Thursday, January 31, 2013

BLOG NUMBER 50: Infesting Los Angeles

There is no better way to celebrate our arrival at blog number 50, than to recognize a new exhibit featuring co-founder of, Rachel Bernstein.  Rachel's work has attacked the enormous front window of L.A.'s excellent Craft and Folk Art Museum (just a block down form LACMA on Wilshire).  She has created an infestation of finger-like protuberances that spread like an invasive growth on the building's exterior and interior.

Rachel's installation is part on an exhibition cleverly called Social Fabric, curated by Berkeley's Anurahda Vikram.  It features a group of artists who are using fabric to create fine art, with a social edge.  Use of fabric in art is itself a politically message, since fabric has been treated as a medium for women, hence not worthy of fine art.  The work display represents the fiberart revolution, which seeks to correct that gendered ranking, by bringing techniques such as sewing, needlepoint, and knitting into legitimacy.

Some of the work on display is overtly political.  Consider Allison Smith's marvelous gas masks.  Using old photos from military museums, Smith recreates fabric masks of the kind that were once used in battle during the brutal first half of the 20th century.  The handmade fabric designs have a quaint charm that hangs in grim tension with the knowledge that the originals would have be worn under conditions too horrendous to imagine.  On display in the show are some of the actual gas masks that Smith has created as well as a photo series of iconic images, which turn these tools of war into fashion garments.

Stephanie Syjuco's work is another case in point.  With the help of craftspeople around the world, she makes crochet knock-offs of designed handbags.  The bags serve as a reminder of the hegemony of big brands, which have come to epitomize status and the global spread of capitalism.  Syjuco's practice also draws attention to the fact that makers of designer products often use underpaid workers in developing countries.  By participating in the production of the knockoffs, foreign workers can reclaim their dignity while creatively condemning exploitation.

Another highlight of the show is work by the Combat Paper Project.  Participants in the project are veterans, who take their military uniforms and convert them into pulp, which they they make into paper and use for making art.

Rachel's work is political in a different way.  She is interested in what may be the defining obsession of our species: the quest to control nature.  Invasive growths represent the uncontrollable.  Her fabric fungi invade interior space, bringing the outside in, as it were, asserting the indomitability of nature.  Over the duration of the exhibition, she will build on her window installation, as if it were growing, and encroaching inexorably on the normally pristine museum.

Rachel's work also challenges the boundary between the beautiful and the grotesque.  Invasive growths are usually repellent, but Rachel's rendition has poetic allure.  She has another installation in the exhibition gallery and some photos of her fungi in various urban and wild settings, including a New York subway station.  In the latter context, they represent not just the encroachment of nature, but the encroachment of art.  Metaphorically, perhaps, art too is an alluring and uncontrollable fungus that crops up in surprising ways, violating expectations, and posing positive challenges to prevailing norms.

Monday, January 21, 2013


On a recent trip to Long Island City, I stopped by MOMA PS1 to catch New Pictures of Common Objects, an impressive group show curated by Chris Lew. Using photography, sculpture, video, and installation, the artists (Josh Kline, Margaret Lee, Trisha Baga, Helen Martin, and Lucas Blalock) all have, in one way or another, a meticulous relationship with the ordinary.  
Lucas Blalock, Building Materials, 2011

Margaret Lee, Cucumber (phone), 2012

New Pictures of Common Objects is open for one more week (!) until Sunday, January 27. Don’t miss it.

On view a few blocks away at the SculptureCenter, is Double Life curated by Kristin Chappa and presented through the Center’s In Practice program. Artists included in this year’s In Practice exhibition are Korakrit Arunanondchai, David Berezin, Paul Branca, Lea Cetera, Rachel Foullon, Molly Lowe, Shana Lutker, S. A. C. (Student Art Collective) with Justin Lieberman, Julia Sherman, and Bryan Zanisnik. The diverse group of artists, most of which work in multiple media (sculpture, video, performance, photography, painting, installation, etc.) made smart use of the cave-like architecture in the downstairs basement galleries.

