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, full of deft brushwork and slights of hand.
|Todd Bienvenu, Stooges, 2013|
Stooges, by Todd Bienvenu, deserves a great foyer in a Brooklyn mansion somewhere. It's fitting for reception areas, a mischievous "whatever" with a humorous tone. Cool and welcoming, and tasteful. Brownish and creamy shit-colors and throwaway chicken guts comport beautifully with the patina of any distressed hardwood interior in the borough. It is a painting that lends itself to furniture, as furnishing, for the location, for the occasion. A polite, decorative painting, and also snapped like a table cloth from under a banquet. Exceedingly well juggled, and all wrapped up in a mud-ball of brownish baroque. Just a big beautiful rumpus of a painting that doesn't care what you think.
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 really 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 what an art critic might euphemistically call "canceling maneuvers" or "abject expressions of defiance or refusal" or simply "insouciance."
|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|
Todd Bienvenu's work is by no means limited to the zombie theme, he's not some goth obsessive. He is better known for his lurid scenes of American life, wrestling, girls, beer culture, and so on. We just happen to have a few gems at the gallery from his earlier and more abstract zombie phase. "Stooges" is looking for placement in a top-notch residence anywhere in the city. "Spitfire" is a high note in Bienvenu's zombie period. In one bullseye after another his work covers an ample range of human experiences and foibles.
|Todd Bienvenu, Spitfire, 2013|
|Todd Bienvenu, Spitfire, 2013, Detail|
Two years of Todd Bienvenu in Bushwick is already a national treasure, a pristine document in style and place of a reviled and envied hepitude. Bienvenu's world is usually presented as an allegory, where the "great white trash" of America stands in for a pastural meditation, like an old dixie rococo painting, upon what is really a complex urban life. 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, Stooges, is that dust perhaps. It is a premier brownstone hallway painting, a glorious splotch, stylishly replete with astringent maneuvers in abstraction and figuration. The painting is all cancellations and cross-outs, a lateral dive across language ... with zombies. And it coheres, it hangs together in its localized drama, and in its very human stain as 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 instance of outsider folk art. Rather, I mean the insult carried from outsider folk art into the avant-garde, as a deliberate strategy. This dodge does not come only under the sign of the zombie. Though it comes often enough under that motif, it is really one of several related strategies that pertain to 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. Hoodoo painting is one example of this trend from the strange afternoon of the East Village scene. Strong icons are needed to rattle the cage of painting, and there is nothing in the universe of aesthetic experience quite like the rooster-strut of a Haitian or a Bayou 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. You may call 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, just as the Basquiat "bayou paintings" go on exhibit there.
John d'Addario in his piece in Hyperallergic informs us that the Mississippi had a powerful imaginative influence on Basquiat, a Brooklynite of Haitian and Puerto Rican parentage whose actual experience of the US South was limited. Todd Bienvenu comes from Louisiana with Cajun roots. And these two American painters bare comparison, I submit, and have said in the past, in that each is a trenchantly original painter of zombies.
Zombie aesthetics are folk art entangled in the ganglion of fine art. The zombie is the atavistic feature of a discourse; 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 Baechler do is to acknowledge unintelligibility in art. The painting is the document of a mistake, and the artist is ready to abandon art as the critics do. That is, in haste, with Adorno, and just as readily. And I like a painting that has no scruples about such things.
— Ethan Pettit, 31 October 2014
|Todd Bienvenu, Zombie Apocalypse, 2013|