3.27.17 — Harlem on My Mind

African Americans may feel besieged much of the time, but nothing like the Kingdom of Harlem. As Umar Rashid recalls, it had its moment of glory long ago, but its triumph and tragedy have left their mark on black history ever since. Umar Rashid's Un dimanche après-midi à l'Ile de la gouverneurs. Or, Borough Check. The old money don't want a new world so the Revolution had to get sabotaged somehow. Murder was the case. And Horus wept. 1793 (Johannes Vogt gallery, 2016)

And no wonder, for Rashid has made it all up out of currents of actual history. If anyone can keep them all straight, even him, it would surprise me, but no matter. His imagined history depends on fantastical leaps in time and place, to make the point that black lives do not reduce to any one story. Only in that way can they reclaim their histories as their own.

If this sounds messy, he calls his show “Messier Objects,” at Johannes Vogt through March 30. The title puns on a catalog of the night sky by Charles Messier in 1771. Messier went hunting for comets but realized that he was looking at something else entirely—what astronomers today would call galaxies, clusters, and nebulae. They are not just single stars, and he found more than a hundred even then. Rashid, too, has his stars, in the king and queen of Harlem, the commander of their armies, and the Furies that hounded them to an unhappy ending. Like astronomy, it is a messy, flashy affair.

The show turns on the dissolution of an empire in Messier’s lifetime—one piece of which became the kingdom, “when laws were stern and justice stood.” Where exactly? The story has something to do with the nation of Frengland, wherever that is. Yet it draws in ancient Egypt, the destruction of Troy, Dutch Guiana, colonial America, and a New Thebes. The kingdom had its west bank, but on the East River in Novum Eboracum, or Rashid’s New York. His paintings amount to a catalog in themselves.

The show breaks down more or less neatly into distinct series that, together, form an installation. Small boats of carved wood carry icons out of some primitive culture along the baseboard to connect them. Some paintings use color, text, and flattened figures to evoke the Caribbean, the Egypt of Cleopatra and the pharaohs, and the Harlem Renaissance. Paintings in white on black have the silhouettes of colonial soldiers and still more text, while ink drawings depict the heroes. The color suggests a perpetual celebration of liberté and unité, while the blackness suggests something more tragic and subdued. So what's NEW!A title may begin in French only to turn to an angry message in English that in no way translates what came before.

The flatness recalls American folk art, as does the perpetual madness, while the portraits are more sophisticated. Still, the larger scenes draw on Jacob Lawrence or Romare Bearden for their echoes of the jazz age—and Florine Stettheimer for their symmetry and celebration. The text takes them closer to diagrams of a conflicted history, like the art world for William Powhida. Rashid also throws in coffee stains for the sepia tones, photocopies for collage, and mica flakes for glitter. He even quotes Michelangelo. They point at once to past and present, as well as to outsider art and the textbooks.

To make a long story short, Harlem began as “a haven for black people within the polarized European, colonial sphere,” Rashid explains. “External forces constantly harassed the kingdom . . . until its collapse shortly after the assassination of its leaders.” In other words, this is political art for an age of globalization, postmodern jargon intact, but without obvious victims. Collapse came from within, while the boats along the baseboard offer the hope of escape without. The show is a mess, even with the sculpture as connective, but wide ranging and funny. Only that way, it seems to say, can black lives matter.

3.24.17 — People in Glass Houses

Before there was a Glass House, there was the Maison de Verre. Pierre Chareau conceived it more than twenty years before Philip Johnson’s landmark of modern architecture, in 1928. He set his steel frame and glass façade in Paris, where it stands to this day—and it is the subject of a longer and fuller review, with more than I can say here, in my latest upload.

Johnson plunked his steel shed down in Connecticut, exposed on all sides through glass panes. Richard Ingersoll, the critic and historian, has described it as the consummate bachelor’s apartment, but be careful of inviting a guest over for the night. MutualArtThe Maison de Verre uses opaque windows to let in sunlight and air, but into a space that few will ever see. They reflect a dazzling light during the day. They glow from within in the evening. A cross-section through three floors, two for a doctor’s office and one for living, looks like a single abstract painting.