Highlights from my all-too-brief trip through Double Life include Molly Lowe’s FORMED, an odd and humorous video that is somewhat akin to a David Lynch film colliding with a contemporary Dr. Caligari, and Julia Sherman’s video and photography installation Lucy Becomes A Sculptress. Sherman wonderfully and wittily recreates clay sculptures made in an I Love Lucy episode (same title as her piece) in which a pregnant Lucy endearingly tries her hand at ceramics in hopes of providing her future child with a cultured life. 

Molly Lowe, FORMED (still), 2012, HD video

Julia Sherman, Homage To Lucy's First (and Last) Abstract Work, 2012, C-Print, 16" x 20"
Lucy Becomes A Sculptress (still), 1953.

Double Life runs through March 24, 2013.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Everyone but Trockel

The Rosmarie Trockel show at the New Museum, which closed this weekend, was one of their better exhibitions in recent years.  Called "A Cosmos," the name resembles Mickalene Thomas's recent show "Origin of the Cosmos" and both include a variant of the well known Courbet painting "Origin of the World."  Trockel's version (above) shows the female anatomy replaced by a poisonous spider.

A Cosmos is a welcome overview of Trockel's art, but it is also a window onto the cosmologies of other creative individuals.  That is it's greatest virtue.  Co-curated by Trockel and Lynne Cooke of the Reina Sofia in Madrid, the exhibition showcases the work of numerous characters on the fringes of the artworld, including a team of anonymous botanists, several outsider artists, and a glass-model maker.  These are people who have inspired Trockel, and they more than earn their keep when displayed along-side her impressive and chameleonic work.  Indeed, they overshadow her contributions to the show.  As a self-curatorial effort this is an exercise in humility, and Trockel has done museum-goers a service by drawing attention to some underappreciated artists, including at least one whose work has not been exhibited before.

The net effect is a kind of Wunderkammer.  Wunderkammern came into vogue in the Renaissance hundreds of years before the invention of the modern museum.  The juxtaposed what we would consider artworks (Western paintings and sculptures) with exotic artifacts, crystals, fossils, and animal specimens, among other curiosities.  One goal was to balance human-made objects with natural objects, united by their capacity to instill a sense of wonder.  Trockel has followed in that tradition, including, for example, the exoskeleton of a giant lobster and an replica of a palm tree (suspended from the ceiling of a white tiled room--see the top).  She also includes drawings commissioned by José Celestino Mutis, a mathematician turned botanist, who went on an expedition of the New World in order to document unknown plant species.  The prints that were created under his direction are strikingly mathematical (right).  They convert vegetal forms into geometrical abstractions.  This is a category violation, like Trockel's tree.  It lies on the border between the natural and the artificial.  An even more striking example is shown above.  Leopold Blaschka was a bohemian glass artist who made stunningly beautiful models of sea creatures that are so lifelike that they almost seem to move.  A half dozen of his creations are included in the exhibition.

Trockel and Cooke also give prominent place to outsider artists.  Among them, Morton Bartlett, who has recently gained visibility, including a major show last year at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin.  (The image above is from the New Museum web page.)  Mostly working in the 1950s, Bartlett was a self-taught artist who crafted exquisite clay models of children, which he painted and dressed in painstakingly sewn outfits.  He then took vaguely erotic photographs of these models, which he never shared with the outside world.  Both the sculptures and the photos were discovered in 1993, a year after Barlett's death.

The exhibition also profiles less known outsider artists.  On view for the first time (I believe) are books created by Manual Montalvo, a Spaniard who was trained as an artist before a psychological break that lead him start creating remarkable hand-drawn books.  These were, for me, the highlight of the show.  Each contains countless pages of densely packed illustrations, covering a specific class of objects, such as mammals, birds, vessels, famous monuments, famous people, and national flags.  Only one page of each was on view, unfortunately, but these suffice to indicate that Montalvo is a major talent whose books will soon be well known by connoisseurs of artists working outside the artworld.  They are like visual encyclopedias, drawn in miniature, with tiny captions that would put Medieval manuscript illuminators to shame.

