Promises of the Past, which profiled talented artists from the East. Among the most compelling was Alina Szapocznikow (pronounced Sha-poch-nyi-kof). Shortly after that show, I was able to see some of Szapocznikow's work in Krakow, and then at the Hammer museum in Los Angeles. The Hammer show is now at MoMA and closing at the end of January. Go.
Szapocznikow was born in Poland and spent her teen years in concentration camps (Bergen-Belsen, Theresienstadt, and Auschwitz). Shen later died, at 47, of breast cancer. In between, working in both Poland and Paris, Szapocznikow produced a remarkable body of work. The phrase "body of work" has rarely been more part, since the artist's entire output can be described and a an interrogation of the body. Bodies and body parts are cast, stretched, illuminated, engulfed, excised, and flayed.
We find piles of amputated breasts, evoking St. Agatha, a flattened casting of the artists face, evoking Michelangelo's flayed self-portaint his Last Judgment, and lips turned into lamps, which present as mod chic, while chillingly evoking Nazi lampshades made of human flesh. These pieces are all irresistibly aesthetic, but also unsettling. We rarely see a body intact here, and there is always a sense of violence behind the beauty.
One of the most moving pieces in the show is a group of human heads that have been transformed into round tumor-like forms and strewn across the floor. By this time, Szapocznikow was aware of the tumors that were killing her, and her she regains power by turning her illness into art.
Szapocznikow is a master of multiple media. She works in plaster, metal, stone, glass, and resin. We also find exceptional works on paper--tangled, organic networks of lines, which, though casual, hold up to her best sculptures. There are also mixed media works, that integrate photographic materials, including the image of a female holocaust victim, into resin encasings.
The possible influence on Wilke, the use of tortured female forms, and the unflinching dedication to art-making in a male dominated world make Szapocznikow qualify as an important figure in feminist art. But this classification distracts from her resolute humanism. Szapocznikow experienced two brutal political regimes first-hand, and also bore witness to injustice in the West while living in France. In addition, she learned the fragility of the body, through both tuberculosis and the cancer that took her life. Thus, it was no just as a woman that she knew about vulnerability--it was a Jew, as a political subject, and as a living organism. The work references that vulnerability again and again, but it embodies indomitable strength.
Sunday, December 30, 2012
Friday, December 21, 2012
Trenton Doyle Hancock. Yes, please.
|Trenton Doyle Hancock, "As U Now Enliven A Test", 2012|
Every once in a blue moon, or a lunar eclipse, we stare in the face of a brilliant artwork. I suspect there is a spectrum of scientific explanations for why certain images, colors and themes are preferable. But it is my gut that speaks when I look into the veiny ominous eyes of a Trenton Doyle Hancock painting, with a knowing smile, and I declare internally: He’s got it. He gets it. This is fucking genius. Yes, amazeballz. Axons fire, thoughts wander, and I slip onto folding ribbons of text that unravel into messages like: “If You're Too Fat, You Should Buy Clothes That Fit”, or “All Things Known and Nothing to Own”.
|"If You're Too Fat You Should Buy Clothes That Fit", 2012|
Trenton has a comic book style, but the superheroes are more Rat Fink than Batman. Self-portraits are cobbled together with mythological beasts, part human, part animal that stand in the midst of delightful and creepy floating brains that rain colored tears, enraptured by trees with tenticular roots. Trenton’s works are simultaneously whimsical and incredibly thought out. The contrast of black and white interspersed with bright colors, and the collaging of his canvas with pieces of painted canvas creates a depth and tactile-ness that draws you into a land of make believe. If I were to speculate, which I always do, I would guess that fact and fiction have been woven from his personal yarn.
|Trenton Doyle Hancock, "Plate of Shrimp" 2012|
His solo show, "And Then It All Came Back to Me", at James Cohan Gallery in Chelsea closes after tomorrow. For all you New Yorkers not sequestered on exotic islands or undisclosed locations, for the those you not in an egg nog infused state, I implore you to race before Saturday’s end to see the fabulousness that is Trenton Doyle Hancock. If you are disappointed, I suspect you thought my glowing review entailed the arrival of a gold coin dispensing leprechaun. But you will most certainly be charmed by his wit, humor and whimsical paintings, because they are truly, magically delicious.
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Till Death Do Us Part?
Traveling by plane used to be the part of the adventure of getting from point A to point B where one could sort of recalibrate: kick up your feet, have a cocktail, eat a decent square of lasagna with a dinner roll, wash it down with some cab, maybe watch a movie, and then snooze. Shit, I though flying was fun.
