Ricco / Maresca
The Scully Tomasko Foundation
Singing in Unison
Artists Need to Create On the Same Scale Society Has the Capacity to Destroy
Phong Bui, co-founder, publisher, and artistic director of the highly regarded art and cultural journal The Brooklyn Rail, has a long history of social projects, documented by and through countless printed and online archives, along with its highly active social media presence since the beginning of the pandemic, such as the New Social Environment, a daily digital platform for conversations that cultivate cross-pollination among artists, writers, poets, social activists, academics and cultural workers across the U.S. and abroad, and just surpassed 600 episodes. The Rail, as it’s been referred in the last 21 years, under Bui’s vision has been attempting the difficult task not only of making often peripheral art and experimental culture accessible to the public, but also regularly incorporating artists in various disciplines and their concomitant effort from the edges, marginal places into mainstream culture. His vision, Beuysian in nature, and Bourriaudian relational aesthetics in action, both are meant as social activations, for they relay a shared determined concern to involve people in a community. The vehicle for doing so is art, which, in addition to creating its own artifacts, also forms a bridge between image-making and social context, structured by perceptions that exist within a public domain. Bui, himself an artist (his realist drawings of the artists interviewed in The Rail will be exhibited at Craig F. Starr Gallery in late October), does not diminish creativity in any way. But he finds the social reality in which we currently live, a time of extreme confusion and misunderstanding, especially in regard to culture, a challenge he must address.
Bui, an immigrant from Vietnam, continues his artwork, which he started decades ago. Additionally, while in his twenties, he made it his concern to develop relations with members of New York’s formidable constellation of intellectuals; Meyer Schapiro, the art historian and theorist, was a mentor and close friend. Participating in New York intellectual history through Schapiro’s reminiscences of his generation, including philosophers, poets, writers, academics, and artists, such as Sir Isaiah Berlin, Saul Below, Mary McCarthy, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Barnet Newman, Willem de Kooning, among other were parts of a more integrated community, Bui was inevitably inspired by their concerns beyond art. As a result, he has merged esthetics with a consideration of social mores. Bui hopes that art will not only fulfill its artistic responsibilities, it will also join artists from various backgrounds, often with contrasting ideas, together in interactive relationships. By bringing people together, the social impulse behind much art since modernism is made alive again. Usually Bui seeks collective awareness, although not necessarily in political terms. Rather, the communal acts he encourages support the art practitioner, known or not, who has a real need to find companions who would help others in their artistic practice. Yet Bui is not following an esthetic Marxism. Instead, he pursues a communal understanding of creativity, in which art fosters connections of a personal as well as an artistic nature. (He has of late referenced Alexis de Tocqueville’s concept of the art of joining, where civic and cultural life can be intersected and shared among all people in the community.)
For decades Bui has been promoting his vision quietly as he believes in a more effective method of subversion. He seeks to join artists from a broad geography, asking them to recognize that art’s success is shallow should it evade engaging the world. He does not believe in an art world distant from common life. Instead, he deeply believes art is deeply connected to the totality of culture. This broad view is evidenced in his projects, which are as much socially oriented as artistic. “Singing in Unison” is his most recent undertaking, consisting of some eleven plus shows, organized with his curatorial assistant Cal McKeever. This article will address the first five iterations of Bui’s curatorial project—the venues include: Art Cake, The Scully Tomasko Foundation, Below Grand, Ricco/Maresca, and TOTAH. These places occur all around the city, and the many works they present are shown salon-style, with works of art, including neon signs by the L.A. based artist Lauren Bon in every location, otherwise paintings, sculptures, drawings, and photographs are set relatively close to each other to create dialogues in either images or material uses. It is impossible to characterize the broad array of styles available to the viewer; we have instead a democratic grouping, highlighting the multiplicity of today’s art. Styles range from the abstract to the figurative, from the skilled to the raw. Generally speaking, there is an emphasis on expressiveness, often untutored but communicating strong feelings. Bui is a curator and artist for whom emotion is a measure of integrity.
Installation view: Singing in Unison: Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy, Part 3, Below Grand, New York, 2022. Courtesy Rail Curatorial Projects and Below Grand. Photo: Andrew Woolbright.
