Monday, April 10, 2006

Artist of the Week (04/10/06)

I first visited James Esber's studio back in 1999, I believe. His large representational works made from plasticine on canvas (seemlessly incorporated into the wall) were astounding, but his exploration (which Ken Johnson described as "plumb[ing] the polymorphously perverse depths of the American psyche') stood in stark contrast to the genial, understated gentleman I met that day. Over the years I became friends with James and his wife (the equally talented artist, Jane Fine) and although his work has evolved somewhat since that first introduction (and I included one of his particularly tantilizing pieces in a group exhibition about sleaze culture), James remains to my mind the sort of decent upstanding person you'd be happy to have manage your retirement funds.

But then again, James' work deals with dichotomy in blunt and brilliant terms. Consider this piece:

James Esber, Toledo Bend, 2003, Plasticine on canvas, 104" x 58" (image from
PPOW website).

The press release for James' 2003 exhibition at PPOW gallery, described his work this way:

With each piece Esber creates figurative hybrids, chimeras that combine the innocent with the naughty, the sublime with the beautiful. The cartoonish painterly style of Guston, for instance, is rendered in a highly original three dimensionality. The figures he paints are hyper-biological, even more so for being pushed up against totaled automobiles with hoods agape and motors out: cars disemboweled. In Esber’s work the tactility of the image creates a distortion effect; the plasticity of the image makes it pop into life.

Sometimes the hybrids become quite complex as well. Here's another image from that exhibition:

James Esber, Thimbleton, 2003, Acrylic on styrene, 100" x 69" (image from PPOW website).

And one more:

James Esber, Yankee Boulevard, 2003, Acrylic on styrene, 84" x 72" (image from PPOW website).

There's an obvious affinity with Peter Saul's work in these pieces, and in fact Robert Storr included both Peter and James in his curation of Site Sante Fe (2004-2005), which was appropriately titled "Disparities and Deformations." Here's an installation shot of James' work at that exhibition:

James Esber, Bouquet, 2004, Plasticine, 106" x 75" (installation view; image from Site Sante Fe website).

We say this on this blog all the time, but in this case it's never been more true, you really have to see James' work in person to say you saw it. And if you haven't, you're in luck, because James has an exhibition opening this Friday at Pierogi in Brooklyn. I'll end with two of my favorite pieces by James:

James Esber, Double Dick, 2004, Plasticine, 2 panels, 49" x 25" each (image from Carl Solway Gallery website)

James Esber, Hummel Boy/Muscle Man, 2002, Plasticine, 40" x 40" (image from PPOW website).


Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

I have never gone to Brooklyn for a gallery opening, but I think I might want to this time, just because, even with the photos, I can't figure out how "plasticine on canvas" works as a medium.

4/10/2006 11:06:00 AM  
Blogger operation enduring artist said...

james, your work looks great! i cant wait to see you on friday!

4/10/2006 11:20:00 AM  
Anonymous pc said...

Love these, even on screen. Wish I did them.

4/10/2006 11:21:00 AM  
Blogger fin said...

amazing and strange

4/10/2006 11:49:00 AM  
Blogger James Wolanin said...

Great work. I'm not at all familiar with Plasticine, the medium seems very unique and interesting.

4/10/2006 12:00:00 PM  
Anonymous pc said...

Hey, Ed, I've been thinking about the idea of truth you talked about in a post a while back, and I'm wondering how you'd apply the notion to James Esber's images. I've never been sure exactly what you meant, no doubt a problem on my part in trying to deal with subtle abstract ideas. I'd love to hear your analysis regarding the truth of these works!

4/10/2006 02:32:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

hmmm...isn't Monday supposed to be the easy question day?

OK, so this may sound like a dodge, but I'd want to spend a bit more time talking with James about his work before answering that question definitively. It's no small matter, what you're asking, and deserves a very well-informed and well-considered response.

And this may sound like nit-picking, but it's central to my thoughts here: I don't know that I care that much about the "truth OF these works"...all I've been saying is that one can make judgments based upon the "truth IN these works."

Having prefaced this that way, though, all I've ever meant by that is that when you see them, they do indeed ring true (within the context of what the artist is exploring).

To see this for yourself, ask the following: does the artist reveal something that stands up to critique or do the ideas expressed get demolished by that combination of logic and what it is we genuinely feel about that "something."

For example, James is exploring stark contradictions in his work. If, say, using the Toledo Bend piece above, the choice of a Hummel brought to mind no contradictions with the choice of the sex orgy (in terms of associations), then that piece would not be very good at expressing anything about contradiction. But it's precisely because most of us associate the Hummel with things prim and proper, if perhaps a bit uptight, and we associate an orgy with things in the category of the virtual opposite of that, that James' choices here are solid and provide a vehicle into a more profound understanding of such contradictions in our world.

A Hummel juxtaposed with a scene from a famous Norman Rockwell painting, for example, could not do the same thing (as the contradiction between associations is nowhere near as great). And as such would not contain as much "truth" in it about contradictory aspects of our culture.

