2.14.18 — Dark Matter

Who knew that New York University’s Center for Neural Science has an artist in residence? Nene Humphrey is just that, and she calls her latest show “Transmission,” like a brain wave or a work of art.

Neural science is concerned with networks, almost like fabric, and so is she. She bases her art on embroidery and clinical studies of the brain. It gets dark and messy, and the mess can be an act of remembrance. It can also be a probe into the mind, in a wiry third dimension.

Nene Humphrey's Out of the Nothing There Is (Lesley Heller Workspace, 2008)Humphrey shared a gallery in 2009 with Nancy Haynes, with the tactile, physical edge of abstraction as her subject. Her Mylar on paper held floating blots or blocks of color. From there, ink spun outward, like the self-generating networks of the brain. A show that same year of abstraction and its materials called itself “Cutters,” and Humphrey is still cutting and weaving. It could stand for the messy business of fine art. It also invites the viewer into a record of its making.

Her new work opens with a construction in wire and mixed media, at Lesley Heller through February 18. It also extends to video, in an installation that draws them together as a vivid whole. Its images serve as both a model for creativity and a remembrance of death. For all their material nature, they come most alive when fragile and translucent. They come alive, too, in the viewer’s unfolding experience. It could be her own or a scientist’s experience as well.

The new work adds associations with human hair. It served as a Victorian keepsake, for further remembrance. She also adds more of Humphrey. One enters past wire spinning across facing walls, only to face the artist, projected onto strips hanging from the ceiling like a curtain onto the unknown. She could be feeling out her materials, weaving them together, or teasing them apart. She could almost be conducting brain surgery.

The results appear behind the curtain, in two more videos on facing walls. Both project above what could be her work tables, with the tools at hand. The show concludes with seeming frames from the videos, but in charcoal. They soften her textures and carry them into a greater but more illusory depth. Science may have become more a metaphor than a serious, independent practice. Yet the merger of process and product has become a shared experience.

I covered Humphrey briefly in context of Haynes, “Cutters,” and Mary Heilmann. I encountered her still more briefly in a 2014 group show, “This Music Crept By Me upon the Waters,” grappling with loss. There she recorded her husband’s breathing before his death in 2006. Her central shapes, in violet against blue, and her white tracery swelled outward like jellyfish with the currents and the air. I have amplified the first review a bit with just some of the words here, as a longer review and my latest upload, while leaving the second intact. Artists in shades of black and white are still casting their spell upon the waters.

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

2.12.18 — Send In the Clouds

I can grow so bored by On Kawara that I never stop to ask: is he bored, too?

Does he ever get so sick and tired of painting the date in plain block letters on a plain colored field, to the point that it becomes an obligation? Or is it rather a relief to have a still point in a turning world—or just a way of life? Is the act of painting as ordinary for him as a walk around the block and a glimpse of the sky? Does it make every day at once part of an ongoing chain of thoughts and a fresh start?

Byrom Kim's Sunday Painting, 01/19/14 (James Cohan gallery, 2014)Byron Kim must feel all of the above by now. Every Sunday for more than seventeen years, he has devoted a square just fourteen inches on a side to a patch of sky with nary an airplane, apartment tower, or telephone pole in sight. The “Sunday Paintings” range from light blue to a cloudy white. Then he adds the date, time, location, and whatever else crosses his mind, in pen or pencil. Anyone can do the math to see that the series is approaching nine hundred paintings, and almost no one will follow every word in a selection of roughly a hundred, at James Cohan through February 17. Still, dipping in and out will make them part of your chain of thought, too—and I have added this to earlier reports of simple pleasures in paintings by Michael Hurson and Laura Owens, as a longer review and my latest upload.

