Tag Archives: contemporary art

What Becomes a Legend Most? Kusama grand in garden setting

Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature, at New York Botanical Garden (The Bronx), through October 31, 2022.

Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929) is arguably the most famous living artist globally, her art widely appreciated and sometimes disparaged by diverse constituencies among both cognoscenti and the general public.  As she claimed decades ago, even more true today, her only rival in postwar art renown and notoriety has been Andy Warhol.  Her backstory is so well known, expounded by herself in innumerable candid interviews, that it has become part of her art in a way that exceeds the obvious intrinsic connection between any artist and her work.  Kusama has created for herself fashions that match her installations and collages that feature photos of herself interacting closely with her art. She has described her art activity as a life-saving compulsion that fills an emotional lack—a kind of neurosis for which she has been treated by mental health professionals as well.  A long-term symptom has been hallucinations, which at times “obliterate” (in her terms) her being.  Most prevalent are blizzard-like masses of dots, represented throughout her oeuvre. However, among her earliest such episodes, according to her self-propelled legend, was a flower pattern that extended from a tablecloth throughout a room; related representations tied in with her close examination of nature early in her art training (in the nihonga school). And so, an apropos and grand return to a garden in NYC, where she pushed her way into the avant-garde scene in the mid-1960s but also succumbed to mounting mental stress that led her back to Japan permanently in about a decade. From there, she laid low, art-wise, although she continued to make art and exhibited sporadically. She turned to literature in an equally frenetic way (including stories, novels, and poems, several awarding-winning; and she has continued, with a recent autobiography). A gradual shift back to the center of the art world was spurred by her appearance at the Venice Biennale in 1993–officially representing Japan.  Not debatable: a committed, prolific trajectory, from small works on paper to expansive canvases to sculpture and gallery-scale installations to an army of production assistants, and manufacturing and commercial design partners.  So what is hype and what is boring (you’ve seen one you’ve seen ’em all?) and what is purposefully, consciously repetitious to hypnotic aesthetic effect? Well, a lot of postwar art that is very interesting — imo. In these (and other) aspects, there’s a strong connection between Kusama’s oeuvre and Minimalism; mainly, it’s about the space around and between, as much as or in some cases more than particular images and objects.  Whether or whatever influence or osmosis of work by predecessors and peers (she has always claimed not – or at least “not much”), it is clear that, as in the case of Van Gogh, it is hardly the result of “madness,” although conveying insight into extreme psychological disturbance.  Hers is a a practiced, knowledgeable, studied oeuvre, vis-a-vis techniques, materials, surface, color, line, mass, scale, et al.

For my money (more on that below), veritably any Kusama show is exhilarating in some way or many. Bold and riotous; idiosyncratic and bombastic; predictable and inventive; individualistic and universal in its limited elements – namely, dots, and, secondarily, a netting motif, each possibly borne of deconstructed, isolated flower parts.  Thirdly, phallic forms, increasingly plant-like, which she derived as an apotropaic strategy to address her decried fear of sex (along with intimacy overall). Intermittent additions include pumpkins and eyes. Despite the immense size of and “workshop” participation in realizing her grandiose sculptural projects in recent decades, an authenticity of artistic mien and mission comes through.  Along with a wild and wacky sensibility that is freeing from the very idea of art analysis, contemplation, and, to some degree feeling. It’s nearly pure optical phenomena with a few thorny, metastasizing, tromp l’oeil effects that can suggest diseased sight. 

The exhibit spans Kusama’s career, extrapolating from the nature theme that is foundational equally with her psychic motivations. Displayed in three main indoor spaces and outdoors on the grounds, it’s a good walk to see it all, although it’s not as big a spread as several international traveling solo shows for the artist over the past two decades. Of course, you get the great NYBG as well–indeed, you pay extra for Kusama. Access to it all is a steep $35 (adults).  The current entry system, with tiered fees for varied indoor permanent and special exhibit points is confusing and not conducive to efficient navigation of the campus. Perhaps it’s time for museums to scale back increasing extravaganzas in lieu of reasonable visitor costs, or to otherwise limit according to specialized fundraising. Not to mention, it’s “rain or shine” ticketing and the stormy day of my reservation really put a damper on things — though still well worth it imo if you can swing the full fare.

