After Vasari

writings on artists and artworks and where they exist

Tag: drawing

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.

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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.

 

David Byrd: Flicks, Bouts, Blocks

by Paul D'Agostino

Balcony With Screen, oil on canvas, 16″ x 21″, 1955.

 

Flicks, Bouts, Blocks

Flicks, Bouts, Blocks, curated on behalf of The David Byrd Estate in Sidney Center, NY, and hosted by Studio 10 Gallery in Brooklyn, features a chronologically and geographically particular selection of works in painting, drawing and sculpture by David Byrd, an as-yet lesser-known artist who passed away in 2013. Byrd’s personal story and, for so many decades, nearly ceaseless artistic activity form an inspiring testament to the unforeseeable turns one’s life might take, and to the many virtues of maintaining one’s creative drive.

Born in Springfield, Illinois, in 1926, and worker of all manner of odd jobs both before and after serving in the Merchant Marines and Army during World War II, then eventually finding fixed work as an orderly in the psychiatric ward at the Veterans Administration Medical Hospital in Montrose, New York, David Byrd lived a long, experientially rich, consistently difficult yet ultimately quietly, solitarily fulfilling life that made it neither easy nor obvious for him to even desire to express himself through art, much less become an almost astonishingly prolific artist. Yet artist he was, from his youth until his final days, and although he spent the vast majority of his creative years working in obscurity, he did have occasion to savor a few moments of fame and success thanks to a suite of exhibitions that were mounted in the months prior to his passing. Intending to build on Byrd’s budding legacy by exposing his work to a much broader public is David Byrd: Ten Stops, a multi-venue, bicoastal sequence of ten variably themed exhibitions to be mounted between July 1st and September 30th, 2017.

The Brooklyn installment of this ambitious series of shows is Flicks, Bouts, Blocks, a set of works culled together not merely to familiarize a New York City audience with Byrd’s artistic practice, but also to suggest that his many years spent living in Brooklyn, for a time as an adolescent and later on as a young adult, might well have imbued his creative sensibilities in notable, enduring ways. Notes of captured happenstance, for instance, and almost theatrically staged settings—of neighborhood encounters, of acquaintances and strangers in the streets, and of movie-goers, cyclists and Coney Island locales—are everywhere to be found in his paintings produced during and long after his Brooklyn days. One sees such tendencies as well in his many drawings of boxers throwing blows and lovers embracing, and in his now quickly, now meticulously executed sketches of individuals or situations he seems to have simply found strangely intriguing or peculiar. Many of these aspects of Byrd’s early work remain readily identifiable throughout the rest of his œuvre.

Unlike the paintings and drawings in Flicks, Bouts, Blocks, the one sculpture in the show does not date back to Byrd’s time in Brooklyn. However, the piece does seem to imply a later contemplation of the borough’s characteristic front stoops that must have been of certain importance to the ever-curious young artist—given all the people-watching they facilitate, all the variably lit staging they furnish, and all the visual cues they provide for structural delineations and physical forms. Also included in the show is one of Byrd’s earliest paintings, a piece that dates back to the artist’s period of study under Amédée Ozenfant, a noted French painter whose insights and mentorship would prove to be lasting fonts of guidance and inspiration for Byrd. This held true even several decades later, well after he had retired from his job at the hospital and retreated to his hand-crafted home and studio in upstate New York. There, mostly alone and at quite a remove from quotidian interactions and conveniences, Byrd was finally able to devote all of his time and energy exclusively to art, his most reliable conduit for self-expression and creative zeal, and his long-trusted mode of palliative distraction from painful memories of the many challenges life had dealt him.

Nevertheless, Byrd did manage to reserve some time and energy for one of his other great enthusiasms: bottle-collecting. Indeed, the long bottled-up artist who kept so much of his existence and so many of his struggles under wraps was also an avid collector of bottles. A fine one of those is included in this show as well—it too, like Byrd himself now, uncorked.

Toy Store, oil on canvas, 20″ x 24″, 1959.

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The above text is my essay for Flicks, Bouts, Blocks, an exhibition I curated at Studio 10 Gallery on behalf of The David Byrd Estate. It is on view from July 20th to August 6th, 2017. In addition to this exhibition, David Byrd: Ten Stops includes exhibits in Peekskill, Delhi, West Point, Franklin, Cooperstown and Seattle, as well as a large exhibit and a number of special gatherings at the seat of The David Byrd Estate in Sidney Center, New York. Detailed information and maps, along with a brief and charming video of the artist discussing his life and work around the time of its revelation to the public, can be found at www.davidbyrdestate.com

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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.

