Marx, Africa and the Serene Republic: A Dispatch from Venice



Armenity / Haiyutioun. Contemporary artists from the Armenian Diaspora, Armenian Pavilion, 56th International Art Exhibition - la Biennale di Venezia, All the World’s Futures. Photo: Sara Sagui. Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia

Armenity/Haiyutioun. Contemporary artists from the Armenian Diaspora, Armenian Pavilion, 56th International Art Exhibition — la Biennale di Venezia, All the World’s Futures. Photo: Sara Sagui. Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia

Like any Venice Biennale, this year’s is not merely a curator’s egg (good in parts, rotten in others) but a veritable battery farm of them, with more ill and excellent specimens gathered together than one might wish to contemplate, let alone summarize in a thousand words.

The good news is that the signature event — the main exhibition, convincingly curated by Okwui Enwezor, divided between the Padiglione Centrale, in the Giardini, and the Arsenale — is carefully structured, intellectually engaging, aesthetically rewarding and, for so vast an exhibition, unusually coherent. The bad news is that the majority of the national pavilions are pretty lousy, only a handful worth the effort or long queues. Venice is also enlivened, as always, by numerous satellite events, group exhibitions, solo shows, performances — several outstanding, many atrocious, all providing added incentive to survey La Serenissima before the fun ends in November.

Joan Jonas: They Come to Us Without a Word, US Pavilion. Photo: Moira Ricci. Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia

Joan Jonas: They Come to Us Without a Word, US Pavilion. Photo: Moira Ricci. Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia

Enwezor’s exhibition title, ”All the World’s Futures,” sounds like the sort of waffle cobbled together by a committee and hardly suits a show more about the past than the future. Unless, that is, Enwezor meant “futures” in the financial sense, for his stated intention is to bring a Marxist analysis to bear on the current context. This “return to Marx” might be compared to Lacan’s “return to Freud,” an extension and elaboration of the franchise unrecognizable to purists. Such commitment includes a full reading of Marx’s works, every single word recited in architect David Adjaye’s central performance space, which even features a bearded lookalike dressed as the great man. The paradoxical contrast between this Marxist rhetoric and the billionaire collectors and well-heeled gallerists swarming the opening events was a source of bitter mirth to local anarchist groups who continuously heckled and attacked the proceedings, even launching physical protests against the Giardini and the Guggenheim.

A more engaging anarchistic intervention was the “Sinking of Venice,” performed by veteran Fluxus poet Alain Arias-Misson, who appeared on the Grand Canal in a boat towing the word “VENICE,” the giant letters inevitably sinking to the applause of enthusiastic onlookers. Throughout the main exhibition various soi disant Marxist figures lay out the territory, especially an older generation of radical filmmakers such as Jean-Marie Straub, Chris Marker, Chantal Ackermann, and Harun Farocki, whose works provide rigorous ideological backbone. And the extensive program of events scheduled for the performance arena, involving a dazzling range of thinkers, composers, performers, academics, show just how intelligent and sophisticated Marx’s theories remain, even if it is more about “the enchantment of the physical object” than class warfare.

Wangechi Mutu, Blue Eyes, 2008 © Wangechi Mutu and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

Wangechi Mutu, Blue Eyes, 2008 © Wangechi Mutu and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

“The trouble with the internet is that there is not enough Africa in it,” Brian Eno said a decade ago, and much the same might be true about the contemporary art world. Enwezor has rightly pushed a wider African (or at least black) participation, to a perfectly judged degree. While certainly not color-blind, Enwezor has engaged with a wide range of Diaspora artists whose varied practices are far beyond the banal rhetoric of previous “identity politics.” Among all this it is interesting to see how well painting fits the agenda, with key spots given to works by the likes of Ellen Gallagher — set next to the Aboriginal abstraction of Emily Kngwarreye — Wangechi Mutu and Chris Ofili, with the Arsenale culminating in a display of new towering canvases by Georg Baselitz, a man open in his loathing for “the revolution” (including, notoriously, the sexual revolution). Yet there is no sense that these paintings and sculptures (including many works by the late lamented Terry Adkins) are in any way token, obligatory inclusions, but rather embody a new level of sophistication in the art world, exemplified by Lorna Simpson’s latest work, paintings that extend rather then refute her conceptualist origins. In a final room of the Arsenale, Chinese laborers are working throughout the Biennale to craft individual decorated bricks, for sale for 20€ each, this being a work by Rirkrit Tiravanija, while next to them a paid actor reads out his book, gainfully employed by conceptual artist Dora Garcia. Adjacent to all this local art school students (half of them, revealingly, Asian) have signed up to create assembly-line monochrome paintings under the aegis of Maria Eichorn — some of which are actually quite beautiful. Global factory cultural production, minimum wage performance art thus providing a perfect Marxist dialectic for today’s pan-international economy.

Despite the seamless integration of painting into Enwezor’s theoretical argument, it was still shocking to see the Romanian Pavilion entirely given over to paintings and a few drawings, by just one artist, Adrian Ghenie, this most straightfoward display entirely radical today but standard practice for most of the Biennale’s history. There is no need to even mention the worst pavilions (France! Austria!) so let’s rather celebrate the few successes: the weird dark world of Fiona Hall in the Australian, the obsessive microlabor of Marco Maggi chez Uruguay, a sort of digital Gustave Doré by IC-98 at Finland’s Aalto-designed pavilion and that heady poetic hex cast by Joan Jonas on behalf of the USA. The Armenian Pavilion, titled “Armenity” was a rightful winner of the official prize, not just because this year marks the centenary of the Armenian genocide, but because the whole experience of visiting the island of San Lazzaro with its 18th-century Armenian monastery is a delight in itself. The beauty of the cloisters, buildings and historic collections are discretely, judiciously accompanied a range of current Armenian artists, and best of all there are no crowds. But in the end perhaps one outstandingly bad pavilion does warrant mention, the Italian, which is just so kitsch, as every year, that it may well be time that they had their Arsenale space taken away from them just as they previously lost their main pavilion in the Giardini.

Charles Pollock, Chapala 3, 1956. Oil and tempera on canvas, 121.9 x 91.4 cm. Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice

Charles Pollock, Chapala 3, 1956. Oil and tempera on canvas, 121.9 x 91.4 cm. Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice

Within the curator’s egg principle it is hardly paradoxical that one of the best group shows and the single worst solo exhibition should both come thanks to François Pinault. At the French collector’s Dogana there is the exemplary “Slip of the Tongue,” curated by Dahn Voh, so rich in contrasts and curios, whether medieval illuminated manuscripts next to Hubert Duprat gold maggots, or actual Bellini wooden panels and a wonderful assembly of all Nancy Spero’s Codex Artaud. But over at Palazzo Grassi there is a stinkingly bad Martial Raysse show (even the poster is truly nasty), which undoes all the good of his recent Pompidou retrospective. Other painters are to the fore around town, not least a lovely floor of Twombly at Ca’Pesaro, (don’t miss the marvelous rare outing novocento magic realist Cagnaccio di san Pietro on the floor below, by the way) and an impeccably tight small show of recent work by Peter Doig at the low key Palazzetto Tito.

