11.26.14 — Clichés Vary

Robert Heinecken must have watched a lot of television. His retrospective, which ran at the Museum of Modern Art through September 7, feels like a sports bar on another planet, but with every screen turned to daytime TV (and excuse another holiday-week catch-up post, for I should have told you about it sooner, but a version of this review had first to appear in New York Photo Review).

A slideshow serves up his collection of some two hundred images, with an uncanny fixation on vacuous talking heads. Nearby a photo emulsion on canvas curling off the wall serves up TV dinners. Another grid of photos in the corridor outside neatly sums up his irony, creativity, and obsessions. He called it, like the slideshow, Surrealism on TV. Robert Heinecken's Are You Rea #1 (Jeffrey Leifer collection/Robert Heinecken Trust, 1964-1968)

If anyone would recognize Surrealism on TV, he would. An eagle flies into a talk show, while another host is caught kissing a goose. A lion invades a family rec room, with everyone on the sofa, no doubt watching television. Lips on a baseball deliver an unheard sexual provocation, while a woman tosses fitfully in her sleep. Yet another woman levitates in the darkness of an old-fashioned magic act—not a bad metaphor for Heinecken’s photography. The 1989 series includes not just screen captures, but also their frame in a vintage TV, for here the message is definitely the medium.

He cherished the medium enough to make it the center of a pretend living room, with his choices constantly on the air. One image lurks out from beneath another, and who is to say which is found and which is manipulated? The same applies to his “compromised media,” some thirty years of glossy magazines—with strong helpings of what another work labels autoeroticism and fetishism. Well before the show’s end, one may be glorying in his imagery, with more to come at Petzel Gallery through June 21, or weary of his insistent point of view. One may admire no end his ability to take the mass media apart and put them back together. Or one may wonder why he spent so much time watching TV.

MoMA’s title, “Object Matter,” sounds pedantic by comparison, but that, too, may have a point. In 1964 Heinecken founded the photography program at UCLA, where he remained until 1991 (and I have appended this to an earlier review of another Southern California fixture, Jack Goldstein, as a longer review and my latest upload). Clearly he had neither the time nor the inclination to teach the history of photography.

Those years took Southern California from Pop Art and conceptual art to the 1980s. And with Heinecken the violence of James Rosenquist meets the detachment of John Baldessari, while the appropriations of Sherrie Levine meet the baby-doll poses of Laurie Simmons. His Baldessari side comes out in the text accompanying photographs for Lessons in Posing, while the implicit violence permeates almost every image of the female body.

So what's NEW!There are plenty. Not exclusively, for Heinecken also has his Tuxedo Striptease and two dozen blurred and bleached blue images of the Reagan inauguration. Yet his girls and women suffer the most and have the most authority, like a single mother as Shiva, the Hindu destroyer. A baby girl, posed on a cross as Buddha, could be presiding over the crucifixion or her own sexual education. Women also define another of Heinecken’s obsessions—pushing photography teasingly toward other media. He called himself a “para-photographer,” where the Web savvy today might prefer “meta,” but it suits his stance between paratrooper and experimenter.

Heinecken died in 2006, but nothing dates later than his years at UCLA. The experiments start with echoes of Irving Penn nudes in Shadows of a Figure from 1961, perhaps the photographer’s last reliance on a camera. They include hybrids of photography and painting, like the emulsions on canvas, or of photography and sculpture, like Shiva formed from ads for Tide, Sanka, Pledge, and Spray ‘n’ Wash. They include wood panels cut up and reassembled like a puzzle, the blistering whiteness of photographic negatives, overprinted color photograms from both sides of a magazine page, portraits assembled from fragments of light and darkness akin to the work of Chuck Close, and “vanishing photographs” arrested at successive stages of development.

Heinecken can seem way too taken with the media, male leering, and his own cleverness—as with a series that puns on cliché verre, as Cliché Vary. Still, for all the cleverness and the clichés, there is also the variety.


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

11.24.14 — Everything but the Kitchen Sink

Allow me to use a holiday week to catch up. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday will have three reviews that I could not post before the show closed, so that they could first appear elsewhere. Do enjoy nonetheless. Good stuff.

