SNAKES AND SHAPES | Erik Foss and Solomostry
Oct 5, 2023 → Dec 7, 2023, Cellar Contemporary
Oct 5, 2023 → Dec 7, 2023, Cellar Contemporary
Although not a novel condition, the plight of today’s working class laborer and wage worker is Sisyphean and dispiriting. The worker rises, often concurrently with the sun’s first rays, and bustles via public transportation towards their place of work. In the summers, the train, bus, or tram is a sweat-stained, muggy moving pig of a bog. Yet the worker must oblige. In the winters, a bitter air wafts with train floors caked in snow-cum- rusted-muck; it is not uncommon that one can see their condensation-breath careen into tufts of cool, airy ghosts, molded along that dew point where air can no longer hold water vapor. Again, however, the worker must oblige. Unlike the tourist or the newly relocated university student, the worker need not consult maps on their phone to make their way; the route is thoroughly memorized. This unceremonious ritual is but a series of acts of rote memorization, a mirror to the rote routine that their day will shake.
Whether it be serving meals to irritable patrons or rotating axes along the factory shop floor, the worker’s tasks eventually become motorized, such that the worker is at pains to distinguish themselves from the instruments they manipulate, twist, and turn. This worker recognizes that, however much idealism they may approach the grooves of their day with, the kernel of artisanship that may have once guided builders, craftspeople, and carpenters has been outstripped by the mode of commodity production they are freighted by. This is all the more abetted by compounded fears that the precarious workers unsuccessfully try to ignore— that is, losing their position, and thus their means of survival, to a chance accident, company downsizing, or the apparently imminent (so we are told) threat of automation. Unlike his 20th century antecedents, the 21st century wage worker is lucky if they might countenance themselves as part of a labor union, the anxieties of precarity thus ever-multiplying.
Where then might the wage workers of the world, with little economic means, turn for reprieve, for enjoyment? Similarly, where might his children, who precociously recognize their family’s financial constraints, turn? Sometimes, the wage worker and his offspring, so crushed and crestfallen, aching in his bones and muscles, finds himself reduced to a vehicle of passions, finding solace in pain-numbing euphoric drugs or drink. We are often told such stories when far-removed politicians, journalists, or intellectuals who, with promised sympathies and a solace-rimmed heart, seek to make sense of the effects of de-industrialization, outsourcing, and the coeval dejection that swathes of the global working class face. Yet there are also other, lesser told moments of reprieve—soft moments of poetry that do not offer adventitious narrativization for would-be storytellers far-removed from the workers they recount. These are moments of aesthetic abatement and embankment, which the wage-worker not only catchesglimpses at but, with as full-fleshed force as the regular gallery-goer or museum-patron, hangs on to for dear life. They may not be framed within polished gold frames or the bounds of museum architecture; instead, they may be projected by the television set or encircled by the skatepark. But they abound, nevertheless.
In short, these lesser told stories do not always croon in the timbre of the beaux arts. As Erik Foss—an artist truly of the working class, born in Elgin, Illinois and raised in a blue-collar neighborhood of Phoenix, Arizona— once noted to me in conversation, “Poor people arrive at art from pop culture”. The pop culture scaffolding’s belvedere contains sights toward advertising images, skateboard stickers, music videos, and cartoons. This description of the aestheticization of the contents of everyday life might resonate with the contemporary reader, whose mind turns to Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann, Roy Lichtenstein, and Marjorie Strider, each of whom, in carving the foundations of American Pop Art, transfigured recognizable images from the prosaic and workaday. In Wesselmann’s case, the artist adorned and perfected the edges of smoked cigarettes; Lichtenstein made gargantuan the array of benday dots and comic book panels; Strider turned to the “girlies” of pin-up erotica and household objects; and Warhol, most famously, used the mechanics of industrial repetition to take pre-existent iconic imagery to its socio-cultural logical conclusion. What Foss shares with these aforementioned artists is not only a working class background and proclivity for instrumentalizing the popular culture of his time, but also a deeply affectionate purview for how the workfolk’s arrival at the foot of the aesthetic takes shape.
