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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The Psychological Depth of Jim Shaw’s Pop Culture Dreamscapes

September 17, 2015 In Hyperallergic

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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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