So why is it nowhere near as famous? The Jewish Museum shows Chareau as equally an architect and interior designer, much like Johnson, but with even more care for detail. He appears first for his furniture and then for his collection of modern art. He appears, too, thanks to new media and virtual reality, in an innovative exhibition design by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, through March 26. Yet he reveals himself only slowly, much as the Maison de Verre lies behind a tight grid of translucent glass. He also appears as part of an avant-garde that could still welcome luxury and privilege, and he left far less than he wished behind.

It may take a moment to realize just how far ahead of his time he was. The Villa Savoye was still in progress, thanks to Le Corbusier, and the Bauhaus was still to come. Chareau was also a new urbanist long before environmentalists claimed that label, whereas the Glass House, like houses by Frank Lloyd Wright, nestles into suburbia and nature. Yet he was not out to transform the city. Maison de Verre, completed in 1932, slips into a courtyard, between confining walls and beneath a fourth floor that he could not touch. Working with Bernard Bijvoet, a Dutch architect, he was building a house for close friends—and a gathering place for artists and intellectuals. Pierre Chareau and Bernard Bijvoet's Maison de Verre (photo by Mark Lyon, Jewish Museum, 1928–1932)

He saw design the old-fashioned way, as a matter of fine craft and even finer materials. Not every exhibition regarding those years throws around words like exquisite, stylish, elegant, rare, and exotic, but the Jewish Museum does, with pleasure. Nor does every modern design collection run to a dressing table, a serving cart, a letter holder, and a smoking table with a satiny white stool. Chareau favored alabaster, mahogany, upholstery, and wrought iron—the last from the hands of Louis Dalbet. The Maison de Verre contained a grand salon, a piano, and tiered bookshelves. The old-world library of teddy bears in “The Keeper,” at the New Museum, could practically fit right in.

Still, for all his tastefulness, Chareau committed himself to the future. Born in 1883, he helped found L’Oeil Clair (or “the clear eye”) in 1924, to purchase and share modern art—along with Jean Dalsace, the gynecologist who later commissioned the Maison de Verre. He collected Pablo Picasso, George Braque, Jacques Lipchitz, Amedeo Modigliani, Marc Chagall, and Piet Mondrian. The “boutique” for his designer furniture exhibited them as well. He published his portfolio in L’Art International d’Aujourd’hui (“the international art of today”) in 1929, alongside Mondrian’s design for a library. That same year, he helped Union des Artistes Modernes split off from Société des Artists Décorateurs, seen as just not modern enough.

Soon after he fled to America, commissions dried up—and so did the hopes of an exhibition at MoMA. His wife, Dolli, stayed two more years in Paris to dispose of whatever possessions she could, before the Nazis took them all. The couple had to sell still more in New York to survive. For his supporters in Robert Motherwell and Harold Rosenberg, the realm of politics is no more serious than “the act that sets free in contemporary experience forms which that experience has made possible.” In other words, art for art’s sake endures, but as testimony to the dangerously political present. Chareau’s very life had become as fragile as a glass house, and he died in 1950.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

3.23.17 — Unfree Samples

The least a show of chocolate could do is to offer free samples. And the least viewers could do is to refuse them, in solidarity with labor and with art.

The African artists at SculptureCenter in fact insist on their role as plantation workers (and do excuse me another extra post this week to catch up with them before they close). They also insist on the exploitation of workers by global markets. It appears in their sculpture, of people reduced to animals. If appears, too, in the sculpture’s history, as cacao, and in its future, as profits that they can invest in worker ownership of the means of production—Wangechi Mutu's Riding Death in My Sleep (Peter Norton collection, 2002)and I have added this to earlier reports on art, globalization, and native materials as a longer review and my latest upload. They do not offer samples, but do they do their best to ensure that viewers would turn away in disgust.

