The Inner World of a Man Who Taught Himself How to Draw

in Hyperallergic. March 6, 2017

The show at Kerry Schuss Gallery focuses on the later years of Ray Hamilton’s 14-year art career, the time period that he worked after suffering a serious stroke in 1990.

Ray Hamilton, “Untitled” (1990), ballpoint pen, marker on paper, 14 x 17 in, RH044 (all images courtesy Kerry Schuss Gallery unless otherwise noted)

Kerry Schuss Gallery is currently showing a retrospective of the short career of a self-taught artist named Ray Hamilton (1919–1996), and it’s a beautiful, delicate exhibition of one man’s inner world. The show focuses on the later years of Hamilton’s 14-year art career, the time period that he worked after suffering a serious stroke in 1990.

Ray Hamilton, “Untitled” (1992), watercolor, pencil on paper, 17 x 14 in, RH133

Although the facts of Hamilton’s life are sketchy, we do know that he was born in Columbia, South Carolina, had a career in the Navy, and ended up living in Brooklyn. After his stroke, he started attending adult classes at a not-for-profit organization called H.A.I. (Healing Arts Initiative) that works with adults with developmental issues. Given rudimentary drawing tools — ballpoint pens, graphite, and colored pencil on plain paper — he communicated his observations of the worlds both inside and outside his body.

There is something about the thin, hard line of a ballpoint pen that must have appealed to Hamilton. Many of his drawings consist of pen lines so dense that they have embossed the paper, creating a dimensionality that is palpable. The push and pull between blue ballpoint pen lines and the softer marks of graphite and colored pencil help to create a figure-and-ground relationship atypical of self-taught art.

Ray Hamilton, “Untitled” (1992), watercolor, pencil on paper, 17 x 14 in, RH134

Many of Hamilton’s drawings bear a striking kinship to contemporary art. All of the pieces in the show are untitled, identified only with a gallery index number. “RH128” reminded me instantly of a Jasper Johns drawing. Hamilton had a singular way of making shapes that were both something and not something. They refer to an object, in this case a pair of men’s shoes, but are simultaneously a pair of elegant abstract shapes. They are slightly staggered, as if the walker were a tad unsteady on his feet, perhaps the feet of the artist. Drawn in dense, soft graphite, they are surrounded by a sea of lightly drawn words, the logic of which was known only to Hamilton. Most of his drawings have this gentle background of abstracted language, some discernible, some words too faint to read. Perhaps this helped to organize his daily reality and thoughts. It’s hard to know what damage he suffered as a result of the stroke, but the incessant categorizing that occurs in all of his drawings feels to be almost mantra-like. He writes his name over and over again, as if to say, “I am still Ray Hamilton; this is who I am.”

Installation view of Ray Hamilton: Drawings at Kerry Schuss Gallery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Ray Hamilton, “Untitled” (1989), pencil and ball point pen on paper, 15 x 22 in, RH128

I find these drawings of hands and feet to be some of the most compelling in the show. It is noteworthy that in both “RH133” and “RH 134,” the left appendages appear normal, but the right-sided ones are twisted and unnatural. I can’t help but read this as a self-portrait of Hamilton, presumably affected by stroke on one side of his body.

Hamilton had the remarkable ability to tread the line between abstraction and figuration, as evidenced in his works where he traced objects. He would often, as in “RH005,” make multiple tracings of an object, each a little different from the previous one, each imbued with individual energy, pulsing next to the others. There is an innate sense of design and composition that is consistent throughout Hamilton’s work. In this piece, as in others, the objects are stripped down to their essentials with just the right amount of space between them so that they relate to one another on the page in a most potent way.

Ray Hamilton, “Untitled” (1990), pencil, colored pencil, ball point on paper, 22 x 30 in, RH005

Hamilton portrays bits and pieces of his life, seemingly random shapes, that may have had deeper significance for him. He captures the visual tidbits that one sees in an ordinary day — animals, a lamp, a window, a pear. While each drawing stands beautifully on its own, together, these fragmented observations make a portrait of an artist recording his daily life and invite us into his inner world.

Ray Hamilton: Drawings continues at Kerry Schuss Gallery (34 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through March 12.  

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Peace and Grief in the Art of US Veterans

Feb 13, 2017 in Hyperallergic

The exhibition Not Alone provides access to a complicated and difficult subject matter that intends to open up and bridge dialogue between civilians and those who have served.

Installation view, Not Alone: Exploring Bonds Between and With Members of the Armed Forces (photo by Phillip Maisel)

SAN FRANCISCO — The San Francisco War Memorial Veteran’s Building hosts an eclectic group of arts organizations. For many years it housed the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, several theaters, the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) gallery, and an array of Veteran’s organizations. Today the art museum is long gone, but several arts and veterans-service organizations remain.

Honoring and advancing the building’s legacy, SFAC Director Meg Shiffler and co-curator Jason Hanasik have installed a powerful new exhibition in the Arts Commission Gallery. Not Alone: Exploring Bonds Between and With Members of the Armed Forces forges a bridge between the public at large and the Bay Area veteran’s community. Organized thematically, the exhibition begins with work related to the Vietnam War but has a stronger focus on America’s many conflicts from the 1980s to the present, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Shiffler and Hanasik have included artworks made by veterans as well as by their siblings and spouses. It is a deeply affecting exhibition and one that has evoked a strong response from the community. “The veterans who attend have been moved,” Shiffler told me, “and many have been back multiple times to spend more time with the show.” She added that the SFAC staff has been doing significant outreach to the general population. “Unlike other exhibitions, we’re finding that most visitors want to engage with the staff in various ways. We are a municipal gallery dedicated to engaging artists and artwork in exhibitions that promote civic dialogue, and Not Alone is anchoring an incredible foundation of respect, information flow, and open dialogue.”

Installation view, Not Alone: Exploring Bonds Between and With Members of the Armed Forces (photo by Yuqing Max Luo)

A tremendous amount of thought has gone into this show. “This is not an exhibition about war or the military-industrial complex,” Shiffler said. “It is about people who have served — about their hardships, pride, fears, relationships, and so much more.” The timing of the exhibition is intentional as well: It opened around Veterans Day and will remain on display through mid-March — coinciding with the beginning of the Trump presidency. “The reason this exhibition is so important in this extremely political moment is that it provides access to a complicated and difficult subject matter through the vehicle of storytelling that intends to open up and bridge dialogue between civilians and those who have served, individual to individual.”

