by David M. Roth
Though its subjects share a bloodline and a birthplace (Sacramento), Triad, a show of recent work by Joe, Justin and Phil Amrhein, reveals little in the way of family resemblances. Their orientations and methods couldn’t be more unalike. Their art adheres to the conventions of painting, drawing and sculpture, but it sidesteps modes of expression that have long defined (and also dogged) this region: figuration and Funk. Which is all to the good.
Phil, the eldest at 67 (and the only current Sacramentan), taught high school art before retiring a decade ago. Since then he’s made abstract paintings characterized by joyous, all-black scrawls
that recall, in their exuberance, the gestures Keith Haring once made to offset figures and those Arnulf Ranier used to obscure them. Some of them, however, also struck a milder, less aggressive stance, foreshadowing the direction of his current work, about which I’ll say more.
Justin, 37, is his son. After earning an MFA from San Jose State in 2006, he moved to Williamsburg where he joined Phil’s younger brother, Joe, who in 1994 founded Pierogi 2000, a works-on-paper gallery that played a pivotal role in transforming that part of Brooklyn into a magnet for art-inclined Millennials. Justin’s since built an enviable track record, with solo shows of his Steampunk-inflected schematic drawings in San Francisco, Chicago and New York, and appearances in high-profile group exhibitions at Ronald Feldman (New York) and Kopeikin Gallery in LA.
Joe, 63, the best known of the three, is internationally revered for text-based paintings and sculptures built around words and phrases culled from the often-impenetrable swamp of art criticism. In the past he’s painted them on mylar, vellum, wood and glass, mixing and blurring words and materials. Here, using a similar visual strategy, he takes aim at targets that seem connected to the impending election. Forgery, Derogatory and Anonymity (Translation), while not referencing that event directly, nevertheless allude to it through the titles. All three works, it should be noted, were created in 2015, before the campaign got ugly and before “loser” and “lock her up” became alt-right rallying cries.
The first, Forgery, consists of meticulously faked signatures of famous people, ranging from Mao Tse Tung to Miles Davis. The latter, inked with lustrous and precise flair on a copy of the trumpeter’s 1961 LP, Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall, points to Joe’s one-time job as a sign painter. Other “signatories” include John Hancock, Nelson Mandela, Napoleon, Alan Turing and Leo Tolstoy.
“Pinche,” “pendejo,” “asshole,” “wanker” and “dummkopf” are among the epithets found in Derogatory. The artist painted them onto cardboard, branches, clear plastic and pieces of scrap wood. They hang from the wall by string, forming an array of intersecting triangular shapes that could, if they were removed from the wall, serve as body-worn sandwich boards, insulting wearers and observers alike. Anonymity, which carries overlapping lines of text in various languages, is defined by its two operative phrases: “Anonymity no longer an option” and “The mask has no choice.” Highlighting the contradiction between invisibility and unmasking, the piece points to the dissembling utterances now dominating Election 2016, which at the time these three works were created, had yet to become the suppurating sore of a national nightmare that it is now. They exemplify the fine art of détournement — the turning of an idea against itself to expose underlying falsehoods.
Justin is also something of a monkeywrencher. He makes large-scale drawings that fuse the hardware of heavy industry with the imaginings of bioscience, suggesting that ancient machinery, when sowed with seeds, can somehow sprout orchids and cherry trees. It’s an elaborate fantasy that Justin treats mock-seriously — with detailed diagrams accompanied by equally verbose handwritten descriptions in the margins. The overabundant verbiage (echoing Joe) makes no pretense of being rooted in science. But the appearance of it will draw viewers in close. This seamless blend of fact, factoid and fiction carries forward the conceptual approach the artist used in his last West Coast exhibit (Schema) in SF at Michael Rosenthal, where the ostensible subject — imaginary WMDs — stood as a kind of mock riposte to the Bush administration’s false claim that Iraq harbored such weapons.
Of the three Amrheins, it’s Phil whose work has changed most since I last saw it in a 2009 show called Black Paintings. Those works were emphatically nonobjective and gestural. Now, only the first characteristic remains. Where exclamatory dashes, web shapes and bent lattices defined those earlier works, the paintings now on view are made up entirely of murky stains, achieved with spray paint on paper and rendered in modest sizes ranging from 20 x 15 inches to 30 x 22 inches.
The overall effect is of sea caves or smoky caverns, illuminated by water- or cloud-filtered light. In these, the artist has allowed a modicum of color (wisps of yellow, orange and rose) to seep in, and that, given the degree to which black formerly dominated, feels like a big shift. The paintings aim at transcendence and speak of mortality and immateriality. Granted, those qualities are not unique, but the way Phil Amhrein addresses them definitely is.
They're big part of what makes the appearance of the Amhrein family artists — all in one room — a noteworthy event.
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“Triad” – Joe, Justin and Phil Amrhein @ Axis through October 30, 2016.