Focus on Abstraction: Dana Oldfather, Tony Watkins, Mark Keffer, Margarita Benitez and Markus Vogl at The Galleries of CSU
Soon after the end of the Second World War, Abstract Expressionism blew a hole in art history. The cultural effect was comparable to the Manhattan Project. Abstract Expressionism (AE) effectively transformed Western art, replacing the tattered late-modern remains of aesthetic intention and technique with guiding principles derived in part from psychoanalysis and Freud’s theories of the unconscious. Accidental marks, the con trails of dreams, the impact of sheer gestures – these were the new subjects in the early 1950s, in-your-face revelations more organically dynamic than any pictorial art that had preceded it. AE was uniquely grounded in the facts of paint and physiology – or so it claimed, and even the claim embodied a revolutionary ambition, filled with intellectual and sexual energies.
We’re still feeling the shock waves; it really hasn’t been that long, and it’s still news to many a young, aspiring artist. As far as that goes, some of the painters who began their careers in the 1950’s are still alive and working. The questions and insights of AE are still fresh, like wounds below fresh scar tissue.
One of those artist/survivors/revolutionaries is Tony Watkins. Watkins has been making what he terms surreal expressionist paintings since his days in New York, more than half a century ago. Gaining recognition for his unquestionably remarkable work has been an uphill struggle since his relocation to Cleveland, yet even at this late date it’s hard not to feel that great success could be waiting for him right around the corner. Many of his paintings included in the show “Abstraction” on view through December 9 at the Galleries of CSU are executed on rough, often irregularly cut industrial materials like particle board. Others are essentially works on paper, masterly essays in paint and collage displayed more formally, behind glass in wooden frames. Most are from the past ten years, because Watkins went through a time when he destroyed much of his oeuvre, including some very large paintings. All the same, despite these limits, it’s clear from the works on view that Watkins is a major talent.
Watkins’ portion of the show “Focus on Abstraction,” which consists of four smaller solo exhibits at Playhouse Square in the Galleries of CSU, was curated by his longtime friend Elmer Buford. In terms of the gallery’s floor plan and also its didactic intent, Watkins’ fifteen paintings (titled for this show “The Trees of Kinsman”) are the heart of the overall exhibit. The explosive, complex autobiographical content and impact of Watkins’ fluent expressive techniques feels like a slap in the face. In his catalog essay Robert Thurmer correctly calls this artist’s approach “the most traditional form of abstraction” on view. Yet as the CSU Gallery Director and Curator also points out, Watkins’ paintings somehow express “the authority of deep knowledge and direct experience.” They feel fresh and utterly of the moment, yet convey true gravitas, a sureness of touch and balance as well as a sense of historical presence and complexity. “Kinsman Tree”, for instance, is a matter of black paint splashed and scored on some kind of panel. Collaged elements pasted on the right bring rocky earth tones and shattered geometric shapes to the composition; it’s about three feet square. But how to convey the complex, life-like feeling woven into these impoverished elements? The peaked black splatter that dominates the piece is scored with linear strokes, and isn’t so much like a puddle, but like a skein of black yarn, or the strings of a burnt harp, plucked by fire and turned to ash, the half snow-covered aftermath of a winter battle. So many thoughts and fears are tangled and combed through the black. Kinsman Tree could be the mingled tracks of an army, the cords of fate of a thousand dead men, or lost causes of peace, baled in a cold wind. Other works here have the look of single letters in an unknown alphabet, or the outlines of revelatory movements – the gist of hidden dimensions. One untitled painting, rich in Watkins’ special vocabulary of organic, upside down or sideways drips and celestial spatters, consists of a large red puzzle-figure – a little like a capital “P”, or a dancing chair, superimposed on an explosive black and white patchwork of paint and the half-healed bandaging of collage. The hard-edged crimson shape, which could be a continuous stroke made with a paint roller or broad putty knife, is imbued (as are much earlier related works by AE artists such as Mark Tobey and Franz Kline) with sculptural authority. Beyond that, it echoes with a mystical resonance that reaches back toward the invocative power of ancient ritual forms.
The other artists in Focus on Abstraction find their own paths, recapturing the grain of emotional experience as it coats and soaks through the contours of a life. Dana Oldfather is a mid-career Cleveland-based painter of great energy and talent, following the trajectory of her own ever-evolving abstract manner. It’s exciting to see her at work here, in the latest phase of her explorations. Her twenty mixed paint media works at CSU’s gallery are subtitled Candyland. These new compositions have a brightly colored newness that kind of justifies the phrase, but if some of the freshness and naïve (in a good way) wonder of childhood is captured in Oldfather’s work, there’s more to these images than that. Maybe there’s more to candy than that, considering that it’s our culture’s standard trope for temptation and betrayal of innocence. A painting like the roughly four by three foot “Day Game” looks at first like a mad jumble of half-shapes and humid colors – mainly green and a bruised-looking deep purple. The scene could be a battle between contemporary design commonplaces, an unusually active abstraction where nothing stays still for long One swoop leads to another, strange colors hum behind the eye, lines interlace like maps from a futuristic montage.
