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.

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.