3.8.18 — Filthy Looker

Another extra review this week, to wrap up MoMA PS1 and the truly down and dirty. Cathy Wilkes may do more to stop the spread of colds than any artist ever. Her entire show seems designed to get visitors to wash their hands, through March 11.

Glassware lies here and there on the floor, as if left over from a sorry attempt to clean house, one item filthier than the next. Mothers tend to their children beside tubs caked with black. Or rather they tend to empty strollers, for children might have died of their sickly surroundings not so long ago. The dried sprigs here and there might have done them in.

Even the cheeriest displays come with an implicit warning not to touch. The rows of colored plastic belong to She’s Pregnant Again, making them into a test of precious bodily fluids. Then, too, a leaden title like that one or Teenage Mother suggests that women have been touching or touched where at least one person does not belong. Even paintings look like fatal or accidental stains, in one case blood red. They look no more presentable than the worn curtains and fallen rags. The repeated urgings of museum guards to step back only reinforce the impression.

Not that trashy installations are anything new. Someone or something must have done in the stuffed goat in the most famous combine painting. Its maker, Robert Rauschenberg, also meticulously erased a drawing by Willem de Kooning, as if art needs a thorough cleaning. Not that filth is new either. What is The New York Earth Room by Walter de Maria but a roomful of dirt, with the Dia Foundation to pick up the tab? It also inspired The New York Dirty Room by Mike Bouchet. Nothing, though, can match Wilkes for her melancholy and repugnance.

The museum speaks of her range, including painting, drawing, sculpture, and found objects. In reality, her works divide roughly in two, between installations and modest paintings. The show intersperses them at that, as if the paintings fully belonged to the installations. The first use oil on nearly bare canvas for the faintest hints of a human presence in a landscape. The latter keep returning to people, as mannequins or stuffed fabric, in a living picture. A black woman leans over shards of hard to say what. Others with blunt, vacant, or pummeled features lean over a meager meal—not so far from the simpler scene of an empty table.

Just what, though, are they doing, and what would their bare faces and the canvases like to say? What would the dead TV here and the monitor there show if they worked? The curators, Peter Eleey and Margaret Aldredge-Diamond, do not gamble on an exhibition title. They speak of “abstract fables” and “rituals of life.” They guess that the scenes of poverty derive from Scotland’s industrial wastelands, although Wilkes is Irish and the scenes entirely domestic. They speak of “frail figures huddled on shore,” even for coarse bodies behind curtains.

They may, though, be right about the rituals. People are giving birth and mourning, with faint hope of a life in-between beyond the seeming ghost of a toy horse. Wilkes seems to allude most, too, to class and the fate of women. Feminists like Mika Rottenberg and Carolee Schneemann have long associated a woman’s body with at once attraction and revulsion—as a matter of pride and as a critique of what men see. I cannot find enough in this exhibition even to dislike it, but I suspect that its true subject is art as dangerous and the site of looking. Wilkes is engaging the viewer as a filthy looker.

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

3.7.18 — Check Your Baggage

More from this week’s rundown of MoMA PS1. Many a traveler would be jealous. Naeem Mohaiemen did not lose his luggage.

He did not have to pay to check it either, but he dotes on it all the same. He pores over every inch before stretching out on the luggage belt with it, adopting it as a pillow, and hoping for a good night’s sleep. He may have found the least unyielding surface in the cruel space of an airport and an unyielding world. Naeem Mohaiemen's Tripoli Canceled (MoMA PS1, 2017)The belt is not going anywhere, stuck between signs for New York and Montreal in Greek and English, and neither is he.

Not that I can swear that the bag belongs to him. Like John Akomfrah, he has an airport to himself, with the freedom to explore it but nowhere else to go. He is stuck there for days—and for more than ninety minutes of screen time, as Tripoli Canceled, at MoMA PS1 through March 11. Athens abandoned the airport some time ago anyway, even apart from him. Who knew that Eero Saarinen has another great airport to his credit, on top of the former TWA terminal at JFK—and one more that has not stood the test of commercial use? Mohaiemen provides every opportunity to appreciate its halls and runways, as he never will.

He looks across the surrounding plains, all the more unable to take flight. He adopts a helicopter, but as a cramped studio apartment or an enigma rather than a means of escape. He attends to his everyday needs as if bewildered by them all. He washes his face, which glistens in the airport lights, uncertain whether to shave. He comes to a halt at last in a grand concourse beside a central escalator. Naturally he prefers the stairs, and naturally, too, he is unable to walk.