In an effort to bring artwork to the streets—the show at Below Grand occurs in part in a storefront space separating the audience from the works only by a plate of glass—the spaces make an effort to reach out to as broad an audience as possible. But this is more difficult than it seems; one of the problems facing Bui is bridging the gap between the art world, whose audience is visually educated, and the general culture, whose spare time is regularly occupied with popular culture, experienced by watching television or attending to social media. We are living in a time of extreme pluralism, a set of circumstances Bui embraces. Yet, sadly, the art world has not yet been able to establish a strong connection with viewers not professionally involved with art. Bui, in his determination to break down barriers between people, no matter their background, is showing unusual persistence in merging differences between the kinds of art we see in these shows and the kinds of people whose interests exist outside art. The larger question of whether the connection can lastingly be created needs time for us to tell. Focusing on the work and intention in the five shows, we find that an effort is made to move beyond the confines of the art world alone. This is a time when visual culture is by far the most popular genre of imaginative work (no one reads anymore), so it is to be hoped that the exhibitions are seen by as broad an audience as possible.
Installation view: Singing in Unison: Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy, Part 1, Art Cake, Brooklyn, New York, 2022. Courtesy Rail Curatorial Projects and Art Cake. Photo: Robert Banat.
At Art Cake, the cultural events space located in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, featuring Wolf Tones collective (led by Nancy Shaver, Pradeep Dalal, Maximilian Goldfarb, and Sterrett Smith as well as other participants, just to name a few architect Stan Allen, artist Catherine Lord, poet Ann Lauterbach, and art critic David Levi Strauss), which, in its crowded installation, is filled with all manner of two and three-dimensional works, handmade, and readymade in some cases, looking very much as if it were displaying a barely contained anarchy of invention. The approach in this show is so varied, description proves difficult: a quick look finds a rug with a black-and-white pattern draped over a support. Nearby, a large black-and-white picture of a wrestler or boxer, standing in a confrontational manner and with muscles rippling across his torso, grabs our attention. Flat form works, of various sizes and themes, are arranged in close proximity to each other on the wall. The space contains so many visuals, so various in their form and their effect, the audience submits to a general impression more than focusing on individual art objects. As a result, the environment becomes a statement inspired in its disarray, with the many objects capturing the random experiences of art and life in our city. Additionally, the cumulative effect of the shows illustrates the massive array of approaches taken by artists working currently. Given the esthetic freedoms associated with alternative art, indeed any art at all, the works on view are not easily tied together. Instead, they reflect the variety of styles, more or less innumerable, forming a chance pattern as a challenge to fine art’s history.
In one part of Art Cake’s space, the area is so thick with unnamed sculptures, it is hard to find a path from one end of the room to the next. In another area, more open, we find two chairs and a table—a small environment humanizing the space. One is free to sit down, rest, and talk. This scenario occurs within the abstract elaboration of unrelated images. Because Bui is a curator as interested in experience as he is in the object itself, he looks to merge the social implications of the shows with the art displayed. Doing so emphasizes experience. In Art Cake’s curation, the totality of the exhibition becomes at least as important as the individual work of art. In general, the exhibitions suggest a preference for image-making as a group endeavor. In this show, the selection is demonstrative of communal effectiveness, echoing Bui’s belief in a common ground. At the same time, the arrangement of random objects works extremely well as a visual statement. We jump from one world to the next in viewing proximate paintings. Yet Bui’s view is not entirely social; we never lose the awareness that we are looking at art, not merely elements supporting a communal vision. The democratic impulse sustaining the show surely is a feature of Bui’s imaginative drive. Sometimes, though, the implications of a group-oriented art bring into discussion the interesting contrast between anonymity and the promulgation of the artist’s name. The placement of the art’s display tends to emphasize a group orientation—but one entirely dependent on the visual. This has happened before; much of the historically early art we admire has no name to tie it to, partially because the tradition did not support a developed sense of authorship. The overall effect of all the materials at Art Cake is one of a hidden assertion that supports a general intent more than the acknowledged achievement of a single artist.
