Sunday, March 31, 2013

Lab Roth

Dieter Roth was born in Hamburg in 1930, and, in 1943 his family fled to his mother's native Switzerland.  He ended up living in a house in Zurich, the birthplace of Dada, along with other refugees, including Jewish and Communist artists.  He began making art in that house and didn't stop until his death in 1998.  In that half century, Roth produced an extraordinary range of work, which is now being honored at two exhibitions in New York--one at MoMA and the other at the impressive Hauser and Wirth gallery in Soho.  Roth was first and foremost an experimentalist.  What is most impressive about his output is the variety of media, techniques, and concepts that he explored.  One charming and timely example (courtesy of MoMA) is the bunny made from rabbit droppings, above. Part artist, part mad scientist, his work is a celebration of the artistic process even more than the product, though some of the products are remarkable to behold.

The MoMA show spans Roth's career, and includes some of his early experiments in graphic arts.  These include prints, books, postcards.  One impressive series includes images of tourist destinations that have been modified or partially occluded with blocks of color.  He also began using newspapers as a medium at this time.  The above left example show Roth experimenting with Pop iconography including comic images and printers dots, around the same time as Lichtenstein and Polke.  The image on the right (from the MoMA site) shows a tiny book made from newspaper.  Roth made books obsessively, and was obsessed with printed word.  The images below (left image from MoMA) show examples of his Literaturwurst--sausages made from classic books.

These sausage forms also relate to two other kinds of media experiments that can be found in Roth's work.  He liked to use food products to create art, as in frames spices below (courtesy of MoMA), and he also made a number of biodegradble works, in which foodstuffs were allowed to decay, as in the jarred doll, covered in mould on the right.  These experiments began in 1964.  The draw attention to the impermanence of art.  Everything is in a state of decay.  The world's masterpieces are changing each year, and will eventually return to dust.  This notion of impermanence resonates with themes in Zen Buddhism.  The Japanese aesthetic concept of wabi-sabi is intended to celebrate the transience and imperfection of all things.   Roth's rotting works also have a post-modern appeal; they reminds us that artists are not in total control of what they produce.  Biodegrable art is collaborative art--the minuscule mindless organisms living all around us take part in selecting their colors and forms.

Food and decay are also important themes in the Hauser and Wirth exhibition.  That show includes some of Roth's celebrated experiments with chocolate and candy as art media.  Done in collaboration with Dieter's son Björn Roth, also an artist, the exhibition was involved a performative element of gradual creation, as well as decay.  A group of assistants cast numerous heads using various confections, and built two tall towers with them, over a period of weeks.  One is a colorful collection of canine-looking (apparently lions, however) and self-portraits of Roth (like the yellow one below).   The other is made of chocolate Roth heads, which develop a white film over time.

The gallery show also included prints, paintings, video, and a grand installation.  One of the collaborative paintings, which a wonderful and extremely knowledgeable security guard identified as his favorite, is reproduced on the left.  It shows a figure in a chair looking out at a seascape with swirls of color--perhaps an artist's mind intermingling with the world.  The installation recreates an artist's studio.  A number of these have appeared elsewhere (e.g., P.S.1 and the Hamburger Bahnhof).  Though visually assaulting, they reinforce the mad scientist theme, by presenting world of alchemical chaos, in which food products (such as beer bottles) and traditional art media are interspersed.  Two small details are presented below along with a video still showing the elder Roth at work in his laboratory.

By sheer salience and scale, the centerpiece at Hauser and Wirth is a giant floor (two floors, actually) that were laboriously shipped at incredible expense from the artist's former studio in Iceland.  Roth moved to Iceland after the war, married an Icelandic woman, became a citizen, and raised three children there, including Björn.  This outpost allowed him to conduct his endless experiments at one remove from the epicenters or European and American art.  Though hardly an outsider, it is likely that geographical distance helped Roth avoid getting completely absorbed into one of the successive movements that emerged after the war.  He was affiliated with Fluxus, and one can find many hints of pop, new realism, conceptualism, and arte povera in his work.  He often walked in lock step with current trends.  But he never became wedded to a single approach, and that restless spirit makes his work seem more contemporary and more urgent than the pantheonic figures which whom these movements are associated.  Roth's studio floor (made with red tiles that were apparently pervasive in Europe) can be seen as a giant readymade.  It looks like an abstract painting, but its many marks are created by accident, not intention.  Like Roth's biodegradable art, it can also be compared to a gargantuan peri dish in which the artist himself has left tell-tale traces.  Fortunately this is not the only trace he left behind.  These two exhibitions remind us that Roth was among the most productive and inventive artists of the later 20th century, and his contributions should be elevated from the footnotes into the main texts of art history.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

