4.1.15 — Love for Sale

Love for sale. If your first thought is online dating or a song by Cole Porter, you will understand two sculptures by Claude Michel, better known as Clodion. If your first thought is appalling and illicit sex traffic, you may not like that love here is decidedly underage and in a cage, but take heart. The artist was merely copying a relief from Pompeii.

That ancient city was the site of excavations only two years before he undertook the first version, in terra cotta in 1765. He was under thirty then and still in the market for love. Besides, the Cupid pouting in captivity is male, both buyers and sellers are young women, and as always Neoclassicism tempers its playfulness with a moral. Two other babes roam free, because no one can keep them in their place, and the women’s future depends on properly managing the sale. All is forgiven—and along with an earlier review of another sculptor from the past, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (shown here), it is the subject of a longer review in my latest upload. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux's Ugolino and His Sons (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1861-1867)

Not that the Enlightenment trusted to the triumph of reason, whatever you may have heard. Voltaire had made that clear in Candide less than ten years before. Unreason was bound to take its course, and Clodion lived through the Reign of Terror and another age of empire and war. For him, unreason will always have its place, preferably in marble. For his last work now on view at the Frick Collection, from 1799, he depicts Zephyrus, the god of the wind, and Flora, of vegetation, but caps their energetic spiral with a wreath. Like David d’Angers in the next century, he stands on the edge of Romanticism, but passions must still emerge from the whole.

Clodion shares the show, through April 5, with a slightly younger and even more stately contemporary, Jean-Antoine Houdon—with just half a dozen works each, half of them in terra cotta and half in marble, roughly half of them loans, and all fairly early work. (If you have never so much as noticed the Frick’s portico, it runs along the Fifth Avenue lawn to the north, past Salisbury Cathedral by an artist soon after, John Constable.) When Clodion depicts caryatids, they emerge from a tight cluster with a shared head scarf, and when he unleashes gods and satyrs, on two bucolic vases, they take their ease. And sure enough, when Houdon lends a vestal the active stance of a hero, he keeps it beneath a cloak. He brings the same respect for strong feelings and for keeping them in check to portrait busts. A countess poses as a Bacchante, with leaves in her hair and a quarter turn toward madness, but with intelligence in her eyes and a tight reserve in her lips.

The Frick has always invested in sculpture. Not many willingly turn away from the paintings, but each room has its tabletop bronzes and marble—in the Boucher room, for characters right out of the painting on the wall. Many of the same artists (or their followers) have been in recent loans from the Hill collection, from Andrea Riccio and Giambologna in the late Renaissance to d’Angers and Joseph Chinard in the early nineteenth century. If the label “decorative arts” runs counter to the recovery of craft and design these days, and if it signals a fall-off from the early Renaissance, when Lorenzo Ghiberti or Donatello pointed the way to painting, it corresponds to real changes over the years in both function and style. Riccio’s figures double as a candlestick holder, while Triton blowing his trumpet for Giambologna could pass for a snake eater.

So what's NEW!The nineteenth century tempered and also humanized the decorative excess, but the process began with the Enlightenment. Clodion and Houdon also take a hesitant step toward naturalism. The first’s Cupids have feathers after nature, while the second goes so far as a dead thrush hanging from a nail. It sounds preposterous to try to outdo trompe l’oeil in sculpture, where three dimensions are hardly an illusion. Still, the wings, the pointed beak, and the nail are duly threatening, and Houdon is working against the strictures of marble and in white. Besides, soon enough art for a growing middle class along with the aristocracy had its own serious excesses—as with another winner of the Prix de Rome, Carpeaux.

Most often, though, female portraiture serves as the expression of a human ideal, if also a refined one, most strikingly in the 1770s. A young woman plays the role of the innocent in Paris. A marquise takes in everything, while everything but her eyes are buttoned up. A tad more shockingly, the wife of a German banker lets her loose dress fall half off her shoulder, but not at the cost of her intellect. One cannot always keep passion in a cage, and the new aristocracy of finance demanded a buyer’s market for love. Still, it was not yet ready to roam free.

