4.14.17 — Saddling Up

If you want to elevate a medium associated more with craft than art, some might say, you have two choices. You can make it artier, or you can make it funkier—anything, in other words, to destroy its use value.

When it comes to ceramics, I could be speaking of its leading lights, in Ken Price and Arlene Shechet. Yet it also describes Elizabeth Jaeger and Bruce M. Sherman. Altoon Sultan's Convergence (McKenzie, 2016)As it happens, their galleries share an entrance on the Lower Side, and ascending the two-tier space is all about exploring the possibilities. Yet they also share a fascination with the medium and the human body.

Jaeger offers one body after another, and they do not look happy, at Jack Hanley through April 16. Female torsos lie draped over steel bars as if skinned alive. The lack of heads and feet underscores the objectification of women in her art and, by extension, a dominant art and culture—and she has in the past portrayed the sex act and animals. The sheer array adds to the anonymity of its subjects, and the slices lead to an asymmetric placement of breasts that adds to the discomfort. They avoid big boobs, too, refusing to play to male expectations. If they offer any comfort, it is in a woman’s art.

Still, there is no getting around the art and craft. They retain the smooth surfaces of both female beauty and stoneware, with neither scars nor blood. The slim black bars and their twin supports are just as elegant and minimal. Jaeger calls the installation Pommel, evoking the saddle shapes, as if women should expect to be ridden, and the pummeling of naked flesh. Yet it also evokes gymnastic equipment, with women capable of athleticism and grace. Besides, the word alone sounds sophisticated.

Sherman takes things back to ceramics in another way—not with stoneware but with its shapes. One or two even look like vases. Yet he makes them fun, funky, and punning, at Nicelle Beauchene. They have sharp edges, irregular outlines, and bright colors from their glazing. They morph easily into bodies or architecture, like castles, and in real life both are inhabited. A woman’s face appears on the vase.

One could call the opposition modern and postmodern, much as for Price and Shechet, although those categories are as slippery as ever. Price has his contoured shapes, but speckled with color and riddled with cuts, like Isamu Noguchi or Constantin Brancusi and his tea ceremony after an encounter with pattern and decoration. Shechet has her crusty textures and Pop imagery, but also a closer approach to tradition—because now, after Modernism and the demand to “make it new,” anything from any time is available. She curates a collection of Rococo porcelain and her own at the Frick. Jaeger and Sherman recap a similar history, but with a difference. Here the modernist is the imagist, the feminist, and the threat.

Then, too, history keeps reversing expectations. Modernism embraced design and use from the very start and, by the end, industrial materials. The present, in turn, has been relishing fine design and folk art, including tapestry. Altoon Sultan, recently at McKenzie through March 26, has three concurrent approaches to abstract art—in rug-hooked and hand-dyed wool, porcelain bas reliefs, and egg tempera. The tapestries have the nested geometry of Minimalism, while the paintings and sculpture borrow from both industrial parts and the Renaissance sculpture of Lorenzo Ghiberti, and she titles one work Convergence. Jaeger in particular, though, makes all the possibilities personal, pressing, and one.

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

4.12.17 — nth-Generation Feminist

Marianna Rothen is an nth-generation feminist. I would fill in the n, but by now I have lost count.

Besides, to pick up from last time on images of women (and the subject of a longer report as my latest upload), her work is all about multiplicity. She and her friends pose in photographs that dare one to pin them down or to tell them apart. One has seen them, for certain, somewhere before. It might have been in a theater, a video stream, a gallery, or a museum. Marianna Rothen's Pins and Needles (from Shadows in Paradise) (Steven Kasher gallery, 2015)

If that sounds all too familiar, it should. Her Shadows in Paradise riffs on an industry that depends on both darkness and dreams, the movies. In particular, Rothen explains, she draws on Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Robert Altman’s Three Women, and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, at Steven Kasher through April 15. Like them, she stages a woman’s dislocation, and the multiples add up. Altman himself, after all, drew for inspiration on Persona, and Lynch was remaking the glamour and melodrama of a Hollywood that had long gone. The psychological truth-telling and avant-garde stylization of Bergman in the 1960s and Altman in the 1970s, in fact, had done a great deal to chase it away.

Rothen moves in territory familiar from the 1980s as well—the “Pictures generation” of Cindy Sherman and Laurie Simmons. Sherman, of course, made her name by posing for Untitled Film Stills. And Simmons posed dolls for what could be a film perpetually in progress. Rothen, too, plays feminine roles, while looking so doll-like at times that I mistook her for a toy. Men, I suppose, do that sort of thing. So did Alfred Hitchcock and film noir.

