Sigmar Polke: The Painter as Alchemist – reviews and commentary

StandardBlue.VJohnson.2014.Incognito

Standard Blue by Vincent Galen Johnson (2014)

Blue World.VJohnson.2014.Incognito

Blue world by Vincent Galen Johnson (2014)

Blue Rush.VJohnson.2014

Blue Rush by Vincent Galen Johnson (2014)

These three small blue paintings are made as experiments in art. They were all completed in 2014. In thinking about my own desire to maximize my own creative passions, I decided to compile this collection of reviews and articles about the life and work of Sigmar Polke. I first saw his work in New York during the German invasion of the NYC artworld during the 1980′s. I don’t think I was aware of how much of an alchemist Polke was even at that time, yet the work I saw was clearly full of life and great visual power. My own reception to Polke’s work has grown exponentially over the years as I became much more intimately involved in seeing his work, reading about it, and thinking through it. Like Polke, I too worked with photography for a number of years. So now that I find myself painting again seriously for the first time in over two decades, its a great joy to relive some of the past and consider the present moment in time – as to what is the exact precise state of high art today. It seems that for certain the material world of art has regained its footing – while Conceptual Art still roars ahead using fabricators. Yet there are still countless artists living and working by their own hands, their own skills and talents, that offer their own primordial ways of working and of seeing into and out of the world. What I have found in my recent experiences with painting is how much psychological struggle can come from ever work – even works where I’m convinced that they’re done, until they tell me weeks later that something more can be added. This distinction in the way a medium works – capturing a moment in time – a slide of reality, to be savored in the future, versus the much slower practice of painting gives me comfort in knowing how much range my own practice can have on a daily engagement.

Vincent Johnson

Artist and writer in Los Angeles

April 17, 2014

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Seeing Out Loud: Saltz on MoMA’s Frustratingly Near-Great Sigmar Polke Retrospective

People look at artworks displayed at a major retrospective of German artist Sigmar Polke entitled 'Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010' during a preview of the show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, New York, USA, 09 April 2014. “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010,” at the Museum of Modern Art.

The Museum of Modern Art’s sprawling extravagant “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010” is really good. How could it not be, with more than 260 works by a great artist on hand? When Polke died at 69 in 2010, John Baldessari observed that “Any one [Polke] move can provide a career for a lesser artist.” The Whitney curator Chrissie Iles said, “I don’t like using terms like ‘master,’ but Polke is a master; he knows it, and we know it.” I think of him as a Rosetta Stone for young artists, one whose material glee, anarchic inventiveness, and hallucinogenic Blakean imagination puts him the same influential postwar class with Pollock, Johns, Rauschenberg, Warhol, and his old friend and nemesis Gerhard Richter. He created his own ravishingly visual, impish blends of Pop, Conceptualism, Neo-Dada, Fluxus, Constructivism, and Process Art, all replete with philosophical heft, social bite, and an extraordinary combination of chaos and control.

It’s a godsend to be able to see all this work he made. Yet “Alibis” is that bitter thing: a show of a great artist with great work that fails to be great. Certainly it’s not nearly as large, focused, or well selected as he deserves. Billed as the first Polke survey to contain all of the media he tackled, “Alibis” takes a rapid-fire, cocktail-shaker, look-how-much-he-did, glance-and-move-on approach. At MoMA we’re set upon by a barrage of art, jam-packed into ten galleries on the second floor. It does deliver the mad atmosphere, breakneck industriousness, and frenetic vortices of Polke’s artistic talent and all that it generated. But when you really stand still in “Alibis,” get quiet within yourself, and look around, there are far too few moments when you’re overcome with the sheer strange acidic gorgeousness of his art.

Why? Only a little over a third of what’s on hand is painting, and most of it is hung cheek-by-jowl. I love Polke in all the media that he worked in, but without painting as the clear foundational cornerstone of a major retrospective, his accomplishment is shortchanged, and audiences are denied the art’s full brunt and cosmic beauty. MoMA’s lack of curatorial vision and awkward architecture conspire against visual experience. The show needed more space, even if it meant spilling onto another floor, as the Gerhard Richter and Martin Kippenberger shows did. This season, MoMA gave all of PS1 to Mike Kelley, and a Polke show there would have been tremendous. I suspect that the museum is banking on the art world’s deep admiration for Polke to ensure that there won’t be a negative word written about this show.

The museum is also making gestures toward his kind of anarchy. For example, there are no wall texts. I eventually adjusted to that, and to relying on the free newsprint guide for details. The uninitiated, however, will find it impossible to follow his development or get any sense of how prescient Polke was throughout his career. Oh, MoMA, your ideas about the language of exhibitions stagger.

Still, as insufficient as “Alibis” is, nobody should skip it. This is Polke we’re talking about, after all. There are sound pieces, videos, a slide show of old illustrations transformed into bleary beings, and films that let us see the tall grinning bespectacled German doing antic things. (His nearsightedness was exacerbated by his close-in hand-painting of hundreds of thousands of “raster dots” — his gritty, undulating answer to Roy Lichtenstein’s regular mechanical Ben-Day dots.) One huge yellowish beauty is coated in what looks like grime floating in syrupy albumen but that turns out to be meteorite granules floating in resin. Painting as stardust made visible. A nearby dazzler has silver leaf and Neolithic tools in an abstract field of synthetic resin. These doozies are modern cave paintings, abstract nebulas. Don’t miss the best-titled painting in recent art history, Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black! — a perfect comment on the absurdity of making art, and on the uncanny feeling artists often have that they aren’t doing it entirely on their own.

There are scores of prints, drawings, and works on paper including the 1968 watercolor Polke as Drug — Pulverized Polke in a Glass Pipe, an apt equivalent of what an artist does at work. Nearby is the cartoony Malevich Looks Down on Pollock, a ballpoint-pen sketch of a plain square above a bunch of squiggles on the floor beneath it that offers a wry comment about Polke’s preference for Constructivism over Abstract Expressionism. Polke was among the most innovative photographers ever, and the show includes scores of photos that have been dripped-on, worked-over, cut-up, reprinted, Xeroxed, or otherwise messed with. Near the exhibition’s end are 21 color prints that look like sunbursts on pink grounds. These works were made by exposing the paper to a chunk of uranium that Polke kept in a lead box in his studio. There are weird mechanisms, like Apparatus Whereby One Potato Can Orbit Another, which consists of a wooden stool with a motor that does just what the title says, as if a lost testicle is perpetually circling its mate, trying to create a spark or break away from its gravitational field.

If you want to avoid being bombarded, I recommend standing in front of the wall with three of the Heron paintings from 1968 and 1969. Beautiful birds in arabesque lines with kinetic reeds and lyrical water, salmon-colored outlines and pale-blue hues: They all merge with the grids of patterned fabric that they’re painted on. This is kitsch as exquisiteness, wallpaper as tour de force, a shattering of molds about what is decoratively cliché and what is painterly grace. One of the five mid-’80s paintings of towers is done in enamel on bubble wrap, so the image floats free, the stretcher bars show through, and the painting takes on an entirely new material and spiritual presence somewhere between ectoplasmic apparition and UFO or Roman wall painting. Other paintings of towers, which could depict concentration camps or just forest-ranger stations, are rendered in either silver oxide, polymer, dry pigment, silver nitrate, or natural resins, and show us a colorist as melodious as the great Veronese, one who is as pictorially complex as Rubens.

In fact, Polke is in a league with Tintoretto when it comes to being in total control of vast amounts of painterly space. See the gigantic painting Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters, from 1991. It’s painted on translucent synthetic fabric and hangs about a foot off the wall, so it glows with light. The picture merges with its surroundings — as if some optical bridge was being formed between what’s visible and what’s not, the past and the present. Its surface displays a huge painted image of a woman and two young girls cutting up paper, apparently making snow over the landscape. Much of the painting is a massive blast of stark white that becomes a gigantic abstract painting unto itself. Go in close, and you’ll see that the entire painting is inflected with round little fissures where the artist interacted with the paint. Mrs. Autumn has the intensity of an illuminated manuscript and the power of a Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa.

The other place you need to park yourself is in the cattle-chute corridor that contains Velocitas — Firmitudo, a graphite, silver oxide, and damar-resin giant on canvas. This sooty-looking abstract storm utilizes a teeny detail of a Dürer and is as great as its source, and it’s one of the best paintings in the show. As painter Jackie Saccoccio wrote to me, it “has equal amounts of flippant casualness, astute observation, utter devotion to material, and the alchemical stuff that happens in his photos.” Beneath this behemoth (it was originally installed high on the wall, as it is here) lie 14 little abstract paintings. These elemental jewels from the 1980s show Polke the master of accident, control, experimentation, viscosity, resin, varnish, fluorescent paint, and other liquids that metamorphose into incredible textures, unnameable shapes, new biological forms. These little works are the prototypes for tens of thousands of lesser abstract paintings now being cranked out (and sold for vast prices) all over the world.

Which is one reason that every artist needs to see and spend time in this show. Not just to bask in the baffling ecstasies and polymorphous crucible of his art. They need to realize how many young painters now suffer from what I call the Polke Effect, ignorantly or mindlessly repeating his gestures without transforming them into anything remotely original. Perhaps this show will school a few of them, and make them take off their water wings and go into the deep end of art’s ocean, where Polke spent his entire career developing a beautiful, gigantic new Boschian cosmography.

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GALLERISTNY

‘Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010′ at the Museum of Modern Art

'Raster Drawing (Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald)' (1963) by Polke. (Estate of Sigmar Polke/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)

This retrospective of the German artist Sigmar Polke finds profound coherence in what is often termed his eclectic style. Unlike previous Polke surveys it mixes mediums: alongside painting and drawing there’s photography, sound, video, film and collage.Their combination proves key in assessing Polke’s reinvention of painting. From his rasterized halftone dot paintings, to paintings in photographic silver bromide (a light-sensitive chemical that darkens over time) on Bubble Wrap, and even uranium-exposed photographs, Polke effected a tectonic shift in how we think about what a painting can be.

The first two galleries are full of greatest hits from Polke’s Kunstakademie Düsseldorf era in the 1960s: early paintings of ready-made consumer items like chocolate wafers and socks. These, Polke’s “Capitalist Realist” paintings, are influenced by American Pop, but, made in postwar Germany, have an entirely different relationship to consumerism than their confident American counterparts. Paintings made on bedsheets speak to a scarcity of materials as much as an embrace of the comical printed-flannel ready-made. There are also recordings of Polke and friends jamming; in one track, Polke plays saxophone while a TV show about the Third Reich yammers in the background. Politics underpin the work.

Sound from recordings, film and videos plays throughout the show, with music from one gallery bleeding into the next room. Before his death in 2010, Polke hinted to Kathy Halbreich, the exhibition’s curator, that music was integral to his vision for a retrospective, and her installation’s layers of sound are reminiscent of Polke’s layered images on canvas.

‘Moderne Kunst’ (1968) by Polke. (Estate of Sigmar Polke/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)

The show’s third gallery is full of false starts: a painting from 1968 has flat purple and white crossing lines, a parody of painterly abstraction complete with a mocking caption: Modern Art. There is previously unseen 1972 footage from German TV showing the greasy-haired, bespectacled artist creeping along the Berlin Wall: he’s pretending to be a particle. I loved his Telepathic Session II (William Blake–Sigmar Polke), in which ropes implying psychic communion connect two gridded boards of “Yeses” and “Nos.” One work sticks a lattice of small potatoes on the face of a painting.

Then comes the mature work. Paintings of mushrooms and psychedelic materials move toward layering media and push how the meaning of an image can alter through repetition. Polke came to think about painting as no longer merely a relationship of surface to support, but a process by which multiple and even accidental meanings can be conjured by stuttering, repeating and misregistering images on a plane.

By the seventh gallery, there’s a return to painting—with Negative Value, a 1982 triptych in iridescent colors, Polke makes paintings that are hard to see: they seem purple when viewed straight on, but green or brown from other angles. Shapes and symbols seem to emerge from the gestural surfaces.Increasingly exotic material experiments follow: paintings made of sooty smoke on glass or rare natural pigments, or which use radioactive materials on colored photographic paper. From the 1980s until 2010, Polke often made paintings with semitranslucent ground such as ridged plastics or Bubble Wrap. They incorporate 19th-century stock images of myths and magicians. The implication: artists are a species of modern magician whose transformation of materials is a kind of alchemy. That a video about one of Polke’s largest and final projects, the cut-crystal geode stained glass windows of Grossmünster Church in Zurich, is crammed in an alcove at the end of the show is indicative of how much couldn’t fit in this retrospective.

'Negative Value II (Mizar)' (1982) by Polke. (© 2014 Estate of Sigmar Polke/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)

By the end of Polke’s career, as this retrospective makes clear, he had redefined painting from a surface onto which a concrete image is set down, to a kind of moving, changing screen that embraces chance and photography, printmaking and video.Ms. Halbreich suggests that for the postwar painter, visual ambiguity represented a resistance to the ghosts of Germany’s wartime political narratives and the authority that accompanied them.

Polke’s paintings created a new terrain. Martin Kippenberger, Jutta Koether, Michel Majerus, Ken Okiishi, Laura Owens, and R.H. Quaytman number among those who set up painting practices there. In Polke’s chemistry and bubbles and ridged screens, we see the Internet with its endless depths of images welling up. What’s more, his paintings are not cynical; they re-enchant the world of images and the possibilities of picture-making.

(Through Aug. 3, 2014)

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Ironic Alchemist
On the Death of Sigmar Polke

Deutsche Bank – ArtMag 60

An artist in psychedelic wonderland—somewhere between sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, hippie culture, and political activism. The three-part retrospective the Hamburger Kunsthalle presented in 2009/2010 revealed a side of Sigmar Polke that many did not yet know. Yet his works of the ’70s acted as a kind of bridge between the “Capitalist Realism” of the ’60s and his color experiments of the ’80s. The title of the show, Wir Kleinbürger! Zeitgenossen und Zeitgenossinnen (We petty bourgeois! Contemporaries), voted exhibition of the year by the Association of Art Critics, was the last major exhibition to take place during Polke’s lifetime. In spite of his grave illness, he worked intensively on the show. Now, after a long battle with cancer, Sigmar Polke has died in Cologne at the age of 69.Gerhard Richter and Polke were considered to be the two most important German contemporary painters. In 1963, during their time at the Dusseldorf art academy, they called “Capitalist Realism” into being. Both had fled from the GDR, both had reacted in their work to the Socialist Realism propagated there, but also to Informel, the West’s abstract answer to the artistic doctrine of the East. They developed a quintessentially German version of American Pop Art and used it to poke fun at the stuffiness of the Adenauer years. Instead of Brillo boxes, Polke adapted motifs from German housekeeping magazines, and instead of working with silkscreen, he painted his screened images by hand, dot by dot. From the very beginning, quotations in motif and style played a key role in his work. He reworked media imagery, illustrations, and comics, portraying the post-war German “economic wonder” aesthetic with its flamingos, leopard skin patterns, and palm trees on cheap fabrics; he provided subversive commentary on bourgeois desires.Higher Beings Command: Paint the top right corner black! was the title of probably his most famous painting made in 1963. The motif is exactly what the name calls for: a minimalist white canvas, with the title carefully noted below and the upper right corner dutifully painted in black. The painting is an ironic commentary on the myth of the artist genius who creates masterpieces on the power of inspiration alone. Humor and irony characterized his work from the start, for instance in the work Optimierung, a silkscreen edition he made for the Deutsche Bank Collection in which a snake plant sits on a windowsill. Behind the “Mother-in-law’s Tongue” is a pattern reminiscent of number columns; in the upper left corner is the word “Optimierung” (optimization). The leisure motif that Polke inserted into his composition like a talk bubble—visitors to a swimming pool posing together cheerfully for a group photo—suggests that employees might have other things on their minds than working more productively. Optimierung reads as a satire on the world of offices, numbers, and banks.Polke’s works were acquired early for the Deutsche Bank Collection. In Tower A of the bank’s headquarters in Frankfurt, the entire 21st floor was dedicated to him, while his paper works have been shown in numerous exhibitions such as From a German Perspective, Man in the Middle, Blind Date, and Drawing a Tension. Many works by Polke count among the portfolio of 600 important pieces from the Deutsche Bank Collection that will be given over to the Städel Museum in Frankfurt when it opens its annex in early 2011. In 1994 he was elected Artist of the Fiscal Year—his works from the collection were printed in the annual report and were shown in a traveling exhibition in numerous bank branches.What characterized Polke’s work throughout his career was his ongoing love of experimentation. While he initially explored the effects of a variety of different combinations of motifs, during the 1980s he worked with lead solutions, silver nitrate, shellac, micaceous iron oxide, and mutable thermo and hydro paints. The so-called material paintings brought him the reputation of an alchemist. At the 1986 Venice Biennale, he showed heat-sensitive works in the German Pavilion that shined in colors that varied according to the temperature; he was awarded the “Golden Lion” for the best artistic achievement.Polke’s wit and stylistic pluralism, his implementation of the art historical canon and the media have left a deep mark on an entire generation of artists. He began teaching at the Hochschule für bildende Künste in Hamburg in 1975. Albert Oehlen, Werner Büttner, Georg Herold, and Martin Kippenberger didn’t spend time with him at the school, however, but in bars like Vienna and Gans. In the age of Punk and New Wave, Polke’s ironic wit, his refusal to be pigeonholed, and not least his painting titles—such as Original und Fälschung 21 (Original and Forgery), Frau im Spiegel (Woman in a Mirror), Wer hat noch nicht, wer will noch mal (Who doesn’t have any yet, who wants more)—seem absolutely contemporary.Polke completed his last public project in 2009 for the Grossmünster in Zurich: seven church windows were made of sections of agate and five others were fashioned from glass to represent Old Testament figures. Polke remained true to himself: the “abstract” agate windows recall traditions of late antiquity, although the stone was refined through chemical and “alchemical” processes that lent it an even more intense coloration. For the glass windows, Polke digitally altered motifs from Romanesque manuscript painting and photographs. The project brought an aspect of Polke’s life full circle—before Polke began studying at the Dusseldorf Academy, he had done an apprenticeship with a glass painter.

BROOKLYN RAIL

4.01.2003

The Significance of Sigmar Polke

The very idea of art’s exaltedness led ambitious artists to aspire to a public importance, at some odds with their actual position, as producers for the luxury trade. Piet Mondrian, for instance, believed despite his obscurity that his mode of abstract painting had radical political implications and powers. Fifty years ago, the sheer size of the pictures made by the Abstract Expressionists expressed their sense of the cultural significance of their work. In the present moment, when art is increasingly assimilated to what passes under the name of entertainment, and its status as high-priced commodity is generally acknowledged, it might seem particularly inhospitable to such ambitions. But not only does art continue to be an area in which practitioners can achieve some sense of freedom from the normal indignities of wage labor, it can still lend itself to the making of large-scale political statements. Paradoxically, in fact, the very celebrity of certain artists— including their commercial success and the status of their works as prime investments— has created opportunities for them to engage critically with contemporary society.

Gerhard Richter’s work is probably the best known example of this phenomenon. His fellow painter of East German origin, Sigmar Polke shares with Richter an antagonism towards the social system that has richly rewarded them, along with a capacity for production so vast that it seems almost compulsive. Both are determinedly anti-ideological: social criticism for them takes the form not of illustration or expression of views formulated in some specifically political context, but in the exploration of their position as artists, and as painters specifically, within the social order. Hence, importantly, both are concerned with the relation of their archaic profession to more modern methods of image production, in particular photography and printing. The artist is a maker of images; he or she meets the social world today in the context of the flood of pictures, still and moving, that not only represent but help to constitute social reality.

Polke’s current exhibition in the Dallas Museum of Art takes on the issue of the relation between images and reality on a breathtaking scale. Among the nearly 50 paintings and drawings included, made during the last four years, is a set of very large pictures, going well beyond the easel picture, evoking the great wall paintings of earlier times. But the scale of this exhibition is not just a matter of the size of individual paintings: they are interrelated thematically (and pictorially) to a degree that transforms the central hall and four rooms of the museum given over to them into a building-sized pictorial ensemble.

According to the museum’s press release, Polke, acclaimed for “satirizing contemporary life’s pretensions,” here “investigates ideas of perception and vision.” That something less anodyne than this is at work is suggested by the gigantic picture on the wall that leads to the main exhibition space: a printed enlargement of a photograph of the National Historic Monument at Little Big Horn, in which visitors stand at the edges of what seems as much a cemetery as a monument. Turning the corner brings into view a piece of equal size, “The Hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda” (2002) measuring 275 5/8″ × 196 7/8″, which reproduces another found image. In this case, it is a newspaper diagram of the use of a camera-bearing Predator drone to identify possible enemies in the mountains of Afghanistan. Within seconds, this visual information, passed through American army intelligence stations, can result in the firing of a missile at the turbaned horseman shown far below on a mountain road. The courage involved in juxtaposing these two images— one seemingly in tune with liberal sympathies, the other raising more difficult questions about the American response to 9/11—should not go unmentioned. Whose perception, whose vision is at their subject?

Little Big Horn is seen from a distance, that of time; the massacre is represented by a monument. The dead Indian has become a good one. The newspaper diagram, picturing the present, works with space: it apes the drone with a view from above. The reach of the U.S. Army is global thanks to the transmission of images for analysis and decision. Furthermore, the army wants not only to see but to be seen: it wants a global image— not just the literal image in the newspaper— but the “credibility” that the U.S. might attack other countries in order to safeguard itself.

Polke has always been suspicious of the view from above. In 1969 he made a painting mocking Modernist progressivism, “Higher Powers Demand: Paint the Upper Right Corner Black!” Modernism claimed universality of pictorial language, fit to point the way to humanity’s necessary future. But actually this art had a specific socio-historical location, in the West, where art took on its present form as a part of the society that then spread across the world. The West that created modern art also destroyed cultures and peoples, like those of the Americas. It produced global wars and the methodical destruction of millions, and continues to threaten the natural world with ecological disaster. As Walter Benjamin observed, “Every monument of civilization is a monument of barbarism.” One doesn’t have to sympathize with Al Qaeda to remember the civilians killed by American attacks in Afghanistan, damage collateral to the view from above. Little Big Horn symbolizes how the West was won.

We are left today in the middle of modernity, with its resources as well as its terrors. With painting, for instance, with an insistence on the particular alongside ideological generalities. While Benjamin believed that the special virtue of photographic printing was that it brought things closer to people, it is one of Polke’s insights that the mechanical reproduction of images, while making them transmissible, in principle across the globe, can also distance us from the things they represent. He also shows that this distance can be overcome, if we make the effort to approach closely. Photomechanical imagery, enlarged by actual or figurative approach, turns into a field of dots in which the original image vanishes. A close look also reveals the errors— splotches of ink, broken or smeared dots, etc.— inevitably produced by the accidents of the printing process. The Dallas exhibition includes a number of fine examples of Polke’s paintings of printing errors. He makes it clear that the error is no intruder into the printed order, but a product of it. What, from the viewpoint of the authorities— those who have chosen pictures to be printed in newspapers, for instance— represent mistakes, disruptions, to Polke represent eruptions of individuality and opportunities for exhilaration as well as anxiety.

They bear a potential realized by Polke in a particularly pure form in a triptych of paintings, “Tryptich” (2002) each measuring 157 1/2″ × 118″, hung at the far end of the main exhibition hall, made with artificial resin on polyester (through which the stretchers and so the distance to the wall on which they are hung can be seen). They shimmer and glow with gold, yellow, and green under black loops and lines marking the surface of the support and thus completing the inventory of the materials of painting. The gestural marks seem to lie on top of swathes of dot grids recalling the rasters of printed imagery. Simple in their imagelessness, complex in their shifting colors and densities, these pictures are apparitions of the human ability to form new realities, beyond the reproduction of the existent— restatements of the old promise of abstract painting, in direct conflict with the dominant image culture of our time.

Polke responded to the invitation to make works for a Texas museum by using as source material items from local newspapers. The common element in all of them is the gun: a display of rifles for sale at a gun show, a young woman with her pistol at a firing range, an ad for Remington shotgun loads, and so forth. But there is no easy antithesis of humanism and violence. “Splatter Analysis” (2002) is based on a photograph of a shooter inspecting a target, noting the spread of shotgun pellets. The joke is double-barreled: the shot pattern recalls the reproductive raster, while the title also suggests a laugh at the expense of Abstract Expressionism (not forgetting, in this context, Jackson Pollock’s self-presentation as a tough guy from the West)— a joke that bears on Polke himself, whose work characteristically pursues serious intentions by way of chance effects.

A more than lifesize painting of two grotesque gun-toting cowboys (“Do the World a Favor and Eat a Bullet,” 2002) turns into its opposite when we walk past it into the gun-picture room to see the whole image from which they have been abstracted. Far from the shot-up desperadoes they seem, they are paper targets for an out-of-shape shooter— made out of the black-on-white dots of a newspaper photograph copied in paint on a 118 1/8″ × 197 7/8″ piece of translucent fabric— at a shooting gallery with the slogan “The Fastest Gun in the West.” The slogan states the idea at the root of the Predator hunting Afghans; but with the shooter down on the ground, not sitting at an intelligence command post controlling destruction at a distance, the idiocy of his potshots at enemies of his own construction is apparent. This dialectic of strength and weakness is another theme running through the exhibition. A picture at once disturbing and funny shows a grown-up man sitting on a sofa, reduced to childlike powerlessness by the presence of two housewives who tower above him. Man gets his revenge on woman, however, in a picture on an adjoining wall showing what seem to be beer-drinking soldiers in a Texas-themed bar, perhaps in Germany, amusing themselves with a half-naked woman crawling on their table (“Me and My Buddies Would Vote for You,” 2002).

Polke himself is, of course, male as well as Western. His way with painting is in the heroic tradition of Western art: large in scale and subject matter, taking on the grandest themes of the day in a voice insistently his own. But he’s also willing to cede control to his materials, letting colors swirl and mix on the surfaces (front and back) of his transparent polyester or commercially-printed fabric supports. He seems to recognize the weakness of his art in the face of the gigantic apparatus of commercial and political image-production operating around us, without for a moment ceasing both to mock that apparatus and to offer alternatives, celebrating anomalies, striving to be himself an anomaly through and through. Within the private collection and the museum, the places set aside for art within the modern division of cultural labor, he does his best to render visible what he can of the social totality, with its elements of terror and beauty, a range of experience that perhaps only a wild sense of humor like Polke’s can make bearable. The result is an exhibition so rich in visual interest, intelligence, anarchic spirit, and painterly exhilaration that it makes the abandonment of exaltation, of the wish to see and portray (and control) the world from above, seem a great triumph of the human spirit.

 

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Aug. 27, 2011

Sigmar Polke

New York,

at Leo Koenig

 

Photography meant many things to Sigmar Polke. At two important junctures of his career, he turned to it as a model for refashioning painting: his early “raster” pictures were entropic enlargements of half-tone photojournalistic images; later, darkroom experiments influenced his wondrous excursions into alchemical abstraction. But photography didn’t always lead into painting. In 1966-68, during his most conceptual period, Polke used a Rollei box camera to capture ephemeral arrangements of objects in his home and studio. With a more portable Leica or Nikon he photographed scenes from his 1970s travels through Central Asia and briefer trips to Paris, New York, São Paulo and other cities, later subjecting the negatives and prints to a barrage of technical “mistakes.” Regularly shooting images of his own exhibitions, he also turned his camera on everything from tiny gold nuggets to a Goya canvas hanging in a French museum. Last but not least, the photocopy machine was an indispensible part of Polke’s studio practice for several decades.

“Sigmar Polke: Photoworks 1964-2000,” the first New York show of Polke since the artist’s death last year, offered a generous sampling of his photographs. The mid-1960s conceptual works were well represented with prints (some vintage, some not) of his zany setups, sometimes involving visual puns (like crumpled paper poured from a teapot). Polke, who encountered Fluxus at the very start of his career, relished the slapstick side of Conceptual art, as epitomized by “Higher Beings Commanded,” a 1968 edition of lithographs he made with Christof Kohlhöfer.

Perhaps the most surprising images, unfamiliar even to many longtime Polke fans, were five large photos taken in 1976 in Palermo’s catacombs. Polke was no stranger to the macabre, but these shots of skeletons decked out in moth-eaten suits are his most direct treatment of death, with a wicked eye for the grotesque thatevokes George Grosz. If the Palermo prints-cloudy, creased and otherwise mistreated in typical Polke fashion-dwell on mortality in all its gross particulars, a set of 1972 images shot at Gaspelhof (the artists’ commune where Polke lived in the early 1970s) are exuberant celebrations of sensual life. Vignettes of sun-drenched nudity and trippy close-ups of young women suggest a bucolic existence. Overexposures and seepage of light into negatives underline the carefree qualities of the images.

Another unexpected treat was a set of 64 photographs chronicling the installation and opening of an exhibition Polke created with the artist Achim Duchow at the Kassel Kunstverein in 1977. Hung in a cinematic frieze, the roughly 8-by-12-inch prints-often skewed, solarized or blurry, but always full of fascinating detail-permit us to experience the anarchic installation as Polke saw it. We can only imagine what revelations await us when the many films Polke shot, but almost never exhibited, finally emerge into public view.

 

Photo: Sigmar Polke: Untitled (Palermo), 1976, gelatin silver print, 291⁄2 by 325⁄8 inches; at Leo Koenig.

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NYTIMES

Sigmar Polke, Whose Sly Works Shaped Contemporary Painting, Dies at 69

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Sigmar Polke, an artist of infinite, often ravishing pictorial jest, whose sarcastic and vibrant layering of found images and maverick painting processes left an indelible mark on the last four decades of contemporary painting, died Thursday in Cologne, Germany. He was 69.
Alessandro Della Bella/KEYSTONE, via European Pressphoto Agency

Sigmar Polke, an early and astute adopter of American Pop Art, posing in front of one of his works in Switzerland in 2005. More Photos »

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The Art of Sigmar Polke

The cause was complications from cancer, said Gordon VeneKlasen, a partner at the Michael Werner Gallery New York which, along with Galerie Michael Werner in Cologne, has been Mr. Polke’s chief representative for nearly 20 years.

Mr. Polke (pronounced POLL-ka) was nearly as influential as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, the postwar titans who made his own work possible. And ultimately his influence could even exceed theirs through its sheer diversity, stylistic promiscuity and joyful, ruthless exploitation and expansion of the ways and means of several mediums.

He made prints and sculpture and in his youth, and dabbled memorably in Conceptual and installation art, with potatoes being a favored material. His peregrinations in and around the mediums of drawing and photography were extensive, meriting enormous retrospectives and forming second and third careers.

But his main achievement was to be an early and astute adopter of American Pop Art, belying its crisp, consumerist optimism with tawdry materials that added social bite, and with random splashes of paint that implied disorder and the unconscious. His paintings were essentially Conceptual in their skepticism about the very act of painting.

His images rampaged through history, ranging from demure 18th-century prints of an aristocratic astronomer that slyly signaled his interest in optics to images of the watchtowers and barbed-wire fences of Hitler’s concentration camps, stenciled onto banal printed fabric.

The images questioned accepted taste, challenging the viewer to think through how they had been made; their random juxtapositions often seemed to mimic thought itself. In all these ways he opened the door to a freewheeling combination of representation and abstraction that is still playing out.

His first solo exhibition in New York, of paintings made at least a decade earlier, was at the Holly Solomon Gallery in SoHo in 1982, and it jolted the American art scene with news of European painting’s vitality.

Mr. Polke’s antic irreverence was picked up by legions of artists in all mediums on both sides of the Atlantic, among them Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen, the team of Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Richard Prince and Lara Schnitger.

Tall, with a commanding presence and caustic wit, Mr. Polke was often fittingly called an alchemist. He had a long face that seemed to call out for a sorcerer’s pointed hat. In photographs, he often appeared to be on the verge of laughter; small, gleaming eyes behind wire-framed glasses and a sharp V of eyebrows added a sardonic if not demonic note.

Indeed, in painting he pursued a form of combustion that was not only visual but also chemical. In the 1960s he experimented with the interaction of fruit and vegetable juices. In the late 1980s he began making paintings by sprinkling silver oxide, powdered arsenic or granulated meteorite over canvases wet with resin. Some changed color over time; others were temporarily altered according to temperature and humidity.

And his large photographic images — many of them based on photos he took during a trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the mid-1970s — often seem to have emerged from a mismanaged laboratory experiment.

For much of his life Mr. Polke made extensive use of recreational drugs. Mushrooms were a frequent motif in his paintings and photographs. Unpredictable behavior was his norm, elusiveness his everyday mode, and provocative answers a matter of course.

He could be completely genial to people not in the art world, but he could also be an art dealer’s nightmare, especially in the early years of his career, when he handpicked the buyers of his works and set high, arbitrary prices.

In an essay in the catalog for Mr. Polke’s 1990 retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the German collector Rainer Speck described buying a Polke in 1981 for a very high price that he suspected the artist had set by “doubling his age and adding three noughts.” Mr. Polke turned 40 that year.

When one dealer asked Mr. Polke about an exhibition they had discussed years earlier, he agreed to it on the condition that the dealer promise it would be the gallery’s last. Basically he behaved as if every aspect, ritual and protocol of art and the art world was available for manipulation.

Sigmar Polke was born Feb. 13, 1941, in Oels, in the Silesian region of eastern Germany in what is now western Poland. His family, with five or six children, fled west to Tubingen in 1945 as the Russian Army advanced but still wound up in East Germany as World War II ended. In 1953 they moved to East Berlin and crossed over to West Berlin on the subway. The young Mr. Polke pretended to be asleep to contribute to the air of normality.

The Polkes later settled near Düsseldorf, and Mr. Polke lived there or in nearby Cologne for the rest of his life. He married and divorced twice and is survived by the children of his first marriage, Anna Polke and Georg Polke.

Düsseldorf provided an excellent environment for a budding artist; it was the site of the first postwar exhibition of Dada in 1958. By 1960, its commercial galleries had held solo shows of Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly and it became a meeting place for Fluxus artists like Nam June Paik and George Maciunas starting in 1962.

In 1959 and 1960, Mr. Polke completed a glass-painting apprenticeship, an experience that contributed to his lifelong attraction to transparency. Later, many of his paintings would be on plastic — whether thick or thin, ridged or smooth — which contributed to the eerie clarity of their layering and made them seem two-sided, even when hanging on the wall.

In 1961 he enrolled in the Düsseldorf Art Academy, which was in its most experimental phase at the time. Joseph Beuys was teaching and promulgating art as a social activity, and Dieter Roth and Günther Uecker were professors. Mr. Polke’s fellow students included Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg, and in 1963 the three founded a painting movement they called Capitalist Realism. Their first show was in a storefront in Düsseldorf in 1963. Mr. Lueg would later change his name and become the Düsseldorf art dealer Konrad Fischer and would give Mr. Polke two exhibitions.

Mr. Polke’s paintings from this period depicted things like men’s socks, plastic tubs and candy bars in the uninflected style of commercial art. Soon he adapted Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben Day dots, but typically in a rougher, more mechanical version that suggested several trips through a photocopier. He had his first solo show at the Galerie René Block in West Berlin in 1966. In 1970 he had his first show with Galerie Michael Werner in Cologne.

Throughout the 1970s, German painting remained a kind of underground activity, with Beuys and German Conceptual artists like Hanne Darboven getting more international attention.

