Review: I Observe @ Rehs Contemporary Galleries by David Molesky
Armory week, with all of its satellite fairs and gallery events, is one the busiest times of year for the New York art scene. Collectors flock in from all over to view offerings from the world’s best galleries. With this year’s unseasonable cold temperatures, seeing it all became even more of a challenge. A long frigid walk to and from the Armory piers on Wednesday in combo with a late dinner with Larry Gagosian and company did me in and I woke up the next day with flu-like symptoms. Determined, I devoted myself to resting and skipping all other events, just to be well enough to attend the I Observe opening.
After a haul to the gallery I arrived at the 5 E 57th Street building that is nestled between high-end fashion retailers. Taking the elevator up to the 8th floor, the doors pulled sideways, and I was confronted with the chatter of a bustling gallery opening. After leaving my winter gear at the coat rack, I made my way into the smoking lounge-like space that is Rehs Galleries.
Now in its fourth generation of operation, the Rehs family gallery has recently diversified from its original speciality of 19th and 20th century masterworks. The Rehs teams is made up of father (Howard), mother (Amy), daughter (Alyssa), and son (Lance). Everyone holds degrees in art history except for Lance who studied finance. After working a few years in that field, he felt it wasn’t for him and joined the gallery. With entrepreneurial spirit Lance had a vision to add a contemporary aspect that would complement the historical tradition of the gallery program.
In an effort to grow the roster of this new facet called Rehs Contemporary, Rehs Galleries has partnered with other arts organizations over the past few years. Last October, for example, they opened Arc Selects: the Modern Muse, their third collaborative exhibition with the Art Renewal Center. And now, even more recently, Rehs has collaborated with Didi Menendez to curate an exhibition drawing from the 500 member community of PoetsArtists (PA). At the end of last year Didi put out the call for submissions to the PA community. Despite the quick turnaround, Didi received over 100 entries, from which Lance selected 30 easel-sized paintings (smaller than and up to 3x4 feet) from 24 artists. Keeping in family with the gallery’s highly-skilled historical collections, the contemporary works selected also display a high degree of technical prowess. The exhibition I Observe was hung salon style in two rooms on the galleries signature dark blue velvet walls. The third gallery room contained an installation of choice historical works.
It was great to see that a number of the paintings had sold from the email blast. I saw red dots on Tanja Gant’s gorgeous drawing Temperance, Anna Wypych’s amazingly detailed painting The Fire Reflection, and Michael Bergt’s gouache of Persephone. Michael’s name had come up in conversation just the day before. I had been mentioning a great show with George Tooker and Paul Cadmus, great contemporary pioneers in egg tempera, and the collector mentioned Michael - that’s some excellent company to be associated with.
At the opening I spoke with Lance, soliciting his thoughts and reflections after installing the exhibition. The occasion marked the first time seeing physical works by all of the artists except for Marc Scheff who is already represented by Rehs. Many of the pieces curated into I Observe either contain unusual technical approaches, like Marc’s layered resin process, or unique narrative content. Although an artist’s technical ability is very important, Lance said that he places higher stock value in a good concept or backstory. He mentioned the watercolors by Danielle Werneck as an example of work where the exchange between artist and subject has blossomed into very interesting compositions. Werneck’s narratives are shaped by the inner world and personal stories shared by the orphaned children that she paints. Both of her two watercolors in the exhibition, done on clay panel, portray her subject surrounded by butterflies with background architecture suggesting dislocation and states of confusion.
