Exploring Life’s Dead Ends on Repeat

November 20, 2014 in Hyperallergic

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Installation view of Pierre St-Jacques’ ‘The Exploration of Dead Ends’ at Station Independent Projects (all images courtesy the artist)

I have always contended that video art is the hardest to make, in part because it’s the easiest. In our digital world, anyone can pick up their phone or (gasp) a camera and produce “video art.” The trick is to make it compelling and to use the medium in a way that transcends clichés.

Station Independent Projects, a sliver of space on the Lower East Side, is currently presenting a video piece by Pierre St-Jacques that not only transcends the medium’s clichés, but is a work of such intense longing and beauty that stepping back out onto the hubbub of Suffolk Street is a shock.

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Installation view of Pierre St-Jacques’ ‘The Exploration of Dead Ends’ at Station Independent Projects (click to enlarge)

The piece, titled “The Exploration of Dead Ends” (2012–14), is presented on six video monitors of different sizes that are puzzled together into a single unit. The narrative flows throughout, around, and between the six screens in a fluid poetic movement that seems effortless, belying the hours of time in the editing room that it must have taken to make the piece so seamless.

The video is on a continuous loop, and viewers witness over and over again the journey of a middle-aged man name William as he moves through both his real and inner lives. The loop reinforces the notion that the psychological patterns we inhabit are inescapable and inevitable. William relives his “dead ends” throughout eternity, as if trapped in a dream that will not end.

This is a piece about our deep longing to connect. We share William’s joys, frustrations, and, in one harrowing scene of emasculation, his existential loneliness — and perhaps our own.

There are some very heavy themes running thorough this piece, as well moments of great beauty and quiet joy — the light on a leaf, the fleeting smile on a loved one’s face. These are the glimmers of hope that keep William and perhaps the rest of us going in lives that the artist sees as, well, “dead ends.”

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Still from “The Exploration of Dead Ends” by Pierre St-Jacques

The multiple points of view presented on the six screens give viewers the sense of being just as fully immersed in every moment of the story as William is. He greets a woman on one screen, we see her eyes glance at him on another, another screen shows the same greeting from a different angle, we also get a closeup on her lips, a view of the room around them, and so on. Then suddenly the next image flows over all of the screens, uniting the narrative, the moment, and our understanding of how the brain processes disparate experiences simultaneously. The moment sparks an epiphany of connection, which is lost again as the loop continues.

This piece is a very potent, both visually and psychologically. Ask for a chair and sit and watch the work. I found it mesmerizing and layered, each viewing revealing more nuance. The rest of the show consists of stills from the video. Several of the larger photos are quite striking on their own. There is a book of the artist’s storyboards that, for those who are interested, details the painstaking process of putting a piece like this together.

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Installation view of Pierre St-Jacques’ ‘The Exploration of Dead Ends’ at Station Independent Projects

But the stars of this show are William and his creator. The fleeting encounter with this artistic dream may leave you sad, enlightened, or with a sense of self-recognition.  St-Jacques’s work is among the best in its challenging medium, offering a radical answer to one of the central questions of our time: what’s on TV?

The Exploration of Dead Ends continues at Station Independent Projects (164 Suffolk Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through December 14.

st-jacques-station-independent-2 Installation view of Pierre St-Jacques’ ‘The Exploration of Dead Ends’ at Station Independent Projects

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Tagged as: Lower East Side, Pierre St-Jacques, Station Independent Projects, video art

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Reading a Drawing Without Labels

published Nov. 12,2014  in Hyperallergic

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Dan Miller “Untitled (blue ‘ON’ and yellow with graphite)” (2011), acrylic and graphite on paper (all images courtesy Ricco Maresca Gallery)

Dan Miller has created some of the most glorious work that I’ve seen in a long time. His current show at Ricco Maresca Gallery is a collection of works on paper that draw you in, deep into their rich and layered surfaces. Strong, intense directional markings vie with big loopy “faux” writing. Occasionally a word or letter pops out. In the painting “Untitled (peach and gray with graphite)” the word “lied” shines out from the left side. This one word sets an entire narrative into motion. Who lied? What lied? Are paintings lies? The rest of the work is a tantalizing tangle of line and color. I’m drawn in, trying to find more words; the shapes tease. Maybe it’s a word, maybe it’s a painting of a word, maybe a line and nothing more.

DM 38_Dan Miller_2014_smalljpg Dan Miller, “Untitled (Lumber)” (2014), typewritten text on paper, 11″x30″

These are masterful works that do what I think every artist hopes to achieve. That is, each is a perfectly contained world, with an intense and consistent inner logic. It’s an idiosyncratic and personal logic, but it holds throughout all of the works in the show. The pieces have structure and layer upon layer of marks to “read.” The artist has created a world that challenges us to crack the code and enter. One can read them as simply beautifully composed abstract paintings or as work that seeks to comment on issues of format and narrative.

The quality of mark upon paper varies from those the width of a hair to big sloshy stokes of paint. There is tension and drama between these marks, which give the paintings and drawings a great sense of energy. Miller’s color tends to be cool — silver blues, graphite and grey, punctuated with an occasional splash of yellow or green.

Most of us who write about, think and talk about art try to connect the work or the artist with precedents in art history or with the artist’s contemporary peers. We seek a construct, a hook to hang the art on, as a way of understanding it. This reflex fulfills a human need to categorize, to put art into context, to compare and contrast, and somehow enrich the work with its off-canvas back-story.