On a recent trip, I ended up with bulkhead seats. It felt pretty luxurious not to feel the seats in front of me, no dome of a fellow passenger’s head within stroking distance. The cabin was noticeably hot; the steward, of whose seat was directly opposite, fanned himself, with a faint “glow” on his brow. Small talk led to a causal mention of his mother’s passing ten years prior. That little conversational kernel laid the foundation for an oral account of his book about his Mamma. “Mira,” he said, “I don’t know why I feel so comfortable telling you all this.” I don’t know either, but I have a way of welcoming these conversations. I’d like to say it was a freak occurrence, but it’s practically the norm.
Gabriel, the steward, gave a day-by-day blow of “the final 21 days.” The diagnosis: leukemia. Blood tests, the shock and disbelief of the doctors that his mother could still be standing, the tear that rolled down her cheek as he spoke to her in a coma, and the sister who opted to spend the final days somewhere else. There was a phone call to his former girlfriend who was in the mortuary business, whose morbid magnificence had been requested by mother. No detail would be missed: the outfit, the make-up, and, of course, making sure her “titties were pushed up high”. When his mother finally passed, Gabriel insisted upon being present for the preparation of the casket viewing. He described holding his mother’s head to keep it from bobbling while the blood was drained from her body. For him, it was deeply moving. His childhood sweetheart spent hours on her make up. And then, as if on cue, he plucked out an envelope filled with photographs from his satchel, among which was an image of his mother in her casket, perfectly posed and looking her best. Really, he felt so proud of her, and proud of himself too, for the dignity she had and for his part in helping her to maintain it post mortem.
The ritual of preparing the newly deceased for an “existence” post life is both incredibly touching, and quite fascinating. Neither of my paternal grandparents had a ceremonial burial. There was a memorial, a gathering of old friends, immediate and extended families, where dots were connected with lofty tales. When my mother’s father died, she chose not to look in his casket, because she wanted to remember him as he was when last they had been together. Death is the unavoidable rite of passage, and how we choose to release the body is a task for the living. For some, it is has a religious base, but ultimately, it’s about paying tribute to the deceased. It was this remarkable and most unexpected conversation with a steward that made me think of the masters of casket making in Ghana, West Africa, of whose whimsical creations are an inspiration. Their modern day sarcophagi, like those of ancient Egypt, reveal the status and identity of its inhabitant. It is also part of their tradition to garnish the casket with offerings for a rich afterlife.
For the Ga people of Accra in Ghana, life continues after death. Ancestors carry powers that influence the lives of those the deceased leave behind and can offer prosperity. While the funeral is approached as an investment, it is almost always celebratory. Tears of sadness and joy intermingle naturally. Sending off the deceased in a dignified manner has, since the 50’s, come to include an artisanal casket designed to match their profession, or another telling trait, like a love for alcohol or cigarettes. Caskets are carved as: a bottle of beer for the beer lover, a fish for the fisherman, a Mercedes for a driver. No expense is spared.
The first known masters of “fantasy coffins” were Kane Kwei (1922-1992), and his assistant Paa Joe (born 1947). Kwei left his life on cocoa plantations with hopes of pursuing a career in construction. At the same time, a fisherman and prominent family member passed away. To honor him, it has been claimed that Kwei built a casket in the shape of a fish. And here a tradition was set into place. It may cost a family a year’s salary to commission a casket, but it is treated as a required homage and a way of securing a family’s status.
Each culture has a unique was of honoring the dead. While I myself do not believe in life after death, I suspect I am not alone in the hope that I won’t soon be forgotten. Better yet, I would like to be remembered in a positive light. Wouldn’t you?
Sunday, November 11, 2012
His Baltimore Ladies
|Claribel, Gertrude Stein and Etta|
Perhaps there was something in the Baltimore air connecting that American city with Paris and with art. It was to Baltimore that siblings Leo and Gertrude Stein came after the early death of their parents in the late 1800s and where they met Claribel and Etta Cone. They came from similar affluent (for the Cones rich) assimilated German-Jewish families. The young Steins eventually moved to Paris becoming known as art collectors, early patrons of Picasso. His iconic portrait of Gertrude now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Cone sisters had already begun collecting before the Steins introduced them to Picasso and, more importantly, to Matisse during their visits to Paris. Over the years the sisters acquired three thousand works of art — among them, paintings, drawings, prints sculpture and tapestries. Most of the collection was bequeathed to the Baltimore Museum of Art (242 went to the Weatherspoon in Greensboro N.C. where the Cone textile fortune was made).
