Working Space 1600: Shows in Rome of Guercino, Caravaggio and their Contemporaries



Report from… Rome

Roma al tempo di Caravaggio 1600-1630 at the Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Venezia, Rome (November 16, 2011 to March 18, 2012)

Guercino (1591-1666) at Palazzo Barberini, Rome (December 16, 2011 to April 29, 2012)

A generation ago, Frank Stella argued in his brilliant manifesto Working Space (1986) that the situation of modernist abstract painting was best understood with reference to Caravaggio’s role in 1590s Rome. Stella’s account borrowed, at key points, from Sydney Freedberg’s great formalist history Circa 1600: A Revolution of Style in Italian Painting. At a time when the capacity of the grand tradition to continue was unclear, what was demanded, Stella claimed, was a seminal new artist. Today no one would accept this view of our recent history or Stella’s attempt to present himself as our Caravaggio, a claim that nowadays not even a formalist could consider seriously.

Caravaggio. Madonna di Loreto. c.1603-1606. Oil on canvas. San Agostino, Rome, Italy

Caravaggio. Madonna di Loreto. c.1603-1606. Oil on canvas. San Agostino, Rome, Italy

Since 1986, there has been a great amount of new popular and scholarly discussion of the now widely exhibited Caravaggio.  Indeed, he has become irresistible, the one artist of this period, who speaks to modern audiences.  You see why at the entrance to “Roma al tempo di Caravaggio,” where Caravaggio’s Madonna di Loreto (1604-5) is juxtaposed with a painting of the same subject also from that date by Annibale Carracci and his studio. Where Caravaggio presents the humble supplicants kneeling before the Madonna, Carracci shows her enthroned on a house supported by three angels that struggle to lift it upwards. Caravaggio comes, one may think, almost from the same world as Courbet, but Carracci is firmly rooted in his time.

This vast exhibition presents no artist whose reputation will rival Caravaggio’s. Guido Reni’s Martyrdom of Saint Caterina (1604-6) is a wonderful picture; Agostino Ciampelli’s Pietà with Angels (1612), very affecting; and Orazio Borgianni’s David decapitating Goliath (1609-10) a remarkable, albeit much less successful variation of Caravaggio’s version of that scene, as also is Battistello Caracciolo’s David with the Head of Goliath (1612). Perhaps the most challenging picture on display is the anonymous follower of Caravaggio’s Saint Anna with Yarn and the Virgin Sewing (1620), a grand genre scene, an Italianate version of George de La Tour’s sacred scenes. And there is a Saint Augustine on display attributed to Caravaggio, a marvelous picture, which doesn’t for me resemble the portraits attributed to our artist. It certainly is astonishing to see how many followers Caravaggio had. None of these artists are remotely as good at him, not even – in this show – Rubens, whose Adoration of the Shepherds (1608), hardly stands out.

There are several Guercinos in this exhibition, and that artist is meanwhile the subject of a retrospective at the Palazzo Barberini. Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591 – 1666), to give him his proper name, had a career investigated in loving detail by the great connoisseur, Sir Denis Mahon. Here his saints, The Madonna with Child in Glory (1615-6) is a good example; his mythical scenes, Erminia and Tancredi (1619), for instance; and his portraits, like Portrait of Cardinal Bernardino Spada (1631) are displayed. Guercino does not speak to a larger public in the way Caravaggio does or, to choose a more appropriate comparison, as does his near contemporary in Rome, Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). Guercino’s Saul against David (1646) perhaps indicates his ultimate limitations. Why in this scene of contention is the body language of the two men so elliptical? His Et in Arcadia ego (1618 according to Mahon) is famous amongst art historians, but only as a precedent for Poussin’s two versions of this conceit. But where Poussin gives philosophical weight to the scene, with his shepherds engaged in discussion about whether even in the ideal kingdom of Arcadia there is death, Guercino merely gives us an anecdotal image of omnipresent decay, his shepherds encountering a skull covered with flies, lizards and a mouse.

Both of these exhibitions are presented with the theatrical style that seems customary right now in Roman exhibitions. They employ brilliant lighting in dark rooms with intensely red walls, and use elaborate temporary displays that must be expensive to construct. The permanent installations at Palazzo Barberini and Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Venezia, and also those at such other grand settings as the Palazzo Pamphilj and the Palazzo Colonna, use natural lighting, which is kinder to aging paintings as well as to the eyes of we aging art writers. I understand the felt need for temporary shows to have an impact, but however you display Guercino, he cannot compete with Andy Warhol.  Just as Willem de Kooning inspired very many painters in the 1950s, but no one who was his equal, so with Caravaggio. Perhaps, then, his reputation fell after 1630 in part because none of his many followers were remotely his equal. At any rate, while two generations ago, Caravaggio was merely one of many great baroque artists, now, having outdistanced all of his rivals, he has become the Italian old master who speaks not just to specialist audiences, but also to the general public. Neither Guercino nor any of the followers of Caravaggio can take this role, which is only to note how very distant the visual culture of this period has become.

Guercino (Francesco Barbieri), Et in Arcadia Ego, 1618-22. Oil on canvas, 82 x 91 cm.  Galleria Borghese, Rome

Guercino (Francesco Barbieri), Et in Arcadia Ego, 1618-22. Oil on canvas, 82 x 91 cm. Galleria Borghese, Rome

Where Artists Are Richer Than Doctors: Report from Havana



Report from… Havana

Mosaic Work of Jose Fuster in the artist's Havana studio. Photo: Roslyn Bernstein for artcritical

Mosaic Work of Jose Fuster in the artist's Havana studio. Photo: Roslyn Bernstein for artcritical

In June 2011, the New York Times ran a feature on New Ways to visit Cuba –Legally. The feature documented policy changes by the Obama administration designed to encourage greater contact between Americans and Cubans under a “people-to-people license.” Originally created by President Clinton in 1999, the licenses were cut off by Bush in 2003 and 2004. Under Obama, restrictions are being loosened. The projection was that 450,000 travelers from the US would be visiting Cuba in 2011.

The story ended by giving readers a list of planned people-to-people trips to Cuba, among them the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. who were planning to run an eight-day trip in November, pending license, with visits to the studios of several well-known Cuban artists.  I was able to join this group.

Ricardo Torres Perez, a macro-economist and professor at the University of Havana, addressed the group, explaining to us that while the average monthly wage is around 400 Cuban pesos a month or $17, and for medical doctors 700-800 pesos a month or about $34, artists are a notable exception, having been one “of the most successful segments of the Cuban population.” The Cuban government was always “careful about not interfering with the way artists produce art,” Perez said. “Artists have way more freedom to do what they want to do.” Gloria Berbena, public affairs officer for the United States Interests Section, agrees: “The regime always supported and subsidized artists.” Although some exit visas have occasionally been revoked, generally speaking artists have benefited from political tolerance. They are free to travel but the vast majority return to Cuba. “For Cuban artists, their inspiration comes from being here, from the light. They have a strong attachment to the country,” she said.

The prevailing stereotype of the starving artist driving a taxi or waiting on tables  is, surprisingly, not the Cuban model. Unlike doctors or teachers who work for the government at a fixed salary in mondea nacional, the local peso (the equivalent of four cents U.S.), artists can actually sell their art on the open market for CUCs (convertible Cuban pesos which are pegged to the U.S. dollar and which are used to buy all imported goods) or for dollars.

Although art galleries, where the gallery takes 30 percent and the artist 70 percent, are all government owned, individual artists are also free to sell their art from their studios (not considered galleries) where they receive 100 percent of the purchase price. Visitors can either pay in CUCS or by wiring money into foreign bank accounts

Even after progressive income tax that ranges from 5-40 % and a 7 % exit permit, works selling for $1,000 net more than two years of a doctor’s salary. Even street artists, who sell a work on average every couple of months for $200 or $300, can live comfortably off of their art.

