Monday, March 29, 2010

The Illustrated Van Garde

Tom McGlynn

Loddie,Michael Williams, 2007

Nicholas Africano, Petrouchka, 1984

Neil Jenney, Wet and Drying, 1969-1970

Roberta Smith’s article on some recent painting It’s Not Dry Yet (NY TIMES March 26,2010) opens with some art world cliché- busting in her reference to the perennial false double bind of abstraction versus representation, specifically in reference to modernist and contemporary painting. In referring to Clement Greenburg and Donald Judd’s influence in reductive formal abstraction ,however, she reinforces an art historical canonical cliché. It is really no longer possible to look to those particular whipping boys as an accurate reference without acknowledging about half a century’s worth of baroque permutations of art, modern or post, that refutes that limited formalist stance. The argument of abstract vs. representation therefore becomes resurrected within its apparent refutation. To make matters worse, there follows, (In a Times website slide show), a collection of contemporary painters that appear mostly moderno- illustrative rather than representational and never mind the abstract. In viewing the slides I think back to the work of the painter RB Kitaj, or even the pop illustrators Peter Max and Richard Merkin.

In my most recent post, on the 2010 Whitney Biennial, I mentioned a pluralist time in the late 1970’s early 1980’s when the argument for figuration as viable vehicle for contemporary painting was being worked out by artists as disparate as Neil Jenny and Nicholas Africano. In Jenny’s work there was a nod to expressionist brushstrokes combined with pop culture symbolism like double Mig jets in a brushy sky or an faux illustrative Arcadian view through a mailbox slot / tank periscope. The irony of his work was both subtle and critical of the dominant culture at the time. Africano, who’s work has apparently sailed into the mists of fondness and regret that surround the shallow consciousness of the American art world, made quirky painted tableaux of modeling paste figures set in frames resembling mock proscenium stages. In these painted constructions fictional characters enacted banal scenes of domestic and sometimes political drama. Both of these artists found a way to revitalize the idea of representation at the service of contemporary thought. The pluralist period gave way to a less-subtle neo/ expressionist figuration movement that saw the rise of painters such as Julian Schnabel and Sandro Chia. These artists plundered art historical references in an attempt to ennoble their practice with a sense of historical moment and significance. While this is nothing new in modernist tactics, it did relegate the images to simply being armatures for the expression. It was probably what was most post- modern about this work, the awareness of a decal of figuration that seems to shroud our modern dislocation and relativist spirit.

The problem with most of the artists that Smith puts forth as interesting practitioners of representational painting is that they seem to take its decal figuration as the expression and not the vehicle. I have seen better, and typically more bizarre, syntheses of illustrative form and abstract content in contemporary Japanese graphic novels than in these examples. This is also probably why Murakami’s work feels annoyingly insincere to me in an art world context. Some genres seem to resist an art transformation, like graffitti did in the 1980's. The references to real illustration used by these particular contemporary artists don’t go far enough in their transformations from sheer illustration to art. The extent to which they might employ bravura technical skills with paint application and materials just serves to set up an (ironically) formulaic impoverishment of visceral expression.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Yes We Can!

Opening Reception, The Distillery, a new alternative space in Jersey City (photo by John Crittenden)

I’m not talking about health care here, I’m talking (okay, writing) about three amazingly successful art events that took place in Jersey City in the last few months: Art House Production’s Snow Ball, Pro Arts’s Eat Up (both fundraisers) and the opening of Irene Borngraeber’s alternative space, The Distillery. Significantly all events were DIY; and all were organized by dynamic women. The fundraisers were triple triumphs: they were enjoyable community gatherings, successful financially, and significant art events.

Art House Production’s Snow Ball (photo by Laura DeSantis-Olsson)

It was Art House Production’s fourth Snow Ball and, as usual, the dress was “Black Tie Creative.” People looked GREAT. Almost everyone dressed up (unusual in Jersey City) and some were “creative,” wearing everything from gathered newspapers to jelly beans to a toilet. There was some pretty good art on the walls too, including work by Jack Halpin, the Artistic Director of Art House. Who knew?

Art House Production’s Snow Ball (photo by Laura DeSantis-Olsson)

This was the first time Pro Arts organized Eat Up, an idea that came from the Brooklyn group FEAST (Funding Emerging Art with Sustainable Tactics). Basically people pay an admission fee and get a meal and a ballot to vote on various artist projects. The artists pitch their projects and the one with the most votes is awarded all the funds collected, minus whatever small expenses accrued.

Pro Arts’s Eat Up: Listening to an artist pitch (Photo by Rebecca)

Fundraising events often lose money and burn out volunteers in the process. Not this one. Even though it took place on a brutally blustery night (March 13th) there was a large and enthusiastic turn-out. The artists were well prepared (and had some excellent proposals) and the voters took their job seriously. Plus the food was delicious: award-winning chili contributed by Made With Love (530 Jersey Ave), salad, great corn bread, beer, wine and desert -- all for 20 bucks.

