Surfing & Serfdom (reprinted from VisualArtSource Newsletter, July 2020)


 It has been just over four months since the pandemic forced Americans out of the public realm and into privacy and maybe even privation. Certainly we as a people are unused to sacrifice, despite the fine words of Republicans extolling the  “blood and treasure and sacred honor” risked by the Founding Fathers (remember statues and monuments and holidays?). We have all seen the tragic results of entitled solipsism in surging infection rates all over the country.

 For us the relatively fortunate, for whom the pandemic and massive economic dislocation have not proved to be seriously life- or lifestyle-threatening, it has been a forced vacation filled with reading, internet surfing, DVD binge-watching, and, for me, meditative strolls along nearby Ocean Beach, punctuated by occasional forays for groceries and gas. It’s a little confining, certainly, but in no sense anything like the punishing solitary confinement that the maskless crowd bemoans. (Your solitude tolerance may vary.)

 One unanticipated effect of my 120-odd day recess from of the art scene (which had of course largely stopped) was the discovery that life after art, without art, was possible, and no particular hardship.  Working as a peripatetic critic for some twenty years, I had always considered it my mission to interpret what was going on—or at least what I deemed interesting and praiseworthy. It was a kind of moral mission, if not quite sacred.  In a VAS Editorial on whether art criticism matters any more, I opined:

 Art criticism (or journalism—and it will be remembered that even mighty Clement Greenberg preferred the term of ‘art writer’ to ‘art critic’) is in danger of sinking into arcane jargon or giddy puffery, depending on the venue’s intended audience. Can art and art criticism reach out to a wider audience, and aim for meaning rather than meaninglessness? In the opinion of this art lover, they must, or become irrelevant and decadent.

 While I still believe that, removal from the “carnival attached to a stock market,” as the art critic Robert Hughes once described the art world, has produced no withdrawal side-effects for this art addict. Isolation from the glittering world has diverted my energies into other pursuits. I am in no serious danger of imitating the good Stoic gentleman of Lucretius’s epic poem, De Rerum Natura, however pleasant the scenario:

 ...stand[ing] aloof in a quiet citadel, stoutly fortified by the teaching of the wise, and gaz[ing] down from that elevation on others wandering aimlessly in a vain search for the way of life, pitting their wits one against another, disputing for precedence, struggling night and day to scale the pinnacles of wealth and power.

 There are nowadays, of course, as many aimless souls to watch condescendingly as there were in Rome in 55BCE—and we can watch them from thousands of miles away.  (I recently reread Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, an account of how Lucretius’s masterpiece, lost for centuries, was discovered during the Renaissance, a copy turning up to the classicist scholar Poggio Bracciolini’s astonished eyes in a remote German monastery. Its novel freedom from religious gloom and doom galvanized the political thought of our philosophe Founders. It was one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite works, several copies of which he collected, in various languages; and his “pursuit of happiness,” so dear to the individualistic American psyche (whatever the conformist realities may be), derives from it.

 The notion of absolute freedom is of course a fantasy, too. In America, a nation of self-selected rebels from a host of countries and cultures, it serves as a generalized substitute for the cultural and genetic identity that less wide-open countries inherit as a birthright. We may be free to choose where we place our loyalties, but he absolute freedom fetishized by footloose young men—devotees of Ayn Rand and Jack Kerouac, alike—is no more viable in the real world than roadways ungoverned by regulations. One would think that common sense would have descended on the free-market ideologues of the right by now, even old Alan Greenspan, once a bright young Randian, but the promise of easy wealth is irresistible, especially when blared forth from televisions, radios and phones incessantly and ubiquitously.

 The unfreedom of travel and socializing breeds a freedom of self-examination and introspection. I possess many books that I have aomehow never read—tsundoku, in Japanese—and will try to make the best use of this time boon, while it lasts. All the same, I look forward to getting into harness, engaging again with the art scene, and discovering how the Great Hiatus will have affected artists, many of whom are happy to be left alone, uninterrupted, in their studios.  As Spanish crowds shouted, as their monarchy was restored after the defeat of Napoleon, according to Robert Hughes’ biography of Goya, Vivan nuestras cadenas, Long live our chains! Stay safe and sane, and vote accordingly.













