Barry Schwabsky and “The Divine Joke”

Sarah Faux, Holding Empty, 2017, oil on canvas. 84 x 60 inches

Contributed by Sharon Butler / Poet and art critic Barry Schwabsky curated a group show, on view at Anita Rogers through June 2, in the spirit of a Mina Loy essay in The Blind Man, a 1917 Dada journal of essays and poetry produced by Marcel Duchamp, Beatrice Wood and Henri-Pierre Roché. In the short piece Schwabsky references, Loy writes that art is akin to “The Divine Joke,” something that the public could easily understand and enjoy. I think her implication was that certain art movements, such as Futurism, were too dense and rarefied to capture the public’s imagination, but that  overt humor and irreverence could better entice ordinary people to engage with the visual presentation. In Schwabsky’s group show, titled “The Divine Joke,” he attempts to gather work that pulls off the same trick.

Francesco Polenghi, Awaiting Ecstasy, 2011, oil on canvas. 78 3/4 x 78 3/4 inches
Rafael Vega, Untitled, 2017, acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 64 x 48 inches
Varda Caivano, Untitled. 2016. Oil on canvas. 18 7/8 x 21 5/8 inches / Courtesy of the Artist and Victoria Miro Gallery.

“The idea would be to present some paintings, or works in the vicinity of painting (some of them are really photographs), that seem to me to embody the divine joke that Loy cracked a century ago,” Schwabsky writes in the press release, and he describes each of the six artists selected for the show:

Hayley Barker lives in Los Angeles. Her visionary paintings are relentless storms of mark-making that always have a face; it might evade your glance or stare you down. Varda Caivano—born in Buenos Aires but a longtime Londoner—makes some of the most elusive paintings being done anywhere today; they turn their maker’s dissatisfaction with almost any solution into a kind of involuntary ecstasy. Embracing the ambiguity between figuration and abstraction, Brooklyn-based Sarah Faux creates visual metaphors for jouissance and they practice what they preach. Los Angeleno Adam Moskowitz also cultivates the edge where images go abstract, but his photographs printed on concrete bliss out on space and structure rather than dwelling in the organic. The ever-mutating fields of Francesco Polenghi’s paintings recall the sea, whose constantly fluctuating surface reflects its immovable depths: constant transformation as the appearance of a stable and unchanging underlying process is the subject of this Milanese artist’s work. Finally, Puerto Rican-born, Brooklyn-based Rafael Vega has spoken of wanting painting to “force its immediate past into a state of ‘vibration’ (try to imagine a delocalized electron), by small tweaks”; his recent unstretched canvases let that vibration get stronger than ever. All six of them fulfill Loy’s definition of The Artist—and yes, she always capitalized the word and put it in bold—as someone who can “never see the same thing twice.”

Hayley Barker, Opened my root chakra now what? Volcano, 2017, oil paint, colored pencil, marker, and oil pastel. 20 x 16 inches

To better understand this concept of “the divine joke,” I turned to Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), in which Carolyn Burke, Loy’s biographer, explains that Loy’s notion was that art could be a “‘divine joke’ which the public did not get because it had been trained to see things in just one way” whereas “the artist saw each object with fresh eyes.” Burke quotes Loy directly:

The artist is jolly and quite irresponsible. The artist is uneducated and seeing IT for the first time. The public and the artist can meet at every point except the – for the artist – vital one, that of pure, uneducated seeing.

This intelligence was enlightening, but still, as Burke admits, pretty abstract. I thought I should ask the curator directly what he was thinking about, so I sent him a note and asked him.

Schwabsky responded quickly:

The idea of “the divine joke” is not what I would call a premise for the show. The show does not illustrate a given theme. Rather, I used Mina Loy’s phrase as a way of talking about a certain lightness of spirit that I think the work in the show shares and that also, I hope, characterizes my attitude toward the art.

Ah! I thought. He was zoning in on the “jolly” and “irresponsible” élan of the artist, and holding out the hope that the artists he selected could, in fact, induce in the public “pure, uneducated seeing.” From this perspective, the show may be a welcome antidote to overthinking.

Adam Moskowitz, Counterform Intersect, 2017, UV ink on concrete, 11.25 × 8.5 × 1.75 inches
The Divine Joke, exhibition view, curated by Barry Schwabsky, Anita Rogers Gallery

The Divine Joke,” Anita Rogers Gallery, LES, New York, NY. Through June 2, 2018.

Related Posts:
Schwabsky coins the term “retromodernism” for work that references postwar-era abstract easel painting
Humor vs. irony
Humor: Portrait of the Artist

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2 thoughts on “Barry Schwabsky and “The Divine Joke””

  1. I saw the show. Call me dense, but I can’t fathom how it connects to anything in the press release. Sigh.

    1. Just bad writing.
      The writer apparently believes if he throws in lots of unconnected adjectives and a French word here and there the reader/viewer will strain to understand his bullshit, and in failing to do so will then think The Critic is seeing something she is too “dense” to understand.
      His ego interferes with your experience if you let it. Stop reading it after the first time you say, “WTF?”.
      Actually the rest of us are fortunate that we can simply look at art and be moved or not. Open to each piece and decide for yourself. Your opinion is valid if you are looking at this site and taking the time to comment. Thank you.

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