Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Japan Trip

If you don't make a trip to Japan this season, you can still catch a glimpse of Japan tripping in the American South.  When the Western world was taking acid and celebrating free love, Japan was moving in tandem, producing art that synthesizes psychedelia, pop, and more traditional Japanese aesthetic.  Celebrating this super-saturated moment in art art history, the Ackland Museum at the University of North Carolina is currently exhibiting Japanese posters from the Merrill C. Berman collection along with a collection of short Japanese animated films from the '60s and '70s.

The collection is a time capsule worth opening.  The pantheon of pop-art icons known in the West includes many Americans, and a handful of English (Paolozzi, Hamilton) and German (Polke, early Richter) artists.  Connoisseurs may include some of the French New Realists, such as Nikki de Saint Phalle, Martial Raysss, and Jacques de la Villeglé.  But there is a blindspot for contributions outside of Western Europe.  Among Japanese artists who emerged in the late '60s, Kusama has attained international acclaim, but the name Tadanori Yokoo (above) is likely to elicit a blank state.

The Ackland exhibit is correcting that with an impressive collection of poster art by Yokoo and his peers, as well as other Japanese artists active through the 1990s.  The work on view surely pop in orientation, but even more obviously, it is psychedelic.  Many of the posters look like lost production stills from The Yellow Submarine.   This dates them, of course, but there is much here that rewards attention.

Though clearly in dialog with Western trends, Japanese poster art is still recognizably Japanese.  That is partially due to the iconography (no shortage of rising suns here), but there are also obvious connections to the rich tradition of Japanese printmaking.  The spectral intensity of Western psychedelia is forecast in Hokusai's fuji series among many others.  Some of this work, has gorgeous color blending that invokes this legacy directly (see above).   Some of it also invokes another feature familiar in Japanese aesthetics: simplicity.  We see posters that update a long tradition of graphic insignia well known in Japan (below).   In contrast, a great many of them display the opposing trend that is also central to Japanese art: complexity (top).  There is fascinating research suggesting that Japanese art is more visually complex than Western art.  This is confirmed here.

The poster exhibit is complemented by a charming collection of animated shorts by Yokoo (below, still) and Keiichi Tanaam (below, clip).  These also show their age, but it is good fun to go on this cross-cultural nostalgia trip.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

All Ryled Up

Hans Haacke (source)
In a famous critique, the British philosopher, Gilbert Ryle described René Descartes' mind-body dualism as committed to a "ghost in the machine."  Descartes claimed that the mind is a non-physical substance that somehow controls the body and lives on after it's death.  Ryle was not convinced, and he lampoons the Frenchman for these supernatural beliefs.  But the critique is only half right, because Descartes was also instrumental in pushing for the then controversial view that bodies are machines, and it was a small step from a mechanical view of bodies to a mechanical view of minds.  Descartes interest in machines ran deep, and he even dabbled in the construction of automata.  Toward the end of his life, it is said that he used clock parts to construct an automaton resembling a young girl, which he referred to as his daughter and hefted around in a suitcase.  According to legend, it was discovered by sailors, while Descartes was en route to Sweden, and they were so horrified by the like-like movements of this mechanical child that they cast her into the sea.  Whether true or not, one can credit Descartes as a pioneer in the effort to explain human behavior in mechanical terms.  A century later, this idea was taken up by the physician-philosopher, Julien la Mettrie, who penned L'Homme Machine, arguing that human beings are machines and nothing more.

The automaton in Philippe Parreno's The Writer (source
The relationship between mind, bodies, and machines has also been a theme in art.  This is the theme of an exhibition at the New Museum, which is closing in ten days.  The show is admittedly a bit of a mess. It is an unholy amalgam of pop, op, and outsider art, that always seems to be chasing a few feet behind it's theme.  It's not always obvious why certain works are included in a show that concerns the human-machine relationship (Vasarely is surely a stretch), and some of the included works are, well, bad.  I won't name names.

