Saturday, January 29, 2011

Tribeca and the LES

By Charles Kessler

I haven’t been to the Tribeca galleries very often in the last few years, but all of a sudden there were several shows I wanted to see there. I’ll start with the best: POP: Eddie Arning, Freddie Brice, Ray Hamilton at KS Art, 73 Leonard Street (between Church and Broadway) curated by Anne Doran. All three artists were self-taught and didn’t start making art until later in life; and they all died in the 1990’s. The idea for the show was that, even though they had no connection to the mainstream art world, they,  like the Pop artists, employed common objects and advertisements in their art. While that is true, I don’t think anyone could possibly confuse them with Pop in any way because Pop Art is very refined, slick even, and this is very raw work. 

I don’t understand it. I just don’t understand how these guys, especially Freddie Brice, can be so good. I know the work was selected by Anne Doran, who has an excellent eye, so possibly this show is especially good — but they did a lot of excellent work.

Maybe self-taught artists have a late style like fine artists sometimes have. Maybe they reach a time in their lives when they don’t care about mundane things, they don’t care about what other people think, and they just go for it in a very direct and unselfconscious manner. And there’s the fact that they were very productive, they worked very hard at it for many years. Kerry Schuss, owner of the gallery, knew these artists and told me Freddie Brice, who was schizophrenic, worked compulsively, covering his entire room with art; and when he didn’t have paint he’d use water. So, like fine artists, maybe their hard work paid off.

But that still doesn’t explain the sophistication of some of this work. Take Freddie Brice’s Shore Stor for example. Look at the playfully rhythmic brushwork above the heel and the way the brushstrokes capture light; note the placement of the shoe so it’s cut off on the right throwing everything forward, and the boldness of the writing and how it activates the space around it. Sure the brushwork where the tongue and shoelaces would be is kind of muddled, but that adds to the charm and in a way underscores how good the other brushwork is.
Freddie Brice, Shore Stor, 1993, acrylic on canvas board, 24 x 20 inches
What really blows me away is the use of simultaneous effect in Brice’s Two Watches, Two Rings. It’s hard to see in reproduction, but the background is light greenish on the top of the painting and pinkish on the bottom portion. As a result, the entire background glows. And look at the bits of red on the top edge and bottom right — it’s right out of the Clyfford Still handbook! I just don’t understand where this uncanny ability came from — but the creative vitality and boldness of the work is thrilling.
Freddie Brice, Two Watches, Two Rings, 1992, acrylic on canvas board, 30 x 24 inches
There are several other interesting shows in Tribeca. Briefly:
  • Kimmerich, 50 White Street (between Broadway and Church), a beautiful new gallery, is showing, in conjunction with Anton Kern Gallery, a very large collage by Michael Odenbach that’s made up of what seems like thousands of tiny texts and images.   
  • The alternative space Art in General has a combination architectural installation and props for a performance by Ohad Meromi. Usually this kind of thing doesn’t work as a stand-alone installation but, while you are always aware these are props, enough thought went into the configuration of the space (spaces really) that it holds up as an installation. While you’re there, check out their bathroom -- it’s one of the most interesting in the city.     
  • ApexArt, 291 Church Street, another energetic alternative space, has a show curated by Gary Fogelson and Michael Hutchson that documents the story of innovative, locally produced, Boston’s channel 5.

The Lower East Side:
In contrast to the self-taught artists at KS Art, George Condo: Mental States at the New Museum was a real downer. I’m not going to waste time on it; suffice to say the work is academic, illustrational really, boring in composition (every one is either centralized or all-over), silly and adolescent (grotesque deformations — oooo, scary) and derivative — that it is intended is not justification for this much imitation. Enough said.

Another LES bummer was Heinz Mack, Early Metal Reliefs, 1957 - 1967 at Sperone Westwater’s new space near the New Museum at 257 Bowery. What the hell has happened to the Sperone Westwater Gallery? I know this work was done fifty years ago, but it was decorative then and it looks even thinner now. And this new tall and narrow space, which encourages a salon-style hanging, isn’t helping. It’s hard to believe that this is the same gallery that once gave Gerhard Richter his first solo show in New York and for years showed Bruce Nauman, Richard Long, Not Vital, Richard Tuttle and several Arte Povera artists. I guess some galleries are like some artists, they have about ten good years, and that’s it.

To counter the enervating and depressing Condo and Sperone Westwater shows, check out “Park Here: an Indoor Pop Up Park” at OpenHouse, a space art organizations have been using for temporary shows, 201 Mulberry Street (between Spring and Kenmare). Hurry though -- Sunday, January 30th is the last day. When I went, people were really using it: eating lunch, reading, kids running around, couples snuggling on the “grass.” A real upper.
Park Here - An Indoor Pop Up Park, 201 Mulberry Street, until Sunday, January 30, 2011.

Charles Kessler is a Jersey City-based artist and writer.

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