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When a gallery presents two concurrent solo exhibitions, a common practice these days, it inevitably invites the viewer to consider the nature of their relationship. We expect them to act to some extent as foils for one another. If among the curator’s tasks is the illumination of artworks’ underlying potentialities by placing them in physical proximity, then such a pairing of oeuvres is an instance of the curatorial act at a rudimentary level.
The stakes are high; a bad match can seriously interfere with the reception of one or both shows. And to disregard this task entirely is not a viable option, since there is, perforce, some manner of interdependence calling for consideration. To emphasize formal similarities or differences is a fairly safe way of navigating this terrain. More interesting is the unlikely intersection of sensibilities that turns out somehow to be right — to be mutually beneficial, seemingly against all odds. On view through December 11 at the venerable Sideshow Gallery in Williamsburg are two superb exhibitions that, between them, balance rupture and continuity in unexpected and remarkable ways.
Marilyn Gold is a painter; Robert Guillot makes sculpture and drawings. Both have been working in New York for decades. As their studio output indicates, they have profoundly different interests and divergent means of exploring them. The traditions out of which they work are like Venus and Mars. Gold paints expansive, ambiguous spaces; Guillot makes curious little things. But this very contrariety is mutually enriching: Guillot’s weirdness helps to bring out the latent weirdness in Gold, and Gold’s classicism points to Guillot’s easily overlooked use of longstanding sculptural conventions.
Impressively multifarious, Guillot’s work occupies floor space, wall space, table space and air space in the gallery’s front room. “Fast Food” (2014) sits on the floor, and looks rather like a hot dog sitting upright and trying to suck something out of a bent section of a conduit. Hanging from the ceiling by a thin wire is “Untitled (bubble tubes)” (2015), a bristling lattice of translucent amber cylinders with milky-looking bubbles the size of softballs at the ends. It looks vaguely visceral, and in fact anthropomorphism creeps through the entire show, emerging at times into the openly figurative: a few lumps of tinted polymer clay for eyes, ears, nose and lips (and beard, I think) constitute “Stack Face” (1998), along with the wire armature that sorts those features in space. It shares a pedestal with an unidentified work, a little pair of loping legs made of clay or maybe cement over wire. Odd as it is to spotlight in this way a work that does not appear on the checklist, that decision is of a piece with the show’s loose-limbed attitude.
I’d describe the exhibition as “quirky,” but then we all have our quirks, don’t we? It seems likely that Guillot has looked hard at Philip Guston and Robert Crumb. A stunning, pedestal-based work, “Untitled (ST4)” brings the Dr. Seuss: from a central void resembling a cartoon explosion, protrusions resembling both trumpets and ears blast up and out. The lurid greenish-yellow of its outer surface (inside, the gaping orifices are white) makes you realize that, by comparison, a relatively restrained palette is the rule for Guillot’s work.
These moderately scaled works are wildly outnumbered by much smaller, ultracasually constructed sculptures that are arranged on three shelves set up on the the longest unbroken wall in the room. Many apparently incorporate found objects. (A few are found objects, unaltered.) There are scores of little jumbles of wire, conjoined bits of wood and cement, urethane foam, stones, plaster, wax, animal bones and the like. Some look a little like amputated digits, or saintly relics, or bizarre fossils, or Neolithic costume jewelry, or petit fours from an alternate patisserie universe.
As things taken to be art, they constitute a captivating essay in scale and skill; as an installation, grouped into clusters calibrated to resonate with other clusters, on shelves in relationship to other shelves, they throw into question where one artwork ends and another begins. Three tables displaying dozens of wee constructions made of cut-up pieces of driftwood — some evoking limbed creatures, others not — complete this array of controlled, interconnected chaos. By the time we make our way to the second space where Gold’s paintings hang, we’re ready for anything.
What we get is an accomplished, thoughtfully executed, beautifully realized body of work by another seasoned talent. Gold tells me she’s a traditionalist in many ways. She works in oils, on canvas stretched the usual way, hung on the walls per standard expectations. The paintings are generally between three and five feet high or wide, plus there’s one small work for good measure. An atmospheric colorist intent on dissolving form into pools of light, Gold tells me she looks to Bonnard and Rothko — particularly, I suspect, Rothko of the mid-to-late 1940s.
