Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Conscious Hybrids

By David Ribar

AUGUST 25, 1997:  Artists are crows, scavenging everything shiny and alluring, building exotic nests from disparate parts. They're rap artists, appropriating, synthesizing, and sampling bits of information. They're continually reinventing themselves by using favorite pieces of the past. These ideas were reiterated for me upon viewing the current show at Zeitgeist Gallery, which consists of paintings and sculptures by Lain York and paintings by Gerald Habarth.

Both men are relatively young artists (under age 40) who have, with varying degrees of success, soaked up influences from sources as diverse as African sculpture, '80s East Village, and surrealism. To walk through the gallery is to test your knowledge of contemporary art--a kind of party game to "guess the sources." But this exhibit is also a fairly thought-provoking experience, allowing the viewer to see how stylistic hybrids are incorporated into a body of evolving work. The name for the show--"Unconscious Visions"--points to just one source for the combinations in each artist's imagery, but it doesn't really do justice to the deliberation and conscious choices each has made concerning his personal style.

York has labored on the local arts scene as a part-time preparator and curator, moving and installing shows at public sites like the International Airport, Metro Arts Commission, and Peabody College. So it doesn't seem unusual to find him painting on top of what look like packing crates mounted to the wall or balanced on the floor. The ostensible subjects painted over these wood sheets are African sculptures and masks, rendered in a messy, painterly style that combines (according to the artist) a little of Jean-Michel Basquiat with Cy Twombley. One can also see in York's floor pieces echoes of the canonical sculptures of David Smith.

York notes how he incorporates brushwork, scribbling, and rendering from each source. He is rare among artists in so openly acknowledging his sources and admitting his struggle to emulate them; he's refreshingly honest and hopeful in relating that "eventually I'll end up with something of my own." He already achieves something of this with the object-like quality of his paintings and the rawness of their forms.

Studying this group of painted objects, though, I ultimately wanted to see richer color combinations and more heavily textured surfaces. York's use of African images evokes the primitive mood he's after, but it lacks something of the forceful presence of the originals. (Ironically, his written annotations comment on how Western culture and its museums often sterilize primitive art.) The marks and lettering around and over the images also lack the confident spontaneity and studied casualness found in Twombley's or Basquiat's paintings, but York does capture a sense of those artists' moods, if not their energies. It's a difficult feat to orchestrate clashing groups of marks and fragments of shapes, to achieve a peak balance of chaos. Seldom can even the best artists do it consistently; there are in fact a lot more bad Basquiats and Twombleys than one is led to believe.

York consciously seems to acknowledge this conflict between artistic desire and execution with words lettered on the backside of one of his floor-based pieces: "if you do bad things people will talk about you" and "danced vigorously and erratically expressed an idea." Despite the lapses in his work, he's truly on to something very important, and the images here suggest a more striking synthesis in the future.

Mixing and matching
The York/Habarth exhibit at Zeitgeist Gallery

Compared to York's mannered surfaces, Habarth's work reflects a cooler sensibility. His acrylic paintings have a seductive waxiness, a sheen produced by mixing gloss and satin varnishes. His style is visually seductive too; it has a good measure of surrealism but likewise seems to take cues from the late work of Phillip Guston. Guston was a second-generation abstract expressionist known for his lyrical and delicate style; his final "figurative" paintings were considered shocking because of their exaggerated cartoon images and deliberately obtuse meanings. Habarth incorporates some specific Gustonisms, such as oversized boots and shoes, or fragments of arms and hands, along with an obtuse narrative, but he cobbles them into his own cryptic tales.

Though cryptic, the narratives are fun to contemplate. They refer to ordinary outdoor human activities--figures in plowed fields are one common motif--but their ultimate design draws heavily from dreamy contemplation. Another recurrent motif--splitting of the composition down the middle with a pole or tree--suggests the arbitrary compartments of space dividing a dream or a thought. These vertical barriers also hide the full meaning of the images from our view: Human subjects or body parts too large to fit behind such long, thin objects are nonetheless hidden in Habarth's world. This topsy-turvy state of things is both amusing yet vaguely irritating; a viewer wants to know what's going on behind the scenes.

As for Habarth's palette, his colors suggest a list of polo shirts in a J. Crew catalog. He incorporates shades of mango, khaki, cork, olive, and watermelon into his paintings in a distinctly refined fashion. These subdued values add a sense of gravity that offsets the cartoon style and distinguises Habarth's unique sensitivities.

Both artists share a love for mark-making. York is fond of bold slashes, stipples, and swipes of the brush; Habarth prefers short flicks, dabs, and hatches, almost like drawing in paint. In each case, it's the energy of the marks that gives these artists' works a personal, calligraphic dimension and engages the viewer's eye most intensely. It's in this painterly energy that we see most clearly the seams of the hybrid each artist has constructed. These marks are the shiny parts or sampled bits I refer to in my opening analogy, and knowing their source allows you to appreciate (or dislike) them more.

Each painter places a premium on the notion that art is about representing enigmas that offer no immediate solutions or interpretations. They just are, York and Habarth want to tell us. It's a strategy many contemporary artists have successfully followed: Self-conscious primitivisms are posed as an antidote to the technological exactitude of our computer culture or to the mental and physical drain of maintaining rational consciousness. This contemporary use of enigmas is one means of recapturing the authentic and personal in painting--an art form long declared dead by modern critics; even so, its carcass continues to attract creative scavengers of all manner to feast on the remains.

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