Faint, garbled yet pervasively discernible in Scot Borofsky's painting and sculpture is a mystical impulse striving to find a contemporary voice. This urge is unusual to current urban culture, and strikingly so when the work is examined within its immediate context-the East Village, with its often youthfully cynical or callow aesthetic, and its literal environment of residential ruins, which one must pass to reach this new gallery at the eastern edge of Manhattan. Borofsky's previous major work (and the genre with which he is most strongly associated) was a group of 20 murals on the Lower East Side (Pattern Walk, 1984); in this exhibition his first solo show of studio work since his debut in 1982. It seemed that Borofsky's imagery is now determined in part by a desire for a kind of accessibility related to, but different from, that of his outdoor public art.
These recent canvases suggest a prototypical “alternative” sensibility regarding the act of painting like that eliciting graffiti art. They appear to have been quickly made with a spray gun in blocks of basic colors and broad lines that up close are diffused. There is no acknowledgment of the nuances of brushwork or the coloristic subtleties that are possible on resilient fabric. Their technical meagerness suggests a fast for for the eye, meant to be consumed on the run. But whereas a streamlined graphic effect might be appropriate on exterior walls to capture the attention of passerby (as advertisers know well), the motionless scrutiny facilitated by a gallery space (and its identification of the work as “art”) demand more sensitivity to the expression of the imagination via the sensuous quality of the paint. In this, Borofsky reveals some ambiguity as to who his audience is and under what conditions they will view this body of work, He obviously depends upon symbolic forms he depicts to carry all the weight of his art, almost like a telegraphic code. Fortunately the implications of this adoption of motifs from tribal and preindustrial societies are more fascinating than even he seems to intend.
Borofsky uses primary symbols derived from nature: the sun, wind, a mountain, the human figure. Their source gives them a universality and yet they have been radically simplified for the contemporary basic, further ensuring their easy recognizability by a heterogeneous audience-a strategy ideal for his public art. At the same time, their pictographic quality suggests both a respect for the ancient cultures from which their imagery has been adapted like a reverence for the natural cosmos. Thus in the painting Buddhist Allegory, 1985, a large golden triangle perhaps a mountain/omphalos/axis mundi points above in a navy blue sky that also contains two large spirals. The spiral, whether flinging outward or collapsing inward, connotes continuous change, so it's significant that these are moving in opposite direction (one in the generative clockwise direction, the other in the destructive reverse), with the point of luminous clarity very distant. In an otherwise simple composition simplistically painted, this sign of fundamental discordance in the world is startling; there are no other visual cues to support it.
Borofsky's connection to elemental forces of nature is intrinsic to a mystical spirit but his description of a world gone awry is very puny and appears almost inadvertent (in fact, the artist has stated his work's aim as a “message of spiritual harmony”). His paintings are intriguing because he has found more motifs to reveal states of consciousness, albeit fundamentally confused ones: and, on another level, because he does seem to hold something sacred-namely, a holistic conception of nature. What he doesn't treat with reverence is the act of making art, looking thereby like a pop spiritualist who paints signs.
Art Forum, July, 1985
A Rarefied Atmosphere in the Feisty East Village
By William Zimmer
When it began as an art scene, the East Village was synonymous with neo-Expressionism. The caucus feelings and emotions of that style were matched by the rawness of the tenement neighborhood, but lately there has been a shift. More and more East village galleries are becoming as crisp, angular, and white as anything uptown or in Soho, save for an occasional nostalgic detail such as a patterned tin ceiling.l
Concomitantly these galleries more and more are accommodating cooler modes of art. One frequently bears the term “strategies” in reference to the modes of appropriation and conceptualism that are outgrowths of Duchampian thought. But, despite its rarefied atmosphere, the East Village cannot shake it's inherent feistiness.
A good bridge between conceptualism and art that has a street life is found in the exhibition of the work of Scot Borofsky at the Mokotoff Gallery, 735 East Ninth Street. Since 1983, Borofsky has been paying homage to the to the Hispanic population of the Lower East Side by spray-painting images drawn from Aztec and Mayan sources on the exteriors of abandoned buildings. If this is graffiti, it is of a classy, hieratic kind.
At Mokotoff, Borofsky has shifted his ground from brick to linen canvas, but the medium is still spray painting. This results in a bright muzzy quality to his symbols, and the comparison with Rothko that the gallery makes is not out of place, and it is also in the American grain, at least it has been since the 1900's, to plumb the collective unconscious, something that is also being claimed for his work.