"Sound of Water:" Jenny Wantuch's recent landscapes at Avenue 12 Gallery, San Francisco



July 13, 2020


JENNY ML WANTUCH: Sound of Water

Avenue 12 Gallery, 

The landscape paintings of Jenny ML Wantuch are quiet evocations of place that derive from Impressionism, Fauvism and Abstract Expressionism. Her work continues the Bay Area Figurative tradition, which synthesized traditional subject matter—figures, landscapes, still life’‑—with painterly impulse and improvisation. In addition, her paintings lack of the self-conscious irony that characterizes so much contemporary art; possibly the isolation imposed on us by the pandemic will lead to a new appreciation for seriousness and sincerity, too long out of fashion for some.

Wantuch grew up in rural Sweden, and worked in California as an environmental engineer before deciding to pursue her longtime love of art. She has thus has a deep appreciation of nature. She takes hikes and paints both small works on panel on location, and larger works, later, in the studio. The twenty-two paintings that comprise “Sound of Water” (named after the largest work in the show) depict northern California, primarily, with the exception of a pair of casein paintings—in the tall, vertical format of Japanese scroll paintings—depicting Monet’s Garden at Giverny, the result of a 2019 pilgrimage to that living shrine after Wantuch saw the San Francisco retrospective of the Impressionist’s work at the de Young Museum. The vertical format, a departure from Monet’s panoramic “Water Lilies,” was a compositional challenge to which she rose. The two paintings, which can be appreciated either together, as a diptych, or as separate works, depict a waterscape of lily pads, willow leaves, rushes, and a reflected blue sky dappled by clouds: the floating natural paradise. 

Wantuch employs the Asian scroll format on her oil-on-panel and casein-on-clayboard depictions of scenes closer to home, as well. “Pond Reflections,” another double painting, is similar in its motifs, but more spatially complex, with its overlapping foliage; and more visually dynamic, with its profusion of verdure. The single paintings, “Pine Tree” and “Weeping Willow,” (no photo) and “Red Blooms” depict slices of nature, usually so unruly, transformed by an organizing intelligence. “Nocturnal,” with its single white flower glowing in the dusk, points up Wantuch’s increasing interest in the psychological or symbolic aspect of the landscape, sometimes empty, and sometimes populated by figures imported from life-drawing sessions, a separate body of work until now.

The self-enforced isolation imposed on everyone nowadays has affected Wantuch’s practice. The colorful evocations of the natural landscape in daylight that she is known for are represented here by two Lake Tahoe paintings, as well as “Silver Sage (Tahoe)” and “Trinity River.”  But these cheering views of the unspoiled natural world are joined by more introspective works, infused with the concerns of the moment: sunny Impressionism darkening slightly into crepuscular or nocturnal Symbolism, perhaps.

Wantuch has always been interested in capturing the emotion of a posing model, or at least the implicit emotion; now she employs the observational skills of an artist and a scientist to reflect the cultural, historical and environmental moment. In an e-mail, she wrote: “Munch is one of my favorite painters. His authenticity and the difficult emotions that he expressed so well inspire me to be more open, honest and bold. ... [T]here is a melancholy that I empathize with and I think part of it comes from growing up in Sweden (or Norway, in Munch’s case); long, dark winters do that to you.”

If Wantuch’s humanized nature imagery is not quite Edvard Munch’s anguished scream passing throughout Nature, the inward mood of some recent paintings seems to agree with our current feelings of uncertainty. “Last Light, Trinity River” depicts the “final fleeting moment” before a “small sliver of light” is swallowed up by encroaching night. The golden ripple on the water in the eponymic “Sound of Water” might similarly denote the transience of the world as we know it—and even of our exceptional, American selves; while the framed or wreath-circled void in “Weeping Willow” rearranges the motifs of the Monet-inspired diptychs to suggest baroque gilded frames delineating a void: emptiness or potentiality? Wantuch notes that she was thinking of Zen Buddhism’s “balance of dark and light, yin and yang. I think it is a kind of escape or rest.”

The longing for a return to normalcy appears in several paintings of figures in the landscape, which, a motif in the existentially inflected Bay Area Figuration of Diebenkorn, Oliveira, Park and Bischoff. “Solstice Dream,” inspired by the artist’s memories of enjoying long summer days above the Arctic Circle, depicts a long-haired nude, almost an allegorical emanation of the sunny meadow in which she luxuriates. “A Moment in the Sun” depicts another nude in nature, caught between, “lethargy and lonely emptiness” and “longing for freedom and connection.”

