Looking Upward at Manifest Gallery

Ivan Fortushniak returns to Manifest Gallery this month with a solo exhibition of 15 modest sized works that range from the prosaic to the superb. A god in his own way, Fortushniak fashions painted worlds that resonate with ambiguity and unease. In his universe figures from the past stare obliquely into contemporary landscapes, are compelled skyward by invisible forces, and take part in tense, sometimes dangerous, interactions. Despite his professed Christian motivations, all but a few of Fortushniak’s paintings come across as secular, surreal narratives. More SyFy than TBN, the best of these works are a haunted and haunting lot.

Fortushniak is a contemporary genre painter. The landscapes in which his strange occurrences unfold are competently crafted and echo a kind of 19th century Romanticism. These being landscapes, Fortushniak’s palette is kept under restraint. Save for a few particular passages, the colors in these works never meander much beyond the browns, blues, greens, and somber tones necessary for the execution of plausible illusionistic space.

Fortushniak’s technique is essentially academic. Bits of text, smears of paint, and scoured surfaces are all executed in appropriate, unobtrusive amounts, exhibiting almost excessive good taste. Even his collaged figures, pilfered as they are from the likes of Winslow Homer’s Snap the Whip (1872), Returning from the Spring (1874), Veteran in a New Field (1865), and others are treated with a courtesy not given by most practitioners of appropriation. This is no slight against Fortushniak; in an age where the latest winner of the Turner Prize pocketed £25,000 for making nothing, even academic taste looks like an act of radicalism. But to describe these as simply well-done landscapes with a twist would be to miss the point. These works possess a peculiar quality that lingers within the imagination long after the viewer has departed.
In the The Lost Boys, one of Fortushniak’s finest, a group of youngsters are sent reeling from an angry blast while one of them rushes to aid a fallen comrade. In the sky above, a furtive looking flying saucer makes a hasty retreat. A combination of eerie light and space that fixes a moment in time, this simple narrative’s ability to arouse the imagination is remarkable. Containing all the aforementioned formal attributes, The Lost Boys also illustrates Fortushniak’s capacity to re-contextualize appropriated imagery. The boys in question are cut from Homer’s Snap the Whip and in Fortushniak’s hands a game of childhood frivolity is transformed into a supernatural nightmare.

Throughout the show, Fortushniak’s talent for seamlessly integrating collage material onto his surfaces is first-rate; only in Not a Savior does it fall flat. Another of his alien landscapes, Not a Savior features a vision of a scorched earth. In it, a polluted brown stream leads the eye back to a distant raging fire. Peeking out behind the billowing smoke, the cooling tower of a nuclear power plant portends catastrophe. If the piece ended there it would be among the best in the show. However captivating, the aesthetic pleasure of this scene of dread screeches to an abrupt halt at a painfully out-of-place sticker of Superman. The message here is obvious: Superman cannot save us from ourselves. But in this case Fortushniak sacrifices pictorial vigor for an easy one-liner. Accounting for the fact that Not a Savior is the oldest piece in the show, we might forgive this single lapse of judgment
In addition to the 11 oils Looking Upward presents four of Fortushniak’s mixed media works. Looser and more linear than his paintings, these pictures establish Fortushniak as an accomplished draftsman. Though they display various degrees of finish, they lack none of the mystery and eccentricity of his paintings. In Resurrection, a 19th century farmer tending to his field is thrust into the sky by an unknown power. The graphite landscape exudes a subtle tonality that stands in stark contrast to the full-color image of the farmer. In the upper right, parallel to the air-bound farmer, a handwritten bit of text, “RE”, floats in front of a visage of a man in the sky. Undoubtedly a reference to Fortushniak’s religious beliefs, large faces in the sky are a motif in several of his pictures; bits of text too make frequent appearances.

Fortushniak claims that text in his work directs the viewer’s attention to particular locations and that it has biblical underpinnings. While this is unquestionably true, its use adds little to the compositions. Other than a sort of cubist affirmation of the surface of the picture plane, they could easily disappear without compromising the integrity of any of the paintings.

Great paintings always propose tensions and offer resolutions. They are authoritative accounts of a lived human experience of the world around us. In Looking Upward Ivan Fortushniak paints these accounts. Though religious in nature, none of Fortushniak’s works rage with the zeal of the recently converted and there is enough space for the viewer, whether religious or not, to enter and experience his painted reality.

As we move headfirst into an over-connected and rapidly shifting 21st century, the power of art to provide refuge from the instability of our daily lives, to give us succor when the world gives us aggravation, must be of primary import. By transporting us into a world not unlike our own, Ivan Fortushniak’s Looking Upward affords us this solace, eventually returning us back to our daily lives, changed in some small way for the better.

– Alan D. Pocaro

Looking Upward: Paintings By Ivan Fortushniak on View at Manifest Creative Research Gallery and Drawing Center, 2727 Woodburn Ave. Cincinnati, Oh 45206 T-F 2-7pm. Sat 12-5. Through January 7, 2011


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