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

In Hyperallergic October 7, 2015


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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The Psychological Depth of Jim Shaw’s Pop Culture Dreamscapes

September 17, 2015 In Hyperallergic

Jim Shaw, “The Burning Bush” (2013) (detail), acrylic on muslin backdrop with two acrylic, muslin and plywood cut-outs (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — There’s a big, funny, emotional, and political exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA). The exhibition, entitled Entertaining Doubts, presents a massive retrospective of the Los Angeles-based artist Jim Shaw.

It’s always been a challenge to get one’s arms around Shaw’s work. Part of a rich but varied tradition of LA artists who studied at Cal Arts under the legendary conceptual artist John Baldessari, Shaw draws upon multiple sources, including his personal psychological obsessions and dreams, as well as his omnivorous appetite for American pop culture, to make witty and downright weird art. Listed in no hierarchical order here are just some of Jim Shaw’s obsessions, as expressed in Entertaining Doubts: human hair, primarily women’s wigs, contemporary and has-been politicians, superheroes, garden gnomes, classical theater, money, flooding, corporate greed, pop stars of a certain era, gems, comic books, and advertising. The work is at once universal in its popular imagery and intensely personal in its self-expression. It would be a bore and frankly remove all the magic from the art to try to decipher everything in this dizzying mix. I find a deep sense of anxiety in the art, amidst its equally apparent humor. Both are unifying elements in this important and compelling body of work, and the tension between the two help create Shaw’s lasting allure.

    Jim-saw-wig-videoThe show at MASS MoCA is also an introduction to a new body of work designed especially for this one-of-kind museum space. The work is an extended meditation on the vulnerabilities of that most iconic of all American superheroes, Superman. We see “the man of steel” in an array of challenging situations reflecting the mendacity of all of our lives, the petty humiliations and small triumphs that punctuate being an adult. And make no

Jim Shaw, “Oist Opera Video Dance / 4 Elements”(2013), high definition video (no audio)

mistake this is a very adult Superman, humbled by age — more Willy Loman than Elvis Presley in his prime. In one painting, he is perched proudly on a pedestal. In the next, he has tumbled and broken like an image of a former Soviet dictator after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Shaw has even dissected our hero, placing cutout silhouettes of his bulging muscle groups on a platform, some hanging and some on the ground like cuts of meat.


Jim Shaw, “The Miracle of Compound Interest” (2006) (detail), backdrops: acrylic on muslin; floor: MDF particleboard & acrylic paint; crystals: plexiglass, wood & backlight; Kryptonite: plastic & light; gnomes: painted plastic & foam

The new work, including Fruit of My Loins and Not Since Superman Died, is displayed in several interlinked rooms. The first set of work is actually by Jim Shaw’s father, who took classes at a correspondence drawing school in the 1950s (where students learned how to draw by mail). Lined on the walls are these drawings and the letters the school sent responding to his drawings. Although some of the work and the correspondence are amusing, one cannot help but notice the near-constant criticism. One end of this room culminates in a wall-sized blow-up of a line drawing of Superman’s crotch, rendered like a part of a comic book panel. Upon closer inspection, the black-and-white drawing actually contains an opening, a dark, cave-like room with blocks of glowing kryptonite inside, its set dressed like a cheesy amusement park display. In the next room, hang huge painted theatrical backdrops in which we see Superman falling to earth and struggling to rise. Man, icon, or father figure, each contains the seeds of his own defeat. The Freudian connections between father, drawing, art critics, Superhero, emasculation, deadly Kryptonite, and ultimate failure would be a therapist’s dream. Shaw is “entertaining doubts” about his work, his heroes, his personal history, and his life. The fact that he does so with such amusement and such artistry makes his tougher images, well, entertaining.


Jim Shaw, “Superman body parts” (2011), paint on wood panels, 125 x 116 x 40 inches, installed dimensions variable

Shaw and his curators have made gorgeous use of the enormous spaces available to him at MASS MoCA. A series of painting and assemblage pieces from the mid-2000s, created over vintage theatrical backdrops, hang altogether to create a hallucinatory, mystifying universe for the public to walk through. A Renaissance chapel, the desert, the Mississippi River, and a bucolic Currier and Ives country snow scene are some of the backdrops that Shaw has used. Superimposing dream-like fragments on top of these stock images, he visualizes simultaneous but separate realities.

Containing 200 pieces, the show is big, perhaps too big, and not everything works. I found several of the sculptures a bit weak in comparison with the fully developed oeuvre of paintings. That is with the notable exception of one piece that held my rapt attention. Entitled “Hair House,” fully formed and like a waking dream, it stuck in my mind. Standing over seven feet tall, it is a model of a McMansion-style suburban house that seems to float in the air on top of a thick cascade of human hair. It’s a knock out.


Installation view of ‘Jim Shaw: Entertaining Doubts’

Much is often made in the art press of Shaw’s background as a punk rock musician, his production of zines, and his use of pop iconography. This sensibility certainly abounds in his art, but to appreciate the work solely as a mirror to pop culture misses its more personal depth. Based upon both his imagery and his public commentary, I would posit that Shaw is also drawing upon the content of his dreams, littered with the detritus of daily life along with memory, longing, fear, self-doubt, and whatever other psychological states one inhabits.

Jim Shaw, “Not Since Superman Died” (2014) , acrylic on muslin, dimensions variable (click to enlarge)

By his own admission a major consumer of pop culture as a child, Shaw has internalized childhood images and re-presented them fresh in his work. Part of Shaw’s popular appeal is that his visuals are nostalgic for his viewers. But look beyond these familiar bits of immediate gratification, and you will find an artist exploring his own inner workings in a most profound way.

In a 2012 BBC World Service radio interview Shaw describes his fascination with the word, “paedomorphia.” In Shaw’s words, “If infantile or adolescence things continue on into adulthood, that’s called ‘paedomorphia,’ and I thought well, that’s me. I guess, or that’s my artwork. And then I realized, that’s American culture.”

I came away from Entertaining Doubts with the feeling I was witnessing a new phase in the lifecycle of Shaw’s work. Shaw, who, until now, has been considered kind of punk, adolescent, and cheeky is showing us mature work that reflects on grown-up self-doubt, expressed through the iconography of childhood. He is now clearly more the man, than the man-child.

Jim Shaw: Entertaining Doubts continues at MASS MoCA (1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams, MA) through January 2016.

Jim Shaw,Mass MoCA ,Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art,

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The Raw and Stylish Designs of 20th-Century American Protest Posters

 September 2, 2015 in Hyperallergic

Stephen Somerstein, Two mothers with children watching marchers on porch, 1965. Courtesy of the photographer

Three uptown cultural institutions in New York City this summer have had significant exhibitions devoted to the history of art and social activism. Taken together, they paint an arresting portrait of the role of artists in affecting social change.

