Monday, February 25, 2008

Visiting Habatat Gallery in Tyson’s Corner

Janus Walentynowicz, "Waiter Heads 1," glass/mixed media

By Katherine Sable

I was curious to see what types of galleries are located outside of the District, crossing into the state of Virginia. I found Habatat Gallery via an online search, and I didn’t know what to expect. As I walked up to the façade of Habatat Gallery, on the ground floor of a tall office building located amidst many other development projects in Tyson’s corner, I was a little excited to find a quiet, professional entrance, which was surprisingly similar to many of the strong, intimidating galleries in Chelsea. There were no 50% off signs, absolutely no buy-one-get-one-free bulletins, only tasteful signage with the name of the gallery and hours located on fingerprint-less glass doors. Upon entering, I heard classical music drifting quietly in the background and found some to-die-for lighting. The front desk was larger than you would find in a typical Chelsea gallery, and very welcoming and approachable. I came specifically to review a photography show, but I was tempted past the photographs on aluminum and into the other spaces with remarkable sculptural items twinkling on display.

It’s evident that Habatat Gallery has worked to perfect its display of sculpture. Within the lofty space, with high dark ceilings and darkly stained industrial floors, it felt like a gallery while at the same time a little like home. It was warm, inviting, friendly, and this made me want to venture further into the space. They have a small variety of ways to display their sculpture pieces- rather than using the typical white pedestals, Habatat has installed a focal point of fabulously designed dark wood cabinetry with various cubicles, each equipped with its own lighting. The wall of individual sculpture pieces was not overwhelming, and the lighting enabled each piece to stand out in its own right.

As great as the space was, there were of course also a handful of art pieces that interested me. Working with glass as a fine art medium has had a recent revitalization, and Habatat Gallery has a secondary market for glass sculpture. Emily Brock’s cast flame-worked glass vignettes of "His Office" and "Her Office" caught my attention. Although Brock’s use of pink either irritated or excited me (I can’t decide), she still creates particular little worlds, a little stereotypical, that drew me in, if only by their size and detail. Nevertheless, Brock seems to push the potential glass provides for her. Within the pieces I saw, she incorporates painting, fusing, cutting, blowing, engraving, grinding, sawing, and polishing to create all the little shapes located within her miniatures. Little books and pieces of colored stationary are only a few of the small details in the office settings that make walking up to these sculptures worthwhile. The content (or maybe simply subject matter) is topical and the pieces really only stand as descriptions or scenes; I hoped for more. But that may be ok for Emily Brock, as she clearly loves the use of glass to create these delicate, safe little worlds. For me, I can’t stop imagining myself, or maybe something bigger and stronger- like a bull, running through and breaking this delicate silence, a thought that is definitely fallout of the artist’s choice of medium.

A very different sculptor who also uses glass as a fine art medium, Janus Walentynowicz, displayed peculiar wall-hung pieces titled "Waiter Heads." The heads were significantly different than every other piece of art presented in Habatat Gallery. They were not clean and shiny; they did not meld with or “match” the décor in this modern architecture. They stood out. Walentynowicz denies the qualities of glass (shiny, smooth, seductive) which the rest of the glass artists here utilized and preferred. His pieces were raw: cracked and pitted, full of flaws, semi-opaque. These “waiter heads” interested me the most. Firstly, after viewing all of the other glass art in the gallery, I started to pinpoint more particularly what the glass was making me think about- finding fragility, weakness and transparency being of utmost importance to me. I think that’s the reason I couldn’t stop imagining running into Brock’s little worlds and wrecking them. Walentynowicz's pieces have such physical presence; you cannot deny looking into the works rather than simply admiring the glossy surface. This is key! This quality rendered the faces painted below the glass evocative. The surface of the painted face and the surface of the glass drowning the faces became one and at the same time were fighting with each other. I began to wonder about the identity of these waiters, and in doing so, I was forced to look through, intensely, the surface of the semi-opaque glass and into the actual depths of these pieces. What a success; I kept jumping back and forth, in and out, and the properties of the glass are essential to that dynamic.

