4.29.16 — Hitting Bedrock

Artists I have covered here recently have me thinking. When Rebecca Smith speaks of her sculpture as “Strata,” could she be promising other layers still unearthed? And when Colin Keefe or Tony Ingrisano finds formal patterns in urban infrastructure, could another ask what lies still further beneath?

Christopher Astley does, even as he layers oil on gesso himself. He also calls his work “Conglomerations: Backfill Slag Scree,” at Tracy Williams through May 1 (and I have added this to earlier reports on the other three artists, as a longer review and my latest upload). Isidro Blasco's Shanghai Planet (Black and White, 2008)It might have surfaced of its own accord amid construction seemingly everywhere on the Lower East Side these days. The upheaval could give way at any moment to yet another gallery.

Astley has not exactly hit bedrock. His compositions have too much swirling and layering for that, right up to the edge of the canvas, like rockface in photography for Letha Wilson. The patches closest to white stone could just as well pass for sky, more colorful ones for sunlight. They seem more volatile than primeval, much like the planet in geologic models today. Nor does he suppress entirely the illusion of a third dimension on top of the layered depth. A long row of small panels adds another dimension of time and space.

The paintings have a sense of mass and structure along with process and gesture. If that sounds traditional enough, it is a thread running from Abstract Expressionism through Minimalism and earthworks, with shifting tensions along the way. The earth tones have perhaps their closest parallels in Jackson Pollock, without Pollock’s black. Gesso, a medium of gypsum and plaster, is also an obvious extension of building and earth. As it happens, the artist has ditched canvas for panel, after using fabric in sculpture. There mass expands and settles of its own accord, with only partly predictable results.

Till now, Astley has used colored or striped fabric as molds for concrete—piled like trash bags, the contents of a homeless shelter, or leftovers from a painting by Philip Guston. It bulges as it will, sometimes bursting the bags. The he adds to the textures and colors by sewing them back up and spattering some with paint. The paintings, while lighter and more improvisatory, also have greater structure and sudden glints of color. So what's NEW!They truly could belong to a construction site. Their creamy layers, though, are not wasted.

Even a thread on abstraction should note a representation of actual infrastructure, in three dimensions. One by Isidro Blasco has (with apologies) already closed, at Black & White through April 10. Then again, it opened right after New York threatened to shut the nearest subway down. With dates already slipping, the Metropolitan Transit Authority asks to eliminate the L train between Manhattan and Brooklyn for years, to restore the East River tunnel. The cost of Hurricane Sandy keeps climbing. By the end, you may remember access to Bushwick from this one show.

Blasco works in collage and with the city from New York to Shanghai, as in the March 2016 edition of Art on Paper, the art fair. Often his photographs stick close to the wall and to a tourist’s giddiness at back alleys, open spaces, and major attractions, although not without an awareness of chaos, incomplete adaptation, and urban displacement. Here, though, his model city rises upward and spreads outward while digging well beneath. A few successive subway stops take over the room, like a single station. His timing was coincidental, but the line has never looked this clean or as close to a maze. Leave a more measured infrastructure to abstraction.

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

4.27.16 — The Matrix

“I honestly don’t know,” he said. “I don’t remember.”

The lines could belong to countless police or FBI procedurals past and present. One recognizes them instantly as an evasion, to the point of an admission of guilt. For the question of the year of the man’s birth, though, they take on a logic from the far side of the looking glass. The unseen interrogator and grainy video make their logic more chilling still. MutualArtThe White Rabbit did not remember his birth either, I can assure you. Do you, honestly? Laura Poitras wants to know—and I have added this to an earlier report on multimedia with political interest, by Anri Sala, as a longer review and my latest upload.

Poitras is not literally asking, at the Whitney through May 1, but she does want you to question your responsibility or complicity. One day the interrogator could well turn on you, she believes, just as an investigation turned on her. It stopped her every time she sought to enter her own country, the United States, and it took her years to find out why. She had been in Iraq, in the Green Zone, as a reporter and filmmaker, staying with a family that had sought refuge in a mosque. When they awoke to gunfire, the day after an American raid killed four civilians, the family took to the roof to see—and she captured them in eight minutes of unedited footage. Those minutes, she says, changed her life. She displays them alongside portions of her case file, heavily censored.

