Through August 31
By Jacob Feige
“Faced with a choice, do both.” –Deter Roth, from Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies.
What is the value of subject matter for painters—mere pretext to push paint around, or something more particular and essential? The answer to that question differs, of course, from one artist to the next. Red Herring, the fourth exhibition at the Kensington neighborhood’s recently-opened Fjord space, raises this question as its central curatorial concern. Bringing together a vigorous and uninhibited group of painters whose work is focally or tangentially figurative, it is far from an show of academic figuration. Many of the fourteen works in Red Herring depict the human body as a vehicle for material experimentation, opening a correlative space between the sensuality of the body and paint itself. This plays out as overt, even comedic sexuality in works by Angela Dufresne and Andrew Pomykalski, but in two paintings by Doron Langerg, body and paint commingle in a beautifully subtle way on the threshold of complete abstraction. Between these two poles lay narrative paintings, cartoon bloopers, and even a volleyball match in Jason Mones’s No Summer of Another Green. With its pleasing awkwardness, the latter painting calls to mind Eric Fischl and Robert Colescott, in addition to other often-overlooked figurative artists from the nineteen eighties.
If there is concern that the figure might be a red herring—a sort of distraction from the truth of things—the artists in the exhibition seem neither to privilege nor entirely disregard subject matter in the traditional sense. Matt Bollinger’s Mike at the Reservoir is a pastoral portrait with many nineteenth century conventions of light and subject, rendered with layers of collaged, painted paper. The material approach of the collage carries this work towards abstraction, but a sense of personality and space in the portrait remain fundamental. Kyle Staver’s Acrobats revisits a trope from American Scene painting: the circus, a subject of paintings in the twenties and thirties by John Steuart Curry, Reginald Marsh, and others. Unlike Curry’s trapeze performers, Staver’s seem to discombobulate as they fly through space, obeying or defying no laws of physics. There is a clumsy charm in rendering graceful performers with a ham-fisted approach, effectively ruining the timing and fluidity of the subject. Still, I wonder whether such an approach comes more from a frustratingly limited painterly skill set than it does a genuine desire to ironically distance subject from style.
Materiality, narrative, and a cubist brand of ambiguous representation come together very effectively in Andrew Pomykalski’s Prescience Remover, one of the standouts of the exhibition. Disembodied limbs and heads form an odd triangular mass that directs one’s attention from a tiny jeep with its hood up to the head of a sleeping woman, right to left. Though this description could easily apply to a schmaltzy work of neo-surrealism, Pomykalski’s painting moves in and out of flatness and space with a distinctive, folksy blend of abstraction and figuration. Like the best work in Red Herring, the painting refuses to have it one way or another, moving fluidly between disparate modes of painting. After all, any representational painting creates tension between illusory space and the reality of the object as oily goo spread thinly over fabric. What you make of that tension—or even contradiction—may be a good indicator of what you would think of Red Herring.
Jacob Feige is an artist and teacher. His work has recently been shown at Chambers FA, Beijing, Movement, UK, and Jolie Laide, Philadelphia.