Tony Curanaj "Echoes and Endeavors"
Tony Curanaj’s (b. 1973) exhibition (November 19–December 19, 2015) at Joshua Liner Gallery in New York City is titled “Echoes and Endeavors.” The second part of that rather enigmatic title acknowledges the masterly control and patient craftsmanship of this excellent classical realist. The more elusive “echoes” may refer to both painterly tradition and personal interests. The eighteen works on view are meticulously observed, formally astute and subtly rewarding as conceptual explorations.
Curanaj’s favors the still-life genre, a touchstone of contemporary realism that sometimes fails to rise above simple mimesis. Curanaj’s illusionistic skills call to mind the Greek artist Zeuxis (fifth century bc), whose painted grapes looked so real that birds came to peck at them, but there are also intriguing ideas at play in works such as Jumping Jack Flash (2015). Jumping Jack Flash explores the species of hyperrealism known as trompe l’oeil. A string of fire crackers hangs from a metal hook mounted on a wooden board, covered in chipped white paint, a textural tour de force. The artist’s manipulation of shadows in this relatively shallow space is masterful. Isolating a section of the cracked white paint, the viewer could be looking at one of Robert Ryman’s white abstractions. The jaunty red fire crackers have a Fourth of July exuberance that suggests the Americana of nineteenth-century trompe l’oeil artists such as William Harnett.
Kind of Blue (2014) is an elaborate ensemble of objects, overwhelmingly in shades of blue. Amid the pots, jars, bottles, kettle and teacup are placed signs of the artist’s trade—a tube of blue paint, three artist’s brushes and a Maxfield Parrish art book. A cerulean cloth is draped behind the tableau. The artist notes: ”I used a small slice of nature’s color spectrum and careful pictorial composition…to showcase the exquisite beauty of blues.”
Curanaj combines still-life and natural elements in the conceptually rich Hummingbird Strikes a Deal with Dragon (2015), in which a ruby-throated bird perches on a covered earthenware pot with freeform Asian floral decoration in blue. The dragon of the title is a drawing on greyish paper, with curling edges, taped—in trompe l’oeil style—to the wallpaper backdrop. That backdrop features a geometric leaf design. Another fragment of wallpaper—with a more naturalistic rose motif—is secured with pin and tape behind the drawing. The levels of stylization in this work—from the hyperrealism of the bird to the fantastic drawing of the dragon to the various floral motifs of the decorative elements—repay careful attention. Curanaj often includes birds and insects in his still lifes, which are personal symbols of vitality—and suggest an implicit criticism of the French term for the genre, nature mort.
Some of the paintings in the exhibition are accompanied by studies and sketches, illuminating the artist’s practice. Curanaj does not use photographs; he draws and paints from life. His devotion to the slow, methodical process of artmaking grew out of meeting Jacob Collins and joining the Grand Central Atelier. Curanaj, who started out as a graffiti artist and worked as a designer and painter for Disney, thrives on the discipline of tradition, and his works could never be dismissed as old-fashioned. His paintings with human figures, while immaculately painted, have an edge. In the Yard (2015) depicts a young man in a hooded jacket, standing on a concrete platform next to a yellowish, old-style train car; a black car stands behind the yellow one, on another track. The scene has a wintry air, a whiff of desolation: nature is reduced to a little grass in the platform cracks and some scraggly background foliage. The painting is also unmistakeably contemporary, and the composition is dynamically undergirded by the choice of diagonal presentation of linear elements.
Joshua Liner Gallery, 540 West 28th Street, New York, New York 10001. Telephone (212) 244-7415. joshualinergallery.com