Conversation with Marie Thiebault

Published in Figure/Ground

Interview by Suzanne Unrein

Marie Thibeault’s large-scale oil paintings address the tension of urban landscape and the natural world. The imagery is informed by the immediate experience of living near the expansive industrial Port of Los Angeles. While referencing the surrounding landscape with atmospheric color fields, the work contrasts industrial structures with organic forms to suggest the ideas of flux, change and instability in our environment.

Her work has recently been featured in exhibitions such as The Feminine Sublime at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, and Color Vision, at the Huntington Beach Art Center. Recent solo exhibitions include Conveyance, at the Long Beach Museum of Art, Illuminations at Von Fraunberg Gallery in Dusseldorf, Neon Babylon, at Elena Shchukina Gallery in London, Engineering at George Lawson Gallery in  San Francisco, and Broken Symmetries, Torrance Art Museum in  Torrance, CA. She has recently completed residencies at L’AIR Arts, Paris France, the Two Coats of Paint residency  in New York, and the US Thai Exchange Program at Silpakorn University in Bangkok, Thailand. Her work has been reviewed in several publications, including Artillery Magazine, the Los Angeles TimesL.A. Weekly, and Art in America.

Thibeault received her BFA in painting from Rhode Island School of Design and an MFA from UC Berkeley. She is currently a Professor of Art at California State University Long Beach where she teaches painting and color theory.

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Photo credit: Cynthia Lujan

When did you know you were an artist?

It happened early for me.  I grew up in Baltic, Connecticut, and in eighth grade I started to realize I wanted to paint.  As kids we would explore around town and one day we came across this building, an old train station that had burnt down.  In it was a room that an artist had made into his painting studio.  I went in and smelled the paint and saw his paintings and it was an epiphany.  The whole thing was an overwhelming vision.

Had you painted anything before that time?

Some watercolor and drawings.  I think I started painting with oil in high school.

What were you painting?

Landscapes.  I’ve always done landscapes.

Do you know why the landscape was speaking to you more than other genres?

It came from living and being immersed in my surroundings and living near the Slater Museum that had a collection of New England landscape paintings.  Amazing traditional American paintings.  And I also fell in love with Cezanne.  The art teachers at my high school would show us Cezanne and Giacometti.  I learned to draw like Giacometti and paint like Cezanne.  With Cezanne’s planes.  I still kind of do that.

Amazing you had that early on.

Yes, my destiny was clear from the beginning.  The way my life suffered was the lack of ability to do anything else.  Where I went to high school you could major in art and then I went to college at the Rhode Island School of Design.  I did not know about history or finances or any of the other subjects.

Did you continue with landscape at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design)?

Yes and no, I had to go through the foundation program and start all over.  I had already had that in high school but I took 2-D design, 3-D design, enormous amounts of figure drawing.  My sophomore year I was in a residency at the Delaware Water Gap.  It was a really seminal time because I was painting plein air in the woods by myself.  I would find these abandoned shacks and sit there and listen to the rain.  It was really a deep experience.

Was it a spiritual experience for you?

Yes.  I felt one with it.  And that’s a very American tradition.  Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keefe, pantheism, the transcendentalists.

You were inspired by Cezanne early on.  Were there any landscape painters you were thinking about in college?

I was really trained to paint abstractly.  Two different things were pulling at me at that point.

The Pattern and Decoration movement was big then, and the other was my teacher, Lorna Ritz a student of Hans Hoffmann.  Lorna would teach us about push and pull, no dead spots – formal concerns.  She was very spirited.  I pattern my own teaching after her.  That’s when I decided to be a teacher because I wanted to pass that along.  I planned on being an education major and that same year they dropped education as a major.  It was a life saver because I was thinking I was going to be a high school art teacher but instead became a painting major, and eventually got my masters.  MA and MFA both in painting.  MFA is where I studied with Elmor Bischoff and Joan Brown.  That’s where the atmosphere and expressionistic aspect came in. Not from direct teaching but looking at the art.

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Oracle, 48″ x 46″

Do you remember anything that Bischoff or Brown said that was a real eye opener?

Well, Bischoff was our graduate teacher.  He was in a jazz band, drove a motorcycle and wore a leather jacket.  We all went to his studio which was a real garret. When he first knew who I was he said “Oh, you are Marie Thibeault. You paint disasters.  Well so do I.  But mine are happy disasters.”  He made figurative work and then abstractions.  The painters then were looking at Krazy Kat and other comic strips and the marks they were using were bringing humor into painting.  It was the late 70s and humor in painting was big then in the Bay area.  Bischoff said “Everyone loved my figurate paintings of the lone person among the romantic sky and they wanted to know why I wasn’t still making those paintings.  I told them because it’s like going to church.  And I’m sick of it.  I just want to go to the gym and workout and have fun.”  I always think of that, if you aren’t really having fun then it’s too reverent, too pious.

And I wonder if you’re just boring yourself.

Yes, exactly.

So when did you start painting disasters?

That started with these painting from RISD which were patterned.  I started looking at landscape and then Wayne Thiebaud. In his aerial views you can see the patterned landscape from a distance, mapping.  I was really into that.  I did these trees with patterns and natural landscapes with ruptures.  I was looking at George Inness too.  Then in 1979 I moved to San Francisco where a lot of turbulence was going on.  Looking at their newspapers was very different than on the East Coast because they published everything – a plane crash, a nuclear disaster, Three Mile Island – and everything had a picture.  I wasn’t used to that so I started drawing from those photographs. For my MA I set about making one large scale drawing each day.  If I found a disaster, I would make a big drawing of it.  With charcoal and ink.  Pretty realistic.  For two years.

Why do you think you were drawn to disasters?

I think it’s about rupture and it’s about life.  You try to make a pattern, you try to make things consistent but there’s always rupture and breakage.  I almost died when I was twenty-one.  The scarred landscape became a metaphor for my body at a very deep level.  Consciously, I didn’t know that but now I do.  I think it’s a deep structure that happened from a profound experience.

Your paintings feel that way to me.  That they are working on a personal and environmental level.

Yeah, I started seeing this in landscape painting.  These spots that are like tombs or windows into something else.  Inness had it and Van Gogh.

Do you think they were aware of that too?

Inness, yes.  Maybe Van Gogh.  Corot too.  Portals where you go to the other side.  The idea that the portal portrays the human.  That you can’t really portray nature without portraying the human.

