Thursday, November 19, 2015

Frank Stella Retrospective at the Whitney Museum

By Charles Kessler

There is little I can add to Roberta Smith's enthusiastic review of Frank Stella: A Retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art (through Feb. 7th), and there are many good reproductions of the work on the Whitney's website. What I can do here is provide some additional installation views of the exhibition so that you can get an idea of the tremendous scale of this extravagant, innovative, outrageous, sometimes completely bonkers art. I also provide some close-up views to show the variety of textures and layers.
Paintings from 1958-59, the earliest work in the exhibition.
Panoramic installation view of Stella's earlier work.
Click to enlarge. 
Stella uses colors arbitrarily, to distinguish one shape from another. His colors don't resonate, interact or harmonize the way, say, Matisse's colors do. But that's asking Stella to be something he is not.
Frank Stella, Damascus Gate (Stretch Variation III), 1970. alkyd on canvas, 120 × 600 inches (The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; museum purchase funded by Alice Pratt Brown).
The Whitney's walls are not curved; this distortion typically happens with panoramic images.
Panoramic installation view of work from Stella's middle periods.
Click to enlarge.
St. Michael's Counterguard, 1984, mixed media on aluminum and fiberglass honeycomb, 156 x 135 x 108 inches (Los Angeles County Museum of Art).
Close-up side view of St. Michael's Counterguard, 1984.
On the left, Raft of the Medusa (Part I), 1990, aluminum and steel, 167 × 163 × 159 inches (The Glass House, A Site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation).
Close-up detail, Raft of the Medusa (Part I), 1990.

In Stella's later work, he employs bright color, vigorous brushwork, and rhythmic line to enliven things; often these paintings are so active and aggressive they feel like an attack. The later work is very public, i.e., not intimate; it's meant for large public spaces like corporate lobbies or museums – abstract Pop Art, if you will. It's just that seeing a lot of them together is exhausting.

The reproduction below is of a huge, sixty-seven color print!
The Fountain, 1992, woodcut, etching, aquatint, drypoint, collage and airbrush, (printed and published by Tyler Graphics, Ltd., Whitney Museum of American Art).
Close-up detail,  The Fountain, 1992.
Das Erdbeben in Chili [N#3], 1999. acrylic on canvas, 144 × 486 inches, (private collection. © 2015 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York).

Close-up view of Das Erdbeben in Chili [N#3], 1999.
On the left, K.81 combo (K.37 and K.43) large size, 2009. protogen RPT with stainless steel tubing, 180 × 192 × 120 inches (private collection. © 2015 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York). I didn't get information on the painting on the right. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

John Lees at Betty Cuningham Gallery

By Charles Kessler

I've known John for at least forty years, but I don't love his art just because we're friends. As with Charles Garabedian, I loved John's art, so I made it a point to get to know him, then we became friends.

An exhibition of his relatively recent paintings and drawings can be seen at the Betty Cuningham Gallery, 15 Rivington Street, Lower East Side (through November 28th). I say "relatively recent" because John will work on a painting or drawing for years, decades sometimes – Man Sitting in an Armchair, for example, is dated 2008–2015.
Man Sitting in an Armchair, 2008-2015, oil on canvas, 42 x 36 inches.
He builds up the paint, scrapes it off, sands it down, and works into it again and again, piling up the paint so much that it becomes a palpable physical presence. The result is a crusty, fragmented image embedded in the rough, craggy paint surface. 
Side view of Man Sitting in an Armchair, 2008-2015.
Memory is frequently the subject of John's art, or, more accurately, he paints the experience of remembering. Man Sitting in an Armchair, for example, is a memory of his father; and, like a memory, the images are fleeting and hazy, slowly coalescing to reveal more and more detail the longer you stay with it.
Detail of the lower left of Man Sitting in an Armchair, 2008-2015.
Lees's drawings are particularly remarkable because one doesn't expect this much physicality in a drawing. 
In the Park/Early Morning, 2009-15, graphite, ink on paper, 11 x 9 ⅛ inches.
His drawings are worked and re-worked, erased until threadbare, patched and worked again. And like the paintings, the drawings are physically part of the paper the way the images in his paintings are physically part of the paint.

