Thursday, March 1, 2012

What a Piece of Work is Man: Contemporary Figuration at the Canzani Gallery

A thematic show is a work of art in itself. A group show built around a subject will have the visitor not only engage with  individual works, but  will find each enhanced by its neighborhood. The curator prepares the music for the event—the resonances, harmonies, discords, and even tempos that might propel our observing selves through the galleries. Michael Goodson's Bending the Mirror: Figure as Body, Body as Vessel, Vessel as Receptacle, running through March 16 at the Canzani Gallery of Columbus College of Art and Design is such a show, moving and arresting at once.

In Bending the Mirror, Goodson has assembled the figurative work of sixteen contemporary artists. As a teaching show at an art college, it is exemplary. For the contemplation and delight of the public, it is no less.
Fred Tomaselli, Portrait of Fred and Laura, 1996, detail.
Gouache on paper,
 20 x 14 inches
Courtesy of the Canzani Gallery
We are greeted at the gallery entrance by Fred Tomaselli's modest  black and white drawing on paper, the 1996 Portrait of Fred and Laura. The white marks on the all-black background are round spots with auras in an array of sizes,  arranged in vague, scattered patterns, like stars in the night sky. In the top, left corner is printed "Laura 12-17-52" and "Fred 6-8-56" is in the right corner.

The stars are named for ingestible substances and their sizes hint at quantities consumed. On "Laura's side" the brightest stars are caffeine, acetaminophen, and nicotine, with twinkles of psilocybin (mushrooms), valium, and Rolaids. Fred's side glows with Seconal, peyote, marijuana, and alcohol, with bright splashes of  cocaine, opium, Sudafed, Percodan, and treatment for toenail fungus. 

It's an amusing but penetrating way of figuring Laura and Fred. After all, "we are what we eat." The portrait is both psychic and physical. Into the black recesses of the stomach go mind-, mood-, and nerve-altering substances. Perhaps Tomaselli means to show us the literal interior of a stomach into which pills drift and dissolve. Or perhaps he pictures where the body has gone, dissolved by death and too many pills—dissipated to gaseous burps  broadcast across the heavens. Maybe those pills will fix our bodies and powers and we will exist for eons like the steadfast stars of bright minds blown and expanded by our stimulants and painkillers.

Mickalene Thomas, Tell Her It’s Over, 2006.
Acrylic paint, oil and acrylic enamel, and rhinestones on wood panel, 72 x 72 inches
Courtesy of the Canzani Gallery

'The White Slave' 
by Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte de Nouy, 
French. Oil, 1888.
Paul Gaugin, The Seed of Areoi, Oli on burlap,
36 x 28," 1892.
Museum of Modern Art
Portrait of Laura struck me as sweet and droll. It's not the only work in this show that is tongue-in-cheek, catchy, or ironic—often poignantly so. Such is Mickalene Thomas's Tell Her It's Over, a big, rhinestone embellished portrait of a decorative nude that brings crashing down on tthe viewer great waves of queasy association. There's the nineteenth century Orientalist fascination with the female nude, especially with yielding courtesans or slaves. The interest in Eastern pattern and decoration sets scenes in which women are aestheticized. In Thomas's work, the nude woman is the focal element in a richly patterned composition of animal skins and floral pattern cushions.

Who is over whom? A man doesn't exactly "break up" with a kept woman. Yet we viewers are essentially cast as a person whose gaze the woman resists. We are forced to experience in her perceived reaction the perverse erotics that cast the nude Black woman as tantalizingly exotic yet demeaned by her vulnerability. 

This nude isn't wearing romantically long, flower-adorned hair as the Gaugin and Lecomte de Nouy nudes do, but a voluminous Afro made hard and sparkly with rhinestones. Her lips and her nipples, too, the delicious parts that attract the mouth, are cast in rhinestones: they are brilliant and seductive, but make you think twice about contact. The woman's head is pulled low on her chest, her eyes look down and away under lowered brows, her bent knee makes a barrier of her hip. (Compare to another form of defiance in the direct gaze of the woman in Gaugin's The Seed of Areoi, above.) 

