An Army of Female Power Figures Stands Against Injustice

in Hyperallergic Nov. 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.”

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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At Harlem’s First Children’s Museum, Artworks Strike Up Conversations

 January 29, 2016 in Hyperallergic

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Gallery text in ‘Txt: art, language, media’ at the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

In October 2015 the first children’s museum in Harlem opened its doors. The Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling occupies the first and lower floors of a stunning building designed by David Adjaye. The building also houses 191,000 square feet of affordable housing and has been praised as a model for mixed income and mixed-use development in New York City.

The museum inaugurated the opening with several exhibitions, each curated with children in mind, but by no means pandering or dumbing down the artistic mission. The most ambitious of the exhibitions is Txt: art, language, media, a mixed-media show exploring the inclusion of text in the work of 12 contemporary artists. The show has been co-curated by Rocío Aranda-Alvarado from El Museo del Barrio and Lauren Kelley, associate director and head of curatorial programs at the Sugar Hill Museum.

First, I must applaud the curatorial team for having the vision to paint one wall of the exhibition a stunning brilliant pink. I love it when curators forgo the neutral “box” of the traditional gallery model and incorporate the architecture of the room into the installation. Make no mistake, this is not a “kiddie” pink; this is a shade of pink that has real balls. The pieces that are shown on the wall have a visual pop that delights the eye.

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Installation view of Hong Seon Jang’s “Type City” (2015) (click to enlarge)

With an emphasis on local artists, the exhibition explores the nature of “conversation” — the kind a viewer can have with an artwork — and how its very definition can change across media. I found the most successful pieces in the show to be ones that used “old media” sculpture, like drawing and objects, rather than some of the “new media” works (two of which weren’t working when I visited, an endemic problem of tech-reliant artwork).

Korean-born, New York-based Hong Seon Jang, for instance, has created a three-dimensional portrait of New York City out of pieces of letterpress type. The type is widely varying in height, font, and size. Entitled “Type City” (2015), it’s clearly a riff on the famous “Panorama of the City of New York” that resides at the Queens Museum (a scale miniature model of the city that was commissioned for the 1964 World’s Fair).  The use of metal type is clever, as it renders buildings into abstract objects, identifiable letters, and pure texture.  A triad that is delightful to look at and an insightful representation of our city.

Brooklyn native Iviva Olenick is represented by 15 framed drawings, hung together like a puzzle in a single block. “Post-It/ Tweets; Selfies and Lettergrams” portrays the artist’s life as seen through social media. Embroidered lines of text reveal tidbits of chat, gathered from her personal social media conversations. The embroideries are then incorporated into loose watercolor paintings that compose a portrait of the person (or persons) whom the artist is having a conversation with. Containing poetic hints about the relationships between Olenick and her friends and family members, and strangers, the drawings memorialize her online interactions.

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Installation view of Iviva Olenick’s “Post-It/ Tweets; Selfies and Lettergrams” (2014–2015) (detail)

The boldest statement in the exhibition is a made by Antonia Perez. She has crocheted a large rug out of plastic bags. Embedded in the colorful and decorative patterns of the rug is the message, “Estas En Tu Casa” (which is also the title of the piece). Interestingly, when I looked this up for translation online I was offered an interesting variation of formal and colloquial meanings. From “Make Yourself at Home” to “You are at Home” to the literal “Are you at Home.” They all work, in subtle ways, in the context of the artwork. A rug made of cast-off bags with this message leads to interesting questions (and remember this is a show pitched for children): Is this a comment on homelessness? The ways in which we make a home for ourselves? Is it a comment on the environment and the waste all around us? The wall title doesn’t give any hints, but I see it as a jumping-off point for conversation. As an aside, the rug is beautiful, a geometric patchwork of strong colors and linear design.

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Installation view of Antonia Perez’s “Estas En Tu Casa” (2015)

The inclusion of Vuk Ćosić in this show is an interesting addition. Ćosić has been credited with the invention of “net.art,” a digital platform that elevated the use of basic pixels and basic computer code (0’s and 1’s) to an art form. An early proponent of computer code as art, he mixes political, social, and aesthetic commentary into pixilated, mesmerizing videos. In the video included in this show, “Bruce Lee, King Kong, Mickey Mouse, Singing in the Rain” (2009), he has edited the films together into an amusing mash-up of cultural icons, all hierarchies erased by reducing all images to “0” or “1.” The visual text is seamlessly united with the very essence of computer language.

