Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"Off in Corner" Review by Tyler Mullan

Review: Adam Dwight & Dana Jeri Maier: Off in a Corner
Running until May 7th, Flashpoint Gallery presents “Off in a Corner,” an exhibition of work by local artists Dana Jeri Maier and Adam Dwight. Contending to “explore transitions made to adulthood and the role that drinking plays in them,” Flashpoint, which brands itself as a “creative laboratory for DC Arts Organizations,” is deliberately tackling a sensitive and controversial subject. In this curation, each of the two artists employ illustrative approaches to construct very different narratives - one autobiographical and vague, and the other expositive and didactic. Upon entering the gallery space, the viewer is confronted with statements about the distinct bodies of work by the two artists. Maier chooses to frame her work by posting a single drink coaster with the sketchy image of a seated, slouched, and frumpy woman. Dwight, on the other hand, chooses to direct his dialogue from the start with a long statement detailing his body of work.
In addressing Maier’s collection of drink coasters, one is immediately overwhelmed with imagery. Laid-out in a long, geometric composition on the wall, the work initially carries the eye horizontally as it would text, but distracts and disorients this mode of scanning with occasional anomalies in the mark and weight of individual pieces. The style of Maier’s drawings are hasty forms with cross-hatched modeling yet complex compositional organization. Most of the drafting is done in an unflattering manner through the use of shadow, texture, and emphasis of disproportionate and crooked silhouettes in both the object and figure. Occasional liquid stains that have obscured and damaged some of the drawings act as birthmarks on the coasters, reminding the viewers of the utility and experiential history that grounds each coaster drawing. One large and varied collection of coasters is flanked by two smaller arrangements focusing on color and the figure, respectively. A table at the end of the room displays even more coasters in their natural setting, laid out in a way that begs the viewer to touch and rearrange the works like pieces to a puzzle. 
The organizations of the wall coasters into columns and rows seems haphazard and random only at first glance, for if you allow yourself to read them as blocks of a comic book (a rather lonely and dark strip at that), they can be rationalized as a narrative. All in all, there are reportedly 400 coasters, signifying an obsessive and on-going practice of the artist to find something not yet resolved. Coasters with drafts of personal statements synergize with the fantastical and observational illustrations to establish themes of internality, autobiography, and identity. Several trends are easily apparent in these vignettes. Many of the coasters depict lonely figures, either solitary (literally isolated), or in cramped groups with cold body language and lack of eye contact between characters (psychologically isolated). Still life is another common tactic, with the compiled objects either acting as figures in an empty landscape, or creating suspense when the objects are compiled and stacked in delicately balanced architectural forms. Empty picture frames, overhanging umbrellas and lights fixtures, and the repetition of glass bottle imagery are crucial symbols in forming Maier’s narrative. 
Despite the collective nature of the coasters, a few individuals do feel out of place with the rest. For instance, one coaster consists only of ink embellishments around the red printed “Peroni”  text. As the only instance of Maier working on a non-blank slate, it seems detached from virtually all of the other coasters, even those with hand-written text. Additionally, the use of color in the coasters in the largest installation is too sparse and inconsistent, even within the flexible narrative. Nothing about these color interruptions comes through as noteworthy or necessary. Despite these gripes, the use of personal observations and real-life experiences pose interesting questions of both Maier’s and the viewers’ relation between psyche and the bar environment.
Dwight’s work is derisive, yet, serious as it addresses the historical trajectory of the organization, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and its relation to policy and popular culture. Responding to the creation of the non-profit organization in 1980 as Candy Lightner’s personal response to untimely death of her 13-year-old daughter, Cari, by a hit-and-run drunk driver, the extensive background of MADD interred in the artists’ statement contextualizes ideas of grief deferment and media sensationalization. Initially created to promote awareness and lobbying pertaining to the issues of drunk driving and victim support, MADD (with Cari Lightner as its poster child), would not only gain unforeseeable momentum and bureaucratic force, but transform into a crusade for “neo-prohibitionism” and the eradication underage drinking itself. This transformation ultimately caused even Candy Lightner to sever ties with the organization in 1995. Both sympathetic and interrogative, Dwight uses his art to address MADD through it’s own rhetorical strategies - the employment of grotesque and exaggerated illusions. Using scribbled and jittery contouring on twisted and satyrical figure development, Dwight uses uncomfortable imagery to express his struggles with understanding MADD within it’s personal and public implications.
Introducing his painting series with “Candy and Cari Lightner and the Birds,” this portrait, a collaboration with Lightner herself, sets up the unstable and tragic origin of MADD. In this depictions of mother and child, the flux of MADD’s agenda and its co-option of Cari’s identity is rendered through psychedelic and surrealist imagery. Although both characters are wearing fine dresses appropriate for a formal event, the two figures are situated in the foreground of a barren and desolate plain in which ominous and violent birds swoop and cut between their stances. Candy’s expression is catatonic and reserved as she extends her arms to her daughter who appears spiritually-absent. Cari’s strained facial expression and impossibly-limp posture implies that she had just been stunned or struck by something shocking and forceful. This painting renders the instances of Cari’s traumatic death and Candy’s state of bereavement static and inescapable, setting a tone of nostalgia and loss for the rest of the series. The progression of the paintings “Patron Saint of Drunk Driving (for Cari),” “Laughing Through the Bottom of the Barrel:Portrait of a Fanatic,” “M.A.D.D. The Movie,” and “National Uniform 21 Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984” each further the dialogue with similar shaky pen-lines, distorted figuration, and washy, contrasting color schemes. 
In addition to the five paintings, a mixed media sound sculpture and an animation complicate the storyline with modern-day-societal portraits of drinking and youth. “No Matter What,” consists of an amorphic wood panel painted with colorful, organic motifs and supporting a black and white ‘Rorschach-inkblot-patterned’ staircase. Atop of this alter sits a bone-colored figure of a mother cradling a chipped and damaged child - an obvious reference not only to Candy and Cari, but also to any other fractured parent-child relationship. The sound-loop accompanying this dream-like sculpture is a hyped-up and ridiculous ‘shout out’ to presumed peers and friends as performed ad-lib by the artists’ younger sister. Surprisingly candid and energetic, it’s hard to decipher, let alone make sense of this slew of references and proclamations of gossip to all of her “baby girls” and “homegirls” out there. By broadcasting and scandalizing these interpersonal relationships with such bravado, this naive and rebellious outburst seems to be compensating or propagating for something intangible. The audio is ironically reminiscent a drunken rant or an out-of-control media frenzy, though extrapolating this interpretation was not something that happened on the first visit to the gallery space.
The equally bizarre animation “RocketFuel” mimics the artist’s graphical style but tells the story of an alternate parent-child relationship strained by miscommunication and alcohol. The subject of the clip is a monstrously-drawn teenage boy with an equally-abrasive vocations. Sitting in an alley littered with unidentifiable debris that appears to be breathing at times, a playing television serves as a comfort item, though the character never actually watches the screen. Speaking of his dependent relationship to media and complaining about the tension that this viewership creates with his mother (who he addresses exclusively as Becky), a verbally-abusive and alcohol-stressed relationship is eluded to. While the clip reveals that both the adolescent character and his mother use alcohol, the child, though immature and apathetic, seems to be in more control of his personal relationship to alcohol than his mother, raising another failure of authority to mediate substances. 
When Dwight addresses his views on “over-idealized young adulthood now soaked in the ritual of binge drinking,” he addresses a situation with the potential to spiral out of control much like the Candy’s vision of the MADD organization has. Additionally, he critiques the inefficiency of exploitative groups to quash the issue of underage drinking and social and cultural temptations to drink that are only reinforced by this type of media. Dwight’s collection of work questions family relations, coping mechanisms, exploitation of ethos, and the power of authority, though he does not directly attack the grounds of MADD or promote a lessing in the severity of alcohol laws. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if the intentional distance from proposing solutions or clear agendas is realized in Dwight’s collection, as questioning didacticism with didacticism is a tricky concept to portray at a glance. Because of the aggressive manner that characterizes his work, the instant and, perhaps, more prevalent (although much less interesting) read on his work is that of hatred for the MADD Organization and underage drinking regulation. 
The two systems of work were worked symbiotically when displayed vis-a-vis on the opposing walls of the space. Maier’s coasters, though small and detailed, were able to talk back to Dwight’s large, colorful, and optically-jarring gouache paintings by shear virtue of quantity. Maier’s personal perspectives as sketched live-feed have a relation with Dwight’s socio-political meditations in the fact that nothing is glamorized in either collection. While I agree that each body of work employed narrative and stylized illustration that were both psychologically and visually stimulating, I’m not throughly convinced that the relations between the work are as obvious as the show’s mission statement implies. I do not necessarily direct that as a negative evaluation, however, because the delicate nature of the issues addressed lends itself to more mysterious and subliminal expression. I feel that Maier’s work initially reads as introspective and whimsical, even rustic, while Dwight’s reads as propaganda if just taken at a glance. Without the direction of show or artists available to the viewer, only someone who spent a bit of time evaluating the collection would be able address all of the nuances pertaining to adolescence and drinking present in both artists’ work. 
To exemplify the commentary drinking put forward in this show, an additional event scheduled for April 21 includes a gallery talk followed by an invitation to bar-hop with the artists as they drink and draw by candlelight. This unconventional gallery talk should provide an interesting supplement to the personal, romantic, and dark undertones of the bodies of work in question, and is definitely a way for Flashpoint to push the boundaries of the DC art scene.
Ultimately, “Off in a Corner” does help to bring the complicated implications of youth culture, the need for self-affirmation, the inherent feelings isolation and subsequent substance abuse out of the corner, albeit through somewhat convoluted means. While Maier actually drafts on the physical platforms that support drinking glasses, Dwight questions the legacy of one of the most established and bombastic platforms against drinking. The use non-realistic illustration and uncertain scenarios of “Off in a Corner” attempts to present opportunities for interpreting the complex relationship between alcohol and identity development, although unless a viewer spends a fair amount of time with the exhibit reading the bios of the artists, they may just get caught up in their personal emotional responses to the mark-making techniques. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