Yet Foss is also distinct from these Pop Art progenitors in critical modes. The device of appropriation is of lesser import to Foss than it was for this aforementioned American Pop Art cadre, at least insofar as their art practice—contextualized by postmodernist art critics and art historians like Benjamin Buchloh, Hal Foster, and Rosalind Krauss—privileges themes like camp, pastiche and the representation of representation. Those theorists, and other contributors among their October ranks like Douglas Crimp, identified queer or political underpinning in the work of the American Pop artists and their grand recoil from Greenbergian reflexive examinations of that which is intrinsic to painting or sculpture. Yet that which these postmodern critics oft identified had less to do with the purely sensuous qualities of the paintings’ pictorial content and more to do with how the images functioned “semiotically”. These American Pop artists and their successors instrumentalized political and sociocultural critique by appropriating cultural signifiers that, now posited into detached contexts, could serve as self-aware vehicles with which to illuminate the
trappings of commodity capitalism. Foss’ practice is more celebratory—his winding, lilac-mulberry cobra snakes, far from the blemishes of lividity, prance their forked teeth and unspool devious beanpole tongues in smiles. Foss’ cobras, which recall graffiti-inflected, air-brushed t-shirts sold in malls all across America, are not menacing snakes and they have no direct referent. Rather, the background concatenation of skateboard culture, graffiti stickers, and mall culture hangs, ready for associative threading.
Trekking the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side and Chinatown, the attentive pedestrian can easily find Foss’ snakes, cut in the same shape that his shaped- wood canvases take, pasted on windows, mailboxes, subway stanchions, and train seats. Foss’ snakes are not dispassionately wrapped up in the spirit of postmodernist critique but coiled in the direction of a deep appreciation for both his foundational years and those working class people who arrive at art the way he did. Foss’ art practice is, in this way, a kindred spirit to that of Richard Hambleton. For although the latter more strictly attended to a rogue street art practice (one that Foss does not neglect, though he also often works in the studio) and its skein-bitten splatters, the two share a properly populist whim. In any case, Foss’ sincerity towards his subjects demarcates a dialectical sublation of the kind of removed, postmodernist Pop Art handed-down from the American artists of the mid- 20th century.
This exhibition at Cellar Contemporary offers viewers a panoramic review of Foss’ post-Pop Art motifs. A self- taught artist (who has been painting since age twelve), Foss works in both abstract and figurative modes; in this exhibition, the full breadth of Foss’ stylistic ambit is on display. In keeping with his candor towards popular imagery and its contextual semblance, Foss makes no attempt to eschew slights and trickles of the brush. In urging errant marks into textured pools, Foss culls the spirit of self-taught artists like James Castle and Bill Traylor. In one of Foss’ works, we see a Mickey Mouse-esque figure, beaming a sooty smile with cartoonish square eyes and an upturn snout. A cascade of vermillion and flaxen lines course down the pseudo- Mickey’s body, rivulets gathering in what appear to anthropomorphized organs. The eyes, ears, smile, and body are riven with hap-dash, electric stipples that are diametrically opposed to his finely-tuned, shaped-wood cobra piece, The Coil (2023). These occasional lineal elements take on their own life in works on paper like Sussurrano i giganti (2023). Here the work’s eponymous whispers (viz., “sussurri”) turn into a series of winding yarn strings, draping cobalt ultramarines that overlap, shadow, and buzz like sinusoidal waves gone awry. The piece suggests a mechanical circumscription knocked a-skew, as if the guide of a robotic arm has come to lapse. It is redolent of Shusaku Arakawa’s minimal lines and Francis Picabia’s alien shapes. Whether Foss’ lineaments are the indices of his cobra’s chosen trail or the byproduct of automatism, there is a studied cultivation to them that feels of a piece with our contemporary digital epoch and its technological affordances.
