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Street corner Mandalas

January 7, 2009

From The Weekender

The New Year’s most playful and diversely wrought exhibit (in this region) is a presentation of hot dog umbrellas on Lackawanna Avenue in Scranton. Not, as they usually appear, on the street itself, but indoors and suspended without their support structure, perpendicular to their expected plane, and endowed with mystical and quizzical imagery. Like so many Brunelleschian domes collapsed and hung to dry — perhaps to allow the varied images to cure together into a cohesive whole — the spiritual and the comical collide in an affront to conservative aesthetics. These roughly 82-inch hexagonal canvases originally designed to shade and market Hebrew National, Cinzano and Sabrett have been appropriated for the purposes of Steve Kursh, a California native now living in Kingston, N.Y.

And just what are his purposes? Well, he’ll speak with warmth and enthusiasm in cleverly elliptic equations that begin to sound like explanations and then turn in on themselves, like the tail-eating beast in “Enjoy Death,” which hovers in a pictorial space located approximately two centimeters in front of Coca-Cola logos, one of which has been altered to say “Enjoy Completion.” Grinning yet?

Enlightenment is the obvious catch phrase here, but it is an enlightenment of light moods and lite drinks, delighting in Warholian brands and Duchampian sex. Lakshmi is here, but so are Eros and the Mermaid. Although he may not openly say so, the notion of enlightenment achieved as quickly as a vendor’s hot dog can be drawn up, out of the primordial waters, slathered in mustard and offered, mummified in a bun, is part of the fun.

It’s all as tasty as the dog in the Buddhist joke: One With Everything. Puns and wordplay are arrived at in varying ways, but most often by literal cut-and-paste so that “Good Humor” becomes “Good Humpr,” and in another piece, “Life Savers” becomes “Life Verses.” Sometimes, paint thinner is used to dissolve letters, and other times he just writes, casually, with his brush, right over existing jingles.

Madonnas of all stripes are juxtaposed with each other, depicted in the appropriate styles, smiling knowingly and invitingly. Sometimes, as in “A Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight,” the imagery is as simple and direct as possible: a fan of flames and dark, deathly dripping. Other times, the post-modern impulse to combine the unlikely offers new insights: think, now — what do the Jetsons have in common with Santa Claus?

Pastiche is a common mode of approach for the PoMo artist, and Kursh dangles such broad mixtures of content with such a willful range of styles that it’s impossible not to classify him this way. The territory is familiar — religion, sex, death — but frankly how can we avoid it? He points out that this has been the stuff of art since before there was any word for art. So it is enormously satisfying to see him take the content — the Hindu tinges, the Buddhist mantras, the puns and the pinups, all of it — for granted, and use it as a departure point for vivid visual display.

It’s the color, baby, and the brushwork, and the jarring, throat-clamping invention that make these things tingle. Fearless, abrupt decision making is the only way to arrive at the most succulent parts of these signages. Vast, querulous triangles of whatevercolor, aggressively manipulated, separate planes of pseudo-narrative, and then, as a sort of inventory, Kursh indexes the colors used in frets of casual daubing along selected sextants. At his best, as in a wicked depiction of a cowgirl with the head of an eagle, Kursh invites us to participate in a world where religion still has the smack of sensual tensions and self-knowledge is achieved viscerally, not in the texts of tenure applications. No lip-servant, Kursh is a devotee who picks the pockets of his priests, and then buys franks for all his friends, with relish.

The show is hung carefully enough that the slightly off-kilter presentation is assertively uneasy. Some of the works are literally unbalanced. Others could be spun like an endless day in Cherbourg, and more, cryptically, exist, but cannot be seen. Perhaps they exist in the shade cast by the umbrellas “re-covered” by James Joyce, in “The Sisters.” These, however, are not the earnest, functional umbrellas used by ancient Egyptians to salute the sun disc. They are leering snickers that no longer care about the weather.

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