Saturday, July 20, 2013

It's About Time

Fine art tends to exist in three dimensions.  Painting and sculpture are the most traditional media, and both deliver works with spatial, but not temporal qualities (except for the unwelcome fact of deteriotion over time).  Artists have often puzzled over how to bring time into their work, exploring everything from dynamic forms to decay.  Continuing in this tradition, The North Carolina Museum of Art is currently hosting an exhibition called 0-60: The Experience of Time Through Contemporary Art.  Here's a speedy tour of some highlights.

A number of regional artists are featured in the show, like Tom Shields, currently a resident at Penland, North Carolina, whose deconstructed chair appears at the start of this post.  The work by locals holds up well in the show.  I was very taken with the work of Virginia-based Sonya Clark, for example.  The piece above is a digital print, in a scroll of a 30-foot dread lock.  Other work uses hair to track the years since the Emancipation Proclamation.

The show also includes many national and international artists.  It opens with a number of clocks made by the ever-inventive Californian, Tim Hawkinson.  The examples above are a dried banana skin and a medicine cabinet filled with toiletries, all of which have moving parts that keep time.

Hawkinson's banana expresses time through its movement and also it's ongoing process of degeneration.  More subtle--and stunning--is Tara Donovan's cube made of thousands of toothpicks.  Talk about transfiguration of the commonplace!  Donavan is a master at making the mundane marvelous.  This toothpick monolith looks like it is about status rather than temporality, but a brief look at its periphery reveals the fragility of what appears structurally implacable.  The assembly could not survive transportation, and will likely loose parts over the course of the show.

A bit more conservative, but also impressive are some photographs created over long periods of time.  There is an imposing triptych by the German photographer Vera Lutter (not pictured here), which used a camera obscura to document an afternoon at Frankfurt airport.  The image above is a remarkable 3-year (!) exposure made by Michael Wesley using a pin hole camera which remained on during the construction of the renovation of the Museum of Modern Art.

The exhibition also included two large installations of the excellent Mexican-born Montreal-based artist, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer.  The piece above uses a respirator to inflate a paper bag continuously using the breath of a Cuban singer.  It inflates 10,000 times a day, the breathing rate of a typical human adult.

Another room-sized installation includes a small hole where visitors can insert a finger.  The hole captures the fingertip on video and measures the pulse, resulting in an encompassing montage of fingers and nails.

One of my favorite pieces in the show is a one-room apartment made entirely of sheer fabric by Korean, Do Ho Suh, one of the most interesting artists active today.  Do Ho Suh is interesting in biographical time, and this room is part of a larger project in which he creates fabric scale models of every home he has lived in.

For me, however, best in show was an old classic.  It celebrates a piece by one the legends of performance art, Taiwan-born Brooklyn-based, Tehching (Sam) Hsieh.  Hsieh's performance works of the late 70s and early 80s were true tests of endurance.  In one he avoided anything having to do with art for a year.  In another he lived outside for a year, never entering any enclosed space, including vehicles.  In a third, he spent a year in a wooden cage, not speaking, reading, or watching television.  The exhibition documents another performance from this period, in which Hsieh took a photograph of himself every hour on the hour for a year.  The photos have been assembled into enlarged contact sheets and a video, which document his hair growth, and his amazing punctuality.  Day or night, he managed to be on time for his hourly photo.  The work is about the passage of time, but also about life on the clock--a ineluctable aspect of modern life.  If artists strive to represent the world they live in, the Hsieh's pieces does a better job than any other on display in representing what time has become.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Lorca Illustrates New York

In 1929, after a falling out with Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, Federico Garcia Lorca set sail for New York.   He planned to study English at Columbia University but soon gave up and devoted his time to writing a series of poems.  Lorca had never experienced a large urban environment, and he had never been overseas.  He was transfixed by New York's bold modernism, but also rattled by its racism and consumerism.  He witnessed the Stock Market crash and watched the teaming masses, once buoyant with optimism, collapse into panic and despair.  Lorca's time in New York would transform his poetic style.  He amassed a collection of poems that are among the finest of his career.  He delivered these to a publisher in 1936, several years after returning to Spain.  Lorca planned to visit his editor the following day, but never made it back.  Caught up in the Spanish Civil War, he was executed in Granada weeks later by a militia loyal to Franco.  The manuscript, called Poet In New York, would be published four years later in Mexico.   Most of the original materials, including Lorca's own illustrations for the collection, have been out of public view since then.  An exhibit at the New York Public Library, closing on July 20th, gives a rare glimpse.


