3.15.17 — Avoidance Behavior

John Dante Bianchi called his show “Unavoidable Encounter.” I would not have had it any other way. With Monika Zarzeczna, I had a less fortunate encounter, but just as unavoidable. At least the dealer assured me so when I apologized: I was only the latest to dislodge a work from the wall. It had fallen three times at the opening alone.

I am not convinced: I should have been more careful. Still, both artists expose their materials to the elements for good reason. They lay bare a work’s construction, with what others might dismiss as unfinished. They also ask one to compare its fragility to one’s own. Save taped lines on the floor for museums.

Both make art between painting and sculpture—or between painting and its frame. Bianchi creases his rectilinear surfaces, so that they protrude that much further into the room, recently at Denny through January 22. Often he folds or peels them back as well, revealing the stretcher and the space within it as a further intrusion into depth. Painting comes off the wall while also returning to the wall. He recalls Minimalism’s talk of art as object, with a geometry determined by its edges, only here the hard edges fall within the painting rather than along the borders of stretched canvas. The lines in three dimensions also contrast with the freer handling of paint and the unpredictable overall shape.

His rejection of formalism extends to the blurred, layered, and mottled surfaces. He does not lean strictly to flesh tones, but the pinks, blues, and creams mean to evoke human skin. He sands or scars aluminum and plywood panels to increase the interpenetration of color, with the bruising both literal and a metaphor. Where Minimalism obliged one to look to oneself and one’s surroundings, here both appear vulnerable. White sculpture in the center of the room looks more like stalagmites. Does that make the panels cave paintings?

Zarzeczna comes across as more of a craftsperson, at Lesley Heller through March 19, but not for long. Here the wood looks shaped and bent like an old rocker. It could be Cubism’s still-life with chair caning without the caning. In practice, though, she simply cuts away at found scraps and connects them, with the hardware visible as with Robert Ryman. They also serve as stretchers for battered Plexiglas or aluminum and spattered paint, only the panels have mostly fallen to the floor. Normally, aluminum flashing protects houses from damage by water, but things are less stable than they appear.

If one had any doubts, a small weight on the floor keeps the sole freestanding work from sliding or toppling over. Once again a work’s support becomes part of its materials and imagery. Its larger scale compared to wall pieces also keeps it from becoming precious. Others include bundled horsehair and twine, hanging down or holding (for now) a smaller construction to the wall. They suggest brooms and human hair, as further marks of housekeeping and personal exposure. Should they fall, they can take on the task of sweeping up.

3.13.17 — The Zelig of Modern Art

He exhibited in the first wave of abstraction, as Cubism shattered into fragments of color. He met the founder of Dada in Zurich, and he caught up with the movement again when it shifted to Paris. He published with it and delighted in its machine esthetic.

He collaborated in theater, film, and dance with one each of France’s most daring and celebrated composers, directors, and choreographers. He painted Spanish women, much as a Spaniard two years younger was turning back to realism. Francis Picabia's I See in Memory My Dear Udnie (Museum of Modern Art, 1914)That Spaniard was Picasso, but the older painter, too, discovered Neoclassicism and then Surrealism. And then he declared that “figurative art is dead,” at the very moment of the triumph of abstract painting in New York. Oh, and did I say that he sat out part of World War I here, just in time for the Armory Show, and World War II in Vichy France, painting in the official style and spouting anti-Semitism? He was, he declared himself, one “funny guy.”

He could be the Zelig of modern art, but it did not take another funny guy to make him up. Francis Picabia had his signature work, much of it now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, but he did all he could to disavow the artist’s signature. His retrospective, at MoMA through March 19, packs two hundred works into rooms claiming ten different periods—and it is the subject of a longer and fuller review, in my latest upload. You can forgive it if it throws up its hands and calls one period simply eclecticism. So who was he for real? Part of his contribution to Modernism was to question whether the question makes sense.

Actually, it still may. It all depends on which version of the artist one accepts—from a man with so many versions of himself. He may have devoted himself to one movement after another, or he could have stood apart from them all. The curators, Anne Umland and Cathérine Hug of the Kunsthaus Zürich with Talia Kwartler, argue for Picabia as the consummate trickster. They see an essential nihilism behind his many shifts, and they quote Friedrich Nietzsche, as he was wont to do in his lifetime. The full title of the show’s messiest room is “Eclecticism and Iconoclasm,” with the emphasis on iconoclasm.

A quote from the artist highlights the very idea of change and supplies the show’s title: “Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction.” If the joke seems awfully lame, that accords with another version of Picabia. Maybe his signature works, mostly abstract and all from 1912 to 1920, were his signature. Maybe he floundered after that, all the way to his death in 1953. A noted critic has argued much the same for Pablo Picasso apart from Cubism.

