A kayak that goes only in circles, a disappearing art gallery, a film that begins and ends at the credit sequence, and a set of pure gold nails driven into a gallery wall are just some of Northern Italy-based artist Carlo Speranza’s deceptively clever projects. Speranza, as the previous list implies, works across an exceptionally broad range of mediums; his work is made using wood, concrete, gold, neon, prints, photographs, cardboard, film, video, and a host of site-specific materials.
Carlo Speranza. Karlo’s Unrealized Works, 2014; 24k gold leaf on cardboard boxes; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist.
One ongoing unlimited series, Karlo’s Unrealized Works (2014), is a set of cardboard boxes of varying sizes that have the words “Karlo’s Unrealized Works” applied to all six surfaces in pure 24-karat gold leaf. The boxes—which pay homage, visually and conceptually, to Andy Warhol’s Kellogg’s Corn Flake Boxes (1971)—all contain nothing except the promise of an unrealized future artwork that Speranza vows to make one day. The boxes are aesthetically restrained yet still seductive. By making containers for pure concept (and preconceived concept at that), Speranza offers his viewer a striking, art-historically resonant narrative that reads as a slight-of-hand gesture that is not gimmicky, but goading.
Carlo Speranza. A New Level of Easy, 2013; digital prints on PVC and inkjet on photographic paper; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist.
As Chet Baker’s melancholy composition “The Wind” plays against a backdrop of rose-tinged clouds hanging in a fading evening sky, the ending credit sequence begins to roll in Carlo Speranza’s video Superstition (2011–14). In a gesture that is frustrating and poetic, Superstition consists solely of a four-minute credit sequence in which the artist’s name appears in a number of places—director, lead actor, screenwriter, etc. Superstition is black humor, ostensibly the credit sequence to the end of the artist’s life. While the credits roll, numerous friends, family members, acquaintances and collaborators are listed in particular roles—sound technician, executive producers, and so on—that coincide with Hollywood production credits. Most emblematic of what unifies Speranza’s work, though, is that he credits “Fate” for casting his life.
Carlo Speranza. Superstition, 2011-2014; digital video, color, sound; 4:06. Courtesy of the Artist.
Holzpijama (Wooden Pajama) (2011) is a samurai-esque wooden suit of armor that riffs off of the words for “coffin” in two dialects, one Italian and the other Austrian/German. In both dialects a coffin is referred to as a wooden pajama, evoking a new layer of nurturing protection for the place where one finds final sleep. Speranza’s Holzpijama is made of thousands of tiny pieces of thin wood that have been sewn and nailed together. The work is complete with interior leather joints that make it functional as a wearable, if morbid, suit—even appropriate for sleeping.
Carlo Speranza. Holzpijama (Wooden Pajama), 2011; wood, leather, nails, glue; 175 x 85 x 41 cm. Courtesy of Südtiroler Künstlerbund and Sissa Micheli.
In an effort to address the problematic economic and infrastructural disparity that plays out between Italian artists and arts institutions, Speranza made a site-specific work at the Stadtmuseum Bruneck in Bolzano, Italy. Speranza noticed that the museum had tremendous resources for producing expensive exhibitions, yet chose almost pathologically to mount exhibitions by younger artists that the museum did not offer to pay. The installation 2019 (Goldnails) (2012) was composed of three solid-gold nails forged from a melted-down gold necklace that the artist received as a child. After making the nails, Speranza drove them into the walls of the gallery at the proper height and spacing for artworks to hang from them. By suggesting the presence of typical artworks like paintings but not actually including any, Speranza offers a materially subtle and conceptually poignant critique of the ways in which Italian museums allocate their resources.
Carlo Speranza. 2019 (Goldnails), 2012; 24-karat gold; 2.5 x 0.3 x 0.2 cm. Courtesy of the Artist.
Speranza’s work ranges from serious to distinctly comical, and it derives from and advances a legacy of conceptual art that plays out in a host of materials that are often site- and project-specific. What is surprising and laudable in Speranza’s artwork is his nimble ability to combine slick and witty ideas—both heavy and light—with incredibly well executed and crafted artworks, whether wood carvings or cardboard boxes.
Carlos Speranza is an artist living and working in Bolzano, Italy. His work has been shown internationally in group and solo exhibitions including: Museum Bärengasse, Zürich, CH; Scope Art Fair, New York, NY & Miami, FL; Rathaus Galerie, Bressanone, IT; Stadtmuseum Bruneck, Bolzano, IT; Messner Mountain Museum RIPA, Brunico, IT; Künstlerhaus Vienna, AT; Museo Civico Brunico, Brunico, IT; and Künstlerhaus, Klagenfurt, AT.
From our friends at Bad at Sports, today we bring you a synthesis of recent considerations on the economics of artist compensation. Author Abigail Satinsky asks, “Because if we do agree, yes artists should get paid, what then? Who are our choruses directed at?” This article was originally published on October 24, 2014.
Anna Gray + Ryan Wilson Paulsen. 100 Posterworks, 2009-2013; printed poster; 11 x 17 in.
In a recent review in the New Yorker of the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition of local art, “Crossing Brooklyn: Art from Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Beyond,” Peter Schjeldahl singles out BFAMFAPHD as puncturing the effervescent mood of the exhibition, saying that, “The collective BFAMFAPHD (the initials of academic degrees) spreads a homeopathic wet blanket on the show’s high spirits with statistical documentation of the hard lots of current graduates—the staggering number of artists, debt burdens, iffy prospects. The bonus bummer of a group discussion among veteran local artists, in the show’s catalogue, circles the drain of Topic A in the daily life of art anywhere: real estate.” While I don’t really care too much about the over-celebration of Brooklyn as a creative context, this snarky tidbit has a little bit of truth—the hard lots of current graduates is indeed a quite epic bummer and not just in the over-capitalized art scenes of New York.
But besides being concerned about the harshing of Schjeldahl’s mellow on the wonders of Bushwick, and I didn’t see the show, the questions around who can afford to be artist in today’s economy and concurrent debt crisis is a central concern to today’s generation of artists. How can we talk about this situation openly, honestly, with some well-deserved finger-pointing around the exploitation of artists by institutional culture and a little self-reflexivity about why artists do indeed deserve to get paid (all artists? for what kinds of services?) and who should pay them?
With the recent efforts by collectives BFAMFAPHD asking “What is a work of art in the age of $120,000 art degrees?”, W.A.G.E. Fee Calculator which aims to set standards for artist compensation based on organizational budgets, and from a slightly different angle Brooklyn Commune, “a report on the state of the performing arts from the perspective of artists” (all New York based) providing perspective with some hard numbers to back it up, it’s an exciting time to think about artist-driven efforts to research and fundamentally change the systemic exploitation of artists.
Hard not to like an artist who is unafraid to quote his dad in an interview (as you can see Kjartansson does in the footage above): “It’s sad and beautiful to be a human being”.
There’s also an honesty about his subject matter in The Visitors. It’s not about poverty, war or global pandemic. He’s Icelandic, after all. They are not supposed to have such things.
And lastly, he took the title for this nine-channel, 64-minute video installation from an album by Swedish popsters Abba. True, everyone likes Abba. But not everyone will admit it.
To put The Visitors in a nutshell, it’s an hour long promo video in which many musicians, in many rooms of a bohemian mansion, play a single piece of overwhelming music.
The song is minimal and repetitive and the most repeated line, “Once again I fall into my feminine ways”, is from a poem by the artist’s ex-wife Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir.
In Iceland they do at least have divorce and Kjartansson made this piece to reflect, as he says, a period of his life coming to an end. It is indeed a ‘sad and beautiful’ artwork.
A choir is gathered on the veranda and as the piece crescendoes one resident sets off an ornamental cannon. It’s the 1812 Overture rewritten for some protracted marital strife.
The cast of The Visitors are friends of the artist, whose background is in the Reykjavík music scene. So it’s a heartwarming collaboration at odds with the desolate subject matter.
Music can hotwire the emotions, so you have to be wary with a piece like this. But tingling hairs on the back of the neck aside, this emotionally awkward installation gives you something portable.
In the exemplary way these musicians pull together The Visitors offers a slice of fragile utopia. It explores similar territory to a film by Johanna Billing, another Scandinavian music fan.
Her piece, You don’t love me yet (2003), borrows the look and feel of a charity record to present the performance of an overlooked Roky Erickson song by a Stockholm-based supergroup.
It’s worth a look. Both works demonstrate that optimism and pessimism are often hard to tease apart, and that this state of ambivalence might be something eternal in the human condition.
The Visitors can be seen at Ffotogallery in Penarth, Cardiff, until 22 February 2015, as part of artes mundi 6. It is also in Museo Guggenheim, Bilbao until 2 November 2014.
Those interested in this piece might also enjoy this review from Art in America, written in April last year.
This year has been unusually promising for the visibility of work by black female artists, even while that prominence has further highlighted racially problematic attitudes within the art world. The last ten months have marked the first in which an African American woman—Carrie Mae Weems—was given a retrospective at the Guggenheim, though her triumphant entry into that pantheon led to rebukes that the museum cut the original size of the show in half. Perhaps the most talked-about work of the year was Kara Walker’s giant sugar sphinx mammy, A Subtlety, which was widely praised, but also led to questions about the representation of stereotypes and the spectacle of black and brown bodies for a primarily white audience.
Wangechi Mutu. Your Story My Curse, 2006; mixed-media collage on Mylar; overall: 101.5 x 109 in. Collection of Susan Hancock, New York.
At the Mary and Leigh Block Museum at Northwestern University, the year ends with a major exhibition by Kenyan-born artist Wangechi Mutu titled Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey. With works spanning the last twenty years of Mutu’s career, the mini-retrospective includes her iconic collages that feature sexualized composite creatures in fantasy landscapes, as well as several early line drawings with collage elements. The drawings are seeds that exploded into tour-de-force images on Mylar; they demonstrate that the artist’s formal concerns and subject matter—exploring themes of identity, gender, racism, caricature, fable, exploitation, colonialism, and ethnographic history—were established early in her career.
Mutu’s collages have strong graphic features that come through in reproduction, yet they still can’t match the experience of seeing them in person. The textures and qualities of her materials reward close viewing; bits of glitter, collections of beads, and rough textures are all part of the lusciousness of the visual experience. And because the collages are packed with surface details, more information reveals itself to the patient viewer.
Hummingbird (2010) exemplifies her imagery. The collage features a female figure in a foggy thicket, contemplating the partial form of at least one other body, as well as a pink flower, out of which Medusa-like tendrils and a giant hybrid serpent/bird/cicada monster emerges. She appears passive in her looking even as the voluptuousness of her body—constructed out of animal prints, paint, glitter, and other nude bodies—draws the viewer’s focus. The bright pink flower spews forth life and death, supported by a knobby stock that transforms into the belly, hips, thighs, and soil-caked undercarriage of a dismembered figure. In this glitter-and-dirt clod lies the attitude of dualism between attraction and repulsion that is always part of the artist’s craft.
Wangechi Mutu. Hummingbird, 2010; mixed media, ink, paint, glitter, fake pearls, and collage on Mylar; 94 x 70 in. Bert Kreuk Collection, the Netherlands.
The figures in Hummingbird exist in a mysterious landscape like actors on a stage; only the bare essentials of place are suggested. This background as gesture is one device that Mutu often repeats in works such as Riding Death in My Sleep (2002) and Your Story My Curse (2006), lending the images a storybook feel–more a fantasy space than a tangible environment. The fantastical nature of the lush setting also conjures thoughts of that racially charged no-place, the jungle, which postcolonial critics like Chinua Achebe have identified as the primordial hellscape of the 19th-century European literary imagination.
Mutu takes dead aim at the legacy of representing the jungle as nightmare in Fallen Heads (2010). Here, severed heads dance around the picture, strung together by wispy blades of grass that also might be tentacles. Fleshy pinks and purples bruise the brown and yellow heads. Eyes and mouths are large and confrontational, cut from photographs that suggest violence in every expression. Histories of lynching and genocide–the true flowers of incivility in the forest–haunt the picture.
Wangechi Mutu. Suspended Playtime, 2008/2013; packing blankets, twine, garbage bags, and gold string; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects.
Suspended Play Time (2008/2013) similarly suggests a gruesome collection of severed heads. In what might be the most effective piece in the show, dozens of head-sized spheres constructed out of garbage bags and twine are suspended just a foot or two off the floor. Similar in kind to the makeshift soccer balls used by destitute children across the world, the objects are emblematic of the myriad conflicts, diseases, and conditions that threaten the lives and futures of the young and impoverished. The sparse elegance of the display carries a palpable weight. In Mutu’s work, nothing is just one thing; each element serves a dual purpose.
Despite the beauty of the work on display, the show includes some distracting display choices. The use of felt to selectively cover certain gallery walls or evoke tree bark feels like an incomplete thought, neither immersive enough to fully alter the space nor a necessary addition for the contemplation of the rest of the art in the room. Warm Tree is billed as an installation, and on one hand the limited use of the felt in the gallery is consistent with the sparse forest backgrounds of Mutu’s pictures, but it also feels overdetermined, like there might be some question as to whether or not the work on display is experience enough.
Another questionable aspect of the show is the framing of the collages. Each is encapsulated by a white frame with glass, which makes for an elegant presentation, but it also creates problematic reflections over the images. Viewers can see themselves mirrored in the glass, which could be read either as an intentional provocation—implicating viewers into the postcolonial quagmire—or an ironic update on the gilded expositions of ethnographic fairs and 18th-century aristocratic art collections. More likely, it’s an unintended consequence of institutional display. It may seem to be a nitpicky gripe, but the glass reflections do affect the visibility of the images, and with pictures as rich as these, you really want nothing standing in the way.
Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey is organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University by Trevor Schoonmaker, Chief Curator and Patsy R. and Raymond D. Nasher Curator of Contemporary Art. The show is on view at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum at Northwestern University until December 7, 2014.
 The Block Museum is the final leg of the show’s traveling schedule. Last year, it opened at Duke University’s Nasher Museum. It then made its way to the Brooklyn Museum followed by the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami.
 This isn’t the first time mostly pictorial art has been displayed in a staged environment at a museum in/around Chicago in recent days. Last year, organizers of the Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago laid down kitschy AstroTurf in a gallery dedicated to paintings of picnic scenes and luncheon dresses. Is that a coincidence or a new trend in how artists and museums are thinking about displaying image-based artwork? Do viewers need to experience partial replicas of the pictures they are seeing in order to feel the art?
Melissa Anderson on MoMA’s preservation of Bert Williams Lime Kiln Field Day
The fifty donkeys were cute and the labels were amusing. But it was the third element in this piece which packed a real punch. A photo of a real donkey behind barbed wire in a town square.
It was a scene was staged by Nazi authorities in 1933 as a warning not to be stubborn and buy from Jewish shopkeepers. Or you too might end up in a concentration camp.
This shot was printed in a German newspaper in 1933, but for the purposes of this show it’s been blown up and displayed as forensic evidence on a lightbox.
Suddenly the donkey becomes the most noble of beasts. And the talent of these stuffed revolutionaries, the best examples of humanity, from Benjamin to Biko, becomes intransigence.
In the catalogue to artes mundi 6, essayist Natasa Ilic reveals that Bertold Brecht worked with a small wooden donkey on his desk to remind him of a critical section of his audience.
Hardworking donkeys are the salt of the earth. Which may be why, in the US political system, donkeys are democratic. It takes a tough hide, rather than a sharp mind, to make revolution.
The burden of so many of these cuddly toys, or the figures whose name they share, is to have had endured persecution, torture and in many cases execution.
As Manca Bajec points out on culture magazine B-turn, to see this piece is to realise that donkeys are unlikely heroes. Move aside Winnie, Eeyore’s in town.
Once again Ilic highlights something interesting. At least one philosopher has linked the spirit of revolution in the early 21st century to depression, withdrawal and exhaustion.
In the absence of any horizon of positive change, we must all learn from the donkey how to endure. Our only comfort, in the austerity age, might be a soft toy and a memory.
Just by way of an interesting aside: the German authorities may have overlooked the story of Balaam and the ass when they staged their 1930s photo op.
Balaam was of course a prophet on his way to curse the Israelites when the Angel of the Lord came down to turn him back and indeed destroy him.
His equine steed, a donkey as you will know, was granted sight of the Angel. And cut a long story short, Balaam ended up blessing the Jewish homeland. Spooky or what?
Iveković is one of nine shortlisted artists in artes mundi 6. The exhibition runs in various venues in Cardiff until 22 February 2015.
Wolf Vostell, ‘Endogene Depression’ installation view (all images courtesy of galerie Anne de Villepoix unless otherwise noted)
PARIS — Following on the heels of the Jean Dupuy and Robert Filliou gallery exhibitions, a third radical Fluxus-related artist is receiving a museum-quality gallery show in Paris: Wolf Vostell. Vostell was a German who, as an art student in Paris, was co-initiator of the European wing of the Fluxus art movement in the late 1950s and founder of the European Happening scene based in Cologne. Significantly, he was the first artist to integrate television into a work of art and to pursue an alternative, destructive, and dissident form of Pop art. In 1961 he formulated his psycho-aesthetic project: “ART = LIFE, LIFE = ART,” thus challenging the fetish of art objects, and by introducing television (a then-new medium) to art with his work “Transmigration” (1958), a slashed canvas with a flickering TV screen.
Endogene Depression is a re-creation of sorts of Vostell’s show by the same name that he presented at Smollin Gallery in New York City and at the Museo Vostell Malpartida in 1963. This work with television sets occurred at about the same time as that of Nam June Paik, another revolutionary Fluxus artist who also received a small but exciting show of video installation and digital painting in Paris at galerie Mitterrand recently.
Nam June Paik, “Musical Clock” (1989) (image courtesy Galerie Mitterrand)
The original Endogene Depression show traveled widely in different versions, including to Hannover, Germany in 1975 and to LAICA in Los Angeles in 1980, and this show takes its cues from there.
The title Endogene Depression is particularly telling. Endogenous substances are those that originate from within an organism, tissue, or cell. Endogenous viral elements are DNA sequences derived from viruses that are ancestrally inserted into the genomes of germ cells. These sequences, which may be fragments of viruses, or entire viral genomes (proviruses), can persist in the germline, being passed on from one generation to the next as host alleles. Endogenous processes include senescence, the menstrual cycle, and the self-sustained circadian rhythms of plants and animals.
Wolf Vostell, ‘Endogene Depression’ installation view
Thus the installation delightfully calls forth broadcast media as a viral entity within a conjugal host. This metaphor is achieved by mixing old cathode ray vacuum tube televisions, that have been encased or dumped in wet concrete, with funky old tables and dressers that evoke a traditional family dwelling.
To describe the effect of this work, Vostell formed the essential concept of décollage, the tearing apart and recontextualizing of existing pop images — rather than the piecing together of multiple image sources. This décollage idea can be traced back to Vostell’s early belief that society is surrounded and shaped by destruction, as he was deforming and manipulating posters in public places in order to reflect the violence of postwar France and Germany and its US-inspired consumerism.
This principle of destructive recontextualization can be seen with his silently stuttering video “Sun in your head (Television Decollage)” (1963), a film re-edited and copied to video in 1967 that was made from television images of airplanes, women, and men interspersed with pictures of texts like: silence, genius at work and ich liebe dich. The images have been blurred, partially erased and almost destroyed, leaving behind devastated distortions of the broadcast images. The film was subsequently shown in separate contexts, for instance in Amsterdam in 1964.
Wolf Vostell, ‘Endogene Depression’ installation view
By using moving television images, Vostell demonstrated the medium’s potential as an aesthetic language long before videotape became accessible. His work with décollage throughout the 1950s and early 1960s transformed the television medium into a device of public engagement and set up an early foundation for the décollage style that he stuck with for the rest of his artistic career. While never primarily a video artist, Vostell reverts here (and often) to television and mass media, supplying, in doing so, some important and highly complex stimuli for art discourse. His jumps and wobbles makes us doubt the real stability of media — and turn it toward an art of noise.
Nam June Paik ran at galerie Mitterrand (79, rue du Temple, Paris) June 17–October 18.
“Manufacture of coal” illustration from “God in nature and revelation” (1875) (all images via Internet Archive Book Images)
Galileo and other troublemakers aside, science and religion didn’t have such a complete falling out until the 19th century. It was roughly 200 years ago when researchers started regularly digging up archaeological and paleontological evidence that dated the Earth far earlier than Genesis suggested, and then a man named Darwin was publishing some troubling suggestions on the evolution of life in his 1859 The Origin of Species. But that didn’t mean the sides of belief and reason completely split in two. There were those who tried for a middle ground.
