Contact: Cecilia Whittaker-Doe, Don Doe
SRO GALLERY is pleased to present an exhibition of paintings by Robert Egert: Anthropocene.
Opening Reception April 28, 6-9pm. The exhibit will be on view through May 20, 2018.
1144 Dean Street
Hours: Saturday & Sunday 1 – 6
Anthropocene: the period of time during which human activities have had an environmental impact on the Earth regarded as constituting a distinct geological age.
Egert’s latest works are inspired by science, economics, and social systems and infused with historical references. Critic William Allen wrote in WG Magazine,
“… full of magma energy, wit, and speculations on the body, on science, on nature mimicking art. His images are Darwin’s dreams, Philip Guston’s party-jokes, or Frida Kahlo’s sighs of grief.”
In his most recent paintings shown here at SRO GALLERY, Egert’s mathematical surfaces and classically inspired vessels morph into worlds of their own. While they suggest classical influences, these paintings move the viewer towards contemplations of the future.
The forms in his paintings place the viewer in a position where it is possible to stand before the scene of natural landscape, architecture, (in one painting a collection of vessels that seem to carry the source of life), or dive back into the distance of these scenes, in an attempt to gather more information and question where in his invented world we prefer to stand.
In some we look through passages to find familiar mechanics. Pipes form an imagined sort of plumbing – conduits of our changing natural, industrial and AI environment perhaps. We wonder at the connection between the familiar and the unknown. There is nature, science, architecture and archeology found in all the paintings. The works on paper suggest chemical reactions in nature, forms of the human body are felt, as if we are all subject to spontaneous happenings. We feel the interior and the exterior simultaneously.
Robert Egert was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1958 and studied painting at Pratt Institute with Autonomia founder Ernst Benkert and sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard. He later obtained a graduate degree from City University Graduate Center with a focus on critical theory.
Egert began exhibiting his painting in New York in the 1980s with his first solo exhibition at White Columns gallery. Shortly thereafter he joined Civilian Warfare, one of the galleries that launched the emerging East Village art scene.
His solo show there of large scale oil paintings led to participation in numerous exhibitions at both emerging and established venues that included Gracie Mansion, Jack Tilton, and Holly Solomon.
Most recently, his work has been featured in solo exhibitions at Fred Valentine Gallery, Ethan Pettit Contemporary Art, Holland Tunnel, and Rockland Center for the Arts, all in New York.
Robert Egert currently works and resides in the New York metropolitan area. His paintings and works on paper are held in private and institutional collections in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Indianapolis and Dusseldorf.
Robert Egert’s immediately previous paintings were small, curvy and marvelously dense, like ideograms tooled in leather over a long Siberian winter by hunter-gatherers whose sacred geometry was sprung from tusk and antler. His work now emerges into the open, under a big sky. Here abstract painting grapples, as if it were sculpture, with literal landscape. Several of the new paintings recede into prairie space and cloudscape, while bodying forth into a reimagined version of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Isamu Noguchi that can co-exist with breezy 1950s New Yorkercartoons of construction workers eating sandwiches in the belly holes of reclining nudes. A couple of paintings seem to suggest how Paul Klee’sRevolution of the Viaductcould work as a background for an animated Hawaiian Punch ad. At the far horizon of Egert’s new territory, George Grosz –– or rather his bedraggled avatar, the Painter of the Hole –– has set up his easel. In the middle distance you can make out Max Ernst, Otto Dix, RenéMagritte and Giorgio De Chirico, fellow survivors of war and avant-gardism, stubborn purveyors of figures and landscapes in the age of abstraction.
And what was it we once meant by abstraction? Like Columbus discovering America, Cezanne voyaged across an ocean and made landfall, believing he was elsewhere. Richard Shiff points out that “abstracted” means lost in thought, yet when speaking about art, the word has come to signify pure materialism –– a materialism in which nothing can be added or taken away, nothing extracted, nothing abstracted. What you see is what you see. Instead, Shiff uses the word “distraction” to describe how Cezanne’s slipping space and overt brush strokes, rhythmically independent of the subject, liberated later generations to see the materials of painting as means and ends in themselves.
