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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Reflections on 14th Street and Beyond

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Sheila Schwid, installtion view of Reflections on 14th Street at El Taller Latino, From L to R: Where Are We? Where Are We Going?; Marching Ever Forward Calling Obstacles Their FriendsFive Guys and Seven Days

On an average day, New York City’s streets are filled with thousands of people moving at a rapid pace, so it’s exceptional that New York based artist Sheila Schwid’s paintings capture and commemorate these fluctuating moments in time to reflect on the contemplative and personal events that are often overlooked.

That is the crux of her recent series of paintings that are the result of snapshots taken by the artist while attentively riding along 14th Street by bus. Sheila explains “I take photos thru the window on the 14th Street bus.  For some reason, that street has many reflections.  At first I was interested in the buildings and the the windows, and how they reflected.  However, as I got into it I realized that I really care about the people.  They are so strong. They just keep going.”

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Post-War Humanism Revisited at MoMA

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Jan Muller, Walpurgisnacht – Faust I, 1956, oil on canvas

The devil is in the details in Jan Müller’s grandiose painting  Walpurgisnacht—Faust I (1956), which is the centerpiece of an exhibition called Soldier, Spectre, Shaman at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The exhibition – curated byLucy Gallun, Assistant Curator, Department of Photography, and Sarah Suzuki, Associate Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints – is a rare peek into MoMA’s collection of post World War II figurative art. What bonds these works is their concern for humanity in an age of crisis. The artists in this exhibition express sadness, confusion, anger, and complex reactions, as a result of being witnesses to the horrors of the second deadly world war.

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Incarnations of Belphegor

Incarnations of Belphegor, collage, 10 x 12 inches, 2015

Incarnations of Belphegor, 2015, collage, 10 x 12 in.

Developers have set their sights on the South Bronx, seeing it as the “next” neighborhood, an artsy enclave ripe for the taking. Their vicious cycle of urban colonization rejects truth in order to create a myth that will sell luxury condos to transplants while displacing a community that has been long neglected.

South Bronx native and multi-disciplinary artist Shellyne Rodriguez’s Incarnations of Belphegor illuminates this myth created by the gentrifying forces. Belphegor, seen in Rodriguez’s collage as a seven headed horned beast (resembling a leopard), is one of the seven princes of hell. His Modus Operandi is to seduce people by suggesting to them “ingenious inventions” that will make them rich.  A critical analysis of predatory gestures drives the visual narrative in Shellyne’s work. The demon Rodriguez envisions has been summoned onto an empty plot of land within the neighborhood, which is ripe for the taking by prospective developers who will then push out longtime residents in order to lure their new mega rich patrons.

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From the Archives: Counter Currents

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Click on the image above for a look inside the exhibition catalog.

A few months before the 1974 publication of his seminal text New Humanism: Art in a Time of Change, the social psychologist Barry Schwartz curated an exhibition titled Counter Currents: The New Humanism at the Center for Humanist Art at the Aida Hernandez Gallery at 99 Spring Street in SoHo.

The exhibition consisted of thirteen artists: Miriam Beerman, Jacob Landau, Arnold Belkin, Anthony Conger, Peter Dean, Michael Faurbach, Leonel Gongora, Cliff Joseph, Richard Karwoski, Jay Milder, Alice Neel, Philip Sherrod, and Nicholas Sperakis.  Each of these thirteen were also included among a great spectrum of artists in Schwartz’s book. While some of Schwartz’s theses and statements in his book unabashedly walk the line between agitprop and objective criticism, Schwartz is one of the few that have deeply analyzed contemporary Humanist art.

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Killing Jim Crow

Fury Young, Die Jim Crow, signed poster

Fury Young, Die Jim Crow, signed poster

Fury Young is a born and raised New Yorker. Growing up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he was witness to the neighborhood’s many changes, which included a high wave of crime, drug addiction, conflicts with the police, and more recently luxury gentrification.

The latter development has been even more indicative of a great income inequality that plagues our city. One can stroll through the Lower East Side (or Williamsburg, Bushwick, Harlem, and many more neighborhoods), and see a great dichotomy of public housing complexes and luxury condominiums. This rigid division of upper and lower class citizens creates a rift in the quality of life. There’s typically a larger police presence in the areas with lower income housing, and these sections of town have a much higher rate of incarceration.