Spring Reviews #3: Heavy Metal Women at Gallery 555dc

Written by Camden Place

With a title like “Heavy Metal Women” I entered Gallery 555dc with several preconceived ideas.  I assumed that all of the artists were female and worked with metal (they all do) which immediately piqued my interest as metal has been such a male oriented material in our culture and readied me for a feminist critique or at least work that addressed this supposed contrast.  I also wondered just how ironic the “heavy metal” allusion was meant to be and imagined possibilities involving rock star antics and creations that delved into the borders of popular culture where the taboo and obscene rub elbows with the familiar. 
However, the work presented by Joyce Zipperer, Joan Konkel, Minna Newman Nathanson, Donna M. McCullough, Leila Holtsman, and Julie Girardini was far more varied and outwardly demure than the title would suggest.  There are certainly commonalities in the work.  Yes all the artists use metal, but all the objects displayed also have a decorative aesthetic to them.  Everything displayed was crafted to look pretty, and to value that prettiness.  This is not just a reference to the mastery of craft displayed by these artists in handling their materials but to what I see as the intentions and aspirations of the work itself.  Some of the work embraces this fully and holds it centrally to its purpose, while others use their beauty as a lure, pulling in viewers for a closer read and allowing the work to build past its simple attractiveness. 
Joyce Zipperer’s exquisitely constructed women’s shoes and dresses demonstrated a deep familiarity with her medium as well as a desire to explore its boundaries.  Though her dress was clearly not functional, the shoes were far more subtle.  Not presenting them in matching pairs was completely reminiscent of how footwear is displayed in stores and almost had me looking under the podium for stacks of boxes filled with shoes.  The possibility of the shoes serving their supposed function was interesting, but I was far more captivated by the realization of their failure to perform this task. 
As it slowly becomes clear that this object cannot be put to use in conventional terms I was forced to readdress the piece and wonder at the correctness of my previous feminist read.  A gorgeous, alluring, woman’s shoe that intentionally fails its perceived function would seem to become critical of the potential user.  Even if it reconstructs itself as an art object, this perceived failure remains the initial read and chastises the viewer for potentially desiring it so incorrectly.  This manufactured misunderstanding stops the piece fully from making a human connection to the viewer and instead isolates and elevates it, forcing it be only experienced by sight, despite the desire for a more physical interaction.
Zipperer was not the only artist to play on the notion of failed function.  Donna M. McCullough’s dresses looked perfectly wearable, if only one was quite small enough to fit.  Crafted from a combination of found and bought materials, the two dresses displayed respresent two different bodies of work for McCullough.  The first, built from a variety of different metal tins, looks like a seamstress set about constructing a garment using an El Anatsui piece for cloth.  This intricate creation looks simultaneously flimsy and sturdy having both airy and chitinous aspects to it.   Though this piece has the slight allure of possible functionality to it, it is her second dress that truly confuses the viewer in a far more intriguing manner. 
Titled ”Team Sunoco Mercury” this dress is built from a discarded Sunoco Mercury oil drum.  The painted exterior of the drum is displayed outwardly, concealing the metallic nature of the piece.  Built in such lifelike proportions, it appears almost soft or pliable, belying its steely nature.  This double illusion raises the feasibility that one could truly wear this dress and become a cheerleader for the energy company. 
There did not seem to be a singular way to read this piece.  I would hesitate to take its intention as a garment representing or sponsoring this company honestly, as the artist has enthusiastically destroyed the original object and relocated the logo to an absurd location, the bust of a metal dress.  However powerful this critique of advertising or the influence of oil companies through absurdity may be, it is countered by the ironic fact that this piece of art is a commodity created to be sold, just like oil.  To fully embrace this I would hope that McCullough would not hesitate from creating a garment with her own name or logo emblazoned across the chest.  Then her viewers could truly join “Team McCullough” instead of just sponsoring it.
The other great commonality to the work displayed was that they generally defied the nature of the metal they were constructed with.  The metal present did not dominate the viewer and instead read more like a means than a purpose.  More often than not their metallic nature was obstructed, ignored, or obfuscated by the other aspects of the work that were far more interesting and appealing.  This is not to say that these objects should have been created with any other material, but simply that the medium was used gracefully and with nuance.  “Heavy Metal Women” may be something of a misnomer for this body of work, or perhaps I simply was not thinking ironically enough in my initial impression of the title.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


REVIEW:  Blinky Palermo RETROSPECTIVE 1964-1977 (Hirshhorn Museum through May 15th)
By:  Samuel Scharf