The issue of winners and losers, and whether one is allowed to make such judgments in the art world these days, is central to Biennale practice: after all, they give out Golden Lions, so national pavilions are in principle battling one another. The show that most perfectly sums up such cultural competition is the long overdue retrospective of Charles Pollock at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, which grants as much visual delight as it does larger existential doubt. Here is the question: is it better to die at 44, a bald alcoholic, having enjoying five years of fame and then future immortality, or to live to 85 with a full head of magnificent hair making very nice abstractions, no money, and no reputation? It was through his older brother Charles that Jackson studied with Thomas Hart Benton, moved to New York, persisted in trying to become an artist. He owed Charles everything but wiped him clean off the map. All art students should be obliged not just to go and study the latest Biennale but also to visit the Charles Pollock exhibition and ponder its real meaning, to ask themselves exactly what they want in becoming an artist.

works by Adrian Ghenie on view at the Romanian Pavilion, Terry Adkins, Darkwater Record, 2003, on view at - la Biennale di Venezia, All the World’s Futures, 2015

works by Adrian Ghenie on view at the Romanian Pavilion, Terry Adkins, Darkwater Record, 2003, on view at – la Biennale di Venezia, All the World’s Futures, 2015

Terry Adkins, Darkwater Record, 2003, on view at - la Biennale di Venezia, All the World’s Futures.

Terry Adkins, Darkwater Record, 2003, on view at – la Biennale di Venezia, All the World’s Futures.

Bright Matter: Shinique Smith in Boston



Report from… Boston

Shinique Smith: Bright Matter, the artist’s long-run exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston seen from August 23, 2014 through March 1 of this year, coincided with the opening of her mural at Dewey Square in downtown Boston.  In his first article for artcritical.com, Philadelphia-based writer Tom Csaszar argues for the eloquence and visual power of her work

The Greenway Wall at Dewey Square Park, Boston, Mass. Mural by Shinique Smith. Photo: Tom Csaszar

The Greenway Wall at Dewey Square Park, Boston, Mass. Mural by Shinique Smith. Photo: Tom Csaszar

At their simplest Shinique Smith’s works are structured by a sweeping line interacting with a bundle of bright colors, often a cluster of actual fabrics. The line is at times calligraphic, at other times graphic – as in a printed representation of liquid motion such as that used by David Reed – and at still other times aerosol and graffiti-like. What keeps these works from falling prey to their own artifices, attitudes, and devices is Smith’s ability to activate the works as light, color, and matter, in implied motion and rhythm.

On the one hand, it is fair to say that Smith explores an almost encyclopedic variety of ways of how to use fabrics like paint – as well as how to use paint to imitate fabrics. Sometimes one of these ways, like the bleaching of blue denim in The Spark (2013), yields an engaging and accomplished work, but one that is fairly simple and one-layered. In other works, such as Majesty (2012), which are made only out of paint on canvas, in this case ink and acrylic, her calligraphic lines sweep around her billowing forms of bright colors. These bright shapes seem to be both a source and diagram for how she uses fabrics in her other works. But here it also looks like her observations of how colors and shapes from fabrics collage with each other and paint. The effects of motion and light are engaging for the pieces of a narrative they might imply, but are like songs that are melodically complex, but lyrically a bit plain.

Shinique Smith, Bright Matter, 2013. Clothing, fabric, and ribbon on wood panel, 63 x 52 x 5 inches. Zang Collection, London. Photo: Adam Reich; Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai

Shinique Smith, Bright Matter, 2013. Clothing, fabric, and ribbon on wood panel, 63 x 52 x 5 inches. Zang Collection, London. Photo: Adam Reich; Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai

On the other hand, in some works, Smith pares down her use of collaged fabric into three different modes. Bigger aesthetic moments come in these pieces in which Smith uses purchased fabrics as elements of color and shape, often combined with a painted surface, to make abstract images that hang like paintings on a wall, that is until they start to move off the wall into the room. Intelligently and perceptively responsive to the materials and processes, Smith combines fabric and paint in three clearly differentiated ways: first, by almost completely absorbing and unifying the fabric elements with the paint into one design, second, by letting the fabric hang looser and be a separate semi-sculptural element in the work, and third, by developing the fabric as an entirely separate part of the work, which in its totality now becomes half-painting, half-sculpture. An example of the third way, There were Sunday Mornings (2008) has a train of fabric, so identified in the material list, which establishes itself as a separate object, leaving the surface to fall to the floor. It is politely evocative and carefully poetic. Bright Matter (2013) clearly establishes its own world, the fabric almost working free from the image, but not quite. Here in Smith’s second mode, the fabric becomes another dimension in the work, but one that is not fully sculptural. It reasserts the movement and color of the flat surface continuing its mood and activity into bundles of color and light that activate its own separate abstract imaginary world. And in the most unifying presentation of fabric and paint, Through Native Streets (2011) and Seven Moons (2013) incorporate the fabric patterns and colors more fully into one abstract image. While they still have their own voice, one differentiated from the paint and ink, they are speaking in the same space and at the same time. In the case of Through Native Streets (2011), the dramatic tensions and narrative contrasts have multiple layers, patterned and emotional contrasts, and a tightly orchestrated and focused range of colors. I admire the eloquence and visual power of both of these works, while yet being aware of their different types of drama.

Shinique Smith, There Were Sunday Mornings, 2008. Acrylic, fabric, collage with train on canvas, 40 x 30 x 72 inches. Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai. Photo: Adam Reich

Shinique Smith, There Were Sunday Mornings, 2008. Acrylic, fabric, collage with train on canvas, 40 x 30 x 72 inches. Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai. Photo: Adam Reich

Smith also uses fabrics bundled into pillars of color or hung across the ceiling like flying animals, surreal plants, or brightly colored irregular planets.  Here Smith begins to realize most fully what the fabrics can do as sculpture. However, their dramatic and visual potential isn’t yet as fully developed as in the best of her collaged paintings with fabric. In these Smith is developing, with careful consideration, an entirely different type of potential for her materials. These works just seem to be at an earlier stage of development, or maybe are becoming an outlet for a simpler way in which Smith responds to these materials.

Her mural at Dewey Square in downtown Boston, Seven Moon Junction (2013), based on her painting mentioned above, shows how well she is able to adapt her images to the size of architecture and monument. The image is transformed into an imagined world, and transforms the buildings around it into a cinematic fantasy of the different scales of the built urban environment. This mural exhibits an appreciable visual sensitivity to the narrative and rhythmic possibilities of color and scale.

Long-standing passions for abstraction, as well as older passions for formal harmonies and personal emotions, show signs of wearing thin here and there – and appealing to memories of past delights more than immediate desires. However Smith’s works revive and animate legitimate interests related to these through connections to contemporary culture as well as past works. My understanding of the power of images, as well as the power of abstracted details from life, is enriched by an understanding of Smith’s artistic output. I think it will be hard in the future to write a history of art and painting of the first quarter of the 21st Century without a consideration of Smith’s works and the light they shed in dialogue with pieces like those of Fiona Rae, Michalene Thomas, Linda Benglis, Amy Sillman or Charlene von Heyl, to name just a few.

