After Vasari

writings on artists and artworks and where they exist

Month: May, 2018

Manual Realizations

by Paul D'Agostino

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The Safety Net, mixed media collage, 2015

Manual Realizations: Leslie Kerby’s The Laying On of Hands

Working always deftly and fluidly among a full range of image-making techniques, including drawing, painting, printmaking and collage, and recently adding sculpture and animation to her practice as well, Leslie Kerby creates all manner of visual narratives addressing, with a keen critical eye, societal practices, ills, curiosities, complexities, services, interactions and constructs. With palpable sincerity and a sense of humor, she has addressed many facets of our politically circumscribed, socioeconomically determined or determinable lives, from the neighborhoods we live in to the ways in which we attain our goods and services, from the ways in which we communicate with one another to the cemeteries where we might visit or bury our loved ones. Kerby has never shied away from handling even the most controversial or aesthetically challenging themes. Indeed, the most difficult ones sometimes become the greatest conduits for her creative impulses.

This is certainly the case with The Laying On of Hands, one of Kerby’s most recent and materially polyphonic bodies of work. Here, the artist turns her critical eye towards one of the most politically charged, ideologically divisive, societally expansive and, at the very same time, most deeply intimate issues of our time in the United States: our healthcare system. Kerby began contemplating this as subject matter six or seven years ago, having personally experienced, endured or witnessed no shortage of the good and bad of how we insure ourselves for and possibly receive medical care. She knew that, in a few ways, the system worked well enough. She also knew that, in many ways, it was direly inefficient, unnecessarily confusing and, for far too many people, devastatingly lacking. Given the issue’s gravity and complexity, however, Kerby spent several years moving forward with other projects instead, all the while pondering how she might effectively convey her thoughts about the precarious, indeed fundamentally perilous state of our healthcare system in ways that would be both visually engaging and candid in commentary.

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Blanket Coverage, mixed media collage, 2016

Kerby’s solution turned out to be simple and inclusive. She decided that works on paper with graphic immediacy would constitute the body of work, and that each work would itself be constituted by imagery produced via essentially all of her manual skills as a maker of imagery. In a way, just those few decisions are already striking analogs for what our healthcare system is definitively not, and what or how it could or should be: it is neither simple nor inclusive, but it certainly ought to be; aspects of it that might be conceptually plain are presented in ways that confound everyone, from doctors to patients and customer service agents; many of the system’s verbal convolutions are surely intentional, masking fees and exceptions in footnotes and conditional clauses; people at various income levels, especially the lower ones, as well as people who might already be sick are left out of the system entirely, or they are gravely underserved, meaning underinsured; and the system overall feigns personalized service while remaining pitilessly impersonal, removed, uncaring. Unfortunately, these are not new problems at all with regard to how healthcare in our country is provided, nor are they new in terms of how it is presented in our political discourse. Yet they are problems that have never gone away, and that seem to become worse as medical technologies advance, and as masses of data come to define patients and problems in general, statistically, rather than determining an individual patient’s problems specifically. This should seem absolutely paradoxical. It absolutely is.

How, then, do Kerby’s works convey something simpler, more inclusive, more comprehensible and intimate? How are the obvious levels — for they surely are obvious — on which our own lawmakers and doctors should demand — for they surely should demand — improvement from our ‘service providers’ made manifest in The Laying On of Hands? It couldn’t possibly be more genial or straightforward. Kerby conveys her commentary by crafting individually identified or identifiable patients and doctors, sometimes interacting with one another, sometimes only almost, and she does so by doing, as an artist, precisely what doctors have always done, and what so many of them still want and are trained to do: employ their full range of diagnostic reasoning and manual skills to care for one patient at a time, one ailing person at a time, as meaningfully and holistically as they can. Kerby achieves both ideals by tapping into the full extent of her creative skill set, employing several very manually driven processes of drawing, printmaking, collage and image transfers, among other approaches, to create variably pictorial contours and silhouettes of patients now ailing, now under examination, now being medicated, now ostensibly becoming their medications. Visages and figurations, and most certainly the omnipresent motifs of hands and eyes, predominate these engaging compositions in which pills, simplified x-rays and pieces of equipment factor as well, with backgrounds generally left blank or spare. In a formal sense, per her clear sources of inspiration and characteristic treatments, Kerby’s yields are images of great candor and immediacy, aesthetically steeped in various elements of German Expressionism and, with very fitting specificity, Neue Sachlichkeit — indeed, one might even identify in Kerby’s collages a rather seamless merging of the two readily distinguishable traditions, the latter’s germaneness here not incidental given the medical nature of some of its most historically trenchant imagery.

