3.16.18 — Beware of Darkness

If there is one small compensation for the encroaching darkness, it is that the lights come on early. On those chill winter days, with evenings fallen into night and late afternoons stolen away, horizons shrink as well. Even for a determined New Yorker, the closest friend or the next gallery can seem ever so far away.

Erwin Redl's Whiteout (Madison Square Park, 2017–2018)Still, early sunsets have their privileges. They fall within museum hours, so that James Turrell can open the ceiling of MoMA PS1 as Meeting, for visitors willing to sit for a while and to brave the cold. Contemplating his “skyscape” and its changing light takes time, but then its message is that light and time take contemplation.

Erwin Redl rewards patience, too, in Madison Square Park until the very first days of spring, and summer sculpture has nothing on this. In contrast to California’s Light and Space artists like Turrell, with their altered environments and natural light, Redl make use of the found environment and artificial lights. He identifies with earthworks, but without moving earth at all. Those in search of Whiteout, through March 25, may enter the park wondering whether they have found it. The title puns on “lights out” and erasure, but the lights keep coming on. They began a few days before the nearby Christmas tree, but already they had plenty of company.

Even from across the street at night, the park glows. New technologies, ample funding, and ecological awareness have lined its paths with quaint enough lampposts and near orange light bulbs. Decorative lights wrap the posts as well—but then Redl did bring a Matrix of tree-ornament lights to the 2002 Whitney Biennial. Other lights shine in the park’s fountains, in the windows of surrounding buildings, or atop the Empire State Building. They make the park seem green even in winter. They could all be part of the show.

Keep going, though, and art is just where it is supposed to be. When I reached the central lawn, fenced off in winter to replenish the soil, it was one huge field of light. When I found the placard introducing the work, it had gone dark, but before I had finished reading it was light again. Hundreds of bulbs in orderly rows rest just over a foot off the ground. They visually reshape the lawn as a large rectangle much like a football field—or, rather, two fields side by side with their illumination out of sync. This could be the halftime show, but it does not begin or end all at once.

Its rhythms are all part of the game. From the moment of full lighting, the north end of a field begins to darken, and the darkness marches across one row at a time. When it reaches the south end, So what's NEW!the north begins to brighten once more. Come back the next day, and the bulbs blend into sunlight. They also, though, become material objects at the center of small translucent spheres, and the work’s construction becomes part of its rhythm, too. It looks less mysterious than at night, but its plainness is worth contemplating, too.

The spheres hang down from a network of wires and tall black poles that also supply electricity. Their changing points of light become equal elements in a grid, as in a canvas for Agnes Martin. They also sway like pendulums in, to quote Robert Burns, “bleak December winds,” but in no discernible pattern. Redl has employed LEDs before in a supposed perpetual-motion machine, but physics had the last word then as now. As Burns concluded, so much for “the best laid schemes of mice and men.” Beware of darkness.

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

3.14.18 — Make It Official

What makes an official portrait official? Is it all about varnishing over the truth? Not this time.

For the first time in my life, I miss the last president. For the first time, too, I miss the National Portrait Gallery. Credit both to Barack and Michelle Obama. Say what you will about politics, but they sat for portraits, unveiled February 12, that have people talking—and museum attendance climbing. MutualArtTo my mind, they made that possible, too, with more than just their choice of artists. Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald often fall for a kind of politically correct official art, but for once something more ambitious shows through.

To be sure, Donald J. Trump would have me missing all forty-four of his predecessors, going back to those who led America into the Great Recession, the Gilded Age, Jim Crow, and civil war. Still, not even Trump could turn the presidents gallery into one of Washington’s leading attractions. The very idea of an official portrait has an awkward place in art. It dates to a time long past Renaissance princes and their commissions—for now one does, after all, have to designate a portrait as official. Then, too, photography has taken over much of its role, in magazine and album covers. If Marilyn Monroe or Patti Smith has anything like an official portrait, thank Richard Avedon and Robert Mapplethorpe.

The painters did not have me expecting a change. Kehinde Wiley has become a celebrity artist by treating ordinary Africans and African Americans as celebrities. His young black males strut their macho stuff in front of decorative backgrounds that make them stiffer, shallower, and shinier still, modeled at times on Napoleon crossing the Alps for Jacques-Louis David. A less familiar name, Sherald puts style first and foremost as well. Icy grays stand for black flesh, and sharp colors pop out from patterned clothes. Still, she leans to flat erect figures, as if afraid to disturb their dignity by a reminder of their thoughts and lives.