The other watercolorist in the exhibition happened to be there and I had the opportunity to speak with her. Joanna Barnum was dressed festively in a green gown, her hair dyed green and blue, and she wore a green and blue moon necklace. I asked her if the people she depicted were just models or if they were people she had a more personal connection to. She said that they were all friends from the fairy festival community (suddenly the moon and green hair made more sense). She described fairy festivals as a kind of renfaire for fairies. I smiled as an image of jousting Tinkerbells came to mind. I mentioned that I admired her mixture of colorful brushwork with precisely painted emotional eyes - which were by far the most detailed aspect of the pieces. Her paintings also had this Janus (double-face) thing happening, which I found much more successful than the the double-eyed trend that's making the rounds in the pop-surrealist world. Rather than depicting an intoxicated kind of double vision, Joanna uses the second set of features to give us a second set of windows into the soul of her subject. She told me her approach involves painting an area of masking fluid onto the paper where she will paint the portrait. Once a complete head is painted, she removes the area with the masking fluid, exposing the blank white paper below. She then uses photoshop to help figure out how to configure a different angle of the head to paint into this void.
I also had the chance to chat a while with Dana Hawk. We briefly connected over the fact that we had both studied molecular cell biology in undergrad. Her painting was certainly one of the finest oil paintings in terms of how it was crafted. I asked her if the background of her piece was acrylic. She confirmed and then added that she had painted the model’s portrait from life, and then thought to add the lace shirt which she found online and the petals. I mentioned how I liked that the falling petal shapes mimicked some of the open patterns in the lace, and she admitted she hadn’t noticed that. I guess that's just the subconscious workings of a good painter, making magic and harmony in a composition unintentionally. I also mentioned that I really liked her frame, and that I couldn’t exactly say the same for some of the others in the show. She told me that she orders corners from pictureframes.com and that has helped her make good framing solutions.
Living in New York I see a lot of contemporary figurative representational painting and what I’ve noticed is that a lot of the high end stuff is not framed but displayed in an elegant way that exposes the edges so that you can see the materials used. Many of the galleries that I have worked with recently have even advised me to not bother with framing, as collectors will often change the frame after purchasing a piece. Take PA collector Arthur Magazu for example, he almost prefers unframed pieces because part of his process of collecting is to frame all of his newly acquired work.
Some of the paintings in I Observe were varnished perfectly, meaning that you saw only the painting clearly and didn’t even think about the varnish coat protecting it, like Dana Hawk’s painting Steady As She Goes or Rachel Linnemeier’s Pretty Pest. The varnish in some of the other paintings, because of the uneven patches of glare and debris stuck to the surface, were quite distracting. You might be able to get away with that if the painting was enormous or something expressively textured like an Anselm Kiefer painting. However that look doesn’t work if you are going to bother to paint the detail of a single hair, while simultaneously having thick hog hair bristles lodged into the surface of the varnish. The intense lighting at Rehs Gallery, coming from such a short distance away, makes all of the dust and debris stand out even more. One painting that I pointed out to Lance was covered in storage dust, not lodged into the varnish, but in such a way that it made the paintings look like it had been stashed away for a long time and the artist had neglected to wipe it down before shipping it to the gallery. Lance hadn’t noticed it until I pointed it out at the opening, but exclaimed “Wow!” when we picked thick dust bunnies off of the surface.
The reason I share the concern about these finer points of presentation is to offer sound constructive advice, not because I want to sound like one of the grumpy critics from the Muppets. Although some of the those showing with Didi might be seasoned veterans of the art world, some of you are new. While there is a chance these things will go unnoticed in an Instagram post, you potentially shoot yourself in the foot if you send work to a physical exhibition that is not of the utmost presentability. Why? Well for me, most of my collectors are repeat offenders, and buy sometimes a dozen paintings over the years. The thing you want to hear from them is “Oh, it's so much better in person!” If they get a painting from you that they have only previously seen digitally and the quality is lower than they had presumed, you can pretty much forget they will come back to buy another.
If you are getting into high level museum or gallery shows through the efforts of Didi’s magic, you should invest in learning about presentation, varnishing, storage, and material support. If people are spending multiple thousands of dollars on a painting you made why would you do it on cheap canvas board and frame it with plastic molding or a metal poster frame, or worse varnish it with a thick goopy coat that collects dust as it dries and then makes the painting impossible to view because of the glare. A good photo is a must to get your foot in the door, and then clean presentation is a must to close the deal.