I recently went to see the work of Regina Bogat at Art 101 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. As documented in an interview with Hyperallergic’s Jillian Steinhauer earlier this month, the artist has been hanging around the NYC art establishment since the 1950s. It was in that star studded, often mythologized milieu of smokey bar rooms and artists that she met her husband, the now famed painter Al Jensen. While her husband’s color-grid paintings propelled them into the Who’s Who of the art stratosphere, her own work remained largely ignored. It seems Bogat has enjoyed an exhibition a decade since the 1970s. Like many of her contemporaries, her exhibition at art 101 marks a slight resurgence in interest in that generation of old school “lifer” artists and painters who have spent the last 60 years stoking their pot belly stoves with logs and painting with single-minded stubbornness.
The paintings I encountered in Art 101’s charmingly homey Williamsburg gallery have an immediate presence. They communicate freely and brightly. The main challenge for me was to step beyond the history. Frankly, I don’t care that Regina Bogat knew Mark Rothko, that she was married to Al Jensen, or that she was passed over by a misogynistic artworld establishment. All I care about are the paintings. At the risk of sounding overly simple, I don’t want to think about the artist in terms of her context or to think about words like “abstract expressionism.” That term was overused to the point of meaninglessness at least 10 years before I was born anyway.
The paintings on display represent a semi-recent body of work centered on the star, seven-, eight- and ten-sided. The artist has explained in the past that these geometric forms represent various historical and mystical associations. They function as sort of handcrafted mandalas or emblems. Furthermore, they resolve an immediate compositional problem. The question is no longer what to paint but how to paint. While each canvas becomes a sort of self-proclaimed mantra or a spiritual shield, it is important to not ignore their resonance with the contemporary. Each star is an easily recognizable skeleton begging for the fleshy company of paint. To look at these paintings is to hear a conversation where meaning does not come from the structure of each sentence but from the carefully chosen cadence of the dialect. While there is a wise charm to this approach, it is best to remember the kind of cool painting we might associate with this method.
While Bogat is not painting targets, flags or Andre the Giant, there is a sort of sly branding to her repetitive use of shape. It is this street-smart negation of commitment to form that makes the artist feel particularly relevant. Indeed, it’s inspiring to see an artist of mature age who has avoided the pitfalls of one particular fad. Expectations are dangerous, but I was relieved to find Bogat’s paintings whimsical and full of playful smiles. While her repetitive use of the star hovers somewhere between the commercial recognition–driven focus of our day and the shamanic symbolism of yesteryear, each surface has a grime, grit and tenacity that made me happy. The scrummy, whitewashed surface of “Ogdoadic 2” (nd) adds a particular potency to the brushy bodies and playfully rounded edges of Bogat’s nine stars. The hazy surface, beset with compost-pile green undertones, suggests a watery archeological sight or a hazy photograph documenting a late-night geometry dance party.
At immediate glance, there is a danger of glossing over this group of paintings as simply “decorative.” I actually know some young punks who would, in this day and age, find that statement a sort of twisted, unwitting compliment. These are paintings executed with little conceptualization beyond a cursory mapping of each geometric form. What follows is a reaction to surface and material. The result strikes an odd balance between hot spirituality and cool aloofness. These paintings hang in the balance between obvious painterly grit and a sort of decorative smirk that — though perhaps not wholly intentional — reads with wit and charm in an age full of overly didactic conceptual art, on the one hand, and an almost insatiable desire for shiny lobby paintings on the other.
Regina Bogat: Stars is on view at Art 101 (101 Grand Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn) through July 1.