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There’s a watercolor, simply titled “Watercolor I” (2016), in As Carriers of Flesh, the new group show at David & Schweitzer Contemporary in Bushwick. The image is oddly beguiling: a cartoonish, rosy-cheeked head of a white man, with a balding pate, straggly strands of hair draping his ears, shiny blue eyes, an enormous nose, caterpillar-like nostrils, and buck teeth overlapping puffy pink lips. His expression is placid, if not benign.
But that’s not all. Across his forehead, nose, eyes, and cheeks (with his greenish jaw inexplicably spared), more than forty earthworms squirm to the surface and out of his pores, their anatomically incorrect eyes staring straight at you, as if emerging en masse from an irredeemably rotten apple.
The watercolor is by Peter Williams. Nine years ago, in a review of his solo exhibition, Artistic Repair, at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, I described him as “a troubling painter for troubling reasons.” I should have added “for troubling times,” given how hellishly on-target his imagery suddenly feels.
Williams is an African-American artist whose youth coincided with the galvanizing events of the Civil Rights era. His three other works in the show, all large oil paintings (six feet on the longer side), are racked by the presence of a malevolent white man — part clown, part ogre, all cannibal. As with the bucktoothed head in “Watercolor I,” inexplicable beings pop out of the ogres’ faces, but this time it’s tiny black people doing the popping.
The paintings “Sandra Bland” and “The Return of Trayvon” (both 2016) memorialize two of the martyrs of the Black Lives Matter movement. The third canvas, “‘Nigga’ Lover” (also 2016), provocatively underscores the taste for human flesh driving the other two pictures, with the words “THEY EAT BLACK PEOPLE” painted over the monster’s Cyclopic green eye.
Neither “Sandra Bland” nor “The Return of Trayvon” is a literal depiction of the fates of Sandra Bland, who was found hanged in her cell following her arrest for a traffic violation, or Trayvon Martin, who was gunned down by a vigilante while walking through the gated community where his father’s fiancé lived.
In “Sandra Bland,” Williams depicts a nude woman, upside-down, her arms and wrists bound behind her back, her head disappearing into the cannibal’s toothy maw, whose flesh shimmers incongruously with pointillistic dots of violet, pink, and yellow. Adding to the torment, the woman seems to have an exposed spine, a zipper-like stripe that calls to mind the self-portraits of Frida Kahlo.
“The Return of Trayvon” renders its protagonist as a sword-wielding superhero, his name emblazoned across his bare chest, his hoodie transformed into a cowl and billowing cape. In the foreground, an anonymous, bound black man, his face reduced to a hideous caricature, is about to slip, like Bland, into the mouth of a monster. Trayvon turns, glowering, toward the ogre, ready to spring into action, saving the victim and, at the same time, avenging himself.
Both paintings employ a discomfiting version of non finito — the figures aren’t incorporated into a composition but are instead isolated against expanses of untouched white canvas. There are also unpainted patches on one of Bland’s feet and at the bottom of Martin’s cape.
These formal idiosyncrasies infuse the works with the immediacy of breaking news, even if they were done, like most history painting, long after the fact. They are the forward edges of a sharp-elbowed exhibition, curated by gallery director Michael David, whose organizing principle might have been to present a snapshot of a singularly unhinged moment in American politics, but instead has inadvertently envisioned an uncertain and potentially terrifying future.
With the past as prologue, the exhibition is dedicated to the memory of the artist Arnold Mesches, who passed away three days before the election at the age of 93. In his obituary, which ran in The New York Times on November 9th, William Grimes recounts Mesches’ conflicts with the United States government, beginning with his membership in the Communist Party in 1945:
Over the years, agents and informers kept track of Mr. Mesches’s day-to-day activities, reporting to headquarters on matters large and small. If he signed a petition, it went into his file. When he turned in an illustration for Mad magazine, the fact was duly noted. One informant, noting his paint-spattered pants, wrote that Mr. Mesches “dressed like a Communist.”
His studio was burglarized in 1956, and “dozens of paintings and drawings inspired by the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, convicted of spying for the Soviet Union” were stolen. “He strongly suspected that the F.B.I. was behind the break-in.”
In the late 1990s, Mr. Mesches obtained his [FBI] file under the Freedom of Information Act and reaped a bonanza of 760 pages, with classified information ruled over in heavy black lines. They had a certain look, he decided.
“I saw other people’s files and realized they were aesthetically beautiful,” he told The New York Times in 2003. “Kind of like Franz Kline sketches. Those big, black slashes where they block things out.”
Going to work, he cut and pasted 57 of the documents into a series of collaged paintings first exhibited at P.S. 1, the Museum of Modern Art’s satellite museum in Queens, in 2003 and later at several other museums. It was, in a way, a collaborative work — an inspired if unexpected union of opposites.
