Visual arts

Art review: The age of irony lives on at Cove Street Arts

Back in the stunned wake of 9/11 in 2001, then-editor of Vanity Fair Graydon Carter was lambasted for declaring “the end of the age of irony.” His argument was that after such an inconceivable, profound tragedy, flippancy and snark were no longer acceptable.

Over two decades later, two shows at Cove Street Arts prove irony is alive and well, but also make an argument for the unquestionable value of this form of human expression. “Repartee” (through March 26) delights in irony, finding inexhaustible reservoirs of humor and cleverness in it, but also unexpected moments of poignancy in juxtapositions of sculptures by Amy Wilton and paintings by Jim Flahaven.

“Michael Torlen: Dance Me to the End” (through April 9) validates irony as a coping mechanism and also, in a more classic sense, reminds us of the Renaissance vanitas tradition, those beautiful, if moralizing, paintings about the ephemerality of human existence.

The ironies of “Repartee” manifest in both the witticisms of their titles and as, more in the case of Wilton than Flahaven, visual puns. Wilton’s “She is Finally Safe” is a found-object sculpture for which the artist covered a fiberglass mannequin bust with hundreds of outward-pointing screws and nails. The pairing of the title with this extreme self-armoring presents its own chuckle-inducing irony.

Yet there is also sadness in the implied fear of our own vulnerability – the very quality that makes us human is our ability to feel and to be impacted, after all – that necessitates such attempts at self-defense. The visceral resonance of the piece is actually physically and emotionally painful.

The juxtaposition ratios in this show are not always one to one. There are more Flahaven paintings than Wilton sculptures, so a certain free association seems encouraged. The painting right next to “Safe,” “Kid’s Menu,” doesn’t feel particularly apposite. But if we grasp the self-sense of isolation inherent in “Safe,” it’s certainly easy to relate it to Flahaven’s “Ms. Pacman” on a facing wall.

Jim Flahaven, “Ms. Pacman,” acrylic and mixed media on panel, ​48″ x 40″ Photo courtesy of the artist

“Mrs. Pacman” itself is one of Flahaven’s most complexly constructed and beautiful paintings. Perceiving it within the visual field of “Safe” might suggest how computer games are another form of self-isolation. But the painting itself, in a way, also does that on its own.

Many of Flahaven’s works are segmented into quadrants or other structured configurations by chains or ladders composed of colorful squares. They are not strictly regimented in the manner of Piet Mondrian (an influence Flahaven cites in his statement), but they nevertheless impose a compartmentalization that isolates more fluid organic forms – foliate shapes, liquid streams – within their own boxes. These forms (like the armored emotions in “Safe”) cannot express themselves freely.

Jim Flahaven, “Why Don’t You Ladies go and Powder Your Noses. Me and Louie Got Business to Discuss,” charcoal and acrylic on panel, 24″ x 24″ Photo courtesy of the artist

Flahaven’s titles are irresistibly funny. Diagonally across from “Safe” are two paintings: “Why Don’t You Dames Go and Powder Your Noses. Me and Louie Got Some Business to Discuss” and, next to it, “And I’d Have Gotten Away with It If It Weren’t for Those Meddling Kids.” In front of these is Wilton’s sculpture “His Head in the Sand,” a mannequin’s legs and crotch covered in copper pennies thrust upside down in a square of sand.

Amy Wilton, “His Head is in the Sand,” found object sculpture, pennies, fiberglass, and resin, 43″ x 20″ x 12″ Photo courtesy of the artist

First, it’s hard to ignore that “Dames” teems with phallic and testicular shapes, which emphasize the male attitude of the title. In “Meddling Kids,” a red spot tries, in vain, to hide behind another shape while whirling, flying forms (presumably the kids) circulate around it. Both titles refer to a certain outdated and/or delusional thinking (“Ladies” is blatantly sexist in its attempt to minimize female power and competence; “Meddling Kids” seems in denial that our bad behavior is always eventually discovered). Wilton’s sculpture, within that context, hilariously sends up both notions of male obtuseness.

