In 2016, I was asked to write about a series of recent work by Judy Adler for her solo show titled The Abuse of Power. In light of the troubling current events surrounding Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged abuses on young women and #MeToo movement in general, I recently returned to the catalogue featuring my essay. It is still one of the more challenging pieces I have ever written. I am publishing a slightly edited version of the 2016 essay below.
Benny Andrews’ prowess as a master of materials and social and emotional narratives is on display in a current solo exhibition titled Mix Master at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida. The exhibition was realized through the collection of works owned by Edward J. Littlejohn, a renowned expert of African-American legal history.
It is fitting that an outstanding scholar of social justice law would collect works of art by an artist who was steadfastly committed to equality and equity. Benny Andrews represented and re-presented the African-American narrative, most notably through his signature mixed-media collages depicting domestic, economic, political, and social themes. Outside of the studio, Andrews fought on the frontline for the equal representation of black artists in the cultural scene. He co-founded the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC), which protested the disproportionate portrayals of black artists by cultural institutions, and created art education programs for marginalized urban youth and for individuals in juvenile detention centers. His work in prisons inspired a national model for youth art programs behind bars. In 1969, Andrews and six other artistic colleagues (Ken Bowman, Peter Dean, Michael Fauebach, Jay Milder, Peter Passuntino, and Nicholas Sperakis) formed Rhino Horn, an art collective that maintained figurative and politically themed art when abstraction and minimalism were trending in in galleries and museums. All of his activist and artistic accomplishments aptly led to his appointment as the Director of the National Endowment for The Arts (1982-84), where he oversaw a powerful platform that advocated for African-American artists who had been largely overlooked by mainstream art circles.
In Mix Master, we are presented with a diverse view of Andrews’ socio-cultural narratives and personal themes from his life as a modern artist. In addition to his expressionistic mixed media works –a combination of paint and found materials such as fabric and burlap– the exhibition features Andrews’ unique contour line drawings, which he created using pen and ink, and some color etchings that demonstrate his skills as an illustrator.
Aaron Johnson, who has been continuously pushing the boundaries of painting, presents recent works at Joshua Liner Gallery that highlight his latest innovate painterly technique: stain painting. Previously, Johnson has employed a “reverse-painted acrylic polymer-peel” technique, which consists of multiple painted layers, separated by a clear acrylic polymer, providing captivating spatial dimensions where sleek vibrant colors appear to pop off the canvas plane. Following his reverse-painted acrylic polymer-peel works, Johnson created hybrid combine paintings using an impasto technique of applying acrylic paint over used socks.
In his latest body of work, exemplified in the current Joshua Liner Gallery exhibition simply titled New Paintings, Aaron Johnson stuns us with another technical feat by staining raw canvas with highly fluid acrylic paint and summoning up throngs of fantastical figures from within the colorful bursts of paint. At this point in his career, Johnson’s signature subject matter is easily recognizable. His bestiaries and burlesque scenes featuring hordes of grotesque figures performing lewd acts and other scenes that would satisfy our nightmares, are a sight to behold and are not for the faint of heart. However, this new selection of paintings feels more ethereal, dreamlike, and pragmatic than anything he’s painted before.
– Ever since the Obama’s portraits were unveiled, there has been a lot of public discourse around their likeness. I recently wrote about how the portraits are important in helping us to experience and connect to our personal/collective identities more repletely. Contemporary art takes time to comprehensively interpret and viewers need to consider the multiple facets and meanings of an artwork when viewing it. The lack of meaningful reflection from many critics of the Barack Obama’s portrait was the basis for Seph Rodney’s article about how many Americans seemingly struggle to engage with art. “The Obama portraits should not be the subjects of hot takes. They are designed to be viewed through the distance of time” writes Chiquita Paschal, who says that the fervor over the paintings shouldn’t come at the expense of critical dialogue.
– Benny Andrews was a great documenter of his era, which included a strong cast of artists, poets, writers, and musicians. Two of Andrews’ portraits featuring his contemporaries will be on view at Forum Gallery in the exhibition titled “Artists By Artists: The Artist as Subject.” The first portrait by Andrews is a mixed media collage and depicts an unidentified poet, while the second portrait, rendered in pen and ink, features the Soyer brothers (Raphael and Moses). The exhibition will be on view through February 24th at 475 Park Avenue at 57th Street.
– Pollock, a play by Fabrice Melquiot, presents a theatrical portrait of Jackson Pollock and his complex relationship with Lee Krasner. However, Paul David Young argues that the play actually upholds the mythos of the ‘heroic male painter’, and does so at the expense of Lee Krasner.