Ten pieces by Mesches are featured in the show, including sketches, drawings, and his distinctive collaged paintings, in which independently painted panels are pasted onto a larger canvas, creating multifaceted, highly informed postmodern images.
There is also a mixed-media collage called “The FBI Files 1” (2001), which incorporates simulated and real redacted texts. On one side of an actual FOIA document, which Mesches has glued into the center of the picture, is a painting of shadowy figures in front of a glowing cross; on the other side there’s a sketch of a petulant baby. These divergent images create a diaristic impression that mirrors the daily expectation of being surveilled, and its steady, insidious normalization of governmental transgressions.
But other works feel like exorcisms — most explicitly his sketches of goat-horned, lizard-tongued devils, as well as “Anomie 1991 Full Circle” (1991), a large painting on unstretched canvas bristling with religious and secular symbols of power: three versions of the crucified Christ; a seated Buddha; a monarch’s crown; towering warriors in Samurai masks. The title, “Anomie,” refers to alienation, isolation, and the collapse of standards and ethics.
That was 25 years ago. In 2013 he painted “Eternal Return 3,” in which masses of people converge on the cityscape of Manhattan under a black night sky, with the ghosts of the Twin Towers glowing in the top center of the canvas. Mesches has overlaid the panorama with vexingly discordant smaller paintings of infrastructure projects and X-ray films. The mismatch of imagery offers no answers and brooks no questions, but its unsettled and unsettling state seems to focus a laser light on where we are now.
Another unintended bout of prophecy seems to have fallen from the rude brush of Paul Gagner, whose “Palm Reader” (2015) is dominated by a giant (presumably male) hand, palm facing forward. The much smaller hand of a white woman (bracelet around her wrist, rings on her fingers, dark polish on her nails) points to the palm’s “heart line,” while a similarly sized black woman’s hand (also well-manicured) grips the big hand by its thumb.
But this fortune-telling session isn’t going all that well. The thumb has turned blue (from the string tied around it?); there’s a circular Band-Aid plastered on the knuckle of the ring finger, and a bloody bandage wrapped around the tip of the forefinger. The paint handling is comically expressionistic, with swipes of blue, green, and purple mottling the hand’s ochery flesh. In a stylistic departure from the rest of the painting, Gagner has taken care to articulate the swirls and whorls on the four fingertips, which invariably bring to mind fingerprinting, suspicion, and, again, surveillance.
In this company, Heather Morgan, with her painterly renderings of scantily clothed women often in sexually alluring poses, seems to be the odd woman out. But there is something misbegotten about these pictures, fringed as they are in depthless blacks and the tawdry grit of caked mascara — a quality that Paul D’Agostino characterizes in his succinct and textured catalogue essay as “patent falseness and commodified creepiness.” Under scrutiny, Morgan’s anxious straddling of sensuality and disgust might just constitute a coy meta-messaging for the untenable political ethos supplying the fuel for this show’s fire.
If Morgan’s work plays on repressed desire with glances and whispers, Brenda Goodman’s paintings represent the exhibition’s howling, raging id. Nothing is held back. Her surfaces brim with oceans of paint, surging past two dimensions into sculptural reliefs that cling like macrofungi to the wood panel, most notably in her “Self-Portrait 55″ (2006), in which clots of paint are scraped onto three narrow shelves set into the face of the support.
A longer shelf runs along the bottom of the work, creating a ledge where a hunchbacked, naked figure in bas-relief — from the title, we conclude that this is the artist’s depiction of herself — prances toward a large lump of earth-toned paint in the bottom right corner that signifies — what, a turtle? It is as indecipherable as the red and white mass (an internal organ?; a newborn baby?) that Goodman is either carrying off to safety or cramming into her mouth.
The artist’s “(Self-Portrait 4)” (1994) is the twin sister of “Self-Portrait 13” from the same year, which I described in a previous review as “a hulking, spindly-armed monster” clearly derived from Francisco Goya y Lucientes’s “Saturn Devouring His Son” (1820–1823). “(Self-Portrait 4)” is twice as large as “Self-Portrait 13” (80 by 72 inches compared with 48 by 40) and thereby exponentially more menacing, with its blank zombie stare and insatiable hunger of the mindless consumer.
If there were ever an exercise in auto-demonology, this is it. What Goodman does in these self-portraits is become the ogre that artists like Williams and Mesches rail against. It’s a harrowing line of inquiry, but absolutely necessary. When seeking out the root cause of disaster, the first place to look is our own complicity.
As Carriers of Flesh continues at David&Schweitzer Contemporary (56 Bogart Stret, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through December 18.