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Posts by Arthur Whitman

Artists I Like: Nava Lubelski

My taste in art—especially painting and drawing, but also other mediums—tends towards the strange, the mutant, the science fictionesque. This isn’t because I hate nature, but rather because I feel that art should offer something else, a surrogate (as Jackson Pollock once famously said to Hans Hoffman, “I am nature”). This kind of stuff probably isn’t to everybody’s taste, but what the hell.

I’ve been interested in Nava Lubelski’s paintings for something like three years. They seemed a bit lightweight when I first discovered them at Boston’s OHT Gallery. They’ve grown on me since then and I think the pieces themselves have gotten less uneven. Her method is unusual. She stains and splatters her canvases with thin washes of ink and acrylic paint in different colors. She then hand-stitches thread (again in various colors), tracing the outlines of the stains and creating new patterns as well. Some her recent canvases even have holes in them; A Lie About Birds and Bees is an impressive example. The results are reminiscent of abstract expressionism, as well as the post ab-ex tradition of color field painting. They also evoke birds-eye views of landscape or snorkeling—favorite themes of mine. At their best, the canvases are fascinating, intricate things.

In her artist’s statement, Lubelski describes her process in terms foreign to those of the stereotypically masculine world of abstract expressionism. She describes her staining as “spoiling” and her stitching as “mending”. The pieces are meant to suggest a duality of accident or wildness versus care and precision. I’m not a woman, but I do find this approach congenial.

Lubelski is also the author of a book: The Starving Artist’s Way. I haven’t read it, but it appears to be a sort of bohemian do-it-yourself guide. Her website also features several drawings and mixed-media sculptures (my favorite).


Spring Pavillion, 2004, Acrylic, ink, pastel, graphite, on silk-applied paper

My review of the two-woman show “Transformations”, more or less as it appears in this week’s Ithaca Times.

Local abstract artist Syau-Cheng Lai is having a good year. For a week back in early February, her mixed-media on paper installation Visualizing for Bunita Marcus spanned the walls of Cornell’s Olive Tjaden gallery. Executed on four long sheets with a bewildering array of drawing and painting media, it was pinned directly to the wall. It effectively interwove moments of sparseness with those of almost dizzying density. It was a definite highlight for local art. Lai is also a noted pianist. Accompanying the installation was her performance of modernist composer Morton Feldman’s solo piano piece For Bunita Marcus.

Currently on view at the Upstairs Gallery is a selection of smaller, framed work by Lai. Its an impressive body of work, although nothing quite matches up to her Tjaden installation. In particular, I miss the interplay between its epic length and the close-up intimacy of her mark-making. Nevertheless, their combination of exoticism, playfullness, and rigor is exemplary. Characteristically, most feature a dense layering of eclectic textures—drawn, painted and even carved. A few are more minimal. She is joined by out of town ceramicist Ann Johnston Miller. Although not as diverse or quite as compelling, Miller’s work betrays a compatible fascination with her materials.

Evocative of Visualizing—albeit on a much more compact scale—are a series of thin, scroll-like pieces. Due in part perhaps to this compactness, their quality is somewhat uneven. Hung either in an upright, vertical manner or horizontally, they are matted so as to expose the rough edges of the paper sheets. Like the Tjaden piece, looking at these pieces can be akin to reading or listening to music, with a definite if not overpowering feeling of linear sequence.

An upright Shattering Sky features a mottled background of gold and dark brown. Hanging from the upper-right corner are wavy strands suggesting knotted rope or hair. These have been forcefully carved into the paper, revealing white below. In the lower right corner sits a jumble of hard-edged shapes reminiscent of the Louise Nevelson’s wood-scrap assemblages – although not for its wide range of hues. Standing beside Sky is Before Sunset. Divided into an intricate arrangement of wavery Klee-like horizontal and vertical bands, the predominantly red, yellow and blue piece has a textile-like quality. Pieces like Upload, Ski Jump and Watermill combine paper-white backgrounds with tighter, more rigidly geometric lines and shapes. These seem overly fussy, as if the artist was trying to make too much happen.

Lai’s smaller, more conventionally proportioned pieces have a more immediate impact. They compensate for their lack of breadth with their intensive layering. Her backgrounds are predominantly white, black, gray, red, pink, or gold over-painted with dark brown (the latter are scratched into revealing the color beneath). She often uses vertical and/or horizontal bands—hard edged or soft, thick or thin, visibly layered or opaque—to break up her compositions. Recurring motifs include illegible cursive script (running up and down in columns), Cy Twombly-like scribbles and erasures, dots and dashes, and suggestions of landscape elements such as horizon lines, waves, boats and crescent moons.

Deep Spring is particularly successful. Its horizontal bands of white, greenish yellow, warm brown and red have been extensively worked over with drawn and carved scrawls and loops, small impasto dashes and a blue arrow pointing offstage to the left.

Most of Johnston Miller’s pieces combine ceramic vessels with attached nest-like enclosures of grapevine (or in the case of Goddess Eye 3, copper wire). In Transformation, a smooth shiny orb glazed light green is placed inside the opening of a larger matte black blob. The small sphere is insulated with cattail seeds. Drawing – In and Open – Out are simpler: They are light green spheres in their vine enclosures. The long ceramic piece in Natural Dilemma resembles a rounded loaf of bread, right down to its toasted-looking brown color and rough texture.

Also by Miller are two parent and child pieces: the wide, plateau-like Cantilevered Form and the smaller squarish Cantilevered Bud Vase. Similar to Dilemma in color and texture, each has a outline echoing hole in the center. Bud Vase is so named for the smooth light green vessel nested smugly inside.

Other Lai pieces in the show include: Red Matrix, White Matrix, and Nuur Resides.

Big Red C

A controversial sculpture by “book artist” and Cornell University Art Department head Buzz Spector. The C-shaped structure is made up of over 800 books, all of them authored by Cornell faculty, students or alumni. The piece was originally installed in downtown Manhattan (pictured above); recently, it was reconstructed here in Ithaca, New York. More information, pictures, and an installation video can be found here.

Any thoughts?


The Ink Shop is one of Ithaca’s best and most consistent art exhibition venues. The level of work shown is generally high. Shows of prints by members or invited artists – as well as the occasional traveling exhibition – are almost always put together with evident thought and care. The latest show, curated the inimitable Christa Wolf (a member) is no exception. Entitled “Her Mark: Works on Paper by Women Artists,” it attempts to invoke the spirit of the female artists’ collectives of the seventies. In a welcome move, the selection of works goes beyond traditional printmaking to incorporate painting, drawing and collage.


Artists I Like: Gerry Bergstein

Do You Come Here Often?, 2004-2006, oil on canvas
What Should I Paint?, 2004-2006, oil on canvas
What Should I Paint? (detail)

Gerry Bergstein—as some of you may already know—is one of my favorite living artists. I wrote an excitable (if not altogether approving) review of his recent show This Is Your Brain on Art at Boston’s Gallery NAGA. I’ve learned a lot of things from him, although not so much from taking his painting class at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (also in Boston). Rather, I’ve learned by absorbing his thoughtful and intoxicating images over the last eight or so years.

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Artists I Like: Syau-Cheng Lai

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Artists I Like: Josh Dorman

I first came upon Dorman’s work in a show at New York’s CUE Foundation and was thrilled. More work and information here.