Elizabeth Harris Gallery October 10 – November 8, 2008
The puzzle of Eyal Danieli’s work is that it neither embraces nor rejects the all-but-pervasive ironies of neo-conceptualism; rather, it compounds layers of irony to reach a kind of estranged sincerity—a restlessly ambiguous fusion of statement and commentary.
This approach to the problem of 21st century painting is addressed most baldly in the series of panels called Theory and Irony, which features Danieli’s creamy fields of contrasting monochromes—silhouettes of military aircraft, the heads of an ostrich and camel, a woman in a burka, and sets of looping, curving forms that apparently suggest men’s underwear—along with the words “THEORY” and “IRONY,” each broken and truncated so that their literalness is melded into their abstract figure/ground relationship.
What might be taken for superciliousness under a different context does not seem so here. Danieli, who was born in Pittsburgh and is currently based in New York, was raised in Israel and served in that country’s military. It is not necessary to know the artist’s biography, however, to sense the weight of lived experience carried by these images. That they look media-derived contributes to their ironic distancing, which directs our attention to their formal qualities and the paint itself—elements whose lineage seems to unspool from New Image Painting (Robert Moskowitz and early Susan Rothenberg in particular), Philip Guston at his most mayonnaise-y, and, above all, Jasper Johns.
The connection to Johns may seem tangential at first, since Danieli’s work shares nothing of that artist’s perpetual motion across a diversity of media. But the heart of Johns’ practice is the repetition of motifs against shifting contexts and the multiplicity of meanings that those differences can engender. With Johns, this variability occurs through formal invention within the parameters of each picture; with the exception of The Seasons (1985–1986), his works are meant to be taken on their own, not as part of an interrelated group. The purpose of repetition in Danieli’s work is more elusive: the motifs are painted and repainted in different sizes and occasionally inverted values: they are variations on a theme more than reinvestments in previously stated positions. As individual works they draw their power from what comes before and after, as demonstrated by the groupings on display at Elizabeth Harris. Their interrelatedness, however, is not interdependency; their progression seems to grow out of the artist’s reflection upon each image’s connotations and inferences.
To return to Danieli’s reinvigoration of the painted image through a kind of meta-irony, it is worth considering the show’s title, in the mood for love. While quoting the 1930s pop tune and the enigmatic romance by Wong Kar-Wai, it also draws a direct line to the famous opening credits sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and its patently sexual midair refueling of a B-52 (over the strains of “Try a Little Tenderness,” which could serve Danieli’s show equally well).
It is also the name of a series of larger works depicting a lumbering bomber in flight, its wingspan sweeping from one end of the canvas to the other. Frontally painted, the silhouetted warplane resembles an enormous winged bug, or (as in the yellow-on-indigo “In the Mood for Love (Black)” from 2007), a streak of sunlight breaking the horizon. Like the other paintings in the show, these images draw no distinction between menace and beauty or cerebration and sex. Their irresistible graphic sensuality pulls us in while their sharp, sometimes nasty, sometimes ludicrous imagery holds itself in abeyance, ready to bite.
Translated as they are into a Western modernist vocabulary reveling in painterly incident, we tend not to notice that Danieli’s work is teeming with images from the Middle East. Instead, we look at a picture of a helicopter and think of Apocalypse Now. Caught up in our own media-obsessed provincialism, even as two prolonged, ruinous wars continue to wreak havoc in Iraq, Afghanistan and neighboring countries, we persistently skirt the complexities of the issues roiling the region in favor of simplifications rooted in ignorance, fear and self-absorption. Danieli’s paintings may recall photography or film, advertising or aesthetic theory, but these all-too-common associations are distractions from contemplating the real lives being lived beneath those helicopters, or the depth of our complicity in their plight.