10.31.14 — Learn Your Lesson

Christopher Williams describes his work since 2003 as a single ongoing project, “Eighteen Lessons on Industrial Society.” He is selling himself short.

For thirty-five years, his photographs have kept coming up with new lessons, none of them easy. His retrospective, at the Museum of Modern Art through November 2, could serve as the final exam. If photography still has its strange magic, no one is more determined to cut through the mystery. Together with previous reviews of photography’s magic act, it is also the subject of a longer review, in my latest upload.

Williams teaches photography at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, and he is not above the basics. The latest project alone has lessons on consumer goods, like unwrapped chocolates, and the threading diagram for a paper-coating machine. It shows hands loading film and changing shutter speed, the proper grip of a light meter pointing the wrong way as a model tumbles upside-down in a blur, and vintage cameras sliced right through to reveal or destroy their workings. It specifies manufacturers, models, dates, specs, and serial numbers, in titles that are clearly not going out over Twitter. It throws in a language lesson, for the actual series title is in French. And then there are the multiple lessons within a photograph.

So what's NEW!In perhaps the best known, a nude poses against a black background, beside a Kodak Three-Point Reflection Guide. Only her name hints at her ethnicity, otherwise obscured by makeup, towels wrapping her breast and hair, and an over-the-top smile. Meiko is surely selling something, but what? Is it Eastman Kodak’s technology (©1968), luxury towels, the unseen bathroom decor, or photography as art? Williams is not saying, just as his titles spell out everything but what you wanted to know. For the uninitiated, a reflection guide displays a gray scale and color scale to enable color corrections in proof, before someone remembers to crop it out.

Learn your lesson. Williams insists on it, even as he obscures the very possibility. Born in 1956, he studied at Cal Arts with John Baldessari, lived through Pop Art and the “Pictures generation,” moved to the country of Bertolt Brecht, and calls his retrospective “The Production Line of Happiness” after a documentary by Jean-Luc Godard. (This has been a good season for Godard, who also supplied the title “Here and Elsewhere” for art of the Arab lands at the New Museum.) His father worked in Hollywood on special effects. As with that ambiguous sales pitch, any of these could support an interpretation, if you dare.

Should you treat this work as conceptual art? Williams began with such exercises as selections from government archives, their sole criteria an arbitrary date and a view of President Kennedy from the rear. Whether the pose is presidential or an anticipation of death is up to you. Of course, this is California conceptualism, and Williams is not above a downright innocent enthusiasm. How come, he asks, models in “serious” photography never do get to laugh like Meiko? Or think of it all as appropriation, from the early archival photographs to the later product imagery—and he has a habit of hiring commercial photographers to do the job for him.

A Brechtian detachment appears in the riddles, but also the assault on capitalism and the West. A series from the 1990s, “Die Welt ist schön (The world is beautiful),” features scenes of constructed beauty, like a beach in Cuba, and constructed terror, like a beetle trained to simulate its own death. A man holding a camera could be an advertisement, except that young African men do not often get to do the selling. If a Renault flipped on its side makes you think of the 1968 Paris riots or the automobile wreckage in Godard’s Weekend, you are ready for the next lesson. Yet nothing has Godard’s epic scale and passionate astonishment. This is a Brecht for deadpan Californians.

Rather than wall labels, Williams insists on a checklist, more or less chronological (unlike the exhibition), accompanied by a map, more or less accurate. Enlarged fragments of a checklist also line the walls outside, with tiny numbers (starting with 1 for A) hovering like tools for font design. The curators, Roxana Marcoci with Matthew S. Witkovsky of the Art Institute of Chicago and Mark Godfrey of the Tate, smuggle still more walls inside from past displays—with one in bare concrete, as if for a potential future. Is the jumbled, low-hung layout taking advantage of fresh pairings to retell the photographer’s favorite stories, refocusing the exhibition as about itself, or just keeping you at an infuriating distance? Do not be surprised if the numbers fail to add up.