One of the forgotten natural theology books to come out of this era was God in Nature and Revelation (1875) by Reverend J. M. Woodman, published in the United States by J.G. Hodge & Co. It proclaims itself a “teacher of natural, mental, and moral philosophy, of natural and revealed religion” on its title page, joined by an illustration of Jesus standing on the planet alongside encircled by man and beast alike. Throughout the text are links between the Bible and the scientific formation of the world, but questionable connections aside, the accompanying images are surprisingly intriguing. The world is shown as a repeating orb, changes in the rise and fall of the oceans and the sediments shaded in, all the while the sun never stops glaring down on the proceedings as a constant reminder of a holy influence. It’s the Victorian romanticizing of science and nature colliding with religion.
Below are some of these images recently posted by Internet Archive Book Images on Flickr Commons as part of their new project, which is sharing millions of images extracted from their book digitizing. (You can view the entire God in Nature and Revelation at the Internet Archive.)
“Kosmos in vapor” illustration from “God in nature and revelation” (1875)
“Flood at its climax” illustration from “God in nature and revelation” (1875)
“Fountains of the deep broken up” illustration from “God in nature and revelation” (1875)
“Transverse view of the water, as it commenced togather and rotate upon the outside” illustration from “God in nature and revelation” (1875)
“Gigantic fern” illustration from “God in nature and revelation” (1875)
“Waters gathered into one place” illustration from “God in nature and revelation” (1875)
“Condensing from the outside, with comfessed poles” illustration from “God in nature and revelation” (1875)
“Dry land appearing” illustration from “God in nature and revelation” (1875)
“Port Jackson shark – Cheiracanthus” illustration from “God in nature and revelation” (1875)
“A globe of water, holding earthy matter insolution” illustration from “God in nature and revelation” (1875)
“Deposits of the sea, settling to their own specific gravity” illustration from “God in nature and revelation” (1875)
View more images from God in Nature and Revelation at the Internet Archive Book Images on Flickr Commons.
Tim Lane, cover of ‘The Lonesome Go’ (all images courtesy Fantagraphics)
For a digest of comics stories and intricate, free-standing illustrative work called The Lonesome Go, St. Louis artist and writer Tim Lane profiles familiar, typically unshaven folk: bar flies, train-hopping drifters, biker types. His subjects aren’t often shackled to homes or jobs, and in turn, Lane doesn’t weigh them down with backstories or peripheral details. Travel and highways are frequent motifs — everybody’s moving. There are buses, boats, rail lines, gas stations, pickup trucks, and long road trips. Lane’s weathered characters lumber in and out of motels and half-empty saloons on these big, black-and-white pages; they slip suddenly into surreal predicaments, where the pen strokes prove elastic and unpredictable.
Published by Fantagraphics, The Lonesome Go deviates little from Lane’s previous collection, the Ignatz Award–nominated Abandoned Cars (Fantagraphics, 2008). A bigger page size means more breathing room in the new book, but in both volumes, Lane breaks up his gloomy, first-person-driven graphic accounts of wandering loners and street hustlers with bursts of prose, photography, colored work, or faux full-page ads, re-creations of the sort that ran in vintage magazines or in old comics. Lane’s styles span florid scratchboard-like figures, brash underground- and zine-styled sketches, and controlled brushwork indebted to the comics industry’s now-revered artists of decades past. He pays tribute not merely in the oddball nostalgic ad reproductions, but in precise illustrative techniques and by enriching his panels with graphic design flourishes (his freelance portfolio includes magazine work for The Believer and Wired).
Page from Tim Lane’s ‘The Lonesome Go’ (click to enlarge)
Colossal typeface crowns Lane’s title pages in The Lonesome Go. The bulky, carnival bill–styled letters that introduce snow-blanketed madness in “The Passenger,” for example — a chronicling of what unfolds when an errand-bound man is sidetracked by pills and boozing buddies — are the kind that popped from the panels of EC Comics, the pre–Comics Code purveyor of crime, science fiction, horror, and more. When Lane’s comics don’t remind us of Charles Burns’s polished portraits, we can detect EC’s mark on the blacked-out barroom interiors and anxiety-ridden faces of The Lonesome Go. Shadows fall on close-ups of Lane’s drifters, and his orderly hatching or masses of fussy micro dashes build out curves in cheekbones or crowd foreheads with age lines. Wally Wood and Jack Davis, who worked as EC staff artists on titles such as Weird Fantasy and The Vault of Horror, are revered for having employed similar practices at drafting tables in a downtown New York City office in the 1950s. Lane also offers page foldouts, a device favored by some independent comics creators that was reversed to “fold-ins” by the creators of Mad, the satire magazine also produced by EC publisher William Gaines.
A fold-out called “Myth of Jack Presents: A Rough History of How the Military-Issued Harley Davidson WLA Liberator Changed American Culture” is a marvel of design. Lane’s fluency in portraiture, page layout, lettering, and storytelling is on display, as deep contextual details are crammed into tight panels and captions. The history lesson here — a WWII-era Harley Davidson motorcycle’s evolution from military transportation to a lofty, permanent perch in popular bike culture — is overrun with diagrams, technical drawings, an inset one-page comic, and more, with barely an inch of dead space to spare. This page ran a year ago in the newspaper-sized comics anthology Smoke Signal. Gabe Fowler, owner of Brooklyn’s Desert Island comics shop and Smoke Signal‘s publisher, turned me onto Lane’s work when he handed me the debut of Happy Hour in America, Lane’s DIY serial comic. It’s reproduced in The Lonesome Go.
Tim Lane, page from ‘The Lonesome Go’
Part one of Happy Hour‘s “Belligerent Piano” marries abstractions, film noir–inflected train yard episodes and curt text. Like many of Lane’s other stories, fairly anonymous lugs dig cigarettes out of weathered coat pockets between beers, ball their hands into fists, and scrap in alleyways. One can’t help but grow frustrated with a degree of sameness between comics owing to The Lonesome Go‘s indistinct character types, but it doesn’t weigh too heavily on the whole. Lane’s copy is lyrical but spare for “Belligerent Piano,” a melding of detective fiction and choppy Beat Generation–type prose. “The track line was a cemetery of dead animals decomposing under the hot early afternoon sun,” reads a caption. Lane nods to the Ramones and David Ruffin throughout the book, and quotes Jack Kerouac. Astral Weeks provides the soundtrack for multi-parter “In Another Life,” which trails a backpacking misfit through varying landscapes and psychedelic encounters; the story is peppered with depictions of a young Van Morrison.
Tim Lane, page from ‘The Lonesome Go’
A line from Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper” prefaces The Lonesome Go and sits nicely alongside Lane’s own words: “Hey, somebody out there, listen to my last prayer, hi-ho-silver-o, deliver me from nowhere.” The verse is cribbed from 1982’s four-tracked Nebraska, a spooky, dark, folk-powered set that plays like nothing else in Springsteen’s catalogue. Stories of rural killing sprees and sleeping “where the pines grow wild and tall” are among the record’s bare offerings, seldom framed in more than harmonica and acoustic guitar. Outside of The Lonesome Go‘s intellectual lightweight, a pornographic misfire called “Meat,” there are parallels to be drawn between Nebraska‘s well-crafted, unlucky nomads and those in Lane’s comics.
In “Hitchhiker,” the author uses shadow and negative space to powerfully evoke a stormy drive. Black lines streak the ran-lashed windshield between syrupy white trails, while the dark interior roof sets off the faces of driver and passenger, both illuminated by the dashboard lights. Pensive conversation yields a cataloging of recent troubles from the stone-faced guy behind the wheel: a divorce, the death of his son in a “freak accident.” His regrets load the narrative captions: “I shouldn’t have mentioned it. But sometimes you say things to hear them said; to hear what they sound like; to find out if they’re still true.” Lane caps this chilling yarn with tangible closure; when the book’s other sequences aren’t similarly adjourned, they burn for five- or six-page stretches of unconventional panel grids and hallucinatory splashes that writhe with energy. Lane manipulates the form masterfully at every turn, and consuming the rhythmic, open-ended copy and scarcity of conclusion in The Lonesome Go often left me feeling dizzy. But it’s probably nothing that a long road trip wouldn’t fix.
Imagine a corrugated metal shed in which two facing walls tower twenty-five feet high and extend fifty-eight feet in length. Each interior wall is paneled with fifteen six-foot by nine-foot Anselm Kiefer paintings that rise three feet high. Layering seems an apt metaphor not only for this work, Velimir Chlebnikov (2004)—whose shed stands inside the gallery building, inside the museum, inside the grounds of a former factory campus now occupied by MASS MoCA—but also for the two other Kiefer works that share the Hall Art Foundation building.
Left and Right: The two walls of painting of Anselm Kiefer’s Velimir Chlebnikov. Velimir Chlebnikov, 2004 (detail); steel pavilion, 300 x 330 x 689 in.; 30 paintings, oil, emulsion, acrylic, lead, and mixed media on canvas; 18 paintings, 75 x 130 in.; 12 paintings, 75 x 110 in. Courtesy of MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA, and Hall Art Foundation, New York. Photo: Saul Rosenfield.
The mass and material of each of the three installations bury the visitor in strata, not only in painting above painting above painting, or Kiefer’s signature accumulation of paint and other media, but also in the layers of undulating, rusted-rebar-spiked concrete snaking eighty-two feet in Étroit Sont les Vaisseaux (Narrow Are the Vessels) (2002), and twenty lead beds arrayed in The Women of the Revolution (Les Femmes de la Révolution) (1992/2013). In Velimir Chlebnikov—based on the eponymous 18th-century Russian poet and futurist’s mathematical proposition that great naval battles occur at 317-year intervals—visitors find themselves deep in a pictorial representation of this history, and under an unsettled ocean, black, gray, white, and ochre, studded with three-dimensional replicas of naval vessels. In The Women of the Revolution, the gray beds are draped with lead sheets and arranged in two rows, facing each other. They evoke the inescapability of hospital wards, psychiatric institutions, Dickensian orphanages, and cemetery graves, alluding as well as the shrouding of women in history. The surface of the lead is stained with the colors of mineral deposits, tracing strata even here.
The two other Kiefer works that share the Hall Art Foundation building at MASS MoCA with Velimir Chlebnikov. Left: Étroits Sont les Vaisseaux (Narrow Are the Vessels), 2002 (detail); concrete, steel, lead and earth; 60 x 960 x 110 in. Courtesy of MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA, and Hall Art Foundation, New York. Photo: Saul Rosenfield. Right: The Women of the Revolution (Les Femmes de la Révolution), 1992/2013 (detail); lead beds: dimensions variable; photograph on lead: 138 x 174 in. Courtesy of MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA, and Hall Art Foundation, New York. Photo: Saul Rosenfield.
It is difficult to extricate the experience of any of Kiefer’s artworks from either their thick, dark, heavy materiality or from their historical resonances to warfare, atrocity, and revolution. So it is strange to discover a simultaneous but completely different experience: play. The panels in Velimir Chlebnikov, for example, appear at first to document the movements and wreckage of enormous naval vessels mid-ocean. From a distance, however, many of these seascapes seem to reveal themselves as beaches or ponds, a trick of the eye that recasts the warships and submarines as models or toys propelled by the hands of children. And when viewed from above, the beds in The Women of the Revolution seem to represent not only the places where bodies might rest, but also, applying a radically different sense of scale, a landscape. The shift is unavoidable as each bed’s central cavity seems no longer to represent the imprint of a revolutionary woman’s body but instead records a desert crater, bomb site, or blasted heath. If these associations seem distant from the content of play, they are “playful” because they take the “bed” and turn it into what it is not, a landscape.
Two panels from Velimir Chlebnikov, which resemble the open ocean of naval warfare, at times seem to shift in scale to reveal a pond, cove, or estuary with model ships. Velimir Chlebnikov, 2004 (detail); steel pavilion, 300 x 330 x 689 in.; 30 paintings, oil, emulsion, acrylic, lead and mixed media on canvas; 18 paintings, 75 x 130 in.; 12 paintings, 75 x 110 in. Courtesy of MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA, and Hall Art Foundation, New York. Photo: Saul Rosenfield.
This shifting of perspective and scale suggests that Kiefer is not only referring back to history but also to childhood—not only to primordial battles and human attempts to make sense of them, but also to games that start with the imagination of toddlers. From one moment to the next, my impression of the work changes: I am buried in the sense of the material, with repeating canvasses paneling a chapel-like space or repeating beds lining a ward; in another, it is my finger that moves the toy boat, my hand that tumbles a stone into a crater.
Kiefer, however, does not leave visitors to their own devices. As the exhibition brochure explains, “(W)e find a single word inscribed in one painting . . . Aphrodite, and near it, among one of the few canvases without a ship affixed, the words Hero and Leander. Aphrodite, goddess of fertility and sexual rapture, arose, according to the poet Hesiod, from the foaming sea churned up when Cronus castrated his father, Uranus, casting the severed genitalia into the ocean. Hero and Leander were lovers in Aphrodite’s court, whose secret nightly rendezvous required swimming nearly a mile each way across the treacherous Hellespont.”
Two of the beds in The Women of the Revolution showing could be mistaken from above for desert or mining landscapes, shifting in scale from intimate to massive. The Women of the Revolution (Les Femmes de la Révolution), 1992/2013 (detail); lead beds: dimensions variable; photograph on lead: 138 x 174 in. Courtesy of MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA, and Hall Art Foundation, New York. Photo: Saul Rosenfield.
But most people don’t know anything about Cronus or Uranus and think of Aphrodite in terms not of fertility but love. And the story of Hero and Leander, if people think about it at all, represents a tragedy of love akin to Romeo and Juliet. (Leander drowns after he gets lost and Hero kills herself by jumping into the sea.) Keifer’s visual and verbal references to Chlebnikov’s arcane mathematics, to his military history, and to the mythological sea battle between Cronus and Uranus requires the viewer to read into the panels other histories and the relationship among love, hate, and despair. None of Kiefer’s symbols, it seems, remains stable. So the upside-down gloves that adorn three of the Chlebnikov images might read as a hamsa—a sign in Islamic and Jewish lore that protects against evil—or the hand of an unseen power (a god or dictator or admiral), or the lost “hands” of battle (that is, the sailors), or the hands of children pushing toy boats. Similarly, the beds frame the women revolutionaries, whose names Kiefer has scrawled on the installation’s walls, as wounded and warded together; the orphanage-like arrangement reminds us that their histories have been abandoned.
The Kiefer works evoke many associations, some explicit such as the reference to the goddess Aphrodite (written in Greek in the image on the right), others ambiguous such as the glove hanging (in image on the left). Anslem Kiefer. Velimir Chlebnikov, 2004 (detail); Steel pavillion, 300 x 330 x 689 inches; 30 paintings, oil, emulsion, acrylic, lead and mixed media on canvas; 18 paintings, 75 x 130 inches; 12 paintings, 75 x 110 inches. Courtesy of MASS MoCA , North Adams, MA, and Hall Art Foundation, New York. Photo: Saul Rosenfield
If it is difficult to emerge from the exhibition without feeling the weight of all these layers, the works equally instill a sense of buoyancy. The works are beautiful in the way of the old wood, old stone, and weathered steel discovered in churches or tumble-down houses. Kiefer asks us to be aware of the stories he recounts: Chlebnikov’s, Jules Michelet’s 1854 study of women who played a role in the French Revolution, and the French Nobel Laureate Alexis Leger’s poetry in Étroit Sont les Vaisseaux. But the works also demand that we inhabit our bodies. Despite the writing they incorporate, Kiefer’s artworks are not apprehendable as written histories. They are legible primarily as the sensation of weight, the layer upon layer. Kiefer scrawls a Leger quotation on the wall, “Une même vague par le monde, une même vague depuis Troie, Roule sa hanche jusq’à nous” [One same wave throughout the world, one wave since Troy rolls its haunch towards us]. And so we feel these works as we feel—and perhaps, fear—the rolling of this wave, a commentary as much on the feeling as on the nature of history.
Anselm Kiefer is on view at MASS MoCA through 2028. This year, it closes for winter on November 2, 2014.
 MASS MoCA,“Anselm Kiefer,” Exhibition Brochure. North Adams, MA: Hall Art Foundation and Mass MoCA (2013), 3–4.
 Both the quotation and its translation are from the MASS MoCA exhibition brochure.
Water Street Studios in Batavia, Illinois (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
CHICAGO — I recently visited an exhibition at Water Street Studios in Batavia, about 40 miles West from the center of Chicago — the equivalent, say, of driving halfway across Long Island from Hyperallergic’s Brooklyn office. In other words, a little off the beaten path.
What I found when I got there was a thriving community of a couple dozen artists who work in a renovated limestone building close to the banks of the Fox River. The gallery on the first floor seems to display the usual eclectic mix of crafts, jewelry, and locally themed art that you often find in small towns, but currently it is also hosting a strong show of paintings and mixed media work by four artists, organized by artist-curator Rita Grendze.
“There was a fashion show here just before we installed the paintings, so the title of the show [Avenue and Passage] actually relates more to that,” Grendze explains. “But I interpreted it in the sense of 2D work that suggests rites of passage through our country and culture, things that we might perceive in our peripheral vision as we travel, fragments of pop culture, or the bits and pieces you find in old drawers.”
Steve Banks, “Domain,” oil on canvas with carved frame
The pieces by three of the artists (Steve Banks, Lisa Lomas, and Dawn Tutt) fit Grendze’s description most closely. Their work consists of fragments of images, gathered from personal or public sources, that are painted onto wood, placed inside boxes, or incorporate carved wood, a coincidence of material that carries associations of the homemade or the discarded object, as well as folk art and the found object. Tutt’s door panel works are the slightest pieces in the show. Lomas’s “Winding Roar” is a collection of things related to birds and seeds and flowers placed inside a shadow box à la Joseph Cornell. Banks’s oil paintings inside carved wooden frames are striking pieces that are the clearest fulfillment of the curator’s intention. “Domain,” for example, is packed with references to small town maps, road signs, fast food, Mississippi river boats, dime store slogans, and more, depicted in comic book style imagery and encased in an ornately carved frame that continues the trash-culture theme. They’re kind of ugly, but in a good way.
Jen Evans, “I Wish I Could Still Breathe Underwater,” mixed media on panel
The mixed media paintings by Jen Evans are related to the other works in the show in the sense that her work is kind of a collage of mark making. Also, she titles her paintings with phrases drawn from the dialogue in her favorite Wes Anderson films. Using acrylic, oil, automobile paint, powdered graphite, resin, and other stuff, she builds up the surfaces of her paintings using overlapping circular shapes that billow all over the canvas before being temporarily engulfed in poured paint. She repeats this process again and again, sometimes taking up to a year to complete a set of works, resulting in an engrossing tension between suggestions of seascapes or flora, and an abstractionist’s interest in the patterning of one mark or shape next to another. Their sophistication rewards careful looking, and these pictures alone made the long drive out of Chicago worthwhile.
Lisa Lomas, “Winding Roar,” box, glass, seeds, collage
On-som’bel 2014: Avenue and Passage continues at Water Street Studios, 160 South Water Street, Batavia, Illinois, through November 1st 2014.
Ceramic sculptures by Nicholas Nyland, presented by Spaceworks, at the Vazquez Building (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
In hip-hop, the East Coast–West Coast rivalry has died down since the days of 2Pac and Notorious BIG, but perusing last weekend’s Exchange Rates expo in Bushwick you could easily have gotten the impression that it was now raging in the art world — and that West Coast artists and galleries are killing it. Los Angeles’s Durden and Ray, Tacoma’s Spaceworks, and Seattle’s Season mounted what were, to me, some of the expo’s most compelling and revelatory exhibitions.
Watch the Moat
The best thing at the Vazquez Building, the unofficial focal point of Exchange Rates, was not in the cavernous main space but around the corner in the all-white storefront, where Tacoma’s Spaceworks and Bushwick’s Generis collaborated on a six-artist show featuring three Brooklynites collaborating with three West Coast artists. The centerpiece, a low wooden table built by Megan Stockton and equipped with a fast-flowing moat, hosted an arrangement of playful and drippy ceramic sculptures by Nicholas Nyland. Additional sculptures by Nyland floated around the table’s circumference, like so many California rolls at a novelty sushi bar.
Despite the impressive Nyland-Stockton apparatus, the subtle and creepy pleasures of Sarah Gilbert’s sculptures — a hammer and clamps that have sprouted steel fingers where nobs and notches ought to be — were the show’s most memorable entries.
