6.29.15 — Running the Light

Angelika Schori calls her show “Light Touch,” just recently at Pablo’s Birthday through June 28, and for all that her work bears down of its own weight. Schori rings the changes on detaching painting from its stretcher, while still identifying it with its support. In each series, paint runs right to the edge, much as for Minimalism. With some, diagonals run casually every which way. With others, canvas laps into the room cut, crumpled, and damaged. Yet the more material they are, the lighter they get, and the more the light emerges from within. Angelika Schori's Chloe (Pablo's Birthday, 2015)

Lightness might be on the artist’s mind just from dropping in on Orchard Street. Her gallery called an earlier show of Michael Rouillard “Lighter Still,” as if he had somehow seen Schori’s work and responded in advance. She has that light touch most obviously in mere canvas, holding itself up to the wall as best it can. In a second series, canvas peels away and hangs down from the center of a rectangle on stretcher, as if sticking out its tongue. The whole composition might represent a TV set from a clunkier age. The lightness of tone, though, matters less than the lightness or weight of materials.

Both series could have a point of reference in Arte Povera, with all its violence against the work of art, but with much less to prove. They are also about light in the sense of color—and of letting color speak for itself. Schori has painted the back of the canvas a different color, and the very damage allows one to see it. Again like artists of the 1960s, she has nothing to hide. Here what you see is very much what you get, twice over at that. Yet it matters, too, that one never sees all of it at once.

The third series is the most consciously shaped, but also the most luminous. Here she works on powder-coated steel, each piece a variation on the rectangle. Several pieces hang together from a pin, like steel for Erin Shirreff. Their contrasting diagonals also push away from the wall, like stripes for Frank Stella in the 1970s. Their pure white matches the white of the wall, but with a greater glow. It arises not only from the reflective powder and metal, but also from bright color on the edges and backs.

So what's NEW!Variations on Minimalism keep coming, but without the self-conscious grandeur of geometry back in the day. Tondos from Pamela Jorden, at Klaus von Nichtssagend through June 7, have wisps of paint out of Robert and Sonia Delauney, sometimes sharing half the field with black. Adam Winner has even more in common with Schori. For “Scratchpad,” at Josée Bienvenu through July 11, some paintings stay only white, as for Robert Ryman, their torn edges attesting to their making. Others have the concentric rectangles of still earlier Stella, in black or white, with the same care to leave space between them so that its brushwork stands apart. Here, too, though, the thick stripes take on color from the underpainting that they reveal.

Somehow painting has outlived the death of painting. Galleries feel the pressure to insist on it at that, by boosting older artists who may have missed their fair share of the action. In her “verb paintings,” at Hauser & Wirth through July 31, Lee Lozano took as her titles active verbs—like Pitch, Slide, Lean, Swap, and Cram. Their shaped canvas fits together into rectangles that deny the shaping, while warm colors and soft modeling in turn disturb the picture plane with the illusions of a third dimension. They might represent nose cones flying dangerously close—and this was 1964 and 1965, with a missile crisis not so far behind. Contemporary eclecticism may never recovery that urgency. Is Yet it can still hope for a lighter touch.

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

6.26.15 — Paper Thin

Al Loving had a light touch. Not that he shied away from deep colors, but brighter curves cross them like particle tracks close to the speed of light. An entire assemblage is in constant motion at that. Arcs and strips of varying width run wild, spinning or jutting outward with little care for their neighbors. But then work from 1978 and 1979, at Garth Greenan through June 27, really is light, even on the tremendous scale of a wall. It is, after all, made of paper. Al Loving's Self-Portrait #23 (Gary Snyder gallery, c. 1973)

A fine lightness is even more vivid in reproduction, where the painted fields let in white from the page or screen. In the gallery, though, the work gathers weight, as things tend to do in real life. It has the shape of Exotic Birds, aluminum reliefs by Frank Stella from precisely the same years. It has their metallic sheen, too, as paint darkens, accumulates, and reflects the light. It recalls Stella’s weighty experiments, going back to shaped canvas, in another way as well, for these are not just works on paper. They are works of paper, and the irregular outlines of the materials are the work.

