The Interior Life of Gideon Bok

Gideon Bok at Stephen Harvey Fine Art Projects, September 16-October 25,2020 and Susan Bee at A.I.R September 12 — October 11, 2020

“Portrait of Ada/Portrait of Helen” (2019/20), 2 canvases, each 53” x 33”

Bok is a good painter with a good subject, a classic—his studio, which functions both as a world to observe, a portrait of his family and a metaphor for , perhaps—the contents of his brain.
I hope I’ll be forgiven though–during these times, when the interior spaces of others have become dangerous and because I feel safer outside and this was only the second gallery I’d visited in many months—that my first impulse was to flee. Especially because one of the “objects” often pictured is a human skeleton and the implications…
But oh well, skeletons are hilarious too.

“Charlie and Emmet” (2019)
“Charlie and Emmet” (detail)

A skeleton walks into a bar and says,
“Gimme me a beer and a mop.”

Bok makes a joke too. See:

A skeleton is a symbol too— of the vanity of painting, the ephemeral fleshiness of it. And in the Covid era, a stand-in for the live model you can’t let into the pod and an explanation for the other models, the children and his mother, I’m speculating.
Actually, looking at the dates, Bok seems to have locked down, in his choice of subject at least, years ago. I’m reminded of Dawn Clements’s work—a meticulous picture of her “room” which included the images on her television. For Bok, it is music; it’s impossible to look at Bok’s studio with its musical instruments and records and not imagine that music is playing.

I’ve also been reading “Voyage Around my Room” (1790) written by Xavier de Maistre, a French aristocrat confined to his room for 42 days as a punishment for dueling:
“The fascinating observations I made and the endless pleasures I experienced along the way made me wish to share my travels with the public; and the certainty of having something useful to offer convinced me to do so.”

Before Covid I think I would have seen the paintings differently—I would be noting the slightly elevated and distant position from which Bok contemplates his “room.” At that time I would have immediately homed in on the way my eyes are drawn back to the sharply detailed drum set in the right upper side of Portrait of Ada… and come back slowly to decipher the gestural sketchy faces of the girls.

“Portrait of Ada/Portrait of Helen” (detail)

The girls are sketched in flickering marks seated at a suggestion of a table, and the drum set is painted in a meticulous series of small strokes. It is fascinating to travel between the two. Other parts of the painting support this traveling eye—the red table, the scumbled colorful underpainting. Others don’t at all: the back wall is painted in a prosaic rote way as are the windows, the globe, the hanging guitars and the ceiling. I might be missing something, it might be intentional, these areas might be placeholders that intensify the vivid vignettes that seem to be paintings within the paintings.

“Rocking Chair” (2017) 48″ x 33″

In Rocking Chair, it is the connection between the chair, the white object, the orange phone, the record sleeves and the beautifully painted green floor.
In Charlie…, it is the black chair sitting halfway into the square of light.
In Portrait of Mary, it is the still life with a plastic water bottle on the back table.
Paintings within the paintings.

“Rocking Chair” (detail)

In this detail of Rocking Chair, the chair is partially painted, partially scraped away and there is a bit of trompe l’oeil—the shiny seat. The orange underpainting dances in and out, creating the spokes of the chair, glimpsed in the floor, exploding into the telephone and the cord. The phone is also picked out with a bright green outline and the area is bounded by the blue cabinet. It’s uncanny.

“Portrait of Mary Bok” (2018) 50″ x 33″

Bok is using so many techniques that are not usually in the same painting: gritty washes, sharp observation, gestural abstraction. Contemporary painters are combating the idea that looking at a photograph is anything like looking at the world and has anything to do with the way that we actually see and Bok is doing this by shifting focus and offering the viewer multiple painting languages to decipher.

Susan Bee, “Orpheus” (2019) 50″ x 40″

The first gallery I visited that day was Air Gallery to see Susan Bee’s show. She breaks up the painting and slows down its viewing too, in a very different way by, by dividing it into separate shapes that she covers with directional strokes, textures and decorations. I don’t quite see the relevance of the fairy tale type imagery and symbolism but I do respond to that changeable joyous glittering surface.