From Rags to… Found Boots, Gloves and Soda Cans: The Richness of Thornton Dial
This dispatch from 2011 is offered here as a tribute to the artist who passed away recently
Report from… New Orleans
Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial at the New Orleans Museum of Art
February 26 to May 15, 2011
One Collins Diboll Circle, City Park
New Orleans, (504) 658-4100
Thornton Dial, The County, 199. Mixed Media 64 x 43 x 7 inches. Courtesy of Allegra Laviola Gallery
At his best, Thornton Dial is a great artist. Don’t Matter How Raggly the Flag, It Still Got to Tie Us Together (2003), a massive construction of enamel and spray paint on canvas on wood and mattress coils, chicken wire, clothing, can lids, found metal, plastic twine, wire, Splash Zone compound stands comparison with Jasper Johns’ flags. First Butterflies (2002), constructed of clothing, plastic, carpet, oil, enamel and spray paint on canvas on wood, can legitimately to be set alongside the classic color field paintings of Larry Poons. The exquisite Clouds Moving in the Sky, We Wake Up in Darkness and Look for Daylight (2006), built of denim pants fabric canvas scraps, staples, industrial plastic and enamel on canvas on wood can justly be hung alongside Robert Rauschenberg’s collages. And, as Thomas McEveilley has noted, Dial’s constructions with sacred themes, — Crosses to Bear (Armageddon) (2001-2004) is a good one — are worth comparing without any hesitation or apologies to Anselm Kiefer’s best works.
As the catalogue explains, Dial, born dirt poor in Alabama, September 10, 1928, has never been in an art school and has never studied art history; in fact, he is illiterate. That he worked for thirty years in a rail car manufacturing company explains his mastery of construction techniques, but it doesn’t elucidate how he came to make large paintings, which are so obviously related to the art of mainline late modernism. And while the catalogue provides a great deal of useful background information, it fails to treat him seriously as an artist who deserves to be judged alongside his peers whom I have named, by – instead — treating him as a black artist, providing too much information about his obviously heroic status as an outsider struggling with the sad history of Southern racism. He is linked, for instance, to fellow Alabamian jazz musician Sun Ra and the compared with James Brown. It would be better, I think, to provide a balanced account of his artistic career, without focusing entirely upon the kind of sociological concerns that mostly dominate the catalogue essays. As it is, we don’t really learn how a man from such a harsh background became a major visual artist, with a utopian religious vision.
Dial is not always at his best. To my eye, the obviously anecdotal painting, Trophies (Doll Factory) (2000) with its Barbie dolls, stuffed animals and plastic toys, is too literal-minded to inspire conviction. And while Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City (2005), which includes a doormat, wood doors and a bed frameamong its materials, with its seemingly beautiful façade and ugly back, is a potent comment on American racial divisions—“peckerwood” is derogatory black Southern slang for white people—it’s more of a manifesto than a fully convincing visual work of art. I can take or leave the drawings, which are delicate,often erotic, and certainly Picassoesque in their fascinating with female body parts. But this is nitpicking points. At his best he is a world-class artist.
Originating at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, this exhibition continues on to the Mint Museum, in Charlotte North Carolina and the High Museum. It is a singular misfortune, and a sad commentary on the limits of our present art world thinking that this exalted exhibition will not appear in New York, in Chicago or in California’s major museums.
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500 Years of Earth: A Survey of Landscapes at the Portland Art Museum
Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection at the Portland Art Museum
October 10, 2015 to January 10, 2016
1219 SW Park Avenue (at SW Madison Street)
Portland, OR, 503 226 2811
Claude Monet, The Water‐Lily Pond (Le bassin aux nymphéas), 1919. Oil on canvas, 39 3/8 × 78 7/8 inches. Courtesy of the Paul G. Allen Family Collection.
“Cézanne’s was not a canvas, it was a landscape.”
I recently went to the Portland Art Museum to look at “Seeing Nature,” a survey of “landscape masterworks” from the Paul Allen Family Collection. Passing through the Paradise: Fallen Fruit imbroglio at Portland Art Museum’s entrance makes this exhibition an even more pleasurable destination. The former’s tormented, though enjoyable, curatorial bent is a commentary on modern culture and our inheritance of its public spaces, through various paintings and sculptures of PAM’s permanent collection spanning several eras, abutted sans-info or contextual sequencing. Less the mélange than a remix, though extremely understated, sculptures are clustered on a plinth at center gallery, while paintings hang in crushes along the walls. A good thing about this concept is that it takes canonized works and forces the viewer to answer for themselves the question, “Why is this major?” It’s a contemporary idea not short on tradition. That it’s jumbled up isn’t a reproach, it’s the point of the piece — to raise questions by making a work of art out of past works. But “Seeing Nature”’s M.O. is something much simpler though still nuanced, and visiting both exhibitions makes for two different museum experiences. One way of presenting a collection isn’t more valuable than the other, but what happened during my visit made certain institutional implements seem worthy of their subsisting charms.
Gustav Klimt, Birch Forest (Birkenwald), 1903. Oil on canvas, 43 1/4 x 43 1/4 inches. Courtesy of the Paul G. Allen Family Collection.
The Paul Allen Family collection, some of whose 39 works are seen here in public for the first time, is composed of quite a few French Impressionist works and an impressive, wide array of other works from the last 500 years. The exhibition’s supreme appeal seems to be its intention to give the sensory experience of landscape. However old-hat this may seem to be, it works. The show’s sequencing is uncomplicated, with ample wall space between works, allowing space for longer looking. Three large galleries hold the paintings with central seating in each for tired feet, long visits, Instagramming, etc., and the the walls are affixed with artworks in unexpected and titillating curations.
The first room features the glorified French works including five by Monet, as well as Paul Signac’s Morning Calm, Concarneau, Opus 219 (Larghetto) (1891) with a musical connection in Pointillist fragmentation, like musical notes coming together to form a number. Signac’s fragments, like other of the experimentally adventuresome paintings in this show, fully allow the viewer to put the optical illusion of sailboats off the coast of Brittany together retinally and with their imagination. Seeing Gustav Klimt’s experimental 1903 oil painting of a birch forest at Attersee, Birch Forest, I can’t help but laugh, picturing Klimt painting among the birches, holding up his opera glasses to distort and augment the sights. The close-up view of birches juxtaposed with spacial illusion of the rest of the forest is dizzying and totally pleasurable.
Still, the same question can be asked: Why are these paintings famous and why should I care? My favorite of the show, Henri Le Sidaner’s Serenade at Venice (1907), immediately sent me into a state of reverie and welled my eyes, which also happened when I saw Degas’ Café Singer (1879) in Chicago. What causes such a reaction? Light (paint) forming the impression of life (the singer’s red lips, the sun, or in Le Sidaner’s case, low nocturnal flameglow). Le Sidaner, “delicious rhapsodist of night,” replicates the feeling of gloaming at night by way of painted paper lanterns, the luxury of sightseeing, and music made possible by subtle chiaroscuro (without Baroque melodrama) in his 1905 painting of gondoliers on a Venetian lagoon.
Installation view of “Seeing Nature,” 2015, at the Portland Art Museum. Courtesy of the Portland Art Museum.