Sandra Ramos is in the States when we visit her studio where prints in editions of 10 sell for $1500 to $2500. Ramos, who will be participating in the May 2012 Havana Biennial, has a Canadian bank account and also sells her art in the Mayer Fine Arts Gallery in Norfolk, Virginia. Although Ramos’s work focuses on human frustration and contradictions in Cuban society, she is free to make her art. A 2011 work, The Bridge, uses a girl’s body to connect two bridges. Another new work, Miedo Secreto (Secret Fear) focuses on how people use their eyes. Often, Ramos uses her own body to represent the island of Cuba. Clearly, Ramos is very successful. Our guide tells us that she bought the house eight years ago for $50,000.

At the home/studio of artist couple Alicia Leal and Juan Moriera, who plan to open their space to the public for the May biennale, we were shown etchings, paintings and photographs. Moriera’s recent photographic work is based on paintings he did many years ago, “of places that do not exist.” He is eager to find a New York gallery to exhibit the digital prints. A small etching by Leal reflects her deep identification with her Cuban heritage. “It is inspired by Jose Marti’s line, she said, translating it for me: “My poetry is like a wounded deer looking for the forest’s sanctuary.”

La Lavanderia (Laundry) currently under renovation by the Merger group is renovating into studio/residency.  Photo: Roslyn Bernstein for artcritical

La Lavanderia (Laundry) currently under renovation by the Merger group is renovating into studio/residency. Photo: Roslyn Bernstein for artcritical

More than any other artists we met, the three sculptors in the Merger group – Mayito (Mario Miguel Gonzalez), Niels Moleiro Luis, and Alain Pino – illustrate just how resourceful and savvy Cuban artists have become. With bank accounts in three countries, their sculpture currently sells in the $8,000 to $40,000 price range, while studies for the sculpture sell for $5,000 to $8,000. Auction prices for their work have been especially strong: Sex Machine sold for $23,750 in Sotheby’s November Latin American Art sale, above its $10-15,000 estimate. Working for Freedom, sold for $26,250 in Christie’s May 2011 Latin American Auction, also above its estimate. In 2009, one of their Cuban pocket knife sculptures sold for $25,000. Hanging in the entrance to their studio, a 2011 edition of the work, priced at $16,000, immediately attracted strong interest from an American couple on the tour.

Under a Cuban government program, the Merger trio are renovating an old laundry building. Designed to include one bedroom for a visiting artist, the first stage of La Lavanderia will be finished in May. The artists, meanwhile, are working on their next solo exhibition in February, Foria Havana, a joint venture between Spain and Cuba. They are also looking for an American gallery. “We had a couple offers from galleries in Miami,” Mayito said. “But we are waiting until the right gallery comes along. The right place for us is San Francisco, Los Angeles or New York. Ninety-nine percent of our clients are from there.”

While Mayito and Alain acknowledge their success, they insist that most artists in Cuba live off of their art, with 30-35 percent of them earning a very good living, some already selling their art at auction. “There is lots of interest surging towards Cuban art,” Mayito said, “In a few years there will be a big explosion like what happened with Chinese art several years ago.”

The Merger, Cuban Pocket Knife. Photo: Roslyn Bernstein for artcritical

click to enlarge

No Choice But To Trust The Senses: California Light and Space Revisited



Report from… Southern California

Doug Wheeler, DW 68 VEN MCASD 11, 1968/2011. White UV neon light installation, 18 x 34 x 33-3/4 feet. Courtesy of the artist

Doug Wheeler, DW 68 VEN MCASD 11, 1968/2011. White UV neon light installation, 18 x 34 x 33-3/4 feet. Courtesy of the artist

If ever there was a moment to reassess the 1960s Light and Space artists of Los Angeles, that moment is now.  At the Museum of Modern Art, New York, a recently reinstalled permanent gallery places three works from L.A. Light and Space art in critical dialogue with four works of New York Minimalism, which also had it defining years in the middle 1960s.  Simultaneously, a representative sampling of the Light and Space movement is presently on view at more than a dozen museums and gallery exhibits throughout Southern California participating in the Getty Foundation’s omnibus initiative Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980.  The pivotal survey, Phenomenal California Light, Space, Surface at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego through January 22, seen together with more focused shows at the other venues, listed at the end of this dispatch, allows us to grasp the fundamental characteristics of the Light and Space tradition that differentiates it from the Minimalism that was being practiced in New York by the likes of Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Frank Stella et al.

At a meta-level, the L.A. aesthetic may be characterized as “truth equals beauty” as distinguished from the “truth to materials” aesthetic prevailing in N.Y.  The N.Y. aesthetic embraced impermeable industrial materials and downplayed shadows and reflections in favor of the concreteness and stability of the specific object.  In contrast, L.A. artists, especially the Finish Fetish group, rejected concreteness and turned instead to newly available translucent and transparent materials—polyester resin, Plexiglas, fiberglass, coated glass, and plastics of all kinds.  These materials reflected, refracted, and filtered light, thus opening up new options for sculpture.  They were particularly well suited to capturing and transforming the ephemeral luminosity of the ocean and the smog-besmirched sky, as well as the high gloss brilliance of surfboards and autos that were primary everyday experiences for these artists.  In this context, the L.A. artists turned Stella’s reductive, “what you see is what you see” inside out by appending a question mark.

Indeed, these L.A. works could be Michael Fried’s worst nightmare—their theatricality is an integral part of their aesthetic DNA.  They make us keenly aware that what you do affects what you see, and what you see affects what you do.  The properties of an effective resin piece don’t belong to the work alone.  Their color, shape, and surface effects are contingent on the spatial/temporal positions of observers as they move across, walk around, or enter the piece.  The spheres of Helen Pashgian and some of the boxes of Larry Bell change dramatically depending on the trajectory of the observer’s movements.  Certain works also depend upon the presence or absence of other people to bring out their complexity.  This occurs with Robert Irwin’s acrylic column and Bell’s five large coated glass panels, both installed strategically in busy and visually noisy locations on the Museum’s first floor.   These are socially contingent works that reach their potential when the movements of other people are reflected and refracted.

De Wain Valentine, Diamond Column, 1978 (video still). Polyester resin, 91-1/ 2 x 44 x 12 inches. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.© 1978 De Wain Valentine. Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann.

De Wain Valentine, Diamond Column, 1978 (video still). Polyester resin, 91-1/ 2 x 44 x 12 inches. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.© 1978 De Wain Valentine. Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann.

Light and Space artists play the role of Shamans.   They have the uncanny ability to make the immaterial material and the material immaterial. They take liquid resin and make of it solid forms (Peter Alexander, Pashgian, and De Wain Valentine) or use light (James Turrell) or scrim (Irwin) to create the illusion of solid forms.  In doing so, strange things happen.  The observer is forced to confront objects and spaces that have hallucinatory properties not unlike the drooping watches in Dali’s Persistence of Memory (1931).  These works challenge our assumptions about ordinary reality to a point where, using our perceptual, sensory-motor apparatus, we try to disambiguate forms as they appear to morph before our eyes. We feel compelled to walk up to and look behind a “floating” Irwin disc to see if it is attached to the wall or we stop short and gaze intently as soon as we detect an Irwin scrim that resizes a room by appearing to be a wall.  We feel compelled to check out whether the top portion of a tall Alexander Wedge is really still there when the bottom is deep orange and the color gradually fades to clear near the top;  to walk around Valentine’s Diamond Column to see how it is possible for people passing behind it to first appear, then disappear, and then return as three simultaneous images facing in different directions;  to walk up to Irwin’s dot painting and Pashgian’s white disc to explore how they are able to hover and pulsate;  to walk right up to the front of a Mary Corse painting with reflective glass microspheres after walking across it and seeing how it changes dramatically from matte to shiny and from totally uniform to containing grids or columns.  And we feel compelled to approach the wall works of Pashgian, Corse, Ron Cooper and Doug Wheeler, to see if there are lights embedded within them.  In all of these explorations, labeling is futile.  We have no choice but to trust our senses.

Several Light and Space artists are particularly good at making color diffuse into space.  Wheeler’s 35 foot-square room installation with one wall completely outlined in white neon UV lights suffuses the entire space in an ethereal atmosphere of blue air.  Other effects are achieved by introducing a temporal dimension to heighten color intensity.  Turrell’s installation (Wedgework V, 1975) requires several minutes of adjustment time in an initially pitch black space before a red wall begins to appear and then intensifies to a fiery glow.  Bruce Nauman’s narrow tunnel with two parallel walls one foot apart and forty feet long lit with green lights seduces us to inch slowly through it sideways.  When we exit this disorienting light tunnel into a wider space, everything appears purple for several seconds— the people, the walls, and the Pacific Ocean seen through an immense glass window.

