The many masks of modern art

As a rule, my choice of artists for this series is determined by the quality of an artist's work, and by how representative it is of the particular aspect of twentieth-century art I want to discuss. In the case of Michael Insetta, however , my choice was simple and uncomplicated: I liked his work, and I wanted to write about it.

It's also true, of course, that his fascinating ink and colored pencil architectural ''inventions'' reflect contemporary attitudes and concerns. They are, for instance, two-dimensional, and could easily be mistaken, at a distance, for abstractions. But most of all, their creative premise is quite modern and has led him to produce delightful, tongue-in-cheek, and structurally impossible celebrations of urban architecture gone a little wild.

They are, however, affectionately disposed toward the architectural forms and ideals from which they are derived. As the artist himself has written, ''The drawings came about from a love of architecture, and are not a parody of it.'' To which I can only add, having seen a number of them, that they are indeed labors of love.

They are also quite ''organic,'' and appear to have found their formal identity through a process close to the manner in which ivy covers a brick wall. Their numerous architectural details - and some of these drawings contain literally hundreds of them - follow a structural logic all their own. It ism a form of logic, but it is pictorial rather than architectural.

Insetta's fantastic fabrications do not exist in three-dimensional space, and there's absolutely no reason why they should. In their own way, they are as much products of the imagination as the paintings of Bosch, who created extraordinarily ''original'' creatures out of various parts of fish, mammals, birds, and insects. In both instances, the artist created strange new entities - in Insetta's case, incredible buildings, in Bosch's, fantastic creatures - by imaginatively combining details of real objects and living things. Thus, Insetta creates an architectural complex out of such building details as Gothic dormers, Venetian tile-work, Victorian leaded windows, and modern factory facades, plus dozens of other elements taken from the architecture of the past and present.

I've always been fascinated by this kind of art because it often is so different from the kind we've been taught to respect. From the days of the early Egyptians and Greeks to the present, we've tended to put our artistic salvation into the hands of idealists and purists, and have given our highest accolades to the grand monumentalists such as Giotto, Michelangelo, and Cezanne.

Now, I have no objections to that. In fact, I totally agree with those rankings. But it does delight me to see that art has a will and a life of its own, and that it can wend its way into strange little nooks and crannies, and come up with such superb ''non-ideal'' art as that created by Bosch, Bruegel, Goya, Redon, Bresdin, and Klee - to name only a few.

A world whose art consisted of nothing but monumental and ''pure'' paintings and sculptures would be a dull place indeed. And, I would think, a dangerous place to boot. We needm to see, and to enjoy the fact, that art is as broad and as multifaceted as life and humanity themselves. That it is capable of always ultimately finding alternative forms of realization whenever things become too rigid or dogmatic.

Much as I love and admire Mondrian's art, for instance, I know full well that it is only one tiny facet of what art is all about, that it is only one way of perceiving and conceptualizing truth. It may be a particularly clear and transparent ''window'' looking out upon truth, but it is not truth itself. And because it's not, we need to be reminded of that fact as often and as persistently as possible.

That reminder can take many forms, not the least of which being a kind of nose-thumbing at art that has become too staid or narrow. Such iconoclasm may be offensive to many, but it generally has the desired effect of removing stuffiness and weakening dogma, and of putting some passion and vitality back into art. We have a good example of that today in the work of the West German neo-expressionists. Whatever else their art may lack, it has at least given painting back some of the passion drained from it over the past twenty years.

We are also reminded of life's diversity by art that is idiosyncratic or fantastic, or that presents us with a beautifully ''logical'' and yet absolutely topsy-turvy painterly universe. And then we have the gentle reminders that tickle our fancies and stir our imaginations. They may be quite small and precious, but they tell us a great deal about creative alternatives in a world made top-heavy by the pompous and grand.

In this latter group we have Klee, Thurber, Steinberg, Peter Milton, and dozens more of varying talent and imagination. Some achieve major status as artists, others spend their creative lives adding spice and wit to ours as magazine or newspaper illustrators or cartoonists, satiric printmakers, or artists creating imaginative variations of the world around us.

These alternative worlds often closely parallel ours, and could at first glance be mistaken for it - until we notice that there is something just a bit odd about them, that their logic is slightly at a tangent to ours.

The premise of such an alternative world can be as simple as the one told me by a young artist during his first trip to New York. He couldn't shake the notion that Manhattan was one solid steel, glass, concrete, and brick structure that lay like a heavy carpet over the land. Pick up one corner of it, he said, and the entire borough would peel away.

That perception of Manhattan has haunted me ever since I heard it. It is so true and to the point in many ways - and yet it is pure imagination.

The same is true of the premise behind the art of Michael Insetta. It too is ''true,'' and yet it too is pure imagination.

The wonderful thing about Insetta's ''alternative'' architectural world is that it is so logical, and that all its facts are ''correct.'' His exquisitely rendered architectural details are as true to their models as anyone could want. And everything in his compositions is designed to create patterns that would please the most exacting weaver of Persian rugs. It's all quite perfect - except , of course, for the fact that the premise underlying this world is slightly awry.

In real life, buildings occupy three-dimensional space, and do not exist merely as weightless facades. And what earthly purpose is served by structures that go on and on, endlessly piling one detail upon another, until they begin to resemble something as dense as a forest, and as complex as a large city?

None, of course, if this were reality. But it's not. This is art, and art serves its own purposes.

I don't want to labor this point, because I don't think it represents the artist's intentions except in the broadest sense. But these imagined structures Insetta creates are like cities in a way. They are portions of a huge architectural complex that goes on and on - much like my young friend's Manhattan that could be rolled up like a rug. Only Insetta's structure doesn't sit on land, it exists like a frieze that stretches from east to west and encircles the earth. It is a labor of love, and it will probably take the artist his entire lifetime to complete. And it will because it so affectionately sums up and celebrates our architectural heritage while also reveling in the extraordinary richness and diversity of its more exotic and intriguing details.

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