This Web Gallery represents a selection of paintings
Sword of Damocles
currently on exhibition at The Painting Center from November
29 through December 23, 2011.
I started thinking about organizing this exhibition a few years
ago. As I entered into later middle age and began selecting work
for my own retrospective I found myself reflecting on my years
of painting. I wondered what connections I could make to other
artists who have survived the HIV epidemic. AIDS has been a central
thread through my work and through my experience as an adult.
The questions addressed in this essay and the exhibition include:
What changes have occurred in the work of artists who have survived
with this life threatening illness for so long? And can I find
patterns and similarities among our work?
Like many, I first witnessed, then lived the epidemic: it started
as a rumor, it then struck friends of friends of friends, then
friends of friends, then friends and finally my boyfriend of 14
years, Chris. He died in 1992. As far as I was concerned I was
living on borrowed time. But like others, I was spared. My work
continued and developed. Initially I could only paint the story
of the epidemic -- life cut short with great suffering. Ultimately
my paintings expanded to depict increasingly complex narratives
-- worlds of identity, desire, and foreboding.
My exploration for this exhibition began in the offices of Visual
AIDS, reviewing the Frank Moore Archive Project's pages of slides
and digital images. I sought paintings that interested me visually
and thematically by artists whose history of living through the
epidemic paralleled my own. I was looking for artists who had
been painting for 20 or more years, in hopes of contrasting past
work with more recent paintings. Would I find themes and patterns
that emerged in the development of these artists' works? It is
always dangerous to speculate as to the catalyst for the development
or obsessions of any artist. And theorizing or curating that attempts
a too neat, direct correlation between an artist's work and their
biography should be held suspect. However, I suggest that in all
of the work selected here, there are both changes in subject matter
and formal concerns that relate to our experience as long-term
survivors and as painters living and working with HIV.
There is a tripartite interaction in paintings between space
(void), shape (pattern), and form (volume). The dynamic of pictures
emerges from the relationships within and between these elements.
This idea can be found in treatises on pictorial structure from
the Renaissance to the present. The painter Gretna Campbell spoke
of space as the great metaphor in painting and ideas about space
are central in Frank Stella's Norton Lectures. American
painting of the late 20th and early 21st centuries emphasizes
space and shape more than volume. Color is such a fundamental
aspect to painting, particularly in the last 100 years, that an
examination of it in the work is illuminating. With this in mind,
the four ideas I explore with this essay and the selection of
work are: (1) narrative and iconographic themes, (2) spatial changes,
(3) palette shifts, and (4) how the language and quality of shape
change in relation to the experiences of hopelessness and then
hope. I chose examples of earlier and later works that coincide
with our experiences of survival. The distinctions of "early"
and "late" also limn 1996, marking the adoption of effective
AIDS medications. As one artist stated, first he had to come to
terms with dying and then he had to come to terms with living.
In most of the earlier works recognizable objects, figures, or
symbols are present in the paintings. Laurence Young's, Jerry
Lee Frost's and Pete Wyman's works present a pared-down symbolic
representation. In his early work, painted in 1999 but related
to his work of the early 1990s, Wyman paints the male figure in
Danseur, transformed through geometry, with planar shards
against heavy black slashes. There is an erotic charge tethered
to something dark and forbidding. In Young's Mortal Thoughts,
a single figure sits in silent contemplation, the palette subdued
and restricted to black and two colors, the space shallow. Both
share a dominant black palette with Martin Klug's gestural abstraction,
Jonathan Leiter's crosses, Joseph Stabilito's skull, and Frank
Holliday's graphic shapes. All push the space to the front. Frost's
black cat is thrust forward as a loopy figure reaches out towards
it in Anger Management -- is it a gesture of kindness or aggression?
When juxtaposed with the iconography of death (skulls and crosses),
black becomes a powerful signifier of loss and tragedy. In Stabilito's
Prayer for My Father a skull floats on a dark black field, the
excavated surface and delicate drawing implying decay and fragility.
In Leiter's AbPoz paintings, ironically subtitled Double Happiness,
Purity and Golden Opportunity, the severe minimalist simplification,
with its implication of emotional reserve, is transformed by the
plus sign or cross that becomes both a signifier of being positive
but also a religious symbol of suffering and comfort -- loading
the abstraction with iconographic meaning and significance. Holliday
is equally adept at reframing modernist tropes in Skull and Bones
with his use of the grid, as formed by the crosses, and Warhol's
cool silkscreen print technique. In Holliday's painting the spaces
pop forward and then back in counterpoint to the grid, opening
and closing, revealing representations of mystery (luminosity),
terror (Caravaggio) and death (skulls and bones). Other earlier
paintings may not be black but darkness descends into the world
of the still life in both Michael Golden's Infection and Michael
J Lownie's Sleep. Both painters employ a personal iconography
with, respectively, a blind man's cane and the wishbone/dowsing
rod -- the former referring to AIDS-related blindness, a profound
terror for an artist, and the latter conjuring both the decay
of the body and the potential hope of divining a cure.
The other three artists' work de-emphasize iconography. Martin
Klug's and Ricardo Morin's paintings are non-representational.
These artists find purely plastic ways to create mood and meaning.
