It is probably appropriate that the first time I heard of Josh Abelow was through his website, Artblog Artblog. It is more of a stream of consciousness image and info dump than a proper “blog” — there isn’t much writing to speak of. What makes the blog interesting to this day is that it has become a kind of grassroots marketing platform for painters and artists. A visit to the site reveals a constantly updated slew of installation views, upcoming exhibitions, and images of the young and up-and-coming interspersed with whatever seems to catch the artist’s eye or imagination. This kind of live stream visual scrapbook has come to represent the sort of all-inclusive, the more the merrier sensibility that I associate with Abelow.
It is his ability to accept things for what they are without the impulse to romanticize that underlines the success of his most recent exhibition, Abelow on Delancey, on view now at James Fuentes Gallery. Were the opening not jam packed with artists and other art types it would still have seemed crowded. Returning to the exhibition the next day, the walls were thronged with stick figure likenesses. This is not the first time the artist has opted to paint sarcastic, impish “self portraits.” His first show at the gallery, Oh Abelow, was dotted with them, but featured a large number of small scale serial abstractions as well.
These gridded, bright, saturated canvases superimposed triangles and rectangles of color against one another. Absent of visible brush strokes, the finished effect is something like a screen print, with color bleeds, imperfections and other accidental features defining the moment of artistic creation. Each of these abstractions (made on burlap stretched over canvas) seems to fit into an established system of ready made geometric abstractions. The resulting works are in many ways mesmerizing, and have a substantial visual weight to them. They seem to declare their own beauty with a minimal amount of effort, like a model wearing a baggy sweatshirt and shrugging her way into a room. They are good because they just feel that way. Josh once explained to me that he used to paint intuitively but that it became too exhausting.
Rather than interrupting his grids of abstraction with the occasional wry “portrait” as he did in Oh Abelow, his abstractions have become subsumed by the image of the artist. Every work on display seems dominated by little Abelows. They dance against triangles and chevrons of abstract color, or shimmer against gray tonal backgrounds. One gets the sense that a tribe of errant doodles pulled themselves off a page, stormed an exhibition of abstraction and, finding their new residency quite appealing, decided to squat. The classic image of the artist with an immense paint brush and easel gives way to an image of the artist as a performer, equipped with large glove like hands, shoes and a top hat and giant penis.
The image of the artist with a capital A has been bandied about Abelow’s pictures before. While it has taken several shapes, in this exhibition Artist seems to have congealed into a uniform image, a sort of offline avatar. The room smells of vandalism and of spoof but the result is not alienating. There is definitely a joke being made, but walking into the space I feel as if I’m in on it and I smile. The exhibition’s title, the artist’s name and phrases like “blog me” “blog blog” and “mr. internet” float across the surface of the various drawings and painting on view. Like the images that smirk-dance across the walls of Abelow on Delancey, these phrases embody and parody the artist as social net-worker. If the internet has disembodied our social experience, perhaps the artist’s ego can be easily communicated in a kitschy three word quote, easily tweeted. In a recent Brooklyn Rail interview with Jason Stopa, Abelow explains:
“A lot of the things I end up pushing forward in my work make me kind of cringe. Like inside I’m thinking, “Oh my God, this is the worst possible thing to do.” And then of course I think, “Oh I have to do it and I have to do a lot of it.” So when I did that “BLOG ME” painting it was really interesting because as soon as I put it on the Internet, it got re-blogged 250 times or something like that.”
In the dozen or so so drawings on display at the gallery we see a slightly more idiosyncratic, personalized version of the artist. In what seems to be a reference to artist sketchbooks and surrealist drawing, the artist scrawls oblong, self-referential figures; also pictured are Satan, a duck, and several sassy women. While the results vary, what remains the same is the sense that the lowercase-a artist is allowing himself some room to join the conversation. His playful cartoons feel like mash-ups of classic master drawings. If you closed one eye and hopped on one foot you might almost mistake one of these for a Matisse. The result is a show of work that engages with abstraction and the history of painting in a way that is light, highly comical oddly fulfilling. We are reminded that a high five or a knock-knock joke can be just as important as a sunrise, that great art can be critical of itself and substantive at the same time.
Abelow on Delancey is on view at James Fuentes Gallery (55 Delancey Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through November 10th.
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