THE LONG, HOT SUMMER
1956: Release of Elvis Presley’s first LP, Pollock’s real-fake suicide, in Tokyo, Tanaka Atsuko wears a dazzling dress made of light bulbs and fluorescent tubes during one of Gutai’s first interventions, ”Lust for Life” hits the screen, Minelli writes a flamboyant biography of Van Gogh that forever shapes the image of this artistic genius in the collective mind. Alan Bermowitz is 18, an age that seems to count a bit more than the others.
Alan Vega, aka Alan Bermowitz, later said that the piles of bulbs and electric wires that revealed him to the art world at the beginning of the 1970s was like the icebreaker of the New York school and that he forgot what it brought to painting. It is true that his installations scattered on the floor are based on a bodily approach and an organic look that entirely distinguishs them from the post-dada accumulations, and brings them closer to the “eccentric abstraction”- coined by Lucy Lippard in reference to a specific post-minimal movement.
Later came: the cruciform objects –not to say the word “crucifix”– and various assemblings with found images –to avoid the word icons– with a pronounced taste for boxing figures: a sort of mix between Peter Blake and Ray Johnson. Vega was neither behind nor ahead of art history. Actually, he probably regarded it with some indifference, as he started protesting with the art workers before even thinking about making a living. At the biggest looser game he was truly unbeatable, fighting to keep the bond between being both brilliant and broke.
Perfectly in tune with his time, and unlike the post-Dadaists who clung to the “beauty of indifference”, he was moved by an excessive empathy that instilled the many stories behind his crosses and charms: from his fascination for black boxers and their anger to the terror inspired by the marmoreal beauty of the Wehrmacht soldiers. Titles like “Dachau”, a suburb of Munich, and “Buchenwald”, a suburb of Weimar, shows that Vega also knew how to choose sides. This electric appropriation of beauties and tragedies with whatever was at hand or in the street, bulbs in bulk traded for the gold of the Pop church or that of the minimalist temple, was a bit like cheap mass Vega-style. Heaven and hell tangled and crossed since the crossroad of the blues also shaped a spiritual road and that Vega’s assemblings might contain pieces of the true cross.
While the queens and kings of contemporary art made up stories and performances to back up their objects, ut pictura praxis, Vega made sure that Suicide, the quintessence and greatest story behind (or before) his art, overshadowed it. A duo that will forever embody the spirit and integrity of rock music -the devil’s song- yet played without guitars or drums as if to say no to two-part rhythm. Punk was a story of resurrection and fervor: the fervor we feel when listening to the laments in Frankie Teardrop or 96 Tears, which might have us believe that this performing artist had the “gift of tears” spoken in the gospel. It was not before Felix Gonzalez-Torres that another artist used cheap lights to tell intimate tragedies and represent glorious bodies next to a Eucharist in golden papers.
Aren’t Alan Vega’s illuminations a secret link between Flavin and Gonzalez-Torres? His late drawings and paintings look like a strange come back to existentialist painting. Star seems like the masterpiece of the series, announcing the shining disappearance of his avatar.
Todd Bienvenu’s painting repeatedly and explicitly quotes Max Beckmann, this modern medieval struck down in the middle of Central Park on his way back from the Metropolitan to check the display of one of his self-portraits. As if he had found a kindred spirit to share his childmind and sense of grotesque with. In Bienvenu’s teatrino where space and the canvas plane become one, tiny and thickly brushed characters interact with merely sketched ghostly figurines, objects from his studio and street scenes usually seen on Instagram (Oh, a biker! Oh, a nocturnal view of Manhattan!). His work praises our dreadful daily life all the while challenging the codes of representation and the painter’s work, with a bit of allegorizing. For example, we see a computer screen that reads REC while the couple staging appears as a mere super-flat black stain, faker than the mirror reflections in a bar at Folies Bergères. This swiftness and edge only painting allows captures our marvelous yet appalling era. And when Bienvenu wants to mock the deep reflections on computer-assisted sexuality or over-ambitious and driven art, he goes straight to the point, which he sometimes likes to impaste as if to highlight his craft. Another bacchanalia on the wall of the bar where his poor hero of the night is spitting a monstrous green spurt, probably a blend of alcohol and liquor.
Behind his seeming indifference, Todd Bienvenu takes a lot of distance, starting with the American realism from Hopper to Fischl, waving modernism for representing night owls and the X generation. Bienvenu’s popular art depicts the little perversions of New York: an over-protected world that sometimes falls into excess yet deprived of all tragic dimension or sense of drama. His work appears like a eulogy of freedom and immaturity: one does not paint a studio, a double portrait or a genre scene without being somehow part of the comedy. To the lyrical masturbators of the New York school and the Women of De Kooning, Bienvenu answers with a giant carrying his prey, the object of his desire, reduced to a small thing wearing a tight jean or with a soft kiss given to a single pink stain suggesting an ass: a perfect way to blow out desire and play tricks to the good taste of painting. Unless it is the return of Ulysse-Leopold Bloom discovering Molly’s two hemispheres. Childish and mocking, Bienvenu is free to the point of distancing himself from his Beckmann obsession whenever he pleases to dive into the expressionist fire (of Saint John), like a tapestry with interlocking and juxtaposition. Furious and enraged in a minor mode, we might hear the screams of the little white man venturing on the wild road like the Bavarian Kirchner.
From dark legend Vega and his wisely chosen nickname to Bienvenu, which alias shows off an everlasting smile, the two artists share a talent of talking with the dead and picking heroes to delve in the meat of the matter. For both of them, art is this suspension of incredulity that made Rauschenberg say: if you don’t take this seriously, there’s nothing to take at all. And to think that something close to fascination can rouse from a drunken evening and a pile of 1$ trinkets.
Alan Vega (1938-2016, NY) graduated from Brooklyn College / City University of New York. Several solo shows were dedicated to his work: at Jeffrey Deitch (2017), at Entrepôt 9, Quetigny (2015), at Moma PS1, NY, at Magasin, Grenoble and in le Fresnoy, Tourcoing (2014) ; at Musée d’Art Contemporain, Lyon (2009). His work was also part of several group shows : at Mumok, Wien (2018), at Collection Lambert in Avignon (2017); at Barbican Center, London (2015) ; at Maison Rouge, Paris (2012 et 2014) ; at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscou (2011).