Shinique Smith, Through Native Streets, 2011. Ink, acrylic, fabric and paper collage, and found objects on canvas over panel, 60 x 48 x 6 inches. Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai. Photo: Adam Reich

Shinique Smith, Through Native Streets, 2011. Ink, acrylic, fabric and paper collage, and found objects on canvas over panel, 60 x 48 x 6 inches. Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai. Photo: Adam Reich

Always a Painter: Lawrence Carroll in Bologna



Report from… Bologna

Lawrence Carroll: “Ghost House” was at Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna, December 12, 2014 to April 6, 2015

 

Installation shot of the exhibition under review: Lawrence Carroll: “Ghost House”, Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna

Installation shot of the exhibition under review: Lawrence Carroll: “Ghost House,” Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna

In the late 1970s, when I was making my way from academic aesthetics to writing art criticism, I was vastly influenced by the magnificently original series of “Iconicity” essays published in Artforum by Joseph Masheck, who then was editor of that journal. Masheck argued that to properly understand contemporary abstraction, we need to revisit the entire history of Western art. According to Clement Greenberg’s account, which remained influential, abstract painting is the ultimate product of the flattening of the deep old master picture space. When there no longer is any room for figurative subjects, then art had to become abstract. Rejecting this analysis, Masheck rather drew attention to the ways in which the Byzantine sacred tradition was involved with literal uses of the stretcher and the picture surface. Guided also, perhaps, by some precedents in the revolutionary Soviet avant garde circa 1917, some contemporary abstract art (what he called “hard-core painting”) embraced that seemingly forgotten tradition which was concerned with the literal properties of the medium.

Masheck’s very imaginative commentary was not easy to follow. And, ironically, the contemporary figures he championed who now are most distinguished — Jonathan Lasker, Thomas Nozkowski and Sean Scully — have developed in ways that have little to do with his concerns. But history can sometimes be surprising, for Lawrence Carroll, who arrived in New York around 1984, has, apparently entirely unconsciously taken up Masheck’s concerns. This ambitious retrospective, in a former bread factory, presents 63 paintings, some of them very large. At the entrance, on the diptych Untitled (1989-90), are the words “I am alone.” Here is a box mounted on the wall, Untitled (1990); the Untitled floor piece (1992-94), the skin of a painting on the corner of the floor; and the Untitled, table painting (2006-2014) a construction on a pedestal which has a slight resemblance to Anthony Caro’s tabletop sculptures. As you walk through the 10 rooms, you can see Carroll taking painting apart in its components, and reassembling it. Mostly his paintings are untitled; when there are titles, often they are descriptive. He inserts one panel into another, as in Untitled, insert painting (1986); constructs a vertical assemble of frames, in Untitled (1988); draws black bands across the surface in Untitled (1986); presents a box on the floor in Yes (Floor Piece) (2000) or, in Untitled Yes bag (2014) as a bag on the floor; installs the painting on the wall, Untitled shelf painting (1985) in one example or, as in Untitled flower piece (2014) leans it on the wall. Occasionally, as in Untitled light painting (2014) a light bulb is attached to the picture plane. Sometimes panels extend off of the wall, as in Untitled hinge painting (2013). One singular work, Untitled No. 51 (1993) consists of canvas folded on the floor. And some of the pictures, Untitled box painting (2006-14) is one example, are wall-mounted boxes. These paintings are very varied.

Lawrence Carroll, Untitled, 2011.  Mixed media. Courtesy Galerie Karsten Greve, Galerie Buchmann. Photo credit: Carroll Studio

Lawrence Carroll, Untitled, 2011. Mixed media. Courtesy Galerie Karsten Greve, Galerie Buchmann. Photo credit: Carroll Studio

Carroll is always a painter, never a sculptor, and that’s a statement compatible with the fact that he sometimes works in three dimensions. In the almost 30 years of work on display here, there’s no obvious sense of development. You sense that from the start he’s known how to proceed. He owes something to Carl Andre and Donald Judd, but unlike these Minimalists he always retains a personal touch and is not interested in repetition as such. And although he has some affinities with Robert Ryman, he is a more varied and, I think, a more sensuous painter. Upstairs on temporary display is the collection from Museo Morandi of a very different, very relevant figure, whom he admires greatly — Giorgio Morandi. Interested in the varied qualities of his medium, Carroll almost never is concerned with image appropriation. “I wanted to paint my paintings the color of the canvas I was painting on,” he has said, “so I could always erase myself and start over. I always then had a way out and back into the painting.” This statement does not, I think, entirely explain his ongoing originality. More, perhaps to the point, he speaks of his desire to anchor himself to the world. “I needed to find my own way with the materials I was using.”

Recently MoMA presented “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” a much discussed exhibition. According to the curator, when now everything has been done, all that is left to artists is to recycle prior visual discoveries. “The obsession with recuperating aspects of the past,” Laura Hoptman writes, “in the condition of culture in our time.” When I started writing criticism, the same claim was presented: everything has been done, we were told, so artists are doomed to merely recycle. It’s hard not to see this as a very pessimistic worldview — who would care about visual art if genuine originality were in fact impossible? No doubt this is a very New York perspective, from a city in which there are so many competing young artists. But this vision of art is demonstrably false, for much remains to be done. In movies, black-and-white defines a flashback, taking us back to an earlier moment prior to the main narrative. Perhaps this is how we should understand Carroll’s lack of concern with being a colorist — he takes us back to the 1980s. He has said: “I wanted to paint my paintings the color of the canvas I was painting on, so I could always erase myself and start over. I always then had a way out and back into the painting.” Carroll is as good as anyone anywhere I know who is painting right now. Compared with him, almost all contemporary artists are noisy, lacking in trust for their medium. The happiest contemporary painter whose art I have had the pleasure of viewing recently, a very American artist, he’s not had a solo exhibition in New York for 15 years.

Dragon Kite Man of Alcatraz: Ai Weiwei @Large



Dispatch from San Francisco

@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz

September 27, 2014 to April 26, 2015
Alcatraz Island
Organized by For-Site Foundation: Art About Place

Ai Wei Wei, Trace, 2014.  Installation view: New Industries Building, Alcatraz.  Courtesy of the For-Site Foundation.  Photo: Jan Stürmann

Ai Weiwei, Trace, 2014. Installation view: New Industries Building, Alcatraz. Courtesy of the For-Site Foundation. Photo: Jan Stürmann

It was a rather bleak, chilly afternoon when I agreed to take the ferry to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco. More than 50 years ago, this anti-oasis served as a federal penitentiary for hardened criminals, most of whom carried life sentences. Originally built as a military base during the Civil War, by 1934 it had become a legendary hard-core prison later celebrated in Hollywood films. In 1963, less than 30 years after opening, it was shut down due to costly operating expenses that nearly exhausted the penal budget in the State of California. During the relatively brief time of its existence, the penitentiary at Alcatraz had few indigenous resources. The entire water supply was contingent on a single rain tower that provided inmates with regulated rations of water for drinking and hygiene. All foodstuffs, along with cooking utensils, clothing, blankets, and medical supplies, were transported weekly by boat. Inadequate and unreliable, generators provided electricity for the entire prison complex. This was its sole source of energy. Internal heating was virtually non-existent.

The purpose of my visit there was to view a series of site-specific installations by Chinese artist, dissident, and polymath, Ai Weiwei. The venue for this exhibition was made possible through the efforts of independent curator Cheryl Haines, who worked directly with the artist in collaboration with the For-Site Foundation in San Francisco, which provided the sponsorship for the exhibition. In addition, Haines maintained close contact with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. These two organizations were responsible for providing information on “prisoners of conscience” relative to a large installation, titled Trace, where portraits of 176 such prisoners were immortalized using 1.2 million plastic Lego bricks. Many of these were done outside China and outside the United States.

