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“Sylvan Lionni: Shine”
At Fusebox to Feb. 22
Pegging the start of abstraction to Wassili Kandinsky is as dicey as crediting the midwifing of rock ‘n’ roll to Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats. But whether you go with the Blaue Reiter or look back further to, say, the nocturnes of Whistler, abstraction has been, for one wing of modernists, a process of extracting an image from the visible world, often from nature—or at least of ascribing an image to natural inspiration after the fact. But at almost the same time Kandinsky made his first steps, there arose another strain of abstraction, spiritually not far removed from him and best represented by his former countryman Kasimir Malevich. The Non-Objective World, as the title of Malevich’s 1927 book had it, was populated with ideals that could be made visible only through geometric forms. Palpable stuff, no matter how unrecognizably it was rendered, was out of bounds.
The two camps have often overlapped. For much of his career, Piet Mondrian dwelled in two Cartesian dimensions, among black, white, and three primary colors, and with nary a diagonal in sight. But his journey into the abstract had started with oceans and piers and branching trees, and would end in Manhattan’s rectilinear rush, the impulse behind Broadway Boogie Woogie. And self-proclaimed child of Mondrian and the video arcade, New York—based painter Sylvan Lionni, who currently has a solo show at Fusebox, sees no need to choose between actuality and geometry. He abstracts his images from fragments of the real, stripping away any extraneous details that would impinge on their hard, lean beauty. Yet he starts with sources that are themselves already representations of abstract geometries made to suit the mundane purposes of daily life. He has, for instance, painted a netless pingpong table actual size, keeping the name the manufacturer gave it: Butterfly Europa.
In “Chromophilia,” a group show hosted by Fusebox last winter, Lionni was represented by paintings of sheets of yard-sale or clearance-rack stickers, having settled on their orderly, wordless grids of colored dots after rejecting the busy, conspicuously branded Twister board that first caught his eye. If those canvases found Lionni playing the parodist, reducing hard-edge abstraction to meaningless essentials, in a new series of paintings he refines an image so he can expand its metaphorical options.
Four pictures in the gallery’s front room are blow-ups of the bubble-sheet bet slips used to purchase lottery tickets. Arrays of boxes are grouped into boards, one per play; black ticks along the edges serve some mysterious purpose, likely having to do with mechanical reading of the form; arrows indicate the direction of insertion into the machine. Although the fundamental structure of the slips is unaltered, there’s no trace of the alphanumerics that customarily act as a go-between, allowing the player to address the computer in his own language. By deleting the numerals that cause each identical bubble to represent a unique choice, Lionni enforces an equivalence among them, leading them to read as windows. The only difference between Row 3, Column 7 and Row 10, Column 2 is the schlep from the sidewalk; they’re both cells in the same grid, apartments in the same building. And nearby buildings are all stuck in the same hard-luck locale.
Lionni was first drawn to the lottery slips by the board/building equation, a visual rhyme carrying social implications that veteran video-gamers will be sure to spot. The row of red tenements in an untitled 2002 painting reminded me of Crazy Climber, Nichibutsu’s Spider-Man—inspired 1980 outing in which the player scuttled up the side of one residential tower after another, dodging dropped flowerpots and slipping his fingers out of the path of slamming windows. Lionni himself was reminded of Elevator Action, Taito’s equally frenetic 1983 cloak-and-dagger fest wherein the red-booted hero must thwart the black-clad spies attempting to do him in. If the former is all about lifting oneself from the ground to the roof deck, in a literalization of social climbing beyond the reach of one’s boorish neighbors, the latter is about getting into and back out of a trap, with the protagonist first alighting on the roof via grapnel and cable, then slipping past the agents of dark forces to the safety of the street. Both games are obsessive escape fantasies pointedly given unremarkable urban settings, and in each, freedom taunts the player like an unclaimed birthright, though chances of attaining it are slim.
Not bad for a quarter per go, and it costs only a little more to play for real. Whether you consider the lottery a state-imposed penalty for innumeracy or a dollar-a-dance diversion from workaday life, taken up in full awareness of long odds, this voluntary tax is also a regressive one. On society’s lowest rungs, hope for the big score thrives in the face of statistical evidence to the contrary, making the most attractive version of the American Dream the one you don’t have to do anything to get—other than stand in line and drop your change. Effort aside, the situation isn’t all that different from that of the young artist looking to ride the art world’s ever-shortening waves of renown.
