Let's begin at the end: "Fat Painting," the small but excellent show now at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, culminates in a short video that perfectly captures the spirit of the exhibition that precedes it. The video chronicles the creation of a piece by Rosaria Pugliese -- one of the four Miami-based artists featured in the show -- called Physical Reactions, which takes up two whole walls facing each other in the small, narrow gallery that now houses it.
Pugliese, who was born in Italy, executed the piece in the Art and Culture Center's main gallery in 10 hours back in mid-September. According to information posted in the gallery, the artist "built an elaborate system of poles, intersecting strings, and balloons filled with paint." As you can see in the video, she then manipulated the whole contraption in various ways, from time to time puncturing the balloons so that their contents splattered onto 16 canvases pushed together on the floor to form one gigantic canvas. Some of the balloons (379 in all) were filled with more pigment than others, and Pugliese burst them at different heights and positions, so that the spatters are enormously varied.
After completion, this "supercanvas" was divided in half and mounted on the walls. It's a fascinating diptych in its own right, but even more amazing is watching the artist creating it. (The process was extremely messy but also looks like a great deal of fun.) And if you stand at the rear of the gallery, you can refer back and forth from the video to the painting, comparing the work in progress with the final product.
I was immediately reminded of the famous footage of Jackson Pollock at work on some of his landmark paintings of the 1940s and 1950s (memorably re-created in the Ed Harris film Pollock). You see the artist pacing around huge canvases laid out on the floor as he flings and splashes paint onto them. Pugliese approaches her piece -- described as "a project that studies gravity" -- with the same gusto. The video, like the Pollock footage, brings us about as close to creativity in action as we're likely to get.
"Action" is the key word here. For Pollock and his fellow pioneers in abstract expressionism (critic Harold Rosenberg called them "action painters"), the act of painting was an end in itself, with the paintings that resulted almost a mere byproduct, a documentation of the process that produced them. Pugliese seems to embrace that idea, at least in Physical Reactions. Her other works in the show suggest an affinity for the painters in the color-field faction of abstract expressionism, who were more interested in mood and atmosphere.
The other artists included in "Fat Painting" -- John Bailly, Mary Bianchi, and Christopher Mangiarcina -- are also clearly heirs of abstract expressionism, although their influences manifest themselves in different ways. Bianchi's work picks up on the gestural ferocity of such action painters as Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Thick swaths of pigment play off thin scribbles that seem added as an afterthought, a bit of delicate punctuation to those bold, spontaneous brushstrokes. The splashy piece Frail-Green Woods (1997), which opens the show, is a breathtaking reminder of the energy and vitality abstract expressionism is capable of reaching.
Bianchi flirts with representational imagery here and there: the big, brown vertical stripes of Anarchy (2001) could be taken as tree trunks, and from a distance hints of a pastoral landscape emerge, ever so tentatively, from The Logic of Loss (2001). She opts for expressiveness of another sort with God (2001), a mostly black canvas with strange white markings floating in space. Are they random scrawls, or indications of a higher intelligence? Either way, they suggest that, if this impassive imagery is evidence of a deity, we're all in deep trouble.
There's an abrupt shift in the show when Bianchi's volatile paintings give way to a grouping of five mixed-media works on wood by the aforementioned Pugliese. In sharp contrast to the dynamism of Physical Reactions, these largely monochromatic (and largely unexciting) paintings seem to strive for the serenity in the work of such color-field abstract expressionists as Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still. The pieces -- with the generic titles The Green, The Blue, and three versions of The Red -- have bright, glossy surfaces with abstract accents: a few black splotches here, a chunk of dingy carpet there, a stretch of gauze, what looks almost like a patch of lichen.
The exhibition gets a substantial jolt of energy from a nearby wall of a dozen oils by John Bailly. Two huge canvases at either end bracket 10 smaller pieces that turn out to be studies for one of the larger paintings. The studies are all of interest, although mainly as appetizers for an extraordinary entrée: the imposing Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho (2002).
The painting fleshes out the ghostly outlines of hands and arms found in Bailly's other pieces here, giving greater substance to the limbs that reach up from the lower reaches of the canvas. Most strikingly, these hands and arms are part of a tangle of forms in browns, blacks, and whites that turns out to include anguished faces. At first, I could pick out only a few faces embedded in the dense imagery, but after staring at the picture for several minutes, I saw more and more faces seemingly taking shape before my eyes. This is optical illusion taken to rarefied heights.
I was not surprised to learn, after a bit of digging, that Bailly, who recently had a one-man show at Miami-Dade Community College's Wolfson Gallery, is drawn to such iconic figures as Joan of Arc, the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture, and South African activist Steven Biko. Bailly translates the struggles of such figures into his stylized, highly expressive imagery, so the outstretched hands and arms become emblematic of millions of people in predicaments of all sorts. He imbues abstract expressionism with a poignant humanism.
The remaining artist in the show, Christopher Mangiarcina, is its weakest link by a slight margin, only because a few of his pieces pale next to the best work of his contemporaries. He has his strengths, though, especially in his handling of thick impasto surfaces. (The exhibition brochure characterizes them as "thick and sensuous as frosting on a cake.")
Mangiarcina's Restoration (2002), for instance, which suggests a towering building, features thick pigment as deftly manipulated as in the work of Frank Auerbach. And Homa'ge (Chasing Three Bathers) (2002), a mixed-media piece using oil, resin, and beeswax on a big slab of torched plastic, gets better the farther you get from it -- not until I looked back on it from the far end of the gallery did I realize its impact.
Curator Samantha Salzinger's brochure commentary, which is also posted at the beginning of "Fat Painting," explains abstract expressionism as, in part, a reaction to photography, which more or less co-opted painting's long-standing claim to realism. She also acknowledges the difficulties of abstract expressionism for many viewers: "Abstract painting, stripped bare of narratives, horizon lines, and defined subjects, must build its foundation on problems of the paint and the canvas, the design and the balance. Abstraction must be accepted for what it is; it is a painting, it is about itself."
As a late convert to abstract expressionism, I have to concede that it's largely either/or art. Either you appreciate painting that's about itself, or you prefer painting with more conventional subject matter. If you fall into the former camp, "Fat Painting" is just the show for you.
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