Friday, April 23, 2010
Thursday, April 22, 2010
by Victoria Greising
As an artist wandering the streets of the Chelsea, a hopeful yet resentful feeling seems to consume my opinions. It is inspiring to know, that to a certain extent, anything goes. The resentment comes when I realize that I did not think of the idea first. It is a tough spot to be in, especially when trying to keep an open and absorbent mind.
by L. Kimberley Gillespie
In the uncomfortably negligible space of Transformer Gallery, Mia Feuer’s cumbersome orange and blue crane-ial structures fill, tangle and almost completely overwhelm the single room. “Suspended Landscape,” Feuer’s current installation at Transformer Gallery, Washington DC, is informed by the view of industrial cranes the artist observed on the long train trips she took along the eastern coast of the United States. Referred to on her website as “metaphorical landscapes,” Feuer creates sculptures and images that either depict places of conflict and discord or serene locales that have otherwise been distressed (miafeuer.com). In addition to violated landscapes, the subjects Feuer has concerned herself with have included the 2007 collapse of the Minneapolis bridge, the frustrated function of Washington DC’s emergency exit routes as they are congested with traffic and ongoing conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians. Her work speaks to the “instability and chaos of our times.”
The New Museum should know that the entrance is the first impression, but this superstar show left me asking where to begin? Literally, where to begin? Walking in to Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection, I quickly learned what to expect: confusing choices regarding space and a lack of finesse in execution.
Skin Fruit highlights pieces of the Dakis Joannou collection, which begins and ends with Jeff Koons. In 1985, Joannou bought his first piece of art, Jeff Koon’sOne Ball Total Equilibrium Tank. Critics have interpreted the basketball suspended in a tank of liquid as an eye, a womb, and a globe. From this point on, Dakis Joannou collected art with an undertone of understanding humans through the body and “new images of man.”
Josef Albers: Innovation and Inspiration is a smartly organized show, spanning all aspects of Albers career. It contains work that is very familiar, “Homage to the Square” as well as many unexpected works by the artist, including stained glass and some representational drawing. The exhibit proves to show Albers as a true innovator, who saw making art as an investigation, and encouraged his many students to do the same. The show also goes to great pains to help the audience gain access to work that might otherwise be hard to understand for the layperson. There are also many discoveries to be made for the more informed viewers, who may only think of Albers in terms of foundation design classes.
Back to the mid-60s. Imagine the stereotypical hippie artist making his stereotypical “Nature Rocks!” commentary with his stereotypical hippie vibes, paisley shirt, and stereotypical dream sequences. Imagine his message, a combination of a desired shared experience and a need to showcase his personal moments and altered versions of consciousness. Imagine this all too familiar vibe alive and well in 2010. And imagine if it worked.
Ross Rudel’s burgeon, showing at the Jack Shainman Gallery in the Chelsea district of New York, is oddly simple yet impeccably profound. His combination of personal, spiritual, and material smoothly works as a contemporary collection. While many of his roots overlap, the majority appears to be a mix of Native American faith culture and hippie background with a profound respect for nature via his beginnings in Black Hills, Montana. He blends this, however, with more modern events and personal recollection to an end that draws in viewers rather than relegating them to the past with an eye roll and a black-lit Jimi Hendrix poster.
Upon entering the gallery, it becomes clear that Rudel’s work is not defined by a style—even the hippie subculture acts as a softened undertone. There are no stylistic tells in his choice of materials, ranging from wood to nylon to algae to playing cards. Rather, each work is inherently unique owing to its—literally—inspired conception. In each work, his process adapts the material and the making to his concept, a process shared by Charles Ray, Cornelia Parker, and Maya Lin, among others. Beginning with an idea, a memory, or a dream, Rudel chooses his resources and combines them with a skilled but slow approach, taking at times a year to work out a design before implementing it.
His material, while varied, tends toward the natural, an intriguing characteristic when contrasted with some of his more current subject matter. For example, Gog deals with the war in Iraq and its corresponding tensions between Western culture and the native culture. Paralleling his materiality to the concept, Rudel carved an Islamic geometric pattern onto a Mulberry log, its contrast incredibly tactile and apparent between the sharp yet curving edges of each carved shape in response to the smooth, rolling surface of the North American log.