Habatat Gallery will celebrate its first year anniversary with drinks, food, and dancing on Thursday, March 27th from 8pm to 12 am. I say check them out, Tyson’s Corner isn’t that far away.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Wild Choir: Cinematic Portraits by Jeremy Blake at the Corcoran Gallery of Art

Jeremy Blake, "Reading Ossie Clark," 2003, digital animation with sound on DVD

By N. Painter

When I went to see the show of Jeremy Blake’s video work, or “cinematic paintings” as they were designated by the text accompanying the show, I had reservations about my own ability to appreciate and enjoy the work. I have not had a happy relationship with this particular medium. Most of my experiences with video art have involved several minutes of confused looking, my thinking, “What? What is this about?,” usually followed by my conclusion that I am just not cut out for the enjoyment of this “new medium.”

I made sure to read all of the text included in the exhibit, as I wanted to give myself as many chances as possible for some kind of access to the work. Unfortunately, as I read the description of the first “portrait” I was about to view (“Reading Ossie Clark”), I panicked. I didn’t know who Ossie Clark was. I also didn’t know some of the other names mentioned in the text, and I wondered if I knew enough about the particular time period being referenced. Was I once again going to feel like a video-art-dummy?

I watched “Reading Ossie Clark” once, and I almost immediately had questions. Who was narrating this? What were they saying? There were several occasions when I couldn’t understand what the narrating voice was saying, and I felt concerned that I had missed valuable information. However, somewhere along the way, I stopped caring so much what the voice was saying- it was kind of echoing in a weird way, but at moments it sounded very clear, and I started to feel that maybe these were incidents of need-to-know information. I could pay attention here, and when the voice started to fade or echo, I enjoyed what was on the screen in a different, less inhibited way.

This is the best part about Jeremy Blake’s work: as I am writing about it right now, the things I can recall make me want to see the work again. I mean I REALLY want to see the work again. There were many moments when what was happening on the screen was visually intoxicating. My concerns about whether or not I might understand what the artist was trying to tell me about Ossie Clark dropped away as I appreciated the formal qualities of the work. I felt that there was so much room in the use of images, colors, patterns, and sounds to create a dream-like mood, optimistic in the beginning, foreboding, at times, somber and hopeful at the close of the piece, that I could construct my own meanings. For me, this piece seemed to be about dangers of beauty and excess. I would be interested in reading more about the artist’s intent, but I wonder how having that specific information might have changed and even narrowed my experience.

“Reading Ossie Clark” was the earliest work in the show, which consisted of three pieces. “Glitterbest” was the next piece I viewed, and text accompanying the piece let me know this was an unfinished portrait of Malcolm McLaren, a key figure in founding the punk movement. I noticed a difference in the sound of this piece immediately- I had to put on headphones to listen to it, and a man’s voice spoke very loudly and clearly in my ear. I found this annoying. Whereas I could choose to tune in to or ignore the narrator of “Reading Ossie Clark,” I had no choice in listening to “Glitterbest,” unless I removed the earphones. I noticed other differences in this piece: there were many more images of drawings and cartoons (seemingly taken from newspapers or magazines, not of the artist’s own work) used in this piece, which seemed to function for me in a way similar to the quality of the narration. Instead of allowing room for my own experience, the loud and clear narration and appropriation of specific narrative devices seemed to control and direct my understanding of the piece. Instead of having a general idea of what the piece might be about, I came away from it thinking “Malcolm McLaren was a cock-sure pirate-type who had lots of sex and who liked to piss people off.” Granted, I know slightly more about the punk movement than I do about Ossie Clark, but my read of “Glitterbest” was probably a surface one, at best. I also barely made it through one grudging viewing of “Glitterbest,” while I more than willingly sat through “Ossie Clark” three times.

“Sodium Fox” was the last “portrait” in the show, and it was a collaboration between Jeremy Blake and southern poet David Berman. Berman actually wrote poetry to serve as the narration for the piece, which he also voiced. In the description of this particular work, it was noted that Blake intended his portrait of Berman to be a “peep show for poets. In “Sodium Fox,” there was an entirely different relationship between the narration and the imagery. While in “Ossie Clark,” the imagery seemed to express the text (or maybe this should be vice versa?) or even evoke it, at times in “Sodium Fox,” the imagery actually literally illustrated the spoken word. I disliked when this happened, as I found myself thinking of times when Blake’s imagery alluded to another meaning of the words, or revealed a mood indicative of meaning, or even times when the imagery seemed unrelated to the narration, because it was at these times that I could struggle to make them relate. I felt that Blake allowed for these different kinds of relationships between the words and images in such a graceful way in “Ossie Clark,” providing me with enough clues that I could enjoy doing the work, whereas in “Sodium Fox,” the illustrative moments stuck out for me in an unpleasant way. I found myself thinking “Why did he do that?” In this work, I often enjoyed Berman’s poetry as much as, and sometimes more than Blake’s imagery, which I found unfortunate, because when I loved moments of Blake’s work in this show, I loved them in the ways that I love drawing and painting, and that has never happened for me before with video. However, I am fairly certain that Blake was successful in achieving his goal of creating a “peep show for poets” in “Sodium Fox,” regardless of the ways in which I felt personally failed by some of the imagery.

