|curator's statement||december 2011 selection|
t h e s w o r d o f d a m o c l e s
s e l e c t i o n s f r o m t h e f r a n k m o o r e a r c h i v e p r o j e c t
c u r a t o r : p a t r i c k w e b b
This Web Gallery represents a selection of paintings in The Sword of Damocles currently on exhibition at The Painting Center from November 29 through December 23, 2011.
I started thinking about organizing this exhibition a few years ago. As I entered into later middle age and began selecting work for my own retrospective I found myself reflecting on my years of painting. I wondered what connections I could make to other artists who have survived the HIV epidemic. AIDS has been a central thread through my work and through my experience as an adult. The questions addressed in this essay and the exhibition include: What changes have occurred in the work of artists who have survived with this life threatening illness for so long? And can I find patterns and similarities among our work?
Like many, I first witnessed, then lived the epidemic: it started as a rumor, it then struck friends of friends of friends, then friends of friends, then friends and finally my boyfriend of 14 years, Chris. He died in 1992. As far as I was concerned I was living on borrowed time. But like others, I was spared. My work continued and developed. Initially I could only paint the story of the epidemic -- life cut short with great suffering. Ultimately my paintings expanded to depict increasingly complex narratives -- worlds of identity, desire, and foreboding.
My exploration for this exhibition began in the offices of Visual AIDS, reviewing the Frank Moore Archive Project's pages of slides and digital images. I sought paintings that interested me visually and thematically by artists whose history of living through the epidemic paralleled my own. I was looking for artists who had been painting for 20 or more years, in hopes of contrasting past work with more recent paintings. Would I find themes and patterns that emerged in the development of these artists' works? It is always dangerous to speculate as to the catalyst for the development or obsessions of any artist. And theorizing or curating that attempts a too neat, direct correlation between an artist's work and their biography should be held suspect. However, I suggest that in all of the work selected here, there are both changes in subject matter and formal concerns that relate to our experience as long-term survivors and as painters living and working with HIV.
There is a tripartite interaction in paintings between space (void), shape (pattern), and form (volume). The dynamic of pictures emerges from the relationships within and between these elements. This idea can be found in treatises on pictorial structure from the Renaissance to the present. The painter Gretna Campbell spoke of space as the great metaphor in painting and ideas about space are central in Frank Stella's Norton Lectures. American painting of the late 20th and early 21st centuries emphasizes space and shape more than volume. Color is such a fundamental aspect to painting, particularly in the last 100 years, that an examination of it in the work is illuminating. With this in mind, the four ideas I explore with this essay and the selection of work are: (1) narrative and iconographic themes, (2) spatial changes, (3) palette shifts, and (4) how the language and quality of shape change in relation to the experiences of hopelessness and then hope. I chose examples of earlier and later works that coincide with our experiences of survival. The distinctions of "early" and "late" also limn 1996, marking the adoption of effective AIDS medications. As one artist stated, first he had to come to terms with dying and then he had to come to terms with living.
In most of the earlier works recognizable objects, figures, or symbols are present in the paintings. Laurence Young's, Jerry Lee Frost's and Pete Wyman's works present a pared-down symbolic representation. In his early work, painted in 1999 but related to his work of the early 1990s, Wyman paints the male figure in Danseur, transformed through geometry, with planar shards against heavy black slashes. There is an erotic charge tethered to something dark and forbidding. In Young's Mortal Thoughts, a single figure sits in silent contemplation, the palette subdued and restricted to black and two colors, the space shallow. Both share a dominant black palette with Martin Klug's gestural abstraction, Jonathan Leiter's crosses, Joseph Stabilito's skull, and Frank Holliday's graphic shapes. All push the space to the front. Frost's black cat is thrust forward as a loopy figure reaches out towards it in Anger Management -- is it a gesture of kindness or aggression? When juxtaposed with the iconography of death (skulls and crosses), black becomes a powerful signifier of loss and tragedy. In Stabilito's Prayer for My Father a skull floats on a dark black field, the excavated surface and delicate drawing implying decay and fragility. In Leiter's AbPoz paintings, ironically subtitled Double Happiness, Purity and Golden Opportunity, the severe minimalist simplification, with its implication of emotional reserve, is transformed by the plus sign or cross that becomes both a signifier of being positive but also a religious symbol of suffering and comfort -- loading the abstraction with iconographic meaning and significance. Holliday is equally adept at reframing modernist tropes in Skull and Bones with his use of the grid, as formed by the crosses, and Warhol's cool silkscreen print technique. In Holliday's painting the spaces pop forward and then back in counterpoint to the grid, opening and closing, revealing representations of mystery (luminosity), terror (Caravaggio) and death (skulls and bones). Other earlier paintings may not be black but darkness descends into the world of the still life in both Michael Golden's Infection and Michael J Lownie's Sleep. Both painters employ a personal iconography with, respectively, a blind man's cane and the wishbone/dowsing rod -- the former referring to AIDS-related blindness, a profound terror for an artist, and the latter conjuring both the decay of the body and the potential hope of divining a cure.