What if Cubism arose today? It might not open art to a heady future, for Modernism has come and gone and come again, and who knows what lies in store? In fact, it might first and foremost be looking back.

It would look back to classic still-life, in the space of a breakfast room or a kitchen table. It would evoke not just vision, but the textures, sounds, and scents of the past. MutualArtIt would recall how the mind and the senses reconceive the past and art.

It would give new meaning to T. S. Eliot’s “mixing memory and desire.” It would make use of collage, as an act not just of making, but also of appropriation, because everyone these days appropriates. It would borrow images from both fine art and popular culture, not to mention newspapers and advertising.

It would fragment the reality it describes, to the point that one no longer knows what is an appropriation and what is perception. It would set aside grand narratives in favor of common objects, while never letting one forget that they are art. And then it would watch as objects and perceptions slip away.

It would do all that because Postmodernism and contemporaries cannot get enough of buzz words like appropriation, pop culture, critique, and self-reference—and because Pablo Picasso, George Braque, Juan Gris, and Cubism were there all along. Still, it would look different now, maybe even like a photograph and a bit like Laura Letinsky (and I would have told you about it sooner, but a version of this had first to appear in New York Photo Review). Like early Modernism, Letinsky dwells on still-life and perception, recently at Yancey Richardson through October 18, but with a cooler beauty. Her photographs leave the shredding and pasting to the set-up stage, for added distance and sheen.

She calls the show “Yours, More Pretty,” because the sources of desire these days are shinier, too. When Surrealism spoke of “compulsive beauty,” it had nothing on a model kitchen or bath.

Letinsky evokes sinks and countertops plainly enough, while daring one to know when they are real. Of course, real here means the reality of advertising, interior design catalogs, or the lush color photography of Jan Groover. She has nothing so obviously tactile as Picasso’s guitars or even a wine glass. Her quotations include as sleek an appropriator as Gerhard Richter himself along with Henri Matisse. Even the title of her ongoing series, “Ill Form & Void Full,” suggests a cramped self-consciousness suited to today. It is a consciousness of beauty all the same.

Letinsky mimes design practice in her craft as well. She adopts the strong lighting of commercial photography and the white background of a professional studio. They create shadows and surfaces to die for. The images add strong accents of color, more scattered across her compositions than pasted together. Go ahead and feel self-conscious or confused. It may keep you from wanting a new kitchen.

Once one starts revisioning Cubism and Surrealism, they can turn up anywhere. One might see them in Zipora Fried’s abstract scenes, recently at On Stellar Rays through October 12, overlaid by tiled triangles in layered color as at once Minimalist geometry and remembered monolith. One can see them, too, in new-media cityscapes by Corey Arcangel and others at Pablo’s Birthday, though October 19. They bob and weave like trailers for the next blockbuster, while a clock ticks against an open sea. Modernism did have a little more nerve and a lot more reality, but that was then. Now there is no getting over its compulsive beauty.


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

11.21.14 — Silent Languages

Thomas Scheibitz and Sadie Benning have been studying the languages of art. For Scheibitz, they are languages shared by both Cubism and his studio. For Benning, they look more postmodern and conventional, like adaptations of ASL or a military manual.

If the task seems quaint today, why do the results seem so lively? Maybe it helps that neither artist gets all that hung up over little things like grammar. Sadie Benning's Gun Blanket (Callicoon Fine Art, 2014)They know that art today speaks languages in the plural. Wrapped in with an earlier review of “Itself Not So” on the theme of art and aphasia, it is also the subject of a longer review in my latest upload.

Scheibitz calls his show “Studio Imaginaire,” at Tanya Bonakdar through December 20, a nod to both an ideal studio practice and André Malraux’s “imaginary museum.” As for the language, one work even starts with the letter A. Malraux, the French minister of culture after World War II and author of some very weighty novels, must have felt responsible for western civilization, and his three-volume “museum without walls” made it a public trust. Earlier, Walter Benjamin had spoken of the “work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction,” with the aim of taking fine art down from its free-market pedestal. That Marxist stance seems newly relevant after Jeff Koons and art fairs, if also more futile. Malraux, in contrast, would have had respect for painting even in a digital age—enough to want everyone to have access it.

