Line, Form, Passage
October 15th to November 12th, 2020
By JONATHAN GOODMAN October 9, 2020
“Line, Form, Passage” is the title of David Stern’s latest exhibition, curated by Ellipsis Art’s founder Angelica Semmelbauer. Stern is a German-born, New York-based painter. Gallery materials indicate that he is deeply concerned with the quick decline of the American culture, ruled over in authoritarian fashion by Trump’s current administration. Indeed, he compares our time to that of the Weimar Republic in Germany in the 1930s, an idiosyncratic, nearly anarchic cultural period just before the takeover by the Nazis. Stern is concerned enough to make a leading painting called Study for a Monument to Stupidity (2020), ostensibly a piece mocking the Trump administrations’s clear lack of intelligence. Like most of Stern’s work, this painting is a mixture of loose figuration and skilled abstract-expressionist arrangement. Not all the paintings carry so overt a political message; some of them are simply beautiful exercises in nonobjective, expressionist art. The double allegiance of Stern’s background, to Germany and New York, enables him to merge figuration and abstraction in the same work of expressionist art, making him a painter of complex interest.
As time goes on, we can only hope that the art world commits itself to a progressive reading of American culture, something hard to do in light of the strong commercial emphasis in contemporary art. Stern avoids this completely in Study for a Monument to Stupidity, in which the painter offers a demonic head in dark purple and blue, outlined in orange with orange eyes and a skeletal nose, as well as a downward curving row of white teeth. The image, surely a reference to Trump, is that of a monster. The lower part of the painting is taken up with a complex array of abstract forms and drips, rendered in orange and purple and black and white, which could also be read as a group of puppets listening to their tyrannical master. The scene is demonic, indicative of a time when a demagogue like Trump has and makes use of the dictatorial power he possesses. It is a strange period we are living in, but Stern illustrates the problem with power and an anti-beauty that is visually compelling.
Rage of Fury (2020) offers three figures in white with their arms rising above them, ending in clenched fists The face and arms are done in a rust red, bodies are loosely presented in white, and the legs again in red. The background occurs as a deep blue. As the title indicates, this is not a time for timidity or compassion. A lot of Stern’s force occurs in his improvisatory use of paint, which has free-form passages and expressive drips. Working in New York, Stern perhaps is inexorably drawn to the ab-ex tradition still active here, but his use of the style in service of a rough bur recognizable figuration differentiates his practice from a movement whose high point occurred in the middle of the last century. If we think about it, political anger most often occurs, when visible, in a demonstrably expressive mode, and Stern’s eloquent paintings reiterate the anger we feel today in a demonstrative style. The mixture of abstract passages with the painted figures gives flair to a legible pronouncement of fury. Turning a political statement into one with strong visual interest is not easy to do, but Stern accomplishes the task.
At the Gates is an ongoing series of paintings given to large abstract brushwork; the examples in this show come from 2018. They employ a large variety of effects: swirling deep colors and broad swathes of paint, along with the more linear drips, vie for our attention. These are rugged works of art that bear praise for the act of painting; of course, they reference the past, in particular the work of Jackson Pollock. The challenge today is to keep that memory of painting alive in ways that do not seem overly reflective of precedents. Stern’s muscular manner does justice to art history even as it overcomes the problem of excessive quotation. The abstract-expressionist style itself is so painterly, so immediately attractive, Stern’s viewers are hard put not to succumb to its allure. When done in the service of political anger, the paintings take on a legible meaning meant to spur us to action. When the paintings are conceived of as acts of art alone, they demonstrate Sten’s skill, historical awareness, and belief that such awareness can be extended into the present. This is not the first time politics have been merged with an expressive style, nor is it the first time that the ab-ex impulse has been renewed. But Stern’s imaginative and painterly energies make them alive for us again. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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