One of the other two rooms is full of Modernist favorites like O’Keefe, Ruscha, Richter, Hockney, Magritte, and Ernst, many of which are stretches when it comes to landscape, raising the question: what is a landscape? Take for instance Ed Ruscha’s Premium Oil (1965), a painting that brings the landscape to its viewer in its absence. What Ruscha presents here is a large silhouetted building, with the landscape a mere suggestion left to the viewer’s imagination. One would be remiss to not mention David Hockney’s massive panoramic stunner in oil, The Grand Canyon (1998), a veritable contemporary Fauve take on the natural monument. It’s by turns flat, illusionistic, cartoony, and naturalistic.
The third room features the older of the paintings, with artworks that document a return to classical themes, myths, and architecture. Jan Brueghel the Younger’s 1625 series, “The Five Senses,” involves the landscape combined with portraiture and still life, while Venice occupies the canvases of Turner, Canaletto, Manet, and Moran.
Returning to the first room to leave, I happened on Joan Kirsch, an art historian and docent giving a public tour. Knowing her wide frame of reference and clear, entertaining eloquence, I couldn’t miss the chance to listen in. Joan’s one of a kind who’s been around a while. She once told me that she used to rollerskate to the Met and then roll around the galleries looking at all the art. She and her group were at Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire (1888-90). I learned things that contextualized an already thrilling painting in ways that maybe wouldn’t happen without the mediated viewing of the guided tour. In Cézanne, this kind of viewing is absolutely helpful.
Jan Brueghel the Younger, The Five Senses: Sight, ca. 1625. Oil on panel, 27 5/8 × 44 5/8 inches. Courtesy of the Paul G. Allen Family Collection.
Knowing that Cézanne has probably influenced every painter since his death doesn’t lessen his works’ challenging aspects. In this and the hundreds of Mont Sainte-Victoire paintings Cézanne made, the natural landscape looks unnatural, larger than life, not at all like it does in situ. Cézanne’s structured, strange brush strokes (owing their slant to his left-handedness) reflect the painter’s emotional baggage, to paraphrase Joan. He painted his interpretation — what he wanted you to see, not what’s necessarily there. All this led to a conversation about why so much of the work in this exhibition was satisfying, and why we call this kind of work “great.” Cézanne (one of the first experimental painters of the Modern era), like so many of the artists in this exhibition, only wanted to give you part of the picture and so he left the rest for the viewer to discern or keep wondering about. “When you’re in a forest,” Joan explained, “you don’t even need to see the whole tiger. If you see his tail, you run.”
“Seeing Nature” will also travel to The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the New Orleans Museum of Art, and will conclude at the Seattle Art Museum in 2017.
David Hockney, The Grand Canyon, 1998. Oil on canvas; 21 canvases, 48 1/2 in. x 169 inches overall. © David Hockney; Courtesy of the Paul G. Allen Family
The Shadows in Plato’s Cave: Drawings by Joan Tanner
Joan Tanner: Persistent Contact, Works on Paper at Locks Gallery
December 22, 2015 to January 30, 2016
600 Washington Square South
Philadelphia, (215) 629-1000
Joan Tanner, donotellmewhereibelong #19. 2014. Pencil, colored pencil, oil stick and pastel, 26 x 38 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Locks Gallery.
The process of drawing is an excursion through ideas, a means by which an artist can test out theories and apply one surface to another, without the commitment of three-dimensional materials. Joan Tanner, whose large-scale installations are like a chess game played with limitless pieces, experiments in equally compelling ways in her drawings.
In the same way that stories are made of words that we recognize, a sculpture is made of materials that can come with meanings. When those materials are themselves complete objects, the reading of the piece is hemmed in by its components’ known uses in society. An artist can put these parts together in challenging or ironic ways, but she cannot completely ignore prior functions.
A drawing, however, is more slippery. Line can merely suggest meanings and not have to contain them. Like the shadows in Plato’s cave, a line holds whatever meaning the beholder assigns it. One calls it a live creature, another, a finger puppet. Tanner’s drawings make ample use of the medium’s ambiguities, suggesting a wide range of possibilities but never constraining us to a single reading.
Ambiguity of scale is a major tool in Tanner’s box. Donotellmewhereibelong #32 (2014), for example, is an accumulation of fine lines on a smudge of blue chalk in the midst of a white page. The lines coalesce into a central form that could be as large as a rock hollow in the side of a cliff or as small as a side of fleshy tissues under a microscope. Never fully divorced from the flat surface, these marks dissolve into a crisscross pattern on the form’s periphery.
Joan Tanner, Drawing Focus #4, 1999. Oil stick, metallic powder, ink on Strathmore paper, 34-3/4 x 27 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Locks Gallery.
Endofred #3 introduces ambiguity of viewpoint as a modus operandi. Thick red oil stick splotches cover undulating lines that resemble winding rivers viewed from above. Envisioned in profile, this same set of marks is a grotesque rooster hopping on one foot, or a cloud of debris kicked up by a small tornado. These very different readings coexist within a remarkably cohesive composition.
Tanner’s marks often straddle the line between the mimetic and the schematic. She freely mixes lines that suggest form and surface with others that resemble an architect’s plans. Donotellmewhereibelong #19 (2014), for example, contains a thicket of ruled graphite lines that converge in the manner of the orthogonal foci of perspective diagrams. Covered with smudges of turquoise and green, however, these triangular configurations also suggest a bay full of sailboats and waves. Tilting toward the side of an otherwise white page, this entire nautical configuration appears to drift into outer space.
The frequent appearance of a lonely clump of matter in the midst of a void lends a kind of alien spaceship aspect to the work. However, the drawings’ fierce openness keeps them out of the sci-fi illustration territory of, say, Roger Dean’s Yes album cover art. At once flat and pictorial, and seen simultaneously in plan and elevation views, these drawings have too many complications to be illustrative.
The openness of Tanner’s graphic work relates to the working process she uses for her sculptures and installations. An online video of her assembly of the piece On Tenderhooks (2006) shows a flurry of activity, with assistants bringing objects into the gallery, rolling them around, nailing them together, taking them apart, then removing them altogether. Along the way, Tanner traces all possibilities inherent in the form, in the same way that we as viewers run through many alternative readings as we engage with her drawings. The topsy-turvy orientation of this exhibition’s various pieces is equivalent to the drawings’ ambiguous scale and viewpoint, and the choice to omit elements resonates with the drawings’ vast voids. Tanner demonstrates a comparable level of persistence in the making of her three-dimensional work and her drawings, albeit of a different kind. The one involves hitting the same path repeatedly until she arrives at her destination; the other, hitting every path until she finds the right one. It is not surprising, therefore, that her drawings encompass a level of openness impossible in the more resolutely determined works.
Joan Tanner, endofred #3, 2015. Oil stick, metallic powder, ballpoint pen and chalk on Bristol paper, 22 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Locks Gallery.
Incarnated Curves: Ornamental Ironwork at the Barnes Foundation
Strength and Splendor, Wrought Iron From the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles, Rouen at the Barnes Foundation
September 19, 2015 to January 4, 2016
2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Strength and Splendor, Wrought Iron From the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles, Rouen at the Barnes Foundation
I always love going to Philadelphia because I perceive this town as a sort of capital of French art. With the Rodin Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Barnes Foundation, it is a place where you can really feel the roots of French Modernism
And Philadelphia is also a great center of ornamental ironwork. As a young sculptor visiting from France in the 1970s, I made a special trip to visit the greatest workshop in America for blacksmithing, founded by Samuel Yellin (1885-1940). I did my first sculptures in America there thanks to the hospitality of his son, Harvey. Some marvelous ornamental ironworks by Samuel Yellin are in the collection of the PMA.