El Museo del Barrio’s ¡PRESENTE! The Young Lords in New York highlights the radical Latino rights movement of the 1960s. Using archival images of the Young Lords group and extensive interviews, the exhibition presents the struggle for dignity and recognition during the social revolution. While this show shapes and communicates the voice of a specific group of activists, Activist New York at the Museum of the City of New York takes a broader look at the history of activism in New York from the 17th century to present day. An ambitious multimedia, interactive permanent exhibit, it contains fascinating history and archival materials but suffers from being over-designed: the exhibition bombards the viewer with video footage of protests, audio recordings of speeches, objects like early protest handbills and protest buttons, and touch screens illustrating contemporary social justice NGO groups in New York City. It’s not that the exhibition attempts to cover too much ground. New York has clearly had a long and important role in the nurturing of protest movements. It’s the chaotic display that dilutes the exhibition’s power. A bit of visual respite would have allowed the visitor to absorb and reflect upon this extensive history.

On the other hand, at the same museum, Folk City: New York and the Folk Music Revival is a charming show that traces the folk music scene of the Village in the ‘50s and ‘60s. By definition, this turns into an exploration of the political music of the era, featuring the lives of musicians such as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Odetta, and Judy Collins, to name just a very few. Musical instruments, audio, film footage, and posters all combine to make this a show that is both informative and delightful.

Stephen Somerstein, Hecklers yelling and gesturing at marchers, 1965. Courtesy of the photographer

It is the New-York Historical Society, however, that really hits the ball with its two exhibitions. Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March by Stephen Somerstein is deeply moving. These stunning photographs of a world-changing event resonate today as much as they did 50 years ago. Somerstein’s “Two mothers with children watching marchers from a porch” (1965) and “Hecklers yelling and gesturing at marchers” (1965) have stayed with me as haunting moments in history.

But it is Art as Activism: Graphic Art from the Merrill C. Berman Collection that gives us something more unusual: one man’s collection of 72 protest posters that span from 1932 to 1975, the end of the Vietnam War, and follow the graphic development of the American protest movement. This is an exhibition whose wall text is worth the time to read as it explains in great detail the visual and political evolution of the political broadside of the mid-20th century.

Originally conceived of as ephemeral objects designed to raise awareness and draw public attention to social issues, these posters are often ascribed simply to an “Unidentified Artist.” Beginning with the 1932 “Equal Rights For Negros Everywhere,” we see the growth of activist graphic design and progressive political consciousness in the United States.

Cross out slums

The first room of the three-room exhibition is devoted to the rising social issues of the post-World War ll era. Workers rights, support for Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), and a nascent American Communist party are the dominant themes. The most striking poster, entitled “Cross Out Slums,” dates to 1941 and is by the great graphic designer Lester Beall. Strong modernist design, bold primary colors, and distinctly modern use of typography combine to drive home the message in a most contemporary way.

The second room is devoted completely to posters about the Black Panthers. We see a huge shift in design and intent in these works. The pieces in the first room, though powerful, have a formality of both design and message. They are “polite,” and this is no diss on the message — they reflect the era in which they were made.

The second room also reflects the era in which these posters were made, as well as the emotion that fueled the making. There is raw power, urgency, and palpable anger in these posters. Among them are iconic images of Huey Newton, founder of the Panther party. One in particular — of Huey sitting in an African chieftain’s chair, holding a rifle in one hand and a spear in the other — became emblematic of the Panther movement and was widely reproduced in both the underground and mainstream media.


Stark images of Bobby Seale, Angela Davis, and Eldridge Cleaver, among others, are printed in dull black ink on newsprint. This room of posters is almost entirely monochromatic. There are few hints of red and green, but, for the most part, the palette has been reduced to the bare message, made all the more powerful by the lack of color. Many of these posters were produced as political events were unfolding; they tend to be physically smaller than the WW ll era posters, which also suggest that they were produced cheaply and rapidly, and in mass quantities. The emphasis here is on getting the word out — fast.

The only identified artist in the room is Emory Douglas, who was Minister of Culture for the Black Panthers. He was the art director, illustrator, and designer of the Black Panther newspaper, several copies of which are included in the exhibition. Douglas masterminded the “look” of the Panther publications and his posters are still powerful some 40 years on. His visual “branding” of the Panthers was raw, provocative, and designed to instill fear and respect in the viewer.

Tomi Ungerer

This final room of the exhibit is a bit of a grab bag of objects and subject matter, with posters from several different radical movements, including AIM (the American Indian Movement) and various anti-war groups. While historically interesting, we don’t see images with the same graphic strength as in the first rooms (like “Labor Defender,” 1931 by Louis Engdahl or “Pigs/ Bobby Seale circa 1969–71”). There is one notable exception: the extraordinary “Black Power/ White Power” poster from 1967 by the great graphic designer Tomi Ungerer. It’s shocking and strangely funny, a combination that Ungerer used frequently to convey his politics.

Much of the work in Art as Activism asks to be viewed as historical document, rather than pure graphic design. As a whole, the exhibition conveys the deep roots of ongoing radical and progressive movements in the US and it is gratifying to see, through these posters, how American progressives have strived for so long to make the country more inclusive with political messages that have such style and power.

Emory Douglas, "All Power To The People" (1969), lithograph on paper, Collection of Merrill C. Berman (© 2015 Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York)

Vera Bock, "Haiti; A Drama of the Black Napoleon by William Du Bois at Lafayette Theatre" (1938), screenprint on board, Collection of Merrill C. Berman

Unidentified artist, "Red Power" (1970), lithograph on paper, Collection of Merrill C. Berman

Art as Activism: Graphic Art from the Merrill C. Berman Collection continues at the New-York Historical Society (170 Central Park West, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through September 13. Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March by Stephen Somerstein continues at the New-York Historical Society (170 Central Park West, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through October 25.  ¡PRESENTE! The Young Lords in New York continues at the El Museo del Barrio (1230 5th Ave, East Harlem, Manhattan) through December 12. Folk City: New York and the Folk Music Revival continues at the Museum of the City of New York (1220 5th Ave, East Harlem, Manhattan) through January 10, 2016. Activist New York  is a new permanent exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York. 

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Viola Frey: Painterly Surfaces on Canvases of Clay

in Hyperallergic     June 17, 201503_VF-Falling-Man-in-blue-suit

Installation view of Viola Frey, “Falling Man In Suit” (1991), ceramic, 74 x 89 x 73 inches (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Viola Frey, a powerful woman and rule-busting artist, has not been given enough credit for the ways in which she changed the game for artists working in clay. The exhibition currently at Nancy Hoffman Gallery should help to remedy that problem. The show, entitled Viola Frey: A Personal Iconography, is a thrilling if somewhat uneven overview of what I would call, unabashedly, an important artist of the late 20th century.

