A new exhibition of work by Sebastian Black, “Unique Newark” is up at Clearing Gallery in Brooklyn, and digs back into the various roots of the Russian avant-garde: the Suprematist, Constructivist and Productivist movements attached to the Russian revolution. The two bodies of work in Unique Newark examines the utopian desire to find the most pure form of art, balanced alongside the tainted capitalist world that the Russian avant-garde was fighting at the time.
The first set of work consists of Sebastian’s iconic puppy paintings, inspired by the Italian modernist painter Giorgio Morandi – his meticulous operating strategy of painting the same thing over and over again, is seen as a set of exercises by Sebastian. Using the “puppy” as a funny template, the paintings are themselves ready-mades.
The second set of work are the “period pieces”: two stand-alone changing screens occupy the actual space of the gallery — not just the walls. Sebastian introduced these pieces by telling me that he was very much inspired by the Helvetica font — the most pure font, but ironically the one utilized by corporate America. And Sebastian made a curious discovery here: the period from the Helvetica font is a black square. These blown up periods impersonate Russian Avant-garde painter Kasimir Malevich’s “Black Square” from 1915, a very important painting for the Russian avant-garde.
This dualism reflects the problem with the Russian avant-garde’s artistic program — once “purity” in art was discovered in the name of socialism, the art became so pure that only the most educated could understand it, defying the whole point of its purpose.
Here, art and commerce are forever intertwined. Productivism comes into play, and Sebastian’s “period pieces” manage to exist separately from the pure and autonomous world of art, because the screens can actually be functionally used, entering the sphere of domestic and commodity. Unique Newark also includes two garments which the artist made in collaboration with India Donaldson — another application of art, ideas and utility.
The show addresses the bigger artistic inquiries regarding the autonomy and the function of art — especially within the context of the white gallery cube. With Unique Newark, Sebastian does not necessarily offer a solution to the problems introduced and created by this avant-garde, but asks whether or not a solution even exists, because perhaps dissonance is simply the very nature of art.