– There is a great profile piece in the New York Times about the San Francisco based artist Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who is the grandson of the founder of the Pakistan Peoples Party (P.P.P.). In his work, which is comprised of visual and performance based methodology, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto “explores the intersection of Islam, sexuality and masculinity.”
Recounting a horrific part of one’s national identity is an excruciating task, more often avoided than addressed directly or repletely. In modern history, Nazi Germany has been a case study of how a contemporary nation heals, reflects, and moves on from the atrocities committed by its previous government. Today, Germany is a pillar of Western Civilization, revered for its economic and social policies. However, the three hundred pound Nazi elephant in the room is still an issue that some of its citizens and elected officials choose to ignore or “deal” with selectively, through banning symbolic references to the Third Reich such as swastikas and Nazi salutes.
Anselm Kiefer’s artwork forces his country to remember how the Nazi’s atrocities violently changed the German cultural landscape during the mid-20th Century. However, instead of appearing didactic and scornful, Kiefer believes that visual art can mend Germany’s sense of pride (or lack there of) for its past. Through his use of Nazi imagery juxtaposed with natural landscapes or cultural relics prior to Hitler’s reign of terror, Kiefer is asking us to question what makes up a nation’s collective cultural identity, and offers a cathartic means for addressing an unforgivable part of a Germany’s history. The Nazi’s may have appropriated many vital elements of German culture, however, should everything they touched (art, architecture, music, literature, etc.) be deemed non grata in society today? Has banning the symbols and rhetoric that the Nazi’s used, changed the fact that Germany is still struggling with anti-Semitism and white nationalist groups? These are some of the ‘big questions’ Kiefer investigates through his visual art practice, which includes painting, printmaking, installation, and photography. Kiefer’s art counters the collective amnesia regarding Germany’s unfavorable history and digs up its skeleton’s for us all to reexamine. By doing so we, the viewers, reflect upon our own collective cultural identity. As Americans, do we not have our own cultural demons to coexist with? We have to remember that political correctness often leads to rash censorship, when it may be more effective to meaningfully address sensitive issues outright. Addressing and presenting uncomfortable and sensitive issues is the crux of Kiefer’s artistic process. Therefore, Provocations is a fitting title for his current solo exhibition at the Met Breuer. If political art leaves us yearning to expose, interrogate, and overcome our sense of guilt through empathy and reasoning, then it has been highly effective.
Upon entry to the 4th floor gallery at the Met Breuer, where Leon Golub: Raw Nerve is on view, viewers are greeted with the colossal tour de force of the 9 feet, 11 1/2 inches x 24 feet, 10 1/2 inches, unstretched, oil on linen painting titled Gigantomachy II (1966). The larger than life canvas depicts a ferocious battle of nude muscular Olympian gods and giants (the title refers to a battle from Greek Mythology), who through a deliberately rough treatment of paint, appear savagely brutalized. Immediately upon gazing at this work of art, we are given an unapologetic overview of Leon Golub’s epic career as a Humanist artist, whose paintings are a scalding condemnation of the evil that men do.
The 19th-20th century philosopher, George Santayana, stated “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Golub’s paintings are a visual paraphrasing of that famous statement. In fact, Golub was an astute scholar of both history and art history, however, he viewed the canonical legacy of both through the lens of a skeptic. Golub references the Western canon of art history in paintings like Dead Bird II (1955) and Colossal Torso (1960), however, his treatment of Classical imagery is anything but glorious, nor representative of the Democratic label that often accompanies Greco-Roman culture. The rough surface texture on Colossal Torso, realized through a process of layering paint and peeling it away again, is akin to the act of sculpting. Golub even used tools that are more common in a sculptor’s toolkit than a painter’s. His additive and subtractive methods of transforming the surface of the canvas result in an unfinished look or a feeling of decay. The material appearance of these rough canvases typically lends itself to strong visceral and reflective feelings from the viewer. The emotional response is further exemplified through Golub’s use of unsettling and uncomfortable subject matter, which is steeped in a grotesque critique of Western empires that span from the Greco-Roman era through the 21st century.
Unfortunately, sometimes the success and recognition of an artist isn’t truly revealed until they’ve passed on from this world. Perhaps, Peter Dean, who died in 1993, was ahead of his time during his prolific career. His most iconic imagery expressed burlesque and grotesque expressions of the social and political turmoil starting with strong reactions to the Vietnam War and continued to make bold commentary on social and political themes throughout the following decades. His talent was recognized by the influential Marcia Tucker, who exhibited his work at the 41st Venice Biennale in 1984. However, Dean’s potent use of the figure and his commitment to painterly expressionism, while that type of painting was being eschewed (see: Pop Art and Minimalism), kept him mainly at odds with the concurrent trends in art during his career. Dean’s subject matter was tough at times, but through careful examination, he was creating poignant narratives that sought to question and scrutinize contemporary life. Upon re-visiting his work today, a viewer might realize that Dean’s response to his era was synonymous, or similarly connected to what is currently happening around us.
