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The Age of Small Things, a group show organized by the painter Chuck Webster, fills the ground floor of the Lower East Side’s Dodge Gallery, where the singular touch of the artist-curator has recast a parade of diminutive objects into an unpredictable unfolding of processes and ideas.
There are dozens of works on display from several generations of living artists as well as an impressive array of historical figures — Joseph Cornell, Charles Burchfield, Philip Guston, Alfred Jensen, Elie Nadelman, Joan Mitchell, Myron Stout, Balthus, Francis Picabia, Sigmar Polke and the Italian Baroque painter Valerio Castello.
There is also a selection of antique and folk art objects, such as a mid-19th-century child’s watercolor of a hobbyhorse; a miniature “eye portrait” from the late 18th century, depicting the left eye, cheek and ear of the sitter; and several American Victorian “mourning paperweights” in the form of Lilliputian books, among other curiosities.
Webster’s arrangement of these objects — the majority on the walls but some, mostly three-dimensional items, in a vitrine shelf — appears to be entirely visual and intuitive. Whatever connections might be made in terms of content, such as the “eye portrait” vis–à–vis Ellen Altfest’s life-size watercolor of a fleshy earlobe, which are found on opposite sides of the room, are up to the viewer.
The connections that are there, though, are remarkable for their understatement, as if they were aesthetic gluons binding together works in wildly disparate styles and media. There is a Suzan Frecon watercolor of flat, planar shapes from her “Cathedral” series, made in 2007, hanging beside a drawing on a zinc etching plate from 1969 by Philip Guston, which features two of his iconic hooded figures. The pairing feels absolutely perfect.
There is also an early 1980s blue and white glazed ceramic square, rotated into a diamond shape, from Mary Heilmann, which is mounted between a diagrammatic drawing by James Siena (“Flagged Sequence,” 2009) and a swirling black, white, gray and red abstraction in ink, watercolor and pencil made by Bill Jensen in 2012. These works couldn’t be any more dissimilar, but the eye glides across them with a sense of lightness and grace.
Next to the Jensen is a Richard Tuttle — a square of unpainted Fabriano watercolor paper with a warm gray semicircle extending from the left side. At the upper terminus of the semicircle, a rectangular shape is incised out of the square, heightening its delicacy, but the cutaway is nearly obscured by a bundle of colored paper strips. Attached to a block of wood and an aluminum wire armature, the square gently presses toward the viewer like a blossom floating on air.
Until I reached this piece, which is titled “Section I, Extension I” (2007), I had been admiring each object as an independent entity that happened to work very well in the overall context. But the Tuttle, which bespoke the arc and twist of the artist’s hand as he cut and twined the paper, was so expressly tactile that it focused my attention on the actions involved in the making of the works as much as, if not more than, their formal qualities.
To the right of the Tuttle is John Lees’ oil-on-wood “Study for a Portrait of Ruth” (2009). It is as solid and worked-over as the Tuttle is light and freeform. The pairing is like a high-contrast snapshot, with each work underscoring the distinctive traits of the other. Lees, who is well known for often taking years to make a painting, is the antithesis, or so we would assume, of Tuttle’s apparent ease and spontaneity. But what densely layered painting can retain its freshness without being an aggregate of spontaneous marks?
To return to another set of works, the apparent kinship between Frecon’s abstract watercolor and Guston’s satirical drawing is primarily due to their similar compositions: rounded and peaked shapes intersected by horizontals further interrupted by curves rising from the bottom edge. Both artists also proceed from historical sources (Chartres, Cimabue and Romanesque architecture for Frecon; the Quattrocento and specifically Piero della Francesca for Guston), a connection as much a part of the concept as it is of the execution.
But there is also a correspondence between the character of the two works. The proximity of Frecon’s watercolor to the Guston drawing accentuates its high spirits; the off-center siting of its image on the sheet of paper revels in a quirkiness that undercuts the seriousness implied by its pure abstraction and geometric underpinnings. Both artworks are variations on motifs the artist has used repeatedly, and perhaps we also sense the stylistic continuum each represents — the casualness of pulling out a familiar refrain and the restless energy that goes into making it new.
One of the strengths of the show is the way relationships shift among the assorted works, with no two associations being quite the same because each piece assumes a markedly different perspective on imagery and material. In the vitrine shelf, which is hanging off the gallery’s west wall, an Elie Nadelman figurine (c.1943-1945) can be found near two bronze birds with emerald eyes made in 1999 by Kiki Smith. Along with a certain degree of preciousness, the sculptures share the sensation of having been pressed and rolled in the palms of the artists’ hands.
Along the same wall, a painting in acrylic and flashe by James Benjamin Franklin (“Promises, Promises,” 2014) consists of a single line that loops back and forth like a length of string from the canvas’s upper left corner to its lower right. It hangs between a pen and brown wash drawing of a robed figure by Valerio Castello called “Untitled (The Aging in the Garden)” (c. 1645), and a rust-colored, amorphously abstracted etching from 1983 by Jake Berthot.
While the diagonal formed by a shaft held by the figure in the Valerio drawing vaguely echoes the direction of the line in Franklin’s painting, and the free-floating scrawls in the Berthot share a little of the line’s loopiness, there is no easily graspable connection from one to the other. Nonetheless, the three together feel like a chain of events. Is the line in the Franklin painting merely a directional, pointing across the centuries from the sepia-hued Valerio to the sepia-hued Berthot? I wouldn’t discount it, but the connection seems more substantial than that.
The relationship is a puzzle, but one that an artist-curator would be comfortable with. To make art is to step into the unknown, acting now and asking questions later. Setting one piece against the other, Webster takes that same step with his disparate “small things,” and they sparkle.
* * *
Connections of a different sort are made by the painter Ted Gahl in his solo effort, Sundays (Like the Brightest Light in the Theatre Shining on an Empty Stage), on view in Dodge Gallery’s lower level. Gahl takes images of his own, such as drawings from his childhood, as well as those of other artists and remakes them into multipart paintings, altering colors and changing shapes in the process.
His works, often done on unprimed canvas, are engaging, collage-like mismatches of style and media that recall early Rauschenberg but are distilled entirely into acrylic and graphite. In some cases he veers too obviously into art-about-art, such as “Blinky/Walking Away” (2013), which features several faux-Blinky Palermo panels fastened to a built-out 2 x 4, so that they face away from the viewer and toward a large, near-monochromatic canvas.
But most of the pieces (despite the artist’s penchant for presenting them in frames made out of house paint mixing sticks) function as layered memories, distorted and fading, through a conflation of old-school painting and conceptual mediation — an uneasy balance, but one with a peculiarly satisfying feel.
The Age of Small Things, curated by Chuck Webster, and Ted Gahl: Sundays (Like the Brightest Light in the Theatre Shining on an Empty Stage) continue at Dodge Gallery (15 Rivington Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through February 23.
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