But in the 1980s Mr. Polke, along with painters like Mr. Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz and Jörg Immendorff, signaled a resurgence of painting that was heard around the art world. The experience bred into Mr. Polke a preference for the margins over the mainstream and a relatively modest lifestyle despite his success. He worked without an assistant and lived in Cologne in a warehouse surrounded by his books and his paintings.

Reviews of Helter Skelter at MoCA Los Angeles

 

 

 

 

 

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Faces to Watch in ’92 : These are the people Calendar’s critics and writers think you’ll be hearing about in 1992. In some cases, they’re familiar people who will experience a transitional year. Some are newcomers who could have a breakthrough year. : PAUL SCHIMMEL

January 01, 1992|SUZANNE MUCHNIC

Curator Paul Schimmel has been a player in Southern California’s art scene for more than a decade–first at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, then, since early 1990, as chief curator at Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. But 1992 marks his big-city debut. “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s,” the first major exhibition that Schimmel has organized for MOCA, is scheduled for Jan. 26-April 26. Advance publicity suggests that Schimmel will come on strong, provocative title and all. The Temporary Contemporary’s entire 45,000-square-foot exhibition space will be filled with works by 16 visual artists who have “a common interest in exploring universal human experiences–including fear, anxiety, obsession–and in portraying the dark, macabre or bitterly comic aspects of life,” Schimmel says. Ten Los Angeles-based writers who share this nasty vision will contribute poetry and fiction to “Helter-Skelter’s” catalogue.

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ART : Public Warm, Critics Cool Toward ‘Helter Skelter’

April 26, 1992  SUZANNE MUCHNIC

“I had it all wrong. I thought there would be a public outcry against the exhibition and a supportive critical response,” said Paul Schimmel, curator of “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s,” as the controversial show approached today’s closing. “Instead, the public has loved it. We have had about 100,000 visitors, a phenomenal number for a contemporary art show. They keep coming back and writing favorable comments. But at the same time, we have received some very strong critical opinions–some thoughtful, some outraged.”

None was more outraged than Time magazine critic Robert Hughes, who wrote: “If you thought new American art couldn’t get much worse than it was by the end of the 1980s, visit MOCA and learn.” He granted faint praise to works by Chris Burden, Victor Estrada and Manual Ocampo, but declared that Mike Kelley’s installation is “visual zit popping” and pronounced Raymond Pettibon “the nadir of this Valley Girl Dada.” Hughes’ conclusion: “Helter Skelter” proves that MOCA is the Louvre of adolescence.

New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman reached a similarly damning judgment: “The disappointment of the exhibition is less its attention-grabbing sensationalism than the pretense that this sensationalism amounts to something substantial and challenging. . . . Unfortunately, the movement turns out to be good old adolescent nihilism.”

Newsweek critic Peter Plagens also bemoaned the latest proof that art is “regressing toward adolescence,” then issued a report card: “Art, B-minus; Sociology, C.”

West Coast writers generally took more kindly to the exhibition but expressed serious reservations. Christopher Knight, The Times’ art critic, said that pitting “an art of Darkness & Claustrophobia” against Los Angeles’ defining art tradition–Light & Space art of the ’60s–didn’t work. “Helter Skelter” is too busy “fiddling with established public perceptions” to answer profound questions about the rise of this dark sensibility, he concluded.

Writing in Artnews magazine, Los Angeles critic Hunter Drohojowska applauded the show for “shedding light on several artists whose disturbing works have remained mostly underground phenomena” but complained that the message is “watered down.”

Ralph Rugoff of the L.A. Weekly charged that the show cops out by avoiding more issues than it confronts and by neglecting “the politics and aesthetics of race and class.”

“I’ve been quite surprised by the sheer quantity of coverage,” Schimmel said, in a telephone interview. “I expected a lot of local coverage and hoped for national attention, but I never imagined that there would be so much interest internationally,” he said, noting that lengthy articles have appeared in European newspapers and magazines and that Chinese, Canadian and British television have covered “Helter Skelter.”

The attention has been gratifying and many of the artists in the show have been invited to participate in other exhibitions as a result of the publicity, he said. But the critical fray has been troubling. “I feel that the show got too far ahead of the art,” he said, explaining that many critics got so carried away with writing about the show’s theme that they failed to address individual artworks. “I don’t blame the critics for that. It has to do with how the show was perceived,” he said.

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NYTimes

March 22, 1992
ART VIEW

ART VIEW; ‘Helter Skelter’ Reveals The Evil of Banality

LOS ANGELES— It’s not hard to figure out why “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990′s” has become the most talked-about exhibition here in a long time. Everything about this big survey show, organized by Paul Schimmel of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, aims to be provocative — from the intimations of Charles Manson’s bloody rampage in the title, to the violent and ranting essays and poems by Los Angeles writers in the catalogue, to the actual works on view (through April 26) in the museum’s Temporary Contemporary warehouse annex. Those works, by 16 artists, are as full of images of tawdry sex and serial murderers as are the tabloid television shows that masquerade as news programs.

“Helter Skelter” seems even more closely related, in fact, to another recent small-screen phenomenon. Like David Lynch’s defunct “Twin Peaks,” beneath its veneer of surreality is a cliche of America as one vast, roiling, sex-crazed, gun-toting wasteland. The disappointment of the exhibition is less its attention-grabbing sensationalism than the pretense that this sensationalism amounts to something substantial and challenging. At a time when the art world, always desperate for the latest trend, can cling to no dominant movement, the show eagerly celebrates one in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the movement turns out to be good old adolescent nihilism.

“Helter Skelter” tries vainly to elevate this nihilism, lauding its borrowings from pulp fiction, cult religions, extremist politics and cartoons. “The artists’ use of debased signs and symbols, and their embrace of raw subjects from everyday life, shock and disorient the viewer into another state of mind,” Mr. Schimmel writes in the catalogue, adding somewhat hopefully: “Indeed, by presenting such graphic explorations of sexuality and violence — which implicitly question contemporary standards of obscenity — the institution now becomes as much at risk as the artists themselves.”

Those artists include familiar figures like Chris Burden and Mike Kelley as well as newcomers like Victor Estrada. At 26, Manuel Ocampo is the youngest in the show; Llyn Foulkes, at 57, is the oldest. The show claims that this varied and loosely formed group presents an “updated” vision of Los Angeles that contrasts with the stereotype of the city as a “sunny dreamland of fun.” But the alternative picture that “Helter Skelter” proposes of Los Angeles as a dark and dangerous place has been no less a stereotype, at least since 1939, the year Nathanael West published “Day of the Locust.” As the work of Ed Kienholz makes clear, it has also been an aspect of the art scene here for decades. That the catalogue cites West and the history of film noir, and also suggests that the art on display somehow breaks ground, illustrates the fuzziness of the show’s thesis.

In part because its subtitle misleadingly implies it is a survey of the whole of Los Angeles art in the 90′s, “Helter Skelter” has provoked criticism for not including more works by women and minorities. This criticism seems to miss the point. The show deserves to be faulted on political grounds for including artists like Robert Williams, a co-founder of Zap Comix, whose paintings full of naked bimbos mark the exhibition’s nadir.

The works on view are a disconcertingly mixed bag. Perhaps the strongest piece is Mr. Burden’s “Medusa’s Head,” a four-ton meteorite strangled by dozens of miniature railroad tracks. The sculpture, which was on display last year at the Brooklyn Museum, serves as a parable of ecological catastrophe all the more potent for acknowledging the nostalgic connotations of trains.

“Baby/Baby,” by Mr. Estrada, presents one of the exhibition’s few truly haunting images, a sculpture of two gigantic, pinch-faced, bubble-gum-pink babies joined at the crotch by an enormous phallus in the shape of a nuclear cloud. Charles Ray provides an amusing bit of trompe l’oeil — a custom-made mannequin of a woman in a business suit, set apart in its own room so that a viewer does not realize at first that she stands eight feet tall. Mr. Ocampo’s antiqued canvases, full of religious symbols and references to the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, convey a raw energy despite their melodrama.

And Mr. Foulkes’s paintings-cum-relief-sculptures bring to mind the art of Francis Bacon in their combination of careful finish and macabre humor. One portrays Superman as an aging, shellshocked father, glued to his television. Even Superman, it seems, is defeated by the banality of American life.

For every interesting work in “Helter Skelter” there are too many others, like Richard Jackson’s pointless clock-filled installation, that simply fall flat. The few contributions by women artists are conspicuously weak. Liz Larner’s installation with mirrors and chains called “Forced Perspective” is one of them. Nancy Rubins’s mountainous pile of trailers and water heaters, a humorless imitation of something Vito Acconci might concoct, is another. And Meg Cranston’s video installation, with its image of a fireplace and its Muzak soundtrack, is yet another.

This sort of work doesn’t so much transcend as mimic the stereotypes of middle-American life, with its canned music, its trailer homes and its stupid office humor. Mr. Schimmel describes the attitude of the artists in the show, his first as chief curator at the museum, as “in your face.” He writes that “none are ‘do-gooder’ artists who seek to use their art for direct political ends.”

If the 1980′s gave rise to political correctness, which sees everything in moral terms, the decade also in its glorification of greed and selfishness fostered the spirit of amorality and alienation that suffuses “Helter Skelter.” It sometimes seems that for art to attract attention nowadays it must take place at one extreme or the other. What ultimately makes “Helter Skelter” such a chilling event is not the preponderance of blood and gore but the absence of compassion.

Photo: Victor Estrada’s “Baby/Baby” at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art annex — Twins joined by a nuclear cloud. (Steve Goldstein for The New York Times)

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ART REVIEW : An Art of Darkness at MOCA

January 28, 1992|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

Aggressively titled, “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the ’90s” exploits a proven method for getting attention. At the Museum of Contemporary Art’s warehouse facility in Little Tokyo, the newly opened exhibition reaches for the spotlight simply by playing against type.

If the first indigenous art from Los Angeles to merit international recognition is widely regarded to have been the sleek and unprecedented ’60s art of Light & Space, then “Helter Skelter” could most succinctly be described as putting its opposite on a pedestal: Fractiously chronicled is an art of Darkness & Claustrophobia. In his go-for-broke debut as MOCA senior curator, Paul Schimmel thus neatly contradicts a central cliche by which, for a generation, the visual arts in Southern California have been lazily described.

However, because the life of art is never that simple, this binary approach finally works against itself. By having defined its opposite, the established genre- cum -myth of Light & Space inevitably maintains its vested aesthetic authority. A slightly broadened but still too-narrow conception of supposed “L.A. art” is kept alive. (Maybe that explains why so few women–four–are among the 16 artists.)

Perhaps the greatest achievement of this large and ambitious show is simply the vigor with which it acknowledges important art being made here–an acknowledgment that has seemed shaky at best in MOCA’s past programming. Schimmel has assembled paintings, sculptures, drawings and installations, as well as commissioning poetry and fiction from 10 writers for the accompanying catalogue. Among them are some of the most accomplished artists (and writers) whose work has come to the fore anywhere in the last decade, including sculptor Chris Burden, Conceptualist Mike Kelley, and painter Lari Pittman.

Burden’s roiling, 5-ton, suspended asteroid of railroad tracks and mines, “Medusa’s Head,” may be the first successful example of a landscape sculpture , ever. Leave it to Burden to invent a whole new genre, take it to a peak and bring it to a close–all in a single piece.

Kelley’s commissioned design for the decor of meeting rooms at a local advertising agency consists of wall murals copied from the kinds of jokey signs and doodles workers typically post around their offices: “The flogging will continue until morale improves,” “You want it when???” and other, more vulgar or sexually explicit examples. The repressed psychological hostility of the corporate environment is here projected on surrounding walls, oddly transforming the rooms into fully human, even poignant places.

Pittman is a fabulist, miraculously transforming mundane images into dazzling concatenations. His obsessive, wildly ornate pictures continue to amount to some of the most significant painting being made today.

The work by all three is exceptional, but given their level of institutional recognition it’s also what one might expect to see. Less expected, and thus toting a special wallop, are a variety of other, similarly first-rate contributions.

Paul McCarthy has been doing broadly influential performance work for more than 15 years, but nothing quite prepares one for the wrenching installation called “Garden” he has constructed here. In a small patch of forest built from TV stage props, two motor-driven men engage in mechanically thumping sex, one with a tree trunk, the other with the moss-covered ground. At once voyeuristically riveting and awful, bizarrely funny and overwhelmingly tragic, this onanistic ritual presents another side of Eden.

In recent years Charles Ray has made an impressive body of sculpture that, appropriately enough, explores socially circumscribed bodily relationships. His remarkable new “Mannequin Fall ’91″ is an 8-foot store dummy, fashionably groomed and coiffed, which disconcertingly looms above mere mortal viewers. Endowed with the presence of classical statuary, like some Sears, Roebuck & Co. Athena, the icily restrictive idealization in mundane modern icons fans a cold breeze down your spine.

And almost out of nowhere–he’s shown only twice before–Victor Estrada has risen to the present occasion with a powerful, monumentally theatrical sculpture of cast foam, called “Baby/Baby.” Two clown-headed creatures, grinning and frowning as mutant signs of comedy and tragedy, recline in a vivid purple room while, between them, a tumescent column rises up, part monstrous phallus and part mushroom cloud. It’s an unspeakable image.

Some disappointments will be found. Manuel Ocampo is represented by a strong group of paintings, but his foray into sculpture, which transforms his Spanish Colonial sources into decorative embellishments, feels empty. Similarly, the furious forms in Megan Williams’ wonderfully compulsive drawings don’t survive the transformation from pictorial whirlwind into physical installation.

The shabby, domestic crack-up of hearth and home in Nancy Rubins’ mountainous pile of wrecked mobile homes and ruined water heaters startles with blunt force, but little resonance follows the initial, gee-whiz impact. And Richard Jackson condenses the crack of time in a chamber built from scores of synchronized clocks, which grabs you by the mental lapels for but a split second.

As a title “Helter Skelter” is also a grabber, but the choice is a big mistake. Schimmel leads his catalogue introduction with a disclaimer: Rather than conjure the Beatles’ song and Charles Manson’s brutal madness, he simply means “Helter Skelter” to describe the hurried, confused, disorderly times in which these artists make work. You can’t exploit sensationalism, though, and then expect the audience to toss grandiloquence aside and ponder with gentility a dictionary definition.

The subtitle is a problem too. Forecasting “L.A. Art in the ’90s” is presumptuous. Neither can it help but imply that a new tradition is issuing forth from multiple generations (the oldest artist is 57-year-old Llyn Foulkes, the youngest is 26-year-old Ocampo). Yet, in reality, it has been around from the start, as Mike Davis’ widely acclaimed 1991 book, “City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles,” attested. For the postwar visual arts that tradition dates to the grim assemblages of Ed Kienholz, whose sharply moralizing art is contemporaneous with the perceptual emphasis of ’60s Light & Space.

Significantly, the new writing commissioned for the catalogue might suggest a crucial relationship between literature and the curator’s rather vague claims for an art that explores “the dark side.” For the literary arts (including movies, especially the noir variety), the sensibility dates at least to the ’30s, with the shadowy, beleaguered writing of Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West and others. The paintings of Llyn Foulkes–the one artist here whose career spans the three decades since 1960–have always been marked by a literary edge, and it was precisely that supposedly extraneous element of literature that so-called progressive painting of the period sought to banish.

Like Kienholz, the difference between Foulkes and the rest of “Helter Skelter”is the distinctly moralizing tone of his art. Still, its literary qualities are obviously shared by Raymond Pettibon’s crazily insightful drawings, by the cartoon-like collaboration between Jim Shaw and writer Benjamin Weissman, by the woefully cliche-ridden video installation of Meg Cranston (TV as a hypnotic fireplace is depicted), by the tiresomely repetitive vulgarities of Robert Williams’ comic-book paintings and by most everyone else in the show.

The notable exception is likely Liz Larner’s disappointingly banal installation. A mechanically ordered system of Western perspective, pointedly constructed dimensions from steel chains and illusion-producing mirrors, is juxtaposed with a wholly natural system that is only seemingly disordered–namely, an actual buzzing beehive. The hive, of course, just happens to be dominated by a queen.

So, the question remains: Did the dark sensibility championed here come to prominence through the eventual collapse of the formalist prohibition against literary “contamination” of purely visual art? You won’t find out, alas, from reflecting on “Helter Skelter.” It’s rather too concerned instead with simply fiddling with established public perceptions.

ART : The Museum as Stage : As ‘Helter Skelter’ demonstrates, exhibitions have become theater, with former performance artists involving viewers in the drama

April 26, 1992|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

Performance art is not a genre included in “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s,” the energetic exhibition that has been packing in the crowds at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Little Tokyo satellite for the last three months. Painting, sculpture, drawing, installation art–yes. But, not performance.

At least, not directly. One of the curious aspects of the frequently raucous exhibition, which closes today at the Temporary Contemporary, is how several of the strongest works on view are by artists for whom performance art has been a significant feature of past work. The ghost of the genre haunts the museum’s galleries.

In the 1960s, performance had emerged as part of a larger effort to get art out of the rarefied precincts of the museum and away from the commercial imperatives of the marketplace. In the 1980s, as the museum and the marketplace together roared toward an unprecedented position in the popular artistic consciousness, certain performance strategies and imperatives were absorbed into sculpture and, especially, into installation art.

Chris Burden gave up performance art more than a decade ago, but he pioneered an important form of the genre in the early 1970s. In events where violence and physical danger loomed, he suppressed the strictly perceptual phenomena more common to visual art; instead, the audience was offered extreme confrontations with moral dilemmas.

Should the artist be stopped from having himself shot, in the name of art, by a rifle-toting accomplice? Should his body be dragged away from the precarious pairing of electrical wires and water bucket, which could electrocute him in a flash? A spectator was always made to wonder whether or not he should intervene in Burden’s carefully chosen performance activity.

During the last dozen years, Burden has successfully transferred this confrontational stance from performance art to sculpture. His 5-ton “Medusa’s Head,” ominously suspended by a muscular chain from a steel I-beam in MOCA’s rafters, is a planet ravaged by toy trains that relentlessly mine its rocky innards. As the sculptural form is opened up, extinction threatens. Deepening and complicating the awful conflict inherent in any moral predicament, “Medusa’s Head” merges a childlike playfulness and stark brutality.

Sculptor Charles Ray groped toward his mature work in the 1970s and early ’80s by incorporating his own body into otherwise highly formal sculptures. They would be displayed as if a brief tableau. The gallery door would open to admit viewers, and the artist himself would be on view visibly encased in a wall-hung box or huddled naked beneath a cold steel plate, as if entombed inside a Donald Judd sculpture or buried beneath a Carl Andre floor-piece. After several minutes, visitors would be ushered out and the gallery door would close.

Distinct echoes of this explicit, person-to-person encounter are found today in Ray’s cleverly manipulated department store mannequins. One otherwise generic example in “Helter Skelter” is fashioned into a faithful portrait of the artist. Another is unclothed and equipped with highly realistic genitals. A third is perfectly ordinary–except for the rather disconcerting fact that she is 8 feet tall.

A fashionable, high-style Athena, Ray’s female mannequin dwarfs the unsuspecting viewer who encounters the commandingly poised figure. Suddenly she bursts forth in the mind as Everymom–a culturally idealized image of graceful female perfection, yet also distant, unknowable and coolly intimidating.

Visceral, evocative and broadly influential performance works have been presented by Paul McCarthy in the United States and Europe since the late 1960s. Sometimes the performances are executed in private and videotaped, for viewing later by an audience. In a startlingly effective exhibition at Rosamund Felsen Gallery in December, a video performance called “Bossy Burger” was displayed together with the room-size set in which it had been enacted.

The presence of the set created a bizarre “behind-the-scenes” experience for a television show that will never see the light of broadcast. As a result, the “private” videotape seemed painfully intimate, the act of watching it an awful intrusion into the psyche of a stranger.

At MOCA, McCarthy’s “Garden” is also reminiscent of a stage set in which any stark divisions between public and private have been thoroughly scrambled. Built atop a big, raised platform and employing a carpet of artificial grass, papier-mache boulders and fake trees, the component parts of the installation were indeed salvaged from a television soundstage. Within the faux -forest primeval, acutely observed mechanical men simulate sex with the ground and a tree, the repetitive ca-chunk of their whirring machinery providing a chilly soundtrack for the voyeuristic scene.

Nature is a cultural fabrication in McCarthy’s extraordinary “Garden.” The manufacture includes the fully human nature displayed by spectators, who inevitably crane their necks to get a better look at the pathetic sexual activity hidden in the bushes.

Ordinary inventions of people-like-us are likewise central to Mike Kelley’s work, and performance art was the initial engine that drove the exploration. Kelley would develop a thematic body of drawings, sculptures and installation pieces, which would be shown as independent works of art. Significantly, these discrete objects also functioned as working notes for the artist, notes toward culmination in a performance piece.

Kelley’s installation in “Helter Skelter” is a “Proposal for the Decoration of an Island of Conference Rooms (with Copy Room) for an Advertising Agency Designed by Frank Gehry.” This remarkable ensemble conceives of an office as already a kind of stage set, where the drama of distinctly modern life is daily played out.

A suite of typical, all-white rooms has been decorated with images created not by the artist, but by anonymous office workers. From a variety of sources, Kelley gathered up the sorts of rank doodles and sarcastic cartoons–often sexual, scatological and adolescent in their humor–that decorate the typical contemporary work station. These he enlarged to mural size and silk-screened with black paint onto the surrounding walls of the conference rooms.

Originally commissioned by a large advertising agency, Kelley’s incisive installation merges his activity as an artist with the artistic expressiveness of office workers. Rather than imperiously adding a sculpture to the lobby, the artist here presents “corporate culture” as a developed entity, complete with its own familiar visual codes, social rituals and repressed anxieties. These are given telling (if unacknowledged and unexalted) form through the “urban folk art” of office cartoons.

A crucial feature of Kelley’s installation is its reconstruction of an office copy room, outfitted with a copy machine, metal shelving, work table and coffee maker, and marked by a closely observed aura of casual disarray–right down to the coffee-cup rings that mar the table. Restricted to “Employees Only” and the one room in the office suite that is locked to museum visitors–you peer in through the windows to peruse it–the copy room is revealed for what it really is: the artist’s studio for corporate culture.

Like their prior endeavors in performance art, the “Helter Skelter” sculptures and installations of Burden, Ray, McCarthy and Kelley audaciously perform. They’re highly theatrical because, with candor and straightforwardness, they acknowledge and address a spectator standing before them.

Ours is an era when big, expensive exhibitions have become an imposing form of political theater, replete with a variety of often hidden agendas. Performance-related sculpture and installation art have come to the foreground because they have a particular role to play in this rambunctious scenario.

More than any other genre, including the time-based mediums of video and film, convincing performance art has been characterized by a sharp difference from other forms of entertainment: Rather than complaisantly amuse, it means to transform the audience from passive viewer into active spectator. For an audience more commonly primed for inertia, artists with a history in performance art have a special capacity to create a bracingly self-conscious condition of spectatorship. In an elaborate show like “Helter Skelter,” several do.

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COVER STORY : Art in the City of Angels and Demons : A sordid chapter from the past provided the name for ‘Helter Skelter’–a show that aims to reflect L.A.’s dark side

January 26, 1992|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is a Times staff writer

There’s nothing harder to change than image. If you’re a public figure, you can always hire a press agent to help, but it’s a bit harder for a city to transform itself–particularly when the image suits the tourist industry and it’s sent around the world on The Big Screen.

In the case of Los Angeles, perceptions of the city have permeated the image of the art scene. Fun. Sun. Movie stars. Despite an endless list of L.A. art that doesn’t match the cliche–most notably a cynical strain of conceptually based work that has emerged from CalArts–the mindless image has been slow to die.

“There was always this perception of Los Angeles being Venice, Santa Monica and the beach,” says Paul Schimmel, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art. “It may never have been that, but that was a pervasive notion and a lot of the artists who are most internationally known from the ’60s and ’70s, be it David Hockney or Sam Francis, continued to support that in one way or another. And artists who didn’t, left.”

Now, Schimmel is fighting this narrow view of Los Angeles art head-on in “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s,” a big, brash exhibition of anxiety-ridden artworks, opening today at the museum’s Temporary Contemporary facility in Little Tokyo.

The show features works by 16 Los Angeles artists who focus on society’s underside and pull no punches in their representations of sex, violence, perversity and alienation. From Jim Shaw’s narrative drawings of a serial killer to Nancy Rubin’s Gargantuan pile of house trailers, motor homes and water heaters, the artworks brutally undercut stereotypes of Los Angeles as a sun-drenched playground that produces pretty art.

There’s scarcely any residue of L.A.’s trademark “Finish Fetish” or “Light and Space” art to be seen in “Helter Skelter,” much less a whiff of the airy, optimistic painting that has long been identified with the city. All 45,000 square feet of the Temporary Contemporary are filled with such things as Richard Jackson’s room built of 1,000 identical, simultaneously ticking clocks, Paul McCarthy’s “Garden” featuring mechanical men who copulate with trees or holes in the ground, Megan Williams’ whirlwind-like drawings of men’s genital fixations and Meg Cranston’s suspended video monitor showing a genie who sends subversive music into various parts of the museum.

“I’m interested in art that’s going to be right in your face,” the 37-year-old curator says in the current issue of MOCA’s newspaper. “You know all those people who are confused about conceptual and abstract art?” he asks, walking through the galleries during the show’s installation. “Well, they’re not going to have a problem with this. It may be too explicit for some of them, but there’s a lot to see and read and be confronted with.”

Schimmel hopes viewers will understand that he means to round out the image of Los Angeles, not create a new, equally narrow one. But some observers question whether the old sunny image of Los Angeles is as pervasive as he thinks. Says Newsweek art critic Peter Plagens: “So many publications have done articles on how rancid the California Dream has become–you can’t drive, you can’t breathe, you can’t go out at night without getting shot–I don’t think anyone goes to California to get a part in ‘CHiPS’ anymore.”

With an attention-grabbing title, an eclectic roster of artists and a slew of undeniably tough art, Schimmel knows he may be in for trouble from those who don’t want to be hit in the face with societal ills when they go to a museum, but he doesn’t shrink from the prospect. “To do a regional show in this day and age, you either have to be profoundly stupid or just love the controversy. Obviously, I love the controversy,” he says.

“You can’t do a show about what’s going on in your own community without having literally hundreds of other viable and significant options to do, and literally hundreds of people telling you what it is you should do.

“That keeps museums from doing shows about their own communities, which is crazy because Los Angeles’ image is being redefined in New York and Europe. I travel a lot and I see the importance that artists here are having in those larger international communities, and I don’t feel that we are doing enough to define Los Angeles art from our own perspective. And I know why, because every time you do it, you get bashed. It’s a lot easier and a lot safer to do a one-person show on an internationally recognized artist.”

Schimmel hasn’t been seriously bashed yet, but he has set off a buzz about “Helter Skelter.” If nothing else, he has proven his ability to get attention. For starters, the title seems to be a double-barreled attack on a lethargic art scene. “Helter Skelter” brings back horrific memories of the murder and mayhem visited on Los Angeles by Charles Manson, who used the title of a Beatles song as the name of his bizarre philosophy, which envisioned his killings as the spark of a racial holocaust that would lead blacks to victory. The rest of the title, “L.A. Art in the 1990s,” suggests that the museum is forecasting a nasty trend for the decade.

The title emerged after the curator had lined up about half of the work. “I was playing with different kinds of phrases–the dark side, extreme vision, anxious vision, the underside, the shadows cast in sharp light,” he says. “At one point I was talking to a collector in another country, describing what I thought in the broadest sense has occurred in Los Angeles over the last 20 years.

“As I was telling this foreigner about the show, he said, ‘Well, you know Los Angeles has always been this dichotomy in people’s minds between something very beautiful and something rather sinister and dark. He talked about all the movies–’Blade Runner,’ ‘Chinatown’–and then he mentioned Charlie Manson. When he said ‘Charlie Manson,’ I thought ‘Helter Skelter.’ “

The idea stuck, though Schimmel says the title has been the most worrisome aspect of the exhibition. He ran the title by MOCA administrators, who didn’t object, and the artists, who reportedly like it. Since then, Schimmel has spent a good deal of time explaining that “Helter Skelter” refers to more than the Manson clan and the Beatles song, and that the term has a broader meaning, involving confusion or disorder. “It’s also the name of a roller coaster, and that kind of wildness and free form and out-of-control quality is something I wanted people to get a sense of in one quick (phrase),” he says.

As for “L.A. Art in the 1990s,” Schimmel is not forecasting a trend. “One of the big problems with ‘Helter Skelter’ is that people thought it was a ’60s show. I thought it was important in the viewer’s mind to be situated in this time. This is not ‘Helter Skelter From the ’60s to the Present’ or ‘Helter Skelter Through the Ages.’ All the work is new or done within the last few years,” he says.

Critic Dave Hickey, who has long ties to the L.A. art scene, has no trouble with the title. His only quibble with the exhibition, which he characterizes as “a nice show of neo-beatniks,” is that it isn’t in the museum’s Arata Isozaki-designed building on Grand Avenue. “If Paul really wanted to helter-skelter the place, he would put the show in that Mercedes showroom that they call a museum. Putting it down there in the Temporary Contemporary just ghettoizes it,” Hickey says.

Nonetheless, the title has been a frequent subject of conversation. One local dealer calls it “shameful.” Newsweek’s Plagens terms it “tasteless” but says he’s “more tired and bored than shocked” by the title.

“I don’t know. I make up the worst titles for exhibitions, and I may have done it again,” Schimmel moans. But he admits, “You don’t open up Pandora’s box and then sit on the lid.”

“I want the title to be a lightning rod in terms of getting the attention of people who would not normally see a museum as being vital. I wanted something that in one fell swoop just sort of said it.

“I know one thing, there’s nothing frivolous about the exhibition. This is a serious show and these are serious artists. The title is a way of very quickly capturing a larger audience who would normally dismiss ‘Sixteen From L.A.’ or ‘Los Angeles Today.’ “

Casually dressed in a bulky sweater, beige cotton trousers and white running shoes, Schimmel seems the picture of confidence and enthusiasm as he strides through the galleries and points out where each artist’s work will be–Llyn Foulkes’ intensely troubling paintings here, Mike Kelley’s re-creation of an advertising office, papered with faxed office jokes, there.

Chris Burden’s “Medusa’s Head,” a 5-ton, 14-foot ball of concrete, plywood, steel and toy railroad tracks that signifies the industrial world’s destruction of the natural landscape, will greet visitors at the entrance. One of Charles Ray’s generic male nude mannequins with realistic genitals will be positioned so that it can be seen from outside, through glass doors.

There will be epic paintings by Lari Pittman, chockful of his personal symbolism; a narrative frieze of pen-and-ink drawings by Raymond Pettibon and paintings of hooded Klansmen and bloated babies by Manuel Ocampo. Liz Larner’s installation will include a real bee colony and a sculpture constructed of chains, mirrors and hardware. Along with such artists, many of whom have established international and national reputations, Schimmel is delighted to have provided Victor Estrada’s first museum show and to have included Robert Williams’ nightmarish comic book-style paintings, which are better known in the pop music field than in the art world.

Schimmel’s choice of 16 artists–and exclusion of dozens of others–will probably draw fire, as is usual in group shows. But Schimmel is under particularly strong scrutiny because “Helter Skelter” is the first big exhibition he has organized for MOCA since he took over the chief curator’s post two years ago. The massive show is seen as his debut and a harbinger of his tenure at a highly visible institution.

Plagens, for example, draws a parallel between “Helter Skelter” and “ Dis locations,”Robert Storr’s recent curatorial debut at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which broke barriers by allowing contemporary conceptual art into the museum’s mainstream galleries. When the two younger-generation curators hit the big time, they both made waves, and they both put massive works by Chris Burden in their debut shows. “Helter Skelter” seems to be “a bigger, nastier, more dangerous, spikier version of Storr’s debut at MOMA,” Plagens said, and that strikes him as rather odd. “It seems like Storr’s more refined show would have been the L.A. show and the New York show would have been gnarlier, bigger, darker.”

“I’m not naive,” Schimmel says, when reminded that he is in the spotlight. “But there are times when, instead of waiting for the controversy to come knocking on your door, you might as well just go out there and look for it.

“I feel that, well, just look at this place,” he says, surveying the vast spaces of the TC’s warehouse-like building. “There’s just something you can do here that you can’t do any place else. I thought that, being new to this museum, I would have enough good will to make it happen.

“I really thought it was important to use this opportunity to articulate a significant aspect of what has occurred in the last 10 years in terms of our perceived change of what Los Angeles is as an art community. It’s not a coming of age. It’s not like this is the first time there’s been a group of artists that you can identify with Los Angeles. We’ve known a lot of these artists for a long time and there were times when they were sort of central to what was going on, but it seemed to me as if now, more than ever before, artists who had their own kind of unique and extreme image are really defining what the times are,” Schimmel says.

An energetic conversationalist whose sentences often run to paragraph length, Schimmel exudes such enthusiasm for “Helter Skelter” that he gives the impression it is the fruition of a long-term plan. It isn’t. The exhibition has been in the works for about a year and it was by no means the one that he envisioned as his MOCA debut when he joined the museum’s staff in 1990, after nine years at the Newport Harbor Art Museum.

“Helter Skelter” came up rather suddenly because of a plan to close the Temporary Contemporary for 18 months–at an undetermined date–when a massive mixed-used development, called First Street North, gets under way. “We began talking about what would the last show be before the TC closed up, although we still don’t know exactly when this development is going to happen or if this will actually be the last show,” he says.

“Since the TC is such a special place and it really is for the artists, I felt–as a response to ‘The First Show’ (MOCA’s inaugural exhibition at the TC), which was about the greatest hits from private collections–that the last show should enter into this very risky proposition of trying to define the culture of the community in which we live. I thought we should make the last show about here and now, I mean this place, at this time.”

Schimmel initially had in mind an exhibition that would focus on mid-career artists in their 40s and 50s, such as Foulkes and Jackson, but as he and exhibition coordinator Alma Ruiz visited studios and did research, the scope broadened. The artists range in age from 26-year-old Ocampo to 57-year-old Foulkes.

“Eventually it became a thematically driven exhibition, but in the most kind of undefined way,” Schimmel says. “When you really try to do a theme show, usually you have artists of the same generation and the same outlook in dialogue with each other. I’m looking at a broader cultural phenomenon, saying that these attitudes are pervasive through various generations, various media and they cross the boundaries into the visual arts, literary arts and I think even into music.”

Some of the artists’ works are connected by their interest in popular culture, cartoon-like images, adolescent anxieties, large-scale installations or performance art. Half of the artists are affiliated with UCLA and more than a third are graduates of CalArts. The most prominent gallery connection is Rosamund Felsen, but dealers Fred Hoffman, Linda Cathcart and Asher/Faure also represent artists in “Helter Skelter.”

Sixteen writers are also represented in the exhibition catalogue, which is more like an anthology than a standard museum publication, Schimmel says. Like the exhibition itself, the idea of including writers came from artists, he said. When the curator learned that Shaw had collaborated with writer Benjamin Weissman and that Pittman and writer Dennis Cooper had produced a book together, he decided to seek out more writers who were dealing with the kinds of real life subjects that have attracted the artists.

