Category Archives: 2013-2014

Todd Bienvenu – “Borrowing Tomorrow’s Fun”

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September 5 – September 28
Opening Reception: Friday, September 5th

Life on Mars is pleased to open its second season with Borrowing Tomorrow’s Fun.
The very first one-person exhibition of paintings and works on paper by Todd Bienvenu.

Todd Bienvenu, Backseat, 47 x 37.5 in. oil on canvas 2013

A Brooklynite by way of Little Rock, Arkansas and New Iberia, Louisiana, Bienvenu paints babes, boozers, buckets of blood, brawlers, punk rockers, apocalyptic zombies, pro wrestlers, country outlaws, camel toes, happy penises and masturbation technology. His themes of southern culture, sex, rock and roll and religion allow him to embrace and extend the traditions found in the figurative expression of Max Beckman, Phillip Guston, Frank Auerbach and Chaim Soutine. Combining a masterful handling of the medium of oil paint with expert draughtsmanship, Bienvenu simultaneously embraces the tradition of figurative expression while denying its overt heroism; using humor, sarcasm and the imagery of popular culture. He embodies much of his generation’s ennui, and its struggle for the authentic in the time of Meta, digital and new media.

Additionally, in our inaugural exhibition in our project room, we will present a rotating selection of works by painters such as Peter Acheson, Farrell Brickhouse, Brenda Goodman, Arnold Mesches, Fran O’Neill, Ben Pritchard, Karen Schwartz, and John Walker.

Michael David

“Drunken Angels”

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May 16 – June 22

“They manifest a nature’s sublimity. That is why Gabriel is represented with wings. Not that angels have wings, but that you may know that they leave the heights and the most elevated dwelling to approach human nature.” – Saint John Chrysostom, speaking of angels“

Some kind of savior singing the blues/a derelict in your duct tape shoes/Your orphan clothes and your long dark hair/looking like you didn’t care/drunken angel” – from lyrics to “Drunken Angel” by Lucinda Williams

While none of the artists in this exhibition have a drinking problem, wings, nor do they wear duct tape shoes (though all of the painters in the show do combine non-traditional material in their work), their works, created in different regions of the county, cross boundaries of race, age, education and gender.

Each artist works with a variety of materials and scale.The stories Brickhouse tells are made all the more powerful by the intimacy of his jewel-like scale; a mythology made personal. Dial creates assemblages regarding race, politick and religion, which weigh as much as 300 lbs. Schwartz’s physicality is best served by formats that allows for gestures that are the length of her own body, which speak to “truths” she arrives at out of the dialogue with herself. And Young, who painted on and with whatever material he could find, tells stories of sexuality and deep personal struggle.

They all share a painting practice defined by an “attack” that is physically immediate, a discipline that is slow, and victories that are hard-fought and arrived at over long periods spent reworking their surfaces. This level of transformation for each painter’s practice and process, coupled with their authentic, desperate urgency to tell a story of great personal meaning, builds and gives birth to imagery – modified, adjusted over long periods – that charges these works with universal meanings and narratives so deeply personal that we intuit the works’ content, enter their transformative practice, and are moved in ways we don’t fully understand, but most certainly feel deeply.

Their initial approach to their painting may be rapid, direct, violent, passionate, drunk with materiality and the process of painting, but the stories they are whispering to themselves (and sharing with the viewer), are created through countless hours of small revisions and adjustments. They are created with an intimacy so delicate, the paintings flutter with the “touch of angel wings”; to leave the heights and the most elevated dwelling to approach human nature. Angels drunk on the act of painting, carnal in their physicality, sacred in the search for that honest moment, “manifesting a natures sublimity”.

