Stella’s Flatland @ UMMA

Today, Frank Stella’s paintings (better described as sculptures, really) burst from the wall, exploding forcefully into our space. But it was Stella’s flat and austere Black Paintings created while he was still a student at Princeton that originally thrust him into the national spotlight. Through April 23, a modest but important ensemble of three lithographs recently gifted to the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) reminds us that before his paintings brazenly shattered the fourth wall, Stella was first and foremost the master of emphatically two-dimensional canvasses thoroughly unburdened by any adherence to illusionistic space.

Frank Stella (American, born 1936), Lac Laronge IV, 1969, Acrylic on unprimed canvas. Toledo Museum of Art, Purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey. ©Frank Stella. 1972.4

Stella’s meteoric rise began when, as a graduate fresh out of Princeton, his work was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art’s Sixteen Americans exhibition in 1959. During the 1960s, Stella’s work adhered to the flat aesthetic of his Black Paintings, though he began experimenting with radically unconventional canvas shapes. Among these were his whimsical Notched-N paintings, canvasses which defied the centuries-old conception of painting as illusionistic and necessarily bound to the confines of a rectilinear surface. His stacked chevrons of muted color bands are never confined by any frame, blurring the boundary between painting and sculpture. In 1967, Stella began a famous collaboration with printmaker Kenneth Tyler, founder of the (then) Los Angeles based Gemini Studio, and Stella began to transpose his paintings into lithography.

Frank Stella, Empress of India II, from Notched-V series, 1968, lithograph on paper. Gift of Marsha L. Vinson and Marvin Rotman, 2014/2.19

It was one of many collaborations for Tyler, who also worked with 20th century art-world heavyweights such as Robert Motherwell, Josef Albers, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, and David Hockney. With Stella, Tyler produced a series of lithographs based on Stella’s Notched- Ns. Look for Empress of India II; it’s a diminutive print based on the majestic, sprawling, 18-foot Empress of India in the permanent collection of the MoMA. The three lithographs on view in the UMMA’s Corridor Gallery were produced in the first year of their lifelong collaboration (they worked together until Kenneth Tyler closed his studio in 2000).

Frank Stella, Ifala I, from Notched-V series, 1968, lithograph on paper. Gift of Marsha L. Vinson and Marvin Rotman, 2014/2.20

Initially, it’s difficult to be impressed by them, perhaps simply because as 21st century viewers, we might reflexively associate their crisp, geometric lines with computer-generated art—merely the photoshoped creations of easy copy-and-paste. But if we lean in close, we’ll see the subtle imperfections that betray the human touch. (Significantly, even Stella’s large geometric abstractions of the same era reveal marks of the human touch; lost in translation when reproduced in textbooks, in person we can see the subtle pencil lines that demark the separation between color borders.) The lithographs are also tactile; the ink rising from the page gently but unmistakably pushes out into our space; one lithograph even shows gentle signs of distress; an effect which doesn’t translate in digital reproduction.

Frank Stella, Quathlamba II, from Notched-V series 1968, lithograph on paper. Gift of Marsha L. Vinson and Marvin Rotman, 2014/2.21

Long after he had moved beyond his minimalism, Stella maintained his partnership with Tyler. Among the more famous (and audacious) of their later collaborative works was Stella’s series of loosely illustrative prints based on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. These intensely sculptural prints press out into viewer space, and– technically virtuosic– took years to produce.

Frank Stella (American, born 1936), La penna di hu, 1987-2009, Mixed media on etched magnesium, aluminum and fiberglass. Toledo Museum of Art. Museum purchase, by exchange. ©Frank Stella. 2014.104

Today, Stella’s works are, at least on first appearance, the complete antithesis of his minimalist abstractions of the 1960s. Take, for example, his playfully obnoxious La penna di hu (1987-2009), a recent work currently on view at the Toledo Art Museum. It’s sculptural in every sense, perhaps its only initial commonality with his paintings of the past being that it hangs on a wall. Yet, like Stella’s Notched-Ns, it nevertheless fights the notion that art should be illusory, and, in this respect, Stella’s oeuvre has remained strikingly consistent.