Oldfather’s paintings have been like that for a few years now, becoming stranger and more accomplished with every trial. But the present works are actually different. The longer you look at them the more you see. “Day Game,” I soon realized, is a view of a plowed field and the outline of a mountain, seen through a car window. Parts of the scene are abstracted, but taken as a whole this is a landscape, much as Richard Diebenkorn’s transitional abstractions of the 1950s were landscapes. Day Game, like that Bay Area painter’s work, is a specifically American landscape, defined by a type of light, and of speed, and by the gear-like meshing/stripping of mechanical and natural things, all rendered in the present tense of our shared visual realities. That, then, must be the Candyland Oldfather means – our weird, creative but deadly corn syrup-soaked native land. Her truly thrilling paintings visit, taste, interiors and exteriors, front yards and back yards, in ways that we’ve never tasted them before; inside-out, upside-down, fast and slow, with and without relish. Surely they are among her best expressions to date.
Then there’s the outer-inner realm that Mark Keffer depicts, in a series of large and small paintings in the large rear gallery. Keffer, who has been a frequent exhibitor on the Northern Ohio scene since the early 1990s, calls his part of the exhibition “Dark Pronoun,” writing in the show’s catalog, “I create paintings from what I think of as symbols of the unknowable, with the intention of setting up arenas of introspection.” His works here are executed on carefully carpentered pieces of panel, running from laptop size all the way to Cinemax, or nearly so. Each has its own shape, like a display of computer tablets from elsewhere in time and space. All have rounded corners and a non-Euclidean look. Many consist of design elements that might be circuitry or molecular diagrams, or unfamiliar digital notation, floating on a dark-hued ground which can evoke the vastness of night skies. These meticulously wrought abstractions are objects of real, if almost alien, beauty. Their sculpted outlines have a suggestive, if elusive, functionality – as if, like jewelry or high-end devices, they were made for a particular place and purpose. Some are pierced by elliptical lacunae, as if they grew around a particular space, or were built to surround one. Maybe, one thinks, viewed in another dimension or with instructions they could be readily grasped – say, as portraits of emotion, or the contours of a psychic body. Following Watkin’s earthy complexity and emotional fire, the interstellar, intracellular pathways essayed in Keffer’s twenty paintings seem like a cold shower of math and alienation. References to pop music culture, specifically Captain Beefheart and Bob Dylan, do help to bring works like “Don’t Be Yourself,” “We Don’t Exist” and the mammoth (at least ten foot square) “No Me” earthward, and explain the title “Dark Pronoun” a little further. Two small identical framed drawings named “Double Dylan” and executed in blood on paper hang one above another a few feet away from “No Me.” They spell out a phrase in block, off-white capitals against a black background. The words are from the urgent, prophetic Dylan lyric heard in the song “It’s alright Ma (I’m only bleeding)” on the 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home: “IT IS NOT HE OR SHE OR THEM OR IT THAT YOU BELONG TO.” That’s the song where Dylan also famously sings, “But even the president of the United States / Sometimes must have to stand naked,” among other apocalyptic thoughts and images. In his paintings, here and elsewhere over his career, Keffer invents a proto-alphabet of forms, a private language that describes the way that ideas of the self and other(s) move, boundary-less yet bounded, as if encapsulated across time and space, toward and away from mutual coherence.
Just as mysterious and almost as attenuated in human terms is an installation in the Galleries’ Media Room. “Fabrications” is the work of the team Margarita Benitez and Markus Vogl, known internationally for their collaborations at venues like Art Basel, Miami. As elsewhere, their multimedia environment at CSU uses elements that seem to circle and stalk normal perception, approaching sight, sound, and less conscious sensual capabilities such as proprioception (which allows you to have an idea where your elbow is with your eyes closed, for example). They also include wrapping, hanging fabrics, installed in a small room in near darkness, and ghostly objects produced with the aid of a 3D Printer. Light shines down, beamed through pendant vortices as if from a distant source. These are just a little way overhead, broadcasting (perhaps) to small focal areas on the gallery floor. Far down within these are little digital screens. The effect is disorienting, both as a physical experience and as conceptual. What is being beamed down here? Media, or life itself? Is there a difference? And how did we arrive here, in our minds, part way between Earth and the stars? Expressive intuitions and uncanny, unsettling reports continue to arrive from the far edges of abstraction, where meaning is born or dies.