Stefan Bondell inhabits a unique niche in the herky-jerky continuum of figurative painting in the United States. To find his antecedents, we must jump back many generations and sweep the dust-off names like Reginald Marsh (1898-1904) and Paul Cadmus (1904-1999). Paintings such as Marsh’s rendition of a Coney Island Sideshow (1930) or his 1929 frieze-like etching of a breadline, or Cadmus’s 1936 Public Dock all rise to mind when viewing Bondell’s pictures. To those names we would add German Expressionists like George Grosz and Max Beckmann who lived here, and Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros whose presence in the United States brought socially critical art on a grand scale into American culture.
What Bondell shares with those six artists is an impassioned reaction to immediate circumstance—news—that transforms it into art. The jam-packed pictures of Marsh and Cadmus turn New York into a “city of dreadful night,” while the Expressionists and muralists constitute distant forbearers for Bondell’s black-and-white painted friezes set in a “season in hell.” Where Bondell differs from his predecessors is in his transformation of protest and caricature into other-worldly scenes, grisaille-like renditions of episodes from our collective experience translated into fragments of ancient sculpture. The seventeen acrylics on canvas assembled here are large (the largest 90 x 139, the smallest 67 x 65 inches), so their didactic power is clear: Bondell has something to say about our world and wants to be sure we see his point.