Calling All Sorts: Gestures & Junctures, Questions & Quotes

by Paul D'Agostino

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Calling All Sorts: Gestures & Junctures, Questions & Quotes

One artist’s operative modes, procedural preferences, concepts and contexts, and embedded or openly conveyed metaphors and meanings might be many and varied, and might change significantly over time or from one body of work to the next. Another artist’s perhaps less stratified or ranging approach to artmaking might appear to be far more focused, resolved or streamlined, its ultimate overall yields of ostensibly greater formal or material cohesion.

One artist, in other words, might seem to be all over the place, or to feel most inspired or challenged by working as such, while another might seem somewhat devoted to a specific creative locus, process or directional sense.

One artist’s creative output might look like an explosion. Another’s, hermetic and meticulous.

One’s work might seem nearly nonsensical. Another’s, resolutely rational.

One artist’s personality might be described as Type A, or whatever that’s called these days. Another’s might be described as Type B, or whatever that’s called these days. One artist is introverted, the other extroverted. One is left-brained, the other right-brained. One is instinctive, shoots from the gut. The other painstaking, pensive, cerebral.

And yet, such labels might serve little purpose. Personalities are far more nuanced than such descriptors generally allow, which is particularly true when it comes to discussions of artists—and when considering how and why they do what they do as agents of creative endeavors, as creators of cultural products.

Moreover, artists are rather contrary to being labeled. And rightly so. Who wants to be put in categorical boxes? Artists of all sorts, after all, are the people whose specialty is to think outside of them—much of which derives from posing good questions to answer, and finding good problems to solve.

In other words, to be an artist is to maintain an ever-inquisitive, problem-solving mind and creative disposition. For some artists, this is almost a passive act. For others, a firmly conscious, decisive one. Some artists pose questions and problems in a way that gives them rules to follow. Others throw rules out the window—perhaps even as a rule.

Some of the questions and problems leading eventually to artworks are veiled, implicit, unstated—so inherent to the creative process, even, as to be easily forsaken. For instance:

How would that field look if rendered in watercolors or graphite?

The other aspect of this particular idea about sexuality and art history has never been explored.

Can I carve a cloud with pink lining from a slab of marble?

The art world lacks and therefore needs my parodical video piece on the preemptive museumification of post-nuclear sound art.

Other questions and problems, meanwhile, are explicit, blatant, overt, perhaps even inscribed into the work itself so as to engage a viewer, if not society at large, directly. To be sure, such questions and problems can be of variable complexities, and they might well have no real answers or solutions.

What, then, of all this?

Most simply: It takes all sorts.

All sorts of artists, all sorts of artworks, all sorts of creative personalities, all sorts of approaches, all sorts of introversions and explosions, and of course, all sorts of questions and problems.

What has charmed me the most about working with the inspired and inspiring group of MFA students at Queens College is that they quite literally are, in a collective sense, all sorts. Some work in traditional media and processes, others in advanced technologies and social practice. Some dig into personal narratives and experiences to address complex issues of sexual, racial or national identity; others take creative cues from more directly visual sources, including urban environments, nature and folk traditions. Some seek to create active exchanges with their viewers, or to compel them to regard themselves as ‘other’ to foster understanding; others aim to inform or disarm their viewers by presenting themselves intimately, sincerely, provocatively.

Indeed, the wide range of inputs and pursuits relevant to this group of artists is readily conveyed by the terms they came up with themselves when asked, individually but within a group setting, to try to sum up their respective creative practices in just one word. Here’s what they offered:

chaos, exploration, pattern, connection, empathy, bound, experimental, digestive, emotional, nostalgia, descriptive, poetic, schizophrenic, narrative, weird, understanding, stillness, scientific, cliché, quiet, dignity, hungry

It was from the content of that initial discussion, and from a great many deeply enjoyable and reciprocally enriching studio visits, that I developed the ideas for Gestures & Junctures, Questions & Quotes, an exhibition that I hope does as much to showcase the breadth and quality of the artworks produced by this talented MFA class, as it does to incorporate its viewers into its intermittently audience-inclusive fold. To that end, what you’ll find in the show and in these pages is an array of variably mediated, often interdisciplinarily informed artworks that I have dared to describe loosely as ‘gestural’ and ‘junctural’—created with painstaking care or palpable explosiveness by one of the most driven, creatively variegated groups of art students I’ve ever encountered.