Amy Sherald's Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama (National Portrait Gallery, 2018)And again, not this time. Wiley has dropped the horses, military hardware, and bright hanging fruit in favor of a canopy of leaves. Filling the picture plane, it propels Obama forward to where his eyes and crossed arms engage the viewer. They make him recognizably the thoughtful ex-president and community organizer one wants to remember. They also overlap now and then his stately chair and informal seated pose. That works well, too, for the man who asked to lead from behind.

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama does better yet as lawyer, teacher, activist, and fashion plate, in a portrait that John Singer Sargent might admire. She, too, is seated—with one hand on her knee, an elbow resting on that hand, and the other hand beneath her chin. These, a mostly white dress, a pale blue background, and a refusal to smile keep her at a measured distance, even as their pyramid spreads in all directions. Sherald is no longer simply empowering her sitter, but rather keeping everything quiet except for character and paint. Try to remember a past official portrait that mattered as much for the first lady as for the president. But then try to remember a single artist in the presidents gallery since Gilbert Stuart.

If the pair marks a departure for both artists, give credit where credit is due. It helps that Obama must have sat for Wiley, with every expectation that the painter would have shown up for occasion rather than delegating the job to his factory. Still, he and his wife had to have pushed the envelope. He reportedly told Wiley that he had no interest in playing another Napoleon, and who knows what she told Sherald? Wiley is probably not going anywhere new, even at barely age forty, but Sherald, now forty-five, has had to put a career all but on hold for matters of personal and family health. Like her subject, she can afford now to sit down for a moment and to take a deep breath.

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

3.12.18 — Art Is Scary

Video art is scary. I do not just mean that it makes art all too easy, although it sure seems that way these days. I do not just mean either that it draws on the same tools as the surveillance state—or that, like any art, it can border on madness.

No, I mean that moment when one steps behind the curtain unaccustomed to the dark, afraid of walking into something dangerous or tumbling to the floor. With Untitled (Havana, 2000), through March 11 (and so sorry I’m a day late), Tania Bruguera latches onto every one of those fears and never lets go. You may not feel safe even after you leave—and I have added this to past reports on contemporary Cuban and Caribbean art as a longer review and my latest upload.

At the very least, you will not feel safe until you come out again into the light. Bruguera recreates her installation for the 2000 Havana Biennial, set within an old fortress used for torture, imprisonment, and mass executions before and after the Cuban Revolution. By then, it held just another art fair, which come to think of it is scary, too. It followed the Clinton administration’s opening to Cuba, with Americans flocking to see what they could before a Republican backlash. The Castro regime was welcoming, up to a point. It closed the work within hours, because it did want to remind people of its terrors.

Here, too, one enters past imposing walls into silence and near total darkness, like an Infinity Room for Yayoi Kusama in reverse. MoMA admits only four visitors at a time, and they must power off and pocket their cell phones—or slip them into black cases that the museum provides. There is no looking for guidance or relief. Every step requires risk taking, for Bruguera lays down a thick carpet of pulp from crushed sugarcane, and its scent does not exactly sweeten the air. Maybe you will make out a small source of light high and in the distance, and maybe you will manage to approach it. You will still be in danger of falling as you crane your neck to view the monitor overhead.

It displays a short video of Castro and more Castro, basking in adoration. Fidel swims, smiles, speechifies, embraces, and exposes his chest again and again. He could be the soldier pointing to what he suffered on behalf of the cause—or the resurrected god pointing to his wounds. In fact, he is showing off his going among the people as one of them, without a bullet-proof vest. Images of the fearless leader were always suspect, but what drew censure is what accompanies them. Depending on your adjustment to the light as you begin a slow walk back to the exit, you may see a performance element that bares its chest, too.

I have already revealed too much, but Bruguera herself cannot stop redescribing the work. Nothing for her is without meaning. She made earlier art from her body in performance, and now she puts yours and that of others on the line, much like the regime. Does a limit on visitors produce lines? Cubans are used to waiting for hours through shortages. The show has an unusually short run for a museum, but she might respond that its first run was even shorter.