Ai Wei Wei, Refraction, 2014.  Installation view: New Industries Building, Alcatraz.  Courtesy of the For-Site Foundation.  Photo: Jan Stürmann

Ai Weiwei, Refraction, 2014. Installation view: New Industries Building, Alcatraz. Courtesy of the For-Site Foundation. Photo: Jan Stürmann

Alcatraz was accessioned as a national park in 1972, as Haines discovered, and is now operated within the public domain and therefore suggested the possibility of an exhibition space for Ai. Knowing the artist’s unrelenting concerns for human dignity and freedom of speech, she began a three-year project by setting forth the parameters whereby the artist could work on four interrelated installations. In that Ai is not permitted to travel outside of China because of his polemical position in opposition to what he believes are repressive policies instigated by his government, his persistent involvement with the exhibition occurred largely through telecommunication systems, including Skype. This was due to the fact that the artist has not been able to travel outside China since his incarceration for 81 days in 2011. He has no passport by which to travel.

While the exhibition was not a major work, it was an ambitious and moving one. It had its moments as in Trace and in the large fabric and bamboo Chinese dragon kite, With Winds. This was installed in the New Industries Building where Alcatraz prisoners once worked as they were scrutinized by armed guards. As one entered the downstairs corridor and walked the length of the “gun gallery,” one could view what many have conceded as the major work in this exhibition, given the English title Refraction. The work was an enormous assemblage in the shape of a bird’s wing constructed with recycled solar cookers used in Tibet, with accompanying cooking pots and kettles wedged between the panels. This suggested a possible solution — at very little cost — for ordinary people to live their lives without the burden of paying for electricity.

Ai Wei Wei, Trace, 2014.  Installation view: New Industries Building, Alcatraz.  Courtesy of the For-Site Foundation.  Photo: Jan Stürmann

Ai Weiwei, Trace, 2014. Installation view: New Industries Building, Alcatraz. Courtesy of the For-Site Foundation. Photo: Jan Stürmann

Walking from the New Industries Building (an ironic name given that it was built in the early 1940s largely for the purpose of making wartime accessories) down the slope away from where the actual prison cells were located, one got a glimpse of how this isolated island functioned in another era. The location offered an unusual but appropriate setting for Ai’s exhibition. The desire for freedom and the potential to live a qualitative life felt so utterly removed from these stark institutional premises.

Upon entering the port area, where the ferry loads visitors and tourists returning to San Francisco proper, the length of the sullen queues moved ever so slowly from the graffiti-ridden cement walls to an insipid barge. The mood was anything but euphoric. Later, I learned that there are seven times more prisoners incarcerated in the United States in comparison with any other country. This further incited the question as to how free Americans actually are, especially if they are not members of the white middle class.

This is the kind of question, I believe, that Ai’s “@Large” was seeking to raise on the grounds of Alcatraz in 2015.

Ai Wei Wei, Trace, 2014.  Installation view: New Industries Building, Alcatraz.  Courtesy of the For-Site Foundation.  Photo: Jan Stürmann

Ai Weiwei, Trace, 2014. Installation view: New Industries Building, Alcatraz. Courtesy of the For-Site Foundation. Photo: Jan Stürmann

Dallas in Wonderland: Chuck and George at CentralTrak



Dispatch from Dallas

Who’s Afraid of Chuck and George? at CentralTrak

February 13 to April 4, 2015
800 Exposition Avenue (at Ash Lane)
Dallas, 214 824 9302

Mark Ross, Chuck and George, 2014. Acrylic on canvas, 20 x 16 inches. Photo: Heyd Fontanot/CentralTrak.

Mark Ross, Chuck and George, 2014. Acrylic on canvas, 20 x 16 inches. Photo: Heyd Fontanot/CentralTrak.

For 25 years Brian K. Jones and Brian K. Scott, have collaborated as the Texas-based artistic partnership known as Chuck and George. The duo incorporate a wide range of media — including animation, found material, illustration, painting and sculpture — to build their kaleidoscopic world of fairground macabre, corrupted Grimm’s tales, surrealist environments and loyal legions of heraldic grotesques, with “the Brians” themselves acting as Pied Piper ringmasters to their gargoyle cavalcade.

Chuck and George’s current exhibition at CentralTrak, The University of Texas at Dallas Artist Residency, was organized by the program’s director Heyd Fontenot, and consists of more than 80 works, almost all of them from 2014, made by the artists’ friends and colleagues in tribute to the longevity and inventiveness of their personal and professional relationships. As with much of the Brians’ own work which includes often-distorted self portraiture and altered depictions of their bodies within domestic or imagined spaces, this exhibition continues a theme of the artists as subject. As a fortification of their homey intentions the exhibition is located not in CentralTrak’s expansive white-walled gallery, but in the narrow hallway behind it which leads to the studios of resident artists. This domiciliary scale, allied with walls decorated by the couple to mimic their Oak Cliff home, meant that the opening night seemed more like a packed house party than a vernissage, with the exhibition functioning more as a roguish family album. In fact, the Brians’ home could be considered the third member of Chuck and George. It operates as dwelling, muse, studio, evolving large-scale installation, museum, and social hub for the local art scene. Its enchanted nooks and crannies are a magical trove of sculptures, figurines, artworks, collectibles, and decorated furniture, giving it the atmosphere of a warm, Technicolor version of Rocky Horror’s Frankenstein Place.

Jason Cohen, Chuck & George of Finland, 2014. Graphite on paper, 18 x 24 inches. Photo: Heyd Fontanot/CentralTrak.

Jason Cohen, Chuck & George of Finland, 2014. Graphite on paper, 18 x 24 inches. Photo: Heyd Fontanot/CentralTrak.

Many works here hint at the subsumption of singular identities into one, lending insight into contributors’ perceptions of the artists’ connectedness: A startling drawing, Chuck and George of Finland by Jason Cohen, presents the Brians as a hyper-masculine figure, their heads sharing a muscular chest, ripped torso and enormous endowment protruding from open jeans. A pair of languid fabric sculptures sitting on a mantelpiece, Brian Scott Doll and Brian Jones Doll by Gillian Bradshaw Smith, are naked but for their sneakers, with Jones’s likeness positioned so that a hand delves into his rather non-plussed partner’s nether regions. And a fiery Goya-esque portrait by Mark Ross, titled Chuck and George, merges their faces so that they have one eye each, while sharing a third, in reference to mythological tropes from Cyclopes to the Graeae. Here the Brians are presented either as so close as to share the sense of sight, or to be struggling against further integration. In J.D Talasek’s photograph of the artists circa 2000, called Brian and Brian, they sit vulnerably, again naked, huddled against each other with knees drawn to their chests, staring wide-eyed out at the viewer, their poses and expressions presenting an image of spiritual unification, inquisitive but nervous. They may have been older than they look at the time but the impression remains of adolescent disquiet.

Anna Meyer, Chuck & George Skulls, 2014. Glass mosaic/mixed media, each approximately 7 x 9 x 7 inches. Photo: Heyd Fontanot/CentralTrak.

Anna Meyer, Chuck & George Skulls, 2014. Glass mosaic/mixed media,
each approximately 7 x 9 x 7 inches. Photo: Heyd Fontanot/CentralTrak.

