Jonathan Talbot at Donskoj &
by RAYMOND J. STEINER
Donskoj & Company, 93 Broadway, Kingston, NY (914) 338-8473:
"Jonathan Talbot: Selected Works 1983-1993" (Sept 4-26).
I have never been especially drawn to those concoctions of mixed media
which are presented under a variety of names: whether called collage,
assemblage or "found object" sculpture, the lines always seem a bit
fuzzy, the results somewhat suspect as bona fide works of art. Once
accepted as a legitimate artform, the variations became limitless (as
did the efforts to label them as this or that) and the blurring of boundaries
subject to an endless corruption of gimmickry, cuteness and kitsch.
Much of the so-called "outsider art," in fact, is an outgrowth of this
propensity and any pile of objects, if only because of their being placed
in one context, become "artworks." We have, indeed, come a long way
from Kurt Schwitters' claim to being a painter who nails his pictures
together, accepting today almost anything placed in juxtaposition as
a work worthy of contemplation. It is somewhat in the sense of Schwitters'
argument-i.e., that of true assemblage being akin to "painting with
objects"-that I would place Jonathan Talbot's twenty of so works which
make up this exhibit. Let me say at the outset that these are, indeed,
works of "art," works that not only are worthy of contemplation but
are aesthetic sources of delight as well. Not the least of their appeal
is the skill with which each has been assembled, each displaying the
hand of the artist as opposed to the tinkerer. Fine craftsmanship, however,
has never been enough to raise the artifact into a work of art-and on
this score, Talbot rarely misses the mark in offering us the real article.
Painterly, lush, tonally harmonic and thoughtful, witty and intelligently
brought together, his pieces seldom fail to please and to surprise.
From a distance, they "work" as paintings, compositionally sound and,
as noted above, sensitively harmonized in their use of color. This holds
true for almost all of the works which range in size from intimate "miniatures"
such as "Beach Party" to large, mural-sized works like "American Ringer."
("Ringer," incidentally, is a play on the word "wringer," made obvious
by the fact that a piece of wood containing the words "The American
Wringer" from such a machine is included in the work.) When viewed close
up, one no longer confronts the "painter" but, instead, the thinker.
The bits and pieces which make up a particular piece-say, for example,
"Plate Du Jour"-are carefully composed of "food-related" objects which
not only hold an inner discourse (often wittily) but, at times, with
other pieces in the exhibit as well. This inter-connectedness among
the disparate works is accomplished with similar objects "translated"
into several different pieces-a small (mostly triangular-shaped) bit
of wire grid, for example, the most common interchangeable item. Strangely,
although this bit of wire mesh seems to inherently "apply" to the work
at hand, it finds equal validity in an entirely different composition-not
unlike a conjunction or preposition, say, will vary its nuance in accordance
with literary content. In this connection, one enters the artist's mind,
so to speak, and we are treated to the complexities of his thought-processes-his
intellectuality, if you will. And make no mistake about it, these are
intellectual "word games" and statements. So unobtrusive are these elements-puns,
comments, paradoxes, etc.-however, that one must actually get up close
and study them to "get" the point, joke, or lesson. In this respect,
they lose their identities as paintings and become texts-much in the
same manner as getting close enough to a painting to "read" the individual
brushstrokes ("handwriting") of the painter turns a motif into a document.
Thus, Talbot's works "read" on two levels with the "message" level often
hinted at in the title. "The Sirens," for example, appears to be a relatively
straightforward painting of a seascape, relatively calm and serene in
its overall "blue" coloring. When one seeks the "sirens," however, they
are not, strictly speaking, a part of the depicted scene at all but
embedded in layers of dark blue sky, their outlines (heads only) barely
coming through the surface, as if to say that sirens, if they do exist,
are no more than ethereal figments of our imaginations. It is difficult
to categorize Talbot's works under any one of the usual construction
"genres"-"All That Jazz," for example, a "true" assemblage in that it
contains a three-dimensional element in its center is markedly different
from the small "Medicine Bundle," an "etching" that includes feathers,
small beads and a piece of the ubiquitous wire grid as integral parts
of its composition. He, in fact, "blurs the lines" considerably but
in each case with exquisite aesthetic sensitivity and, almost never,
for the sake of the medium itself. While Talbot rarely (if ever) gets
"cute" or "gimmicky" with his constructions, he does indulge in whimsy
here and there, interjecting a bit of "cheesecake" to lighten the intellectual
load. "Florentine Encounter," for instance, sports a bosomy beauty which
almost immediately draws the eye-the danger, of course, is to allow
her to distract from the overall "message." All in all, this is one
of the most engaging shows I've seen in quite a while-and whether you
choose to stay in the center of the room for the simple visual charge
or elect to get in close enough for the inevitable dialogue with the
artist, you won't be disappointed. If you've missed this show keep the
name of Jonathan Talbot in mind; you won't want to mix his next. -
Raymond J. Steiner