Matisse’s relationship with Claribel and Etta was intense and enduring. He called them, “my two Baltimore ladies”. They were remarkable women who funded their buying from a family fortune made in supplying denim to manufacturers like Levi Strauss. The older Claribel graduated medical school in 1890, unusual for a woman, especially of her social class. Etta managed the family home and made her first art purchases with $300 given her to buy decorations for it. Matisse’s ladies became major benefactors from his early struggling days when the work was considered radical to the mid 20th century when Etta died. And he was not the only artist to attract their attention. The collection includes works by Van Gogh, Gauguin and of course Picasso.
Perhaps what’s so remarkable about Picasso and Matisse is their breathtaking output. The first was particularly prolific, as exemplified in the monumental Picasso Black and White now at New York’s Guggenheim, the 2011 traveling exhibition last seen at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts or the stunning shows (the most recent of his final paintings) at the Gagosian. Each of these shows included many paintings I had never seen, in part because they are from private collections. The Cone sisters bought 500 Matisse works — the largest single collection in existence — but only a fraction of his total output.
Clara and Etta Cone were above all collectors. They weren’t buying art as an investment but as treasured objects with whom they could share their habitat. The walls of their adjoining Baltimore apartments were covered floor to ceiling. Back in August, I wrote about an exhibition at Duke’s Nasher Museum devoted to the early collecting of Jason Rubell. Now the Nasher has mounted an exhibition of the works selected from of the Cone Collection that were previously seen at the Jewish Museum in NY and in Vancouver. The Rubell show is still up and together these two represent a kind of homage to collecting. For Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters The Cone Sisters of Baltimore, the large Nasher exhibition space has been beautifully divided up into smaller intimate “rooms” to reflect more closely how the Cone sisters and their guests experienced the art.
The Masters are wonderfully represented by a Van Gogh landscape, one of those that include a human figure and by Gauguin’s Woman with Mango from his Tahitian period.
While much of the space is given over to paintings, sculptures and works on paper, there is a charming and playful self portrait Picasso sketch calling card with the inscription: “Bon jour Mlle Cone”.
On to Matisse: The artist’s vivid colors and brush strokes are well represented by his Striped Robe, Fruit, and Anemones. The image focuses on the female figure in pensive pose perhaps contemplating the vase of flowers set on a bright tablecloth strewn with fruits including the ubiquitous lemons found in many of the artist’s works.
Like Picasso, Matisse’s work spans decades and a wide range of styles culminating in the cut outs of his later life created after the Cone sisters had both died. Both men had a special interest in the female figure. Picasso’s are often distorted, but not so with Matisse whose women, even when reduced to stylized painted images or line drawings are always recognizable. The black and white Odalisque crayon drawing shows a woman with an almost Modigliani-like elongated face sitting comfortably in an armchair. Her striped pants remind you of the lady’s robe in the first painting.
Matisse spent only a short time in North Africa, but a group of paintings inspired by the visit are among his most striking. They are represented here (above) by another female figure, this time opulently clothed sitting to the left of an ornate scene including a tray containing a plate of lemons.
Perhaps one of the most striking works in the show is the much more stylized reclining nude, often referred to as The Pink Nude, painted in 1935. Matisse did a series of preparatory pieces for this large (66 x 92 cm) canvas, which Etta couldn’t resist. Central to the composition is the flesh colored figure set against a grid pattern that in the final state looks like blue tile with white grout. That tile pattern is repeated on the back wall (white with green this time). Above her is an abstracted object that in his early states was a vase with flowers. But nothing is more important than the woman herself. She dominates both the space and our attention. It is the exhibit at it’s best.
The Nasher show runs until February 10, 2013. The Weatherspoon is having its own complementary exhibition, The Cone Sisters Collect (selections from its Cone bequest) an hour’s drive away on the UNC campus in Greensboro. It runs until February 17.
The images from the exhibition were kindly provided by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. The works are owned by The Baltimore Museum of Art.
Saturday, October 20, 2012
Evidently Picasso made only two trips to UK, but his influence across the channel was enormous. That is the thesis of "Picasso and Modern British Art." The show is currently on view at the The Scottish National Gallery. It caused a scandal when an advert featuring a nude by Picasso appeared in the the local airport. The offending lines are reproduced as a detail above above. There is an impressive array of canvasses by the Spaniard on display at the show, but even exciting are the Brit pics, which rarely see the light of day. These span much of the 20th century, and they serve to cast a welcome spotlight on many of Britain pre-pop art icons.
