New York

Howard Schwartzberg

Momenta Art

In Howard Schwartzberg’s recent exhibition, paint acquires mass and volume and turns into a “thing,” an entity somewhere between post-Minimalist sculpture and B-movie prop. In Electric Lime (all works 1997), a bathtub’s worth of lime-green latex seems to fill an enormous burlap sack partially affixed to the wall. Expanding over the rim of the bag, the paint has hardened into a level surface suggesting a horizontal monochrome. Against an adjacent wall, a thick cerulean slab with a burlap rind titled A Quarter Cold Blue hugs the baseboards as if trying to make itself as inconspicuous as possible.

These “solid paintings” wrapped in patchy, medieval-looking fabric recall the rough, fragile abstractions of Eva Hesse and the Italian arte povera artists, and make vague references to the body in their rounded forms and cloth scraps. Yet they also reflect the sensibility of a generation that grew up with Devo videos, Toxic Avenger, and toys named “Slime.” Electric Lime’s viscous acidic green—the color and consistency connote radioactivity or toxicity in the vernacular aesthetics of pop culture—does for Hesse and arte povera what Rauschenberg’s paint-slathered refuse did for the Abstract Expressionists: it suddenly makes their art seem tasteful by comparison. Schwartzberg’s sliming of his predecessors isn’t just bad-boy posturing, though; it’s a way of introducing a certain, very up-to-the-moment emotional content into the work. The green goo vomiting out of a bodylike cavity conjures that distinctly contemporary mixture of irony and anxiety described by Peter Halley (during the nuke-obsessed Reagan era) as “bemused panic.”

A statement accompanying the exhibit suggests that Schwartzberg “literally turns painting inside out to expose its constructs,” an agenda that would hark back, among other precedents, to the support-surface artists in France in the ’60s and ’70s, who created installations out of canvas, paint, and stretcher bars. The artist’s work, however, seems more interested in subverting itself than in analyzing painting’s underlying assumptions. Electric Lime fools no one for a minute into believing that it is full of paint: there’s no tension on the burlap sack, which is held to the wall with only two small screws set in the drywall. Much of the volume is just foam. The piece, in other words, is about as substantial as a stage set on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. It demonstrates the extreme obsolescence of the Minimalist dictate of “truth to materials”; even the drips down the front look doctored.

Tom Moody