Constructing “Boatness” from the Abstraction of Camouflage: Stuart Elster at Junior Projects
Stuart Elster: Cinderella Liberty at Junior Projects
May 4 to June 1, 2014
139 Norfolk Street, between Stanton and Rivington streets
New York City, 212 228 8045
The title of Stuart Elster’s suite of paintings at Junior Projectsmight sound like a theme park, but this modestly sized, chromatically-charged series actually references the British practice of ship camouflage during World War I known as Dazzle. By adapting the geometric compositions of Vorticist painting in order to distort the appearance of British warships, the Brits hoped to limit damage from German U boats. (Vorticist painter Edward Wadsworth was a member of the Dazzle project.) The idea was to disrupt the German targeting assessment of the orientation, speed and mass of the British boats. The results were inconclusive.
The WWI Dazzle Camouflage project sought to reorder the visual composition of the boats by actually painting abstract shapes onto the boats’ outer surfaces. In his paintings, Elster inversely constructs boatness from the abstract camouflage patterns of Dazzle. Elster’s glyphic facture of criss-crossing planes is nuanced, precise, and assuredly swift. He really slathers on the paint. With a palette knife or similar tool, he presses, glides, incises and sculpts the paint into a sumptuous relief of precise textural delight. Imagine Wayne Thiebaud painting a Charles Sheeler.
Titled according to color, each painting is a unique confection. In Dazzle Pink, the saccharine peppermint candy intonations viscerally attract and repulse. The candy-striped bulkhead and prow of the ship command the painting’s foreground. Above, a skyscape of mast and line intersect in a cubist cacophony of staccato and rhythm. Elster is squeezing high formalist modernism into a maritime art tradition that was intended to project imperial power and naval audacity. In the most chromatically evocative painting of the series, In Dazzle Blue, the thick, blue layer of paint in the upper horizontal of sky is cut by a deep, vertical score, creating the momentary illusion of a diptych. Similar breaks in the field of In Dazzle Green affirm Elster’s acknowledgement of Minimalist composition in these technically impressive paintings. In In Dazzle Brown, Elster’s velvety chocolate simulacrum activates the salivary glands. In Dazzle Silver presents a marked contrast to this unctuous richness, as the silver-grey ship seems to emerge like a fossil from dry sedimentary rock. As one spends time looking, the image also unfolds as a ghostly apparition shrouded in atmospheric fog, not unlike Whistler’s Nocturne In Blue and Silver.
By selecting an episode in which military power dovetails with modern painting invention, Elster points out the complex and fraught relationship between artistic modernism and the state. From the utilization of Constructivist agit-prop in rallying support for the Red Army against the White Russians, to our own State Department’s use of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art as a soft power tool of statecraft during the Cold War, the nature of representation, distortion and abstraction remains a vital interest. And stagecraft as statecraft persists, as when President Bush donned a flight suit in front of the Mission Accomplished banner aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. Although the efficacy of the military Dazzle project may have been less than desired for the British, the success of Elster’s project to recover, reclaim, and reassess the episode within the context of contemporary painting is a daring coup. This show truly packs a wallop.