They have obvious affinities with abstraction or color studies, like squares for Josef Albers, and Kim did appear a decade ago in “Color Chart” at the Museum of Modern Art. Their mundane subject recalls his choice then of skin tones. They also fall in a tradition of precise notes of the weather by landscape painters and of cloud studies by John Constable, but without the painstaking complexity. After seeing Constable sketches more than twenty years ago, I wrote that he handles clouds like portraits of dear, departed friends. Kim handles them more as elements in an unfolding self-portrait. He adds a new work each week over the course of the show.

For a while the inscription covered a separate strip at the bottom of the canvas, but now it can fall anywhere, as the sky and his thoughts have become one. Locations like Gowanus are a reminder that Kim also appeared in “Open House,” a show of Brooklyn painters. The rest of the words spin off into the triumphs and stresses of family, friends, and politics, from pleasure in the first black president to the shock of a Sanders supporter after a year of Donald J. Trump—and from the comforts of familiars to fears of letting them down. They can read like a Facebook entry, a haiku, or a secret. New Yorkers who frequent art galleries are likely to recognize themselves as well. Artists frustrated by the system can, for a moment, almost feel at home.

Sunday paintings demand regular habits and stern promises. When Kim misses a week, he notes it the next time with regret. Yet they also suggest time off from work. Instead of muddying or challenging abstraction and representation, he can embrace both. Instead of charting colors, he can let them fall where they may. He can accept failure along the way, much as in relationships. Whatever else, there is always another Sunday.

The series may have come to him as a new beginning. It starts on January 7, 2001—the first weekend of a new year and a new millennium. For those less into grand pronouncements, it was also just another day. A need for reassurance may account as well for the cheery palette, even when Hurricane Sandy darkened galleries. Kawara must have felt the same need, as in a series of nearly a thousand telegrams, each with the very same text: I AM STILL ALIVE.

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

2.9.18 — Present at the Creation

Sometimes even the divine has to struggle with the creation. The Met names a mammoth survey of Michelangelo drawings after his fame within his lifetime, as (only a little quaintly and preposterously) Il Divino. Yet “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer” shows an artist who could never rest, through February 12, not even on the seventh day. In his writings, he valued ease but also difficulty—and grace but also terror. Who can say at any moment which will win out?

Michelangelo's The Dream (Il Sogno) (photo by the Frick Collection, Courtauld Gallery, c. 1533)The Met takes him from a precocious twelve-year-old, or so it hopes, through the young man determined to outdo the very best of the Renaissance. It finds him struggling on sheet after sheet with projects that he could not bring to completion. It sees him struggling, too, as an older man to earn the affection of others. It ends with drawings as models in the hands of other artists, to extend his legacy to their work. It throws in a few paintings and sculptures, mostly by others, as well. With studies for such monuments of art history as the Sistine Chapel, it allows one to be present at the creation—and this is a huge story, so I invite you to read a longer review in my latest upload.

On his own in Florence, a city of art just as today, Michelangelo went back to the very origins of the Renaissance. He copied a monumental figure by Giotto, with cross-hatching in small strokes of the pen to create mass, light, and shadow. He copied the Expulsion from Paradise, by Masaccio, with red chalk that accentuates by its very smudges the pain in Adam’s or Eve’s face. He could not resist firming up their legs and butt muscles as well. A possible but by no means certain first sculpture in marble, a young archer, adapts an early Renaissance bronze while stripping it of decoration and refinement.

His early success in sculpture brought him to Rome, where he grew so close to the pope that Julius assigned him to design his tomb. Julius also overcame Michelangelo’s hesitancy to take on painting the Sistine ceiling, while allowing the artist a far more ambitious scheme that either had anticipated. Later Michelangelo played a role in the design of Rome’s greatest churches and public squares. He lived to influence not just the High Renaissance, through a close follower in Sebastiano del Piombo, but the late Renaissance as well. He offered a cartoon, or full-scale drawing for transfer, to Jacopo da Pontormo, and the twisted and tormented bodies of his Last Judgment could well stand as Mannerism’s greatest achievement. He died at a time of changing morals, to the point that another follower, Daniele da Volterra, took charge of covering up the painting’s nudity.

