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Pictures with Problems

March 31, 2015 | by

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Peter Saul, Personal Disease, 1966, acrylic and pen on canvas, 49" x 65".

“I think I was way oversensitive as a kid, very much easily frightened,” Peter Saul said in an oral history for the Archives of American Art in 2009:

I was frightened of movies, very scared. My mother was quite a fan of film noir and mystery stories by Ellery Queen and things of that type. And she took me to these movies, which by today’s standards would be not only harmless, it would be impossible to imagine any child or human being being scared of. Dressed to Kill [1941] was the first one I remember ... The reason I was scared was because it took place in an old Victorian building like my parents rented at that time. And there was a dumbwaiter that went from the basement, where there had been some servant kitchen, up to the dining room. And in the movie, a hand comes out of the dumbwaiter with a gun and shoots somebody at the dining table.

So anyway, we come into the dining room in the evening. The maid is going to serve the stuff and everything is fine. I realize that my position is with my back to the dumbwaiter. If it were to happen, of course, you know, imagination takes over, you know. I thought, oh, my God; I could be killed this evening.

You can see the aftereffects of this fear in his work, and it’s contagious. To look at a Peter Saul painting is to think, I could be killed this evening—but, you know, I’m kind of looking forward to it. “From Pop to Punk,” a show at Venus over Manhattan featuring his work from the sixties and seventies, brims with candy-colored violence and lush, vibrant grotesqueries. Hundreds of hands (and eyes and tongues) with guns emerge from the dumbwaiters of the mind. Things writhe, stab, choke, and unravel, often simultaneously. Saul, who’s eighty now, describes these as “pictures with problems.”

“Since I’ve become old, I’ve become much more interesting to most people,” he said in his oral history. “I haven’t given up on painting. I think it has to have a good story, and I think that the story was banished from painting too quickly at the end of the nineteenth century.” And Saul is definitely a storyteller—the most interesting one at the campfire, an antic, willfully offensive bard. The narratives in his paintings hover just on the right side of inscrutability, and his fondness for labels (“combined rich and poor asshole” is a personal favorite) helps to demystify, though not, of course, to solve: these are pictures with problems, not solutions.

“From Pop to Punk” shows through April 18. Read More »

Too Complicated for Human Brains

March 24, 2015 | by

Gary Indiana’s art “recasts voyeurism as wonder.”

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Untitled, 1976, collage, 10" x 8".

Gary Indiana does not have a Web site. If you Google him, you might find his writing scattered among street views and crime reports from the destitute and dangerous place he chose to name himself after. When I asked friends if they knew his art, they told me, Only that LOVE sculpture—the one by Robert Indiana—or, worse, they began to sing that song from The Music Man. Those who do know him, though, rank him among the great American novelists, even if most of his books are out of print. When I looked, all had been checked out of the public library.

Maybe someone like me—curious, researching—had found them first, because at sixty-five Gary Indiana is having what you might call “a moment.” The third solo show of his visual art opened on Sunday night, and when I spoke to him on the phone the following day he told me three more exhibitions are scheduled this year. His books are being reissued, and a “kind of memoir, though we’re not calling it that,” is due in September. Read More »

Roz Chast’s Pysanky

March 18, 2015 | by

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Roz Chast, Egg #77, 2010-2013, eggshell, dye, and polyurethane, 2 1/4" x 1 5/8". Image via Danese Corey Gallery

Roz Chast does excellent work on paper—and sure enough, her latest memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, has just won a National Book Critics Circle Award—but I think her real medium is the egg. She’s been doing great things with pysanky (i.e. Ukrainian painted eggs) for at least a decade. Her latest efforts will be on display, along with her cartoons and her work in textiles, at Danese Corey Gallery starting this Friday.

As Alexandra Schwartz explained in the The New Yorker last year, the pysanky tradition goes back to pagan times, “as do the eggs’ motifs: the sun; triangles that represent air, light, and water or birth, life, and death, from long before the Holy Trinity came along; plants and animals; talismanic lines and spirals indicating eternity.” Read More »

Crashed/Crushed

March 10, 2015 | by

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Ron Arad, Pressed Flower Yellow, 2013, steel, glass, leather, plastic, and vinyl, 145 5/8" x 98 3/8" x 7 7/8". Image via Paul Kasmin Gallery

In 1970, before he started on Crash, J. G. Ballard staged an exhibition of totaled cars at London’s New Arts Laboratory—“three crashed cars in a formal gallery ambience,” he called it in his Art of Fiction interview:

The centerpiece was a crashed Pontiac from the last great tail-fin period … What I was doing was testing my own hypotheses about the ambiguities that surround the car crash … I hired a topless girl to interview people on closed-circuit TV. The violent and overexcited reaction of the guests at the opening party was a deliberate imaginative overload which I imposed upon them in order to test my own obsession. The subsequent damage inflicted on the cars during the month of the show—people splashed them with paint, tore off the wing mirrors—and at the opening party, where the topless girl was almost raped in the rear seat of the Pontiac (a scene straight from Crash itself), convinced me I should write Crash. The girl later wrote a damningly hostile review of the show in an underground paper.

Read More »

Victor Hugo’s Drawings

February 26, 2015 | by

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Victor Hugo, Octopus with the initials V.H., 1866.

Victor Hugo wrote poetry, novels, and drama—more than enough for any mortal—but he also made some four thousand drawings over the course of his life. He was an adept draftsman, even an experimental one: he sometimes drew with his nondominant hand or when looking away from the page. If pen and ink were not available, he had recourse to soot, coal dust, and coffee grounds. He didn’t publish his drawings for fear they would distract from his projects as a writer; instead, he drew for family and friends. His son, Charles, wrote of his process,

Once paper, pen, and inkwell have been brought to the table, [he] sits down and—without making a preliminary sketch, without any apparent preconception—sets about drawing with an extraordinarily sure hand: not the landscape as a whole, but any old detail. He will begin his forest with the branch of a tree, his town with a gable, his gable with a weathervane, and little by little, the entire composition will emerge from the blank paper with the precision and clarity of a photographic negative subjected to the chemical preparation that brings out the picture. That done, the draftsman will ask for a cup and will finish off his landscape with a light shower of black coffee. The result is an unexpected and powerful drawing that is often strange, always personal, and recalls the etchings of Rembrandt and Piranesi.

His drawings are collected in a 1998 book, Shadows of a Hand. Here are a few more: Read More »

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The Suffering of Books

February 25, 2015 | by

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Alexis Arnold, San Francisco Phone Book, 2013.

For centuries, books have enjoyed the benefits conferred on inanimate objects, chief among which is their immunity to pain. So lucky they are, so smug, sitting painlessly on their shelves, passing the time. But it is winter, and it is cold, and now our books must freeze as their readers do.

To that end, Colossal has introduced me to the work of Alexis Arnold, who, in her Crystallized Book series, dips found books in a borax solution (is this proprietary? Can I buy some?) that freezes, crystallizes, destroys, or preserves them—whichever verb suits your fancy. Arnold aims to return books to a kind of prelapsarian state as aesthetic, functionless objects, unburdened by the complications of text. Her frozen books, she writes, are “artifacts or geologic specimens imbued with the history of time, use, and nostalgia. The series was prompted by repeatedly finding boxes of discarded books, by the onset of e-books, and by the shuttering of bookstores.”

See more below, and here. Read More »