Then there’s the awesome Irene Borngraeber. (I mean it literally -- I’m in awe of her.) She’s been in Jersey City for, I think, only about a year, and has accomplished so much my head spins. She regularly writes about art for many venues (including this blog); she was treasurer for all of the One Jersey City City Council candidates (I couldn’t handle the job of treasurer for just Dan Levin); she holds about 4 or 5 part-time jobs, she’s a good artist (check out her site: [ ] ), everyone knows and likes her and she even talked her way into MoMA’s recent $5000 Armory Show fundraiser! And oh, she speaks fluent French.

In spite of my attempts to discourage her from even trying, she found a free space (owned by Palisade Wines, 401 Palisade Avenue), fixed it up, created an organization “dedicated to producing curated shows, arts programming, and innovative installations by artists of all stripes” and registered it as a New Jersey non-profit seeking tax exempt status. If the first show, “Splice: Worshipping at the Altar of Technology” (until May 1st) is any indication, Jersey City will have a first-rate alternative space: The Distillery 7 Hutton Street at Palisade Avenue in the Jersey City Heights.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Free Art II

On Monmouth between 4th and 5th I found a good example of the freelance public art that's been placed around Jersey City -- at least around Downtown Jersey City. Typically, the work is made of white plastic cable ties, and it's usually attached to utility poles and street signs. I like this one in particular because it incorporates the entire pole -- it's not just something sticking out of the top.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Free Art

The Times today has an article about Beriah Wall, a Brooklyn artist who has been giving away thousands of small, silver-dollar-size ceramic “coins” that he made. According to the Times, he’d put them on ledges, windowsills and store counters or just hand them to people. Anyway, it got me thinking about other free art, or street art, I’ve seen over the years, and what a delight it was to encounter.

Everyone knows about Keith Haring and how prolific his public art-making was. A woman I knew in the early 1980’s told me about the time she invited him to her studio and he covered her entire lobby in about five minutes. Haring’s generosity extended to his exhibition openings where he gave away posters, t-shirts, stickers and such; and he usually had a live band and turned the opening into a party.

In the late 70’s through the early 80’s, Charles Simonds hid lilliputian clay pueblo-like villages (he called them “little-people dwellings”) under stairs, on ledges, or other out-of-the-way places, usually in the Lower East Side and SOHO. He also had a piece in Liberty State Park as part of Michael Grave’s Environmental Education Center. I don’t know if that piece was claimed by the marsh, or if any other of Simond’s “Dwellings” still exist in situ, but you can still see one now in the stairwell of the Whitney Museum. The Whitney piece is nice, but it's not as fun, or as unexpected, as seeing them outside on the street.

Some of my favorite street art was Dan Witz’s beautiful little birds painted on derelict buildings, alley walls and on doors -- usually around the East Village. I haven’t seen any bird or any other work by Witz in years, but I recently came across new paintings by him at the Jonathan Levine Gallery in Chelsea (529 West 20th Street, 9th Floor).

Dan Witz, E.4th St. between 2nd and Bowery, 1979

There’s still some street art around. In Jersey City someone recently attached delicate, filigree sculptures made of white plastic ties to utility poles and street signs, and someone else attached small paintings to wood utility poles.

Anonymous (to me anyway), photographed June 13th, 2009, near the Sixth Street Embankment in Jersey City

But until now, with Beriah Wall, I haven’t seen or heard of any artists giving work away lately. There’s something about the anarchic and generous spirit of the act that I love. Quite a few years ago I proposed a “free art give-away” (redundant but catchy) to publicize the Jersey City Studio Tour. The idea was for about 10-20 artists to get up early in the morning and spread art all over the Downtown. The work would have a tag that said “Free Art” and maybe a blurb about the Studio Tour. I didn’t get any takers then, but I still think it’s a good idea.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Whitney Biennial 2010

Whitney Biennial 2010

by Tom McGlynn

I’ve been attending Biennials at the Whitney since Eric Fischl was painting little boys on tricycles (knee high to a neo-expressionist) and the most radical painting being shown was the weird “new imagist” work of painters like David True and Neil Jenny. This was in the late 70’s early 80’s at the tail end of the so- called Pluralist period. This was prior to pluralism getting the newer tag of Post- Modernism. What most didn’t conceive of back then was that pluralism was not just another period but a permanent vacation from art fixity and an assumption of epochal significance. The importance of the Biennial is historically linked with this idea of a pluralist potpourri. It’s offered up in vain or valiant attempts to capture a zeitgeist that might define an art moment, or a snapshot of a parallel art world relevant to the meaning of the world at large.

