Monday, June 3, 2013

Cerling and Topek, Houston Masters

Robert Boyd

Toby Topek and Penny Cerling are showing new work at Zoya Tommy Gallery. What they have in common is important--they are women who have been producing art in Houston for decades. But the interesting thing about this exhibit is that their work is so distinct. The only thing they have in common is that they aren't, strictly speaking, paintings. I think theer are some painted elements in Topek's work, but it isn't dominant. And even though Cerling's pieces are on panels, they are drawings, not paintings.

Penny Cerling, Charting the Unseen (with NCY Grid) #3.11, ink on board, 32 x 32 inches

Cerling began studying printmaking in 1979 and started working at Little Egypt Enterprises in 1980. She was a printmaker for many of Houston's best-known artists for over two decades. I mention this because when I look at the fine lines and smeary ink of her pieces, I am reminded of etchings. The works recall antique scientific or technical illustration. So aspects of pieces appear to be depictions of biological things, some architectural, some mathematical. The combination of these disparate elements into a single drawing brings to mind artists and thinkers from the Renaissance, when there was suddenly access to floods of new knowledge. Artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer were influenced by ideas of neo-platonism and the relationship of the macrocosmos and microcosmos to man.

Penny Cerling, Charting the Unseen (With Alhambra Floor Plan) #2.11, ink on panel, 2 pieces, 32" x 32"

This relationship is what I see in Cerling's work in this show. In Charting the Unseen (With Alhambra Floor Plan) #2.11, the human--the floor plan of the Alhambra, is linked in a chain with the mathematical (the radial graphs). Perhaps the white void in the center can be thought of as "the One" in neo-Platonism.

The drawings seem therefore quite metaphysical. But the deliberately antique look of the pieces complicates any simple interpretation. When some aspect of a piece of art is a pastiche (and I would contend that this is true in all of Cerling's pieces here), there is an implication that the artist is standing outside the subject of the work looking in. Perhaps this distance is ironic, perhaps it is a distance filled with longing. Carling can't be a Renaissance Neo-Platonist, but she can draw like one and relate their ideas to modern scientific notions. This "distance" is what separates a visionary artist from an intellectual one. I would put Cerling in the latter category.

Toby Topek, 28 small pieces

If Cerling is deliberately referencing older art in her work, Toby Topek's work feels relatively contemporary. That makes the combination of the two artists in one show all the more interesting.

Toby Topek, Frozen Finger, 2012-13, thread and mixed media/collage, 9 x 9 inches

Most contemporary collage doesn't feel significantly different from early Dada collage. You can see some of that influence in Topek's pieces, such as Frozen Finger. But the addition of the thread distinguishes the work. With Frozen Finger, you first notice the red thread. It is a clever use of the thread element and it changes the meaning of the collaged hand. But after a while you notice the black thread underneath--the circular shape covered with random short stitches, the three horizon-like lines, two dotted and one solid. These remove the piece from being merely clever. They complicate any interpretation.

Toby Topek, Keepsake, 2012, thread and mixed media/collage, 11.5 x 11.5 inches

Keepsake resembles Frozen Finger with its disembodied hand. These pieces (and others in the exhibit) remind me specifically of Max Ernst's untitled collage from 1920 which depicts a flying machine with a pair of arms. Topek has probably seen it in the Menil. It suggests a lineage for this work.

Toby Topek, Magnetic, 2012-13, thread and mixed media/collage, 9 x 9 inches

Toby Topek, Rapture, 2012-13, thread and mixed media/collage, 9 x 9 inches

The thread in the pieces could also refer to the string of a puppeteer. Magnetic suggests that--in this case the puppet has cut its strings. But the strings also bind, as in Rapture. Both the idea of being bound and the idea of being controlled (as in being a puppet) relate to some of the other subject matter, tyranny.

Toby Topek, Autocrat-red, 2012-13, thread and mixed media/collage, 9 x 9 inches

Topek draws several Autocrats and includes work related to the Arab Spring. So the work in the show is, in part, political. Unlike heavy-handed agit-prop style political art (some of that kind of political art is included in The Station's current street art show), Topek is not demanding action. She is responding to the world. Her work reminds me a little of Nancy Spero's both in her use of collage and her sense of outrage.

Toby Topek, The Awakening, 2012-13, thread and mixed media/collage, 14 x 17 inches

The thing about a Western artist doing art about the Arab Spring is that the art is inherently impotent. It's someone looking at the news and being shocked or angered and having a response. But whatever the artist's response, it won't change a thing in Syria or Egypt or Iran. So why do it?

Toby Topek, The Awakening (detail), 2012-13, thread and mixed media/collage, 14 x 17 inches

I don't have an answer for this. I suspect Topek just felt compelled to create these works. They are deliberate and carefully made, but they feel like instantaneous expressions of grief and anger. A piece like The Awakening not only deals with the Libyan revolution, but it reflects Topek's (and our) experience of it--a flood of words from the news. Topek's art acknowledges her own physical distance from the events, but brings us in direct contact with her own highly personal reaction to them. This kind of political art is itself part of a long tradition. Spero was part of that tradition which goes back at least to Goya.

I wasn't familiar with Topek's work prior to this show, and I don't know how this work fits in with her previous work. But I love it.



  1. Thanks. A thorough review of a show I haven't had a chance to see. I appreciate it.

  2. Robert you have delved into the core of these artists with their evolution and control of respective emotive approaches. I was drawn to Kurt Vonnegut's "Cat's Cradle" and the inherent metaphors as a unifying aspect of these veteran artists and their take on TIME. Thank you for expanding my experience with this stimulating exhibition.