5.24.17 — To Extremes

Janet Biggs and Regina José Galindo are not making documentaries, at Cristin Tierney through May 27. Their videos stop just short of horrific violence, and the barriers that appear are of their own making. They do not flinch at real-world terrors all the same.

Both go to the Third World and to dangerous extremes, and their subjects know the dangers as a way of life. Biggs opens with a forbidding landscape in the Horn of Africa, Galindo with a verdant one in Guatemala. And both end with faces caught between a quiet dignity and fear. Janet Biggs's Can't Find My Way Home (Cristin Tierney gallery, 2015)

Biggs has gone to extremes before, and the journey was personal. Her last solo show took her through a mine shaft and into a laboratory, with her body and her mind the subject of experiment. Talk about depth psychology. Here she takes herself out of the picture. She titles the video Afar, as if to attest to its remote setting or the challenge of keeping it at a distance. It refers, though, to a nomadic people that face political barriers to their movements and to survival.

She opens with volcanic crags and the steam that they release into a dark sky. The scene shifts to stark but often gorgeous open territory, where salt traders and the camels that they use as pack animals carry the story forward with a slow but seemingly inexorable rhythm. They till harsh ground with the barest of tools and seek a rest in the company of one another and tobacco. Steel gates interrupt now and then with other men and women, white men and women, glimpsed from behind, as if unable to leave or to enter, or passing in front, like guards for unseen prisoners. In time a cello, scored by William Martina, adds its poignancy to the ambient sound, but it must compete with the sound of those very people flinging themselves against the gates. The pulse is almost as unnerving as the image.

Those westerners are dancers, the company of Elizabeth Streb, in a video with no easy triumphs and no simple victims. Biggs called her last show Can’t Find My Way Home, and here the white dancers get no rest and the Africans have no home. By the end, the video returns to the crags and the volcanic activity within. It looks like cauldrons, with no miners or devils to tend to them. A young African appears on all three channels, from slightly different angles that add to the sense of unrest. So what's NEW!And then the frames freeze on his uneasy glance.

Galindo ends with a close-up, too, but of herself rather than her implicit subject. One could almost call her 2013 video Regarding the Pain of Others, after Susan Sontag, but without Sontag’s skepticism about getting past the satisfaction of looking down on suffering. Its real title, Tierra, identifies it instead with the land in the aftermath of a refugee crisis and mass murder. Viewers entering in the middle will see Galindo’s naked body standing on a grassy knoll stained by soil and surrounded by a pit. Who put her there? No one, for it started as flat ground, before an earth mover began to dig.

It sets to work completing and deepening her isolation, with only the lighter skin of her breasts and belly as body armor. At times its shovel pauses just over her head, leaving one in hope of a respite and fearful for the threat—and then the rig shifts position, and the shoveling begins again. With the circle completed, it turns to narrowing her perch, while the trees behind her shake. Will it sweep her up or knock her over into the pit? Will it bury her alive or leave her with nowhere to go? The uncertainty becomes excruciating over the course of more than half an hour, and then you, too, will have to find your way home.

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

5.22.17 — A Failure to Communicate

Everett Kane would make anyone afraid to inhabit his interiors, at Black & White through May 26. He has me afraid, too, that I already have.

I could almost call a neatly made bed in a room lined with bookshelves my own. I could almost call the equipment that shares his spaces my past. A college roommate had a tape deck much like that, and we envied his sophistication. School must have had pretty much the same film projector, and a gallery not so very long ago would have called it new media.

MutualArtThis is not, though, an exercise in nostalgia—or not entirely, for without the appeal it could not be half as disturbing. Kane recalls sepia prints and untitled film stills, but in the silvery chill of black and white. The furnishings are devoid of life, and anyone tempted by their sculptured perfection might be in for punishment on that ground alone. An old organ and a music box defy recognition, and their pedals and pins might serve more sinister purposes now. Besides, these are digital prints and exercises in computer manipulation. They have left their sources behind.