Maybe, too, he came into his own only later—or even after his death. His grab-bag of styles and media looks forward to Postmodernism and art now. So does his use of Ripolin, the premixed enamel, or his paintings after photography and porn. So, too, do his evasions and irony. One could mistake some of his most enigmatic realism for the work of Sigmar Polke or David Salle in the 1980s. The most garish paintings from Vichy France have become some of the show’s most popular on Facebook.

And then there is Zelig. Maybe one can make sense of Picabia only by watching him change, from moment to moment. It can bring out the truth in all those versions of his art. It can show him always in the middle of the action but never altogether there. He may not have left much in the way of great painting, but it becomes easier to see why. He was always looking ahead, looking aside, and looking back.

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

3.10.17 — Feeling the Heat

Many on the right, in Europe and America, wish that refugees would just go away. Many would like to make their suffering invisible to human eyes as well.

from Richard Mosse's The Enclave (Jack Shainman gallery, 2013)No matter, for Richard Mosse has found a way to see what the naked eye cannot, at Jack Shainman through March 11. His last exhibition turned outdated infrared film into high-definition video that gave civil war in Africa a surreal color and supernatural beauty. Now he turns instead to the latest thing, in both his medium and world events. He adopts military technology to photographs of refugee camps.

They have none of the temptations of a seemingly untouched nature, in Africa’s waterfalls and trees. Here even the seas bordering on camps have the choppy grays of paving tar or hard stone. They have few, too, of the close encounters that gave civil warriors a brutal humanity. Mosse sees the camps from the air, in panoramas that seem constrained horizontally only by gallery walls. This film can capture detail at over thirty kilometers, or nearly twenty miles. By comparison, he points out, the horizon itself drops away far sooner.

The film can do so with an uncanny crispness, thanks to exposure times of up to forty minutes. The prints, which look much like photographic negatives in black and white, dare one to count the bodies or the fences. They give closely packed shelters, cars, and military vehicles a ghostly sheen. Early photography, too, needed long exposures, emptying Paris streets because people do not sit still. Here, as for Thomas Struth or Katherine Newbegin, film accentuates the masses and their immobility. It calls to mind, too, the obstacles barring movement in or of the camps, to safety or freedom.

Smaller accompanying photos allow for greater action, but only barely. All are displays of virtuosity since Mosse, after all, has only human eyes until he is done. (He says that he often has to discard the results, although he is getting the hang of the medium after two years.) He calls the work “Heat Maps,” after the film’s original purpose. That, too, calls attention to flesh and blood that others would rather forget, but almost everything here seems to give off heat. Humanity is itself in question.

Insecurities” at MoMA displayed the barest of comforts that international organizations can bring to the camps. So does “Perpetual Revolution” at the International Center of Photography, with a mix of photojournalism and social media. Julio Bittencourt has, more poignantly, applied ordinary photography to the South American dispossessed. Yoan Capote looks again across the Gulf from Cuba, also at Shainman, in paintings of sunlit crossings and stormy seas. Their surfaces of oil and black fishhooks pack a triple dose of native culture, photorealism, and treachery. His mix of hopes and fears emerges in title from Cold Memories to Luminous Future—and in the space between political art, landscape, and abstraction.

Each artist is recovering lives, while also questioning those who place lives in danger. For Mosse, the latest means do not require an indifference to the ordinary. Rather, he starts with the unseen and renders it unfamiliar. A print’s very distance from its subject adds to the presence and the chill. For now, Trump threatens to throw diplomacy and refugees to the winds. Art and technology are already feeling the heat.

3.8.17 — After the Revolution

Was there ever an art so open to the future? Dada reinvented itself every day, but with no thought to tomorrow. The Bauhaus demanded a new beginning, but with a program. “A Revolutionary Impulse” shows the Russian avant-garde moving so fast that it could hardly know where it was going. It lived by a revolution, with support from Lenin, and it died by a revolution, with Stalin and Soviet Realism, but there was no turning back or turning away. Like the elements of its most revolutionary abstract paintings, it took the risk of floating, soaring, or falling in space. Alexander Rodchenko's Spatial Construction #12 (Museum of Modern Art, c. 1920)

MoMA is having its own quiet revolution. Its 2004 expansion subordinated the permanent collection to hype and real estate, while exhibitions have descended to circuses and celebrities. Yet it has begun to use its smaller galleries and its collection for real history. Now it has to encompass many movements, through March 12, because Russian revolutionary art had more than its share. It places Rayonism, Suprematism, Constructivism, UNIVOS, Proun, and more within a single trajectory—where the last two acronyms share the words Affirmation of the New. They also do not refer explicitly to socialism or politics, a tension that began to eat away at their foundations even before they fell to repression.

