At Kingston Gallery, Jennifer Moses’ Rock, Paper, Scissors uses a playful visual language to convey the political frustrations of our time.
By Claire Ogden
What kind of political art might suit our current climate? A new COVID-19 variant and its ensuing closures have once again returned; President Biden, who as a candidate called for a strong federal government response to the pandemic, has now seemingly flip-flopped. This nonsense can’t be contained in the adult world’s 24-hour news cycle alone; it is political child’s play, the stuff of cartoons. In Rock, Paper, Scissors, on view through January 16, Jennifer Moses takes us back to the playground for a playful and cynical view of this day and age.
The compositions of Rock, Paper, Scissors are flat yet full of movement. Moses works in ink and flashe, a medium which she loves in part because, as she says, “light doesn’t emanate from it, it kind of sucks up the light in an interesting way.” This combination of ink and flashe is a pleasant surprise to the eye. Inherent in flashe is a bold and colorful matte surface, which lends itself well to Moses’ combination of abstract and representational shapes. The black and white ink serves as a compelling textural counterpoint to the flat shapes, replacing the viewer’s expectation of a comic book landscape with something more ironic. Inspired by artists such as Phillip Guston, Stuart Davis, Matisse, and Jacob Lawrence, Moses’ results manage to strike the notoriously difficult balance of being both politically engaged and aesthetically interesting.
Despite how immediate these pieces look, their process is time-consuming and labor-intensive. The material of flashe itself is thick and can only be worked over so often before the surface becomes impossible to work with. Likewise, Moses’ cartoonish imagery is in fact the result of a long history of experimentation. She is influenced by Sienese medieval paintings, which she says struck her as “very abstract despite their nature of storytelling. Although they are composed of biblical figures and representational spaces, they’re flat and stylized.” In the early aughts, Moses grew tired of figuration, so she transitioned away from the figure, “lifting objects from art history” as she puts it. She zoomed into these compositions, painting the parts of the figure––the hairdos, robes, and other things––that inspired her. She’s been exploring the boundaries between figuration and abstraction ever since. At one point in her artistic evolution, Moses experimented with both painting and collage in the same pieces. Despite leaving collage behind, that influence is still evident in her work today. The disparate shapes she creates all seem to be at odds with each other, abstract and figurative facing off in a heated debate.
One of the most compelling aspects of Rock, Paper, Scissors is in its pairing of paintings, several in diptych-like arrangements. Often used in religious art, diptychs typically present a narrative. Artists like Kay Walkingstick, however, have used the form to contrast two parts of a piece, emphasizing their emotional rather than visual connections. In Night (1991), Walkingstick used the diptych to show Ithaca’s gorges on one side and her “internal spiritual comprehension” in the other, creating a visual representation of grief after her husband’s death. At Kingston, Jennifer Moses has paired her paintings like diptychs, creating the sensation that these works are all bumping heads. The pairing of Chase II and Onetwothreeshoot extends each works’ combative effect past the canvas. The figures in Chase II almost seem to be running away from Onetwothreeshoot, whose clenched fists look menacing in comparison. This movement leads the viewer through the rest of the show, as if compelling them to turn the pages of a comic book. Later, the ghostly form from Onetwothreeshoot returns––as if having lost his battle.
At this point in the pandemic, Americans are more frazzled than ever, yet political solutions have led to an endless stalemate. Perhaps by retreating to the straightforward logic of the comic book, we can escape this current reality, or even dream up more compelling solutions. Critical yet still playful, Rock, Paper, Scissors is a refreshing break from the mayhem.