The other museums and galleries showing Light and Space work (listed below) give us an appreciation of the career trajectories and new options being opened by several of the artists already mentioned (e.g., Alexander, Irwin, Pashgian, Valentine).  In particular, their new work, by utilizing the wall, reinvigorates a dialogue between painting and sculpture, begun earlier by John McCracken and Craig Kauffman.   These shows also introduce us to established but less well known artists like Tom Eatherton at Pomona College who has created an intensely blue space that creates the illusion that you are walking into the middle of a room-size painting.  And, thanks to storefront spaces like Ice Gallery, we can see emerging artists like Michael James Armstrong who is advancing the use of scrims in new and exciting directions.

After seeing these works in many different settings, we were left with three concluding observations. First, the Light and Space artists were determined to make us reexamine how we perceive the world—what is illusory and what is real.  Second, these artists shamelessly court beauty, an aesthetic questioned by postmodern art but openly embraced in the design aesthetic of Steve Jobs and in the reflective surfaces of Frank Gehry’s signature architecture—two iconic Californians who may be seen as heirs to the Light and Space culture.  Third, the relationship between Minimalism and the Light and Space tradition is a complex one, as can be seen, in the MOMA reinstallation, in the atmospheric effects of Dan Flavin’s light sculpture and the exquisite use of colored Plexiglas by Donald Judd. The fruitfulness of this exchange calls out for further study.  The next step?  We suggest a comprehensive exhibition combining Light and Space and East Coast Minimalism that would be seen on both coasts.  Such an exhibition would enable us to appreciate more fully the unique and shared strategies that animate those aspects of Minimalism that dare to flirt with beauty.

Helen Pashgian, Untitled, 1968-69, cast polyester resin. 8 inches diameter. Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Photo by Philipp Scholz Rittermann.

Helen Pashgian, Untitled, 1968-69, cast polyester resin. 8 inches diameter. Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Photo by Philipp Scholz Rittermann.

Los Angeles Light and Space Works on View in Southern California, Fall, 2011

Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface at Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego
September 25, 2011 to January 22, 2012
700 Prospect Street, La Jolla, CA and 1100 & 1101 Kettner Boulevard, San Diego, CA, between Broadway and B Street. (858) 454-3541 (Catalogue available)

and

Pacific Standard Time: Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950-1970 at Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, L.A.  October 1, 2011 to February 5, 2012.  Light and Space art is a subset of the exhibition. (Catalogue)

From Start to Finish: De Wain Valentine’s Grey Column at Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, L.A.  September 13, 2011 to March 11, 2012. (Catalogue)

California Art: Selections from the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation at Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, Pepperdine University, 24255 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. August 27 to December 2, 2011.  Light and Space art is a subset of the exhibition. (Catalogue)

It Happened at Pomona at the Edge of Los Angeles 1969—1973; Part I Hal Glicksman at Pomona, Pomona College Museum of Art, 333 N. College Way, Claremont. August 30 to November 6, 2011.   (Catalogue)

James Turrell’s Dividing the Light (2007) at Draper Courtyard of the Lincoln & Edmonds Buildings, corner of 6th Street and College Way, Pomona College, Claremont.  Permanent.

Mary Corse Recent Paintings at Ace Gallery, 9430 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills. Through October, 2011.

Robert Irwin Column (1970) at Ace Gallery, 9430 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills. Through October 18, 2011.

Helen Pashgian Columns and Walls at Ace Gallery, 9430 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills. Through November, 2011.

De Wain Valentine Early Resins 1968-1972 and New Work at Ace Gallery, 9430 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills. Through November, 2011.

James Turrell Present Tense at Kayne, Griffen, Corcoran, 2902 Nebraska Ave., Santa Monica. September 15 to December 17, 2011.

Larry Bell Early Work at Frank Lloyd Gallery, 2525 Michigan Avenue, B5B, Santa Monica. October 22 to November 26, 2011.

Fred Eversley: Four Decades—1970-2010 at William Turner Gallery, 2525 Michigan Avenue, E1, Santa Monica.  September 24 to October 30, 2011.

Robert Irwin Way Out West at L & M Gallery, 660 Venice Boulevard, Venice. September 17 to October 22, 2011.

Peter Alexander, Mary Corse, Robert Irwin, New Out West at Quint Gallery, 7547 Girard Ave., La Jolla. September 23 to November 12, 2011.

Larry Bell, Craig Kauffman, De Wain Valentine, Eric Johnson: Shift. Space. Slick at Scott White Contemporary Art, 939 W. Kalmia, San Diego. September 9 to October 8, 2011.

Michael James Armstrong: A Study in Transparency at Ice Gallery, 3417 30th Street, San Diego. September 18 to October 9, 2011.

James Turrell, Wedgewood V, 1975, Fluorescent Light, dimensions variable. Courtesy of Abstract Select Ltd. UK

James Turrell, Wedgewood V, 1975, Fluorescent Light, dimensions variable. Courtesy of Abstract Select Ltd. UK

Forums in Motion: The Guangzhou Triennial



Report from… Guangzhou

Guangzhou, known to Americans as Canton, is an enormous and very prosperous city.  A world-class manufacturing powerhouse, it sits in the Pearl River Delta, a region that encompasses Hong Kong, Macau and other Chinese economic centers. But compared with its more cosmopolitan rivals, Shanghai or Beijing, Guangzhou has as yet relatively modest museums. The Guangzhou Museum presents magnificent displays of porcelain and natural history exhibits but little visual art. The Guangdong Museum of Art, however, is a three-story building devoted to contemporary art.

Zhang Xinmin's installation, The Countryside, on view at the 2011 Guangzhou Triennial.  Courtesy of Guangdong Museum of Art

Zhang Xinmin's installation, The Countryside, on view at the 2011 Guangzhou Triennial. Courtesy of Guangdong Museum of Art

The goal of the 4th Triennial, organized by that museum in collaboration with faculty from Peking University, New York University and the Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities, Sun Yat-sen University, was to offer a critical perspective on contemporary art in China, and its relationship to world visual cultures. Accompanied by a large, ambitious art exhibition, the first gathering of this forum took place in Guangzhou, September 23-24; later sessions will appear in New York, June 2012 and Beijing in March 2013. The somewhat unidiomatic name of the conference Forums in Motion, alludes to the ways that visual experience is changing so rapidly at this moment.

The conference was divided into four sections: The end of art, with reference to global capitalism and art production in the age of commodification; “contemporaneity,” which was taken to mean that, with reference to Benedetto Croce, that all history is contemporary history; the city, i.e. urban planning; and art of contemporary Asia. (I report onjust the first three sessions.) These topics are very familiar to American art writers, and so much of the particular interest of this occasion lay in the ways that the Chinese context influenced discussion. Obviously no short report could do justice to the many contributions—my brief commentary merely offers one perspective on these broad themes. Any such summary is sure to be controversial– mine no doubt gives more unity to the occasion than it possessed, as if all of the lectures were presented by one super erudite speaker. In this report, I omit discussion of my “Wild Art: Art outside the Art World” because it is not easy to place in relation to this conference. That lecture, which is forthcoming in Frontiers of Literary Studies in China, is a portion of a forthcoming book co-authored with Joachim Pissarro. Our concern to reject Hegelian ways of thinking about art history and the museum in favor of a return to Kant, is distinctly at odds with the concerns of all of the other speakers.

The end of art, a Hegelian theme associated with Arthur Danto was much discussed. Danto could not be present, but many speakers offered variations on and critiques of his claims.  Zhang Xudong discussed the essence of art, and its boundaries. Taking up this topic Pan Gongkai, after arguing that Danto’s account of Warhol was mistaken, offered a far-reaching discussion of the boundaries of art. What is the relationship, he asked, between normal and abnormal conditions of experience? Art, he suggested, is an essentially abnormal form of life. His richly suggestive analysis, which appealed to Hans Belting’s account of the end of art, was extended by Yasuo Koboyashi, who observed that human beings are the only animals obsessed with the end of history. The commentators, Shu Qun, Pi Daojian and Jiang Hui then offered useful supplements to these claims. Western art uses normal eyes, they said, and Eastern art abnormal eyes: that it was suggested in one way to understand this history. Hegel’s view of the end of art, it was claimed, seems to be happy, even inspiring. Plato was interested in how to control human beings, while for Hegel the end of art marked a confidence. The question then is whether we too should be optimistic if indeed the history of art has ended.