Do you think that’s true?

No, I don’t, but it does form some need I have to have a mirror in my work.  A mirror for the body or psyche.

I was thinking about your paintings that deal with Hurricane Katrina and Sandy.  They have an added power to them because you capture the objects that once belonged to humans.  The viewer can’t help but think about the humans and their experience.  Was that one of the reasons you were interested in those disasters as subject matter?

I was interested in the epic flood theme.  It affected me on so many levels.  With Katrina there are portals. There’s a lot of pool shapes which is also a key hole and a guitar in painting.  But it’s also the feminine to me. Now I’m interested in bird forms.  They are negative spaces.  I put a stencil down and paint over it.  The removal of it is the absence of the species.  It’s an empty spot.  To me that’s also what’s going on. Now instead of honoring the human experience, I’m more interested in honoring the situation that the other species are having to cope with.

The birds also remind me of bird strikes and the disasters that occur when birds fly into glass buildings.

Right. I’m concerned with migratory paths.  There’s a beautiful movie, Messenger, about song birds and their migratory paths.  It’s beautiful and heartbreaking.  About how the building and light pollution is changing.  And cell towers are not having a good time.  There’s an interruption there.  There’s also loads of communication going on in the world that we don’t have an appreciation for so I was putting those images together.  Like Siren from my show at the Long Beach Museum of Art.  It has three cell towers and the birds are trying to navigate. The cell towers are how we are communicating, invisible lines of communication.  And the birds are the pre-technology communication and the interruption of the paths.

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Siren, 78” x 116”

I wonder if the birds are affected by the microwaves of the cell tower.  Do you know if they are?

I think, yes, in some cases.  I started researching it.  I think as a visual symbol, the hubris of these cell towers is popping up in the landscape everywhere.  That we can’t leave anything without being touched is very tragic.  The black painting in the show, Oracle, is like a Geodesic dome.  A black web.  The Geodesic dome is a utopian structure, the highest thing we can do, optimism.  But it’s a faltering one as it doesn’t hold together.  It’s also a bird cage and the birds are stuck in there and can’t fly out.  It’s about constructing a symbolic relationship between us and nature.

Are your paintings commenting on what is happening, or trying to find a futuristic solution?

I get that question a lot.  It’s very interesting.  I think it’s about witnessing the moment, but I want the paintings to be at the moment of change.  When it could go either way.  They aren’t dystopian or utopian. They’re a hybrid mutation.  It’s about co-existing – a little humorous, a little dark, a little strange.  That’s what I’m going for.

Is that how you see the world?  Is that a kinetic experience for you?

Oh yeah.  But it’s also an ecstatic energy.  Like High Tide.  The water coming over the flood wall with the birds flying through it.  There’s also a reflective plane acting as a mirror for what is happening behind you.  I’m thinking less about how we are affected by the environment and more about how we are affecting it.

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High Tide, 48″ x 46″

What’s next?

I’m interested in the ocean.  In the tide pools.  But I think I’m going to concentrate on migratory patterns first.  And the geodesic dome form.   A lot of the things I explore in the drawings I may play with.  I’m experimenting with the idea of smaller forms among bigger shapes.

Where is that coming from?

Thinking of the intimacy among the grandeur and complexity of nature.  What I want the paintings to convey.  I think they have the resolved, big impact – an aesthetic arrest – but when you come up close and you don’t have the intimacy.  I’m trying to figure out how to do that like the drawings because they are more clear.  The paintings have so much more going on.  Most people don’t want to deal with that in painting anymore.  The drawings are a collage of many drawings.  Bigger moves and smaller, refined moves. I think that’s coming from the collage process more than the drawing process.  I can draw and paint similarly, but the big chunks and separations come with collage.

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Drawing wall, Long Beach Museum of Art, 2019

Have you tried to reproduce your collaged drawings as paintings?

I’d be bored in thirty seconds.  I’m not a technician. Some people love that methodology, but for me there’s no excitement.

Why are you drawn to abstraction?

The process and my history of painting.  I think it would be great if I were just starting to paint now.  I’d like to rethink it.  I don’t want to keep doing this same process, but I fall into it.  I want to experiment more than I have in the past.  Maybe switching materials or experimenting with collage.  In the past my motivation was to make the best epic painting ever.  My motivation isn’t that anymore.

As we mature we change our thinking about painting.

Yes, what we value.  I also want to shrink it down.  Making big paintings doesn’t seem as interesting anymore.

Is there anything you’ve lost along the way that you would like to put back in the paintings?

Yeah, I’m looking again for the hook.  What I can believe in and that the audience can believe in.  The question of drawing and representation.  I don’t want to do it because I love abstraction, but perhaps it might be necessary.  So I’m trying to figure that out.

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Conveyance #1, 20” x 17″

Do you think people’s interest in representation or abstraction is how they see the world?

Yeah, and I know abstraction fairly well.  I know about  analyzing painting and the vocabulary of formalism.  I’m really a formalist.  But I also like what doesn’t make sense.  I want more of that. More enchantment.  More intrigue.  I’m trying to figure out where the payoff is in the experience.  The general vs specific.  They happen on a different plane.  The drawings have started to do that, and I have to figure out how to get the paintings to do that.

Your paintings are more integrated than your drawings.

Yes, I agree.  And I think that’s problematic.  That they are too integrates perhaps.

Do you think it’s your skill that is hindering you from what you are trying to do?

I think so.  It’s the chess moves.  I know how to do this.  But why?

In all these forty-something years of painting is there anything you wish you knew then that you know now. Not technically but philosophically?

When I was young I tried to become strong in myself and that took a really long time.  To be independent and to learn to be alone.  To cultivate the discipline.  That’s where I was focused and maybe now I have that too much.  I wish when I was younger I had been more open, been able to travel more, taken more risks.

Risks in life?

Yes, variety in experiences.  I was shut in my studio for years.  Building the skills and discipline to keep me going.  I understand the painting process really well and it continues to interest me, but I also wish I had experienced life more.  I wish I had let more of it in.  The life experiences are more lasting, although I still believe in painting even though it doesn’t make sense.

Do you ever wonder why painters become painters?  They aren’t just artists they are specifically painters.