In comparison with his playfully sculptural three-dimensional collages, the works from Stella’s formative years as a minimalist artist perhaps seem weighted down by an austere solemnity, their meticulously calculated arrangements of shape and color eluding interpretation. But these serene, meditative works brazenly defied the notion of art as the conduit of illusion and narrative, and the three lithographs on view at the UMMA stand as historically important documentation of Stella’s celebrated early days as 1960s minimalist, emphatically the art world’s undisputed modernist master of Flatland.

Frank Stella, Lithographs, UMMA – April 23, 2017

 

 

Cody VanderKaay @ Oakland University Art Gallery

Cody VanderKaay, Installation image

Cody VanderKaay’s solo exhibition, Terrestrial Celestial, opened March 3, 2017, at the Oakland University Art Gallery, where Dick Goody, Art Chair, and curator at OUAG, turns inward to one of his associate professors to exhibit new work that takes the viewer in a variety of visual art directions. On the ground or in the sky, VanderKaay presents three-dimensional work that has delicacy as in the Orange Shed, versus blunt boldness, as in Six Views.

So where is this artist in his creative trajectory? I would say he is exploring an inner sensibility he has developed since his youthful years of art experience combined with his MFA at the University of Georgia, where he gives us his take on three-dimensional form.

Cody VanderKaay, Orange Shed, Latex on Basswood, 2016

The delicate relief, Orange Shed, using basswood and latex, reminds me of relief work from the 1950’s in the United States that was mostly decorative, with the exception of an artist such as David Smith. Smith combined found objects, worked in metal based on his experience working in a car body shop. The shared element with VanderKaay’s work is largely based on Constructivism, a modern art movement that flourished in Russia, then moved to Europe during the early parts of the 20th century. The central concept is placing the priority on the material employed, versus the subject matter or motif. The materials to express an idea dictate the form. The fundamental analysis of the material leads to the function. This idea shapes VanderKaay’s other work as well.

Cody VanderKaay, Six Views, Concrete 2017

Borrowing on ideas presented by Minimalist artists, be it Donald Judd or Robert Morris, the early 1980s brought a shift from Abstract Expressionism to a pared-down, three-dimensional object with little reference to real objects. The new vocabulary was simplified geometric forms created from humble industrial material. VanderKaay provides a repetition of nine “house-shaped” concrete objects in Six Views with an angled bottom that provides the observer with a parallel view.  It would seem variations on this theme could produce a body of work on its own, as the aesthetics are pleasing, even comforting to the eye, whether it appears in relief or as a taped drawing on the wall.

Cody VanderKaay, Bündner Schist, Crepe Tape on gallery wall, 2017

The large black-taped drawing on the gallery wall, Bündner Schist, reinforces elements in the overall exhibition, like a roadmap to his thinking.  He builds an amalgamation of trapezoids and variations that make his statement clear and concise, one that offsets the more three-dimensional work that dominates the overall exhibition. As part of the exhibition, we are confronted with the large assemblage of mixed media, Ball Drop, where the artist has presumably collected and large variety of materials and objects that met his fancy, not so different from when an artist collects things they like, placing them on a table (or wall) in the studio.  Not quite understanding how this fits into the overall exhibition, I asked VanderKaay to explain this in the last question presented in a short interview.

Cory VanderKaay, Ball Drop, 2017

Ron Scott: How and where did you first get interested in visual art?

Cody VanderKaay: I lived in both rural and suburban environments of the Midwestern, Southern, and Western United States. Periodic relocation and travel allowed me to experience a variety of living situations, routines, pastime activities and occupations that inevitably shaped my curiosity. As the son of a residential contractor, I was frequently exposed to architecture, trades labor, carpentry and the graphic art of drafting. As a young man, I trained myself in a number of related skills and techniques, when, eventually my proclivity for making art objects became my principal interest.

