What are Masterpieces and Why Are There So Many of Them?
A TOPICAL PICK FROM THE ARCHIVES: The lead exhibition reviewed here last summer when it was in San Francisco has now arrived at the Metropolitan Museum where it remains on view through June 3
Report from… San Francisco
The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde, organized by Janet Bishop, Cécile Debray, Rebecca Rabinow and Gary Tinterow for the following venues: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (to September 6); Réunion des Musées Nationaux––Grand Palais, Paris (October 3-January 16, 2012); The Metropolitan Museum of Art (February 21-June 3, 2012).
Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, organized by Wanda M. Corn and Tirza True Latimer. Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco (to September 6); National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (October 14-January 22, 2012).
Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris, organized by the Musée National Picasso and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. De Young Museum, San Francisco (to October 9); travels last to Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, November 12-February 19, 2012.
Sir Francis Cyril Rose, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, 1939. Courtesy of Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco
How great is this? In downtown San Francisco, within three blocks of each other, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Contemporary Jewish Museum have concurrent, eyepopping and hugely detailed shows on the activities of Gertrude Stein, her brother Leo, their older brother Michael and his wife Sarah, and, finally, Gertrude’s great love Alice B. Toklas, in furthering and collecting early twentieth-century art in Paris. And to top it off, across town, on the near edge of Golden Gate Park, the De Young Museum is hosting an equally astonishing set of 150 Picasso paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures on loan from the Musée Picasso in Paris. The contents of all three shows together should be enough to put some soul in anybody’s summer.
“Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories” at the CJM is mostly just that. For those not already interested in Stein and how her looks, manner and the company she kept changed with age, the walk-through experience might feel a bit so-so. As it was, they changed considerably, and not just with age, but with her literary achievements and her own self views, as well as with how others saw her. Studying her strong face and massive physique, remarkable as they were, or the dust jackets of her books won’t help you enjoy her writings any better, although the recordings of her reading some of her work, as well as the electrifying footage of the original 1934 production of her and Virgil Thomson’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts, surely will. Curated by Wanda Corn and Tirza Latimer, who also wrote alternating chapters for the accompanying book, “Five Stories” is more a procession of essays to be read––sumptuously illustrated and exhilarating at that––than a show to go see.
Unidentified photographer, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, c. 1927, photo reproduction of original photograph. Courtesy of the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Under subheads like “Bohemian Stein,” “Matron Stein,” and “Imperial Stein,” you find a person––insistently, by her own lights, a genius––alternately courageous and wary, endlessly (often haplessly) self-promoting, too regularly enthralled by her own pronouncements. She could be all smiles and warmly persuasive in her public appearances during her legendary mid-1930s American lecture tour, and yet long before then her demands on any self-respecting caller had become famously insufferable. In the book and wall texts, both Corn and Latimer stress as exemplary in its forthrightness and ardor the way she and Alice Toklas settled into their lesbian life together for nearly 40 years: “By 1910, Stein and Toklas had privately pledged themselves to each other as husband and wife. From now on, they used the language of conventional marriage to describe their love, calling each other hubby and wifey and dividing up domestic chores strictly along traditional gender lines.”
Stein may well have been the most portrayed writer of her era. The range of painters and photographers who sought her out as a sitter––from Picasso to Picabia, from Man Ray to Cecil Beaton––says something about her allure. By the late 1920s, her main artistic affiliations were with photography and sculpture (though strangely, despite the efforts of both Jacques Lipchitz and Jo Davidson, no sculptural image quite brings home the scale and force of her presence). “Painting now after its great moment must come back to be a minor art,” she declared in 1931. It was in light of such dim prospects that when she did buy pictures they tended to be works by lesser painters who came her way––most famously, the hyper-opportunist Sir Francis Rose, out of whose 130 works in Stein’s collection, only one on view, an atypical, Jess-like portrait hanging at the CJM, has serious merit.
“The Steins Collect” is epic. Besides delivering the goods in sheer density and depth, a plenum of marvelous objects to look at, the installation, a high-wire performance by SFMoMA curator Janet Bishop, allows healthy, albeit sometimes heated, dialogue between on-site appreciation and what has come to be advanced as museological significance. Late in life, Gertrude Stein confided what was first apparent in her approach to art and artists, that she had “always wanted to be historical.” The inevitable tension between how to historicize oneself as an artist and other, institutional ideas of history is implicit in her unqualified response to Alfred Barr’s attempts early on to get her to give her collection to the Museum of Modern Art: “You can be a museum or you can be modern, but you can’t be both.”
“The Steins Collect” is historical as not just a telling array of art works but also the story of the people connected with them, who seem bent on being interesting in infinitely compelling ways. Combine this with the documentation of Gertrude and Alice at the CJM, and you get an aggregate saga in perpetually interweaving parts, not least of which are the adventures of some members of a well-off but not super-rich second-generation Jewish family from the San Francisco Bay Area in building collections of such magnitude. Gertrude and Leo took the lead, and Sarah and Michael soon matched them. In and around Paris beginning in 1905 and after returning permanently to California thirty years later, Sarah Stein lived out her special passion for the art of Matisse (who in turn dubbed her “the really intelligently sensitive member of the family”), while Michael tended to the financial end so that everyone’s income from the family businesses (street cars and rental properties back home) could be adequately maintained.
The early galleries at SFMoMA, as well as those at the De Young, serve as reminders of how hard-won were the glories of the avant-garde’s pre-World-War-I Golden Age. To contemplate what took place just within the first half of the decade leading up to 1914 is dizzying. It was in Gertrude and Leo’s salon in 1906 that Picasso and Matisse met and where, more often than not, over the next few years, each one saw some painting by the other, a shocker, deep within the terms of painting, that left both artists and their immediate audiences, too, wondering what turn the art would take next. In this brief epoch of largely abandoned or otherwise imploding masterpieces, it’s easy to imagine the two of them repeatedly scaring themselves and each other, courting catastrophe in a kind of delirious one-up-manship (the point being not to scare off or win but to further heighten the game). The most scarifying of all, of course, was Picasso’s “first exorcism picture,” Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, an abrupt, nightmarish inversion of the Arcadian dream––that dear sad fantasy of liberality and ease adapted from Cézanne by Matisse, who carried it over from his Fauvist-psychedelic phase to the classic grandeur of the pictures (Sarah’s and Michael’s Le Luxe I was one) done after summering with the Steins in Italy in 1907, the same year Demoiselles got started. The demoiselles may have no clothes on, but they are not in a grove by a stream; Picasso’s brothel concoction is a B-side enactment of an un-modern earthly paradise.
Would Demoiselles have been to Gertrude’s liking? Leo hated it and all of Picasso that followed from it; hated, too, Gertrude’s writings that ran close parallels to Picasso in invention, plus, he had zero tolerance for the fact of Alice in Gertrude’s life––so finally he moved out, taking his Renoirs and many choice Cézannes with him. In the Autobiography, Gertrude records Alice’s first impression of Demoiselles as of “something painful and beautiful there and oppressive but imprisoned.” By the time Picasso let the picture out of the studio, some nine years after stopping work on it, Gertrude couldn’t afford her old friend’s prices, and anyway it was too big, rough and imposing to be accommodated in any grouping on her household walls. Accordingly, the Demoiselles itself has no wall space in any of these shows. Instead, although physically absent, it haunts every one of them. What we see in its place at SFMoMA, are the related paintings and drawings that at one point formed a single line along the wall behind where Gertrude sat at her writing desk.
