The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

All Issues
MAR 2014 Issue


On View
Cue Foundation
January 30 – March 8, 2014
New York

“Look at any inspired painting,” Philip Guston said. “It’s like a gong sounding; it puts you in a state of reverberation.” One can almost hear Alfredo Gisholt’s latest series, Canto General, pulsating with this same aftershock of rhythmic duress. In these canvases, scribbles, zips, and coarse gestural passages, often painted wet into wet, populate both large and small-scale compositions in a frenzy of energy and intent. Abstracted marks are offset by repeated figurative motifs—animal skulls, mechanical detritus, and rotting debris—vanitas symbols bloated and swollen by the loaded history that delimits their boundaries. Pablo Neruda’s like-titled book of poetry marks the departure point for this affecting solo exhibition, and indeed, the works read as poignantly as Neruda’s 1950 revisionist history of Latin America. The difference is that Gisholt’s narrative mines the contemporary American predicament as its source material, with the works’ feverish landscapes transposing man’s tenuous dominion over the natural world.

Alfredo Gisholt, “America Insurrecta,” 2013. Oil on canvas, 72 × 84˝. Courtesy CUE Foundation.

Gisholt’s paintings effortlessly conflate recognizable but abstracted imagery of urbanized environs with the distancing structure of purely abstract forms. In “América Insurrecta” (2013), caricatures of palm trees are grouped as a triptych along the painting’s right edge, their flaking bark a deadened alabaster white. A disfigured lamb, intended as a reference to the paintings of the Agnus Dei, rests on the sand below their non-existent shade. Mounds of boulder-like shapes and curved ellipses stack atop the tragic figure, where abstract chevron motifs and casually zigzagging lines conspire to flatten the painting’s representational presence. A half dozen or so cartoonishly rendered trees dot the landscape above, where at the work’s horizon, they morph into acetylene clouds pinned against the artificial glow of a gaseous yellow sky.

Along similar lines, “Los Libertadores” (2013), another of Gisholt’s large-format works, elicits the feeling of Miami ablaze. Derelict buildings in slate grey and black comingle with the skeletal remains of skyscrapers, the now familiar lamb sadly reclined in the work’s foreground. An analogous triad of trees stands stubbornly along the right side of the composition—heralds of the reckoning, spiritual or otherwise, that has just transpired. Accents of bubble gum pink and verdant green offset the post-apocalyptic disorder with short strokes of prickly black lines—undeniably reminiscent of Guston—that activate the amorphic forms. All are exposed to the acrid air, which again, reads as a noxious mix of toxicity and fume. Who exactly are “the liberated” we are left to wonder: those who escape the aftermath in death or those who survive, their only presence alluded to through absence?

Guston’s is not the only ghost of Modernism that haunts Gisholt’s canvases. Born in Mexico City and educated there and in the U.S., Gisholt studied under the tutelage of abstract painter John Walker, known for his textural juxtapositions of three and two-dimensional form. Gisholt’s pictorial vocabulary consistently pays homage to him and other Western art historical giants, most notably Goya and Picasso, whom the artist holds in reverential esteem. As opposed to a heroic vision of paradise lost, all crumbling ruins, however, Gisholt gives us accretive piles of overproduction. Like Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937), the body count continues to grow, only here torn limbs and corporeal fragments are exchanged for the junkyards of capitalist production.

“Vegetaciones” features Gisholt’s signature pile of biomorphic abstraction and organic matter in a hulking wash of grey, black, and that same verdant green. At the top of the mountainous form a human figure is splayed out, his/her limbs broken in a jumble of 90-degree angles. S/he is in agony, but whether distraught at the carnage s/he has enacted or the victim of it, we cannot tell. Similar scenes appear in the vibrantly colored “Algunas bestias” and “Los rios acuden” (both 2013), where skulls and machine parts intermingle amidst the wreckage, the scorched and tumbling shapes taking on more and more sinister connotation as one progresses into the gallery space. In this manner, Gisholt’s work aligns with the concerns of other contemporary painters, such as the dystopic narratives of Dana Schutz and the gestural sweep of Amy Sillman, where figuration and ground fight for aesthetic supremacy.

Four small paintings, all “Untitled” from 2014, contain the only sign of hopefulness in the exhibition. Gisholt’s stacked forms are still present but here shades of orchid and soft turquoise replace their precursors’ burnt out greys; even the overall shapes of the structures merge with rather than fight their surrounding environments. Here I could not help but recall the words of Friedrich Schlegel, wherein writing on the subject of Romantic irony he states:

There are unavoidable situations and relationships that one can tolerate only by transforming them by some courageous act of will and seeing them as pure poetry. It follows that poetry, or the creation of distinct images, is the condition for all experience: a poem is only a product of nature which wants to become a work of art.

In Gisholt’s canvases the poem, this product of nature, does become the work of art, the condition of our experience translated into fixed and stable form. By simultaneously embracing the specificity of place and “non-place,” his landscapes reveal the binary charge of our modern existence, where globalization has all but leveled the output of our creations to a baseline of ubiquitous simulacra. Such is the 21st century’s ironic cross to bear. But fear not, Gisholt seems to say, for once the painting has consumed us, it too will be reclaimed by nature, that inevitable end to which we all ultimately succumb. 

137 W. 25th St., Chelsea.


Kara L. Rooney

Kara Rooney is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and critic working in performance, sculptures and new media installation. She is a Managing Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail and faculty member at School of Visual Arts, where she teaches Art History and Aesthetics.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

All Issues