Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Princeton University Art Museum

By Charles Kessler

The Princeton campus is so beautiful it doesn't seem real. But why is it that college art museums, this one included, are so often the least interesting (if not out and out ugliest) buildings on college campuses?
Princeton University Art Museum.
The exterior of the Princeton University Museum of Art is your basic humdrum modernism; and the interior is a confusing labyrinth. The lower galleries, where the Asian, African, Ancient and Art of the Americas (pre-Columbian and American Indian) are exhibited, are poorly lit, and the installations are old-fashion. According to Lehze Flax, the designer at the museum, they plan to upgrade the lighting and installations. I hope this happens soon.
Installation view, Northwest Coast American Indian art. 
In addition to an inadequate building, the website for the museum is difficult to navigate. Even when I had all the relevant information to search for a painting or drawing in their collection, including the accession number, it was easier to use Google than search the museum's own website. More troubling, the site lacks sufficient information on their art – surprising for an institution of this caliber.

For all that, the museum has a first-rate encyclopedic collection of about 72,000 works. It's perhaps not up to the lofty standards of Yale with 200,000 works in the collection, or Harvard with 250,000, but it's still pretty damn impressive. (BTW, the extensive renovation, expansion and integration of all the Harvard Art Museums opens on November 16th.)
Medieval Art Gallery, Princeton University Art Museum.
Princeton has a large collection of outstanding ancient Chinese art.
Sword-bearer lamp, Chinese, mid Warring States period, 4th–2nd century B.C., bronze with cast and engraved designs,
13 5/16 x 5 5/16 x 5 1/8 inches (photo, Bruce M. White).
Lamps like these (above) were found in ancient burial sites and it's thought that the light was used to guide the deceased soul into the afterlife, or possibly to embody the soul of the deceased during the funeral ceremony. I am struck by the ceremonial stateliness of the top half this strange object, in contrast to the informal naturalism of the bottom half.

Massive green-glazed horse, Chinese, Eastern Han dynasty, A.D. 25–220,  red earthenware with green glaze,
55 x 46 7/8 x 13 3/8 inches (photo, Bruce M. White). 
Han dynasty glazed horses this big are extremely rare, and this one may be the largest of them – plus it's in excellent condition. As simplified and abstracted as the design is, the horse still feels vital and alive.

A lóhàn as an ascetic,  Chinese, Yuan dynasty, 1260–1368, gilded lacquer with traces of white and red pigments,
11 x 12 3/16 x 12 5/8 inches (photo, Bruce M. White).
Lóhàn, like bodhisattvas, serve as intermediaries on the path to Buddhist enlightenment. They protect the Buddhist faith until the coming of Maitreya, the prophesied enlightened Buddha. The rather unusual idea of portraying a lóhàn as an ascetic probably had its genesis in the story of the Buddha seeking enlightenment through intense and prolonged meditation under the Bodhi tree.

Lidded effigy container in the form of a descending god, Late Postclassic, Maya, ca. A.D. 1500, red ceramic, lime inclusions and slip paint in bright colors, 5 x 4 1/2 x 4 5/8 x inches (photo, Bruce M. White).
Princeton also has a large collection of pre-Columbian and American Indian art, including this beautifully preserved 500-year-old Mayan container. It gives you some idea how brightly colored these sculptures originally were. 

Headdress, Efut artist, Africa, late 19th–early 20th century, animal skin, wood, natural fibers, and vegetable pigments,
22 inches high (photo, Bruce M. White).
This breathtakingly beautiful headdress represents a young woman entering maturity. Dancers would wear it on top of their heads when performing celebrations and rituals. Young girls transitioning to womanhood wore extravagant coiffures like this at their coming-of-age ceremonies.

Francesco Traini, Madonna and Child with Saint Anne, 1340–45, tempera on wood panel transferred to pressed wood panel, 33 7/16 x 22 1/16 inches (photo, Bruce M. White). On the right: detail of the raised relief of a goldfinch eating millet grain (symbol of Christ's passion); the small donor figure on the bottom right was added later.
This painting is one of the first times Saint Anne, the Virgin Mary's mother, was depicted in Italy. One hundred and fifty years later, painters such as Leonardo Da Vinci would make Saint Anne more human, if idealized, but here the medieval tendency toward the otherworldly and abstract still holds. Saint Anne, as Traini depicted her, is formidable, not to say scary – very much the protector of her very special daughter and grandson.

