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Indepth Arts News:

"Ciao! Manhattan: Recent Painting from New York"
2004-12-18 until 2005-02-28
Perugi artecontemporanea
Padua, , IT Italy

Even now, half a decade into the new millennium, we would be hard pressed to overestimate the legacy of Modernism. The Western art of painting, to take a pertinent example, a much older tradition, was irrevocably altered by the ideas and practices of the twentieth century's defining movement. At the end of 2004, most painters in New York continue to grapple with the results of the grand experiments wrought by the Modernist project, and many do so using the lens of Pop Art, which was either one of Modernism's last gasps or the first post-Modern movement in art, depending on how one looks at it.

A Warholian mood, in fact, seems to have gripped the New York art world and Andy's presence feels inevitable. And we might even consider that in the implacable face of current events, for an American artist a (d)Andified detachment might be an act of self-preservation, if not one of the few stances possible.

Included in the exhibition are Ann Craven, Marc Handelman, Enoc Perez, Helen Sadler, Pieter Schoolwerth, Ryan Steadman.

Enoc Perez and Ann Craven take Warhol's dictum, "I am a machine," to heart. The former approximates his painting technique to mechanical processes of reproduction; the latter replicates images serially by hand. Perez paints photographic images that bear personally and culturally specific significance; his recent series of hotels picture mid-century buildings in his native Puerto Rico, while still lifes derived from rum advertisements feature Caribbean cocktails and fruit. These images point to a shared history of progressive optimism and touristic colonialism. Perez creates his pictures as elaborate drawings, applying oil pastel as a series of transfer rubbings, one color at a time. This sui generis painting method, analogous to a four-color printing process, gives his paintings a rough, abraded appearance like a distressed snapshot or postcard, emphasizing the sense of "pastness" and nostalgia already inherent in the source photograph. Perez casts a dispassionate eye on the! mixed inheritance of Modernism with his subjects; his erasure of the artist's hand in his surfaces-surfaces that appear more to have "developed" like a photograph than to have been applied by a directing consciousness-reads like a disavowal of Modernis painting's cult of the self.

Ann Craven, on the other hand, paints with bravura facility like a Modern master, repeating a small number of images over and over again. Craven paints birds, tropical birds, house pets, gleaned from the pages of pet guides and nature books, mixing and matching them with backgrounds taken from other books or from her own studies of nature. She paints the backgrounds thinly, brushing them out so that the plants and flowers depicted are blurred, out of focus. The birds themselves sit on top of these grounds, rendered with a loaded brush, feathers depicted with long, sure strokes that embody texture as they denote themselves, in the backgrounds, but not of them. The disparity in facture parses as difference in focal range, referencing the images' origins in photographs as it iterates their composite character. The high Modernist overtones of Craven's work-bold arresting images painted with an identifiable and self-evident hand-is negated by the kitsch sweetness of her subjects ! and by their repetition, duplicated in that same hand in various sizes, colors, and configurations.

Helen Sadler, too, paints from photographs, in her case stills of screaming teenage girls from movies of rock concerts. Rapt young women, in attitudes of ecstasy or agony, overcome with emotion or paralyzed by adoration-an entire spectrum of fandom of the last four decades appears in Sadler's paintings, from the Beatles to Britney Spears. Sadler photographs her television screen while playing concert films, then paints the images in egg tempera on small panels about the size of the snapshots that are their source. Like the egg-tempera painted panels of the trecento, her paintings depict martyr saints, updated for the modern age as figures completely enthralled by the unseen objects of their worship. Using the medium of painting's birth, the early Renaissance, she fashions secular altarpieces for the cults of the cinematic and the snapshot aesthetic, two of the Modernist century's most distinctive tropes.

Pieter Schoolwerth also looks to the Old Masters, but like them paints from life as much as from photographs, posing his family, friends, and acquaintances in more or less natural attitudes and settings. He paints genre scenes, images of contemporary American life, but his pictures flirt with the brink of allegory, a decidedly non-Modernist modality, and he employs the swirling compositional strategies of the Baroque: sweeping loops of figures and actions that lead the eye deeply into space, twisting it around and bringing it back out to the picture plane. He also uses the technique of continuous narrative, depicting figures at different moments in time within the same setting, a pictorial approach popular in the Renaissance but also recalling Muybridge's motion studies or the temporal representations of Futurism. In a recent series, the artist complicates these tactics further by doubling figures in the paintings and rendering one with the smooth, fluid brushwork that denotes a kind of transparent naturalism, the other with a choppy impasto that might connote expressiveness. They seem like parables of beauty yet lack an explicit text to give them meaning. Schoolwerth's ostensible subjects suggest a realist vision, while the stylization of his figures, one verging on caricature or cartoon, and their subordination to the demands of the compositional line align him with American Scene Painting or the grandes machines of the salon. Despite his apparent rejection of Modernist dictates, Schoolwerth's is a Pop sensibility, we might say, residing in the body of a follower of Tiepolo, or, perhaps, vice-versa.

As did Warhol in his Disasters, Marc Handelman mines the glamour of catastrophe. Deriving his images from sources as disparate as the romantic landscapes of the American Hudson River School of the nineteenth century, photographs of military maneuvers and explosions coming from Iraq, and the kitsch scenes of Thomas Kinkade, who bills himself as the most popular painter in the United States, selling at "galleries" in shopping malls across the country, Handelman paints apocalyptic images of blasts, implausible structures, and unsettling landscapes. He often imagines his scenes from below, giving a corpse-eye view to depictions of edifices falling down or craters being formed in the earth by detonation. Light plays a key role in these paintings, whether vaporizing vistas and structures with blinding white or pulverizing land and landscape with fiery yellow and searing violet. Searchlights and tracer bullets illuminate a midnight blue heaven. Handleman's concerns lie with a visua! l rhetorics of might, from the high vantage of the conqeror or the subterranean viewpoint of the vanquished. His images, while rooted in art history, photography, and pop culture, also owe a huge debt to the high Modernist ideals of Abstract Expressionism, and many of his canvases seem almost entirely abstract. Yet a curious detachment prevails; both his annihilating bursts and his dystopian panoramas remain strangely bloodless.

Ryan Steadman references Modernism in the most direct way, painting flat, abstract structures of serial geometric components, sometimes in color, sometimes in grisaille. Diagonals in white, black and gray form a city street; horizontal bands of green and orange designate a playing field; stacked rectangles of many colors make a brick wall. Figures painted in broad strokes, loosely sketched in thick impasto, inhabit these flatlands, falling on the street, playing in the field, climbing over the wall. The Pop Modernist constructions-like cartoon Judds, Andres or Nolands-delimit and trip up expressionist, gestural humans in some sort of metaphoric slapstick. Steadman's hard edge painting mocks Modernist and Minimalist rigors, but at the same time points to their fundamental position in structuring the world. The figures stand in apparent opposition to their world, but their interaction with it creates a comic yet wistful poetry.

Joseph R. Wolin

Enoc Perez
Manhattan, 2000,
oilstick on canvas,
42 x 50 inches/106,5 x 127 cm

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