Henryk Musialowicz: The Mystery of Darkness

at the Society for Arts, through May 15

Valery Koshliakov

at Maya Polsky, through April 28

David Humphrey

at Zolla/Lieberman, through April 18

By Fred Camper

Henryk Musialowicz’s 47 paintings at the Society for Arts may picture animals, undersea landscapes, and human figures–but his real subjects are darkness, distance, and decay. Most of these mixed-media works on board, divided into several series, are nearly monochromatic, built up in layers that are then partly removed. They have the feeling of magnificent ruins: living beings seem to vibrate in a fog or mysterious veil of blotches and lines that gives them an iconic potency even as it denies naturalistic detail. They’re like dreams of what cultural artifacts might look like millennia from now, crisscrossed by the abrading marks of time. And yet these works aren’t only ruins, for the compositions imply continued growth. Lines and shapes spring forth dynamically; textures generate others. As much as these paintings might capture dissolution, they also betray an old-fashioned humanistic belief in the soul.

One series, “Animalistic Landscape,” seems to refer to the art of a more primitive age. In number 12, from 1962, a horned animal stands before us, its body seeming to glow with white splotches interrupted by darker ones. Behind it, on a pale tan ground, is a large field of dark crosshatched lines that point every which way, some thrusting forward, some receding, pressing outward only to be lost in a splotch or end in a collision with other lines. This complex organic field suggests the mottled wall of a cave, and the thickly outlined animal seems inspired by cave paintings as well.

Other animals in the same series are like vacant shadows or dimly lit ghosts: Musialowicz’s depictions are never literal or naturalistic. Instead he tries to fill his paintings, he’s written, with “a subjective feeling of the form’s pureness, to paint what I feel and not what I see.” Born in Poland in 1914, where he lives today, he expresses interest in “primitive art” and in plant and animal fossils–“geological messages and traces of cataclysms.” He also mentions a 1956 Van Gogh and Rembrandt exhibition, which helped him realize that he was following “a mistaken and far too comfortable path.” Perhaps these divergent influences help account for his works’ powerful mixture of order and apparent disorder. His lines and smears and splotches could be the product of natural processes yet often collide with such dynamic intensity that artistic intentionality seems likely; Musialowicz’s pictures seem partly the products of a human hand and partly the products of centuries of erosion.

Yet they have a message for us, as is clear from the starkly powerful number 31 (1978), from the “War Against Man” series. Two thickly black totemlike columns rise side by side in a picture made up almost entirely of deep grays and blacks, their shapes suggesting human presences–but also dead trees or burned logs. A feeling of bleak devastation is unmistakable, yet the columns also seem to rise, growing as if from below the bottom of the picture to rounded tops near the upper edge. They have an odd feeling of almost phallic pride and potency in the face of death–these burned-out icons seem to push against the emptiness, retaining a slight degree of relief against the flat background. Presenting both power and its negation, they offer an image of human assertion at the brink of apocalypse.

Portraits make up several of the series, but these figures are also depersonalized, iconic. As Musialowicz writes, “I am looking for a human face with an ambiguous presence, mother-earth, the foremother, a woman of prayer…the eternal woman filled with knowledge of suffering, death and screaming, she who brings life and hope.” The earliest image in the show, number 1 (1959), from “Portrait From Imagination,” is characteristic: almost colorless, it pictures an elongated, Giacometti-like head in dense, divergent crosshatched lines, their collisions as dynamic as those found in later works. The lines also vaguely suggest a ridge here, a sunken brow there; the figure’s deep-set eyes are wonderfully expressive, at once sad and stoic, passive and intelligent, as if observing a dissolving world with some modicum of wit. A later portrait, number 47 (1981), from “Reminiscences,” pushes dissolution and distance even further. The face is pointedly unlike a face: instead of hints of eyes, we get four rectangles of gold. Two of them are bisected by thick black lines; all are broken by many tiny dark lines.

The thick black lines that delineate the face also mark off other, similarly shaped areas of the background, though these are almost completely dark. As with Musialowicz’s columns, one senses that these “empty” areas are strangely powerful, almost as powerful as the face–as if the figure understood its own arbitrariness. A world in which a face and flat black seem almost the same is a world in which humans acknowledge their origins in dust, in which we know ourselves as accidental constructs no different from rocks or fossilized animals. Musialowicz’s peculiar triumph is that in decay, emptiness, and fragmentation he still finds some essential, continuing human presence.

