The Potent Imagery of the Rhino Horn Group

“I don’t know what the future will consider our mainstream or sidestream or whatever to have been, and I am not concerned with that. I don’t think the kind of art you refer to is art at all. When poetry is about how to write a poem and when painting is about how to paint, etc, it becomes pseudo. It doesn’t breathe. It doesn’t derive from life and doesn’t move to life. It is anti-human because it is about an alienated process. Most of that trend is something [that] is about and for the sake of nothing. It doesn’t even reach the level of the obvious. There is the idea that people will bring their own experiences to the work and use it as terms of reference for their own creativity. That all sounds fine but it is not very interesting most of the time. Why bother with it? People who do that kind of work avoid the responsibility of being a creator with a viewpoint. My work [takes] an entirely different direction. I think the kind of work I do reaches back to our sources and also reaches forward. I don’t like to talk about it too much however, because such talk always sounds pretentious.” – Nicholas Sperakis quoted from an interview with Dan Georgakas in 1975, published in Nicholas Sperakis, Woodcuts. (New York: Smyrna Press, 1976).

“Most of the art in New York during the 1960’s and 70’s was abstract. There was a very small amount of painters that worked with figures and expressionism. I was an expressionist, and so were some of my friends, so we decided to form an international group called Rhino Horn. What an ugly name, right? [He laughs] But it worked perfect for us because we didn’t want to do anything tasteful.” – Peter Passuntino, quoted from “I’m a Sunday Painter Too”

“Anything that stops the mind is idolatry” – Jay Milder

Both in their individual works and as a collective, the Rhino Horn members felt that it was their calling to create artwork that would be shocking and poignant—artwork that would reflect the issues of their times and that would thus contrast with the consumer based imagery of Pop Art and the hard edged abstraction of the 70s.

With the exception of the works of Bowman and Fauerbach, Rhino Horn represented a continuation of the stylistic movement begun by the post-war Figurative Expressionists. In addition, several of Rhino Horn’s members were inspired by contemporary artists who had fallen out of vogue with contemporary art critics, including such populist artists as Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), Chaim Gross (1904-1991), Raphael Soyer (1899-1987), Philip Evergood (1901-1973), and Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949). Even more than a stylistic or aesthetic movement, however, the Rhino Horn members regarded themselves as a humanist art collective. This aspect of their work was even more central to their identity than was their use of expressionism, although it was the combination of these elements that was most responsible for the artistic cohesiveness of the group. The members wanted to expose the absurdities of such social phenomena as racism, war, organized religion, and mass consumerism, and their cohesive strength lay in their collective humanist ideology. The work of the Rhino Horn Group challenges the viewers perception. The intent is not to change minds, but to influence the viewer’s subconscious and empirical rationalization.

A number of recurring themes can be traced across many of the works of the Rhino Horn artists. One example is the theme of poverty and social class. Andrews encountered so many homeless individuals on the street outside his studio on Manhattan’s Lower East Side that local poverty made an even deeper impression on him here than it had in the rural South or in Chicago. His early collages, such as Beggar Man (1959), reflect the gritty appearance of life on the streets of lower Manhattan.

Bill Barrell, Red Bag Crossing, 1977, Mixed media, 70 x 66 in.

Bill Barrell, Red Bag Crossing, 1977, Mixed media, 70 x 66 in.

The downtown streets also inspired Barrell, and in a Rhino Horn exhibition at the Tomasulo Gallery at Union College in Cranford, New Jersey, he exhibited a series of collages and paintings that featured the textures and objects of city streets.

Bowman’s collages used materials from the rural and urban working environments, such as tattered rags, and presented imagery that reflected the struggle and the helplessness of the typical working-class American family. Milder used the subway and urban culture as settings for mystical subjects by conflating psychology of the unconscious mind and the esoteric teachings of Kaballah to Old Testament tales. It was through this philosophical and spiritual process that he combined contemporary life with pre-history. Living and working on the Bowery and Lower East Side, influenced Sperakis to create a series of works (paintings and woodblock prints) centered on the despair of the homeless. The impersonal and overbearing nature of the urban environment can be seen reflected repeatedly in the sculptures and paintings of Fauerbach.

