Gallery Going, by DAVID COHEN          
      A version of this article first appeared in the
New York Sun, November 11, 2004
 


"William Steiger- Land: Mark, new paintings" at Margaret Thatcher Projects until November 20 (511 West 25 Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues,
212-675-0222.)

"Bryan Hunt: Airships" at Mitchell-Innes
and Nash until December 11
(1018 Madison Avenue, between 78 and 79th Streets, 212-744-7400).

"Julian Opie's Animals, Buidlings, Cars, and People"
at City Hall Park until October 14, 2005.

 

DAVID COHEN

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William Steiger Blue Mill 2004
oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches
Courtesy Margaret Thatcher Projects

William Steiger's factories, silos, cable cars and ferris wheels are clean, serene and iconic. Bryan Hunt is legendary for the doll's house finesse of his airships, a motif that has also appealed to Mr. Steiger. And Julian Opie-maturest of the "young" British artists-has found his niche at the blurry boundary between street signage and depiction.

All three are visible right now: Mr. Steiger has a show of new paintings at Margaret Thatcher, Mr. Hunt of vintage (1970s) blimps at Mitchell-Innes and Nash, and Mr. Opie has a long-term installation of works, staged by the Public Art Fund, at Lower Manhattan's City Hall Park. They all beg the question: what is the special lure of graphic design to artists? Why would *fine* artists allow any confusion of their activity with the craft of journeymen at the lower end of the creative social scale?

One answer is that graphic design is, to the artist who appropriates it, at once pure and impure. Pure because of the simplicity, impersonality, and facility of sweet colors, clean lines, efficient communication. Impure because of the high-low thing, the frisson of the marketplace, the taste of forbidden fruit.

William Steiger's style references both commercial design and historical fine artists who were themselves influenced by illustration. His most obvious forebear is Charles Sheeler, the American "Precisionist" of the 1930s; there are also shades of Charles Demuth and Ralston Crawford.

His images are imbued with a nostalgia for the modernity of yesteryear (an old "New Deal"). His rendering technique has nothing "cutting edge" about it: masking tape and a Stanley knife seem to be the tools of trade. This odd combination of impersonality and the handmade explains something of the warmth of these seemingly facile works.

The effect of his making a world that is flat, decorative and rendered could betoken alienation: a reduction of life to a sequence of signs. That certainly is the kind of semiotic menace Julian Opie likes to tap. But instead, Mr. Steiger accesses the serene joy of a tourist brochure, of a Tintin cartoon.

And yet, he has an acuity of observation, once you linger with his work, that is as compelling as it is innocent. Economy, not reduction, is his clarion call. Despite the sweet artifice of his palette and the prissy precision of his line, his top interest turns out to be supremely painterly: the evocation of space, with the inevitable, motor-reflex perceptual emotion that entails. And somehow his expanses of white-perceptually neutral in intent-always seem sumptuous.

Within his streamlined means his effects reveal themselves to be complex and subtle, all the while retaining the element of innocence that comes from his illustrative technique. He revels in the tonal modulation of shadows; the audacious intervention of warm colors to denote distant landscape amidst the steely cool blues and grays of a mill; the miniaturist's delight in capturing the inner space of a distant cable car; the almost baroque rythmic complexity of a ferris wheel viewed at an oblique angle. His aerial view landscapes (from a serenely floating blimp, no doubt) discover the river bending amidst a strict grid of fields, caught on the diagonal, a marriage of the geometric and the organic that serves as a metaphor of his own fusion of observation and artifice.

***


Bryan Hunt Airships 2004
installation at Mitchell-Innes & Nash
November 1 =
December 11
Courtesy Mitchell-Innes & Nash

Bryan Hunt's airships are a happy marriage of popular craft and art at its most effete: they fuse the aura of a Brancusi and the thrill of spying a model ship of your childhood on the top shelf of a thrift store. A few years ago he made this marriage manifest with a blimp, turned vertically, mounted on a pedestal typical of the Roumanian master's.

This exhibition consists of seven of the first of Mr. Hunt's dirigibles, carved with a serene hand from wood (spruce and balsa) and covered with metallic leaves and silk papers. Although he has pursued the blimp motif since this period, Mr. Hunt's larger output has been a body of work with very different qualities and characteristics: almost expressionistic bronzes that depict water in arrested motion-or else, perhaps, rocks in accelerated erosion. His spaceships are in every sense more ethereal. As he got going with the motif they became more overtly depictive of the ships themselves; earlier, his concerns were more abstract and exploratory, the artist permiting himself to split the ships in half for expressive purposes.

A great deal of their effect derives, naturally, from their installation. He has them jutting from the walls, rather than suspending them by wires. A Jeff Koons would have found a way to box them in helium, one suspects, but in his crafting and display of his blimps, Mr. Hunt achieves an inspiring balance of the literal and the metaphorical,

***


Julian Opie Six Escaped Animals 2001
aluminum, paint, vinyl and steel
Courtesy Public Art Fund

Julian Opie was a few years ahead of the young turks at London's Goldsmiths' College who formed the YBA ascendancy in the early 1990s. His work actually connects the younger neo-conceptualists with a previous generation of "new sculptors," such as appropriationists Bill Woodrow and Tony Cragg, with their playfully chopped-up and rearranged things and materials.

Mr. Opie is a committed Duchampian whose career proves that the deconstruction of art in an open-ended project. His earliest efforts included a jolly, Pop-influenced debunking of masterpieces, with skilfully rendered versions of Van Goghs and Matisses gaudily painted on metal "canvases" strewn nonchalently on the floor. Then he got hooked on semiotics, making variously witty and soulless art from road signage, Lego-like buildings, toy cars. His best series, arguable, were the faces and figures made quite recently. Rendered as pristine signage on either shaped cutouts, rectangular supports, or advertising kiosks, they made disconcertingly convincing if stylishly superficial portraits out of generic signage.

But his efforts at City Hall are ponderous and patronizing: dumbing down has itself dumbed down. He has various animals in cutout icons or traffic signs, a couple of portraits, a dolls-house cluster of skyscrapers-a scrappy, ill-considered assortment. His signage in the park represents an intrusion of the most ubiquitous urban phenomenon in a rare patch of city nature, inflicted on the unsuspecting in the name of intellectual superiority. It is such a caricature of public art gone wrong that one assumes that is its meaning.

William Steiger's factories, silos, cable cars and ferris wheels are clean, serene and iconic. Bryan Hunt is legendary for the doll's house finesse of his airships, a motif that has also appealed to Mr. Steiger. And Julian Opie-maturest of the "young" British artists-has found his niche at the blurry boundary between street signage and depiction.

All three are visible right now: Mr. Steiger has a show of new paintings at Margaret Thatcher, Mr. Hunt of vintage (1970s) blimps at Mitchell-Innes and Nash, and Mr. Opie has a long-term installation of works, staged by the Public Art Fund, at Lower Manhattan's City Hall Park. They all beg the question: what is the special lure of graphic design to artists? Why would *fine* artists allow any confusion of their activity with the craft of journeymen at the lower end of the creative social scale?

One answer is that graphic design is, to the artist who appropriates it, at once pure and impure. Pure because of the simplicity, impersonality, and facility of sweet colors, clean lines, efficient communication. Impure because of the high-low thing, the frisson of the marketplace, the taste of forbidden fruit.

William Steiger's style references both commercial design and historical fine artists who were themselves influenced by illustration. His most obvious forebear is Charles Sheeler, the American "Precisionist" of the 1930s; there are also shades of Charles Demuth and Ralston Crawford.

His images are imbued with a nostalgia for the modernity of yesteryear (an old "New Deal"). His rendering technique has nothing "cutting edge" about it: masking tape and a Stanley knife seem to be the tools of trade. This odd combination of impersonality and the handmade explains something of the warmth of these seemingly facile works.

