Sunday, March 21, 2010
During the 1920s and 1930s, the time of the Czech avant-garde photographers, few people had access to cameras, lenses, special paper, and the dark rooms necessary to process photos. That is not the case today; technology has improved dramatically since the early twentieth century. Nearly everyone has a digital camera that fits into their pocket and a computer printer to produce their own digital photos. We are beyond going to a darkroom, and we are even beyond venturing to the local CVS to have our film developed and printed for us. Today, our satisfaction is instant.
If there is one thing that can be said about Taylor Baldwin’s newest exhibition, it is that the artist has definitely been thorough. Living Fossil, opened January 16th at Connor Contemporary Gallery in Washington, DC, is both a literal and symbolic documentation of human history. At the least. It also documents the earth’s geological history, consumerist history, environmental developmental history, cultural evolutionary history and Baldwin’s own personal history.
Thursday, March 18, 2010
by Rita Bites
The lighting is low. The set is the interior of a large, ambiguous structure that may or may not be an abandoned warehouse. The costuming is dramatic, opulent. And the music is befittingly unnerving as eleven privileged guests feed on heaps of oily meats served by unusually accommodating waitstaff. And every few seconds, to the increased tempo of percussion, the walls rumble and patrons and feast fall through the floor of the "dining room" and land in the one beneath. The question begs to be asked: How many warehouse floors gave their lives in order for this film to be shot?
by Michael Dotson.
John Gerrard has three pieces on view at the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC that present many interesting intersections between the real/virtual and the effects of human consumption on our environment. The three works depict an oil rig, a pig processing plant and a dust storm. Although the works are made using video game technology, they uphold a high level of realism.
The national portrait gallery has just hosted their second of an ongoing series of juried exhibitions called the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. Comprised of a selection of forty-nine individual artists’ works, the show was as diverse as it was ambitious in content. Not to be taken lightly, the grand prize winner in this open call for entries was awarded a respectable 25,000 dollars for their efforts and a commission to ‘create a portrait of a notable living American for the Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection.’ There were no restrictions on media which included painting, sculpture, drawing, video, and photography. This open call to American artists permitted and to a certain extent even encouraged applicants to ‘interpret the concept of portraiture broadly,’ which the PR for the exhibition felt produced a body of work that ‘celebrated excellence and innovation, with a strong focus on the variety of portrait media used by artists today.’
With thirty-three artists represented, the majority from Washington Sculptors Group (WSG) and nine pieces from the permanent collection of the Art Museum of America (AMA), this exhibition was a recipe for success. The museums website says, “…Bilateral Engagement, an exhibit that seeks to both demonstrate the historical sweep of WSG member work of the past 25 years while also connecting it with select pieces from the AMA’s permanent collection…” The theme of dialogue pertaining to the progression of contemporary sculpture gives the show major promise. But, because of poor curatorial decisions, in my opinion it did not live up to it’s potential.
As I first approached the museum, I thought to myself, “Is this the museum?” The building looks more like a Spanish style colonial home than a space to house contemporary sculpture. (Note: As stated on the Museum’s website, “The historic building housing the Museum was designed by noted architect Paul Cret in 1912 as the residence for the Secretaries General of the Organization of American States. It is Spanish colonial in style with white walls, iron grilles, a red tiled roof and a loggia decorated with richly colored tiles in patterns modeled after Aztec and Inca legends.” I guess my first impression was correct.) Besides its generally close proximity to the rest of the Smithsonian buildings and a sign labeling the structure as the Art Museum the Americas, the museum could be easily missed all together. As I walked through the show, I continued to feel slightly bemused. The combination of twenty-five years of three-dimensional work resulted in a general sense of clutter and inconsistency. Was it supposed to represent an adolescent identity crisis of contemporary three-dimensional work? It is possible that this was the point. Even still, I left the exhibit feeling slightly under whelmed, a little perplexed, and ready to get off the crowded stairwell.
The building itself was intriguing. Similar to experiencing work at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, or the Guggenheim in Venice, the intimate setting of a once residential interior creates a unique experience. Unfortunately, the AMA does not retain the grandeur of the former residence. In the parts of the building that have not been renovated with the stark white walls of a modern gallery space, there seemed to be no balance between the residential elements and the display of the art. Instead, they seemed to be at odds. The natural light of the back room, for example, was beautiful and unexpected. But, the room itself, with the rich royal blue mosaic tiles stole attention away the work being displayed. I almost missed, Gail Jameson’s exquisite piece, …my mom’s dressform, because I was looking at the wall instead.