Installation view of ‘Community Association,’ presented by Bushwick’s Generis and Tacoma’s Spaceworks at the Vazquez Building, with ceramics by Nicholas Nyland atop a mote table by Megan Stockton
Sarah E. Gilbert, “Drunkard Path (Detail)” (2012), presented by Spaceworks at the Vazquez Building
Detail of installation by Dexter Ciprian, presented by Generis, at the Vazquez Building
Detail of Sarah Gilbert, “Hammer,” presented by Spaceworks at the Vazquez Building
A collaboration between Sarah Gilbert and Dexter Ciprian at the Vazquez Building
In the front room of Norte Maar, artist and curator David French of Los Angeles’s Durden and Ray hung mostly funny, colorful, and playful works, including Max Presneill’s large canvas “Interstitial” (2014), which resembles what a good Oscar Murillo painting might look like, if such a thing existed, and Jon Flack’s rendering of pained and entangled wrestlers. But Grant Vetter’s disturbingly seductive painting “Untitled” (2011) — which might be the closest thing to a slab of raw meat anyone has hung on a gallery wall since Paul Thek — hinted at the darker works in the gallery’s back room.
There, The Great Wrong Place took up the task of exposing the dank, dripping, and frightening spaces lurking behind Southern California’s sunny and manicured façade. Pieces like Nick Brown’s “The Wall” (2013) — which evokes a point-of-view shot from the perspective of a murderer in a slasher movie, rendered in heaping gobs of black, purple, brown, and blue paint — and French’s spiky and kinky sculpture “Kane and Abel” (2014) drove home the exhibition’s dual themes of alluring surfaces and the sordid impulses they often conceal.
Max Presneill, “Interstitial” (2014, at left) and Esmerelda Montes, “Funeral” (2011, at right), presented by Los Angeles’s Durden and Ray at Norte Maar
Esmerelda Montes, “Funeral” (2011, at left), and Jon Flack, “Coronita” (2013, at right), presented by Durden and Ray, at Norte Maar
Gil Kuno, “Everything | Nothing” (2013), presented by Durden and Ray at Norte Maar
Gil Kuno, “Everything | Nothing” (2013), presented by Durden and Ray at Norte Maar
Grant Vetter, “Untitled” (2011), presented by Durden and Ray at Norte Maar
Nick Brown’s “The Wall” (2013, at left) and Kio Griffith’s “White Elephant Fukushima Daiichi No.4 Reactor” (2013, right), presented by Durden and Ray at Norte Maar
Sculptures by David French (left) and Emily Counts (right), presented by Durden and Ray at Norte Maar
Seattle gallery Season also catered to viewers’ tactile desires, albeit in a much less ominous manner: with Seth David Friedman’s small sculptures, which visitors were invited to pick up from their stands around Theodore:Art’s space to feel the different textures and weights of the works. Friedman’s sculptures, made of bronze sheathed in colorful children’s bandages, gold-plated bronze, jet-black and brightly colored silicone, combine forms from sex toys, modernist sculptures, and archaeological tools, making for hybrid artifacts that seemed simultaneously naughty and precious, contemporary and ancient.
The other artist that Season Director Robert Yoder brought across the country also played on the senses, but not in such a hands-on manner. Michael Ottersen’s abstract, duochrome paintings reward close observation, their thickly layered surfaces giving way to the occasional line of raw or primed canvas for a pleasing interplay of textures, tones, and modes of application.
Installation view of works presented by Blackwater Polytechnic (Essex, UK), Season (Seattle), and Theodore:Art in the latter’s Bushwick space
Sculptures by Seth David Friedman, presented by Season, at Theodore:Art
A painting by Michael Ottersen, presented by Season, at Theodore:Art
A painting by Michael Ottersen, presented by Season, at Theodore:Art
Exchange Rates, of which Hyperallergic is a media sponsor, took place October 23–26 at various locations in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
The excavation site in Saratov (all images courtesy of Dmitriy Kubankin)
It’s hard to imagine a time when present-day Russia didn’t exist. But along the banks of the Volga River in modern-day Saratov, a reminder is being unearthed.
According to a Live Science report, the ruins of a 750-year-old city called Ukek have been partially uncovered by a team at Saratov Regional Museum of Local Lore. The city was founded in the early 13th century by Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan and ruler of the Golden Horde Kingdom. But kingdoms come and kingdoms go, and another invading army destroyed Ukek in the 14th century.
Now, the world is getting a peek at what life was like there centuries ago. Archaeologist Dmitriy Kubankin presented his team’s findings at the European Association of Archaeologists’ annual meeting in Istanbul. Discoveries at the site reveal a multicultural city of great wealth, where objects from around the world were used, and where Islam, Christianity, and Shamanism were all practiced.
A bas relief carving found in a Christian temple shows a griffin attacking a lion
Most of the completed work centers around the Christian quarter of the city and shows that wealthy people also frequented the area despite the fact that Christians were not part of the ruling class. The basements of two Christian temples, rife with artifacts, were discovered. The first was built around 1280 and destroyed in the early 14th century. “It was roofed with tiles and decorated with murals and stone carving[s], both, from the outside and inside,” Kubankin told Live Science, noting a well-preserved bas relief carving showing a lion being clawed by a griffin.
The second temple was built in 1330 and used until 1350 and would have had a similar tile roof and stone walls. Many objects imported from the Byzantine Empire, Egypt, and Iran were also found. “Any church cellar was considered a safe place to store goods in it, therefore, merchants from the nearest neighborhood used to keep (objects) of sale there,” Kubankin explained.
There is still much work to be done, but Kubankin noted it will be difficult to uncover the entire city, as it stretches through several plots of private land. “Nevertheless, digging just in one site may lead to significant discoveries,” he said.
* * *
A fragment of a bone plate, discovered in the Christian quarter of Ukek
A glass hairpin from China, unearthed in the Christian quarter of Ukek
Part of a wooden handle shaped like a panther’s head, found in a Christian temple in Ukek
A stonepaste (kashine) plate imported from Egypt or Iran, found in the Christian quarter of Ukek
A pot found in Ukek
A storage vessel found in a Christian temple in Ukek
Part of a plate imported from Byzantium.
Fragments of a stonepaste (kashine) bottle imported from Egypt or Iran
A student-initiated meeting took place in the Main Building at CalArts last Thursday to address the issue of sexual assault. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
LOS ANGELES — In the great hall of the central building at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) last Thursday, hundreds of students gathered to work through the aftermath of an alleged rape. The incident — “alleged” because the assailant was found guilty by the school but not criminally prosecuted — became part of the public record through an Al Jazeera America article earlier this month. That account details the travails of the victim, identified as Regina, as she took her sexual assault case to the administration and faced retribution from a small campus bitterly divided between the camps of accuser and accused. Seeking to rehabilitate a system that they has failed them, the CalArts students congregated on Thursday afternoon after staging a walkout from their classes, followed by a peaceful occupation of the school’s administrative offices, the first such action in recent memory. Both the collective action and ensuing public meeting represented a rare instance of student-initiated congregation across métiers at CalArts. “What we’re seeing is a tremendous surge in activism,” professor Matias Viegener told Hyperallergic, “but it’s often cyclical.”
One by one, students took turns addressing their peers at the microphone, with occasional contributions from members of the faculty who’d joined the assembled in their desire to reform the institutional culture at CalArts. Surrounded by posters and artworks dealing with sexual assault and community empathy as well as broader institutional concerns, like the skyrocketing cost of tuition, the speakers addressed everything from the definition of rape — one young man referred to it as a “spectrum” that begins with an “objectifying look” — to very specific demands about the administrative system for adjudicating claims of sexual assault and school-wide training on consent. (At the request of student organizers who invited Hyperallergic to the meeting, we have omitted participants’ personally identifiable information.)
Anonymous flyer critical of tuition hikes
“From their initial response in the spring to their follow-up to the student’s response this fall, the administration appears not to have handled this issue well … they need to account for their actions, policies, and procedures to the CalArts community,” Viegener told Hyperallergic in an email. The writer, artist, and critic, who has been at the school for 27 years, noted that “a majority of the faculty is very troubled by this, and is in solidarity with the students calling for change.”
At the meeting, another professor described how the school’s Title IX coordinator, a federally mandated administrator whose sole duty is to hear allegations of sexual discrimination and misconduct, is part of the logistical side of the institution, not the academic side, thus ensuring his alienation from the student community. Other speakers echoed a desire to see CalArts adopt a more rigorous mechanism for responding to victims of sexual assault. There wasn’t always agreement, though rebukes remained respectful. For example, the aforementioned participant who insisted that rape was a “spectrum” was disagreed with by a number of others, who acknowledged that objectification was part of the problem but argued that rape must be sharply defined in order for meaningful punitive measures to be employed.
MFA student exhibition installation
At the end of the hour-and-a-half long discussion, specific action plans were presented and assigned on a first-come basis to individual student volunteers, ranging from logistical matters like coordinating the faculty’s involvement and demands for transparency regarding adjudication procedures to the broader imperative of encouraging students to “address the culture of violence” with their art. Indeed, many already have, with roughly half of the second-year MFA students opting to show a related “community text” either in lieu of or adjacent to their artworks in a current show. The text, consisting of a list printed on letter-size paper, contains such injunctions as “We want a school that cares about consent” and “We want a school that is radical.” Numerous printed sheets posted throughout the building’s corridors called for a return to “shared governance.” Signed “Mickey Leaks,” with reference to the school’s founder, Walt Disney, the flyers enjoin students to anonymously submit information about administrative malfeasance.
“Mickey Leaks” flyer
The peaceful occupation of the school’s administrative offices that took place between the walkout and the meeting included some faculty, among them the artist and professor Sam Durant. As the group sat on the floor and furniture, an assistant to CalArts president Steven Lavine reportedly fielded a call from the Los Angeles Times: “Yes, they’re on the floor in here … ” This was not the first direct action this semester that aimed at disrupting the school’s administrative proceedings. On October 15, students interrupted a meeting of the board of trustees — which includes the actor Don Cheadle and Austin M. Beutnr, publisher and CEO of the Los Angeles Times — to share a document detailing the contents of the Al Jazeera article about Regina’s case. Cori Redstone, an MFA student who has played a key role in organizing these activities, further claims that the administration engaged in a concerted campaign to remove posters critical of its handling of the sexual assault issue ahead of a parents weekend earlier this month.
The CalArts press office has not responded to repeated requests for comment about the walkout, occupation, and community meeting. (A spokeswoman did tell the Los Angeles Times that the number of students involved in the walkout was “substantial.”) Reached by telephone, an official in the CalArts provost’s office declined to comment beyond disputing that the meeting on Thursday represented a rare instance of community-wide engagement, noting that while it might be the first such meeting this year, the school gathers as a community “a couple times a year” — though such meetings are planned by the university itself. The student activism comes as school sexual assault policies have fallen under scrutiny nationwide: CalArts is currently one of 85 colleges being federally investigated for their handling of cases.
The administrative office occupation (image courtesy of Cori Redstone)
It is a quirk of perception that we read this as a city. On the face of it, most of Navarro’s work is comprised of regimented obelisks.
So it’s not like any city you or I might live in. There’s no chaos, no movement and no colour. The columns are as grave as tombstones in a city of the dead.
Yet in its rational structure and the zones we can read as neighbourhoods, we recognise this as a place which the human race might yet spirit into existence.
If architects have, from the renaissance onwards, conceived of buildings in relation to the human form, Navarro throws all that out of a 100th floor window.
There is nothing humanist about this anthill. It is as heavily planned as a city conceived by some ancient people (or perhaps a child). And yet the high rise technology is 21st century.
Something ominous haunts the viewer. In this respect it is like one of de Chirico’s urban dreams. (Navarro has paid tribute to the surreal classicist.)
But no matter how sinister, this vast settlement has pull. The lighting is promising and the canyons of aluminium and zinc impress with their mystery.
There is even a bullring. And with so little else of discernible function, tauromachia assumes a huge importance in the life of this civilization to come.
One imagines it at the heart of an arcane religion. Or as a social device like the lottery in The Lottery in Babylon by Jorge Luis Borges who for some reason comes to mind.
All we know for sure is that this dystopia, which took five years to build, is a piece of timeless bad news. Navarro tells us, in great detail, the worst is still out there, somewhere.
Wall City can be seen in Art of Our Time: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collections, now showing at the Guggenheim Bilbao until 3 May 2015.
The crowd at Storefront Ten Eyck during Beat Nite 11 (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Ah, Beat Nite. A time of magical madness, when we run frantically around Bushwick for four hours, trying to see all the art. Last Friday’s Beat Nite featured 16 galleries that kept their doors open late. All of them were participating in the first Exchange Rates expo, which brought a slew of artists from different states and countries to Bushwick. At some galleries, the work of those artists was mixed in with mainstays from the local rosters; at others, it was on view in a separate space or room, running alongside a regularly programmed show. Amid the amiable faces and free-flowing drinks, I quickly lost track of what was part of what, and by the time 9pm rolled around and we arrived at 56 Bogart Street — where other galleries not connected to Exchange Rates or Beat Nite were also having openings — I gave up and just let myself enjoy the art I could find. Herewith, a brief walkthrough.
Daniel V. Keller at Signal
My first stop was Signal, which happened to be showing Swiss artists in both its spaces: Daniel V. Keller in the main gallery and, for Exchange Rates, Selina Grüter and Michèle Graf presented by Up State in a small room off to the side. Both shows left me cold: Keller’s handmade riffs on roadside attractions couldn’t quite hold their own in the cavernous gallery, while Grüter and Graf’s sunset banner was ill-positioned to reveal its subtle display of color. But I would have liked to stay and watch the duo’s slowly shifting projection of the color spectrum for a lot longer.
Selina Grüter and Michèle Graf at Signal
ArtHelix owner Peter Hopkins speaking to visitors, with work by Mari Rantanen in the background
ArtHelix, another converted industrial space, had at least three shows on view, programmed by the gallery and Exchange Rates visitors Susak Press. The standout was not even a show but a small collaborative room by Susak artists Natalia Kempowsky and Daniel Devlin. The pair activated the space with an installation of photographs, wooden boards, handmade domino-type pieces (with prints on them), and ceramic flowers. The work stood out for its interplay of industrial and natural materials and the potency of its careful scattering.
Installation by Daniel Devlin and Natalia Kempowsky with Susak Press, at ArtHelix
Detail of Devlin and Kempowsky’s installation
Storefront Ten Eyck
Jody Joyner, “T-Shirt” (2013), acrylic, 30” x 30”
At Storefront Ten Eyck, I forewent the Exchange Rates collaboration with Paris’s La Couleuvre gallery in favor the stellar group show in the main space. Proof that abstract painting still ain’t dead yet, Abstraction and Its Discontents features 20 artists making whimsical but intelligent work. Standouts include Andrew Small’s “Attraction, Subtraction” (2013) and Sara Jones’s “Honest Misrepresentations” (2014), patterned mashups that tug at each other as they hang side by side; Jody Joyner’s luminous and somehow alien-like “T-Shirt” (2013); and Sharon Butler’s compelling corporate remix, “DD (Want Me)” (2014).
Andrew Small, “Attraction, Subtraction” (2013), oil on canvas, 14” x 12” and Sara Jones, “Honest Misrepresentations” (2014), acrylic on panel, 32” x 40”
Sharon Butler, “DD (Want Me)” (2014), pencil, pigment, binder, T-shirts on canvas, 72” x 84”
The Active Space
Bai Ye, “Infinitely Close” (2014), 3 digital prints on digital wallpaper, 10′ x 16′
For Exchange Rates, Associated Gallery, Outlet Fine Art, Parallel Art Space, Fort Gallery, Artist Proof Studio, and Telescope all converged on the Active Space, where work by 12 artists was thrown together under the theme/title Altered Terrain. Even though the idea of shifting environments is vague enough that it can be applied to almost anything, it did seem to work as a thread here, pulling together pieces in a variety of media that seemed concerned with both analogue and digital archaeologies. Bai Ye’s stunning installation of three digital prints on wallpaper “Infinitely Close” (2014) stole the show, but contributions from Bevan De Wet, Rob Leech, and Julian Lorber more than held their own.
Bevan De West, “Fragments of a Forgotten History
II and III” (2008–11), etching
Julian Lorber, “Foregone Clonclusion_Quarry Dust” (2014), 20″ x 14.5″ x 10″
Rob Leech, “Sublime Bronze” (2014), instant tan on wall
Lauren Britton, “Open Wide”
This space also played host to multiple galleries and art organizations in a miniature maze of rooms behind a bar: Trove, Qwerty, Sluice__ screens, Frank Bobbins Institute, and Arts in Bushwick. The quality of the work on view was fairly mixed, but Arts in Bushwick’s open-call show boasted a handful of strong entries, including a gnarly painting of a mouth by Lauren Britton and a clever collage of a woman’s face by Richard Vergez. Some of the most interesting stuff here was happening outside of the galleries, though: a trippy mural by Don Pablo Pedro in the courtyard and, on the street in front of the building, an improvisational protest by an artist named John Bonafede, who amicably served visitors cheese and grapes under the gaze of a customized inflatable union rat. Bonadfede was there to protest the nonpayment of performers by art institutions and to push his idea for a performance artists union called Local One Million. I asked him if he’d been talking to W.A.G.E.; he said he’d been meaning to look them up.
Richard Vergez, “Organization”
Mural by Don Pablo Pedro
John Bonafede (in the hat) offers passersby cheese, grapes, and information.
Bonafede’s take on the union rat
Elizabeth Ferry, “Diver” (2014), styrofoam, Hydrocal, Mixol, assorted minerals, 4′ x 8′ x 2′ at Honey Ramka
Elizabeth Ferry’s solo show at Honey Ramka is a mixed bag. The paintings on the wall feel like uninspired, my-kid-can-do-that tossoffs, but in the sculptures Ferry’s messiness takes convincing form. Two huge, table-like objects dominate the space, both covered in splotches of color and, in one case, what appear to be paint-covered strawberries and other fruits outlining the body of a woman. The pieces look like they could be rediscovered ancient art, or perhaps relics bearing the remains of some deliciously decadent rituals.
Elizabeth Ferry, detail of “Just Her” (2014), styrofoam, Hydrocal, Mixol, geodes, flowers, assorted minerals, 4′ x 8′ x 1′, at Honey Ramka
Occupy Museums, “DebtfairII” (2013–14) at Momenta Art
Not technically part of Beat Nite or Exchange Rates, Momenta Art is so strategically positioned in 56 Bogart that it’s nearly impossible not to wander in. And I’m glad I did, because the show they were opening on Friday looks fascinating. Work It Out examines the connections between art and labor through contributions by artists Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Peter Fend, Matthew Greco and Gregory Sholette, and others. I only managed to take in the scale models contributed by Occupy Museums and Debtfair, which appealingly propose ways of intervening in existing art gallery and fair models to reveal and exchange bundles of debt. I spent a long time looking at (and talking and thinking about) them, and I’ll have to go back to see everything else.
Detail of Occupy Museums, “DebtfairII” (2013–14) at Momenta Art
Occupy Museums, “DebtfairII” (2013–14) at Momenta Art
Beat Nite 11 took place October 24, 6–10pm, in conjunction with Exchange Rates, which ran October 23–26, both of them at various galleries around Bushwick. Hyperallergic was the media sponsor of both.
Installation view of works at The Active Space (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
It’s telling that Exchange Rates, last weekend’s Bushwick-wide art event, is described on its official website as “an exposition,” as opposed to a straightforward exhibition or a sales-driven art fair. The four-day program of pop-up shows, talks, panels, performances, and ambulatory happenings pairing local Brooklyn galleries with art spaces from London, Manchester, Paris, Berlin, Zürich, Johannesburg, Beijing, Los Angeles, Seattle, and elsewhere felt at times like a biennial, a symposium, and, yes, even an art fair.
Locals Show and Prove
One of the international affair’s strongest shows was the one featuring the greatest number of local galleries. Bushwick’s Parallel Art Space, Associated Gallery, and Outlet brought their A-game to a vast and very rewarding group show in The Active Space‘s first floor gallery, which they shared with Johannesburg’s Artist Proof Studio, Beijing’s Telescope Gallery, and London’s Fort Gallery. Heeseop Yoon’s formidable tape mural at the rear of the space, “Still Life” (2014), presented by Outlet, proved a potent pairing with Jan Tshikhutula’s evocative, black-and-white linocut prints.
Works by Julian Lorber, presented by Associated Gallery, at The Active Space
Works by Joshua Johnson, presented by Parallel Art Space, at The Active Space
A tape mural by Heeseop Yoon, presented by Outlet, at The Active Space
Gems at the Mall
The salesroom atmosphere was most palpable at Bushwick’s art mall, 56 Bogart Street, but even here the offerings were sufficiently eclectic and the pairings unpredictable enough to undercut the art fair airs. The cohabitation of Seattle gallery Season, the UK’s Blackwater Polytechnic collective, and local outfit Theodore:Art in the former’s space was especially fruitful. The more earnest and unconventional pieces by the Blackwater artists and the comparatively sleek and subdued works shown by Season formed extremes on a spectrum along which Theodore:Art’s selections could be located — Joyce Robins’s painted ceramics are undoubtedly more Blackwater-y, while Andrew Seto’s abstract paintings are more Seasonal in style.
