derived from her photographs of farm machinery, and focus on the geometry of the forms. By zooming in and closely cropping her images, she essentially rules out a consideration of subject matter. Rather, Sultan concentrates on capturing light and shadows, and juxtaposing small elements of these machine-made implements against one another, all in service to the composition. Yes, there is light and shadow -- pointing to depth and illusion, yet these are not depictions of objects. The irregular silhouettes of the shadows add a bit of surprise and spatial ambiguity to the compositions. Elements of the man-made world have been distilled and transformed into elegant, carefully balanced abstractions.

SULTAN, Blue Verticals, 2014   Egg tempera on parchment stretched over wood panel    8 1/4  x 6 1/8 inches

SULTAN, Light Fingers, 2014   Egg tempera on parchment stretched over wood panel    6 x 8  inches

SULTAN, Red Hose, 2014   Egg tempera on parchment stretched over wood panel    6 1/4 x 8 1/4 inches

SULTAN, Linked, 2014   Egg tempera on parchment stretched over wood panel    5 1/4 x 9 1/2 inches

Click here to read a 2013 interview with Sultan, conducted by Jeff Hogue on Figure/Ground. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

On exhibit: Deborah Zlotsky, Ward Jackson, and Yoshiaki Mochizuki

In this post:

DEBORAH ZLOTSKY  at Kathryn Markel Fine Arts, through October 11
WARD JACKSON  at Minus Space, through October 25
YOSHIAKI MOCHIZUKI  at Marlborough Chelsea, through October 11 

Autumn in NY is off to a bountiful start with numerous exhibits featuring the many guises of abstraction. At its most superficial level, the thread that ties these three exhibits together is quite simple: I am enthralled by the work. But digging deeper, each artist reflects a clarity of vision along with a devotion to craft, and each artist's work reflects a distinctive approach to abstraction that incorporates elements of geometric forms.

Deborah Zlotsky: It happened, but not to you (Kathryn Markel Fine Arts,through October 11) features eight knock-out paintings chock full of muscular volumetric forms that are stacked and torqued through space. Zlotsky's constructions appear at once massive and floating, which sometimes twist open to reveal hollowed out interiors. These trapezoidal masses are anchored to one another, yet seem ready to separate and hurtle off with a gentle shove. A dynamic unfolding permeates Zlotsky's paintings, unlike much hard-edged geometric abstraction.

DEBORAH ZLOTSKY    A tricky subject, 2014     48x48 oil on canvas   (image courtesy KMFA)

detail from A tricky subject
DEBORAH ZLOTSKY   Mermaid thoughts, 2014   60x72   oil on canvas  (image courtesy KMFA)

detail from Mermaid thoughts
DEBORAH ZLOTSKY   The Inundation, 2014    48x48 inches     oil on canvas    (image courtesy KMFA)
detail from The Inundation

Zlotsky's palette is replete with assertive colors and burly forms, combined with fantastical compositions and a painterly approach.  A close examination of the paintings reveals planes painted with subtly modulated hues, as well as surfaces rich with drips and dings--elements that show the history of the making. Additionally, the robust forms are occasionally punctuated by tender pictorial elements (easy to miss from the distance)-- a delicate glass tube in one spot, or a needle-like mass in another

In her statement, Zlotsky states that things ordinary and familiar (from her surroundings or memory) are the starting point for each painting. Through a process that she describes as "accumulation and revision, accidents repeatedly redirect me, blurring my understanding of the differences between accident and intention, memory and history."

To see more work from this exhibit, click here.

Ward Jackson: Black & White Diamonds 1960s (Minus Space, through October 25) focuses  on his black and white, geometric compositions on diamond-shaped canvases and also includes a series of sketchbook pages.
In contrast with Zlotsky's colorful and compositionally complex paintings, Jackson's work elevates the power of austerity. The surface of these paintings is unarticulated, consistent with Jackson's overall minimalist approach. Elegantly installed in arrays that reflect pages from Jackson's sketchbooks, these paintings demonstrate his methodical exploration of minimalist compositions working variously with balance, symmetry, and pattern.   All photos in this section, courtesy of Minus Space.

Installation view,   WARD JACKSON Black & White Diamonds 1960s  (photos courtesy of Minus Space)
WARD JACKSON   Interchange V, 1963    34 x 34 inches   acrylic on canvas

WARD JACKSON  Untitled (Studies for Reverse), circa 1963-64     4 x 6 inches    graphite on paper

WARD JACKSON   Untitled, 1966   17x17 inches   acrylic on canvas
Installation view      WARD JACKSON Black & White Diamonds 1960s 

Jackson described his work during the early 1960s (from the press release for the exhibit): "The diamond shape (or square on end) has the meditative power of a mandala and expands in a way that an ordinary square does not, since the measurement of the diameter across the center is wider than any of the outer or peripheral edges."   Additionally, by rotating an inherently stable form and balancing the compositions on the tip, Jackson offers us compositions that are both refined and dynamic.

The inclusion of sketchbook pages is an additional treat because we can see how Jackson conceptualized this series and then selected specific compositions to develop into paintings. 

To see more work from this exhibit, click here.

Yoshiaki Mochizuki: Grey Noise (Marlborough Chelsea, through October 11) is a gem of a show that invites quiet contemplation. Meticulously constructed with many layers of gesso, clay, graphite and palladium leaf, these intimate compositions (several as small as 10.5 x 10.5 inches) offer an indeterminate and ever-changing viewing experience. Several of these pieces appear as a field with hints of an underlying grid, while others are developed with layers of lines that form overlapping planes and simple geometries.

Limited to black, white, gray and silver, the heavily burnished surfaces of these panels appear very matte from the distance. But moving in closer or when viewed from an angle, the surfaces shimmer and reflect innumerable specks of light. Step closer still and you see that the surface is rich with tightly packed incised lines. The areas that had appeared as a dull white actually have a highly polished silvery sheen flecked with bubbles and imperfections.

YOSHIAKI MOCHIZUKI  Untitled, 1/31, 2014   14 x 14 inches    gesso on board, clay, palladium leaf
detail of Untitled, 1/31
YOSHIAKI MOCHIZUKI  Untitled, 6/10/13, 2013   14 x 14 inches    gesso on board, clay, palladium leaf
same panel seen from an angle

YOSHIAKI MOCHIZUKI  Untitled, 7/2, 2014   14 x 14 inches    gesso on board, clay, palladium leaf
The process of layering and polishing, incising the lines, and the repeated reworking of the surface carries through into the experience of viewing Mochizuki's work -- we see one thing, it changes, we look away and it changes once again. 

To see more work from this exhibit, click here.