The children seem at ease or even at play, even as all eyes are upon them. For Poitras, one can never tease apart the everyday from violence or violence from the surveillance state—no more than in that grainy video of an interrogation after 9/11. Its bearded subject in white is kneeling, and for all one knows of his language he could be at prayer. The subtitles, in turn, do point both ways, to an awful crime and to an awful logic turned against the criminal. from Laura Poitras's Anarchist (courtesy of the artist/Whitney Museum of American Art, 2016)The man, one of two in Afghanistan that day, ended up in prison at Guantánamo Bay for all his protestations. “You keep saying,” he objected, his head falling closer and closer to the ground, that “these things are mine.”

For Poitras, there may be two sides to every story, but she frames both sides as a frontal assault on her country’s undisclosed intelligence. Her 2011 video, O’Say Can You See, takes two sides of a large screen. On the other side, Americans respond to Ground Zero in the days after the attack, wiping grief in slow motion from their eyes. The soundtrack consists of the national anthem played soon after at a World Series game, but looped and distorted to become a dirge as unintelligible as the interrogation. One knows what these people have seen, just as one knows what happened in Afghanistan, but that, too, remains off-screen. They might be weeping for both sides of the screen.

Obviously Poitras is taking sides. You may know her solely from Citizenfour, her documentary about Edward Snowden. Yet she considers it only the third in an entire trilogy about the Iraq war, the National Security Administration, and life after 9/11. She takes the title of her retrospective, “Astro Noise,” from Snowden’s term for his project. While she wants to engage viewers throughout her run with forums, shared interviews, and other events, she sees the threat as a given, like astro noise itself—the sound left over from the Big Bang. Screen captures at the show’s entrance display signals from Israeli drones and commercial intelligence satellites, as pixilated as TV art and new media for Nam June Paik. Most are poor substitutes for information or abstraction, although a drone appears in the final print, bursting into a sphere of light.

She created those aluminum inkjet prints and the remaining installations for the occasion. The show fills the museum’s top floor, curated by Jay Sanders, but it feels much smaller, and it would fail completely if it did not. Her vision is just not that large. Although she appeared in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, she is still more a reporter and less an ironist or visual artist than Jenny Holzer on censorship or Walid Raad on terrorism and war. Even when she wants to engage the viewer in a dialogue, she sets the terms. Disposition Matrix places more government documents on the run-up to war behind slits in six black walls, so that one becomes a partner in breaching the wall of silence, but also oneself a spy.

The focus on drones and clinical procedures will hardly speak to everyone, even on the left. An older lefty would remember the towering but clumsy abuses of the Pentagon Papers and Richard Nixon—or the ease with which human beings indulge in brutality, from My Lai and “the smell of napalm in the morning” to today. At her best, Poitras lets others remember for themselves, like Snowden on film. The people on both sides of that first screen have their say, and so does the audience free to choose sides as they circulate about. For Bed Down Location, one can lie with one’s back on a communal table to watch drones in a sky moving between white, daylight, and a starlit black. It is a hard bed, but for a moment one can put the war on terror to rest.

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

4.25.16 — Cut-and-Paste History

What is a connoisseur if not both a lover and a scholar? The Morgan Library locates the emergence of today’s standards for a collector and curator in just that. It wants to see the role as more than a high-minded amateur. Still, “Pierre-Jean Mariette and the Art of Collecting Drawings” shows early art history as more art than history, through May 1.

Mariette, a collector who dazzled contemporaries in the 1700s with his skill as a restorer, took care to document the provenance of works on paper, with the goal an accurate accounting. Yet he left his mark all the same. He made copies of works before putting both original and copy on the market, altered drawings to a mostly uniform size against blue mounts, and stamped them with his initials. Edouard Manet's Execution of Emperor Maximilian (Kunsthalle Mannheim, 1868-1869)

Simply restoring drawings meant for him what the Morgan tactfully calls unorthodox. Does a young woman on the ground in front of a chair, by Parmigianino from around 1525, seem the height of modesty? Does she anticipate the domestic realism attributed to Cristofano Allori a full hundred years later? Mariette assembled the composition from fragments, including the near empty foreground. He also divided sheets so that he could display their front and back as unique works of art. His collection quickly dispersed at auction upon his death in 1774, but it had been in pieces before.