Michael David
May 3, 2014

“The Indexical Mark”

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March 8 – April 6, 2014
Opening Reception: Saturday March 8th, 6 – 9pm

Works by:
Karin Davie, Ben LaRocco, Joel Longenecker, Mike Olin, Fran O’Neill, Ben Pritchard, Susan Rothenberg, Karen Schwartz, Whitney Wood-Bailey, Etty Yaniv

Ben Pritchard, 100 Ways, 72 x 74 in., Oil on Linen, 2008-2014

Joel Longenecker, Untitled 1, Mixed Media on Linen, 2013

Karen Schwartz, Down the Rabbit Hole, 72 x 60 in., Mixed Media on Linen, 2013February 28, 2014

Arnold Menches – “Eternal Return”

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April 11 – May 11, 2014

Shock & Awe, Acrylic on Canvas, 12 x 12 in., 2011

Coming Attractions 4, Acrylic on Canvas, 80 x 60 in., 2005

Eternal Return 2, Acrylic on Canvas Collaged on Canvas, 50 x 63 in., 2013

At 90, Mesches’ powerful trans-generational art-world voice has been speaking about the American social landscape for seven decades; his “enigmatic landscapes, cityscapes and nowhere-on-this-planet-scapes” are, as the art historian Robert Storr noted, “a snappy hybrid of vintage social realism, “Day of the Locust” burn-the-set backdrop painting and de Chirico-esque metaphysical puzzle-picturing in which nothing is quite itself, everything stands for something else and the viewer is on notice that after crossing the visual threshold of the uncanny realms Mesches depicts they are on their own.”

Mesches’ works are represented in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the National Gallery, among others.

As its inaugural one-person exhibition, Life on Mars gallery is proud to present new works by Mesches with this, his first solo exhibition in NY in 11 years, beginning April 11th. The works presented have never been exhibited in NY, and will be from Mesches’ series Coming Attractions, the more recent Shock and Awe, and the in-progress series Eternal Return.

Arnold Mesches: A View from the Bridge, essay by Robert C. Morgan

Driving one night over the Rip Van Winkle Bridge from Olana to Catskill in upstate New York, I began ruminating on the work of two artists from the Hudson River School who lived in this area nearly two centuries ago. Thomas Cole resided in Catskill, while Frederick Church, the more opulent of the two, later settled into a chic Persian mansion, called Olana, built on the hills overlooking the Hudson River. Suddenly, without recourse, Arnold Mesches came to mind as I was attempting to discern a painter of our time who painted as well as Cole and Church but from an entirely different perspective. Mesches works independently from the trends set forth by the status quo. Slightly offbeat, which accounts for his dream-like abandon, he is a painter who defines the old in relation to the new, a painter who lives fortuitously in contrast to the resolute, high-minded, country-style gentlemen of yesteryear; an artist who is more connected to the metropolitan painters in New York, from the early Ash Can painters to the abstract expressionists. He is as diligent, even-handed and heroic as any of those who preceded him.

As I moved at a slow pace with the residue of urban traffic, acutely conscious of the light descending into darkness, as in one of Cole’s great Luminist landscapes, my view from the bridge suggested the kind of instant laconic depth often found in Mesches’ paintings. In recent years, his work has become more acerbic, increasingly taut, descriptive, painterly, imaginative, forthright, bold, unremitting, undulating with the sudden affect of grandiose spectacles overlaid with personal introspection. Looking out into the night while driving onward, beyond this studded steel bridge, it was as if I were seeing an immense paradoxical vista, the kind of vista that might enter the mind’s eye without hesitation. His paintings are about this kind of precise encounter. They take us to regions of doubt, often beyond recognition. They weave through our senses on the near side of calamity and locate the hidden junctures of malevolence and harrowing dismay. His paintings reek and holler at us, inciting incantations of dark thundering disbelief – paintings conjugated from internal sources and emanating through his brush, fraught with harrowing memories. Arnold Mesches is brilliant in the manner in which he weathers the storm, one tempest upon another, with such ineluctable grace, with the facility of an incandescent visionary. His landscapes of people are created on the prowl, on the lookout for what is unseen, yet lurks within the visible, for the sudden turn in history where things begin to go sideways through the media of deception. As a painter, he stands against the ugly pretense of righteousness, which is not his world or the world he believes in.

