Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Geek Love

Okay, I just discovered the Site Meter last night, and it makes me happy. I don't know how, but someone in Manchester UK visited The ARTery! It's gone international...

Geek Love is also the title of a truely dark and twisted novel about circus folk.

Just so this post has some art related content : a couple of paintings I enjoy...

Gorky's The Artist and His Mother at the National Gallery. Quote from here.
This painting is a fit companion for Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida; both painting and essay explore a son's rediscovery of his dead mother through a photograph. Gorky found the photograph of him and his mother on which the painting was based after her death. In reworking and reinterpreting the photograph of his childhood self with his then-living mother he invokes her memory.

Gauguin's Paysannes bretonnes (Breton peasant women) at the WebMuseum, Paris. This one is in honor of my aunt, who is flying home to Paris today and who has roots in Brittany.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Wolov's Dirty Toys

Samantha Wolov has shifted her focus from erotic photographs of actual people to... these.

It's like really twisted advertising for Mattel. Only better. Check them out. Welcome back to DC, Samantha!

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Neo Rauch

I've been away from the blog - had houseguests all last week, and work's been busy. Non-art pursuits have been taking up time too - finally finished the last Harry Potter book (and those of you out there who have read it can share my annoyance at the ending) and saw Chris Isaak at Wolf Trap last night.

So... here are some art thoughts for today.


On my last trip to New York I dropped in on the Neo Rauch show at David Zwirner. Rauch is an artist that intrigues me, because I can’t decide if I like him or not. This is odd for me – I may waffle about many things in my life but art is usually not one of them. I think he’s in my mental category of ??? along with John Currin. I’m pretty sure both artists are either doing something interesting, or are all surface and no depth. At least Rauch doesn’t have the icky vibe much of Currin’s work gives me.

Anyhow, today I saw the catalogue to the Zwirner show Neo Rauch: Renegaten) and I’m reminded that I’m still on the fence. Reading the scattershot catalogue essay didn’t help me any, though the press release is better.

[Aside : several of the reviews of this show I’ve read do little more than regurgitate this press release. Reviewers should be banned from reading press releases until after they’ve written their review, the temptation must be too great]

The mysterious randomness of the figures and environments in Rauch’s paintings simultaneously provoke and annoy me. I want to appreciate them, but I have a lingering suspicion that random is all they are. Rauch has been compared to Eric Fischl, and I can see that – like Fischl, Rauch’s paintings are somewhat awkwardly painted, and situate people in psychologically laden landscapes that are both interior and exterior (mentally and literally). However, Rauch seems to be missing the emotional impact that Fischl’s best work has for me (probably purposefully – he seems willfully dry). Unlike Fischl’s paintings of dysfunctional relationships, Rauch’s scenes are decidedly absurd. The characters seem to refuse to relate to or even acknowledge one another. You can’t see his people thinking, they have no inner lives.

Maybe it’s that Rauch’s people and landscapes seem so mismatched, that the people come across as cardboard cut-outs plopped into more lovingly rendered dioramas. In fact, the catalogue essay indicates that Rauch himself calls his figures “Pappkameraden – cardboard companions”. So, all of this must be intentional. But to what end?

Is there a point where open-ended turns into emptiness? From the essay by Christine Mehring :

“With his workers laboring against any message, Rauch frees figurative painting from its totalitarian legacies and implications of easily accessible, partisan messages.… he restores historical specificity and authentic urgency to a play of meaning that had gotten stuck in the dead end street of irony.”

Like with Currin, I’m stuck with the question – if these paintings aren’t ironic, what are they?

Rauch reviews : here and here.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Escape from Potterland

Sorry for the silence. After holding out for years I finally caved and started reading the Harry Potter series. What can I say, the curiousity got the best of me. So I'm on book 6 now, and realized I've been neglecting my blog.

For your reading pleasure : Brits consider radical plan to measure personal emissions (erm, sounds much dirtier than it is. Trust me). Not art, but interesting.