What to me was most striking was how this discussion was focused so closely on readings of Hegel. Pissarro and I think that way of thinking entirely outdated. But while Hegel (like his follower, Marx) thought China of very marginal interest, that Maoism triumphed in this country certainly gives reason for Chinese scholars to look closely at this Hegelian-Marxist heritage. In any event, it’s impossible in Guangzhou to discuss the end of art without reflection upon the thriving capitalist culture, which is controlled, in what seems a contradiction, to use a Marxist term, by an authoritarian communist party run by Mao’s direct heirs. Danto’s account, focused on Western art, claims to apply to all cultures everywhere. Neither he nor Belting developed their claims with specific reference to China, and so the natural concern of commentary now is to understand if in fact their Eurocentric theories apply to art in that culture.

In the next session, Mikhail Iampolski discussed the ways in which Michael Fried’s now classic analysis of 1960s theatrical art has been destabilized by recent photography. Then Eugene Yuejin Wang linked the end of art and commodification, with reference to the parallels between works of art and bank notes. Observing that an artist who designed the Chinese bank notes of the 1950s, and then was severely criticized during the Cultural Revolution for showing outdated imported machinery, he linked art production with representations of economic value. Perhaps, he suggested, a work of art and a bank note are not ultimately different in kind. The commentators, Li Gongming, Yu Ding and Jiang Jiehong extended his discussion of the relationship between production and capitalism. What, it was asked, is the boundary of art? No consensus about how to answer that question was achieved.

Boris Groys then argued that contemporareity is defined by the fact that we are surprised by our own time, not the future, as was the case of medieval Christians. For us, he said, permanent change is the only reality. (How that situation differs in China remained an unanswered question.) Groys considered the differences between mechanical and digital imagery. Today we, like the medievals, are surveyed by someone or something we cannot see, as the web dissolves our individual intentionality in a flow of signs. Extending Groys’s discussion, Tadashi Uchino discussed the account of the influential Hegelian Alexander Kojéve, who believed that modern Japan marked at the end of history, with reference to examples from recent Japanese theater performances. The commentators, Wang Yudong and  Song Xiaoxia asked whether Hegelian views of history make it possible to have great artists; and whether they are consistent with the common sense ways in which we all exist within history.

Qiu Zhijie's installation, Restless, on view at the 2011 Guangzhou Triennial.  Courtesy of Guangdong Museum of Art

Qiu Zhijie's installation, Restless, on view at the 2011 Guangzhou Triennial. . Courtesy of Guangdong Museum of Art

If these discussions of the end of art history took the discussion in an abstract direction, the account of the city by Zhu Tao offered a more concrete perspective. In his richly detailed account, Zhu observed that the Cultural Revolution, by sending thousands of architects to the countryside, meant that in 1977 urbanization had to be rethought. There is no such thing, he argued as a unified Chinese style. Zhao Chen then asked: how should a university campus be designed, a question he answered by offering comparative accounts of Nanjing University, where is president of the school of architecture and urban planning, and foreign cities and universities. And Peter Noever offered a nicely visual account of his practice as designer and curator.  Commentary was provided by Wang Weiren, Wang Mingxian and Feng Yuan.

It is not easy to relate accounts of Hegel’s inheritance, as interpreted by Danto and Belting, to the practice of contemporary architecture in China, which is heavily influenced, perhaps even dominated by practical considerations. However we understand the claim that Duchamp or Warhol concluded the history of art, architecture, which is not bound to any such historicist program, continues to respond to the overwhelming concerns of migration from the rural provinces to cities like Guangzhou. Indeed, though no one made this point, although Hegel, Danto and Belting explain how the history of painting and sculpture might end, it is not easy to envisage a comparable claim about architecture. Urban planning evolves, but there is no obvious way in which that development might create ‘the last building’ in the way that Duchamp or Warhol created the last work of art. This perhaps explains the contrast between the theoretical preoccupations of the panelists dealing with the end of art history and commodification, and the urban historians, who offer critical accounts of architectural practice.

I found it instructive to leave the lecture hall and see the Inauguration Exhibition of the 4th Guangzhou Triennial. Included were Feng Feng’s enigmatic red brick installation at the entrance, whose political significance, alluding to the communist party, is only accessible from the roof as he showed me and my assistant; the photographs by Zhang Xinmin of the village of Liukeng, an impoverish rural site where workers in cities like Guangzhou were recruited; Yang Yong’s three hundred pendant lights containing images of glamorous celebrities; Qui Zhijie’s installation displaying the uses of bamboo in China; Koen Vanmechelen’s “The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project,” a conceptual work dealing with chicken breeding, which you entered wearing a face mask in order to protect the eggs; Miao Xiaochun’s “Metamorphosis,” deformed video images; Zhang Lujiang’s “Dignity of the Daily Narrative,” paintings showing daily lives in the Pearl River Delta; Aris Kalazis’s snapshot-like paintings, “The Real Crash”; and a whole host of other works. Walking through this display, one was aware of the immense distance between the theorizing of the lecturers and the practice of these artists. One necessary task of art writing, I believe, is to link theory and practice, bringing together the abstract concerns of commodification and the end of art history with the perspectives of architectural historians, in a way that does justice to our experience of contemporary art. By presenting these lectures and displaying this art the Inauguration Exhibition of the 4th Guangzhou Triennial made a decisive contribution to this important task.

In the first three sessions, all of the keynote speakers were male, Chinese and foreign alike. (Several women did appear in the fourth session, which I could not attend.) At present, I believe, in China, almost all faculty is male whereas most of graduate students (in the humanities) are female. In this way, the local history seems to mirror American academic life of two generations ago. It will be exciting to see what happens when more women participate in this important debate. Many speakers asked: what is the relationship between art and art theory in China and in the West? That as yet unanswered question needs to be answered by the development of Chinese visual culture.

Yang Yong's installation, Lightscape, on view at the 2011 Guangzhou Triennial.  Courtesy of Guangdong Museum of Art

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Keeping Your Balance in the Windy City: Report from Chicago



Report from… Chicago

If you’re prone to fits of acrophobia, the 25th floor of the John Hancock Center may not strike you as the ideal location for an art gallery.  But staying abreast of the latest shows in Chicagoland requires precarious treks across neighborhoods, dizzying sprints up skyscrapers, and even trips across time-zones, all while maintaining your balance.  On rare occasions, it means facing your fears. Lately, several exhibitions have been worth the anxiety.

Philip Pearlstein, Mickey Mouse, white House as Bird House, Male and Female Models, 2005. Oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches. Courtesy of Valerie Carberry Gallery

Philip Pearlstein, Mickey Mouse, white House as Bird House, Male and Female Models, 2005. Oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches. Courtesy of Valerie Carberry Gallery

“Objects/Objectivity” at the elevated Valerie Carberry Gallery features the work of eminent octogenarians Philip Pearlstein and Ellen Lanyon. Conceived around their shared love of collecting, the show – selected by the artists themselves – examines their working relationships with the objects they accumulate.  The 12 pieces are a snug fit for Carberry’s intimate space and though both artists proceed from observation, the worlds they construct demonstrate a fundamental difference of approach.

Pearlstein’s large-scale paintings are dry, stoic affairs. The merciless cropping, irregular perspectives, and dense compositions the artist is renowned for are softened in the selections for this exhibition. But the augmented atmosphere creates a high-pressure pictorial stasis. The figures in Mickey Mouse, White House as Bird House, Male and Female Models (2001) are nearly as inanimate as the objects that surround them, and Pearlstein’s tendency to touch the surface in a one-dimensional manner further reduces an already sluggish pace. Observing the similarity between the flesh of the model in Two Nudes, Rabbit Marionette (1997) and the leather of the Eames chair upon which she rests, Pearlstein’s figure barely registers as human. While the artist’s eye may acutely perceive the objects around him, it seldom penetrates their surface.

