6.24.16 — No Rest for the Weary

Rodney McMillian might be setting himself up for failure, which only makes sense. Failure has become something of an obsession, for an artist who seemed destined for success. So, too, has disturbing sleep.

McMillian portrays city streets as abandoned furniture, landscapes as used bedsheets, and battered vinyl as simply black. Blackness for him takes more shapes than a white artist might ever know. Should it matter that some of them come way too easily? from Rodney McMillian's Untitled (Futon) (Studio Museum in Harlem, 2009)Supporters may not mind. His midcareer retrospective spans two cities, two boroughs, and three museums, as if art could no longer contain blackness. Perhaps it never could.

Barely ten years ago, Rodney McMillian was an emerging artist in “Frequency,” at the Studio Museum in Harlem—and even then his latex spilled out onto the floor. More sagging black vinyl appeared in the 2008 Whitney Biennial and back at the Studio Museum in “The Bearden Project,” in homage to Romare Bearden, where a full moon shined through. He seemed just as sleepless at the Brooklyn Museum, in its 2014 show of art and civil rights in the 1960s. His homage to Nat Turner took him on a walk in the woods for only six minutes, but long enough to take day into night. Maybe a failed slave rebellion had to mean more to a black man who left South Carolina for LA. Or maybe he just cannot give it a rest.

He defied a resting place again in Harlem in 2012, for all the twenty-five minutes it took him to reduce a futon to an empty shell for him to tie up and throw away. That video also left cotton scattered on the floor, as another harvest of African American history. Bits and pieces of all those themes and media appear in “Views of Main Street” at the Studio Museum through June 26, looking all the more ineffectual. This Main Street has its sofa, but cut in two by gray cement, and its chairs, but separated by a pile of books. Maybe the more he learns, the harder it is to sustain a conversation and a way out. Other books turn up on library shelves in a photograph, but his provocative choices.

A battered rug already hung on the wall in “Into Me / Out of Me,” at MoMA PS1 in 2006. Carpeting appears again in red as well, like geometric abstraction fit not even for treading underfoot. It has an affinity with bloodied and shredded fur, feathers, and body prints from David Hammons, as yet another refusal of the comforts of home. McMillian has more of the older artist’s anonymity now, too, with two videos not performances but puppet shows. Stephen Westfall speaks for him in a third, delivering LBJ’s speech to unroll the Great Society with a youthful energy and a condescending smile. The spilling onto the floor also includes a large photograph of the Supreme Court breaking up into mountains, sea, or sky—like the Constitution’s promise, both glorious and in doubt.

So what's NEW!The spill extends a little longer to Queens, for a room of “Landscape Paintings,” at MoMA PS1 through August 29. It takes the form of leftover paint on old bedsheets, governed by little more than gravity. Do they represent spilled blood, art that has long since run its course, or (as the museum suggests) “an abject history of turmoil”? Does the brief video of McMillian beneath a bare sheet gleaming in reflected light represent a ghost, a struggle, a modern dance, or a toga party? Does it add up to too many ghosts, too many threats, and too many directions? What about his vinyl in “The Black Show” (which I have not yet seen), at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia through August 14?

The Studio Museum, too, includes black vinyl among its twenty works, mostly compressed into the dimensions of a hoodie or a mirror. This is painting without a composition or subject other than being beaten down and black. At the same time, it recovers agency for the artist. Something of that dynamic appears as well in another piece of furniture Harlem, an armchair impaled by a large black tube. It does not appear half as clearly in more flooring on the wall or a damaged fridge. With work so all over the map, the show risks making it hard for much of anything to appear at all.

Compared to that long struggle with a spare mattress, everything here comes too easily. Pinocchio and a suspiciously friendly lizard will have to do as puppets, one behind a podium and one on a porch rocker, both with Lee Atwater’s racist words. Atwater is way too easy a villain, and Pinocchio has way too empty a smile. The fridge has too little value added, Westfall too obvious a smirk. Midcareer is a bad time for an artist this promising to be marking time. Maybe the retrospective will free him up to resume the struggle.