Suzanne Opton, from the “Soldier + Citizen” series (2005): Soldier Wright, 366 days in Iraq; soldier Jimenez, killed in Iraq; soldier Hipwell, 382 Days in Iraq; soldier Kubalewski, 390 days in Afghanistan (photo courtesy of the artist)

The journey through this exhibition is intense and demands some time. Though not exactly a joyful show, it is one filled with beautiful and affecting works. Photography in particular is a stand-out medium with which to express the profoundly mixed emotions of war and peace. Suzanne Opton’s large-scale black-and-white photos from the series “Soldier + Citizen” (2005) are close-up portraits of American soldiers in between deployments, each of whom is being gently touched or embraced by a loved one. The hard, unwavering eyes of the soldiers looking away from the camera are a sharp contrast to the soft hands that touch their faces, hair, and necks, as if the warmth of a loved one’s embrace could break the spell of war. These are clearly posed portraits, and each has a delicacy and elegance of design that belies the underlying sadness of the subject.

Jessica Hines’ project “My Brother’s War” (2007–16) is the artist’s sensitive attempt to reconcile and artistically reconnect with her brother, who committed suicide 10 years after his return from Vietnam. Using his letters and “souvenir” photos from the 1960s, Hinds went to Vietnam to retrace her brother’s steps. She has combined his now-vintage photos with imagery from her trip and snippets of his letters to create a visual narrative that weaves their two stories together. Many of the photos have the slightly “blasted” look of overexposed Kodachrome, and often the light is deliberately a bit too harsh, the color a little off-kilter. But the imagery is

Jessica Hines, from “My Brother’s War” (2008)(photo courtesy of the artist)  

delicately constructed — echoing, perhaps, the elusive nature of memory. As part of the gallery’s ongoing public art installation along Market and Van Ness Streets, the curators have used these images to create 36 posters for outdoor public display on kiosks Printed large, they look like an almost psychedelic journey.

One of the most original projects in the show is by ceramicist Ehren Tool, who enlisted in the Marines in 1989 and served in both the Desert Shield and Desert Storm conflicts. After his discharge, Tool used the GI Bill to go to Pasadena City College and the University of Southern California. He then went on to receive his MFA at UC Berkeley in 2005.

 

 

 

Ehren Tool working in his studio surrounded by finished cups (photo by Yuqing Max Luo)

Tool has set up a potter’s studio in the SFAC gallery. He is in residence almost every weekend, throwing hundreds of cups, which, at the conclusion of the show, he will give away to the public. Onto these prosaic objects, he collages the imagery of war. Tool has invited the pubic to bring him imagery of violence, war, and trauma, as well as advertisements and ephemera of popular culture and news. Personal memorabilia from strangers and other veterans are turned into decals and used to decorate the surface of the vessels. Glazed with very typical ceramic colors — blue, brown, terra cotta — these cups seem ordinary, but when you look closely at them, the subject matter that emerges grabs at your heart. I asked Tool why he made cups and his answer was as eloquent as the work is powerful:

    “Peace is the only adequate war memorial. Everything else is at best a failure and usually something that glorifies war. I started making paintings and drawings and prints about the surreal experience of going to war and coming home and seeing your gas mask sold as a toy for children ‘ages 6 and up.’ Somehow, for me, the cup seems the appropriate scale to talk about war: hand-to-hand, person-to-person. Things get confused with scale. A cup is personal. Stalin said one death is a tragedy but a million deaths is a statistic. I think a million war dead is an incalculable tragedy. Making cups is a pretty small gesture in the face of all that is going on around the world, but it is what I have. I don’t think anything I do will change the world, but nothing in the world releases me from my obligation to try.”

In a separate area of the gallery, Shiffler and Hanasik have installed a show within the show: a separate but related project entitled The Exquisite Corpse of the Unknown Veteran organized by Jeanne Dunning and Aaron Hughes. Within a highly structured set of guidelines, the curators asked 90 artists (both veterans and non-veterans) to play the Exquisite Corpse game: Three artists each worked on a total of 30 drawings, each one illustrating a different part of the same human image. The critical point here is that each artist was tasked with drawing the body parts of a real person, someone dead or alive who had been in war. The results are visually beautiful, but once you understand the details of the game, a chill runs up your spine. They are literally exquisite corpses.

“The Exquisite Corpse of the Unknown Veteran,” organized by Jeanne Dunning and Aaron Hughes, ongoing (photo by Phillip Maisel)

All in all, Not Alone is a very ambitious undertaking. I admire the curators’ commitment to an often overlooked segment of the Bay Area community, and in the midst of this incredibly divisive time, any attempt to bring disparate groups together in conversation is welcome. It helps that the level of discourse presented here is sophisticated, respectful, well-curated, and emotionally rich.

Not Alone: Exploring Bonds Between and With Members of the Armed Forces continues at San Francisco Arts Commission War Memorial Veterans Building (401 Van Ness Avenue, Suite 126, Civic Center Historic District, San Francisco) through March 18.

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The Chameleonic Cate Blanchett Brings 20th-Century Art Manifestos to Life

Dec. 16, 2016

In the 13-screen video installation Manifesto, Cate Blanchett plays sharply different characters while reading polemical 20th-century manifestos. Her transformation is astonishing.

Installation of Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto at Park Avenue Armory (photo by James Ewing)

I’ve been following Julian Rosefeldt around the globe. To be more precise, I have been following Manifesto, his 13-screen video installation. I first saw it in Melbourne, Australia a year ago, then in the spring, in Berlin, and earlier this month I visited the North American debut at the Park Avenue Armory. It’s a rare treat to see a major artistic installation in more than one incarnation, let alone three. It has indeed been interesting to see how the 13 films, playing simultaneously on massive screens, have been configured in both their sound and visual delivery, in three radically different installations.

Rosefeldt, a German film, video, and photographic artist, is not as well known in the States as he is in Europe. Manifesto is his first major project in North America, though he’s been working since the mid-1990s throughout Europe and Australia. Manifesto will open at the Sundance Film Festival in January, which will likely place him squarely, and deservedly, in the cultural spotlight.

Julian Rosefeldt, Manifesto (2015) (© Julian Rosefeldt and VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)

Manifesto is comprised of twelve 10-minute films on a continuous loop, plus a four-minute “Prologue.” The films play concurrently on enormous screens in the otherwise dead-empty Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory. Each film examines a specific set of 20th-century art manifestos. They cover most of the major art movements of the 20th century, as well as the truly arcane, such as Stridentism, which I had never heard of. Rosefeldt has taken the proclamations of Karl Marx, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, John Reed, Claes Oldenburg, and Tristan Tzara (to name a very few) and created mash-ups of their most notable writings in cinematic form. For example, the film identified as “Film/Epilogue” is a recitation of the words of Stan Brakhage, Jim Jarmusch, Lars von Trier, Werner Herzog, and Lebbeus Woods.