Another common theme in the work of the Rhino Horn artists was their collective rejection of war and violence. Passuntino created grotesque graphic images of the spoils of war, while Andrews created allegories illustrating the physical and psychological effects of modern warfare on the populace. Dean’s burlesque paintings satirized American military exploits—in particular those associated with the Vietnam conflict—and Passuntino, Dean, Andrews, Milder, Sperakis, Isser Aronovici, and Leonel Góngora all variously depicted the violence and oppression imposed out by corrupt individuals, religious orders, and governments.

Collectively, these artists had grown up with the “American Dream” and had watched it turn into a nightmare either for themselves or for those whom they saw struggling around them. They believed in the United State’s post World War II identity as a “melting pot” in which the races and classes mixed together, but they experienced a world in which many groups were systematically and maliciously held back from enjoying the same freedoms as the wealthy and powerful. There was also “melting pot” of artistic styles, including the established first and second generations of abstract expressionists and color field painters, the nascent figurative painters, and the emerging minimalists and pop-artists. These were only a few of the many creative movements that were appearing in the downtown galleries. However, as in society at large, not every movement had equal access to the public’s attention.

Each of the artists in Rhino Horn had a unique, individual style, which they contributed to the unabashed imagery of the Rhino Horn as a collective. Andrews and Bowman used collage and imagery from their own lives and experiences to narrate their stories of the human condition. Andrews’ work reflected his perspective as an African American on such themes as war, racial segregation in the South, and the experiences of common people in their work and leisure activities. Bowman, drew his inspiration from his family roots in a Pennsylvania mining town.

Benny Andrews, War Baby, 1968, oil and collage on canvas, 35 ½ x 25 ½ in.

Benny Andrews, War Baby, 1968, oil and collage on canvas, 35 ½ x 25 ½ in.

As one of the few African American artists at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, Andrews consciously chose to produce work that was familiar to him rather than to experiment with the unfamiliar influences of the dominant formalist movement. Thus, his depictions of Post-World War II America frequently reflect his personal experiences. For example, in the late 1960s Andrews created a series of collages depicting the soldiers who returned from war—demoralized, mentally broken, and physically bloodied. The painting War Baby (1968) illustrates the psychological impact of modern warfare in the distorted face of a soldier weathered by battle. In his hands is the limp body of a lifeless baby. This chilling painting depicts the casualties of war in an uncompromising manner and points clearly at the effect that wars have on future generations.

Benny Andrews, American Gothic, 1971, oil and collage on canvas, 60 x 50 in.

Benny Andrews, American Gothic, 1971, oil and collage on canvas, 60 x 50 in.

Andrews depicts the dehumanizing effects of war again in his collage American Gothic (1971) —a reference to the 1930 painting of the same title by Grant Wood, which is one of the most iconic American Social Realist paintings. When Wood’s painting first appeared, many art critics—such as Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) and Christopher Morley (1890-1957)—assumed that it was meant to be a satire of rural life. However, with the onset of the Great Depression, the painting came to be seen as a depiction of the steadfast American pioneer spirit. To many during the Depression Era and thereafter, it endured as a popular image honoring the value of provincial living. Andrews improvised on Wood’s painting by depicting a faceless, naked, and defeated high ranking officer hunched down on all fours while a black woman sits dispassionately on his back, holding a cocktail sized American flag. In Andrew’s composition there is no glory in the defeated soldier or in the grave expression on the face of the woman. Nationalist identity appears depleted, exhausted, and discomfited.

Benny Andrews, 1968, oil, collage, wood, canvas, and chains, 70 x 28 x 25 in.

Benny Andrews, 1968, oil, collage, wood, canvas, and chains, 70 x 28 x 25 in.