Beyond the image issue, Schimmel wants to celebrate artists he believes have not been adequately supported at home. “Bruce Nauman is the probably the most interesting predecessor for some of these artists, in terms of interest in human body. Even on the heels of his big exhibition (in 1973 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), he says he was never very well supported by this community when he was here. So I wanted MOCA to support those kinds of artists that seem never to quite fit into the collector’s home or the aesthetic of Los Angeles. That’s not to say that some of these artists are not extremely successful. They are, but there are others who are unknown,” he says.

“Even the most well known artists in this exhibition have been supported to a certain extent here locally, but it’s when they start showing in New York and especially in Europe and they go from Europe back to New York and New York back to Los Angeles that their reputations have been made,” Schimmel says. “Los Angeles is able to support an artist to a certain point, but the artists don’t really enter into a mainstream understanding of what is important in terms of the visual arts in Los Angeles until they have gone out there and come back. I don’t believe that Los Angeles has done as much to internationally project what its own culture is about as cities like New York.

“When New York does it, we think of it as internationalism; when L.A. does it, it’s provincialism. I think you can do a regional show that has international consequences, and that’s exactly what I’m hoping that this institution can do. I think that bringing these people together and knowing the kind of audience that MOCA has, we will be doing something very specific in telling not just this community but the rest of the art world what is going on,” he says.

The museum’s last big Los Angeles show, curated by Julia Brown Turrell in 1985, simply provided space for a group of individual solo shows. Today, a timely exhibition of Los Angeles art needs to say more than “these are good artists working now,” Schimmel says. “It needs some kind of point of view, and that developed out of just seeing what people are working on. I’m always visiting artists’ studios, and there was a kind of energy that I saw in these very different individuals’ work–a single-mindedness, a development of their own language, their own symbolism. It has a kind of other-worldliness to it, a darkness, an extreme quality, a kind of charged psychology in some cases, a perceptional undermining of the norm.

“I don’t think it’s something that’s just unique to Los Angeles right now. Internationally there’s an interest in the human body, sexuality, politics, issues that are outside of the art world, outside of the kind of academy of the arts,” he says, noting that the L.A. version of this art may be particularly vigorous because the relatively weak gallery system does not force artists to make salable products.

“I’m not an advocate for local artists,” Schimmel says. “I’m not a nurturing kind of person, but I do think if you have really great art in your midst and you’re not representing it, you are not doing what is one very significant aspect of what a museum can do.”

Roster of Artists in ‘Helter Skelter’

Chris Burden: Born 1946, MFA degree, UC Irvine. One-person exhibitions at Newport Harbor Art Museum, Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn. and Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; group shows: “Whitney Biennial” in New York and “Documenta” in Kassel, Germany.

Meg Cranston: Born 1960, MFA degree, CalArts. One-person exhibition at Santa Monica Museum of Art; group shows: Stadtmuseum in Graz, Austria, and New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York.

Victor Estrada: Born 1956, MFA degree, Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. One-person exhibition at Bliss Gallery in Pasadena; group shows: Municipal Art Gallery in Los Angeles and Centro Cultural Tijuana, Mexico.

Llyn Foulkes: Born 1934, attended Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. One-person exhibitions at Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles and Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago; group shows: Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and “Bienal de Sao Paulo” in Brazil.

Richard Jackson: Born 1939. One-person exhibitions at E.B. Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, Galeries Maeght in Zurich and Paris, and Menil Collection in Houston; group shows: Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Mike Kelley: Born 1954, MFA degree, CalArts. One-person exhibitions at Hirshhorn Museum in Washington and Reniassance Society in Chicago; group shows: “Carnegie International” in Pittsburgh, “Whitney Biennial” in New York and “Venice Biennale” in Italy.

Liz Larner: Born 1960, BFA degree, CalArts. One-person exhibitions at Stuart Regan Gallery in Los Angeles and 303 Gallery in New York; group shows: “Whitney Biennial” in New York and MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, Mass.

Paul McCarthy: Born 1945, MFA degree, USC. One-person exhibitions at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions and Rosamund Felsen Gallery in Los Angeles; group shows: Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and University Art Museum at UC Berkeley.

Manuel Ocampo: Born 1965, attended University of the Philippines and Cal State Bakersfield. One-person exhibitions at Christopher Grimes Gallery and Fred Hoffman Gallery in Santa Monica; group shows: Sezon Art Museum in Tokyo and Saatchi Collection in London.

Raymond Pettibon: Born 1957. One-person exhibitions at Feature and Semaphore in New York, and Richard/Bennett Gallery in Los Angeles; group shows: “Whitney Biennial” in New York, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibition and Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art.

Lari Pittman: Born 1952, MFA degree, CalArts. One-person exhibitions at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions and the Newport Harbor Art Museum; group shows: Museo de Arte Contemporaneo in Monterey, Mexico, and “Whitney Biennial” in New York.

Charles Ray: Born 1953, MFA degree, Rutgers University. One-person exhibitions at Newport Harbor Art Museum and New Langton Arts in San Francisco; group shows: “Whitney Biennial” in New York and Fundacion Caixa de Pensiones in Madrid.

Nancy Rubins: Born 1952, MFA degree, UC Davis. Public sculptures for Washington Project for the Arts in Washington and Cermak Plaza Shopping Center in Berwyn, Ill.; group shows: installations under the Brooklyn Bridge in New York and at Three Rivers Arts Festival in Pittsburgh.

Jim Shaw: Born 1952, MFA degree, CalArts. One-person exhibitions at St. Louis Museum of Art and University Art Museum at UC Berkeley; group shows: “Whitney Biennial” in New York and Newport Harbor Art Museum.

Megan Williams: Born 1956, BFA degree, CalArts. One-person exhibitions at Santa Monica Museum of Art and University Art Museum at UC Santa Barbara; group shows: the Drawing Center in New York and Otis/Parsons.

Robert Williams: Born 1943, attended Chouinard Art Institute and Los Angeles City College. Customized hot rods and created comics in ’60s; exhibitions include Los Angeles Art Institute and Otis/Parsons.

MOCA Advises Discretion

MOCA officials said that when the “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s” exhibition opens today at the Temporary Contemporary, visitors will find a warning posted at the entrance stating: “This exhibition contains imagery and language that some people may find offensive. Viewer discretion is advised.”

The museum is at 152 N. Central Ave. The show will continue through April 26; Tue.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thur., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; free admission Thur. from 5 to 8 p.m.

Information: (213) 621-2766.

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React, but don’t try to predict the future

ON SECOND THOUGHT

July 15, 2008|Christopher Knight | Times Art Critic

Everyone has had the experience of disagreeing with a critic, but do critics ever second-guess themselves? We asked Calendar’s critics whether there are any reviews they regret. One in a series of occasional articles.

When “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s” opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art shortly after New Year’s in 1992, the show marked a cultural turning point. An unprecedented boom in the art market had hit the skids, and suddenly the conflation of vital new artists and a strong institutional base, both of which had been building in the city throughout the 1980s, galvanized attention around art’s value, rather than its price. Something crystallized in the zeitgeist. Los Angeles, long a second city, moved squarely into the international top tier for contemporary art.

I was enthusiastic in print. “Perhaps the greatest achievement of this large and ambitious show is simply the vigor with which it acknowledges important art being made here,” I wrote. That feeling was widespread — not least among the more than 5,000 people who jammed the opening night party at Little Tokyo’s Geffen Contemporary but also among the generally favorable reviews the show garnered. Word traveled fast that something big was up.

The glaring exception was the New York Times. The Manhattan art world had been coming to terms with the 1980s’ return to prominence of European contemporary art, headquartered in Germany, a full generation after the ruination brought by World War II. For nearly half a century, New York pretty much had the territory to itself. Perhaps sensing that its postwar rank as America’s sole major center for new art was also at an end, the New York Times huffed, “The disappointment of the exhibition is less its attention-grabbing sensationalism than the pretense that this sensationalism amounts to something substantial and challenging.” “Helter Skelter” got slammed.

I didn’t like everything about the show either — didn’t like all the art in it and did complain about some things I thought should not have been left out. But there was an obvious abundance of terrific work, and most of its 16 artists are now important international figures.

For years after, whenever I recall “Helter Skelter” in my mind’s eye, the first image that usually pops into my head is Nancy Rubins’ monumental sculpture, “Trailers, Drawings and Hot Water Heaters.” A “tower of power” composed from industrial junk stacked in a rickety, Brancusi-like endless column and plastered with sheets of paper covered in a silvery skin of dense graphite marks, it reached into the rafters. The precarious pile was held together with what seemed like miles of baling wire.

The primacy of this memory is odd, given all the competition from other strong work in the show. Perhaps that’s because of what I wrote in my review. “The shabby, domestic crack-up of hearth and home in [Rubin's] mountainous pile of wrecked mobile homes and ruined water heaters startles with blunt force, but little resonance follows the initial, gee-whiz impact.” The “yes-but” observation came in a section of the review describing disappointments. A sculpture I can’t forget is one I criticized as unmemorable.

Gee whiz.

Six years ago, MOCA acquired a monumental Rubins sculpture, this one wired together like an improbable industrial tree and now “planted” on the museum’s main plaza. Its eccentric, branching form had taken shape according to the available spatial dimensions of the gallery that first showed it, adding the intangible space of its construction to its heady accumulation of commanding physical materials. Descriptively titled — hang on — “Chas’ Stainless Steel, Mark Thompson’s Airplane Parts, About 1,000 Pounds of Stainless Steel Wire, and Gagosian’s Beverly Hills Space at MOCA” — it is a powerful amalgam of rusted and rust-proof metal shards, clinging to a central post yet resting lightly in space. A strange and formally beautiful force-field, it gives me a thrill every time I walk by.

I do think the newer piece is better and more resolved than the “Helter Skelter” work. But the lesson from 1992 is fundamental: No prognostication allowed. Art is experience, which needs to be trusted as it unfolds. The better part of criticism is in understanding that.

christopher.knight @latimes.com

More Second Thoughts

To see previous stories in this series, log on to latimesblogs.latimes.com/entertainmentnewsbuzz/calendars_second_thoug hts/index.html.

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Reviews and Images from Saatchi Gallery London’s exhibition Pangaea: New Art From Africa and Latin America

The Mistake Room in Los Angeles will in 2015 feature a major installation by Ibrahim Mahama, whose work is included in Pangaea: New Art From Africa and Latin America, at the Saatchi Gallery, London.

vincent johnson

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WALL STREET JOURNAL INTERNATIONAL

AGENDA – United Kingdom, Arts

Pangaea

2 April – 31 August 2014 at Saatchi Gallery, London

Pangaea

Aboudia, Djoly Du Mogoba, 2011, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 176 x 237cm (each canvas), © Aboudia, 2011, Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London

On 1st April, the Saatchi Gallery will open Pangaea: New Art From Africa and Latin America. Taking its title from the prehistoric landmass that conjoined Africa and America, this major survey reunites the two former sister continents by bringing together the work of 16 of their contemporary artists.

The exhibition celebrates and explores the parallels between their distinctly diverse cultures and creative practices, as they begin to receive recognition in the increasingly globalised art world.

In Europe and the USA, art has typically advanced through a constant renewal of innovative ideas and movements. We are now experiencing an important global shift as artists seek to explore new art in regions outside their immediate geographical and historic context for inspiration.

The desire by artists and their audiences to discover fresh influences from a broader body of work has inspired the recent preoccupation of museums to broaden their Eurocentric collections.

Against this backdrop, the artists in Pangaea: New Art From Africa And Latin America, respond to present day complexities in diverse and innovative ways. Years of colonial rule, rapid urban expansion, migration and political and economic unrest remain subjects for many of the artists whose reflections on the richness of their environment translate into an intense visual experience.

Rafael Gómezbarros’ Casa Tomada has taken over the facade of numerous national monuments. The giant ants address issues of diaspora and internal displacement suffered in Colombia for several decades due to the armed conflict wreaking havoc on the country.

Antonio Malta Campos’ bold paintings emerge from a single pattern that organically grows over time and gives way to recognisable forms and a perceived narrative.

Vincent Michea’s bold paintings are inspired by the architecture and population of his hometown Dakar, Senegal’s largest city with a constantly changing landscape.

Aboudia’s vast canvases are occupied by a multitude of characters displaying menacing weapons, and are a record of the sudden escalation of violence following electoral chaos in the city of Abidjan in 2011.

While a few artists from Africa and Latin America have gained international acclaim, a vast number remain relatively unknown. The full scope of work on display in this exhibition, which includes new painting, photography, installation and sculpture, encapsulates this sense of diversity – a bubbling energy surfacing in the two great continents that were once Pangaea.

Saatchi Gallery
Duke Of York’s HQ, King’s Road
London SW3 4RY United Kingdom
Ph. +44 (0)20 ​7823​2363
info@saatchi-gallery.co.uk
www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk

Opening hours
Daily from 10am to 6pm

Related images

  1. Antonio Malta Campos, Figures in Red, 2004, Oil on canvas, 230 x 360 cm, © Antonio Malta Campos, 2004, Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London
  2. Vincent Michea, Before the Bigger Splash, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 130 x 130 cm, © Vincent Michea, 2012. Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London
  3. Rafael Gómezbarros, Casa Tomada, 2013, Resin, Fiber Glass, Madera, Screen Cotton, Cuerda Arenas, Cerrejón Coal. Body: 50 x 20 x 50; Legs 90 x 50 cm, © Rafael Gómezbarros, 2013. Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London

Published: Friday, 28 February 2014

LONDONIST

African And Latin American Art In Pangaea At Saatchi Gallery

Recent shows at the Saatchi gallery have been met with mixed receptions, so the gallery has fallen back on a stalwart of the Saatchi stable and focussed on emerging artists from a specific region of the world — in this case Latin America and Africa. These two parts of the world were bound together as part of the super continent Pangaea many millions of years ago, hence the title of the exhibition. But this title serves more as a device to bring these two sets of artists together and the similarities between the two continents ends there.

The exhibition opens with a high impact installation by Rafael Gomezbarros in which a swarm of giant ants covers the walls. Many are amassed in one corner of the gallery as if that’s where they are emerging from. It’s a creepy sight and is also a representation of the number of Colombians who have been displaced due to armed conflict over the last 50 years.

The exhibition then follows a chequered path as we encounter many artists who feel derivative of European artists such as Picasso, Lichtenstein and Caulfield. However, Fredy Alzate’s sphere of bricks does a great job of summing up sprawling urban development by displaying a structure that has collapsed in on itself into a ball.

Upstairs features some of the better artists in this exhibition with one excellent gallery containing Dillon Marsh’s photography of the humanoid shapes of weaver bird nests, Mario Marcilau’s intimate portraits and David Koloane’s terrifying depiction of urban life, where yellow eyed dogs scavenge in the night.

Though this exhibition may not be a full return to form, it’s a big improvement on the last few shows and is the gallery’s strongest exhibition since ‘Out of Focus’ two years ago.

Pangaea is on at Saatchi Gallery, King’s Road, SW3 4RY until 31 August. Admission is free. Also still on at Saatchi gallery are the emerging artists in New Order II.

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THE DAILY BEAST

Saatchi Gallery, London

Great Escapes

04.04.14

Saatchi Resurrects Ancient Pangaea with Show Featuring South American and African Artists

Saatchi is bringing together artists from two continents that used to be united, exploring the playful works that obscure—and highlights—the conflicts faced by their modern societies.
Charles Saatchi—the loved and loathed art collector who was an early patron of such Young British Artists as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin—is looking a little further afield in the latest exhibition to grace his London gallery. Pangaea: New Art from Africa and Latin America takes its title from the mammoth ancient landmass that formed approximately 300 million years ago and broke apart 100 million years later. Today, with a major survey that will remain on display until August 31, the Saatchi Gallery reunites Africa and South America off the King’s Road in Chelsea, a kind of supercontinent of contemporary art.

Pangaea brings together the work of sixteen artists, ranging from internationally renowned to up-and-comers, from Africa and Latin America. The artworks by all involved attest to the diversity and creative energy of the formerly conjoined continents.

Nowhere is the energy more apparent than in the first gallery space. There should perhaps be a warning by the door—if you’re squeamish, take a deep breath—because upon entry, you find yourself suddenly surrounded by giant creepy crawlies. Rafael Gómezbarros’s Casa Tomada (2013) takes over the entirety of an otherwise empty room: 440 fiberglass ants adorn four white walls, each nearly a yard long, with six tantalizingly ticklish legs. These faceless and thankfully fangless insects might at first give the comic impression of scuttling in search of food. In fact, according to Gómezbarros, the ants address the plight of the millions of displaced persons across the world seeking asylum as a result of armed conflict.

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Saatchi Gallery, London

This happens again and again in Pangaea: the seemingly playful signifies something else unequivocally serious and real. In the second gallery space—warning, don’t look up, the ants traverse the threshold—are seven acrylic and mixed media canvases by the young artist Aboudia. At first glance, all you see is noise; the works are covered with graffiti-like markings and splashed with vibrant color. Figures emerge from the chaos with child-like faces sporting big grins. Look harder, and beyond the big grins see the big teeth: the children are dressed in military uniforms and carry bright white guns. Aboudia’s canvases allude to child soldiers in the torn political state of his home in the Republic of the Ivory Coast. These scrawled kids toting sinister weapons evoke the violence in the aftermath of the 2011 elections in the former capital city of Abidjan.

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Saatchi Gallery, London

José Lerma is another artist whose work seems at first like child’s play. Vast canvases are covered with layers of ball-pen doodles—reminiscent of absent-minded scrawlings in a notebook—and cartoon-style drawings that make little sense amidst the chaos. Like Aboudia’s works, the effect is noise: as the exhibition catalogue puts it, the canvases are “struggling for air to breathe.” Lerma’s subject matter emerges when he returns with paint and other household products—in the gallery, one work rests on a keyboard, another is propped up by a synthesizer and speakers, and another is veiled with a pink military parachute—and transforms the works into monumental portraits and effigies. As he references both popular culture and powerful historical figures—King Charles II of England’s silhouette emerges from baby pink nylon—Lerma’s art suggests an approach to the eternal themes of love, power, and war that knows no temporal bounds.

Pangea is all about the cultural and social facets of particular peoples and places. In Benin-based photographer Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou’s C-prints, Desmoiselles de Porto Novo (2012), female models pose topless in traditional African dress in the artist’s grand colonial home. The women look out at the viewer from behind their wooden ceremonial masks—the subject matter confirms the title’s nod to Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)—with coarsely painted features and blank stares. Agbodjélou’s house, complete with antique furnishings and imposing décor, is one of the many mansions built in Porto Novo at the end of the 19th century by Africans returning from South America after the abolition of slavery in Brazil. In this historically loaded setting, Agbodjélou reclaims control for the colonized ‘other’ in the form of a masked female gaze.

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Saatchi Gallery, London

Mário Macilau’s documentary photographs of daily life in his native Maputo, Mozambique toss race aside and engage fiercely with it at the same time. His social snapshots reveal the unhappy repercussions of tyranny and poverty in a picturesque Africa. Peace (The Zionist series) (2010) is a prime example of the way in which he both documents reality and constructs a narrative: a close-up of an African girl hidden beneath a white shawl and coated with white powder is, all at once, beautiful, enchanting, brutal, and overwhelming. The dazzling white makes the black around the girl’s eyes startlingly bold, the bruised color of her skin and lips a rich mystery. All of Macilau’s photographs on display at Saatchi are printed on cotton rag paper. Despite the brightly lit gallery space, they remain natural and raw.

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Saatchi Gallery, London

Oscar Murillo’s mixed media works also look a little tattered and torn, and no wonder. Like two of his pieces laid out like carpets, all of his works begin life on the studio floor. Materials and mediums are interchangeable—a metaphor, we learn, for mixing and breaking hierarchies of race, class, and more. The canvas of Dark Americano (2012) is covered with both oil paint and dirt. Murillo was born in Colombia and emigrated to London as a child, where he adopted a foreign language and cultural customs. In an act of resilience and an effort to strengthen his western identity, he uses the written language and food stuffs that are unquestionably, as the title suggests, American. Cappuccino anyone?

Pangaea: New Art from Africa and Latin America is on display at the Saatchi Gallery in London from April 2 until August 31, 2014.

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EVENING STANDARD – LONDON

Pangaea: New Art from Africa and Latin America, Saatchi Gallery – exhibition review

A globetrotting new show offers astonishing enchantment and terrible beauty — if you ignore the curatorial gobbledegook crawling over it, says Brian Sewell

Wow factor: Rafael Gómezbarros’s ant installation (Picture: Sam Drake)

Updated: 12:19, 03 April 2014

The title of Charles Saatchi’s new exhibition is Pangaea, a 20th-century word that conjures 20th-century fantasies of the world in its infancy when all the current continents were one. Imagine a single great landmass creaking as the primordial thrusts of its volcanic core did battle with the cooling forces of its single surrounding ocean until, some 200 million years ago, with one gigantic crack, it broke asunder. This first crack, roughly around the Tropic of Cancer, divided Pangaea into two smaller supercontinents: Laurasia, which we define as North America, Greenland, Europe and Asia (excluding India), and Gondwanaland, which comprised India, Africa, South America, Australia and Antarctica. When later cracks appeared, and into them the mighty ocean poured, they too were divided. Thus were formed the familiar lesser masses of Eurasia, Africa, Australia, Antarctica and the Americas, and with them the humbler oceans of our atlases.

What, then, should we expect of this first-ever Pangaean exhibition? Art and artefacts made by whatever proto-human pre-Palaeolithic creatures preceded man 200 million years ago, occupying a land so vast that it is beyond imagining? Alas, that is beyond the tenacity of purpose of even Charles Saatchi, and he has reached back only to the second phase of Earth’s development, to Gondwanaland — not the whole of it but Africa and South America, two modern continents that were once in the comfortable contiguity of spoons and lovers, not separated by the cruel Atlantic. With them he plays the sorcerer, brings them into the present day and argues that there are parallels in their respective modern cultures — parallels neither drawn from them nor emerging from a distant past but imposed by the “increasingly globalised art world” of the present.

I have been making this point for 30 years, for 30 years ago it was already clear that international media had engendered international forms of contemporary art and that nothing could prevent some fashionable foolishness in Manhattan from being almost immediately mimicked in Moscow and Mumbai. Now it is no longer almost. It is immediate. There had been international movements before — ancient Roman all over Europe and the Near East, Byzantine from Anatolia to Aachen, the Gothic of the north just reaching south over the Alps, the Italian Renaissance informing the architecture of even England, the Baroque reaching Batavia, Neoclassicism spreading to America and Australia — but all these took decades, even centuries, to mature, conform to rules and develop authority. In the International Silliness of most contemporary art, however, everything has become as suddenly ubiquitous as fried chicken and the caffé latte, with even human faeces as a popular medium. There is nothing specifically English about the work of Hirst and Emin, our super-paragons. They are merely international.

Roll on: Fredy Alzate’s ball of bricks

Let us forget Pangaea and Gondwanaland and instead look for some distinguishing quality that sets apart Saatchi’s African and Latin artists, all of whom have surprisingly long biographies that prove them to be thoroughly international, already widely celebrated and certainly not new kids on the block.

The exhibition opens with an installation in which enormous ants, half a metre long and with a leg span of almost a metre, climb the walls and crowd into a corner, as ants do. It is as infinitely extensible, repeatable and transferable as any Field by Antony Gormley, and is easy to imagine on the exterior of the Hayward Gallery or any of the facilities built for the Olympic Games. It is, however, an allegory of sorts and we are expected to interpret it as addressing the plight of the world’s asylum- seekers. Alas, I completely missed the point. But it has something of a wow factor and is at once astonishing, and then (worse still for its maker, Rafael Gómezbarros, a Colombian) gives pleasure, amusement and delight. It would be a wonderful decoration for a fashionable restaurant or in the entrance hall of Deutsche Bank, where it could take on an entirely different meaning.

 

From the exhibition guide I understand thatFredyAlzate (Colombia) “explores the inherent contradictions ofuncontainable urban development” but what I saw in his huge ball of bricks was only an enchanting and desirable object, demanding to be touched.

 

I was impressed too by the vast wall-hanging of Ibrahim Mahama (Ghana), a gloomy, oppressive, Arte Povera decoration of old coal sacks sewn together, worn, torn and filthy. But again I missed the political and social argument and saw instead pathetic beauty, a beauty that could so readily be adapted to the stage. It could be a backdrop to Wagner’s Ring or any example of Italian verismo but I dare say that if one suggested its acquisition by English National Opera, the perverse panjandrums there would use it for Der Rosenkavalier and La Traviata.

From the exhibition guide I understand that Fredy Alzate (Colombia) “explores the inherent contradictions of uncontainable urban development” but what I saw in his huge ball of bricks was only an enchanting and desirable object, the whimsical welding of two tiny Byzantine domes into a globe, an amusing garden ornament, a thing that one must have for its mischievous thinginess, demanding to be touched.

Astonishing: Ibrahim Mahama, Untitled, 2013 Even in what I thought the explicit photographs of Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou (Benin), I missed the point. As they depict the Demoiselles of Porto-Novo — nubile young women wearing over their faces what appear to be ancient tribal masks — I took them to be a commentary on their indifference to the practice of prostitution by both the prostitute and the client. Agbodjélou makes us the clients and in his haunting corridors and enfilades our purpose is to discover sex at its raw simplest, the whole woman no more than a substitute for the urgent hand, the business profoundly primitive and as old as the hills. These photographs are still, silent, poignant, beautiful and terrible, in the best sense of that word. Agbodjélou’s intention, however, was quite other and has something to do with the reversal of colonisation and slavery.

One thing, then, is clear: these artists from Gondwanaland are as dependent on curatorial interpretation as any in western Europe. Among the 16 I have found four — a high quota — who seem, within their own parameters, to have some considerable virtue. But, according to the curator, Gabriela Salgado, I have utterly misunderstood their work and perceived what is not there. But should I trust her? She has, from the Royal College of Art, an MA in curating contemporary art, of which one essential discipline is glib command of the prolix international gobbledegook that only such curators speak; she is, indeed, an instrument of the “increasingly globalised art world” that now regiments the artist rather than releases him.

Pangaea: New Art from Africa and Latin America is at the Saatchi Gallery, SW3 (020 7811 3070, saatchigallery.com) until August 31. Daily 10am-6pm. Admission free.

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 THE INDEPENDENT – LONDON

Huge ants are the stars of the show at the Saatchi Gallery

Colombian artist Rafael Gómezbarros’ horrifying insects are among the highlights of an uneven show of work from Africa and Latin America

The visitor to Pangaea: New Art from Africa and Latin America at the Saatchi Gallery is confronted by sculptures of huge ants, crawling all over the walls of the first room. They are monstrous – the size of human babies. They clamber over one another, desperate to gorge on some hidden patch of honey. Some are solitary, others cluster in corners. They call to mind Kafka’s travelling salesman Gregor, who transformed into an insect overnight and spent the rest of his days crawling up and down his bedroom walls.

Rather than Western alienation, however, these ants signify the plight of migrant workers in Latin America. The installation is the work of Colombian artist Rafael Gómezbarros, and it is a powerful, viscerally unnerving beginning to the exhibition.

“Pangaea” refers to the pre-human landmass that once united Africa and Latin America, before it began to break apart 200 million years ago. These two very different nations were once a “supercontinent”. The work of 16 contemporary artists has been “brought together by the utopian notion of a unified Pangaea”, according to Argentinian-born, London-based curator Gabriela Salgado. If you google “Pangaea”, you find that it’s also the name of a vegan store and an organic skincare company. The term has been claimed by “one love” hippiedom. It seems suspect to me: rather than utopian, the exhibition runs the risk of committing the Modernist crime of lumping all “primitive” art together under one banner.

However, it is self-aware. Some of the artists are outstanding, some are mediocre. Whatever you think of Charles Saatchi, he did a great thing by donating the gallery to the public in 2010 and providing free admission. There are mostly paintings, but also photography, installation, and some sculpture. The most compelling works are those that do not appear in thrall to the Western art tradition and assert their own distinct visual language.

 

The next room is the most spectacular by far. It is filled with paintings by Aboudia, a young artist from Ivory Coast, who is thrillingly talented. His is the kind of art I love: formally brilliant and suffused with a death-defying energy, an insistence on life. These large canvases radiate a special kind of exuberance, though their subject matter is the trauma of the country’s civil war.

Aboudia’s life has transformed over the last few years: in 2011, he was painting the escalation of violence in Abidjan, following the disputed presidential elections. He had been homeless. His work came to the attention of the new Jack Bell Gallery in London, which specialises in African art. Now celebrities such as A-Rod, the American baseball star, are buying his work. And you can see why

Aboudia has been compared to Jean-Michel Basquiat; he too started off as a street artist. He creates layers of collage of found-images on canvases, before painting over them in thick, bright colours.

His paintings show figures, shocked by violence. Le Couloir de la Mort (2011) is a staggering painting that is slow to reveal its story. The canvas is dominated by blackness, but a figure with a white skull for a head hovers to the right, splattered by green paint, which is suggestive of blood. His eyes are shocked and cartoonish; he appears horrified by what he has done. His weapon is pointed at a girl on the left. She is drawn very faintly. She is holding her hand up, seemingly begging the skull man not to shoot. But the faintness of her form suggests that it is too late. She appears like a ghost, or the chalk outline of a body on a pavement. The skull man’s body is effaced by dark red paint. It seems that he is doused in blood that is not his own, a sign of his guilt. The painting is searing.

Another phenomenal work by Aboudia is Enfant dans la Rue 1 (2013). It shows a white naked figure lying across the bottom of the canvas. With a claw-like grip, he holds on top of him a red-brown figure, who turns towards the viewer with Aboudia’s trademark expression of stunned terror. The white figure is seemingly violating the brown figure from behind. This is an apt and forceful symbol of colonialism and the on-going injustices of global trade.

Above, photographs of tribal objects have been pasted on to the canvas, as well as photographs of African women’s hairstyles. These images point to a history mired in plunder: the fetish for “primitive” art in the West, the objectification of Africa as an ethnographic case study, the dominance of a Western beauty ideal, which makes hair a political issue.

African art in particular seems to be emerging fast in the global art market. Last year, the first contemporary African art fair, 1:54, was held in London. Of course, not merely race and ethnicity but class is a factor in defining these artists’ oeuvres. Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou from Benin is another outstanding artist represented by Jack Bell Gallery. Rather than depicting street scenes of violence, Untitled Triptych (Demoiselles de Porto-Novo Series) (2012) consists of sumptuous colour photographs of the interior of a colonial mansion, which has belonged to the artist’s family for generations. His grandfather built it in 1890 after making a lot of money selling lemonade to the French and Portuguese armies. Benin was key to the slave trade: 12 million slaves once departed from the country’s ports.

The central image of the triptych is grave and unsettling. A bare-breasted woman from Porto Novo leans against a vivid blue wall. She wears a white painted Egungun mask, which she has unhooked from the nail in the wall above her head. To the right, there is a Pentecostal religious calendar. Because the viewer can’t see her face, the image is inscrutable. Is she mocking the viewer by mimicking the conventions of Western “primitivism”?

The series possibly references Picasso’s painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), which marked the beginning of cubism. The painting shows five naked females, some of whom are wearing African masks. Picasso reworked the painting after visiting the African and Oceanic collections in the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadero in Paris, and the geometric forms and bold lines recall some of the art of the continent. But the rich and complex histories on which the Modernists drew for inspiration were often not credited as such. Instead, they were perceived as “backward”.

Not all of the work in this exhibition is strong. It is uneven. There is too much abstract painting, which makes no impression and seems indebted to the Western tradition. I wasn’t convinced by the Pop Art-inspired room. However, I liked the work of Ibrahim Mahama, Boris Nzebo and Oscar Murillo. And the frenzied, mixed-media expressionist drawings of black South African artist David Koloane stand out. They are wonderful.

Now in his seventies, Koloane co-founded the first black art gallery in Johannesburg under apartheid. The Night Has a Thousand Eyes (2007-8) is a startling, eerie drawing of dogs with glowing yellow eyes roaming under a full moon. Owls watch over women in pink dresses marked with crosses. The dog is a recurring symbol of greed and police brutality in Koloane’s work. While well-fed dogs bark behind the high-security fences of wealthy whites, mongrels prowl the black townships and scavenge. “Apartheid was a politics of space more than anything,” Koloane has said. “Claiming art is also reclaiming space.”

Pangaea: New Art from Africa and Latin America, Saatchi Gallery, London SW3 (saatchigallery.com) today to 31 August

Reviews of the 2014 Armory Show, Independent Fair and satellite fairs

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Why This Year's Whitney Biennial Should Be Seen Through a (Slightly) Rose-Colored Lens

Photograph by Joseph Rynkiewicz/Courtesy Kavi Gupta/Chicago/Berlin
Tony Tasset, Artists Monument (2014)

There’s an anecdote I try to remember every time I get too down on New York and its coddled, flighty art world. One afternoon over lunch, I unburdened myself of months’ worth of negativity to the painter Chuck Close, a brilliant artist who has spent the last quarter of a century partying inside a wheelchair. After sympathetically hearing me out, he picked up his glass of wine with both hands, took a sip, and gave me a patient smile.

“Christian,” he said, “You know how some people say they are folks who see the world as a glass half full and others as a glass half empty?” I nodded.

“Well, even in the worst of times, and despite some very low points, I’ve always been a glass-three-quarters-full person. Sometimes I don’t know if there isn’t something wrong with me.”

Location Info

Whitney Museum Of American Art

945 Madison Ave.
New York, NY 10021

Category: Museums

Region: East 80s

 

VILLAGE VOICE

Details

Whitney Biennial 2014
Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue
212-570-3600, whitney.org
Through May 25

After recovering from my embarrassment, I assured him that there was absolutely nothing wrong. Looking back now, I realize that viewing the glass as three-quarters full has turned into an elusive but important personal goal.

Now, bear with me. After a year in which your correspondent has been especially critical of the global Ponzi scheme involving very expensive art, it has also become necessary, I believe, to identify glimmers of originality and resistance to art world corruption and reasonably support them where they exist. Seen in this light, the Whitney Biennial 2014 appears to be a glass-three-quarters-full–type exhibition. There’s plenty to dislike about this wildly uneven, often frustrating selection of alternative American art. But after a couple of visits, I’m convinced that this version of “the show everyone loves to hate” — it has long presented a feckless parade of in-crowd and market favorites — deserves an extra dose of optimism, or at least the benefit of the doubt.

A last hurrah at the old Marcel Breuer ziggurat before the Whitney goes full bridge-and-tunnel in the Meatpacking District, this year’s model boasts a distinct layer cake structure, with loads of schlag on top of the flakier crumb. A product of the museum’s decision to turn over the biennial to a trio of outside curators, the survey stacks up like three individual displays housed on separate floors of the Whitney’s trademark building. To the degree that these independent shows share similar themes, this is due mostly to a joint foreign bias. Because the exhibition’s organizers live or have recently lived outside of New York — Stuart Comer in London, Anthony Elms in Philadelphia, and Michelle Grabner in Chicago — the Whitney Biennial 2014 reflects an essential parallel-universe view of American art as seen from outside Manhattan’s grossly blinged-up, tin-eared echo chamber.

That two of the curators, Elms and Grabner, are also artists adds further quirks to the show’s salutary strangeness. Other general traits worth noting: Most of the exhibition’s 103 artists hail from outside of the five boroughs (New York has 50 artists in the exhibition, L.A. 19, and Chicago’s much livelier scene 17), and there are only a few examples of anything that could pass for trophy art (namely, Sterling Ruby’s oversize ceramic ashtrays and Jacqueline Humphries‘s reflective metallic paintings). Also of interest: The single show that the catalog describes as “three biennials under one roof” skews much older than previous iterations. Consider that as many as 40 percent of the participating artists are dead or over 50, the latter being far more career-killing. This seems appropriate at a time when there is nothing more conservative than youth culture. Given art’s current magnet-like pull on image-conscious hip-hop artists, social network wunderkinds, and Rip van With-Its, this potential virtue will probably still upset certain folks who obsessively cling to puerile countercultures, photogenic undergrounds, and new bohemias.