For example, the dusted off some canvases by Duncan Grant, the bisexual Bloomsbury artist who moved in the Clive Bell to carry on his affair with Bell's spouse, Vanessa, another painter, and sister of Virgina Woolf. Her works are not on display in this very male exhibition, perhaps because they bear less Picasso influence. The works by Duncan Grant certainly evoke Picasso more, though there is also some German influence there.
Less surprising perhaps is the inclusion of Wyndham Lewis, the leading force behind Britain's first major modernist movement, vorticism. Lewis seems to be having a bit of a revival, despite his fascist tendencies, and the strong work here shows why. Though clearly cubist (or cubo-fututist) in spirit, Lewis has a voice of his own, and might just be Britain's best pre-war painter.
Also on view is a collection of Henry Moore works, that confirm the sculpture great grift, even if one senses a bit of a formula. Especially lovely are some less seen drawings and notebooks. I didn't manage a snap, but the one above (from the Tate collection) gives some idea of how charmingly graphic the Moorish forms can look when gridded out on paper.
Far less celebrated than Moore, is the British surrealist and collector Roland Penrose. The Scottish Gallery recently displayed a fine collection us is works in an exhibition of UK surrealism. One of my favorites was back on view here. Penrose makes good use of postcards, anticipating the cubist photo methods used decades later by Hockney (who is also in the show).
The biggest revelation, perhaps, was Francis Bacon. One usually doesn't think of him as a follower of Picasso, but the painting above shows clear influence (note the face in the upper left). This one is from 1933, and it strikingly forecasts that artist's later works with its cage-like lines, angsty blurring, and central figure issuing what may be a silent wail of torment. Bacon's more famous later works are often described as reactions the Second World War. This early painting re-writes that history.
Overall, the exhibition serves to remind us that Britain was an important center for the avant grade, long before the YBA crowd started to grab headlines. We are also reminded of Picasso's impact. There is another major Picasso show at the Guggenheim right now, and a strong collection of later works made a recent splash at the Gaggosian gallery. With all this attention, the Spaniard is well poised to influence a new generation of painters, 40 years after his death. But don't hold your breath. While testifying to his legendary status, these recent tributes do little to establish Picasso's relevance. We are reminded instead that modernist abstraction was a moment that has passed, despite periodic efforts at revival. Indeed, the existential eroticism of an early blue-period picture (reproduced on the left) seems more timely, and also timeless, than the ostentatiously geometrical works that once shocked fellow painters into imitative obedience.
Monday, October 8, 2012
The Awkwardness of It All
I’ll be honest, it was the impending closing of Rineke Dijkstra’s retrospective that served as catalyst to finally haul ass to the Guggenheim. Upon entering the first room of her monumental portraits, I immediately let go of my issues with the Guggenheim as a suboptimal viewing space. The first images were perhaps the ones I’m most familiar with: pre-teens at puberty’s cusp, faces with a hormonally induced surface of acne and an oily sheen, adult sized noses on a child’s head, the soft edges of a youth’s transition to adulthood and the modest swells of a young girls breasts unable to escape the attention of even the shiest aspiring suitor. Dijkstra is a master of humanizing the awkward. Each series is a collection of survivors. The triptych of mothers who have just given birth is perhaps, as a woman, a challenge to wholly accept as an ode to “Mother Earth”. In one, blood trickles from the fresh sutures in her vaginal region, as mother holds the tiny little infant close to her chest. In another, the new mother wears the decidedly unsexy hospital undergarments with a delightful maxipad to address post birthing incontinence or bleeding. The third lucky lady’s stomach is emblazoned with the scar of a Caeserian delivery. Yes, it’s natural, yes, it’s the vulnerable aspect of one of women’s many tests of endurance and that all human life must enter this world through our vaginal portal. Like her other subjects, we are touched by the signs of human frailty and the commonality of it courses through our lives.
The works that were perhaps most titillating are videos of teens dancing at a club in the UK. Split screens capture girls revealing their untapped sexuality with hips and pelvis undulating to techno in ill fitted dresses, not fully aware of its impact, and boys, rocking out in untamed jerky bursts, swiftly taking drags from cigarettes in an effort to mimic cool.
The crowd pleasing video, one of Rineke’s more recent works, captures a typical British Museum scene of a group of young uniformed school kids engaged in discussion about a particular artwork. In this case, it is a Picasso painting, and in a crescendo and decrescendo of speculations, children speak openly without interruption about what they see or think they see. It is a charming display of their unfiltered imagination not yet restrained by social expectation. Funny how we revere youth to such an extent that whatever awkwardness exists, with the roles of dominance and submission already palpably apparent, there is less discomfort and more often, a positive reception. We are forever charmed by innocence.
