After Vasari

writings on artists and artworks and where they exist

Month: November, 2011

Studio Visit: Tim Kent

by Paul D'Agostino

Tim Kent in his studio with his pup, Petunia.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011: Bushwick, Brooklyn

Built up and built out and consistently reconfigured in sometimes nearly imperceptibly different iterations, Tim Kent’s home studio is a now completely shifting, now gently morphing composition of spatiality in flux, a locus of nudging and restructuring of layouts and lighting that not only reflects the variant needs of a deeply skilled painter and draughtsman working at times with live models and at times from architectural renderings, but that is also reflected in many of the works themselves. In a number of paintings and drawings, for example, one sees great vaulted ceilings soaring above grandiose interiors inhabited by various fineries of color and décor, yet still visible at times is the compositional logic beneath it all, the traces of planning and retractable traces replanned, the spatial plotting of objects and the rushing in, or trickling through, or pouring on of light. These works are about air, in some sense, and how objects bear weight; they are about light flitting through rooms and making things dance, at times, while other times planting them firm. Figures do occasionally play cameos in these works, but they remain extras in indifferent focus. In these grand spaces, vacuity reigns over realms of marble-clad echoes.

Note: Figures elsewhere, to be sure, are the stars.

And note: Should it sound, so far, like tradition is here abundant, then as Tim too would agree:

So be it.

Exemplary of Tim's spatial renderings is, left, C.H.3 - Rapture, 2011, oil on linen, 64"x68".

Although a constant in Tim’s historical references and stylistic predilections is the rigor of classical mores and molding, his works are nonetheless unmistakably innovative, definitively contemporary. His bold, daring compositions featuring now lush interiors or variably reposed figures, now objects inert or writhing creatures, are rendered electric through masterfully executed, nuanced brushwork. He portrays the aura of atmospheres rather than the mere layout of spaces, the minutiae of fervid moods and moments rather than simply more or less emotive faces. In a single work, Tim might nod knowingly – through his skilled exploitation of the vicissitudinous character of light, for example, or in his firm grasp of the fleshed torque of human forms – to influences and painterly forebears ranging from the Renaissance to the modernist canon, yet the same work will bear his uniquely dexterous stamp per force. His nods to history, in other words, read more like discerning, perspicacious glances: a forlorn gaze evoking the impassioned visages of Pontormo; items on a table rendered in the fragile palette of Cézanne; a playfulness with brushstrokes and borders in works that breathe, with fresh charm, Boldini.

The temperament, however, is subtly different. Apparently softened forms display a distinctive vigor and angularity; sfumature are deployed selectively rather than overall and throughout; countenances are often blank, or blankly fraught, or blankly lewd or lascivious – elusive forms of expressive mystique.

Tradition informs, in other words, then retires from Tim’s primary norms.

Ms. R.L. in Pink and Red, 2011, oil on linen, 82"x60".

Take, for instance, Ms R.L. in Pink and Red, a great canvas that is as effulgently theatrical as it is descriptive, as chromatically festive as it is also, somehow, fearsome. There, in arrested strut, in paused lunge, she is poised: insouciant or intrepid, in some sort of glory unfurled, her subtle sass effervescent in the faint pucker of her face, in the glint in her eyes, in the lithe bend of her wrist, in her fan-grasping hand, in the angling of her hips, in the feathery flaunt of her static ecstasy with fragile flora all around and a great peacock, no less, at her feet. Behind her loom, in enigmatic obscurity, some sorts of spectral gazers; creatures creep about or flutter into the red thrust of the scene, as do a few well-elected hues of piquant blues.

So much emblazonment with decadent, lush magenta, with the majesty of late-empire pomp. The empire in question is largely irrelevant. She is a sly angel from some end time to come.

Note: I do not know who Ms. R.L. is, nor do I know if I want to know her. I know very well, however, that she is only one of Tim’s many stellar figures elsewhere.

And note: To gaze upon any one them is to agree:

So be it.

Evocations reverberant from vast room to plush plume.

Studio Visit: Adam Simon

by A.L. McMichael

Adam Simon in his Bushwick studio on a Sunday afternoon. The large panel painting on the wall is titled, Garden.

Sunday, 16 October 2011: Bushwick, Brooklyn

Adam Simon’s paintings are like towns, each work a microcosm with its own energy and vibe, an almost living amalgamation of figures and shapes, generic and repetitive at a glance, but often imbued with unique meaning upon closer inspection.

The story of his technique furthers this argument, harkening back to the days before internet, when he worked in editorial production and had down time between magazine issues. During this time he had access to stock photo catalogs—the once-ubiquitous volumes that graced the desks of designers before online photo archives were available—offering hundreds of already-shot photos for any occasion, such as carefully-coiffed models enacting a decade of cheerful, harmonious corporate gatherings during which the men are graciously heroic and the women wear pantyhose. Simon uses such figures as a starting point, tracing their outlines onto mylar and cutting stencils from the poses. He then rolls paint over the stencils onto panels, creating layers of figures. After the paint dries, he uses an electric sander to alter the finish, adding texture and subtracting layers of paint figures, letting some fade away while others emerge.

Gone are the pleasant expressions of the stock figures, the dated business casual clothing, the ethnicities of the models. Turning color photographs into contours achieves a subtle but crucial difference in legibility between these and more traditional silhouettes, such as Victorian busts, that are designed to be read as line art. In Simon’s work movements and gestures are muddled. In place of the models are generic figures that require interpretation, loaded with the viewer’s own preconceptions and memories. For me, a painting entitled Garden invokes a forest with figures instead of trees, overlapping, covering, revealing one another.

Simon notes a “nostalgia for the very recent past,” that viewers associate with these works. But there’s a sense of larger human, or at least art, history as well. For instance, Garden is a subtle reference to H. Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, and some of his new work often incorporates figures from art history. Simon’s standardized technique, completed with stock figures and historical silhouettes, asks very personal and pointed questions about universality and and its role in individual identity.

