Tom Sanford’s Communal Cold Ones

Painter and Harlem resident Tom Sanford set the task upon himself to paint 99 bottles of beer, about one a day, which were given to him by a friend or fellow artist visiting his studio. The small-scale acrylic on wood depictions were painted quickly, with Sanford using a loose, gestural style well-suited for the task, with varied backgrounds from patterns and abstract marks to gold and silver leaf surfaces. What may be just as important as the actual painting is the communal aspect of the work, with the shared experience between the painter and the provider of the beer potentially leading to a dialogue about art, life and the ritual of imbibing suds. In the past, Sanford has documented other aspects of society or his surroundings, including the most prominent people that died around the world in 2012 and residents of Harlem that Sanford interacts with in his neighborhood.

Although many of the beers Sanford has rendered include familiar ones like Budweiser, Becks and Heineken, some obscure craft beers like New Belgium’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Otter Creek’s Couch Surfer and DuClaw’s Sweet Baby Jesus make one want to sample them to see what they are all about. He also captures a moment in time, where the explosion of microbreweries around the world has given rise to a new crop of ales, pilsners, lagers and stouts, not to mention the ubiquitous IPA’s. While Sanford documented the project on Instagram, the works should be viewed in its entirety, where the scope of the project and the physicality of the paint can truly be appreciated. Trying to find one of your favorites among the array of adult beverages is another interactive aspect, and although my beloved Hoegaarden White wasn’t present, I was pleased to see Newcastle Brown make an appearance.

Tom Sanford, “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” Gitler &___, August 2 — August 30, 2017.

Tom Sanford, installation view of "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall," Gitler &__, New York. Photo: Chris Bors

Tom Sanford, installation view of "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall," Gitler &__, New York. Photo: Chris Bors

The Material World of Christopher Stout

There is a compelling battle between form and surface in Christopher Stout’s abstract, minimal sculptural paintings in his current exhibition “Come Out 2 Show Them” at Lichtundfire. Circular forms and rectangles are the predominant shapes of these hybrid  works, whose three-dimensionality make them have a substantial presence. His commitment to his materials of plaster, resin, oil pigment, and in some instances the addition of plexiglass seems to be his badge of honor in our digital era. In fact, they could be thought of as artifacts from a long-last culture, heightened in some cases by the plexiglass “veil,” as the artist refers to the clear encasement altering our view in works like ecdysis (casting off of) 1, 2017.

Hanging on top of walls painted with narrow bands of either salmon or gray hues, the work’s minimal color is significantly altered depending on these contrasting backgrounds. In To do those things which are not convenient 1, 2015, for example, the marble-like striations of beige, gray and white come into sharp focus on the salmon background. Andrognyny 2, 2017, whose nine circles from plaster molds mounted on linen on panel resembles a primitive Lego or an ancient architectural remnant and which is hung on the gray stripe, emits a colder, almost clinical aura. The coloration of the works overall recall Antoni Tàpies palette of earthtones, and embodies the idea that imperfection should be celebrated rather than resisted. Stout’s use of molded plaster forms, weathered by additional media, stands in sharp contrast to contemporary architecture, whose goals seem to be straight lines, perfect curves and a pristine surface. 

Christopher Stout, “Come Out 2 Show Them” at Lichtundfire, New York, April 22—May 26, 2017.

Christopher Stout, To do those things which are not convenient 1, 2015. Photo: Chris Bors

Christopher Stout, To do those things which are not convenient 1, 2015. Photo: Chris Bors

Jennifer Coates’s Sweet and Savory Fare

For the past several years, painter Jennifer Coates has made a series of canvasses based on various foods, both sweet and savory, which play with ideas of representation and abstraction. In the best examples, they hover somewhere in the middle, but the overall idea is an ingenious one, allowing her to make an image that we are well-acquainted with, yet giving her enough leeway to incorporate diverse paint handling in combination with a sophisticated grasp of color. Coates’s painting chops (pun intended), can be seen in such works as Lasagna, 2016, with its scumbled surface of alternating pinkish-yellow and rusty vermillion tones, alongside an explosion of orange representing the cheese peeking out between layers of meat. Painted on a pastel blue-green background, the oozing pile of Italian cuisine touches three sides of the canvas, allowing us to vacillate between appreciating it’s abstract qualities as well as its recognizability as a pasta dish.