Unstretched canvas from the early 1970s has the same play of lightness against weight, much as for Sam Gilliam and Richard Tuttle (and there’s a particularly weighty and gorgeous Gilliam on view right now at Loretta Howard). The fabric hangs down of its own accord, stained with parallel bars. The paper includes grids, too, set at an angle as if seen in perspective. It takes on that much more vibrancy and substance by seeming to come off the wall. Geometry also helps hold the work together, as does the tendency of shapes and colors to collide and merge. MutualArtTall, narrow paper constructions approach welded steel from another African American, Melvin Edwards.

Alvin D. Loving, Jr., might have had his own memories of flame cutting through metal. He was born in Detroit, in 1935, although his father taught school and then college rather than worked the assembly line. He studied at the University of Illinois and then the University of Michigan, where the elder Loving served as dean. Geometric abstraction came naturally to him, too. Paintings from the early 1970s have the pale yellows, hard edges, and diagonals of Stella from those years as well. They just happen to look like cubes edge-on.

People too often overlook Loving’s engagement with his time. Like many black artists, he had to put up with life on the margins almost to his death in 2005. He had a reputation as an Abstract Expressionist after painting had moved on. His very choice of materials helped mark him as a lightweight, as did his sense of irony. He did not stick to the sobriety and rule-based structures of Minimalism, but neither did he have the organic form of Post-Minimalism for Eve Hesse and others. Yet he has their tactile presence, and he called the unstretched canvas Self-Portraits.

Were they portraits of blackness? Not particularly, although they do resemble blankets out of any number of cultural traditions. They also look newly contemporary. Thanks to feminism and art-world fashion, a Neo-Minimalism on fabric keeps coming—as just this past month from Elena del Rivero at Josée Bienvenu through May 23, Martha Clippinger at Hionas through May 30, Brent Wadden at Mitchell-Innes & Nash through May 30 as well, and Lissy Funk at JTT through June 21.

Loving’s unstretched canvas and paper, though, tell only part of the story of a painter with real weight. More of his past is still to come.

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

6.24.15 — Brighter and Grimmer

Do fairy tales make you think of something magical or something grim? Natalie Frank makes them ever so colorful and glowing, but also treacherous and wild.

For three years Frank has illustrated the Brothers Grimm, starting in 2011. Her sheets, all twenty by thirty inches, unfold like a single narrative that Walt Disney never knew. Much of it takes place indoors, where bodies lie asleep, eyes blaze, and blond curls flow. It is a wild ride, and I have appended it to an earlier report on an artist who combines sexual fantasies and children’s books, Tomi Ungerer, as a longer review and my latest upload. Natalie Frank's Cinderella II (Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin, 2011-2014)

In truth, Disney’s sanitizing of childhood has taken a beaten for some time, creative and popular as his legacy remains. Culture now has its share of wizards, zombies, warlords, and werewolves. Only recently at the Drawing Center, Ungerer laid out his childhood memories featuring the Holocaust, along with actual children’s books featuring darkly hooded thieves. All the genre requires is a reasonably happy ending, and the Brothers Grimm came close to defying even that. The girl who escapes her father’s lust ends up marrying him. Hansel and Gretel return home only for their mother to expose them again further in the woods, and they get to boil their captor alive.

The Center follows Ungerer with twenty-five of Frank’s illustrations, exactly a third. Now barely two years into its site in Soho, its original expansion plans a casualty of Ground Zero, it must know the treacherous path to adulthood. It also supplies laminated copies of the tales, in back through June 28, although they are hardly short or easy to digest. (One can read more online at home, since the early to mid-nineteenth century, again unlike Disney, is public domain.) Still, one will recognize at least a few characters—and one will recognize, too, the wild light in their eyes. So what if one eye is bright, one is dark, and they point in different ways?

The tales contain more characters than one remembers, because, as in Sigmund Freud or Nathalie Djurberg, so does a dream. Faces transform into wolves, wild pigs, or donkeys. A jack-in-the-box pops suddenly, its scaly folds beside an actual grasshopper. A brown profile emerges out of a pink, wistful smile. A body lies in a cupboard and a picture within a picture. Cinderella is both a sexpot and a girl.

The intricate bestiary has a passing resemblance to Islamic art. Compositions also share its literacy and skewed geometries. Up closer, though, they derive from gouache and chalk pastel on paper. Its stubbly texture heightens the colors. It also corresponds to the coarseness of the tales. If Frank runs most to reds and yellows, they have to stand for the temptations of apples and long blond hair.

She draws one broad stroke through another in taut, sweeping curves. They are fun to follow but hardly reassuring. They never could be, given bare breasts and a sexual assault. The seven dwarfs crowd in on Snow White on what seems her deathbed. One of them wears a mask as in an emergency room. Maybe the artist herself is still finding maturity in her thirties, but for now she still has a grown child’s sense of urgency.

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

6.22.15 — Mixed Doubles

Vanessa Maltese and Jonathan Gardner make an enigmatic pair, at Nicelle Beauchene through June 28. Both, too, have enigmas all their own.

What are those shapes that Maltese outlines in white? They may connect into seemingly random squiggles or a tracery akin to stained glass. They approach doubling, with broken symmetries that make the painting’s ground shift before one’s eyes. Overpainting picks up the shapes beneath but as their shadows.

Who are Gardner’s women, again doubled and half hidden? One of two tennis players, their identical skirts revealing identical underwear, raises her free arm to cover half her face. The other hardly appears above her waist and the net. What about his smokers, the smoke from their cigarettes masking their eyes? Paintings by both artists share the room with Maltese’s sculptures and their shadows. She calls them Backrests, in black or white fiberboard, but one’s spine would have to dip early and often to find rest.

The two are even more of a puzzle together. She paints hard-edged abstractions, while he paints soft-edged women. She has a geometry out of Pattern and Decoration, but in the crisp colors of a graphic novel. If she also alludes to design, she says that she draws on Michael Graves, the postmodern architect. Gardner quotes early Modernism, and his only affinity to Postmodernism is in the quotation.

And quote he does, liberally. The smokers might have stepped out of Fernand Leger and Le Grand Dejeuner, but too late for breakfast or for grandeur, while their smoke peels off into clouds out of René Magritte. A tennis player adapts Balthus for a game of, sure enough, doubles. Two other women, in profile one behind the other, preside over fish out of Salvador Dalí—and I leave it to you to hunt for more. The painter updates them all for the Lower East Side today, while making explicit their sexuality and their fears. Breasts threaten to slide onto the court like tennis balls.

For all their differences, Maltese and Gardner slide into one another as well. Her curvaceous shadows hang next to his nubile women, and her white grid echoes in his tennis court. They even share the same yellow. Gardner is into design, too, as in the flooring beneath his smokers. His one abstraction, give or take the illusion of steel balls, has a light weave close to hers. Maltese, in turn, has what might pass for cherries—obscured, her title notes, by a representation of a backrest.

They might stand for two sides of Modernism, in Cubism and Surrealism. They might stand, too, for two sides of Postmodernism—doubling Modernism and doubling itself. He helps her by bringing out the humor, while she helps him by taking painting into the room. She paints on panel, like one more element of furniture or gallery architecture, and her sculpture neatly frames the vertical loops of the actual radiators. Maybe Modernism never was all that opposed after all to design or to sex. All pomo can do is turn up the pairings and the heat.

6.19.15 — Pixilated Fairy Tales

Coming to Stan VanDerBeek from the Jewish Museum, one can hardly help thinking of television. The museum’s “Revolution of the Eye” (which I promise to review separately) claims a lot for the medium. Not only did it draw on existing art for imagery, including classics of Modernism. It even hired VanDerBeek to help design cartoons. Already in the 1950s, the experimental filmmaker was, literally, asking kids to connect the dots. And here you thought Rocky and Bullwinkle were subversive. from Stan VanDerBeek's Poemfield (Andrea Rosen gallery, 1966-1971)

Could he, in turn, have had TV in mind when he returned to his art? From 1966 to 1971 he set to work on Poemfield, with its poetry and its visual field alike as pixilated as a cathode ray tube. He in fact projected it onto one before filming the results, each step both enhancing color contrasts and further distancing design from lived experience. Pixels fly by, with the pace of the television era or his own Movie-Drome, now and then shaping themselves into words. Now and then, too, one can even read them, at Andrea Rosen through June 20. Who said that Nam June Paik had new media to himself?

The gallery projects five of the project’s eight parts on four walls, thanks to the artist’s estate, in art all about excess. Poetry here, in its own words, is better and a product of loves, but also suspect. Like those early cartoons, the series is enthusiastic but subversive, thanks in part to its disconnections. Think of Jay Ward’s “Fractured Fairy Tales,” but without a story line. VanDerBeek was not designing for children this time, but the tumbling pixels do look like early video games. The artist, who died in 1984, would never have known more sophisticated ones.