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

3.30.15 — Stopping for Death

Want to know the meaning of life? Consider asking the dead.

Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook does, although she does much of the talking. Standing at a chalkboard, she delivers singsong platitudes to half a dozen corpses draped in white sheets on the floor. This being a modern classroom, though, she desperately wants it to be interactive—lecturing, sure, like Joseph Beuys at a blackboard or Gary Hill in his pioneering new media, but also pleading, questioning, pacing, hectoring, leaving it ever so uncertain what she knows. Suffice it to say, her audience is either unmoved or rapt.

Plainly Rasdjarmrearnsook cannot stop for death. While Class began as a single video, it now runs to three channels, as part of a modest but busy retrospective, at SculptureCenter through March 30 (and I would have told you about it sooner, but a magazine I won’t name asked for submissions about alternative spaces but couldn’t be troubled to reply), its first solo show since the Center’s renovation. MutualArtShe found the bodies in a mortuary because they had no loved one to claim them, and their different arrangements on each monitor calls that much more attention to death’s uncanny presence. In a ghostly projection on the floor, she fusses again with death, in the form of piled fabrics. Is she covering and recovering a still frailer body? And is her taking of the dead an act of compassion, defacement, or fear?

It is by no means mere egotism, although the artist, like Rirkrit Tiravanija from Thailand, is never more than a step outside her art. An unhealthy number of vials and bottles set on pedestals hold remnants of life or death, such as human hair, that might well be hers. In Chelsea, at Tyler Rollins through April 11, she even tapes an operation on her back, on TV within a vintage cabinet. She has become just as obsessed with her dog as well. She photographs it, bases sculpture on it, runs beside it in slow motion, and stars with it in a video about stray dogs and animal rights. If only for a moment, she has set aside death.

One has to be wary of art about the meaning of life and cute dogs, and Rasdjarmrearnsook does raise suspicions. Even when she enters an asylum to give voice to the insane, she willingly courts objections. The isolated figures, in stark but blurry images on separate walls, can easily blend together. One can barely make out their stories, given their inability to speak fully for themselves. They become incoherent or even boring. They are harrowing all the same.

Almost everything in her art stops just short of coherence, because it thrives in that space between compassion, comedy, and fear. Sometimes it gets there only in the retelling, as with a performance piece in which she faked pregnancy on her return to work. Sometimes it never gets there at all. I never did figure out another video, with tiny figures moving through an open field. Perhaps only with the dead is Rasdjarmrearnsook both unsettling and funny, and there she faces a particularly challenging audience. So what if she also holds center stage?

All along, her art asks about the distance between herself and others. Apart from Class, that theme comes across most vividly in a video in which she does not appear at all. It does, though, involve life, death, east and west, a prototypical feminist, and an artist with virtually the patent on calling attention to himself.

In a Thai temple, a monk delivers yet another lecture, this time to a living audience and this time about art. One easel holds a reproduction of Judith Beheading Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi, the other a photo of Jeff Koons and scantily clad women that served, sure enough, as an advertisement for himself. Still tackier art covers the temple walls behind them, but then the real mysteries lie within.

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

3.27.15 — Kingdom Come

John Newsom finds the animal kingdom formidable indeed, and he would love to take on its power. He is getting better at it, too, at Marc Straus through March 22, but then neither he nor his subjects are above boasting. He makes a nice follow-up to an earlier report on artists bent on “Recapturing the Scenic Wild,” as a longer review and my latest upload. 'Richard Barnes's Animal Logic: Smithsonian Ape (Wave Hill Glyndor Gallery, 2008)

A hummingbird spreads its wings, with the breadth and confidence of an eagle. Panthers, up to two to a canvas, dare one to engage the yellow gleam of their eyes. Leopards, too, along with Bengal tigers take pride in their stares—the tigers in black and white. Its swirl behind them draws the undergrowth into the patterns of their fur and muscular flesh.

