Terry Winters: Facts and Fictions at The Drawing Center

Above: Terry Winters, Untitled (Page), 2011, Graphite on paper, 11 x 8 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.

By Jonathan Goodman

Terry Winters, one of our very best abstract artists, quietly achieves a genuine difference in effect in his works on paper, beautifully on show now at The Drawing Center. It is quite difficult to characterize this bit of originality available in the works, which manage to be both geometric and organic at the same time. Perhaps it has to do with an organizing intellectual principle that shows up regularly in the the body of work. This has been remarked upon before; the design, then, of the images tends to read rationally even more than we see the pattern as an intuitive construction. Working like this, generally within the idiom of the New York School, makes Winters look analytically perceptive in a field that doesn’t always take such a point of view to heart. At the same time, this body of work brings up conceptual notions of pattern and organization that we don’t associate at all with the expressive abstraction that has come, more or less, to take over much of the recognized image-making available in New York. Indeed, it is best to understate the long arm of the New York School, which, tentacle-like, has established a domain that many may feel constrained by. This has nothing to do with the genuine achievements of the style, but its current ubiquity has a lot to say about the vagaries of the market, which everyone downplays but no one can afford to ignore.

But, even so, even if we acknowledge the unusually strong achievement by an artist like Winters–and we should do so–we also need to recognize the need for a new idiom, one that would neither supplant nor replace what we already have, but would rather add to the tightening conditions that have resulted from the obligation to promote sales and maintain the market. What the details of this new style might be seems impossible to imagine ahead of its time; one might argue for a hybrid recognition of figuration and abstract insight. But this is only a guess, and our chief focus here is the very good work of Winters, whose combinations of styles and patterned phenomena begin an argument for difference–even when we acknowledge his late stage of lyric abstraction. This kind of work, like all the abstraction we see today, has its origins in the consequences of modernism and its investigations into a language that would resist realism yet be visually stimulating within the innate paradigms of the genre: color, shape, line. Winters’ work is so very good it can be thoroughly enjoyed even though it is not committed, on a conscious level, to a visual idiom that repeats thinking in love with the past, nor does it demand social equity, the major focus of much art today.

The task facing the New York art community–artists, curators, gallerists, and viewers–is to engender a language that will not plummet in the face of already established visual vernaculars. The same is true in poetry–which offers a sorely needed expressiveness that is ignored because of its inability to generate assets that could yield profits greater than the high two figures! We are all more or less in a standstill in the arts, but that doesn’t mean imagery and language can’t continue to develop. Still, it is extremely hard to cut a path out of so deep, and so monetarily oriented, a forest. Some work making use of comic-book imagery, as happens in the art of Robert Williams, offers an alternative to the stranglehold of gestural abstraction, and it is also true that ambitious artists such as Nicole Eisenman and Dana Schutz are establishing a striking, if also highly idiosyncratic, style whose rawness rejects almost all historically established approaches in realism. In counterpoint, Winters clearly seems content to work out a point of view that is both intuitive and analytic, with a conceptual edge directing the overarching design he submits his individual elements to. It is the conceptual edge–a form of analytic intelligence–that saves Winters from the vapid repetition characterizing so much contemporary abstraction. It is clear he is smart, and it is clear that his intelligence saves him from a romantic emotionalism–now, sadly, keyed to the bank.

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Terry Winters, Untitled (Page), 2011, Graphite on paper, 11 x 8 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.

In one 2011 work, Untitled (Page), consisting of graphite on paper, the patterns are particularly evident. Looking overall like a flower, the image is composed of small diamond-shaped forms arranged in slightly curving rows. They elaborate an image of true elegance and vibrancy; the center of the bloom bulges slightly, giving the image its three-dimensional cast. This kind of drawing is deliberately arranged, so that its composition relates to systems theory as well as natural phenomena, like a beehive, that present an ordered facade. Images such as this one play with differing means of organization, both tight and free. In many of these drawings, Winters does lean toward imagistic cohesion resulting from an organized architecture. Usually, we think of lyric abstraction as something intended to be emotionally free–even liberating for a studious audience. But good art can also belong to rational procedure, which can stabilize emotion so that it does not turn wild. Perhaps we can build a point of view that serves as an opposition to the supposed liberation of feelings focused on alone. In this case, the imagery would be influenced by moderation and restraint–virtues that are suggested, if not overly weighted, in Winters’ art.