Musialowicz’s art is speculative, almost metaphysical; he questions the nature of human existence, our relationship to nature and time. His verbal statements may be a bit vague because he’s after truths that are hard to pin down. Yet he still believes in the power of color and line to invoke essences–not a fashionable attitude today, which is perhaps why his work is being shown at a nonprofit institution rather than a commercial River North gallery. At Maya Polsky, Russian painter Valery Koshliakov presents ideas related to Musialowicz’s in 17 recent works that take a more skeptical, almost postmodern attitude toward the power of paint.

Born in Russia in 1962, Koshliakov (who lives in Moscow) paints mostly large canvases of classical sculptures and architectural landscapes and cityscapes, using a variety of media–among them chalk, charcoal, tempera, gouache, and graphite. Working in a rough, improvisational-looking style, he allows paint to drip down in long streaks over his pictures. (“His studio must be a big mess,” I heard one gallery visitor remark to his friend.)

Beside these broadly painted works, Musialowicz is Van Eyck. Yet Koshliakov’s roughness, especially the dripping paint, also suggests natural processes and decay. Aphrodite’s Head, whose classical form dissolves in white paint dripping from the chin and nose, and Venus in the Park, with its long white streaks like rain, among other things suggest the way older structures from Athens to Krakow have decayed under acid rain.

Koshliakov’s palette, like Musial-owicz’s, tends toward monochromes but is light rather than dark, incorporating shades of white, light gray, and tan; he uses black to accent and to define solids and shadows. Koshliakov’s mood is also lighter and less brooding. But the forest of lines and smears he uses to depict, for example, the hair on Aphrodite’s Head is a similarly dynamic blend of intentionality and offhandedness. The crucial difference between them is Koshliakov’s use of dripped paint, which shows decay in terms of painting itself: there’s a touch of ironic humor in these messy, provisional renderings of icons of aesthetic perfection.

Moreover, by taking on established works of art and architecture, Koshliakov allies himself with postmodernism. The works never seem one-liners, however, in part because of the subtle integrity of his compositions. The white streaks in Venus in the Park drip most heavily from the statue, their curves seeming to echo its gentle bends, but they also parallel the trunks of the park’s many trees: it’s sometimes hard to tell a drip from a painted white line. If the world is falling apart, Koshliakov seems to say, it’s not simply due to the impermanence of marble but to the instability of our representational means.

One could also read the works, however, as depicting the triumph of the act of painting over cultural givens. For Koshliakov, a paint streak has the same reality as a tree trunk: each is simply an image. In this way he differs from Musialowicz, who posits an underlying reality that his pictures can only approach. The righthand panel of the large diptych Moscow Tower is dominated by one of Moscow’s monumental Soviet-gothic Stalinist buildings; two others can be seen in the middle distance. Rendering their sharp spires in rough brush strokes and a vast city in abstract daubs of black, white, and tan that just barely congeal into buildings, the painter seems to personalize the institutionalized cityscape, turning these monuments of evil into playful sketches.

In his short statement, Koshliakov writes cryptically of “the Space of the City, as a kind of mythological phenomenon.” But his mention of space helped me see the architectural conceit behind all these works. The images are like buildings under construction–or deconstruction. In some places the surface is almost finished, but in many others we see the underlying girders–and on them the lacquer spills that another artist would paint over. But not Koshliakov: he prefers roughness, personalization, and incompleteness to seamless perfection. And as with Musialowicz, it’s hard to tell whether Koshliakov’s world is still coming together or finally falling apart.

There can be no doubt that the world has completely fallen apart in the 15 paintings by David Humphrey at Zolla/Lieberman. Not only does he use different styles, he often consciously combines several styles in one painting–he once told an interviewer that “in artworld vernaculars, Post-Modernism is a style that has to do with jamming together disparate things that don’t quite add up.” He told me that many of his recent paintings are pasted-together pictures of couples in which the male body comes from 50s physique magazines while the female is copied from student figurative paintings. “I was trying to pair these two incompatible conventions,” he says, “so that I could get this perfectly out of sync awkward intimacy.”