I started in the lower library building, not far past NYBG’s main Moshulu Parkway entrance.  In the foyer area, a glass vitrines foyer hold strange sculptural “growths” that suggest alien, perhaps poisonous specimens; while a floor piece of glittering serpentine “phalli” rises in a cluster like luminescent tentacles.

From the exhibition, “Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature” at NYBG; in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library building (4/12/21)

Further inside are a few exquisite, very early works on paper that reveal a formative blending of botanical and cosmic with Surrealist inflection. Also introduced here are her complete repertoire of media and forms, including a relatively recent wall-sized, segmented painting with graffiti-like, all-over short-hand symbols, and an array of sculptures embellished—or blighted—with spots and sparkles. Pumpkins (as mentioned) are another staple–as they were in the war-time Japan of Kusama’s youth (as she has recalled).  They also evoke fairy tale play and Halloween-ish magic—the latter especially in a small, dark gallery found near the main visitor center/gift shop that you’ll come to later.  It features dotted pumpkin-shaped lanterns in a box of mirrors—not as fantastical as some of her past “mirror room” installations, but still engaging for its illusionistic infinity via simple concept and contraption, mashing up nothingness with stream-of-consciousness associations.    

“Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature” at NYBG (4/12/21)

In another part of the library building (one must go out and enter through another door) is a small “info” gallery with a mundanely presented timeline and small slide show of an early Kusama performance piece. You could skip that and just google later (if you didn’t already).  

Approaching the gorgeous conservatory building is a huge, hollow painted steel pumpkin sprouting “legs.” Inside, Kusama’s wide-eyed, over-blown Pop art flowers, along with a shining, half-hidden pumpkin piece, are inserted into bright floral displays—perfect.  A bit Alice in Wonderland. Indeed, Kusama loved the bronze of Alice and cohorts at the giant mushroom tea table by Jose de Creeft in Central Park, which she incorporated into staged “happenings” in the 1960s.

“Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature” at NYBG; inside the Enid Haupt Conservatory (4/12/21)

Along a main thoroughfare, selected towering trees are animated with with red-and-white polka dot fabric wraps. From a distance, the brightly bandaged branches may signal Anthropocene distress, but also facilitate an impression of a costumed tree ballet. 

“Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature” at NYBG (4/12/21)

Elsewhere, depicted cheery hybrid “organisms” can evoke the more forthright feminist biomorphism of Nikki de Saint-Phalle (playing over at PS 1 at the moment).   

“Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature” at NYBG (4/12/21)

A tour de force is the siting of a 1966-conceived installation, Narcissus Garden, in a pooling section of a stream (as in the header photo above).  Comprised of bowling-ball-sized silver spheres, it was first exhibited, unofficially, on a lawn at the 1966 Venice Biennial, where it caused a success de scandal, especially as Kusama tried selling off the orbs for a few dollars each.  Here, the myth of Narcissus—i.e., the death-drive inhered in his magnetic attraction to his own image, is brilliantly conjured up in the fractured pull of bouncing reflections into the dark water.   Jarring in its juxtaposition of nature and artifice from close up, as one approaches and recedes, the flickery elements blend, like Seurat’s pointillism, into a buzzy and beatific environmental scrim.      

A stand-alone “cottage” installation returns to the early flower hallucination described above (and other of her work through the decades), with visitors handed plastic flower tokens to participate. As you go through the motions, you may find yourself musing once again on the timeless metaphorical trickery of Lewis Carroll’s fun and frightening fantasy. A shrine to and sharing of potent poetic vision.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is kusama_flower_house_small-768x1024.jpg
“Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Garden” at NYBG (4/12/21)

Goya and nft’s: tragedy and Farce (each in more ways than one)

Obligatory comment on the “nonfungible token” (NFT) craze;

Goya’s Graphic Imagination; at The Met, through May 2, 2021.