That the work in the show is uneven is, to me, part of what made Frey a brilliant artist. She didn’t shy away from working outside the safe zone of her iconic and critically successful large-scale figurative sculpture, even making paintings and drawings toward the end of her career. The exhibition divides her phases of work into three discrete parts. In the first room, the walls are lined with fifteen of Frey’s big ceramic sculptural platters. Measuring about 25 inches in diameter, they are small universes unto themselves, bursting with color, form, narrative, and humor. The earliest is from 1978, and the last is dated to 2001–02. These pieces are among the best examples of Frey at the height of her powers. Bold, thick, some might say “crude” applications of clay elements intermingle with slip-cast tchotchkes, ceramic objects often mocked for their kitsch associations. And the whole beautiful mess is tied together by big, loopy brushstrokes of glaze, like Abstract Expressionism gone mad.

VFrey green silohuete Viola Frey, “Untitled (1987), ceramic, 25 x 25 x 6 inches

“Untitled 1987,” one of the strongest works in the show, features a dark green figure in silhouette. With minimal facial features, its body is broken into boldly abstracted and flattened shapes. It (I read it as a “he”) reaches to the left with one big hand that is slightly disconnected from his body. Next to him, a very proper bun-wearing woman also looks to the left. Small, slip-cast horses emerge from the bottom of the platter on which the two figures stand. They all live in the same bumpy, lumpy, and colorful universe, but aren’t really talking to one another. This piece, as with all the works in this series, is an entire short story in the round, full of psychological mystery, pathos, and slapstick humor.


Viola Frey, “Untitled Plate #16 (1992), ceramic, 25 x 25 x 6 inches

Frey’s slip-casted objects from hobby shops have often been read as political commentary on cultural iconography and consumerism as a way, I think, to justify her mad love for these totally mundane objects. I would posit that she used them simply because she dug the way they looked; they are funny, irreverent, and poke at the conventional ceramic world, which in the past has sometimes strained in over-seriousness to get the mainstream art world to pay attention. Her deliberate use of objects that many ceramic artists would rather pretend didn’t exist was a fresh, iconoclastic choice.

The featured element of “Untitled Plate #16” is a slip-cast figurine of a troubadour that Frey overpainted with glaze, emphasizing his slightly sour expression in drippy, odd colors. Surrounding him is a mass of slip-cast objects that look like bits and pieces of a fevered dream as they climb and slither over one another. Veils of glossy, glazed color layer on top of each other in a delicious melt. Glaze takes on the hard surface of glass and its visual properties of being opaque, translucent, matte, or transparent. The hook, and part of what is so seductive to ceramic lovers, is that this is a glass surface that can be applied with a brush, enabling the artist to work a surface in ways that reflect the best of both mediums.

Frey used more than one glaze, sometimes causing two glazes to react, though she generally opted for a variety of matte and gloss low-fire glazes (many of them commercially made) using shiny and slightly garish bold colors that toyed with the traditional glazes of pottery. Frey’s works are a creation of both control and serendipity. The dance between precisely drawn lines and the uncontrolled results of chance chemical reactions is downright irresistible.

The second room of the gallery contains one of the monumental figures that brought Frey great attention in the ’80s and ’90s. Entitled “Falling Man in Blue Suit” (1991), the piece is a mere 89 inches high, medium-size in comparison to many of the pieces from this era, many of which soared to twelve feet — an extraordinary accomplishment in clay. Up close to this fallen man you are able to see Frey’s vigorous and committed brushwork. The color flows, as if on its own, both defining and defying the form underneath. Working on a ceramic “canvas” of this size allowed her to use huge brushstrokes, and it’s important to note that no one had fused figurative ceramic sculpture with this kind of intense painterly surface (in glaze) until Viola Frey.

Frey’s work evolved during a particular explosion of artistic energy in Northern California. Painters such as Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, Joan Brown, and ceramicists like Robert Arneson and Peter Voulkos (to mention only a very few) were forging a new art history in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Viola Frey was an integral part of this movement, and yet her sculpture captures the energy of her milieu much more effectively than do her paintings. Her works on canvas seem tentative and unfinished, and are surprisingly passive next to her sculptural


work. It’s an interesting example of how an artist’s hand can change

Viola Frey, “Untitled Polyptych (Greek Hag, Brown Suited Man)”(1990), pastel on paper, 83 x 59 inches

radically between media. Her huge pastel drawing entitled “Untitled Polyptch (Greek Hag, Brown seated Man),” on the other hand, does capture some of the same pulsing energy that is seen in the sculpture of the first room.



The exhibition’s third room showcases work that Viola Frey produced as an artist-in-residence in the Sèvres ceramic factory in France in the late 1980s. They are lovely, small, very traditional ceramic forms, cups, plates, and vases. Using the ceramic forms produced in the factory, Frey drew delicate line and wash drawings of men and women on the vessels’ exteriors, only gently venturing into the inner space of a cup with dabs of color. I love that she made these pots. I love that Viola Frey was willing to experiment with forms and techniques that so obviously were not her cup of tea (no pun intended). They are polite, in sharp distinction to the punk rock attitude of the work in the front room. There are those who will greatly appreciate this gentle riff on traditional ceramics more than me, and for them this work may be sublime. For me it is the first room of this show that really showcases everything that made Viola Frey a groundbreaking artist in her chosen medium and a brilliant, important artist, full stop.


Viola Frey, “Untitled (Cup) A La Manufacture de Sevres Series” (1988), ceramic


Viola Frey: A Personal Iconography continues at Nancy Hoffman Gallery (520 W 27th St, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 27

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A Three-Year Cinematic Journey Across 25 Countries at the Jewish Museum

Published in Hyperallergic on May 26, 2015


Ayisha Abraham, ‘I Saw a God Dance’ (2011), video, sound, 19 min, 28 sec (courtesy the artist, all images courtesy the Jewish Museum)

Tucked away in a corner of the permanent collection of the Jewish Museum is a little movie theater that transports you far away from the artifacts of Jewish history in the surrounding galleries. In late 2013, the Jewish Museum launched an ambitious ongoing project, entitled Sights and Sounds: Global Film and Video, which each month invites a curator from a different country to choose four or five videos that play continuously on the museum’s third floor. By 2016, when the project will come to a close, videos from a total of twenty-five countries will have been shown in the theater.

The country in the spotlight for the month of May is Nigeria, followed by India in June. The Nigerian curator, Jude Anogwih, has chosen an interesting array of pieces. All of the artists are Nigerian-born although some are now expatriates; Uche Okpa-Iroha and Mudi Yahaya live in Lagos, Wura-Natasha Ogunji currently lives in Austin, Texas, and Emeka Ogboh lives in Berlin. Curiously, the curator makes a point of noting where these artists are currently based but doesn’t elaborate on how living in or away from Nigeria has affected their work.

All of the Nigerian videos are explicitly political, and some more accessible than others. Mudi Yahaya’s piece, For Crown and Country is based on what one sees while switching between TV stations. We are channel surfing through Nigerian history, shifting back and forth between archival TV coverage of political, military, and civil events, and news photographs illustrated by historical quotations. The timeline of the video begins with Nigeria’s struggle for independence from England in the mid-1950s to becoming a free nation in 1960 through the following decades of political disappointment up until the mid-1990s. The video suffers from bad sound, which makes an already complicated political history lesson harder for a non-Nigerian to follow. Without knowing all of the players, it’s a little hard to grasp the full power of the work, although a wave of anger and disappointment is palpable throughout the video. Perhaps for us, viewing a complex history from far away, the relevant takeaway is the emotional impact, rather than the specific events and people in the video.