The rest of the exhibit confronted me with unsettling curatorial decisions. While the stairwell offered a natural flow to visitor traffic, the selection of pieces displayed along the steps was one of the more problematic parts of the show. Not only did I ask myself if this work was apart of the exhibit, I felt like I had to carefully maneuver around so I did not bump Brian Reed’s pieces at the top of the stairs. The ‘black box’ room, featuring Renee Butler’s piece 2 States/4 Dimensions was not operating during my visit and I was not informed that some of the exterior pieces of the permanent collection were apart of the show. Finally, the location of Linda Hesh’s brilliant piece, For and Against, led me literally to the bathroom. Laura Roulet, the juror and curator of the exhibition, is well known and respected, and some of these kinks should have been resolved.
There have been positive responses, from the Washington Post and many local DC blogs, to the selection of works. And as a “material” based artist, I would, for the most part, agree. The constant redefinition of contemporary art has definitely been experienced in the three dimensional world and Roulet selected works that touch on these transitions and had the potential to engage in this dialogue.
Once anything became an acceptable medium, sculptors had to redefine their work and started to defend it based on its materiality. The way I understand it, this means take something that has one function and redefine its use to create something authentic and original. I am also under the impression that this idea comes as a rebuttal to the minimalist approach of the 1960s, which, to unfairly interpret the theory, was to oversimplify. Now, however, it seems as if materiality is almost passé. While Tara Donovan and the like, are still finding extreme success in their material based work, there is a new kid in town.
The momentum from 1970s performance art has led to relational aesthetics, which defined by Nicolas Bourriaud is, “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space,” (Thank You, Wikipedia) and is now at the forefront of contemporary dialogue. Artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija are some of the more popular names associated with this type of work. The transition from the minimalist approach, to materiality, to relational aesthetics creates the framework for the dialogue Roulet is trying to address.
Since many artists are still successfully creating and showing material based work, the bulk of the exhibit, speaks to materiality. This concept is best represented in the work of Kirsten Campbell, Joel D’Orazio, and Leah Frankel. Campbell’s piece, Mangrove, is created with steel and wire. The piece takes on an organic shape that resembles the roots or branches of a tree, simultaneously grounding and growing. Surmising from the title of the piece, I believe the artist is aware of the visual connection. The heavy nature of the material is transformed by the wrapping and outward growth, which creates juxtaposition of lightness and gravitational force. As the viewer, I accept the piece as original and do not question the material make up. D’Orazio’s piece, Dreadlock Chair, has a similar sense of organic growth. The cables are literally pouring out of the center of the chair. Challenging not only materiality, he takes on the concept of form versus function. The explosion of cables through the chair makes it non-functioning, but it is still recognizable as a chair. D’Orazio’s piece compliments Campbell’s. Thankfully, they are experienced together in the first room of the exhibit. This was one curatorial decision that worked toward the intended dialogue.
Frankel’s piece, Stacked Paper, displayed in the next room, is a beautiful exaggeration of the traditional experience of paper. The material transformation here comes in the disproportional size of the stack of paper to the viewer. Being 78 inches high, the stack of paper confronts the average height of a human. This piece also addresses form and function, and therefore a dialogue is created between D’Orazios and Frankel, and therefore between Frankel and Campbell. In my opinion, this is another positive curatorial decision. The dialogue sparked by the pieces in the first two rooms, unfortunately ends there.
The remainder of the exhibit, disrupted by awkwardly displayed pieces along the stairs and a somewhat random selection of work on the second level, begs the question, “How are the rest of these pieces supposed to interact?” While the downstairs rooms seemed somewhat cohesive, the works upstairs just seemed haphazard. A few works from the permanent collection are added to the selection on the second level, but instead of informing the other pieces they hamper the dialogue from the first floor. The piece that salvaged the intended dialogue for the exhibit, but also highlighted the worst curatorial decision, was Linda Hesh’s For and Against. Hesh’s piece is the most conceptually contemporary work in the show, and therefore contextualizes intended dialogue.
Hesh created and documented an experience between the viewer, the art, and the artist. Some have called For and Against a relational aesthetic experience. I don’t know if I would categorize it as such. But, I do agree that what we see in the gallery is just documentation, and the real art happened on the street. She set up two benches, one with the word “For” and the other with the word “Against”, in public places and asked people who walked by to sit on one of the benches. Once they chose, she asked what they were “For” or what they were “Against.” Hesh recorded people’s opinions on clipboards and through photographs.
