8.29.16 — Cardboard Idols

There are visionaries, and then there are visions. Art museums are filled with the former, but Rachel Harrison had to high-tail it to New Jersey to find her visions.

Not that Harrison counts among the most storied visionaries at MoMA, through September 5, and it took a camera and some scavenging to make the visions hers. The artist has a fascination with the dregs of mass culture and icons to bad taste, so naturally she skipped down to Staten Island and across the water to Perth Amboy. And there other pilgrims flocked for the icon to end all icons, the appearance of the Virgin Mary.

Erwin Panofsky did not have tabloid headlines in mind when he wrote Studies in Iconology in 1939, to look afresh at Renaissance painting and to ask: what does art show, and what does it mean? Harrison is asking the same thing, only about kitsch. Her twenty-one photographs show the same plain clapboard house from only slightly different points of view. Palms clinging to its windows look ever so real, because they are, but they seem to have appeared from somewhere beyond. The paler reflections in glass might hold other faces, other visions, or nothing at all.

They also hold the show’s brightest colors, almost like stained glass, just in case one is still looking for the Virgin or for art. It takes some effort, however, to see them. Perth Amboy is an installation, its center a maze of brown cardboard. Each step along the way could serve as a shipping container or a pedestal, but missing its baggage or its cardboard idols. Maybe, like people in New Jersey, you will come with your own. The cardboard sheets stand on end only half-folded anyway, unable to enclose more than museum-goers. They slow one’s pace, like gardens for Virginia Overton and a tea ceremony from Tom Sachs, so that every so often one catches a photo on the wall and a vision.

Not that they stand much in the way of circulating freely. They do not connect up, and they are only cardboard. As mazes go, this is a throw-away, like multiple Donald Trumps recently at her Chelsea gallery, Greene Naftali through June 18. It does, though, hold a few additional surprises, and sure enough they mostly stand on pedestals. Harrison has been scavenging again in all the worst places, and she pulls her finds together as miniature works of art or installations. They also depict further visions.

So what's NEW!This is not a movie. Still, further description feels like spoilers. Suffice it to say that a ceramic Chinese scholar peers at a rocky crag, while a seated doll contemplates a wall of solid green—the tarp of a construction site as seen in a photograph, maybe just across the Hudson. An Indian chief sets eyes on a glowing landscape, sunglasses set aside as if to bathe that much more in the illumination. Two dalmatians take endless pleasure in an iceberg made of more cardboard surfaced in white.

More colorful debris might represent another pedestal, made of drinking straws crumbling in all directions, if without half the luminosity of plastic drinking cups for Tara Donovan. And one last idol could well be yours. The bust of a reddish blond baring her shoulders occupies an actual cardboard box. You may come away with the pleasure of a casual stroll through the Modern, a celebration of disposable America, or a skepticism about art and visionaries, with the only laying on of hands by ordinary human beings a few miles away. Or you may just write off the whole thing as Harrison’s growing obsession with bad taste. Either way, you get to consider competing visions.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

8.26.16 — Only a Pose

An artist in Germany had to be careful as the Nazis rose to power, even more so as the Allied bombs fell. It was only natural to put aside worldly matters and to look within. Could that be why Elisabeth Hase looked so often to herself? Wrapping up a week of catching up with unpublished posts and late summer blues, she is also part of a look back from several exhibitions this year at photography in the last century between Europe and America—and I have wrapped this into earlier reports on photography by Grete Stern, Horacio Coppola, and Ellen Auerbach moving between the Bauhaus and the Americas as a longer review and my latest upload

Her self-portraits take exquisite care, but they may look at first ever so carefree. She catches herself asleep, in the shower, at ease, and in tears. She throws herself to the wind and up a staircase, only to fall headfirst, her Sunday best in disarray and her purse lost by her side. MutualArt

Of course, each is only a pose. Hase could not have fallen asleep in front of her camera, and not many showers rain down in the middle of a room, leaving a woman in shock at the cold. She did not inadvertently trip both the shutter and herself. Her poses can be self-assured or troubling, from a measured look straight forward to her face buried in a handkerchief while a man in a black robe, seen from behind, looks on. He could be her judge or her mirror. And who knows what lies within a cage between her hands, if not another reflection of herself?

