Contributed by Julian Kreimer/ At 3:10 pm on a blustery Thursday afternoon, the falling sun refracted off the 3rd floor windows of PS 42, the Benjamin Altman Elementary School, named for the department store magnate, a first-generation son of Bavarian Jews who rose from running a small Lower East Side dry-goods store to opening one of the great 5th Avenue “Palaces of Trade,” at the start of the last century. The Altman-refracted rays shone through the side window of Orchard Street’s Super Dutchess, blocked only by the red Chinese ideograms on the window of FY Trading, Inc, wholesalers in Japanese restaurant supplies.
The vertical row of character-shadows, in turn, fell onto Fernando Pintado’s achromatic collage painting, Les Arbres Muets, in which a falling figure, whose long mop of charcoal-on-gesso hair hangs loose from a body tumbling through a black background, and from whose hands have fallen a volume opened to a Spanish translation of Rimbaud’s Credo in Unam, in which the young poet pines for a past of many gods, in which glorious Cybele, the Phrygian mother goddess uncomfortably adopted into the Greek pantheon as a nature deity, rode a splendid bronze chariot, streams flowing from her breasts. A line from Rimbaud’s prior stanza, in French this time, are painted, white on black on the figure’s shirt, “Les arbres muets berçant l’oiseau qui chante …” (The silent trees cradle the singing bird)–the sixteen-year-old poet’s plaint for the prelapsarian world in which the gods, humans, and the earth coexisted. The poem ends with the moon goddess Selene sending her lover a kiss along a pale ray of light.
Given the ray of wan sunlight that bounces off his eponymous school windows, it’s fitting that B. Altman is best remembered in the art world for donating much of the Met’s collection of northern European paintings and Asian ceramics– he specialized in collecting portraits of merchants — made centuries and leagues away from the merchants dollying in boxes of to-the-trade made-in-China and made-in-Vietnam restaurant ceramics piled up outside the shop next door. And nothing to do with Alex Kojacs’ tiled ceramic painting, Summer Heat, in which an O-shaped sun hovers in the upper left corner, jagged inside but smooth along its inner and outer perimeters, and seems to infect the bottom half of the painting with its rhythmic electric splinters of black glaze on white tile. Unnoticeable at first because of the electric high-value optical contrast of the patterns, jut out three 3-dimensional tiles, one of a small empty platform, and the other two suspending an unglazed chain whose oval links sprout tiny thorns. Kovacs’ work often alludes to trophies, those chromed, all-American, backward-looking progeny of the Attic vases given to victorious athletes in the classical world. In such close proximity to Pintado’s poem-painting, it’s hard not to feel, in the blazing black sun, the empty platform for one, and the chain of thorns, the Christian intrusion of sacrifice/suffering on the pantheistic, joyful world that Pintado/Rimbaud paints.
The image of a cartoon in the cartoon graveyard strikes us as absurd, for we are trained in cartoons to know that cartoons do not, cannot die — the Acme TNT only stretches them out to be bounced back into shape. Even in the fairy-tale inflected lineage of Disney and the darker superheroes, their death is infinitely forestalled in the comic form itself; the character dies, and magically revives when we begin the book again. That bounciness, the unceasing return in the face of death, has more to do with the marriage of eros and thanatos, sex and death, in an unceasing dialectic that Freud framed at the center of our psyche.
While Craig Taylor’s tumescent forms, embodied in five small be-pedestaled sculptures and two painted drawings on paper that sprout pairs of ear-like shapes (lending them an unmistakable proximity to mischievous animals like Krazy Kat and Mickey), they hover in this cartoon pulp-universe where oozing and swelling can point to either sex or death, or both at the same time. The cartoon graveyard that the curator, Andrew Woolbright, chose as part of the title of the show, can be read in two ways:1) as the idea of a deadworld immortalized in cartoon form, or 2) as the resting place for deceased cartoons themselves. Borrowing structures of classical myth, cartoons exemplify the slippage between the highest and lowest registers of culture, between the childhood awe in stories and overwhelming emotions and the grown-up knowledge of a fallen everyday world of schlepping and shtupping. Occasionally, the two join with a kiss sent through a ray of light.
“Cartoon in a Cartoon Graveyard” with Alex Kovacs, Fernando Pintado, Craig Taylor. Curated by Andrew Paul Woolbright. Super Dutchess, 53 Orchard St. New York, NY. Through February 23.
About the author: Julian Kreimer is an artist, critic, and educator who has shown his work at TSA LA, Lux Art Institute in San Diego, CA, and Weeknights Gallery, in Brooklyn. He is an associate professor at SUNY Purchase College, a frequent contributor to Art in America, and he has written for Paper Monument and Modern Painters. In 2018, Kreimer was a NYSCA/NYFA Painting Fellow.