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Art: Inside the Painter's Studio 

Wednesday, Jun 15 2016
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When British-born painter Damian Elwes was in Keith Haring's former New York studio earlier this year, he began snooping for clues. In the 26 years since Haring died, countless photos of the workspace, now part of the Keith Haring Foundation, have been published. But Elwes appears to be the only one who noticed one of Haring's last habits: placing a newly painted work against the studio's walls, so that it imprinted the work's mirror image.

Before Elwes' visit, these wall marks were attributed to oils seeping from the back of Haring's canvas as he painted. They were considered a kind of graffiti.

Elwes believes Haring deliberately made mirrored duplicates because he was dying of AIDS and wanted to leave an intimate part of himself in the studio — a recreation of which is now at San Francisco's Modernism gallery, part of an ongoing "Artist Studios" series.

"When he'd put on, say, a red line all over the painting, he'd turn it around and press the wet side against the wall," Elwes says via telephone. "That's my theory. I said that to the foundation. They said, 'No, we don't think so. We think that the paint just bled through the canvases.' And I said, 'That can't be because they're mirror images. And the canvases he made were on three-inch stretcher bars, which are very thick, and there's no way they'd go through the space.'"

"As painters," Elwes adds, "we sell all our paintings when we're successful, and we miss them. They're gone. But here, he also knew he was going to die, and he was leaving his spirit in this studio."

"Investigative painting" is one way to describe Elwes' recreations of major artists' studios. Each work in "Artist Studios: From Picasso to Jeff Koons" recreates the style of the artist Elwes is profiling. This entails deep research, interviewing people who knew the artists, and personal visits to the studios — though many are no longer actual places of art-making. Therein lies the detective work.

When Elwes visited the French town of Collioure, where Henri Matisse had a studio apartment that overlooked the Mediterranean, and where he painted the 1905 work Open Window, Collioure, Elwes asked townspeople where the artist had his studio. They all pointed toward the same spot in the town's tourist center, by the port, where Matisse rented a house starting in 1907. Every tourist is pushed there, in fact, but Elwes had a photo that suggested a much different location for the 1905 studio — and he began knocking on doors until he found what appeared to be the exact place, which is now an office.

After Elwes talked his way in, and showed an owner the evidence that her flat was, indeed, Matisse's former workplace — from where Open Window, Collioure had helped give birth to the art movement called Fauvism — she was stunned. And a little chagrined.

"The whole town of Collioure had no idea that was Matisse's studio," Elwes says. "I said to the owner, 'You should put this back to the way it was and open this as a Matisse museum.' And I told her that I'd noticed, as I was coming in, a Matisse poster right by the door, of a Matisse painting. And she said, 'Oh, I forgot to tell you: I'm on the board of the Collioure Museum, and we have a Matisse painting coming next week from Paris. We're so excited.' I said, 'Can we get a look at the poster?' And we went and looked at it, and it was a poster of the painting, Open Window, Collioure, right below the window where he painted it. She said, 'I'm so embarrassed. I'd been mailing invitations for a week, and I didn't realize that's my window.' "

Elwes has had a lifetime of good connections. He had the advantage, for example, of being friends with the son of Cy Twombly, whom he called to identify details of Twombly's last studio in Gaeta, Italy. In 1983, when he was living in New York and working as an assistant on a Sidney Lumet film, he met Haring on the street and established a friendship that inspired Elwes to consider painting as a vocation. Elwes' father and grandfather were established painters, but Elwes rejected their urging that he join the painting ranks.

"I didn't want my life to be pre-ordained," Elwes says. "One day I was having to keep crowd control at the subway at Penn Station, and when I let the crowd out one time, there was Keith Haring drawing on a poster. We struck up a conversation and talked all afternoon. I said, 'Your job looks a lot more fun than mine.' And he said, 'Pick up some chalk and join me — help me finish this one off.' I said, 'Because I'm English, I'm not going to do that because your painting is great.' And he said, 'Well, Damian, I can tell you're going to be a painter. Just go buy some spray paint and find an empty wall in New York and just spray on it. It comes out so fast, it doesn't matter whether you know how to paint.' "

A couple of weeks later, Elwes took Haring's advice and spray-painted a building that was going to be bulldozed in a year. He was soon discovered by a prominent London art dealer, Robert Fraser, who represented Haring and had come to New York looking for new clients. Elwes' career was launched. And 30 years later, he returned the favor, drawing Haring's studio like no one has done before.

Under the right hands, amalgamated pieces of newspapers, magazines, posters, and other ephemera produce visual art that's much, much greater than the sum of its occasionally tiny parts.

"The principle of collage," the novelist Donald Barthelme once said in the 1970s, "is one of the central principles of art in this century."

And so it remains in the 21st, with a new generation of established artists using the medium to great effect. In Gary Simmons' new exhibit, he's turned Anthony Meier Fine Arts into a temple of truncated posters.

The entire gallery is wallpapered with colorful versions of street flyers advertising long-gone punk rock shows, reggae concerts, and music-related events, like a fundraiser for Jello Biafra's 1979 long-shot mayoral campaign. The Dead Kennedys singer would have been the city's first surrealist, leftwing rocker mayor. Instead, almost 40 years later, his visage has wound up next to that of soul singer Mary Love, reggae singers Sly and Robbie, and even Fred Flintstone.

The posters are manipulated versions of original plasterings that appeared decades ago, when "analog" was still a vital mode of advertising shows. By tweaking them into an endless stream of large bits and pieces, where words are deliberately faded and cut off, Simmons creates elliptical artwork that plays with people's perceptions.

Simmons isn't being completely nostalgic with his wallpapering. The reggae groups relate to Simmons' West Indian heritage, and reggae greatly influenced punk music, so binding the flyers together links them physically. Where does one flyer begin and another end? That's for art-goers to figure out. As Simmons says, "Almost all of my work deals with memory and reconstruction of the past."

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Jonathan Curiel

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