The exhibition includes Lorca's passport (top), a postcard he collected (above), letters he wrote to his family (above left), and manuscript pages (above right).  There is even a Columbia University library card.  These are fetish items, significant because they bring us into contact with one of the century's greatest poets.  More exciting are the drawings on display.  Lorca was an avid drawer.  He drew compulsively and joyfully.  While drawing, he said, "I love moments of intensity and purity that poetry does not give me" (source).  His friend Gregorio Pierto, a painter, said that "Lorca would do his drawings... as if playing, though with that seriousness that children adopt when they do their own, a childlike interest, like someone doing something of the utmost importance in his life" (source).  Miró said these drawings were manifestly the work of a poet, which he considered the ultimate complement.  Lorca also admired Miró, and one can see a similar playful in their art, and an appreciation of negative space.

Lorca's drawings were ignored for many years, but several recent volumes have offered reproductions and commentary.  Some of the drawings on display at the library were originally created to illustrate Poet in New York, and some were published in an early edition.  Lorca often appears as a character in these works, reduced to a pair of heavy eyebrows and a tangle of delicate limbs.

There are also fanciful creatures in the drawings, a feature typical of his New York poems as well.  Lorca's New York is infested with rats and reptiles.  There are also insects, farm animals, and many other writing and gurgling life forms.  Here is a representative passage:

One day 
the horses will live in the saloons 
and the enraged ants 
will throw themselves on the yellow skies that take refuge in the eyes of cows.

 Lorca also had a fascination with spindly, vein-like nerves, which twist through the limbs of his creatures or dangle in the air like trees.  He tried to develop a "physiological aesthetics," inspired by textbooks in cytology and neurology.  Some of the works bring to mind the magnificent histological illustrations of Ramon-y-Cajal.  Winding lines also appear in the poetry:

It doesn't matter that each minute
a new child shakes his small bunches of veins
or that the newborn viper, let loose under the branches,
calms the blood-thirst of those who look at the nude.
What matters is this: void.  The world alone.  The river's mouth.

It would be overly adulatory to praise Lorca's drawings too much.  Some are wonderful, all are charming, but many have a disposable character.  They were doodles, flights of fancy, little whim-gifts to friends.  There is no doubt that Lorca's finest pictures are crafted with words.  None of his drawings can capture the visual intensity or invention of his New York poems.  No line of ink can compare to a line of his text.  Consider the uncompromising horror of this verbal image:

There were murmuring from the jungle of vomit
with the empty women, with hot wax children,
with fermented trees and tireless waiters
who serve platters of salt beneath harps of saliva.

Vomit is a  favorite trope in Lorca's poem cycle, along with urine, spit, and other forms of urban filth.  One almost feels sullied by his stanzas.  His drawings never quite reach that level of uncomfortable urgency, though they occasionally come close, like the following example:

Though imperfect, Lorca's drawings leave us with an intriguing legacy.  They remind us that creative personalities often feel stifled by a single medium.  They also have a verbal quality.  By that, I mean they are filled with discrete and recurring symbols, like some ancient iconography waiting to be decoding.  Sometimes the cryptic messages hint at the inner torment Lorca might have felt during his time in New York.  He was a foreigner there, a linguistic visionary muted by poor English skills, an artist.  He spent time at Harlem night clubs watching black bands play for white audiences, feeling like a member of neither group.  He was a leftist in the hotbed of capitalism. a Flamenco balladeer in an urban jungle, a gay man in a country were homosexuality was still illegal.  (In this context, it is disheartening to note the blank space in the passport picture above, reserved, chauvinistically, for the carrier's spouse.)   Lorca's poetry often reflects the loneliness and anxiety associated with his predicament, and this sometimes comes through in his graphic work as well.

