Saturday, October 20, 2012

Channeling Picasso

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
For four years running, Grand Rapids, Michigan has been host to ArtPrize, a massive competition that boasts some of the largest monetary awards in the art fair business.  The top winner, picked democratically by visitors, is $200,000.  Runners-up also go home smiling, and critics get to dole out prizes in addition to the sometimes dubious audience awards.  With over 1,500 entries, the majority of the art is bound to be schlock, but there were some impressive highlights in this year's event.

Mike Simi, Mr. Weekend
One lovely example was a piece by New York artist, Kumi Yamashita (from Takasaki, Japan), on display at the Grand Rapids Art Museum.  It consisted of a 100 sheets of origami paper, slightly crushed to highly accurate shadow portains of 100 residents of Grand Rapids.  The shadows went on and off with a timed light source, commenting perhaps, on the ephemerality of life.

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
In a venue near the church, there was another photographic highlight by Virginia artist, Chuck Clisso.  At first glance, it looks like a striking black-and-white abstraction, with sprawling thread-thin lines, that evoke East Asian ink works.  On closer examination, these lines are revealed to be an aerial shot of cattle trails in the snow.  In the lower left, some cows can be seen. In the upper portion, a human made road serves as a counterpoint to the bovine paths below.

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
These are just a few of the things that made this year's ArtPrize worth seeing.  The event is gaining deserved visibility, though not all of it positive: Fox News tried to stir up controversy about a paining containing HIV contaminated blood.  The event was quite tame by artworld standards, and no less worthwhile without shock appeal.  It also brought throngs of people to this small midwestern city, simultaneously raising the town's profile and raising enthusiasm about art.  One can hardly complain about all the bad work mixed in with the good, and it's silly to gripe about the viewers' picks, though some would make the average art snob cringe.  Predictably, I tended to concur with the juried picks, though I want to end by mentioning a piece that didn't make the viewer's or jury's top ten.  Norwood Viviano's lovely entry was a series of glass curvilinear polygons, that correspond to plots of urban population patterns painted carefully on the wall.  Each form represents a city, and the glass expands and contracts in ways that correspond to population fluctuations over various temporal intervals.  New York's population was the most striking in the series, funneling out wildly as other cities saw gentle contractions.  A gorgeous visualization, bridging demography and art.

Norwood Viviano, Cities: Departures and Deviation

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Bridging Art

Integrated Vision, Time Divides, projected on the Manhattan Bridge
This weekend, the Manhattan Bridge became a moving canvas for a talented group of video artists.  For three nights, the Bridge's base in Dumbo was used as a 33,000 foot, three-dimensional projection screen.  Miraculously, video images were projected on both the exterior facade and an interior tunnel.  Standing inside the tunnel was a profoundly immersive experience, which felt a bit like being sucked inside of a hypnotic video game.  It compared favorable to the experience of seeing Pipolotti Rist's oversized video on the mezzanine of the MoMA a few years back.  The tunnel was also used to project short video projects with more conventional aspect ratios, turning this unassuming mass of bricks into an arched four-sceen theater.  The spectacle raised the bar for public art.

 A clip of Integrated Visions, Time Divides, on the bridge facade

A clip from the Integrated Visions, Time Divides, from inside the tunnel

The 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

Glowing Bulbs & John Ensor Parker, An Enquiring Age
The 14 conventional-format videos were created by an impressively international talent pool.  There were artists from Hungary, Holland, Finland (via Berlin), China (via Rome),  and Argentina (via Tel Aviv and Brooklyn).  And the aesthetic range was equally varied: animation, human forms, animals, and abstraction.  Highlights included Eelco Brand's undulating landscape, which might have reminded some views of the accidental art created by Apple's flawed iOS6 map app, Yi Zhou's strangely moving film of birds in flight, and a mytho-poetic Sarah Walko and Malado Baldwin collaboration pertaining to alchemy.  Though common themes were hard to identify in this work, there was a constant dialectic between the natural and the artificial.  On the organic side, there were birds, dogs, clouds, snowflakes, and flowers.  On the manufactured side, there were cogs, drills, buildings, and bricks.  Bridges, of course, are an ostentatious example of the human effort to conquer nature.  Here, artists conquered a bridge, projecting a convulsive compilation of images that left the dialectic between organic and inorganic satisfyingly unresolved.

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.