Visual Language and Catharsis - New York Comes to Houston
Catalog Essay by Phoebe Hoban
“The dream is the liberation of the spirit
from the pressure of external nature,
a detachment of the soul
from the fetters of matter.”
- Sigmund Freud
In a world dominated by YouTube and Instagram, the four artists featured in Visual Language and Catharsis have chosen to express themselves through abstract rather than literal images, providing a vivid visual alternative to the pervasive quotidian overload. As Toby Rosser, the show’s curator and one of the artists on exhibit, writes, “With the almost violent onslaught of imagery in our daily lives, it is the responsibility of the contemporary artist to create works that invoke emotion and meaning rather than depicting a narrative subject or illustration.”
Although they have wildly disparate styles, from spare to saturated, from text-oriented to highly graphic, these “mid-career” artists have one thing in common: while making art has always been their passion, it is not their full-time career. For the artists themselves, as well as for the viewer, their works are an engaging escape from an often harsh reality.
From its birth in the 1940s through its blossoming in the 1950s, conveying glimpses of an artist’s personal consciousness was the original mission of Abstract Expressionism. As Arshile Gorky put it, “The stuff of thought is the seed of the artists. Dreams form the bristles of the artist’s brush. And as the eye functions as the brain’s entry, I communicate my most private perceptions through art, my view of the world.” Many of the ab-ex artists, including Jackson Pollock, who at the time was in Jungian analysis, were not only highly aware of but greatly influenced by the prevalent theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, which sought to mine an individual’s subconscious, bringing it simmering to the surface.
Figuration has made a strong comeback in the last several decades, but abstraction has remained ever-present, often combined, as was popular in the early 2000’s, with figurative work, attempting to merge the two. The art of Toby Rosser, John Hovig, Stephen Paul Connor and Bob Marty is a concerted effort to continue abstraction’s trajectory: art that expresses its creator’s personal vision, eschewing the figurative in favor of the intangible, yet remaining enticingly open to the viewer’s interpretation.
Toby Rosser’s work emanates sheer velocity. The shapes and forms he conjures up on canvas spin on their own axis, in their own sphere of gravity. Yet despite their implosive energy, they are executed in a pleasing, muted palette. It’s easy to see the early influence of the comic master R. Crumb, in Ba Dunk a Dunk, (2022). The antic composition and the organ-like forms, clearly in motion, evoke his famous motto: ‘Keep on Truckin.’ Another influence, Rosser’s father, a commercial illustrator and skilled draughtsman, can be detected in his dynamic use of line, which serves almost as a net or partial net to contain the hyperactive image. There are also hints of Philip Guston, particularly such paintings as Gladiators, in Rosser’s busy yet dreamy shapes and composition.
Cyclops (2023), is the most confrontational of Rosser’s works on display. Its central phallic form is bracketed by structures that look mechanical: the image could be that of a deconstructed robot. Swamp (2023) is oddly musical. The image is slightly subdued, yet harmonious and serene. In this alternate world, everything is in its place. Rosser’s range is evident in such works as Housatonic #14 (2022) a dynamic hive/cyclone hybrid, in muted acid green, and the far more formal and defined Aqueduct (2022), which resembles a painter’s palette against a splash of paint.
John Hovig, like Toby Rosser, is an internet developer; he has been “steeped in software coding” since 1980. Hovig originally wanted to be an architect, and both that predilection and his profession are evident in his current work, which is highly structured, despite its predominantly random genesis. “I love that coding is a language and I can take architectural structure and coding language and apply it to my art,” Hovig says. In his quest to create something “precise and a bit wonky,” Hovig’s earlier practice involved painstakingly laying out paperclips, arranging them into intricate structures as if they were pickup-sticks. Since 2020, having used his coding expertise to create an innovative art-making app, Hovig literally programs his pieces, with stunning results.
The app, called “Histories of Polybius,” refers to Polybius, a famed Greek cryptographer, and is written in the Python software language. By giving the computer instructions about color, shape and composition, and then allowing it to randomly generate hundreds of permutations, Hovig is able to strike a fascinating balance between his human creativity and the computer’s ability to produce infinite spins on the Polybius Python algorithm. “I used to be very controlling with the paper clip constructions. Now I allow the computer to make decisions on colors, shapes and forms within the parameters that I have established. I can tell it to use a line or curve that squiggles and bends back on itself, or use color in a certain way, and the computer takes over. It is very freeing!”
