Friday, March 31, 2006

Friday art link

In the art world, there’s a clear delineation between those who experienced the last crash, in the early nineties, and those who didn’t.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Downtown, 1974-84

I waited until the last minute to see The Downtown Show at New York University's Grey Art Gallery. What a mistake! This messy and raucous show, which examines the artists who were active in Lower Manhattan from 1974 to 1984, is brilliant. I say messy because it is organized around some oddball themes, but how else can a curator accommodate a range of artists like Ida Applebroog, Chuck Close, Nan Goldin, Robert Mapplethorpe, and David Wojnarowicz - and those are just some of the bigger names.

The show is a crazy collection of drawings, paintings, photography, video (which lends a soundtrack), sketchbooks, letters and other printed matter that call to mind a period in art and in New York that continues to influence artists today. Kenny Scharf's cartoon paintings are still imitated by young artists. Ann Magnuson's impact is still felt on performance art and comedy. And the list goes on.

But mostly the show brought back memories of being a teenager in New York in the 1980s. In 1984, I entered high school. It was an art school - the "Fame" school! And boy, did we think we were cool. We bought our clothes at vintage stores and wore leopard-print bathrobes to class, where no one batted an eye and the grizzled art teachers were happy for their jobs. We copied paintings at the Met and made friends with the security guards, most of whom were artists. And, of course, we spent an enormous amount of time downtown - when the Bowery was still scary and Union Square Park was still off limits (that is, for good kids who spent most of their time studying for their AP exams). We ate $3 Indian lunches, drank coffee in Italian cafes, obsessed about Comme des Garcons and the Pet Shop Boys. But along the way, we saw Anselm Kiefer's first show in New York and ate at what must have been the first trendy restaurant in SoHo (I'm sure someone will dispute my claim, but it was cafeteria-style and I always had the Brie and avocado on a baguette).

New York was so different then. (Hey kids, are you listening?!? It wasn't all about money!) I'm sure it wasn't any easier for artists, but there were scrappy places like ABC No Rio and the barriers to entry didn't seem quite so high. Not that anyone from my high school ever made it big - with the exception of Jennifer Aniston.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

David Smith and all that steel

Sometimes I go to see something and I have no reaction whatsoever. So it doesn't end up on the blog. But that means I don't get to boast about everything I have seen. So I am creating a retroactive note to say yes, I did see the David Smith centennial at the Guggenheim on Sunday. Lots of welded steel and machismo.

David Smith is one of those artists that you cannot appreciate unless you picture America in his heyday, the 1950s and 60s. This reminds me of a photograph I once saw of an exhibition of Picasso's paintings. In the photograph, his familiar paintings were surrounded by people dressed in the clothes of the day (I think the women were even wearing gloves!), with 1930s-era cars passing by outside. Nothing could ever drive home the point more effectively - these artists were seen as lunatics in their time.

Speaking of Picasso (and since this is turning into a stream of consciousness), this reminds me of the time I picked up an art survey book (probably Gardner's) belonging to my grandmother, which must have been published in the 1950s or so. It ended with Picasso, and dismissed him as an upstart whose work would never endure.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Nan Goldin's eulogy

Nan Goldin: Chasing a Ghost, at Matthew Marks, features a three-screen projection that explores the institutionalization and suicide of the artist’s older sister Barbara. Entitled Sisters, Saints, & Sibyls, the multimedia installation begins with the story of the third-century Saint Barbara, who was imprisoned by her father in a tower and later murdered by him. The legend, often depicted in painting and sculpture, serves as an allegory for her martyred sister, and imbues the subsequent narrative with heroism.

'I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel'
Goldin narrates the 40-minute projection in her own words. Her prose is plain, but she uses music to great effect, and the result is very moving. (I could listen to that Johnny Cash song 100 times.) Goldin recounts her sister's short life (she lived to be nineteen) with family snapshots and more recent photographs - of a psychiatric institution, the train tracks where she died, and her gravestone. The images don't actually betray her sister's suffering - indeed, it's not even clear why there was so much discord between Barbara and her parents - but we imagine it, and it is crushing.