This is great example of non-traditional, yet highly acclaimed, work of the contemporary world. The idea driving this piece directly challenges the theories backing the material driven pieces like Campbell’s. This could have been an interesting dialogue. But, Roulet displayed Hesh’s piece in a corner. Not only was the documentation of the work displayed in a claustrophobic way, there was a huge disconnect between the benches that were exhibited in the courtyard and the labeled piece in the upstairs hallway by the bathroom. This therefore distracted the viewer and disabled them from making the contextual connection between the works of the exhibit. It seemed that Hesh’s piece was an afterthought, when really, in order to serve the theme of the exhibit it should have been one of the featured piecs. I am confused by Roulet decision. This is the final example of how the placement of works affected the dialogue of the show. If you didn’t need to go to the bathroom, you might not have seen the most thought provoking work chosen for the exhibit.
While the artwork as individual pieces represent a broad range of material and the progress of the last two generations of three dimensional art, the show as a whole some how fell flat. The WSG has an amazing talent base. The AMA has a beautiful and unique space. Laura Roulet took on a bold curatorial concept. But when put all together, the potential was unfortunately not reached. So, am I For or Against? I would have to say, I am Against.
October 16th, 2009- January 15th, 2010
by Hedieh Ilchi
Beware! YINKA SHONIBARE MBE is a spectacular ensemble that tantalizes one’s eyes to the point of unconsciousness. I would recommend that you protect yourselves from the infamous aesthetic fever that is permeating the gallery space. Initially, organized and toured by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, this exhibition showcases at its final destination, Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, a mid-career survey of the 47 year old British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, which includes paintings, sculptural installations, photography, and video. The two levels of the museum seem to have been seized by the headless mannequins dressed in Victorian garb African style. The exhibit begins from the upper level and somehow manages to become a labyrinth before I finally find my way to the sublevel area to take in the rest of the survey. There have been efforts to unify the split-level show visually by displaying objects that reach up to the overlook area; however, the unification acts only as an enigmatic mirage for me.
Amongst the works on display, there are two wall installation/painting pieces Double Dutch, 1994, and Black Gold, 2006 that stand separate in relation to the rest of the work presented due to their decorative flatness and the absence of the human figure. My initial reaction to these pieces was questioning their formal and conceptual relevance to the rest of Shonibare’s body of work. The only common denominator between these paintings and the rest of the show is the use of the African printed cloth known as the Dutch Wax fabric that is Shonibare’s infamous signature material. In Double Dutch, 50 small rectangular canvases wrapped in Duch Wax fabric are overlaid with impasto layers of paint, displayed in 5 rows on one solid Barbie pink background. Through the repetition and the gridded arrangement of this piece, Shonibare toys with the Minimalist notions of repetition and via the use of fragments, he deconstructs and recontexualizes the Greenbergian Formalism of the heroic white male oriented AbEx painting. And, if you are concerned about his reasoning behind the Barbie pink background, let me assure you of its importance, my friends! The Barbie Pink ‘demasculinises’ the notion of the Greenbergian Modernism and steps into the world of the Postmodern. The idea of female as the ‘other’, enables Shonibare to bridge postmodernism and postcolonialism through their shared conception of ‘otherness’ in identity politics. But at last, it seems that the aura of the Modernist meta-narrative is fractured; or is it really, I wonder? To me, this whole idea is absolutely arduous to fathom. I believe that Shonibare’s attempt at fragmentation of the heroic painting, cancels itself when the fragmented canvases are de-fragmented by their placement on a monumental solid backdrop. As a result the concept of the monumental is reinforced back into this painting.
Double Dutch is as grandiose as it can be and that is not just because it takes up an entire wall at the gallery space, but because it is one of the first pieces by Shonibare that challenges the notions of Authenticity. Walking around the gallery, I start to make connections between Shonibare’s ever repeated usages of the African Fabric in relation to the historical Victorian elements. It seems as if he is creating hybrids that are by-products of the colonialism of Africa and how that forms the post-colonial cultural identity that he is a part of. The idea of hybridization even oozes from the man’s title: “Yinka shonibare MBE” Member of the Order of the British Empire which he was honored due to his services to the arts in 2005. His acceptance of the title is of course a witty and political gesture that opens up his artistic ground even further by locating him both inside and outside of a bureaucratic system. So, surprisingly enough, I discover that the African print fabric that is a stereotypical sign of exotic Africanness, is not African at all. It seems to be nothing but a colonial construction. During the 19th century, produced in England and the Netherlands, the Dutch Wax fabric was inspired by Indonesian batiks and targeted towards the potential consumers in Africa. So, that is how the Guy Deboardian African “spectacle” is born. Therefore, the signified doesn’t truly reciprocate to the signifier and as a result a mythical pseudo-authentic Africanness is created. What Shonibare implies through his work is “what you see isn’t what you get.”
