3.20.17 — Dancing in the Bauhaus

Take a long strip of cardboard or stiff paper, and fold it into white squares. Stand it on its side, like an accordion book, but with alternate folds pointing outward, like a six-pointed star.

The gray end pages can still bend apart from one another, like a grand entrance to the pointed inner chamber—or the covers of a book. Now cut a rectangle out of each square, apart from the covers, and replace it with colored paper. from Mateo López's Time as Activity (Drawing Center, 2016)Do not worry if the pieces never quite line up, leaving six doors to the inner chamber slightly ajar. Is it architecture, collage, or book art?

For Mateo López, it could be a model for the rest of his exhibition as well—and I hope you will excuse me for a follow-up to last time on shows at the Drawing Center through March 19, although just closed. Maybe not a scale model, but a model for his multidisciplinary art. Actual architecture takes up much of the main gallery, with similar plain white walls broken by open passages and bright colors. This structure, though, consists of staggered rectangles, as reasonable places to live or to display his art. They are also spaces to wander, much as he might have experienced them in the process of assembly. Accompanying videos document just that.

Trained as an architect and still in his thirties, López plays with the borders between space, objects, and the human body. A chair takes the angle of its back, he insists, from his own while seated. (Hint: he has atrocious posture.) A drawing portrays a less strained spinal column, while a watercolor takes its shape from a dance in New York subways. An actual dancer stops by now and then to “interact,” as the Center puts it, with two of the sculptures. One, in brown wood staggered much like the rooms, consists of bed slats.

This is interactive art without need of a touch screen or mouse. The show’s only allusion to new media comes in its title, “Undo List“. And López likes lists, as part of the regular assembly of his designs. One drawing amounts to the days of the week and another of numbers. They also amount to yet another kind of interaction, between the artist and modern art history. They come close to copying works familiar from Minimalism, conceptualism, and process art.

One drawing borrows a knot from Bruce Nauman, while a dustpan contains the remains of an interview with William Kentridge—in an exhibition, after all, that is just cleaning up. The allusions reach further back in time as well, comporting with the boundary breaking. Another drawing in fact has as its title Look Back, Move Forward. The house pays tribute to the Bauhaus and Oskar Schlemmer, and a sphere hanging overhead could pass for steel sculpture by Antoine Pevsner or Naum Gabo. Of course, its spiraling planes are paper.

The Colombian artist also alludes to his homeland, with a gold mask after pre-Columbian art. Still, his heart is in Latin American architecture and European modernism. With his mix of disciplines, he also revives debates over both. Do they reduce people to puppets or machines, like the dancers in Schlemmer’s film in “Dreamlands” at the Whitney—or do they serve instead as designs for living, open to the choices of their creators and inhabitants alike? One last drawing resembles dance steps, but its curves connect words that begin “walking around a bit like an animal in a cage.” They also end with “hope.”

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3.17.17 — From Language to Landscape

It took Jackson Mac Low a long time to find his voice. It took him even longer to lose it, in a tangle of line and color.

With each step, he was becoming an artist. With the first, in 1953, he had made some of the earliest text art, well before Lawrence Weiner. By his death in 2004, he had found his way to a boisterous abstraction, in crayon, acrylic, and oil stick on paper. When others were questioning publicly whether painting was dead, he made it a matter of private celebration.

It was for him a literal celebration, and it still involved words. With his late “name poems,” he made art as a shout-out to others—most often to his wife, with love, on her birthday. You may or may not be able to make out her name. Does that make Mac Low a poet, an artist, or both at once? The Drawing Center makes the case for his art, through March 19, but it does not insist too hard. It calls the show, open-mindedly enough, “Lines – Letters – Words.”

If you know him at all, and I did not, it is more likely as a poet and performer. He counts among the “language poets,” a group for whom the elements of language mattered as much as their meaning. He admired chance procedures in music by John Cage as well, and he meant many of his drawings as scores. That includes letters from Sanskrit chants and prayers, arranged every which way on graph paper as his Gathas, starting in 1961. It also includes the Skew Lines from 1979, in light pen traces that he imagined as “dropped” onto paper. Their length corresponds to the duration of sounds, and never mind that he rarely got around to performing them.

