………ELEVEN NOTES ON JOAN STENNICK, CARL HEYWARD, AND THE DEATH OF CY TWOMBLY-Steven Simmons-
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An exhibition of works by Joan Stennick and Carl Heyward opened at the Bonnafont Gallery in San Francisco the day after Cy Twombly died at the age of 83 in Rome.
Stennick’s paintings face Heyward’s mixed-media pieces across the space of the gallery, and the show is arresting, in part, because it sets up a fascinating dialogue about how two very different contemporary artists respond to, learn from, incorporate, and move beyond the work of their predecessors, especially, for both Stennick and Heyward, their great American mid-century moder
nist predecessors. Which is where Cy Twombly comes in.
The Red and the Black
Or Vice Versa
Sennick’s half of the exhibition at the Bonnafont is dominated by her three most recent paintings, complexly worked canvasses that are predominantly black. Heyward’s half of the exhibit is dominated by three pieces that feature images of coca cola bottles painted bright lipstick red. Heyward’s fascination – obsession? – with coke also figures in much of his other work here. Five more of his thirteen pieces in the exhibit feature over-sized fragments of the elegantly cursive “Coca Cola” brand logo, all of which are also painted lipstick red.
Joan Stennick’s paintings, and it’s important to emphasis that word when discussing Stennick, are large, totally abstract, and richly textured. Heyward’s pieces are relatively small, flat, and composed mainly of found and mechanically reproduced images juxtaposed against one another. Words, marks, and scribbles also feature prominently in Heyward’s work; and, in a very different context, marks and scribbles also appear in Stennick’s paintings. Which is again where Cy Twombly comes in.
Art historians often credit Cy Twombly (who came from Virginia), along with his friends Robert Rauschenberg (who came from Texas) and Jasper Johns (who came from South Carolina), with breaking, in the 1950s and 1960s, the dominance of abstract expressionism in American art. These southern boys became the three major transitional figures between the work of DeKooning, Pollack, Kline et.al. and the often radically different work done in the latter half of the twentieth century. Rauschenberg and Johns paved the way for pop art with which Twombly has almost nothing in common, but Twombly, along with his two friends, greatly influenced other later movements such as neo-Dadaism, minimalism, conceptualism, neo-Expressionism, and graffiti art. Twombly, however, unlike Rauschenberg and Johns, remained a predominantly non-representational painter throughout his long career, and viewed from a different angle, he can be seen as continuing abstract expressionism and can be ranked, along with Joan Mitchell (an extraordinarily underrated artist), as one of the two most brilliant and important “second generation” exemplars of that tradition. Which is where Joan Stennick comes in. She can also be seen in part, but, as is the case with Twombly, only in part, as an abstract expressionist, by now “third”– or would it be “fourth” or “fifth”? – generation variety. She demonstrates how much pictorial energy and emotional power are still possible in the kind of bold, risk-taking abstraction she practices, how vital and contemporary the tradition of gestural painting remains.
I’ve linked Stennick to mid-century modernist art, but her 2011 “black” paintings are very different from famous “black” paintings of the 1950s and 1960s, including Ad Reinhardt’s elegantly precise abstractions, Frank Stella’s early, minimal canvases, and a Rauschenberg black painting, intended more as a Dadaist and Oedipal gesture, like his “Erased DeKooning,” than a self contained work of art. Nor do Stennick’s black paintings and a companion piece that’s mainly gray have – except for their colors – much in common with Cy Twombly’s “Blackboard” paintings, which consist of white, chalk-like swirls of continuous circular patterns against gray or black backgrounds.
Two of Stennick’s three black paintings, one square, the other hung vertically, at first glance pulsate with edgy, nervous energy. Flat patches of paint stand against denser, more built up surfaces; vertical brushstrokes and marks, both large and small, meet and intersect with horizontal ones; glistening, light-reflecting areas of black weave in and out of more matte ones. Nor are these paintings entirely black, especially the vertical one. It’s shot through with smaller, poetic skeins and patches of pale color (white, silver, ochre) that at times appear like distant, flickering lights against a dark, dark ground. What’s paradoxical about these two paintings is that with so much happening on so many complex pictorial levels each ultimately reads as a unified, even serene whole. The same is true of another fine painting in the exhibit in which Sennick employs similar techniques, but in which, instead of black, she uses predominantly shades of gray.
In the most recent work in the exhibit and the largest of her black paintings, Stennick moves in a new direction. At some edges of the canvas lines and brushstrokes of rust red and cement gray mix with black to form a sort of densely worked frame around a huge glistening black swirl across most of the painting, giving this piece, unlike the “overall” surfaces of most of Stennick’s work, a two dimensional perspective. The vortex-like shape that dominates the painting is powerful, disorienting, frightening.