Installation view of works presented by Theodore:Art, Season, and Blackwater Polytechnic at Theodore:Art
Works by Simon Emery (left) and Sara Impey (center) presented by the UK’s Blackwater Polytechnic and a painting by Michael Ottersen (right) presented by Seattle’s Season gallery, at Theodore:Art
Freddie Robins, “Pocky,” presented by Blackwater Polytechnic at Theodore:Art
The Industrial Pop-Up
The centerpiece of the weekend’s offerings was an installation of works in the Vazquez Building, a two-story industrial facility at the corner of Central Avenue and Forrest Street, where Bushwick’s Harbor, Seattle’s Spaceworks, and London’s Studio 1.1, among others, had installed pieces. Much of the installation left me indifferent, including the large-scale but nevertheless forgettable sculptures by Antoniadis & Stone that greeted visitors as they entered. One great treat was the room full of Michael Childress paintings, all white-on-blue and suggestive of indecipherable science diagrams or the postal stamps of some extra-planetary parcel service. (Though I missed their performances and gaming sessions in an upstairs space at the Vazquez Building, I will now be following the activities of the Institute of Aesthletics, a group exploring the intersection of contemporary art and sports.)
Sculptures by Antoniadis & Stone, presented by Bushwick’s Harbor, at the entrance to the Vazquez Building
Collages by Jay Cloth, presented by London’s Studio 1.1
Michael Childress, “The Island on Fire” (2014), presented by Harbor
Works by Michael Childress, presented by Harbor
Rather than separate out their artists completely, or intersperse them randomly, Manchester’s Paper and Seattle’s Platform Gallery grouped their works thematically and by visual correspondence, making for a very compelling group show at Schema Projects. The most appealing of these pairings brought together works riffing on vernacular sign- and note-making. Marc Dombrosky’s embroidered notes, like cryptic Post-Its, were a subdued but successful match for David Milles’s ink and watercolor paintings based on “Lost Cat” posters.
Drawings by Bethan Hamilton, presented by Manchester’s Paper, and photographs by Jesse Burke, presented by Seattle’s Platform Gallery, at Schema Projects
Small works by artists who show with Manchester’s Paper at Schema Projects
Embroidered notes by Marc Dombrosky, presented by Seattle’s Platform Gallery, alongside paintings from David Milles’s ‘Lost Cat Series’ presented by Manchester’s Paper at Schema Projects
Berlin in Bushwick
One of the most thoughtfully curated and diverse exhibitions I saw all weekend was at TSA (Tiger Strikes Asteroid), where Berlin’s GSL Projekt was presenting a show of works in which artists were exploring the limits of perception, and imagining what might lay beyond them. A pair of photographs by Hanna Ljungh showing layers of construction materials and three whimsical paintings by Marie Von Heyl imagining different arrangements of geological strata echoed each other nicely. More astronomic takes on the theme, Naomi Reis’s “Dark Matter (Glitch)” (2011) and Alana Lake’s “Black Sun” (2014) — a black flag printed with an image of a solar eclipse — made for another compelling internal rhyme in this smart show.
Installation view of ‘This Dust,’ an exhibition presented by Berlin’s GSL Projekt at Tiger Strikes Asteroid
Installation view of ‘This Dust,’ an exhibition presented by Berlin’s GSL Projekt at Tiger Strikes Asteroid
Andrew Prayzner, “untitled (cube)” (2011), presented by GSL Projekt of Berlin at Tiger Strikes Asteroid
Photos by Hanna Ljungh presented by GSL Projekt of Berlin at Tiger Strikes Asteroid
Exchange Rates, of which Hyperallergic is a media sponsor, took place October 23–26 at various locations in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Aaron Cutler on the 14th Indie Festival in Brazil
Barbara Nessim: An Artful Life is the first U.S. retrospective of a pioneering artist, professional illustrator, and early user of the computer as an artistic tool. Three floors of the BGC’s townhouse gallery feature Nessim’s artworks — from her meticulous sketchbooks, to illustrations, paintings, collages, and rare examples of fashion design.
Visualizing 19th-Century New York explores New York City through prints and photographs produced by its cultural entrepreneurs. Using the latest technology available, men such as Mathew Brady (daguerreotypes), Edward and Henry T. Anthony (stereoviews), Currier & Ives (lithographs), and Harper & Brothers (woodcuts in popular magazines and books) created a vast commercial market for their images of the booming metropolis.
Both exhibitions continue through January 11, 2015. The BGC Gallery is located at 18 West 86th Street (Upper West Side, Manhattan). For information visit bgc.bard.edu/gallery.
Panic in the Parlor: Reporting and Reading Pictorial Newspapers in Gilded Age America
Thursday, October 30, 2014, 6 pm
Illustrated newspapers such as Harper’s Weekly were among the most prominent items to be found in the nineteenth-century American family parlor. Joshua Brown examines the weekly publications which brought the era’s rampant political corruption, economic chaos, and roiling social turmoil right into the homes of Gilded Age Americans. Read more.
Image as Language: On Being an Art Director
Thursday, November 6, 2014, 6 pm
Art director Ruth Ansel presents highlights from her five-decade career working with international artists and photographers including Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus, Helmut Newton, Andy Warhol, Bruce Weber, Annie Leibovitz, and David Hockney. Read more.
Images from top of post: (Left )Barbara Nessim at the School of Visual Arts,1986, photographed by Seiji Kakizaki. Courtesy of the artist. (Right) Chatham Square, New York, 1853-55. Daguerreotype. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005.
Rue Dénoyez (photo by Nelson Minar/Flickr)
The tiny, two-block-long Rue Dénoyez in Paris’s 20th arrondissement has been one of the French capital’s foremost street art venues for years, but two subsidized housing projects could spell the end for this plein air gallery.
Earlier this month a banner reading “Sauvons la rue Dénoyez” (“Save Rue Dénoyez”) was hung above the narrow, cobblestoned alley, Street Press reports. It appeared in response to requests, put forth by the 20th arrondissement’s mayor’s office, for proposals to demolish the buildings stretching from 18B to 22B Rue Dénoyez and build 18 subsidized housing units and a daycare, as well as to redevelop the buildings at 24 and 26 Dénoyez and 10 Rue de Belleville into 29 subsidized housing units and a community center. In a city as unaffordable as Paris, the construction of new affordable housing units should be applauded, but the artists and organizations that stand to be displaced by the developments are not pleased.
“To be clear, we are not opposed to daycare centers and subsidized housing,” Cédric Borderie, of community group Fais ta rue, told Street Press. “But why here? In this street we have managed to build something exceptional. Everybody here talks to each other, all the communities mix. And the artists are very important. They create a social link.”
Rue Dénoyez (photo by themikebot/Flickr)
Borderie’s group, as well as the art organizations La Maison de la Plage, Friches et Nous la Paix, and Traces, all occupy spaces along the street that have been told to vacate to make way for the wrecking ball. They’ve enjoyed a very low monthly rent of €200 (about $254) for years, courtesy of the local mayor’s office. Borderie has launched a petition (which, as of this writing, has garnered over 3,100 signatures) on behalf of the organizations, businesses, artists, and residents who rent spaces on Dénoyez, calling for the renovation of the buildings currently slated for demolition, the setting aside of additional community spaces, and the daycare’s relocation to Rue de Bellevile.
“Initially, the daycare center was supposed to be installed at 36 Rue de Belleville, but the local residents mobilized in opposition,” Hélène Vicq, the 20th arrondissement mayor’s adjunct in charge of urbanism and architecture, told Street Press. “This is the only suitable parcel left in the arrondissement, so we don’t really have a choice … The street art gives [Rue Dénoyez] its identity. We’ll leave them some walls to paint on.”
Rue Dénoyez (photo by Parisien Néerlandais/Flickr)
Others have less patience for the local organizations’ complaints.
“It’s been five years since we were warned, and they’re just waking up now,” Sadi Sami, the proprietor of Aux Vieux Saumur, the bistro on the corner of Belleville and Dénoyez, told Street Press. He and the owners of two other local businesses have been fighting the city since they received a letter in 2009 warning them of the redevelopment project. “We’re doing our best to slow down the project. We’ve just filed an appeal, but we don’t have much chance of winning.”
Dazed & Confused
10.03.14-11.08.14 Galerie Martin Janda, Vienna, review written by Joseph Akel
Installation view, ‘Ezra Johnson: It’s Under the Thingy’ at Freight + Volume (all photos by Adam Reich, courtesy the artist and Freight + Volume, New York)
The title of Ezra Johnson’s solo exhibition at Freight + Volume, It’s Under the Thingy, is reminiscent of Amy Sillman’s flamboyant one lump or two at the ICA Boston and Bard’s Hessel Museum. There is some kind of material presence being pointed to by these unabashedly playful monikers, but to what end? For Sillman, there is a doubling process: perhaps one thing begets another, like multiplying cells, or maybe something is taken whole and dissolved in a cup of tea, like the never-ending process of decomposition and re-composition endured by the figures in her animations. For Sillman, there is an undeniably physical, embodied presence somewhere, in multiple states of being, within her canvases.
Johnson, who also works in both painting and animation, evokes an ethos of concealment; there is something hidden from sight, yet we claim to know where it is, blindly hoping that nothing dangerous resides “under the thingy.” Sillman and Johnson point to the multiple lives of a given medium — it is hidden, dissolved, consumed in its wedding to concept, while remaining a forcefully physical presence. No matter how unsure we are about the medium’s nature or location, there is always an unapologetically material aspect, simultaneously concealed and expanded by conceptual factors.
Installation view, ‘Ezra Johnson: It’s Under the Thingy,’ with “Shelves of Sponges” (2014), ceramic, 48 x 5 1/2 x 8 in, on right (all photos by Adam Reich, courtesy the artist and Freight + Volume, New York)
At Freight + Volume, Johnson offers us an extended critique of this age-old interplay by combining works of different media with a commitment to formal rigor. When entering the show, one is immediately overwhelmed by “Shelves of Sponges” (2014), a wall of hand-crafted ceramics that resemble swaths of dirty pigment. I thought of Allan McCollum’s The Shapes Project: Collection of Forty-eight Perfect Couples (2005/2014) at Petzel Gallery this fall, a colorful and playful, but nevertheless incisive and critical, evaluation of humanity’s impossible and problematic desire to categorize the world. Just as McCollum is designing a shape for every living person, Johnson’s ceramics suggest an interior life. Each has a partner, it seems, and they often have to lean on each other for stability. Their materiality — the creases and folds and chips — causes these pieces to enter into a tenuous community with one another.
In this way, the erotics of the art object become Johnson’s subject. In the gallery’s back room he presents a seemingly ludicrous comparison: “Ser” (2011), a tiny painting of two flamboyantly fleshy hands stretching Saran wrap, and “Der, Die, Das” (2014), three enormous sponges made of Polystyrene, resin, bondo, enamel that could be props for a children’s show. The Saran wrap, erotic and tactile, is reminiscent of translucent skin, yet the materiality upon which Johnson insists renders what should disappear into something concrete. Paint becomes flesh and vice versa, begetting a corporeal layering that imbues the canvas with a life of its own. Similarly, Johnson’s sponges, like oversize crackling pork rinds, read as concretized sculptural manifestations of his plastic-wrap-turned-flesh. Johnson’s interest in a variety of materials exhibits a unified passion: to consider the embodied intersections between and within art objects. No longer is painting a medium that can only speak to its position in a decentralized, self-referential aesthetic system; rather, paint can be as full and rich as our own bodies while maintaining its critical urge.
Ezra Johnson, “Der, Die, Das Installation Shot” (2014), polystyrene, resin, bondo, enamel, 62 x 60 x 72 in, with “Ser” (2011), oil on canvas in the back left
Ezra Johnson: It’s Under the Thingy continues at Freight + Volume (530 W 24th St, Chelsea, Manhattan) through November 1.
The New York Times
Studio Museum in Harlem
William Mortensen, “Untitled (staked witch scene)” (ca. 1927), silver gelatin print, montaged effect (all images courtesy Stephen Romano Gallery unless otherwise noted)
Violence, nudity, and the occult collide in the photographs of William Mortensen, an American photographer who gained prominence in the 1930s and ’40s but today largely exists as an obscure name in the medium’s history. William Mortensen: American Grotesque, which recently opened at Stephen Romano Gallery, revisits Mortensen’s oeuvre in a solo show featuring over 50 of the artist’s works, some displayed for the first time. On view are scenes of impending murder, sensual witches on brooms, and many portraits of young, nude women throwing coy glances at the camera.
But before he fully turned his lens on the risqué, Mortensen built a reputation as a commercial photographer in Hollywood, where his unceasing interest in highly staged settings, post-production effects, and the growing cinematic genre of horror had its roots. Aside from shooting glamorous portraits of stars from Jean Harlow to Fay Wray, he also captured stills on active film sets and set up his own tableaux in his studio at the landmark Western Costume Company, which granted him access to a trove of costumes and props.
William Mortensen, “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Standing Woman” (1925), bromoil transfer borderless doubleweight
Organized chronologically in neat rows, William Mortensen: American Grotesque begins with such images, including an orientalist series from Ferdinand Pinney Earle’s The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam film; though less shocking than Mortensen’s later work, these pictures reflect his growing interest in crafting fantasy scenes rather than straight documentation — to the chagrin of photographers devout to reality. Photographer Ansel Adams, leading Group f/64, once remarked: “For us, Mortensen was the antichrist.”
Viewing the exhibition, it’s clear why Mortensen clashed with the so-called purists. (The rivalry was so heated it led to his exclusion from prominent exhibitions and books, such as Beaumont Newhall’s 1949 momentous tome, The History of Photography, From 1839 to the Present Day.) Following his Hollywood series are darker works, each meticulously staged as visual representations of the grotesque. For Mortensen, the concept of the grotesque was manifest in trauma and loss — grounded particularly in fear and death — making his photographs the stuff of nightmares rather than of reality.
One of the more unsettling images includes the dramatically lit “An Episode of the Barbary Coast” (1932), showing a man grinning as he dips a woman in his arms, as if dancing. His raised hand, however, clutches a spike aimed at her exposed chest; her mouth is wide open, and her shriek seems almost audible. The allure of Mortensen’s work lies in this pairing of the horrific with the beautiful — such as the sensual, graceful figure of the female nude — provoking both repulsion and an odd sense of unbefitting pleasure.
William Mortensen, “An Episode of the Barbary Coast [also titled: The Spanish Main]” (ca. 1932), vintage silver print using a texture screen
In another print, untitled and dating to 1927, a naked witch awaits a fiery fate at the stake, although her elegant figure remains calm against the post. Below, her eager prosecutors cloaked in black appear more malevolent than her, their expressions as disturbing as the horrific punishment. The grotesque appears not only through physical action; it also resides within us. The later “Johan the Mad” (1931) echoes this conceit: the sitter’s mental state is already evident in the illlustrated title, but even without the glaring description, her turned head, twisted scarf, and staring eyes allude to her psychological trauma.
Still, while the word “grotesque” may apply to most of the exhibition’s images, many of the standard, simple nude portraits on display don’t quite spur unease. One wall devoted entirely to these portraits seems more like a shrine celebrating the beauty of the female body. In one, a woman lies down and arches her back, concealing her face but offering her body to the lens; another shows Mortensen’s wife and frequent model Myrdith Monaghan posing as “Adelita” (1932), her blouse half-worn to reveal her breasts. Here, the show suddenly jumps into more natural, relaxed scenes that evoke the mood of erotic snapshots far from the previous nightmares.
William Mortensen, “Johan the Mad” (1931), silver gelatin print, abrasion-tone process, texture screen
Especially striking of Mortensen’s photographs is that at first glance, they appear as etchings or drawings due to his heavy manipulation of his images. Describing his photographic style as “creative pictorialism,” he often scraped the surfaces of his prints and negatives with a razor blade, penciled in marks, or used self-invented texture screens to lend his images a sketch-like quality.
This blurring of mediums begs closer examination of his work, for which Mortensen obsessively strove: in 1937, he published “The Command To Look,” his detailed and highly popular guide to create photographs that capture viewers’ attentions and trigger strong psychological responses. In it, Mortensen lays out a three-step formula to produce such “effective” pictures; he also describes specific picture patterns that arouse fear and lists various subjects that carry the most emotional appeal.
In conjunction with the exhibition’s opening, Feral House recently republished “The Command To Look” along with “American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen,” a collection of the artist’s photographs and related essays. The new version of Mortensen’s own book includes additional texts on his career as well as an in-depth exploration of his impact on Anton LaVey. LaVey, influenced by Mortensen’s theories of visual manipulation, included the photographer in the dedication page of his Satanic Bible.
Installation view, “William Mortensen: American Grotesque,” at Stephen Romano Gallery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen offers a more comprehensive biography of the long-disregarded Mortensen along with his own manifesto on creative pictorialism and a survey of his painstaking technical methods. The compendium also includes over 100 plates of his work divided into themes like “Propaganda,” “The Occult,” and “Character Studies”; many of the images are published here for the first time.
Although Mortensen’s works appeared in major publications and his Mortensen School of Photography drew thousands of students over the years, critics of his unconventional techniques still managed to nearly scrub his name from the roster of established photographers. But as today’s widespread fixation with Photoshop and other processes of image manipulation indicate, Mortensen with his meticulous methods was a true pioneer of his era.
William Mortensen, “Woman with Skull” (ca. 1926), bromoil transfer borderless doubleweight
William Mortensen, “Untitled (possession)” (ca. 1927), silver gelatin print, montaged effect
William Mortensen, “Lucii Ferraris” (ca. 1927), silver gelatin print, texture screen
William Mortensen, “Flying Witch (Myrdith)” (ca. 1930), vintage silver print
William Mortensen, “Off for the Sabbot: A Pictorial Compendium of Witchcraft” (ca. 1927), silver gelatin print, unknown texture pattern
William Mortensen’s camera (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view, “William Mortensen: American Grotesque,” at Stephen Romano Gallery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
William Mortensen: American Grotesque continues at Stephen Romano Gallery (111 Front Street, Suite 208, DUMBO, Brooklyn) through November 30.
Heidi Latsky speaking about her ‘The GIMP Project,’ which features disabled and nondisabled dancers (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Andreas Vesalius was a Flemish physician whose 1543 book, De Humani Corporis Fabrica (The Fabric of the Human Body), revolutionized our understanding of human anatomy. The New York Academy of Medicine celebrated Vesalius’s 500th birthday last Saturday with its second annual Festival of Medical History and the Arts, this year titled “Vesalius 500.”
Vesalius’s work was groundbreaking; an insistence on first-hand observation of human anatomy lead him to disprove many accepted theories of his day, all of which relied on the work, more than a thousand years earlier, of Galen of Pergamon. Vesalius found that Galen’s conclusions about the human body were not based on dissections of humans at all. Vesalius’s hands-on approach heralded a return of the scientific method in the field of anatomy, long supplanted by Christianity’s influence and an opinion of the body as a philosophical idea more than anything warranting objective study. De Humani Corporis Fabrica’s visual representation of the body was as unprecedented as was its scientific accuracy. The illustrations contained in the text are thought to have come from the Venetian studio of Titian, and flawlessly combine technical exactness with artistic interpretation.
“Raise your hand if you’ve ever been in a cadaver lab,” Riva Lehrer, artist and guest curator for “Vesalius 500,” asked the audience gathered in the New York Academy of Medicine’s Hosack Hall. I had been wondering about the festival-goers: where they had come from, what they had in common. Lehrer looked pleased at the flurry of hands that went up in response to her question, and I tried not to look shocked. We were assembled for a presentation by ProofX, a company that has become a leader in 3D biomedical printing and is using 3D printing technology to move away from mass-production, and tailor medical equipment, such as prostheses, to individual patients. Lehrer, in her introduction, brought the company’s mission back around to Vesalius by pointing out that (obvious to the many attendees who had spent time in cadaver labs) bodies are different. “Vesalius believed in being present with the body that is,” not the “wish list” body, or idealized concept of the body. It was Lehrer herself, born with Spina Bifida, whose time, morale and money-consuming search for proper orthopedic shoes was the inspiration for the founders of ProofX. At the end of the demonstration, she performed “The Surface of Soles,” a reading and slideshow of artwork around this struggle and what it means to be living in a non-normative body.
“In the last 150 years, science has become increasingly specialized, to the extent that non-experts can feel disempowered from engaging with ideas around science and medicine. The humanities … offer a way in to help people start to think about medicine and science as intrinsically part of a particular time and place,” Lisa O’Sullivan, director of the Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health and coordinator of the Festival, told Hyperallergic in an email. The artistic work of the disability community, an important theme at “Vesalius 500,” is an unmistakable example of the intertwining of medicine and the arts. Heidi Latsky spoke at the festival about her choreographic work The GIMP Project, featuring disabled and nondisabled dancers, and the constant push against being “inspirational by default”. While these artists are “non-experts”, their particular, daily engagement with medicine and anatomy place them at a vital crossroads between disciplines.