Installation view: Singing in Unison: Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy, Part 2, Scully Tomasko Foundation, Chelsea, New York, 2022. Courtesy Rail Curatorial Projects and Scully Tomasko Foundation.
In the massive, high-ceilinged room of the Scully Tomasko Foundation on 17th Street in Chelsea, there is more emphasis on individual effort. Works of art, again, in their variety, are displayed salon-style on the walls; no similarity of style can be distinguished. At times, figurative works are installed near each other, for example, Lisa Yuskavage’s supple palette in her typical material specificity of oil on linen in The Wingman (2015) is hung above Thornton Dial’s mixed media with enamel and spray paint on wood Liberty (1988). Other times, abstraction and representation are clustered together under one common subject such as architectural motifs, be it building façades like that of William Hawkin’s Deshler Hotel no. 4 (1988) and Andrew Moeller’s Painting XXX (2020), or say the inside view of Vera Lutter’s Pepsi Cola Interior, VI: September 5-11, 2000 (2000), while in between the abstract gestures, be it painterly in David Reed’s #758 (2000-21), or hard-edge by David Rhode’s Untitled 16.4.2021 (Port Bou) (2020), they seem to evoke a similar architectural presence nevertheless. Julian Schnabel’s portrait of Lawrence Weiner, painted a few weeks before the artist’s passing, not only offer the same function, between Robert Bergman’s a group of ten untitled portraits (2009) on the left, and a selection from Brian Berlott’s kid’s copies (2014-17) on the right, it prompted the idea of dedicating each venue to each artist friend who had died during the pandemic. As with the second version of Scully-Tomasko foundation is dedicated to the loving memory of Lawrence Weiner (1942-2021), at Art Cake to Peter Lamborn Wilson (1945-2022), at Below Grand to Constance Lewallen (1939-2022), at Ricco/Maresca to Etel Adnan (1925-2021), and at TOTAH to Dan Graham (1942-2022).
The styles are conflated for a reason; Bui wants to give all approaches an equal chance. Bui himself is present with an installation of many of his drawings of artists interviewed in the Rail; the realist portraits frame a set of dark, abstract drawings placed in the middle of the realist works. There are several abstract sculptures set randomly on the floor; these works, such as Allen Glatter’s Meanwhile, Back in the States (2018), Joe Minter’s The Migration (2000) or Ben Keating’s Nothing, 1975 (2009), in their nonobjective construction, contrast with the mostly representative artworks on the walls. Once again, we experience a deep feeling for communal identity. The shows are intended to show how a common bond in art enables people to maintain good relations between each other; individual efforts are conceptually consigned to the background of the show. This bias goes against the general emphasis of the moment; art today is to be trumpeted and championed even at the cost of modesty. The implication of contemporary art is that creativity presents a dedication according to its own force; the individual follows his or her path, with an emphasis on expansive expressiveness. Such a practice is highly romanticized in its stance. By countering such an impulse, the curators argue for a less dramatic orientation, emphasizing shared communications and relations among people.
Below Grand comprises a small storefront and its equally small space from the back, which one has to enter through a restaurant supplies store. A sheet of plate glass separates the viewer, standing outside, from the paintings and sculptures in the space. As occurs in the other spaces, the work is a mixture of high and low, abstract and figurative. Pink (2022), a manual typewriter painted in an expressionistic manner by Sam Messer, resembles a grinning face, contrasting with a German Finger Counting Machine, painted in dark green, with two red gloves, above, made by an anonymous artist. Another example, Over the Sun (2022), a painting by Katherine Bradford of two swimmers leaping above the water with the setting sun behind them, is shown next to a wood carving of a nude by the self-taught artist Joseph Rappal, both of which are installed on the floor. In the back space, Susan Bee’s The Quarrel (1983) and Jon Serl’s The Four Eyes (1945-46) is another instance of subtle parallel. The same can be said of Sean Scully’s small painting Kasos (1982) and the anonymous checkerboard. There are so many kinds of styles in this show, as well as in the other spaces, that generalizing or accurately describing the many influences informing the art proves hard. But one enjoys and appreciates the democratic implications of an exhibition displayed literally on the street. If it is true that these shows are meant to bring art to people as directly as possible, and to celebrate image-making without overemphasizing the individual, the display at Below Grand presents art in a communal manner. I think this exhibition, like the others, represents Bui’s point of view. The imagination should bring people together, rather than separating them in their common and shared viewing experiences.