Goldin's narrative then shifts to her own life - how she grew up expecting the same fate, how she sought out an alternative family, and how she turned to drugs. Seen from this perspective, her life story becomes an inevitable struggle with addiction and even self-mutilation. There is little redemption in the story, save for Goldin's tender portrayal of her aging parents. And that is the point, finally: The photographs in the exhibition, by turns steady and wavering, convey an odyssey of guilt, horror, and pain, and then return to the parents.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Friday art links

The role of water in the history of black people in America - Kara Walker at the Met.

The online fallout from The New Yorker's March 20 profile of Sotheby’s auctioneer and tastemaker Tobias Meyer.

Charlotta Westergren’s renditions of paintings made by her older sister - at Bellwether.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Heike Liss and a lack of belonging

Thursday night was overshadowed by the gala opening for Made in Palestine (see my earlier post), but I did see some other shows that night. One that ties in well with the Palestinian show is home/away, by Heike Liss, at the CUE Art Foundation.

The color photographs by this German artist are portraits of forgettable places, and were taken in the course of her travels. Her artist’s statement reads “home/away asks to what extent do we define ourselves in relation to ‘home’; the work examines what that definition means in a world where so many individuals do not live where they were born.”

Wow. Now, even an art history professor couldn’t have stumbled on a more fortuitous correlation with the Palestine show and its theme of displacement. The idea of home, especially for those of us who live quite a distance from where we were born, is endlessly interesting. Why? Because when you have to recreate your home in a different country, you are continually approximating and adjusting. Nothing escapes examination. And the smallest details count. Liss focuses on those banal details as if to commit them to memory – as if to say, you don’t have to fixate on them, I’ve recorded them.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Islamic art by any other name

Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking, at the Museum of Modern Art, has a weak curatorial premise but some of the most stunning work I've seen recently. It purports to examine the term "Islamic art" and its applicability, but only succeeds in reinforcing stereotypes (more calligraphy, more keffiyehs, and more veils). "The show doesn't reveal anything substantive about Islamic culture. Rather, it presents the distinctive vision of highly Westernized émigrés," to quote a comprehensive review by Lee Siegel on Slate.

I can hardly add to the points made by Siegel. But what can I say? Mona Hatoum (who is actually Christian), Shirin Neshat (above), Shahzia Sikander, and Bill Viola (one of two Americans in the show) - these are some of my favorite artists, and they are represented here by some real gems. Emily Jacir was a new name to me, but it turns out she was in the original Made in Palestine exhibition (see my earlier post). Oddly fascinating was her two-part video Ramallah/New York, which shows images of daily life in each location side by side - a real-time illustration of how immigrants recreate their former lives in new settings. And guess who else makes an appearance - the Lebanese artist (and charlatan archivist) Walid Raad (see my February 28 post).

The show succeeds because of the quality of the work. But the accompanying text is confusing and contradictory - more curatorial gymnastics than guiding principle. According to MoMA, "The exhibition seeks to emphasize diversity by questioning the use of artists’ origins as the sole determining factor in the consideration of their art." But it doesn't question origin this way. And an ongoing conceit about the art defying expectations loses meaning when you try to pinpoint exactly what those expectations would be.

All artists draw on their heritage to some extent, but only a small number share a heritage that is in the headlines. I'd like to see what MoMA would do with an exhibition of artists from Ohio - talk about an "unexamined rubric"!

The Palestinians are coming

Made in Palestine, the first exhibition of contemporary Palestinian art in the U.S., is on view at the Bridge, 521 West 26th Street, through April 22. I went to the raucous opening on Thursday night and returned for the artists' panel on Friday night.

Made in Palestine is a curious throwback to the political and identity art of the mid-1990s. The original show was organized in Houston, which is home to some 25,000 Palestinians, in response to 9/11, and was double the size of the New York show. The exhibition has generated controversy - its name alone will make some people bristle - particularly when curator James Harithas tried to move it to another city.