Flahaven’s “Your Outfit Looks Fine, You Just Need a Dickey,” calls to mind a piece of neckwear common in the 1950s and ’60s, something you’d expect to see in a Douglas Sirk film or Ang Lee’s “Ice Storm.” Men who wore dickeys back then referred to their spouse as the now ludicrous (and pecuniary) phrases “the wife” and “the little lady.” Several hollow forms allude to the tubular dickey in the painting, which leans toward a soft, dreamy kind of abstract expressionism.

Amy Wilton, “The Woman Who Remembered Who She Was,” mixed media found object sculpture, 28” x 13” x 10” Photo courtesy of the artist

Nearby is Wilton’s “The Woman Who Remembered Who She Was,” another mannequin bust that seems to embody similarly passé notions of female roles in society – a regiment of infants cuing up to suckle her nipple, oven dials where her arms should be, a crown of toy Roman soldiers on her head (perhaps her warmongering husband, brothers, children).

Yet circling her body and papering the back of her skull are positive affirmations that say something more fundamentally true about who she is beyond mother, nurturer, domestic keeper and so on: Pure creative spirit, Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking, etc.

It’s entirely too much fun deconstructing these pairings. So, you might not notice how genuinely lush and rich Flahaven’s paintings are. That would be a pity. His sense of color, form, depth and layering is dazzling.


Torlen joins a lineage of artists who used their work to grapple with illness. During the AIDS crisis, Kurt Reynolds and Larry JaBell collaged medicine bottles, IV tubes and capsules. Tiko Kerr incorporated his own discarded AIDS paraphernalia. Sam Francis, suffering through renal tuberculosis that caused testicular inflammation, produced a series of paintings titled “Blue Balls.”

The “Memento Mori” series of paintings was produced while Torlen was undergoing chemotherapy, during which he derived his palette from his color-coded medications. Memento mori works were shock-full of symbols of human mortality: skulls, hourglasses or clocks, extinguished candles. They are related to vanitas paintings, which often included these same symbols, but also instruments, books, wine and other worldly goods representing human vanities.

Michael Torlen, “MTX1” (from “Memento Mori”), acrylic and flashe on paper on panel, 24″ x 18″ Photo by Jay York

Skulls appear in Torlen’s paintings, often in the form of diagnostic scans, as do barcodes and the names of chemo drugs like Doxil and Abraxane.

A second series, “Dancers,” are monoprints that relate more closely to vanitas works in the sense that their imagery alludes to sex and vices: a voluptuous Venus-like figure, a dancing couple, packets of Camel cigarettes, Times Square before its gentrification (some might say Disneyfication) when it was a locus of porn theaters and rent-by-the-hour hotels, and so on. Some of these symbols occasionally show up in the “Memento Mori” paintings too.

Both series are interesting and well executed. I would say there might be too many “Dancers” works, because after a while they felt repetitive; the same imagery shuffled and reshuffled on the surface. The vivid palettes and death imagery of the “Memento Mori” paintings gives them more power and immediacy.

Michael Torlen, “Strangers” (from “Dancers”), monoprint with oil and water-based inks, woodcut, linocut, stencil, flashe and gouache on BFK paper, 22″ x 18″ Photo by Jay York

At times, the latter series can be inscrutable. Images of a cartoonish bubble man, a figure of Hermes, a tri-colored pinwheel-like form, killer whales, fish … we can only guess. It reminds me of Jasper Johns’s paintings of jumbled-together imagery that was so personal – a shadow, a soldier’s silhouette from the Isenheim altarpiece, George Ohr pottery – that they felt slightly remote and enigmatic, if beautifully painted.

But there is a lot of technique here, and a certain feeling of defiance in the face of death that comes through loud and clear, often through the language of irony (billboards hawking cigarettes that will kill you, couples blithely dancing past skulls and X- rays). That alone is celebratory and life-affirming, elements not present in memento mori and vanitas paintings. Accordingly, Torlen’s “Memento Mori” paintings don’t come off as moralizing. Instead, they feel open, vulnerable and, ultimately, joyful.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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