Nature here is both exotic and eerily familiar. Maybe it has to be for an artist born in the midwest and based in New York, where he obtained his MFA. Even his titles are larger than life. A leopard has its Divine Abode and a tiger its Harbor in the Tempest or Pride of Place. An elk lies plaintively in tall grass and in Valiant Repose. Dark becomes light for the hummingbird as Daybreaker and for still another tiger in Midday at Midnight.

A vision this over the top may owe something to Romanticism, when Europe was making art from its colonization of Africa and Asia, and something to Disney. Still, it is impressively lush. It makes good use of color, as in the blue-black of the panthers, and maybe even better use of that black and white. It is also quite realistic, or at least I think so, but then what does a city boy like me know about things beyond my control? It can even have a sense of humor, although that, too, comes with a boast. A butterfly, Simultaneous Singularity, surely alludes to the old line about the flap of an insect wing’s altering the course of the planet.

Creatures all press up against the picture plane, because that is where the action is. So, for that matter, does Newsom. He departs from the straight-ahead views for that butterfly in profile, so that the black and yellow of its wings can hold the picture plane as well. He also treats the background as abstract painting, whether to flatten things further or as a metaphor for the enigma of the jungle. It includes thick patches of oil seemingly flung at the canvas, most often in white, interrupted by muter triangles more fully in the plane. He paints large, and he packs as much on a gallery wall as it will hold, as if to blow the entire animal kingdom to kingdom come.

Bianca Beck, too, believes in the raw energy of nature, but she does not look half so far to find it. Her materials even include a mirror. They also include human hair and found wood scarred by carving and burning, like primal relics of herself. Paintings run to the dark tones and expressive imagery of Art Brut or Tachism, whether as faces, human bodies, or abstractions. Like her, Josh Brand looks for physical and psychological depth in shallow surfaces, chiefly in photography. A hand reaches out from amid the blur as if in one last effort of survival, shot through with light.

They sound, though, more literal and heavy-handed than they are. It helps that one can ignore the carvings to focus on Beck at her best, in oil on wood. It helps, too, to bring them together like a single body of work, at Rachel Uffner through April 12. One can see them not as painter and photographer, but a continuum of mixed media, with Brand making use of collage as well. What might easily be pretentious becomes lush and ominous, and what might easily be vagueness becomes ambiguity. The presences become that much closer as well—close enough, perhaps, to recapture the scenic wild.

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

3.25.15 — Bound to Make Art

Nearing the end of her life, Judith Scott deposited a hefty dose of her favorite materials, yarn, into a shopping cart missing its front wheels along with goodness knows what else. Then she bound it with still more. It seems obsessive even for her.

Did she mean to conjure thoughts of an aging bag lady on the Northern California streets—what many passers-by surely thought of her? Did its forward tilt, as if more than ready to collapse, and its inability to move make her think of herself on turning sixty? Did she even know? Judith Scott's Untitled (photo by Benjamin Blackwell, Creative Growth Art Center, 1989)

Scott hardly spoke about her sculpture, even while passing her days with her elbows on a table fashioning it. She left the shopping cart, like all her work, untitled. Nothing indeed seems as far from her as the art world’s self-reflective irony. Hers is the epitome of outsider art in all its simplicity and sincerity. It is also hard to picture apart from her, contending with fabric and herself. One can think of her whole life as a struggle to tie things up and to find freedom—and, together with an earlier review of outsider artists in the city, it is the subject of a longer review in my latest upload.

The Brooklyn Museum calls her retrospective “Bound and Unbound,” through March 29, and the title applies to her as well. Born in 1943 in Ohio, deaf and with Down syndrome, Scott spent much of a lifetime institutionalized before passing in 1987 into a sister’s care in Oakland. There she came upon the Creative Growth Art Center, dedicated to people with disabilities, and started making art. At first she just doodled in colored pencil, its loops broken now and again for collage. Who knows what appealed to her in the bearded face of the surgeon general of the United States, C. Everett Koop? And then the very next year she discovered a handful of twigs, some fibers, and her art.

