Work table in my studio (Photo: Martine Bisangi)
A new online exhibition, Signs of Work, is now available on Artsy.net. Featuring work by Pell Lucy artists,* the exhibit is on view through March 4, 2021.
The title of the show was inspired by words from with the late (and great) artist Tom Nozkowski in speaking with John Yau at the Brooklyn Rail. Nozkowski often spoke of the hard work necessary in bringing a painting together, and he was well known for his yeoman’s work habits. Signs of work are very evident in his richly layered, rewardingly complex paintings.
That focused effort isn’t the whole game however. The best art experiences happen when the work is strong and the looking is active, close and careful. Being passive is certainly a viewer’s option, but a full tilt art adventure can happen when you dive in head first.
In Nozkowski words:
I like paintings that balance contradictions. I like paintings that look clear and simple at first glance and then sort of crumble under your gaze. And it’s even better if further looking enables you to put it together again, understand it in a new way.
A really good painting is something that you can keep going back to…You can keep looking at them, keep looking at them all for different readings, different ways of understanding them.
The curatorial statement for the show is below. Signs of work are evident in all the art that is included in this exhibit. The hand of the artist has made its indelible mark on these paintings, prints, photographs and sculpture. And when artists operate in a zone of high intentionality, dedication and experience, every mark made matters.
SIGNS OF WORK
Most art is gestated in studio spaces that are messy, chaotic and disordered. William Butler Yeats described the wild haphazardness of creativity with his memorable phrase, the “rag and bone shop of the heart.”
Yes, the process that brings a work of art into form is precarious and unpredictable. It begins with finding the right materials for the task. Decisions are then made about color palette, quality of light, form, composition, intention, emotional energy. Hours are spent just looking, evaluating every component. Mistakes are inevitable, as are redirects and do overs. Is that one small spot of color working the way it should? Does this line bring the parts together into a cohesive whole? Is the essence of the image coming to the surface?
Every mark that is made matters. Tom Nozkowski, a remarkable artist we lost in 2019, phrased it well: “There is a demonstrable difference between a mark that means something and a mark that doesn’t mean anything. It’s in our DNA, left over from the millennia before words, when we ‘read’ the world. We recognize marks that have meaning, shapes speak; we recognize a friend when he’s a tiny black mark on the horizon.”
Eventually, after meticulous and tireless attention to each phase and detail, the moment comes when that creative object claims a place for itself. It can hold its own.
But getting there is hard work.
By the time a finished work is seen—in a gallery, museum or personal collection—it is being viewed in an environment that often aspires to pristine perfection: spotless, opulent, bathed in silent reverence. It is as if the hard labor that brought the artwork into existence is being quietly erased in service to the illusion of effortless beauty and power.
But signs of work —lots of it—are still apparent. It may require slow and careful viewing, but that history of work is an essential component of the physicality of a work of art. A smudged fingerprint. Dim evidence of pentimento. Complex color created through layering. The unexpected cropping of an image. A painting’s edge with its history of the colors used. To overlook an artwork’s handmade history is to disconnect it from its heritage and back story. This is an essential element contributing to the visual richness and complexity of a work of art.
We live in a world inundated with images. Now more than ever we need to fine-tune our visual perception so that we can look, see and view with more acuity. As art is being increasingly viewed digitally—as is the work in this exhibit—it is useful to revisit the difference between the menu and meal, the artifact as a set of digital signals and the actual thing itself. While digital access greatly increases access to new and compelling art, it is also valuable as a nudging system: Observe the work that is drawing you in, then find a way to see it in person. Every piece in this exhibit speaks with more vitality and depth when it is seen firsthand, in the flesh. Don’t miss out on that.
Lantaya, by Deborah Barlow (included in the Pell Lucy show, Signs of Work)
*Artists included in SIGNS OF WORK exhibit: