From the Abstract to the Human and Back: Leland Bell and Andrew Kuo

Some artists are ahead of their time, but some, so to speak, work in parallel. Like others of his generation, the New York painter Leland Bell, who died in 1991, took modernist abstraction as his starting point. But unlike his peers, who turned to new problems, Mr. Bell turned to the human figure for a new approach to the problems he came in with: composition and color as ends in themselves.

The large late paintings that form the bulk of a new show at Lori Bookstein are variations of two sacramentalized domestic scenes. In the first, a naked woman with arms extended stands beside her husband, still in bed, and their cat, who’s just brought in a dead robin. Behind the bed is a window framing a flat blue sky or a schematic blue cityscape. The couple, like their bed sheets, their pet and their curtains, are surrounded by thick black lines, except sometimes at their fingertips and toes, where color trails out like an aura. These outlines don’t make them look flat, but they do make them frozen, as if for a staged “candid” photo. The woman’s arms form graceful curves, and you can almost see marionette strings descending from her fingers to the cat. Mr. Bell may change his model’s hair color or the curtains, but mainly what he varies is the blocking–the exact position of her arms, how close she is to the bed–and the paintings, despite their static construction, are driven by rhythm. The figures form complex shapes that can’t quite be taken in at once, so that the eye has to travel, from hips to shoulders and shoulders to hands, with a final coda on the cat’s stare. The robin is only playing dead.

In the second scene, another couple–sometimes played by Mr. Bell and his wife–stand behind a long dining table, in front of another blue window, watching their daughter, in the foreground, reach toward the only unconvincing object in the picture, a flat yellow butterfly. (Sometimes it’s played by a bluebird.) This is a holy family for whom celestial ideals have been revealed as illusions. Only people are real, but they’re not really people–the transcendent must be discovered here and now. A series of studies and smaller paintings in the back, including some penetrating self-portraits and one Demuth-like landscape, show how much humanity, and human work, went into Mr. Bell’s portraits of the pagan ideal. This is the kind of art we might have had if the Hindenburg hadn’t crashed.

The answers to life’s questions,” says Andrew Kuo, “lie somewhere between my snooze button and the inside of my computer.” That is, he purports to say this–or rather, he does, but with what irony, artifice or critique is hard to say. “My List of Demands,” at Taxter & Spengemann, includes a number of paintings that might or might not be comments on painting, but the main event–because a concept will always push to the front and demand to be considered first–must be his diagrams. Painted in acrylic with an alluring eye for color and design, these are Albers-like squares, as well as bar graphs and slightly more complex geometrical figures, mounted above explanatory keys.

Mr. Kuo’s first demand, from the eponymous diagram, is that “Blinking twice could make Jim Henson be here now, hard at work making ‘The Muppets Take the L.E.S.’ and texting … for help finishing a pitcher.” As the demands proceed through erasing memories of racist jokes and romantic failures, bringing goldfish back from the dead and reliving a first-ever taste of cheesecake with cherries, the yellow bar labeled “Happy” gets closer to the top. Perfect happiness is achieved next to a brief fuchsia bar labeled, “Every waking hour left could feel like sitting with people you liked in a place that wasn’t too crowded at a table full of food and no plans forever.”

My vision of perfect happiness is probably not much different–at least, if I don’t give it too much thought. But instead of enjoying a warm glow of affirmation in front of these confessional diagrams, I found myself fixating on their mistakes. The lettering is applied with a carbon transfer, which can leave what look like extraneous pencil lines. Serious mistakes in lettering are covered with correction tape; spelling errors are left alone. Are these errors evidence of carelessness, or is there an intended contrast? Is the joke that I, too, wish I could find a bar that wasn’t too crowded, or is it that I can see how much such a vision of heaven leaves to be desired? Is a portrait of guileless self-confession allowed to be guileless itself? And do I know the answer, or is this rhetorical?


From the Abstract to the Human and Back: Leland Bell and Andrew Kuo