6.22.16 — Battles of the Sexes

Nicole Eisenman may have her “Al-Ugh-Ories,” at the New Museum, but do not go expecting parables of eternal life or the passage to another world. Everything there is as real as the trials and triumphs of women, only with the deck for once stacked heavily in their favor.

That applies not just to her, but to all six shows on five floors. I have gathered this together with a fuller reports on them, plus a report from last time on Eisenman and an earlier review of Martin Wong (illustrated here)MutualArt, as a longer review and my latest upload.

Do women get the short end of the male stick when it comes to exhibitions? You must be thinking of the Museum of Modern Art. The New Museum, where triennials and solo shows normally spill over more than one of its awkward floors, has just finished devoting all its spaces to women. That includes not just its big boxes, but also the grand but narrow stairs, where Eva Papamargariti hangs colorful banners. It includes the small lobby gallery, where Cally Spooner choreographs a silent battle of the sexes, also through June 19. It includes the education department upstairs, where Beatriz Santiago Muñoz recently translated a classic feminist novel into new media and tales of home, through June 12.

Speaking of allegories, plainly the museum is sending a message. It does so as well with its international cast. (Did you forget that Eisenman, the child of German Jews, was born in France?) It may add to its challenge to New York that none is from the Third World. Papamargariti, from Greece, imagines a world between nature and abstraction but overflowing both, starting on video before becoming fabric. Spooner, a Brit, makes the space off the cafeteria all the plainer by soundproofing the walls, before inviting her cast of men and women to mime rituals of seductions and war.

Are these allegories after all? Spooner’s dance is elegant, even when the dancers are butting heads, but literally slow going. Muñoz builds on Les Guérillères, about a world after the fall of the patriarchy and still devastated by war. Martin Wong's My Secret World, 1978-1981 (Melva Bucksbaum and Raymond Learsy collection, 1984)Monique Wittig’s 1969 prose is way more experimental than that sounds, but the video’s three channels set women up to do things like pet goats and view the sea through colored filters. It also sets them in the artist’s native Puerto Rico, where the United States long pulverized the land all on its own. The site served as a bombing range.

Eisenman has her utopias and dystopias as well, but gender here is always at issue, and so is First World power. Wittig was a lesbian and feminist theorist, and Eisenman identifies herself as queer. Speaking again of allegories, the struggles at hand keep taking on spiritual dimensions, too—and Spooner’s dance first took place in a historic Dutch market overlooked by saints. Andra Ursuta portrays women as scornful matriarchs but also refugees from patriarchy and money, again through June 19. Born in Romanian, she casts bronze statues in folk garments, beneath shawls made of coins. Looming over them, a bulbous eagle occupies the center of something between a basketball backboard and a flag.

They also occupy a landscape both alpine and allegorical. It consists of climbing walls, broken now and then by degraded skeletons or flesh in white. Amidst it all stand jagged white obelisks like diminished gods or ghosts. Goshka Macuga, although born in Warsaw and based in London, completes the journey from the art of Eastern Europe to the United States, through June 26. Her large tapestries, beginning as photo collage in black and white, include Back Forty, the midwestern woods that right-wing lunatics have claimed as a refuge—although signs proclaiming that Art Is Power and International Bankers Control Our Nation number among its protests. Other tapestries display a press conference at the United Nations, in front of a replica in fabric of Guernica, where Colin Powell was about to lie on behalf of war, and Afghanistan, where artists and intellectuals camped on cold sands by the ruins of a palace.

Do these shows sound as ponderous as allegories as well, not to mention as obscure? Macuga calls her work “Time as Fabric,” just so you know. She also weaves in a Hopi snake ritual and, at the show’s center, an entire stage set with space for Marina Abramovic, Richard Artschwager, a legendary art historian, and photo replicas after Laocoön and Roy Lichtenstein. There is no trusting to art. One can race through all five floors all too quickly. Like it or not, one will still get the message.

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

6.20.16 — Putting the “Ugh” in Allegory

There are allegories, and then there are “al-ugh-ories.” Allegories are so yesterday, laden with messages that one would chose to forget. Now Nicole Eisenman puts the “ugh” in allegories, and nothing is hipper than a little condescension. Yet she has a message, too, about gender and sex.