    Upon entering the Blinky Palermo exhibition at the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum here in Washington DC, I really didn’t know what to expect.  I have little knowledge of “Palermo’s” career if not more than I know his name is made up.  His work is at this point little more to me than every other minimalist color painter of the New York juggernaut production of dime a dozen minimalist color painters.  Walking into the exhibition I may not have known (what) to expect to see but that I did expect it to be predictable.
    A little background on Blinky is that he was born Peter Schwarze in Germany 1943.  He passed early in his life at 34 right when his work began to settle into the scope of relevancy.  He was quite a interesting figure who made was dubbed Blinky Palermo after looking like the boxing promoter who “owned” Sunny Liston.  Blinky was also a student of Joseph Beuys which may have contributed more to his personality than his artwork but we will soon see.
    As with most retrospectives the second floor of the museum is layed out in a chronological fashion.  When entering the early work, one can pretty much assume what they will see throughout the show.  A mixture of Elsworth Kelly and Joseph Albers was soon to come.  This premonition wasn’t far from the truth but with some interesting twists and turns along the way.  Initially there were heavy worked panels with marks of a certain expression I couldn’t put my finger on.  “Blue Bridge” especially was a work that really caught my eye for being so compositionally simple yet technically proficient.  I could see the work and strokes he put into that relatively elementary bi-plane relationship between the red and blue fields.  This initial room led into a opening of materials immediately as if there was no other way for Palermo to explore.  So simple yet so effective was a red totem work on a 30 degree tilt with a handmade metallic frame, I stopped in my tracks, two rooms into a show I “expected” nothing from.    This was it and I was hooked for the rest of the show, even with my doubts lingering, I knew that the show would provide.  Well done here to the curation and layout! 
    Materials, materials and more different materials soon began to hold my interests.  This artist painted on damn near everything from clothing stretched as canvas to steel painted and looking like wood.  Currently this wouldn’t stretch the imagination of a contemporary practice but then in the late 60’s, this work was surely pushing new boundaries.  Even though Palermo is often overlooked and died tragically young, by the middle of the exhibition its clear to find his place in the art cannon.  With a mixture of the color knowledge of Albers, tragic simplicity of Elsworth and a certain playfulness of Beuys, this guy really did his thing when he did it.  The exhibition lends itself to a certain amount of historical art knowledge, but then again a viewer owes it to oneself when entering a “historical” modern house of art.  The opening text and pamphlet for the show did more than enough to place Palermo in context.  After this introduction I really did feel like his explorations in materials and display were somewhat exciting to an artist (myself) that has seen many different exhibitions of modern art.  Palermo's main concerns were with shape, color, a real play in materials and form foremost.  Within this scope, regardless of my expectations I did find myself pleasantly surprise walking through what’s now the kicker of the show. 
    Entering the last 3/4s of the show the viewer hits two back to back large galleries with a scope of work large enough for most living artists with 40 years of production.  Beginning with a display of more of his larger works, the first large gallery houses many tri color canvases that show a clear knowledge of color relationships.  These works would surely lend themselves to any average collector wanting to fill a spot in their constructivism/minimalist collections.  Here I was shrunk in size by canvas’s all easily over 5x5 feet and most larger.  Along the room was a mixture of simple steel works, these large canvas’s and an intense amount of different colorings.  This pushed me eagerly into the next room which I did not see what was coming before it hit me.
    Here in the next large gallery was a total refinement of his color and theory into a very simple display of near forty works.  People of New York City (1976), a fifteen-part work comprising thirty-nine aluminum panels painted in variations of cadmium red, cadmium yellow, and black really stopped me to the point of sitting on one of the provided benches.  I was challenged to sit wonder and figure why?  It seemed to me clear the relationships between the color changes and simple three part relationship.  What I couldn’t figure was why did a room with so many works feel so empty?  Thus his title People of New York City really made sense.  It was clear that they were all different but really in the end they were all empty and all the same.  The red wasn’t red an upon further examination it was more of a magenta next to the yellow made a red, and that black was actually a dark dark blue.  Impressive simplicity and a highly effective work when shown all together in a room such as the Hirshhorn put together for the show. 
    Leaving this room you enter the last works of his career and it showed a scope of some revisiting and mostly reiteration of the same note.  Except for one work which was blue over white above a chopped 3 part canvas of green and black.  That was it his last piece and you could see how his influence was soon to produce very relevant Rothko esq color field paintings had he not died. 
    My only gripe with the show was the labeling for the titles were trivialized off to the side of the rooms stacked awkwardly and hard to place.  This seemed a serious mistake because his titles were often playful and very reflective of his nature.  Though as for most minimalist work, they would have distracted from the work itself should they have been next to the works. 
    If you venture to see this show, please keep a low key expectation and take the work for what it was at the time it was.  Blinky Palermo is a very romantic example of the time in NYC (late 60’s, early 70’s) when this German born artist could roll into town, grab some brushes, hang out with Richter, and have a career blossom under ten years.
     Its nice to see him get such a strong retrospective but as for most artists, its far to late as the Hirshhorn uncovers yet again (after the Truitt and Klein) retrospective exhibitions much over due after 30 years.  But this was all thanks to GUCCI and their funding of the current exhibition which ran all over the country to show Palermo's importance from a collection surely housing some of his best works.
    A highlight to close on was my favorite work hands down and you can easily some the show up with.  About halfway through the exhibition is a work:
    Graue Scheibe [Gray Disk], 1970 | Oil paint and synthetic paint on cotton on wood-core plywood. 5 3/4 x 10 1/2 x 3/4 inches. Collection Olga Lina and Stella Liza Knoebel. 
     Walk right to that piece, inspect and see what Palermo was really all about.  I found this piece amazing in its “history” ever so present with edges beaten down to the other colors under the grey and simple in its minuscule strength.  Somewhat like the sucker punch I received from an exhibition that I had no “expectation” on what to expect.


Adam Hager
Calder’s Portraits: a new Language

I have to admit that I was caught a bit off-guard when I first entered the Calder exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. I have such an engrained idea of his mobiles that I did not expect to see such an enlightening view into one of Calder’s entirely different studio practices. Accompanied by the portrait gallery’s own photographs, the wire portraits bore striking resemblances to Calder’s subjects, and through his satirical style, Calder raised the question of the line between fine-art portraiture verses caricature.

Walking through the exhibit, we get to see Calder’s portrayals of entertainment, sports, and art-world figures, including Josephine Baker, Jimmy Durante, Babe Ruth, and Charles Lindbergh. We also see his friends and colleagues Marion Greenwood, Fernand Léger, and Saul Steinberg. The people Calder chose to portray were those that affected his life directly and because of Calder’s passionate sense of play and his buoyant personality, he continued to challenge the traditionally accepted sense of ‘sculpture’ throughout his entire career. Beginning with his circus figures and leading into his portraiture, he eventually laid the groundwork for kinetic sculpture that we associate the most with Calder’s famous name.

Perhaps, though, I entered the exhibit with a chip on my shoulder because Calder’s mobiles are so well known that they have become cliché, and as a result, I was reluctant to see Calder’s portraits as anything more than three-dimensional illustrations. However, despite my skepticism, the very first portrait I encountered of Calvin Coolidge broke down my resistance, and I was immediately affected by the beauty in these objects.

Using single wires to draw lines in space, Calder captures Calvin’s essential qualities such as his large ears, cleft chin, hooked nose, and beady eyes in a way that is so gesturally accurate that I expected the portrait to start making faces at me. But it is not only the accuracy that holds my attention – it is also the humor Calder creates in the exaggerated features. These characteristics were also demonstrated extremely well in the Jimmy Durante portrait, however it is the exaggeration that is the danger point where the portraits could almost teeter into the realm of caricature, and though I personally do not believe the portraits step over that invisible line, I think there is one brief yet important point to be made before moving on.