I studied sculpture at Northern Michigan University’s School of Art & Design and the University of Georgia Lamar Dodd School of Art, where I received my MFA. After graduating, I relocated to New Orleans to teach visual arts at Loyola University. Today, I am an Associate Professor of Art at Oakland University teaching sculpture, drawing, and fundamental art courses full-time.

RS: How has your worked evolved since college?

CV: The biggest and best change is an ability to identify when my intellect, technical ability and resources are in concert with one another, and encountering that moment again, in the finished artwork.

RS: How is it that you work in such a variety of material?

CV: I’m attracted to the range of qualities and technical constraints that raw materials and objects have; the combinations seem impossible to exhaust.

RS: What artists have most attracted your interest?

CV: Dil Hildebrand, Anne Truitt, Herman de Vries, Ilya Bolotowsky, Norman Dilworth, Tony Feher, and Richard Wentworth

RS: Your work seems to stand alone as single individual pieces. How does the large assemblage on plywood relate to the other work?

CV:The large plywood piece titled Ball Drop wasn’t conceived as an artwork per se, but rather as scaffolding or drawing of sorts. It’s evidence of the forms and subjects I was thinking through in the studio while making the other artworks in the exhibition. The title is a reference to the phrase ‘the penny has dropped’ and points to a realization or discovery that follows a long period of exploration and questioning. Many of the elements comprising the wall are residual, while a few are deeply personal. For example, the small oil painting of the Alps originally belonged to my Grandmother. The painting was given to her by her father when she left the Netherlands for the United States in the 1930’s. I coveted the painting as a child and acquired it after she passed. The wall doesn’t summarize the exhibition, but examining it closely will reveal more about the relationship between the other artworks on display.

RS: Anything else you would like to say?

CV: I find the challenges of working with self-imposed restrictions to be intellectually stimulating and personally significant. A large majority of my artwork is composed of irreducible elements and simplified forms, with surface qualities that raise questions about the substance and physicality of their forms. I often move between disciplines, on two or three projects at a time, and display finished work as a sequence or series of related artworks to bring formal and contextual concerns in closer harmony with one another. I use fabrication, mold making, casting, drawing and collage to produce my sculpture and two-dimensional artwork.

There are artists who focus on a subject for forty years, providing variations in size, color palette, composition and material. Cody VanderKaay is an artist who does not limit his expression to a genre. He is eclectic in his approach to creating his art and, most important, he is curious. Cody VanderKaay is giving an artist’s talk in the OUAG gallery on Thursday, April 6, at NOON.

Cody VanderKaay, Terrestrial Celestial, Open at OUAG – April 9, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

After Industry @ Wasserman Projects

Group Exhibition – After Industry:  Willy Verginer, Christer Karlstad, Jason DeMarte

Installation image, All images Courtesy of Wasserman Projects

Seduction by a master artisan is achieved by the deft handling of his medium, the uncanny finesse of the hand in endowing plastic material with irresistible form — and in the case of “After Industry,” the current offering of Wasserman Projects, the seduction is complete. We are at the mercy of three tantalizing maestros of composition. Each of these artists — Italian sculptor Willy Verginer, Norwegian painter Christer Karlstad, and Michigan-based photographer Jason DeMarte — has such command of his medium that the discursive process of understanding the work becomes secondary. We are awestruck (undressed as it were) by the artistic accomplishment before we understand it, and with each artist the process of understanding requires a traditional method of unraveling and interpretation.

Willy Verginer, The Dark Site of the Donkey, Lindenwood and Acrylic

Willy Verginer is a woodcarver from Val Gardena, a town in the Dolomite Mountains of Northern Italy known for its woodcarvings of the saints and their stories in Catholic theology. Catholic churches throughout the world have for hundreds of years displayed dramatic woodcarvings of the saints in sculptural vignettes fashioned by the wood carvers of Val Gardena. Verginer apparently learned his craft well there.