A Paolozzi still (source)
But there are also some works that make the show worth catching.  Among the most apt inclusions are an animation from Paolozzi (the inventor of pop art), which celebrates the machine age through montage, and a Fritz Kahn poster (a creased recent reprint, unfortunately) showing the human body as a factory.   Also fitting is a lovely film by Philippe Parreno, which documents the penmanship of an 18th century automaton.

Haslan's illustration of James Tilly Matthew's Air Loom (source
In addition to exploring the idea that people are machines, the exhibit includes various representations of machines that interact with human beings.  Vocodors, a tribute to Turing's pioneering computers, art related to automobiles, and Man Ray's hidden sewing machine are all included.  The best room contains work by outsider artists: a Jakob Mohr drawing of a box emitting electrical volts that can paralyze or empower; a drawing by Robert Gie showing people linked to a vein-like apparatus that can influence thoughts; and a collection of metallic healing machines by outsider Emery Blagdon.  Especially lovely is a diagram by a 18th century clinician depicting the Air Loom, a mind-control device fantasized by delusional patient, James Tilly Matthews--the first diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic.  There are also two impressive uncredited works nearby: a wooden hut designed to contain orgasmic energy based on the principles of the ousted sex guru of psychoanalysis, Wilhelm Reich, and an imaginative realization of a machine designed to inscribe words into human flesh, based on Franz Kafka's "In the Penal Colony."

A Kafka tortue device (source)
The exhibition also explores the use of mechanical means to create art.  Hans Haacke uses fans to create two pieces.  One keeps a white ball suspended in the air, and the other makes a large blue sheet float, with ghost-like poetry.  Also of interest here are works by Channa Horwitz, who developed algorithmic techniques for creating colorful minimalist abstractions, which can also serve as scores for multimedia performances.  It's not entirely clear how these works fit with central theme of the human-machine relationship, but they are enjoyable to see.

Channa Horwitz

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Midnight Oil

A few months ago, New York Times art critic, Ken Johnson, published a book arguing that psychedelic drug culture was a sine qua non for the last half century of American art.  That's a hard pill to swallow.  The Haight-Ashbury music poster aesthetic seems a million miles away from minimalism, conceptualism, superrealism, neo-expressionism, and other movements deserving chapters in recent art history.  Psychedelic sensibilities are a bit more evident, perhaps, in op-art and some street art, but these trends have barely made their way into into major museum collections--or at least that's not the stuff that museums keep regularly on view.  Johnson's nostalgic joy ride is a fun if fatuous peyote hunt, which serves to underscore a gulf, rather than a bridge, between the Leary and Lewitt.  Indeed, psychedelia bears a closer relation to surrealism, fauvism, and art nouveau, suggesting that Johnson has the order of influence exactly backwards.

Still, we should not scoff at art in the age of acid.  Right now a series of concerts at NYU are providing a welcome opportunity to see psychedelic visuals in their natural habit: as a backdrop to musical performances.  In New York, the undisputed king of the psychedelic light show was Joshua White, who improvised visuals for everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Frank Zappa in the heyday of the Fillmore East.  Now the Joshua Light Show is back on stage, providing sumptuously intense visuals for a host of talented musicians.  Last night, my big brother and I were lucky enough to catch the magic with John Zorn, Lou Reed, Bill Laswell, and Milford Graves, who definitely stole the show.  White did a spectacular job playing along with these unfettered musical experimentalists.  His oils, gels, and pulsating lights served as a fifth musician, rounding off the sonic dream team.  And conversely, the musical improvisations took on synesthetic visual qualities when complemented by the colorful assault.  Though more associated with trippier tunes, the Joshua Light Show felt like a good fit with this aggressive avant jazz.  The music pushed the psychedelic aesthetic in new directions, and, at times, the visuals made contact with contemporary abstract painting.  Even if we reject Johnson's thesis that psychedelia was the wellspring contemporary art, we should accept Joshua White as a serious visual artist, whose blend of performance, new media, and abstraction deserves a place alongside other important art innovations of recent decades.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Hockney Gone Wild