The work itself is quite varied, and not surprisingly, the most overtly political pieces tend to attract the most attention. One example is A Time to Cast Stones, an ammunition box that contains stones, by Rajie Cook. A former graphic designer and the son of Palestinian parents, Cook uses stones, keys, and keffiyehs as visual shorthand for the Palestinian struggle. As you might expect from someone who spent his career in advertising and corporate communications, each of his pieces packs an immediate message, and so he could be called the most activist of the artists on view.

By contrast, Samia Halaby's abstract paintings are inspired by nature and are more a product of her training - she studied art in the U.S. - and her influences. For me, this was a truer glimpse of Palestinian art; although Halaby has spent much of her career promoting Palestinian art, she is more interested in the conditions under which it is created than with communicating a specific message.

John Halaka, an American of Egyptian descent, struggles with the diaspora of the Palestinian people from a distance. His drawings and paintings rely on figurative metaphors for displacement and instability.

Mary Tuma, another American of Palestinian descent, is interested in the experience of women. Her long black dresses, suspended from the ceiling and trailing on the floor in a funereal procession, are one of the highlights of the show.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Friday art links

The trouble with most paintings of nudes is that there isn’t enough nudity.

At MoMA, Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking "seeks to emphasize diversity by questioning the use of artists’ origins as the sole determining factor in the consideration of their art."

At International Center of Photography, Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography "forces a recognition of the contradictory and varied forms of photographic practice that are now arising across Africa."

Sunday, March 12, 2006


Hovering between and adding an ironic twist to the two notions that for centuries have determined artistic and philosophic quarrels—form and content—this exhibition features works by ten New York–based emerging artists concerned with the unresolved relationship between visible appearance and invisible essence.
- Artforum

Williamsburg, and not going home again

On Saturday night, I headed to Brooklyn to check out the galleries in Williamsburg. They had organized an After Hours event for Armory Show weekend, and were staying open until 11 pm.

Taking the L train there involved some measure of nostalgia, because I lived in the area roughly ten years ago. Wandering east and then south, I set foot in a number of galleries, but despaired of finding anything to write about. More interesting was how much the landscape had changed: A yoga studio on North 7th Street? A tattoo gallery on Roebling? Cleverly designed restaurants and boutiques on Grand? It felt like Berkeley or Northampton.

Gentrification is a tiresome topic, but it's hard to visit the galleries scattered north and east of the Williamsburg Bridge without thinking about it. Yes, there are artists who have lived in Williamsburg for some time, like the friendly proprietress of Holland Tunnel, on South 3rd Street, who told me she started her tiny gallery in a garden shed in 1997. But like a college town, it has a quality of ambitious people just passing through, underscored by the businesses that cater to them. (And the babies being toted along to gallery openings don't contribute to a sense of permanence; I don't imagine many of them will one day enroll in the local public school.)

Out of the roughly ten galleries I visited, I'll mention just three: Black & White, Jack the Pelican Presents, and the Sarah Bowen Gallery.

Black & White Gallery is showing large paintings by German artist Ina Geissler in its indoor gallery. Colorful and technically proficient, they seem to depict elements of modern architecture - minus the structural engineer. More faithful to physics is the model of a house in the outdoor gallery, installed by Peter Franck and Kathleen Triem.

At the Sarah Bowen Gallery, Yumi Janairo Roth presents police barriers that are covered with mirrors, like a disco ball, and wooden pallets carved with an elaborate decorative motif.

Jack the Pelican Presents was like a shot of testosterone compared with everything else I saw - in terms of both the art and the atmosphere. War is the general theme for Guerra de la Paz (Cuban artists Alain Guerra and Neraldo de la Paz), along with gay sex in the military, vivid brutality, and general degradation. Among the sculptures and videos are two soldiers posed in the manner of Michelangelo's Pietà, and a group of children dressed in camouflage holding hands and circling a bomb.