A show called “Ground” is bound to look for common ground, but also to question whether the viewer or the equipment is grounded. One print even had me thinking of an electric chair. A film projector targets not a screen, but a chair in a cage. The same projector runs in Kane’s sole video, but nothing is showing, at least for now. It might be in rehearsal for an interrogation or for filming it, for wider consumption. It might be bearing down on the empty chair like a weapon.

Then again, as Sigmund Freud might say, sometimes a projector is just a projector. The combination of gadgetry and a smaller bed might be an instrument of torture or medical care. Some might feel the same way about an actual hospital. The apparatus pointing at the double bed is still more mysterious. It might be a pair of projectors or jet engines going nowhere. Hotel rooms these days come with all sorts of amenities.

Kane sticks to old-fashioned communication equipment where communication has broken down. The cage is set deep in the background, where it looks all the more trapped, and the rooms lack for doors or windows. They become a space for rehearsing one’s fears and remembering one’s past—and a rather attractive space at that. They look like a cross between domestic and factory interiors, both out of an earlier era. They might even be settings for a silent comedy. As Freud might add, laughing at one’s past is just the start of overcoming one’s fears.

Becky Suss, too, looks into empty interiors, but they feel like home, at Jack Shainman through June 3. Large paintings look at rooms head on, their horizontal format aligning them with the facing wall, as if to bar entry. The grids of shelves, doors, and flooring flatten them further, as do the uniform areas of color. Yet the lighting recalls earlier American painting, and they invite a look deep within—into more distant rooms or simply closets. Smaller paintings rummage through their contents, like books, in a style that at times recalls samplers, but they, too, are no mere exercise in nostalgia. They belong to family, friends, and the space of memory.

5.19.17 — Riding for a Fall

It can be just one step from grace to a fall. Ask athletes or dancers about their last titanic leap. Ask Hillary Clinton about the ten days before the election. Or ask Lee Relvas, whose sculpture seems poised between a glorious ascent and collapse, at Callicoon through May 21. Her figures have all the grace of athleticism or a dance, but always in touch with the floor. They also have an inner life that would be impossible without that rise and fall.

Her technique alone evokes both grace and the workaday dignity of just plain plodding along. Her curved wood comes as close as anything to Modernism’s ideal of “drawing in space,” as with sculpture by Ibram Lassaw. One can mistake it for the fine craft of bentwood furniture. Lee Relvas's Feeling (Callicoon Fine Arts, 2016)In practice, though, Relvas cuts her pieces from plywood, sticks them together with a compound used for joints in plumbing, and sands away. The process is itself a kind of choreography. Plywood is already soft as wood goes, and rubbing softens it further—close, she says, to flour.

It works just fine as abstraction, like wood for Ursula von Rydingsvard. One can delight in following a curve from its start to the end, looping back on itself. One can easily overlook the branching here and there. Still, it does not take long to see a room of people, neither quite together nor alone. Some seem to sink into helplessness, while others seem to rise, and more than a few do both. Still another amounts to rigid planes joined at the waist, where a further loops around like the sash of an old-fashioned dress.

One can read all sorts of things into them, including their narratives and their character. Relvas does, too. The firm or, if you prefer, matronly stance is Deciding. Others are Hiding, Withholding, Thinking, Offering, Mourning, and Lifting. In each case, she associates a physical gesture with a state of mind—a state poised between moments of action. She treats exterior form and interiority alike as transient and fleeting.

Elaine Cameron-Weir, too, would love to rise but keeps stumbling, in the lobby of the New Museum through September 3. A snake of copper and stainless steel needs a sandbag to sustain its vertical. Mostly, though, she is hooked on the body as, in her eyes, at once transcendent and corrupt. A garment of metal sports breasts and spreads its arms, but it looks less triumphant than an instrument of torture. A pole topped with a skull and a lamp draped with parachute silk look neither life affirming nor illuminating. Then again, a snake brought corruption to humanity as well, by tempting a certain woman.

