1.3.18 — Aiming for Gender

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For the New Museum, gender is not just a fluid concept: it is dissolving into a mist. Along with a related report on “Queer Archaeology” it also gets a distinctly longer review in my latest upload.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya's Self-Portrait Study with Two Figures (1506) (Yancey Richardson, 2015)At “Trigger,” the first thing one sees may be a smoke machine. Thanks to Candice Lin and Patrick Staff, it emits an almost invisible spray—of fog fluid touched only lightly by an herbal tincture. The show’s subtitle speaks of “Gender as a Tool and a Weapon,” through January 21. Could this, too, be a tool or a weapon, only turned back on gender itself? One could ask much the same about the entire show. It aims high, and it rewards looking, but it cannot quite pull the trigger.

It brings together forty artists and nearly as many approaches to gender. Some positively shout at the viewer, literally or figuratively. Seemingly endless text on the facing wall, from the House of Ladosha, uses block caps on an acid green to rub in its point. Others do their best to vanish, like Carolyn Lazard, who does no more than pipe white noise into the elevators. Many are among the most interesting artists out there. Yet the chaotic presentation may leave visitors and gender alike lost in a fog.

If so, it is the fog of the culture wars. To speak of gender as a fluid concept is already to take a stand. (The museum will not insist that one use the rest room for one’s gender at birth, and neither will I.) And the New Museum has been taking a stand since its birth. It was among the first to place “the concerns of the homosexual community” at the heart of contemporary art with “Extended Sensibilities” in 1982. It angered practically everyone with “Bad Girls” in 1994.

With so few artists and collectives over all three floors for major exhibitions, plus the lobby, it sounds well-paced and conducive to thought, like the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Yet it takes serious work. The curators, Johanna Burton with Sara O’Keeffe and Natalie Bell, arrange matters by neither subject, theme, nor anything else that I can determine. Wall text begins with each artist’s past work, leaving one unsure just what it is describing. Much of it appears in low light, daring one to read it. I am still frantically turning the pages in a list alphabetical by artist, trying to recover my notes.

“Trigger” opens with relatively quiet pleasures. One could mistake the smoke machine for a press photographer’s equipment or an item in the gift shop a foot or two away. Now and then, one might encounter Nayland Blake in the lobby as well. One is unlikely to recognize him or his gender in a bear suit. Upstairs, things get louder fast but no less elusive. Blake’s bear suit more often hangs upstairs, too, like the victim of illegal hunting.

Some artists refuse to shout, not even about gender. Diamond Stingily hangs a thick black cord by the elevators, as if it had woven through every floor. One might never know that it owes its blackness to human hair. Yet it allows “Trigger” to offer new perspectives on both gender and the show’s contributors, and my longer review has many more examples. Connie Samaras photographs a queer retirement community at night. In a show just short of coherence, it could be the one place to call home.

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

11.14.17 — Wide Aisles and Tight Spaces

Let me pause this week to catch up, with some reviews that somehow never found space. It means looking back, but give it a try. I shall post a little extra, meaning Tuesday and Thursday, as well.

Kaari Upson spends way too much time shopping—and, she wants you to know, so do you. She is also fiendishly attached to what she finds. It takes her into tight spaces and dangerous territory, but then new media are supposed to do that. Yet the same media are also used to numb the senses and to sell you something, and she plays on that as well.

Kaari Upson's Untitled (1000 cans) (photo by Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy of Massimo De Carlo and Sprüth Magers, 2015)Waif-like, with short blond hair, she sprawls on cartons of Pepsi, stacked like a supremely uncomfortable throne. She might have been wearing that plaid work shirt and those jeans for days now or even years. She might have been wearing them when she sculpted soda cans for the High Line in 2015. She might have been wearing them, too, when she arranged furniture like flayed skin for the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Maybe they provide the comfort of familiarity. Maybe they make up for the failed promise of her show’s title, “Good Thing You Are Not Alone.”

She dresses, she explains, as her mother, and her mother’s felt presence could provide a greater bond and a greater comfort or leave her still further alone. My mother never dressed like that or drank Pepsi, but then boomers and Gen-Xers are now mothers, too. She also dragged me on her weekend shopping tours through department stores, which terrified me—but never to Costco, where the soda resides. Upson is alone there on another video as well, driving her cart through its wide aisles. She could almost be stocking the shelves rather than shopping, as if too attached to them to see them empty. Sure enough, she stocks them in quite another way off video, in dozens of stuffed replicas piled high earlier this fall at the New Museum, through September 10.

