CUE Art Foundation
February 2 – March 9, 2013
by Emily Means
Leonard Contino. MOON YEAR MAJIC, 1972 – Acrylic on canvas, 30″ x 30″.
Leonard Contino’s first solo show opened at the CUE Art Foundation on West 25th Street in early February. As I walked through the gallery alone a week or so after the opening, it brought to mind Gaston Bachelard’s questions of poetic imagery, particularly the seemingly intangible notion of reverberation: “The duality of subject and object is iridescent, shimmering, unceasingly active in its inversions.” Unlike the complex armature, the symbols in this exhibition construct and deconstruct though the symbols themselves remain basic – triangles, lines, biomorphic shapes. The twisting, morphing of lines into shapes that hold and carve space, mark Contino’s movement among these symbols. As one navigates his work, the symbols change. Some fade away, some are removed altogether, lines become triangles and triangles become ovals become circles become line again. The tension in this movement billows and decays throughout; what is the container and what is the contained? Contino’s dynamic pictorial plane opens as an oeuvre that echoes our historical understanding of geometric abstraction, but maintains its immediacy in the present, in its self-contained world, a world that resists audience. This work is not made for us.
Contino’s unalterable dedication to painting is apparent in the small selection of works from the seemingly endless stacks of paintings, sculptures, toys, collages and reliefs in his live/work apartment. The implications of Contino’s works are significant, and I was hesitant to write about this work in the first place, having known Contino and his active resistance to exhibiting his work. Over the course of this time, Contino has composed a visual language of biomorphic and geometric bodies that are not only dependant on a personal metaphysical and spiritual inquisitiveness, rather these works create their own immediate symbolism for generating the revolving architecture of his work, which he has inhabited since the 60’s.
Leonard Contino. SUNLIGHT SHAFT, 1983 – Acrylic on canvas, 28″ x 32″.
As you enter the galley, three black and white smaller pieces are on display in the smaller of the two rooms at CUE. Small triangles and dynamic lines hold the white space together or break it apart, depending on which piece you are viewing, in what succession and in relation to which of his other works. On the opposite wall hang two colorful abstractions whose checkered planes and 70’s sci-fi color palette create otherworldly inquiries of spatial relationships, what the curator called “spiritual and metaphysical meditations”. The fragmented focal point on the first piece comes together in the next, heavily articulated, as the other elements, both linear and biomorphic emanate to the outer edges drawing us on the next piece. It could easily be reversed and the shift between what is made and what comes apart, ties each piece in the show to the next and the next, to the pieces on the opposite and adjacent walls.
Leonard Contino. RUNIC MAGIC, 1977 – Acrylic on canvas, 52″ x 48″.
In the main gallery at CUE, hang four more black and white paintings on a larger scale, one diptych and four more in color. The diptych is of particular interest, as not even Contino himself had ever seen this piece hung together on a wall. The main room expounds the ideas established in the entryway opening up to the scale at which Contino’s world is best examined. Any cursory glance at the work makes it evident that each work is made in rigorous, painstaking care which speaks to the group as a collected whole, of a self awareness that the precious nature of each mark must continually be “re”-made, not as a simulation of the next but as the image itself; “not as an object and even less as the substitute for an object, but to seize its specific reality”. The self-aware hard-edged geometry of the black and white pieces becomes something else entirely as Contino arranges his symbols a-new, overtop soft, subdued checkered backgrounds in the colored works across from the black and white works.
Contino doesn’t make his works in a linear progression; this is evident in the work itself. Oscillating back and forth between mediums and scale, the cyclical nature of his making is manifest in his body of work. Depending on which piece you focus on first and how you move about the room, each piece makes and unmakes elements so carefully crafted in the previous one. Composed of rigid, historically potent symbols, Contino subverts my inclination to tie him to the group of artists he was friends with and the groups of artists who have made and shown geometric abstraction throughout the course of modernism. The way he encircles mediums and scale, pushes against the linearity of the symbols and the projected linearity of geometric abstraction.
Contino’s early interactions with mark making began in his youth, pinstriping cars and hot rods in Brooklyn in the late 50’s. This precision and obsession with line is apparent in the selection of works curated by Mark di Suvero, longtime friend and fellow artist. Any time a work is hung and placed on a wall we are inclined to think this work is for us, the armature that these works create are for us, the viewer, to step into, to inhabit and to either consciously or subconsciously extract meaning or lack thereof. In this body of work to draw such distinctions, to define what the impulse behind this work is meant to do and how it does it, exposes a quiet rebellion against these blaring impulses.
Leonard Contino. TOMBEE TEMPLAR, 2011 – Acrylic on canvas, 40″ x 30″.
The only element lacking here is a larger space, as sadly gallery-goers will miss out on seeing Contino’s countless reliefs, large shaped canvases and sculptures, where Contino has expounded his ideas in the third dimension, as well as his raunchy, pornographic and elegant collages where he allows himself a freedom intentionally denied in his other works.
The rebellion of these works, against any notion of capital and of exhibition, against the assumption of the “audience” and finally against an active exchange of ideas in the gallery scene, undermines any notion I may be inclined to project, that these works were made for anyone other than the artist, himself. They are the artifacts of a world he continues to inhabit, a world in rejection of the assumed norm. And in doing so the consequence of these works, of his reclusive dedication, becomes poetic in the sense that their resonance becomes difficult to determine “at what depth these echoes will reverberate and die away”.
*Bachelard, Gaston, and M. Jolas. “Introduction.” The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon, 1994. Xix+. Print.