The effect of his making a world that is flat, decorative and rendered could betoken alienation: a reduction of life to a sequence of signs. That certainly is the kind of semiotic menace Julian Opie likes to tap. But instead, Mr. Steiger accesses the serene joy of a tourist brochure, of a Tintin cartoon.

And yet, he has an acuity of observation, once you linger with his work, that is as compelling as it is innocent. Economy, not reduction, is his clarion call. Despite the sweet artifice of his palette and the prissy precision of his line, his top interest turns out to be supremely painterly: the evocation of space, with the inevitable, motor-reflex perceptual emotion that entails. And somehow his expanses of white-perceptually neutral in intent-always seem sumptuous.

Within his streamlined means his effects reveal themselves to be complex and subtle, all the while retaining the element of innocence that comes from his illustrative technique. He revels in the tonal modulation of shadows; the audacious intervention of warm colors to denote distant landscape amidst the steely cool blues and grays of a mill; the miniaturist's delight in capturing the inner space of a distant cable car; the almost baroque rythmic complexity of a ferris wheel viewed at an oblique angle. His aerial view landscapes (from a serenely floating blimp, no doubt) discover the river bending amidst a strict grid of fields, caught on the diagonal, a marriage of the geometric and the organic that serves as a metaphor of his own fusion of observation and artifice.

***

Bryan Hunt's airships are a happy marriage of popular craft and art at its most effete: they fuse the aura of a Brancusi and the thrill of spying a model ship of your childhood on the top shelf of a thrift store. A few years ago he made this marriage manifest with a blimp, turned vertically, mounted on a pedestal typical of the Roumanian master's.

This exhibition consists of seven of the first of Mr. Hunt's dirigibles, carved with a serene hand from wood (spruce and balsa) and covered with metallic leaves and silk papers. Although he has pursued the blimp motif since this period, Mr. Hunt's larger output has been a body of work with very different qualities and characteristics: almost expressionistic bronzes that depict water in arrested motion-or else, perhaps, rocks in accelerated erosion. His spaceships are in every sense more ethereal. As he got going with the motif they became more overtly depictive of the ships themselves; earlier, his concerns were more abstract and exploratory, the artist permiting himself to split the ships in half for expressive purposes.

A great deal of their effect derives, naturally, from their installation. He has them jutting from the walls, rather than suspending them by wires. A Jeff Koons would have found a way to box them in helium, one suspects, but in his crafting and display of his blimps, Mr. Hunt achieves an inspiring balance of the literal and the metaphorical,

***

Julian Opie was a few years ahead of the young turks at London's Goldsmiths' College who formed the YBA ascendancy in the early 1990s. His work actually connects the younger neo-conceptualists with a previous generation of "new sculptors," such as appropriationists Bill Woodrow and Tony Cragg, with their playfully chopped-up and rearranged things and materials.

Mr. Opie is a committed Duchampian whose career proves that the deconstruction of art in an open-ended project. His earliest efforts included a jolly, Pop-influenced debunking of masterpieces, with skilfully rendered versions of Van Goghs and Matisses gaudily painted on metal "canvases" strewn nonchalently on the floor. Then he got hooked on semiotics, making variously witty and soulless art from road signage, Lego-like buildings, toy cars. His best series, arguable, were the faces and figures made quite recently. Rendered as pristine signage on either shaped cutouts, rectangular supports, or advertising kiosks, they made disconcertingly convincing if stylishly superficial portraits out of generic signage.

But his efforts at City Hall are ponderous and patronizing: dumbing down has itself dumbed down. He has various animals in cutout icons or traffic signs, a couple of portraits, a dolls-house cluster of skyscrapers-a scrappy, ill-considered assortment. His signage in the park represents an intrusion of the most ubiquitous urban phenomenon in a rare patch of city nature, inflicted on the unsuspecting in the name of intellectual superiority. It is such a caricature of public art gone wrong that one assumes that is its meaning.

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