By contrast, Ellen Lanyon’s work bristles with movement and tension. Spatial dislocations brought on by a modernist’s knack for composition provide the jolt of lightening that rouse her slumbering objects.  In Majolica Tea (2010) Lanyon fuses her props into an undulating alternative reality where subjects advance and recede, jostling for position among the pulsating greens and bitter oranges that permeate the picture plane. Compared with Pearlstein’s more sedate approach to surface, Lanyon’s Hanafuda (2010) shimmers and crackles with a dusting of iridescent paint. The dimensions of the canvases themselves – five of the six on view are squares – contribute to the reverie. When asked about the intentions behind her use of this notoriously challenging formant, the gracious Lanyon – who happened to stop by during my visit – shot me a wry smile and replied, “they were on sale.”

Ed Valentine, Untitled Spray Portrait with Painted Eye and Green Drip, 2011. Oil, acrylic, enamel and spray paint on canvas, 96 x 48 inches. Courtesy of Linda Warren Gallery, Chicago

Ed Valentine, Untitled Spray Portrait with Painted Eye and Green Drip, 2011. Oil, acrylic, enamel and spray paint on canvas, 96 x 48 inches. Courtesy of Linda Warren Gallery, Chicago

Just across the river in Fulton Market, Linda Warren Gallery is highlighting two distinct – but related – bodies of work by veteran painter Ed Valentine. In the main room, his large-scale paintings propose solutions to the problem of presenting street art in the environs of a gallery.  While some artists are content with importing the look of 1980s Brooklyn-style graffiti indoors – where it inevitably looks naïve – Valentine adopts the painted language of the street, its immediacy and its visceral force, while deploying it in the service of a traditional format:  the portrait. His use of the spray can delivers a wire-frame line that imparts a cartoonish appearance to Untitled Spray Portrait with Blue Painted Eye and Four Blue Drips (2011) but the caricature is undercut by audacious painterly swipes beneath the mouth and right eye. This is not to suggest that these works are easy to love, but the freshness of a painting like Untitled Spray Portrait with Painted Eye and Green Drip (2011) is undeniable.

More immediately likeable, the numerous small oils displayed along Warren’s back gallery witness the artist responding to the sheer joy and materiality of paint. In Untitled Portrait with Red-Orange and Brown Painted Eye (2011) Valentine autopsies the last 150 years of painting, tipping his hat to every major development in the modernist tradition without a hint of cynicism or irony. In addition to the strokes, spatters, and Stella-like stripes that comprise works such as Untitled Portrait with Orange Ear and Purple Drip (2011), Valentine locates his subjects in an ambiguous space that expands and contracts. These spatial alterations cause his figures to simultaneously hover along and beneath the picture plane, either dominating their environment or playing victim to it, depending on scale. Taken as a whole, the paintings’ analogous temperament  threatens to blur them together, but with time and patience the works assert their individuality, becoming a rogues’ gallery of characters that you’d swear you recognize.

2011 has yielded a bounty of quality shows around the city and two additional cases feature artists whose works on paper investigate the built environment. In River North, Amy Casey’s exceptional “Boomtown at Zg Gallery closed in August, but an echo of the exhibition reverberates in the gallery’s office space through the end of October.  The glorious detail and individuality of the industrial buildings, homes, and urban structures that encompass pieces such as the acrylic, City Blocks (2011) make you feel as though you might actually pass them on a stroll along Euclid Avenue. Farther afield, Matthew Woodward’s monumental graphite on paper abstractions take glimpses of the urban environment as a starting point and evolve into a grayed, ethereal space. His Tremendous Alone exhibit, comprising an outstanding collection of drawings, is at the Elmhurst Art Museum, located just 15 miles west of the Loop. Worth the trip, if you can maintain your balance.

Philip Pearlstein and Ellen Lanyon: Objects/Objectivity at Valerie Carberry Gallery, 875. N Michigan Ave #2510. September 16 to November 5, 2011.

Ed Valentine: Untitled at Linda Warren Gallery, 1052 W Fulton Market #200. September 9 to October 22, 2011

Amy Casey: New Paintings & Etchings at Zg Gallery, 300 W Superior Street.  September 9 to October 29, 2011

Matthew Woodward: The Tremendous Alone at the Elmhurst Art Museum, 150 S. Cottage Hill Ave. Elmhurst, Il.  September 16 to December 31, 2011

Amy Casey, City Blocks, 2011. Acrylic on paper, 42 X 56 inches. Courtesy Zg Gallery, Chicago

Amy Casey

Installation View of Matthew Woodward: The Tremendous Alone, Elmhurst Art Museum, 2011, featuring Untitled (17th) 2010. Graphite on Paper, each 95 x 95 inches.  Courtesy of Elmhurst Art Museum

Matthew Woodward

Ellen Lanyon, Majolica Tea,  2010. Acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36 inches. Courtesy of Valerie Carberry Gallery

Ellen Lanyon

Quasi Una Fantasia: A Summer Trio From San Francisco



Report from… San Francisco

Paul Kos, Beethoven Piano Sonata #13, 2009. Video projection on paint on canvas. 6 x 8 inches. Courtesy of Gallery Paule Anglim

Paul Kos, Beethoven Piano Sonata #13, 2009. Video projection on paint on canvas. 6 x 8 inches. Courtesy of Gallery Paule Anglim

This summer the axis of art in San Francisco runs between two museums: the De Young, which temporarily houses one hundred Picassos from the Musee Picasso; and the Museum of Modern art, currently exhibiting dozens of works by Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse collected by Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo [both exhibition reviewed at artcritical by Bill Berkson]. With the current staging of Wagner’s Ring at San Francisco Opera, art-hungry masses are getting a full meal from the matrix of modernism. In the galleries, meanwhile, older living masters are showing some of the most notable work.

Paul Kos is among the most accomplished of Bay Area conceptualists. His varied body of work spans over forty years and self-consciously filters Sol LeWitt’s programmatic statements of conceptualism through a concern with recovering the poetry of natural processes. In his most characteristic works, some non-semantic but evocative dimension of nature is revealed—recalling Adorno as he heard the rustling beneath meaning in the language of Borchardt’s poetry. Kos’s extensive oeuvre allows him to stage his newer works within the context of his long career. Upon entering the gallery, one encounters a series of drawings from 1969 depicting an unrealized project to set lines and semi-circles of red salt pillars in the salt flats of Utah. These images would not be out of place in an archeological reconstruction of henges and causeways. The pillars are set up in the order that they might dissolve, leaving only slightly less impermanent red stains.

This concern with the poetry of undoing and erosion frames the central element of the show: a visual and aural tunnel created by two formidable newer works, Aspen, 2009 and Beethoven Piano Sonata #13, 2009Aspen shows a dense thicket without background, while Beethoven depicts a piano’s hammers striking the strings in performance. Both project an image onto canvas, which is then loosely painted using the image as a template. The painted surface seems to disappear where the projected image is still, but where the wind rises or the hammers move the surface becomes just visible, as if the image were dissonant with itself –the material surface a ghost of the virtual reality. In this installation, the sounds of nature and the sonata alternate in sections of a few minutes. The effect, perhaps intended, is the decrescence of the sonata to a mechanical gurgling, then a natural rustling. Kos thereby renews something of the Romantic project of overcoming the one-sidedness of rationality, in the service of attracting to his work otherwise inaccessible resonances—quasi una fantasia, as Beethoven characterized the sonata.” [Paul Kos at Gallery Paule Anglim, May 4-June 11, 2011]

Jim Melchert, Misfits: 4-5-4, 2011. Broken porcelain tile (on plywood) with glaze and ink, 18 x 18 x 3/8 inches.  Courtesy of Gallery Paule Anglim

Jim Melchert, Misfits: 4-5-4, 2011. Broken porcelain tile (on plywood) with glaze and ink, 18 x 18 x 3/8 inches. Courtesy of Gallery Paule Anglim

Jim Melchert is a revered figure in the Bay Area, as much for his personal generosity as for his unusual attempt to bring the tradition-bound skills of a ceramicist to the project of Bay Area Conceptualism. His poetics are rooted in a moment half a generation before Kos’s, when in the late 1950’s Peter Voulkos challenged West Coast ceramics as Pollock did for New York painting. For Kos, the conceptualist moment is the point of orientation, whereas for Melchert it’s a moment, but only a moment, in a synthetic practice. Melchert’s current show offers nearly two dozen square tiles, 3/8ths of an inch thick with sides measuring 1-1/2 or 2 feet. The course of treatment is easily recoverable: the tiles are shattered, then reassembled and mounted on plywood. The larger shards are treated as pictorial backgrounds upon which Melchert outlines forms in dark glazes that hover between the organic and the inorganic, between potatoes and river stones. Finally, he inks in a background grid of evenly spaced circles, which, in each case, end at the irregular forms—ostensibly occluding the grid. The results are reminiscent of John Cage’s later graphic works, wherein nature in its lawless guise appears somehow both beneficent and accessible, its violence overcome by visual alertness and acceptance.