But for Borofsky this probing is not ponderous. His images are made up of resolutely straight parts, and resolutely curved ones. The former represent male and man made phenomena; the latter, principles of the female and of nature. It is beguiling to watch this elementary duality being played out around the exhibition: an open hand has straight fingers and a spiral-like palm, ending in a curved thumb; the spiral becomes identified with water in the watercolor “The Wave” and “Figure-Supplication” takes the form of both a wooden sculpture and a painting in which the configuration is orange on a dark green ground that is seemingly conducive to meditation. The configuration resembles a snail atop the steps of a Mayan pyramid.
If using the same parts in different contexts is a strategic venture, the artist reveals another epic dimension in th large canvas “Nomadic Flight.” Here the image is rectangle indented on either side, repeated over and over to resemble a flock of birds. It looks like Robert Goodnough's imagery. Some of these forms are painted more densely than others, and achieve a prismatic quality. The painting's vastness contributes to making this a hypnotic work. After this, Borofsky turns the tables and borrows from another culture for the small “Traffic Buddha,” a rigorously geometric sculpture painted in industrial red, green and yellow.
The artist is driven to conjure up his symbols everywhere, and in the exhibition is a doctored sheaf of photographs of Pompeii from the 1930's. Borofsky's Latin American symbols appear on the walls of this ruin, and Vesuvius is not without a drawn-in puff of smoke. If Borofsky's enterprise, which nearly amounts to an obsession, seems ingenuous at times, it also results in an animated exhibition that is as highly visual as a travelogue.
NEW YORK TIMES NOVEMBER 7 1985
Since the spring of 1983, Scot Borofsky has been transforming the dilapidated tenements of the Lower East Side into artificial relics of Palenque, Mitia, and Monte Alban. Borofsky spraypaints elaborate patterns based on pre-Columbian designs, on the iron gates and crumbling brick walls that are scattered throughout a neighborhood of vacant lots and bombed-out shells.
Borofsky found his inspiration for the colorful works, which combine rigid geometry with graceful biomorphic lines, in southern Mexico. He has spent seven of the last nine winters exploring the ruins and museums of chiapas, (Jaxaca and Guatemala, copying the ancient pictograms of the original native Americans. Altering these images to accommodate a modern consciousness he brought his drawings to New York,where he transferred them to a large wall-size proportions the contrast of the beautiful, colorful patterns with the squalor and decay that identifies the Lower East Side is remarkable, At the same time the corpses of abandoned tenements frequently resemble ruins in other parts of the world and Borofsky's murals add to the wistful melancholy that accompanies reflection on things of the past.
Because the area where Borofsky paints, often called Loisaida, is predominately inhabited by Latin Americans, he reaches all audience particularly receptive in his work. The ancestors of many of the local residents, in fact painted those very images that Borofsky imitates. The artist has found that many people think his work is created by a Hispanic artist redefining his roots by drawing a comparison between contemporary New York and ancient Central America. Though that comparison is clearly emphasized in the murals, the artist making them is a “gringo.”
The association between Aztec and Mayan civilizations and our own takes place primarily in the premonitions of imminent disaster suggested by a neighborhood that looks like it has survived a world war. The tremendously advanced native american cultures of Central America fell to strong Spanish military forces greedy for gold and power in the New World. Today, the same greed for wealth and military supremacy threatens not only the civilizations and cultures of New York and Central America, but the entire world.
In the past, Borofsky has distributed maps indicating locations of his various paintings using the city streets as his gallery. His recent (indoor) gallery show, in the same neighborhood, uses the same imagery as his murals. Spray painting linen instead of brick, he maintains the large size and bright color, losing only the original context of his outdoor work. The paintings, which include several smaller pieces on rice paper, look very elegant as traditional interior decoration.
Often, the artist achieves a level of abstraction in which the image can be interpreted either as a mask, a landscape, or a full figure. In this respect he models his work after African as well as Columbian art, Pyramid of purity, for instance, portraying a triangle resting on a horizontal base with a loose coiled line over it, can be read either as a landscape with a pyramid and clouds or as a face with a triangular nose and two spiraling eyes. Another painting, Landscape, Serenity features carving lines on the bottom of the canvas and two heavy parallelograms at the top. Though the picture can be read as mountains, occupying the negative space in the middle of the canvas, and a river, the composition also resembles two dark heavy eyes and a twisting mouth.
Borofsky accomplishes all of this with very little deliberation. Each picture is very sparse, employing a combination of hard edge geometry and sinuous biomorphic shaped. “The balance,” he has said, “of straight and curved lines is extremely important. They represent man-made and male symbols on the one hand and natural and female on the other.”