You can see this better in this photo of a drawing from an earlier exhibition:
 River Landscape (For Bas Jan Ader), 2003; 2005-2007; 2009, ink, conte, sanguine, chalk and gouache on paper, 25 3/4 x 43 1/2 inches.
John is a good old-fashioned painter's painter, and very much a man of the 1930s and 40s, even though he wasn't even born until 1943. He enthusiastically talks about books, music, movies, and other things that happened then as if they were yesterday. So it's not surprising that the show contains several drawings and paintings with the words "42nd Street," referring to the 1933 movie directed by Lloyd Bacon.
42nd Streeet (Tesserae), 2015, oil on canvas, 24 x 32inches.
Behind the words "42nd Street," or, more accurately, superimposed on a grid embedded into the words, is dialogue from the movie in which an old actress gives over her starring role to a young actress. The painting encapsulates the movie and these words as if it's the physical embodiment of them.
Detail: 42nd Streeet (Tesserae), 2015.
This is a fabulous show – one of the rare exhibitions of art that evokes meaning in a powerfully visceral way.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A Selection of Bushwick Exhibitions - Part 1

By Charles Kessler

Here are highlights from the 19 Bushwick galleries I went to last week. I tried to get at least one good photo of each; a closeup detail, if I thought it might be useful; and an installation view to give you a sense of the scale of the art. Most of the gallery websites have additional images and information about the art.

Since there are 63 Bushwick and Ridgewood galleries listed on the excellent and comprehensive, this roundup is far from complete. More highlights will follow soon.

SOHO20, 56 Bogart, Ann Young Water:Color, and Kathy Stark In Plain Sight (through November 9th). This gallery is new to Bushwick, but it has been around since 1973. They focus on women artists.
Installation view of Ann Young's exhibition, Water:Color.
Ann Young
Ann Young, Water Shield # 131, 2014. oil on canvas, 20 x 20 inches.
Installation view of Kathy Stark's exhibition, In Plain Sight.
Detail, Kathy Stark, Tossed in Unpredictable Directions by Random Events, 2015, mixed media on wood.

Theodore:Art, 56 Bogart, Ready for Mayhem: Scooter LaForge and Bill Mutter (through December 6th). This is a two-person show, but the work goes so well together I originally thought it was a collaboration. 
Installation view of Scooter LaForge and Bill Mutter's exhibition Ready for Mayhem.
Bill Mutter, Little Frog Doll, 2014, glazed earthenware and lace, 6 x 9 x10 inches.
Scooter laForge, Raggedy Ann and Andy Go To School, 2015, mixed media, artist frame, 48 x 36 inches.

Life on Mars, 56 Bogart, Todd Bienvenu, Exile on Bogart Street (through November 8th).
Installation view of Todd Bienvenu's exhibition Exile on Bogart Street.
Todd Bienvenu, Wrestlemania, 2015, oil on canvas, 84 by 96 inches.

Studio 10, 56 Bogart, Meg Hitchcock, VERBATIM (through December 20th). Hitchcock laboriously cuts out letters from a sacred text and uses them to make a design and another text.
Installation view of Meg Hitchcock's exhibition VERBATIM.
Meg Hitchcock, Paradise, 2015, letters cut from the Koran, approximately 12 inches high.

Close-up detail of Meg Hitchcock, Paradise, 2015.

Robert Henry, 56 Bogart, Elise Engler: A Year on Broadway (through December 20th). Using gouache, watercolor and colored pencils, Elise Engler spent a year documenting every block of Broadway – all 13 miles of it. 

CLEARING, 396 Johnson Avenue, Eduardo Paolozzi, Horizon of Expectations (ended October 31st). Eduardo Paolozzi, who died in 2005, was a British artist active in the second half of the twentieth century. He will have a major retrospective in 2016, organized by the Whitechapel Gallery, London.
Installation view of Eduardo Paolozzi, Horizon of Expectations. In the foreground is the sculpture Kalasan, 1973-1974, cast, extruded and welded aluminum, 82 3/4 x 85 1/2 x 102 3/4 inches.

