When Philip Guston abandoned Abstract Expressionism for his angry, lusty, neurotic, cartoonish paintings in the late 1960s, he ticked off many. Because he made that pivot, Guston, who died in 1980 at 66, is a towering figure today.
“The Guston Effect,” a museum-quality exhibition at Steven Zevitas Gallery, charts Guston’s influence in the work of nearly 50 contemporary painters. Big names such as Dana Schutz and Amy Sillman rub shoulders with local luminaries such as Gerry Bergstein and the late Jon Imber, who was a student of Guston’s at Boston University.
With his stunted figures in Ku Klux Klan hoods, his cigarette stubs, and bug-eyed bodiless heads, Guston gave form to the American id in a way that Ab-Ex painters could not. Their work could be brash, yes, but could it be surly? Gruff? Their abstractions swam in a closed-off sea of Big Questions About Painting and little questions about their own psyches. But in the late 1960s, after almost a decade of upheaval, American society — that squabbling, scabrous enterprise — could no longer be ignored. Guston, with his clunky forms, his jittery lines, his gory pinks and reds, in many ways set painting on a new path.
This caffeinated exhibition brims with neurosis. It begins with Guston’s 1980 lithograph, “Sea,” depicting a backup of heads clustered like rocks near the shore, some half-submerged, their unblinking eyes curious or terrified. The image could now be an emblem for our pathological inaction about climate change.
Works by first-generation acolytes fill the first room: Carroll Dunham has taken Guston’s crudeness and applied it to sexuality; his two pieces here star genitalia. Imber’s fond “Portrait of Philip Guston” plays up the artist’s fleshy cheeks and wide eyes with flecks of countless colors. Joyce Pensato’s “Duck Mask” drawing depicts a furious Donald Duck drawn in loose, awkward lines.
In the second room, the younger crowd revels in Guston’s raw example. Schutz’s gorgeous and alarming gouache piece (a study for a later oil) “Swim Smoke Cry” echoes Guston’s famous self-portrait “Painting, Smoking, Eating,” with the artist in bed, smoking, with a plate of fries on his chest. Schutz’s swimmer is face down, a cigarette improbably lolling from her gaping mouth. Gina Beavers’s aggressive “you won’t believe” closes in on a man’s mouth, half-zippered shut, and where it’s open revealing coal-gray teeth. Kirk Hayes’s shocking, simple “Fizzle” depicts a pink-skinned man collapsed over a detonator; the fuse leads to a small, scorched puff of smoke. It eloquently captures the zeitgeist Guston tapped into: explosive pressure intertwined with blunt, comical failure. It still has plenty of juice.
A dreamlike ‘Blindsight’
Visiting sculptor Rosalind Driscoll and filmmaker Sarah Bliss’s ambitious, lyrical installation, “Blindsight,” at Boston Sculptors Gallery is like walking into a dream. Bliss’s four-channel video plays over fabric, paper, and rawhide screens that Driscoll has installed throughout a darkened room. Images beam onto and through them; they wrinkle and smear along with the rawhide.
Bliss’s images of rushing rain and ice on branches frame the central narrative, an unspoken, choreographed exchange among a handful of actors, often with water pouring down on them. Moody and beautiful, their movements drift into nearly erotic encounters and into conflict; often, they feel akin to ritual. Indeed, Driscoll’s environment, dark with filmic windows of light, feels like a sacred space, a labyrinth through which we yet can see.
Nora Valdez’s sculptures and drawings, also at Boston Sculptors, rely too heavily on the heart, a symbol so laden it’s hard to see past the greeting-card sentimentality to the moving and mysterious message she aims for.
Valdez is a wonderful sculptor of monolithic figures that often ache with that mystery. They lack facial features; they at once convey strength and longing. In “Singing Birds,” a wooden piece painted watery blue, the long shape of a woman stands on wheels. A bird flutters at her breast; they swarm her head. She’s a magical figure, and unlike many other pieces here, she doesn’t spell out what she means.
A focus on nature
In the 19th century, artists exalted nature. For a chunk of the 20th century, more concerned with urbanism, abstraction and Pop, they ignored it. These days, they fret about it. “Nature, Askew” at Suffolk University Gallery doesn’t offer any news on this front. But it’s a great mix of artists on a loaded topic.
Gerry Bergstein brings his Gustonian angst to hysterical trompe l’oeil explosions of the universe. Elaine Spatz-Rabinowitz’s landscape paintings on plaster and steel brilliantly insert industrial decay into pure scenes of desert and sky. Amy Ross and Joo Lee Kang whimsically and disturbingly describe mutants in paint and ink.
My favorite works are sculptures, which are less foreboding and more open-ended than many of the paintings. Michael Beatty’s “Correspondence,” at once minimalist and sensual, features several pieces of turned birch plywood. He delicately coats their flat, clover-shaped faces in milk paint. The wood, discreet, pale, and plump, arcs and swirls behind them. Stephanie Chubbuck’s blown glass piece, “Untitled (Large Zipper Pear)” has an extraordinary surface mottled in heavenly pink and tan, with a vertical zipper seductively opening at the bottom, an invitation to the sweet fruit inside.
THE GUSTON EFFECT
At: Steven Zevitas Gallery,
450 Harrison Ave.,
through Aug. 15.617-778-5265, www.stevenzevitasgallery.com
AND SARAH BLISS: Blindsight
NORA VALDEZ: Cuore
At: Boston Sculptors Gallery,
486 Harrison Ave.,
through July 19.617-482-7781, www.bostonsculptors.com
At: Suffolk University Gallery,
75 Arlington St., through July 5.617-573-8785, www.suffolk.edu/nesad/gallery
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.