Rome is a city that can morph from ancient to modern at the turn of a corner. There, the physical sediments of human history commingle in such a way that old and new are often inseparable. Dennis Congdon’s first solo exhibition in New York City, curated by the artist Stanley Whitney, presented a group of captivating paintings that approach Rome’s magnificent pileup of civilization with a deliciously light touch.
While Congdon’s idée fixe dates back to a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome in the early 1980s, the paintings were all made in 2013. They are fresh, almost giddy, paeans to a collective imagination that barely persists. Neither history paintings nor landscapes, they function more like candy-colored billboards advertising a stroll through a scenic archeological dig or a verdant classical garden. This Rome is a trash heap vamping as a tourist attraction. The outright visual enjoyment provided by the images becomes a cover of sorts for the erudition and intelligence embedded within.
In Midden, the accumulated detritus of Western art is as sweetly hued as a handful of Lucky Charms cereal. Pink, lavender, lime and baby-blue fragments of color litter the foreground. Up close, the mound is seen as packed and layered with stenciled pictograms and random abstract marks and objects: a half-buried bust, a discarded painting, a tablet engraved with sign language, rocks, stubby plant life, strange organic orifices, little thatches of pubic hair, a slice of cake. At the top of the heap, a toppled Corinthian capital sports a palm tree headdress.
Stenciled line drawings on top of the flat, interlocking background colors serve as a narrative scrim over each painting. However, it is the missed “registration” of line and color that rhymes visually with Congdon’s jumbled histories. In Ignis fatuus, a stack of broken columns balances precariously in the center of a dense, dimly lit swamp. (The painting’s title refers to the mysterious glow that sometimes appears at night over marshes.) Instead of being cracked irregularly by the passage of time, the pillars have been cleanly sliced as if by a prop shop. The artist’s ersatz ruin seems to teeter as it is enveloped by the blue, green and ocher camouflage of the backdrop.
A longtime faculty member at the Rhode Island School of Design, Congdon uses painting to attest to the pleasures of being influenced by and influencing others. Shout-outs to Poussin, Matisse and Warhol show up throughout the work, and a heap of canvases in Visuvi allude to similar motifs in the work of Philip Guston. All of those little canvases—except for one Picasso knockoff—could be small, competent abstractions gathered for clearance. End-of-semester studio cleanup or roadside bazaar of sofa-size oils, there’s a “lost original” in there somewhere.