I Heard The Herd At HEARD

New York’s MTA Arts for Transit and Creative Time have brought something pretty damn cool to Grand Central Station on 42nd Street. Oh yeah, and it’s FREE. No need to worry about coming up with the usual 25 bucks for museum admission. For four more days, anyone who can get time off from work, or those with a need to get from point A to point B, go through Grand Central at 11 am or 2Pm and take a peek at Nick Cave’s performance “Heard” which has dancers from the renowned Alvin Ailey Company.  It is an impressive display of dancers in Nick Cave’s celebrated “Sound Suits”, sculptures cum outfits cum instruments.   The particular collection is a herd of horses meant to be heard while the inhabitants dance, move and swish about. The subtle swishing of the raffia sounds something like leaves rustling, or water coursing through a rocky ravine. The sounds are gentle, the costumes are anything but. Nick Cave’s works are always exquisitely crafted, and these are no exception.  They aren’t my favorite pieces, and I didn’t quite understand why there was a harpist playing intermittently. The added musicians distracted away from the sounds of the suits, but I wonder if the music was meant to guide the dancers and cover up the background noise of the train station.  In the end, the venue wasn’t an ideal one for the Sound suits, but I thoroughly appreciate bringing art to both the primed and the unsuspecting for everyone to enjoy as they see fit.  The kids will most certainly love it.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Frickin' Piero della Francesca

Piero della Francesca has been hostage to changing fortunes.   In his time, Duke Guidobaldo (who was immortalized in a portrait by Raphael) called him the "prince of modern painters."  He is also honored with a chapter in Vasari's Lives of Artists and credited there with being the greatest geometer of his time, in addition to being a great painter.  Soon after, however, he drifted into veritable neglect.  In the Anglophone world, he was mentioned only passingly until the 19th century when he caught the attention of Charles Eastlake, first director of London's National Gallery.  By the turn of the 20th century, he had something of a cult following, with monographs written on him, and lectures by Roger Fry, who is also credited with bringing both post-impressionism and African art into British and American consciousness.  Under Fry's influence, Piero's fame grew steadily.  Modernists saw him as a precursor to their art and, in 1925, we find Aldous Huxley calling Piero's Resurrection (above), "the best picture in the world."

Interestingly, Roger Fry's affection in Piero predates his discovery of post-impressionism, and may owe more to the influence of the Pre-Raphealites on British thought.  Though they never championed Piero, the Pre-Raphealites drew attention to the spiritual austerity of quattrocento painting, and few artists realize their ideals better than Piero.  Thus, we can find a path from the Pre-Raphealites to Fry, and then from Fry to modernism.  On this telling, Piero becomes a bridge that allows English art enthusiasts to develop an appetite for modern art.

New York is lucky to have a Piero exhibition right now at the Frick Collection.  7 works are displayed--the largest number ever grouped together in North America--including 6 panels from the Sant'Agostino altarpiece, which are normally scattered in different collections around the globe.  The alterpeice paintings include two austere portraits of a monk and a nun (above), as well as two full body portraits: a gorgeous St. John the Evangelist (owned by the Frick), and an imposing St. Augustine with a passion play decorating his robe.  Seeing these together is a special thrill.

The exhibit also includes a stunning Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels.  Like much of Piero's work, it can be described as movingly still.  The figures are erect and calm.  Their faces are classical, mask-like, and composed.  Most are looking inward, the Madonna's eyes are downcast and Luinesque, but the figure on the right looks out at the viewer, while pointing to the Christ child.  These angels lack the drama that is so characteristic of High Renaissance art, and this gives them a quiet humanism that is more affecting than works by many of Piero's successors.  The Virgin here has a quiet nobility.  She is like an ancient stone goddess, securely perched in the center of the canvas.  Piero's Mary paintings are among the best in the history of art.  Two others, both highly unusual, are reproduced for comparison to below.

All three Mary paintings have Mary at the center, towering comfortingly above the other figures.  The Mary exhibited at the Frick also exemplifies the trait for which Piero has become most known: his inventive use of geometry.   Piero wrote an important treatise on perspective, bringing that technique to a new level.  We see a hint of that in the upper right.  More strikingly, this painting, like many of Piero's most famous works makes extensive use of hidden formal regularities.

