December 17, 2015
Sylvan Lionni mitt emellan pop och minimalism
Sylvan Lionnis kartonger ger sken av att ha fått tillräckligt många törnar för att både vara generella och individuella. De balanserar därmed mellan två andra amerikanska konsttraditioner: popkonstens vardaglighet och minimalismens strama individlöshet.
För sjuttio år sedan, veckor innan andra världskrigets slut, ställde Jackson Pollock ut målningarna ”Totem Lesson I & II”. Verken gjorde kritikern Clement Greenberg så lyrisk att han utnämnde konstnären till den viktigaste i sin generation. Det här var innan konstnären hade påbörjat sina abstrakta ”drip-paintings”, men målningarna innehöll ändå många av de element som vi nu förknippar med den amerikanska efterkrigsmodernismen: stark penselföring, kraftig gestik och stora känslor.
När Sylvan Lionni i dag visar sina ”totem” på galleri Stene är avståndet till landsmannen Pollock enormt. På gallerirummets väggar hänger svit figursågade monokroma målningar/objekt. Verken är symmetriska till sin form, men något oregelbundet veckade, vilket gör det enklare att identifierade dem som utvecklade tårtkartonger – fast utförda i industrilackad plåt. Formerna är alltså ett slags ready-made och gestiken är minimal. Penselföringen är obefintlig och känslostormen är väl snarare att betrakta som en vårbris.
Det betyder inte att Sylvan Lionnis verk skulle ha mindre att säga än vad Pollocks har. Men den mening som finns är upphittad snarare än tillförd. Till skillnad från Pollock, vill Lionni nämligen inte skapa något ursprungligt. Han är fullt nöjd med att bygga vidare beslut som andra har fattat.
Det kan kanske tyckas överdrivet att se en tårtkartong som ett resultat av avgörande formella beslut. Men variationsrikedomen i färg och form får mig ändå att undra över hur tankeprocesserna har sett ut hos dem som skapat lådorna. Varför föredrog till exempel en tillverkare runda flikar där en annan valde spetsiga?
Formbesluten får stor betydelse för vad jag läser in i verken. Liksidigheten gör det lätt att läsa in antropomorfa drag i dem. Fast inte bara: några påminner mer om djur och leksaker, andra om gudabilder från antika kulturer. Sylvan Lionni sätter igång min tolkningsmaskin utan att behöva gå via stora åthävor.
Ju stramare en konstnär arbetar, desto högre krav ställs det på precisionen, vilket handlar både om utförande och val. Sylvan Lionnis tårtkartonger skulle förmodligen var rätt så ointressanta om konstnären varit minutiöst noggrann med detaljer som veckning och färgmatchning. Ingen av de vita kartongerna är exempelvis den andra lik i tonen. På en kartong har han dessutom målat dit en liten, men betydelsefull prislapp.
Det är här jag finner konstnärens verkliga styrka: Sylvan Lionnis kartonger ger sken av att ha fått tillräckligt många törnar för att både vara generella och individuella. De balanserar därmed mellan två andra amerikanska konsttraditioner: popkonstens vardaglighet och minimalismens strama individlöshet.
I slutändan säger detta något annat viktigt om skillnaden mellan Pollock och Lionni, nämligen den om tiden. Där den äldre konstnären befann sig på tröskeln till en ny, post-apokalyptisk era, står den yngre rotad i en tid där allt redan är gjort, alla val är redan mer eller mindre formgivna på förhand. Dessa skillnader i tid kräver så klart olika sorters totem.
March 13, 2015
“I get such pleasure just saying what the subject matters of some of the works are: pieces of paper, rulers, and dust.” So writes B. Wurtz on the art of Sylvan Lionni, whose second solo exhibition at the gallery, “Half Life,” focused precisely on those quotidian things. Continuing his investigation into what he terms “social geometry”—the intersection of physical space with human thought and behavior—Lionni trains his eye on seemingly banal images, objects, and substances, filtering them through a variety of meticulous processes in order to focus our attention on their oft-overlooked visual and conceptual qualities, In this exhibition, the results appear supremely arid at first glance, but ultimately reveal a wry, self-referential wit and a disarming sensitivity to the fascination of surface.
“Half Life” was, appropriately enough, divided into two distinct groups: “dust paintings” and “ruler paintings.” But despite their blunt categorizations, neither set was an example of painting per se; the works also make use of photography and screenprinting to arrive at tweaked reworkings/simulacra of physical objects. A set of panels, all titled Dust (all works 2014), first appear to be glossy but oddly grimy affairs, monochrome slabs of aluminum coated in fine layers of the titular stuff. Of course, this is slightly less than half the story: Far from being so straightforwardly besmirched, the panels have been printed with the photographic images of their own once-murky surfaces. Even the marks made by a hand swept through the dirt are faithfully recorded.
The ruler paintings (all, of course, titled Rulers) also present the viewer with what appears to be found objects, but which are, in a sense, even more carefully contrived than the dust paintings. For these pieces, the artist created exact reproductions of framing squares—a measuring tool used by carpenters that resembles two rulers fused together at a ninety-degree angle. First, he created replicas of these items in the urethane-coated steel; then he printed the copies in acrylics with flat colors and standard calibrations and finally arranged the devices on the wall in simple T-shapes and crosses. In the environment of a painting-free “painting” exhibition, the resultant works refer to the process of imagemaking, the measurement of one compositional element against another.
But while these works function like feedback loops, pointing endlessly to their own origins, they refer outward, too—not least to the work of other artists. Think if Man Ray’s Dust Breeding, 1920, and, in relation to the ruler paintings, Mel Bochner’s late 1960s “Measurement” series—as well as, of course, pieces by countless other artists, from Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons, who have made more or less exact reproductions of everyday objects. There are shades, too, of Christopher Wool’s obsession with photomechanical accident and the recycling of gestural marks in the dust paintings’ multistage translation of actuality to photograph to trompe l’oeil print. Artist-critic Stephen Westfall characterizes Lionni’s approach to painting as a hybridization of Pop and abstraction, and though this may be less obvious in these two bodies of work than it has been in some of the artist’s cheerier-looking series, Lionni’s desire to extract aura from outwardly unprepossessing sources remains active, as does his attraction to commercial and functional graphics. Only the exhibition’s odd man out, Super A3, seemed at first to stray into the realm of the individually expressive. But even this—a flawlessly convincing replica of a note-to-self scribbled on a crumpled sheet of graph paper that is actually a print on bent aluminum—turned out to be the machine- made product of the artist’s clear but teasing logic.
April 4, 2014
PRINTMAKING: Sylvan Lionni at Kansas
As a resident artist at Counterproof Press at the University of Connecticut this semester, I've begun to notice how many painters incorporate traditional printmaking processes and strategies into their work. Recently we saw Christopher Wool's retrospective at the Guggenheim, and now Sylvan Lionni's solo show at Kansas; both reflect the extensive use of screen printing.
Unlike Wool, who values the haphazard and accidental, Lionni uses screen printing to assiduously recreate mundane objects like rulers and dust-covered panels, implicitly questioning the practice of installing found or selected objects and championing the act of creation. At first glance, however, the pieces look exactly like the objects they depict. According to the press release:
Lionni starts with a dusty, industrial aluminum panel, photographs it, primes and prepares the ground, and then screen prints the image of dust onto the aluminum -- a recursive gesture that points to the material bedrock of origin. In a series of ruler paintings, Lionni has meticulously recreated groups of framing squares by cutting, painting, and screen-printing steel in a process akin to industrial manufacturing.
His is not the art of the hand-rendered, yet his sensibility is very much in evidence in his choice of materials, scale, craftsmanship, color, and probably minute details that are not even obvious to me. The choice of subject matter is extremely important -- important precisely because it involves selections that might generally be considered unimportant, objects from daily life that could so easily be overlooked. The energy in the work emanates from the lavishing of crafted attention on such quotidian wallflowers.
The work also expresses a sharp awareness of the history of art. A sense of play is evident as things are presented to us in a traditional gallery or museum context. The objects seem to beg the question, "How do we compare to traditional paintings?" I get such pleasure just saying what the subject matters of some of the works are: pieces of paper, rulers, and dust.
With Wade Guyton's use of digital printers to create massive prints on canvas, and Christopher Wool's incorporation of seemingly sloppy screen printing in large-scale work, categories have broken down. Prints are paintings. Paintings are prints.
The easy integration of photography and digital media, the ability to generate multiples, and the option of printing on so many different objects and materials makes screen printing an especially seductive addition to the painter's tool set. Unlike spray paint, which painters often apply in layers and with stenciling, the new water-based screen printing inks are non-toxic. Frankly, I'm smitten.
New York, New York
15 March - 19 April, 2014
Opening Reception: 15 March, 6 - 8 PM
KANSAS is pleased to present Half Life, Sylvan Lionni's second solo show with the gallery. Opening March 15, the exhibition will be on view through April 19, 2014.
One particularly interesting aspect of Sylvan Lionni's art is that he makes seemingly impersonal items feel personal. His is not the art of the hand-rendered, yet his sensibility is very much in evidence in his choice of materials, scale, craftsmanship, color, and probably minute details that are not even obvious to me. The choice of subject matter is extremely important - important precisely because it involves selections that might generally be considered unimportant, objects from daily life that could so easily be overlooked. The energy in the work emanates from the lavishing of crafted attention on such quotidian wallflowers.
The work also expresses a sharp awareness of the history of art. A sense of play is evident as things are presented to us in a traditional gallery or museum context. The objects seem to beg the question, "How do we compare to traditional paintings?"
I get such pleasure just saying what the subject matter of some of the works are: pieces of paper, rulers, and dust.
-- B. Wurtz, February 2014
Lionni's practice has for years found resource in the notion of social geometry; the means by which we order our daily lives in response to the spatial and structural relationships that passively inform our thoughts, movements, and impulses. Fascinated by the overlooked details embedded in the American mundane, his work aims to qualify material, aesthetic, and conceptual properties within our revolving banality.
Lionni will present two new bodies of work: in a series of dust paintings, the artist has created a generative brand of trompe l'oeil that addresses the surface of a painting itself. Lionni starts with a dusty, industrial aluminum panel, photographs it, primes and prepares the ground, then screen prints the image of dust onto the aluminum - a recursive gesture that points to the material bedrock of origin. And, in a series of ruler paintings, Lionni has meticulously recreated groups of framing squares by cutting, painting, and screen-printing steel in a process akin to industrial manufacturing. The artist takes the ruler as symbol and tool of both designer and engineer and transforms it into utilitarian artifice. The resulting paintings refer to the history of geometric abstraction and examine the porous boundary between image and object.
Sylvan Lionni received his MFA from Bard College, NY and BFA from the School of Visual Arts, NY. His solo exhibitions include Stene Projects, Stockholm; Freight + Volume, New York, NY; Rebecca Ibel Gallery, Columbus, OH; Fusebox, Washington, DC and Rome Arts, Brooklyn, NY. His work has been seen in such venues as Andrea Kaufmann Gallery, Berlin, DE; White Columns, New York, NY; Sue Scott Gallery, New York, NY; Daimler Contemporary, Berlin, DE; Zurcher Studios, New York, NY; MUMOK, Vienna, AU; The Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR; The Krannert Art Museum, Champaign, IL and David Castillo, Miami, FL among others.
The gallery is located at 59 Franklin Street, three blocks South of Canal between Broadway and Lafayette. The closest subways are A/C/E,6,J/Z,N/Q/R and W at Canal and the 1 train at Franklin Street. For additional information, please contact Claire Fields at KANSAS by calling +1 (646) 559-1423 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
highways and byways. together again.
Daimler Art Collection
October 17, 2013 through March 16, 2014
Nic Hess creates a setting for American art from the Daimler Art Collection:
West Coast - Washington Color School - Systemic Painting - New York Abstraction.
Ever since the late 1990s, Nic Hess (*1968 Switzerland, lives in Zürich) has been using industrial paint, collaged images and colored tapes, light projections and neon elements to take possession, both intellectually and in real terms, of walls and ceilings - and of entire rooms. The artist takes logos from the commercial world (deployed in symbolic excerpts and in an alienating manner) and icons from art history and political and economic phenomena, and uses his pictorial language, which drifts freely between abstraction, ornamentation and figuration, to compose a unified visual choreography. For this purpose Nic Hess adapts contemporary phenomena in the political, art-historical or economic context - never without a touch of humor or a critical subtext.
The exhibition at Haus Huth represents a further step in this direction: In collaboration with Renate Wiehager, Nic Hess will stage an exhibition on Abstract art in the USA from 1950 to the present day. Thereby Hess not only creates a drawing installation in a site-specific manner, which responds to the architecture of the Daimler Contemporary space, but for the first time also reacts on contextual assumptions and curatorial specifications.
Until the mid-1980s, the European avant-garde provided the primary focus for the Daimler Art Collection. This was to change in 1986, when Andy Warhol was commissioned to create the series of images entitled CARS. The collection has since become increasingly open to American contemporary art. The focus is twofold: on the one hand, tendencies in abstraction and in minimalist and reduced art - from the 1950s to the present day - and, on the other hand, Pop Art, Conceptual art and pieces reflecting critical attitudes to art institutions. Our first exhibition on this theme presents a cross-section of artworks: it begins with Josef Albers' early years in America and the work of his students, and goes on to include the Los Angeles 'Abstract Classicists' school and the 'Washington Color School' to Peter Halley and the artistic scenes of the 1990s, concluding with the recent contemporary tendencies.
Artists: Josef Albers (GER), Amish People, Joe Baer, Robert Barry, Karl Benjamin, Greg Bogin, Ilya Bolotowsky (RUS), Krysten Cunningham, Gene Davis, Adolf Richard Fleischmann (GER), Andrea Fraser, Michelle Grabner, Marcia Hafif, Peter Halley, Frederick Hammersley, Michael Heizer, Al Held, Nic Hess (CH), Donald Judd, Alexander Liberman (URK), Sylvan Lionni (GB), John McLaughlin, Kenneth Noland, David Novros, Robert Ryman, Tom Sachs, Oli Sihvonen, John Tremblay, Larry Zox (if not indicated differently: all artists USA)
19 december 2012 kl 15:14
Stene projects, Brunnsgatan 21 B
Tom 12 januari.
Ju mer saker förändras, desto mer förblir de desamma. Denna kryptiska sats får ny relevans inför Sylvan Lionnis sparsmakade utställning på Stene projects. För det som slår mig är hur mycket som hänt med måleriet utan att det på ytan har hänt någonting.
Först ser jag Lionnis utställning som en fortsättning på minimalismens uppgörelse med det abstrakta måleriets häftiga gestik, då man istället sökte sig till industriellt färdigställda material. Därmed blev formalismen underordnad konceptet: när man skapar konst av prefabricerade material är idén viktigare än utförandet.
I denna tradition ser jag verk som ”Letter, Legal, Legal”, och ”Legal index” vilka består av några olikfärgade A4 och ett blad ur en anteckningsbok. Kompositionen är finstämd och den funna färgskalan subtil. De lite tillknölade pappren pekar mot en vardagsföremålens poetik, tänker jag – för att plötsligen inse att pappersarken i själva verket är bemålade plåtskivor. Den slumpartade knyckligheten är utförd med största medvetenhet.
Här finns en lite oväntad parallell till Tony Matelli, en annan amerikansk konstnär som nu ställer ut på Andréhn-Schiptjenko. Bägge är illusionister: Matelli gör realistiska skulpturer av ogräs i brons och Lionni gör alltså pappersark i plåt.
Men om Tony Matelli använder ett ”fint” material för att återskapa det fula, rör sig Lionni inom en mer snäv konstkontext. Halva poängen med att återskapa ett pappersark är att ett sådant redan från början är möjligt att avläsa som konst. Lionni vänder därmed på den konceptuella steken och använder idén om det prefabricerade som en utgångspunkt för måleriet.
Man kan invända att det gör Lionnis konst osjälvständig, men det är ett argument som troligen lämnar konstnären tämligen oberörd. Här finns citat och alluderingar till andra konstnärer i varje verk: från Blinky Palermos skisser, till Imi Koebels och Piet Mondrians rutmönster liksom till Bridget Rileys op-måleri. Ibland blir citaten nycklar, som i minimalistverken, ibland säger de mig ingenting, som rutmönstret i ”Avenue of the Americas”.
Hursomhelst signalerar Lionnis utställning att jakten på det tidigare orörda hör historien till: det viktiga är snarare hur man sätter samman sina kombinationer. Nyheten är helt enkelt att det inte finns något nytt.
December 6, 2012 through January 12, 2013
Lionni representerar en ny samtida generation av minimalism och abstrakt måleri. Hans konstnärskap tar vid där viktiga förgrundsgestalter som Robert Ryman, Ellsworth Kelly och Blinky Palermo slutar. Lionnis konstnärskap vilar på en välarmerad tradition som han använder som språngbräda i sitt måleriska undersökande av symboler, klichéer och objekt.
Lionni använder befintliga former eller ideér som ritningar. Från en färdig struktur tar handen och akrylen över. Med en minitiös detaljerikedom och exakthet mejslar Lionni fram en helt ny bild av något redan existerande och välkänt. När det bränner till smälter både popkonsten och det abstrakta uttrycket samman. Det kan nog vara som konstnären själv uttrycker det; ”Mondrian och spelarkaden har påverkat mig lika mycket…”
Sylvan Lionni är född 1973. Bor och arbetar för tillfället i Eugen, Oregon där han undervisar på Department of Art vid Oregon University. Utställningar, institutioner, gallerier i urval: Daimler Contemporary, Berlin, Freight + Volume, New York, Rebecca Ibel Gallery, Columbus,Fusebox, Washington, Rome Arts, Brooklyn, Sue Scott Gallery, New York, Stene Projects, Stockholm, Zurcher Studios, New York, MUMOK, Vienna, The Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, University of Oregon, The Krannert Art Museum, Champaign, White Columns, New York, David Castillo, Miami
Öppettider: Tor-Fre 12-17 Lör 12-15 eller enligt överenskommelse 0768-986495
Das Gleiche nochmal anders - Über die Unmöglichkeit der Wiederholung
Curated by Christian Ganzenberg
Invitation to the Exhibition Opening on Friday, November 2, 2012 from 6 – 9 pm
The group exhibition Das Gleiche nochmal anders - Über die Unmöglichkeit der Wiederholung (The same thing, but different - on the impossibility of repetition), curated by Christian Ganzenberg presents works by Leonor Antunes, Martin Boyce, Hanne Darboven, Ceal Floyer, Matthew Higgs, Bettina Krieg, Marcellvs L., Jim Lee, Sylvan Lionni, Patrick Fabian Panetta, Jürgen Partenheimer, Bojan Šarčević and Natalia Stachon.
Not only is repetition responsible for making the world experiencable; the “eternal return of the same” (Nietzsche) is itself a recurrent theme in the humanities and among artists. The same thing, but different - on the impossibility of repetition takes up this discourse and discusses some discusses central terms, identity, time and difference, on the basis of the selected works. The exhibition seeks to display the processuality, the positive aspects, and the unavoidability of repetition in artistic creation and to conceive rediscovery as an aspect of creative new beginning.
Das Gleiche nochmal anders places repetition between similarity and identity, or more precisely in the reflection of the viewer, whose mind is altered through the process of repetition. “Repetition is a remembering in the forward direction. Temporality is the sense of repetition,” writes Kierkegaard. It is this temporality that determines the dialectical structure of repetition. Through temporality, repetition aims at something that is not interchangeable, for what is repeated can never be absolutely the same in regard to the viewer and time. The exhibition will take up this paradox by rearranging the constellation of the selected works during the period of the exhibition. All components and the given exhibition room remain unchanged; all that is shifted is the constellation, the time and our view.
The exhibition will be on view until January 12, 2013.
Lost in America
5 April - 12 May, 2012
OPENING RECEPTION 5 April, 6–9 PM
KANSAS is pleased to present Lost in America, a solo exhibition of new work by Sylvan Lionni. Opening April 5, the exhibition runs through May 12.
Sylvan Lionni reinterprets established hierarchies and dissolves cultural hegemony through appropriative techniques which deconstruct symbolic objects and their clichés. Familar icons are illuminated by a new vocabulary that serves to charter networks of analogy between lived and imagined form.
His paintings are neither pictures, nor primary structures, nor allusions. But often they are all of those things. These are works crafted in paradox, in the presence of which we are both present and absent, lost in thought and absolutely concretely there, as Lionni is when he makes them. While slow, they are fast. While fleet and associative, they are dense and absorptive. While complicated to make they look simple and can be seen at a glance.
- Amy Sillman
Lionni's hard-edged practice finds resource in social geometry - the means by which we order our daily lives in response to the quiet spatial and structural relationships that passively inform our thoughts, movements, and impulses. Fascinated by the overlooked details embedded in the American mundane, his latest body of work aims to qualify material, aesthetic, and conceptual properties within our revolving banality. A tidy pile of monochromatic laundry bags, a cheap, optical shower curtain, vibrant restaurant computer keypads, and glossy household printer paper are all visual moments the artist has transformed into man-made reproductions. The works in this exhibition translate the humdrum index of commercial manufacture into artifacts of our cultural gestalt.
The effects of Post-Fordism and pluralist modes of production have forced examination of the use/value relationship within contemporary art. Lionni removes the signifiers of culture's mass-production in an effort to slow down and embrace the currency of labor. He describes and depicts an American life framed by daily ritual and placid routine. Lionni belives this humble mode brands the idea of being Lost in America today.
You wake up in New York and go drop off the laundry - there are these stacks of bags which remind you of Ellsworth Kelly grid paintings. You go buy some printer paper and a new shower curtain at CVS down the street and on your way home you pass the corner deli that has a sign advertising flowers. You go home, but your printer isn't working so you hit the test button. While you're waiting for the printer, you go hang up the new shower curtain and when you come out of the bathroom Being There is playing on TV and the static reminds you of the shower curtain you just hung.
- Sylvan Lionni
Sylvan Lionni received his MFA from Bard College, NY and BFA from the School of Visual Arts, NY. His solo exhibitions include Freight + Volume, New York, NY; Rebecca Ibel Gallery, Columbus, OH; Fusebox, Washington, DC and Rome Arts, Brooklyn, NY. His work has been seen in such venues as Sue Scott Gallery, New York, NY; Daimler Contemporary, Berlin, GE; Stene Projects, Stockholm, SE; Zurcher Studios, New York, NY; MUMOK, Vienna, AU; The Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR; The Krannert Art Museum, Champaign, IL; White Columns, New York, NY and David Castillo, Miami, FL among many others.
This is Sylvan Lionni's first solo show with KANSAS. He currently lives and works in Eugene, OR.
For additional information, please contact Matthew Flaherty at KANSAS by calling +1 (646) 559-1423 or emailing
Daylight Saving Time
Every morning I wake up opposite a strange constellation of color. On the strip of wall between the closet and hallway doors, a foot above and several inches to the right of a switchplate fuzzed beyond recognition, hovers an ell-shaped pale pink cloud that hems in a similarly bleary patch of roughly cornflower blue
I reach for my glasses, and it becomes an American flag. Not the American flag as most people know it, but my American flag, its colors as though bleached by the sun. Sylvan Lionni patterned it after the decals people stuck in their cars after 9/11 and then forgot, as emotions softened from rage, shock and sorrow into an ill-defined resignation tinged with sadness. It’s called “The Moment’s Over.”
Sylvan made it at the start of the second term of the second President Bush. It was the first in a series of paintings conceived as personal State of the Union addresses. I bought it a year later, once it became apparent that my career would no longer sustain caretakers who worried themselves over potential conflicts of interest. My moment over, on sunny days I lie back and watch as the light streaming in through the dormer washes out the center right of the picture, until the stripes yellow and blur and I imagine I’m seeing through them to the paint on the wall, a warm, neutral shade that, in 1991, Pratt & Lambert called “Tenne.”
Back then, four years after we married, Rebecca and I used to say that it was the first good time to be alive: after penicillin and Prozac; after central heat and air conditioning; after recorded sound, motion pictures, computers; after books so plentiful you could buy them by the armload, never dreaming you might not live long enough or think fast enough to read them all; after cheap gas for cars you didn’t need to know a thing about, destined for highways unclogged by traffic or repair crews. There was exactly enough civilization to suit us. We were very young.
Going on three years now, I have sailed under my new flag. I no longer trust the old one. It looks tawdry, its blood red, navy blue, and tooth-cap white ringing as false as a Casiotone Sousaphone. I can remember when people spoke of what a young country this was; they don’t do that anymore. But vain and naïve, Old Glory had already sprung for the permanent makeup
That’s the trouble with national flags, most of them chosen when the countries behind them are more notional than real. Flags are diagrams of good intentions. Somehow the violent upheavals that engender them are expected to be seamlessly transformed into the peaceful rule of regimes righteous and fair. But all the high-flown rhetoric is already betrayed before the first hand-sewn standard gets runs up the pole. You might as well pledge allegiance to a fairy tale.
Born in ’65, I was a Cold War baby who grew up with well-thumbed accounts of the Cuban Missile Crisis and other U.S./Soviet standoffs on my parents’ bookshelves. But I never felt the crushing dread of nuclear holocaust commonly experienced by my peers. Even during the Reagan-era summers I worked at Los Alamos, abusing my photocopying privileges making mushroom-cloud letterhead convincing enough to fool friends back home, I believed in the Big One about as much as I do in the Great Pumpkin
Climate change, however, is a doomsday scenario I can get behind. I’m far less fearful of a perfect spiral of the nuclear football than I am of the unintended consequences of the mass pursuit of individual happiness. I myself would never push the button or turn the key, but I’ve certainly taken my share of long showers and Sunday drives. Our old house may not outgas poison, but it was chosen for its way with a draft. Having moved from a sick building, we were willing to pay for permeability, natural resources be damned.
Over the years, the first good time to be alive became the last good time, then simply the last. We now can barely conceive of a future in which the clock doesn’t run out on us. We note the difficulty our parents have accepting the idea that their children won’t have it as good as they did. My father-in-law has been retired almost as long as I’ve known him. No matter how the numbers shake out, our own retirement plan’s looking like a can of rat poison and a milkshake
It seems pointless to quibble about money when any observation about the weather threatens to turn into a Jackson Browne lyric. Rebecca and I console ourselves with our private No Child Left Behind program, formally instituted last year. A vasectomy, a couple of weeks riding the ice pony, and in cosmic terms, I’m packing out our trash, leaving the campsite as we found it. It’s a bit of a thrill to have made an end run around the biological drives that nature uses to trick people into having children. We’re taking down two sides at once, ditching both family lines. Barring unauthorized cloning, somewhere around the middle of the 21st century, we won’t have a dog in the fight. The world can go to hell without us.
We realize how fatalistic this attitude is, and in fairness I should point out that Sylvan finds it somewhat appalling. But then he hasn’t thrown in the towel on our global future. His new paintings of solar panels cast their lot with the possibility that technology can still make the save.
Around where I live, solar panels are most visible in travesty. Either they power the stake lights that outline a neighbor’s walkway or they angle atop roadside posts, fueling traffic cameras and car counters, their role in rescuing the planet almost ceremonial. By making solar panels whose role is literally ceremonial, Sylvan leads us to question our conviction.
The rectilinear arrangements of photovoltaic cells, laced together with gleaming silver contacts, already recall elevations of modernist skyscrapers. Butted against one another or propped overlapping in a line against the wall, they form streetscapes and skylines. As sites to atone for environmental sins of the past and to hope for a better life to come, they are altarpieces. But perhaps on the most fundamental level, these paintings remain flags, emblems of solidarity, announcements that—the lessons of history notwithstanding—social progress remains on the table.
If you scan websites that advertise actual solar panels, it won’t be long before you come across an American flag logo signaling that renewable energy will liberate the U.S. from dependence on foreign oil. But our problems are now everyone’s and vice versa. A solar-panel flag is necessarily international, its design shaped by technology rather than ideology. As my professors used to remind us, physics doesn’t care what your motives are. The look of solar panels won’t change with land grabs, as 13 grew into 50 on the Star-Spangled Banner, only with better ideas.
Still, I can’t help wondering if all of it is too little, too late. Perhaps the dark arrays of silicon are swaths of high-tech memorial crepe, the grids’ suggested facades those of post-industrial follies. When I was in grade school, plenty of people were howling about the energy crisis. Then the embargo broke, crude dropped, and things went back to normal. What stuck with me, though, was the lesson taught by one of the first electronic toys I ever ran across. It was a steamer-trunk-sized calculator with ranks of knobs like the control panel of an analog synthesizer. You’d tweak the dials to manage the consumption of natural resources. You could play a better game or a worse one, but sometime in the future, as the years racked up and supplies ran out, the result was always the same, with glowing orange digits spelling out the end: 0000
Everything we know is an astronomical accident, a zillion-to-one long shot that, with the sureness of hindsight, we prefer to think of as the odds-on favorite. We’ve been quite lucky—and luck is nothing but chance that went your way. Though we don’t like to dwell on it, life exists at the mercy of a fiery ball eight minutes away from here.