Three Stennick paintings in the exhibit offer a contrast to the neutral, mainly dark, palettes of the other four. A small jewel from 2006 is composed of greenish gray and reddish orange brushstrokes that build up to form, especially toward the top and bottom of the canvas, vaguely grid-like patterns.
The other two “color” paintings were created this year. One of these features thickly painted but rather loosely placed fields of bright, at times almost garish, autumnal hues, against which small black Twombly-like ovals skitter in irregularly placed vertical, horizontal, and diagonal clumps.
The final Stennick painting in the exhibit is the most compositionally complex and the most beautiful. Working in a four and a half feet square Stennick builds large areas of earth-like colors (tan, gray, white, pale green, taupe, rich gold, deep terra cotta) that fade in and out of one another, overlap, change directions. Further pictorial movement is created by large and small marks of various shapes, by lines, both horizontal and vertical, etched into the paint, and by dripping bands of color cascading down the canvas in unexpected places and in varying lengths, some of them pencil-point thin, some of them voluptuous. Stennick mixes these many pictorial elements into a lyrical, exhilaratingly expansive, and fully resolved work of art.
Carl Heyward does not hide his artistic influences. His most obvious debts, unapologetically stated and visually played with here,
seem to be to Warhol, Rauschenberg, and Twombly. However, Heyward’s sometimes ironic, sometimes nostalgic references to art history extend far beyond these mid-century Americans. One of his collages features black and white reproductions of fragments of Manet paintings, another of tiny Renaissance figures, and a third of a repeated identification of a still life by Braque. Heyward’s work also contains fragments of 19th and early 20th century photographs, anatomical drawings, and advertisements. There are visual references to op as well as to pop art, and several of his collages even have large patches of “found” abstract expressionist-like painting.
In contrast to Joan Stennick, who never uses primary colors, Carl Heyward gleefully exploits their eye-catching vibrancy. The first images that one registers when walks into the Bonnafont Gallery are the previously mentioned bright red Coca Cola bottles, which have equally bright white lettering. These immediately bring to mind Andy Warhol and his famous paintings of Coca Cola bottles. This is clearly the intent, and a comparison of the ways in which Warhol and Heyward treat the same image is instructive.
The Coca Cola bottles in Heyward’s work are more expressionistic than realistic, including in their sizes and colors, and they’re placed irregularly against the canvas. Warhol painted a few Coca Cola bottles that approach the stylization of Heyward’s, including one in red and white. However, Warhol’s best and best known Coca Cola paintings are very, very different. An iconic and typical painting from a series he painted in the 1960s, for example, consists of 210 bottles facing center and standing upright, as though on rows of invisible shelves. Thirty bottles stretch across the canvas vertically in seven horizontal rows, forming a precise geometrical grid. Apparently silk-screened from a photograph, the bottles are identical, more or less “life” size, and “realistically” colored, brown liquid in pale greenish glass.
In the largest of Carl Heyward’s Coca Cola pieces the bottles are also arranged in a grid, but it’s a grid as loose and rough as Warhol’s is precise and geometric. Each of nine vertical rows contains two to three bottles or fragments of bottles placed horizontally on their sides in seemingly random directions and distances from one another. The bottles are separated by very crudely delineated and uneven patches of white and black paint overlaid with gray, Twombly-like scratches.
In the second and third works in this series the bottles float vertically across a white background. The bottles vary greatly in size, and in color: several have a heavy layer of whitewash on top of the red, and an oversize one that dominates one of the pieces has a blue and bottom and black neck. There is a large black x shape on one canvas, and a number of the bottles have crude and unmistakably Twombly-like diagonal slashes across their middles. Heyward has mischievously introduced Twombly into pop art, a movement with which the artist had no connection during his life.
Warhol’s Coca Cola paintings are brilliantly deadpan, mechanical, repetitive. (Much of Warhol’s early and best work derives much of its power from repetition). The bottles in Heyward’s work are playful, varied, and nostalgic in a way that Warhol’s were not. Glass bottles containing carbonized beverages are from the past, as anachronistic as typewriters and long playing records and telephone booths.
Most of the other ten works that Heyward is showing are small,
collages of found and manipulated material. I’ve already noted the prominent visual role art history plays in many of these pieces. Equally prominent is Heyward’s use of letters, words, and texts in a wide variety of forms and contexts, including the already mentioned fragments of the Coca Cola logo. Also here are a post-it note (“Sherry wants this back, so don’t throw it away”), locations on a map, captions from a book on wildlife, Chinese calligraphy, sheets of stenographic shorthand notes, and pages from a Norwegian novel. The last three texts noted are, of course, impossible for most viewers to “read,” while others, such as the post-it note, are intriguing in their de-contextualization. In two of the collages, a single very largely drawn word, either standing alone (“porn”) or repeated (“negroes”), works not only in terms of its meaning but as a major visual compositional element, echoing not only the paintings of Twombly dominated by a single word, but those of many contemporary artists.