Pair of Hand-shaped Wall Lights, 16th century. Germany. Rolled sheet iron, cut, repoussé, and curled; wrought iron; the whole fastened with rivets, each: 8-1/2 × 6-1/8 × 7-1/16 inches. Musée de la ferronnerie Le Secq des Tournelles, Rouen
It was a pleasant surprise to discover the collection of forged metal work hanging on the walls around the paintings on my first visit to the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pa. I remember that for most visitors, including art historians, this looked extremely eccentric. These ornamental works show a richness of execution, invention, and beauty. It should be admitted that he French themselves would have been as nonplussed to regard these metal ironworks around a collection of painting masterpieces. French tradition establishes a hierarchy where paintings and sculptures are part of the major arts and anything else gets gathered into a secondary category of decorative arts.
As a sculptor in forged iron, it is crucial for me to see the roots and traditions of my work. We tend to say that iron emerged in Western sculpture in the 20th century thanks to the great sculptor Julio Gonzalez. We could also add the names of Gargallo, Calder, Picasso, and Smith. The capacity of metal to be worked in extremely linear ways allows sculpture to become free of its mass and for emptiness to be exploited as solid volume. Additionally, the use of wire was a big breakthrough for freeing sculpture. Suddenly, we could draw: we could delineate the void.
But such a perception is extremely ethnocentric and limited to the history of sculpture defined by a western conception.
Furthermore, ornamental ironwork has always been a very linear calligraphic way to create. Judith Dolkart, the former Director of the Barnes and co-curator of Strength and Splendor, had this conception of ironwork in the back of her mind when she conceived of the show, she told me. The idea of seeing a union of their own and the Barnes ironwork collections was warmly received at the Musée de Rouen. In the selection from Rouen’s Le Secq des Tournelles collection we can appreciate some pieces done in repoussé sheets of metal, seen fully in the round. For instance, there are extraordinarily beautiful roosters in metal located on the roof of churches. There are superb masterpieces of andiron (firedogs) that can be perceived today as sculptures. In French tradition, the major arts have their statute mostly because they’re non-functional. I do appreciate enormously the fact that a culture supports non-functionality in art. It stimulates the artist to be free and to transgress. But I regret that we would deny and not perceive some major creativity in some functional and decorative works like those ornamental ironworks and in ivory carving.
Installation shot, permanent collection, Barnes Foundation, showing examples of ironwork and paintings hung together by Albert C. Barnes
I really admire Albert Barnes for arranging painting, furniture, and ornamental ironworks all on the same level of importance in very creative ensembles. It gave him the freedom to collect masterpieces of Native American Indian carpets, jewels, and extraordinary potteries. In his installations we can perceive a world of signs, a musical suit in which the decontextualized functional objects resonate with the pictorial signs composed in each painting. This emerges forcefully, for instance, in the juxtaposition of Matisse’s Music Lesson and the ornamental work Barnes chose to place around the painting. The metal forged balcony in the painting dialogues with the painted curves of the piano and the metal motives on the walls. Barnes installs the arts with a sense of symmetry belonging to the classical tradition as we see with the Medici at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. With the addition of the metal works, he develops a sense of humor that was never shown before. In my opinion, the collection reveals a taste of Barnes for the female body and the arabesque. The whole collection emits a tension between a world of verticality and a love of incarnated curves.
I do not always know for sure what used to be the function of some of those metal works. I don’t really care because they free me and allow me to enjoy the extreme beauty, the powerful inventiveness of those great artists of the past. They’re more than craftsmen because they don’t repeat and they’re innovating through their execution.
The opportunity at the Barnes to compare two great but distinct collections of wrought iron works revealed the different spirits of each collector. The very beautifully selected collection of Le Secq des Tournelles presents an accumulation of functional objects whereas Barnes’s intention, as I have said, in decontextualizing those objects, is essentially a kind of musical semiology. We can also savor the way that pieces in Le Secq des Tournelles kept the blackness of the metal patina and how Albert Barnes took it off. These are two different approaches of appreciating these works. The Barnes Foundation is really a place that breaks hierarchy through a powerful sense of humor and joie de vivre.
Locksmith’s Sign, “The Dog,” 19th century. France. Rolled iron and wrought iron, polychromed, 22-1/2 × 35-3/4 × 1-1/4 inches. Musée de la ferronnerie Le Secq des Tournelles, Rouen
Cabaret Sign “Bat,” late 18th century–early 19th century. France. Wrought iron and rolled iron, repoussé, fastened with rivets; glass, 24-3/4 × 24-1/4 × 2 3/8 inches. Musée de la ferronnerie Le Secq des Tournelles, Rouen
An Art of Plenitude: American Still Life in Philadelphia
The Art of American Still Life: Audubon to Warhol at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
October 27, 1915 to January 10, 2016
2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Raphaelle Peale, Venus Rising from the Sea— A Deception [After the Bath], 1822? The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri
Still life painting, as Meyer Schapiro writes in his marvelously economical account of Paul Cézanne’s apples,
consists of objects that, whether artificial or natural, are subordinate to man as elements of use, manipulation and enjoyment; these objects are smaller than ourselves, within arm’s reach, and owe their presence and place to a human action, a purpose.
His definition nicely hints at why it is a distinctive product of modern mercantile cultures, societies that thus celebrate their ability to assemble supplies of such objects. Still life is an art of plenitude. Indeed it would be worthwhile making a comprehensive list of the artifacts represented in the still life works in this exhibition: biscuits; dead animals; eyeglasses; fine china; fish; foodstuffs; heaps of flowers, fruits, and vegetables; hunting horns; insects; letters, business cards and other written materials; live birds; living and dead plants; oysters and shellfish; piles of books; paper money; picture frames; violins and sheet music; and watch gears. I’ve rarely attended an exhibition with so many depicted things on display. Since the early 19th Century, on the evidence demonstrated here, the United States has been a prosperous manufacturing culture.
Jasper Johns, Painted Bronze, 1960. Oil on bronze, 13-1/2 x 8 inches diameter. The Museum of Modern Art, NY. Promised gift of Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis. Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York.
Still life painting poses compelling challenges for its commentators. Interpreting history painting involves identifying the story displayed. Analyzing landscapes typically requires knowledge of the site depicted, and discussion of portraits often demands information about their subject. But since the identity of many (though not all) objects in these American still lifes is visually obvious, what is the legitimate role of commentary? Some these 130 still lifes, I grant, show strange subjects. The exhibition opens with two by Raphaelle Peale, the founder of the American still life tradition: Catalogue Deception (after 1813), a small trompe l’oeil image of a worn exhibition catalogue; and Venus Rising from the Sea—A Deception (1822), in which a white cloth obstructs our view of the female nude. And it concludes with Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes (1964) and Jasper Johns’ Painted Bronze (1960), a coffee can container of paintbrushes, which are cast in bronze. But most of the subjects shown here are not unfamiliar.
