A Complete Eye of Water: A Summer Show at Ampersand Gallery



Report from Portland

The River Keeps Talking at Ampersand Gallery & Fine Books

July 30 to  August 25, 2015
2916 NE Alberta Street, Suite B
Portland, OR, 503 805 5458

 

Matthew F. Fisher, Days, 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Ampersand Gallery.

Matthew F. Fisher, Days, 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Ampersand Gallery.

“The River Keeps Talking,” Ampersand Gallery’s recent summer exhibition, was an engaging one in what seems to be a string of impressively curated shows to grace Portland’s Alberta Arts District. This was a show of ecological and geometric forms carrying with them iconographic meanings both straightforward and conceptual, featuring work by Matthew F. Fisher, Clayton Cotterell and Ellen McFadden.

Walking up at just the right hour, 5:30 pm on my most recent trip, I was pleased to be greeted by the shadow of palm fronds projected by the sunset via the gallery front window. Palm trees are uncommon in Portland, and for this particular show’s sequence of paintings and prints, the tree’s image is the perfect invenzioni when combined with what it provisionally flanks: the last in the sequence of Fisher’s surreal beachside acrylics.

These paintings are thick with saturated, bubblegum pop hues, nostalgia and style, recalling early summer heat and its light hazes. These and another thing: water, which is in itself becoming a rarity. (Is this an implicit reason for its center-stage position in this show?) Where there is water, it can be said, there are people there too. But not one bather is seen here. This, along with an occasion to test perception of image production, is part of the exhibition’s charm.

Matthew F. Fisher, Meaningless September, 2014. Acrylic on canvas, 30 x 17 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Ampersand Gallery.

Matthew F. Fisher, Meaningless September, 2014. Acrylic on canvas, 30 x 17 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Ampersand Gallery.

Looking at the paintings and what they might tell or ask of us, let’s also say that the appearance of the aforementioned palm-shadow has not only the one meaning, that the sun is low in the sky and what’s in its way’s been pinned up on the wall as a dark gray projection, but a second meaning, like that of the removal of one’s hat at a passerby to signal a hello. This show, at first glance, is just as good humored, and we can accept this meaning as a friendly handshake, paying attention to what is both obvious and also what is unknown. This was a good setup, at least for me, for the imagistic and (however loose) narratives found in Fisher’s paintings.

Taking the show on in reverse, the first acrylic is the show’s final one: Meaningless September (2014). The painting is a suitable point of entry for both Fisher’s own works and those of Cotterell and McFadden.

If Fisher’s subjects are maritime (though not specific to any era), they remain in limbo between loose and tight, specific and abstract, atmospheric and microscopic. In Meaningless, Fisher’s layer-by-layer process of painting is revealed through the curious buildup, or rollup, of the water’s edge up to a very granulated beach. This feature of water is highly strange, in that we can deduce its being water, though it also looks like something else. Plastic or rubber, in any case something you could peel away, roll back up and tuck under your arm. This version of the sea looks like daytime starlight as it ripples back toward the horizon line so famous in all of Fisher’s paintings. Fisher’s approach is presumably no-ideas, which leads him to certain subjects that might be precluded by more deliberation.

Another of Fisher’s apprehending canvases, Silly Boy, 2014, shows a single blade of seagrass as the tallest plant around. The simple leaf in this last painting, by this logic, takes on the importance of any subject ever painted. Here, by virtue of the shoot’s being presented in apparent reverence, the artist allows us to overstep the limits of

Matthew F. Fisher, Silly Boy, 2014. Acrylic on canvas, 17 x 14 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Ampersand Gallery.

Matthew F. Fisher, Silly Boy, 2014. Acrylic on canvas, 17 x 14 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Ampersand Gallery.

merely formal perception and imagine the ordinary as extraordinary or even otherworldly.

Likewise, the two large “drops” of water in Meaningless, hung magically aloft, loom large, and appear as mystical presences. In this way, Fisher’s simple subjects appear to us without much relation to his forebears or reference to painting itself and the impedimenta of career. In its stark everything-and-nothing, the painting recollects The Glass Bubbles (1850), by English poet Samuel Greenberg, who wrote:

The motion of gathering loops of water
Must either burst or remain in a moment.
The violet colors through the glass
Throw up little swellings that appear
And spatter as soon as another strikes
And is born; so pure are they of colored
Hues, that we feel the absent strength
Of its power. When they begin they gather
Like sand on the beach: each bubble
Contains a complete eye of water

Water is by now the overarching motif in this exhibition, and it shows up in various guises. The former imagistic synchronicity found in the Greenberg poem perhaps allows for some of the subtler and uncanny aspects of the element represented in all three of these artists’ works.

Clayton Cotterell, Untitled, 2015. Pigment print, 18 x 14 inches, edition of 3. Courtesy of the artist and Ampersand Gallery.

Clayton Cotterell, Untitled, 2015. Pigment print, 18 x 14 inches, edition of 3. Courtesy of the artist and Ampersand Gallery.

Fisher’s new imagery is cool, fun, and highly attractive to anyone keen on ocean views and graphics, and furthermore it is decisively mellow. These paintings give a more mystical sense, and, when juxtaposed with the comparatively more intense prints by Cotterell on the gallery’s facing wall, they look pretty dreamy.

Cotterell’s four collaged photographic pigment prints, in their flat-out dazzling compositional simplicity, make their subjects — water and landscape — full of surprise. In this first pigment print, Untitled (2015) Cotterell has made what looks like a wave in black, white, and silver, look like a tide is turning into a frozen tundra bedecked with stars. What appears to be the surf at another glance could then also be a snowy mountain range with charred stumps of trees at its further melted base. The prints depict movement while being compositionally static (being the prints they are), because of their effect upon the eye, which makes one guess again and again at what’s being shown. These works are reminders that what is commonly known can always become unfamiliar through experimentation, and thus contain the possibility to baffle, in a good way.

Clayton Cotterell, Untitled, 2015. Pigment print, 25 x 33 inches, edition of 3. Courtesy of the artist and Ampersand Gallery.

Clayton Cotterell, Untitled, 2015. Pigment print, 25 x 33 inches, edition of 3. Courtesy of the artist and Ampersand Gallery.

In another untitled print by Cotterell, the largest in the show, we get a mid-ocean view with the horizon abandoning itself for the sky. Looking at this I get the feeling of standing on the edge of a high cliff, or on a boat out to sea, that the world has taken on a characteristic of limitlessness. It’s what people since the Ancient Greeks (as far back as we have record) felt when they looked out over a cliffside, overwhelmed at all there was to take in, with simultaneous doubt with regard to possibility or passibility. We either can’t believe what we are seeing, or it’s too much to take in.

Standing as close as allowable to the print, starting at its left hand corner, one has the desire to take in the composition little by little to know its very details. Is it wind that causes the more intense wavelets in this area of the water, or has it something more to do with the chosen medium or some other texture collaged in? Moving the eye upward toward the sky, the water’s calm is described by both its smoothness and this portion of the print’s lightening shade.

Cotterell’s third untitled print is a splash, in the same black/white/silver of the previous two. This is all the intensity and energy of the second print, condensed to 18 x 22 inches. The flow is green, white, and incensed. In person, this print looks like the splash or whirlpool it is, except with the strange detail that the edges appear to be glass or plastic. What is water? It is temporarily rechanneled through what amounts to experiments with forms and mediums, into the perceptions of this show’s viewers.

Ellen McFadden, Wanapum, 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Ampersand Gallery.

Ellen McFadden, Wanapum, 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Ampersand Gallery.

In the back room of the gallery are three large acrylic paintings by McFadden. They’re brightly hued and geometric, belying a pure abstraction that they only partially contain. This exhibit is McFadden’s third exhibition in the span of a year. These works reflect McFadden’s memories and perspectives on Northwest waterways, which are in her words “nearly dead today.” Do I know this because I read the leaflet? Only partially, as this “information” is also translated into her paintings.

In these vibrant configurations of line and color, McFadden shows the icon of nuclear effect upon water, in a creative direction she describes on her website as “constructive.” For McFadden, “the paintings serving a purpose of two dimensional surface as the basis for tension and interaction with shape and the four outside edges. Color is a part of that interaction,” but because these aren’t pedantic ecological narratives, the viewer is also a part of the interaction, adding to an already congenial aesthetic experience.

Ellen McFadden, Solkuks Wanapum, 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Ampersand Gallery.

Ellen McFadden, Solkuks Wanapum, 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Ampersand Gallery.

In Solkuks Wanapum and Wanapum (both 2015), river water cools as the rectangular shapes (representing water) change from jasper red to salvia blue and violet, the further away they get from toxicity. In the former composition, skinny, black rectangles represent the nuclear plants the water flows among, “not unlike the confluence of the Snake and Columbia Rivers, downstream from where the Wanapum Indians once lived and fished before being displaced by dams in the 1950s,” McFadden says. Work and life are apparent in these canvases, but you have to take a good look. As the hues and geometries change and converge from painting to painting, a concern for the occupied, precarious, and sublime states of water are displayed and enter our experience. Ellen McFadden’s ecological concerns and keenness to the problematic of production began early on, when she worked at a cannery as a young child. This combination of idea and practice makes McFadden’s paintings part of a dialogue.

