On ViewSargent’s Daughters
February 11 – March 15, 2015
Convenience demands that a 65 year-old American artist with more than 30 years of exhibition history, bolstered by one of the longest-operating contemporary galleries in the world, would overpower (in visual and literal modes) a 36 year-old German academic and painter who has never shown in New York before (with San Francisco being his only other American host city). With great surprise and pleasure, convenience has been denied at a double exhibition featuring Ross Bleckner and Volker Eichelmann at the Sargent’s Daughters gallery in the Lower East Side. Two painters, both of whom enjoy the presence of color and the near-absence of concrete form, are put together in a breathable space (thankfully not painted in a harsh, fluorescent white but a softer, more neutral off-white). One artist, however, seems to have stolen the proverbial show.
Volker Eichelmann is a Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at Kingston University, London, and was formerly a Lecturer in Fine Art at Newcastle University (UK). At Frieze London this past October, Eichelmann curated a selection of classical objects and artworks, where vases, blankets, cabinets, and objets d’art acted as plinths supporting contemporary works (the sponsoring gallery’s name alone—Ancient & Modern—is apropos). Eichelmann’s tenured interest in the seamless dynamic observed between the “ancient” and the “modern” are manifest in his paintings here. The writings of two celebrated British eccentrics, William Thomas Beckford and Stephen Tennant, resemble the garden-variety “Internet meme,” written out in a series of elegant fonts (which Eichelmann has, quite masterfully, matched with their respective backdrops). As Klimt resurrected the dazzle of Byzantium, as Twombly yearned for Ancient Rome, so does Eichelmann reach for the frilly world of the English dandy: what is old is new, what is new eventually reappears as “shabby chic” or “vintage.” The hypnotic appeal of Eichelmann’s paintings can be attributed to their direct reaches into literary musings and impressionistic applications of color as their backdrop; two well-established, canonical movements in aesthetics (free-verse poetry and Impressionist painting) congeal in a kind of pastoral haze. The glimmering patchwork of blush reds, icy blues, and meadow-toned greens show traces of drips down the paper surfaces (almost mimicking watercolor), but they do not endanger the compositional integrity of each work, as a whole. Inevitably, Eichelmann teases at the kind of beauty that Post-modernism wishes it could recapture. It is nostalgic, the kind of work that a 30-something could discuss with his or her parents, agree on its beauty, and both would be satisfied in recognizing its present-day cool.
Ross Bleckner is entrenched within the ranks of contemporary art’s established artists, having produced solo exhibitions with Mary Boone Gallery since 1979 (and remaining, to date, on the roster). He has also shown internationally at venues including the Hamburger Bahnhof, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, and the Andy Warhol Museum. His first group show at MoMA was held in 1979, when he was 30 years old. Bleckner is no worse for the wear, and yet, something is missing. Bleckner’s paintings are executed, unquestionably, with a nourished understanding of form, line, balance, and structure. The markings are brisk, wistful, reminiscent of Chagall or early Turner. Each canvas neatly contains abstract renderings of flowers, bacteria-like strains (as if observed under a microscope), or color fields barely hiding the numerals “18” within. There is minimal bleed off the edges of the canvases, often none whatsoever. They are gentle, vibrant reinterpretations of organic matter (in Hebrew the number “18” is the homophone for the word “chai,” meaning “life”).
Such a seasoned veteran might overwhelm the relatively unknown Eichelmann. But somehow, Bleckner’s 18” by 18” paintings don’t have the kind of arresting, witty lyricism of Eichelmann’s works. Eichelmann’s paintings don’t just offer a new combination of visual stimuli, they overpower Bleckner’s works with a higher degree of visual activity and a more solidified point of origin for extended conversation. Conversely, the horizontal lines of Bleckner’s canvases run into and over one another throughout the gallery. This is not to say that Bleckner’s technique has suffered, or that he no longer excels at the kind of painting he has produced for more than three decades. His “hook,” though, is not as effective as Eichelmann’s. In a digital age, words are sometimes just as (if not more) seductive than imagery, alone. Bleckner’s images appear stable and tranquil against the restless charge of Eichelmann’s reappropriated poems, exploding with variant color.
This double exhibition is not so much a “master and apprentice” show as it is a “mano-a-mano” matchup. Bleckner’s intimidating, time-honored painter’s painter is ably met, at times surpassed, by Eichelmann’s exuberant, insatiably curious historian. Even more intriguing, however, than how the works appear next to each other is what they might say to one another. If each respective body of work had mouths, Bleckner’s might say, “the circle of life starts and ends here,” whereas Eichelmann’s would reply “collect me, I'm pretty ... and witty … and gay.”