Painting and winged chariot of time

Gritty – in all its senses – is the word that comes to mind when I think of the work of Gandy Brodie (1924-1975) and Peter Acheson (born 1954), two artists of different generations on whom I have already written. The other word that comes to mind is “aberration”. Working abstractly and figuratively, as well as in between, Brodie, who was self-taught, and Acheson, who received his BFA at Yale in 1976, do not fit into any of the received categories of post-war painting, especially if we use the style. or the subject as guidelines. These are some of the reasons why their twinning, in the exhibition Peter Acheson & Gandy Brodie: no nature at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, which ends today, makes sense.

In Brodie’s “Spiral Galaxy” (1968), the fusion of a celestial formation with an irregular, stony brown surface connects the stars to the geological strata of the Earth, emphasizing their innate material connection. We are not looking at bright lights in the sky, as seen in countless paintings, but vast, inaccessible spheres whose organic composition shares something with our planet, as well as a coiled skein of contrasting color. The painting’s rugged, topographical terrain reminds us that everything we see is open to the devastation of time.

Brodie’s meaning of the different ways in which time passes is also found in “Stalagmite and Lichen” (nd). As in “Spiral Galaxy”, he finds a way to merge natural phenomena with the pasty materiality of painting, manipulating it to evoke mud, decaying matter and rocks. Rather than giving us a picturesque view of the interior of a cave and the lichen growing on the rocks and bark, he uses paint to make a physical connection between the two.

Peter Acheson, “Rock Study (for van Kirk)” (2021), oil on canvas panel, 16h x 20w inches

The prospect of Acheson’s “Rock Study (for van Kirk)” (2021) suggests that the viewer is looking at the rock formation. The lines between the mostly flat rocks underline the myth that we are standing on solid ground. Working in the porous space between abstraction and representation, Acheson’s “Rock Study (for van Kirk)” can also be read as a commentary on the painting, its cracked pictorial plane. After all, nothing is permanent in the face of time.

In “Yellow Untitled” (2008), Acheson repeats a series of bands of feathers composed of short horizontal lines, which descend slightly diagonally across the surface of the painting. While this work can be read as abstract, I think brand repetition is about counting time, in a more subtle way than, say, Roman Opalka’s rigid and systematic approach. Acheson does not count towards infinity; he knows it will never happen. On the contrary, it shapes the way it travels through time and makes the pleasure of this passing time tangible both physically and visually.

In “Untitled (Calligraphy)” (2018-19), Acheson painted an asemic painting in layers of five horizontal rows of cursive blue calligraphic marks over red cursive marks. Rhythmic lines and fast, curving marks make up meaningless language. Coming from artists such as Henri Michaux and Cy Twombly, the painting embodies one of the many avenues that Acheson explored during the years covered by this exhibition (2008-21). Consider that each of the three paintings of Acheson I mentioned is done in a different way. Has he produced other paintings such as “Untitled (Calligraphy)”, one of the highlights of the exhibition?

Peter Acheson, “Untitled (Calligraphy)” (2018-19), acrylic on panel, 16h x 12w inches

Refusing to develop a signature style or brand, Acheson continually found another way to put paint on a surface, as well as initiate dialogues with other artists, living and dead. Aware of his own mortality and how art can speak through time, he has produced works commemorating a wide range of figures.

Acheson’s “Miro” (2017-18) is composed of a photograph of Miró in a simple found picture frame, the black paint of which has largely peeled off its wood. Using touches of blue and blood brown, he isolated the figure of Miró in the upper left corner of the photo. The greenish yellow paint at the bottom of the photo spells out letters that are mostly obscured by a large feather attached to the frame, cutting it diagonally from the lower left corner to the upper right edge. To the left of Miró, who is seated and looking down, Acheson has tied a pine cone to the frame.

Was Acheson thinking of the pineal gland in the brain when he placed the pine cone next to Miró’s picture? The pineal gland controls our perception of light, as well as our waking and sleeping patterns. It has long been considered our biological ‘third eye’ and ‘the epicenter of enlightenment’. What about the feather, which is surely meant to evoke theft? In a number of works from the 1940s, Miró equates women and birds with the moon and stars.

Peter Acheson, “Miro” (2017-18), acrylic on frame with photograph / feather 12.1 / 2h x 10 1 / 2w inches

This indicates another connection between Acheson and Brodie. For both of them, paint is not just paint, something to be applied to a surface. Its materiality has a capacity to liberate meaning in the work, to underline our bodily presence, which is vulnerable to the world and to time.

In Brodie’s undated “Anemones”, the orange and black cylindrical container from which the five circular flowers (in red, magenta, white and dark and light blue) emerge is a testament to persistence and sorrow. The gray, grainy, built-up surface around the top and right edges of the painting and the smooth ash gray area around the flowers are reminiscent of the drab interiors of the apartment buildings Brodie grew up in on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The red anemone is just above the center, a vibrant breath of life.

In his poem “A Step Away From Them,” which is about death, Frank O’Hara writes, after celebrating the views he saw at lunchtime at the Museum of Modern Art:

First /Bunny died, then John Latouche,/ then Jackson Pollock. But is the/ earth as full as life was full, of them?

O’Hara was the first to write a monograph on Pollock. Written in 1956, shortly after Pollock’s death, “A Step Away From Them” ends:

My heart is in my/ pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy. 

Brodie and Acheson aren’t afraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves. They weren’t interested in being cool or ironic.

Gandy Brodie, “Spiral Galaxy” (1968), oil on wood panel, 10h x 9 1 / 2w inches

Peter Acheson & Gandy Brodie: no nature continues at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Manhattan) until July 17.

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