Hermen Goode Gallery, Brooklyn, NY
Exhibition Catalog Essay
by Roger Dell

For a contemporary group show, Tontine is unusual in several ways. When creating an exhibition, curators or gallery directors typically think up an idea and bring together the work of certain artists that seem to support the idea. Or they start with the work of several artists in mind and look for some connecting thread which they can highlight in the exhibition. In either case, shoehorning often occurs. Visitors to the shows–sometimes even the artists themselves–wonder why certain works are shoulder to shoulder. Read the wall label. The curator knows.

Tontine is the brain child of the four participating artists: Todd Bartel, Bo Joseph, Michael Oatman, and James Scott. They curated and installed the show. All graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design, these artists have come to realize that their processes, their aesthetics, and their belief in the unfolding of an artwork over time are firmly planted in common ground. They were all students of Alfred DeCredico, the well-known artist and tough but generous professor of art at RISD. In a way Tontine is a pictorial festschrift for DeCredico. And since this show is taking place while the mentor continues as a prolific artist and an inspiring educator, the dialogue between these five men will no doubt grow and branch off in unforeseen directions.

Bo Joseph is an eclectic borrower. This term was used by Michael Baxandall to describe famous artists of the past who appropriated forms from the works of earlier artists. In this context the term means that Joseph feels free to use any form–whether from art history, nature, artifacts from other cultures (African or Northwest Coast Native American), books, etc.–that speaks to a particular brief he has undertaken. "Nothing is off limits." This does not imply that he takes lightly the responsibility of using highly charged images not of his own making. Much of his art speaks to the struggle of using borrowed imagery in a way that condenses its message without losing it. He uses archetypes to create new ones. His “Inferno” series was inspired by a suite by Robert Rauschenburg on the same subject, line drawings by Sandro Botticcelli, and, of course, Dante Alighieri. Not literally illustrative of specific cantos, Joseph’s “Inferno” writhes with pulsating shapes which go in and out of legibility as they dance across the surface. And the surface itself is a complex skein of form, line, and limitless space.

Like the other Tontine artists, Joseph is a pack rat. (This clearly is a trait that parallels the appropriating tendency discussed above.) For ten years he has been saving jetsam and flotsam and recycling in his work partially used and undervalued material. In “Solve et Coagula,” Joseph has disassembled an antique book that was a catalogue of sorts for all kinds of instruments and inventions. A book about progress. The illustrations on each page are in black ink over which the artist has added biomorphic and linear designs in a variety of muted colors. Here and there are stenciled shapes from Joseph’s collection of scraps from other projects and silhouettes of African masks and religious paraphernalia. There is a tension between the machines of progress and the free-floating archetypes, freighted as they are with spirit. Yet, the bleeding of the organic and spiritual forms into the man-made things makes each page an exquisite statement about our bifurcated human nature.

In a large DeCredico canvas, the viewer finds himself afloat in a pulsating space through which organic and hard-edge objects jostle for position. The journey is perilous, but the viewer feels that there is a sensuous or spiritual reward–or both–at the end. Inspired by his teacher’s forays, James Scott presents himself, and the viewer, with spatial conundrums that bring a different structure to DeCredico’s non-Cartesian/Newtonian world. Trained as an architect at RISD, Scott has set himself the task of introducing the evolution of complex geometrical shapes into his work without overanalysis. He lets his subconscious lead the way. He will splay out a cube and watch where it goes. It will crawl through a miasmic cloud or numinous mist. In “Development of a Cube,” the artist depicts a hypercube in four dimensions. His architectural training serves him well as he negotiates implausible twists and turns, taking us on a dreamlike flip chart adventure.

In his “Polygons” series, Scott has upped the ante on the hypercube. It is as if there has been a computer meltdown; polygons that should be strictly linear and clearly demarcated on the diode-lighted screen have oozed out onto a leaf of watercolor paper. These dodecahedrons spin and combine with one another in a Chinese-brush-painted cosmos. What was an aching void a moment ago is now a lightning storm, with angular disks that appear to be propagating crystal-like before one’s eyes. As with the other Tontine artists, Scott is careful to put down his brush or pencil before a preciousness creeps into his work. The world that he dreams is always an as-if and never an as-is. Hauled up from the subconscious, his forms are in the throes of becoming something else, and we–by our very observation–help determine what that something else will be.

Throughout his art career, Todd Bartel has been on a spiritual quest. Whether in subject matter, imagery or materials he has sought to portray and/or represent metamorphosis and transcendence. Like the others in this show Bartel is a collage artist. The building up of surfaces comes naturally to one who scavenges through the cast-offs of contemporary life. Sometimes he strikes gold. Indeed, this alchemical bent is shared by his cohorts. Bartel brings different materials together and mixes thoroughly: glass, clay, velvet, steel spikes, mustard seeds, grape vines, tempera and oil paint. In his box series “Terra Reverentia,” the artist unites such disparate things while creating paeans to the land. Although reading strongly as abstract sculptures, these "landviews" have glimpses of recognizable nature here and there in the form of collaged photos, illustrated playing cards, or miniature paintings by Bartel based on medieval panel paintings.