A related article that is about art (in a general way): What the warming world needs now is art, sweet art
Here's the paradox: if the scientists are right, we're living through the biggest thing that's happened since human civilization emerged. One species, ours, has by itself in the course of a couple of generations managed to powerfully raise the temperature of an entire planet, to knock its most basic systems out of kilter. But oddly, though we know about it, we don't know about it. It hasn't registered in our gut; it isn't part of our culture. Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas? Compare it to, say, the horror of AIDS in the last two decades, which has produced a staggering outpouring of art that, in turn, has had real political effect. I mean, when people someday look back on our moment, the single most significant item will doubtless be the sudden spiking temperature. But they'll have a hell of a time figuring out what it meant to us.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

A rose by any other name...

Check out the discussion over at Thinking About Art about the difficulty of placing J.T. Kirkland's work into easy categories, stemming from my statement in the Seven review that Expanse was the best painting in the show. The comments have been really thoughtful and while not everyone agrees it's a great conversation.

Cardiff at the Hirshhorn

Blake Gopnik's review of Directions - Janet Cardiff is in today's Washington Post.

Edward Winkleman comments on the developing field of sound art.

I haven't taken the tour yet (too hot) but the interns here who have done it say it's great. At least one of them agrees with Gopnik's assessment that Cardiff is at her best when she's most straightforward.

Anyone out there go on the walk yet?

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Seven at the Warehouse Theatre and Galleries

This review was first posted at Thinking About Art.

Like the Wizard of Oz, the curator disappears behind the art in a good group exhibition and the dynamics of the show appear to spring naturally from the work itself. Group shows have the potential to create a dialogue between works of art that may never have otherwise met. Similarities form surprising connections and differences in points of view are more striking when the work of diverse artists is seen in one place.

Behind this particular curtain is Lenny Campello - gallerist, blogger, artist, and vocal advocate for the DC art scene. Campello took on no easy task - select a coherent and representative group show out of the thousands of slides in the Washington Project for the Arts/Corcoran artist registry - and threw in the complication of the Warehouse's labyrinth of exhibition spaces. He could have taken the easy way out and hung the show as a straight showcase of local talent. Instead he created seven separate but interrelated multimedia exhibits. This was the genesis of Seven, an exhibition of art by WPAC members at the Warehouse Galleries.

The narrow passages and unfinished rooms of the Warehouse reminded me of a very compact Art-o-Matic. The comparison is probably unfair, but stayed with me for better or for worse. Seven gains from a distillation of the best local offerings but potentially could have lacked the certain X factor I love about Art-o-Matic - the oddball experience you don't see coming, the sense of freedom and nothing to lose. Happily, Campello retains some of this quirky promise.

The ground floor gallery is split between psychologically tinged figurative work on one side of the room and abstraction on the other. The juxtaposition would be intriguing if not for the blandness of the abstract work, which is redeemed only by Rebecca Cross's whimsical Platters from the Guitar Series, 2004-05.
Instead of interacting the two halves of the room feel like separate and unequal exhibitions, making this the weakest of the seven galleries. The most questionable choice was Kristen Helgadottir's Frosty Midnight, 1997 - a terrible pseudo-Jackson Pollock with a jarring blue background.

Two pieces in particular help prop the room up. Melissa Ichiuji's I am beautiful and Everybody loves me, 2004, crouches in one corner waiting for a second glance. The battered wooden armchair features a gently naughty alteration - the wheel of feathers embedded in the seat begs the viewer to give it a try. Also worth a close inspection is Ben Tolman's drawing The Garden of Earthly Delights, 2002-04. Tolman's intricately rendered tangle of abstractions and Bosch-like demons surround a central cathedral structure. The building is flanked by two figures - the artist and his muse - given equal pictorial weight, and therefore in the language of iconography equal importance. With its blood red border and black mat, this is the most handsomely framed work in the show - and the attention to detail helps the drawing escape what could have easily felt like a run-of-the-mill Goth-kid doodle.

Four rooms make up the building's second floor. The art hung in the hall connecting the rooms is uniformly uninteresting (mostly run-of-the-mill still life paintings), but the galleries hold the show's most challenging work. The gallery closest to the street is full of odd forms and an unsettling edginess. Mark Jenkins' now familiar ghostly tape sculptures hover at the edges, oblivious to Linda Hesh's weak political installation (her themes of identity and racism have been better and more subtly addressed by artists such as Lorna Simpson). The red, horn-like protuberances of Graham Caldwell's exquisite glass and steel sculpture burst from the wall with a joyous blare that bounces off of Joseph Barbaccia's sexualized tools. Sustenance, 2005 is a pair of ladles holding perfectly carved wooden breasts. Naked Aggression, 2004, brings to mind a phrase from a novel by Dorothy Dunnett - "Music, the knife without a hilt" but this knife cannot be wielded without taking a lifelike dick in hand. The piece resonates with complex associations: between masculinity and aggression, violence and masturbation, but refuses the viewer a definite meaning.