Another familiar subject in Andrews’ socially themed works from the late 1960s is the identity African America society under segregation. For example, in his mixed media collage A Man and His History (1968) Andrews juxtaposes images of culture, domesticity, and folklore from African American history with others from the contemporary problems afflicting African Americans such as segregation, violence, and intolerance, to stress that his ancestors’ experiences and those of his contemporaries are roughly analogous. In this collage, Andrews uses oil paint, wood, and chains to depict a figure chained to a podium, suggesting that modern society is still not ideologically free from its history of slavery. Similarly, his painting The Unmentionables (c.1970) depicts an interracial couple in the foreground looming over a landscape filled with allusions to war and peace, echoing the unresolved racial tension and subjective justice of the Reconstruction era (1863-1877).

Bowman also drew on his heritage and his personal experiences to depict his perception of American culture and industrious roots. In his case these roots are bound up with the mining town of West Leisenring, Pennsylvania, which is represented as if it were stuck in time around the turn of the twentieth century. Bowman’s collages are visual relics from a past life that he had seen only through vintage photographs taken by his wife’s grandfather. These photographs were passed down to Bowman by his father-in-law, who was familiar with the people and places depicted.

Ken Bowman, West Leisenring 2, c. 1970, 7 x 8 ft.

Ken Bowman, West Leisenring 2, c. 1970, 7 x 8 ft.

Bowman’s description of his artistic process in a self-published Rhino Horn catalogue appears contradictory, yet it reflects his work succinctly: “I think of Russian icons, Japanese motels—work and leisure. Not always in that order.” Bowman’s collages are more closely aligned with the paintings of the Social Realists of the Depression Era than with the work of most of his contemporaries. His collages and mixed media works—such as the seven by eight foot West Leisenring (c. 1970) —typically depict a predominantly working class, provincial lifestyle from the past. In stark contrast to the constantly changing contemporary world, Bowman depicts the foundations of working class life. The figures in these collages are ghosts from the past. In West Leisenring, the figures of the men and boys who work in the mine are blended into the background, yet Bowman’s use of collage brings dimensionality to their rough and weathered faces. Clinging Vines resembles an old family portrait in which the sitters are wearing clothes from an earlier era, presented on canvas as a collage that incorporates photographs and strips of weatherworn cloth.

Bowman’s collages and paintings are sometimes sullen in tone, capturing harsher moments of life and often portraying such subjects as blue-collar laborers, drunks, hunters, medical operations, poor families, and overflowing tenements. His frequent, although not exclusive, focus upon poverty and the daily realities of urban and rural post-industrialized experience show a rough and familiar life expressed through the blank emotions and helplessness on the faces of his subjects.

In contrast to Bowman’s dark and often gritty realism, Jay Milder created brightly colored, expressionist, allegorical scenes that juxtapose the metaphysical world with contemporary life and, in so doing, explored elements of the unconscious. Milder applied enlightenment philosophy, Jungian dream theory, and the esoteric teachings of Kaballah to Old Testament tales combining contemporary life with pre-history.

Milder was endowed with a personal spirituality that came from his observation and application of the Jewish Kabbalah, Eastern spiritual practices, and the liberal ideals of ancient and enlightenment era philosophers like Plato and Spinoza. Milder considered the way he created the colors and textures on his canvases to be like that of an alchemist. Volcanic ash is combined with acrylic paint and other pigment to create rough organic surfaces onto which he scrawls symbols, figures, and numbers. These psychic manifestations of the unconscious resemble and juxtapose modern graffiti, cave paintings, and ancient relief carvings.

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Jay Milder, Subway Runner, c.1964

Milder showed his first major series of large-scale works, called Subway Runners, at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York City in 1964. Painted in layers of color and form, his subway runners seem to be in a state of motion, protruding out of the canvas plane. Milder had a long-standing interest in depicting time and space in his work in order to reflect the reality of individuals in a constant state of flux.

Jay Milder, Expulsion IND, 1966, oil on Canvas, 34 x 36 in.

Jay Milder, Expulsion IND, 1966, oil on Canvas, 34 x 36 in.