Occasionally — and delightfully — one finds an artist whose work is so original, so fresh, and so self-contained as to defy easy classification or precedent.

DM 52_Dan Miller_2011_smallDan Miller, “Untitled (light pink ‘R’ and white on black)” (2011), acrylic on paper, 40″x50.5″

So here’s the part I haven’t mentioned yet. Dan Miller is on the spectrum of autism and lives with few verbal communication skills. He makes work that is truly its own world, his artwork is his primary form of self-expression. I mention this fact last because so often we need to “label” in order to understand a work of art. Miller’s work deserves to be appreciated and understood on its own terms rather than through a lens.

Dan MillersmallInstallation view of Creative Growth: Dan Miller exhibition at Ricco Maresca Gallery, New York

So what do we do when an artist is working in a sealed universe of his or her own making, one with no art history, and no hook with which to contextualize or prejudge the work? Enjoy the fresh voice of a talent that transcends language, back-story, or label. Look. Closely. And leave it at that.

Creative Growth, Dan Miller is presented at Ricco Maresca Gallery (529 West 20th Street, 3rd Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan), in conjunction with Creative Growth, Oakland, CA, until December 6.

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Drawing the Face of the War Machine

October 17, 2014 in Hyperallergic

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 Xanti Schawinsky, “The Aviator (Faces of War)” (1942), mixed media, watercolor and black pen on paper, 28 7/8 x 21 inches (73.4 X 53.4 cm) (all works courtesy of and copyright the Xanti Schawinsky Estate, unless otherwise noted)

The Drawing Center has mounted a strange and surreal show of drawings by Xanti Schawinsky, an underrated artist whose 50-plus-year career spanned the 1920s to the late ’70s. Celebrating a peripatetic artist who worked in photography, avant-garde theater, graphic design, jazz, painting, and product design, this show presents a small but concentrated portion of of Schawinsky’s oeuvre.

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A view of two works, “The Home Guard (Faces of War)” (1942) and “The General (Faces of War)” (1942), in The Drawing Center exhibition.

Schawinsky lived a life that could have been a film script. Here’s the synopsis: Born in 1904, he was the child of Polish Jews, raised in Switzerland. In 1924, he moved to Germany and became a beloved and vital member of the Bauhaus, working mostly in theater, graphic design, and jazz. He fled pre-war Germany to Italy where he became an important graphic and advertising artist. He immigrated to the United States in 1936, settling at Black Mountain College along with Bauhaus colleagues Josef and Anni Albers. He taught there for two years and then hit New York City for a career in commercial art and to pursue his passion for painting amidst a close-knit European expat community. Schawinsky revisited his experimental work in theater, photography, and drawing, while teaching at various universities in NYC. He eventually moved back to Italy, where he lived until his death in 1979. His was a life that spanned much of the 20th century.

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Xanti Schawinsky, “Jewelry Head” (1941–44) from the Head Drawings series, graphite on paper, 30 1/2 x 22 1/2 inches (77.5 X 57.2 cm), Norman Waitt Jr. Collection

The show, entitled Head Drawings and Faces of War, juxtaposes two very different bodies of work, each portraying the same object: the human head. The Head Drawings, pencil on plain paper, are very formal, beautifully rendered exercises in composition. In each, Schawinsky has taken a collection of objects — jewelry, plants, rope, for example — and assembled the disparate parts into drawings of the human head. It’s a bit like the old art school assignment to take an object and draw it 50 ways. In one, Schawinsky creates the most minimal and modern of heads, constructed out of the building blocks, geometric planes, cones, and orbs. In another, a woman’s hand dripping with Baroque jewelry is outstretched in empty space. Several of the ornate pendants hanging off of her laden hand create a woman’s face. These do not appear to be portraits of anyone. They are in fact cool, almost academic. Inventive and clever, they are admirable displays of old-fashioned draftsmanship.XS21

 Xanti Schawinsky, “The Warrior (Faces of War)” (1942), mixed media, watercolor and black pen on paper, 29 x 21 3/8 inches (73.7 X 54.2 cm) (All works courtesy of and copyright the Xanti Schawinsky Estate, unless otherwise noted)

However, what makes them, and the exhibition, so powerful is the juxtaposition of these “cool” heads with the Faces of War, which “face” them in the elegant Drawing Center installation.

The Faces of War are also perfectly rendered drawings, although of a very different “head.” These heads, floating in gently gradient fields of color, are constructed out of the detritus of war. Like science fiction visions of the future they each stand alone, as if in a series of advertisements, each showing off “this year’s model.” One such head rolls through a rosy pink field, on tank treads, its eyes and nose are guns trained to shoot. Another in the form of a parachute floats in the air — a deadly machine with eyes locked and loaded. The gentle calm and sublime color selection of the backgrounds— indigo, melting into yellow, blue gracefully changing to orange — belies the brutal nature of the machine like “war” heads. Schwinsky’s strict Bauhaus graphic design training is most evident here. The subject matter is bizarre, surreal, and political; the melding of death machine into the human form and intellect. But the work’s design mastery renders them oddly all the more terrifying. It’s the holding back, the control, the sense of purpose that fills these drawings with such dread.

