Erin Treacy on post-boom trends among East Coast USA painters

Construction/Deconstruction – Formal and Conceptual

The twenty first century has focused on the social, economical, and political fever around construction and expansion in very literal terms. At the turn of the millennia, spirits were high, bank accounts fat, and paintings barely noticeable in the New York art scene. History dictates that in comfort, the art world, like many other venues, leans towards experimentation and tests of endurance, which was apparently the case in galleries throughout the noughties. Long were my days as I walked the galleries of New York City streets straining to keep my eyes open as I watched oblique videos that archived the existential dilemmas of the body.

As 2011 comes to a close and that comfort we felt only ten years ago is nowhere to be found… what happens to the art? The uncertainty, whirlwind, and confusion we face in our social relationships can now been seen on the walls of the gallery. Artists are reacting, internally constructing and deconstructing our current dilemma and situation. We can see the affects on all parts of the art world. Some of these are in direct response with literal interpretation, civil unrest and political propaganda. More interesting are the artist, and notably painters, that are presenting the dualities- construction and deconstruction depicting the past, present, and future- as we are in a state of flux. So how can one create a state of flux while also demonstrating intention?

I have not so much been searching out art that is working within these conceptual ambitions, but rather I keep finding it hidden amongst all of the other ‘stuff’. At the (e) merge Art Fair in Washington DC this past September, I found it in the work of Mei Mei Chang (with Washington Projects for the Arts- Washington DC, USA) and Ben Grasso (with Jerome Zodo Contemporary- Milan, Italy).  

Chang’s mixed media paintings stream across the wall, little worlds connected by bridges and other architectural-connectors present ambiguous landscapes that are constructed out of various medums. Iridescent colors appear subtle on the delicate paper that is stitched into and drawn upon. Yet there is nothing precious about the hanging and presentation. Individually small yet united into a large installation; the layered paper and deconstructed binding becomes a universe unlike our own, yet the metaphor is familiar and expansive.

Ben Grasso’s explosive compositions evoke multiple interpretations. The paintings can read as illustrations of the environmental deconstruction that has rocked the world in this past year. The saturated palette and angular forms come together in a cinematic effect. Yet, another interpretation that one may read into these houses that appear to be popping, is the descriptive use of form to comment on the collapse of the housing market. Grasso’s pieces allow for interpretation to take place and all of these speculations are possible. Yet, the absence of people, furniture, and any other belongings says much more to the audience by not being present. With deconstruction comes reconstruction, and in his work I find myself hopeful and motivated by the presence of energy rather then discouraged by a stagnant aftermath.

More recently the exhibition Shift and Flow, at Dorsky Gallery in Long Island City, NY held some beautiful surprises. Curated by Zeljka Himbele Kozu  (on view until November 27, 2011) the exhibition focuses on how architecture affects our everyday life and determines social and cultural values. Amongst the sculpture, photography, and video, are Peter Owen’s mixed-media paintings that not only reference architecture, but rather the act of building out and breaking down.

Looking at Owen’s three paintings in the group exhibition one would think that they may be hung too close together, yet they thrived within close proximity to one another; maintaining their own boundaries yet simultaneously creating an overall environment- as if a strip-mall of construction. There is a constant play between construction and deconstruction/ growth and vacancy both conceptually and formally.  The architectural elements allow for balanced to the abstracted strokes and colorful palette. Certain sections of the composition are left undeveloped, while other areas are heavily built upon.  We see areas of detail and focus: a perfectly rendered water tower, windows, and even more appropriately scaffolding emerge through the layers of paint. Yet, there are areas of the composition left intentionally blank, as if construction was started, funding was lost, and this is now what remains.

Also of interest is the work of Jonathan Allen at Lu Magnus Art Laboratory and Salon in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Strolling through the Lower East on a Saturday morning is surprisingly quite once you leave the proximity of the New Museum (the current exhibition should only be attended weekdays if you prefer to maintain your sanity.) Jonathan Allen, on view until December 18, 2011, does wonders for the audience in his mixed media paintings that embrace collage as painting, rather then assemblage, to activate space. The compositions are fictitious, pseudo-real expansions but somehow seem possible, referencing another worldliness. Convergence, his larger installation of collage on wall in an enclosed hallway contains clear evidence of our media driven society with magazine references and ad clippings more obviously readable then in his two-dimensional work. Yet, in pieces such as Layer Cake (2011) and No Man’s Land (2011) (more successful), the origins of the collage pieces disappear once the final piece is viewed. The familiar materials used in the collage reference our everyday environment, yet become secondary in the new environment. Though socio–political jargon can be dragged from the use of printed mass-media, I am most impressed by the spatial references of the undetermined dream-scapes and his ability to build architectural space while deconstructing the imagery. They are products of our times, yet rather then drowned with satirical backlash, they’re optimistic, refined, and engaging.

All four artists, Grasso, Chang, Owen, and Allen, engage with the physical and conceptual space through continued activity, repeatedly building it up and breaking it down. It is reassuring to find artists embracing our current state of flux, rather then grandstanding with political objectives. When artists work in a manner that allows for conceptual questioning and continued change there is the risk of loosing proficiently and content. When this difficult task is achieved, as in work each artist in this essay, it allows for the artist to become an instigator, prompting the audience into active viewing and engagement.


Erin Treacy