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February 28, 2006

{     "Super Nova" Jeff Soto at Jonathan Levine Gallery     }

To the readers of Jeff Soto needs no introduction. His brand of wigger graffiti/designer toy culture influenced "fine art" is just the kind of thing this forum tends to laud with uncritical abandon. But his New York solo debut, on view at Jonathan Levine Gallery from February 18th-March 18th, presents us with as many problems as it does solutions.

Paintings like Battle for Twin Palms showcase what we have come to love in Soto's work. The layering of painterly collage derived from Barry McGee with characters imitative of Star Wars, Miyazaki films and Transformers are all there as well as his now familiar vocabulary of flaming paint rollers, butterflies, bulbous cacti plant forms, robot bodies with dopey smiley faces, floating cube forms all tied together with succinct texts and sweeps of color across battle torn vistas of western US sky. The Duel, Wild Growth, Winter, The Protectors and Growers all display this direction. That's as far as it goes for interesting paintings though.

The numerous other entries crowded the walls of Jonathan's gallery with weak attempts at political commentary (M16A2, Falling), compositions focusing on plants: the least interesting elements of his vocabulary (Blue Flower Cluster, Hayduke Flowers, Butterfly Swarm, Spring) and tiny paintings focusing on Potato Stamps. The plant paintings read as his version of 16th-19th century academic still life paintings and are just as boring. The potato stamp paintings are too loose and trivial to be taken seriously.

These aren't the most terrible pieces though. Those focusing on skulls are the most amateurish, pedestrian and bland work I've seen Soto make. They operate like sophomoric educational studies given a painterly background to make them presentable. They would have been better left at the studio. They show a direction needing further development in order to hold weight next to pieces like Battle for Twin Palms.

The Super Nova installation of family photos, children's book covers, sketchbook pages and half assed washes on the wall wasn't as bad but mediocre nonetheless. It lacked energy in its formally predictable crawl and sprawl across the architecture of the middle gallery. Its use of ephemera from his childhood came off as a bit narcissistic and maudlin. Soto would do well to shy away from his Barry McGee fetish in this area and look at the work of Jessica Stockholder, Sarah Sze, Ann Hamilton, or Cai Guo-Qiang for some lessons in how to really turn architecture out by engaging us with bolder formal juxtapositions, as good installation art should.

Not to skewer Soto too hard though, there is a fantastic revelation in his new sky blue, black, and white, acrylic on paper works (Robot Form, Fever, Alchemy, Walker-Gatherer, Friends, December Flowers, Succulent). They showed a sensitivity, graceful simplicity, attention to detail, and an effervescent yet playful elegance rarely seen in contemporary drawing. Too bad Jonathan has blurry, poorly lit photos of them on his website.

The only other criticism mentionable is one that applies to a great many shows hung in pervasive art circles: There was just too much work in the show. Opting for a 'less is more' curatorial direction would have made this show so much stronger. Crowding every space with a work of art is not necessary. It clutters the eye, overwhelms the mind and shows insecurity in what one has to offer. In that it's a rookie move, like a teenage lover who just goes at it full force from the start without realizing that's how you spill your seed too quickly and disappoint your partner.

When work like Soto's is all bunched up together it has no space to breathe, to create an impact, to infiltrate our media saturated heads and give us something to remember; something iconic. A show with larger more ambitious entries like the first works I mentioned and the new small acrylic washed masterpieces would have been enough for a magnificent exhibition.

Let's hope Soto takes some time to catch his breath, digest existence and recharge before offering us more. Super Nova ambitiously put all of Jeff's strengths and weaknesses out there and in doing so proved he needs to stop spreading himself so thin.

     » Jonathan Levine Gallery
     » Jeff Soto


I just don't know what to say to this. Damn.

Posted by: shane at March 3, 2006 6:21 PM

Aaron's honesty is like an old itchy wool Army blanket. You hate it for how it chafes, how uncomfortable it makes you feel, but at the same time you have to recognize that you'd never make it through the cold winter of reality without it.

Did I just say "cold winter of reality"?

There's something wrong with me....

Posted by: Adam at March 3, 2006 10:22 PM

Here's what Jeff wrote to me about this review:

"I think you have some good points, I don't totally agree with everything but that's understandable. I think you're right about the show being too crowded, my work is pretty dense and needs breathing room. It might have made for a better presentation to keep some of the older pieces in that back room or not included them at all. The skulls and potato stamps- they are a few years old. I thought the gallery was much bigger from the photos I saw so I brought some older work that was not as refined.

I also agree that the installation could be seen as a bit narcissistic, my intention was more autobiographical, I just hope it didn't come off like I was showing off. Jonathan and I talked about this being the last show for the installation- it either sells or I pack it up in storage. It's been installed in different variations five or six times over the past few years so it needs to retire. I have been inspired by Barry McGee and I'm conscious of it- I always try to make mine very different, but I guess the actual form and working with multiple images in a corner are still similar. I was always more inspired by people like Ed Templeton and Rich Jacobs (maybe they were also inspired by Barry McGee).

I think what makes things hard for me sometimes is I was trained as an illustrator not a fine artist. I went out of my way in college to get some conceptual classes but still, my education was based on technique and illustration business skills. I've done a lot of shows and I sell alot of work but the "fine art world" is still a mystery to me in many ways. In a way, Jonathan LeVine gallery is taking me further into this mysterious world, maybe because of it's location in Chelsea and new directions the gallery is headed in. In any case I want to know more and I hope my first NY solo show is just a start to bigger and better things and more mature work.

Overall, I don't mind what you had to say. I used to get rejection notices from all sorts of galleries when I was younger, those would sting deep sometimes. This didn't hurt. You had good things to say about all my newer pieces that I spent the most time and energy on, and the the blue acrylic wash series which I feel is a new direction for me, so it's cool. I love criticism and welcome people's thoughts on my work. I think the public was down with what I showed- everyone seemed to enjoy the work and most of my paintings sold. Not that I judge my shows by how much work sold but I feel good about it and feel the show is a success.
So yeah, in a lot of ways I agree with what you had to say. Thanks for your honesty."

Posted by: Aaron at March 4, 2006 4:43 PM

Aaron, the comments I made were for you because you asked what I thought of your review. They were not meant to be published and made available to the public- very unprofessional if you ask me. Please, next time do not publish my words unless I say it's cool. That being said, do not remove them now. I stand by everything I have to say and am very happy with my first NY solo show.

Posted by: Jeff Soto at March 5, 2006 8:27 PM

My bad on not waiting for you to approve of publishing your e-mail. I've never been accused of being terribly professional. Thanks for the post posting approval.

Posted by: Aaron at March 5, 2006 8:38 PM

I enjoyed your "like a teenage lover" analogy.

Posted by: K. Laish. at March 6, 2006 9:29 PM
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