Summer Paintings @ Terrault Contemporary (Ryan Nord Kitchen)

Allie Linn

My memory of “The Serial Garden,” a short story I read when I was ten or eleven years old, is foggy, but the plot revolves around a boy who assembles a paper model garden from the back of a tasteless cereal called Brekkfast Brikks. After discovering that singing the Brekkfast Brikks ode written on the box allows him to enter the garden, the boy begins to withdraw more and more into the partially real, partially fabricated landscape that he has constructed both physically and, possibly, mentally. Inside of the model garden, large portions of the idyllic flora and fauna fade into a dreamy fog where the neighboring models have not yet been attached. Until the adjacent models are linked, the garden exists as an unfinished world.

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August Moonlight. Oil on linen. 2015.

I was reminded of “The Serial Garden” for the first time in many years, while viewing the simultaneous flatness and hazy depth of the mostly blue and lilac August Moonlight, one of ten paintings by Ryan Nord Kitchen recently on view in “Summer Paintings” at Terrault Contemporary. The reliance on signifiers of the landscape (moon, tree, cloud) hinders August Moonlight from falling into total abstraction, but the ample use of blue and exposed linen accentuate the painting’s surface. Loose outlines of clouds and bushes in the foreground trail off into a collapsed, blurry backdrop in the center, drawing on traditional elements of perspective to create a deep space while concurrently acting as a wall, obstructing the landscape behind. The distortion of the dryly applied brush marks does somehow translate into a muggy and heat-shimmered atmosphere, and there is something inherently magical about a garden bathed in blue when the familiar urban landscape so frequently glows a noxious orange.

The palette for most of Kitchen’s paintings relies on one dominant color straight from the tube, interspersed with other primaries. The childlike color and mark making is most effective in works like Ponds 2, a field of green speckled with an archetypal corner sun, a puffy cloud with a perfect drop shadow, and a series of red tick marks making up a bridge or jungle gym. The pure yellow of Summer Painting, too, functions as a warm ground for a landscape of bushes and clouds, emanating heat and feelings of mirage and distortion. In some cases, the deliberate wiggle of a line even closely resembles a word, almost spelling out “wind” or “pond,” but ultimately these lines dissolve into indecipherable loops.

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Ponds 2. Oil on linen. 2015.

Some of Kitchen’s compositions seem to borrow elements from Chinese shan shui (aptly, “mountain water”) scroll painting, stacking mountains and skies and suns from multiple points of view, especially in the more graceful linework of Garden and Fountain. Fittingly, many of these Chinese landscapes, primarily from the Tang, Song, and Yuan dynasties, depict nature as a place of retreat or sanctuary in times of political instability. Perhaps Kitchen’s paintings do the same, relying on the garden as a space for escape and blissful daydreaming amidst a grim political climate. The only accompanying text for the show, “Some are cloudy days and others are sunny days,” mimics the childlike mark making of these paintings. What does it mean to equate the unending atrocities of recent current events (a texas grand jury declined to indict anyone in the death of sandra bland, boko haram, now ranked as the world’s deadliest terror group, continues terrorizing nigeriarecent mass attacks by isis in beirut and paris) with cloudy days? The depicted gardens here provide, as so many before have in the canon of landscape painting, a temporary retreat to a saturated wonderland that feels very pleasant, if slightly naive.

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Summer Painting. Oil on linen. 2015.

Even after all of the Brekkfast Brikks models have been assembled in “The Serial Garden” to form a complete garden, the boy returns home one afternoon only to find that in the midst of spring cleaning, his mother has burned the paper model in the furnace. There is no trace of any other Brekkfast Brikks boxes or means of returning to the utopian garden again. Maybe it is a reminder that these moments of escape can only be short-lived. Kitchen’s depictions of perfect, summer days likewise can only momentarily provide a distraction, but for that moment, they do emanate a certain tangible warmth.

Photos courtesy of Ryan Nord Kitchen

Youth Dew @ Springsteen (Flannery Silva)

Allie Linn

Though it is unusual to see Springsteen’s lights dimmed during open hours, the current exhibition by Flannery Silva opts for a muted darkness and curtained-off front window to house its collection of digitally collaged posters, ceramic figures and ballet barres, and embroidered banners. Moving away from the net-ready, pristine shows Springsteen has consistently curated,Youth Dew offers a selection of carefully crafted and often times peculiar artifacts that feel like a secret or whisper offered by the artist and necessitate being explored in-person to fully resonate.

That said, navigating the space is much like navigating Silva’s diaristically structured website: a labyrinth of images and links fusing fragments of Little House on the Prairie,Little Women, and The Glass Menagerie among others. The characters from these stories seem to act as surrogates for the artist, and Silva shape-shifts between roles in Youth Dew, merging her own hand with the likeness of Laura Ingalls, ballerinas, and Precious Moments dolls. Silva’s interest in these childhood depictions of girlhood surpass nostalgia and border on obsession/fixation, making it difficult to distinguish the boundary between fact and fiction, performance and reality. Simultaneously imbued with tenderness and threat, Youth Dew blends young naiveté of melancholic reminiscence with something more sinister.