The point I am eluding to is that I do not think Calder would have argued one for the other, and once arriving at this point, we are free to enjoy these objects for the beautiful things that they are rather than getting caught up in an argument that really would not have interested the artist nor altered the work. I believe that the issue of portrait verses caricature is more important to critics and the ‘art world’ than it is to the actual work. The pieces have an inherent liveliness that allows them to stand on their own, and according to what I have read about Calder’s light-heartedness, I think he would have shrugged off this argument and continued working on the next portrait without a care in the world.

While not as important as the work itself, the museum deserves some recognition for how well the work is displayed. Some of the portraits are suspended in vitrines and lit from above. In these displays, the line quality of the wire is translated clearly and sharply, and as the pieces rotate, they almost seem to float in the air while the shadows dance beneath them. Other portraits such as the Edgar Varese piece was suspended from the ceiling, and the shadows were cast on the wall behind as well as on the floor. In both cases, the result was dramatic and very effective.

The Edgar Varese piece, in particular, stood out because of its personal nature. Apparently, Edgar used to sit with Calder and watch him as he worked. In turn, Calder often listened to Edgar’s music compositions. The two men complimented each other well because they both were becoming known for their unconventional styles in material and sound. As we move through the rest of the exhibit, we encounter the portraits of entertainers and sports figures, but I mention the personal nature of the Varese piece because the portraits Calder made of his friends and colleagues had a much more heartfelt essence making them more successful. For example, Calder’s depiction of Babe Ruth was more superficial, and although I established the unimportance of caricature verses fine-art portraiture in Calder’s case, the superficiality of the Babe Ruth piece veered it more into the direction of caricature than portraiture.

The portraits of Calder’s artist and critic friends/colleagues seemed also to draw attention to his sense of humor and sarcasm. I noticed that all of these pieces were made and displayed in a static fashion standing from a stationary pedestal. I felt that the gesture could only have been a deliberate attempt to poke fun at taking themselves too seriously by being displayed as their own art objects.

My favorite piece in the show was on display in this same area of the exhibit, but unfortunately we only get to see it in photographic format. Calder did a wire portrait of his close friend, artist, and critic Fernand Léger, and though it is not the actual wire portrait on display, it is a photograph of Léger holding the piece across from his face as though looking into a mirror. The humor is inescapable, but beyond that, the portrait is a perfect example of Calder’s expert hand. We can see the intense control he has in getting the subtle yet precise bends and curves in achieving facial features that perfectly describe the subjects being depicted. He always includes just enough visual information to capture a personality, and he often seems able to accomplish this task with simply a few well-formed lines. He retains only the essentials to create the minimum gestural information while at the same time attaining the maximum amount of expressiveness.

We see Calder’s ever present sense of play juxtaposed with his incredible ability to capture a person’s essential qualities in this exhibition. I am always impacted when I see such a large quantity of work and know that it is but a small fraction of how much the artist actually produced. More importantly, though, the impact is always greater when the quantity of work is matched by its quality. Calder’s unique ability to hang onto his childlike nature is what gives his portraits so much of their power, and I greatly admire his artistic pursuit. The simplification Calder employs to arrive at such sophisticated products is best described by him when he said in a very minimal Calder-like fashion:

“Where you have features you draw them. Where there aren’t any, you let go.”

Monday, April 4, 2011


Guillermo Kuitca: Everything—Paintings and Works on Paper,
An Artist’s Quiet Take on Mass Murder
As the title of this exhibition implies, “Everything,” presented Guillermo Kuitca’s expansive and ambitious oeuvre over a 30-year period. Masterfully installed on one full floor of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, this mid-life career retrospective for the Argentine artist, recently completed its United States tour on January 16th, with simultaneous presentations of the artist’s work internationally.
Kuitca, a painter, takes on the daunting task of shedding light on global holocausts. His early works deal directly with the AIDS epidemic at its beginnings. Later works relate to his own roots as a Russian Jew and the persecution his grandparents escaped. Simultaneously the artist created works that make reference to and in some cases memorialize The Disappeared of Argentina’s “Dirty Little War.” Using iconic references, a personal symbolism, as well as a variety of media and approaches, Kuitca takes on these difficult topics with a poetic restraint. Often, what is not stated visually is implied in these poetic spaces, with the content filled in by the viewer. Voids and omissions on the canvas become the point. Conversely, erasures, impressions and imprints leave a strong mark and pack a psychological wallop.
The artist creates works that range from intimate, simple drawings on paper, to large-scale wall pieces in acrylic and others in mixed media that spill over into installation. As ambitious as his explorations of media have been (including the development of a new process in his deconstructed “floater” works on paper), his content-driven themes afford the viewer numerous points of entry into his oeuvre. His use of materials underscores these themes.
Kuitca’s first working experiences in the theater influence his approaches to his work and the way themes are conveyed. He is an artist concerned with contemporary and historical tragedy, genocide in fact, augmented by his allusion to and inspiration taken from films, plays, and opera.
Terminal (2000), at the entrance to the exhibition, is a wall-sized, grey-scale acrylic reproduction of an airport baggage claim luggage belt with entrance and exit for luggage blocked off. The belt is void of bags and the space around it is empty of arriving passengers. We have entered the exhibition at a significant point to the artist—the intersection of the public and the private. By contrast, on an adjacent wall, a small more intimate acrylic painting on cardboard presented us with an image of a single bed. Nadie Olvida Nada (Nobody Forgets Nothing (1982). This piece also commands an entire museum wall in its simplicity, and the intimate associations with the image of a bed provide a perfect contrapuntal balance to the image of the very public luggage belt. The empty bed is depicted on a jaundiced, yellow background with a skewed perspective that evoked a coffin-shaped form.
Kuitca’s concerns regarding the AIDS epidemic, and for the genocide that occurred under Argentina’s dictatorship from 1976 to 1983, appear at regular intervals in his work from the 1980s. Like his fellow countrymen and artist Doris Salcedo, who also memorialized “Los Despardes” in her sculptures, Kuitca, meticulously enumerates the 30,000 abducted persons during this period in Del al 30,000. This subtle numbering motif recurs in his later works, that are based on public architectural plans. These introductory works resonate with more than a sense of melancholy, but with a sense of tragedy that carries through the exhibition.
In the late ‘80’s, Kuitca painted large dramatic canvases evoking his Russian, Jewish roots. The Russian Jewish flight at the turn of the twentieth century is reveled in his work Odessa. An early, mixed media “map painting”, this monochromatic work traces the main flight route Russian Jews took out of Odessa. The artist’s grandparents were part of that exodus.
His large red acrylic paintings from the mid-eighties both titled El Mar Dulce (The Sweet Sea), are heavily worked canvases. Scraped, manipulated amorphous surfaces depict enormous and dramatically ambiguous interior spaces, with scenes that include naked figures staring in a mirror, two figures copulating in a small claustrophobic space, and a female sleeping in the foreground. Stairs that lead to nowhere with rooms as cul de sacs, and no exits, evoke Kafka and Beckett, both documented sources for the artist. The iconographic image of the tumbling baby carriage from the famous film Battleship Potempkin is sketchily represented as a projection, with deconstructed stairs and trampled bodies.
A later version, gives way to a space void of human figures, only vestiges of human activity remain—toppled chairs and lamps, and empty beds remain in the foreground. The projected image of the baby carriage and stairs fades from view, never to reappear in the exhibition. Kuitca’s treatment of interior space includes blackened exit doors and doorways. Like Sartre’s play, there is no exit.
Kuitca, became unsatisfied with the canvas, and like many artists turned to non-traditional materials. The artist jumps off the canvas and unto mattresses as a ground. As his annihilation of the figure becomes complete, he paradoxically employs a medium that is an intimate and daily space of human beings with their imprints. Here, he creates works by superimposing maps (those public indicators of space) onto them. These maps are often convoluted, with routes based in reality but sometimes not. They often return to their starting points creating an endless loop of absurd geography. The viewer when caught in this cycle of searching for a point of reference never really finds one. The experience is not dissimilar to viewing Ionesco’s Bald Sorprano where the audience is destined to view the play over and over.
These works capture our need to orient ourselves, but the routes are skewed. Kuitca plays with his audience, while collapsing standard geographic boundaries. He has an interest in fluid notions of space, while grounding us on an everyday familiar object imprinted with the ethereal dents of the human form. We are here today, gone tomorrow.
“Everything” from which the exhibition takes its name, is a massive, repetitive work of four panels that seems best viewed up close and far away. The artist states that in the mapping schema presented, the roads lead from Dallas, TX to Dallas, TX. You can get lost in the routes. Stepping back, outlines of a blindfolded figure appear with arms behind its back. This large form repeats four times across each panel towards the bottom. This amorphous image underscores the notion of the disappeared, or ghostly.
In a later series of works, Kuitca riffs on Diderot’s “Encyclopedie,” but replaces definition and categorization with his fusion of world maps and melting of geographical borders. The artist is no stranger to finding inspiration in cultural icons and heavy hitters like Wagner. Still, these huge ambitious pieces are not his best. and mattresses as “new” media aside, it is in his Tablada Suite from 1991 and 1992 where the artist evokes the most humanity and is at his most poetic. In these four gallery-sized works, one on each wall, the artist subtlety, yet in great detail, depicts in graphite and acrylic the architectural plans of large public spaces—a Jewish cemetery in Buenos Aires, a prison, a hospital, and a stadium. Drawn with clinical and technical precisio, these works reference public institutions down to the institutional-colored paints he uses in the compositions.
Every prison cell, cemetery plot, seat, bed and chair is referenced. Again, figures are conspicuously absent, but their presence or existences are most clearly implied by these public plans, and designs for their anticipated lives, exits, and deaths. An overwhelming sense of melancholy for humanity is present in these poetic and obsessively drawn works.
In his Teatro Rojo works on paper and paintings that use theater seating charts, the artist developed a unique process of deconstructing interior architectural plans, creating forms that melt before our eyes. Here the viewer also has a new perspective. We look out from the stage instead of at it and the theaters are empty. In this purposeful reversal of perspective by the artist, we are implied, and unseen.
The artist continually plays quietly, yet dramatically with our location and our perspectives, inside and outside of the artworks before us. We are disoriented. Figures appear and disappear, humanity is implied, sometimes memorialized, and other times annihilated. We the viewers are part of the drama and witness to it. How easily we can be removed from the picture of humanity, how easily persons are removed by societal and political atrocities that come in a variety of forms—sometimes quietly in the night and most often at the onset, unreported. Kuitca’s works help us to remember.


