Abstraction Goes Underground: The Painting Factory at LA MoCA

The Painting Factory: Abstraction After Warhol at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

April 29 to August 20, 2012
152 North Central Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 626-6222

Installation shot of the exhibition under review with, center, Andy Warhol, Camouflage, 1986. Synthetic polymer paint and silk screen on canvas, 118 by 420 inches. Courtesy of The Brant Foundation, Greenwich, CT.

Installation shot of the exhibition under review with, center, Andy Warhol, Camouflage, 1986. Synthetic polymer paint and silk screen on canvas, 118 by 420 inches. Courtesy of The Brant Foundation, Greenwich, CT.

In reaction against Abstract Expressionism, Andy Warhol (and his fellow post-modernists, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg) inserted content into painting.

No wonder Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko were so personally hostile towards him: they believed that he had killed abstraction. More exactly, since a silkscreen may have either a figurative or an abstract subject, Warhol undercut the distinction between figuration and abstraction. That said, some of his subjects – of which the shadows, Rorschachs, and camouflages in this exhibition are examples – look abstract. But as the title of the show indicates, it’s not Warhol’s subjects but his industrial-style techniques of art production which have been taken up by the abstract painters in this show. Hence Rudolf Stingel’s impersonally finished oils and enamels on canvas; Christopher Wool’s blotches—anti-forms made by photographing and printing his earlier paintings on an inflated scale; and Glenn Ligon’s surfaces composed of acrylic, silk screen and coal dust on canvas.  And Urs Fischer’s presentation of gesso, arcylics, silicone and screws on aluminum panels and Mark Bradford’s mixed media collages, influenced by graffiti, on canvas. Julie Mehretu presents monumental abstracted images of urban experience; Tauba Auerbach creates images of folds with acrylic on canvas; Wade Guyton prints inkjet images on linen; Kelley Walker does explosive-looking digital prints on canvas; Sterling Ruby sprays paint on canvas; and Das Institute (Kerstin Brätsch and Adele Röder) creates oil on paper constructions: then they extend this style of abstraction.

Most of the eleven American or US-based artists in this show don’t use brushes. They employ silk screens, electric sanders and industrial sprayers. And they mostly do non-gestural painting. (Seth Price and Josh Smith are the exception to that rule. I like their art but they don’t really belong here.)  It is Warhol’s loss of direct contact with the subject, rather than his occasional use of abstract subjects that makes him a potential source for abstract art. Such factory made abstraction has some affinities with Robert Ryman’s minimalism, but little connection with Brice Marden’s recent gestural painting, Ellsworth Kelly’s clean design or Sean Scully’s romanticism.

Christopher Wool, details to follow

Christopher Wool, details to follow

The essays in the usefully lavish catalogue are all over the map. There are proposals to link these artists to feminism or queer theory or accounts of race. But since just by looking it is hard to know that the paintings of Auerbach and Das Institute are by women, for instance, or that Ligon, Bradford and Mehrutu are of African origin makes this seem an unpromising approach. There are attempts to read these figures as political artists. When Goya, Manet and even Picasso painted political subjects, then surely their art was political. So was Warhol’s when he painted Jackie Kennedy and Electric Chairs. But contemporary abstraction resists politics. The desperate urge to make these paintings politically critical expresses the guilty conscience of art writers, who want to believe that praising art they, like me admire, is not merely to write at the service of the art market. But that hope is foredoomed, for it surely must occur to everyone that this is the ultimate capitalist art, arcane in its appeal, and so large that only grand collectors can afford to house it. The catalogue has many photographs of the artists’ enormous studios, which do look factory like.

Recently Jeffrey Deitch, LA MOCA director, has been under fire. Judging just by this brilliantly challenging show, which is highly adventuresome, those complaints are unjustified. MOCA has always puzzled me. In a city with intense natural sunlight, how perverse that this prominent museum is completely underground and so totally dependent upon artificial lighting. But it turned out to be the perfect venue for this exhibition of industrial scale art. Deitch and the curators have done something original and important. They have identified a challenging novel style of abstract painting and provided a genealogy linking it to Warhol’s art. What remains to be done, in my opinion, is to provide some account of the aesthetic pleasures of this art. Perhaps we should consider the ways in which the seemingly neutral or rebarbative structures of these pictures reconcile us to everyday post-modern industrial environments. How revealing that the most immediately accessible work is Rudolf Stingel’s wall to wall white carpets, which allow visitors to create an all-over work of art as they mark it while walking around viewing the paintings.

Rudolf Stingel, Untitled, 1987. Oil and enamel on canvas, 78 by 186 inches. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery

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A Place Only Possible in Painting: David Reed in Bonn

Report from…. Bonn, Germany

David Reed Heart of Glass: Paintings and Drawings 1967-2012 at the Kunstmuseum Bonn
June 28 to October 7, 2012


Installation view of the exhibition under review: David Reed Heart of Glass at the Kunstmuseum Bonn 2012 Photographer: Reni Hansen © 2012 VG-Bild Kunst, Bonn. The work to the left is #457, 1999–2000  Oil and alkyd on linen 36 x 144 inches Kunstmuseum Bonn, Permanent loan from Sammlung Mondstudio

Installation view of the exhibition under review: David Reed Heart of Glass at the Kunstmuseum Bonn 2012 Photographer: Reni Hansen © 2012 VG-Bild Kunst, Bonn. The work to the left is #457, 1999–2000 Oil and alkyd on linen 36 x 144 inches Kunstmuseum Bonn, Permanent loan from Sammlung Mondstudio

The generous – or, it could equally be said, overwhelming – skylit galleries of Bonn’s Kunstmuseum abound with natural light. In clear opposition to any classical use of such large white cubes, David Reed has installed his work with an impassive experience in mind. Some disturbance, it can be assumed, is desired to avoid each work becoming simply a Modernist trophy, a reliquary of pure formalist shape and color. Indeed, abstraction for Reed is very much connected to experiences of the real world.

In the central gallery – from which all others can be accessed and are frequently within view – long horizontal paintings with white grounds, appear as if subject to centrifugal force. One of them hugs the only corner of the gallery that is not also part doorway, while several others reach the end of a wall at the entrance/exit points. This induces a feeling of movement in rotation. With so much of the gallery wall free and with the gestural element of each painting itself on a white ground, the paintings seem to expand to incorporate the walls, rendering the gestures into a kind of graffiti that unites the pictorial with the architectural.

In #457, 1999–2000, the transparent green arabesque sweeping in from the right vertical edge of a two thirds empty, horizontal white canvas looks as if it could equally be in a state of evaporation or condensation. Either way, it remains a fluid line of buckle and curl.  The arrangement of paintings, installed as they are, do not so much echo the rectangular elements often found within the paintings as iterate their unbalance. Expectations of settled spatial relationships and composition are challenged inside the paintings through unstable geometries as well as color. The way they are placed here accentuates that instability.

Each gallery is made to feel very distinct by the selective groupings of work. For example, working drawings in one room,, paintings of related color in another, landscape paintings and a video in a third. Reed and his curator have obviously not opted for a linear, chronological path. In fact, in viewing much of Reed’s work from the 1980s onwards, presumptions of chronological time quickly become estranged, undermined as they are, by the fugitive action of chromatic effects and subtle material layering.  The reds and greens of #617, 2003–2011 are translucent and contain, as well as capture, subtle shifts of light (an effect of the fluctuating levels of actual daylight). The folds of color add to the Baroque energy of a turning and flexing motion.

David Reed, #350, 1996.  Oil and Alkyd on linen, 54 × 118 inches. Courtesy Sammlung Goetz. Photo: Johann Koinegg, Graz, Austria

David Reed, #350, 1996. Oil and Alkyd on linen, 54 × 118 inches. Courtesy Sammlung Goetz. Photo: Johann Koinegg, Graz, Austria

As real to the eye as it is fictive to thought, the effect here of Reed’s color and surface establishes a place only possible in painting. The physical layering of paint – its removal sometimes leaving an abraded surface in contrast to areas of paint applied by brush or knife and left as is – leaves time running in both directions. This process occurs in unknown sequence, directing us away from the certainties of unmediated paint accumulations. Often this feels unsettling and dynamic – like the staggered freeze-framing of the explosion in Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970). Such a sense of this fractured cinematic process of delay and acceleration is typified in # 350, 1996, its color seeming to expand, both floating and falling in and across the painted surface.