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Terry Winters, Schema (57), 1985–86. Graphite and watercolor on paper, 12 x 8 1/2 inches. Private collection.

But the argument for a rational outlook can only be taken so far. It is as much a wish as it is a perception; the extravagance of feeling often seen in art of the New York School cannot be evaded in the way Winters works. In one recent drawing, Schema 57 (1985-86), we see a dark sphere whose surface is covered with equally spaced, darker holes. Above it is a quincunx of sorts–five dots, each a different color, surround an outline of a circle. There is little overarching organization–merely a suite of dots just above a rough ball of an image. We are hesitant to openly determine meaning in this case, or in the rest of works on paper. Visual abstraction, fervent or muted, cannot have its message unpacked like a symbolist poem. It exists on its own terms, without a visible social reality accompanying it. Critics can try to socialize the conditions of formalism, but it looks like this movement is best considered on its own terms, rather than being politically contextualized.

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Terry Winters, Untitled (2), 1999, Gouache on paper, 44 1/4 x 30 1/2 inches. Private collection.

The last image to be discussed in this review is Untitled (2) (1999), a stack of four horizontally oriented lozenges, outlined and partially filled with thin lines that are drawn on a monotone ground. It is a fine, resolutely nonabstract image–one that asserts the primacy of esthetic independence. Maybe Winters’ autonomy underlies the strength of his art; he is not easily joined to other artists’ styles. The best art both reflects and transcends the Zeitgeist, and perhaps this is the case with regard to the work we see here. To summarize, Winters is important to contemporary art, but his competence–indeed, his excellence–also indicates how stuck we have become in the protracted pursuit of a style that, like all styles, is constrained by a limited trajectory. If this point has been repeated a bit too often, it is because the need to move on is reflected in the history of the New York School–Sean Scully’s merger of abstract expressionism and minimalism is a good example of a painter’s refusal to walk the same terrain. So it can be done. Winters looks original still, but within a history we know exceedingly well. We may have had too long a romance with newness for its own sake, but this is the demand we currently place on the imagination. Winters’ very fine show demonstrates the real need to make use of a language that not only looks backward but ahead.

View Terry Winters: Facts and Fictions at The Drawing Center through August 12, 2018.

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Jonathan Goodman is an art writer based in New York. For more than thirty years he has written about contemporary art for such publications as Art in America, Sculpture, and fronterad (an Internet publication based in Madrid). His special interests have been the new art of Mainland China and sculpture. He currently teaches contemporary art writing and thesis essay writing at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

 

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John Torreano: Dark Matters Without Time at Lesley Heller Gallery

Above: John Torreano: Dark Matters Without Time (installation view, Lesley Heller Gallery, New York, 2018). © John Torreano courtesy Lesley Heller Gallery.

By Jonathan Goodman

Now in his late seventies, painter and sculptor John Torreano has been well known as an artist for half a century. He is recognized particularly for his inclusion of acrylic gemstones in his art. His studios are set up in New York and Abu Dhabi, where he has been teaching in the last few years. In this show at Lesley Heller Gallery, Torreano is exhibiting both paintings and wall reliefs; he remains an unrepentant abstractionist, someone whose art connects with the well-established history of the New York School. His synthetic gemstones, though, add a bit of decorative play to his nonobjective language; because of their artificial character, the gems provide Torreano’s efforts with a partially ersatz character that undercuts the high romance of the abstraction. This is likely a good thing, late in the second decade of the twenty-first century, as we seem to have tired of the idea of noble motives alone. But, whatever the intentions behind the paintings and wall reliefs, we see that Torreano is not only a craftsperson of note, he is also an esthetician of considerable ambition. His works stand out both as examples of skill and as efforts meant to communicate a paramount belief in beauty. Perhaps his experience in the Middle East is leading him further in the direction of beauty; the long horizontal wooden panel painting, titled Sea Sky Gold (2018), feels like it owes its exquisite colors–dark blue and gold–to a geography we do not find here in New York.

