When it comes to group shows, Modern Arts Midtown often gives them unifying, defining names. Witness last month’s “Nuance” or the thought-provoking “Structure in Landscape” from June of last year.
In the case of the gallery’s current show, however, MAM chose to name it after its marquee artist, Jamie Burmeister, without even an “et al.” to denote the other three artists in this absorbing and highly entertaining show, Brian Gennardo, Theresa Pfarr and Roberto Kusterle.
The main reason this issue of naming comes to mind is because there is a subterranean interaction linking these works together, notwithstanding the drastic differences in style among them.
Let’s start with Burmeister, whose work fills the gallery’s two front rooms. These works vary from the comic to the existential, or some quirky amalgam of the two. For starters, see the three, mostly wooden constructions lined up on the wall that one first notices upon entering the gallery. The wood seems worn and the paint colors muted, as if we’re being treated to someone’s collection of nineteenth-century toys.
Burmeister calls these pieces “automata multimedia.” Far from being autonomous, however, they ask the viewer to step in by turning a crank that sets the piece in motion.
My favorite of these is “The Entomologist,” the crank for which pushes a flyswatter and a fly in opposite directions, guaranteeing that the sad scientist swinging the flyswatter will never succeed at smashing his prey.
Facing the three automata and entirely different in tone is the seven-part Figure series, which transmutes Burmeister’s familiar “Vermin” figures, on a larger scale, into lonely individuals caught in spare geometric spaces defined by three or four pieces of wood.
These are not members of one of Burmeister’s “Vermin” crowds, but rather isolated nowhere men immobilized by walls and by ledges off of which they don’t dare jump.
There are some ghostly figures in Gennardo’s work as well. He first came to my attention when his work was featured in another MAM group show (incidentally, also headlined by Jamie Burmeister) in August 2014. Even when forced to clamor for attention in a show featuring eight other artists, Gennardo’s works stood out for their captivating gestures and form-busting emotion.
The ten paintings of Gennardo’s in this show suggest a deeper interest in working within the boundaries of a canvas while not losing his roots as a street artist. This is not to say that his work has calmed down; quite the contrary, it suggests a constant exploration of what painting can enact and convey. As MAM’s director, artist Larry Roots put it to me, “Brian is a painter through and through. He paints because he has to.”
There is a newfound simplicity in works like “Final Painting,” which positions a Basquiat-style stick figure against a background that is Rothko-esque with its two rectangles of paint, one yellow edged with orange and other blue edged with grey.
At the other end of the spectrum is “No. 1230 Line Works No. 10,” an explosion of line and color suggesting a city at the moment of the big bang or some cartoonish version thereof. Gennardo’s work constantly rewards the eye and also exudes an energy that jumps off the wall.
The fourth room in this show is shared by the contrasting works of Theresa Pfarr and Roberto Kusterle. In her artist statement, Pfarr notes her interest in “the meanderings of the female image.”
The women in these images are anything but meandering, however. Instead, they seem weighed down by what life has done to them. They stare intently at us, without hope that we could ever understand what they have to say.
Pfarr’s skill with paint is evident in various ways. It’s in the luxuriously long strokes of pink, salmon, and kindred shades that she uses to define the figure’s elongated limbs in the paintings “Tula” and “Chimera.”
It’s also in the saturated intensity of the backgrounds in paintings like “Untitled,” in which the expressionless young girl stands out against a field of dark brown with a hint of red, and “Tula,” in which the emaciated, halter-topped woman is surrounded by squares of watermelon and fuschia.
These two forms of painterly virtuosity come together in “Sugar Lips,” the most haunting of Pfarr’s paintings in this show and the only one of the seven in which the face of the figure is not visible because it has been obliterated by a mini-explosion of paint.
The figures in Italian photographer Roberto Kusterle’s work are somber rather than explosive. All are portraits in which the subject has his or her eyes closed.
Rather than catch their subjects in moments of introspection or communication, these photos iron out the distinction between background and foreground, between body and its adornments, and between the human and the non-human.
All of his subjects share the pictorial space with some other element, whether it’s a hawk that sits vigilantly on the shoulder of one or the collection of rocks arrayed around the neck of another.
The skin of these figures has been variously bleached, darkened, and marked with patterns. It makes them seem more like faded drawings on the wall of some Amazonian temple than like people we would meet on the streets of Omaha or Gorizia, the storied city in northeastern Italy where Kusterle lives.
What links the works in this show together is their abiding interest in humanity, whether it be in the 175 “Vermin” together populating the human body in Burmeister’s “Self-Portrait” or the dark figure standing amidst broad swaths of primary colors in Gennardo’s “Justice.’
All are interested in the ways that art can help us ponder perennial questions about who we are and how we relate to the confusing and beautiful world around us.
This show is on view at Modern Arts Midtown, 3615 Dodge Street, until March 31, 2017. For details and hours, go to modernartsmidtown.com.