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Xanti Schawinsky, “Architectural Design” (1945), mixed media, watercolor and black pen on paper, 20 3/4 x 28 7/8 inches (52.7 X 73.4 cm)

The Drawing Center’s juxtaposition of these two bodies of work captures the heightened sense of anxiety, creative tension, and deeper psychology that haunts Schawinsky’s noncommercial work. Although he left Europe before the outbreak of WWll, the experience observed from afar was seared into his artistic consciousness. At the same time that he was making these cool pencil “head” drawings that give nothing away, he was making “war” images, which betray a deep-seated sense of despair and anxiety. It’s this duality — “everything’s fine” on one hand, and on the other a portrait of mankind at its worst — that makes the atmosphere of surreality so poignant.

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Xanti Schawinsky, “Euclidian” (1943), Head Drawings, graphite on paper, 31 1/2 x 23 inches (80 X 58.4 cm)

Do these works portray Allies or fascists? It doesn’t matter. In the world of Xanti Schawinsky, it’s all the same. If the Head Drawings are optimistic about the infinite creative possibilities of man, then the Faces of War are their pessimistic counterbalance. If we are infinitely creative, we are also infinitively destructive.

Xanti Schawinsky: Head Drawings and Faces of War continues until December 14 at the Drawing Center (35 Wooster Street, Soho, Manhattan).

 

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Francesco Clemente: Inspired By India

September 26, 2014 in Hyperallergic

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The main hall of the Francesco Clemente: Inspired by India show at the Rubin Museum (all photos courtesy the Rubin Museum)

One of things I have always loved about the Rubin Museum is their fearlessness when it comes to exhibition design and color. I’ve visited exhibitions there where the walls are deep vermillion, brilliant saffron, or luminous grey.

IMG-9A view of the Clemente installation with Clemente’s “Hunger” (1990) on the right, 93 1/2 x 96 1/2 in., Philadelphia Museum of Art: Partial and promised gift of Marion Boulton Stroud, 1991(click to enlarge)

The newly opened exhibition of works by Francesco Clemente is perhaps the most stunning example. The walls of the exhibit, entitled Francesco Clemente: Inspired by India, are painted the deepest and most sensual purple imaginable. It’s a bold and spectacular design choice by a confident museum, presenting Clemente’s work in an experiential way. The exhibition is designed so that you can see each of the five massive and iconic Clemente drawings all at once. The spatial design is meant to imply the experience of a Hindu temple. There is the large public space — inhabited by the five huge drawings. There are four smaller meditative “niche” spaces — filled here by sculptures. And finally, the “inner sanctum,” which holds 16 exquisite watercolor pieces and a portfolio of profoundly erotic watercolors, based on the erotic sculptures in Orrisa, India.

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Francesco Clemente’s “The Four Corners” (1985), gouache on twelve sheets of handmade Pondicherry paper joined with handwoven cotton strip, 96 1/16 x 94 1/2 in., Private Collection

If this all sounds a bit complicated, well, it is, but it’s a complicated body of work, much of which contains both Buddhist and Hindu iconography, references to the struggles of the Western painter and above all a visual diary of Clemente’s physical and spiritual journeys through a country and culture that resonate deeply within him.

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Installation view of the Clemente show

All of the works on paper in this show are splendid, showing Clemente at the height of his skills. They are beautiful, mysterious, erotic, and spiritual. The large pieces haven’t been shown together as a group for almost 15 years, and the impact of these five pieces together is powerful. These works, made in collaboration with local artisans in Madras in the 1980s, are gouache on sheets of handmade paper, bound together by cotton strips to form billboard-sized drawings. The themes and titles — Sun, Moon, Hunger, Two Painters, and Four Corners — reflect Clemente’s identification with many aspects of traditional Indian painting combined with his own contemporary Western angst. The spatial relationships and perspective are uniformly flat, the color slightly lurid, like those in Indian film posters.

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Francesco Clemente, “Two Painters” (1980), gouache on nine sheets of handmade Pondicherry paper joined with handwoven cotton strips, 68 x 94 1/8 in., Collection of Francesco Pellizzi, New York City

I find “Two Painters” to be the most interesting of the group and the most psychologically revealing. Two naked male figures, one obviously more Caucasian than the other (as evidenced by his pink skin tone) poke at each other’s eyes, mouth, and ass, all the while staring back at the viewer with an expression of deceptive calm. East meets West. The artist exists in two cultures, absorbing each through sight, touch, and taste. All of Clemente’s works made in India throughout the years are deeply (no pun intended) interested in orifices. This is a consistent theme. In this particular work I see it as Clemente’s view of how things enter the artists consciousness — color, image, taste go into the various orifices by way of experience. The punch line is that they inevitably exit the artist in a changed form.

The two landscapes in the piece reflect this duality — the dry and barren landscape of the West contrasts with what appears to be an idyllic and lush Eastern land. The East is full of renewal, moisture, and color. I am loath to over analyze these works. Part of the beauty and mystery disappears when the meanings are too tightly defined.

 IMG-25New aluminum sculptures by Francesco Clemente (left to right), “Earth,” “Sun,” “Moon” (all 2014), Courtesy of the artist and Mary Boone Gallery, New York

Next we move into the meditative spaces. The four sculptures, which were commissioned by the Rubin for this exhibition, are a bit more problematic. To my knowledge Clemente has not worked much as a sculptor and the work feels a little undernourished. Each is based on the structure of rickety wooden scaffolding that one sees all over India, although these pieces are fabricated out of aluminum. Each is then topped with a found Indian object. A British Colonial-era trunk, a flag embroidered with bit of Marxist text, a pot, and a mystery box. The pieces are fine, not bad, but not particularly moving. They pale in compassion to the richness of the works on paper.

