Summertime, Still
Peter Flaccus at Zabriskie; “Back to Paint” at C&M Arts; photogoraphic stuffs at Julie Saul

IN A BRAND CONSCIOUS CLIMATE, most artists cultivate a signature style. Not Peter Flaccus, an abstract painter now living and working in Rome. Ignoring trademarks, he has followed his own love of materials and techniques in a quest for ever-higher levels of refinement. On view at Zabriskie Gallery are his most recent, most luminous paintings.

Peter Flaccus: Creek and Stupa

Mr. Flaccus abandoned oils for encaustic (painting with pigmented beeswax) when he left New York in the early 90s. He has since put aside his brushes as well, relying on the controlled accidents of molten wax poured onto a gessoed support to create images that shimmer with myriad tiny, unpredictable variations.

On each panel, an incandescent nucleus of white light radiates outward like a stain, shifting colors as it glides to a brooding repose. As one transparent color melts into another, we seem to watch some single-celled organism caught between pulses. Observe the edges, made irregular by minuscule internal cavities and enlivened by the frozen motion of cilia fringing the outer rings of each color area.

Encaustic is an archaic medium that has experienced a revival since Jasper Johns put it on the map—literally—in the 50s. Requiring applied heat, it is cumbersome to manipulate. Artists negotiate a Rube Goldbergian tangle of irons, heating pads, crock pots, hot plates, electric frying pans, heat guns and thermostats. The apparent ease and serenity of Mr. Flaccus’ work is a splendid achievement.

The properties of wax lend a richness and depth to saturated colors that cannot be duplicated in other media. Mr. Flaccus’ new palette of pure colors—joyous magentas and vermilions, full-throated greens and cobalts—are dense and satisfying. Still, the high key can overwhelm, at times, the mysterious organic quality of his haloed concentric forms. Those that emerge from black or neutral grounds are, to me, the most moving: “Stupa” (2004), “Willow” (2004) or “The Big White One” (2003).

Italian critic Brunella Antomarini calls Mr. Flaccus “un delicato Vulcan.” A gentle Vulcan, god of fire and patron of workmen. That sounds exactly right.


“BACK TO PAINT” IS AN IRRESISTIBLE TITLE. Back from where? I headed to C&M Arts to find out, encouraged by its assertion that interest in painting has reemerged—the new black!—among young artists.

Turns out, It is partly true. For most of the eight artists here, paint is a niche-medium within the sprawling framework of conceptual art. More accurately, within the prison of issues and “ideas” that shackles artists to motives beyond the means of art.

Marc Handelman “investigates the intersection of beauty and violence in our post-9/11 age”. Without the heads up, I might have thought he was only having fun pushing paint around. In “Jubilee” (2004) he decorates an evergreen with morsels of sugary pink and green paint, like a pastry chef squeezing butter cream over petits fours. His “Florida Blues” (2003) rewinds to the action painting era with Abstract Expressionist swashbuckling.

Julie Mehretu is in the too-cool-for-school tradition. Her work occupies “the frontier of formal abstraction, topographical and sociological examination” that kindles the curatorial mind. This means she can start and stop where she likes; begin a drawing or drop it; here a doodle, there a doodle. Criss-crossed with colored lines ruled with masking tape, her diptych resembles a Metro map minus its logic.

Jeffrey Saldinger, Self-Portrait

German painter Thomas Scheibitz’ architecture-that-never-was packs an off-beat, pictorial punch. Companion to Peter Saul’s invented Beverly Hills, his funhouse is confident and enjoyable. But it is hardly ”a splintered reality” in the speculative Teutonic mode ascribed to it. Neither is there any sex, sorry to report, in Charline von Heyl’s “Fear, Fünf, Sex.” A phonetic play on the German words for numbers 4, 5 and 6, it is a stirring tag for prosaic abstraction in five or six bright colors.

Hurvin Anderson runs a grid over benign architectural references painted, drippily, in the colors of the Union Jack, inviting us to discover “oblique social subject matter.” Christoph Steinmeyer detests “heterotopian” preferences and genetic engineering. By By the look of things, he dislikes paint too.

Jeffrey Saldinger displays the most persuasive engagement with his craft. A succession of three self portraits moves from frank realism, through a darkling filter of violet-gray, to expressionist disintegration. His analytic progression from likeness to its dissolution is accomplished with great delicacy, fluid drawing, subtle color variations and tonal control.


WHO REMEMBERS WHEN seeing was believing? Any tactical advantage photography may have had as a medium has long been subsumed into advertising. Faith in photographic realism has been capsized by digital wizardry. Contemporary photographers, jockeying for credibility, assert themselves by playing the jester. “Drop Out,” Julie Saul Gallery’s group exhibition of photography and video, emphasizes sight gags and post-photography cleverness over nuts-and-bolts picture-making.

Only Oscar Palacio is attentive to the world as he finds it. The most visually complex work—the shadow play of John O’Reilly’s polaroid montages in black and white—rely on the least contempory means. (Photomontage dates to early photomechanical reproduction in the 20s.) Chris Sauter uses a textile technique known as reverse appliqué for a handsome, anomalous collage.

The rest—Charles Cohen’s digital erasures; Mr. Sauter’s phototographic cutouts; Oliver Waslow’s loopy video and prints; Mel Kendrick’s polaroid spin-offs of his own sculpture—are divertisements from Rent-a-Concept.


“Peter Flaccus: Recent Paintings” at Zabriskie Gallery (41 East 57th Street, 212.752.1223).

“Back to Paint” at C&M Arts until September 11 (45 East 78 Street, 212.861.0020).

“Drop Out” at Julie Saul Gallery (525 West 22 Street, 212.627.2410).

This review was first published in The New York Sun August 5, 2004

Copyright 2004 Maureen Mullarkey

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