Michael St. John: Portraits of Democracy
Michelle Grabner: Patterns in Metal and Oil
Edward Cella Art and Architecture
By Kathy Zimmerer
Through January 6th
Michael St. John taps neatly into the zeitgeist of a tumultuous time in his current series of paintings, Portraits of Democracy. He uses a mixture of techniques to reinforce his witty take on modern society, including collage. His work echoes in content and imagery the clever, yet rigorous paintings of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg but he has his own contemporary spin. Particularly compelling in a weird and creepy way is his oil painting Democracy (Love) that riffs on Marisol Escobar’s assemblage of a coke bottle stuck completely into a woman’s mouth which she titled Love (1962). The current sexual assault scandals of Hollywood and Washington come readily to mind, as do as the instances of “groping” and inappropriate behavior but this odd canvas is open to individual interpretation. As an ode to over consumption and sex it was effective in Marisol’s original assemblage, but now the painted object is overwhelmed by lurid overtones.
Democracy (Cowboys) depicts a pair of beautifully painted boots that have collaged elements that both obscure and reveal their silhouette as an American icon. A black and white cow is a marvelous study in negative space as St John deftly portrays its image straight on.
Most disturbing is Democracy (Witness) where a deeply shadowed, hooded figure fills the picture plane. Is it a ghostly reminder of the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, a teenager killed for being black? Or is it a sinister commentary on the secrecy and inherent violence of our society? He also makes visual comments about our tech obsession in Democracy (Turn On Tune In Drop Out) which is a completely white painting with a tiny outlet for a usb cable, the meditation and poetry of all white is reversed as tech takes over. Also, he does poke fun at the materialism so rampant in our society with Democracy (Sale) where a red, white and blue canvas has the word “Sale” embedded in the middle. Quite beautiful is his take on the Empire State building in Democracy (Empire) as the building dissolves and is recreated in the haze of blue, purple and white light, its elegant contours a study of the richness of American culture. The Trump era Pussyhat also gets its due in an all pink painting of variations on a theme, the lush color and whimsical hats do not hide the message of feminist power and disgust at the current administration.
The shimmering beauty of Michelle Grabner’s silverpoint and black gesso drawing derives from her unique use of worn fabrics and patterns to inspire her imagery. Silvery lines radiating out from a central point form an image of much luminosity and transcendence. Her paintings and sculpture are all reflective of a feminist orientation where a domestic item such as fabric is transformed into different media and meaning by her unusual techniques. Her sculptures are used fabrics that are cast in bronze, as they gently fall into curved screens of luminous metal, they echo their original purpose and also have a meditative quality. Her marvelous oil and burlap on canvas series create a subtle play of geometric grids. Cheerful and rigorous at the same time, her red and white grid paintings point to a domestic element while celebrating the geometric abstraction. Most noteworthy is a shimmering gold canvas with a delicate pattern, like a favorite old tablecloth reworked into an otherworldly curtain of light and geometry. She also works with playful imagery as in her mixed media sculpture that looks like a heavy duty children’s game fashioned from a cast iron egg carton, as marbles in brilliant primary colors become pawns in a mysterious game. While Grabner distills the essence of domesticity and feminism in her repurposing of the everyday, Michael St. John’s paintings are a wry commentary on our time.