10.26.16 — Hold Tight

What do you do when someone insists on sharing her most intimate family secrets? If it is Sally Mann, you want to know more—and so, it turns out, does she. Her memoirs coincide with a return to the studio of a mentor and friend, Cy Twombly, at Gagosian uptown through October 29, as the locus of memories in tubes and rags of paint, a suitcase, a mandolin, streaks of paint along the floorboards, and beads of light from perpetually closed Venetian blinds ascending the wall. Sally Mann's Hold Still (Little, Brown and Company, 2015)Yet she has an intimate story of her own—and it is the subject of a longer review, as my latest upload.

Mann’s photographs let on less than one may think, because she is first and foremost an artist, but they tempt one to see more by their very artistry. Her third collection, Immediate Family, enticed and shocked viewers with its portraits of her children. One could see them naked and clothed, in the ponds and woods of rural Virginia. One could see them as savage innocents or as sexually aware, and one could project that dual wildness onto the photographer or onto nature. The series earned her the cover of the Sunday Times Magazine, but also charges of pedophilia and serious threats, and she had to take them seriously. She is still responding to the outrage.

Hold Still promises the lives behind the pictures, and it delivers, only the lives go far beyond her own. So do the pictures, in what the subtitle calls A Memoir with Photographs. “We all have them,” it opens, “those boxes in storage, detritus left to us by our forebears.” Over the course of the book she burrows into the public and private record, to lay out not just her work, her motives, and their detritus, but those of her ancestors as well. She also returns often to the reliability of photography and memory. Hold still and hold tight.

Not everyone will want to know more, because not everyone wanted to know half that much in the first place. Maybe her critics saw her family pictures as pornography, or maybe they saw her family as white trash. The first charge still angers her, but she addresses the second, too, implicitly—starting with the artful language of her prologue. “In our attic,” those boxes “kept an increasingly disapproving vigil . . . over the promiscuous sprawl of stuff that piled up around them.” They included “snapshots, of course, by the thousands,” but also letters, “snarly haired dolls,” and ever so much more, as “the residue of my own unexamined past.” And then she will proceed to examine it and to demand their approval.

The entirety runs along parallel tracks like these. It follows her over time, starting with that girl who loved horses and agreed to wear clothes only so that she could watch the family farm expand and hang out with the carpenters. Her work appears less as stages in her career than as the focus of her life. One has to know both to realize that her near abstract first collection, made for Washington and Lee University, centers on Rockbridge County, exactly like her opening chapter. There she remembers John Brown’s thrill to its beauty at the very moment before his hanging. So what's NEW!Already she manages to combine an appreciation of the scene before her with her politics, a taste for shocks, a leap in time, and an awareness of death.

A third and last track amounts to flashbacks, for those lives beyond her own. Her return from college with her husband, Larry, allows her to delve into his family. Their disapproval of her suitability for a son with five custom tuxedos masks their own southern gothic. It comes out only when they die, in a murder-suicide. Her next project after Immediate Family, landscapes suffused with darkness, leads her to her mother’s family history—just as memories of Gee-Gee, the black woman who did much of the working of raising her, leads her to her photographs of African Americans and the price of slavery. The final chapter takes her deeper still, to her father and his obsession with death. And her last photographs here take her to the morgue.

For Mann, the treachery of memory co-exists with that precious moment of insight. A photograph robs us of our memories, in order to preserve “the humdrum and the miraculous, the inelegant and the ineffable.” It brings “the rare, heart-pounding, break-squealing lurch to the verge after glimpsing a potential image.” It helps her “project a different interpretation onto to conventional” and “make the commonplace singular.” It allows her children to run naked, long after they are grown. It lets her retain her own sly and rebellious childhood, now touched by death.

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

10.24.16 — New and Newer Media

Here you thought that Nam June Paik invented video art. And doubt he did, but not single-handedly. At the very least, he could rely on Charlotte Moorman. Now New York University’s Grey Art Gallery is out to recover her agency, as “A Feast of Astonishments,” through December 10.

