Suggesting everything from an illicit side hustle to the lame excuses you come up with for getting out of things you don’t want to do, “Other Arrangements,” the title of Justin Witte’s amiable new show at 65 Grand, is a genius appellation. Fearlessly self-deprecating, it’s one of those irresistibly clever bits of wordplay that sheds light on a show’s theme and structure in a way that asks a little but gives a lot. Witte’s subtle and sophisticated humor propels the ten small works, deceptive in their simplicity, to consistently punch above their weight class.
The arrangements, by the way, are floral.
Throughout the show, Witte uses the formal construct of the decorated vase to stage uncluttered, economical and enigmatic compositions. Pressurized against the picture plane and vivified by flatly applied patches of gouache and acrylic, the pieces stylistically hover between the painterly innocence of folk art and the graphic clarity of illustration. Each vase rests on a tabletop—usually patterned—contains plants in various stages of growth—or decay—and, with few exceptions, contains pictures within pictures.
This approach works to create complex spatial tensions with pretty austere means. In the nocturnal apostrophe “Porch Storm,” an almost comically rendered man is seen relaxing on a suburban lawn chair taking in the tempest. He’s laid back, chilling against a black sky of infinite depth, punctuated by four equally comic lightning bolts descending from the gray cloudy sky. The scene is paradoxically the deepest part of the painting and, as the design on the vase, the closest point to the viewer.
Kicks for the cognoscenti maybe, but you don’t need to be steeped in the minutiae of art and art history to see that illusions like these are undeniably fun and funny.
In Witte’s 2016 exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center, I detected an ambivalence to the artist’s Dutch heritage lurking beneath the works’ surfaces. The paintings in “Other Arrangements” on the other hand, wear their “Dutchness” on their birch-board sleeves. From their diminutive size to the cobalt oxide of “Dark Delft Bloom,” or the dull pink shedding tips of wilted tulips in the richly mysterious “Moon Shadow,” Witte is unambiguously thinking about, and making visual contact with, a source on the “other side of the pond.” Is it family? History? Memory? One thing is certain, these vases are receptacles for more than plants.
“Other Arrangements” is on view at 65 Grand, 3252 West North, through October 7.