Provided maturity, intelligence, and complex artistic vision is what you’re after, you’re in luck, so long as you take the elevator directly to the fourth floor and Grabner’s exhibition. By far the most sophisticated and complete of the “three biennials,” this pedagogue’s installation (she teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago) not only contains about half the show’s artists, it also encompasses a working curriculum for what she has elegantly termed “the waywardness of contemporary art.” Among the escape-cum-vacations featured on Grabner’s floor are Ken Lum‘s Vietnam War–inspired commercial-sign sculpture, Dan Walsh‘s optically dazzling geometric abstractions, Jennifer Bornstein‘s muscular video of naked women wrestling, and David Diao‘s painting-as-critique of auction-house shenanigans. Realistic politics flow subtly but insistently throughout Grabner’s cussedly ecumenical view of art in America. The proof: The first and last thing you see on the fourth floor is Dawoud Bey’s 2008 confident candidate portrait of Barack Obama.

It’s a steep drop from the fourth to the third floor, and an even scarier one from the third to the second, yet there are rewards to be found in each of the show’s strata. Stuart Comer’s third floor, for instance, contains Bjarne Melgaard‘s romper room of televisionary ecological disaster and violence, Triple Canopy‘s enlightening installation about the shifting meanings of deaccessioned art, and Keith Mayerson‘s salon-style hang of earnestly realistic paintings. Does Comer, MOMA‘s new curator of media and performance art, get carried away by a professional attachment to the written word? He most certainly does, as the presence of dryly démodé French theory publishers Semiotext(e) proves. But this is still a show about basic premises. The takeaway: Not all ideas are created equal, especially in an exhibition trying vintage and newfangled notions on for size.

Similar problems trickle down to Anthony Elms’s second-floor encounter with old and new approaches to organizing this clusterfreak of an exhibition. Like on the other floors, the viral curatorial tic of presenting piles of archival contents as content makes an unimpressive appearance in an area devoted to artist Joseph Grigely‘s display of critic Gregory Battcock‘s ephemera, but then, remarkably, sparks fire in a second pack-rat installation by Chicago’s Public Collectors (aka artist Marc Fischer). A room full of recordings, photos, artifacts, and a briefcase that once belonged to Midwest antiwar protester Malachi Ritscher, its items are wholly transformed by wall text that identifies Ritscher as the martyr who publicly immolated himself in opposition to the Iraq war in 2006.

As Grabner put it, this is not a show (or shows) about “talent hunting,” but about the hard work of making art in an impoverished creative ecology that rewards surface over depth, the easy over the hard-won, the affectless over the affecting, and the facile over the dedicated. An exhibition that tries to change the subject from branded art lifestyles to lives lived for and through art, it finds its most perfect expression in Tony Tasset‘s multicolored 80-foot shipping container memorial (located offsite at Hudson River Park). Titled simply Artists Monument, it lists the names, as culled from the web, of the world’s known 392,486 modern and contemporary artists. That’s a powerful community to reflect on — and more than enough reason to keep the glass, mine or anyone else’s, at a steady three-quarters full.

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Exhibitions

The Most Spectacular Artworks in the Whitney Biennial

By Andrew M. Goldstein

March 14, 2014

The Most Spectacular Artworks in the Whitney Biennial

Artist Zoe Leonard’s camera obscura in the 2014 Whitney Biennial

Art-world insiders pored over (almost) every nook and cranny of the Whitney Biennial last week, sharply dissecting the historic three-curator show’s organizational themes and trying to divine what its still-wet artistic entrails portend about the state of contemporary art. Now the public has been welcomed into the last biennial before the museum relocates to the Meatpacking District, and as they explore the show they’ll be importing a completely different set of concerns—for one thing, they’ll be far more interested in the art itself than analyzing the curatorial structure. And luckily, some of the work on view is pretty out-there, guaranteed to give viewers the provocative jolt we all love to encounter in contemporary art.

So what should visitors look out for, if only to have something to scandalize their coworkers/friends/parents/children with in the retelling? Here are glosses on a few of the most spectacular works on view, with “spectacular” meaning “something that attracts attention because it is very unusual or very shocking.” (Of these, the most actually shocking to some visitors might be Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst‘s celebration of transgender love, but since we already covered it here, and since the New York Times already made them the cover stars of their article on “The Growing Transgender Presence in Pop Culture,” it’s safe to assume they’re already known quantities.)

ZOE LEONARD
leonard 1

It’s something of a tradition for artists to have their Biennial contributions duet site-specifically with Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist architecture—you may remember, for instance, R.H. Quaytman’s bravura painting series in the 2010 Biennial that riffed on its irregular windows—and so it’s fitting that the final edition in the building would do so in a memorable way. And, boy, did Zoe Leonard come up with something special. In a fourth-floor room that curator Anthony Elms borrowed from Michelle Grabner, the artist carried out the most minimal intervention imaginable: she covered the window, except for a single aperture, and turned out the lights. The result is a camera obscura that projects an upside-down view of the street outside on the gallery’s walls, growing incredibly distinct and then dimming as the sun arcs through the sky.

leonard hole

So why a camera obscura, an ancient optical device around since the time of Alexander the Great, in the 2014 biennial? For one thing, the effect it creates here is completely beautiful, rhyming the square coffering of the ceiling with the windows of the high-rise across Madison Avenue, and it neatly pulls off the Duchampian marriage of art and life by bringing the street inside the museum; for another (perhaps unintentional) thing, the upside-downing serves as a reminder that Renzo Piano’s downtown Whitney museum looks suspiciously like the Breuer building flipped on its head. Also, camera obscuras have been all the rage lately in contemporary art—Allyson Vieira, for instance, used one to striking effect in her recent Swiss Institute show—perhaps because of the theory, put forth by David Hockney and the documentary “Tim’s Vermeer,” that such old masters as Jan van Eyck and Vermeer used the simple technology to make their paintings.

BJARNE MELGAARD
bjarne

Did you ever play the game “penis” growing up, where someone says the word quietly and then someone says it louder and you go on and on until your crazy friend shouts it at the top of their lungs and wins. Well, Bjarne Melgaard just won “penis” forever, game over. Entering his display on curator Stuart Comer‘s second floor, one first passes through a slit of diaphanous pinkish fabric (wink, wink) to enter a room that might just be a perfect cross of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” (there’s even a vaguely Chairy-looking sofas sitting around) and what may have been going through Paul Reubens’s head the night he got busted doing something un-kid-friendly in a porn theater.

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Looking around, the first thing you may notice are the naked or semi-clad anatomically correct mannequins of bouffant-haired blond models sitting around the room as if in some post-bacchanalian daze. (Melgaard fans may recognize these as caucasian cognates of the black S&M mannequin that caused a stir recently when a certain Russian art patron used it as a chair.) Then you might spot the videos playing on screens in the corner, one showing people fornicating and the other showing monkeys doing the same. But the imagery you are guaranteed to leave with are the penises. They’re everywhere, made of novelty pillows that merge pornographic members with psychedelically playful toys and Internet memes, and they achieve their most triumphant expression in the bristlingly virile archway directly inside the door. See it, tell your buddies, and don’t think about the art part too hard.

DAVID FOSTER WALLACE
foster wallace

In a show replete with poets, publishers, journalists, and writers of all stripes, the megawatt star is unquestionably the late David Foster Wallace, who is represented on Michelle Grabner’s floor with a quartet of notebooks that relate to his unfinished novel The Pale King and two scribbled-on pages from a legal pad of “interview notes” for his magisterial 2006 profile of tennis player Roger Federer in the New York Times Magazine. Some explanation: The Pale King, which he was working on when he committed suicide in 2009 (and which was posthumously published in 2011), is a footnote-festooned multicharacter saga that in typical Wallacian style delves into the arcana of an IRS office in Peoria, Illinois; the manuscripts were a “vital inclusion” in the show, a piece of wall text notes, “not only for [Wallace's] Midwestern roots, shared by many artists in curator Michelle Grabner’s section, but also for the ethical nature of his creative output.”

Wallace names

So, what are we actually dealing with here, visually speaking? On the inside cover of one spiral notebook is a list of “Good Names” (which one viewer excitedly misread as “God Names,” much to his later disappointment) including “R.L. Keek,” “Elisabeth Bottomky,” “Reed Reed,” “Elipidia Carter,” and, number 32, “Female Nickname: The Finger;” an adjoining page in that notebook contains some minimal doodles that could tendentiously be called Twomblyesque (what, in a notebook, couldn’t?). Another journal, displayed closed, bears a pink cover of a blue-eyed kitten cuddling with flower blossoms under the title “Cuddly Cuties™,” with a triangle-ish piece of white paper taped over it labeled “Scenes.”

wallace obama

The most interesting notebook, however, is one that features a pasted-in strip from “The Phenomenon,” Michael Tomasky’s 2006 essay on Barack Obama in The New York Review of Books, with the description that the future president was at heart “a civic republican—a believer in civic virtue and in the possibility of good outcomes negotiated in good faith” underlined. A line with an arrow points away from that quote to the name “Steyck,” and on the opposite page, Wallace writes: “Mild-Mannered Administrator: Non-confrontational. Suffers fools quietly. He’ll listen to them until they talk themselves out—won’t interrupt. (Lives by “Desiderate.”)” In The Pale King, Leonard Steyck is a “pathologically nice” IRS administrator who is continually humiliated by less-principled rivals. Wallace did not live to see Obama’s inauguration.

LAURA OWENS
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Behold, the biggest painting in this painting-happy show: Laura Owens’s pharaonically scaled and decidedly unsentimental homage to a cheesy motivational poster. This thing is huge—maybe 15 feet tall?—and chockablock with painterly brilliance. Owens, a Los Angeles-based artist who specializes in using both digital and old-fashioned analogue means to paint canvases of Joycean painterly complexity, has used around two dozen different techniques to make it. That latticework giving the painting a digital vibe, for instance, is sculptural and sits on top of the surface; the aquamarine streak at the top left and purple circle at the top right are fat clumps of paint affixed on the canvas.

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The intricacy doesn’t stop there. In his review of the Biennial, ace art critic Andrew Russeth praised the “superb” painting and wished there were “two or three more (at least), [so] you could get a sense of her range.” He might be happy to learn that there are actually four more Owens paintings in the show—each of them secretly nested, Babushka-style, behind this whopper of a canvas. There’s also, apparently, a book back there. What can you do when faced with an onslaught like this, other than to just drop your jaw.

 DIEGO LECLERY
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In a show full of hard-to-find artworks secreted throughout the building, from Yve Laris Cohen‘s chunk of wall that is removed every day and replaced to Darren Bader’s unobtrusive money-collecting bins in the basement, the most satisfying Easter egg may come courtesy of the 35-year-old French artist Diego Leclery. Located in the downstairs outdoor sculpture garden near Radamés “Juni” Figueroa’s shed, his piece is more or less completely hidden from view: it consists of the artist sitting at a desk behind a concrete column, playing the video game “Civilization” on a desktop computer… for the entire run of the Biennial, throughout all museum hours, in all weather conditions.

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Leclery, who knows Michelle Grabner and does a performance every holiday season at her Suburban art space in which he dresses up as a polar bear, presents his durational undertaking as a post-studio gambit: he hopes to transmute his love of the interminable strategy game, which he says is the only part of his life that he hasn’t incorporated in his work, into a piece of art through sheer dogged willpower, changing the game from something that exists physically outside the museum into something that lives conceptually within the boundaries of the museum context.

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“The game is a real zero, artistically speaking,” Leclery said. “I want to see if the museum can turn that zero into a one, and I can make some ducats. Because, really, the collapse of art into life is about the ability to make money.” The artist, who has played “Civilization” for years, now has it set on its hardest difficulty level, “Deity.” He’s never beaten it at that difficulty, and it may, in fact, be impossible. When you go to the Biennial, head downstairs and say hello—he’ll be happy to talk about his work, the show, anything at all really. It’s a pretty dull game.

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Whitney 2014 Biennial: Five Hot Artists to Watch

5:21 PM PST 3/7/2014 by John DeFore
Whitney Museum Exterior Small - P 2014
Courtesy of Jerry L. Thompson

The museum presents the final survey of contemporary art to be held in historic Marcel Breuer building.

Its downtown digs may be nearing completion (the target for opening is spring 2015), but the Whitney Museum of American Art has one last installment of its closely watched Biennial to offer in its iconic Marcel Breuer-designed uptown home. However flexible the event has been since its 1932 beginning (at some points it was held annually instead of every other year), the Biennial has always aimed to present an informed, persuasive survey of what matters in contemporary American art. This year that job fell to three curators: Stuart Comer, Anthony Elms, and Michelle Grabner — each of whom was responsible for filling one floor of the building.

More than usual, this year’s event (running from March 7 through May 25) stretches notions of what constitutes an artwork, incorporating everything from the notebooks and marginalia of author David Foster Wallace and a series of trade paperbacks published by Semiotext(e) to two films made not for galleries but for the cinema. Both Andrew Bujalski‘s 2013 Computer Chess and Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel‘s experimental doc Leviathan are playing in full on continuous loops for the exhibition’s duration. One hundred and three participants (some of whom are collectives with multiple members) are represented, making the show impossible to summarize. But that doesn’t mean some don’t stand out:

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An abstract backdrop of The Great Train Robbery sequence descriptions exhibited in a L.A storage unit.

Los Angeles-based Dashiell Manley, one of the youngest artists there, got his MFA a mere three years ago from UCLA. His ambitious The Great Train Robbery, expected to take ten years or so to finish, will be a scene-by-scene remake of Edwin S. Porter‘s landmark silent film, albeit not your ordinary remake: Each scene is shot against an abstract backdrop covered with shorthand-like descriptions of the film’s action, sequences that may only obliquely refer to the original. The installation at the Whitney, a recreation of the film’s third scene, was previously exhibited in a L.A. storage unit.

Why focus on this film, one wonders? “I had been wanting to remake a film for a while,” Manley says, “and there were two specific criteria that I was looking for. I wanted the film to be a first in as many ways as possible: first action film, first jump cut, etc. Second, I wanted the film to have been remade already.” Michael Crichton‘s 1978 version starred Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland.

“More than the idea of simply remaking a film,” he continues, “I am interested in telling the same story over and over again and the core reasons why we do this.” Other scenes in the project will be produced in different styles; the one he’s making now will be “traditional hand drawn animation, no physical sets or props,” he says.

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Sample of Auerbach’s knittings on mannequins

Lisa Anne Auerbach, also based in L.A., has multiple works in the survey: A giganto-sized publication titled American Megazine (two gallery assistants are required to help browse through its massive pages), and an assortment of knitted wool garments and hangings inscribed with personal and/or political themes. “Knitting was just another way to get ideas into the world,” she says, noting that she arrived at it in the midst of making things like zines, flyers and photographs. Though a knitted cap and a Goliath magazine might seem strange bedfellows, she says matter-of-factly that “it’s all self-publishing.”

Three mannequins in Auerbach’s gallery wear many of her colorful creations, including such topical works as No On 8 (Ghost), which seemingly refers to both California’s Proposition 8 and the Octomom media phenomenon, and We Are All Pussy Riot, We Are All Pussy Galore, which name-checks women who’ve bedeviled both James Bond and Vladimir Putin. If the figures suggest an edgily adult version of playing dress-up, maybe it’s appropriate that one of the collectors of Auerbach’s work, Jane Holzer, started public life as one of Andy Warhol‘s Superstars under the name Baby Jane.

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Acoustic-style poems by Susan Howe.

Poet and academic Susan Howe, who at 76 is one of the Biennial’s elders (Etel Adnan, born in 1925, is the oldest), is also one of its most unusual selectees: “I feel somewhat of an oddity,” she admits, as someone whose work is generally found in editions from the venerable New Directions press as opposed to on gallery walls.

But the poems in Tom Tit Tot look more like slice-and-dice collage than something from a literary journal. The exquisite, minimalist black-and-white letterpress prints combine typographical fragments representing varied source texts into abstractions that are only partly legible. Though her influences include artists Kurt Schwitters and Agnes Martin alongside the expected Dickinson and Yeats, Howe insists the compositions “are meant to be read.”

“I believe that every mark on paper is acoustic,” she says. “So the sound and sight of a letter, or even a piece of one, a cross out, a misspelling etc. has an acoustic and visual effect that is part of meaning. In fact I have a very definite way of reading them aloud but obviously a reader might read them differently.” These particular poems are so new that Howe hasn’t recorded her own readings, but she’s working with composer David Grubbs on live performances.

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Mayerson’s stylized painting of Spiderman

Installed like the jam-packed, floor-to-ceiling offerings of an old-fashioned artists’ salon, the dozens of paintings making up Keith Mayerson‘s My American Dream are meant to work as comic-book panels to tell a non-linear narrative. From stylized images of super-heroes and the cover of Marvin Gaye‘s What’s Going On to paintings based on snapshots of Mayerson with his husband Andrew Madrid, they suggest a life that began in fantasy and continues to draw strength from larger-than-life figures.

Comparing his own collection of inspirational images to that of Anne Frank, who pasted images of high and low culture on her wall, Mayerson matches Elvis and Kermit the Frog with historic heroes including Rosa Parks and Abraham Lincoln. “All together,” he says, “it is hopefully a sublime, ultimately positive and optimistic vision of family … of how personal agency and power can help and inspire to make America and the world a better place.”

Given Mayerson’s fondness for subjects like Superman and Spiderman, it may be appropriate that X-Men star Famke Janssen owns a picture he made of sculptor Louise Bourgeois.

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Rainbow-colored fibers by Sheila Hicks

The Whitney itself: Perhaps inevitably, artists in each curator’s group find ways to turn the once-controversial, now-cherished Breuer building into part of the show. Sheila Hicks creates a column of rainbow-hued fibers to draw the viewer’s eye up into the open coffering of the ceiling. Zoe Leonard turns one of Breuer’s skewed windows into a camera obscura, projecting a dim image of the building’s across-the-street neighbors on the wall of a darkened room.

Sound artist Charlemagne Palestine installed speakers throughout the stairwell, giving that already-somewhat-eerie space an even creepier vibe. And in the middle of a third-floor gallery, Morgan Fisher‘s Ro(Ro(Room)om)om plays with the design of the Whitney’s future building to make a sheetrock puzzle-space whose walls have yet to be adorned with any kind of art. Here’s hoping the rooms of that building prove to be as good a home for American art’s cutting edge as Breuer’s have been since the building’s opening in 1966.

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Whitney Biennial and the Armory Show: New York’s busiest art week

For the first time since 2004, the commercial and non-commercial art platforms share the same week. Are curators being forced to rethink their roles?

Armory Show
Crowds at this year’s Armory Show. Photograph: The Armory Show

New York is saturated with contemporary art in usual times, but this week it is full to bursting.

The Armory Show opened on Wednesday, on the piers of the Hudson River. A large crowd of collectors, curators, advisers and groupies charged through a notably strong edition of the city’s largest art fair. Many, though, had already had a full helping of contemporary art across town, at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The Whitney Biennial, the city’s leading museum show of contemporary art, opened the day before – opening-night crowds for the perplexing, all-over-the-shop exhibition waited for half an hour or more to get inside.

This is the first year since 2004 that New York’s most prominent commercial and non-commercial platforms for contemporary art have fallen in the same week, However, while the Armory and the Whitney Biennial would pack an art-lover’s schedule on their own, there is even more to choose from. The Armory Show is only the biggest of 10 fairs, including the blue-chip ADAA Art Show and the young, scruffy Independent.

The Whitney Biennial has a spinoff in the form of the Brucennial, a rammed exhibition featuring around 600 female artists. (Women’s representation had been getting better in recent Whitney Biennials, but they account for less than a third of the artists at the museum this year.)

Trailer for the Brucennial, which ends this year.

It keeps going. The week’s openings have also included a Gauguin exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art; a vital show on art and civil rights in the 1960s at the Brooklyn Museum; three large solo presentations at PS1, MoMA’s hipper kid sister in Queens; and untold numbers of openings at commercial galleries. Then there are auctions at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips, for collectors who still have money to burn.

The 2014 Whitney Biennial, the museum’s 77th edition, is a relatively large one. It includes work by 103 participants, splashed across three floors plus the lobby, basement, stairwell and elevators, and sites around town. Diverse to the point of incoherence, it does gel around a few themes.

There’s a good amount of abstract painting, such as from the Brooklyn-based artist Amy Sillman, as well as sculptures made of ceramic or fabric, such as a tumbling multi-colored tower of yarn from the 80-year-old Sheila Hicks. Numerous works involve archival research or presentations of historical material, such as a project by Joseph Grigley showcasing ephemera from a murdered art critic.

There’s also lots – really, lots – of sex and nudity, much of it homoerotic, most impressively in a nightmarish installation from the workaholic Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard (subject of a recent uproar involving Dasha Zhukova and racial insensitivity). There are a few oddball inclusions, such as the late author David Foster Wallace, whose notebooks for his novel The Pale King are displayed like relics.

Amy Sillman
Mother, by Amy Sillman. John Beren/Whitney Museum of American Art

Early reviews have not been kind. Unlike in previous iterations, the biennial’s three curators did not collaborate on a single presentation but worked on discrete sections individually. That independence may have contributed to the wildly divergent quality of work on display, according to Joshua Decter, a curator and the author of a new book, Art is a Problem.

“It probably would have been more productive for the three curators to have actually collaborated closely on one show, rather than each doing their own quasi-autonomous shows,” said Decter, who has attended every biennial since 1977. “The result may have actually been similar, but a more rigorous collaborative process might have led to a refining of each curator’s selections, and demanded of each to make useful edits and compromises.”

The Armory Show, by contrast, beat expectations. Hunted these past two years by the new Frieze New York fair, Armory has made a substantial push under its young director, Noah Horowitz, to refresh itself with a more rigorous selection process and a more international scope. The result is a fair finding its footing again after years of its future being in doubt.

Several dealers have booths with just a single artist, often showing not evidently commercial work. The booth of Marianne Boesky Gallery, for example, is overtaken by a riotous construction of interconnected black wood planks by Serge Alain Nitegeka, an artist born in Burundi and based in South Africa. Alison Jacques, a London dealer, has given her booth over to the Brazilian artist Fernanda Gomes, whose art consists of minimal, almost offhand interventions in the gallery: a twig, a glass of water, a ping-pong ball.

This year’s Armory also includes a section devoted to Chinese art that features 17 galleries, nine of which have never shown outside of Asia. There’s a commissioned artwork from the Shanghai-born provocateur Xu Zhen, consisting of a white cube with performers locked inside, chucking sculptures into the air. It works as a parody of the typical art fair experience, with the art glimpsed only for a second before disappearing again.

Art of Change
Xu Zhen’s Art of Change installation. Photograph: The Armory Show

The China programming has been organized by Philip Tinari, the director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. It also includes an educational symposium on Chinese contemporary art. As recently as a few years ago, a museum director organizing part of an art fair would have felt bizarre. Today, with the market in perpetual boom, it feels almost conventional.

“I think we all have to learn how to make peace with the art fairs,” Tinari says. “It’s not that you ally with them infinitely, but this felt to me like a productive insertion at this time. And what institutions are really going to show these artists in New York now?

“That’s one of the great things about the fair in New York. It’s unlike Dubai, or even Miami. It’s not just the black-card holders. It’s the rank and file of the profession, it’s all these students. You have an audience that feels real.”

The overlapping of commercial and non-commercial, the market and the museum, has been the dominant theme of this art-saturated week. The Whitney Biennial’s curators have positioned their show in opposition to the booming art market, with many works from artist collectives and almost nothing from the large galleries of Chelsea. Yet the simultaneous opening of Armory, and all the other shows and sales, has highlighted the ongoing convergence of the two sectors.

Sterling Ruby
Basin Theology/Butterfly Wreck, by Sterling Ruby. Photograph: Robert Wedemeyer/Whitney Museum of American Art

The biennial, after all, is sponsored in part by Sotheby’s, and many of the auction house’s clients packed the Tuesday night opening while hundreds of others (including at least one former Whitney Biennial curator) queued in the cold outside. Works by several biennial artists, including Sterling Ruby and Channa Horwitz, could be bought at Armory or Independent; the biennial catalogue’s acknowledgements section thanks dozens of galleries. Michelle Grabner, one of the three biennial curators, is herself a painter – her work is on sale at the Armory Show.

The seemingly unstoppable proliferation of the art market, and the continued push of commercial enterprises into terrain that was once just for museums, has forced curators of biennials and other non-commercial shows to rethink their roles. But by the fifth day of New York’s stuffed contemporary art week, it was unclear just what role the Whitney Biennial still played in defining American art in a global, money-soaked ecosystem.

“The Armory Show now deploys intellectual window-dressing to give it some cosmopolitan street cred,” Decter observed. “And the Whitney Biennial is still in search of itself.”

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THE ART BLOG

Whitney Biennial 2014 – Tough sledding through a hodgepodge with some gems

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March 12, 2014   ·   2 Comments

Like walking through a yard sale or grandma’s attic, the hodgepodge that is the Whitney Biennial 2014 is a a little sad. All that stuff made by 103 participants, collected and sitting there, clogs the space and makes the journey through the show like walking through the Armory Show, only without the aisles and missing the weirdly high art-fair energy.  Advice:  Start at the top and work your way down.

 Fourth Floor – Curator Michelle Grabner

Ken Lum, Midway Shopping Plaza, 2014, powder-coated aluminum and plexiglas

Libby, calling a phone number on Ken Lum's Midway Shopping Center board.  They called her back!

It’s shocking, we know, but like everyone, we come to the Whitney Biennial looking for our favorites and hoping to be introduced to great new artists.  Happily, our favorites, Dona Nelson, Terry Adkins, Joshua Mosley and Ken Lum are standouts, and our new loves include David Robbins and Carol Jackson. Jacolby Satterwhite is formidable as well. It would be easy to dwell on the weird curating, and others have (read Jerry Saltz).  For us it’s all about the work, and there are things here definitely worthy of a return trip.

Joshua Mosley, Jeu de Paume, 2014, mixed media animation

We began on a high note, with exclamations of “Ken Lum!  Looks great!” then quickly got bogged down in the small galleries crowded with art. “We’ve seen things like this before,” we said, and “Why is this here, how does it relate?” (e.g., David Foster Wallace’s notebooks).

 

When we hit Zoe Leonard’s camera obscura, in a blissfully darkened space with only one thing in it that doesn’t take up any physical space, we were happy for the respite.

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Pam Lins and Amy Sillman, I placed a Jar in Tennessee, 2014

Sheila Hicks (hanging, rear), Sterling Ruby in the room beyond the camera obscura.

On the other side of the camera obscura, like falling into Oz from Kansas, we found a raucous, colorful, crowded space with a group of works that made a coherent thought about art as a lusty, risky profession not for the faint-hearted.  Notable practitioners in this space include:  Dona Nelson, whose excellent double-sided and stitched paintings are placed beautifully opposite Amy Sillman and Pam Lins (ceramics); Sterling Ruby, who just about steals the show with his death- and viscera-evoking ceramic “ashtrays;” David Robbins, whose outdoor writing desk and videos of performances tickled us; and Sheila Hicks with her color-filled fiber “un-rainbow” that cascades like a waterfall from the ceiling.

 

Third Floor – Curator Stuart Comer

Etel Adnan, selection of paintings, 2013, oil on canvas

The fourth floor seems to take hours to get through. But the third floor, which is also a jumble, is less packed.

We liked:

  • Etel Adnan – her woven, oil-barrel critique is both modernist design and smartly political.
  • Miljohn Ruperto – his bunny/birdie animation “Janus,” 2014, kept us at attention.  Is the animal dying?  Or sleeping?
  • Miljohn Ruperto and Ulrik Heltoft’s Voynich Botanical Studies, which start out as animations and wind up as gelatin silver prints are a lot of process with a point.  Victorian and lovely and completely faux.
  • Jacolby Satterwhite – Trippy, HD digital 3D animation video, “Reifying Desire 6 – Island of Desire,” 2014.

Miljohn Ruperto, Janus, digital video, color, sound

Second Floor – Curator Anthony Elms

Terry Adkins, Aviarium, 2014, polyurethene and enamel

This is not a “war year” show with politics in evidence (there is some gender politics), but many of the works feel tight and depressed.  On the second floor, notable for a relatively spare aesthetic, Terry Adkins‘ “Aviarium,” 2014, is a big “gun” that lends some needed chutzpah to the show. The artist, who died recently and unexpectedly at age 60, made this piece in 2014, perhaps the last work he made. Such a loss.

Carol Jackson, 2013, wood, acrylic, papier mache, inket print

Other favorites on this floor include:

  • Carol Jackson‘s four, modest-scale sculpto-photographs, whose visceral twists and turns remind us slightly of Vincent Fecteau’s ceramic “energy bombs” at the 2012 Whitney Biennial.
  • Charline von Heyl – grid of 36 black and white mixed media print and collage pieces seemed tribal and mask-like.
  • Steve Reinke and Jessie Mott – We love the animals and the child-like animation in the Bible-esque video,“Rib Gets in the Way…” although at 53 minutes long we missed a good portion of it and can’t really say what the point is.

Appearing elsewhere in the museum but curated in by Elms, we like:

Charlemagne Palestine, "Stairway Song," 2013, 12-channel sound installation on stairwell landings.

  • Charlemagne Palestine – Mike-Kelly-like piece with small gangs of stuffed animals sitting high on the walls in the stairwell. Ominous music surrounds them and reminds us how seductive and repulsive stuffed animals are.
  • taisha paggett – We saw her drawing performance at Vox Populi a few years back in a Vox juried group show.
  • Zoe Leonard camera obscura we mentioned above.

 Catalog

Michelle Grabner's chart about artists on her floor.  Image courtesy of Whitney Museum

As usual, the catalog is worth having.  There’s lots of Q&A material, with artists interviewing or talking with each other,  such as: Louise Fishman talks with Dona Nelson; Ken Lum speaks with Alexander Alberro; Joshua Mosley talks with Paul Chan and Robert Fahey.

The preponderance of the written word and archiving in glass vitrines and in works on the walls is a persistent theme in the show–too dusty and depressing. After a while it beat us down.  This is a show that needs editing. Look for the gems.

Whitney Biennial 2014, to May 25, 2014.  Whitney Museum of Art, 945 Madison Ave at 75th St., New York 10021.

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by Kevin McGarry

March 7, 2014

Whitney Biennial 2014

The most streamlined mythology of the past two decades of the Whitney Biennial goes something like this: 1993 represented the Big Bang of art and identity politics, and since then, the curve has bobbed up and down like a sine wave, going above and below the axis of overthought mediocrity towards an ever more platitudinous parody of itself. It is, after all, the biennial that everyone… loves to hate. Shoot me now. Framing it this way can be as mind numbing as discussing the weather, and yet, it is nearly as inescapable.

Perhaps drawing from its upper Manhattan terroir, the Whitney Biennial is an inimitable, enduringly anachronistic, and extremely self-referential institution. Each edition rehashes the questions “What is contemporary?” and “What is American?”—often to post-rational ends. Convoluted curatorial conceit is the most dangerous pitfall threatening state-of-the-art-world survey shows today. The best biennial I’ve seen in the past couple of years was Luiz Pérez-Oramas, André Severo, and Tobi Maier’s 2012 30th São Paulo Biennial about, simply, “poetics”—a theme so loose and extensible that the exhibition wore it as a heartening halo rather than a pretentious noose. In this respect, the 2014 Whitney Biennial does not fail. Well, actually, it does, but only in execution; the conception of its structure and thematics do not doom or significantly distract from the works contained therein. Assembled by three outside curators—Stuart Comer of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Anthony Elms of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, and Michelle Grabner of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago—it is not rhetorically proposed as three discrete shows; it is actually (actuality is always refreshing!) three discrete shows spread across three levels of the Whitney Museum’s 945 Madison Avenue building.

The second floor, curated by Elms, is exhaustingly under-stimulating. On first glance, Valerie Snobeck and Catherine Sullivan’s Image of Limited Good (2014), a sculptural tableau of suitcases filled with a resin-like substance and purple tracings of retro airline logos pinned to the wall, looks promising, but—pardon the pun—unpacking the piece is a joyless pursuit. It would work better at an art fair, as would Charline von Heyl’s Folk Tales (2013), a grid of black-and-white collages, which is not awkward like some of the other works on this floor, but by no means as absorbing as her work usually is. Transgressive hero Gary Indiana’s untitled contribution seems dated and confused. It’s comprised of a diptych pairing a collection of headshots and nude candid photographs of incarcerated men of color with a large, inelegantly installed, semi-circular LED curtain looping footage of jellyfish, which, according to the text, are anatomically symbolic of… the panopticon. The effect of the piece is incomprehensible (in this room it might not actually be possible to get far enough away from the curtain to view its moving images as such, instead of as a crumpled field of large diodes); it superficially juxtaposes cultural issues from the 1980s with presentation technologies that are modern, but look terrible. Rebecca Morris’s paintings, Untitled (#14-13) (2013) and Untitled (#15-13) (2013), given the company, stand out, and respite can also be found in the two cinemas made to house films by Michel Auder, Steve Reinke with Jessie Mott, and the Los Angeles-based collective My Barbarian, but in terms of this chapter of the Biennial having a compelling story or discernable position, there is none.

Moving up one level and several notches in quality, Comer’s third floor contains the highest concentration of expected names. This is by no means a dig: why not represent the most consistent and influential American artists in the Whitney Biennial, particularly if they haven’t been invited before? At the pinnacle of buzzy and undeniably good is the singular and prolific force that is Bjarne Melgaard. His room recalls the Korova Milk Bar (from A Clockwork Orange), populated by silicon sex mannequins with blond weaves and raccoon eyes, posed alternately on haute, club kid furniture you might find in a fancy, edgy French person’s apartment and on the wholesome braided carpets you might find in a Maine farmhouse. The Gesamkunstwerk,entitled Think I’m Gonna Have A Baby (2014), includes projections of found clips depicting interchangeable violence between animals and people respectively, and a monitor with a staged, raunchy confessional dialogue between two gay lovers who seem to hate one another. The wall text identifies the dissolution of humanity into a circus of cruelty as its subject, but this declaration is, frankly, not even necessary, because the work is writ so large, scary, and engrossing.