Another revelation for me was Judith Scott, an artist who cannot hear or speak and suffers from Down syndrome.  When she was 40 years old, she began making sculptures of out yarn.  Sometimes monochrome and sometimes multi-colored, they are unlike anything I've ever seen.  Their forms are organic, but full of irregularities that would not exist in nature, suggesting some mysterious function.  They look, as Kant would say, both purposive and purposeless.  The curators placed these in a room with Trockel's acclaimed "yarn paintings."  Pictured in the background above, these are usually described as a feminist critique of minimalist abstraction--they are like Barnett Newman paintings only made out of a material that has been denigrated as feminine, and hence only worthy of craft.  The yarn paintings in the show are impressive.  Juxtaposed with Scott's creations, their political punch is softened, and they seem instead to serve as a bridge between the work of this isolated artist and works in the modernist canon.

The curators also included a couple of contemporary "insider" artists, whose work deserves more attention.  I was particularly taken with this wall mounter hairball by Günter Weseler, an 82-year-old who has spent decades making these things that look like the spawn of spooring shag carpets.  What's more, this one moves!  Pulsating gently, it is an animatronic fiber-art alternative to conventional paintings.   Imagine what galleries would look like if this sort of thing caught on.  Trockel pays homage in a piece that consists of a baby model in a bassinet, with a fly on her face,wearing a Snoopy outfit, and threatened by a pulsating Weseler-like form encroaching on her head (left).  The effort seems contrived next to Weseler's more understated wall-hanging.  Then again, a jackhammer would be more understated.

It would be unfair to Trockel to suggest that her contributions to the show are unsuccessful.  Quite the contrary, she confirms her reputation as one of the most interesting and versatile artists at work today.  Her yarn paintings, photographs of Styrofoam, and hand-made book and magazine covers are among the show's many highlights.  Those covers, which I haven't yet touched on, have been part of her practice for decades, and they are a charming window into Trockel's creative imagination.  Here too, we see her paying respects to other artists.  The example on the right, from an imaginary periodical called Most Need Beauty, shows a photo of Agnes Martin.  Martin is a good icon for Trockel.  She is a woman working in the male-domianted minimalist world, which Martin mocks with her yarn work, and she is an artworld insider whose own persona is more like an outsider.  Trockel herself does not come across as an outsider, but her curatorial contributions indicate that she looks regularly outside the establishment to find inspiration.  Here she has graciously shared some of the people on whose forgotten legacy she draws.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Anatsui Branches Out

El Anatsui, from Ghana, has been a major force in African art for decades.  A founding member of the Nsukka Group in Nigeria, he and his fellow artists have promoted contemporary art in West Africa, drawing inspiration from centuries of work by the local Igbo people.  Igbo design, or uli, emphasizes, linearity, asymmetry, and lack of perspective.  All these features are exemplified in of Anatsui's work.  Among the Nsukka artists, he has achieved the greatest international fame, with work in major museum collections, such as the Metropolitan, the British Museum, and the Pompidou.  In a recent installation, he covered the facade of the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin with a large sheet made from bottle caps and other bendable bits from beverage containers.

Those luscious metallic sheets are Anatsui's trademark.  They have gained fame for their opulent grace as well as their unlikely materials.  Making art out of bottle caps is the ultimate alchemy: trash is transformed into gold--which also happens to be the dominant color in Anatsui's palette.  In addition to the political messages (poverty, pollution, consumerism, etc.), we are reminded that everything is a potential art supply.  Anatsui is more aesthete than politician.  