Now that the mainstream has embraced outsider art, both in practice and as a model, it is chastening to encounter something that so completely fits the description. A mental disability, a neglected artist, and an obsessive-compulsive art—check, check, and check. Yet Scott also lacks an outsider’s roots in folk art, with all its narratives, concern for detail, and “primitivism.” When she adopts human form, it looks less like a totem than a Raggedy Ann doll. She fits with the recovery of women artists and fabric as a medium, but she dissociates yarn and thread from a “woman’s work” of modestly knitting and sewing. Her work is gendered, but only obliquely political.

It also fits just fine with fashionable insiders, with all their appropriations and trashy installations. The curators, Catherine J. Morris and Matthew Higgs, have managed forty-five pieces along with drawings, from Scott’s very first assemblage to one left unfinished at her death in 2005. The first handful of painted twigs looks obviously tied together, the threads rescuing them their fragility. Soon, though, the bundles take lumpier outlines. Some might hang flat on the wall, although displayed here on shared platforms, while others rest as best they can on the floor. One can only wonder what lies bound within.

Scott relishes color, her looped drawings translating easily into colored thread. She dabbles in representation, from human form to an enormous bird, but much of her work is about its materials—fabric or bare twigs, a shopping cart or a crutch, wire hangers or a table fan, paper towels from a kitchen or toilet, and the hose from perhaps a vacuum. They enter simultaneously as structure and image, with a powerful tension between the two. Bundles may look like spears, tools, or musical instruments, whether they began with one or not.

Amid the pleasure of discovering an unknown artist, one can easily overlook how little she has to reveal or to hide. One can relish her familiar objects and lumpen strangeness all the same, but not without acknowledging their limits.

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

3.23.15 — Black Materials

Kianja Strobert makes abstract painting the old-fashioned way, with surfaces to die for. Her powdery blacks recall the days when artists ground their own colors—and her gold when nothing less would do. Pigment presses to the edge and then some, as an extension of her own hand. One can see her traces in lighter compositions, like finger-painting, with signs of a tabletop or horizon line. One can see them, too, in the thickest and brightest colors, often red, their irregular outlines like an impulsive afterthought. They allow her, as one title puts it, her Archaism and Ecstasy.

Her surfaces imply a certain impulsiveness, too, in how they get started. What look like oils on canvas are works on paper, and the ground black is powdered graphite. Strobert might have started with working sketches, in pencil, and refused to let go. That refusal has led to a density of materials, practically none of them amenable to a brush. They include ink, graphite, acrylic, oil stick, and enamel, but also sand, dirt, pumice, beeswax, and bone. If they have anything in common, it is an appeal to the sense of touch.

Strobert’s two dozen works the size of modest canvas date entirely since 2010, at the Studio Museum in Harlem through March 8 (and I would have told you about it sooner, but this had first to appear in Artillery magazine). The oldest are relatively flat and bright. Some then thicken, with more powder and impasto, while others thin out, exposing paper according to the movement of her hand. The most recent add glitter, as well as the occasional title. Fifty-one smaller sheets on brown paper look more obviously like drawings. Their descending strokes rarely stick to straight lines.

Some recent work also adds imagery or words. The imagery hints at people. Still, the people probably have more to do with the artist’s presence than narrative, and ampersands leave things open-ended. Even when she paints on newsprint, the result looks resolutely abstract. The text, too, appears to refer to the artistic process and emotions, as with asplinter. Maybe yet another artist has arrived—and she did exhibit among emerging artists at the Studio Museum and in the 2012 art fairs.

Is there a distinctly black abstraction? Not necessarily, although such artists as Melvin Edwards have no trouble using formalism to assert their African American identity (and I have added a review of her as a postscript to that context, as a longer review and my latest upload).

For Strobert, though, the question seems hardly even an issue. She appeared in a show of conceptual art in Harlem, with a wine stain, but her primary reference point is still “action painting.” Chicken bones could refer to dietary practices, but mostly they just look bare and exposed, much as the powdery graphite can look like ashes. These are surfaces to die for.