"Tell her it's over?" Is this a request to a third party from one who may recognize that a nude among pillows is a real, naked woman, captive to the viewer's perception?
Alison Elizabeth Taylor, Play Station, 2009
60 x 40 inches, 
Marquetry on panel
Courtesy of the Canzani Gallery

Against Thomas' complicated presentation of an erotic female nude we can consider Alison Elizabeth Taylor's Play Station 2010, which features a life-sized, seated male nude. Every plane of his well-shaped body is articulated; his nipples and areolas pop out; every curve and the slit of his penis are minutely detailed. But this nudity feels anatomical, for Taylor's medium is marquetry—wood inlay. In order to fashion the small details of nipples, penis, and hands, one images her working with fine tool, similar to surgeons'. The broader expanses of skin over the the planes of the body are shaded like topographical maps. The significance of its nakedness to the game player is unclear and, being so, it leaves the viewer uncertain about her own attitude toward this man. Shock? Curiosity? Approval? Repulsion? Is he just another guy, or someone remarkable? 

Taylor has placed Play Station Man in a setting of restrained opulence. The dark, paneled room suggests the rich privilege of a men's club, board room, or an antique library. The color of his chair suggests leather or velvet—luxury materials. The, spaciousness, and supportive height are even suitable for a throne.

If we consider the man as the occupant of a throne or executive seating, his open-mouthed, empty, indirect look are disturbing. So are his hunched shoulders and his body's collapse into the chair. Taylor has taken pains to articulate his hands, the Play Station control unit, and his thumb on the button.

I find myself wondering about that unit with buttons. Who, exactly, is playing with what? Are we looking at a weary slacker with no imagination? Or at a prince of the world with no imagination, who holds the buttons as if the consequences of pushing it were as remote as a computer game's? His slack face, vacant expression, and his nakedness perhaps represent his disengaged remoteness from the rest of  society and even from the mores of civilization.

Philip Akkerman, Self Portrait No. 24, 2006
Oil on 
masonite board, 15 3/4 x 13 3/8 inches
Courtesy of the Canzani Gallery
Nothing is more intimate than the body, yet nudity is always a public, social matter because everyone is free to look at someone else's body. In self-portraiture, the artist chooses what to  reveal about himself in what degree. The exterior is the objective focus; the person is the subjective one. Goodson has chosen three beautiful self-portraits by Dutchman Philip Akkerman, who represents his face in different guises, each one gripping, and each with the feel of lived-in conviction. Akkerman's face is his constant subject , yet each iteration reveals a persona unto itself.
Francis Bacon, Self Portrait,1971, MUsee National d'Art Moderne,
Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
At first glance, Akkerman paints his face in the manner of  Francis Bacon, but in fact he does not since he doesn't smear and abstract with the suggested plasticity of time and motion. Akkerman's are all solid, as if their grayness is the color of modeling clay from which they have been painstakingly formed and finished with utmost care to smooth the surfaces. Their solid dimensionality is certain. Beyond that, whether each is an aspect of the man himself or of a theatrical character is one of the many levels of fascination.

Self-Portrait at the Age of 34.
 Rembrandt van Rijn, 1640. 
National Gallery, London.

Baldassare Castiglione,
 Raphaello Sanzio,
1516, Louvre Museum.
In #51, Akkerman imitates another Dutch self-portrait, Rembrandt's self-assured pose of 1640, itself modeled on a portrait of Castiglione by Raphael. Akkerman takes the tradition a big step further by using it to make his own self-portrait as an artist. Rembrandt portrayed himself in 1640 not by his vocation, but by the status it had brought him. He poses as a prosperous man, without any arist's props or materials, relating himself to Raphael's subject, the diplomat and courtier. 
Philip Akkerman, Self Portrait No. 51, 2005
Oil on masonite board, 15 3/4 x 13 3/8 inches
Courtesy of the Canzani Gallery
 Akkerman's portrait pushes the face much farther toward us; the expression is rendered with complexity and sensitivity. He is  serious, yet there is enough furrow in the brow to keep the expression from being overbearing or proud. The mouth is firm and determined. Compared to the 16th and 17th century faces, this one is more purposeful and challenging.