Landscapes from the 1960s (painted in situ at Monument Valley) and a series of black and white paintings made during the mid-1970s that reference the scale and movement of the hand and arm make Reed’s early trajectory clear. Sometimes an artist – Jasper Johns comes to mind – seeks to erase the works prior to the epiphany that got them on the right track where others, like Reed, continue to focus on an approach to their subject from the start, excavating and building as they go. The black and white paintings consist of horizontally brushed black lines, each line a hand’s width and the length of Reed’s arm at maximum extension. The black is seen merging downwards into still wet white paint. This bodily gesture is gradually absorbed over the years until a dialectic of inside and outside is achieved – a mind thinking with the results of a body doing. It is not unlike Jackson Pollock’s desire for painting to be the landscape and for him to be part of that – not for him to be making a description of something distinctly other.

The Searchers, 2007 is a video that samples silhouetted figures from the closing minutes of John Ford’s 1956 film of the same name (shot in Monument Valley) together with close up surface images of Reed’s own paintings. But instead of the great outdoors of the American West, the film’s title song is now heard drifting through the expanses of the Kunstmuseum, Bonn.

David Reed, #617, 2003–2011. Oil and alkyd on linen, 44 x 190 inches. Kunstmuseum Bonn, Permanent loan from Sammlung Mondstudio, Photograper: Christopher Burke, New York © 2012 VG-Bild Kunst, Bonn

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Artworks in the Present Tense: ALTERNATIVA at Gdansk Shipyards

Report from… Gdansk, Poland

ALTERNATIVA: “Materiality” and “Wyspa: Now is Now” at The Wyspa Art Institute.

May 26 to September 30, 2012
Doki 1.145 B. 80-958 Gdansk, Poland.
open Tuesday to Sunday, 11am to 7pm.

Katarzyna Jozefowicz, Sights, 2010-12. Hand-stitched vinyl envelopes with cut images.  Courtesy of The Wyspa Art Institute, Gdansk

Katarzyna Jozefowicz, Sights, 2010-12. Hand-stitched vinyl envelopes with cut images. Courtesy of The Wyspa Art Institute, Gdansk

Gda?sk is one of the 20th Century’s most pivotal cities. Strategically located along the placid waters of the Baltic Sea, it was here that the Second World War officially began.  In the 1980s this centuries old city (Danzig in its German incarnation) became a hotbed of revolutionary ferment. It was here in the hometown of Lech Walesa and the birthplace of Solidarinosz that a  major blow was struck upon the Iron Curtain’s seemingly impenetrable armor.

But now the vast Gdansk Shipyards, scene of the momentous  August 1980 strikes, stand idle, a crumbling red brick ruin, slowly being reclaimed by the forces of nature. Interspersed among the trees and tall grasses that make this former symbol of communist productivity resemble an urban park, the Wyspa Institute of Art stands defiant.

Wyspa’s history, like so much of its surroundings, is intimately tied to the 1980s. It was during this period that sculpture students from the Fine Arts Academy, among themGrzegorz Klaman, Kazimierz Kowalczyk and Beno Osowski, began exploring the ruins of Granary Island, a section of Gdansk untouched since its destruction by allied bombs in the 1940s. In their hands the island was clandestinely transformed into an open-air experimental exhibition and studio space.

This alternative space, where the history of the city is made palpable by the exposed layers of the ancient structures surrounding them, eventually gave rise to a more formalized vision: the Wyspa Progress Foundation.  A non-profit organization launched in 1994Wyspa is committed to exploring varieties of artistic practice and art in public spaces.

In 2004, the WPF founded the Wyspa Institute of Art in a former technical college in the shipyards. Since 2010, under the directorship of co-founder Aneta Szylak, this “laboratory of new thinking” has sponsored ALTERNATIVA, a series of large-scale international exhibitions, performances, publications, and meetings.

The current exhibition “Materiality” is a jointly curated investigation into how “different generations of artists, thinkers, and cultural operators have reconsidered their approach to materiality and its turbulent political history.”  Housed in the spectacularly renovated Hall 90b, over 30 works range from the coldly conceptual to the invitingly tactile, the massive space echoing  to the ubiquitous sound of clicking slide projectors.

Katarzyna Krakowiak’s Reconstruction of the Shipyard’s Broadcasting Center (2012), which involves the artist transforming herself into a human antenna, is part video documentary, part historical display. A slickly edited film features Krakowiak precariously balanced along the roof of Hall 90b. Clutching a hand-held transmitter, she broadcasts snippets of sound from the archives of a former shipyard DJ. The LPs, tape reels and other ephemera from the archive are tactfully arranged within a vitrine next to the video monitor.

Hiwa K., Nazhad, 2009-12. Video and (displayed in photo) digital prints. Courtesy of The Wyspa Art Institute, Gdansk

Hiwa K., Nazhad, 2009-12. Video and (displayed in photo) digital prints. Courtesy of The Wyspa Art Institute, Gdansk

This fitting introduction to “Materialty” lays bare its central critical problem: How do artworks exist in the present tense? Like several of the pieces in the show, Reconstruction of the Shipyard’s Broadcasting Center assumes a documentary character that has problems transcending the weight of its own past. Hiwa K.’s Nazhad (2009/12) encounters a similar problem.  The film records the activities of an Iraqi man who melts the spent remains of military conflict into ingots to sell. The documentary, along with the attendant photographs of the craftsman at his forge, are thoroughly engaging. But the intense physicality of the process, the heat, sweat and hard work required to turn bullets into bars, are vaporized by the immateriality of the photographic medium. What remains underscores the fact that these moments are now lost in time.

Actuality in the past does not guarantee a work’s status as art in the present. Undoubtedly this sentiment is an intended consequence of the exhibition, but it gets repetitive. Even the most compelling documentary examples, such as Sally Gutierrez’s Organ Market (2009), a horrifying film that explores the market for paid organ “donation” in the Philippines, feel insulated from attempts to engage with attributes other than the ideas they represent.

To the curators’ credit, “Materiality” genuinely seeks a dialogue between multiple approaches to contemporary art-making. The show gracefully balances its more cerebral aspects with several beautiful displays that accentuate the physical properties of the artist’s chosen medium.

Lex Pott addresses the passage of time in the present tense in his simple but powerful work Transience (2012). A series of 14 silvered mirrors arranged horizontally across the wall, each section is progressively darkened by the application of sulfur as an oxidizing agent. The result is a color spectrum that ranges from silver through golden amber to a deep purple-blue. Its unit-based structure recalls Judd and Andre, but the stress appears to be less on the literalness of the object than its effects upon the reflected imagery. Gazing at the mirrors, one feels an increasing detachment from the reflected space as the oxidized surface darkens. Pott’s work strikes a somber tone.

Katarzyna Jozefowicz also applies a modular  approach to composition in her hanging installation Sights (2010/12). Composed of hundreds of hand-stitched, clear vinyl envelopes – each containing small images of homes, streets, or landscapes — the work is a rumination on dreams, a kind of scrapbook for events that have never occurred. Jozefowicz tackles time, space and material in subtle and sophisticated ways. By collapsing the distance between these elements and reordering them in a non-linear fashion, she allows for the creation of new narratives generated by the physical presence of the sculpture rather than merely by the artist’s claims on its behalf. Sights is one of “Materiality’s” most impressive statements.

Across the cracked pavement from Hall 90b, in the Wypsa Institute of Art’s rear gallery space, curators Ewa Malgorzata Tatar and Dominik Kurylek have re-imagined the WPF archives as the companion exhibition “Wyspa: Now is Now”.

Organized around four major themes  that define Wyspa as a cultural force — labor, location, meeting, myth — the films, photos, books, objects, and stories that represent 30 years of activity (including the decade prior to their foundation) are laid out in a series modular square sculptures. Theoretically this aids the viewer in experiencing “the archive as a present”. In practice, the materials used possess the patina and authority conferred by age and only act to assert their historicity.

This, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. “Now is Now” may not live up to its curatorial premise, but the experience of the show is remarkably haptic. The darkened gallery feels damp and a faint musty odor permeates the space. The peeling walls and aging concrete floors set the stage for a thoroughly immersive experience of the past in space that exudes its own history.

It is tempting to label ALTERNATIVA as yet another festival that ends in ‘A’, but unlike dOCUMENTA or Manifesta, ALTERNATIVA bills itself as a kind of “anti-festival”, spread out over a series of years rather than days.  ALTERNATIVA is perhaps best envisioned as an ongoing experiment — albeit one that appears incredibly well funded — that began in the heady days of the 1980s. By emphasizing not just display, but also art’s social role in the accumulation and distribution of knowledge, “Materiality” and the Wyspa sponsored exhibitions that have preceded it remain true to the roots of its host city.

Lex Pott, Transience, 2012 . Oxidized mirrors, dimensions variable.  Courtesy of The Wyspa Art Institute, Gdansk

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The Greenhouse Affect: Tel Aviv’s Fresh Paint Fair Showcases Young Talent

Report from…Tel Aviv

The New High School at Shoshana Persits Street, Tel Aviv, site of the 2012 Fresh Paint 5 Contemporary Art Fair

The New High School at Shoshana Persits Street, Tel Aviv, site of the 2012 Fresh Paint 5 Contemporary Art Fair

As the crowds converge on Fresh Paint 5 the eagerness is almost palpable. The venue of Tel Aviv’s annual art fair is always a surprise and part of the fun.  It was the Botanic Gardens last year and Jaffa Port the year before. This time the setting is a large new municipal high school near the sea in North Tel Aviv, due to open in a few months. There are plans for a pleasant residential development around the school – one day. At the moment there is little more than dust and stones behind the sand dunes, with the lone school building presenting itself as an odd, slightly surreal venue for an art party. The first question has to be, why here?

The organisers of Fresh Paint find locations that have never been used to show art before, and never exposed to the wider public. Each venue is a recently constructed complex where the art fair can take place before the official opening.  With 30,000 visitors over five days, this also puts the limelight on the new venue and gives it a good launch. For an event focused on young artists, many of whom are recent art school graduates, the current location is apt. Headmaster of the new school is Ram Cohen, whose outspoken liberal views as head of Tel Aviv’s Municipal High School Aleph for the Arts landed him in trouble at the Knesset two years ago, but made him into a kind of superstar in the eyes of many students and parents.

Like the rough landscape and school building, the art on the show projects a feeling of raw potential and future promise – especially in the section called the Greenhouse, which is the nub of the exhibition and showcases the work of young, unknown and unrepresented artists. The art viewing community of Israel – coming mostly, of course, from Tel Aviv – brings with it the enthusiasm of a stereotypical Jewish mother, looking at its new offspring with pride and pleasure.

Ran Barlev, Untitled.  Further details to follow.  Courtesy of Niva Navon Public Relations and Productions

Ran Barlev, Untitled. Further details to follow. Courtesy of Niva Navon Public Relations and Productions

The idea of a contemporary art fair for Tel Aviv originated with Sharon Tillinger, an entrepreneur, and Yifat Gurion, a graphic designer, who had worked together in the past. It was a vision to bring young artists into the public eye and to expand the art market, and has succeeded beyond expectation. The first fair was held in 2008 in a building in Florentin, a shabby but interesting South Tel Aviv neighborhood that has since taken off as an art centre. The Greenhouse is limited to Israeli artists, and the independent commercial galleries that rent space at the fair are all – so far – local, but there is an international presence. Artists like Douglas Gordon, Adel Abdesamed, Rineke Dijkstra, Muntean Rosenblum and others are shown by the Israeli galleries that represent them, and there are projects with foreign artists that this year included a show of Spencer Tunick’s Dead Sea “human installation” – photographs of 1,200 naked Israelis in the rugged landscape.

This year 46 artists were selected for exposure in the Greenhouse out of over 1,000 applicants, by a jury of gallerists, collectors and educators, who made their choices only on the basis of the work, and without knowing anything about the artists. This inspiration is also picked up by the Secret Postcard project, a yearly event in which postcards by hundreds of different artists are sold for the same price of 180 NIS ($50). Only after buying one can you discover whether it was made by a famous artist like Ya’ir Garbuz or Menashe Kadishman, or by someone as yet unknown.

A sense of play and experimentation ran through much of the work in the Greenhouse, with objects taken out of context, quirky perspectives, and use of non-art materials.  In Shay Arik’s installation, an upturned bottle of bleach drips slowly on to a neat pile of black T-shirts, creating patterns as it turns them white. Broken umbrellas are recycled by Avinoam Sternheim to make sculpture with wit and a free spirit – his luscious paintings have the same character. Matan Oren etches his drawings through a layer of dry whitewash on the inside of plastic buckets. Matan Mittwoch focuses on tackiness and banality in his photographs of office interiors but presents them as abstracts. And Ran Barlav’s splashy romantic paintings are of domestic interiors that are cheap and nasty. Much of what you see is great fun without being great art, and the show seems perhaps less substantial than in previous years. But for diversity and exuberance it gets 100%.

Once artists have made it to the Greenhouse, they are protected and nurtured like tender exotic plants. Each is assigned a curator who becomes an expert on his or her work and can represent the artist. These reps are present and available at the exhibition and are fluent protagonists for the artists, with a professional ability to explain and promote the work to viewers. Massive exposure to the most powerful and influential members of Israel’s compact art world in a short time is likely to create dramatic changes in an artist’s career. The metaphysical paintings of Igor Skaletsky, Russian-born and with an academic art training in Moscow, were sold out by the third day. And Nevet Yitzhak’s video installation “Alashan Malish Gheirak”, that projects the Arab singer Farid al-Atrash singing his popular song “Because I have no one but you” above a floor projection of a swaying oriental carpet, sold out too.

Igal Ahouvi, a collector, gives the Most Promising Artist award annually to someone from the Greenhouse, which includes the sum of 40,000 NIS ($10K) and a solo exhibition at the following year’s fair.  Nivi Alroy, a sculptor who works with wood and paper, was the 2010 winner. Asked how winning the prize had affected her art career, she said that the solo show was a signature show for her. Alroy was helped and supported throughout, allowed to work with the curator of her choice, even though she was living in Miami, and to rebuild the exhibition space in order to accommodate her work. Because of the exhibition, her work was reviewed in an international magazine, which in turn led to an invitation to be part of an important art event in Philadelphia. The amount of exposure her work received, she said, was “incredible”.

Fresh Paint has opened up the Israeli art scene in two important ways. On the financial side it boosts the art market, brings in new artists and buyers – many of whom are selling or buying for the first time –and allows them to bypass the museums, galleries and curators who act as gatekeepers. In the five years since the fair’s inception, the Greenhouse alone has generated sales adding up to NIS 9,000,000. On the side of culture and awareness, the fair gives Israelis the opportunity to see what is happening in the local art scene, all under one roof.

Israeli art is growing fast. It started with photography and video, and now has spread to painting. Having its own art fair is the next natural step.

Fresh Paint Contemporary Art Fair took place in Tel Aviv from May 15 to 19, 2012

Natalia Zourabova, Bakery, 2010.  Acrylic on canvas, 230 x 130 cm.  Courtesy of Niva Navon Public Relations and Productions

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Furtive Moves: Gillian Wearing’s Identities and Sara VanDerBeek’s Dancers

Report from… London

Gillian Wearing approaches identity furtively.  This even applies to her self-portraits where she is rarely fully present, instead flickering in and out of the frame, oscillating between herself and an older self, or another family member, or another photographer.  It seems fitting, therefore, that the retrospective of her work at the Whitechapel Gallery, (March 28 to June 17, 2012) curated by Daniel Herrmann and Doris Krystof (it will travel to the K20 in Dusseldorf and then the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich) starts plaintively with a ceiling hung monitor showing Dancing in Peckham.  This seminal early work that so perfectly expresses alienation and the raw nerve of hidden, unspeakable secrets is not alone in the main ground floor gallery, but because the other films in the room have their own self-contained theaters, Dancing in Peckham dominates the room, and gives us our only glimpse of the artist, herself, doing a weird lonely dance in a crowded, South London shopping mall.

