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Stacked against the market-driven myth of the solitary genius, the role of community in fostering creative ferment is generally given short shrift. The neatly coordinated categories we encounter in museums, arranged by time period, style or place of origin, barely touch on the diverse constituencies and influences that brought the art into being. What we find is less a gathering of the tribes than the upper reaches of an art historical pecking order.
Solo shows by two artists currently on view in Chelsea, however, are reminders of the indispensability of community in the past and present. The artists may take diametrically opposed approaches in terms of materials, concept and craft, but the evangelism for art and artists that they both practice outside their studios resonates with the work they do inside.
Loren Munk is a painter whose alter ego, James Kalm, has gained a wide Internet following for wry video postings of gallery and museum exhibitions that offer detailed examinations of the artworks on display along with an occasional on-the-fly interview with the artist or run-in with security personnel.
Before Kalm broke out as a YouTube phenomenon, he was a writer for The Brooklyn Rail (where I first met him) whose understanding of the ins and outs of art history — and the tendency of its institutional gatekeepers to simplify the matrices of innovation and influence — fed his passion to chronicle as much as he could of the dynamic contradictions defining the contemporary scene.
As a painter, Munk’s concerns are of a piece with James Kalm’s documentary propensities, though they tend to take a longer view, roaming over a century’s worth of modern art in Europe and the United States, in particular the post-1945 flowering in New York City.
A longtime Brooklyn stalwart, Munk’s own creative ferment arises from Ad Reinhardt’s art world cartoons, Mark Lombardi’s political money trails, Ward Shelley’s fact-filled timelines and William Powhida’s exposés of high art and high finance. Adapting the graphic punch of such non-art templates as flow charts and maps, he translates expansive chunks of art history into vivid, information-gorged paintings.
Where Powhida, Shelley and Lombardi ultimately seek to clarify complex sets of data, however dizzying they may appear at the onset, Munk seems intent on messing things up, and his solo show at Freight + Volume, You are Here, puts forward both his relentless accumulation of historical details and his impulse to subvert expectations.
Text balloons weave in and out of densely compacted maps, their tangled tails disappearing and reappearing like strands of multicolored spaghetti. In a painting called “Colliding Timelines of Minimalism” (2012–13), streams of biographical information on artists from Barnett Newman to Agnes Martin and Sol Lewitt unfurl into trails of overlapping comets. A piece devoted to the critic Clement Greenberg features the names of his influences (Kant, Hegel, Marx) and contemporaries (Meyer Schapiro, Harold Rosenberg, Alfred Barr) as well as the critics and historians he influenced, the artists he championed and the journals where he published, along with a timeline from 1900 to 2000 thrown in for good measure.
All of these groupings and associations, however, are made by inference. Greenberg’s influences and disciples are not labeled as such. As with the other paintings in the show, the connections are purely visual. The intricate compositions and clashing colors accentuate the content’s clangorous gestalt — namely the inability of participants, when swept up in a situation, to fully grasp its contexts and meanings — as well as the fractiousness inherent in many of the personal relationships. A community of artists may make for a dazzling historical moment, but a crackup is always just around the corner.
In a review of the exhibition Reticulate at McKenzie Fine Art last summer, which featured one of Munk’s paintings, I remarked upon his gifts as a colorist. But this show of mostly large works also brings to the fore the originality of many of his designs, which he overloads to the edge of chaos, if not beyond.
In the exhibition’s magnum opus, “Super Map” (2007–13), a diptych measuring 96 x 144 inches, Munk charts out every art neighborhood from the Upper East Side to Williamsburg (the dates indicate that the painting was begun before the ascendance of Bushwick), layering the perimeter with impossible amounts of information while leaving a relatively simplified map of Manhattan and a piece of Brooklyn in the center.
In this painting it is evident how much Munk surrenders himself to his material, allowing the accumulated information to drive the painting’s composition. His brightly colored, Pop-inflected lettering seems to wind up in one spot or another by the necessity of recording this artist’s name or that gallery address — a spatial roll of the dice that John Cage would have appreciated.
