5.22.15 — A Horse Is a Horse

OK, so Jerry Saltz is throwing his weight behind Kim Kardashian and against the ponderous critics elevating markets, academia, and other elitism best forgotten. And sure, I admire Jerry’s ability to convey enthusiasm, from that very moment of encounter with a new show, online and in print. I can’t do it half as often—or half as often as I’d like.

But please (and excuse me yet another extra post). We worked through the fallacy, whatever it was, of high art versus low some fifty years ago. And this isn’t either one.

I was a child in the 1960s, and I loved “Mister Ed.” But at least it was funnier than Kardashian. And was it art?

Painting Made Easy

Is painting getting easier? Maybe it is just spring, after a long and bitter winter, when people can hardly resist letting loose. Or maybe artists just cannot hold back any longer, after that still longer winter when painting was declared dead.

A splash here, a spray of paint there, a squiggle or two on top—half a dozen shows could almost have come from a single artist. They value bright colors and open textures, for a glimpse of canvas or the sea, with sincerity or irony almost beside the point. It could, depending on one’s mood, have one reveling in paint for its own sake or begging for more commitment and more paint. Together with other spring visions of painting recently reviewed here, it is also the subject of a longer review in my latest upload. Trudy Benson's Computer Painting (Horton, 2013)

It is a fool’s game to look for trends. The avant-garde is dead, and a sucker is born every minute, along with another fashion. In just the last few years, painting has kept returning to hybrids, between abstraction and representation or between media. It has had room for obsessing over geometry and gesture, expression and excess. It can get downright conceptual or, at the other extreme, derivative. In different ways, they all speak to a felt need to go over the top, not unlike market prices.

Could that same need have artists paring back? For Jack Davidson, recently at Theodore:Art through April 9, a blot of color like toothpaste right out of the tube settles into craquelure with room to breathe. For Tatiana Berg, at Thierry Goldberg through April 19, the lines hint at faces, while for Jason Stopa, at Hionas through April 25, the dabs of background color broaden into sky or sea, beneath marks like glints of light on a freshly cleaned window. For Shara Hughes, a studio interior facing an open window looks downright lush by comparison. Yet she, too, is becoming sparer, at American Contemporary through April 26, while moving her scenes outdoors. The four differ in overt subject matter, but not so obviously in their true subject.

Other painters were taking the easy way before them, to striking effect. Mary Heilmann still shows how to take the pattern out of “pattern and decoration.” Jonathan Lasker recalls the dream of making paint look as good as it does fresh out of the tube. Nicole Eisenman’s squiggles cohere into schematic faces, much like Berg’s. For the entirety of “The Forever Now,” recently at MoMA, impulse aspires to a language of art. Trudy Benson riffs on that language as well as anyone, at Lisa Cooley through May 3. She sprays and brushes oil, enamel, and acrylic as if to exhaust the possibilities.

So what's NEW!Lasker and Benson both appear in “Post-Analog Painting,” a near compendium of layered but open styles at The Hole, through May 24. Matthew Stone heads for Benson territory, with casual marks gathering in density while leaving plenty untouched. Mariah Dekkenga and Nathan Ritterpusch navigate between Paul Klee and spaghetti. If this seems a cartoon version of abstraction, sure enough Rachel Lord incorporates Angry Birds, while Josh Reames throws in a banana or two as well. Mark Flood tosses off a Jasper Johns flag as inkjet print, while Jeanette Hayes introduces Manga to Willem de Kooning. Never mind that Johns and de Kooning blew abstraction and pop culture out of the water long ago.

Is painting reclaiming ground late in the game, or is it losing ground to impulse and irony? Do artists have too much access to pop culture and art history alike, thanks to the Web? Does it matter that virtually none of “Post-Analog Painting” looks in the least digital? One virtue of paintings like these is to keep arguments going. Besides, one can always lean back and enjoy it. Now if only it did not look so easy.

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

5.20.15 — Old Ways and New Media

You may have heard of “Surround Audience,” the latest extravaganza at the New Museum, through May 24, as the new-media triennial. You would be wrong—and it is the subject of a longer review, in my latest upload.

Even before it opened, the curators were back-pedaling. It had been their hype and their buzz, but no longer. No, the 2015 New Museum triennial is not to be pigeonholed so easily, because it was all along about bursting boundaries, only starting with media. It is about crossing from art into politics and life—and from the New York art scene into a globally connected society. It is about escaping the museum itself, thanks to dance, performance, and (yes) social media. Josh Kline's Freedom (47 Canal/New Museum, 2015)It is a “platform for an emergent generation . . . that is shaping the discourse of contemporary art.” It is about reaching out to surround its audience.

