The Astonishing Works of John Altoon
May 7 —
June 19, 2010

“You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.”

— Charlie Parker

Swirling pornography of Hans Bellmer, the social satire (sans the heavy clan imagery), luminosity and ferocious line of Philip Guston, the surrealistic pillow of Roberto Matta, the fascination with contorting genitalia of Lee Lozano, the foot fetishism and fierce application of paint of Georg Baselitz and of course the connected heart to his Armenian brother in arms, Arshile Gorky; this is John Altoon’s world. Altoon is an inward voyeur, however, direct reference to his contemporaries, incidental. Mike Kelly and Paul McCarthy are certainly carriers of his scorching torch. I didn’t know John Altoon. My impressions are a mosaic of words, oral histories and, of course, the astonishing works of art he delivered to the world. Altoon by all accounts was a heart breaker. Charisma oozing from every pore. Ink from a pen. His legendary volatility wreaked chaos on anything and everything in its path. Altoon lived by the adage that without intense pathos there cannot be sublime joy. And those that collided with him seem to have enjoyed both ends of his polarities. The intensity of love for this man seems only rivaled by the intensity of the admiration for his art.

It is a too simplistic read to examine Altoon’s drawings and paintings as the dichotomy between joy and sadness—though the free flowing effortlessness by which ink discharged from his fountain in his “speed drawing” style contrasted against the angst filled reflective slowness that oil painting requires, certainly scratches beneath the surface of indeed, a very layered man. 

The exhibition at Nyehaus brings together eleven paintings and a boatload of drawings. The artistic purge that these two means of expression satisfy have a symbiotic symmetry. Altoon was very prolific, releasing drawings like a nervous tick. Twitching. Water from a (his) hose. The nervous energy of his line veils the virtuosity of his draftsmanship; Velocity and diabolical mischief apparent in every gesture. Content and style always in interlocking lustful embrace. 

The paintings. Molasses. Amber like in the way they encase light in their underpaint. The palette an irreconcilable combination of dark nature and incandescent pastels; linseed oil sucked out. A carcass in the desert. And these crazy animals; cows, roosters, pigs, zebras (?) The most minimal of detail rendered with cocky naiveté in stark contrast to the blackness of the gut wrenching humor in his drawings. 

Drawing and painting. Ying and yang? Or nuclear fusion causing the heart to atomize from the ecstasy and soul sucking pain? Both in equal doses. That is John Altoon.

— Tim Nye