Visual Specialties: Three Shows, Three Parts of the Culture


By Tom Csaszar


Ruffneck Contructivists on view at the ICA through August 17th

Between Matter and Experience is currently on view at UArts




Art in the second decade of the 2000’s is still obsessed and concerned with its own specializations — the ability of one presentation or process to provide a direct communication that is more forceful than another mode. Works of art may still be simple, but our culture at large, the world we live in alongside these works of art, has undeniably become more complex and more specialized. In part this means, first, works of art need to be clear about the material means and references they are dealing with in this global age of multiple specialized fields, and second, they need to be clear about the historical weights of their own development that they want to carry with them. For example, in the three shows discussed here, three different sorts of values, meanings and pleasures are made evident, but ones that currently coexist in relation to each other. They do this also with different relationships to their own histories, those of installation art, graffiti art, and contemporary painting, beyond the simple divisions of abstraction and figuration.


“Ruffneck Constructivists” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, curated by Kara Walker, can be hard to grasp unless one looks for how aesthetic conceptualism and our popular narratives of race can come from different directions toward the same blunt realities.  Installation works are developed both from Surrealism in the early 20th Century and later from a poetic conceptualism in the 1970s and ‘80s. Each of the eleven artists in this exhibit and the exhibit itself deserve more thought and attention than they are getting, in part because they are imbuing installation with expanded histories of its relationship to performance, projection, sound, motion and political relevance.


One branch of these installation works has circled back on how imagery and a type of vernacular art and architecture can document our urban experiences. The brute facts of our lives and our histories somehow are made to stand apart from either dystopias or utopias: namely, reimagined without fantasies. Dineo Seshee Bopape’s But That Is Not the Important Part of the Story uses a loose, ad hoc, assemblage to remember the haunted flames of Marie-Joseph Angélique, an 18th-century Black Canadian slave from Montreal who was hung for an arson she may not have committed, or done accidently, or have committed as an act of rebellion and attempted escape. The mechanisms and frameworks of wires, mirrors, construction lumber, small projectors, cords, fans, and pieces of blank cloth almost overwhelm the imagery of flames, which in the end they seem immune to. And yet, as Bopape’s title may suggest, this irresolution is ultimately at the heart of a story about a person on trial to determine her guilt for arson in a justice system that recognizes slavery as a legal — and “just”– institution.


In a comparable way Lior Shvil’s work Operation Oz Belev-Yam uses the specialized strategies of installation work and relational aesthetics (and as some might have it, antagonistic relational aesthetics) to examine surveillance, commando and terrorist training, and war game virtual realities, as well as myths of war bravery. Again the important part of the story may not be the obvious one, and the related ideas provoked in the viewer extending out from the maker’s intentions, however readymade and roughed out (or roughed up) may be critical to understanding the work’s social commentaries.  They might also be vital to discerning the work’s aesthetic weight, its visceral and sensual bearing of meanings.


Fleisher/Ollman’s recent show of the works of Isaac T. Lin, Barry McGee, and Dan Murphy, “Department of Neighborhood Services,” exhibits three artists whose works develop from graffiti art, street art, and other “Neighborhood Services.” These works develop, initially at least, outside of the commercial system of galleries and the formal educational system. But ironically they also position themselves in relation to elements of urban culture such as billboards, bus-shelter and subway advertising, skateboarding graphics, and comic books and graphic novels.  Rather than seek elaborate extensions to their deeply felt histories and cultural roots, these three artists stake out their own territory related to graffiti-based styles and imagery. On a superficial level, Murphy probably comes out more readable and sociable when compared with Lin, who may be too subtle in his concerns to easily share a room with others, and McGee, who may be a bit too declarative and verbose. But these comparisons may be a bit over-reaching for a show that is really nothing more than a glimpse into three different artists studios, rather than a show searching for anything more comprehensive.


Murphy’s use of simple chevron-like directional patterns, and one or two color overlays of transparent rectangles on urban photos, make it seem as if his works are both declaring and pointing to something important, while also indicating something of importance outside of themselves – perhaps in the space at the edge of the image, or in the surrounding room, or beyond the photographic field. Paradoxically, this causes the viewer to look more closely at both what is in the work and what is outside of it. The pieces begin to succeed when they can bear up under further scrutiny, when their own internal rhythms and narrative power are more commanding.


