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Joshua Abelow makes simple pictures. That is, they seem simple until you think for a moment – and recognize the ontological complexities they explore and the good-humored auto-critique they perform. His exhibition OH! ABELOW, on view at James Fuentes LLC through February 13th, is comprised of a number of framed drawings and a repetitive series of bright, geometric burlap canvases that somehow manage to avoid redundancy. Abelow, who incorporates text, geometry, abstraction and figuration into this work, is no stranger to the multifarious role played by artists today, participating in an increasingly fluid contemporary culture that seems to deny traditional classifications. He has been a well-known and well-received presence in the blogosphere since 2009, when he unleashed upon the public his ART BLOG ART BLOG -- a platform for expressions of his artistic preference and a carefully curated mood board of images and links as well as a vehicle, frequently, for his writing.
While his tendency towards introspection and reflection has often been expressed in words – “something I've always loved about Robert Rauschenberg's ‘Erased de Kooning Drawing’ is that it is both reverent and irreverent, a nod and also a slap in the face” (“I Don’t Want to Name Names,” 2010) – it takes visual form in graphic works that play with his fundamental concern, “the age-old cliché of the artist as genius” (“DOINGDEKOONING,” 2008). Often by way of a perverse persona that he has created to represent himself as a painter, Abelow explores the work of the artist in its various relational manifestations: the artist and art, the artist and audience, the artist and self, and artist and history.
His drawings are gestural and loose, much like sketches made by elementary school children, but they feature an abundance of nude characters – including the aforementioned painter and a cast of women -- performing symbolic acts of sodomy and fellatio. The works do not seem to follow linear narratives, but offer, rather, glimpses into Abelow’s critical stream-of-consciousness. “Figurative Painter” (2010), for example, depicts a beanie-clad man smoking a cigarette – surely an allusion to the age-old artist-in-beret motif – who is painting a portrait directly onto his erect penis. The face that he is creating appears to be female, represented in profile and blessed with full lips and a clean, un-furrowed brow. She shares no physical features with the “figurative painter,” whose ugliness is exaggerated (he has a mole, a phallic nose and a recessive chin). Is the painter attempting a self-portrait, ultimately failing to accurately depict himself in a typically deluded demonstration of the “artist as genius” syndrome? Or is he painting a portrait of some un-pictured model, in which case his choice of canvas is similarly solipsistic and masturbatory?
Either way, the work is provocative, and encourages suspicion as to the motivation, integrity and talent of this artistic prototype. It is precisely this criticality – which Abelow frequently directs inward, expressing the hypocrisies and insecurities inherent to his chosen métier – that lends his superficially simplistic, even amateurish works a compelling gravitas. Indeed, he has been known to reference as a springboard for his artistic practice Paul McCarthy’s similarly self-reflexive video “Painter” (1995) in which McCarthy effectively undermines the notion of the “heroic male artist,” performing an incoherent painting lesson with an enormous brush while wearing socks, a hospital gown and an inflated rubber clown nose.
Abelow’s more abstract works are equally rigorous. The obsessive series of small canvases that comprise the large part of OH! ABELOW have been divided into quadrants and then again into combinations of geometric shapes. Hung closely together at the same height around the gallery space, they are a parade of kaleidoscopic color – coral, chartreuse, a range of blues from cereulean to prussian, and even a variety of blacks. Each triangle, rectangle and square reads as its own, distinct hue from afar, but a closer look reveals not only the wiry fibers of the burlap, a material utilized for its organic resistance to obsessive perfection, but also that the colors have been built up, layered upon one another. The smaller shapes, then, might be understood to represent an individual artistic identity, which superficially seems capable of standing alone but is in reality part of a larger puzzle, taking its place along the trajectory of a vast productive history and derived, in some measure, from the works, artists, and ideas that have preceded it.
Images:Untitled (Abstraction "NQ"), 2010, Oil on burlap on canvas, 12" x 9"; FIGURATIVE PAINTER, 2010, Pencil on paper, 30" x 22"; Untitled (Abstraction "FV"), 2010, Oil on burlap on canvas, 12" x 9". Courtesy James Fuentes LLC.