SOME YEARS AGO, critic Donald Kuspit wrote that Patrick Graham's paintings are "among the most complicated, salient reflections on modern existence that have been made in the last decade." These reflections present a world of quiet longing and achingly beautiful loss. As Graham asserted in a 1991 lecture, "My paintings come from silence and a world of abandonment. In this world of silence, no truth exists... It is the moment when painting is no longer an act of doing or making but of receiving. There is no ego shape here, no facilitative reply to aesthetic notions, whether historical or contemporary. There is only that desperate faith of the abandoned."
More recently, Graham discussed the stark but "amazingly sensuous" world of the impoverished post-war Ireland. "I became a voyeur," he recalled. "I loved looking." The young Graham also loved drawing. At the remarkable age of 12, his talent was so impressive that the vocational school art teacher took him on as an apprentice and taught him Renaissance painting techniques. Graham's powerfully expressive and often deconstructive work is still grounded in the naturalistic draftsmanship of that historical tradition. Careful viewers see Raphaelesque lines in the nudes and portraits that punctuate his canvases.
But Graham's work is much more than technically proficient. It is largely autobiographical: He calls his oeuvre "a long visual diary" and notes that it seeks to "connect with history and continue the story." Landscape elements seem familiar. Images of the artist recall portraits by Dürer. Women are deliberately posed to echo an odalisque or a Venus. (Interestingly, the women's bodies have more in common with Saskia than the lithe models of Bottecelli.)
The work is insistently physical. It can be said that the paintings present the artist's "reality as a physical entity." This makes sense because the artist is proudly Irish and, as he notes, the Irish way of [verbally] describing things is "as good as seeing: very physical, very sensuous." Indeed, Graham often includes texts — or rather, fragments of texts — in his works. Words slither along the frame, rise above a scatter of images, continually haunt the visual. One large diptych is crowned by the word "wreath," limned in childlike scrawl. Behind that syllable, smaller and in pale yellow, is "wreak." Below both, a dark hill is framed by an even darker cloud. Smoky veils of color weave through drips and splatters of watery pigment. A red wreath (or is it a boat?) floats across an icy sea (or is it a snow-covered plain?) The disparate elements somehow coalesce, even as they defy literary containment.
The sensuality of Graham's work is as much about absence as presence. Open or "negative" spaces dominate most of his compositions. The artist has "a huge regard" for the ineffable, for "the thing that is beyond us." And that thing — that great intangible, unknowable presence that always eludes our grasp; that roiling "ether" that occupies empty space; that which both underlies and fulfills the persistent erotic of the material world — that, in the end, is what Graham paints.
JEFF CHARBONNEAU & ELIZA FRENCH at Robert Berman Gallery
Jeff Charbonneau & Eliza French, Long Before Pluto
, 2010; courtesy Robert Berman Gallery
Having established a strong identity based on goth-romantic figure-in-landscape imagery, Jeff Charbonneau and Eliza French loosen the spirit somewhat with a downright playful theme and an even more playful approach to it. In the photographs of "Playground," Charbonneau & French continue to concentrate on young women as protagonists in a dream world —a cheap trick, one might protest, but in fact a way of transcending a nagging trope by exploiting it with almost businesslike matter-of-facture. Setting any other kind of figure —old ladies, say, or babies —in these fields and gardens and plazas would invoke a more specific reading; the young women most easily become the viewer's ciphers, and their interactions with so many white weather balloons becomes at once a stylized ballet and a universalized metaphor for dreamy transport and the freshness (and perhaps even innocence) available through the imagination. Not the artists' imagination, which of course drives (and thus determines the subjective framework of) the entire series, but our
imagination, which the project seeks to incite. The concurrences of figures and balloons, mirroring one another in their sun-reflecting whiteness, invite interpretation less through their ravishing clarity —the initial optical lure —than through their genial incongruity. Something is happening here, however gently and slowly, keeping one's curiosity piqued.
JOHN O'BRIEN at Kristi Engle Gallery
The connection John O'Brien draws in his latest two- and (especially) three-dimensional work to Arshile Gorky is not simply a matter of coattail-riding. An intricate thinker engaged with form and contour, O'Brien looks closely at Gorky and several other significant artists (the press release mentions Theodore Roszak and John Altoon) whose art he was informed by, but moved beyond surrealism in a search for a working method that presumed spontaneous and virtuoso response. Neither mind nor hand should seem to have labored in the actual production of the artwork, only in its conception. In fact, in this regard, O'Brien's work most closely resembles that of yet another impulsive, brilliant, and technically stunning modern master, Dieter Roth. Certainly the wallworks, mirror-imaged photographs (the bottom a pale reflection of the top) knitted together with just the right amount of handiwork, recall Roth's elaborate drawing-collage objects and books with their swirling trails and eccentric structures. O'Brien continues this expansive but studied approach in his sculptures, table-like constructions from which erupt peculiar, vaguely figural linear shapes —which apparently relate to Gorky's paintings of women.
