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Raymond Foye — who possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of various underground currents of poetry, music, and art — is the only person on the planet who could have conceived of this exhibition, Dark Star: Abstraction and Cosmos at Planthouse (April 7–May 10, 2016). Not only did he personally know all eight artists he selected for the show — and this includes the two historical figures, Jordan Belson (1926–2011) and Harry Smith (1923–1991), experimental filmmakers who are hardly household names — Foye has also previously worked with many of them on a variety of projects, from book publications to one-person exhibitions. More importantly, in this exhibition he place contemporary artists within a little-acknowledged historical context.
According to the gallery press release, this was the impetus for bringing this diverse group of artists together:
From its origins at the turn of the twentieth century, abstract art has looked to the cosmos as a paradigm for a new sense of space. As our knowledge of the cosmos has grown, artists have continued to respond to the increasingly complex information scientists posit, as well as the expanded vision found in telescopic and satellite images. Many of the artists in this show have updated the original tenets of Non-Objectivism to include their experiences of mysticism, yoga, meditation, and psychedelics. In many instances it seems the further out we gaze, the further inward we see, and the play of macro/micro space becomes another topic for reflection.
The strain of occult thinking that runs through abstraction, beginning with Hilma Af Klint (1862–1944), arguably the first abstract artist, and continuing in figures as diverse as Piet Mondrian, Antonin Artaud, Gordon Onslow-Ford, Charmion Von Wiegand, Simon Gouveneur, Alfred Jensen, Forrest Bess, and Leo Kinney, goes against the mainstream’s narrowly focused insistence that — historically speaking — abstract art progressed until it became a materialist enterprise that would cut its ties with its symbolist and mystical beginnings.
Frank Stella’s dictum, “What you see is what you see,” helped to obscure the occult side of abstraction. For decades, any painting that expressed another possibility — particularly if it was visionary, non-rational and psychedelic — was regarded as eccentric, something to be ignored or suppressed, as made clear by The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, curated by Laura Hoptman, at the Museum of Modern Art (December 14, 2014–April 5, 2015) and the shows of Wade Guyton and Frank Stella mounted by the Whitney Museum of American Art. Fear is a powerful motivator, and both MoMA and the Whitney Museum seem driven by it.
In addition to Smith and Belson, Foye includes work by Sally Webster, a founding member of the Mutants; Charles Stein, a poet, literary scholar and critic; Brian Lucas, who, in addition to being a poet, is also a member of two Oakland-based bands, Dire Wolves and Cloud Shepherd. Here I should disclose that I first met Stein and read his work when I was a student at Bard College in the late 1960s, and I met Lucas and read his work in the mid-90s, while I was a visiting professor in the Asian American Studies department at UC Berkeley. Some years later, Lucas and I and a few other poets spent a memorable evening with the great American visionary Surrealist poet, Philip Lamantia. Even so, this exhibition has presented me with the opportunity to see drawings by Stein, paintings by Lucas, and paintings by Webster. As far as I know, it is also the first time that Belson’s pastel drawings have been exhibited in New York.
The final three participants — Tamara Gonzales, Thomas Kovachevich, Philip Taaffe — have established themselves to varying degrees in the New York art world.
Foye has brought together an unlikely group of artists based on their shared interest in figures such as Belson and Smith; have also explored alternative systems to apprehend as well as transcend reality. It is a complex subject largely shunned or trivialized by the art world. Fittingly named after late David Bowie’s final studio album, Dark Star reminds us that a number of artists have chosen other options besides those touted by mainstream institutions and their all-too-predictable forms of conventional perception, which emphasizes the immediately understood, self-contained image. In contrast, the work in Dark Star is layered and full of details, which often culminate in an optical buzz, a heightened or hallucinatory perceptual state. Formally speaking, there is a tension that never resolves itself between the whole work and its myriad parts, which forces the viewer’s attention to continually refocus.
Largely blue with green and white accents, Sally Webster’s modestly-scaled, nearly square painting, “Untitled” (2013), is crammed with radiating orbs, concentric circles, dots, cellular and paramecium-like shapes that are cartoony but somehow don’t become a cartoon.