Despite current efforts to democratize culture, art still often feels confined to its own audience. It is impossible to assign fault for this situation to either the artist or the general culture. But it is true that the Internet and, especially, social media have created a closed system, despite the supposed freedom its communication represents. At the same time social media offers a wide audience for culture. In the perspective of social sculpture and relational aesthetic, this unique experience is often allowed to trump visual imagination. This is momentous for politics, but it may not be so easy to digest for art, although Beuys was remarkably gifted at merging art and social impulses. Partly because of his example, art is directed toward a social communication that sees the artwork primarily as a vehicle for social experience. It is hard to say why this orientation has become popular. The visual has become more important than reading; reviews of art are a paragraph long. In a time of isolation, exacerbated by our involvement with the computer, we need to forge a concerned community as well as develop innovative imagery. But art, now the most popular medium in culture, most truly concerns the practice of the imagination; it stands in contrast to the development of communal ties. Bui proposes to balance the two goals in these group shows, which successfully merge the desire to make something with the desire to connect a disparate audience.
Installation view: Singing in Unison: Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy, Part 4, Ricco / Maresca, Chelsea, New York, 2022. Courtesy Rail Curatorial Projects and Ricco / Maresca.
Ricco/Maresca Gallery, known for its long history of showing vernacular artists, is the site of the fourth version that seems to offer, as with other versions, altogether a different spirit and energy. Even though there appears as many figurative works that evoke similar parallels or dialogues among themselves as there are with abstract ones, in Bill Jensen’s diptych BLUE CUPOLA (2020-21), for example, his abstract translations of the figures in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment seem to correspond aptly to the fluid portrayal of biblical images in William Hawkin’s Nativity # 3 (1989). The expressionistic ethos in the Ursula Barnes’s painterly treatment of the figures I Cannot Choose (1930-40) is far different than Lucy Fradkin’s legible and flatly painted figures in her 7 Daily Servings of Fruits and Vegetables (2009), yet both show another extreme pairing that anchors certain degrees of unpredictability. A similar juxtaposition, perhaps less extreme, is seen in Jon Kessler’s Owl (2022), a welded steel sculpture whose marked fragility relates to Arthur Simms’s legendary tying process, employing found and used objects. The objects are subjected to the artist’s land of recycling materials. Additionally, Bob Witz’s Untitled (2021), made of fragments of wood pieces, painted in parts as an additive construction, makes use of the demotic to arrive at a totemic construction. Other highlights of this installation include Domingo Guccione’s three Untitled (1930-55) abstract drawings of visionary architecture and Andrew Moeller’s Painting XXIX (2022)—an exquisite mimicry of building façade that intensifies the subtlety between two and three dimensions that hasn’t been seen in this way ever before; Ethan Ryman’s Still Life # 7(2021) and William Corwin’s Mihrab 2 (2010) share their common interest in deconstructing geometry and architectural form. The latter effort can be explored through three-dimensionality, while the former represents a two-dimensional trajectory.
Installation view: Singing in Unison: Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy, Part 5, TOTAH, New York, 2022. Courtesy Rail Curatorial Projects and TOTAH.