New York is lucky to have an Anatsui exhibition, closing this Sunday (run!) at Jack Shainman, one of my favorite galleries in Chelsea.  Full of elegant works, the show is also noteworthy for including pieces that depart from Anatsui's gold palette and sheet-like forms.  Some of the the work drips into tendrils or branches out onto the wall.  There is even sphere, which unravels like a ball of yarn, as if it were the source material from which Anatsui's metallic textiles flow.  Encountering these works up-close in the gallery is a special delight.  It allows viewers to see the subtle variations in the artist's technique.  One thing that makes this work rewarding is Anatsui's attention to detail.  Each piece could be studied for hours, from inches away, without ever getting bored.  I end with a few examples.

The World of Mickalene Thomas

Mickalene Thomas in probably one of the best painters working today.  She has the elements that were prized in Renaissance masters: an impressive and innovative palette, a strong sense of line, a capacity to work well at both monolithic and miniature scales, a flair for portraiture, and a command over complex figural composition.   Despite these classical virtues, she is no throw back.  At least not the the 16th century.  Her aesthetic emerges from the 1970s world into which she was born.  Her muse is her own mother, who has struggled with poverty and addiction.  The "artists" who inspire her include the makers of blaxspoitation films, '70s pornographers, and anonymous neighbors who filled their living rooms with mismatched colors and patterns during that time.  Thomas' world is not Florence or Venice, but Camden, New Jersey, and Portland, Oregon.   Her art education began with the encouragement of a nurturing aunt, continued autodidactically in the aisles of a used bookstore, and ended up at Yale.

There is a major exhibit of Thomas's work closing this weekend at the Brooklyn Museum.  That is a remarkable achievement, given that her first solo show was just three years ago.  In the decade since she completed her MFA, she has produced a massive amount of outstanding work, much of which is monumental in size.  The first work of hers I saw, however, were small collages (one of which appears to the left).  The exhibit includes a wall of these--mostly women sprawled out sensuously in visually complex interiors.  This is also the theme of some of her enormous paintings (below), and throughout the show we see echoes between paintings, collage, installation, and video.  Thomas's strong aesthetic comes through in all these media, and each seems like a sketch pad for the other.

The painting evokes a long history of nudes: Titian's Venus of Urbino, Goya's maja, Ingres, and Monet.  Unlike those, the figure here does not stare back at the viewer, but seems content in her self-appointed urban paradise.  The flattened patchwork background brings to mind Vuillard, African textiles, and kimono aesthetics, but it is also distinctively and unmistakably Thomas.

Zooming in on these extraordinary background patterns is rewarding.  Almost any random segment would work well as an abstract composition  The rectilinear forms in the example above represent paintings but also gesture at constructivism.  Thomas could remove recognizable forms from her work and remain a great painter.  Equally impressive is her preoccupation with texture: plastic beads and sequins are pasted on the canvas, and she sometimes juxtaposes flat and impasto paint.  The delicious detail on the right is from the painting above, and it shows how Thomas plays with texture with meticulous care, creativity, and wit.  Click to see up close.

Thomas is also preoccupied with space.  Almost all of her work represents interiors, and the Brooklyn show includes some paintings of furnished rooms as well as a group of installation pieces, in which Thomas reconstructs '70s living rooms replete with assaulting upholstery, wood paneled walls, and parquet floors.  Each room is detailed with period artifacts including vinyl records, family photos, and Afrocentric books.  In both the paintings and installations, the viewer can parse the space, but it is often difficult to do so.  Patterns and color disrupt the geometry.  Like a collage, Thomas present a world of cut-up fragments pasted together by a process that would look entirely random if it didn't work so well.

