11.8.17 — Abstraction Sharp and Flat

Kellyann Burns is capable of warm, clashing colors, but also cagey enough to keep them in reserve. On entering at McKenzie through November 12, one might see instead a blast from a more austere past, in the person of Brice Marden.

While Marden has his bright side, too, with swirls upon swirls against white, his earlier work seemed to distrust or even to deny pleasure. And Burns adopts his division of the field into two colors, one more muted and yet more sour than the next. Kellyann Burns's Untitled (McKenzie, 2017)They recall his blues and yellows that refuse to stand for primaries—and his gray that infects them all. One panel hints at brightening skies, but mostly buried in black.

Still, they break with Marden’s combination of depth and uniformity. Within the same painting, one color is matte and the other shines with reflected light. Both fields are layered, and both lie flat. A line in oil pierces a pale field with the texture of pencil or charcoal. Other paintings run freer, like stains or drips heading the wrong way. Still others allow black to show through, giving colors a touch of smoke.

In truth, Marden was never opposed to pleasure. It just had to be a purely abstract pleasure, without reference to expression or representation. He asks how deeply the eye can penetrate a single field. His later work may identify curves with brushwork, like David Reed, but without Reed’s illusion of a wide brush. And Burns is not opposed to Minimalism’s material pleasures. The rough edges of her thin panels make one aware of them and the layers of paint that they disclose.

Burns works on Alu-Dibond, or common plastic with aluminum on both sides. The aluminum makes possible the matte or shine—that and the hard work of layering and sanding. A square of wood on the back lifts each panel off the wall and allows it to hang with any orientation. Just as with technique, she is exploring the possibilities. The most colorful and intricate panels are also the smallest, just a little too large to hold in one hand. Their detail and the metal coating bring them that much closer to digital.

Painting so much about craft and versatility can lack that one memorable image. Think how, even after so many years, I recall overcoming my distaste for early Marden. Now in his eighties, Robert Moskowitz still has that image, all the more so because it has to compete with the rectangle. He takes his black and white to the point of abstraction, at Kerry Schuss through December 3, but without losing that one big thing. The white silhouette of a skyscraper rises at an angle as in amateur photography—or as if soaring into the surrounding darkness. It looks all the more striking if one recognizes the Flatiron or Empire State Building.

Moskowitz’s repertoire, from windmills to divers, links him to the New Image painting of the 1970s, but it shares the simplicity of the thing itself with Jasper Johns. It began in 1961 with the image or shadow of a window shade, and he is still casting a shadow before interrupting it with light. His latest include two black diagonals that slide against one another just enough that a sliver of white appears between them—and jagged white that boasts of its asymmetry. Either can serve as figure or ground, but then the whole idea of figure and ground has gone out the window. It has gone out, that is, before pulling down the blind. Now just think what might result if Burns retains her breadth while sharpening the flatness.

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

11.6.17 — Here, Now, and Elsewhere

Heidi Hahn has seen better days, but it is hard to say when. Meantime, her women just do the best they can, and her art insists that women can define their public and private image.

They read, check the phone yet again, or even paint. They hang out together without paying one another the least attention, as roommates do by necessity—especially those with smart phones. They try to get some rest or to get off the floor, beneath a clock that is right at least twice a day. They take insistent walks even in the rain.

Heidi Hahn's The Future Is Elsewhere (If It Breaks Your Heart) (Jack Hanley gallery, 2017)They seem, in short, not terribly good at taking care of themselves, but who knows? The rain seems to miss them entirely, even if they cannot manage an umbrella. It could interfere with their determined stride. Sometimes the sun comes out at that, and the showers bring a flower, just as in the proverbs and promises. It is a lone and rather schematic flower, much like the lone and schematic women, and the walker acknowledges it no more than the cloud, but why should she? Hahn has looked inward to discover both.

She, too, is just going about her business whatever her mood, at Jack Hanley through November 12. She calls the series The Future Is Elsewhere (If It Breaks Your Heart), but she sticks to the here and now. The title sticks to the vernacular as well, with the deeply felt illogic of many a song. Hahn’s past shows have spoken of sadness, uncertain love, and looking to herself for raw experience, with what could pass for still more song titles. They have also had swirling colors and crowds out of a nightmare or dark ritual. Here she sets aside the otherworldly and the overstatement in search of the personal and the everyday.

