Tag Archives: gay artists

Eisenman Paints Contemporary Life, Sometimes as Deadpan Allegory

“Nicole Eisenman: Al-ugh-ories”

New Museum of Contemporary Art, May 4 – June 26, 2016

A relatively modest mid-career survey of paintings and a few sculptures, the latter, clearly secondary, which I’ll leave to others.  The gathered paintings very well represent the accessible, figurative style–or non-style–that Eisenman has established over the past two decades, and which carries its own subversive message in the context of a self-propelling, “progressive,” avant-garde.  Figurative is not to say “realistic”; however, her narratives and themes feel that way.  They tackle the contemporary American zeitgeist through lesbian subjectivity–capped with large doses of middle-brow humor.

Eisenman first received critical attention in the context of a very loose network of very loosely described Third Wave feminist artists dubbed “Bad Girls” by pioneering New Museum director/curator Marcia Tucker, the title of a two-part 1994 exhibition.  (Although not included, she was included in a follow-up L.A. show of the same title curated by Marcia Tanner.)  A tie-over here is the breezy, I’m with Stupid (2001), in which a clownish man-child wears a T-shirt printed with the title slogan and an arrow pointing to his exposed penis.   Hilarious every time–more than ever, with the Trump campaign. 

The earliest painting on view, Spring Fling (1996), suggests the entrenched social and cultural binding of women to nature through a flora-bearing female nude cuffed to a rack of cobbled tree boughs.  A primavera allegory, via Botticelli, Ingres, and William Blake, turned into a deadpan “al-ugh-ory” of the exhibition title.  Subtle art  historical appropriation abounds throughout.

The enormous canvas, Real and Imagined Progress (2006) is a bravely intimate view of the artist at work in a boat-like studio flanked by, or floating in, a sea.  Allegories obvious.  Traces of Max Beckmann and mural-esque American Regionalism perceptible.  Among other things, the painting demonstrates technical painterly exploration, from impasto to scraped, watery, highly naturalistic and schematic passages.  Take-away, in a time-worn phrase: painting is not at all dead; nor is the time-worn artist studio theme.   An amusing  variation, Were-Artist (2007), looks in on a mannish, hairy-armed painter with pointy, curling fingernails working at the easel by moonlight.  Night Studio (2009) poses a butch/femme (female) couple provocatively under the artist’s spotlight amid stacks of art books, which, might symbolize the Super Ego and art task at hand both challenged and fed by libido.

A departure in subject matter was seen in several paintings most directly taking on the allegorical mantel, while melding further “between-the-wars”/ Depression German and American styles.  Populated with weary, hollowed-eyed masses, these canvases also brought in Munch, Ensor, and sometimes Bruegel.    Created on the cusp of the 2008 mortgage crash, they seemed to anticipate the desperation of the Occupy movement and, at times, environmental disasters like the Flint, MI water crisis.  Floating through: stupefied hipsters, zombies, sex workers, and vagabonds.

The most recent paintings included turned back to the studio/ bedroom complex, where Eisenman seemed most at home, so far. Several draw from the late, self-scrutinizing Philip Guston.  Spending time amidst Eisenman’s paintings should further, or restore (as the case may be), anyone’s faith in the engaging continuity of non-ironic representational painting in the context of the life and times of an honest, socially aware, individual artist.

Read My Paintings: Deborah Kass at Paul Kasmin

Deborah Kass: No Kidding“; Paul Kasmin 27th Street; through January 23.

We ask a lot of our artists. When break-out works are assimilated and canonized relatively quickly, they become reductive stand-ins for long careers and impossible standards for sustained “sensationality”–indeed a seminal linchpin of the discipline of art history–for better and worse (on case-by-case bases). So it is with Kass, who took on the attendant (overwhelmingly) male lineage and ideal (the “masterpiece” or central subject/style) in her extensive “Warhol Project” (c. 1992-2000), through which she outed and infiltrated its ranks as well. Piggy-backing on Andy’s art-stylistic and personal fame, works from her Jewish Jackies series (c. 1992)–profile head shots of Barbra Streisand in his bright silkscreen technique–have become ubiquitous in exhibitions and publications related to postmodern identity art and revisionist art history broadly and specifically. Like her laugh-out-loud  non-ironic, pictorial punning, timing was everything.  From there, she rolled out a decade of deceptively simplistic Warhol appropriations that packed similar punch, with subjects from Sandy Kofax to Linda Nochlin, and, finally, herself directly. (One series, America’s Most Wanted, 1998-99, which switched up the criminal mugshots of Andy’s infamous version with those of art writers and curators in an aggressively amusing mediation on artist angst and art-world machinations, was recently exhibited at Sargent’s Daughters, L.E.S. / see post).