Actually, allegory has been making a long and determined comeback, with or without a message. Modernism punctured expectations of realism long ago, and Postmodernism elevated rhetoric above reality as well. Paul de Man titled his classic of deconstruction Allegories of Reading. Eisenman, though, has something else in mind. “Al-Ugh-Ories,” at the New Museum through June 26, has tale after tale of mortality and temptation, and nothing tempts her characters more than death. Nicole Eisenman's Untitled (Whitney Museum of American Art/Leo Koenig gallery, 2011)It comes in the form of unnatural disasters, capitalism, and lust, and women put their flesh on the line to attain it. They also know better, not to mention way better than men.

True, death looks a little bored as a woman raises her sunken eyes, her bloated flesh, and a toast. A woman in a busy beer garden catches death in a kiss. Another tops her nudity with a bowler hat, surrounded by a male corpse and her art books. Still, you know the real problem. It could be the helpless tycoon dropping his trousers, while an entire Depression-era crowd moves determinedly forward. It could be the pathetic child dropping his pants beyond his bulbous red nose. It could be the male looming over a woman as, the allegory promises, Commerce Feeds Creativity.

The tycoon finds his buttocks on the front of his waist, but then no doubt he has his head screwed on backward figuratively as well. An entire alpine village finds itself waist deep in pink flow. Meanwhile women do their best to cope. One even reprises the old fashion of playing Hamlet against gender, robed in black. Still, creativity is always under threat, and you know why. As that pathetic child’s t-shirt insists, I’m With Stupid.

If you recognize the roles, it will be not just because you know what to think. Sources include popular culture along with German Expressionism, Impressionism, and Surrealism. The Depression retinue imagines a lost Renaissance painting by, rest assured, Hans Holbein—and the beer garden may well borrow from Edouard Manet. Yet one of the more dignified if still altogether puzzled males is Thing, from the Fantastic Four, in From Success to Obscurity. Eisenman has moved away regardless from more literal quotes since 1996, when she posed a nude sacrificed to a sea monster after J. A. D. Ingres, as Spring Fling. She is also trying her hand at sculpture of, naturally, primitive men.

You may recognize the lavish brushwork and casual realism. You may recognize the dysfunctional communities and the orange, green, and swollen flesh. Still, these are al-ugh-ories and no more. Eisenman has brought a deep ambivalence toward tradition with a family Seder at the Jewish Museum before, and she seems out to capture a younger New York more sympathetically at Anton Kern through June 25. She has riffed on masks in the manner of outsider art, graphic novels, Alexej von Jawlensky, Blue Rider, and more. MoMA admired their diversity enough to include them in a display of abstraction and hybrid forms in “The Forever Now,” and they appeared in the 2012 Whitney Biennial as well. As curators, the New Museum’s Helga Christoffersen and Massimiliano Gioni seek something wilder, more playful, and less forgiving.

They risk cultivating something glibber instead. One can look for a role model in lesbian sex beside a nightstand topped with Albrecht Dürer, the Iliad (the Fagles translation), and Maria Vargas Llosa. One can relish the raw earth tones of The Work of Labor and Care. One can look for signs of the artist’s struggle in a messy studio or, with a family and cans of tuna, settled in for the long haul. One will, though, find barely twenty paintings, in no particular order. One may have to work a little harder to see past the allegory and the fashion.

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

6.17.16 — The Black Swan

Amie Siegel chases ghosts, at Simon Preston through June 19, while leaving it open which ones she creates. They are not in the least frightening, although they draw on the fears and obsessions of others long past. Some appear in photographic negative as a sylvan, ghostly white.

from Amie Siegel's Double Negative (Simon Preston gallery, 2015)They invite contemplation more than ghost-busting, in spaces that others took pleasure in contemplating long ago. They are familiar landmarks, although one is unlikely to recognize at least two of them. Even when color appears, it cannot altogether dispel the mystery.

