Young Americans in their tweens have adopted a deliberate stupidity as a form of humor. You can see it on TV in shows like Uncle Grandpa. It's a simply executed cartoon where the protagonist talks and acts like an idiot but often with benign results. It’s a Post-sensical psychedelic show on Comedy Central. Fashion-wise girls wear sweatshirts that say -- "I'm sorry I'm late. I didn’t want to come"... Boys wear t-shirts with the wrong band name for the image. Like a Smiths shirt with a picture of Mark E Smith.
Dumb is fun. Who can blame them? Currently the world is monitored, mediated and ruled by the stupid. They demand that arms should be available for everyone no matter how angry or ill they are. They watch Reality TV shows about dreadful narcissists. A medium that has successfully spawned one of its own to take the place of a President. A ludicrous figure who threatens us with Nuclear War via Twitter. The dopes are put up to it by the greedy rich who still don’t have enough money and want whatever’s left of the disenfranchised poor's. Considering the power of the truly thick how can you believe that intelligence has any value at all anymore?
Painter Alex Sewell has curated a clever, funny show at FiveMyles Gallery in Brooklyn that features: Eric Ashcraft, Jake Brush, Dan Fig, Paul Gagner, Maggie Goldstone, Duy Hoàng and Jessica Tawczynski. It reveals that this humor has also struck Painting. Dumb jokes are the new ‘leather thing’. (Crash, bang, crash, ring)*
FiveMyles is a young forward-thinking not-for-profit gallery in Crown Heights run by Hanne Tierney. The gallery prioritizes new art and the needs of its immediate community. It’s part of a group of galleries scattered throughout Brooklyn with more on their minds than Art Fairs and auction results. Sewell is a lucid young painter with Totah Gallery.
Paul Gagner’s great painting "Argle, Bargle Brouhaha" (image below) seems to be calling us out, daring us to make fun of it. It’s a "parody" of a Guston, seemingly. His famous lone hand painting a single stroke on a canvas. The arm comes in from a window that opens onto a night sky. All around the easel that holds the canvas are the instruments of the studio: a level, a saw, a clamp light, and so on. All that for this one stroke? And the artist himself peering in at another window. Tears dripping from the corner of his eye, his face rendered more in the style of "The Fulbright Triptych of 1975" by Simon Dinnerstein. Like his other painting which depicts a full sized equestrian statue from some abandoned town square in his "Storage Space" (the title of the work). A place, like his studio, that he can’t afford to visit very often.
Paul Gagner's "Argle Bargle, Brouhaha"
What every body liked about Guston was the primal quality of his line. As if it was drawn with a burnt stick on the cave wall. But here his ‘stroke’ is rendered with caution.
Careful rendering is also present in the hopeless collection of objects in Eric Ashcraft's paintings. It’s not clear if these things are meant to be "read" or just, witnessed. One engrossing piece shows a cartoonish wooden frame down two sides of the canvas with rest of it a black background. Hanging off the corner of ‘the framed edge is a delicately executed spiders web in white. Woven into it are the words "Pay Attention."
Caution too in the rendering of a large opaque painting by Dan Fig called "Cheap Studio." Is the lack of space for artists a theme? The delicate unsure mark is an antidote to the bold cocksure gesture of Modern Painting. Perhaps this work is distrustful of such surety. Fig's canvas is of a football and a clock whose quarters are marked by Magritte style rocks. Both floating against some cartoon rendered battlements. The studio as a a fortress. That you should be so lucky (or so rich) as to even have one in 2018 in New York and its environs!
Dan Fig's "Cheap Studio"
The paintings in this show seem to reference Magritte's "Periode Vache." His work at that point championed stupid jokes, bizarre rendering, sometimes sloppy, sometimes overly careful paint handling.
"We’d like to say shit politely to you, in your false language, Because we bumpkins, we yokels, have absolutely no manners, you realise." Louis Scutenaire in the catalogue to Magritte's show in Paris at the Galerie du Faubourg in May 1948.
Jake Brush is also an absurdist but he may have his eye on something more confrontational. I recognized the influence of Leigh Bowery immediately. The high key colour of his video and the cheap plastic props. '80s London did not produce any radical underground painting (apart from Leigh’s partner in crime Trojan, whose paintings would’ve been right at home in this show) but video, performance, fashion and music hit a giddy peak. It was in response to Thatcher’s strident lack of support for Art and Culture and her disgust with the youth.
Everybody gave up on the idea of becoming rich and famous and made what they liked. Leigh, as documented by Charles Atlas's videos, took liberties with performance and "dressing up" to diabolical extremes.
Jake’s piece in the show is a video mounted over a fake grass shrine. He is on view manipulating red plasticine globs, he is surrounded by strawberries. It's all glossy and tactile but also intimating disease and the vulnerability of the body.
Maybe it’s me but I can’t but see Maggie Goldstone’s pitiful dog paintings as a joke. I don’t find the humorous and the earnest mutually exclusive if it's a joke that I can get behind. Her paintings are made with a sloppy affection that can be read as satirical or pointedly deliberate.
Alex Sewell writes, in his catalogue essay that these young artists have an increased sense of empathy and are backing away from the political to tackle the personal. Perhaps I’m missing something.
What I take to be deliberately pathetic and obtuse for comic purposes is for them a sensitive read on contemporary Art. What I think of as the virtues of Modern American Art, its directness and "tough" painting style. Artists like Warhol, De Kooning and Joan Mitchell: seems to be too authoritative and patriarchal for this generation.
Maybe the new market driven Art World is not for them. Perhaps they don’t want to make art that panders to the needs of the captains of industry. For the time being they’d rather hunker down and feel it out with the misfits than "make it" with the Art bros and their high rolling collectors. - Millree Hughes
Mr. Hughes was born in North Wales in 1960, son of an Anglican priest. He began making art on the computer in 1998 in NYC.