In the 1960s, Milder also began to paint a series of large works inspired by the Old Testament, which he called The Messiah Series. By 1966 he had created over 200 medium sized works on canvas that depict biblical vignettes in a style similar to the Figurative Expressionism of the mid-1950s. In works like Expulsion IND (1966), and Inside the Ark I (1970) he incorporates Old Testament tales into contemporary urban life. In these paintings, the allegory of original sin is reflected as a new myth, one in which the streets are paved with gold; as in the Garden of Eden, however, temptation has come—this time in the form of contemporary materialism. In such works Milder reveals an absurdist leaning, merging the sacred with the profane in mythical works that feature animals and humans reveling in sinful activities and portraying the corrupt visions of a man-oriented universe rather than a pantheistic universe. His figurations use recurring symbols, intended as basic archetypes of humankind’s pursuit to make something that is at the same time elemental and informed by conscious intellect.

By working in a non-linear fashion, often revisiting previous ideas and methods—though always viewed through new empirical lenses—Milder created a body of work that built naturally upon itself, evolving throughout the years based on the artist’s emotional and spiritual explorations. However, the constant and dominant element in Milder’s painting is his moral narrative. His work implies both optimism and caution, as seen in the expressions of his half-human, half-bestial figures and other fantastical characters. For Milder, his method is Kabbalistic in that he takes a passage from the Bible and studies it in many lights through ancient spiritual texts: its Hammurabic legal meaning, its Talmudic and Midrashic meanings and related commentary, and even its Freudian elements. According to Milder, this method allows him to “distill all this information; and working in a trance-like revelation I am able to make new commentary on it.”

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Jay Milder, Kabbalah 12, 2008, Mixed media on canvas, 46 x 44 in.

Since the 1970s Milder’s oeuvre has expanded to include a series of abstract figurative paintings depicting Noah’s Ark (Fig.15). In these paintings, Milder relies on the Kabbalah and its numerically based interpretations of biblical events. He takes the biblical story of Noah’s ark to signify a boundless balance between the human spirit and the cosmos. While the blotting of the rainbow symbolizes the physical pollution that exists in the world, Milder’s vibrant colors, organic textures, and metaphysical numerology are indicative of the “unblotting of the rainbow,” or removing the spiritual blockage and renewing the covenant between humankind and God. These paintings are intended as a celebration of collective spirituality and are vessels for enlightened spiritual expression, much like the teachings of ancient Jewish mysticism and Theosophy.

In a similarly ambitious engagement with a variety of antecedents, Bill Barrell drew inspiration from sources ranging from older European modernists such as Picasso and Matisse to American contemporaries such as Thompson and Grooms. He also developed a strong affinity for color and perspective through sitting in on Hans Hoffman’s critiques in Provincetown. He paints precisely what he feels, making his style evocative of an autobiography in which he engages in a dialogue with his own history as well as with the history of art. He draws upon specific events and memories in his life as the starting point for a stream of consciousness and artistic enthusiasm.

Bill Barrell, Small Pothole and Drain, 1977, oil and collage on canvas. Courtesty of Bill Barrell.

Bill Barrell, Small Pothole and Drain, 1977, oil and collage on canvas. Courtesy of Bill Barrell.

However, Barrell’s work also reflects careful observations of his surroundings. For example, at a Rhino Horn exhibition at Union College in 1978, Barrell displayed a series of mixed media works that resembled parts of a city street, commenting on the lack of cleanliness typical of the cityscape through a representation of the relics and ruins of contemporary culture. One collage, Small Pothole and Drain (1977), consists of asphalt-black paint, crushed bottles and cans, cigarettes, an Afro-pick, and a shredded newspaper wedged into a street grating. Barrell also responded to war and social injustice in his work, a subject that affected him as a English youth during the Blitzkreig. A particularly brutal and affecting image is Child Killers, a painting that was triggered by  the Mai Lai killing during the Vietnam War.

Bill Barrell, Child Killers, 1980,  oil on canvas, 14 x17 in.

Bill Barrell, Child Killers, 1980, oil on canvas, 14 x17 in.

While Passuntino, Dean, Góngora, and Sperakis each employed his own distinct artistic style, their works can be treated as facets of a single movement. Characteristic of this movement, or sub-group, is the use of fantastic imagery juxtaposed with elements from American history to create potent and grotesque expressionistic images that lament over the struggles of the human body, spirit, and psyche in the modern world. Each of these artists, created a personal mythology and burlesque fantasy through which to narrate a scathing commentary on war, poverty, and organized religion.