If the emblem of Modern Art was to abandon formalist conventions, then the art of our era (whatever you want to call it) takes reference in lieu of illusionist figuration, fragments in place of “clear” statements, questions over answers, and dialogue instead of solitude: all of which can be found in the pictures seen in the above exhibition. One of the pleasures of recognizable subjects like these in The River Keeps Talking, is their ability to be riven, abstracted, rearranged, and collaged all while remaining perceptible. To me, this is what accounts for the hospitableness of shows like this; there’s point of entry but we’re not told exactly what to see or how to see it.

Ellen McFadden, Toketee, 2014. Acrylic on canvas, 40 x 40 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Ampersand Gallery.

Ellen McFadden, Toketee, 2014. Acrylic on canvas, 40 x 40 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Ampersand Gallery.

The Garage Arrives: Report from a New Museum



The exterior of the Garage Museum in Moscow. Photograph © 2015 by David X Prutting, courtesy of the Garage Museum.

The exterior of the Garage Museum in Moscow. Photograph © 2015 by David X Prutting, courtesy of the Garage Museum.

Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art is the first privately funded art and culture center in the country dedicated to promoting Russian art, sponsoring research and publication, educating art viewers, and globalizing the local art scene. It was founded in 2008 by Dasha Zhukova — who combines stylishness and seriousness, as does the museum — and has the backing of her husband, Roman Aronovich, an oligarch and owner of Britain’s Chelsea Football Club.

Named after the Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage where it was first housed, Garage moved to its permanent home in Gorky Park in midsummer, designed by the thought-provoking Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, out of the burned shell of a huge 1968 Soviet Modernist restaurant, Vremena Goda (“Seasons of the Year”). Gorky Park was built by Stalin in 1923, the first park in Russia not intended for royalty, and until recently was strewn with abandoned structures — including an old space shuttle.

Moscow's Garage Museum. Photograph © 2015 by John Paul Pacelli, courtesy of the Garage Museum.

Moscow’s Garage Museum. Photograph © 2015 by John Paul Pacelli, courtesy of the Garage Museum.

Koolhaas has retained the character and history of the building, leaving evidence of the fire and preserving some of its unfashionable original features — such as a partly destroyed mosaic mural, showing a female personification of Autumn — while giving it new beauty. The building is wrapped in an insulating layer of polycarbonate, as if ready for the freezer, which gives it a silvery, ethereal presence, and creates a reflective transparency between inside and outside.

The first exhibitions to launch Garage fulfill all of its promises, but there is a scarcity of new Russian art. To see contemporary and 20th Century Russian painting, sculpture and video art, you must leave Gorky Park and cross the road to Tretyakov Gallery, where there is a satisfying display of it, spread across three generous floors.

At Garage right now, however, is a series of exhibitions focusing on the 1960s, looking at life and art, and the effects of politics. They are quietly, even staidly, presented, and require time and study, but the content, at least for a foreigner, is mind-blowing.

Artist Rirkrit Tiravanija plays ping-pong at the museum's opening. Photograph © 2015 by David X Prutting, courtesy of the Garage Museum.

Artist Rirkrit Tiravanija plays ping-pong at the museum’s opening. Photograph © 2015 by David X Prutting, courtesy of the Garage Museum.

One ongoing project has students create fictional 1960s characters, based on old films and archives in Garage’s collection, in order to investigate how life really was for their uncommunicative grandparents. The life and history of each character is described on video. The Working Mother whose job depended on her being able to leave her child with an older neighbor free of charge; the Inspector who checked on the cleanliness of communal homes; the Scientist, kept in isolation, prohibited from traveling, and obliged to live in one of the closed cities known as “boxes”; and the Nonconformist, forced to undergo psychiatric treatment.

The model gadget-filled American kitchen, scene of the famed 1959 Kitchen Debate between Khrushchev and Nixon, is recreated. Together with the “Family of Man” exhibition and a painting by Jackson Pollock, it was part of “Face to Face,” the only cultural exchange between Moscow and Washington during the Cold War. Russians were then beginning to move into “Khrushchevkas,” tiny flats with the privacy, for the first time, of their own kitchen, a place to talk without fear of the neighbors. They became the center of culture and debate.

The same long lines wait patiently at Garage as they do in New York, London, or anywhere else people to immerse themselves in the sparkling mirrored installations of Yayoi Kusama, who has also covered the trees outside the museum with spots. Or to participate in a game of ping-pong or meal of Russian dumplings in Rirkrit Tiravanija’s exhibition, which turns the museum into a social hub, as the 1,200-seat restaurant originally was. Katharina Grosse’s spray-painted environment offers yet more opportunities for selfies and Instagram.

Installation view of "Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Theory," 2015, at the Garage Musuem. Photograph © 2015 by Egor Slizyak and Denis Sinyakov, courtesy of the Garage Museum.

Installation view of “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Theory,” 2015, at the Garage Musuem. Photograph © 2015 by Egor Slizyak and Denis Sinyakov, courtesy of the Garage Museum.

Eric Bulatov is one Russian artist who gets a good showing with two nine-meter-tall paintings at the entrance, telling the public in a slogan reminiscent of advertising posters from the 1920s by Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky: “Come to Garage!” It’s also a reminder of the banners that were hung from the gigantic gates of Gorky Park when it first opened: “Life has become better! Life has become more cheerful!”

An atmosphere of teaching and learning and eagerness is somehow generated throughout, both in the local, introspective displays and the high profile international art. But a young couple I was speaking with told me: “Garage feels as if it’s not yet ready. It’s very cool, but it’s like a baby. Let’s see what it will look like in a couple of years.”

On September 25, a comprehensive exhibition of Louise Bourgeois: “Structures of Existence: The Cells,” will open at Garage, and on September 22. And an exhibition of sculpture by Anish Kapoor, “My Red Homeland,” will open at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, which is located at Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage, the original venue of Garage Museum. Both exhibitions will coincide with the 6th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art.

A panel discussion on the museum with Anton Belov, Rem Koolhaas, Dasha Zhukova, and Kate Fowler, in front of a mosaic by Ilya Ivanov. Photograph © 2015 by David X Prutting, courtesy of the Garage Museum.

A panel discussion on the museum with Anton Belov, Rem Koolhaas, Dasha Zhukova, and Kate Fowler, in front of a mosaic by Ilya Ivanov. Photograph © 2015 by David X Prutting, courtesy of the Garage Museum.

Unruly Grace: Arlene Shechet in Boston



Arlene Schechet: All At Once at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston

June 10 to September 7, 2015
100 Northern Avenue
Boston, MA 02210

Arlene Shechet, Building, 2003. Glazed and biscuit porcelain, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Arlene Shechet, Building, 2003. Glazed and biscuit porcelain, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Working within a notoriously hierarchical art world where ceramics have often been marginalized, Arlene Shechet prefers to describe herself as an installation artist who makes objects, rather than, say, a ceramicist or a sculptor. It is an intelligent way of holding ground. Her beautifully paced survey show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Boston, “All At Once”, gathers together two decades of deft, imaginative and fearless work.

Her art is by turn, humorous, poignant and playfully strange. From the outset we find her in conversation with those West Coast artists who, from the late 1950s and ‘60s onwards, were determined to push the boundaries of clay. Breaking with craft tradition, they redefined ceramics enabling it to be both painting and sculpture at once. The deconstructive element of some of Shechet’s clay works dialogue with Peter Voulka’s 1990’s series ‘Stacks’, for instance, energetic, rough re-assemblages in clay that were confident and masterful in their abstraction. Likewise, Shechet’s bold command of color nods to Voulkas’s student Ken Price’s bright acrylics and dense sensuous forms as well as the delicious pop palette of painter and former ceramicist Mary Heilmann. Bucking trends towards theory-driven work, on the one hand, and monumentality, on the other, whether in the sculptures of Jeff Koons who with Italian artisans reproduced rococo porcelain pieces, but of pop icon Michael Jackson, or the new German photographers with their dizzying digital possibilities, Shechet has maintained her artistic integrity by steadily working through the most elemental of materials, undeterred by its limitations of scale.

All At Once displays chronologically and with choreographic flair how Shechet explores formal complexities across diverse materials, whether paper, glass, porcelain or, particularly in the last decade, clay. Evolving through her highly skilled works is the repeated use of splicing, stacking, and vessel as symbolic form.