The Canadian artist is fond of the body all the same, enough to aspire to engage the senses, with some of the same materials as Anicka Yi. Heat lamps warm a resin used in perfumes and fumigating. If all this seems like a lab experiment gone awry, she also claims to draw on scientific texts from before modern science, to locate the tensions between the occult and science. And if her art starts to sound like nonsense, so do her titles. One runs to forty-two words—including viscera, erogenous zone, altered state, subcutanean, and tantric. It could do with less messaging and more grace.

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

5.17.17 — Realism in Excess

Was Jean Honoré Fragonard a realist? He may seem the worst conceivable candidate for that honor. Last time I looked at Baroque landscape drawings at the Met, so allow me to turn back to the previous show in that very same space for a catch-up post. I drafted it back then but then let it slide way too long, with apologies.

A student of François Boucher, Fragonard pushed his teacher’s Rococo fantasies to their limits and beyond. He takes to the moral fables of Jean-Baptiste Greuze and the Enlightenment, only to leave them without a moral. Jean Honore Fragonard's Interior of a Park (Morgan Library/Thaw Collection, c. 1765)On his Island of Love, one can strain to tell the human beings from cherubs, and neither feels the pull of the earth. His nearly two hundred drawings after Orlando Furioso, the epic poem, live in a dream world between an uncertain ground and a restive sky—and scholars still strain to identify the scenes at hand.

Yet even the sternest realist can admire his drawings at the Met, through January 8. He studies the fall of light on the density of acanthus leaves and later a chestnut tree, and he executes copies after Jacob van Ruysdael, the Dutch landscape artist. In his twenties, on a trip to Rome, he captures the stairs and waterfalls of parks recognizable as tourist attractions to this day. Over time, he compiles a compendium of country life, from a fisherman at his nets to a communal bread oven. In the city, he is equally attentive to a young Neapolitan woman, children at play, a deacon in profile lost in his book, and a sultan. Recording a trip down the Rhine with friends, he depicts them all as seasick and exhausted.

Still, he covers them at a fever’s pace, and little is as it seems. He cares more for contrasts of light and dark than for plant species, and his trees belong to an enchanted forest, from the Italian poetry of Torquato Tasso. He prefers the artifice of parks to city streets, and anyway he had come to Rome to study at the Académie de France. Scenes of country life mix casually with stock figures from the stage and memories of Italy. A model sat for that sultan, and Fragonard may well have fashioned the sultan’s costume out of thin air. In drawing himself in the ship’s hold, he stands at a distance impossible in a self-portrait, like the audience for a play.

So what was realism, and who is to say what is real or imagined? For Fragonard, born in 1732, life blends effortlessly into theater. At the very birth of the Rococo, Jean Antoine Watteau moved between the art of music and a war zone, in search of moments of relief from human weakness. Fragonard prefers the human comedy. A child takes to his pet dog for a riding lesson, lovers fail dismally to hide in a closet, and an “indiscreet bull” butts into a shepherd’s amorous pursuits. If anything, the French Revolution had him looking for a recourse further still from the hard facts of life, right up to his death in 1806. No wonder he turned to the chivalry and romance of Orlando Furioso in the 1780s.

The Met is throwing the word naturalism around all too easily these days, as in its show of a Baroque painter, Valentin de Boulogne. It also returns to Fragonard barely a decade after his drawings at the Morgan Library and restoration of his period room at the Frick. Still, “Drawing Triumphant” supplies a thorough survey of the artist from New York collections alone. It follows him through two trips to Italy and back, the second at age forty-one. The curator, Perrin Stein, also includes prints, many as learning aids. Charmingly, his student responds with a portrait of the “genius” of Benjamin Franklin, just when the Met also exhibits Franklin’s years in France on behalf of an emerging nation and the American Revolution.

Fragonard was hardly a revolutionary, although he sent his son to study with Jacques-Louis David. He was, though, a quick study and an even quicker draftsman. Red chalk and washes give his dream visions the immediacy of daily life. A magistrate takes shape from the folds in his robe and lovers from a wood’s edge under a stormy sky. Diogenes, the ancient philosopher, and a peasant seem to draw on the very same model. An artist at work in a trellised garden could be his ultimate fantasy—or a stand-in for Fragonard himself.