His breadth appears, too, in his media. The Met’s description of him as “draftsman and designer” plays on the Italian designo, which means more than just drawing. One might think of drawing as a matter of line, but Michelangelo thought of himself as a sculptor, and he created a corresponding sensibility on paper. The early cross-hatching loosens up, and firm outlines vanish entirely—and he brought the same sensibility to painting and architecture, both public and private. He also found a language for his art and his longings in poetry, which often shares a sheet with his drawing. Not even Leonardo da Vinci was such a Renaissance man.

Michelangelo’s breadth challenges a museum to keep up. The Met responds with more than two hundred objects, including more than one hundred thirty drawings by him alone. It also places a replica of the Sistine ceiling in a light box overhead, somewhat later than it and related drawings would fall chronologically. At a quarter scale, it is more than impressive enough, and it further drives home the artist’s unity of site and art. The full-scale reproductions of individual panels this past summer, each on its own stand at the PATH station Oculus, had to leave one wondering if they could ever come together as a narrative, a program, or a work of art. Here they gain in power from the painted ribs that separate them and that ripple across the whole.

He fills a sheet only to turn it sideways, upside-down, or on its reverse to make room for more. He blocks out a figure with separate studies of anatomy, clothing, and architectural setting. He also makes it impossible to know which came first. Does that make his process fundamentally additive, or does he have it all in his head to start? Either way, his unity packs a surprise, and so do his drawings. You may need to come with a little of the story that the Met leaves out, or you may delight in leaping over the gaps.

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

2.7.18 — Up Your Day!

Has the information age raised the specter of political oppression? It sure has in social media, where the promise of the open Internet has given way to big data.

It may, though, be a trick question, especially when it comes to art. Edmund Clark, for one, uses new media along with photography to assail censorship, torture, and the war on terror. Mark Pauline styles his studio and gallery as Survival Research Laboratories, but they look much like the blue-collar America that technology has displaced. from Chris Dorland's Civilian (Lyles & King, 2018)Still others, like Chris Dorland, evoke virtual reality within the incomplete physical space of gallery architecture and installation. All find themselves torn between political realities, dystopian visions, and sheer pleasure. When it comes to the police at least, bring on the body cameras.

From the very start, Dorland holds out a work in progress, at Lyles & King through February 11. A video rests against a wall, facing the door, just a stride or two past the entrance. It nestles between the shelf on the right, for the guest book and such, and metal studs reaching to the ceiling. Its cryptic content and colorful, shifting images lure one in. To see the whole, of course, one has to step around the porous barrier, but already one can admire how the space has adapted. Dorland might simply have failed to finish the job for opening day.

That impression vanishes soon enough, for he has plenty of video, plenty of barriers, and not a trace of Sheetrock, as “Civilian.” More studs form partial crossing walls in the large room at back. They also serve as armature for taller screens, without blocking the view from one to another. They orient the viewer, much like the grid of geometric abstraction, while leaving the work open. So does the imagery, with its quick cuts and more fluid motion. So, too, does the difficulty of making sense of it.

It looks both mundane and futuristic, much like the deluge of virtual realities in real life. Dorland says that he draws on ads and his own nocturnal walks for the cool blacks and warmer colors. They continue the dialogue between completion and incompletion, much like the partial entrance wall with its glimpse of more to come. They suggest a dialogue, too, among new media, installation, and architecture. The gallery did a heroic job of reclaiming a dark space a few steps down from the street, adding over time a full partition (for a small side room, currently with paintings by Simon Mathers that look abstract but borrow from dairy cartons) and very short stairs to the back, with an assist from an artist. Once again, I had to think, an artist is lending a hand to its future.

