Return to Articles


May 21 - July 2, 2005 at 626 Gallery, Downtown

by Shirle Gottlieb

Don’t believe this exhibit’s tongue-in-cheek title. From the beginning of history, art has always been about something that was relevant to its time. Consider this abbreviated cosmic view: Whether it’s Grunewald’s “Crucifixion,” Hieronymous Bosch’s vision of purgatory, Vermeer’s pristine Dutch interiors, Fragonard’s French court scenes, Goya’s mad paintings, Picasso’s “Guernica,” Magritte’s “Ceci n’es pas une pipe” or Joseph Beuys’ anti-war installations, art speaks volumes about the world that spawned it. More recently, Ad Rheinhart’s all black painting, Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, Ed Keinholtz’ dramatic scenarios, James Turrell’s monumental earthworks, and Bill Viola’s video installations, all bear witness to the times that informed them.

Bear with me. If the pen is mightier than the sword, but a painting is worth 1,000 words, imagine how much power each artwork might have when created by a superb craftsman who delights in poking sacred cows.

Enter Robert Cenedella, a New York artist known for exposing human foibles, skewering religious hypocrisy, and putting a satirical spin on everything from American politics, materialism, and racism, to foreign affairs and financial fiasco. On view here are 35 of Cenedella’s “Art About Nothing” pieces, plus ten works from his “Easel Painting Revival,” as well as several highly acclaimed early paintings that put his name on the international map.

When viewing this artist’s signature social satires, one thinks immediately of Shakespeare’s court jester--the only person on stage who dared to tell the king the truth. A controversial 1962 piece depicts the police as rabid “Southern Dogs” (or wild jackals) as they beat and bite a poor unarmed black man. A 1989 painting caused a scandal by featuring “Santa Claus” nailed to the cross in a ragged red suit high over a sea of brightly wrapped presents.

“2001 A Stock Odyssey” tackles the New York Stock Exchange by portraying a crowd of hysterical people clutching piggy banks amid balloons, banners, a bank of TV monitors and signs (“bingo,” “blotto,” “monopoly”). Those in the know will recognize Ronald Reagan, Bear Stearns, Salomon Smith Barney, even Bill Cosby--all painted in exquisite detail.

“2001--A Stock Odyssey," 1986, oil
on canvas, 58 1/2 x 56 1/2".

“Gallery Opening," 1962,
oil on canvas, 40 x 50".

“Ground Zero," 2002, oil
on canvas, 48 x 36".

Photograph from "Art About Nothing"
series, in progress, 2005.

Using the same format and self-deprecating humor, the most flat out hilarious work in the show is “Gallery Opening.” It depicts a crowd of pretentious, self-satisfied people sipping wine at the exhibit of five artists whose bodies are skewered and nailed to the back wall.
By contrast, the most disturbing work is “Ground Zero,” a gut-wrenching landscape of debris, headlines, and media coverage that stretches far back to the horizon. Visible in the smoldering mass of destruction (which is paradoxically beautiful) are oil pipelines and snippets of scandals about Enron, Anderson, and Florida.

As for the “Easel Painting Revival” works, they’re a hoot-and-a-half. Readers of ArtScene will easily recognize the movements of art that are being spoofed in a series of canvases that sit on easels (as their name implies) throughout the gallery. Among them are a solid blue painting, a green one covered with thick vertical drips, and a white painting slashed with action brush-strokes of loopy black paint.

Which brings us to the so-called “Art About Nothing” work, a series of paintings, sculptures, constructions, and combinations of art materials that address “the art of making art.” Collectively, this grouping gives viewers a distinctive angle on Cenedella’s love affair with his work by stripping it back to the initial steps of his creative process. Individually, they provide insights into what goes on behind the scenes in the studio and gallery before the public ever sets eyes on exhibited work.

Treated in a delightfully playful style are works that include paint brushes floating through the frame of an empty doorway, stacks of stretcher bars, surfaces covered with empty paint tubes and dirty rags, a geometric sculpture formed by several empty frames, the artist’s old beat-up printing press, and stacks and stacks of art paraphernalia. “Art About Nothing”? Hardly. This exhibit is a big, fat labor of love that begins with the raw materials in Cenedella’s studio and concludes with the finished paintings.