JohnTorreano_SeaSkyGold_2018_300dpi (1)John Torreano, “Sea Sky Gold,” 2018. Acrylic paint and gold leaf on plywood 45 x 180 inches. © John Torreano courtesy Lesley Heller Gallery.

Sea Sky Gold is the major work of this excellent show. Its dimensions are more than considerable: 45 by 180 inches. The work consists of four panels of deep blue, with numerous oval gouges, clumped in groups and covered with gold. Its appearance begins with a surface of decorative flair, but then moves beyond that to a place of elegance and artistry (not that decoration always excludes such qualities!). Torreano appears to have learned something about the inherent attractiveness of well-appointed color–an insight evident throughout the exhibition. The danger exists that this painting, a genuine tour de force, would end up overwhelming the show, but this doesn’t happen; instead, it serves as an anchor for a body of works that cumulatively appeal to the audience. For example, DM’s & Hot Stars (2015), a large painting in a small space at the front of the gallery, works its effects seamlessly within an allover compositional field. The squared painting, consisting of four large panels, exists in a matrix of organically shaped contours–mostly tan and blue, with a bit of black. Although the work’s title skews it toward science, it very much exists within the established language of abstract expressionism. It can be easily argued that we have been revisiting this movement too often and too long, but, as still happens regularly in New York, Torreano’s painting establishes itself without bowing excessively to the past.

JohnTorreano_DarkMattersWithoutTime_2018_InstallView04_300dpiJohn Torreano: Dark Matters Without Time (installation view, Lesley Heller Gallery, New York, 2018). © John Torreano courtesy Lesley Heller Gallery.

The column wall sculptures–thin sticks of color studded with mock jewels–look at first like objects of deliberate desire (they range in dates from 2014 to 2017). And so they are, up to a point! These four works, arranged on a side wall, descend slightly in size from left to right. The acrylic gemstones stud all of them, adding to the surfaces’ sculptural intricacy and presenting an alluring, albeit entirely synthetic, exterior. They do enact a singular attractiveness, but that doesn’t really matter–what counts is the artist’s willingness to undercut the abstraction with an imagery that clearly is counterfeit. This is likely an attempt to remain resistant to the pull of something overly attractive. Even as the show refers to high culture, there is a healthy disregard for its imagistic excesses, driven as they are by ego here. But, at the same time, for the more seasoned among us, the use of such fakery causes some anxiety–at what point does the falsehood take over and make barren the eminent history that precedes it? This is a question for philosophers and art historians more than it is a query for the general public, composed as it is of artists and, usually, connected viewers who want the simple chance to enjoy what they see. Torreano’s art does this wonderfully well, providing admirers with the chance to lose themselves within a language both established and new. And his slight disregard for the fulsomeness of New York’s painterly past is a welcome reminder of its historical limitations.

View John Torreano: Dark Matters Without Time at Lesley Heller Gallery through Sunday, April 8, 2018.

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Jonathan Goodman is an art writer based in New York. For more than thirty years he has written about contemporary art for such publications as Art in America, Sculpture, and fronterad (an Internet publication based in Madrid). His special interests have been the new art of Mainland China and sculpture. He currently teaches contemporary art writing and thesis essay writing at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

Louise Bourgeois’ Legacy: Four Living Women Rocking Surrealism

Above: Installation View, “Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait” At MoMA. Image © Artifactoid. 

I love artwork by Louise Bourgeois. Her recent show at the MoMA was beautiful and you can see her sculptures in the permanent collection  at Dia: Beacon. Up to and following her death in 2010, her dark, sensuous surrealism (consciously or not) continues to influence a new generation of artists. While not always as heavy nor activist as Bourgeois in their subject matter, these artists each reference certain elements of her style in original ways. Here are four that are remarkable.

1. Rita Ponce de Leon (80m2 Livia Benavides)

Rita Ponce de Leon, image from the drawings on paper series, “Nuestros, Nosotros,” 2015. 25 x 25 cm each. Image © Rita Ponce de Leon courtesy 80m2 Livia Benavides.

