Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Subversive Art Subverted

By Charles Kessler

I wrote before about how the meaning of a work of art can be subverted by the way it’s presented. Well I recently encountered two museum shows that did that very thing.
Installation view, Sherrie Levine: Mayhem, Whitney Museum, November 10, 2011 – January 29, 2012. In the foreground is Bachelors: 1–6 (1991), six sculptures based on images taken from Marcel Duchamp’s painting The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.  (Photograph by Sheldan C. Collins.)
In the early eighties, Sherrie Levine famously questioned the concept of originality in art (a very original idea at the time!). She notoriously plundered the work of such famous artists as Walker Evans, whose iconic black-and-white images of the Great Depression she copied and re-presented. Her work then was raw and anarchistic (and I mean that as praise), but in the Whitney retrospective that just ended, it was boring. That’s not entirely the Whitney’s fault. You can’t repeat that kind of art very often without it losing its edge, and her work had already lost its originality and thus lost its bite.

But in addition, the Whitney's fastidious installation made the work seem over-refined and even arty. And to make matters worse, guards actually prevented people from walking through the various installations (or "gangs" as she called them) even though there was plenty of room (see photo above). As a result, the fussy preciousness was magnified, and instead of being raw and transgressive as it once was, the work ended up seeming like slick Damien Hirst-type commodity art.
Rirkrit Tiravanija, untitled (free/still), 1992/1995/2007/2011, dimensions vary (MoMA #225.2011). (I doubt if the signs, especially the sanitary inspection grade sign, were in the original 303 gallery exhibition.)
The case of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s work is not as extreme, but it’s sadder because the original motivation seemed so heartfelt. The first time the piece was presented (in 1992, at the 303 Gallery, then a funky second floor space in Soho), it was a delightful surprise. Tiravanija moved the gallery staff out of their office and into the exhibition space, and he converted the office and storage spaces into a kitchen where he prepared curry and rice to give away to people who came into the gallery.

Now MoMA has replicated the work and the surprise is gone. Not only have Tiravanija and others presented work like this many times (at the Zwirner gallery in 2007 for example), but the MoMA installation/performance is very didactic. There are explanatory wall labels, guards telling you where to go (and not go — for some reason we weren’t allowed in one of the spaces) and docents hanging out explaining things. And the artist doesn't even make and serve the curry and rice — it's done by MoMA restaurant staff. So rather than being a surprising and generous gesture, it’s become at best nostalgic, and at worst embarrassingly artificial and contrived.

Of course, as Duchamp knew well, the experience of all art changes depending on the context, but some art suffers more than others (e.g. Fluxus Art). I can’t imagine a way to fix things; it’s just basic to the nature of museums.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Other Side

By Charles Kessler

I've been paying attention to the backs of sculptures since my “Day at the Met” post last month. I’m especially fascinated with the backs that are beautifully finished even though the work was intended to be seen from the front, or primarily from the front — work made for niches, alcoves, or shelves, or made to be placed against a wall.

I suspect what might be going on is the artist was dealing with objects believed to be magical or holy or have some other power beyond ordinary objects. As a result, special care must be taken in the making (and possession) of them. Of course all art is experienced as different from ordinary objects, even Duchamp's Readymades. But this work was believed to be so important, so special that even the back had to be given proper respect. They may be simpler and more abstract than the fronts, but they are often more powerful because of it.

Here are my favorites, in chronological order, taken from the Met’s excellent website. Accession numbers are included in the captions to make it easy to find more information about the work. Just type the number into the Met's search window.

Baby figure, 12th - 9th century B.C., Mexico, Olmec, ceramic, cinnabar, red ocher, 13 ⅜ x 12 ½ x 5 ¾ inches (1979.206.1134).

Ritual figure, Late Period or early Ptolemaic, 380 - 246 B.C., Egypt, wood, 8 ¼ inches high (2003.154).

Dionysos leaning on a female figure, Roman, 27 B.C. - A.D. 68, marble, 82 ¾ inches high (1990.247).

Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion, Seated in Royal Ease, Angkor period, Cambodia or Thailand, 10th - 11th century, bronze with silver inlay (1992.336).
Virgin and Child in Majestry, Reliquary, c.1150-1200, walnut with paint, gesso and linen,  31 5/16 x 12 ½ x 11 ½ inches (16.32.194).

Saint Margaret of Antioch, c.1475, alabaster, 15 ⅜ x 9 ⅝ x 6 9/16 inches (2000,641).

Prestige Stool, Female Caryatid, Buli Master, ca. 1810-1870, wood and metal studs, 24 inches high (1979.290).

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Chelsea Gallery Roundup

By Charles Kessler
Doug Wheeler, "Infinity Environment," SA MI 75 DZ NY 12 (2012), David Zwirner Gallery

I was in Los Angeles in the sixties and seventies so I saw a lot of "Light and Space" art. I didn't like it then and I still don't. I think it's easy and cheap (Robert Irwin's floating disk paintings —  soooo miraculous and Zen. Awesome, man!), but I didn't expect to find Doug Wheeler's "Infinity Environment" at David Zwirner (through February 25th) ridiculous and pretentious in addition to cheap.

