By staging two-person shows that pair artists like Ioanna Pantazopoulou and Brian Chippendale, or Aine Vonnegut and James English Leary, Brooklyn’s Safe Gallery has sparked unlikely conversations between what seem like disparate practices. Other pairings, like Chris Oh and Philip H. Ashley, are perhaps less experimental but manage to expand already-evident conversations between two artists’ work. In early 2016, Safe hosted a show of individual and collaborative works by Andy Cahill and Gretta Johnson. It was my introduction to both artists, and I felt delightfully agitated by the no-holds-barred formal approaches each employed.
Recently changing gears temporarily, in their inaugural solo exhibition Safe turned the entire space over to Cahill for the sardonically titled “Home.” In ten works created between 2016-17, Cahill pushes fleshy vulgarity in outlandish and destabilizing directions. Instead of offering sanctuary, the homes Cahill has spawned grow gigantic tumor-like ears, and are populated by freakish, morphing kitchen tables, suicidal nude bozos, and mindless chain smokers. A creepy "maleness" infects many of the pieces, something the artist includes quite purposefully. In the press release, Safe states: “Menacing characters are consistent in Cahill’s work, exposing the darkness and vulnerability of the male psyche.”
Throughout the show, there were ridiculous men engaged in many strange and potentially pestilent acts. In two crayon and acrylic works on bleached linen, Progeny and Zero Sum Game (both 2016), we’re confronted with what appear to be men whose relationships with plants might raise eyebrows. Progeny's character looks like a dendrophile masquerading as some dandy-nudist spiritual guru who'd invite you over to read his work-in-progress poetry. The punkish masochism in Zero Sum Game perplexes, but for me recalled the desperate macho energy of the Five Finger Filet knife game. Instead of the hand, he's playing with a loaf of bread and his forearm. And instead of an audience of friends, this pain-exhibitionist is forcing a houseplant to bear witness.
Newer, larger works involve the application of urethane paint from plastic squeeze bottles. Here, Cahill builds imagery by developing layer upon layer of psychedelic hues that give the final surfaces a disquieting buzz. These paintings vibrate uncomfortably, as if the central nervous systems of figures, landscapes, objects, and their respective auras have popped through epidermis, earth, and ether. I found myself comically repulsed by the paintings from a distance of ten feet, and then hypnotized by their line work as I stepped closer.
In What Thomas Cole Would Do (2017), a man—flanked by the 19th century Claudean landscape tropes made famous by the piece’s titular artist—is having a piss in the woods. I’ve pissed in the woods plenty of times, and there’s little transgressive in that practical act, by itself. But here, instead of a body of serene water in the distance à la the Hudson River School, it’s an empty parking lot. I got closer and closer to the painting as the impressively-rendered, meandering stream of urine spreading out onto the parking lot seduced my eyes. Then suddenly, I had to shake my head and zoom out. What sick scene would result if a family’s minivan were to pull up for a hike? The tacit perversity in Cahill’s paintings is surreptitious, making the viewer concoct their own unsavory second acts.
And what, besides painted landscapes, are we to make of the reference to Cole?
In an interview with Quiet Lunch, Cahill offered, “I assume that [Cole] spent a lot of time outdoors, and I suspect that when he had to pee he would not hesitate to defile the landscape with his urine, which is why this painting is called What Thomas Cole Would Do.”
I like the simple 1:1 explanation, but couldn’t help recalling freshman year art history surveys where tenured professors extolled the sublime importance of Cole and his contemporaries. Cole presided over the Hudson River Valley, capturing its likeness in paint and becoming a central historical figure. Today, one of the highest peaks in the Catskills is named after him. I chuckled in the gallery thinking about Cole’s painting practice as a kind of masculine territorial pissing, not unlike graffiti, meant to demarcate parts of the landscape as claimed by him, one squire of paint at a time.
Occupying the gallery’s large back wall was the 13-foot triptych A Tale As Old As Time (2017). Comprised of three 62 x 54” canvases, it depicts two wonky figures in various states of undress. In the foreground, an entirely nude figure—that I inferred to be a bald woman—looks startled to have been happened upon. Diverting attention from herself, she’s pointed to the second figure, a half-naked man, who is pathetically crawling towards a purple house. There’s a distinct sadness to the latter’s partial nudity that's not present in the former's formal birthday suit; the dizzyingly-blue socks and red shirt highlight his doughy, exposed flesh. This choice of attire, where I grew up, was alternately called “Porky Pigging” or “Daffy Ducking,” and was agreed to be the most embarrassing state of nudity. Reinforcing the postures of the two figures is a pair of trees mimicking their conditions. One is upright and alert; the other toppled, pitiful, and uprooted. The painting’s title seems to be a reference to a lyric from Disney’s 1991 animated film Beauty and the Beast—a film whose narrative has been criticized, understandably so, as conveying to young girls that an abusive and fascist man will eventually soften, given time and affection.
Because of Safe’s floor plan, A Tale As Old As Time was the last piece in the show that I encountered, packing a final punch to the gut. Its nod to the creepy narrative in Beauty and the Beast, but with perhaps an inverted power dynamic, played blatantly with the "darkness and vulnerability in the male psyche."
Discussing the triptych in that same Quiet Lunch interview, Cahill said, “The first figure appears to be experiencing alarm, and we can assume the second figure is experiencing humiliation. The question is whether the second figure is sexually aroused by being humiliated or if he is just being traumatized.”
Again, it’s this open-endedness in Cahill’s work—putting it to the viewer to establish the narrative—that can making a viewing experience jump from lightly comedic to devastatingly sinister, depending who's doing the looking. Perhaps this man is being abused. Perhaps he actually had this humiliation coming, and the viewer deserves to laugh. Or maybe the humiliation is entirely feigned and he’s titillated by it. In regards to the male psyche, it’s worth noting that it’s a whole lot easier to be turned on by humiliation when there’s no actual risk of losing power.
In “Home,” Cahill successfully illustrated a spectrum of very “male” psychologies, in all of their grotesqueness and ironic fragility. The subject matter is hardly light fare, and Cahill’s brilliant color palettes and intricate line work coaxed me into difficult conversations with my own psyche. I left feeling like those hypnotizing exposed nervous systems weren’t so poppy after all.
Here's what I tweeted as I stepped out onto Metropolitan Ave after visiting the show: