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A local art jaunt

I went on the Gowanus Artists Studio Tour yesterday, and as usual was made very happy by the number of good artists. It’s a good outing and I’d recommend it. Most of the artists have open bottles of wine and snacky-type food in their studios, so you tend to get mildly and very cheerfully sloshed as you wander around and look at their stuff and chat with them. They’re immensely pleased if you seem to pick up at all on what they’re doing and you get some good conversations.

Their work goes in all sorts of directions, and you can’t get the same effect from an image or two online that you get from seeing a whole series of works right up close, so I won’t give detailed accounts or do any kind of survey. Still, you try to figure out what you’re seeing as you go around, and I’ll please myself by blathering away about what I thought even if it’s only notes to myself.

First, one point that’s very noticeable is that sex differences live. The women tend to do sensible things and produce works that you might want in your living room, landscapes or sometimes abstractions in pleasant natural colors and whatnot, like Elizabeth O’Reilly’s canvases of Gowanus and Ireland and Annie Leist’s large atmospheric paintings of urban scenes. I’ve loved O’Reilly’s paintings for years, they have a nice combination of color and simple geometry, and I hope my wife and I can pull it together enough to buy a couple before they get priced out of our reach. Actually, she wasn’t on the tour this year, I think most of the stuff she likes was off at some show, but I blundered into her studio anyway until I it was made clear I wasn’t supposed to be there. Leist’s work was new to me. An odd feature is that even though it seems to capture very particular moments the atmospherics she paints are totally missing from the actual places she’s painting, like airports and conference rooms. We talked about it a bit, and it’s still hard for me to see her canvases as bringing out poetry that’s already actually there, but I like them very much anyway.

The men are more ambitious, and maybe more willful and erratic. They aren’t as interested in pleasing. Sometimes that ends well and sometimes it doesn’t. Lawrence Joseph Berger, a sculptor I hadn’t seen before, was a particular highlight. His stuff puts me in mind of Rodin only a bit more expressionistic. The first thing of his I saw was a nude sculpture of a strongly built middle-aged man with something of a pot belly that reminded me of Rodin’s various Balzacs at the Brooklyn Museum. The artist himself as it happens is a strongly-built middle-aged man with etc., which struck me as rather amusing and somehow what you’d expect. When I was there he was working on a lifesize head in clay using a wonderfully handsome black female model with prominent cheekbones and rather stylized features. He had with him a younger friend who was painting the same model.

A somewhat younger guy whose work I’ve always liked, if that’s the right word, is Dale Williams. Most readers would probably hate his stuff, especially just seeing a couple of small reproductions online, but there you are. He draws very well, but his subject matter is the insulted and injured and his style seems to be based on underground comics. He mostly does down-and-outers, skid row types, people who have been blown up in wars and whatnot. His latest project is illustrating a book about a mythical sixth borough of NYC, the Dronx, where all the people go who’ve failed in life. As you might gather, he’s extremely sensitive to human suffering and degradation and can’t turn away from it.

The interest in comic strips and other pop culture phenomena, together with at least implicitly violent or brutal themes and often hot, garish colors seems pretty common among the young men. I talked to one guy about it, a Filipino artist named Ernest Concepcion whose stuff seems to be based on comics, sci fi and Hieronymous Bosch, with maybe a few oriental themes mixed in here and there. The basic issue we discussed is why all the young guys are becoming nerds interested only in comics, sci fi, video games and violent images, and what that means when one of them becomes an artist when the whole idea of being a nerd is that you’re intelligent but don’t have grace, style, refined culture etc. so you get consumed by these compulsions and your big ironic hero is Conan the Barbarian—huge muscles, lots of chicks, not a lot upstairs. We didn’t get to any conclusions, but it was a lively discussion and it seems that’s where things are for a lot of people.

I should add, by the way, that there are other male artists who are doing perfectly normal things, like Michael Herstand with his northern landscapes and Christopher Doogan with his woodcuts, both of which I like very much. Still, it seems that what to do with masculine ambition and the male tendency not to connect automatically to people and places in any very complex way seems a real question in a society as fragmented and mechanically organized as ours. We can’t all be Annie Leists who are somehow happy and successful forcing a cup of Starbuck’s coffee to be atmospheric and poetic.

Aside from such grand socio-cultural theorizing, I also wondered a bit as I wandered around about abstraction in art. What is it we’re looking at when we’re looking at an abstract painting? What is the artist thinking of? It seems that a lot of the interest is the tension between our tendency to look into the painting and see depth, objects, motion etc. and the obvious fact that it’s really just paint on canvas. A number of artists mix representational and non-representational elements. What’s that about? Maybe they’re just making that kind of tension more complicated. Here’s this thing that looks like an object in space but it isn’t an object in space because it’s mixed in with all this other stuff that’s clearly just abstract. And then when you get a painting that’s fully representational you wonder how literally that can be meant when the other things you’ve seen make it clear that it’s just a construction of paint and canvas. You end up not having the vaguest idea what’s going on with any of it. Oh well.