Familiar, strange, and decidedly unstrategized
Reactionary bores often claim that a real artist is someone that pursues a personal vision, and is not concerned with strategizing; strategizing, in a sense, is the Kissinger-ization of art. Henry’s realpolitik applied to art as curiosity filtered through goal-oriented ambition
For example, Chuck Close said that he began his career wanting to make art that insured that when “Someone saw a group show with Chuck Close in it they would remember that there was a Chuck Close in the show.” Fair enough.
On the other hand, young William S. Burroughs spent a summer of his adolescence in a Boys Wilderness Camp in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The idea was inculcated that in the young scouts that, “Anything that was worth doing, was worth doing well.” Burroughs’ reaction to this encomium was deciding it was more important to do something because you found it interesting. Whether you did it well or not was beside the point.
These were a few thoughts that went through my mind as I came across works made by two middle-aged men who appear somewhat out of the loop, but so interested in what they are doing they don’t seem to care. After walking around under the spotlit atmosphere of this past month’s art fairs and related events, their slightly obscure work is enormously refreshing.
Peter H. Begley, in his exhibition at Salander-O’Reilly, at first glance appears to make paintings that one still sees some of Paris’ Left Bank galleries, where time seems to have stopped somewhere around the time of Chet Baker’s first arrest. Begley’s paintings are all Parisian views, streets and buildings as might be have been experienced by a blind giant who has run his fingers over all the surfaces. Begley’s odd technique aids him in depicting the streetscape as continuous sculpture. The paintings are acrylic and oil on waxed paper, mounted on canvas. They have strange little nubs of acne-like growths and weird palette-knife swipes of light paint and great, involved energy.
All of the works are triptychs. In “Cityscape #4,” the outlines of buildings’ edges rise and fall in a wobbly pattern of black pips with red highlights, as if the tips of matchsticks were emerging from the lime green ground. The paintings seem to owe something to Giacometti as well as to hack tourist painting but there is attention and conviction. They are surprisingly charming.
I noticed Keith Long’s work in the windows of the Ansonia Pharmacy when walking up Sixth Avenue one day. These reliefs, made of found wood, including wooden hangers which are used to keep them on the nail, successfully confuse the viewer as to their vintage, whether they are, in fact, new or antique. Like Berger’s work they successfully escape their moment in time. This is perhaps a questionable ambition for an artwork, but it made me think of the Ming dynasty painter and teacher Kung Hsien, who made a statement that I often quote—“A work of art should be both familiar and strange.”
Long’s other exhibition, at O.K. Harris in SoHo, features larger works, also reliefs made from found wood, that have a similar, unguarded, take-it-or-leave-it quality. They are not beautiful or transcendent but have a salty dog, beatnik quality married to Zen calm. They are all figurative and gently gimcrack, featuring female torsos, mermaids, snakes, fish, and antlers. Long appears to be hiding a natural elegance behind scrimshaw corniness. He leaves knowing irony out of his work and it is not missed.