Jeremy Blake, "Sodium Fox," 2005, digital animation with sound on DVD

I would encourage any and everyone to see this show, especially individuals who in the past have felt as though they missed the bus for video art. Blake used different ways of giving the viewer information, but at times he seemed to expect the viewer to make their own connections. He also varied the kinds of information he presented in ways that for me struck an elegant balance of generosity and of expectation.

Elena Sisto at Katzen Art Center

Elena Sisto, "Red Tear," water media on paper

By Kate Gartrell

Elena Sisto’s current show at the Katzen incorporates two curiously related bodies of work.

The first is a series of mid-size oil paintings of adolescent girls with large, wide-set eyes who look like they might have stepped out of a Balthus painting, minus pedophilic undertones and geometric spaces. But in contrast to Balthus’, Sisto’s girls wear their geometry overtly, in clothing made up of grids, diamonds, stripes and triangles. The paintings assimilate and respond to historical uses of both geometry and the body in painting, particularly 20th century uses. If minimalism was the 20th century home par excellence of geometry, one could argue in a post-structuralist vein that united with geometry in Sisto’s paintings are precisely those things implicitly excluded from minimalism: the female and the body. And whereas Balthus’ provocatively posed nymphettes participate in a painting geometry whose resulting narrative does not often concern them as individual people, Sisto’s figures – while of a certain type – feel more like individuals. The first painting in the series, Harlequin, is an example. We know the harlequin figure well from Picasso, Cezanne and others, but Sisto’s harlequin is something different: not a boy but a girl, frontally posed, engaging the viwer’s gaze. She enlarges our sense of the harlequin archetype, and it in turn enlarges our sense of her as a subject.

But more than the social issues they raise, what is impressive about the paintings is their enduring presence. They have a solidity and realness that makes us believe the fiction that Sisto weaves. You feel that they – both the paintings and the girls they depict – won’t be going anywhere any time soon. A tension between self possession and vulnerability is at work in them, having to do with the juxtaposition of logical and stable geometric systems with the inherently transitory adolescent body. Sisto’s paint speaks to these dynamics as well: the paintings are built up with areas of significant impasto, but Sisto will brush in the contours of a hand in thinner paint bringing a just-so spontaneity to the work. These are paintings that bear close, contemplative looking.

The second body of work, a series of smaller works on paper, is a somewhat-confusing complement to the oil paintings. Here, Sisto’s ancestors are (at least for this reviewer) harder to identify, though echoes of Phillip Guston’s late figurative work appear in the imagery, which features cartoonish vegetable-headed figures engaged in scenes often of some pathos. One senses that after the oil paintings these works may be something of a release for Sisto, with their decorative flourishes and whimsical, if melancholic, aspect. Their formal and conceptual relationship to the oil paintings is less clear, though a concern with pattern and certain themes – such as twins or doubles – are common to both. In the end, the small works are hard to appreciate on their own terms after the oil paintings. But if they are part of a practice that allows Sisto to make the oil paintings, then we don’t really care.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Elena Sisto: New Work at the Katzen Museum

Elena Sisto, "Doubles," oil on linen, 2005

By Josh Baptista

It was an early Wednesday morning and the perfect time to steal an intimate moment in a museum. I walked down to our local eye-candy museum The Katzen. Inside I found the paintings of Elena Sisto and received the fix that I had been craving.

Elena Sisto's work portrays young girls transcending their youth, thus allowing you to share in magical, and at times awkward, moments. All I have to say is if you like paintings you will love Elena Sisto's work. The paintings express everything I love about paint. Even though the work is subtle, the excitement and energy that good painting provides is pervasive.

The figures in the work are mysterious and doll-like at times. The work seems to have its own logic. It functions on its own terms and commands attention from every angle of the museum. I find myself entering the art through the girls' eyes and somehow bouncing in and out of the body or container. The figures are present but not exactly part my world either. They seem empty at times but completely present at others. It makes me feel unclear as to what role I play as a viewer. For me, this is the fascinating part of Sisto's work.