The other three artists' work de-emphasize iconography. Martin Klug's and Ricardo Morin's paintings are non-representational. These artists find purely plastic ways to create mood and meaning. In Klug's painting, Nocturne, the black paint gesture compresses the space, overwhelming the colorful and fleshy interstices -- Eros held at bay. In Morin's New York Series the color is keyed to a single hue in each panel but the shards of geometry violently bite down, collapsing the space into an experience of figure/ground ambiguity. While in Bradford Branch's elegiac still life of vase and fruit, Oranges and Glass Vase, there seems little iconographic meaning to the objects, the palette whispers a dirge of quiet sadness, the space is shallow, everything is in flux, transformation and inversion everywhere -- the ordinary made significant and sad. His aesthetic corrects the emotion but, like Braque, that correction makes, in contrast and in concert, for an even more intense experience of the elegy.
My own work, Lamentation of Punchinello/By Punchinello's Bed was painted in 1992 immediately following Chris's death. The artist-figure shifts from holding Punch to standing tensely in vigil by him -- Punch's phallic nose an erotic beacon, the survivor caught between grief, desire and terror. The paintings share many of the formal concerns of the other artists in the exhibition: the shallow space; the somber palette (except that nose); black is present both as a color and as a modulator; and the grid, either diagonally (Lamentation) or vertically (Bed), organizes the compositions. And like some of the other artists, autobiography is implicitly present in the narrative.
In the more recent work, (1999-2011), several of the artists shed representation and turn either to abstraction or the less iconographic experience of landscape. In Holliday's Out There the world of paint, surface, and light emerges in the action and smear of paint, introducing a proprioceptive life to the work. Elsewhere a new or expanded sense of paint or surface can be found, as in Stabalito's Blood Flowers, Young's landscapes New Equation and Thinly Veiled, and Wyman's Bayside. However, for this essay, it is the opening of pictorial space that I find significant. Landscape space emerges explicitly in Lownie's Daydream and Young's recent paintings, and implicitly in Stabilito's and Wyman's work. There is atmospheric space in Frost's My Casa, Morin's Scroll Silence Four and Holliday's Out There. Klug's Étude opens up into an implied landscape with its repeated horizons of sun yellow and sky blue stripes, a counterpoint to the rhythm of the grass green brushstroke grid. The American landscape tradition from which so much abstract painting emerges is a tradition born out of grandness -- adventure and limitless possibility are its hallmarks. So it is fitting that an opening of space occurs and a presence of nature emerges, as hope enters into our lives.
Leiter, Golden and Branch explore a different kind of space, formed through the overlap of shape. In his In The Bedroom series, Leiter takes a modernist trope, the collage, and transforms it into a witty play on sex and childhood -- wonderfully, polymorphically perverse dreams of our childhood. These are carefully composed images of narrative wit and subversion as well as formal balance and tension. There is toughness to their whimsical erotic play. Golden overlaps images of nature and abstraction in Blessing, presenting a personal iconography of meditation and hope. In Branch's painting Still Life With Orchids the intense color and rhythmically shaped objects and table joyfully dance -- lively minuets and mazurkas contrasting with the elegy of the early work. Iconography is retained in Lownie's Daydream, which presents the character "without interruption" held between two planes that open out into an arabesque of landscape space through which we move without interruption. In my recent painting House of Cards (2004-6) I still employ abstract forms to anchor the composition (this time the pyramid and grid); but the space opens up, the color warms, the shapes and rhythms become more organic, and the narrative is filled with possibility, however precarious. All of these works shed the grimness of the early 1990s. The palettes explode with variation and atmosphere. Spaces open. Play and possibility emerge as we begin to face our futures.
All the work of the artists in this exhibition changed over time. The question, I suppose, is whether these changes were a direct result of the experience of survival. I cannot imagine how the sadness and anger that was so central to the experience of both the epidemic at its most brutal and sero-conversion, followed by the surprise, hope, and even guilt of living, could not affect studio practice. There is the active metaphorical world of pictorial structure at play in all the work. In some of it the effect of so much death and then survival is obvious. In other paintings, the ambiguities of the endeavor make the change subtler but no less profound. We see in this exhibition similar metamorphoses: the spaces opening; the color range expanding; the shapes taking on an organic rhythm; Eros and nature becoming central; and the narratives and symbols leading to possibility and even hope.
b i o g r a p h y
Patrick Webb has been painting for almost 40 years and continues to love the problems of form and expression that painting offers. He use digital tools in recording, arranging, and considering his work it is in the mind made world -- the proprioceptive experience of smearing, spreading, layering and scraping of paint that he finds himself. Paintings since 1990, he has represented the experiences of a contemporary version of the Commedia dell'Arte figure Punchinello -- an American cousin to the famous Italian clown. Webb first came across Punchinello in the paintings and drawing of G.D. Tiepolo and was immediately attracted to him. His phallic red nose and white hat intrigued Webb. Punchinello is a character that is both individual and anonymous. He is repeatable and yet different. He is both ridiculous and heroic. He became an everygayman whose experiences Webb could explore in single and sequential canvasses. Webb's work has followed a trajectory that explores various aspects of being a long-term survivor. In 1992, he witnessed the death of his boyfriend of 14 years. Webb never imagined he would outlive him by almost 20 years. Webb believes he is fortunate to be alive, though at times feels poised on the edge of an abyss. The experience has shaped his sense of self and the development of his work. Webb sees Punchinello as an outsider whose adventures explore the uncanny experience of difference and otherness.