She does so, though, with anything but everyday colors. Her silhouettes run to deep pinks and purples, face down or in profiles that flatten them all the more. She also hides their faces, with a loss of individuality that could stand for generalization or pain. The style is duly expressive, a bit like German Expressionism, but closer still to the passion of Paul Gauguin in Brittany. He, too, sought the future and an elsewhere, and he, too, had mixed feelings about the female body. Like Hahn, he found it ever so sensual but also something of a burden.

It shows in his fields of color. Their flattening can make them iconic or disembodied. (Historians have looked to their “primitivism” for a greater sensuality, but also for a French Catholic education and a revulsion at the flesh.) The urgent questions also appear in his most epic painting after his move to Tahiti: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Its many women could represent the course of a single lifetime, much as Hahn’s social gatherings might be a gathering of one.

Her fields of color bring the work alive, just as for him, but with a subtle difference. Gauguin sometimes ironed his oils to flatten them further, but Hahn is not hiding her textures and her brushwork. (Then again, could Gauguin’s ironing have created scars like these?) She leaves in place, too, the thickening from paint drops, to lend her forms their structure and fluidity. Hahn leaves their clothes on as well. They can get sentimental, like many a pop song, but she owns them and owns up.

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

11.3.17 — Ghosts of Modern Sculpture

A visitor to Bolton Landing may have felt that he had seen a ghost. David Smith had died two years before, in 1965, but his presence lingered over his studio, a converted farm in upstate New York—and over modern art.

It lingered enough that the visitor, Ralph E. Ogden, bought thirteen sculptures on the spot, as the foundation of Storm King Art Center. When I first visited years later, their presence at sunset across the art center’s meadows, David Smith's Primo Piano 1 (Roberts family collection, 1962)hills, and native plants helped me understand sculpture as drawing, as mass, as abstraction, as human form, and as site. Smith did, after all, title a work now in the Whitney, from 1951, Hudson River Landscape. I could not have known that, at his death, he left something more ghostly still—sculptures in white.

Now Storm King recreates their siting on its central “museum hill,” through November 12, and I have added this to an earlier report on Calder mobiles as a longer review and my latest upload. The center builds a larger exhibition around a simple question: why ever are they white? Smith studied painting with Hans Hoffman at the Art Students League, like Lee Krasner and many a future Abstract Expressionist, but one rarely thinks of him as a colorist. One thinks of his art more as steel, bronze, and more steel—stainless, burnished, rusted, or painted black. He took a summer job at an auto factory and kept on welding.

That last option holds out a clue to why sculpture had seen its ghost. The show mentions that he used white as underpainting. Case closed, right? Probably, but white keeps turning up in other ways as well, on two floors of Storm King’s visitor center. He applied it to metal in at least one finished work, along with what he called moon blue. He used white coral along with terra cotta, wood, and wire in some early sculpture as well.

White appears more often in other media. It appears as snowy landscapes in photographs—and as sky or reflected light in photos of sculpture titled Black White Backward. It appears as the ground for drips like those of Jackson Pollock, but with the black squeezed from a syringe. It appears, too, in works on paper akin to photograms, as Smith sprayed black enamel over components of sculpture and removed them. Taken together, the uses of white span his career. They help round out a 2006 David Smith retrospective, on his centennial, and a 2011 show of his late Cubi and spray paintings.

Storm King draws on just the eight loans and its collection, including unpainted steel. It points out Smith’s debt to iron sculpture by Julio González—and so to Pablo Picasso. Unlike past shows of Tomás Saraceno, and Thomas Houseago, and Josephine Halvorson, it leaves the rest of its grounds to others, with the side benefit of extending Smith’s presence. They include his wife, Dorothy Dehner, as well as George Rickey, Alexander Liberman, Mark di Suvero, and Joel Shapiro. The white sculpture comes across as bright, firm, and less ghostly after all. It could almost make Smith a colorist after all.

Heather Hart has a commission in the opposite direction, lost in the woods. Hart sets down an attic and roof, as if blown there like home in The Wizard of Oz. Hart has gone in the past for a woman’s presence, through crocheting, and the presences of others, through found poetry and recipes. Here she treats the building to performances and recorded testimonials, as The Oracle of Lacuna. One can enter to hear about neighboring towns—or forget the heavy talk and clamber over the roof. The red wood and tar can serve as a playground or an echo of sculpture’s red and black steel.

