Fluff and Flowers: Summer at The Met

At The Met (main building), through July 29, 2018:

Visitors to Versailles 1682 – 1789 

and

Public Parks, Private Gardens – Paris to Provence

Complementary seasonal shows at The Met, beginning with an artistic tour of 18th-century Versailles.   An excellent mixed-media installation on the sensory experience of visitors to the  extravagant complex developed by the Bourbons.  Do the audio guide, which is not just speechifying, but includes dramatized period anecdotes and recreated probable ambient sounds (nature, music).  An integrated arrangement of carriages, couture, furniture, personal objects, wallpaper, and landscape, architectural, and portrait prints and paintings gives a great overview of varied continental styles of the era, as well as precisely who visited and how—sometimes in costume ruses aimed at avoiding scrutiny for those rich and famous rulers and diplomats who came mainly to party.   Other than to specialized cognoscenti, few artist names will stand out.  Mostly, as you will see, late French Baroque was the result of an ongoing collaborative design machine of similarly well-trained, interchangeable  artists and craftsmen in the shadow of Louis XIV’s maestro, Charles Le Brun,  along with porcelain and tapestry factories.

An abundance of images and objects here are self-referential–related to the ongoing design enrichment of the grounds and palace, including panoramas documenting operatic-scale pomp and ceremony, and amusing zoomorphic, allegorical garden sculptures.  One charming and telling naturalistic painting to note depicts laborers clearing brush, by Hubert Robert, who also stands out with a proto-Impressionist scene of fireworks at night.

Moving into 1800, gardening petered down to the bourgeoisie as a civic and personal craze, as Public Parks, Private Gardens delineates, also through a multi-media presentation that includes botanical illustrations, photographs, diagrams, popular prints, glassware, ceramics, and period gardening accoutrements, as well as painting.  Not unexpectedly, Impressionism reigns. It’s hard to believe that such lovely flowery fluff was once considered art-radical.  Repros inevitably dull the continued fresh-air ambiance and semblance of synaesthetics in the fragrant foliage depicted in work by the original practitioners gathered here, along with bold heritors like Van Gogh and (finally here) Matisse.

Mary Cassatt, Lilacs in a Window (1880-83); in the Public Parks/Private Gardens exhibition, summer 2018 (image from The Met’s Collection database)

 

 

Damien Hirst as (Outer) Space Painter

Damien Hirst: Colour Space Paintings, Gagosian Gallery, 24th Street; through June 30, 2018

At this stage of the game for Hirst, when hype has become both draw and a distraction vis-a-vis his art activity, he has been attempting to re-presented himself as a seemingly un-ironic, authentic (for lack of better term) abstract painter.  I’ll say, unexpectedly, that consolidated foray into pointillist non-objectivity on display here rises to the company of postwar predecessors like Richard Pousette–Dart, Larry Poons, Veja Celmins, and, especially, Yayoi Kusama, in terms of visceral optical power–specifically Kusama’s simultaneous vision of the endless universe and the buzz behind our eyes.

Hirst himself has linked the featured works, mainly from 2016-2017, to his long-standing interest in pseudo-scientific content via images of cells under a microscope.  He first produced “spot” paintings in the 1980s in the context of post-Minimalism, which segued, reciprocally, into candy-colored tablets of big pharma.  The circle forms were typically arranged in grids or bounded patterns, sometimes shifting within the compositional structure through color arrangement.  In the best works here, the spots, in a staggering diversity of tinted hues, are densely applied in all-over fields with an uncanny stroke that seems mechanical in regularity and hand-hewn with occasional delicately trailed paint threads.  Depending on light or dark grounds, they can  intimate staring into the daylight sun or night star gazing, rendering the exhibition title a double-entendre.

As a bonus, if seeming non-sequitur, a sliced shark piece from his break-through days (1990s) as art infant terrible is installed in an anteroom before the street-front gallery window. Perhaps a reminder of the shark-infested blue-chip art sea in which he swims, but also, of the preeminent theme of death that has haunted his oeuvre.  In that sense, to borrow a metaphor from Kusama on her own practice, the new paintings can suggest the obliterative nature of infinity.