 

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

10.29.14 — The Real Ivy League

If one is going to have a roof garden, how about a little greenery and a garden pavilion? Dan Graham supplies both for the Met roof, and it makes one last, lush way to say goodbye to summer. A thick carpeting of green greets one from the moment one steps off the elevator or the stairs, through November 2, as lush as Astroturf. It extends everywhere—except to a space for the pavilion itself. Nestled between two trellised ivy walls, its glass and steel allow the Met’s exquisite tiling to show through the grass. Dan Graham's Hedge Two-Way Mirror Walkabout (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014)

Graham’s surroundings appear through boundaries of his own making, and those surroundings include both the Met and Central Park. Each reflects the world and yet stands apart, much like his art. After serial museum expansions, one might call the entire park the Met’s New York wing. Yet the museum still offers a solace from a restive city, and Central Park is every New Yorker’s playground, as well as its most luxuriant alternative. These are not the crowded and plebian heights of the High Line, where Marianne Vitale erects railroad switches far more totemic than the rusted tracks below. Other summer sculpture there is so well integrated as to approach invisibility or an embarrassment—but not here.

One looks down from the Met roof, scans the skyline for landmarks, and settles for the high-rises that obscure them. No sculpture can compete with the view, but Graham encompasses both. He took an interest in Minimalism and urban entropy, much like Robert Smithson, before turning in the 1990s to his pavilions. Inside, the Met offers an introduction. It has snapshots of northern New Jersey, his recent Triangular Solid with Circular Cut-Outs, and a 1995 proposal for an installation in Germany. A 2009 Dan Graham retrospective had more, but this will do nicely.

Hedge Two-Way Mirror Walkabout is also landscape architecture, in collaboration with Günther Vogt. A steel frame encloses an S of slightly mirrored glass, more like a curved window than a device in a spy movie. One looks both outward and within. And each view comes with surprises, including oneself in reflection and others on the far side of the wall. MutualArtAre they mostly taking pictures with their cell phones? Maybe the entire installation is a selfie.

A pavilion has to seem at least a little out of place. It belongs to the old-fashioned English landscaping of hedges, mazes, and a gazebo of steel and glass. Besides, it usually comes with a roof, not on one. Graham, though, relishes strangeness. Where the Met’s 2013 summer sculpture by Imran Qureshi stained the tile red in memory of wars, he brings the garden upstairs. And where 2012 summer sculpture by Tomás Saraceno and 2010 summer sculpture by Doug and Mike Starn rose above, as clouds or as tree houses, he assimilates both the roof and the park below.

Guilty about all that high living? Is a garden pavilion a cheap substitute for condos on Central Park South or a metaphor for sleek office towers? Do selfies take over the show? Sure, but this maze is ever so easy to navigate, because Graham offers an escape from the maze of the everyday. His vision can be too clinical or too accepting. Yet he brings Minimalism’s clarity into the air.

 

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

10.27.14 — Three Kinds of Line

Léon Ferrari and Kerstin Persson weave a fine line. Their works on paper, recently at Josée Bienvenu through October 25, have the delicacy and precision of graphite. No human engraver could achieve such detail or bundle so much light. Few would spend so much time on little more than sticks and stones. Just be sure to ask how it is done. The answer pushes both their art fully into space. Léon Ferrari's Untitled (Josée Bienvenu gallery, 1979)

Ferrari plays the traditionalist even when he is doodling. For MoMA in 2009, alongside Mira Schendel, he treated free writing as drawing and wire sculpture as drawing in space. His collage adopted altogether traditional imagery. Here, too, the Argentinean adopts familiar media to the familiar purposes of abstraction, only one might not know it, and he seems to have little time to play. Narrow sheaves fill paper to its edges, collecting and radiating the light. Dark verticals and horizontal planes outline unforeseen depths.

Pencil on paper like this takes discipline, and so does Ferrari, but these are photogravures from the late 1970s. He constructed their models in his studio, even if they belong in the end to a fictive space. How many different models has he recorded, and how often has he altered them? How often does he just alter the point of view or source of light? Maybe some things are left unsaid after all. One can see the works as individual constructions, a process, or a series, but either way they are also works on paper with an eye to line, space, and light.