The United States of America incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world. While the United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, it houses around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. The fact is that most of these prisoners come from impoverished backgrounds and in segregated communities. A vast majority of these prisoners are doing time for non-violent crimes. This has led many of the leading sociologists, politicians, artists, and activists today to declare that the U.S. has been implementing a “New Jim Crow” in the shape of mass incarceration.

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Connecting Figures Pt. 4: Contemporary Humanist Art

This installment of Contemporary Humanist artists includes Danish based painter and printmaker John Kørner; Chicago based painter and printmaker Jeff Lassahn; New England based painter Wendy Cross; Iranian-American and Detroit based artist Sheida Soleimani; and Brooklyn based artist Michael Scoggins.

John Kørner

Casper, 2008, Acrylic on canvas, 180 x 240 cm

Casper, 2008, Acrylic on canvas, 70 x 94 inches

“Contemporary art is your daily life – you have to believe it” – John Kørner

John Kørner’s paintings and lithographs are important visual narratives of contemporary Danish life. For example, Kørner’s War Problems series addresses the lack of journalistic documentation of the soldiers whose lives were lost in the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan. Because there was a ban on images depicting the dead or wounded soldiers, Korner envisioned these tragic scenes, painted in a very expressive manner, using vibrant colors and imagery, which recall Nancy Spero’s War Paintings (1966-1970). Kørner’s titles reflect the actual names of each of the 42 Danish soldiers who were killed in action.

Another strong set of socially engaged imagery are the Women for Sale paintings. These paintings took impetus when Kørner noticed three prostitutes standing outside of a gallery opening. This led the artist to delve into the question of prostitution and its role in Demark’s society. There were many different considerations that the artist had when contextualizing this subject as is discussed in an interview with arts writer Pernille Albrethsen:

“Perhaps the question should be linked to the discussion concerning strong women and to a whole series of interesting perspectives on what goes on in our contemporary society as well as to our ambitions of a life where you realize yourself – as the father or mother of a family with a full-time job, creating an existence for yourself that harmonizes with your conception of what it means to be a good person and have a good life.

Looking from above at the ramifications of expectations and relationships, it could be said that the prostitutes also do a good job. I don’t want to look at it only through politically correct glasses, in the way that certain politicians does. It provokes me when they goes at it full speed, justifying victims they have appointed as such themselves. I lack a counterpart. Where are the others? Where are those who frequent the prostitutes? What do they think?”

Jeff Lassahn 

Chicago based artist Jeff Lassahn’s primary focus has been social justice, war, and the economy within the United States. His paintings and lithographs depict a bleak reality as a result of political action, social injustice, the prison and military industrial complex, racism, and the environment.

After the bombing of Najaf, Iraq

After the bombing of Najaf, Iraq, 2005, “painting” with materials obtained only from abandoned industrial sites in the United States Brick, sand, cinder, dirt, fabric, plastic, cardboard, shingles, rock, metal on plywood
4 x 8 feet

After the bombing of Najaf, Iraq (2005) is a painting constructed from materials obtained from abandoned industrial sites in the United States. The painting references the August 2004 Battle of Najaf between American forces and Iraqi Forces against the Islamist Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr. The gritty and worn down material heightens the emotional level of the painting. Like the unoccupied sites where the materials were gathered, the soldier’s faces depict a vacant sense of existence.  Lassahn is also the Assistant Director of The Cluster Project, “an ongoing online artwork that explores the thriving world of war and its relationship to mass culture.”

Wendy Cross

Used To Be Somewhere, Oil on canvas, 20 x 40 inches

Used To Be Somewhere, Oil on canvas, 20 x 40 inches

Wendy Cross depicts existential scenes that portray the dark nature of humankind as a surreal nightmare. Cross’ paintings deal with the dichotomy of the American experience in the contemporary era. There are extreme dualities in many of her works such as the lives of the rich and poor; technological landscape and the natural environment; life and death.  Paintings like Used to be Somewhere recall Michael Fauerbach’s series of abandoned barns and desolate city blocks.

