Sex Wax is a special wax used to coat the surfboard in order to provide traction for the surfer’s feet. Upon entering Sex Wax, Nicholas Cueva’s show at Freight + Volume on the Lower East Side, you find a border of sex wax smeared on the front window. Most of his works are acrylic paintings on rough-textured fabric, some of them large, all made in the past two years. “Gender Equality” (2018) depicts two surfers walking into the ocean; “Sous les paves, la plage!” (an illusion to the slogan of the French revolutionaries of 1968 — ‘under the pavement, the beach’); and “Head Injury,” showing what can happen when surfing goes wrong. The show also includes the paintings “Law of Five” (2019), on a frame shaped like a surfboard and “Endless Entertainment” (2019), on a long, narrow strip of fabric stretched along the wall. There is also an actual wetsuit suspended overhead, arms extended, as if riding the crest of a wave.
A related show, now closed, is Rafael Colon’s Masterpieces & Masterworks. The Art of Skateboards at Art on A Gallery in the East Village, which featured a roomful of finely detailed images of well known artworks painted on skateboards. They included George Braque’s “The Woman with Guitar” (2019), El Greco’s “The Disrobing of Christ” (2018 ), a detail from Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” (2018 ), Gustav Klimt’s “Judith and the Head of Holofernes” (2018 ), as well as pictures by Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas and Georges Seurat (all 2019). Just as the snow shovel in Marcel Duchamp’s “In Advance of a Broken Arm” (1915) could be used in winter, so installing wheels on these boards would turn them into visually luxurious skateboards. Colon’s exhibition title was slightly puzzling. Why does he distinguish between masterpieces and masterworks? Perhaps he is suggesting that he creates masterworks by appropriating these visual masterpieces.
What art critic doesn’t enjoy the pleasures of reviewing shows in our grander art galleries? Some of them, indeed, rival the major museums in the breadth and sophistication of their displays, and the lavishness of their catalogues. But sometimes, also, there is something special to be learned from visiting the smaller galleries, which display younger artists who as yet have not established their place in the contemporary canon. For this reason it is worth making your way across the East Village and the Lower East Side, where you can find exhibitions offering real critical challenges.
In two recent books, Wild Art (2013) and Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (2018) Joachim Pissarro and I have been concerned with tracing the boundaries of the art world. What is the dividing line, we ask, between artworks found in galleries or museums and the wild art — graffiti, tattoos, and the like — which is outside of the art world? The art in these two exhibitions provide a perfect test for our analysis.
Pictures of surfing are not a regular feature of contemporary art galleries, at least of those not located near a beach resort. Like any number of other activities, football and tennis for example, surfing is not a recognized art world subject. Nor are recognized art world paintings normally done on skate boards. But it’s easy to cite many precedents for both Cueva’s and Colon’s works. Just as landscape painters in the 17th century and genre painters like Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin in the 18th century proved that banal still life objects could be perfectly good subjects, so Cueva, through his visually and materially inventive works, demonstrates that surfing is an activity deserving to be depicted.
Surfers, like the rest of us, enjoy the pleasures of success and the disappointments or even dangers of failure; they fall in love and might even, like the French in 1968, may harbor political ambitions. It is possible to imagine that, like landscapes or genre scenes, images of surfers can deal with almost the whole range of human experience. As for Colon, his image appropriations and shaped canvases also find many precedents. Think of how much discussion has been devoted to Robert Rauschenberg’s and Andy Warhol’s use of silkscreened images; to the Pictures Generation’s concerns with appropriations; and (most notably by Michael Fried and Thierry de Duve, along with a whole host of other critics) to the shaped canvas and the readymade.
Cueva and Colon thus both extend entrenched traditions, in suggestive, original ways. In saying this I am not claiming (or denying) that their art is as important as these sources; rather, I am considering how they respond to precedents. Cueva attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, while Rafael Colon is self-taught. But I don’t believe that this difference is important here, for nowadays a gifted young artist anywhere can learn how to employ the history that I am sketching.
Determining that an object is an artwork doesn’t decide its artistic value. That requires an aesthetic judgment. Because Cueva’s and Colon’s artworks are very different, moving from one exhibition to the other requires an adjustment of your critical criteria. Cueva depicts unfamiliar subjects, extending the resources of figurative painting. Colon, as I understand him, is doing a variation on appropriation art. In an important way, then, these two exhibitions support our general thesis: there is no interesting, non-trivial distinction in kind between art world art and wild art; as these artists suggest, any artifact whatsoever can, in fact, enter the art world.
Needless to say, this argument does not tell us how to judge the value of individual works. But what’s demanded of the practicing art writer is not a general definition of art, but rather a grasp of the sources of individual works. How fascinating that these two shows, which offer such alternative responses to art history, were found just a few blocks apart, an occurrence that prompts thoughts of the realms contained within an encyclopedic collection like that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where electric guitars and campy fashion can be found just a few steps away from Japanese scrolls and Northern Renaissance painting (to name just a few of the current exhibitions). If what would once never have found its way into an art museum can now share the stage with the canon, then it can be understood how much wildness is already a part of our thinking, and how much better off we are for it.
Nicholas Cueva: Sex Wax continues at Freight + Volume (97 Allen Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through tomorrow, May 19.
Rafael Colon: Masterpieces & Masterworks. The Art of Skateboards ran from April 4 to May 2. 2019 at Art on A Gallery (24 Avenue A, Lower East Side, Manhattan).