Gillian Wearing, Bully, 2010.  Video for projection, 7 mins 55 seconds. Installation shot at Tanya Banakdar Gallery, 2011

Gillian Wearing, Bully, 2010. Video for projection, 7 mins 55 seconds. Installation shot at Tanya Banakdar Gallery, 2011

Wearing’s most recent film on display, Bully (2010) is a staged performance of what might be either an acting exercise or some kind of psychological role-playing.  The question of what genre the films actually fall into is an important element of her work.  Most are interviews, but with whom?  Often the main character has been switched out with another, who lip-synchs their voice, or the speaker wears a mask.  The monologues are morbidly fascinating, but again, who they are aimed at is equivocal, as much of the time it seems the characters are more interested in seeking absolution than entertaining an audience.  The main protagonist of Bully coaches his fellow actors into re-enacting an altercation on the playground from his youth.  He then chastises those who intimidated him and those who stood by watching, but whether this is a cathartic release for a real person or a figment of Wearing’s imagination is never revealed.

Upstairs, the series of photographs,  Signs that Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say are virtually given a room of their own.  Even after numerous advertising campaigns over the years have borrowed or stolen Wearing’s imaginative vehicle of pure self-expression, these pictures of average Londoners, many again photographed in Peckham, retain their original energy and power.  The attractive young man in a suit holding the words “I’m desperate” or a man with facial tattoos whose sign reads, “Have been certified as mildly insane” are a tremendous leveler of humanity, in the face of superficial appearances.  The room also contains Crowd, a video on a small flat screen created in imitation of Dürer’s still life with weeds and wildflowers of 1503, a reenactment of sorts, and several small, precisely executed sculptures of individuals who have distinguished themselves: a rooky police officer, Gervais (2010) and Terri (2008) who was injured during the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2011 but still rescued several others that day.  In the sculptures, Wearing inverts the traditional tropes of heroism, instead creating a small delicate trophy-sized replica of an individual, rather than a large monument.

The exhibition ends with a series of self-portraits of Wearing as members of her immediate family, or masquerading as various members of the historical family of photographers.  The eerie portraits which strive for realism through prosthesis show Wearing as Andy Warhol, Diane Arbus , Robert Mapplethorpe and August Sander, among others, and as her father and brother, as well as a particularly disturbing image of herself as a chubby-cheeked toddler in Self Portrait at three years old, (2004).  These costume changes and disguises seek to question who Wearing herself is, literally referencing where she came from but also questioning where it is that the personality of the artist rests within the context of photography.


Installation shot, Sara VanDerBeek at The Approach. Courtesy of The Approach, London

Installation shot, Sara VanDerBeek at The Approach. Courtesy of The Approach, London

Sara VanDerBeek’s exhibition at The Approach (May 24 to June 24, 2012;) follows a methodology of transmogrification between concepts and sculptural forms.  This may seem like one of the textbook definitions of sculpture, but for VanDerBeek, there is a poignant directness.    . Until recently the objects that she fabricated were at third-stage removed through the filter of photography.  Thus a sculpture that was a physical interpretation of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”, for example, still did not exist in the viewer’s space (Sara Vanderbeek:  Of Ruins and Light, Whitney Museum 2010).  This lead to a seductively fictitious art practice that involved layers of creation that were in the end relegated to a two-dimensional medium, an art practice that functioned through traces rather than objects.  VanDerBeek’s exhibition at The Approach is a 2 stage process, the first involving a series of photographs the artist took working with   ballet dancers from her native Baltimore, and the production of cast and painted plaster sculptures based on these images.

VanDerBeek hurls herself into the debate as to whether architecture is actually frozen music as Goethe would have it.  The questions and criticisms that arise in deriving one art from another, in this case sculpture from dance/photography or in her past work, poetry, add up to whether the work stands on its own, references its origin point, or even needs to.  The black and white photographs are of dancers performing short choreographed interludes.  “Baltimore Dancers 10” is a stark white photo of a dancer flexing her leg, the contrast of the pale leg against velvety black background reduces the movement of the dancer to a series of stresses and vectors. It is a visually engaging image, but more mathematical than organic.

These images are then referenced by the cast plaster sculptures.  The totemic towers each have their own unit, stacked one on top of the other.  Untitled VII presents a column of plaster rectangles with a single transverse from corner to corner, to the best of it’s simple plaster capabilities mimicking the dancer’s calf and thigh in Baltimore Dancers 10.  In a very literal way the mass-produced units of these totems are reminiscent of uniformly garbed dancers in a corps de ballet, interweaving and executing identical movements.

The static white of the plaster, and the right angles and sharp corners of the simple geometric volumes bespeak the mathematical precision of choreography, and do form a palpable physical counterpoint to the clean lines and undulating shades of the dancers’ legs arms and backs.  While the dancers are soft and their bodies a mass of curves and shadows, living, breathing and in flux, the sculptures exist as the other side of dance, the rhythm meter and the absolute fact of ballet that it must be learned and repeated.  Though the sculptures have emerged from their original hiding place in the space of the photograph, they still engage the images of the dancers and their movements in the space of the gallery.

Whitechapel Gallery: 77-82 Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QX. +44 (0)20 7522 7888

The Approach: 47 Approach Road, Bethnal Green, London E2, +44 (0) 20 8983 3878

Gillian Wearing, Me as Warhol in Drag with a Scar, 2010. Courtesy of the Artist

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Sara VanDerBeek, Baltimore Dancers Ten, 2012. Digital C-print, 20.3 x15.2 cm. Courtesy of The Approach, London

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Allowing Loose Ends To Linger: dOCUMENTA(13)

June 9 to September 16, 2012
Kassel, Germany


Goshka Macuga, Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not 1, 2012. Photographic installation at Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Rüdiger Schöttle, Munich.

Goshka Macuga, Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not 1, 2012. Photographic installation at Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Rüdiger Schöttle, Munich.

On June 6, the three-day preview of dOCUMENTA (13) officially began with an afternoon press conference with artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and an evening reception at Kassel’s city hall.  The world’s largest contemporary art marathon, the event will run for 100 days total, through September 16. In contrast to its humble post-war beginnings, recent editions have transformed Documenta, which takes place every five years, into a multi-million-dollar affair that is expected to exceed a million visitors this year.

dOCUMENTA (13) has a wider grasp on the city than any of its predecessors. In addition to the usual installations in such local museums as the Fridericianum, Ottoneum, Orangerie, Documenta-Halle and Neue Galerie, artworks are also shown in scattered pavilions in the Karlsaue (the old royal city park), the old train station, a hospital and various commercial buildings. dOCUMENTA (13) also embraces off-off sites in Kabul. In Kassel, over twenty venues showcase more than 160 artists, many of whom specifically created works for the occasion. To view this grand art discourse also means to explore Kassel and its rich historic make-up.

Kassel is indeed a place proud of its cultural heritage. The Fridericianum is the first public museum on the continent, established in 1779, and the Brothers Grimm lived and collected most of their fairy tales here in the early 19th Century. But Kassel has also been the site of utter destruction. A center of Nazi Germany’s war production, the city was a prime target for Allied bombing attacks and in 1943 ninety percent of its 1000-year-old center was erased. The establishment of Documenta in 1955 by artist and educator Arnold Bode marked an attempt to re-introduce culture.

This history all makes Kassel a particularly suitable venue for presenting art that looks at both the past and the future. In fact, various editions of Documenta have focused on cycles of creation, destruction and renewal. dOCUMENTA (13) is no different in this respect. It is the dominant theme introduced by Christov-Bakargiev, former chief curator at P.S. 1 in New York and director at Castello di Rivoli in Turin.

Rather than providing a curatorial statement, Christov-Bakargiev offered a storytelling “Letter to a Friend.” Part-travel diary, part-press release, her letter ponders the general importance of questions over answers. Her exhibition is also a multi-faceted, at times fragmented, and yet astonishingly cohesive meditation on how human tragedies can inspire individual mythologies that can then offer a wide discussion forum. It is a curatorial outlook that pays homage to the beloved Documenta director of the past, Harald Szeemann, who spoke of “individual mythologies” as a motif for his Documenta 5 in 1972. To Christov-Bakargiev as to Szeeman before her, it is important to allow for loose ends to linger.