Carlo Portelli da Loro, Virgin, Child, Infant John, and Saint Margaret, 1565-74, oil on wood panel,
49 7/16 x 38 3/16 inches (photo, Bruce M. White). 
This painting has all the characteristics of super-refined Florintine Late Mannerist painting: elongated figures, contrived gestures, shallow space, and ethereal, acidic color. Carlo Portelli was famous in his time; Vasari, a contemporary of Portelli, mentioned him in his biographies of Renaissance artists, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. For some reason, however, Portelli is no longer placed among the best of the Mannerist painters such as Pontormo, Rosso Fiorentino and Bronzino. I think for his early work alone, he belongs in that company.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Studies for foot in "Jesus Giving the Keys to Saint Peter", ca. 1817,
oil on canvas on wood panel, 7 11/16 x 9 15/16 inches (photo, Bruce M. White).
I love this odd little painting. Ingres made many drawings and small preparatory studies such as this one, to prepare for large paintings. He did not consider them as unique works of art, but rather they were working aids that he kept in his studio to refer to.

Édouard Manet, Gypsy with a Cigarette, undated, oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 28 15/16 inches (photo, Bruce M. White).
Right: detail of the horse. 
Manet was attracted to the transgressive nature of gypsy women, as opposed to respectable French women of polite society, so he must have enjoyed the woman's nonchalant, saucy pose, especially the cigarette dangling from her lips. And this close-up detail of the horse shows Manet's bravura brushwork at its best.

The main reason I went to Princeton this time was to see 500 Years of Italian Master Drawings from the Princeton University Art Museum (until May 11th). The exhibition, organized along thematic lines, includes about 100 drawings by such great draftsmen as Parmigianino, Guercino, Giambattista Tiepolo, Michelangelo, and Gianlorenzo Bernini, and extends into the early 20th century with drawings by Amedeo Modigliani.
Michelangelo Buonarroti, Bust of a Youth and Caricature Head of an Old Man, ca. 1530,
black chalk on tan laid paper, 7 3/16 × 4 13/16 inches.
I reproduced this Michelangelo drawing extra large so it would be easier to see the comical drawing in the lower right of a grotesque old man looking up (longingly?) at the beautiful young man.

Luca Cambiaso, Sibyl Attended by a Genius Seated on a Cloud, early 1550s,
pen and brown ink over traces of black chalk on tan paper, no size listed.
Luca Cambiaso is another artist that was famous and influential in his time, but is under-appreciated today. (Princeton seems to have collected a lot of these artists.) Luca Cambiaso was one of the originators of the sketchy, economical drawing style reproduced above. He made a large number of drawings which he considered to be unique works of art in themselves. He sold some, gave some away to friends, and kept many for his own enjoyment.

Left: Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), Study for Queen Semiramis Receiving News of the Revolt of Babylon, 1624, pen and brown ink on cream laid paper, 7 1/2 × 10 1/4 inches (photo, Bruce M. White). Right: Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), Head of Young Man in a Broad-Brimmed Hat, 1630s–40s, pen and brown ink on beige laid paper,
6 3/16 × 5 1/8 inches (photo, Bruce M. White).
Known as "il Guercino" because he was cross-eyed, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri was self-taught and, because of his lively style, inventive narratives, versatile draftsmanship, and prodigious production, he became one of the most influential painters of the Italian Baroque period. Like Caravaggio, he focused on expressive faces, theatrical gestures and dramatic lighting.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Caricature of a Man in Slippers and Wig Seen from the Rear, 1740s or later, pen and brown ink with brush and brown wash on beige laid paper, 6 13/16 × 4 1/8 inches (photo, Bruce M. White).
Tiepolo's paintings are inventive, grandiose and theatrical. He is arguably the greatest painter of eighteenth-century Europe – he certainly was the most prolific. He was renowned for his extreme facility and for how fast he could paint. In his drawings, he was a virtuoso of the swift, continuous and economical line that determines contour, and subtle washes that create light and volume. And, as the reproduction above demonstrates, he was a master of caricature.

If you go to the Princeton University Art Museum, I recommend taking a free, student-run, one-hour tour of the Princeton campus. Check here for information about it.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Bushwick vs. Chelsea

By Charles Kessler

In the last week, I went to about twenty galleries in Bushwick and even more galleries in Chelsea. Here's my overall take – broad generalizations, of course. There are many exceptions.

