Wednesday, February 20, 2008


The great French artist Honoré Daumier (1808-1879) was an accomplished painter and sculptor. He was best known during his lifetime however, for his satirical black and white lithographs. Sold individually or in subscription periodicals, they took on the foibles of his age. A selection of these, "A Wit Still Sharp: Daumier Turns 200," is on view at the Johnson Museum. The show is small, especially relative to his prolific output. Nevertheless, it is packed with ideas both visual and verbal.

The latter are primarily the contribution of Charles Philipon, publisher of La Caricature and La Charivari, liberal journals Daumier contributed to regularly. Philipon's captions supply an extra measure of wit along with most of the works' titles. Many prints bare traces of their journalistic origins: horizontal fold-lines and text printed on the backs.

Much of the artist's early work satirized the government of constitutional monarch Louis-Phillipe, who reigned from 1830 to 1848. His rule was ostensibly a moderate, reformist one. He promised freedom of the press but this was not carried out consistently. Daumier and his publisher found themselves facing fines and even prison time for their efforts.

The highlight of the show is the 1834 classic La Ventre Législatif (The Legislative Belly), a vicious indictment of the new regime. It assembles government officials Daumier earlier caricatured individually. (Three of these portraits from the previous year are also on view.) In contrast to the detail of the earlier prints, the often grotesque visages of Belly are constructed out of suggestive blocks of tone. The statesmen sit in four rows which surround the semi-circular bit of floor which makes up the foreground. Alternately, they plot together, read papers, doze-off, or stare vacantly into space. In front, right, stands a dark-coated, mop-haired man recognizable from one of the earlier portraits as a Dr. Prunelle. An analogy is made between the corpulence of the leaders, the shape of the chamber, and the greed of the government. (Money-grubbing is also the subject of a sardonic April Fools' print wherein L-P and associate Adolphe Thiers throw coins from a balcony to a stupefied-looking crowd.)

Baissez le rideau, la farce est jouée (Lower the curtain, the farce is over) is from the same year. It shows the same belly-chamber through a sort of window in the center of a beautifully weird, angular composition. We see the rows from the side, above, at greater distance. Obscuring it from above is a curtain; to the right it is fronted by a plump, monstrous clown Louis-Phillipe. He points a baton leftward, where it disrupts the scales of justice held by an allegorical female statue. Baissez recalls the artist's early background in theatre. His father, a glazier, had aspirations as a dramatist and poet.

Legislation passed in 1835 (following attempted regicide) banned political caricature. Daumier turned his satire towards the everyday social life of Paris. Although less joyfully mean-spirited, the resulting pieces show a keen awareness of modern city-life and an increasingly loose and expressive line.

In Cré nom!...(1841), a tattered man slumps against an outdoor wall, complaining that his rain-soaked boots have it better than he does, for at least they are able to drink. The print is hung alongside the only non-lithograph in the show, an intaglio Absinthe Drinker by Manet whose heavily worked shadows and other dark tones are only hinted at in the Daumier.

Daumier mocked the official French art-world, which in his day was dominated by the conservative exhibitions of the Salon. Three pieces here illustrate these shows. Lofty, idealized artworks are juxtaposed against the vulgarity of their viewing audience. Walls loaded with portraits women, probably from classical mythology form the backdrops of two. These are rendered lightly in the sketchiest of lines. The audience below can only understand them in coarse, sexualized terms.

In Triste contenance de la Sculpture...(1857), a nude female statue bears an agitated pose while around her a circle of gentlemen face away obliviously. In contrast to her, they appear formless, lumpy. The caption makes the target clear: a tendency to favor painting over sculpture.

A tout coup l'on perd! (Every throw's a loser!), from 1868, exemplifies Daumier's late return to politics. It alludes to the clouds of war then gathering over Europe in humorously allegorical terms. A crowned woman personifying Europe holds a bag of money in each hand. Squatting down, she aims in the direction of carnival game bearing the coarsely rendered likeness of the Greek god of war, his mouth a black hole. Framing him is the upright section of the contraption; it resembles a gravestone. The loose line-work is impressive, but the lack of tonal variation keeps it from being one of the more visually impressive pieces.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

nick maione at stella's

Stella's Cafe in Collegetown is currently showing a series of abstract drawings by Cornell student Nick Maione, up through February. Their clusters of marks, although expressive, are typically spare, with most of the action going on in the middle and the white of the paper playing a major role. Colors and mediums are restricted as well: black ink along with red, black, and bluish-grey marks in pastel, conte crayon, and oil paint. The sheets are all approximately the dimensions of a magazine or notebook page and usually panoramic rather than upright. All of this helps to give both the works and the show unity, although not at the expense of variation and surprise.

The art here recalls that of several well-known twentieth century modernist painters. You can see traces of Arshile Gorky's fine, fluid black lines here rendered in pen. Although less graceful, Maione's cover space in a similar way, sometimes loosely outlining chalky, cloudy forms and at other times going their own way. The use and frequent repetition of abstractly calligraphic and scrawl-like marks calls to mind Cy Twombly. Philip Guston's late work - with its limited palate, coarse, cartoon-like images, and darkly humorous narrative - is another likely influence. Contained in Maione's more or less abstract spaces is an unexpectedly personal figurative vocabulary: maps, landscape, weather, fluids, bottles, body-parts.

The pieces lack individual titles, which makes it difficult to refer to them specifically. It is tempting for this reason and because of their (above-mentioned) consistency to treat them as parts of a single work, perhaps even sequential like a book. Nevertheless, several pieces stand out.

One piece does so with a horizon-line, a sign of landscape and deep perspective in a show otherwise dominated by a shallow, screen-like space. (Along one stretch, it is an actual line, while elsewhere it is merely implied.) It gives the surrounding lines and shapes strongly figurative associations that they might not have otherwise. Patches of horizontal gray strokes resemble choppy water. A rocklike island-bump in black and gray pokes up towards the left while a hollow red circle balancing it on the right could be a sea-monster. It trails tendril-lines downward diagonally to the right; these end in smaller circles. Surrounding the beast is a halo of black ink and gray chalk marks.

A pair of Maione's pieces bares ironic resemblance to certain ones by the Abstract Expressionist painter Adolph Gottlieb, in particular for their compositions dominated by central circles floating in mostly empty space. In many of Gottlieb's canvases, these are counterbalanced by gestural paint-tangles evocative of stormy weather. In Maione's case, weather comes in the form of cartoon raindrops (for some reason these are mostly upside-down, as if gravity were reversed). In one piece, there are two loosely-rendered balls
red dripping downwards on the left, gray on the right supported by a tripod-like bit of scaffolding drawn in black crayon. The other piece has a red ball in the same position but it is thinly colored and smudgy rather than boldly drawn. A cluster of drops balances it to the right.

Needless to say, a coffeehouse is not the most auspicious place for concerted art-viewing. Still, Maione's work is definitely worth checking out for anyone interested in gestural abstract drawing that is playful as well as rigorous.
There seems to be little else like it in Ithaca and it may be telling that it is the work of a student rather than a member of the gallery establishment. (Incidentally, the drawings were made during time spent away in Barcelona.)

Labels: , ,