Shaped like the islands of Manhattan, Hawaii, and Kauai, Ei Arakawa’s hats for two and three people, are, by contrast, totally benign, but much crazier. Arakawa’s mutable and often inscrutable practice has been hitting for a while now—another New York-based artist, like Melgaard, whose industrious imagination has flourished during the past years in a corporatized city that has been sapped of its creative life force. It’s not immediately clear if Ken Okiishi’s vertical, wall-mounted flatscreens, each titled gesture/data (2013), partially painted over with impressionistic brushstrokes are important, but they look fresh; and the floor-to-ceiling salon hanging of Keith Mayerson paintings, casting autobiographical moments alongside renditions of iconic American people and symbols, gives the underappreciated painter his due. On a different register, a room near the back of floor three—Afterlife: a constellation (2014), organized as a work of art, at Comer’s invitation, by Group Material cofounder Julie Ault—interweaves intergenerational referents and inspirations into a tautology unbound by the unities of time and place. To name but a few, filmmaker Matt Wolf’s slideshow, which includes a narration that touches on his adolescent discovery of the late David Wojnarowicz, is placed next to Wojnarowicz’s own Calendar (1989). To its left is Closed (1984–85), a painting by late Lower East Side artist Martin Wong, who is an ongoing subject of inquiry for Danh Vo. And in turn, Vo’s piece, snowfall/northern Sierras 1847 (2013), which echoes Alfred A. Hart’s photograph Stumps cut by Donner Party (c. 1868), is placed on the other side of the room near a text by Ault about Wong and Wojnarowicz. But the most transcendent inclusion on this floor has got to be Lebanese-born Etel Adnan, the eighty-nine-year-old writer, poet, and here, painter, whose canvases depict emotional landscapes told in simple compositions of four or five hard-edged hues, and whose two epic poems outstretched in accordion books go from earth to space to death to life and back in an unbroken, linear circle.

None of the three shows are sparse, but Grabner’s fourth floor jams the most works in of all. Even more so than in Comer’s exhibition, the two most captivating works are made by popular, market-anointed artists. Sterling Ruby, working in his best medium—ceramics— puts forth three Vulcan maws from his “Basin Theology” series (2013–14), full of glossy, broken archaeologies. Behind those is one big painting, As-yet-untitled (2014) by Laura Owens, which both eschews verbal description and has a lot of fun with words; the text “When you come to the end of your rope, make a knot, and hang on” accompanies a 1980s children’s illustration of a boy and his dog swinging by rope across a teal void, within and beneath a meticulously layered vortex of painting posing as digital effects, posing as painting. Many other big, colorful, abstract paintings by women fill this main room: Jacqueline Humphries, Louise Fishman, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Dona Nelson, and Amy Sillman. The largest canvas, Gaylen Gerber’s undated Backdrop/Untitled, is flat grey and inconspicuously stretched around the entire wall outside the elevator. It is itself a surface for other works to be hung on; presently it’s Trevor Shimizu’s untitled ritualistic figurative compositions but on April 15, as the wall label tells us, it will be replaced by Sherrie Levine’s Thin Stripe: 10 (1986) and David Hammons’s Untitled (2010). Placed at the end of the most natural path through the fourth floor, Zoe Leonard’s 945 Madison Avenue (2014) is all about depriving the viewer of light. It’s a huge camera obscura refracting the quotidian windows of Madison Avenue onto its walls. As an elegy to the building on the occasion of its last biennial, it’s a much too obvious, precious note to end on—something that could have been devised by a PR assistant as readily as by a great photographer like Leonard. Overall, there is a bit too much going on here for Grabner’s show to coalesce a striking identity, but there’s a harmonious enough fluidity to how it all intermingles, probably owing to the personal and pedagogical connections among the artists and to the curator, who is an artist herself.

Something about that lends itself to the overarching Biennial’s greatest success, whose most contemporary experiment deals with framing a curator as a locus of collaborations and conversations, rather than the steward of conceptual frameworks that enslave art. Grabner’s show is not about the Midwest, but there is a preponderance of artists from Chicago and the surrounding region (even a Dawoud Bey photographic portrait of the Chicagoan American president, Barack Obama (2008), is hung above her curatorial statement). Comer’s exhibition doesn’t stake itself as a queer show, and by no means exclusively contains queer artists, but he and most of the ones that I was struck by and mentioned above publicly identify as queer (as do I). Perhaps Elms’s show suffers because it lacks an expansive, lived impetus. But ultimately, at the risk of being boring, I must conclude the same as usual… the Biennial essentially falls flat. Though multifaceted, it’s hard to imagine a truly textured object with only three sides. That the three exhibitions fully commit to their autonomy is a good thing, but unfortunately, the aggregate effect that arises from their congress feels jumbled and piecemeal. The experiment as a whole fails, and while it shouldn’t go in the vault as our recollection of 2014, it is a step forward because, suspended in the loftiest, Sisyphean heights of democratized irreality, testing its own form is exactly what the Whitney Biennial should always endeavor to do.

Kevin McGarry is a writer and curator based in Los Angeles and New York.

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Bjarne Melgaard, Think I’m Gonna Have A Baby, 2014.

1Bjarne Melgaard, Think I’m Gonna Have A Baby, 2014.

Valerie Snobeck and Catherine Sullivan, Image of Limited Good, 2014.

2Valerie Snobeck and Catherine Sullivan, Image of Limited Good, 2014.

Charline von Heyl, Folk Tales, 2013.

3Charline von Heyl, Folk Tales, 2013.

Gary Indiana, Untitled (detail), 2014.

4Gary Indiana, Untitled (detail), 2014.

My Barbarian (Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, and Alexandro Segade), Universal Declaration of Infantile Anxiety Situations Reflected in the Creative Impulse, 2013.

5My Barbarian (Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, and Alexandro Segade), Universal Declaration of Infantile Anxiety Situations Reflected in the Creative Impulse, 2013.

View of the Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014.

6View of the Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014.

Ken Okiishi, gesture/data, 2013.

7Ken Okiishi, gesture/data, 2013.

View of the Whitney Biennial 2014 with works by Keith Mayerson, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014.

8View of the Whitney Biennial 2014 with works by Keith Mayerson, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014.

View of Julie Ault, Afterlife: a constellation at the Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014.

9View of Julie Ault, Afterlife: a constellation at the Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014.

Etel Adnan, Five Senses for One Death, 1969.

10Etel Adnan, Five Senses for One Death, 1969.

View of the Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014.

11View of the Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014.

View of the Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014.

12View of the Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014.

Zoe Leonard, 945 Madison Avenue, 2014.

13Zoe Leonard, 945 Madison Avenue, 2014.

  • 1Bjarne Melgaard, Think I’m Gonna Have A Baby, 2014. Mixed media with video and holographic projections, dimensions variable. Photo by Kevin McGarry.
  • 2Valerie Snobeck and Catherine Sullivan, Image of Limited Good, 2014. Campaign tables, hectograph duplicators, carbon ink, suitcases and briefcase, depression glass, gold-plated swizzle sticks, disassembled greeting card rack, hectograph prints on interleaving tissue, hinges, and blueprint rack. Photo by Kevin McGarry.
  • 3Charline von Heyl, Folk Tales, 2013. Acrylic, ink, wax, charcoal, and collage on paper, 36 parts, 24 x 19 inches each. Photo by Kevin McGarry.
  • 4Gary Indiana, Untitled (detail), 2014. Video projection, four text panels, grid of 25 digital C-prints on archival hot press matte paper, and LED curtain, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photo by Bill Orcutt.
  • 5My Barbarian (Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, and Alexandro Segade), Universal Declaration of Infantile Anxiety Situations Reflected in the Creative Impulse, 2013. Still from video, color, sound, 30:00 minutes. Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, Los Angeles. © My Barbarian.
  • 6View of the Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014. Photo by Kevin McGarry.
  • 7Ken Okiishi, gesture/data, 2013. Oil on flatscreen, VHS transferred to .mp4, color, sound, 35 1/3 x 21 x 3 7/10 inches. Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York. © Ken Okiishi.
  • 8View of the Whitney Biennial 2014 with works by Keith Mayerson, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014. Photo by Kevin McGarry.
  • 9View of Julie Ault, Afterlife: a constellation at the Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014.
  • 10Etel Adnan, Five Senses for One Death, 1969. Ink and watercolor on paper, 11 x 255 inches. Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and Callicoon Fine Arts, New York. Photo by Chris Austen.
  • 11View of the Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014. Photo by Kevin McGarry.
  • 12View of the Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014. Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
  • 13Zoe Leonard, 945 Madison Avenue, 2014. Lens and darkened room, 210 x 300 x 632 inches. Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Murray Guy, New York; and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne.

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TIMEOUT NEW YORK

Review: 2014 Whitney Biennial

The Biennial tries something new, but winds up being the same old thing

Time Out Ratings

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

Right off the bat, the 2014 Whitney Biennial raises a question: Is it an exercise in out-of-the box thinking? Or does it represent a tacit admission that the Whitney is no longer institutionally capable of mounting its signature show? The answer is probably both. Read on for our full review of this year’s museum-wide exhibition with our own slideshow gallery of highlights, then scroll down for a sneak peak of the gallery itself.

Photograph: om Powel Imaging

 

Keith Mayerson, My Family, 2013

 

Instead of the usual buildingwide bacchanalia of zeitgeisty goodness we’ve come to know and love (or love to hate), the proceedings are broken into three more or less discrete exhibitions. Each is mostly confined to its own floor, and organized by a different outside curator. Handling the duties are Stuart Comer, chief curator of media and performance art at MoMA; Anthony Elms, associate curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia; and Michelle Grabner, who is an artist and professor in the painting and drawing department at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago. Asking why they got the job as opposed to other people is a bit like wondering why certain Ping-Pong balls pop up during Lotto drawings.In some cases, one curator’s selection winds up on the floor of another (or in a Whitney common area, such as its lobby or moat), but each floor remains distinctly the expression of a single point of view.Somehow it works, or at least it does so enough of the time to make this Biennial seem better than most. I know: faint praise! Still, this edition should be remembered for its inclusion of paintings in pretty decent numbers, as well as its emphasis on semiforgotten careers and artists from outside New York.This separate-floor arrangement, of course, makes it easier to heap praise or to assign blame, depending on your tastes. For me, the Westminster trophy for Best in Show indubitably goes to fourth floor, helmed by Grabner. Apparently the first practicing artist involved in shaping a Biennial, she brings an artistic eye to installing art, a talent that curators were routinely expected to apply before the practice became professionalized. In her own work, she’s something of a formalist—a dirty word in certain quarters—but the attention she pays to the relationships between forms turns out to be a virtue.Many of her selections are worth a shout-out, but those off the top of my head includes Gretchen Bender’s black crumpled cenotaph, listing backlighted movie titles form the ’80s; Joel Otterson’s psychedelic harem tent; Amy Sillman’s prismatic abstractions; and Joshua Mosley’s charming Claymation video of an early-20th-century tennis match. The last is hung within a stretch of rooms putting an emphasis on quietude, both visually and conceptually. It starts with one of Anthony Elms’s picks: Zoe Leonard’s spooky and sublime camera obscura installation. Set within a spacious portion of the floor, the piece consists of a large lens board covering one of the Whitney’s “eyebrow” windows overlooking Madison Avenue. On the opposite wall, the lens throws an upside-down projection of the buildings across the street, with the dimmed, blurry image being pretty much the same scale as its subject. From there you proceed into the gallery containing the aforementioned video, along with Stephen Berens’s layered photos of Rome, and a long shelf filled with Shio Kusaka’s exquisite pottery. This part of the exhibit is best summed up by the title of Ben Kinmont’s text-driven tableau in the next room: Shh. Down the corridor you’ll also find Jennifer Bornstein’s video of naked women performing modern dance routines, and Peter Schuyff’s case full of corkscrewing pencils.

“Nobody calls the Biennial the Oscars of the art world anymore, but in some ways, the comparison is more apt than ever.”

I wish I could say the rest of Biennial was as strong as the fourth floor, but it isn’t. I liked Ken Okiishi’s painted flatscreens on floor three, along with Bjarne Melgaard’s crazy, hypersexualized whorehouse of horrors off to the left of Okiishi’s wall. Melgaard is precisely the sort of art star who’s benefited from the market’s premium on sensationalism, but give the man his due: He’s good at what he does.

Ultimately, the 2014 Biennial is somewhat square, even provincial, and that may be okay for now. Because truthfully, the formula is impervious to change. You could scour the planet and probably find enough artists to mount a truly mind-blowing survey every other year. But that supposes the Biennial is just a show when it’s really not. It’s a brand, and like any brand, genuine risk makes its shareholders nervous. The Whitney’s forthcoming MePa home will only raise the stakes in this sense, making a ground-up rethink less likely.

Nobody calls the Biennial the Oscars of the art world anymore, but in some ways, the comparison is more apt than ever. Like the Oscars, the Biennial is an exercise in self-love, demanding attention it doesn’t quite deserve, but you pay it heed anyway. On that score, 2014 is the Ellen DeGeneres edition: safe, genial, with just enough jokes that land to distract you from the ones that fall flat.

Explore the Biennial layout for yourself

Photograph: Lauren Spinelli

Installation view of the 2014 Whitney Biennial


See the exhibition

2014 Whitney Biennial

This year’s edition of the exhibition once known as the show everybody loves to hate represents a departure for a couple of reasons. For one, it will be the last Biennial mounted in the Whitney’s current home; in 2015, the museum moves into its brand-new Renzo Piano–designed building in the Meatpacking District. But it also signals a departure from form, because it’s basically organized as three separate shows on as many floors by three outside curators. If nothing else, the Whitney is thinking outside the box as the Biennial says goodbye to Madison Avenue.

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THE NEW YORK TIMES
Photo

Richard Nonas’s sculptures from the 1980s rearranged on the floor at McCaffrey at the Independent art fair. Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

In its fifth year, the Independent continues to assert its maverick identity. It’s an art fair that pretends not to be an art fair. And because it takes place in Dia Art Foundation’s former exhibition space, you’re almost convinced. If fairs are part of the new necessary evil for small galleries to stay afloat, this one offers a good concentrated roundup of artists and exhibitors: nonprofit institutions, alternative spaces along with a few commercial galleries that might be barely paying their bills.

The conversation running throughout the fair this year has to do with history. Contemporary art is often accused of recycling and repurposing, and among the more than 50 participating galleries and nonprofits from 14 countries, there is plenty of work that looks old but is actually new, and vice versa.

Among the new work that nods to older models are paintings by Jessica Warboys at Gaudel de Stampa from the series “Sea Painting, Dunwich, 2014,” on unstretched canvas flowing onto the floor made by soaking the canvas in seawater. The works look like a cross between Abstract Expressionism and the mechanically produced “machine” abstractions of Pinot Gallizio.

At Labor, a Mexico City gallery, Etienne Chambaud has retooled a trope made famous by Andy Warhol in his “Oxidation Paintings”: urine applied to pulverized copper to create dazzling metallic effects. In Mr. Chambaud’s case, the urine is from animals and refers to the Anthropocene or urbanizing human impact on the planet. (The gallery also points out that in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1968 film “Teorema,” a character urinates on a painting, which may have provided Warhol with the idea.)

At Gavin Brown, Jennifer Bornstein’s rubbings made with wax and oil pastels are strongly reminiscent of the frottage technique employed by Max Ernst and the Surrealists. Most of Ms. Bornstein’s were made on site and include objects like Joseph Beuys’s “7000 Oaks,” squat basalt columns that line 22nd Street (also a Dia-sponsored legacy).

A tabletop display by the Czech artist Eva Kotatkova at Meyer Riegger recalls Hannah Hoch’s photomontages except that Ms. Kotatkova’s images, cut from Communist-era books, have been fashioned into an accordion-pleated book. At Untitled, Brad Troemel’s panels with objects vacuum sealed into them hark back to ’80s bedroom bulletin-board collages, although these won’t be on view for long. Mr. Troemel sells his work on the website Etsy, where people “around the world connect to buy and sell unique goods” (just like art fairs).

Nostalgia is also a boon for older (or dead) artists whose work look remarkably fresh. Rosemarie Castoro is a painter from the first generation of minimalists. Broadway 1602 has two of her paintings from 1965 that use methods derived from modern dance in their composition. They feel perfectly relevant now.

Robert Mallary, who was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1961 exhibition “Art of Assemblage,” is featured at The Box. His dark and existential works, are reminiscent of European painters like Alberto Burri and Antonio Tàpies. Julian Beck, a co-founder of the Living Theater, is represented by paintings and works on paper from the ’40s at Supportico Lopez, while an exhibition of Richard Nonas’s drawings from the ’70s and small, steel sculptures from the ’80s, rearranged on the floor here to respond to the immediate spatial environment, are at McCaffrey.

The Austrian artist Gerwald Rockenschaub’s colored dots displayed throughout the stairwell, courtesy of Mehdi Chouakri, have a ’60s feel. Martos is showing works on paper by Dan Asher from the ’80s. Another artist who became known in ’80s is Julia Wachtel, who exhibits at the gallery of the Independent co-founder Elizabeth Dee. Given the art world’s current interest in the ’80s, Ms. Wachtel’s paintings, which juxtapose found images with goofy cartoons, look contemporary again.

Another prevalent strain here is so-called outsider art (which also includes people simply unacknowledged by the institutional art world). Suzanne Zander rounds up William Crawford, an avid draftsman of erotic scenes and photographs taken by an unknown man named Gunther K. of his red-haired secretary, with whom he had an affair.

Alice Mackler is a ceramic artist whose brightly glazed sculptures of female figures, with their exaggerated eyes and breasts, look vaguely “outsider.” (She is also represented by Kerry Schuss, who deals in outsider art.) And yet, Ms. Mackler, famous now in her early 80s, doesn’t identify as an outsider artist; her aesthetic shows the blurring of boundaries, which often seems merely a matter of institutional recognition.

There is a lot of painting in this year’s Independent. Painting sells at art fairs, but it’s also popular right now. The young Brooklyn gallery Real Fine Arts has an extravaganza, with Nicolas Ceccaldi’s portraits of the writer Michel Houellebecq and Morag Keil’s funny text paintings, as well as a larger abstract canvas by Jon Pestoni.

Beyond the painting-centered nature of the fair, Art: Concept offers a thoughtful roundup of Roman Signer’s videos, as well as a work that involves a grand piano, Ping-Pong balls, and fans that blow the balls along the strings. And Mendes Wood from São Paulo is showing Adriano Costa’s playful, topical sculptures that address Brazilian politics and culture.

Given the season, there are overlaps with the just-opened Whitney Biennial: Michel Auder and David Diao, both at Office Baroque, are in this year’s edition, as is Paul P., shown here by Broadway 1602. The other hopeful aspects of the season are daylight saving time beginning on Sunday and the forecast for warmer weather, since a selection of books from Artists Space is for sale on the roof. It is a poignant reminder of the time when the building was occupied by the Dia Art Foundation, conceptual commissions appeared on the roof, and March in New York wasn’t dominated by art fairs.

The Independent continues through Sunday at 548 West 22nd Street, Chelsea; independentnewyork.com.

A version of this review appears in print on March 7, 2014, on page C32 of the New York edition with the headline: An Art Fair That Tries to Be Something Else.

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HYPERALLERGIC

Photo Essays

Armory Show 2014: Getting Better After Lackluster Years Past

Cajsa von Zeipel, "HOLES IN THE WALL - flat shoe portal" (2014), styrofoam, aqua resin, fiberglass, plaster, at Andréhn-Schiptjenko gallery (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

This year’s Armory Show may have stopped the bleeding for an art fair that has suffered from years of lackluster energy and a major blow delivered by the Frieze New York art fair, which began two years ago on a bucolic urban island and in the far warmer month of May. But no one should count out the passion New York’s art world has for art souks, a place where collectors, art tourists, and dealers easily mingle and make deals.

A woman in the middle of mirror works by Michelangelo Pistoletto at Galleria Repetto in the Armory Modern section of the Armory Show. (click to enlarge)

I’ve already discussed the welcome China focus for this year’s Armory, but the fair itself might be the most interesting in years for contemporary art fans. That’s not to say there aren’t a number of problems, including the Armory Modern section, which felt subdued and predictable, and the associated Venus Drawn Out exhibition of female artists, which resembled the visual equivalent of salon-style wallpaper for a sitting area.

Armory uses the same ratio that most art fairs stick to, with a preponderance of painting (collectors love painting), flashy sculptures, and witty juxtapositions that grab your attention from across the room.

A display of works by at Athr Gallery of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (photo by Tiernan Morgan for Hyperallergic)

There was a healthy selection of global galleries from every continent, and for the first time a gallery from Saudi Arabia, Athr Gallery from Jeddah, joined the fair, with a display by artists Ahmed Mater and Nasser Al Salem. I asked longtime Hyperallergic friend and Athr gallery representative Adnan Manjal why the gallery, which has also been exhibiting in Berlin and other European fairs, chose to come to Armory. “The Armory is one of the most important art fairs in the world,” he explained. “We believe our artists’ work and concepts will bring a new and fresh perspective to the audience in the US and those who attend the fair regularly. The art scene in Saudi Arabia is quite interesting, regionally and globally, whether the artists tackle social and political issues such as Ahmed Mater or spiritual matters such as contemporary calligrapher Nasser Al Salem.”

Manjal’s point is worth noting, because even in a city like New York, where there is art around every corner, you still encounter good surprises in a number of booths by artists you’ve never heard of at a place like the Armory — it’s a nice treat when it happens, though I wish it would happen more.

If there was one work that captured the spirit of the art fair better than others, it would have to be Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s “The Wedding Cake” (2008), at London’s Blain Southern gallery. Busting open Renato Bertelli’s 1933 Futurist masterpiece “Head of Mussolini (Continuous Profile),” Noble and Webster have filled the bust of the Italian dictator with a bouquet of penises. Mussolini is a dickhead, which seems obvious, but what’s more fascinating is that at an art fair there’s always going to be someone who wants to buy something like this and put it in their home (or at least in storage) — that really is more spellbinding than the object itself.

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Sculpture by Rael Yassin at Kalfayan Galleries in Athens

Detail of Dawn Clements's "2 Tables in My Kitchen" (2014), ballpoint pen ink on paper, at Pierogi gallery

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Andrew Ohanesian's "" (2014) with Jim Torok's paintings of Chuck Close and Fred Tomaselli (both 2014) in the background, at Pierogi Gallery

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The 2014 Armory Art Fair (Twelfth Avenue at 55th Street, Westside, Manhattan) continues through March 9, 12–7pm.

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THE NEW YORK TIMES
Photo

The Armory Show Works by Romuald Hazoumè at the October Gallery exhibition on Pier 94, including a fanciful enhancement of a vehicle used by poor entrepreneurs to transport gasoline in the Republic of Benin. Credit Philip Greenberg for The New York Times

After nearly four hours of scanning thousands of artworks displayed by the Armory Show’s international roster of 205 exhibitors, I had an epiphany. A hypothesis about the nature of art making in the industrialized world took shape in my exhausted, overstimulated brain. I call it the “cut-and-paste” theory, which has to do not with actual scissors, paper and glue but with the actions people perform on Windows-equipped computers.

The idea was triggered by thinking about the differences between the two parts of the show: the “Modern” on Pier 92, where 59 dealers display “historically significant Modern art,” and on Pier 94, the considerably more expansive “Contemporary,” where 146 dealers are showing all kinds of shiny, newfangled products.

The Modern section is loaded with old favorites. Meredith Ward Fine Art has a selection of small works by American Modernists, including choice pieces by Arthur Dove, Elie Nadelman and Alfred Jensen. Mazzoleni Galleria d’Arte presents works by Italian avant-gardists like Lucio Fontana, Alighiero Boetti and Michelangelo Pistoletto. Allan Stone Projects offers an excellent solo show of paintings and drawings by the Pop-realist Wayne Thiebaud, including an electric, full-length portrait of a woman in a striped blouse and bell-bottom trousers from 1973-4.

Here and there, single works stand out. Andrew Edlin Gallery has a big, powerful painted relief by the self-taught artist Thornton Dial, featuring a fierce eagle with a bouquet of fake flowers in its talons. At Carl Hammer Gallery, Roger Brown’s darkly comical painting of a horse hovering over a woman on her back under a sky of puffy clouds commemorates the apocryphal demise of Catherine the Great. At Ricco/Maresca, there’s a large, mysterious drawing of empty courtyards and trains going through tunnels by another self-taught master, Martín Ramírez.

Styles may vary in the Modern section, but an idea of what making art involves is shared by most: It should be the expression of one person’s singular vision.

In the Contemporary section, the typical artist is something else: a canny juggler of ready-made signifiers. Everywhere you look, you see artists mixing and matching generic styles, images and devices in the forms of photographs, paintings, high-tech simulations and myriad nontraditional materials, sometimes using all these at once. Almost always, they do so to cerebrally sophisticated ends, as often as not in order to riff on art itself.

An unusually appealing example of this type of work, at James Cohan Gallery, is an assemblage by Michelle Grabner, one of the Whitney Biennial’s three curators this year. The basic structure is an eight-foot-wide disc made by patching together flattened pieces cut from shiny metal garbage cans. Hanging by a cable from the ceiling, it turns freely this way and that. Attached to the disc are small paintings of gingham patterns and of radiating lines. Also affixed are an oblong, round-ended slab of natural wood and a framed photograph of the artist’s own backyard, in which a blurry rainbow arcs over unkempt grass in the foreground.

For all the impressive physicality of Ms. Grabner’s piece, it’s the puzzling interplay of disparate signs that matters most. The garbage cans, the gingham patterns, the natural wood plank and the backyard photograph variously evoke suburban nostalgia. Ms. Grabner is not pining for a lost way of life, however. Rather, she presents a mind-teasing, rebus-like constellation of sociologically suggestive icons for viewers to sort out and make sense of for themselves.

At the heart of this is a process of executive decision making. It’s what you do on a computer when, by pointing and clicking and cutting and pasting, you move images out of different windows and bring them into relationships with one another in one window. My theory proposes that Microsoft Windows — in combination with the World Wide Web — has been the single greatest influence on artistic creativity of the past two decades.

If I’m right, this would account for the strange feeling of no context that prevails in contemporary art. A special section of the Contemporary wing is devoted to up-and-coming Chinese galleries. With the possible exception of a big, beautiful, expressionistic painting on paper of giant caterpillars on broad leaves by Chen Haiyan at Ink Studio, there’s hardly anything in these booths that couldn’t be mistaken for the work of a young Brooklynite. The world of today’s artist is a virtual world; it’s everywhere and nowhere.

In this context of no context, some things stand out. At Moniquemeloche, a Chicago gallery, there’s a series of photographs in muted color by Carrie Schneider, each of which pictures a young woman sitting in a comfortable chair or reclining on a sofa in her home and reading a visibly much-used book. These vaguely religious images of quiet absorption are a blessed relief from the fair’s prevailing spirit of overeager, attention-seeking novelty.

Works by Romuald Hazoumè at October Gallery inventively address a set of urgently real problems in a particular part of the world. The centerpiece is a battered, rusty three-wheeled motor scooter equipped with a pair of outriggers, each carrying five large, round green glass bottles. This is a fanciful enhancement of a kind of vehicle used by poor entrepreneurs to transport gasoline in the Republic of Benin, where Mr. Hazoumè lives and works. The appalling back story has to do with how big oil companies extract and export petroleum from fields in neighboring Nigeria: They leave it to small, black-market operations to refine and sell dirty gasoline to the locals, who, while endangering themselves, transport and sell it in king-size wine bottles.

Not everyone needs to make art from such a deeply embedded position in real life. But wouldn’t it be nice if more artists could choose to resist the sneakily hypnotic hegemony of Windows consciousness?

The Armory Show runs through Sunday at Piers 92 and 94, 12th Avenue at 55th Street, Manhattan; thearmoryshow.com. 212-645-6440.

A version of this review appears in print on March 7, 2014, on page C31 of the New York edition with the headline: On the Piers, Armory Show Evokes Cut and Paste.

Art Matters | At the Independent Art Fair, Thinking Outside the White Box

A Pae White mobile (left) presented by Kaufmann Repetto and a Honza Zamojski sculpture (right) presented by Andrew Kreps.Tom Powell Imaging A Pae White mobile (left) presented by Kaufmann Repetto and a Honza Zamojski sculpture (right) presented by Andrew Kreps.

When Elizabeth Dee and Darren Flook founded the Independent Art Fair in 2010, the art landscape in New York was a different place. Frieze had yet to enter the American market, and the vast Armory Show dominated the fair scene. “There was really a need for something more than the model that was imposed on us,” says the fair’s director, Laura Mitterrand.

Now in its fifth year at the Chelsea building that formerly housed the Dia Center for the Arts, the Independent continues to satiate the appetites of art enthusiasts who are hungry for the new and cutting-edge. Unlike the typical fair models, exhibitors at the fair are selected through referrals instead of through an application process. The fair also refrains from having similar-size, cookie-cutter booths. For this year’s layout, two young architects, Andrew Feuerstein and Bret Quagliara, conceptualized a series of tangram-inspired walls that can be customized according to each exhibitor’s needs. “The layout is dictated not by the space itself, it’s dictated by the galleries and what they’re going to be showing,” Mitterrand says.

The fair is also relatively small in size, with just 56 exhibitors spread out over four floors, as opposed to more than 200 at the Armory Show, creating for a more intimate setting conducive to collaboration and connecting.

From left: Julia Wachtel paintings presented by Elizabeth Dee Gallery; Richard Nonas sculptures presented by McCaffery Fine Art.Tom Powell Imaging From left: Julia Wachtel paintings presented by Elizabeth Dee Gallery; Richard Nonas sculptures presented by McCaffery Fine Art.

Several of the galleries showing decided to eschew the typical fair exhibit model altogether. The Lower East Side gallery Untitled opted to show not one, but 12 artists — thanks to Brad Troemel, who opted to have 11 rotating solo presentations by artists including Dwyer Kilcollin, Hannah Levy and James Clarkson follow his bitcoin-incorprated artworks. Each artist will exhibit for two-hour increments. Lauren Christiansen, director at Untitled, says that it’s about “adding a foil to the actual platform of the fair, just making it more an opportunity for a project and less about being a standard art fair booth.”

London’s Modern Art gallery decided to join forces with New York’s Maccarone and exhibit the tambourine sculptures of an artist they both represent, Paul Lee. Berlin’s Galerie Mehdi Chouakri went for a site-specific intervention with dots by Austrian artist Gerwald Rockenschaub that are sprinkled through the doors and staircase of the building. “It’s like a very playful way of dealing with a space,” says Mehdi Chouakri, the owner. New York-based Ramiken Crucible had a curiously bizarre sculpture of aspic by Andra Ursuta. Karma, a New York-based publisher of art editions, had a display of works by Amy O’Neill that show prizes won from children’s carnival games. Köln’s Galerie Susanne Zander opted to show unknown outsider artists. “This is one of the very few fairs where you can do such a project and people will understand what you want to say,” Susanne Zander says. McCaffrey Fine Art went the revival route, showcasing Richard Nonas, an artist whose work appeared in the 1977 Documenta show. Sprüth Magers, which has spaces in Berlin and London, presented a performance piece by John Bock in which an actress chain-sawed a wooden sculpture of a man; the dismantled parts will be packed in suitcases and sold off.

The model for Independent has been so successful that its organizers plan to host another edition during the November auction season. “I hope that people come to the fair wanting to see a gallery in particular, because they know it, because they’ve been involved in that gallery’s program before, and come out having made connections with multiple other galleries,” Mitterrand says.

The Independent runs through March 9 at 548 West 22nd Street, New York; independentnewyork.com.


This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: March 8, 2014

An earlier version of this post misstated the location of Galerie Susanne Zander. It is in Köln, not Zurich. It also misstated the name of a gallery. It is Galerie Mehdi Chouakri, not Mehdi Chouakri.

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THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The Armory Show Puts China Into Focus

MadeIn Company

A detail of “Under Heaven 20121020″ by Xu Zhen, the Armory Show’s commissioned artist for 2014.

The Armory Show, New York’s sprawling contemporary art fair that takes place on two former marine piers on the Hudson River, will put the spotlight on Chinese artists when it runs Thursday to Sunday.

For the first time in its 16 years of existence, the annual event will dedicate extra attention to China after naming the country its “focus session” for the fair. (The Armory Show typically chooses one geographical region for one focus session each year.)

However, the China section won’t include the country’s biggest names on the global art market. Instead of rolling out the usual suspects — Zhang Xiaogang and Yue Minjun, say — the 17 invited galleries from China and Hong Kong are exhibiting up-and-comers like Xu Zhen, Zhao Yao and Wang Luyan.

“The theme is to show the dynamism of contemporary art in China,” said Philip Tinari, director of Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, who curated the fair’s Armory Focus: China section. The works from China will also serve as an eye-opener for New York’s jaded art world, not least because many of the artists on show have never exhibited overseas – mostly, these days, by choice.

“In the ’90s, Chinese artists needed a show abroad, because they couldn’t show anywhere inside China,” Mr. Tinari said. “Today there are so many opportunities in their home market, so it takes extra effort for them to think about going beyond that.”

The fair’s spotlight will shine brightest on Xu Zhen, the Armory Show’s commissioned artist for 2014. Born in 1977 in Shanghai, Mr. Xu belongs to a generation that never experienced the Cultural Revolution and is more interested in conceptual art than realistic figurative painting. The latter is a hallmark of works by the most popular contemporary Chinese artists at auctions.

Among the pieces Mr. Xu produced for the fair is “Action of Consciousness,” an installation in which two performers and 50 large sculptures are hidden in a large 10-foot enclosed white cube. From within the cube, the sculptures are thrown into the air to be viewed by the audience for just the split second they emerge.

Katie de Tilly, director of 10 Chancery Lane Gallery in Hong Kong, is bringing the works of Huang Rui and Wang Keping, artists who were early pioneers in China’s contemporary art movement. While auction houses have been instrumental in educating the world about Chinese art, much of the art sold at auction is in the style of “cynical realism,” Ms. de Tilly said. That means the West still has had little exposure to “the really good art [that] rarely leaves China as it is not necessarily commercial.”

Beijing Commune

“A Painting of Thought I-305″ by Zhao Yao.

Beijing Commune is bringing works by Zhao Yao, an artist from Luzhou, Sichuan province, born in 1981 whose paintings often resemble geometric shapes atop patterned backgrounds. Pekin Fine Arts is bringing Wang Luyan, a Beijing-born painter who comments on world geopolitics by coloring the gears of a watch with the flags of nations.

The artists on show, Mr. Tinari said, reflect two major forces in China’s contemporary art scene. The first is “a new group of younger artists, who see themselves as part of an international conversation.” The second: “the resurgence of ink painting. It says something about China’s willingness to embrace its own traditions as contemporary art.”

Pekin Fine Arts

“W Global Watch D 12-01″ by Wang Luyan.

In addition to highlighting art works from China, the fair is holding a symposium focused on topics related to art in China, from the country’s private museum boom to the state of the art market.

Adrian Cheng, the 34-year-old Hong Kong jewelry heir behind the K11 Art Foundation that is sponsoring the talks, said, “There has never been so many Chinese galleries going to New York.”

“The timing is significant. You’ve a new leadership in China and the general feeling we’re at a turning point,” he added. “It’s time to showcase a new generation.”

–Wei Gu contributed to this article.


030614

10 Works to See at the Armory Show in New York City

The Armory Show is back, with exhibitions and events planned across the city. In order to help you navigate one of the largest art fairs, we’ve rounded up the 10 must-see works.
Get ready for some art, because the Armory Show is back in New York City starting on Thursday. With deep roots in history, the fair is not only an homage to the original 1913 Armory Show exhibition that introduced modern art to New York, but it also is a reflection of the show’s founding principle to introduce new talent alongside the many established greats. Founded in 1994, the annual exhibition continues to be the largest art fair in the United States and draws art collectors and admirers from all over the world for a weekend-long, citywide celebration.Combing talent from all across the globe, this year’s exhibition will give spectators a look at some rarely seen works by prominent historical artists as well as feature the great works being produced by contemporary artists today. We’ve rounded up the top ten works to see during the four-day affair.Monika Grzymala, “Studio Berlin 2013,” 2013:

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Galerie Crone

Polish-born artist Monika Krzymala’s works live in a haunting balance of sculpture and drawing. Her explosive drawings are anything but traditional. For starters, they aren’t confined to a single surface. Instead, they use the special void between walls, floors, and ceilings to create an invisible canvas. She uses various forms of tape to create three-dimensional drawings. Each work is a site-specific response to the space that it occupies, proving that neither sculpture nor drawings are confined to their respective materials.