The above picture shows a path with what first look like footprints.  On closer scrutiny, however, it appears to be a trail of severed hands.  There is a sense of impending doom here, as if Lorca knew he would soon recede into the distance, violently, leaving his poetic and pictorial handiworks behind.  Lorca's capacity for augury is also poignantly present his poetry.  One of the New York poems contains the following lines, which describe his own demise.  I align the text with a detail from a contact sheet showing some of the last photos ever taken of the poet.  These photos were snapped by the Polish photojournalist, Chim, and on display at the Jewish Museum in Paris last month, in a heart-wrenching show about the Spanish Civil War.

When the pure forms sank
in the cri-cri of daisies,
I knew they had assassinated me.
They combed the cafes, cemeteries and churches,
they opened the wine-casks and closets,
destroyed three skeletons to take their gold teeth.
But they couldn’t find me.
They did not find me?
No. They did not find me.
But it was known the sixth moon fled above the torrent,
and the sea— suddenly!— remembered
the names of all it had drowned.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Renovated Rijks

The Rijsksmuseum in Amsterdam recently completed a ten year renovation, which cost almost half a billion dollars.  The results are both spectacular and odd.  Every surface has been lovingly and resplendently restored or reinvented.  A grand, glass-enclosed entrance atrium has been added, and every painting, with the exception of Rembrandt's Night Watch has been relocated.  The museum presents a sweeping history of Dutch art, and the building itself has become one of the central attractions; it stands up to the masterpieces in the collection, but doesn't compete with them.  In some ways, however, the new organization is odd.  Works by Rembrandt appear in different rooms, instead of united, chronology is broken, decorative arts are intermingled with paintings, and older foreign works --including paintings from the Italian Renaissance-- are jammed haphazardly in a dark lower gallery.  The later decision seems woefully editorial: the Renaissance was a gloomy time compared to the golden Dutch baroque, which is the central focus of the collection.

One interesting and welcome consequence of this new organization is that much of the museum now feels like a giant cabinet of curiosities.  Classic paintings are juxtaposed with curios (like the skull above), raising questions about what counts as art.  Museums, including this one, are recent inventions (the Rijksmuseum dates to the 1880s), and they often impose modern standards about what art media deserve our esteem.  The collection interrogates those standards and serves as a corrective.

The most conventional space is the main upper gallery, which contains greatest hits by famous Dutch painters.  The Night Watch--a highly overrated work--is the centerpiece (above), which lies as the end of wide corridor a paintings, sucking in tourists who have been told by guidebooks to pay their respects.  En route, we find exceptional paintings by the usual suspects, Hals, Pieter de Hooch, and Vermeer (below).  My favorite is St. Odulphus Church by Saenredam (top), a master of interiors, which can be seen as formalist abstraction.

The selections for this central gallery are not always easy to understand.  It's not surprising that they included the spectacular and crowd-pleasing Vermeer, on the right, but the equally wonderful Mestu, showing a woman with a plague-ridden son (right), is quarantined to a missable outer gallery.

There are also some wonderful Rembrandt's in quarantine, including the fascinating early painting of musicians above.  We can see that the juvenile Rembrandt had a broader palette and an almost mannerist approach to anatomy.  One wonders why the Rembrandt collection is divided across distant rooms rather than presented together for easy comparison.

There are other odd divisions as well.  The superb still-life, above, by Floris van Dyck, is in the main central gallery, but equally wonderful still life paintings can be found in other parts of the museum, rather than treating viewers to a cohesive presentation of the genre.

The outer galleries, as noted, are not restricted to paintings.  Mixed in, visitors will find furniture, decorative works cast in metal, and sculptures in various media, including the three wooden examples, reproduced here (a man with rats, a shrieking baby with an insect on its head, and a sporting dog).  The collection also contains some interesting polychrome sculptures, such as the handsome Baroque and Renaissance upper-body images reproduced below.

Among the more appealing oddities in the collection are two antique doll houses, with several dozen exquisitely appointed rooms.  Here is an example from each:

The paintings in the collection include some exciting surprises.  For me, the two unexpected highlights were a multi-panel painting by Otto van Veen and a new acquisition by Jan Mostaert.  Van Veen was a Flemish painter who influenced Rubens, but the miniature scale and gentle posture of his figures contrast with Rubens' comic-book dynamism.  Van Veen plays with the picture plane, and most panels show figures clustered at various depths.  He also contrast romance and violence.  In the first example below, we see multiple couples gently embracing, with vibrant colors and a geometric mis-en-scene.  In the second example, we see a great battle.  Notice how the slouching figures in the foreground of each panel echo each other.  The painting cycle celebrates the Batavians, an early Dutch people who made successful attacks against Rome -- they are romanticized here, without concealing the brutality of their assaults.