ProofX 3D Printing Demonstration
Patient-driven narratives and representations of illness were also on display in the form of comics. MK Czerwiec and Dr. Ian Williams of Graphic Medicine ask, “Why don’t we continue drawing as adults?” The team works with disease sufferers, caregivers, and medical students to contextualize illness through comics and visual art, thereby fostering empathy and, ultimately, improving care. The scenes depicted ranged from the silent, unseen struggle of mental illness to washing a sick parent’s hair, and all lay far outside what is generally seen in medical literature. Graphic Medicine’s work could be understood, especially in the context of the festival, as a compelling step forward in the use of visual art to investigate the field of medicine; just as artists in the Renaissance were driving anatomical exploration, cartoonists today are delving deeper into the psyche.
“Vesalius 500″ was a celebration not only of medicine and the arts’ longstanding connectedness, but perhaps also evidence of a recent excitement about maintaining that connectedness. Just as science has become increasingly specialized over the years and lost a certain relationship to time and place, art has drifted away from its once critical role in politics, social justice, science, and the world around us in general. When I was at the festival I was thinking of Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s work with the Sanitation Department, Laurie Anderson’s residency at NASA, and Joan Didion’s obsession with water. It’s exciting when our environment and our experiences become our subjects. In an age where all facts are at our fingertips, there are more and more opportunities to engage with different disciplines in a considered, well-rounded way, and bring the arts back to our daily lives.
Vesalius 500 took place October 18 at the New York Academy of Medecine (216 5th Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan).
Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.
What are your thoughts on application fees for residencies, fellowships, and exhibitions? Typically the odds of being selected are very long, and the vast majority of artists who apply for opportunities aren’t swimming in cash they earn (for making and selling work). I understand that institutions, organizations, and other entities offering opportunities are on tight budgets, and the massive inflows of applications are insane to deal with, but shouldn’t they have to incorporate the expense into their costs of doing business? I know using services like Slide Room costs money, but sticking a fee on an artist with a less than 10 percent chance doesn’t seem quite right.
Jean-Luc Moulene. Tronche/Avatar (Paris, April 2014), 2014; polished concrete, blue blanket;
15 x 10 5/8 x 11 in.
Like many artists, my thoughts on application fees are mixed. I’ll happily pay about $25—my personal threshold—for what is essentially an art lottery ticket, but much more than that and I get queasy. Like you, I’m aware that no matter how good my targeting skills are, it’s still a crapshoot. As artist Christine Wong Yap’s blog shows us, the odds are often quite low: a 10 percent chance of securing a 2015 residency at Djerassi; a 3.7 percent acceptance rate for a visual-arts residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts; and a one-in-fifty-six probability—that’s 0.3 percent, so maybe better to call it an improbability—of becoming one of three Emerging Artist Fellows at the Queens Museum in New York City. But the odds are long on almost everything in life, and as a pal of mine used to remind me, “You can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket.”
I’m familiar with artists’ gripes about entry fees, but I wanted to hear the institutional side of the story, so I wrote to a handful of organizations. Surprisingly, only one wrote back. Jason Franz, executive director of the ten-year-old Manifest Gallery in Cincinnati, was eager to engage in a lively email conversation on the subject. He started off by putting the idea of financial risk into context: “The odds of making a masterful work of art that will sell for thousands of dollars with the materials purchased to do so are probably even slimmer than success in submitting to competitive juried exhibitions. Does this mean the art-supply store should give away the materials or in some other way negotiate your risk? For one to say, ‘Shouldn’t [institutions] have to incorporate the expense into their costs of doing business’ shows a severe naiveté. Shouldn’t artists have to incorporate the expense into their costs of doing business? I know I do as a working artist.”
“If ‘sticking a fee on an artist’ with less than a 10 percent chance doesn’t seem quite right, then selling the artist art supplies doesn’t seem quite right, nor does charging tuition for a BFA or MFA. But this assumes that the fee-charging institution, art-supply store, and university are forcing the purchase. But the artist has a choice.”
Franz also provided clarity on exactly why some institutions charge fees: “Our organization is nonprofit, state-recognized, and state-funded. We obtain the limited grant funding we do because we have such a strong record of earned revenue (i.e., entry fees). Grant agencies want to see sustainability and a ‘public vote’ if you will, and artists paying entry fees hits the nail on the head. It means they trust and value what we’re doing. They vouch for us. To remove the entry fee removes the public statement from key constituents (the artists), thereby weakening, if not completely degrading, our grant-writing platform. It also removes one of the most compelling facts about the existence of our organization. As a public charitable entity, we derive a meaningful proportion of our operating expenses from those who stand to gain the most—namely the artists themselves—in small but incremental amounts.”
Franz went on to play devil’s advocate: “Just for argument’s sake, let’s remove the fees. What then? We could sell each exhibit to the highest bidder, but this would mean that instead of paying a small share to actively compete in a rigorous jury process, artists would have to fork over thousands of dollars for an exhibition. This would eliminate all those artists who aren’t swimming in cash and make our principle-driven organization into a vanity gallery. Or we could get lucky and find a wealthy patron to underwrite all our costs, but this patron would likely put qualifications on what we do and how we do it. Suddenly, because a patron is footing the bill, the identity of the organization becomes compromised and tied down by a personal agenda. Who loses in this scenario? The artists, because the venue is no longer about them. Or we could change our goals with the intention of replacing funds from entry fees with sales. As our budget stands this year, this would mean selling about $350,000 worth of art. But we are not salespeople; we’re artists and professors, and this is an incredibly high number for a midsized nonprofit to be reaching for in art sales (I would say it is probably very high for 90 percent of the art galleries in the U.S.). This would inevitably mean two things: First, we would need to fire existing staff, eliminate programs, and hire people expert in selling art. Second, it would mean our selection would be done by a process that considers only salability.”
But really, what are the alternatives for artists? To quote Franz again, “We all have to make informed choices, and there is rarely an absolute rule one can apply to all of them.” Rather than deciding to either heartily endorse or vehemently oppose fees, try applying a rigorous strategy to your process. Start by researching the jurors: Based on their own work or the work they generally curate, are they likely to appreciate yours? How about the venue—what do they usually show? If you can find the past participants for a fellowship or residency, check out their websites and see if your work and CV are on a similar level. You can also find out the likely odds by contacting the organization and asking for previous years’ statistics and the number of people who will be accepted in the current round—though you can’t know how many artists will apply this time, you’ll be able to guesstimate whether you’ll be part of an applicant pool of tens or thousands. Set a yearly budget for application fees and stick to it; it will keep you focused on your best chances.
My personal methodology also involves an genuinely cheerful presumption that I won’t get into anything that I apply for. This may sound defeatist to some, but for me it serves two purposes: First, I’m way less disappointed when I get a rejection letter, which is advantageous for my long-term mental health. Second, it compels me to think of my application fee as a donation; when reclassified as a form of support, I consider it more carefully. Do I want my money to go to a well-regarded institution that provides a lot of free public programming and/or high-quality support for artists, or do I want to PayPal a privately funded space that probably doesn’t need my help?
Of course, there are juried exhibitions and other opportunities that don’t involve fees. For example, here in San Francisco, Southern Exposure hosts an annual show that is fee-free and juried by a reputable curator; there are probably similar exhibitions in every major city. There are also countless ways to make opportunities for yourself, from studio visits to pop-up shows to self-funded residencies. Good luck!
 Speaking of percentages, my two-year success rate for soliciting and receiving quotes for this column is about 97 percent, so the fact that I didn’t hear back from these institutions—even to decline participation—is significant.
Where you might expect to find a detail such as ‘oil on canvas’, or ‘cast bronze’, or even ‘car engine’, Vo gives us the full scoop on his indecorous found object. A wall plaque opens the bonnet.
Indeed. This contemporary sculpture is comprised of “The engine of the artist’s father Phung Vo’s Mercedes Benz.” Provenance is all: from family car to museum collection.
And in the year this piece was made, Mercedes began using the German title as their advertising slogan. So there are two found objects working together like piston and cylinder in this work.
This is a family who fled their home and, after a dramatic rescue at sea, they settled in Denmark. A keen business sense spurred the artist’s father on to buy ‘the best or nothing at all’.
In a pristine gallery, this piece is monstrous. And there is something oedipal about its evisceration of his father’s achievements. Does Vo junior refer to das Beste with pride or with irony?
Dad made it as a businessman; this is his portrait. He must have once have dreamed about owning this car; he might not have dreamed about the extra mileage it would give his son.
In a white cube such as this, Phung Vo’s car becomes a bride stripped bare, a commodity divested of fetishism, a map of desire, and a deconstruction of a luxury brand. All thanks to the label.
This piece can be seen until 3 May 2015 in The Art of Our Time: Masterpieces of the Guggenheim Collection at the Museo Guggenheim in Bilbao.
Vincent van Gogh, “Burning Weeds” (July 1883), lithograph, 155 x 265 mm. Bibliothèque de l’Institut national d’histoire de l’art, Paris. (image via Web Gallery of Art)
On the occasion of its 40th anniversary, High Times Magazine has issued High Times: A 40-Year History of the World’s Most Infamous Magazine, which The New York Times calls “a coffee table book for low, sticky coffee tables.”
“O thou weed!
Who art so lovely fair and smell’st so sweet
That the sense aches at thee, would thou hadst ne’er been born!”
“Pernicious weed! whose scent the fair annoys,
Unfriendly to society’s chief joys.”
—William Cowper, “Conversation” (on tobacco)
“Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main.”
—Emily Bronte, “No Coward Soul Is Mine”
“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not been discovered.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Fortune of the Republic (1879)
“When people will not weed their own minds, they apt to be overrun with weeds.”
—Horace Walpole, letter to Countess of Ailesbury (1779)
“He who hunts for flowers will find flowers; and he who loves weeds will find weeds.”
—Henry Ward Beecher
“Love, the strongest and deepest element in all life, the harbinger of hope, of joy, of ecstasy; love, the defier of all laws, of all conventions; love, the freest, the most powerful molder of human destiny; how can such an all-compelling force be synonymous with that poor little State and Church-begotten weed, marriage?”
“I thought love would adapt itself
to my needs.
But needs grow too fast;
they come up like weeds.
Through cracks in the conversation.
Through silences in the dark.
Through everything you thought was concrete.”
—Alice Walker, “Did This Happen to Your Mother? Did Your Sister Throw Up a Lot?”
A high, piercing riff is twice ripped out of a harsh electric guitar before an intense blast of bass jumps out from underneath. Then the drums come in, supported by thick drone. A balmy-voiced male singer begins to purr as the melody is played on a lower stringed acoustic; a female voice briefly takes over as another faux-ominous trombone figure emerges; the two singers keep trading off verses until an even more theatrical procession of strings and horn erupts, swooping down with all the extravagant fire of a veritable disco orchestra. This all repeats itself once, with extra synthesized violins and camped-up saxophone interrupting every now and again to make some histrionic point, before ending abruptly on the same piercing guitar it started with. Three minutes have passed. The song is called “Ankhiyan.” It opens the Bombay Royale’s second album, The Island of Dr Electrico. What fun.
Founded by conductor/saxophone whiz Andy Williamson, the Bombay Royale are eleven Australian troublemakers who play their own hammy, modernized style of Bollywood movie music. Each band member has given himself or herself a ridiculous spy-thriller alias, like “The Jewel Thief” (Josh Bennett, their multi-instrumentalist on sitar and tabla) and “The Kungfu Dentist” (Ros Jones, their trombone player). Visually, they dress up in outrageous costumes, including one orange tunic, one sailor’s cap, and several Zorro masks. On record, they flavor their gloriously schlocky Indian cabaret-pop with blazing guitar fury, sizzling ribbons of synthesizer, bizarre tape effects, smooth disco violins that evoke a leisure lounge and breathe rah-rah-Rasputin, one particularly ominous loop of a stock villain cackling over and over again, and a full brass ensemble. They released their debut album You Me Bullets Love in 2012 and their excellent follow-up The Island of Dr Electrico this July on the Melbourne label Hope Street. At first, The Island of Dr Electrico sounds like a brilliantly thought-through parody of pseudo-Oriental exoticism, of Harrison Ford riding elephants, of Roger Moore sneaking around sumptuous palaces, of every sitar ever awkwardly dropped into a pop song. Play the record twice, however, and you’ll realize that not only was this an actual style of music with close ties to the Indian film industry in the ‘70s, but that the band has fully inhabited it to the best of their ability. Compared to Asha Bhosle, say, the Bollywood playback vocalist who apparently sang over 12,000 songs for actual actresses to lip-sync on screen, the Bombay Royale exaggerate the genre’s kitschy side, an inevitable result of their goofy irony. But that just makes them more intense.
After “Ankhiyan” starts the album with a bang, The Island of Dr Electrico sashays into even gaudier territory. Lead singers Parvyn Kaur Singh (“The Lady”) and Shourov Bhattacharnya (“The Tiger”) seductively eye each other from opposite ends of the microphone, alternating verses and occasionally chiming in together. One slinky dance groove follows another in an expertly paced sequence of flash and glamour, passing through the eerie “Hooghly Night Patrol” and its magnificent horn parade, into the jittery “(Give Me Back My) Bunty Bunty,” wherein a spiraling, glittery keyboard hook gives way to one of the few English lyrics on the record: Singh croons “Give me back my bunty bunty,” whatever that means, then Bhattacharnya blurts out “I don’t have your bunty bunty.” and so goes the call and response until that high keyboard trill starts sputtering again. “Gyara 59” provides a brief lull with steady, syncopated tabla, and then the whole album explodes with “The Bombay Twist.” First you hear a clip of maniacal laughter slowly fading out as the central riff crawls in on sitar, and the drums slam down all at once out of the blue and the trumpets suddenly kick off, circling around and around the same basic melody. A glassy, psychedelic synthesizer pokes its head in from underneath, and a deep, grand voice who might be Bhattacharnya or somebody else entirely proclaims, “Is it just me, or is it… hot in here?!” and then the horns go crazy, triggering further warped snippets of dialogue that end in the yelled command “Do the twist like this!” The sitar comes to the foreground and noodles around for a while, sampled childish giggles begin to echo throughout the mix, another flock of disco violins drench everything in a hot wave of light, and a dilruba harp starts to moan. The beat stops and for a few seconds you hear nothing but absolute silence. Finally, one of those corny downward sitar arpeggios is slowly strummed. Somebody sneers, mustering as much contempt as he can: “Why are you driving the taxi?” Then the beat blasts back up again for one last climax as you look around, head spinning, desperately trying to grab ahold of this sweaty, slippery music before it leaves you in the dust.
There are moments like that all over The Island of Dr Electrico, the rare album whose illusion of glamour holds up with repeated listening. The music is so hard and hooky, so dense with snarling guitar licks and sly asides on brass, that the whole package retains an obsessive, ominous power long after the novelty wears off, and if the celebration of erotic melodrama gets a little silly, both Singh and Bhattacharnya convey real erotic passion, cooing and growling and winking at each other. Upbeat rockers like “Wild Stallion Mountain” and “(Give Me Back My) Bunty Bunty” smolder with voluptuously stylized energy, oddball jams like “Falcon’s Landing” and “The Bombay Twist” itself get carried away on sheer delight, and even the heartsongs pack a certain sensual thrill. Seductive, sinister, glitzy, tacky, elegant, decadent, hallucinatory, breakneck, exhausting, the band slams down the beat with tremendous musical force. Although aesthetic distance is a key factor and probably the defining one in such a specific formal project, you couldn’t really call what they do deconstruction; they add too many other elements to the synthesis, too many dazzling strings and sinuous funk rhythms on top of their Bollywood cabaret. But nevertheless the record functions as a crazed, adoring love letter to a style of music whose distant heyday and gleeful vulgarity make it ripe for tribute. Whether or not the style has any bearing on today’s pop landscape is irrelevant. What matters is that they’ve rejuvenated it and made it their own, that their enthusiasm for high kitsch magically morphs into the performed enthusiasm the kitsch itself consists of, that they make said enthusiasm scary and exciting and musically irresistible. If only all postmodern genre exercises were this committed, this hedonistic.
The last song on the album is called “The River.” It’s a tense, weird crawler of a ballad, the only other song besides “(Give My Back My) Bunty Bunty” and “The Bombay Twist” with English lyrics. It starts with one of the band’s signature riffs, unaccompanied and slow. “The river runs to you,” Singh calls out longingly in a sweet yet sharp, pungent yet lyrical whimper. Low shades of brass slowly begin to add color and then suddenly yelp the hook as staccato chunks of percussion quietly slide in. Bhattacharnya drones a verse with similarly natural/metaphysical lyrics over the same tangy guitar riff, and then the two singers join in a final harmony to sing the chorus. A synthesizer shoots an arrow through the musical center and hisses a fierce solo. Then the song starts over, and a fat, distorted keyboard bass takes over the main melody. Singh starts wailing again before the two singers unite once more for the eerie chorus, this time with keyboard commentary echoing off the walls. Finally, the instruments begin to shudder. The rhythms become irregular and halting. Everything breaks down into static and feedback. You hear the song slowly fragment into little bits. You hear one last screech, and then it’s gone.
A few years ago, in an essay called “Why I Am a Member of the Christopher Middleton Fan Club” (The Brooklyn Rail, October 2010), I stated the need for “a selected prose that brings together all the different kinds of writing he has done.” Loose Cannons: Selected Prose (Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 2014), which includes an insightful foreword by one of Middleton’s most vocal and articulate champions, August Kleinzahler, is pretty close to the book I had in mind.
The thirty-three unclassifiable pieces, some no longer than three pages, were selected from prose written between Flowers & Nice Bones (1969) and Depictions of Blaff (2010), a span of forty-one years, a period during which the prose poem became an increasingly popular form. Middleton’s short pieces are not prose poems, however. As Kleinzahler states at the beginning of his “Foreword,” “what Middleton “would refer to as ‘short prose’ are certainly [his] wildest, most accessible, and most entertaining work and count as some of his very finest writing.” I suspect that one reason why they are not better known is because they are not short tales with a beginning, middle and end.
In other words, Middleton’s short prose pieces are not prose poems as that term is conventionally understood, and they have little to do with the beloved Francophile tradition spawned by the posthumous publication of Paris Spleen (1869), Charles Baudelaire’s book of fifty-one prose poems. Middleton’s imaginative prose pieces are not motivated by disgust, nor do they, in opposition to prose poems by Charles Simic and Russell Edson, for example, seem to have an overriding theme, recognizable style or tic holding them together. If anything, they are in a league of their own, just as those pieces found in the astonishing book, Tatlin! (1974), by Guy Davenport, his friend and classmate at Merton College, Oxford (1948–52). As I see it, the imaginative prose of Davenport and Middleton constitute two of the more singular achievements in American letters.
Like Davenport, Middleton’s erudition is unrivaled in its grasp and comprehension of many sources. A prolific, innovative translator, he started translating Robert Walser’s fiction in the 1950s, in postwar, non-German- loving England, long before this unique writer was on anyone’s radar. In 1957, Middleton published his eye-opening translation of Walser’s The Walk and Other Stories. He has also translated the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Christa Wolf, Elias Canetti, Georg Trakl, Friedrich Hölderlin, and Lars Gustafsson. Along with his interest in Dada, Surrealist, and Expressionist writing, all of which were largely rejected in England, Middleton was a devotee of the experimental work of his own time and became friends with some of the most radically innovative poets of the century, such as Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop; the multilingual Romanian-born German poet and honorary member of OULIPO, Oskar Pastior (1927-2006); and the Austrian poets Ernst Jandl (1925-2000) and Friedrike Mayröcker (1924-). The other difference that sets Middleton apart from his peers is that, in addition to not aligning himself with the French tradition, Middleton doesn’t see himself as an heir to Ezra Pound, as did Davenport. Rather, as Gabriel Levin advances in his essay, “Middleton in Asia Minor”:
The stratification of languages and cultures—Hittite, Greek, Byzantine, Ottoman, Turkish—is, I believe, what has lured Middleton repeatedly since the early ’80s to this vast stretch of land which once comprised the northern arm of the Levant. It has been for the poet a quest in awe of revelation. (Chicago Review, 51: 1/2, Spring 2005, p. 119).
One of the memorable moments I spent with Middleton was sitting with him in the mid-90s in a café in Austin, Texas, where he has lived since 1966, listening to his enthusiasm, anticipation and excitement as he talked about his forthcoming trip to Yemen to learn more about Arabic. He was then in his early 70s and, as far as I could see, still an eager and curious student, someone who believes that learning never ends. Instead of claiming authority, he yearned to gain more knowledge.