There's much more going on with James' work, especially with choice of materials and process, that reinforce his ideas about contradiction, but it's difficult to answer a question like that without building up an entire thesis with examples and then tying them together...something I don't have time for right now, unfortunately (nor a fresh recollection of the subtleties of James' project, which would also be essential to doing your question justice).

4/10/2006 03:01:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Plasticine would attract dust like crazy, they would be black in a few years. It has got to be polymer clay, the cookable kind, which comes in tons of good colors.

Wouldn't sound as cool to say 'media: Sculpey' though. That's a hobby material!

4/10/2006 05:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

...then that piece would not be very good at expressing anything about contradiction...

successful expression excludes the requirement of knowing anything about Hummel

4/10/2006 06:20:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

successful expression excludes the requirement of knowing anything about Hummel

I disagree. The concept of "contradiction" here requires knowing something definite of having some definite preconceived notions about the opposing ideas or forces, IMO (otherwise, you're sliding all over the place). And, so yes, what I presume to be your definition of "successful expression" here is then one in which "contradiction" can only be conveyed through some means that leaves certain potential viewers in the dark, but the absolute measure of "successful expression" implicit here cannot exist, IMO, so I'm OK with that. In such a context, no work of art express the same absolute message to all people, IMO.

or something like that...I have to dash, so I'll think some more about this.

4/10/2006 06:52:00 PM  
Anonymous ml said...

When I look at James' work, I think about distortion - how information is distorted and how accustomed we have become to deciphering the distortion. His work, to me, is epitomizes the information age.

4/10/2006 08:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

IMO, There are no contradictions in the world in which we live. Ideas and language assess things as contradiction due to the very nature of reason, which contradicts itself often to get a closer view of something--the scientific approach;)!
By placing two opposite ideas in close proximity, overlapping, or inter-commingling, Shelly wrote about, which is not truth or beauty, but the nature of reason with it's contradiction mirror unreason.


4/10/2006 09:31:00 PM  
Anonymous 26 said...


4/10/2006 09:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, 26 now you're talking Praxis!

Isn't it easier to turn two into one! Or even, as my math teacher went through, 1 to zero.

As far as I can gather the run of this thread is that there lay a lot of doubt in this well of well-run roads into of an analytic cleavage. All things that residue-- accumulate / acclimate-- become imminently more difficult to distill.

Standing back focuses form into coherent bodies of thought and practice.

Disparate ideas are a necessary background in which an artist needs to make choices. The most successful choices I've seen made are when there is a leap, a click, a bound--a momentary open book--when as clear as clear an action is taken followed by a grasp of the just before before yet now probing unknowable.

Anyways, that's for you 26!


4/11/2006 08:30:00 AM  
Anonymous pc said...


Here's a late response to your discussion of truth. (Even non-bloggers get busy sometimes!)

Clearly, James's work takes contradiction in its stride. I think what you've said, basically, is that the easily divined idea in the work is a Hummel/porno contraction, and that srikes you as a worthy idea. But it's all in the way James does it, imo, and not so much in the idea. What is remarkable is how James has invented a new vocabulary to express this somewhat juvenile idea in a very sophisticated way. But the idea may be more sublte than Hummel/porno, in that Kitsch is usually a burlesque of high art in the way pornography is a debasement of sex. For me, it sets up a vibration that is more based on confusion than contradiction. Kitsch and porn are confused art and confused love, each unmoored from real feeling. HB/MM is easy to discuss, but James's work is interesting to me almost despite your analysis of its truth. You mention at the end of your post that James does a lot more with process and materials, etc., to reinforce the truth in his examination of contradiction. But the truth really seems to be in the visual, not the cognitive. I think you can imagine a lesser artist juxtaposing saccharine and hardcore to dismal results. But isn't it much harder to imagine a piece done with James's particular intelligence and inventivness on any subject that failed? It's this comparison urges me to question you on truth and keeps leading me to think that truth is in the ineffable visual and feeling regions of art. I might even be able to argue that his work more deeply truthful about perception, about examining how contradictory visual and conceptual information is processed by the eye than it is about exposing a truth about our culture.

Oh, god. I've bloviated. And when I've finished writing this, I realize that it's way too much work to go back and add a couple of jokes or take out some verbiage. My apologies! But the idea of truth is so attractive and I often like the art you like, but may not always get it. I'm learning a lot, so THANKS!


PS I found the comments by Anon/ABS about philosophy-type stuff very interesting, but over my head!

4/11/2006 11:06:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is interesting! I thought I was the only artist working with plasticine. I make sculptures in the same material, and they are even related in content too, in that they deal with contradiction, confusion, the male gaze, masculinity, childhood, memory and so on. Basically the body in post-industrial society. I´m writing this comment because I would really like to exchange experiences about the technical properties of the material with the artist, and would be very grateful if Mr. Winkleman could forward my request to the him.


Bjørn Bjarre

5/19/2006 05:32:00 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home