Sheida Soleimani

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Islamic Republic of Iran, 2014, archival pigment print, 30 x 40 inches

Soleimani’s collages from the series National Anthem are poignant for the use of shocking and grotesque imagery, which raises critical awareness about social injustices and cultural and political oppression within the Iranian regime. The use of national symbols like the flag, where Soleimani replaced the coat of arms with a banana split results in a powerful protest image. She uses both political iconography and images from Iranian popular culture to construct a dark portrait of contemporary life.

Michael Scoggins

All American Family XXIV (Redacted Drone), 2013 67 x 51 inches

All American Family XXIV (Redacted Drone), 2013
67 x 51 inches

Michael Scoggins’ art may appear innocent at first. The artist has masterfully recreated the essence of childlike scribbles that most of us recall engaging in during our own upbringing. This playfulness, however, is a gateway for a powerful socio-political form of art making. Combining fantasy, humor, anxiety, curiosity, and popular culture, Scoggins has developed a sophisticated vocabulary that responds to the dark side and the absurd reality of contemporary life. By exposing political corruption, social injustice, and other dark forces as childlike and laughable (think of today’s stubborn politicians refusing to share and throwing tantrums), Scoggins has created a unique, fun, and powerful statement.

Dialogue with Ronald Hall

Free Soiling, 2014, oil on canvas, 36

Free Soiling, 2014, oil on canvas, 36″ x 46″

I first saw Ronald Hall’s paintings on Smack Mellon’s 2015 Hot Picks list. They immediately resonated with me as a powerful  non-linear narrative of African American identity and the search, and struggle to depict what it means to be human in tragic times. Hall blends expressionism with realism in his dreamlike environments, which contain archetypal symbols of African American culture. Ronald has a long background in video game development, which I also feel has influenced the unique way he composes his paintings. The following is a conversation that I had with Ronald Hall about his recent work.

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Connecting Figures (part 2): New Humanism in Recent Contemporary Figurative Painting + Sculpture

In continuation of the first installment of contemporary figurative humanist painting, here are some more profiles of figurative Humanist artists whose works react to a myriad of social conditions. This time, I am also including the work of figurative sculptors. The aim is for this to be a continuing series because there are so many artists to present. This post features: Eben Kling, Reva Castillenti, Brian Kokoska, Patrick Webb, Linda Stojak, and Jordan Casteel.

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Connecting Figures: New Humanism in Recent Figurative Painting

The formidable imagery of humanist painting has been troublesome to incorporate within the framework of today’s painting. In the 1960s and 70s when the art market was burgeoning for trendy “art of the day,” artists like those of the Rhino Horn group predicted the shape of things to come. In the group’s manifesto they stated:

“Realize when you see our work that the so-called “thirty years of painting and sculpture” in this country has been built on a lie; it has been packaged, promoted and super-sold by ambitious critics, dealers and curators trying to build their own reputation as they fatten their bankrolls.”

This quotation echoes in the Museum of Modern Art’s recent “Forever Now” exhibition, the museum’s first contemporary painting survey in three decades. MoMA is renowned for organizing groundbreaking painting survey’s such as Dorothy Canning Miller’s six contemporary exhibitions of American art, which introduced nearly one hundred American artists to the public. “Forever Now” was a far cry from the museum’s esteemed history of seminal contemporary painting surveys. The exhibition was loaded with (largely) derivative and abstract painting (albeit there were some gems in the show) by artists who are established art market favorites. There was very little work in the show that had an emotional impact, but rather an affirmation of the status quo. The influence of money makes the art world go round.

Humanism in the arts is an evolving concept and goes against the evolution of the status quo. Since the heyday of Rhino Horn, there have been monumental changes in technology which has pushed the way our culture communicates and functions to new extremes. The paintings in “Forever Now” felt as if they were driven by technological and material energy. Therefore, I have compiled a list (which is only the beginning and will be expanded) of contemporary painters who are swimming against the grain of technological impulses and art world trends. Their work is figurative and steeped in the human psyche and condition in times of crisis. In some cases their work explores absurd phenomena in our society, or questions the significance of life’s dualities. Sometimes it is meant to disturb, shock, and elicit a visceral response. Overall, they assert new meanings, add to the terminology, and interrogate the lineage of painting.

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