“Polycentric, Dialogic and Relational”
Art by John Jay Faculty
The curator of this virtual show of artworks by John Jay College artists is Thalia Vrachopoulos, a professor of art history at the school. She is a noted art-world figure who specializes in contemporary art and no doubt set up the exhibition to display the diverse talents of the 17 artists whose works we see. The styles engendered by these artists are far too disparate to generally characterize (and not all of them can be included in the review), but they represent mostly innovative approaches to painting and sculpture, in a school focusing on the forensic sciences! As it stands, the show is particularly good, reflecting the depth and variety of imagery made in New York City, where most of the artists live--hence the title of the show, its emphasis on multiple approaches to artmaking. The format, a picture of two or more works, followed by a verbal description of them and a brief biography of the artist, cannot explore in depth the achievements of the artist; instead, the multiplicity of their values is given greater interest. Vrachopoulos has attempted to educate the viewer by means of a broad overview of artists whose styles are but distantly related, and she has done an excellent job.
Maybe one generality can be made in response to this remarkably different array of different styles, namely, the pre-eminent position of modernism has been vanquished in favor of an eclecticism and pluralism that views the personal outlook of the artist as more important than impartial formalist concerns, although such concerns do manifest in such sculptures as those of Roberto Visani and Steve Erickson. But the personal triumphs in contemporary art in general, and in this show in particular, which can be accurately seen as a microcosm of the New York art world at large. Contemporary art in New York has become so disparate as to demand a reading of artists on an individual basis, so it is impossible to easily find a thread connecting one to the other. But then the pluralization of the general output is its major attraction: we jump from style to style and appreciate work in a personal manner. Thus, we have a slightly isolated awareness of each practitioner. Yet this is not necessarily a problem, for it allows us to give a close reading of the single artist’s work, free of the need to contextualize him or her within a movement or group.
But even if we focus on the contemporary artist’s isolation, we nonetheless tend to gravitate toward a reading that would place him or her in a more general circumstance indicative of the artist’s proclivities--there is always a need to find a milieu. And sometimes the exception proves the rule: Steve Erickson is a good example of a modernism that endures, even now. His angular, architecturally constructed sculptures look like they are built from wood but are actually ceramic. The separate parts interact with each other in an angular fashion, creating forms that rise out and up and against each other, in ways that emphasize sculptural space, nearly attaining the structure of a building. Because Erickson is working with open components rather than closed ones, the density of form is dispersed in the work, so that the art possesses a certain airiness. His art, though, directly results from an involvement in modernism, its clean lines and the suggestion of planar exteriors, wonderfully achieved despite the openness of its components. Roberto Visani’s laser-cut acrylic totems look like something made in tribal Africa, if it were not for the contemporary nature of the acrylic. Placed together in a group, they assume an air of mystery. The forms are figurative, with two legs emerging from a circular pedestal, a long, thin trunk, and then two raised arms (but no head) emerging from the trunk. There are lines showing where the acrylic has been cut, and each totem is colored differently. As a result, the mixture of modernity and traditional African sculpture looks very convincingly coherent and inspired.
Marina Berio’s gum chromate prints are made with blood as their principal component. Blood makes sense here, as the images seem to express blood relations between members of families, such as father and son. In one of the images, a man in shorts, his head not visible, stands over a figure resting sideways, with his back to us. He too is wearing only shorts, and his head, too, exists outside of the picture plane. In another image, a bald man in the upper left extends his arms to grasp the feet of a partial figure extending sideways across the composition. The works possess a red tinge--the result of Berio’s use of blood. These are intricately posed, intimate portraits that make use of unusual physical relations between people to create powerful art. Cyriaco Lopes’s colorful sculptures of gay men, often in erotic ecstasy, demonstrate a strong sense of multivalent color and complex form. While the work is uninhibitedly sensual, it also gathers a formal resolve in a rough way. Lopes is clearly an artist of erotic abandon, in a time given to erotic abandon. But that is only part of the works’ effect; additionally, the use of color and the physical appearance of the sculpture, destroyed after the photograph has been made, resolve into a wonderful demonstration of how a flat artwork like a picture can be made complex and intricate by the subject matter of something three-dimensional.
Stephanie Hightower’s colorful, blunt paintings and prints roughly made, indirectly consider the position of gay women today; the images Vrachopoulos has chosen to come from a series done in 1998-99 and reflect the identity art being made at the time. Figures hover close together; birds with long tails dwell in attics; a drawn chess piece stands next to a photo of a stone head from classical times. These images are not directly addressing New York’s queer community, but it is easy for Hightower’s audience to associate her imagery with a strong insertion of personal identity. It is interesting to consider the artist’s work as that of someone strongly independent, and it is particularly exciting to see her work as figurative in nature--perhaps the best way to intimate her personal existence. Sana Musasama, an inveterate activist, makes sculpture suggestive of the works of African totems or, at the same time, assemblages resembling natural forms. Her room-size installation is particularly strong, bringing into the audience’s view vertical ceramic works reminiscent of cacti, stunted trees, vertical rocks with plants. Musasama’s touch is exuberant and highly skilled when she is working with clay. And her sense of community relations among objects in a large environment is particularly strong, enabling the artist and her audience to engage in a dialogue about form, dimension, color in relation to each other.
A long-term photography professor at John Jay College, Frank Gimpaya makes photos of silhouetted soldiers from different historical periods, including the time of expansion in the American West. Often on horses and carrying guns, these figures set their dark forms against an unfocused, but bright, background. In their nearly childlike presentation of history as toy soldiers, the images remind us of the realities accompanying historical expansion. The drama of the photos, accentuated by the evidence of strong tonal contrast between figure and background, relates to an insight born of trouble across time: the ceaseless conflict between people, usually over bodies of land. Gimpaya is a poet of historical conflict, reduced to a few evidently unreal cowboys. Yet his artificiality does not lessen the strength of his point. Michael Bilsborough’s abstract drawings, often in red and making use of the grid, indicate the ongoing strength of the geometric approach to art. He is a master of interior perspective, held together by straight lines, that are sometimes embellished by small red spheres. Other works offer angular planes, often again of a red color, which could be linked to Constructivism. Whatever his historical affiliations might be, Bilsborough has created an austere, self-sufficient world, in which abstract relations among forms demonstrate the artist’s penchant for a non-objective universe. Thus, shape and line and, to some degree, color establish a counterpointed composition that self-sufficiently addresses the artist’s audience.
Is it possible to generate an overview of so many different kinds of artists? Maybe not. But the group is linked by an ongoing interest in exploratory imagery, made so by original themes, original forms, and new materials (like blood). As time goes on, we see an increasing reluctance to pursue craft in contemporary American art, but the truth is that the work in Vrachopoulos’s show is highly skilled. Additionally, even though these artists are not teaching in an art school, the quality of the work matches or betters the quality of art being made in some of the art schools I know. There may be some disappointment in being unable to characterize, in a general sense, the movement of these artists, but maybe that is the unintended point of an exhibition detailing as broad an art universe as that which we find in New York. Even if no generalization can be made, that statement can stand as an umbrella covering the differences between one artist and the text. Professor Vrachopoulos’s terrific show embodies the knowledge that good art sticks up for its own concerns, without the artist looking over his shoulder. She has documented well the continuing independence, without isolation, of New York’s current artists.
Jonathan Goodman, December 8, 2020