We learn a great deal about America from still lifes, the exhibition catalogue argues, because these banal things at hand express our social history, define our relationships and illustrate our dominating personal desires and fears. Thus the currency and stamps in John Haberle’s The Changes of Time (1888) illustrate American history; WiIliam Michael Harnett’s After the Hunt (1885) presents the implements of the huntsmen and some of their animals caught; and Kate Safe’s The Answer is No (1958), painted when she was going blind – by depicting a vast array of blank canvases – shows her grim future. But merely identifying the subjects of these pictures, as I (following Schapiro) have done, does not identify what is perhaps their most aesthetically significant feature, the ways in which the groupings of these objects are composed. Just as, when bringing flowers home from the florist, you display them in a pleasing arrangement, so successful still life artists arrange their objects with care, constructing what might be called a group portrait of these things. Consider, for example, William Michael Harnett’s Music (1886), in which you see a rare Cremona violin balanced on top of a pile of sheet music, with books, a vase and a fine carpet. As in most of these still lifes, the objects are depicted in fine-focus naturalistic detail. But how strikingly unnatural is this composition, in which the violin extends over the edge of the table, pressing towards the viewer like the saint in some baroque altarpiece. A similar analysis could be offered of many of the pictures—the presentation of these things thus reflecting our aesthetic interests. The Art of American Still Life is an important exhibition because of the quality and quantity of art displayed, because the catalogue presents a challenging and plausible thesis, and above all because the art is such fun to look at.
Edward Ashton Goodes, Fishbowl Fantasy, 1867. Oil on canvas, 30 x 25-1/8 inches. Collection of Peter A. Feld
The Veil and Vault: The Broad Museum in Los Angeles
Installation of works by Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Ed Ruscha in The Broad’s third-floor galleries; photo by Bruce Damonte, courtesy of The Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro.
The Broad is a commanding addition to Los Angeles’ downtown cultural artery along Grand Avenue, situated beside the Frank Gehry-designed Disney Concert Hall, and across from the Museum of Contemporary Art (LA MOCA). The Broad, nearly 10 years in the making, opened its doors to the public last month, presenting Edith and Eli’s massive collection of blue-chip artworks free of charge. Preceding the construction of their name-sake, the Broads had established historical ties to every major Los Angeles museum, including LA MOCA, the Hammer, and more recently the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) — a sizable gallery built on-site at the Los Angeles County Museum (LACMA) in 2008. The permanent collection exhibited at Grand Avenue will be familiar to Angelenos from earlier presentations at LACMA’s Renzo Piano-designed BCAM wing.
In terms of the building itself, architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro refer to the Broad’s unique design as a “veil-and-vault” structure, consisting of a fiber-reinforced concrete façade, or veil, that allows for controlled, natural light to permeate the gallery spaces surrounding the “vault” — a state of the art climate-controlled storage unit at the building’s core.
For the inaugural exhibition, Joanne Heyler, a 20-year Broad Foundation veteran and director of the nascent museum, has selected more than 250 works by some 60 artists in what she refers to as “a sweeping, chronological journey.” This presentation is indeed a journey, one that communicates the history of the international art market of the past 30 years, reified by these artists’ positions within such an axiomatically authoritative institution as the Broad. Heyler’s insistence on a chronological presentation further reinforces this point.
Ed Ruscha’s companion pieces, Old Tech Chem Building (2003) and Blue Collar Tech Chem (1992), open an exhibition of recently acquired works on the museum’s first floor. The works depict the 11-year transformation of a fictional “Tech Chem” facility into a space newly named “Fat Boy.” The 1992 work depicts a grey night sky, which in 2003 bleeds red. The phrase “Fat Boy” recalls the atomic bombs dropped by the United States on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945 — nicknamed “Fat Man” and “Little Boy,” respectively. These paintings serve as an intense opening to the show: while the present is foreboding, the future perhaps radioactive, Ruscha instructs us not to be nostalgic for the past. Tech Chem limns our present experience as a product of our dark origins.
Jasper Johns, Watchman, 1964. Oil on canvas with objects (two panels), 85 x 60 1/4 inches. Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.
Following Ruscha’s powerful introduction, I was disappointed that the curators failed to draw any relationship between Mark Grotjahn’s poignant formal studies and the more explicitly political works on display. Grotjahn’s 2007 Untitled (Dancing Black Butterflies) consists of a series of rotating mathematical grids — vertical lines become horizontal and vantage points slant and skew. The artist’s black geometric shapes flutter to life along the length of the series, creating optical impressions that change as the viewer moves in the space. The wall text reads that these shifting vantage points provide “room for many perceptions of and points of entry into the work.” It is precisely this awareness of the capacity of artworks to read multiply, for meaning to bend and shift, which could have successfully brought historically disparate works in dialogue with one another.
The museum’s main gallery upstairs opens with Jeff Koons’ monumental Tulips (1995-2004), surrounded on all sides by Christopher Wool’s Untitled (1990), a nine-panel installation in which the words “Run Dog Run” are stenciled in repetition using black enamel on aluminum. Wool breaks apart the words themselves, the R and U placed above the N, the D and O placed above the G. With the dismemberment of these three-letter words, Wool highlights their semiotic function, encouraging the viewer to understand them as formal signifiers divorced from their meaning within the phrase.
This relationship between signifiers and concepts was explored by American artist Jasper Johns 30 years prior with his masterpiece, Watchman. This 1964 assemblage highlights the artist’s radical refusal of any single identification: how exactly is his composition ordered? Which paints are laid down first? Which are stripped away? Do his colors prefigure their descriptions? Johns’ Watchman mirrors the scale of the human form — reinforced by the cast of a human leg in the upper register — and, as such, demands to be understood as contingent upon the viewer’s own physicality, identity and experience.
Glenn Ligon also works at this intersection of language and identity, as evidenced by his series Runaways from 1993. For these works, Ligon asked friends to draft descriptions of him as though they were reporting a missing person to the police, and was shocked to find that they recalled the 19th-century runaway-slave ads he had researched for the series. The descriptions vary widely from piece to piece — different features are highlighted, others glossed over. While the exhibition privileges formal and historical relationships over conceptual ones, it would have been inspiring to examine Wool, Johns and Ligon’s work side-by-side, as a means of highlighting the discursive production of meaning in all three. Instead, Ligon’s installation is predictably flattened, reduced to what the curators call “the parallel senses of insider and outsider in us all.”
Mysteriously, the late activist-artist David Wojnarowicz shares one of the final galleries with art star Julian Schnabel, an odd juxtaposition that the wall text fails to engage with or defend. The Wojnarowicz works are striking and impassioned, in particular The Newspaper as National Voodoo: A Brief History of The U.S.A., from 1986. Here, a crucified figure is undergirded by layers of painted-over newsprint with the phrases “10 years,” “life and death,” “in the womb” and “foul” left bare. Veins extend from the voodoo figure and wrap around images of mosquitos, cowboys, blood red steak and a hand literally covered in a blood. This is a work about AIDS, homophobia, fear of infection and government inaction resulting in the death of hundreds of thousands.
Like other works in the exhibition, Wojnarowicz’ pulsing political message is tamped down by Heyler’s insistence on a chronological presentation that resists social-historical examination. The Broad falls victim to a universalizing narrative that presupposes that the meaning attached to these artworks is fixed, conveyed to a disembodied spectator that approaches the work in isolation, divorced from her own social experience. Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s “veil-and-vault” concept then serves as a poignant lens through which to understand The Broad’s political stakes. It’s all right there in the architecture — the museum’s surface appears porous, penetrable and malleable. However, this veil is merely a symbol of access that instead serves to reinforce the institutionally fixed, guarded and rich marrow within.
Robert Longo, Untitled (Ferguson Police, August 13, 2014), 2014. Diptych, charcoal on mounted paper, 88 x 122 x 4 1/8 inches. © Robert Longo.
Painting the Town Red: Wasserman Projects, Detroit
Last month saw the launch in Detroit of Wasserman Projects, a 5000 square foot open gallery space in the historic Eastern Market with 2000 more square feet on tap. The inaugural exhibition featured works by German-born, Brooklyn-based Marcus Linnenbrook and Miami-based designer Nick Gelpi, including a collaboration between the two, and an installation by by Detroit’s Jon Bromit, asound artist. LILLY WEI was there for the opening and files this report.
