Whitehot Magazine

Dark Marks: Allegory in Abundance - Stefan Bondell at Vito Schnabel

Insurrection, 2021, Acrylic on canvas, 89 x 137 3/4 inches (226.1 x 349.9 cm), © Stefan Bondell; Photo by Argenis Apolinario; Courtesy the artist and, Vito Schnabel Gallery

March, 2023

On Thanksgiving morning in 2018, after being pushed out of his Soho loft, the painter and poet, Stefan Bondell, instead of basting a turkey, gazing up at a hyper-inflated Snoopy balloon, sleeping in, or peeling potatoes destined for the mashing, was instead laboring over a nascent, large-scale artwork in the late, famed art critic Harold Rosenberg’s East Village apartment. The poet John Giorno and Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone would drop in and bear witness to the already chafed knees, sore rotator cuff, pinched nerves, and the anti-COVIDian psychology, set for at least four more years of abuse. They were witnessing what Rosenberg himself dubbed “action painting,” which would later morph into abstract expressionism, but this was something else. Action, yes, but coupled here with crude but literal figuration, newspaper Trompe-l'œil, all sewn together with gritty, swirling, antimatter line work, itself populated with hashes; cells interlinked. This was drawing being elevated to the realm of painting, and sculpture being reduced to illustration. These would be works of exclusively black acrylic paint massaged over gessoed white cotton canvas; art history painting and elbow-grease impressionism; foot-long finger-prints brushed and compressed into a tesseract of exploded content; an event horizon of spaghetti and meatballs, all fit for the wall with little exception but weirdly, zero fat. This seminal painting from 2018 would become “Beheading Treason,” the first in a series of 17, jam-packed, monumental works that would fill Vito Schnabel’s 19th Street gallery in Bondell’s ambitious, at times overwhelming, confrontational, and thematically perplexing Dark Marks.

“John Giorno said to me that day, ‘This is exactly what you should be doing on Thanksgiving,’” Bondell recalled from within his exhibition, which recently ended its run on March 18th, 2023.

Two weeks before civilization’s most recent Ides of March, Bondell was staring up at “Beheading Treason” in his unfortunately fleeting exhibition, pointing out what he calls “the famous inaugural handshake at Helsinki” between Putin and Trump, smushed and entangled beside a famous Carpeaux statue, a rendering of Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince and Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia, and other statuesque offerings from The Palazzo Vecchio, to name just a few of the painting’s human and inanimate bedfellows. Each work in Dark Marks mingles political figures, mostly alive, in-power, and relevant-more often for worse than better-with classic figurative sculptures across time, geography, and institutions. Like the “handshake at Helsinki,” Bondell is asking us to be hyper-present, that we can better unpack how accelerating entropy and (through his artworks, which openly struggle with order) negentropy of life, time, history, and matter can distort our perception. These paintings ask us to reckon with the past and our choices, while meditating on a speculative or alternate future and our role in its creation or elimination. Things, minor or major, often come into focus for us when it’s far too late, after the damage, collateral or direct, is already done.

“The compositional density seems random, but it’s all an elaborate map in some ways,” says Bondell, as aware as anyone that the show itself is, was, a lot to take in, which is, was, strangely refreshing in comparison to works and shows elsewhere, especially considering the insanity of the last several years; works and shows that feel criminally too little and much too late. Dark Marks was the difficult, yes, but much-needed antithesis of “COVID art shows” that are simply too light. Should Bondell have been more outwardly celebrated for going after the heart of darkness at the center of the mutating global zeitgeist? One could be forgiven initially for being a bit turned off by Bondell’s huge, dense, intense exhibition, filled with floating heads of rancid politicians, others disingenuous at best, looming over scenes of human degradation and the disembodied, two-dimensional marbleized humanoids of antiquity. But for those with a frustratingly vast bandwidth, notable intelligence, decent foresight (strictly opposed to hindsight) and even greater empathy and sensitivity, Bondell’s exhibition was a sanctuary for the similarly, rationally troubled. Dark Marks was food for pacifist wolves and an extravagance for sheep.