I met Arnold Mesches in Santa Monica in 1977 through the photographer, James Welling, who had just written a text on Mesches’ recent paintings. Welling was convinced that we should meet, and drove us (Janice Gabriel and I) over to his studio near the beach. It was crowded with racks, with hundreds of paintings from various stages of his career. Later, we reconnected in New York in the early 80s where Arnie had moved to East 7th Street, east of Tompkins Square Park, with his wife, the writer Jill Ciment. Those were the days of the East Village, a perfect context for Arnie, who had just started showing with Jack Shainman. By the end of the 80s, we were close friends. Although I was coming out of a background in Conceptual Art, I somehow connected with Mesches’ work as a painter, and eventually learned of his history as a political activist, which I discussed in an essay written for an exhibition at P.S. 1 more than a decade ago (curated by Daniel Marzona). The historical show focused on collages using documents based on Mesches newly discovered FBI files. It was this engagement with the artist’s work that gave me a hint of his courage to stand up for what he believed (during the McCarthy era in Hollywood where he was being “shadowed”). It was also a clear view of the artist’s brilliant sensitivity and extraordinary loyalty on behalf of his friends.

His recent series of work (and title for the current exhibition) at Life on Mars Gallery is Eternal Return. I regard these paintings as another leap forward. How to explain this? Over the years I have gotten to know Mesches’ work. I know what he has done and have articulated why I believe it is important. But Eternal Return exceeds whatever I have known in the past. Although Mesches admires Goya, I believe it would be inappropriate to compare these paintings with the pintura negra. Even so, their shared visionary aspect both eludes and raises many questions. Who are these people? I begin to compare the content in Mesches’ paintings with Boltansky’s stacks of telephone books in the basement of Le Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. In both cases, Boltanski and Mesches – one a conceptual artist, the other a painter – raise a similar question: How many people have lived on planet Earth? Does the subject matter refer to Jews returning to the Promised Land? This seems too limited or, maybe, too illustrative; also the historical moment appears somewhat ambiguous. I never thought to ask the question. Perhaps, I need to hold the mystery in abeyance, which I believe is the source of power in these paintings. As I study the contours, the color, and the gestural application across the surface, it is undeniably the work of Arnold Mesches. They are deeply inspired works. That is all I need to know for the moment. These paintings belong squarely in the present.

– Robert C. Morgan, 2014

Daze of the Locust, essay by Hunter Briathwaite

Freud wrote of an oceanic feeling—a sentiment “present in millions of people, a sensation of eternity, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded. . . .” He was writing about the birth of religion—but he could have been writing about America in the eyes of Americans. Hollywood. Images of popular fantasy crashing over audiences like silver-white breakers.

Two events trumpeted the Bronx-born Arnold Mesches’ arrival to Hollywood in ’46. He found work as a set illustrator for Tarzan and was arrested for going on strike. Painting sets and marching the picket line—contributing to this society’s self-mythologization while protesting its bare-teethed advances—have defined Mesches’ work for nearly seven-tenths of a century. And while Hollywood grew and then collapsed, much as a cohesive Left, he has remained.

Since then, there have been ups (his resume is ripe with appointments and mural commissions) and downs (1956: his studio is believed to have been sacked by the FBI, who’d been spying on him for quite some time). He dropped in on the Vietnam-era protest generation. In ’68 he dropped out of painting entirely, spending the next six years writing two novels. With the exception of that hiatus, Mesches has been painting like you’d paint a house or a protest banner—with speed, and with purpose.

Over the years, his subject matter has ranged from portraits of himself and friends, to naturalistic street scenes (take the formative 1945 oil “Plaza Preacher”) to realistic compositions made surreal through shocking juxtapositions of the everyday and the uncanny. Then there is his Anomie series, which deploys the same symbols of Americana (Native Americans, soft-serve ice cream, biplanes) within a cut-up dreamscape of disassociation and panic.