Robert Irwin – Gypsy Switch
Robert Irwin’s show at the Corcoran Museum consists of one piece entitled: Gypsy Switch. I would bore you with the physical details of this work because they are precisely the reason why this piece, despite endeavoring towards a transformative visual goal, falls short. Robert Irwin has spent a career creating work that redefines spaces and our ability to interact with them visually. Much of his recent portfolio has been on a larger scale and addressed architectural construction both in buildings and landscapes and has spanned a great variety of media. Gypsy Switch is a break from these works as it is much more referential to painting in size and composition. However, Gypsy Switch is no exception in the way it still pertains to his investigations into human perception.
The work is part of a larger collection of pieces all created in 2010 built from the same fluorescent bulbs and designed in a similar fashion. Many of them are currently on display at The Pace Gallery in New York City in a show titled “Way Out West” but Gypsy Switch bears some noteworthy differences to this other collection. The pieces in The Pace Gallery show are colored vibrantly, lit minimally by exterior lighting, and hung in such a way that they dominate and fill the wall. They invite the viewers gaze with their warmth and redefine the spaces they occupy with their own light.
In contrast, Gypsy Switch has a much cooler palette. All of the bulbs are cold whites, muted grays, sickly greens, or black with the exception of one unlit red bulb at its center. This serves to create a more ethereal and distant affect, one that does not draw in the viewer so much as seem to indicate a sort of industrial aloofness that holds one at arm’s length. If the viewer were to brave this sterile barrier and venture closer they would be grounded by the familiarity of the materials present despite the fact they do not appear in the material list for the piece. Irwin lists the following as the media comprising the work: light, shadow, reflection, and color. However it is difficult for the viewer to interact and fixate solely on these basic components or perceptual tenets when the recognizable materiality of the piece dominates the room.
The fact that the room was lit overhead also served to distract and detract from the power of the piece. Any environment changing effects were negated by the harsh focused light from spotlights which stood at odds with the softer cooler glow of the fluorescent bulbs. The high ceilings also made the piece feel dwarfed which restricted its ability to influence and impact its surroundings.
The overall form of the piece is certainly one of its most powerful elements. Forming a larger rectangle through the arrangement of vertical oriented bulbs, the viewer is forced to address the work as they would a painting, head on. The piece does not reward a diagonal view and this is reinforced by the symmetrical arrangement of the fluorescent lights. As they mirror themselves outward from the central red bulb the layout rewards a viewer whose binocular vision is centered on the work. However here the scale becomes problematic as you are required to get rather close to the piece to allow it to completely fill your field of vision and it is not until this point that Gypsy Switch begins to exert any power to transform your surroundings. But as you close on the piece and it begins to fill your world the details and manner of its construction powerfully reassert themselves, pulling you away from a moment of perceptual discovery.
Though the piece is rectangular in composition its edges blur slightly as your eye moves between lit and unlit bulbs. The varying of the boundaries starts to confuse the eye as it moves across the piece, but there are too many opportunities for the viewer to catch themselves on something solid or referential. The unlit bulbs and empty sockets provide this effect steadily to the detriment of the work. The existing light emanating from the piece is not bright or dominant enough to transform the space around it completely and so the viewer remains stuck addressing the work through a formal and object oriented vocabulary.
Sadly it seems that the work is best viewed in photographs. Here you can readily divorce yourself from the distracting details of the objects present in the piece. Unable to approach the work, you must interpret only the viewpoint presented which displays the piece at its best. Camera captured images also serve to exaggerate the soft unfocused light that emanates from the piece and makes it far more captivating and nuanced removing the exacting details that detract from its airy qualities.
But even as a photograph the work does not achieve its transformative goal. Locked into a single viewpoint and held at a distance the work does not alter your perception of your surroundings as it becomes completely contained by the frame of the image. It no longer interacts with your perceptual world and becomes only an object to be viewed entirely separate from oneself. In a photograph, it carries the potential of transmuting the space around it, but it is a space that cannot be accessed or interacted with by the viewer because it exists only in the image. This frozen illusion of possibility presents an initial intrigue to the piece that, similar to the actual work, is lost when one tries to investigate it more closely.
Rather than encouraging some sort of visual phenomenological impulse the piece instead grounds the viewer in the even beauty of symmetry, soft light, and linear form. There is no denying the visual complexity that Irwin has generated so elegantly with such simple tools but the work does not achieve a transformative capacity and is stunted by the room it is displayed in. Gypsy Switch does not transform the world it inhabits as it is grounded by earthly materiality and association. This prevents it from becoming a purely perceptual experience and locks the viewer in a spectacle of material connections.


