Sunday, April 28, 2013

Claes Oldenburg: The Street and The Store

Go and see the Claes Oldenburg exhibition "The Street and The Store" at the MOMA in NYC .  It's remarkable.  I had always been familiar with Claes Oldenburg's monumental sculpture of every day objects, but I knew nothing of his folky, smaller and more intimate early work.  I was struck at how primitive his "The Street" series of cardboard sculptures were in comparison to his machine made mega-works.  He was obviously influenced by the raw expression of outsider art and Jean Dubuffet.  But the sculptures of his that really turned me on were his plaster soaked muslin over wire pieces from his "The Store" series.  I fell in love with his "Men's Jacket with Suit and Tie", "Green Lady Shoes", "U.S.A. Flag", "Blue Pants Over Chair", and "White Gym Shoes".  They're modest objects made into semi-abstract, chunky, durable, forms.  Furthermore, these particular works aren't too silly, like his sundae or hamburger sculptures are... I find those works to be more on the Pop Art spectrum (which I am not naturally drawn to) than the Folk Art spectrum.

According to MOMA (

"Claes Oldenburg’s audacious, witty, and profound depictions of everyday objects have earned him a reputation as one of the most important artists of the 20th century. This exhibition examines the beginnings of Oldenburg’s extraordinary career with an in-depth look at his first two major bodies of work: The Street (1960) and The Store (1961–64). During this intensely productive period Oldenburg redefined the relationship between painting and sculpture and between subject and form. The Street comprises objects made from cardboard, burlap, and newspaper that together create an immersive panorama of a gritty and bustling city. The Store features brightly painted sculptures and sculptural reliefs shaped to evoke commercial products and comestibles. In The Store, cigarettes, lingerie, and hamburgers all become viable subjects for art."

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Aubrey Levinthal: Studio Visit

 I visited Philly for the first time a few weeks ago.  I really love the city... it seems like the perfect place for an artist to call home.  It's inexpensive, full of young people, good public transportation, and the city center is intimate like a European city with old narrow brick streets.

While I was in town I decided to meet up with my newest artist friend Aubrey Levinthal.  I stopped by her studio and was introduced to her friend whom Aubrey is planning a two person painting exhibition with: Lauren Garvey.  The three of us drank coffee and reminisced about art school and all it's lousy jargon.  The both of them attended Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia for their MFA's and graduated a few years ago.  According to them, it's a small school with a supportive faculty and a range of student work from representational to conceptual.

Now to Aubrey's work.  The descriptive words that come to mind immediately are soft, atmospheric, and flattened form; I think her work is an excellent example of painting that toes the line between two dimensionality and three dimensionality.  She varies brushwork, prefers pastel colors, and is not afraid to boldly interpret in subject.  Aubrey primarily works from life but doesn't hesitate to alter the composition in any imaginative manner she finds fit.  Still life is her subject of choice... mainly cups, tabletops, and food.  I love her compositions, the confident loose brushwork, her focus on soft light and atmosphere, the melting of representation into abstraction, and her hints of naive/primitive articulation of form.

According to Aubrey herself...

On my favorite days, reality mixes freely with a little whimsy; patterns separate themselves from their fabric homes and no one questions the flowers when they levitate off the dinner table. Most times though, when I stay with those thoughts, it becomes unnerving.  Things begin to change shape and anxiety pushes reverie to the periphery. 
Painting scenes from my life and memory, I slowly uncover forms, shadows and relationships not initially remembered.  The unsettling air in the paint begins to contradict the nameable world of flowers, bowls and coffee cups.  The paintings’ apparent delight quietly unravels into colored aberration, illusions into brushed marks.

Aubrey also operates a blog.  Her "Sunday Pick" always features terrific painters that resonate with her interest in still life, composition, color, and abstraction.  Visit her website at and check it out.

Here are a few paintings of Lauren Garvey's whom I had the pleasure of meeting when I visited Aubrey.
*** image are from her website

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Billy Childish: Keeping It Real

Billy Childish Self Portrait

Billy Childish Is one of my favorite painters.  I first learned about his artwork watching a documentary video on Stuckism... an International art movement founded in 1999 by Billy Childish and Charles Thomson to promote figurative painting in opposition to conceptual art.  According to Wikipedia...