Bushwick: the art is mostly sincere, authentic and personal – even if sometimes not very good. Bushwick galleries are small, modest spaces run by smart, friendly people, often artists. They sell art that's relatively inexpensive. After a few hours of gallery-going in Bushwick, I'm exhilarated by the conversations I've had, and I'm optimistic for the future of the art scene because the artists and art dealers there have their priorities right.

Chelsea: the art is accomplished, corporate, cynical and flashy. The galleries are large (sometimes preposterously so) and beautifully finished. I have no idea what the people who run the galleries are like, at least the big galleries, because they never talk to anyone other than potential clients, to whom they sell very expensive art – sometimes work selling in the millions. After a few hours of gallery-going in Chelsea, I'm filled with despair because art, something I care about very much, has become a monetized and trivialized luxury item. Of course this type of conspicuous consumption is true in a lot of places, but in Chelsea it's more in your face. And to make matters worse, two of my favorite Chelsea galleries, Postmasters and the Winkleman Gallery, places that gave me hope when Chelsea was getting to me, have recently left the area.

A Selection of Bushwick Gallery Exhibitions:

  at Auxiliary Projects (until April 27th)
Sue McNally, left: Married, 2013, ink on paper, 11 x 15 inches; right: Bed Head, 2014, ink and gesso on paper, 11 x 15 inches.
By coincidence, the co-directors of Auxiliary Projects, Jennifer Dalton and Jennifer McCoy, exhibit with Winkleman and Postmasters respectively. The gallery has a unique approach. They work with each of their artists to help them produce handmade art that can sell for under $300.

In this exhibition, Sue McNally's self-portraits capture a wide variety of moods and attitudes with great economy of means. Even though the self she portrays doesn't look particularly happy, after seeing a lot of her drawings, I can't help feeling she had fun doing them. The woman can draw!

Edge Over Easy by Jerry WaldenRobert Henry Gallery (until April 13th).
Jerry Walden, Hundred Twenty Nine (Tit. Whi.), 2014, acrylic on paper, 26 x 19 ⅞ inches.
What keeps this work from being mere decoration is that it's spatially complicated – lines and columns pop into and out of view, and space become elusive and disorienting.

Standing on Cardboard: Avital Burg at the Slag Gallery (ended April 6th).
Installation view: Standing on Cardboard: Avital Burg at the Slag Gallery.
The warm light and color in these paintings are reminiscent of 17th-Century Spanish painting. There's a quiet mystery about them.

THE INDEXICAL MARK, a group exhibition at Life on Mars Gallery (ended April 6th).
Installation view of the exhibition The Indexical Mark at Life on Mars Gallery.  The column in the center is by Etty Yaniv, Beyond the Impetus of Gravity, 2014, mixed media on board, 36 x 36 x 140 inches.
This exhibition doesn't hold together or make particular sense as a show, but it has at least two works that were worth the trip: Etty Yaniv's column Beyond the Impetus of Gravity, 2014, is composed of hundreds of layers of paper and other materials that at first look random, but the layers visually flow like swirling water. And the column feels both solid (perhaps because of the sharp corners) and, at the same time, porous and weightless.

In the same show is an early drawing by Susan Rothenberg that's remarkably powerful and moving, especially for such a small work.
Susan Rothenberg, Untitled, 1977, Mixed media on paper, 16 x 14 inches.
You can see how good she was before her horse imagery became a trademark and lost its impact.

Tonight (Friday, April 11th) Life on Mars gallery opens a one-person exhibition of Arnold Mesches's paintings. I knew Arnold more than 30 years ago in Los Angeles and he was a hell of a painter then. The 90-year-old artist is having a great late phase. This should be a knock-out show.

Centotto Gallery
Vapors and Squalls, or Mediums, Works by Kate Teale, Karen Marston, Jonathan Quinn and Wendy Klemperer
Installation view of the exhibition Vapors and Squalls, or Mediums at the Centotto Gallery.
Centotto is an apartment gallery – something common in Bushwick – and it makes for a warm and intimate atmosphere to look at art. Their current exhibition of works by Kate Teale, Karen Marston, Jonathan Quinn and Wendy Klemperer, is a refreshingly tight theme show having to do with weather, clouds and water. Centotto, to their credit, usually has gallery discussions about the work on view. To find out when this exhibition's discussion will be, check here.