[Saturday footnote: Slobodan Milosevic is found dead in his cell.]

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Office art II - Milton Resnik

The second installment in our Office Art series examines a set of prints by Milton Resnik, an abstract expressionist who died in 2004. He is remembered as the last major painter of the original New York School and as a teacher, and for that we salute him.

Three untitled monoprints from 1982 hang along a narrow hallway. The prints share an underlying abstract image, which I think began as a lithograph, but each one is slightly different in color and texture. They are rather dark to begin with, but they also suffer from poor lighting and reflective glass that renders them invisible. Sadly, I suspect that no one pays much attention to them, and so we give them a rating of B.

Resnik seems to have been bypassed by the paper of record, as well: He is mentioned in a 1996 New York Times art review of Pat Passlof - he was her husband.

Office art three-point rating system

Today I decided that the Office Art series will be meaningless without some qualitative analysis. To that end, I have developed a simple, three-point rating scale:

A: Not bad - really brightens up the place;
B: Never noticed it before; and
C: On top of going to work, I also have to look at that?

I will now go back and give Richard Smith his due.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Office art I - Richard Smith

In the first installment of our Office Art series, we take a look at Large Red, by Richard Smith, a monochromatic etching from 1976. If you look closely, you'll see two parallelograms sort of floating at an angle.

After performing some research (ahem, Googling), we learn that Richard Smith is British and was born in 1931. He taught at various universities, and in 1976, he settled in New York. He even has an artist's statement:

By depicting everyday interior environment and some of the routines, rituals, scenarios and happenings that occur, or may occur in these spaces, I hope to place things often taken for granted in circumstances that focus our attention on them; often to consider their vulnerabilities.

My abstraction of form and colour is used to emphasize the real and imagined effect of light and draw attention to specific areas of the painting. The intensity of colour used is also for these aims, as well as its seductive qualities. The compositions in my paintings are intended to create a state of tension.

Well, there you have it. Richard Smith, we give you the highest honor in our proprietary three-point rating system - A: Not bad - really brightens up the place.

The Porcupine takes on office art

It occurred to me the other day, as I was standing around at work, chatting with Pinky, that I don't need to go to galleries or museums for material to write about, when art is all around us. It's on every floor, in every hallway, and near every elevator. Yes, it's time to finally examine office art.

At first, I was concerned that documenting this aspect of my office would compromise its anonymity here. But then I looked around again at the bland walls and decided, who am I kidding? This place is unidentifiable. (A European concern might actually spend a couple of bucks on interior design. But not here. They just replaced the 1980s-era carpeting. Which was green.)

And so, this will be a series of posts about any piece of art that I think has something to say, even if it says more about the art buyer's budget than anything else (think lots of prints). Pinky claims that a certain downtown firm owns (and displays) something by Jeff Koons, which strikes me as an instance of corporate ballsiness that borders on the mythological, so I am hoping for photographic evidence.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Telling the story of creativity with puppets - Pierre Huyghe at the Marian Goodman Gallery

Tonight I went to the opening for French artist Pierre Huyghe's 2004 film This Is Not a Time for Dreaming, at the Marian Goodman Gallery on 57th Street.

I first saw Pierre Huyghe (Hue-wee) in 2003 at the Guggenheim Museum, in an installation that featured a film and a sculpture. The film showed two buildings enveloped in fog, and I remember thinking that it was beautiful and moody, the passage of time marked by lights flickering on and off in the windows. The buildings were apparently 1970s French housing projects. To quote from the Guggenheim's exhibition literature, "'These subsidized public projects ended up being an architectural and social failure,' explains Huyghe. 'They were a corruption of Le Corbusier's social and architectural Modernist theory.'"

In 2005, of course, riots broke out in these housing projects.

Morning Edition, November 30, 2005 · Some analysts blame recent rioting in France on the discontent and alienation fostered by bleak housing projects on the poor outskirts of French cities. The location and architecture of public housing can contribute to a sense of isolation and hopelessness among young French people of Arabic and African origin.

