Arnold Mesches, Coming Attractions 5, 2005

Painting Impossible, Life on Mars, November 8- December 22nd, 2013

Group Show featuring Todd Bienvenu, Katherine Bradford, Jim Herbert, Arnold Mesches and Karen Schwartz

Curated by Michael David

For centuries, society has wondered if there was life on other planets, but what about painters? Perhaps there are both. If you visit Life on Mars (LOM), a.k.a. a new gallery in Bushwick, you will discover that their program orbits solely around painting. On November 8th, LOM launched a dynamic exhibition entitled Painting Impossible, curated by Director Michael David.  The show features works by Todd Bienvenu, Katherine Bradford, Jim Herbert, Arnold Mesches and Karen Schwartz.  

Although the age range between the artists spans over 60 years, the show’s cohesive element is a collective collage of life experiences.   Not only are the painters in this show committed to painting’s many processes and materiality, they also are examining the continued relevancy and ongoing meaning of the medium.  David remarks, “While their work in some cases uses irony, sarcasm and humor (and can share the “mash-up” of the first generation of Post-Modern Painters with the current trends of Meta Painting), what separates these painters from the current trends of Meta Painting—such as New Casualism, New Mannerism and Provisional Painting—is that there is absolutely nothing ironic or casual about their immersion in the act of painting, in both its process and material matter.”

The eldest of the group, Arnold Mesches is a renowned, Bronx born painter who creates Abstract Expressionist style works, which depict social and historical tropes. By combining unlikely juxtapositions–both in painting techniques and disparate imagery–the artist aims to recreate a “sense of utter instability and sheer insanity” that he feels has so often permeated his life experiences. Since he first started painting in the 1940s, Mesches has been regarded as a controversial figure. In 1945, the FBI targeted him as a subversive and placed him on a Person of Interest list, along with thousands of others. In the mid 50s, Mesches studio was broken into, and over 200 of his paintings were seized. It is still unclear who remains responsible for this act.  Coming Attractions 5 (2005), is part of a new series which focuses upon Mesches continued explorations of the absurd. Rendered in a retro palette, the painting is executed with the artist’s signature loose brushstrokes and yoked with provocative content. The composition depicts a worms-eye view of a church interior with a frescoed dome, outfitted in baroque-style architecture. A double row of heavily populated clotheslines hangs asymmetrically in the foreground for an audience of unoccupied pews.  This unusual pairing of images nudges the viewer to question deeper meanings that surround a modern day “theater of the absurd”; specifically, where do we fit in, and more importantly, who is watching us? Mesches works have been exhibited at prominent galleries and institutions for over sixty years; notable shows include a 26 year survey of collages at MoMA PS1 (2002-03) The FBI Files and a comprehensive retrospective at the Miami Dade College Museum of Art and Design earlier this year (2013) Arnold Mesches: A Life’s Work. Next sping (April 2014) LOM will be hosting Mensches first solo show in thirteen years. 

The youngest of the lot, Todd Bienvenu holds strong in a sea of veteran painters. Before moving to New York to get his MFA from the New York Studio School and experience the art world at large, the artist spent his formative years attending Catholic all-boys high school in the Little Rock, AR. Unsurprisingly, elements of repression and sexuality are at the main thrust of his compositions. Bienvenu comments, “I’m interested in making sex paintings. It’s a hard thing to do because they end up being so graphic and obvious.” However, the process of painting itself is tactile, messy and never the same thing twice–not unlike sex–which lends a certain forgiveness to Bienvenu’s compositions. In Constellations (2013) various body parts, sexual positions and sexual acts present themselves like neon x-rated zodiac symbols in the night sky.  Nestled beneath the titillating twilight stand two teenagers who gaze in wonder at a vista of unorthodox cosmic pictograms. Perhaps this work is a form of self-portraiture for Bienvenu who is gladly no longer in the dark about notions of sexuality.

Katherine Bradford is a prolific painter who creates playful works that are simultaneously abstract and representational. Bradford’s compositions frequently depict waterscapes that feature figurative elements rendered in bold colors, which seemingly float up against monochromatic backgrounds. In Night Divers (2012), Bradford wonderfully defies perspective by bisecting the picture plane with a pair of massive ships occupying the same body of water.  Whereas the upper half of the canvas depicts a close up, detailed view of nocturnal divers leaping off of a violet-tinted vessel, the lower half of the canvas portrays a distant sketch of a second ship, whose ghostly frame appears to be vaporizing into the night.  The overall compositional divide and surface tension in Night Divers make it seem as if Bradford collaged two different paintings into one. Perhaps this was the work that inspired the exhibition’s title, Painting Impossible. Bradford’s paintings have been exhibited numerous solo exhibitions and she is the recipient of several awards and grants including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant. The artist lives and works in Brooklyn.

Jim Herbert, Toes, 2013

Jim Herbert is an internationally acclaimed American artist and filmmaker who enjoys pushing the boundaries between digital media and painting.  His compositions and short films are known for their obsession with the nude figure in romantic and erotic figurations with an emphasis on the role of sexuality and scene context. Herbert mines the bulk of his subject matter from pornographic films or magazines, which he then abstracts with personal narratives. All of his paintings are executed with a “hands-on” technique, a process that inherently makes his works slippery in the sense that he is literally using his hands to recreate graphic images. Toes (2013), depict two nude men situated in an erotic pose which has one of them sucking on the other one’s toes. The men’s faces and frames are alarming gaunt and pale, which is further pronounced by a pattern of primary-colored psychedelic swirls in the background. Perhaps what is most unsettling about this provocative painting is its sweeping scale that looms over the viewer when standing in front of it. Herbert’s paintings and films have been exhibited in numerous solo and major group exhibitions including two Whitney Biennials, the Walker Art Center and the Los Angeles County Museum. The artist has also received two fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation: one for film, and one for painting.

Karen Schwartz, Shadow of His Former Self

As a painter and a psychoanalyst, Karen Schwartz regularly encounters shadow play. The American artist has likened the occupation of psychiatry to another form of painting, considering both are multifaceted and complicated arenas. As a matter of course, Schwartz’s compositions primarily depict human figures. Formally, the artist employs cropping techniques like Degas in order to create visual angles that situate the viewer.  This perspective allows Schwartz to hone in on the most important part of her figures.  In her painting Shadow of His Former Self (2013), the artist offers a diaristic account of her life experiences. Schwartz notes, “I wanted to find out what was inside of me. I was in despair about something going on in my life. So this [painting] is an abstract expression of my internal state.” The artist revealed that her husband had a double knee replacement and that Shadow of His Former Self is a reflection of her own subjectivity during that time.  The painting is a diptych, which led me to ask if the panels were representative of her two selves, or her and her husband, or even his knees—none of which were the reason.  Rather, the work is two panels because she confessed to having an expansive nature which always leads to her running out of room on the canvas. I wonder what Freud would say about that?