At some distance from the Matisse-Picasso agon, the most refined of the Arcadians––and the only one who brought the mode to flower in cubism proper––was Juan Gris. Softer and subtler than either, with what Gertrude Stein rightly called his “clarity and exaltation,” Gris achieved the serenity that Matisse frantically reached for and something extra that even Picasso never managed, the confidence that true mystery can come embedded in design.
Pablo Picasso, Study for Nude with Drapery,1907. Tempera and watercolor on paper mounted on board, 12-3/16 x 9-7/16 inches. Private collection.
“Sensitive” is not a word commonly applied to Picasso’s art but many early works here answer precisely to that description, among them the portrait of young Allan Stein, Michael and Sarah’s son. Matisse’s two depictions of Allan, two rooms later, are bold but comparatively impersonal exercises in picture making, although in the case of Boy with Butterfly Net, seemingly empathetic to the boy’s mad plunge into adolescence. Matisse’s best moments would occur soon enough; the great shorthand portraitist he would become is visible the images he made in 1916 of Michael and Sarah themselves, gems of SFMoMA’s permanent collection.
At the De Young you get a freshly impressive, quickstep survey of Picasso’s manifold achievement, affording, in the process, the chance to see many familiar works in a new light for being seen in a new place. (Given the pleasures of all that, it’s for the loveliness of small works, some unfamiliar and many still unframed as Picasso apparently preferred them, that one feels especially grateful.) Enough has been written about Picasso’s faults as a man, and even as an artist, his well-known monstrous side. There is far more to be gleaned from the deep humanity of his art, which, when it shows, is prodigious: this time around, for instance, for how, as a dramatist, he wrote the book on being and reflection, making them manifest in the simultaneity of pictorial form. In the Seated Woman of 1920, for instance, amazingly stately for all the systematic chunkiness of foreshortened body parts, and in the beautifully lost look of the couple in Village Dance (1922), how his characters’ eyes rest somewhere other than on the viewer (or other than, when accompanied, on one another), the whole gesture imbued with some large, slow turn in inner life.
“Picasso made me tough and quick and the world”––this line from Frank O’Hara’s “Memorial Day, 1950” echoes as I walk through the galleries. What a world: That no special theory emerges from any one or several visits may be part of what makes the serendipity of having all three shows here at once so happy and right. You look and look, and your sense of each picture and the next and the one across from that––or on yet another wall across town––gathers; together they click and make a constellation of shimmering details in and out of time. As Gertrude Stein herself said, concluding her 1923 portrait of her most constant artistic bedfellow, “Let me recite what history teaches. History teaches.”
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The Weight of Narrative: Photographs of David Goldblatt
Report from… Johannesburg
David Goldblatt, At Kevin Kwanele’s Takwaito Barber, Lansdowne Road. Khayelitsha, Cape Town in the time of AIDS.16 May 2007. Digital print in pigment inks on 100% cotton rag paper, 90 x 111 cm. Courtesy of Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
David Goldblatt, boyishly youthful in all but age, chose to celebrate his eightieth birthday by holding an exhibition of his own work at the Market Photo Workshop – the school he founded in Johannesburg in 1989, with the primary aim of introducing photographic skills to young blacks disadvantaged by apartheid. The school, which has been non-racial from the start, is flourishing: a lively centre of information and debate about the visual arts, offering courses in photojournalism and documentary photography, with 150 to 200 graduates each year – and Goldblatt is flourishing wonderfully too.
In the last twenty years he has become internationally renowned: recipient of the Hasselblad, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Lucie awards, his reputation has been further established by exhibitions at MoMA and Documenta, and a retrospective exhibition that toured galleries and museums around the world, as well as the publication of many books of his work.
But Goldblatt remains true to his dictum that “the arts should always be iconoclastic,” describing himself as “an unlicensed, self-appointed critic of South African society which I continue to explore with a camera.” The critical, critiquing aspect of his work is offset by its visual poetry and – most importantly for this most respectful of photographers – by his own dignifying, humanistic approach: a Goldblatt image typically achieves a balance between scorn, compassion and an artist’s delight in discovery. The weight of narrative is important in a reading of Goldblatt’s work, and the explanation is often in the titles (see the captions to images in this article). He acknowledges the influence of literary friends such as Nadine Gordimer, Barney Simon and Ivan Vladislavic, with whom he has shared projects. His own body of work is as close to literature as pictures can be.
Entitled Fale le Fale, a Sesotho phrase that translates as ‘Here and Here,’ the Workshop exhibition is modest in size but profound and far-reaching in content. It shows Goldblatt’s independence from the contemporary art world that embraces him, and from stereotypical political thinking in South Africa, past and present.
The photographs are printed small and cover a diverse range of themes, stretching from recent work back to the 1960s, with black and white hanging next to digitalised colour. Included are pictures of motorists, photographed by the young Goldblatt in his rear view mirror: a scathing depiction of white South Africans at the time, they all look grim and bad-tempered. Menu (1971) is a reflection of colonial aspirations for “English” respectability – taped onto a brick wall outside a downmarket hotel, the bill of fare offers Potage or Consommé and Baked Rice Pudding.
Among his recent work are portraits of ex-offenders, each with a detailed history of the crime – they are also at the current Venice Biennale – and triptychs, which show different aspects of a subject, extending the narrative or, as Goldblatt says, “showing what is around the corner”. Willem Vorster with friends, family, house and garden, 2009 shows the mud brick house and garden carefully created by a man who is disabled and unemployed, and as the camera takes in the harsh environment it also reveals a row of modest prefab houses in the background that are the embodiment of Vorster’s dream.
David Goldblatt, While in traffic, homage to Federico Fellini, Johannesburg. 1967. Silver gelatin print on fibre based paper, 30 x 40 cm. Courtesy of Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
What made Goldblatt choose these particular images, I asked him. “I thought I would like a ‘conversation’ with the students of the Workshop and that it might be an idea to show work from different areas of interest rather than something strongly thematic,” he replied. “Then, as well, the spaces seemed to lend themselves to that idea. So I said to the curators, John Fleetwood and Molemo Moiloa of the Workshop, that I would like to bring together ‘bits and pieces’, things that I have never shown or printed before, together with other work. They had a strong sense of what might interest and provoke students and so, together, we chose the work.”
Asked whether he kept the format small for practical reasons, he said, “I didn’t want to overwhelm. The work needed to be not only accessible but within the grasp of students’ own printmaking possibilities. Smaller rather than larger seemed right in those spaces.”
Goldblatt’s work is usually exhibited large-scale these days. Stepping up for a close scrutiny – rather than stepping back for a long view – is a reminder of his early exhibitions, and the rather private experience of entering into a different, uncomfortable and very intense world. At Kevin Kwanele’s Takwaito Barber, Lansdowne Road, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, in the time of AIDS, 2007 is simultaneously on display at the Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, but in large format. The big print is a more impressive image and shows the detail better; the small version is less like an artwork, more like a human document and perhaps more poignant.
Unexpectedly this photograph makes me think of Piero della Francesca’s Nativity. Both show disparate characters in a bleached and dusty landscape under a limpid sky; each of them is differently occupied, and looking in a different direction. Both have a strange sense of stillness. And both have a common narrative that links the characters and makes sense of the composition – in Khayelitsha, the repeated AIDS symbols create the narrative. But mostly it is the clarity of light in Goldblatt’s photograph that reminds me of Piero, whose paintings are always bathed in light. In both artists, light imparts an atmosphere of reason and serenity.