Arlene Shechet, Madras Head, 1997. Hydrocal, acrylic paint, steel, and concrete, 19 x 7 x 7 inches. Collection of Kiki Smith; photo: John Berens

Arlene Shechet, Madras Head, 1997. Hydrocal, acrylic paint, steel, and concrete, 19 x 7 x 7 inches. Collection of Kiki Smith; photo: John Berens

Opening the show is a series of heads and figures, roughly approximated Buddhas slathered in colors, daubs and drips of plaster. Though in sharp contrast to the classical Buddha image of burnished gold perfection, these off-beat Buddha forms are nevertheless presented in the round, encouraging one to walk around them in a circular fashion as if visiting a Buddhist temple. Madras Buddha, 1997, is patterned in a cheerful plaid of red, pink, orange and lime, whereas Raga, 1999, has blooming splotches of blue, dashes of black and snaky grays. Buddha heads with wry titles such as“Collective Head”, “Head on Head”, or “Head that Happened”, sit atop concrete pedestals dribbled with plaster like candlewax, resembling her seated Buddhas in their semi-formless, paper maché appearance.

Shechet furthers her interest in Asia in her series, Once Removed, 1998, casting Abacá paper onto molds using blue-prints referencing real locations. Twinned vessels are stacked and re-imagined as stupas, the top with lush ink patterns recalling blue and white porcelain, its companion a white plaster blank.

Target (Gyantse and Diamond Mandalas), 1997, a two dimensional paper work reminiscent of mandalas, and stupa floor plans, has lines delicately bleeding cobalt blue that are both radiant and dense at once. Other works are of indigo or inky blue flooded paper in reverse, allowing the white areas and lines to emerge and glow.

In Building, 2003, titled as a verb and noun, Shechet splices and re-stacks varying vessels, again inspired by stupas. Presented high like a skyline, dark, smoky glazed vessels at either end fade to pure white biscuit porcelain at center. This austere installation, a personal response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, evokes a quiet despair. More buoyant is a 2004 series of large crystal vessels of pearly luminescence including Bubble Up, Drip Drop, and Cushion, in which cleverly inverted curvilinear shapes are stacked or doubled inside one another to a point of delicate balance. They exhibit a dynamic tension between crystalline perfection and fluidity of form.

Arlene Shechet, Sleepless Color, 2009-10. Ceramic, glazed kiln brick, acrylic paint, steel and hardwood, 60 3/8 x 19 x 18 1/8 inches. The Mordes Collection, West Palm Beach, Florida

Arlene Shechet, Sleepless Color, 2009-10. Ceramic, glazed kiln brick, acrylic paint, steel and hardwood, 60 3/8 x 19 x 18 1/8 inches. The Mordes Collection, West Palm Beach, Florida

At times Shechet’s ceramics can seem like creatures dredged up from the darkness of deep ocean floors. What I Heard, 2007 has two symbiotic bulbous forms glazed matt gray, the amorphous surface and velvety finish interrupted by orange aorta-like vents and pockets of shimmering bronze. Using as support a steel stool, Shechet continues her stacking theme, the base integral aesthetically and conceptually to the whole. Her use in these works of raw or painted wood plinths, steel frames, concrete slabs and kiln bricks demonstrates complexities by juxtapositions of color, texture, and form. In Sleepless Color, 2009-10, Shechet shifts her attention to coiled clay, manipulating it into a state of unruly leaning. With its multi-colored kiln brick base and cracked wood pedestal, the piece reaches a point of ungainly, yet unforeseen grace. Now Playing, 2015, shows a skinny white metal frame beneath a hunk of white painted hardwood with missing angled chunks, topped by a precarious pile up of softly bent ceramic bricks in a bubbling white glaze. The whole effect is complex, contradictory yet formally satisfying, Shechet displaying her relish for materials and her penchant for brinkmanship.

Shechet was able to explore a delicate side of her sensibility in her 2012-13 residency at the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Germany which saw works of surreal tender moments underpinned by a fascination with the industrial processes of porcelain production. Deliberately inverting expectations, she favored molds as finished forms, or experimented with splicing and re-assembling traditional house designs. Redefining notions of the historically revered material referred to as ‘white gold’ Shechet included dribbled and stained glazes, vases with buttery fingerlike indentations, and the use of extruder blocks made from porcelain waste as worthy forms. We see this in the wonderfully titled Gangsta Girl on the Block, 2012, a headless, armless figurine in a beautifully patterned dress, leaning alert on white gridded stacks that stand aloft like stereo speakers at a reggae block party. After the Flood, 2012, is a pile up of carefully calibrated porcelain presented as if it were detritus: bases of vases, handles, fluting and, unexpectedly, a tiny cut off classical foot, atop a plain upended factory mold bowl. Elsewhere, manic laughing 18th and 19th century Buddhas sit near gently crumpled vases and a glitter disco ball.

Shechet inventively weaves alongside her own works historical Meissen figurines and tableware, creating a lively conversation between periods. Characters such as Dr.Bolardo ca.1738, with rakish hat and moustache, unnerving red lips and pink lined cape, seems to dance on thirteen plates, while a female figurine lies in a dessert stand with an upside down teacup and a blissful smile on her face. A Head of Vitellius ca.1715 in red stoneware, looks sideways and impassively at the room as if unfazed to find himself there. By the entrance is a silent film on a loop, Meissen Porcelain! The Diodattis’ Living Sculptures at the Berlin Conservatory ca. 1912-14 with costumed actors and fluffy greyhound playing traditional figurine tableaux. As a link between the far past and Shechet’s work, it acts as a charming welcome, and on the way out, farewell to the show.

Arlene Shechet, A Night Out, 2011. Glazed Ceramic, acrylic paint, and hardwood, 45 x 13 x 17 inches, Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Arlene Shechet, A Night Out, 2011. Glazed Ceramic, acrylic paint, and hardwood, 45 x 13 x 17 inches, Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Arlene Shechet, Target (Gyantse and Diamond Mandalas), 1997. Abacá paper, 24 x 24 inches. Collection of Ann Epstein and Bernard Edelstein

Arlene Shechet, Target (Gyantse and Diamond Mandalas), 1997. Abacá paper, 24 x 24 inches. Collection of Ann Epstein and Bernard Edelstein

Northwest Notes: Dispatch from the Pacific



Ai Weiwei, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold, 2010. Bronze with gold patina, dimensions variable. Images courtesy of Ai Weiwei.

Ai Weiwei, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold, 2010. Bronze with gold patina, dimensions variable. Images courtesy of Ai Weiwei.

The Pacific Northwest is beautiful this time of year. I travel there every few years and typically end up in the area during summer, missing the rain for which it’s infamous. This year I visited Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver, seeing a lot of the gallery and museum scene. The Seattle Art Fair ran during the start of August. It’s mostly a small-ish regional fair, though there were booths by Gagosian, David Zwirner, Pace, Zürcher, James Cohan, and other New Yorkers. I skipped it though, having a kind of snooty distaste for those conventions. I mean, who in their right mind would want to attend an art fair? Oof.

So I went straight for the regional institutions. There’s a lot to see. First: The Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington. It’s set in the city’s hip and young U district, and it’s a smartly designed, well organized space. They show emerging and established artists in a variety of media. They do not have a large space, so there aren’t clusters of galleries with an expansive selection from their permanent collection. Instead, they have well-curated exhibitions and I had just missed the school’s MFA exhibition, which runs for a month, rather than the week that many New York students get.

Michelle Handelman; still from Irma Vep, The Last Breath; 2013. 4-channel video installation (color, sound), TRT: 37:00 minutes. Image courtesy of the artist.

Michelle Handelman; still from Irma Vep, The Last Breath; 2013. 4-channel video installation (color, sound), TRT: 37:00 minutes. Image courtesy of the artist.

On view while I was there was, among other things, Martin Creed’s Work No. 360: About half the air in a given space (2015), which was comprised of a large gallery filled almost to capacity by silver balloons. Visitors could enter through one of two doorways and push their way through the claustrophobic mass, being disoriented and kind of pleasantly bewildered by the balloons’ power to constrict and delight. Also on view: a handsome retrospective for photographer Ilse Bing, a show of un-stretched and shaped canvases by Allan McCollum and Karen Carson, and a solo show by Michelle Handelman, with video and photography conflating vampirism, psychotherapy, and class-and-queer antagonism. The video draws from a Silent-Film-era series about Parisian thieves, called The Vampires, so one can forgive Handelman’s melodrama. It’s richly textured in a fetishistic way, and the accompanying photographs are exciting.

A few days later I took the train down to Portland, where I met up with artcritical contributor, publishing magnate, and poet extraordinaire Paul Maziar, and his friends, who showed me the nightlife — great host and hostesses. We remarked on the aesthetic qualities in the bright redness of neon lights adorning one of the construction cranes which has been expanding the city of late. Maziar’s been consuming Marcel Duchamp, so we say, “Sure, why not? Call it industrial-scale readymade sculpture.”

Next morning I left my kind hosts and took a long walk into downtown of the beautiful city, finishing up at the Portland Art Museum. The institution is currently hosting Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold (2010), which is displayed among the museum’s many galleries of Asian art and artifacts. The suite of 12 animal heads represents the Chinese calendrical zodiac, and is based on a sculpture formerly of an imperial garden outside Beijing, designed by Europeans, used by the Chinese elite, then looted by French soldiers in 1860. The scale and craftsmanship of Weiwei’s sculpture is spectacular, however, despite the didactics, I got the sense that I was missing something pretty fundamental about the subtleties of the artist’s choice of representation. Is it something about the Chinese government’s complicated relationship to Weiwei, to the nation’s own history, and the waves of European colonization and Chinese reclamation in these images? I can’t tell.