Across the 17 paintings are recurring images, such as the American flag, whether it’s shown storming into the Capitol building as if on the end of a jousting pole, or folded over several coffins which also emerge and dissolve in multiple works. Bondell is questioning the immutability of the flag, or any object for that matter. American icon Jasper Johns’ famous “Flag” (1954) painting, a MoMA staple, features only 48 stars for instance. “Flag” is eternal and yet a clear marker of its time, through no fault of its own. The “Blue Lives Matter'' flags that, depending on your perspective, either celebrate and support America’s police force as hard-working protectors and public servants, or, position them as a slightly fascist, racist, extra-judicial political body, wave from the porches of some of Bondell’s more conservative upstate neighbors who live within eye-shot of his painting studio. These illustrate that something as indelible as the American flag is more than ripe for propagandistic appropriation and ongoing political transmutation. How many shudder at the grand old American flag now, as opposed to say, after 9/11, the last high-water mark of national patriotic unity, so quickly lost and sullied. Even the famous sculptures in these paintings have been privy over the centuries, decades, or recent years to political attacks, appropriation, vandalism, censorship, meta-commentary, and outright destruction. Bodies set in marble and stone ironically not so set in stone. Bondell is drawing a line, quite literally, straight and swirling, between Boston native, Thomas Ball’s statue of Lincoln looming over a kneeling slave (“Emancipation Group”), which was removed for its racial insensitivities, to Antonio Canova’s very early 19th century, “Perseus Triumphant,” which features the demi-god hero holding up a woman, well, gorgon’s severed head, now in the Vatican City. Here today, gone tomorrow. Both are equalized under Bondell’s Dark Marks.

“I wanted that human connection and emotional charge of, there’s no erasing or shading, this is the immediate stroke, the original dark mark,” Bondell adds, quite aware of America’s original sins, our original dark marks. “One couldn't even get through these paintings, what it takes physically to make them, unless you're so driven by what you’re making. I always feel like the world doesn’t need more paintings, it needs more ideas and I make these paintings as ideas.”

For Bondell, a lifelong mark-maker and poet who grew up in a rent-controlled loft (as he likes to specify) in SoHo, he sees Dark Marks as a collective allegory. He concedes that poetry contains allegory, but notes that it’s quite hard for paintings to do this well. His parents ran a postcard business pre-Internet, each printed largely in black & white. Bondell understands this was partly how information traveled around the world before fiber-optics and satellites united and divided us. The gallery’s own printed, postcard-sized renderings of these paintings are a subtle inside nod to Bondell’s familial history as it’s paired with shifts in technology, nostalgia, and novelty. Bondell likewise is folding the salon into social media.

“I had not seen paintings in galleries and museums directly reference what we’ve all been through,” notes Bondell, whose mother, a fervent feminist and political activist, passed away in 2017. “I made these to deal with the emotions I was facing during this period.”

Failed Wars, 2018, Acrylic on canvas, 90 3/4 x 138 inches (230.5 x 350.5 cm), © Stefan Bondell; Photo by Argenis Apolinario; Courtesy the artist and
Vito Schnabel Gallery

Some paintings were executed over months and some were done in just a few whirlwind days. “Right's Rites” unpacks sexual politics and the reversal of Roe v. Wade, while incorporating sculptures that, often pulling from mythology or classical Greek epics, find women transformed and gaslit on the other side of toxic masculinity, Medusa certainly not excluded. Perseus shows up again in “Failed Wars,” another 2018 piece executed in Rosenberg’s storied East Village apartment. This time he’s paired with Theseus and Niobi, with shadows of military helmets and the silhouette of a semi-automatic rifle, which evokes Vietnam, the Gulf War; so-on and on. “We’re in auto-war,” says Bondell. The 21st century has been a century of perpetual war. We leap from one industrial complex catastrophe to the next without skipping a beat. In “Insurrection,” Bondell laments the early 2021 flirtation with neo-civil war as an event not to be ignored, but recognizes its absurdist distinction as Fox News fodder or meme theater. The QAnon Shaman intermixes with AOC, Pelosi, Ilhan Omar, Mike Pence and a greater rogues’ gallery of citizens, politicians, undercover operatives or “marks,” and other deplorables.

