On March 24, 2017, while scrolling through my news feed on Facebook, I was struck by William Eckhardt Kohler’s post of an artist’s work. I knew neither the artist nor the Lower East Side gallery where he was having a show. When I looked up the gallery’s website I learned that the show was open for only two weeks, and I decided to go as soon as I could, which I did. The show is Paul Gagner at Allen and Eldridge (today is the last day), and the small, clean-lighted room (or project space) is below James Fuentes’ street level gallery at 55 Delancey Street. The stairs descending to the small basement gallery are steep— they reminded me of the entrance to the now defunct Novella Gallery on Orchard Street — but the trip is well worth making.
The first painting I saw after descending the stairs was “The Artist, Rearranged, With Pickle” (2017), which, if you look closely, was done right after the presidential election. The painting can be thought of as a still life in which the subject is the artist’s body broken into separate, fairly flat parts, like a paper doll, and arranged on a table: foot, arm and hand; one pant leg (blue jeans); torso; black-and-yellow checked shirt; bearded head in profile. The hand holds a brush at a diagonal, between index and forefinger, on the right, while the edge of an empty canvas peeks out on the left. An open can of beer is balanced on the knee of the pant leg. A folded newspaper in the foreground is pinned by a dart to the wooden table, which has been tilted up close to the picture plane. The headline of the newspaper reads “Trump Tri” (presumably “Trump Triumphs”) before the fold cuts it off. A pickle hangs off the table’s front edge in the painting’s lower left corner.
On a basic level, Gagner’s painting is a fragmented self-portrait: the artist feels torn apart by current events. But it is also about shattered masculinity, the feeling that men cannot make themselves whole, no matter how much they try. What could potentially be maudlin or self-pitying is rescued by Gagner’s self-deprecating humor. If he feels impotent and/or castrated by events over which he has no leverage, he lets the precarious placement of the pickle — at once a strange and completely revealing detail — do the talking.
Gagner’s overlapping, flat forms owe something to the first paintings that Philip Guston did in the early 1970s of the hooded figure/artist in his studio, but they feel earned rather than derivative. The paint application is restrained: he works out the placement of the forms on the canvas and prefers not to leave a record of his decisions.
In Gagner’s paintings — at least the ones that I have seen so far — calamities of all kinds befall the artist and all those whose work revolves around art, such as preparators. There is a small painting, “When Art Attacks” (2015), depicting a book cover in which a pair of sneaker-clad feet sticks out from under a crate, where their owner lies crushed. The book’s unlikely title: When Art Attacks and How To Defend Yourself. The author is “Howard Moseley M.D.” The canvas stretchers are deep enough to allow Gagner to paint the title and author on the painting’s left side (or book’s spine).
In another small painting, which is also of a book that Gagner has dreamed up, we read How Not to Make an Ass of Yourself, which is also the painting’s title. The image is of a pair of naked, hairy legs with trousers dropped and gathered around the ankles. Gagner goes one step further than “When Art Attacks” and writes in clear letters just above the author’s name, Howard Moseley M.D. (again): “Art Events Are For Networking Not Penis Puppetry (Doug).” Huh? Gagner’s unexpected mixture of self-deprecation and impolitic rudeness is his and no one else’s.
In “24 Hour News Cycle” (2017), Gagner depicts himself hunched over an open laptop, the computer’s gray-violet light reflected on his panicked, worried face. His arms are too skinny — they look almost anorexic — for the oversized head. A bottle of Tums, colored pills, and a glass of amber liquid (Scotch or bourbon?) sit on the red patterned Formica kitchen table (circa 1950s). Gagner’s attention to everyday details such as the metal band encircling the table is what makes these paintings special.
In “The Portable Artist” (2016), which was my favorite painting in the show, Gagner depicts an open artist’s portfolio. Inside, we see different parts of the artist’s body (hand; face in profile, sans nose; nose; brain; torso; two eyeballs, etc.), equipped with bolts so that the whole thing (the artist) can be fitted together. Along with these items, we see a bottle of beer; two pretzel sticks, one of which is broken and perhaps partly eaten, complete with crumbs; a BLT sandwich; two books stacked on top of each other, with the famous Mark Rothko-emblazoned cover of Irving Sandler’s Triumph of American Painting on top; an open sketchbook filled with drawings and notes; brushes and a bottle cleaner; a pencil and handsaw; and a rolled-up diploma tied with a red ribbon. Placed directly below the sandwich, the brain echoes the shape of the roll with its lettuce, tomato, and bacon sticking out. Amidst all these details and things you might expect to find in this imaginary artist’s portfolio — one item sticks out: a small black whip, the better to flog yourself with.
Gagner’s attention to details is laced with a sharp, self-mocking wit. And yet, there is a gentleness running through the paintings, a sense of humor at once compassionate and tough. But as far as they go in their satirical edge, they never go too far. Gagner seems to recognize that, for all the imaginative power he can summon up in a painting, he is not capable of changing the world. It is not that Gagner agrees with W. H. Auden, who wrote “Poetry makes nothing happen” in response to the ideologically riddled left of the 1930s, but — like Auden — he refuses to say what should happen. That is not a small statement.
Paul Gagner ends today at Allen and Eldridge (55 Delancey Street, Bowery, Manhattan)