If only. Then at least the largely forgettable display of fifty-one artists and collectives would have an excuse. Still, this is, to its credit, not just another day in the galleries. The triennial sticks to artists still under thirty-five, from more than twenty-five countries, and it commissioned roughly half the work. In effect, it is actively engaging artists, to ask whether art can still have relevance for a generation that takes the latest technology in stride. And that leaves open the possibility that its answer might be no.

That would, I promise, be the wrong answer, even if this triennial cannot deliver a better one. Set that aside, though, to stick to the New Museum and the question. Is this really about new media? You might think so in the lobby, where Casey Jane Ellison’s talking heads on TV are saying, well, something about art. Within, Li Liao’s ID card, uniform, labor contract, and iPad Mini testify to his laboring twelve hours a day in China, where Apple outsources its latest. For easily the show’s most hyped work, Josh Kline embeds LED screens and still more talking heads into the bellies of a Teletubby SWAT team, accompanied by President Obama on the monitor behind them.

If that has you excited, there is more like it on every floor, along with genuine highlights you will not want to miss that I must defer to my longer review, but wait a second. One can see new media with greater sophistication any day, and these performances are as lifeless as Teletubbies. MutualArtObama recites the State of the Union that Kline only wishes he had delivered, but the old-fashioned way, through an actor. (I hear Saturday Night Live coming on.) Ashland Mines fills the stairwells and bathrooms with colored lights and gently throbbing music practically out of a “happening” from the 1960s. Maybe the curators should have called the show “Surround Sound.”

Then, too, comes the less than cutting-edge technology, with roughly the novelty of lithographs and running water. Eloise Hawser turns to lithographic plates for her gentle abstractions, adding a crushed assembly on the floor. DIS, a collective, somehow extends plumbing into the galleries, transforming its center into a combination kitchen and bath with a working shower. It looks sadly like an upscale showroom. More water fills Olga Balema’s paint-spattered Ziploc bags, like a cross between Abstract Expressionism and a waterbed. Antoine Catala even contributes a fishtank.

For all their good intentions, they barely engage politics or the present. The show depends on wall text, lots of it, with all too little help from the art. One may never learn what Li Liao suffered in a Chinese factory. On video, Donna Kukama applies her “signature dark lipstick,” ignoring activists giving voice to Kenyan independence. She could be making fun of self-involvement or wrapped up in it herself, but a breakthrough will take more patience with ambiguity and fewer distractions. In fact, it will take halfway decent art.

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

5.19.15 — Make Your Own Art Fair

To wrap up the May art fairs from last time, and then, of course, there is DIY. Everyone wants in on the game.

Much of Long Island City held open studios and the Lower East Side a gallery walk—meaning that galleries stay open their normal hours, and you are left to find your way. Meanwhile Zürcher once again recasts its Nolita gallery as Salon Zürcher, with guests from France, the Netherlands, and an odd corner of East Williamsburg. They tend toward a restrained touch, especially in works on paper. Naturally the Salon also makes room for its own roster, including Cordy Ryman. Elio Rodriguez's Balloon Jungle (Flux Art Fair, 2015)

Tired of the art fairs? You may not be able to escape them by heading for a rest. If you are staying at the Holiday Inn on the Lower East Side, you might find your way to the basement for the fitness center, a hotel bar, and Fridge. As the title suggests, it is not so much the fringe as a place to indulge guiltily in those leftovers, just like at home. Its solo artists and VCU students favor works on paper, with a penchant for cartoon faces. At least, though, they are committed to art.

Flux is not technically DIY, as it has a curatorial team, and booths indicate who chose which artist. Still, it is all about artists rather than dealers, in crowded quarters next to the Metro North station in Harlem. Like DIY, too, it is also about the community. It is one more step in reviving the Corn Exchange, built in the early 1880s and long abandoned, with commercial tenants and residences. Art fits in just fine. Alas, little of the interior hints at its architecture, but it lets in plenty of light.

The curators do not stick to African Americans, by any means, although at least one white artist, Ula Einstein, works in Harlem. They seem more concerned for the city’s cultural variety, reflected in the unusual variety of media. 3D constructions include an inflatable black Balloon Jungle by Elio Rodriguez, a battered door set amid Bud cans by Carlos Arturo Arias, a whole Tower Bricolage of urban detritus by Jeffrey Allen Price, a paper monster by Dianne Smith, a menacing collage of dark pipes by Stan Squirewell, and a makeshift Shrine to Harlem by José Rodriguez. Marbles rattle around in ceramic bowls, on an unsteady platform by Nolan Lem. More comforting roots in the community include maps of the five boroughs in aluminum studded with plants by Ivan Stojakovic and a silver boat of live plants by Musa Hixson. Crawl beneath aluminum foil from by Heather Hart, to the tarpaper beneath, and you may find a place setting and a warm rug.

