A century ago this month, Cubist painter Francis Picabia and his then-wife Gabrielle were out to dinner with a friend, when, according to Gabrielle, the trio “became fascinated with an enormous and fearsome Chinese wrestler seated next to them.” They decided to follow him, and ended up at a bout of “catch-as-catch-can” wrestling — a bare-hands, full-contact, no-holds-barred form, sort of like MMA’s nastier grandfather. Picabia juxtaposed memories of that fight with those of a rehearsing dancer in his lively abstract painting Catch as Catch Can (1913), now in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but rarely exhibited.
One hundred years later, this abstract jewel is the centerpiece of an eponymous show at Locks Gallery, opening this Wednesday. Curated by Fionn Meade (back in Philly after 2009’s “Bivouac” at Vox), Picabia’s abstract rendering of the memory of bodies in motion is pitted against contemporary works that grapple with the medium of painting and its subjects.
City Paper: What attracted you to Picabia’s painting?
Fionn Meade: It’s an under-theorized and overlooked major work of its time. It embraces a lyricism in color and rhythmic abstraction while also embedding poetic commentary in the title phrase scratched at the top and the scrambling of the words étoile (star) and danse (dance) below. Made up of ambivalence and surety both, it’s declaration and revision, simultaneity and a marking of a particular time and place.
The playful stance of this work follows from the succès de scandale of the Armory Show that opened mid-February 1913 in New York, introducing both Duchamp and Picabia’s work, among others, to U.S. audiences. This show enacts a dialogue between a signature work from that time and contemporary works that animate a similarly restless, gestural spirit.
CP: Catch-as-catch-can wrestling was brutally serious, but still involved conscious performance. Were you interested in that tongue-in-cheek element? Or the idea of undermining or shattering a medium, as Picabia was doing in his early explorations of Cubism and Dada?
FM: Many of the most interesting artists then and now have had a wry, yet beholden relationship toward painting and its terms, bringing painting into contact with performance, graphic design, poetry, film and sculpture, but without letting go of the investment in painting’s conventions. Picabia is one of the most forceful artists ever in this regard, embracing a “no-holds-barred” attitude toward reinventing genre, medium and persona via available means — while also making entirely seductive, beautiful paintings. His genius resided exactly in the back-and-forth nature of this comic seriousness.
CP: There’s a duality between wrestling and dance in the Picabia painting. Can you give an example of either a wrestling or a dance aspect of the show?
FM: There are many. Shahryar Nashat’s film Modern Body Comedy, 2006, brings a mix of silent film and martial arts alive in the slapstick embrace of doppelganger-like characters, while Tom Burr’s monochrome fabric painting has a straightjacket, clasped feeling of dancing alone.
CP: The pieces in your show reference and play with painting conventions, even if they’re carried out in other media. What’s one of your favorite non-painting painting examples in the show?
FM: Michaela Eichwald’s resin cast sculptures come to mind. One features a many-colored, semi-transparent hand reaching up and out toward the viewer even as the large-scale painting nearby holds a maelstrom of acrylic, oil, crayon and lacquer lacerations and bruises. The relationship is extremely corporeal yet overtly abstract. It writhes with life and experience. A lot like the show.
“Catch as Catch Can,” Feb. 13-March 30th, Locks Gallery, 600 S. Washington Square, 215-629-1000, locksgallery.com.