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Rental Wonderland

The City Art Building’s gallery steps up its game

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A still from Matthew Fishel’s “Chemical Physical”


Smorgasbord

Through Feb. 1 at Gallery CA; opening reception Jan. 18

In Don DeLillo’s novel Underworld, the artist Klara Sax is painting decommissioned Cold War jets in the middle of the desert. Much of DeLillo’s work is defined by the recognition—which we can see in Sax’s character—of the strange, cold beauty of our technological instruments of war. A similar sentiment seems to motivate local artist Matthew Fishel, whose super-sleek HD animation loops show the surface beauty of airplanes. This is evident in 2011’s “Mother Duck,” a beautiful five-minute animation of a bomber jet. The jet, followed by 11 silhouetted bombs, occasionally flaps its wings like a bird, the bombs drift ever so slightly downward before propellers on their tails spin and they raise back up, as if caught in their “mother’s” draft.

“Chemical Physical,” Fishel’s entry in Smörgåsbord, at Gallery CA, is at the same time even more visually arresting and more cunning in its deployment of the opposition between the natural world and our ability to destroy it. The minute-and-15-second loop shows a small insect on the edge of a jet engine. As in the other video, nothing much happens on-screen: The bug edges closer and closer to the spinning intake of the engine. We know—or our minds project the fact—that it is bound to be sucked into the engine and obliterated, just as we know that dropped bombs must fall, and we are somehow caught up in the drama of this insect in the machine.

I stood lost in the loop, never knowing where it began or where it ended and, in the process, I realized that it was the surface itself that created such tension. The animation is, in fact, the most painterly work in this widely ranging show. It has the sheen, the glow, and the detail of the Flemish masters, and its sheer surfaceness is enough to hold one almost indefinitely. “Chemical Physical” takes the looping nature of the GIF phenomenon and elevates it to art.

The fact that an HD animation can produce a work of such exquisite painterliness reanimates a century-old art-world problem. When photography emerged as a medium, people began to ask what painting was for or what it might still do. The questions were answered with abstraction, Impressionism, Cubism, and the dozens of other -isms that make up art history of the 19th and 20th centuries. Until the relatively recent spate of photorealists, most painters steered away from the representative domain of the camera.

Whether intentional or not, the paintings in Smörgåsbord—juried by Paddy Johnson, the New York-based art writer and founder of the blog Art Fag City—take a similar tact. David Armacost’s untitled acrylic painting seems to attempt to harvest the untethered power of paint’s material sloppiness with an explosion of eyes and beams out of a vague head. His recent work at Nudashank’s Gran Prix, as part of the duo Armacost Plank, was, in fact, a sly and quite funny meditation on Van Gogh’s final painting, and this work seems influenced by the physicality of Van Gogh.

Jon Marshalik’s “Shape of a Pocket” sets a rough bit of yellow, black, and brown, abstract expressionism on a pristine hot pink background to a surprisingly powerful, and beautiful, effect.

Similarly, Anna Showers-Cruser’s “Body Queery” uses vaguely anthropomorphic shapes, fleshy but entirely unreal pinks and purples, and the power of the title to suggest corporeality more than to depict it. The result is formally intriguing, partly for the wide array of future possibilities it suggests.

By contrast, Cyle Metzger’s “Paintstallation”—a series of aqua-colored acrylic stripes running down the wall and onto the floor—comes across as a tired gesture one may have seen at a dozen shows last year. Andrew Lubas produced the plainest piece in the show with “CONSTRUCT NO. 1,” a piece of drop cloth with a single graphite line extending horizontally across it. “CONSTRUCT” has the potential to be extraordinarily boring, but it is somehow interesting for all that, suggesting the painstaking efforts of Robert Irwin to investigate what a line might mean.

There are plenty of less austere pieces in Smörgåsbord, like Michael Farley’s whimsical “Kitchenmate Series” or David Ubias’ “Rental Wonderland,” whose miniature chaise lounge alone forces a warm smile without seeming cloying or merely cute.

Like Fishel’s “Chemical Physical,” Benjamin Andrew’s “Mythonaut” is hugely ambitious and an unmitigated success. Whereas so many artists rely on the “I-just-tossed-this-funny-thing-off” excuse to protect their egos, Andrew was not scared to go big with this Super 8 transfer to HD video and pencil-on-paper installation. The film shows an antiquated-looking astronaut watching our world through a window as he draws images and takes notes (which seem to spill out of the wall in a long, uninterrupted piece of paper that falls to the floor beside the screen) as he listens to the 1961 novel Star Hunter. There seems to be a recent vogue among artists for the makeshift 1960s sci-fi of the Twilight Zone, Philip K. Dick (See Annex Theatre for both), and Chris Marker (see Acme Corporation’s Office Ladies). Andrew’s “Mythonaut” engages this trend in an authentic way that is both conceptually challenging and physically moving.

That the two most compelling works involve video not at all like what we may have come to expect from video art is a positive sign. Both Fishel and Andrew ask for time and attention, on which investment they pay a sizable return, with interest.

It was a wise move for Gallery CA—located in the lobby of the City Arts apartment buildings— to bring in an outside jurist like Paddy Johnson to look with fresh eyes at the art the city has to offer. The result is a strong showing of diverse talent that helps the building live up to its name.

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