His palette and handling are as frenetic as the culture he documents, and are similar to another painter’s impressions of America. One of de Kooning’s first memories of this place was watching a waiter in Hoboken pour coffee into a line of cups, not caring that most splashed over the sides. “He just poured fast to fill it up, no matter what spilled out.” At times, that’s how Mesches handles his paint. He also doesn’t restrict himself to postwar American society, “the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere,” as Robert Frank once put it. He grounds the everyday in a deep traditional of humanism via images lifted from Europe’s classic painters. In a series from the 2000s, Mesches faithfully recreates classics by El Greco, David, Goya and Van Gogh, but then adds brushes and paints to the compositions to highlight the labor and tools involved. Even iconic painting is production, and thus, it is political.

He’s less a painter’s painter than a people’s painter—an artist for whom art’s power lies in its democratic, emancipatory potential, an artist for whom painting’s death can be cured with black coffee and corned beef hash. He’s been political since the beginning. The FBI said he looked like a Communist because of his paint splattered pants. How many artists can claim a Howard Zinn catalogue essay? Yet the paintings rarely feel political. Critique is chromed and candied. While we find Mesches in line with the great satirists—Hogarth and Daumier—it is as if they were given handfuls of peyote and led into Death Valley.

Two recent series speak to how he has witnessed the country change. First is his Shock and Awe series. These can be seen as postcards from Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust, specifically Tod Hackett’s dreams of painting a large canvas of Los Angeles in flames. But the two verbs—shock and awe—with their short, broke-jaw resonance, won’t be separated from Iraq for a long time. Perhaps there is a middle ground. The words could be used to describe the fear and wonder one might have felt in the ballistics lab of an early cinema. To those early viewers, the train arriving at the station of La Ciotat encapsulated the same technological violence, divorced of speed and power from space, as was felt by cruise missiles.

The flames of this series morph into dense crowds in his Eternal Return series. These paintings of crowds speak to a time when the individual was consumed by the collective—an amalgamation of purpose and experience. Everyone eyes forward, rushing to get on the train, or to leave the movie theater or ballpark. That’s not how crowds look nowadays; it’s not where crowds look. A crowd, if you’ve noticed lately, is nothing more than a thousand different thumbs caressing a thousand different iPhone screens.

Mesches has always given us our visions of ourselves. These works are nostalgic, reminiscent of a time when perhaps America was a bit more unified. As John Cheever put it, a “long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationary store, when almost everybody wore a hat.”

At one point, crowds would come to see one image: the screen. Now, with a screen for each viewer, that oceanic feeling has evaporated. We’re left alone in the salt flats of our own minds, overwhelmed by light, unsure what is mirage and what is geography.

-Hunter Braithwaite, 2014

“Outside In”

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January 17 – March 2, 2014
Opening Reception: Friday, January 17, 6-9pm

Works by:
Katherine Bradford, Farrell Brickhouse, James Castle, Thornton Dial, Chris Martin, Joan Snyder, Fred Valentine

Thornton Dial, Untitled

Joan Snyder, Song Cycle 4

Katherine Bradford, Superman His Mark

James Castle, Five Dolls

At a Passover Seder three years ago, at the home of Atlanta gallerist Fay Gold, I was introduced to the art historian Bill Arnett. I said something (in my direct New Yorker-ese) like, “Oh you’re the guy who brought attention to the quilts of Gees Bend, which put every white, male, Euro-centric, geometric abstractionist to shame”; to which Arnett said, in his John Grisham-like cadence, “You’re the fella that’s going to save my life.”

The story of Bill Arnett is a great American novel yet to be written and a major film waiting to be produced, and no, I never did save his life, but Arnett’s introducing me to Thornton Dial and Southern Vernacular art would come to change the way I viewed art and art history forever.

The exhibition Outside/In is a scaled-down vision of a greater exhibition that I had talked about with Arnett, that would pair so called “outsider” and “Folk artists” (the latter is a term that I find racially biased) with traditionally-educated, “mainstream” artists. The show would ask questions about how the art world sets up hierarchies based on race, gender and class to support market-driven hegemonies.