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Full title of Here, in 2007, Ellen Pakkies strangled her son Abie. Lavender Hill, Cape Town. 12 September 2010:
Ellen was sentenced to three years in prison suspended and 62 hours of community service. There were extenuating circumstances. Her son Abie, the youngest of three, started using tik when he was 13. He robbed Ellen and her husband of everything: money, clothes, bed linen, dishes, appliances, copper pipes and taps in their house. He smashed their home to pieces and terrorised them. Through it all, she cared for him. She wanted him to feel that he belonged somewhere. She couldn’t throw him out onto the streets, because she had come from the streets herself.
Her mother was homeless when Ellen was an infant. They moved into a backyard room in Kensington when Ellen was two and her mother got married. Ellen was four when the boys next door began molesting her, six when another neighbour, a known murderer, first raped her. Her parents drank heavily. Ellen cared for the children born to the marriage, but had no friends. By the time she was 11 she had been abducted twice by sexual predators. She was 13 when her parents allowed a known rapist to share her bed because he brought liquor into the house. She ran away. She’d had four years of primary school.
Ellen lived on the streets, eating garbage and selling her body. Her first child, conceived in rape, was born when she was 17. She married at 18. The union lasted 6 months. Her second marriage lasted 2 years, and she had two sons, Abie and his brother. She married Ontil, her husband today, when she was 28. At the time of the murder she worked at an orphanage where she was happy; the children taught her new things, like how to swim and to play, and she could help them, because she knew where they came from. Today, she helps other women with addicted children.
Exhibition continues at 2 President Street, Newtown, Johannesburg 2001 until 29 July, 2011
Art is for Everyone: Caravaggio and Street Protests in Louisville, Kentucky
Report from… Louisville, Kentucky
Members of the Louisville arts community protest the actions of Fund for the Arts CEO Allan Cowen, Louisville, Kentucky, March 11, 2011. Courtesy of Travis K. Kircher / WDRB 41 News
Louisville, Kentucky has something that other cities covet. Unlike the countless urban centers praying that an eleventh hour investment in the creative sector will deliver them from an ailing economy, Louisville’s support and (blue) grassroots enthusiasm for the arts is well established. Recently, the local arts community, displaying impressive vitality and channeling their own brand of the Arab Spring, took to the streets in a protest that helped unseat the reigning CEO of the city’s Fund for the Arts.
The confrontation began in February with a seemingly innocuous letter extolling the virtues of public support for the arts. In addition to the well-worn tack of linking arts and culture to everything from higher math scores to economic expansion, the letter, signed by the directors of the Speed Art Museum, Frazier History Museum, and the Louisville Visual Art Association (LVAA), suggested that simply donating to the Fund for the Arts (FFA) wasn’t enough. Not all arts organizations benefit from FFA funding, the statement continued, and some that do, do so only very little.
Shortly after the letter’s publication in the weekly Louisville paper Business First LVAA director Shannon Westerman received a terse voice-mail from FFA CEO Allan Cowen which included, among other things, a perceived threat to Westerman’s status as director. Apparently angered by Westerman’s signature on the open letter, Cowen ended the message by wishing him “good luck in (his) future career”. On March 11th, after Westerman went public with the intimidating voice-mail, incensed members of the Louisville arts community staged a lively protest outside the offices of the FFA and demanded Cowen’s ouster.
Though he’s been viewed as a mercurial figure, Cowen’s accomplishments at the FFA speak for themselves. Under his watch, the annual campaign grew from a lightweight $600,000 to a staggering $8 million. Cowen is also credited for increasing FFA assets from $43,000 to holdings worth over $25 million today. But less than two weeks after the demonstration and subsequent internal debate, on March 21st, the FFA announced that Cowen would be retiring after 30 years of service. It seems fitting then that a city whose recent intrigue would make the House of Borgia proud should play host to an important work by the Italian artist known for his tumultuous life.
Caravaggio, The Fortune Teller, 1594. Oil on Canvas. Courtesy of Scala / Art Resource, NY, Pinacoteca Capitolina, Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy.
The Fortune Teller by Caravaggio is the heart of an exhibition at The Speed Museum that examines the lasting impact of the Milanese master’s accomplishments by juxtaposing The Fortune Teller with works from the Speed’s permanent collection. (The Speed Museum’s exhibition of the painting is the second of three stops in North American following the Italian Cultural Institute in New York in May, and a last stop at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa) .
Dated 1594, The Fortune Teller depicts an alluring gypsy entrancing a young cavalier while purloining his golden ring. It’s an image that possesses an eerie, almost modern quality. The surface, devoid of any trace of the brush, is free of craquelure and is gently speckled as if pigment were mixed with sand. Cropped scarcely below the pelvis, the actors in this tale of beauty and betrayal inhabit a space just beneath the surface of the picture plane, resulting in a photographic quality that makes The Fortune Teller appear more akin to a grouping of figures by Degas than Caravaggio’s contemporaries.
Speculation about Caravaggio obtaining his heightened realism via the camera obscura has grown in the past decade and an x-ray image also on display does nothing to dispel the conjecture. In addition to exposing the remnants of a subsurface painting by another artist, the x-ray reveals a total lack of underdrawing. It’s not only the composition that gives this work an incredible sense of veracity, but also the subtle facial expressions and the studied gestures of the figures. It’s little wonder that this picture was eagerly sought out by painters of the time; its space and sharp naturalism must have been startling to 17th century eyes.
The most notable examples of Caravaggio’s influence in the show are two early 17th century paintings; Ecce Homo, attributed to Gerard Douffet, and an image of St John in the Wilderness by an unknown painter. Douffet’s Ecce Homo depicts Pontius Pilate presenting Christ to the mob, (a theme tackled by Caravaggio himself around 1609) A brilliant, single-source light illuminates the flesh of a tormented messiah, drawing the eye down and across the surface to the posed hand of Pilate. The figures, carved out of light and dark, are close-cropped below the waist and pressed against the surface of the picture; all traits that give Caravaggio’s work its characteristic vérité. Douffet’s homage falls short only in his handling of the skin. In contrast to Caravaggio’s mastery of delicate shifts of hue that contribute to a depiction of life-like flesh, the figures in Ecce Homo seem to be made of wax. The unknown artist’s St John in the Wilderness shares similar qualities, but where Douffet’s composition benefits from areas of bold color, St John’s limited range of hue gives the sense of being a provisional, if refined, study.
Also on view, works by Rembrandt and Johannes Verspronck are compelling examples of Caravaggio’s impact across Europe. Compared to the previous paintings however, the execution of these works show the reach of Caravaggio in a diluted fashion. Is the emphasis on contrasts of light and dark descended from the earlier master’s innovation? Undoubtedly, but these artists paint too much with their own brush to be considered followers in any meaningful sense of the word.
The Speed Art Museum is just one of Louisville’s varied and growing arts institutions. The city, home to the boutique 21c Museum Hotel, the prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays, and the aforementioned dynamic local scene, is fast becoming a cultural hub that eclipses neighboring large cities. And despite the somewhat tense atmosphere generated by this year’s public row, the parties involved have agreed to put their difference aside and are moving forward for the greater good of the community. If not, expect artists in the streets.
