Joseph Arthur: Best You Can…
Ongoing in accordance with CDC Guidelines
By CORI HUTCHINSON, September 2020
When musician and self-taught painter Joseph Arthur was handed the keys to Michele Mack Gallery months ago mid-pandemic to inhabit as an informal studio, he did not anticipate the body of florid work that would follow. During a more established tenure at Fotografiska, Arthur composed and played live music, painted, and made a bed all on the same stage. For several years, the artist occupied a sportive space in Dumbo titled Museum of Modern Arthur. As with his process, Arthur’s work depends on both audience and inhabitance.
Now, the surplus of colossal flower scenes rotate between the main gallery of Michele Mack, its windows, and the bathroom storage. The space actually brims with rivulets. Mack confided that, if the artist had his way, the white perimeter would be fully covered with paintings. We discuss similar curatorial decisions made in the exhibition “Partners (The Teddy Bear Project)” by Ydessa Hendeles, the subject of an Agnès Varda documentary, which consisted of floor-to-ceiling framed toy bear photographs; one working example of such cramming.
Prior to the ongoing exhibition, titled “Best You Can…,” Arthur’s work centered a skull motif, turning the 17th-century vanitas genre on its head. The commonality between the artist’s early work and those Dutch vanitas paintings that sought to ponder the futility of pleasure and inevitability of death is a certain fraying. Consider, specifically, the composition of Harman Steenwyck’s Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life (c. 1640). Arthur’s skull paintings are an abstracted rendition on the diagonal composition of this work and those like it. Each spindle of his mixed media could be interpreted to represent the mortal pulse of a various treasured object with latent symbology. In his solo music, Arthur is known to integrate distortion and loop pedals. The unravelling quality of his mixed media paintings rhymes with this technique. Even the ellipsis of the exhibition’s title, extracted from self-penned lyrics, suggests a pulled thread.
The artist cites the abstract expressionism constellation of Cy Twombly, Willem De Kooning, and Joan Mitchell as influence, developing both an in-step scrawl and idiosyncratic palette in his own hand. With only a cocktail of black ink, Arthur can raise a mighty puff to stir the delicate flower shapes in his scenes; each appears as an exorcism in which the flowers are expelling dark pollen. The series of black and white paintings (including Seducing the Formless II and All Together Now) maintain psychedelia, but in this instance are more akin to witchy cyanotypes, sketchy imprints suggesting a radiant sneeze. Each line is a bursting, tentacular vein flowing forth and toward each form. Each leaf shape, flanked by inky lashes, blinks.
From the Shoulder (2020), the most topographical piece on view, lays complementary pink (upper) and green (lower) paint down first, then slices through with black ink and charcoal. Only by adding high-contrast definition to the forms are they rendered fully fuzzy. One outlier of note, the tulip-like bud in the center, is caught in the fray. In this instance, the background color, undulled, has been layered again over the ink. The same technique is applied more subtly to the stem of the flowers on the right half of the canvas. There seems to be an assertion of dominance by the petals to pop to the foreground on their own terms, again emphasizing the ability of art to weigh life and death, and, less headily, to thrust forth. A kind of light-catching-the-water’s-surface shimmer has been produced in the center of the piece by the biotic mingling of green and black. The significance of the shimmer at the heart of this work is not immediately clear.
Arthur has famously created art for the sleeves of his entire discography. The design adorning his 1999 EP Vacancy was nominated for a Grammy. One may think of the ink designs of David Stone Martin, the postwar artist known for his jazz album illustrations, and wonder if there is some relationship between the fine-tipped medium and music. Arthur’s “Alien Flowers” series at Gallery GO in Los Angeles featured figures whose ears spill ink strands. In this sequence, Arthur’s visual work seems to transcribe noise and document communication on some elevated frequency. Now, this sound reverberates from the botanical world.
Several critics have quoted Arthur noting that his figurative work is determined by spiritual vision and quest, suggesting a pure interiority that is challenged by the new onsite garlands. The teeming quality of the exhibition on the whole is nurtured by uncountable canvasses, energetic revamping, active forms, and seemingly boundless resources. The impulse to produce such land-of-the-living work in the midst of present circumstance suggests a sense of sanctuary. Perhaps the shimmer in From the Shoulder, and in the work included in the exhibition generally, marks this place on a map. WM
Cori Hutchinson is a poet, watercolorist, and library assistant living in Brooklyn.view all articles from this author