MutualArtThe origins of new media make a marvelous but ever-changing story, from Paik and Fluxus to computer art and video games. And its history is still being written, by artists every day. Carolee Schneemann can look back on her feminism and performance art as recorded in video as well, a story that I shall tell another time. Say what you will, a natural collaborator like Paik would have to approve.

He could use a TV as at once a prop in performance or an indelible image, with or without a picture tube. He could make it a cello for Moorman, bare-chested, or a focus of meditation for Buddha and couch potatoes. He could make the monitor the scene of chaos or mere pixels of light drawn by a magnetic field, not unlike regular programming. He flirted with interactive art, although Myron Krueger collaborated on virtual reality as early as 1969. As disarming as ever, he simply invited visitors to snap their own photos. When it comes to early video art, anyone could play.

Anyone could play—not only Moorman, of course, but an entire scene embracing John Cage and modern dance. Yet Moorman, a cellist who died in 1991, had a career almost picture perfect for reality TV. The exhibition’s very title accords with the self-promotion, overstatement, and mixed metaphors of television today. She played in wild and elegant settings, from the halls of Europe and America to the skies above the Sydney Opera House, held aloft by balloons. She helped bring Yoko Ono to Carnegie Hall and an annual Avant Garde Festival to shifting locations in New York and Cambridge, Buddha (Museum for Contemporary Art/Center of Art and Media, Karlsruhe, 1989)much like alternative art fairs and pop-ups these days. She performed in Ono’s Cut Piece and scores by Ornette Coleman, and she crafted sculpture after her instrument.

Nor is NYU alone. This is a time of revising history in favor of neglected artists, with markets eager to buy in. Just a year ago, the Jewish Museum argued for the place of television in modern art, while Stan VanDerBeek proved to have made video and text art with one foot in the studio and one foot in the research lab. Others have seen Wolf Vostell as an early rival to Paik in Fluxus and Germany, most recently at Rooster. Now another gallery claims a point of origins in Lillian Schwartz, at Magenta Plains through October 30. It also fills in a missing piece by extending new media from video to computer art.

Vostell and Schwartz have a fresh relevance today. His grainy collage of found footage and happenings has the eerie look of surveillance cameras now seemingly everywhere. He pursues art to jazz clubs, airports, and supermarkets, one darker than the next. Schwartz’s animations and screen captures have the cartoon colors of much contemporary art—and enough failure screens to challenge even Windows. Her equation of coding with abstraction also leads naturally to younger artists, such as Cory Arcangel and Casey Reas. As it happens, Reas just had his best show in years, at Bitforms through October 16, with sheets of color rivaling his slowly evolving curves in black and white.

They can also seem hopelessly old-fashioned, only starting with their embrace of pixels and the grain. Schwartz’s thick soups of color look like forgotten album covers made under the influence of LSD. Together, though, they point to the multiplicity of new media then and now. They bring out the dynamism of a point in time, with Moorman, VanDerBeek, Vostell, and Schwartz all born within a year or two of 1930. (Paik was born in 1932.) They invite one to map out other lineages as well, from fine art to video games.

Other histories would have to include avant-garde film, the more analog the better. Bruce Conner sped up the action to the point of incomprehension, while Andy Warhol, Michael Snow, and Hollis Frampton slowed it down, and younger artists do both. A lineage would have to include early performance pieces, by Bruce Nauman and others, but a fatal shift in trajectory with Bill Viola and Gary Hill as well. They recovered video for a presence in real time and high definition that film could rarely match. They cast aside the box for the image, to capture the enigmas of performance and philosophy. As for gaming, I wrap this into an earlier report on art between virtual reality and pinball machines—as a longer review and my latest upload.

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

10.21.16 — A House Built on Sand

In one of New York’s most remote and abandoned corners, Katharina Grosse imagines a house swept away by sunlight, as a project for MoMA PS1. It is an actual house all the same, and it was almost swept away in the darkness of a storm. I have gathered this along with previous reports on summer and fall 2016 shows inside and out, as a longer review and my latest upload.

I can never forget leaving my apartment and descending nine stories after Hurricane Sandy, emerging from lack of electricity into the light. I can never forget, too, the many days after, getting to know neighborhoods again in the quiet of shuttered galleries. As I wrote then, I feared most for midlevel galleries and their artists. I feared for those who thought that they were helping one another and even succeeding. Katharina Grosse's Rockaway! (photo by John Haber, MoMA PS1, 2016)Even before I could reach out to those I knew, I could only imagine what they were thinking, assuming that they had time to think about anything other than the inventory of their losses and their art. In a business better known in the popular press for celebrity artists and big money, had they built their house on sand?

Still, for all its show of empathy, that question overlooks something more urgent: some people woke up to find that they had lost everything, because they really had built their house on sand—the kind that burns and gives way beneath one’s feet. And Grosse insists on the urgency in calling her summer project Rockaway! She saturates a building in Gateway National Recreation Area in bright red, inside and out. You might see it as drenched in blood, although she wanted to capture a sunset, extending to painted pavement on the ocean side. It stands abandoned and empty but for sand, and it will be demolished soon after the project ends on November 1.

I cannot swear that I would recommend it to anyone not dying to devote hours this wet weekend to a tour of the city’s dingiest subway stations and worst neighborhoods. I approached it the long way, by subway to Rockaway Beach in Queens, off Jamaica Bay. One discovers not a beach but a community, very much still standing after the storm. It takes nearly two miles to reach Jacob Riis Park—and a further mile or so along the Atlantic Ocean before that, too, comes to an end at Fort Tilden. Thoroughly lost but with no easy turning back, I eventually found my way across a football field long overrun with weeds, past fences that all but shout keep out, and to three empty buildings near the water. All three rest on sand and are covered with graffiti, but only one is also painted red.

The spray paint leaves swirls of white, the better to evoke a sunset. Yet it has to compete with mixed messages every step of the way. A bus from the subway runs all the way to Fort Tilden, although one would never know it, while the house lies outside the fort’s fences. Two horses greeted me at the fort’s entrance, but neither was talking. Riis Park has no signs other than to say that one is there. Another sign, right in front of the house, forbids entry, but the work demands it.

The work may look better still in photographs, where the reds deepen and bounce off sunlight on sand. From the outside, the pattern looks less intense and less like a sunset. The nearby buildings and their graffiti offer serious competition as well. As with the house on the Met roof by Cornelia Parker, the reach for theater may even get in the way of the work’s message. With its exclamation point, it almost sounds like a Broadway musical, awaiting tourists who will never appear. MoMA’s description does little to ground it in climate change—or in the gains and losses of an island community.

Yet the context is real, and it does almost as much as the paint to bring the work alive, between public sculpture and community. It came together for me as I rode a different bus, up Flatbush Avenue into Brooklyn. After the immensity of the Atlantic, I was passing chain stores on the way to Brooklyn College and a very urban community. I could finally bring together the disparate experiences of being lost and found. Thinking further back, I could hope again for galleries and artists. Just do not wait for them to paint the town red.

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

10.19.16 — That Guy

For a moment, Rashid Johnson has set aside the personal. Is he too mature now for anything less, or are things too urgent? Yet once you get past a searing room of black faces, like street art run mad on its way to Chelsea, you get even more heartfelt associations as well.

Four rows of faces stare out from six large paintings. They blend together as caricatures, somewhere between horrified and grinning, at Hauser & Wirth through October 22. They would look at home in a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Johnson works on tiles much like subway walls. Rashid Johnson's The Ritual (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2015)Yet he conceives them as individuals, every one of them “that guy,” as he pours on a mix of black soap and wax—and then cuts into it before it dries.

The faces occupy a kind of negative space, the space of what deconstruction might call “under erasure“—and what the black community might know as invisibility to white eyes. They also endure further omissions, from gaps in the grid here and there without a face. Black lives matter, they say, except when they do not. Painting is serious business, except when it is exuberant and funny. It bears witness, but then so do its viewers. What began as Anxious Men, at the Drawing Center in 2015, has become Anxious Audiences, including you.

Johnson has made a career out of riffing on personal associations, ever since his appearance among emerging artists at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2001. He might toss in a space suit out of Sun Ra or a photograph of his father, an exemplary text in African American literature or a comic novel. It works because he is a consummate riffer—and because his associations speak to others, too. Here there is no getting around not just street art and politics, but also the grid and monochrome of Minimalism. Anxious audiences may remember Abstract Expressionism as the “anxious object” for Harold Rosenberg, and those black faces arise from poured paint (or a reasonable substitute) and the artist’s gesture. More than before, though, they ask to collaborate with others.

Not that Johnson has set his obsessions behind. Besides ceramics, his grids often include shelves and mirrors, as in “Storylines” last year at the Guggenheim. And here soap, bathroom tiles, and broken mirrors outline the upside-down stick figures of his Fallen Men, as pixilated as an old video game. That photo of his father sneaks back into a medley of black silhouettes, colored tiles, and stock photographs of tropical plants, as Escape Collages. Johnson has used actual house plants before, in the hope of producing something alive. The show’s final room recaps it all on a mammoth scale, with shelves of plants, books, heads sculpted in shea butter, and videos going back to his years at the University of Chicago.

Still, he is not just baring his soul, but embracing its place in public art. If a falling man makes you think of the Twin Towers, in an instantly famous photograph, this show opened just in time for the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. Johnson has often used shea butter, the bright yellow gunk sold on the streets of Harlem and used in Africa for anything from cosmetics to foodstuffs. (His mother is a professor of African history.) Here he lays out a large table of it, fragmented and unsculpted, to expose his materials and his art. That mammoth final installation is an active collaboration with a pianist, Antoine Baldwin, who shows up when he pleases and produces swelling chords out of Keith Jarrett or McCoy Tyner.

The show also has an implicit narrative, from anxiety to escape and back again. Do not, though, expect too tidy an ending. The installation, Antoine’s Organ, refuses to wrap up its themes in a neat package. Its books include Native Son but also The End of Blackness, for an artist often associated with “post-black identity” in art, and Sellout, for an artist who has moved to one of Chelsea’s largest, whitest, and wealthiest galleries. It even hides the pianist on a high shelf within. If you spot him, bear witness.

10.17.16 — Abstraction’s New Media

The resurgence of abstraction is cause enough for celebration, but also suspicion. It thrives on sheer exuberance and eclecticism—between pattern and decoration, formalism and allusion, geometry and gesture.

But if anything goes, why do anything, and how is anyone to judge? I feel guiltier than ever picking winners. Consider some, though, who are going about the old modern or postmodern work of looking hard at their medium. Cordy Ryman's Door (Lesley Heller Workspace, 2007)It just so happens that their medium may have elements of painting, photography, and sculpture.

Cordy Ryman is pushing himself further toward painting and sculpture, at Zürcher through October 30. The largest work still sticks to the wall, with painted sides that become more visible and less predictable as one circulates. The most impressive, though, leans its slim white planks against a wall, painted only on the back. It makes use of a gallery’s intense lighting seemingly to paint directly on the wall in shadows and reflections. If its shifting angles suggest a huge wave coursing through the wood, its title refers to Moby-Dick, and a facing work arches outward like a whale skeleton. Its bolts and hinges also have the prominence of hardware in white paintings by his father, Robert Ryman.

Sara VanDerBeek still uses photography for art akin to Minimalism, but with a greater translucency than before and a greater distance from streetscapes. Now, too, she is expanding her practice to the real thing, at Metro Pictures though October 19, with simple but successive elements in plaster and wood that ripple upward or across the floor. Kate Steciw, in turn, would rather combine the two practices recently at Higher Pictures, through October 12—to the point of challenging her own identity as a photographer. Her photos now extend beyond stock footage, with images of plants and skies, but printed on cut metal sheets and fabric. The metal’s dangerous edges have a presence very different from that of nature, but maybe even more real. The fabric tubes form a colorful monster reaching to the ceiling.