Through such works the exhibition becomes an artistic microcosm akin to the Granada Television series Seven Up (1964 – present), which follows 14 British children throughout their lives from the age of 7, and has so far spanned 49 years. Within these dozens of artworks, themes can be discerned and timelines plotted through which we all must travel: youthful wonder and fear at the world observing us; sexual awakening; the eternal grappling with our individual meaning and what happens to that selfhood when it is met by another; aging, aspirations, inevitable disappointments and corporeal decline are all touched upon beneath the initial visual sauciness of this character-full firmament.

Inevitably recalling artists of past (or alleged) relevance whose work is themselves or at least draws heavily from their actual or politicized physicality — the turgid Gilbert & George and Tim Noble & Sue Webster spring tiresomely to mind — the injection of fantastical whimsy and dark cartoonism by the Brians and their friends infuses their production with humility and mirth, thereby rejecting the staggering pomposity of those pretentious Londoners. While the subject of egotism cannot be ignored in “Who’s Afraid of Chuck and George?” where the work is centered so heavily on the protagonists, a small black-and-white image of an anus by Jesse Meraz, titled Wink, offers a critical opening. It could be seen as an event horizon of self-subsumption, through which the above-mentioned British artists and their suffocating contrivances slid long ago. While the gravitational drag of this particular rabbit-hole can be felt within the Chuck and George universe, they are kept from plummeting through it, by their deftness in tempering vanity with vagary and accessibility. They do not attempt to set themselves up as aloof pseudo-shamanistic oracles, but rather through the veracity of their output, they offer the opportunity to glean insight into our own earthly trajectories.

"Who's Afraid of Chuck and George?" 2015, at CentralTrak, installation view of the hallway. Photo: Heyd Fontanot/CentralTrak.

click to enlarge

Sculpture and Painting on the Line: Analia Saban at Sprüth Magers



Dispatch from London

Analia Saban: Interiors at Sprüth Magers

February 27 to March 28, 2015
7A Grafton Street
London, +44 20 7408 1613

Analia Saban, Draped Marble (Fior di Pesco Apuano), 2015. Marble slab on steel on wooden sawhorse, 99.1 x 177.8 x 91.4 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Spru?th Magers.

Analia Saban, Draped Marble (Fior di Pesco Apuano), 2015. Marble slab on steel on wooden sawhorse, 99.1 x 177.8 x 91.4 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Spru?th Magers.

The tradition of paint on canvas can act as a provocation to contemporary artists, who may do without either the liquid (e.g. Binky Palermo’s cloth) or the ground (e.g. Lynda Benglis’s pours). The Los Angeles-based Argentinean Analia Saban doesn’t just challenge the conventional role of paint and canvas, she also undermines the “on” with her hybrid painting-sculptures. Her first London show, at Josh Lilley in 2010, featured Acrylic in Canvas with Ruptures (2010): paint was stored in bags of canvas, with some of it bleeding through laser-cut holes while most of it dried into sculptural substance. Saban explained then that she wasn’t looking to oppose painting but to enable the viewer to appreciate the elements in a different way by demonstrating how much information and structure they hold. ”It’s a dialogue,” she said, “not a fight.” Saban adopts fresh strategies for each project, but her questing yet playful way of thinking remains a connecting thread.

Saban’s latest solo sees her upsize — indeed, she shows across all three floors of the gallery’s quasi-domestic space — but without reducing the commendably perverse metaphysical wit with which she pushes her materials further than they can be expected to go. The townhouse location plays into the theme of “Interiors,” such that Saban gleefully ignores distinctions between not just painting, sculpture, and photography, but also furniture and design. This fertile show contains, by my count, nine different strategies for making a painting of sorts, none of them what a traditionalist would expect.

"Analia Saban: Interiors," installation view, Spru?th Magers London, 2015. Photograph by Stephen White.

“Analia Saban: Interiors,” installation view, Spru?th Magers London, 2015. Photograph by Stephen White.

Claim (from Chesterfield sofa), from 2014, looks at first sight like a settee with a painting resting on top of it. A closer inspection reveals that the painting is joined to the chair, and that the chair is actually part of the painting: Saban had a custom-made couch covered in canvas, leaving enough fabric for the excess to be pulled clear over stretcher bars. This teases any collectors who might want a painting to match their furniture, as well as challenging any po-faced definition of the difference between art and design — and their relative values. And what’s the painting on? A chair?

Draped marble (Fior di Pesco Apuano) (2015) sees a substantial block of stone draped over a wooden sawhorse as if it were a towel or, in Saban’s skewed world, perhaps an abstract painting hung out to dry. (What’s it on? The line.) Here the refusal to accept conventions takes on the natural assumption that marble is inflexible, and slyly suggests through the historical resonance of its central material that the art of the past can also be interpreted more flexibly than we might assume.

Analia Saban, Bulge (Vertical) #1, 2015. Encaustic paint on walnut stretcher bars, 34.3 x 26.7 x 15.9 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Spru?th Magers.

Analia Saban, Bulge (Vertical) #1, 2015. Encaustic paint on walnut stretcher bars, 34.3 x 26.7 x 15.9 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Spru?th Magers.

The two Bulge paintings here, both from 2015, are a spin on — perhaps even a deconstruction of — Saban’s earlier acrylic-in-canvas works. The wall seems pregnant with a protruding bag of paint; but there is no canvas or other container. The skin results from using encaustic, which dries to a solid and glossy finish. That evocation of the body, by the way, can also be traced through Saban’s work. There is a palpable physicality to her processes, distancing her from drier conceptualist approaches.

Saban has also won an award as a photographer. That may seem a strange way to introduce a series in which she paints on canvas — but, of course, her 2014 Markings series doesn’t do that in a straightforward manner. Saban took photographs of variously colored paint cans stored on shelves, had them developed as large C-types and then poured boiling water on the surface so she could scrape away parts of the images. She then used those scraps of color to make an abstract collage attached to the photograph. These diptychs, then, make a photograph of paint, and then paint with the photograph. Paint, once more, is Saban’s subject and object, but not in any orthodox sense her medium.

Saban, then, is a humorous conceptual artist who plays around with the structures of representation. If that sounds like a description you could apply to John Baldessari, fair cop: Saban happily identifies herself as a former student and still assists him, though as she explains, ”There were no rules there — he is not at all dogmatic, and was always pushing me to do whatever I wanted.”

“Interiors” is most enjoyable, but is there also a serious point beyond the ingenious fun? I’m inclined to read Saban as opposing categorization: the sheer number of ways she finds to confuse the distinctions between mediums accumulates into an argument that the very idea of such classifications is unstable and inappropriate. And if that’s true in art, might it not read across into life? We should be far more reluctant than we are to pigeonhole people according to superficial characteristics. I emerged from Saban’s show thinking: we must be pluralist, multi-cultural and non-judgmental. Art may not change the world, but it’s nice to think that, if it could, it would be for the good.