IMG-20Drawings from Francesco Clemente’s Sixteen Amulets for the Road series (2012–13), Courtesy of Francesco Clemente and Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, Zurich

The inner sanctum contains two sets of works that I had never seen before, one a most noteworthy group of 16 watercolors on paper entitled Sixteen Amulets For the Road. Clemente works again with local artisans. This time he is in Delhi and working with themes and imagery from the Mogul Empire. Four themes are painted four times, each with significant changes. The drawings are quite formal, a central image surrounded by various elaborate and intricate borders of repetitive design. At first glance much of this appears purely decorative, but look closely and you will see subtle variations in the patterning. A reminder that this is made by the hand of man, which is fallible and imperfect. All of these drawings are loaded with Buddhist and Hindu iconography, as filtered through a Western sensibility. The repeated image of fisherman’s nets filled with clocks refers to Buddhist teachings — we are captives of time and that is at the root of unhappiness. Ladders that twirl and twist towards the heavens represent the different paths that one can choose towards enlightenment; chains bind man to his earthly desires. The symbols can be seen as obvious, but in Clements’s hands they carry a richness that belies easy interpretation.

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Watercolor paintings from Francesco Clemente’s The Black Book series (1989), Courtesy of Alba and Francesco Clemente

And finally The Black Book, 48 watercolors, based on erotic Hindu temple sculptures. These depict couplings and penetration in every and all-imaginable combinations … and then some. Using the fluid nature of watercolor Clemente has portrayed couplings that go beyond sex and transcend to another realm. The headless bodies are totally and completely joined in spiritual and carnal bliss. It’s impossible to tell where one ends and another begins. Thin veils of watercolor crossing over and under each other in shades of pulsing ochre, umber, and deep claret. They are shocking and arousingly beautiful. The sensual and the sexual beget transcendence.

IMG-6Francesco Clemente, “Moon” (1980), gouache on twelve sheets of handmade Pondicherry paper joined with handwoven cotton strips, 96 1/4 x 91 in.The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Alan Wanzenberg in honor of Kynaston McShine, 2012

The strength of this show is that the artistic journey is so precisely mimicked by the design and architecture of the exhibition. It’s a perfectly executed metaphor for Clemente’s own journey. We start with an artist in large format in the public space, self-conscious of his place in the world. We travel into increasingly smaller spaces that depict a journey inward, both spiritual and artistic. The drawings become ever smaller and more intricate. And in the end, the ultimate enlightenment and loss of self is through union with another.

Francesco Clemente: Inspired by India continues thorough February 2, 2015, at The Rubin Museum of Art. http://www.rubinmuseum.org/

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Transformative Touch: Photographs Laced with Thread

August 7, 2014 in Hyperallergic

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Hinke Schreuders, “Works on Paper #37″ (2014), embroidery and ink on paper and linen, 10.25 x 7 x 2.2 in, and “Works on Paper #36″ (2014), embroidery and ink on paper and linen, 10.25 x 7 x 2.2 in (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

New York’s art world seems to be experiencing a newfound love affair with art made by hand — art that has, dare I say, “craft” in it. We saw a passing flirtation with knitting when the Rosemarie Trockel show at the New Museum teased us with needle possibilities. Glass was “in” for a while — the SOFA art fair came from Chicago with a focus on glass in the late 1990s and changed the landscape for artists working in that medium — but now it’s “out” (SOFA shut down in New York in 2012). Recently, there’s been a professed love of sculpture made of clay, a form that’s been around since the mid 1950s and is now the flavor of the week: witness the 2014 Whitney Biennial, which included a lot of it, as well as a retrospective for Ken Price at the Met last year and a showing of Sterling Ruby’s huge clay works (among others) at Hauser & Wirth this summer.

The latest craft art making a strong appearance is embroidery, at Robert Mann Gallery, which has mounted a stunning exhibition of artists who embroider on top of photographs. Curated by Orly Cogan, who has included herself in the show, The Embroidered Image features the work of 11 artists who have found creative ways to meld two unlikely mediums.

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Hinke Schreuders has taken what appears to be 1950s advertising images of women, adhered them to linen, and added abundant embroidery in a way that heightens the kind of surreal glamour of the photos. The embroidery drips across the pictures and around the sides of the canvas — abstracted bubbles and flowers, embroidery that resembles old-fashioned brocade, drift in and out around the images. From afar the thread creates a sense that these women are behind veils of color and pattern; up close the dimensionality of the surface cause the two mediums to pop apart and you become   aware of both the handiwork and the photos   underneath

Flore Gardner, “Chiasmus” (2012),embroidered found photograph, 9 x 8 in

Not all of the works achieve this electricity between materials. Matthew Cox’s embroidered found X-rays don’t quite transcend the physical and conceptual gap between the films and thread, and the sewn decoration of dancers’ costumes by Jose Romussi isn’t as inventive as some of the other pieces in the show.