Strobert’s old-fashioned exuberance makes it hard for her to stand out, amid a wealth of abstraction both derivative and conservative. For all the repeated verticals and imagery, her strength lies in neither formalism nor imaginative leaps between abstraction and dreams. Pigment matters more than compositions, and the transformations are still first and foremost of materials. They supply the discoveries, and they make one aware of someone behind their presence on paper, but are they enough? Her surprises may turn to be a part of a longer search for an artistic identity. Four years of surfaces may be only a start.

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

3.20.15 — Suitable for Children

Three hardened criminals find a new life, reformed by the grace of an orphan girl. The man in the moon descends to earth, enticed by its bustling humanity, before reassuming his gleaming place in the night sky, “forever after curled up in his seat.”

Tomi Ungerer, who told those stories and more, could have been merely a darn good source of children’s books, but for one thing: “I feel fear, fear of life.” Growing up in Nazi-occupied France and, like Arshile Gorky and so many others, taking refuge alone in America between divisive wars, he had every reason to fear. from Tomi Ungerer's The Three Robbers (Drawing Center, 1961)Ever the outsider, he arrived at Harper & Brothers, the New York publisher, burdened by illness and despair. He found a warm welcome and a receptive editor, but in barely a decade he was once again on the move, to still lonelier climates and a place for his art. Even there, he cannot stop looking back to the things he feared.

As ever with Ungerer, things are complicated. He really did write and illustrate fondly remembered children’s books, including The Three Robbers in 1961 and Moon Man in 1966. He also created indelible emblems for the left and for a grown-up self-awareness, with ads for Evergreen, The Village Voice, and The New York Times. As the last reads, “You can tell the adults by the paper they read,” but you can truly tell the adults by what they read as children and by the art they rediscover now. Adults will find that he created much else as well.

For “All in One,” Ungerer fills all three galleries of the Drawing Center through March 22, curated by Claire Gilman, with political art, commercial art, confessions, eroticism, and landscape from childhood to today—and it is the subject of a longer review, in my latest upload.

Things were complicated well before he set aside children’s books for artist books, but then really good children’s books since at least Lewis Carroll are always more complicated. Not just a face, but a whole pale body curls up in the pale moon. On earth, Moon Man finds himself in shackles, his only hope in reaching through prison bars for the moon. He chances on joy in a garden party, but a rich woman calls to complain at the noise or the common lot, and again he is on the run from soldiers and police, reaching safety only in the formidable castle of an aging madman or dreamer. The genius invites the lonely refugee to take his place on a rocket to the moon—and Moon Man, “who realized he could never live peaceably on this planet, agreed to go.” As soon as the moon wanes to a crescent slim enough to fit into the rocket’s awkward entry, he is gone.

Even more unexpected, within just a few years of Moon Man, the G-rated author dares an X-rating. In the Center’s back “drawing room,” two series describe a woman’s bondage and a dominatrix, as Totempole and Guardian Angels of Hell. Do they convey empathy for illicit thrills or a protest against human traffic? One thing for sure: they are neither unequivocally feminist nor complacent. Ungerer speaks of liberating fantasies as bringing an end to pornography, and he says that the woman in bondage came to him asking to be someone’s sex slave. Yet no one displays the least signs of pleasure and, sleepless, “women object.”

Looking for a way through the complications? Maybe start here. “We have a lot of sick people in the world and we have to acknowledge them,” Ungerer argues. “Who does the job?” Apparently, his art. Apparently, too, it is never politically correct but always political.

One can see politics as implicit in the children’s books as well—and not just with the Klan. Moon Man has its visionaries, as heroes and victims, with wealth and the authorities reporting to wealth as its villains. The title character of The Hat begins its life on a rich man’s head. Like the robbers, Ungerer conveys mixed messages even while thinking maybe a bit too hard in black and white. The power of his art turns on both, especially when they get in one another’s way. In more than one way, he is always telling the adults.

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

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