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The Dispensary, mixed media collage, 2015

On that note, Kerby, with perhaps a knowing nod to Christian Schad’s The Operation, makes her doctors, nurses and medical settings very easy for us to recognize. But how to recognize a student or a journalist, a chef or a plumber? Kerby identifies her protagonists in her very own handwriting, their facial features often well delineated, their attire or other accoutrements pointing to their trades or occupations. What do we know of their ailments? We see where they are ailing by way of where she places their pills within their figurative contours, with their medications sometimes taking the shape of objects relative to their professions: the librarian’s pills are spread across two pages of an open book; the banker’s are arrayed in a way that suggests coins; the musician’s are shaped like a guitar; the lawyer’s medications quite meaningfully sit atop the plates of a dramatically unbalanced scale of justice. How to keep viewers engaged in a suite of societally critical, even perhaps thematically somber works might seem an additional concern, but Kerby has cleverly foreseen that, undercutting the potentially overwhelming gravity of her subject matter — who will listen if it’s all pain and trauma, or keep looking if it’s all shock and awe? — by intermittently cartoony renderings, exaggerated embellishments, caricatured features and physiques, and even a certain kind of mirthful array in her arrangements.

Seriousness and humor come into most succinct and critically significant confluence in works like The Dispensary, in which a doctor and two nurses are portrayed as busts atop Pez candy dispensers, and in Candyland, in which the artist reconfigures many of the characters and formal tropes from her entire body of work into a loosely rendered representation of the eponymous board game for kids. Kerby’s critique here is at once precise and expansive: while the game is intentionally structurally misleading, so to speak, and indirect and obfuscatory in the sweet, felicitous interest of childish fun, our healthcare system is all of the same, and then some, in the bitterly sickening interest of corporate greed; and while the composition and visuals indicate a game for kids, they also suggest the hardly outlandish notion that insurance providers and pharmaceutical companies, assuming that we’re all manipulable and naïve, are playing a game with our bodies and minds. A form of casual entertainment for children, here, is simultaneously legible as a system of physical and psychological entrapment for adults.

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Candyland, mixed media collage, 2015

This kind of duality is also present in Kerby’s ultimate addition to The Laying On of Hands, a video animation, made in collaboration with designer Lianne Arnold, in which the full set of collages undergoes, or even performs on itself, a kind of surgery, autopsy or anatomical investigation. Here, by laying her hands back onto or into her body of work, she quite literally quickens it, sets it into motion. Now her compositions come alive and interact with one another, and pieces from one wander about from one spot to the next, from one collage to the next. In this animated context, however, the child/adult duality Kerby implies in Candyland is essentially inverted. Now, a system that is often entrapment for adults becomes, in a delightfully rendered ‘cartoon,’ something that could readily entertain children. It’s hard to overstate the importance of Kerby’s dual modes, or even dual moods, in this thoroughly considered body of work. On the one hand, they help her engage viewers more broadly and permit certain aesthetic freedoms, from ‘fun’ images like candy dispensers to a rather graphically lighthearted animation. On the other hand, Kerby’s dualities also relate quite plainly to the great paradox of our healthcare system overall — that the very form of ideally pathos-driven, human-to-human interaction that should be most intimate, personalized and hands-on so often seems, thanks to corporate avarice and legislative apathy, as insensitive and impersonal as can be.

By tapping into so many of her artistic skills, sources of inspiration and critical modes in the creation of The Laying On of Hands, Leslie Kerby has crafted one of her most fully realized, conceptually seamless bodies of work to date. As you follow the trajectories of figures and forms from one mixed media collage to the next, and from the suite of collages to her video animation, you can’t help but find yourself in agreement with both sides of her implicit claim: staying alive and well truly should not be a roll of the dice, yet what our ailing healthcare system has let it become is a baffling game that toys with our lives.


This essay was composed for the catalogue accompanying The Laying On of Hands, Leslie Kerby’s solo exhibition at Project ARTspace, located at 99 Madison Avenue in New York City. The show will be on view from 16 May to 15 June, 2018. More information about the show can be found here. Images courtesy the artist.

Paul D’Agostino, Ph.D. is an artist, writer, translator, curator and professor living in Bushwick, Brooklyn. More information about him is available here, and you can find him as @postuccio on Instagram and Twitter.


Discoveries & Wonderings

by Paul D'Agostino

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Petra Nimtz, No Strings Attached #1, 2017

Discoveries & Wonderings: New Paintings by Petra Nimtz

There are paintings that show you subjects. There are paintings that show you things. There are paintings that lure you into seeing figures, places, colors, shapes, textures, lines and objects. There are paintings that show you worlds and realms. Petra Nimtz’s paintings, at one level or another, show you various sorts of all such things. Yet that which you see, and the manner and moment in which you come to see it, are the very things this process-driven painter prefers to imply rather than firmly determine. Her compositions are places for you to see into, discover and wonder.

