- Maureen Mullarkey: Studio Matters - https://studiomatters.com -

It Ain’t Bosh

“Charles,” said Cordelia, “Modern Art is all bosh, isn’t it.”

“Great bosh.”

“Oh, I’m so glad. I had an argument with one of our nuns and she said we shouldn’t try to criticize what we didn’t understand. Now I shall tell her I have had it straight from a real artist, and snubs to her.”

—Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

Robert Ohnigian’s studio table and works in progress. [1]
Robert Ohnigian’s studio table and works in progress.

Just because Waugh wrote it does not make it true. All the same, it is hard to blame him, writing as he was in the wake of Dada’s aggressive anti-art impulse. Dada delighted in sticking a finger in the eye of what it considered the rancid bourgeoisie. (Their delectations, Dadaists reasonably assumed, had been rendered sterile in the face of the butcheries of the Great War). Waugh held to the belief that art should please. Doubtless, we are all with him on that.

We just need to remember that the terms of pleasure have to be negotiated, re-calibrated, from one age to the next. We are called to live in—to leaven—the age in which we find ourselves. Nostalgia is a dead end, associated with senescence for a reason. Modernity is not about to be rolled back. That it can be is a melancholy quixoticism that robs us of what is realizable in the times allotted to us. As Gregory Wolfe emphasized recently to the Catholic Artists Society, the Middle Ages are over. So is the Renaissance.

Keep in mind the price Orpheus paid for looking back. Lot’s wife, the same.

Hans Urs von Balthasar’s declaration—“We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it”—is an imperious assertion blind to the spiritual quest that attended the birth of modernism. Beauty, like grace, is all around us; it has been all along. We need only the will to see it. In the visual arts, that often means looking past brand names and the trademark culture too often taken for culture itself.

Robert Ohnigian. Catalonia (2013); paper collage on antique book cover, 5 1/8 x 8 1/4 inches. Davis & Langdale Company, New York City. [2]
Robert Ohnigian. Catalonia (2013); paper collage on antique book cover, 5 1/8 x 8 1/4 inches. Davis & Langdale Company, New York City.

Robert Ohnigian’s Lilliputian capriccio—invented landscape—is one of eighteen recent collages executed in the past year. They are up already at Davis & Langdale in New York City. Between now and November 9th, anyone in Manhattan or passing through owes it to Beauty—as Platonic as it gets—to stop in. This is transporting work. I do not know Ohnigian; have never met him. But the Blakeian quality of his work (“the world in a grain of sand”), together with the poignant loveliness of materials that carry their own history—nineteenth century books with their steel engravings—has entranced me since I first saw it.

His pieces are so small, so intimate, that they do not reproduce well in jpg. format. The stains and mottling of aged papers, the subtle shift of tone from one book paper to another, the allure of paper quality and its historicity, the visual wit—little of this translates on the web. For that reason only one piece is soloed above. You really cannot see them except up close and in the flesh. All the grace notes of texture and tone disappear in reproduction.

In a culture dominated by celebrity, the scale and calm of Robert Ohnigian’s quiet collages is counter-cultural in the most gracious sense of the word.

Alexandra Athanassiades. Horse LVIII (2005). [3]
Alexandra Athanassiades. Horse LVIII (2005).

Pleasure of another kind is on show at Kouros Gallery Sculpture Center, Ridgefield. Manhattan lost a major sculpture gallery when Kouros closed its doors in May, 2012, after thirty one years on 73rd and Madison. Exhibitions continue, however, at the Center and in the home of Kouros’ owners, Angelos Camillos and actress Charlotte Hampden. It is a delightful way to view art, the very best. Art is meant to be lived with—out on the grass, in your house—not worshipped.

The current exhibition, opening this Sunday, observes the range of styles and periods that has been Kouros’ hallmark. The work of internationally exhibited sculptors keeps company with historic pieces and contemporary paintings and drawings. Included are a ninth century Cypriot terracotta, an eighteenth century map of Thermopyle, abstract painting of the Greek landscape by the legendary Aristodimus Kaldis (d.1979), and so much more. Among my long-time favorites have been the horses and torsos—variations on the Trojan horse and warrior chest plates—built up from driftwood and metal scraps by Alexandra Athanassiades. These are haunting transfigurations of neglected and homely materials into objects of abiding beauty.

John Atkin. Sentinel (2013). Marble. [4]
John Atkin. Sentinel (2013). Marble.

This exhibition “Warriors” has two opening dates: October 6 and October 13, 2 to 6 PM. If you want to attend, RSVP your preference! Exhibition will continue through November.

Kouros Sculpture Center, 150 Mopus Bridge Road, Ridgefield, CT 06877. Tel: 203.438.7636 or Email: camillos@kourosgallery.com.