Philip Buehler, Woody Guthrie's Wardy Forty; Greystone Park Hospital Revisited, Valentine Gallery (until April 13th).
Phillip Buehler, intake and discharge photos of patients at the Greystone Park State Hospital.
Afflicted with Huntington’s disease, the legendary singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie spent five years as a patient at Greystone Park State Hospital in Morris Plains, New Jersey. It was there that the 19-year-old Bob Dylan visited Guthrie for the first time.

Phillip Buehler broke into the long-abandoned hospital and found thousands of negatives that documented patients when they were admitted and when they were discharged. Buehler presents these materials, and a few other related things, in a straightforward way, without pathos, and thereby creates one of the few conceptual/documentary photo exhibitions I’ve seen that’s truly moving. Especially heartbreaking are the intake and discharge photos of young people.

Oliver Wasow: Studio Portraits, Theodore:Art (until May 11th).
Oliver Wasow, David, 2013; archival pigment print edition of 30 x 20 inches.
These are what I want to call "painterly photographs." This is not a new phenomenon – it goes back as far as the Pictorialists photographers at the turn of the twentieth century. But I notice that this type of photography is being shown a lot more lately.

Oliver Wasow's photos have a "painterly" quality for several reasons: the backdrops are literally taken from paintings, usually from Hudson River School paintings; the photos are easel-size; the color tonality and light is all-over; and the poses are quiet and contemplative, unlike stop-action photography.

A Selection of Chelsea Gallery Exhibitions:

The only good work I saw in Chelsea this time, or at least work that didn't offend me, was in the small and medium-sized galleries. Two photography shows in particular impressed me: Simone Kappeler, DE BUCK gallery, 545 W. 23rd Street (until April 15th),
Simone Kappeler, Elk City, Oklahoma Pool, 1981, Fuji-film color print, 19 ⅔ x 19 ⅔ inches.
and Sharon Ya’ari, at Andrea Meislin Gallery, 534 W.24th Street (until April 26th).
Sharon Ya'ari, Bridge with Flowers, 2013, 60 x 74 inches.
Both have glowing color and a sense of tactility that's more typical of painting than photography.

And, at the BravinLee Gallery is this painterly video:
From Katie Armstrong’s Dark Spring, 2013,  hand-drawn animation. Click here to watch a trailer.
It's hard to see any hand-drawn animation today without thinking of William Kentridge – but Katie Armstrong has very much her own sensibility and drawing style.

Two of Ryan Trecartin's hyperactive videos from 2009 can be seen at the Elizabeth Dee Gallery, 545 W. 20th Street (until April 26th). They're difficult to take because of the frantic antics of his wildly made-up actor/friends, the riotous soundtrack, and the vibrant graphics thrown at you at lightning speed. But his videos are personal and, until recently when his work spawned so many imitators, unique.

And there were even a couple of excellent painting shows in Chelsea:

Los Angeles artist Roy Dowell, at Lennon Weinberg, 514 W. 25th Street (until May 3rd).
Roy Dowell, Untitled #1057, 2014, acrylic on linen, 52 x 40 inches. 
I used to think Dowell's art was too design-y until I saw his painted sculptures at the inaugural Made in L.A. biennial exhibition at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in 2012; and now, with this exhibition, Dowell is making some of the most delightfully eccentric paintings this side of Tom Nozkowski. 

Rackstraw Downes at Betty Cuningham Gallery, 541 W. 25th Street (until May 3rd).
Rackstraw Downes, Study, Outdoor Dance Floor, Presidio, TX, from the Bandstand Looking South, 2008, oil on canvas, 13 x 39 1/2 inches. 
They're not only beautifully painted but are endlessly interesting because of the vertiginous space, sparkling light, and mostly because of the haunting, desolate, subtly disturbing subject matter.

Artists Anonymous: Old Game New at Jonathan Levin Gallery's new ground-floor space, 557 W. 23rd Street (until May 3rd).
Installation view, Old Gamd New by Artists Anonymous, Jonathan Levin Gallery.
Artists Anonymous is a collective based in London and Berlin, showing in the United States for the first time in a new additional space the Jonathan LeVine Gallery opened on 23rd Street. Their art-making process is unusual (aside from being anonymous). They paint images in reverse colors, as if it were a negative, photograph them and print them in reverse. The result is something between photographs and paintings done in weird, acidic colors. Then the works are arranged to create an environment that, in this case, is like a life-size pop-up book.