The extraordinary Cate Blanchett stars in each film, playing sharply different characters in each. Blanchett not so much acts as she inhabits them. Her transformation is astonishing, from an undernourished sexy goth rocker in “Stridentism/Creationism,” to a bearded, badly disheveled homeless man ranting the words of Lucio Fontana, wondering the debris of old Berlin. Her words are meant to be neither conversational nor dramatic; they are polemical proclamations.

Her performances are enhanced by very high production values: prosthetic makeup, detailed set dressing, numerous extras, fabulous locations and absolutely stunning cinematography. Rosefeldt has a very strong vision that the chameleon-like Blanchett is able to translate. It cannot have been easy to imbue these didactic tirades (particularly the ones from the 1910s and ‘20s) with life.

Julian Rosefeldt, Manifesto (2015) (© Julian Rosefeldt and VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)

Rosefeldt explores all sorts of stereotypes and nails them well. The black-clad, diverse crowd of young hipster musicians loll about backstage, wearing dreadlocks and tattoos, occasionally taking drugs while women make out. It is a perfect cinematic “type” casting of this age and situation. Much of this film is in slow motion, the camera lazily moving through smoke-filled rooms. It underscores the booze- and-dope infused vibe of the place. Blanchett angrily declares her manifesto in a tough, working class British accent and is the only fast-moving object in this film. The CEO’s private party is equally apt. The bourgeois guests are impeccably dressed, just as we expect people of this class and world to look. The set and furniture are picture-perfect, and this makes it all the more startling when the genteel hostess of the party (Blanchett) begins to spout the dogma of Barnett Newman and Wyndham Lewis. Each film pauses at the same minute, during which time Blanchett turns, looks directly into the camera, and in an artificially high robotic voice speaks part of each monologue. The moment passes and the films continue apace. But that moment of confluence — though she delivers different manifestos in each film — is a stunning visual and aural experience. Similarly, there are interludes of very quiet sound that are also coordinated between the various films. The sound in the Drill Hall rises and falls in continual rhythm.

 

Julian Rosefeldt, Manifesto (2015) (© Julian Rosefeldt and VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)

There are times during each film when small sounds are purposely over-amplified, so we distinctly hear the clatter of cutlery on the luncheon plates of “Pop Art,” the scratching of children’s pencils on paper in “Film/Epilogue,” or the crackle of a fuse burning in “Prologue.” During long stretches in each film there is very little action: the scene is being set, the pace is slow, the sound almost incidental and random. And here is where my experience of seeing this exhibition in three venues comes to bear.

In Melbourne, Manifesto was shown in a huge, carpeted room. The architecture had some turns in it, so that you couldn’t see every film at once. Very large, bell-shaped speakers hovered over the seating area in front of each film. Many people sat on the floor. Though you could hear the sounds of the other films, it was easy to focus on the image in front of you and the sound above you. People stayed, attention held rapt for the duration of each film.

In Berlin, the exhibition was in a conventional museum space. The screens were much smaller and there were small speakers, again hung over the viewing benches. The feeling was very intimate. Walls broke up the flow of the film’s visual impact, but the sound was clear and again, the public was entranced.

What is great about the Armory space is also what is problematic. It is a gigantic space and the films, now shown on massive screens, look fabulous. The moments when Blanchett is speaking into the camera are really powerful. Her huge face is all around you and the manifestos she spits out are staccato and powerful. But the wood floor and the soaring arched ceiling make the sound bounce around in a way that is distracting and unintended. It is much harder to focus on the quiet moments within each film and the sonic overlap between the 13 films is aural overload. On each of my two visits to the Armory I was keenly aware of how much less time people were spending with each film. The glare of phones being checked, e-mails being sent. Maybe New Yorkers are just that much less patient. I don’t know. But the sound, which seemed so important the first two times I saw this installation, is now secondary to the visual impact of the room.

Installation of Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto at Park Avenue Armory (photo by James Ewing)
There are some absolutely visually stunning films in this installation, like the one about conceptual art, as discussed by two TV anchorwomen (each of whom are Blanchett). Notice the seemingly generic TV graphics surrounding the women as they talk about “speed.” Then there is my favorite film, Claes Oldenburg’s manifesto on Pop Art, delivered as a prayer before one of the most bizarre luncheons in town. Discover it for yourself.

I truly hope that the New York audience is able to slow down and really savor this experience. It’s a commitment. To see each film in its entirety you need to commit roughly two hours to the exhibition. And I’m afraid that the setting may be a hindrance. Though it may have taken away from the “purity” of the space, a little carpeting might help with the noise. Any New York apartment dweller could tell you that.

Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto continues at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 8, 2017.

Cate Blanchett, Julian Rosefeldt, Manifesto, Park Avenue Armory

 

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This is only a Test!!!!

 

 

Hey folks-

Have had some trouble with this server and the blog was knocked off-line. So this is a test email. No need to respond ( unless you want to say howdy!)

Thanks

Melissa

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An Army of Female Power Figures Stands Against Injustice

in Hyperallergic 17, 2016

Vanessa German’s show packs a punch, and is especially powerful in the context of the national politics of the past year.

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Vanessa German, “The Boxer” (left) and “No Water Cleaner” (right) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

There is an army of women amassed in Pavel Zoubok’s gallery in Chelsea. They are ready to advance on the world, and look you in the eye with an unflinching gaze. They are armed with words, weapons, injured children, advertising slogans, cloth seashells, animals, beads, and much more. But mostly they are armed with a visual, artistic force that takes your breath away when you enter the gallery.

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Vanessa German, “Cream crackers” 74 x 23 x 36 inches

Entitled “i am armed. i am an army.,” Vanessa German’s show packs a punch, and is especially powerful in the context of the national politics of the past year, where scores of injustices have been exposed. The exhibition is condensed from a larger one that debuted at the Wadsworth Atheneum earlier this year, with Zoubok presenting 21 of German’s female figures, in quasi-military formation facing the rear of the gallery. A smaller side room is bathed in purple light, where figures, arranged in an oval, face wall-mounted mirrors that reflect back onto the sculptures, multiplying them into a hoard. The entire room glistens with moody light and a constant cacophony plays on a tape loop. There are snippets of song, conversation, and partially recognizable sounds. As German explained to me:

The sound is 17 layers of voice, memory, music, and root as sound; 3 rivers, the sound of a body dropping into water, a train, a water mill, Sam Cook, a list of women’s names, my poetry, Porch songs, and more … to create an immersive sensorium, to invoke and to evoke … to bring into the room audible codes of healing, the audible codes of fear, discomfort, and movement … transportation, cultural migration. Accessing the power of love sounds even, to add to the tactile environment of movement, urgency and accumulation.
This room of figures, light, and sound is an interesting counterpoint to the silent army, bathed in bold bright gallery light that waits outside.

