Leon Golub at Ronald Feldman, Sandy Walker at Wooster Arts Space, Jacque Rochester at N3 Project Space
“Leon Golub: Graeco-Roman Colossi 1959-64 + Erotica, etc., 2000-03″ at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts until February 7 (31 Mercer Street, between Grand Street and Canal, 212-226-3232). Prices: $5,000-$350,000.
“Sandy Walker: Large Ink Drawings” at Wooster Arts Space until February 14 (147 Wooster Street, between Houston and Prince Streets, 212-777-6338). Prices: $2,000-$5,000.
“Jacque Rochester: Paintings” at N3 Project Space until TK (85 North 3rd Street, 2nd Floor, Williamsburg, between Whythe and Berry Streets, 718-599-9680). Prices: $500-$18,000.
A trademark Leon Golub depicts agents of repression at their brutal business: torture, pillage, execution. But Mr. Golub’s familiar imagery is an absent presence at the octagenarian’s current exhibition. Instead, Ronald Feldman has brought together two groups of works that thematically and chronologically sandwich this subject.
Mr. Golub’s Graeco-Roman Colossi from the early 1960s predate his political thug narratives, which (appropriate image) kicked in during the Vietnam era. His “Erotica, etc.” series, from the last few years, shows another side of this “existential/activist” painter, as one critical champion, Donald Kuspit, described him.
If your politics are Mr. Golub’s politics, then everything is political. But you don’t need to share his avowedly leftist stance to see that politics is the prime mover in his painting. His political views energize or enervate his art in almost direct proportion to the viewer’s own.
This is not to say that Mr. Golub is a propagandizer. He wears his allegiances on his sleeve, but his art is charged with an indignant humanism. It invests every surface and every mark with pathos and grandeur. His violence is mythopoeic, mixing specific historical references with a sense of the perennial. Mr. Golub makes art, not agitprop.
Ironically, his early work is shot through with the character of “late style” Old Master painting: a telling fusion of bravura awkwardness in drawing and lovingly invested impasto that puts you in mind of, say, late Titian or Rembrandt. (More specifically, the Colossi series recalls French painters of the postwar period – Dubuffet, Fautrier and Eugene Leroy.)
The impasto would soon be jettisoned by Mr. Golub, sometime after the Colossi series, when he started to take a meat cleaver to his canvases to scrape away and distress his surfaces. Even in these earlier works, though, with their flickering, glowing accretions of paint, there is a sense that to make the work dark and heavy was a categorical imperative as weighty for the artist as a party dictum.
There is nothing elegaic in Mr. Golub’s appeal to the classics: His colossi are appropriately chthonic. The half-dozen suitably gargantuan canvases know how to pack a punch, generating power in both the what and how of depiction.
In the touchingly enigmatic and disturbingly raunchy erotic works in the second gallery, the personal becomes political. The sexual encounters depicted and the poses struck are as much about power play as any other kind. These small drawings actually renew the moral charge that had begun to become rather stylized in Mr. Golub’s more familiar thug narratives. The overt sensuality mixed with brutalism brings George Grosz to mind. In these works he ups the ante of the moral ambiguity at the heart of painting bad things.
And yet, standing amidst the Colossi, and then wandering through Mr. Golub’s erotica, an irreverent association sprang to mind. In one of the Austin Powers sequels, a wacky interlude dwells on the private life of one of Dr. Evil’s henchmen, who gets wounded. It is a spoof on the mortal expendability of extras in action movies: The evil henchman turns out to be just a regular guy doing his job. To make the point, we see the henchman in a burger joint with his wife and friends.
Mr. Golub’s colossi and prostitutes almost ask to be read similarly: as peripheral characters in the lives of his usual dramatis personae. The ur-thug colossi are icon-heroes of his mercenaries and torturers, while the “whoroscope” of his erotic drawings present their pin-ups.
For further colossal depictions of bodies at play, albeit of a comparatively innocent nature, check out Sandy Walker’s impressive ink drawings a couple of blocks away at Wooster Arts Space. Mr. Walker, 20 years Mr. Golub’s junior, looks to New York School action painting, Matisse, and oriental calligraphy in his sparse, fluent, energetic paeans to movement.
Mr. Walker’s figure studies bring together a heavily loaded brush, bravura confidence, an openness to chance, and perceptual acuity. His bold, easy humanism offers action painting without angst. He favors five-foot square pages, sometimes doubling them up to five-by-10 foot, and draws from dancers and Aikido practitioners.
Mr. Walker’s line veers from the voluptuous and balletic to the nervous and awkward. There is skilful play between brushmarks that are drying out and ones that artfully blotch up. Sometimes, especially where lines accumulate in dense overlays, his markmaking can be a bit too happy with itself, but generally he is a model of economy.
The most satisfying work in the show was the smallest and slightest, “‘EF’ #1″ (2003), in which an enigmatic, dislocated mark, illegible but charged with a sense of observation, pulsates like a difficult pose heroically held.
Jacque Rochester (b.1952) has something of Mr. Golub’s scratchy touch and muted palette, but neither his angst nor his agenda. She is showing at N3 Project Space, the offbeat gallery run since 1998 by artist James Biederman in the front half of his Williamsburg studio. Ms. Rochester’s half-dozen paintings are more striking for their diversity than unity, but the energy level is consistent.
The main event in terms of space and effort is “The Other Side” (2003-04), a 15-foot wide abstraction made up of a dense patchwork of painterly scribble that recalls both Jasper Johns’s maps and Sisley’s snowscapes. But this highly worked piece lacks the verve of the diminutive, almost insolently perfunctory pictures, the real marvel of this show.
Next to the big canvas is “Missing” (also 2003-04) a quirky, inscrutable, nonchalant little panel, a smudge in blacks and grays packed with spatial ambiguity and a sense of enigma.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, January 22, 2004