The lack of title, too, is meaningful, although Postmodernism might argue that Untitled is always a title. Bruguera alludes to the erasure of the work’s original title, Engineers of the Soul, while adding in parenthesis the specificity of time and place—and while adopting the practice of another Cuban artist, Félix Gonzáles-Torres. This Caribbean art combines sensory overload and sensory deprivation. It depends on immediate experience, shared histories, the artist’s associations that one might never guess, and crucial elements that one may never see. It is vague or broad enough to target Communism and colonialism. It collapses under its own weight, but you can still fear that it might fall on you.

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

3.9.18 — Sculpture as Site

Gonzalo Fonseca treats sculpture not as an object only, but as a site also. Vertical slabs break for windows, niches, and doors like houses, churches, or public buildings. Tabletops display the ruins of entire cities, if not entire civilizations. Works on paper sometimes read as maps. One can hope to piece out their components, in towers and arenas. One can hope, too, to imagine what remains hidden and what has been lost.

Of course, they also have a site, at the Noguchi Museum through March 11, and Fonseca could count on Isamu Noguchi as a mentor and a friend. Born in 1922, in Uruguay, he was more than thirteen years the younger of the two, but the show brings them closer together than ever. Both lived and worked in New York while traveling overseas—in Fonseca’s case to Italy, where he died in 1997. There he sought the marble for his largest work. A few examples, in an entrance hall, frame a visit to both artists. A retrospective continues upstairs, and one could mistake much of it for Noguchi’s own.

They share their materials, in marble and stone—whether finely polished or coarse, fragmented, and raw. They share Modernism’s formal language with something more allusive. They share, too, the duality of horizontal surfaces and rising verticals, with the pedestal a more than equal partner in the work. When I spoke of a tabletop, I should have said a table. Fonseca still creates objects after all. He is also, as Noguchi is not, obsessed with representation.

He could well be in search of a site—and only partly because his points of reference lie in ruins. They lay bare staircases and entryways, as points on the way to somewhere else. The windows could stand for windows onto the soul. Other imagery includes ladders and eggs, presumably unhatched. Horizontal planes and bulky supports also run to the deck and hulls of ships, with destination unknown. The sense of time already past lies over everything, often as not as madness. One head, to judge by the title, belongs to the emperor Nero.

Fonseca’s reputation, too, needs some excavation. Modernism, not least that of Noguchi, just does not have much time for the trappings of profundity. Still, maybe neither at heart does Fonseca. Ancient Rome for him had its theaters, but only as show. Imagery runs to fingers in a box and to enlarged feet, but at least partly as farce. They could be less serious than they appear.

His roots lie in painting, which may explain the maroon that occasionally competes with the white marble and battered gray of limestone. And painting here means Surrealism. A pendulum, one of his favorite devices, may suggest a site’s transience, ticking off the moments, but also a full moon. The repeated cavities also suggest an empty house. Ink often adds a finishing touch, to spell out the supposed subject matter. Remember, though, that fingers might create and feet might support a sculpture.

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

3.8.18 — Filthy Looker

Another extra review this week, to wrap up MoMA PS1 and the truly down and dirty. Cathy Wilkes may do more to stop the spread of colds than any artist ever. Her entire show seems designed to get visitors to wash their hands, through March 11.

Glassware lies here and there on the floor, as if left over from a sorry attempt to clean house, one item filthier than the next. Mothers tend to their children beside tubs caked with black. Or rather they tend to empty strollers, for children might have died of their sickly surroundings not so long ago. The dried sprigs here and there might have done them in.

Even the cheeriest displays come with an implicit warning not to touch. The rows of colored plastic belong to She’s Pregnant Again, making them into a test of precious bodily fluids. Then, too, a leaden title like that one or Teenage Mother suggests that women have been touching or touched where at least one person does not belong. Even paintings look like fatal or accidental stains, in one case blood red. They look no more presentable than the worn curtains and fallen rags. The repeated urgings of museum guards to step back only reinforce the impression.

Not that trashy installations are anything new. Someone or something must have done in the stuffed goat in the most famous combine painting. Its maker, Robert Rauschenberg, also meticulously erased a drawing by Willem de Kooning, as if art needs a thorough cleaning. Not that filth is new either. What is The New York Earth Room by Walter de Maria but a roomful of dirt, with the Dia Foundation to pick up the tab? It also inspired The New York Dirty Room by Mike Bouchet. Nothing, though, can match Wilkes for her melancholy and repugnance.