She calls her first work Double Negative, and the negative spaces start with old-fashioned film projectors in a darkened room. They break up the black of opposite walls with glowing river landscapes, starring a swan. While the swan is black, the leaves and their shadows are a silvery white by the river’s edge. They look like tinsel in December, only more translucent and glowing, and one could contemplate them for a long time. When a house comes into view, it seems much like an afterthought. Yet it once provided a center and a reason for its setting.

It looks more familiar on a third screen and in a more well-lit room, in color. Anyone who saw the Le Corbusier retrospective in 2013 will recognize it as the Villa Savoye—unless, that is, one gets it wrong. One of Modernism’s most contemplative of buildings, it has modesty of a private home, the whiteness and rounded corners that give it the measure of its surroundings, and the stilts that turn the ground beneath much of it into an outdoor terrace without sinking the earth in shadow. It has influenced everything from country homes for Frank Lloyd Wright to negative spaces for Rachel Whiteread. Siegel’s color projection looks like a study in stillness and changing light. Her paired versions on film look like studies in opposites for Douglas Gordon, Vera Lutter, or Surrealism.

The film versions are double negatives—reversals not just of their subjects, but also of each other. Do not blame Siegel if they also do not quite pair up. One shows a copy after Le Corbusier in black in Canberra, where it serves as the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. It is in the process, she explains, of duplicating its collection. The color projection includes a slow, inviting guided tour of its interior. Is every western museum an act of preservation or of usurpation, and is every collection a matter of pride or obsession? A second work heads for a different ethnographic collection, assembled by someone even more at the origins of Modernism, Sigmund Freud.

Fetish, in close-up and again in color, shows a hand, well, obsessed with what the artist pointedly identifies as the ritual cleaning of the collection. The hand lifts the items, which look like statuettes from high-school sports as designed by a very tacky late Renaissance sculptor, and transfer them one by one to the clean shelf. For Freud, every ritual or obsession would embody and protect against a fear. Just bear in mind that the caretaker is getting paid, and the most obsessive act may belong to Siegel. Besides, they really do invite contemplation. For a few moments at least, one can share in the obsession.

Siegel has shown others showing off before, with clips of “My Way” in “The Talent Show” at MoMA PS1 in 2011. Here she shows off herself, without the tackiness of others. Is a double negative a rhetorical flourish or a breach in etiquette? Does it mean a positive, a negative, or nothing at all? One can look without deciding, with pleasure in the silvery silhouettes and riverbank. One encounters a black swan once in a lifetime.

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

6.15.16 — Surfing the Web

Holding together a show of Julieta Aranda is a single network, a spider’s web. The rope sculpture also divides her show in two, cutting into the darkened room like a makeshift partition, at James Fuentes through June 19. It caught me up as well, in trying to piece things together. Circulating as best I could, I walked right into thinner thread holding it in place, apart from the walls. I knew to start looking for art where I least expect it. I knew, too, to start looking for less visible networks at that.

The connections do not come easily, in part because networks themselves multiply. More spider’s webs appear as sculpture on a side wall. Frames speak to their importance, as does the appearance of cast bronze, although Aranda works in clay. Others rest in small rows on the floor, like Minimalist sculpture. Still another runs largest of all, in the shape of a digital Scrabble game. The word indeterminate appears dead center.

In an actual game, each player works to take over a network created by others, by adding letters. It takes ingenuity and a decent vocabulary, and so does an encounter with Aranda. Her Scrabble players sound like philosophical or political theorists, but which theory? Still more words flash by on video, like something by Jenny Holzer. A list of works assigns each a subtitle, like a brief explanation, but one more cryptic than the next. As the show’s title has it, one might be “swimming in rivers of glue.”

If Aranda makes surfing her webs difficult, she is a serious surfer. She is a principal of e-Flux, the online publishing platform, which comes with its own conundrums. It offers a platform for others, but also a place for her work and curatorial program. It is as ephemeral as the Internet or, for that matter, a pop-up, and she has brought it to physical form as just as well. It is an act at once of rebellion, domination, democracy, and anarchy. Like her titles, it verges on pretentious and then some, but like Scrabble it is also a game.