I think it’s how you identify.  It’s a calling to be an artist but specifically to be a painter.  I think it has to do with the limitation of the means and the vastness of the possibilities.  I really love the potential of pictorial space.  A distinct meditative object in the world.  A portal that can transport and be mysterious.

I read somewhere that painters are more inspired by painting than the real world.  Do you think that’s true?

Yeah, I would say so.  Painting is so nuanced and so complex.  It’s infinite.  You paint to the future and the past and the present.  There are sensibilities that run through.  You look at Michelangelo and Jim Dine and there are through lines.  The seminal paintings that inspired me when I was younger still inspire me.  A Monet painting of a big tree still floors me every time I see it.  Certain Cezannes, some Bonnards.  Some images that are burned into your brain carry you through life.

Do you ever think it could happen in the reverse?  If Cezanne came back and saw your paintings that he could see that through line?

I think so!  He’d have to decode it, but yeah.  I think he would be interested in painting today.  I wish more people could read abstraction today.

Why do you think they can’t?

Well when I come to New York it’s different.  There’s more abstraction.  But I think because we are in the information age everything is more literal.  People want stories.  Especially on the west coast.  My theory is because on the west coast we are aware of Hollywood and everyone responds to   story.  So the question is how can you make that accessible without diminishing the power of your work?

How can you?

Some painters do it.  There’s some German painters.  Maybe Per Kirkeby and Albert Oehlen.  Many contemporary painters such as Amy Sillman, Elizabeth Murray, Joan Snyder have been inspiring in this way.

Do you think about the future in terms of painting?

I like that innovation happens simultaneously all over the world.  People are evolving together both stylistically and conceptually.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided full and clear credit is given to Marie Thibeault and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.








Conversation with Hampton Fancher

Published in Figure/Ground
Interviewed by Suzanne Unrein

CONVERSATION WITH HAMPTON FANCHER

© Hampton Fancher and Figure/Ground
Hampton Fancher was interview by Suzanne Unrein. March 24, 2019

Hampton Fancher was born in East Los Angeles in 1938 to a Mexican-Danish mother and an American father.  At the age of fifteen, he went to Spain to pursue a career as a Flamenco dancer.  After returning to Los Angeles, Fancher began acting in the late 1950s appearing in films such as The Naughty Cheerleader with Broderick Crawford and Klaus Kinski, as well as a number of classic TV shows such as Bonanza, Perry Mason, and The Fugitive. In the 1970s Fancher began focusing on directing and screenwriting.  He would go on to write the screen play for Blade Runner (1982) and 35 years later its sequel, Blade Runner 2049 (2017).  He wrote and directed the Owen Wilson film, The Minus Man (1999).  In addition to teaching screenwriting at New York University and Columbia University, Fancher has published a collection of stories entitled The Shape of the Final Dog, and most recently, The Wall Will Tell You: The Forensics of Screenwriting. Described by the Los Angeles Times as “a world-class raconteur,” Fancher was the subject of the recent, highly praised documentary Escapes directed by Michael Almereyda.

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photo credit: Nesa Azimi

Your life has been a work of art, so much so, that Michael Almereyda made a film about it.    When everyone else set out to become a doctor or a lawyer, did you intentionally go in a different direction?  

No I set out to be a doctor and a lawyer and wanted to do it.  The difference is that when other kids start to integrate with school at a certain age, I never did.  I couldn’t do it.  I was stuck.  I had learning disabilities. Consequently I missed the brainwash.  You have to decide to become a doctor or lawyer.  You can’t do both.   I didn’t care about choosing because I was always pretending and in a way that’s never stopped.  I’m still pretending.  Still living in a fantasy because I’ve had the good fortune of living in a way where I don’t have to report to the commander every day and do the commander’s work.  I’m a bum but with the good fortune of having a rug and a couch and clean sheets.

If you didn’t have the ability to learn the way other people did how did you become a writer?

It comes from reading and the impulse.  Those things were simultaneous.  Reading and writing happened at the same time. My mother and father and sister read.  I didn’t. I drew in the pages of books. No one ever said “Don’t do that.”  I never heard that.  I didn’t read until a buddy of mine’s older sister who hated my guts said “You are an asshole.  A worse asshole than all of them.  But you could be saved if you read.”  She gave me this book at the height of the Korean war that was called Conscientious Objector, and I read it because she gave it to me.  There was sex in it.  I didn’t know books had those things. I read it and liked it enough to read some more.  The next book I read changed my life.  I went to the library and stole one because I didn’t know how to check it out. It was Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon.

You just happened to get that book?

Well that’s just how life has been.  I’ve been lucky.  I read that and I was already a dancer.  And those things went hand in hand.  Bullfighting and Spain and Flamenco. I went to Mexico and studied bullfighting – one lesson maybe two.  So that book was very important and then another, Matador by Barnaby Conrad.

Is that something that continuously happened to you, that reading informed choices you made in your life? 

Oh yeah.  I think that happens to a lot of people.  That and the movies.  Movies, music, books.

You became a writer and a filmmaker and not a painter or musician and I know you love all those things.  What made you become a writer and filmmaker?

People follow their capacities maybe and I don’t think I had enough talent as a painter.  I drew and I tried to paint.  Never went to school for it and never identified myself as one, but I did dream myself as a director and an actor and at nineteen or so as a writer. I identified myself as a poet because the romance of it suited me.  I was reading Villon and Rimbaud.  I wanted to be like that so I pretended to be that.  I think those things informed what I became.

Was poetry the first writing that you did?

Yeah. Because I met a poet when I was a teenager and he was spouting poetry and I learned that poetry.  I loved it.  It was because of him that I started memorizing Shakespeare and Rimbaud.  And started reading and writing bad, bad poetry.

Did you know it was bad at the time?

No, no, I was crazy.  It coincided with not only being a bit of a drug addict and an alcoholic. It was also that my brain wasn’t formed yet.  I was doing crazy things.  This was in my early twenties.  By the time I was thirty I was a little more stabilized.

When did you go from writing poetry to writing screenplays?

When I was nineteen or so I met a screenwriter through that poet I mentioned.  He took me to a guy’s house.  A guest house in Los Feliz and he’s smoking and he’s drinking out of a half pint of whiskey.  He’s got a typewriter and a desk and photos pinned on the wall, civil war things. I was just soaking it up because I wanted to be like him.  Researching and making money and writing a movie.  I didn’t even know what that meant but I loved movies and he can smoke and drink and pay for this wonderful place.  They’re paying him to do this.  From then on I said I was a writer.

