Big sailing ships and their metaphoric potential appear to be on the mind of many cultural players of late. The journalist Chris Hedges, in lectures around the country, has been comparing the dysfunction and mayhem aboard the Pequod whaleship to the United State’s unmoored global reach. The Pequod, which features as a prominent character in Melville’s Moby Dick, is also a central metaphor in Robert Longo’s current show at Friedrich Petzel gallery. Longo pictures the US Flag as a sinking ship, juxtaposed with stark images of American iconography. The painter, Stuart Elster, for his show at Junior Projects, is looking back at the modern Dazzle Ships of our past World Wars for their aesthetic and political connotations.
Battleships decorated in jagged, Op art patterns were an invention closely aligned with avant-garde painting. The patterns acted as camouflage during battle, not really rendering a ship invisible so much as making it difficult for an enemy to detect. During World War I, the Vorticist painter Edward Wadsworth helped design dazzle camouflage as it was known, and for Vorticists — a short-lived British variety of Italian Futurists — the ships personified the sort of industry and progress the movement exhorted.
Elster’s small paintings depict ships emblazoned with dazzle camouflage, but in differentiating shadows, highlights, and mid tones, he keys not only the ship but also the sky, water, and vistas to one dominant color offset with a few closely related hues.
Working with a palette knife, the ship motif is comprised of flat color shapes rendered as an atmospheric silhouette. Possibly reigned in by a stencil, the paint is deliciously impastoed and laid down in tightly packed pieces, occasionally there are traces of an underlying sketch. The painting’s compositions are determined by whether a ship is up close or faraway, if it is turning and foreshortened or simply gliding across the canvas. There are masts that jut up, rays of light beaming, chains dropping into the sea, and movements in the water or sky that add to the allover abstraction of each piece. “In Dazzle Brown” is a palette of mochas, caramels and espressos, while “In Dazzle Silver” is an iridescent aluminum. Rose and magenta oil paint appears whipped as it froths and foams over the edges of the support of “In Dazzle Pink,” a dollop of pigment resting atop the canvas.
Elster’s limited palette helps to play up the “now you see me, now you don’t” quality of the dazzle camouflage. And this syncopation of the real and the unreal lends itself to the sort of formal/conceptual dichotomies the art world has favored since the emergence of Jasper Johns. Since then, anxieties about illusion have given way to art that continues to be increasingly self-reflexive and philosophical. In fact, the battleships with their striped graphic patterns, have some of the iconographic power as John’s crosshatch works or his monochromatic US maps and flags. While John’s work simulated painterliness and asserted the factual physicality of his subjects, Elster’s flat mosaic-like surfaces are truly modulated and spatial. We experience the dazzle camouflage effectively doing its job — the ships materialize and dematerialize in front of us. The experience is not unlike the painter Richard Walker’s room interiors which he paints in the dark. In both cases the viewer is enticed into visually absorbing the painting in order to make sense of its subject matter.
What’s uncanny, for all of the machismo of the warship subject matter is how much this work reminds one of color cosmetics. We are drawn in by the raised, segmented patches and luscious, coordinated pigments that resemble trays of eyeshadow quads and share the consistency of lipstick bullets. “In Dazzle Pink” has the same sassy title as something you’d come across at the Clinique counter. And like cosmetics, you’re tempted to touch, smell or possibly taste what’s in front of you. All of this had me thinking about them in relation to another Pop artist, namely Claes Oldenburg, particularly his sculpture “Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks” (1969–74). A sculpture that served literally as a platform for protest and commingles warfare with commodity, masculinity with femininity, grandiosity with banality — all leveraged to address the tensions around the war in Vietnam and the rights of minorities.
For past projects, Elster has found subject matter in high-end designer labels and currency in the form of coins — objects that symbolize commodification and branding. It’s possible that his Dazzle Ships are harbingers of our troubled times; the unhappy marriage of capital and world domination. After all, we are at a time in art history when money often trumps aesthetic considerations, and some would say, climate and economic imbalances both on this continent and globally are jeopardizing American civilization if not precipitating a sixth great extinction.
Elster’s painting technique allows us entry into each work to enjoy a personal experience but not without experiencing some misplacement and refraction; an ambivalence in keeping with the Dazzle Ships as vehicles of both peace and obliteration. The heavy paint they emerge from is like a fog as thick as pea soup, but we are still able to make out the ships floating there, a little menacing, or maybe like beacons of hope.
Stuart Elster’s Cinderella Liberty continues at Junior Projects (139 Norfolk Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through June 1.