The ambitious but uneven group show INTO THE WOODS starts with a quote from the Brothers Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel:
“Early tomorrow morning we will take the children out into the forest to where it is the thickest. There we will light a fire for them, and give each of them one more piece of bread, and then we will go to our work and leave them alone. They will not find the way home again, and we shall be rid of them.”
This quote could be read at least two ways: one that casts the artists as the children, of whom the gallerists would gladly be rid so they can get on with their work and be left alone, and another in which the patrons are the children, coerced by the gallerists into a magical forest crafted by elfin artists, unable to find their way back home. In all art, there’s this tension between the gallerists, the artists and the patrons as they struggle to find a safe place together without one wanting to be rid of the others.
INTO THE WOODS features works by nine contemporary artists: Marco Del Re, Luc Doerflinger, Joanne Easton, Cécile Granier de Cassagnac, Velia de Iuliis, Laine Justice, Brett McCormack, Kal Spelletich and Justin Teisl – some of whom should have been excluded, which underlined the uneven nature of the show. The best works, straight from the pages of the Brothers Grimm, draw inspiration from the same fairytales and folk legends that inspired the Sondheim musical by the same title, in which there is great tension around who is good and who is doing the right thing. That same tension fills the gallery, where, as the press release states: “The international artists in this group exhibition explore dreamlike and expressive themes creating haunting landscapes, strange environments, mysterious people and creatures that are at once magical, ominous and compelling.”
Actually, that great quote is really only about the show’s best work, created by Marco Del Re and Cecile Granier de Cassagnac. The other artists do this to a much lesser degree, ending up in witch’s sausage grinder instead of being haunting, mysterious, or magical in any way. In a different group show with a different concept, I know that these artists would all be highlights in their own right, but not here. This is most obvious for Joanne Easton’s and Brett McCormack’s great work, shoved into their respective back corners. Their work would fit nicely in a show about earth art or paper crafts, but here they are overshadowed in both concept and location by the two foreign illustrative magicians.
New York based artist Brett McCormack’s intricate black and white paper sculptures of, supposedly, the predatory systems of the forest are clearly out of place. Velia de Iuliis’ hyperrealistic paintings depict insects and snakes. While stumbling technically, especially when there is so much amazing scientific illustration crossing over into the arts, her pieces are nonetheless very intriguing.
It really is the French artist Cécile Granier de Cassagnac’s – whose work decorates a vast expanse of gallery wall as well as the cover of the show card – Forêt, in watercolor on 90 by 118-inch paper, that is the star of the show. According to the press release, de Cassagnac’s “haunting representations of animalistic forms in gouache and watercolor revisit childhood nightmares, suggesting a forest filled with characters from Brothers Grimm tales.” I couldn’t agree more, which means that I agree as much as I can possibly agree.
Many artists try to recreate these creatures from childhood nightmares – so many that a whole art genre could be created just to accommodate them – but de Cassagnac’s watercolors are remarkable in that they don’t lose their artistic compulsions. They are still great works of art, works that come from deep within the proverbial forest, revealing something about what great artists do when they try to explain something about themselves and how they see the world, how they see themselves. They are truly magical pieces.
The other standout is Marco Del Re, whose wonderful primitive mixed-media paintings recall much of the greatest work of the early 20th century – especially Matisse, and perhaps Klee. Del Re masterfully mixes both his techniques and his mythology, mashing together Greek and Biblical tales into his linocuts, each of which is later individually painted by hand. The resulting pieces are museum postcard-ready – both iconic and mysterious, nymphic and satyric. There is something nostalgic, in our modern digital age, about those types of images that require the viewer to look at them on a wall, in person. It’s refreshing to see Del Re create such images with an unabashed love for that very primitive interaction just between a viewer and some marks on the wall.
Laine Justice’s far-flung paper works were both obsessively compelling and disappointing at the same time, resulting in a big hot mess, which many young artists seem to aspire towards. His “magical composite creatures,” half cute illustration and half messy impressionism, are painted on paper scrolls to create a chaotic, feverish dream that ignores any and all of the woods. Justice’s work could be the focal point of a different group show, but here it’s a poorly considered inclusion.
Joanne Easton is in the wrong show too. Technically, her work does deal with forests – or twigs and branches, more accurately. She heads out on winter days, wraps dark branches in brightly colored tape, and photographs them. It’s Land Art 101, a decent introductory class project at a small liberal arts college upstate, a worthy participant in a local land art show, but it certainly doesn’t succeed at “exploring the boundaries between the quotidian and the mystical in reference to the longevity (or lack thereof) of art itself,” as the show’s announcement, clearly reaching to find a way to justify her inclusion, describes. Still, wrapping and photography is interesting. Just not here.
Justin Teisl’s epoxy and acrylic paintings felt borderline kitsch, something that could be mass produced as art, each a variation on the next but all ultimately made in China by a guy who just shuffles illustrations into his glue machine, and while the technique is interesting, the art isn’t. Also scattered throughout the space are the one-trick-pony tree machines of Kal Spelletich. His whirring structures are fun to look at and fun to think about in the moment, but then they vanish from one’s thoughts the minute they are out of sight.
Lastly, there’s Luc Doerflinger’s work. It’s clearly great work, and it fits perfectly into the theme of the show, and the whole front wall of the gallery is his, but I honestly didn’t like it. I didn’t like the framing, I didn’t like the mass-hanging, I didn’t like the light bouncing on the glass covering the images, and I didn’t like the paper work’s uneven quality. I didn’t even like the low humming dread of his pieces, especially with all the bad choices of paper, framing choice, and glass that were made. I’m not even sure that watercolor is Doerflinger’s best medium to begin with. I think some excellent dry brush technique on canvas would have been much more successful. I also think he should refrain from cutting his images while framing, and then piling them all together on the wall to make them seem more important. Mr. Doerflinger just needs to do the one image right, from start to finish, each choice without compromise, his amazingly low-energy brush strokes leading the way.
All in all, INTO THE WOODS is a great show. It really is. But it’s not perfect. It has some well-deserved highs, and some misplaced lows, but it brims with ambition, and Jules Maeght Gallery has reached far and wide to find the most interesting artists it could, and since I’m probably wrong about what exactly the highs are and what exactly the lows are (though I think people will unanimously agree that it’s uneven), I think it’s a must-see show for people to go and argue about, and in the end that’s one of the great things about great shows: they have the energy to rile people up, as this show certainly does.
Jules Maeght Gallery, 149 Gough Street @ Oak, San Francisco, julesmaeghtgallery.com
October 15, 2015 – January 30, 2016
Written by POVarts West Coast Editor Chuck Frank