The essence of this concept is well illustrated at dOCUMENTA (13) by the work of German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon (1917-43), examples of which are installed on the upper floor of the Fridericianum. While hiding from the Nazis and before being murdered in Auschwitz at age twenty-six and five months pregnant, Salomon created her epic “Life? or Theater?”, a body of work comprised of 769 gouaches. Layered with text and with musical and cinematic references, her drawings manifest as a personalized code. They meld political history with the artist’s personal memory and intimate thoughts. Though they express a sole individual’s tragic life, they have become a universally applicable song of suffering.

Installation of tapestries from the 1950s by Hannah Ryggen at the Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel. Photo:  Photo: Roman März

Installation of tapestries from the 1950s by Hannah Ryggen at the Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel. Photo: Photo: Roman März

Christov-Bakargiev does not shy away from including many works that traditionally would have been dismissed as craft, such as ceramics and tapestries. The rotunda of the Fridericianum, which she has described as the “brain” of the exhibition and which for many visitors is the first space to visit, offers an eclectic and well-integrated mix. A group of still life paintings by Giorgio Morandi and sculptures by Giuseppe Penone, for example, are contextualized with objects damaged during the Lebanese Civil War and ceramics by Juana Marta Rodas and her daughter Julia Isidrez, two ceramicists who live in a small village located in the countryside of Paraguay. One floor up, tapestries by Swedish artist Hannah Ryggen (1894-1970) radically comment on the political climate and social conflicts of her time. Her works from the 1930s, which tell of the rise of fascism in Europe, are part historic document and part general warning of society’s apathy.

Ryggen’s work finds an interesting counterpart in a large tapestry by contemporary Polish artist Goshka Macuga. Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not 1” is based on a digital collage in which groups of people find themselves snowed-in amidst the ruins of a grand building. A strong sense of alienation colors the overall mood. None of the people are looking at each other or at the two obvious disturbances: the destroyed building and a threatening, larger-than-life snake. Woven and rendered in black, white, and shades of gray, Macuga’s collaged scene seems to stand particularly still.  Disassociation has become timeless and is therebyeven more oppressing.

Macuga’s tapestry sits well with Geoffrey Farmer’s monumental sculpture “Leaves of Grass”, which consists of thousands of cutout photographs from Life Magazine, images that span Life’s five decades (1935-1985), providing snapshots of what defined many Americans’ view of the world during that time. Displayed like finger puppets on thin wooden sticks and arranged in close proximity like a lush, overflowing bouquet, these political and pop-cultural images take on a sense of playfulness that liberates them from their traditional context and translates as a re-organization/re-thinking of history.

Two of the least predictable installations can be found in the Orangerie, Kassel’s Museum for Astronomy and Science. A main room features the technical engineer Konrad Zuse, who in 1936 constructed a “mechanical brain” in his parents’ apartment. His discoveries led to the invention of the computer, but he also created fine but hardly original paintings that evoke the architectural abstractions of Lyonel Feininger, an artist he admired. Simultaneously displayed, Zuse’s watercolors, paintings and machines pose the question that it might in fact be the imagination that is art rather than particular objects. Zuse’s true creativity unfolded when rethinking arithmetical concepts and in regards to his machines which is what really makes him an artist.

Nearby, an exhibition of sound machines, notebooks, records, and video clips of performances by Erkki Kurenniemi ponders this conundrum further. The Finnish mathematician, nuclear physicist and expert in digital technology was also a pioneer of electronic music. The installation centers on his Electronic Music Studio, which he had established in the Department of Musicology at Helsinki University in 1961-62. It served as an experimental laboratory of sorts, in which electronic sounds formulated a new language. Neither Zuse nor Kurenniemi would have viewed themselves as artists in the traditional sense. However, they both were innovators who opened paths on which many have traveled since. If the ability to open doors and point towards undiscovered territory is at art’s core how can we draw the line in Zuse’s and Kurenniemi’s case?

Much of dOCUMENTA (13) navigates in similar vein between past and present innovations, attempts at re-invention, and above all questioning our possibly antiquated understanding of art and artists.

One treasure is to be found at the core of Mark Dion’s project at the Ottoneum, Kassel’s Natural History Museum. Dion has build an elegant structure that houses the Schildbach Xylotheque, a wood library that is part of the museum’s permanent collection. It was crafted by Carl Schildbach between 1771 and 1779 and consists of 530 books made from and describing 441 local trees. These books, which are actually boxes, are made from the trees they specify. Their spines are shaped through pieces of bark while inside each box are three-dimensional representations of the tree’s life cycle composed of dried plant parts and wax replicas. Again, Schildbach would not have viewed his work as art but science. However, Dion’s structure has turned the library into the wunderkabinett that it is

Christov-Bakargiev has stated that dOCUMENTA (13) is not about destruction but healing. It is an exhibition that implies that art can be the medicine that can change us by altering our perception of the world. Because of its sheer size and international reach, dOCUMENTA (13) might be misunderstood as an assessment of current tendencies, styles and aesthetics. The works assembled certainly reflect many of the international political and social conflicts that have shaped recent consciousness, but this is only one aspect. In many ways, dOCUMENTA (13) is a love letter to the artistic mind, the inspired soul and the undefeated spirit.

Mark Dion,, Xylotheque Kassel, 2011–12. Wood, glass, electric lighting, porcelain cabinet knobs, wood inlay, plant parts, paper, papier mâché, clay, wax, paint, wire, vellum, leather, plastic, ink, 230 × 448 × 448 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York

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Geoffrey Farmer, Leaves of Grass, 2012. Life magazines (1935–85), tall grass, wood, glue Dimensions variable. Courtesy the Artist. Commissioned and produced by dOCUMENTA (13)

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Over Here: Three Americans in London, Testing the Boundaries between Object and Subject

Report from… London

Will Corwin: Mt. Zion at George and Jørgen; Pascual Sisto: FILL_IN_THE_BLANKS at Seventeen; Trisha Baga: Rock at Vilma Gold

Installation shot of William Corwin sculptures (all 2012, hydrocal plaster, from left) Blue Boy, Ugly Duchess, King and Termites. Courtesy of George and Jørgen Gallery, London

Installation shot of William Corwin sculptures (all 2012, hydrocal plaster, from left) Blue Boy, Ugly Duchess, King and Termites. Courtesy of George and Jørgen Gallery, London

Three recent London solo shows by American artists emphasize a heightened engagement with animism and subjectivity in contemporary art. Although never explicitly centered on the problematics of labor, there is a cumulative anthropomorphism in these artists’ work that registers art making within a symbolic regime imprinted with the logics of cognitive capitalism. By this I mean the kinds of commerce that commoditize attention, affects, and relations alike.  Different as these artists are, one from another, each animates objects and images to trace what are becoming increasingly perforated distinctions, in our volatile aesthetic-political condition, between human and inhuman agencies. Their work constitutes an ongoing questioning of what might or might not serve as a stable support for subjectivity.

Will Corwin’s exhibition, Mt. Zion, at George and Jørgen [May 4 to May 27, 2012; 9 Morocco Street, London SE1] presents sculpture as a conjunction of indexicality and portent. The show takes nomination candidate Jon Huntsman, Jr.’s Mormon faith as its starting point and then correlates the religion’s origins with a salient moment in evolutionary anthropology. According to the Church of Latter Day Saints, founder Joseph Smith was led by an angel named Moroni to exhume invisible golden tablets inscribed with the history of an ancient community speculated to have resided in upstate New York. Synthesizing interests in the social and natural sciences, Corwin posits Lucy – the anthropomorphized, fossil remains of several hundred pieces of bone derived from a female Australopithecus afarensis – as an unwitting saint venerated as an icon of evolution.

Cast hydrocal approximations of our hominid ancestor’s jaw, ribs, and skull are meticulously ordered to “ape” the conventions of museological display. By contrast, roughshod, purpose-built MDF supports lend his works a willful faux-naivité that brings them closer to the aesthetics of science fair exposition than to those of archaeological vitrines. As a result, Corwin’s work offers stark reminders of the thin line between rubble and reliquary.  They reify the power relations and institutional protocols thought to render fact from faith. Additional sculptures and watercolors on view refer to the artist’s recent residency at The Clocktower in New York, where Corwin’s installation Auroch’s Library (2011) presented a chess board actually played by a pair of American masters.