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Jessica Wohl, “White Mask” (2012), embroidery on found photograph, 10 x 8 in

By contrast, Flore Gardner’s and Jessica Wohl’s use of found images and the ways they embellish the narratives in them are knockouts. Both have chosen photographs of the basic things that we use the medium to document in our lives: marriage, children, friendship. Iconic and ordinary at the same time, these are the images that can be found by the millions in scrapbooks and shoeboxes across the US. The artists have then embellished and complemented the sentiments of these photos by sewing traditional embroidery stitches-satin, like running and cross (to name a few), on top of them. The results dive into the soul of each image and draw it out through the threadwork on the surface. They are psychologically riveting.

All of the artists in The Embroidered Image are essentially working in a form of collage, layering one medium on top of another. They’ve also chosen to work with photographs that were once intensively handmade and now carry a whiff of nostalgia. Add to that embroidery, with its societal references to domesticity, intimacy, and femininity, and you get an exhibition that is at once beautiful and woven with artistic and cultural tension.

The exhibition is also interesting in the larger context of the “maker” and “DIY” movements that are currently in vogue in the art/craft/design world. The current biennial at the Museum of Arts and Design, NYC Makers, seeks to celebrate those who make things “through exquisite workmanship and skill.” It feels as if, with our lives so digitally based, there’s a strong desire to capture and reinvent the tangible presence of the artist as maker.

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Pinky/MM Bass, “Contemplating My Internal Organs” (1999–2006), embroidery on gelatin silver print with platinum hanging hardware and plexiglass, 6 individual pieces each measuring 8 x 11 in

The Embroidered Image is a mash-up of a different sort. In layering two forms of handicraft atop one another, the exhibition creates a third medium. The work is “mano a mano” in the literal sense of the expression: “hand to hand.” In a time of sometimes indiscriminate and forgettable high tech, it’s a delight to revel for a moment in work of such exceptionally high touch.

The Embroidered Image continues at Robert Mann Gallery (525 W 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 15.

 

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Between Figuration and Abstraction with Amy Sillman

posted in Hyperallergic  ,August 4, 2014

Me-Ugly-Mountain_2003smAmy Sillman, “Me & Ugly Mountain” (2003), oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches, collection of Jerome & Ellen Stern (photo by John Berens)

ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, New York — Walking into the Hessel Art Museum at Bard College, an unremarkable contemporary building on a quiet Hudson Valley college campus in Upstate New York, I was unprepared for the dynamite lurking within. The Hessel is the local stop for a massive mid-career retrospective of the work of Amy Sillman. First things first: This is an important show and one that should have been booked in New York City, not 100 miles north where its viewership will be limited by geography.


Detail of Amy Sillman’s “Seating Chart” (2006), colored pencil on paper, 30 x 22 inches, courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co. (photo by John Berens) (click for whole image)

Sillman became well known in the early 2000s for her deadpanned skewering of the New York art world in the form of little, droll ink and wash drawings, anxiety-ridden lists of attendees at dinner parties and spot-on one-liners exposing the bullshit of the art business. The show travels from these early, arguably light, observational drawings into a deep, exquisite and emotionally naked exploration of painting and drawing. It showcases an artist with a brilliant and restless mind as well as a killer sense of humor. Sillman is both a savvy student of art history and one who breaks ground in a variety of media. Her retrospective moves seamlessly and in full command through drawing, painting, iPhone composed animation, zines, and the artist’s own curatorial work — all with a lightness of touch I found deeply moving and tremendously impressive.

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Installation view of Amy Sillman: One Lump or Two at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Hessel Museum of Art, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY (photo by Chris Kendall)

I especially admire the way in which Sillman has embraced the late 20th century struggle between figuration and abstraction and come out the other side with work that is both unique and refreshingly new. Borrowing colors and brushstrokes from Abstract Expressionist painters like Willem De Kooning and Hans Hoffman, she is a master at depicting a world where things are both “something” and “not something.” From the early more lyrical paintings like “Me & Ugly Mountain” (2003), a seemingly straightforward narrative work that carries its seeds of subversion in the large sack/mountain of abstract images dragged behind a sole melancholy female figure. Sillman then jumps with both feet into works like “Elephant” (2005) and “A Bird in the Hand” (2006). In these pieces the narrative is still there, peeking out at us from behind a joyful and passionate love affair with abstract paint and vibrant color. Teasing the viewer with hints of a story — a hand, a bird, a shape we know — that might be something … or something else.

Amy Sillman, “Elephant” (2005), oil on canvas, 78 x 66 inches, Collection Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, KS, Gift of Marti and Tony Oppenheimer and the Oppenheimer Brothers Foundation (photo by Gene Ogami) (click to enlarge)

Titles and word play always serve an important role in Sillman’s work, and they toy with the viewer’s expectations and response to the works. Plays on words, and hints about what the painter has in mind are distilled to their essence. A painting entitled “Plumbing” works on many levels simultaneously — The plumbing of a home, the plum-bob of a surveyor, or plumbing the depths of a psyche? All of these course through my mind as I look at this richly painted canvas, and each meaning works in its own way. The biggest hint is one lonely arm, holding a hobo’s sack that flows out of the middle of the image. The psychological possibilities here are boundless and fascinating. This dance between possible meanings happens over and over again in Sillman’s work, and it’s provocative in the best sense of the word. The show’s very title, One Lump or Two, works on several levels as it could refer to the art world school of hard knocks, the sweetener in one’s coffee, or simply a form or shape.

