5.19.17 — Riding for a Fall

It can be just one step from grace to a fall. Ask athletes or dancers about their last titanic leap. Ask Hillary Clinton about the ten days before the election. Or ask Lee Relvas, whose sculpture seems poised between a glorious ascent and collapse, at Callicoon through May 21. Her figures have all the grace of athleticism or a dance, but always in touch with the floor. They also have an inner life that would be impossible without that rise and fall.

Her technique alone evokes both grace and the workaday dignity of just plain plodding along. Her curved wood comes as close as anything to Modernism’s ideal of “drawing in space,” as with sculpture by Ibram Lassaw. One can mistake it for the fine craft of bentwood furniture. Lee Relvas's Feeling (Callicoon Fine Arts, 2016)In practice, though, Relvas cuts her pieces from plywood, sticks them together with a compound used for joints in plumbing, and sands away. The process is itself a kind of choreography. Plywood is already soft as wood goes, and rubbing softens it further—close, she says, to flour.

It works just fine as abstraction, like wood for Ursula von Rydingsvard. One can delight in following a curve from its start to the end, looping back on itself. One can easily overlook the branching here and there. Still, it does not take long to see a room of people, neither quite together nor alone. Some seem to sink into helplessness, while others seem to rise, and more than a few do both. Still another amounts to rigid planes joined at the waist, where a further loops around like the sash of an old-fashioned dress.

One can read all sorts of things into them, including their narratives and their character. Relvas does, too. The firm or, if you prefer, matronly stance is Deciding. Others are Hiding, Withholding, Thinking, Offering, Mourning, and Lifting. In each case, she associates a physical gesture with a state of mind—a state poised between moments of action. She treats exterior form and interiority alike as transient and fleeting.

Elaine Cameron-Weir, too, would love to rise but keeps stumbling, in the lobby of the New Museum through September 3. A snake of copper and stainless steel needs a sandbag to sustain its vertical. Mostly, though, she is hooked on the body as, in her eyes, at once transcendent and corrupt. A garment of metal sports breasts and spreads its arms, but it looks less triumphant than an instrument of torture. A pole topped with a skull and a lamp draped with parachute silk look neither life affirming nor illuminating. Then again, a snake brought corruption to humanity as well, by tempting a certain woman.

The Canadian artist is fond of the body all the same, enough to aspire to engage the senses, with some of the same materials as Anicka Yi. Heat lamps warm a resin used in perfumes and fumigating. If all this seems like a lab experiment gone awry, she also claims to draw on scientific texts from before modern science, to locate the tensions between the occult and science. And if her art starts to sound like nonsense, so do her titles. One runs to forty-two words—including viscera, erogenous zone, altered state, subcutanean, and tantric. It could do with less messaging and more grace.

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.

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.