Damian Hirst, installation of paintings at Gagosian 24th St. (May 2018)

 

Damien Hirst, sculptural installation, c. mid-1990s, at Gagosian 24th St., May 2018

Buildings and Blocks: The Bechers, LeWitt, and Andre at Paula Cooper

Bernd and Hilla Becher: In Dialogue with Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt, at Paula Cooper, 534 W. 21st St., through May 5, 2018.

The Bechers (German; he, d. 2007; she, d. 2015) worked together as one compositional and conceptual photographic eye for nearly fifty years.  Picking up on the artistic objectivity of August Sander before WWII in his encyclopedic images of human subjects, they turned to architecture, mainly industrial.  Each geometric-based structure is seen/shot from several viewpoints and arranged in flattened grids—a kind of reverse Cubist pictorial methodology.  As segmented presentations they bear close relation to the serial arrangements of Minimalism, furthered by a purposeful monochrome sans shadows that sustains focus on each subject-as-such.  Like Minimalist sculpture as well, they speak to the twentieth-century constructed environment for posterity, albeit through taxonomic-like, full-bodied representations.

Whereas, those now considered seminal Minimalists spoke through structural “excerpts”—a la LeWitt, (American, d. 2007) who then expanded them in 2D and 3D formats through formulaic repetitions increasingly for decades.  It helps to know about this aspect of his oeuvre to appreciate the elemental works here, but also to take reciprocal cues from the backdrop of Bechers, as was the curatorial plan.  Thus, LeWitt’s anti-volumetric, somewhat quizzical and idiosyncratic objects (to adapt Donald Judd’s enduring discourse, “Specific Objects,” 1965) also imply DNA-like building blocks.

Andre (b. 1935), a cohort of LeWitt in New York-based Minimalism’s 1970s heyday, is represented here by thick, square floor structures of rough-hewn wood beams—hollow boxes or frames, post-millennial in date but stubbornly consistent with the bulk (literally and figuratively) of his oeuvre.  Imposing in their deliberate simplicity, they are more bounded presences than LeWitt’s linear “links.” For the less informed, this juxtaposition is effective in conveying the potential diversity within Minimalist aesthetics, analogical and extending to the Becher material.  For a priori fans like myself, the stripped, ironic elegance associated with  all parties involved will be reaffirmed.  Make sure to take in the gallery’s expansive, bare-bones beam and I-bar ceiling to experience the full implications of the display.

Works by Bernd and Hilla Becher, Carl Andre, and Sol Lewitt installed at the Paula Cooper Gallery (4/17/18).

 

 

Body Language through the Ages at The Met

Life Like: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300 to Now); The Met Breuer, through July 22, 2018.

Flashback to the Breuer building as the Whitney Museum, 1994: ushered into the great “Black Male” show by Fred Wilson’s Guarded View (1991)—then a revolutionary, highly controversial installation of headless dark mannequin-museum guards, now widely renowned.

Fred Wilson, Guarded View, 1991 (mannequins/museum guard uniforms; collection Whitney Museum of American Art.; as installed at the entrance to “Black Male,” 1994; image: https://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/magazines/from-the-archive-linda-nochlin-on-black-male/#slideshow_17646.1).

Same sentinel post here:  Duane Hanson’s resin-cast “replicant” of a black male housepainter (c. 1984), in this  cross-chronological, interdisciplinary exhibit by the new Met tenants.  Brings a little extra along, in more ways than one, for those who will not outlive deja vu moments linked to the Whitney-Met exchange.

Duane Hanson, “Housepainter II,” c. 1988     (cast resin/pigment/clother; image: https://artssummary.com/2018/03/23/like-life-sculpture-color-and-the-body-1300-now-at-the-met-breuer-march-21-july-22-2018/).

The ahistorical juxtapositions throughout are generally accessible as well as provocative.  Among the best examples: the pairing of Degas’s famously awkward, tutu-clad Little Dancer (c. 1881) and Yinka Shinobare’s headless Girl Ballerina (1995), which borrows the Degas pose but re-dresses the figure with African-print fabric and a pistol clutched behind her back.

Yinka Shonibare, Ballerina, 1995. (manniquin/fabric/ mixed media). Installed at the Met Breuer, 2018.

Beyond the intended fine art spectrum, the show hedges the visual culture bet convincingly (as suggested above), mixing in anatomical models, death masks, effigies incorporating organic material, and other functional (so to speak) items, sometimes ambiguously, sometimes unequivocally.