Craft Becomes a Bad Word: Indian Folk Art in the Contemporary Wilderness
Report from… New Delhi
At first glance, there seems to be no difference between people’s attitude towards the commoditization of fine art and the commoditization of folk art. The geographical fringes are quite prominent yet the art fraternity constantly grapples with contradictory definitions of its rather subjective premise of existence and practice. Looking at three recent art exhibitions in separate spaces in Delhi allowed me to establish multiple focal points through which I could articulate the impulses, semblances, and discord of the contemporary diaspora/ dispersion of the artist and the artisan.
Invitation image for the show Folk and Tribal Arts of India at the Arts of the Earth Gallery, New Delhi.
The first show was titled Artisan Design (February 23–27, 2011), organized by Kala Raksha Trust. The Trust is a social enterprise that began in 1993 as a regional artisan initiative in Kutch, Gujarat, dedicated to preserving the traditional arts. The show was supported by a non-profit organization, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). The show had an array of beautiful handmade crafts from Kutch—embroidered and block-printed garments, domestic games, jewellery, home décor, and leatherwork—as well as contemporary designs created by graduates of Kala Raksha Vidyalaya (KRV), a school of design for traditional artisans.
The exhibition invited us to: “Check out the exquisite hand arts of Kutch and exciting new designs by Kala Raksha Graduates.” It is intriguing that the organization assembles artisans from the periphery, bringing a marginalized art form to the center to create a new contextual dialogue, yet deliberately avoids the word craft. They emphasize the historical, regional, and ethnic character of the arts, yet at the same time attempt to teach concepts of design to otherwise self-taught artisans. The question is whether such an initiative is building new models of craft, or instead firmly rejecting conventional definitions, which have traditionally drawn clear distinctions between an artisan and an academically trained fine artist.
Another exhibition, titled Vasant [Spring] 2011 (April 7–9, 2011), ran at Agha Khan Hall, New Delhi. The first stall to draw me in was for Indybindi, an initiative hardly five months old, the brainchild of three young siblings, all practicing commercial artists. The sheer energy of these young entrepreneurs was beaming through the vibrant, kitschy, color-frenzied art objects. Indybindi derives its inspiration from the simplicity of utilitarian objects, and is bonded to the folk arts through its reliance on natural materials, traditional techniques, and self-directed learning. The threads of folk and modernity are interwoven in an attempt to both resolve and blur the conflicts brought up by those that force each into their own defined space. (In addition to its artistic endeavors, the Indybindi enterprise also offers generous support to the NGO Ashiana, which is focused on the betterment of the lives of rural woman and children.)
Indybindi stall at the Vasant Mela exhibition, Agha Khan Hall, New Delhi. Courtesy of Manu Tiwari.
The idea of plucking regional arts from the periphery and re-instituting its identity is a role reversal – from a commercial artist who holds degrees and is formally trained to an artisan and working on a context that is glossed over and tossed but is not directly engaged with – is analogous with the pulse of the contemporary art market. It is fascinating how folk arts has so far managed to maintain the integrity of a rather singular, self-contained phenomenon, while enjoying unprecedented freedom and avoiding the impulse towards branding.
The third show that deserves mention here is Folk and Tribal Arts of India (April 16–May 7, 2011), presented by Arts of the Earth, a gallery that deals exclusively in folk, tribal, and popular idioms.
It is appreciable that the commercial gallery Art Konsult has branched out into new space with Arts of the Earth, and is striving to gain national exposure for folk and tribal arts. The exhibition had a substantial variety of folk paintings from the likes of Warli, Gond, Patachitra, Kalamkari, Madhubani, as well as other pieces that included handmade masks, terracotta objects, and metal accessories. The gallery occupies a rather quiet space in the otherwise busy and upbeat neighborhood of Lado Sarai, south of Delhi, and provides an environment for stoic observation.
According to the Arts of the Earth: ”The traditional folk & tribal painters are fast embracing other professions for their livelihood and their art slowly dying, Folk & Tribal art/painting/sculpture, Indian miniatures, and their undeniable influences etc. stand under a death threat.” It is becoming increasingly important to assess whether we are moving towards oblivion in the folk arts tradition or instead integrating it into a multi-polar universe of art, where art is considered as being both what happens in the center and what occurs on the periphery.
Observing these deconstructions and re-contextualizations, I feel that this precarious regional, ethnic difference is transforming the art scene and giving way to new creative contributions to the world. Through these three exhibitions one can assess how conceptually driven contemporary practices are becoming integrated with traditional styles. The confluence of ideology and methodology now demands articulation and critique, in order that the underlying dynamics be parsed and highlighted, without any cultural and social exclusion.
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Swanning Around Ahead of the Oscars: Three Shows in LA
Report From… Los Angeles
Installation view, Clare Rojas: Inside Bleak, at Prism, Los Angeles, February 26 to April 2, 2011
For the New York-based art critic, the galleries of Los Angles seem exotic, grandiose spaces spread throughout that expansive city. If your cicerone is knowledgeable about local history, as mine was (thank you Paul Foss!) you drive past some important film industry sites. Prism is on a posh section of Sunset Boulevard. A movie star who wandered in would feel right at home. Clare Rojas a much in demand mid-career artist based in San Francisco very effectively uses two stories of the large, oddly unwieldy gallery spaces. The main floor has immovable pillars, which she incorporates into her installation by setting images on those structural elements so that they visually mate with pictures on the distant walls, creating a dazzling perspectival effect. Up the stairs in the back room are a number of smaller paintings. And when you exit a towering commercial billboard on the high wall to the left of the gallery nicely complements her art. If Alex Katz collaborated with Edward Gorey, in consultation with Jacob Lawrence doing domestic scenes intermingled with decorative patterns, they might produce this display. Like Katz, Rojas sets figures against flat monochromatic color fields; like Gorey she has a sly sense of humor, though hers involves showing woman in enigmatic poses isolated in upscale up to date fashionably empty houses; and like Lawrence, she creates visually compelling assemblages of small, intensely colored paintings. [Clare Rojas: Inside Bleak, at Prism, February 26 to April 2, 2011, 8746 W. Sunset Boulevard. West Hollywood, CA 90069, 310.289.1301.]
Sam Durant’s title, “let do and let pass, the world goes on by itself,” which comes from Vincent de Gourney, a mid-eighteenth century French commerce secretary, alludes to free market ideologies. The show is in three gigantic galleries. The first contains six large globes, five new and one a handsome antique suspended from the ceiling or floor, which are marked to allude to such economic issues as money laundering, gold mining and pork producing. The second, moving clockwise, displays on the wall altered and collaged maps, which are covered with political texts. Then, finally, you get to a twenty-four foot long sheet map, using a Goode homolosine projection that allows you to imagine standing outside the world and looking down on its surface. Like Carl Andre’s sculptures, this is sculpture that you can walk on. Durant’s general concern, showing that geography is politically important is, of course very familiar both within the art world and from the leftist literature. To map is to control: he dramatically shows the power of that idea. Mapping has its own history, parallel to but normally distinct from the history of representation. This critical presentation of mapped information creates a visually impressive installation with great aesthetic power. [Sam Durant:?”Laissez faire et laissez passer, le monde va de lui meme,” at Blum & Poe, February 19 to April 2, 2011, 2727 S La Cienega Blvd, Los Angeles, Ca 90034. 310 836 2062.]