Mariette had his era’s love of mythic figures in motion—from nudes on the ground and in the sky by Guercino to a cherub using his foot to stretch a bow, quite possibly by Giorgione. Yet the two dozen samples at hand affirm changing tastes. He collected near contemporaries, such as Sebastiano Ricci. He obtained some fifty drawings by Parmigianino, back when Mannerism had fallen out of favor, and he traced a new naturalism in the Baroque. Salvator Rosa’s Prodigal Son from around 1650 gains poignancy from the turmoil in the landscape behind him, while trees and rocks become stand-alone subjects for Annibale Carracci and Claude Mellan.

Whatever their motives, innovative collectors pursued them in earnest, and none so earnestly as A. Hyatt Mayor at the Met in the last century—part of a show on the foundation of a department of prints that I shall describe further another time before its close May 22, but allow me a word now as a point of comparison. Where Mariette amassed over nine thousand sheets, Mayor bought more than sixteen thousand engravings, woodcuts, and mezzotints from the prince of Liechtenstein alone. Another donation numbered thirty thousand. But then, who is counting? Mayor also piled up cards meant as inserts with baked goods, of movie stars, sports cars, and warships. He collected postcards from the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.

Was he interested more in modernity as an ideal than in modern life? After Sloan in 1905 and Marsh in 1929, the harsh realities of the city never once appear. Neither does world war or the Depression. Brute indifference to suffering rears its most ugly head in The Execution of Maximilian, printed by Edouard Manet in 1868, two years after his painting on the same theme. The executioners fire from so close that they bury death in their smoke, while a soldier reloading pays no attention at all. Alienation begins here.

Otherwise, Modernism hardly appears, but then at the time that would have been contemporary art, of limited concern to the Met. Tastes have changed, and now it is history. The museum has patted itself on the back more than I care to say, as on its four hundredth anniversary and in wrapping up “The Philippe de Montebello Years,” but now it does more to illuminate that history. “The Power of Prints” begins long ago, but its interest in process and multiples anticipates later tastes as well. Modernism and Postmodernism keep unnerving the distinction between “the unfinished print” and the finished work of art—or between reproductions and the real thing. Once more, scholarship supplies a history of art history.

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

4.22.16 — The Digital Experience

Somehow, the movies can still suck you in. Even in the age of Netflix, its darkened room is larger than life, and so are the special effects that attract the audience to a blockbuster. And even at home, people seek larger and larger screens. One enters before the beginning, at least in the director’s imagination, and one stays to the very end.

As for new media? I could tell you, but this is art, with an opening every minute, and I am already on my way somewhere else. from David Claerbout's Olympia (courtesy of the artist/Sean Kelly, 2016)

David Claerbout still wants to suck you in, at Sean Kelly through April 30. You share the experience of workers for Shell Oil in Nigeria, and on a bad day you might, like them, have sought shelter from the rain. The camera moves, almost imperceptibly, from them to the water at their feet rippling with light, so that it seems to descend like a downpour from above.

Behind that screen, in another projection, “a young man named Elvis Presley” stands in his boxer shorts, head thrown back and bottle in hand. Claerbout enters the room alongside him in a 1956 photograph, close enough to touch his beer belly. Apparently, well before the King became a film star past his prime, this teen idol was approachable and out of shape.

In both works, no one moves a muscle, for the Belgian artist creates each scene from found stills. Both works also begin at a distance, as if the video were itself only a still. Further on, his camera tracks endlessly past the columns of what, one learns, is the stadium constructed for the 1936 Berlin Olympics—and for the greater glory of the Reich. An actual still take one up close to a cornerstone, in all its rough solidity. Yet here, too, one is dealing with a digital recreation, this time from many images, emptying them of human life. The stadium looks vivid and new, but its brutal promise is, thankfully, long gone.