The newly acquired Mostaert painting was, perhaps, my favorite in the whole museum.  It is described as a landscape with an episdode from the conquest of North America.  Indeed, it is reputed to be the earliest fanciful painting (form the mid-16th century), depicting European interactions with indigenous people in the New World.  Unlike many subsequent works, which show friendly encounters, this picture seems to show something horrific.  A long row of naked figures prepare to encounter armed invaders, with the implication that these innocent and ill-prepared people will soon be conquered.  The impending battle is set against a magical background with rolling hills, and strange rock formations.  Paradise will soon be lost.

The Rijksmusem contains many other treasures.  Moving into modern times, we find a superb Van Gogh self portrait and collection of works by COBRA artist Karel Appel.  The highlights, however, are the older works.  What stuck me, and what I've tried to convey here, is that the most interesting pieces are oddities: works by anonymous artists, lesser works by famous masters, or works by second-tier artists who deserve to be better known.  Pride of place is given to familiar masterpieces, but a careful tour of the museum's many branching chambers rewards visitors with wonderful works that fall far outside the canon.  I end with one more -- a Renaissance etching by an unknown master that would make expressionists, surrealists, and other masters of modernism green with envy.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Yoko Ono: Yes!

Like many people, I first heard of Yoko Ono as the woman who broke up the Beatles.  I also vividly recall people snickering about her records, saying she howled instead of singing.  In reality, Yoko Ono was a major figure in the 60s art scene, whose work contributed to conceptualism, happenings, fluxus, and video art.  She was also a musical pioneer, making recordings that forecast subsequent currents in punk, riot grrl feminism, lo-fi, art rock, and noise pop.  A grand retrospective at the Louisiana museum outside of Copenhagen offers an opportunity to appreciate her contributions to art. 

John Lennon apparently met Ono in 1966, at a London gallery, where she was installing a show.  He asked if he could hammer a nail into the hammer piece (top): a plane piece of wood, which gallery visitors could modify by hammering provided nails.  She said no.  Lennon also reports adoring Ono's ceiling piece (above, source): a ladder with a magnifying glass hanging above it, and the word "yes" in tiny letters on the ceiling.  The Lennon legacy has made the pieces so legendary that their artistic significance is almost forgotten.  That is a shame.  The hammer piece was a clever innovation.  Kurt Schwitters had hammered art together decades earlier, but this piece helped to re-write the relationship between artist and view.  The idea of artist as grand master is replaced with the idea of artist as someone who invites viewers to create.  The ceiling piece raises questions about the ontology of art.  Where is the piece?  Is it the ladder?  The word?  The activity of climbing and looking?  Are artworks beautiful things?  Do they have fixed meanings?
Like other pioneers of conceptualism (Weiner and Kosuth, for example), words have been a central part of Ono's practice.  Among her most celebrated works, are the pieces described in her book Grapefruit.  Each page contains an instruction, like the ones above, to engage in an activity.  Some of these activities are impossible to carry out.  They vary from charming, silly, and absurd, to poetic and profound.  Grapefruit is a monument in conceptual art.  They perfectly exemplify Sol Lewitt's precept that artworks are ideas, and that it doesn't matter whether they are (or can be) physically instantiated.  Lewitt's own works never realized that vision as well as Ono's.  Like her, he often created works in the form of instructions, but the products created by following these instructions remain fairly traditional, or, in Duchamp's phrase, retinal.

Ono's interest in the intersection of art and language is well represented in the Danish retrospective.  We find word pieces, mail art, and instructions of various kinds.  Words were important conceptualists because they moved beyond the the focus on the visual in art.  Ono goes beyond the visual in other ways as well.  There is for example, "touch poem" consisting of a lock of hair (above).  In another piece, visitors are invited to feel the air inside an plexiglass podium.  There is also a charm machine containing plastic containers containing nothing.  Emptiness is a preoccupation in Ono's work, and also in traditional Japanese aesthetics (consider the negative space of a Zen rock garden).  We are invited to ask, Is air really nothing?  Can something invisible be art?  Are concrete objects more valuable or meaningful than the ether that surrounds us? 

