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.

10.27.17 — A Marriage of Convenience

Omar Fast makes sure his videos are hard to follow. In fact, he makes it hard to know that video is even there.

Even if you have memorized the address and visited many times before, you may hesitate to enter, at James Cohan through October 29. Fast has restored a busy corner of the Lower East Side to its previous state, August Sander's Boxers. Paul Röderstein and Hein Hesse (ARS/Metropolitan Museum, c. 1928)as a mysterious business hidden behind a small convenience store. His gallery might have fallen off the earth or never come to be. Its sign is gone, apart from Chinese characters, and so is much in the way of space for a show.

Consider it a marriage of convenience between the fringes of Chinatown and of art. The resemblance to its past life is uncanny, earning him the anger of the Chinese American community for its “poverty porn”—right down to a glass counter for a token selection of cheap electronics and two ATMs, neither of which works. A monitor of the sort for bus schedules runs to no obvious purpose, not even to keep the shop’s owner halfway awake. The artist has redoubled the trickery, with the illusion of the illusion of an independent business apart from whatever lies behind a black curtain. He also redoubles the difficulty of his video, which plays continuously on that monitor. If you ever felt lost owing to walking into new media that were already running, here you have to dare yourself to walk in at all.

Fast’s videos are always hard to follow. In fact, they are so hard to follow that I can seriously question whether they are political art. That is quite a trick, given such past subjects as a suicide bombing, the interrogation of political refugees, and the generational consequences of the Nazi occupation. He combines deep focus and full color with shallow spaces and plenty of black. He also brings arbitrary cuts in time to the conventions of documentary realism—and documentary realism to the quandaries of the mind. A voice-over may explain the action without quite describing it, and the characters on screen may seem to have lost their voice.

Here the video dates from several years back, when the space might have held that very convenience store. It seems to be about a funeral, perhaps of someone you know. The voice-over describes not so much a particular funeral as the business, in lurid detail, but children flit in and out to make the loss theirs. Is it a matter of politics, real estate, business as usual, or life and death? The installation dances around much the same question. Is Fast dealing with gentrification, the fate of galleries, both, or nothing at all?

He is so infuriating because he is always holding out the urgency of politics and human lives—and never quite getting around to either one. He shares the puzzles of another politically inclined video artist, Artur Zmijewski, but in closer to a dream state. And here he gets dreamier still but just as morbid in a new video, in the back room. Something lies behind the curtain after all, only not the old neighborhood. August sounds like summer winding down and with it a greater optimism, but here it names a photographer. Where August Sander saw the Germany he knew as a catalogue of human archetypes, Fast makes Sanders one himself.

He shows the photographer at work in a wider landscape than the finished photographs ever show. The sitters look a little stiff but young and alive, and so does Sanders. And Fast frames them with Sanders as an older man, hardly able to raise his head from the ground. Further cuts add still another angle, something to do after all with Nazis and what they thought of his work. Politics and art could not get more urgent than that, not least since Sanders lost his son to the Nazis, but once again the video stops frustratingly short of their encounter. When the show ends, though, you may still feel haunted by what the gallery has swept away.

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