The postwar work is twisted in intriguing directions simultaneously in sub-thematic groupings (about a half-a-dozen, overlapping).  In a section linking commentary on race to this discourse, a variety of postmodern monochrome nudes play directly off Renaissance marble examples that imitate antique prototypes–before the re-discovery that most were once vividly painted.  Fred Wilson is present here in this context with a diptych-like piece comprised of cast replicas of black-Egyptian and white-Greek goddess statues (The Mete of the Muse, 2004-2007).   However, most of the Renaissance-era work included is sensationally polychromed, wood-carved Christian stuff–which, in its day, possibly provoked the kind of visceral sensations that Goshka Macuga’s animatronic automaton (2016), or at least, Tip Tolland’s super-trompe l’oeil women in The Whistlers (2005), both featured, do now.

Tip Toland, The Whistlers, 2005 (mixed media).

Yes, the medical supply eyes, hair, prosthetic limbs,  blood (some real), real bones, and mortuary elements gets creepy .  Precisely, that’s one point–the spatial confrontation with our status as physical specimens.   We are drawn to and faced with reflective bodies who play on both our egoistic desire for permanence and our self-conscious, inevitable disintegration.

The postwar material gathered is just a fraction of what is out there in this vein, which means that this effort is timely if not overdue.  (Off the top of my head, surprised no Chapman Brothers, like their 3-D “Goya” and “disasters of yoga” series).   But it’s a still a diverse, eclectic selection of mainly interesting work.  Beyond those already mentioned: John Andrea’s illusionistic artist-as-Pygmalion tableaux nicely complements Hanson’s painter; Alison Saar (who also had an effecting body sculpture in “Black Male”) is represented here by Strange Fruit (1995), a choppy figure suspended upside down, as terrifyingly blunt as it sounds; a potato-phallus-sprouting female mannequin (mid-1960s) by Yayoi Kusama, which conveys the fiercely feminist and self-consciously fruity mien for which she is now cultishly admired (I’m in); Jeff Koons’s life-size porcelain Michael Jackson with his pet monkey (Bubbles, 1988), a high-point in Koons’s kitsch-driven career; Isa  Genzken’s bricolaged post-punker mannequin;  Charles Ray’s Freudian play with figurative scale.  Indeed, Freud’s “uncanny” pervades large swaths of the whole curatorial exercise.   If the installation is a bit chaotic and imbalanced (echoing the formal truth of most real bodies, inside and out), the work featured adds up to a lot, and points clearly to a strong reaction to abstraction in postwar sculpture, continuing.

Farm Livin’ Writ Large: Grant Wood at the Whitney

Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables; through June 10, 2018, at the Whitney Museum

This smartly installed Grant Wood show is as illuminating as his mid-West-baroque corncob chandelier in the entrance gallery that highlights his generally underplayed substantial early design training and career.  Unexpected are inventive yard art-meets-Dada table-top-scale sculptures, alongside subdued classically-derived painted allegorical adornments.  There are two examples (models) of stained glass projects in situ, one of which depicts a sweetly sanctified male youth that fast forwards to similar window treatments by Kehinde Wiley.  Yes,  sexual undertones are there throughout, and in accompanying scholarship.

Grant’s disciplined Arts & Crafts-influenced foundation underlay a strong compositional and surface facility in his “fine art” paintings.  His bold and deliberate figurative style cedes to warmly rounded gestalt-like geometries from a distance.  Upon closer viewing many reveal an obsessively repetitive and layered, near-pointillist technique.  Speaking of pointillism,  Wood also offers a challenge in his drawings to the coup de chiaroscuro of Seurat’s charcoals, with similar dense and gradated hatchings and rich opaque silhouettes.

Following the sens de la visite, I practically sensed beneath my feet the velvety-verdant patches of field and earth upon which Wood set his mainly sprawling yet intimate homages to farm life, real and mythologized, while engaging his emblematic adaptions of the locals, inflected, variously, with nuanced satire and lofty stoicism. The famed, featured American Gothic (1930) is not one of the most intriguing works in painterly terms, although its nuanced iconic hold is as strong as ever.  In a few late paintings the pristine impasto opens up, a la rich Fauvist contouring, harking back also to some early Impressionist work done in Europe, examples included.

Most copious here are all manner of studies for Wood’s expansive murals, which impress in scope and refinements.  Committed Regionalist we know–as per the canonized “story of American art” –yes,  unabashedly, and above all–one whose perceptive, perhaps partly repressed humor and social commentary is veiled in  confident technique and representational inventiveness.