With each stage, Mac Low was working against his time, like a proper avant-garde artist. Born in 1922, he made text art just when Abstract Expressionism and then Minimalism insisted on the purity of visual expression. Then he made his text visually alive and unreadable, just when art had become drier and more ironic. Still, he was by no means standing apart from his time. It comes as a shock to discover pen drawings from 1951 as fluid, dense, and abstract as those by Jackson Pollock that very year. It comes as a shock, too, to see his “static film” of a tree from 1961, three years before Andy Warhol shot the Empire State Building.

Static or not, his only constant was change. As it happens, he shares the Center with Amy Sillman, who called her last exhibition “Stuff Change“—here with a video of drawings inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses. (The main gallery holds a hybrid of art and architecture by Mateo López.) The display begins in 1953 with something akin to primitive traces, although also to black brushwork by Franz Kline—followed by the equally primitive language of Hi and Ape, just one coarse red word to a sheet. More jumbled text from the 1960s approaches aphorisms, and one last series, from 1995, takes language to the edge of landscape, with the faint pencil of Birds, Trees, Mountains, Moss, and Leaves. As an artist Mac Low may have earned only a footnote, but as a performer he had entered fully into space.

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12.7.16 — Are You Experienced?

Jimi Hendrix hated the cover of Electric Ladyland. He had asked for something more innocent than electric—children climbing on Central Park’s sculpture after Alice in Wonderland, much as I had as a child but in a photograph by Linda Eastman. Instead, he got a more adult kind of play.

The photo for the album’s British release, by David Montgomery, shows nineteen naked women facing front and on the ground, against a black background that sets them at a dark remove however close they come. An American like me might not recognize that Ladyland, but Cecily Brown would, as a Young British Artist before her move to America. Cecily Brown's Ladyland (photo by Genevieve Hanson, Drawing Center, 2012)She makes it part of her very adult drawings as well, at the Drawing Center through December 18.

She calls the show “Rehearsal,” a term that Hendrix would appreciate, but she refers, the Center insists, to an old French word, rehercier. It means “to go over something again with the aim of more fully understanding it.” Are you experienced? Apparently, she is—not just with classic rock and postmodern arcana, but also with art history. She lets children back in the game, too, along with the themes of Bestiary and Ladyland. Together, they describe domestic life as a theater of cruelty.

Children cavort no end in a drawing room after William Hogarth. Adults barely removed from children or animals torment and seduce one another as well—in scenes of carnival and Lent after Pieter Bruegel, Saint Anthony after Hieronymus Bosch, and Adam and Eve in a crowded, lusty paradise. Even nudes after Edgar Degas fit with copies of the album cover. Brown may leave the center of the action incomplete, for a greater sense of motion. The white also suggests postmodernism’s obsession with ambiguity, repetition, and erasure. This artist refuses to censor anyone but herself.

Brown approaches the past with skill and understanding, in ink as well as watercolor and pastel. Larger sheets allow more white space and more slashing attacks. They move most easily between abstraction and representation, much like her paintings. They may provide clues to how she got to her paintings, with their hints of Pablo Picasso and Willem de Kooning—or they may show her confident enough now to take her appropriations back in time. They also keep circling back to women. They are still what a title calls her Jeu de Dammes Cruelles.

Olga Chernysheva made it to New York, too, but only for a month. The Drawing Center invited her all the way from Russia, in return for her take on the city in charcoal. New Yorkers take pleasure in hating tourists—and not only at home. Even when I travel, I want to know neighborhoods and museums like a native, and I want to keep walking, without crowding the sidewalk. Chernysheva hates to play tourist, too, but she is also never at home. As one title puts it, she is Disappearing into Nowhere.

She applies her polished renderings to fragments of the city on the move—a blow dryer in one of those rare New York restrooms, a fire hydrant with its protective bollard bent out of shape, the back of heads, legs with only their shadows, or her illegible reflection in a surveillance mirror. Shoes behind glass seem desperately to need a home. She often adds a title on a thin slip of paper, pasted as if it, too, barely belongs. Text describes the scenes as Before the Start, Empty and Full, Distant and Near. A man lurks at the edge of a busy playground, but Chernysheva is lurking, too, on this side of the fence.

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