5-install-shot-v-german-720x515Installation view of Vanessa German’s ‘i am armed. i am an army.’ at Pavel Zoubok Gallery

German is a multi-disciplinary artist, based in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh. Her work in slam poetry (my first exposure to her) has been featured on radio and in Ted Talks. She’s a political activist who has made activism part of her work and daily life. Confronted by waves of neighborhood violence, she founded Love Front Porch and ARThouse, safe spaces devoted to art making and the children of her community. Her connection to both the political past and present are reflected keenly in the work in this show. Objects fabricated in the past 100 years in the US are intertwined with materials and imagery from across Africa. All of this is interwoven with the recent history of racially motivated murders in the US.

German draws on the Central African tradition of the minkisi (or nkisi ) figure. Traditionally these are figures that are imbued with enormous power, derived from the profusion of objects that are hung in bundles onto and imbedded in the figure. They were created to communicate with ancestors and offer receptacles of hope and magic for the living. German filters this tradition through a distinctly 21st-century lens. Her female figures are modern power brokers, proudly carrying their history.

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Vanessa German, “sometimes i want to kill you,” 74 x 25 x 22 inches

German starts with rubber doll parts that she assembles into standing figures. Using plaster, tar, and other materials, she molds each figure into an individual with distinct personality. The figures are scaled to be like oversized children, many sporting huge hairdos and headdresses that incorporate a myriad of found and fabricated objects. Some of these women are literally carrying the weight of the world on their heads. Cowrie shells are used for lips and each eye glimmers with a tiny rhinestone, giving the sculpture a “spark” of life. The brilliantly inventive combinations of objects — hundreds of old keys, ceramic knick-knacks, obsessively constructed bundles of fabric and yarn, bells, watches, old toys, and birds — are never randomly assembled but carefully arranged to further the narrative told in each piece. Upon first glance, this artistic world may appear chaotic, but then you see that there is extreme order to the work. The underlying message, to me, is that the structures of community and tradition carry us through hard times and triumphantly into the future.

A self-taught master of her craft, German’s sculptures, above and beyond their political potency, are simply beautiful. The ability to take such an insanely disparate inventory of materials and join them together, not only coherently, but also seamlessly and with a perfect sense of design, form, and color is an achievement. That artistry, together with the importance and immediacy of the content, grab you in the gut.

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Vanessa German, “i come to do a violence to the lies of ugly (left) and “this is what it looks like when you get real” (right)

While there are many striking images in this exhibition, two that are especially poignant are “easily removed and replaced for washing” and “this is what it looks like when you get real up close to it.” Two tall sculptures (77 and 80 inches, respectively) portray two of these “warrior” women, each carrying the figure of a limp child. One is a cheerfully dressed rubber doll, originally white skinned, now painted black, and the other is a fabricated figure with a face that riffs on Central-African sculpture. It is not a child’s face but that of a small adult. It’s chilling.

I first saw this exhibition before the election. I went to see it again afterwards, and experienced it even more profoundly. Through her work, German tells us that out of emotions of disappointment and anger a new army of resistance will arise. I left the gallery feeling empowered and energized. To quote German who of course says it best, “I grieve and I create. I reach out to my family and I make it my business to FEEL, to HEAR, to WITNESS, and to continue on in my life and in my creativity, as I find that the truest love and the truest healing in the act of Making Art and being with Art and Seeing and being inspired. I believe in the power of art, and I believe in the power of Love, and I do not necessarily have to distinguish between the two.”

Here is Vanessa German’s website, take a look…..http://21stcenturyjuju.com

Vanessa German’s i am armed, I am an army continues at Pavel Zoubok Gallery (531 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through November 30.

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Dance Till You Drop- New Work by Alex Prager

October 13, 2016 in Hyperallergic

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Alex Prager, “La Grande Sortie” (2015), six archival pigment prints, single-channel video with color and sound on blue-ray disc and thumbdrive, storyboards dimensions of prints to be determined duration: 10 minutes (image courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong)

The best horror movie in New York City right now is Alex Prager’s La Grande Sortie, a 10-minute film playing on continuous loop at the Chrystie Street branch of Lehmann Maupin Gallery. The film is the latest entry in Prager’s oeuvre of cinematic and photographic investigations into subjects that tantalize and challenge the viewer. For those unfamiliar with Prager’s work in both mediums, it’s worth taking a brief journey into her previous work, which will bring the current exhibition into sharper focus.

A self-taught photographer, she began her career by making beautifully staged, highly dramatized photographs infused with the saturated colors of Southern California. Influenced by photographers such as William Eggleston and Cindy Sherman and by the Technicolor films of Hollywood in the 1950s and ‘60s, Prager’s transition from photography to film was a natural step. In 2010, she debuted her first short film, Despair. I must have watched it at least a dozen times when shown at The Museum of Modern Art’s New Photography exhibition in 2010. I was transfixed. In four minutes and 28 seconds, Prager tells a tale of love, loss, despair, and tragedy in the most elegant of ways. Everything about this film is tightly controlled, stylized, and brilliantly, beautifully fake. It set the stage for her following shows of photography and film, each more elaborate in style and delving deeper into the pathos of human relationships as well as an investigation into the genre of horror.

La Grande Sortie was commissioned by the Paris Opera Ballet and filmed in the Opera Bastille Theater, starring French ballet star Émilie Cozette with a supporting cast of retired dancers and teachers from the ballet company. I won’t reveal too much of the plot, because it would spoil the film — and believe me, you want to see this film unspoiled. Suffice it to say that the film is indeed about ballet. The production values are superb; Prager has studied closely the lighting, camera work, and stylistic flourishes of cinema from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Deep, dramatic shadows throw their cast across the screen, harsh light from below heightens the horror and drama in the story, camera angles are sharp, and the editing is fast.

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Alex Prager, “Orchestra East, Section B” (2016), archival pigment print, 59 x 89.8 inches (image courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong)

La Grande Sortie develops themes now common to Prager, including a mesmerizing investigation into the nature of crowds: large groups of people that, Prager shows, are in fact small worlds unto themselves. This project, as with many of her previous, has a supporting cast of hundreds. In these crowd scenes she tends to cast people who are very distinctive looking — sometime ugly, sometimes eccentric, rarely beautiful. But the casting choices always underline the sense that while a crowd of people may seem anonymous it is in fact made up of hundreds of individuals, each with a story to tell. There is an odd and effective dance between the faces in the crowd: we move from our bemusement at Prager’s casting choices to the slow realization that all is not well with our heroine in the film. And there is a palpable tension between the portrayal of the seemingly innocent spectators — perhaps a metaphor for us, the viewers — and the protagonist.

