For many, but certainly not all, the breakthrough moment in the history of mid-20th century painting is when Jackson Pollock began working on the floor and using sticks to guide paint onto unsized canvas. In many narratives, Pollock’s actions mark the beginning of paint being paint and all-over composition; among other things, he got rid of imagery and his use of mythical symbols and figures.
Since the late 1940s, critics of different persuasions and ideologies have packaged Pollock’s breakthrough into a story about painting moving forward toward its own demise. And yet, even as Pollock was eliminating mythology in his work, younger artists born in the 1920s were finding ways to make it fresh. One of those artists was Cy Twombly, who recognized that all kinds of love and longing existed in Classical literature, not just heterosexual encounters. I don’t think that Twombly’s contribution in this can be underestimated; he paved the way for a generation of younger artists to re-envision Classical literature and mythology.
June Leaf, who was born a year later than Twombly, is another artist who helped pave the way for a generation of younger artists, including Kiki Smith and Daisy Youngblood, but is seldom recognized for it. Is it because the use of mythology suggests an interest in narrative, and Pollock rendered storytelling obsolete once and for all? Those who champion this position fail to recognize that it suppresses untold tales, alternative stories, and challenges to orthodoxy.
Anyone interested in artists who rejected convention, especially when it came to the whitewashing of myths, should stop by the group show Mythologies at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects.
Although the press release states that are 12 artists are in the exhibition, there are actually 13: Rosemarie Beck, Sandro Chia, Susanna Coffey, Angela Dufresne, Lester Johnson, June Leaf, Malcolm Morley, Jan Muller, Stuart Shils, Clintel Steed, Kyle Staver, Stanley Rosen, and Bob Thompson.
Two sculptures are by June Leaf. One, on a base made of wood, is a figure made of pieces of metal (an armored skin) killing a serpent with a spear. A metal post rises up from the center of the base, holding aloft a wire circle that can spin. Wire is coiled around the post’s base. The snake, the wheel and the coiled wire feel connected, though it is not immediately apparent how. This is one of Leaf’s longtime strengths: the logic of her work is arrived at through the making rather than imposed at the outset.
In “Pussy Control” (2018), Dufresne depicts a seated figure with pendulous breasts, large, Hobbit-like ears and a beard; two figures stand behind this one. I have no idea what’s going on, and frankly I don’t care. Given the works of hers I have seen over the past few years — performances on film, paintings and drawings — I think someone should give her a big show. She is an artist I always want to see more of.
A wild, interesting piece of embroidered fabric by Rosemarie Beck shows three women musicians in the foreground, two angels in the sky directly above them, and figure in the mid-ground, wedged between the woman on the right and the painting’s right edge. While I am familiar with Beck’s paintings, this was the first time I had seen one of her embroideries. (According to the gallery owner, Beck has made a substantial number of embroidered pieces.)
There is a five-panel painting, “Faust” (undated), in a heavy black frame by Jan Müller, another artist born in the 1920s who explored myths in his expressionist paintings and was an influence on a number of artists, including Bob Thompson. Right next to the Müller is a large drawing by Thompson, “Study for Last Painting, after Titian’s Venus and Adonis” (1966), which is in London’s National Gallery. Instead of clutching a spear, as he does in the painting, Thompson has him holding aloft what look like three baseball bats. He also has the figure of Adonis wearing a broad brimmed hat, one of his favorite motifs. It was Dodie Müller, a painter and Jan’s widow, who suggested to Thompson that he study the Old Masters, which he did.
Thompson was 21 when he arrived in Provincetown, Massachusetts from Kentucky, six months after Muller had died. Lester Johnson was another painter who spent time in Provincetown. The three heavily outlined women in his “Dancers” (1966) are most likely the three graces.
In “Ascension” (2018), Kyle Staver depicts a haloed nude rising into the sky, attended to by cherubs. The placement of the woman’s arms is apt to recall images of Jesus blessing his believers. Known for her moonlit domains, “Ascension” can also be seen as documenting the artist’s move into a different kind of light.
I recently reviewed Susanna’s Coffey’s works. Her painting, “Demophon” (1989), is from a group of works she did in response to “The Homeric Hymn to Demeter,” which is about a mother’s search for her kidnapped daughter, Persephone. Coffey considers this myth to be about the “criminal behavior of patriarchs.”
The figure in Clintel Steed’s “When Dreams Happen” (2016) seems to have been inspired by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Max Beckmann, who in turn were stirred by African masks. Like Thompson, Steed has immersed himself in classical art. Both artists are African American, and both are storytellers in their work. However, the stories they are interested in are neither conventional nor hackneyed.
The artists in Mythologies are committed to revising myths as well as re-inhabiting the figures. This is what I think connects much of the exhibition’s work. Rather than seeing myths as artifacts from the past, they have updated them in revelatory ways.
Mythologies continues at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Manhattan) through July 28.