Topographic Painting, Worlds Apart: Thomas Cole; Tarsila do Amaral

Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings; through May 13 at The Met (Fifth Avenue building).

Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil; through June 3 at the Museum of Modern Art.

The organization of and examples in The Met’s Thomas Cole exhibition effectively create a transporting experience for viewers that follows the artist’s journeys between England, the United States, and Italy in the early 19th century.  Cole (1801-1848) was the product of an era in which continental aesthetics and art history were becoming consciously intertwined with artistic goals specific to the painting medium, especially; close imitation of both nature and the idealized form of “the ancients” was di rigueur.  Cole breathed air into the former—that is, within meticulously detailed and composed, glazed and polished landscape scenes and scenarios.  Whether portraying a precise locale or synthesizing and staffing various settings into monumental narratives and allegories, his pictures convey credibly atmospheric, weather-y conditions.  This propulsion he shared with peers like Turner and Constable, who are included, among others, for comparative contexts, not least to convey a splurge of individualistic technical flourish apparent beyond overlaps in nascent Romantic sensibilities associated with outliers from The Academy.

Themes broached in Cole’s oeuvre turn on colonial savage versus civilized significations and sublimes, and prescient ecological concerns in tandem with the accelerating Industrial Revolution; but, above all, the cyclical drama of nature, in full light of the encroaching Anthropocene, climactic in his renowned, metaphoric, Course of the Empire series, which is highlighted in a make-shift niche that allows easy cross-referencing between the stages of civilization depicted.

Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral (1886-1973) also created parallel worlds in paint that are nonetheless locally grounded in desert and jungle topographies of her homeland.  At the Modern, viewers are plopped into marshmallow-mound landscapes punctuated by stylized flora and fauna, bright suns, and sometimes bulbous humanoid bodies.  Stand-outs depict un-nameable creatures scuttling along flat bubbles and bands color, encroached upon by out-sized indeterminate foliage and melting cacti.  Part European-modern—Post-Impressionist, Surrealist, abstractionist—and part indigenous, in form, symbolism, and inspirations.  Put another way, Gauguin, Matisse, Tanguy, and Magical Realism milled to morphic and coloristic essences while conveying a real connection to earthy surrounds.

High Road: Derrick Adams at MAD

Derrick Adams: Sanctuary, through August 12, 2018; at the Museum of Arts and Design, 2 Columbus Circle (59th St.)

Adams’s art practice has been grounded from the start on shifting, interdisciplinary mediums and methods; thus, it makes so much aesthetic sense (first of all) to see his recent collage-type production in the context of an installation at MAD.  The nominally functional associations with this venue are manifest in Adams’s theme and commemoration: safety and comfort on the road for African American travelers in Jim Crow America, as published in The Negro Motorist Greenbook (1936-67).  Adams’s titular terminology–sanctuary–may recall for some the decade-long traveling exhibition documented in the volume, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, (Twin Palms Publishers, 2000), to which Adams’s project offers supplement and antidote.

The gallery is bifurcated by a raised, yellow-lined “highway” reminiscent of an enlarged toy car track set, dotted with Dada vehicles comprised of sport caps of the era on wheels.  At several “intersections,” doors open onto a back wall of sharp-edged, cubistic collage-paintings, suggesting various types of establishments and topography through building-valise-parking lot hybrids embellished with key objects.  This group is rhythmically unified by brick patterns that have appeared throughout Adams’s oeuvre and may symbolize security and strength.  Elsewhere, slices of the road continue up pedestals topped with architectural models that repeat the door motif in miniature and are partly cast from milk cartons to evoke self-sufficient “beacons.”  Another wall is papered with blown-up, marked-up pages from The Green Book; which engages viewers in a search for recognized names and locales.  A playroom/craft shop sensibility hovers (also seen in much of Adams’s earlier work), which, leavens the historical phenomenon at hand, while the clean, carefully constructed geometry and clever signifying throughout  betray refined formal and conceptual preoccupation.

Great and Small (and great) in Chelsea

Tom Wesselmann: Standing Still Lifes; through Feb. 24, at Gagosian, 555 W. 24th St.

