Monday, February 7, 2011

The Battle of the Brush, Bryant Park, New York

The Abstract Regiment, Bryant Park, Manhattan, January 20, 2011. Photos: 16 Miles [more]
"Once again it will be a haven for the weary. As to just who the weary will be depends now, as in by-gone years, on economic conditions and the city administration."
— James J. Nagle, "Historic Bryant Park Opens a New Chapter," The New York Times, August 26, 1934

Manhattan's Bryant Park has played host to a Revolutionary War battle; the 1853 Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations at the Crystal Palace ("… a palace, loftier, fairer, ampler than any yet," Walt Whitman wrote of it), where Elisha Otis famously debuted his safety elevator; and campsites for Union forces during the Civil War. It has also gone through periods of neglect. "After the war and until 1884 the ground was mostly left to weeds and bushes," James J. Nagle wrote in a New York Times article on the history of the park, in August, 1934, as city officials prepared to reopen it after an extensive renovation.

The Abstract Regiment, Bryant Park, Manhattan, January 20, 2011.

Until last Wednesday, for just two weeks, the park was home to another unusual event, a brilliant little painting show called "Battle of the Brush: A Civil Re-enactment of Two Painterly States." Curator Alexander W. Glauber divided eight paintings by a smart lineup of early- to mid-career artists into two separate, opposing regiments, the Realist and the Abstract, which stared each other down from two separate stalls left over from the park's annual holiday market. James Wagner nailed the ingeniousness of that setup, writing, "Great idea: Bring the art to the street (or at least the park); adapt an existing venue; and still end up with a clean, white space."

"Battle of the Brush": Two dueling instruments.

Abstract Regiment. Photo courtesy Alexander W. Glauber

It was a ferocious, well-matched battle, with the Abstract Regiment wielding a vast range of non-representational techniques, ranging from Anoka Faruqee's dense and hypnotic tight-knit patterns, in Freehand Fade to Gray Green Ground (2007), to Patricia Treib's delightful Armless Sleeve, whose passages of mint green and milk-chocolate brown threaten to morph into figuration at any moment. Leading the regiment's charge at the center of its booth were two stunners. On the right, a Justin Adian made of long, thin strips — and one thick lozenge — of foam, spray–painted the deep red-orange color of organ meat. It looked just about ready to leap off the wall and engulf a viewer. (Adian had a supremely and wonderfully odd piece in the Thomas Duncan–curated "You Were There" at Rachel Uffner this past summer, which he followed with a solid one-person show at Blackston in September. He is on a winning streak.) Next to the Adian was one of Roger White's canvases of "non-repeating patterns" (as the release for his recent Uffner show put it), looking as confident and complete as ever.

Left to right: Anoka Faruqee, partial view of Freehand Fade to Gray Green Ground, 2007. Acrylic on linen on panel. Roger White, Gubbinal (First Version), 2011. Oil on canvas. Justin Adian, Night Moves. Oil enamel and spray paint on canvas and Ester foam.

Left to right: Justin Adian, Night Moves. Oil enamel and spray paint on canvas and Ester foam. Patricia Treib, Armless Sleeve, 2010. Oil on canvas.

Left to right: Tom Sanford, Perkus Tooth, 2010-11. Oil on wood panel. Nicola Verlato, IF, 2011. Oil on wood panel. Alison Blickle, Admonition For Travelers, 2010. Oil on canvas.

Across the battle lines, in the Realist camp, another White entered the fray: Eric White, this time, represented by his 2004 The One, a not-quite mise-en-abyme of women's heads, one layered on top of another on top of the next. Next to it was Tom Sanford's seductive and sparkling portrait of the Jonathen Lethem-character Perkus Tooth, reclining dramatically on a couch in a glossy, high-sheen, disordered world. The remaining contributions, from Nicola Verlato — a sky filled with floating blue-green spheres and muscular shirtless men engaged in hand-to-hand combat — and Alison Blickle — a lithe woman with long bangs and spindly fingers sitting before an alien landscape — were reminders that "Realism" need not preclude fantasy.

Left to right: Eric White, The One, 2004. Oil on canvas. Tom Sanford, Perkus Tooth, 2010-11. Oil on wood panel.

Left to right: Nicola Verlato, IF, 2011. Oil on wood panel. Alison Blickle, Admonition For Travelers, 2010. Oil on canvas.

The fact that the work on view was strong and substantive is almost — but only almost — beside the point. The low-key medium of delivery here is a triumph itself. As Carol Vogel noted in the Times, "The bleakest days of winter hardly seem like the right time to present new works of public art." Nonetheless, Glauber got the job done, commandeering the kiosks and carefully situating a few heaters inside of them to handle climate control. (Arranging for a roaring fire, more heaters, and bountiful hot chocolate at the opening reception was not a bad move either.) The message in this curatorial feat is clear: with planning, ingenuity, and bureaucratic permissiveness, art — and good art, at that — can be displayed anywhere. This should not be the only Bryant Park "Battle of the Brush." With a few standing air-conditioners, these skirmishes could continue easily and comfortably into the summer. Let's hope they do.


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