A house is not always a home, and Ben Grasso’s is far from homey -- not even inhabitable. The houses in Adaptation and Ungrounded are falling apart, and those in Construction Proposal and Redbarn are under construction, and unlikely to be completed, considering their absurd complexity. The house in Caution has been ripped off the earth, as the vegetation and dirt clinging to it suggest. A tornado has uprooted it, as Grasso’s Sturm und Drang manhandling of nature suggests -- turbulent, manic brushwork invariably suggests an emotional storm, psychic catastrophe in the making. The house may be broken, battered, even damaged beyond repair, but it retains its form, however much the form is a dead shell, for the house is as empty as Grasso’s other houses. They’re all abandoned and banal, and cheaply built of dead wood, planar boards painted with slapdash precision -- each is sort of descriptive dash, ambiguously dashing mark and empirical illusion -- suggesting that the house is a dead abstract construction charged with gestural life.
But it’s an illusion of life: Rudolf Arnheim thinks that the homogeneous grid and the explosion are equally entropic: Grasso’s house reads as a three-dimensionalized grid in the process of exploding into gestural fragments. However forceful and colorful, the fragments fall flat, suggesting an arrested and dissipating dynamic -- development stopped in its tracks and leaving its dysfunctional traces in the planar streaks. All the houses are suspended in the sky, suggesting that abstraction has no foundation in reality -- the reality represented by the house. Abstraction has become become pie in the sky -- fake transcendence, as it were -- even as it is brought down to representational earth. Grasso is a consummate ironist, toying with the contradictions of modernism, while mocking the American Dream. Let them eat chicken, Herbert Hoover said, and everyone should own a house, Bush II said, but many people are losing their houses, and, as Chicken Little said, the sky is falling. Indeed, April 2011 saw the greatest number of tornados on record -- houses have been literally destroyed just as they have been figuratively destroyed by what is politely called the Great Recession. It should be called the Great American Disaster -- the disastrous end of the American Dream, and for many people an emotional as well as economic disaster. Grasso’s paintings are horrifically timely -- a profoundly significant statement about the precarious, desperate state of America and of art.
Grasso is a sort of doomsday preacher: apocalypse is in the American air, and the houses are open to the air, which penetrates them completely, suggesting they are so much hot air. Indeed, the air is heated by a strong, relentless light -- Grasso’s paintings are really hot -- and the house defies gravity, but it is jerrybuilt on stilts, and fated to fall. The Redbarn is raised high, but it is poorly built -- there are many gaps in its structure, holes where boards should be -- and unstable. It is falling apart as it is being built -- a Humpty Dumpty of a house that has had a bad fall and can’t be put back together again despite the effort to do so: the passionate red is the glue that holds its wooden parts together, but it will never be made whole and substantial. It was all along an idealistic mirage, a monumental illusion, an absurd house of rotting straw, of whimsical gestures of grandeur.
The American Dream House/Abstract Dream House has become a puzzle that can never be completed, for many of its parts are missing -- lost or destroyed. It is broken, and in Grasso’s vision irreparable. It has become a haunted house, full of ghosts of what might have been. The house that America’s Founding Fathers and Abstraction’s Founding Fathers -- for the former America was an abstract dream that might come true, for the latter Abstraction was the brave new (and thus American) world of art -- hoped to build will never be well-built, not only because it has no foundations in reality, but because, from the beginning, it was only a shoddy dream. Grasso is an apocalyptic realist, making paintings on the order of Caspar David Friedrich’s The Polar Sea (The Wreck of the Hope) (1824), but with an ironical American slant on the apocalypse, if also dealing with the wreck of hope. The light that floods his paintings and informs his houses is deceptive, for they are full of tragically black humor.
Ben Grasso, “Adaptation,” Apr. 8-May. 15, 2011, at Thierry Goldberg Projects, 5 Rivington Street, New York, N.Y. 10002
DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor emeritus of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University. He is senior critic at the New York Academy of Art.