As children we learned to infantilize the sun. We sang silly songs when it woke up. We crayoned a smiley face onto a bright golden ball beaming kindly light. So long as all we had to do was put on a sweater or seek out the shade of a tree to temper the heat, such behavior seemed permissible.
We got a little older and learned that one distant day the light would go out, but it’s OK not to care whether one of your dogs remains in the fight billions of years from now; it’s a matter of scale. Every mind boggles at large numbers. Even mathematicians are reduced to giggles, giving preposterous names to things they can’t quite fathom. Vast distances and great spans of time are incommensurable with the proportions of a single human life.
But nothing’s quite as dismaying as an apocalypse of degrees, an ugly situation we just may be able to squeeze out of. Or might have, had we started back when eggheads and hippies began thinking about alternative energy. The only reasonable way to behave is to risk that a solution is possible.
Perhaps that’s why Sylvan’s solar panels get under my skin. I’d nearly made my peace with the idea that living amounts to fiddling while Rome burns and that contentment was a question of finding the right tune to go out on. Then these pictures go and make me want to believe in the future one last time.
August 24, 2008
39°01'25.98" N76°59'57.26" W
SYLVAN LIONNI Before the Flood
October 16 – November 15, 2008
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE October 16 – November 15, 2008 | Reception: Thursday, October 16, 6 – 8 pm
For his first solo exhibition at Freight + Volume, New York-based Sylvan Lionni will present a series of “solar panel” paintings. These new works act as an extension of the artist’s fascination with the aesthetic and conceptual properties inherent within the banal objects of everyday life, an idea revisited throughout Lionni’s many bodies of work.
Appropriating the forms of industrial articles and stripping them of their utilitarian purpose is a strategy Lionni has been employing for years - faded American flag stickers, lotto tickets and computer keypads – Lionni translates these sources into his own lineage of dead-pan picture making. His expertly crafted hard-edged works display a labor- intensive painting process. They retain a deceptive but devout allegiance to the handmade despite their machine-like effects, rendered with alternative materials and non-traditional painting methods.
Lionni’s solar panel and the artist’s process in general sit anxiously between abstraction and representation. Re-contextualizing forms and imagery that subscribe to a specific painterly means, Lionni thereby spawns a new brand of conceptual abstraction.
The paintings’ purpose as objects for consideration is reinforced merely by their being indoors; the natural habitat for most painting is the last place an actual solar panel can do its job. Out of direct sunlight and sheltered from the elements, the impostor panels are subject to the peculiar scrutiny we offer to art.By being placed in an aestheticized context, they point up the fact that the most conventional opposition to solar energy has been aesthetic; the high-tech appearance of solar collectors doesn’t mesh with the pre-modern architectural forms that, even in bastardized fashion, continue to shape most contemporary building. In the wake of the industrial revolution, the production and consumption of energy were driven apart—largely owing to the offense given by production to the eye, ear, or nose—and energy became invisible, a kind of magic known only through its effects. Sylvan’s unique brand of conceptual abstraction pushes the image of energy production back in front of us. He demands that we see how the trick is done.
- Excerpted from “Daylight Saving Time” by Glenn Dixon, 2008.
Sylvan Lionni received his MFA from Bard College, NY and BFA from SVA, NY. His solo exhibitions include Rebecca Ibel Gallery, Columbus, OH; Fusebox, Washington, DC and Rome Arts, Brooklyn, NY. Born in Cuckfield, England, he currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.
For more information, please visit the gallery’s website or contact Nick Lawrence (Owner/Director), Steven Stewart (Director) or Kadar Brock (Gallery Manager) at 212.989.8700 or email@example.com.
It is pleasing to think of Sylvan Lionni standing there in a bodega in his Brooklyn Italian neighborhood like a Damon Runyon character, a biggish regular guy in a beige raincoat with a half-smoked-down cigarette, squinting at the row of plastic bins that hold lottery tickets. Here is a man with absolutely no outward signs of transcendence, giving off no inkling of his epiphany. He simply stands there transfixed by the perfectness of the little red and white lotto grid and its implications as a sign for yearning, hope, and desire.
Lionni is private. Lionni is canny. His kind of transcendence cuts sideways across the everyday, moving horizontally across lunch counters and supermarket aisles, through the streets of the city and in and out of the corridors of art history: Sassetta; Morandi; Blinky Palermo; baseball; lottery tickets; stickers; wall paper; carpet patterns; a Jewish star; an icon; a sign.
His paintings are neither pictures, nor primary structures, nor allusions. But often they are all those things. These are works crafted in paradox, in the presence of which we are both present and absent, lost in thought and absolutely concretely there, as Lionni is when he makes them. While slow, they are fast. While fleet and associative, they are dense and absorptive. While complicated to make, they look simple and can be seen at a glance. They turn at each fixed point; they refuse to stay where you put them, moving mercurially around the field of inquiry. Lionni’s paintings slide laterally like sailboats, tilted on a thin plane of the everyday, buoyed up underneath by the heft of an invisible mechanism.