Her technique, too, produces multiples while simulating a lost original. She works digitally in both color and black and white, before rephotographing prints as Polaroids for their pre-digital sheen—and then she scans them and prints them again. Her characters live in what her previous solo show called a “Pheromone Hotbox.” They stare out windows or into mirrors, pose against old-fashioned wallpaper, nurse whiskey, lie dead, or hold a gun, in dated costumes and curls. They favor close-ups, strong contrasts, shallow depth of field, and unsettling camera angles. They play to expectations for an independent woman as vulnerable, desirable, and above all a threat.

Those expectations extended to a woman not often known for her regrets. Rothen also appears in video, on facing screens, as Woman with the Crown. Once again, strong lighting and old hairstyles make her a living doll. She takes on various roles while speaking the same text slightly out of synch, so that it appears to echo itself—generally once with emotion, the other flatly. The text, about a woman as sex object, turns out to quote an interview with Lady Di. Who knew that Diana felt so at a distance from the idol that she had become?

Of course, a fascination with Lady Di also goes back a ways. Is Rothen just late for the party or keeping it going? Is she upping the ante or viewing even feminism through the filter of today’s hot fashion magazines? Is the nth degree a repetition or an extreme? Maybe both, but the seductions are real. Then, too, after the 2016 election, working out the generations of feminism matters as well.

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

4.10.17 — A Woman’s Planet

With Trump in office and a solid GOP majority in Congress, humanity is one step closer to destroying the earth, but try not to worry. NASA is already on the lookout for habitable worlds. A Web page ranks the current top twenty candidates, and even then it has forgotten to look on the Lower East Side.

With “Exoplanet,” at Nicelle Beauchene through March 12, Jordan Kasey takes the search for extraterrestrial life to the most obvious place of all, art. As tends to happen in painting, it looks disorienting but strangely familiar. Jordan Kasey's At the Table (Nicelle Beauchene, 2017)It also looks built to last. (And apologies for not having posted this at the time, but she is also in a show that opened just yesterday at MoMA PS1, “Past Skin” through September 10. So here I am catching up.)

The show’s title borrows the term for a planet orbiting a star other than the sun, but Kasey updates Fernand Léger for contemporary Brooklyn. With his late work, Léger already adapts the monumentality of Renaissance art and Neoclassicism to modern life. Like Pablo Picasso around the same time, he was setting aside Cubist fragmentation, give or take cascading walls and shifting breasts. His three women share morning coffee and patterned flooring out of Paris in the twentieth century, but with rounded flesh, nude bodies, unsmiling faces, and an otherworldly detachment. In reviewing his 1998 MoMA retrospective, I spoke of his icy humanism. Kasey just takes things one step further, to people you only thought you knew.

It may help that she is a woman, allowing her to dispense with nudity and to restore a degree of privacy. At the Table returns to the scene of Léger’s Three Women (Le Grande Déjeuner), but for a single woman seen only from the rear. Women at poolside or in a backyard at night have their faces cut off by the picture’s edge or a head of hair. Still, the table’s plates stand empty, and the pool is nowhere to be seen. All appear in harsh colors and a ghostly light. A woman at the piano leans close to the keys in a kind of rapture, but ordinary pleasures seem far away.

They challenge one to engage them or to identify the scene at hand. Before too long, angled planes and dark waves define an open box crossed by shadows, but full lips and eyebrows may never quite cohere into an upside-down pink, gray, and yellow head. Its nose looks like hair, maybe pubic hair, because sensuality is never quite present and never far away. It may also owe something to the style of a graphic novel. Kasey has kept her sense of humor along with her emotional life in the face of global warming. When it comes to another planet, men may or may not be welcome.

Rita Lundqvist brings a simplicity to her women, too, recently at Tanya Bonakdar through February 4. She picks up on Modernism as well, although the later kind associated with formalism. Her compositions run to grays, plain horizontal divisions, and lush brushwork akin to early abstraction by Brice Marden, before he discovered curves and colors for their own sake. They run to squares as well, accentuating their small-m minimalism. The women look anything but at home, though, even on the rare occasion that they share a canvas. The small dimensions heighten their isolation.

They do not come from another planet, but they do come from Sweden, and Lundqvist’s grays and isolation may reflect long winters and a northern light. Like Kasey’s, her women also bring with them a melancholy comedy. One sinks into the ground as if stuck in Kasey’s cardboard box. Others pose against a great deal of ice or just the horizon. Yet they keep their composure, their nuanced expressions, their hidden narratives, and their hopes. Even a Nordic landscape has a flowering tree.

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

4.7.17 — The Decisive Contact Sheet

How does a photographer capture the decisive moment? In the case of Robert Frank and The Americans, by taking enough pictures.

