Back in the stunned wake of September 11, 2001, Graydon Carter, then editor of Vanity Fair, was lambasted for declaring “the end of the age of irony.” His argument was that after such an inconceivable and profound tragedy, flippancy and snark were no longer acceptable.
More than two decades later, two shows at Cove Street Arts prove that irony is alive and well, but also underscore the indisputable value of this form of human expression. “Repartee” (until March 26) delights in irony, finding endless reservoirs of humor and wit, but also unexpectedly poignant moments in juxtapositions of Amy Wilton sculptures and Jim paintings. Flahaven.
“Michael Torlen: Dance Me to the End” (through April 9) validates irony as a coping mechanism and also, in a more classical sense, reminds us of the Renaissance vanity tradition, these beautiful paintings, albeit moralizing, on the transience of human existence.
The ironies of “Repartee” show up both in the witticisms of their titles and, more in the case of Wilton than Flahaven, in the visual puns. “She’s Safe at Last” by Wilton is a found object sculpture for which the artist covered a fiberglass mannequin bust with hundreds of outward-pointing screws and nails. The title’s association with this extreme self-shielding presents its own laughable irony.
Yet there is also sadness in the implicit fear of our own vulnerability – the very quality that makes us human beings is our ability to feel and be impacted, after all – that necessitates such attempts at self-defense. The visceral resonance of the piece is actually physically and emotionally painful.
The juxtaposition relationships in this show are not always one-to-one. There are more Flahaven paintings than Wilton sculptures, so some free association seems encouraged. The board right next to “Safe”, “Kid’s Menu”, doesn’t seem particularly relevant. But if we grasp the sense of isolation inherent in “Safe,” it’s certainly easy to relate it to “Ms. Pacman” on an opposite wall.
“Mrs. Pacman” itself is one of Flahaven’s most intricate and beautiful paintings. Perceiving it in the visual field of “Sure” might suggest how computer games are another form of self- isolation. But the painting itself, in a certain way, also does this by itself.
Many of Flahaven’s works are segmented into quadrants or other configurations structured by chains or ladders made up of colored squares. They are not strictly regimented in the manner of Piet Mondrian (an influence Flahaven cites in his statement), but they nonetheless impose a compartmentalization that isolates more fluid organic forms – leafy forms, liquid streaks – into their own boxes. These forms (like the armored emotions in “Safe”) cannot express themselves freely.
Flahaven titles are irresistibly funny. Diagonally opposite “Safe” are two paintings: “Why Don’t You Dames Go and Powder Your Noses.” Me and Louie have some business to discuss” and, next to it, “And I would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those kids mingling.” In front of those is Wilton’s sculpture “His Head in sand”, a model’s legs and crotch covered with copper coins spilled into a sandbox.
First of all, it’s hard to ignore that “Ladies” is teeming with phallic and testicular shapes, which accentuate the masculine attitude of the title. In “Meddling Kids”, a red spot tries, unsuccessfully, to hide behind another shape while swirling, flying shapes (presumably the children) circle around it. Both titles refer to a certain outdated and/or delusional thinking (“Dames” is blatantly sexist in its attempt to downplay female power and competence; “Meddling Kids” seems to deny that our bad behavior always ends up being discovered) . Wilton’s sculpture, in this context, hilariously evokes both notions of male obtuseness.
Flahaven’s “Your Outfit Looks Fine, You Just Need a Dickey” is reminiscent of a scarf common in the 1950s and 1960s, something one would expect to see in a Douglas Sirk film or Ang’s “Ice Storm.” Lee. Men who wore breastplates at the time called their wives the now ridiculous (and pecuniary) expressions “la femme” and “la petite dame”. Several hollow shapes allude to the painting’s tubular breastplate, which leans towards a sort of soft, dreamy abstract expressionism.
Nearby is Wilton’s “The Woman Who Remembered Who She Was”, another mannequin bust that seems to similarly embody outdated notions of female roles in society – a regiment of children standing to suckle her nipple, oven dials where her arms should be, a crown of little Roman soldiers on her head (perhaps her warmongering husband, her brothers, her children).
Yet, surrounding her body and lining the back of her skull, there are positive affirmations that say something more fundamentally true about who she is beyond mother, nanny, domestic caretaker and so on. next: pure creative spirit, get out of the tangle of fear, etc.
It’s too much fun to deconstruct these associations. So you might not notice how truly lush and rich Flahaven’s paintings are. That would be a shame. Her sense of color, form, depth and layering is dazzling.
DEATH AND LIFE
Torlen joins a line of artists who have used their work to fight disease. During the AIDS crisis, Kurt Reynolds and Larry JaBell glued medicine bottles, IV tubes and capsules. Tiko Kerr incorporated his own discarded AIDS paraphernalia. Sam Francis, suffering from kidney tuberculosis which caused inflammation of the testicles, produced a series of paintings titled “Blue Balls”.
The “Memento Mori” series of paintings were made while Torlen was undergoing chemotherapy, during which he drew his palette from his color-coded medications. The works of Memento mori were full of symbols of human mortality: skulls, hourglasses or clocks, extinguished candles. They are related to vanity paintings, which often included these same symbols, but also instruments, books, wine, and other worldly goods representing human vanities.
Skulls appear in Torlen’s paintings, often in the form of diagnostic scans, as do barcodes and the names of chemo drugs like Doxil and Abraxane.
A second series, “Dancers,” are monotypes that are closer to vanitas in the sense that their imagery alludes to sex and vices: a voluptuous Venusian figure, a dancing couple, Camel cigarette packs, Times Square before its gentrification. (some might say Disneyfication) when it was a place of porn cinemas and hotels for rent by the hour etc. Some of these symbols also appear occasionally in “Memento Mori” paintings.
Both series are interesting and well executed. I would say that there are maybe too many “dancer” works, because after a while they seemed repetitive; the same imagery mixed and reworked on the surface. The vivid palettes and death imagery of “Memento Mori” paintings give them more power and immediacy.
Sometimes this last series can be inscrutable. Images of a cartoonish bubble man, a Hermes figure, a pinwheel tricolor, killer whales, fish… we can only guess. It reminds me of Jasper Johns’ paintings of mixed images which were so personal – a shadow, the silhouette of a soldier from the Issenheim Altarpiece, the pottery of George Ohr – that they seemed slightly distant and enigmatic, though beautifully painted.
But there is a lot of technique here, and a certain sense of defiance in the face of death that is expressed loud and clear, often in the language of irony (billboards peddling cigarettes that will kill you, couples dancing merrily in front of skulls and X-rays). This alone is a celebration and affirmation of life, elements not present in memento mori and vanitas paintings. Therefore, Torlen’s “Memento Mori” paintings are not moralizing. Instead, they feel open, vulnerable, and ultimately joyful.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]
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