Mudi Yahaya, ‘For Crown and Country’ (2011), video, sound, 11 min (courtesy the artist)

Wura-Natasha Ogunji’s piece, Will I Still Carry Water When I’m Dead is simple in concept and totally intriguing. A group of hooded women dressed in nifty Afro-Futuristic short jumpsuits laboriously drag large jerry cans full of water through city streets. The curatorial statement mentions that these costumes are a reference to traditional Nigerian masquerade ceremonies, which women are forbidden to join. Even before learning this detail I found in the outfits an underlying tension between how modern and forward-thinking Nigeria can be and yet for many women, tradition and the lack of adequate clean water forces them to carry water for miles every day. Some of the big plastic cans are tied to women’s wrists; the most difficult women to watch are the ones who have the cans tied to their ankles. They can barely walk, the cans so full and heavy, tripping them up and holding them back from the others. They are shepherded through the streets of a busy city by a group of young men who direct traffic with slim canes. The women become increasingly exhausted as they toil. It’s an obvious but affecting statement about the eternally burdened state of African women.


Wura-Natasha Ogunji, ‘Will I still carry water when I am a dead woman?’ (2013), video, sound, 11 min, 56 sec. (courtesy the artist)

June will switch gears quite dramatically. The four videos chosen by Indian curator Nancy Adajania run the gamut of subject matter. They are not so obviously political as the Nigerian choices and they encompass imagery and subject that move beyond the nation’s borders. Production values are very high in these videos: three out of the four use advanced animation and digital manipulation techniques to tell their visual stories. The video, Political Realism, made by Gigi Scaria, explores our ability to topple all sorts of world dictators or icons. Peaking through two doorways in a surreal room, we see animated iconic sculptures of Lenin, Mao, and the World Trade Center towers — all being knocked down by construction machines. It’s a little bit goofy; bright colors abound. The movie is a little Monty Python-esque in its irreverence, surrealism, and gentle political commentary.


Gigi Scaria, ‘Political Realism’ (2009), video, sound, 3 min., 35 sec. (courtesy the artist)

The most arresting of the Indian videos is in many ways the most straightforward one. Ayisha Abraham’s I Saw a God Dance is a documentary about the most famous Indian classical dancer, little known in the West. Ram Gopal was a biracial gay man who popularized classical Indian dance in the West, partially by emphasizing his “exoticism” to titillate Western audiences. There is an implicit political undertone to this film, but frankly the footage of Gopal dancing is so mesmerizing that the political statement becomes secondary. Born in 1912 (died 2003), Gopal traveled and performed extensively throughout the world. From the interviews with surviving company members it appears that his sexuality was known and accepted. His artistry trumped everything else.

After India we will travel via video to Cuba. For the month of August, we will be in New Zealand. Each curator was given free rein to choose the pieces included in this project and, as a result, each month will be very different from the previous one. There appears to be no contiguous theme that runs throughout the series. Indeed this diverse and eclectic vision seems part of the point of this fascinating, multi-voice project organized by Jens Hoffman, the Deputy Director of Exhibitions and Public programs. Sights and Sounds will culminate in 2016 with a public conference and publication documenting the three-year journey that will serve to tie the program together. I look forward to seeing what the entire project morphs into.

Sights and Sounds: Global Film and Video is a long-term series at the Jewish Museum (1109 Fifth Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan). Films from Nigeria will screen through May 30 and films from India will screen during the month of June.

Tagged as: Ayisha Abraham, Gigi Scaria, Jewish Museum, Mudi Yahaya, Ram Gopal, Sights and Sounds: Global Film and Video, Wura-Natasha Ogunji

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El Anatsui Goes To School

published in Hyperallergic May 21, 2015

El Anatsui’s “Womb ot Time”(2014) at The School ( all images copyright El Anatsui and courtesy  of the artist and Jack Shaiman Gallery, unless otherwise noted

KINDERHOOK, NY — The School, Jack Shainman’s splendid gallery in Kinderhook, NY, is about to blow its own roof off. The power of the El Anatsui retrospective there is palpable and deeply moving. The exhibition shows works reaching back from the 1970s to 2014. Included are works in clay, photography, drawings wood, and of course the large, changable sculptures made from discarded aluminum bands and bottle caps that have propelled Anatsui into the art world stratosphere. The inclusion of pieces made of clay and the works on paper are particularly revealing as they evidence the continuum of Anatsui’s aesthetic interests.


But first a word about the building: In this exhibition, the installation in the former Martin Van Buren High School built in 1929 is an integral part of the experience. The gallery is a wonderful architectural marriage of stunning white spaces, lit by banks of surprisingly sympathetic fluorescent lights, and rooms that echo with the ghost of the building’s past.

Installation view of El Anatsui’s “Peak Project” (1999) at The School (click to enlarge)

The architecture of the building is significant both in how the curatorial installation decisions thatwere made and to the experience of the artwork. Anatsui’s works arrive with very little installation instructions, so it is up to the discretion of the curator, who will decide how to bend and shape the pieces. They are forever mutable, and that is part of their power. Anatsui’s work is never static, always open and willing to change. At The School, the building and Jack Shaiman have become collaborators, if you will, in our perception of the works.


Detail of El Anatsui’s “Metas I” (2014) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

An old girls bathroom on the second floor has been left, more or less in a state of elegant decay. Bits and pieces of pink paint remain on rough cement and plaster walls. Shades of grey, white, pink, and buff dominate the room. A solitary window allows natural light to flood the space. And hanging on one entire wall is a new El Anatsui piece made of old newspaper printing plates. Entitled “Metas I” (2014), the work has a new and subtle color palette. The work is mostly grey, in contrast to the very brightly colored works for which Anatsui is well known. The metal has been cut into small squares and threaded together with copper wire, the soft grey of the printing plates flecked with hits of color and bits of half recognizable words. The piece moves dimensionally, bent so that it both hugs and leaves the wall, existing as both a painting and sculpture. Deliberate open spaces in the hanging allow the pink, plaster, and cement wall to show through, becoming a part of the piece. The ways in which the wall colors and shapes relate to the artwork is both calculated and brilliant serendipity. The artwork and the wall dance together in genuine poetry.

Lady-in-Frenzy-1280There are several other rooms in the gallery where this architecture of the past is a perfect complement to Anatsui’s work. The boys bathroom (the walls were once blue, of course) houses a single tall figure fabricated out of found metal and wood. Entitled “Lady In Frenzy” (1999), this striding figure has been caught as if by the flash of a camera as she runs from the room.

El Anatsui’s “Lady in Frenzy” (1999) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

There is no disconnect here between the pieces installed in these un-renovated rooms and those installed in the pristine cool white spaces of the rest of the building. It all works. In the contemporary spaces, the ceramic and carved wood pieces create a different type of contrast with their surroundings.


