On ViewVito Schnabel Gallery
Stefan Bondell: Dark Marks
February 2 – March 18, 2023
Stefan Bondell inhabits a unique niche in the herky-jerky continuum of figurative painting in the United States. To find his antecedents, we must jump back many generations and sweep the dust-off names like Reginald Marsh (1898-1904) and Paul Cadmus (1904-1999). Paintings such as Marsh’s rendition of a Coney Island Sideshow (1930) or his 1929 frieze-like etching of a breadline, or Cadmus’s 1936 Public Dock all rise to mind when viewing Bondell’s pictures. To those names we would add German Expressionists like George Grosz and Max Beckmann who lived here, and Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros whose presence in the United States brought socially critical art on a grand scale into American culture.
What Bondell shares with those six artists is an impassioned reaction to immediate circumstance—news—that transforms it into art. The jam-packed pictures of Marsh and Cadmus turn New York into a “city of dreadful night,” while the Expressionists and muralists constitute distant forbearers for Bondell’s black-and-white painted friezes set in a “season in hell.” Where Bondell differs from his predecessors is in his transformation of protest and caricature into other-worldly scenes, grisaille-like renditions of episodes from our collective experience translated into fragments of ancient sculpture. The seventeen acrylics on canvas assembled here are large (the largest 90 × 139, the smallest 67 × 65 inches), so their didactic power is clear: Bondell has something to say about our world and wants to be sure we see his point.
There is a difference between didacticism and preaching, and Bondell deftly marks that difference. Right’s Rites (2018) gathers fragmentary figures on a murky field. On the left, a reclining tyrant wielding a broken sword torn loose from a piece of classical sculpture; at center a martyr hanging by his hands, naked; below left the traditional figure of Roman Charity, the daughter, Pero, suckling her father Cimon, sentenced to death by starvation. Hovering on the right, a lion, a bereft child, a sullied stars-and-stripes, all haunted by an eye that implores us to see suffering and learn pity. Bondell’s message is not explicit; to the contrary, he asks us to compose the fragments into a coherent totality. This is true even in a work whose subject is all-too-clear, Border Crossing (2019). Here it is not only the fact of closed borders that Bondell depicts but the despair of those locked out. Statue-like figures with their hands over their faces express the desolation of those who have traveled far only to find the final door won’t open.
More enigmatic, though grander as an image, The Eagle’s Sarcophagus (2018) presents us with a frieze, seemingly removed from one side of a funerary sarcophagus. The welter of figures is a total confusion, to the point that we cannot tell if the figures, possibly including Apollo and his victim Marsyas, are celebrating or suffering. Here it is up to the viewer to conjure a meaning because nothing is explicit, only the fact that the eagle (whatever it happens to symbolize) is dead. The eagle reappears in Isis and the Eagle (2021), but, again, ambiguity reigns. Isis here, in the various female Greco-Roman images, may represent the maternal energies in our lives while the eagle, the aggressive masculine or paternalistic powers, but Bondell leaves it to us to decide what’s at stake here.
More directly related to our lives and times are explicit works like Insurrection (2021), The Toll (2021), and Plague and Science (2021). In the first, Bondell is clearly enthralled by images related to the January 6, 2021, assault on the US Capitol. In a style reminiscent of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals (1932–33), where many events take place simultaneously in a single image, Bondell creates a kaleidoscopic whirl around the US Capitol building with the all-too-recognizable caricatures of Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump embedded in a mass of grotesque faces. No less turbulent are Bondell’s images of the covid crisis. The Toll depicts the consequences of the pandemic: death, suffering, and exhaustion, while Plague and Science manages to capture the politicization of medicine that was the inevitable consequence of the pandemic.
Stefan Bondell has given new life to painterly protest, to the idea that art cannot remain aloof from crisis. His powerful paintings, closer to spontaneous drawing than to highly finished oils, take us into the shared nightmare we call the evening news.