Serial Bowls: The Still Life Paintings of Guggi
Guggi: “This is not a hotel” at Yoshii Gallery
November 10, 2016 to January 7, 2017
980 Madison Avenue, between 76th and 77th Street
Christened Derek Rowen, Guggi, a former member of the band, Virgin Prunes, is an Irish cult-figure. Usually we expect self-taught artists to deal in unabashed self-expression. Certainly that is what we anticipate in art made by onetime punk musicians. But Guggi’s art, which is as strange as his chosen name, is marked by restraint, delicacy and elusiveness.
The medium-sized oil paintings (the largest is 46 by 57 inches) in his current exhibition depict rows of empty bowls on fields of color. Sometimes he draws additional bowls on the background. Working within this basic fixed format, he creates pictures that are surprisingly varied. Conjoined I (2016) depicts three copper-colored bowls on a shelf; Crimson (2016) shows nine bowls, each on an individual panel, with the panels set three-by-three on a grid; and Turquoise Drawing (2016), which despite its title is a painting, shows a bottle, and drawings of bottles on a gray field..
The title of this exhibition, which may seem excessively elusive, actually is a statement by the artist’s father, Robbie Rowen, made in response to an earlier display of Guggi’s art in a Dublin hotel. An exhibition of his son’s art, whose subjects are domestic utensils, he presumably means to say, transforms the public hotel space into that private place where you usually find bowls in a home, the kitchen.
Guggi may not be technically skilled, but aesthetically speaking, he is very sophisticated. Friendly commentators, quoted at his web site, have compared him with Chardin and, inevitably, Morandi, but in truth he’s a very different painter from these exemplars, very much a law unto himself. If we need an Irish reference, who better than Samuel Beckett, who also got much artistic mileage out of repetition? But ultimately, all of these associations are aesthetically irrelevant. When on a busy morning, I walked into Yoshii Gallery, which is a tiny space, knowing nothing about Guggi, I was immediately spell-bound by these oddly winning paintings. I loved the way the display cunningly forces the viewer to get close up. What attracted me to these modernist compositions, which make singularly potent use of grids and repetition of simple, banal forms, was their modesty. And I was fascinated with their variety, which Guggi achieves with a limited format.
Often an artist’s chosen still life subject has apparent emotional significance. Some painters represent natural artifacts. Think of Cézanne’s apples, the humble foodstuffs of Chardin, or the posh spreads of seafood in Dutch Golden Age art. When, however, Andy Warhol presents rows of banal manufactured artifacts, soup cans, coke bottles, or photographs, he reveals a very different visual culture. Guggi’s simple unornamented bowls are also manufactured, and often they too are in rows, but unlike Warhol’s still life objects they have great individual character.
What attitude does he take towards his bowls—what do they mean to him or, indeed, to you and me? And why display them in rows?. These obvious questions are oddly difficult to answer. A bowl contains whatever you choose to put in it—almost anything at all. But that these depicted bowls are mere containers does not make them aesthetically indifferent. The longer I look at Guggi’s enchanting pictures, the more puzzles I find.