Rudel seems to have an affinity for natural substances or evoking natural occurrences that hold great personal significance. Recrudesce is one of his more direct and intimate usages of a substance: algae collected from the Los Angeles River. His concept, a dream in which the corpse of a man sprouted into a full Eden, spawned this ghostly head rising from a bed of vegetation. The form feels like a shadow or a fading reflection, its ephemeral nature apparent despite its solid, delicate form. The only better experience would be finding this head in an actual pool of water, completing the dream as a reality for viewers.
Each work in burgeon is unnaturally natural. It seems too familiar yet so strange within the confines of a modern-day gallery. And for some reason, it holds its weight. The curving, self-receding forms that first greet visitors in the gallery evoke a shared thought, a universal memory, for why would the shape of a snail shell rest on the pristine white walls of Jack Shainman if not emerging out of the collective consciousness of its audience? It is certainly difficult to find such earth-based works installed in the whitescape of an exhibition, but it tends to validate Rudel’s process as not just a careless laud of nature but rather a deliberate displacement into the modern world.
The only point of contention lies in Rudel’s insistent disregard for the technological age, to the extent that its absence becomes obvious and dated. The most recent source of inspiration seems to have been during George W. Bush’s time in office in the aforementioned Gog. The rest of the works call to mind an earlier period—one feels sucked into a Hunter S. Thompson world a la Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas amidst Rudel’s Psychadelic Root and Proprietary Dream Mandala. Their creations were so personal, however, that it is impossible to commend them to anything other than their stories and intended uses. The spiraling mandala of playing cards, for example, was based on a dream in which Rudel found this very artwork in a collector’s home and plotted its plagiarism. His medium is a set of cards used for a full cycle before being discarded at a casino, imbuing them with what Rudel describes as “residual energy.” After knowing this self-created legend, the viewer can think of nothing else.
Rudel declares in one interview that he dislikes the use of pedestals and their implication of art objects. With this mentality, he crafts a spindly wooden table to present Double Helix, yet again displacing the viewer from a gallery setting. The Jack Shainman Gallery, known for its representation of artists from Africa, East Asia, and North America “with a tendency towards conceptual as well as politically and socially engaged artwork,” holds Rudel in this tradition. His personal inspirations and not-so-current events add a caveat to the political assignation, but as a whole, he fits the bill, implying a knowledge and esteem for varying cultures most insistently. It is the gallery’s responsibility to respond to such work with an appropriate space, questioning if the pristine white walls of Jack Shainman fit the bill for the sociopolitical, conceptual individual of the contemporary age.
Possibly the most successful tool for Rudel in terms of his messages’ proliferation is the gallery’s take away handout of Rudel’s artist notes. In it lay the stories, profound decision-making, and personality of the artist. Not all pieces are included in this verbal legend, which allow for the viewer to play a part in the reception of the artwork. In the meantime, each story provides an additional entryway for the audience into Rudel’s deeply conceived works. While some may find the explanations patronizing to the more adventurous gallery-goer, this critic found the notes exploratory with quite the venturesome attitude. Wall labels are nonexistent, forcing each viewer to pair a work with a story, an intuitive puzzle that both increases interest and sparks a connection between artwork, artist, and viewer.
In reality, the surreal intonations of Rudel’s burgeon resonate with viewers in more ways than one, proving that art born and bred from another culture of another time can still be viewed in a contemporary setting.
by Kate Demong
I recently made the short trip from D.C. across the Potomac to Arlington to see works by more than 500 artists from around the world participating in the exhibition G40: The Summit – Where Art and Politics Collide. Considering the exhibition’s title, I anticipated finding art that engaged with politics and fostered dialogue. And with endless topics for critical conversation — the era of Obama, Tea Party rallies, health care reform, climate change, two wars, a recession — this large, international group exhibition of political art held near the Nation’s capital seemed to have great creative potential. I even wondered whether G40’s cultural relevance would rival that of the contemporaneous Whitney Biennial and Brucennial in New York.