Dan Witz: New York Hardcore at Jonathan Levin Gallery's original 9th floor space, 529 W 20th Street (until May 3rd).
Dan Witz, Agnostic Front Circle Pit, nd, oil and digital media on canvas, 48 x 82 inches.
Witz's new paintings are skillful in a typically Chelsea manner, but it would be hard to call them corporate because of the violent and chaotic mosh pits that are Witz's subject matter. It's interesting that in spite of the riotous subject matter, the paintings are carefully choreographed. It's as if the action is stopped and the figures are posing. It makes for a strangely otherworldly experience.

I fondly remember Dan Witz's inconspicuous little paintings of hummingbirds that he painted on walls all over Soho and the East Village in the early eighties; I wrote about them here. He certainly has come a long way from that – and so has Chelsea!
Dan Witz, Hummingbird from his “Birds of Manhattan” series, c. early 1980's, acrylic on sheetrock (photo © Jaime Rojo, from the Brooklyn Street Art website).

Friday, April 4, 2014

Italian Futurism at the Guggenheim

By Charles Kessler

Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe (until September1st) is a major exhibition by any standard: 79 artists, 360 works (many brought over from Italy), and 50 different lenders. It's the first comprehensive overview of Italian Futurism in the United States, and Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum, with its swooping curves and vertiginous, disorienting views, is an ideal venue for this show. 

For the most part, Futurism is rehashed and refashioned pointillism and cubism. Roberta Smith, referring to how dated Futurist painting and sculpture looks, wrote: "They almost seem like satires of Modernism, or maybe Modernism for beginners."
Detail: Umberto Boccioni, The City Rises (La città che sale), 1910–11, oil on canvas (The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1951, digital image © The Museum of Modern Art, licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, New York).
Giacomo  Balla, Paths of Movement + Dynamic Sequences (Linee andamentali + successioni dinamiche), 1913, tempera on paper laid on canvas, 49 x 68 cm. (Gianni Mattioli Collection, long-term loan to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, © Giacomo Balla, by SIAE 2008). 
And their self-conscious attempt at modern subject matter – motorcycles, steam locomotives, propeller airplanes, etc. – looks quaint today.
Tato (Guglielmo Sansoni), Flying over the Coliseum in a Spiral  (Sorvolando in spirale il Colosseo), 1930, oil on canvas, 80 x 80 cm. (Ventura Collection, Rome. Photo Corrado De Grazia).
Futurist art is tame in spite of the boastful, bombastic, and bellicose manifestos Futurist artists frequently published. Here are some excerpts from the first MANIFESTO OF FUTURISM, published in 1909:
  • We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness.
  • We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.
  • We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.
  • We will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; the multi-colored and polyphonic surf of revolutions in modern capitals: the nocturnal vibration of the arsenals and the workshops beneath their violent electric moons: the gluttonous railway stations devouring smoking serpents; factories suspended from the clouds by the thread of their smoke; bridges with the leap of gymnasts flung across the diabolic cutlery of sunny rivers: adventurous steamers sniffing the horizon; great-breasted locomotives, puffing on the rails like enormous steel horses with long tubes for bridle, and the gliding flight of aeroplanes whose propeller sounds like the flapping of a flag and the applause of enthusiastic crowds.
I used to read the Futurist Manifesto to my Art History undergraduates. They were horrified by the glorification of war and violence, of course. But eventually I got them to see an even more horrifying thing about it: the manifesto is thrilling. One needs to understand this to understand the terrifying (and dangerous) appeal of fascism. 

It's not surprising that many of the Futurists were super-patriots and promoted Italy's entry into World War I in the hope that war, "the only cure for the world," would rejuvenate Italy's static and decadent culture and bring it into the modern world of speed, machinery, youth and violence.

Apparently not learning anything from the brutality of World War I, many Futurist, most prominently the leader of the movement, the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, became ardent supporters of Benito Mussolini and Italian Fascism. This lasted until the 1930s when Italian Fascists embraced the German Nazi's view of "degenerate art" and condemned Futurism. (And speaking of "degenerate art," the lines  are long for Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937 (until June 30th) at the Neue Museum. Get there early.)