Their materials include cat hair, Complete Idiot’s Guides, and pages from Artforum—only reasonable for an artist with attachment and achievement issues. The limp bodies look almost tragic, but the shelves invite one in to find still more video channels. In one, Upson drags a sofa through a watery landscape, the close-up making it all the more unintelligible. She is determined, one day, to drag the purchase home. If she does, she will find more soda cans in a second room, hundreds of them, cast in aluminum from the real thing. She will also find the inscrutable objects that rest on top of them, like twenty-first century fossils.

She may not make it home all at once, for another video has her checking out Las Vegas real estate, as In Search of the Perfect Double. There, too, she takes her lost original seriously, comparing home after home to it and finding them wanting. (Oh, for goodness sake, Formica!) Maybe she is addressing a human lost original as well—or her mother. Of course, taking the job seriously means crawling into absurd places, as if to replicate once more the stuffed bodies. She identifies the potential home buyer only as her.

The walls surrounding the aluminum cans contain more inscrutable sculpture, in foam shaped like sagging curtains or unmade beds. One bears the teeth marks of, she swears, her mother. Another bears the title Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue after Barnett Newman, for yet another kind of doubling. But then the very look of bedding splattered with paint goes back to a combine painting by Robert Rauschenberg—and “Wall Hangings” to women like Sheila Hicks. Another video closes in on Upson’s eye, split in two by a mirror, for a further equation of looking with doubling and of mothers with mirrors. The mirror’s touch brings tears.

The death of the originality of the avant-garde sounded downright liberating for critics like Walter Benjamin or Postmodernism, but here it takes on personal significance. Upson drives the point home in large drawings right off the elevator—as always, with repetition and overkill. More images of herself spill over one another, surrounded by words directed at herself or you. They speak of mediated and medicated experience, the endless reproduction of the self, guilt, and the difficulty of love. Their skilled realism in graphite, ink, and gesso helps to moderate the diatribe, as does their reflection of the video and sculpture. When all else fails, she can always go shopping.

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

9.6.17 — The Savage Mind

Carol Rama liked to say that she painted to cure herself. Do not believe it for a second. Over seventy years of her art, she kept finding new ways to sustain and to relish the disease.

Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease, and her busy retrospective at the New Museum, through September 10, opens in an asylum. The only surprise is that she is not an inmate. A self-portrait at age twenty, in 1937, already takes a wry look at herself and her madness. Carol Rama's Appassionata (photo by Studio Gonella, GAM Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Turin, 1940)Its flat colors and yellow background recall German Expressionism, but she leans on one hand with a mix of girlish innocence and composure. The rest of the room, though, tosses both to the winds. Dozens of watercolors from 1936 to 1944 revel in the madness.

Men and, especially, women bare their flesh, in contortions that thrust their breasts and butts at the viewer. They seem to have no substance beyond their skin and no background beyond a wheelchair or hospital bed. One woman lies beneath an ominous rack of belts, like a massive instrument of torture, but the watercolor’s title speaks of passion—or rather Appassionata, as in Beethoven. It could have existed in quite another room of the asylum, as storage for nasty means of restraint, or entirely in her mind. Other women draw snakes into or out of their bodies. They could be turning pleasure into sin or sin into pleasure.

Rama had every reason to question her sanity. She lost her father to bankruptcy and suicide and was visiting her mother all those years in the clinic in Turin. Somehow, though, she had found a home. In her watercolors it has shoes, for clothing or a fetish, and shovels, to clean up after the mess. “The entire world looks like this,” she told herself. “That helps me a lot.”

Her world continued to look like this until well into her eighties, when her output slowed ten years before her death in 2005. She followed the watercolors with more detailed, flat, and grisly etchings of much the same things, as “bodies without organs,” and she returned to etchings near the end. By then she was also designing clothing and, yes, shoes. Earlier the snakes and restraints had become rubber belts slashed off of used tires, recalling the bicycle factory that her father had owned, protruding limply out of more abstract paintings—and now the tortured flesh had become tortured black oil. “I like to paint everything black,” she added. “A wonderful joy.”

The curators, Helga Christoffersen and Massimiliano Gioni, quote Rama often in wall text. It helps in pinning down the continuity and contradictions in her art. Between her self-taught style and her mad subjects, she can seem the ultimate in outsider art. She had, though, shifting encounters with the latest European art, only starting with German Expressionism. She associated with the Italian version of Art Concrete, which encouraged her move to abstraction, although she had little patience for plain geometry. Her heavily worked surfaces give her a place with Art Brut and Arte Povera as well.