First you have to wait your turn in an outer room, then you're required to take off your shoes and put white booties on your feet as if you're going into some kind of holy clean room.
Waiting area for Dour Wheeler's "Infinity Environment." The two people on the left requested anonymity.
Then someone instructs you on what you can and cannot do, where you're allowed to stand and what's the best way to experience the work. All this for the psychedelic experience of seeing nothing but white space (and maybe some floaters depending on your age). Oh please.

There were a lot of good things happening in Los Angeles in the sixties and seventies -- Ron Davis, John McLaughlin, Charles Garabedian, Frank Gehry, Abstract Expressionist Ceramics, performance art -- just to name some. It's a shame that "Light and Space" art and the "Cool School" are getting the most attention now.

But Chelsea has a lot of work I love, and -- I never thought I'd say this -- most of it is video art. Although it's become a joke that now every exhibition of painting or sculpture has to have a video component, the video is usually pretty lame and the sculpture and paintings are really the main thing.
John Miller, "Suburban Past Time," installation view, 20112.
These exhibitions are the opposite; the real interest of these artists seems to be the videos and their other work seems secondary or peripheral:

John Miller's installations at Metro Pictures (through March 10th) are simple, strange and beautiful, but his videos (made in collaboration with Takuji Kogo) are more powerful. The text for the soundtrack was taken from personal ads, animated and set to manipulated voice recordings, which might not seem like much, but the result is poetic and deeply moving.

Paul Kasmin, in an additional new space around the corner on 27th Street, presents James Nares "Pendulum" films from 1976 (through February 11th) along with photographs and related work from the films. The films, shots of various objects swinging on a wire hung from a footbridge over a gritty Manhattan street, are claustrophobic and disorienting, and beautiful and haunting; the related work is just related work -- not much without the films.

Monica Cook at the always cutting-edge Postmasters gallery (through February 11th), is an interesting case similar to Allison Schulnik except not quite as extreme. The sculptures on display were used to make the animations and they struck me as heavy-handed and so disgusting they border on silly. But they work great in the animations. What is it about video that allows us to accept more pathos and melodrama than we'll tolerate in painting or sculpture?
Monica Cook, installation view, Postmasters, detail view of the character Oriana.
I was disappointed in Shirin Neshat's video at Gladstone Gallery (through February 11th). It doesn't have the stark dramatic impact of her past work; but it's a lot better than the photos on view which seem very cranked out.

One pet peeve regarding presentation of video: why the f*** can't galleries provide a proper viewing experience. Presenting video in a room without seats and expecting people to stand for twenty minutes or more is just rude and inconsiderate. Even worse, as was the case with John Miller’s videos at Metro Pictures, is showing them in a room where people have to pass in front of the video. Kudos to Postmasters and Gladstone for providing a proper theater.

Okay, since I'm all worked up, here's my rant on Damien Hirst's "Spot Paintings." I like Hirst’s work, I really do. I like its ambitiousness, boldness, humor and inventiveness. But this is cynically corporate work that at best is mildly interesting for the variety he can achieve with such limited means. Moreover, I suspect his hype has finally caught up with him -- these shows have been poorly attended (I asked several of the guards, and they all agreed). I experienced it myself because Gagosian has a ridiculous rule about only allowing photographs that include people, and I had to wait a long time to find these two women.

But there's a lot of other abstract painting and relief worth checking out: Bill Jensen at Cheim and Read;  Richard Kalina at Lennon, Weinberg (especially his water colors); Martha Clippinger at Elizabeth Harris; and at the Howard Scott Gallery, David Goerk who, just when I thought minimal abstraction was finished, managed to do something interesting with it.
David Goerk, 6.13.2009, 2009, 15.2 x 15.2 x 5.1 cm, encaustic on wood.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Art News

By Charles Kessler
David Hockney, Woldgate Woods, 21, 23 & 29, November 2006, Oil on 6 canvases, about 72 x 144 inches (Courtesy of the Artist. © David Hockney. Photo credit - Richard Schmidt).

From Jonathan Jones at the Guardian on the popularity of David Hockney’s exhibition at the Royal Academy: “From Hockney to Downton Abbey: have our cultural tastes gone conservative?”

Via Hyperallergic: The Guggenheim has made 65 of its past exhibition catalogs available free online.

From the Los Angeles Times, an interview with Matthew Marks on the occasion of the opening of a  gallery in L.A.:  “Matthew Marks on lure -- and challenges -- of showing art in L.A.”

Agnes Gund, the classy art patron and former president of the Museum of Modern Art, writes about some potentially hopeful trends for artists: Three movements in particular may provide some relief to our sprawled and underserved population of artists: 1) The growth of local or hometown opportunities for artists; 2) The rise of unexpected exhibition places; and 3) Artist-to-artist initiatives.

And finally, there's this depressing article on our visual environment by Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times: There are said to be at least 105 million and maybe as many as 2 billion parking spaces in the United States. …  One study says we’ve built eight parking spots for every car in the country. Houston is said to have 30 of them per resident. In “Rethinking a Lot,” a new study of parking, due out in March, Eran Ben-Joseph, a professor of urban planning at M.I.T., points out that “in some U.S. cities, parking lots cover more than a third of the land area, becoming the single most salient landscape feature of our built environment.” 