One could hardly accuse David Hockney of being trendy.  For decades he has marched resolutely out of sync with artworld fads.  Yes, somehow, with the death of Lucian Freud, he has managed to secure the reputation as Britain's best painter.  Does he deserve that title?  His latest show, at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, provides an opportunity to reflect on that question.
A wall of Hockney landscapes (source: Global Art Junkie)

The show consists of a vast collection of large landscape paintings, many garishly colored, some with multiple panels, all created with humbling competence in a startlingly short period of time (in two years, Hockney produced enough of these to fill a small museum).  Stylistically, they evoke Phillip Guston, Maurice de Vlaminck, and even Henri Rousseau.  They are bold, illustrational, spontaneous, often cartoonish, even kitsch and faintly sentimental.  This is Yorkshire, Britain's oh so lovely countryside, charming and domesticated.  Hockney's paintings are far too masterful to dismissed as shopping mall art, but one wonders whether they is any whiff of irony in them.  They present nature with such earnest delight that one sometimes gets the impression that we are seeing the outpourings of a mall artist who rubbed a genie's bottle and ask for talent.  Despite their frequent allusions to work in the history of art, their sensibility brings them dangerously close to the art that "decorates" hotel rooms.

A mammouth multipanel painting (source: Guggenheim Bilbao)
In a word, Hockney is tasteless.  In the past, he has given us countless swimming pool paintings, still-life sketches drawn on an iPad, and a photo shoot of Grand Canyon.  The latter was impressive, because he assembled dozens of snap shots to create views of the canyon that are large enough to given one a sense of being there.  Hockney's multi-panel paintings in the Bilbao show recall some of those earlier efforts, but unlike the photographs, which take on a cubist feel, the neatly assembled canvases serve only to make Hockney's landscapes bigger, rather than more interesting.  The show s called, "A Bigger Picture" and one gets the impression that Hockney is trying to push scale and volume to advertise his virtuosity, rather than to make any particular artistic point.   That said, the show works best when seen as a single piece, rather than a collection of individual paintings.  So conceived, it becomes an immersive installation that brings the viewer into the wilds of Yorkshire, a technicolor wilderness that looks like it has been painted by a post-impressionist smurf.

Rousseau's view of nature
Perhaps this way of viewing the show--as an immersive experience--works best because it restores something some profoundly absent in Hockney's landscapes: a sense of mystery or danger.  So many of the great landscape painters of the past deliver a view of the natural world as threatening.   Consider Friedrich, Rubens, Turner, or Hercles Segers, who was celebrated by Werner Herzog at this year's Whitney Biennial.  In the twentieth century, one might add Tanguy, Kiefer, or the landscapes of Schiele.  For all these artists, nature is always threatening to consume us.  This is equally true for Rousseau, who seems to be an influence on Hockney here. But Hockey apes Rousseau's naive attention to detail, while filtering out his claustrophobic exoticism.  Perhaps Hockney's landscapes are best seen as a continuation of the impressionist cannon, but there at least we can discern an experiment at work; impressionist may err in the direction of the pretty, but they also tell us something about seeing and painting.  Hockney's work may tell us something about painting too, but the lessons seem old and familiar.  Far from teaching us something new, Hockney seems to mock viewers with his refusal to innovate.  Some might find that refreshing.

