Natalie Charkow Hollander at Lohin Geduld Gallery and Jake Berthot at McKee Gallery
“Natalie Charkow Hollander: Reliefs in Stone” at Lohin Geduld Gallery, through May 1, (531 W 25th Street, between 10th and 11th, 212 675 2656)
“Jake Berthot” at McKee Gallery, through April 10, (745 Fifth Avenue, at 58th Street, 212 688 5951)
Although she has exerted considerable influence as a teacher at Yale and other institutions, Natalie Charkow Hollander hasn’t shown in a New York gallery in over twenty years. Her exhibition at Lohin Geduld, who opened their doors last fall, is almost something of a debut, therefore, especially as the septagenarian artist only hit upon her idiosyncratic carved relief idiom around the time of that early 1980s outing.
Ms. Charkow transcribes great paintings in carved relief. Her preferred source is the old masters: it was actually a Poussin drawing that set her off on her sculptural explorations. Compositions of Poussin, Piero, Tintoretto and Matisse-the token modernist in this company-fill her carved prosceniums.
This dollhouse repertory theatre of masters revisited might sound a little cute in the telling, but the experience could not be more bracing and salutory. Her project is a million miles from, say, J. Seward Johnson, Jr., whose Madame Tussaud-esque 3-D, human-sized polychrome renderings of Impressionist favorites were to be seen last year at the Corcoran in Washington, DC.
Ms. Charkow is a modernist, albeit of classical sensibility and mind-bogglingly fastidious technique. The sense of craft and control in images which none the less work with immediacy and spontaneity makes the experience of a Charkow almost disconcerting, although upon reflection this very tension seems integral to her aesthetic.
Her sculptures connect as much to moderns as to the painting masters she reworks. Her multiple arrangement of cubes, for instance, can put you in mind of Torres-Garcia and his pictogram grids. Her enigmatic box-like compositions bring to mind the assemblages of Louise Nevelson and even Joseph Cornell. This despite the august, classical stones she sculpts (limestone, Carrara marble, sandstones of various hue, and slate). I found it hard to resist a temptation to pick up one of her voluptuous slabs and give it a good shake, convinced in a childish way that it might release a snowstorm or start playing a tune!
Actually, the artist’s ideal is to set her compositions within a wall, and Lohin Geduld has gone to consirable lengths to accommodate this wish. This false walls generate an exciting sense of how Ms. Charkow could reach a broader audience, collaborating with an inspired architect, but actually, the single pieces arranged on ledges lost nothing of the power or mystery gained in the sunken wall arrangements.
The level of spatial ambuguity a Charkow accesses transcends illusionism and practicalities of presentation. Having within our vision the whole block from which her compositions are hewn, feeling the stone to be a sculptural object in and of itself, graspable in the round, like a carved grotto, only serves to accentuate the sense of the carved space as an autonomous universe. In rendering two dimensional space three dimensionally, far from ironing out spatial ambiguities she actually brings out their richness. Although her relief carving is too deep to comply with the pictorialism of bas relief, her compositions derive a special energy (an almost claustrophobic intensity) from being contained within the stone.
Ms. Charkow does weird, unsettling things with any preconceptions or orthodoxies we may bring to the appreciation of modern sculpture. Her figures, for instance, have a modelled sense or carved sense, as is appropriate to each painter she is reworking: they are fluid and sinuous, for instance, when drawn from Titian, blocky and austere when from Piero. Either way, the negative space in a Charkow is invariably equally, or more, psychologically invested that the positive space; that’s to say, the spaces between figures are as energized as the figures themselves.
Ms. Charkow is as much involved with the dialectics of rough and smooth as with that of plane and surface. This is brought to a head in the three pieces that looked as if they were being seen back to front. The smooth, white marble of “Nine Caves and Their Inhabitants,” (1997) exquisitely contained within its slate frame, reads as if some arbitrary slice has been cut into the block, at once exposing and concealing secret passage ways and fissures. The effect is like an abstract painting made up of wobbly rectangles, the finely chiselled pockets of inner texture almost reading like collage elements. Like the collagist, she plays an advanced game of actuality versus intimation.
Just as Ms. Charkow can send the theoretically inclined student of sculpture back to Adolph von Hilderbrand’s “The Problem of Form in Painting and Sculpture,” (a treatise as prone to arouse controversy now as it did in 1893), the painter Jake Berthot also generates some unexpected traffic between the centuries. His show, which closes this weekend at McKee Gallery, exposes to its furthest extreme the romantic roots of his classic form preoccupations.
In 1996, Mr. Berthot, who had made his mark in the 1960s as an abstract painter, moved to a property in Upstate New York where he began to draw from nature. He was attracted, in particular, to trees, which he treated in a stylized language which was almost self-consciously a hybrid of naturalism and abstraction, colliding elements of perceptualism and geometry but resisting their fusion.
Roger Fry once observed, in relation to Cézanne, that every classic is made from a romantic repressed. Something more fundamental in Mr. Berthot’s artistic personality, however, appears to be repressed in these pictures.
There is no denying that he is able to muster a sense of mystery, a romantic *genius loci*, in his loving renderings of favored spots on his estate. But where an artist like Sylvia Plimack-Mangold, with her cool passionate empiricism, recalls the intense focus of Cézanne, Mr. Berthot, despite taking similar painterly ambitions to a neighboring landscape, never achieves a personal synthesis comparable to Ms. Mangold’s, let alone Cézanne’s.
There is something almost camp about the surfaces of his pictures, as if he were making some retro joke about Victorian landscape painting, while the juxtaposition of geometric webs and naturalistic trunks and branches is forced to the point of seeming diagrammatic. Mr. Berthot might aspire to being a kind of painterly mystic, speaking in tongues, but for the time being he only comes across as a ventriloquist.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, April 8, 2004