Besides being visually interesting and often amusing (Prager often casts “types”: the businessman, the floozy, the sleazy guy) these mass groupings reinforce the purposeful artificiality of Prager’s work. It would be improbable to naturally find as many weird-looking people in a crowd as are in her universe. She never lets us forget for a moment that we are visitors in a made-up world, and there is never a pretense of reality in any of her work, no equivocation in her vision.

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Alex Prager, ‘La Grande Sortie’ installation view (image courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong, photo by Max Yawney)

None of Pragers’ projects are shoestring budget affairs. She has embraced the Hollywood ethos wholeheartedly and made it work for her. The casts are big, the drama high, and there’s always a troubled dame at the center of the action. Her films also make extraordinary use of music. Like the cinemascope films of yesteryear the soundtracks swell and burst, carrying the audience along for an emotional ride. The score La Grande Sortie has been sampled from Stravinsky‘s Rite of Spring, (an already fraught piece of composition if ever there was one) and recomposed by Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. It is stunning, and an equal match for the film.

The stills that accompany La Grande Sortie portray a theater as it is filling up with audience. They whisper, chew gum, look at their programs, and stare at the stage. The lighting changes in each photo (they are not hung progressively) so that in some we are looking at the eccentrics in the audience lit by bright house lights. In others the lights are dimming until finally we see, in two images, the room so dark that all that’s visible is the light barley licking the heads of several audience members, their faces deep in shadow. And in a final image, it is as if we the viewers were on stage, looking back at the audience as brilliant theatrical light blasts our faces. It’s an unsettling moment of recognition; this is what it’s like for a performer to step on stage. An audio loop of low-level ambient crowd noise plays throughout the gallery, a gentle backdrop to the photos.

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Alex Prager, ‘La Grande Sortie’ installation view (image courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong, photo by Max Yawney)

These still images, which are on the ground floor of Lehman Maupin, set the stage for the darkened theater upstairs where the video plays. In this clever way the entire gallery has became a performance space. We enter and wander around, as if in the lobby of the theater, and then ascend to see the show with a sharply heightened sense of anticipation.

Prager’s fascination extends to a specific breed of horror film. A descendent of Alfred Hitchcock rather than Chucky or Saw, this is “horror” of a more genteel and perhaps more sinister nature. It is the emotional horror of our inner lives.

It would be fascinating to see what Prager might do with a longer story. On the other hand, I think that each of her films is exactly as long as it needs to be, and that is part of their great artistry. While opulent in visual impact they are in fact quite lean and focused in emotional content, making them all the more powerful. Like the best old Hollywood movies, I stumbled out into the bright daylight a little unnerved by what I had just seen. The only thing missing was the popcorn.

Alex Prager: La Grande Sortie continues at Lehmann Maupin (201 Chrystie St, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 23.
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An Artist’s Fantastical Dioramas Fill a Tiny Store Along the Hudson

in Hyperallergic. Sept. 26, 2016

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Matthew Pleva, “July 20, 1969” (2009), 13 1/2 x 9 x 91/4 inches, graphite on paper water color, balsa, brass rod, vintage television (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

KINGSTON, New York — Walking on John Street in Kingston on a rainy Saturday night my eye was caught by the oddest storefront on the block. Sandwiched between a tattoo parlor and an old office building is the tiniest of stores, measuring five feet wide by 15 feet long, with a long history. Originally the alleyway between buildings, the space was roofed over around the 1920s to become a jewelry store, then a Christian bookstore, a barbershop, a florist, and now the storefront studio of illustrator Matthew Pleva. Pleva’s space and work are part of the resurgence of the Hudson River city of Kingston, which has seen an extraordinary renaissance in the past five years. The combination of affordable studio and living spaces, proximity to New York City, and a close-knit and supportive artistic community is turning Kingston into a vibrant hub for creative types working in all mediums.

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Matthew Pleva’s storefront in Kingston, New York

The original jewelry store sign still hangs above the door. It is an appropriate emblem for Pleva who makes drawings and dioramas of the most intimate scale. At SUNY Purchase, Pleva studied sculpture and printmaking, and after graduation became an apprentice to a commercial jeweler, working in the trade for 10 years. Both this background and the fact that Pleva’s father and grandfather were engineers inform his extraordinarily detailed and complex constructions.

In this perfectly tiny workshop and showroom, Pleva works with technical drawing pencils, creating illustrated narratives comprised of thousands of cross-hatched marks. He then painstakingly cuts out the drawings and mounts them on brass armatures, so that the drawn narrative becomes dimensional.

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Matthew Pleva, “Gangs of New York” and “The Butcher” (2016), outer diamer 1 inch, Pen and ink, watercolor, steel flesh tunnels (click to enlarge)

“My whole life I have always built things,” said Pleva. “My job as a bench jeweler satisfied that itch for a long time. Eventually I went back to basics — drawing. As a kid I loved making dioramas and then it all came together. ‘Let’s put it in a box.’”

Like modern-day medieval reliquaries, many of these pieces illustrate scenes from literary fiction of which Pleva is fond or illustrate significant moments in history. One of the more amusing ones, “July 20 1969,” depicting man landing on the moon, is housed in a vintage portable television of the era.

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Matthew Pleva, “Jack the Ripper” (2016)m 1 x 1 1/2 inches ,pen and ink, watercolor, brass rod, vintage brass cameo frame (click to enlarge)

the-kasden-verso-768x697  “Butcher” and “Gangs of New York,” each measuring one inch   in diameter, illustrate two scenes from the film Gangs of New York in minute three-dimensional detail. Designed to be carried by the owner like a magical talisman or worn like the dioramas of old-fashioned watches is the amulet endearingly entitled “Jack the Ripper,” depicting the murderer in-action. It’s hard to know if these will serve to protect the bearer, but they are a technical tour de force.