However, I would like to argue that in the post-colonial hybridized era, the idea of an authentic can be reconstructed and re-presented in terms of a hybrid authentic, which is a willing adoption and appropriation by the colonized. After all, what is still purely authentic in this 21th century cyber world of ours? The Dutch Wax might have originated outside of Africa, but its applied use and its meshing with the local construct of the culture gives it meaning. In a Wittgensteinian sense “meaning is just use” and it is the function of the Fabric that shapes its true meaning and authenticates it.
Shonibare in his work deals with the idea of excess and theatricality. At the beginning of my gallery visit, overflowing aw and exuberance took me over due to the vibrancy, meticulousness, and frivolity of the work presented. However, as I reach the sublevel gallery to take in the rest of the exhibit, I find myself overwhelmed and at times numbly desensitized towards the work. In other words, the exaggerated and redundant use of the fabric seems fetishistic and conjures artifice. I am aware that Shonibare, uses this visual aesthetic as a tactic to seduce the spectator before revealing his critique of the hypocritical world we live in; however, I find a sense of hypocrisy in Shonibare’s means of critique. He portrays the notion of wealth and power and the idea of Victorian leisure to shed light on the unfortunate, less privileged and servile providers of the colonized Africa. However, Shonibare’s own method of production seems to be patronizing if you will. After all, putting his physical disability aside, he employs teams of photographers, actors, seamstresses, and more to bring his ideas into actuality. And, entertain me, I beg of you: who plays the Victorian, and who plays the less privileged in this scenario?
My head is rampaged with the paradox of love and hate, trust and distrust that I unknowingly find myself sitting in front of the screening video Odile and Odette, an approximately 14 minute digital capture created in 2005. This piece is inspired by Tchaikovsky’s celebrated ballet, Swan Lake, in which one dancer performs the roles of the heroine, Odette dressed in white, and her adversary, Odile while wearing black. In Shonibare’s inspiration, there are instead two ballerina’s one black and one white, dressed in the Dutch Wax fabric, performing with synchronized movements on the two sides of a gilded frame. They dance as if one is a mere reflection of the other in the mirror; however, the idea of reflection becomes abstract as they seamlessly switch places throughout the performance. I find myself drawn to the contemplative elegance and the lack of pretentiousness in this piece. For once, I am in a direct conversation with the artwork, void of discombobulating excessiveness of Shonibare’s tendency. Shonibare, in a more honest way, provides a manner of questioning the hypotheses of our society. The idea of good versus bad is played parallel to the notions of whiteness and blackness. The constant switching roles of the ballerina’s as reflected and reflection attempts to tenderly poke the eyes of our stereotypicality. The success of this piece is part due to the curatorial decision to visually present it in relation with the rest of Shonibare’s work, as opposed to isolating it in a darkroom, typical of screened videos. This enables to locate Shonibare’s work conceptually and formally in relation to postmodernism’s idea of hybridity.
Shonibare’s vast body of work draws on crucial issues such as imperialism, post-colonialism, globalism, and cultural identity and seem to act parallel to such aesthetic issues as excess and beauty. However, the crux of his work is its paradoxical nature that permits for fluctuating dialectics rather than congealment of ideas. It is this openness that draws me to shonibare’s work and enables me to wonder and question the works many layers.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
at Project 4
By Kate Demong
The eleven new works in Project 4’s exhibition of San Francisco-based artist Cornelia Schulz compel me to ask how this could be her first east-coast solo show. We east coasters have clearly missed out. I await Schulz’s future recognition in a retrospective of her paintings from the 1960s to the present so that I can become acquainted with the development of her body of work, which I should not have missed.
Schulz interlocks five to seven small canvases of varying shapes to construct abstract, non-rectilinear, paintings. The component canvases — rectangles, trapezoids, ovals, ells and pie-wedges — fit together in odd-shaped puzzles. The painting styles on the individual canvases also vary, from expressionist pours of paint, to minimalist color fields, hard-edged geometries, and layerings of abstract shapes.
Schulz’s achievement is that in each amalgamation of disparate forms, patterns, and textures, she somehow — improbably — creates a coherent whole. Perhaps this is due to the consistency in color. Pastels such as cotton-candy pink and 1930s-bathroom green meet white, black, and bold reds throughout the different elements. Or the unlikely unity may be due to Schulz’s impressive control over her materials, whether she is using oil and alkyd resin to create a surface as smooth as glass or as crevassed as a raised-relief topographic map. Because of the mishmash of shapes and styles the works capture the viewer’s attention and hold it in their clutch; when the dissimilar canvases rub up against each other, tension forms, and compelling relationships develop.