Rita Ponce de Leon‘s  (b. Lima, 1982) work comprises surreal drawings and sculptures that gain power from their delicate intimacy. She works with pen on ink, clay, and Papier-mâché among other media. Last year I saw her beautiful installation at Proyecto AMIL in Lima that showcased many of her techniques, including heated sculptures to hold in your hands and drawings directly on the wall that scaled from floor to ceiling in the ample exhibition salon. Ponce de Leon is represented by Galeria 80m2 Livia Benavides based in Lima, Peru.

2. Geng Xue (Klein Sun Gallery)

Geng Xue, “Oceans Roar,” 2016. Porcelain and sound installation. 39 3/8 x 13 3/4 x 7 7/8 in. Image © Geng Xue, courtesy Klein Sun Gallery.

Geng Xue‘s (b. China, 1983) visceral ceramics captivate the imagination and bring us closer to our humanness. Attuned to sensory experience, Geng Xue often incorporates elements such as sound into the works, as in the above pictured piece, “Oceans Roar.” Geng Xue also creates animations that bring the pieces to life.

3. C.J. Chueca (Y Gallery)

Ceramic,  9 1/4 × 3 1/2 × 2 in, 23.5 × 8.9 × 5.1 cm, Unique. Image © C.J. Chueca and Artsy.

C.J. Chueca (b. Lima, 1977) grew up moving nomadically between Perú and México, where she frequently came into contact with homeless people, nursing home residents, and psychiatric patients. According to a 2016 exhibition essay on her work authored by critic Eleanor Heartney, these experiences “stoked a deep sympathy for the dispossessed” in Chueca. Chueca’s porcelain wall reliefs are portraits of homeless men and women from her memory, modeled after assemblages of found objects.

4. Jasmine Little (Johannes Vogt Gallery)

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Installation view, “Hoodoos,” at Johannes Vogt Gallery. Image © Johannes Vogt Gallery.

Jasmine Little (b. Virginia, 1984) is a technically gifted surrealist painter and sculptor whose works draw from emotion, memory and nostalgia rather than physicality. While most often related to Chagall or Matisse, there is something about the visual style and sensitivity of the pieces that recalls Bourgeois for me. Little is currently having a solo show, Hoodoos, at Johannes Vogt Gallery on the Lower East Side through April 28th, 2018.

A Heavy Rhetoric: Leon Golub at the Met Breuer

Above: Leon Golub. “Bite Your Tongue,” 2001. Acrylic on linen, 87 x 153 in 221 x 388 cm. © The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

By Jonathan Goodman

Leon Golub’s show at the Met Breuer shows him to be an allegorical artist working by way of polemics,  although he cannot be faulted for cynical, self-aggrandizing intentions. Formally, his work is problematic. It is often muddy and unclear. This lack of clarity holds sway over the subject matter as well–it is not clear what unhappy situation Golub is referring to, although, generally speaking, we know the paintings are about torture and murder in Latin America, as well as racial contestations in South Africa. But we know these things from outside information; they are not available in the paintings themselves; this historical vagueness exists in contrast to the great political painting, whose outrage can always be dated to a specific event. Witness Goya’s The Third of May 1808, which documents Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s army during the Peninsular War. A similar particularity is not found in Golub’s art.

I am not trying to undermine Golub’s intentions, which are entirely honorable. Instead, I am criticizing the American penchant for casual political internationalism at a time when so much here in the States is so very wrong. The well-known and well-regarded poet Carolyn Forché traveled to El Salvador to document the political suffering there in the 1980s. Many see this as a noble attempt at social empathy, but I wish to counter that opinion by suggesting there is something unreal about the writer’s decision to concentrate on political events outside her culture. It is clear that Forché’s motives are of the highest kind, and it is also true that artists and intellectuals have often shown international solidarity with causes not directly affecting them–witness the extraordinary example of the British-born, American-based classicist Bernard Knox, who fought in both the Spanish Civil War and the Second War. But, even if we recognize the intensity of moral purpose in Forche’s poetry and Golub’s paintings, the implications of their supposedly empathic response to suffering so far away from them cannot survive in full trust.