Compositionally, Brian Lucas’s painting is a landscape divided into three distinct areas, with large, semi-transparent forms and flower-like shapes in the lower third, and a green band filled with white signs about one-third of the way up, interrupted in the middle by a largely black asteroid or hole radiating a white aura. A swath of small abstract shapes, some of which are accented by a dot, is stacked above the green band, before giving way to a gray sky — both grainy and atmospheric — accented by white dots and light gray trails.
A series of zig-zagging, overlapping parallel forms extend — chevron-like — down from the painting’s top edge. Made of differently colored bands, Lucas does just enough with color and viscosity to suggest that the bands are at once volumetric forms and semi-transparent bands. And so while we have a landscape, it is one in which a series of mysterious, possibly disconnected events are unfolding simultaneously. The concurrence of multiple possibilities (events or realities) is basic to many of the works in the exhibition. Here I am thinking of the paintings of Philip Taaffe.
Taaffe, who has often referred to himself as a scribe, has mastered a wide range of processes — including collage, silkscreen, marbling and decalomania — to capture signs from various sources and transfer them to paper or canvas. In using marbling to compress layers of differently colored, semi-transparent shapes — as he does in the six “Cloud Papers I – VI” (2011), Taaffe arrives at a hallucinatory opticality where the layers seem to shift, as our we refocus our attention. In two mixed media works on panel, “Lunula” and “Dark Earth Pendant” (both 2013), segmented forms seem to absorb, preserve and merge with leaf and flower-like patterns, suggesting a vision of decay and rebirth. Taaffe has taken the paradigm of the double or multiple exposure in film — which was essential to the experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage — and raised it to another level of visual apprehension in painting. (Isn’t it time an American museum gave Taaffe the show he has long deserved?)
Another domain explored in this exhibition is that of esoteric signs. These artists — like Antonin Artaud before them — seem to be pursued by mysterious ciphers and cryptic forms. Nearly every painting in Thomas Kovachevich’s “36 Squares” (2011 – 2015) depicts a centrally located image against a monochromatic ground. The images range from a dense cluster of abstract brushstrokes to a largely yellow, machine-like form that seems inspired by science fiction movies. Are we looking at disintegrating stars or unknown force fields?
In five acrylic paintings on canvas, collectively titled “Dark Star” (all 2016), Tamara Gonzales shows a very different body of work from what she has previously shown, which was done in spray paint and patterns derived from lace and other fabrics. In these works — in which she seems to have channeled aspects of Niki de Saint Phalle and Dorothy Iannone — Gonzales uses bright colors and black outlines to depict dancing skeletons, intertwined snakes, a face with three eyes, among other fantastical images, on a gridded white ground reminiscent of graph paper. In one of the paintings, she made what looks like a primitive diagram of squares divided into four parts, each containing a black dot. Arrowed lines connect one set of these orange and brown squares to another.
Chuck Stein, who wrote about the poetic cosmology of the Charles Olson, divides the paper into different, interlocking sections, usually made of different optical illusions, such as a Necker cube. He demarcates each section of the cube with a pattern. There is a current of horror vacui running through these drawings that is oddly offset by the sense that some of the Necker cubes are floating in a strange complexly ambiguous space that would turn M.C. Escher on his head.
Harry Smith’s “Untitled Drawing, October 19, 1951” (1951), which was done in ink, watercolor and tempera on a sheet of paper measuring 24 ½ x 18 ¾ inches, reminds me of a map of both earth’s inner core as well as an early version of the solar system. It brought to mind George Baxter’s prints of the cosmos that were specially made for the religious sect, the Muggletonians, of which the poet-artist William Blake was a member. The Muggletonians believed Copernicus, Galileo and Sir Isaac Newton had it all wrong. I don’t think you would be wrong if you get the feeing that some of the artists in this exhibition agree with Blake.
Dark Star: Abstraction and Cosmos continues at Planthouse (55 West 28th Street, NoMad, Manhattan) through May 10.
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