Accompanying these painting, Borofsky has three small statues on display. These pieces, made of artifacts found on the street, resemble primitive sculpture more than his paintings do primitive painting. The paintings rely on a strong graphic sensibility, acknowledging the flatness and the rectangularity of his surface, balancing a composition without sacrificing movement. Both the painting and the sculpture employ contemporary materials to produce pseudo-primitive look; but in their brilliance and cleanliness the paintings introduce a slick modern element to he dialogue, making them more successfully complex than the three-dimensional work.
Unlike much art relating to central America, Borofsky avoids overt political statements. Only one piece in the gallery, The Monkey and the mushroom, revealed and obvious political reference-in this case, a camouflaged background and what could be interpreted as a mushroom cloud. For the most part, Borofsky's work is a eulogy to past civilizations with a finger pointing ominously toward our own. His art is a rare mixture of joy nestled in the seat of despair and memento mori for the post-nuclear age. -Mark Brennon
ARTS MAGAZINE Jan. 1986
East Village romanticism, despite advance death notices, re-emerged in thoughtful and serious terms in Scot Borofsky's show of 13 paintings in commercial spray paint enamel on Belgian linen. The Choice of this krylon palette recalls the art of early 1980s subcultures-Hispanic muralists of the Lower East Side and the graffiti writers of the IAT Lexington Avenue Lane. Yet Borofsky's chosen subjects-electrically charged landscaped, mystical vision, pyramids, Buddhas and other sacred symbols-have their historical roots elsewhere in the art of ancient Greek, Asian and Latin American peoples. His use of esoteric symbols, often floating in abstracted landscape-like folds, recalls work done earlier in this century by “primitive” visionary painters such as forest Bess. The result is a culturally and historically hybrid style that is slightly goofy and certainly unexpected.
The smaller, more loosely painted representational paintings have a freedom of line and the fresh quality of ideas executed quickly and assuredly, combining sprayed field, line and stencil in Vision in Ohio, an artificially symmetrical and foreshortened landscape, a yellow-and-gray striped road bisects two looming green fluorescent hills. Above, centered in a sky of blazing orange and red, a silver flying saucer hovers (Borofsky claims to have actually witnessed this event.) Here as many of the spatial reading comes as much from Eastern painting styles as Western ones. Christmas Mountain has a yellow step pyramid rising to meet a floating cross, both shrouded in dark mist. The simplest piece in the show, the line seems to burn into the face of the canvas, scaring the image upon the viewer's retina.
In the larger, more ambitious works, the spray becomes gauzy and atmospheric, the drips and splatters endemic to the medium effectively exploited to create storm like grounds. In Lotus and Diamond, the enamel is built up into a heavy field of royal blue and forest green, creating a dense veil through which the mystical emblems shine. The lotus, oddly resembling the old NBC television peacock logo, is stenciled in “optical” orange. Floating over a misty blob of pink and magenta.
Buddha of the Golden Rope has the sitting Buddha figure reduced to pure armature, glowing yellow amid dark, forbidding foothills. The Buddha appears radioactive in the midst of landscape of toxic waste, suggesting the dominance of divine presence over poisoned culture. More direct and very effective is Sister Buddha, a close-up of a female Buddha face, rendered in simple Matisse-like contour, her head outlined in green, her gestures in white. The woman's eyes are cast downward, conveying tenderness and a quiet sense of contemplation. On prolonged viewing, the atmospheric activity of the salmon ping back round becomes increasingly apparent; the concentric circles sprayed to fill around her features intensify, creating a sense of unrest or disturbance. Like all Borofsky's subjects, and the medium in which he paints them, the Buddha head acts as an emblematic reduction of mysticism, customized for a New Age audience. -John Zinsser
Art as heroic symbolism
The artist Scot Borofsky has much in common with the heroes in Stendhal's novels. Like those adventurous men, Julien and Fabrizio, who tried to take into their arms all of Italy with its fame, wealth and women, Borofsky, with his art, attempts to give us all the symbolic codes of the Americas.
At Lelan Gallery in Springfield, we can see Borofsky's Mountain Series with its beautiful step-lines, hieroglyphics and calligraffiti. To fully understand the immenseness of this body of work, it is paramount to understand the life that Borofsky led during those years in Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.
There are two paintings in the Mountain Series exhibit that exemplify Borofsky's vision “of symbolism and poetic reflection.”
The work “Romantic Mountain” is a painting on natural linen which reveals a brown, smooth background, a silver of moon in the left-hand corner, two step-line mountains in the center foreground, and a red seal signature with a half mountain motif edging up from the corner of the right-hand side. The elegance of the “Romantic Mountain” is difficult to ignore because it faces us with a mirror of poetic and philosophical integrity.
