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Editor’s note: Today, we are publishing two reviews of Radiator Arts’s So Real exhibition. The other review by Brendan S. Carroll is titled “In the Digital Era, Old Media Still Packs a Knockout Punch.”
Radiator Arts continues to energize the Long Island City art community. Its mission of showcasing new and emerging artists and curators makes for a remarkably varied program from show to show, but the installations are always topical to a particular theme. Their new exhibit, curated by painter and writer Alan Lupiani, is a heady mix that will leave you ruminating about the state of the U.S. and the world at large. Titled So Real, a contraction of both social realism and Socialist Realism, the exhibit ponders the inherent paradoxes and unlikely commonalities of these two artistic realms.
Socialist Realism, a government-sanctioned promotion of “acceptable” artworks, was originally championed by the Soviet Union. It eventually took root in other countries and still has a presence in some post-Soviet and communist nations today. The pro-worker ideology of Socialist Realism shares many of the same contradictions as capitalist entrepreneuralism. Both claim to work toward the enrichment of the common man, but have often resulted in sharp imbalances of rich and poor, the powerful and disenfranchised.
If early in the 20th century American and European social realism provided formalist painting, sculpture, and photography with a much needed jolt into contemporaneity, an inversion of that formula has propelled much of the art of the past 50 years. With formalism playing a secondary role, a political or sociological narrative may be the initial point of departure at which any given medium (sometimes several at once) can find a foothold. Social realism in the 21st century need not take the term literally, in the sense of representational depictions; rather, artists working today can employ abstract and conceptual strategies to address the all-too-real socio-political realities of our existence.
The themes embodied in So Real aren’t just theoretical. The exhibiting artists are of varied national origin, often born somewhere, raised somewhere else, and witness to the stormy affairs of our global village, their sensibilities equipped with a healthy skepticism. All of the work here, even the pieces that aren’t overtly political, distrusts beauty for its own sake.
Ève K. Tremblay and John Gerrard are represented by photo-based images that owe something to the Bernd and Hilla Becher school of documentary photography. Gerrard, who works with the fascinating medium of 3D real-time computer graphics, has on view a video simulation of a school in Havana, Cuba. The work looks like a lightbox of a static image, but grows unsettling after spending a short time watching it. In fact, the image is constructed to span the 24 hours in a day, made from a composite of digital shots. Daylight turns to dusk, then nighttime. The sophisticated technology functions as an eerie surveyor of third world decrepitude.
Tremblay’s C-print photo, “Voir au loin,” could be an example of social unrealism. The artist places a young girl amidst the modern day technology of a hydroponic lettuce farm. The ambiguous depiction of an environmentally friendly “green” technology takes on a sci-fi quality; are we in the inner world of the girl’s psyche, or following an odd but compelling story about the ecosystem? Like Anna Gaskell’s fantastical images of girls enacting rites and rituals, Tremblay’s photo is equally lush, hyperreal, and mysterious.
Karlis Rekevics’ plaster sculpture, “Vanity,” looks to have been cast from the Brutalist architecture of Gerrard’s Cuban school building. Its big, blocky parts feel familiar as cement barricade, palisade foundation, or joist beam, but the structure isn’t recognizable as any known thing. Rekevics’s incorporation of industrial motifs often on the periphery of a construction project, reference Robert Smithson’s “non-sites” by making active the unfinished or incidental. The inspired use of lightbulbs on the underside of the sculpture give it a odd utilitarian glow not unlike the lighting of a darkened underpass or tunnel. Despite the title “Vanity,” the piece is bled dry of identity.
Jack Henry’s sculptural plinths have the torn surface of Parisian “affichistes’’ poster collage, and like those artists, he is interested in “art from the street.” Sculptors’ materials traditionally come from the earth — Henry’s work may be an indictment of the spoilage to our natural resources. He encases roadside detritus within columnar structures that are supported by armatures of gypsum cement. The found objects mingle with the acrylic-colored gypsum, creating a visual experience of excavation through the earth’s mantle. In a land of polluted chemical landfills, oil spills and unrecycled waste washing upon our ocean shores, Henry makes the monuments America deserves.
Kati Vilim’s oil paintings borrows the vernacular of Suprematism, a radical and utopian artistic movement that went belly-up with the arrival of Stalin’s sanctioned Socialist Realism. Her works are attractive; angular shapes scatter and overlap in a limited palette of red, white, and black. The compositions are designed with negative and positive interstices that overlap in transparent color combinations. The visual enjoyment is compounded by a gradual awareness that the shapes resemble familiar letterforms or logos. Innocent visual contemplation gives way to anxiety; a sort of corporate subliminal manipulation.
Christopher Saunders‘s large oil painting, “Far Nearer Tomorrow,” is comprised of flat, polychrome stripes of varying width and pitch that accentuate the flatness of the canvas and intone the purity of geometric abstraction. But these cordoned off bands alternately read as horizon line, and are modeled with the distinct trace of a dystopian landscape — possibly the glint of steel weaponry amid a military strike.
Pedro Barbeito’s canvases are in the shape of ellipses like the radar screens and topographic maps of global surveillance. A work like “Far Flung” has a dazzling array of visual activity, glimpsed through layers of acrylic. Flat, abraded squares painted pop colors read as raised land mesas or pixels; webs of colored line resemble electromagnetic waves or gradient mesh. There are posterized figures from cartoons or propaganda banners. In fact, in Barbeito’s paintings, the resemblance between the technology of video games and modern warfare, take on real world parallels. In fulfillment of the United States “permanent war on terror,” predator drones and cruise missiles can be launched by men behind consoles; just like gaming, but with real live casualties.
The artworks in So Real could be seen as a contingent of the OccupyArt Movement. Despite augurs of “hope and change” from our president, he has stocked his cabinet with some of the worst offenders from Wall Street. Many intellectuals, including Chris Hedges and Richard Wolff, have systematically laid bare the mechanisms of a corporate, capitalist United States. As these artists also do, they routinely uncover the disconnect between claims for the common good and the not-so benevolent results.
So Real continues at Radiator Arts (10-61 Jackson Ave, Long Island City) through April 20