The Gods Must be Savage: Leon Golub’s Raw Expressionism

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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.

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Joseph Kurhajec: Inside/Outside

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.

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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.

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Dean’s World

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. 

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Massacre-Boston-El Salvador, 1983, oil on canvas, 84 x 64 inches

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Recent Rhino Horn Related News

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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.

Mother of War

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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.”

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Separate, not equal: A Look at the Problematic discourse of African American subject matter at the Whitney Biennial.

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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.

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Benny Andrews’ Bicentennial Human

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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.

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June Leaf at Edward Thorp Gallery

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.
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Rhino Horn Artist Updates!

There’s quite a lot of exciting news involving past-Rhino Horn artists. Co-Founder Benny Andrews currently has work in a group show titled Hereat the Arts and Sciences Center for Southeast Arkansas. The show, which runs through October 15, 2016, presents a selection of art by African-American artists from the museum’s permanent collection.

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June Leaf, Twin Volcanoes, 1951, Ink on paper, 8.5″ x 9″ Courtesy of Ed Thorp Gallery, New York.

June Leaf has two important upcoming retrospectives in New York City.  The first is Leaf’s major retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which opens tomorrow, April 27th. The exhibition will focus mainly on her incredible large scale drawings. The second exhibition, organized by Edward Thorp Gallery will showcase works in a variety of mediums during her career from 1949 to most recently and will open on Thursday, April 28th. The exhibition will run concurrently with the Whitney show. June Leaf has been represented by Edward Thorp Gallery located in New York City since 1985.

Jennifer Samet recently spoke with June at her New York City studio and has published the inspiring conversation on Hyperallergic in a segment called “Beer with a Painter.

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Jay Milder, # 13, 2016, Oil Stick on Rag Paper, 20″ X 26″, Courtesy of the artist and Quogue Gallery.

Rhino Horn Co-Founder, Jay Milder’s latest work will be on view at Quogue Gallery beginning May 12 and running through June 15, 2016. The exhibition titled Noah’s Ark: Many Views focuses on Milder’s recurring Kabbalistic interpretations of the covenant between G-d and humankind, envisioned through vivid works on paper and canvas that recall spray-can graffiti and embody a brilliant spectrum.

From Mosaic to Man

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Untitled (Two Figures on Mosaic Background), oil on wood mounted on wood shingle, c. 1953, 8 x 10 in. Courtesy of Lori Bookstein Fine Art.

From Mosaic to Man on view at Lori Bookstein Fine Art is a seminal examination of the painter Jan Müller’s (1922-1958) transformative style. The exhibition features a group of early paintings and late that highlight Müller’s transition from painting colorful mosaic-like abstractions to incorporating blatant representational imagery.

Müller is considered to be one of the first practitioners to realize the conflation of both figurative and abstract expressionism during the early 1950s. Upon arriving in New York and Provincetown’s flourishing artist community, the German refugee found artistic kinship from his fellow native countryman Hans Hofmann. Müller studied with Hofmann at his school from 1940 to 1950, and the two German-born painters had great admiration for each other, despite consistent disagreements and passionate debates regarding their diverse ideas about painting. Müller stated (published in Marika Herskovic’s 2009 survey, American Abstract and Figurative Expressionism) “The artist … cannot take flight to the Elysian Fields of the preciousness of perfection, the prism of the eye, but has to deal with matter complex.” This quote was in stark contrast to the dialectic that Clement Greenberg was espousing at the time, which celebrated formalism – taught by Hofmann and employed by Pollock, Rothko, and others – as being rendered pure because it removed itself from all extrinsic effects. Another quote by Müller (published in “Airless Despair,” Time, 2 February, 1962) elaborated “Abstraction is no longer enough for me. So I am returning to the image. The image gives me a wider sense of communication.”

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