"Analia Saban: Interiors," installation view, Spru?th Magers London, 2015. Photograph by Stephen White.

click to enlarge

"Analia Saban: Interiors," installation view, Spru?th Magers London, 2015. Photograph by Stephen White.

click to enlarge

Analia Saban, Markings (from Paint Sample Chips), 2014. Gelatin silver print on resin coated paper and canvas, 152.4 x 243.8 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Spru?th Magers.

click to enlarge

Analia Saban, Fireplace, 2015. Machine rendered acrylic paint on linen, 142.2 x 116.8 x 3.8 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Spru?th Magers.

click to enlarge

Show and Tell: John Currin at Gagosian Beverly Hills



Dispatch from Los Angeles

John Currin at Gagosian Beverly Hills

February 19 to April 11, 2015
456 North Camden Drive (between S. Santa Monica Boulevard and Brighton Way)
Beverly Hills, 310 271 9400

John Currin, Maenads, 2015. Oil on canvas, 48 x 36 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery.

John Currin, Maenads, 2015. Oil on canvas, 48 x 36 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery.

John Currin’s current solo show at Gagosian Beverly Hills will not disappoint devotees of his signature style. The artist’s sensuous play between lush fabrics, fruit and the female form — while exceedingly literal — is nonetheless striking and seductive. Culling inspiration from Italian Mannerism and the art of the Northern Renaissance, Currin recasts the classical image of the female nude, limning and embracing its current cultural significance in tandem with its historical precedent. Gender and sexuality become the subjects of Currin’s paintings, and while his relationship to art of the 15th century has been discussed at length, rarely is his work regarded in politically salient terms.

With the exception of three paintings executed in 2013, each work in the exhibition was painted within the last three months. The luscious 2015 work Maenads depicts an alabaster-skinned, auburn-haired sitter in Currin’s Mannerist style. A pink gossamer top traces her breasts and a silk scarf is draped listlessly over her lap. Two ripe apples placed at eye-level mirror her rounded breasts and belly, further emphasizing the figure’s sensuous form. In the background lie two additional women with similar coloring, one with legs splayed open and the other reaching over to touch her. However any contact between the two is obscured by the foreground sitter’s raised knee. The show’s earlier works exhibit slightly more explicit instances of sexuality, integrating what appears to be ‘70s-era pornography as background imagery. However, it serves to mention that the naughtiest bits are always concealed: no genitals and certainly no penetrative sex. So why, after having depicted explicit sex acts for years, does John Currin offer us these references to sexuality without the titillation?

John Currin, Nude in a Convex Mirror, 2015. Oil on canvas, 42 inches in diameter. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery.

John Currin, Nude in a Convex Mirror, 2015. Oil on canvas, 42 inches in diameter. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery.

The Storm (2013) similarly alludes to what appears to be an explicit sex act between a man and two women, but Currin’s languid golden-haired nude obscured our view. In this image, like the others in the show, paint is applied thinly and sparingly, the texture of the canvas visible behind his rendered satins and furs. Bust in a Convex Mirror and Nude in a Convex Mirror, both from 2015, present a refracted view of Currin’s female forms, allowing for the delectation of his figures’ breasts and buttocks without interference.

Lemons and Lace (2015) remained with me long after leaving the exhibition. A vaguely historical pastiche, the female figure bares a striking resemblance to Currin’s wife and frequent sitter, Rachel Feinstein. Posed as an odalisque, his subject is dressed in lingerie that refers in equal parts 17th century vestments and to 1970s adult films, all the way down to her thigh-high stockings and shimmering gold mules. In the background, a snuffed-out candelabra and pieces of fruit beg to be analyzed in art-historical terms — do these props allude to fertility? Integrity? Death? Plays with translucence and opacity abound, a useful metaphor in understanding these new works.

John Currin, Altar, 2015. Oil on canvas, 40 x 28 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery.

John Currin, Altar, 2015. Oil on canvas, 40 x 28 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery.

The thread unifying these paintings is a deliberate attention to what’s exposed and what is concealed. The images are PG-13 alternatives to the artist’s previous X-rated works, and by adhering to socially prescribed limits of probity, Currin further demarcates those boundaries, naturalized for centuries via the art-historical canon.

I want to make very clear what I understand as a distinction between the operations of Currin’s nudes and those of other contemporary artists. Now perhaps cliché, Classical and Modern artists have portrayed the pliant and available female body for centuries. Understanding this cultural and historical signification as implicit in any image of a white female nude, artists of Currin’s epoch have subverted the classic trope as a means of illustrating the restrictive politics of gender and visuality. Take for instance the arresting and corpulent nude portraits of Jenny Saville, tellingly referred to as “grotesque” by art critics and historians. Or perhaps Rineke Dijkstra’s nude mothers, photographed shortly after giving birth, stretchmarks and bloated bellies proudly on display. Even pornography, as employed by Ghada Amer, serves to represent the female body as imbued with agency, deliberate and purposeful. Currin’s return to classical tropes then brings ideological markers of taste and class into sharp relief, naturalized for centuries and only very recently challenged by postmodern theory and feminist politics. And, as in the classical tradition, the sensuousness of Currin’s forms is heightened by their relative modesty.

By This River: Greg Lindquist Paints Against Coal-Ash Pollution



Dispatch from North Carolina

Smoke and Water: A Living Painting at Southeastern Alliance for Community Change

November 2014 to February 2015
317 Castle Street
Wilmington, North Carolina

Installation view, “Smoke and Water: A Living Painting,” by Greg Lindquist, 2014-15, at the Southeastern Alliance for Community Change. Courtesy of the artist.

On a cold December morning, I met Working Films Initiative co-director Anna Lee to discuss the documentary Coal Ash Stories and to view Greg Lindquist’s installation Smoke and Water: A Living Painting at Southeastern Alliance for Community Change (SEACC) in Wilmington, North Carolina. Smoke and Water is part of a collaborative project that aligns community organizations and residents by using art to highlight and draw on local expertise. A native of Wilmington, Lindquist’s work reflects his connection to the area. The immersive installation spans across three walls of paintings, photographs, and statements, which provide an intimate glimpse into a community struck by one of the largest coal ash spills in the nation’s history: in early February 2014, officials estimate up to 39,000 tons of toxic coal ash spilled into the Dan River in Eden, North Carolina.[1] It lined the banks of the river for 80 miles downstream from the spill site.

Installation view, "Smoke and Water: A Living Painting," by Greg Lindquist, 2014-15, at the Southeastern Alliance for Community Change. Courtesy of the artist.

Installation view, “Smoke and Water: A Living Painting,” by Greg Lindquist, 2014-15, at the Southeastern Alliance for Community Change. Courtesy of the artist.

Upon entering, I am impressed with the command the installation has over the small community center. Paint pervades the open space normally reserved for community gatherings, yoga, and meditation groups, setting a reflective tone on the way the environment concerned is simultaneously experienced and imagined. Presenting a multilayered narrative of wide-ranging voices and imagery, Lindquist juxtaposes abstracted impressions of an empty and disconnected landscape with interwoven memories and stories presented as text on canvas.

As if looking at multiple screens open on a laptop, Smoke and Water simulates a space of interconnected thoughts, urgency, and action. The painted walls invite and sensitize its inhabitants to the viewing space — a platform for discussion and contemplation. Warm analogous tones envelope the room. On the wall, painted forms play with perceived edges. Swirls of gray and brown — reflections of the coal ash residue unyoked and spreading across the wall — intersect and overlap large paintings that evoke a still winter along the Dan River. The effect is attention to the organic forms and beauty of the paint’s application on the wall and, at the same time, one is charged by its symbolism.