Maybe that first big spider’s web means to snare visitors. Aranda likes to lay traps, with such past works as spy holes and a clock running backward, and one had better be suspicious. As she put it in a painting (in a show called “Ardor and Irony“), “I have lost confidence in everybody in the country at the moment.” Yet plainly I blew it, and the gallery staffer was plainly annoyed. One is not supposed to touch the floor sculpture either, which derives from objects designed to discourage contacts. Aranda modeled the white spheres, cones, and parallelepipeds after means to chase away the homeless from public spaces.

I felt myself swimming in rivers of glue, and I cannot swear that I enjoyed it. I wanted her art to make more obvious sense than it does. Still, the webs of objects and words are alluring. Their tactility and threats unite them, even when they are only words. Water balloons hang from the ceiling, and the outline of a body in blue tarp drapes over another unsatisfactory sleeping place, in the shape of a couch. This network exceeds its own logic, which is what makes it art.

6.13.16 — Inbreeding

Adriana Varejão has every right to call her paintings Kindred Spirits, at Lehmann Maupin through June 19. Each presents none other than herself. A clan of twenty-nine cannot get more inbred than that. Yet they serve as no more than a ground for a freer application of paint—decorating her, exalting her, obliterating her, and obscuring her. They show her in the same three-quarter view, at once banal and defiant. Adding Native American tribal practices to portraiture, they give a double meaning to face painting. Mira Schor's Are You a Feminist Artist? (Lyles & King, 2016)

Not that they begin or end with either vision of her native Brazil—and I have added this to other recent reports of images of women, by Mira Schor (illustrated here) and Anna Ostoya, as a longer review and my latest upload. They also draw on contemporary American art, the kind with too short a memory for art history or cultural anthropology.

Varejão mentions Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin, Paul Thek, and Llyn Foulkes, and at times I could almost convince myself that I had seen them. Maybe it matters that no one withdraws from his art as much as LeWitt or exposes his sexuality and abjection as much as Thek. Maybe it matters that no one brings the touch of a woman’s hand as much as Martin or the Disneyfication of Surrealism as much as Foulkes. Maybe it matters, too, that Cindy Sherman has riffed on cultural models and a woman’s body, disguise and self-presentation, while working in series.

Varejão should keep one guessing just what matters. Those parallel marks on her cheeks may make her a cat-woman or a canvas for Minimalism. That ascending red may serve as a tribal headdress, and that black cloud spattering her forehead may belong to Minimalism’s nastier explosions. Those two ideas of kindred spirits, at once preposterously narrow and ever so broad, are two sides of the same thing. Whether as self-portraits or as borrowings from all over, they claim western art as potentially Brazilian and art of the Americas as her own. Apparently the Portuguese for mixed breed, mestizaje, is an insult only for the colonizers.

Not that she is pointing fingers or entirely on an ego-trip. The faces also echo paintings of Native Americans by George Catlin, among others, in nineteenth century America, as well as early photography. She appears to admire both, and she has to be aware of Brazil’s contribution to Latin American architecture after Le Corbusier. Still, her embrace of others comes with an edge. She describes her approach to western art as cannibalizing, after the theories of Oswald de Andrade, a Brazilian poet. This meal may be hard to swallow.

A second series takes her further into North America and beyond. It also takes her further into both ritual and abstraction. Her Mimbres resemble the sliced canvases of Lucio Fontana and Arte Povera in Italy. Up close, though, they seem as much crafted as destroyed. Somehow the thick fragments could still fit nicely together—perhaps another metaphor for the puzzle of cross-cultural traditions. Their wavy outlines serve as composition.

Their blacks, whites, and mute colors also bring them closer to pottery, including Chinese ceramics that sought and valued cracks. European colonizers brought painted ceramics to Brazil as well, but the shattering took on new meaning in the New World. The Mimbres cultures of the American southwest did it, the gallery explains (quoting a curator for Varejão in Dallas, Pedro Alonzo), in order to bury the fragments with the dead. For all the difference between the self-portraits and monochromes, they are kindred spirits after all. Like many global alternatives to Minimalism, these are artier and less industrial, with their own inbreeding. They may yet, though, shatter before your eyes.

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

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