Peter Passuntino, War Birth, Peter Passuntino, War Birth, 1969, Ink, chalk, and watercolor, 14 x 14 in.

Peter Passuntino, War Birth, Peter Passuntino, War Birth, 1969, Ink, chalk, and watercolor, 14 x 14 in.

Passuntino’s paintings reference the Old Masters, Mexican Modernists, and European Surrealist painters to create a statement for social and political reform, knowing that through art these concerns can be uplifting. He incorporates a lively palette, not unlike that of the Fauvists or of the early European Expressionists and uses archetypal images such as signs and symbols from ancient and modern civilization, combining fantasy with history and dreams with reality. Passuntino’s work explores the full range of human experience—from the beauty of dream worlds, to the nightmare realities of war. In one set of paintings his subjects are at play in their surrealist environment, while in another malevolent monsters ride war machines among dreary human figures set in fantastical landscapes. War Birth (1969) presents an existential look at the effects of war on future generations, similar to that of Andrews’ War Baby, while Mother of War (c. 1970) shows a monstrous figure composed of various vignettes depicting human nature in its darkest and most raw form. The “Mother” of the title is a crouching nude who is shown in a desolate environment and who carries a small skeleton in her womb. The anti-war theme of this painting recurs in such later works as Perpetual War Machine (2010), in which a surreal machine functions as a conveyor belt, churning out the spoils of war.

Peter Passuntino, Christ Entering New York NO.2, c.1970, oil on canvas, 36 x 45 in.

Peter Passuntino, Christ Entering New York NO.2, c.1970, oil on canvas, 36 x 45 in.

In addition to solemn imagery, Passuntino also employs humor and irony. A large diptych called Christ Entering New York (c.1970) parodies religion, politics, and art in a burlesque parade that echoes James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 (1889). In Ensor’s work, the haloed Christ at the center of the turbulence is in part a self-portrait, portraying the artist as an ignored, precarious, isolated visionary amidst the herd-like masses of modern society. Similarly, Passuntino includes himself as a character in his painting, as a trapeze artist swinging above a chaotic, dehumanized hoard of masked characters, clowns, and caricatures of public, historical, and allegorical figures. The haloed Christ is depicted riding a taxicab and waving to the crowd in a scene resembling a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. A militia of armed soldiers wearing masks that resemble skulls precedes Christ, while a hoard follows closely behind him. The scene also includes figures from other religions, such as the Hindu god Ganesha, Buddha, Lucifer, the Pope, and several animal gods from ancient beliefs—as well as various politicians, who are depicted with beastly features.

Peter Passuntino, The Medici Family of Flatbush Avenue, c.1970, kinetic sculpture, Dimensions variable.

Peter Passuntino, The Medici Family of Flatbush Avenue, c.1970, kinetic sculpture, Dimensions variable.

While Passuntino was prolific as a painter, his mixed media kinetic sculpture The Medici Family of Flatbush Avenue, which he presented in the inaugural Rhino Horn Exhibition, stands out prominently among the works that he displayed at the New School. This sophisticated satire of art history features caricatures of three famous members of the Medici family translated into a contemporary setting that satirizes the contemporary art world of the late 1960s and its economic dependency.

Peter Dean, Peter Dean, Barroom, c.1970, 68 x 102 in.

Peter Dean, Peter Dean, Barroom, c.1970, 68 x 102 in.

Dean’s paintings are also rife with political parody and satire. He used political and social satire, irony, and fantasy in allegorical and surreal compositions. His narratives often reference popular culture, past history, and current events. As Dean described his work in the inaugural Rhino Horn manifesto,

“I am of the future but [I] worship an ancient god. I am a magician who transforms the images of our times into painting. I interpret reality into fantasy and back again. I’m a juggler of color and textures. I’m a seer of the past and a prophet of the future. I ride the hurricane. I walk on the tightrope of sanity. I live on the edge of the world.”