Matthew Pleva, “The Kasden” (verso) (2016), 2 inches diameter, pen and ink, watercolor, brass rod, watch case (click to enlarge)

Pleva has also translated his sensibility into slightly larger formats, creating dioramas out of found wooden boxes and advertising tins. These works are most successful in cases where the box and the narrative are related. For example, inside of a vintage World War l medic kit he has recreated a tiny scene from the movie MASH, his typical palette of black and white here illuminated by dark red crosses. This piece is particularly satisfying: The scale is small (9 1/4 by 3 31/4 inches) but big enough so that one can read the somber instructions on the tin box indicating how a tourniquet should be applied and instructions for wound care. Not just a mere reference to a pop-culture hit movie, the work has a real message. The connection between three wars (World War l, Korea, and Vietnam) paced roughly 40 years apart is a reminder of the sadly enduring constant of war in our lives.mash

Matthew Pleva, “MASH” (2012), 9 1/4 x 3 x 3 1/4 inches ,closed 9 x 3 x 11, graphite on paper, watercolor, vintage army first aid kit (click to enlarge)

In 2014, Pleva was tapped by the organizers of O+, a Kingston-based national organization that unites visual art, music, and “wellness.” Hosting festivals in Kingston, Chicago, the Bronx, Petaluma, California, and Haverhill, Massachusetts, the organization seeks to empower communities to take control of their collective well-being. Someone with a sense of humor asked the miniature-making Pleva to design and paint his first mural for a large wall that overlooks Kingston’s Peace Park. At 28 by 50 feet this mural must have been an odd jump for the artist to make, from very tiny to very large, from decidedly intimate to demonstrably public. Drawing upon his literary interests and local folklore, Pleva depicts in signature black-and-white a Hudson Valley folktale that involves a hobgoblin and a church. Though I admire his ability to work in an enormously different in scale, I prefer the intimacy of the smaller pieces — the ability to hold them in your hand and their allusion to magical objects are the real appeal for me

the-hobgoblin-of-old-dutch-churchMatthew Pleva, “The Hobgoblin of Old Dutch Church” (2014), 28 x 50 feet, latex on brick

In 2015 Pleva was again asked to design and paint a mural for O+. This piece, entitled “Robots!” (8 by 20 feet), is located in Chicago and seems far more dynamic. Pleva, perhaps more comfortable with the scale, employed dramatic diagonal bands of pattern that unite the wall in a very powerful way. He has since produced an elegant limited-edition print version of the mural image, a major difference being that he has adorned it with gold leaf, which adds a perfect hint of color and sheen to his rigorous black and white palette. The bands of gold become something for the eye to latch onto when trying to decipher the densely drawn science-fiction narrative: robots taking over the city, dodging sailboats and grabbing cars.

chcicago-robots-print-768x525Matthew Pleva, “Robots!” (2016), 25 x 9 3/4 inches, pen and ink on paper with 24 carat gold leaf (image courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)

Both Pleva’s work and his space prove the truism that “small is beautiful.” But what save the artist and his gallery from cliché are his originality, inventiveness, and whimsy — all big reasons to make the small trip up the Hudson to Kingston, New York.

Matthew Pleva‘s store is located at 40 John Street in Kingston, New York.

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Focusing on Photo Portraits at New York’s Contemporary African Art Fair

May 6, 2016 in Hyperallergic

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The 2016 edition of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair at Pioneer Works (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The second edition of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair opened today at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Seventeen galleries from all over the world have convened to exhibit the work of pan-African artists and artists of the African diaspora. The show originated in London in 2013 and made its NYC debut last spring. The exhibition has returned to New York with an outstanding array of contemporary African imagery, including several standout galleries and photographers.

This is a compact but rewarding show. Pioneer Works has been broken up into a rabbit warren of spaces, most of which show the work beautifully, although a few feel shoehorned in. It’s a beautiful setting with a luscious outdoor garden, where, for the duration of the fair, you can get delicious African food. I recommend the jerk chicken.

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The 2016 edition of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair at Pioneer Works (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)
The emphasis at the fair is mainly on two-dimensional work, with photography as the common thread. The medium has long flourished in Africa, beginning with the great Malian portraitist Seydou Keïta (1921–2001), who elevated the simple documentary portrait into a mesmerizing body of work that caught worldwide attention. His contemporary, Malick Sidibé (1936–2016), also originally a portraitist and a great one, expanded the genre as he began to take pictures in more casual settings, in nightclubs and outdoors.

Several galleries at 1:54 are showing their work. However, it is their offspring, if you will, the generations that have followed Keïta and Sidibé, that really make an impact at this fair.

Afronova gallery from Johannesburg is showing the work of three contemporary photographers, each arresting in its own way. John Liebenberg makes classic black-and-white prints with gloriously rich silver tones. Liebenberg worked as a photojournalist during conflicts in Namibia and Angola, but Afronova is showing his rather intimate and informal portraits of everyday people. They are quiet and very moving.

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John Liebenberg, “The Last Supper” (1986), at Afronova’s booth (image courtesy Afronova)

Lebohang Kganye, a young South African woman, makes color digital photos, mostly of women in ordinary life. She often uses double images that linger like odd ghosts, reflecting alternative readings of her subjects. Nontsikelelo Veleko, meanwhile, shoots young men on the street, offering a collective portrait of urban life, fashion, and male identity.

 

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Lebohang Kganye, “sSetshwantso le ngwanaka II” (2012), at Afronova’s booth (image courtesy Afronova)
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Nontsikelelo Veleko, “SIBU VIII,” at Afronova’s booth (image courtesy Afronova)

A Palazzo Gallery from Brescia, Italy, has three large-format formal portraits by Edson Chagas that offer a sly commentary on African identity. Each one features a man photographed front and square to the camera, with something completely covering his head. One is a stiff, plastic tote bag, somewhat ironically emblazoned with the slogan “World of Hope.” Another is a souvenir bag from the Caribbean that, in bright and cherry colors, lists all of the Caribbean islands. The third is an oversized African mask of carved wood, which makes a delightfully incongruous combination with the madras plaid shirt the man sports.

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Edson Chagas, “Oikonomos” (2011), at A Palazzo Gallery’s booth (image courtesy A Palazzo Gallery)

David Krut Projects, a gallery with spaces in South Africa and New York, has a spectacular suite of images by Ethiopian photographer Aida Muluneh. They are digital, highly manipulated, and printed on paper usually used for printmaking, which gives them a luscious quality. The richly saturated color feels like it has soaked into the thick rag paper stock.

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Works by Aida Muluneh at David Krut Projects’ booth (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

To these photographic highlights it’s worth adding one painting that resonates especially, given the setting: Amadou Sanogo’s knockout work in the booth of Paris’s Magnin-A Gallery. Entitled “Les Observateurs,” it portrays a rear view of two enigmatic figures. Lovely, loose brushstrokes and a strong elegant palette highlight the mystery.

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Amadou Sanogo, “Les Observateurs,”’ at Magnin-A Gallery’s booth (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

It’s true that Red Hook is not the easiest place to get to by public transport, but in the midst of the Frieze Week frenzy, it’s worth making your way out to 1:54. You’ll see work that is fresh and a world away from the rest of what’s showing in New York this weekend. And don’t forget the jerk chicken.

