Conceived and curated with great care and attention to pictorial and historical detail by Michael David, As Carriers of Flesh is a group exhibition of works by painters whose depictions of figures operate on personal, sociocultural and broadly political levels all at once. It is also a thematically framed generational survey of sorts, in that the senior artists in the show have been engaged with their practices and exhibiting for several decades, while the younger ones are just now emerging into greater public awareness.
Invariably the venerable veteran of the exhibition, Arnold Mesches, now still almost stubbornly active as a nonagenarian, has been crafting all manner of paintings, drawings and mixed media works since the 1940s, at times even at the risk of running into ideologically-based trouble with the authorities—indeed, his series pertaining to FBI files on him is rooted in demonstrable fact, not fiction. Where figures or self-portrayals appear in his paintings they are, on the one hand, narratively ambiguous positionings, yet they are sometimes also politically provocative, confrontational, defiant—a prole artist’s rebuke of authority, say, and the avaricious crush of capital. More plaintive, in a sense, and delicately empathic are Peter Williams’s figurative works that wrangle in quite fantastically envisioned ways with racial messaging and implicit inequalities, while featuring also certain autobiographical particulars that could even go unnoticed in light of his bright palettes and sometimes surreal and sinuous arrangements. In this same league of seasoned painters is Brenda Goodman, who in recent years has enjoyed a much deserved surge of interest in her work. Her representations of the body are deeply emotional expressions, and as tied to her love of the materiality of paint itself as to her yearning to come to pictorial terms with what it is to physically exist. They are at times quite textured, at times smoothed over—and at times small, large, monstrous. And this range is not because our bodies come in so many shapes and sizes. Rather, it’s because one can feel oneself, in one’s very own body, as a carrier of multiple forms from one moment to the next. ‘Today, I am this,’ Goodman seems to say—her utterances vocalized in paint.
The two younger artists in As Carriers of Flesh are Heather Morgan and Paul Gagner. Morgan’s works feature female bodies eroticized in ways that suggest pop-culture-like manifestations of sexiness and allure, yet their sometimes dashed polish or intentionally unfinished aspects hint at the patent falseness and commodified creepiness of all such imagery. Her posing women might appear to be winking, in other words, or even pointing and curling a come-hither finger, but they will cut you. Gagner’s paintings feature a kind of wink as well, yet of the humorous, tongue-in-cheek sort, for their content and figurations alike often operate as witty send-ups of the ‘seriousness of abstraction,’ and of the questionable virtues of regarding seriously oneself.
Many of the works in As Carriers of Flesh are richly textured, layered, encumbered, belabored. Certain others register as markedly limpid, untroubled, fluid. That is, their surfaces convey a tactile range that relates to how our very own bodies feel over time as we grow, mature, experience, age. Their array of constituent figurations, then, becomes even more relevantly analogous to how our lives can feel brilliant and beautiful in one moment, and in the next painful and grave. We all carry, consider and deal with our flesh, regardless of its amount or color, and regardless of what organs it covers. As carriers of life, that is, there’s something we invariably share: Our minds might seize days, but our bodies collect them.
Featuring: Paul Gagner, Brenda Goodman, Arnold Mesches, Heather Morgan, Peter Williams