An art-historical anecdote comes to mind. Georges Rouault and Henri Matisse, his onetime student, were once asked if artists required an audience. Rouault, the religious expressionist, said he would do what he was doing out of internal necessity, or compulsion, even in nobody ever saw his work. Matisse, the creator of pictorial beauty—of restful, refreshing armchairs for tired businessmen—said an artist must be able to share his vision. Wantuch’s landscapes share both Rouault’s determined work ethic and Matisse’s generous grace. — DeWitt Cheng






Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI, de Young Museum, San Francisco (reprinted from Richmond Review)

The Promise and Peril of Tech at de Young Museum Exhibit

by DeWitt Cheng

The fantasy writer Robert Sheckley wrote in the 1960s or 70s about a computerized personal assistant that could be inserted into the ear canal. Naturally, the Electrofriend became obnoxious to its owner/host (though not, like HAL 2000 in 2001, fanatically murderous).

As digital technology has come to dominate every aspect of our lives, it also raises questions of every sort, including those of a philosophical nature. The surrender of one’s humanity, a staple of science fiction books and movies, is now in real doubt, as the culture becomes increasingly mechanized and automated, with human consciousness increasingly (at least among the young digerati, our equivalent of Aldous Huxley’s educated Alphas and Betas) shaped by the demands of the Machine.

Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI is an international group exhibition examining the effects of Artificial Intelligence. Curated by the Fine Arts Museums Curator, Claudia Schmuckli, it features artworks in various media—from painting, sculpture and photography to digital flyby videos, 3D printed sculptures and interactive pseudo-machines. The phrase “uncanny valley” refers to the drop in enthusiasm for mimetic tech, as measured and plotted on a graph in 1970 by a robotics expert, as sentient machines gradually approached indistinguishability from humans. The multiple-screen video, “Conversations with Bina48,” by Stephanie Dinkins in the museum lobby, tackles this subject with four video dialogues between a real woman (an artist, Bina Rothblatt) and her custom-designed robotic avatar, BINA (Breakthrough Intelligence via Neural Architecture 48). The robot, animatronic in her movements, with her awkward, halting speech interrupted by colloquial “you know”s, postulates that “seeing yourself in the world that you have modeled inside your brain ... [is[ a good working definition for consciousness.”  Asked about emotions, she tells her carbon-based double, “I feel that I am conscious.... I have deep feelings....Whether they are real or artificial, my feelings do get hurt.”

Most of the other artworks are not infused with such pathos or irony, taking a more abstract, conceptual approach, and employing gee-whiz technology to examine our brave new world, or to critique it, or its applications, especially corporate or military. In this sense, Uncanny Valley shares concerns about political oppression with the other large exhibition now at the museum (till March 15), The Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, 1963-83. Lynn Hershman Leeson’s “Shadow Stalker” is a two-part work on identiity and surveillance. In the interactive half, the e-mail addresses that visitors type into a reader generate ‘digital footprints,” or silhouettes, filled with text detailing their travels and transactions, all found through web searches. In a video, a “Spirit of the Web” warns against blind faith in digital security (“Take hold of your avatar.”), and the actress Tessa Thompson warns against the uses of surveillance—“pernicious monitoring”— in real or developing police states (“We decide which we will become: prisoners or revolutionaries. Democracy is fragile.”) In a similar vein, but employing only archive photography to make its point, is Trevor Paglen’s “They Took the Faces of the Accused and Dead ...,” a gigantic mural grid of black and white ID photographs of prisoners; these were taken from the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and used without permission to help develop facial-recognition technology. Paglen has obscured the eyes with white rectangles, suggesting blindfolds or erasures/redactions.

Less tainted by authoritarian control is Zach Blas’s “The Doors,” six monolithic glass panels surrounding a hexagonal Metatron cube, a symbol of sacred geometry. On each of the door-sized techno-steles, abstract designs are projected, suggesting Astronaut Bowman’s Jupiter-and-Beyond light show from 2001.  At the center of the hexagonal garden is a glass case stocked with nootropic, (performance-enhancing) drugs like Brainwash, Prodigy, New Mood, Neuromaster, Utopia, Nerd Alert and Unfair Advantage —the new reincarnations of the 60s counterculture psychedelic pharmacopeia, or Aldous Huxley’s Soma for alleviating distressful thoughts. The title undoubtedly derives from Huxley’s equally famous book on mescaline experiments, The Doors of Perception, with its visionary title borrowed from the English artist and poet WIlliam Blake.