A couple of the tiles result from a slightly different procedure, and their great difference in expressiveness speaks to the delicate balance of the heterogeneous elements in the main body of work. In one, Melchert allows the glazes to run to the edges of the shards, as well as to fill the interiors of the irregular shapes. This small change, together with the dark glazes set against the whitest of backgrounds, seems to raise its voice to a shriek. In the other (perhaps a piece of leave-taking), Melchert replaces the grid with a mysterious numbering of the individual shards, as if each were catalogued archaeological finds, or sections of the sky on a star-chart. This piece is the sole one given an evocative title: How It Is, the allusion to the inaugural work of Samuel Beckett’s late phase perhaps intended to darken the sense of sublimity. This is as deeply satisfying a show, both in the individual pieces and the over-all conception, as any in recent memory. [Jim Melchert at Gallery Paule Anglim, June 15-July 16, 2011]

Shahzia Sikander, The Last Post, 2010.?HD video animation still.?Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Shahzia Sikander, The Last Post, 2010.?HD video animation still.?Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Shahzia Sikander’s show at the San Francisco Art Institute’s Walter McBean gallery recalls an overly familiar scenario: an artist of substantial gifts and great intelligence, searching for a theme, confronted with a curator who’s installation of the show would make Procrustes blush. How does the work fare? Worse than one might have hoped. Besides the perverse arrangement and the supposed one-size-fits-all theme of being an individual under post-colonial conditions, the works are accompanied by the curator Hou Hanru’s texts, the philistine literal-mindedness of which is not their greatest fault.  One is alarmed to learn that “China and the U. S.” are continents; that the motif of transformation “has preoccupied artists and writers since classical (?) times” (fairy tales? Kwaikutl masks?); and that China was once dominated by “Anglo-Saxons” (perhaps a hitherto unrecorded conquest of East Asia by King Ethelred?).  In the past decade Sikander has produced a number of digital animations, and most recently video works, while continuing to make her well-known works on paper, two small series of which are exhibited. Here, Sikander characteristically submits both figurative and abstract motifs to fantastic calligraphic elaborations, interweaving the burgeoning arabesques, filigrees, and cells to the point of fissure.  The elements flow together into a whirlpool wherein the distinctions among old compositional opposites of figure and ground, abstraction and representation, and positive and negative space become moot. The problem for Sikander for the past decade has been a certain sameness of effect in the results, along with the increasing pressure for a more direct way of addressing contemporary issues—a problematic close to that of Philip Guston in the mid-1960’s. The urgencies of elaboration and intertwining repeatedly result in a rough circle against a blank background, like a ball of twine set in the center of a small, unfurnished room.

Sikander has said that she turned to animation in order to present the temporal unfolding and transformation of her elements, and that in doing so, the problem of the intelligibility of the dissolving figures might be overcome. In Hou’s selection and arrangement, the animations crowd out the works on paper while offering little compensation. The animated elements are subjected—over and over—to a process of whirling, multiplication, dispersion, and dissipation, with no gain, as far as I can see, in intelligibility or thematic density. Of the videos, Gossamer, which shows the composer, Du Yun, allegedly dancing both in a ‘classical’ style and gyrating under a fright wig, is unspeakable. But a recent work mostly documenting South Asian military bands does contain a promising sequence of paragliders, each in a different bright color, one after another slowly twisting downward, against the cropped head of a soldier.  Behind them is billowing reddish smoke, presumably marks the landing target. Here might be a theme, and a new expressiveness, that could charge Sikander’s drawings. [“Shahzia Sikander: The exploding company man and other abstractions”, Walter and McBean Galleries, 800 Chestnut St., San Francisco, April 23-June 25, 2011]

Paul Kos, Aspen, 2009. Video projection on paint on canvas. 6 x 8 inches. Courtesy of Gallery Paule Anglim

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Interesting for No Good Reason: Lois Dodd in Maine



Lois Dodd: Naked Ladies, Natural Disasters, and Puzzling Events, Both Real and Imagined at Caldbeck Gallery

July 20 – August 13, 2011
12 Elm Street
Rockland, Maine, 207-594-5935

Lois Dodd, Liberty Painting in N.Y. Harbor, 2002. Oil on panel, 16-3/4 x 12-7/8 inches. Courtesy of Caldbeck Gallery

Lois Dodd, Liberty Painting in N.Y. Harbor, 2002. Oil on panel, 16-3/4 x 12-7/8 inches. Courtesy of Caldbeck Gallery

The name of Lois Dodd has come up a few times in recent conversations with artists I respect. I finally got to see some of her work in person at a solo exhibition at Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland, Maine. I was expecting the sort of painter’s-painter painting in which the very brushstrokes inspire admiration. Instead I found a picture of the Statue of Liberty working at an easel plein-aire.

Liberty Painting in N.Y. Harbor (2002) is no technical marvel. The easel is bent so as not to go off the edge of the panel and it appears to be resting on the outline of Liberty Island. Lady Liberty has no mouth for some reason. One can make no sense of the hand that holds the palette.  Yet there is something undeniably charming about it. Note the Twin Towers in the background, then note the date. This little painting is a terse summary of artistic defiance in the face of disaster. We are going to go on creating, it says. We can put the towers back as easily as daubing four gray lines.

Critics often lament that visual artists have not responded adequately to 9/11. Upon seeing this painting, I think Dodd delivered the appropriate message in full. Anything further would be unnecessary elaboration. The mauve shadow on the underside of the easel and the panoply of olive greens that make up Lady Liberty show that she has plenty of skill to get the job done. But there’s a more urgent matter at work. She has something on her mind that needs expression, and she isn’t going to let a couple of technical hiccups get in the way. That accomplished, she moves on to find the next subject. The quirkiness is the incidental product of a person being herself.

Consequently, her oddities are usually persuasive. The artist participates in a drawing group in Maine in which the owner of the property models outside, among the woodpile and gardening tools. Later Dodd paints from her drawings, creating works such as Nude and Bridge (2010). The figure is a violet silhouette modeled, slightly, with flesh tones. The face consists solely of a nose. She is posing with, of all things, a bicycle. The background is made of improbable greens. But it all works in its way. Dodd evokes Bay Area Figuration in miniature, with the human form reduced to bold sweeps of the brush and other playful re-imaginings of things seen.

Lois Dodd, Nude & Bridge, 2010. Oil on panel, 11-1/4 x 10-1/2 inches. Courtesy of Caldbeck Gallery

Lois Dodd, Nude & Bridge, 2010. Oil on panel, 11-1/4 x 10-1/2 inches. Courtesy of Caldbeck Gallery

The selection on view at Caldbeck dates to 1968 at the earliest, with a wide sampling of years between then and 2010. You can see her spending decades asking herself what around her is interesting, and answering differently each time. One day in 1993, it was Elliott’s Place, a tiny white house perched on the side of a hill. As architecture it is unremarkable, but Dodd found art there. The hillside curves downward just as the power line curves upward. Elms pick up the light gleaming off the facade, tapping out a rhythm of pale gray verticals across the rectangle. Greenish umber fills the foreground and the sky, unifying the scene with a forest shadow. On another day in 1976, it was two squirt guns and a swimming mask, arranged into a striking composition of blue and orange. Once in 1985, it was downed autumn foliage on a bright October afternoon.