Detail of “Open(ing) Market” (2004), a 1,755 piece installation. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Anatsui’s newest pieces in the exhibition show him at a point of transcendence in his use of both the materials and ideas that have been a hallmark of his mature work. The aluminum and zinc newspaper printing plates have a dulled sheen to them. The metal has been fashioned into bent squares about two inches in size. This bent squares and their very subtle silver-grey allow light to define the sculptural forms of the Meta pieces more than in past work. They feel somewhat related to minimalist painting, the square patterning of the metal feels more regularly rhythmic than some of the earlier works. They are as much painting as sculpture. All of the pieces in the Metas series exhibit this highly refined and delicate sense of form and light. At the same time the very nature of their fabrication by hand and the eccentricity of the materials (found metal and copper wire) ties these pieces both to Anatsui’s entire body of work, but also to the traditions of materiality and handwork that tie him to his artistic roots in Africa.


El Anatsui’s “Ascension” (2014), left, and “Dissolving Dreams” (2014), both found aluminum and copper wire. (photo courtesy Jack Shaiman Gallery)

In the new pieces in which Anatsui is using color and shiny metal, similar to his past works, the visual narrative feels fresh and new. “Ascension” (2014) and “Dissolving Dreams” (2014) hanging in the same room use gold and silver as their primary colors. There is a pleasingly sharp difference between the brilliance of the silver and the duller sheen of the gold. Using contrasting toned aluminum bands, Anatsui snakes the color through, creating deliberate, abstracted narratives.

Peak-Project-1280El Anatsui’s “Stressed World” (2011)

As always with Anatsui’s work, these pieces undulate on the wall, creating shadows, depth, and dimensionality that are always arresting. In addition to their visual beauty there is a pulse, a movement to Anatsui’s work. They feel very alive. The spaces between the art and the wall, the spaces between the art and the viewer, the floor, the ceiling are as important as the art itself. His willingness and desire to allow the curators and the spaces to to affect change to his artwork makes for passionate spatial relationships. The very bottom of “Stressed World” (2011) ever so gently brushes the floor, just a whisper of contact — it’s a casually graceful gesture that acknowledges the possibility of blurring the boundaries between art and the space it inhabits.

el-anatsui-1977-BIGOne of the strengths of this show is that includes so many early and rarely seen pieces. Carved figurative works from the 1980s, like “Devotees”(1987)and “Group Photo”(1987) are reminders of where El Anatsui was artistically 30 years ago and adds depth to our understanding of the evolution of his work. These two carved wood pieces each consist of a group of abbreviated figures — each is an abstracted shape that reads as a torso and a second one that reads as a head.

A view of El Anatsui’s “Chambers of Memory” (1977) at The School (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

The ten individual figures that make up the piece “Devotees” (1987) are bunched tightly together, their bulbous heads morphing into long thick necks that rest on top of “shoulders.” Elegantly shaped wooden forms with very little detail, these are figures distilled to their visual essence. Facing in different directions, they all share eyes that have a vacant stare and slack mouths. Anatsui’s comment, perhaps, on those who are unquestioning followers of a religion or political movement.


El Anatsui, “Devotees” (1987) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

“Group Photo” (1987) is a much larger group of figures, thirty-five in total. They are more varied and detailed in surface carving, and each is individualized, with facial expressions and carving on the torsos that identify them as the opposite of the “devotees.” Each is completely individual, and massed altogether they form a family or clan. The point is that although they are many, they never lose their identity in the group. In this exhibition the gallery has chosen, with the artist’s permission, to group them in niches that rise high up onto a stark white wall in the white-box section of the building.

unnamed-21280Both “Devotees” and “Group Photo” establish Anatsui’s early interest in the power of repetition and its relationship to the whole. The impressive continuum of Anatsui’s development is on full display, from a rhythmic cadence of wooden figures in the 1980s, to the increasingly more ambitious projects made of multi-colored found metal in the 2000s, to the gorgeous tableau of silver-grey printing plates of his recent work.

Detail of El Anatsui, “Group Photo” (1987) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

It is the marriage of rhythm, repetition, and constant evolution that informs not only individual pieces, but the body of Anatsui’s work as a whole.


“Commercial Avenue” (2014) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Locals refer to “The School,” Jack Shainman’s 30,000 square foot gallery space as “The Museum.” After visiting the El Anatsui retrospective, I can fully understand why. The artworks and the space that seems to cradle and nurture them combine to delight the eye and challenge us in a way most unusual for a more conventional gallery space.

El Anatsui: Five Decades at the Jack Shainman’s The School (25 Broad Street, Kinderhook, NY) continues until September 26.

Tagged as: El Anatsui, Jack Shainman Gallery, The School, Melissa Stern

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At Martín Ramírez Opening, A Defense of Immigrant’s Rights and Outsider Art

March 27, 2015 in Hyperallergic


 Martín Ramírez,”Untitled (Tunnel with Cars and Buses)” (1954), reproduced as one of five new ‘Forever’ Stamps by the United States Postal Service (© 2015 USPS) (click to enlarge)

Blue-chip outsider artist Martín Ramírez was memorialized this past Thursday evening in Chelsea with the unveiling of a United States postage stamp. The depression-era Mexican immigrant, who was institutionalized for decades with symptoms of acute schizophrenia, created a series of stunning works on paper now considered among the most important of this genre, and currently on view at the Ricco Maresca Gallery. The event was a moving — and, I would bet, by far the most eclectic — United States Postal Service–sponsored function in recent times.

Galleon-on-Water-_hiressm                                          Martin Ramirez, “Untitled (Galleon on Water)” (c. 1960–63), gouache, colored pencil, and graphite on pieced paper, 33 x 24 in (all images courtesy Ricco Maresca Gallery unless otherwise noted) (click to enlarge)

A mixed marriage of a hipster gallery opening and a formal day-of-issue unveiling of a new postage stamp, the evening was a smorgasbord of ultra-nerdy stamp collectors, post office bureaucrats, the late artist’s heirs, and the crème de la crème of outsider art collectors, curators, and art critics. Actor John Turturro, himself a collector, rubbed shoulders with a fellow clutching his copy of the American Philatelist, freshly autographed by New York’s Post Master General. Ramirez’s work, now valued in the hundreds of thousands, hung aside a U.S. Postal Service concession stand selling the 49-cent Ramirez stamp.

New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz was the genial master of ceremonies. Charismatic and articulate, and by turns gracious and irreverent, Saltz spoke not only about the artist, but of the fallacy of calling the now mainstream work “outsider art.” Saltz’s wife, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, made a cameo appearance. The chief financial officer of the US Postal Service, an amiable fish out of water in fashionable Chelsea, took on the obligatory official duties of unveiling the new stamps.