Anyway, Kass is indelibly linked to those first Barbras, as well as Warhol.  Very good for her.  In fact, she has maintained her distinctly humorous-to-a-point art voice in a progressively nuanced kind of art-borrowing that plays pointedly to art insiders.  Trading on the over-familiarity of modern masters in that milieu, she concocted a mix of abstraction and conceptualism that mimicked and reorganized stylistic signifiers like Pollock drips, Johns stencil-scrapes, Stella stripes, while also riffing on esoteric “word art”–picking up there also on immediate feminist predecessors Kruger and Holzer, as well a number of peers.  (Kass has acknowledged Stella as a fundamental though indirect influence, perhaps gleaned best collectively in the formally rigorous spirit of recent work such as here.)

At first, Kass’s bold-print superimposed texts were drawn from pop songs and pop sayings loaded with interpretive possibilities–unlike the best-known (male) “first generation,” which sought to deter the colloquial content of language in favor of strictly semiotic concerns.  A hit that solidly bridged Kass’s earlier identity work was a pair of Ruscha word painting take offs, Oy and Yo, (2009-10), since realized as a double-sided public sculpture at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge (installed through August 2016).

In the current show the “slogan” element of the paintings are toned down and perceptual concerns keyed up.  One group, in the back gallery, features mashed up abstract backdrops (as above) sharing two displaced song titles; these consolidate the kind of visual thinking that has preoccupied Kass for the past decade. In several examples, bits of taping and under-drawing are left amid slick-surfaced “finished” areas revealing her techniques and perhaps addressing tropes of intuitive/autonomous form associated with modernist painting.

In the main gallery large-scale Minimalist panels (a la Ellsworth Kelly [R.I.P., yesterday]; Brice Marden) cede to various linguistic embellishments; for example, added neon signage (like Joseph Kosuth and Bruce Nauman) in a group dealing with “black” and “blue” that shifts around the optical coordinates; and type-face-like, very low relief messaging that emerges subtly in raking light. (Detour: there’s some accidental cross-over in aesthetic structure–as dual art-laden and prosaic “signs”–if not at all sensibility, between some this work and the monochrome, ash Braille phrase paintings by Zhang Huan on view at Pace 25th St. last month/post.)

Kass obviously admires as much as milks and amalgamates her sources to bolster the deconstructive aims that are now characteristic of her art personality–forged in the early Barbras.

Wiley Buzz in Brooklyn

Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” (Brooklyn Museum of Art, through May 24)

In a nutshell: there continues to be more than meets the eye in Wiley’s art, in retrospect and currently, although the eye is a big part of it.  

Roberta Smith hit a mark when she mentioned Norman Rockwell in her recent review of this decade-plus survey of Wiley’s oeuvre (NYT,  2/19/15). That’s post-millennial Rockwell, after decades of revisionist critical detours from the death knell of colorful figurative painting, particularly mimetic realism embraced by the hoi polloi. Yet, for those of the new camp (skewed pun intended), it was not the crafted imagery per se but the emotional connection that Rockwell’s work elicited in so many viewers that elevated it as “art” (not least Arthur Danto, e.g., “Age of Innocence,” The Nation, 7/14/02).  Add the above two components and you get Clement Greenberg’s description of kitsch, which, in some postmodern global version involving Photoshop, Wiley both hedges and ignores.

On full display is Wiley’s characteristic (by now) cacophony of color, patterns, shining skin, on-the-sleeve art appropriation and appealing, gay-ish ornamental flourish. Only the most authentic art motives could stand behind such highly composed picture planes and transparent content, the latter evoking, at turns, celebration and commemoration of the black male body, while deconstructing a white-washed, 1%-er artistic tradition that Wiley also claims deeply.