Enigmatically arranged throughout Wasserman Projects’ main space are a dozen figures and objects, carved in lindenwood by Verginer, interspersed with a couple of dozen, color-coded, fifty-gallon industrial barrels. The barrels, and four of the carved figures compose a large installation, including two adult males crawling into barrels, two boys earnestly chewing or biting a donkey, and an adult male figure sitting atop two stacked barrels and gesticulating as if directing the ensemble or preaching. The color-coded barrels, habitual symbols of industrial pollution, create a minimal, contextualizing stage for the vignette. Two other independent sculptures feature a man in suit, tie and glasses, with tires attached to his feet, seeming to ride the donkey backwards and the other is of a grazing deer atop two green barrels with a miniature pine forest emerging from its humped back.

The surreal ensemble is at first incomprehensible, but the carved figures are stunningly realistic, producing the kind of awe that one experiences with classical sculpture or religious icons. Lindenwood has a smooth and clear grain, like Grecian white marble, such that each figure is imbued with a glowing, classical sculpture presence. The simply arranged tableau suggests a Biblical allegory (donkey being Christian symbol of hardwork and intelligence), with the human figures enmeshed in a parasitic relationship with industry and nature. Four elegantly carved representations of tires, emblazoned with brand words Goodyear, Detroit, Wasserman Projects, and General Motors, affirm an industrial reading of the allegory.

Overall, a toxic, imbalanced interdependence between man, nature, and industry is symbolized in Verginer’s landscape of figures. And like a carving of the Christian narrative of a suffering Christ on the cross, there is a strange irony in celebrating, through a gorgeously carved and composed tableau, the story of the fall of both man and nature through industrial consumption. Like entering a cathedral filled with Christian iconography, experiencing Verginer’s landscape might require a kind of a catechized literacy, a “Sunday School” notion of fall and redemption, to fully appreciate the lineage of his art.

Christer Karlstad, Psychopomp, Oil Painting on Linen

For his uncanny paintings, the Norwegian painter Christer Karlstad has composed a pitch- perfect northern landscape and ethereal atmospheric backdrop. Featuring totally benign and dependent human forms entwined with beneficent but wild northern animals, Karlstad’s paintings, staged in these palpably painted Norwegian woods, are like brief parables rather than literary narratives. Each painting sees a human figure contained and cared for in a kind of graceful protection by these animals of the north. The “attitude” of the enormous elk in “Psychopomp,” as it supports a seemingly repentant young man draped over it, is touchingly docile. The face of the elk in the toxic environment of “Sulphur,” again supporting a draped but seemingly yielding young man, is watchful, protective and spiritually transportive. The precision of characterizing the landscape and the articulation of human and animal forms suggest the profundity and emotional depth of the great German Renaissance painter Albrecht Durer’s art.

Like Verginer, Karlstad requires a kind of spiritual, if not Christian, vocabulary for the viewer to gain traction in understanding these paintings, otherwise one might slip into a mocking irony. His human figures seek redemption through engagement with nature, and in each composition, the wild animal is a comforting, healing force.

Both artists suggest an emotional abyss between human existence and nature, and both seek a solution to breach that abyss. Verginer’s abyss is shrouded in a symbolic, industrial gloom, and his human figures seem to surrealistically, abjectly grovel before, or seek control, either of nature or the industrial landscape.

Jason DeMarte, Pokeberry Persuasion on “Lickerish(Wallpaper)” Archival ink print on digital print.

The third artist in the “After Industry” exhibition, Detroit photographer Jason DeMarte, challenges our comprehension of the photographic medium itself and (in keeping with the curatorial theme of man’s relationship with and intervention in nature) of the representation of nature as well. In a selection of five photographs and a mural, DeMarte constructs hyperreal photo-landscapes of climbing vines, flowers, birds and trees that transform nature into a bizarre, ornamental confection and a parody of human spiritual imbalance and perception. DeMarte’s digitally enhanced, diorama-like images, symbolic of our synthetic consciousness, are not only garishly ornamental, but are embellished with colorful jellybeans, candy canes and cake sprinkles, as if nature needed a makeover. “Candied Cultivation,” 2015, is a stunning evocation of this surrealized notion.