Dean painted vibrant scenes from American History, which he interpreted using his fantastical imagination. Through combining history and fantasy, Dean created mythological narratives that invite us to see historical events through new perspectives. For example, one of his most famous works Dallas Chaos (parts I and II), presents several overlapping and conflicting narratives for the assassination of JFK and questions what we think we know as fact and reality, which is all the more relevant in the current era of “Fake News.” Dean was weary about the blind acceptance of things as facts. He understood that events are interpreted and reinterpreted through several lenses, depending on who’s recounting the story and what their motives are. These paintings implore us to question the nature of things more carefully and become more informed about what is going on all around us.
There’s a lot to catch up on in the world of Rhino Horn. Lot’s of current events and recent exhibitions to report on! Full reviews will follow, but for now, here’s a short list:
- Peter Dean: Visions and Fantasies was recently on view at the Cape Cod Museum of Art. The exhibition featured a selection of both real and imagined landscapes as well as the vivid mythical narratives that Dean is most known for painting.
- Works by Benny Andrews were featured in Michael Rosenfeld Gallery’s recent exhibition titled Figuratively Speaking. The exhibition examined works by a diverse group of figurative painters throughout the early and mid-20th century.
- Andrews is also featured in a current exhibition at the Ulrich Museum of Art (at Wichita State University) titled “WE THE PEOPLE: American Art of Social Concern”. The exhibition is on view through March 25th, 2018.
- Joseph Kurhajec was featured at the Outsider Art Fair in New York. He presented a combination of historical works and his most recent works, a series of totemic masks made from palm fronds.
- Jay Milder and Peter Passuntino were part of the seminal group show Inventing Downtown, which debuted last year at NYU’s Grey Gallery in Greenwich Village. The exhibition’s theme explored the plethora of artist run galleries, which fostered an inspirational and experiential environment for many avant-garde artists during the 1950s and 60s. The exhibition travelled to NYU’s campus in Abu Dhabi, where it recently closed. A review was written in Harper’s Bazaar Arabia.
Andres Serrano has explored a number of socially engaged themes in his work throughout the years. From early on, the artist was interested in the power dynamics that exist within civilization. He first came to prominence during the Culture Wars of the late 1980s with a work called “Piss Christ,” which was a photograph of a plastic crucifix suspended within a plexiglass tank of the artist’s own urine. The work is stunning in its formal beauty, and addresses the artist’s faith in Christianity, while being critical of organized religion’s embrace of capitalism and tokenism. Serrano, a self-proclaimed Christian, has been interested in the way humans treat each other in the name of religion, politics, and social justice. He has photographed homeless individuals, the Ku Klux Klan, and bodies in the morgue. He was also previously commissioned by New York Times Magazine to create a photo-essay to accompany a story on the methods of torture that were being used on prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
His current show at Jack Shainman Gallery revisits the theme of torture, through conceptual photographs that recreate horrific imagery of abuse. The photographs were taken inside of a large empty warehouse that provided the isolated and haunting setting necessary for these images to strike a visceral chord within the viewer. There is no obvious narrative, Serrano brilliantly leaves room for our interpretation. We occasionally see the actual victims, however, in the majority of the images, the victim is covered by a hood or obstructed in a way in which we can’t identify them. In the case where there are no figures, we are presented with evocative still lives featuring chains, bloody objects, iron masks, and hulking ominous structures, through which we can only begin to fathom the amount of pain that was inflicted upon the individuals. What we see clearly overall, is the physical and psychological trauma that victims of abuse are subjected to.
During the 1960s the poignant images and narrative of the Vietnam War had far reaching effects on generations of American and Vietnamese citizens. In America, the civilian resistance to this war was wider spread than any previous historical conflict and it gave rise to new forms of progressive grassroots movements that were active in multiple facets of American life. The Anti-War movement was also emotionally supported through the vibrant music and fine arts scene. For example, the cost of the war in terms of physical and psychological devastation was the inspiration for Peter Passuntino’s yearlong series of works that expressed his anxiety and disgust with the Vietnam War.
Passuntino was working as an artist in New York, while the war in Vietnam was happening. At that period, coffins carrying the bodies of young men were arriving in droves, and due to the mandatory draft, friends and loved ones were separated from each other with uncertainty as to whether they’d ever be reunited. The visions and first hand accounts of the trauma surrounding the Vietnam War compelled the artist to create a grotesque vessel, using paint, pastel, and ink, that would express the horrific nature of war and the turbulent issues like social justice that we’re still dissecting and grappling with today. He aptly titled the resulting works “Mother of War.”