Museum as Muse: Leigh Behnke, Joe Fig, Peter Hristoff
SVA Flatiron Gallery Project Space, 133 W. 21st St. (hours: M-Sun, 9-6), through March 8, 2020.
The School of Visual Arts has expanded apace with other art schools with Manhattan-based campuses over the past few decades (if without the new grandiose buildings of, prominently, Cooper Union and Parsons). Once concentrated around its flagship on East 23rd, additions across town include a movie theater, more classroom-studios, and some exhibition venues, like this modest, street-level gallery on the north side of 21st, currently featuring a quietly engaging show of three SVA faculty curated by Leigh Behnke vis-a-vis recent explorations in her own work and noted overlaps with colleagues Joe Fig and Peter Hristoff.
Through the post-war era, the museum theme has been associated mainly with large-scale rapprochements, irreverence and even ressentiment when it comes to the canonical Western masterpiece-museum complex—from Marcel Broodthaer’s faux Musee d’Art Moderne (late 1960s) to The Whitney’s landmark “Art about Art” exhibition (1978) to Thomas Struth’s gigantic photographic museum tableaux and Fred Wilson’s institutional interventions (1980s-1990s) to MoMA’s major survey exhibition of the same title (1999), for starters. Here it’s much more intimate. Fig’s small-scale naturalistic meta-paintings—viewers viewing art by widely known artists in traditional art-viewing setting—appear most literal. For example, an earnest rendition of Hilma af Klint’s abstract paintings as recently displayed in the Guggenheim’s High Gallery, viewed from a ramp; which also calls up Normal Rockwell’s painting of a Jackson Pollock in his well-known painting, The Connoisseur (1961). Fig’s figures have a rounded solidity that aligns with several mid-century American realists as well as his background in sculpture.
Behnke has long been perfecting her mimetic, glaze-layered oil painting technique, most often trained on interior and landscape subjects. Typically unpopulated, fragmented, segmented and reorganized, her results can take on a surrealist veneer. In each of three paintings here the shuffling of observed elements are blended into a kind of dissonant unity. A tour de force, the largest work in the show at about 40 x 30 inches, has a ghostly allegorical “fury” tumbling into a dark gallery, possibly appropriated from the cropped Baroque-ish paintings represented that book end the composition. Together with a raging fire beyond a central window, the stabilizing, arrangement of pristine, nearly tactile velvet settees seems somehow vulnerable. As one pauses and parses, Magritte motifs may come to mind, and (for me, after a chat with the artist when I visited) also the topsy-turvy terrors of climate change.
Hristoff’s works on paper—collaged, inked, printed—allude to hallowed classical sculpture through abbreviated contours and silhouettes, further obscured through palimpsest-like pastel hues and fluid, floating patterns. They suggest dreams or memories, while Fig conveys an empirical present, and Behnke portends a nostalgic, distopian future. As represented here, the artists share not only content but respective understated, refined sensibilities.