The aforementioned Asian art and artifacts galleries are really top rate. The layout of the building is labyrinthine, which can vary the experience between excited discovery and a confused, lost feeling.

Another exhibition, “Gods and Heroes: Masterpieces from the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris,” collects more than 140 paintings, drawings, and sculptures from the school, from between the 15th and 19th centuries. I can have a hard time with some of the flowery, academic work that the institution produced and inspired, but it’s hard to argue with some of the works on view in this show. Albrecht Dürer’s The Vision of the Seven Candlesticks (ca. 1498), kind of made my jaw drop a little. And PAM also has a great selection of Modern and contemporary work, including a selection, on view now, of reductivist work by Robert Mangold, Dorothea Rockburne, Judy Chicago, John McCracken, and others — stuff that really gets me going. And there’s a large display of photographs, which the museum calls a “Fotofolio,” by Ansel Adams, Paul Strand, and Edward and Brett Weston and Minor White. Their silver gelatin prints of the American West made me wish to flee New York and find an abandoned mission on top of a mountain.

David Hockney, The Seven Stone Weakling, from A Rake's Progress: A Graphic Tale in Sixteen Etchings, 1961 – 63. Portfolio of 16 etchings, 12 1/3 x 15 7/8 inches.

David Hockney, The Seven Stone Weakling, from A Rake’s Progress: A Graphic Tale in Sixteen Etchings, 1961 – 63. Portfolio of 16 etchings, 12 1/3 x 15 7/8 inches.

Also there, now closed, was a show of David Hockney’s print suite, A Rake’s Progress (1975), along with a set of prints by William Hogarth, made in 1733, on which Hockney’s sequence is based.

Full from Portland, I went back to Seattle. I took a breather and went to the Seattle Art Museum, at which the main attraction is currently “Disguise: Masks and Global African Currents,” which was a kind of unremarkable show about artists using the imagery of African masks in their work. The hanging was gimmicky and impoverished, and several of the artists felt slight and arbitrary (no Keith Sonnier?). But, next to it was a great, like, really out of sight display of actual African masks, along with archival footage of performers at a carnival in the Côte d’Ivoire. That stuff is way more exciting and intellectually engaging than much of the show’s contemporary work.

Louise Lawler, Anonymous, 1991. Cibachrome print, 54 1/2 x 40 3/4 inches, © Louise Lawler.

Louise Lawler, Anonymous, 1991. Cibachrome print, 54 1/2 x 40 3/4 inches, © Louise Lawler.

As well, a small but nonetheless excellent show, called “The Duchamp Effect,” rounded up post-War artists making use of Duchamp’s innovations. There was a lot of toilet humor and pointing at contradictions between image, language, and actuality. One very smart touch was the inclusion of a photograph by Louise Lawler, showing two artworks in a collector’s home. Lawler’s photograph shared gallery space with the two artworks it pictures: a painting by Jasper Johns and a sculpture by James Rosenquist.

I left Seattle’s piney metropolis for an excursion north, to Vancouver. Even Canada’s border is beautiful, with enormous gunnera unfurling at the edges of Peace Arch border-crossing park, and a sculpture by Daniel Mihalyo and Annie Han — a billboard-like form of negative space overlooking the Pacific inlet there. A few minutes away, Vancouver is a really, really pretty city, seemingly compacted into the natural concavity of the Salish Sea’s coast. There are tall skyscrapers, the city is sparklingly clean, and I arrived immediately after Pride weekend, with festive banners and the debris of feather boas all over the place. I mean, it’s a really beautiful city. And in Canada, HBO has its own regional programming, including mandated indigenous programs and movies, which are very cool and sort of an entertaining (if small) gesture at reconciliation after hundreds of years of genocide and oppression. I liked the movie Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013). It’s good.

There, I visited the Vancouver Art Gallery, which is hosting an enormous retrospective of Canadian sculptor Geoffrey Farmer, “How Do I Fit This Ghost in My Mouth?” I found myself thinking about Farmer’s tremendous archivist spirit, collecting and combining the pieces of National Geographic back issues, fiberglass sculptures, bits of signs, notes, tapes, vehicles, and all sorts of other things. It brought me back to a perpetual question in an era of explosive image production and distribution: is cataloguing and organizing one of the best strategies for an artist trying to cope, resist, or flow with such proliferation? I think probably yes. One small room held an archive of artist lectures and interviews on cassette tape, and invited visitors to sit and listen awhile.

Geoffrey James, Cell decorated with Harley Davidson and East Van Logos, 2013, archival inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist.

Geoffrey James, Cell decorated with Harley Davidson and East Van Logos, 2013, archival inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist.

On the ground floor was a great “show,” a display of works on paper from the museum’s collection, a trifle compared to the offerings that will be on view following the institution’s addition of a new space, designed by Herzog & de Meuron. The works on paper, over a hundred on one large wall, were intended to entice viewers to see the benefits of the costly and overdue expansion. The next gallery over showed work from another collection in “Of Heaven and Earth: 500 Years of Italian Painting from Glasgow Museums,” with a handsome selection of paintings covering a spectacular historical range, while still appearing intellectually clear and to the point. Upstairs was a group show in several spaces, each artist given their own gallery. Called “Residue: The Persistence of the Real,” this exhibition of documentary photography studies the way that history is retained in images, as in Catherine Opie’s beautiful shots of Liz Taylor’s home and Geoffrey James’s absolutely just mind-blowing shots of Canada’s infamous Kingston Penitentiary, where inmates decorated the walls of their cells so ornately they could be mistaken for contemporary installation art.

Down the street, the Bill Reid Gallery shares the history and importance of First Nations’ arts, with a permanent display of work by Reid, one of Canada’s most famous contemporary indigenous craftsmen. Likewise, the museum promotes the continuing traditions of local tribes, including live, free-form Q & A with an artist working in the atrium. Sean Whonnock was there when I visited, and he told me a lot about the construction of regional iconography, about the craftsmanship of these artworks, his own life, and the traditions of his family and tribe. There’s a lot of great indigenous art and craft all over, and most of these museums had great collections, sustaining cultures that were almost completely wiped out during the preceding centuries.

Gregory Blackstock, OUR STATELY COAST RHODODENDRON COLOR PERSPECTIVES, 2012. Graphite, colored pencil and permanent marker on paper, 47 x 31 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Greg Kucera Gallery.

Gregory Blackstock, OUR STATELY COAST RHODODENDRON COLOR PERSPECTIVES, 2012. Graphite, colored pencil and permanent marker on paper, 47 x 31 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Greg Kucera Gallery.

Finally, back in Seattle, I hit up the city’s monthly First Thursday art walk, down at historic Pioneer Square. The galleries are, in many ways, like those in New York and anywhere else in the world: there are some you’d like to spend a lot of time in, others not so much. One major difference is the organization of openings, all on the same Thursday, with plenty of white and red wines, food, and live music. Totally alien, right? The atmosphere is festive and people are out to enjoy the scene, rather than trying to make the scene. I was taken by Greg Kucera Gallery, which had a diverse collection of works on view by self-taught artists, including Gee’s Bend quilts, Henry Darger paintings, drawings by James Castle and Bill Traylor, and so on. In the back was a show by Gregory Blackstock, who is autistic and creates large mixed-media drawings cataloguing all kinds of incidentals: dictionary definitions, sheepshank knots, flags of the world, rottweiler breeds. Blackstock was in attendance and was more open in his discussing his work than any New York artist you’ve ever met.

The whole trip, whirlwind that it was, showed me some new favorite art spots on the left coast. If you’re in the area, you’d be foolish to pass them up.

Bill Reid, Grizzly Bear Panel, 1961. Cedar, polychrome, hand-adzed; 200 x 96 x 32 cm. Photograph by Dr. Martine Reid.

Bill Reid, Grizzly Bear Panel, 1961. Cedar, polychrome, hand-adzed; 200 x 96 x 32 cm. Photograph by Dr. Martine Reid.

Gaining Traction: Industrial-scale Collaboration in Philadelphia



Traction Company at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

July 2 to October 11, 2015
118-128 North Broad Street at Cherry
Philadelphia, (215) 972-7600

Interior of subTRACTION, 2013. Scaled model of Traction Company by members of the collective. Photo: Jesse Friedman

Interior of subTRACTION, 2013. Scaled model of Traction Company by members of the collective. Photo: Jesse Friedman

Shared media or common theoretical interests sometimes spur artists to form a collective. The Philadelphia Traction Company is a collective formed around a building. Beginning in 2007, this group of graduates of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) set up shop in a vast shed that was once a repair depot for Philadelphia’s trolley system, and a symbol of the city’s industrial past. The process of making that forlorn and forbidding space their home was the common experience that forged their partnership. It has led to shared approaches to materials and a certain esprit de corps that has transcended markedly different artistic output of individual members.

