NEW ART OR OLD KITSCH?
STEVE FIRKINS THROWS ART A CURVEBALL
By Peter S. Scholtes
If you’re not too jaded by years of bad shows, there’s no denying the romance of the art opening. As corks pop, friends of the artist make the rounds, and hipsters and would-be buyers don their Saturday-night best to see if some local prodigy will be the scene’s next Basquiat. Flanders is one of the more interesting and accessible galleries around, with both a prime downtown location on the first floor of the gallery-infested Wyman building and an admirable commitment to showing strictly contemporary art.
Steve Firkins’ The Theory of Curvism
Flanders Contemporary Art Gallery
400 First Avenue N., Mpls.
Through February 21, 1998
On Saturday night, Flanders is teeming, the buzz funneling around “curvist” painter-sculptor Steve Firkins. It’s usually off-putting to be required to read about an artist’s ideas before taking in his work. But Firkins’ “philosophy” takes mere moments to digest: In essence, if cubism fathered modern art, with straight lines evoking a modern, man-made world, then the recurring ellipses and arcs of Firkins’ “curvism” seek to reclaim art for the natural, spiritual world.
Personally, I like my conceptual art deep, fun and easy to grasp. Firkins fits the bill on all three counts. Take his particularly illustrative twin paintings, Cubist Figure (1996) and Curvist Figure (1996). Each are flat, “flesh-colored” (as in, Caucasian) Picasso-like figures set against a straight-from-the-tube blue background. The cubist nude reclines in front of a TV-looking cube; the curvist figure lounges under an elliptical moon. When I ask the artist himself about these Picasso knock-offs, he points at a circle in the middle of the TV cube, explaining that it’s “spirituality trapped.” In other words, Firkins presents your basic nature vs. artificial representation dichotomy.
Reading all of Firkins’ works along these lines can be fun: The artist will paint nude figures sometimes with angular genitals, sometimes with curved ones, and you’re left to ponder why. The first painting that wins me over, though, shows a twin set of nude male-female couples, each painted angularly. The first couple is rendered in black and stands next to a curved, Buddha-looking statue; the second pair is painted in (once again) “flesh” color, standing next to (once again) a TV-like cube. A giant cross stands between the two couples. I interpret the painting in this way: Before Christianity-slash-modernism-slash-imperialism, humanity worshipped the spirit; but after all those slashes, humanity turned to the trapped spirit in modern media. That’s just my guess, though: Firkins hilariously titles the painting The Crucifixion of the Last Artist, throwing us all for a curve, so to speak.
Such conceptual impishness could be dismissed as yet more cheeky kitsch in lieu of real creation — my date writes off the whole show as affrontery masking as art. (She does have kind words for Firkins’ pretentiously-titled 1992 piece, Window into Time and Space, mostly because it utilizes the untested medium of wallpaper squares pasted against a wooden background.)
But contrary to first impressions, Firkins’ art is both sincere and mischievous, a combination I find missing in other, more heavy-handed conceptualist stuff. His Birch Bark Masks (1990-1993), which are literally masks made out of birch-tree bark and are hung alongside a photo of his naked self wearing such a mask, are simultaneously articles of the man’s odd faith and crafty objects of fun. Even the apparently abstract wallpaper art is conceptual in a fun way: Beneath the varying textures of wallpaper (commonly used to create pleasant, nondescript backgrounds) lies the smooth horizontal grain of nature. Kum-bah-yah, my lord.
But nowhere do Firkins’ underlying seriousness and sense of humor intersect more dramatically than in his War Crime Against Humanity (1996), a black and white painting featuring crudely (but neatly) rendered stick-man soldiers rounding up and executing other stick-men (perhaps civilians).
The stick-man death squad appears to be dumping the dead bodies into a pit full of other stick-men, as the nameless stick-man war rages on, with triangular bombs raining down on the triangular houses. All this takes place next to a church (topped by a stick-man crucifix), touching again on Firkins’ continual interest in religion.
This stick-figure Guernica is laughable at first glance: It might have taken a couple hours, tops, to paint. But once you spend some time with it, the stick-figures begin to look like a child’s rendering of a real atrocity, or some computerized plan for an atrocity yet to come. The painting looks like a sanitized horror show, made more unsavory by its humorous rendering.
I single out War Crimes Against Humanity because the poppy feel of Firkins’ numerous moon-and-landscape paintings (and his rock-and-tile sculptures) may sell well, but this pol-pop trash-art is what makes his work more than an amusing diversion — or a mere pit-stop on the Saturday-night art crawl.