C_2007smallAmy Sillman, “C” (2007), oil on canvas, 45 x 39 inches, collection of Gary and Deborah Lucidon(photo by John Berens)

The Hessel exhibition includes several extensive collections of earlier small drawing/paintings, the stepping-stones to the big issues expressed in later paintings. Lined up on long shelves across the galleries, they form a Jungian narrative, cartoon strips of the psyche. Both dreamily symbolic and expressly concrete, they show a multi-tiered narrative of humor, and ambiguity that is beginning to morph into shape and gesture. The drawing is delicate, reminiscent of Mughal painting and natural history drawings of the 19th Century. And as always, color is the co-conspirator in these works. Nothing is ever neutral in a work by Amy Sillman. Everything in this show is charged with urgency, commitment, and an intellectual curiosity that walks hand-in-hand with a sensualist’s abandonment of intellect for feeling. It is this constant tightrope walk, between myriad artistic pushes and pulls, that makes Sillman’s work so consistently interesting.

CCS Amy Sillman  ArtistAn installation view, including (left to right): “Trawler” (2004), collection of Arthur Zeckendorf; “PS” (2013), courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.; “Unearth” (2003), collection of Barbara Lee, Cambridge, Massachusetts; “Ocean 1″ (1997), collection McKee Gallery, New York; and “Good Grief” (1998), collection of Dr. and Mrs. Lawrence Kessler.

In its scope and ambition there are pieces in this show that spoke to me more than others. That’s to be expected in an exhibition of this size. The early art world cartoons I find amusing, but a little light, like one liners — they bring a knowing smile but are quickly forgotten. They do act as an interesting bridge to the work that comes later. But the depth and breadth of Stillman’s mid-career retrospective displays a tremendously self-confident artistic voice tempered by a deep respect for the artistic traditions. on which she has built. I see echoes of 19th Century German landscape painting, a great love and understanding of Abstract Expressionism, a nod to German Neo-Expressionism, and reference to Bay Area Figuration. As artists we all look to the past to understand what might resonate into our artistic present. It is the rare artist who is able to both synthesize and transcend tradition and to create work that is at once deeply rooted and profoundly fresh.

Amy Sillman: One Lump or Two continues until September 21 at the Hessel Museum of Art (Hessel Museum of Art, Bard College-Center for Curatorial Studies, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York)

 

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Ohr what?

 

Ron Nagle George Adams Gallery has mounted an exhibition of the work of George Ohr and Ron Nagle.  Each had been known, in their time, for making work deemed groundbreaking and “outrageous.” George Ohr worked in the early 20th century, and turned pottery on its head, making vessels that toyed with all the traditional notions of pottery. He mixed glazes with wild enthusiasm, creating colors and textures that literally had never been seen before.

Ron Nagle has been making outrageously beautiful sculptures since the early 1970’s. They inhabit a universe unto themselves, adhering to a logic that only they (and Nagle) understand. Small and precious they take the idea of vessels, in particular cups, and work and re-work the concepts inherent in the idea of a ‘cup’ until abstraction overtakes the object. The surfaces are delicately airbrushed with layer upon layer of thin veils of color. The sculptures pulse and glow. Often there is the thinnest thread of hard edge brilliant color that runs along a plane of a sculpture. Blink and you miss it. Blink again and it suggests a shape emerging out of the mass of glaze that you never imagined was there.

Pairing the two is in concept an intriguing conceit- both artists work on a similar scale and both play with the idea of vessel. But in this match up of the two, I’m sorry to say, it is Nagle’s work that really stands up over the years. The Ohr pieces look very tame and very much like pots next to Nagle’s  sophisticated visions. For the most part the gallery has paired two to a pedestal, which creates a gentle give and take between the objects, but they never electrify one another. It’s the Nagles that command attention and it’s a real treat to have the opportunity to see these pieces in all their New Wave glory.8447

Ron Nagle, George Ohr- Look Closer, Look Again -George Adams Gallery

525-531 West 26th Street  www.georgeadamsgallery.com/  Exhibition continues through June

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Disco-era Bushwick

Meryle Meisler, "The Village People Stepping Out" (The Grand Ballroom, Manhattan, June 1978), and detail of "Three Amigos" (Bushwick, Brooklyn, 1983)

Meryl Meisler, “The Village People Stepping Out” (The Grand Ballroom, Manhattan, June 1978), and detail of “Three Amigos” (Bushwick, Brooklyn, 1983) (all images courtesy the artist)

In the late 1970s and early 80s, Meryl Meisler, then a young photographer and self-described club kid, began documenting the bacchanalian nightlife of the city’s most notorious downtown clubs. In the early 1980s, as a New York public school teacher, she also started photographing the near-total devastation of Bushwick, Brooklyn, a neighborhood looted, burned, and abandoned by the city and its landlords. The resulting dual body of work is now a stunning book and exhibition, opening on Friday, May 30 at Bizarre Black Box in Bushwick.

Merly Meisler, "Wild Wild West Cowgirl at Rest" (Hurrah, Manhattan, March 1978)

Meryl Meisler, “Wild Wild West Cowgirl at Rest” (Hurrah, Manhattan, March 1978)

The juxtaposed imagery of Meisler’s two worlds is mesmerizing. Arranged in pairs, the photographs echo one another in ways both emotionally compelling and visually fascinating. In “Three Amigos” (Bushwick, Brooklyn, 1983), three young men pose triumphantly in front of a boarded-up building covered in graffiti. On the opposing page three members of The Village People exit a club in full, iconic regalia. Drag queens pose invitingly, mirrored by cheerful giggly teenage Bushwick girls in an eerily similar stance. Two worlds, so close and so distant, married by a single, discerning artist’s lens.

Meisler shot the club world primarily in luminous black and white. The resulting high-contrast prints depict a world going gleefully to hell. The photos are raw in both contrast and content, capturing a soulless hedonism. Everyone is having “fun,” but when you look closely, the fun is hard to find.

Meryl Meisler, "Turquoise Ring" (Studio 54, Manhattan, August 1977)

Meryl Meisler, “Turquoise Ring” (Studio 54, Manhattan, August 1977)

The Bushwick photos were shot with a cheap camera and 35 mm color slide film, then transferred to prints. Meisler’s process yields images with a rich warm glow. The saturate colors of life in Bushwick belie a desperately poor and hard-edged world, but somehow a visual warmth blankets in the content of Meisler’s photos. Though never sentimental she conveys empathy and generosity towards her adopted neighborhood.

M

Meryl Meisler’s “Elbows at Angles” (Infinity, Manhattan, August 1977) and “Two Girls Strike a Pose” (Bushwick, Brooklyn, June 1986)

This exhibition is a terrific document of life in NYC during an era past. At the same time it serves as a potent metaphor for life in post- Bloomberg NYC . Bushwick is no longer burnt out, and the Manhattan club scene is long gone, but New York remains a tale of two cities. Ironically Bushwick, now too pricey for many of its historic residents is now a haven for artists, galleries and foodies, themselves displaced by a Manhattan of oligarchs and overpriced real estate. Thirty years later, and still the best of times and the worst of times.

Meryl Meisler, "Roller Skates" (Bushwick, Brooklyn, circa 1984)

Meryl Meisler, “Roller Skates” (Bushwick, Brooklyn, circa 1984)

Meryl Meisler, "Prom Queen Contender" (Les Mouches, Manhattan, June 1978)

Meryl Meisler, “Prom Queen Contender” (Les Mouches, Manhattan, June 1978)

Meryl Meisler, "High Hat Hands Raised" (Bushwick, Brooklyn, April 1982)

Meryl Meisler, “High Hat Hands Raised” (Bushwick, Brooklyn, April 1982)

A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick runs May 30–September 10, 2014, at Bizarre Black Box Gallery (12 Jefferson Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn). There will be a Disco Night Opening Reception on Friday, May 30, 7p–4a, with performances and special events throughout the weekend. A monograph of Meisler’s work will be published in conjunction with the show.

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When Graffiti Was Great

 . Posted in Arts Our Town, Arts Our Town Downtown, Arts West Side Spirit.


 

Tagging gets its due at The Museum of The City of New York

The exhibition, in a tightly packed installation, showcases the famous “black books,” bound sketchbooks that young street artists used to work out their scripts and drawings before hitting the subway cars with spray paint. Martin Wong bought over 50 of these books from the artists, and the exhibition shows them off in referential glass cases that belie their subversive intentions.

 Street signs, graffiti on canvas, clothing and many wonderful documentary photos from the 1970’s and 80’s round out this show in an attempt to convey some of the gritty roots of this artwork. Pieces by Futura 2000, Ikonoklast and Sanesmith are real standouts. These artists show their terrific sense of design, creating fonts and drawings that give understanding to the ways in which graffiti writing and culture affected mainstream design.
But for me, the biggest delight is how this show acts as a nexus for community engagement. On the bitterly cold Saturday that I visited the museum the galleries were packed. Young street artists showing their portfolios to whomever wanted to look, parents eagerly introducing their children to art works that they perhaps shuddered at seeing thirty years ago on a train car. Two serious old school graffiti artists- Sharp and William Nic-One Green were in residence, chatting up gallery goers about their work and giving impromptu history lessons about life in the city in the 70’s. Rarely have I seen a museum show so abuzz with conversation and life. After a lively conversation with the gents about their views of the dubious “cred” of Keith Haring and Banksy as street artists, I turned to leave the gallery and saw a line of people waiting to get in; the line stretched down the length of first floor of the museum and around a corner. This is an exhibition that has really struck a chord for New Yorkers. Personally, the show made me a little nostalgic for the “bad old days” of New York, when the brilliant blurs of moving subway cars enlivened what was admittedly a more dangerous and dirty city. But a city where an authentic and totally original art form could be born and thrive, literally in the streets.

“City As Canvas: Grafiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection” through August 24 at Museum of the City of New York. http://www.mcny.org/

 

 

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MA!!!!?