That politician boasting of his presence and his art of manipulating a crowd, even as a face beneath him breaks down in tears? It took shot after shot for the man to raise his arms to their full extent and for the stone carving of a woman’s head to emerge into the light. Robert Frank's Trolley: New Orleans, from The Americans (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1955)Those people in a trolley car? It took shot after shot for the trolley to reach that unsettling angle smack against the picture plane—and for the people to come out of the shadows to engage not each other, but rather the viewer.

When the Met exhibited The Americans in 2010, it showed Frank’s vision of diversity and discontent as his book developed over three trips across country and eighty-three photos. Yet it also included several outtakes, and it stressed that he ran through well over a hundred rolls of film and thousands of frames. Now a gallery exhibits thirty-three contact sheets, out of eighty-one in a box set, at Danziger through April 8. It insists, too, on their completeness and the photographer’s complicity. It describes how the set grew from a Japanese man’s dedication. He and Frank got along just great, you see, and reached full understanding, although neither knew a word of the other’s language.

It sounds like a parody or a scam, in the interest of multiples for sale, but never mind. It hardly mentions the photographs themselves or Frank’s working methods, but you can gain a fresh sense of them all the same. Maybe you imagined him waiting patiently for that decisive moment or even staging the scene. Instead, you can see him choosing a subject and snapping away. You can feel his satisfaction in circling the frame that he wants in red—or showing his indecision with a question mark. Only rarely does he have to draw the circle closer, with the intent to crop the print to make it more decisive.

Published in 1957 in Paris, The Americans stands for a decisive moment in history as well. The very ideal of the decisive moment goes back to Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris, to preserve its perfection once and for all. Frank came later, but also before the discontent with the past of the 1960s. He comes, too, between the documentary assurance of Walker Evans and the anxiety of Diane Arbus on the dark side of New York City or Garry Winogrand on the dark side of a nation. As I wrote much better back in 2010 (and I hope that you will read it), the Swiss photographer was after his own engagement with America. Even more than for Danny Lyon, photography here is both personal and political.

Frank seems determined to avoid the headlines, even while making people and politics inescapable. For all the turmoil, he is out for human contact and a record of human agency. On Flag Day, he goes for the flag on the walls of a building, but he finds that one shot in which people appear disturbingly cut off in the windows. At a Fourth of July picnic, he finds that shot in which people neither hang out aimlessly on the one hand nor march in lockstep on the other, but rather stride. At a campaign rally for Adlai Stevenson, he finds that shot with not a trace of a banner—to capture instead a lone person with a sign and a message. To subordinate his subjects to someone else’s order just will not do, not even Stevenson’s on the left.

Did he even know where he was going apart from them? I can imagine him either circling the print he always wanted or coming upon it with as much surprise as yours or mine today. He spots that one shot at a drive-in with a clear image of the screen and a competing point of artificial light, with people implicit in the darkness. He spots, too, a dark car at the vanishing point of a highway flooded with reflected light. Early critics saw people going nowhere, and they saw the slack faces and seemingly casual compositions as an affront to America or to art. Yet even the appearance of disorder required a decisive moment.

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

4.5.17 — Game Set Match

“Sport exhibition entertainment competition coupling match date”: so which will it be?

Do not answer too quickly. When Raymond Pettibon asks in a drawing, he is describing the fight between Batman and Superman, but the question could apply to his entire retrospective, “A Pen of All Work”—and it is the subject of a longer review worth checking out in my latest upload.

With three floors plus the lobby wall of the New Museum, through April 9, you have plenty of time to make up your mind. And with some seven hundred drawings plus paintings, Raymond Pettibon's No Title (Let Me Say . . .)(private collection/Regen Projects, 2012)videos, album covers, and full-blown comic books, you have every reason to wonder. You can take your time, dip in and out of the thousands of words and images, or move through impatiently in search of a grown-up. You may have witnessed a thoroughgoing chronicle of the last forty years or just an unedited fantasy.

You can start anywhere, in a retrospective with little regard for chronology—but by all means start at the top, with a metropolis and its superheroes. This particular dynamic duo will greet you off the elevator on the fourth floor, and they presage it all. They belong to many a childhood, and the show includes drawings from when Pettibon, born in Tucson in 1957, was still a child. As original work based on the comics, they belong to the territory between popular culture and art, and he got his breakthrough in 1978, with a raunchy “zine” that covers a full wall, as Captive Chains. (Never mind whether you can read it all, because the question applies to much else in the installation as well.) In his mind at least, the confrontation between Batman and Superman also has the weight of the counterculture versus the stifling and newly triumphant mainstream, and he earned notoriety in the West Coast punk scene with album covers for Black Flag.