These pictures are also out of sync in other ways. Some of them look so badly painted that at first one wonders what they’re doing in an art gallery. Alpine Love Team depicts a couple embracing indifferently in a landscape that’s almost a compendium of Alpine cliches, reminiscent of Komar and Melamid’s painting America’s Most Wanted: foreground flowers, mountain meadow, rushing stream, distant pines, and bighorn sheep. The colors are calendar-art kitsch, which Humphrey acknowledges was his choice. He wanted a “kind of Easter Bunny freshness,” he says, in the interest of “prying into conventions–not sending them up or making fun of them, but trying to feel the life in what it is they promise, maybe their false promises. I want to get inside of them in the spirit of empathy and exercise a different voice.”

This is an uncommonly strong pomo exhibit, turning what is in my view a highly suspect ethos into a convincing aesthetic expression. The excitement lies in the collision between Humphrey’s various forms of representation and the way he unmasks them all, high art and low, as conjuring acts, though he also captures some of what makes each valuable.

The pale colors of Avenue, for example, may also be a bit “Easter Bunny,” but the composition is mostly abstract, making it look more at home in an art gallery. Humphrey took a snapshot of a New York street, then made a painting of it that imitates the computer blurring available through Photoshop, creating a somewhat bewildering fog. The only sharply delineated element is a small female figure at the lower left who seems about to crawl up and into the blur. Her pose recalls the lone woman in Andrew Wyeth’s famous Christina’s World, but instead of dragging herself through a precisely painted meadow toward some old buildings, Humphrey’s woman–nude, unlike Wyeth’s–is ready to fall into a postmodern soup.

The couple in the smeary Arizona Love Team began as a photo of a man doing a push-up and a student’s painting of a woman. Humphrey rotated the man 90 degrees, standing him upright, which gives him a certain strangeness, as does the fact that his lips and eyes seem to fuse with the woman’s, creating a kind of monster’s head. As in most of these paintings, Humphrey’s starting point was a composite image, produced in Photoshop, from which he then made a sketch for the final painting, drawing from the composite “as if before nature, as if plein air.” But the woman’s left hand dissolves in a painterly blur, and much of the sickly yellow landscape is blurry too. That this smearing looks like a three-way cross between the artful manipulation of wet paint, a computer blur, and a fuzzy photo taken by a moving camera is an indication of what Humphrey’s work is about: playing with, and ultimately equating, all conventions of representation. In his work the world has fallen apart more profoundly than it has in Musialowicz’s or Koshliakov’s, because the problem is not physical decay but the loss of our ability to believe in imagery, or even sight.

Born in Germany in 1955, Humphrey grew up in Pittsburgh. He says that late Philip Guston and late Picasso were among his early influences. But their work only hints at Humphrey’s uniquely weird project, perhaps summed up best in Picnic. Here the nude and seminude foreground figures are not a couple but a threesome; one man seems to sprout from one of the woman’s legs while the other, behind the first, seems to share some of their limbs. This blending of flesh–which recalls Francis Bacon–is common in this exhibit. Behind them is a car and a pleasant blue background; above them, to the left, a brightly colored bird on a branch. All three bodies are covered with painted dots in red, brown, yellow, blue, and white.

These dots have several possible meanings, which the picture balances fairly evenly. They might be a sickly-looking pox on the figure’s skin, a disease of the flesh to match their contorted, half-merged bodies. They might be assertions of painterly abstraction. They might be references to pointillism. But perhaps most startling, they replicate the main colors of the bird. High-end image-manipulation programs have a tool bar alongside the image displaying its main colors, which can then be accessed for further modification; this is what the dots seem to do with the bird’s colors. The bird–the most precisely and naturalistically painted object in the picture–is thus deconstructed into the palette of colors that made it. Appearing as a kind of pomo disease on the figures–or a painterly enhancement of them–the dots remind us too that birds’ bright colors help them attract mates.

In this sense Humphrey’s twisted androgynes represent not so much a psychosexual fantasy as yet another example of how every aspect of our existence, even gender and identity, can be contorted and reshaped through imagery. There’s something both coolly elegant and oddly terrifying about this statement of the pomo ethos. But the vacuum of belief Humphrey creates also produces a certain freedom: if nothing is real, then the imagination can invent worlds.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Picnic” by David Humphrey; “Animalistic Landscape” by Henryk Musialowicz.