Pavilion by Markus Linnenbrink and Nick Gelpi. Photo credit: Wasserman Projects
While downtown Detroit, sparkling under a clear blue September sky, doesn’t look like a place in so much distress that it was forced to declare bankruptcy two years ago, it has to be said that there are curiously few people about in what was once the country’s fourth largest city. That might be a plus, of course. Even more curiously, there aren’t that many cars either (ditto), even if it is still Motor City, as the towering General Motors complex at the Renaissance Center is quick to remind you. In the 1950s and ‘60s, with Motown’s sounds blasting from car windows across the world, Detroit was home to around 1.8 million people. Now it’s down to a little over 700,000 with a median age of 35. It is 82 per cent black, although African Americans were not much in evidence in the areas I saw. There seems to be a trickle (mostly white) moving back in, and if anecdotal evidence means anything, it includes quite a few Millennials who have emigrated from a no longer affordable, no longer edgy Brooklyn.
Gary Wasserman is not a millennial but he is a native son, art collector and now gallerist. One of Detroit’s most enthusiastic boosters, Wasserman said that he had thought of opening an art center in Miami but then came the light bulb moment. Miami didn’t need another art space but Detroit did. And, he pointed out, it had the infrastructure to support a cultural resurgence: the Detroit Institute of the Arts, with its world-class collections no longer headed for the auction block; the renowned Detroit Symphony Orchestra; the Michigan Opera Theatre; and thriving hip-hop and techno music scenes. It also has its esteemed educational institutions such as the University of Michigan and Cranbrook Academy of Art. And there is the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, its experimental, socially conscious programs increasingly noteworthy, highlighted by Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead, in permanent residence on its grounds.
The result of his epiphany was the interdisciplinary Wasserman Projects, writ large across the handsome brick facade of a renovated firehouse. The opening on September 25 coincided with the Detroit Design Festival. The soaring, sky lit interior of Wasserman Projects is entered through Harley Valentine’s Dream Machine, a tall, twisty geometric sculpture in eye-catching red facing a red portal (Wasserman’s favorite color). It is purposively sited in Eastern Market, a historic Detroit marketplace for fresh produce that has been re-branded as a destination for the creative, the artisanal, and the unique, from specialty foods to innovative restaurants, small retail shops and studio complexes for designers and inventors such as OmniCorpDetroit.
Wasserman Projects, Detroit, with entry portal by Harley Valentine.
Markus Linnenbrook and Nick Gelpi’s collaboration, THEFIRSTONEISCRAZYTHESECONDONEISNUTS (2015) dominates the gallery. An elegant, multi-planar construction, it had several small windows cut into its plain wood exterior so the inside was visible from different vantage points. There is an entry to permit viewers to step up into its extravagant rainbow-striped interior, as if entering into a painting, the dripped paint a Linnenbrink hallmark. It also pulls apart to form a fantastic stage. Outside, Jon Bromit repurposed a metallic grain silo into a sound installation that feels part do-it-yourself, part ultra-sophisticated, called Elf Waves, Earth Loops, and *Spatial Forces. The soundtrack – activated by the viewer – emanates from ceiling and floor and reverberates as if you were inside a multidirectional sound box.
Another interdisciplinary project, scheduled for fall, 2016 is Belgian artist Koen Vanmechelen’s Cosmopolitan Chicken, an ongoing venture he began 20 years ago, previewed on a video monitor. Crossbreeding a local chicken type with a more global pool of genetic material, it’s a “metaphor for diversity,” the artist says, that reflects, in this instance, the diversity of Detroit. And if the fine-feathered fowls he has previously conceived are any indication, this new breed will also be stunning to look at.
If you are creative, optimistic, energetic—not to mention young and resilient—and in need of space and an artistic community, Detroit, as Wasserman put it, “is the city for now.”
Looking Back: A Retrospective of German Figure Painting
The 80s: Figurative Painting in West Germany at the Städel Museum
22 July to 18 October, 2015
Schaumainkai 63 60596 (at Dürerstraße)
Frankfurt am Main, Germany +49 69 6050980
Installation view of “The 80s: Figurative Painting in West Germany,” 2015, at the Städel Museum. Courtesy of the Städel Museum.
Frankfurt’s 200-year-old Städel Museum used its impressive 2012 extension to revisit the somewhat unfashionable work of the last generation of artists to come to prominence in the west of a divided Germany. 97 mostly large works by painters born shortly after the war are set out in a mixture of geographic and thematic groupings, which keeps the flow healthily unpredictable: Berlin, Cologne and Hamburg as the main centers, and self-portraits, the body and politics as subject orientations. As in the US and Italy, this era’s expressive figurative painters — dubbed the Junge Wilde (“Wild Youth”) — were seen as an antidote to Minimalism and Conceptualism, and had their moment in the market before the crash of 1987.
Luciano Castelli, Berlin Nite, 1979. Synthetic resin on nettle, 240 x 200 cm. Photograph by Luciano Castelli © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015.
Many of these works haven’t been exhibited since then, and only Martin Kippenberger (who died in 1997) and maybe Albert Oehlen have maintained comparable profiles. Otherwise, the mantle of figurative significance has reverted to generations before (Georg Baselitz, Sigmar Polke, Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter) and after (Neo Rauch and the Leipzig school). This show demonstrated that the work, though diverse, benefits from being seen together; that there are more connections than might be assumed with the preceding and succeeding generations; and that it’s worth looking again at a wider spread of the 27 artists included.
How coherent are these paintings, seen as a group? The majority can be described as loosely and somewhat aggressively painted, trading on the apparent speed of execution, with plenty of ambiguity. Maybe it’s me reading backwards to the fall of the Berlin Wall, which ended the period covered, but I also found myself drawn into the frequency with which apparent contradictions — of visual languages or content — are brought together in the same painting, as if reflecting the divided nation. That’s to be expected in the section labelled “The Political Collage.” But other rooms feature the phenomenon as well, as in works such as Volker Tannert’s Small Ceremony for the Modern (1982), in which Albert-Speer-like floodlights illuminate a post-war skyscraper, and Gerard Kever’s Untitled (1982), which combines “televised” clouds with “real” ones. A particularly striking example is KaDaWe (1981), a vast (340 x 483 cm) collaboration by Salomé and Luciano Castelli, which adopts and subverts capitalist modes of display by depicting the artists in performance, mimicking the “poses” of meat hanging over a department store butcher’s counter. Kippenberger is the master of this mode, and all four of his works here conjoin disparate elements: Two Proletarian Women Inventors on their Way to the Inventors’ Congress (1984) shows the pair on their way to collect an “innovation award” — which was probably for something already well-established in the West — set against both a Malevichian monochrome and a swirling Abstract Expressionist background, mocking all ideologies equally.
Martin Kippenberger, Two Proletarian Women Inventors on Their Way to the Inventor’s Congress, 1984. Oil and silicone on canvas, 160 x 133 cm. Photograph by Städel Museum – ARTOTHEK. © Estate of Martin Kippenberger, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne.
The break from preceding modes doesn’t seem extreme in retrospect. Most of the subjects are straight from the lives of the artists: punk music, sex, the city, painting itself. When the Mülheimer Freiheit group (named for the address of a Cologne studio shared by Hans Peter Adamski, Peter Bömmels, Walter Dahn, Jiri Georg Dokoupil, Gerard Kever and Gerhard Naschberger) give things a kitchily surreal twist, it’s to no radical effect.