Oh, the disappointment. And bewilderment. As I wandered through the four floors of vacant office space in a Crystal City high-rise taken over by G40, I struggled to associate any political issue with most of the works. A handful did buck the trend. Peter Gordon’s installation Consequence, a room with dozens of plant cups sprouting telephone wires, effectively evoked the tangled relationship of nature and technology. Another room was filled with art made by people recovering from drugs, works that aimed to “put a human face on addiction.” But I was mostly confronted by graffiti-inspired art and, although graffiti is often used to communicate political and social messages, graffiti-based aesthetics, not content, influenced these works.
The mix of a few political works, a lot of grafitti-esque works, and a number of works completely unrelated to either politics or graffiti was incoherent and agitating. My distress increased exponentially when I discovered inconsistencies in the works’ arrangement. G40 ostensibly divided the artwork up so that each floor housed artists from a specific region — New York, D.C., California, and Worldwide — in order to allow regional trends to emerge. But G40 did not follow through on this promise. How can regional distinctions become apparent when works from Japan and D.C. are mixed in with the New York floor? The vast, rambling exhibition space made things worse. Divided into many small areas, few works could directly dialogue with one another.
At 5:00 on a Wednesday I was one of only a handful of visitors at the exhibit. I sensed ghosts of recession victims in this vacant office space, its former use recorded in stains on the faded, blue carpet. The exhibit’s eerie atmosphere and confusion tempted me to flee. But I was worried that I would miss that something that would tie the exhibit together for me, so I grudgingly made my way through all 75,000 square feet of exhibition space.
I never made sense of the exhibit. So, on my way out, I asked a G40 volunteer about the curatorial decisions. According to her, the show was given its name only because of its proximity to D.C. G40, she said, is actually an exhibit of “New Brow” art. This was news to me. No statement to this effect or definition of New Brow art was included in G40’s exhibition flier or written anywhere on the exhibit’s walls.
According to exhibition organizer Art Whino’s website, G40 aimed “to bring the leaders of the New Brow genre together … creating, for the first time, a full cross examination of this genre.” But again, Art Whino offered little help: Its website does not go on to define New Brow. Through my own research I found that New Brow is an underground art movement with origins that include graffiti, street art, comics, anime, graphic design, and tattoo art. It started to evolve in California in the late 1970s and has since spread across the world.
Unfortunately, the error of misnaming the exhibit was not G40’s only curatorial failure. If the intention of Shane Pomajambo, owner of Art Whino and curator of G40, was to introduce New Brow art, then why not provide background on this genre? At minimum, I would expect handouts or wall text with an overview of the movement and its roots, which are undeniably rich. An accompanying photographic chronology would also be helpful as well as screenings of the 2009 film New Brow: The Rise of Underground Art. Some lectures and performances did accompany the exhibition, but the extent of the educational component is unclear since, perplexingly, neither material at the exhibit nor Art Whino’s website calendared these events.
But the most discouraging aspect of the show is that the “full cross examination of this genre” was anything but full. G40 would lead one to think that New Brow is all about spray-painted murals of subway trains and tagging that evoke nostalgia for the 70s and 80s, as well as slick, flat paintings of skulls, tattoos, flesh, sex, young girls with eyes wide apart, and animal- and alien-like creatures. Although I’m obviously no expert on New Brow, I do know that much greater diversity exists within the field.
