An exhibition of Daniel John Gadd’s paintings was the first solo show presented by David & Schweitzer Contemporary when it made its debut last fall — a signal that the gallery would continue the commitment to painting that distinguished Life on Mars, its predecessor in the same space.
That show, For The Moon, was full of large, lopsided tondos featuring mirrored surfaces covered in lush violets, greens, and blues. It was work that came down decidedly in favor of the reuse, recycle, repurpose school of art-making, full of splinters, gouges, cracks, and dings. Still, the circles, as metaphors of inclusiveness and harmony, ultimately conveyed a sense of calm in spite of their scarification and scruffiness.
That appears to be gone. Falconry, Gadd’s current solo at David & Schweitzer, also relies on mirrored glass, but the illusion of wholeness has been ripped by a zip saw and smashed with a ball hammer. And why shouldn’t it? Last year at this time we were looking toward a sustained progressive era, with the nation’s first female president succeeding its first African-American. No discussion is necessary of what we got instead.
The abrupt distortion of the country’s values that followed the election makes it especially poignant that the word “Moon” in the title of the previous show referred, according to the gallery’s press release, “to Gadd’s daughter’s nickname, [whose] birth has brought a ‘centering’ to his life. The use of the tondo or imperfect circle is Gadd’s way of trying to make things whole.”
This circumstance leaves us to consider, legitimately, I think, whether the source of the raw emotion unloaded on the artworks in the new exhibition is an extension of Gadd’s concern for his daughter’s future in a country where the snakes of misogyny are slithering out from every rock.
If the birth of Moon had brought “a ‘centering’” to the artist’s life, the title he chose for the current show, Falconry, is a red flare broadcasting his distress. As Jason Andrew tells us in his perceptive catalogue essay, Falconry is a reference to W.B. Yeats’s most quoted poem, “The Second Coming” (1919), whose opening verse begins, “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” and ends with a pair of lines that have also been making the rounds lately, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
Three of Gadd’s paintings — the comparatively easel-size “Falcon” and “Falconer,” and the enormous “Falconry” (all the works in the exhibition are dated 2017) — refer directly to Yeats’s poem, which, as Andrew writes, “points to the collective loss of faith” after World War I “and with it, the collective sense of purpose (a kind of human disconnect).”
The three paintings are more-or-less equilateral triangles rotated so that the base faces the right and the apex points to the left, transforming them into abstracted wings; each surface is also similarly structured, with the midsection filled with mirrored glass and the corners (at least the corners that haven’t been knocked off) smeared or scrubbed with paint.
However casual Gadd’s paintings might seem at first glance, “Falcon,” “Falconer,” and “Falconry” disclose the rigor of his formal thinking and the investment he makes in craft. His use of mirrors as a ground, he recently told me, was inspired by the desire to paint on the most reflective surface he could find, in which light enters through filmy coats of pigment and bounces back behind them, bumping up his color with real, not simulated, luminosity.
The history of stained glass windows as sacred portals of light would seem to provide a subliminal context for the show, as would the implications of smashing them. But that’s speculation. In his essay, Andrew underscores the significance that glass as a visual medium holds for Gadd by invoking a statement from the architect Carlo Scarpa, whose spellbinding mid-20th-century Venetian glass designs remain influential to this day. “An artist must create an optic,” goes the quote, “a way of seeing nature like it’s never been seen before.”
What is most compelling about this work, beyond infusing a Dumpster aesthetic with iridescent, baroque beauty, is the way its formal intuition guides each convulsion: the architecture hidden beneath the whirlpool, magnifying the scope of meaning. The cracked, mottled surfaces are more than simply signifiers of discontent: they are evocations of moss and weeds; rivers and sewers; dirt and rust; blood and smoke. The wing motif, which returns as triangles or squares in paintings such as “Cygnus” or the self-identified “Wing,” may be an indicator of the futility denoted in Yeats’s “widening gyre,” but it could also be an intimation of hope among the ruins — it holds the work aloft.
We can view Gadd’s imagery as a repackaging of nature, as Scarpa recommended, but it also can be something else — anything else — without feeling arbitrary or facile, which is a testament to the artist’s emotional conviction and material sensitivity. However we approach them, these hulking, tough, fragile, partially destroyed, persistently regenerative works go a long way toward embodying this troubled, electrified moment.
In addition to writing the catalogue essay for Falconry, Jason Andrew, who is the manager/curator of the Elizabeth Murray Estate, has organized a revelatory exhibition of Murray’s sketchbook drawings in David & Schweitzer’s Project Room, which runs concurrently with both Gadd’s show and the stupendous display of Murray’s paintings at Pace in Chelsea.
Gadd is undoubtedly Murray’s spiritual heir, with a difference. Like Murray, his shaped surfaces bridge painting and sculpture, emphasizing the thingness of the artwork, but while her canvases are painstakingly constructed to reflect the buoyancy of her vision, his four-by-eight sheets of plywood are splintered into fragments, as if consumed by anxiety.
The paradox that Murray’s Wild Style forms depend on meticulous planning does not apply to her drawings, which enjoy the freedom of total improvisation. As a result, these raucous, effervescent, light-filled, paint-spattered, surprisingly solid colored pencil sketches seem to levitate off the wall.
The multicolored drips of paint maculating their surfaces attest to their character as working drawings — many are done on lined notebook paper — but they are not preparations for paintings; rather, they are one half of a biofeedback loop between painting and sketching, in which it is often impossible to know whether a drawing was done before, during, or after a related painting. Whatever their function, they are so fully realized that they can’t be considered as anything other than standalone works of art.
Take “Red Corner” (1995); yes, there is a hurried squiggle running down a vertical bar on the left border, indicating, perhaps, that its painted cousin should be a darker hue. But on the opposite side of the sketch, a silhouette of a chair is as crisp and solid as any form in her highly articulated paintings. Or “Study for ‘Education’” (1995), a blue pencil sketch full of de Chirico-esque forms that the artist shaded with a graphite pencil to pop them off the page, as if the composition were a sculptural relief.
Murray died ten years ago, a month shy of her 67th birthday. Her work remains not only vital, but singularly youthful in the most affirmative sense of the word. To look at her uncompromising, untamable images in such an elemental form is to reach into the sparkling essence of her creative engine, flying high.
Falconry continues at David & Schweitzer (56 Bogart Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through December 10.
Elizabeth Murray: Painting in the ’80s continues at Pace (510 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through January 13, 2018.
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