Joe Montgomery: Head, Calves at Laurel Gitlen
October 26 through December 21, 2014
122 Norfolk (between Rivington and Delancey streets)
New York, 212 274 0761
“It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”
-Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
A torn skin with frayed and curling edges is anonymously titled Image Two Hundred Forty Seven (2014). This rectangular painting looks like a scroll; it is thin and curves out at the top. The surface is pocked and pimpled with slightly raised striations that run the length of the image. To touch, I imagine it would be rubbery and blemished, like the skin of a toad. This tactile surface is contrasted with an institutional, pale blue-grey color: the torn skin is also a piece of linoleum rent from the floor. The connection evoked between skin and linoleum is visual and material, uniting man and manmade. It looks like something on the verge of life, or its opposite, the blush of life just fading.
Joseph Montgomery’s series of images in “Head, Calves,” at Laurel Gitlen, are all titled Image Two Hundred something. The titles are in some ways inadequate to the visceral and potent paintings they accompany (but more compelling than the common, passive-aggressive Untitled). There are many missing numbers among the two hundreds in the show and the resultant uncertain narrative, coupled with the images they accompany, raises more questions. Montgomery’s paintings are slight and pale from afar — tall and thin (like Two Hundred Forty Seven) or a small point on a large wall. I was alone in the exhibition and the room was calm and quiet: a place of contemplation. I approached the images tentatively. The paintings appeared fragile, as if they might just be a trick of the light hitting some dust and pigment.
These seemingly delicate works do not complacently hang on the white gallery wall. Image Two Hundred Eleven (2008-2013) — one of the small points — is an overstuffed sack of a painting. Though only a forearm’s length, it bursts with the many things used to make it: cedar, paper, canvas, plaster, grout, plastic, sheet metal, MDF, Coroplast. Subtler additions have been made to the painting in ink, oil, wax and lacquer. The materials in Image Two Hundred Eleven are haphazardly conjoined, torn, twisted and layered to become solid and rooted and whole. Whether old paintings or MDF, the component materials appear to be throwaway odds and ends, perhaps even studio scraps, which now become the new construction. Cut canvas and paper introduce color; washes of blue, brushstrokes in red, deep green and salmon pink are among the various colors and effects that have been brought together. A plank of MDF pins the paper and canvas layers to the wall. More strips of painted paper encircle this interior collage. There are divergent layers upon layers: a sawn piece of MDF dangles down the middle of the work while small tears of painted black paper are glued completely to an irregularly shaped white and pink sheet. The collage creates a material abstraction, not just an abstract image. It is a Frankenstein’s monster of a painting, between the bolts of MDF and grout, the dead bodies of paintings, and the electric current of Montgomery’s process, a fascinating painting seems to writhe and convulse.
In Montgomery’s first show at Laurel Gitlen, “Lie lay lain; Lay laid laid,” in 2010, he was titling his images in the fifties and sixties. The works in that show were more akin to Two Hundred Eleven, but flatter, smaller, and more conventionally abstract. As an evolution, the collaged materials in Image Two Hundred Eleven are less seamless and more exaggerated. The fragments that construct the abstract image are not integrated into a single plane, but are still part of a whole. The stitches and sutures of the painting — where dead painting has been fortified by metal and wood — are more exposed. Montgomery’s surgical hand could be seen as less refined and less skilled in these later paintings. However, it is these monstrous distortions that animate and stimulate the work.
Two Hundred Eleven precedes Image Two Hundred Forty Seven. The works are of different types. Two Hundred Forty Seven is made of similar materials to Two Hundred Eleven. But the materials have become a layered paste, almost completely indistinguishable from each other. In contrast to Two Hundred Eleven, the abstraction is so extreme in Two Hundred Forty Seven that Montgomery’s hand is almost non-existent, appearing as a flattened and industrial construction.
Image Two Hundred Sixty Five (2014) is an animation, another progression. A stick figure, made from shims (a recurring material in Montgomery’s paintings) stumbles and twirls across a white screen. The figure’s pointed feet stab the white ground as paint oozes from him. Montgomery has imagined this shim figure as a painter avatar, an alternative to himself. The animation is reminiscent of Hans Namuth’s film of Jackson Pollock dripping paint. There are moments of strange beauty — the figure stumbles in its first steps — but it is lacking something that is in his paintings. The earlier iterations of the shim figures hanging on the gallery walls blink and convulse in their own strange ways that are more compelling. Perhaps Montgomery’s future animation evolutions will be as potent as his paintings are now.
In the pandemic of manmade images, we bond ourselves to them. Through material, action, and now animation, Montgomery fuses himself to the images he makes. Their creation becomes a substitute for himself: Frankenstein made a monster, but soon Frankenstein will be the monster blinking his dull yellow eye. Montgomery’s paintings show the distinction between man and manmade, human and thing, to be arbitrary, a futile act of self-preservation. Man is manmade: our evolution a result of the things we make.print