Off the Wall

An Extreme Painter Lays It Out

Who says there are no second acts? In the art world, second acts are often best. Philip Guston pulled the old switcheroo on abstract expressionism, abandoning his rosy haze for a fiercely comic imagery of grizzled stumblebums. Cy Twombly morphed from 10th generation ab ex to primal scribble. Richard Serra went from being a real heavy, as they used to say, to brute tonnage, and then all of a sudden he came up with some of the most sublimely monumental sculpture of the new millennium. Julian Schnabel transformed himself from painterly has-been to brilliant moviemaker.

It's near impossible to predict who's going to astound us with a turnaround, much less how, when, and where. But among the shows scheduled for this spring are a few likely contenders. One is Adam Cvijanovic, who has been rolling with the punches ever since the latest crop of MFAs were toddlers. "He is so cool. He's the John Travolta of the art world. His reinvention of himself is awesome," says Becky Smith, proprietor of Bellwether, whose walls will host two of his hand-painted wallpaper murals in May. One, she says, will be basically "high noon at Daytona Beach on spring break." The other is a middle-of-the-night, middle-of-the-sea, middle-of-a-storm number. Together, they could put a 21st-century spin on the antiquated notion of the nautical sublime.

According to Smith, Cvijanovic didn't go to art school; he just blasted out of Boston doing young-man expressionism. Then he went through a psycho-narrative phase. His first New York show, at the old Bess Cutler Gallery on Mercer Street in 1985, when the East Village was the really happening place to be, featured an enormous streetscape of the Lower East Side. His last in 1994, before he stopped painting for a couple of years, was a weirdly memorable installation at the now defunct Richard Anderson Gallery, which included two large retro-style paintings. One starred Chuck Close as Vermeer in Las Meninas. The other, a portrait of some sweatshop workers who were his loft neighbors, was based on Rembrandt's old-master portrait of the cloth worker's guild. As painting, it was pretty conventional. As conceptual gesture, it was brilliantly perverse.

Spring fever: Adam Cvijanovic, the John Travolta of the art world
photo: Robin Holland
Spring fever: Adam Cvijanovic, the John Travolta of the art world

"Looking at the last John Currin show," Cvijanovic—whose work one might not think of in the same breath as Currin—says, "I felt he went from Pop farther and farther back into the depths of European painting. I remember feeling a great sympathy for that work. It was a trajectory I understood." By the time Cvijanovic began to work seriously with the obsolete idea of decorative landscape murals, he'd done a stint as a commercial mural artist, creating landscape scenes in lobbies and dining rooms. "After the end of the '80s and the collapse of the art market, I wasn't at a plateau like Fischl or Salle who were going to ride it out. I did a lot of commercial murals and some were really horrible and they're on walls all over the place. I started thinking there's something really, really good here but it's been handed over to schlockdom."

"This is definitely the second go-round for me," he says. His enormous wallpaper mural, Monument Valley, suddenly appeared out of the blue in 1999—with sun-bleached, bone-dry colors, sly interchangeable mix-and-match panels, and throwaway details (like John Ford and crew in the distance, filming a western). He had discovered Tyvek, the same unrippable stuff that FedEx envelopes are made of. "You can take it down and it can change shape and size and be reinstalled in different ways. I'm fond of thinking of them as mobile frescoes." The mural was a complete anomaly, blurring boundaries between site-specific installation, interior decoration, painting (supposedly dead) with delusions of grandeur, and nomadic, parasitic, up-to-the-minute cinematic mirage. Fusing vulgar materialization with elegant concept, it was impeccable, and it looked like nothing else around. That should have been his comeback show. But the walls it wrapped around, in the Richard Anderson Gallery, which had by then moved to Chelsea, were four steep flights up. Not a lot of people saw it.

A year or so ago he showed at Bellwether a super-calm, ice-cold mural of a massive glacier. It was titled Disko Bay, not in homage to Travolta but because that's the name of the place in Greenland where all the North Atlantic icebergs (including the one that sank the Titanic) calve. The Dionysian beach frieze that will wrap around one room in his upcoming show will be, he estimates, about 50 or 60 feet long. "The high point will be a beer tent and a wet T-shirt contest." And the roiling seascape in the other room, a dark Antarctic vision that's the diametric opposite of Disko Bay, will run maybe 70 feet around the walls. He's thinking of titling it The Screaming Sixties, but this has nothing to do with the decade. The ocean, it seems, gets more and more turbulent as you get closer to the South Pole, and seafarers refer to the sea that wraps around Antarctica by the latitude, as they pass through the Roaring '40s and the Furious '50s to the fearsome Screaming '60s at the extreme end of the earth. It's an appropriate subject for an extreme painter on a roll.

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