To classify Thornton Dial as uneducated and somehow “less than“ is to support the Great American Lie of racism.

While it is true Mr. Dial never learned to read or write, nor did he experience formal art school training, his education was undeniably rigorous and arguably more intense. He spent many years as a welder at the Pullman Company, which enabled him to achieve technical welding skills only rivaled by the 20th Century Modernist masters David Smith and Anthony Caro.

If you are ever able to spend time in the Arnett warehouse in Atlanta and study the impossibly brilliant welding techniques found in the Dial masterpieces such as Lost Cows or Old Water, among others, this notion of “uneducated” will forever be disabused.

I was fortunate to spend some time with Mr. Dial in his studio in Bessemer, Alabama, and one of my fondest memories was the hour we shared looking through a book on Anselm Kiefer that I brought to him. He looked through the book and we discussed the work, its themes, the materials Kiefer had used and the commonalities between Kiefer’s work and his own. He looked at me and said, “Imagine him all the way in Germany and me here in Bessemer working on the same things”. He knew and felt the connection both implicitly and explicitly.

The heartbeat, genesis and theme of this exhibition is based around sixteen of Dial’s early masterworks on paper, created during the ONLY time Mr. Dial responded directly, through his art, to the press’ criticism of him as “untrained“, an “unskilled” draftsman, and to his marginalization by the mainstream art world.

There is a currency in so much of the post-Post-Modernist work I see being made now that parallels “vernacular art.” In “Meta-Modern” practice there is extension and deconstruction of formalism, which blurs lines between abstraction and figuration, and employs the use of non-traditional with traditional painting materials, which is found in much of Vernacular art. While these aforementioned evidences are obvious, it seems to me the search for a deep personal meaning, regardless of art–world classification, is the soul of this commonality.

Whether it’s in Chris Martin’s use of glitter, automatic writing and direct physical handling, Joan Snyder’s mastery of mixed media, assemblage and deeply personal iconography, Katherine Bradford’s reimaging of pop culture iconography coupled with the use of discarded materials or Fred Valentine’s obsessive drawings, the parallels to Dial, Darger, and Castle are obvious and profound in the shared search for a deep, personal connection to content that is outside of any one strict Modernist lexicon.

While Post-Modernism became its own contradictory, self-fulfilling (market driven) prophecy that unfortunately came to exclude and marginalize many forms of expression that did not support its strict and restrictive voice, it did forever, in spite of itself, shatter the thinking that art followed a direct, predictable lineage, say; from Cubism, to Constructivism, to Dada, to Surrealism, to ABEX, to Pop, to Minimalism, to Conceptual to the next big “ISM”. And Post-Modernism ultimately did begin to allow for a more inclusive and greater range of voices (women, African-American, LGBT), and a more global view of who makes important art and where and how that art comes from and into being.
This “shattering” of modernism allowed artists a greater freedom in making their work and the viewer a greater and more inclusive understanding of the possibilities for human expression.

A re-examining of the artificial classifications of what is “outsider” and “insider” and fresh eyes on the work without prejudice, will help us to learn more about ourselves and what creates deep and shared meaning in our lives.

Farrell Brickhouse, Ferry Riders

This exhibition is in no way a comprehensive view of a greater discussion that needs to happen, and the selections of the artists for this exhibition are subjective (there are many, many, other great Southern Vernacular artists I would have loved to include in this exhibition; Betty Avery, Chocolate Byrd, Asberry Davis, Bessie Harvey, Lonnie Holley, Joe Light, Ronald Lockett, Charlie Light, Mary T. Smith, Jimmy Lee Suduth and Mose Tolliver, artists who are gaining a greater audience), and so many wonderful “mainstream artists” that could have been included in the is exhibition as well (early Rauschenberg, Kiefer, Basqiuat are the obvious choices that come to mind). Yet, to have access to masterworks by Thornton Dial, Farrell Brickhouse, James Castle, Joan Snyder, Chris Martin, Katherine Bradford, Fred Valentine and Purvis Young, lent by the artists themselves, as well as the generosity of the collectors who own much of the work in this exhibition to Life On Mars and to stage this exhibition in Bushwick is, in no small measure, an expression of their shared love and respect for the great American masters Dial, Young and Castle.