Imagine prose that is neither anecdotal nor confessional, and you begin to get a sense of Middleton’s unclassifiable writing. Add to this his resistance to arriving at predictable poetic revelations, moments that appear to be blessed by a sudden universal insight, and you get a sense of why his writing has never quite gained the attention it deserves. We want revelations, however cliché, because they promise us comfort. Middleton comes from another tradition, which counts Herodotus, Plutarch and Thucydides among its originators. He is not in the habit of providing solace to the reader.
Inspired by these ancient classical writers, Middleton is simultaneously contemporary and mysterious rather than nostalgic and soothing, In “The Birth of the Smile,” within a span of less than two pages, Middleton goes from “the Sumerians” to “the smile inserted at the corners of Che Guevara’s mouth by the thumbs of his murderers.” Here, as elsewhere, Middleton is able to braid together different kinds of prose, ranging from history, myth and fable to a description gleaned from the mass media, without anything seeming forced or contrived. I cannot explain why it feels right that the author ends with Che Guevera’s post-mortem smile, but it does. At the very least, he is reminding us that a smile and cruelty are linked often enough to be unsettling. The fact that he refuses to step back and moralize after reaching this insight is just one of the many powerful things he does.
In “The Turkish Rooftops,” Middleton starts with the observation that “Turkish people like to sleep on rooftops,’ and then goes on to list the various things one might see on these rooftops (“Buckets, parts of cooking stoves, donkey saddles, lengths of rope, piping, sinks, scythes”), as well as to comment on “how, in Cézanne’s paintings of Mont Saint-Victoire, the mountain changes its clothes, sky its diagonals that shine or rain down upon the roof of the mountain.” What interests Middleton is the threshold between one order of objects and another. He is both scholarly and innocent and doesn’t privilege one above the other. Each of the thirty-three pieces in Loose Cannons contains something marvelous. Each of his sentences is a seamless synthesis of perception, information and music.
Perhaps Loose Cannons will help change our perception of Middleton’s considerable achievement. Instead of offering us easy reassurance, his prose (as does all his writing) seems motivated by what he states at the end of his “Prologue”: “Beauty is exuberance.” Here we might be reminded that the one lesson Middleton might have gotten from translating Walser or from reading Baudelaire is the latter’s observation: “The Beautiful is always strange.” The strangeness that Middleton leads the willing reader to is well worth beholding.
Christopher Middleton, Loose Canons: Selected Prose (2014) is published by University of New Mexico Press.
Today from our archives we look back to exactly one year ago, to M. Rebekah Otto’s review of The Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History at the Worth Ryder Art Gallery in Berkeley, California. Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information.
Adam Harms. Performing the Torture Playlist, 2012; found digital video; 59-minute loop. Courtesy of the Artist.
The Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History posits that the eponymous detention facility on the U.S. military base in Cuba closed permanently in 2012, and a museum subsequently opened on its premises. The fictive museum, conceived and created by Ian Alan Paul, intends to “remember the human rights abuses that occurred while the prison was in operation.”  The Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History Satellite Exhibition curated by Paul and recently on view at the Worth Ryder Art Gallery of the University of California, Berkeley included works that evoked the awe, indignity, and sorrow of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility (Gitmo). For example, in Adam Harms’s Performing the Torture Playlist (2012), amateur performers sing karaoke-style renditions of the American pop songs used to torture Guantanamo prisoners. While such constituent works of the Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History are compelling, they are not predicated on nor directly address the supposed closure. Instead, they feel more relevant to a prison that’s still active than to its remembrance.
Museums that memorialize tragedy are rhetorical spaces that rely on certain tropes to elicit our emotions and reinforce the horrible circumstances of a particular catastrophe, event, or time period. Exhibition designers transmute mundane objects into relics, weighting them with history.  The Guantanamo Bay Museum, which exists as a website and as satellite exhibitions, lacks the emotional artifacts that substantiate tragedies in our national imagination. Nor does it engage in the hagiography that we anticipate from such sites: framed quotes from heroic leaders, statues and portraits of victims, or even basic biographic details. Where are the detainees themselves in this museum? (We see only shadows of prisoners in Jenny Odell’s All the People in Centinela Federal Prison .) While the most direct impact of the prison’s closure would be on the 164 detainees still held there, the museum oddly does not address what may happen to them or what has happened to the detainees who have previously been freed.
There are many efforts by activists, journalists, and scholars to confront the savagery of Gitmo and the global war on terror in general. The Guantanamo Docket chronicles and humanizes the 779 prisoners. Vice has published Molly Crabapple’s intimate sketches of the detainees and their guards from her trips to Gitmo. On April 21, 2013, the London Guardian published a moving op-ed by current detainee Shaker Aamer, detailing his eleven years in detention and the legal Gordian Knot that he’s tied in. These attempts are unafraid to confront the materiality of the prison and its terrible impact. They are our testaments to an active institution that the museum cannot commemorate in its aspirational state.
The Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History Satellite Exhibition was on view at the Worth Ryder Art Gallery of the University of California, Berkeley from September 25 until October 29, 2013. The Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History is an ongoing project.
M. Rebekah Otto lives in Oakland, California. She grew up in Chicago. Her work has been published in The Believer, The Millions, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She is currently the Content Manager at Dictionary.com.
 Other projects employ a similar approach, notably Eames Demetrios’ Kcymaerxthaere, which claims to be a parallel universe with an alternate version of modern history that touches our world at various points, marked by bronze plaques and other historical signifiers.
 Another evocative piece also on view, Carling McManus and Jen Susman’s Arrows to Mecca (2013) replicated the arrows painted throughout the grounds of the prison to orient detainees toward Mecca for daily prayers. In the series, small, benign arrows made of water adorn a parking lot, an office floor, the aisle of an anonymous store, a suburban street, and other ubiquitous sites of the American landscape.
 Examples of these objects in iconic memorial museums include a charred pocketbook at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City, a “Coloreds only” water fountain at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, N.C., and the shoes of the deceased at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
David Humphrey, “Intended” (2011-2014), acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 inches (all images courtesy of Fredericks & Freiser, NY, unless otherwise stated)
What I hoped to get from talking to David Humphrey were answers. The images in his paintings are zany, raunchy, and wild: a girl in a lawn chair holding monkeys by their scalps; a woman absent-mindedly marking another woman’s buttocks with daubs of paint; cats sitting beside slices of white bread partially spread with peanut butter. I wanted him to explain what it all meant.
We met in his Long Island City studio before the opening of his current exhibition at Fredericks & Freiser Gallery. At one point, I asked him about a word he had used, and he explained it was a “neologism.” It occurred to me that Humphrey relishes that: the need to create new language to describe what is nevertheless indescribable. He has been a prolific writer on art for decades, and in his own writing, he creates turns of phrase with words that are not usually combined, like “fizzy nimbus” and “tangled geodesics.”
David Humphrey in his studio, Long Island City, New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
His paintings and sculpture are similar: improbable juxtapositions of elements that touch. The couplings and connections are aspirational but unresolved. Highly specific characters — men and women, horses and pets — conspire with abstract, painterly passages. Humphrey’s work revels in these ambiguities, in the knowledge that there is always something impenetrable.
Humphrey was born in 1955 in Germany and lives in New York. An exhibition of his recent work is currently on view at Fredericks & Freiser. He has had solo exhibitions at the McKee Gallery and Sikkema Jenkins & Co. in New York; Fredric Snitzer Gallery, Miami; and the Contemporary Art Center, Cincinnati. His work is in public collections including the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. He is currently teaching in the MFA programs of Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania. An anthology of his art writing, titled Blind Handshake, was published in 2010.
* * *
Jennifer Samet: You grew up in Pittsburgh. What was your early exposure to art? Did you draw or make art as a child?
David Humphrey: My father worked in advertising. He wasn’t quite a Mad Man, but he was somewhere in that orbit, around mid-century. He was also a Sunday sculptor – a stone carver. He loved Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Arp and Brancusi, and he made smooth, simplified shapes. The one thing that my dad said — he didn’t have an overly elaborated aesthetic theory — was that a sculpture needs to make sense from all sides. That is one of those ancient truisms that I still abide by.
I love the idea that the sculpture reveals itself in time as you move around it; that each movement you make reveals something else in the form, and that that becomes a narrative. Paintings are the same way, but there is the illusion that they reveal themselves at a glance. The image is an instantaneous thing, which then, as you move in relationship to it, or pay attention to different parts, unfolds.
My father had materials in the basement, so I made some sculptures as well. I took chicken wire and made shapes, dipped burlap into plaster, and covered the shapes. My fantasy is that they were like Franz West; they were modern art blobs.
David Humphrey, “Puppies” (2014), paper pulp, hydrocal, plush 24 x 36 x 28 inches
I always imagined I would be an artist but I didn’t do much about it until I went to Maryland Institute College of Art. My greatest enthusiasm as a preteen and teenager was popular music, more than art. It seemed like everything that mattered was coming from music.
Song structure is a vernacular form, which delivers lyrics and tends to be idiomatic, generic. You have a three and a half minute song, a rhythm section, the verse, the chorus. Somehow the form is still turning out fresh material that speaks to people’s deepest longings and anxieties. People make sense of it intuitively without thinking about the harmonic structure. In some ways, the equivalent is making a portrait, or a figure in a landscape. It is a picture of a person with a face sitting somewhere. And it may have some relationship to how the viewer is feeling.
JS: You had a very complicated series of educational influences. After the Maryland Institute you studied at the New York Studio School. And after that, you got a Master’s from New York University, where you studied film theory.
DH: The New York Studio School interested me because I was fascinated by Philip Guston and the New York School. Guston was on the school’s masthead, so I thought I could study with him. He never showed up. But it threw me into New York and into the Hans Hofmann tradition. I was carrying a lot of content baggage in my work at that time. I was also in love with Beckmann and Picasso.
At that time at the Studio School, the whole point was to move towards abstraction, and it planted an abstraction superego into me. I was also interested in plein-air painting. I thought plein-air painting was about the relationship between the body and the sensorium. There is a moment when you turn away from the tree and you look at your palette to apply it to the canvas and you’re painting from memory. This opens the door to a more porous, open-ended, associative relationship to the subject. That was my argument to myself at the time: you aren’t really painting from life; you are painting from memory.
David Humphrey, “On the Couch” (2014), acrylic on canvas 72 x 60 inches
I studied with Nicholas Carone and he had a metaphysical, Cubist-Surrealist ethos. Part of his unusual pedagogy was that he would become more evasive as you got closer to understanding him, introducing yet another fuzzy and peculiar layer. You would think that drawing a lot of orthogonal lines while standing in front of the nude was an analytic process. Then it emerged that it wasn’t really analytic, it was metaphysical. What did he mean by that? I never figured it out. It created a set of anxieties and productive appetites. He had enough charisma to pull it off. He had lived through Cubism and Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, so he was connected to traditions that were all in books for me, as a young artist.
This was during the early days of Post Modernism but the Studio School would have nothing to do with that. When I went to New York University, critical theory was being translated and showing up in cinema studies. Identity politics and feminism became part of the language of contemporary art. Painting was being interrogated for its masculinist commodity status. For better or worse, it introduced a self-consciousness that put pressure on artists to account for themselves. Some artists became more pinched, and for others, it raised the stakes.
I felt that it was liberating. Painting could reflect what it was to be a person in contemporary life. You are going to the grocery store, buying things, thinking about your girlfriend, dreaming about other things. All of those layered contents could be addressed or reflected directly in the painting: the idea that the painting has the ability to reflect consciousness in a certain way — maybe in the way poetry can — in this peculiar language of colors arranged in a certain order.
JS: What you speak about is a background that reflects a duality of abstraction and representation; it seems that this duality is constantly expressed in your work.
DH: I hope that there are a variety of languages – different pictorial languages that work with each other dynamically. They might strain the coherence of the thing, but they also become part of a theatrical narrative. I often set up situations in which I am performing in a collaborative relationship to some split-off part of myself. It might be an automatist gesture or photo-projection, and then I zoom out and try to find a way to reenter it.
I have been doing life drawing with a group of artists at Will Cotton’s studio. I start with a translucent sheet on which I’ve done an abstract painting. Then I have to find a way to connect the figure to the abstraction. I thought the figure drawing sessions were a side activity – like going to the gym: improving your chops. But the modes I set up for myself turned into a model for constructing a painting: hybridizing semi- arbitrary abstract elements with normative representational features.
JS: Your paintings are full of wild images. I wonder how you conceive of them and how they develop. Can you talk about this process?
DH: Almost every painting has a complicated itinerary that is unique from the others. Sometimes a painting will be generated from a little sketch that I’ve developed in a bright responsible way with studies. Other times, the paintings take a lot of turns.
I planned to do a painting of a factory set-up and had a source image, but was looking to re-cast the characters. I trolled the Internet to find alternative workers. I found this image of a hipster guy with a hat and facial hair. He worked his way into the painting. But I kept thinking I didn’t really do him justice, so he became a hybrid: the face and his body are from images of two different people.
David Humphrey, “Tara” (2014), acrylic on canvas, 54 x 44.5 inches
At some point, I decided that what was missing in the studio was a painting with a single protagonist: an old-fashioned portrait. So the character from the factory became the painting “On the Couch” (2014), and then I felt like he needed a friend. I painted “Tara” (2014). She was the other worker. In some weird way, they walked out of one painting to have their own role in another. Maybe that was the idea of the factory painting: that a person could have a peculiar autonomy within a constrained role.
As I was working on “On the Couch”, there was a series of relays and developments. I traced the image from the Internet. Then I superimposed my tracing on other bodies. I did drawings of those tracings. I worked in Photoshop and stretched one face horizontally onto this other guy and printed that out. But I try to wipe my tracks. I don’t want the painting to be burdened by all this past.
At the same time, I like the patched-together quality. That is what it’s like to be a person in the world. We evolve out of dependencies and contexts. We are, in some ways, patch jobs: fragments that constitute a whole with some effort. There is an echo of that theme in the painting language, the means. I am always trying to pulverize the image. I like the idea that the painting is at risk of falling apart.
“Posing” (2014) shows two women with their arms around each other, posing for the photographer who was originally represented on the right. The photographer got eliminated and turned into floating atomized squares. In a way, the technology becomes the spectator, and might have even been set up by the women to take the picture. Digital representation is related to the ideas inherent in Post Impressionism and Divisionism: the image can be made of little units.
David Humphrey, “Posing” (2014), acrylic on canvas, 60 x 72 inches
JS: Is this related to the art historical idea that if the image is unfinished or made up of component parts, it is the viewer who puts it together?
DH: I like the conceit of a dialogue between the spectator and the works that is more than just passive. In the 1980s, I made paintings that were awkward or that didn’t hang together. I was thinking that ideally spectators would have a vicarious relationship to it. They would have a sense of what it would be like to make the painting.
JS: Your paintings often involve doubles, pairs, and you even explore interspecies relationships. What do these couples signify for you?
DH: The dyad, or the pair, echoes the relationship between the spectator and the work, which is a proto-dyad. We are born into interdependency, thrown into the world as not quite singular. Our origins are blurred with others and we obtain singularity with great labor, and only partially.
David Humphrey, “Campfire” (2014), paper pulp, hydrocal, wood 46 x 48 x 22 inches
Interspecies relationships are a way to allegorize interpersonal relationships. Pets represent a desire to connect. Pets have always haunted the imagery in my paintings. In 2001, I was in a new relationship and happy about it, and my girlfriend was really into cats. I made a painting of two cats. I was also collecting cute ceramic figurines of animals. I thought I would crawl inside of a fantasy of what other people like, and then try to find my own tangled desires through that.
It was an early acrylic painting, and it felt really thrilling and dumb to me. I had this idea that it was a “normotic” painting; it was pathologically normal. Its specialness was accidental. It tried to be normal but it failed, and its failure was something special. A normotic painting is made with what I imagine is the intention of an amateur working from a family snapshot, that “I love my kid, and I am going to make a painting of my kid,” but something else creeps in, unbidden, that makes it very interesting and moving.
JS: This makes me wonder about your feelings and connection to Pop Art. You have been connected to Surrealism, but I’m not sure about Pop Art.
DH: When I first showed my work, I was labeled a Neo-Surrealist. Branding things as Neo was the thing to do in the early eighties. It was a micro-beat after Neo-Expressionism, and just before Neo-Conceptualism. But the whole time, I had an itch about Pop Art. I had a strong appetite to fold features of popular culture, mass culture, commodity culture into my imagery, but without the detachment and coolness of Pop Art. I was interested in the possibility that there would be a way to articulate subjectivities in the language of the commodity.
An image creates a genealogy that speaks to other paintings and the history of other images, and tries to make a story out of that. I’d like to think that after thirty years of painting, those kinds of stories are unconscious. It is part of being a painter — it is partly a burden and partly an enrichment — that there is such a huge tradition of image-making.
Installation view of “David Humphrey: Work and Play” (2014) at Fredericks & Freiser, New York
The challenge is that the overwhelming tide of images on the Internet is shattering and complicating that other, pedigreed image repertoire. The Internet can count a random selfie as equivalent to a Rembrandt self-portrait. It equalizes images. We can’t really stop it. I am living it and throwing my own paintings back into it by posting them on Facebook and Instagram. I posted a picture the other day, got a bunch of likes and that pleased me. But I’d like to think we can slow down the torrent of images and navigate it, by means of painting. To pause, select out what matters. I would like that to be a vital part of the paintings.
Henri Matisse, “The Swimming Pool (La Piscine)” (late summer 1952), maquette for ceramic (realized 1999 and 2005). Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, on painted paper. Overall 73 x 647 inches. Installed as nine panels in two parts on burlap-covered walls 136 inches high. Frieze installed at a height of 65 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs Bernard F. Gimbel Fund, 1975 © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York (all images courtesy the Museum of Modern Art, New York)
The much-heralded exhibition of Matisse cut-outs currently at the Museum of Modern Art was previously at the Tate Modern, with a few less items than here, but it broke all attendance records and was open all night in its final days.
At MoMA, in the first rooms of the exhibition, where smaller works dominate, there is an attempt to arrange some of the compositions as they were situated by Matisse’s assistants, under his direction, in his apartments. This is followed by the extraordinary blue nudes, which this exhibition (here as well as at the Tate) collects together for the first time. One then proceeds to the refurbished “The Swimming Pool” (1952) that once wrapped around three walls and over the doorway of one of the artists’ rooms in the Hôtel Régina in Nice.
In this section, there are photographed illustrations of how the burlap backing that also functioned as a border was restored to its original color. As one enters the “Swimming Pool” room, reconstructed to the exact proportions of the apartment, one expects a bit of a color jolt from the cobalt of the swimmers against the ochre of the burlap, but the contrast seems a little off. The cut-paper figurative elements look faded mostly on the far right end as you enter the room (as laid out in the catalogue double-fold-out it’s on the far left).
The final rooms hold the largest works, transferred, after Matisse’s death in some cases, from the hotel walls to canvas. Here, glass panel protectors, not a problem earlier, are intrusive, distancing the viewer from the larger works. The final study, “Large Decoration with Masks,” from 1953, is particularly distorted by the large gap between it and the viewer as well as the impossible-to-ignore seams in the glass panels. This was unexpectedly dismaying because I remember first seeing it installed in its permanent home at the National Gallery a number of years ago and it took my breath away.
In Washington, as I remember it, the work was at the top of a stairway, hung high and open. I was able to have a visual and physical relationship with the slight changes of surface taking place between the pieces of cut paper, paper background and canvas mounting. In any case, it breathed.
The variations in color, shape and pattern shifted slowly, kinetically, as I took in the rock-solid construction of this monumental, ephemeral… thing. It is listed as a study for a ceramic wall but registers as a fully achieved mural-sized picture, realized at around the same time that mural-sized paintings were beginning to appear in Jackson Pollock’s studio in the U.S.
Henri Matisse, “Large Decoration with Masks (Grande Décoration aux Masques)” (1953), preliminary maquette for ceramic. Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, and ink on white paper, mounted on canvas. 139 ¼ x 392 ¼ inches. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1973.17.1. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
All the work is strange. Joy, as Peter Schjeldahl observed, was Matisse’s sole idiom. This remarkable simulation of it was produced by a driven, enormously intellectual sensibility that has willfully surrendered to the sensual. According to Marcelin Pleynet, Matisse “took as his point of departure the irrationality that he declared was constitutive of painting.”
No artist was more constantly aware that a painting is a surface of reflected light. Matisse was the master of tactile color as it intersects with airy light. As in his paintings, color is here transmitted via the brushy gouache surfaces of the paper cut-outs (assistants painted the paper in the later works) permitting light to come through.