I find myself questioning: who is this girl, or is she a woman? What is my role as a viewer? Am I a viewer or am I the figure? What are the patterns on the dress? Are they some kind of flag or just an abstract element? These questions keep the viewer engaged and seeking.

The longer I looked at the works, the girls' gazes became more demanding. I could not help but see these young women as they relate to my younger sister-- evoking the events of the past months. The challenges and struggles that face girls on the brink of young adulthood make me imagine my sister's own struggles and how things were not always easy. Yet, the figures expressed an angelic feeling of ease at the same time. They seduce me with their gazes and by allowing me to look upon them, I can see the fragile states they appear to be in. There is also a great deal of strength in these young women, evident by their standing center stage and allowing judgment to be passed on them.

There is also a second body of work by Elena Sisto. They are 12x17 water media on paper. These paintings seem to take a more playful approach. The images seem to read as the artist's diary. It takes on a narrative using symbol, pattern, and childlike figures. Which bring me to my next question -- How do these works relate?

The connection is not that clear to me at first. They could be thoughts or diaries about the process of growing up. The difficulties of which I spoke of earlier relating to my sister's life become illustrated in these smaller pieces. This would explain the undeniable childlike qualities in these works. These qualities apply a narrative for the face of young adulthood that women deal with today.

Even if you do not find yourself relating directly to the work, the paint in-and-of-itself is reason enough to love Sisto's work. Whatever your reason, you should do yourself a favor and check out this exhibit.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

“Chromophobia” at Meat Market Gallery

A Review of “Live to Tell” an exhibition featuring Lily DeSaussure and Graham Childs

By Lana Stephens

The Meat Markey gallery in Washington’s Dupont circle was busting at the seams on Friday night. The opening featured two exhibitions: “Live to Tell” by Lily DeSaussure and Graham Childs and “Naturing” by Sangbin Im and April Behnke. People navigated like rats through corridors and simulated rooms that seemed to both welcome and expel visitors.

I’m referring to an installation by DeSaussure and Childs. The white-washed interior within the gallery’s front room greets you as you enter the space. One must enter through a hanging door frame that places you in what appears to be a living room. The room is complete with crown molding and seven hanging windows, stripped bare of any curtains or blinds. The windows act as a barrier in place of actual walls from the rest of the gallery. An armature encloses the room forming a frame around invisible “open” walls. The room is decorated with household items and furniture. Dolphin figurines and frames adorn the shelves of a bookcase while a round dining room table inhabits the corner of the room. A deer head holds his perch high above, regally watching over the visitors that come and go, their skin tones and colorful jackets and scarves interrupting the stark whiteness of the room.

This is starting to sound a bit like a chapter I read from “Chromophobia,” where the author David Batchelor describes his experience of entering an entirely white home. He feels subordinate to the “aggressive” whiteness that seems insulted by his mere presence. I suppose there was a sort of aura to the installation room in the gallery, though I wish it were stronger. I felt odd being in the room, a bit out of place amongst the stark tranquility. I sucked in my breath when a gallery-goer spilled his beer on the floor of the room. His clumsiness was rendered obscene in the “pure” space.

I began coming up with stories in my head of how or why a room could end up like this. Perhaps the tenants fled, abandoning the now post-apocalyptic scene, smothered in white ash. The tea cups left on the table give it an eerie feeling, a feeling I wish was carried throughout the rest of the room. I wish there was white milk in the cups and white food on the table. I wish there were a blank newspaper folded on a chair. The white-washed plants are a nice touch however. The dolphin figurines bothered me though. There was something too generic about them. Maybe it’s because I hail from a tourist “beach” town where tacky sea life seems to invade every once respectable home. I suppose I wanted the white objects to be more personal so that the feeling of my intrusion was heightened to an uncomfortable state.

The room is not only an “environment,” it serves as an exhibition space from DeSaussure’s stitched drawings that hang, suspended in air on one side of the room. The pieces on display play a dual role; 1) decorating the domestic interior and 2) functioning as works of art that are for sale. Her work consists of multi-figural stitched compositions on paper. Lily uses embroidery floss in a painstaking process that it not only laborious, but requires quite a bit of skill, or craft. She stitches each mark, sometimes overlapping to create a more “worked,” layered surface. The compositions consist of what seems to be amiable past times between old friends and lovers. My only criticism of the three large stitched compositions is that they are not white on white. I realize white thread on white paper would be difficult to see, but the experience of being in a totally white room is also quite difficult. Call me biased, but I too, like the homeowners in Batchelor’s novel, am coming down with Chromophobia.

