Jonathan Podwil: The Executive
Nyama Fine Art
Extended through Feb 1st, 507 W27th Street, New York, NY
By AXEL BISHOP, December 2021
The current exhibition of paintings by Jonathan Podwil presents works gathered under the title, “The Executive”. This title refers to symbolic figures standing for systems of power that guide the shadowy narratives behind global events.
Podwil applies a fast and wet painterly technique to process geopolitical image-culture in a doleful manner; repeating images over and over, sometimes recurring for years, even decades. In this way, Podwil seeks to balance his shaped perception with a certainty that observed incidents have actually happened.
In painterly examinations, Podwil makes slight, destabilizing gestures. In one image, a crowd of “insurrectionists” meld in a unified, scumble of action, becoming a beautiful agglomeration separated from its violent reality. The scrum of the crowd does have a presence synonymous with the chosen painterly technique I suppose, but the image as a document is obscured and the meaning made vague. Until, that is, one notices a flag gathering from the color concentrated on the far left. The eye can find some other recondite clues, like a vague silhouetted form pushing above the horizon: As the Capitol building rises from dark atmospherics, the subject of the painting tumbles out. It seems that this is the strategy of many of Podwil’s paintings. The artist’s recurring images allow him to try out different valences of this strategy. When the same images repeat years apart, apparently nothing new has been learned on a forensic level, and it seems that this is part of Podwil’s point. He blurs his (and our) eyes to find the rhythm, tones and textures that show histories sliding and overlaying in a non-linear experience of time.
“The Executive” is really two shows. One of the rooms is more up-front about the preoccupations of the work. It is told through studies that repeat and inculcate: The Presidential, Air Force One (“AF1”), and recent massive crowd gatherings in Washington D.C.
Air Force One carries its powerful passenger on the way to or from his consequential executive decision-making. We can see its sleek metallic surface blocking the muted sky. Though we imagine who is concealed on board, no human figure is evident. Whereas, the crowds in the adjacent paintings are vulnerable, exposed subjects, shoulder to shoulder in a surge. Actually the multiple crowds are sourced from two different gatherings: the pinkish field of the Women’s march taking place at the beginning of the previous American Presidential administration, and the reddish one of the Insurrection that marks that same administration’s dangerous and embarrassing end. So, we have here ‘the beginning of the end’, and ‘the end of the beginning’ but in no particular order.
In forming roiling crowds of demonstrators with whooshes of color, the artist’s hand carries an Impressionistic charge, and it is easy to mistake the crowd depictions for a field of flowers. But the pallet here is mostly muddy, and the technique begins with a dark underpainting before the application of bright reds and oranges patched over the surface of the mire. The blue sky and the horizontality of the differently-sized canvases formally connect these scenes to the sky of the Air Force One paintings. The flag emblem on the tail of the aircraft and the one emerging from the horde confirms this connection.
Another allusion made by the slightly changing recurrence of image is to a continued relationship that this work has to film, which the artist has explored more directly in his film loops included in past exhibitions. One of Podwil’s earlier bodies of work, paintings based on individual frames of the famed Zapruder film, dwell not only on the slight tilt of the head and other picked-over nuances of that notorious recorded event, but also on intonations of what we think we see in the shadows and in the underpainting. As if bringing that footage into the medium of paint might yield better insights from the close observation required for reconstruction in oil and brushwork. That work could be seen as a trial run of what Podwil is up to now. His subjects continue to be impenetrable, and Podwil plays with such turbid world events that saturate us by retelling them relentlessly in his serene style. The result is a series of paintings that explore moving images as extracted stills; the artist chews on the images and how they feel when they are not in motion. The paintings of “The Executive” are like gathered frames of discarded, disparate footage, the lost edges of documentation recovered and reassembled. The fragments now spliced and disordered together in parts only begin to cohere when viewed all at once and out of time.