All good. But the psychic conditioning provided by Guillot’s body-centric, strangely furtive imagination predisposes the viewer (this viewer, at least) to notice a figural or even visceral undertow in the soft-edged, oozing shapes in Gold’s abstractions. Their very indistinctness takes on a sense of incipience. Elongated brush strokes slither up the canvas like enormous snakes in the ghostly “Silvery Shadows” (all works by Gold are dated 2016), and the surface as a whole takes on the visual texture of a membrane, or of an X-ray image of internal organs.
It’s not that we want to read imagery into the paintings, exactly. But the already rich readings that they offer expand still further, and shift toward the corporeal. Even a work as willfully undepictive as “On My Walk (Sunrise)” recalls the symmetrical structure of the human form. A gorgeous orchestration of yellows, greens, and blues that are highly saturated yet airily light in value, it is held together by subtle horizontal streaks emanating from a central vertical axis like muscle tissue from a spinal column. Perhaps indebted in part to late Turner, the painting is something Lucien Freud might have done with Leigh Bowery’s back if, as Constable said of Turner, Freud had painted “with tinted steam.”
There is one drawing in Gold’s show, and what a drawing it is. Melting, convoluted bands of gray belly around and elbow their way into the shallow, frontal space, in places gaining an illusion of nearly tubular volume. The ink is here a pale wash, there a blackish smudge, and in between, a film like smoke or dust. Interstices of untouched (or barely touched) paper send a shimmer through the drawing’s shadows. The nuances of tone Gold achieves are exquisite, trading on the equivalence in value of a brush heavy with thinned, watery ink, and stronger, darker ink on a drier brush that leaves a raspy trace. Such a hybrid of techniques is difficult to control, and in this drawing Gold nails it.
Standing in front of the 40-by-30-inch “Untitled,” in which darkish patches tend to drift toward the edges of a glimmering yellow-gold ground, I thought of a fish tank. Neither the fish nor the tank, really, but the swishing and the gurgling. And in the wonderfully-titled “Sushi and Lipstick,” in which pinks, oranges and reds hold center stage, the artist’s penchant for soft-focus brushwork ensures that the distinction between raw seafood and the mouth that devours it remains unsettled.
In a reciprocal manner, and in light of Gold’s observance of painting’s fundamental assumptions, Guillot’s previously unnoticed normativity appears. After all, he uses a lot of conventional materials and methods, even casting in bronze the obliquely, spookily face-like “Afterimage” (2015) — which, incidentally, might attune a gallery visitor to the pareidolic potential (imagining a face or figure in random shapes) of Gold’s paintings. As noted, his methods also include modeling on wire armatures, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is even some carving going on here. As sculptors have been for ages, Guillot is attentive to the relationship between the art object and the base (or other means of support); in this show, he tries just about all the options: floor, pedestal, table, shelf, suspension in space.
Contrary to Gold’s approach to her palette, Guillot’s color range — largely, restrained earth tones and the grays of weathered wood and concrete — is a lesser consideration, another time-honored if now rather musty prejudice of much three-dimensional art. (That greenish yellow ear-trumpet thing proves that Guillot can be polychromatically up-to-date, if he wants.) His many drawings, unlike Gold’s singularity, clearly relate to planned works, whether actual or hypothetical — they are in effect studies, preparatory sketches.
To give credit where it’s due: Gold’s husband, Paul Baumann — another accomplished artist whose work has also been featured at this venue — had the idea for this counter-intuitive confrontation of sensibilities. (Gold and Guillot: lava and lava lamp.) Painter Rich Timperio, who owns and runs Sideshow, had the good judgment to give the go-ahead to the project — a significant imprimatur, as Timperio is widely admired as a maker of artistic matches.
A brief video documents the contents of the shelves in Guillot’s studio that house his small works. At close range, the camera slowly tracks from left to right, bringing ever-changing combinations of adjacent works into view. Both storage and display, the arrangement is softly washed in diffuse natural light that, as in an Irving Penn still life, emphasizes textures, volume and mass.
Before our eyes, Guillot’s instincts seem to be transformed from an aesthetic outlier’s to those of an old-school formalist, while Gold’s beguilingly retinal maneuvers yield uncannily somatic results. With this splendid switcheroo, Baumann proves himself adept at the alchemy that is the task of the curator.
Marilyn Gold / Robert Guillot continues at Sideshow Gallery (319 Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn) through December 11.