Persson does draw in pencil, a medium that demands close viewing. One can admire the softness of its texture in the gallery’s small back room, even while appreciating the hardness of her subject, a stone. One might well rush past the actual stone, on a pedestal in the center, to contemplate shades of gray. Yet each drawing takes the point of view of its place in the room. They work together to describe an object in space. If the Swedish artist cuts the sheets herself, then rock, paper, and scissors make a winning game.

Kate Shepherd generates her line digitally, at Galerie Lelong, through October 18. Maybe a younger artist cannot help it. Her show’s title, “Fwd: The Telephone Game,” already places it in cyberspace, where the game of telephone tag involves the forward command. Just take it with a grain of salt. This work is entirely between her and the viewer, with the only deconstruction or dissemination that of an old-fashioned work of art. Shepherd, too, uses drawing as an entry point into light and space.

Her tall panels layer oil on enamel, so that oil pools the light while enamel reflects it. She stacks some panels, like a hard-edged Mark Rothko. and one pair has the colors of sky and sea. Others are monochrome or black. White lines, incised into the surface, has the breaks and jagged outlines of drawing for its own sake, as lithe as in an Henri Matisse cutout, while hinting at a human figure and a smooth, unfolding dance. In the past she has painted on the wall, engaging the architecture. Here she runs with her intuition, to overflow the simplicity of computer models and pictorial space.

10.24.14 — Emerging as Material

Of the three artists in “Material Histories,” through October 26, one has words as her materials, while another soaks, stains, and coats his materials to the point of burying their history. The third piles her materials on plainly enough, as if rescuing them from their past.

But then art is like that, they might argue, where ideas and things can take on new lives and new histories. And African American art is like that, with the added burden of recovering lives and a history. Piling on materials is also the nature of way too much trashy art and way too many oversized installations. Still, this year’s artists in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem seem to know when to shock and when to hold back.

One expects new voices to bring something new, but all three work reasonably familiar territory. Bethany Collins effaces, rewrites, and reproduces found text. Jenny Holzer might have produced her Colorblind Dictionary, with all references to color obscured in a real dictionary, and Glenn Ligon her scarred and blown up definition of “ravel” or “skin.” Charles Gaines has erased single letters, and Allen Ruppersberg has blocked out whole passages, as in her copies of Southern Review.

Kevin Beasley comes at a time of rediscovery of craft in the form of everyday fabric, as with Sheila Hicks, and his stains and folds recall black artists from Al Loving to Shinique Smith. And Abigail DeVille enters a line of junk dealers like Isa Genzken too long to count.

Yet each also brings personal materials and personal histories. Collins wields a mean but delicate knife in cutting through paper, and she knows that skin can stand for either a covering or a painful stripping away. She also leaves implicit its role as a marker of race while rendering it in white. Beasley scavenges simple materials associated with creature comforts, like a pillow or a dressing gown. Then he adds a grisly reminder of the body, not unlike David Altmejd, by caking them in polyurethane and colored dust, while leaving their human scale intact. A pillowcase floats against a wall like an angel.

DeVille claims the deepest history, with titles like Gone Forever and Ever Present. She describes her assemblages as “detritus” of the Great Migration, or African American journey north, and as “embedded histories” of entire communities. At the same time, they look quite at home on 125th Street. A black column rises, with a woman’s leg showing off and peeking out. More mannequins and shopping carts, plus box springs, tumble off a gallery wall. If one has any doubt that they suggest drudgery or homelessness in the present, she also creates a Harlem Flag of fabric and sharp colors layered over slashed sheetrock. A coil of barbed wire resembles a crown of thorns.

Not everyone can say something new, assuming that, after Modernism, anyone can. The Studio Museum may even have something of a house style by now for its studio program, with objects as records of historical consciousness and urban unrest. One can see it in the titles of residencies for past years like “Evidence of Accumulation,” “Quid Pro Quo,” “Usable Pasts,” and “Scratch.” They seem to call for a more restrained and focused version of art’s bloated installations. I could do with a bit less of all that, but the program still has its purpose. It actually reduces the pressure to pounce on the new.