The Brooklyn show is called "Origin of the Universe." The title belongs to one Thomas's paintings (below), which is a direct homage to Courbet's "Origin of the World."  Where Courbet's painting shocked audiences, however, Thomas seems almost incidental.  Incidental because its truth is so resolutely confirmed by the paintings in the exhibition.  To produce his painting, Courbet asked a paid lover expose herself so he could profit from telling a condescending mother myth, intended to excite the male art world.  Thomas, who comes from a world of strong women, gives us a different message:  this outpouring of extraordinary work, exploding with originality, vitality, and multi-layered complexity, came from a woman, embodied, situated, and unblinkingly comfortable with physicality.  There is no myth here, and the ensuing thrill comes from the dazzling quality of the art.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Picasso and the Anxiety of Influence

"Picasso Black and White," an exhibit closing at the Guggenheim next week, gives us a chance to examine the Spaniard's decades long career once more.  The chose of monochrome works well in the museum, and draws attention to Picasso as a painter concerned more with form than color, but it is really incidental to the interest of the show.

I was most gripped by the thought that Picasso achieved fame young and was under pressure to maintain a body of work worthy of his name.  We usually think of Picasso as an artist who transformed himself again and again.  That narrative is certain true for the first decade of his career, moving from blue to pink, from primitivism to cubism, from analytic to synthetic, and arriving at Neo-Classicism.  But even within these transitions, there were continuities among the discontinuties, and the decades after that, from the 1920s to the 1970s were marked by more incremental developments.  Picasso's style was recognizable throughout.

The Guggenheim show confirms that, and we see may iconic images on display: the woman ironing, two-faced portraits of lovers, studies for Guernica, and Picasso's take on Las Meninas.  Between all this, however, we some something else.  Various attempts to try out new things, and, occasionally, to try on new styles.  All of these bear the mark of the artist, but they also evoke work by others.  Picasso's influence on art is arguably unsurpassed (maybe Giotto had a greater impact), but it's important to see him as an artist of his time, learning from his "rivals."

For example, we see some portraits from just after WWI that look remarkably Viennese.  This picture of Olga (on the left) could have been a Klimpt.  The hands resemble Picasso's monolithic figures, but the elongated body and gracefully delineated features recall look more Austrian than Iberian.

Another example can be found on top.  This painting of a Milliner's Studio certainly looks like a Picasso.  It anticipates Guernica (painted 11 years later), and the interlocked diamond pattern on the right-hand side recalls earlier Picasso's Harlequin pictures.  But the forms are more curvilinear and densely packed than much of Picasso's more familiar work.  The abstractions of Francis Picabia seem to be echoed here, and the playful domestic subject matter even makes one think of Chagall.

The picture above (The Kitchen, 1948) can also be read as a quotation.  When I saw it with Rachel at the show, she immediately said "Klee!"  That's surely right.  For examples Klee's Wald Hexen (forest witch) from exactly ten years earlier.  It also resembles some of the surrealists inspired by Klee, like Picasso's fellow Spaniard, Miro.  In that regard we are reminded on the link between Picasso and the abstract expressionists, who also drew on this this mode of surrealism (think of Gorky), and it's striking to recall that they are emerging in America when Picasso is painting this.

The next picture on the left is more identifiably a Picasso, but it is interesting for various reasons.  It was produced during the war years, when we think of Picasso as a political painter.  It seems to be a depiction of a sculpture--art about art.  That's pretty far removed from the themes of Guernica, and it reminds one of his Valazquez studies.  But it also looks like it might be a representation of one of his own sculptures, rather than a work by another artists.  A bit of self reference.  Duchamp made a career of this, and it is also a major theme in the work of Picasso's arch rival, Matisse.  Has Pablo tipped his hat to Henri here?  The painting also brings another comparison to mind.  The lines in the background look almost like a frame or a even a cage.  One wonders whether Francis Bacon, who was about to emerge on these scene had seen paintings like this.