Besides implying the unseen schemes that arrange our fates into the easily dismissed sequences of the also-ran, the (literal) lottery serves as an indicator of the social division between the art world and the down-market neighborhoods it’s always pushing into. Fusebox director Sarah Finlay admits that she’s never played the lottery, but when I asked her where I might find actual bet slips for comparison with Lionni’s, I received directions to the liquor store next door, a place I’d never been. The quizzically accommodating proprietor seemed almost unaware of the adjacent gallery, having considered it, as had I, a box separate from his own.
Two decades ago, in a socially conscious reaction to the high-flown rhetoric of past masters, Neo-Geo artist Peter Halley announced another reconfiguring of abstraction. The first three of the seven points in 1982’s “Notes on the Paintings” bear repeating here:
“1. These are paintings of prisons, cells, and walls.
2. Here, the idealist square becomes the prison. Geometry is revealed as confinement.
3. The cell is a reminder of the apartment house, the hospital bed, the school desk—the isolated endpoints of industrial structure.”
The irony, of course, is that
Halley’s cell motif eventually imprisoned the artist himself, to the point that at least one critic has thought it best to consider him a kind of graphic designer, working myriad subtle variations on a fixed signature style. Perhaps the problem is that Halley’s ideal, however humanistic, has become an idee fixe. By drawing not from a program but from his improvised experience of popular culture, Lionni promises to skirt this pitfall.
A looming wall painting and an intimate canvas, both named Shine, take as their source a swatch of geometrically patterned carpeting seen in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining. In the second-floor hallway of the film’s empty Overlook Hotel, an interlocking hexagonal design in red, orange, and chocolate brown serves as a racetrack for the tricycle of young Danny Torrance. Inside Room 237 are visions that both lure and terrify him, rooted in the demons of his vicious, alcoholic writer father, Jack.
One struggles to know how far to read Lionni’s autobiography into his work. Although he doesn’t dine out on his heritage, his grandfather is Leo Lionni, the picture-book titan whose fables of artistic vision and collective action (Frederick, Swimmy) remain story-time standards. The elder Lionni was also a graphic artist, for more than a decade the art director of Fortune magazine. For a famous 1960 cover, he arranged colored letters in rows, each of which spelled out “New York”; with missing letters as darkened rooms, the design suggested the pattern of interior lights in a skyscraper at nightfall—a possible precedent for his grandson’s bet-slip buildings.
For Shine, the temptation is to look to the painter’s father, Paolo Lionni, a poet who died of lung cancer in 1985, when his son was 12. According to Leo’s autobiography, Between Worlds, Paolo had beaten a heroin addiction. Sylvan claims to have selected the carpet pattern for a variety of reasons, big and small, but mainly for its period appeal and “graphic interest.” “I loved how much of-the-time it was and also how it was a constant backdrop to this horrific thing,” he says. He does also, however, “think of the floor as a memento mori.”
In her reading of The Shining, Pauline Kael found fault with what she saw as Kubrick’s “metaphysical” theme that “man is a murderer, throughout eternity.” But the dodgy cycle of recurrence, whereby the father always kills his family, or at least endeavors to, is perhaps better viewed through the lens of substance abuse. Genetic proclivities are passed down, bad habits and behaviors, too, and a pattern of familial devastation emerges. In Lionni’s family, heroin was fortunately an anomaly, yet Shine, based on an image that persisted in the painter’s memory after the rest of The Shining had faded, can be seen as being about breaking with the past, even as it continues to haunt the present. The shot Lionni chose from the film views Danny from a high angle, as he runs toy trucks and cars along the roads he imagines in the rug; a tennis ball, seen earlier being hurled furiously by Jack against a wall, inexplicably rolls to a stop in front of the boy, a visible sign, seemingly from nowhere, of his father’s growing mania. Lionni has excised the child and all the props from the frame, retaining only the precise, brilliant ornament of the ominous color field beneath him.
As richly resonant as Lionni’s paintings are, it should be said that such thoughts seldom intrude upon their actual viewing. Almost insanely obdurate and clean, built to a seamless matte finish from layers of acrylic, they hold you at arm’s length. Only when you draw close do they give up signs of their making: the rare brush stroke, the nicks in the windows of a lottery picture such as Take Five, artifacts of the right-handed artist’s peeling, from top right to bottom left, the custom-made Avery labels he uses to tape off his colors. And only when you’re back home mulling over what you’ve seen do the pictures explode with implication. His pristine paintings subliminally dirtied with the stuff of life, Lionni has directed himself toward a geometric abstraction ever more impure. CP