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

5.15.17 — Falling into Landscape

Hercules Segers may have died by falling down stairs. No one can say for sure, but Samuel van Hoogstraten reported it, and it makes sense. Segers had a habit of narrowing his vision to what lay right before his eyes—and then ignoring it in his fixation on the inscrutable, the imagined, and the detail.

He bought some serious property along a canal in Amsterdam to observe the housetops just outside his window. And then he added what he pleased to his prints, for no amount of detail or atmosphere would suffice. At times you could mistake the etched, scratched, and acid-ridden plate for the print itself. Hercules Segers's Woodland Path (private collection, c, 1618–1620)

To be sure, Hoogstraten is no authority. Born around 1589, Segers died, with or without stairs, while the writer was still a child, and most today place his death at the far extreme of Hoogstraten’s guesses, in the late 1630s. Then again, the younger man had every reason to know what he was talking about. As a theorist and historian, he helped record the golden age of Dutch painting—and, as also a painter, he worked in the circle of Rembrandt, who valued Segers enough to own several of his prints and one of his even rarer paintings. Now the Met displays “The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers,” with generous assistance from the Rijksmuseum, through May 21. It may not make him a household name, but it hints at a missing link between Dutch artists and the preceding century or even this one.

Whenever he died, he had a career of less than thirty years, starting in Harlem around 1610 and ending in the Hague. He had already all but fallen out of sight. Hoogstraten reports that people used his work to wrap food, since they had no clue what to make of it either. (Segers may have purchased that house in Amsterdam with his wife’s money.) He was among the first to turn to still life, including a pile of white books and an even plainer skull—much like an intimation of mortality by Pieter Claesz from around the same time, but without the shivers. Segers showed little interest in light or morals.

He also had a less than full eye on nature. He did study moss and branches hanging from trees. Almost anything, though, can look like lost in a weave akin to coral or the nightmares of Max Ernst in the twentieth century, even the side of a rearing horse or the trunk of a tree. Line alone matters, the denser and more capricious the better—line alone, that is, except for texture and color. Segers often printed on colored cotton, before adding colored washes. He then altered the plate, the fabric, the dye, or the washes again before printing once, twice, or half a dozen times more.

Maybe you caught “Unfinished” at the opening of the Met Breuer or “The Unfinished Print” at the Frick some years before, but you do not know the half of it. No one knows how many Segers finished of at most two hundred surviving prints. Even his adding color is no sure sign of satisfaction. Nor can one know what he saw. He helped usher in views of mountains and waterfalls after the Alps and ruins after the castles of Rome. Yet he set his most exotic features against a backdrop of home.

Dating is difficult, too. The driest and most detailed surfaces come early, and travel may indeed have opened his eyes. Increasingly, he begins with outlines before adding more. Increasingly, too, versions grow more independent. Instead of merely a change from pink or yellow to blue and gray washes, they can become as distinct as night and day. Reversals, cropping, staining a plate with sugar and acid, and counterproofs, meaning prints taken from cloth or paper and not the plate, all come into play.

They also help explain his appeal to Rembrandt. The curator, Nadine M. Orenstein, looks for his influence in prints of Biblical subjects, but Segers also etched a solid oak and a row of trees, before the more famous artist’s Three Trees. His scratchy technique approaches drypoint, a medium that Rembrandt liked, too. He anticipates Rembrandt’s habit of altering a plate before cutting into it again as well. Just as interesting, Segers borrows from Pieter Bruegel and an earlier German printmaker, Hans Baldung Grien. Could that explain how art got from Mannerism to the age of Rembrandt?

It helps in revisiting the show’s premise as well. The Met sees a fantasist while others were “toiling away at realism,” but were they—and was that all Segers had going, too? Dutch landscape painters like Jacob van Ruisdael and Aelbert Cuyp seek a grandeur beyond the moment, while Jan Vermeer makes every interior a vision. Earlier Mannerists were even more unmoored from reality, and museums have since applied “The Visionary Landscape” to the sublimity of the Hudson River School in nineteenth-century America as well. Segers takes not vision but line and color as his subject, in some of the first art beyond realism and myth alike. At his most adventurous, Surrealism might not be too strong a word.

