Tag Archives: Simone Leigh

Beauty in the beast: Whitney Biennial 2019

So, another edition of the show the art world loves to hate, The Whitney Biennial—somewhat subdued in this realm of shock and subversion aka rarified avant-garde culture—progressively trying to not be that. And yet, it is what it is—art … thank goodness—”what everything else is not,” to paraphrase artist-sage, Ad Reinhardt. 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 (its first incarnation [as an “annual”] took place in 1932 a year after the museum opened).     

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. (Both chronology and de facto eligibility–vis-a-vis the museum’s mission of “American” art have been rightly more fluid in the transnational age). A few repeated charges have been clique-ishness (among curators, institutions, dealers, artists), heavy-handed thematics and 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’s twisted into a positive, bolstered by ample space in which to consider individual works/artists. 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 artist/s) “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 sartorial (at least) 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) painting and African sculpture collected by Albert Barnes. (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 with the Barnes-commissioned mural, now in the collection, by Ellen Harvey (not in the Biennial, but a great candidate, imo) 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.

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.”