A screenwriter?

No, a writer.  I never said I was a screenwriter.  I still don’t.

You went from poet to writer?

Yeah, I went from poet to writer and then shortly after I was making my living as an actor but I still said I was a writer.  Acting to me was all provisional, temporary.  The acting thing was to not collect unemployment this week.  If I had taken acting more seriously it would have been different.  I didn’t have a clue.  I was afraid.

Afraid of what?

I was afraid of exposing myself.  Afraid of showing anything that was real, yet finally I was even teaching acting.  I was telling people to do what I wouldn’t do myself.

So you weren’t any good?

I didn’t think I was any good but when I look at it now I can see why they were hiring me.  I had ideas.  I was studying but not sincerely doing the work that creates honest acting, that makes an art of it. I understood it.  I could talk the talk.  I could act like I was doing it and directors and other actors believed me, but I was pretending to do it.  I wouldn’t go all the way.

When did that change?

It never changed.

You still don’t think you are authentic?

No, I don’t think so.

Really?

No, I stumble into things that aren’t bad sometimes.  Basically I dabble. I’ve never had a genuine abiding grip on anything.  I feel completely inauthentic at anything, everything.  I feel like it’s all a charade.  And if you take off all the packaging of the charade, then what is left?  It would be a very tiny little whimper.  I’m not being cute.  Really, that’s what I think.  Something frightened and agonized and crawling and crying and wants to go to sleep sucking its thumb.  And that’s it.

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Do you think everyone feels that way?

I hope not.

Do you see other’s acting and writing and feel that they are much more genuine than you are?

Oh yeah.  The actors are great.  They’re brilliant.  That’s the beauty of it.  To see a great movie or great plays.

Well some people say that Blade Runner was their favorite movie of all time.

It is a great movie.

And you wrote that.

No I didn’t.  There’s a lot of great people involved in Blade Runner.  The most salient of which is Ridley.  Usually that’s what it is, it’s the director.  He stood on the shoulders of a lot of slaves and I was one of them and there were others.

Well you have to have an authentic voice with the screenplay to make it believable.

The origin of it, yeah, that’s me but then came David Peoples and what he did became a lot of Blade Runner.   Then you get the graphic design, production design, and then we’re back to Ridley.  Plus the music and the editing. So there’s that.

And you’re the one that thought the book would make a good movie.

I didn’t love the book but I saw a through-line that would make an interesting movie. And then I had the good fortune to get a wonderful producer, Michael Deeley.

You also made The Minus Man.  How do you think about that in terms of authenticity.

Well, that was pretty good.  I’ve done two things in my life, this part of my life.  The early part of my life was about the dancing.  And that’s what I feel the best about.  The dancing.  But since I was 21, there were two things that were really terrific for me.  One of them was writing and directing The Minus Man.  Still is when I indulge in the memories.  And it’s really sad too.  Because that’s what I really wanted to do, wanted to continue that experience.  I was 60 when I made it so that’s a bit late maybe.  I think if I had done it when I was 30 I’m sure my life would have been very different.  The other was a play I directed, Beckett’s Endgame.  That was the other triumph of the spirit for me.

Do you have specific memories from those two things where you felt like, “Yes, I really did something here.”

Well there are memories I have that are learning curve memories.  Where I messed up.  I still think about those all the time.  Why didn’t I do this instead of that?  Let me do it again and I’ll know what to do.  I remember the fun and the beauty of it.  The affirmation of it I guess.  It was a different world when I was doing that.  It wasn’t the same old world. With Endgame I was never satisfied, but with The Minus Man I was very satisfied.  I thrived.  I was old enough then to integrate with everybody.  And the things I wanted to do that everyone said you couldn’t do – social things, simple things – “Don’t ever show your vulnerability” – screw that.  “Stay off your feet.” That was another one I got from other directors, more experienced than I.  But finally I just did what I wanted to do and it was really compatible, except for a couple of moments here and there.

What advice would you give?

Don’t let it end until you like it.  And that’s really hard to do.  I don’t know how to do that but Wes Anderson does, and did, and right off the bat.  He’s a sweetie pie guy, full of warmth and understanding but he’s also steel when the shit comes down. You have to be smart as hell too.

Let’s go back to the dancing.  I didn’t realize you felt this was the greatest thing you did.  

When I was doing that, the romance with it, the connection to it was so deep and so voluptuous, gratifying.  I lived it. I was living The Minus Man but I was living other things too.  I was grown up.  But when I was a dancer, it was just me.  Young stupid me and I thought I walked alone.  The love of it, my adoration of it, like a child’s imagination, I could smell it.  I could sense it everywhere. I was the center of it.  It was Spain, it was me, another time, other clothes, it was all consuming.  I was too dumb to take advantage of my talent and to learn. I didn’t take advantage of it but I pretended to.  I’ve never had that experience again.  I was thirteen.  Thirteen to seventeen.

Why did you stop?

I really don’t know.  I know the superficial reasons.  I think fear had something to do with it.  And stupidity.  Not knowing how to proceed.  Pretending to know how to proceed.  Fighting to proceed but doing it wrong.  Fear of not being able to walk in and do things.  At the same time I was kind of crazy at seventeen, living in New York without anything, in love with a girl who has this thing called schizophrenia.  She’s a model and she’s beautiful and I’m living with her and I don’t dance anymore because I’m so messed up and enamored with her and she’s so crazy and kicks me out and I have no place to go and nothing to do.  I don’t want dancing or insecurity anymore.  Let me go home and get a job and get married and be safe.  So I hitchhiked back to LA and met a girl, got married, had a child.  And then I’m not a dancer. I’m a writer.  I retired at eighteen from dancing.  I was anguished, like a romance, that I didn’t do it anymore.  Until I was thirty I thought I would. I’m not good at knowing the score.

Any lessons learned in life you want to pass on?

Keep it physical.  Take it all in.  What I saw from kids is that they stopped being and doing that at a certain point.  The animal part of ourselves gets diminished and gets replaced by something more conformist and pragmatic.  So I guess in a word it would be “Play.”  And then watch out because when you get older there’s no room for it anymore.  Find the room.  The big challenge I guess is understanding another person.  To understand their experience.  Maybe we are too self-involved.  We are animals.  A bunch of monkeys don’t care that an alligator is getting killed over there.  The monkeys don’t give a shit.  But we do to some degree.  Our fear teaches us something.  Our abhorrence.  So if you are open to knowing the fear of others and know how they feel.  That’s a good idea.

