Len Bellinger: each every and Denise Sfraga: Poison Garden at M. David & Co.
April 26 to June 2, 2019
56 Bogart St, between Harrison Place and Grattan Street
Art can seem like magical thinking, in which an artist’s hopes and desires are ostensibly projected out into the world. Artists have faith that their individual consciousness can telepathically hook up with each one of us in a kind of mind-melding fictive reality.
Such thoughts are stimulated by two concurrent exhibitions M. David & Co. by Len Bellinger and Denise Sfraga, artists of distinctive look and psychological register who are married to one another. They share a joining of the visual and the physical, and an emotional urgency that implicates viewers in the theater of their personal visions.
Len Bellinger’s paintings are psychically intense and materially animated, gnarly with plaster, modeling paste, sawdust, staples, and other materials. The surfaces, which are often in high relief, carry bold abstract shapes that function as energetic personages suspended in indeterminate space.
In Bellinger’s painting kinch (2017-2019), a spiky and looping black form floats before a quasi-landscape in softly painted, scabrous plaster. The title means loop or noose in Scottish, and also is Buck Mulligan’s nickname for Stephen Dedalus, comparing him to a knife blade, in Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, an author favored by Bellinger for his multivalent wordplay.
The title of the large painting lotus eater (1997-2019) is presumably a reference to the fifth episode in Joyce’s Ulysses. The two large flower-like forms, rendered in tangled lines of oil paint, suggest the pressed flower that Leopold Bloom, using his pseudonym Henry Flowers, receives from his hoped-to-be lover Martha. The whole painting captures the humid, languorous eroticism of both Homer’s original and Joyce’s retelling.
Bellinger’s painting tmm.marga (2016-2019) is one of his ongoing series of works inspired by the shadows in Goya’s bullfighting etchings, the Tauromaquila. When looking at this large painting, the reference is obscure – what remains is a queasy, pulsing atmosphere of overlapping shadows set against shifting yellow-orange, successively rendered in thickly textured pigment, then modeled color, pours of paint, and finally a dripping silhouette thickened with embedded materials.
Jemez (2018-2019) is a smaller painting with a specked yellow form on a purple and black ground, flanked by two bright, mottled margins. The form is erect, vaguely pelvic, and funny, with a large bifurcated head and a single spindly leg. It stands bravely naked and undeterred. Like much of Bellinger’s works, this painting induces a sense of anxiety, but one in which existential dilemmas are confronted with a spirited embrace. The same impression is to be had in his many small drawings, which emphasize the human body transmuted into abstract forms, while retaining its sense of vulnerability and perseverance.
Stylistically, Bellinger works harks back to Miró in their organic, evocative forms, and their insistence on the primacy of the imagination. Abstract Expressionism is an influence seen in the highly worked surfaces and poetic materiality. And there is an echo of the Neo-Expressionism of the 1980s, with its display of self-generated symbology. But at the core of these works is something original and personal – the sense of a hard-won realization that has at last emerged.
In her exhibition Poison Garden, Denise Sfraga has painted the walls of the gallery’s project space a sepulchral purple, and covered them with many small drawings and a few larger works. The show’s title refers to plants that are dangerous, and although the botanical is a recurring motif, the clear implication in the work is that the human condition is a garden whose blooms can be as harmful as they are beautiful.
Sfraga works combine feelings of the malign, the humorous, and the eerie. Imagine if the Addams Family collected modern art, and you will begin to get the idea. Although these works use the language of modernist biomorphic art, their originality lies in their emotional immediacy.
The artist makes deft use of Flashe, acrylic, marker, colored pencil, and pastel to create softly modulated forms that seem to emerge glowing from a surrounding darkness. Her nuanced, unusual color is mysteriously expressive.
In her small drawing Whimper (2019), a lobed form in a gloomy chartreuse shadowed in red-purple curls upon itself in an embodiment of resignation. The pod-like interior of the sac is a recurring motif in Sfraga’s work, and suggests the potential of growth and expression that has been either protected or sequestered. In Choke (2017), a headful of brick-red eggs is stoppered from the neck up by a mechanical form from a collaged photograph. The use of abstract photographic imagery, combined with handmade forms, creates a strange frisson, worthy of further exploration.
The mood of sadness and thwarted utterance continues with Weep (2018), a large work on paper, with a large green form resembling a stingray, emitting tiny ovoid tears, while sheltering a litter of larger round forms. This melding of funk and finesse recalls Elizabeth Murray’s unpredictable imagistic abstraction.
Suicide Tree (2019)and New Mourn (2018) share a deep sense of loss held in mask-like forms. The former work has central tree-like spine within a mushroom shape topped by red nipple. The underside of the overarching form reveals two empty eye sockets. Similarly, New Mourn has a dominating inverted heart, with hollow, sightless eyes. Indeed, eyes abound in Sfraga’s work: alarmed, indicting, sore, and cutting.
But for all the danger implied in these works, they are also suffused by joy. In the painting Hollow (2018), typically, Sfraga’s sense of darkness becomes a portal, surrounded by enfolding color.
The artists will discuss their work with Alexandra Rutsch Brock and Paul D’Agostino at the gallery at 4pm on Sunday, June 2