“untitled (shopping list/diptych),” whose “content” consists of nothing but words, is Heyward’s finest but also least typical collage. It’s almost twice as large as the 11 by 12.75 inch size of the majority of the pieces here, and unlike them, it’s oriented horizontally. In contrast to the smaller collages, which are packed, at times overly packed, with images and words, “Shopping List” is composed of a single “found” object. That object Is the back of a postcard, which in very small black letters identifies the (missing, unseen) front as a still life by George Braque. Sprawled across the postcard horizontally, whose size dwarfs and whose crude writing contrasts with the postcard’s mechanically lettered identification of the Braque painting, is a shopping list (or a menu?) arranged in five vertically descending lines, with one item per line:
SODA ROOT BEER
Heyward has blown up the postcard twenty times into a number of different sizes, manipulated the background color (some of the postcards are white, others are pale yellow), and arranged the wholes of some of these and only fragments of others into a roughly shaped grid in which the yellow and white cards alternate and sometimes overlap. We see the original found image from multiple angles and perspectives, including upside down, in an excitingly original work that’s both primitive and immensely sophisticated, a down home version of synthetic cubism.
Heyward’s Coca Cola pieces speak of a vanished world, and his collages are also, as are all collages, nostalgic. That is, collages are, by definition, composed of pieces of the past, even if that past was only yesterday. Moreover, the best of Heyward’s small collages are the two in which he most explicitly engages both social and personal history, “untitled (polka dot jack johnson)” and “untitled (negroes).” (Carl Heyward is an African American.)
The first of these contains only a single representational image, a torn fragment of a faded photograph of Jack Johnson. This martyr of American sports and of miscegenation (how anachronistic that word seems today) is naked, muscled, bald, and beautiful, a white man’s nightmare vision of black male sexuality in the 1920s. The dominant culture of his time tried to marginalize Jack Johnson, and in a mocking but sad take on that culture Heyward here literally marginalizes him visually. The great boxer occupies less than a sixteenth of the entire collage and is cut off at its right margin: we see only the left half of his body from torso to head. In a much larger area, about half of the collage, large black polka dots stand against uneven layers of white, referencing not only the visual dynamics of op art and the ben gay dots of comic books and of Lichtenstein, but the remarks that Sammy Davis Jr., another martyr/hero of “miscegenation,” allegedly made in the 1950s about the absurdity of “labeling” the children of interracial couples. The left half of Heyward’s collage consists of intersecting patches of abstract expressionist-like brushstrokes that recall the agon of that movement and of its relationship to jazz and the blues. “The blues” is reiterated by midnight blue brushstrokes in this part of the piece, and by lighter, rather psychedelic turquoise marks slashed across Jack Johnson’s body. Formal tropes from mid-century American art brilliantly interact with an iconic photograph to create the historical, art historical, and sociological “meaning” of this collage.
The word “negroes,” repeated three times vertically on a torn sheet of dirty white paper that’s covered in the kind of cheap plastic that used to protect photographs in old family albums is one of two primary compositional elements in a piece that is simpler but just as emotionally resonant as the Jack Johnson one. These words on paper occupy about half of the collage’s pictorial space and collide with fragments of a late nineteenth or early twentieth century sepia-tinted photograph that could have been and probably was pasted in such an album. As in the Jack Johnson collage, Heyward uses a single representational image, but here fragments of that image appear three times, echoing the tripling of the word “negroes.” Cut off at the left margin is an unsmiling but open and serene face haloed by longish, curly hair, and two smaller fragments of this hair and of body parts (a neck, an ear) appear towards the center and bottom of the collage. The face is mesmerizing because of its beauty, but, also and more importantly, because of its ambiguity. This could be a man, a boy, a woman, a young girl. Because of the collage’s word(s) we initially assume that the person pictured is black, but closer visual examination makes us question this assumption: he or she might be Caucasian, Asian, Native American, or of mixed race. These ambiguities and the torn fragments of the work’s making speak to a tragic loss of identity throughout U.S. history, perhaps especially among “negroes.” Yet paradoxically Heyward’s haunting collage also captures an historic leap, the blurring and increasing disappearance of fixed social, sexual, and ethnic roles in contemporary America, the way we live and think and see now.
(after John Ashbery)
May #1. April #1. April #2. Joan Stennick.
untitled (shopping list). Carl Heyward.
Untitled. Cy Twombly.
Nature Morte. George Braque.
Morte. Andy Warhol. Joan Mitchell. Robert Rauschenberg.
Dead at the age of 83 in Rome. Cy Twombly.
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is the author of BODY BLOWS and AMERICAN NIGHT; his work has appeared in ARTFORUM and PARTISAN REVIEW; he is former art and architecture critic of the SF BAY GUARDIAN.
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spontaneous combustion: language/image lab