For anyone who is interested in being reassured that great art is still being produced in America should head immediately for Vaudeville, at 26 Bushwick in Williamsburg (an exquisite venue, by the way), where the work of Michael Hafftka, who has been refining his vision for well over 40 years to international acclaim, is being exhibited.
Hafftka’s work is unique for, among other things, combining the darkest pathos with the most childlike wit. No mean feat. The show hosts eight paintings that distill a wide range of themes and provide a perfect introduction to Hafftka’s brilliance. My particular favorite, “Man to Man” (which is almost operatic in its starkness), depicts the connectedness through disconnection between a painted devil and his prostrate protegé. The way this street corner Mephistopheles comes across as both sexual tormentor and spiritual redeemer accounts for the very special power of this imposing work. The deadlock between the two is almost heartbreaking—yet funny.
“In Tow“, another gem, is like an exquisite short story—depicting the fate to which Woman (here in hieratic profile) is doomed, namely, to lead Man (in infantilized full face) toward muddy death: Eurydice as Orpheus if you will. Despite its pathos, the work manages to convey a delicious playfulness: through minimal gesticulation, the towed figure transmits the following SOS to the unnerved spectator: “What can a guy do? I know when I’m licked. But. am I really?” Makes one think, among other things, of an impish Ashton ballet.
“Underground” is wonderfully atmospheric: some sort of nuptial rite is being celebrated in a last-resort basement fringed by an etherealized staircase to and from nowhere. But who, exactly, is the bride? Who is the groom? Who—or what—is presiding over this marriage of true souls? The sense of doom notwithstanding, never did life—or unlife—in the Underground seem so calm, so peaceful. Hafftka comes up with an unforced ambiguity that generates a disturbing afterimage, the perfect counterpoise—and challenge—to the glories of an autumn afternoon in suburban Brooklyn.
To undergo the full impact of a homage to Velasquez transformed into a highly original personal statement, pay careful attention to “Figure in the Dark“. The subject of the painting, an imposing grandee swathed in the fogs of what Emily Dickinson referred to as the “imperial affliction”, would be very much at home in the Prado. The two works on linen—
particular “Banquet”—have their own special delicate magic. And “Mr. Mr.” achieves a precarious balance between painting and sculpture (one by Giacometti, say) with its own peculiar Hafftaesque charm. For amid all the anguish generated by, and perpetrated on, these subterranean hovers—lurks—a tremendous painterly charm. Hard to manage both. Yet, Hafftka brings it off through sheer dedication and commitment—i.e., through risk-avid immersion in the dark waters of his medium.
If you hunger and thirst to have your faith in art—hence in life—regenerated (and what thinking, feeling, seeing human doesn’t, in this ice age of market hyper-mania and boldface cant?), then you mustn’t miss the wonderful exhibition of Hafftka’s newest works lovingly curated by Ian Colletti, Lisa di Donato and Caleb Nussear which is now on view–albeit all too briefly–at Vaudeville.
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