In treating these as a single installation, “LIGHT/WORK” immerses one still further, only to realize that this is not a multiplex. The tracking shot looks back to maybe the greatest manipulation of space and time in film history, by Orson Welles at the start of Touch of Evil. A sign up front instructs one not to enter until the next fifteen-minute showing, counting down the minutes (digitally, of course). No one, though, seemed to mind that I ignored it, and someone even thanked me on my way out. I had tried to behave, honest, killing time with the drawings spelling out his plans, but forget it. This is video, with a long love-hate history when it comes to the conventions of TV and the movies.

Nam June Paik reduced a TV set to a prop in performance, while Stan VanDerBeek reduced it to explosions of color, light, and sound. Bill Viola still aims for spectacle, but the only one immersed in fire and water is he. Laura Poitras captures the experience of torture or of drones overhead, but her political point depends on that experience as interactive, with the responsibility on you. Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin are back, at Andrea Rosen through April 20, with video snaking through actual trees, simulated rocks, and industrial trash as people in and out of costume dance and scream. They mean the experience to be scary, too, although maybe only for those scared to death of Gen Xers and Millennials. The New Museum called its 2015 triennial, which Trecartin also curated, “Surround Audience,” but it had its own short attention span.

Claerbout believes in immersion for its own sake, even if the experience comes at second or third hand. This is not about working conditions in the Third World, pop music, fascism, or other particulars. An earlier video downstairs takes one from a park bench into deep woods, which then somehow become a rainforest, before tracking back out and into the sky. As it does, the forest becomes a mere grove, and the clearing becomes a human landscape crossed by suburbs and geometric plots. Accompanied by soothing music, Travel all but begs to end with a cheerful slogan and a commercial sponsor. Still, as sunlight comes to the darkness of the Amazon, one cannot escape the glow.

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

4.20.16 — Photography Inside-Out

I have trouble picturing a young Luigi Ghirri as a land surveyor. The profession calls up expanses even now yielding their secrets—and only now opening to human settlement. The territory of Ghirri’s photographs is thoroughly inhabited and anything but expansive—and I have comgined this with earlier reports on Ruth Rosengarten, Brian Griffin, and Europe in transit with as a longer review and my latest upload.

What is left of the Italian coastline after the weekend crowds out for a tan and, of course, a Coca-Cola sign? What is left of that narrow sliver of water, hemmed in by the equal blankness of the sky, concrete walls, and sand less like a beach than an empty lot? Even rough stones settle beneath a jet stream, ambiguously a wall or a force of nature. from Luigi Ghirri's Diaframma 11, 1/125 luce naturale (Matthew Marks gallery, 1978)Ghirri shares a gallery’s Chelsea spaces with little-known photographs by Ellsworth Kelly. Not surprisingly, they look very much like Kelly’s paintings, in everything from a barn door to city sidewalk. No other painter saw abstraction as so literally an abstracting away, whereas Ghirri surveys a land in which the mark of humanity or the artist refuses to go away.

Not that the living is easy. Another bather finds herself on a narrow railing high in the Alps, with the mountains closing in on both sides. Their jagged peaks resemble the back of a billboard in another image, its icy blue taking over the sky and its outlines like an abandoned cathedral. A window frame, a lock at its center, barely keeps out a city under construction, reduced somehow to black and white. Ghirri plays again with foreground color and found imagery for the neon blue of a chain-link fence in front of a vast hall, perhaps the very one that Orson Welles used for The Trial. It is hard to say whether its seemingly endless typing pool is locked in or out.

Then, too, a land surveyor takes the earth’s measure. Starting in 1970, Ghirri saw instead “a tangle of monuments, lights, thoughts, objects, moments.” He saw them, too, as “analogies from our landscape of the mind, which we seek out, even unconsciously, every time we look out a window.” More of the quote supplies the title for the thirty-five photographs in “The Impossible Landscape,” at Matthew Marks through April 30. One sunlit building is only its reflection in a puddle, but if you cannot figure out which one, never mind. You sought out the analogy and the tangle.