I think that the hat made of paint placed on the artist's head is surpassingly beautiful, breathtaking in the way it invites us wordlessly to share many levels of observation and intuition about painting. The margin between hat and skin is itself both brave yet almost comical. Here are the raw and the refined placed matter-of-factly together in a daring contrast that creates lots of excitement. 

Part of the thrill is that the roughly applied paints that form the hat demonstrate the exquisite refinement of Akkerman's technique as nothing else possibly could. The flawless texture of the skin, its burnished sheen, the transitions of color and light, the perfection of control over every line and daub: These are breathtaking in any event, but the rawness of the painted hat and the background place the finish of the face in high relief. 

It also seems as if Akkerman has used the strokes and colors in the hat and background as his palette to create the self-portrait painted in between. Working almost as a sculptor in stone or wood, he's freed the portrait from the masses of paint that and left the residue as it was. The work was made by a subtractive process or, at least, one that didn't simply import an image stroke by stroke from elsewhere. The image of Akkerman's face, which seems stylized elsewhere, appears  realistic when it's compared here to rough masses of paint. It's a brilliant portrait of a painter, its ideas and flesh alike made of paint.
Folkert de Jong, Early Years, 2009
Polystyrene foam, epoxy resin, 7 figures, approx. 15 x 15 ft.
Courtesy of the Canzani Gallery
Folkert De Jong, a Dutchman as well, provides another stunning experience in Bending the Mirror. The hilarilous, horrible, haunting Early Years is just a few steps from the dignity of Akkerman's painting and the fine workmansip of Taylor's marquetry. Seven balletic apes pose on pedestals in graceful, extended attitudes, forming a large ring through which the viewer can move to both inspect and join their dance.

With their hands and feet cast from human hands and their faces in disconcertingly friendly expressions, the apes prove to be challenging presences because their harsh, unappealing construction, the drips of paint or tar, the cheap foam pedestals—so much about this scene instantly taps into my cultural (and biological) discomforts. It's cheap! It's ugly! It's backwards, uncouth, potentially offensive as apes shown in human activities usually are. It's creepy that the installation is; it makes it hard to move into the circle. Placing the figures on pedestals seems crudely ironic.
But despite the ugliness, crudeness, and clumsiness of Early YearsDe Jong wins us over with its antic goodwill and cheerfulness of his Frankenstein-assembled creatures. 

Nothing disguises the fact that these figures are entirely artificial: Joints are bound with black bubble wrap or clogged with bubbles of foam calking if they are hidden at all. Some tar-like substance holds the dancers as erect as they can manage to be. Moving among them, we feel unsettled by the contradictions between their life-like and artificial qualities.

But the balance tips in favor of connection because of the gestures, the generous, happy embrace of space from the arms and legs of these black, hairy, awkward apes. However sinister the details, when we take it all in, their poses are graceful, extended stretches; they dance together to create something that surpasses themselves. Moreover, Each of their faces radiates a smile—not a sinister or leering smile, but an expression of open happiness with eyebrows arched, pupils fully exposed, and lips pulled back in pleasure. 

The title of De Jong's installation is Early Years. Were we to imagine these figures as our prehistorical forebears; as the results of mutation; as who might remain in a post-apocalyptic future: Why would we have to imagine those beings in those times to be without love of body, movement, and ideas that they could connect their mortal selves to something transcendent?

