New York

The Tinklers

Sharpe Gallery

The Tinklers’ performances, books, and paintings are the product of a collaboration between two artists who explore the role that human folly, in particular the concept of manifest destiny, has played in the formation of American and world history. Their subjects have ranged from the discovery of the Americas to the development of the Coop City housing project in the Bronx. The paintings in this exhibition address the destruction of the earth’s environment. Works such as Rainforest Triptych, 1989, Uranium, 1989, and Oil, 1989, highlight environmental issues that have been in the press recently and have caused great public concern.

The format that the Tinklers employ is deliberately archaicized in order to express a folkloric, wide-eyed perspective on history. Each painting employs such folk- art conventions as aerial, bird’s-eye views, the central placement of the main subject, and the repeated use of schematic devices to portray trees, water, sky, and people. The paintings are presented in wide wooden frames into which auxiliary scenes have been burned to embellish the main narrative. The bottom strip of the frame contains text that gives a literary dimension to the depicted scene.

The artists use a simplified language of pictorial symbols and forms to embrace fundamental concepts of the narrative in a direct, unobstructed style. They do not attempt to match reality or to mimic the effects of light, but make an alternative reality, one which replaces the perceptual with the conceptual. This form of expression helps to convey the urgency of their message.

In Oil, the Tinklers have rendered the Alaskan wilderness as schematic rows of receding pine trees neatly individuated and diminishing in size as they fade into the distance. Scalloped clouds echo the waves in the sound. In the surrounding frame, elk and caribou frolic along the great expanse of a large pipe used for the transport of oil across Alaska. The pipe runs across the top of the frame, where a brass plaque labeled “OIL” is fastened. The waters in this virgin wilderness of pine and ocean coastline are tainted by a black, murky substance. The text describes the recent Exxon oil spill as “lying in our bays and shores in five-inch-thick slabs. It is floating . . . and lies in our water in huge, black amoebalike blobs.” The feeble attempt at cleaning up after such devastation is simply told by the inclusion of two tiny, crudely rendered figures in the corner of the painting, standing along the sound’s shore and wiping off each stone with a roll of toilet paper. Here, the counterpoint between the seriousness of the dilemma and the essential impotence of the human response emerges. Their style enables them to describe the damage of this notorious oil spill without affecting an offensive, moralistic tone.

This dark humor sets the tone for the exhibition. The Break of Dawn, 1988, depicts the tale of the garbage barge, a ship piled with 3186 tons of compressed bails of debris that last summer was towed from New York to the Gulf Coast and back again because it had no dumping permit. The painting is treated with the same conventions as a Caspar David Friedrich seascape. A ship is engulfed in the open expanse of an infinite horizon and shrouded in the purple and pink hues of daybreak. The romantic treatment of the subject is shattered by the discovery that the ship is not a full-mast vessel, but a fly-infested freight. This sorry realization is further elaborated by the discovery of an interlocking matrix of discarded consumer products—household cleansers, detergents, milk cartons—heaped in a large pile. These paintings slyly manipulate the folkloric to describe the heavy cost of progress. Their friendly look and inviting colors describe not innocence, but the loss of innocence.

Kirby Gookin