Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Zombie Formalism Dies (Again) and Neo-Abstract/Figuration is Resurrected

As of late I've been pleasantly surprised that galleries have pivoted away from Zombie Formalism and resurrected 1980s Neo-Expressionism in a more abstract manner. Think of a David Salle of today, which is exactly what Skarstedt Gallery had in mind with "Nice Weather," an exhibition ironically enough curated by Salle and featuring two of his works at both the Chelsea and Upper East Side locations. The exhibition title, "Nice Weather," is taken from a Frederick Seidel book of poetry. Seidel's somewhat dissonant poetry that questions the human condition and involves the poet's longing to leave this harsh reality and seek the ideal world recalls Mallarmé and a version of Dante's "Inferno" in reverse, moving from heaven to Earth.

The theme of "Nice Weather" can loosely be described as mostly two-dimensional art that bridges abstraction and figuration. In the 80s, when "painting was dead" Salle and a number of other artists, including Jean-Michel Basquiat and Eric Fischl, resurrected the figurative in oil painting from the chasm it was found in after Abstract Expressionism had reigned supreme. 
Amy Sillman, "Someone Else's Dream," oil on canvas, 2015, 75 x 66 inches
Courtesy of Cherise Klebanov

Amy Sillman is riding the art market current having exhibited in "The Forever Now" painting show at the MoMA (Dec 2014-April 2015), solo shows at Sikkema Jenkins Co. in Chelsea, a solo show at the Kunsthuas Bregenz, and featured in the "Nice Weather" group show at Skarstedt (Upper East Side and Chelsea). Her work certainly fits the abstract/figurative description. By titling her work "Someone Else's Dream" the viewer is forced to assign a certain narrative, despite how abstract it is, to the picture. A window comes to mind, perhaps gazing into someone's bedroom. The colors are loose and somewhat haphazardly applied, suggesting a sense of urgency. Contemporary painting is not clear or obvious as representative or illusionistic art dating from the Renaissance encouraged. Forging new narratives and looking at art for form versus content is a new challenge with 'semi' figurative painting. 

David Salle, "Hot People," oil, acrylic, charcoal, and archival digital print on linen, 2016,
60 x 80 inches
Courtesy of Cherise Klebanov
David Salle was, and at 63 years old, still is known for his highly layered, immersive images. What seems as dissonant as Mallarmé, his images come together as a dreamscape would. Piecing together the fragmented components, one could come up with a narrative about an imminent phone call, the desire to reach or be reached. Lichtenstein's "Waiting" comes to mind, where a female protagonist stares anxiously at a phone. In a less obvious way, Salle presents a similar tension to the viewer. The tension is so pronounced that Salle almost forces the viewer to eschew the content and focus on form, the bright, brash colors, and the collage-like quality to the work. 

Two of the more 'figurative' paintings from the work are expressionistic kisses, the sensation of romance and ardor, instead of the full-on display. 

Nicole Wittenberg, "Red Kiss," oil on canvas board, 2015, 12 x 16 inches
Courtesy of Cherise Klebanov

This small, intimate work has an Expressionistic quality that Munch would have appreciated. The spirit of romance is reduced to red splotches, white highlights, and heavy brown outlines. The woman is captive in the man's arms, left as a crimson mush of hair and skin that is meant for the man to devour. Munch's "Vampire" series has this same carnal feeling of amour. 
Nicole Wittenberg, "Yellow Kiss," oil on canvas board, 2015, 12 x 16 inches
Courtesy of Cherise Klebanov

The yellow version offers Nolde-like colors and a more clear reading of the kiss. Chiaroscuro, highlights, and more deliberate delineations of the body render two distinct figures. The man's profile is more articulated than his partner, who again, melts to sugar in his arms. 

"Nice Weather" runs from February 25-April 16 at both locations of Skarstedt. It was a delight to see how artists flirt with figurative abstraction. Moreover, it was a joy to see contemporary painters forge a new creative paths instead of rehash old concepts, i.e. Zombie Formalism. 

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