That “Black Swan,” curator Dominic Sidhu’s exhibition inspired by the film of that title, included works by Matthew Barney, Walead Beshty, Gardar Eide Einarsson, Katharina Fritsch, Douglas Gordon, Dan Graham, Wade Guyton, Pierre Huyghe, Sergej Jensen, Anish Kapoor, Karen Kilimnik, Rachel Kneebone, Glenn Ligon, Nick Mauss, Richard Phillips, Richard Prince, Ugo Rondinone, Wolfgang Tillmans, Banks Violette, and Christopher Wool merely identifies it as an upscale exhibition of the visual art seen in the movie. But what transformed it into a dazzling gesamtkustwerk, far more interesting than the sum of its fascinating parts was the installation. When you enter, the room looks like a standard white cube. But actually the room has a mirrored floor, cunningly designed so that as it is stepped on, cracks appear. Women’s stiletto heels are especially effective in causing this web of lines in the mirror to spread. April 9 was the date for the Academy Awards—this is LA, after all. ‘Step on a crack, break your mother’s back’: am I the only visitor who remembered that saying? I have never seen a more subtle commentary on the ‘mirror stage’ of human development without which the narcissism, which propels our film industry and thereby inspires our shared fantasy life would not be. [Black Swan: The Exhibition, at Regen Projects, February 25 to April 16, 2011.]
The Pleasures of the Pursuit: Talks by William Kentridge and Philip Pearlstein in Jerusalem
Report From… Jerusalem
William Kentridge Interviews Himself: two stills from William Kentridge, Drawing Lesson 47 (Interview for New York Studio School), 2010. Video, 4'48". Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery
Two famous artists with nothing in common spoke about their work to invited audiences in Jerusalem in recent weeks, and both were happy with their audiences. “You couldn’t get 200 people like that in New York,” Philip Pearlstein told a friend after his talk at the Jerusalem Studio School, where he found himself surrounded by fans. Packed audiences are a regular occurrence for William Kentridge, who spoke at the preview of ‘Five Themes’, his exhibition that opened at MoMA a year ago and is now at the Israel Museum – but he said he really enjoyed the responsiveness of this audience.
As a fellow South African, I am familiar with Kentridge’s Johannesburg, but I have an outsider’s view of Pearlstein’s New York. Listening to Pearlstein, and later talking with his wife Dorothy, also a painter, threw light on a few mysteries – which could all be covered by one question: What makes Pearlstein closer as an artist to his old friend Andy Warhol than to the painter with whom he is usually compared – Lucien Freud? In other words, what is so different about painting in New York and London?
Asked how he relates to Freud, Pearlstein said: “I don’t know anything about him but when we went to London in the 1970s, someone said ‘Why do we need Pearlstein when we’ve got Freud?’ “ Then he said with a smile: ” All I know is, since MoMA bought Freud, my work is in storage.”
Dorothy Pearlstein used the word ‘pragmatic’ about the American approach to art. And she said that for Pearlstein it is very important not to “leave a bit of himself on the canvas” – brush marks, fingerprints, or lumps of paint, in the way of European expressionism.
Philip Pearlstein, Two Models With Air Mattress and Sailboat, 2006. Oil on canvas, 60 x 84 inches. Courtesy of Betty Cuningham Gallery
Pearlstein’s decision to make huge paintings was pragmatic from the start – he had to, he said, or they wouldn’t be noticed. His interest in the gleaming nudes that he paints, with the translucent light and shadow moving over them, is unashamedly skin deep. And yet Pearlstein speaks about the people he paints with pride and admiration for their achievements – off the canvas.
He creates a smooth, impeccable, impenetrable surface that removes all evidence of the artist from the work and keeps the viewer at a distance. Elizabeth Taylor’s projected image comes to mind: seamless glamour devoid of irony, simplistic to the point of hick. But it’s New York hick, that moves easily from hick to cool to very sophisticated, and seems so enviable and unattainable to non-New Yorkers
For Kentridge, art is not about making an object to be treasured. His theatricality and love of trickery give a feeling of circus entertainment to his show. He made his audience rock with laughter at a split screen film interview between himself as two competing personae of the artist: the fumbling creative side and the scornful self-critic – while also expressing some of the most pertinent comments about the making and viewing of art.
Self-portraiture is at the heart of Kentridge’s work – a dramatised, evolving self-portrait that he uses in rather the same manner as an author like Philip Roth, where the main protagonist is not exactly him but reflects him; and where real life intertwines with fiction. In his early videos, based on charcoal drawings, Kentridge depicts himself in a pinstriped suit, or vulnerably naked, taking the part of two characters whose names, he says, came to him in a dream. Felix is a romantic lover and Soho is a heartless tycoon, but both are lonely figures in an unreliable world. The charcoal itself is vulnerable, smudgy and ephemeral, adding its own sense of romance and nostalgia.
At the preview, Kentridge repeated the remarkable speech he gave when he received the Kyoto Prize for Arts and Philosophy in November 2010, in which he expressed his strong feelings for Johannesburg, the city where he was born, and where he still lives and works. He has made his home and main studio in the graceful colonial family house where he grew up, on the crest of a hill overlooking the leafy suburbs. There is a buzz of creativity in Johannesburg, embattled though it has always been by politics or crime – but free, gutsy and self-ironical in terms of its people and its culture. Kentridge plugs into this creativity, working with local artists and musicians, and capturing and expressing the fun as well as the toughness of it in his work.
What does link Pearlstein and Kentridge – apart from being hard working, ambitious and impeccably professional – is that both communicate their enjoyment of making art.
Now or Nothing: Contemporary Art and the Queen City
Report From… Cincinnati, Ohio
Twenty-one years since the Contemporary Arts Center fought, and beat, obscenity charges stemming from images in Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, the City of Cincinnati and its arts community want you to know that times have changed and they’ve moved on. But not everyone is convinced. “The chilling effect that manifested itself directly after the trial continues today” observes Jerry Stein, a 38 year veteran of art reporting for the Cincinnati Post and witness for the defense during the 1990 trial. “You may not get art directors and curators to admit that, but anyone who suggests that they don’t consider the ramifications of the police showing up at a gallery, is in denial.” As a metropolis that has historically maintained a tense relationship with anything cutting edge or socially progressive, one might think that the current artistic milieu emphasizes landscapes, still lifes, and above all else: safety. But contrary to Stein’s remarks, the reality of the situation seems far different. When it comes to big name, even contentious artists, lately, Cincinnati is awash in them.
Keith Haring, Untitled, 1978. Sumi Ink on paper, 20 X 26 inches. © Keith Haring Foundation.
In just the past year, the Contemporary Arts Center has welcomed exhibitions by Pat Steir and Marilyn Minter; Selection from the Coleccion la Jumex; and Shepard Fairey’s retrospective exhibition, Supply and Demand, which courted minor controversy over the content of murals placed around the city. Perhaps the CAC’s biggest coup is the February debut of Keith Haring: 1978 -1982. Organized in collaboration with the Kunsthalle Wien, this exhibition pulls together an array of rarely seen drawings, collage, flyers, and short films; among the most compelling are some of Haring’s earliest. Works from 1978 and 1979 illustrate a marked fascination with the all-over approach of Tobey and Pollock, and these pieces – nearly all untitled — present a young man invested in the exploration of art’s formal problems. A selection from his journal highlights Haring’s interest in the way shape reads as isolated form or part of larger groups, and this examination gives rise to works such as 1979’s Untitled, a substantial ink and acrylic piece that echoes de Kooning’s 1950 masterwork Excavation. As good as these initial pictures are, by 1980 there is a perceptible decline in quality. The lone holdout is Matrix, a 1983 ink on paper opus that fuses figuration and all over pattern into a seamless work in excess of 35 feet. But as his style matures, Haring’s interest in compositional strategy wanes, and while his desire to circumvent the New York power structure and bring art into the public sphere is admirable, ultimately visual sophistication is sacrificed to get there.