A related series, “Trilogy of Unknown Martyrs,” employs stressed sheets of lead with silhouette cutouts of birds or humans. In each box, below the large lead sheet, Bartel has placed rows of small compartments containing mysteriously significant items: human teeth, toy wooden blocks, ball bearings, dirt. The series of compartments thus acts both as a predella, as in a traditional altarpiece, and as a group of reliquaries for sacred mementos. The result is a moving modern icon.

When Bartel condenses the drama of his boxes into the two-dimensional plane, his small paintings fairly ripple with psychic energy. In the series “Garden Study,” he has used pages of an old edition of Ovid’s "Metamorphosis" as his ground. Overlaying the print with tiny images of trees, rocky outcroppings, rivers, and man-made objects, Bartel creates a teeming world that is supported by a superstructure of the artist’s serpentine calligraphic brushwork. The process of morphogenesis–the coming into being of form–and destruction are made manifest by the abundance of collaged pieces, erasures, paint-overs, and scrapings.

On a visit to Chicago in 1989, Bartel saw the Bergman Collection of Joseph Cornell boxes at the Art Institute and was profoundly moved: his early box sculptures were a homage to the taciturn master. When it comes to influences, Bartel is clear and eloquent. Moreover, he is generous in his appraisal of the larger philosophical tenets DeCredico introduced him and other RISD students to during their Providence days. One of them is to trust the material; in a sense, to have the patience to see where it will take you. And another is to take risks. When you think you have pushed enough…push some more.

In a 1998 collage series (“The Immortals”), Michael Oatman used carbon toner in conjunction with acrylic paint, ink, pencil, paper, foil and old chromolithographs. The carbon toner, glinting like the side of a battleship, united the disparate elements in a strange alchemical brew, making for a slicker surface than previously employed by this artist. Indeed, Oatman’s earlier works had many of the same characteristics as the other Tontine artists: densely layered, matted surfaces, stressed materials found in backyards and junk stores, and muted earthen colors. All resulting in palimpsests, complete with pentimenti or ghosts.

Often times, no matter how high he builds the painted surface, Oatman finds he needs additional surfaces and dimensions. He has appropriated the very walls of the galleries in which his paintings have hung in order to extend his surfaces and reach out to the viewer. In “Cenotaph: Requiem for Yugoslavia” (1994), his large disturbing images of war appeared to be slipping out of their frames due to grief. The artist cut off the bottom of the frame on each painting and drew with charcoal on the wall a box resonant with dreadful atmosphere. The ash he piled on the floor punctuated this shattering image of man’s folly.

Over the last decade, Oatman’s unbounded curiosity and desire to present complex narratives have led him to incorporate elements that are more often associated with performance art. It is not unusual to find artist-made videos, original music, professional actors, and a large web of other artists, friends and family present in Oatman’s tableaus. It is as if the confines of the traditional art object or even series of art objects must be exploded. His site-specific installations engulf the viewer in the sights, sounds, and textures of the real world, filtered through Oatman’s screen of personal memories, exhaustive research and obsessive collecting.

In his “Menagerie” (1993-4), he filled an entire room with stuffed animals, images of deer bounding out of their picture frames, sock monkeys, and videos containing scenes of caged animals and photographs of horses by Eadweard Muybridge. A devastating critique of the way Western man has acted toward "the others" on the planet, the caged and catalogued animals standing in for the people ensnared by colonialism. In “Awful Disclosures: The Life and Confessions of Andress Hall” (1995), Oatman reconstructed the jail cell in which a serial killer confessed to a publicity-seeking Baptist reverend–who immediately sold the material for considerable gain. The floor of the cell, which was located in a boiler room in a gallery in Albany, New York, was tilted and covered with sod. The viewer was disoriented and literally thrown off balance. Under a wooden stairway, Oatman hung an eerie neon noose–Hall’s ultimate punishment.

One of Oatman’s most ambitious installations was “Long Shadows: Henry Perkins and the Eugenics Survey of Vermont” (1995, will be re-staged in May 2000 at MassMOCA, The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art). In the manner of "museumists" who deconstruct museums’ histories as well as their holdings, Oatman recreated the first director’s office in the Robert Hull Fleming Museum, University of Vermont. Instead of a drab academic cell, the artist has furnished the room in grand–but bizarre–Victorian style, for it was more a portrait of Henry Perkins' state of mind than an actual space. Perkins, an eminent professor of zoology, was not only the director of the Fleming but also the founder of the Eugenics Survey of Vermont. Due in large measure to his research, some 300-1,500 people were sterilized in Vermont, mostly women. Oatman brought together Perkins' actual charts and records, museum paintings, bric-a-brac, and specially commissioned music and videos to help the viewer understand at the gut level this odious chapter in American history.

Oatman may be the most didactic of the Tontine artists, but they all have important messages that they are dead serious about, and they all have evolved styles that eloquently deliver the word. Although Tontine is not meant strictly as a tribute to DeCredico, his intellectual and artistic influences are felt. Tontine is an acorn. It will grow into a larger project that will reach out to other artists–regardless of alma maters–who similarly believe that the messages in artworks are deeply enfolded within them. And only over time, like a rich alchemical admixture, can their true meanings be realized.

[Roger Dell is director of education at the Fitchburg Art Museum in Massachusetts and teaches at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University.]

Essay © 2000 Roger Dell, all rights reserved