Vantage Point Review
The current exhibit, Vantage Point, at the National Museum of the American Indian displays work by 25 contemporary Native American artists ranging a spectrum of media from drawing and painting to installation and video. The framework for the exhibit is meant to be organized into Personal Memory and Identity, History and the Contemporary Urban Experience, Landscape and Place, and Cultural Memory and Persistence, yet one of the first things I noticed as I made my way through the show was how these categories all blurred into one broad history lesson which made the subtly different labels unnecessary. Perhaps having an educational agenda for an “art” show is acceptable when understanding that this museum’s primary mission is to educate about and preserve American Indian culture. However, except for the common thread that all the work included in the exhibit was made by American Indians, most of it would not be thought of as meaningful contemporary artwork in any other venue other than that which is dedicated to the historical preservation of their culture, and while this museum is the perfect place to draw attention to the historical as well as current injustices brought upon American Indians, I think only a few of the works presented can stand on artistic merit outside of this context.
For instance, there are some abstract paintings in the show by Native Americans such as Mario Martinez, Joane Cardinal-Schubert, and Margarete Bagshaw. Shubert gave us a ‘pretty picture’ called Medicine Wheel-Nebula-Glass Bottom Boat. It has some beautiful colors with some flowery shapes and sparkles that I can imagine would look very good above someone’s couch. I think I saw something like it at a craft fair once. Then there is Bagshaw’s painting, Sky Rise Dreams. It is a well laid out geometric abstract painting with muted colors combined with a mix of play on perspective and patterns. Drawing from the title and the subject matter, Bagshaw clearly intends to visually describe the rise of cities, roads, and our general concrete world as it pertains to the essential theft of her ancestors’ land and abuse of the earth. While I don’t wish to be insensitive to the intended message, I would have enjoyed this painting more if it were untitled and in a gallery not as conducive to such a quick read.
Moving on to Martinez’s Yaqui Flashback II, I enjoy it more than the paintings mentioned above because it begins to capture an intentional ambiguity which allows my imagination to take charge and bounce around within the context of the piece. I read nature as well as personal influences while seeing some other subdued cultural references. Even with the title which points directly at the artist’s ancestry, the painting still allows the viewer to browse through their own personal experience referentially and aesthetically. In the end, we can arrive at our own layers of meaning outside of the artist’s specificities.
The artists Rick Bartow and Truman Lowe both presented sculptural work. Bartow’s, The Responsibility of Raising a Child, is a traditionally cast bronze piece which is totem-like in nature and contains various American Indian mythological animal references. I was enticed by this piece because of my own sculptural influences and my interests in Native American legends, and although it appeals to those interests, it doesn’t get much further. It’s a piece that can be walked around and taken in without too much thought, and then, the viewer is free to dismiss it and move on to whatever comes next.
Lowes work, however, is less one-dimensional, and while his piece entitled Wah-Du-Sheh (Bundle) is made from materials traditionally used in American Indian culture to build shelters, weapons, vessels, etc., his title as well as his suspended forms recall these characteristics without being so literal as to read like an equation. I spent some time with this piece and studied the leather, wood, and paper materials, and though the craft and presentation is what drew me to the piece, it was the subtleties in shape and form as well as the contrast between violence and gracefulness that kept me involved. I can very easily imagine this piece being successful on display in a venue such as the Phillip’s Collection or at the Corcoran in terms of maintaining layered meaning with specific references and intentions.
Shelley Niro and Kent Monkman are a couple of photographers displaying work in the show. Niro’s intent in La Pieta is described as addressing the human and environmental tolls of armed, the displacement of her native people, and the cleansing and regenerative power of water. What we see is a series of beautiful photographs (a combination of color prints and black and whites) bordered by bead and fabric work which is intended to symbolize bloodshed, war, remembrance, and renewal. I think Niro’s intent to display war, violence, healing (both metaphorically and literally), and the sadness of being driven from one’s home is undermined by the seduction of capturing clear, pristine, detailed images with a streamlined presentation. The work could have been executed in a number of ways that still point to her noble intent without being so literal as to trap the work under its own weight. Instead, the work falls apart and fails by its own beauty.
Monkman displays dramatically different work than Niro by literally ‘dramatizing’ the photographs and by successfully executing his intent while also posing questions to society as a whole rather than simply as it applies to the American Indian. The Emergence of a Legend, a series of faux-antique photographs depicting Monkman’s alter ego, Miss Chief Shares Eagle Testicle (wordplay on ‘mischief’ and ‘egotistical’) in various guises, including as a performer in Wild West and vaudeville shows and as an actress in silent films, confronts the history of Indians performing for non-Indians. Monkman employs his flamboyant character, dressed in platform shoes, floor-length loincloth and elaborate feather headdress, as he calls attention to longstanding concerns such as the representation and misrepresentation of Indians in popular culture. Drawing inspiration also from broader contemporary culture, these staged photographs make reference to issues of femininity vs. masculinity, youth rebellion, and urbanization. I am glad to see that Monkman pays attention to the array of issues encompassing not only the American Indian but also contemporary American culture in general. In so doing, the work doesn’t limit itself to an exercise in Native American history but can, instead, stand alone outside of this particular setting.
Work such as Monkman’s photographs, Lowe’s Wah-du-Sheh, and a few other saving graces make Vantage point worth going to see, but while the exhibit has merit in presenting current views about the history of the American Indian, it accomplishes little else. This singular agenda is acceptable if one’s intention for seeing the show is educational in nature, but I realized that I wasn’t looking at ‘art’ made by American Indians. More than anything, the presentation revolves around work about Native American history which doesn’t require that one is or isn’t an American Indian. While the show did have its good points, it could have been described more accurately as a visual history lesson.


