Soho Search for the Primitive, Keith Haring, Shafrazi Gallery (1984)



 Sir Edmund Hillary's quest for Mt. Everest; Paul Cezanne's for Mt. St. Victoire; Humphrey Bogart's pursuit of "The Maltese Falcon;" Jason's of the Golden Fleece; Thomas Edison's need for invention. These and so many more, in myth and the history of human endeavor, speak of mankind's quest for fulfillment of our destiny. It is the search for, and union with, Self and God by means of the particular symbol and activity found most personally meaningful.


 Not unexpectedly, seven exhibitions in Soho reveal similar quests for a reconnection with basic human needs and a stabilizing foundation in art and life. In the 20th Century, this quest often takes the form of the desire for the primitive.


 Keith Haring at the Shafrazi Gallery, 163 Mercer St. through January 7; Ken Little and Nancy Bowen at Susan Caldwell, 383 West Broadway through January 14; Italian Expressionists at Sperone, Westwater, Fischer, 142 Greene St., and Stanley Kearl at the Ingber Gallery, 460 West Broadway through January 21, use deliberately primitive, even ritualistic, sometimes violent methods and forms to attempt a reconciliation of primordial human needs with the concerns of a misdirected, overly-rational, super-technological society.


 Mary Ann Currier at the Milliken Gallery, 98 Prince St. through February 1, and Lee Savage at Art and Design Gallery, 152 Wooster St., through January 15, employ redemptive empathy with simple objects of reality, while Katherine Hagstrum, at Vorpal, 465 West Broadway through January 12, seeks spiritual transcendency.


 Keith Haring at Shafrazi creates a total gallery environment seeking a primitive mythification of technological near-madness. Towering free-standing and wall totems, life-size nude photos of the artist, and the gallery walls themselves are all convulsively, but surprisingly cohesively covered with simple, stylized, hectically-incised and painted pictographs and symbols borrowed from the ancients and created from contemporary culture.


 Linear, abstract, human and animal shapes reminiscent of Africa, Egypt, Crete and the Indians of northwestern coastal Canada mingle with dollar signs, crosses, cartoon figures, rocket ships, computers and television sets erupting with mushroom clouds blowing the mind of modern man...freneticism based on that fear and a life whose negatives are unbearably amplified by television and the media.


 As ritualistically effective as this exhibition is, the derivativeness of some of the symbols suggests that the creative, spiritual evolution and transition has not yet been completed, does not fully spring from reservoirs of the artist's being. Haring is still in the realm of Punk Expressionist over-reaction to dehumanization. But he's made a very good try.


 Ken Little and Nancy Bowen at the Susan Caldwell Gallery also pursue a primitive renewal of life, but Little sees as much hope as his name implies. Life-size sculpted and constructed animals -- a boar, cougar, deer, bear and steer or buffalo -- quite perceptive in their organic naturalness of form and pose, have leathern surfaces to which are affixed -- like scabrous lesions and tumors -- a myriad of leather goods. Shoes, boots, belts, baseball mitts and work gloves are effectively interwoven and protrudingly-layered to create the spiny, bristly coat of the boar and the pathos of the rump-rubbing bear.


 The bitterness of Little's message of wild-life -- or wildness in general, whether in animal or man -- destroyed by a technology-mesmerized world, is emphasized by placing the boar on an automobile, and a gaudy, glossy red cougar atop a stepped store display or circus performance stand.


 Nancy Bowen's small, Pop-Realist, Punk Expressionist, mixed-media sculptures of the female nude are vigorously posed, and modeled in a deliberately crude but energetically primitive, semi-cartoon style. At once exuberant and hypnotically befuddled, her figures fling themselves into strenuous back-bends, straddle a horizontal pole in a bowl like a gymnast in an Olympics of the psyche, or prepare to leap into space as if violent activity will synthesize or jolt out of consciousness that which disturbs them.


 The primitive, mythological orientation of the new Italian Expressionists like Clemente, Cucchi and Chia is obvious at the Sperone, Westwater, Fischer Gallery. Enzo Cucchi's brutally painted, swollenly gigantic, red male nude with violin breaking over his tiny head, strides through a birth canal of yellow light surrounded by dark, swirling clouds, a tiny, tiny female nude at his feet.


 The picture's message seems clear. Modern man, inflamed and engorged with rage and frustration, his puny brain unable to think its way out of dilemma, becomes a hideously dangerous, eruptive force capable of any destruction, like the earlier Italian Futurists who sought a perverse salvation for hopelessness through their call for war.


 Stanley Kearl's bronze sculptures at the Ingber Gallery express ritualistic, primordial events and attitudes, not without a sense of the eerie or threatening, in deliberately primitive groups and single figures. In "Day of Apocalypse," a near circle of simply-formed figures are an expressive mix of "ancient" primitive forms and the "new" primitive exemplified by "E.T." and other extra-terrestrials so popular today. The latter are contemporary personifications of unconscious forces always within us that once were typified by trolls, fairies, dragons and other good and bad monsters that, in our technological age, have emerged from the bog, castle and dark forest to inhabit our frontier of the unknown: outer space.


 Mary Ann Currier, in densely constructed oil pastels, brings her search for the meaning of life where it no doubt continues to reside...finding connection with ourselves and the God within (and without) through a relationship with the outer world and the simple, ordinary things of life around us every day.


 Currier's genre is still-life with a close-in, meticulous focus on a few enlarged objects that are searchingly examined for their fullness of form, substance and soul. Like kindred spirits Chardin and Cezanne, Currier transforms the humble preliminaries of breakfast -- an interlocking pitcher of milk, sugar jar, napkin, spoon, bowl and three blazingly red-orange peaches, amid subtly sensuous multitudes of whites

-- into a statement of the nature of man's relationship with God and eternity.


 Lee Savage at Art and Design, paints the figure in mistily-scumbled, generalized, realistic, acrylic images that become more specific in still-life. The more inventive figures seem nearly archetypal projections of the subjects' fundamental life themes. James Joyce's lust for Nora Barnacle is depicted in the contrast of his clothed figure with her nude body. T.S. Eliot's literary erudition is symbolized by the heap of books and large head, his intellectuality trying to be balanced by the "animality" of two effectively dwarfish dog heads between his legs.


 Savage's still-lifes, often featuring single objects small within pictorial confines -- knife, empty coke bottle, salt shaker -- have a sensitive, slightly askew realism that accentuates the artist's movingly melancholy sensibility.


 Katherine Hagstrum at the Vorpal Gallery, like the other artists here, is in search of a dream, but unlike many of them, hers is a gently yearning rather than tragic vision. The artist creates abstracted imaginary landscapes through the medium of monoprint using subtle, richly modulated, palely warm colors and angularly irregular shapes.


 In "Billowing Dawn," a five segment work 22" x 60" in size, flanking hill-like forms spread like thighs left and right (akin to similar symbolic devices in Grant Wood and 19th Century German romantics like Friedrich, Carus and Runge) to reveal a central cleft with horizontally-layered, sea-like vista and clouds.


 Though tonal contrasts are generally kept to a minimum, relatively darker foreground shapes often yield to transcendental, distant lights.




Copyright by Don Gray


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