Jason DeMarte, Candied Cultivation, Archival ink print on digital print.

Wasserman Projects’ director Alison Wong has put together an exhibition, that in its use of historical forms (such as classical iconography in Verginer’s vignettes, Karlstad’s narrative parables, as well as Demarte’s over-the-top, diorama-like photographs) challenges prevailing minimal or expressionistic artistic strategies, as well as our relationship with social and political landscape. Each of the artists operates at an unusually high level of traditional craft and technique, while pushing the envelope to bring these classical forms to explore contemporary consciousness in a post-industrial landscape.

In the tradition of master craftsman, the son of Willy Verginer, Christian Verginer, also has a pursued artistic career in wood carving, and whose work is also currently at Wasserman Projects,  featured in “After Industry.”

WassermanProjects, After Industry, on view through April 8, 2017

www.wassermanprojects.com

 

Love Songs: Sam Friedman @ Library Street Collective

 

Sam Friedman, Installation image, All images courtesy of Library Street Collective

Sam Friedman’s artist statement for Love Songs, a solo exhibition of paintings and works on paper that opened at Library Street Collective on February 11, mentions the Japanese aesthetic philosophy of Wabi Sabi as an influence in his work. This world view exults the “transience of imperfection; a beauty that is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.” It’s hard to discern much imperfection or incompletion in Friedman’s imposing acrylic paintings, with their crisp, technically rigorous paint handling. Every mark bears an identical edge that somehow holds its own amid countless other razor sharp edges. Despite this uniformity, areas of Friedman’s paintings break down into surprising illusions of space, dazzlingly beautiful gradations, and vibrating forms that actually seem to move before the eye, and stay burned upon it. You see Friedman’s snaking forms gestures across white walls for several moments after you’ve turned your gaze away from the work.

Sam Friedman, Untitled, 2016 (48 x 48 inches; Acrylic on canvas, white floater frame)

Friedman wrings a surprising range of surface effects from a severe economy of techniques. Every one of his identically edged marks is, apparently, applied the same way- in one single, virtuosic stroke that embodies hand skill and discipline. While each painting contains a huge number of nearly identical marks, no mark is valued over any other. This doesn’t flatten the composition, or render it uninteresting. Friedman’s democratic approach to mark-making lets your eye take in both the whole of the work, and miraculous openings into smaller, more intimate moments. It’s an unusual painter who creates such an impression of deep space, foreground and background, with such a uniform, crystallographic approach to the picture plane.

Sam Friedment, Untitled, 2016 (30 x 90 inches; Acrylic on canvas, white floater frame)

Passing from the gauntlet shaped front space of Library Street Collective, where Friedman’s large paintings are displayed, into the more spacious back room of the gallery which houses a collection of smaller works on paper feels like leaving a dazzling, noisy city for a vast, light filled meadow. These works feel both more personal and riskier. This might be due to Friedman’s use of a larger range of media (acrylic, spray paint, silkscreen ink). His subject is a factor, as well- the sun setting over a body of water, revisited again and again, the horizon line splitting each piece into perfect halves that meet precisely at eye level. These works present an eternal template on which Friedman proceeds to meditate on the spatial layers he applied with such closed-loop certainty in his large acrylic paintings. The more organic forms- tall grass, flower petals, atmospheric effects- combined with the unavoidably vernacular icon of sunset over water presented on poster-scaled formats, while not mind-blowing in quite the same way as the paintings, feel vastly more personal. Friedman’s mastery of abstraction comes full circle in these works. The same blunt formal power and ease with materials shows up in them, with an added dose of freedom. The smaller formats and organic, representational subject matter seem to allow Friedman to play a bit more with imagery and surface effects- there’s a feeling that the stakes are lower here, or the imagery more deeply felt.