Washington Color and Light at The Corcoran Gallery
The Corcoran Gallery of Art has long supported DC-based artists interested in light and color, having shown their work in the past (“Washington Color Painters”, 1965) and having hired several of them as teachers. This exhibition demonstrates that allegiance while providing a historical context for the paintings. The question is, why this exhibition now and does this body of work as presented give the viewer adequate information about the artists’ inspiration, intent, sources, and motivation?
While the show is supposedly thematically arranged, some galleries are mini-solo shows that interrupted my ability to sustain an approach based on theme and therefore my train of thought. “Soak and Stain Painting”, the theme of the first room, includes work by artists working in the 50s along with their followers. Oddly, while most of the paintings demonstrate the theme of soaking and staining by exhibiting just that, the two at the entry to this room—by Alma Thomas and Jacob Kainen—are paintings that are not stained but obviously painted onto their surfaces with a reasonable amount of thickness. (I suspect these were an afterthought when the two small entry walls had nothing on them.)
The text discussing Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland’s visit to Helen Frankenthaler’s studio and their learning her staining technique is an excellent educational tool and introduction to this section, but we could have used more information. Were there documents supporting these visits—letters, photographs, for example, that would emphasize more this very important interchange? Was it just the process they imitated or was there a more conceptual motivation behind the staining technique? If you were a viewer interested in the process, for artists and non-artists alike, the discussion of the artists’ using Magma (a fast-drying acrylic invented in 1947) mixed with turpentine or spirits, opened eyes to its staining potential. The text also highlighted some artists’ twisted and tilted canvases to achieve certain effects. We see this in Louis’s striped painting and Sam Gilliam’s unframed draped canvas. The stripes in the Louis piece demonstrate pronounced visual vibrations that one might expect in an Albers piece. It is a pleasant surprise here. Another potent observation is engendered by Sam Gilliam’s framed piece. Folded and incorporating noticeably dragged paint, it implies a non-conscious anticipation of an artist like Gerhard Richter who is known for his dragged-paint abstract paintings. It would have been valuable for the curator(s) to draw some parallels to more recent art early in the show. Ed McGowin’s two more contemporary pieces in this gallery have little or nothing to do with soaking or staining. His bi-level Plexiglas-over-wood paintings make patterns that change as the viewer moves from side to side in front of them. Probably more than any other works in the show, they introduce an element of implied kinetics, so they could have been placed closer to Davis or even Truitt, where colors visually vibrate.
The second room, entitled “Hard Edge – Pure Reduction” includes such notables as Kenneth Noland (considered one of the founders of the Washington Color School), Mehring, Rockne Krebs, Gene Davis, Paul Reed, and Anne Truitt (whose work was recently featured in a solo show at the Hirschhorn Museum).
The text next to one of Noland’s is a strange Greenbergian statement (which I cannot agree to) that reads, “Evidence of the artist’s hand is almost entirely eliminated”). Is evidence of the artist’s hand ever eliminated? Even Judd’s boxes are only Judd’s boxes, made by Judd. Anne Truitt’s colored, large distilled 3-D towers are put next to an early Agnes Martin-esque pencil and acrylic drawing on canvas and this visual association is a juxtaposition that provokes thinking about the evolution of her work. One wonders why more of these associations weren’t made and elucidated in wall texts for other artists whose early and later works were both exhibited. Speaking of texts, this room has texts about the artists’ attendance at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, its role as a substitute for the Bauhaus and particularly Noland’s relationship with Josef Albers. I question why the Albers painting did not appear here and only much later in the show. Rockne Krebs’s 3-D Plexiglas and painted structure adds only a bit of interest in relation to the other works in the gallery. On the other hand, Paul Reed’s “In and Out B” shows overlapping stripes to create interesting visual disjunctions and color that is both attractive and jarring at the same time.
The next room, which has no theme, is devoted to Gene Davis’s work and it is fascinating to see his evolution from an abstract expressionist painter to one that worked so exclusively in painted stripes. This time the curator got it right. And including the artist’s quote with instructions is another good idea. Davis said. ”Enter my paintings by looking at one color and see how it operates in the work”. This reminded me, as a former museum educator, that it would have been especially helpful, especially for school groups, to have a study guide or brochure to carry and to encourage thinking about pertinent questions raised by the works.
The next room houses Thomas Downing’s paintings of arrangements of circles. These are cheerful but not all that engaging. One can see Downings’ relationship to Mehring, with whom he shared a studio, but Mehring’s work, to my liking, is so much more sensitive. Wall texts here add little to the experience.
The room called “ Color Connections” exhibits artists (not Washington artists) who investigate uses of color (throw, flick, pour, layer, scrape) and other concerns related to abstraction, the shape of the canvas, etc. There is no thorough explanation as to how or why this group was assembled and if or how they had direct or indirect relationships with the Washington Color School artists.
Frank Stella is represented with an angular painted aluminum wall structure, “Batafogo II”, 1975, wherein paint and the surface moves into the viewer’s space blurring the lines between painting and sculpture. It is tantalizing to see where he took his interest in color, but we are not told how the Washington Color School can be credited with this interest.
No exhibition about color would be complete without an Albers “Homage to the Square” this one from 1956. As alluded to earlier, it should have been shown earlier near the text about Black Mountain College. Still, the wall text about Albers and the Bauhaus is valuable for those not familiar with its history. An interesting comparison at this point is Albers’ comment about color having no emotional appeal vs. Anne Truitt’s statements to the contrary. For a slightly different take on stains, runs and splatters, Sam Francis’s Untitled work of 1974 is a prime example of personal interpretation over replication of Color School technique/approach. Likewise Jules Olitski’s “Pink Alert”, 1966, shows the influence of Morris Louis’s poured stripes, but Olitski paints and places them only at the perimeter and only on the sides and bottom of the canvas. These two have a real visual “connect” to the Washington School painters. On the other hand, Larry Poons’s “Seel”, 1981, has a paint surface that moves into three dimensions. The paint is ultra-thick making for a juicy, explosive surface, and because of its emphasis on texture over color, this piece feels more aligned to Pollack than to the Washington Color School. This work could have been omitted.
Frankenthaler's work appears near the end of this room, and given her influence and importance to the Color School artists, one wonders why her work was not shown closer to the beginning of the show. This very distilled green and brown poured paint piece, “Hurricane Flag”, 1969, is an excellent example of her modus operandi. The text about her is informative, highlighting her studies with Hans Hofmann, her association with the critic and theorist Clement Greenberg, her familiarity with Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, and Franz Kline and how she started using paint cans to pour onto her canvases at the young age of 23. All this was interesting but there was more text here than was needed since much of it was unrelated to the Washington School painters themselves.
Limited color and geometry on a flat ground are the tenets of John McLaughlin’s work installed at the end of the show. Since this piece is black and white, I presume that color for the curator also meant, for black, all colors absorbed, and for white, all color reflected. It seemed completely out of place.
I wish the curator(s) had included at least one or two contemporary artists interested in color and working in DC today. For example, if one goes through the photo show just beyond this exhibition, you will see a piece by Maggie Michael entitled “Helmet”, 2006. Note this Washingtonian’s use of/love of color and how it is handled differently in a more recent piece (mixed with other mediums, e.g. and more obviously personal and expressive). On the same floor, see also Chris Martin’s abstract painting of 2008 using latex, ink and enamel on canvas.
One also wonders how the choices were made for inclusion in the show since on the same floor in the area called “Minimalism and the Washington Color School”, one finds more work by Gene Davis and Anne Truitt, along with non-Washington color-related artists like Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Mangold and Ad Reinhardt all for whom color was significant and integral to their work, perhaps more so than for some of the others included in the “Color Connections” final gallery of the show.
The visual appeal of the show—bright color, process-oriented work—will draw viewers, but if you are looking for conceptual and educational enlightenment or if you wonder about artists’s motivations, passions, about what they do and why, if they talked to each other, or wrote letters to each other and if you want layers of meaning, then you may want to go elsewhere. Writing this review, I was reminded of the challenges and intricacies that go along with curating exhibitions, especially those that must work with whatever permanent collection is at hand. With funding at a minimum, curatorial staff has to come up with more and more shows based on their collections. This was one of those shows. It was a decent attempt, just not thorough enough.
The exhibition is on view through March 6, 2011 and reopens June 25 – August 14, 2011.


Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow
The joint of Art and Science: Is he an artist or an activist?
The first impression of the paintings at the entrance of Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum was powerful. They were colorful, large and synthetic images, which I believe all these components captivate an audience easily. On top of that, I thought chronological order of the show helped viewers to engage the artworks and grasp the ideas better. All 47 paintings were categorized in eight different sections: Early works, Biosphere, Guyana, Urban Jungle, Expedition, Artificial Selections, American Icons and Big Weather. Throughout the exhibition, Rockman introduces science realm into the art world and it is interesting to see how these two distant fields, the concept from science and technique of art, are combined. It is confusing to figure out where Rockman stands in these fields but we could at least see how far he came along this road by analyzing the development of his paintings and the contents.
Rockman’s main interest is in natural history and he was exposed to the subject because his mother worked at the American Museum of Natural History when he was younger. Especially, he was fascinated by dioramas and they inspired him on how to look at the world. In one of his early works, “Evolution (1992),” he used diorama to present all different kinds of real and imagined animals and plants. Next to the painting, there was a stack of plan of the painting depicting all 214 animals and their names that are in the painting. It was the beginning of emerging science into art in Rockman’s artworks and borrowing diorama idea was fascinating. However, I wondered how effective it was to use the diorama setting in two-dimensional artwork. It doesn’t mean that it is less interesting than three-dimensional dioramas but it was definitely more self-engagement needed. In addition, I was concerned that there were too many animals depicted in the monumental sized painting and it was overwhelming to look at every individual figure in the painting. It was definitely intriguing to grab one copy of the plan and look up the names of animals I noticed from the painting, and by doing so; it created the atmosphere of being in a science museum. However, the diorama setting didn’t specifically change much of the perception of viewers on how to look at a painting or anything from this. Overall, I wasn’t sure where I should give more weight into, whether I appreciate the painting as an artwork or act like I am in a science museum studying all the creatures in the painting.
Moving along to “Urban Jungle” section, Rockman’s use of diorama come back in “Airport” and “Golf Course,” which are three-dimensional block models made of envirotex, digitized photo and oil paint on wood in 1997. Comparing these to “Evolution,” it was more successful with use of materials because he included actual objects such as trash, golf balls, golf club, soil and so on. These 3D model works aren’t aesthetically pleasing as much as “Evolution,” but deliver the artist’s message more clearly. Therefore, as the purpose of diorama in museums, borrowing it to his art does what Rockman intended in these two artworks, and represents what he wants to say about a man-made disaster. Diorama turned out to be a strong ground of Rockman’s artworks.
The next group of paintings that are from South American jungle of Guyana gives a feeling of artist’s personal attachment because they are looked through one’s lenses. Rockman traveled to Guyana twice; in the first journey, he primarily documented insect life and jungle scenes. Though the paintings captured real jungle scenes, it made me question if I was looking at a real depiction or imaginary pictures. In “Kapok Tree,” it is painted as if the artist is looking up the tree and the sky in the darkness. The painting expresses this sensation that humans are so tiny and incomparable to the mystery and sacred jungle that the Kapok tree is infinite in height and the sky is unreachable. The painting “Host and Vector,” also radiates endless charms of Guyana jungle. With the mixture of pastel toned background and brilliant colored foreground of trees, flowers and a bird, I felt that I was looking at a fairy tale picture. The paintings in “Guyana” section are about 84 inch by 72 inch and they are fairly large-scale works, but I wish there were mural size paintings like “Evolution.” I thought the scene of “Host and Vector” in larger panel would bring extensive impact on viewers.
From the return to the jungle of Guyana the second time, Rockman came back with quite different images than from the first trip. His intention of documenting his trip shifted to representation of his adventure in the jungle. In other words, if he created aesthetically beautiful paintings from the first trip, he is now more interested in the content regarding human’s ignorance towards the nature and ecosystem. He painted imagined incidents in the wild, so they are somewhat illustrative and have obvious narrations that anyone could have similar experience from camping. However, it is different because the images of the insects and plants in the jungle are unfamiliar and they are so realistically depicted that it adds a level of fear to even envisage putting myself in these situations. Yet, I enjoyed looking at Rockman’s paintings from his jungle trips because I got vicarious satisfaction of the experience of exploring the jungle.
As going towards the end of the show, Rockman’s latest works, it laid another layer of realization about what is going on with mankind involvement in the nature and I was concerned about the environmental issues we are facing at the moment. In “Artificial Selections” section, Rockman brought up artificial manipulation of species and imagined what would result from it in the future. In “The Farm,” there are farm animals that we feel closeness from seeing them a lot while we were growing up: however, it is shocking when looking at the details of genetic manipulation. Even “The Trough” literally shows genetic mutation of a pig fucking a duck. Rockman seemed to use his humor in these paintings but the images were so gross and disgusting to digest in my mind. In this section of paintings, Rockman pushed his boundary again about presenting his issue strongly. It’s becoming more like an agenda to awake viewers about his concerns. There is a notion that the information is forced at me, but I would have to agree that it is the most effective way to inform and warn people about our future, because we cannot avoid thinking once again about the problem that the artist is addressing after looking at the paintings.
Finally, in the last two sections, “American Icons” and “Big Weather,” Rockman touched the most popular and serious topic in the world. He brought up the issue of climate crisis in his work by portraying well known places turning into unrecognized areas. In “South,” Rockman portrayed the polar landscape from the Antarctic trip in 2007. He used staining and pouring techniques to illustrate unpredictable weather of cloudiness, and dripping white and blue paints of iceberg to show the ice melting as a result of a rise in temperature. Comparing this particular painting to “Supergrid” and “The Reef,” which the artist used the same technique of pouring, “South” was a little disappointment because it seemed like a simple and effortless painting that needs more technical elaboration. I assume it was probably an ambitious trip to Antarctic but I do not see the artist’s unique experience and perspective in the painting. We know the result of global warming because we see and hear from media all the time, and I was expecting more dramatic imagery like “The Farm”. However, I have to admit that it was the most interesting subject matter of environmental science because it is a currently ongoing issue. The paintings of “American Icons” and Big Weather” reiterated the reality to viewers and perhaps moved them to feel unprovoked guilt. People are already aware of the problem and that they are involved in daily pollution of the world. However, they justify their tiny erroneous behavior and remain ignorant on global warming.
Although majority of his paintings are dealing with natural science and environmental related themes, one part of exhibition, “Biosphere,” didn’t fit well with the other paintings. It might have been to introduce how Rockman’s idea developed in his art making; however, the paintings in this section were the least successful representation. I was baffled by orchids and organisms floating around on the picture plane in “Biosphere: Orchids” and “Biosphere: Hydrographer's Canyon.” The space in the paintings was read as the cosmos rather than biosphere and what the artist intended to show wasn’t clear enough. In this exhibition, I assert that there was too many different ideas presented and it would have been effective to have paintings focused on one issue of environmental science, such as global warming. It would have worked out better if the artist were trying to change our thinking, so that viewers are not confused with all the issues presented now.
Rockman’s interests in natural history: ecosystems, genetic engineering and environmental issues, were well combined with art, and aesthetically pleasing and attractive paintings are created. Also, the size of paintings was generally large that it increased the sublime of both imagery and the theme. However, I am still curious how I should take this peculiar union of art and science. Even though I would like to credit Rockman for joining art and science together, it is strange to feel the optical satisfaction of beautiful images and feel unstable, confused, worried and guilty from the concept of the artworks at the same time. Furthermore, I was unsure where Rockman stands in the realm of art and science. As much as I would like to categorize him as an artist, it seemed to me that many people think of him more as an activist using his paintings as a method. It is true that Rockman’s paintings have explicit opinion and the perspective of how we are unconsciously destroying our natural environments, and also have the quality of re-awakening the viewers about it. So another contradiction exists in combining two different areas of art and science and then distinguishing from each other.