Another work called “The Source” is inspired by serapes woven by the Mixtec, a Mexican Indian group residing in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. In “The Source,” the ageless hand of Chinese art comes through clearly and decisively. There are clusters of step-ling mountain images, only this work reveals lovely colors of lavender, turquoise and lime greens that remind me of the Chinese prints with which my mother used to adorn our home when I was a boy. There is also a classical waterfall in the center of this work which is common among traditional Chinese landscapes.
Borofsky is sincere in using patterns and symbolism from the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Yet, he must be careful that he, like all north American artists does not create a stylized copy of another cultural's normal creative vision. What is crucial is that his heroic symbolism becomes integrated into the roots of an American experience.
Like artist Stuart Davis who created a personal style of painting by going to such extremes as setting up a still life and literally nailing it to a table so that he gave himself no choice but to paint it over and over again until his personal style asserted itself in an obsessive way, so does Borofsky seem to create the Mountains Series over and over again by intentionally visiting Pre-Colombian cities in exotic Southern cities in Mexico, Central and South America. Borofsky makes it his plan of attack to nail down the secrets of these ancient ruins at all costs.
He even writes in his artist's statement, “I dodged thieves and threatening soldiers, ...I drank Chicha at an Indian wake and chewed coca at 13,500 feet to stop altitude sickness.”
It was a dangerous quest on Borofsky's part, but, he got away with it and thereby enriched our lives with the memories of his adventures.
Borofsky's adventures in the Americas are political in nature. For instance, he would say to me about Guatemala, “There was a lot of movemiento-political movements. When you took a bus, there was a military check point every seven miles. All the men's Ids were checked and occasionally they would take a young guy off the buss and hassle him.” Years later, he could state to me with a quiet fear, “I saw the military occupying the strategic town of Sacapulas, the people were afraid. You could see the fear of death in their eyes.”
Borofsky told me how we was interrogated by an army captain who asked him why he was there.
“I am a painter, looking for beautiful places to paint!” The captain let him stay, even offering him a bunk to sleep on in the barracks.
Borofsky told me he returned to Guatemala in 1991 and that “I saw a little girl skipping rope in the abandoned military bas at Sacapulas. I was happy to see the soldiers gone, but there are rumors they will return.”
At the end of Stendhal's life, he wrote about a sense of obscurity that could be misinterpreted in his novel, “The Charterhouse of Parmat” “I think such a style is a strain on the reader's attention because it does not provide enough details that are easy to grasp.
Although Borofsky's Mountain Series are somewhat lacking in prose detail, they are rich in deep, colorful poetic nuances that ordinary people have come to love as they would after reading a haiku poem by Japenese poet, Basho. Borofsky's paintings are poetic zones of the heart.
FROM STREET TO STUDIO
Prints and paintings by five artists from New York's hurly-burly heyday of graffiti-inspired street art make up the current show at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center. The show includes two prints by Jean-Michel Basquiat, and three by Keith Haring, both of whom have bnecome synonymous with the art of the era. The main body of the show, however, is composed of the work of two painters and a sculptor who maintain an aesthetic connection to their street art days.
Scot Borofsky exhibits four large paintings- an early spray enamel painting of a Buddha-like figure, and three abstract works made of loose, calligraphic marks painted with brush and oils over a monochromatic background Of these, "Desert Morning" is the most striking. The orange background is brought forward, which appears to give tension to the lines.
Brian Gormley is represented by three large paintings that involve a process of silk screening drips and "doodles."These elements are laid over a bright pattern of greens, electric blues, magentas, yellows and deep reds. The colors play off the "blacked-out" sections, so that the layered colors are glimpsed as though through a window of a passing train on a dark night.
Ken Hiratsuka is the lone sculptor, but there is clearly a "family connection." The energized lines of the two painters are given three dimensional life in Hiratsuka's stone relief carvings. In "Needle", the line crawls along a suppine line of white marble, held off the floor by two large rocks. The pieces are nailed to the wall. They appear as dark , flat stelae, upon which Hiratsuka's chisel has traced mysterious fault lines or an inner topography, like a continuous line, mapping the meanderings of one man's soul.
The three, whose work was also exhibited at the Catherine Dianitch Gallery in September, have a deep respect for the spontaneous, and it's ability to lead to the promised land of artistic integrity and universality. The automatic writing of the surrealists and early abstractionists comes to mind. The belief in spontenaiety might be the primary aesthetic, a tablet brought back from the unholy land of New York's urban landscape, circa 1980. We can be grateful for those vacant lots and burned-out buildings, giving us these survivors, whose art is surely stronger for that which did not kill them.
Art in America July 1988
Brattleboro Reformer Nov.17, 1994
Scot Borofsky at Mokotoff
New England Arts Dec. 2008