GILLIAN THEOBALD at Cirrus Gallery
Working with biomorphic shapes and forms, Gillian Theobald's paintings read like a roadmap to the internal workings of the human psyche. She creates luminous interior landscapes that function as fantastical worlds comprised of labyrinthine dots and drips that float in open space. The paintings are made up of two 12 x 24-foot canvases strategically placed side by side, with their meeting point becoming almost like a spine defining the "body" of the painting in its entirety. With titles like Drum Beat, Focus Groups
, and Covered Tracks
, the two words together further delineate the duality of the physical works as objects. Theobald's palette fluctuates from soft pinks to more saturated greens punctuated by erratic circular shapes. She uses color in much the same way she uses form —as another means of mirroring or translating the outer world into a deeper, more refined interiority as with the painting Web Cast
, where the small interstellar shape repeats in an exact mirroring pattern across from itself, the yellow orb oddly luminescent. The best painting in the show is Fingered
, which is the only work with a single word title and the only painting that utilizes a dark palette of blacks and grays. It stands almost as the conscience of the group, gray, bleak and defiant.
HAERI YOO at Thomas Erben Gallery
Haeri Yoo, a Korean-born painter living in New York, uses the body and sex with a wide array of painterly flourishes and abstract mark-making in a manner similar to Cecily Brown, although Yoo's work is more expressionistic, intuitive and interested in diverse materials, while Brown's paint-handling tends to be more conservative and rooted in traditional oil-painting techniques. It was a surprise to see the explicitly sexual content in works like Hurting Big Toe
(all works 2010) in her exhibition "Body Hoarding," since Yoo's previous work was not so randy, but having to play a game of Where's Waldo? to find the action in Sunken Garden
is more satisfying, as the content is not so overt and your eye gets to travel around the colorful passages, drips, and spatters. The most de Kooningesque of the bunch, Honeymoon Island
relies more on line quality than broad forms, and pleases with its use of blues, yellows and acid greens. In Family Unit
, Yoo employs acrylic, pastel, rice paper collage, and a minimal use of spray paint to break up the space and create a layered effect that is as much about landscape as any discernible narrative. The smaller works can't match the sheer gusto and freedom of the larger canvases, and clearly Yoo is at her best when given the space to go all out.
CHESTER ARNOLD at Catharine Clark Gallery
, Image courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco
Bay Area artist Chester Arnold recently presented "Natural Histories: The Crooked Timber and other paintings and drawings," primarily comprising images of hewn trees, trunks, logs and stumps, observed during a winter stay in Yosemite. The exhibition's title quotes Immanuel Kant's "from the crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight was ever made," setting the tone for twisted limbs and severed timbers acting as surrogates for our often misdirected trajectories in life.
Arnold's paint surface is rich —each rough patch of bark lovingly rendered —and set in lushly articulated thickets of vegetation. The concentric rings where the logs have been cut gape like open wounds, particularly in Histories and Spiritual Confession of a Chainsaw. Compelling, yet emotionally wrought, Arnold's images of landscape may recall the tortured fields of Van Gogh. The work also has roots, if you will, in 19th-century Romantic landscape painting, where artists such as Caspar David Friedrich elevated the landscape to the realm of the sublime, discovering the spiritual through communion with nature.
The Empire Strikes Back at Saatchi Gallery
When I mentioned to English friends I was reviewing this show for an LA magazine, they wondered if it would have relevance for Americans. I found this odd. For me, good art's relevant no matter where it's from, and —hello —globalization makes India relevant no matter where you are.
The work was strong and varied. Clearly, one's got plenty to say living in a culture as rich and fraught as India's. The showstopper was Huma Mulji's Arabian Delight featuring a taxidermy camel pretzeled into an enormous suitcase it didn't quite fit. Bharti Kher's work was witty and wonderful: a giant fiberglass heart covered in black, green and red bindis and a vacuum cleaner dog with jewels and fur. Tushar Joag's skeletal "enlightening" army made from utility lights on metal stands was cleverly anthropomorphic without being clichéd.
Painting's well-represented with Probir Gupta's Schnabel-like paintings. Rajan Krishnan's dark and strangely ominous pointillist earthworkscape, T.V. Santhosh's appealingly garish "solarized" oils and, best of all, Subodh Gupta luscious, super-realist metal dishes and pots, referencing India's strong cultural identity with food.
Chitra Ganesh's Wonder Woman graphic strip gave inklings into the quotidian hardship with phrases like: "What kind of accident could have caused such a scar? Tell them you had a bike accident it's a believable story" and "She was always looking for the sharp side of the needle for comfort."