By stepping back, sticking to the facts and employing a non-hierarchical, all-over composition that, due to its sources in maps and diagrams, smacks not of control but of self-effacement, Munk retains as strong a communal spirit in his art as James Kalm pursues among the artists he advocates.
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Austin Thomas is another Brooklyn mainstay who has made community an important focus of her practice. As the founder of Pocket Utopia, she became one of the catalysts of the Bushwick scene, providing a social setting around which the disparate artists populating the neighborhood could coalesce.
That project closed after a planned two-year run, but Thomas reopened Pocket Utopia in 2012, this time as a commercial venture on the Lower East Side in partnership with the Upper East Side gallery C.G. Boerner.
As an artist and gallery director, Thomas continues to branch out, melding community networks on both sides of the East River. It seems appropriate that the gallery roster includes artists who are also influential writers, curators or both (Sharon Butler, Paul D’Agostino, Kris Graves, Ellen Letcher), further decreasing the degrees of separation among those drawn to Pocket Utopia’s varied schedule of shows, which have ranged from a selection of 17th- and 18th-century French prints to a single self-portrait by the painter Matthew Miller.
Three years ago, I reviewed Drawing on the Utopic, Thomas’s solo show of collages and drawings at Storefront in Bushwick, where I felt that each piece represented an “act of pure invention,” which managed to navigate “randomness without becoming arbitrary.” I also mentioned the collages’ kinship with the work of Richard Tuttle, but observed that while “Tuttle exudes a laid-back scruffiness, Thomas conveys a quiet, confident serenity.”
That serenity, and confidence, is on full — if somewhat disorienting — display in Utopian, Thomas’s solo turn at Hansel & Gretel Picture Garden in Chelsea, which is billed as a collaboration with Pocket Utopia. The latter gallery will remain empty during the run of Thomas’s exhibition, but a series of happenings will take place at both spaces as well as off-site.
The work at Hansel & Gretel — as sparely hung as the salon-style Drawing on the Utopic was packed — embraces an anti-art aesthetic that is so minimal and non-invasive that it makes Tuttle’s assemblages of cardboard and wood scraps look positively baroque: a sheet of acidified paper from a yellow legal pad is pinned to the wall; blue construction paper hangs indecorously from a blank book cover; a page ripped from a pocket-size, spiral-bound notebook and stuck to a large expanse of wall is covered in wave-like loops of blue colored pencil.
It is easy to feel a little lost among these works, as if they’ve pushed the impoverishment of Arte Povera to a point of diminishing returns. But the audacity of their abjectness is just as difficult to ignore.
What opened up the exhibition for me was the three-dimensional quality of the blank, vertically oriented book cover titled “The Self Observed” (2013). It conveyed the kind of sculptural objecthood that I found so compelling in a number of Thomas’s collages from three years ago, with their folds of colored or drawn-over paper projecting off the page.
In a conversation prior to my visit, Thomas referred to the new show as a follow-up to Drawing on the Utopic — a thought I found confusing when I first entered the gallery. It soon became apparent, however, that the asceticism exemplified by “The Self Observed” signaled a deliberate pushback, a stripping-down of the artist’s previous visual lexicon to an unapologetic rawness. The decisions are not so much what to do as what not to do, a process of letting go that is perhaps most fully realized in the exquisitely rendered “Data Removal” (2014), in which a sheet of paper decorated in blue and purple shapes is reduced to biomorphic strips framing a void.
The work in Utopian represents a tamping-down of agency, a self-effacement that allows the materials to speak for themselves, as well as an impenitent Duchampian assertion of yes, an untouched sheet of acid-tinged yellow legal paper is art if it is presented as art.
It is just such a withdrawal of agency — once all the pieces are put into place — paired with an audacity of vision, that allows for a successful social space, the first step toward creating a community. By emptying out her artwork — and her gallery — Thomas is entrusting the imaginations of others to mingle among the rooms she’s left unlocked.
Loren Munk: You are Here continues at Freight + Volume (530 W. 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 15.
Austin Thomas: Utopian continues at Hansel & Gretel Picture Garden (511 W. 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 15.