Howard Podeswa, Red Studio, 401 Richmond St/The Human Condition, 2022, oil on canvas, 48 1⁄8 × 48".

Howard Podeswa, Red Studio, 401 Richmond St/The Human Condition, 2022, oil on canvas, 48 1⁄8 × 48".

Howard Podeswa

Ranging from the mournful to the exuberant, or from grand and tumultuous scenes of hell to the humblest and quietest of still lifes, Howard Podeswa’s canvases seem to examine all facets of existence. The artist shies away from any one signature style, and while his motives often feel elusive, he appears to be driven by a deep curiosity about—or even a loving submission to—his subjects, be they the people he counts among his nearest and dearest, or scraps of materials just lying around his work space.

At Birch Contemporary, Podeswa’s exhibition “Dépaysement / Studio” (Change of Scenery / Studio)—thoughtfully organized by curator and critic E. C. Woodley in collaboration with the gallery—surveyed a small fraction of the artist’s output from the past few years. The show’s centerpiece, Red Studio, 401 Richmond St/The Human Condition, 2022, wears its debts to Magritte and Matisse with pride, featuring renderings of previous works by Podeswa with schematic depictions of studio furnishings, such as stools, shelving, and plinths. The entire tableau is set upon a monochromatic ground that includes the outline of a central and transparent canvas positioned on a more solidly defined easel. Upon closer inspection, however, this artwork appeared to pervert its celebrated sources: For instance, its reds are bloodier than Matisse’s and applied in more restless ways. But the contours of the things portrayed come across as singularly strange, vibrating nervously as they waver between shades of crimson, blue, green, and yellow. These pulsating effects are likely due to the artist’s resituating, reworking, and recasting of objects within the composition, which may correspond to maneuvers within the artist’s mind and, of course, the studio.

Navigating Podeswa’s show, one felt a growing sense of his subjects becoming unhinged—everyday materials appeared askew and off-kilter. Perhaps this was the result of pandemic-related isolation, exacerbated by the death of the artist’s father, a Holocaust survivor and fellow painter. Two diminutive oil-on-paper works, Lemon and Lemon and Lime, both 2018, were rendered realistically against neutral grounds. Yet the artist’s take on these sour fruits, depicted both head-on and in profile, gave them a vaguely corporeal quality, their skins suggesting raw or pockmarked flesh. In the larger painting Studio with Lemon, 2021, the titular citrus was placed upon a striped piece of fabric. Both of these elements were precariously arranged on a stretched canvas, all of which was surrounded by studio paraphernalia. The lemon appears abnormally big, cast in shadow and/or somewhat sullied; whether it is meant to signify as “real” or fictional is unclear.

Another piece of cloth, sans stripes, appeared in Crumpled Fabric Taped to Linen, 2020. Here the item is suspended and utterly alone, its edges frayed. This weathered swatch takes pride of place within one of the paintings depicted in Red Studio. The sheer persistence of this worn item, humble to a provocative extent, takes on a certain gravitas, having been exposed and processed, and held up by the artist for examination and judgment. This solemnness was further expressed in Still Life with Table, 2022. The mixed-media work features handmade sculptural versions of studio props (books, a ball, a Magrittean chess piece), with textural and chromatic irregularities reflecting an imperative to intensively reconsider and recast, quite literally, what is simply at hand, as though the normally steadfast appearance and presence of those objects were somehow in question.

Similar strains of ambiguity—about whether a phenomenon is actually there or imagined—run through much of Podeswa’s artistic projects, often inspired by regional forms of Surrealism (Latin American, Belgian) that were, in part, relatively marginalized reactions to the rise of fascism during the 1930s and often practiced by artists who were profoundly uncertain about what they could believe or represent. With the proliferation of right-wing movements around the globe, this questioning of what is given to us reflects a haunting awareness of the recurrence of evil that has the potential to color the perception of everything from a vase to a sooty segment of radiator. Podeswa’s paintings compel and convince partly because they reflect an ever-present need to perform an existential commitment to reexamining what is before us: a myriad of adversities, losses, and doubts.