The Traction Company’s eponymous exhibition at PAFA contains works by individual members, collaborative projects and equipment borrowed from the site. Most notable are installations that straddle the line between art-making and entrepreneurship, such as the Modular Studio (2015) that greets visitors as they enter the exhibition. Made of repurposed materials of many types, including palette racks, unfinished plywood, pre-fabricated wainscoting, and corrugated metal, the capsule is meant to be inserted in the old trolley barn as a studio-within-a-studio. According to group member and multidisciplinary artist Billy Dufala, the rent collected from such moveable spaces is one way the group plans to cover the high cost of maintaining the building.

Installation shot of the exhibition under review with "Modular Studio" in the distance. Courtesy of Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Photo: Barbara Katus

Installation shot of the exhibition under review with “Modular Studio” in the distance. Courtesy of Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Photo: Barbara Katus

Modular Studio encapsulates the knowledge gathered by the group about how to make do in their adopted home. Dufala notes that the building’s owner has been supportive of the artists’ presence but limited in his capacity to maintain the site. Faced with a vast, unheated and not always dry space, the artists learned to repair, improve and adapt in the manner of wilderness explorers. Their first building-within-a-building, a three-story structure that functions as place of rest, design studio and office, took advantage of the trolley barn’s lofty overhead. On the floor below, each artist created or inserted facilities for his or her own craft, such as metal casting, woodworking, or welding. Along the way they acquired an understanding of the building’s 19th century bones that has shaped the aesthetic of their recent collaborative projects.

The need for spot heating has sparked many innovations including a tiny, handmade stove installed in Modular Studio. This beautifully-crafted item is an example of the overlap of art and old-fashioned manufacturing know-how that characterizes the Company’s output. The artist made serendipitous use of odd-shaped scrap metal pieces to create a stove that is both functional and ornamental.

This form-cloaks-function aesthetic dates the trolley barn’s heyday, when industrialists sought to familiarize new machinery by embellishing it with decorative styles from the past. A grand example is Miguel Horn’s Obelisks (2015), replicas of the building’s ornamental gate-posts, displayed upside-down at the entrance to the gallery. Made of thick-hewn wood carved with elegant designs, the tapering posts recall, in their new orientation, Egyptian-style designs made popular in the mid-19th Century as archeology uncovered the treasures of the ancient world. When presented in the context of a current-day, white cube gallery, these functional objects stand out as art in and of themselves.

The group recognized that the building’s best readymades were its enormous roof trusses, and so re-created one in the gallery using thick timbers borrowed from a demolished building nearby. Seen up close rather than from the usual vantage point of approximately thirty feet below, the truss’s heroic scale and hard-worn beauty comes to the fore. We see the natural ruptures and striations of its oversized wooden beams, and the enormous nuts and bolts affixed to its carefully fabricated steel join plates. More than with sheer size, the object impresses us with the care the artists took in learning how to make it. Imagine that Marcel Duchamp had apprenticed as an industrial ceramicist in order to manufacture a urinal for Fountain instead of using an off-the-shelf model.

Installation shot of the exhibition under review with "Truss" in the distance. Courtesy of Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Photo: Barbara Katus

Installation shot of the exhibition under review with “Truss” in the distance. Courtesy of Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Photo: Barbara Katus

According to Dufala, the group’s skill set comes in handy not only in repairing and improving the building, but in outside projects that help to situate the collective within its community and sustain it financially. Dufala is himself a veteran at forging such creative partnerships, having developed the Recycled Artist In Residency (RAIR) as a quid-pro-quo with a local scrap yard: artists gain access to materials, the scrap yard gains a positive image. The Traction Company has also improved its standing in the community by lending its skills to the repair of a nearby church. And it has been hired to fabricate other artists’ work, suggesting another earned-income alternative to the usual funding sources for collectives, membership dues and grants.

Opposite in scale from the truss, but also showing off the group’s collective technical bravura is subTRACTION, a playhouse-sized model of the entire building, complete with miniature versions of welding equipment, power tools, raw materials, and works in progress. Walking into this pint-sized world, which is barely tall enough to stand in without bumping one’s head, one appreciates the group’s flair for re-purposing materials as well as its relentless concern for detail. The artists have re-created each of the trolley shed’s hanging light fixtures, for example, using a cut-off top from a metal spray can and a decorative LED bulb. subTRACTION – which was shown at the artists-coop Napoleon in 2013 and discussed at the time by The Review Panel Philadelphia – recalls every effort the group made to adapt to the harsh conditions they encountered. It is part scale model, part self-portrait.

Joshua Koffman. Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time. 36 x 45 inches.

Joshua Koffman. Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time. 36 x 45 inches.

Individual members vary greatly in style and approach when it comes to their own work. Following PAFA’s age-old traditions, many are figurative sculptors. We see Joshua Koffman’s allegorical grouping Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time (2015), commissioned by St. Joseph’s University as a thirty-year commemoration of the Second Vatican Council’s progressive teachings on Jewish-Catholic relations. Nearby is Connie Ambridge’s helmeted portrait head Joan of Arc (2015), in bronze and silver and adorned by an intricate gorget of hexagonal brass plates. Sedekial Gebremedhin’s video installation Dinner at Traction (2015) represents a much more contemporary approach. In line with the Traction Company’s self-aware building techniques, this video—showing an African American couple feeding each other hors d’oeuvres—is projected in a viewing room whose exterior structure is exposed. There are numerous examples of abstract sculpture as well, including Brendan Keen and Leila Bateman’s Space for Space (2015), a giant pod carved from glued boards and supported by a thicket of wires that creep up the piece’s base. In a pop-art vein is Laura Giannini’s Mason Basin (2015), a claw-foot tub made of tiny bricks.

As different are they are in style, these works are linked by an attention to materials and details of facture that speaks the artists’ experience of collectively building out their shared facility. The trolley shed has spurred the development of both hammer and nail skills and an industrial approach to art making that differs from the non-profit gallery model that characterizes most collaboratives.

Miguel Horn’s Obelisks (2015),

Installation shot of exhibition under review with Miguel Horn’s Obelisks (2015).

History in the Making: Noah Purifoy at LACMA



Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

June 7 to September 27, 2015
5905 Wilshire Boulevard (at South Fairfax Avenue)
Los Angeles, 323 857 6000

Noah Purifoy, Untitled, 1967. 43 x 43 inches. Copyright Noah Purifoy Foundation. Photograph by Robert Wedemeyer.

Noah Purifoy, Untitled, 1967. 43 x 43 inches. Copyright Noah Purifoy Foundation. Photograph by Robert Wedemeyer.

California is a great place to incubate, lending itself to a slower pace where its more contemplative residents may think and create amid beautiful landscape and sunshine, Noah Purifoy spent the last 15 years of his life creating sculptures and installations in the desert around Joshua Tree, California. His body of work, namely assemblage of locally found objects, offers a unique Mojave Desert experience that is now on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Installation view of "Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada," 2015, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Courtesy of the Museum and the Noah Purifoy Foundation.

Installation view of “Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada,” 2015, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Courtesy of the Museum and the Noah Purifoy Foundation.

The title of the show, “Junk Dada,” serves as an insight to Purifoy’s work as it finds aesthetic, contextual relatives to artists who were known for turning menial objects/readymades into profound statements, while simultaneously referring to the homophonous “junk data.” His assemblage The Last Supper II (1989), for instance, consists of old, rusted silverware and sardine cans arranged neatly in a frame. The title and earth tone composition transforms the pieces of refuse into something meaningful, or possibly holy. Like a still life, each component of once-used material is a unit of data that tells us something about being in a certain place and time, but also transcends its fractured nature to become something new and unified. Purifoy doesn’t simply repurpose objects; one can sense the history of the silverware and sardine cans the way old photographs and antiques are haunted. Because of this, there is something morbidly nostalgic, yet beautiful in using dead things to create. The meticulous arrangement of photos, pigments, a skull, and various objects in The Summer of 1965 (1996), for example, holds the tension of a mysterious spell, every object a vital component to its potency.

Noah Purifoy, Earl Fatha Hines, 1990. 53 x 39 inches. Copyright Noah Purifoy Foundation. Photograph by Seamus O'Dubslaine, courtesy of the Noah Purifoy Foundation.

Noah Purifoy, Earl Fatha Hines, 1990. 53 x 39 inches. Copyright Noah Purifoy Foundation. Photograph by Seamus O’Dubslaine, courtesy of the Noah Purifoy Foundation.

Walking through the exhibition, it is easy to imagine the home of many of the works: Joshua Tree is a vast and strange landscape where the eerie silence overwhelms. It takes someone with a strong intellect to thrive in such solitude and Purifoy’s work is a reflection of such an experience. There is a toughness in his creations, but there is also at times a lighthearted sense of humor. His piece Ode to Frank Gehry (1999) is as hokey as it is architectural. Perhaps it speaks to the complete and bittersweet nature of existence — that what constitutes its tragedy is also what makes it comic. It also says something about the power of imagination: Don Quixote’s windmills in the desert come to mind looking at this piece.