The most interesting, albeit not original, thing about the Futurist movement is their belief in the integration of all the arts and crafts, and of "high" and "low" art. One of the glories of this exhibition is the clothing, ceramics, publications, architecture, film, furniture, and even Futurist toys, that are on display.
Fortunato Depero, Futurist Waistcoat (Panciotto futurista), 1923. pieced wool on cotton backing, approximately 52 × 45 cm. (private collection © 2014, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome. Photo: Vittorio Calore).
Installation view, Gerardo Dottori, Cimino home dining room set, early 1930s 
And of course there is a lot of thrilling painting to see too, like Ivo Pannaggi's, Speeding Train, hurtling toward the viewer at a diagonal; you can feel the power, noise and speed of the train.
Ivo Pannaggi, Speeding Train (Treno in corsa), 1922, oil on canvas, 39 x 47 inches (Fondazione Carima–Museo Palazzo Ricci, Macerata, Italy).
Pannaggi's painting, and Futurist art in general, would be more convincing if it were large. Almost all Futurist painting is easel-size and loses power because of it. Some of the exceptions are the late murals painted by Benedetta (the wife of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the stridently anti-feminist leader of Futurism). It's the only Futurist art on view that has the necessary scale to truly evoke Futurism's "modernist" vision.
Left: original site of Benedetta (Cappa Marinetti) murals from a conference room in a Palermo post office, 1933-34, tempera and encaustic on canvas, each about  7 x 10 feet; right: installation view, top floor of the Guggenheim.
That the Guggenheim was able to borrow these murals was a real coup, and it's indicative of the lengths they went to in order to make such an extensive and comprehensive exhibition. 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Gauguin: Metamorphoses at MoMA

By Charles Kessler

I've seen a lot of Gauguin's art in the last few years: Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2012;  Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée at the de Young Museum, San Francisco, in 2011; and Drawings and Prints from the Clark Museum last summer at the Frick had some Gauguin prints. In addition, I saw the major retrospective Gauguin: Maker of Myth at the National Gallery in Washington in 2011.
Installation view of the  exhibition Gauguin: Metamorphoses at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
But the current exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Gauguin: Metamorphoses (thru June 8th), is different in that it places Gauguin's prints in the context of his other work and makes the case for the importance of prints in Gauguin's oeuvre.

I’m frankly not a fan of Gauguin’s paintings, especially his later work, the work he made in Tahiti. I find them crowded and airless, the drawing inept, the brushwork awkward and without expressive purpose, and his colors boring usually falling back on muddy greens with a contrasting shock of bright orange. 
Paul Gauguin, Hina Tefatou (The Moon and the Earth), 1893, oil on burlap, 45 x 24 ½ inches (MoMA).
And I'm suspicious of Gauguin's primitive exoticism. He was a bit of a phony. He claimed to be an “Incan savage,” but his mother was Peruvian nobility and he spent his early childhood in Lima. And he said he went to Tahiti to search for a lost paradise, which might be true, but mostly he wanted to escape his wife and children and money problems. Tahiti, as he must have quickly learned, was not the earthly paradise he depicted in his art, so I can’t help feeling there’s a calculated disingenuousness about his romanticized primitivism.

However, one thing that Gauguin got better at, as this exhibition so nicely demonstrates, is his prints –most of which he did in the last few years of his life. Line in Gauguin's prints is freer than in his paintings – it doesn't get clogged up by the clunky paint-handling and dense composition. And he is more inventive and experimental with his prints than his paintings. Using the same wood block, for example, several versions of the Oviri prints radically change because of the way they are inked, the size, color and texture of the paper, and by the additions of color.  
Paul Gauguin, Oviri, 1894, five versions from the same woodcut block, each approximately 8 x 4 ¾ inches.
Best of all, his prints aren’t dependent on exotic subject matter, but rather they are explorations of the printing medium itself. To this end he recycled old images from his paintings, from other prints, and from his sculpture (see below). Ironically, these prints are more authentically mysterious and haunting than his self-consciously exotic paintings.
Paul Gauguin, Oviri, 1984, partly enameled stoneware, 29 ½ x 7 ½ x 10 ⅝ inches (Musée d'Orsay, Paris).
My favorite Gauguin prints are his last ones, the ones he did using a technique called oil transfer. He would coat a sheet of paper with printers ink and place a blank sheet over that and draw on it, transferring the ink to the back of the paper, making a two-sided print/drawing. Then he would work further into the print with other mediums like charcoal or crayon. The result is an ephemeral, ghost-like image.
Paul Gauguin, Left: Crouching Tahitian Woman Seen From The Back, c. 1901-2, oil transfer drawing with crayon additions,  sheet: 12 ½ x 10 3/16 inches (private collection); Right: Animal Studies, 1901-02, oil transfer drawing in black and red on thin wove paper laid down on wove paper, sheet: 12 9/16 x 9 ⅞ inches (NGA, Washington).
This MoMA exhibition is one of those all-too-rare shows that makes a real contribution to the understanding of art, Gauguin's art in particular. See it if you can.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Journal Square, Jersey City