Ghirri’s subject is the banality of everyday life, touched by leaps of the imagination. It looks less than composed and yet thoroughly implausible. He might have snapped away at random as he traveled from Italy to Austria and France, only to find that the scenes had shifted without his knowing it by the time he got home. One photo-collage takes the same building from multiple angles, so that a tree seems to march across a balcony and window, while another leaves uncertain whether one is looking at tiling or pixels. Nothing has the scope or specificity of America for Robert Frank or Lee Friedlander, which makes sense—and not only because Europe is more settled territory. To return to the quote, that “impossible landscape, without scale, without a geographic order to orient us” is not nature or culture, but photography.

Plainly one of its tools is rephotography, and another is color. Ghirri combines them with an advertisement for Canon, the girl behind the camera face to face with you. Her smile dissolves in a blur of light, whether from her flash or his. Like Jan Groover, he helped claim color photography for art, as part of what a 2007 show called “Colour Before Color.” Only where Groover saw the beauty of tableware, or the “the photographic object,” he looks past objects to their settings. And then he turns the settings inside-out.

Ghirri often brings the outside in or the inside out. Posters peeling from a wall look instead like women peering or revealing themselves from behind. The Colosseum appears just past planted trees, like part of a backyard. A woman enjoys the company of leaves slipping in from a window, while a couple in bed appears to have landed out of doors. What might pass for the very same couple then ends up the scrap of a snapshot on the street. Ghirri, who died just short of fifty in 1992, might almost have ended there, too.

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

4.18.16 — The Missing Pieces

One of the delights in looking at art is stepping back to see it as a whole. And one of the pleasures of art history is filling in the missing pieces. With a glorious pair of paintings most likely by Jan van Eyck, the missing element may lie at the work’s very center—and it is the subject of a rather longer review, in my latest upload.

An earlier owner sure thought so. When the Russian sold the paintings more than a hundred years ago, he called them the wings of an altarpiece. The central panel, he explained, had been stolen. from Jan van Eyck's or Bruges painter's Crucifixion (Metropolitan Museum of Art, c. 1430-1441)It has never turned up and, it is safe to say, never will. New clues have appeared, though, in just the last few years. Suffice it to say that they add puzzles of their own.

The Met has had several exhibitions of single works from the collection, in context of related works and their background. Others have focused on Francisco de Goya, Lucas Cranach, and Andrea del Sarto. They offer the occasion to take one’s time, unlike in a blockbuster, and to make one’s own rediscoveries. Call them the ultimate in “slow art.” This one goes back to one of the very first painters in oil and the very model for the Northern Renaissance. And the puzzles only begin with the work’s original condition.

For starters, just who painted it—and when? The panels show the Crucifixion and Last Judgment, in the glowing colors and exquisite detail associated with van Eyck. Quite a crowd assembles at the base of the three crosses, in grief or triumph. Any one of the figures is worth approaching to take in its surfaces and its story. An entire city appears in the distance, beneath mountains and clear skies. The Last Judgment rises from the dense chaos of hell to a skeleton sweeping forward like a bird of prey, Saint Michael, nude men and women rising from their graves and the sea, an orderly assembly of the saved, a young god, and his angels.

Several closely resemble figures elsewhere by van Eyck, including a turbaned woman of formidable reserve. She faces away from the Crucifixion, as if to pass judgment on both an agonized Mary Magdalene and the viewer. At the same time, nowhere else does van Eyck become lost in a crowd, rather than in the vision of a precious ceremony. And everywhere else perspective cements that vision with its unity. Yet here the foreground rises vertically, the middle ground occupies a shallow stage, and the top plummets into depth. One can think of each panel as three distinct scenes, each of separate interest.

People often remember history as a tedious recitation of names and dates. They want art to speak for itself. They can easily forget how hard that is. Without words, the past seems that much more remote and inaccessible, which is why most people stick to the art they know. The whole idea of “pure painting,” they forget, belongs to modern art. The Renaissance wanted to tell stories, and it wanted viewers knowledgeable enough to feel those stories as their own.

A focus exhibition like this one is a place to start, through April 24. It brings in a drawing from Rotterdam and other newfound clues as well. It presents history not as cold facts, but as a mystery, with the painting a crime scene. And here the forensic evidence includes x-rays and a close examination of the painting’s frame. Like a good mystery, it also demands both insight and common sense, as you will see. The Met never once doubts its conclusions, this being the Met, but feel free to form your own.

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

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