1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair 2016 continues at Pioneer Works (159 Pioneer Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn) through May 8.

1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, A Palazzo Gallery, Afronova, Aida Muluneh, Amadou Sanogo, David Krut Projects, Edson Chagas, Frieze Week 2016, John Liebenberg, Lebohang Kganye, Magnin-A Gallery,  Nontsikelelo Veleko

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Grayson Perry’s Subversive and Psychosexual World

in Hyperallergic on April 28, 2016

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Grayson Perry, “Sex and Drugs and Earthenware” (1995) (detail), glazed ceramic, 54 x 24.5 cm (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

SYDNEY — The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Australia has mounted the first ever retrospective of Grayson Perry’s work in the Southern Hemisphere. The exhibition, playfully titled My Pretty Little Art Career, consists of an unprecedented collection of Perry’s drawings, photographs, sculpture, clothing, and tapestries, and of course the spectacular, subversive ceramics that brought Perry fame, controversy, and the Turner Prize in 2003.

I’ve often come away from shows this big with the feeling that the artist would have fared better if the curators had put a little less in. This is one where one leaves hungry for more. So inventive is the brain under Perry’s blond bangs that the more than 80 works of art don’t feel like enough. This number does not even include the videotapes of Perry’s various TV programs, his sketchbooks and drawings, or videos of his art-making process.

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Mum and Dad-1994. Glazed ceramic. 32.5 x 23 dia. Cm.

For those unacquainted with Perry’s personal history and work, a brief digression may be helpful. After receiving a BA in Fine Art from Portsmouth Polytechnic, Perry lived in London, squatting for four years and dabbling in performance art and film. Introduced to ceramics by a roommate, he studied at the Central Institute, at first considering the medium a hobby. However, the very “uncool” nature of ceramics, the fact that it was considered kind of “middle class” and not “real” art by the mainstream British art world, where ceramics was, for the most part, still considered “craft” perfectly suited both Perry’s political and artistic proclivities, and added to the medium’s appeal. Drawn to the prosaic qualities of pottery, and its association with domesticity, Perry found he could tell his stories on classical ceramic pot forms with layer upon layer of glorious, glazed color, metallic luster, texture, and text. Using ceramic decals, he incorporates pop, personal and media imagery, which, alongside with his intricate, flowing drawing give a punch to his subject matter that few other mediums can.

And it was Perry’s subject matter that really thrust him into a spotlight which no potter before or since has found themselves. Perry’s pottery depicts a psychosexual world that many found disturbing (although I also see great humor in much of what he makes). He has mused upon child abuse, his own sexual life, fantasies, fear, anger, gentrification, politics, and capitalism. In short, he chronicles the deepest and often most conflicted feelings that a person may have, expressing subjects that are politically charged in an art form most commonly associated with genteel life.

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Grayson Perry, “Pot Based on 20 Year Old Collage” (2006), glazed ceramic, 45 x 46 cm

Perry’s narratives swirl around the outside of the pot. Like a neurotic who retells a story over and over again, his beginnings are always the end. The pottery’s layers of drawing and color are like pentimento fragments of memory haunting the storyteller. It’s rare that an artist is confident and bold enough to express both deeply intimate and political issues all together, and particularly in the medium of ceramics. Perry has a superb control of the medium — glazed surfaces can radically change when fired and the ability to hang onto both the messages in his work and the aesthetics is impressive.

Grayson Perry has been a transvestite since he was a teenager. Much has been made of this by the media and by the artist himself. The BBC reported on December 7, 2003, the following account of the Turner Award ceremony: “Wearing a purple dress with large bows and frills, Perry told a ceremony at the Tate Britain gallery in London, ‘Well, it’s about time a transvestite potter won the Turner Prize. I think the art world had more trouble coming to terms with me being a potter than my choice of frocks.’” Apparently, a fear of pottery trumps transvestitism.

1.Claire-as-The-Mother-of-All-Battles-691x1024  Grayson Perry, “Claire as The Mother of all Battles” (1996), photographic print, 74 x 49.5 cm (click to enlarge)

This dual identity has been a huge part of Perry’s work and his role in the British media. He has always been very candid about it and the years he spent in psychoanalysis to unravel the trauma of an abusive childhood. It’s impossible to discuss Perry’s work without touching upon his transvestite persona — Claire is her name — since ruminations on gender and identity infuse much of the work. Claire appears in several photographic series and has made numerous public appearances sporting outrageous outfits. In the March, 2014 issue of Vogue magazine UK, Amy de Klerk declared, “Grayson Perry is a national treasure. Starting out his career as a controversial ‘transvestite potter,’ he has since become a Turner-Prize-winning artist; BAFTA-winning documentary maker; author; social commentator; curator; Reith lecturer; not to mention a devoted husband and father.” It is a curious paradox when a transvestite potter, who makes work about deviant sexuality with an acidic political take on British society, is declared a “national treasure.”

In light of all of this, it was notable to me how lightly Claire was represented in the Sydney exhibition. Six photographs and two items of clothing are all we see of her in the show. I couldn’t help but wonder whether if, instead of a curatorial choice, this was one made by the artist. In the extensive video interview featured in the show, Perry seems quite done with “Claire” as a topic of conversation. He describes, in almost Jungian terms, how he used to feel that Claire was an alter ego, another part of him, but now they are one. I think the exhibition is stronger for not obsessing on this part of Perry’s oeuvre; there has always been an air of sensationalism about it. Now the work — subversive, hilarious, and potent — is free to stand on its own.

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Grayson Perry, “Lamentation” (2012), wool, cotton, acrylic, polyester, silk tapestry, 200 x 400 cm.

The second largest body of work in the show consists of narrative tapestries that are outspoken indictments of British bourgeois society. Based on the historic tradition of European narrative tapestries, these are massive in size — the largest measures 49 feet long by 10 feet high. The works are garish in color and chock-full of political messages, advertising art, logos, political jargon, satire, and humor. They scream at you from the walls of the museum. The most ambitious of these is a group of six related tapestries entitled The Vanity of Small Differences. The series is based on William Hogarth’s 18th-century engravings collectively titled A Rake’s Progress, a morality tale that tells the story of the rise and fall of Tom Rakewell, a young man who arrives in London, wastes all his money, and ends his life in prison. Perry’s version is a savage swipe at the class system in Britain and those who try to rise beyond their station. The works critique capitalism, yuppies, aspirational life, and what Perry sees as a corruption of British culture. His anger is a part of his worldview that doesn’t come into play as much in the pottery and it’s a valid wake-up call to what he sees as the hypocritical nature of contemporary British society.