Using thick application of oil paint on canvas, Dean conveyed bold expressive emotion using a colorful, heavy impasto technique to construct flamboyantly burlesque depictions of the horrors of contemporary life. His socio-political paintings lampooned Western history and contemporary societal issues such as war, Americana, racism, capitalism, genocide of indigenous peoples, and political greed and corruption. In what Robert P. Eustace, a contemporary artist who was influenced by Dean, has described as wildly magical panoramic scenes from the bizarre carnival pageant and fantastic drama of life, Dean presented deliberately shocking and grotesque images that offered alternative scenarios to the distortions and myths of the mainstream news and popular culture.

Peter Dean, Evil Eye Drive-in Oil, 1976, 117 x 93 in. Courtesy of The Estate of Peter Dean.

Peter Dean, Evil Eye Drive-in Oil, 1976, 117 x 93 in. Courtesy of The Estate of Peter Dean.

One painting from a series of works inspired by the Vietnam War, Bar Room (c. 1970), depicts several burly, patriotic-looking men arm wrestling in a bar—a piece of archetypical Americana that is undermined by a background of monstrous war machines and winged beasts. Many figurative artists explored themes such as the shallowness of nationalism and the foundation of material culture in violence at the time. However, in describing this series, Dean explicitly distinguished his work with reference to the fantastical imagery that he used: “My Vietnam paintings are not anything like Leon Golub’s…. His are more specific; mine are more fantastical. There is a dragon lady in the painting (Saigon Holiday, 1972), and a winged man with guns on his wings. I wanted to deal with the war, but not in a literal sense.” Through such shocking imagery, Dean’s paintings call upon the viewer to question the way in which American mythology has been constructed out of black and white heroes and villains that mainstream culture has first oversimplified and then fetishized. A case in point is the painting Evil Eye Drive In (1970), which shows the vulgarity and dismal reality of the Battle of Little Bighorn, an event that has been fictionalized to portray General George Armstrong Custer and the American cavalry as heroic. Similarly, Christmas Card from the Midwest (c. 1970) visually echoes the archetypical Western nativity scene, but with the familiar biblical characters replaced by a dysfunctional and satirical looking modern American family joined by three old men, perhaps caricatures of the Three Wise Men, depicted as Harlequins.

Leonel Góngora,  Exorcismo (from the series The Marquis de Sade in Columbia), 1963, mixed media, 11 x 13 in.

Leonel Góngora, Exorcismo (from the series The Marquis de Sade in Columbia), 1963, mixed media, 11 x 13 in.

The sort of vulgar burlesque element found in the works of Dean and Passuntino is also present in Leonel Góngora’s paintings. However, while Dean and Passuntino—and, indeed, most of the Rhino Horn members—used predominately a rough, gestural technique, Góngora’s style is smoother and more lyrical. In terms of content, Góngora oeuvre is comprised of highly personalized iconography that comments on human struggle, primarily through the interpretation of Latin American culture. For example, his series entitled The Marquis de Sade in Columbia (1963) depicts oppressive forces consuming their victims through violence, Lovers (1973), from his Prisoners of Their Passions series shows the victims consuming each other through sexual fantasy and pleasure. In this respect, the prisoners depicted in this later series could be interpreted as unsuccessfully attempting to overcome the repression and victimization represented in the earlier one. In any case, both series are emblematic both of Góngora’s artistic themes and of the violence that remains all too pervasive in his native Colombia. In addition to this violent undercurrent, his works abound with an overt and poignant sexuality that is represented as struggling to express itself against restrictions.

Nicholas Sperakis, The Pink Stripe Rape, c.1970, oil, coffee grinds, beeswax on canvas, 48 x 69 in.

Nicholas Sperakis, The Pink Stripe Rape, c.1970, oil, coffee grinds, beeswax on canvas, 48 x 69 in.

