Weekly Update – Stuart Netsky

This week’s Weekly includes my review of Stuart Netsky‘s 20-year retrospective at Rosenwald Wolf Gallery. Here’s the link to the art page and below is the copy with some more pictures. Libby’s post is here. And to see more photos and see them large check out my flickr set.

Mirror Image

“What Should I Wear?” photo portrait shot by Jim Graham in 1993

Stuart Netsky, one of Philadelphia’s best-known contemporary artists-a Pew fellow, teacher and one of the few local artists to solo at the ICA-is an explorer and an iconoclast. Over the last 20 years Netsky’s dug deep in art history, pop culture and gay culture to make art that’s political and personal. That art, now in a 20-year retrospective at Rosenwald-Wolf* Gallery (and a companion show of new paintings at Locks Gallery), channel surfs the zeitgeist and has some fun with it.

“Diana” in hydrocal with some bags under her eyes.

In the 50-plus-work retrospective, Netsky sculpts, paints, knits and prints his way through the world. A consummate object maker, he creates 3-D works that stand out for their beauty and smart use of materials. The artist is known for his abstract paintings using cosmetics like lipstick and nail polish. Perhaps less well-known are the sculptures that use big pharma products like AZT, halcyon, valium and vitamin C in their castings.

My Pretty Pony, with a cor-ten steel body and those saccharine sweet pony tails shows him debunking macho materials

Hercule’s Foot, a spoof on a classical ruin, is a giant foot cast in marshmallow and AZT. The crumbling icon is elegiac, as are many of Netsky’s works. Here he mourns the loss of beauty and strength. Elsewhere there’s keening for lost love, lost memory and lost innocence.

Barnett Newman’s Untitled No. 2/Muffler

A thread of dark humor runs through Netsky’s works. His art-history-based works are wicked in their skewering of 20th-century art stars. Barnett Newman’s Untitled No. 2/Muffler, a scarf hanging limp on the wall, is downright funny. Softening Newman’s famous vertical zip line into a flaccid article of clothing pulls the 20th-century modernist off his pedestal, and implies great art need not be macho but can walk a quieter path and succeed.

Installation shot of pillows made in collaboration with Virgil Marti. In background and casting that great reflection on the floor is Netsky’s reworking of a Mark Rothko in advertising flickers.

The surprise in the show is a series of photo portraits of the artist shot by Jim Graham. The black-and-white photos from the series “What Should I Wear?” are studio shots of Netsky posing in a variety of women’s dresses as if he’s an aspiring fashion model.

Another Graham/Netsky photo from “What Should I Wear?” Pardon the fuzziness and the glare.

These 1993 works stand apart for being heated and personal in a 20-year body of cool, analytical art-making. There’s no attempt to feminize the face or body. What you see is an earnest boy-man striking hokey or staged poses and looking you straight in the eye. More than his other works, these photos seek dialogue with the viewer about the slipperiness of identity. There’s some deep truth in these pictures that gets to the core of gender and roles. And they’re a great example of how art can elevate discussion above a pat answer or a harangue by asking-and not answering-the question.

The artist’s recent abstract paintings in enamel on aluminum or Plexiglas seem inner musings about perfection. Their gorgeousness is brittle and a little too peppy, a happy face for our unhappy time. But Netsky’s greatest stamp on the world may be that 1993 photo series. It’s in those works that his questioning about identity and eternal youth rises to a level of poetry.
* Note: Part of the show is in Hamilton Hall, across the street from R-W. The photos are in Hamilton as is the gallery with pillows, flicker piece and the soft Barnett Newmans.