Playing Angels, bronze on concrete bases,
7' figures, 20' posts, ca. 1950,
Carl Milles. Fairmont Park Art
Association, Philadelphia.
The joyful poses and their arrangement on a ring of pedestals reminds me (as it may not at all have occurred to De Jong) of the Swedish sculptor Carl Milles' Playing Angels. There is no mistaking the pastoral intent of Milles' rarefied, comely, youthful angels, designed for aspirational beauty. It's a piquant comparison with these dancers of Early Years. Surely the music of the spheres is available to them , too. 

In a wonderful curatorial decision, Goodson has hung two ethereal paintings by American painter Jansson Stegner on the wall behind De Jong's installation,where they serve as a kind of shimmering backdrop. The presentation of bodies could not be more different from De Jong's—Stegner's are as distended and narrow as pulled taffy, as white as hoarfrost. Their settings are erotic in their icy beauty; the utter perfection of painting technique lacks evidence of the brush and is varnished to an enamel-like finish.

Jansson Stegner, The Falconer, (l) and The Hunter (r), 2011
60 x 40 inches, o
il on canvas
Courtesy of the Canzani Gallery

Jansson Stegner, The Falconer, 2011, oil on canvas. Author photo.

Whether intended as a pair or not, The Falconer and The Hunter, both from 2011, feel like a pair because the contrasts between them are clear enough to feel designed. In terms of figuration, the man and the woman share a surreal, stretched out, narrow shape. I nevertheless find them  believe subjects because their faces are realistically portrayed in feature and their expressions are delicately rendered. Their faces are the focal points of the paintings, so the elongated bodies seem almost like leader lines directing the eye to those faces.

The blonde, male falconer is pictured from a low vantage point that makes him seem extraordinarily majestic, as one might expect a falconer—in a pose so casually assured—to be. The mountains in the far background, with a steely sky of upward rising clouds reinforce the  air of ascendency. The magnificent falcon's wings rise, of course, while its head and tail bow down in a stirring emblem of submission: The wild and strong acknowledging a master. Finally, the painting is simply exquisitely beautiful, finished with lustrous glazing that elevates it to the level of the precious. It's a work that in every detail of its making and design is awe-inspiring. Almost. It's very odd, isn't it?

Jansson Stegner,The Hunter, 2011, oil on canvas. Author photo. 
The Hunter is a female, who looks down meditatively as if a great burden is upon her. Rather than expecting a predator to yield to her, she carries her weapon indifferently. The hand she places in her pocket reads like a gesture of uncaring obliviousness, where the falconer's hand on hip is confident and magisterial.
This hunter is not looking very hard for something to bag; and if she's headed home at the end of the day, she has bagged nothing.

But where the falconer appears to be a man cut out for war-like duties, the hunter is not. Her facial expression—the dark focal point of the painting—communicates her brooding to anyone who sees it. Her solemnity and her abstraction seem in turn to abstract her face from anything else in the luminous environment or from any goal that might be accomplished with a rifle. She is farther away from the frost-covered trees, the eerie atmosphere of the sky and the clicking branches overhead than we, the viewers, could ever be.

The oddness in the portrayal of the bodies in these Stegner paintings makes think that these are portraits of people through suggestions of character, with bodies among the system of props. This woman appears to me to be all mind, otherwise simply passing through a landscape of great interest to me, but unseen by her. The falconer, on the other hand, is part of his landscape in a way he is well aware of: It is his land, his kingdom, his world.

Do we have the falconer as warlike Norway to Denmark's Hamlet? I find it tempting to study this pair of paintings this way. If I encountered either alone, though, I am sure that I'd take not a whit less pleasure. Stegner's finesse with his medium, and his ability to paint characters of such beauty and conviction into landscapes that seem to exist under spells, are extraordinary gifts. I think these two works are mesmerizing. If I'd had my shearling hat, my heavy coat and muffler with me, I'd have stayed, spellbound, all day.

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