Purifoy created his own atlas of fetishes and imagery. Whether a given piece is a politically charged collage, a wooden sculpture, or a textile assemblage, they all point to something central in his work: his sense of humanity. The viewer feels the love of material and handiwork in Rags and Old Iron I & II (1989), through the decisive arrangement of beads and textiles, which compel us with a mystical simplicity. In three mixed-media paintings hung together — Picket Fence, Four Horsemen, and Crucifixion (all 1993) — black and gray cubes float together over a white, textured ground and form coarse, charming symbols. They hold the mystery of an ambiguous tarot card reading yet one senses that they are but honest renderings made form observation.

In an age of single-use materials and computer-fabricated objects, Noah Purifoy’s work holds relevance in that the spirit cannot be stripped from art — that making things with one’s own hands and cherishing the materials and process of creation will always be magical.

Noah Purifoy, installation view at the Noah Purifoy Foundation, Joshua Tree. Copyright Noah Purifoy Foundation. Courtesy of the Noah Purifoy Foundation.

Noah Purifoy, installation view at the Noah Purifoy Foundation, Joshua Tree. Copyright Noah Purifoy Foundation. Courtesy of the Noah Purifoy Foundation.

Exonerating The Present: Ai Weiwei Builds a Temple in Beijing



Robert Morgan, who reviewed Ai’s show at Alcatraz for artcritical in April, catches up with the artist-activist on the eve of a rare show in the Chinese capital.

Ai Weiwei at Galleria Continua and Tang Contemporary Art Center

June 6 to September 6, 2015
798 District, Beijing

Ai Weiwei, Wang Family Ancestral Hall, 2015 at Tang Contemporary Beijing

Ai Weiwei, Wang Family Ancestral Hall, 2015 at Tang Contemporary Beijing

It was clear that a distracted Ai Weiwei was in no mood for a formal interview. We met as scheduled at the Beijing East Hotel May 30th, which was to have been the opening day of his historic first solo gallery exhibition in Beijing. But given this date’s proximity to the 26th anniversary of Tiananmen Square on June 4th, the government had decided to reschedule the opening to June 6th. This was intended to forestall the possibility of dissenters congregating in the 798 gallery district with his show as an unruly rallying point.

In spite of such tumultuous concerns, Ai was willing to talk informally for an hour. As conversation progressed his mood gradually lightened. He wanted to speak not only about the importance of the immediate exhibition, but about the direction of his art merging with architecture, including his clear-sighted view that, in the future, art will be shown in locations other than commercial art galleries. Wise, rational and open-minded, Ai’s delivery was filled with joie de vivre.

For more than two decades, Ai has invariably turned down invitations to participate in exhibitions of his work in China. Clearly, the artist’s decision constitutes a critical comment and a continuing standoff with the Chinese government, which now appears to have found a hiatus. On July 22, his passport was finally returned after being taken from him during his 2011incarceration. Taking the position of an artist/activist, Ai sees his art (and architecture) as being inseparable from everyday life – a life in which politics plays an incisive role. Since his return to Beijing in 1993, after more than twelve years in the United States, much of his practice has turned toward issues of free speech and civil rights. In addition to an ongoing struggle to promote the quality of life among ordinary people in China, he maintains a rigorous schedule in preparing major exhibitions being held outside China. These have included recent museum retrospectives in Munich’s Haus der Kunst, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC and the Brooklyn Museum, as well as forthcoming exhibitions originating this September in Melbourne and London’s Royal Academy of Arts.

Photo of Ai Weiwei by Robert C. Morgan

Photo of Ai Weiwei by Robert C. Morgan

Even so, the artist’s desire to secure freedom with relative autonomy as a citizen was persistently thwarted, until recently, by the government. This came to worldwide attention in 2011 when he was detained by government officials, ostensibly on charges of tax evasion, and subsequently held in isolation for 81 days. During this period his whereabouts were unknown, even to his close family. This occurred on the aftermath of an incident involving police brutality from which he received a serious, nearly fatal concussion. According to statements sent from the artist’s blog (later shut down), the officer’s attack was incited because of Ai’s relentless, outspoken critique of government culpability in the Sichuan earthquake of 2009 in which buildings of inferior construction collapsed, costing the lives of thousands of people, including over 5000 children buried in the rubble of government-built grade schools.

In the New York art world of 1970s, where I first became aware of political art, there was a presumption that an artist denounce aesthetics to become “political” – that the message would be corrupted if one permitted beauty in the work. In refreshing contrast to such a position, Ai carefully examines and edits every object produced in his sprawling self-designed studio in the Caochangdi district of Beijing. He is closely involved with his studio staff, supervising exquisitely lacquered hard wood furnishings, glazed ceramics, tree-cut assemblages, and various assisted ready-mades, among other works. Even the carefully painted porcelain sunflower seeds, of which thousands were sent to the Turbine Hall at Tate London, were personally inspected. The precision and accuracy of these works are intended to empower the authority and to affect his message.

Having closely observed the rise and fall of trends in Chinese contemporary art in relation to the global market, the artist openly resents the coverage being given to his sales (one of which recently passed the $6M mark). As a result, Ai has been forced to confront the often insipid and superficial marketing of his art – a market that runs on an ulterior track where qualitative standards are utterly usurped by the tyranny of branding (not so far removed from where the New York art market has been moving in recent years). For Ai, names and prices are secondary, if not misleading in relation to the more vital and challenging ideas that his work is striving to put forth. As he said in an interview with Der Spiegel in 2011:

My definition of art has always been the same. It is about freedom of expression, a new way of communication. It is never about exhibiting in museums or about hanging on the wall. Art should live in the heart of the people. Ordinary people should have the same ability to understand art as anybody else. I don’t think art is elite or mysterious. I don’t think anybody can separate art from politics. The intention to separate art from politics is itself a very political intention.

On the occasion of his first official gallery exhibition in China, the artist was given two adjacent 798 district galleries , Galleria Continua and Tang Contemporary Art Center. As a partial homage to his father, the famous poet Ai Qing, the artist visited the southeastern area of China, to Zhejiang and Jinhwa (his father’s town) in search of an Anhui-style building from the late Ming Dynasty. The building he found, the Wang Family Ancestral Hall, was originally from the neighboring Jianxi province. It had been destroyed during the previous century and was, in its current state, partially restored. This type of building was known in Chinese as a shitang, or community center, a kind of temple, which at one time had deep significance for Chinese people as a place to gather and converse. It took five large trucks to transport the 1500 wooden pieces of the building from Zhejiang to Beijing.

Ai Weiwei, Wang Family Ancestral Hall, 2015, at Galleria Continua, Beijing

Ai Weiwei, Wang Family Ancestral Hall, 2015, at Galleria Continua, Beijing

The reconstruction of the Anhui building within the interior spaces of the two adjacent galleries required the work of two teams of designers and several groups of experienced and specialized construction workers. In effect, the supporting wall between the two galleries was virtually destroyed in order to reconstruct this Ming Dynasty building intact and yet separated between  their respective spaces. This heroic endeavor recalls the monumental feats and aesthetic clarity that once characterized ancient Imperial building projects. Ai is careful to point out that all material aspects of the structure, from beams to joints, are entirely in wood. As the artist wants to show this shitang from the perspective of the present in relation to the past, he has painted decorative motifs in bright colors on various parts of the joinery. This immediately recalls Ai’s earlier painting of Neolithic vessels, which he dipped into large vats of enamel paint.

Although I had been invited to the original opening before leaving New York, my travel itinerary would not allow staying until the new opening date. Even so, the impression I gleaned of the frantic construction as to what was happening within and between the two galleries was extraordinary. The basic structure was elegantly pierced through the space from one gallery to the other. The foundational stones and beams were in place, but a lot of work still had to be done. Men were working around the clock; some took breaks, scattered amidst the construction detritus and remnants of materials, sleeping on canvas tarpaulins, uttering occasional exhausted moans.

Three days later, Ai’s shitang arose into prominence from the massive complexity of its construction. It was seen by hundreds of visitors, mostly younger Chinese, on opening day. The piece functions as a deeply potent symbol – a rite of passage one could say – lying at the core of Chinese culture today: how to exonerate the present from turmoil and pain associated with the previous century. The rebuilt edifice within a shared open space shines as a beacon of rejuvenation. It signals a new era caught in the throes of confronting the past while in pursuit of an optimistic, yet unknown future.

 

Contemporary History at the Barnes: Three Artists in Philadelphia



Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff, Fred Wilson: The Order of Things at the Barnes Foundation

May 16 to August 3, 2015
2025 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy (at North 20th Street)
Philadelphia, PA, 215 278 7200

Judy Pfaff, Scene I: The Garden. Enter Mrs. Barnes (detail), 2015. Commissioned by the Barnes Foundation for "Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff, Fred Wilson: The Order of Things" exhibition. Image © The Barnes Foundation. Photo: Keristin Gaber.

Judy Pfaff, Scene I: The Garden. Enter Mrs. Barnes (detail), 2015. Commissioned by the Barnes Foundation for “Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff, Fred Wilson: The Order of Things” exhibition. Image © The Barnes Foundation. Photo: Keristin Gaber.