Our conversation about these paintings revolved around Simon’s use of the work to consider ideas of consumerism and the of role of the artist. He notes that as people are bombarded with images and often directed by them in a consumer society, artists offer alternatives to that. (To which I half-jokingly added, “with images.”) He offers these images as a template for the many versions of life happening at any moment, demonstrating that life is a “negotiation between extreme subjectivity and the fact that you’re cloned, there’s a prototype, a template.” When asked if he were bothered that our lives are to some extent templated, he replied “no” and that awareness of our place in society can be positive. Simon indicates discomfort with stereotypical views of the role of the artist in society as one of self-expression. Although he has toyed with the concept of removing the artist from the process, he has also turned that theory on its head, producing My Life in Pictures, Volume 2, a panel diptych on which stock figures carefully placed on a grid represent moments or memories from his own life.

In peeking through the forest (or the Garden, as it were) we are forced to respond to those human silhouettes, relating to or rejecting each one. Simon has made the generic personal. The work presents a collection of cookie-cutter, templated identities that we choose for ourselves, suggesting that we extract uniqueness from even the most generic circumstances.

Acetate stencils hang in the studio window.

A detail of Adam Simon's panel painting entitled, "Garden."

On Studio Visits

by A.L. McMichael

Giorgio Vasari, The Studio of the Painter, c. 1563.

Humans have voyeuristic cravings that might be sated by biographies or memoirs, shelter magazines or house tours, reality TV or talk shows. It is this sort of craving that encourages art lovers — whether they make artwork themselves or not — to peek in with curiosity at the tools of an artist, to observe how things are arranged, to glimpse projects underway, to look at sketches tacked to walls, to see all these things as harbingers of finished works to come.

But studio visits are more than mere acts of voyeurism. Generally, they are a conversational confluence of an artist’s sharing of perhaps recent works, a visitor’s responses to the same, and an artist’s reactions to the visitor’s insights and claims. In visiting an artist in his or her work space, one can sometimes see how the space, light, and materials that surround and become the work might also influence and extend from it.

Artists willing to have visitors should gain something from such interactions. Since gallery openings are not always the most opportune moments for them to field probing questions or receive carefully considered feedback, most artists appreciate the observations and exchanges that come about at other times, in other places. If that place is also where they make their work, it is likely that conversations and critiques will be significantly richer.

These studio visits are intended to extend the dialogue between artists and thoughtful viewers, and to consider an artist’s space and its relationship to the works created therein. We encourage you to extend the dialogue further, into the comments section, to make this space, too, one where artists and viewers can discuss artworks and creativity.

Alice Lynn & Paul

Absences Present: Emergent Naught

by Paul D'Agostino

It was in the liminal period suturing late winter 2010 to early spring that a friend and fellow artist, Tim Kent, was beginning to conceive and assemble work for an exhibit that was to be called, at one point, Dark Matter. He asked me to help him think through a few things and envision a few others, and those thoughts and visions led to a number of conversations. Those conversations then led me to write an essay, which soon became a font of ideas for some of the artists, myself included, making work for the show. Before long the same essay — expanded to incorporate something of a raison d’être related to our co-curated effort — became part of the exhibit as well. No longer called Dark Matter, the exhibit was titled Among Darkened Woods, and it was on view at Factory Fresh Gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn, in July 2010. The essay below is in the same expanded form it took on for the exhibit, and it features a new coda extracted from a recently read book by Michael Francis Gibson, The Mill and the Cross.

Dust grain or IDP (Interstellar Dust Particle). Photo UWSTL, NASA Hubble.

Nature and her eventual objects – Divisions, artifice – Cognition of presence and absence – Representations thereof – Reflections therein – What dust becomes – Elusion.

A conversation prompt in three parts, with two exhibit-specific interventions for
Among Darkened Woods.

To be discussed in the presence of objects, preferably, and
in the present tense, per force.

Historians of literature and of art know that there is a secret affinity between the archaic and the modern, not so much because the archaic forms seem to exercise a particular charm on the present, but rather because the key to the modern is hidden in the immemorial and the prehistoric. […] It is in this sense that the entry point to the present necessarily takes the form of an archaeology; an archaeology that does not, however, regress to a historical past, but returns to that part within the present that we are absolutely incapable of living.   – Giorgio Agamben, “What is the Contemporary?” in What is an Apparatus?

An act proper is not just a strategic intervention into a situation, bound by its conditions – it retroactively creates its conditions.  
– Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times

*        *        *

There may well be nothing remotely novel in stating that the broadly delineable physical sphere we inhabit consists of nature and her eventual objects, and nothing else.  Our manners and modes of imagination might seem to complicate this matter, yet there is no such thing as an idea that does not have a particulate basis, no form of thought or emotion that obviates the circuitry of neurons and synapses, no means of storing or conveying information, itself ultimately physical, without departing from, navigating through and arriving at something material.  Just as the collective heft of our planet’s presumably unplanned amendments, blemishes and appendages – all the world’s structures and infrastructures, that is – might be considered somewhat less natural than a lake or forest yet is ultimately a product of nature as well, so might our cerebrally resident capacities of imagination, creation, invention and fancy be considered somewhat less than palpably real, though they too are part of this material continuum.

There do exist, nonetheless, divides.  Interventions, of course, must take place. To permutate a notion of some form of materiality into more substantial materiality itself, to bring anything imagined into more corporeally material form requires, invariably, to say the least, something.

Call it effort.  Call it an event.  Call it need or call it want.  Call it an accident.

Or call it, if you will, as completed act, artifice.  Should it seem applicable, you might call it art.  For the products of materiality’s self-interpolative modes of productivity can be considered, if only occasionally, that.

Wherefrom, then, this thing one might call art?  Or if that answer seems too evasive, wherefore?

Surely that answer, too, is too evasive.

One might do well to focus, then, on evasion.

On presences becoming absent.

And absences present.

