Text: Alec Coiro
Photo: Lorenzo Fariello
It’s difficult, perhaps inadvisable even, to talk about the Mikhail Sokovikov, Jason Wall, and Christopher Johnson show at Lazy Susan without talking about Mint&Serf, the art duo that comprises Sokovikov and Wall and with which Johnson is closely associated. The artists themselves aren’t calling it a Mint&Serf show; although, when I ask Wall about it, he concedes that “it’s mentioned.” And I think that’s about nails the appropriate extent to which Mint&Serf should come into play. For one thing, it’s helpful to acknowledge the Mint&Serf art team, as it adds a fascinating contextual angle to the striking difference in technique and perhaps even aesthetics on display at the show. As Sokovikov himself puts it, “All three of us come from a completely different perspective in our own work and our execution is completely different. It’s an interesting diversity.”
We were just going at these canvases and exploding. - Jason Wall
The art coming out of the Mint&Serf studio on Duane and Broadway is, ironically enough, quintessentially non-Tribeca art. At least not the Tribeca of Locanda Verde and The Balloon Saloon. Rather, it’s graffiti-inspired art that hovers just above street level. Wall describes the Mint&Serf studio practice as a way of contextualizing his own work for “Warranted Non-Compliance”: “I needed structure. All the work prior to it was chaotic. It was like being on the street. We were just going at these canvases and exploding. It was too much. Going sober incurred so much anxiety that I need structure and rigidity.” The resulting works communicate a serene, simplicity that seems to be as much about the visual creation, as it is about the traces of the artist’s process that are purposefully left present via their graph paper medium. Consistent with both the move to sobriety and the feeling of calmness is the evocation of water with an emphasis on wave-like fluctuations, which brings to mind the most calming aspect of water: it’s sound. Interestingly, though, when I was talking to Wall, he referred to the subject matter not as water but as “hydrating,” and, indeed, there is something unmistakably soul replenishing about these pieces.
If Wall’s partner Mikhail Sokovikov is exploring the soul, it’s not being done in a replenishing way in his extremely arresting and haunting prints. The print technique he uses was inspired by a trip to the Degas show at the Moma last year. The effect he achieves in the resulting portraits is reminiscent, perhaps of Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Son. The series began through studies Sokovikov’s did on late night subway rides. “I Started doing a lot charcoal drawings on trains. Really fast gestural stuff. Late at night. Really mangled people. But these are mono prints. It’s an old technique. Degas and Pissarro established it in the 19th century.” Indeed, there is something of the old masters in these works that you do not necessarily expect looking through the Mint&Serf catalog. For Sokovikov it is the level of contrast that draws him to the technique. “What I really like about working with plexiglass is you get the pure white of the paper. The contrast of the black and white are really powerful in that technique.” They are certainly powerful portraits. I ask him if they’re meant to be scary. He responds with “You tell me?” It was definitely my first impression. And if they’re not scary, they are certainly wickedly effective.
It’s tempting to imagine Sokovikov (Mint) and Wall (Serf) as contrasting forces colliding with each other, only able to produce work through the mediation of trusted peer, Christopher Johnson. Obviously, this is fiction, but it’s tempting to imagine Johnson playing this role when you consider how his work in “Warranted Non-Compliance” resolves the contrast between Sokovikov and Wall. Johnson’s works on paper have the charcoal-inspired feel of Sokovikov’s prints along with Sokovikov’s attention to manner in the strokes, and they seem purposely unconcerned with the type of meditative precision that Wall engages in. And yet the color palette, the exploration of abstraction, and the feeling of water all recall Wall’s works.
Just as Wall invoked “explosion” to describe the Mint&Serf process, it’s fascinating to see what happens when Mint&Serf itself explodes into 3 very distinct fragments. If you are on Henry Street, the show is definitely worth checking out. And if you are not on Henry Street, you might consider why you aren’t, as it’s a little strip of the Lower East Side “as it once was” that is currently brimming with art galleries with an eye to “what is coming next.”