Maybe a truly modern artist had to adopt a disguise back then, but Hase has no end of them. Her pose as a scientist peering into a microscope could be right out of a life of Marie Curie, only that movie had yet to be made. She can put her very role as an artist on the line, training her box camera on a flower, like a weapon way too massive for its innocent subject. Yet she began the series by 1927, barely into her twenties, and her first show in America, at Robert Mann this past spring through May 7, all but skips right over World War II (and I would have told you about it sooner, but this had first to appear in New York Photo Review). She lived from the age of the zeppelin, which she photographed, to 1991. It also points to her stubborn consistency.

Elisabeth Hase's Untitled (Eggbeater with Shadow and Eggs) (Robert Mann gallery, 1949)The show divides in three, including the self-portraits, and each third can leave one guessing what came early and what came late, although it leaves her last forty years unspoken. A sewing kit, a glorious swirl of feathers, the bridge of a musical instrument, and apricots like planets in a dense universe all date from 1931, but she returns to still-life after the war. She began her city views early, too, and she gained permission from the occupying U.S. Army to do so again. The ruins of Saint Paul’s church testify to change, and one could read change into other photographs as well. Maybe sugar cubes piled high speak to shortages. Cars before the war look oversized and quaint, but one after the war, Hitler’s beloved Volkswagen, goes up in flames.

Regardless, Hase has her poses all along, along with edgy points of view. She peeks out from behind someone else, reflected and distorted in a sphere, like the one that Man Ray used for his Laboratory of the Future. Sunlight suffuses the city from behind, casting a mother and child in shadow. A double amputee eyes a wild animal in its cage, whether to seek redress or to sympathize with a fellow prisoner. For all the horror, they belong to the ordinary human comedy, like workers chipping away at the ruins or three children of disparate heights crossing the street with umbrellas. They look like an early version of Abbey Road.

In fact, much looks like photography today. The self-portraits anticipate Cindy Sherman and Untitled Film Stills, although Hase is franker and more on the line. Two eggs holding out intact against a wire beater and their shadows look ahead to the kitchen still-lifes of Jan Groover, although in black and white, and a calla lily has the pristine beauty of Robert Mapplethorpe in 1984. Still, Hase belongs to an older world of Bauhaus photography, like László Moholy-Nagy, and urban shadows, like Alfred Stieglitz. She was also a woman with, as the show’s title has it, “An Independent Vision” and its costs. In a close-up of an eye, her lens is wide open, but the eyelid could almost be sewn shut.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

8.25.16 — Experimental Film

Janet Biggs will go a long way to find herself. Her four-channel video unfolded only a continent away, at Cristin Tierney through February 13, but do not be fooled: with Can’t Find My Way Home, the real journey has still to begin—and I would have told you about it sooner, but portions of this review had first to appear in Artillery magazine. And again, please excuse the late date and an extra post this week, as I catch up with a few unpublished reviews worth your while.

As artist, she becomes both the experimenter and the subject of experiment. She delves deep into earth itself. She may even find her way home, but with a few shocks along the way—and I wrap this together with earlier reports on artists who use video for controlled shocks, Janet Biggs's Can't Find My Way Home (Cristin Tierney gallery, 2015)Paul Sharits and Sara Ludy, as a longer review and my latest upload. Together, they give new meaning to experimental film.

For Biggs the principal actor, dressed in a mask and bright orange hazards suit, disregards a warning in German, steps through a door, and begins her descent into a salt mine. The narrow passage has no obvious ending, and much else will happen before she is done. For one thing, the scene will switch to a laboratory, where a woman manipulates syringes and specimens that later take shape as brain scans. It will turn, too, to an older man examining rock samples, perhaps from the very crystal cave that is the focal point of the journey. The miner will hold a small sample herself in fear, puzzlement, or wonder at its beauty. The viewer may well have the same mixed feelings.

Biggs is out to find herself behind the mask, but she challenges the viewer to find her as well. One first sees the miner from behind, and one may not anticipate a woman’s wide, dark eyes above the comic proportions of the mask’s dual filters, like a clown’s false nose. I cannot so easily read German, just as I could not know the mind behind the brain scan. Still, she leaves plenty of clues. The parallels between the video’s segments underscore its persistent searching—with two young women, two scientists, two handling crystals, and two threatening environments. The very glow and translucency of the crystal cave has its parallel, too, in the artist’s new media.