The Barnes Foundation’s recent exhibit, “The Order of Things,” in their contemporary gallery, is at once dynamic and problematic. Intended to relate to Barnes’s enigmatic approach to exhibition design, fantasy and appropriation abound. Installations by three renowned artists — Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff and Fred Wilson — mine varying aspects of Barnes’s approach to installing artifacts and paintings. His system for exhibiting work was intended to be carried into in perpetuity and is mimicked in the work of the artists selected for this project.

Pfaff created a sprawling installation in the main space of the gallery. Center stage, this work honors Laura Barnes’s arboretum, which she cultivated alongside Albert Barnes and a cluster of specialists. The arboretum is an extensive garden of hundreds of rare trees and flora from around the world, still flourishing at the Foundation’s original museum in Lower Merion. Pfaff’s Scene I: The Garden, Enter Mrs. Barnes (2015) is a dazzling psychedelic display of photos of the arboretum and Henri Rousseau’s paintings gone awry. Perhaps an abject backdrop to Alice in Wonderland, the installation is replete with digital prints on plastic and vinyl, poured pigmented foam, natural wood and steel. Swirling renditions of a simulated pond’s edge and bank are constructed using wood and liquid foam. Repeated in several key locations within the installation, these frothy sea-green islands create a sense of boundaries and depth. Punctuating this expansive landscape are leafy steel structures, painted white.

Fred Wilson, Trace (detail), 2015. Installation image. Commissioned by the Barnes Foundation for "Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff, Fred Wilson: The Order of Things" exhibition. Image ©The Barnes Foundation. Photo: Rick Echelmeyer.

Fred Wilson, Trace (detail), 2015. Installation image. Commissioned by the Barnes Foundation for “Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff, Fred Wilson: The Order of Things” exhibition. Image ©The Barnes Foundation. Photo: Rick Echelmeyer.

Incongruent elements abound, with white steel chandeliers overhead and neon lights that are, disappointingly, never illuminated. An installation of plastic wallpaper with distorted floral patterns is strategically placed on the gallery’s southern wall. Plastic floor panels extend across the space and were based on Henri Rousseau’s paintings; they serve as a conceptual bridge between Pfaff’s installation and the collection. Other connections include an area over the eastern wall of the gallery that alludes to the framed lunettes of Henri Matisse’s The Dance (1910).

Laura Barnes was integrally involved in the development of the arboretum at the original Barnes Foundation. She cultivated an expansive array of flora from areas within the states and other countries. Laura Barnes selected blooming plants that were considered difficult to grow in the Pennsylvania’s blistery winters of Pennsylvania such as southern magnolias, etc. Her approach to constructing the Foundation’s gardens paralleled the landscapes found in the work of Calude Monet, Paul Cezanne and other landscape paintings in the collection. Pfaff’s title channels the contribution of Laura Barnes to the development of the Foundation’s botanical gardens.

Fred Wilson’s rooms, located to the right of the entrance, are conglomerates of staged tableaux, some more successful than others. At the entrance three scenes are created in a sparse, modernist fashion, using furniture borrowed from the Merion offices, desks chairs and even an early Dell computer. The interior rooms hold greater intrigue; these spaces represent a sculptural approach to furniture, art objects and glass works from the collection. While visitors walk through these spaces, African drums and chanting waft through the air. Wilson inserts the African presence through sound rather than including it materially in his installation. Perhaps using African art directly would have been too obvious a move for Wilson, based on his past installations at museums throughout America. The soundscape is a compilation tape. Wilson has chosen not to disclose its origin or name the people recorded. Nameless voices surround the viewer — the ubiquitous presence of Africa is in our midst.

Fred Wilson, Trace (detail), 2015. Installation image. Commissioned by the Barnes Foundation for "Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff, Fred Wilson: The Order of Things" exhibition. Image ©The Barnes Foundation. Photo: Rick Echelmeyer.

Fred Wilson, Trace (detail), 2015. Installation image. Commissioned by the Barnes Foundation for “Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff, Fred Wilson: The Order of Things” exhibition. Image ©The Barnes Foundation. Photo: Rick Echelmeyer.

In his 1983 book Flash of the Spirit, Robert Farris Thompson uses the metaphor that if aliens descended on earth and sampled the music produced around the world, overridingly the music from Africa and the African Diaspora would be the most prevalent. Wilson has reconstructed this reality for us in Trace. However, it is interesting that he has chosen not to name the African cultural groups represented in his compilation tape. Is this again an example of a Western intervention that includes the artistry of Africa and deciding to render it anonymous?

Mark Dion’s installation is delightful, yet foreboding, in its inclusion of guns, knives and the like; however, would these be included in the collection of a naturalist? These emblems are contrasted with butterfly nets, fishnets, satchels and garden tools. Dion’s The Incomplete Naturalist is a tour de force in symmetry. According to the curator, Dion’s use of symmetry is mimetic of Barnes’s aesthetic. Like an archeologist, he puts everything in order and builds relationships to construct a narrative.

Overall, the Order of Things was a fascinating array of dissonant styles of installation art brought together. Therein lies its intrigue. Each artist serves as an individual conduit into the mind of Albert and Laura Barnes.

Mark Dion, The Incomplete Naturalist, 2015. Installation image. Commissioned by the Barnes Foundation for "Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff, Fred Wilson: The Order of Things" exhibition. Image ©The Barnes Foundation. Photo: Rick Echelmeyer.

Mark Dion, The Incomplete Naturalist, 2015. Installation image. Commissioned by the Barnes Foundation for “Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff, Fred Wilson: The Order of Things” exhibition. Image ©The Barnes Foundation. Photo: Rick Echelmeyer.

Curatorial Lyricism: “Perfect Likeness” at the Hammer



Perfect Likeness at The Hammer Museum

June 20 to September 13, 2015
10899 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, 310 443 7000

Thomas Ruff, Porträt (P. Stadtbäumer), 1988. Chromogenic print, 70 7/8 × 63 inches. Collection of Linda and Bob Gersh, Los Angeles. Image courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London.

Thomas Ruff, Porträt (P. Stadtbäumer), 1988. Chromogenic print, 70 7/8 × 63 inches. Collection of Linda and Bob Gersh, Los Angeles. Image courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London.

“Perfect Likeness,” organized by veteran curator Russell Ferguson, is an intentioned and poignant show, with moments of profound tenderness. It was without question the best exhibition I’ve seen this year. It charts a renewed interest in photographic composition beginning in the 1970s, focusing in particular on the prolific photographers of Europe, Canada and the US working between the 1990s and 2000s. The works flow beautifully without the conventional curatorial buttresses of chronology or conspicuous thematic groupings. Ferguson’s deft arrangement sparkles with the subtle lyricism of a photographer’s series, allowing for moments of affection, irony, and fascination to unfold in front of the viewer.

Ferguson’s introductory wall text presses upon our current condition of image saturation, a point which interested me less than the mid-century break he posits between pictorialism and more candid, even journalistic, photography. The return to the “inauthentic” or arranged image is where “Perfect Likeness” finds its genesis. A gorgeous Robert Mapplethorpe work, Orchid (1982), could have opened the exhibition — it nearly perfectly characterizes the pictorial shift for which Ferguson argues. It was in 1982 that Mapplethorpe found his muse in female body builder Lisa Lyon, and his evocative image of a drooping orchid is anthropomorphized on film, displaying the same elegance, grace and emotion as his expertly staged corporeal forms. While Ferguson could have just as easily chosen a nude to mark Mapplethorpe’s predilection for choreographed imagery, I appreciate the fact that the flower, itself a site of sexual reproduction, was chosen. Roe Ethridge’s work Peas and Pickles (2014) shares a wall with the Mapplethorpe, and serves as both a formal counterpart and self-aware double entendre.

Christopher Williams’ Department of Water and Power General Office Building (Dedicated on June 1, 1965), from 1994, consists of two images taken at slightly different angles in the morning and evening. The subtle change produces vastly different effects: in the first, the building’s vertical lines are emphasized, while in the second it appears wider and more horizontal. One of the aims of “Perfect Likeness” seems to be the unification of painterly technique with that of photography. In Department, Williams draws upon the tradition of Monet, who depicted Rouen Cathedral dozens of times as a means of indicating the subtle distinctions in perception caused by shifting light and shadows.

This understanding of the photographic subject as malleable speaks to the issue of authenticity, a question which photographer Jeff Wall has spent a career examining (and debunking). Wall’s 2011 work, Boxing, features two white teenage boys sparring in what appears to be their childhood home — an elegant high-rise apartment with a Joseph Albers painting hung in the background. The art historian Michael Fried has made much of the quality of absorption present in Wall’s subjects; many times they perform a task or mundane action that suggests they are oblivious to the fact that they are being photographed. This absorptive quality squares with Wall’s pictorial aims: to create an image that appears candid but is in fact painstakingly composed. While two of Wall’s major large-format works are featured in the exhibition, it was his more diminutive 1993 piece Diagonal Composition that was the standout. The quotidian image of a kitchen sink glows with the help of a light box and was so perfect, so complete, and so personal, that I was nearly moved to tears.