By Charles Kessler

Saturday I saw The Lost Collection, the latest exhibition at ShuaSpace, a dance/performance/visual arts space in the Journal Square neighborhood of Jersey City. It was a compelling, entertaining and often moving installation by Laura Quattrocchi, the co-director (with Joshua Bisset) of Shua Group.
Installation view, The Lost Collection, by Laura Quattrocchi (on the right; Joshua Bisset is on the left).
Since 2007, Quattrocchi has been collecting and documenting items people have lost – hats, gloves, baby shoes, etc.. Photographs of the objects at the site they were found are installed on the walls of the gallery, and many of the objects themselves are hung from the ceiling – each carefully labelled with the location and date it was found. It's a strange and joyously colorful environment, and a little sad sometimes. I was touched by the care taken to document, preserve and display these forlorn objects.

The walk to ShuaSpace got me thinking about the viability of Journal Square as an arts district. There’s no reason, other than bad city planning, that Journal Square isn't thriving and culturally vital. It used to be the center of commercial activity in Jersey City, and it's still a major transportation center. The PATH train ride to the World Trade Center takes only 15 minutes, and to the Village only 20 minutes. Bus passengers from all over the area used to walk by and patronize stores and restaurants on their way to and from the PATH train. But in the early seventies, the Port Authority moved the buses into a bunker-like building that walled itself off from the street. Journal Square has gone downhill economically ever since.

Journal Square has many cultural resources ready to be tapped. Hudson County Community College (with its excellent culinary school) is in Journal Square, and the 30-acre campus of Saint Peter's University is nearby. Mana Contemporary, which I wrote about here, is a short walk from the PATH.
Google Street View showing about half of Mana Contemporary.
Mana is more than a million square feet large and consists of art storage (for almost every major museum in the area), a couple of hundred artist studios, dance rehearsal spaces, exhibition spaces, sculpture studios – the works! And the walk to Mana is a delight, passing by several blocks of a lively Indian neighborhood with great Indian restaurants, fragrant food markets and colorful jewelry and clothing stores.

Journal Square has two Baroque-style ornate movie palaces built in the late twenties. The Stanley Theater has been beautifully restored and is now used as an Assembly Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses. (Rumor is that it’s for sale.) And the 3000-seat Loew's Jersey Theater, lovingly restored by the Friends of the Loew's who saved the building from being demolished, is now used for movies, music and other events including last weekend's successful StageFest.
The lobby of the Loew's Theater with Meagan Woods & Company performing the dance Incurable as part of StageFest.
Perhaps even more important for the area is that Art House Productions, a prodigiously active performing and visual arts organization, will be moving there soon.

But Journal Square suffers from two main problems. The city should persuade the Port Authority to open up their building to the street, the way Alice Tully Hall was, and perhaps go back to having at least some of the buses end their run outside the Transportation Center, in the business district.

The other problem is the area needs to be more pedestrian-friendly. Some major traffic calming along Kennedy Boulevard, an eight-lane street/highway dividing the PATH from the commercial areas, would make it easier, safer and more pleasant to cross. Perhaps wider sidewalks and a large, attractive meridian to narrow the street might also be helpful.
Google Street View of the PATH Transportation Center in Journal Square on the left, and Kennedy Boulevard. 
A proposed enormous residential development near the PATH is ridiculously out of scale with the rest of the area (it includes an 85-story building!), but IF it's done right it could help Journal Square. If the development isn't another walled community that people drive into and never leave, it could mean more people on the street, more customers for stores and restaurants, etc., and a greater sense of public safety. 
Kushner Real Estate's proposed development in Journal Square.
Of major concern is a disturbing quote from the developer Jeff Persky, describing the project as a “self-contained neighborhood.”  This would be disastrous if allowed. The same developer (with help, and some pressure, from the community and the city government) did an excellent job of creating a public plaza at the Downtown Jersey City PATH station next to their Grove Pointe development. If the city is going to allow them to build very high in Journal Square, a similar public plaza should be required. In addition, retail or some other public use that's open to everyone should be on the ground floor. Street level certainly shouldn't be for something like a parking structure.

There's great potential for making Journal Square a lively and vital cultural center and an asset to the region. Let's hope they don't blow it!