Clement Greenberg characterized Matisse’s paint surfaces as “indifferent,” a blandness that undergirded his radical experiments with pictorial color, pattern, and representation. Matisse’s touch carried color carefully, varying saturation, speed and character. He stated that brush marks in painting could be considered a decorative element. Even when bare canvas was re-exposed through rubbings out, the light and texture of the support were of use to him. One hardly ever detects a demonstrative flourish. Matisse’s emotion was transmitted through his interpretation of what he was painting.
So there seems to be a logic to Matisse’s advancement to cut-paper. From his codification of the impersonal brushstroke mark to the introduction of a mediating tool like the scissors, his work comprises a further obliteration of the boundaries of color and drawing. Matisse’s use of scissors anticipates Pollock, Hans Hartung, Simon Hantaï, Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, among others, in the use of an intermediary process (such as pouring paint or folding the canvas) in order to distance the artist’s hand and brush from the picture.
Greenberg also observed of Matisse, “Great artists are just as unaware of their strengths and weaknesses as the rest of us.” Interestingly, one of Matisse’s first forays into establishing the cut-outs as a viable form was a disappointment to him. Where previously he had used painted paper to work out his Barnes mural commission (1932-33) and a stage curtain design for the Ballet Russe production of Rouge et Noir (1939), and utilized it in designs for several book covers, his next project in colored cut paper, Jazz (1947), a book of stencil-printed pochoir plates, he deemed a failure.
The originating cutouts showed the working process: the pinholes; changes in color intensity due to uneven application of gouache onto sheets of paper. In the published book, all the slight alterations in the ground, which brought a “sensitivity” to the fore, were absent. The problem of how to interpret these colored paper compositions as works in themselves put Matisse in a position similar to where James Bishop found himself some years later. Bishop said he found that his works on paper were more complex than his paintings.
But Matisse continued, and not, I suspect, because his invalid state did not allow him to paint, but because the odd patches of perforated, brushed and cut papers were in fact the stuff of painting by other means. The works are filled with Mediterranean air and light, reflecting the place where he discovered his forms. In an interview published in 1943, he said to Louis Aragon, “An artist’s importance is measured by the number of new signs he has introduced into plastic language.”
The inventiveness and innovation on display at MoMA is astounding. Technically, it is also somewhat surprising that each cut-out is unique. Matisse really was painting with scissors. The longer one looks, the painterliness and Impressionist light arrives. The cuts do not follow the form; they surround mass and locate it in atmosphere. In the blue nudes there is fluidity between background and figure, buttressed by shards of inexplicable space. Here Matisse was continuing to merge traditional European oil painting with elements from other cultures, Islam being particularly in evidence.
Henri Matisse, “Blue Nude II (Nu bleu II)” (spring 1952). Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, on white paper, mounted on canvas. 45 ¾ x 35 inches. Musée national d’art moderne/Centre de création industrielle, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Purchase, 1984. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Incidentally, from this perspective, moments in this show simply look racist. Four pages of the accompanying catalog are devoted to studio shots of a cut-out figure of Josephine Baker semi-abstracted into an oversized “Amazonian,” as the catalog refers to it. These images as well as such compositions as the carefree, grass-skirted “Creole Dancer” (1950) make one cringe.
And of course his Orientalism is everywhere, originating in his enormous debt to Delacroix’s “Women of Algiers” (1834). Matisse’s entire career was spent unpacking this painting. The lassitude, the availability of the women of the seraglio, the African servant, the patterned draperies and garments, the textures of flesh against fabric, shining metal and Mediterranean light appear throughout his career, finally synthesizing into a concept of the picture as a piece of decorative cloth. When that decorative cloth seems about ready to drift off its stretchers, the cut-outs take over.
As is always the case with Matisse, serious study yields ample rewards. But for all of Matisse’s subsequent influence, one wonders at the same time what exactly is the legacy of these late cut-outs.
The scuffing on the surface of some of the cut papers, as in “Blue Nude II” from 1952, for example, makes the piece look as contemporary as a Wade Guyton. The circulation of the book Jazz informed later work by the New York School of graphic designers such as Paul Rand and Ivan Chermayoff, as well as the film titles of Saul Bass. It’s a safe bet that Barnett Newman looked closely at these collages when they were first shown at Pierre Matisse gallery in 1949. The clean edges and clear jumps from one color field to the next in these works were found nowhere else at this time.
The Côte d’Azur-based Supports/Surfaces group of artists benefitted most directly from the legacy of the late works. Active largely in the south of France, they saw them earlier than Paris-based painters. Also, Matisse’s final act — applying the efficacies of fifty years of painting at the highest level to a social project like the Vence Chapel(1951) — set an important precedent for the political and social engagement of the young group. In addition, Matisse’s work with cloth, tapestry, vestments all pointed toward the beginnings of the deconstruction of the painting object. Jean Fournier, the most artistically influential postwar French gallerist, who handled some members of this group, is said to have remarked after seeing some of Matisse’s cut paper shapes pinned to a cloth background that they were an awakening to his understanding of where painting could venture.
Closer to home, the two artists most credited as being influenced by Matisse’s late work are Ellsworth Kelly and Richard Tuttle. It seems somewhat ironic that this most painterly of painters would be interpreted by artists who are both essentially polychrome sculptors.
Tuttle’s work, for all of its beauty, is made up of a collection of details, and no composition by him has ever approached the generality of emphasis that unifies the pictorial-ness of each of Matisse’s later cutouts. But both of these artists are post-utopians, problematizing the unity of these pretty patches of cut color. Tuttle realized an art of sequences, fragments, openness and contradiction, utilizing the lessons of Matisse when it suited him, almost like an apprentice chef with his own ideas.
With Kelly, whom this writer has long admired, this show seems to have forced a referendum on the porousness of the surface that so distressed Matisse upon discovering that it had gone missing in the plates of Jazz. In contrast, Kelly’s paintings, reliefs and freestanding sculptures take Matisse’s disjunctive color cuts into a realm of solids. As Harold Bloom observed, the artist must misread the great work that preceded him in order to move on. Bloom called this a “correction.”
Kelly, as demonstrated by recent exhibitions of his collage-studies, is aware of the immediacy and expressiveness of this methodology, but chooses to recast them in grander mediums. One of the many interesting things about Matisse was how very little of his production involved changes in scale, projects, and translations from one medium to another, the chapel being the biggest exception. His general avoidance of this activity points to his attention to how paintings and drawings speak to the sense of touch through the eye.
In both Tuttle and Kelly this frontality, this direct engagement with the individual beholder that remained of such importance to Matisse has been discarded. Tuttle’s work is performative: every element is present in a non-relational way. Composition is not his concern, only presentness. Kelly on the other hand, while seeming to adhere so closely to the cut-outs, returned them to painting with mixed results. While there seems to be a complete experience when looking at a Tuttle, with Kelly there appears to be something lacking, especially as the work moves closer to the present. The reliefs, perhaps unique to Kelly as a genre, seem to transmit an idea about the pictorial without embodying it. They appear derived from a cut paper fragment, perhaps derived from an organic form.
Kelly chose to make these works on subtly shaped canvases or steel with uninflected opaque color. If Chermayoff and Co. translated the simplified forms of Jazz and other works into a corporate typography, Kelly appears to be making emblems that convey a nostalgia for the Matisse of the cut-outs. Once again, thinking of Kelly, one realizes that there is very little of Matisse that relies on sheer elegance, but with Kelly it’s a mainstay.
It took Blinky Palermo to ‘correct’ Kelly’s Matisse-collage color bands into his Stoffbilder (Cloth Pictures), which are so influential to current painting. If you’re looking for the great, great grandfather of the so-called provisional painting movement, with its interest in materiality, spareness and unity, his works are hanging on the walls of the Modern right now.
Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through February 8, 2015.
Théodore Rousseau, “Study for The Forest in Winter at Sunset” (ca. 1846), oil over charcoal with white heightening on paper, mounted to canvas, 9 5/8 x 13 1/4 inches. Private collection (all images courtesy the Morgan Library & Museum)
Consider “Study for The Forest in Winter at Sunset,” a work in oil and charcoal on brown paper by Théodore Rousseau, the 19th-century French painter now under scrutiny at the Morgan Library & Museum. Although it was done between 1845 and 1850, it feels like something Anselm Kiefer might come up with for a 12-foot-wide canvas: a controlled chaos of bare, twisting tree limbs in slashes of paint as dark and smoldering as charred bitumen.
Rousseau’s study is just an inch or two larger than a piece of typing paper, but it captures the bleak, commanding presence of the Forest of Fontainebleau, where it was made. Its scraggly oaks emerge from the sepia-colored ground amid smears and stipples of charcoal, filling the sheet’s wide horizontal midsection with black, oily strokes. Blue-gray flecks of sky breaking through sulfuric clouds and isolated patches of pearlescent sunlight sink the paper’s burnished, autumnal glow into a dank, biting chill.
The image is blunt and raw, especially when compared with the limpid, fluidly brushed oil paintings that make up the opening section of the Morgan’s neatly compact exhibition, The Untamed Landscape: Théodore Rousseau and the Path to Barbizon. Like many works in the show — most of them exquisite and all of them on paper — Rousseau, in all probability, believed that this study would be seen by his eyes only. An absence of viewers’ expectations might account for the restiveness in his materials and imagery, which change like the weather from one sheet to the next. Working onsite and surrounded by his subject, the notion of a unified style would take a back seat to his spontaneous response to the environment — or so you would think.
In his review of the Paris Salon of 1846, Charles Baudelaire counted Rousseau among the exhibition’s “most celebrated absentees,” deploring the “setbacks and underhand plotting” that kept him out of the running, and his consequent status as “a man but little known to the multitude.”
Baudelaire writes that Rousseau’s talent “is as difficult to interpret […] in words as it is to interpret that of Delacroix,” but he does a splendid job nonetheless:
His painting breathes a great sigh of melancholy. He loves nature in her bluish moments—twilight effects—strange and moisture-laden sunsets—massive, breeze-haunted shades—great plays of light and shadow.
In a piece on the Salon of 1859 (which did include Rousseau’s work), Baudelaire goes a little deeper. Comparing him to Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, whose paintings were also in the salon, Baudelaire notes that Rousseau “is perpetually restless and throbbing with life—if Rousseau seems like a man who is tormented by several devils and does not know which one to heed, M. Corot, who is his absolute antithesis, has the devil too seldom within him.”
As evidenced by the fine selection on view at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rousseau’s finished paintings, albeit to a lesser degree than his works on paper, shift abruptly from brooding romanticism (most notably in the canvas, dated ca. 1846–67, that’s based on “The Study for The Forest in Winter at Sunset”) to crystalline, almost storybook naturalism. They are unified solely by their “great plays of light and shadow.” For Rousseau, it seems, style is emotion set free.
The Barbizon School, cited in the exhibition’s title, was a mini-flowering of French painting that bridged Romanticism and Realism. It was named after a town near the Forest of Fontainebleau, where artists gathered during their seasonal painting trips into the woods (Rousseau, a fierce advocate of painting out of doors in all kinds of weather, actually moved to Barbizon in1848 and lived there until his early death in 1867, at the age of 55).
The Barbizon painters, with their practice of direct observation and emphasis on light and atmosphere, were among the first mid-19th-century dissidents to undermine the ”despotic” classical ideal of beauty, in Baudelaire’s famous term, which was imposed on officially recognized art by the French Academy.
Théodore Rousseau, “Rocky Landscape, Forest of Fontainebleau” (ca. 1835-40 [?]), oil on paper, mounted on board, 12 1/2 x 17 inches. Private collection.
Rousseau’s jarringly expressionistic “Study for The Forest in Winter at Sunset” and ”Rocky Landscape, Forest of Fontainebleau,” an oil-on-paper possibly done between 1835 and 1840 — two of the most memorable works in The Untamed Landscape — represent one end of his emotional range, while paintings like the serene ”A Village in the Valley” (ca. late 1820s) are on the other.
In between we find the Turner-esque ”Landscape with Cows and a Fisherman” (no date), in which the clouds, riverbanks, trees and stream all seem to quaver on the point of dissolution, and ”Landscape at Lavigerie, Santoire Valley, Auvergne” (1830), whose slab-like mountainsides could have been painted by Cézanne.
And then there’s the spookily quasi-Symbolist ”Sunset in the the Forest of Fontainebleau” (ca. 1848-50), done in oil and graphite: its composition, funnelling from the gloom of the forest to the half-circle of the sun, glimpsed from a clearing as it dips below the horizon, is entirely drained of color, yet every brushstoke is suffused with the unnatural light of a day-for-night movie shot, a landscape strangely glimmering with the pallor of death.
Rousseau’s stylistic zigs and zags at times venture into less satisfying territory. Some of his pictures, like those of devout peasants or sailboats moored at Granville and Normandy, can be sentimental, fussy, and a bit of a bore. The most roughly made work in the show, “Waterfall in Thiers” (1830), with its hurriedly knifed-in, ill-placed strokes of oil paint, goes markedly slack as your eye moves from the cascading white water to the indifferently brushed-in townscape above. But it also feels seven or eight decades ahead of its time.
It’s intriguing that the most experimental and riveting works in the show were done in the Forest of Fontainebleau, the place Rousseau called home. In ”Rocky Landscape, Forest of Fontainebleau,” mentioned above — another picture that called Kiefer to mind — the image of a blasted-looking field features neither a conventional focal point nor an interplay between major and minor shapes, and in ”Landscape Study, Fontainebleau” (ca. 1855-65), the wildness of the thickets counterpoised by snatches of sky and shimmering swamp water is pushed up a notch by a bizarre, pastel-blue wash isolating a single bush, a flight of invention that seems to come out of nowhere. In the midst of the forest, Rousseau lived what he painted and painted what he lived — a consonance, perhaps, that enabled him to trust the volatility of his vision.
The Untamed Landscape: Théodore Rousseau and the Path to Barbizon continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through January 18, 2015.
Today from our partners at Art Practical, we bring you a review of Matt Borruso’s recent solo show Wax House of Wax, which closes today at Steven Wolf Fine Arts in San Francisco. Author Danica Willard Sachs notes, “Like a Surrealist, Borruso manipulates the banal, challenging viewers to see the horror underlying the everyday.” This review was originally published on October 23, 2014.
Matt Borruso. Forming, 2012–14; installation view, Wax House of Wax, 2014; plastic, Plexiglas, glass, mirrors, cut paper, ceramic, unfired clay, silicone, wax, talc, lenticular photographs, holograms, wood, tape, rubber bands, linen, concrete, steel, elastic, books, magazines, airbrush paint, inkjet prints, transparencies, posters, wallpaper; 120 x 42 x 61 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Steven Wolf Fine Arts, San Francisco.
In Wax House of Wax, on view at Steven Wolf Fine Arts until October 25, Matt Borruso invites viewers into his carefully constructed house of horrors. Borruso transforms everyday objects into sinister forms in his sculptures and collages. He has equated his painting practice with the making of Frankenstein’s monster, cobbling together disparate parts to create an ambiguous portrait, and he extends this approach to his new body of work, making banal objects uncanny.
Two surreal collages greet viewers upon entry to the exhibition. On the left, Macramé Pot Hangers (2012) is composed of four copies of the same magazine page overlaid with a duplicate image of a brick-and-tile fireplace and mantel. As a whole, the arrangement of the pages in the collage works kaleidoscopically, moving the viewer’s focus toward the center of the frame. A mess of intersecting and repeating geometric patterns makes it hard to distinguish the borders between the pages. Hanging to the right is Borruso’s Dark Energy (2014), which depicts a B-horror-movie character, Maniac Cop, wallpapered over magazine clippings showing opulent interior spaces with transparent furniture and mirrors. Seen individually the two collages do not immediately have any relationship to each other. Borruso’s clever pairing, however, lays the foundation for the rest of the show. By creating equivalence between the two works through their placement next to each other, Borruso suggests a kind of terror underlying the simplicity of a macramé plant holder.
Joseph Cornell, Untitled, Gift of Mrs. John A. Benton. © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. (All images courtesy of Williams College Museum of Art)
What did John Frederick Kensett, a 19th-century artist part of the Hudson River School, have in common with Thomas Matteson, a blanket chest-maker from Vermont?
According to the brochure for an intriguing new show about material culture at Williams College of Art, “[Kensett] portrayed American wilderness as both symbol and resource, depicting the taming of forested land as an indicator of manifest destiny. [Matteson’s] blanket chests, made from local timber, are products of this process … ”
The idea that “fine” and “folk” art result from the same culture and so carry similar impulses drives Material Friction: Americana and American Art, an exhibition that includes 80 works from the private collection of Jonathan and Karin Fielding — most which have never been exhibited before. They include decorative and utilitarian objects like 18th-century needlework samplers and scrimshaw corset busks (whalebone corset stiffeners that seamen bestowed on their brides), as well as paintings by academically trained and untrained artists.
Among the artists featured in the show, the worlds of folk and fine art converge most directly in the work of Joseph Cornell. “There is a craft element about his boxes, roughly made with found objects,” curator Kevin M. Murphy told Hyperallergic via email. “Like many of the folk portraitists, Cornell was at once of the art world of his time and apart from it … [his works] seem more remote than work by his contemporaries somehow, even though he is using everyday objects and images from popular culture.” Murphy explained that the same holds true for one mid-19th century stenciled drawing of two puppies by an anonymous artist; it’s based on a well-known color lithograph from which the artist traced the dogs.
The question of whether such works should be displayed in museums together or separately underpins the show and its curation. To explore the answer, Murphy divided the works into three galleries. In the first, he exhibited a collection of folk objects in chronological order, grouping them together according to their utilitarian functions. In the next two, he arranged folk works and objects alongside art by traditionally schooled artists. A group of art history students at the college are currently studying the subject, and the exhibition will be reinstalled in early November to reflect their own research.
“The incredible range and quality of the Fielding’s collection make possible multiple curatorial strategies,” Murphy explained in the press release. “We wanted to explore the sympathies and antiphonies that occur if we displayed works across time and media.”
Take a look at some images from the show.
“‘Lake George’ (1853) by John Frederick Kensett and the surreal watercolor and stencil of the two puppies (below) show two artists glorifying the American landscape.” curator Kevin M. Murphy said. “For Kensett, his concern is a idealized, tamed wilderness.”
“For the unknown artist of the puppy painting, the combination of the giant, but carefully fenced in, dogs, large spray of flowers, and mill building in the background continues the idea of mastery over nature — and with the mill, harnessing it for economic purposes,” Murphy explained. (Photo by Arthur Evans)
“The detail, color and pattern in ‘Portrait of Cynthia Mary Osborn’ (ca. 1840) by Samuel Miller is full of detail, color and pattern, reflecting the equally rich material culture of rural America during the 19th century, which extended to furniture and textiles, as well as paintings themselves,” Murphy said. “[Osborn] died shortly after Miller painted her, so what was a portrait of a carefree girl on the cusp of adolescence became a memorial.”
In Sheldon Peck’s “Little Girl in a Windsor Arm Chair,” painted between 1827 and 1832, the “tripartite organic design on the girl’s hem is matched by a similar pattern on the fancy Windsor chair,” Murphy said.
Installation view of “Material Friction” at Williams College Museum of Art (Photo by Arthur Evans)
Installation view of “Material Culture” at Williams College Museum of Art (Photo by Arthur Evans)
Material Friction: Americana and American Art, an exhibition that includes 80 works from the private collection of Jonathan and Karin Fielding, continues at the http://hyperallergic.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Material-Friction-HOME.jpg (15 Lawrence Hall Drive, Ste 2, Williamstown, Massachusetts) until November 2.
70th Street Garden at the Frick Collection, New York (photo by Navid Baraty, 2014) (all images courtesy the Cultural Landscape Foundation)
The Frick Collection’s Russell Page–designed garden, planned for destruction as part of the Manhattan museum’s expansion project, is one of 11 land-based art pieces announced as under threat this week by the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF). The organization’s annual compendium, Landslide 2014: Art and the Landscape, lists the Frick’s 70th Street Garden along with other works in the United States that TCLF says are at risk of disappearing, because of development, poor maintenance, or natural decay.
Athena Tacha’s “Green Acres” in Trenton, NJ, another one of the land-based artworks under threat (photo by Athena Tacha)
Charles A. Birnbaum, founder and president of TCLF, wrote an article on the Page garden for the Huffington Post earlier this year. In it he says:
Frick officials have the opportunity to acknowledge the importance of this garden and honor the artist who created it, landscape architect Russell Page. They should embrace it as a valued and unique part of its collection, and find a solution that addresses their programmatic needs and protects this important work of art.