Not even madness was entirely out of her control. She moves to murkier canvases in the 1940s, with seeds and rice mixed into paint. Eyes and stars merge with blackness. She approaches geometry again in the 1970s, with those rubber strips, before a final return to representation. Materials include textiles, raw canvas, syringes, and human teeth. The naughty bits alone mark her as a feminist. They bring her closer to Lara Favaretto and Marisa Merz, also in Italy, as well as to Joyce Pensato or Betty Tompkins in New York today.

When she speaks of bodies without organs or of a cure, the museum takes her at her word. It calls her retrospective “Antibodies,” for a pun on both. Still, I wonder. “I love fetishes,” she also said, and she finds new versions of painting as fetish with each decade. She may allude to that as well with a series of Bricolages, a word that Claude Lévi-Strauss in anthropology used to describe “the savage mind.” It means making do with the materials at hand, rather than following the rules. Frustrating and wearying as it can be, it also describes her art.

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

8.23.17 — The Enigma of Blackness

A portrait by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye presents an enigma. Why are those black women watchful—and what are they watching? One takes her ease in a steel-backed chair, while the other stands behind her with opera glasses, like the audience to their own lives.

What has brought those men together, in their identical green jackets and white shirts? Are others, slumped backward or hands raised, restless or at ease? Why is one man holding an owl and another a smaller bird, as if questioning it? Is that lean man standing against a wall, one hand crossing to rest on a shoulder and one foot crossing to rest on its toes, a dancer, a prophet, or a thief?

Yiadom-Boakye loves enigmas, at the New Museum through September 3—and I have added this to earlier reports on Teju Cole, Umar Rashid, and blackness as a universal for a longer review and my latest upload. They appear in her titles, like Matters, Ropes for a Clairvoyant, or A Cage for the Love. They appear in her dark palette, broken only by a dancer’s white against a dark background, the heavy orange backdrop to a man’s dark silhouette, or glassy eyes. Much of her cast finds its double in shadows, including that small bird. A man in profile looks toward the light that casts his shadow behind him, like a nude for Edward Hopper. She, though, stands fully exposed and fully in the sun, a subject for the male gaze or an Annunciation, while the black man is isolated and self-composed.

These are heavy enigmas at that, to the point of collapsing under their own weight. Born in London of West African descent, Yiadom-Boakye portrays private moments and intimate acquaintances, often lost in thought. Yet she wants to make them protagonists in a vaguer but grander narrative. She sees them as at once casual, otherworldly, and universal. That belief in life as a vast theater may explain her fondness for performers, quite apart from who an artist’s friends are likely to be. The green jackets may belong to a musical act, while the owl rests on an artist’s palette, like a stand-in for the dark wisdom of his brush.

They sure have a lot to bear. Part of the weight derives from the literal side of British realism, part from the awful demands on the black community in England or America. It appears in the prouder stances of African American artists like Barkley L. Hendricks, Titus Kaphar, Mickalene Thomas, or Kehinde Wiley. It plays to the feel-good side of politics for many white artists as well. Just think of the price that Dana Schutz has paid for presenting the death of Emmett Till as horrifying in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. But then Kara Walker has taken her licks, too, for dredging up discomforting racial stereotypes.

Are the enigmas insipid or inspiring? One can admire a realism that does without the precision of one tradition, like Philip Pearlstein and Chuck Close, or the snappy brushwork of another, like Alfred Leslie and Alice Neel. One can admire, too, the litheness of dancers in action or at rest. Still, Yiadom-Boakye ends up with mostly academic painting in place of the ordinary or the universal. She makes things heavier still with low lighting and painted walls out of old-fashioned drawings rooms. She could do with fewer enigmas and a lot more deception.

Wiley, as it happens, was back at Sean Kelly through June 17 with some deceits of his own, as “Trickster.” And his deceits, too, turn on a dark palette and friends in the arts. He inserts black artists into a parody of Regency or Victorian realism, sometimes with direct quotes—and then he sinks the whole thing into night. He even includes Yiadom-Boakye as a person of property dressed for the hunt, with a landscape behind her and dead rabbits at her feet. Even humor, though, can fail to lighten things up, especially when the players and the references alike amount to inside jokes. He, too, left me wanting a little less pride and a lot more outrage.

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