May 18, 2012

Abstract Painting ... of all People!

The Art of Gili Levy

Islands oil on canvas 2012

In this essay from May 2012, I discuss Gili Levy’s work in terms of “abstraction.” Since then I’ve realized the word has almost no meaning any more. I have since taken to calling the general gist of this work “transparent narrative.” It is not strictly abstract — that is, non-objective — for there is figuration and perspectival space here as well. In any case, it is an education for me, and I credit Gili Levy for introducing me and my gallery to the endlessly fascinating painting scene in Bushwick, Brooklyn. (ep, Sept. 2012)

gouache on paper 14 x 17 in. 2012

In the past ten years or so we have been seeing “abstract” or non-objective paintings that have the alacrity of conceptual art. Paintings are now being made that advance abstraction as a universal shorthand for esthetic life. This is not the defensive kind of abstract painting that seeks only to uphold the cult, but something more ambitious, more outgoing. We see paintings that hoover up discourses that not long ago were the purview of specialized “avant gardes” that avoided painting in general and abstraction in particular.

The new abstract painters are many and prolific, and they are taking to the stage of the canvas in ways that recall the first half of the last century, and make the “return of painting” in the 1980s look like a false start.

Abstract painting has a paradoxical and problematic place in modern art. It was at the font of modernity, at the birth of the avant garde. And then it was its nemesis, that content-free “safe” kind of painting of the McCarthy era and of the corporate art of the sixties and seventies. It has provided the most brilliant and the most boring events on canvas of the past hundred years.

To be sure, abstract painting has provided every decade with marvelous pictures, but it has only really rocked a few decades. It has spent long interludes as a cloistered and very demanding form of art, and it has come in frequently for bruising criticism on account of “lack of content.” Yet this is also the painting that launched high modernism in Europe and that put America on the international art map. It is the painting that gave to art a new and ineffable world.

Dancer oil on canvas 60 x 36 in. 2008
And how interesting that in our own time, when these very narratives of modern art, abstract art, avant garde art, and the historical tensions between them … have all come in for a kind of global meltdown in a brave new world, that it should be abstract painting — “of all people!” — that would now appear to be coming along to sort it all out.

And I think this aspect of “sorting things out” is what separates the present generation of abstract painters from the old schools. The navigational problems are more acute. There is a larger and rather different field of impulses and elements to integrate. There are greater pressures on the vocabulary of abstraction. Old muscles must be stretched and new muscles must be grown.

One Man Show 1 oil on canvas 60 x 72 in. 2009

The first thing I ask when I look at a contemporary abstract painting, is whether it is really an abstract painting, or just another presentational dodge in the “style” of abstraction. I look, in other words, not for artifact, not for “color” or “composition” or “balance,” and certainly not for cheeky references, but for character and intelligence. And then for a process that is convincing on some level.

I am convinced by the work of Gili Levy. She has introduced me to the work of most of the new abstractionists, and it is her work that satisfies more than most what I have come to value and expect in this kind of painting.

Levy is a relentless painter. One has the sense of paint being heaved and deployed almost violently, to trump our habits of viewing and get to the bones of a psychological process. What distinguishes her work, her signature style you might say, and what makes her paintings real abstraction and not stylized abstraction, is that Levy does not settle on novelty. The paintings “hide from the first viewer” as a philosopher once said. The impulse to “newness” for its own sake is denied, or put in abeyance, in the interest of directing the viewer to a genuine experience.

— Ethan Pettit, 18 May 2012

May 10, 2012

thirty9 – the work of Richard Humann

Salt of the Earth Richard Humann
won by the author at the wagmag Benefit Raffle
on May 8, 2012. Photo by Paul Behnke

Humann's Lightbox is an assemblage of the portfolio slides of Brooklyn artists in the late 90s, just as archiving was going digital. Eighteen display boxes for more than 300 individual slides, it is a trenchant work of social art, deployed in Humann's signature furniture-grade birch plywood. “I chose slides because they are the currency of artists, and I wanted the currency as the art itself.”

A funny thing happened to me at the Wagmag Benefit Art Raffle at the Boiler in Greenpoint last night. The way the raffle works is, you buy a ticket for $200. For that you are guaranteed one of the works hanging in the cavernous space, of which there were more than a hundred. The sooner your ticket is drawn from the bin, the larger the selection of art you have to choose from.

It is a bracing event, a benefit to support Wagmag, the must-have guide to art galleries across Brooklyn. The raffle has been going annually for a number of years, and has become a key social event in the Brooklyn art world; a kind of barometer of the scene and of the overall quality of work being made. There appear to have been considerably more works contributed by artists than there were tickets sold, so there is an element of competition to be sure. Presumably, at the end of the evening you’d just as soon not see your work still hanging on the wall. And if you are a well-known artist, you probably won't.