Everyone interested in any way in “contemporary art” must comment on the development and encroachment of NFTs — virtual-only stuff stored in cyberspace in that makes Photoshop-minded and delivered imagery seem archaic –into the elite art world.  In some ways, art collecting always been that way–i.e., about chancing a “find” that would accrue in cultural as well as financial value in some sort of tandem. There’s been admiration, in retrospect, for collectors and dealers who made and jumped waves, individually and as part of art world cabals, variously near- and far-sighted; in short, part of what reifies art, artists, and artistic directions in history. Almost too obvious to be said, media and materials as well as what may be, in many cases, mementos of a particular moment in historical time (aka artificial [human-made] things) evolve.   There is evidence that elite members of a number of very ancient peoples sponsored the creation of symbolic and/or documentary “tokens” (art; artifacts), perhaps musing far into the future. 

It has been a tenet of many art dealers working with living artists across at least two centuries: don’t buy art only as investment–barely such a thing as sure-fire in the early days; make sure you like it as art or you may ultimately be very disappointed in more ways than one. Somewhere c. 1990 (formulating gradually under Reaganomics) that changed and so now we’re here with the crypto-currency crowd buying up code.   Who is shocked?

There is only so far I want to go with this after so much more explicit blabber, better and worse; honestly, I am not that interested. The idea that novelty per se in any form seems to have a kind of instinctual appeal and titillation for many, itself provokes mild curiosity. Specifically, I do believe the recent rise of this one particular $million sale of an NFT by the artist Beeple this week marks a pending final death knell for a postwar art world that survived the first decades of the new millennium (for better and worse).   Late boomers (me) have remained tethered to a mixed sensual and psychic interaction with art by any means (i.e., art in person, wherever, however – even if its in a booth or isolated place on a screen yet presented as the surround of the art). Traipsing through the galleries and museums of NYC for all sorts of reasons and non-reason and in many different hats and contexts–that was a norm and a boon and a privilege in New York for the art-leaning (in myriad directions). Whatever the exclusionary, financial-and-other scandal-laden networks of elite New York art dealers and galleries for several centuries now, the fact remains that their respective office spaces (as it were) have been largely open to anyone to peruse art for free. For many of us art-loving plebes the galleries were en route every day or a frequent small detour, if not a full-blown scene. That “norm” has drastically changed now in more ways than one. Veritably all art and general interest journals and newspapers cover physical art through online interaction.  Covid-19 of course is tied up in the kind of synchronistic event that is the Beeple sale. Certainly the gallery sphere appears to be headed to a wholly virtual reorganization very quickly. Likewise, some museums, spurred by the pandemic to be sure, are nearly saturated, even in online presentations, with digital bells and whistles.  So this blog was started at the the tail end of that era and the crest of addiction to “art on Instagram” that everyone acquired in isolation. We’ll see what happens.

For the moment, I reacted to the hype with an antidote–the sensitive, Gothicizing works on paper of Goya at The Met.  Goya is a good go-to when the going gets bad. His often cryptic, sometimes oddly breezy iconography of fear and suffering, especially that humans directly provoke in each other, are visceral at intimate scale, close-up, IRL. I find myself taking, or looking for, “sides” with Goya–not so much politically drawn as emotional and spiritual, in terms of reactions to his miniature mis-en-scenes–here fluid ink-washed drawings are included with his signature scratchy etchings. Images from some of his most renowned series,such as the intricately brutal Disasters of War, still shock–thank goodness. Also included are a few studies of more mainstream period subjects to remind of the stature, training, and assorted patronage of the “enlightened” artist; but the disturbing ones remain most compelling and communicate a soul-searching creative, as well as a unique artistic hand.

It’s a wrap: R.I.P. Christo

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Detail of “Reichstag Wrapped” (Berlin, 1995).  Photo: Oscar Wagenmans, 2019; Wikipedia Creative Commons / ShareAlike 4.0 International]

The death of the amazing Christo sent me back to the musing mode and keyboard — there’s so much to say . . .