Anthropomorphizing and self-reference are two of Foss’ guiding threads, albeit the latter is expunged of Warholian self-idolatry. Many of the cobra works, like The Coil, double the snake motif. In this work, the totemic piece features a lantern-like smaller face, its mask wrapped in the tail end of the hooded cobra’s wrangle. Self-reference is here in keeping with the codes of graffiti writing,where the act of repeating one’s tag across façades and embankments is part and parcel of the endeavor. After all, the graffiti writer, no matter how skilled he may be in producing masterful pieces, cannot be countenanced a success if he has sparsely “gotten up” (viz., painted only a few public spaces). Without foregoing the grit that informs this wing of his project, Foss also pays homage to the artists who have clearly influenced his venture. The Funeral Party (2023) is a clear nod to Takashi Murakami’svariegated, anime-influenced anthropomorphic flowers. The grinning posies are here made more painterly and caustic, periwinkle petal cloves besmirched by chalky blues and near-impasto beige. Further flecks and specks of paint top the background, giving these works a more expressionistic freneticism. Foss’ command ought not here be overlooked, as each aberrant drab and wayward stab of the brush refracts and reflects a kaleidoscopic wading pool of colors. All of these elements speak to the sheer consideration undergirding Foss’ art practice.
Foss’ work readily elicits appreciation from both initiated art-admirers and those who, to borrow his appellation, “arrive at art from pop culture”. This accessibility is clearly a conscious impetus. Foss, who has both worked myriad menial jobs (including that of a ditch-digger) and operated numerous underground avant-garde art and music spaces in New York, has never renounced his pedigree. His quotational appropriations include “hot rods, low riders, cartoons, carnival rides, fairground[s] [...] airbrushed T-shirts, [and] skateboard graphics.” Foss’ hearty embrace of the very annals of American popular culture that young people from working class backgrounds grapple on to so as to formulate beauty out of what the coastal elite might deem “detritus” implicates him in the revivifying worldview readily detectable in Harmony Korine (both the Korine of the neon-washed Spring Breakers, 2012, and the grime-belching Korine of Julian Donkey-Boy, 1999, and Gummo, 1997). Appropriately, then, this two-person exhibition finds Foss joined by the Milan- based artist and graffiti writer, Solomostry (Edoardo Maestrelli).
The bridge between the two artists is the “shape”. While the title of the show, “Snakes and Shapes”, may seem to speak to a bifurcation—Foss occupying the “snake” pole and Solomostry the “shape”—both artists turn and return to the outline and, consequently, the “shape”. In Foss’ case, his shaped-wood cobra pieces are the most constitutional example, though his deviant dapples and mottled speckles show the breakdown of the container. Thus, even in his more abstract moments, Foss remains invariably tethered to “shaping” and “un-shaping”. Where Foss plays with sculpting and suturing the edges of the canvas, Solomostry works in a more mythic mode. The shape is more so a vehicle of containment in Solomostry’s work, windows berthing negative space and thick outlines that proffer further parcels. Solomostry’s interlocked elements include flower petals and leaded glass-like triangular shards. Solomostry’s use of the line is decisively flat and geometrical, less concerned withlayering and overshadowing, directed instead towards the act of myth-making through ambiguous patterns. Nordic and Mayan runes come to mind, though the sun-blazing orange and crimson-bled stripes, all quite thick, recall Keith Haring’s dance-buoyed stick figures. As is the case with Haring, Solomostry’s repeated motifs are cragged and lifted from public walls, where his art practice was inaugurated.
In Italian, Solomostry means “only monsters”. Both Foss and Solomostry trade in and direct the putatively “monstrous”. They beautify it but do not purify. In retaining the soot and grit of proletarian relics, this exhibition marks a refusal to expiate. The gallery walls find themselves moored to an absolute unconcern for absolution and the ironic fancies of the cultivated elite. In its place, we have something interwoven with sincerity and celebratory memory.
Special projects, Posted on 14/11/2023
by Vania Notarnicola
On the occasion of the double solo exhibition of artists Erik Foss and Solomostry, Cellar Contemporary presents "Cacciatori di Nove," the first Italian edition in handcrafted ceramics by Erik Foss.Read More
by Davide Raffaelli