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Leon Golub. “Mr. Amok,” 1994. Ink and gouache on paper, 8 × 6 in. (20.3 × 15.2 cm). © The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Why is this so? First, it is clear that other cultures are much better than American culture in addressing political suffering. Think of Pablo Neruda, from Chile, or Cesar Vallejo, from Peru. These artists managed to produce writing whose political effect is authentic. But, in America, while poetry readings given in opposition to the Vietnam War were certainly earnest, I cannot remember a single poem whose art rose to the level of work by the Spanish-speaking writers I mentioned. As for Golub–it goes without saying that his sympathies were genuine. But it is also true that his paintings of mercenaries don’t ring as being entirely believable. The paintings cannot be fully trusted–as good as they are!–because our manner of life here is both comfortable and socially autonomous, making it impossible to free ourselves from the trappings of privilege. Gigantomachy  II (1966), a huge painting facing the elevators of the Met Breuer, continues our penchant for an imagined connectedness with trouble, on a mythic level. The word “gigantomachy” refers to the battle between the giants and Olympian gods in Greek mythology, and Golub portrays the conflict in epic style. Two groups of figures, all of them naked, fill the dark-brown background. Painted as if their skin had been flayed from their body, the combatants grip and lunge and push each other in some obscure conflict, a close-to-mad attempt to establish dominance.

01. Leon Golub. Gigantomachy II, 1966

Leon Golub. “Gigantomachy II,” 1966. Acrylic on linen, 9 ft. 11 1/2 in. x 24 ft. 10 1/2 in. (303.5 x 758.2 cm). © The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

It is clear that Golub has painted an arresting, if murky, tale of violence by men toward other men–a theme he returns to again and again. Man’s inhumanity to man is regularly lamented, but we won’t break free of the wish to overpower our opponents. Gigantomachy II owes its power to our recognition of the conflict, but its mythic origins lie at the center of the painting.  In the later works, based on actual history and places, Golub loses mythic power but gains in realism. Almost always, Golub’s audience must read the wall plaques to gain a sense of the situation being referred to. In the painting Two Black Women and a White Man (1986), two black women sit on a bench against a yellow wall. They are old and poor; both wear hats, and the woman on the left holds a cane. On the right, a vigorous white male, in his forties, looks away from the women; his gaze goes beyond the confines of the painting. He is wearing a red, short-sleeved shirt and khaki pants; as a male figure at the top of his game, he is young and powerful and seemingly indifferent to anyone’s complaint, the black women next to him included.

Leon Golub. “Two Black Women and a White Man,” 1986. Acrylic on linen, 120 x 163 inches. © The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

The man’s overt lack of feeling is both a report and a judgment. He doesn’t give exact details, so we assume it is a work reporting on conditions where segregation, or at least profound prejudice, exists–perhaps South Africa. One might argue that not knowing the painting’s circumstances helps the artist convey the general banality of evil, but the fact remains that our inability to pinpoint the situation is disturbing enough to result in a false first step in interpreting the composition. The elements of the painting seem to be at cross purposes with each other; none of the three figures interacts with the other two. There is an implicit loss of faith from the start. Whatever the particulars of this composition may be, it is clear that the main atmosphere in which the three figures are engulfed is just shy of overt hostility.

It may be that the best art contains a realism based on experience and a more imaginative view of that experience. But what if the violence is indescribable in its extent and quality? Maybe Golub is leaning toward the allegorical because a truthful report would be so troubling as to do away with its esthetic potential. The aggression in Golub’s paintings is usually indirect–although also truthful enough in its report for his viewers to be able to imagine the aggression clearly. It is true enough that art cannot match real life, but it can embellish–and deepen–our understanding of things.

