On Thanksgiving morning in 2018, after being pushed out of his Soho loft, the painter and poet, Stefan Bondell, instead of basting a turkey, gazing up at a hyper-inflated Snoopy balloon, sleeping in, or peeling potatoes destined for the mashing, was instead laboring over a nascent, large-scale artwork in the late, famed art critic Harold Rosenberg’s East Village apartment. The poet John Giorno and Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone would drop in and bear witness to the already chafed knees, sore rotator cuff, pinched nerves, and the anti-COVIDian psychology, set for at least four more years of abuse. They were witnessing what Rosenberg himself dubbed “action painting,” which would later morph into abstract expressionism, but this was something else. Action, yes, but coupled here with crude but literal figuration, newspaper Trompe-l'œil, all sewn together with gritty, swirling, antimatter line work, itself populated with hashes; cells interlinked. This was drawing being elevated to the realm of painting, and sculpture being reduced to illustration. These would be works of exclusively black acrylic paint massaged over gessoed white cotton canvas; art history painting and elbow-grease impressionism; foot-long finger-prints brushed and compressed into a tesseract of exploded content; an event horizon of spaghetti and meatballs, all fit for the wall with little exception but weirdly, zero fat. This seminal painting from 2018 would become “Beheading Treason,” the first in a series of 17, jam-packed, monumental works that would fill Vito Schnabel’s 19th Street gallery in Bondell’s ambitious, at times overwhelming, confrontational, and thematically perplexing Dark Marks.
“John Giorno said to me that day, ‘This is exactly what you should be doing on Thanksgiving,’” Bondell recalled from within his exhibition, which recently ended its run on March 18th, 2023.
Two weeks before civilization’s most recent Ides of March, Bondell was staring up at “Beheading Treason” in his unfortunately fleeting exhibition, pointing out what he calls “the famous inaugural handshake at Helsinki” between Putin and Trump, smushed and entangled beside a famous Carpeaux statue, a rendering of Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince and Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia, and other statuesque offerings from The Palazzo Vecchio, to name just a few of the painting’s human and inanimate bedfellows. Each work in Dark Marks mingles political figures, mostly alive, in-power, and relevant-more often for worse than better-with classic figurative sculptures across time, geography, and institutions. Like the “handshake at Helsinki,” Bondell is asking us to be hyper-present, that we can better unpack how accelerating entropy and (through his artworks, which openly struggle with order) negentropy of life, time, history, and matter can distort our perception. These paintings ask us to reckon with the past and our choices, while meditating on a speculative or alternate future and our role in its creation or elimination. Things, minor or major, often come into focus for us when it’s far too late, after the damage, collateral or direct, is already done.