Most reviews of Biennials past talk of the format and venue as cumbersome, parochial and nationally chauvinist in a global world, and therefore bound to disappoint someone or everyone. It’s the show we love to hate. On the night of the opening the Whitney was packed with a human bricolage of love-haters, really tall European couples, diminutive but very rich collectors, artists, and their others. The crowd itself felt as de -associated and as un –cohesive in any significant way as the show. Or perhaps this is the social condition of plurality: the post- modern cocktail party.

The Biennial has been slowly moving toward becoming more of an international venue than one just limited to American artists, as has been its mandate for most of its existence. It seems as if this one is the most international. Artists from Poland (Piotr Uklanski), Germany (Josephine Meckseper) and Japan (Aki Sasamoto) are among the artists with room-sized installations. What is interesting about this phenomenon is that the thematic material dealt with by these specific artists, a super -sized 70’s style jute wall hanging, a video of the Mall of America and a virtual karaoke bar, all could be taken as cultural referents to the world becoming more American rather than the other way around.

There are other works that refer directly to the American scene in the documentary vein of photographers like Bruce Davidson or Nicholas Nixon. Nina Berman’s series of color photographs of a horribly disfigured Marine sergeant, a victim of a roadside bomb in Iraq, attempting to reintegrate into home life are technically nothing to write home about, but they look the repercussions of war unflinchingly in the face. When I saw these first at the opening I found them to be distastefully exploitive, but on a second look I saw their grave relevance to a country largely insulated from the personal damage of the war in Iraq. A similarly disturbing series of photos, although set abroad, by the photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair, depicts a burn unit in Afghanistan for women who set themselves on fire in desperate reaction to domestic violence and other aspects of cultural confinement in their culture. In both of these series the very vulnerable human body takes the brunt of abstract ideology, redefining the meaning of subjective/objective truths.

There’s a lot of academically hip filler in this show which probably stands out more since the usual stampede of art and artists (the original Biennial had 358 artists) has been culled down to a modestly rambling 55 individuals and one art collaborative. Much of the video work in the show comes down on either side of the dumb cool/socially crucial divide. Rashaad Newsome offers an example of the dumb cool with his vigorously vogueing moves offered as an anthropological archive of the stylized moment. His video comes off as too studied since the earnestness with which he presents the form of the gay ballroom genre undoes his source material’s inherent evanescent joy. Sharon Hayes offers an example of the socially crucial yet visually tedious in her video re- presentations of pubic protest speech. Hers is a form of creative sterility at the service of political activism where neither the art nor the politics are intelligible. A large collaborative installation by the artists Ellen Gallagher and Edgar Cleijine combined video, film and printed drawings in a box- like structure with similarly unintelligible intent. The political as aesthetic or art as sociological doctoral thesis is a form way past its bedtime. One wonderful exception to the overly dry presentations here was Marianne Vitale’s hilarious headshot rant entitled “Patron” in which she exhorts the viewer to challenge their own preconceptions of their spectator roles with breathlessly delivered staccato poetry. Her video recalled the parody of the authority voice ,utilized in the past by performance artist Karen Finley, in its visceral chanting rhythms.

There was one very vital room of painting in the show that included the large, deeply hued formal paintings of Susan Frecon, the sewn geometric images of Sarah Crowner and the crumpled illusionism of Tauba Aurebach’s large abstract canvases. The dialogue between these women’s work spoke both to modern painting’s lineage and its possible post -modern progeny.

One surprise was a large room full of relatively conservative flower paintings on paper by the conceptual sculptor Charles Ray. His work has been impressively quirky over the past two decades with weird takes on figurative sculpture and phenomenal mind /body experiments, but these attempts at “fleurs du mal” seem to indicate that this artist’s squinty- eyed view of Modernism’s gloomy beacon has gotten dimmer.

Speaking of Baudelaire, there is a silly conflation of photos of the poet of early art for art’s sake with the crown prince of pop, Michael Jackson. This installation by Lorraine O’Grady is entitled, The First and the Last of the Modernists. A neat package, but why not Poe and Hendrix?

One grouping of works could be entitled, “What if they gave a performance and none of the actors showed up?” Jessica Jackson Hutchins Couch for a Long Time, a newspaper-collaged sofa with pottery in place of couch potatoes, and Hannah Greeley’s Dual a re- creation of a woody noir tavern bar booth, both seemed like stage props waiting for a production. This art -as -situation trope was also evident in Martin Kersels’ stagey “song cycle” in the museums lobby gallery which presents an array of found items in what looked like a rock band stage/ built- in pool sculpture all held together by plexiglas and orange paint.