11. Leon Golub. Head. 1988.jpgLeon Golub. “Head,” 1988. Acrylic on canvas, 21 1/2 × 19 1/2 in. (54.6 × 49.5 cm). © The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Golub was also interested in depicting inequalities of power in gender relations. The painting discussed implies but does not directly address gender inequalities. In Horsing Around IV (1983)–the “Horsing Around” series is based on photos of mercenaries from Africa and Central America (Golub often worked from photos)–shows a white man, with a hideous face, grinning, holding a bottle of liquor, and pulling at the white blouse of a black prostitute with short, straightened hair. The woman’s dark-brown dress ends above her thighs, and she is laughing as well, although her seeming happiness is clearly being paid for.

The prostitute sits on a bar stool, her breast revealed. Golub is making an open connection between political and sexual violence. As takes place in most of Golub’s paintings, the violence is implied rather than actual. In general, this show reveals Golub’s disgust with the behavioral excesses of power, both public and private. He is telling us that the mercenaries are more than dead souls; they are active perpetrators of malevolence. But the problem of generalization in his art remains. Violence is never generic but always specific–a particular person is doing something to a particular person. If the details are left out, the visual narrative becomes allegorical and symbolic.  Despite Golub’s claim on our sympathy, true empathy is not achieved. These works portray images meant to introduce sympathy in a nearly stereotyped manner; Golub reports more than empathizes.

But reportage, a journalistic rather than an imaginative endeavor, usually results in intellectual insight rather than empathic identification. This is the problem facing all of us who have had the good luck to evade the kinds of tragedies Golub paints. It may be that good fortune, in the form of material comfort, gets in the way of our ability to sympathize with the poor and the disenfranchised. In the last painting discussed, Contemplating Pre-Columbian (no date), we see a full skeleton drawn in red chalk. The figure is in a sitting position, bent over, and with its arms bent at the elbows but also rising upward. Beneath the skeleton is a pre-Columbian skull, with a full set of teeth. The image is distraught, though there is no way of telling so. Perhaps Golub is acknowledging his own frailties: advancing age and death.

10. Leon Golub. Contemplating Pre-Columbian.jpgLeon Golub. “Contemplating Pre-Columbian,” ca. 2000. Oil stick and acrylic on tracing paper, 10 × 8 in. (25.4 × 20.3 cm). © The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Golub feels like a major artist, but a narrow one. He is uncommonly brave to direct so much attention to worldwide injustice, as well as paying attention to the long historical ascendancy of the male gender. But even so, criticism of his political vagueness seems justified in light of our need to know who did what to whom. His paintings are sometime too generalized. Golun evoked a feeling we don’t come across much in American art–a commitment to the portrayal of injustice on an international level. If Golub’s global politics prevents him from a precise demonstration of evil, it also provides him with the space to amplify the point that, these days, morality is heavily damaged everywhere. We now find acceptable, everywhere, what was once condemned. Golub even looks at the politics of gender relations, moving from the public to the private sphere. His outrage may be slightly too generic to be absolutely convincing, but his emphasis on the consequences of violence–physical, emotional, and mental–makes him an artist of high merit.

View Leon Golub: Raw Nerve on view at the Met Breuer through May 27, 2018.

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Jonathan Goodman is an art writer based in New York. For more than thirty years he has written about contemporary art for such publications as Art in America, Sculpture, and fronterad (an Internet publication based in Madrid). His special interests have been the new art of Mainland China and sculpture. He currently teaches contemporary art writing and thesis essay writing at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

Culture Fix: Lower East Side Galleries

In need of your NYC culture fix this week? Check out this cluster of great galleries located on Broome Street between Chrystie and Bowery. Here’s a preview of three shows to see now:

1._P!: OST UND oder WEST: Klaus Wittkugel and Anton Stankowski 

Catch the current show at P! curated by Prem Krishnamurthy and Cay Sophie Rabinowitz, on view through February 21st, 2016. This show explores the forms and ideologies of Modernist graphic design as it presents the work of Klaus Wittkugel (East Germany) and Anton Stankowski (West Germany), contrasting the production of image and meaning within competing social and economic systems.

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2.   CANADA: Katherine Bradford: Fear of Waves

Don’t miss this magical series of acrylic paintings by Katherine Bradford at the acclaimed CANADA gallery. Fear of Waves features dreamlike imagery of water and swimmers, created with painting techniques whose results take the artist months and sometimes years to achieve. Bradford’s work has been featured at P.S.1 and The Brooklyn Museum among other institutions and in 2011 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her work is in the collections of the MET, The Brooklyn Museum and the Portland Museum of Art. See this show through February 14th, 2016.

