Wednesday, November 10, 2010

James Cohan Gallery, Roxy Paine: Distillation, Through Dec 11

Roxy Paine is a sculptor with installationist sensibilities. Some would call him (that's right "him") an installation artist with sculptural sensibilities, but they would be wrong, and if they have a problem with that, they can talk to me about it. A lot of people know him from the piece he had on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum about a year ago. I, unfortunately missed that, but this is in the same "Dendroid" series as the Met piece. "Distillation" is one continuous, sprawling, stainless steel sculpture, branching from the front door of the gallery all the way into the back storage room. It starts by the front desk with a large tank that looks like a water heater, which then connects to a big glass beaker in the next room, filled with some powdery yellow substance. From there it grows into a wild twisting metal form that in some places literally runs right through the walls and floor of the gallery. In some ways it looks like a giant water pressure or ventilation system, with all the valves and tanks, and meters placed at various points.  In another way it looks kind of like an enlarged metal cast of some creatures circulatory system, with what appear to be hearts placed in various thick tangled sections. It also looks like a tree lying on its side with gnarled serpentine branches and twigs reaching across the room. In one case a group of mushroom heads sprout from an extension. But, in other areas it's hard to tell if we're looking at branches or veins, or synapses. Is this monstrosity animal, vegetable, or mechanical?
In an adjacent room a wall is covered with very delicate mushrooms, and other strange wormy fungal forms, laid out in kind of a loose spiral shape. They appear to be actually growing out of the wall. It's paradoxically repellant and quite beautiful in a tactile sort of way. I'm assuming this is a separate piece, and it would be pretty interesting on its own. It's soft porous material compliments the hard steel surface of "Distilation", but it pales in comparison to the giant piece that takes up about 80% of the gallery.
The first association I made from this huge steel structure was to John Chamberlain, I guess I was responding to the twisted metal and the organic/mechanical highbred aesthetic. But, the more I thought about it I realized that , at least aesthetically the art historical president for this kind of twisting mass of a work that reaches from one room to the next dates back to the high Renaissance and the Sistine Chapel. I know that sounds like a stretch, but indulge me on this. The roots, and soul of this kind of work can be found directly starting with the era of Michelangelo, leading up through the Baroque, and culminating in late Rococo sculpture and tapestries much more so than with anything post minimalist. It's just the materials that point to late, and post modernism. Frank Stella has shown similar sensibilities in his recent work, but that's a different story. The reason I'm focusing on this aesthetic is that it's a direct reflection of the content of the work (as any good art is). What looks at first like organic machinery transforms into a kind of industrial alchemy. Paine is identifying with the long tradition of the artists role as sorcerer or magician. The title of the piece is "Distillation", and you start to wonder what it is that's being distilled, and where can I get some.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Tom Nozkowski, at the Pace Gallery, Through December 4th

I'm not sure when the Pace Gallery took over this location, but thank god they did. It's a big beautiful space in a prime area, and the previous owners (I don't remember their name) put on some of the crappiest shows I've seen in Chelsea. It was frustrating to see what a waste of good resources that was. I don't know what they were thinking, or how they could afford such a great space when they were so clearly unqualified, but I guess it's just proof that you can't buy taste or talent, try as they did. Anyway, I guess their gone, so on to the show.
Tom Nozkowski is an unusual nonrepresentational painter, and a veteran of the genre. When I say unusual, I don't mean that his style of painting is without precedent. It's not. In fact he's obviously very aware of the tradition he's taking part in. It's just that the tradition is usually more closely aligned with representational than nonrepresentational painting. There is a school of early 20th century American abstract painting that he seems to be referencing. It's the school that artists like Marsden Hartley, Stuart Davis, and Patrick Henry Bruce were members of. But, he's taking that tradition in a different direction. The reasons his work is unusual when compared to more modern abstract painting are several. For one, his scale is modest (all paintings in the show are 22"x28"), not tiny or precious in size, but pretty much standard easel painting dimensions. This runs contrary to the traditions of monumental, arena like painting established by the abstract expressionists 60 some years ago. Also, unlike most nonrepresentational painting Nozkowski doesn't make the physicality or the application of the paint an issue. There are some shifts in transparency and opacity of the pigment, but it's subtle. Equally subtle are the shifts between symmetry and asymmetry, and soft and hard edge forms. The work also varies from quite beautiful to downright ugly. But, I don't think aesthetics are high on his list of priorities. More interestingly though, there's something about the way he paints that looks like he's working representational, or maybe metaphorically (if that makes any sense). He has a certain vocabulary of forms, and while he's clearly working intuitively, or non objectively, there's something about them that feels rendered, as opposed to being the product of some spontaneous painterly event. Part of that may come from the way that the forms are cropped, or the fairly clear cut figure ground relationship that seem to also reference the use of composition with figurative images. other figurative characteristics are the occasional horizon lines, or shadow like shapes that rest at an angle below brighter more pronounced forms. It's all a way of embracing certain traditions in order to react against others.
What makes this different from other Nozkowski shows is that next to each painting is a smaller, framed drawing (all 8"x 10") that are all clearly related to the painting beside them. The presumption is then that they are preparatory studies for the paintings. This would be incorrect. In fact they are made after the painting is finished, and are used, as Nozkowski puts it, as "cool down exercises". Nozkowski, in the tradition of most nonobjective abstract painters, never believed in preparatory drawing, fearing that it would limit or stifle the progress of the painting. To the best of my knowledge, the tradition of artists making drawings from their own completed paintings is small, but not unheard of.   I know Corot did it, and so did Van Gogh. There may be others I'm not aware of, but I've never before heard of the practice used as a "cool down exercise".  It's very challenging to tradition, and it makes me think about the role, identity and possibilities of drawing as related to painting. These are pretty bold, and heady objectives for such seemingly humble work.   Clearly brains and balls work well together.