Art That Can Talk: Julia Csekö At Piano Craft Gallery

The first painting in the first triptych on show in "Straight from the Heart - the Rant Series" by Julia Csekö. Painting dimensions are 50" x 50."

By Joshua Ascherman

This month at Piano Craft Gallery in Boston, you might hear the walls trying to speak to you — or so artist Julia Csekö hopes. Csekö, whose show “Straight from the Heart — the Rant Series” is on view through August 27, has created a body of work which literally speaks for itself.

“Straight from the Heart” is focused primarily on three large triptychs hung in succession; the canvases in each of these triptychs all measure up to an even 50 by 50 inches, and all are populated by Csekö’s carefully painted distinctive white lettering. Together, the canvases — nine in total — spell out Csekö’s philosophy about painting, material and the role of art in day-to-day life, always addressing their viewers directly.

“Why insist on such unstable lifestyle?” one painting inquires, to be answered in an adjacent painting with the confession, “I have to be honest with you. I am for sale.” As Csekö herself points out, however, these are paintings which are nearly unsellable, as they are for sale only in sets of three and thus require an enormous amount of wall space.

The paintings are self-aware and self-reflexive, tampering with the fourth wall: the first piece in the show begins by thanking viewers for reading, and the third piece in Csekö’s first triptych subverts the reluctant seriousness of the other two by reading only “Alternatively, take a selfie with me.” (A selfie stick hanging on the wall next to the painting invites viewers to actually obey the text; Csekö is now editing the photos she’s collected from the show.) Her work puts on trial the relationship between reading and viewing, between social media on a computer screen and paintings in a gallery. It forces viewers to consider its implications in real time.

If the paintings appear simple, they’re also deceptive, as they’re the fruit of many months of labor for Csekö, and their simple appearance is a result of the artist’s careful choices. The pieces themselves are only half the art: it is the way they interact with viewers that is most innovative.

The color palette of Csekö’s works is important. It embodies a trajectory in the art from desperation — of which the first triptych, painted with black background, is full — to a kind of optimism and eventually to radiance, reflected by the silver and gold backgrounds of the second and third triptychs. The color change parallels a change in lexical register and tone for Csekö, whose first black painting declares dismally that, “I’m just a layer of paint on canvas” but who makes perfectly abstract statements such as “Through art we achieved a glimpse of beauty” in the gold triptych.

Material is also important to Csekö and to the paintings on show. One work openly admits to its connection to Italian Arte Povera artist Luciano Fabro; the link between these pieces and Arte Povera’s fascination with materials is subtle but strong, as the paintings at Piano Craft are done with ordinary house paint. One small set of works, to which the text pieces ultimately direct the viewer’s gaze, seems especially to relate to the 20th-century movement. On its three tiny and unassuming canvasses (which Csekö refers to simply as “studies”), the artist has piled the dried skins from the cans of Benjamin Moore wall paint which she’s used for the larger works, leaving finished pieces which resemble scaled-down versions of work by Alberto Burri or perhaps by Fabro himself.

The works in “the Rant Series” represent a first for Csekö; she’s been working with text in paintings since early on in her career, but these paintings are the first of hers to display text written by the artist herself. Interestingly, however, it is the paintings themselves which seem to proffer the words of wisdom written on them, and perhaps this is the truest gauge of their longevity as works of art—their ability to say things for themselves.

(“Julia Csekö: Straight from the Heart — the Rant Series” continues through August 27at the Piano Craft Gallery, 793 Tremont St., Boston, Mass. Summer gallery hours are Thursday and Friday from 5-9 p.m. and on Saturday from noon-5 p.m. For more information, call (617) 595-5638.)