In Klug's painting, Nocturne, the black paint gesture compresses
the space, overwhelming the colorful and fleshy interstices --
Eros held at bay. In Morin's New York Series the color is keyed
to a single hue in each panel but the shards of geometry violently
bite down, collapsing the space into an experience of figure/ground
ambiguity. While in Bradford Branch's elegiac still life of vase
and fruit, Oranges and Glass Vase, there seems little iconographic
meaning to the objects, the palette whispers a dirge of quiet
sadness, the space is shallow, everything is in flux, transformation
and inversion everywhere -- the ordinary made significant and
sad. His aesthetic corrects the emotion but, like Braque, that
correction makes, in contrast and in concert, for an even more
intense experience of the elegy.
My own work, Lamentation of Punchinello/By Punchinello's Bed
was painted in 1992 immediately following Chris's death. The artist-figure
shifts from holding Punch to standing tensely in vigil by him
-- Punch's phallic nose an erotic beacon, the survivor caught
between grief, desire and terror. The paintings share many of
the formal concerns of the other artists in the exhibition: the
shallow space; the somber palette (except that nose); black is
present both as a color and as a modulator; and the grid, either
diagonally (Lamentation) or vertically (Bed), organizes the compositions.
And like some of the other artists, autobiography is implicitly
present in the narrative.
In the more recent work, (1999-2011), several of the artists
shed representation and turn either to abstraction or the less
iconographic experience of landscape. In Holliday's Out There
the world of paint, surface, and light emerges in the action and
smear of paint, introducing a proprioceptive life to the work.
Elsewhere a new or expanded sense of paint or surface can be found,
as in Stabalito's Blood Flowers, Young's landscapes New Equation
and Thinly Veiled, and Wyman's Bayside. However, for this essay,
it is the opening of pictorial space that I find significant.
Landscape space emerges explicitly in Lownie's Daydream and Young's
recent paintings, and implicitly in Stabilito's and Wyman's work.
There is atmospheric space in Frost's My Casa, Morin's Scroll
Silence Four and Holliday's Out There. Klug's Étude opens
up into an implied landscape with its repeated horizons of sun
yellow and sky blue stripes, a counterpoint to the rhythm of the
grass green brushstroke grid. The American landscape tradition
from which so much abstract painting emerges is a tradition born
out of grandness -- adventure and limitless possibility are its
hallmarks. So it is fitting that an opening of space occurs and
a presence of nature emerges, as hope enters into our lives.
Leiter, Golden and Branch explore a different kind of space,
formed through the overlap of shape. In his In The Bedroom series,
Leiter takes a modernist trope, the collage, and transforms it
into a witty play on sex and childhood -- wonderfully, polymorphically
perverse dreams of our childhood. These are carefully composed
images of narrative wit and subversion as well as formal balance
and tension. There is toughness to their whimsical erotic play.
Golden overlaps images of nature and abstraction in Blessing,
presenting a personal iconography of meditation and hope. In Branch's
painting Still Life With Orchids the intense color and rhythmically
shaped objects and table joyfully dance -- lively minuets and
mazurkas contrasting with the elegy of the early work. Iconography
is retained in Lownie's Daydream, which presents the character
"without interruption" held between two planes that
open out into an arabesque of landscape space through which we
move without interruption. In my recent painting House of Cards
(2004-6) I still employ abstract forms to anchor the composition
(this time the pyramid and grid); but the space opens up, the
color warms, the shapes and rhythms become more organic, and the
narrative is filled with possibility, however precarious. All
of these works shed the grimness of the early 1990s. The palettes
explode with variation and atmosphere. Spaces open. Play and possibility
emerge as we begin to face our futures.
All the work of the artists in this exhibition changed over time.
The question, I suppose, is whether these changes were a direct
result of the experience of survival. I cannot imagine how the
sadness and anger that was so central to the experience of both
the epidemic at its most brutal and sero-conversion, followed
by the surprise, hope, and even guilt of living, could not affect
studio practice. There is the active metaphorical world of pictorial
structure at play in all the work. In some of it the effect of
so much death and then survival is obvious. In other paintings,
the ambiguities of the endeavor make the change subtler but no
less profound. We see in this exhibition similar metamorphoses:
the spaces opening; the color range expanding; the shapes taking
on an organic rhythm; Eros and nature becoming central; and the
narratives and symbols leading to possibility and even hope.
B i o g r a p h y
Patrick Webb has been painting for almost 40
years and continues to love the problems of form and expression
that painting offers. He use digital tools in recording, arranging,
and considering his work it is in the mind made world -- the proprioceptive
experience of smearing, spreading, layering and scraping of paint
that he finds himself. Paintings since 1990, he has represented
the experiences of a contemporary version of the Commedia dell'Arte
figure Punchinello -- an American cousin to the famous Italian
Webb first came across Punchinello in the paintings and drawing
of G.D. Tiepolo and was immediately attracted to him. His phallic
red nose and white hat intrigued Webb. Punchinello is a character
that is both individual and anonymous. He is repeatable and yet
different. He is both ridiculous and heroic. He became an everygayman
whose experiences Webb could explore in single and sequential
canvasses. Webb's work has followed a trajectory that explores
various aspects of being a long-term survivor.
In 1992, he witnessed the death of his boyfriend of 14 years.
Webb never imagined he would outlive him by almost 20 years. Webb
believes he is fortunate to be alive, though at times feels poised
on the edge of an abyss. The experience has shaped his sense of
self and the development of his work. Webb sees Punchinello as
an outsider whose adventures explore the uncanny experience of
difference and otherness.