"Live to Tell" is on view at Meat Market Gallery until March 2nd.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Recognize! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery

Kehinde Wiley, "Three Graces," oil on canvas

By Zac Willis

"Recognize!," a show at the National Portrait Gallery, is a contemporary look at portraiture in the hip hop world. The show consists of photographs, paintings, video, installation and graffiti. Overall, the show was nicely arranged. The flow of layout worked well for what was being shown and for whom it was being shown too. It showcased a selected number of artists whom are known for works associated with the hip hop community. The structure in which the show was arranged allowed for nice mixture of mediums to be shown together and not overpower one another.

One of the main reasons I wanted to see the show was because of Kehinde Wiley’s large oil on canvas paintings. I had not heard about him until recently when he was featured in several magazines and there was buzz about him in the graduate hall. So I started researching and examining his work. The colors, the scale and the ornate backgrounds immediately impressed me. The paintings where very exciting to see in print and on the computer. After discovering that there was going to be six of his works at the National Portrait Gallery I knew that I had to see the work.

After weeks of waiting I was anticipating seeing how amazing these works really were. I arrived at the museum and prepared myself for what I was hoping was going to be an awesome experience. Finally I was looking at these large oil paintings of African Americans stylized with ornate patterns. It was everything I had thought it to be except for one thing: the quality of the work. When I approached I did not notice, but as I got closer, I started to see the quality of line and just how fast or carelessly the work was painted. Upon seeing this, I changed my opinion about the work. I had such high expectations of the pieces. Seeing the paintings for the first time and realizing the inconsistencies, I became disappointed by the work. This made me examine the tactics being used in this work.

Wiley’s work is clearly made to be viewed at a distance or in print. One can not say that the work is not eye candy, but after seeing the work in person I understood what type of eye candy it was, the kind of work that is reproduced easily. I felt like I was in a trance. I was turned on by the works for their beauty and that alone. I did not look at the idea behind the work, or even consider what Wiley might be trying to say with the work. I got lost in the colors and patterns. After seeing them, I felt like I was jolted out of my trance by the fact that they are not painted with as high a degree of craft as I was expecting. After this happened, I started to question Wiley's ideas and why exactly he was painting these. The paintings fell short after I dismissed the craft. There is nothing left as far as a concept for the work other than the quick read and that first wow factor of how aesthetically pleasing they are. Where does that leave the work and where does he go from here? I am sure he is going to keep making these and will continue to sell these works. Despite an artist's becoming famous, he or she should not forget his or her craft.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Baroque Woodcut at the National Gallery

Christoffel Jegher after Sir Peter Paul Rubens,"Hercules Fighting the Fury and the Discord"

By Katherine Sable

I’ve had the Baroque Woodcut exhibition on my to-do list for at least a month now. I knew that in order to get the most out of this exhibition, I needed to set aside at least a few hours in order to be able to view each small print on display in the National Gallery. I knew I would be drawn in by each carefully articulated line and I wanted to give each print its due. This particular exhibition included sixty-five16th and 17th century woodcuts that define, in my mind, the high point of woodcut as a medium. This exhibition highlights the union between the master painter as designer and draftsman and the woodcutter as craftsman and creator. This fusion is almost seamless in the work presented because the imagination, drama and energy are preserved within each delicately executed composition. One grasps more than a collaboration of creativity and skill, the marriage of a vision by both partners is also apparent. Before seeing this exhibition, I was completely unaware that the woodcuts I attributed to Peter Paul Rubens were actually carved by a man named Christoffel Jegher.

The progression of prints, wrapping around the walls of three rooms, was a delicious adventure. Never before had I seen such varied handling and line making at this quantity. The delicate and calm work of Titian, Hans Baldung Grien and Albrecht Altdorfer rang differently than the Dutch designer and cutter Hendrik Goltzius. His were bold, reminiscent of caricatures and very stylized; the line acted more like design and decoration, filling in more than describing form and depth. The Crowning with Thorns captures violence with aggressive line by Andrea Meldolla (Schiavone). The actual lines seem as though they were carved as violently and haphazardly as the depicted soldiers pierced the central figure with their spears. My eyes moved rapidly over each descriptive line, passing over the obscured faces embellished only with dark, cold lines. The handling of the block is completely appropriate to the scene.