Marti Cormand: Formalizing their Concept: After Levine, After Evans; through March 3, at Josee Bienvenu, 529 W. 20th St.

Bright, billboard-ish, photorealist-light paintings stacked into surface-defined tableaux, in the contextual swell of Mad Men advertising, latent feminism, and white-privilege American consumer consciousness.  This Wesselmann series, c. 1967-1981, really nails that postwar Polaroid, plastics, and early mass media sensibility in sleek (but not slick) renditions of mainly generic personal objects, blown up in scale like Claes Oldenburg’s related Pop sculptures.  Each “set” suggests a snippet of domestic life, while hedging the allegorical orbit of still life memento mori.  Straightforward, well executed, clever and amusing, Wesselmann’s method and flattened modality here prefigure the digital layering of Photoshop.  Beyond the arranged canvas works are several related gems on paper, part and parcel of a succinct, illuminating archival display on the development of the series.

One does not have to engage the title of Marti Cormand‘s show to find his small-scale, minutely marked, mimetic pencil drawings of rural American landscapes and run-down architecture compelling. Upon approach they can appear to be black and white photographs before gradually revealing their graphite identities.  However, beyond the pictorial pleasures and paradoxes of the pointillistic trompe l’oeil rendering, the backstory of the series title  complicates this labor-intensive exercise by explicating Cormand’s source material:  Sherrie Levine’s infamous photographs (1981) of Depression-era photographs by Walker Evans (as reproduced in a book).  Cormand has run the now iconic images, mechanics, and messages of these predecessors through his own artistic mill, sieving a near-century of gender-inflected discourse on art craft, content, and visual aesthetics into his collective result.

Geometric Variations: Odita; Rhode; Johnson

Odili Donald Odita: Third Sun; through Feb. 10 at Jack Shainman, 513 W. 20th St. (Chelsea)

Robin Rhode: The Geometry of Color; through Feb. 24 at Lehman Maupin, 536 W. 22nd St. (Chelsea).

Kelley Johnson: Slow Hum; through Feb. 4  at Freight & Volume, 97 Allen St. (LES)

A key theme in the group of recent abstract paintings at Shainman by Odili Donald Odita is celebration (according to the press release).  Yes.  Odita’s sharply juxtaposed, color spectrum-spanning, slices and shards pop back, forth and across these flat pictures as viewers approach and recede.  Odita has already mastered this post-Minimalist terrain, climactic in his public murals; he continues here to mine its infinite potential when it comes to visceral variation–especially with nuanced chromatics.  With each work momentarily mesmerizing, collective dynamics include: tension between perceived patterns and their disruption: illusionistic spatial shifts, algorithmic autonomous patterning, and attention to color theory; plus, not least extra-formalist design inspiration (e.g., textiles; architecture).  Above all, the presiding staggered-dagger motif sets the body, as well as the eyes, abuzz.

Robin Rhodes also creates outdoor murals with geometric foundations; however, in socially subversive contexts.  Namely, on city walls in Johannesburg (S.A.)—a la authentic graffiti, with which he then interacts in performances.   At Lehman Maupin, these projects are completed (as it were) as art photographs. The painted backdrops recall, variously, point-to-line-to-plane Kandinsky, Sol Lewitt’s systematic faux-frescos, and, occasionally, simplified archetypal symbols as embedded in local traditions of façade decoration in the region.  The superimposition of Rhodes’s own silhouette in various poses conjures Banksy and Bauhaus mashed into absurdist street ballet.  Collectively, the framed up rhythmic arrangements bind together, bounce, and juggle such myriad associations.

Flip side to Odita’s crisp-cut partitioning by trading on related geometric coin are the recent airy works of Kelley Johnson at Freight & Volume.  Johnson has left tape strips and over-stepped masking edges intermittently and strategically around his striped and scaffolded compositions, through which white space peaks in, often in sectional, horizontal bands.  To use the sonic metaphor of Kelley’s exhibition title: a distillation of Odita’s big  band to a low (as well as slow) hum.   Leavening classic Minimalist monochrome with pop-neon color and, in a few sculptures, more fragile structure for which kites were Kelley’s inspiration, the hand-tinged element tempers his neo-geo modality with somewhat ironic, off-beat charm.

 

 

Snapshot reactions (contemporary art & other) by Jody B. Cutler-Bittner (art historian/educator). Search artists, galleries, museums, etc., below (and "enter").