Like the artwork by other members of Rhino Horn, Nicholas Sperakis’s work also depicted powerfully shocking, graphic imagery dealing with such themes as violence, sexual repression, religious extremism, and poverty. Like Milder, moreover, Sperakis mixed oil paint with other material such as beeswax, hot linseed oil, and vermiculite, to which he added acrylic and modeling paste and built layers up to an inch thick with carved grooves. In addition to collage and large-scale mixed media paintings, Sperakis established himself as a prominent maker of woodblock prints, and his woodcuts varied in size from a few inches across to mural-size. Across these various media, Sperakis explored similar themes and narratives, commenting on the human condition, mortality, the alienation of man in contemporary society, corruption and hypocrisy in organized religion, sexual repression, superstition, and the atrocities of war. Sperakis typically depicts victims of misfortune and their sadistic, masked tormentors as lonely, alienated, decaying figures with rotting flesh, distorted limbs, and tattered clothes. An excellent example is the twisted and mangled figure at the focal point of the painting The Pink Striped Rape (c.1971). The implicit social protest of his commentaries ranges widely, moreover, from the Vietnam War and the torture resorted to by authoritarian states to the psychical degradation of those who have been disregarded and deserted in the urban environment.

Nicholas Sperakis, Absolution, c.1968, oil on canvas, 76 x 73 in

Nicholas Sperakis, Absolution, c.1968, oil on canvas, 76 x 73 in

Sperakis’s resentment of religious fanaticism, too, served as the inspiration for the themes and imagery in many of his works. Sperakis grew up surrounded by the dogma of the Greek Orthodox Church, and as an artist he rebelled against the church’s rigid taboos through a potent and shocking visual language. His work in this vein deals largely with the cruelty that is propagated in the name of religion, a phenomenon that he represented through images such as ghoulish figures of priests and religious icons shown victimizing the bodies and minds of the common people. In works like The Metamorphosis (1965), Sperakis shows such religious figures as parasitic monstrosities feeding off the spirit and brainwashing the minds of their followers. In this particular print an Orthodox cleric, with four arms is spewing venom, in the act of converting a kneeling supplicant. This scene is reflected in a large and vibrant painting titled Absolution (c.1968) in which a four-armed Orthodox cleric is performing “soul cleansing” acts on a tormented individual. The thought process behind these and similar works is well captured in Sperakis’s comments from a 1975 interview:

“Isn’t a religious situation of the Greek Orthodox variety one of great cruelty? In fact it’s one of sadism. They try to control the bodies and minds of people in a restrictive and repressive manner. My woodcuts [therefore] show people caught up in circumstances [that] deform them.”

Nicholas Sperakis, Marat Writing His Message to the People, 1969, oil on Lucite, and coffee grounds on canvas, 80 x 50 in.

Nicholas Sperakis, Marat Writing His Message to the People, 1969, oil on Lucite, and coffee grounds on canvas, 80 x 50 in.

Sperakis’s Marat/Sade series (started in 1968) inspired by two radical figures from France—Jean-Paul Marat (1743-1793) and the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814)—deals with struggle, opposition, and personal conflict. Through imagery and symbolism, Sperakis explores the contradictions inherent in these two historical characters, and he shows the effects of the self-inflicted psychical torture that occurs when people try to conceal their true identities. According to the artist, the figures in this series wear masks and play the roles that they once dreamed or dreaded their real lives would take on, yet they are oblivious to how they appear to others.

Similarly, in his Bowery Series (started in 1968), Sperakis depicts the dehumanizing effects of urban life through the homeless men and women he witnessed daily outside his studio. On this theme, Sperakis later reflected:

“There is nothing to idealize in the total degradation I could view daily from my window. The debased state of these people is not something they bring on themselves in the manner of the legendary hobo, if such a person ever existed. You see them with rags in their hands wiping the windows of cars stopped at traffic lights. You see them crash to the sidewalk in a stupor. You see the dirty rags on their wounds, their broken mouths, and their disconnected eyes. In the summer, they are covered with vermin and in the winter, they often freeze to death. The only reason I had that studio [in the Bowery] for as long as I did was that it was one of the few I could afford at that time.”

Sperakis was moved by the daily struggles that the homeless men and women faced and angered by the apathy that society had with respect to their plight. Unlike his other heavily symbolic works, the images from his Bowery Series offer a realistic depiction of the impact of society’s disregard.