Then Brooke Davis Anderson took the podium. Anderson, who is the former Deputy Director of Curatorial Planning at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and current head of Prospect New Orleans, the citywide contemporary art Biennale, was an early and important promoter of the work of Martin Ramírez and other outsider artists. At the event, Anderson led off with a passionate and partisan plea for the value of small museums in America — museums that specialize in the depth of a subject, rather than the breadth of the art world. The International Center for Photography (ICP), the American Folk Art Museum, and the Studio Museum in Harlem were a few of the worthy New York institutions that Anderson cited that “make a difference.”


Anderson then recounted Ramírez’s life, fashioning it into an impassioned political talk about immigration and race in America: “We are honoring someone from the working poor on a US Postal stamp. By honoring Ramírez, we are celebrating the disenfranchised in this society so distracted by the 1%.” She continued, “Martin Ramírez was a man who crossed borders solely to provide for his family. Like so many men and women around the world and on our borders did then and do now. We are honoring immigrant workers on a US postage stamp at a time when this continues to be a hotly debated issue.”


Joseph Corbett of the US Postal Service at Ricco Maresca Gallery

Ambassador Sandra Fuentes-Berain, Counsel General from Mexico continued. She spoke movingly of a Mexican migrant worker who had been shot last week in upstate New York because he did not understand what the police were yelling at him. She cited the 35 million Mexicans who live in the United States who are here seeking a better life, as generations of immigrants have done for centuries. “They are here,” she said, “not to take jobs from Americans but to do the jobs Americans don’t want to do.”

Geo-politics, superb, and important outsider art, the guys from the Post Office, and their groupie stamp collectors — how often do we get to mix with great US art critics and folk art curators and our most committed philatelists? More than 50 years after his death in 1963, Martin Ramírez has left his stamp on the New York art scene.


Martín Ramírez, “Untitled (Stag on Mound with Fireworks)” (c. 1952–53), graphite, tempera and crayon on paper, 32 x 19 1/2 in; 81.3 x 49.3 cm (click to enlarge)


Martín Ramírez, “Untitled (Courtyard with Man and Animals)” (c. 1950-55), graphite, tempera and crayon on paper, 47 1/2 x 36 in


Martín Ramírez, “Untitled (Horse and Rider)” (c. 1950), colored pencil, crayon, and collage on paper, 37 x 17 1/2 in
Martín Ramírez: Forever continues at Ricco Maresca through May 2.

Tagged as: Martín Ramírez, Ricco Maresca, US Postal Service

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Out of This World, Domestic Objects Transcend

  • by Melissa Stern on March 24, 2015
  •  Gupta_FpountainSubodh Gupta, “This is not a fountain” (2011), old aluminium utensils, water, painted brass taps, PVC pipes, motor (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

New York is a big art city, with big art fairs, big museums, and lots of big concept art. There are exhibitions that fill museums with objects, like Maurizio Cattelan’s exhibition All at the Guggenheim Museum in 2011, and exhibitions that fill spaces with big concepts, like Marina Abramović’s 2010 exhibition at MoMA (The Artist Is Present). Some are more successful than others.

At Hauser & Wirth, Subodh Gupta has endeavored to pull off both, offering us compelling objects and a high concept. The title of the show, Seven Billion Light Years, refers both to the number of people presently alive on earth and to the idea of a universe of unfathomable size, time, and distance. Rarely does such a big concept play out in a gallery with the consistent clarity of Gupta’s show.


Subodh Gupta, “Aam,” (2015), painted bronze mangoes, found table (click to enlarge)

The exhibition dances between the enormity of India, and by extension the world, and the smallest of things that root Gupta to the earth. The show has a very deliberate trajectory, a visual and conceptual narrative that carries you from earth to sky. Gupta makes beautiful use of materials and themes focused on both his personal and cultural history. Many of the works use the common, cheap cooking vessels and tools found throughout India, where Gupta was born and raised, reminding the artist and us that food, water, and a home are the basic elements of life. Mangos and potatoes, two staples of the Indian diet, for both the rich and poor, are cast in bronze. These works are metaphorically temporal and permanent: the real food may rot, but the bronze endures.

Gupta_Fountain_DetailSubodh Gupta, “This is not a fountain” (2011), detail

Entering the first gallery we see an enormous sculpture made of piles upon piles of worn cooking implements: aluminum pots, teakettles, and blackened pans typical of Indian households all jumbled together in a monumental pile that measures almost 26 feet long and ten feet high. Water spigots incongruously stick up in random places and a continuous flow of water drains mysteriously into the pile. The piece, entitled “This is Not a Fountain” slyly refers to Magritte’s infamous painting “The Treachery of Images” and its tagline “Ceci, n’est pas une pipe” (“This is Not a Pipe”). Art is not reality, even art of the most pedestrian of objects. But of course, at the same time, the sculpture is a fountain and the gentle gurgling of water delights the ear, even as the eye wanders over what some might consider a giant pile of recyclables and in India the essentials of home life.


Subodh Gupta, “Seven Billion Light Years V” (2014), oil on canvas, found utensil, resin (click to enlarge)

Throughout the exhibition Gupta makes use of these common household objects, stringing them into a massive ten-foot long necklace, ironically called “Pearl,” or burying them in the ground in a work entitled “Pure,” in which the artist performed a ritualistic piece with the members of a small agricultural village in India. In these works, there is an interesting dialectic between the individual and the group — one pot and many pots that can be taken at face value or interpreted on other philosophical or political levels. There are those, for instance, who would see this entire show as a statement about class and economics in India. With Gupta’s work, there are multiple readings, and he leaves it up to the viewers to go in the direction that their own orientation takes them.


Subodh Gupta, “Pure (I)” (1999—2014), mixed media

As one moves toward the end of the exhibition, the earth is left behind with a room filled with four giant canvases entitled, “Seven Billion Light Years l, ll, lll, V.” They are based on a deceptively simple idea. Each painting consists of a beaten-up cooking vessel affixed to a huge (89 x 95 inches) canvas on which the artist has reproduced that same vessel, but blown up to stellar proportions. The vessels now look like planets, driving home the sense of duality that runs throughout this exhibition. Gupta captures the inextricable connection between the common and the universal, the earthbound and the celestial. The small moments beget the universal ones. The life of a lowly cooking pot contains the essence of the world.


Installation view of ‘Subodh Gupta: Seven Billion Light Years’ (click to enlarge)

It is in the three pieces entitled “Orange Thing,” “Untitled,” and “Hamid Ka Chimta” that Gupta uses the objects in a truly transcendent way. Three huge abstract sculptures, comprised of hundreds of brass, copper, and steel tongs fill one gallery space. They are very 1960s, mod, cool. Like supernovas, they shimmer in the light. The copper and brass pieces bend and move the light, from brilliant and reflective to a dark burnished interior. In contrast, the steel sculpture seems to suck the light into its rusted and dark interior.


Subodh Gupta, “Seven Billion Light Years” (2014–2015), film, 2 minutes (click to enlarge)

The journey concludes with a gleeful two-minute video about the life of a roti. We see the dough slapped down onto a convex iron cook top. The roti is then tossed in the air and we watch it travel in slow motion across the sky, past birds, past clouds and trees. The eye follows each delicate movement of the bread on the breeze as it floats downward back onto the cook top. Such a simple idea, and yet so lovely, lyrical, and gentle, the video synthesizes Gupta’s central themes: earth and universe, the individual and the group.



Subodh Gupta-“Orange Thing” detail (2014) steel, copper tongs, plastic

Subodh Gupta: Seven Billion Light Years continues at Hauser & Wirth (511 West 18th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 25.


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7 Contemporary Takes on Marsden Hartley

in Hyperallergic. February 20, 2015


Marsden Hartley, “Green and Purple Grapes in a Basket” (1928)

OK, full disclosure: I have never been a huge Marsden Hartley fan. I know that Hartley is “important” in modernist art history, but there’s an air of heaviness to his work that simply never moved me. The color and composition have always felt solid and earthbound — just not my cup of tea — although I am appreciative of how important he has been to many artists over the decades. As one of the many ex-pat artists who traveled to Europe in the teens and twenties, Hartley became part of Gertrude Stein’s circle of writers and painters. From there, he traveled to Germany, where I have always thought he probably felt more comfortable with the solid paintings of Franz Marc and German Expressionism than with the Parisian sensibility. He returned to the States permanently in 1930, bringing with him his European aesthetic experiences, which in turn influenced the developing American Modernist painting movement.

So it was with great curiosity that I read of the current show at Driscoll Babcock Gallery, The Earth Is All I Know of Wonder: Contemporary Responses to Hartley, where contemporary artists like Katherine Bradford and David Humphrey riff on Hartley’s paintings. Now THAT piqued my interest. The exhibition is in conjunction with a much larger show, Art Is Long, Life is Short: Marsden Hartley and Charles Kuntz in Aix- en-Provence, that fills most of Driscoll Babcock’s spacious Chelsea digs. This is an extensive exhibition that arrived in New York from the Greenville County Museum of Art in Greensville, South Carolina. It seeks to present and explore the relationship between the work of Hartley and Kuntz, who both lived and worked in Aix at the same time. A worthy show, not a mind blower, but for those who are Hartley fans one can see some worthwhile works that are not often shown publicly.


Charles Philip Kuntz, “Mont St. Victoire in Clouds” (no date given)

The Kuntz paintings are nice in an academic way: safe, polite, classic landscapes of Southern France from a bygone era. Kuntz died at age 30, so there is no knowing how his work might have developed from these early paintings. However, there is one painting that perhaps gives a hint of where he might have gone. It stands out in striking contrast to everything else in the show. “Mont St. Victoire In Clouds” is an almost psychedelic swirl of color and form with a rich surface that thrusts right in your face. It’s beautiful, unfettered by classicism, and very “Modernist” — radically different from the rest of Kuntz’s work. Painted towards the end of his life, the work is a harbinger of where he was heading.

The group show inspired by Hartley’s works is in a small room, and consists of seven painters and eight moderately sized paintings. According to the show’s curator, each artist was offered a preview of the Hartley and Kuntz exhibition and asked to create a response painting specific to a Hartley piece. As stated in the press release, the chosen artists — Katherine Bradford, Jennifer Coates, Holly Coulis, Rachael Gorchov, David Humphrey, Danielle Orchard, and Robin F. Williams — were invited because their work already reflected an interest in or influence of Hartley. The resulting pieces are quite interesting. Each artist has indeed reflected thoughtfully on some aspect of Hartley’s work, yet like handwriting, each is indisputably the work of its creator.


David Humphrey, “Hartley’s Lilies” (2014)

I’m particularly drawn to David Humphrey’s piece “Hartley’s Lilies,” a modest collage and painting that seamlessly mashes Hartley’s bluntly sexualized lily painting (see “Calla Lilies in a Vase” in the main show) with Humphrey’s loose and wry sensibility. It shouldn’t work, but it does, and it’s a painting that is both beautiful and silly — a perfect response to Hartley.


Danielle Orchard, “Picnic in Aix 1″ (2015)

Danielle Orchard’s two paintings have stylistic echoes of Hartley but seem more intent on making a comment on his possible relationship with Kuntz. In both works, two male figures lay supine in an undefined but colorful landscape. Their relationship is ambiguous, but suggestive. The two paintings, of similar gesture but different coloration, pose a quiet comment on Hartley’s inner life. It has long been posited that Hartley was a closeted gay man. Reading between the lines about his relationship with Kuntz, one could suppose that there might have been a deeper connection between the two.

This is a small but intriguing and rich show. Emphasis on the “small.” I left wishing that it had been bigger. Tracing the influence of Hartley and where his modernist sensibility would lead to in the work of contemporary artists is a good starting concept. But there could have been so much more, both in quantity and in commentary on Hartley and his influential life.


Jennifer Coates, “Houseplant” (2014)


Katherine Bradford, “Liner Cloud Berg” (2014)

The Earth Is All I Know of Wonder: Contemporary Responses to Hartley and  Art Is Long, Life is Short: Marsden Hartley and Charles Kunz in Aix- en-Provence continue at Driscoll Babcock Galleries (525 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 21. 

Tagged as: Charles Kuntz, David Humphrey, Driscoll Babcock, Greenville County Museum of Art, Holly Coulis, Jennifer Coates, Katherine Bradford, Marsden Hartley, Rachael Gorchov, Robin F. Williams


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10 Stellar Culture Documentaries That the Oscars Snubbed

February 19, 2015 in Hyperallergic

It’s movie awards season again. That breathless time of year that starts with the Golden Globes and climaxes with the Oscars, at which point we are all pretty tired of the hoo-ha and ready to move on. That repeated cackle of “who are you wearing,” the sight of brilliant artists teetering down red carpets, and media stories concocted by publicists all wear thin after a while. We adore movies, and of course we secretly love some of the silliness; it’s part of our culture to cheerfully obsess with trivia while the world implodes.

All of these award shows have an obligatory documentary film prize that often, though not always, goes to a film that has had serious impact: Taxi to the Dark Side, The Thin Blue Line, Harlan County USA, Born Into Brothels, to name just a few. They are magnificent and brave films that have sought to change our way of looking at the world. And then of course there’s the occasional penguin film …

As a dedicated doc-watcher, as well as a documentary screener/curator for an international film festival for the past five years, I’ve found a few documentaries related to art and culture that have really stuck with me over the years.

Here is my roundup, not only of films from the last year but of the past decade. These are films you may have missed in theaters, never saw because they got a one-week showing in NYC and LA and nowhere else, or that were simply too far below the radar.

In absolutely no hierarchical order, here we go:

ARTWARAmmarsmallStill from ‘Art War’
Art War (2014)

This is one of the most current films on my list, and one that is still making the festival circuit in Europe. Director Marco Wilms and crew document the work of passionate Egyptian street artists, both visual and performance artists, whose work made a difference during the so-called “Arab Spring” of 2010. From graffiti to performance art, we see a class of young, educated activists that rarely make an appearance in Western media. The film will soon be released on DVD and streaming.