Sam Friedman, Untitled, Untitled, 2016, 54.5 x 37.75 inches; Acrylic and vinyl paints, silkscreen ink, and acrylic spray paint on primed Stonehenge paper

One wonderful thing Friedman’s paintings and works on paper have in common is the above-mentioned whiff of the vernacular. The large, abstract paintings have the dizzy free-fall atmospherics and sophisticated, ambiguous movements of album covers and Trapper-Keeper designs from the Seventies and Eighties, revisited with the same depth and grandeur one felt, mesmerized by them, as a young kid. Friedman’s works make it as if these foundational images grew up with us. The works on paper similarly shadow mass-produced movie or art posters. They communicate in the same language, with the same saturated, iconic forms that, in Friedman’s hands, take on a breath-taking, mature refinement.

Sam Friedman: Love Songs is on view at Library Street Collective  through April 8, 2017.

Lane & Senegal @ N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art

N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art opened two exhibitions on February 17, 2017: Emerging, which showcases the three-dimensional work by Artis Lane, and BLU BLK, the photography of Stephon Senegal. Known for representing African American artists, the N’Namdi Gallery has selected a young photographer from Brooklyn, New York, whose work explores the human form, often juxtaposing two images against each other, and a well-known sculptor from Los Angles whose work is prominent in famous social and political collections from New York City to Los Angeles.

Portrait of Artis Lane, and bronze sculpture of Rosa Parks

Born in Ontario, Canada, Artis Lane attended the Ontario College of Art, and later Cranbrook Art Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. The sculptor has worked in the foundry for most of her life’s journey, working in bronze to create figures and busts that often convey a metaphysical message. Lane has been honored by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery with an installation of her bronze portrait of civil rights leader and long time friend, Rosa Parks.

In a statement she says, “My Civil Rights images led me naturally to ideas about what and who we are outside race. I went from there to the most important body of work, the metaphysical images of a generic man and generic woman emerging out of the ignorance of material concepts and evolving into spiritual awareness.”

Artis Lane, Emerging New Women, Bronze, ceramic shell, resin, steel base, 73 x 28 x 12″ 1993

The sculpture with two figures reminds us of DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man. Two bronze female figures are encompassed by a circle One figure is full, polished and complete, and is set against a second figure containing remains of plaster and wire as if to the say the perfect and the flawed co-exists in our lives. It is a metaphorical conversation between the material and the moral.

Stephon Senegal “24a” Archival pigment print, 41” x 41”, 2014

The contrast of Stephon Senegal’s work could not be more obvious in his collection of large, dark color photographs, most containing two images next to each other. The exception is this image of a large leaf over a dark-skinned figure. Senegal attended Maryland Institute of Art, and has gallery representation by Washington D.C.’s Morton Fine Art, Senegal deconstructs the human form, creating an image that is visceral yet tangible. The viewer is perplexed by the mysterious leaf canopy that covers the head.

Stephon Senegal “037” Archival pigment print, 44” x 50”, 2014

In severe contrast is this large photograph of a nude, pregnant black woman against a hanging bag of paper, all on a stark white background. The imagery is beautifully strong and moving, as is the way Senegal creates the open and abstract space in between. He moves effortlessly between these two distinct images with weight, thought and expression.

He says “My work is an exploration into the depths of maturation, chronicling the deconstruction and reconstruction of the human psyche and form. I build histories around obsessive notions and violent motivations while studying how those subsequent interactions convert into ritual and vice.” Senegal attended Maryland Institute of Art and has gallery representation by Washington D.C. at Morton Fine Art,

In these exhibitions George N’Namdi stays true to his mission, and although he has always exhibited artists of all racial backgrounds, his focus here is on the extraordinary talent of two African American artists.

N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art