Rineke Dijkstra is from the Netherlands. She began her second career as a fine arts photographer following a terrible bike accident after which she spent a grueling year in rehabilitation. Included in the exhibit is a self portrait by a pool, with her appearing in a vulnerable stance, in her bathing suit. It was a precursor for a stream of portraits of young women, in crotched soaked bathing suits averting the gaze of the eyes behind the lens. Her intimate understanding of what it is to be fragile and to overcome life’s obstacles surges through her portraits with alarming honesty and magnificence. I was held captive over and over again and came to see the photographs as two dimensional monuments to the awkard in all of us.
Saturday, October 6, 2012
Grand (Rapids) Prize
|Kumi Yamashita, Origami|
|Mike Simi, Mr. Weekend|
Slightly less serious, was a giant sock puppet by Michigan-reared Mike Simi, which arched its head around while delivering a dreary monologue about the drudgeries of life as an artwork. Mr. Weekend, as the puppet likes to be called, is built from a discontinued robot arm, which was used in a car factory.
|Jared Charzewski, The Land Up North|
At the same venue (Kendall College of Art and Design), there was a pleasing work by Jared Charzewski of Charleston, South Carolina. It consisted of 4,000 articles of recycled clothing, aesthetically arranged. The piece can be seen as a commentary on class, consumerism and ecology, or just enjoyed as a modern colorful variant of the landscape genre.
At another fine venue, The Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, there was in impressive mixed media piece by a Chicago collaborative called ABCD 83 (David Cuesta, Anthony Lewellen, Chris Silva, and Brian Steckel). It consisted of assorted geometric forms surrounding an exit door of the museum, onto which was projected a video that converted the sculptural elements into a pulsating city. The door became the backdrop for projected sunsets and flying robots. Most clever, however, was the floor below the door, which became a koi pond at one moment, and shoreline the next. A clip can be seen to the left.
The Urban Institute was also home to the winner of the second place audience award, a swirling swarm of simple, animatronic birds, who fluttered around as an operatic song lifted the spirits of awestruck crowds. The artist, Martin van Wagtendonk probably deserved first place for crowd appeal. The top prize went, depressingly, to a large surrealistic drawing of elephants and other animals, which looked more like a children's book illustration then an entry into the archives of art history. A segment of flight is captured on the right.
There was also work exhibit in the town's impressive Methodist church. Much of the content here was social or political, and highlights included photographs of nude men with disabilities, and a collection of signs made by homeless people soliciting help. Another striking work was chiaroscuro photo sequence by local artist, Lora Robertson. It features, a woman methodically taping down her large breasts, raising poignant questions about both body self-image and gender identity.
|Lora Robertson, Identity Process Kings and Queens|
|Chuck Clisso, untitled|
Overall, the most impressive venue may have been the Public Museum, a long-abandoned natural history and science museum, which was reclaimed by artists under the curatorship of Paul Amenta at SiteLab. Several of which won critics awards. Upon entering the grand hall, one is met by a large collection of hanging landmasses by Brooklyn artist, Blane De St. Croix. On the same floor, there is a large room of panoramic displays that were once used to exhibit wildlife taxidermy. Here another Brooklynite, Alois Konschlaeger made a series of striking architectural interventions. In one, he extends a reflective ramp into the wilderness, inviting viewers to enter this fictional world, and, in another he pushed the display glass into a diorama, allowing the antelopes on display there to exit their glass prison and enter the gallery.
|Blane De St. Croix, UnNatural History|
|Alois Konschlaeger, Habitat|
|Alois Konschlaeger, Habitat|
Wednesday, October 3, 2012
|Integrated Vision, Time Divides, projected on the Manhattan Bridge|
A clip from the Integrated Visions, Time Divides, from inside the tunnelThe event was called Codex Dynamic. It was spawned by Farkas Fülüp of the Hungarian art collective, Glowing Bulbs, and two Brooklyn-based artist/curators John Ensor Parker and Leo Kuelbs. Parker collaborated with Glowing Bulbs to produce one of the bridge-scale projections for the event, and another projection was created by the Integrated Visions collective, a New York collective, recently relocated from Georgia. This was the second year running and, like last year, the event was presented in conjunction with the annual Dumbo Art Fair.
A clip from Glowing Bulbs and John Ensor Parker's, An Inquiring Age
A clip from Eelco Brand's N.Movie, 2011
|Sarah Walko & Malado Baldwin, LUX/NOX|
|Yi Zhou, Paradise|
|One of the nearly thirty projectors provided by WorldStage Inc.|
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