Whitehot Magazine

A Conceptualist to Watch: Isaac Aden at Ethan Cohen Fine Arts, NY

Isaac Aden, "Nietzsche's Horse (No Regrets for Jasper Johns)" (2016), painted aluminum, canvas, and neon.
(All images courtesy of Ethan Cohen Fine Arts, New York)

By MARK BLOCH, Aug. 2016 

Ethan Cohen Fine Arts
May 5th - August 20th, 2016

I walked into the Ethan Cohen Gallery expecting to see a man about a horse; and I almost did. I saw the horse. There it was: life-sized and aluminum on two rollable dollies, the back one secured with an orange moving strap like you can buy at U-Haul just down 23rd Street. The horse was elegant but with several coarse metallic seams visible and it was tethered in an illuminated statement of its own fragility by a single Dan Flavin-style neon tube, also in glowing U-Haul orange, to a three-panel work of art, that also happened to be orange, but mostly grey.

The piece is called “Nietzsche's Horse (No Regrets for Jasper Johns).” Nietzsche was said to have lost his mind in his 40s in a touchy-feely breakdown when he saw a horse being whipped in the streets of Turin, Italy, even though his books are filled with severe and much less tolerant stuff decimating Christianity and morality. Yet the horse abuse allegedly caused Nietzsche to experience a mental episode that landed him in an asylum for the rest of his life. So we get the irony of that and I suppose also the Jasper Johns reference because in 2014 MoMA presented “Regrets,” a show of the pre-Pop artist’s recent paintings, drawings and prints.

Isaac Aden, "Rodeo Painting (Wyatt Clark)" (2015), ink on canvas, 84 x 132 in. 

Apparently in an auction catalogue in 2012, Johns saw a tattered old photo of the painter Lucian Freud sitting on a bed holding his hand to his head in a gesture of desperate exasperation and riffed on it in the works. That created linkage for Aden between the world-weariness of the three legendary figures, Johns, Nietzsche and Freud, one living, two dead. We are left to contemplate the weightiness of that without a word from “the horse’s mouth” other than the title.

Easier to guess at was the much more direct irony depicted in two metal bear traps still in position after evidently forcefully deflating two (orange, of course) basketballs  with a shout out to Langston Hughes in the title. So I can gather Isaac Aden gives shout outs to writers in his titles while making art about his artist contemporaries.

Isaac Aden, "A Dream Deflated (After Langston Hughes)" (2014),
bear traps and basketballs, 14 x 120 x 26 in. 

“A Dream Deflated” evokes the seriousness of Hughes but it is also a more hopeless response to his pre-Harlem Renaissance book of poetry “A Dream Deferred.” For, while Hughes merely deferred his dream, Aden completely takes the wind out of the dream’s sails… or balls. Or, more pointedly, Jeff Koons’ balls, which, for some, makes it more, not less, hopeful. Thus does Aden chomp down on Koons as well as the art world’s trend toward vacuous abstract “zombie formalism” via two pieces, both called “Untitled (Zombie Tonalist).” They are gradated (orange to black) and appear applied by air-brush, (if not a “commercial power sprayer” as we shall see) as is a third mono-grey one called “Untitled (for Rothko).”

Before we forget Johns, I should note Aden horizontally dissected each floor of the gallery from ceiling to basement while uniting them vertically with an immense Daniel Buren-like two-toned, yes, flag. In the orange on grey site-specific piece, "33 Bars," thirty three stripes 26 feet long, sewed smoothly in sections to the front with the “guts” plainly visible in the back, the viewer may descend the adjacent spiral staircase for some more detailed views.

On one of the many surfaces penetrated by the orange flag, a small TV monitor showed horse hooves “painting” a spiral, directed by the reigns of the rider, Wyatt Clark, which were, presumably, directed by Isaac Aden to create “interference” as American as a cowboy version of Robert Smithson’s "Spiral Jetty."

Isaac Aden, "33 Bars" (2016) (installation Shot) 

In search of new painting techniques, the artist worked with the Nashville Auto Diesel School who he watched painting the dirt at a monster truck rally so vehicles could jump over the colored stripes. That gave him the idea of painting a square of dirt white with a commercial power sprayer in a rodeo arena near his native Nebraska. He then utilized the horse to make marks, creating an image out of the negative space.

The video was the first of two related pieces to have made their selves known in the unique Ethan Cohen space on the ground floor of an 19th Street apartment building. A section of the wall near the entrance was emblazoned with a large still image of the rodeo horseback rider in intriguing Ben-Day dots, a printing process reminiscent of a billboard or large poster. Those dots also dialogued with the repetitive thumb prints on metal in a couple of works nearby that the artist calls “Finger Paintings” (also featured on the aluminum horse’s hind legs and ass).

Isaac Aden, "Untitled (Finger Prints)" (2016) (installation Shot)

Finally, in the basement was a photo of two identical young Marcel Duchamps facing each other in profile with the space between their foreheads, noses and chins creating a shape. A painted gold leaf walnut chalice stood on a pedestal in front of the image of the two heads defining the negative space, echoing it and furthermore created in an edition of five.

Isaac Aden is a conceptualist to watch. But watch his props instead. Ideas from the multiple “Duchamp’s Grail” to the one-of-a-kind aluminum horse are no disappearing Duchampian conceptual “inframince” but objects manifested like serious, heavy props to serve as illustrations of an artist’s active mind at work. WM 

Mark Bloch

Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at bloch.mark@gmail.com and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.



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