He could be having an existential crisis, and characters unable to leave the stage appear often in the glory days of Existentialism—as in No Exit by Jean Paul Sartre and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. On film (and now in an opera), they are stuck in the disturbing dinner party of The Exterminating Angel by Luis Buñuel. This reveler, though, is sad and alone. He could be the artist as outsider, although Mohaiemen uses a professional actor. He could be a surrogate for everyone caught between continents and without a home, although with an unusually pristine refugee camp. He could be the last man on earth.

Yet there, too, he is suspicious. He calls the show “There Is No Last Man,” a dig at The End of History by Francis Fukuyama and its vision of a triumphant global capitalism. (How’s that working out for you?) He also pairs text and images to grapple with a family legacy—a great-uncle who embraced fascism as a response to British rule of India. Mohaiemen, a native Londoner, also cites his father, who could not change planes in 1977 owing, shall we say, to passport issues. The film opens by explaining that this is not about him.

It could be about them all. His very denial raises what it means to dismiss. Mohaiemen’s conclusion has that same ambiguity between a sly humor and the brink of despair. The man seated on the stairs starts to intone “Never on a Sunday,” the pop tune from the 1960s, ticking off the days of never-ending weeks. And then he breaks into tears. He cannot restrain his despairing music for airports, but you had better check your baggage at the door.

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

3.6.18 — Sexual Politics

Quite a bit closing soon, so allow me extra posts today and Thursday to come closer to keeping up. Those and tomorrow’s will all look at MoMA PS1, starting with the star of the shows.

“Living is much more consuming than I ever thought it would be.” The quote comes from dozens on colored cards, culled from diaries and advice from friends, as Carolee Schneemann sought to work out her feelings toward the men in her life.

One can see her whole career as an unfolding diary or performance, at MoMA PS1 through March 11, but do not go expecting a romance novel or true confessions. (I elaborate further in a longer review, as my latest upload, so if you miss your favorite of hers here, do read more.) Carolee Schneemann's Body Collage (filmed by Gideon Bachmann, 1967)Rather, it acquires its edge from the blunt collision between the frankness and privacy of a diary and the artifice and publicity of a performance. Which will win out? To answer would be like looking back and asking which of the men.

The quote (attributed to “Susan”) says much about Schneemann, too. She wants to convey it all, from birth to death, with plenty of nudity and sex along the way. If she is shocking, she is open to surprises, too, just as in that line. She is also both consuming and consumed, just as in sex, while spilling herself out as art. In her most famous act, she extracts a feminist tract from her vagina. She has something to say, especially to those who would reduce her to that body part, and she contains multitudes.

Her sixty years of work can be funny, exhilarating, surprising, dogmatic, self-involved, or infuriating. Less than ten years ago, her gallery pulled off the highlights. It insisted on her origins as a painter, very much in line with Abstract Expressionism—thick, colorful, and all over. Even then, she had none of the softer color fields of Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler, because she was looking not outward, toward landscape and a woman’s art, but to the enclosed space around herself. The show asked how she turned from painting to performance, with her body as a canvas (so do check out my review then for more). Now her retrospective asks much the same with its title, “Kinetic Painting.”

Has it anything to add? If nothing else, it is larger, spilling over two half floors of the former schoolhouse. It starts, it announces, with her later work—to prove, no doubt, that she is more than her vagina. The first floor focuses on the 1970s and 1980s, as a kind of orientation. The second floor then fills in the gaps. It has two whole rooms for painting, one with her beginnings and the other (coming first) with brighter canvases often turned forty-five degrees and a shelf for unspooled audiotape. She is still painting but looking for a way out.

The first floor, too, opens with a painting, but one has to look past it to a darker room and film. Fuses from 1967 catches her in the sex act with a long-time lover, James Tenney—as seen, she claims, by her cat, Kitch. Its point of view is close, twisting, and unnerving, much like the act. It also intercuts with Schneemann on the beach, running through the water’s edge, and with the raw marks of scratched and exposed film. It already states the parameters of dark and light, earnest and funny, confessional and cinematic, alone and fused. Everything follows from there.

One remembers her pulling a scroll from her vagina in 1975 and her body collage from ten years earlier for good reason: she was, for once or twice, direct and clear. The rest, though, still add up to a running theater and a life. It views itself through past performances, with an entire room of monitors like a video forest. It has its joys and, in 1963, its Thirty-Six Transformative Actions. It has the humor of text from the 1980s, in which her vulva reads Jacques Lacan, Mastera and Johnson, and more “theory”—only to find itself reduced to forces and physiology beyond her control. It wants ever so much to be all-consuming, and often enough it is.

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