On the floor, taped and gridded texts, drawings, and photographs direct the viewer to navigate the space in a curious and conscious path. I turn to read the texts painted in muted tones on stretched canvases. The narratives speak to the damage inflicted upon the community, and they pose cultural questions on corporate culpability. Local residents’ expressions of how the spill affected their personal health, relationships, and the community spirit, surface as distinct whispers yet layered voices speaking to an urgent and collective cause.

Installation view, "Smoke and Water: A Living Painting," by Greg Lindquist, 2014-15, at the Southeastern Alliance for Community Change. Courtesy of the artist.

Installation view, “Smoke and Water: A Living Painting,” by Greg Lindquist, 2014-15, at the Southeastern Alliance for Community Change. Courtesy of the artist.

As a native North Carolinian, I’ve always been drawn to the still and powerful character of our state’s rivers and lakes. I feel an immediate connection to the voices of local residents whose nostalgia and experiences have been displaced by the ruin and waste of industrial carelessness. The spill happened over a year ago. Although time has passed, the impact on our sense of place and purpose remain.

As I turn to leave, the late morning light casts a glow on the walls of the art installation, one that suggests the aftermath of a heavy rainstorm or perhaps something ominous. With this illusion, Lindquist subtly advances the cause. These stories travel beyond the walls from a small visual impression to a much larger and more serious discussion involving social engagement around environmental pollution. Lindquist’s work radiates, igniting both tranquil rumination and a charged call to action. He presents the facts while simultaneously distilling sincere experiences and memories. Smoke and Water lingers, encouraging not only reflection, but also reaction… the storm after the calm.

[1] This is the estimate provided by Duke Energy officials.

Installation view, "Smoke and Water: A Living Painting," by Greg Lindquist, 2014-15, at the Southeastern Alliance for Community Change. Courtesy of the artist.

click to enlarge

Installation view, "Smoke and Water: A Living Painting," by Greg Lindquist, 2014-15, at the Southeastern Alliance for Community Change. Courtesy of the artist.

click to enlarge

Installation view, "Smoke and Water: A Living Painting," by Greg Lindquist, 2014-15, at the Southeastern Alliance for Community Change. Courtesy of the artist.

click to enlarge

Installation view, "Smoke and Water: A Living Painting," by Greg Lindquist, 2014-15, at the Southeastern Alliance for Community Change. Courtesy of the artist.

click to enlarge

Installation view, "Smoke and Water: A Living Painting," by Greg Lindquist, 2014-15, at the Southeastern Alliance for Community Change. Courtesy of the artist.

click to enlarge

Sonia Delaunay in Paris and London



Dispatch from Paris

Sonia Delaunay: Les Couleurs de l’Abstraction at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

October 17, 2014 through February 22, 2015
11 Avenue de Président Wilson
Paris, +33 1 53 67 40 00

Sonia Delaunay, Le Bal Bullier, 1912-13. Oil on canvas, 50.2 x 73 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Musée d'Art Moderne.

Sonia Delaunay, Le Bal Bullier, 1912-13. Oil on canvas, 50.2 x 73 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Musée d’Art Moderne.

A blanket stitched by Sonia Delaunay for her baby Charles in 1911 is the most evocative piece in the exhibition “Les Couleurs de l’Abstraction” at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (on display through the 22nd of February and then at the Tate Modern from the 15th of April through the 9th of August). That is not to say that Delaunay’s ferocious output and creativity ended there — it was only the beginning. The blanket, crafted of 70 roughly rectangular and triangular pieces of shimmery cloth, placed in relation to each other based on principles of color resonance and harmony that were an obsession of her husband Robert (he drew his theories from the French chemist and color theorist Michel Eugene Chevreul), stands as an epic transition in the history of early abstraction. It also embodies the pragmatism in her approach to her work: she soon stretched and exhibited the blanket as her first work of pure abstraction. One may surmise she did this once the baby had outgrown his blanket.

Sonia Delaunay, Couverture de Berceau, 1911.  Courtesy of the artist and Musée d'Art Moderne.

Sonia Delaunay, Couverture de Berceau, 1911. Courtesy of the artist and Musée d’Art Moderne.

Delaunay mixed the applied arts with “pure” painting throughout her career. This duality lies at the literal and metaphorical center of the exhibition where a gallery of coats and textiles, and even a promotional film she made in the 1920s, runs on an endless loop. The clothing, furniture and costume design do not have the same vibrancy or theoretical insistence as the paintings. Her striking Manteau pour Gloria Swanson (1925), with radiating rectangular bands, is a dazzling cross between a Russian soldier’s bulky overcoat and early Atari graphics — a bit of Delaunay’s Russian roots with some Aztec thrown in. It lacks the encompassing throbbing exhilaration of Le Bal Bullier of 1913, given pride of place a few rooms earlier.

Posed in counterpoint to the fashion film, which features models lounging in Delaunay fabrics in front of her paintings, is a mighty textile display machine on the opposite wall that the curators have conjured up. Beneath the word “Simultané” four bolts of fabric roll up or down constantly, contrasting the artist’s seemingly endless fountain of design ingenuity. Along the walls are swatches, sketches, kerchiefs and ties reinforcing this point. Unfortunately, it comes across as a bit crass — the same sinking feeling one got on seeing the Louis Vuitton shop placed smack in the center of the 2008 Murakami exhibition at The Brooklyn Museum.

Sonia Delaunay Manteau pour Gloria Swanson, 1923-1924. Courtesy of the collection of Svila Singer and the Musée d'Art Moderne.

Sonia Delaunay Manteau pour Gloria Swanson, 1923-1924. Courtesy of the collection of Svila Singer and the Musée d’Art Moderne.

But the baby blanket is not crass, and the clothing designs and the costumes for productions by Tristan Tszara and Sergei Diaghilev are full of the colorful and garish enthusiasm of post-WWI experimentation. They are wild deco colonialist interpretations of Ancient Egypt, for the ballets Cleopatra and Aida (1918). Does this interdisciplinary existence make Delaunay a feminist icon because she straddles both the at-the-time male dominated world of painting and the perceived woman’s sphere of sewing and clothing production? Perhaps her claim to icon status, beyond her talent as a painter, should be her very asexual approach to her practice, a personality trait that presaged later art/entrepreneurial giants such as Warhol, Koons and Hirst. Delaunay had a very sanguine relationship with her clothing and costume design — it was a career that only really took shape after the Russian revolution took place and the money from home (St. Petersburg) ran out. She adroitly hired Russian seamstresses to make her clothing and weave her textiles (the Delaunay sweatshop?) and felt liberated from her commercial responsibilities after the 1929 market crash for all intents and purposes put an end to her fashion business.

“Les Couleurs De l’Abstraction” shows Delaunay at her strongest at the beginning and the end. The exhibition begins with juvenilia — portraits of peasants and friends made on vacation in Finland with her aunt and uncle, then student work heavily influenced by Gauguin and the Fauves. This is followed by the strange process of mutual assimilation that was the marriage of Robert and Sonia Delaunay, one that birthed the Orphism movement (a term coined by Apollinaire), which set up a category of pure abstraction utilizing the methodological approaches of Cubism. Along with Le Bal Bullier is the illustration to accompany Blaise Cendrars’s travelogue poem “La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France,” probably the most successful evocation of the Delaunay’s concept of Simultaneity — a confusing theory based around a fascination with technology, applied color theory and interdisciplinary collaboration among the arts. The series “Prismes Electriques” was started in 1913 and became the defining image of both Sonia and Robert Delaunay’s careers — beacons of light with radiating waves or shells of colors.