How are they even made? Are they fabricated, designed by computers, taped off, stenciled? At first it’s puzzling to understand. The answer is that though computers are involved in their design, they are painstakingly and resolutely handmade, absurdly and lovingly laborious, sexy in the extreme preciousness of their surfaces (Don’t touch!), deluxe in their construction. Innumerable veils of thin, milky paint make up their luster. The six paintings in this show are a year’s work, and on my visit Lionni says he’s still not finished with them.
For this show, he is making a series of medium-sized paintings based on the seating plans of various football stadiums. Though fairly intimate in scale, Lionni’s new paintings are stuffed with the ambition to portray our society itself, to chart democracy and class structure by its leisure events, and to coax the entire social organism out of the flat serenity of a seating chart. But it’s not just a seating chart. As always, Lionni here employs a paradoxical presence and cunning kind of questioning that pushes the work and its viewers into funny positions. Time, space, location and subject all shimmer indefinitely, whispering that things are not the way they seem. Representation is entirely elastic and shape shifting. Just as he previously ballooned small Lotto tickets into immensities, now he shrinks giant arenas into concise charts of our culture’s consciousness. You look at the dry primary and secondary colors, the sticker-like quality, and then it dawns on you that these paintings are also glowing icons of eccentric baroque geometries, like god’s perfect mahjong board, like radiant wheels of fortune. And then they become essential signs of our collective hopes and ideas. And then they shift back again, in Lionni’s sly hands, back into the insistent forms that they started out as, stickers or stadiums or some other ordinary thing, like paintings.
Sylvan Lionni’s paintings are part of the casebook for a developing theme in contemporary painting: the hybridization of Pop and abstraction. In his case, the emphasis is towards a voluptuous rigor wherein the banal graphic face of everyday transactions is edited and embodied by a devotionally labor-intensive development of the painted surface into a pristine flatness and even density. A close scrutiny of Lionni’s surfaces reveals that the even dispersal of the paint could only be achieved by a patient buildup of fluid washes of color into an optical solidity as metaphysically infinite in their “presentness” (to borrow Michael Fried’s astonishing term) as the flat backgrounds of symbolic color, divine light, in a Byzantine icon.
Fried was talking about an opticality and residue of craft that seems to always address viewers as they move around an abstract work, a quality that finds a resonance in Walter Benjamin’s elegiac use of “aura” to describe the appeal and “cult value” of the handmade art object. Lionni’s paintings depict the industrially and technologically fabricated two dimensional world, the world of contemporary sign, but their craft is handmade and their “real” subject could be held to be the persistence of aura within painting. Nothing, for instance, could inspire us less than the image of a lotto game, an image of greedy hope and lost chances. Besides the convenient manner in which his images literally fill out the rectangle, punning the image and the object, Lionni seems to be attracted to the challenge of wringing aura from this least likely of subjects.
In Lionni’s hands a lotto game card becomes a meditation on mauve and puce atmospheres, the modularity of the grid, and the degree of self restraint required to make touch disappear into form while retaining at an almost subliminal level those qualities that remind us that these paintings are material re-embodiments of something run off on gigantic commercial printers. The humor lies in the antithetical nature of this process to the get rich quick ethos of the game card and its easy manufacture. But Lionni’s process also transcends irony, introducing us to beauty in unexpected places.
Shine is a spatial rendering of the hallway carpet in Kubrick’s great horror film, The Shining. The perspectival sweep backwards of the carpet pattern is something new in Lionni’s paintings but there’s a continuity, too. The image. after all, is taken from the screen, not real life, so we are still looking at an image sourced in two dimensions, rather than three. Even the spatial illusion is a transfer from a two- rather than three-dimensional source from the life-world. But Lionni’s immaculate technique demonstrates the tangibility of painting’s version of two dimensions. Because the painted surface must be built up to an even consistency that fills in and smoothes over the tooth of the canvas in order to absorb and hide the brush stroke, the resulting image is at an optimal state of clarity within the limits of painting even as it approaches an optimal state of physical identity. The carpet is moving under the wheels of a child’s tricycle in the movie, or rushing under the feet of any of the other protagonists, but in the painting the image is held. a seamless material accretion, precisely controlled.
“Pure” abstraction seems almost an impossibility at this moment. This is in part because abstraction really can’t compete with the life-world’s infinite inventory of forms and, in fact, has joined that inventory as a cultural sign. But to comment on this fact by treating painting and the cultural soup it bobs around in as mere signage fatally ignores the expressive range of painting’s plasticity and the power of the process itself to transform a visual idea into something considerably more, i.e., the continual address within “presentness.” This is something other than a reductive art. Lionni re-embodies signs and fragments of signs as vehicles for meditation on the deep structures of painterly perception and form-giving.