Strangely, in this first large-scale overview of the New Brow genre, Pomajambo omitted the leading artists in the field. It’s like having a survey of cubism and not including Picasso or Braque. I was disappointed to not see examples of British artist Banksy’s work. As his paintings can sell for £100,000, Banksy may be too prominent to directly participate in a show like G40, but documentary photographs of his brilliant, humorous and satirical street art could be shown. After the impact on the 2008 presidential election of Shephard Fairey’s HOPE poster, which The New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl called “the most efficacious American political illustration since ‘Uncle Sam Wants You’”, not including Fairey’s work, or at least documentation of his street art, is inexcusable. And what about the inventive, highly-charged stencil art from Buenos Aires? I’m not aware of more vibrant post-graffiti than that found today on the streets of B.A., but this work was nowhere to be found at G40. Inclusion of lesser-known and emerging New Brow artists is also essential, and some of those in G40 clearly have talent. Standout work included a Giacometti-esque wall-size line drawing of an older man’s face, by New York artist Gaia. Also arresting were two side-by-side blue and pale-yellow wall murals of highway overpasses, one by Jessica van Brakle and one by Trevor Young, both D.C.-based artists. But more major artists working in the field should have been included as well.
The weekend after attending G40 I headed up to New York to see the 2010 Whitney Biennial and Brucennial 2010: Miseducation. These two large survey exhibitions offer many lessons to the curators of G40. Unlike at G40, the intent of both shows was clear and jibed with the work on exhibit. The Whitney effectively represents the broad range of contemporary art being produced in America today across all visual media: painting, sculpture, video, photography, performance, and installation. The Bruce High Quality Foundation claims that the Brucennial is “the most important survey of contemporary art in the world ever.” This is obviously tongue-in-cheek, but the Brucennial educates, challenges, and entertains more than any other survey or large group exhibition that I’ve attended in the last few years.
While the G40 is sprawling and incoherent, both New York exhibits are digestible. The Whitney scaled back this Biennial to include only 55 artists. And although the Brucennial contains works by over 250 artists, their salon-style presentation in one large room allows the viewer to take them all in at once. In radical contrast to G40, which was so dominated by mediocre works that it was hard to separate the wheat from the chaff, the New York exhibitions are full of one strong work after another, rewarding the viewer who takes time to contemplate each one. The work also fit the New York venues, with ambitious, polished works in the Whitney, and small-scale, humorous, and beauty-averse works in the gutted, vacant SOHO store-front housing the Brucennial. G40’s space, on the other hand, didn’t service the work; it detracted from the work. If G40 had been held in a space adjacent to exterior walls made available to the artists, which is where much of the work ached to be, then two of the participating artists may not have been charged for felony destruction of property for painting the pillars of the Crystal City building’s roof. Also, if a G40 artist had made a work that confronted the grungy carpet, then it may not have been such a distraction.
After being mislead about the content of G40, for me the highlight of the Whitney Biennial and Brucennial was that both answered the question asked but left largely unanswered by G40: The Summit – Where Art and Politics Collide: What political art is being made today? Many of the politically-charged works at the Whitney were too obvious, almost exploitative. Photographs by Nina Berman of a terribly disfigured Iraq-war veteran and by Stephanie Sinclair of Afghani women with severe burn wounds from setting themselves on fire due to spousal abuse and other suffering are so horrifying that they repel rather than invoke contemplation. But at the Brucennial I sat captivated by Max Snow’s I Went to See the Wizard, a 1960s video of an African tribe performing various rituals exotic to the Western eye with an appalling overdubbed play-by-play commentary by a KKK member saying statements like, “Someone needs to send this to Obama with a note, ‘Here’s your roots.’” Another highlight was Adam McEwen’s silkscreen of nine empty boxes by the word yes and nine checked boxes by the word no. How prescient as we watch the Republican Party devolve into the “Party of No.” Works also ventured into the realm of art politics. As I’m currently an MFA student, I was particularly amused by Maya Kishi-Anderson's bound compendium of art magazines titled, “All I Have to Unlearn About Art.”
When I attend large exhibitions, I expect to encounter works that are visually interesting and exciting, challenge my perception or understanding of various cultural and political issues, provide a pulse of what is on the minds of working artists, and build either a coherent (or intentionally disjointed) dialogue. I also hope for the rare experience of seeing something completely fresh; a process, format or interpretation that I have not come across before. Within today’s crowded art field, populated by an abundance of art fairs, annuals, biennials, triennials, and large group shows all vying for attention and relevance, I was curious to see which of these three exhibitions — G40, the Whitney Biennial, and the Brucennial — best succeeded in fulfilling these expectations. As the curatorial approach for each show differed, I wondered whether the successes and weaknesses of each show would build an argument for the efficacy of one approach over another.