Sonia Delaunay Prismes électriques, 1913-1914. Photo Davis Museum at Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA. Courtesy of the Musée d'Art Moderne.

Sonia Delaunay, Prismes électriques, 1913-1914. Photo Davis Museum at Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA. Courtesy of the Musée d’Art Moderne.

After the stock market crash, Delaunay returned to painting with renewed vigor. Her most successful series of applied works, though, was a cycle of illustrative murals for the 1937 aerospace pavilion for the “Exposition Internationale des Arts et des Techniques dans la Vie Moderne.” In these she isolates technological objects — the propeller, the cockpit, the dashboard, gears and sparkplugs — and renders them as symbols within a context aesthetically redolent of Orozco and Rivera’s great murals of a the early ‘30s.   The cycle achieves its goal of aggrandizing contemporary technology by injecting the Delaunays’ brand of radiating circles (now neatened up) into a well-crafted layout that has the punch, poignancy and mystique of an engineering blueprint. It is a design sensibility that wouldn’t be surprising on a website in 2015.

The exhibition is vast, as was Delaunay’s output. She remained active, painting and designing rugs and fabrics, well into the late 1970s: she died in 1979 at the age of 94.   Over that very long period she still focused on the circles that had so fascinated her and Robert in the teens — hybrid symbols of electric light-cum-wheel-cum-human head, an all-in-one beacon. Robert died in 1941, and perhaps freed from his influence, Sonia’s beacons become more introspective, as with L’Affereux Jojo (1947) which is less bright and less color-theory obsessed and overwhelmingly gray, the circle also becoming a half-circle now. Maybe the artist is blinking here and catching her breadth. Triptyque (1963) finds her even less obsessed with the ideology of the long-dusty Orphism; the forms are more distinct and freer, and again there are more blacks, ochres and slate colors, the paintings are less optimistic and more worldly. At the heart of the exhibition is the feat that Delaunay took an abstract trope that began with a baby blanket in 1911 and expanded and elaborated on it for almost seven decades, generating a visual/personal timeline that narrates the history of abstraction in the 20th century.

Notes from NOLA: Two Shows in New Orleans



Dispatch from New Orleans

 

Prospect.3: Notes for Now

October 25, 2014 to January 25, 2015
Various sites in New Orleans

 

ExhibitBe
Saturdays, November 15 to January 25, 2015
3010 Sandra Drive, Algiers, New Orleans

Installation view of ExhibitBe in New Orleans.

Panoramic installation view of ExhibitBe in New Orleans. Courtesy of ExhibitBe.

“Prospect.3: Notes for Now,” the third New Orleans biennial, curated by Franklin Sirmans, presented 58 artists and collaborations at 18 locations within that city. The New Orleans Museum of Art showed Paul Gauguin’s Under the Pandanus (1891), on loan from the Dallas Museum of Art; paintings and drawings by Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral; and handsome modernist abstractions by Ed Clark, a veteran local artist. At the Ogden Museum of Southern art was a gallery of large paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was involved with music from New Orleans — and he visited the city briefly. Also at the Ogden were photographs of the prisons in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, in nearby Angola; and colorful bas-reliefs by Herbert Singleton, who was incarnated in that prison. And three floors of the Contemporary Arts Center included displays of Manal Aldowayan’s photographs of female workers in her native country, Saudi Arabia and the grid-grounded paintings of McArthur Binion, which allude both to the history of that medium and to black political history. There were landscape photographs of Louisiana and Mississippi by Thomas Joshua Cooper; Charles Gaines’s LED panels presenting texts by African, Asian and European radicals and socialists; photographs of the Nigerian film industry by Pieter Hugo; and Yun-Fei Ji’s scroll, which uses a traditional format to present scenes of conflict in contemporary China.

Ed Clark, New Orleans Series #4, 2012. Acrylic on canvas,  53 x 66 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Stella Jones Gallery, New Orleans.

Ed Clark, New Orleans Series #4, 2012. Acrylic on canvas, 53 x 66 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Stella Jones Gallery, New Orleans.

This show displayed some good local artists and, also, a full sampling of the sorts of installations, photography and videos that are fashionable in the present art world. It thus provides New Orleans residents and visitors an opportunity to learn about contemporary visual art. And the weighty, expensive catalogue provides a full visual record of the art on display, though the free newspaper map and guide published by The New Orleans Advocate is actually a more useful guide. The problem here was, quite simply, that while New Orleans has long been a literary and musical center, it hasn’t really been the home of very many well-known distinctive visual artists. When Sirmans justifies his inclusion of Gauguin on the grounds that he was a friend of Edgar Degas, who did visit the city, or of Amaral because of her interest in cultural diversity in her country, Brazil, one’s aware of this problem. The issues concerning class, gender and race faced by New Orleans, pressing concerns elsewhere, are dealt with in this Louisiana city in distinctive ways, which don’t get adequate critical analysis.

Stimulated, but a little frustrated by this ambitious exhibition, I drove South across the Mississippi River to ExhibitBe, an outdoor graffiti display in an unoccupied apartment complex just off of General De Gaulle Boulevard in Algiers. These five-story buildings, public low-cost housing (which is soon to be demolished to make way for a sports center) were the site for an outdoor display by 51 graffiti artists, curated by Brandan “B-mike” Odoms. On the first of these high walls was a pale green portrait of a woman by the Australian artist Rone. At the edge between the buildings Ana Hernandez and Rontherin Ratliff wove plastic window blinds into the perforations of decorative concrete sunscreens to produce a pair of outstretched, three-story high hands in the form of plastic tapestry. On the next building is MEEK’s image of a Ferguson protestor tossing back a police tear gas canister. And Odum’s portrait shows a 15-year-old George Carter, who was murdered in New Orleans, staring from the fifth floor. On the two story building facing these apartments, B-mike painted black history icons — Gil Scott-Heron, Biggie Smalls, Harriet Tubman, Radio Raheem, Maya Angelou, Huey P. Newton, Fred Hampton, and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. And there was more graffiti inside some of the condemned apartments.

Installation view of Yun-fei Ji in "Prospect.3" in New Orleans.

Installation view of Yun-fei Ji in “Prospect.3” in New Orleans.

“This is temporary,” a sign warned: “take a picture. It will last longer.” On a sunny warm day, this open-air, free-admission show attracted crowds — including a DJ and dancers. As always, of course, the moral ambiguities of gentrification are not easy to resolve — the exhibition was possible only thanks to the allowance of a property developer, who is destroying public housing. Acknowledging that problem, I would argue that ExhibitBe, more so than Prospect.3, provides an authentic, accessible record of the visual culture of New Orleans. Recently Joachim Pissarro and I have made the distinction between art-world art and “wild art,” such as graffiti, that is found outside of museums, a distinction which is illustrated perfectly in the contrast between these two very different exhibitions.

Brandan "B-mike" Odums at ExhibitBe, which he helped to organize.

Brandan “B-mike” Odums at ExhibitBe, which he helped to organize.

I owe thanks to my daughter Liz, who is a New Orleans resident, for taking me to this marvelous show, which I would never have discovered on my own.