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3.   Nicelle Beauchene Gallery: Jonathan Baldock: The Skin I Live In

The Skin I Live In is London-based artist Jonathan Baldock’s first New York solo show. For this series of unique sculptures and wall pieces, Baldock employs an unusual mix of media to explore and engage with the physical and conceptual conditions of the human body. The work is on view until February 7th, 2016.

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Interview with Theresa Byrnes, Painter and Performance Artist

Australian-born and New York-based Painter and Performance Artist Theresa Byrnes talks with Artifactoid about inspiration, a return to her roots as a painter, and her most recent performance, “Mudbird,” created in collaboration with her 20-month-old son. 

Artifactoid: How did you get started as an artist?

TB: At age 16 in 1985, my studio was the family lounge and dining area. I would start to paint every night after dinner while everyone watched TV.  By the time everyone went off to bed one by one, I would get more and more on a roll. I would paint through the night. Soon I outgrew the family room, no longer able to pack all my canvases neatly every night without disrupting my process or running the risk of wet work being trodden on when the the family awoke. I scoured the classifieds to find a studio. I found part of a warehouse to rent cheaply, so I did. 29 years ago, at age 17 in 1986, I began to paint full-time in my very own studio!

I had already been included in minor group shows from 14 years of age and on. While in high school I did life drawing classes at night, and some of my drawings were selected for a group show. I went out on a limb and contacted a curator who included my work in a rotating VIP lounge, and my work began to sell. My first solo exhibition was at 17, but I consider being an artist about making art more than about exhibiting or selling it.

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Mistakes in painting are like an angel pushed your hand, changing your direction to somewhere you never would have gone

Artifactoid: Who are your biggest influences in performance art and why? Who inspires you?

TB: I did my first performance when I was 19 in 1989 in Sydney Australia’s Chinatown. The piece, titled “China Crisis,” was my response to the Tiananmen Square Massacre. My entrance into doing performance art was not inspired by an artist, but by heroic dissent. The cry out for freedom and justice inspires me. In “China Crisis,” I laid in front of a large red painting. For me, performance is a natural spill-over from painting: paint is my language, I just commit my body to performance. “TRACE” (2007) was inspired by a dying bird in an oil spill. In “DUST TO DUST” (2011), dirt was my inspiration – the transformative power of mulch.

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In 2002, I met Carolee Schneemann; we read each other’s books (mine The Divine Mistake, her’s More Than Meat Joy). I learned a lot about her work, and felt connected to her even more once I learned that she is also a painter whose performance flows from that.

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Artifactoid: What are some of your biggest day-to-day influences as an artist?

TB: Stains on the sidewalks, streaks with random marks on windows – I made a short  film about sidewalk markings titled, CARELESS in 2000. Tunde Adebimpe (TV on the Radio) helped me shoot and edit it (he is now my son’s godfather). It was screened at MONA (Detroit) in 2001.

Old, decaying wood also inspires me, I have done several painting series on aged wood 2001 and 2010. When I paint on aging wood, I feel like I am collaborating with nature, not trying to capture it.

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Artifactoid: How has your perspective as an artist changed over time?

TB: That nothing is permanent. Earlier in my career, well, pre-September 11th, I cared greatly about paintings lasting forever. Now I feel “archival” materials are pitched to artists who believe this civilization will survive another 500-1000 years. I am into showing who we are now, because now is real: all we have, vulnerable, avoided, denied, unnoticed. Art materials are everywhere; they’re not limited to an art store. I love to work with mud and hair and other ingredients as well as ink and oil paint.

Artifactoid: What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned through your art?

TB: That nothing is a mistake. Mistakes in painting are like an angel pushed your hand, changing your direction to somewhere you never would have gone. In my entire 30-year career, painting still genuinely astounds me – the unguessable moment it resolves.

Artifactoid: What is the best advice you’ve ever received in your career?

TB: Be humble.