Also on view, Rosson Crow’s Myth of the American Motorcycle brings together seven paintings specially commissioned for the CAC. Her ambitious, loose depictions of neon signs, choppers, and biker bars, struggle under the weight of their size. To handle this, Crow has devised a single effective compositional tactic: images that emphasize the horizontal, girded by overblown vertical drips and strokes of enamel paint. It works, but when Crow deviates from the formula, as in The Boneyard and Motorbike Junkyard, the paintings grind to halt. Crippled by a shift in format and without the horizon of the canvas to guide her; Crow is out of her depth. Densely packed around the edges, or jumbled in the center of the support, these paintings idle lifelessly. Relevant as these shows might be, the Contemporary Arts Center isn’t the only venue featuring that which is new. The Cincinnati Art Museum has been getting in on the action with a show by Kara Walker and, at present, The Way We Are Now: Selections from the 21 c Collection.
Based in Louisville, Kentucky, 21c bills itself as the only museum – in actuality a boutique hotel – dedicated solely to the art of the 21st Century. Putting aside the thorny issue of a public museum validating the collection of a for profit hotel, the exhibition is a free-for-all of recent work that leans heavily on photography and sculpture. A standout, and one of the few examples of painting in the show, is a group of small works by Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry. Intimate oil on linen portraits, The Evidence of Things Not Seen features images of men arrested during the 1956 Montgomery bus boycotts. A layer of transparent silk printed with the photographs of the 1956 mug shots hovers inches above the surface, creating haunting ghost images and a complex pictorial space.
Rosson Crow. The Boneyard, 2010. Acrylic, Oil, and Enamel on Canvas. © Rosson Crow. Courtesy of the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati
The inclusion of part of the 21c collection in the museum atrium also yields some unintentionally awkward moments; in particular the juxtaposition of Kehinde Wileys’s The Prophet and The King II (part of the 21c collection) with the comparably sized and framed A Venetian Woman by John Singer Sargent (part of CAM’s permanent collection). Rather than highlight Wiley’s connection to tradition, his limited formal vocabulary is brought into sharp relief by the painting’s proximity to the Sargent. Wiley’s overreliance on flat pattern, lack of varied surface incident, and complete disinterest in conveying any sort of credible space is glaring. Not only are these two not in the same league, they’re not even playing the same sport. The Prophet and The King II may not be much good, but at least it’s new.
Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, 2008. Oil on Linen, Toner on Silk, detail. Detail. Courtesy of the Artists.
So how does one rectify Cincinnati’s current embrace of all things contemporary with Stein’s comments? “The evidence is in what you show”, claims the seasoned critic. “Over the past twenty years I cannot pinpoint a single significant exhibition that equals the visual power and directness of The Perfect Moment.” And in this respect, Stein might be on to something. The Cincinnati Art Museum may have exhibited Kara Walker, but Harpers’ Pictorial history of the Civil War (Annotated) rates among her tamest and least interesting work to date. Shepard Fairey’s Supply and Demand certainly brought massive attendance for the CAC in 2010, but his calculated politics, bland imagery, and empty sloganeering parody the posture of a confrontational artist. Meanwhile, Rosson Crow is big for being, well, big, and while Keith Haring’s ubiquitous use of the phallus may ruffle a few feathers, his sincere embrace of the stance of the artist as activist hardly defies the values of Midwestern America. These shows may draw large numbers from the general public, but for the discerning viewer, there’s little challenge to taste. It’s possible that over the past twenty years, artists have simply set their sights lower (Stein admits as much), and major institutions, obsessed with the bottom line, are more interested in ticket sales than visual stimulation. While contemporary art may now be all the rage, when it comes to quality, Cincinnati might have further to go than it thinks.
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Heavy Hitters: The Art of Football, Dallas-Style
Report from… Dallas
Cowboys Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys football team, officially opened on June 6, 2009. Jerry and Gene Jones, owners of the Dallas Cowboys, funded the majority of the 1.2 billion dollar project. The 3-million–square-foot structure of glass and steel is full of architectural superlatives: the world’s largest retractable glass doors, the world’s largest HDTV video board, and arched trusses that span 1290 feet. The space is so vast that, according to the catalogue, you could fit the Statue of Liberty comfortably on the 50-yard line and it would not touch the roof.
Franz Ackermann, Coming Home and (Meet Me) At the Waterfall, 2009. Acrylic on wall, dimensions variable. Located in Southwest Monumental Staircase. Photo: James Smith/Dallas Cowboys
But those are not the facts that initially astounded me. In an unexpected marriage of art and sport, the Joneses hired Mary Zlot to serve as art consultant, and she quickly assembled an art panel of distinguished curators and collectors to help choose artists to exhibit in the stadium. As a result, the stadium is home to 21 museum-worthy contemporary art pieces by 19 internationally renowned artists: Olafur Eliasson, Ricci Albenda, Franz Ackermann, Lawrence Weiner, Jim Isermann, Dave Muller, Matthew Ritchie, Doug Aitken, Terry Haggerty, Gary Simmons, Mel Bochner, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Daniel Buren, Annette Lawrence, Teresita Fernández, Wayne Gonzales, Jacqueline Humphries, Eva Rothschild and Garth Weiser. The Joneses privately funded the art collection beyond the 1.2 billion dollar building cost. In Gene’s words, “a great building needs great art.”
Upon hearing about the art in the stadium, I was intrigued and apprehensive. I was concerned that the artwork would be exhibited in limited-access areas to enhance the cultural cachet of the Cowboys brand without allowing the art to interact with the public. And, if the work were prominently visible in the public area, had the art committee suggested “appropriate themes” or did the artist retain control?
Mel Bochner, Win! 2009. Acrylic on Wall?38 feet 2 inches by 33 feet 3 inches. Located in Northeast Monumental Staircase. Photo: James Smith/Dallas Cowboys
Mel Bochner has a text painting prominently located on the wall facing the Monumental Staircase. The painted blue box contains the black text of exclamatory words and phrases in capital letters, starting with “Win!” Bochner?s signature style delivers complexity through language. (The words seem aggressive, lighthearted, out-of-fashion, and silly all at once.) I asked Bochner if there was any pressure to change his design. Bochner explained that initially the owners suggested some changes to some of his phrases. So he set the stage for the relationship, explaining that artwork is: “an all-or-nothing situation. The language was not negotiable. [The Joneses] accepted those conditions and, I must say, [they] have been extremely enthusiastic ever since.” The relationship was one of trust, Gene Jones told me, and “of course, the artist was right.”
As for accessibility, the higher-priced suites and club levels have some wonderful works that are not visible to the general ticket holder (unless you purchase an art tour through the Dallas Museum of Art). But the main entrances, the concession areas, and the Monumental Staircase all have art, so every fan will see at least 3 or 4 artworks on any given path.
And these main stairways and entrances hold some of the most transformative pieces. The show stealer is the wall-wrapping painting from Franz Ackermann. It’s not only the enormous scale but also the brightly colored imagery based on architectural forms and memory of place that create an energetic and intimate escalator ride. For those walking the large pedestrian ramps, they will be ascending and descending next to an odd and powerful grid of striped mounds set in brightly colored flowers—the kaleidoscopic world of Trenton Doyle Hancock. Even above the concessions counter, which in my opinion is the most difficult spot, the Terry Haggerty has a captivating rhythm of red and white stripes, with an op-art, hypnotic wave. The A/C vents take on a humorous role, punctuating the bottom of this striped form.