East Side Story poster

East Side Story (1997)
A surprising and affectionate look at one of the oddest film legacies of the Cold War era. Evidently, Soviet filmmakers were deeply enamored of big Hollywood musicals. Think Busby Berkeley on tractors and close replicas of Hollywood blockbusters, except that everyone is singing about the glories of the Socialist State. Perfectly coiffed peasant girls and big burly factory workers dance and sing in perfect unison, extolling the joy of working towards a unified Communist world. Interspersed with interviews with the films’ participants and fans, this movie has far more depth than the subject matter at first suggests. The lavish production values, fully orchestrated musical numbers, and single-minded propaganda content make for a wonderfully strange mash-up.



The Yes Men Fix the World poster
The Yes Men Fix the World’(2009)
A must-see for all political activists and performance artists. The Yes Men are a duo of “culture hackers,” with a network of supporters around the globe who have pranked some of the world’s largest corporations and political organizations. Addressing what they see as hypocrisy and wrongdoing by the corporate world, armed with cheap suits, and a lot of chutzpah the Yes Men have pulled off some of the most daring and audacious political theater imaginable.the-green-wave-film‘The Green Wave’  poster

The Green Wave (2010)

A documentary film that combines live-action footage caught on cell phones, animation, Twitter messages, and interviews that documents the attempt to bring real social change to Iran during the “Green Revolution,” one of the first revolutions fueled in part by social media. This film will come to be seen as a critical historical document of its era. It’s a documentary that feels like a thriller. The pace is fast and urgent, much like the lives of the young people on the streets of Tehran.

The Green Wave, film trailer



‘Tomorrow We Disappear’ (image courtesy Joshua Cogan Photography)


‘Tomorrow We Disappear’  (image courtesy Joshua Cogan Photography)

Tomorrow We Disappear (2014)

For over fifty years, the Kathputli Colony in New Delhi, India has been home to 2,800 artist families. Generations of magicians, acrobats, puppeteers, painters, and musicians have lived in this slum, passing on their craft to generation upon generation of artists. In 2009, in what appears to be a classic real estate grab, the New Delhi government sold the land to a group of foreign investors intent upon building Delhi’s tallest skyscraper. Filmmakers Adam Weber and Jimmy Goldblum have documented the last days of this vibrant community in an incredibly beautiful and sensitive film. Though the footage is at times stunningly beautiful, this is not a romanticized vision of life in an Indian slum. The people are brutally poor, and life is hard. But the movie focuses on their artistic ancient traditions. Once communities like this disappear, their craft and customs will be utterly lost. A plea to the world to help preserve the community and its heritage, the film follows the lives of three of the performers, a magician, an acrobat and a puppeteer, and chronicles their lives.
02_Staff_Benda_Blili_by_Guillaume_ARICIQUE_loresStaff Banda Billi (2010)

A music documentary of the most unusual band imaginable. Comprised of five quadriplegic homeless street musicians from Kinshasa, Congo, a group forms to make music — and a little money to survive — in a country without safety nets or infrastructure for the disabled. This band went from literally nothing to playing giant venues throughout Europe, playing kick-ass hard and fast Afro-pop that refuses pity. Using homemade rock and roll instruments, living on the streets, and enduring incredible hardship, the band gains notoriety and faces some classic band problems. Great music and a great story make this a movie that will stay with you long after it’s over.


poster‘Marwencol’ poster

Marwencol (2010)

This film documents the life of Mark Hogancamp, a self-taught artist living near Kingston, NY. After a near-fatal beating in a bar, a profound brain injury, and the loss of his veteran health benefits for rehabilitation, Hogancamp seeks to rebuild his life by recreating a fantasy World War Two Belgian town called Marwencol on 1/6 of its scale. Populating Marwencol with customized GI Joe and barbie dolls, Hogancamp acts out and photographs the lives of his miniature populace. Yes, this story is as strange and even stranger than it sounds, with a few twists and turns that make for a very dramatic and affecting movie.

2Still from ‘Marwencol’ (2010)


‘Birth of the Living Dead’ poster

Birth of the Living Dead (2012)

Night of the Living Dead was a film that single handedly and permanently changed what had been a hackneyed and formulaic genre: the horror film. Released in 1968, it was also the first horror film whose hero and lead was a black man. Filmed and released during a horrifying time in American history — the onslaught of Vietnam and the violence of American cities consumed by race riots, the assassination of leaders — this film eerily reflects a sense of our nation gone mad. Its connection to the political currents of 1968 remains shocking to this day. Birth of the Living Dead documents the genesis and making of this seminal film, weaving it seamlessly into its late-sixties origins. There’s the added bonus of an extensive interview with a most delightful George Romero (the director of the 1968 film) as well as hilarious details of how this film was made on a shoestring in suburban Pittsburgh, with many from the local community volunteering to portray the first flesh-eating zombies of the modern era.

PastedGraphic-2-1Still from ‘Birth of the Living Dead’ (2013)


johnson10-9-1How to Draw a Bunny(courtesy Ray Johnson Estate)

How to Draw a Bunny ( 2002)
A heartbreakingly beautiful documentary about Ray Johnson, one of the most original and mysterious artists of the 20th century. Johnson, who committed suicide in 1995, created a unique visual universe, reaching out to and teasing the art world through “mail art” and the “New York Correspondence School,” both Johnson’s inventions. Blurring the lines between life and performance, reality and invention, Ray Johnson left the world, his friends, and admirers with more questions than he ever cared to answer. The film attempts gently to unravel a little of this mystery, but seeks mostly to present and celebrate an artist whose work influenced generations to follow. Killer drum score by Max Roach.

red-chapel-640The Red Chapel ( poster)

The Red Chapel (2009)
Without a doubt one of the strangest documentary films I have ever seen. By turns hilarious and wrenching, this is the story of a fake Danish guerilla theater group called Red Chapel — two Korean-born, Danish adoptees and their director who somehow get the idea that they will go to North Korea to perform for the Great Leader. Their “comedy” act is subversive and political, and their goal is to have the youth chorus of North Korea perform the Oasis song “Wonderwall” in English for the Great Leader. One of the actors has spastic paralysis; had he been born in North Korea he would have been locked away for life in a “home,” or killed. The troupe is fêted and toured around North Korea, as the Danish director Mads Brugger attempts to document their ultimately subversive mission. The young disabled man, who is smart and very funny, is treated as both a returning hero and a freak. To reveal any more would be to spoil your experience of this wonderfully odd and brilliant movie.

Tagged as: Adam Weber, Art War, Birth of the Living Dead, East Side Story, George Romero, How to Draw a Bunny, Jimmy Goldblum, Mads Brugger, Marco Wilms, Marwencol, Ray Johnson, Staff Banda Billi, The Green Wave, The Red Chapel, The Yes Men Fix the World, Tomorrow We Disappear


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