What made the 2010 Bushwick Open Studios so phenomenal was the chance to stomp through hundreds of studios and draw connections. I was surprised by how various artists who may have never met each other are all re-envisioning the Old Masters with a playful and lighthearted streak.
At Norte Maar, Ellen Letcher’s 2010 multimedia installation featured recurring images of St. Sebastian. A cluster of posters were collaged on the wall. Many of the reproductions of the Christian Saint were overlaid with speckles and blobs of paint. This montage spilled down from the wall onto the leather couch. It was playful, light, and fun.
Norte Maar’s director Jason Andrew and I launched into a fascinating conversation over what role the Old Masters play in contemporary art. Andrew spoke about how Letcher brought these Old Masters up to the next level. He casted it as a kind of artistic upgrade – the way DJs breathe new life into a disco classic by giving it a dumph-dumph beat and some extra spunk and effects. And he’s certainly right that contemporary artists can freshen up these well-known icons, but I still think we can go a little deeper than this remix/upgrade metaphor, and talk about how artists precisely “make them better.”
Letcher’s installation struck me as charmingly irreverent. One of the greatest limitations of Renaissance Art is that it always feels so serious, severe, and formal. There is a whimsy, an ease, and an informal joy that jolts out from Letcher’s mixed media installation. You feel like St. Sebastian finally loosened his collar and let loose. And it was so appropriate to see him in this more capricious light, given how many people admire him more for his alluring physique than his courageous acts.
Shawn Gallager’s studio on the 2nd floor of the 2 Harrison Street complex likewise offers a far less serious take on an Old Master. In his impressive oil painting, surprisingly titled “Untitled” (2003), Nicholas Poussin’s “Et in Arcadia ego” (1637-38) stands on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise in its Star Trek: The Next Generation incarnation. Four crew members stand around looking solemn. The environment of high-technology and the tense uniformed poses makes Nicholas Poussin’s paradise appear more alluring and bucolic. It’s such a comic and funny juxtaposition but with an air of seriousness. It also evokes the enigmatic and ironic realities of Poussin’s original painting, which injects the pastoral scene with an air of death.
This over-the-top campy combination also works because there is something just a little “off” about Gallager’s colors. If he painted straight naturalism, his works would feel as tacky as bad fan art. But there is this subtle brown infused throughout the picture like it had aged through the centuries. At first, I thought something was wrong with my camera when I was trying to capture an image and the image wasn’t coming out right. It’s a testament to his skill that it confused my digital eye. The irony that he is painting what is now vintage science fiction with the reverence of a great historical moment is not lost on the viewer. This stylistic effect gives his painting another dimension beyond its subject matter — so it didn’t just feel like another one-liner.
At the English Kills Art Gallery, another oil painting, this one by David Pappaceno, “Famethrower” (2010), places two Baroque figures (or are they Rococo?) into a forest of faint gray trees. A vibrant plaid pattern hangs over some of the picture plane like a tattered curtain. There is a great sense of variety — some sections are totally abstract and dreamy like the gray sky, while others are more representation and concrete. The gray pollinates the colors that surround it by making them appear more vibrant and luscious in comparison to the dull hue. Once again, it’s a marvelously laid back and fun inclusion of an older painting style but without the crushing weight of history.
It is refreshing to see these familiar faces from art history liberated from their calcified formality and overdramatized severity. Lechler, Gallager, and Pappaceno all riff off the Old Masters and respect their strong affinity for carefully planned color, but inject them with a visual playfulness that makes them thoroughly contemporary. All three avoided falling prey to visual one-liners, and — at the risk of sounding like a 19th C. connoisseur — all three artists demonstrate a strong style that rewards close looking.