Pascual Sisto, 28 Years in the Implicate Orders, 2005. Single channel video, looped.  Courtesy of Seventeen Gallery London

Pascual Sisto, 28 Years in the Implicate Orders, 2005. Single channel video, looped. Courtesy of Seventeen Gallery London

Pascual Sisto’s first exhibition at Seventeen, entitled FILL_IN_THE_BLANKS [March 29 to May 5, 2012; 17 Kingsland Road, London E2], translates the imagery and operations of theoretical physics into the foundation for an artistic practice that thrives on theoretical and perceptual speculation, with reference points that stretch from chaos theory to cosmology. Curated by Attilia Fattori Franchini, Sisto’s exhibition of sculptures, videos, and prints employ the gallery’s ground and basement levels to stage questions regarding the divisions between order and entropy. Tasked both functionally and formally, Untitled (crate) (2012) merges the structural stability of a shipping container with the resistance to containment inherent to mathematical aperiodicity. The work’s internal beams are arranged on the basis of Penrose tiling – a pattern whose rules potentialize indefinite expansion without repetition. Centered on slippages interpolated by successive layers of mediation, adjacent works (each 2012) include hand-colored silver gelatin prints of collaged found images, which are obstructed with reductive incisions in their monochrome matt boards – permitting only glimpses of their original source material.

Sisto is adept at drawing attention to instabilities within seemingly static compositions, drawing friction from oppositions. Included here, the single-channel loop 28 Years in the Implicate Orders (2005) has become a classic of video pacing. The setup is simple: evenly distributed within the forlorn scene of an parking lot emptied by the evening, 28 red balls bounce in place propelled by unseen forces. Beginning with a cacophony of dribbles, the balls’ rhythms align but briefly only to retract once more towards their isolated logics. Given its economy of means, the work’s meditation on the order resident in disorder and the ephemerality of resolution proves unnervingly affecting. In No Strings Attached (2007) Sisto wrangles his work’s abjectness into a singularly downbeat humor. Here, a chair is thrown into the frame, is pitched violently and repeatedly by unseen forces, and eventually achieves a point of stasis. Animation proves inextricable from abuse – suggesting a sinister side to anthropomorphism.

Where Corwin channels the human figure into icons, and Sisto filters humanity through a spectral index, Rock, Trisha Baga’s current exhibition at Vilma Gold subjectivizes the inanimate through a heterogeneous significatory system [April 5 to May 19, 2012; 6 Minerva Street, London E2]. Taking its name from the speculated Massachusetts landing site of the Mayflower Pilgrims, her video installation Plymouth Rock (2012) articulates the artist’s sympathies with a tattered landmark. Comprising a casual aggregate of images and objects that serve as the supports for two mutually interpolating video channels, Baga alludes to the rock’s dubious history as a site of colonial passage, and the literal fracture, reconstruction, and erosion occasioned by its migration and piecemeal commodification. A take-out menu from a Chinese restaurant, a seemingly sand-speckled boombox, three acrylic on canvas abstract paintings, an abundance of haphazardly strewn electrical wires, and other props proposing a theatre of artistic production at once rebuff and embrace myriad narrative formations. Though the objects may seem quotidian, there is nothing ordinary in Baga’s video-making, where bird’s eye views, beach scenes, slapdash screen effects, TV outtakes with mock-Arabic subtitling, and shadows entering from outside the frame, speak to illusiveness, competing literacies, and an unstable sense of origin shared by Plymouth Rock and contemporary forms of American subjectivity.

Less frenetic in pacing but no less committed to phenomenological inquiry, the scattershot, low-lying objects in a second video installation, Hard Rock, (2012) play dual roles as projection surfaces and the sources of silhouettes. A cardboard tepee, baseball mug, frosted Jack Daniels bottle, and similar makeshift icons of Americana cast craggy shadows against a video backdrop comprised of a 3-D animation of computer rendered box, rock formations, and a color shift from cyan to orange evoking the day’s passage in a Technicolor Western. A series of convulsively gestural abstract paintings on lenticular supports sustain Baga’s complex dialectics between still and moving image, further destabilizing distinctions between subject and object.

Trisha Baga, Plymouth Rock, 2012. 2 channel video, projected from memory cards, mixed media: acrylic on canvas (3), spray paint on CD player, foil, bubbled-wrapped plinth, box of electrical wires, spray paint and acrylic on phone, water bottle, 27:12 mins. Courtesy of Vilma Gold, London

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Still a Festival, Not an Art Fair: The Glasgow International

Report from… Glasgow

The Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art
April 20 to May 7, 2012

Bookended by Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s glorious Arts and Crafts Glasgow School of Art on the hill, (like Edinburgh Castle, protective and aloof) and the urban fabric of the once blighted and still slowly recovering industrial city beneath is a small, well-knit network of galleries and public spaces that help make Glasgow the second most vibrant art scene in the UK.  Some of the more polished venues aspire to London-style blue chip glitziness, but other, more thoughtful, independent spaces, retain a gritty, vernacular quality, inhabiting empty warehouses and commercial quarters true to the heart of the city’s Victorian architecture.

Karla Black, Empty Now, 2012.  Installation, Library, Royal Exchange Square.  Courtesy of Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow

Karla Black, Empty Now, 2012. Installation, Library, Royal Exchange Square. Courtesy of Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow

Several exhibits in the Glasgow International seemed geared to impress an international art crowd.  The Glasgow School of Art commissioned series of sculptures by Folkert De Jong, while local hero Karla Black filled the Gallery of Modern Art with an overwhelming installation, also a commission.  The most heavily promoted attraction of the festival, however, was  “Sacrilege” by Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller. An inflatable “bouncy castle” life-size version of Stonehenge, the piece questioned both the British reverence of the neolithic stone circle on Salisbury plain and it’s importance in contemporary culture as a lightning-rod for kitschy celebrations of the vernal equinox and summer solstice, and low-budget sci-fi flicks about witches and druids. For all the seductive and viscerally engaging quality of this doppelganger in rubber, a lingering feeling that the British have already transformed Stonehenge into a conceptual bouncy castle made this elastic piece of satire a bit redundant. And sadly, rain made actual bouncing on the castle impossible; harsher critics than I, aged four to ten, deemed the piece completely useless.

The debut exhibition at the gallery at 42 Carlton Place, “Ever Since I put Your Picture in a Frame,” is a refreshingly thoughtful and diverse selection of painting both contemporary and from the early 20th Century.  The gallery is a project of the painters Carol Rhodes and Merlin James; curated by James, “Ever Since…” clearly shows the touch of a painter.  Initially a bit bewildering in its breadth, it corrals portraits by artists such as Alex Katz, André Derain and Walter Richard Sickert alongside landscapes by the self-taught artists Alfred Wallis and James Castle.  Despite all the recognizable faces, places and sundry animals, including Richard Walker’s mesmerizing “Moth” and Stephen McKenna’s delightful “Lesser Antilles Bullfinches,” this is an exhibition of paint and materiality.  Both framed and unframed, all the works in this show are consciously vehicles of their own creation.  Clive Hodgson’s “Untitled,” a meditation on decoration and it’s often uneasy allegiance with deep symbolism, revels in it’s painterliness, while Joel Tomlin’s “Elk,” and Julie Roberts “Young Apprentice (Study)” investigate the lugubrious  propensities of oil paint to define a painter’s style.

Walter Richard Sickert, Gwen Ffrangcon Davies as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1934. Oil on canvas, 16 x 11 inches.  Private Collection

Walter Richard Sickert, Gwen Ffrangcon Davies as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1934. Oil on canvas, 16 x 11 inches. Private Collection

It is the trifecta of Derain, Sickert and Wallis at the heart of this show, however, that lend sturdy historicity to James’ curatorial endeavor.  Sickert’s delicate 1930s oil sketch of “Gwen Ffrangçon-Davies as Elizabeth Barrett Browning” on a brutal, textured canvas, conveys a spontaneity of creation that perhaps bespeaks his obsession with the pretty young actress, while Wallis’ blunt but warm sketch of “Fishermen’s Cottages” done in a fresh and unassuming hand captures the pure beauty and rustic simplicity of a working seaside village.  With such a variety of subject and so many different viewpoints—including abstractions by James Hyde, Tony Swain and Joe Fyfe—the show insists upon the old adage, “the devil is in the details.”