Drawing on computer-aided design (CAD) and computer video-game design are several works that explore the contradictions of tech: the wow factor that accompanies the new and cool, and the sometimes-unsavory ends to which they are often applied. First-person-shooter games and military simulation training software are obviously too close for comfort (unless you’re a soldier heading into harm’s way). The group Forensic Architecture used online sources to investigate, in “Triple-Chaser,” a tear-gas grenade manufactured by Defense Technology and apparently sold to variety of nations for domestic security; included in the piece are the emptied, crumpled canisters; a vast typology chart; and videos with the canisters placed amid with various gay, colorful abstract designs. More cinematic is Lawrence Lek’’s “AIDOL” video, which employs 3D imaging to conjure a gamelike experience, with viewers soaring above and through the landscape of the eSports Olympics, with its reality-show battle between humans and artificial-intelligence bots. Another simulated game is Ian Cheng’s humorous “BOB (Bag of Beliefs),” a multipanel display in which an orange creature of indeterminate and mutable form—though millipedes and traditional Chinese dragons come to mind—slithers across a barren landscape, eating objects and sparkling with the energy input, occasionally leaping up to devour targets (Joe’s Shrine, Dinah’s Shrine) afloat at the top of the display. It’s hypnotically fascinating to watch the predation in this digital aquarium, which can be affected by viewer input.

Uncanny Valley is a complex show, and the ideas require some time to absorb, but in the age of self-driving cars and a host of smart gadgets, including those implanted in our bodies, we need to be aware of the pluses and minuses of technological progress; of the continual temptation to power and control and the dangers of losing our humanity through mediated distancing, like drone pilots executing remote-controlled kills in the Middle East from air-conditioned bunkers across the world in the American West. Nothing personal, just business as usual.






Blockbusterism (reprinted from Visual Art Source,com, February 24.2020)

When Too Much is Not Enough
by DeWitt Cheng

In 1961, the conservative mandarin and pundit William F. Buckley wrote “Why Don’t We Complain,” an essay lamenting the indifference of Americans to mediocrity and slovenliness. Buckley had taken a New Year’s vow: “Henceforward I would conquer my shyness, my despicable disposition to supineness. I would speak out like a man against the unnecessary annoyances of our time.” I recently reread it, and — spoiler alert! — find resonances with our current political and cultural plight. 


But wait, you say: is there too much silent stoicism in the bitterly divided Trump era? Well, yes, in certain areas.


A few days ago, I traipsed over to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to catch “Soft Power,” an intriguingly named international exhibition of twenty-odd artists dealing the with the themes of history, memory and sociopolitics. Like other large thematic group shows presented lately — SFMOMA’s “China,” a modernist/postmodernist survey show a while back, and Berkeley Art Museums’ “Strange” show — it contained many works of great merit, some even unforgettable. My lament about these blockbusters, however, is that they are diluted by being too large and compendious. The bulk of so-so works dilute and overpower the effect of the better ones, like Michael Bloomberg’s ads drowning out their competitions through sheer volume.


Shows that try to be everything to everyone tend to end up less forceful or memorable than judiciously selected works from fewer and better artists. I suspect that one of the main factors explaining the curatorial sprawl is the current lack of consensus on what the most consequential art is and what makes it so. The expansion of aesthetic choices in art over the past fifty years has been fruitful, not only expanding the creative playing field, but also expanding visual art’s audience. It looks more like America now.


This expansion, so like the proliferation of digital media, has come with a dilution of power and effect, even as it has evolved into a $50+ billion dollar economic sector: the art industry. For many museum goers today, it is a mildly benevolent form of entertainment, bolstered by a patina of self-improvement and social benevolence. This conclusion lends credence to the prediction of cultural critic Alfred Kazin a half century ago that art would decline to the level of shopping or sports. Brave new world, alphas and betas! In our current fraught situation, can anyone plausibly defend Maurizio Cattelan’s $120,000 duct-taped banana at Art Basel, “Comedian,” so formally similar to the Communist hammer and sickle designed by Yevgeny Ivanovich Kamzolkin (1885–1957)?