Page’s work, like many of the others on the Landslide list, is easily overlooked, and illustrates the problem faced by much land-based art: people eventually want to fill the land with other things. TCLF’s 11 endangered sites for this year were selected from over a hundred submissions, and include more contemporary work that was never intended to be permanent. Leo Villareal’s 25,000 LED “Bay Lights,” draped on the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, were only meant to be illuminate through March 2015; a campaign has been formed to make that through 2026. The list also features large-scale art projects like Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project in Detroit, which has experienced repeated arson in recent months, and Harvey Fite’s Opus 40 in Saugerties, New York, a huge environmental sculpture made of bluestone that was heavily damaged and destabilized in Hurricanes Sandy and Irene.
Other sites are examples of the difficulty of just conserving massive art projects when budgets and staff are limited, like the Watts Towers in Los Angeles or the White Rock Lake Wildlife Water Theater in Dallas; the latter, a wildlife viewing area by artists Frances Bagley and Tom Orr, has had its funding cut, leaving its poles rusting and solar-powered elements dark. Then there’s the Wells Petroglyph Preserve in New Mexico, where, due to recent drought and erosion, the ancient art that’s been viewable on its stones for so long is in danger of disappearing.
You can read narratives about each of the selections on the TCLF site. Landslide also includes new photography that shows the current state of each place, selections of which are presented below.
Leo Villareal, “The Bay Lights,” San Francisco, CA (photo by James Ewing, 2014)
Mary Miss, “Greenwood Pond: Double Site,” Des Moines, IA (photo by Judith Eastburn, 2014)
The Heidelberg Project, Detroit, MI (photo by Dave Jordano, 2014)
Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture, Joshua Tree, CA (photo by Liz Kuball, 2014)
Harvey Fite, “Opus 40,” Saugerties, NY (photo by Thomas H. Hahn, 2014)
Robert Morris, “Untitled (Johnson Pit No. 30),” SeaTac, WA (photo by Allen Russ, 2014)
Watts Towers, built by Simon Rodia, Los Angeles, CA (photo by John Lewis, 2014)
Wells Petroglyph Preserve, Mesa Prieta, NM (photo by Richard Fenker, 2014)
Frances Bagley and Tom Orr, White Rock Lake Wildlife Water Theater, Dallas, TX (photo by Allison V. Smith, 2014)
Installation view, ‘Dana Saulnier: Stacks and Traps’ at First Street Gallery (image courtesy First Street Gallery)
Dana Saulnier’s ostensibly expressionist canvases at First Street Gallery carry a bravado reminiscent at first glance of mid-century abstraction. Yet they flaunt an obvious distance from their Action painting precursors by the employment of allusive figural references. Even among the growing number of painters inspired by a mingling of spatial illusion and surface event, Saulnier reveals an acute sense of impunity in his work. More than any paintings of recent memory, Saulnier’s merge painted illusion and painterly gesture into a compelling vision that embraces 19th-century articulation without definitively describing anything.
Light, mass, and atmosphere, all fabricated through the artist’s considerable skill at the easel, are melded into scenes that prove both mysterious and physically credible, while refusing to specify their more dynamic elements as human, flora, or fauna. In this regard they share a sense of secret symbolism with the early, Surrealist-inspired canvases of proto–Action painting’s ideographic period (1945–48), just prior to that generation’s expansive and decidedly flat look. But, in reaching for the large brush and the bold gesture, Saulnier does not actually follow through with Abstract Expressionism redux; instead, he reaches back a century and a half to Francisco Goya.
Dana Saulnier, “Picnic” (2013), oil on canvas, 72.25″ x 63.25” (all artwork images courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)
Modelled in dark, muddy tones, sparked at significant passages with impasto whites and judiciously applied notes of intense red, Saulnier revisits the nightmare environs of Romantic melodrama with imagery that seems to twist itself into gravity-defying mayhem. Wrestling forms hover over horizontal planes affecting a dystopian atmosphere of indeterminate scale. Sometimes landscape, sometimes still life — this toying with scale allows him to tie the early Romantic sublime to the more shallow pictorial ether of modernist abstract painting.
The ambition Saulnier demonstrates in bridging such a wide cultural synapse is at first startling, though further consideration reveals that the implied chronological markers are not as detached as one might think. The ideographic picture of the mid-1940s that preceded Abstract Expressionism applied the visual dialect of Surrealism, which had evolved from French Symbolist poetry, which in sensibility evolved from Baudelaire, whose birth and whose subsequent taste for decadence correlates with Goya’s late work. We do well to remind ourselves that the fluid that nourished modernism’s long evolution toward unfettered expression was fundamentally poetic. In his 2003 biography of Goya, Robert Hughes characterized the artist’s eccentric late paintings as “seem[ing] like freakish, vivid precursors of modernity” because, as Hughes suggests, Goya chose to “bypass explicit symbolism” — in other words, he predicted modernism by choosing to bypass the chief characteristic of academic art: identifiable narrative.
Dana Saulnier, “A Month’s Mind” (2012), oil on canvas, 76″ x 90”
As with Goya’s Black paintings, Saulnier’s canvases at First Street derive much of their visual power from the fact that they can never be fully deciphered. “A Month’s Mind” hints at monsters struggling over a vast landscape, their teeth (if that’s what they are) clenched in mortal combat. In “Untitled,” one of the more clearly delineated of the canvases, a pair of what may be wine bottles protrude from what appears to be a net resting on the floor of a cave — or perhaps the sea floor, in a nod to environmental issues (the operative word being perhaps) — while the light illuminates what could be a debarked tree trunk or the flayed limb of a more sentient creature. Each canvas provides more than enough visual information to stimulate the imagination without becoming literal, allowing for a fusion of essences and emotions ranging from the ordinary to the macabre.
Several studies hanging in the smaller, rear gallery are easily matched to the larger canvases in the other room, indicating that Saulnier’s process involves a sophisticated control over whatever spontaneity initiates the imagery itself. That he can maintain a level of painterly abandon while keeping the structure of each composition within predetermined limits illustrates a willingness to harness the offspring of his improvisation and keep it within the requirements of each painting’s unique disposition.
Tempering what could easily become an affectation of historical appropriation (I could not confirm this at the gallery, but the dull, greenish tone of the larger paintings appears to be the result of an overall glaze), Saulnier manages to maintain a sense of painterly invention. He achieves a wonderful balance of control and abandon, avoiding the fussiness of laborious style raiding while making the most of an early-19th-century look. His atmosphere, though superficially indebted to Goya’s palette, does not pander to the older painter, nor does it caricature Romanticism’s darkness. His vision is as distinctive and as personal as Goya’s, or Turner’s, or De Kooning’s, for that matter.
Dana Saulnier, “Untitled 9/12″ (2012), oil on canvas, 56″ x 70”
What is most refreshing here is that the historical reference is not the point, but merely an aspect of the painter’s vision. It is a tool used in achieving that vision. To paraphrase Robert Motherwell, who was something of an expert on French Symbolist poetry: all painters carry in their minds the pictures they have seen. Saulnier’s paintings add a new sense of freedom to the potential implied in that sentiment, a freedom poets, novelists, and filmmakers use without reluctance.
Dana Saulnier: Stacks and Traps continues at First Street Gallery (526 W 26th St, #209, Chelsea, Manhattan) through November 1.
Illustration from “Goethe’s Werke” (1882) (image via Wikimedia Commons)
An eight-foot-tall sculpture of a wizard in a couple’s front yard has sparked a debate in the village of Oakland Mills, Maryland, about what constitutes appropriate neighborhood statuary, who has the power to decide what is and isn’t art, and whether or not the towering sorcerer could help lift the community out of economic depression.
When Debbie and Roger Matherly of Macomber Lane decided to do away with a rotting pine tree in their front yard, the Baltimore Sun reports, they called in local chainsaw carver extraordinaire Evelyn Mogren (the “Pine Picasso“) to transform their stump into something magical. The resulting sculpture depicts a tall, bearded, and cloaked sorcerer clutching a tall staff, with an owl perched on his shoulder and a fox obediently seated at his feet.
As the Matherlys’ next-door neighbor Lamont McKenzie told the Sun: “It looks like that guy from the Lord of the Rings.”
But the village’s Residential Architecture Committee proved immune to the wizard’s spell, and the Matherlys were directed to explore ways of moving the sculpture into their backyard. They appealed that decision, taking their case to the Oakland Mills Village Board, where it raised questions not only about what constitutes art, but also about how closely the village’s covenants — which date back to the community’s founding in 1968 — should be adhered to, especially when the rejuvenation of the town hangs in the balance.
“With all of the vacancies of properties out there, we need something to attract people to want to buy in our area,” Tawania Williams, a member of the village board, told the Sun. “If the neighbors weren’t complaining about it, my thought was, ‘Why make these really nice homeowners move it to the back?’”
Rather than force a decision that might set a dangerous precedent for future yard art cases, the Matherlys suggested a new guideline whereby, so long as seven of the nine nearest neighbors approve of the artwork, it can stay. Though the village board has yet to vote on the approved guidelines, many see the wizard sculpture as an attraction that could bring some magic back to a community that’s fallen on hard times.
“The recession has really taken a toll on the older villages,” Oakland Mills board member Kay Wisniewski told the Sun, noting the delapidated state of an abandoned home on the same cul-de-sac as the Matherlys’ property. “This is a violation of covenants like crazy, but we apparently are helpless to do anything about that. And you continue down the street and you see this lovely statue that this community feels is important to us. This is our spirit, and if there’s one thing we need in Oakland Mills, it’s more spirit. I’m more concerned about that than an outbreak of front-yard art. So, I gritted my teeth and I said ‘yeah, I’m voting for it.’”
Jason Farago around the 41st edition of FIAC in Paris
Central Features, with Jami Porter Lara’s ceramic “bottles” in the foreground and Patronio Bendito’s digital prints along the back wall (all images courtesy Central Features)
ALBUQUERQUE — Writer, curator, and (now) gallery owner Nancy Zastudil summarized her experience opening a commercial art gallery in Albuquerque with one Facebook post: “When opening Central Features, approx 90% of the people I told in ABQ asked if it was a gallery of my own artwork.” She later told me that several other people also asked if the gallery was her studio.
Inherent in these questions is a little clue to New Mexico art commerce: many artists run studio-galleries open to the public, and they’re banking on personal interactions to sell their work. This leads us to a second, perhaps more obvious, revelation: a commercial gallery is hard to find in Albuquerque, least of all one that focuses on social engagement.
Central Features opened on September 27 with paintings by Petronio Bendito and sculptures by Jami Porter Lara. By design, the show includes one visiting artist (Bendito) and one local artist, and both of them, Zastudil explained via email, present work that is “considered and polished, yet addresses some messy issues.”
“We are interested in artists who use their artworks to address/present ideas about social progress and the inherent value of the creative act,” Zastudil wrote.
Before opening Central Features, Zastudil and her partner, Ian Goebel, were “looking for a reason to stay” in Albuquerque. They had considered moving to the Northwest, to live closer to the water, but she admits that “Seattle is not know for its commercial artwork either.” In the Duke City they saw not only a good challenge, but also a place that could stand to be challenged. With a recent push for downtown (re)development and the lack of historical restraints (like the obsession with O’Keeffe in Santa Fe), Zastudil says Albuquerque is still creating itself, “and that’s what I find exciting.”
“At the moment, the downtown energy is vibrant and people are responding,” she continued over email. “There are few commercial galleries in ABQ, and for artists living here, it’s currently not a place for them to be competitive in the art market. We are trying to change that, but to do it in ways that also draw attention to global issues, outside of the art market, and the positive roles that artists play in those issues.”
Before committing to opening the gallery, Zastudil and Goebel “tested the waters” with a series they call Show Up, Show Down. It’s a month-long set of weeklong exhibitions that originally appeared last winter in a pop-up gallery, but will now take place at Central Features. These exhibitions contain photos of site-specific projects by artists who are engaging built environments for positive change. The success of the project — from building the advisory committee and raising funds to actually getting people out to the site — gave Zastudil and Goebel the encouragement they needed to proceed with Central Features.
On opening night, Lara’s collection sold out. New Works consists of ceramic vases that mimic disposable plastic containers, which she describes as “reverse archaeology: digging into the present — and the future — using tools of the past.” Unfortunately, one piece shattered when a friend’s excited gesture sent it flying to the floor. Zastudil deemed it a christening of the occasion, but one could also see it as an ironic gesture, pitting the breakable art object against its everlasting progenitor.
Lara’s work went for around $350 a piece. Priced in the thousand-dollar range, Bendito’s collection, Natural Disaster Color Series, didn’t fly out the door quite so easily. (Remember, this is a town with very few commercial contemporary art galleries; I actually can’t think of another one off the top of my head). It’s hard to imagine the gallery succeeding financially if some of it doesn’t sell. An artist, activist, and educator, Bendito uses color theory to transform photos of natural disasters into abstract digital color prints. “China Flood: 2007” (2013), for instance, draws on the contrast between the bright orange worn by rescue workers and the dark earth tones of the scene, creating two forms that mimic the action.
Patronio Bendito, “China Flood: 2007” (2013)
The gallery is booked through the spring, with a group collage show running alongside a Hillerbrand + Magsamen collection in November and December. New York–based company ImageThink will run a series of workshops with Central Features in January 2015. Company founders Nora Herting and Heather Willems are graduates of the University of New Mexico art department, and Zastudil hopes the collaboration will show local business owners “the value and practical applications that artists can bring to their companies,” while showing artists that they have some options for making a living.
Central Features is, after all, a business. It’s a for-profit commercial gallery with a social mission, largely dedicated to helping artists continue to do their work. Zastudil was inspired by her experience as the administrative director of the nonprofit Frederick Hammersley Foundation. Hammersley, it turns out, put away money specifically for other artists to develop their work. Zastudil also comes from a family of what were called “self-starters” when she was growing up, she says, so she easily embraces the contemporary nomenclature of “entrepreneur.”
The gallery “is a selfish endeavor, honestly, because I wanted to open and run a business, [and] I’m familiar with the arts,” she says. “The two had to come together in a way that I felt would ‘make a difference,’ embracing all the related clichés.”
Central Features (109 5th St SW, Albuquerque) is open for Downtown Professionals Day until 6pm today. The gallery’s opening exhibition, with Petronio Bendito and Jami Porter Lara, continues through November 1.
Installation view, Selina Grüter and Michèle Graf, “Watch the sunset 5 Helsinki” (2014) (all photos courtesy the artists)
For their exhibition Horizons But Multiple Horizons, co-presented by Zurich gallery Up State, the duo will showcase two iterations of ongoing projects: a series of fêtes where they screen footage of sunsets around the world as the sun sets over Zürich and a program custom-designed to project every possible color, in sequence, over the course of an exhibition. Both works showcase the duo’s interest in slippages between mediated and real time, and how the subtlest displays of light and color can easily shift from figurative to abstract and back again.
Selina Grüter and Michèle Graf, still from “Watch the sunset 6 Casablanca” (2014)
“Since we chose to exhibit in Signal’s black garage, we already have two opposite spaces as a starting point, our black box versus Daniel’s white cube,” Grüter and Graf told Hyperallergic, referring to the concurrent exhibition of fellow Swiss artist Daniel V. Keller‘s work in Signal’s main space. “This kind of space and anti-space is very much related to our thoughts and works. We like to think of contradiction and its resolution as an overlapping hybrid.”
Over the course of a full year (begun earlier in 2014), Grüter and Graf are hosting 11 “watch the sunset” screening parties in Zurich, at which gatherers watch footage of the sun setting over a different city — including Buenos Aires, Casablanca, Helsinki, and New York — while it goes down in real time before them. As part of this project, they’ve taken high-resolution screenshots of the sunset footage, cropped the images, and printed them onto polyester sheets. The resulting banners, hung in the gallery, are practically abstract, like ghostly records of a long-ago, far-away sunset. The works at Signal feature images take from the sunset over Casablanca.
“The panels ‘Slide away between day and night’ (2014), which will be shown [at Signal], embody exactly this kind of relation between the fields of appearance, extension, representation, 3D, 2D, materiality, space, transmission space, imagination, etc,” the artists explained. “Then in the whole installation there are various forms of blurring horizons, although behind a horizon will always appear another horizon.”
Selina Grüter and Michèle Graf, “Coming closer and won’t close” (2014) in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland
The pair’s other piece at Signal, “Coming closer and won’t close” (2014), involves specially calibrated software and projectors scrolling through every possible color. The result is a very, very slow color gradient that viewers may not even notice to be changing if they don’t put in the time. A previous version of the piece, staged in the Swiss city of Kreuzlingen earlier this year, unfolded over the course of five hours. At Signal, the work takes 78 hours to go from red to green to blue to purple and back again. But if you can’t wait for that crepuscular shade of mauve to come around the bend, you can always take a break and look at the sunset.
Selina Grüter+Michèle Graf, “Coming closer and won’t close” (2014) in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland
Selina Grüter + Michèle Graf: Horizons But Multiple Horizons continues at Signal (260 Johnson Avenue, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through October 26. It is part of Exchange Rates Bushwick, of which Hyperallergic is the media sponsor.
At the AICA-organized rally in support of Paul McCarthy’s “Tree,” recently deinstalled from the Place Vendöme (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)
PARIS — About 60 artists and art critics allied with the French chapter of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) gathered in the Place Vendôme at mid-day Friday near where Paul McCarthy’s once mighty butt plug–based inflatable “Tree” had once stood and stooped. McCarthy himself was absent.
Curiously, we not were there to protest the official censorship of the smirky-smutty shape. After all, French president François Hollande has stood solidly behind the artist. As has the mayor, Anne Hidalgo, and the deputy mayor of Paris in charge culture, Bruno Julliard. Indeed, the state strongly condemned the damage to “Tree” and the attack on the artist, who was slapped several times by unknown assailants.
Paul McCarthy’s chocolate edition of “Tree,” now on sale for 50 Euros (image via sortiraparis.com)
So this anti-censorship campaign was, for once, not directed against the authorities: “Tree” received all necessary approvals: the Prefecture of Police of the City of Paris and the Ministry of Culture, in conjunction with the Vendôme Committee. No. This flash mob protest was directed abstractly against the unknown assailants responsible for the attacks on the épater la bourgeoisie artist and his public art, work that was perhaps perceived as war-on-Christmasy.
And, I might surmise, a bit of the demonstration could be seen as directed against Paul McCarthy himself, for throwing in the towel so quickly. McCarthy passed on re-inflating (or moving) his “Tree,” saying something like he does not want to be involved in this type of confrontation and physical violence.
McCarthy has been busy capitalizing on the media storm, belaboring the Place Vendôme incident with a new scandalous post-Divine art joke: an eatable chocolate “Tree” (le chocolat de Noël, 70% dark chocolate, pure cocoa butter) produced by Damiens chocolate as part of McCarthy’s exhibition Chocolate Factory. It sells at the Paris Mint Chocolate factory, at the Colette boutique, and at Galeries Lafayette for 50 Euros (~$63) a plug.
Rather than protesting classical top-down artistic censorship, this flash mob, with some orchestration from the performance artist ORLAN, affirmed the right to freedom of expression and artistic creation. We did so by displaying amass color images of the missing Vendôme “Tree” for the public and the camera.
It was a quiet and dignified affair.
It hangs like a chandelier designed to throw shade. You cannot walk beneath it without speculating on your own death. And it’s made of iron, technology of another age.
The view’s not so great from this angle, but the form echoes a swastika. And that would be a treacherous swastika with a half yard long stake attached. It threatens like the Sword of Damocles.
This too hung by a thread. In legend, it was a single hair from a horse’s tail. But Chillida has used a near invisible length of what looks like fishing line. It sure hooks you.
And since the Iron Cross was a teutonic symbol and a military decoration during the Third Reich, Chillida might be reflecting on the inherent danger of usurping power.
At the time of making the Basque sculptor was living in his native region and Spain was a dictatorship. There would have been many who would have liked to cut that slender wire.
Or course, this might as usual be reading too much into a formal exercise. From Within is a piece that can also be enjoyed as a spatial conundrum and a source of abstract tension.
But formalism is political too and the title of this piece makes me think of a German painter like Franz Marc, on show nearby. He too is said to have found inspriation ‘within’.
Marc wrote: “The great shapers do not search for their form in the fogs of the past. They plumb for the innermost true centre of gravity of their own times.”
And Chillida has surely created a complex form which not only defies gravity but, in its emptiness and angularity, draws the eye away from the earth. It does so even as we flinch from its latent threat.
From Within can be found in a gallery devoted to Chillida as part of the current show: The Art of Our Time: Masterpieces of the Guggenheim Collection at the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao.
The third floor of the exhibition, featuring both Chillida and Marc, runs until 23 January 2015. The quote comes from one of the expressionist painter’s 1914-15 Aphorisms (#32).
Glenn Kaino discusses his latest installation for Prospect New Orleans
09.17.14-02.15.15 Grand Palais, Paris, review written by Anne Prentnieks