Big shows of emerging artists can try to assuage that pressure, and the museum has its own. Two of these artists appeared in “Fore” in 2013, one in “The Ungovernables” at the New Museum, and one also in “Starfall,” a recent show at the Studio Museum on the theme of southern history. Yet a year’s residency allows them a space apart from the latest thing. Beasley’s dressing gown has the outline of a leaf as well as a person, and both seem both fallen and alive. When Collins turns to painting in He’s Trying to Fuck His Way Out, letters cluster and scatter like dandelion puffs in the wind. The artists can decide for themselves how much to outgrow text art and material histories.

10.22.14 — Where Black Is a Number

When it comes to Minimalism, Charles Gaines would like to show how it is done. With Walnut Tree Orchard, a series from 1975, each triptych begins with a photograph in black and white of a single tree. A drawing then manifests its shape and tonal range in the elements of a grid, where the number in each cell also stands for its location in the visual field. A second drawing transforms the first, based on previous drawings and predetermined rules, and voilà: the tree has become an orchard.

Gridwork,” at the Studio Museum in Harlem through October 26, includes this and nine other series from 1974 to 1989, to spell out his own transformation as an artist. It ends with an explosion of color, scale, and change. Charles Gaines's Numbers and Trees VI, Landscape, #7 (private collection/Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 1989)

Sure, others before Gaines have spelled things out, like Sol LeWitt, who manifests the making of his wall drawings right in their titles. When a performer closes the lid of the piano for 4’33”, by John Cage, you know what the next 4 minutes and 33 seconds will bring. Even Chuck Close in confronting his growing disability has had to interrupt the perfection of his photorealism, with visible brushwork in a more perceptible grid. Still, LeWitt begins with the directions and lets an image take shape as it will in the hands of others. With Close, skill defies explanation that much more. As for Cage, one could argue that nothing happens at all.

With Gaines, plenty is going on, because the results never set aside their dual origins in chance and nature. A photograph has its own unarticulated rules for picking out a tree, and the result is a landscape that testifies to its growth. Each work unfolds both in time and space—the space of a wall and the time of its making. The numbers in his grids recall the tables of Hanne Darboven, at once encyclopedic and incomplete. Darboven sometimes converted those numbers into sound—and Gaines, an accomplished drummer, took the opposite course in setting aside a career in jazz for art. He is still riffing.

Yet he lets on less than may appear. In Regression, an early series, the number of filled squares in one grid drives the cryptic geometries in the next, but how? Branching spikes arise not from LeWitt’s simple rules, but from mathematical equations one will never see much less solve. Incomplete Text Set, from 1979, all but boasts of how hard it is to read. Successive sheets transfer letters from a Pacific Ocean whale watcher’s log, based on the arbitrary assignment of color to the alphabet. Even the later transformations of nature have their enigmas.

Born in 1944, Gaines worked amid larger transformations in art as well—from analog to digital and from Minimalism to conceptualism. He taught at an epicenter of California conceptualism, Cal Arts, although he moved there only as the show ends. The curator, Naima Keith, also argues for a context in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, but that had its greatest impact on writers, and it ended barely as the show begins. Still, she raises a fair question: Gaines, who grew up in Newark, has appeared in a show of black LA art, and later work has become more overtly political, but is this really about blackness? Can there be black mathematics or a black Minimalism?

Gaines has refused labels, even when he based drawings on the African continent. He counts Adrian Piper as another influence (along with LeWitt, Cage, and Darboven), and he could have found an exemplar of duration in black performance art. Instead, he photographed Trisha Brown in motion, once every three seconds for one minute, in the years that she was also collaborating with Robert Rauschenberg. Maybe it matters that she was dancing Son of Gone Fishin’. His most obvious play with race comes with Faces, in 1978, based on what look like mug shots. Then he reverses black and white, as in a negative, before settling on bare outlines in color.

Somehow the subjects have become people of color, and that color is not black. And yet blackness always has its residue as difference, in an art about nurturing differences. These were also the years when Eva Hesse had gendered Minimalism, and a crucial turn for Gaines was from formulas to the physical—in faces, dance, whaling, plants, and trees. Also in 1978, he produced his greatest tribute to chance, with numbers that record fallen leaves.