By contrast, in Spaghetti and Meatballs, 2016, Coates uses an underlying rhythmic and repetitious series of curved lines to render the thin-stringed food. This sets up a sharp contrast with the deep red lumps on top that read as chunky meatballs, which leave wisps of sauce on the intertwined bed of cylindrical pasta. The top part of the canvas is painted a flat medium gray tone, which could be read as a sky, adding further interest, as one could imagine a larger than life mountain range of spaghetti. More abstract is Cinnamon Roll, 2016, and Cotton Candy, 2015. The former shows a translucent white and yellow glob over a beige circular form with a conspicuous spiral, while the latter has a light pink mound of gossamer fluff with a white stick protruding below, revealing its true nature. With these more ambiguous works, Coates has managed to combine her overly familiar subject matter with inventive painting, causing us to look upon them anew.

Jennifer Coates, “All U Can Eat,” Freight+Volume, New York, March 4 — April 16, 2017.

Jennifer Coates, Cinnamon Roll, 2016. Courtesy Freight+Volume

Jennifer Coates, Cinnamon Roll, 2016. Courtesy Freight+Volume

David Humphrey’s Awkward Conversations

David Humphrey never makes the same painting twice. Each individual canvas is a story unto itself. Sometimes these are happy tales, surreal musings, or conflicted confrontations. Although they can be sexual in nature, the weird power dynamic of relationships between people and how we communicate with each other, as well as with an artwork itself is examined in “I’m Glad We Had This Conversation.” Shopping, 2015, features an almost schematically designed couple in a dressing room, with the pink dress of the woman sexualized by the addition of pubic hair and nipples rendered on the exterior of her attire. By highlighting the mundane ritual of purchasing clothes with a partner in tow, Humphrey creates a compelling story out of an everyday occurrence. The figures and the architecture of the space are broken down into a design of bold, colorful shapes, making one rethink the importance of what it means to be a consumer interacting with another in this longstanding act, which could soon be passé due to virtual reality.

In Swimmer, 2016, a standing male and female couple partially obscured by a stereotypical brick wall share a seemingly lighthearted moment. Rendered in a somewhat cartoony shorthand, the male’s swimsuit rides loose on his hips, revealing a plumber’s crack above his buttocks, as the woman emits a carefree laugh. Or is she laughing at him? We can’t see the front of the man’s body. Shrinkage? Again, Humphrey focuses on a private interaction between two individuals, but gives weight to the apparent awkwardness that takes place and revels in its inescapability. For Recharge, 2016, a lone figure is seen sleeping face-first on a couch, while an abstract jumble of line and color takes over the top part of the canvas. In this case, the dialogue exists between oneself, a necessary step to furthering intellectual curiosity or just maintaining the status quo. Several painted sculptures of plaster and wood rest on pedestals, including Couple, 2016, whose rough-hewn form recalls a more elemental being, although the needs and desires of which may mirror our own.

David Humphrey, “I’m Glad We Had This Conversation,” Fredericks & Freiser, January 19 — February 25, 2017.

David Humphrey, Shopping, 2015. Courtesy of Fredericks & Freiser, NY.

David Humphrey, Shopping, 2015. Courtesy of Fredericks & Freiser, NY.

Wifredo Lam's Habitual Rituals

"Wifredo Lam" at Tate Modern in London is a comprehensive retrospective of this somewhat underappreciated Modernist, who was continuously searching for new ways to transmit signs and symbols of life, dreams, hope, acceptance, religious mysticism and the plight of the other in the form of paintings, prints, drawings and ceramics. Primarily a narrative artist, Lam becomes comfortable with his Afro-Cuban background later in life with encouragement from Pablo Picasso, fully embracing it to produce works with ritualistic overtones that connect to the Santería religion his priestess grandmother practiced. Featuring hybrid figures that move in and out of the paintings, sometimes becoming one with the landscape and at other instances manifested as outlined totems, Lam blends Cubism with Surrealism and Abstraction to create a truly unique and personal style of image making that can most closely be related to the Chilean Roberto Matta's work.

Comparing two canvasses of seven years apart, one sees a shift in his work after returning to Cuba in 1941. The Sombre Malembo, God of the Crossroads, 1943, with its almost psychedelic bright hues and human-animal hybrids blending into the foliage is in stark contrast to Rumblings of the Earth, 1950. The latter has a group of splayed, nude cartoony figures conducting some sort of violent ritual with erotic overtones. Once Lam realized that by using his heritage to create works that gave others a glimpse into the unknown, as well as seeing bits of themselves was his greatest asset, he was unstoppable. Works like The Fiance, 1, 1950, relate to Picasso’s copious cubist portraits of women, yet one would never consider it anything else but a masterful Lam, with its bold outlines, Caribbean vibe and a helping of the mystical in the form of ritualistic characters merged with the female form.