So does Scheibitz, who packs his paintings with easels, frames, and color charts. His interiors have the clear outlines and sprightly primaries of Stuart Davis or late Pablo Picasso. They suggest a stage set for the artist at work. They also border on abstraction. Malraux’s original Musée Imaginaire was of sculpture, and upstairs Scheibitz assembles sculpture from much the same simple components. One can still pick up the pieces of early Modernism, he seems to say, and make them one’s own—as both a place in the world and an act of the imagination.

Benning, too, works between painting and sculpture, recently at Callicoon through October 26. She paints on fabric or resin stretched over wood blocks, sanded, and reassembled. Her tilings vibrate in red, white, and black. They look almost like military formations, and titles allude to weaponry. If that sounds dangerous, she does not take art’s beneficence for granted. Like Benjamin, she places it at the confluence of war and capitalism.

It looks vibrant all the same. With a title like Bathroom People, it is also thoroughly down to earth. Even when she debunks painting most, with a photograph of a similar grid in a street wall, she seems optimistic about art and real estate. She does not even have to ditch geometric abstraction for street art. Like Scheibitz’s, her building blocks are available to all. Assembly required.

Late Modernism claimed a language intrinsic to abstraction, and Postmodernism claimed the need to interpret art in words. Nelson Goodman even called a philosophical justification for looking Languages of Art. Now that theory no longer runs the show, painters can stake out languages of their own. Whole shows, like “Abstraction and Its Discontents” at Storefront through November 23, have run through the possibilities, while Bettina Blohm, at Marc Straus through December 12, explores patterns as a process of self-discovery. Scheibitz and Benning differ from them all in not treating abstraction as their personal signature. They would rather get people talking.


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

11.19.14 — Another Month, Another Fair

Yes, fairs are a burden. No one can keep up. Worse, no one can afford not to, least of all galleries strapped for sales, publicity, and cash. Now Independent Projects has a solution—another art fair.

Timed for the weekend of fairs devoted to print and artist books (its opening November 6 this year), it builds on one of the best in March, while eschewing both the hush of the ADAA and the desperate pleas for attention from its many competitors. And don’t say Elizabeth Dee didn’t warn you. Mel Bochner's Going Out of Business (private collection, 2012)

On a panel lamenting pressures from fairs, Dee argued (seriously) for better ones (and I have also added this as a postscript to my fuller report on that panel and the pressures). She is also a founder of Independent the weekend of the Armory Show. Artists admire it for not trying ever so hard to please, with work that often escapes the walls or even the confines of a booth. Independent Projects goes it one better, with single-artist displays that stake out half an aisle or more in the former Dia:Chelsea. A white box by Yves Klein (for Dominique Lévy) dares one to slip in ones hand, as an environment within a project. Fifty-two years after his death, it still gets people talking.

David Medalla (for Venus over Manhattan) spews out soap bubbles like giant wisps of cotton candy, a video by Joan Jonas (for Gavin Brown) lurks beyond a graveyard of white cones, and Haroon Mirza (for Lisson) has a sound studio of driving beats and flashing window frames, driven by the presence of viewers. If they look good, they share wide-open spaces linked by diagonal partitions, like three floors of the ultimate group show. After opening weekend, the dealers depart but the art remains, this year having lasted through last weekend, for this is about more than sales. Attendance is free.

It may also be relatively affordable to exhibitors, judging from a mix of international dealers, blue chips like Gagosian (with Piotr Uklanski), and smaller galleries from Williamsburg to Chelsea. The project format also helps respond to objections like mine that the Independent values cool over art, by making it impossible to know who did what.

If they look good, too, they mostly are. They run to well-known but edgy artists often with older work and at their most visually welcoming. Raymond Pettibon (for David Zwirner) muses on everything from baseball to Popeye, while Mike Kelley (for Skarstedt) contributes not brutality but tapestries—right next to paintings by John Tweddle (for Kayne Griffin Corcoran) inspired by fabric. Even that sound room has appealingly speckled soundproofing and an old-fashioned tabletop radio. Virginia Overton’s piled slats (for Mitchell-Innes & Nash) somehow add up to a triangular pyramid, both site specific and wide open. And that leaves plain old abstract painting from Marcia Hafif (for Fergus McCaffrey) and Robert Moskowitz (for Kerry Schuss).