I passed into a calmer grouping towards the end of the exhibition where I found prints by Titian and Rubens and an amazing set of miniatures by Callot. The walls were adorned with humble mark making by Jan Lievens and Giuseppe Scolari where in Rape of Persephone marks read more like natural, organic grains of wood vertically presented on the paper.

A few pieces stood out, particularly the work of Master G.G.N after Luca Cambiaso. The energy and emotive mark making produced in his woodcuts almost reduce the drawing to mere gestures of figures where he emphasizes sensitive yet descriptive contours of each bodily pose. They begin to transform into calligraphic letters of some abstract form. The strangest print in the entire exhibition, the one image that I can’t get out of my mind, was Jan Muller’s depiction of the Greek God of Silence, Harpocrates. Throughout the show, there were beautiful moments where the drawing of generic drapery still pulled me into the windy dramatic scene and here Muller depicts not a stylized headdress, but rather a particularly stiff and fragile cloth using the white space effectively and specifically. Scolari also did this, as he used white space in moderation, and when the paper did show through, completely untouched by line or merely peeking through masses of line, it was a clear and effective device.

I had always assumed the carving of a woodcut was a very limiting medium, as it seems so very permanent. I learned that there was much tweaking that the carvers did in order to get the image just right. Three versions of Herodias and Salome by Guido Reni showed the clear progression from the working line carving to the finished block. I was completely unaware of the fact that subtle changes were possible in carving a wood block, and they made all the difference in the finished print. Reni both refines and perfects this scene while at the same time he is able to keep the work fresh and alive.

The piece I kept going back to was Jan Lievens’ Balding Man. This portrait was both dramatic and yet surprisingly humble. While viewing the other prints in this survey, I couldn’t help but imagine the physical process involved in carving a woodblock, and each time I strived to view a small group of lines, or an individual line as a singular mark, I was distracted by my wandering mind, stuck on how the block would be carved. I wanted to concentrate on the role each line has as a descriptor for form. All of the prints were sophisticated, dramatic, full of energy- everything they were hyped up to be. But the Balding Man that Jan Lievens himself carved, was the epitome of austerity, subtlety and yet was at the same time so very real and even a bit whimsical with the few curls drawn upon the figures head. How could this singular piece be so emotive and yet so quiet and still? It held a presence that none of the other pieces seized. This print embodied everything I wanted to find all in one place, and on one surface.

Also included in this exhibition are woodcuts by Andrea Andreani, Jost Amman, Wilhelm Traut, Domenico Beccafumi, and many others.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Paula Rego: The Pleasure and Power of a Quick Read – or – Should Everything Be Measured Against Rembrandt?

Paula Rego, "Dancing Ostriches"

By Kate Gartrell

I went to the Paula Rego show at NMWA intending to review it, and liked it so much that I found myself groping for possible criticisms, of either the show or the work. Most of the work is formally tight, and Rego’s trademark subjects are out in full mythological ghoulishness and fairytale whimsy. More Grimms than Disney, Rego’s is the territory of the playful deviant: we can’t but delight in a “Black Swan” ballerina pastel series populated by chunky dancers in black tutus with sometimes-distorted limbs, decisively rendered with dark contours. Solid technical skill in service of a vital and psychologically insightful feminist imagination is strongly evident throughout the show.

For me, the show raised broader questions about how we can fairly evaluate work that aims to be read quickly. The issue formed itself (albeit primitively) in my mind as: “this is good…but it’s not Rembrandt.”

An internal dialogue followed:
“Huh? Why do you evaluate everything in terms of Rembrandt?”
“Because. He’s so darn good.”
“But what if Paula Rego doesn’t want to paint like Rembrandt? What if she’s up to something else?”
“She is doing very well by the criteria she has set up for her work, but we have to ask about the value of a quick versus a slow read.”
“Yeah…but it’s so much fun.”

Rego’s work reads quickly in the following sense: it is possible to linger over the images from mid-distance, engrossed in the gestalt of the narrative, but little upon approach encourages marveling over this or that moment of painting or drawing. Up close, it is merely technically solid, losing its emotional charge. This is true even in a series dealing with illegal abortion in Portugal, titled Triptych.

