Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  
    Wild Kingdom
by Charlie Finch
Jaguar (after J. Perry Wilson)
Steve Mumford, May 13-June 24, 2000, at Postmasters, 459 West 19th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.

Distinguished looking and cerebral, Steve Mumford is the latest ingénue of the hot, hot, hot School of Visual Arts pack, which includes pretty good painters Lane Twitchell and Michael Lazarus, as well as Mumford's girlfriend, bubbly quasar Inka Essenhigh.

Facing dark rumors of opportunism that plagued Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning in past generations, Mumford opened his show of paintings of wild animals at Postmasters' elegant Chelsea space on May 13 under considerable critical pressure.

We can report that both artist and paintings (and devoted girlfriend) survived nicely.

Mumford's theme, often subtly executed, is a crackerjack: the encroachment of civilization on the wild to the point of elimination, symbolized in Steve's paintings by a lone untamed animal confronting what used to be called "the works of man."

When he employs aquatic themes, including a surfing dolphin and various jellyfish, Mumford's work is less successful, recalling Deborah Brown's effective aquariana for the Public Art Fund a few years back.

In these pieces, which make up about two thirds of the show, Mumford's monochromism and watered-down irony edge a little too close to Mark Tansey, as well. (There is a great joke about a submerged SUV, though.)

On land, Steve really thrives, however, effectively crosshatching the styles of Andrew Wyeth and Caspar David Friedrich to evoke the timeless mysticism of the big cats.

A leopard gazes down with trepidation at a suburban home in one Mumford classic; a lion rests uneasily in the tall grass at dawn outside a power plant in another masterpiece.

Here the artist's total identity with the feline predator transforms his touch; in contrast, Mumford tends to sleep with the fishes in his sea pieces.

One more curio in this promising debut deserves notice: a misty burnt umber oval of a wild boar at dusk, that could easily illustrate a Victorian jungle book. Mumford should pursue this Darwinian angle in the future.

Mumford and Essenhigh's works share a frisson of violence, perhaps due to their celebrated cramped and competitive studio quarters.

In Steve's case the violence is imminent; in Inka's, abstract gore permeates one new piece at Mary Boone, as a female pelvis contorts in an abortion spewing blood.

There's a lot of aggression in both artists' distinguished paintings. They should tip their berets to Alexis Rockman (where's he been?), whose work gave artists permission to explore the terrors of the unnatural world, not just the self.

*      *      *
With summertime on the horizon, it's time for some fun and games. Let's play "guess the art dealer"!

What art dealer insists on staff members giving elaborate gifts on his/her birthday, then returns them to the store?

What art dealer lets staff members charge their lunch, as long as it's below $6 and they eat it in the gallery?

What art dealer sells out shows before they open and then reportedly jacks up the listed prices next to the red dots at the opening?

What dealer allegedly has a bottle of Veuve Clicquot secretly brought to him/her in the john before artist's dinners, so the galleriste can then serve the cheap stuff to guests?

What dealer attends a storefront church for born-again Christians with those too-tight celeb buddies?

What dealer offered $100,000 to that hot, hot painter up front, only to have the artist wisely turn down the offer, to maintain career control?

You just have to come up with one name, folks, because it's all the same dealer!

CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (1998).