Artifactoid: In what direction would you like to take your art moving forward?

TB: I am at a turning point. I am returning to my roots as a painter, where I first discovered my talent and lost my identity/sense of separation from art in the process: painting portraits. For the next two years, I will only paint portraits. Abstraction and performance art lent to my feeling immortal, but now, I am a mother and I feel human, more grounded and more vulnerable than ever. I am pulled to dive in in this direction.

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Artifactoid: What advice would you give to other artists?

TB: Know when to stop. As long as you are making art, “you’ve made it.”

Artifactoid: Please describe your inspiration behind “Mudbird,” and some of the most important things about the piece (to you).

TB: “Mudbird” is the second performance I have done with my son, Sparrow, (now 20 months old). In “Mudbird” I play with my baby in the mud thinking of the cycle of all beings – to live and die. We come from the earth and end up in it. Mud; earth, is a uniting and dividing force between mother and child. I gave my life for his to begin. Okay, I am not dead yet, but a part of me has died – my life as a single artist.

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At the time of performance, I felt a sense of my immanent death. I have Friedrich’s Ataxia (FA). It is a chronic and fatal genetic disorder of the nervous system. I have been wheelchair-mobile for 20 years. My voice slurring, mundane things slowly getting harder, and recently I tore my right rotator cuff. I have never felt disabled, as I have always fulfilled my aims and called the shots, but post-birth and with injury, I felt unusualły hopeless. Sure I cannot walk, but now I can’t fly; wings clipped. Much of the “Mudbird” series is about my burial and Sparrow’s flight. It has been a burial of several parts of myself. And now I again recreate myself, or return to who I am.

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Theresa Byrnes has had over 25 solo shows at spaces including Saatchi & Saatchi in New York and Sydney, and the Australian Embassy in Washington D.C. In 1996, she was awarded Young Australian of the Year. To keep up with Theresa and her latest works, visit her website and follow her on Instagram, Twitter and FacebookStop by her gallery space, TBG (616 East 9th street between Avenues B&C), for her next opening on December 9th, 2015 . 

Santiago Villanueva, Y Gallery

I first met Artist Santiago Villanueva in 2010 in Buenos Aires. We were inside of the University of Buenos Aires social sciences campus, called “Marcelo T. de Alvear,” spending the day hijacking social and political student protest posters that would later be utilized in another artist’s exhibition in Scotland. That university campus is known as the most activist campus in the city.

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At that time I was very wide-eyed and excited, witnessing first-hand this incredibly palpable activist energy in Buenos Aires. I was noticing the strong sociopolitical commentary both in the city’s daily life, as well as in art and expression in Argentina in general. It was coming from students and citizens of all walks of life, as well as from the top contemporary artists in the country.

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I’m thrilled to share that Villanueva, one of the influential contemporary artists I had the privilege of spending time with there, is currently exhibiting at NYC’s Y Gallery on the lower east side with a show titled “First Impressions.” The exhibition comprises a series of recent works that reflect his continuing revision of Argentinian history and art history.

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“First Impressions” combines a mid-19th century Argentinian visual tradition called the “disorderly table,” or, “mesa revuelta” (imagine it as a messy still life), with the results of Villanueva’s past two years of research about Argentinian art history. For the project, Villanueva worked with a variety of media including papers, threads, letters, documents and images selected from both the mass media and the works of specific artists. The result is a personal map or atlas of Argentinian art history that both changes the usual visual expectations of a still life, and provides a unique, non-linear methodology for the understanding of art history that breaks from traditional pedagogic approaches.

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This exhibition marks another success in Villanueva’s exciting career. In recent years he has received a consistent stream of honors from prestigious organizations, including scholarships at the Center for Artistic Research (Centro de Investigaciones Artísticas – CIA) and the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (Fundación Cisneros Fontanals – CIFO), as well as appearances in museums and institutions including the General Argentine Consulate in New York, the Museum of Modern Art of Buenos Aires (MAMBA), and the Museum of Latin American Contemporary Art (MACLA).

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Stop by Y Gallery (319 Grand St.) to see “First Impressions,” open through November 15th, 2015.