Karla Black’s installation at GoMA was a more sincere rejoinder to Deller’s “Sacrilege,” located in the precious classical library that almost claustrophobically fills Royal Exchange Square, Black’s sawdust and face makeup rectangular mound, “Empty Now,” similarly dominated the interior of the gallery.   The sheer magnitude of this layered, almost geologic concretion of earth tones, resembling a giant bar of halvah, oscillated between grabbing the viewer with its delicious consistency and coloring, and repulsing them through fear of its seemingly immanent collapse.  Hanging over the piece was “Will Attach,” a filigree of clear packing tape daubed with more face makeup in iridescent pinks and gold.  Too junk-like to be visually pleasing (as is Black’s aesthetic) it hung low enough to threaten the spectator’s shoulders and hair.

The two galleries at 6 Dixon Street, Mary Mary and Kendall Koppe managed, despite being under the same roof, to locate their exhibitions about as far apart on the art spectrum as possible.  Lorna Macintyre’s “Midnight Scenes & Other Works” at Mary Mary featured two quiet and subtle totemic sculptural installations that played with themes derived from Brancusi, also pensively questioning the idea of perimeter and containment in sculpture. The raw outrage of the work of Emory Douglas, former Minister of Culture for The Black Panther Party, was very tastefully framed and commodified at Kendall Koppe:  an attempt was made to revive some of the anger in the work by having a wall painting featuring violent protesters and dead pigs created by the artist himself around the doorway to the gallery.  The Modern Institute presented a very personal series of notebooks and related artworks by  Paul Thek (1933-88),“If you don’t like this book you don’t like me,”  and “Dresden,” a Beuys-referential/reverential show by  Michael Wilkinson at their new space on Aird’s Lane.

This quick survey of the officially sanctioned GI would not be complete without mention of the alternative, “satellite” shows organized by emerging artists and students. The gritty, earnest assemblages in “Stay Vector, Stay!” organized by a group of graduate students at the Glasgow School of Art in an empty storefront on Albion Street had a willful, kinetic energy.  Justin Stephens’ punctured canvases resonated with the colorful drapery of G. Küng’s ceiling hanging, while Dunja Herzog’s rickety sculptures lurched threateningly over Scott Rogers floor pieces that resembled a awesomely cracked out Smurf village, while Sarah Rose’s thoughtful video installation flickered on the chipped paint walls of this suitably grungy venue.

The Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art manages to keep a healthy distance from outright bald-faced capitalism with a predominance of commissioned works and archival museum-quality exhibitions:  it still is a festival, not an art fair.

Installation shot of the exhibition, “Ever Since I put Your Picture in a Frame,” 42 Carlton Place, with works, left to right, by Clive Hodgson, André Derain, Paul Housley, Walter Richard Sickert and Julie Roberts.  Photo: Courtesy of Merlin James

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Jeremy Deller, Sacrilege, 2012. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Angela Catlin

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Paint the Town Red: Shephard Fairey takes Dallas

Report from… Dallas, Texas

Shephard Fairey, Rise Above, 2012.  Mural, Singleton Avenue, Dallas, Tx.  Photo: Colleen McInerney

Shephard Fairey, Rise Above, 2012. Mural, Singleton Avenue, Dallas, Tx. Photo: Colleen McInerney

Shepard Fairey, the legendary street artist and graphic designer best known for his Hope posters for the 2008 Obama campaign, spent the first week of February 2012 in Dallas, Texas. Invited by Dallas Contemporary, the city’s non-collecting kunsthalle, Fairey and his crew took to the streets daily, painting murals and interacting with interested viewers. The five completed murals were celebrated at a dance party at which Fairey presided as DJ.

On Thursday evening, February 2, Dallas Contemporary invited curator Pedro Alonzo to interview the artist.  Peter Doroshenko, the director of the museum, estimates that 500 of the 560 people in attendance had never previously stepped foot inthe museum.  As Fairey walked into the main part of the raw warehouse space, after signing books for an hour, the room was completely quiet.

Alonzo asked him how he feels about working outside.  “I enjoy working outside; it engages members of the public that don’t necessarily go to galleries or museums … and, maybe makes people that do go to museums pay a little bit more attention to what’s going on in the street, so it’s this cross-pollination that’s happening.”

As I scanned the audience, I saw a lot of young people wearing Obey clothing (Fairey’s brand) and raptly awaiting the voice of their hero.  Fairey spoke of his own heros, the bands and musicians that resonated with him as a teenager:  “The Clash and a few other punk groups had a great sense of style and seemed like they were enjoying their lives.  It was cool to care, and that made me want to care even more … in order to be socially conscious and engaged, it shouldn’t be drudgery.”

Fairey’s punk roots still inform his ideology.  Often, his work has a specific call to action yet the work is never a simple endorsement.  In using a palette based on propaganda posters, he begs the viewer to question the message as well as the platform.  In Dallas, his murals have messages like “Peace” and “Rise Above.”  While Shepard was setting up to paint, I asked him about these seemingly straightforward, non-confrontational messages.

“Everything in life is a little bit of a balance between being soothing and inspiring and confrontational and agitational.  I’m taking an approach that is absolutely core to my practice and my values… but also, not going to make the lives of the people who work at the museum more difficult.”

Fairey is no loose cannon.  He is rebellious for a purpose, but also respectful for that same purpose: to get his art out there without compromising what he believes.

An audience member at the museum asked him: “What happens to a rebellion when the rebels win?”

He responded with a humorous bit about how power corrupts and how he is now a bastard.  And then with a serious tone, he said: “When Nirvana became popular, I was psyched because hair metal got pushed off the radio … I like it when rebels win. In an interview with Peter Simek the next day in the Dallas daily blog, D, he elaborated on this theme: “When Nirvana came on the radio, I wasn’t an outsider-elitist who was like, ‘Oh, well, now more than five people know about Nirvana, I hate them, they sold out because they resonated.’ Resonating is not selling out. Selling out is compromising your values to pander to the lowest common denominator.”

Before and after: Shephard Fairey, Obey, 2012.  Mural, Dallas Contemporary building, Glass Street, Dallas, Tx.  Photos: Colleen McInerney

Before and after: Shephard Fairey, Obey, 2012. Mural, Dallas Contemporary building, Glass Street, Dallas, Tx. Photos: Colleen McInerney

Fairey isn’t the only recipient of the “sellout” epithet.  It seems to attack any artist with a wide level of merchandising: Keith Haring, for instance, with whom Fairey shares methodology. “Other artists had been accusing me of selling out since my paintings started selling,” Haring is on record as saying. “I mean, I don’t know what they intended me to do: Just stay in the subway the rest of my life?”

In setting up their respective Pop shops, Haring and Fairey both wanted affordable wares available to the people.  The market can be populist or else it will be elitist.  Fairey wants his designs accessible, to function on a viral level, through stickers, tee shirts and posters.  If art is about engagement, then it should be a sign of success that Doroshenko is receiving an unprecedented number of “thank you” emails and calls from the Dallas community for this exhibit. Commercial success in relation to an artist’s integrity is an important discussion, but the proof of integrity is in the work: the streets of Dallas have a far richer dialogue, thanks to Shepard Fairey.

Shephard Fairey, Peace, 2012. Mural, Singleton Avenue, Dallas, Tx. Photo: Colleen McInerney

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Dreams and Desires from the Middle of Nowhere: Carolee Schneemann in Illinois

Report from…Urbana-Champaign, Illionois

Carolee Schneemann: Within and Beyond the Premises at the Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, January 27 to April 1, 2012

Carolee Schneemann, Fuses, 1965 (still). 16mm film, total running time of 18 min. © Carolee Schneemann

Carolee Schneemann, Fuses, 1965 (still). 16mm film, total running time of 18 min. © Carolee Schneemann

In 1961, Carolee Schneemann moved to New York City after completing her MFA at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. It’s well known that she was a part of the experimental avant garde in the city: creating performances at Judson Dance Theater, participating at Andy Warhol’s Factory and Claes Oldenburg’s Store, and collaborating with Robert Morris and others on works that expanded her painting practice within and beyond its materiality. But rural Illinois where she studied painting—and the small town where she grew up, and New Paltz, NY where she settled in 1965 — couldn’t be further from that reality. Landscape exists in these places; is these places.