You may have found chocolate disgusting enough when Karen Finley smeared it on her body as performance art. (No one would remember the act had not conservatives used it as an excuse to smear funding for the arts.) The Congolese Plantation Workers Art Collective (or Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise) leaves its stench in the air—only subtly on opening weekend, but growing as one lingers and sure to grow further over the course of the exhibition, through March 27. They begin with its production by poorly paid workers, shift to more traditional media to shape their sculpture, convert the clay to molds with 3D printers, and then reintroduce chocolate. The show comes with no end of documentation, in a video, a slideshow, books, drawings, and handouts. It comes to life, though, with a dozen works in roughly four rows, facing ominously the same way.

The show runs perilously close to self-parody. As I wrote back when about Finley, “So then it hit me—the artist as chocolate manufacturer. Minimalism is sugarless chocolate, Warhol a stack of Hershey bars. Conceptual art is just the wrapper. Postmodern art is chocolate with the beans traced to the white male exploitation of Third World resources.” When it gets to sculpture, though, it has some memorable images.

The collective’s acronym, Catpc, sounds like feline political correctness, and most of the figures have cat-like faces. A woman reaches forward in anger or desperation, with something between a mammal and a fish at her feet biting down on something more powerless still. A gaunt art dealer thrusts out his tongue, while others appear only as victims or heads. They draw on myth, self-portraiture, and “the spirit of palm oil.” The hectoring can grate, badly, including the obvious mockery of the art world along with plantation owners. Yet the pain in the faces is genuine, even if the bad taste remains.

Wangechi Mutu risks political correctness, too, at Gladstone through March 25. Born in Kenya and Yale educated, she touches all the right bases and pretensions. Yet her sophistication translates into a lingering encounter between African tradition and contemporary African art, personal history and Modernism. As in Mutu’s 2014 show at the Brooklyn Museum, a woman is at its center, possibly even her. She curls up close to the floor, her human body ending in a fish or serpent’s tail. She says that it belongs to a manatee, the marine mammal, but its slimness takes it closer to a range of associations with femininity and nature.

It alludes to a water woman from African folklore and to sirens from myths of both Africa and Europe. Her pointy breasts assert animalism and independence, while her smooth black surface calls up western sculpture, western images of women, and blackness. The slippery encounters extend to what she describes, the aquatic creature aside, as a “terrestrial cosmology.” Women may appear directly, like one standing and leaning backward, surrounded or pierced by wood. There, too, Mutu evokes a woman as both temptress and vulnerable. Yet they also appear less directly, in forms as simple as spheres.

Felt blankets might allude to refugees, like the South American dispossessed for Julio Bittencourt, or to a woman as nurturer, although not bloodstained as in Brooklyn. They also rise into jagged pyramids, like ocean rocks where a siren might call sailors or refugees to their doom. The largest work may look at first like mud or bronze spheres, again from either continent, although of wood pulp. Larger spheres stand alone on pedestals, with more aggressive points on their surfaces. The ones on the floor cohere into a necklace, including a metal clip on the scale of coat hanger. Mutu turns her everyday possessions into myth, but she can still claim them as her own.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

3.22.17 — Climate and Color

Global warming may not bode well for the planet, but it holds out hope for a few—those with an eye for color. Picture mountainous arctic ice giving way to cracks, fragments, and open seas. Picture coastal cities in all their glory as cryptic still points amid flowing water. Picture farmlands and flood plains with the colors and patterns of parched earth.

It could upset familiar distinctions between foreground and background, structure and atmosphere, or formal sweep and close detail. It could give landscape painters one more excuse to do without people, but for Elliott Green, it is just “Human Nature.” Elliott Green's North of the Hippocampus (Pierogi, 2017)

Already it does not take an active imagination so much as a steady eye—as in the opening room for climate data and sea-level rise in “Perpetual Revolution” at the International Center of Photography. Plenty of others, too, are working between representation and abstraction, with a little help from Postmodernism and the planet. Katharina Grosse has filled an upscale gallery with her color stains, flaunting her status as a painter, but the summer before she drenched a hut on Jamaica Beach, one already ruined by Hurricane Sandy, with poured red. I cannot swear that Green has climate change in mind at that, but it comes to mind with titles like Cold Meets Hot or Beach Mountain. It also comes to mind with his layered, fluid compositions. Here sky really does meet sea, at Pierogi through March 26.

