Black paint can be the death of a work of art, the black hole in a painting or the third-rail as some put it. It is something that you should not touch or you can get burned, and for two current exhibits in Chelsea, Richards Phillips at Gagosian, and Aaron Nagel at Lyons Wier Gallery, it was just that, a death, or at least a disappointing distraction in the works.
As usual there is the idea you get about the works while looking at them on-line, through the invite or in a magazine, and the disappointment that follows when you see them in person. Both of these artists seem to suffer what Negal, a somewhat emerging artist, described in an earlier interview as pressure from working under the gun to meet the galleries deadline for a new body of works, but when the pressure is on this is not a time to be experimenting with a new style of work. You can’t completely blame the artists in their attempt to get in the spotlight of Chelsea to become part of what Jerry Saltz referred to lately as the 35 viable galleries and 45 viable artists that seem to be all people care about in the art world today. In reality there are more galleries opening and closing their doors than ever before. Where galleries once took the whole floor of a building, now most of them are smaller than my bedroom and can only be found by looking through a long list of gallery names on a wall. But when galleries only represent a small amount of actual artists, there is a pressure for them to produce large amounts of work in a short span, which often fall short of what they are capable of, than again maybe not.
Lyons Wier Gallery, which claims to champion Conceptual Realism, which is just any realism produced in a conceptual time of art, missed the mark with this exhibit. The backgrounds, which seem to be full of detail, were lost in the light of the gallery, but even that was not the most disappointing aspect of the work. When you get a closer look at the paintings themselves, Nagel seems to struggle with the space between the subject and the background. While he clearly puts lots of effort into the furniture and objects in the background, his attempt to capture the style of Diego Velazquez techniques in his paintings falls short when he gets to the body. This is not to say that the bodies don’t have something to them, he clearly has an understanding of the figure, at least the one we see in magazines or are taught to draw and paint in art school, but cannot seem to reconcile the balance of the two together.
His brush strokes around the bodies leading into the shadows are a sloppy mixture of trying to paint around the figures and create the sense of the forms blending into the background. Instead they make the figures seem flat and lifeless on the canvas. This is only worsen by his use of black on the panties of the women which seem to flatten the figures even more and don’t really go along with the shapes of the figures other than they are placed in the right area. A closer examination of the lines, like in the work of X ACCVMBVNT LEONES MMXII (Lie Down with Lions) shows his further unsuccessful attempt with trying to make the black stand out in his work, but it just distracts me from the fact that some of his proportions are off.
His van Eyck like attempt at placing words in his portraits and Raphael style of religious symbols in his works almost fit until you know that they mean nothing more than he thinks naked beautiful women are good to look at and be admired. I don’t need a painting to tell me that, I can see it everyday on television, in magazines and newspapers. He seems to buy into this old adage that naked women are beautiful, so naked women in paintings equals beautiful art. This may be why Negal seems to paint the same woman’s body over and over again, he seems to follow the adage of Cicero who would take the best of different people and make what he deemed to be the perfect person. I would probably find the paintings more interesting if he included the flaws of the models and their tattoos otherwise why use models at all, why not do like Richard Phillips and grab some of your images from social media.
Okay so Phillips does not pick all of his images from social media, he does take some photos of those who are a large part of social media, but again, he could continue to do just that and it probably would change nothing. If you listen to Phillips talk about his work he spins a good game, he recently remarked that “When we can’t determine what art is—when we get to that point where we’re not sure, that’s the strongest likelihood that we’re actually experiencing something great”, after looking at the exhibit I was thinking more along the lines of “I may not know what art is, but I know when something is not art”. Like I said Phillips can spin it with his charm, and maybe for some that is enough, but than you have to look at the work.
The videos, which are nothing more than two fading beauties, Lindsay Lohan and Sasha Grey, walking around and showing off their bodies in nothing more than a very borderline home movie of soft porno. Other than the fact that they were created by Phillips they hold no value, but that is part of the times we face in the art world, or why else would it have been included in Art Basel. My attention span allowed me to view just enough to know I had seen enough already, but the show doesn’t end there, outside the video viewing room are the paintings.
In the larger area hangs what from a distance appears to be overwhelming close-up paintings of the women on large canvases, that are less impressive when you move in for a closer view. What I thought was images painted using a projection turns out to be merely large blowups of photos that are painted over according to Phillips, who took the point to correct me on that matter. Being an artist and painter myself I was even less impressed knowing they were simply painted over photos. Which adds even more insult to the idea that Phillips claimed to be working from live models for this project. While he may have photographed them instead of simply pulling them from a magazine how does that change what he has done before?
Much like Nagel, Phillips, who struggles to get back a little of his 15 minutes of fame, with this notion that he should fall in the same standing of the avant-garde painters of the 50s and 60s, also struggles with the use of black in his paintings. The painted over areas still mêlée against the background with brush strokes that often look not only rushed, but unsure of where the figure ends and the background starts. Here again the artist seemed to be working against the clock, and it shows in the works. While there are a few pieces that have a great deal of attention to detail, works like Sasha III and Lindsay (painted from a night photo), not only have less attention to the detail as some of the others but also are made using different brush strokes. The painting of Sasha is even less breathtaking as the painting makes her look flat on the canvas.
The variation in painting styles, tells me that either the artist rushed these or hired some people to help him paint them, either way this change in painting styles gives an uncomfortable inconsistency to the work that we normally don’t expect to see in a place like Gagosian, which would have done better to light these works like Lyons Weir Gallery did for Negal, at least than the audience may not have noticed how unimpressive the works really are.
Okay so not everyone can be Édouard Manet or Georgia O’Keeffe when it comes to using black in their paintings, and if you cant then you shouldn’t, but if you are going to insist on being known as a realist artist it would be good to take some lessons from the work of Johannes Vermeer, who knew a lot about using the cool and warm effects of shadows in his paintings. If you are looking for something a little closer to the current century at least go and see The Farmers by Robert Duncan. The more I see of works like these in Chelsea makes me wonder what it really takes to get your foot in the door after all. For some it is clearly who you know, for others I guess it is just good to still be making work from a time forgot by more of the so called contemporary galleries in a attempt to provide art to the aging collectors who all seem to have the same print of Warhol’s Flowers on their walls.