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Akin to a crime scene, or perhaps the opening montage of a crime television drama, small vignettes of fabricated ballet barres, footprints indicating ballet positions, and spilled baby bottles lay on the ground untouched, softly lit in the otherwise darkened room. In one corner, a grey and black wooden cutout of a simplified, featureless figure in a bonnet hangs from white rope. It is unclear whether her hands are bound or she is innocently swinging. On the opposite wall, a triangle of fabric machine-embroidered with a poem hangs by two oversized hair clips. Splotches of juice or dye allow the white-on-white text to emerge more clearly, revealing collections of phrases both light-hearted (“a feeling i only want to poke with a stick”; “qUiLt TiL u WiLt”) and more threatening (“Drawers Hiked, Ode To Bloomers/ milk-teeth missing, lips bee-stung, nipples swell/nothingness for baby”). Throughout the gallery, hands are bound, faces are obscured, and shapes reminiscent of tears and flower petals litter the ground.

The exaggerated sadness of Silva’s arrangements references the performance work of Laurel Nakadate, while ties to artists Bunny Rogers and collaborative partner Filip Olszewski emerge in the imagery and content on display as well. Recently highlighted in Joanna Fateman’s article “Women on the Verge: Art, Feminism and Social Media” (Artforum, April 2015), Rogers employs a similar language as Silva, combining found text, crafted objects and websites, and appropriated imagery to explore cybermythology and child sexuality. Probably the most disturbing yet all-encompassing phrase cited in Fateman’s article is lifted from a poem of Rogers’: “Adorability is fuckability / because children are adorable/ and men want to fuck children/ Acknowledge or die wow/ You are dead to me.”

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And there is something mildly disturbing about encountering so many characters and figurines intended for a young audience in Silva’s show, although this exploration of the uncomfortable intersection between trauma and innocence remains intriguing in its taboo without ever becoming overly didactic. Moments where these two subjects merge, as in the image of a young toddler crawling on all fours, cradled by the words, “This little country girl is all ready to be hung from your tree,” become the keystones for Youth Dew. Not explicitly erotic or violent, but certainly interpretive as such, these works provide only murmurs of their histories. Even the show’s title offers liberal interpretation, simultaneously referencing infancy, spring, freshness, perfume, perspiration, a water drop emoji, and a tear.

Youth Dew is on view through June 6that Springsteen Gallery, 502 W. Franklin St. (Photos courtesy of Springsteen, view video walkthrough here.)

Iconscapes @ Freddy, Year of Flowers @ Franklin Street

Allie Linn

The term “latent image” is generally reserved for the dialogue of photography, but the notion of a hidden or delayed image, either literally concealed or evasive from one’s memory, can apply to the experience of reading any work. In the case of Iconscapes and Year of Flowers, neighboring exhibitions that opened earlier this month at Freddy Gallery and Franklin Street, respectively, that delayed recognition becomes a connecting link between each artist’s practice. While Keith Mayerson’s Iconscapes focus on dreams and the subconscious as the starting point of the painting process, allowing symbols to automatically emerge through the guise of abstraction, the familiar, though contextually cryptic, symbols comprising David Armacost’s Year in Flowers next door force the viewer to work backwards, reading the images lining the walls to understand the artist’s personal mythology. There is a notion of anonymity within both shows; Mayerson becomes a passive liaison between subconscious and canvas, although it ultimately results in autobiographical work, while Armacost uses a visual lexicon of symbols in place of any kind of signature or statement (it’s no secret that these works are his, but nothing inside Year of Flowers says so). As the images within both shows come into focus, the sincerity of the works emerges as well.

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Iconscapes at Freddy Gallery presents six works by New York-based painter, and recent Whitney Biennial contributor, Keith Mayerson. Known primarily for his portraits of historical, personal, and cultural icons, Mayerson veers away from a strict adherence to linear narrative and illustrative scenes in favor of abstracted and vaguely psychedelic fields of color for the show. These works contribute to a larger series of Iconscapes that Mayerson has been exploring since the eighties as on-going attempts to “realize iconic images from [his] subconscious.” Covered in meandering, melting stews of vibrant paint strokes, the paintings fall somewhere between the works of Arshile Gorky, Joan Mitchell, and James Franklin Snodgrass, merging early abstraction and figurative abstraction with obsessive painting techniques evocative of outsider art. 

On first view, the works in Iconscapesdon’t feel particularly new or innovative; they suggest a slew of references and feel vaguely familiar. The intrigue in these works, however, occurs in the crevices between strokes of paint, where the artist has inserted cartoonish eyes and ears and mouths. As these stylized body parts begin to emerge and the space beyond the surface expands, it becomes increasingly unclear which figures Mayerson has intentionally included and which ones have been imagined from the chaos of the marks. 