At this scariest of points in baby-boomers’s lives, we’re partly reflecting on the gradual loss of artists we grew up with, who have excited and guided us–the latest, for many, Christo (b. Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, June 13, 1935, Bulgaria; d. May 31, 2020, New York City). His art journey began within the propagandistic parameters of a repressive Communist society and ended at the pinnacle of the international avant-garde.  No one familiar with his oeuvre would dismiss it with his pop-cultural reputation as preeminent “wrap artist”–at the same time, not that far off–and through the decades, an endearing and referential sobriquet across many aesthetic constituencies.

Among his earliest widely known works, wall objects he called “empaquetages” (“packages”; late 1950s-early 1960s) were associated with the loose “Nouveau realisme” movement and portended what was to come. Critics have turned to Man Ray’s Dada sculpture, “L’Enigme d’Isidore Ducasse” (1920), a mysterious blanket-covered ready-made, as a suggestive precedent.  Within a decade he had begun creating the quintessential environmental works for which he became famous, in collaboration with Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon aka Jeanne-Claude (born the same day as Christo; d. 2009).  Most of their work features miles of industrial-strength fabric swathed, bunted, and/or wrapped with roping over buildings and landscapes, sometimes incorporating added structural elements.  Google “Wrapped Coast,” (1969, Sidney, Australia), in which fabric hugged and billowed from seaside cliffs, and “Valley Curtain” (1970; Rocky Mountains, Colorado), in which a seamed, continuous length of cloth is hung on cables above an expanse of remote terrain.  One of my favorites, “Surrounded Islands” (1983, Biscayne Bay, Miami) resembled, from aerial views, a Monet waterlily painting for the gods.  As well as innovative forms and spatial conceptions, there are political dimensions encoded in most of their works based on place, perhaps climactic “Wrapped Reichstag” (1995, Berlin).  

As can be imagined, administrative work related to the logistics and legal codes involved with realizing such projects normally necessitated long gestation periods from the drawing board to 3-D fruition.  “The Gates” (2005, Central Park, New York) took over two decades of negotiating and planning to become, ultimately, a shared point of pride for us locals who followed its newsworthy genesis from early controversies to celebration. 

It is sobering to recall, at this critical moment of the world refugee crises, Christo’s WWII-era escape from brutal regimes in Bulgaria and then Czechoslovakia.  From Prague he made it to Vienna as a rail car stowaway; and on to Geneva and Paris—technically a stateless person for over a decade before receiving U.S. citizenship in 1973.  At the same time, he maintained certain Socialist, even Communist skepticism about the “culture industry” in capitalist society—namely, the connections between patronage and art content and context.  He refused economic support for the public works so that they could not be ideologically distorted or piggy-backed upon by sponsors. Instead his site work relied on revenue from related conventionally portable work such as sketches, plans, and dramatic photographs.  The installations were not for sale (via diagrams and permissions as is common for Conceptual artists), but exhibited temporarily and de-assembled, with salvaged materials reused or redistributed.   

Christo’s oeuvre explored and offered a multiplicity of meanings about what art might be in the general and specific. Look for a proliferation of forthcoming material over the next few decades about it all–most of it sure to be fascinating.

world wide works of resistance

“Clapping with Stones: Art and Acts of Resistance” at the Rubin Museum (17th Street); through January 6, 2020.

As a post-millennium museum (opened 2004), The Rubin well represents the global age by linking past and present in its programming; namely, between its core holdings of historical art from Southeast Asia and and contemporary work that bears witness to the constantly shifting national and cultural borders, diasporas, and self-identities traced to the region–and even alliances and overlaps with disparate communities beyond this constellation, real and insinuated. This shows exemplifies all of that, taking up the theme of resistance (as per the title)—to oppression, to sectarianism, to homogeneity through diverse presentations of protest, rapprochement and healing, with violence prescient and hovering.  The ten artists included each make a distinct impression and collectively offer a multitudes of mediums and techniques.       