Catherine Opie, Lawrence (Black Shirt), 2012. Pigment print, 33 × 25 inches. Collection of Rosette V. Delug, Los Angeles.

Catherine Opie, Lawrence (Black Shirt), 2012. Pigment print, 33 × 25 inches. Collection of Rosette V. Delug, Los Angeles.

Lucas Blalock’s Broken Composition, from 2011, consists of a double image of a broken light bulb. The wall text equates Blalock’s visible method of technical composition to the painter’s brushstroke. Here, both the picture and its subject are broken, adding another layer of ambiguity between the photo’s “truth” and inauthenticity. Stan Douglas’ Hastings Park was another standout in the show, a composite of a photo taken in 1955 and edited using Photoshop in 2008. For the photo, Douglas restages the 1955 scene at a Vancouver horse track using models in period clothing, creating an image composed of 30 separate snapshots.

Sharon Lockhart’s evocative 1997 series The Goshogaoka Girls Basketball Team makes manifest a century-long photographic cliché: with her carefully arranged images Lockhart raises a mundane scene to the level of magnificence. By omitting the ball from the frame, the players appear to gaze up hopefully towards a higher power above. Thomas Ruff’s glossy portraits from the 1980s take up an equal amount of the exhibition’s real estate, though they’re nowhere near as compelling as Lockahart’s scenes. Ruff’s sitters look directly at the camera blankly, as though posing for an identification card. While the enormous format of these images is in itself seductive, they lose their visual punch when displayed in a series. In contrast, Elad Lassry’s Chocolate bars, Eggs, Milk (2013) is deliberately diminutive; apparently his subject of glossy chocolate and smooth eggs is plenty seductive, even at such a small scale.

The poignancy of the images on display is what left me thinking about “Perfect Likeness” weeks later. Catherine Opie’s 2012 portrait of the artist Lawrence Weiner raises him to the level of an old master, equal parts Rembrandt and Hans Holbein. However, Weiner’s soft body and gentle face lay bare a degree of tenderness on Opie’s part — she doesn’t revere Weiner, but cares for him. Equally affectionate were Gillian Wearing’s self portraits dressed as her mother and father from 2003. In these blown-up images, Wearing’s wig, glue, and mask are made visible, though not pronounced. This evidence of the characters’ construction points to the mother and father themselves as constructed figures, reproduced and reimagined in our own memories, often tainted with shades of nostalgia. Rather than recognizing “Perfect Likeness” on a register as broad as the shared human condition (as the wall text suggests), I understand it as a touching time capsule — one that, in my opinion, will mark the set of issues facing photographers today.

Jeff Wall, Boxing, 2011. Color photograph, 84 11/16 x 116 1/8 inches. Collection of the artist, Vancouver.

Jeff Wall, Boxing, 2011. Color photograph, 84 11/16 x 116 1/8 inches. Collection of the artist, Vancouver.

Lightning Bolt: A Realization of Clyfford Still



Report from…Denver, Colorado

Interior view of the Clyfford Still Art Museum, courtesy of the Clyfford Still Art Museum and Allied Works Architecture.

Interior view of the Clyfford Still Art Museum, courtesy of the Clyfford Still Art Museum and Allied Works Architecture.

Strange how it can happen that an artist whose work you are very familiar with, and have walked past in museums many times with no desire to linger, can suddenly sock you in the gut. Why I suddenly saw Clyfford Still or felt his emotional impact after all these years, when coming upon a painting in the Met on a particular day, I don’t know. Neither do I know why I had been immune to him for so long.

Like the best painting from cave art onwards, Still’s work is as alive and raw as if made today. His characteristic lightning shapes are a bit like the flashes that follow on the heels of Superman. They direct the eye, they activate the composition; actually they are the composition. They suggest a rip or wound in the skin of the paint, something damaged or hurt, while at the same time opening a window of light and color in the otherwise emptiness or murky impasto of the canvas. Still must have gone through countless gallons of black. Either pessimistically or optimistically, the rips and flashes seem to reveal an intimacy and vulnerability, creating a touching counterpoint to the bravado and strong ego that the work communicates — if you are open to being touched by it.

Still’s importance was quickly recognised by his peers when he arrived in New York in the 1940s, a fully formed abstract painter with his own distinctive visual language, of whom Jackson Pollock said, “Still makes the rest of us look academic.” The Metropolitan Museum, in 1979, described him as, “America’s most important, most significant and most daring artist,” as they presented the first big survey of his work. It was, in fact, the first big solo exhibition they had given any artist to date. Clement Greenberg said he was, “One of the most important and original painters of our time — perhaps the most original of all painters under 55, if not the best.” Still responded by saying that the critics were “butchers” and the galleries were “brothels.” Of the artists he said, “You know your brother has a knife, and will use it.” In the early 1950s, he broke all ties with the commercial galleries, and by the mid-1960s was living in Maryland, where he worked in isolation for the rest of his life.

Clyfford Still, PH-945, 1946. Oil on canvas, 53.5 x 43 inches. Courtesy of the Clyfford Still Art Museum. © City and County of Denver.

Clyfford Still, PH-945, 1946. Oil on canvas, 53.5 x 43 inches. Courtesy of the Clyfford Still Art Museum. © City and County of Denver.

Despite continuing acclaim as a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism, he has never had the fame or popularity of Pollock, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston or Willem de Kooning, his close contemporaries whose influence continues to ripple through painting. I was not the only one to walk past those big, jagged, ragged paintings, unmoved.

Since 2011, however, with the establishment of his own private fortress of a museum in Denver Colorado, Still has the edge over everyone. There, in strict conformity with the stipulations of his will, no other artist may be shown, and none of his works loaned, sold, given away or exchanged, but only exhibited and studied in a peaceful, spacious environment — without the distraction of a museum shop or café on the premises. Why Denver? Still was born in North Dakota; the land and the people of the Midwest were the subjects of his early work. Mostly, though, the civic leaders of Denver found themselves able and willing to accommodate his demands.

Only a matter of days after my epiphany at the Met, by coincidence, and without prior knowledge of the existence of the Clyfford Still Museum, I happened to be in Denver. The approach to the museum is through a small grove of trees, isolating it from its midtown surroundings, especially its attention-grabbing next-door neighbor, the exciting but dysfunctional Denver Art Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind, where the sloping walls make it almost impossible to hang a painting.

How different the respectful atmosphere created at the Still Museum by Allied Works Architecture, headed by Brad Cloepfil, with his “drive to make, not new things, but excruciatingly specific things.” The study rooms are downstairs and the galleries upstairs in this textured concrete building. The paintings are bathed in natural light that filters through a perforated skylight, showing them at their best. The light invites you upstairs, and makes you feel good when you get there. The ceilings are lower than usual in today’s museums, more like the spaces where Still worked and exhibited in his lifetime, and they contribute to the sense of comfort and contemplation.

The work itself is almost literally electrifying, generating light and movement in the gray galleries. There’s an intense relationship between the paintings, and a conceptual narrative runs through them that would be broken by the inclusion of another artist. This larger-than-life, tough, totally self-assured painter was right to insist on having a museum to himself.

Portrait of Clyfford Still. © Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Image courtesy of the G. Robert Strauss, Jr. Memorial Library, Gallery Archives, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.

Portrait of Clyfford Still. © Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Image courtesy of the G. Robert Strauss, Jr. Memorial Library, Gallery Archives, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.

I was reminded of the words of a highly respected London gallerist, who told me (20 years ago) that he had been moved almost to tears by seeing Still’s work. This was so incomprehensible to me at the time that I have never forgotten it. But these monumental paintings do convey equally monumental emotion, which is both grandiose and completely sincere. To quote Still: “These are not paintings in the usual sense. They are life and death merging in fearful union. They kindle a fire; through them I breathe again, hold a golden cord, find my own revelation.”

The words could be Wagnerian. Whether the passion that Still put into his painting reflects his feelings in the aftermath of World War II, or the more direct, personal experience of a lonely, impoverished childhood, the sense of a heroic battle for survival is incorporated in the work. Still believed that art could and must change the world.

In photographs Still looks self-conscious, posing in profile to survey his Maryland property, or before one of his paintings. His long, white-streaked hair and deep-set, angst-ridden eyes give him a rather haunted look. And the house itself could be the creepy creation of Alfred Hitchcock, or Edward Hopper.

Still died in 1980, leaving an incredible 3,182 canvases and works on paper, many of which remain rolled up in the Clyfford Still Museum, having been seen by only a handful of people. Only 500 or so works have so far been shown, but they more than justify the judgement of his contemporaries. The value of the paintings is estimated to be over $1 billion — just as Still always knew. But they can never be sold.

Clyfford Still, PH-401, 1957. Oil on canvas, 113 x 155 inches. Courtesy of the Clyfford Still Art Museum. © City and County of Denver.

Clyfford Still, PH-401, 1957. Oil on canvas, 113 x 155 inches. Courtesy of the Clyfford Still Art Museum. © City and County of Denver.