Does she attain her end? The video, which previously screened at the Blaffer Museum of the University of Houston, ends abruptly, and its title may seem to have the last lonely word, but again do not be too sure. As the scientists know, there is real beauty and real satisfaction to the search. The exhibition title, “within touching distance,” has a point, too. The four large screens, angled almost to a semi-circle, invite one up close to share the experience. A cello kicks in as the white-haired man enters, with comforts of its own.

Are the scans even hers? Maybe not, but Biggs puts herself on the line in a second video, Written on Wax. The title points to another task of interpretation and other medium, this time an older means of recording. And the video opens with what look like vintage photographs of men on horseback, from an almost mythical American West. Next come color photos of a girl growing up with a love of horses, ending with her in the elegant dress of a formal competition. Yet the title also identifies representation with penetration, and the video obliges.

After the prelude, it shifts to Biggs in the present, in another neurological laboratory—this time as the subject of experiment. She helps strap herself into an apparatus that, thanks to the intense gaze of a closeup, one never quite sees. She also sets in place a mouthpiece to keep her from biting her lips, for she will receive electric shocks. As she does, more horses appear but with none of a jockey’s refinement, starting with the leaden hoofbeats of cart horses almost out of a Budweiser commercial. The risks extend to a swimmer, a skater, and a woman standing on horseback, rising to a difficult balance. The nostalgic early memories are gone, from a video artist whose past work includes a meditation on predator and prey, and yet the standing rider ends the video with quite a feat.

The experimenters could be presenting Biggs with images while subjecting her to shocks, or the shocks may be stimulating long-lost memories. They may be training her to fear what she most loves—or to delve within to find herself at last. Again physical immediacy goes hand in hand with the puzzle of interpretation and resolution. I thought of a line from another “Can’t Find My Way Home,” the song by Blind Faith: “leave your body alone.” Here one’s feelings are always within touching distance.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

8.24.16 — A Greater America

Again in my week of catching up with unpublished posts from this year, I have told you about hidden chapters in the career of Philip Guston, on his way to moving beyond abstraction. But how about some hot stuff from another in that generation?

After Tom Wesselmann, would anyone dare call a painting Great American Nude? It took daring even for him.

His nudes, flush with color and ever so close to the picture plane, did much to define Pop Art as an art of sheer pleasure. They pick up on one side of Abstract Expressionism, as an art of pure sensation, while leaving the baggage of Modernism behind seemingly once and for all. Tom Wesselmann's Great American Nude #19 (Mitchell-Innes and Nash, 1961)They have the feel of a magazine spread, with all its promise of accessibility and unlimited consumption. And then they fight back.

It would take irony, too—because anything less would be awfully sexist. His generation could still dream of writing the great American novel, like John Updike or Philip Roth, both less than two years younger and both, not coincidentally, men with an attitude problem. Beginning a career alongside the space race, he could also dream of a greater America. This spring a gallery surveyed that career, from one of Wesselmann’s first nudes 1961, at age thirty, to his death in 2004. It wanted you to know two things, at Mitchell-Innes & Nash through May 28: those nudes were not just a phase, and there was much more to him as well.

He looks more consistently experimental than one remembers and, arguably, less sexist. That early nude (actually, to judge by its title, number nineteen) faces calmly forward, her breasts half hidden by her arms rather than on display for men, while clashing reds stain everything around her. She also lies beneath the usual portrait of George Washington, by Gilbert Stuart, putting both men to shame. The show’s last painting, Sunset Nude, marks Wesselmann’s personal sunset. The woman looks cheerful enough, beneath palm trees and bright orange clouds, but contained within another outline in flesh tones, as if shrunk to her white flesh and pink private parts. Her blank face echoes, too, in a second woman on TV, as if imprisoned in the box.

Wesselmann called other series his still-lifes, landscapes, and bedroom paintings, but they share both a greater chill and a greater physical presence. One collage is an ode to bad taste, including tacky wallpaper, generic spaghetti, and kosher wine. A third dimension enters with shaped canvas and molded plastic, like billboards, much as Roy Lichtenstein leans on magazines for his Ben-Day dots. Their “products” include a full-length automobile, a radio, an apple, and a woman’s leg. A construction in cut metal packs a working clock and fan—to the extent that art can work at all. Another nude dissolves into an open mouth and a cloud of cigarette smoke.