Located on the top floor (six) of this mini-Guggenheim, the dome above the central spiral stair is elaborated with a striking site-specific installation by Kimsooja of magenta-colored, lotus-shaped globe lamps, accompanied by a soundtrack blending Buddhist, Christian and Islamic chants.  (It’s amazing that this mandala-apropos architectural feature was left over from its original position in a department store.)  The show’s title is taken from Lida Abdul’s mesmerizing video (2005) on the destruction of giant sixth-century stone Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban (2001) through local ritual, which takes on new relevance since the high-tech projection project of the destroyed statues on site by Chinese filmmakers Janson Yu and Liyan Hu (2015; intermittently repeated).      

Among the more poetic works, a suite of architectural ceramics by Shahpour Pouyan signifying on various architectural forms associated with aspects of his hybrid ethnic and national heritage; and a moving Abstract Expressionist-mode triptych-altarpiece by Nadia Kaabe-Linke, monochrome, smoky, and “scarred”—in fact incorporating tracings of bullet holes from a Nazi bunker.  At the opposite end of aesthetics, a strong documentary video on immigrant activism in Barcelona by Kader Attia aka the artist who created a spectacular couscous replica of the ancient Algerian town of Ghardaia in an installation exposing the unacknowledged inspirations of Le Corbusier (2009, Tate; seen in NYC at the Guggenheim in 2016).

Nari Ward contributes a now characteristic shoe-lace wall piece spelling out, “We Shall Overcome”; and a bricolage-type installation linking Africa to Harlem in a “living room” of discarded objects surveilled from above with a fish-eye mirror.  A large-scale seemingly faded photographic appropriation of a Civil Rights march by Hank Willis Thomas (see Thomas) takes on a kind of 3-D focus when viewed (as instructed) with a cell phone flashlight, alluding to the tricks of the journalistic trade and positive populism in the art gallery; while one of his steely, 3-D printed-looking sculptures deals with police brutality through synecdoche (cropped hands and baton).  Literal violence is broached with Ibrahim Quraishi‘s exploded violin piece (somewhat akin to Nouveau Realiste Arman’s smashed musical instrument) accompanied by a soundtrack of the destruction.

Detail of Hank Willis Thomas, “The March” (2017; UV print on retroreflective vinyl) at the Rubin Museum (one of several effects depending on lighting)

Fiercely feminist works by Nazia Khan include Mad Max / Game of thrones empty female armor and a watercolor homage to Indian female resistance fighter Rani of Jhansi; while Pallavi Paul’s tangled trail of heavily redacted paper points to the hidden fate of a WWII-era Indian female operative for Britain. Go through once just for the riot of textured, complex forms; and then again reading the backstories.

“Radical Love” at the Ford Foundation”

320 East 43rd Street, through August 17, 2019

If you’ve never been to the landmark 1960s building of the Ford Foundation for Social Justice, which has had an extensive public plaza-like space open to the public from the beginning, the new gallery and its programming (established 2018 in a building overhaul; this is the second exhibition) is even more reason to get going. Exhibitions focuses loosely issues and circumstances related to the Foundation’s mission, whether and both who the artists are. Here the thematic title reins in global artists dealing more and less with injustice, personal obstacles, wrapped up with self-love, communal celebration, and most often post-colonial, Diaspora, and transnational identities and social issues.

An innovative feature of the building is its tiered indoor tropical garden (above), the site of a sound piece (part of the show) by Umani Uzuri, which incorporates the spiritual, “Wade on the Water” to invoke a “hush arbor,” or hiding place for escaped slaves in the antebellum South.  On the second floor in the gallery proper a large entrance wall accommodates a kind of memorial to the protestors arrested in the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry, in which their individual photos have been developed on transparent silk and superimposed onto painted portraits for a ghostly stereoscopic effect.  A trio of figurative textile sculptures from the late 1970s by the still prolific Faith Ringgold (b. 1930) are as political as they are personal in their feminist form and subjects.  Most other works share some sort of visual dazzle through a riot of color, patterning, and textures.