It’s a rich show, full of unexpected artworks that all circle around a common theme. But the show could have easily been larger. There are so many artists working with the theme of “text” that I would have loved to have seen this show expand into a fuller representation of that theme. However, this ambitious exhibit harbors the promise that future shows will continue to redefine “children’s art” and challenge our notions of what children have the patience and interest to look at. This is an exhibition approachable by those of all ages, and marks a auspicious start for a new Harlem arts institution.

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Installation view of ‘Txt: art, language, media’ at the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling

Txt: art, language, media continues at the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling (898 St Nicholas Ave, Harlem, Manhattan) through February 14. 

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The Vast Possibilities of Tiny Collage and Assemblage

In Hyperallergic January 15, 2016

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Mary Bauermeister, “Lens Box Pencil Theater” (1969), mixed-media assemblage, 6 x 6 x 4 1/2 inches (all images courtesy Pavel Zoubok Gallery, New York, unless otherwise noted)

You might want to bring your reading glasses to The Tiny Picture Show at Pavel Zoubok Gallery, because some of the suckers on view are really tiny. From the smallest piece in the show — a painting by Alfred Leslie (“Untitled,” 1960) coming in at a massive 1 3/8 x 2 inches — to the largest — a Tom Wesselmann (“Judy,” 1959), 7 3/4 x 6 1/4 inches — the gallery is a jewel box full of tiny surprises.

Historically, collage and assemblage have often been associated with “smallness.” Think of Victorian scrapbooking, decoupage art, or the works of Joseph Cornell. In the mid-20th century, however, artists like Romare Bearden, Jean Dubuffet, and Robert Rauschenberg blew up the scale of these two genres, and they became part of the mainstream art world. The Tiny Picture Show refocuses our attention on the enormous visual and emotional possibilities in artworks that are very, very small.

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Installation view of ‘The Tiny Picture Show’ at Pavel Zoubok Gallery, New York

The show is beautifully installed with 62 works of art hung so that visual and conceptual connections are made between artists whom you might never have thought of together. On the same wall, we see an almost dizzying array of artists and styles: Ellsworth Kelly, James Garrett Faulkner, Max Greis, Javier Pinon, David Wojnarowicz, Marcel Jean, Wallace Berman, H.C. Westerman, Marietta Ganapin, Mark Wagner, Chambliss Giobbi, John Ashbery, and John O’Reilly. The rest of the exhibition has some equally stunning pairings. The three distinctive visions of Ray Johnson, Arman, and Al Hansen work in harmony: Johnson’s enigmatic images of seemingly unrelated objects and words work beautifully with the tiny collection of old clock faces that Arman assembled in a round box, which in turn resonate off of Al Hansen’s collage of jumbled red letters in a classical gold frame. To me, the three pieces are like clues in a mystery story — all of the elements are there for viewers to create their own narrative.   

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Jacques Villeglé, “Rue de la Convention September” (1973), décollage on original mount, 3 3/4 x 7 3/8 inches (courtesy Ubu Gallery, New York)

The earliest work in the show is Joseph Stella’s “Black Descending” (1920–22) and is representative of the modernist aesthetic of the era. Works from the 1960s, ‘70s, and early 21st century are plentiful, but there is work from every era between the early 20th century and 2015. An impressive curatorial achievement, to be sure. The gallery, which is devoted to displaying collage and assemblage, seems to be saying that though the individual pieces may be diminutive, their collective artistic power has amounted to something quite meaningful.

Among the standout pieces in the show are Jacques Villeglé’s, an artist well known for his work from the late 1940s onward, often called “decollage,” where he created works by subtracting, rather than adding, visual elements, such as by peeling away layers of images. Previous to this show, I had only seen very large pieces of his: big panels, thick with layer upon layer of advertising posters that he found on the streets of Paris. He is represented here by an exquisite piece of torn paper on board entitled “Rue de la Convention September” (1973), a seemingly simple horizontal piece measuring just about 3 by 7 inches. Hints of brilliant pink, red, and orange are interspersed with a bit of the letter “E” and a torn “O.” In between the areas of color there are many subtle shades of white. This deceptively simple composition is quite elegant and the gallery has hung it on a wall, almost by itself so it sings alone.

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Lance Letscher, “Paper Clip” (2015), collage, 6 1/4 x 4 1/4 inches

One of the fascinating things about The Tiny Picture Show is the sense of individual discovery that comes from looking closely. Another viewer will find different gems; it is a show ripe with encounters that is not to be rushed through. The size of everything here forces the viewer to slow down in order to really focus on the artwork — if size indeed matters, then this exhibition would argue for the power of the small over the large. And I would have to agree.

The Tiny Picture Show continues at the Pavel Zobouk Gallery (531 West 26th Street, Chelsea, New York) through January 23.

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The Calmer, Contemplative Mood of Francis Bacon’s Late Paintings

posted in Hyperallergic December 7, 2015

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 “Self-Portrait” (1978), oil on canvas, 78 x 58 inches (Private Collection, © The Estate of Francis Bacon, all rights reserved / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2015 photography by Robert McKeever, courtesy Gagosian Gallery)

Over the past several years the Gagosian Gallery in New York City has mounted shows described as “museum quality.” Borrowing heavily from institutions and private collectors these exhibitions such as Jean-Michel Basquiat (2013), the Takashi Murakami exhibition (2014), Picasso & the Camera (2014), and the two-part exhibition In the Studio (2015) all wowed New Yorkers with their breadth and depth. Each drew impressive crowds — with lines down the block — for a commercial gallery.

The most recent show Francis Bacon: Late Paintings is perhaps the most stunning of them all. Not because of size; in fact, it’s probably the smallest of all the aforementioned blockbusters. Twenty-seven paintings all made in the last two decades or so of Bacon’s turbulent life have been hung on mushroom-colored walls on the two floors of Gagosian’s Madison Avenue gallery. The works are complemented by a hallway exhibit of candid personal photographs of Bacon taken by Eddy Batache, mostly shot in the mid-1980s, in which Bacon appears almost happy, an occasional flutter of a smile replacing his usual look of utter despair.

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Installation view of ‘Francis Bacon: Late Paintings,’ left work: “Blood on Pavement” (1984); right work: “Second Version of Triptych 1944” (1988) (© The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2015, photo by Robert McKeever, courtesy Gagosian Gallery;Reproduction is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Having not really focused on Bacon’s work in quite a while I was blown away by how fresh, shocking, and incredibly beautiful the paintings are. His work seems to be a lightening rod for strong reaction. From Jerry Saltz’s fierce review of the 2009 retrospective of Bacon’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the group of ladies on an art tour, who were at the gallery the day I visited and left muttering “too hard.” Indeed, a group young art students in the gallery were so moved that they were almost unable to speak when asked what they thought of the show.

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Francis Bacon, “Sand Dune” (1983), oil and pastel on canvas, 78 x 58 inches (Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Beyeler Collection, © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2015, photography by Peter Schibli, Basel, courtesy Gagosian Gallery) (click to enlarge)

The paintings in the exhibit reflect a change of mood in Bacon’s work over time. Work of the earlier decades portray the agonies of man, masses of ectoplasm, flesh, bone, and loneliness, whereas his later works give way to calmer psycho-landscapes. Gone are the piles of flesh, replaced by a vision more stripped to its essentials, both in terms of painting and psychology.

There is, of course, that gorgeous color that Bacon’s work has characteristically employed. His palette has always been sophisticated. Pairings of brilliant oranges and reds with cool blues and greens, and of odd, neutral tones with warm black set the images in motion. The work is both aggressively modernist, reflecting a color palette that was initially used in fashion and interior design in the ‘60s and 70s (look at Rudi Gernreich’s clothes and Harry Bertoia’s furniture) and is distinctly 20th century. The use of oil pastel in conjunction with oil paint contributes to many of the urgent gestures in these works as well as the delicate veils of color we see.

All of this sublime color of course belies the deep psychological trauma and loneliness of the figures that inhabit Bacon’s world. The later paintings more often than not portray a solitary figure constrained by the suggestion of a geometric architecture. In the triptychs, there is a single figure in each frame. As always, Bacon walks the line between figuration and abstraction. “Figure in Movement” (1978) can be seen as an acrobat caught in movement, the backdrop and suggestion of a painted ring hinting at a performance. Or one may look at the work as the interplay of form, color, and paint, the figure reduced to a tangle of strong, abstracted forms. The kicker in this painting is the purple shadow that lies underneath the figure. The shadow, which appears as a standing figure with hands on its hips, bears no relation to the movement or figure above, suggesting that it is perhaps someone else’s shadow, a watcher of some sort, and perhaps it is we who are the watchers, a tacit acknowledgement of the relationship between the painter and the viewer. It is part of the mystery of the narrative.

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Francis Bacon, “Triptych” (1991), oil on canvas, three panels, each panel: 78 x 58 1/8 inches (The Museum of Modern Art, New York William A. M. Burden Fund and Nelson A. Rockefeller Bequest Fund (both by exchange), 2003, © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2015. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY, photography by Thomas Griesel, courtesy Gagosian Gallery)

 

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Francis Bacon, “Study from the Human Body” (1981), oil on canvas, 78 x 58 1/8 inches (Private Collection, London © The Estate of Francis Bacon, all rights reserved / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2015, courtesy Gagosian Gallery) (click to enlarge)

“In Study From the Male Body” (1986) Bacon has placed a male nude on what could be a sculpture stand or a piece of mid-century furniture. The figure sits in an awkward pose, head looking right, torso dissolved into vague outlines of muscle and flesh. There is a very odd spatial game in this painting. It’s impossible to tell whether the architecture is advancing or receding — everything is out of whack here in time, space, and mind. The architectural black square behind the figure’s head melts and merges with the body, a depiction painted in beautiful, glowing color, like darkness descending over the mind.