One common thread is the paint handling, thin and brushy with a minimum of modification. Over the decades, her subject has varied from still lifes to burning houses to whimsical scenarios involving nudes, but her method operates within narrow confines. She’ll impose strong designs, but abstraction for its own sake is out. She’ll paint the figure, but she’s not interested in the traditional realism that figure painting entails. She’ll paint flowers, but she avoids botanical exactitude. She’ll invent scenes, but there will be no illustration.

Furthermore, the subject has to be interesting for no good reason. If there’s a reason, she questions whether it’s a good subject. The paint has to do nothing except exist as paint. If it becomes polished or fussy, she questions whether she’s on the right track.  There is nothing wrong with the concerns that she has excluded, except that they impinge upon a simple problem of determining what is presenting itself to her attention and then painting it. Dodd’s take on the one-shot style proceeds from a position of purity – a temperamental purity, not an ideological one. Although they didn’t say it in so many words, this is the reason good artists had me seek her out.

Lois Dodd, Elliott's Place, 1993. Oil on panel, 11-3/4 x 19 inches. Courtesy of Caldbeck Gallery

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Paris-Harare: Focus on Inner Vision



Report from… Harare, via Paris

Jeune Contemporain et Zimbabween at Pavé d’Orsay

May 9 to 21, 2011
48, rue de Lille
75007 Paris

Moffat Takadiwa, Circumcised Bombs, 2011. Metal, plastic, glass, dimensions variable. photo by Silver Simphor

Moffat Takadiwa, Circumcised Bombs, 2011. Metal, plastic, glass, dimensions variable. photo by Silver Simphor

Two shady blocks away from the Musée D’Orsay, Galerie Pavé d’Orsay played host this spring to a Parisian first: an exhibition of five emerging artists from Zimbabwe, all from Harare’s visionary First Floor Gallery.  “Jeune Contemporain et Zimbabween” was curated by Belorussia-born, Paris-based, Australian curator Valerie Kabov and Zimbabwean musician and cultural impresario Marcus Gora.  Judging by the mixture of paintings, prints and sculptures on display, Zimbabwean art looks to be developing an independent streak after years of colonial subjugation that can be characterized as a tinkering with high modernism.

Purging themselves of the old dichotomy of the raw versus the cooked, these artists are engaged in a re-contextualization of found objects. Their capacity to scavenge is borne of poverty and concomitant necessity. There is a sense of earthiness and a playful, DIY attitude to their sculptures and assemblages. The draftsmanship of the pictorial works could be called Art Brut coming in from the cold.

Wycliffe Mundopa’s paintings stitched onto the heels of leather shoes fuse a bricolage aesthetic with minimalist scrawl. His bright, thick ink monoprints and stenciled collages, on the other hand, look like 1950s Soviet book illustrations.  Brian Banda’s Empty Promises series of porcelain cups on board are also wonderful examples of a functionalist, spare minimalism, although his matching paintings of the same hanging cups do not hold together as well.

Zacharaha Magasa’s metal sculptures consisting of wires and ceramic bottles with intricately constructed globular torsos resemble mid career Lee Bontecou. The clear audience favorite, however, were Moffat Takadiwa‘s elongated totemic lamps fashioned from plastic bottles.  With ceremonial handles referencing traditional African motifs, ‘heads’ made of ceramic bulbs and bodies connected with tape or wire, they proffered a magisterial seriality when lined up by the dozen.   Terence Musekiwa’s complemented these with small works on a similar theme, with figureheads attached to household utensils such as screwdrivers.

These young artists, ranging between twenty and twenty-seven, the average age of art students in the west, are grappling to replicate developments in Western art since Cubism.  The results are outstanding in comparison to their relative youth: the urgent need to feed their families concentrates the mind and the hand, according to the curators.

The show steers away from traditional ethnographic concerns of western surveys of African art. While specifically African-influenced works in the show are probably the most compelling, there is also a sense that these young artists are moving away from particularism to more universal aesthetic concerns, to join the mass contemporary art market. With the stencil works and the cubist collages on newspaper especially, we take away the sense that Zimbabweian art is passing through a healthy phase of fragmentation and formal recontextualization of the subject  that the west passed through decades ago.

Looking at these pieces one finds that the prism of political developments is unavoidable. Zimbabwean’s passing to majority rule in the early 1980’s was more traumatic and bloody than South Africa’s and has resulted in political stalemate. The post-apartheid social landscape falls radically short of the democratic ideals that drove the revolution, with glaring economic inequalities between black and white citizens remaining.  Some of the painting’s witty references to work and manual labor contain a critique that is unmistakable even several decade’s on.

Brian Banda, Empty Promises, 2011. Acrylic on cardboard.  photo by Silver Simphor

Brian Banda, Empty Promises, 2011. Acrylic on cardboard. photo by Silver Simphor

Kabov is strident and idealistic in her denunciation of the ‘neo colonial’ attitudes she continues to encounter and the endemic lack of professionalism of the Zimbabwean art world. “There is much to be angry about when the National Gallery together with the EU mission, holds an exhibition asking young artists to respond to the history of the work of the EU in Zimbabwe, with a grand prize of $300.”

‘”The other gallery in Harare, Gallery Delta, has become a philanthropic trust living on donations,” Kabov explained to me. As a result, they are forced to seek sponsorship from local NGOs and Embassies, which in the past have resulted incongruously themed exhibitions such as the 2009 Berlin Wall competition, where young Zimbabwean artists are asked to make works responding to the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

After a similar appeal to the Spanish Embassy they ran a Don Quixote competition. “You can see how relevant all that is to Zimbabwean contemporary young artists, right?”

Kabov also confirmed my suspicions that Zimbabwean artists continue to grapple with the problem of ingrained expectations.  The demands of the European collectors skew their artistic development. But Kabov remains optimistic about the capacity of Zimbabwean artists to transcend the historical hindrances set in their paths. “The First Floor Gallery is the first in which Zimbabwean artists themselves are running things and have an agenda which is not designed to play up to sponsors or donors. Young artists can never get an idea of what it means to develop a body of work of their own or an independent vision if they constantly have to imagine what some ‘white person with money’ would like to see,” she says.  Art that looks like it is conforming to this pattern “is the first thing that we throw out the window. The artist has to focus on their inner vision and build from that. To look at their world and respond to that.”

Passage to Postmodernity: Paris-Delhi-Bombay



Report from… Paris

Paris-Delhi-Bombay: India through the eyes of Indian and French Artists at the Centre Pompidou, 25 May – 19 September 2011

Subodh Gupta, Ali Baba, 2011. installation, found materials, dimensions variable.  Courtesy of the Artist

Subodh Gupta, Ali Baba, 2011. installation, found materials, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist

Hal Foster’s extremely influential anthology The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays in Postmodern Culture (1983) argued that art breaking down the traditional modernist distinction between verbal and visual experience provided aggressive cultural critique. No longer, he urged, could or should artists make merely seductive visual artifacts. Taking up that way of thinking, this ambitious exhibition of almost fifty Indian artists and French artists who are interested in India, deals with six grand themes: politics, urbanism and the environment, religion, the home, identity and arts and crafts. A weighty French-only catalogue (a much shortened version is available in English) presents the context for ORLAN’s Indian and French flags made from sequins, Krishnaraj Chonat’s recycled waste electronic materials, N. S. Harsha’s playful contemporary reworkings of Indian miniatures, Alain Declercq’s photographs of the militarized border between India and Pakistan and Sunil Gawde’s garlands of flowers, made from painted razor blades. There are essays on Western ideas about India; about the role of the sacred art in that country and its museums; and about Indian modernism. And one section is devoted to a variety of points of view about Indian culture, and its relationship to the West. Seeking to learn “qu’est-ce que l’Inde aujourd’hui?,” the curators seek to promote a dialogue between France and India, developing “new and lasting links between our two cultures.”