Le Corbusier was the forefather of the modern high-rise, low-income apartment complex, and he is an abiding interest of Huyghe's. This Is Not a Time for Dreaming is a 24-minute film based on a puppet musical, and it explores the creation of architect Le Corbusier's only building in North America, The Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Collecting thoughts about collectives

Holland Cotter's The Collective Conscious in Sunday's New York Times is about the increasing visibility of art collectives, which have become a major theme of the 2006 Whitney Biennial. I can't resist posting the opening here:

Contemporary art is a multibillion-dollar global industry. But why does such a big deal look so small, so slight, with its bland paintings, self-regarding videos, artful tchotchkes and shoppable M.F.A. artists-to-watch? There has to be another way to go, an alternative to a used-up "alternative." By far the most interesting option ... is the work of miniature subcultures known as collectives.

I mention the article because it made a passing reference to the Lebanese artist Walid Raad and his so-called Atlas Group (see my February 28 post "Chronicling the car bombs of Lebanon" and Jerry Saltz's take in the Village Voice). Raad refers to the Atlas Group as a foundation, an organizing principle, and an archive - and in that sense, it fits Cotter's definition of collectives that "stretch conventional definitions of art and artist ... into the realm of activist politics, scientific experimentation and historical reclamation."

In Raad's case, I tend to think that the genesis must have been fairly simple: Isn't it easier, when collecting data from government sources, to identify yourself as part of a group - particularly one with such a benign name and no identifiable religious association? I wish I had asked him.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Whitney Biennial - New York's toughest docent gig

"This is faaabulous!"
"It's all garbage."

I heard both of these comments, just minutes apart, while standing on the fourth floor of the Whitney Museum. And that pretty much sums up the 2006 Whitney Biennial. I walked slowly through every floor and dutifully tagged along on a tour of the third floor. The docent did an excellent job, but I lost count of the number of times she said "This raises all kinds of questions about... [insert vague postmodern conceit - more often than not it was authenticity and authority]."

(Short digression: This reminded me of my short stint as a docent at the Walker Art Center and a nightmarishly large crowd at a Duchamp-related exhibition. Everything was going fine until some geezer in the back yelled out "But why is this art?!?" To which I think I replied "Duuuuuh..." Now if only they had trained us to dodge.)

I'll tell you what I did like today. Angela Strassheim's carefully composed photographs; Adam McEwen's obituaries for living figures; Lisa Lapinski's enormous walnut Nightstand, with drawer-like parts that jut out at you; and Paul Chan's animated projection 1st Light, which was beautiful and moving.

But I managed to miss Pierre Huyghe's film, which I was most looking forward to, so I will have to return for another look around.

Two March bonanzas - the Whitney Biennial and Vogue

This weekend is a big one in New York, where the Whitney Biennial just opened. Even better, the 608-page March issue of Vogue just arrived in my mailbox! (Yes, I am a subscriber.)

Why mention them in the same post? Well, they are both guilty pleasures. For a long time, flipping through fashion magazines was something I would hide - particularly from anyone I was trying to impress. If someone saw an issue lying on my coffee table (or worse, a year's worth, arranged chronologically), I would protest "I read it for the art reviews! They're very well written!" But mostly I hid these magazines under copies of The New Yorker, which were never fat enough to do the job.

I am not quite so covert about my beloved Vogue now. For one thing, I am not trying to impress anyone these days - and let's face it, people don't come over as much. But something more interesting happened over the past few years - fashion and art embraced each other, and they have not let go. When I saw the ad campaign for Marc Jacobs that featured artist Rachel Feinstein, the painter John Currin's wife, I decided "Hell, this is research!"

Michael Kimmelman, in his review of the Biennial in The New York Times, muses that "Maybe it's impossible, or impossible for the Whitney, to do a show today that doesn't seem beholden to fashion..." As I set out for the navel-gazing circus that is the Whitney Biennial, I am looking forward to forming my own opinion.