Tag Archives: Simone Leigh

Arts & crafts at the whitney museum

Making Knowing:  Craft in Art 1950-2019; through January 2021 (floor 6)

Rachel Harrison: Life Hack; closed January 12, 2020 (floor 5)

Thanks largely to a postwar infiltration of feminist and diaspora art (often of a piece) in the West and artists working elsewhere receiving wide exposure in the context of an emerging global scene (if still dominated by the West), distinctions between art and craft in contemporary production have been ostensibly erased.  At the same time, long-held gender, cultural and other associations with each term persist. And “craft” most often evokes hand-hewn textile and textural materials … for the better in the “art world,” as per this show, in terms of diversity and possibility when juxtaposed with hands-off new media equally ascendant through the same period.  Most of the work included seems to acknowledge to at least some degree this semiotic and material lineage, whether as precursor and/or foil, while conveying strongly personal, pliable and luxuriant relation to preferred mediums and techniques.

Both well known, expected suspects and some with less exposure in this context are represented, overwhelmingly (not completely) by examples in the museum’s collection, which highlights its ample interest in this direction.  Off the elevator, the perfect intro is a fragmented mural (1976) by Ree Morton, comprised of painted pinkish, putty-like, imitation ribbons, flowers, puffy clouds, and make-shift ladders to … heaven, enhanced by literal floating signifiers—incarnate words like “pleasures” and “atmospheres.” The hopeful feminist romanticism (small “r”) conveyed is refreshing and seems, as well, to incorporate a subtle jab at heroic (male) abstract painting in the gluey strips and skeins of her process. To jump to a personal fave (and then I’ll circle back), which shares some of the same underlying sensibilities and offers reason alone to see this show: Liza Lou‘s near full–scale, pop-up kitchen (c.1990-1995), replete with brand-name, opened food boxes, dishes in the sink, and pie in the oven, sheathed entirely in tiny glittering beads.

Liza Lou, Kitchen (1990-1995); detail through the “window” (Whitney Museum exhibition, Making Knowing: Craft in Art 1950-2019

Just about everything is engaging visually, with much provocation to jump around via kinship, contrast, comparison. Among first-generationers featured (although works here by them span three decades collectively): aesthetically oppositional sewn soft sculptures by Yayoi Kusama and Claes Oldenburg; a Richard Artschwager cube-table; an Eva Hesse macramé-like ropey hanging; a heavy, draped felt blob by Robert Morris; a cagey, wire-woven abstraction by Ruth Asawa; a lace-like, shimmery canvas by Howardena Pindell; one of Harmony Hammonds‘s padded rag-swathed scaffold sculpture; an Faith Ringgold painted tangka banner; an open-frame Alan Shields wall work of bead strands; a Miriam Shapiro frilly collaged canvas; small-scale weavings-on-paper by Sheila Hicks, who, forthwith, will be known by many for her monumental yarn column-waterfall recently exhibited at MoMA (“Surrounds: 11 Installations”; 10/21/19-14-20).  Hicks is also included in MoMA’s current show, “Taking a Thread for a Walk,” with an early serial bundled-yarn piece, which highlights more so earlier 20th-century fiber art and therefore offers (among other things) some historical context for the Whitney show. Selections there by Bauhaus frauen Anni Albers and Gunta Stolz may be further appreciated after seeing Elaine Reichek‘s satirically pedagogic embroidery samplers at the Whitney, one of which bears a quote by a Bauhaus “master” relegating the activity of weaving to women assigned to realized his envisioned textile abstractions.

Along with Lou’s tour de force, highlights from the next generation and beyond include: Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt‘s fragile, flowery flotsam and jetsam dream box, a distant relative of many “containers” by Joseph Cornell; Pepon Osorio‘s barrio-baroque assemblage-portrait of a shoe-shiner; a super-fly Nick Cave sound suit; a Mike Kelley big-baby blanket incorporating mangy stuffed animals; a very large textile-inspired figurative painting  by Njideka Akunyili Crosby; a conceptual piece primarily of found blankets alluding to the Native American foundations of US cities by Marie Watt; a ceramic and straw, regal and demure giantess by Simone Leigh. Of an abundance of more strictly ceramic works, Viola Frey presides with a characteristic painterly-glazed colossus in business attire, along with a self-portrait by parodic peer Robert Arneson; an earthy, rolled and modeled reclining figure by Mary Frank; and a sensual abstracted vessel series by Katy Schimert (whose work I first saw in a Whitney Biennial).

Pepon Osorio, Angel the Shoe Shiner (1993) (partial/detail; in the exhibition, Making Knowing; Craft in Art 1950 – 2019)

The Rachel Harrison solo (10/25/19-1/12/20) was an apropos complement in several ways. Harrison thrives on very mixed up media, mashing found stuff with artsy-like, painted plaster-y, wood-built structural and ornamental elements.  My reaction to the furtive “one person’s trash is her own … art” kind of thing was tentative; in fact, the blur of 1990s DIY randomness and Duchampian, gender-astute gesture to which Harrison was party (with Karen Kilimnik and Sarah Lucas, among others) eventually drew me in. Solidifying an allusion to the era, a winning series of tragi-comic drawings depicting Amy Winehouse juxtaposed with scribbled Picasso and DeKooning “women.”  