The precedents of the Expressionist generation are often explicit: Rainer Fetting’s Large Shower (1981) puts Ernst Ludwig Kirchner figures into a gay sauna; and Egon Schiele is summoned by the quintessentially 1980s pre-VCR action of Werner Büttner’s Self-Portrait Masturbating in a Cinema, which neatly inverts the “paintbrush as penis” trope. A landscape by Berndt Zimmer, Field, Rape (1979), is close to color field abstraction. Walter Dahn’s Double Self (1982) reminded me of David Hockney’s early ‘60s work, when what would become Pop was still messy. And Milan Kunc is close to later mainstream Pop. Looking forward, the artists of the Leipzig school have continuities with their ‘80s forebears, many of whom taught them, though they generally paint with more clarity and a different historical awareness: more a unification of previously competing tendencies, less a tendency to accept clashes within a painting.
Bernd Zimmer, Field, Rape, 1979. Emulsion and distemper on canvas, 205 x 300 cm. Bernd Zimmer Kunststiftung Photograph by Archiv Bernd Zimmer © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015.
Who deserves more attention? There’s nothing here to challenge the primacy of the group who studied together in Hamburg, where Sigmar Polke taught Georg Herold, Werner Büttner, the Oehlen brothers and, of course, Kippenberger; but the geographic picture is complicated by Kippenberger’s move to Berlin in 1978. Bettina Semmer was in that circle, too, and she (along with G.L. Gabriel) emerged as the most substantial female presence in a rather male scene. Each of Semmer’s three contributions are striking in different ways, and though this show doesn’t look at what these artists — most of them still practicing — did next, her subsequent work is also varied and interesting. Tannert (a student of Richter) and Andreas Schulze impress, too, though the latter’s paintings have a monumental stillness rather at odds with the tenor of the show.
The prevailing intensity edges into the histrionic in the weaker works, and the free markmaking becomes more vague than dynamising. Can the so-called 80ers, as a whole, be defended as deliberately practicing “Bad Painting,” which opposes the idea of harmonious art, whether traditional or avant-garde? Kippenberger, as with a naïvely conventional portrait sharpened by the title Mother of Joseph Beuys (1984), delivers persuasively to that agenda. So does Oehlen: two of his works here allow mirrors to disrupt the illusionistic space of the painting, knowingly undermining the established codes. And in Moonlight Falling into the Fuehrer’s Headquarters (1982), they also reflect his viewers back into a space containing a swastika. As the show’s curator, Martin Engler, says, “Contexts are consciously ruptured. The moment of dissolution becomes the content of the image.” I don’t sense the same analytic justification for the apparent badness in all cases, so that I can’t see this show bringing the likes of Helmut Middendorf and Salomé back to international attention. Indeed, perhaps the museum implicitly acknowledges a more national audience by not translating the catalogue into English — as it does those for most shows. None of that, though, detracts from a fascinating and superbly presented time capsule of a survey.
Rainer Fetting, First Painting of the Wall, 1977. Tempera on canvas, 160 x 190 cm. Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main Photo: Städel Museum – ARTOTHEK © Rainer Fetting.
A William Eggleston Retrospective on Tropical Soil
Report from Brazil
William Eggleston: American Color at Instituto Moreira Salles
March 14 to June 28, 2015
Rua Marquês de São Vicente, 476
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, +55 21 3284 7400
William Eggleston, Untitled (Sumner, Mississippi, Cassidy Bayou in Background), 1971. Eggleston Artistic Trust. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.
The only English-language review that I can find of William Eggleston’s retrospective at Instituto Moreira Salles (IMS) in Rio de Janeiro, has the title “What’s William Eggleston’s Doing in Brazil?” Despite the explicit surprise and no other mention throughout the American press, the retrospective, which went through the end of June, was a notable survey of Eggleston’s early work. “William Eggleston: American Color” was also the artist’s most ample recent retrospective in all the Americas — the last major one happened at the Whitney Museum, in 2009.
It was no wonder for Brazilians that IMS could stage such a great exhibition; the non-profit has a fundamental role in supporting arts and culture in Brazil. In Rio, IMS settled in the former residence of the Moreira Salles family, a large remodeled Modernist property in Gávea, wrapped in ornamental brise soleils, and with a landscape designed by Roberto Burle Marx. That atmosphere mingled perfectly with Eggleston’s works. It was like traveling in a time capsule that could combine and contrast the glamorous life of the 1950s in Rio with American landscapes and people of a few decades later. Besides the Modernist atmosphere, the show’s exhibition design borrowed creative solutions — such as special supports and curtains — from objects that Eggleston photographed. “We wanted to use those colors and materials, which were so new at the time when Eggleston captured them — those bright plastics, neon lights, Wal-Mart-like, industrialized, furniture,” curator Thyago Nogueira explained.
Installation view, “WIlliam Eggleston: American Color,” 2015, at IInstituto Moreira Salles. Photograph by Ailton Silva/Instituto Moreira Salles.
When Nogueira took over IMS’s contemporary photography department, Eggleston’s was the first name that came to his mind. “Brazilian enthusiasts were familiar with Eggleston’s most famous images, but we wanted to add more of his work to their repertory,” said Nogueira. And he did: the show’s five galleries were fully taken by 172 photographs from the first three decades of the artist’s career. Though many of these early works had been shown before in the US, the Brazilian retrospective brought the entire Los Alamos series and works rarely seen.
The first room included around 40 photographs from the Los Alamos series, and four early black-and-white works. In this room, visitors encountered some of Eggleston’s most famous images, such the redheaded boy leaning over a supermarket cart. In a second room, there were exhibition catalogues in display cases and one of Eggleston’s original portfolios, Troubled Waters (1980), a popular format among collectors of that time. In the third, main room of the exhibition, visitors followed Eggleston’s shift of subjects, when he photographed his family and friends and started using dye-transfer, a sophisticated advertising technique, to have control over each color.
One of the show’s highlights was encountering, in the fourth room, Eggleston’s large-format portraits, taken in 1970s and printed in 2000; most of them were shot at hangouts and bars. These works were accompanied by Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton (1973/2008), a film that depicts a fictional country invented by him and his friends, where “you can smoke marijuana, hang out naked and never need a passport.” I was so overwhelmed by seeing selfies all over social media that finding those portraits was soothing to my eyes: I took time looking at ordinary things like teeth, pores, pupils, hair. It was as if those people could get together with us. They gave me room to imagine my own stories about them: a rock-band singer, with his hairy chest and opened leather vest, stoned eyes, hypnotized by a prophetic song. Or a pizza-delivery boy, who found time to make a pose, with his naïve smile and broken tooth, happily gazing at me.
William Eggleston, Untitled (from the series Los Alamos), 1965-74. Eggleston Artistic Trust. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.
When I moved to the US, years ago, I had the feeling I was in a movie. Thanksgiving turkey, baseball and Rocky Balboa seemed distant fabrications on screens, but the moment I stepped on American soil they became magically real and a little less stereotyped. For most Brazilians though, that change won’t happen; a compacted, fanciful, American society will continue to dwell in their minds, given the extreme and continuous exposure to the American culture. Although my Brazilian eyes loved the fictional exercise of looking at Eggleston’s works, the recent shooting in Charleston and the polemics about the Confederate battle flag kept drumming on my head. Through Eggleston’s images I was looking at the crossroads between two eras, the Old and the New South, full of expectations, but inhabited by a racial conundrum that, to this day, hasn’t come to an end.
