Critics’ Picks

View of “Wesley Martin Berg and Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri,” 2017.

New York

Wesley Martin Berg and Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri

Olsen Gruin
30 Orchard Street
August 13–September 10

The sad-clown painting functions as a sort of postmodern joke: an ironic gesture that dives into bad taste while subtly nodding to art history—the clown’s origins can be traced back to the stock character Pierrot of the commedia dell’arte, after all. Wesley Martin Berg’s paintings of clowns are informed by this tradition, but he also imbues his subjects with a solemn grace. Rendered in thick gray, white, and black impasto, these singular paintings, charged by a sly gallows humor, invoke a nostalgia for a grittier America that, once upon a time, overflowed with all manner of strange entertainments via traveling circuses and carnivals. The dark comedy is particularly evident in Berg’s cartoonish pictures of floral bouquets, such as Medicate, 2017, where dead-looking blossoms are interspersed with smiley-face balloons. In the sculpture A Warm Place, 2017, Berg renders a macabre arrangement of flowers in a funereal vase. The work suggests melting and decay, to an equally grim, and funny, effect.

The show is rounded out with Untitled, 2016, a large canvas by the Australian Aboriginal artist Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri. With its deep-red background and vertiginously detailed surface full of psychedelic, wobbly squares (think James Siena, but more unabashedly metaphysical), the work interacts beautifully with Berg’s monochromatic images. Tjapaltjarri’s meditative and methodical approach enhances Berg’s painterly surfaces. Overall, the exhibition unfolds like a good joke: a wily setup of contrasts that lead, ultimately, to a harmonious frisson.