(“HiLo Art” column reprinted with permission from The Free Press)
“In the Destroyer’s steps, there spring up bright creations that defy his power, and his dark path becomes a way of light to Heaven.”
Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop
When your niece and her partner go to Miami for two months to play golf, leaving their 10th-floor apartment in the Lower East Side empty, you humbly ask their permission to drop in for about five days. When they say, “Sure!,” you fill the gas tank and head south.
Art is New York, and New York is art, but that’s such a generality. Art in New York is many specific things. The creaking old museums with their vast, echoing halls; hundreds of other viewers’ shoulders to look over; dozens of crackling-new, punch-hole galleries filled with latest visions; established uptown galleries suddenly appearing on side streets way downtown. The outsiders come inside while the insiders stretch out, and history beds down with the wicked pace of every day.
Of all the art we saw over five long days, truly the merest fraction of what’s there—what stood out for this artist? Touch, authenticity, skill, innocence, the old in the new, choice, elegance, enigma, and ugliness. This real stuff resides in inspirational qualities way beyond name or fame. Artists continue to make amazing things off the tops of their heads using what they discover by surprise in the delight of work. No matter how old or new, the freshness remains, timeless.
At Andrew Edlin Gallery, Janet Sobel, born in Ukraine in 1893 and a Brighton Beach grandmother who took up painting in her forties, began to drip paint on canvas well before Jackson Pollock discovered her and decided to do the same. Recognized by exhibits in the 1940s and currently in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection, her most interesting feature is not her fame. Her quality rests in the sincerity that shines through each painting. Like much self-taught, outsider artists, this earnest authenticity frees her to improvise, either with archetypal subjects like nature and family relationships, or with spontaneous abstractions discovered in the act of making. Both approaches to imagery have an unaffectedness that rings true no matter what the subject or technique.
In her Untitled (1948) on canvas board, a slowly-sinking red ground with quick white-dripped strokes supports two spike-haired faces through whose simply-brushed, immediacy shines an exciting human relationship. Families, relationships, nature, figures and grounds are her territory in this show.
Half a block along the Bowery, at Arsenal Contemporary, in This Sacred Vessel, ten artists reflect on the long shadow of landscape tradition in various forms of abstraction and illusion. In Brook Hsu’s two small oils on panels, each titled The pond is our secret (2020), deep, luxuriant greens set off loosely-sketched trees evoking a summer pool which needs no further definition. The small scale invites close inspection and reveals the dampness and heat of drenched foliage and the cooling pleasures of evaporation.
At Sperone Westwater on Bowery, Susan Rothenberg’s powerful paintings hold court on two floors. Upstairs, a large grisaille tree gains its authority from the bold, searching strokes that allow the painting to be finished while remaining dynamically in process. This conflict, held in suspension, generates enormous energy.
A block away down Rivington, Betty Cuningham has moved her gallery from Chelsea and currently features the work of the late Jake Berthot (1939–2014). Each of the 24 paintings contain the image of a tree, fugitively appearing and disappearing again through a built-up history of richly layered green brushstrokes and textural veils of densely realized spaces. Drawings based on complex geometries suggest the underlying structure of Chapel Trail Near Alter Road (2000), where, in an intimate square format, a muscular tree trunk softly opens a forest that envelopes and absorbs the viewer inside a deep dream.
Now for something completely outside. Just opened another block away and still on Bowery at the New Museum, the octogenarian yet incredibly vital painter, Peter Saul, continues to shock and outrage with two floors of exuberant and caustic day-glo assaults on our American culture’s political hypocrisy, condoned war, institutionalized brutality, shameful racism, and misogyny. Crime and Punishment reveals over fifty years of Saul’s iconoclastic, in-your-face imagery, confronting and revealing everything from Vietnam to Afghanistan, the atrocities of Columbus to Custer to Trump, with tropes of Pop art, Mad and Zap comix, hydra-headed politicians, AK-47’s, and other demons of the ever-exhausting daily news. This is seriously outside stuff, rejected from the mainstream for decades, stripping each viewer’s morality and ethics to the core in a gale of self-conscious, acidic laughter. Saul’s self-portrait that you can easily locate on the web may be the easiest image to see. Just Google Peter Saul.
That Destroyer Charles Dickens and I mentioned at the start? Saul paints him like Dickens says: a thousand bright creations springing up in the day’s dark path. We were encouraged by a bunch of them!
Hey, we got about a block up Bowery here! And that was just the first afternoon! We saw so many more bright creations, walking and looking, defying the darkness. I think we’re going to drive that Destroyer into the fizzling sea.
Alan Crichton is a co-founder of Waterfall Arts and an artist living in Liberty. His column, “HiLo Art,” runs every other week in The Free Press.
Image at top: Peter Saul, Self, oil and acrylic on canvas, 1987 (Courtesy The New Museum/George Adams Gallery, New York).