Visitors entering the Fridge gallery this month do so at their own peril. With flames licking their way across three gallery walls, your adrenaline just may pump as your autonomous fight-or-flight response yearns to kick in. The works in RIOT, the gallery’s current solo show featuring Brooklyn-based David Molesky, are whirlwinds of destruction, simultaneously electrifying and ominous. Overcome that desire to back away and let those flames give you new insight into the concept of creative destruction.
For a gallery with an out-of-the-way alley address, the Fridge consistently produces thought-provoking exhibitions with an urban, “street” perspective; RIOT is no exception. The exhibit features several large-scale scenes of urban tumult along with dozens of smaller, vaguely pastoral images all united by a world seemingly ablaze. Most paintings come from Molesky’s 2014 body of work also titled RIOT, which builds upon a long-standing fascination with the pulsating, primordial nature of the environment. Visually stunning, the works strike a visceral note that threatens to overshadow any immediate discussion of theme or artistic intent. Overwhelmed, I succumb to my senses’ desire to simply stand still and be momentarily mesmerized.
Take for instance the Three Marauders (2014), where the painted landscape dominates and seemingly diminishes the three actors in the foreground. Molesky’s treatment of the flames lit from within is so skillfully nuanced your body wants to feel the heat shimmering off the canvas. Likewise the roiling clouds of grey smoke along the top of Maidan are barely kept in check by the frame of the canvas. Layers upon layers of both paint and painting history are found in those flames, built upon the picture plane so subtly that they literally go up in smoke. This painstaking attention to detail pulls us into the scene as we bear witness to the actions of the figures in the foreground. Whether lobbing Molotov cocktails, tossing tires or ducking behind abandoned vehicles, the characters captured in various poses of rebellion exist at the mercy of the precarious situations they have seemingly unleashed.
Less tumultuous than the larger works, Molesky’s smaller environmental studies still provide clues to the artist’s concepts around environmental calamity. Existential Threat I and Existential Threat 2 present erstwhile-idyllic, seaside landscapes rocked by the impending doom of flash fires. Even more dramatic is Polar Weasel, a character study capturing the circle of life in less than two square feet. We witness a white-furred weasel grasping a dying mouse within its mouth, seemingly unaware of the environmental destruction slowly creeping its way. Wrapping up this counterpoint to man-made calamity are a series of studies titled Owls, each featuring a singular look at a wizened animal facing a potentially catastrophic demise.
Bombastic or subtle, each image has something to say about the way we inhabit this spinning globe we call home. In some cases, we effect a material change through our own efforts; in other instances, change occurs regardless of our ability to intercede. This notion of environmental change is a running theme through Molesky’s oeuvre, but here the artist finds himself at a marked turning point. Prior series such as Spume and Turbulent Mirror painted over the last decade play with the fluid properties of ocean waves, hinting at the awesome power lying just below the crest of the white-capped swells. But while waves are enduring, their propensity to incite change (tsunamis aside) is slow and subtle.
Where waves undulate, fire dances. Molesky’s flames seethe uncontrollably across the landscape, effecting changes whose outcomes, though uncertain, are resoundingly tumultuous. Fire may be the most apt metaphor yet to describe his ideas surrounding notions of creative destruction. While plainly evident in his portraits of animals, these ideas are more intriguingly worked through in the larger studies of cities seemingly at war. Post visit, I reached out to the artist to discuss his work in greater detail. In an era of ever-expanding and immediate news coverage, Molesky witnesses the seeds of change sprouting simultaneously across the landscape. What we might consider as carnage or desolation is interpreted by the artist as “transformation through symbolic and actual acts of destruction.”
This concept of radical transformation places the actors that pepper Molesky’s works in completely new light. Conflicting emotions rise to the surface, and I find I feel an affinity with these characters, but also a sense of foreboding. They are likely the instigators of the apocalyptic events, yet are immediately beholden to the very cyclonic forces they have unleashed. Are they heroic or hoodlums? Oppressors or the oppressed? Molesky’s paintings leave those questions open to multiple interpretations. “You can’t read them as good or bad,” he tells me.
The images have obvious references to current events around the world, and while they might cause us to view these events from a different perspective, Molesky isn’t necessarily trying to influence our views of any individual global conflict. Rather, he wants to dig beneath the surface of those conflicts to understand the complex emotions behind that yearning for change. What drives these men (and women) to fight overwhelming odds, unleashing destruction as a tool for physical or societal change? Ultimately he believes his message is about strength and empowerment, where individuals experience a sense of freedom, against overwhelming odds, to change their society for the better.
While my talk with the artist proved most informative, it also shed light on exactly why I felt momentarily overwhelmed. There is a tension to these paintings, with the visual elements threatening to obliterate any social message the artist is trying to convey. Is it possible his infernos-cum-backdrops are too successful in their zeal to transform one existence into another? Perhaps, but I think the answer lies more in notion that this exhibition simultaneously toys with the ideas of both nature and man playing the role of protagonist. In some cases, he seems to focus on the idea that Nature is its own dominating force, separated from the machinations of mere mortals. Yet turn around and other images seem to suggest that nature is a force which, though awesome, exists as a tool for mans’ desires.
It’s clear that the artist has several unique ideas to explore (and the talent with paint to do so), but the combination of natural and man-made situations muddies the waters, working at cross-currents and preventing us from truly going in depth with either one. In a perfectly curated world, perhaps this could have been a two-part show, or a multi-roomed exhibition with the works grouped around the discrete themes of man as protagonist versus nature as protagonist.
Ultimately, this minor quibble is a good dilemma for the artist. It signals that he has your attention and that he’s succeeded in getting you to look past the surface of the works, digging for deeper meaning or greater understanding. I’m crossing my fingers for future exhibitions where these ideas are more fully elucidated to dazzling effect. He’s embarked on an artistic journey and we’re driving shotgun!
‘RIOT’ continues though February 14th, 2015 at the Fridge. For further information, visit the gallery’s website here.