John Himmelfarb at Luise Ross Gallery
February 18 to April 17
511 West 25th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues
The veteran Chicago painter and printmaker John Himmelfarb has recently turned to sculpture in a variety of mediums. Several delightful examples of his foray into the third dimension are now on view in a rousing show entitled “Geared Up,” at Luise Ross Gallery. Himmelfarb’s ostensible subject is that most utilitarian of vehicles, the truck. The choice of motif might seem puzzlingly prosaic but in the hands of this artist, now in his seventh decade, becomes a funny and poignant metaphor for our knack for accumulating emotional baggage—psychic freight—and the increasing unlikelihood, as years go by, of finding a suitable place to dump it.
Himmelfarb’s flat work is restlessly graphomaniacal, as a lithograph titled Double Negative(2009) demonstrates. A timeworn but sturdy flatbed truck, its deep wheel wells and streamlined hood of pre-War vintage, is piled absurdly high with not-quite-nameable items that might conceivably include plumbing supplies, inflatable rafts, aircraft parts and/or semiabstract garden sculpture (but that’s just a guess). Graphically simpler, though still plenty convoluted, Drift Ice (2009) is a relief print in jet black and snow white in which the play of shapes takes on narrative and conceptual shades of gray: the rig and its cardo are either falling apart or coalescing, depending on your outlook.
In the exhibition’s namesake, Geared Up (2010), Himmelfarb draws with his jig saw, summoning from sheets of plywood a repertoire of well-honed shapes and rhythms. Cobbled together with spots of glue and a handful of nails, the piece is a lively heap of interpenetrating planes sitting astride unmistakably tire-like disks and surmounted by a trio of enigmatic protrusions that might be ladders or crane arms. The ad-hoc quality of its formal bouyancy has an unlikely elegance: Red Grooms meets Isamu Noguchi.
The beautiful, somber Mesa (2008), a three-and-a-half-foot-long bronze, is a hybrid of the eroded landform the work’s title indicates and a loaded lorry as if it broke down while making a wide right turn, lost a tire or two, and merged with the geography. The windshield and grille take on a physiognomical cast as it is easy to read them as wide, hollow eyes and gritted teeth.
Himmelfarb’s work has little to do with the spirit of the convoy, that fluid confederation of cross-country tractor-trailer drivers that became a sociological phenomemon and pop-cultural touchstone (“Good buddy, put the hammer down!”) by making Middle America aware, in the mid-1970’s, of the existence of subcultures in its midst. It’s more existentialist and individualist than that, as in the 16-inch-long Fortitude, a smaller truck inexplicably equipped with a distinctly simian front end, a huge gearlike tire, tanks and canisters galore, and a number of mysterious protuberances such as a wing or huge comb on the front fender, possibly deriving from outmoded or reinvenbted agricultural equipment. and other and possibly outmoded farm implements what looks like a reinvention of the ladder.
The spikey Knowledge looks at first like a collection ofbarnacle-encrusted boomerags and banana peels. It is set upon a plinth that brings it to eye level, enabling the viewer to get to know the nooks and crannies. In the manner of the sculptor William Tucker, the work is abstract from a great many angles; only its vestigial tires and bonnet, seen from three-quarter view, give away its vehicular origins. Visitors to the gallery should be sure not to miss Lander, displayed in a back room. It is a small and tidy, slab-built ceramic work with a beautiful polychrome glaze keyed to dark gray and neutralized pastel colors.
Back in the 1980’s, Himmelfarb did a series of drawings called “Boatman” in which mounds of prosaic junk, accoutrements of the everyday–stepladders, cigar boxes and the like—are piled high in a raft, threatening to sink it, and the anxious fellow piloting it. Just as his overburdened rafts struggle to remain afloat, Himmelfarb’s straining rigs somehow keep a-rolling. Perseverance (2006) is an eleven-foot-long painting keyed to orange-red, black, and pale blue-green. Through the loose, exuberant paint-handling the viewer discerns a barrelling semi nearly filling the frame, filled to bursting with tubs, spools, coils and cartons of unnameable, unknowable stuff. The truck is fully loaded, like the brush it was painted with. When art so witty, self-aware and bemused emerges from an artist’s accumulated experience, that load proves to have been worth schlepping, after all.