Pierre & Gilles, Hanuman, 2010. Model: Thomas Tabti. Painted photograph, 200 x 145.5 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont, Paris © Adagp, Paris 2011

Pierre & Gilles, Hanuman, 2010. Model: Thomas Tabti. Painted photograph, 200 x 145.5 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont, Paris © Adagp, Paris 2011

I was amused by Jitish Kallat’s Ignitaurus (2008), a hybrid motorbike-bull sculpture; by the painted photographs derived from popular Indian images by Pierre & Gilles; by Atul Dodiya’s Devi and the Sink (2004), a painting derived from a Bollywood cinematic comedy; and by Ravinder Reddy’s Tara (2004), a large scale golden sculpture of an Indian woman, mounted at the center of the display. I enjoyed Stéphane Calais’s large Indian ink drawings referring to the Thugee sect that robbed and strangled travelers; Riyas Komu’s Beyond Gods (2011), a massive wood sculpture of eleven footballers’ legs; and Pushpamala N’s photographic take-offs on nineteenth-century French painting. And I was intrigued by the erotic art of Tejal Shah, of Kader Attia and of Thukral & Tagra, who set classical Indian erotic sculptures in contemporary bourgeois bedrooms.

But to be honest, everything here seemed obviously and hopelessly derivative, too much so to inspire sustained interest. I sometimes ask myself: what would I take home from the exhibition? From this show, nothing. Subodh Gupta’s Ali Baba (2011), a dense overflowing display of stainless steel tableware, is a version of Allan McCollum’s 1980s exercises in repetition; the photographs of urban waste by Vivan Sundaram and Atul Bhalla’s documentation of water distribution in New Delhi a variation on familiar political themes; and the sculptures of Anita Dube which link blood and sexual identity, tropes on clichéd Chelsea displays. Joseph Masheck’s Point 1: Art Visuals/Visual Arts. Smart Art (1984), a lively, now too little known survey of Lower East Side art, which deserves the attention of art historians, summarizes in more visual detail than Foster’s The Anti-Aesthetic the state of trendy American art of that period. These Indians and their French colleagues have uncritically adopted this now dated Western style. This is stale art that has not withstood the test of time.

Sometimes you learn a lot about an exhibition by going to other nearby museums. A short walk East from the Pompidou Center takes you to the Louvre. The aesthetic paintings of Nicolas Poussin, Antoine Watteau and Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin provide a varied, but surely not comprehensive image of old regime France. Why believe, then, that these contemporary works of art at the Pompidou which all are so self-consciously indebted to Western precedents can provide the best way of understanding present day India?  Can the multifaceted cultures of Delhi and Bombay be adequately presented by this exhibition? I think not. But here we get to the inescapable political problems.  The well intentioned, politically correct Pompidou curators seek to represent India on its own terms.  They want to tell us how the Indians (and sympathetic French visitors) think about economic inequality, politics, and sex. And they seek to identify the distance between art in that distant culture and in the West. But how is it possible to do that when in this exhibition all of the art borrows so transparently from contemporary Western visual culture?  How, I am critically asking, can the Indians represent themselves? Can the Western museum show the Indian women and men as they really are, without reductively reducing employing Eurocentric ways of thinking? This ambitious exhibition posed but did not answer that question, which I hope that other curators in other cultures inside and outside of the West will take up. But here we get to the inescapable political problems.  The well intentioned, politically correct Pompidou curators seek to represent India on its own terms.  They want to tell us how the Indians (and sympathetic French visitors) think about economic inequality, politics, and sex. And they seek to identify the distance between art in that distant culture and in the West. But how is it possible to do that when in this exhibition all of the art borrows so transparently from contemporary Western visual culture?  How, I am critically asking, can the Indians represent themselves? Can the Western museum show Indian women and men as they really are, without reductively employing Eurocentric ways of thinking? This ambitious exhibition posed but did not answer that question, which I hope that other curators in other cultures inside and outside of the West will take up.

ORLAN, Flag Skin Hybrid, 2011. Sequins, light, ventilators, painting, 373 x 546 cm Collection de l’artiste, Paris © Adagp, Paris 2011

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Tejal Shah, You Too Can Touch the Moon (from the Hijra Fantasy series), 2006.  Numbered photograph on archival paper, 147 x 96.5 cm. Courtesy de l’artiste et Project 88, Bombay

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Mystique and conspiracy: The Polaroids of Horst Ademeit



Report from… Berlin, and Horst Ademeit’s Secret Universe at the Hamburger Bahnhof

May 13 – September 25, 2011
Invalidenstraße 50-51,
10557 Berlin, Germany

Horst Ademeit: untitled mixed media / polaroid, 11 x 9 cm Courtesy Galerie Susanne Zander, Cologne

Horst Ademeit: untitled mixed media / polaroid, 11 x 9 cm Courtesy Galerie Susanne Zander, Cologne

The oeuvre of Horst Ademeit (1937-2010) consists of no less than several thousand photographs and hundreds of pages of accompanying text.  From the late 1980s, Ademeit employed a Polaroid camera to obsessively document his surroundings. The result is a body of work that in its eclecticism and volume amounts to what the curators at the Hamburger Bahnhof have poignantly labeled a “secret universe.” Due to the cohesive complexity that Ademeit’s first museum exhibition offers, the audience can now gain unprecedented insight into both the artist’s visual language and his mind.

Ademeit, who passed away last July, spent most of his life in Cologne and Düsseldorf. He first trained as a house painter.  Following a brief period of working in textile design, he became a student of Joseph Beuys in 1970. Beuys’ belief in art as an omnipresent part of life that was accessible and could be practiced by all significantly informed Ademeit’s outlook. He also turned his focus on the immediately available: everyday objects, news, and confinements. In addition, Ademeit’s work entails the more obscure attempt to register what he referred to as “cold rays” and invisible radiation. But how to document a notion or fear of something ungraspable? In Ademeit’s case, the solution meant to combine visuals with intellectual content.

In fact, all of Ademeit’s photographs are obscured by the application of handwritten notations. This mesmerizing assemblage of data was painstakingly gathered from electricity meters, thermometers, compasses, clocks, and other measuring devices. But Ademeit’s observations were not limited to the factual. He also recorded sensual impressions and thoughts. His notes on smells, sounds, atmospheric characteristics, and moods, provide a glimpse of the artist’s emotional reality.

Ademeit’s works are visual but also contextual records of specific places as the artist experienced them at a distinct moment in time. Despite the accounting of neutral information, they are also personal musings, a fact that is enhanced by Ademeit’s focus on the familiar. Throughout his career, his preferred subjects remained his apartment building, its basement and yard. It was only after the excessive study of his most immediate environment that he extended his interest to the neighborhood at large, including construction sites, parked automobiles, bicycles, and garbage piles. In “o.T.” (an abbreviation for “ohne Titel” or “Untitled”), Ademeit investigates two bikes with the incredulous eye of a detective. He notes that the second bike was parked at 9.58 PM, that handcuffs are hanging from the frame and that it has been chained to the fence. In Ademeit’s world, nothing was trivial. Mystique and conspiracy were constant companions

This exhibition reveals that Ademeit only slowly expanded his world. In 1990 however, he made a major adjustment. He shifted from photographing objects and interiors to printed media. Each day, he set up measuring instruments and a compass on his newspaper and photographed the still life. In the end, this series involved 6006 works. “5805” is a typical example of this body of work. It shows two opened pages of the Bild Zeitung, a daily German newspaper notorious for its sensationalist reportage. Like the New York Post, the Bild signifies a media outlet that draws its readership’s attention by means of shocking headlines. Ademeit contrasts this superficial gathering of information with his personal, highly detailed notes. Fused together into one picture plane, his observations and the newspaper’s heavily illustrated subjects transform into a vivid and highly detailed index card of the day at hand: September 24, 2003.

When viewed as a large group, Ademeit’s photographs manifest as an elaborate archive of everyday information. Within this complex system, each work reveals the artist’s ambition to thoroughly decipher his place and time. They tell the story of an individual in emotional turmoil, who was seeking to establish a sense of order in a seemingly chaotic world.

Horst Ademeit: untitled mixed media / polaroid, 11 x 9 cm Courtesy Galerie Susanne Zander, Cologne

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Horst Ademeit: untitled, 11 x 9 cm., mixed media polaroid, Courtesy Galerie Susanne Zander, Cologne

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