A Note on Zulu Painting.
As it happens I have an appreciable Zulu painting by Todd Bienvenu now hanging in the stairwell of a Park Slope double-wide. It is a brown and creamy splotch of a thing, with lots of subtle greens and blues, and it goes with the colors of the brownstone. It looks as if a house painter used the canvas for cleaning brushes, and left some of his own thoughts as well. A wonderful wipeout of a painting, and all full of deft brushwork and slights of hand.
|Todd Bienvenu, Stooges, 2013|
It was serendipity that just as I finished installing this painting in the Greco-Victorian hallway of the building, there appeared Basquiat and the Bayou at some "Confederate Museum" in New Orleans ?!?
In that moment it hit me like a coconut on the head ... that there is such a thing as zombie painting, or voodoo, or Zulu painting, whatever you want to call it. It is a subculture in painting that excels at "canceling maneuvers" and "abject expressions of defiance or refusal." Voodoo painting is what art criticism might euphemistically call "insouciance in a painting."
|Jean-Michel Basquiat, King Zulu, 1986|
Robert St. Brice (20th cent. Haitian) signed, oil on board, Voodoo face, 29" x 25" Robert St. Brice was one of the very few first generation Haitian painters who was totally unique. His brand of voodoo expressionism straight from his psyche is totally unique and powerful. So much so he was the inspiration or father of the Saint Soleil genre that is in such demand today, but still no one painted like St. Brice. From this website.
|Stooges, Installation View|
We have this and one other good example of Todd Bienvenu's zomboid abstractions from just at the outset of his prolific run of more illustrative and well-known paintings of the past two years. In one bullseye after another Bienvenu's work covers a staggering range of human experiences and foibles. He is by no means limited to the zombie motif, he's not some goth obsessive. Two years of Todd Bienvenu in Bushwick is already a national treasure, a pristine document in style and place.
Since my gallery has a history with this painter, I can only say we are soon to be safely in the dust of his career, I'm sure. This painting is that dust perhaps. It is a premier brownstone hallway painting, a glorious splotch, stylishly replete with abstract maneuvers, each one of which is astringent. The painting is all cancellations and cross-outs, a lateral dive across the language ... with zombies. And yet it coheres, it hangs together in its localized drama, which is to say in the human property of the painting.
|Stooges, Installation View|
|Donald Baechler, Untitled ("globe"), 1984|
A brutal moment leaves a skid mark on the document of painting. Donald Baechler and Rick Prol may not have been zombie painters, or they may have been at one time or another, I don't know. They might as well have been, I don't care. By zombie painting I do not just mean some special channeling of outsider folk art. In this connection I mean the insult carried from outsider folk art into the avant-garde, as an explicit strategy. It does not all come under the sign of the zombie, but the latter is one among several related strategies in what is now a general discussion about art as resistance.
Several painters in the East Village in the 1980s detected a fault line between the "visual culture" of the postmodernists, and the "visuality" that was preferred by the old school painters. They tore up that fault line. They decided to insult painters and conceptualists in one go, from the same art work. Hoodoo painting is one example of this trend from the strange afternoon of the East Village scene. After all, strong icons are needed to rattle the cage of painting. And there is nothing in the realm of aesthetics quite like the rooster-strut of a Haitian zombie. It is a treasured vernacular of the American continent.
|Rick Prol, I Have This Cat, 1985, acrylic on canvas, wood, and glass, 96 x 93 in.|
"If painting is dead, well then, here's a painting of a zombie."
— Todd Bienvenu, 2013
This, by the way, is zombie criticism. It has no real existence. I represent Todd Bienvenu, I sell his work. And so of course I like it. Obviously I am a big fan. And yes, this is an advertisement. All the same, important announcements about the artist are in order. Someone must note that Todd Bienvenu is teaching in Louisiana right now, as Basquiat is showing there. These "kick-off" Bienvenu canvases that we have from early 2013, stand comparison with the Basquiat zombies and go the distance in filling out the idea. The comparison makes Basquiat and Bienvenu intelligible in a new way.
Think of zombie aesthetics as the gaping vein of folk art entangled in the ganglion of fine art. That is, as the atavistic feature of a discourse. It is the twitching of the insensate. It is the chicken man in Blue Velvet. It serves to rend the wall of intelligibility. What Basquiat and Bienvenu and Prol and others do is to acknowledge unintelligibility in art. The painting becomes more of a documentary mistake, and the artist is ready to abandon art as the critics do, in haste, with Adorno, and just as readily. This kind of painting has no scruples about anything.
— Ethan Pettit, 4 Nov. 2014
|Todd Bienvenu, Spitfire, 2013|
|Todd Bienvenu, Spitfire, 2013, Detail|
|Todd Bienvenu, Zombie Apocalypse, 2013|