Here and there the Whitney Museum’s identity as a clearing house for American art culture became apparent. James Casebere’s hand -made and complex townscapes in vivid color photographs re- imagine Grant Wood’s regionalist imagery for the 21st century. The cartoonist/ artist Robert Williams reduces metaphysical rhetoric to depictions of Zap Comics Americana in his visually inventive and cynically humorous watercolors.

There is much more work that can’t be easily covered here. The fact that the curators, Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari, reduced their choices to fewer artists and expanded their scope to more international dimensions helps this Biennial seem more focused and relevant in its energy, even though it still is unmanageable, incongruent and insignificant taken as a whole. This is probably one of the more valiant efforts seen in a long time to make an inherently unworkable format gain critical coherence and meaning. The catalogue of the show contains a great mini-survey of Biennials past, but the essay by the curators is downright embarrassing in its cloying up- beat -ness about the current American scene.

The image at the top of this post is a 2009 view of James Casebere's Studio

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Some Installation Fiascos

Fluxus Preview, Museum of Modern Art (Fourth Floor)

To a greater or lesser degree, the way a work of art is presented or installed affects its meaning. Recently I wrote on what I called “the Fluxus paradox” -- Fluxus art was originally casual and unpretentious but became just the opposite when it was collected by museums. That is, once such fragile work was carefully preserved and diligently protected by guards, it became precious and pompous.

Friday’s Times had an article by Holland Cotter on Marina Abramovic’s re-creation of her performances at MoMA:

The work and the sense of energizing newness it once radiated were, as Kaprow knew, the product of a particular time and culture. The recreated performances in MoMA’s show are similarly products of a milieu that once made them transgressive, poetic or simply gave them heat, but is now gone. And, through no fault of the performers, the pieces feel like leftover things: flat, dutiful; artifacts.

Similarly, I recently came across several replicas that Marcel Duchamp made of his Assisted Readymade, With Hidden Noise. The Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Nicholas Robinson Gallery’s exhibition of Don Judd’s collection (a must see, btw - 535 W. 20th) both display it on simple white rectangular pedestals with a glass cover. The Readymades were made to be handled (an object was placed in the ball of string and it makes a sound when rattled). Nevertheless, the works don’t suffer much with these installations -- perhaps a loss of immediacy at most. White sculpture pedestals and glass covers are such common displays that it’s unlikely anyone would think they are part of the work.

This is not the case with LACMA’s obtrusive installation -- an arty wood block with a decorative trim of steel braces, and, to top it off, a mirror under the work (presumably to see the word game Duchamp engraved on the bottom -- see below). Duchamp was still alive when LACMA acquired this piece. They could have consulted him on how it should be displayed, and maybe they did -- although it’s unlikely given the artiness of the display. I wrote, emailed, telephoned and asked in person for information about any installation instructions, and so far haven’t heard back from anyone. (The MoMA library was kind enough to research if Duchamp provided installation instructions for Fresh Widow, but they came up with nothing -- I haven’t heard back yet from the curatorial department they referred me to.)

Then there’s the inexcusably insensitive. The Santa Barbara Museum of Art, in an otherwise excellent show of California Art, defaced (that’s the best word for it) a classic resin Ron Davis painting. They velcro-ed it to a piece of plywood shaped to the painting and hung on the wall with hooks, rather than velcro-ing the painting directly to the wall as Davis intended. As a result the work cast shadows that interfered with the perspectival illusion.

Ron Davis, Stalls, 1970, polyester resin and fiberglass, Santa Barbara Museum

Thursday, March 11, 2010


“The Thinker” and Female Figurine from Cernavodă, Fired Clay,

Hamangia, Cernavodă, 5000–4600 BC.

National History Museum of Romania, Bucharest.

Now at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World.

I returned from 70-degree California to a snow and art-bound New York. First there was the ludicrously massive Armory Show (377 booths on two piers!) and two other art fairs -- Pulse and Independent (my favorite); then I caught up with the Chelsea Galleries and Edward Winkleman’s #Class; then the New Museum and Jeff Koons’s poorly installed (and named) Skin Fruit; the Lower East Side Galleries (twice -- with different out-of-town friends); the American Academy Invitational (I’m pleased to report John Lees was awarded a purchase prize); and an Art House opening in Jersey City.

No more art for the rest of the week -- that’s it, really. Oh, I forgot, I’ll be near the Met Friday so I should see The Drawings of Bronzino -- and right near the Met is a show I heard was great called The Lost World of Old Europe: The Danube Valley, 5000 - 3500 BC (a great website, btw) at NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (15 East 84th Street). But that’s really it. I can’t handle any more art. Aw, damn -- the Whitney is open for members late Saturday; I really should see the Biennial then, but that will conflict with Pro Arts's Eat Up. And everyone’s telling me how good the William Kentridge (another good website) show is at MoMA. Shit!