We are greatly appreciative to be able to bring an exhibition of this quality to Life On Mars, and we thank the artists and collectors who lent their support and astonishing work.

Michael David
December 24, 2013

“Painting Impossible”

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November 8 – December 22

Jim Herbert

Arnold Mesches

Karen Schwartz

Todd Bienvenu

I spent hours in the studios of Todd Bienvenu, Katherine Bradford, Jim Herbert, Arnold Mesches and Karen Schwartz, discussing their work and their commitment to, and belief in, the continued relevancy and meaning of painting. Their bodies of work are quite divergent, but all of these artists are relentless in locating imagery that comes out of the way they experience life, and each of them is deeply involved with painting’s many processes and materialities.

While their work in some cases uses irony, sarcasm and humor (and can share the “mash-up” of the first generation of Post-Modern Painters with the current trends of Meta Painting), what separates these painters from the current trends of Meta Painting—such as New Casualism, New Mannerism and Provisional Painting—is that there is absolutely nothing ironic or casual about their immersion in the act of painting, in both its process and material matter.

I believe unabashedly in the power of painting to reaffirm the sanctity of the individual in the face of new media, in this age of the Digital/Meta. I believe in painting defined by the process of painting, for the sake of itself as a vehicle of self-expression. Indeed, I would even say that painting has greater meaning in these times.

Michael David
October 14, 2013

“Scale”

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October 4 – November 2, 2013
Artists reception: October 4, 6pm

Works by:
Larry Barns, Todd Bienvenu, Danielle Dimston, Paul D’Agostino, James Gillispie, Christina Kee, Ben LaRocco, Riad Miah, Fran O’Neill, Linnea Paskow, Ben Pritchard, Cecelia Rembert, Patricia Satterlee, Karen Schwartz, Whitney Wood Bailey

Linnea Paskow, Witness

“scale: the process of measuring or ordering entities with respect to quantitative attributes or traits”

Transitions occur due to circumstance – creating a monumental painting does not necessitate creating a large-scale painting, nor does an intimate painting need to be small.

For Life on Mars’ inaugural exhibition, work has been gathered from fourteen artists dealing with issues of scale – small and large works – extreme scale shifts. Some artists have been forced to make small works due to the rising cost of studios and the restrictions of storage, or simply because this particular scale just feels right for them. Some who are compelled to create large works find ways to circumnavigate their often daunting restrictions. Ultimately, whatever the circumstances that have bought each to their current scale range, these fourteen artists make work that is deeply felt.

Life on Mars’ mission (yes, it is a direct reference to the Bowie song – a song about the search for what makes us human) is to share our conviction that even in an increasingly digital age, painting still has power to transform and create meaning and value in our lives. We aim for work within this exhibit to do just that; transform your experience as you soak in the work, the attitude, the smell of the studio, the resolve, the toughness, the mess, the belief in the “hand made” that is painting.

Taking it a step further, we wish to ask the artists and the viewers, how does the “scale” of work affect your experience of your work? How does “scale” influence your most primal interaction with this combination of materials sitting on the wall?

Whitney Wood Bailey, Collective Harmonies

Fran O’Neill, 10

Does abstraction have more impact when it references the first generation of Abstract Expressionism, when it’s larger than life, or does the experience of similar improvisational process-based imagery re-contextualized on an intimate scale create a more meaningful or personal experience? Does grand gesture and sweep, the bold graphic mark of figure painting when life-sized or greater have more impact than tiny modest glimpses, fragments and squawks of the human form? Do they create an experience more relatable, more immediate?

We think all of the above is true and none of it is true. There does not need to be a definitive answer – because there is none (but we love the question!)

Messy, tight, formal, informal, slick, raw, big, little, with figure, without figure, hard edge, loose – a great, big, potentially transformative MESS.

Michael David
September 2013