Jonathan Meese, “DER NULLKONIG MIT DEM SCHNALZMUND (BARTIUSSUS),” 2013:

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Jan Bauer

Jonathan Meese uses a combination of unorthodox materials to create highly textural themes of revolution and the failures of ideology in a feverish way, often pulling inspiration from the history of Germany’s war identity. The German-based artist has produced works for the past two decades across a wide range of mediums including installation, performance, sculpture, and painting.

Alexander Calder, “Men,” 1971:

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Crane Kalman

As one of the United States’ most famous sculpture artists from the 20th century, artist and inventor Alexander Calder is responsible for the introduction of the mobile, a sculpture of perfectly balanced objects. Working across all mediums, including sculpture, theater, painting, jewelry, and tapestry, Calder’s “Men” are as balanced and minimalistic as his monumental sculptures.

Aiko Hachisuka, “Sugar Mates,” 2013

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Courtesy Eleven Rivington, NY

Japanese-born artist Aiko Hachisuka is known for turning second-hand clothing into anthropomorphized abstractions of the human body. For her “Sugar Mates” series, the L.A.-based Hachisuka stuffed, painted, and stitched together the various fashion pieces to create giant, playful abstractions that nod to the industrialist sculptures of John Chamberlain.

Roy Lichtenstein, “Moonscape,” 1965

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Sims Reed Gallery

Widely known for his cheeky, oversized, comic strip silkscreens, Roy Lichtenstein is one of the most well known artists from the Pop art movement in the 60s that also included Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. But his dot laden canvases of damsels in distress aren’t the only works that Lichtenstein created. “Moonscapeuses paint and film to create a lunar scene that is reflective in light and texture, pushing the limits of the two-dimensional work.

Michelangelo Pistoletto, “Venere con Pipa” 1972

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Galleria Repetto

Italian painter Michelangelo Pistoletto is best known for his mirror paintings that serve as the foundation of his oeuvre. Pistoletto uses life-size mirrors as a base on which he adds painted figures or photographic prints. Through this, an active role is given to the spectator, who has inadvertently become an intrinsic part of the artwork.

Mark Flood, “Baron’s Bath” 2013

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Zach Feuer Gallery

Described as a prankster, Houston, Texas based Mark Flood is part punk-rock musician, part eccentric artist. Creating mostly multi-media works, Flood uses a wide range of toxic colors often dealing with themes of a hate-filled consumerist culture fueled by capitalism.

Mary Heilmann, “Splashy Cut,” 2013

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Using geometric forms as a basis for most of her art, American artist Mary Heilmann tends to get very personal with her work—every piece has a back story. Inspired by popular culture, the bright hues and shapes that fill her pieces relay a keen eye for color theory, but in unconventional ways. Her works are often meant to be seen as communal spaces to contemplate and socialize, often accompanied by seating areas.

Julia Dault, “Untitled 30, 12:00-6:00pm, August 24, 2013,” 2013

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Brooklyn-based artist Julia Dault creates sculptures with a highly industrial aesthetic. Using raw materials, such as Plexiglas and Formica, the harshness of the stiff materials is often negated by the way in which they are presented. Dault perfectly reshapes and balances the industrial sheets using strings and straps, adding an almost organic layer to their typically flat appearance.

Xu Zhen, “Under Heaven 20121020 (detail),” 2012

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Beijing-based Xu Zhen has the ability to flawlessly produce works in almost every artistic platform—from photography and video to installations, performances, and paintings—often times incorporating them all into a single work of art. Drawing from sociopolitical themes, Zhen’s use of the emotion of sensitivity creates an ironic, but humorous, look at human exploration.

The Armory Show, located at Twelfth Avenue and 55th Street, will be on display until March 9th and is open from 12pm—7pm daily.

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BWW Reviews: A Piered Armory Show Peers Back To The Past

March 7
6:37 2014

A Piered Armory Show Peers Back To The Past

By Barry Kostrinsky

As if there is not enough confusion in the art world THE Armory show and many satellite fairs dropped through New York Cities stratosphere Wednesday night and orbits through March 9. What is the Armory? An Armory is a place for the militia; however defendable attacks employing full scale GI Joe green suited plastic men and woman have gone dormant over the last century. What to do with all that empty cavernous space? In 1913 an Armory was repurposed to house an art exhibit and so was born THE Armory show. Now, no longer in an Armory, it might be better called the Pier show as it is housed in Pier 92 and 94 near 55th street on the far west side.

People watching is always a highlight of an art fair and this smart couple was a big hit

Add to the confusion the multiplicity of Armories in NYC-I guess there were a lot attacking Indian attacks in the pre I-Phone era, and you have a maze of misunderstanding. Throw in a few art fairs at other armories dotted throughout the city like the Art Dealers Association of America art fair at the Armory on 67th street and Park avenue and the 69th regiment Armory where the Fountain Art Fair parks itself through Sunday -the sight of THE original Armory, and you are rightfully perplexed with the fact that The Armory show is not in an Armory and some of the non-Armory peripheral shows are in an Armory. This should make sense, for it is the art world.

The current show at THE Armory (but really at the Piers) is in a half-nelson from the long-armed stranglehold of the aesthetics expressed in the original show from 1913. What was so avant-garde back in the days of dollar meals quite unlike Mickee Dee’s over 100 years ago, resurfaces over and over in the contemporary art world. Oddly enough the term avante-garde is a repurposing of another military concept- being ahead of the guard, at the front lines, and it makes me wonder if the flow goes both ways, is the Army calling military exercise performances pieces these days?

A unique map of NYC was an eye catcher at the fair

What was so avante-garde about THE Armory show of 1913?

It was the coming out party for so many artists and thoughts from Europe at the turn of the century and their introduction to the United States. Though there were many influential generals to be hanging in the original exhibit the one to take note of was The Champ. No, not Muhammad Ali, but Marcel DuChamp. Marcel was a brilliant thinker and broke through barriers in the art world much as Bertrand Russell did for mathematics. Both Bertrand and Marcel questioned basic assumptions and definitions and thus redefined their respective fields. Marcel blew open the doors for conceptual art and objects and artist have been gathering, playing and responding in the doorway ever since.

A corked classical figure complete with push pins- now that’s a place for those random notes

But whereas The Champ was ahead of his day inventing new ideas and concepts of art, today’s artist seem to be appropriating old ideas. Is this a bad thing? No, bad is too harsh a label, but contemporary artist constant homage, both knowingly and unwittingly to Marcel lacks a string, a bite and a sense of the new that we look to art to lead us lemmings towards a new paradigm.

Today, China is the focus of the special exhibits section at Pier 94. A Political volley? Simply put, I saw two themes shared by most of the Chinese galleries. One including minimal use of the space and objects loaded with high conceptual connotations hard to fathom. The other was the opposite, a sort of playful, whimsical free for all that spelled fun and excitement of the senses and was very much the polar vortex opposite and the antithesis of the other minimal forms. One country, a billion plus people, two ideas? Somehow DuChamp can seen to be the key primordial influence on both of these themes. He ain’t the champ for nothin. It was unusual to see a lack of political statements from the Chinese artist , but maybe I was not looking and reading too closely. We often sleep walk through life and see without seeing as we coat our perceptions with our expected expectations of reality. Or maybe it was the fault of that late night left-over seafood pasta dish.

Read more at http://www.broadwayworld.com/bwwart/article/BWW-Reviews-A-Piered-Armory-Show-Peers-Back-To-The-Past-20140307#PUMFlRWvOP7rwD7z.99

BWW Reviews: A Piered Armory Show Peers Back To The Past

March 7
6:37 2014

A Piered Armory Show Peers Back To The Past

By Barry Kostrinsky

As if there is not enough confusion in the art world THE Armory show and many satellite fairs dropped through New York Cities stratosphere Wednesday night and orbits through March 9. What is the Armory? An Armory is a place for the militia; however defendable attacks employing full scale GI Joe green suited plastic men and woman have gone dormant over the last century. What to do with all that empty cavernous space? In 1913 an Armory was repurposed to house an art exhibit and so was born THE Armory show. Now, no longer in an Armory, it might be better called the Pier show as it is housed in Pier 92 and 94 near 55th street on the far west side.

People watching is always a highlight of an art fair and this smart couple was a big hit

Add to the confusion the multiplicity of Armories in NYC-I guess there were a lot attacking Indian attacks in the pre I-Phone era, and you have a maze of misunderstanding. Throw in a few art fairs at other armories dotted throughout the city like the Art Dealers Association of America art fair at the Armory on 67th street and Park avenue and the 69th regiment Armory where the Fountain Art Fair parks itself through Sunday -the sight of THE original Armory, and you are rightfully perplexed with the fact that The Armory show is not in an Armory and some of the non-Armory peripheral shows are in an Armory. This should make sense, for it is the art world.

The current show at THE Armory (but really at the Piers) is in a half-nelson from the long-armed stranglehold of the aesthetics expressed in the original show from 1913. What was so avant-garde back in the days of dollar meals quite unlike Mickee Dee’s over 100 years ago, resurfaces over and over in the contemporary art world. Oddly enough the term avante-garde is a repurposing of another military concept- being ahead of the guard, at the front lines, and it makes me wonder if the flow goes both ways, is the Army calling military exercise performances pieces these days?

A unique map of NYC was an eye catcher at the fair

What was so avante-garde about THE Armory show of 1913?

It was the coming out party for so many artists and thoughts from Europe at the turn of the century and their introduction to the United States. Though there were many influential generals to be hanging in the original exhibit the one to take note of was The Champ. No, not Muhammad Ali, but Marcel DuChamp. Marcel was a brilliant thinker and broke through barriers in the art world much as Bertrand Russell did for mathematics. Both Bertrand and Marcel questioned basic assumptions and definitions and thus redefined their respective fields. Marcel blew open the doors for conceptual art and objects and artist have been gathering, playing and responding in the doorway ever since.

A corked classical figure complete with push pins- now that’s a place for those random notes

But whereas The Champ was ahead of his day inventing new ideas and concepts of art, today’s artist seem to be appropriating old ideas. Is this a bad thing? No, bad is too harsh a label, but contemporary artist constant homage, both knowingly and unwittingly to Marcel lacks a string, a bite and a sense of the new that we look to art to lead us lemmings towards a new paradigm.

Today, China is the focus of the special exhibits section at Pier 94. A Political volley? Simply put, I saw two themes shared by most of the Chinese galleries. One including minimal use of the space and objects loaded with high conceptual connotations hard to fathom. The other was the opposite, a sort of playful, whimsical free for all that spelled fun and excitement of the senses and was very much the polar vortex opposite and the antithesis of the other minimal forms. One country, a billion plus people, two ideas? Somehow DuChamp can seen to be the key primordial influence on both of these themes. He ain’t the champ for nothin. It was unusual to see a lack of political statements from the Chinese artist , but maybe I was not looking and reading too closely. We often sleep walk through life and see without seeing as we coat our perceptions with our expected expectations of reality. Or maybe it was the fault of that late night left-over seafood pasta dish.

Read more at http://www.broadwayworld.com/bwwart/article/BWW-Reviews-A-Piered-Armory-Show-Peers-Back-To-The-Past-20140307#PUMFlRWvOP7rwD7z.99

THE NEW YORK TIMES

Art Matters | At the Armory Show, China Takes the Spotlight

A painting by the artist Xu Zhen, whose works were co-opted for the graphic identity of this year's Armory Show.Courtesy of the Armory Show A painting by the artist Xu Zhen, whose works were co-opted for the graphic identity of this year’s Armory Show.

The Armory Show anchors what has held on as a robust art week for New York, in spite of similar events organized in the city during the milder month of May. The art fair on Piers 92 and 94 on the West Side Highway opened to the public this morning, and while one might say its theme is the same as ever — to make as much money as possible in five days selling contemporary (and modern) art — each year is more distinctively characterized by a regionally driven focus as well, and 2014’s is China.

The “Focus: China” section of the Armory Show is an encampment of 16 commercial galleries and four nonprofit spaces at Pier 94, clustered around a lounge dotted with blue exercise machines placed by the collective Polit-Sheer-Form-Office as a work commissioned by the fair called “Fitness For All!” The section is organized by Philip Tinari, an American curator who has been based in Beijing for the better part of a decade, where he is currently the director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

One of the most intriguing presentations is the Beijing gallery White Space‘s solo booth, featuring new work by He Xiangyu, an artist in his late 20s who first gained notoriety for boiling down, over the course of about a year, 127 tons of Coca-Cola into an apocalyptic sludge that he subsequently used to fill a pristine gallery in an environmental gesture reminiscent of the 1970s artist Walter De Maria’s “The New York Earth Room.” Here, he offers two new, albeit tidier, jokes about scale and material: a totemic egg carton made of solid gold, leaned against the wall and holding a single, real egg, and the title page of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” printed in black ink on black paper, essentially invisible when observed in a passing glance. The opposite wall is hung with a suite of oddly intuitive, synesthetic tongue drawings: every day, the artist draws how his tongue feels. Recently, he began rendering it in wax as well; one of such self-portraits is displayed under glass in the front of the booth.

Left: an installation by Nadim Abbas. Right: a piece by He Xiangyu.Kevin McGarry Left: an installation by Nadim Abbas. Right: a piece by He Xiangyu.

Another engaging presentation can be seen at the booth of Gallery Exit, from Hong Kong, where two Roombas, the robot vacuum cleaners that resemble overgrown smoke detectors, roam a space littered with spiky concrete balls: enlarged castings of dust particles. The installation, made by Nadim Abbas, is meant to underscore parallels between the development of militaristic technologies and their domestic extensions, bringing the war home in an absurdist, Jetsons-y dance.

This year’s Armory Artist, whose work is co-opted for the graphic identity of the fair, is Xu Zhen. His oil paintings mimicking the goopy, striated qualities of toothpaste are replicated on the V.I.P. cards held in purses and wallets throughout the fair, and can be seen in their original form at Shanghai’s MadeIn Gallery‘s booth. MadeIn Company is also an alias the artist has been using since 2009, when he presciently sought to break away from a system in which artists are bound to a single name, brand and trajectory of activity contained by identity. Another Armory commission, easy to miss, and probably the best thing overall to see, is by Xu. A booth walled off on all four sides appears to be an architectural oversight, but in actuality houses an ongoing performance called “Action of Consciousness.” Inspired by Maurizio Cattelan’s emptying of the Guggenheim Museum in order to suspend his oeuvre from its ceiling, Xu’s boxed-off white cube contains people trapped within it, who every so often toss sculptural objects high enough to be spotted from the outside. The didactic text enumerates some of these as “a Roman column topped by a Chinese lantern or a wedding cake decorated with high-heeled shoes,” but it’s tough to pinpoint what they are by their fleeting appearances as they peek out over the walls.

This weekend continues with a two-day China symposium, also organized by Tinari. Saturday sets the stage by exploring the context and circumstances particular to Chinese contemporary art, as in the 2 p.m. session moderated by András Szántó, “The Chinese Art World Described as a System,” while Sunday zooms in on some specific currents in Chinese art itself, with a session called “The On | Off Generation” at 4 p.m., named for a seminal 2013 show at the Ullens Center, “ON | OFF,” which surveyed young Chinese artists (such as He Xiangyu, among others) who are making work that does not overtly appear “Chinese.” While the westernmost frontier of Midtown may feel a world away when wind chill is still a factor, this weekend is a rare opportunity to get an informed, firsthand tour of East Asia’s most developed art world, accessible via taxi.

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FORBES

Style & Design 3/07/2014 @ 12:40PM 153 views

Armory Show VIP Preview Draws Collectors, Welcomes Chinese Contemporary Galleries

The Armory Show preview is a must for serious collectors. Doors for the VIP event open at 12 PM; by 1:30, the halls are packed, and hopefully discerning eyes have already bought their favorite works, or at least placed them on hold. Artists Maurizio Cattelan and Michele Oka Doner, musician David Byrne, and television journalist Katie Couric wandered the halls and the special Chinese Contemporary section, curated by Philip Tinari, who is the art director for the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing.

“Am I shopping? Potentially, always,” said tennis legend John McEnroe. “So far today it’s a slow start. My time is limited, I have to pick up steam.”

Los Angeles based art philanthropist Eli Broad was a welcome figure. Inclusion in the Broad Collection is a dream for many artists and the galleries that represent them. “It’s a great educational experience,” said Broad. “Lots of interesting young artists I haven’t seen before are exhibiting.”

The atmosphere was upbeat. Several collectors missed out on works by coming in an hour late.

“Sales are fantastic, we’ve already sold very well,” said Leila Heller, owner of the Leila Heller Gallery. “I think most galleries are doing well, it’s a very healthy market. The stock market was up 265 points yesterday, so that always puts people in a good mood.”

International galleries were pleased that there was a focus on China, a plus for their businesses overseas.

Mark Spiegler, Jeffrey Deitch

“We are extremely happy to welcome our friends and collectors from Hong Kong and China to New York,” said Rachel Lehmann of the Lehmann Maupin Gallery. “It’s a very special moment because Phil Tinari, who is the curator for the Chinese section for the fair, has been trying to position the Chinese contemporary art world, that we don’t know well enough, in an interesting way. It’s an exciting moment, particularly for those of us who have galleries in Hong Kong and who work with artists in Asia and from everywhere else in the world.”

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ARCHITECTURAL DIGEST

The 2014 Armory Show’s Most Anticipated Galleries and Artists

March 4, 2014
Flowers, Andy Warhol

Flowers, Andy Warhol, 1970. Photo courtesy of Sims Reed Gallery

’Tis the season in New York for art collectors, with a plethora of art fairs poised to descend upon the city: Volta, the Art Dealers Association of America, Scope, and the Independent Art Fair, just to name a few. The main event, however, continues to be the Armory Show, now in its 16th year of bringing modern and contemporary art to the city.

Under Heaven 20121020, Xu Zhen, Amory Show 2014

Under Heaven 20121020, Xu Zhen, 2012. Photo courtesy of MadeIn Company

The multidisciplinary Shanghai-based artist Xu Zhen is this year’s Armory Artist, the singular figure commissioned to build the fair’s visual identity. Known for the provocative, politically poignant nature of his films, photography, installations, and thickly laden, vibrantly colored oil paintings often compared to frosted cakes, he’s not only gracing the show’s posters with his artwork but also setting up Action of Consciousness, a kinetic installation of symbolic sculptures continuously thrown in the air, as the centerpiece to the fair’s Focus: China section.

Proud Italy (detail), Li Shurui

Proud Italy (detail), Li Shurui, 2013. Photo courtesy of Li Shurui and Aike-Dellarco

In this area the Armory Show spotlights 16 Chinese galleries selected by Beijing Ullens Center for Contemporary Art director Philip Tinari, among them Tang Contemporary Art, Aye Gallery, and Space Station of Beijing; Gallery EXIT and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery of Hong Kong; and Aike-Dellarco and MadeIn Company of Shanghai.

Zäh und zahm, Franz West, Armory Show 2014

Zäh und zahm, Franz West, 2011. Photo courtesy of Tim Van Laere Gallery, Antwerp

And as always, the fair will also offer a wide range of favorites: The contemporary section will feature works from the likes of Franz West, being shown by Antwerp’s Tim Van Laere Gallery, and Tracey Emin, represented by Manhattan-based Lehmann Maupin.

Buste au Corsage à Carreaux, Pablo Picasso

Buste au Corsage à Carreaux, Pablo Picasso, 1958. Photo courtesy of John Szoke Gallery

In the modern area we can look forward to coveted classics such as an Andy Warhol “Flowers” print (from London’s Sims Reed Gallery), Picasso lithographs and screen prints (from New York’s John Szoke Gallery), and a 1971 Alexander Calder gouache (from Crane Kalman of London).

March 6–9, Piers 92 and 94, New York; thearmoryshow.com, 212-645-0655

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BLOOMBERG NEWS

Billionaires Join Celebrities at Armory Show on Art Surge

By Katya Kazakina Mar 7, 2014 10:23 AM PT


Photographer: Katya Kazakina/Bloomberg

Georg Baselitz’s painting, left, sold for $660,000 by Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac to a… Read More

Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac sold $2.4 million of blue-chip art halfway through the exclusive opening of the Armory Show this week in New York, as the city’s biggest event of its kind got off to a busy start.

A Chinese client purchased a 10-foot-tall painting by Georg Baselitz for $660,000, and a French collector paid $1 million for a Tony Cragg heap of bulbous stainless steel resembling, from one angle, the Mad Hatter’s hat. Robert Longo’s large photo-realist drawing depicting a Burning Man scene went to an American buyer for $380,000.

“We are happy to be here,” said Thaddaeus Ropac, whose Paris- and Salzburg, Austria-based gallery took a four-year break from the Armory Show after a disappointing experience in 2009.

Spread over two hangar-size piers on the Hudson River, the March 5 opening of the 16th edition of the Armory Show was mobbed by wealthy collectors, art advisers and the press. Guests included billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, tennis champion John McEnroe, actor James Franco, newscaster Katie Couric, real-estate developers Jerry Speyer and Arthur Zeckendorf, and Don Marron, chairman of private-equity firm Lightyear Capital LLC. The Armory Arts Week includes countless competing events, with at least nine other fairs and the Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art.


Photographer: Katya Kazakina/Bloomberg

A diptych by Israel Lund sold for $36,000 is displayed at the booth of Roberts &… Read More

Wealthy buyers are flocking to art after prices surged in the past decade, beating asset classes such as U.S. stocks, gold and fine wine. The Artnet C50 Index, which combines performance data from 50 contemporary and postwar artists, advanced 434 percent from the start of 2003 through last year.

‘Fell Apart’

The brisk sales and buoyant atmosphere represent a turnaround for New York’s largest contemporary and modern art fair, which runs through March 9 at Manhattan’s Piers 92 and 94. Since the financial crisis that roiled investment markets in 2008 and early 2009, the Armory Show has been plagued by an exodus of important galleries and increased competition from the Frieze Art Fair, a hip London transplant that opened in 2012 on Randall’s Island Park to mostly rave reviews from dealers and the public.

“The walls fell apart,” Ropac said of the 2009 Armory Show. “We just felt we didn’t want to come anymore.”

His was among several prominent international galleries that returned to the Armory Show after a hiatus, encouraged by recent changes. Organizers reduced the number of participants to 205 this year from 272 in 2011, invested in new 12-foot-tall booth walls, added a VIP lounge and offered upgraded food choices including Manhattan’s Boqueria and Brooklyn’s Mile End deli. The rickety staircase that used to connect the modern and the contemporary piers has been replaced by a steadier version.

‘The Action’

“There were too many galleries for the size of the space, there weren’t places to sit down, food was terrible,” said Noah Horowitz, the fair’s executive director since 2012. “All these issues needed to be addressed and we made a calculated attempt to address them.”

James Fuentes, a downtown New York art dealer, hadn’t participated in the Armory Show since 2010. Walking through the fair last year, he said he spotted important collectors and curators at a time when his gallery was quiet. He decided to give the event another try.

“I needed to come where the action is,” Fuentes said, standing in a booth filled with subtle works on paper by Jessica Dickinson.

Colorful Clothes

By the time Joel and Zoe Dictrow, emerging-art collectors who are husband and wife, rushed into the booth about four hours into the preview, 90 percent of the works were sold, with prices ranging from $3,000 to $14,000.

“Several people told us we have to come by your booth,” Joel Dictrow said to Fuentes.

Galleries including New York’s Zach Feuer and Eleven Rivington and Paris-based Almine Rech reported sold-out booths.

At Eleven Rivington, five hand-sewn bundles of stuffed colorful clothes on plywood pedestals by Aiko Hachisuka, a Los-Angeles-based artist, were quickly snatched up, with prices ranging from $6,500 to $8,500. Belgian collector Alain Servais said he bought one of the pieces; another went to a trustee of the New Museum in New York, the gallery said.

New York dealer Marianne Boesky’s solo presentation of work by South Africa-based artist Serge Alain Nitegeka resembled a giant maze of overlapping plywood beams and suspended shipping containers. The barricade-like structure masked the entrance to the booth hung with five large paintings made with plywood and roof paint. Priced at $10,000 to $25,000, they quickly sold to private collectors, the gallery said.

Smashed Pumpkin

Other early sales include a large abstract canvas by Scott Reeder, priced at $20,000, and Whitney Biennial artist Tony Tasset’s bronze sculpture of a smashed pumpkin, priced at $30,000, at Chicago- and Berlin-based Kavi Gupta Gallery.

Videos of imploding historic and residential buildings in Mecca, titled “Ground Zero,” played on the screens of mobile phones, at the booth of first-time exhibitor, Saudi Athr Gallery. The artist, Ahmed Mater, also created a large photograph showing the panoramic view of Al Masjid Al Haram mosque. The holy Muslim site looks dwarfed by surrounding new towers, the center of a giant construction zone. The piece sold for $44,000, the gallery said.

Roberts & Tilton gallery, with spaces in New York and Los Angeles, received numerous requests for a striped silkscreen diptych by Israel Lund, an emerging artist whose works are being flipped on the secondary market, according to dealers.

Longtime Client

The gallery sold the work for $36,000 to a longtime West Coast client “who will ultimately give it to a museum,” co-owner Bennett Roberts said in an interview.

“It’s hard to know who you can trust,” Roberts said. “We are consciously not giving in to the market. The artist is just starting his career. We are going to see big paintings and big sculptures.”

Just then Neal Meltzer, a New York-based art adviser, stopped by the booth to inquire about the work for a client. When told it had been sold, he asked if more were available. The answer was negative.

“That conversation happened all day long,” Roberts said after Meltzer left the booth.

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THE GUARDIAN LONDON

Whitney Biennial and the Armory Show: New York’s busiest art week

For the first time since 2004, the commercial and non-commercial art platforms share the same week. Are curators being forced to rethink their roles?

Armory Show
Crowds at this year’s Armory Show. Photograph: The Armory Show

New York is saturated with contemporary art in usual times, but this week it is full to bursting.

The Armory Show opened on Wednesday, on the piers of the Hudson River. A large crowd of collectors, curators, advisers and groupies charged through a notably strong edition of the city’s largest art fair. Many, though, had already had a full helping of contemporary art across town, at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The Whitney Biennial, the city’s leading museum show of contemporary art, opened the day before – opening-night crowds for the perplexing, all-over-the-shop exhibition waited for half an hour or more to get inside.

This is the first year since 2004 that New York’s most prominent commercial and non-commercial platforms for contemporary art have fallen in the same week, However, while the Armory and the Whitney Biennial would pack an art-lover’s schedule on their own, there is even more to choose from. The Armory Show is only the biggest of 10 fairs, including the blue-chip ADAA Art Show and the young, scruffy Independent.

The Whitney Biennial has a spinoff in the form of the Brucennial, a rammed exhibition featuring around 600 female artists. (Women’s representation had been getting better in recent Whitney Biennials, but they account for less than a third of the artists at the museum this year.)

Trailer for the Brucennial, which ends this year.

It keeps going. The week’s openings have also included a Gauguin exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art; a vital show on art and civil rights in the 1960s at the Brooklyn Museum; three large solo presentations at PS1, MoMA’s hipper kid sister in Queens; and untold numbers of openings at commercial galleries. Then there are auctions at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips, for collectors who still have money to burn.

The 2014 Whitney Biennial, the museum’s 77th edition, is a relatively large one. It includes work by 103 participants, splashed across three floors plus the lobby, basement, stairwell and elevators, and sites around town. Diverse to the point of incoherence, it does gel around a few themes.

There’s a good amount of abstract painting, such as from the Brooklyn-based artist Amy Sillman, as well as sculptures made of ceramic or fabric, such as a tumbling multi-colored tower of yarn from the 80-year-old Sheila Hicks. Numerous works involve archival research or presentations of historical material, such as a project by Joseph Grigley showcasing ephemera from a murdered art critic.

There’s also lots – really, lots – of sex and nudity, much of it homoerotic, most impressively in a nightmarish installation from the workaholic Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard (subject of a recent uproar involving Dasha Zhukova and racial insensitivity). There are a few oddball inclusions, such as the late author David Foster Wallace, whose notebooks for his novel The Pale King are displayed like relics.

Amy Sillman
Mother, by Amy Sillman. John Beren/Whitney Museum of American Art

Early reviews have not been kind. Unlike in previous iterations, the biennial’s three curators did not collaborate on a single presentation but worked on discrete sections individually. That independence may have contributed to the wildly divergent quality of work on display, according to Joshua Decter, a curator and the author of a new book, Art is a Problem.

“It probably would have been more productive for the three curators to have actually collaborated closely on one show, rather than each doing their own quasi-autonomous shows,” said Decter, who has attended every biennial since 1977. “The result may have actually been similar, but a more rigorous collaborative process might have led to a refining of each curator’s selections, and demanded of each to make useful edits and compromises.”

The Armory Show, by contrast, beat expectations. Hunted these past two years by the new Frieze New York fair, Armory has made a substantial push under its young director, Noah Horowitz, to refresh itself with a more rigorous selection process and a more international scope. The result is a fair finding its footing again after years of its future being in doubt.

Several dealers have booths with just a single artist, often showing not evidently commercial work. The booth of Marianne Boesky Gallery, for example, is overtaken by a riotous construction of interconnected black wood planks by Serge Alain Nitegeka, an artist born in Burundi and based in South Africa. Alison Jacques, a London dealer, has given her booth over to the Brazilian artist Fernanda Gomes, whose art consists of minimal, almost offhand interventions in the gallery: a twig, a glass of water, a ping-pong ball.

This year’s Armory also includes a section devoted to Chinese art that features 17 galleries, nine of which have never shown outside of Asia. There’s a commissioned artwork from the Shanghai-born provocateur Xu Zhen, consisting of a white cube with performers locked inside, chucking sculptures into the air. It works as a parody of the typical art fair experience, with the art glimpsed only for a second before disappearing again.

Art of Change
Xu Zhen’s Art of Change installation. Photograph: The Armory Show

The China programming has been organized by Philip Tinari, the director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. It also includes an educational symposium on Chinese contemporary art. As recently as a few years ago, a museum director organizing part of an art fair would have felt bizarre. Today, with the market in perpetual boom, it feels almost conventional.

“I think we all have to learn how to make peace with the art fairs,” Tinari says. “It’s not that you ally with them infinitely, but this felt to me like a productive insertion at this time. And what institutions are really going to show these artists in New York now?

“That’s one of the great things about the fair in New York. It’s unlike Dubai, or even Miami. It’s not just the black-card holders. It’s the rank and file of the profession, it’s all these students. You have an audience that feels real.”

The overlapping of commercial and non-commercial, the market and the museum, has been the dominant theme of this art-saturated week. The Whitney Biennial’s curators have positioned their show in opposition to the booming art market, with many works from artist collectives and almost nothing from the large galleries of Chelsea. Yet the simultaneous opening of Armory, and all the other shows and sales, has highlighted the ongoing convergence of the two sectors.

Sterling Ruby
Basin Theology/Butterfly Wreck, by Sterling Ruby. Photograph: Robert Wedemeyer/Whitney Museum of American Art

The biennial, after all, is sponsored in part by Sotheby’s, and many of the auction house’s clients packed the Tuesday night opening while hundreds of others (including at least one former Whitney Biennial curator) queued in the cold outside. Works by several biennial artists, including Sterling Ruby and Channa Horwitz, could be bought at Armory or Independent; the biennial catalogue’s acknowledgements section thanks dozens of galleries. Michelle Grabner, one of the three biennial curators, is herself a painter – her work is on sale at the Armory Show.

The seemingly unstoppable proliferation of the art market, and the continued push of commercial enterprises into terrain that was once just for museums, has forced curators of biennials and other non-commercial shows to rethink their roles. But by the fifth day of New York’s stuffed contemporary art week, it was unclear just what role the Whitney Biennial still played in defining American art in a global, money-soaked ecosystem.

“The Armory Show now deploys intellectual window-dressing to give it some cosmopolitan street cred,” Decter observed. “And the Whitney Biennial is still in search of itself.”

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THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

NY Culture

Visiting Armory Show’s Edgy Cousin

The 14th edition of Scope: New York 2014

March 7, 2014 6:32 p.m. ET

The crowd at Scope: New York 2014 Matteo Prandoni/BFA

Hubert and Victor-John Villanueva Matteo Prandoni/BFA

Fabrizio Ferri, Natalie Kates and Edward Sunderland Matteo Prandoni/BFA

Ebany Binks and William Etundi Matteo Prandoni/BFA

The 14th edition of Scope: New York 2014, a satellite art show during Armory Arts week, kicked off at the landmark post office near Penn Station on Thursday afternoon.

Through Sunday, 80 galleries from 22 countries are showcasing paintings, sculptures and experiential work, such as Belfast, Ireland, artist Sinéad O’Donnell’s “Headspace: White Cube,” a helmet-size white wooden box suspended from the ceiling by a wire.

Ms. O’Donnell, represented by Golden Thread Gallery, made the piece especially for the art fair environment, and invites visitors to stick their heads inside when she takes breaks from being inside of it.

“You’ll be okay,” Ms. O’Donnell assured us. “Just try to breathe and relax. I feel OK when I’m in there. I feel a bit dizzy when I’m out here.”

“Headspace” has as many meanings, from being a platform to discuss invisible disabilities like depressive dyslexia to being an escape for artists who are tired of facing white gallery cubes.

“The art world should embrace people who are different,” Ms. O’Donnell said. “I don’t think we would be artists if we weren’t different.”

On the other side of the fair, visitors can enter artist Aerosyn-Lex Mestrovic’s 15-foot-tall monolith installation called “Atramentum.” Inside, a camera captures viewers’ reactions to the space’s infinite mirrored surface and calming ambient music.

“Their experience inside this monolith can be singular, introspective and pluralistically reflective,” Mr. Mestrovic said. “But that experience is also then saved, and the recorded impression of viewers’ time in the monolith is broadcast to the audience outside the fair. The viewer is the artist and the artwork at the same time.”

“We’re really about finding emerging artists and our thing has always been staying true to that,” Scope’s president, Alexis Hubshman, said.

Kevin Havelton, director of Rhode Island and Switzerland-based Aureus Contemporary, said Scope often comes across as edgier than more well-established art fairs.

“We’re like the rough cousin. If you go to the Armory, it’s all elegant,” Mr. Havelton said. “We’re the cousin that you don’t visit very often but when you do, you’re reminded of how much fun you can actually have.”

He is showing West Village-based artist Claire Shegog, who punctiliously hand paints thousands of identical 1-inch dolls, customizing each one’s dresses, jewelry, hats, skin tones and hairdos. With a laugh, Ms. Shegog said her work is inspired by old Hollywood movie director Busby Berkeley’s geometric work involving hundreds of dancers.

And, unlike a lot of contemporary art, Ms. Shegog said, her work is about nothing deeper than beauty and elegance.

“I’ve always gone on the instinctual: ‘I like it because it’s pretty and it’s cute and organized,’ ” she said. “And it sparkles.”

