“Visual art is a spiritual and transcendental discipline. There is a distinction between my affirmation of a powerless and delusional structure of language and language rituals and my belief in the spiritual and magical and transformative power of an artwork. I don’t have to understand an artwork through linguistic conventions, I have only to feel it.”
With this artist statement, Ugo Rondinone reveals the design underlying “The Spirit Level,” his beautifully curated group show celebrating the 75th birthday of his companion, the poet John Giorno. Five years earlier, honoring John’s 70th, Ugo had organized “Third Mind,” featuring some of the same artists, at Palais de Tokyo in Paris. The 18 disparate artists in “The Spirit Level” include a generational and geographical range from contemporary New Yorkers to little-known Europeans.
Rondinone’s urbane balance of modesty and spirituality is eloquently visible from the austere dove-gray-painted burlap walls of the 21st Street gallery entrance, anchored by an installation of primal Madonnas by the Swiss artist Hans Scharer (1927-1997). Painted in the early 1970s, the six painted images exude a tribal meditative power, down to the pebble-toothed smile that eerily replicates ancient teeth.
Another transgressive manifestation of the Great Goddess are the seven female figures crafted from cigarette butts by Al Hansen (1927-1995), Venus de Willendorf images built of glue-impregnated cigarette filters that still carry a faint reek of tobacco. An early Fluxus member and performance pioneer, Hansen made dozens of these Venus figures. Silver Lady, an earlygilded silver version from 1976, is my favorite.
In the same upstairs gallery, prescient black-and-white photographs by Viennese Actionist Rudolf Schwarzkogler (1940-1969) are performance-based tableaux from the 1960s exploring now-familiar themes of abjection. Forty years later, the 12 formalist images retain a disturbingly provocative power.
Back downstairs, one of the show’s happier surprises is the installation of large-scale draped canvas works by Sam Gilliam (b. 1933). One of the first artists to take canvas off the stretcher, Gilliam’s gorgeously hued works cascade down from the high, sky-lit ceilings in Gladstone’s 21st Street space. Martin Boyce’s paraffin-coated, brown crepe-paper leaves, Evaporated Pools, adrift on the cement floor, provides a delicate orgami-like juxtaposition to Gilliam’s swooping installation.
Ugo’s celebration of the “male force” is at its most obvious in Gladstone’s 24th Street space, where a small side gallery features a succulent “trinity of penises” (a phrase lifted from Robert Hobbs) by the irrepressibly sexual English artist Sarah Lucas. Titled Obodaddy 1, 2, 3, the bubble gum pink sculptures measure 44 inches tall, and prove Jerry Saltz’s remark that Lucas is a master of things that “by anybody else would be derivative, disgusting or stupid.”
Lining the walls of a gallery filled with ceramics by Andrew Lord are a series of charcoal and acrylic works on paper on paper by the legendary Beat generation artist Jay DeFeo (1929-1989). Variations from her “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” series, the simple shape, a kind of temple or obelisk, combines male and female iconography.
Gallery goers carefully stepped over and around Latifa Echakhch’s “Frames,” skeletal carpet borders carefully laid upon the floor. Thread by thread, the Moroccan-born artist meticulously unravels Muslim prayers rugs, and uses floor installations to explore relationships between holy and unholy ground.
Modern mandalas by Alan Shields (1944-2005), created in the early ‘80s but very much a part of the ‘60s hippie revolution, showcase the artist’s signature use of sewing as drawing. Dyed fabric geometrical forms in triangles present a meditative doorway to ancient and astral contemplation.
A last shout out goes to Ann Craven’s” Moon Series,” which lines the gallery’s entrance corridor. Large square paintings detail the waxing and waning of the shadow-embellished moon, with mirror images presented on the opposite wall. Brushy and nuanced, these oil-on-linen paintings are mesmerizing.
“The Spirit Level” strikes a refreshing note, one that is counterintuitive to the kind of overly produced art that rules many top commercial galleries. Exploring highly personal inclinations, Rondinone invites viewers to intersect with his passions, opening a door to individual inspiration and interpretation.
“The Spirit Level,” curated by Ugo Rondinone, Mar. 24-Apr. 21, 2012, at Gladstone Gallery, 515 West 24th Street and 530 West 21st Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.
ILKA SCOBIE is a New York poet.