Art

Power Painter: Postmasters Gallery Delivers Anton Perich’s Machine-Made Canvases

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For some time now, painters have battled their ur-enemy — mechanical reproduction — by any means necessary. Tricksters like Warhol beat copies at their own game, creating (seemingly) endlessly reproducible screen prints. Others preferred hands-on combat: Sigmar Polke pulled paper through Xerox machines and celebrated the resulting squeegee-like errors in paintings and prints; more recently, Wade Guyton tugged canvas through a printer in search of the highly prized glitch.

Now along comes a lesser-known light to complicate the narrative. Rather than force machines to pay for their replicating sins, 69-year-old Anton Perich — a Croatian-born experimental filmmaker who circulated in the Parisian avant-garde before moving to New York in 1970 — created his very own painting-making apparatus, one that he both befriended and loved. Perich played it like an instrument, in a man/machine pas de deux that resulted in pictures that replicate photos, however roughly, and that end up looking a lot like the broken-down TV signals of a bygone analog era. “Electric Paintings 1978–2014,” a survey of those works, is on view at Postmasters Gallery.

When Perich got to New York, he fell in with Warhol and his crowd, hitting parties and shooting photos for Interview. He eventually launched his own cable-access TV show transmitting Roger Daltrey after-parties and Grace Jones’s haircuts. Segments of the show screen in the gallery, as does footage of the artist operating his painting contraption.

And what a funny machine it was…and is. (Perich still uses one, though there have been a few versions since the one he
devised in the late 1970s.) At its heart is
a light-sensitive sensor and an airbrush traveling in tandem across canvas or
paper. Perich projects a photograph,
often his own party pictures, onto a canvas hanging from the wall. Each time the
machine makes a pass, it adds acrylic
paint here and there in quarter-inch-wide lines along its path, roughly replicating
the photographic original.

This is painting through the eyes of
a videographer. Perich knew the insides
of television tubes and how they encoded images line by horizontal line. For those
of us old enough to remember TVs with antennas that would sometimes lose their signal, Perich’s pictures are broken down in a similar way. These imperfections only enhance the beauty of the beautiful people, deepening the hollows of their sculptural cheekbones and inflating the pout of their lips. And in Perich’s more abstract images, such as one of a silhouetted figure, probably at a club, the result is a scene viewed through an electronic haze that reads as euphoria.

The early pictures are all done on unprimed canvases, and their nod to the history of stain painting is unmistakable, even if Helen Frankenthaler might blush at such celebrations of pop idols and parties. The more recent works move in new directions. The strongest among them take original images and obscure them
so much that they transform from party pictures into mystical ones. One man’s face is so shadowed that the picture looks like the Shroud of Turin. Another woman with eyes downcast could be Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks. Other canvases are heavily primed so that pigment sits on their surface, with mixed results. When Perich plays his machine by stalling it for a moment, the result is tiny paint splashes like so many itsy-bitsy spiders. But other instances where brightly hued colors float atop white surfaces result in shiny paintings that could pass for ink-jet canvases you’d buy at the mall. Yet even at their weakest, these pictures mark a man/
machine détente.


There’s a low-level apocalypse
happening inside On Stellar
Rays
, where 35-year-old Tommy Hartung delivers a spooky exhibition of film and sculptures in which the only thing missing seems to be Ebola.

Hartung’s show, modestly titled “THE BIBLE” — the all-caps shout seems fitting — orbits around his 48-minute film of
the same name. Loosely based on the Old Testament, the film’s most prevalent images are of destruction and moral decay.

Hartung has culled far-ranging images from video-game screens and surfed TV channels and interspersed them with scenes shot in his studio and starring his complicated assemblage sculptures. The soundtrack varies in tone and cadence, from an impassive voice describing a gay hate-crime murder to another voice talking about enlisting in the U.S. armed forces
after 9-11. The cumulative effect might be liberal dross if it weren’t for the leavening done by Hartung’s deeply weird images.

Three-dimensional versions of some of those images haunt the gallery in a series of sculptures installed here and there and bathed in the eerie glow of the film’s wall-size projection. They form a menagerie of menace: a monkey with a man’s face, a three-headed (at least) man-woman made of bones, body parts, wigs, and twine (the piece includes bits and bobs from mannequins, whose goofy presence lightens
the mood), and cascades of found stuff.
Almost all have some kind of light issuing from within that adds to the room’s glow.

It’d take too much space to identify
the component parts of the seated figure of Abraham, but the major bits come through: An embroidery hoop thrown over a bit of white cloth and secured with twine stands in for the headband and
keffiyeh of Islamic attire; the headpiece crowns a mutilated mask that rests on several more mannequin heads, which in turn preside over a body of bones and mannequin parts; there’s also at least one wig. A hydra in bricolage, Abraham slumps like a bad guy tied up on a chair in an old caper film. The piece, like the others here, manifests the spirit of Hans Bellmer’s creepy doll figures, with generous portions of Ed Kienholz’s social-commentary assemblage sculptures, and a major dose of Isa Genzken’s maquettes thrown in.

To say Hartung calls to mind so
many other artists is to suggest the work
is derivative. It’s not. Hartung may wear his influences on his sleeve, but this chaos kasbah speaks a singular language.