Certainly, Rego is not Rembrandt. Her content is generally not the tender but something darker, wilder, and more overtly political. Still, the question remains: should a work of art hold up at all distances? Should we be troubled that Rego’s work delivers itself quickly and only from a certain distance?

The issue of touch provides one way to enter the question. The touch of an artist’s hand, experienced by the viewer, evokes a virtual touching by the viewer of the subject. In this sense, Rego may not want us to touch her (largely female) subjects. The virtual touch that is so seductive and moving in a Rembrandt- often a corrolary of “slow read” painting- may be exactly what Rego wants to avoid. Her work resists the viwer’s “touch,” compelling us to keep a distance to find them convincing. This is one way of inferring intentionality to the quick read they provoke.

In a post-feminist age, perhaps this is a worthwhile goal. Or maybe we are entitled to expect more from an artwork than to be kept at a distance by it. As enjoyable as Rego’s work is, as alluring are her robust, fanciful figures and the world they occupy, they don’t ask very much of our time. Call me a romantic, but shouldn’t we ask to be held captive by a painting, especially with the rest of the world bending over backwards to accommodate our rapidly reducing attention spans?

Rembrandt, "Self Portrait"

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

John Alexander: Paintings and Drawings at Hemphill

John Alexander, "Warthog"

By N. Painter

Looking at the work of John Alexander, I was first struck by narrative qualities of the images. I wondered if these works portraying animals were created to serve as illustrations for some specific body of text, because it seemed as though the animals were caught in a telling moment. Often I found myself speculating about what might have happened to cause the expressions and postures of Alexander’s subjects, and it was the animals’ oddly human-like expressions that drew me into the work.

I felt particularly interested in and engaged by “Warthog,” a mixed media drawing depicting the title animal. As I looked at this drawing, I found myself ascribing adjectives to the subject which I would typically use to describe people, not animals, and particularly not a warthog. I thought this individual (“individual,” because I wasn’t thinking of the subject as a “warthog” until after I read the piece’s title) looked serene. Dressed in what appeared to be a man’s suit and tie, he seemed to peacefully tolerate my gaze as I studied the drawing. I had little doubt that if I were to meet this creature in person, he would be able to speak, and I imagined possible conversations.

Another drawing had an almost opposite effect on my desire to interact with the subject. “Man of Distinction,” also a mixed media drawing, had me immediately disliking the portrayed animal. I was unsure as to what kind of animal this “man” might be, and I wondered if he might be an anteater or maybe an aardvark. Regardless, his pose within the drawing, head tilted up to the side, nose in the air was one of unmistakable disdain. While “Warthog” seemed possibly amenable to my presence, “Man of Distinction” appeared to think himself above the regard of the viewer. Not only was he assuming a typical posture of snobbery, but he also cast a sideways glance towards the viewer through a narrowed eye. “Man of Distinction” didn’t just disdain me, he despised me.

I was interested in Alexander’s juxtaposition of human clothing and emotive traits with animal identities, but this relationship did not seem as convoluted (as in “Warthog” and “Man of Distinction”) in many of the other drawings on show. Large drawings of birds allowed me less access to the subjects, as the birds were either turned away from me, in flight, or seemingly existing as studies only. “Angry Egret Baby” and “Bird of Prey” seemed to offer similar relationships between the animal and the human, but because these subjects seemed overtly angry or confrontational via their expressions, I did not want to engage with them for an extended period of time.

Clues to Alexander’s content were uncovered through a perusal of Hemphill’s press release: “In this time of political upheaval few established, mature artists choose to address political issues. A distinguished exception is John Alexander…Alexander’s admirable vision references the critique of political fat cats and the apathetic or compromised public depicted by Daumier, Ensor, and Grosz.” In reading the press release, I also noticed that Hemphill’s show was occurring concurrent with a retrospective of Alexander’s work at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I felt interested in whether by seeing the Smithsonian show I might gain more insight as to the specific identities of these characters. Perhaps I would get a chance to see the subject of “Man of Distinction’s” disdain (then again, perhaps I was the intended subject). Maybe if I were to observe “Warthog” in a particular setting, I might understand the significance of his serenity. However, the drawings presented in the Hemphill show, though they may have been preparatory in nature, also function as stand-alone pieces, causing me to question such relationships as that of the natural world to the cultural, and the differences between animal and human nature.