I could have traveled up the Hudson Valley just to see the David Smith I knew. I would have found him at his closest to Surrealism, with Iron Woman. I would have found him at his most minimal, with Five Units Equal—or, with works like Tanktotem, everything in between. I would have caught Calder at his most static along the way. The Arch could almost serve as an entrance to Storm King’s five hundred acres. After Abstract Expressionism, can sculpture sit so still?

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

11.1.17 — An Atheist at the Last Supper

Starting in 1988, an avowed atheist devoted her art to a West African religion in Communist Cuba. No wonder her subjects struggle to emerge from the darkness. With “Nkame,” through November 5, El Museo del Barrio surveys the all too brief career of Belkis Ayón—and I have placed this with another recent report on Caribbean artists crossing cultures as a longer review and my latest upload.

Ayón began with clashing colors, but they sat awkwardly, she felt, with her equally clashing compositions. By 1991, color appears only as a black woman’s golden yellow shirt on a still blacker throne. Her white scepter and blank white eyes make the darkness all the harder to penetrate. detail of Belkis Ayón's La Cena (The Supper) (estate of the artist, 1991)In no time, even that touch of wealth and pride is gone. Yet it leaves a dizzying variety of stark silhouettes and shades of grey. In Ayón’s most majestic work, the central figure has become a mere outline in white, set amid sinister and luminous surroundings.

Ayón calls the work La Cena (The Supper), but this is no happy family gathering. Its title comes from The Last Supper in Italian, but it can manage at most eight apostles or betrayals. Where Leonardo da Vinci captured a moment of suspense and revelation, Ayón sees only languor and lurking. The central figure faces front, with no features at all beyond haunting and haunted eyes. Others lean darkly over each other or the table, leaving three plates of fish untouched and a fourth reduced to bare bones. One figure turns away in profile, but it seems just as frightening and as mysterious that the others will remain.

What looks like a mural is really a print—or rather adjoining prints, any one of which tells only part of the story. Ayón claimed, modestly or jokingly, to have stuck to them because she was so bad at drawing. I would not underestimate her talents, but even as prints go she chose a process closer to assemblage than to the fine line of engraving or the brushwork of lithography. Known as collagraphy, it layers paper and ink on sandpaper and other materials before running them through a press. It allows her to control her many shades and textures. It also allows her to extend a composition from the floor to a wall, like the passage between this world and the next.

Often as not, the central figure is a woman, with a clear resemblance to the artist. The museum tries to reassure visitors that they need not worry unduly about the details of Abakuá, her guiding myth brought from Africa with the slave trade. She did not believe in it either. The show has a dizzying amount of wall text for the curious all the same. Do not even try to find an explanation for the show’s title, a word of welcome half-buried in the verbiage. Still, Abakuá for her mostly boils down poignantly to that woman and her fate.

She discovers a fish, which turns out to incarnate a royal ancestor and a manifestation of god. As others learn about it, they demand her death, but she is not going down without attaining a foot in both worlds. She sits alongside that god and beneath a cross. She takes on the fish’s scales as her skin, her cloak, her jester’s motley, or her armor. They could pass, too, for leaves as a sign of growth and renewal. Her whiteness makes her at once a reversal of darkness and the embodiment of death.

As with the fish and the passage to divinity, Ayón often looks for parallels in Christianity—but with a black woman in place of a white male savior. She has a goat at her feet, for an African trickster or a sacrificial lamb. Does she also disguise a commentary on Cuba? The curator, Cristina Vives, notes the need for Latin American art to hide meanings under the Castro regime. She notes, too, the nation’s insecurity as the Communist bloc crumbled. For Ayón, even catching a plane for the Venice Biennale took some doing.

Her suicide in 1999, at age thirty-two, may have caught friends by surprise, but death was never far away. If Afro-Cuban evokes joyful rhythms, here joy and motion are hard to find. One series describes rites of initiation to, after all, a secret society that she could never join and a spiritualism that she could never quite embrace. The very last prints, just one to a sheet, isolate her in turbulent circles without hope of a resurrection. They place her at the very center of what an earlier show called “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World.” Still, anyone who crosses here may never leave.

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

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