Can I Get a Witness?
by Linnea Kniaz
JOSHUA ABELOW, JOACHIM YOYO FRIEDRICH, and MATT CONNOLLY
ART BLOG ART BLOG | JULY 14 – JULY 30, 2010
I was miffed at first. Reading the Can I Get Witness? press release as I entered its boisterous opening, I struggled to envision the works by Joshua Abelow, Joachim “Yoyo” Friedrich, and Matt Connolly. According to curators Tisch Abelow, Jashin Friedrich, and Dakotah Savage, these works were to impressively reference Bruce Nauman’s The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths and the AbEx movement, and also fulfill my every desire. Jolted from my reading by fellow attendees’ crashing beeramid, I surveyed the exhibition presented by Art Blog Art Blog, Joshua Abelow’s visual archive temporarily excerpted from cyberspace into an artist-run, stunningly sunlit, and spacious Chelsea space donated by Ross Bleckner. I then determined not to over-think the press release introducing this extension of such a characteristically 21st-century concept and, instead, followed the curators’ final order to “smile on your blogger.” Though aggravatingly mysterious, the press release effectively stages the installation choices, titles (including the exhibition’s own, referencing an old song), and text-based art saturated by inside jokes between the artists and curators who are also Abelow’s sister, Friedrich’s daughter, and their friend, Savage. Imitating Abelow’s blog’s denial of thematic focus, Can I Get A Witness? distinguishes these artists by their sanguine formal play with rhythmic gestures, confident line, and bold color, rather than ages, origins, and stages in careers. Even if this wasn’t a “blog gone to real time,” the artists would likely hold viewers’ attention online.
One cheeky innuendo shared among the six is that behind these “great male artists, there are three female curators.” And in their role as quiet—not silent—exponents, these novel curators astutely empower the artists with control and liberty; and these men command with assiduous judgment. Abelow exercises the most precision. His “Mystic Truths” (2007), a display of 72 16 by 12 inch oil paintings on linen or burlap, alternatively bear the phrases “HAR/DER FAS/TER” and “HANGME.” Cognizant of the diverse lineage of textually focused artists (and certainly the color schemes and style of Mel Bochner’s recent word paintings), Abelow made formal choices during his process that serve to dilute the words’ logic, making the piece a testament to perception. My objective reading of the vague phrases practically dissolved as my eyes absorbed the portentous size, incessant repetition, spatial and color relationships highlighting or hiding text, flat or illusionistic rendering, material juxtapositions, and the painterly surface. Nevertheless, Abelow’s treatment of textual content is comprehensive and does not completely negate connotation. The phrases, framed within a colossal and repetitive installation that communicates force and urgency, can also be subjectively read for linguistic content.
Abelow’s two signature pencil drawings on 22 by 30 inch paper reveal a more independent direction. His “Self-Portrait” (2010), naïvely simple yet executed with equanimity, portrays a naked, smoking, hairy-nippled, knock-kneed, schleppy Abelow with a floppy penis (in other portraits his penis suggests an elephant’s trunk), and inflated, twisting arms and hands that stress his role as artist. And while Abelow insinuates humor in “Mystic Truths”—the irony of gaudy metallic paint on burlap, conflating “hang me” with “harder faster”—there is blatant wit in this visualized self-ridicule.
In contrast to Abelow’s childlike sass, Friedrich’s loose experimentation with brash marks and bold colors seems earnest. Whether Friedrich’s sensibility suggests the different time in which he created the exhibited works, I can’t say; regardless, the work effortlessly suits the present time, to which Can I Get A Witness? is so loyal. In his 20 exhibited “Newspaper Pieces,” all approximately 23 by 14 ¾ inches and titled according to the production date, Friedrich composed a drawing using collage and/or oil crayon everyday between 1977 and 1979 on a page from that day’s newspaper. Much like On Kawara in his daily paintings from the “Today Series,” each day Friedrich tackled a new visual problem and solved it in an original way. Whereas Kawara typically stores a page from the day’s newspaper in a box that accompanies his personal daily record, Friedrich merges archive and personal expression. Mirroring Abelow, he fiddles between emphasizing text (by drawing minimally or composing a black-and-white design according the newspaper’s grid), and disregarding it (by blanketing the newspaper with spastic doodles, collage, or figuration).
Nevertheless, viewing, for example, “Sunday, May 15, 1977,” specifically the quiet shadow between the ripped edge of black magazine paper and the aged newspaper surface on which the glossy paper sits, I had no desire to dissect the newspaper article underneath the collaged magazine. His five oil pastels on 39 ½ by 15 ¾ inch paper drawings (1976) appear less grave and ostensibly exude the intrepid velocity of Abelow’s drawings. One of these, isolated on a lone wall, exhibits five rows of Friedrich’s distinctly gestural, blue scribbles, rather than the multi-colored hatch marks apparent in the other four. Its simplicity offers a visual breadth, and also confirms the strength of Friedrich’s original touch over provided material or familiar symbols.
Connolly also shifts between retaining and abandoning control. His “Piles” (2011), for instance, is a table with multiple piles of watercolor, gouache, and marker drawings on cardstock with abstract patterns and/or typed or hand-written text. While viewers who sift through the works can rearrange the piles, Connolly also selected to frame four sets of two juxtaposed drawings and hang them on a neighboring wall. In contrast to Abelow and Friedrich’s text, Connolly’s dialogue is strictly personal. The seemingly subconscious quasi-sentences reference his favorite products (Chaco shoes), his friends (curator Abelow’s nickname), and recurring characters (Rango from this year’s film and also Connolly originals).
Connolly—who took the most advantage of his sovereignty, contributing many pieces, including a calming sound-piece and an installation of his own treasured bags filled with personal items—also creates characters of his sculptural line drawings. Meticulously drawn with fine-line marker and rulers, the works show horizontal lines trailing up rolls of paper. While uncannily scrupulous, Connolly’s process allows for chance—gouache drips, smudges, tears. The final installations perplexingly include bungee cords attached to the wall and clips either attached to the paper (creating a zigzag border that carries pattern onto the wall) or idle, making the hanging cords superfluous. His “Drawing in Jail Drawing on Bail” (2011) consists of “Banana Detail Drawing,” (67 by 45 inches) with warm-colored confetti-like gouache marks covered by brightly colored lines, towering over “Mistreated Horizontal Line Drawing” (51 by 35 inches), with dark lines and half of its body splayed on the ground. A bungee cord literally connects them and strangles “Mistreated” into a slumped over, crooked form. Abelow’s foolish self-portrayal stares down at “Mistreated,” considered unsuccessful by Connolly, who stepped all over it with his Chacos. Connolly even animates the more minimal 132 by 45 inch “Large Horizontal Line Drawing with Paint Spring 2011” (2011). Directly facing the gallery’s entrance, the drawing elegantly spills onto the floor, its jovial pastel tones welcoming visitors.
It is, in fact, a jovial spirit that sets Can I Get A Witness? apart from the summer’s other Chelsea group shows. An inviting intimacy, not confusion, results from its inside jokes. If you were lucky enough to witness this fleeting exhibition, you were in on the punch line.