As a final example (appropriately enough) consider this skull.  Skulls are a common theme in art.  There was a show dedicated to them at the Maillol museum in Paris a couple years back.  And, of course, they became highly charged as symbols in the years of the two world wars.  Picasso paints skulls from time to time (one of these is in the exhibit), and here we see a scull sculpture.  In form, it bears some kinship to the lovely skull paintings by Cezanne.  It also evokes the skulls in Aztec art.  More chillingly, one is reminded of the rounded Danziger skull used by the German military.  Picasso was living in occupied Paris at the time of its creation.  Whatever the lines of influence, Picasso's skull is a terrific, haunting, and somewhat uncharacteristic work.  It is worth far more, in my view, than the diamond encrusted publicity stunt by Damien Hirst.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Hildegard's Ideal Man

Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man is one of the most famous images in the history of Western art.  It captures Leonardo's melding of art and science, which was central to Renaissance rationalist humanism.  It also harks back to a Classical source: Vitruvius's essay on architecture, which laid out a canon of ideal proportions for both buildings and human beings.  Thus, the picture also embodies Classical perfectionism--a theme that resonates now with our endless efforts to achieve perfect beauty.
But Leonardo's picture was not the first image of idealized proportions in Western art.  A striking comparison case can be found an image by Hildegard of Bingen (top left).  Yes, Hildegard.  Born in 1098, at a time in which woman were removed from intellectual and creative life, St. Hildegard was a composer, poet, philosopher, mystic, linguistic, botanist, and medical theorist.  Last October, the Pope announced that she will be named the 35th "Doctor of the Church," an honor she shares with Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas.  In short, St Hildegard was a Renaissance man, though she was neither a man nor alive during the Renaissance.  She died in 1179, nearly a hundred years before the birth of Giotto.  Leonardo's Vitruvian man was drawn more than 300 years later (c. 1490).

Before getting too excited, however, about how St. Hildegard anticipated the Renaissance, it is important to remember that she is a medieval figure.  It would be a distortion, clouding her own unique contributions, to paint her as a modern before the modern era.  St. Hildregard was no rationalist.  Born to a wealthy family and given to the Church, she began having visions at the age of 3.  Her "Universal Man" appears in one of the three volumes on her visions, which she wrote and illustrated.  She saw a series of concentric circles, including circles of air, ether, fire, and clouds, and then a body appeared at the center.  The body is proportioned as perfectly as Leonardo's (when superimposed, they are strikingly similar), and it also represents an ideal of perfection, but it is neither Classical nor scientific.  This is a cosmological body, or, more accurately, the human form as a microcosm of a supernatural cosmos, whose truths are disclosed through revelation.

Visions are gorgeously illustrated throughout St. Hildegard's manuscripts.  Even her versions of biblical stories take on surprising new forms, at a time when there were strict canons for the depiction of sacred texts.  For example, the second image above represents the fall--the dark form is the serpent, I believe, and the stars on the right represent Eve.  The next image, with two concentric circles and an androgynous blue figure in the center, represents the trinity.  In the two after that, we see Hildegard herself, experiencing visions.

The most striking vision in St. Hildegard's work may be the one reproduced below.  The panel on the top left represents five upcoming eras of the the world.  Each is symbolized by an animal: a horse, a lion, a dog, a pig, and a wolf.  Their long rope-like tongues wrap around the trunk of a tree.  On the right, we see a Christ figure suspended in what looks like a castle--perhaps the Kingdom of heaven.  The lower panel depicts the Antichrist, who has come to attack the Church.  The Church is personified as a woman.  The face of the Antichrist has been planted on her loins, as if he has succeeded in taking her purity.  Parishioners cower below.  There is hope, however.  Yellow lightening bolts are showering down on the Antichrist.  Perhaps his victory will be short lived.  The menace of Satan pervades St. Hildegard's work.  In the image on the left, we see a devil making mischief in the corner, and in the image above a flock of demons stand poised to wage war against an army of angels.  One can only imagine the anxieties that tormented people living in a time when it was widely believed that the world is a stage for a holy war between good and evil.  Renaissance rationalism rid us of this anxious worldview, but it isn't obvious that this led to an improvement in art.  For me, Hildegard's nightmarish visions are more satisfying than the cool Classicism in Leonardo's Vitruvian man.  Though hardly a household name, she is certainly among the most interesting figures in the history of Western art.