What do you think is your biggest failure that lead to better things?

I think it all started when I stopped going to school.  I started stopping when I was six or seven.  By the time I was thirteen I wasn’t going much at all.  When I was fourteen I was in juvenile hall. No school would take me at that point.  So then I ended up in a private, theatrical school.  No one really showed up there because they had gigs. I went there until I left the country at fifteen. I got a freighter to Spain.  My family understood and said ok.  It also got me out of their hair.  Hard for them in a way.

HFdoorstep.jpg

So failure started you on this wonderful adventure?

No it wasn’t failure. That just sounded funny. No, what it really was, was doing what the dream told me to do.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided full and clear credit is given to Hampton Fancher and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Unrein, Suzanne (2019). “Conversation with Hampton Fancher,” Figure/Ground
< http://figureground.org/conversation-with-hampton-fancher/ >
Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at ralonlaureano@gmail.com

Verne Dawson at Gavin Brown's Enterprise

Published by Delicious Line
Written by Suzanne Unrein

Bucolic landscapes give way to mysterious narratives, myths, and rituals in these latest grand and intimate paintings by Verne Dawson. A bound Prometheus, an alluring mermaid, and a crucified Jesus are instantly recognizable. Other subjects arouse only a fleeting memory.

In the show-stopping The Theft of Fire (2019), a couple steals fire from a prehistoric era while others go about their ceremonial solemnities, holding unidentifiable objects among modern architecture in the same expansive setting. Time and space are a continuum as the pleased skeleton in the foreground holds court over the contemplative characters. Dawson paints the rhythm of the natural world swiftly and fluidly, laying thick marks over thin gestures in a no-fuss manner. Rough-hewn lines and smudges create the narrative, magically conveying the turn of a foot or the terror of a duck with seemingly little effort.

A concurrent exhibition of Dawson's work is at Galerie Eva Presenhuber, with an emphasis on numerology and astronomy, and an elegy to a most likely extinct bird.

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Lynette Yiadom-Boakye at Jack Shainman Gallery

Published by Delicious Line
Written by Suzanne Unrein

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye's contemplative works, fictitious black figures painted life-size and larger in minimal spaces, make up this two-gallery exhibition at Jack Shainman.

Thin bright whites, yellows, lime greens, and peaches are sparingly covered up by a dance of deep umbers, blue-blacks, and grays. The underpaint highlights the whites of eyes, the contours of facial features, and the outline of clothing. The figures appear silent even with outward smiles. An insistent inward gaze complements their elegant postures. Their essence is depicted with such timelessness of clothing and spaces that it produces a hologram-like remoteness.

In The Ever Exacting (2018), a man looks skeptically at an owl that looks equally suspicious of the viewer. His white-socked foot reaches out as if to move while mimicking the owl's threat to fly. Both sock and owl are painted in rich white-grays. Yiadom-Boakye is at her best here - hinting at forms with virtuoso brushstrokes, playing vibrant hues off ochres and browns - while conjuring the mysteries of paint and her imaginary subjects.

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Shari Mendelson at UrbanGlass

Published by Delicious Line
Written by Suzanne Unrein

Bar codes emerge out of filmy surfaces that recall ancient Roman and Islamic glass vessels in the form of animals and mythical figures. Blending observation, memory, and invention, Shari Mendelson creates spin-offs that charm and delight while conjuring histories and collective memories. She constructs them from repurposed plastic, lending a contemporary, disquieting edge.

In Deer Askos (2018), the hoofed mammal becomes an ancient vessel with inward gaze and legs sensitively tucked under a curved torso. A "best by" date is branded on its rear end, a reminder of the environmentally hazardous material that formed it.

A feline appears more house cat than lion in Sphinx with Bar Code (2018). Its human face looks wary. Its wings are clipped. With fragile front legs and a heavy top, this mythical creature seems both vulnerable and heroic in its modern form.

"Glasslike" is a reminder of objects left behind, from the artifacts of ancient civilizations to plastics that refuse to break down.

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Jane Fine at Pierogi Gallery, NYC

Published by Delicious Line
Written by Suzanne Unrein

Rendered in the style of pre-tech, 1970s cartoons, Jane Fine's paintings of groovy symbols, political imagery, and abstract doodling are a disquieting mix of innocent fun and a darker, Trump-era subversion.

The smaller works evoke 4-color pens with red, blue, brown, and black playing over metallic backgrounds. Flat, rounded planes break up the space while black shapes block out messages. "Sad," "Secrets," and "No" multiply and frolic in puffy lettering. Crossed out swastikas and money signs float among flowers and nonsensical speech bubbles.

In the larger So Much Winning (2018), flags tear and melt while their white stars freed from their confines shine brightly. A torn-apart fence hovers. (Good fences make good neighbors?) A partially concealed Statue of Liberty crown is smeared with red and blue. Missiles and toppled buildings pop out of abstractions. The imagery creates an ominous message amid a dynamic composition of exuberant paint on a powdery pink background.

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Dr. Lakra and Mezcal Los Dos Amigos at kurimanzutto, Mexico City

Published by Delicious Line
Written by Suzanne Unrein

Mexican surrealism meets sumi-e ink washes in 77 mashups by the artist and tattooist Jeronimo Lopez Ramirez, aka Dr. Lakra.

Lakra's fluid and masterful drawings combine Japanese iconography with mythical dream states. They skillfully traverse cultures and emotions in a singular vision. A monkey sees, hears, and speaks no evil while a dubious skull lies underfoot. An argyle sweater-clad fusion of snake and shriveled penis portrays the absurdity of impotency. In the poignant Yoru no hotaru (2018), an oni clutches a club in the existential darkness while peering out at fireflies bathed in their hopeful yet minuscule light.

Accompanying the exhibit is Lakra's collaboration with Abraham Cruzvillegas, Mezcal Los dos Amigos. Labels on mezcal-filled recycled liquor bottles become the canvases for the artists to conduct a dialogue through sketches and appropriated images. The project provides a wonderfully homegrown, expanded context for the sumi-e drawings.