Billy Childish (born Steven John Hamper, 1 December 1959) is an English artist, painter, author, poet, photographer, film maker, singer and guitarist. He is known for his explicit and prolific work -- he has detailed his love life and childhood sexual abuse [...] from 1981 until 1985 Childish had a relationship with artist (Tracey Emin, and has also been associated with another British artist Stella Vine.
He is a consistent advocate for amateurism and free emotional expression. Childish co-founded the Stuckism art movement with Charles Thomson in 1999, which he left in 2001. Since then a new evaluation of Childish's standing in the art world has been under way, culminating with the publication of a critical study of Childish's working practice by the artist and writer Neal Brown, with an introduction by Peter Doig, which describes Childish as "one of the most outstanding, and often misunderstood, figures on the British art scene".

You can hear his music at 

Anyway, I visited his show at Lehman Maupin titled "Paintings That Change The Universe Like Digging In The Gutter With The Broken Lolly Stick" exhibits large paintings of delicate abstract seaside landscapes and blackened leathery fisherman on their rickety wooden boats.  His fluid, scribbling, graffiti-like brushwork combined with bursts of brilliant colors charge these pieces with a nervous psychedelic energy.  Perhaps the best way to describe these works is through analogy to music… they remind me of the back water Blues legends like Howling Wolf, Robert Johnson, and the rock group Cream.

I agree with Billy when he says "To the ego ridden individual to become an artist or poet gives them a tin pot identity and the elevated status they crave.  Ironically picture making is undervalued. But digging in the gutter with a lollipop stick can change the universe just as well."  There is something gratifying and magical that can be experienced through the modest means of moving around dirt on the ground with a stick or moving around paint on the canvas with a brush... and that engagement with the physical world and present moment is as important as taking in breaths of fresh air.  To me Billy Childish represents those among us  who know the value and wisdom that can be discovered through the simple craft and timelessness of picture making.  I fear that young artists today going to study art will either fall into the intellectual/conceptual camp or the technical expertise camp.  While conceptual artists have been rapidly growing in numbers for some time now and traditional artists (with their emphasis on technique) have retained their status at many Universities, I hope that there is a pocket of people that can teach their students the relevance of making art in an unselfconscious and simple fashion, as Billy Childish exemplifies.  Students shouldn't be duped into thinking that the Modernist vision of self expression is done and over with.  Artists can still paint a still life according to their individual vision just as Van Gogh, Picasso, and Matisse have done one hundred years ago.  Its still fresh and invigorating, and for eternity there will be something of interest in the process of interpreting subject matter and using it as a means for self expression.

Lehman Maupin Gallery

Close Up

Close Up

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Philip Guston: Centennial Exhibition at McKee Gallery

In Hilton Kramer's 1970 New York Times review of Philip Guston's break through exhibition at Marlborough Gallery titled "A Mandarin Pretending To Be A Stumblebum" Kramer wrote, "Throughout the history of modern painting the primitive has repeatedly been called upon to rescue and rejuvenate the vitality of high art and Mr. Guston is clearly seeking a rejuvenation In terms of a popular visual slang of the old cartoonists.  But it doesn't work."  Years later the art critic had this to say, "I remember my shock at seeing this work.  This was utterly unacceptable to artists of his own generation.  They had believed from the very start that high art  was high art and low art was low art, and never the twain shall meet."

Go see Centennial Exhibition at McKee Gallery in Midtown NYC (by the way centennial is referring to his birth date one hundred years ago).  Its hard to put into words why I like Guston's late work so much, like so many other people.  The above quote helps me make sense of my admiration.  When Kramer mentions "the primitive has repeatedly been called upon to rescue and rejuvenate the vitality of high art", (even thought he uses this idea to bash Guston's work) I think about my painting and how I have sought a simple art that is modest in technique and primary in concept to express myself.  Guston adopted a primitive, representational style in order to escape the pure ideals of abstraction and engage in a dialogue with the raucous and cantankerous world around him and within him.  I have found solace in the primitive to plot out for me a sanctuary in the midst of an overly conceptual, abstract, and technological world, so that I can relish in the simple pleasure of making with hands art-objects.

The work at McKee Gallery contain a mishmash of his paintings.  Here are a few observations that I have about his work: 

  • Most of his paintings are created with a single layer of paint… I had always assumed that they were worked and reworked many times.  Unfortunately, I often found myself preferring  photos of his work to the real pieces themselves (what can I say, I love texture and layers) 
  • He painted on a range of different sized canvases, from quite large to small. 
  • My favorite works of his in this exhibition were the small sized works and the three in the very back of the gallery... they bordered on the unrecognizable, were centered compositions, and medium-sized.

Below is an excellent and concise Philip Guston documentary that I found on YouTube that will give you some insight to his person and his art...

Images from McKee Gallery