Viewing the work of a mature artist precipitates its own type of adrenalin—not the sugar-high, roller-coaster thrill of discovery that one gets from the work of a recent MFA grad whose powerful but nascent creative voice is still breaking, but more of an undertow. One moment, you’re swimming confidently through what, at first glance, looks like placid and overly familiar water, only to find yourself 100 yards from shore the next. A fully developed artist’s influences are legion, and past and present muses entwine themselves around the work with aggressive territoriality. Even titles bear the weight of some prior impact wrought on the artist’s psyche by the afflatus. Considering the many song titles (Everybody Knows, That’s How the Light Gets In) used by Don Porcaro over the years—his current exhibition, “Time Will Tell” (on view through June 10, 2023), adopts another one—it is evident that his creative life has had a Leonard Cohen soundtrack (among others) for a very long time. It makes almost literal sense: Cohen’s inimitable voice is the crushed version of stone, Porcaro’s favorite medium.
Stone’s materiality disallows ignorance of its history and import. Any artwork using its mass, even when small, conveys a message that droops slightly under its own gravitas. The stubborn patience necessary to shape stone is self-evident, but is the art one makes of it automatically worthy of the time it requires? When confronted with Porcaro’s massive columnar sculptures hewn from all that profundity, an image of Jenny Holzer’s white marble bench neatly incised with the wry phrase “THE FUTURE IS STUPID” streaked across my mind like that naked guy at the World Series: solemnity undermined, aspirations to immortality lampooned. Except, after a good half hour of appraising, it dawns that Porcaro may actually be the naked guy. An educated, accomplished, mature, well-respected, naked white guy with a 40-year career, to be sure, but in every work in this show, he’s mocking his own hubris.
The bigger pieces would make a structural engineer wince at the dimples they’re putting in century-old floor joists. The largest stratified stacks of marble and limestone weigh well in excess of 2,000 pounds, but somehow, they look inflated, buoyant. There’s no escaping a growing desire to caress them, and (with permission) their smooth geologic folds transform into skin under the touch.
It’s when the viewer orbits the works that the subtle jokes begin to register. In Talisman 11, the tell-tale cleft of a buttock appears. What initially reads as the worn trope of body/temple conflation through a visual allusion to Angkor Wat suddenly shifts sideways into a much more jocular reference—J. Wellington Wimpy, of deferred-hamburger-payment fame. Once the cartoonish bread-loaf-clown-shoe aspects of the sculpture’s feet are divulged, there’s no going back. They can’t be unseen. I lose my critical toehold, as laughter bubbles up and never quite subsides.
Smaller works and impasto-laden drawings on paper find Porcaro in lively dialogue with Philip Guston, and his satire becomes even more evident. Flipping through a catalogue from a previous exhibition, I find startling parallels between his work and that of Roberley Bell, a tough formalist sculptor with immense color dexterity and humor. Like her, at no point does Porcaro verge into finger-wagging. However capable of the function so in vogue right now, art’s singular purpose is not to indict. Delight is winning in this show, and I’m giddy in appreciation.
The torquing critique of material priapism and toxic masculinity suggested by Time Will Tell 2 seems more directed at the self than aimed outward, and I am grateful for the humor deployed throughout. As any real comedian will tell you, a good gag takes years to craft, and though perhaps a bit out of place in the current “fast fashion” of contemporary art, Porcaro’s most recent piece exhibits an exciting flirtation with structural, thematic, and corporeal failure. The stakes are big, but the colorful optimism of his older work is missing, as if leeched by the dire events of the last decade, or, possibly, the simple sobriety of age.
It’s a somber thought. Afterwards, from the street, I look back. Through water-streaked windows, the receding forms evoke a band of protean monks, all intoning a low, gravelly, sardonic rendition of Leonard Cohen’s exquisite ode to the strata and vicissitudes of love and life, “Hallelujah.” As I walk up the Bowery in the rain, I find myself singing along.