The two center galleries have the easiest themes to discern : the body, and text as form. "Text" is probably an inaccurate label for this group of work, which more often than not manipulates and distorts words until they become something more than letters on a page. Denise Wolff takes crumpled pages from the writings of theorists who have influenced contemporary art and photographs them like craggy rocks. Art students the world over can appreciate the metaphor - grasping some of these works can be akin to scaling Mount Everest. The sliced texts of Mark C. Boyd's blackboard paintings frustrate the viewer's desire to read the words traced there. The pieces reflect on the impossibility of communication and the imprecision of written language. The blackboard background implies that the roots of our difficulties may lie in the manner we acquire these skills. This abstracting of text leads to J.T. Kirkland's superb wood pieces. Kirkland's pieces gain an added resonance next to the other more blatantly textual works in the room. In Expanse, 2005, drilled holes meander across the wood surface like a reverse Braille, creating a kind of language of negative space. Beyond the more obvious relationship of the work to minimalism, land art and drawing, the methodical precision and deep love of natural beauty recall the art of ancient Egypt. It may sound like a counterintuitive statement to make about such a sculptural work, but Expanse is the best painting in the show.

The next gallery's installation is primarily about the body as a physical presence. Body, not nude - none of these works resemble the classic nude, and are all the better for it. Photography makes the strongest showing, from Samantha Wolov's radiant slide projection of bodies in heightened states of ecstatic carnality, such as Orgasm #2 (at right) to Fierce Sonia's quirky and tactile Choking on her eggs and Fire Starter, 2005. The heavy-handed Allegory of a Gay Bashing, 2000, is the room's Achilles heel. A Christ-like figure of a castrated man is strung up against a graffitied wall. The ham-handedness (especially the disconcerting presence of a cute puppy and kitten) of Scott Brook's painting undermines the potential power of the subject. A more mysterious icon is White Sugar Lily, 2005. In Susan Jamison's tempera painting a naked woman tattooed with twining flowers wears a collar of lilies, her head orbited by bees. The stillness and quiet strength of this work holds its own against the eroticism of Wolov and Sonia. The funniest work in the show is Ancestral Portraits: Dick(s), 2005 by Manon Cleary. Ancenstral Portraits is a collection of little snapshots of male genitalia altered by the addition of stuck-on googly eyes, making them resemble of all things the Muppets. One note they may be, but Cleary has managed to find humor in something our society still tends to take overly seriously.

The last gallery on the second floor is filled with an ethereal installation by Alessandra Torres. Photographs from Torres' Portable Winter Series hang on two walls of the small room.
Entering the gentle hush is like stepping into a strange myth, where a spirit in white wanders the wintry landscape, dusting the world with snow. Her clothes hang in the room's closet. The edges and corners of the room itself are sprinkled with drifts of white powder. A vitrine occupies the center of the room, containing a miniature of the landscape in the photographs. Torres' melding of installation, photography and performance brings to mind Ana Mendieta's works in nature, though Torres work is far more surreal than Mendieta's earth-bound rituals.

Kathryn Cornelius has the sole video work in the show. Resolve was projected in a darkened gallery on the third floor on the opening night of the exhibit and has since been moved to a flatscreen in the streetside second floor gallery. The video records a women in a black evening gown desperately vacuuming the sand from a section of beach. This tragically comical action goes beyond a feminist comment on "women's work" to encompass any of the repetitive and sometimes ridiculously futile aspects of our everyday lives.

The show's last gallery shares space with the Warehouse cafe. The heavy hitters - Chan Chao and Sam Gilliam - both have pieces in this room. The curatorial vision here is the most difficult to determine, a result of both the work selected and the function of the space. The pieces are strong, especially Chao's simple but lovely nude photographs, but seem to have little in common beyond their potential salability. Perhaps that is the point.