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Angela Dufresne & Louis Fratino at Monya Rowe Gallery

Written by Suzanne Unrein
Published by Delicious Line

"Glazed" combines salacious pleasures with robust sensuality in this exhibit of fresh, modestly sized paintings by Angela Dufresne and Louis Fratino.

Dufresne tantalizes and summons with comic, crazed faces that look out from brilliant, abstract backgrounds with erotic familiarity. Enticing body parts and facial features are accentuated with swaths of surprising hues while restless fingers play at sexual diddling. The rousing compositions are unified in a masterful partnering of frenetic movement and rhythmic color.

Fratino's portraits are stylized, languorous, and romantic with solid, sculptural forms that are reduced and simplified. A slow dance of flat planes and undulating forms surround geometric, contented faces rendered in deep lilacs, rusts, and grays. When not delighting in his decorative patterning of blankets, tilted picture frames and personal objects, his doodles and scratches offer a visual playground for more abstract delectations.

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Marlene Dumas at David Zwirner Gallery

Written by Suzanne Unrein
Published by Delicious Line

Marlene Dumas is at the top of her game at Zwirner with pictures, some of them monumental, of voyeuristic intimacies. Painted thinly in oil, they are ephemeral and disturbing.

The large-scale canvases are around 118 x 39 inches, creating confined, coffin-like spaces for full-length figures. These portraits of vulnerability throw a gut punch. In Spring (2017) a woman, her face in shadow, pours liquid down her crotch. Her black panties cut into her rust-red legs as she balances over a lime-green stage in front of a bleak background.

In Awkward (2017) a couple stands uncomfortably toe-to-toe. Red edges force them together while the white negative space between them creates compositional tension. Their blue color makes the encounter feel powerful but fleeting.

Near the back of the show are wet-on-wet ink washes illustrating a recent edition of Shakespeare's Venus & Adonis. Dumas is in her element with the tragedy and tenderness of unrequited love.

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Ursula von Rydingsvard at Galerie Lelong

Written by Suzanne Unrein
Published by Delicious Line

Ursula von Rydingsvard's new, fierce, undulating sculptures take on a courageous vulnerability in these towering works (and a few smaller ones) in cedar, bronze, paper, and resin.

The cedar works are carved, sliced, bruised, and then re-constructed into ferocious pieces that haunt with fragility. In Nester (2016), eleven feet high, the wood inherently recalls the landscape. Yet its formation conjures up a caterpillar's measured crawl or an animal's tail raised in fright. The gaping holes utter silent chatter, as the rhythmic motion of the carved details relieve the overpowering mass.

The majestic, tree-like bronze of Z Boku (2017), with its lacy tendrils, appears to timidly reach for the sky, projecting strength and tenderness in equal measure.

Burrows begin tentatively at the top of Oziksien (2016), while becoming larger and seemingly louder as they plummet downward, reaching an all-out crescendo at the floor. It offers reverence to nature's power.

Ursula von Rydingsvard Nester, 2016 cedar 131 x 55 x 54 inches  

Ursula von Rydingsvard
Nester, 2016
cedar
131 x 55 x 54 inches
 

Trude Viken at Fortnight Institute

Written by Suzanne Unrein
Published in Delicious Line

Through virtuoso brushstrokes, scrapes, and smears in Trude Viken's exhibit of self-portraits and couples, hidden emotional states ooze externally. Thick pigments sculpt monstrous faces in unearthly, ashen umbers with shocks of yellows, reds, and pinks. The paint is urgent and frenetic in Ensor-esque proportions.

A hundred twelve-inch canvases make up the Diary Notes series, a visual daybook of the clandestine side of the human psyche. Painted with deftness, the horrific and impotent connect through tantalizing smirks and penetrating stares. Slits of human eyes beckon for understanding as whirls of thick paint obliterate surrounding features. A head slips down a picture frame, losing its footing among a sea of acidic, calamitous, green-gray marks that offer a lifeline.

In Couples and Ghosts, anxiety is heightened with twosomes melding together in otherwise roomy compositions. Only their dissolution offers a respite from their neediness and angst.

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Angelina Gualdoni at Asya Geisberg Gallery

Written by Suzanne Unrein
Published in Delicious Line

Angelina Gualdoni's "House of the New Witch" revels in the power of the female mystique, the roles of sorceress and creator, while constructing compositional disorders through spatial mashups. Interiors and still lifes mingle with shapes from the works of female artists of the past that are painted on the back of unprimed canvases and seep through as an inherited visual language. Bewitching worlds turn seemingly ordinary household objects into tools for secret ceremonies, and ancient Peruvian ceramics into magical anthropomorphic creatures.

In Cabinet Painting (2018) the stains ooze out of the walls and floor, creating an eerie and dominating lineage. A cabinet of curiosities is dimly lit in a box of emerald, blue, and violet while its doors have a warped perspective that lends form and confuses. A flattened female Moche figurine is freed from the architectural concerns and the secret world of the human-like objects, appearing as a feminist rebellion to the ancestral spirits.

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Mary DeVincentis: Dwellers on the Threshold at David & Schweitzer Gallery

Art review by Suzanne Unrein
Published in Delicious Line

Mary DeVincentis's paintings percolate at their own speed. Her cosmos gives a virtuoso performance while its enchantment sweeps up diminutive creatures. Its static effervescence rouses and intoxicates, drawing the viewer into various scenes. In one, an artist wields a paintbrush under electric currents. In another a zebra contemplates existence at the edge of a cliff. Elsewhere a tiger tries to touch the sky.

The slick Yupo surface and fluid acrylic brushstrokes of Day Dreamer (2017) create an otherworldly luminosity. The dreamer hovers between conscious and subconscious states, in a bed of lilac flowers or aqueous reflections, the heavens overhead summoning the earth. Blankets of supernatural yellows and greens seduce with their acidic tranquility while suggesting clouds and sea. Pink ears hear the calling of a distant flowering tree, while arms and legs signal death and resurrection.

In DeVincentis's worlds, dreams and personal myths spark a universal recognition.

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Lucy Mink at Barney Savage Gallery

Art review by Suzanne Unrein
Published in Delicious Line

Lucy Mink's paintings hide meaning in architectural playgrounds. Crowded arrangements of forms move you inwardly through the composition while your mind attempts recognition of individual parts. Textile patterns tame nature and offer fragments of homeyness to the rabbit hole of warping perspective.