He really was thinking in terms of animation—but not at all about TV. He was working between MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies and Bell Labs in New Jersey, where Ken Knowlton was developing BEFLIX, one of the first programming languages for computer animation. The programmer’s last name slips past, as one of the work’s more cryptic messages. This was computer art long before the New Museum had its social-media triennial.

His collaborators also included John Cage and Paul Motian, the jazz drummer and composer, although the soundtrack sounds more like the ordinary rumble of a science lab. The avant-garde then sought to be explicit and self-reflective, if also difficult, and VanDerBeek sought to give credit to all he had learned, but maybe he liked, too, that the text thus holds the word know.

Not that associations with television vanish altogether. If nothing else, as poetry Poemfield is pretty boring. It does, though, hint at how much television and computers then had in common. Both were clumsy, and they shared the same monitor. Segments here begin with the second-hand countdown of old TV. They also look very different from the slow pace and murky backgrounds of experimental film for Andy Warhol, Bruce Connor, or Michael Snow.

The show might give heart to fans of the Jewish Museum, but not entirely. Yes, television was subject to experiment—and still well ahead of desktop computing. Artists, though, were taking their business elsewhere, including those like Warhol and VanDerBeek who had worked in TV. Their experiments would not have found space there, and they were not, for all critical complaints about Warhol, looking for its mass audience. Minimalism had triumphed, as with VanDerBeek’s geometric graphics, and field itself belongs to the vocabulary of color-field painting. At its best, Poemfield is all about color.

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

6.17.15 — Follow the Sun

Matthew Jensen crossed the continental United States to follow the sun. He found it on Google Street View, in the tool’s early days, shining directly into the camera. He faced it again on the bus, hovering behind telephone lines as if caught by their wires. But was he really seeking only light?

Each of the series in “Feels Like Real,” at Yancey Richardson through June 20, asserts a personal connection, but to places always just out of reach. With the sun in his eyes, they are also necessarily difficult to see (and I add this to an earlier report on film of a demanding nature as a longer review and my latest upload). Matthew Jensen's Sun Halo, Greyhound to DC #3 (Yancey Richardson, 2014)

He caught the sun from the windows of an airplane, dispersing through clouds above and illuminating rivers, canals, and highways below. He allowed it to bleach out the landscape in winter walks on foot. When he photographs bundles of sticks from a single walk, he places them on a bleached white background himself. He emulates the sun, too, with the four panels of Walking Sticks. Two wooden posts in an undistinguished clearing shift in position relative to one another, but only slightly. He might have passed them as slowly as the sun in the sky.

The personal connection enters with Jensen’s sheer obsessiveness. These are his projects and his travels, limited only by space and time. The number of winter walks matches the days in a month, and the bus trips for Rainbow Round the Sun add up, he says, to some two-hundred and twenty hours of “active studio time”—in other words, just one ride each week between New York and Washington, D.C., over the course of a year. The forty-nine states display in five long rows, but with a gap at the lower-right corner. He had not crossed to Hawaii, but for good reason: neither, back then, had Google Street View.

The connection extends to a sense of place. From utility lines to rural and suburban street views, everything has a comforting familiarity. Yet everything, too, remains at a distance, devoid of life. Neighborhoods in Google Street View look pretty much alike, with hardly a trace of local identity, washed out by the sun. Jensen never visited them anyway. He photographed the bundled twigs on a single farm in July, on commission for the Brandywine Museum of Art, but they might be for sale in any number of New England gift shops.

Other photographers have had their drive-by shootings. Robert Frank created The Americans, Walker Evans his postcards and American Photographs. Lee Friedlander saw America by Car, much as Jensen tracked America’s northeast corridor by bus. And he, too, begins with the documentary impulse—only to refuse documentation. The shots from the air approach abstraction in black and white. One could mistake them for jellyfish.

Jensen prefers the sun and sky to mere humanity, but he sees art and nature alike as shaped by infrastructure and technology. Seen from a plane and bus, it lies behind glass, like a museum specimen. The sun itself, he argues, now competes for access to the entire planet with Google. Google, in turn, levels differences in what was once small-town America, even as it keeps travelers from getting lost. The shifts from image to image are subtle, but change in the landscape is not. You would have to have the sun in your eyes to miss it.

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

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