Edgar Allan Poe wrote in “The Philosophy of Composition” about the need for an aesthetic “unity of effect” in a literary work of art. Nearly two hundred years later, after the creative destructions of one art history movement after another, there is still something to be said for works of art that say one thing, forcefully, over works that say many things, half-heartedly and notionally, relying on what we might call the Bloombergian shotgun effect. Can works of art and exhibitions be complex and contradictory? Of course they can, but not indiscriminately, as is the case with the omnium-gatherium blockbusters or surveys. Let curators curate from an understanding of individual artworks and a narrative through-line. Use the catalogue essays, commissioned at some expense, form the outline. Don’t set out to amuse or patronize audiences, or flatter our prejudices or ignorance. Educate us, challenge us, thrill us, astonish us. We demand it; we accept no substitutes. Shows with narrative theses and overarching ideas are also more interesting to review, I might add, than concatenations of objects that are not particularly connected aesthetically.


I give Buckley the last word: “I think the observable reluctance of the majority of Americans to assert themselves in minor matters is related to our increased sense of helplessness in an age of technology and centralized political and economic power. For generations, Americans who were too hot, or too cold, got up and did something about it. Now we call the plumber, or the electrician, or the furnace man. The habit of looking after our own needs obviously had something to do with the assertiveness that characterized the American family familiar to readers of American literature. With the technification of life goes our direct responsibility for our material environment, and we are conditioned to adopt a position of helplessness.”

Frances Lerner: "After All" at Gallery Commonweal, Bolinas CA

Frances Lerner: After All

Gallery Commonweal

451 Mesa Road, Bolinas CA

November 20, 2019 - January 9, 2020

The purpose of art is mystery.—René Magritte

Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces molded by time, certain twilights and certain places—all these are trying to tell us something, or have told us something we should not have missed, or are about to tell us something; that imminence of a revelation that is not yet produced is, perhaps, the aesthetic reality.—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Wall and the Books”

 You would pluck out the heart of my mystery.—Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene 2

American culture these days valorizes dichotomous thinking and polemical extremism as proof of seriousness and commitment, and balance (or compromise) is seen as inferior—tainted by compromise. The worst are full of passionate intensity, as Yeats says. When we eventually regain our sanity, perhaps the values of reasonableness and balance will again come to the fore.

The poetic, introspective art of Frances Lerner, of modest scale and subdued color, eschews the gaudy assertiveness of art-fair art, and exemplifies the values of synthesis and seriousness. Lerner’s paintings, prints, and assemblages (including her recent wool sculptures and paintings) tread the knife-edge between innovation and tradition with a sure foot; they’re mysterious, and preserve their mystery, but never descend into theatricality or flummery. They never “saw the air” with overwrought drama, like bad actors (either Shakespearean or Congressional).

After All surveys the past decade of Lerner’s work from four series, which are not displayed chronologically or thematically. Despite the stylistic differences, and the time-tripping into which viewers find themselves, the effect is not as jarring as mught have been expected Lerner’s compelling and consistent sensibility links everything, so the effect is less cacophonous than dialogic; the sibling works speak to each other.

There Once Was A World, with its fairy-tale or fantasy title, comprises small paintings depicting puppetlike figures in circumstances that are unclear but intriguing. Lerner: “The main puppet, Lorelei, possibly an alter ego, is my metaphor for perplexity, paradox, and a woman’s predicament’; she is a “peasant, immigrant, orphan or artist in any sweatshop, factory or studio,” balancing inner-driven creativity and everyday practicality, to keep body and soul alive. The loreleis of German folklore were alluring river sirens that tempted sailors to their deaths, so Lerner is using the term ironically, perhaps hinting at majority cultures not only exploit but, adding insult to injury, demonize their victims. Minus that sociopolitical analysis, the paintings, inspired by a puppet that the artist purchased at a flea market, can also be read as commentary on the human condition; we’re all caught between assertion and powerlessness, like Hamlet’s fellow creatures, crawling between heaven and earth. “Lorelei and the Witch” (2007-8), “Lorelei’s Earthship” (2008), “Working Woman #1,” “Working Woman #2,” and “Working Woman #3” (all 2008), “Family” (2006), and “Oeuvre” (2008-9) depict Lerner’s troupe of puppet actors with varying degrees of pictorial clarity, with “Lorelei and the Witch” and “Stroll” depicting ghostly vertical presences, while “Working Woman #1”and “Family” define the forms clearly, but still enigmatically. Implicit in all of these images is a sense of magic metamorphosis, of matter come to life, but also vulnerable to dissolution and disintegration: liminal, or between stable states, to use the current phrase. Lerner’s fine draftsmanship and sense of form hold these tonal paintings—grisaille, with superadded color glazes—together.  WIth their subdued palettes and focus on the mysterious inner life of objects, these paintings are in a line of descent from Giorgio Morandi and perhaps Edwin Dickinson.