Washington is a far more conservative town than New York or Los Angeles, and it shows in the region's art production. With cutting edge, international exhibitions a regular part of the Hirshhorn Museum's schedule and New York only a four-hour drive away it's surprising that there isn't more challenging, thought-provoking art created and shown here. True to his curator's statement, the work that Campello has selected seldom pushes the boundaries of contemporary art. Instead Seven is a representation of some of the best Washington-area art. With the exception of the mostly tepid painting, the work is strong and the thoughtful installations more engrossing than a mere group hang. The success of the show, at least among the DC art crowd, should encourage more exhibits of local artists and add to the development of an audience here for the art-making that exists between touristy paintings of landmarks and the sometimes hermetic world of the professional galler/museum scene.

Seven runs at the Warehouse Galleries through September 4th.

Images taken from the websites of the artists and used with permission.

Monday, August 01, 2005

New look

Got bored of the old look and picked a new template. Feels more summery.

However, not surprisingly I did something wrong, so now when you click on the archives you get weirdness. I'm working on it. Stupid html.

No Mundane Options

I'm not going to write a review of Basquiat, which I saw at the Brooklyn Museum. First, it's not there any longer, second, it's been a couple months, and lastly there are lots of other great reviews out there. (Go here or here). So instead here are some scattered thoughts from my notebook.
  • "No Mundane Options" is text taken from one of Basquiat's drawings. I think the phrase sums up his work better than the entire exhibition catalogue. Refusing the mundane option is harder than it sounds, and if Basquiat had been able to accept the mundane he may have lived to see his thirtieth birthday. When you see a show like this it's always hard to imagine the artist going through the day-to-day banality of life, even though you know he did. Part of that whole tired mystique of the artistic life that has yet to die.
  • Verbal plays and teases. What he leaves out or crosses off often more telling than what he leaves legible. In Irony of the Negro Policeman Basquiat labels the cop's foot "PAW (left)" but there is a stroke after the "W" like he started to add an "N" to turn the word into "PAWN". But he chose not to. Or I'm reading too much into the marks. Given the title, I don't think I am.
In Italian, 1983, from Brooklyn Museum website
  • Repeated symbols and words remind me of the ritualistic graffiti I saw in New Orleans on the tomb of the voudoun priestess Madame Marie Laveau.
  • Hollywood Africans, 1983, was the first Basquiat I ever saw, at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts years ago. It's probably still one of my favorites, with its electric yellow field of paint and the self assured drawings of Basquiat and his friends.
  • Much of his work seems to embody the city (New York) itself, in its cacophony of words and images and advertising, in its barely controlled chaos that somehow makes sense. Like landscapes - or more accurately cityscapes, though they rarely make overt references to buildings. A symbolic record of the lived city life, both personal and universal. The repetition of pasted and collaged photocopies of his drawings recall the repeated fields of posters advertising concerts and events that line the streets of the city.
  • Basquiat's images of advertising are hot and experienced where Warhol's are cold and without personal input. Warhol is minimalist and Basquiat (of course) expressionist, even performative. There is more affinity between Basquiat's drawings and Warhol's earlier black and white, diagrammatic paintings.
  • Medieval altar shapes. In Grave, painted after his friend Warhol's death, the three panels radiate grief, it nearly moved me to tears (which really doesn't happen often in front of art).
  • The sheer amount of work in the show is overwhelming. Words like thought-maps, recording his interests, what he was reading at the time, stream of consciousness connections. Political thinking, what music he loved... it's endless. Sometimes the words take over and flood from the painting or drawing, inundating you. "mapping the urban consciousness" (catalogue, pg. 94)
  • Fell in love with his drawings of anatomy. You get a sense of his humour there.
  • The catalogue essays are unsatisfying. Too much time spent on trying to prove he's some Art God. His work is good, don't dwell on mystifying him. Needed an in-depth analysis of his religious iconography and influence of religion - latin american catholicism, haitian religion, etc. It's all there, but I don't know enough about it to comment. Maybe they purposely avoided that aspect.
  • Consciously employed primitivism and ritual repetition combined with references to contemporary life, throw in some of the logic of "high" Greek, Roman, and Egyptian civilizations. Interesting interplays that have an affinity to Picasso's use of the primitive, though Basquiat is far more aware and critical of this use. Picasso borrowed, Basquiat comments. See this article for a better discussion of this. It seems like any time I have a thought, somebody else has been there first and done it with more eloquence!