A tin-foil-glittery, kitsch-Baroque, paper-mache rat-infested, gay-urban altarpiece by Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, who started with this sort of thing c. 40 years ago, is impressive for its obsessive dedication to scrappy, inventive craft.  His semiotic linking of superficial sparkle with queerness as well as spirituality is seen elsewhere here; while others use glittery effects to other associative ends.  Ebony Patterson’s hanging, sequin-dotted patchwork tapestry, in which images of body parts peak through in sections, includes gold-painted conch shells and coins strewn below to reinforce the Caribbean context of her dreamy-nightmare aesthetic. Rashaad Newsome’s kaleidoscope-like photo-collages of glam-bling adornments on impossible bodies deals partly in drag ball fantasy, picked up in Athi-Patra Ruga’s staged portrait photos.  Weedy growths sprouting from high on several walls are tangled with bits of shiny detritus in an installation by Lina Puerta.   Raul de Nieves’s opulently costumed mannequins representing two aspects of his mother recall Egungun masks (which completely cover dancers in the Nigerian masquerade traditions) and Nick Cave’s “soundsuits.”  A gold-ornamented painted female portrait by Lina Iris Viktor includes a backdrop map melding Africa with sites of its Diaspora. An especially moving assemblage sculpture by Vanessa German depicts a “white-face” Madonna / nkisi (power figure in traditional groups of the Congos) cradling a black baby doll, with silver-beaded strands of tears. Probably the most arresting and eye-opening work for most viewers will be Sue Austin’s video of her underwater experience in a wheelchair specially equipped for the event. More than a half-dozen other works included are similarly engaging; and a bonus on my visit were publicly accessible works beyond the exhibit by Kehinde Wiley and Hank Willis Thomas (look down the hallways to and from the elevators).

Raul de Nieves, “Fina Beauty” and “Fina Nurture” (both 2019); at the Ford Foundation)
Foreground: Vanessa German, “Notes on the absence of Sacredness: How Little Black Girls Die” (2018); background: Lina Iris Viktor, “Eleventh” (2018); at the Ford Foundation.

Beauty in the beast: Whitney Biennial 2019

Here we go — another edition of the show the art world loves to hate, The Whitney Biennial—somewhat subdued overall this round in contrast to the shocking and rarified avant-garde culture that has been widely seen as characteristic and (rightly) off-putting to many sectors of the cognoscente and the public in its history. And yet. Thank goodness–in a big way. In the end, love wins … for better and worse, as its very existence has furthered the cause and spread of contemporary art in America since its inception as a founding component of Whitney’s activities (beginning in 1932 shortly after the museum opened, as an “annual” until 1973 ).     

Over the course of this nearing centenary span negative criticisms have been directed increasingly towards the curators charged with the coveted but impossible task of amassing the most interesting “new art” produced or, in some cases, first “noted” in the past c. two-year span–by artists working primarily in the United States at least through the period in which they were created. A few repeated charges have been clique-ishness (among curators, institutions, dealers, artists), heavy-handed thematics, forced relationships and trends, and the reverse–a lack of installation strategy and direction that might leave a little too much work for most viewers. I’d say here that that last caveat has been turned to a positive, bolstered by ample space in which to consider individual works/artists. Both chronology and de facto eligibility–vis-a-vis the museum’s mission of “American” art have been (rightly) more fluid in response to post-millennial transnationalism–exemplified this time around. The overall tone hovers carefully between post-identity PC and pointed politics, and also indulges, intermittently, in a kind of crafted visual pleasure not prevalent on the scene in recent decades. 

My impulsive and partly preordained (because I already like the artists) “hot spot” run-through starts at the beginning–in the ground floor gallery, given over entirely to Diane Simpson, who continues to create art in her mid-80s. Here her highly developed body-Bauhaus aesthetic hits high points in both drawings and contoured constructions inspired by sartorial designs and architectonic abstraction. Elegant-without-trying, deliberately and expertly plied geometry with anatomical armatures in mind.