They began even before the October revolution. As early as 1913, Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov were treating Cubism as a forest penetrated by rays of color and light. Kazimir Malevich was proving himself a student of Pablo Picasso and George Braque as well, right down to a soft palette of blue and gray. Prints by Olga Rozanova speak ambiguously to the terrors of war and the nobility of soldiers and workers. She could hardly know that the first would topple the tsar and then a democratic provisional government, while the second would become dogma. Later, with Malevich, Lyubov Popova opens up to colliding geometric forms on fields of white. For now, she could only insist, “we are breaking with the past.”

They were, but not entirely. Her war series also draws on woodcuts for its clumsy edges and images like trumpets. And folk art continues to inspire Russian Modernism. It comports with a shared aim in art and Communism to bring modernity to everyone. El Lissitzky converts Malevich’s red and black squares into characters for a children’s book. Alexandra Exter designs costumes and sets for operettas and Othello—and never mind that the revolution, too, was to end in tragedy.

It began with no time to lose as well. Some art movements are close circles, the kind that might fit in a gallery opening or a crowded bar. This one has one leading name after another, including Wassily Kandinsky (on his brief return to Russia from Munich), Naum Gabo, Ivan Puni, Antoine Pevsner, and Vladimir Tatin. It also has women on equal terms with men. The curators, Roxana Maroci and Sarah Suzuki, devote entire walls hung high to a single artist. The arrangement suits works on paper more than the momentous quiet of Malevich’s white square, but it echoes his floating compositions and the period’s headlong rush.

It also gives due prominence to film. It opens with a collage of found footage by Esfir (or Esther) Shub, and it pauses midway for four silent classics. The revolutionary montage of Potemkin, by Sergei Eisenstein, and Man with a Movie Camera, by Dziga Vertov, plays out on facing walls. One follows the crew of a battleship to rebellion, the other the wild course of a single day. Yet something changes with that room—and not just with its political message. Something darkens as well, from the stern imagery of Earth by Alexander Dovzhenko and Mother by Vsevolod Pudovkin to Eisenstein’s murderous Cossacks and a woman’s bleeding eye.

The show’s subtitle speaks of “The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde,” but its arc suggests instead a rise and fall. Earlier, the plywood tracery of Spatial Construction, by Alexander Rodchenko, casts its dizzying shadows on the wall. After the movies, he and El Lissitzky command a room for photography, with continued experiment but a greater chill. Rodchenko buries a woman in a grid of shadows and turns a street protest into an ant colony. Portraits of artists, poets, and a Pioneer girl close in on imposing faces and a gaping eye. They could be inspiring or terrifying.

A last room gives way to Soviet propaganda. It includes posters and postcards, with the shadow of Lenin’s raised arm. It includes a People’s Commissariat of Heavy Industry that looks more like guard towers. “The people” appear everywhere—but, as one of Rodchenko’s photos already had it, “the workers are quiet.” Art had become far too important for innovation, even before Stalin demanded just that. The future was no longer so open.

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

3.6.17 — Asian Industry

Tales of Our Time” opens with a swirl of black. It ends with a pool of red liquid, which an industrial robot disperses and gathers again. They are exuberant moments in a show, at the Guggenheim, that more often recalls a distant time or world. And I have added this to earlier reports on global displacement and post-industrial waste as a longer review and my latest upload.

Cheng Ran's Diary of a Madman (photo by Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio, New Museum, 2016)Sun Xun works not directly on the wall, but on mulberry bark paper, in the manner of traditional Chinese calligraphy and art. And the long entrance wall to a tower gallery immerses one in it. Up close, where one first encounters it, it dissolves into abstraction. From a distance, it resolves into a landscape—and the first of his cast of exotic birds, wolves, tigers, and dragons. More enter in color on facing walls and in a video at their center. Elsewhere the Yangjiang Group lays out a tea ceremony, but with a cuff for visitors to check their rising blood pressure—due, I suspect, only partly to caffeine.

Has one journeyed to a distant past, to the New York of Jackson Pollock, or to the future of new media? For all the claims of its title, the exhibition unfolds anywhere but in a shared present. The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation invites its seven contributors to explore their sense of home through storytelling. The title riffs on Old Tales Retold, by Lu Xun. The 1936 novel recasts ancient legends in the China he knew. These artists, through March 10, recast the China they know as myth.

