February 15–March 31, 2007
Am I getting old? Have the dirty words of my college years—like “cultural appropriation”—become so outdated that a white artist can cover his paintings with totem pole faces, announce that he is borrowing their power, and be celebrated for it?
Don’t answer that.
Since the ’80s, Philip Taaffe, currently showing at Gagosian Uptown, has been experimenting with borrowed imagery. Early pieces copied Barnett Newman or Ellsworth Kelly paintings almost in toto, with the addition of a rope motif collaged onto the canvas. That Taaffe has always declared his affinity for color field painters like Newman and Rothko is odd to me; every decade seems to have added another layer of business to his canvases. One painting at Gagosian has watery purple and red strokes over a butter yellow ground under crescent moon shapes, all overlaid with a grid made of Buddhist-looking flame circles. Another canvas, Dryadic Figures, has an ombre background shading from blue to green, with floating asterisks, Stonehenge-like shapes, and leaves of grass growing out of the bottom edge. The asymmetrical grid or mesh laid over most of the canvases is usually either a motif borrowed from another culture—Mayan, Islamic, whatever—or else some taxonomy of leaves, shells, even knives. Taaffe has said that “the cumulative effect of continuous applications of line and color” is to create “some kind of actively structured field…an entrance to a trance-like state.” The intent is a combo of Op and Joseph Campbell, an almost mystical belief in the power of pattern.
So what’s my problem with it, apart from my liberal arts programming? An image taken wholesale from one’s own culture—a Ballantine’s Ale can—when fetishized as art, brings with it levels of irony and deconstruction that seem appropriate to something that began life as a commodity. I would say precisely the same thing holds true for the face of Marilyn Monroe. But a mask or tattoo borrowed from some vaguely South Pacific culture is a theft bordering on a joke. It brings to mind Milan Kundera’s definition of kitsch as the unquestioning and sentimental celebration of the world as it is. This is the symbolic universe as a delightful pupu platter from which Taaffe can whimsically snack.
None of this would matter as much if the paintings were better, but they are too busy and at the same time wan, their translucent or marbleized layers squashed down by the relentless enmeshing of the canvas. In the past Taaffe has been at his best, as in Necromancer, from 1991, when keeping his surfaces simple and his symbols open and, if not sui generis, at least hard to place. On the other hand a crowded painting of police targets from 1983, Martyr Group, exemplifies the bombast of the decade without much beauty, and sets Taaffe’s agenda squarely on the path that has led him here: an appropriated symbol meant to carry the painting on its own strength, repeated often. It’s too easy, and, at the same time, his overelaboration of his surfaces diminishes any imagistic tautness the works might borrow. In the end painting is not “about” the symbols it depicts, but about painting.
Out of (This) Time — Brief Notes from “Astrodoubt and the Quarantine Chronicles”By Luca Buvoli
SEPT 2021 | Critics Page
I had just returned to New York from a month traveling in India, where I had enjoyed rediscovering, among other things, the power of narration in visual arts (in the carvings in Hindu temples, in miniature paintings, etc.) and of a mythology and conception of time outside the Newtonian one. This was a couple of weeks before Covid-19 arrived in the US and I was working on one of the 180 ideas/projects that comprise Space Doubt, a work conceived as a ten-year expedition started thanks to a collaboration that I developed with NASA scientists and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C., exploring an idea enabling me to find the courage to use some dark humor about my aggressive and advanced cancer of a few years agoluckily and hopefully curedand cancer in general.
Marilyn Lerner: Walking Backward Running Forward—AgainBy David Rhodes
MAY 2021 | ArtSeen
Typically, all of Lerners paintings are mapped out on paper first, beginning with pencil drawing and then gouache color; these works on paper are rough approximations of the paintings that followthey are never in any case studies to replicate in the traditional sense, though they are necessary for the anticipation of the custom-made wooden panel supports.
Philip Guston Now—A Personal MeditationBy Phong Bui
MAY 2023 | ArtSeen
It is good to remind ourselves that for every demigod, tyrant, or dictator, their most fierce adversaries are the free thinkers, artists, writers, poets, and other creatives. We should also be reminded that painting, being the oldest form of human expression, long before the invention of language, has held an unusual and sustaining power to reflect directly or indirectly our perpetual struggles among ourselves while providing healing agencies through the artists inner impulses, guided by their ideals of truth that are opened to constant self-corrections without fear from others.
Rube G.—The Consequence of ActionBy Hallie Chametzky
APRIL 2023 | Dance
Jody Oberfelder’s peppy, participatory dance inspired by Rube Goldberg Machines takes an optimistic view of human cause and effect.