Eve Aschheim finds a closer affinity between abstraction and photography, but she also finds them as different as night and day, at Lori Bookstein through October 15. Aschheim, who shares the gallery with political art from the Nixon era by Louis Kruger, uses ink, graphite, and gesso on Mylar for layers of white with traces of black. Then come her photograms, with equally short and sudden marks in white on black. For her, both series are rooted in drawing. Both, too, feel as lasting and evanescent as the movements of her hand. It takes time to assimilate the layers and the changing thickness of her marks, just as it took her time to make them.

Others return to late Modernism’s shaped canvas, but without the canvas. Reliefs by Rachel Hellman, at Elizabeth Houston through October 23, recall Charles Hinman, but in wood. Her bright colors may connect or leap across edges. David Scanavino uses industrial materials akin to fiberboard, but gathering light like resin, at Klaus von Nichtssagend through October 16. His fanciful shapes range from keyholes to speech balloons out of the comics, but leaving the words or the key to you. Stripes out of Frank Stella gather in thickness toward the edge.

New materials keep turning up as fast as they become available. I had not even heard of vinyl-based paints like Flashe until recently, and now they are all over the map. Debra Ramsay uses actual resin, at Odetta through October 9. Her multiple panels again recall Minimalism, as for Brice Marden, but with less regular edges, quieter colors, and a glow seemingly from within. They also begin as notes on her walks through the city, rooting their shifting colors in industrial neighborhoods and the light. Eclecticism may have a point, in taking painting both toward its elements and into the world.

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

10.14.16 — No/Body Home

Everyone has those embarrassing moments when the body takes on a life of its own. For a man, they may come in the pain of aging joints or the inexplicable rising between his legs in the middle of the night. For Aneta Grzeszykowska, the uprising verges on mental as well as physical abuse.

Her four limbs, separated from each other, take her face out of hiding, assault it from all sides, lead it on, and then punish it again. Their torments continue in photographs, where again the body parts refuse to add up. This is not all in her head. Aneta Grzeszykowska's Negative Book #39 (Lyles & King, 2012/2013)

Or is it? Grzeszykowska created that video, head and hands together, to reclaim her mind and body as her own, from what a French theorist might call “the abject.” In bringing her head and her feelings out in the open, it also serves as a revelation—and the ritual continues in a second video, where sparks fly from her mouth. She becomes her own creation in the photos in another way as well. What looks like her amounts to a paper doll in progress, but molded in parchment and pigskin from her flesh. It is also, often as not, a mask.

It is, she asserts, the body in “No/Body,” a two-gallery exhibition at 11R and Lyles & King through October 16. The other gallery contains the defiant no. There she blackens her entire body on video, except for her tits and crotch. And then she recovers it again in photographic negatives that turn her ghostly presence into white. Nude black and white sculptures, nearly life size, further challenge which version came first. One looks more self-contained, the other more vulnerable, but both could have stepped right out of the negatives and fallen to the floor.

For a woman, who commands her body is a feminist question. And the act of reclamation targets the viewer, not least when male. Grzeszykowska links her work to Cindy Sherman, Ana Mendieta, and a fellow Polish artist, Alina Szapocznikow—and she could well have mentioned Laurie Simmons playing with dolls. She inserts her torso in photographs by another, too, much as Sherman places herself in film noir. She has roots in Surrealism as well, as in the choreography of naked and prosthetic limbs for Hans Bellmer or Pierre Molinier. There, too, heads get lost.

Surrealism or domestic habits may account for still another alter ego, a black cat. One overlooks her naked body stretched out on a sofa, in one of the borrowed photos. Another sculpture, this time in leather, makes her into a cat woman, with pointy ears to show for it. And Grzeszykowska is at her most domestic at her most surreal, in the negatives. They show her with family and at leisure, at home and at the beach. Even there, she is applying makeup.

They have their own threats to her body as well. Knee deep in a turbulent black ocean, beneath a black sky, she looks anything but secure. At home, she shares space with what might be children or dolls stiff on the ground. She is still searching in the mirror for her reflection and herself. Yet she shows no sign of terror. No/body is at home.

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

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