"On Top of It" (2018) is an expert's game of color and arrangement. A subdued yet vibrant red, shaped like Matisse cutouts, weaves confidently through patterned planes and remnants of construction. The space is seen from above, a staircase leading internally, with the open landscape far away. Like all of Mink's paintings, there is a specific mood here, a feeling that memory and psychological schisms are in play. Multiple thoughts and ideas simultaneously vie for space – integrating and competing, overlapping and maneuvering.

Titles like "Talking," "If You Want It" and "Fall In" nudge at hidden connections to these visual mysteries.

Lucy Mink "On Top of It," 2018 oil on canvas 24" x 20" at Barney Savage Gallery

Lucy Mink
"On Top of It," 2018
oil on canvas
24" x 20"
at Barney Savage Gallery

Per Kirkeby: Paintings and Bronzes from the 1980s at Michael Werner Gallery, Upper East Side, NYC, 28 February through 5 May 2018

Art review by Suzanne Unrein
Published in Delicious Line

Per Kirkeby is a painter, a poet, and a maker of cosmogonic maps. His layers crash, collide, and build while underlying structures hold the pieces together.

Herbstbaum III (1985) has two steles holding court in a mystical forest by a river. A few marks suggest spacious surroundings outside the picture frame. A yellow totem attempts to stand erect while tipping off of its pedestal. An unflappable partner stands solid in spackled strokes of brilliant light blue.

In Untitled (1981), a landscape becomes a world, and the world becomes a language of mystery. Charcoal marks render the construction, then falter, losing their momentum. Scratches of deep blues mingle with green-blue blacks, while a pinkish gray creates a dim, diffused light that recalls Edvard Munch and the artists of Denmark's Golden Age.

Referring an earlier career in geology, Kirkeby uses his knowledge of sedimentation and stratification to forage for an inner truth, taking clues from the outside world.

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Longer version:

Per Kirkeby is an artist, a poet, a maker of cosmogonic maps.  Walking into the exhibit of 1980’s paintings and bronzes at the Michael Werner Gallery is being transported into a world of lost relics.  Unchartered lands set up shop in your psyche.  Underlying structures organize an undecipherable language that speaks loudly and persistently.  Layered marks crash, collide and build.  A symphony climaxes as it disintegrates.

"Herbstbaum III (Autumn Tree III),” 1985, is the first painting to insist on attention.  Two steles hold court in the foreground of a mystical forest by the side of the river.  A few marks suggest this spacious surrounding outside the picture frame.  The yellow totem stands erect while disintegrating, it’s unflappable partner solid in thick spackled strokes of brilliant light blue. The title suggests a portrait of a tree, the painting a signpost to another world.

In “Untitled,” 1981, a landscape becomes a world becomes a language of mystery.  Charcoal marks render the construction, layer upon layer, then falter, losing their momentum.  Deep bluish greens turn into dark umbers, thick slabs of white take the limelight and then bow to the surrounding darkness.  Nearby layers of scrawls like underbrush, rise and fall, thick and thin, awaiting their moment in the dim, diffused light.  The secrets of the universe are revealed and then gone.  Memory has disintegrated in erased marks. 

The bronzes are slabs that once marked sacred territories, forlorn yet stoic on their isolated pedestals.  The heaviness of their material seems like knights in armor.  Only when their forms are transported into the paintings in rich purples and greens and black blues do they become fluid.   Animated and butting against each other, they are more expressive in brushstrokes and plays of light.  

While Kirkeby, 79, began his career under the influence of Fluxus, Cubism and Pop Art, his early expeditions as a geologist are the impetus for these 1980s works.  His underlying knowledge of stratification and sedimentation curates the orchestra of layers and motion.  Outside current art movements, Kirkeby feels unique in this contemporary world; yet in the larger context of Scandinavian art, the lineage to Edvard Munch, Asger Jorn, and the artists from the Danish Golden Age are relevant and substantial in their subdued lighting and fluidity.  What makes this show remarkable and timeless is Kirkeby’s foraging for an inner truth with clues from the outside world.  In an interview with Tom Van de Voorde for Bozar Literature in 2012, Kirkeby says, “I have often had the feeling that there are moments when, with the aid of my own paint, I really see the world in all its reality.”

Per Kirkeby "Untitled", 1981 Oil on canvas 78 3/4 x 94 1/2 inches at the Michael Werner Gallery

Per Kirkeby
"Untitled", 1981
Oil on canvas
78 3/4 x 94 1/2 inches
at the Michael Werner Gallery

7 NYC Art Exhibits to ward off the blues

Spring is here and I fight the blues.  The forecast is filled with dropping temperatures, sleet, rain and snow.  Daydreams of Caribbean islands take hold as I nurse a lingering cold and look askance at my thinning winter coat.  To ward off the onslaught of mother nature, seven art exhibits offer refuge around the city, giving the appearance of Spring through visionary eyes.

1. "Zhang Enli: The Garden" at Hauser & Wirth, 548 W 22nd Street, January 25- April 7, 2018.  These oil on canvas works are explosions of juicy, scumbling pigments materializing from thinned out layers of wash in nearly disintegrating colors of sky blue and pale yellow.  While Enli finds inspiration in the gardens around Shanghai, images of underwater worlds of earthly reflections and the origins of the universe also come to mind.  Resembling enormous (most around 98 x 117 inches) Chinese brush paintings, the scrumptious deep violets, rich earthly greens, and crimson reds all contribute to the exuberance of blooming nature created on a grand scale. 