Was Pop Art a celebration of popular culture or a critique? Mostly neither, for all its role as stage villain to critics like Robert Hughes and Dave Hickey. It anticipates neither the heavy irony of the “Pictures generation” nor the macho celebrity of Jeff Koons. The movement embraced a wider culture, but as a culture of signs. Much of it is about the making of art and its unraveling, like Lichtenstein’s Brushstrokes. It was also equally at home with desire and death—like Andy Warhol with his electric chair, Robert Rauschenberg with his stained bed and CAUTION sign, Jasper Johns with his diver, Lichtenstein with his drowning girl, or Claes Oldenburg with Manhattan as a slab of raw meat.

Wesselmann, by comparison, never gets beyond the pleasure principle. An automobile for James Rosenquist comes closer to the viewer than his ever could, like a temptation or a car crash. That may be why the show’s best surprise is a large abstraction, with all the colors and cut planes of his art, their sensuality implicit. When Marcia Hafif called her work from the 1960s, just up the street at Fergus McCaffrey through June 25, her “Pop Minimal,” she was onto much the same. Wesselmann wallows in the familiar, along with the rest of us, its flaws intact. He could still take pleasure in a greater America.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

8.23.16 — Painting from Above

Continuing my quiet summer week of catch-up ball, I mentioned a gallery’s half-ironic celebration of its painters in my wrap-up of summer group shows. Here’s my longer look at one of its artists, who showed there during the winter.

Conspiracy theorists should have flocked to see Daniel Hesidence, at Canada through January 6. No, not the kind who imagine the art world as a handful of dealers, critics, collectors, and celebrity artists out to screw serious painters like them. Daniel Hesidence's Untitled (Summer's Gun) (Canada gallery, 2015)Rather, anyone who believes in space aliens landing in the desert should find a testimonial to top-secret bases and airstrips. So should anyone who sees military maneuvers by the Obama administration as prelude to a federal takeover of Texas. Crazy? Maybe so, but Hesidence still takes time with paint to create a brute, scarred, and seriously colorful tribute to the medium and to landscape.

Actually, the first kind of conspiracy theorist could start here, too, for a reality check. Painting is alive and well, thank you, quite apart from open studios and DIY. Hesidence is one of many working on a large scale, as well as between realism and abstraction. He paints in series, with the shimmer of all-over painting, sometimes working outward from the center of the canvas in loops and swirls almost out of Cy Twombly. Yet some early series did find room for large, undernourished heads reminiscent of extraterrestrials. Now only the paint handling hints at representation.

Starting over so often suggests an artist still finding himself, although the series share a focus on layering and color. Several critics felt that he had finally arrived in 2010, with untitled works in series as “Autumn Buffalo.” Thinner and more fluorescent colors gave way to more surfaces both built up and worn down. The title, like the textures, invites comparisons to animal hides and cave paintings. Now the buffaloes are gone (and, as Carl Sandburg adds, “those who saw the buffaloes are gone”), but paint has thickened further, in small blots that press into one another’s color, often right from the tube. Above them, the wide-open outlines of cave painting have settled into white.

The impasto, with its primaries and purples, takes on areas of bright reflections and dark earth. One really can imagine them as earthworks, with or without a practical purpose. The irregular white curves then take shapes of their own. Neither may represent desert enclaves, but both make sense as aerial views, in painting that invites close inspection but also detachment. The series title, “Summer’s Gun,” evokes weathering and weaponry, without quite explaining anything. Let it be our little secret.

Scott Ingram, too, nurtures both color and thickness, but as separate elements, at Elizabeth Houston through last December 6. Separation for him is a way of paring back. Ingram cares about the surface and edge of canvas as defining elements, although not in the manner of all-over painting. His rectangles of flat simple colors, in latex, and unpainted canvas function as the architecture of painting, much as in Minimalism. Canvas for him is a color, too. Then he reinforces that architecture in white.

While he is at it, he exceeds it. He builds up the white with marble dust and gesso, producing thickness but also disintegration. As if to separate out one last component from Hesidence, the glow, F+D (for Françoise and Daniel) Cartier use the back room for color photograms. Bras leave their flowing traces as whiteness, like masks. All these artists recombine much the same elements, without an academic retread of color-field painting—and I have added this to previous reports as a longer review and my latest upload. Not all abstraction has to rely on gesture and excess, and not all process art has to have a high-tech history.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

8.22.16 — Art Cute

In the quiet of late summer, allow me to take a week to catch up. I’ll be posting reviews from this year that somehow fell through the cracks and never appeared. Suppose we start with the still hot topic of folk art entering the mainstream.

For a time, long before Postmodernism and Outsider Art Fairs, outsider art came to America. It came big time, too, and at a pivotal time and place. “Art Brut in America” argues for an overlooked influence on American art, through this past January 10, just when New York was becoming art’s capital of the world. Jeanne Tripier's Petit Dossier No. 10 (Collection de l'Art Brut, c. 1935-1939)

In December 1951, twelve hundred works of outsider art went on display in East Hampton, at the far end of Long Island, thanks to Jean Dubuffet. He had placed them under the care of Alfonso Ossorio, born in the Philippines and himself something of an outsider in the New York School. There Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and Franz Kline could drop in for a look, and so could Clement Greenberg, the critic who made the case for them as the ultimate in modernity. No one can know what they felt and what they saw, but the American Folk Art Museum subtitles its show Dubuffet’s “incursion,” with overtones of a hostile raid. The Frenchman boasted of the collection as “uncontaminated by artistic culture” and “contrary to . . . intellectuals.” Greenberg, an intellectual who saw Abstract Expressionism as the triumph of Modernism in America, could have taken that boast personally.

Dubuffet massed his troops quickly. The collection began only six years earlier, when he came upon a psychiatric patient’s sculpture in Switzerland, and it grew to include the paradigms of art and madness in Heinrich Anton Müller and Adolf Wölfli. It returned to Europe in 1962 and became the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne in 1971. Müller marks one pole with his childlike drawing and anxious objects, like the wiggly outline of a man next to a snake. Wölfli marks the other pole with his crowded detail and broken symmetries, centered on shrieking faces, decorative patterns, exotic birds, and a musical notation all his own. Between their stick figures and horror of a vacuum, Dubuffet found an ally and a model.

Few will recognize others in the collection, their anonymity enhanced by wall labels too low to read without stooping. Surely Greenberg would have seen not an alternative to modern art’s straight and narrow, but a leveling. He might also have seen it as a throwback. Early Modernism had embraced “the primitive,” like Pablo Picasso in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, without caring all that much for the particulars of other cultures. In the 1950s, artists were freeing themselves from just that, Greenberg would have said, like Pollock finally setting aside Surrealism for abstraction. Did they discover in the Hamptons an influence—or only a mirror of what they had left behind?

The question has new relevance now that outsider art is becoming downright respectable. Critics are seizing on it as less an alternative than an erasing of boundaries. Maybe MoMA still sees it as “the other,” as in excluding Janet Sobel, perhaps the first drip painter, from a display of Abstract Expressionism. Others, though, are less willing to distinguish outsiders from the mainstream. They see the boldness in such African Americans as Jacob Lawrence and Archibald Motley, for whom folk art is neither raw nor primitive. Dubuffet’s stress on the “purity” of his artists may not sound so contemporary after all.

There is Art Brut, and then there is art cute, and Dubuffet’s own painting has way too much of the latter. Still, he could have learned something from his collection, and so can viewers today.

Labels notwithstanding, Valérie Rousseau arranges the show by artist, interrupted by documentation. She keeps to relatively few in so large a collection, so that the differences stand out. Along with Müller and Wölfli, they include Ossorio, who slathers color on shaped panels. He also leaves the curved edges unpainted, like an artist’s palette.

Berthe Urasco sketches women in old-world hats out of German Expressionism, while Auguste Forestier carves men in uniform from wood, like civic authority as a puppet show. Francis Palanc accompanies abstract geometry with squiggles, like handwriting in a language that has lost its voice, while Jeanne Tripier overlays ink blots on text. She also incorporates sugar, while Palanc builds his paintings from finely crushed egg shells, for a rough surface akin to Celotex for Richard Artschwager today. Juliette Elisa Bataille’s knitted wool has the coarseness of tangled yarn for Judith Scott, an artist beset by mental illness now. They are not likely to become textbook names any time soon. They do, though, open a dialog with Dubuffet about just who speaks for outsiders and for art.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

Older Posts »