But the mainstay of Harrison’s oeuvre is gathered and arranged stuff–tools, socks, wigs, racks, partitions, live plants, original sculptural forms and more, which impressed as both absurdist stacks and spreads and responsible, inventive forays into perpetual recycling as make-shift decorating.  A key section for me was an apartment-like interior installation within the show. With its flimsy walls papered with photo-blow ups of misaligned faux-wood paneling and other box store improvement projects in progress, it conveyed an ongoing attempt at securing a home-sweet-artist-home. 

An installation in the exhibition, Rachel Harrison: Life Hack (at the Whitney Museum; yes, the chairs are part of it 🙂
Rachel Harrison: Life Hack at the Whitney Museum
An installation from the exhibition, Rachel Harrison: Life Hack (at the Whitney Museum)

Beauty in the beast: Whitney Biennial 2019

So 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. 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 throughout, 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 traditional Kongo culture). 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). Wangechi Mutu (another favorite a priori) is also 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 art. 

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)

Snapshot: Spring Shows at SMH

At the Studio Museum in Harlem, through June 28:

Harlem Postcards

Trenton Doyle Hancock: Skin and Bones

Salon Style

Concealed

In Profile

The spring edition of Harlem Postcards is, as usual, a lively and intriguing welcome into the galleries (“Harlem Postcards”).  Love the “golden grapes” by Awol Erizko, inspired by an Egyptian kitsch image (T-shirt), and Elaine Reichek’s embroidered interpretation of a beaux-arts architectural detail (“Harlem Arcadia”).

The featured show, TDH (Amer., b. 1974): Sprawling, subversive, naughty, adolescent, densely-doodled cartoons; as per the title, the insides and outsides of human anatomy, real and imagined, rubbery, R. Crumb-“screwy,” Kerry-James-Marshall comics c. 2000, prehistoric and futurist, interspersed with hand-scripted odd-ball texts to match.  Keith Haring-like autonomy in the continuous, fluid contour drawing and mixed male messages.  Not particularly my sensibility; but surely, interesting critical investigations will be derived from this first (mid-career) retrospective for a driven, idiosyncratic draftsman.  If you do get caught up, you’ll be spending a good chunk of time unraveling it all.

More me (metaphorically; isn’t that the bottom line?) was the upstairs group show, “Salon Style.” (I once wrote a review, “Make-Up and Art” — see “Publications” page, 2012).  On the one hand, hair and (more recently in the grand scheme) nails, have become overdetermined tropes of black womanhood (globally), in specific terms of representation; on the other, related representations have been enormously influential, socially, politically and aesthetically, in the art world and beyond, since the early postwar years; and continue to be explored energetically. (I didn’t mention, in my post on the BMA Kehinde Wiley show, 2/23/15, the monument to ancestral-goddess hair, Bound, 2014).  Here, I was happy to see one of Chris Ofili’s idealized 70s-style fantasy watercolor portraits juxtaposed with one of Lorna Simpson’s similar photo-collage image-concepts (I noticed a kinship while both had simultaneous shows in NYC last year; see post, 11/3/14); as well as a demure Hank Willis Thomas manipulated “re-photograph”–ode to the perfect (female) Afro, and a small-scale Chakaia Booker (just because Booker’s formal “rubber-tire” inventiveness is always amazing).  But the star of this show is surely Pamela Council, with her “blaxidermy” (the artist’s term) art of artificial nails, from a series homage to the late, great Olympic runner Flo-Jo (Florence Griffith Joyner).

Being partial to both bricolage and Minimalist aesthetics, I was engaged by the bookish installation downstairs, Unbound (2015), in which artist Samuel Levi Jones has lined the gallery walls with tattered book spines, bindings, and covers, faded to beige and rust tones and arranged grid-like, to suggest both the immobility of entrenched, institutionalized epistemes and the malleability of collected knowledge vis-a-vis new contexts.

Highlights from two smaller installations of works from the permanent collection:

Upstairs in “Concealed” I would note: an early Willie Cole “domestic iron” piece, in which iron-burnt impressions suggest spear-shaped, worn masks (early 1990s); a realist charcoal portrait of a contemporary figure turned hybrid under a under a heavy, Baga-type mask by Robert Pruitt; and a manipulated photo-portrait by Paul Anthony Smith, in which a Kuba mask is superimposed on the sitter and “flecked” (actually pricked over with a sharp implement) to appear as shining.

Downstairs, “In Profile”: a small Barkley Hendricks “icon” of a shaded-glasses-70s dude that resonates right now with the similar recent, gold-backed portraiture of Titus Kaphur (see post 12/8/14) and Wiley (at BMA); also, a ceramic rosebud-blooming head by Simone Leigh, and a rough-hewn hair-shop-sign assemblage by Alison Saar, both of which would have looked great upstairs in “Salon.”