"Wifredo Lam," Tate Modern, September 14, 2016 – January 8, 2017.

Wilfredo Lam, The Sombre Malembo, God of the Crossroads, 1943. Private Collection (The Rudman Trust) © SDO Wifredo Lam.

Wilfredo Lam, The Sombre Malembo, God of the Crossroads, 1943. Private Collection (The Rudman Trust) © SDO Wifredo Lam.

The Masterful Tableaus of Kerry James Marshall

“Mastry,” Kerry James Marshall’s retrospective at the Met Breuer, is not only a collection of some of the most inventive and passionate paintings on view in recent memory, but also a celebration of diversity, specifically the African-American experience. Marshall’s show is a heartfelt letter to New York and America in a time of a significant crisis in race relations and economic disparity, from a creator whose skills match his ambition to be rightfully called a master of his craft.

Marshall’s earliest work, done in a representational imagistic style, dissects the artist’s own identity and what it means to be a person and artist of color, and is exemplified in the diminutive A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, 1980. Fast forward a decade and Marshall begins his large scale canvasses, some with collaged elements, depicting genre scenes, placing black figures in domestic settings, such as a bedroom in Could This Be Love, 1992, and a barber shop in De Style, 1993. The stunning Bang, 1994, with its luscious green grass represented by loose brushstrokes amidst white houses and picket fences, shows three children saluting an American flag, symbolizing the insider/outsider dichotomy of the black experience in the United States. In this and other works, Marshall portrays a group of people striving to rebound from slavery and racism and live the American dream, while putting their faith in an exceedingly flawed system. Marshall updates the compositional characteristics of a Seurat or Manet crowd scene, adding sociopolitical potency.

If Marshal fosters a sense of inclusiveness with his depictions of black America, we are taken off balance when confronted with the nude Frankenstein, 2009, and Bride of Frankenstein, 2009. Here he isolates the figures and reimagines them as enduring protagonists, perhaps molded to fit society through a synthesis of contrasting values and diverse histories. Ultimately, Marshall’s work is so satisfying because it is an alluring mix of content and craft. Hard to look away, it is fun to gawk at his inventive use of blended colors, intricate patterns and textured mark making, while at the same time creating such believable persons that could be our own family, friends or neighbors.

Kerry James Marshall, "Mastry," The Met Breuer, October 25, 2016 – January 29, 2017

Kerry James Marshall, installation view of "Mastry," The Met Breuer, New York. Photo: Chris Bors

Kerry James Marshall, installation view of "Mastry," The Met Breuer, New York. Photo: Chris Bors

Paul McCarthy's 'Merica

While the horrific violence and death in the current war in Syria and the recent spate of terrorist incidents worldwide are clearly more disturbing than any visual artwork, it may be time to reassess Paul McCarthy's oeuvre in these trying times. Even his oversized mangled sculptural renditions of Disney figures, such as White Snow Dwarf, Sleepy #1 (Affected Original), 2009–2016, bring to mind the Bizarro World we currently inhabit. In McCarthy's world, Disney characters are enlarged, copied and then partially destroyed, a fractured version of the cloying originals, showing us the harsh truth of America's underbelly. The abject, a concept that McCarthy has mined for decades and represented visually with all the nuance of a sledgehammer, for some reason always bothers people more than actual violence. Murderous video games, such as Grand Theft Auto for example, are held to a high moral standard, while lax gun laws and insufficient background checks allow criminals, the mentally ill and terrorists easy access to weapons of destruction.

His more complex political tableaus, including Paula Jones (Original), 2005–2008 and Puppet (Original), 2005–2008, can no doubt be considered gross-out takes on historical narratives, but in the long run will they stand up to reality, such as President-elect Donald Trump's "grab them by the pussy" statement? Perhaps yes, since we do live in a culture that is primarily visual, and almost half of 'Merica has already deemed Trump's comments as not important enough to change their vote. Both groupings show a mélange of human and animal figures humping one another, pierced through the eyes with metal rods creating an irreverent union. They exude more gravitas in 2016 than when they were created, since many people are only beginning to grasp the tragedy of our fractured and dysfunctional republic and the horrors of the world at large.

Paul McCarthy, "Raw Spinoffs Continuations" at Hauser & Wirth, New York, November 10, 2016 – January 14, 2017

Paul McCarthy, Paula Jones (Original), 2005-2008 (detail). Photo: Chris Bors.

Paul McCarthy, Paula Jones (Original), 2005-2008 (detail). Photo: Chris Bors.