You might see, for instance, at center left, and quite immediately as you regard No Strings Attached #3, a slatted door of curious sorts, one that seems to have been left open in a second floor bedroom in a placeless home of peculiar proportions. Unless what you see, that is, while looking at the very same trapezoidal form — the one whose white center is lined with delicately rendered, blind-like horizontal striations, making its lavender framing scan as a spatially recessive ledge or sill — is a window. If so, then the implied interior becomes very strangely mysterious. Its dimensionality begins to budge just a bit, and a kind of phantom light seems to take shape at center right, which then makes that chain-link-like form floating into the space from the edge of the canvas appear intriguingly apparitional, observant, vaguely figural.

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Petra Nimtz, No Strings Attached #3, 2017

By now, of course, you’re locked into your act of looking, and then you begin to wonder: What’s that red portal? Where might it lead? Is that soft grey area the shadow of a window? Is that visible underscoring, so casually grid-like, partially responsible for so much spatial warping?

All this intrigue and visual adventure, in other words, can be found in just one of Nimtz’s most recent paintings. But in this sense, No Strings Attached #3 is far from unique. Rather, it is yet another pictorial product of this seasoned painter’s operative mode of letting layers of material, as they accrue, spur her on.

In this sense, Nimtz’s process is catalytic. It’s a matter of allowing initially achieved textures — created sometimes by painted grounds, sometimes by scoring, sometimes by collaging and grafting — to guide her into applying additional layers of colors, some of which then become compositional zones or variably defined forms. She works intuitively as she pushes her abstractions and rather autumnal, sometimes wintery palettes — soft greys, grey violets, beige pinks, and cool ceruleans punctuated by bold reds, bright blues, bright yellows and brighter whites — into composed, light-filled states that seem always slightly sparked into activity, subtly quickened. Those blocky homes across the way, for instance, in Because I said so, are stable enough, yet their ostensible rumble is slightly audible — if what you see through that irregular orange window, that is, is ‘blocky homes across the way,’ those black structures of sorts beyond a forest of orange-ish birches in a valley of variegated blue, all mesmerizingly vibrant beneath a soft pink sky.

Petra Nimtz, Because I said So

Petra Nimtz, Because I said so, 2017

But if those are homes, and if those are trees, what’s happening with that bright blue brushstroke to the right? Are select trees being summoned to the heavens? Is that home in the throes of abduction?

To be sure, the questions you might pose while beholding Nimtz’s works will be determined by how the artist’s rich surfaces resolve before you. This is true for her works on paper as well, primarily collages and watercolors. Rather than working from plans or sketches to recreate something seen or imagined, Nimtz starts with textures and lines until they give way to colors, then allows colors to give way to forms, then allows forms to be further shaped by new and repurposed textures, lines and marks. And she continues to work, look and rework as such until her colorfully textured compositions become just balanced enough, just quiet or quickened enough, just curiously pictorial or suggestive enough.

But she leaves the ultimate resolve up to you. What you see, that is, is what you see. What you find is what you find. What you hear is what you hear.

Should you discover doors, windows, houses, trees, rumblings or raptures in Nimtz’s textured spheres, then that would all be quite fine with her. Her aim is to make you look, look harder and wonder — then look again, and harder again, and keep wondering.


This essay was composed for Discoveries & Wonderings, a catalogue of recent paintings and works on paper by Petra Nimtz. It will be available in the summer of 2018. For more information about Nimtz and her works, visit her website here

Paul D’Agostino, Ph.D. is an artist, writer, translator, curator and professor living in Bushwick, Brooklyn. More information about him is available here, and you can find him as @postuccio on Instagram and Twitter.

Forth to Back: New Paintings by Marcy Rosenblat & Laura Newman

by Paul D'Agostino


Marcy Rosenblat, Peggy G, 2017

Forth to Back: New Paintings by Marcy Rosenblat & Laura Newman

It’s not exactly never that a somewhat strange, slightly surprising, perhaps apparently implausible or somehow a bit unlikely juxtaposition of one painter’s recent paintings with those of another can reveal, in rather indirect ways, various facets of intrigue common to both bodies of work, opening up visual pathways for locating their similarities that might have been previously hard to see. It’s not exactly never, such a scenario, but it is surely rare. And it’s for just that reason that when pairings like these do, in certain sometimes, work out just right, the revelations and takeaways can be all the more rewarding. Such is the case with Forth to Back, an exhibition of recent paintings by Marcy Rosenblat and Laura Newman.