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Further clarity arises from Mayerson’s earlier writing from his 2013 exhibition “My American Dream” at Derek Eller Gallery in New York. Showcasing the same six Iconscapescurrently on view at Freddy, this exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue containing twenty-five pages of hand-written musings by the artist titled simply “Letter written on a plane to and fro Columbus.” Excerpts from this essay, perhaps the most automatic work of all by the artist, reappear in Freddy’s press release, but the passages that Mayerson has left out provide a much more direct explanation of the source of these works:

“In my thesis show back in 1988 I hung abstract works – created in part to purposely sublimate my then still ‘hidden’ (at least beyond my circle of friends) desires for other men (by breaking down forms of me and certain individuals I had secret longings for) into eyes, mouths, etc. converging over and through each other in ways I couldn’t do in real life.”

This brief insight into the origin of the Iconscapes – not a dull interest in the figurative possibilities of abstract works or a heavy-handed attempt at overly mystifying the painting process, but a poignant depiction of a young artist navigating his sexuality during the early peak of the AIDS epidemic and a subsequently extremely homophobic culture – completely changed my outlook on these works, several days after seeing them in person. As this catalogue was unaffiliated with Freddy’s exhibition, and the press release for Iconscapes references only Mayerson’s interests in the canvas as a tool for psychological navigation, it might not be fair to place Mayerson’s reflections in the context of his Freddy show, but the stakes seem so much higher, and the results so much richer, when the works’ origins are revealed. 

Next door at Franklin Street, David Armacost’s Year of Flowers, presented as a one-night-only event, plays with elusive imagery in a very different way, referencing symbols that feel familiar but have an undefined history. The front room of the gallery is lit only by a cluster of tea candles in front of a painted replica of Edouard Vuillard’s 1895 piece, Woman in a Striped Dress. As the first and only image visible from the street through the storefront window, Armacost’s reproduction on a cheap, cardboard-like material feels like a hand-painted sign or some a kind of DIY icon for a memorial. The reference to a recognizable painting calls into question the origin of the other pieces comprising YOF, and the nod to Vuillard informs the rest of the show: a certain softness pervades the imagery, and Vuillard’s embrace of the painting as decorative object is reconsidered in the context of the contemporary souvenir.

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The back room of the gallery alludes to a funeral home, or maybe a caricature of one. The walls are draped with white cotton fabric, the floor is covered with a navy blue carpet, and the subtle fragrance of the candles from the front room lingers in the air. There is, however, a humor that pervades the space, making it seem more like a movie set for a funeral home rather than a real one: in the corner, a chair draped in white fabric painted with outstretched hands is positioned beneath a beaded picture of a bouquet of flowers, seemingly purchased from a second hand store. On the adjacent wall, a dozen small paintings centered on white pieces of cotton are casually tacked up. Resembling t-shirts or another similar souvenir object in their scale, composition and imagery, these paintings depict quick notations of quiet landscapes, more handprints, a red curtain touching the wooden stage beneath, and multiple pink lilies. These small vignettes function as brief windows into unintelligible narratives, gesturing towards the unseen landscapes that reside beyond the boundaries of the images. The repetition of the overly romantic, nostalgic symbol of the flower makes all of the scenes resonate with a certain degree of yearning while still pointing to the language of the memorial. 

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These paintings are really lovely, soft and immediate in their application and appearing soaked into the cotton. It is unclear, however, what the source of these moments is: Have these scenes been borrowed from postcards or other novelty items, as the Vuillard replica and framed bouquet imply? Or are they the invention of the artist, acquiring importance and history only in their repetition? It might not make a difference, but these works are appealing because of the sentiment of the marks and the mystery they exude, and in lieu of Mayerson’s writing, the absence of any kind of accompanying text to provide any clues is somewhat disappointing. The images remain fairly clouded by an unrealized articulation of their purpose. Perhaps, however, the focus is more on the performance and its conclusion – the sliver of the red curtain in one of the paintings, the bouquet of flowers that is typically presented at the end of the show, the ambiguous gesture of the hand that looks like a wave. Existing only as a one-night event, it feels appropriate that YOF reads as both a “welcome” and a “goodnight,” allowing the images within to exist as lingering, fragmented memories. 

If Mayerson’s paintings become clearer and more accessible alongside the narration of the artist, Armacost’s works seem to prefer to remain somewhat ambiguous. Presented as neighboring exhibitions, Iconscapes and Year of Flowers complement one another in their varying degrees of esotericism. Armacost’s works, alluring in their form and the mystery they convey, don’t allow complete entrance by the audience, while Mayerson’s paintings, initially not very compelling, acquire interest with time. The search for the hidden image – its form, its context, its history – directs the way each artist’s work is experienced and allows for a satisfying exploration within both spaces.  

(Photos courtesy of Freddy and Franklin St.)