This reality came to my mind when I saw Untitled (from the portfolio Troubled Waters) in which beautiful black children are barefoot, walking on a field in Eggleston’s relatives’ cotton farm, under a bright blue sky. They wear yellow and blue outfits, the older girl in pigtails; they all look straight at the camera, curious and a bit wary. Then later, in Untitled (Sumner, Mississippi, Cassidy Bayou in Background) (1971), a white car and two men stand over a carpet made of autumn leaves. The white man wears black suit and a striped tie; he has his back to the black man, who wears a white jacket. Their postures are alike, they have both hands in their pockets, and both avoid Eggleston’s eyes, staring at the same unknown event. There is a third man barely seen in the car, with his hands on the wheel, his door is open, as if he would get out. The relationship between the standing men is not clear, but their similar stare and pose suggest they are bound to each other. The same tension is within the children’s gaze and gets spread throughout Eggleston’s works. He keeps the puzzle incomplete, the mystery unsolved. That’s why an ambiguity between fiction and non-fiction, between desolation and enchantment by the South just lingered in my mind; I kept feeling a bit of both.
For Brazil’s photography enthusiasts, having Eggleston’s first retrospective in the country was matter of honor. But one of the most important accomplishments of this show was that of offering Brazilian visitors a “guide” in redefining our sight and the way we make images. We are becoming tamed by an online culture of self-curated pictures, but all that these images have to say is “I’ve been here and I’ve done this.” That eagerness to empower ourselves through images doesn’t mean we are able to read and understand all of them. Eggleston took pictures because he was bound to what he had seen, bound, but not imprisoned. He gave space to what was outside of him and it’s within that space that we plunge to connect with his work. If in the past he raised color and an amateur style to the status of art, today we look for him again in hope of finding some mystery, some crookedness, uncertainties among our self-controlled realities. I guess that was what William Eggleston was doing in Brazil.
Instituto Moreira Salles and its magazine, ZUM, have compiled numerous articles and other online content on the retrospective, including a nine-minute interview with Eggleston and Nogueira, available here: http://revistazum.com.br/we/
William Eggleston, Untitled (from the portfolio Troubled Waters), 1980. Eggleston Artistic Trust. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.
Plugging in and Moving on: Okwui Enwezor’s All the World’s Futures
Report from… Venice
works by Bruce Nauman and Adel Abdessemed paired in the Arsenale. Photo: Tom Csaszar for artcritical.com
Okwui Enwezor’s two main presentations of the present and future of visual culture, at the Arsenale and at the Giardini’s Central Pavilion, are difficult, provocative and unwieldy, as intended. The work shown at the Arsenale is like a full course meal from soup to coffee, the Central Pavilion at the Giardini is more like a cafeteria style serving of a range of dishes you can choose yourself. They each have their advantages. One starts, in Room 1, with the American artist Bruce Nauman’s well-known neon antinomies such as Human Nature/Life Death/Knows Doesn’t Know (1983), which annoyingly and persistently flash their contradictory assertions at you from the darkened walls. They share this space with the 2015 work of Algerian/Parisian artist Adel Abdessemed, whose swords and machetes are clustered, sticking up from the floor, and titled Nympheas or water lilies. The works of these two artists, in their darkened room, as a prologue to what follows, don’t so much re-enforce each other or dialogue, as present two contrasting manners of plugging into the culture around them, Nauman as signage of pop-culture aphorisms, and Abdessemed as a relevant yet straining op-ed page metaphor. The viewer is put in a mode of plugging in, connecting to the work, extracting fragmented meanings and pleasures, and moving on. The implied point is not so much to seek unified understanding or unifying judgments of value and resonance, but to seek rhapsodic impressions, maybe snatches of fact and opinion, and continue to the next.
Dora Garcia, The Sinthome Score, 2014-15. Performance. Photo: Tom Csaszar for artcritical.com
Toward the end of the Arsenale, in Room 11, at another terminus of this cultural multiplicity, is a room containing among other works, Rikrit Tiravanija’s Untitled 2015 of 14,086 unfired clay bricks with the Chinese characters which one can take for a donation of 10 Euros. The money goes to an organization supporting Chinese worker’s rights. Also in this room is Maria Eichhorn’s presentation of works created on site by volunteers on blank canvases painted with a single color (Toile/Pinceau/Peinture, 2015. So here audience and viewer are invited to participation and engagement, undermining and subverting passivity and viewing. One enters the workshop and can assume a living role in relation to works in the states of production and distribution. In this room is also a continuous performance by two people of Dora Garcia’s The Sinthome Score (2014 – 2015). One performer reads and one assumes assigned choreographed postures related to the text based on a Jacques Lacan seminar, and they alternate roles periodically. The viewers are left to interact as they wish with the performers. Works like these that once seemed to grate more strongly against prevailing norms, now seem largely unmoored and single-minded. While the future always holds the possibility of forging more connections to these works, the connections offered seem weak in the present. The actual final room of the Arsenal, Room 12, extends these ideas in the works of Cuban artist and activist Tania Bruguera.
Rirkrit Tiravanija, Untitled 2015. Brick factory. Photo: Tom Csaszar for artcritical.com
Enwezor proposes three filters for the exhibit, and possibly for a view on contemporary culture and the art world at large: the filters of liveness and epic duration, the garden of disorder, and reading capital. And presumably Enwezor’s filters should be seen in relation to culture and art in states of permanent transition with unfixed goals and concepts, as he has previously described the art world. Enwezor’s title for the whole mass of works is “All the World’s Futures.” The ambition Enwezor presumably sees in the works and their being brought together is admirable for embracing both the anxieties and hopefulness implied. In the end, in my opinion, its value is supported not only by the Marxian evaluations of value, work and effort but also by a Kantian critique of experiential engagement, implied in numerous echoes in Enwezor’s essay on the shows filters.
Between Rooms 1 and 11 are the works of roughly 90 to 100 artists and collaborative groups that cover a range of contemporary visual art, performances, videos, sculptures, films, installations, objects, images, and paintings. They follow a range of concepts and impressions that resist unification, fixation and rigidity of thought and experience, and they serve to extend in various manners the ideas of 19th, 20th, and 21st-century observers ranging from Marx, to Kristeva, and Jacques LaPlanche to Enwezor himself. Likewise they extend the ideas and works of various artists extending from Romare Bearden and Gerhard Richter to Rauschenberg, Kiki Smith, Kara Walker, Lorna Simpson and Joan Jonas – the last two represented in the Arsenale and the US Pavilion respectively.
Adrian Piper, The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1-3, 2013-15. Installation + Participatory Group Performance © APRA Foundation Berlin.
One further focus or group of ideas to access these works is provided by the judgments of the jury in awarding Adrian Piper, Massinissa Selmani and Harun Farocki, respectively, the Golden Lion, Silver Lion and Honorable Mention. While Piper moves closer to the concerns of Room 11 and Garica and Tiravanija than perhaps Nauman and Abdessemed, it is important to notice that her work offers multiple connections to contemporary culture, if mainly through social and artworld institutions and their critique. Her primary work in Room 5 is The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game # 1-3 (2013). Three performers/recorders sit at three circular desks with three aphorisms – or brandings – in gold on the wall behind them. Viewers are invited to register into a system where contact information is eventually shared with other registrants and contact is made, which is recorded and kept as part of an ongoing archive of contacts. Even viewers not registering are made aware of a system of which they are not part, going on around them, paralleling everyday experience of social, political and commercial exchange. Piper continues to highlight the inclusions and exclusions that go on around us and provoke our knowledge of them. While clearly conceptual in its premises, Piper’s work offers several parallels to the culture of the art world and the culture of everyday life that locates it and gives it more than a single focus.
