The phrase “gilding the lily” refers to over-embellishment, the idea being that a flower is sufficiently lovely in its organic state that covering it with gold leaf is not only unnecessary but absurd. It’s a paraphrase from a bit of Shakespeare in which courtiers are being snarky about King John’s second coronation.
Therefore, to be possess'd with double pomp,
To guard a title that was rich before,
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.
That may have been written as an admonition, but at sculptor and painter Vincent Szarek’s Los Angeles studio, it’s more like a motto. Last year, after years exploring the aesthetics of seductive decadence, he finally just went ahead and gilded one—then he added glitter.
Actually, there’s loads of glitter—and gilding—in Szarek’s work. And what isn’t gold is still shiny—objects from heavy punching bags to slot-machine cherries, monochrome paintings, and Greco-Roman columns all sport high-gloss, impossibly smooth surfaces usually reserved for cars. His industrial workspace is more like an auto body shop than artist studio, right down to the tools, techniques, and materials—and Szarek feels at home. He worked at auto body and custom shops both before and after attending RISD. He studied painting there, but it didn’t really take—although his painter’s concern with surface makes itself very much felt in his sculptures. “I tried to use art materials for a while, but I couldn’t make them do what I wanted,” so now he uses the real industrial deal. He’s very aware of his spiritual brethren, Minimalist and Light & Space artists, like Robert Irwin, who were obsessed with car culture. Like them, Szarek adaptively reduces custom culture’s aesthetics, transferring the gleaming surface treatment to canvas and producing a lively hybrid.
The new work for his May show at ACE Gallery speaks to his expanding ambitions and sense of humor. A long bar based on the concentric black rectangles of Frank Stella’s 1959 The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II is functional and will be used during the opening. An enormous white stagecoach is perhaps the most overt nod to custom car culture, and also to the gangster SUV, as well as the mythology of westward pioneers who like himself, came from Brooklyn to seek their fortunes. Speaking of going west young man, there are palm trees. “Every artist that’s come to LA has made a palm tree. It’s a rite of passage.” Szarek being who he is, these are shiny black and growing gold-glitter fronds—but it was still important to him to be “natural-ish,” and he put in the work. That, finally, is the thing about Szarek. Although he favors smooth, seamless, unified industrial surfaces that appear devoid of the artist’s hand, his practice is very hands-on, and his profound sincerity is apparent in his advanced craftsmanship. There’s wit in the work, but not irony—what he does is just too hard to be a joke.
Written by: Shana Nys Dambrot