January/February 2002

NOTEBOOK: FORMALISMS

TERRINGTON CALAS

[Excerpt]

AS A PRIMARY and collective ethos, postmodernism probably no longer exists. Too many years have passed. And yet, as sheer effect, it seems absolutely pervasive —and interminable. A movement that was, at once, soundly intellectual and blithely reactionary, now proceeds rutterless. After twenty-plus years, artists become untangled from a prevailing spirit. Any prevailing spirit. Especially one that is a movement about a movement. What we see today may look like postmodernism — still imbued with ironies, still irreverent, still wittingly impure — but it now has the ring of disengagement. Serious artists seem, more than ever, on their own. Unimpressed by theory, unmoved by trends.

The corollary is a pluralism that, for once, feels true. Artists appear to be pursuing individual impulses for newly logical reasons — reasons related to personal sensibility or to cultural phenomena. Consider certain examples on exhibit this winter in New Orleans.
An innately realist painter persists almost stubbornly in a manifestly traditional style because, clearly, it is his passion, it is "what he does." To wit, Simon Gunning. A socially engaged artist alters his style as he confronts new and unforeseen outrages in contemporary life....

STREETS & BOATS. Above, I noted Simon Gunning's traditional style. It comes from 19th century Europe. His paintings of boats in harbor, especially The Red Dinghy, recall early Turners with their mesmerizingly golden light and angled, spiky masts. In the street scenes, there is something of Manet's clumsy wonderful gardens, rich with brushy shadows and plain, flat houses. What confers a singularity on Gunning's newest work (recently on view at Galerie Simonne Stem), is his balance of dazzling gesture and forceful pictorial structure. In Yellow Tug #3, the lowest quarter of the painting is blackened, almost canceled out; the highest quarter is nearly as dark. Thus, we are drawn in toward the centered, massive yellow and black tugboat and, more important, to a riot of gestural impasto that serves to depict reflection. This is sheer virtuosity.

Gunning's obvious devotion to formal matters —the brushwork and composition — might suggest a certain emotional detachment. The artist's own comments ("...what I really like to do is forget about what I'm painting and just paint. . .") seem also to advance the idea. And, indeed, a few pieces in the Stern show bare this out. Even a bustling scene of street kids such as Children Gathering Crawfish has the aura of a journalistic document — people seen and pictured, but not "portrayed." But actually, in this instance of such a socially-charged subject, Gunning's formal stance is a benison. An alternate choice — a facile and deadly choice — would have been to revive the bathos and quaintness of the Ashcan School aesthetic.

In nearly half of this exhibition, however, an emotionalism does indeed emerge. At moments, it is measured, tempered; at moments, dramatic. It has to do with light. The stirring oddness of late afternoon light, something Gunning captures as few others have done. In The Canal, light graduates from opaque murkiness to amber to silver. All those lyrical half-tones. In The Pigeon Feeders, cast shadow obscures a large expanse. In both works, the effect is a hybrid feeling: both the lonely and the mysterious. And the feeling endures.

One small work, Ghost Ship, seems a bit miscast in this show. Depicting a docked boat almost entirely in silhouette, it verges on abstraction. The brushwork is washy, layered, liberated — and yet it coheres. This is the surprise highlight of the entire series, a brooding poem in blacks and greys. Emotionalism managed and confined to a handful, but emphatically there, nonetheless. I think immediately of Gunning's silhouetted cypress in NOMA's collection. Ghost Ship is somehow even more intriguing.