Hovig’s picks from recent crops of computer images—he might pluck 10 from several hundred—are printed with archival inkjet on aluminum, each in an edition of one. The images in Hovig’s Shakers Creek series (2023), range from elegant and lacy to more solid and dynamic, but all share the same ephemeral—almost numinous—quality--as if rather than generated by a computer, they were generated by the cosmos. Shakers Creek #6 could be a sea creature, part anemone, part seaweed. Rendered in shades of purple, green and yellow, the image floats against a stark black background, like a bright nocturnal bloom. Shakers Creek #2, in brown, black and green, resembles delicate, tangled skeins of thread or wool, suspended in white space. Others in the series are curvilinear masses of squiggles, from compellingly minimalist to complex and dense; these lyrical digital doodles, with monochromatic backgrounds of yellow, pale pink and periwinkle, sustain the other-worldly sensibility of Hovig’s work.
Stephen Paul Connor
Stephen Paul Connor teaches game design at a community college in Austin, Texas, instructing his classes in the creation of art for computer games. Connor’s practice in his studio is much more primal. He begins his process with writing down words that express strong feelings; suffering, pain, duality, conflict. The words serve as verbal sketches that spark the start of a painting. He then follows his intuition, not sure where it will go. His painting technique can be almost violent, “breaking” the image by eradicating it and then over painting its vestiges, and “hacking it together again until it starts to have a life of its own.” His goal, he says, is “to connect. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s everything. To give people a little lift or charge in their consciousness.”
Connor’s powerfully packed compositions feature intense shapes and colors and convey a tense, coiled energy. Fusion 1 (2023) is composed of overlapping tectonic-plate- or fin-like forms, each internally jammed with jagged pieces in varying sizes and hues, outlined in thick black. Every busy section of the teeming canvas is complex, yet its contained chaos remains coherent. The composition of Torrent, (2023,) in contrast, is pared down and basic, a primer in Connor’s visual vocabulary. Unlike Fusion #1, it feels more contemplative than confrontational. In Fusion #3, (2023). Connor works in an entirely different format. It shares with Connor’s other work an almost overwhelming level of visual detail, and its circular composition, expanding outward with centrifugal force, evokes a vortex--or a galactic big bang.
Bob Marty’s colorful career ranges from helping build Big Bird for Sesame Street to working on sets and props for several George Balanchine ballets to creating over 1,000 television specials for PBS and other major networks. Since 2016, Marty has been steadily winding down his television work in order to focus primarily on his art practice. For years, Marty has used text or letter forms in his art, not so much for their explicit content, like Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer, but for their gestural form and suggestive subtext. Indeed, although his studio is equipped with an arsenal of sophisticated digital technology, he frequently brainstorms new pieces by simply pushing red and blue paper strips of seemingly unrelated words into different positions to come up with enigmatic combinations like “Puzzling Noise” or “Several Silent Blurred.” This jumpstarts his process, which takes full advantage of a vast image archive, gleaned from old newspapers, magazines, and a vintage Encyclopedia Britannica, which he then plays with—-printing, over painting, drawing and collaging. “All my work is mixed media,” Marty says. “I use a transfer technique. You take a printed piece, coat it in gel, soak off the paper, and then layer it onto a painting. It allows you to build up the surface and add dimension. It’s all over these pieces. I like to do things that ‘activate the surface,’ as Rauchenberg put it.”
Marty has “activated” the surface of his most recent work with random bits of text, much of it evoking advertising from the baby boomer era. The Lichtenstein-esque OOD (2023), uses what might be the partial spelling of the word “good” (perhaps from the old Campbell soup slogan “MM Good,”) against a backdrop of ben-day dots. A related piece, Scambled (2021), plays with scrawled and jumbled letters, formed against a yellow amoeboid shape, on a blue-black background scattered with fragments of alphabet characters. Porky (2019), also employs a text-overlaying motif; its partial words are superimposed on newspaper text. Eureka Diptych (2018), blasts the viewer with a virtual explosion of fragmented texts. It pairs a white-tinted top half with a blackboard-like lower half, which mirrors the words on the top half, featuring a few familiar phrases, such as “It’s finger-lickin’ good.” One of the piece’s biggest balloon captions sums up Marty’s pastiche aesthetic: “Eureka! Success! My Imaging-Reproducer Works!”
These four artists reflect the Zeitgeist, absorbing the globe’s non-stop sensory stimuli, and spewing it back out through their own individual consciousness. While much of current-day culture, from television to theater to the visual arts, is understandably dystopian, the creative act itself, as has always been true, remains a harbinger of hope in adverse times. Visual Language and Catharsis offers four original perspectives on the interconnected chaos of our contemporary world.
About Phoebe Hoban
Phoebe Hoban has written about culture and the arts for a variety of publications, including The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, ARTnews, and The New York Observer, among others. She is the author of three artist biographies: Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, a national bestseller and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year; Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, named a best book of the year by New York Magazine, The Village Voice, and Booklist; and Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open. A paperback edition of her Neel biography with a new introduction was published by David Zwirner Books in April 2021.