I find the tapestries ugly, but that may be a part of the artist’s intent. Always conscious of “taste,” Perry has designed these tapestries in a way that challenges the viewer on several levels. Physically, the works look a bit like oversized souvenir kitsch; the color is harsh and bright. In general, the tapestry’s flat surface and the screaming, heavy graphic design lack subtlety. I think the works are meant to resemble billboards, like giant satiric advertisements for the British way of life. The results are overtly political, bold, and angry, presenting a visual whirlwind that pales in comparison to the delicate and richly layered surfaces and messages of the pottery. The pottery is more nuanced (in all ways); its emotional content more personal and intimate.

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Installation view of ‘Grayson Perry: My Pretty Little Art Career’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia

The exhibition also has a room of Perry’s superb sculptures made of metal and found objects. Many of these seem to vaguely relate to objects from African cultures, but, of course, with Perry’s own sly tweak. Cast metals and rusted surfaces along with a bricolage sensibility lend these pieces a raw quality not seen in any of the other work in the exhibition. Their inclusion shows Perry to be comfortable in many idioms and materials. “The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman,” for instance, is a 10-foot long cast iron ship, heavily laden with detritus, like glass bottles filled with unknown liquids and relics that hint of a pilgrimage or voyage of exploration. While the cross-cultural references don’t seem quite as natural as Perry’s work in other media, his genuine talent as a designer and consistent vision of the artist on a perennial voyage, be it literal or psychological, are deeply felt.

If you are willing to give yourself over to this exhibition’s journey, Grayson Perry will take you places that are both terrifying and hilarious. I admire his mastery of multiple mediums, his willingness to delve into realms of the psyche that sometimes make me squirm, and his political voice that is perhaps not quite what Vogue magazine had in mind when it declared him a “national treasure.”

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Grayson Perry, “Wedding of Alan Measles and Claire” (2010), watercolor, ink and collage on paper, 41.9 x 59 cm

Grayson Perry: My Pretty Little Art Career continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Australia (140 George Street, The Rocks, Sydney, Australia) through May 1.

Grayson Perry, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Pottery William Hogarth,

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A New Municipal Gallery in San Francisco Keeps Its Focus on the Bay Area

In Hyperallergic on February 12, 2016

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Opening night of the new San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) Gallery (all photos courtesy the San Francisco Arts Commission)

SAN FRANCISCO — The 1960s upset the status quo in nearly all realms of American life. The decade issued radical ways of thinking about, making, performing, and exhibiting art, and San Francisco was at the vanguard. In 1970, the Arts Commission of the City of San Francisco, feeling that there needed to be an alternative way to present new art to the city, opened an alternative art space. The name? “Capricorn Asunder,” no less! No one is quite sure where the name came from, but it morphed eventually into the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) Galleries, a more prosaic moniker for what has become a vital and growing part of the Bay Area art scene. The main contemporary gallery bounced around the Civic Center neighborhood, inhabiting various temporary spaces before closing its doors in 2013 in preparation for the move into the new space.

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The new San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) Gallery, under construction (click to enlarge)

Now, nearly 50 years later, the city has renewed its commitment to the value of municipal alternative art and opened a 4,000-square-foot gallery and community space in the recently renovated Veterans Building in downtown San Francisco. The gallery, which had its public opening on January 22 with a crowd of well over 1,000 Bay Area arts supporters and artists, joins two other spaces that the Arts Commission runs in the same Civic Center neighborhood. One, the SFAC Galleries Art at City Hall, exhibits both fine art and editorial photography with a strong focus on civic and social issues; the other, the SFAC Galleries Window Installation Site, is primarily an installation space, with large windows onto the street that allow near-constant interaction with the public. The three spaces make up a triad of contemporary art public programming, shepherded by longtime Gallery Director and Curator Meg Shiffler, that is both ambitious and accomplished, addressing local art interests while embracing the broader international art world.

The $156 million renovation of San Francisco’s historic Veterans Building was needed desperately to address both seismic and aesthetic concerns. The once-glorious structure, built in 1931, was showing its age and needed to be brought up to modern earthquake codes. Rolling the construction of a new SFAC gallery into this massive project made sense: The building hosts programs and offices for war veterans, a variety of art organizations, and contains the 900-seat Herbst Theatre as well as the brand new San Francisco Opera Lab, a new space devoted to contemporary vocal music.

In a region where shifting demographics has caused rents to skyrocket, driving out longtime residents and artists (sound familiar New Yorkers?) this is not only a welcome addition to an endangered local art scene but a determined stance by the City of San Francisco to try to keep the city viable for its artistic community. Twitter, Uber, and Dropbox, to name only a few, have all moved into the city, many of them into the South of Market area that had traditionally housed small alternative spaces and galleries. In the past two years, many downtown San Francisco commercial galleries have either closed or been forced to move because of escalating rents that make NYC look like a bargain.

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Installation view of the new San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) Gallery

I stopped by the Veterans Building to chat with Shiffler. I was curious about the very notion of a “municipal gallery” and its importance to San Francisco. “Municipal galleries come in all shapes and sizes,” said Shiffler, “but most commonly they are nontraditional spaces, or interstitial spaces in public buildings that house artwork by local artists.” According to her, municipal exhibitions are often curated by a peer panel and coordinated by an Arts Commission or Department of Cultural Affairs. In addition to these smaller programs, there are municipal galleries that rival mainstream museums, such as the City of Chicago’s program at the Chicago Cultural Center, or LA’s Municipal Art Gallery housed in a Frank Lloyd Wright structure in Barnsdall Art Center.

Shiffler continued, “One of the differences in San Francisco is that the programs have always been lead by a director/curator, which has allowed the SFAC Galleries to establish a strong, ever-evolving, and particular aesthetic identity, at times quite radical.”

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The new San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) Gallery, under construction

Though the three galleries frequently show artists of international stature, their primary curatorial focus remains on the Bay Area art scene. Inaugural exhibitions in the new space include, Bring It Home: (Re)Locating Cultural Legacy Through the Body, a group exhibition of Bay Area artists examining issues of cultural identity; Susan O’Malley: Do More of What You Love, a posthumous exhibit of the young artist’s work and legacy; and ENTER: 126: Coalescence, by Annette Jannotta and Olivia Ting, the first of a new yearly site-specific commission program.

This very public display of support should be applauded in a time when cities are strapped for funds and the arts often slip down the list of perceived importance. While the SFAC can’t rescue artists from high rent and shrinking real estate, and while it can’t claim to represent all of the Bay Area’s art community, it is a uniquely local institution, one that has nurtured artists for half a century.

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Installation view of the new San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) Gallery

The new San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) Main Gallery is now open at 401 Van Ness, Ste. 126, San Francisco. 

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