Futurism has the usual dark side, as with surveillance cameras and 24/7 excuses for entertainment. Dorland’s darker screens include a woman’s hand as at once a temptation and a slap in the face, while block letters dare you to amp (or maybe to give) UP YOUR DAY! Put it down to politics, Twitter, or a weakness for sci-fi dystopias, but something is in the air. Just a few blocks over, Anna K.E. confesses her dependence on Blade Runner, for what she calls “Crossing Gibraltar at Midday,” at Simone Subal through February 28. (I guess no man is an island, but some women are.) Her images, too, connect photocollage and video to the body.

A block further, Sondra Perry raises more mundane fears of twisted data and the surveillance state, at Bridget Donahue through February 25. While the story is no less elusive, it incorporates real news and black experience—something to do with the exploitation of amateur athletes. Like Dorland, both artists combine new media and metal constructions for layers of real and virtual reality. Their sculpture looks vaguely human and vaguely utilitarian, like Joel Shapiro after one too many video game. To insist further on her work as installation, Perry paints the room blue. If that sounds ominous, her contribution to “Take Me (I’m Yours)” last year at the Jewish Museum alluded to the “blue code of silence” and “blue screen of death.”

Dorland gets more personal while turning down the messaging. A civilian, after all, is often caught up in war but never in fighting. He can still play on closure and openness, and most often the open wins out. The barriers never preclude sightlines or passage. The incoherence never precludes the familiar. For all the software and walls, he still gets to wander at night.

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

2.5.18 — Semi-Magic Squares

When Hassan Sharif died in 2016 at age sixty-five, he left behind all sorts of things, and his Chelsea gallery gives pride of place to some of the least prepossessing. Notes or sketches place numbers in small grids, like KenKen puzzles or magic squares that refuse to add up.

Nor do the sheets themselves, with the grids falling where they will among still more cryptic marks, crossings out, and blank spaces. Sharif might have been laying bare the logic behind his finished work or throwing logic to the winds. Then again, he could be staking out a place between the two or just killing time. The show does bear the title “Semi-Systems,” at Alexander Gray through February 10.

Even at his most logical, Sharif might be killing time. He traced the outlines of a small white cube on the floor, shifted it to mark an adjacent square, and shifted it again a few more times until he had completed a larger square, without a number in sight. from Hassan Sharif's Copper No. 35 (Alexander Gray gallery, 2016)The gallery displays both photographs of successive steps and a video of their making—leaving others to decide whether to call the work photography, conceptual art, process, or performance. He earned a reputation for them all, counting cars on a road in Dubai or accumulating household items like tools and toys. Other works come closer to Minimalism, like the squares or like beams of partly burnished steel and finished wood. Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre, and Donald Judd might have joined right in.

A confession that he sought variety and richness in simple rules sounds right out LeWitt as well, but for Sharif the rules seem secondary to their execution. Not that he was in search of a greater beauty. His piled plastic, aluminum, fabric, and paper look less like fine art than a scandal. Yet he took pleasure in their rhythms and colors. He sought neither the shimmer of plastic cups for Tara Donovan nor the bad boy stance of trash art for Michael Smith and Mike Kelly. He was older than they—old enough to play by the rules that he was breaking.

He was also enough of a formalist to shy away from making statements. He found the trash near his home in the United Arab Emirates, and he paints one grid on carpet, like far older Islamic art. A wall painting of another grid with one side of each square thickening at the middle might almost depict barbed wire—and so might a twisted rectangle of copper wire. Yet he shied away from political art, whether as nationalism or activism. The piles may have something to say about consumer culture, or they might not. He admired Marcel Duchamp, and his whole work looks a bit like Minimalism through the eyes of Dada.

One floor piece appeared in a 2014 show of Arab art called “Here and Elsewhere,” and that label suits him, too. Born in Iran, he grew up in Dubai and studied art in England, but with an obvious eye on Paris and New York. Back in the Emirates in 1982, he lived at first outside Dubai as if ill at ease anywhere near the center of attention. Celebrated at home, he could pass for just another half-neglected westerner—and nowhere near the most pressing. You may think that you have seen this show before. It hardly helps that it must leave out the more colorful performances and displays in favor of the semi-systems.