Much of the overt pain and fear of Bacon’s earlier work from the 1940s seems to turn inward in the ‘70s and ‘80s. These paintings are more contemplative. We see few of the screaming rictuses that haunted the paintings of the 1940s; rather, that pain feels more muted. The small portraits that hang interspersed between the huge canvases seem to be exploring form and abstraction, rather than the “horror” often attributed to Bacon’s portraits. In “Study for a Portrait” (1978) we see a placid male face, perhaps painted from a photograph, as Bacon was known to prefer this to painting from life. The face is defined by pastel forms and gesture begins to take over figuration. Bacon has begun to carve the face, not in a gristly way, but into abstraction. The concrete forms have begun to be more prominent than the flesh of the man beneath them.

If you didn’t already like Francis Bacon’s work, this exhibition may not change your mind. However, perhaps those who found Bacon’s early work too graphic and too “fleshy” will be drawn in by the sheer beauty of his painting as well as by what some might perceive as a more palatable sensibility. These later paintings convey both a technical mastery and the self-reflectiveness of an artist who had entered a new phase of maturity.

Francis Bacon: Late Paintings continues at Gagosian Gallery (980 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through December 12.

Gagosian Gallery, Francis Bacon

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From Jell-O Shots to Money Scams, an Artist’s Account of Suing Her Gallery

In Hyperallergic October 7, 2015

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The triple order of lime, pineapple, and cherry Jell-O should have been a tip-off. I met my art dealer at 11:30pm on a sultry spring night at a diner on the corner of 23rd and Ninth Avenue. He arrived two hours late, oblivious to the barrage of voicemails I had left. With a wide grin of bad teeth, he plopped down in the booth and ordered three orders of Jell-O: red, yellow, and green, with extra whipped cream. What grown man eats mountains of Jell-O late at night? In between slurps he painted a glorious picture of our future together. He really “got” my work and together we would “kill the art world!” I should have realized that something here was more than odd.

But let me rewind: In the fall of 2005 the Marco-Munro Gallery approached me. (These names have been changed.) The gallery was brand new on the scene, ready to make a splash and plan a fundraising event for the building of a museum devoted to contemporary ceramics. Would I donate a piece of my sculpture? All profit would go to the museum, and, by the way, I would be given a solo show the following June. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I had been showing with Spike Gallery in Chelsea, which had closed its doors, so the timing was a dream come true.

The fundraising event was very well attended. Many collectors were there as well as curators and other artists I knew. My piece sold, as did most of the work in the gallery. Everyone was thrilled. These guys were on a roll, and I was in on the ground floor.

How one “gets into” the New York City art world is akin to “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” A combination of who you know, where you went to school, who you fuck, what the flavor of the week is, and, oh, yeah, maybe the quality of the work, all seem to be part of the process. Rarely does a relationship between dealer and artist happen as quickly as this did. But magic sometimes strikes, and being told that your work is great is a potent bit of seduction.

ANOTHER MARRIAGE 2008- clay, oil paint, acrylic oil stick. 16 x 12 x 5

Fast forward to June. The gallery was planning to host a booth at the Sculpture, Objects, Functional Art and Design fair (SOFA) and asked me if I wanted to participate. But of course! The only hitch was, well, there were a few: I had to prepare a sketchbook of drawings of my artistic process. When I explained that I didn’t work that way they told me to “fake it.” The gallery also had a vision for how to display my work — in a theatrical manner. “Installation art,” the gallery owners explained, was the way they envisioned my future. OK. When I arrived at SOFA my sculptures were arranged in a puppet theater setting, with heavy brown velvet curtains surrounding them. The entire booth was in disarray. Confused and angry artists were installing their work in an environment of utter chaos.

I was embarrassed by how my work was exhibited, but the art fair was underway, and I decided to just go with it. The entire booth was a mess. The dealers seemed intent on spreading madness. They hired scantily clad gals to walk around the show and surreptitiously put red sale dots on objects in other dealer’s booths. This did not win them any friends. The fun was just beginning. There was a fistfight, the police were called, and other gallerists requested that the booth be shut down.