If Hockney is not the greatest living British painter, who is?  I await your nominations.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Beast Jesus aka Ecce Mono, Formerly Known as Ecce Homo

Before and After

I’m proud to say my expert “luggage handling” skills brought me to San Sebastian, Spain this past week.  You might expect me to boast about the delicious pintxos or the vino tinto I inhaled in the old town, or about the pit stop at the Guggenheim Bilbao.  But I won’t.  It’s safe to say I spent much of my time trying to spread the word about a little known town called Borja that is home to an unassuming and fairly nondescript monastery.    It is testament to the fact that I live in a self -imposed bubble filled with off-colored trivia that periodically sneaks into the news. Or art news anyway.   I’m deep like that.  A couple of weeks ago, a report was circulated in the Huffington Post, the New York Times, the LA Times, and known art blogs such as Hyperallergic and ArtInfo, that a 19th century fresco had been saved from deterioration only to be brought back to life by an 80 year old woman, Cecilia Gimenez. My decision to rent a car and drive 120 miles to see her restoration was a no brainer.  The outcome is nothing short of shocking.  I feel a little guilty trash talking Cecilia’s work, because in her interviews she explained unflinchingly that the Priest had given her permission to restore more completely the Ecce Homo in the Sanctuary of Mercy Church, or Sanctuaria de Misericordia---She’d touched it up here and there in the past. No big deal.  She flung off the false rumors that she had taken it upon herself to repair the fresco. Ecce Homo, or  “Behold the Man” is now called Ecce Mono, or Behold the Beast.  ‘It’ looks something like a capuchin monkey with weird hair.  Or maybe like Jesus got a really bad hair weave and stood too close to some candles. Either way, it’s just not good.  Or rather, it scores big points in the “so bad it’s good” department.

That I am an atheist is transparently clear to those who know me, so I can’t imagine what a person of Christian faith feels when they see the “Beast Jesus.”  I stood in a cue that included cyclists in full gear, grandmothers, parents toting their infants, or with toddler in tow, bikers, girls in cut off denim shorts, and folks like myself who had travelled from a far, all hoping to photograph or be photographed with the now infamous “Ecce Mono”.  The spectacle of it is of course a big part of its allure.  But is there any superstition attached to it like a statue that sheds real tears? The town of Borja is nestled in Spain’s only desert in a region that is considered to be fairly religious.  I wonder if Cecilia’s magic will remain, or if the fresco will be returned to its original state.  I’m not sure that it matters in the long run.  Indeed, the experience of driving up the windy roads of Saragossa, flanked by olive trees and fields of grape heavy vines hardly needs a cherry on top.  

Monday, September 10, 2012

Fine Specimens

Art enthusiasts regularly seek out art museums when traveling.  For the rest of the world, the word "museum" has a broader meaning, which includes military and maritime collections, waxworks, natural history, historic houses, various technologies, and, of course, medicine and science.  Medical museuns can be of special interests to fans of fine art because the objects  they display often relate to long-time interests of artists, such as human anatomy.  They also tend to recall a time when artworks and medical items were intermingled, as in the cabinets of curiosities of old.  There are some fascinating medical collections around the world, including La Specula in Florence, the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, the  Museum of the History of Medicine in Paris, and the Semelweis Museum in Budapest.  If you are attracted to any of these, you might want to make a stop in Leiden to see the Boerhaave Museum.

Officially a museum of both science and medicine, the Boerhaave collections includes interesting and important artifacts pertaining to chemistry and astronomy.  But, for me, the medical collection was  most exciting.  Consider the macabre items collected by the Albinus brothers in the 18th century, which includes unusual skulls, a child's arm in formaldehyde, fish skins, a fetal elephant displayed next to a human fetus for size comparison.

Of equal interest are the medical models of Louis Auzoux, and 19th century anatomist who innovated techniques for making extremely fine medical models out of papier-mâché.  This was an advance over wax models, which were fragile and more expensive to produce.  The paper models include insects, snails, and humans, including an exquisite sequence showing fetal development, and models depicting the reproductive systems of both men and women.