Michael Fuaerbach, Co-Op 1, c.1969, sculpture, 61 x 42 x 27 in.

Michael Fuaerbach, Co-Op 1, c.1969, sculpture, 61 x 42 x 27 in.

The final founding member of Rhino Horn, Michael Fauerbach, also had a studio on the Bowery. His artwork differed notably from the largely expressionistic and colorful painterly styles of the other Rhino Horn members. Although he also produced paintings for some of the Rhino Horn exhibitions, Fauerbach was the only original member who worked primarily as a sculptor. On the whole, his sculptures are dark and existential constructions in which he portrays society as overwhelmed by technology in the medium sized bronze sculptures that he displayed in the inaugural exhibition at the New School, such as Suicide (c. 1970) and Co-Op I (c. 1970). In Suicide, a lifeless human body lies sprawled across a bleak landscape with harsh geometrical buildings towering above. Co-Op I, portrays a sterile architectural environment that resembles a modern public housing complex, in which a faceless couple sits idly in front of a TV set. Such works depict, in the artist’s own words, a lifestyle that “gets worse as it gets better; an environment that becomes inhumane at the same time that it becomes increasingly man-made.”

Michael Fuaerbach, Grove Street Brooklyn, 1984, acrylic on paper, 21 x 15 in.

Michael Fuaerbach, Grove Street Brooklyn, 1984, acrylic on paper, 21 x 15 in.

While Fauerbach’s early work with Rhino Horn was largely surrealistic, and minimal in composition, his later works became increasingly more realistic in rendering the environment. He also chose to focus on the landscape and used the human figure less frequently. He produced fewer sculptures and bas-reliefs and more two-dimensional paintings; much of his later work is made up of acrylic paintings on paper. The images of decaying tenement houses in Jersey City and decrepit barns in the Catskills that appear in Fauerbach’s late paintings convey a bleak outlook for human kind, in which the industrial working-class environment has been abandoned and the urban landscape deteriorated. These traits are seen in his paintings Closed its Doors and Grove Street Brooklyn.

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June Leaf, Mad Woman, ink on paper, 9 ¼ x 5 ¾ in.

Several additional artists were chosen to appear in Rhino Horn’s exhibits because they also presented powerful socio-political imagery and aligned themselves with humanist ideologies. Two such artists, June Leaf and Isser Aronovici, fit in particularly well with Rhino Horn’s style because they employed an energetic Figurative Expressionism. Leaf, the only female member of Rhino Horn produced powerful images of archetypical women and cartoonesque scenes of domesticity. Leaf along with Nancy Spero (a friend of the Rhino Horn Group along with her husband Leon Golub) paved the way for feminist artists, although neither of them have received acknowledgement for doing so.

Joseph Kurhajec, World War I Memorial, 1964, Metal, bone, forged iron, 2’x18” Photo by Charles Winters

Joseph Kurhajec, World War I Memorial, 1964, Metal, bone, forged iron, 2’x18”
Photo by Charles Winters

Another guest exhibitor, Joseph Kurhajec, produced forceful mixed media sculptures that depicted mythical and burlesque creatures (in a manner akin to African and Native American objects of ritual), often in a struggle with themselves, or frozen in a moment of anguish from oppressive forces.

Over and above such elements of stylistic and even thematic continuity, however, Rhino Horn can, as Stephen D. Pepper has suggested, be identified as a “community of commitment.” Their collective concern for the problems of contemporary society, as well as their use of grotesque and burlesque imagery, made Rhino Horn stand out among the artists and artistic movements of the late 1960s and 1970s. Whether or not this made them popular with the leading critics or institutions of the time was a matter of less concern to Rhino Horn’s members than the fulfillment of the commitment by which they were driven and the expression of the imagery that seemed to them to best suit the pursuit of this social, humanistic, and artistic goal. In fact, the disinterest that much of the critical and commercial art establishment displayed toward Rhino Horn’s humanistic brand of art only fueled their pursuit of potent, non-mainstream imagery. They had chosen the name “Rhino Horn” as homage to the toughness of the Rhinoceros and the reputation of its horn for conferring virility.

 

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