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THE MILLIONS

Essays

The Writing on the Wall (Redux): The 2014 Whitney Biennial, Starring David Foster Wallace

By posted at 6:00 am on March 13, 2014 0

Lisa Anne Auerbach, Let the Dream Write Itself, 2014. Wool, 63 x 80 in. (160 x 203.2 cm) Collection of the artist and Gavlak Gallery, Palm Beach. Copyright Lisa Anne Auerbach. Photograph by Lisa Anne Auerbach.

Paper is a star of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, as one critic put it. This is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.  A star of this show — the star, in my opinion — is what’s on the paper.  And what’s on the paper is something that has been on a lot of museum and gallery walls lately, as we noted here early this year.  That something is the thing we tend to think of as the domain of writers, not artists.  That something is words.

The current Whitney Biennial, like its precursors since 1932, tries to answer an impossible question: What is contemporary art in the United States today?  Here’s one answer: “Shape-shifting.”  That’s the title of the catalog essay by one of this Biennial’s three outside curators, Stuart Comer of the Museum of Modern Art.  Comer writes that in making his selections for the show he was “compelled by artists whose work is as hybrid as the significant global, environmental, and technological shifts reshaping the United States.”  Nowhere is this crossbreeding more vividly expressed than in one of this Biennial’s staples — what Comer calls “the complex relationship between linguistic and visual forms.”

Etel Adnan, "Five Senses for One Death," 1969. Ink and watercolor on paper. 11 x 255 in. (27.9 x 647.7 cm) Collection of the artist; courtesy Callicoon Fine Arts, New York Photograph by Chris Austen

coverConsider his choice of Etel Adnan, an 89-year-old, Beirut-born, Lebanese-American artist who wrote a highly regarded novel, Sitt Marie-Rose, set during her homeland’s brutal civil war.  (She has also written poetry and essays.)  A room at the Whitney has several of Adnan’s bright paintings on the walls, looking down on a large vitrine that contains Adnan’s accordion books made of long sheets of folded paper, known as leporellos.  One is titled “Funeral March for the First Cosmonaut.”  Through a series of watercolor images and blocks of writing, it tells the story of Yuri Gagarin, the first human to journey into outer space.  But Adnan’s lovely book is less a celebration of technological achievement than a reflection on creativity and loss.  “In the beginning was the white page,” it opens, a chilling fact known to every writer.  It goes on to describe Gagarin’s achievement as “a requiem for the sound barrier.”  Another leporello, “Five Senses for One Death,” conjures a whimsical world where “every Chevy calls me by my name.”  I want to go there.

In his catalog essay, Comer calls the unfolding pages of the leporellos “a proto-screen, a kind of precursor to the laptops, smartphones, and tablets that increasingly dominate our lives, where the distinction between language and image continues to collapse and multiple surfaces and screens abut and fold into one another.”  He notes that Adnan’s life and career are, like this Biennial, about breaking through boundaries.  “I find myself gravitating toward artists like Adnan who are working with culture in a freer and more open-minded way — not fighting so much against traditionally established boundaries as ignoring them, unwilling to define themselves as image-makers or writers, painters or sculptors or filmmakers, but working in the interstices of categorical distinctions.”

Many of the 103 participants in the show have chosen to ignore the traditional boundaries between linguistic and visual forms.  (Happily, there is also a lot of straight-up painting here, along with sculpture, videos, and performances.)  Artists whose works prominently feature written, drawn, painted, printed, or photographed words include David Diao, Carol Jackson, Philip Hanson, Steve Reinke, Karl Haendel, Martin Wong, James Benning, and Allan Sekula.  There’s an archive from the works of the boundary-shredding artist/writer/critic Gregory BattcockSusan Howe has done something William S. Burroughs would have appreciated: She has taken fragments of poems, folklore, criticism, and art history, then cut and rearranged them, printed them on a letterpress, and laid the fragments on facing pages.  “The bibliography is the medium,” Howe says on a note card beside the paired pages.  “(They) occupy a space between writing and seeing, reading and looking.”

Lisa Anne Auerbach, a Los Angeles-based artist, has stitched together a large woolen assemblage, an ebullient bath of thought bubbles that simply will not shut up.  Like some yammering New Age shaman, it peppers the viewer with witticisms and dubious wisdom, such as “You’re All About Going Deep,” “The Sooner You Get To the Second Chakra, the Better,” “Write It All Down,” and “Let the Dream Write Itself.”  Auerbach has also produced sweaters that bear messages (“Touch Me” and “Everything I touch turns to sold/Steal this sweater off my back”), as well as a giant zine she calls “American Megazine.”  Move over, Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer.

Of course these artists’ bewitching use of words is nothing new.  Artists have been using words as images for at least the past century (along with single letters, even entire alphabets), an appropriation of the writerly strategy of arriving at meaning through narrative.  This Biennial adds to the body of evidence that the practice is accelerating and expanding.  I have a theory why this is so.  As the practice of writing on paper (everything from telegrams to letters to books to Post-It notes) is increasingly devoured by technology, words on paper are evolving from widespread tools of communication into the rarefied stuff of art.  As things recede, they also expand.  As a result, words are becoming as legitimate as the more traditional subject matter of painting, drawing, video and sculpture.  Running parallel to this trend is a more capacious notion of what constitutes art.  Or, as the great critic Holland Cotter put it, this Biennial demonstrates that “not-art” and “maybe-art” deserve a place at the table with “Art.”

Consider the room at the Biennial devoted to the independent publisher Semiotext(e), known for introducing French theory to the U.S. in the 1970s through the writings of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, and others.  Now based in Los Angeles, it continues to publish works of “theory, fiction, madness, economics, satire, sexuality, science fiction, activism and confession.”  On one wall at the Whitney there is a selection of pamphlets produced especially for the Biennial, works by Simone Weil, Gary Indiana, and Chris Kraus, among others.  Another wall is plastered with pages of Semitoext(e) books, flyers, and posters of events, including the Schizo-Culture conference at Columbia University in 1975.  There’s also a poster for a performance by Semiotext(e) author/performance artist Penny Arcade that presents her succinct CV: “Bitch!  Dyke!  Faghag!  Whore!”  For four decades Semiotext(e) has been as much a sensibility as a publishing enterprise, championing the mash-up of high and low that’s now part of the culture’s bedrock.  But is all this verbiage “Art”?  Absolutely.

David Foster Wallace, Page from The Pale King materials, “Midwesternism” notebook, undated. Manuscript notebook, 10 1/2 x 8 1/4 in. (26.7 x 21.0 cm) Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin. Image used with permission from the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust.

coverThe highlight of this Biennial, for me, is a smallish installation on the top floor, where a sheet of glass serves as a literal window into the mind of David Foster Wallace.  After Wallace’s suicide in 2008, Michael Pietsch, publisher of Little Brown, went to Wallace’s studio in California to retrieve a trove of manuscript pages, hard drives, file folders, spiral notebooks, and floppy disks — enough to fill a duffel bag and two Trader Joe’s bags.  Pietsch then spent two years stitching the material into the novel we now know as The Pale King.

On display behind glass at the Whitney is a small but revealing fraction of that mass of material.  There’s a spiral notebook with kittens and the words “Cuddly Cuties” on the cover, along with a scrap of paper that contains the word SCENES.  Another spiral notebook contains lists of characters’ names, written in Wallace’s spidery script.  Another contains references that seem to refer to the novel’s setting, an IRS office in the Midwest: “Bad Organization — many different departments all organized around a central command.”  Here’s another way of looking at the IRS: “A ‘bad wheel’ — comprises hubs and spokes but no rim.”  Another notebook page contains a group of pencil scrubbings, reminiscent of a Cy Twombly scribble.  Or maybe they were an attempt by Wallace to burn off excess energy.  Or maybe just sharpen a pencil.

coverFinally, on the wall above the window, there are two pages from a yellow legal pad that contain handwritten questions for the tennis star Roger Federer, the subject of a long article Wallace wrote for The New York Times in 2006.  It became a classic of sports journalism and was included in his posthumous 2012 book of essays, Both Flesh and Not.  As it happened, Wallace spent just 20 minutes talking directly with Federer for the article.  But the questions reveal how hard Wallace prepared, how hard worked at everything he did, how much he cared.  The questions also reveal a disarming directness, a necessary tool for any writer hungry to get all the way under his subject’s skin:

“Is your English good because it was spoken in your home?”

“Does it make you uncomfortable when commentators talk on and on about how good you are?”

“I’ve spent the last couple of days listening to the press and experts talk about you.  When you hear people saying that your game is not merely powerful or dominant but beautiful, do you understand this?”

There is also a bit of sly humor here.  Wallace, like every writer, sometimes bridled against editorial control.  He gives one list of questions a disparaging title: “Non-Journalist Questions: (Q’s the Editors want me to ask).”

Even a few years ago, it would have been unlikely for these marked pieces of paper to make their way onto the walls of a major American museum.  Thankfully, things are changing.  These pieces of paper are beautiful to look at and beautiful to ponder.  They provide nothing less than a glimpse into a brilliant writer’s mind at work.  It’s so intimate it almost feels like a trespass.  Even so, I recommend it to anyone who’s interested in how ideas become words, how words become literature, and how literature becomes art.

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ART FEBRUARY 15, 2014

The Armory Show Made Modern Art Something You Love to Hate Against the cult of novelty

The hundredth anniversary of the Armory Show, which opened in New York on February 17, 1913, and was by many reckonings the defining event in the history of modern art in America, has passed without inspiring a great deal of comment. The most imposing of the celebratory centennial events, an exhibition mounted at the New York Historical Society, never really caught on with the public or the critics. Most observers appear to have concluded that whatever the impact of the Armory Show might once have been, either as an artistic scandal or an artistic revelation, there is not much left to say about it in our battle-scarred postmodern period. The feeling may be that no purpose is served by revisiting some antediluvian debates about the nature of tradition and innovation. Who cares if the arguments were once so urgent that Theodore Roosevelt himself could not resist putting in his two cents? The conservatives lost. The avant-garde won. End of story. Marcel Duchamp, whose Nude Descending a Staircase was the cause célèbre of the Armory Show, is now more or less a beloved household name, known to one and all as the guy who put the moustache on the Mona Lisa.

But the more I have thought about the Armory Show during these centennial times, the more I have come to believe that what has so often been described as an artistic earthquake demands another look. As with many cultural events with multiple social and intellectual ramifications, the facts of the Armory Show remain difficult to determine with ultimate precision, much less to put in any final and coherent order. The more than two dozen scholars who contributed essays to the New-York Historical Society’s immense catalogue add valuable perspectives and shadings to Milton W. Brown’s classic and still wonderfully readable history, The Story of the Armory Show, first published just over fifty years ago. Somehow, the more one looks at this complicated story, the more its broader philosophic ramifications cry out for consideration, a process begun by Meyer Schapiro and Harold Rosenberg two generations ago. (“The Armory Show at 100: Modernism and Revolution” was organized by Marilyn Satin Kushner and Kimberly Orcutt, curators at the New-York Historical Society.)

The Armory Show, surely a revelation, was also something of a snare and a delusion. To the extent that the show turned modern art into a sensation, it can look like the beginning of the sensationalism that has by now all but swamped any authentically impassioned experience of modern art. I offer this thought in a speculative spirit. Certainly there are dangers in reasoning back too much from the sensationalism of the present. And yet if the story of modern art has been a perilous struggle between the artist’s ardent pursuit of private experience and the artist’s equally insatiable hunger for public acceptance, then the Armory Show remains at the very heart of that drama.

 

The Armory Show certainly helped make modern art familiar to the American public. It also helped make modern art fashionable—as well as scandalous. Although all the figures for the show are somewhat unclear, there is no doubt that in New York some 87,000 people saw approximately 1,400 works included in what was officially known as the International Exhibition of Modern Art. The show ran for a month in the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue between 25th Street and 26th Street. A smaller version was seen by twice as many people in Chicago, while in Boston the show pretty much fizzled. Although more than six hundred of the works in New York were by Americans, it was the Europeans who attracted the most attention, beginning with a gathering of what were billed as the founding masters of modern art, reaching back as far as Goya, Ingres, and Delacroix. There were generous selections of work by Redon, van Gogh, Cézanne, and Matisse. Brancusi, Picasso, and Kandinsky were represented. And of course there was Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. The newspapers were full of articles, editorials, and cartoons, by no means all unsympathetic. Some of the toughest comments were reserved for Matisse’s work, and for what was known in the press as “the Chamber of Horrors,” the gallery where Duchamp’s paintings hung with other Cubist works. One of the finest publications to appear in time for the centenary is Documents of the 1913 Armory Show (Hol Art Books), which reprints pamphlets sold at the show in New York and Chicago. There is a fascinating collection of opinions, For and Against, as well as an essay about Cézanne by Élie Faure, the formidable French critic and historian whose prose, lyric and lucid, is too little appreciated today.

 

New-York Historical Society

The origins of the Armory Show are themselves a tangled tale. It began with a group of generally youngish American realist painters, including Walt Kuhn, William Glackens, and George Luks, who had broken ranks with what they felt were the hidebound values of the National Academy of Design and created the Association of American Painters and Sculptors (aaps) to put their work before the public. By some accounts, the Armory Show, which was their maiden voyage, was at first planned to showcase the new American art, with a focus on artists who approached quotidian subjects with painterly bravado. It was largely due to the efforts of the romantically inclined artist Arthur B. Davies that the new European painting and sculpture came to loom so large. Davies sent Kuhn to Europe to gather works. He began his tour in Cologne, arriving in time to catch the last day of what was an epochal International Art Exhibition. The large selection of van Goghs, Cézannes, Gauguins, Signacs, Picassos, and Matisses that he saw in Cologne shaped his sense of what might be possible in New York. Davies joined Kuhn in Paris, where the American painter and critic Walter Pach, living there at the time, was particularly helpful in bringing Davies and Kuhn into contact with artists, dealers, and collectors, including the Steins.

European dealers, who saw America as a potential market for modern art, were generally happy to send material to New York; perhaps they didn’t know how untested the organizers of the AAPS really were. In the end, much of what did sell consisted of works on paper, which gave collectors an opportunity to weigh their long-term reactions to the new art without large outlays of money. The APPS hardly outlived the Armory Show, lasting only long enough to tie up the loose ends involved with such an ambitious effort. “Like the salmon or the butterfly which lives only to give birth,” Milton Brown observed toward the end of his history, the AAPS “brought forth the Armory Show and expired. It is almost as if the very process of creation had consumed all its energies.”

 

Even today, the mere mention of the Armory Show telegraphs a frisson of shock or scandal, the sense of a great disruption or eruption in the cultural landscape. People relish the love-hate relationship that New Yorkers developed with Duchamp, Matisse, and others they regarded as the cowboys of contemporary European art. Coming eighteen months before the beginning of World War I, the Armory Show may seem like one of a number of early warning signs, the cultural sphere sensing broader upheavals on the horizon. But like the other great cultural shock and scandal of 1913, the premiere of The Rite of Spring in Paris three months after the opening of the Armory Show in New York, the relationship between these events and the evolution of art in the twentieth century remains vague. Are such shocks or scandals little more than a sort of embarrassment registered by a significant swath of the public and forgotten soon after? Or do they inject an unfamiliar but vital substance into the public imagination, which inoculates the public against old prejudices and paves the way for some fundamentally new recognition? With both the Armory Show and the premiere of The Rite of Spring, the intentions and the implications remain somewhat muddled, in part because the attitudes of the participants are unclear. By some accounts Diaghilev was looking for a scandal that would be good for business, while Stravinsky and Nijinsky only wanted to produce the best possible ballet. And when Kuhn and Davies toured European studios, collections, and galleries, they were surely as interested in educating themselves and their fellow artists as they were in creating a kerfuffle in the press, although they undoubtedly welcomed that as well.

Bettmann / Corbis

Since the days of Courbet and Manet—who were both represented in the Armory Show—creative spirits have employed methods that are unfamiliar, if not downright obscure, to bring a personal vision to the attention of the world. Not surprisingly, it has often been the case that one person’s hard-won dream appears to another person to be nothing but a hoax. This conundrum, a subject of heated debate between self-styled progressives and traditionalists at the time of the Armory Show, may strike some as by now having become almost banal, but I am not convinced that it has ever been resolved. To the question that once upon a time was asked about Picasso, Mondrian, Brancusi, and Duchamp—is the artist a visionary or merely crazy like a fox?—we have now added the further possibility that there is no difference between being a visionary and being crazy like a fox. Art can still bewilder museumgoers, who are unsure to what degree the artist is high-minded, bloody-minded, diffident, obscure, narcissistic, impudent, or merely out to grab our attention. When critics and curators celebrate as authentic personal expression the kind of stunts that Dalí specialized in seventy-five years ago and that Jeff Koons specializes in today, aren’t we seeing another twist in this tale? And although they may not want to let on, many museumgoers, even fairly sophisticated ones, still feel some suspicion about exactly what motivated Ellsworth Kelly and Donald Judd to produce their strenuously simplified works.

 

To look back to the debates provoked by the Armory Show is to see ideological opponents taking up these very same perplexities, and the arguments have not lost their sting. The organizers of the show recognized the importance of these debates, which they highlighted in For and Against, the pamphlet published in time for the opening of the show in Chicago. In 1913, the conservatives may have been wrong about many things, but the questions they raised were not trivial ones. Matisse would have understood perfectly the criticisms launched against him by Kenyon Cox, the proudly traditional painter of impassive classical figures, who had no patience for anything since the Impressionists and was not convinced even by them. Cox observed, surely thinking of the anatomical distortions in Matisse’s Blue Nude, one of the sensations of the show, that Matisse had forgotten “that the great and really difficult task is to draw beautifully and expressively without drawing falsely.” While Matisse would never become an enemy of simplification, he certainly grappled with the conflict between expression and truth that Cox outlined here. In the extraordinarily realized lithographs of odalisques that Matisse produced in the 1920s, he set out to answer precisely the kinds of questions Cox raised, drawing beautifully and expressively and with absolute naturalistic accuracy.

Reading through the debates around the Armory Show, I am reminded all over again that tradition and innovation are two sides of the same equation, a fact acknowledged by anybody who honestly embraces these questions. Cox may have been dead wrong about Matisse, but who can blame him for being on the lookout for charlatans? And who can disagree with him when he says that at some point a distinction must be made between what he calls a “sincere fanaticism” and “an individualism exaggerated and made absurd for the sake of advertising”? The conflict between freedom and authority—between the instincts of the individual and the weight of tradition—is not so much an insoluble problem as it is the seed from which all art grows. And both conservatives and progressives recognize this—at least they do if they really care about the life of art. When Cox says that “the traditions of art, like the laws of social existence, are the outcome of human effort extending over countless centuries,” his view is arguably not all that different from that of Walter Pach, a great progressive voice of the time. Writing in defense of Cézanne, whom Cox dismissed, Pach argued that “the spirit of art is the same throughout the ages, the forms of art forever change as the needs of the new eras succeed one another.” Of course that is another way of speaking about tradition, which Cox believed in, too. And while Pach argued that most of the great artists have been “misunderstood and attacked, until appreciated and canonized,” he quite reasonably answered, “No, a thousand times, no,” to the question of whether “every artist who is attacked will turn out to be a genius.”

But how does one decide who is and is not a genius? Cox’s complaint is against “the modern tendency … to exalt individualism 
at the expense of law.” This leaves Cox depending on the “law” and Pach depending 
on the “spirit”—and it goes without saying that the debate about the relationship between those two ideals is a very ancient one. Frank Jewett Mather, another conservative voice weighing in about the Armory Show, wrote that “taste” wants “real breadth of taste”—in other words individualism modified by some other value, perhaps Pach’s “spirit of art.” “Where something like taste exists,” Mather wrote, “the new brusque procedures are readily assimilated.” But assimilated to what? Mather praised Augustus John and said that he “can go some way with Matisse because he never forgets Manet and Botticelli”—which can be seen as describing either John’s timidity or John’s steady feeling for what Pach called “the spirit of art [that] is the same throughout the ages.” I do not think the fact that Matisse is an infinitely more significant artist than John entirely settles the debate, because of course Matisse himself was quick to cite the importance of the precedents of Dürer and any number of other Old Masters. “Let us look once more at the page of history and give its true meaning,” Pach wrote. But who is to say what that meaning is?

 

What everybody at the time of the Armory Show seemed to agree on, conservatives and progressives alike, was that ultimately the public would decide what was of value and what was not. It will not come as much of a surprise—certainly not to anybody who has observed the wishful thinking of intellectuals, pundits, and politicians—that everybody expected the public to more or less side with them. Arthur B. Davies only wanted a situation where “the intelligent may judge for themselves, by themselves.” And Pach argued that “the hundred thousand people who visited the exhibition in New York gave proof that in this new country, the ‘new spirit’ of appealing to ‘the intelligent’ will find the justification that was to be looked for and hoped for.” To which Cox, asked if the public had been fooled, responded: “No, I think the bulk of the public is usually found to be sane. There are always a few ‘suggestible’ people, always a certain number of ready dupes for any loudly advertised quack.” Some liberal spirits, then as now eager to embrace new ideas, were a little too willing to deny the act of judgment without which the experience of art becomes meaningless. That could be a problem with some comments by Frederick James Gregg, who acted as the press agent for the show. “The moral is that there is nothing final in art,” he wrote in Harper’s, “no last word, and that the main thing is not to be taken in on one hand, and not to be blind on the other.” There is a thin line between this and moral relativism.

Perhaps one of the lessons to be drawn from the Armory Show is that there are different kinds of upheavals and sea changes in the arts, and that we would do well to make certain distinctions. While Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase surely provoked the greatest public scandal, from the point of view of what would happen in the studios of American artists in the next forty years, the noisy but less widely publicized controversy over Matisse’s works was infinitely more significant. Among the fascinations of the Nude Descending a Staircase is that the year before the Armory Show, Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes, self-appointed 
theoreticians of Cubism, had pressured Duchamp into removing it from the Salon des Indépendants in Paris. Years later Duchamp recalled that they had felt that the painting “was really exaggerating the theoretical side of cubism,” and had asked him to at least change the title, which must have seemed overly naturalistic and descriptive. So Duchamp’s Nude had actually had a vexed relationship with the avant-garde before it appeared in New York, which some might say means that the public turned out to be ahead of the theoreticians of Cubism when it came to deciding what was truly important. What the public found in Duchamp’s painting and its title was a puzzle—which confirmed an assumption or even a prejudice about the nature of modern art. The American Art News described Duchamp’s Nude as “the conundrum of the season.” The more questions and controversies there were, the bigger the crowds grew.

Wikimedia Commons

With Matisse—who was represented by important works including the Red Studio, now in the Museum of Modern Art—the attacks launched by the critics feel more intimate, more a matter of grappling with enduring artistic questions. At least a small amount of Matisse’s work had already been seen in New York, and sophisticated viewers of whatever ideological stripe were aware of the weight of the arguments being made on his behalf. It was here that the conflict became most acute between what Cox called “the universal language of art” and what progressives saw as the audience’s obligation to try “to understand what the artist has tried to express.”

In one of the strongest essays in the New-York Historical Society catalogue, Kimberly Orcutt argues that a key question became whether the artists were sincere or insincere. Cox was convinced that Matisse was putting one over on the audience, with his “tongue in his cheek and his eye on his pocket.” But the more interesting critique was offered by Royal Cortissoz, who argued that the radical simplifications of Matisse’s art were not “the naivete of a child” but an “adult playing a trick.” What is striking about this is the implication that a certain kind of naiveté, if sincere, might be viable. Of course sincerity can be difficult to establish, and the conservatives could certainly have been forgiven if they were amused that the progressives, in justifying their own admirations, cited the academic credentials of certain avant-gardists. Thus Frederick James Gregg, in making the case for Matisse, emphasized that although he might draw in a radically simplified way, he had studied at the École des Beaux-Arts. This was a way of demonstrating that Matisse did indeed know “the universal language of art” that Cox celebrated, although that still left open the matter of what he had and hadn’t done with it.

 

The closer I look at the questions raised by the Armory Show, the less they appear to be questions that could be successfully posed—much less answered—in a setting where some twenty thousand people a week were wandering around, many of them there to gawk at a small number of works they had read about in the press. For a number of Americans who were aware of what had been happening in Europe since van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cézanne made their break with Impressionism in the 1880s, the exhibition certainly provided the opportunity to see a substantial body of work. Collectors who would be important for the future of art in America—including John Quinn, Arthur Jerome Eddy, Albert Barnes, Walter Arensberg, A. E. Gallatin, and Stephen C. Clark—bought from the show, though many of them bought only modestly. Works by pioneering American avant-gardists were included, by Patrick Henry Bruce, Arthur B. Carles, John Marin, and Charles Sheeler, among others. For younger American artists with an appetite for the new, there were certainly revelations aplenty.

If we regard the story of modern art as a story of endlessly expanding possibilities, the sheer bravado of the Armory Show cannot fail to appeal. And even at a time when those possibilities seem to be diminishing—as Meyer Schapiro said they were already diminishing when he wrote about the show in the early 1950s—the aura of romance can cling to such an event. Schapiro was at pains to point out that the Armory Show was by no means the only factor in bringing modern art to America. He mentioned, as every conscientious scholar does, the exhibitions that Alfred Stieglitz had been sponsoring since 1905 in his little gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue. And yet Schapiro felt that the Armory Show was a watershed. “In this continuous process,” he wrote of America’s gradual embrace of modern art, “the Armory Show marks a point of acceleration, and it is instructive for the student of social life as well as of art to observe how a single event in a long series may acquire a crucial importance because it dramatizes or brings into the open before a greater public what is ordinarily the affair of a small group. The very scope and suddenness of this manifestation of the new art were a shock that stirred the sensitive more effectively than a dozen small exhibitions could have done.”

Bettmann / Corbis

I am not entirely convinced by this argument. Do sensitive souls really require that kind of large-scale manifestation? I am left wondering if for those in New York who were most deeply engaged with the whole question of the nature and the direction of the avant-garde, the Armory Show had both the fascination and the peril of a monumental flash in the pan. Since 1905, month after month and year after year, it had been Stieglitz’s exhibition program that gave interested New Yorkers their first opportunity to grapple with Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, and Brancusi. And there was no scandal at 291. In a reminiscence published in the 1950s, Edmund Wilson recalled visiting Stieglitz’s gallery in the 1920s, and his sense of this man who was “something of a mesmerist,” who was “running counter to the pressures of that era” and had been delivering since 1905 “a monologue, a kind of impalpable net in which visitors and disciples were caught from the moment they came within earshot.” Although Stieglitz was himself an enthusiastic supporter of the Armory Show, I think that this man, working alone in his modestly scaled gallery, might have been a far more attractive spokesman for the new than the promoters of the Armory Show, or at least that is how it appears from the perspective of the rapacious art world we inhabit today.

 

The Armory Show made modern art the thing you loved to hate. And in that sense, it can seem like a road that should not have been taken, or at least not regarded with so much enthusiasm. I say this with a certain astonishment, because it is not what anybody who loves modern art expects to end up feeling when they contemplate what is without a doubt an extraordinary story. Schapiro himself hinted at a certain discomfort with the unquenchable optimism that animated the show. “People in 1913 overestimated the spiritual unity of the different examples of freedom or progress,” Schapiro wrote; “they felt that all innovations belonged together, and made up one great advancing cause.” From our perspective, Schapiro recognized, this can seem a mistake. “Fewer thought, as we do today, that modernity is problematic and includes conflicting, irreconcilable elements.”

If Schapiro, writing in the early 1950s, equivocated mildly, it remained for Harold Rosenberg, writing in The New Yorker on the fiftieth anniversary of the show in 1963, to press the case for the Armory Show as a problematic direction in American art. The decisive factor for Rosenberg, writing a decade after Schapiro, was surely that he could not but regard the Armory Show within the context of the art explosion of the early 1960s, when the tidal force of Pop Art and sundry Neo-Dadaist adventures threatened to overwhelm the audience that went to art for its more complicated and contemplative pleasures. Rosenberg concluded his account of the Armory Show with some reflections on what he called the Vanguard Audience “that sprang from the Show and was empowered by it.” This audience—the audience that in the early 1960s was enthusiastic for Pop—was the one about which Rosenberg said it “is prepared for change in any tempo, it is infinitely impatient, its appetite for novelty outstrips the capacity of art to satisfy it.” While Rosenberg sympathized with the organizers of the Armory Show in their effort to bring “the new out of the shadows,” he saw that by the 1960s, “the Vanguard Audience itself is a major problem of art.”

Today it is an even bigger problem. Scandal and shock, whatever their dubious value a century ago, have degenerated into sensation and novelty, and the attendance figures that were a badge of honor for the organizers of the Armory Show have become practically the only thing that arts professionals want to talk about. Only the other day, Thomas P. Campbell, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, remarked at the World Economic Forum in Davos that “we need to make our case with metrics, framed in a language that businessmen understand.” He said that what he called “the culture industry” had to connect with the rest of the world “at a deeper socioeconomic level.” I can sympathize with Campbell when he worries that at Davos culture was “an add-on,” or “the entertainment.” But in the museum world, the tendency has been to respond to this problem by amping up culture’s entertainment value—by emphasizing cheap thrills and prefab scandals and shocks, the priorities of Rosenberg’s Vanguard Audience.

The great, unresolved question that lingers from the Armory Show is the question of the relationship between the modern artist and the modern audience. The audience for modern art has too often been encouraged to confuse novelty with independent-mindedness. By highlighting, however inadvertently, the element of novelty in the new art, the organizers of the Armory Show set up expectations that artists could not and indeed should not necessarily satisfy—and that might eventually be their undoing. Only relatively rarely do accounts of the Armory Show mention one of the greatest Cubist compositions included in the event, a 1910 charcoal drawing of a female nude by Picasso. This exquisite creation, which Stieglitz loaned to the show and said was “as perfect as a Bach fugue,” is a work of infinitely deeper consequence than the Duchamps and Picabias with their attention-grabbing titles that held the attention of the crowds at the Armory Show. But the subtleties of Picasso’s Cubism—or of Matisse’s Red Studio—were swamped, or at least threatened to be swamped, by the dramatic force of the event. If it is true that the modern artist and the modern audience had one of their great encounters in the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue in February 1913, it is equally true that it was a troubled and tumultuous meeting, the beginning of a rocky relationship that has too often been presented in a falsely romantic light.

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic and the author, most recently, of Magicians and Charlatans (Eakins Press Foundation).

Oscar Murillo: The Supernatural Artist as the Young Giant of Painting: Interviews. Reviews. Images. Text.

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BLOOMBERG

Oscar Murillo Mints Money With Scribbles, Dirt, Food

Rubell Family Collection via Bloomberg
Oscar Murillo at work in a gallery space at the Rubell Family Collection.

Two years ago, artist Oscar Murillo, now 27, cleaned offices to put himself through art school. His paintings sold for less than $3,000.

Oscar Murillo

Rubell Family Collection via Bloomberg

Oscar Murillo, the first artist to become resident at the Rubell Family Collection. During his five week stay, he created 50 artworks. Source: Rubell Family Collection via Bloomberg

Oscar Murillo’s Star Shines in London’s Cont Week

Oscar Murillo, Untitled (£20-30k) £146,500

Oscar Murillo, Untitled (£20-30k) £146,500

It’s been Oscar Murillo’s week in London with stunning sales at all three auction houses. This evening Phillips sold the above untitled work for £146,000 above a £30,000 high estimate. That caps off the sales Dan Duray highlighted on GalleristNY:

A 2011 painting by the artist Oscar Murillo, who was born in 1986, went for an impressive $391,475 at the Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary day sale in London yesterday, surpassing a previous record by a factor of 10.

Mr. Murillo followed up that auction high today at the London Sotheby’s Contemporary day sale, with a work from 2012 that sold for $177,456.

Judd Tully spoke to the buyer of Phillips’s work to get a sense of the demand:

There was a surge of bidding for market rising Columbian artist Oscar Murillo as “Untitled” from 2011, a bravura oil, paper, and debris on canvas abstract painting scaled at six feet by five and a half feet sold for multiples of its high estimate, making £146,500 ($224,145) (est. £20-30,000). The buyer, who declined to give her full name but said it was “Antonella F,” is a young Columbian collector who lives some of the time in Miami and has a private art fund for young artists. “We learned about Murillo at Art Basel last month.”

Colin Gleadell adds some more details to the Murillo story:

Looking at his very short career to date it is clear this artist is heading somewhere. He has been artist in residence at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, a place where many a reputation has been formed. He has been bought in depth by Charles Saatchi, and this summer presented an installation at the prestigious Art Basel fair. He has shown with many galleries, though most, like the Carlos Ishikawa gallery in London, are not associated with high prices. However, he will be included in a group show next month at the David Zwirner gallery in New York, which is.

The art world has clearly been abuzz with the sound of Murillo’s name. At Phillips, his work was bought by an art fund (that is, an investment vehicle) based in Miami. At Christie’s, there had been unprecedented media attention from Colombia before the sale, and bidding came from four different continents, including South America. A collector told me there was talk that the artist was being head-hunted by the White Cube gallery, an unconfirmed rumour of the kind that fuels speculation and spikes prices.

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Oscar Murillo

Rubell Family Collection via Bloomberg

Artist Oscar Murillo and trend-setting collectors Mera and Don Rubell. The Rubell Family Collection opened the exhibition of the Colombian-born artist during Art Basel Miami Beach fair in December 2012. Source: Rubell Family Collection via Bloomberg

Oscar Murillo

Sotheby’s via Bloomberg

“Untitled (Stack)” (2012) by Oscar Murillo. The lot, estimated to bring $60,000 to $80,000, will be offered during Sotheby’s “Contemporary Curated” auction on Sept. 25 in New York. Source: Sotheby’s via Bloomberg

Oscar Murillo

“Untitled” (2012) by Oscar Murillo. The painting is estimated at $50,000 to $70,000. Source: 2013 Christie’s Images Ltd. via Bloomberg

The way collectors are grabbing for his messy canvases in a frenzy has all the earmarks of an art-market bubble.

“He’s had the quickest upward trajectory for his age of any artist I’ve seen in 25 years,” said Kenny Schachter, a London-based dealer, curator and writer. “There’s a lot of money to be made trading Oscar Murillo at this point.”

True enough.

In June, an untitled 2011 painting featuring scribbles, dirt and the word “Pasteles” fetched 253,875 pounds ($389,199) at Christie’s in London, more than eight times the high estimate.

David Zwirner, whose gallery represents postwar masters Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Ad Reinhardt, added Murillo to his stable just last week.

Tomorrow, the artist’s first major solo show in the U.K. opens at South London Gallery, a nonprofit space where the entire content of the Murillo’s studio will be on view, from stitched canvases and porcelain vases to dried beans and bottle caps.

Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips will offer works by Murillo in their September contemporary-art auctions in New York.

“Untitled (stack),” made a year ago with two overlapping canvases featuring the words “Water” and “Taco,” is estimated at $60,000 to $80,000 at Sotheby’s. (BID)

Next Basquiat!

“He is being branded as the next Jean-Michel Basquiat by the speculative part of the market,” said Belgian collector Alain Servais, who paid about 30,000 pounds ($47,715) for a Murillo installation earlier this year. “I am worried the market will put such pressure on him that he won’t be able to develop.”

Murillo grew up in La Paila, a small town in Colombia where his family worked in sugar-cane mills. Eventually, the clan immigrated to London, where Murillo made his way through the Royal College of Art.

Elements of South American culture — food, music, language — populate Murillo’s art practice, which knows no boundaries, including performance, installation, publishing, painting and sculpture.