The works are small in scale (the largest measures 28” x 24”), but each offers the viewer a walk through 20th-century art history. They reference numerous artists, from Piet Mondrian to Jackson Pollock, Frank Stella, Anne Truitt, Richard Diebenkorn, and Takashi Murakami. Schulz’s interest in exploring non-rectilinear canvases hardly surprises, considering she graduated from art school in 1962. The painstakingly-stretched canvases remind us, however, of why the rectangular format is the norm. Evenly-spaced seams show evidence of the labor expended to pull the canvas taut against the edges of the rounded and odd-angled wood frames. Although non-rectilinear paintings can move into the realm of sculpture, and some of Schulz’s canvases (particularly the black, gold and green columnar canvas in “Red Leaves”) recall Truitt’s totems, Schulz’s works are two-dimensional and strike this viewer as paintings.
The segments layered with poured mixtures of oil and alkyd recall Pollock’s action paintings. In contrast to the largely linear drips of Pollock’s canvases, however, Schulz’s paint pools in organic, biomorphic masses. In addition, Schulz’s technique seems less spontaneous than Pollock’s; although when poured the paint submits to chance and gravity, an attempt by Schulz to control the accident is evident.
In other segments, black lines and colored rectangles often meet at 90° angles, evoking Mondrian’s compositions. And allusions to Murakami’s paintings are many, from Schulz’s weathered canvases, sanded to reveal layers of color below the surface, to the canvases with playful overlappings of curved shapes that bring to mind the round heads and ears of Mr. DOB, Kaikai and Kiki. Even though Schulz’s works are steeped in historical references, they are strikingly fresh, unlike anything else I have seen.
One must experience Schulz’s works in person to understand their construction, appreciate their craft, and respond to the tactility of their surfaces. When up close, I found myself desperately wanting to slide my fingers along the silken surfaces and the intricately ridged pours.
At the exhibition reception on January 16th, Cornelia Schulz — unassuming, with cropped, gray hair and a warm smile — generously described to me her process. The works seem so resolved and their pieces fit together so perfectly that one might think she first works out the compositions through drawing. This is not the case. Schulz explained that she uses drawing to brainstorm and explore potential, but the combinations of shapes come together in her mind. Visualization focuses her intention.
The process of exploring and realizing this intention then occurs over many weeks. After stretching the canvases, Schulz applies up to six layers of gesso, sanded smooth. Patience is particularly needed to make the poured canvases. Schulz must wait for each layer to dry before building depth with another pour and, ultimately, unifying the canvas with oil washes. As each pour dries it shrinks, forming organic patterning. Coral seascapes? Brains? Or an artist’s studio floor? Because of the element of chance, Schulz says, the biomorphic canvases do not always satisfy. Achieving resolution can be a struggle. Many of the works’ names reference her process of searching and surprise: “Some Conclusions Drawn,” “Learning Curve,” and “Inexplicable Events.” After completing the individual canvases, Schulz moves on to their assembly. She took one of the works off the wall to show its underlying construction: an intriguing collage of wood, canvas folds, and bolts.
One arguable fault of this exhibition is that all of the works are very similar. When approaching a painting, there is little surprise due to the consistency in the basic shapes, painting styles, and palette of all eleven works in the show. Schulz said that she will eventually shift away from the palette used to create this body of work, as she can be interested in something for only so long. Her interest in this palette, however, outlasted that of some viewers. She may have kept some gallery-goers more engaged if she had made more perceptible shifts when creating these works. But it is this overall consistency that allows the subtle shifts to surface. It allows one to notice how a work that includes a canvas with a curved edge activates the surrounding space differently than a work with solely rectilinear components, or how a work with a flat black canvas has deeper space than one without.
Lily deSaussure (A.U. MFA, 2008), co-director of Project 4, first viewed Schulz’s work in San Francisco and thought it would be a perfect fit in the stark, white-walled, light-filled interior of Project 4's new space on 14th and U. And deSaussure was right. Another of Schulz’s successes, however, is that her works would be equally at home in a less austere space. I can see, for example, the jumbles of forms and patterns playing off the ornamentation of a Victorian interior. Schulz’s elegant works, quiet yet complex, would command interest in any setting.
1353 U Street, NW, 3rd Floor; December 23, 2009 – January 23, 2010