*        *        *

Dark matter; matters dark; material forms visible in obscurity, of scant tangibility; material bonds threadbare, precarious, diaphanous; fused concatenations verged upon coming undone: such was the substantive nature of initial thematic and aesthetic considerations as this exhibit, Among Darkened Woods, emerged.  Our discussions were informed by common curiosities about how something as essentially, as yet, ill-understood as dark matter – something somehow detectable yet not quite identifiable or visible, something somehow ultimately physical yet fundamentally, if only semantically, ethereal – can be nonetheless comprehended, for now, as that which constitutes the greater thrust of materiality.  If matter as we see and experience it, in other words, and as we can define it in particulate terms, is out-mattered several times over by an invisible, mysterious greater substance of sorts whose constituent particles are all about us yet evade our investigatory grasp, what around us, then, is present or presence, absent or absence?  Should one of these apparently opposed polarities somehow matter, so to speak, more?  Is differentiating between them ultimately unimportant?

To be sure, neither the artists nor the artworks in Among Darkened Woods purport, nor pretend, to directly represent cosmological constants, formulaic quintessences, or formalized fabrics of variably dimensionable universes.  Showing how or why certain realms of materiality and others of ostensible immateriality are somewhere convergent was never, in fact, the point.  What was retained from those initial discussions, however – disparate and tenuous though they sometimes were – was the representative potential of dualities perhaps only apparent, of differences at best presumed.  This led, subsequently, to talk of darkness and light, which led soon thereafter, and quite fittingly, to Dante.  Hence our title, hence our aesthetic and theme.  Among Darkened Woods is imagined as a quest whose outset is darkness, whose destination is light, and whose artistic documentation takes place at observed instants, captured moments, occurring somewhere within that umbrageous midst.

*        *        *

By way of contemplative abstractions such as questions, curiosities, reflections, recollections or observations, the ponderous transcending of what we might call our tangible sphere permits access to the ostensibly less-than-real sphere of thought, that nebulous realm of internal dwelling, itself just another finitely immemorial abode of nature and her eventual objects – the very locus of our notions, of our potentiate perceptions of something, or nothing, else.

It is thus here where we endeavor, where we dare to derive meaning, here where we enact processes of consciousness and cognizance to incorporate our external, abstracting, already eventuated selves within this internal eventuality as well. Hence extrapolations and interpretations, both visual and verbal; hence recognitions and recastings, reproductions and reworkings that interrogate, that interpolate these worlds.  And hence, therefrom, the rendering variably tactile of all these things – the re-rendering through materials, as new material, of ultimately confluent internal and external realms.

Such translational procedures, in the context of the plastic arts, might be mediated by graphite or ink, clay or paint, emulsions or metals, chemicals or lights, and their instruments of marking might be hands or sticks, brushes or knives, molds or rollers or myriad other fundamentally manually forged contrivances that enable the transmutation and reprojection of internalized outsides as newly visible, externalized forms.  There is in all this, to be sure, something very deeply anthropocentric, perhaps direfully anthropomorphic – a matter of ineluctable divide, of conceptual flaw.  Conversely, one might intuit this possible flaw as something intrinsically sly, for we hold these terms and forms to be ours to define, consider, refine, reconsider and redefine.

Yet flawed or not, self-reflexive or not, selfish or not, effective or not, there is also, in all this, an apparent absence: the absence of the apparent certainty of presence.

Thus among the potential products of this reappropriated absence is what one must call artifice, what one might call art.

*        *        *

Appropriating an image from the second verse of the opening tercet of Dante’s Inferno – “mi ritrovai per una selva oscura” / “I found myself within a darkened forest” – as visual and thematic source material for the exhibit, the artists in Among Darkened Woods present works that seek to portray the derivative potential of darkness, to probe the obscure, to lend plasticity to shadows and other forms evanescent, to perceive presences and apparitions in that which seems to have disappeared.  Though the lenses through which these artists envision such penumbral considerations might differ as readily as the tools and formal approaches they employ in representing them, their creative aims and interests in general display a range of conceptual affinities: the realization of unconstrained, unforced possibilities; the narrative potential of artifacts and their concomitant histories; evocations of anxiety and unease resulting from shifting identities; the unpredictable outcomes of catalyzed, though not fully controlled, experiments, processes and interferences; and the static charge of subjects, animate or not, as they are objectified, gazed upon, frozen in loaded intervals in medias res.

Whereas Dante’s infernal quest leads him from the “selva oscura” of life’s proper path gone astray – his “dritta via” that has gone “smarrita” – to visions of the most profound reaches of physical suffering, punishment and ceaseless decay, the works in Among Darkened Woods suggest an earlier stopping point, a less hellish locus, a place perhaps only subtly subterranean where forms have not yet dropped into the abyss of a falling apart, evoking instead the ordered calm of a falling away.

*        *        *

Just as the lush sunlight of noontide pours into the darkness of rooms to illumine thick swaths of otherwise quite invisibly suspended dust, creating of it a spectacle both material and curiously ethereal, so too can creative representation make of apparent absence a striking presence.

This illumination, this enlightening of nature’s prodigious and ostensible, sometimes discernible and sometimes palpable domain of apparent nothings-else, of presences veiled, nourishes the visible lexicon, as it were, of our perceptions of anything, of our understanding of our omnipresent somethings.

How and why absence relates and underlies herein are elusive questions we should hope ever persist and evade.

*        *        *

CODA

The dizziness we feel is that of the great turning points of time. And so we remain on the lookout for the reformulated myth — the necessary fiction — signifying, as always, that undefined, unutterable and desirable fulfillment which endlessly, out of the depths of nothingness, produces being.   – Michael Francis Gibson, The Mill and the Cross.

Dust clouds and interstellar medium around blue nebula NGC1999. Photo Nasa Hubble.

Equine Nebula. Photo NASA Hubble.

Marksmen and the Palimpsests: Strata of Precision, Process & Execution in the Works of John Avelluto and Josh Willis

by Paul D'Agostino

This essay was composed for the catalog accompanying Marksmen and the Palimpsests, an interstizio exhibit at Centotto featuring works by John Avelluto and Josh Willis.

Josh Willis crafting a panel for A Foot in the Garden, a Foot in the Well. Photograph by Karilyn Johanesen.