If one creates a square using the upper border of the panel, the midpoint will coincide with the outstretched hand of the Christ child (above left).  And if one creates a square using the architectural element in the background, its midpoint coincides with the hand of Mary, who is holding a rose (above right).

The upper-right quadrant of that inner square contains the heads of both Mary and Christ, and the crown of Christ's head falls at the midpoint (a device used in other Piero paintings).  Further decomposition of this square reveals many other precise alignments.  I created a grid to illustrate (above).  All four angels' faces have central points that line up with one of the nested verticals.  Two angels have v-neck garments that align with  verticals, and their robes also align.  Christ's and Mary's legs alight with other verticals.  The head's of christ and two angels align with one horizontal line, and that same line intersects the hairline of the other two angels.  The horizontal below that touches all of their chins.  The next horizontal hits the base of Christ's art and the base of the aforementioned v-necks.  The one below that intersects with Christ's knees as well as the belts of the two angels that flank either side of the panel.  Below that, a horizontal catches the hemlines of those two angels along with Mary's knee and Christ's foot.  These are just a few of the hidden geometrical coincidences that contribute to the painting's sense of harmony.  Highly formal but never cold, Piero's geometry is humanizing.

To fully appreciate Piero's poetic humanism, one need only consider his two most distinguished pupils. First consider the above painting by Melozzo da Forlì.  It has Piero's stillness and it takes his use of perspective to a new level.  But it utterly lacks the gentility of Piero's lines, his touching facial expressions, and his subtle palette.  Piero's other distinguished student is Luca Signorelli, famous for complex compositions with many interlocked figures.  For comparison, look at Signorelli's Last Judgment in comparison to the most figurally complex Piero that I know, The Battle of Heraclius and Chosroes.  Even in battle, there is a stillness to Piero's figures.  Signorelli's are highly theatrical in comparison.  There is hardly a vertical body in the painting. 

For a final comparison, consider this Signorelli Flagellation in comparison the Piero's treatment of the same theme (which is just a detail from the background of a larger composition).

Seeing these side by side it is hard not to think, with the Pre-Raphaelites, that the Renaissance took a wrong turn after Piero.  The serenity and dignity of his work was replaced by much cartoonish melodrama.  Signorelli is magnificent, to be sure, but his embellishments signal the loss of something very special, something that is present in much medieval art but gets lost as painting became more ostentatious.  Ironically, the High Renaissance painters are regarded as humanists, but Piero's work makes Michaelangelo and Titian look vulgar.  In this light, Piero's great contribution is not the he pre-figured modernism, but that he is pre-modern.  He gives us noble human archetypes at a moment just before humanity arrogantly asserted itself as the measure of all things.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Stuff Of the Still Life

I happened to be in the neighborhood of Chelsea, so I B-lined it to Nicole Klagsbrun.  I had seen some pics from the Sean Bluechel exhibit, “Still Life Is No Life”, and found the work and its presentation both whimsical and refreshing.  I’m not at all opposed to or repelled by things ceramic, but I will say the discovery of this was unexpected and it ultimately had a less than positive effect on how I experienced the work.  It seems unfair to be negative about work that I kind of liked- but I guess the ‘kind of’ is the reveal here. Because, I ‘kind of’ thought the photographs were amusing, and had a similar sort of whimsy to them at first glance. But upon the second and third glance, I “kind of” didn’t love them.  They seemed deliberately childish in an over the top, I don’t quite buy this, kind of way. Some of the photos were grabbed on line, and while they worked well together with the ceramic pieces, aesthetically and with a similar sense of humor, the infantile quality began to grate on me.  

The sculptures too, become oddly repetitive. I started imagining the artist going to ceramic studios and pilfering the creations of small children and then mashing them together to create his quirky assemblages.  If that were true, I’d think wow, he sort of one-upped Dubuffet, because instead of mimicking the styles of children and/or outsider artists, he just stole their work.  That would be “kind of” brilliant.  