The owner of a small, commercial art gallery (Shane Pomajambo of DC-based Art Whino which represents over 1,200 “New Brow” artists from around the world) curated G40 with a very specific intent: To showcase New Brow art. Unfortunately, G40 did not meet any of my expectations; its problems numbered too high to allow for a fair evaluation of its curatorial method relative to other methods.
Two men curated the 2010 Whitney Biennial (Francesco Bonami, a seasoned curator and non-exhibiting painter, and Gary Carrion-Murayari, a young curator known as a cross-generational thinker). They worked for a year meeting artists in order to select, without preconceived notions, the most compelling work. As would be expected, this carefully executed process led to a beautifully displayed, sophisticated exhibition with many strong works. However, although many works were thought provoking and visually compelling, no works struck me as revelatory. More importantly, the atmosphere of the show as a whole was sedate.
The Brucennial took a very different approach. Consistent with the organizing collective’s aim to put more curatorial power into artists’ hands, the collective started with an invite list including artists they like and then let word of mouth lead other artists to bring works to the storefront that housed the exhibition. As works arrived, others got shuffled around to make room so that everything could be included. This democratic method was risky, but it worked. Paradoxically, few of the works would have stood out if hung alone. In fact, when looked at individually, most of the works at the Whitney were stronger than those at the Brucennial. But collectively, the works in the Brucennial struck a pitch-perfect chord. The dense, haphazard, salon-style arrangement created an environment with unusually palpable creative energy. In the context of these exhibitions, the Brucennial’s approach won hands down.
The success of the Brucennial may in part be luck; sometimes things just work. Anyone can participate in DC’s Artomatic, but this annual month-long arts festival never has the vibrancy or cutting-edge atmosphere of this year’s Brucennial. The Brucennial proves, however, that a cooperative, egalitarian curatorial approach can lead to an outstanding exhibition with unique energy. I wonder what G40 would have been like had it been organized by New Brow artists themselves, not a dealer. I think I can safely wager that the result would have been much more compelling.
by Hedieh Javanshir Ilchi
OK, here we go! Another art opening! Beating Washington, DC traffic, armed to the teeth with the most effective weapon in driving, the honking with an extra topping of the infamous hand gesture is used to win a battle over the perfect parking space. Finally, a quick glance at the car mirror to check out the self, and that glance sets off to transform into the spectator’s Gaze at the art opening reception. Over a free glass of wine or beer, the opening becomes the perfect place in the art world to exhibit oneself to the important others and to participate as a spectator of other’s exhibitions of themselves. And finally, despite the difficulty of viewing the art work through such engaged crowd, I manage to look at Susan Jamison’s new paintings and my wonderings begin!
Like an old master, Susan Jamison paints with egg tempera on panel to depict dream like imagery that draw on old myths and fairytales while questioning gender conventions. Her, one might imply, overtly Feminized paintings suggest fantastical narratives by bringing together a wide range of visual imagery that draw from Renaissance female portraits, botanical illustrations, Persian miniatures, scientific manuals and medical texts from before or just after the turn of the twentieth century, and many animals that have their roots deep into religious and cultural symbolism. Jamison repeatedly depicts idealized nude female characters, with bald heads that are exposed with under skin veins. Their bodies become lusciously decorated with pink and fuchsia ornate patterns that remind one of tattoos, arabesques, and delicate embroidery. The suggestion of the dream-like notions of the paintings is emphasized by the ever shut eyelids of the protagonists of her paintings. Despite their seeming passivity, they appear to be calmly aware and engaged. What I have mentioned so far are common denominators of Jamison’s paintings since my initial introduction to her work in 2006; however, in “Swallowtail” representing her most recent body of work at Irvine Contemporary gallery in D.C., this Roanoke, VA based artist portrays a more mature side of her protagonists. If her previous paintings innocently hinted at desires and fantasies of these bald-headed women, her new work takes on a confrontational eroticism that resemble Kama Sutra manuscript imagery. And, yes, they are not alone! These women are in action with other idealized men and their everlasting erections.