Foreground: Trishula, 1966, cast, extruded and welded aluminum, 74 x 78 x 112 1/2 inches; background: Suwasa, 1966, cast, extruded and welded aluminum, 87 1/2 x 37 1/2 x 130 3/4 inches.

Odetta, 229 Cook Street, Seeing Sound, work by Jane Harris, Alex Paik and Gelah Penn (through November 1st). The work I liked most in this three-person exhibition was by Alex Paik. The colored reflections off the ribbons of paper create a hazy atmospheric perspective that results in a sense of depth.
Alex Paik, Modular Wall Installation, 2015, gouache, colored pencil, paper and nails, 96 x 180 x 1 1/2 inches. 
Detail, Alex Paik, Modular Wall Installation, 2015. 

Microscope, 1329 Willoughby Avenue, Sarah Halpern, The Changing Room (through November 29th). 

Sarah Halpern, Traces, 2015, glue, pencil, and collage on paper, 12 x 12 inches.
Sarah Halpern, Chapters, 2015, 16mm film, single-channel video, and laptop.
Halpern's video/film installation is multi-layered. A 2 ½ minute hand-processed color film of pages from the 1958 novel The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, and footage from the 1963 movie of the same name directed by Luchino Visconti, are projected onto a laptop screen on which a video of the famous 45-minute ballroom scene is playing. 

There were three excellent group exhibitions that involved many artists, and all of them were in small spaces.

Transmitter, 1329 Willoughby Avenue, Painting: More or Less... with works by Aimée Terburg, Alain Biltereyst, Chris Fennell, Danielle Mysliwiec, Emma Langridge, Michael Rouillard, and Shawn Stipling. The subject of this group exhibition was the variety of mark-making possibilities.
On the left: four small works by Emma Langridge; on the right: Chris Fennell, Enkidu, mixed media on canvas, 48 x 40 inches. 
Emma Langridge, B1, 2015, enamel and acrylic on wood, 11 ⅞ x 11 ⅞ inches.

TSA New York, 1329 Willoughby Avenue, American Pharoahs curated by William Crump, including Mariah Dekkenga, Robbie McDonald and Ian Pedigo (through December 6th). Like this year’s Triple Crown winner, American Pharoahs, these artists are triple threats, and work in at least three disciplines including painting, sculpture, performance, collage, photography, installation, and digital media.
From the left: ink drawings on rice paper by Mariah Dekkenga; Robbie McDonald, Sad Blue Flowers, 2015, wood, acrylic, bulbs and wire; and in the background, on a shelf: Mariah Dekkenga, Untitled no. 3, 2015, sand and plaster.

UnderdonkPAUL KLEE (through November 1st). This is an exhibition of relatively small work by twenty artists who have some affinity to Paul Klee. Some of the artists are well know, such as Brenda Goodman, Jonathan Lasker, Dona Nelson, Carl Ostendarp (who really didn't fit), and my favorite ceramic artist, Joyce Robins.
From the left, work by Lori Ellison, Brenda Goodman, Glenn Goldberg, Sanford Wurmfeld, Peter Acheson and J. Grabowski. 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Kongo: Power and Majesty

By Charles Kessler

Kongo: Power and Majesty at the Metropolitan Museum (through January 3rd) is a major exhibition with 146 works borrowed from sixty different sources in the United States and Europe. Such an exhibition is well-deserved. Central Africa's Kongo civilization had one of the world's great art traditions, and a long one – going back as late as the 15th century and extending to the early twentieth. Below is a selection of the work I found most interesting; many more reproductions can be found here.

I was surprised to learn that the 15th century was a time of mutual friendship and respect between the Kongo peoples and Portugal, and, later, other European countries, and Christianity was accepted as a welcome addition to Kongo culture. The earliest works in the exhibition were items given by Kongo kings to fellow sovereigns in Europe who prized them for their invention and refined craftsmanship, and who prominently displayed them.
Oliphant, 16th Century, ivory, 32 ⅝ x 3 inches (Palazzo Pitti, Florence).
This beautiful 16th-century ivory trumpet is a purely decorative luxury object and, according to the exhibition website, "it likely entered the Medici collections in Florence as a token of appreciation from the Kongo sovereign Afonso I (r. 1509–42) to Pope Leo X (r. 1513–21), the former Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici, for appointing his son Henrique a bishop."