Upstairs (including two main floors; niches elsewhere and two outdoor terraces) a number of other women are working directly with bodies in sculpture, including Simone Leigh, whose several majestic female-vessel works here (ceramic; bronze) are gorgeous (yes, she’s one artist I’m always looking out for). They can evoke supreme, feminist minkisi whose power, however, is invested in serenity and timelessness rather than fear and aggression (as in the traditional central African type). Another more amorphous, bulbous piece, with its clay-braided seams, recalls Yoruba “house for the head” shrine coverings and even head sculptures themselves from ancient Ife (more so in the context of her oeuvre broadly). Likewise, Wangechi Mutu (another favorite a priori) is represented by spirit-suggestive, more malleable female figures well known from her collage and video oeuvre; here, imbued with an atavistic sensibility in their sinewy, muddy appearance of simulated and real organic materials. A pending or perhaps present dystopian humanity is embodied in a parade-like installation of a gender-bending (some bent over) grotesques by Nicole Eisenman. They seem to have risen out of the muck (environmental and metaphorical) depicted in her paintings, wherein band-of-fool scenarios include evidence of psycho-sexual trauma. Wholly incongruent in sensibility, both Mutu (in one piece) and Eisenman incorporate a kinetic element (that doesn’t add much, imo, to their otherwise impactful works). Eisenman‘s freaks refer at least partly to American society specifically with details like NY Giants socks and a one sartorially-defined cowboy in the mix; but the US matrix is most indulged by Kota Ezawa‘s “social realist” watercolors and animations documenting Colin Kapernick’s sports protest revolution.  There’s quite a bit of figurative painting throughout, stylistically ranging from “bad painting” popularized in the 1980s to very good, nuts and bolts oils of nothing much, such as those of Keegan Monaghan that engage with tinges of object nostalgia and overlooked viewpoints.  

A large wall installation of calligraphic metal “signs” in a taxonomic-like arrangement (with cryptic key) by Maia Ruth Lee may recall, for those weaned on European modernism like me, the wrought iron “folk” hardware collected by Albert Barnes and integrated with his precious the French (mainly) paintings and African sculpture. (Barnes may have been on to something after all with his universalist formal reductionism, despite his blind spot when it came to content.)  Even more so, the Barnes-commissioned mural, now in the collection, by Ellen Harvey (not in the Biennial, but a great candidate) comprised of separate, movable depictions of each of Barnes’s related objects (Metal Painting, 2015). For Lee the paradigm is language—one built on components with accrued associations if not meaning through their past lives as functional object parts, reshaped and shuffled into 3-D “texts.”  Other compelling bricolage approaches include Joe Minter‘s free-standing sculptures of similarly rusted and rustic fragments resonant with notions of past labors, and Robert Bittenbender‘s haywire wall assemblages of hi-tech, bling-y detritus. Some artists are still addressing directly legacies of modernism–as concept, restriction, barrier, foil, especially here John Edmonds in a loose photographic series that tackles evolving (or not) attitudes towards and outgrowths of European “primitivism” inhered primarily in African sculpture. 

I am sure there are many very “good” videos within the numerous dark, murmuring partitioned areas for this purpose; however, (I’ve mentioned before) I have a hard time giving them the time they require within such large extravaganzas—nothing I am compelled to share on a first run-through–as I am the above.

Postscript (7/22/19): By late last week, eight artists (including Eisenman) had requested that their works be withdrawn from the show in protest of Whitney Vice Chairman Warren Kanders, CEO of weapons manufacturing company, Safariland (which had been mounting). As of right now, I believe everything is still in place. This may end up the most political biennial ever–unquestionably a Pandora’s box has been opened. Perhaps I should not say, but will, hurry.

Simone Leigh, “Stick” ( 2018; bronze); background: paintings by Keegan Monaghan.
Keegan Monaghan, “Blue Door” (oil; 2019).
Wangechi Mutu, “Sentinel I” (background) and “Sentinel II” (2018; mixed media).
Maia Ruth Lee, “Labyrinth” (detail; 2019; steel and laminated key)

Textured pictures in Chelsea

Paul Anthony Smith, through May 11 at Jack Shainman, 513 West 20th Street and 524 West 24th Street

Christina Forrer, through April 20 at Luring Augustine,  531 W. 24th St.

