Gallery & Studio, November-December 2004 / January 2005, Volume 7, No. 3, New York
Andy Warhol once said that “once you ‘get’ Pop nothing ever looks the same,” and the work of Corbin Hollis Choate, seen recently at Montserrat Gallery, 584 Broadway, is a perfect illustration of what he meant. For once you have viewed Choate’s paintings, you can never again view cherubim, or putti, in quite the same light.
Whether Choate considers himself a Pop artist or not is really a moot point at this late date. It is very likely that he considers himself an abstract painter who uses imagery simply as an ironic attention device to draw the viewer’s attention. And a good case could certainly be made for this way of looking at his paintings, considering their formal virtues. These are considerable, since Choate’s paintings are executed in a hard edge style that calls attention to the clarity of his form and his cool, carefully harmonized color areas. There is also a good deal of white space in his paintings that adds to their formal purity. So one can easily appreciate these cunningly conceived works for their abstract qualities alone.
That said, Choate’s preoccupation with putti cannot be dismissed as a mere formal ploy, being far too resonant of art history, religiosity, the heavenly realm as well as more down-to-earth aspects of love. Cherubim, after all, are among the most ambiguous of symbols. We can just as easily think of them as messengers of Eros and harbingers of profane love as biblical attendants of God or a holy place. Indeed, they had their origin in Greek and Roman antiquity; thus in their more pagan incarnation they often figure prominently in depictions of the feast of Venus and are seen flocking like so many playful birds around a statue of the goddess. In much Renaissance art, however, they are guardian spirits, benign little angels, protecting souls during life and finally conducting them to heaven.
Corbin Hollis Choate seems to play off this ambiguity by employing neon colors and dynamically cropped compositions that give his images a campy charm in paintings such as “Gabriel III,” where the figure wears its halo with a suggestion of foppish wickedness, as though his important role as messenger of God and herald of birth in the Annunciation has led him into vanity. By contrast, in “Raphael,” the almost Grecian purity of the figure’s profile does indeed suggest the archangel, the guardian spirit and protector of the young.
In most of the paintings in his recent show at Montserrat, with the exception of the full figure entitled “Solaris,” the composition consists of close-up views of a face and part of a wing, the severe cropping increasing the abstract impact of the composition. However, as in the work of John Wesley, that other Pop formalist, we are compelled to consider possible meaning in Choate’s work, even as we take pleasure in its formal attributes, which alone are sufficient to compel our admiration. This duality lends a complexity to the paintings of Corbin Hollis Choate that deepens and enriches their appeal.