Silva Dances With Dexterity Along Fine Line of Style, Art


The difference between art and style can be difficult to discern these days. It’s not so much that style has become arty--style has always had its arty aspects--but that art has become stylish: in its visual appearance, its standing in popular culture, and its relationship to money.

In the old days, from the mid-1970s back to Impressionism, new art wasn’t welcomed beyond its small circle of creators and friends. It attracted no groupies and didn’t sell well. Artists pretty much expected this. As a result, avant-garde art was in no way “stylish” in the sense that fashion and interior decoration are stylish.

Today, though, most of the most seductive new visual forms appear in MTV videos and channel IDs; a lot of the art that sells like crazy in allegedly serious galleries looks an awful lot like the stuff on MTV. It’s usually very clever, hot slick art; like the fashions advertised on the channel, it makes a lot of money for artist and dealer alike. But this is what one expects of style. One hopes for more from art.


In Ernest Silva’s most recent work, at the Dietrich Jenny Gallery, a marvelously dexterous dance is performed along what is the very thin line separating style and art.

The show consists of several paintings and a greater number of sculptural assemblages, the latter being a form that has captured increasing amounts of the artist’s energy during the past two or three years.

The most significant characteristic of the new work is its blatant deviation from norms of what art should look like, i.e. paintings; it’s here that concerns about stylishness arise. An early work of this type, “Errant Ship, Night Storm,” of 1988, combines a skeletal canoe constructed of narrow wood slats with a bowler hat that hangs beneath the boat’s lower end. Roughly 5 feet long, the assemblage hangs vertically against the wall, as though from a coat hook. The whole structure is painted in blued grays highlighted with rhythmic strokes of grayed blues and looks like a shadow come alive.

In the more recent “Voyage Above the Volcano,” reeds are used to form the framework of a cone representing an archetypal volcano. More reeds are used to suggest materials being belched out by the volcano. Tangled up in these is another boat shape. The whole assemblage is painted in alternating variations of orange tones and grays. Although not as expressively focused as “Errant Ship . . .,” the work suggests that Silva’s artmaking has by now become quite free of conventional painting and has begun exploring the open waters of available materials.

He next turns to wire mesh, using it to produce three-dimensional shapes such as suitcases and cages. One of the suitcases holds within it a candle, a picture frame, a painter’s palette, and a knife.

In “House of the Poet,” a picture frame with a crow perched on it dangles halfway out from the bottom of a cage shape. Even more elaborately, in “Self-Portrait,” a painter’s palette board covered in happy blues occupies a cage that has a corncob pipe sticking out of it. The cage sits atop another of the wood canoes and is painted red. This sits atop a dresser painted in bright yellows. A black necktie blotched with blue hangs from the bottom of the canoe and drapes over the dresser, and so a figure of sorts results; the elements wonderfully suggesting the operations and mindset of the artist.


These works and the others like them in the show are so unlikely and lively that, at first, you might wonder if its merely stylishness, affection, an abandoning of the realm of ideas and insight which gives art its depth in favor of some visual razzmatazz. Fret not, however. Time spent with the work reveals that Silva is coyly toying with stylishness and exploiting its energy, but he never gives in to it. There’s too much mood, too much personal revelation, too much intelligent formal exploration for that to be the case.

Finally, consider the largest of the paintings in the show, “Rogue’s Gallery,” which was produced this year and which constitutes a kind of update on Silva’s development as an artist. In the foreground, a nude female holding a candle and gazing seductively at the viewer stretches out on the floor. Behind her, on two walls forming the corner of a room, are two paintings. One shows a figure on a horse galloping over a fallen man in a ruined forest (a recurring motif in Silva’s earlier paintings and cutouts). The other shows a portrait-like image of the fallen man wearing a hat, a patch over one eye, and smoking a corncob pipe. He looks dangerous. The imagery suggests Gauguin in its tropical feeling and expression. The formal handling suggests Matisse.

This is art aware of itself and its traditions. It’s tricky, tough, mischievous; also, varying from the standard. That’s what “rogue” means. That’s what art is.