Green runs to natural colors for unnatural events. Deep greens, blues, reds, and tans identify broad areas with grass, ocean, sunlight, and dirt. They also help keep a large canvas in order, even as everything is in motion. Textured curves like waves dominate, but not to exclude rising color fields and mists. At a glance, they may look like poured paint, but their thickness and opacity bring a fragmentation akin to Cubism. Every so often, cities do appear, mostly dwarfed and in the distance.

A few canvases go all the way to abstraction, once in color as Fist and Shadow, not in the show. Others do so on a modest scale in black and white, with repeated curves that Tara Donovan or David Reed might call their own. They suggest that Green’s real subject is painting and change, as does a title like Polyvalence. They may also suggest a location within the mind, as with North of the Hippocampus. In a time of climate change, what some call the Anthropocene, it gets harder and harder to distinguish the human and nature. Given creativity and art, that might not be the end of the world.

Still, things do look apocalyptic. One can hear the dangers in titles like Fire Drip, Photon Skirt, and Bone Dust Beach. One can hear a long time scale in Mineral Ancestors, and Green takes obvious pleasure in his titles. He also looks back to the last time that truth to nature bordered on abstraction and the end of the world. Swirling colors appeared, too, in the Romanticism of J. M. W. Turner and the Hudson River School. In this vision of the future, the sublime is now.

Green differs, though, in not painting anything particular. He also has fatter mists and harder edges, because he is painting change as much as the scene at hand. The shards have the appeal of bright color for its own sake. Darker colors often reinforce a crest, while also calling attention to the sudden leaps in depth. The elements, they imply, have been around for a while, even if they are moving fast. If they start to look like grandstanding, that, too, is human nature.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

3.21.17 — Engaging Obstacles

Allow me an extra post or two this week. Here I get to a terrific recent show with a post that I was not able to publish before the show closed—and before a favorite gallery did as well.

When life presents only obstacles, Martha Friedman has a suggestion: engage them. And when the going gets impersonal and industrial, she has another: get physical. She sure does, even if she just happens to have put the obstacles in her own path and yours, at Andrea Rosen through March 11. They were not altogether of her own making, but in her hands they become the scene of a struggle and a dance.

Dancing Around Things” opens with one obstacle, a white rubber sheet suspended from the ceiling and facing the entrance. It has another at the center of the gallery, set on a table but spilling onto the floor. You will not want to touch the first because it serves as the screen for a video, not to mention as art. You will not want to touch the second because, frankly, it is a trifle creepy. Metal spikes and sagging rubber tubes protrude from a small wall of stacked metal piping, as Two-Person Operating System. Another tube lies curled up like a snake, beneath the table on the floor.

Still, the video takes place in a place almost like home—if also, for an artist, the scene of frequent anxiety and eternal struggle. It unfolds in her studio, and she invites another in as well, Silas Riener. The dancer and choreographer conducts his own struggle with a third obstacle, thick rubber bands stretching from floor to ceiling. As for the tubes, spikes, and piping, they serve as the set of a performance twice during the run as well, by Susan Marshall & Company. These are engaging obstacles.

Performance can call up memories of disconcerting encounters in the gallery. Think of Richard Serra flinging lead, Chris Burden dragging himself over broken glass, Yoko Ono waiting to have her dress cut, or Marina Abramovic waiting for nothing at all. Before conceptual art, though, came early Modernism’s immersive cinema and mechanical ballet. Friedman relies on video to bring performance to life. She also has a dark sense of humor in place of a darkened room and a solemn ritual. She had better, for her show ran just as Andrea Rosen announced an end to the storied gallery and its support of living artists.

Plainly the artist relishes collaboration. The two people sharing her operating system could include the dancer or the viewer, and “dancing around” could mean avoiding what lies before one’s eyes or taking it on like Ginger Rogers with Fred Astaire. Friedman says that she gave Riener limited direction, apart from going over with him his past moves and begging him to mess things up—and he dives right in, upright or on his head, as the bands give way or fight back. Now and then they unhook from the floor, leaving him hanging from above and leaving a threatening bed of hooks inches away. At a given moment, the dance can become awkward, funny, graceful, or supremely athletic. The video cuts between scenes of hooked and unhooked bands just as smoothly and silently.