Some of the relatively obvious shared qualities between Rosenblat’s and Newman’s works include suggestive abstractions, deep procedural layerings, generally bold and occasionally soaringly bright palettes, and painterly problem-solving executed at a range of scales. Yet such commonalities can clearly lead to vastly different kinds of work. Indeed, these painters’ compositional arrangements are markedly different. Their chromatic harmonies are markedly different. Their variable energies — now latent, now active — are markedly different. The materiality of their marks is markedly different. Their overall moods, too, are so very different. Newman employs a great deal of linear structuring and demarcation to create variably identifiable forms and multiple depths of space, while Rosenblat’s forms and spaces diverge or cohere more according to contours, colors and patternings. Newman’s manners of mark-making are many and various and result in sometimes edgy, angular, brushy, even anxious qualities. Rosenblat’s modes of bringing forms into being with paint leave far less evident her painterly hand, often veiling if not ever-so-nearly obscuring the vicissitudinous, mediatory treatments that factor into her processes, their traces just barely apparent beneath her final surfaces.


Laura Newman, Tatters, 2017

All that said, what brings Newman’s and Rosenblat’s readily contrastable bodies of work into both visual and, in a sense, interactive confluence just happens to be right before your eyes, indeed in essentially the most right-before-your-eyes parts of their paintings: the foregrounds. For Newman, in a large painting called Tatters, the transparent-wall-like structural implications she achieves with dry-brushily striated black lines have agency not only because they create an apparatus for other scrawly black marks and colorful shreds and fragments to pend from, cling to and penetrate; they are also the marks that strike you first, then lure you into a little corner-nook of a space, which then pulls your act of viewing into the deeper reaches of the implied environment. By now you’re captivated — if not circumstantially captured, given those walls and your ‘placement’ in the nook — whilst peering at and into a washy, almost apparently insouciantly executed, varicolored surface. In a sense, compositional elements interact less with the area of the canvas, as it were, than they do with this foregrounded structure, a treatment common among a number of Newman’s works of more or less the same large size, such as Kites, Black Widow and Beach House. In her smaller works, foregrounds sometimes obscure much more or much less, washy areas define their own limits, and more frequent bare-linen backdrops differently vary and complicate depths of space. What all of these gripping works share, however, is that obstructions are there to be confronted, then transcended.


Laura Newman, Black Widow, 2017

This kind of subjectification of the foreground, so to speak, or exploitation of forms and implied masses at the ostensible ‘front’ of a surface to provide a bold invitation into a work’s deeper reaches, has been a regular feature in Rosenblat’s paintings for quite a while. Different now, though, are the heightened delicacies in the artist’s use of sometimes crisp, sometimes blurrily whispery patternings, and the greater suggestive candor of her shapes that are now almost unabashedly, generously figural. In several of Rosenblat’s newest works, such as Wrap, Constitution, Ghost Shroud and Peggy G., busts, waists, hips and sometimes legs, all rather evenly implied, seem to surge forth with pictorial zoom and formal assertiveness, their finely patterned trappings pulling you physically close to discern if there’s any actual fabric involved, at which point you find yourself looking right into and through the forms themselves, peeking into the interstices of their elegant motifs to find a wealth of procedural traces behind and beneath them — previously indiscernible drawn lines, autonomous marks, embedded colors and patterned overlays. Now shallow, now deeply indeterminable, Rosenblat’s implied spaces seen behind, beside or through her curtainy, figural foregrounds are also the places where you finally find, among so much ambrosially chromatic, gossamery finery, the artist’s manual presence, her touch, her hand. All such aspects of these fresh new works — from their subjectified foregrounds to their objectified body parts, gracefully vibrant palettes, craft-referencing patternings, formal candor and ‘hidden hand’ — operate also as metaphorical vehicles for the artist’s thoughts about ‘feminine painting’ and feminist discourses in general. Quietly, maybe, or quite deliberately, Rosenblat’s sometimes overtly ‘female’ foregrounds come at you with definitive force — and perhaps a full agenda of matters of fairness, for instance, to discuss. It should go without saying that you should listen closely.


Marcy Rosenblat, Constitution, 2018

In a way, the conceptual crux of Forth to Back is a pairing of painters that seems, at first glance, less than likely, even slightly problematic, thereby demanding better viewing, more thoughtful scrutiny. These painters’ shared use of assertive foregrounds to beckon deeper looking and compositional reckoning, then, underscores that the not-exactly-never scenario mentioned above is, in this case, a marvelously effective, revelatory ‘certain sometime.’

So step right in — and forth and back — and find even more. There are surely other ways to contemplate this exhibition’s crux.


This essay was composed for the catalogue accompanying Forth to Back: New Paintings by Marcy Rosenblat & Laura Newman, an exhibition on view at 490 Atlantic Gallery from 5 May to 17 June, 2018. More information about the show can be found here. Images courtesy the artists and 490 Atlantic Gallery.

Paul D’Agostino, Ph.D. is an artist, writer, translator, curator and professor living in Bushwick, Brooklyn. More information about him is available here, and you can find him as @postuccio on Instagram and Twitter.

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