At TOTAH, the selection is joined by a common feeling of exuberance of New York City’s vibrant energy. Bui and McKeever’s curation emphasizes a common ground that asks, rightly, What is art for? It is not merely self-expression; it always implies an audience whose interests often expand into an understanding of art’s context. For artistic judgment always has another aspect, namely, the tacit assumption that all art is political, this is to say politics are not necessarily ideological; rather they embrace the arts community and, hopefully, the general culture responding to art in ways that establish a shared vision. We can be hopeful, or not, about the strength of the tie. In one wall, one finds three distinct sounds singing in unison in Richard Serra’s Orchard Street # 17 (2017), a landmark drawing emphasizing maximal physicality and density. Existing in rapport, on the left, is Matvey Levenstein’s Snow (2016), a subtle execution of sumi ink, which explores transparency in a manner rare for such a material. On the right, William Hawkins, known one-brush master, brilliantly uses his unorthodox technique to create Prudential Rock # 2 (1989). Equally rewarding, one takes notice how the four standing nude figures in Carnival “Bathers” Peep-Through (1950), painted by an anonymous artist, supports a mythological narrative. In Vera Lutter’s haunting palimpsest, titled Guido Reni, Bacchus and Ariadne, c. 1619-20: April 18 – May 9, 2018 (2018) time and matter are amplified through time through personal invention. In the central wall of the second space, the collision between cosmology and urban energy, filtered through alchemy, and Clem McCarthy’s Untitled (n.d) is prominent. And art history in the case of Loren Munk’s Bushwick Unfinished (2003-17), or gesture in David Reed’s #744 (2020-21), holds our reading of space, time, and matter steadily. Elsewhere the works of Kim Jones, Andrew Blythe, Guy Goodwin, Eddie Arning, and others seem to lend their contrasting efforts toward the illustration of similar in pairings or parallels.
The point is that no one is trying to make these connections. There is a strong movement to democratize culture, but doing so can make it hard to translate artistic efforts into an accessible language. Art has often become hard to understand, although, as noted, its complexities have become, at least in some cases, less difficult because of previous histories we are able to study. The works were installed without hierarchical values, (too often are assigned labels, taught vs. self-taught, trained vs. untrained, insider vs. outsider, visionary, vernacular, outlier, marginal, etc.), a decision supporting the determination of Bui and McKeever to give the pleasure of viewing to a general audience, not only those from the centralized and mainstream artworld. Again, the cumulative effect of the countless works we encounter suggests a pluralism dedicated to a wide audience. This audience may be educated or not, from within and without the art world; the curators’ vision is one of cultural totality. The theme of art’s ability to inspire, coupled with the wish to make it as accessible as possible, is central to Singing in Unison. Whether the work is made by taught or self-taught artists, or well-known or anonymous artists, or simply artists from different generation, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, the show’s subtitle, Artists Need to Create On the Same Scale That Society Has the Capacity to Destroy, succinctly captures the spirit of the project. The statement may appear at first like a truism, but, considered over time, it begins to read like an ethical injunction embracing art as a vehicle for commitment.
The idea, in both theory and practice, is especially pertinent now, as visual culture has become more popular than it ever did before. While the known artists are treated much like celebrities in the entertainment industry, the lesser-known are barely able to make ends meet. We should be reminded that there is next to no support for art in a governmental sense. This means that artists are mostly on their own, when rents and the cost of a studio in New York City and other large cities have become exorbitantly high. At the same time, progressive elements in culture are working toward a visual language, deeply pluralistic, that will reach as many people as possible. Contemporary art is being emphasized over historical shows; in the future, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will build a wing devoted to new artworks alone. The idea, so evident in the shows discussed here, is to do away with the boundaries that may exist between the image and its audience. Bui’s determination to join social differences through culture is admirable. We are living in a time of extreme economic disparity, and highly limited opportunities for artists. At the same time, we hope for a more fluid connection between art and its spectators. The five shows I have written on represent a well-intended, indeed inspired, endeavor to join artistic efforts with the interests of a large population, professional or not. One thinks of the banner by Chinese conceptual artist Xu Bing, emblazoned with the phrase “Art for the People,” which hung from the façade of the Museum of Modern Art in 1999. Lastly, I should add that in this curatorial project, while various venues are treated as mutual sites, the purpose is to bring writers, poets, musicians, dancers, and other creatives together to share their works with a general audience, who otherwise may stay within the boundaries that define the specificity of their interest. Even during this difficult time, when the art world milieu seems to be talking only to itself, Singing in Unison offers a vital common purpose. A broad understanding of what the arts and humanities can mean and do in present circumstances is much needed for our sustainability and growth.
Jonathan Goodman, July 14, 2022 (updated July 25, 2022)