*The Whole Picture: Zipora Fried, Arturo Herrera, Thomas Pihl, Erin Shirreff, through April 6 at Sikkema Jenkins, 530 West 22nd Street.

*Never got to a post on the recent, intriguing abstract quartet at Sikkema Jenkins that closed last weekend, but still want to mention, re texture, Thomas Pihl‘s evenly sheathed, encaustic-like minimalist paintings featured there. Close-up viewing of his waxy, glowing fields broach Rothko territory, in terms of inner light.   His intensive color layering, revealed only at the paintings’ edges, in fact iterated the context of a continuum as much as very personal abstract expression.

Still plenty of time to catch the latest by Paul Anthony Smith spread prolifically across both Shainman spaces. Smith‘s “picotages”– mounted textured photographs–debuted in New York five-some years ago with images of Jamaican street scenes and portrait subjects donning African masks, each “pricked” with a sharp potter’s tool in sections to create a simultaneously furry and sparkling, surface rippling.  This “scarring” induces a duality between a kind of psychological uncanny and spirituality, veiled over the depicted realities.  Now Smith’s scale, subjects, and signature technique have expanded boldly, piqued in a series of (Caribbean) carnival scenes with complexly patterned, pricked grill-work superimposed and dazzling. And a third-level screening of sometimes spray-painted, sometimes speckled chain link fencing in another loose series has equally tiered levels of associative content. 

At the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum:  Christina Forrer‘s Freudian-cartoon tapestries at Luhring Augustine, which, from a distance, look very much look like blobby, post-millennial figurative paintings. Upon approach, woven textures pixilate a rotating constellation of girls, boys, and anthropomorphic others with goopy, stretchy tongues, gum bubbles, and Gumby body parts emitting from their mouths. Absurdist, abject, amusing, honest.

Paul Anthony Smith (textured photograph, detail); taken at Jack Shainman Gallery (NYC), April 5, 2019.

Smith and Forrer share a near obsessive commitment to their materials and methods, which itself generates at least part of their respective results. Both convey, overall, a humanistic (for lack of better term) motivation and intention.

Christina Forrer, woven textile work; taken at Luring Augustin (NYC), April 5, 2019.

Red Light in Amsterdam: Giorgio Andreotta Calò

Giorgio Andreotta Calò: Anastasis

May 24 – September 23, 2018, at the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam

Increasingly in recent decades historical sites have initiated exhibitions of contemporary art to expand outreach as well as contexts for their relevance and perpetuity.  Since 2013, Amsterdam’s  Old Church, consecrated in the early fourteenth century and located in De Wallen, aka the Red Light district, has been one such venue. This summer’s contemporary fare is a light installation by Giorgio Andreotta Calò, who gained wide international exposure in the Italian Pavilion of the 57th Venice Biennale (2017) with a space-disorienting Gesamtkunstwerk incorporating a filmic plane of reflective water.  Here, transparent red filmic matter is overlaid on the church’s giant windows to bathe the awkward, additive interior uniformly in slightly hazy red light.

Upon entering, the effect is squint-inducing and hints at strategically placed stained glass or pre-modern lamplight before taking over as art.  It doesn’t take too long to acclimate, or rather, acquiesce, to this seared visuality as one roams and peruses building’s structure and antique elements; while at the same time, it renders details difficult to keep in focus.  This perceptual stop-gap harkens to darkroom red light that arrests photographic development, analogical to the iconoclasm that transformed this and other Catholic churches in the region, largely via image destruction, to Protestant institutions.

Most obviously, Calò’s tinted, or tainted, alteration conjures the fraught relationship between this ostensible house of god with its sin city setting, and their shared dialectics of hellfire and passion, loneliness and love.  Capped by the multi-faceted title, Anastasis, which reins in the scriptural episodes, Christ Harrowing Hell and the Resurrection, and the advocated censure of icons in early Byzantium, Calò has coaxed the most out of his deceptively simple art gesture, and turned the natural light enlisted explicitly in some earlier Christian architecture (see Cistercian) into a steamy spiritual veil.

Giorgio Andreotta Calò installation, Oude Kerk, Amsterdam (2018)

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.