Images of blackness are never far away, but with a tenderness not always evident in such image makers as Mickalene Thomas and Kehinde Wiley. Digital paintings by Makeba Rainey look like posters for black power, but with shy faces. Willie Cole reveals a side of himself without the self-reflexive irony and lust of his familiar constructions, with portraits in raw color. Danielle Siegelbaum recasts race in narratives between Judaism, Christianity, and African myth, while Capucine Bourcart’s paper strips explore the range of skin tones and the vulnerability of bare flesh. John Pinderhughes calls his photographs Pretty for a Black Girl, and they are pretty enough for anyone. Jamea Richmond Edwards wants to believe that If You Look Closely You Will See God, and perhaps you will.

Have I been avoiding the elephant in the room, Frieze, not so very far after all from East Harlem? Much as I roamed the May art fairs, despite telling myself yet again to skip them all, I did manage to avoid it this year. Besides, what can I say? You know my promise not to play tastemaker, with lists of whom to see and whom to avoid. Criticism can do more, if only it would. Can art fairs as well?

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

5.18.15 — Back So Soon?

Maybe, like me, you have not fully recovered from the March art fairs, and here come more art fairs in May. They may well feel like leftovers, especially after the compendium that started it all. Allow me to use just today and tomorrow (sorry, broken promise to skip to alternate days, but it makes sense) to catch up with them, after last week’s report on March.

Frieze, the London import that first insisted on May, still defines the mainstream. It takes up Randall’s Island, with a tent both large and claustrophobic enough to house dealer after dealer. Sadie Benning's Gun Blanket (Callicoon Fine Art, 2014)Now, though, it has plenty of company back on dry land. Most have the same venues as the March fairs, too, and one can only presume that the market has returned as well. And indeed a newcomer to the city, Art Miami New York, is a striking reminder of the perpetual art fairs. If yet another fair opens the weekend before the rest, Spring Masters in the Park Avenue Armory, it takes pride in earlier art at that.

The painting, sculpture, furniture, jewelry, and table settings at Spring Masters all but skip over the last quarter century, despite an impressive sphere of coarse wood from Ursula von Rydingsvard. The cafeteria with its proper glassware could be just another exhibit—a tribute, in more ways than one, to good taste. I kept saying, “Isn’t that by. . . ?” And more often than not the answer was no, although the artists are followers of just the right old masters. Five- and six-sided booths nest together like a puzzle, with a period room facing the entrance. Next door, a polychrome Madonna looked as if it had been stolen not so very long ago from its niche, and perhaps it was.

Art Miami New York in its very first incarnation proves to be, well, an art fair, as generic as its title (rebranded, after the fact, as “Art New York presented by Art Miami”). New Yorkers for whom Miami is a four-letter word and art fair little better will not be amused. For all that, it is generous to its exhibitors. Some have more space than in their own galleries, while the rest can choose from four separate bars when in need of a break. Together, they occupy a full pier and a long passage parallel to the road—precisely the space of the March Armory Show minus its pier for Modernism. Not coincidentally, they have much the same mix of contemporary art and the tail end of the twentieth century.

Did the Armory Show have a dramatic wall for El Anatsui? Steven Siegel (with Cynthia Reeves) covers the entrance wall with his own mural of recycled scraps. He merely exchanges the glitter of seals from liquor bottles for more sober relics of popular culture. Elsewhere, too, the fair has its way of looking tasteful, even when it descends to the tasteless. That is not altogether unreasonable, not when contemporary art is already on its way to art advisors and the auction house. Still, this may be the first time that Banksy has displayed not with hit-and-run tactics, but with a Southampton dealer—and that says something about both parties.

NADA has no more concern for solo booths, but it does have something over all other art fairs: it welcomes you. If you have come to shop or to gawk, you get in free, with a shuttle bus available from the New Museum to its site along the East River. If you are a dealer strapped for cash, you can command one of several booths the size of a closet—like (I kid you not) Brooklyn’s Microscope and Sardine. If you are Printed Matter or a purveyor of online sales, you can share a spacious central area. A stage for “NADA Presents” stood empty as I passed except for plastic props, leaving me to imagine the performance.

Either way, visitors will feel at home among galleries not too high-handed to give them the time of day. Not all booths are small, by any means, and much of the work looms large. It runs mostly to painting, the more abstract and the brighter the better, such as Jackie Saccoccio (with Eleven Rivington) and Josh Reames (with Vogt). Others just look big, like Sadie Benning (with Callicoon) and Wendy White in acrylic on rug (with Rawson Projects). I moved quickly though the unthemed booths, with little to disturb whatever view I had of the present. But then I was eager to reach the terrace out back, to take in some food and the breeze.

