New York

David Gilhooly

Joseph Chowning Gallery

David Gilhooly has made dramatic changes in his work in the past year and a half. Gilhooly made his name as a ceramics artist, but he was no mere fashioner of pots and ashtrays. He produced everything from trompe l’oeil replicas of confections and vegetables to massive tableaux of figures from classical and his own personal mythology, in which frogs serve as surrogates for humans and deities. The Canadian critic Gary Michael Dault has aptly characterized Gilhooly’s frog cosmologies as Menippean satires, referring to the literary form invented in the third century BC by the Cynic Menippus. Menippus freely combined verse and prose in his satirical essays, which ridiculed anyone opposing the Cynics’ belief in virtue as the only good. Similarly, Gilhooly scrambles representational idioms to produce absurd byplays of human history and legend.

Gilhooly’s new work is no less rebarbative or whimsical than what preceded it, but in every other respect it could hardly be more different. Whereas he used to favor clay, because he could give it any form he wanted to, Gilhooly now works primarily in Plexiglas, a far less malleable material; and whereas lumpy opacity used to be the earmark of everything he made, his new work is almost giddy with translucent colors and brittle, sinuous profiles.

Most of the new pieces are something like unboxed dioramas that hang on the wall like shelves. Successive layers of Plexiglas, varying in color and opacity, silhouette different levels of narrative. Some of the works are simple still lifes, black Plexiglas cake dishes tilting forward cubistically to offer the viewer readymade plastic deli fare. Others are elaborate cityscapes, slick black skylines often complemented by slanting, black-Plexi “shadows” in the foreground. Between skyline and shadow are layers of lurid action: the aftermath of a mugging, a man set afire by the explosion of a car.

The centerpiece of the show was Sudden Impact, 1985, a large wooden map of the mainland USA, painted black, upon which multiple disasters rain. A fiery, pitted asteroid bears down on the Northeast, while black nuclear missiles with hot-pink exhaust flares arc toward the Rockies and garish flames blot out Texas. From behind this cascade of cosmic comeuppance leaks the blood of the nation, in the form of a dark-red sheet of transparent Plexi, its lower edge cut into pendulous blobs. Sudden Impact is one of the best pieces of contemporary apocalyptic art I’ve seen, not only in its canny use of semiotics and materials but because its homely artifice suggests so well the unimaginability of catastrophe.

Few of Gilhooly’s new pieces are as ambitious as Sudden Impact, but even the simpler, sillier objects, such as the two versions of Fruit Descending a Staircase, both 1985, sustain collisions of high-and lowbrow references that seem utterly timely in their California art-world context. The profiled arabesques of Gilhooly’s Plexiglas, their transparent edges collecting the incident light, set off thoughts of junk signage on the one hand and Henri Matisse’s cutouts on the other.

Gilhooly’s art ideas are not always the equal of his knack with materials, but offhand, I cannot think of an artist who has made better use of Plexiglas.

Kenneth Baker