 It is noteworthy, in this context, that Ono was a philosophy student, indeed the first woman in the philosophy department at her prestigious Japanese university.  She ended up dropping out, but her art can certainly be regarded as philosophy.  It is also political at times as well.

Behind the charm machine, in the photograph, there are a series of uniform images, and below each is an inscription describing a traumatic biographical event, such as a time when Ono was fondled by a doctor.  Ono also lived through the bombing of Tokyo at the end of WWII, and she was active in the peace movement and woman's movement of the late 1960s.  The exhibition is punctuated by political works, such as a suspended constellation of critic cages made to commemorate massacres (above).

The exhibit focusses more, however, on Ono's Zen-infused conceptual works.  The image above is a detail of a long shelf containing water jars with the names of famous personages.  The list ranges from Picasso to Hitler.  Here we can see Camus next to Madonna.  The piece is a great equalizer.  For Ono, everyone is really just made of the same transparent ubiquitous stuff.  It is a political statement, but also a philosophical one.

The piece on the right is a clear panel, proportioned like a painting, engraved with the words, "Paining to let the evening light go through."  It asks, as Duchamp had done, about whether art is a window onto reality.  But it is also a celebration of natural beauty, and not just an intellectual joke.

The exhibit also does a good job highlighting Ono's work as a performance artist and video artist.  It includes her piece Four (a minimal fluxus name), which shows how buttocks move as people walk.  The image on the screen pays homage, in a witty way, to formal abstractionists, like Malevich.  The photo below captures the film in production. 

Even more famous is Ono's Cut Piece, in which spectators are invited to snip off her clothing.  This concept anticipates Abramavic among others, and is a landmark in the history of performance art.  It is also an important feminist work, drawing attention well before the Guerrilla Girls, to the sexualization of women in Western visual culture.

Another interesting example, which also deals with the female body, is Fly: here a fly, which became Ono's alter ego, moves along a naked woman's body.  It brings to mind the custom of including flies in Dutch still like paintings, to represent the impermanence of beauty.

The fly film also related to Ono's musical work.  Around the same time, she began making musical records.  She had been involved in music for a decade already, and John Cage was an early mentor as she broke into the art scenes.  But, after joining forces with Lennon, Ono began producing commercial pop records.  Her first two were overtly, even aggressively avant garde -- more challenging than almost any other mass marketed music of the time.  The second record was called Fly, and an excerpt can be heard below.

The Louisiana show does not aim to present Ono's musical works, but this is an important omission.  In a way, Ono's visual art died when she met Lennon.  People blame her for destroying the Beatles, but the Beatles were already done.  Much more more profound was the effect that the Beatles had on Ono.  She was a major figure in the underground art scene before she met Lennon, but she later became redefined (and reviled) as Lennon's wife, and latter as his widow, rather than as a significant artist in her own right.  Ono has continued to make visual art in the decades since meeting Lennon, much of which is on display in the show.  Some this work is excellent (including the crickets and water pieces mentioned above), but her most important artworks precede her marriage, and her later work is often parasitic on earlier ideas.  Being married to rock's biggest celebrity may have altered her artistic trajectory, or, worse still, stifled artistic progress.  But she did continue to innovate in other ways, after marrying Lennon, and her greatest achievements were in music.

After Ono's two avant garde records, she records some material that was more accessible.  Her crowing achievement is the uneven but excellent double album, Approximately Infinite Universe.  The album varies stylistically, with a lot of blues, funk, and rock coming through with Lennon's (and occasionally Mick Jagger's) guitars.  But there is also a lot of experimentation here, and overtly feminist lyrics.  Some of the songs have a punk rock sensibility, like the stripped down number above.  Hearing this record, it is impossible not to think of Patti Smith, the X-Ray Spex (note the saxophone), Bikini Kill, and Deerhoof.  Decades of musical innovation are anticipated in these tracks, and hindsight has shown that Ono was well ahead of the curve.  She can be seen, in this light, as one of the major figures in recent music.   The Louisiana exhibition also properly confirms Ono's place as an important figure in the recent history of art.