The museum speaks of her range, including painting, drawing, sculpture, and found objects. In reality, her works divide roughly in two, between installations and modest paintings. The show intersperses them at that, as if the paintings fully belonged to the installations. The first use oil on nearly bare canvas for the faintest hints of a human presence in a landscape. The latter keep returning to people, as mannequins or stuffed fabric, in a living picture. A black woman leans over shards of hard to say what. Others with blunt, vacant, or pummeled features lean over a meager meal—not so far from the simpler scene of an empty table.

Just what, though, are they doing, and what would their bare faces and the canvases like to say? What would the dead TV here and the monitor there show if they worked? The curators, Peter Eleey and Margaret Aldredge-Diamond, do not gamble on an exhibition title. They speak of “abstract fables” and “rituals of life.” They guess that the scenes of poverty derive from Scotland’s industrial wastelands, although Wilkes is Irish and the scenes entirely domestic. They speak of “frail figures huddled on shore,” even for coarse bodies behind curtains.

They may, though, be right about the rituals. People are giving birth and mourning, with faint hope of a life in-between beyond the seeming ghost of a toy horse. Wilkes seems to allude most, too, to class and the fate of women. Feminists like Mika Rottenberg and Carolee Schneemann have long associated a woman’s body with at once attraction and revulsion—as a matter of pride and as a critique of what men see. I cannot find enough in this exhibition even to dislike it, but I suspect that its true subject is art as dangerous and the site of looking. Wilkes is engaging the viewer as a filthy looker.

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

3.7.18 — Check Your Baggage

More from this week’s rundown of MoMA PS1. Many a traveler would be jealous. Naeem Mohaiemen did not lose his luggage.

He did not have to pay to check it either, but he dotes on it all the same. He pores over every inch before stretching out on the luggage belt with it, adopting it as a pillow, and hoping for a good night’s sleep. He may have found the least unyielding surface in the cruel space of an airport and an unyielding world. Naeem Mohaiemen's Tripoli Canceled (MoMA PS1, 2017)The belt is not going anywhere, stuck between signs for New York and Montreal in Greek and English, and neither is he.

Not that I can swear that the bag belongs to him. Like John Akomfrah, he has an airport to himself, with the freedom to explore it but nowhere else to go. He is stuck there for days—and for more than ninety minutes of screen time, as Tripoli Canceled, at MoMA PS1 through March 11. Athens abandoned the airport some time ago anyway, even apart from him. Who knew that Eero Saarinen has another great airport to his credit, on top of the former TWA terminal at JFK—and one more that has not stood the test of commercial use? Mohaiemen provides every opportunity to appreciate its halls and runways, as he never will.

He looks across the surrounding plains, all the more unable to take flight. He adopts a helicopter, but as a cramped studio apartment or an enigma rather than a means of escape. He attends to his everyday needs as if bewildered by them all. He washes his face, which glistens in the airport lights, uncertain whether to shave. He comes to a halt at last in a grand concourse beside a central escalator. Naturally he prefers the stairs, and naturally, too, he is unable to walk.

He could be having an existential crisis, and characters unable to leave the stage appear often in the glory days of Existentialism—as in No Exit by Jean Paul Sartre and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. On film (and now in an opera), they are stuck in the disturbing dinner party of The Exterminating Angel by Luis Buñuel. This reveler, though, is sad and alone. He could be the artist as outsider, although Mohaiemen uses a professional actor. He could be a surrogate for everyone caught between continents and without a home, although with an unusually pristine refugee camp. He could be the last man on earth.

Yet there, too, he is suspicious. He calls the show “There Is No Last Man,” a dig at The End of History by Francis Fukuyama and its vision of a triumphant global capitalism. (How’s that working out for you?) He also pairs text and images to grapple with a family legacy—a great-uncle who embraced fascism as a response to British rule of India. Mohaiemen, a native Londoner, also cites his father, who could not change planes in 1977 owing, shall we say, to passport issues. The film opens by explaining that this is not about him.

It could be about them all. His very denial raises what it means to dismiss. Mohaiemen’s conclusion has that same ambiguity between a sly humor and the brink of despair. The man seated on the stairs starts to intone “Never on a Sunday,” the pop tune from the 1960s, ticking off the days of never-ending weeks. And then he breaks into tears. He cannot restrain his despairing music for airports, but you had better check your baggage at the door.

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

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