Upon discovering this highly erotic imagery, I find myself less comfortable at focusing on paintings for long and more aware of my surroundings. Am I panicking to be a victim of the “male gaze” while gazing at the sexual paintings that portray females like me in pleasurable action? Could these women be another way of depicting “poster babes” as my friend K suggested? If that is the case, is my avoidance to glare at these paintings a sign of my fear to partake in the female gaze and thus to reveal my subconscious maleness to myself? Oh, boy! Am I confused in my head! I wonder if Jamison’s attempt is to question the gender conventions of our society or if she is nearly giving in to the stereotypes by objectifying her women. This idea of objectification in conjunction with the constant depiction of her protagonists in their profiles draws one to the tradition of early Renaissance bridal and profile portraiture. These profile portraits depicted an idealized woman, adorned with jewels and luxurious outfits in one passive pose. Patricia Simons in her essay on the representation of women in Florentine portraits, "Women in Frames: The Gaze, the Eye, the Profile in Renaissance Portraiture," argues that the idea of the “gaze” became overpowering when male-driven patronage and reception lent itself to the representation of women as “chaste, submissive, and decorous possessions”. Depicting a 15th century Florentine women from a frontal pose would have been against the societal norms of the time since it would have suggested her awareness and participation in the act of gazing. Therefore, the idea of the “male gaze” was an asymmetrical act. All this make me question the true identities, hopes, and desires of these women lurking beneath such forced passivity. There is hardly anything personal that one might excavate from such portrait paintings.
Consequently, can one presuppose a fixed parallelism between Jamison’s and the Renaissance female portraits? Are these fantastical nude women, unwillingly offering themselves to be consumed as our objects of desire? Or on the other hand, from a feminist stance point, can the role, right, and power of creation fluctuate by genderizing the maker of the artwork? If so, then the grandly male-dominated Florentine artists’ portrayal of women can be read as a peripheral representation. Through gender divisions, the master painters, mastered the role of “otherness” and could not pass beyond the object hood of their subjects. However, the idea of “otherness” or being an outsider reverses in Jamison’s position as a female artist. She gains the license to enter the feminine world of her subject and penetrates the women beyond that external objectification since she belongs to that world herself.
If the Renaissance portraits hid the identity of the sitter under the gender conventions of the time, Jamison draws from today’s gender conventions to shed light on the feminine world of her subjects. One might assume the shut eyelids as a symbol of passivity and submission; however, the transparency of the female heads in relation to the closed eyes, operate as a meditative gestures and an assurance of an internal projection of these women. There is a proud insistence on feminization in these paintings that seem to embrace that otherness as a vital quality of that feminine identity. The accumulations of all elements in these paintings express the protagonist’s dreams, desires, and memories. Amusingly enough, it is the phallic male figure that becomes objectified in these paintings in such instance when penises, dismembered from the male body fly with butterfly wings to feed the female desire. So, I would like to ask: who is the real victim of the “gaze” in these paintings?
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Panel discussion with artist Chuck Close; Ambassador Cynthia P. Schneider, Georgetown University and the Brookings Institution; and Robert Storr, dean, Yale School of Art. Moderated by Joseph J. Krakora, executive officer for development and external affairs, National Gallery of Art.
This program is coordinated with the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies. The event is free and open to the public. Seating is available on a first-come, first-seated basis. Registration is not required.
(This excerpt was taken from the National Gallery of Art website, http://www.nga.gov/programs/lectures/)
I spent the past weekend defending a former student who is in a tenure battle. She is a painter, and a good one. And also a good teacher. But one line in the explanation of her tenure denial awakened that slow burning desire to do battle with Philistines in emperor's clothing, whether they be in the guise of the academy or the art world. That line suggested the need to "question the relevance of painting in the 21st century". So let's talk about the trendy and the perennial, the ephemeral and the enduring, in terms of relevance to the 21st century: