Wackadoodle at Ethan Pettit Contemporary

Ethan Pettit Contemporary
119 Ingraham | Suite 312
Brooklyn, NY 11237

By William Allen

This group show, called “Wackadoodle,” thumbs its nose at highbrow irony and aesthetics, with seven artists steeped in the traditions of North Brooklyn (conceptual art, action painting, and sculptural collage). By design there is no theme, only fresh, bright painting, drawing, sculptures, video art, and prints.

The show features tiny TV sets with noisy bursts of expletives, from Henry G. Sanchez, evoking personal, voyeuristic leanings, a novel twist from this political and community-based artist.

Eva Schicker shows large Rococo-style, squiggly angel-like drawings that sprawl over Arches paper (the show’s title may come from her manic doodling). Three pint-sized paintings show us her serious side, with bits of text to say that poetry is in the air. A quick peek in print files reveals some geometric, meditative works on black that make me think Brice Marden.

Gili Levy has a thing or two on deKooning. By way of local action painters Chris Martin, James Harrison, and master-primitive modernist Alfred Jensen, she flaunts abstract expressionist practice with Brooklyn tints and dynamism. Vibrant cobalt blues, cerulean greens take on fleshy pink where bodies in motion float down stairwells.

Another non-objective painter is Alkemikal Sohsu, participating in the Brooklyn conversation from Katmandu. His organic work is studious, wildly cheerful, optically frazzled, while his prints, toned down, explore convergences of sines and cosines in fractal portraits of brainiacs like Leroy Neiman and Salvator Dalí.

Robert Egert’s biomorphic, blue chalk drawings took me by surprise – 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. They hold underworlds of swirly vessels, Klein bottles (non-orientable, mathematical surfaces), slaughterhouse slurry turned into bone meal, and pumping diastolic hearts. While classically beautiful, they shocked me to subservience – I was suddenly alone, at 30,000 feet, where I could hear a pin drop.

Ken Butler, physicist-poet-sculptor-harmonist lends several musical objects to the mix. Sound fairly pours out of them as they stand static mounted to the wall, resting in inertia, waiting for Cage to unleash a hundred cadenzas from a bent prosthetic arm, a praying mantis music stand, embodiments of made-up, backwards music that waits for the viewer to invoke it.

Jan Holthoff paints his way towards Knickerbocker Avenue from Dusseldorf, in the Romantic tradition of Neo Rauch and Mamma Andersson. Often working with monumental scale, here small works show picaresque figures in half- articulated moonscape, longing for something mystical, lost in a fiery midnight fog.

Is it unarticulated sound these artists share? Perhaps bewilderment, a manic cry for something more beyond the picture plane (or LED or viola fingerboard), an unheard utterance expressed in visual art?

They are zany doers and philosophers. But their thought is cast in cool and colorful objects, pleasing to the eye, generous to the conscience and the conscious. So please keep an ear to the ground and eye to the wall at Ethan’s place.

But once you’ve looked at the art and left, sit down and talk with friends, and ideas will unbundle all around you. The theory is here, it just hides behind the smarter sheen of well-made work. It’s just nice to look at—you can think about it later.

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Ideogram and Morphism

Robert Egert grew up riding his bicycle through Bushwick in the 1970s. Twenty years later he was living in Williamsburg and was one of the handful of artists who founded the artists’ community there. Williamsburg’s early bohemians share an intense bond. They are like family to me. And even if I might not know them well, as friends in the ordinary sense, I know them deeply in connection with our shared philosophical roots.

Williamsburg in the 90s was an oasis of weirdness at a time when art on the whole was very derivative. There was a movement here that advanced synthesis over analysis in art making. The neighborhood became known for hybrid forms and unearthly environments. There was a generative, organic quality to the art that was starkly different from the imagistic literalism of postmodernism. You can see this overall trend in Williamsburg in the work of Roxy Paine, Chris Martin, Amy Sillman, Ken Butler, Rachel Harrison, Ebon Fisher, to name a few. And you can also see in the history of this art scene a fusion between conceptualism and abstract painting.

To be sure, art writers invariably strain to find overarching narratives, and I would not attempt to do this, for example, with the new trends in painting in Bushwick, which in most cases I think are no more connected with old Williamsburg than they are with any number of other historical trends in painting. Still, we can point to some things that happened to New York Art at the turn of the century as the scene began to migrate across the East River. The appearance of certain esoteric and organic motifs in abstract painting in Greenpoint in the 1980s (James Harrison, Peter Acheson, Chris Martin). And the way in which certain conceits of minimalism merged with media art in the “warehouse movement” along the waterfront in the early 90s.

Robert Egert’s work provides a key to this transition. His work spans the whole of it. Some of his paintings even look like keys, or compact hybrids of organic life and language poised for an unraveling.

Robert began his career in the postmodern East Village and Soho in the 80s. Then he was in the middle of the Brooklyn phenomenon in the 90s. He took a master’s degree in Marxist studies at the storied CUNY grad center under Marshall Berman, a right of passage of many thinkers and readers in the neighborhood at that time. And so even though there is a Brooklyn synthetic quality to his organic forms, there is also an analytic quality that comes through from the 80s fascination with history, power, the construction of knowledge (epistemology), and so forth.

The delicate red and blue conté drawings remind me of those mysterious illustrations in the very first encyclopedias, like the one assembled by the brigade of draftsmen who accompanied Napoleon’s army to Egypt. Specimens from a naïve science.

The conté drawings could also be rubbings from some alien fossil, or powdery carbon copies drawn out of some forgotten photomechanical process. One inspiration that Robert mentions are medical illustrations of vascular systems, where long arteries are truncated for easier viewing.

Somewhere between language and life form, Egert draws these entities as discrete symbols, carefully conjoined with their negative spaces. And then there are intricate details inside the shapes, rendering a deeper layer of anatomy. The drawings are done on a rough and allegedly extinct kind of laid printing paper. The pigment dust lies on the page a delicate powder, much like Odilon Redon’s use of charcoal.

They are erudite and pithy, and yet they are not cynical or ironic. Actually they are affirmative and sincere. They hold out an ephemeral optimism against a disembodied modernity that they nonetheless acknowledge. Simply, the possibility of new aesthetic life against considerable odds. They remind me of the marks that a philosopher might make who has forsaken writing, but whose pictograms still contain the powder of the battlefield.

By Ethan Pettit, 2012

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