What you’ll also find in these pages are questions these students would like to pose—to themselves and to you—and quotes they’ve selected—for themselves and for you.

And now, for you, a note of advice with which I’ll conclude:

Don’t keep an eye out for these artists. Keep your eyes on them.

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The above text is my catalog essay for Gestures & Junctures, Questions & Quotes, an exhibition I curated for the CUNY Queens College MFA Program, on view at Sideshow Gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, from April 7th-30th, 2017. Featured artists: Arbër Dabaj, Alejandro Salgado Cendales, Alix Camacho, Amy Cheng, Edward Majkowski, Effi Ibok, Eliesha Grant, Erin Turner, Floor Grootenhuis, Jeff Kasper, Jenna Makuh, Julian Phillips, Len Antinori, Maria K. Karlberg-Levin, Michael Ferris Jr., Nancy Bruno, Paula Frisch, Pedro Ventimilla, Tara Homasi, Uno Nam, Zaid Islam.

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.

Evolutionary States

by Paul D'Agostino

 

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Evolutionary States: Ruth Hardinger

Ever since following her learner’s instincts, anthropological curiosities, researcher’s mind, ecologist’s sensibilities, and artist’s hands and eyes along a creative path leading her to work in landscape art in the 1970s, Ruth Hardinger has passed the ensuing decades seeking out keener, more elementally informed, more environmentally conscious, and more responsibly, relevantly collaborative modes of crafting her consistently arresting sculptures, paintings, drawings, tapestries, site-specific installations and exterior interventions. She ranks among the pioneers of a certain earthy, earthily timeless aesthetic—a middleground of sorts between the quietude of paintings by Agnes Martin, for instance, and the hulking monumentality of sculptures by Richard Serra—that renders some of her works in abstraction no more abstract than a mountain, say, and that has inspired so many artists following in her wake. Working in an astounding breadth of media, yet never adding to her material docket without conceptual reason for doing so, Hardinger is also a boundlessly prolific artist, and an apparently tireless one at that.

Close inspection of Hardinger’s techniques and materials evidence that she employs the former to somehow compel the latter into states that might be described as evolutionary. She uses graphite in all manner of drawings and sometimes sculptures not merely for its technical utility, but also for its materially intriguing virtues as a kind of essence of carbon. She uses concrete in her generally minimalist sculptures—which are at times large scale and subtly anthropomorphic, and often wont to bow in deference to the ancients while referencing a kind of future antiquity—not merely because of its spartan look, grave heft and functional practicalities that nod to infrastructure as well, but also because its constituent elements make it materially kindred to the bones and shells of animals of the land, the sea and the air. She employs select fabrics for their undying anthropological pertinence and rugged tactilities; she uses certain finishes for the ways in which they impress deeper temporal stamps into the grains and veins of surfaces; she incorporates cardboards and other pulp-based materials for their fibrous strengths, familiarity and recyclability; and she maintains subdued palettes so as to prevent chromatic ornament from mounting experiential barriers between viewers and the hearty thingness of her creations. For certain bodies of work, Hardinger has even collaborated with traditional artisans in distant villages to imbue her artworks with the broadened knowledge of so many past generations, and to readily place her activities as a maker of fine art within a vaster chronology of object making in general.

Hardinger’s works are anachronistic, in a sense, and sympathetically rustic, yet always presented with considered pristineness and rigor. To regard them is to ponder the vastness of time, the relative eternity of certain materials, and the mysterious confluence of elements and circumstances that place us here, where we are, wherever we are. In light of the urgency of environmental issues in today’s sociopolitical discourses, now is an auspicious and important time for this inspiring, ecologically enlightened artist to receive the brighter spotlight she richly deserves.
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This essay was composed for David & Schweitzer Contemporary as an accompaniment to the gallery’s solo presentation of works by Ruth Hardinger at Volta Art Fair during New York Armory Week, from 1 to 5 March 2017. The fair is held at Pier 90, and David & Schweitzer’s showcase is located at booth C23. More information about Volta Art Fair is 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.

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