At the same time, my long-awaited solo show was up in the gallery, and Dan Munro had arranged to have a group from the Museum of Art and Design to come see the show, and he (Dan) would talk about my work. He was weirdly overanimated as we shared a cab downtown, asked me to pay for the cab, and then asked me if I had $95 to pay for the sushi meal he had arranged to have brought in to the gallery. When I told him I didn’t have the cash, he hysterically called his partner and had a screaming phone fight with him while the cab driver and I Iooked on in horror. This was the man in whose hands I had entrusted my art career.

A few days later I brought my 10-year-old son to the gallery to see my show. Dan was entering the building at the same time as us. He thrust a sleeping bag into my son’s arms instructing him to carry it into gallery. He had some clothes, a clock radio whose cord was trailing behind him on the ground, and a toothbrush. He was moving into the gallery to live. I began to suspect that we might not be “killing the art world” together.

In the middle of July I got a call late one night from an intern at the gallery. She said the dealers were coming with a truck in two days to move all of the work out of the gallery and take it to a warehouse in Connecticut. Quick, she said, get your work the hell out of here or you may never see it again. When I ran over to the gallery, the intern nervously let me in — her bosses were out for an all-afternoon lunch, she said. While I was there I noticed my piece that had been “sold” at the fundraiser the previous fall. It was in a box, addressed to a well-known collector and shoved in the corner. I grabbed it along with the rest of my work and ran. I found out subsequently that the gallery had never delivered the money to the museum either. I called an artist friend in DC, Tim Tate, who was also represented by the same gallery, and told him the news. He jumped in a car the next day and drove to New York to rescue his work. It was he who tipped me off to the fact that an insatiable desire for sweets, as well a penchant for dental problems were characteristics of meth heads. Hmmm, Jell-O.

UP- 2007 clay, encaustic, ink. 14 x 15 x 3.5.

I called and emailed the gallery repeatedly. Promises to pay, promises to pay yesterday, the check was in the mail, the check would be in the mail. Once the gallery smoothed over this little inconsequential blip, there were heart-to-heart conversations about our future together. The owners gave me the names of all the people who bought my work, and asked if I could please send them my bio and a thank you note.  I began to keep notes of every conversation.

Weeks later, the New York City Marshall chained the gallery doors shut. The phone was cut off. No emails were answered. I delivered my sculpture to the sweet collector who never called to inquire about her piece. She didn’t want to cause trouble with the boys.

I called several of the other artists who were owed money and suggested that we sue the gallery. They scoffed at me. Not worth it. We’ll never win. Apathy, cynicism, resignation. I was told repeatedly, “This is the way the art world works.” I was depressed and felt betrayed on many levels. I needed closure, and I needed justice. So I picked myself up and went to the small claims Court of Manhattan to file a lawsuit. As I explained my story, slightly breathless and emotional, to a seasoned and jaded court worker, she raised one eyebrow and asked, “Are you going to sue him or sue the business?” She continued, “You sue the business, he closes it, you got nothing. I’ll give you two lawsuits for a $40 filing fee. Sue the business and sue his personal ass.”

And so I did.  An ironic side note — in all my years as an artist this was the one and only gallery that had insisted on having a written contract. Thank you very much, I said, as I produced every piece of paper that ever passed between the gallery and me for the court. No one from the gallery showed up.

I received the judgment in the mail a few days later. I won! Did I ever get my money? Nope, not a cent. But I won in other ways. First, the legal owner’s name is on file as having an unpaid legal judgment against him. Should he ever try and take out a loan, buy a house, or start a new business, this would be the first thing a bank officer would see. Karma will bite him in the ass — perhaps a worldwide Jell-O shortage.

There was also enormous liberation in feeling like I had done something to fight back. Artists get ripped off all the time. If you’re blue chip, you hire a lawyer. Maybe it makes the news for a nanosecond. The lawyers always come out just fine. Among artists, these sorts of tales pour out — though no one wants to be quoted for fear of making enemies. Some of these stories are big money scams, which you may occasionally see in the press. But most are small, and not considered newsworthy. The phrase I heard most often was “kiting.” A gallery flies its “kite” on the money made from sales and not paid to the artists. It’s shockingly commonplace.

But then came the proverbial cherry on top. Weeks after my formal judgment, the producers of Judge Judy called to ask if I want to audition for the show. The defendant, then presumably living on somebody’s floor, would of course have to show up, and we would be “encouraged to let our hair down and make for good TV.” We would both get paid to scream at one another. The nonbinding, kangaroo-court judgment itself would be paid by the producers. I have to admit I was tempted; it could have been a dynamite performance piece. But in the end I decided that my interests remained in sculpture, not performance art. My victory in court was filling enough — I decided to skip dessert.

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