Of course, transgression plus elegance can add up to business as usual. Stefan Brüggemann’s marvelous graffiti wall (for Parra & Romero) quotes all very serious people, and Thornton Dial (for Andrew Edlin) looks downright monumental. One might almost be seeing a single artist or an international style. Is this art as office furniture? Allora & Calzadilla (for Barbara Gladstone) even silkscreen water coolers. They are a watery blue.

Fair design contributes to the sense of uniformity. Amid the diagonals, it is not so easy after all to identify the art, especially after the dealers are gone. It is up to the galleries to decide whether to add labels, and it is up to you to connect them. In the end, the real issue remains: can another fair and another month design the pressures away? Or will they only add more?


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

11.17.14 — Stage Door

And here you thought you made it through the entrance. Sara Greenberger Rafferty has a history of holding back, and her gallery now has enough space to keep anyone at a distance.

The front hall alone would suffice for most artists, at Rachel Uffner through December 21, and only halfway down does she present her first welcome—or obstacle. An inkjet print embellished in acrylic rests on one plastic sheet over another. Screws anchoring it to the wall count as part of the work, much as for Robert Ryman, here with neither clarity nor opacity a given. Block caps in spindly sans serif identify the work as an “audience entrance.”

Perhaps, but entry here does not come easily. The image looks more like upscale Venetian blinds, only the worse for wear and for their slight departure from an even rectangle. It offers nowhere to go, other than to the gallery’s other rooms, which have more of the same media. To add to the puzzle, an ordinary entrance is for the audience, as opposed to a stage door. It is also not made of plastic.

Rafferty has played the audience before, as well as the performer. For “Chick Lit” a summer ago, she photographed herself with grimaces that could have stemmed from genuine agony or ham acting. At PS1 in 2006, Rafferty’s videos subjected her to a pie in the face and more. She has also rephotographed prints after TV. Here she can claim two bodies of work, one personal and one for the stage, but which is which? Images include stage mikes, twisted uncomfortably near the floor, and curtains, but also a daring or vulnerable woman. A stool surely awaits a musical performance, but why is it smothered in plastic of its own?

Rafferty’s pain and performance go back to Cindy Sherman, to name just one. Her nurturing of surfaces while disclaiming responsibility for their making fits with many in the present, as does her space between photography and other media. They are a way of having it conceptually and eating it, too. Yet few do so as provocatively. When the performance cues include recycled dance diagrams, they boast of their recourse to a formula. At the same time, they open the door to experience.

Nick Doyle, too, tries awfully hard to put on a show, at Invisible-Exports through November 23, but then it takes hard work to combine comedy and trauma. His own Venetian blinds come with a miniature electrical outlet, as if to let you in on the act. A sliding red tongue does not really need art to insist that it is capable of sticking out. Death Blow sounds a bit much anyway. He can claim a schlubbier alter ego, Steven, but the name in lights, as in a stage dressing room, does not say much as art. One will just have to take his word that “downtown,” perhaps Vegas as seen in a light box, is the character’s sorry home turf.

Still, Steven has a knack for household devices, as a setting for both actor and audience. The Realm of the Sun tops a projection screen with a microphone, while an old portable TV makes the perfect counterweight for a sphere of more stage lights. Candles rest half melted in Cave of the Unanswered.

Mostly, though, his strength is to blur the line between privacy and performance, like a deliberately unmade bed, a small upholstered chair or a fan set against spackle. What looks like a guillotine amounts to a small keyboard instrument, and an eye out of René Magritte rests amid a color wheel from Beyond the False Mirror. If you tire too soon of Rafferty or Doyle, maybe so do they, and they want you to know it hurts.

11.14.14 — And of Course . . .

And finally, I should be remiss in not letting you see the two other key works that I have highlighted in my report on Detroit, both images courtesy of the museum.

Caravaggio (c. 1598)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1566)

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