 2. “Allan Kaprow, Paintings New York” at Hauser & Wirth, 38 E 69th Street, February 1 – April 7, 2018.  As you enter the exhibit, a wall quote welcomes you: “OH THE PLEASURES OF PAINTING . PLAYING IN MUD . THESMALL CHANGES IN TONE . LIKE MUSIC TO MY EYES . PAINT IS YOU . PAINT IS ME . SUCH A PLEASURE TO PAINT . TO PAINT IS TO LIVE . A MISTAKE . A RONG TURN . A SLIP. IMPOSSIBLE . NOT IN THIS RELM . THE JOY . HAPPINESS . THE PLEASURE OF PAINTING . TO CREATE THINGS LIKEGOD . TO DISTROY AT WILL A WORLD OF MY OWN. TO EXPERIMENT IN A PHALS FALSE WORLD . WHERE NOTHINGCOUNTS . AND EVERYTHING COUNTS . IT BRINGS ME CLOSER TO TRUTH . TRUTH DOES NOT EXIST . PAINTINGDOES . GOOD PAINT . BAD PAINT . RIGHT PAINT . WRONGPAINT . NEVER TOO MUCH . TOO LITTLE . TO BIG . TO SMALL . IT IS . THAT IS WHY I LOVE TO PAINT . I WILLALWAYS BE A PAINTER . OF SORTS’
– Allan Kaprow “
While in the 1940s and 50s Kaprow created New York cityscapes and art studio interiors, the true subject here is the act of painting itself.  Created with bold, expressive brushstrokes of ease and joy, these transformative pictures capture the aliveness of city life while teaching how to delight in the process. 

3. "Sue Williams: Paintings 1997-98" at Skarstedt Gallery, 20 E 79th Street, February 22 – April 21, 2018.  From a distance these lyrical semi-abstractions look like colorful flowery doodles on white slick backgrounds. It’s only when we take a closer look that the connection to her earlier images of dark, subversive figuration take hold.  Not so graphic here, the sexual organs and grabby hands and feet turn into loopy flowers and clouds.  Gestural abstractions are made to please as they warn of darker secrets.

 4. "Francesca DiMattio: Boucherouite at Salon 94", 243 Bowery, March 06–April 21, 2018. The gallery’s main room welcomes with three cartoonish sculptures that appear to belong in a fun house if it weren’t for the meticulous and beautiful craftsmanship referencing art history, children’s books, cartoons and pop culture.  The mishmash of color and styles, along with the combining of animals and blooms - a porcelain dog covered in painted flowers becomes an appendage to a clay torso covered in porcelain flowers - make these works a visual smorgasbord of delight.  Make sure you don’t miss the two paintings tucked in and out of the office that offer fragments from Velasquez and Disney held together by thickly painted textiles.

 5. "Cy Twombly: In Beauty it is Finished Drawings 1951–2008" at Gagosian Gallery, 522 W 21st Street, March 8- April 25, 2018.  This career-spanning exhibit of drawings and works on paper are poetic and mythological meanderings, symphonic rhapsodies, illegible Dear John letters, and abstract landscapes created with scrawling gestural lines in color pencils.  Seeing decades of his work all together is to meditate on his timeless language of lyricism while marveling at the nuances created by years of experiential mark-making. 

 6. "Before/On/After: William Wegman and California Conceptualism," The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 5th Avenue, January 17–July 15, 2018.  1970s photographs and drawings by Wegman and his contemporaries make up the majority of this intimate exhibit, but it’s his videos that have audiences outright laughing.  With meditations on the mundane, he entertains himself – and us - by talking to the camera in repetitive phrases, creating mismatched mirror images, filming his palatine uvula dancing as he grunts and groans, and attempting human understanding with his Weimaraner, Man Ray.  Man Ray’s expressions change from excitement to exasperation to trepidation with every failed attempt to smoke, speak, or move a ball, offering hilarious insights into our own confusions about connecting.  It’s these uncanny observations and finding joy in the banal that make Wegman a teacher in life’s potential effortlessness. 

 7. "Streams and Mountains without End: Landscape Traditions of China," The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 5th Avenue, August 26, 2017–August 18, 2019. This transcendent exhibit of small paintings, wall scrolls, porcelain objects and handscrolls transport you into magical paradises capturing the infiniteness of nature.  With handscrolls over 10 feet long, these landscapes literally move you through time, a wonderful metaphor for the impermanence of nature.
Installation Shot "Francesca DiMattio: Boucherouite" at Salon 94, 243 Bowery

Installation Shot
"Francesca DiMattio: Boucherouite" at Salon 94, 243 Bowery

"Andy Woll: Western Wear" at Denny Gallery, February 15-March 25, Lower East Side, NYC

Art review by Suzanne Unrein
Published in Delicious Line

Andy Woll's "Western Wear" at Denny Gallery is an orgy of muscular, slippery paint. The eight works on canvas and paper, inspired by Mount Wilson and the Santa Ana winds in Los Angeles, are motifs for Woll's robust dance of color, movement, and form.

In Mt. Wilson (Santa Ana II) (2017) a thin, rusted red pigment slides over a light bluish gray ground, suggesting a hint of smog. The peak is choreographed with thick, drizzly pinks, magentas, and yellows amid a fluid structure of browns and blacks.

The large abstraction, Santa Ana (2017), is a effusive, confident work, the paint let loose from a binding structure. Wind is made visual. Brushed on and scraped off, pigments slink, slide, crash, and mingle. Juicy reds and oranges counterpoint rich, brilliant blues. Bursts of yellow peek out of green mush. The undulating grays hold the piece together with a rhythmic freedom. The exhibit is a refreshing, dynamic rhapsody of intuition.
 

Andy Woll Santa Ana, 2017  oil on canvas 78 x 54 inches at Denny Gallery

Andy Woll
Santa Ana, 2017
oil on canvas
78 x 54 inches
at Denny Gallery

"Leon Golub: Raw Nerve" at the Met Breuer, February 6- May 27

Review by Suzanne Unrein
Published in Delicious Line

"Leon Golub: Raw Nerve" at the Met Breuer is a selected survey of his work from 1940 to 2004. Inspired by political and pornographic photos, classical art, and mythology, Golub sources a wide variety of images to create his aggressive and timely works. Interrogators sneer. Mercenaries torture. Good ol' boys posture with cruel authority. Pummeled on and scraped off, the paint mimics the crudeness it depicts with a visceral impact.

While known for his enormous paintings of political violence, Golub created later works that offer a despairing, sublime beauty. Small oilstick drawings of sex workers beckon the viewer as they fade in palimpsestic marks of bright red and blue. Bite Your Tongue (2001), an apocalyptic landscape, is deftly painted with large brushstrokes. Golub portrays the dog and decapitated head using subdued hues. A colorful banner to the left offsets the somber mood, announcing "Loyalty Discipline Renewal," a warning sign about our collective mortality.

Leon Golub "Bite Your Tongue", 2001 at the Met Breuer

Leon Golub
"Bite Your Tongue", 2001
at the Met Breuer