For those who have seen Lin’s and McGee’s works elsewhere, we know they both are better seen when they are able to spread out a bit more and explore their own diverse interests, rather than make a straightforward, short comment and move on. McGee’s best piece here is the biggest. In Untitled (2014), his ability to command and orchestrate various shapes and references is more powerful than the subtle evocations of single elements.


Unlike perhaps McGee or Murphy, Lin seems to have a powerful ability to draw us toward a more imaginary world — an alternative, unexpected world, which has always been at one pole of graffiti-based works. Lin’s patterns and structures of colors need to expand through several layers and several scales in space, rather than be asserted and then easily contained. In the works by these three artists, and their development of graffiti and wall art, it is not only a challenge to branch out from tried and true graphic powers, like the artists in “Ruffneck Constructivists,” but at the same time to center more and more on the less explored references in some of their repeated images and tropes.


“Between Matter and Experience” at the University of the Arts brings together the paintings of nine artists in various stages of their careers. In these works, the materiality of paint remains potent, not so much as some revived form of affective formalism, but more as communicative observations. The paintings operate as simple statements whose narratives are enacted through the thoughtful embrace of mere moments of a life presented in the interactions of the elements within them. Painting, as a specialty of sorts is freed among other things to explore experiences not given as much weight in the mass culture, or to explore its dissatisfactions and disaffections with other aspects of culture.  One could think of this as a respite period of Non-divisional painting, meaning that the similarities of use of material means and immediate sensual references are more important to many painters than stylistic divisions. It signifies for some painters, and some viewers, a need to look with telescopes one minute and magnifying glasses the next; at the unified overall effect and image one minute and at the grain and texture of the material and process the next.


Over the last hundred and fifty years those enamored of painting may feel technologies and the speed of mass culture has minimized the tasks of painting, maybe killed it off for some. Those not so infatuated with painting may be happy to explore a visual culture constructed from other materials and other relationships of intentions to outcome, or diagrammed drama to emotion.


Katherine Bradford’s Long Pink Pier and Diver and Friend explore the simplest of social architectures and social engagements: the stationary versus the active. The toughness of the paint and its ability to cover up, leaving the lumpy proof of previous shapes, as well as its fluid ability to make a surface of liquid motion, are equal elements in this. Perhaps this is a provisional way to tell a simple story, but it is a story which we remember through the pleasure of simplicity in a way that another medium would make either boring or pedantic.


Sarah McEneany’s Humpbacks and Bonnie Levinthals Iceland – Cuba IV explore not only more literal aspects of image and place, but also how the process and time of forming an image through the intentions of the maker and the material elements of the work itself embed the time of the process as an aspect of how we read the work: the specific time of a mark and implied movement of an area of color made this way have that effect and meaning. We may reconstruct this for ourselves as viewers, perhaps with an emphasis of our own. The works of the others in the show, including Eleanor Ray, Sarah Gamble, and Krista Profitt, continue these examinations of how time and meaning are carried through our perceptions of a painted or collaged image, especially Betsey Batchelor’s Perugia, Aubrey Levinthal’s Hedging Around the Night, and Lauren Garvey’s Flowers in Cellophane.


In recent years, Philadelphia has offered its art world and culture as a place where not only its own different stories can be told but where different stories from different places and times can be told. As three recent examples, one could look at the exhibitions of Korean works at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; of the works of Yinka Shonibare at the Barnes Foundation; and Sarah Sze’s works at the Fabric Workshop and Museum. Through these exhibitions a certain multiplicity of effects become tangible in our own histories. Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art has its 50-year birthday survey on view, which shows it seeking a place in a dialogue that spans in time from Andy Warhol and Ian Hamilton Finlay to Zoe Strauss, David Wojnarowicz, and Carl Michael von Hausswolff. Each of these goes down a different road to find the intersection of specialized means and concerns with the brute forces of society and personal lives.


In the last two decades, the specializations of our works of art have been a mirror of the art world – through both maker and curator — desiring connections to specializations in the various cultural worlds, those of academia, literature, and visual arts. Beyond this our art world has expanded to address the commercial world’s specialization of product function and interaction. Both screen apps and screen personae are also part of our aesthetic considerations. While contemporary specialization calls here and there for a balance in another direction, in and of itself it is not so much a problem as a necessary precondition for art to connect in dialogues that extend past its own borders. However it does constantly pose another condition; the necessity to represent how this corner of well-defined ideas and experiences connects to the brute weights of our histories, as well as the simple facts and preconditions of our everyday life.



Tom Csaszar is an artist, writer, and lecturer who has been on the graduate faculties of the University of the Arts and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.