By the 17th century, however, European colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade had a catastrophic impact on the Kongo civilization. It decimated the population, destroyed the traditional economic and political system, and lead to the abandonment of traditional arts like woodcarving and metal work by the early 20th century. In the meantime, Kongo artists took inspiration from Christian and other European imagery.

Beginning in the mid-15th century, with the baptism of some of the Kongo royalty, thousands of Christian devotional objects were sent from Portugal to the Kingdom of Kongo. Kongo artists soon reinterpreted them for their own culture, as can be seen in this expressive crucifix.
Christ, 18th-19th century, open-back cast brass, 4 ⅜ x 4 ½ x ⅞ inches (Metropolitan Museum no. 1999.295.3).
Below, the head on the woman's body is probably a lion – which is interesting because lions weren't indigenous to this part of Africa; the imagery was probably derived from European iconography.
Staff Finial - Kneeling Figure with Feline Head, 19th century, ivory and stone, 7 ½ x 2 ⅛ x 2 ⅜ inches (Smithsonian Museum of African Art).
On the left: Master of Kasadi atelier, Mask, 19th - early 20th century, wood, pigments, buffalo hide and hair, metal tacks, 11 ⅜ x 6 ⅞ x 5 ½ inches (Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium). On the right: Master of Kasadi atelierMask, 19th - early 20th century, wood and pigments, 10 ½ x 7 ½ x 5 ½ inches (Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium).
Although we don't know the names of the artists who made most of this work, we do know that these masks were made in a specific workshop – the Master of Kasadi atelier.  They were collected by the Belgian Protestant missionary Léo Bittremieux in the village of Kasadi. The white chalk on the faces of the masks has a spiritual dimension having to do with purity, virtue, and the land of the dead where powerful spiritual forces reside.
Left: Scepter - Seated Chief above Bound Prisoner, 19th - early 20th century, ivory and resin, 11 ¼ x 2 x 2 ⅛ inches (private collection); right: detail of back showing bound prisoner.
The imagery in this carved ivory scepter speaks of power: a bound and gagged slave (right photo above) is behind an enthroned chief thus embodying the chief's power to keep his dependents from harm by subjugating rivals. The tip of the scepter contained a packet of medicines that empowered the chief, and the vine that the chief is chewing on was used to repel witches.
Ancestral Shrine Figure, 19th - early 20th century, wood, pigment, 20 ½ x 6 ¾ x 6 ¾ inches (Museum Rietberg, Zürich).
Female figures, which were symbols of the cycle of life, were used as burial shrines. This one simply and beautifully depicts a sense of loss.
Installation view, Kongo Power Figures, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The greater part of this exhibition, and a major coup, is an installation of fifteen of the twenty 19th-century "Power Figures," or Mangaaka, that are known to exist. The Mangaaka were created as a response to the turmoil caused by colonialism. They acted as conduits to the spirit realm for the purpose of aiding petitioners against opponents, settling conflicts, and protecting the community from European colonizers. 
Power Figure - Mangaaka, 19th century, wood, iron, resin, cowrie shell, animal hide and hair, ceramic textile and pigment, 44 ⅛ x 18 ⅞ x 14 ⅛ (Museo Preistorico, Rome).
The power figures were a collaboration between artists who carved and adorned the figure, and priests (ngango) who invested them with sacred powers. The Mangaaka were relatively large, around four feet tall, and they aggressively lean forward as if prepared to confront challenges. (This can be seen better in the installation view above.) Their stomach cavities and hollows behind their eyes contained sacred materials which were activated by hammering a nail into the figure.
Power Figure, 19th century, wood, iron, resin, cowrie shell, animal hide and hair, ceramic, plant fiber, textile and pigment, 43 ¾ x 15 ⅜ x 11 inches (Dallas Museum of Art).
The colonial powers considered these figures so powerful that they would promptly seize them during military campaigns. But when possible, the ngango removed the sacred materials, as well as the beards and outer garments, before it was confiscated, thereby deactivating their powers.