The museum is named for Herman Boerhaave, a contemporary of Spinoza, who is regarded as the father of the modern academic hospital, and his students included Linneaus and Voltaire.  Appropriately, there it contains a surgical theater, which is occasionally put to use for animal dissections, open to the public--a kind of performance art.  The museum also hosts innovative exhibitions, which integrate medical artifacts and art.  On my recent video, there was an outstanding show on body image that documented obsessions with weight, both past and present.  The show includes works by Vanessa Beecroft, who does group photos of naked models who have lost their individual identity, Ivonne Thein, who alters photographs to make models look shockingly anorexic, and Kurt Stalhaert, who transforms children into muscular monstrosities.  The inclusion of contemporary art was welcome, but hardly necessary, for making the Boerhaave a worthwhile stop.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Art as Symptom

An early edition of Prinzhorn's book on the art of the mentally ill

In 1922, the German psychiatrist, Hans Prinzhorn published Artistry of the Mentally Ill, a richly illustrated text that drew attention to strange and extraordinary artworks created by psychiatric patients.  At the time, the European artworld was dominated by a swing towards the classical, as artists tried to restore a sense of order after the First world War.  The surrealists took notice, of course, and there was a detectable kinship between some of Prinzhorn's artists and Paul Klee and some expressionists and fauvists, but, overall, the modes of expression associated with mental illness were too unfettered and compulsive to enjoy widespread uptake in the 1920's.

A painting by Dubuffet, showing the influence of art brut

The mood changed after the Second World War, however.  Classicism no longer seemed relevant or viable in a shattered world.  A number of artists, such as Francis Bacon, Giacometti, members of the Cobra group, and Jean Dubuffet began to explore styles that were more raw, stark, and disturbing than European galleries had hitherto seen.  Some of them produced work that was childlike, but rarely innocent.  Europe was psychically damaged and artists began to revert, not too childish glee or surrealist escapism, but to a mode of distortion that rebelled against the aspects of control associated with formal art training.  This new mode served to condemn the ideas of order, reason, and civilization.  At this historical moment, the artworld was ready for Prinzhorn, but he had died the year Hitler came to power.  Mentally ill artists needed a new advocate, and Jean Dubuffet took up that role.

Dubuffet in his Lausanne museum

Dubuffet coined the term "art brut" in 1945, and began collecting work by artists who were untrained and isolated from the artwold.  It wasn't essential to him that the artists in his collection were mentally ill, though most were.  What mattered more is that they innovated new styles with no interest in or knowledge of what what going on in galleries and museums.  Dubuffet's artists were compulsively driven to create.  Most were astonishingly prolific, but they had no interest in selling their work, exhibiting it, or making a profit.  Dubuffet's collection is probably the best of its kind in the world, and it is housed at the Collection Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland.  The curators of the museum continue to identify artists and acquire their work, and the collection now owns some 63,000 works by 400 artists.  It is a treasure trove for enthusiasts of Outsider Art--a term coined in the psychedelic '70s as a translation for art brut.

A detail from Adolf Wölfli

Among the many highlights, are several works by Adolf Wölfli (top), one of the first outsiders to come to the attention of the artworld.  Wölfli had been an abused foster child, who then became a child molester, and, after multiple offenses was interned in a mental hospital in Bern.  There he wrote an epic novel of 25,000 pages, and produced about 1,600 colorful drawings.  His doctor, Walter Morganthaler, published a case study in 1921.

Augustine Lesage at work, and one of his monumental paintings

Wölfli often worked at a large scale, and his works are obsessively detailed with symmetrically arranged figures, faces, patterns, and symbols crammed into every inch.  This is common among outsider artists, including Augustine Lesage, a miner who began hearing voices instructing him to paint.  Lesage believed he had a spiritual mission, and claimed to produce his works automatically.  He eventually left the mines and became a spiritual healer.  He produced about 800 works.  A picture of Lesage at his easel, painting from left to right as was his habit, appears above, next to a monumental canvas on display in Lausanne.