Ma! is the word I’ve heard most commonly everywhere in Israel. It’s literal translation is “What” but it has many other more subtle translations, the most common of which is “What the fuck?”. It’s a place holder, to use while you’re considering what to say next. It’s a  sly request for more information, spoken in a purr it’ s like “Tell me more, darling” It can be a term of agreement, as in ” Yeah, I get it”  but mostly I’ve heard it used in the first way…..”Get outta my way”, “Are you insane” and ” I’m getting in line in front of you, even though you’ve been waiting patiently  in the Post Office for an hour”. One of the many things I’ve learned during six weeks in Israel.  Here are a few more:

Israel is not America ( really?). Despite America’s obsession with Israel and Israel’s keen awareness of all things American, it is in fact a Middle Eastern society. I noticed this most on the street. Walking down the street in NYC , I make eye contact, I smile at people, I help blind people , I smile at children.   A real freakin’ boy scout. Here, no one makes eye contact on the street. Especially men and women. Smiles are met with a look of suspicion if not hostility. I learned not to take it personally, but it saddened me a bit. Here’s a snap of Rami, a motorcycle mechanic near the studio who always smiled and chatted with me…..Even after I told him that I was married, he continued to spread a little sunshine on the street.

rami

And my buddies at La Rampa. These gents make a mean cuppa joe, always have a smile and a wisecrack for me. They seem to think that I am a weird exotic bird that has temporarily landed in their Universe. They may be correct.

my friends

I took the bus to Jerusalem. Traveling by public transportation is great. Buses pick you up and drop you off where ever you want. There are bus stops, but we don’t let that detail control us! The only down side is that the driver can play whatever music he wants -very loud. You also get to hear him to speak on any one of the three cell phones that he juggles whilst driving. It’s cheap and it gets you there. I walked from the bus station with this lovely gent from Iran. He spoke not a word of English, nor much Hebrew. Nonetheless we chatted as we walked, smiling and nodding in a gentle bubble of mutual non-understanding. He wore a great deal of gold around his neck. mustachePortraits of his children, I think. Bling bling Iranian style.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is a detail. He was very happy and proud to show me and in fact asked me to take his picture gold. Jerusalem is beautiful. A stunning world class museum- The Israel Museum. A really edgy, brilliant contemporary art museum called The Seam. It’s right on the “seam” between east and West Jerusalem and devoted to showcasing political and socially relevant art. The current show is about the notion of Loneliness, and it’s very moving. There’s ancient history. A terrific art school. Good restaurants. Elegant neighborhoods. And lots and lots of soldiers and tension. When I arrived the bus station was in full scale bomb alert. They take that pretty seriously in Israel. It’s sobering and  a million miles away from the fun and funky world of Tel Aviv.  I found the city very sad. But here’s some snaps of Arab school girls at the Israel Museum, taking pictures of each other and blissfully ignoring their teacher. Some things are the same the world over.

schoolgirls

school girls

 

And a magical moment. While in the Nougichi sculpture garden I wandered into a breathtaking James Turrell room. Pink stone, blue sky, brilliant golden light. And happily crawling on the cool floor was a baby. Her mother watching joyfully from the side. The three of us smiled, gurgled and basked in the glorious room.

turrellturrell and baby

I saw no street art in Jerusalem. Perhaps it’s not part of the culture. Perhaps it gets painted over, since J Town is a major tourist site.

Sadly driving IS a contact sport in Israel. I’ve seen more car accidents, or the aftermath of, in six weeks than I have in my entire life. Some bad ones. I saw a cop car run into the side of a building and a pedestrian run over by an electric bike. Which, since you asked, are allowed to ride on the sidewalk. It’s stupid, crazy, insanely dangerous  and and should change. All two wheeled vehicles- bikes, electric bikes, Vespas, motorized skateboards careen down the sidewalks in Tel Aviv. It is your responsibility to jump out of their way. No bells, no nothin’ warn you that you are about to be mowed over. I watched a teen with two broken arms, on a skateboard run into an ancient old woman carrying her groceries. Maybe he broke another limb. It would have been a bit of Old Testament Justice, fur shur.

Israelis are obsessed with many things. Everyone says that they are sick of politics and then proceed to passionately dive in, again. It is a very intense place. My keen political analysis of the situation boils down to several issues……..Israelis are deeply invested in  the music of Lenard Cohen. Every home I went into was playing his dreary dirges ( there, I betray my own prejudices) I find this problematic and feel that perhaps if we could encourage a move away from LC it could positively affect the peace process.

I find another  second cultural investment less problematic. That is is the man himself- Robert “Bob” Marley. Every taxi cab plays Bob’s music. Teens on the beach wear flowing pants emblazoned with his image. Dreadlocks abound ( and yes they even look stupid on young and beautiful Israelis).  The market is draped with these pants in all their polyester glory. I feel that we should encourage Marley, discourage Cohen.

marelypants marelypantsll

Do I have other, perhaps more relevant ideas about the political situation in the Middle East? You betcha!!!! Am I going to post them on the Inter-web? Nope.  Invite me out for a glass of wine and I will happily expound, like everyone else, about what Israel should and shouldn’t do and be. No problemo.

Check out these drawings. It is, after all, a democratic and uncensored country…..burka

blindfold Bibisweet future

So many more snaps of street art. I will post some on their own……

As seen in store windows throughout Te Aviv- Pride week comin’ up, yo.gay

The Spring flowers are amazing. After a week of tremendous unexpected rain the countryside burst open-

yaelflowers spring flowers

And finally- While in Jerusalem I went to Ammunition Hill, the site of a crucial  battle of the 1967 war. I found a plaque honoring my father’s service in Europe during WW ll . It made me happy. It made me sad. A lovely and tender site. Rarely visited by tourists. Mostly a place where schoolkids are taken on trips to learn about the nation’s history.

amunb hill3

It’s been six weeks. I’m tired and tan and full of new thoughts…….Home again, home again, jiggity jig……..

 

 

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