Champaign is in the middle of nowhere. It seems flat forever with nothing to look at but horizon and sky, except for, these days, some eccentric University architecture—charming old round barns, a fascist-looking football stadium, a basketball arena that touched down from outer space in the 1970s. This quiet University town was, to me, the perfect frame for Schneemann’s retrospective, allowing reflection on what was already alive in the artist before New York and contemporary misunderstandings about her. Under an endless, quiet sky it feels natural to contemplate body as activated presence; nature as the essential connection to self; and emotions, even rage, as spacious, possible, fruitful.

The retrospective, which closes at the Krannert Art Museum on April 1, originated at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz. The current iteration was created in partnership with the Henry Art Gallery of Washington, and will hopefully travel throughout the country. Unfortunately however, according to Kathleen Harleman, Director at the Krannert, they are having trouble getting the show to certain locations due to the nature of the work. That seems incredible. Even though the internet exists, somehow a formal masterpiece like Fuses (1964-67)—which is a painted film, or a filmic-painting, exploring materiality and abstraction in both mediums, and including sexual sensation and fluid, female emotion as its content—can still frighten and offend. As Schneemann read during her performance of Interior Scroll in 1975, “there are certain films/we cannot look at/the personal clutter/the persistence of feelings/the hand-touch sensibility/the diaristic indulgence/the painterly mess/the dense gestalt/the primitive techniques.”

Carolee Schneemann, Schneemann, Tenney, and Kitch: The Illinois Years, 1959-60. Facsimile Pages, Installation view at Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2012 <br> Photo: Chris Brown © Carolee Schneemann

Carolee Schneemann, Schneemann, Tenney, and Kitch: The Illinois Years, 1959-60. Facsimile Pages, Installation view at Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2012 Photo: Chris Brown © Carolee Schneemann

The Krannert version of the show includes the addition of the charming photo collage Schneemann, Tenney and Kitch: The Illinois Years (1959-60), which is a visual diary of the start of Schneemann’s domestic life with the composer James Tenney, her partner for 13 years, and Kitch their cat.  Another difference with the Dorsky’s presentation of the show is the greater emphasis placed on the artist’s film works. Instead of showing these on small monitors, Fuses, Meat Joy (1964-2010), and Precarious (2009) were projected on big screens in room-sized viewing enclaves. Precarious was actually projected around viewers onto four walls in a room, with a fifth smaller moving-image projection traveling slowly, overlapping in diagonal across the back wall. I’d seen pieces of Fuses on Youtube years ago, and Meat Joy on a monitor at P.P.O.W. in Chelsea during Schneemann’s last New York solo show, but the difference in seeing these pieces projected in their entirety on a big screen is enormous.

Fuses, a 35 mm, silent, color film is 29 minutes and 51 seconds long; flickers of light, Schneemann’s figure silhouetted against an ocean shoreline, her cat’s gaze, and scenes of Tenney driving in the country are cut in with shots of the couple making love. Some frames are upside down. All are painted, scratched, baked, cut and put back together to create a textured flow that looks at times the way an orgasm might feel. It’s impossible to say the work is not explicit, as it certainly shows everything, but Fuses is far from a narrative depiction of sex, and the images are tender and natural — a different creature entirely than the abusive images that dominate in the not-so-underground pornography industry. I actually believe that it should be distressing to women that people are or could be (especially people in positions of power to show this work) offended by Fuses. What that says to me is that because of fear and politics, a woman’s ownership of her own image, and her own joy — emotion, life, and formal filmmaking technique are inseparable here — is still unacceptable to many. This work should be much more widely known, shown, and studied.

Before she was making films, Schneemann was a painter who was already trying to find ways off of the canvas, as early as 1960 calling painting her “beloved corpse.” Some of my favorite of her works are the Rauschenberg-like combines that she made by attaching wire, broken glass, plaster and found photos to her canvases. In the front room is a series of paintings and etchings, including semi-abstract landscapes, still lifes, and life drawings that vary from each other only slightly, as well as the larger, built-out combine Sir Henry Francis Taylor (1961). This work includes a found photo of a nude woman seen from behind, broken glass and wood, and a small, weathered map of Illinois. There is a sense of expansion inward and also of pushing away energetically from the traditional means of expression. It looks as if the objects originated from the canvas themselves and just had to get out. Schneemann carried her impulse away from traditional painting farther, and more expertly than most, and yet she was somehow capable of aesthetic continuity between her own body, disparate objects, and paint.

Perhaps this is because of the artist’s attention to her own subconscious, to her dreams and desires, and to the places these natural impulses lead her. The film Meat Joy, which documents a performance of the fabulously disgusting event at Judson Church in 1964 (it was also performed in Paris and London to predictably different responses from audiences), attempts to reach heights of ecstatic sensuality. The soundtrack of the film is made up of sounds, mostly French conversations, from the streets of Paris, but it also includes Schneemann’s voice repeating a sentence in English to someone at least three times during the 10 minute, 34 second film: “I want to show the space between desire and experience,” she says.

Carolee Schneemann, Terminal Velocity, 2001. Inkjet prints on archival paper.  Collection of the artist <br> Photo: Susan Alzner © Carolee Schneemann

Carolee Schneemann, Terminal Velocity, 2001. Inkjet prints on archival paper. Collection of the artist Photo: Susan Alzner © Carolee Schneemann

In this case, her expression of desire in a pure form took the embodied shape of young men and women wearing very little, eventually covered with raw fish, chickens, and sausages. Participants rolled around together on the church floor, dismembering the carcasses, rubbing guts into each other’s flesh, acting out, and it seems experiencing, ecstatic states. On film, the scene can’t help but look a bit absurd after all these years, which is partially due to the nature of performance documentation versus a film created for its own sake like Fuses, or the photos that make up Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions (1963), which was performed specifically and only for the camera.  But it’s also because there’s not much room in today’s adult experience for unabashed ecstasy, so being a witness to it becomes unfamiliar and embarrassing. I can’t help thinking that Meat Joy, as mystical rite and energetic force, was necessarily experiential; on film it lives as a purely visual, yet nonetheless powerful icon.

Iconic works abound in this retrospective, including Up to and Including Her Limits (1973-76), which explores the mark as remnant of trancelike, painterly action, and photos from Interior Scroll, the performance during which a nude Schneemann removed a folded piece of paper from her vagina and then read aloud the letter she had printed upon it. Also present, however, are later pieces that continue to respond to themes from earlier years. Positioned next to each other are Terminal Velocity (2001) and Snows (1967), both of which express a different kind of desire: to somehow respond to unfathomable current events, and to visually express the depths of pain and rage stemming from inhumane political acts.

Terminal Velocity is an elegy to the men and women who fell from windows of the World Trace Center on 9/11. Schneemann took images of these people, mid-fall, that she found in newspapers, and successively zoomed in to enlarge each image. Across the top of a grid, each figure is featured in his or her smallest size; each picture is then enlarged progressively in photos that line up, smallest to largest, from the top to the bottom of each column of the grid. The effect is haunting; it looks as if each subject is in motion, still falling, as his or her image stays captured forever in horrific limbo. Snows is a response to the atrocities of the Vietnam war: the video shows a performance in which the film Viet-Flakes, made up of re-filmed photos of Vietnam, cycled behind slowly moving performers with white make-up on their faces. Schneemann culled the images from foreign sources, as they were suppressed in U.S. media outlets. Audience movement affected the speed of the image and sound transitions in Viet-Flakes, a complex technology (though now common, used then for the first time), creating non-optional participation. Experimental acuity and the ability to combine organic with technical media played a part in the balance of the piece, which is somehow both pure political action and pure formal mastery—which is pure Schneemann.

Carolee Schneemann, Snows, 1967. Performance at the Martinique Theater, NYC Photo: Herbert Migdoll © Carolee Schneemann

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Installation view showing early paintings by Carolee Schneemann at Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2012 Photo: Chris Brown

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