The 19 artists are all heavyweights, but the works that interact specifically with their installation site are the most effective. In a calculated risk, Eliasson relies on light for thematic unity. The sunlight streaming in from the entrance windows gives his clunky, mobile-like celestial shapes the lightness that his materials contradict. Through reflection and refraction, these discreet metal and glass objects, in their suspended pull from the ceiling, become connected to each other and to the walls of the passageway.
Terry Haggerty, Two Minds, 2009. Acrylic on wall, 21 x 126 feet. Located in Main Concourse, Northeast Concession. Photo: Richie Humphreys/Dallas Cowboys
Though many of the chosen artists had completed permanent installations prior to the stadium project, some had not yet had the chance. Such was the case for Annette Lawrence, creator of “Coin Toss,” a muscular yet elegant work of opposing tension made of stranded cable attached in a c-shape on each opposing wall. Normally, Lawrence works with string and tape, creating delicate and impermanent installations. I asked her if the new installation was a conceptual challenge. She replied that the impermanence was not a philosophical stance, but rather a reaction to the functioning of the space. “I just didn’t have the opportunity before. […] In a gallery or alternative exhibition space, exhibits are temporary situations. The luxury of space made these pieces possible.”
The Dallas Museum of Art is holding a concurrent exhibit with many of the same artists, entitled Big New Field, which runs through February 20, 2011. On one hand, this dialogue between the stadium and the museum can be seen as an effort to capitalize on the tourism associated with the Super Bowl, but it’s also a study in context.
For those interested in the cultural future of the museum, this dialogue is important. Charlie Wylie, a curator at the Dallas Museum of Art and part of the art panel that chose the artists for Cowboys Stadium described the experience of seeing artwork there as: “exhilarating […] more spontaneous and direct than in a museum where you specifically go to encounter works of art. A big reason we organized the Big New Field exhibition was to provide visitors with the chance to compare the experience of seeing art in both the stadium and the DMA, and I hope they realize both venues have their own unique qualities and will come back to both often.”
Art is an ongoing education. I asked Gene Jones, herself a collector of Norman Rockwell, which of the artworks surprised her the most once she saw it realized. Her original conception of the stadium’s interior was sleek and subtle, a palette of neutral tones. Franz Ackermann’s piece was assigned a multi-storied wall in the southwest area of the Monumental Staircase and his proposal was bold, bright, and saturated—oranges, pinks and blues! She was apprehensive about this vivid color and large-scale palette switch, but it would be her greatest surprise—when she saw the Ackermann on the wall, she “fell in love with it.” In many ways, her stadium experience has shifted her prior understanding of art. She has now embraced contemporary art, and recently collected her first piece for the Joneses‘ private residence in Dallas.
In a 2001 critique of the sculptural-spectacle architecture of Frank Gehry at Bilbao, Hal Foster complained that the architecture “trumps the art.” Prior to seeing Cowboy Stadium, I was concerned that the interior functioning of the building—the signage, the scale, the volume, the throngs of activity—would “trump the art.” But in the best pieces, those feared distractions are integrated as tension, movement, and energy. If the artist can counter the moment of Brand marketing, and make a piece that connects to the mystery of individual awareness, then the artist has “trumped the frenzy.” And in this stadium the artists were given the space and the freedom to do just that.
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In the Shadow of the Parthenon
Report from … Athens
How does a modern-day artist go to work in the city dominated by the Parthenon?
‘We live with it,’ says Stefanos Daskalakis, an established Greek painter living in Athens, ‘but it’s no longer an obstacle.’
Stefanos Daskalakis, Myrto in blue velour, 2005-6. Oil on canvas, 210 x 180 cm.
The heroic spirit of Ancient Greece, nevertheless, is still evident – whether in the subject matter of the art itself or in the way it is viewed and presented. The figurative paintings of Stefanos Daskalakis seem haunted by heroism. It’s heroism down on its luck – perhaps just a yearning memory of heroism – which gives gravitas and emotion to work based on close observation of the figure. He can be seen at Sismanoglio Megaro (the Sotiris Felios collection) in Istanbul until 12 December, an exhibition which will travel to Venice in June, and at the Kouvoutsakis Art Institute in Athens – Felios and Kouvoutsakis being two private collectors with a passion for promoting Greek art.
A weightiness pervades Daskalakis’ paintings – and it is not just that his subjects are often voluminous women painted on large canvases. It’s like the weightiness of Greek urban folk music: “You don’t need a voice,” someone tells the singer in a Greek film, “you’ve got sorrow inside you, and pain.” Daskalakis is highly trained as a painter, in Athens and Paris, but is not afraid to address the same raw feelings in his work. Ioanna, Despina, Myrto – the models he works from again and again – look as if they are going through hell, but this only emphasises their human dignity, and a kind of enduring heroism that makes life’s degradations seem more monumental.
Viewed for a moment simply as genre painting, these portraits say something about Greek society that is interestingly different from, for example, Lucian Freud’s bleak view of contemporary London. Discovering that Daskalakis prefers to paint actors because, he says, they understand what he is after, puts another light on the work. Theatricality is in the emotional poses that his models strike, in their facial expressions, and in Daskalakis’ dramatic method of lighting, where heavy pools of shadow lie behind the characters.
The women are presented like broken champions. The flesh is tired – so tired your feet feel sore just looking at the bulky older woman wearing the pointed shoes of a young fashionista. In another painting she appears perched on a stool in an uncomfortably short skirt, a tiny handbag held in plump fingers with red polished nails, but the intelligence in her level gaze challenges the artist/viewer to pity or ridicule her.
Yannis Tsarouchis, Study for the month of May, 1973. Oil on cloth, 80 x 55 cm. Yannis Tsarouchis Foundation
Daskalakis was assistant and sometimes model to the famous Yannis Tsarouchis for nine years until his death in 1989. Tsarouchis’ painting, he says, “synthesized the Greek tradition – Ancient, Byzantine and Primitive – along with the search for modernism”. In early 2010, Benaki – a privately funded museum in Athens – hosted the first large Tsarouchis retrospective to celebrate 100 years since his birth, and it sells a giant catalogue of his work.
Tsarouchis had a pivotal influence on the art community of Greece and on wider Greek society, both as a painter and through his charismatic ability with words. His work expresses the heroic ideal of ancient Greece and the Renaissance and Baroque movements in the form of young men, while emphasising their weaknesses. Elegant composition, vigorous lines, fresh colour, lush paint: these make the first impression on seeing a work by Tsarouchis. But it only paves the way to a little frisson, if not shock at the realisation that these muscular boys with handsome faces and gleaming chests, lounging on beds, half-naked or wearing cute sailor outfits, have vulnerable, uncertain faces, broken limbs or bandaged hand. Some are adorned with ridiculous fairy wings. Like boys in a gay body-building magazine or from a poem by Constantine Cavafy, they resemble mythical heroes. His work is on permanent exhibition at the Yannis Tsarouchis Foundation in Athens.
Another kind of heroic aspiration is felt when you enter the Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art created by collector Dakis Joannou. Housed in a former sock factory in an affluent suburb of Athens, Deste is a kind of Saatchi, in that it is based on one person’s taste in art and his ability to buy it. Like Saatchi, it brings local and international art to the public eye and has a generally enabling influence on contemporary art. It offers a prize biannually to an emerging Greek artist, funds lavish art projects, and opens its art library and archive of Greek artists to the public.