Still, it illuminates the underlying logic or illogic of other shows past and present. It puts the semiotics in his semi-systems. It comes alive most, too, when it becomes most material. The beams look so weathered or polished and the wire so intricate or threatening that one may never get around to looking for a system. Coiled springs from 2016 take shape under the influence of gravity, but Sharif also arranges them in nine staggered fields like aprons or shields. So what if the squares have lost their magic?

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

2.2.18 — Between Portraits and Genre

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo was a portrait painter for today. History records just two self-portraits, but they point past his textbook works to his greatest strengths, in empathy and illusion. With their sentiment and bravura, his figures would look at home on social media. They lead me, too, to a fuller review (abridged here), as my latest upload.

Not that Murillo makes selfies. He takes no interest in where he was on a given day, and he sets himself apart from the crowd, as if literally set in stone. Yet his larger output has no shortage of sentiment and sickly smiles. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo's Self-Portrait (Frick Collection, c. 1650–1655)It runs to women and most especially children, dressed like urchins but basking in light. One little boy leans on a sill, but he might have stepped right out of the street. They seem no more important than what the artist and loved ones invest in them, but that is enough.

For all that, Murillo did not often have time for portraits. The Spanish artist found a ready audience for religious paintings and genre scenes, with all their cherubs, ragamuffins, sweetness, and light. With both portraiture and fiction, through February 11, the Frick illuminates his practice of each. It also centers on his two known self-portraits, painted in the early 1650s and around 1670, from barely fifteen surviving portraits. They show him in his thirties, fashionable and confident, and again in his fifties, after the death of wife. They show him, too, staking out the image of the artist over the course of his life and the primacy of illusion in his art.

What if only two portraits of Rembrandt had survived, some twenty years apart? From more than a hundred self-portraits (counting prints and drawings as well as oils), one can trace Rembrandt’s growth as an artist and his changing fortunes, but the differences would be starker still. One would see him as a young man, taking pride in his experiments with himself and vision. And then one would see an older Rembrandt, bankrupt and almost defeated, but every inch a painter and every inch a king. Nothing looks more regal than his work clothes and maul stick, which he used to steady his hands while painting—but which he wields like a scepter. And nothing better attests to the growing command of mass, light, layering, and impasto.

Murillo’s self-portraits seem far more of a piece—the first a gift to the Frick from Henry Clay Frick’s descendants in 2014, the second from the National Gallery in London. He has much the same dark cloak and rippling white shirt in both, as well as much the same precision and light. He seems equally proud in both, too, of his stature as a man and an artist. The Frick describes the older Murillo as forlorn and weary, but he raises himself even taller than before. He also sets both paintings in oval frames, and those frames are fictions. They are meant as trompe l’oeil, or to deceive the eye.

He has painted them both, in the first case with a surrounding stone slab. A collector might have mounted a portrait in just such a frame, but only a well-off collector fully invested in the work. The stone appears chipped and weather beaten, because that investment has already stood the test of time. In the second, Murillo ups the ante, by reaching out to grip the pretend frame. He is calling attention to his mastery and his presence, even if he needs the gesture at his age to bear his weight and to sustain his pose. A shelf below holds the tools of his trade, from brushes and paint to a compass and a fine stylus for red chalk. A transcription dedicates the painting to his sons, because he wants them to know of his achievement.

The curators, Xavier F. Salomon and Letizia Treves, also include the boy leaning on a sill, along with a measured and lively portrait of an older child of noble birth. Which is closer to reality? Murillo is unlikely to have taken his sketchpad to the street, like Vincent van Gogh desperate for a patient sitter. Then again, he did not have to try. Where a Dutch painter might treat even a portrait as a genre scene, he treats a genre scene as a portrait, with a claim to truth in place of a moral. They deserve a place on the Web.

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

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