by David M. Roth
Mixing graphic design and high-end typography with the visual mannerisms of mid-century geometric abstraction, Joe Amrhein, in Post Factual, takes on the toxic persona of Donald Trump. A former sign painter, Amrhein, in the mid-1990s, earned a reputation for ridiculing the often-opaque language of art criticism. He did so by reproducing key phrases in hand-painted letters laid down on layers of Mylar, leaving some parts legible and other parts obscured: a perfect meme for the impenetrability of publications like Artforum.
Now that the world is awash in far more noxious things, Amrhein’s shifted targets, but not methods. In this series he takes on Trump with the same vigor he once applied to French theory; only now, instead piling up obscure verbiage, he paints individual letters, stitching them together in interlocking squares of decreasing size to form semi-opaque mazes that spell out the paintings’ titles: Egomaniac, Prima Dona, Narcissist, Smoking Gun, Post Factual and Kakistocracy. Follow the elliptical paths that connect the letters and you’ll feel yourself being sucked into voids. They’re “beautiful” voids as Trump might say, comprised of bold typography, sweeping curves and sharp angles that may remind you of Frank Stella’s early shaped canvases and of muscle-bound heraldic forms, made so by two-tone lettering of the sort found on sports jerseys.
Narcissist is a good example of the artist’s visual strategy. Using a giant capital T to cleave a quartet of enlarged S’s, Amrhein turns two of Trump’s dominant traits – pompous self-regard and greed – into a bloated caricature of a dollar sign. Other works follow suit, albeit with very different shapes ranging from constructions that resemble overwrought corporate logos (Prima Dona) to others that give off hints of Native American iconography (Egomaniac).
The literal centerpiece of the show is an upright pile of branches titled Bonfire, each piece of which carries hand-painted words and phrases: “lack of social conscience,” “no belief in science,” “constant shock syndrome,” “arrogant,” “sociopath,” “lies lies lies lies,” ”plutocracy,” “belligerent,” “asshole,” “alternative facts,” “travel ban,” “narcissist,” “actions have consequences,” “false equivalence,” “pretentious,” “obfuscation,” “lacking moral character,” “remorseless,” “malfeasance,” “social injustice.” While this list of Trumpian attributes is far from complete, its appearance in this format, on a low-rise pedestal, certainly fires the imagination, as does the possibility of what might happen if the piece doesn’t sell. Amrhein told his dealer that if Trump fails to win reelection or he exits the presidency before 2020 he’d set the piece ablaze. A bonfire sans vanity!
Like the work of Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger and others whose works re-frame words to reveal sinister subtexts, Post Factual invests common pejoratives with shades of meaning not found in Webster’s. Those meanings arise in the imagination, in the effort to piece together words that have been literally pried apart.
Effective “resistance art” has been painfully slow in coming. Post Factual hits the target with the grace and precision of a well-aimed karate kick.
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The Spanish-born New York artist, Teo González, creates intense, physically engaging paintings that juggle a finite set of variables in seemingly endless permutations. He paints wavy grids of irregularly shaped cells onto grounds that divide into solid colors, each of which are conjoined in airbrushed zones the artist calls “horizons” or “arches,” depending on whether the lines of demarcation are level or curved. Those designations imply references to landscape or architecture, but they never quite materialize. What we get is something akin to Agnes Martin working in a tropical/aboriginal mode. The primordial call these paintings issue is both cosmic and comic owing to optical distortions generated by those quavering grids of off-kilter ovoids. Like Kusama’s Infinity Nets they swell and ebb into concave hollows, bulging volumes and sprawling constellations that seem to wink off and on like stars or omnipresent eyes, their rhythms varying according to how densely they’re packed.
Inside of each, the artist inserts inchoate marks of varying dimensions, and it’s from these cartoony, obsessively painted forms that the comedic element arises; it defines the character and the behavior of the series, flipping us back and forth between cellular associations and the hard-to-shake feeling that the cells constitute a network of goofy, shifty eyeballs.
Color plays an equally important role. González understands how it affects psychology, and he deploys it with intelligence and wit, balancing light and dark against hot, cool and neutral in ways that indicate an orientation attuned to spiritual abstraction, which, in times like these feels like a balm.
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Joe Amrhein: “Post Factual” and Teo González: “Arch/Horizon” @ Brian Gross Fine Art through December 23, 2017.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.