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

5.12.17 — Any Port in a Storm

“The archangel loved heights.” For Henry Adams, in the glorious opening to Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres in 1905, a trip to Normandy was a journey into the medieval mind. “Standing on the summit of the tower that crowned his church, wings upspread, sword uplifted, the devil crawling beneath, and the cock, symbol of eternal vigilance, perched on his mailed foot, Saint Michael held a place of his own in heaven and on earth.”

For J. M. W. Turner eighty years before, Mont Saint-Michel and its cathedral had descended not quite fully into a coarser and more interesting present. The rocky island off the English Channel glistens like crystal against a cloudy sky, J. M. W. Turner's Cologne: The Arrival of a Packet-Boat: Evening (Frick Collection, c. 1826)while smugglers in the foreground find themselves trapped by French officers, the low tide, moonlit sand, and artificial light. His port views, at the Frick through May 14, show his fascination with changing skies and a changing Europe.

Turner’s Modern and Ancient Ports” builds on views of Dieppe and Cologne harbors in the Frick’s collection, both from the mid-1820s. They have never looked so good. Framing an unfinished painting from the Tate, they glow as never before, and one can see why. J. M. W. Turner first lay down thin color, in the hulking outlines of mists, sails, buildings, and people. Layers of the very same or contrasting colors add translucency and intensity—with a central axis of light between land masses in perspective. The finished paintings top things off with natural highlights and human detail.

One might never have noticed just how much detail. Susan Grace Galassi, Ian Warrell, and Joanna Sheers Seidenstein count roughly two hundred people in Dieppe alone. As curators, they argue for a context in Europe after the Napoleonic wars. Ships stand for a partly decommissioned navy. People stand for the resumption of tourism and commerce, aided by the new technology of an industrial age. For Turner, as by its very definition, a port is a point of arrival and departure.

At the same time, he looks to a heroic past. A facing wall has oils of ancient Rome and Carthage, where a general faced death with his eyelids first torn away, to blind him by the light. So is Turner concerned for myth or reality? Is he out to blind the viewer or to keep up with the news? Surely both at once, just as Turner’s whaling pictures, recently at the Met, treat the sea trade as the scene of an apocalypse—and I have added this to my earlier report on that show as a longer review and my latest upload. It matters that ships or buildings can be front and back lit in a single painting, for greater precision and mystery, and it matters, too, that they are contemporary.

He delights equally in the middle class crowding the evening packet-boat and workers shoveling coal at night under a full moon. He does not shy away from smog, which past viewers have mistaken for fire. And a ready audience shared his delight. A second room adds twenty-six watercolors (along with an oil sketch) to keep up with the demand for his travels. If Turner’s thin underpainting itself approaches watercolor, he executed these not as studies for paintings, but as models for prints. He also filled notebooks with pencil sketches, for architecture rather than cross-hatching. He could attend to light and shadow back in his studio.

The period has a parallel in art after Postmodernism, with its mix of realism, abstraction, and fantasy. It also has a parallel in an age of globalization. In Turner’s hands, the rivers and coastlines of England, France, and Germany become a single theater. (It took Warrell to pin down the Tate’s painting of Brest, with folk costumes in its colors—much like those of women on the sands of Picardy in a painting from the mid-1820s by Richard Parkes Bonington, also on loan at the Frick.) The artist had traveled across the Alps to Italy as well, and early critics complained of southern light in his northern cities.

The Frick subtitles the show “Passage Through Time,” but one can easily overstate the passage. The work sticks mostly to a decade—between the careful distinctions in Turner’s early work and the madness of his late work. Paintings from this period have an overflow of creamy yellow that the fiery display helps overcome. One can overstate, too, his care for recent history or his nostalgia. He sketches fortifications, but with few marks of war, and he eliminates steamships, but little else. His archangel stops just short of the present.

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

Older Posts »