2020 Vision, 2020, Acrylic on canvas, 79 x 109 inches (200.7 x 276.9 cm), © Stefan Bondell; Photo by Argenis Apolinario; Courtesy the artist and
Vito Schnabel Gallery

“2020 Vision” is a bit more freeform in subject matter, and perhaps the most all over the place as far as content. It features the founder of Blackwater, Eric Prince, Trump holding up a bible, Lincoln, Washington as equestrian, Derek Chauvin mid-lynching beneath Frederick Douglas (the most photographed man of the 19th century serving as a George Floyd stand-in perhaps). This is history and current events crushed down in 2D the way the contemporary artist Adam Parker Smith has been crushing down famous 3D sculptures. The painting “2020 Vision” even features gallerist and dealer Vito Schnabel and his one-time lady-friend, Irina Shayk, wearing Covid masks. There is nothing frivolous in these paintings. Everyone is complicit, this says.

March for Justice, 2020 - 2021, Acrylic on canvas, 79 x 137 3/4 inches (200.7 x 349.9 cm), © Stefan Bondell; Photo by Argenis Apolinario; Courtesy the artist and Vito Schnabel Gallery

“March for Justice,” also a 2020 work, homes in more directly and perhaps successfully on the tumult of the summer of discontent and an ongoing post-George Floyd landscape. Eric Garner, an early victim of excessive force and seminal catalyst of the Black Lives Matter movement, is seen close to a protester wearing a “Stay Woke” T-shirt, which would later resurface when Elon Musk, after purchasing the social media app and cleaning house, found extras stashed away in a closet at Twitter and repurposed the shirts as sophomoric trolling fuel for his new regime. It is perhaps the most dense and realized canvas after “Insurrection.”

One could play a game of “I spy” for ages with these works, which is part of the fun and also part of the anxiety. It’s a shame that this free exhibition in a private art space in a major art neighborhood has come down so soon, as it really takes time to process and appreciate what Bondell accomplished, even if what he accomplished seems to exist in a realm all its own somehow. One cannot deny the time, energy, draftsmanship, endurance, and knowledge so conspicuously on display, but one could criticize the scattered focus, the lack of dynamism of 
the picture plane (at first glance), the questionable subtlety of application and content, the mumbled messaging, and the blatant disregard for immediate over-the-couch potential. The works are, in some ways, as baffling as Warhol’s soup cans likely were when first exhibited on America’s West Coast. It took a well-marinated Irving Blum, Andy’s own gallerist, to properly contextualize, protect, maintain, and immortalize what would of course become a priceless collective national art treasure. It will be sad to see these Dark Marks taken down, dispersed, sold, and separated, but it will be thrilling to see where, when, and how they land in the future.

Beheading Treason, 2018, Acrylic on canvas, 90 3/4 x 139 inches (230.5 x 353.1 cm) © Stefan Bondell; Photo by Argenis Apolinario; Courtesy the artist and Vito Schnabel Gallery

“I do work in color,” says Bondell, staring at the darkest and densest of all the skeletons hiding and peacocking throughout the show, the skeleton so close to Chelsea’s 19th Street. “I escape into color to remind myself that I’m still alive, but for the last ten years I’ve been working in black and white. Before my mother died she commented that she was a little disturbed that I was always working this way or in shades of gray. I don't think these would work in color. Being in black and white creates an equal plane and allows the mark to be the mark. It’s all down to the mark.” WM


Kurt McVey


Kurt McVey is a writer based in New York City.


photo by Monet Lucki


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