Painting is not a copy of the Idea:
the Idea is the gesture of painting.
1
– Jean-Luc Nancy

Comprising two entirely new bodies of work executed specifically for this exhibit, as well as a suite of polysemous collaborative pieces conceived as the exhibit’s theme and aesthetic took shape, Marksmen and the Palimpsests showcases the most recent yields of the rigorously process-laden, unyieldingly precision-driven and ineluctably time-consuming studio practices and creative visions of John Avelluto and Josh Willis, two deeply skilled and insightful painters with whom it has been a pleasure to become acquainted, and whose works it has been an honor to display, at Centotto. At once a celebration and an acute investigation of these artists’ similarly discerning methodologies and the readily differentiable innovations resulting therefrom, Marksmen and the Palimpsests is also quite literally, indeed eponymously, an exploration of the variable palpability of exactitude, on the one hand, and layering, on the other. Yet for Avelluto and Willis, the stakes of their relatable practices extend well beyond the studio, beyond even the physicality and compositional parameters of the objects produced therein. For their common ground lies not only in meticulousness and painstaking detail, in stratification and objectified abstraction, but also in the parallel potency of the questions and challenges – at times defiant, at times acutely critical, at times parodic – that their unmistakably contemporary paintings pose to the storied traditions of the medium itself. It is thus the yields of Avelluto’s and Willis’ productive processes, the nature of their consistently raised stakes, and the cogency of their transfigurative critiques that Marksmen and the Palimpsests, and its accompanying expository essays, aim to assess.

For Avelluto and Willis, the only proper inquiry into the legion, even legendary ways and mores of what one might term the painterly tradition – intermittently deified and dismantled, claimed and shunned, marginalized and punned though it may often, and perhaps rightly so, be – is one that is holistic, unyielding, bold. As such, their processes are as much a matter of exploration as they are of reprocessing, and not merely in terms of subject matter, objective or not, or technique, visibly traceable or not. In a sense, in fact, their shared subject matter, their shared object of investigation, might well be the ramifiable import of a certain set of words, the variably ambiguous technical contingencies, that is, of some of painting’s most elemental terms of reference themselves: of both substantive and verbal applicability, both paint and painting can refer to acts and objects, the imagined consummation of which might readily foster assumptions about the act’s agent, the painter, on the one hand, and about the object’s technical genesis (in terms of the classically understood techné, or rationale or manner of production, that brings the object into being) on the other; such assumptions, then, polarize the adjective painterly, making of it a term of praise or denigration, a notion positively or negatively loaded or empty, meaningful or meaningless. In other words, one’s brushstrokes, one’s compositions, one’s palette or one’s techné in general might be now lauded, now lambasted as painterly; indeed, too painterly is well understood as something of an unwelcome, passively toxic critique.

In light of such potentially fraught semantics, and presupposing a set of rather orthodox beliefs regarding the practical and visual senses of the terms at hand, one might even, and not unjustifiably, elect to not call Avelluto and Willis painters, to not reference their practice as painting, to not classify many of their works – albeit executed quite entirely via the visio-plastic vernacular of paint – as paintings. Such a referential election, however, or predilection, as it were, carries with it certain advantages, for the assumption that painterly terminology might be somehow insufficient with regard to these painters does indeed beg some crucial questions: What should one call Avelluto and Willis, if not painters? What should one seek out in their paintings? What of particular questionability lies beneath, or atop, their painted works?

Holistically painted though they in fact are, John Avelluto’s variably dimensioned creations might well be called, quite simply, sculptures.  His operation, an effort whose time-consuming nature stems as much from the material needs of the medium he employs as from the ultimately highly detailed manner in which he deploys and permutes it, entails additive layered build-ups, mold-like structuring and, at times, subtractive interventions in the forging and manipulation of meticulously crafted objects – e.g. wood panels, various types and weights of paper, linoleum blocks and a host of mixed comestibles – so convincing, so shockingly verisimilar, that the term trompe l’oeilseems here quite inadequate. He renders not only the precise colors and contours of wood grain, for example, but also goes back with fine brushes to incise therein the dendrological grooves of wood vein. Not only do apparently erased pencil marks, on what appear to be standard sheets of notebook paper, seem to have been laboriously rubbed away, but the imaginable, or imaginary eraser also appears to have left behind its rubber-dust type vestiges, the faux-effectuated act’s detrital remains. Given Avelluto’s layering of procedures and materials whose eventual yields suggest a layering of purely conjectural events, it follows suit that a viewer’s interaction with his works is layered as well. At the very least, one passes from curiously incredulous to conciliatorily impressed.

John Avelluto, I.C.U.P., detail.

Notions of veritable legerdemain aside, Avelluto’s only medium employed in all this, at each variably phasic instant, is paint. Though his tools may vary widely and even, at certain stages, involve brushes, his sculpted forms consist solely of acrylic colors and mediums. As such, Avelluto’s fundamentally plastic process of shaping multifarious simulacra out of acrylic paints, themselves essentially plastic, recalls Roland Barthes’ description, in an essay called “Plastic,” of the curious processes and yields made realizable by this strange substance: the “alchemy” of plastic is “the transmutation of matter” into “startling objects” that make of “original matter” a profound “enigma.”2 Emerging from well-honed modes of similarly ostensible though fully manual “alchemy,” Avelluto’s paintings might be simultaneously construed as the work of a painter, a sculptor and a trickster. The series of acrylic-paint-rendered objects he has produced for Marksmen and the Palimpsests, collectively titled Loose Leaf, a formulaically deconstructionist set of twenty individually morphed, inscribed, art-historically layered and, with discrete variance, culturally and self-referentially palimpsestic sheets of ruled notebook paper – as well as the five faux skins of ersatz vellum overlays he created for Palimpsests, the collaborative pieces between himself and Willis – are, without doubt, indicative of the painterly “enigmas” of which his subtle hand, with sly sleight, is capable; they are exemplary of the often indiscernible deceit behind his “alchemy.” To be sure, Avelluto’s now visibly, now invisibly stratified surfaces – the variably observable depths of his plastically rendered objects frozen in a state of plastically liminal reality – are deeply, exemplarily deceptive.