Mainly though, it creates themed exhibitions drawn from Joannou’s collection, like the current Alpha Omega (open until December 29). But here – at least in the case of this exhibition – the enterprise trips itself up, perhaps by taking itself too seriously (as heroes sometimes do). Despite helpful curators, a hefty catalogue and a quantity of exhibited texts, the connection between the blown up philosophy on the wall and the playful character of most of the work is mystifying, and doesn’t do either any good. For instance, Jeff Koons’ painterlyTree, Paul McCarthy’s cynical installation White Snow, Maurizio Cattelan’s floating donkey and disembodied saluting arms, and Triple Candie’s witty ingroup Maurice Cattelan is Dead may or may not relate to multiplicity and the cyclical nature of the universe. Either way, the texts are too sonorous for the art, and end up undermining it.
A room devoted to three beautiful paintings by Chris Ofili is an exception. You can pin a lot onto Ofili without risking pretentiousness because big mystical issues really do seem to be at the heart of his work, and he has the rare ability to turn them into good art. Christiana Soulou is showcased as a new Greek artist, but her light pencil drawings based on the Tarot are subtle almost to the point of invisibility.
Continuing the heroic theme, this past summer the Benaki Museum staged an exhibition of the naïve painter Theophilos (1867-1934). A total eccentric, he saw himself as Alexander the Great. He walked around dressed up like him, complete with helmet and spear, and painted himself in the role.
With the massive support of private funders like Deste and Benaki – and there are several others, including the Contemporary Greek Art Institute (Nees Morfes), the Frissiras Museum and the stunning Onassis Cultural Center that opened on Dec.7 – Greek art itself is likely to become increasingly visible in the wider world.
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Abstraction in a Cold Climate
Report from… Boston
Kristin Baker is not to be held responsible for what the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston claims on her behalf. I noted this to myself as I read the website copy for Kristin Baker: New Paintings: “This collaged layering of streaked color evokes the acceleration of matter across a surface, light through space, and action over time in ways that blur conventional definitions of painting.”
At the exhibition itself, the wall text put it this way: “[It] is ultimately her painterly attention to making, or facture, that becomes the focus. In these new paintings, Baker continues to stretch conventional definitions of what a painting is—and can be.”
installation shot of the exhibition under review, Kristin Baker: New Paintings, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, showing, from left to right: Full Dawn Parallax, 2010. Acrylic on acrylic with powder-coated aluminum frame, and Within Refraction, 2010. Acrylic and charcoal on PVC. Courtesy of the artist and Suzane Geiss Co., New York. © Kristin Baker. *Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
And after my visit, I perused the press release, which promised that an October 21 gallery talk with MFA curator Jen Mergel and conservator Carol T. Henderson would reveal wonders: “They will address how curators appreciate Baker’s work because it stretches one’s understanding of painting (traditionally oil on canvas) in exciting ways… Both perspectives offer new insights into contemporary works that are pushing the limit of conventions with exciting new art.”
I’m sorry I missed that, because I would have liked to ask curator Mergel a question: Did conventions kick her puppy? Every weapon in Baker’s arsenal— squeegee painting, masking, acrylics, plastic supports, and raucous-looking abstraction— had been explored before Baker was born in 1975. She is not defying conventions, but employing them in a particular unison. Conventions are positive and enabling, and shortcomings in choosing them well or using them well are not the fault of the conventions themselves. Anyway, it is not as though anyone is forcing contemporary artists to work in a particular style. I assert further that no one—not a soul—thinks of painting as oil on canvas and only that. Mergel is directing a critique at a stultified, conventional character that exists only in her imagination, for the purpose of making Baker appear to be the revolutionary that she is not.
The MFA show consists of four paintings intended for its new Community Arts and SMFA Gallery, thusly named due to its dedication to School of the Museum of Fine Arts alums like Baker. This cruel revision of the I.M. Pei-designed Museum Road entrance is as dismaying as the new Americas Wing is stunning, but it created more wall space, and her eight- to ten-foot paintings use it well. Until a few years ago, Baker’s masked, smeared acrylics on white PVC depicted race car crashes in a style with precedents in Pop and Futurism. She has discarded the imagery, which must have taken some courage. Now the vertiginous perspectives and the tumbling autos have been sublimated into arrangements of crisp shapes. In the better ones, you can still hear the roar of the engines. Her most handsome effect is the squeegee application of dark colors on the white PVC, which results in a look akin to strips of errantly exposed film. The strongest of the four is Matter Facture, in which blue-black walls, beams, and a mighty triangular slice set up interjections of translucent rose and opaque white.
Kristin Baker, Full Dawn Parallax, 2010. Acrylic on acrylic with powder-coated aluminum frame 114-1/8 x 99-1/8 x 15-1/4 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Suzanne Geiss Co., New York. © Kristin Baker. Photograph by Matthu Placek. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
But Baker’s talents are straining as she attempts to put a painting together without the benefit of imagery. Full Dawn Parallax is a catalog of everything that goes wrong when you’re out of your depth as an abstractionist: fruit salad colors, a composition that doesn’t suggest that any of the four edges should be the top one, and an excessive sameness of component parts that degenerates into clutter. Baker painted it on clear instead of white PVC, and mounted the panel on a framework that lifts it a foot off of the wall. The resulting transparency is enervating, replacing needed bright whites with mousy frosted plastic that doesn’t register as part of the work. Rime Affinity indicates that she should avoid making high-key paintings. She’s better with black at her disposal, creating illusory transparencies instead real ones, such as in Refraction Within. This work looks like it was collaged from enlarged x-rays, and painted over with the same aesthetic and color scheme that inspired Bumblebee the Transformer. It falls short, but it is nonetheless dashing.
There happens to be a lot of noteworthy abstraction on view in Boston at the moment. Joanne Mattera at Arden Gallery, for instance, manipulates encaustic and iridescent pigments to produce luscious surfaces that look like a fusion of stained glass and raku. Across the street at Miller Block Gallery, Imi Hwangbo is showing elegant constructions of cut Mylar, hung on the wall in layers so that the removed pieces form a topographic floral design. Choice of materials, precision of execution, and elements like the vertical cut that runs through the flowers in Sanctuary, gives these works an architectural austerity that counters a certain “girliness.”
Over on Harrison Street, Walker Contemporary is showing work by an artist with a related sensibility: Benicia Gantner, who works with hand- and machine-cut vinyl on Plexiglas or flat paper, forming vistas of biomorphic silhouettes and complicated stencils. They look like Inka Essenhigh run through Thomas Nozkowski. Ruby & Gold Waterweb makes striking use of the vinyl, all sharpness and mechanical flatness, as it depicts an implied forest scene with teeming paisley undergrowth, schematic trees, and fuchsia garlands against a flickering burgundy sky. It lent noticeable warmth to the real sky over Boston, full of crosswinds and the sobriety of November.
Kristin Baker at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, October 2, 2010 – March 27, 2011
Joanne Mattera at Arden Gallery, 129 Newbury Street, Boston, November 2 – 29, 2010
Imi Hwangbo at Miller Block Gallery, 38 Newbury Street, Boston, November 12 to December 23, 2010
Benicia Gantner at Walker Contemporary, 450 Harrison Avenue, Boston, November 5 to December 18, 2010
Mattera - click to enlarge
Hwangbo - click to enlarge
Gantner - click to enlarge