Art Commentary: Angels, Demons and Savages at the Parrish Art Museum

Alfonso Ossorio - Couple and Progeny, 1951, cropped.
Alfonso Ossorio - Couple and Progeny, 1951, cropped.

While the current exhibition at Water Mill’s Parrish Art Museum features work by Jean Dubuffet, Alfonso Ossorio and Jackson Pollock, our comments will be limited to Ossorio and Dubuffet, two artists who were not only friends but who were also connected to each other in other ways as well. (Ossorio and Pollock knew and respected each other, too, when they lived in East Hampton.)

Superficially, Dubuffet and Ossorio had little in common; for one, their nationalities were different (Dubuffet was French, Ossorio was born in the Philippines). Dubuffet never had a formal art education and, in fact, took over his father’s wine business at one point. As an advocate of “art brut,” or “raw art,” he respected people who didn’t follow traditional artistic standards, which included those who did not have formal training. Conversely, Ossorio studied art at Harvard University and the Rhode Island School of Art and Design, both highly respected institutions. Moreover, Dubuffet applied a humanistic approach to his images, taking his subjects from everyday life. His style was perceived as primitive. On the other hand, Ossorio was considered both an abstract expressionist and later, a surrealistic whose friendship with Artaud was significant.

Alfonso Ossorio - Couple and Progeny, 1951, full frame
Alfonso Ossorio – Couple and Progeny, 1951, full frame

Yet, the Parrish exhibition of works by these two men, covering the late 1940s to the mid-1950s, shows intriguing similarities. (Ossorio became a collector of art brut, displaying Dubuffet’s work at his East Hampton home. Later on in his career, he was influenced by Dubuffet’s assemblages.) Style-wise, the primitive aspect of Dubuffet’s art is also seen in Ossorio’s work. For example, the flatness evoked by the former’s portrait, “Man With a Small Nose,” suggests only an eye and nose in profile. An untitled portrait by Ossorio has the same flatness and primitive demeanor, with only essential facial elements like the eyes represented. We must acknowledge, however, that the overlay of two stick figures on the face gives the portrait more dimension.

Dubuffet’s flatness and lack of depth continue in his “Oasis Dwellers,” where a group of figures, one person sitting on a donkey, takes up the entire picture plane as does Ossorio’s portrait just mentioned. In Dubuffet’s “Body of a Lady-Stuffed Castle,” lack of perspective is also arresting, where the figure coveys a grotesque human being. Two works, however, do have a sense of depth, if only because of the worm’s-eye view: “Landscape with Dog” and “Metaphysical Landscape.” Both pieces show images positioned on top of a hill, or landfill of sorts, the latter work featuring abstract forms that relate more to Ossorio’s abstractions.

Dubuffet’s short brush strokes in both these paintings also recall Ossorio’s configurations in a work like “Reforming Figure” and “The Helpful Angels,” where denseness is achieved by both artists. Another Ossorio painting, “Red Family,” provides a background of similar denseness with brush strokes, allowing a red path of color to guide the viewer’s eye through the maze of images.

Such uses of these brush strokes give the two artists another similarity: textural richness. While Ossorio employed found objects in his assemblages, like shells, horns and driftwood, Dubuffet’s materials included sand and asphalt recalling Ossorio’s sand in his untitled portrait on display. This particular item goes a long way in adding depth to the men’s lack of perspective.

“Angels, Demons and Savages” will be on view at the Parrish Art Museum, 279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill through Oct. 27, 2013., 631-283-2118

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