If the manual mechanics of Avelluto’s current work might be likened to that of a painstaking sculptor creating, of acrylic paint, counterfeit objects more typically produced by machines, then the similarly painstaking yet differently mimetic mechanics of Josh Willis’ works might be considered one of conceiving, devising and enacting the very manufactural processes of a machine itself. Indeed, as Willis tasks himself with the designing and often repetitive execution of serialized projects whose individual iterations might number in the dozens or hundreds, his studio regime nearly requires him to become the muscle-memory-empowered components of a mechanized body. Quite despite such anthropo-mechanical processes, however – despite the rigorously layered parameters within which Willis mechanizes, delimits and formally, in various ways, impedes himself – the particularized realization and scrupulous polish of his creative products are anything but mechanically feasible, his act anything but mechanico-painterly machination.

If not a painter then perhaps an empiricist, Willis sets conditions, concocts puzzles, conducts experiments; the resident layers of his works are procedural as well as material. These conditioned layers, however, are also metatextual, interdisciplinary and art historical. In the conceptualization of A Foot in the Garden, a Foot in the Well, for instance, a series of thirty paintings he made for a previous Centotto simposio exhibit,3 Willis gave himself the calendric structure of producing a painting a day for one month; he determined his palette by inserting into the Pantone Matching System the numbers drawn in each day’s New York Lottery, then replicated those colors with pigments; and he determined the sharply contoured, low-relief floral images for each painting by consulting each day’s entry in a 19th century almanac of garden flowers, Flora’s Dial, by J. Wesley Hanson. The specific passing of those thirty days, then, remains documented not only in the collection of works that resulted, but also in the layers of composition-determining information that impressed temporal specificity upon each individual piece. While such internal data might not be readily visible, the works’ veneer does implore further questioning. That is, since each painting is ultimately monochromatic, the viewer is lured to interact with the series to glimpse its richness: at a certain centered distance, one sees the paintings as variably rectangular arrangements of blocks of delicately somber hues; as one moves closer, and perhaps glancing at angles, the smooth low-relief floral surfaces begin to shimmer, morphing the blocks into a veritable garden of individualized blossoms.

Josh Willis, A Foot in the Garden, a Foot in the Well. Detail.

In the series of paintings Willis produced for Marksmen and the Palimpsests, collectively titled Towers, the underlying points of reference for all of the works – now notionally, now readily perceptible in each – are at once the socio-critical and landscape elements of a painting by Gustave Courbet, Young Women of the Village Giving Alms to a Cowherd (1852), and the profoundly metaphorical subject matter and compositionally centered thrust of The Tower of Babel (1563), by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Drawn to both of these paintings, and indeed to both of these painters, both for what they represent and how they represent it, Willis selected certain aspects from each, internalized those norms, then reprocessed them into stratified meta-representations of incipient disarray in a structurally detached world, of troubled sunlight and ominous clouds that both herald and seize the peril of an imminent storm. Trapped here in its looming, in other words, catastrophe looms; yet what is also captured here is the process behind all this, itself a great litany of overlaying and excavational procedures, of self-obscuring palimpsestic modes, of formalized self-intervening into forms. Indeed, Willis’ task was far from mere appropriation and mnemonic re-representation of Bruegel’s biblical Tower superimposed onto a socio-critically charged landscape by Courbet. His process entailed, rather, in short writ: the build-up, in broad strokes of oil paint, of approximated forms; the cutting away, with a broad-blade knife, of protrusions in those forms; the filling in of those deformed forms’ consequent niches with dark pigment; the sanding away and flattening of the traces of those steps; the repeating, over and over, of this entire procedure until the surface was fit for layers of varnish; and a final round of oil-painted detail atop those layers, followed by yet another round of varnishing.

In terms of subject matter and process alike, then, one might find Willis’ visions in these works, his somewhat empirically rendered re-envisionings, unsettling. And rightly so, for they are not settled, they are not inert. One does not sense that something perhaps devastating has already happened, nor that something has yet to take place. One senses, rather, that something is happening. Captured in this active verb tense, in other words, the event is frozen in its taking place. This is, indeed, the defining event of these ambiguous, perennially metaphorical forms: rather than already rendered apart, these Towers of Babel are here being rendered asunder, or rendering themselves into ruin. The nearly jarring notion, indeed the terror of a painter slicing into his work becomes here the chilling vision of unknown terror in the works.

It is thus here, perhaps, in the idea of painters or paintings in the works, that this discussion of the stratified precision, layered processes and gestural exactitude of Avelluto and Willis comes full circle. It is at this juncture, indeed, that one might finally elect, with informed conviction, to characterize Avelluto as a dexterously detail-driven sculptor or an eye-fooling trickster; one might now elect, with similar certainty, to categorize Willis as a machine-like crafter of fine-tuned experiments. After all, their readily differentiable processes may seem to carry their works in general, and specifically those produced for this exhibit, rather far afield from standardized understandings of a so-called painterly tradition. Yet their medium of choice places them very firmly therewithin, and it is, without doubt, this very tradition that they both seek – through their incisive fabrications of progressions and methodologies, through their techné consisting of catechistic strata of meticulous tasks to be carried out, through the marks they leave visible or seal behind variable successions of palimpsestic layerings – to question, to challenge, to critique. Of course, one might also elect to eschew the logic or importance of such labels of creative agency; one might prefer, instead, to simply gaze upon and ponder these artists’ polished works, hidden meanings and art-historical references. Yet one would still do well to consider, and perhaps semantically stretch, this aforementioned notion of painters or paintings in the works: it is invariably in their works, that is – in the very procedural grit and finely mediated grain of their paintings – that Avelluto and Willis not only remain, ultimately, painters, but also, in the layered gestures inherent to their processes, imbue painting with irrefutably contemporary ideas, if not a jointly novel Idea, of primacy. Herein, then, is the proper critical space in which to flesh out the Jean-Luc Nancy citation in this essay’s epigraph:

If the Idea is the form of forms inasmuch as they take form, inasmuch as they space themselves out and configure themselves freely, that is, according to the surprise of an ordering whose calculation defies all operation, then the first Idea was a painting and the first painting was an Idea. Painting is not a copy of the Idea: the Idea is the gesture of painting.4             

In their medium of choice, then, and in the potent questions they pose thereto and therewith, Avelluto and Willis are most certainly painters who aim to further painting, in some sense, through their uncompromising gestures. For this specific exhibit, however, one has resolved to label both of these artists – in light of the precision-driven nature of their processes and their ever-exacting modes of execution – marksmen. As such, whether or not the three bodies of work in this exhibit convey anything of traditionally or intrinsically painterly import regarding paint, painters or paintings, we at Centotto hope you enjoy viewing and contemplating the painted objects by each of these consummate marksmen as well as their collaborative palimpsests.

Thank you very much, grazie mille, for your amicizia and interest.

Josh Willis crafting a panel for A Foot in the Garden, a Foot in the Well. Photograph by Karilyn Johanesen.

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1 Jean-Luc Nancy, “Painting in the Grotto,” The Muses, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1996) 78.

2 Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972) 97.

3 The simposio is Centotto’s indirect, language-based curatorial approach by which featured artists are asked to select and submit works according to varying textual and titular parameters. Specifically, their pieces must respond to the tripartite discursive framework formed by a given show’s bivalent exhibition title and its required reading assignment. Within this triangle of potential discourse, therefore, is where exhibited works reside, and artists are required to provide brief statements to place their works semantically therein. The simposio exhibit in which Willis exhibited A Foot in the Garden, a Foot in the Well was called Impart to the Product / Part of the Process? or Quest, Phantom, Vestigium. For more information, please consult the corresponding descriptions and images at centotto.com.

4 Jean-Luc Nancy, op. cit.

Undoings Redone

by A.L. McMichael

This essay was written for Centotto’s exhibition catalog that accompanied Marksmen and the Palimpsests, an interstizio exhibit by John Avelluto and Josh Willis that ran from November 5-December 17, 2010.

John Avelluto and Josh Willis, Palimpsest No. 1: This is the Picture, 2010. Acrylic on panel, 11″ x 10.”

Palimpsests, created through a process in which one substance scrapes away and then covers another, simultaneously revealing and concealing aspects of both, are as old as the earth itself. Geological palimpsests, for example, can occur when sediment deposited by a glacier comes in such strong contact with oceanic tides that the glacier loses its own properties.1 About fifty to sixty million years ago, in what would one day be labeled North America, pressure from the depths of the earth pushed magma through layers of sedimentary rock, forming vertical striations that were later eroded away, revealing an enormous bulge in the landscape now known as Devils Tower, Wyoming.2 This process of destruction and rebuilding is as gradual as it is revelatory; shifting tectonic plates, dripping stalactites and drifting sea floors all demonstrate eons of deposited and scraped-away moments. Every layer is evidence of the perennial life force and self-reflexive creativity of nature. Such effects manifest themselves in human existence as well, in the constant ebb and flow of urban development encroaching upon these geologically processed forms, in the urban landscapes of cities that grow in fits and starts, in cobblestone and concrete.

The term palimpsest is derived from a Greek verb meaning ‘to rub again.’ With regard to manmade objects, it most frequently describes a manuscript that has been reused after an original text was erased. Pages of manuscripts, the forerunners of modern books, were generally made from parchment, a smooth, sturdy writing surface made of animal skin. Medieval scribes wrote with a quill pen in one hand and a knife in the other for scraping away mistakes.3

Because making vellum was a costly and time consuming process, recycling of these precious sheets was a widespread practice. Countless manuscripts were washed or scraped of their original text and reused. In addition to financial and material practicalities, societal shifts also precipitated the creation of palimpsests. Texts that were deemed outdated were destroyed in favor of new ones that reflected current liturgical or legal information. Deciphering the content of these palimpsests offers scholars information about the shifting values in society and has even brought to light texts that were thought to be extinct. For instance, a lost section of Cicero’s late fourth- or early fifth-century De re publica was found beneath a seventh-century copy of Saint Augustine’s writings on the Psalms.4 Pagan Cicero had been subsumed by Christian Augustine on the page, a telling parallel to the political rise of the church over minority religions in the middle ages.

Nineteenth-century attempts by Italian archbishop and philologist, Angelo Mai, used a chemical process to decipher the double messages of palimpsests such as this on vellum, permanently damaging the objects.5 Palimpsests are still so essential to manuscript studies that the Vatican Library’s photographic services have developed two scanners with custom software to capture palimpsests by using both RGB and UV imaging in order to “isolate and extrapolate the various levels of script.”6 Other scholars have taken an archaeological approach to deciphering such texts, attempting to preserve both layers while excavating them. Johan Ludvig Heiberg used a mere magnifying glass in 1906 to recover mathematical writings by Archimedes, hidden beneath the text of a thirteenth-century Byzantine prayer book, that were no longer extant in any other form.7

Scientists and art historians have long approached the hidden layers of art as a treasure to be unearthed by technology, a secret to be revealed despite the best efforts of the artist. In paintings, for instance, X-ray analysis of underdrawings gives art historians an opportunity to analyze an artist’s intentions; if something has changed from sketch to final painting, it is presumed to be an intentional and pointed act of the artist. Tintoretto’s horizontal Nativity, for instance, was considered a sub-par example of his work until X-rays led conservators to believe the haphazard composition began as a vertical Crucifixion altarpiece that had been abandoned.8 Rather than a sloppy application of the principles of design, the finished painting evidences a clever reuse of materials. Recent technology has also revealed that Leonardo da Vinci’s sfumato finish on the Mona Lisa, for example, is enhanced by the thirty or forty hairlinewidth layers of varnish that he patiently built up to imbue her presence with hazy, dreamy qualities.9

Without doubt, Willis and Avelluto are not the first artists to intuit that even the most hidden layers of pigment or varnish imbue the art with a richer, more nuanced finish. It is pertinent, then, to note that Avelluto and Willis make no attempt to recover the sacrificed information in the layers of their own work or in their collaborations, as evidenced by Palimpsests, the collaborative series they produced for this exhibit. Instead, both artists are process-driven and utilize visual repetition and deconstruction, though to widely different effects. Willis’ work begins with introspection. Much of what he does adds nuance to the final piece but is not on display for a third party. Avelluto also has a painstaking and hidden methodology for building objects, but he has a more direct message for the viewer. He reflects on nostalgia and refuses to take an everyday object, even a mere sheet of notebook paper, for granted, treating it as an object for exploration, deconstructing its material and visual elements. Avelluto’s nostalgic concern for information as a concept is juxtaposed with the historical precedents and social awareness resting on Willis’ consciousness.