Kimmelman goes on to describe ways architects and city planners are beginning to deal with this blight.
A Parking Lot in Disney World,  Orlando Florida

Friday, January 20, 2012

Panel on the Bushwick Art Scene

Standing room only.

By Charles Kessler

Last night The Bogart Salon, one of seven (!) galleries now at 56 Bogart Street in Bushwick, held a packed panel discussion on the "Nature and Future of the Bushwick Art Scene." It was expertly moderated by Hrag Vartanian, the founder and editor of Hyperallergic, and the panelists were Deborah Brown, director of the Storefront Bushwick Gallery; Burr Dodd of Brooklyn Fire Proof; writer-journalist for WNYC and Artnews, Carolina A. Miranda; and Marco Antonini, director of NURTUREart. You can find a pretty good summary at #bushwickarts (how can Paddy Johnson tweet so fast?).

One thing that surprised me was the carping about building codes. In the first place, compared to Jersey City they have it great, but more important, the reason why Bushwick is still relatively cheap is a lot of the activities (concerts, parties, live-work spaces, etc.) are not officially sanctioned.  Everyone knows (or should know) that fire codes are important, but sometimes minor violations for what seem like trivial violations (Burr Dodd complained about being busted for fruit flies in his restaurant) can be frustrating. But they should keep in mind that when something is officially approved it becomes a lot more expensive.

Peter Hopkins, director of The Bogart Salon, took a great deal of care with the seating at the event, even going so far as putting names on the seats. He said he wanted to get people together whom he felt should know each other. I thought that was a terrific idea and typical of the way networking (in a good way) is encouraged in Bushwick and the way people are so helpful there.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Some Art News

By Charles Kessler

Museum and Gallery News:
  • The Lower East Side gallery Feature Inc. has a museum-quality exhibition of Tantra Paintings (until February 12th). They are small abstract paintings in tempera, gouache, and watercolor on salvaged paper made by practitioners of Tantrism as a guide for their private meditation. The sophistication and  subtlety of this work is astounding — equal to the best of work by Richard Tuttle or Tom Nozkowski. For more information see the Santa Monica Museum of Art  and siglioblog websites. Here are some high-quality photos that illustrate how sensitive the work is:

ANONYMOUS, tantric painting;  Legend: The eternal race of the feminine principle towards its masculine homologue; Jodphur, Rajasthan, 2008; unspecified paint on found paper; 13.625 x 8.875” (Courtesy of Feature, Inc.).
(Click to enlarge.) 
ANONYMOUS, tantric painting;  Legend: The illustrious fish; Jaipur, Rajasthan, 1993; unspecified paint on found paper; 9.125 x 7”  (Courtesy of Feature, Inc.). (Click to enlarge.)
ANONYMOUS, tantric painting; Legend: The universal manifestation, always in evolution; Bikaner, Rajasthan, 1989; unspecified paint on found paper; 9.25 x 13.375” (Courtesy of Feature, Inc.). (Click to enlarge.) 

  • L Magazine reports the blue-chip Chelsea gallery Luhring Augustine will finally open their Bushwick space.
  • Christopher D’Amelio explains why they will be closing the D’Amelio Terras Gallery in Chelsea. 
  • The Times reports that the Met is getting serious about contemporary art -- they hired Sheena Wagstaff, chief curator of Tate Modern, to be in charge of their new department of 20th and 21st century art.
  • And it’s hard to believe, but with the addition of their glassed-in Portico Gallery, the Frick has become even better. It’s a pleasure to walk along the portico in the middle of winter and look out at their grounds and Fifth Avenue. 

Jean-Antonio Houdon, Diana the Huntress, 1776-95, terracotta, 75 ½ inches tall (photo, Michael Bodycomb).
Other Art News:
  • T J Clark recently wrote two typically brilliant reviews for the London Review of Books, one on Gerhard Richter and another on the Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery in London.
  • Via Hyperallergic is this article on a building in Taiwan that almost disappears.

Sou Fujimoto’s ’21st-Century Oasis’ (All images by Sou Fujimoto via Architizer)

  • Here's a good read from The Morning News about the experience Christopher R. Graham, a music critic, had conducting a professional orchestra. He found it terrifying, and he felt completely over his head. 
  • Slate has a series of articles by Tony Perrottet on Vatican City including secret areas of the City such as a bathroom within the Papal Apartments decorated with erotic frescos by Raphael in 1516, and the newly-restored Vatican Library.
  • Yvonne Rainer criticized Marina Abramovic's MoCA performance/gala for economically exploiting her performers. Now Abramovic adds fuel to the fire in a MoCA video about the gala. A clueless Abramovic talks about how much she appreciates the wisdom of the free market and/or the virtues of the pre-modern system of rule by kings. 
  • Finally, The New Scientist reports on the discovery in Nigeria of a rare 2000-year-old Nok terracotta.

(Image: Nicole Rupp/Institute of Archaeological Sciences, Goethe-University Frankfurt )