As myths go, it is a bleak one. Sun Xun is from northeast China, where a proud coal mine has bit the dust. Zhou Tao records the Pearl River delta on facing videos as Land of the Throat. They show construction sites at dusk as scarred earth crossed by rescue workers, steel beams, dogs, and shadows. Kan Xuan travels through central Asia for months, only to find barely a trace of more than a hundred ancient settlements. The photos from her cell phone have become stop-action videos, on the walls and on stone, of little more than blanks.

They convey few hints of displaced rural populations or daily life in cities, beyond Kan’s barbed wire sculpted in marble. As the exhibition opened, China’s president had consolidated power, further restricted the Internet, and taken the title “core leader.” One would never know it. If the show has a villain at all, it is Japan—and there, too, not in the present. It might have ravaged China in the past, leaving only a post-industrial wasteland. It might have descended after nothing else was left.

Chia-En Jao asks taxi drivers to recall Japanese colonial rule from before they were born. It may resonate for fans of Thomas Friedman, the Times columnist who boasts of his insights from the back seat of a cab. Now and then, reality intrudes as the voice of GPS. Tsang Kin-Wah films ships off contested islands. Quotes from literary theory spin out on the walls and floors. Then again, deconstruction no longer dominates “our time” either.

Cheng Ran takes his title, too, from Lu Xun—with Diary of a Madman recently at the New Museum, through January 15. The young Chinese artist takes his camera to the underside of New York City at the wee hours of the dawn. He seems to record the pain not of madmen but of hipsters. Fun as it is to hang out with them, one may appreciate the one stroke of comedy back at the Guggenheim, apart from GPS. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu translate the wreckage into their industrial robot safely behind glass, as Can’t Help Myself. The lord helps artists who help themselves.

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

3.3.17 — Smart Things and Dumb Artists

Mark Leckey sure has one smart refrigerator. It even dresses smart, in a black exterior that puts my own kitchen to shame.

Not that I can swear to its taste in interior design. GreenScreenRefrigeratorAction stands by itself against walls and floor painted a sickly green—matching in color a dummy hazmat squad member and coolant container just around the corner. Although marketed as a smart appliance around 2010, it also has a little trouble with speech, Mark Leckey's Sound System (MoMA PS1, 1999–2012)beyond a dull monotone intelligible only thanks to a facing LED screen. “See we assemble,” it pleads, and “here here here we exist.”

That we may include Leckey, who is out to find the secret desires of humans, animals, and machines. He is a bit late coming to the Internet of things, though, with “Containers and Their Drivers,” his retrospective through March 5. He has been too busy partying, first in Liverpool and then in London’s Soho. Nan Goldin spent the late twentieth century mourning lovers and lost lives. Leckey fills two floors of MoMA PS1 with little to show for those years beyond souvenirs of the club scene—and with no one visible but pop culture stand-ins for himself. They attest that he assembles and exists.

More precisely, he curates—or, as he prefers to say, aggregates. Born in 1964, the Brit had his breakthrough with Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore in 1999. If you do not recognize the Italian fashion label or know hardcore from rave when it comes to music, tough. And he is still reliving that passage to what must pass as maturity. A room of tall speakers emits its own sad rumbles, as Sound System. A chrome snare drum on video, as Pearl Vision, gives him one last shot at the inner life of things.

Leckey belongs to the generation of Young British Artists like Chris Ofili and Damien Hirst, with the same desperate need to take center stage and to provoke. And he sees life, like Mike Kelley and other bad boy artists, as a sinister cartoon. A video turns from a statuette of a black cat that Egypt might once have worshipped to an entire history of cartoon cats, starting with Krazy Kat. A giant balloon of Felix the Cat sits slightly deflated in a corner. It could be resting up for the Thanksgiving Day parade. He calls another aggregate The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things.

Leckey has never had the notoriety of either Kelly or the YBA—and neither would trust what MoMA calls “his romantic search for authentic experience.” He is, though, savvy enough to know the limits of his self-created image. His Dream English Kid 1964–1999 AD 2015 contains what might pass for his childhood haunts and homes, but with appropriated objects and “found memories.” He displays posters of practically every exhibit he has ever had. He borrows back what he can, in order to restage past installations, and relies on 3D printers to recreate the rest. As curators, Peter Eleey and Stuart Comer (with Jocelyn Miller and Oliver Shultz), have little to do but give him room and get out of his way.

Maybe it takes a savvy artist to appreciate dumb things. Then again, maybe it takes a really dumb artist to appreciate smart things. Leckey is not incapable of references to art history, including figures traced in white after André Masson and a forest backdrop after Piero di Cosimo in the Renaissance. Yet his most totemic sculpture has floppy breasts that are more his style. Besides, anyone seeking the inner life of a frig should beware. It might contain only stale leftovers.

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

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