They lack for a title, like almost everything from his hand, but they sure do not lack for text—often but not always his own. I have quoted only the first few words of a dense drawing. He cannot resist adding more to his boyhood drawings as well, bringing their crudity more or less into the present. As with Batman and Superman, too, he can rarely resist two words when one will do. With competition and match or with coupling and date, he is tracking not nuance, but impulse. As he confesses elsewhere, “My head and imagination are full of my own urgent imagery and issues.”

And the issues keep on coming. “I write very little now, draw even less,” Pettibon pens once in the style of a potholder or sampler. Yeah, right. “Pardon these lines.” Apologies notwithstanding, his certainties are his real subject, and they do not often permit self-examination. Everything is just too urgent.

The superheroes have his signature style, too. Whatever his medium, from pen and ink to pastel or watercolor, it dashes across the page in bold strokes of color or black and white, before joining art and text. He allows himself painterly gestures and highlights, so that heroes look muscular and flatter cartoons look starker and more violent. From a distance, the surrounding text could pass for atmosphere. A few animals, in a series on planet earth, even approach realism. Still, the god of the Sistine Chapel is present at the creation, and humans are barely apes.

He seems deadly earnest and unedited, even when joking. He called a show of art after 9/11 in 2007 “Here’s Your Irony Back,” and it seemed all over but the block caps and the shouting. Even his politics has room for the comics. It has room for untold other rants as well, and I have quoted only the memorable. The onslaught has something in common with the drawings and animations of William Kentridge in South Africa, but without the demand to sit still and to watch. Anxieties are too pressing, and surf’s up.

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

4.3.17 — Boots on the Ground

After more than forty years, Eleanor Antin once again has boots on the ground. She started, modestly enough, by postcard. She had bought fifty pairs of standard-issue army-navy boots and begun photographing them as her own private army or artist collective. They assembled in a supermarket aisle and in front of a library in California. They lined up for church or a food vendor at lunch. They ascended steps, hopped over a car, circled a tree, and crossed public and private lands with a growing athleticism and determination.

Artists back then no longer drank together at the Cedar Bar. Still, they had a certain reputation. Not the boots, which stayed more or less orderly—and decidedly quiet. They did come to the poker table one night, Eleanor Antin's 100 Boots Under the Brooklyn Bridge (Alden Projects, 1973)but Antin took them with her to a museum, where they formed a proper half circle around a painting by René Magritte, as if awaiting a docent. They made friends easily, too, joined by cattle or a flock of geese, and they stuck together through thick and thin. She photographed them, two titles explain, in and out of a job.

She called her project a travelogue or “my female version of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.” Still, for a time it hardly left California, where she had moved with her husband, a poet, in 1969. No matter. From 1971 to 1973 she sent a record of her travels as fifty-one postcards without a tourist attraction in sight—mailed to hundreds around the world. The journey ended as casually as ever. The last postcard announced that 100 Boots had gone on vacation.

By then, it had reached New York as well. Antin was herself a Jewish kid from the Bronx, educated at the New School and City College, and she she was back in town with a show of the postcards at MoMA in 1973. Now the Lower East Side hosts a broader selection of photos, at Alden Projects through April 9. The actual boots still have their “crash pad” closer to home, most recently at LACMA, but they have a life of their own here in the city. They cross Sixth Avenue in single file, as if blocking midtown traffic in protest. They gather under the Brooklyn Bridge, with the Twin Towers and the Woolworth Building in the distance, and look wistfully across the harbor from Staten Island.

New Yorkers had a taste at the 2016 art fairs, but now we can almost call 100 Boots our own. So can the artist, after decades of insisting that she had more on her mind than one work. She even insists on its importance by comparing herself to Meret Oppenheim, with the boots as her fur-lined teacup. Not that their black rubber has acquired a fur lining, but the comparison does point to Antin’s surrealism (with a small s), humor, and feminism. In photos and performance, she has played with her body image by dieting, binging, taking on the roles of a ballerina and Florence Nightingale, and remaking art history with paper dolls. Where other women collect shoes, this mother wears army boots.

In context of today, the boots take on other political overtones, too. They gather under the bridge across from Ground Zero like the homeless, and the Woolworth Building in the distance is now converting to luxury apartments. They lined up at a border checkpoint long before Donald Trump demanded a wall. The postcards had their outtakes as well. Antin found some images just “too dramatic, too overtly political, too suggestive of other meanings”—but then the 1970s still clung to the autonomy of art. Now the photos can bridge two blue states and the demands of past and present.

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

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