The “Mix Master” himself. Self Portrait, 1962, Ink on paper, 18 x 26 in.
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.
Installation photograph of Aaron Johnson: New Paintings. Courtesy of Joshua Liner Gallery.
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.
Gigantomachy II, 1966, oil on linen
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.
While not a consistent member, Joseph Kurhajec was affiliated with the Rhino Horn group on more than one occasion, and displayed his work in some of their exhibitions. He was a longtime friend of the founding members, especially Peter Dean, with whom he co-founded the short-lived “Torque” group, which also included painters Peter Saul and Leon Golub.
Kurhajec, like many of the artists of his generation, was trained in University art programs, and travelled internationally to study the traditional modes of art making. However, Kurhajec’s career trajectory has been anything but traditional. When he first emerged as an artist, whose medium was primarily sculpture, he eschewed the trend of minimalism that had largely prevailed throughout the contemporary art scene of the 1960s. Instead, Kurhajec looked outside of the modern and contemporary art canon and found inspiration and a spiritual connection with the work of African art. He was particularly interested in the symbolism of power within Nkishi figures, and began to wrap his own works in fabric and fur, or attach objects like nails, metal spikes, and animal horns, in order to express social and emotional connections to the natural and spiritual world. Some of his figures combine human and animal imagery and blur the lines between benevolence and malevolence.
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.
Massacre-Boston-El Salvador, 1983, oil on canvas, 84 x 64 inches
Peter Dean, Second Kiss, Courtesy of CCMOA
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.
Peter Passuntino, Mother of War, 1969, Oil on canvas, 69/5 x 61/5 in.
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.”
Dana Schutz’s Open Casket (2016) & Henry Taylor’s The Times Thay Aint A Changing, Fast Enough! (2017)
Every two years, the Whitney Museum presents a survey of the most topical, and aesthetically profound works of art being made in America, at least in respect to the vision of the appointed curator(s). Often this means that there is a certain bias and a string of controversy or criticism directed at the Biennial’s selection and display of artworks. This year’s show was no exception, in fact, the controversy and criticism has been amplified to a level that has not (in my memory) ever been experienced in the show’s history. The following critique will comment upon the controversy around the display of a painting of Emmett Till by Dana Schutz (a white female painter), and compare it to a painting by Henry Taylor (an African American painter) portraying the murder of Philando Castile at the hands of the Police. While Taylor’s painting has been celebrated, Schutz’s painting has faced opposition by those who have advocated not only for its removal from the show, but for its physical destruction.
Benny Andrews, Circle, 1973, oil on twelve linen canvases with painted fabric and mixed media collage, 120 x 288 inches. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery
The Michael Rosenfeld Gallery presents a seminal series of collages and drawings from Benny Andrews’ Bicentennial Series (1970-1976). The series’ six thematic groups that are the basis for this exhibition include the Symbol Series, Trash Series, Circle Series, Sexism Series, and Utopia Series. Within these themes, Andrews reflected on his experience as an African American in the post-civil rights era and during the two hundred year anniversary of the United States of America. At the time series was conceived, it was evident that African Americans had made innumerous significant cultural contributions both locally and nationally, yet their role in shaping American history had been vaguely reported and celebrated. Additionally, the national dialogue surrounding the celebratory attitude of the bicentennial seemed naive and dishonest in light of the social and economic conditions across the country.
Many words can be written about the work of American artist June Leaf. She has maintained a visionary style since emerging as a seminal contingent of post-WWII American artists committed to representational imagery through uniquely expressive means. It’s due time that she’s getting recognition on a grand scale with a major exhibition at The Whitney and a career survey at the Edward Thorp Gallery, where she is represented. Below is a visual essay of the current June Leaf exhibition at Edward Thorp Gallery. The show is on view through June 4, 2016.