The Czech German filmmaker of a mixed German and Indian family, Farocki who died last summer at the age of 70, is presented through a section of Room 8 which shows an atlas of his films on small screens in a matrix around the walls. I am not sure if this is the best way to either be introduced to his works or to sum up his works. But the films themselves are careful observations of everyday life through short, often found, footage. Again, like Piper’s works, his offer multiple intersections to the world of art and the world of every day life, including his re-working of ideas of, among others, Bertolt Brecht and Jean-Luc Godard.
Farocki’s inclusion, like that of Terry Adkin and Chris Marker, remind us of recently deceased artists whose works continue to make their impact on ideas of other artists; Farocki and Marker in the mode of film and photography and Adkin in the installation of sculptures with African American and musical references and sources.
Massinissa Selmani, Do we need shadows to remember? 2013-14. Graphite on paper, 40 x 50 cm. Courtesy of the artist
Massinissa Selmani was born in Algeria and studied in France. His works, such as the drawing series A-t-on besoin des ombres pour se souvenir? [Do we need shadows to remember?] (2013-2014), are sparse, almost illustrational, drawings of news events and photos, which document both the quotidian nature and the bizarreness of reported news. Selmani has also worked in short projected animations and photo collages to report on actual events and planned utopian social structures. Like other artists showing at this Biennale, his works record and diagram present moments and idealized plans. Like Selmani, the artists Joachim Schonfeldt and Madhusudhanan, use drawing as an end in image making in order to portray and report on how the world is simplified and reimagined through our observations and experiences of it. In the works of these artists which serve to represent both deadpan and dreamlike image making, recording the present moment is more prevalent than presenting structures and images that break down or pull apart our sense of the world to move us into the future. Rather than rebellion of the present moment as a precondition for future development, the respect for present moments becomes a prerequisite for modeling future thoughts. Selmani and Schonfeldt use drawing as just one of their media, exploring similar connections to political and social events through photography, and film. They both are using fixed image media in ways that parallel Farocki’s use of short films, which is to say as a media for creating essays on current events and for reflecting opinions about these events.
The stated curatorial premises of the Biennale, in dialogue with the works themselves, yield an interesting emphasis on works that stress the present as a model for engaging the future. These works are strongest when they offer more than one connection to the current art world and the culture at large.
But not all the works fit neatly inside the narrowest confines of the promise of the curatorial concepts. The widest readings of liveness, disorder and value lead in some other directions. Some works stretch across a wide range of cultural concerns including those from recent, if not contemporary, art history. As Amanda Sarroff discuses in her comments on Gedi Sibony’s paintings in the Short Guide to the Biennale. His works touch on concerns of Arte Povera, Minimalism, and Rauschenberg’s combines. Sibony paints on and over aluminum sheets often printed with other images from their previous uses as sides of trucks. In works such as The Shake (2015) and One Foot to Shoe On (2015), he manages to engage, almost as collaged elements, shapes and partial images from commercial messages as abstract elements in large abstract images of three or four colors and a similar number of shapes. In a way that seems to move back and forth from a magnification of small scales to a shrinking of immense scales, Sibony creates a virtual world of image and light that seems recognizable from both the physical and the digital worlds of structure and space, and from art works of the past and the present.
Some of the most moving works in Venice, among a host of notable works that there is not room to mention here, go beyond the curatorial issues of the exhibitions. And yet they carry out the promise of Enwezor’s curatorial premises. Jenny Holzer’s installation from her “War Paintings” Series at the Correr Musuem make moving visual statements. Holzer’s works are large printed canvases of the redacted statements of the United States military and intelligence reports concerning interrogation of those held in the Iraq War. They are shown among the paintings and artifacts at the Correr Museum of Venice’s past glories and accomplishments. They run the risk of exploitation of the topic and people involved, and yet they can be defended both as acts of journalism and art. They quote the words of those interviewed as represented in the documents released by the freedom of information act. They stand as un-easy records of words and acts classified as “interrogation,” but clearly of actual inhumane and cruel treatment of the interrogated.
Helen Sear, The Company of Trees, 2015. Video projection, still. © Helen Sear.
Many of the works at the Biennale embody the Enwezor’s focuses of a Garden of Disorder and Reading Capitol in relation to the world at large. Good examples are Helen Sear’s “. . . the rest is smoke,” and the Invisible Borders: Trans-African Project, a collaboration initiated by the Nigerian artist Emeka Okereke. Sear and the Trans-African Project both show a series of projections and photographs, which address the place of humanity in relation to the natural world, our use of the natural world as a source of economic value and desired goods, and our reliance on our environment and political structures. At this point we could call this a presentation of imaginative reporting and engaged looking, which is maybe the same thing. They offer us a vision not of a road map for the future, but of a cautionary tale of future choices. If our use of images and art is to bring to life shared stories about our world that both report on its condition, and also allow further considerations in our own thought, then Sear’s and the Trans_African Project’s series of projection and photographs stand as one clear example of how to accomplish this.
“Slip of the Tongue” at the Punta della Dogana curated by Danh Vo provides a contrast to the Biennale that tells a different related curatorial story of contemporary works. If the Biennale provides an example of the strengths of curating contemporary works in an attempt to place them so they both tell their own stories and offer interesting dialogues with each other, this show – also huge in its scope with 50 artists or more spanning eight or so centuries – shows some strengths and some weaknesses of curating works from a single and more impassioned point of view. The sharpness of Vo’s viewpoint is evident in both how he separates the works, and how he brings them together. In short, some of the works exude a passion and breadth of thought that allows them to play brilliantly and at times subtly off each other, and sometimes they become shallow and more desultory. At times one feels Vo wants us desperately to relate to the works as he does, but we can’t locate our history and connection to them.
Danh Vo, installation view from ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’ at the 55th Venice Biennale, 2013. Photo: Francesco Galli. Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia.
In both “All the World’s Futures” and “Slip of the Tongue” there are examples of curatorial intelligence in allowing works separate spaces to speak for themselves: for example in the Central Pavilion of the Giardini, the three works of Wangechi Mutu, and at the Punta della Dogana the Cri du Coeur (2005) and “Codex Artaud” series (1971 – 1972) of Nancy Spero. But also there are places in each when the works are placed to allow the voices of the artists to be heard in concert or in contrast to each other, such as Nauman and Abdessemed mentioned above, and at the Giardini, the works of Huma Bhabha and Ellen Gallagher. At Punta della Dogana there are several examples of dialogues attempted and provoked. The oddly at once subtle and jarring sculptural juxtapositions of Jean-Luc Moulene’s La Toupie (2015) yields a set of difficult but interesting comparisons with the awkward but material directness of Sadamasa Montonaga’s Work 1961. Likewise, Moulene’s work contrasts but enriches aspects of Vo’s pieces, also close by. Both curatorial objectivity, like Enwezor, and curatorial passion and conceptual pointedness, like Vo’s, can have advantages and disadvantages.
Wangechi Mutu, She’s got the whole world in her, 2015. mannequin, paper, wax and lights. 108 x 60 x 42 inches. Photo: Tom Csaszar for artcritical.com