by David M. Roth
Earlier this month a remarkable document hit my inbox. It came from the blog of Todd Hosfelt on the occasion his gallery’s 20th Anniversary Exhibition. It’s titled What I’ve Learned So Far, and in it he reflects on the qualities that make for great art. Such gestures, while common in the corporate world, are rare among art dealers. The reason, I suspect, is that “vision-and-values” statements long ago became synonymous with obfuscation and doublespeak, sins from which the art world is hardly immune. Hosfelt, however, lays his cards face-up, backing his words with a show that elucidates the thinking that unites the disparate artists in this museum-quality, commemorative exhibition. Significantly, the show boasts three big names not currently associated with the gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Nick Cave and Ed Ruscha – a possible harbinger of things to come.
What qualities bring such artists into the fold? Hosfelt delineates them as follows: Virtuosity (“masterful execution that reflects a fascination with the act of creation”); dedicated artistic practice (“intellectual curiosity, relentless experimentation and a never-ending struggle against physical constraint”); eccentricity (“art that “could only have come from the mind of one
particular individual”); inclusiveness (“a broad and eclectic worldview”); an understanding of history (“artistic, literary, cultural, political”); continual experimentation (challenging “what came before” as well as what “artists and their audience “think they know”); and obligation to take a stand (which for artists means “exposing yourself to the world” and for gallerists “exhibiting what we believe in”). This document, which you can read in full on Hosfelt’s blog, should be a pocket reference for every art critic, curator and collector.
The show includes 41 works from 25 artists, a fair number of which could sustain a Ph.D. thesis. Topping the list of those vying for such attentions are William T. Wiley, Nick Cave, Patricia Piccinini, Hannah Wilke, Tim Hawkinson, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Alan Rath. It’s an international cast; conceptually and materially speaking they cover the waterfront. Each checks one or more of the above “boxes.”
Works from the latter two, Rath and Basquiat, displayed side-by-side, are the first you see upon entering the gallery. Rath revives the shifty-eyeball sculptures that first brought him fame in the early 1990s; they appear stacked three-high on a tripod, with LCDs replacing the original CRTs. Both iterations conjure surveillance. The originals now seem prescient. Which may explain why, after recent (successful) forays into robotics, Rath’s returned to this idea, perhaps inspired by William Snowden’s revelations and the increasingly intrusive gaze of Big Data. But where Rath drives us inward to think about forces unseen, Basquiat, the icon of Neo-Expressionism, takes us back to the grittier, louder, less technologically enabled 1980s via a graffiti- and text-
laced canvas called Bushwick (1984). Like everything the late artist did, it crackles with the grating cacophony of urban life, with references to his Afro-Caribbean heritage and to his identity struggles, laid out in bold colors and in loaded symbols, like the all-white “ghost crab” and the “White chamois portent of death”. Henry Miller once quipped, “No poet ever walked down Myrtle Avenue.” Basquiat, roaming the same Brooklyn precinct, proved him wrong.
Wiley, the poet laureate of Funk, delivers a monumental canvas, Spooky on the Line (1987), that nearly fills the Portrero St. side of the gallery’s back wall. It measures 104 x 143 inches, all of it covered with diagrammatic forms, gestural markings and text that would take a day to catalog. Doing so requires diligence: standing close to sound-out and savor the wordplay
(e.g. “Judge Mental,” “Gee Force”) then backing up to catch the tapestry of Munch-like shapes that dominant the big crescent at the center. Combined, these elements outline a Boschian vision, one that describes with mordant wit and moral suasion, the social, political and ecological disintegration that has been the artist’s subject since the 1960s.
Piccinni, the subject of a recent review in these pages by Marcia Tanner, delves deeper into the future, delivering one the show’s strangest objects: two deformed Vespas cast in fiberglass. Painted in metal flake colors (candy-apple red and orange), they’re fused at the center and festooned with side-view mirrors, arrayed like antlers. The ungainly blob is titled is The Lovers. How or whether this mutant spawn of fantastical bioscience and Finish Fetish might function is beside the point; the “vehicle” is to biology and mechanical engineering what Rath’s early work was to computing: a discomfiting glimpse of what might happen if machines start multiplying and become smarter than their masters.
Weirder still and infinitely more earthbound is Nick Cave’s Soundsuit (2016), a singular experience. Cave is the undisputed master of tribal-influenced couture, a convenient categorization that only hints at what he does with embroidery, fabric, twigs, paint, found objects, hair, sequins, floral patterns, Easter grass and much else. This example – a life-sized figure covered in crocheted potholders and encased in a steel armature from which hang
globes and other assorted whirligigs – is enough to set anyone reeling. Seven such Soundsuits, albeit of a very different character, are on display through next August at the Anderson Collection at Stanford.
Hannah Wilke’s photos of herself in action-hero poses, naked and in heels, are some of the best examples of seduce-and-clobber feminism ever created. The four black-and-white images, made with her partner Donald Goddard, are from a 1978 series called So Help Me Hannah –Snatch Shots with Ray Gun. They elicit leering, porn-eye views, which are repelled on sight, rendering questions about their effectiveness null and void. The only things missing are a disco beat and the space-alien whine of a theremin.
I could say much more, but in the interest of time, which is growing short, I’ll say only this: see the show. If certain parts of it feel like a greatest-hits event, well, that’s all to the good considering the individuals involved. They include, in addition to those mentioned, Jay De Feo, Marco Maggi, Andrew Schoultz, Lordy Rodriguez, Emil Lukas, Jim Campbell, Rina Banerjee – innovators all.
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“20th Anniversary Exhibition” @ Hosfelt Gallery through October 8, 2016. The exhibition also includes works by Liliana Porter, Shahzia Sikander, Channing Hansen and Ed Ruscha.