Anne Carson described in her Autobiography of Red, “the fragments of Geryoneis…as if Stesichoros had composed a substantial narrative poem then ripped it into pieces and buried the pieces in a box with some song lyrics and lecture notes and scraps of meat”. That would also be a nice explanation as to why all of the pieces look related to one another. I suspect that neither is the case here.  But what the hell, it’s all in good fun and I think it’s still worth a gander.  It's open through April 6. Do it.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Camera Obscura: Revealing Occluding Moments in Film

Film, like other arts, has long been male dominated, and that fact has an impact on how women are depicted.  Sexualized, conning, hysterical, and vulnerable -- the most common traits of female film personas.  Art-house films depart from cinematic conventions in many respects, but not these.  Here, however, I want to explore a motif that crops up in various art films and departs from the one central aspect of how women are depicted: the obscured face.  Film has a love affair with beautiful female faces, but in some cinematic moments, these are hidden from view.  This can be a form of objectification (beauty tantalizingly deferred or, even worse, a visual decapitation leaving a willing body freed from the inconvenience of the mind the would normally control it). But facial concealment can also serve other functions.

Beginning with surrealist cinema, consider this still from Man Ray's Etoile de Mer, a film that uses multiple visual metaphors to convey the mystery and inaccessibility of a female object of desire.  In this frame, eyes emerge coquettishly from behind an upside down newspaper.

Another case of surrealist occlusion can be seen in this frame from Cocteau's Blood of a Poet.  The male lead in the film is afflicted by the unwelcome appearance of a mouth on the his palm, transferred from a work of art.  Here we see the poet attempting to silence a classical statue--a silencing that will not succeed.

On the objectification end if the spectrum, consider this frame from Vladimir Moty's White Sun of the Desert.  The Islamic veil is, for many Western audiences, a symbol of oppression, but it can also be used as a tool of orientalist exoticism.  That is the function it serves here in this Russian classic.  It is not so much an erasure as as an envoy to forbidden love.  Moty plays with tropes of powerlessness and powerful women.  There is strength behind those veils.

Power and powerlessness are also a theme in the hypergraphic art-house flesh films of novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet.  The above still does not reflect the sadomasachistic iconography that abounds in his work, but it illustrates the present theme.  It is from The Man Who Lies.

Or consider this still from Marco Ferreri's The Ape Woman, a tragicomedy about a woman who facial hair.  Here she is taken by her boyfriend, fully veiled, to a zoo, where so she can learn some movements for her sideshow act.

Another approach to occlusion can be seen in this still from Yoshishige Yoshida's Flame and Woman.  Yoshida is one of the most inventive and relentless formalist in film history, and here we a bird's eye view of obstructed love.

This next series if frames comes from Georges Franju's art-house horror classic, Eyes Without a Face.  Franju uses multiple tactics for obscuring the female face.  Here we see three: bandages, shadow, and an uncanny mask.   The film itself concerns the question of facelessness.  To be without a face would be a nightmare for anyone, but for a woman, the face is even more linked to one's worth.  In that context, one can ask whether a face is ever anything other than a mask.

More fanciful concealments are presented in the above series from Sergei Parajanov's extraordinary film poem, The Color of Pomegranates. The first two are variations of a theme: actress Sofiko Chiaureli covers her face with lace.  In the final two, we see the same actress in her role as the male poet who is the protagonist of the film.  Cross-dressed and covered, there are cases of double concealment.

For a more disturbing use of facial occlusion, consider this sequence from Jodorowsky's Holy Mountain.  Here two interchangeable blondes have the faces covered by the gloves hands of a menacing priest-like figure, himself concealed. They are then shaved, stripped, and ensnared under the rim of his black hat. 

Antonioni exploits the occlusion motif in the opening part of L'Avventura, his magnum opus.  In this sequence, we see lead actress, Monica Vitti, exploring a barren island with wind whiipping her hair over her face.  Shot after shot, Vitti's features are occluded, and the inhospitable landscape becomes a metaphor for a lost soul.

The examples so far are all from films by male directors.  For contrast, it can be illuminating to look at facial occlusion in films made by women.  The above example comes from Maya Derren's celebrated short, Meshes in the Afternoon.  The image is a cinematic cliche.  A women blocks her face when confronted by a threatening assailant.  But notice the eyes.  We don't see fear here, but a kind of confidence.

This next image comes from a feminist film by a male director: Alexander Kluge's The Indomitable Leni Peickert.  It is one of the most entertaining art-house films I know.  Here concealment turns into a form of power.

The use of concealment as a tool for empowerment has cropped up in other arts as well.  It has been used masterfully by the Guerrilla Girls, as in the poster above, and more recently by Pussy Riot, pictured below.

These examples illustrate the ambiguity of facial concealment in the language of film and art.  Concealment can be a manifestation of objectification, or a comment on it.  It can even be an empowering mask.  In these cases, the unseen face is more visible than the seen.