After noting that Alexander addresses contemporary political issues, I also wondered about the ironies of casting animals in political situations. Upon first consideration, I thought that this might be interesting because animals do not behave politically, then I realized that was untrue, as animals often do function in hierarchical organizations. Perhaps in using animals as stand-ins for humans in his commentary, Alexander reveals a truth about political dealings and their foundation in the animal kingdom, where the “strong” (this word would certainly have different meanings when applied to the animal kingdom versus the political arena) are the ones who survive and proliferate.

Short stories, lasting impressions: A review of Paula Rego at the National Museum of Women in the Arts

Paula Rego, "Swallows the Poisoned Apple," 1995, pastel on paper

By Lana Stephens

The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C. is the first U.S. museum to host a retrospective exhibition of Paula Rego’s work. Born in 1935, Paula has led a rich and complex life that has often served as the inspiration for her work. Paula enrolled in London’s highly acclaimed Slade School of Art in the 1950s, when she was still painting in acrylic and oil. An accomplished printmaker and admirer of Francisco de Goya, Rego has always been an avid drawer.

Several pieces in the collective are accompanied by text, which, similar to her drawings, tells her life’s story and offers insight to her evocative, enigmatic work. I found myself wandering through the museum, stopping to read more about the larger than life drawings that confronted me at my every step. The exhibition is dynamic and carries the viewer chronologically through Rego’s life from a beginning art student to an internationally acclaimed artist. Though her paintings are rich in subject matter and just as controversial as her drawings and prints, Rego’s pastels are on another level altogether. The pastels sat heavy with me, demanding my attention and drawing me in.

The worked, hearty surfaces of Rego’s pastels tell the story of the artist’s hand. I’ve always loved drawings because each line is so apparent, on the surface, and completely unapologetic for its presence. Also unapologetic are the women’s figures that sit like solid masses on the paper. They give the paper weight and demand that you pay attention to them, whether you want to or not. Paula’s compositions feature robust women with muscular, dare I say stocky, limbs that climb into graceful ballerina poses in the series “Dance of the Ostriches.” The women’s bodies are real, earthbound, and not so easily swept away by a good stiff breeze. Their flesh is tangible, even slightly greasy to the touch, rendering it all the more “human.”

The female figures in Rego’s compositions often take on the role of young women or young girls while still maintaining a mature, all-knowing appearance. In “Swallows the Poison Apple,” a mature woman takes on the role of Snow White who has fallen over a couch in her last moments of struggle. Snow White, though moments from death, grips her dress to keep it from falling open. The woman’s face is not only mature, her actions signify that she knows we are watching her, and she thus acknowledges our presence. The pose also comments on the desperate predicament fairy tales place women in where youth, beauty, and chastity are essential for one’s survival.

Rego’s “Triptych” from 1998, renders the topic of abortion palpable. Rego was responding to the Portuguese government’s refusal to legalize abortion. Young school girls inhabit the uncomfortable, lonely rooms in these dark compositions. The text informs us that Rego chose to depict adult women as school children to make them seem more vulnerable and helpless in their situations. Though the figures don school uniforms, their faces appear mature and accusing as they gaze out at the viewer. One young girl buries her head into her pillow while writhing in pain. The other figures stare out whether lying on a bed or crouching over a bucket. Their pain is silent and their solitude apparent. The “Triptych” leaves one feeling weighted down with the issue that continues to face women across the globe.

Rego has received mixed responses to another controversial series titled “Dog Woman,” where women take on the attitudes and actions of dogs. The series is not about demeaning women or calling women “bitches” or championing subservience. The primary model is Rego’s close friend and nurse to her then ailing husband. The series is about the relationship that dogs have with people. They are extremely loyal, somewhat dependent, and loving. However, if you treat them badly they will curl back their gums and give you a good bite. Rego said the ordeal of losing her husband inspired the body of work. She was examining the relationship that wives have with their husbands. Both depend on each other greatly and when one is gone, it displaces the other quite a bit. Women can be both vulnerable and very strong and powerful at the same time, which the series poignantly illustrates.

Whether addressing the meanings of fairy tales, political issues or the intimate relationships between husbands and wives, Paula Rego’s work draws you in. This dynamic body of work takes you through the span of her life, informing you of the stories that inspired her and the tragedies that challenged her. The exhibition lays claim for only one complaint: it leaves you wanting more.