GIVING FACE: Portraits for a New Generation at Nicholas Robinson Gallery
Curated by Stephen Heighton
535 West 20th Street
New York NY 10011
March 7 through April 11, 2009
With works by Nina Chanel Abney, Damien Hirst, Skylar Fein, Nick Cave, Bénédicte Peyrat, Norbert Bisky, James Gobel, Kim Dorland, Cayce Zavaglia, Ken Weaver, James Everett Stanley, Charlie Roberts, Andrew Diaz Hope, Liz Markus, Li Bo, Charles Browning, Nathan Ritterpusch, Robert Loughlin, Jon Flack, Randy Polumbo, Jon Elliot
I met Stephen Heighton at the opening of Giving Face. I was standing with Jon Elliot, who had just sold his crepuscular mixed media work, Portrait Gallery, to a collector who didn’t look much older than himself. Jon introduced us, and I blurted out that I thought Jon’s piece looked a little saddled, hung as it was directly beneath the larger oil painting by Charles Browning representing two laughing Native American warriors, Fuck You, You Fucking Fucks (my favorite piece, perhaps, in this stellar exhibition showcasing an impressive roster of new talents and a few more established names). Stephen nodded, and silently turned away from me. So I was worried that he wouldn’t want to talk to me and that I’d have to review the show without any input from the curator. When I e-mailed Stephen my questions, however, the opposite thing happened: his answers were so enlightening I decided to put aside whatever critical insights I thought I had and just let his words stand without any additional commentary.
Noah Marcel Sudarsky: You’re a critically acclaimed novelist and essayist. How did the idea of curating an art show occur to you? Is your interest in art and portraiture long-standing?
Stephen Heighton: I’ve been collecting for 10 yrs now. I started with Damian Loeb ansd Lisa Yuskavage and Nam June Paik, and it snowballed from there. I think I have 600 works now, but I’ve never counted, lol... I wanted to show people what interests me now without plugging the bigger career artists I collect. Kim Dorland, Nina Chanel Abney, Jon Elliott, etc. are all emerging with some big-name collectors; I wanted to show them off.
NMS: There does seem to be a narrative thread connecting some of the works. Whether on a purely visual or a conceptual level. For instance Cave’s portrait of Lincoln preceding Ken Weaver’s piece. Or even the James Everett Stanley piece preceding the Kim Dorland. Is that just me reading too much into it?
SH: I just tried to give the show some narrative in the sense of putting pieces next to each other in ways that would allow them to talk to one another. For example, the Skylar Fein portrait of George Washington was deliberately placed next to the Nick Cave Lincoln because they both address different ideas in a pop art context, the Fein being both about consumerism and hope, and the Cave being about history and perceptions of race. Putting the Weaver next allowed me to address sexism and sexuality, which lead to the Everett soldier—which brings in male sexuality and seems homo-erotic and a straightforward depiction of a soldier-like persona, which again tied in with politics and current events. The Dorland face, which is savagely attacked with a palette knife placed against a backdrop of reeds, could be a war victim in the reeds of Basra. Of course these are my gut reactions to the things I’ m reading into the art, and most likely not the artists’ intent!
NMS: The works, with one or two exceptions, are all very recent, produced in the last year or two. Do you think there has been a paradigm shift in this period? In a similar vein, the New Museum is having a show called 'Younger than Jesus', which is all about generational issues. Is this about a specific generation: X or Y or the 'Obama Generation' in some way?
SH: Not for me. The works are by young artists, the bulk of whom I’ve collected in depth for a while now. I just wanted to show some exciting new artists in a group context.
NMS: To me, the Damien Hirst approach of producing a series or works in an industrial art vein contrasts with the other artists in the show. Especially the laborious one-offs of Gobel, Zavaglia, and Li Bo (for instance). Isn’t Hirst’s approach different, as a kind of overseer-in-chief of a complicated production process? Do you think the question of who does the actual physical labor which produces the work is significant? The two extremes being a guy like David Smith, who could work for days on end with his poly-acetylene torch welding together pieces of stainless steel, and say, a Jeff Koons or a Donald Judd, who sometimes don’t even bother with a maquette before calling Milgo Industrial or Carlson & Co with a design idea.
SH: The skull (NB: Happy Head No. 15, a multiple of 20 unique examples made of resin and household gloss paint) is there purely to address the concept of mortality. I actually wanted a John Copeland pair of skull paintings, but they weren’t available. I personally dislike the idea of mechanical churn-out art, including the idea of studio assistants that paint work other people sign. I think in a few years a lot of ex-collector’s heirs are going to be horrified that their parent’s life savings went to art largely painted/sculpted by persons unknown. Rembrandt comes to mind. I’m sure many Rembrandts now known as not done by the master’s hands and declared to be forgeries were actually painted in his studio by others as his work with his knowledge.
NMS: Julie Heffernan is one of my favorite painters, and Nick Cave is one of the most original and polyvalent artists working these days (in my op). I think both these artists are examples of so-called American “maximalism” in action, a relatively new trend in fine art. Out of curiosity, how did you become acquainted with their work?
SH: I bought Heffernans years ago from Paul Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles, I think at a NY art fair. Nick Cave is new to me, so I’m looking at works to acquire now. Everyone I collect I see as a maximalist. I respond strongly to the baroque!
NMS: If you could own one piece in the show, which one would it be?
SH: The one I bought in the show is the Nina Chanel Abney portrait of Obama. It was originally meant for the inaugural cover of Newsweek, but they decided to go with a photo. It’s a shame. A black president by an African-American artist would have been a great cover. But their loss is my gain. I bought the first Abney sold in a gallery a couple of years back, a 19 ft. long monster of a painting. It’s still the most politically charged work she’s ever done. She depicts white people washing themselves with black soap to atone for their guilt over slavery (Untitled, 2007, Acrylic on canvas, Triptych 64 x 229", a piece that is visible on the Kravets|Wehby Gallery website). The other favorite of mine is the Julie Heffernan. It’s a perfect small painting with immense impact, and again, technically flawless.
NMS: I’d be curious to know what you think of the “facile” painting style of Liz Markus. What is your take on her Nancy Reagan series? Last night she had a big opening at Zieher Smith and is hugely in vogue these days. I’m not crazy about her work, which I find a tad trite, but I think that’s because I just don’t get it (I don’t really get Elizabeth Peyton either). How do you see what she does? I’m actually hoping you can illuminate me here.
SH: Not touching this one. Lol. I love her work.
Editor’s Note: Stephen Heighton is thrilled to be curating an upcoming works on paper exhibition at Morgan Lehman Gallery, opening June
Noah Marcel Sudarsky grew up in France, Switzerland, and New York. He is a freelance writer and correspondent based in NYC. His articles and reviews have appeared in The NY Press, The Village Voice, The Onion, New York magazine, Salon.com, Citimag, Publisher’s Weekly, The New York Times, and other publication. firstname.lastname@example.org all articles from this author