A detail from Madge Gill (reproduced from here)

Another spiritualist artist in the collection is Madge Gill, an English woman, who made enormous drawings with black ink, dotted with identical, disembodied faces, and claustrophobically clustered with interlocking architectural details, such as checkered floors and rafters.  Gill spent her first 8 years cloistered away from society because her family was ashamed that she was born out of wedlock.  She then had a bad marriage, which resulted in the birth of three children, including a son who died in the influenza epidemic on 1918.  She later had a stillborn daughter, and became very ill from the birth.  During that illness, she lost an eye and almost died.  After recovery, she began compulsively weaving, playing music, and drawing.  She believed her artistic productions were being guided by a spirit named, Myrninerest, whose name often appears as the signature on her work.  The identity of the female face is obscure.  It might have been a portrait of her stillborn daughter, whom she attempted to channel through  drawing, or perhaps they are self-portrait, lost in a tangled sea of interlocked chambers with no possibility of escape.

An Alexander Lobanov painting

Self-portraiture was the preoccupation of another extraordinary artist in the Lausanne collection, Alexander Lobanov.  At five years of age, Lobanov contracted meningitis and lost his hearing and power of speech.  As a young man, his parents had him committed to a Russian asylum because of his violent behavior.  A decade later, he became more sedentary, and channelled his aggressive thoughts into artistic creations.  Lobanov made hundreds of drawings (and, later, photographs) of himself surrounded by various kinds of firearms.  These exquisite works portray the artist as a steadfast, expressionless hunter, shrouded by a decorative veil of guns and rifles, rendered in soothing purples, aquas, and blue.

A detail from Aloïse Corbaz (notice the stitches and collage elements)

When I visited the Art Brut Collection, an entire floor was dedicated to an exhibition of Aloïse Corbaz, a Swiss artist who developed an obsessive crush on Kaiser Wilhelm II, when she worked as a governess in his court.  She was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia and spend years making expansive colorful drawings, many on long scrolls.  She sometimes wove collage elements into these, but most are made with crayons, colored pencils, and even the juice of flowers.  The subject matter is almost always the same: a woman in the arms of a man, who is dressed in military formalwear.  Here Aloïse symbolically acts out an endless affair with an aristocratic German lover.

Two Josep Baque creatures

Because of their isolation, outsider artists often construct elaborate fantasy worlds.  We see fantasy romances (Aloïse), fantasy worlds (Lasage), and fantastical narratives (Henry Darger is perhaps the best case, though, sadly, his works were not on display during my visit to Lausanne).  We also see fantasy creatures.  There is a marvelous serious of bizarre beasts by Josep Baque, a Spanish policeman.

A Heinrich Müller creature

The collection also has a fantasy creature by Heinrich Anton Müller, one of the best known outside artists in the collection.  Müller was a Swiss wine farmer who became severely mentally ill after someone stole his invention for trimming vines.  In addition to his many drawings, Müller built numerous inscrutable machines and contraptions, as if hoping to relive his lost moment as a genius inventor.
Three pages from Takanori Herai's notebooks

Dubuffet's collection concentrates on artists from Western Europe, but art brut is a global phenomenon. With this spirit, the museum's curators have amassed an impressive collection of art by Japanese outsiders.  For example, they have many pages from the notebooks of Takanori Herai.  Born in 1980, Herai has been institutionalized since childhood for seizures, autism, and mental disability.  He fills pages with geometric patterns that are apparently words written in a secret language that only he and two of his nurses can decode.

Art brut fascinates us for many reasons.  On the downside, it is a kind of art world freak show, where we delight in the curious creations of those with mental disabilities--people whose lives are often very difficult.  On the upside, there are many artists on the margins of society who happen to create extraordinary works.  We also see, in this cohort, an unusual compulsion to create, not just as a symptom of some malady, but also as a form of therapy: both the sickness and cure.  They are outside the artworld, but they are creating worlds through they art--worlds that we too can escape into.  The work of untrained artists should not be seen as the work of noble savages--that is the fallacy of primitivism, and there is nothing primitive about the work on display in Lausanne.   But the work does benefit from the fact that the artists often produce their work for very personal reasons, and this frees them from the usual market forces that can constrain creativity.