The second room of paintings is the more eccentric of the two. The imagery links are less overt, more puzzling and dynamic both in palette and source. Perhaps, adding to a sense of variability in reading images, is the fact that Podwil’s source material comes from highly recognizable (though blurred, cropped and obscured) images that he pulls from circulation to brood over. Therefore, these images are understood to be processed, reframed, modified, -yet participatory. The Executive has a late-model Pictures Generation ethos caught in a feedback loop to a less dispassionate, European picture-making disposition.
It is notable that the second exhibition space is initiated with the single stark image of a white American car that has halted, door flung open, hastily stopped in an aquamarine haze of deeply layered darkness. The image originates from a Rainer Werner Fassbinder film, Der Amerikanische Soldat (The American Soldier), about a Vietnam veteran become Cold War era assassin caught up in stylized violence and double-cross. Podwil manners his paintings after Fassbinder, so this one is a rubric for his oeuvre. In this film, Fassbinder was absurdly affecting and critiquing Hollywood noir, and Podwil takes it further but more straight-faced. Both convey a culture driven by the production and expression of internalized violence. The car re-depicted by Podwil distorts Fassbinder’s dreamy out-of-place vehicle. Podwil’s is stretched and nearly seems to bend as if seen through a fish-eye lens. The brutish character is eliminated, showing only the vehicle standing in for the entire narrative.
Nearby, twin paintings of Jackie Onassis hang with a slight space between them to distinguish them as two entities rather than as a diptych. On the left, Jackie appears alone, familiar and strange. On the right, she is repeated, a spectral JFK hovers behind her, not entirely disappeared like the treatment of the American Soldier, but faded, -though his head is not discernable. One may comprehend the jump cut of JFK’s sudden absence/presence as evidence of his complicity in a complex and un-knowable underworld of politics and crime, leading to his inevitable demise. His vestige is only his dark suit and tie. It would not be surprising to learn that Podwil’s placement of the Kennedys adjacent to the convertible of Fassbinder’s American Soldier was an intentional echo. Images of Kennedy’s last moments falling from the back of a black convertible are indelible. The black/white oscillation between the two convertibles function like a film negative relating to its print. Maybe this is why Podwil has elongated the Fassbinder car, so that the echo will propagate better. Like the car, the Capitol building, and other disjointed images in these works, the figures are reduced to symbols of shadowy interaction. Jackie O’s troubled glamour obscures but does not eradicate relentless phantoms. It is hard to have clear facts from these pictures, but a careful study of this one looks like the figure descends from (could it be?) Air Force One. The very same craft of today’s Executives, persisting in shuttling a legacy of ghosts.
Changing scale and hue in variations, gorgeously dreary paintings of a solemn apartment building flanked by palm trees could be an abandoned Miami oceanside condo, but to know the title is to get that it stems from a surveillance image of an exposed “terrorist” hideout. Imagine that the red flecks appearing around a balcony may be caused by a thermal image glitch or the flashing moment of intensity before an incendiary blast. Or they might be crimson splashes from the palette of the Insurrectionist mob depicted in the work earlier described. It is just paint after all, and the artists wants paint itself to have the power to convey impending combustion.
Podwil looks at film, cable television and archival news clips, his work rooted in a Modernist approach to handling medium, likewise confronted with artful and competitive techniques of photography. The images presented here are corroded yet expressive. The artist’s brush intervenes in the way images become suggestive, interpreted, absorbed. We know the world through this distributed image reality, but therefore paradoxically know the world of images and not the truths that the world itself may have to offer. Podwil’s depictions emphasize atmospheres of tension and give theatrical presence to draw us into the historic records of encounter. This is a painter of the old school, for whom the studio process plods through the pleasure and pain of the medium and its subject, challenging self and audience. It is a quiet, slow-burning exhibition giving time to slowly ponder paintings that meditate on fleeting, ferocious moments. WM
Axel Bishop is a poet based in St. Johns, Newfoundland. Bishop lectures and writes about art and architecture, and reviews exhibitions concentrated in the Northeast United States and Canada. Recent writing has appeared in Architectural Inventions (Laurence King, UK), Cornelia Magazine (Buffalo, NY), and WTD Magazine (UAE). Image credit: Heike Storm 2019.view all articles from this author