The show ends with its largest and most dramatic layering, in three dimensions and in glorious color. Grids of trees, in acrylic on acrylic sheets, cast their speckled shadows on the photographs from which he begins, as if to deny once and for all how he does it.

 

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

10.20.14 — Heading North

I’ll be telling you about shows at the Studio Museum in Harlem all this week. So if I may, let me warm up with a review of the summer show just before the current choices, one that I had (ouch) never posted.

If a museum had to celebrate a moment in African American art, if might pick one of two. Most likely, it already has. Exhibition after exhibition has done the same. Ralph Lemon's Untitled (Studio Museum in Harlem, 2014)

Make that an extended moment. One came in World War II, when Jacob Lawrence painted his Migration Series. He took three years to depict the passage north of African Americans, a passage that took decades, but was it a tale of displacement and loss or of community and common hopes? Surely both, with figures in rows as if on a forced march. Lawrence’s War Series again teases out the promise of freedom. His colors are warm but airless, but his struggling humanity and the light on the horizon reiterate a pledge that remains unfulfilled to this day.

The other extended moment came later, when Romare Bearden took the pulse of Harlem. He had served in the war, before Truman integrated the military, but he found new beginnings in the Civil Rights movement. Increasingly, too, he captured the vitality of the street. And he, too, described a mythic voyage as a homecoming. He painted the journey of Ulysses, and MoMA called a 1971 exhibition of his prints “A Graphic Odyssey.” He also turned to collage to place that odyssey more fully in the present.

When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South,” which ran at the Studio Museum in Harlem through June 29, has in mind a third moment. It is what the others left behind, in the rural South, but also the present moment, of outsider art moving toward the inside.

The results may have less to say than they should about either one. They go light on both politics and history. They do, though, make a contemporary case for a hybrid. It is also the subject of a longer review, in my latest upload.

The show juxtaposes folk art and sophisticated artists, at a time when self-taught art and outsider art have new champions. And the show’s central image of the South is not of the beaten down, but of the forgotten and the visionary. Benny Andrews introduces it as early as 1967, in pencil allegories of trees with legs, surrounded by vibrant color circles, while Henry Ray Clark locates it in Texas with a three-headed mandala, On Our Planet Name Yahoo We Are Called Destiny Childs We Sing and Dance to We Do Know One Thing for Sure We Will Never Separate Are Be Apart. (On our planet, I guess, words spill out from the sounds inside our heads.) Georgia and Henry Speller confront her “Grecian” dancers with his folk drawings of a Tennessee riverboat. Jacolby Satterwhite is another sophisticate who knows madness at first hand, in his mother’s schizophrenia.

Others find the beast not down south at all, but rather in the capitals of western culture. Deborah Grant takes Henry Johnson, an artist who died in 1970, from South Carolina to the National Academy of Design in New York and then to Paris, as The Birth of a Genius in the Midnight Sun. Romare Bearden's Untitled (The Family) (Michael Rosenfeld gallery, c. 1969)Theaster Gates’s character sings “Amazing Grace” on the streets of Harlem, while Courtesy the Artists, a collective, videotapes the willing as they interpret a song in the dark. David Hammons evokes the South with cheap wine and chicken wings, but nothing that he could not have purchased down the street. Kevin Beasley never so much as leaves the museum, amplifying the ambient silence into a roar. For them all, the outsider is everywhere and nowhere.

The outsider here belongs plainly to the present moment, in a South that has modernized without eradicating poverty and racism. Ralph Lemon invents his own comic alter egos, posed with animal heads in suburban interiors.

Maybe this show’s history seems so lacking in particulars in the hope of forgetting and healing. Thornton Dial in Birmingham could be speaking for others when he calls his paintings Two Souls Set Free and When I Lay My Burden Down. Still, the Studio Museum risks falling back on outsider styles as its own primitive, just when black art is demanding attention as an American mainstream—and just when the “red states” are a harsh obstacle to progressive politics. Yet someone else will have to reimagine the American South.

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