Like Rockwell, Wiley taps into broad social shifts that are forming “a new republic,” namely, the mainstreaming of African American hip-hop and diva sub-culture on an international scale. He virtually illustrates (Rockwell again) this sweep in his extensive, ongoing, “World Stage” painting series of urban subjects from major cities across several continents, which buzzes with simulated textile-inspired backdrops and b-boy sartorial bricolage (see especially “Africa” and “Israel”).

Two groupings of intimate, Renaissance-style portraits make perfect sense in Wiley’s unabashed art historical orbit, and present a fortuitous comparison with Titus Kaphur’s icon-like portraits of black men currently on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem (see post, 1/24/15).

So  Wiley’s a photorealist–i.e., he uses photographs as a starting point and through the process of producing a painting. It’s a genre related to implied narrative as well as vision, with a conceptual and technical lineage that has been popular and yielded substantial diversity in Western art from long before the event of modern photography.  Yes, he has employed assistants to reproduce the carefully plotted design swaths from the moment he could afford it, handling the central figures himself, a la Rubens, et al.  And?

Like his prolific painting out-put, Wiley’s experiments with sculptural mash-ups of black youths and classical portrait busts are not all masterpieces for the ages. He’s working out what/which ones very well may be. More often than not, he’s come up with (frankly) up-beat and refreshingly accessible stuff that crosses many borders and engages a substantive tension between soul and surface. What’s going on with official violence against black young men today adds a pressing, impressive, whole other level to his project.

Form vs. Bodily Function: Henri Matisse and Robert Gober Shows at MoMA

(both through early 2015)

In many ways, these two shows jointly display the polar opposite outer limits of what (Western) art has encompassed over the past century (roughly). Virtually the only thing that joins them here are MoMA’s ticket prices (no joke; it’s all-in-one visits, for better or worse).

Matisse: close-up time for the famed “cut-outs,” for which,  needless to say,  we (artsy folk) have been long and well primed.  I was all set to admire them breezily, secretly precipitating an inner “meh” after decades of deconstructing and reconstructing (and back again) various aspects of the oeuvre in general. I was way off—and, dare I say, (sure) blown away.

The chroma-brilliant, extensive floor-to-ceiling display of leafy squiggles, spirals, squirts, stars, sea creatures and hand-hewn geometry brings a whole new connotation to the how-little-can-I-get-away-with-and-exploit-to-the-max approach to art—in the just-form-but-what-form genus. The universally (yes) acclaimed jazzy dancers and circuses bounce around the walls; watery scenarios especially stand out—all of it, equal parts autonomy and carefully eyed and adjusted placements of raw-cut, rainbow-hued shapes, from miniscule to monumental.  Some of the less familiar (to me) were mural-scale works featuring semi-schematic arrangements of skewed, simplified objects and forms from nature, suggesting, but never quite becoming, all-over abstraction, as well as coded, semiotic fields. A room of the fragmented blue nudes evoke the forthcoming ones from Yves Kleins more than ever (not least in eliding respective metaphoric and literal use of women’s bodies), but here, Matisse really gets off with a “never mind” due to his inimitable anthropomorphic puzzle-ry.  His diversity within the intuitive boundaries of his late-discovered, shape-shifting discipline dazzles.  The exhibition is amply informative on technique, including footage of the cagey, quietly cranky old artist communing with his assistants, scraps, and shears.

Gober, well, he’s definitely out there—has been from the beginning of his public art career in the ‘80s. It’s a Freudian field day–in America, for sure–with sinisterly reconfigured baby cribs, signature hand-fabricated kitchen sinks popping up everywhere, and hairy prosthetic legs sprouting candles, not to mention penises, and even a few vaginas. Some partial bodies are hidden behind half-open doors in spaces cut off from viewers; and one gallery has been transformed into a painted Freudian forest, punctuated by an over-sized synthetic cigar sculpture among other “fetish” objects in its environs. Most of the work adds up (as far as content) – what doesn’t, well, there’s plenty on view in this mid-career retro.   You get the main idea/s, because Gober never lets up with his intensely human grotesqueries, which sometimes represent missing, or absent souls: longing, lost innocence, the brevity and fragility of childhood, metaphors of cleanliness linked to sex, illness, disaster, death, commemoration. It’s an impressively brave oeuvre and approaches in places the sublime (in lieu of the beautiful).  The coup de grace is a Christ-figure fountain with water shooting from the nipples.  Pain, renewal, Surrealism.

Past is Prologue: Nick Cave at Jack Shainman

At both the 20th St. and 24th St. Shainman Gallery locations, through Oct. 11.

Starting at the end: anything put out there by Cave (b. 1959) is worth not missing.   More to the point, the appropriated cliché of my title above (dating at least to Shakespeare) has found particular resonance in contemporary, mixed media work by African American artists. (The association has been facilitated via the hindsight “Prologue” of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, c. 1952, which has had notable influence on postwar African American art broadly–see the discourse surrounding Thelma Golden’s game-changing Black Male exhibition at the Whitney, 1994.)  Cave has recently re-directed into this vein, pioneered by Betye Saar (b. 1926), and including David Hammons, Fred Wilson, Willie Cole, and Radcliffe Bailey (prominently and at the tip of my tongue, among many others).  A now canonical example of the mode, which entails collecting and recycling material resonant with history—objects, images, fragments—into (new) art is Saar’s assemblage, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972).

(UC Berkeley Art Museum; image: wikipedia).

At 20th St., Cave’s sculptural arrangement, Star Power (2014) specifically recalls Saar’s icon, with its vintage Black Power fist sculpture atop a stack of worn steps, before a backdrop of a red-black-green-quilt-patterned emblem in the shape of the (symbolic) North Star.

Nick Cave, "Star Power" (2014; at Jack Shainman)
Nick Cave, “Star Power” (2014; at Jack Shainman, 20th St., 9/13/14)

It also recalls David Hammons’s textile multiple, African American Flag (c. 1990), as well as his punning constructions and concepts, such as the “higher goals” of his so-named, breakthrough  telephone-pole basketball hoops of the mid-1980s .  Star Power belongs to a mini-group of relatively stoic, if not quite quiet, wall-bound pieces at 20th St. that can suggest cultural memento mori.

David Hammons, "African American Flag" 1990, collection Museum of Modern Art; image from MoMA website ("collections"); it was subsequently issued in a small edition.
David Hammons, “African American Flag” 1990, collection Museum of Modern Art; image from MoMA website (“collections”); it was subsequently issued in a small edition.

Other works exude Cave’s more exuberant, flamboyant aesthetic characteristic of the signature masquerade-like “soundsuits” that have dominated his oeuvre.  Those alien-mannequin sculptures, which share a gene or two with the headless humans of Yinka Shonibare, took a slight turn in 2011 (in simultaneous shows at Shainman and Mary Boone), where their layered cultural and gender evocations began extending literally, in sprouting ornaments and near-tableaux set-ups.  This formal direction is established in several of the new works centered around mass produced black-child-servant figurines—both upholding and obscured by elaborate bird’s-nest “auras” of Eurocentric tchotchkes—miniature faux flora and fauna, twiggy  filigree, assorted, glittering baubles.

Nick Cave (2014; at Shainman).
Nick Cave (2014; at Shainman, 20th St, 9/13/14).

In one variation, a “boy” is transformed into an ithyphallic votive on an electric-candle-lit, make-shift altar that recalls (with divergent sensibility) Willie Cole’s lawn jockey-orisa figures, c. 2000, and Kara Walker’s recent similar figures cast in molasses at her Domino Sugar factory extravaganza in June).

At 24th St., exhibited under the title, “Rescue,” a group of metaphorically enthroned ceramic canines hold court, embellished with similar, even more dense and glitzy entanglements. Among many other things, this collective tour-de-force suggests ancient Egyptian zoomorphic divinity.

The title at 20th Street, “Made by Whites for Whites,” comes into focus cumulatively; I read the Star Power piece as the one weighty foil.  Of the compelling cacophony of colors, textures, mediums, methods, and messages on view across the dual installations, one final highlight here that outs sublimated stereotypes with a humorously blingy art-sartorial statement:

Nick Cave (raincoats, neck and wrist bling, etc.; at Shainman, 20th St., 9/13/14)
Nick Cave (raincoats, neck and wrist bling, respectively, at Shainman, 20th St., 9/13/14)