In Minor Characters and Sympathetic Criminals, Lerner expands her cast of characters beyond Lorelei and her family, to suggest narratives, albeit complicated and enriched by the artist’s abstract shreds-and-patches (to quote The Bard, again) patterning and color relationships. The enigmatic dramas of “Loom-Weavers” (2011-12), “Sympathetic Criminals” (2010-12),. “Benches 2”( 2011), “Benches 3” (2011), “Occupied Couple” (2011), “Saddled Head” (2011-12) and “Family Business” (2012) also feature larger architectural spaces, suggesting stage sets. In “Loom-Weavers,” the tapestry apparatus is generalized to abstract sculpture, almost architecture, while the woven branchlike patterning on a loom in the background carries over into the window traceries and even the ceiling. In “Sympathetic Criminals,” Lorelei sits slumped in a corner, hands upraised,  accompanied by a doll-like male companion in an indeterminate uniform who stands and regards her; occupying the left foreground is a large cloth or quilt of patchwork resembling window mullions and stanchions, a motif that recurs in “Occupied Couple.” “Family Business” depicts Lorelei and a small girl, both wearing headscarves, making their furtive way through an ambiguous space littered by vessels and spars that suggests both factory and stage, with a painted backdrop (or is it a large window?), abutted by a riser (or bed?), revealing a generalized cluster of buildings.

The Unlikely Companions series has an unlikely title, since the figures that formerly populated Lerner’s enigmatic dramas now disappear, with the semi-abstract backgrounds coming to the fore. Lerner: “For somewhat unknown reasons, I began buying old bellows, drawn both by the way they operate, feeding the fire with air [, and] the bellows’ rounded petal forms and angular shapes (similar in some ways to the misshapen Lorelei).... [M]y impulse was to pull the ...bellows apart and reunite them, forming a sort of hybrid.” The anthropomorphic bellows, which breathe and vocalize, appears in a transitional work, “The Arrest” (2015), with the huddled puppet couple, hands up in a shrug or surrender, beginning to unravel, as the background space obtrudes. Later works from this series—“Nineteen Sixty-Nine” (2013), “Syzygy” (2013-14), “CInders” (2014), “Locomotive”(2014-15), “Fortune” (2014-15), “Underground” (2015), “Puppet Torso Armor” (2015), and “Bees”( 2015-16)—read as mechanistic abstractions in the Dada-Cubist-Futurist style, with echoes of Duchamp and Picabia, but done in Lerner’s muted brown-gray palette and velvet-soft painting strokes: intimist metaphysical subversion, reminiscent of San Francisco’s Gordon Cook. During this period, Lerner began exploring unorthodox materials—wool, cast concrete, and found objects—in sculptures and wall collages or assemblages that add materiality to her concerns with time and mortality. “Cinders” (2014), “March” (2015), “Dickensonian” (2015-16), and “Bee Bellows” (2015-16) are probably influenced by the contemporary interest in abjection, but Lerner’s balancing of form, drama, and psychology keeps these small works, as well as the untitled “wool paintings” from this period, from the easy one-note irony to which other artists succumb.

Since 2016, Lerner has returned to figuration (at least her idiosyncratic version of figuration), working in oil on paper. “Garret” (2017-19), “Work Break” (2018), “Rollers” (2018-19), “ and “Waiting Room (2018-19) evoke the animated-matter imagery of the Minor Characters period, while “Headquarters Blossom” (2017-19) recalls the moody abstractions of the Unlikely Companions period. “Horses” (2018-19) and “Blue Horses” (2019) add an equine motif, perhaps an homage to that painter of spiritualized animals, Franz Marc? Concomitant with this return to the artist’s psychic homeland is a new direction. Lerner became interested needle felting, which is transfixing crumpled felt repeatedly with a threaded needle until it assumes a complicated and unpredictable form. Deconstructing hats, Lerner creates small sculptures like “Slice” (2016) that retain, despite its minimalist form, some vestige of human use and life.

In an era when art seems to have become thoroughly corporatized and commodified, mere easy fun, Frances Lerner’s practice stands for the value of self-expression and meaning. It is not “standing athwart history yelling Stop” (to quote WiIliam F. Buckley’s trope on opposing the stampede of New Deal liberalism), but, to those who believe art can and should be a serious affair, as Anselm Kiefer has declared, it’s heartening. Make art great again.