Josh Willis, Tower, 2010. Oil on panel. 7.75″ x 6.75.”

Josh Willis’ painting series, Towers, features monolithic forms confined to small canvases. It is his interpretation of, among other things, the igneous formation of Devils Tower. Each painting’s unabashedly straightforward presence belies the struggle required to bring it to completion. He begins a painting with thick planes of Cezanne-like brushstrokes in vivid colors, only to partially scrape them off, piling on layer after layer in this process until earth tones and energy emerge. Background skyscapes feature contrasting blues that tap into the pieces’ emotional undercurrent with naturalistic clouds or gritty, storm-like impressions. Willis recycles and reinvents his brushsrokes in a stubbornly regimented process until the end result is one from which he might derive a personally relevant lesson or insight. This self-inflicted iconoclasm is a lesson that forces him to reflect on social struggles in the vein of Courbet, or on the concept of communication and message—his Devils Tower depictions are a reference to Bruegel’s biblical Tower of Babel as well as a study in nature’s processes. This series is a testament to art history as well as to personal experiences.

John Avelluto, Untitled, 2010. Acrylic paint on acrylic paint film. 8.25″ x 10.75.”

John Avelluto’s work appears straightforward, but that is indeed an appearance. Upon close examination, one begins to see it in a very different way as it forces the viewer to ponder reality and philosophy in order to reconfigure its logic and meaning. He uses layers of paint to make objects, (in this exhibition, pieces of notebook paper), blurring the line between painting and sculpture, forcing the attentive viewer to question perception via his products that both reference nineteenth-century trompe l’oeil decoration and update it through insightful critiques of the so-called digital age of information. His repeated representations of paper completely deconstruct the formal elements of the page, and his copies with rearranged lines and holes are, in Avelluto’s words, new “streams of creative energy,” new iterations of an object that is often dismissed as a means of recording mundane data, a part of everyday clutter.10 His meticulous process of layering paint and building up a variety of simulated objects (paper, pencil marks, erasings) from a single material is consumed by the straightforward, representational result. Partly as a result of developing this process, Avelluto stresses the importance of acknowledging and deciphering palimpsests across media as a way of pondering the constant rewriting of information in our society.

The cohesiveness of Marksmen and the Palimpsests lies in the ways in which both artists question presentation, form, and representation in a quest to define and utilize process. Process is not the end result, however. Ultimately, in each artist’s series of paintings, one finds a form reminiscent of a familiar object or place, but the significance of that form is that the path leading the artists there was the road less traveled—one of work and loss of work. For the viewer, it is a glimpse into the force and nuance of creativity, of questioning the most basic objects and acknowledging the significance of origin, of research, of context, and of presentation, both revealing and concealing aspects of the artists’ messages.

The two artists live and work in close contact with one another. Willis calls this a type of “cross-pollination,” and despite obvious stylistic differences in their work, the artists manifest similarities in terms of meticulous processes and goals. However, Willis also points out that a tangible, physical overlap in the art itself highlights the differences in their work. Therein lies the value of Palimpsests: it is an invitation to both viewer and artist to question and process visual information in all possible ways, to appreciate the inherent cycles of creation, to find new information in the repetition of a familiar object or practice, and to make the creative process a conversation rather than a monologue.

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1 Department of Conservation, Maine Geological Survey, “The Seafloor Revealed,” http://www.maine.gov/doc/nrimc/mgs/explore/marine/seafloor/glossary.htm.

2 National Park Service, U. S. Department of the Interior, “Devils Tower,” Geologic Formations, http://www.nps.gov/deto/naturescience/geologicformations.htm.

3 Christopher De Hamel. Medieval Craftsmen: Scribes and Illuminators (London: The British Museum Press, 1992), 39.

4 Marcus Tullius Cicero, De re publica: Selections, ed. James E. G. Zetzel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 33.

5 Raymond Clemens and Timothy Graham, Introduction to Manuscript Studies (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007), 109.

6 The Vatican Library, “Photographic Laboratory,” http://www.vaticanlibrary.va/home.php?pag=ufficio_fotografico&ling=eng&BC=11#2005.

7 Raymond Clemens and Timothy Graham, Introduction to Manuscript Studies (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007), 109. See also The Walters Art Museum, “The Archimedes Palimpsest Project,” http://www.archimedespalimpsest.org.

8 Frederick Ilchman and Rhona MacBeth, “Tintoretto’s Nativity: More than One Artist, More than One Painting” in Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice, ed. Frederich Ilchman (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 2009), 164-173.

9 Centre national de la recherche scientifique, Communiqués de presse, Paris, 15 juillet 2010: “Nouvel éclairage sur les visages de Léonard de Vinci,” http://www2.cnrs.fr/presse/communique/1942.htm.

10 Avelluto’s and Willis’ personal comments were recorded during studio visits with both artists in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, August 2010.

On the Profaning of Imagery and Passings Along

by Paul D'Agostino

The first and shortest iteration of this brief essay was composed for “One Image, One Minute,” an event organized by Austin Thomas and hosted by Hyperallergic in the summer of 2010. An extended version, more or less identical to the version below, was published in Juncture: A Writerly Newspaper in February 2011.

Boulevard du Temple, Louis Daguerre, 1838 or 1839.

My first encounter with the writings of Giorgio Agamben, a contemporary Italian philosopher, took place in the spring of 2004, as I was putting certain final touches on my doctoral dissertation. It was one of those beautiful accidental finds in the library as I chanced across his book Man Without Content, whose title alone I found enthralling, devastating, defining. That text became of crucial importance to me as I completed my arguably unimportant work. I have been a devotee of Agamben ever since.

In one of his more recent books, Profanations,* in a chapter titled “Judgment Day,” Agamben discusses Boulevard du Temple, a daguerreotype from late 1838 or early 1839. From the point of view of his studio, Louis Daguerre, still very much in the wondrous throes of experimentation with this new medium, forged a glimpse of the eponymous and generally very busy Parisian boulevard during the bustling midst of a day. The result is considered, though not without some contention, the first photographic image to feature – for it is there, it is present, a sublime and haunting figuration, a well-delineated wraith in an otherwise nearly deserted streetscape – a human figure.**

Unidentified, unidentifiable. Absolutely anonymous, quotidian. This figure, this person, is momentous. He should not, by all accounts, be there. He should not be documented. Save for a few other phantom forms one might intuit, though surely with lesser certitude, as human, all the other persons and carriages and variable traffickings of life that also passed by during that long exposure – during the realization of that seemingly alchemical conjuring through interactivities between a treated copper plate and light – have disappeared into the blur of the past.

And yet, this person, this figure.

Having paused long enough, supposedly, to have his shoes shined.

There he stands.

Agamben calls this a consummate representation of the Last Judgment: a single person “captured” in the vanishing of all else, “immortalized,” “charged with the weight of an entire life,” an instant of insignificance configured as “the meaning of an entire existence.”

Far more than the one I spoke of before, this capturing might also be called a most beautiful accident.

And enthralling, and devastating, and defining.

And if somehow representative of Last Judgment, this immortalized image, in short writ, is rapture.

Or in large writ, and properly so-called, Rapture.

Or in terms less metaphysical though perhaps equally, by way of etymology, dramatic, this first photographic figuration of man is eternally rapt, everlastingly raptured.

In these past participles from Latin rapere, this figure is caught, taken up, seized, captured.

Past participles, passed judgments.

Passings along.

And how.

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* Giorgio Agamben, Profanations, trans. Jeff Fort, New York, Zone Books, 2007. “Judgment Day,” pp. 23-28.

** Look for him, in the image above, in the lower-left register near the curve of the curb.

Gallery Visit: Zane Wilson at Centotto

by A.L. McMichael

The following essay is a piece written in response to the opening of Zane Wilson’s solo show at Centotto in February 2011. It originally ran as part of a blog entry entitled, “Wall-kicking: Contemporary Art and the Middle Ages.”

Selected works from Zane Wilson's Portrolio X Appunti at Centotto (clockwise from top left): Untitled (Anchor); Drawing for Ground Quiver; Untitled (Box, Noose, Nails); Untitled (Rubber Tree).

Selected works from Zane Wilson's Portfolio x Appunti at Centotto (clockwise from top left): Untitled (Anchor); Drawing for Ground Quiver; Untitled (Box, Noose, Nails); Untitled (Rubber Tree).

Five Responses to Zane Wilson’s Portfolio x Appunti at Centotto

by A.L. McMichael

On Friday, January 21, Bushwick’s Centotto gallery, recognized for its curatorial emphasis on dialogue and text, inaugurated a new exhibition format into its rotation. This format, called Portfolio x Appunti, is one in which an artist’s work is “mediated by a five-tiered framework of specific visual and written appunti, or ‘notes.’” Brooklyn artist Zane Wilson is the first to be featured in this configuration. The exhibition formula offers a structure in which the artist can experiment with specific tiers of information on a worksheet: the pieces on exhibit; five lines of text about concepts and contexts; five more on materials and processes; five lists (of inspiration or sources); and five studio shots. In light of the five-themed structure, I offer commentary on five elements of the sculptural exhibition.

1. Tactility. The show’s most striking object, a large wood and latex anchor, has the texture and color of skin. There’s an icky and mesmerizing feel to the latex coating many of the surfaces in the exhibition. More than a few viewers felt an uncontrollable need to touch the art, to interact with it, to see each piece from multiple angles. How many people couldn’t help fondling the tip of that anchor tantalizing them from above? How disconcerting is it to touch what looks like wood grain and feel rubber? This art demands action as much as vision. Everyday objects from tools to fingers are imbued with a lively tangibility.

2. Materials. There are combinations of materials that really shouldn’t really make sense coming together to form cohesive objects. The materials themselves make these objects into more than what they represent. Materials that carry social connotations—wood (life, nature), rubber (protection, sexuality, waterproofness)—make a viewer linger.

3. Objects. The chosen objects carry social connotations, shown in ways that are contrary to their roles in the ‘real’ world. The anchor, a weight, hangs above our heads by a rope, an element that can keep you anchored or pull you to safety. It can also be wound into a noose. A unicorn horn, a symbol of purity (or the loss of it) is made from a drill bit. Is it mounted to the wall or piercing its wooden base? These are not a collection of ‘real’ objects and not mere re-creations. They’re references to objects made with a layer of inherent meaning conveyed via the chosen materials.

4. Playfulness. (And its very sharp edge). There’s liveliness and joviality in a chunky latex saw that couldn’t cut down trees or in arrows that droop over their ground quiver. There’s a chuckle in fingers emerging from records on the wall or in the play on words when you realize Wilson has made a literal rubber tree. These serve as an unspoken dialogue between artist and viewer. The witticisms have shadows lurking in their corners, however. The vitality of the drill bit horn is crowned with a hot pink noose. The color laughs in the face of morbidity. The floppy arrows are incapacitated weapons. Nearby a hanging faux bois box holds hand-carved nails large enough to crucify or drive a railroad stake, but there’s nothing inside to be pierced. Is the measure of darkness or cheerfulness in these juxtapositions a reflection of the artist or of the viewer?

5. Words. Or lack of them, on the part of the artist. He shares many of his influences and inspirations in the five written appunti. However, he offered very little in terms of interpretative commentary on individual pieces during his artist talk. He lets the work speak for itself, leaving it open-ended. Part of me wants to howl until he explains every object, and the other part delights in filling in those gaps for myself. He gives hints in the titles; a pink rubber hammer for someone “all thumbs in love” plays on words and alludes to human fragility. The objects and their symbolism to the artist are an example of the personal made public, silently reminding us that there’s a soul behind these creations, but we’re only allowed a glimpse at it. Aspects of this show are reminiscent of the artist’s past work—which included images of genitalia or cartoons, for instance—but the references have evolved in their emphasis of the body and nature and manmade objects interacting to convey a sense of humanity throughout the show.

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