The Big Bang of Twentieth Century abstraction has now slowed to an equilibrium in which material and image, high and low, float in zero gravity. Ruins run in reverse, and function follows form as often as not. So it is exemplary that in Egert’s new paintings, abstraction feels free to get specific. Let’s begin with Tornado Alley and Cisgenia,which transform the graphic clarity and restless, curling space of his earlier paintingsinto hallelujah choruses and heavenly fanfares. This contrapuntal visual music, although far more refined in silhouette, has perhaps more than a passing affinty with the madcap inventiveness of Dr. Seuss’s three-nozzled bloozers from the Circus McGurkus. (At any rate, it’s worth considering how Theodore Geisel implanted exuberant Cubist, biomorphic, and Surrealist design into generations of contemporary artists’ brains by liberating children’s books from prevailing standards of genteel realism.)
If Tornado Alley and Cisgenia are airborne, Spirit (or Soul) is semi-subterranean. Egert says this painting is at the core of his practice, and indeed it reads like a cutaway view of compressed potential and hidden caverns. Although landscape elements are breaking free at the top, the rest is a cultivated puzzle of interlocking shapes embedded in their own negative space. In other paintings on view, similar cubist conundrums are isolated, and liberated. They become actors in a drama. Death’s Head Tree, especially, is a self-entangled, concretely rendered monologue that lilts with animation. It is rooted in solid ground and stands clean against the sky.
Landscape [Espalier]adds more characters, with foreground repoussoir and action on the wings, and the ground plane has been efficiently incised with a perspective grid. Upon this stage, Egert’s intertangling, overlapping growth process morphs into cutout, bendable strips of sheet metal that play with dimensionality. Perhaps this sort of interplay of figure and ground is what Charles Rayhas in mindwhen he says that if one were to rotate a David Smith sculpture set in a landscape”the world would turn with it.”
In Monster Storm,a finely honed sculptural scrim is set against a middleground of interweaving plumbing rendered with scratchy urgency. The palette is subtle and sooty. Standardized indications of smoke and steam in the background suggest 1930s animation, factory pipes tooting along with Mickey or Popeye as they bounce with song. The hairy eyeball sort of cartooning is equally in play –– that of Grosz, R. Crumb, Sue Coe and other graphic rebels. The mood, in any case, is nervous and unresolved rather than jaunty, the space claustrophobic despite its layers of distance.
Finally, Anthropocene is a spectacular outlier that tweaks the knobs of abstraction all the way to the post-apocalyptic. A woody corpse against barren ground, it is candidly illusionistic, lit with a sense of cinematic conviction that brings to mind the moralizing sunsets of Thomas Cole and Sanford Gifford, or alternately, a Sci-Fi paperback. Birthed in abstraction, however, the image remains ontologically tangled, closer in spirit to a scholars rock or an uncanny Ernst forest, albeit a denuded one.
A hundred years on, pure abstraction today is a kind of sophisticated joke. Practitioners and enablers of shiny plastic abstraction, shamelessly nostalgic abstraction, crapstraction/zombie formalism, and so on –– they are necessary tight rope walkers patrolling the event horizon of a slippery slope. Beyond is a black hole of credulity. That leaves plenty of room for therest of us to build landscapes, figures, and still lives of some kind, of some degree, out of pure painting moves. It’s a wide open territory, and Robert Egert, with astute painterliness, has staked out his own growing claim.
David Brody 2018
When we regard any kind of artwork today we can identify a plethora of references: Art historical, cultural, societal, some visual. How can we contemplate what an artwork is about while at the same time see what it is? How do non-visual references influence, not what an artwork looks like, but how we see it? How do we know what something is about? How do we inform ourselves as viewers to be educated enough to know what we are comprehending when viewing an artwork?
These are questions that immediately run through my mind when I look at art, especially Robert Egert’s and I have been looking at his work throughout his entire career. Is what we see a story, a satire, a microscopic enlargement, an analysis of DNA or patterns taken from a satellite view?
Robert Egert is an artist who thrives from many arteries. When I met him during foundation year at Pratt Institute I was impressed that he was born and bred in Brooklyn. Still, I don’t know if I was more impressed by his knowledge of Greek and Roman myths, I think they kind of balanced each other out. This is important. This is important to be able to see Robert Egert’s work. He is grounded in the here and now, with a knowledge that runs through antiquity to contemporary science fiction. I don’t want to be too specific, but we can talk about Rhizomes, fracking, Pan, the Loreley, Russian cinema, the Golden Age, artificial intelligence and gun control.
All kinds of things are in his head when he paints. He thinks a lot when he works. He doesn’t make it easy on himself. The arteries that nourish his system can contradict each other, can almost cancel each other out, only to join together to strengthen each other. His work has evolved from narrative to abstract to abstract narrative. It is fluid in an overlapping viscous kind of way.
Robert Egert’s fluidity develops from a concept. This is no flimsy use of the word. At Pratt in the seventies we enjoyed a rigorous education in minimalist and conceptual art, both in theory and practice. This underlies Robert Egert’s work no matter what it looks like. His early painting moved from constructed spatial objects to new takes on Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
In the early 1980s when the East Village was hip and dangerous, I saw his exhibition at Civilian Warfare. His paintings were large oil canvases, vernacular objects floated amidst a color field ground, weird perspectives generated a sense of insecure place. These works referenced the uncertainty of the times, a change in value systems, a world drifting towards an ambivalent future. Years before artists like Neo Rauch appeared on the scene, Robert Egert was making paintings that collaged the mundane with the historical in a mix that said something about contemporary politics. Manifesting duplicity by referencing nostalgia, his work pinned down the eclecticism of the time, making images that were complex and unapologetic.
Since then Robert Egert’s work has evolved to be more pondering, while reductive, dealing with questions that go beyond the contemporary. The years following the heady days of New York in the eighties took him in many directions, Robert Egert went on to study philosophy and sociology, founded a family, wrote for art journals and has had a good look at corporate America. Inevitably, his approach to painting has become more encompassing, while his practice incorporates experience gained outside the hermetics of the art world. His work revolves around questions like: What is life flow? What is humanity?
The sense of searching to make humanity palpable without obvious visual cues is a quest that Robert Egert has set out upon. When we look at the shapes in Robert Egert’s paintings we see patterns interlocking and overlays of color, sometimes we become aware of a figure. Is it human? Put simply, Egert’s paintings can be seen as a cartography of humanity. The body is ephemeral, fleeting and appearing, drifting and separating. The interchange of foreground and background is reminiscent of mutating cells. Yet there is also an all encompassing skin. Is this a view from a petri-dish? Once again we see the flux from macro to micro, an interweaving of space in which scale becomes a nonissue.
If scale is a nonissue, we are directed to specific ideas that are important to Egert by his use of titles. Concepts that Octavia Butler developed in her trilogy „Lilith’s Brood“ have occupied Egert while completing his most recent work. „Her books posit interbreeding between an alien society and humans in the wake of a nuclear holocaust that essentially wipes out humans and destroys the earth. The aliens that come to save the few survivors on earth interbreed to create a new hybrid species.“ Interbreeding, an attempt at rescuing while eliminating the original, all these thoughts connect Robert’s new work to his past work in regard to his concerns with dystopian society.
Perhaps we could call Robert Egert’s painting contemporary action painting, however not the kind of action painting by which the body directs the artist’s movements and marks made on the canvas. In Egert’s paintings the gesture is removed from the maker, it becomes a kind of meditative, autonomous painting, a kind of painting that is more related to the European tachisme than American action painting. The German informel artist Bernhard Schultze comes to mind with his figures wavering between human and animal forms.
And so we return to the questions one asks oneself when looking at an artwork. When does the decorative become something else? How can an artist translate the complexities of our being into paintings that are not just to be looked at? It comes down to the fact that we understand very little when we first look at an artwork. Therefore, if we see what we know, isn’t it better to know a little more? This is what makes us human. Or is it? This is the question that Robert Egert will continue to pose and continue to offer, at least partial, answers to.
Laura J. Padgett
 See Rober Egert’s blog…
 tachism: a style of painting adopted by some french artists around the 1940s, involving dabs or splotches of col, a process of action and reaction.