Select, in the former Dia:Chelsea, is in no danger of living up to its name. It affords much-needed space to a few galleries from Bushwick and Red Hook, a handful of nonprofits, a Chelsea gallery in the process of relocating, and some mournful visitors from California and beyond. Yet it holds mostly collectives eager for anywhere to display, with a full floor of amateurish “projects” to match. Where the Independent here in March chose a diagonal layout to encourage chance encounters, Select falls back on the usual rows of booths. One could almost wish that they were cheesy, just to have a point. Lines outside testify less to popularity than to mismanagement, much like the art.

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

5.15.15 — The Big If

To pick up from last time and conclude my report on the New York art fairs, maybe the one remaining alternative is a touch of class, and the ADAA Art Show is once again delighted to provide it. In the Park Avenue Armory, where the current Armory Show began, the lighting alone is a relief from the glare of more modern arenas.

El Anatsui's installation view (Jack Shainman, 2009)No doubt change comes inexorably, now that Andy Warhol and Nam June Paik are as ubiquitous as old masters. This year’s model had room for the coarse likes of Tracey Emin at Lehmann Maupin and Barry X Ball at Sperone Westwater, with her sex life and his blatant copies after Futurism. The show even bows to the upstarts with a mix of solo exhibitions and “thematic” ones—a term capacious enough to permit business as usual. For all that, more than one hundred years after the 1913 Armory Show (actually in the Lexington Avenue Armory further downtown), the Art Dealers Association of America is still bringing modern art to America.

Where else can a dealer, like Galerie St. Etienne, celebrate its seventy-fifth anniversary—or two different booths hold Morris Louis at his largest? Where else can Op Art, with Maxwell Davidson, or a relative outsider like Forrest Bess, with David Zwirner, look sedate and sophisticated? Where else can James McNeill Whistler, for Thomas Colville, still plead for his influence with his grayest and most somber work?

I could still find surprises, though, like an accordion book by Etel Adnan, with Galerie Lelong, or Alice Aycock, with Fredic Snitzer, at her rawest and most open. Al Held, with Cheim & Read, turns out to have reached his geometric illusions through gestural abstractions that grow vertically, like marshy landscapes. And a booth for Jan Groover, with Janet Borden, will just have to do until a museum gets around to showing how she put color photography center-stage.

That leaves everybody else and so the Armory Show. One does not cross the four lanes of Twelfth Avenue to learn about art, although it could offer a slightly biased refresher course. No, one goes to learn what is available—that and what has now been promoted from contemporary to modern. For the first, the Armory Modern offers the expected names from the 1960s, as traffic in earlier art shifts to the auction houses. For the second, surprises include Robin Rhode, for his slippery take on street art, and Carrie Moyer, whose paintings literally pour it on. As for what is available on the adjacent pier at the Armory Contemporary, naturally the short answer is everything.

Well, not really, unless you mean everything with a name-brand artist attached. Still, it can sure seem that way, especially in the dense and disorienting passage from pier 92 to pier 94. To help you concentrate, the show has set that passage aside for Armory Focus, sixteen galleries united only by the hope of getting your attention. Mona Hatoum caught mine, at Alexander and Bonin, with a gleaming circle of black stones harking back to ancient civilizations and earthworks. So did Kalfayan, an Athens dealer with photographs of Syrian street corners by Hrair Sarkissian, their ordinariness disguised by the title Execution Square. On the facing wall, altered pages from The New York Times, by Panos Tsagaris, only heighten their insistent riot coverage with massive censorship, not in black but gold.

For the rest, let me nominate not the best in show, but merely an if. Does one have to have “zombie formalism“? If so, take Ryan Blodgett at Richard Teller, with familiar but still lovely lines seemingly squeezed right from the tubes over bright color fields. Does one have to have flashy installations? If so, take Berta Fischer at James Fuentes, with rippling walls of Plexiglas. If not, try Andrew Ohanesian at Pierogi, with working slot machines, give or take the absence of a payoff.

If one has to have sculpture that aims not at formalism but at you, take Glenn Kaino at Honor Fraser, with copper-plated arrows converging on a point in space. If one has to have an old standby, take Bill Viola at Blaine | Southern, with a video of two men, one black and one white, walking side by side but alone before dissolving into a landscape. If one has to have the grandeur that announces big money, walk right up to El Anatsui at his largest at Jack Shainman, with the dark shine of his curtain in black on gold. I know longer even look to see whether it comes from the metal seals on liquor bottles.

Still, if one associates art with a long attention span, go elsewhere. Thankfully, the fairs move on, but the rest of us remain.

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

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