Daniel Aycock of Front Room draws a ticket at the raffle

I am starting a gallery of my own in "Bushwick" and a few of the artists I’m representing had contributed work to the raffle, as did some artists who are just friends. So I had a few people in mind as I entered the massive Boiler space on a shabby-chic street on the Greenpoint waterfront. As it happens, coming up right behind me at the entrance was the artist Richard Humann. “Richard” I said. “How auspicious. I had you in mind when I bought my raffle ticket.”

In the lost decade between Gowanus in the early 80s and the warehouse movement of early 90s Williamsburg, Richard Humann occupies an interesting place. He is probably the first conceptual artist in Williamsburg. Granted, his work was cooler and cleaner, more "classical" than the baroque science fiction of the environments who engulfed the neighborhood in the 90s. There is more 70s minimalism in Humann's early Brooklyn work, whereas we find more of a "bladerunner" aesthetic in the warehouse movement. Appreciable stylistic differences. And yet art in this neighborhood that has been provocative about space seems to begin with Richard Humann.

My raffle ticket and the list of artists with work in the raffle.
A total coincidence.

Anyway. The funny thing that happened is this. I discovered that my raffle number happened to be the same as the number indicating Humann's place on the list of participating artists. Unless I am missing something about how this raffle works, this could only have been pure chance. The list of artists is arbitrary, it does not correspond to the raffle number you happen to get — as this picture might suggest. And in any case, when your number is drawn, you get whatever you want that's still hanging on the walls. In this case, my number was 39, and the work I wanted was by Richard Humann, who happened to be number 39 on the list.

The sculpture I won, Salt of the Earth, even resembles a raffle bin. It is a standard saltshaker filled with tiny letters that seem to have been snipped out of a book or text of some kind. It alludes to randomness, chance, and the “aleatoric” in art as I think John Cage put it. I am really quite pleased with my take. Humann is no slouch, the piece clicks.

six33 a five-foot square, 9-inch deep panel of Baltic birch wood,
painted with flat black and gloss white enamel,
with flexographic ink transfer type burnished to the surface.
Art in the Urban Matrix, FFA Gallery, 1989

In 1989 I was in a show in Greenpoint with Humann called Art in the Urban Matrix. Part of his work for that show involved numbers. Numbers encompass the entire idea. In square panels, a number appears, partly as a word and partly in numerals, to acknowledge the spoken sound as well as the digit. "Numbers were chosen," says Humann, "because they allow, much more than words, the viewer the opportunity to make a decision based on his or her own experiences. I originally listed pages of words and phrases, but they were too powerful."

Art in the Urban Matrix, 1989, PDF Download

In the early days, Richard was absorbed with language and signs, his work was astringent, precise, he had an architect’s eye for every detail of the material and conditions of the work. It was very straight-edged for Williamsburg in those days. The “Humann factor” was always an enigma in the local art scene. Why was he so influenced by minimalism and language art, when the news on the street was that we had all been “liberated” from that reductive theology? Hadn’t he heard that “one-liners” were over, and now we needed to immerse ourselves in painting and environmental art?

But Humann stuck with his shorthand and honed it, and the result is a body of work that is limpid, poetic, and of great range in form and subject matter. He was not typical of Williamsburg artists 20 years ago, minimalism was not fashionable, but he took a gamble on his overarching and suspended style of presentation, and it has got him a big space in the field. Richard Humann is the artist who saved conceptual art from postmodernism, the one who has given a second life to "Idea Art" and American conceptualism.

Shelter late 1980s

This was the first time I’d ever been to this raffle, so I was aimless, and basically just making for the absinth-spiked punch bowl manned by the sizzling hipstress in the racy outfit. The place was packed and I quickly became absorbed in socializing, so I managed only a cursory glance at the art on the walls. When my ticket was called, I had no idea what was still available. “Richard Humann!” I yelled out on impulse. And I received a sculpture by an artist who is not only a friend but also a well known artist.

Humann is a dark horse with pedigree. It is because he has been in the Brooklyn scene longer than most, and because he has such a distinctive style, that he stands aloof from much that comes after him. And yet his work resonates in many places in Williamsburg over the course of 30 years. He is a gallery heavy, a veteran of the Venice Biennial, and a contemporary of the foundational Greenpoint school of painters like Chris Martin and Peter Acheson. But his work also anticipates by about half a decade the forceful engagement with space and installation that would engulf the neighborhood from 1989 onward in the work of artists like Lauren Szold, Dennis Del Zotto, and the Immersionists. He tracks two major currents in the formation of Williamsburg art, that of the studios and of the warehouses, and for that I think there's no question that Brooklyn owes Richard Humann a winning ticket.

Wave Swinger bass wood, 22.5" x 36" x 43". 2008

Silently For Me Kaohsiung International Container Arts Festival, Taiwan, December 2011