The industrial as the setting for a threat or physical comedy goes back a long way, at the very least to silent film. The spikes and rubber recall Surrealism and, later, the Post-Minimalism of Louise Bourgeois or Eva Hesse. Friedman connects them further to the body by identifying the colors of the four rubber tubes with the four humors of Greek and medieval medicine—black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. Here phlegm has a sickly green. The rubber bands have flesh tones, bringing them all the closer to the dancer and the dance. The gallery describes the entirety as at once abstract, erotic, and commonplace.

They also bring the work closer to the bare space of a gallery, much as Minimalism engages the viewer with its surroundings. Photos show a construction like the pipes but still more three dimensional, in black and white, but with more colors dropping out. They or similar photos also appear in the background of the video. One can treat the show as a single work—gaining in unity and directness from the gallery’s smaller second location, a few doors down and across the street from its first. That makes it harder to dance around, but easier to engage. Bring your own sense of four humors.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

3.20.17 — Dancing in the Bauhaus

Take a long strip of cardboard or stiff paper, and fold it into white squares. Stand it on its side, like an accordion book, but with alternate folds pointing outward, like a six-pointed star.

The gray end pages can still bend apart from one another, like a grand entrance to the pointed inner chamber—or the covers of a book. Now cut a rectangle out of each square, apart from the covers, and replace it with colored paper. from Mateo López's Time as Activity (Drawing Center, 2016)Do not worry if the pieces never quite line up, leaving six doors to the inner chamber slightly ajar. Is it architecture, collage, or book art?

For Mateo López, it could be a model for the rest of his exhibition as well—and I hope you will excuse me for a follow-up to last time on shows at the Drawing Center through March 19, although just closed. Maybe not a scale model, but a model for his multidisciplinary art. Actual architecture takes up much of the main gallery, with similar plain white walls broken by open passages and bright colors. This structure, though, consists of staggered rectangles, as reasonable places to live or to display his art. They are also spaces to wander, much as he might have experienced them in the process of assembly. Accompanying videos document just that.

Trained as an architect and still in his thirties, López plays with the borders between space, objects, and the human body. A chair takes the angle of its back, he insists, from his own while seated. (Hint: he has atrocious posture.) A drawing portrays a less strained spinal column, while a watercolor takes its shape from a dance in New York subways. An actual dancer stops by now and then to “interact,” as the Center puts it, with two of the sculptures. One, in brown wood staggered much like the rooms, consists of bed slats.

This is interactive art without need of a touch screen or mouse. The show’s only allusion to new media comes in its title, “Undo List“. And López likes lists, as part of the regular assembly of his designs. One drawing amounts to the days of the week and another of numbers. They also amount to yet another kind of interaction, between the artist and modern art history. They come close to copying works familiar from Minimalism, conceptualism, and process art.

One drawing borrows a knot from Bruce Nauman, while a dustpan contains the remains of an interview with William Kentridge—in an exhibition, after all, that is just cleaning up. The allusions reach further back in time as well, comporting with the boundary breaking. Another drawing in fact has as its title Look Back, Move Forward. The house pays tribute to the Bauhaus and Oskar Schlemmer, and a sphere hanging overhead could pass for steel sculpture by Antoine Pevsner or Naum Gabo. Of course, its spiraling planes are paper.

The Colombian artist also alludes to his homeland, with a gold mask after pre-Columbian art. Still, his heart is in Latin American architecture and European modernism. With his mix of disciplines, he also revives debates over both. Do they reduce people to puppets or machines, like the dancers in Schlemmer’s film in “Dreamlands” at the Whitney—or do they serve instead as designs for living, open to the choices of their creators and inhabitants alike? One last drawing resembles dance steps, but its curves connect words that begin “walking around a bit like an animal in a cage.” They also end with “hope.”

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

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