The Murillo buzz began building around 2011 with performance art pieces like “animals die from eating too much – - yoga!” In this project, several women twisted into yoga poses as the audience watched.

Energized, he continued with “animals die from eating too much — bingo!” in which he entertained female art patrons with Colombian food and a game of bingo.

Moving On

Dealer Francois Ghebaly, an early supporter, brought 15 paintings by Murillo to NADA Miami art fair in December 2011. They were priced at $2,500 to $8,500.

“Everything sold in the first hour,” said Ghebaly.

Young Murillo was already moving to the next level with the helping hands of Hans Ulrich Obrist, an influential curator, who invited him to London’s Serpentine Gallery and the Roman arena in Arles, France.

At the Serpentine, South American office cleaners mingled with art-world patrons eating Colombian food, drinking champagne and dancing salsa. (This was the piece, not the party.)

By December 2012, Murillo had another major platform during the Art Basel Miami Beach art fair: the Rubell Family Collection/Contemporary Arts Foundation.

On opening night his 15-foot-tall paintings, featuring the words “Mango,” “Chorizo” and “Yuka,” were seen by international collectors and museum directors.

“This kid is striking,” said Mera Rubell in an interview. “When you meet him, you want to be part of the story.”

No Stopping

She and her husband, Don Rubell, met Murillo earlier that year in New York. Knowing they were coming to his temporary studio, he created nine new paintings in 48 hours.

They invited him to be the first resident artist at their foundation in Miami. He stayed for five weeks and made 50 artworks.

“We bought all 50 works,” Rubell said.

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ARRESTED MOTION

Openings: Oscar Murillo – “Distribution Room” @ The Mistake Room

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Last weekend, along with taking in the LA Art Show (covered), we also stopped to check out the much talked about Los Angeles and US debut of Oscar Murillo. Touted as the next Basquiat by some in the art world, the Colombian born artist put his process on display with videos, finished and unfinished works at The Mistake Room with a show entitled Distribution Room. During the opening, raffle tickets ($1000) were also sold to pick winners of two t-shirts painted on by Murillo.

Discuss Oscar Murillo here.

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Oscar Murillo

by Legacy Russell

BOMB 122/Winter 2013, ART

Murillo has had his fair share of journeys; he is a native of La Paila, Colombia, and a resident of London, who, just a day before our meeting, confirmed our appointment via mobile from Paris and, in less than 24 hours from when we meet, is scheduled to board a plane to Miami. Distance, displacement, movement: these are all concepts that Murillo explores in his practice—a manifestation of a body in transit, an artist’s incisive inquiry into the geographies of space, both on the canvas and off, within the studio and out into the world beyond.

Born in 1986, Murillo is a recent graduate of London’s Royal College of Art. A painter with a flair for the performative, he often works with video and participatory installation. As we talk, he shows me recent work on his computer, a range of paintings, as well as documentation of what the artist refers to as “family parties”—vibrant films, saturated with motion and color, of intimate gatherings of his friends and kin. These pieces—home videos, nearly—are illustrations of localized ceremony and everyday happenings, situated eons away from the white boxes of the art world. They are a window into the celebration and ritual of a collective public.

The canonized archetype of an artist alone in his studio—quickly expiring as we wade further into the tides of a global culture—is one that this artist, refreshingly, does not seem to have much of an allegiance to. For Murillo, the act of making holds as much potential for liberation and functionality within the confines of one’s studio as it does in one’s home, on the street, or within one’s community. In his work, actions and words, paint and parties, all speak at the same volume. The objects made by his hand float buoyantly within the realm of the liminal, always here and there, inside and out, home and abroad, all at once very familiar, and yet, somehow, entirely untranslatable. Murillo’s use of text in his paintings illustrates the limits and the possibilities presented by language; words are part of histories that are not always our own, but that we cling to. The physicality of painting is one that provides a sturdy framework for making the leap into the performative realm, a showing of convivial desire. Here, the artist raises a champagne glass—and sometimes an arepa—in lieu of a looking glass, an eloquent reminder of the spaces we travel between and a reflection of these worlds and the constructs that lend them composure, and neutrality.


Legacy Russell We’re here in London just after your return from Paris last night and before you leave for Miami tomorrow. I’d love to hear about what you were doing in Paris, and what you plan to do once you hit Miami.

Oscar Murillo My Berlin gallery, Isabella Bortolozzi, is taking part in FIAC in Paris. Around the fair other projects are happening, for example, “R4” is working toward building up a museum in the outskirts of Paris on this island called l’île Seguin. The curator of the Migros Museum, Raphael Gygax, decided to commission about 20 artists to do outdoor projects on the island, among them Oscar Tuazon, Annette Messager, Ugo Rondinone, Nicolas Party, Martin Soto Climent, and me.

My piece, called Make it Happen in Steps, was based on something I had done this summer in the South of France and which involved me and a collaborator running, jogging, and dancing in an amphitheater. An amphitheater is a space that demands a spectacle. But the production value of my work is purposely low. I like to work with things that are—I wouldn’t say necessarily always around me, but I like to be resourceful, basically. I got a mirror, two empty cartons of coconut water, and a playlist of Fania All-Stars music—Latin American artists like Celia Cruz and Tito Puente, major salsa musicians. So I created a one-hour playlist and jogged and danced in front of a mirror to this music. At the end of it, I just walked off and that was the piece.

At l’île Seguin in Paris, I didn’t want to do exactly the same thing, but I wanted to use the same principles. I got myself a couple of sheets of reflective acrylic mirror, two speakers, some amplifiers, four car batteries, some disco lights, and an iPod with the same Fania All-Stars playlist. The island is a heavily industrial place, a bit like Detroit. There used to be a car factory there, and it’s quite run-down. The idea was to curate an installation that would play this music continuously, and not be dependent on someone having to turn it on and off. It’d just be there, kind of playing along—bringing some life to the place. So that happened last weekend, just before I did a two-person presentation with David Hammons at FIAC.

LR And what about Miami?

OM I met the Rubell family for the first time in New York earlier this year. They got curious about my work, and we had a studio visit. My gallery called, “Don and Mera want to come to your studio.” And I said, “Well, I don’t have any work in the studio.” The gallery said, “We’ll get some work from storage and bring it over.” I thought, Bringing paintings back to the studio, what’s the point? For me it was an opportunity to show my work in process because the process is very important. Finished paintings they could see in the gallery. So before the Rubells visited, I stayed up all night and made a couple of paintings. Making these works created a residue of the process. And the Rubells understood that.

Every year they curate a show for their foundation in Miami; the last one was American Exuberance with four huge paintings by Sterling Ruby in the main gallery space. This year they invited me to do something there. I went to Miami this past April. They suggested this incredibly large room—I mean, it’s overwhelming! I didn’t feel comfortable making work for such a massive space without inhabiting it somehow. So I said, “I think it’s very important for me to come here and make the work from scratch.”

LR You occupied it—physically.

OM At the beginning of summer, I traveled back to Miami with all my materials and lived there for six weeks, working at the Rubell family collection.

LR So when’s the opening? When do other bodies get to occupy the space, along with you and your works?

OM The work is done and will open in December for Art Basel Miami Beach.

LR You paint, you’re doing performance, you’re recording these performances and they’re being shown as videos. All these different strands connect. Where does painting situate itself in your practice and where does it intersect with performance?

OM Paintings happen in the studio where I have my own kind of system, although there can be physical residue of performance in them. I like to cut up the canvas in different sections, work on them individually, fold them and just leave them around for months. I don’t work on a painting with the goal of finishing it or having a complete and finished painting at the end of a work process. The idea is to get through as much material as possible, and various materials go through various processes. In most parts there is this mark making that happens with a broomstick and oil paint. I make a bunch of those canvases, fold them in half, and put them on the floor. My studio is a cradle of dust and dirt, of pollution. I don’t tidy up at the end of each production process. It’s all very much on purpose; it’s continuous process, a machine of which I’m the catalyst. Things get moved around, I step on them, and they get contaminated. It’s not about leaving traces, it’s about letting things mature on their own—like aging cheese or letting a stew cook, they get more flavorful. That’s kind of how these paintings are made.

LR So the textures, these layers—they’re in part done by your own hand, but also by the larger sort of “hand” of the environment they’re born into. It’s a collaboration of creative site and creative body in that way, a sort of merging.

OM The individual canvases are very much the DNA; they record that movement, the process of making. When these different processes are done, I move on to the stage of actually composing a painting. The individual canvases are laid out with the aim of making a composition. For example, the painting we are looking at right now started with different patches of bleached black fabric, then there’s this mark-making process, and then you have the word at the end. And that’s the last thing that is added to the work.

LR Is the text in the foreground meant to represent a dialogue of what’s taking place in the background? “Pizza,” for example, or “Champagne”—are these words represented in the textures and painterly gestures they are suspended in?

OM For me the words are very displaced. Like cultural displacement with performance, in painting it’s material displacement, object displacement. I’ll show you this one, which I’m really excited about. It says, “Yoga.”

LR This one is really neat because there is a physicality that is manifest in the word itself.

OM Yeah. Some words like yoga have gained a duality of meaning in my work. They are not only visually representative of their meaning but also, compositionally, there’s a formality. The canvases get folded so you get the word kind of mirrored in the paint’s absorption onto the other side of the fold, and sometimes you get a pattern. Here it almost looks like a person doing yoga. So as my practice develops, the concept of displacement is present in both my performances and in my paintings.

LR How does performance tie in, regarding the narrative of displacement? How do your physical actions find their place within open space?

OM The idea of the space, regardless of my own art, underlies all that. There’s so much movement in the world, constantly. We all move around, we all travel, and I like to think most of the population in the world has shifted from one place to another; not necessarily globally—it could just be locally from one part of the country to the other. And so things change. For example, I’ve come to appropriate music and Vita Coco coconut water as symbols of displacement. Coconut water has been incredibly well marketed as a tropical drink that comes from parts of the world like Hawaii and the Caribbean. In metropolitan cities it has a certain message attached—healthy lifestyle . . .

LR Restorative powers in some way.

OM You find it in yoga studios, in gyms, and in all kinds of fitness places. So for me, there’re all these interesting navigations. I grew up in a very small town in South America and now live in London, which I have adopted as my home. But I’m also being displaced because I don’t find complete satisfaction with one or the other. That can be a micro example of displacement. For me these paintings are by-products of being in the studio and making work. I mean, that’s one shift. I guess that happens to all artists when showing work in galleries, or showing work in one place or the other.

LR There’s also a literal displacement when you’re taking the work out of the studio—I like how you called it a “cradle” earlier—into a totally different situation, a different context.

OM Yeah, exactly. But I like to think that these paintings also imply a displacement of time. They’re like rugs. An unstretched painting is a kind of abstract thing, one that suggests that it perhaps has been found or comes from some other space or time. But while it has this aura of being a historical thing when placed out of context, it just comes from the studio.

LR Let’s talk about the sort of family-party performances that you’ve done. I would also like to hear about the collaboration with Serpentine Gallery, The Cleaners’ Late Summer Party, which seems to link back to the idea of bringing people together, providing an opportunity for exchange, and maybe engaging with an audience that extends beyond the bubble of the art world. I mean, for you to have a party with your family is one thing, but to bring that into an art-world context . . .

OM I want to give you more background about the parties: they are family events for celebrating something—a birthday, a communion—or just people getting together. Like most parties, sometimes you only talk, sometimes you dance. I’ve been doing these parties with my family, but I wouldn’t exactly call them performances. I’ve been very cautious as to how I appropriate these family parties and bring them into the realm of my art practice and out to the public as an event that happens within the art world. So the spaces have to be very particular; it’s not like, “Let’s just throw a party in a gallery space.”

LR Well, the rules of a “family party,” versus an “art-world party”—at first blush they are totally different. Yet both are social spaces, both are spaces that can be politicized, that have their own vernacular and rubrics of ritualized behavior.

OM The Serpentine was very interesting because it isn’t exactly a gallery, but an institution. I took advantage of the fact that the institution was willing to host my event not in the main galleries but in the outdoor pavilion. As part of their annual commission, this year the Serpentine had the architect team Herzog & de Meuron collaborate with the artist Ai Weiwei to design a pavilion. Starting in June the Serpentine hosted a summer program there.

The pavilion itself had this interesting architecture—it wasn’t about a show of architecture, it was about an understatement of architecture. It looked like a theatrical space: you had seats, there was a kind of platform where you could speak or perform. So I decided to take over the entire space and decorate it as if we were having a family gathering.

My family works in the cleaning industry and they used to have these really great parties in the summer and Christmas, where people would dress up. It was a big deal. It was very eloquent, in a kind of, you could say, “cheesy” way. But it was really nice. We had food, and there was an abundance. The parties don’t really exist anymore because there’s no money around, there’s no money for parties. So I thought, Well, I have this offer from Serpentine; the conditions are perfect to throw a party. I want to do this. Then there was also this other layer, which was Comme des Garçons—

LR I was going to ask about that, how to negotiate the introduction of that genre of haute couture.

OM I did a project with them; they commissioned me to do an ad for one of their campaigns and I thought, Oh this is great. But also there was a degree of discomfort because as much as I like Comme des Garçons as a label, it’s not something that I wear. The presence of the brand brings up notions of commercialism and publicity, things I’m interested in exploring in my work—hence the words that I use sometimes in my paintings.

LR Right, with the canvases like banners, the words at that scale are almost like billboards. They really speak to the culture in which they’re produced—everything bleeds together in that way.

OM Exactly. They gave me something like $12,000 in credit—it wasn’t in money, it was in credit—and that’s insane.

LR With that, you can buy one shoe there. Maybe two if you’re lucky.

OM So I thought, Well, what am I going to do with this? So I combined the two projects and it became A Late Summer Party with Comme des Garçons. The idea was that the party would be a party, and we’d have champagne. We’d make it as elaborate as possible, and then Comme des Garçons would come in as this kind of extra layer. Now, how to democratize Comme des Garçons? How to make a product that is usually very exclusive available to the masses? So we got as many items as possible with the credit offered—perfume, clothing, what have you—and then made them prizes at the party for dance competitions and games. But we also just gave it away. While the typical art audience was present, the core of the party was my family community, a community of friends.

LR It seems like this creates some permeability in the white-wall institutional space that’s not your space, that’s not public space.

OM Yeah. The pavilion was a buffer. These projects and these parties also have a sociopolitical undercurrent.

LR Would you consider it a mode of activism?

OM I don’t think it’s activism; it’s more my wanting to give some strength and purpose. It’s not about an agenda—

LR —or a cause.

OM Yeah, there’s no cause or agenda. There’s a desire to bring different facets of society together through events, and that’s very much the bottom line. It then assumes a social and political agenda because of the potency that it carries. Most of the time it’s positive, but there can be challenging elements that you have to deal with. Two days ago, on the 18th of October, there was a family party that I did in Paris—and I mean this was bourgeois, this was, like, crazy. The event took place in a beautiful private home near the Champs-Élysées in the center of Paris. You had a Picasso on the wall, you had Lucio Fontana pieces by the bedside—it proved to be the perfect setting to celebrate a birthday and I invited a friend of mine. It wasn’t his birthday and he didn’t even know about my intent. About an hour before the thing began I said, “You do know that we’re here to celebrate your birthday?” He kind of freaked out but then he really embraced it. The invitation to the performance was a birthday card; it was kind of confusing, and threw people off. Some people said, “Why am I going to celebrate this guy’s birthday? I don’t even know who he is.” So they come into this incredible Parisian apartment and there’s Latin music, really expensive champagne (Ruinart!) going around, and then tamales, which is a typical Colombian food. So there were these mixtures. Champagne and tamales don’t necessarily go together—

LR But they can, right? Because they did! (laughter)

OM Yeah, exactly. They did! I think it’s psychological. So you had this kind of mishmash of cultures, and then one minute the music stops and this guy makes an announcement to thank me for celebrating his birthday, and everybody starts to sing “Happy Birthday” to him and then we all began dancing.

LR What type of Latin music?

OM A lot of salsa. Just the sound of music in this house was weird, you know?

LR Yeah. I was going to ask you about the concept of “Latin American conviviality,” a phrase the Serpentine used in the press release for your event. It’s interesting to think about what that means, and whether you perceive your work as speaking through a particular vein of Latin American identity.

OM I don’t think so. I mean, it’s inevitable—I’m Latin American myself. So I’m not exactly going to appropriate a different culture to—

LR Right, it’s always good to start by working with yourself, first.

OM Exactly. It has to be genuine, it has to be authentic. It can always fail, I’m not saying that it’s always going to be successful. But the success rate is higher when you have higher control over the different topics at hand. And so it was and is usually Latin American conviviality, but it has a resonance in relation to everything. For example, there are these yoga performances that I’ve done—last year I transformed the whole gallery into a yoga studio and allowed my friends and people I know to come and do yoga for free. I made these yoga platforms and installed these very makeshift mirrors. Because it was temporary, there wasn’t any reason to be elaborate about it. It simply needed to be functional. Yoga, especially Bikram yoga, is incredibly—

LR —hardcore.

OM Displaced.

LR It’s incredibly intense.

OM Yes, it’s intense on the body, a real physical workout. Bikram yoga is something that this guru, Bikram Choudhury, from India, started. Yoga as a practice is a Hindu tradition but then it was transported to Western society, where it was packaged. It started in LA and has been gradually franchised. It’s also an industry that today is dominated by women. Men do it—I do it from time to time—but yoga was something that women were not allowed to do. All these shifts are interesting to me, and I reference yoga because I know it and I’m able to talk about it authoritatively.

LR You start with yourself.

OM Yeah. It has to be personal somehow.

LR I wanted to ask you about the neoconcrete—a lot of people writing about your work have been talking about the history of neoconcretism. That movement happened around 1959 to 1961 and is often tied to artists who worked and lived in Brazil. In the neoconcrete manifesto, they talk about work being conceived as a sort of quasicorpus—the idea that a work’s reality is not exhausted by its constituitive elements. But rather that the work can have a life outside of those elements, exist within social or public space, and, in doing so, avoid a narrow specificity. Do you have any thoughts on that?

OM Obviously I think the neoconcrete movement from that period in Brazil was something quite strong. You had artists like Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, and Lygia Pape. Neoconcrete art was a catalyst at the time. I think that a lot of the work—not to say it’s derivative—is influenced by modernism. But they were able to appropriate from this stiff, rigid period of European modernism and digest it, and produce their own identity. And they opened it up and made it accessible to society. I guess you could say theirs was a multipurpose, flexible practice, making work that is almost pragmatic, something that’s useful.

LR That serves society in some deeper sense and, in doing so, hopefully avoids becoming part of a more elusive canon that escapes the culture or community the work is meant to serve.

OM This applies to the neoconcrete objects but also to the performances and other projects. They were inclusive because at the time it was normal to bring people together for a common cause. In our time it is difficult to talk about community.

LR Why would you say that is?

OM I think the word community has a stigma attached to it, no? And it’s very elusive too. Community can mean many things. There’s this idea of the art community, which is complete bullshit. Or the Latin American community. It’s just a label that is easy to put on things. These family parties are a way to be with my family and be together with people. It’s not like cultural tourism. These are genuine things that real people participate in.

LR And it’s part of your personal fabric.

OM Yeah, part of a personality. In terms of having a relationship to this period of art in the early ‘60s, the work and the participants were not forced. You can feel that there was a sense of that conviviality, as you were talking about earlier.

LR There is a part of the neoconcrete manifesto that talks about art as an instrument for creating society. It seems to me that it would ring true in talking about these worlds that you’re creating, these environments, these societies, that people can either opt into or opt out of and participate in different ways. So what do you see as your next steps as you continue to build your practice, build your work—are there directions you’re curious about exploring?

OM I want to make it more ambitious, more focused. A lot of these projects have happened between Europe and Colombia or in both Colombia and Europe. I think it would be really interesting to do something along these lines in the States. Like in New York. The idea of tuning into that particular culture is very important. So I think that’s where I see these things working out next—you know, to think about the sensitivity of the next place that I would like to do something, and then make it work there.

LR And continue painting.

OM And continue making these paintings. Like I said earlier: they’re fundamental to my practice. Painting for me functions as a form of mediation. You shut yourself off in the studio and make this work and there’s a relationship to everything else that happens in the practice, whether it’s directly connected or not. How do I apply that same kind of rigor and authenticity to everything else? How to show my works in new ways? How to retain control over them, even if they were sold and someone else now owns them? The dirt we spoke of earlier, well, there’s dirt everywhere—New York, London, New Delhi—all around the world, and so that’s kind of democratic. At least for me.

THE INDEPENDENT.LONDON

In the studio with Oscar Murillo, artist

'Most painters are terrified of painting as the same space where they are defecating'

Saturday 07 September 2013

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Oscar Murillo is tucking into a lunch when I meet him across the street from his studio in east London, and we start our interview over tasty Turkish food. I ask about the press he received for his paintings going for record prices in the June auctions and he says he was in his native Colombia and the news swept through the country.

He is clear that his work is not about the market at all, but is about the experiences that he had, first in South America and now here in his adopted country. Born in 1986, Murillo and his family came to London in when he was 10. He recalls his idyllic “childhood innocence”  in a small village in Colombia with a large extended family. “My father was a mechanic  in a sugar cane factory and my mother worked for a candy factory: we had a sweet life!”

Fifty of Murillo’s relatives have migrated  to London, forming as close clan here as in Colombia. “My uncle and cousin work with  me in the studio and my mother comes and helps me cook – my auntie too.” Murillo’s past exhibitions have included “events” where  his family “play themselves”. “They are not performers, more a re-enactment of who we  are and what we do.”

Murillo studied at the Royal College of Art and says this period was important to him, even if as something to react against. He recalls insisting that his seminar would be held in the local chicken shop, admitting his peers “found it very offensive”. He wanted to use the detritus of life in his work, asking the owner to make a bin with one of his canvases to collect the rubbish in, something that he now has translated into his studio practice.

At this point, we decamp across the street  to see the practice in action. We walk down  a side passage into a surprisingly small space  – Murillo’s works can be very large – where  his cousin and uncle are casting some of the cannon balls in concrete that will feature in his forthcoming show at the South London Gallery. On the wall hang some of his paintings, unstretched, slightly grubby looking, their surfaces enlivened with words familiar from past works – coco, yoga or chorizo.

He breaks off our conversation to discuss something with his helpers who are un-moulding some of the balls and preparing others, lacing them with the debris of past paintings and dirt from the floor.

I point at the dirt, created in the making of the cement, being transplanted to the canvas, and he says, “Most painters are terrified of painting in the same space where they are eating, sleeping and defecating. This is my  idea of how the work progresses.” As I leave,  I ask if his uncle and cousin help with the paintings, and his answer is a brisk: “When it comes to making the paintings, that’s my job.”

Oscar Murillo: if I was to draw a line, this journey started approximately 400 kilometres north of the equator, South London Gallery, London SE5 (020 7703 6120) 20 September to 1 December

MOUSSE

Oscar Murillo “if i was to draw a line, this journey started approximately 400km north of the equator” at South London Gallery

November 19~2013

For his first major solo exhibition in the UK, London-based artist Oscar Murillo empties his studio to present its contents in the main gallery space. Stitched canvases, drawings, sculptures and films, tables constructed from copper sheets, used as flooring in previous shows, and floor pieces made from masses of pulped biro drawings continue Murillo’s practice of translating various aspects of studio endeavour into matter and then into form.

Murillo’s work encompasses painting, sculpture, installation, video and performance. Harvesting the accumulative material conditions of his studio on canvases, fabrics and paper, and mobilising the physical remnants of distinct social situations, he exposes some of the contradictions and complexities apparent across socioeconomic, racial and cultural boundaries. Gestural marks that index artistic labour are layered with dirt, dust and debris, used as materials in their own right, but equally as evidence of the often-invisible tasks and efforts of others which underpin the social and physical fabric of different locales and circumstances. Marked copper sheets from past exhibitions demonstrate various ways in which the passing of time can be documented and archived through materials and discarded matter.

An active component at the heart of the exhibition is a lottery that references the popularity of this phenomenon in many cultures. Murillo instigates a situation that highlights some of the intricacies of social and cultural encounters, as he has done in previous exhibitions and events, but this lottery project takes this area of his practice into new territory, raising numerous questions about authenticity, value, and the complex relationship between the public, private and commercial sectors of the art world.

The lottery project launched on Monday 2 September. Each individually screen-printed ticket is worked on in oil paint by the artist and a member of his family, has its own number and is signed on the reverse by the artist. Tickets cost £2,500 each and can be purchased online or by contacting the South London Gallery. The artist’s proof and the lottery ticket are both inscribed by a calligrapher with the name of the purchaser or intended recipient(s) and will then be displayed in the SLG’s first floor galleries throughout Murillo’s exhibition. The tickets are on sale until 7.30pm GMT on Friday 18 October during the week of Frieze Art Fair. The first, second and third prizes are devised by Oscar Murillo and will be revealed at a prize draw on 18 October. Access to the prize draw is strictly limited to lottery ticket holders plus one guest.

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at South London Gallery

until 1 December 2013

Oscar Murillo, “if I was to draw a line, this journey started approximately 400km north of the equator” installation view at South London Gallery, 2013

Courtesy: the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London. Photo: Mark Blower.

- See more at: http://moussemagazine.it/oscar-murillo-southlondon/#sthash.XNstcLDW.dpuf

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THE TELEGRAPH LONDON

Art market news: Colombian-born artist Oscar Murillo to be represented by the David Zwirner Gallery

Colombian-born artist Oscar Murillo, whose prices have rocketed in recent months, to be represented by the David Zwirner Gallery which has premises in London and New York, says Colin Gleadell.

yuka chips, Oscar Murillo, 2013

yuka chips, Oscar Murillo, 2013 Photo: Courtesy David Zwirner

When young artists suddenly start to make high prices there’s often a change in representation about to take place. In the case of 27-year-old Colombian-born London resident Oscar Murillo, whose sudden astronomic price rise I commented on in July, it has now been confirmed that he is to be represented by the David Zwirner Gallery which has premises in London and New York.

Murillo applies studio debris to his rough-hewn canvases in what can be classed as a performance. Last summer, the auction record for one of these canvases leapt from £20,000 to £254,000 amid gossip that he was to be represented by the White Cube gallery. Until then he had shown with numerous galleries, particularly the Carlos Ishikawa Gallery in London.

However, representation with David Zwirner – rated as one of the most powerful and successful contemporary art gallerists with artists Luc Tuymans and Marlene Dumas, as well as the estates of Donald Judd and Dan Flavin on his books – takes Murillo into a new league. The news precedes the opening of his latest show at the South London Gallery in Peckham on September 20.

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Oscar Murillo, ‘Dinner at the members club? Yes! i’ll have a black americano first pls’, installation views, 2013

Frieze Magazine

Oscar Murillo

Carlos/Ishikawa

The title of Oscar Murillo’s first London solo show was a mouthful: ‘Dinner at the members club? Yes! i’ll have a black americano first pls’. The titular ‘black americano’ in this case was – by his own admission – none other than the young London-based artist himself, whose Colombian origins are often emphasized in his painterly and performance-based practice (though there were also packs of ground coffee at the gallery, which visitors were welcome to take home). ‘The members club’ was apparently a reference to the ICA committee who had invited Murillo to rustle up something nice and performative for their annual fundraising dinner. He was happy to oblige: his debut exhibition at Carlos/Ishikawa became the setting for a champagne lunch, prepared by the artist with his relatives and served on grimy tablecloths made of ornate fabrics that had been gathering dirt for the occasion.

Welcome to the members club (all works 2013) is also the title of a 42-minute video, which documents the making of lollipops at the factory that employs most people in Murillo’s hometown, La Paila, in the southeast of Colombia. (Packed into boxes on one of the two platforms in the main space, the freely available sweets inevitably recalled Félix González-Torres’s candy piles.) But the artist doesn’t consider rough-and-ready, handheld videos such as this one to be art works in their own right; rather, he uses them to set his practice in context. A similar role is assigned to the social gatherings – such as dinners, yoga sessions, games or dances – that Murillo refuses to call ‘performances’ (though others do that for him), because they strike him as a natural, spontaneous outgrowth of his work, as opposed to an exercise in relational aesthetics of the kind practiced by, say, Rirkrit Tiravanija and his peers.

When it comes to Murillo’s broader output, it’s not always easy to determine what is ‘work’ proper and what is mere support. In a sense, everything at Carlos/Ishikawa was folded into his work’s sociable sphere for the duration of the show, and most of the things on display could be bought when they were not freely given. Yet not all of the objects had the same status. For example, one of the exhibition’s most distinctive features – the reflective copper sheets laid over a low plywood structure – were not art as such, according to the artist, but rather work-in-the-making (to be shown at a later date in a different gallery). Three weeks after the opening, these had lost some of their sheen and were looking tarnished – precisely the effect Murillo strives for. Instead of presenting a finished product, the artist wanted this exhibition to reflect some of the processes that inform his studio practice.

Painting forms the backbone of Murillo’s artistic practice, though rather than a brush he often uses a broom stick and a sizeable oil paint pad, in a sort of rudimentary mono-printing technique. Roughly hewn, stitched-up canvases in two or three different sizes – mostly large – and as many varieties (he calls them ‘banners’, ‘stack paintings’ and ‘bingos’) were hung on, leaned or stacked up against all available walls. Before the mark-making process begins, these are left lying about for a month or two to wear them in and let them gather ‘information’ (what the artist has referred to as the ‘DNA of the studio’). Murillo, who sees mess as a generative force, makes it a point never to tidy up his work environment. There is an archival element to much of the artist’s production, which retains traces of former activities, whether in the shape of single, underscored words and numbers (‘work’, ‘yoga’, ‘poker’, ‘maiz’, ‘3’) that feature prominently on his canvases, or condensed into solid dirt balls made up of studio débris (pulped drawings, thread, cement dye, copper, dust) dotted around the gallery.

‘Dirt’, and sometimes ‘dirt on canvas’, is insistently listed among the artistic media in Murillo’s works. More than just a widely available material, dirt for the artist has a levelling effect: we all experience it, black and white, rich and poor alike. In his eyes, that’s what makes it ‘democratic’. It’s easy to dispute this claim. Dirt is, after all, socially stratified; it belongs to the streets, to some more than others, and grows more scarce the higher one climbs. In some quarters (the art world among them), dirt can be exotic, a rarefied commodity, the mark of originality.

Murillo evidently sees himself as a mediator between different demographics, facilitating encounters between two worlds that would not normally meet – namely the art crowd and the Latin American immigrant community – through the events that he organizes. And yet, at the rehearsal fundraising lunch at Carlos/Ishikawa, the artist’s relatives who cooked tamales for us sat at their own table. The event may well have been intended as a critical comment on the exclusivity of the artist’s dinner, but the message it ultimately put across was as confusing as the exhibition’s title.

Agnieszka Gratza

Oscar Murillo

Oscar Murillo, ‘Dinner at the members club? Yes! i’ll have a black americano first pls’, installation views, 2013

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THE ART NEWSPAPER LONDON

Interview with Oscar Murillo: at home with the Rubells

The 26-year-old artist on what it was like to live and work at the Miami collectors’ private museum this summer

Oscar Murillo at work at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami

The Colombian-born, London-based artist Oscar Murillo, 26, gained attention while he was still completing his painting MA at London’s Royal College of Art. A recently graduate, he is presenting a show of new work at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami. Murillo spent several weeks living at the Rubells’s museum, producing a number of large-scale works, five of which will be exhibited on-site. Murillo talked to The Art Newspaper about his forthcoming show, his two-pronged approach to making art, and the effects of growing up without video games.

The Art Newspaper: How did you meet the Rubell family?

Oscar Murillo: They saw a solo project I did with Stuart Shave/Modern Art at the Independent fair last March in New York, and they were curious to know more about what I do. At the time, I was living in the city so they came to the studio. I knew who they were but I hadn’t met them before. However, they were interested enough to offer me an exhibition.

You are the first artist to have had a residency at the collection.

It’s a kind of residency but it’s not something that [the Rubells] do as collectors—they did it to facilitate my project. I said that I needed to work in situ in order to make something on a large scale. The museum closes in the summer, so it was the perfect opportunity to go there and make the show happen.

What was the set-up like? Were you given any rules to follow?

It wasn’t like a commission—I was never told “we want this type of work”, but I knew I was going to have a show in that space and there were certain things I wanted to focus on. However, there was enough time to treat the space as a studio and not assume that certain works were going to be shown. My living quarters were linked to the museum so, if I wanted to, I could wake up at 2am and have access to it. Despite the fact that they—the Rubells, the museum staff—had seen my work, they were still relatively new to what I do, so this project was something of a leap of faith for them.

Have you worked on this kind of scale before?

No. This was the perfect opportunity to challenge myself.

Were you assisted by anyone while you were there?

Juan Roselione-Valadez, the director of the museum, was great, for many reasons. He looked after me and sourced the materials that I needed, but we also had very interesting conversations about the work as it developed.

You like to incorporate certain words into your paintings.

Certain words are often connected to a type of social endeavour that I like to bring into the realm of my own practice.

You once said that your paintings are “permanent archives or reminders of what else happens in the practice”. What did you mean by that?

When I spoke of the wider aspect of my practice, I was referring to my performances. Some of my paintings contain abstracted words—“chorizo”, “yoga”, “mango”—but the performances create context for them. For example, prior to the performance at the Serpentine [Gallery, in London] earlier this year, I was invited by Comme de Garçons to do a campaign for their new season. They used five images of previous paintings of mine and gave me £10,000. Their clothes are quite expensive and I could have bought a new wardrobe, but instead I invited members of my family to go to Dover Street Market in Mayfair, London, and attempt to buy some of these clothes, which are targeted at a certain kind of audience—my mother is not exactly eight stone. The trip became a cultural clash that I wanted to do something with. The project at the Serpentine was coming up so I called the performance “The Cleaners’ Late Summer Party with Comme des Garçons” and the idea was to invite a wide demographic of our society to participate. The performance was a party and Comme des Garçons became an anchor. It became something that you could win during the evening’s events: raffles, dance competitions, karaoke. The brand, which is usually very exclusive, became a democratised item. That was the idea.

I also did an event in Paris: a bourgeois birthday party where a similar kind of cultural clash happened. This time there were different Colombian foods there. I’ve also done two yoga-based performances. That’s where I got the idea of infusing the words into the paintings and that’s what I mean when I say they become archives. These paintings give me the opportunity to freeze the performances into the work. I mean, a painting is a rectangular device used to record things.

How did you become an artist?

I was never really an artist as a child. There’s no history of anyone in my family being an artist and I didn’t grow up around art at all. In Colombia I grew up outdoors, I played in building sites – I didn’t grow up with a Playstation. It was a very tangible existence and I was raised like that until I was ten. Then I moved to London. You might have found that same environment in post-war London, but in the mid 1990s it was totally different: there were so many safety buffers. It’s a very sanitised environment and so art became one of the only things that I could tap into to satisfy my desire for tangibility.

You say you didn’t have much art around when you were growing up, and that it was more of a physical existence, but this physicality is also central to your practice.

Exactly—the idea of obliterating or abusing material in a way that is kind of careless or primitive is something that I used to do to a piece of wood when I was a kid, for example.

This is an important show so early in your career—did you feel any pressure to perform?

Its hard to contextualise it now—nobody has even seen it. When the work was finished, I felt pretty satisfied with the results and I felt a moment of euphoria. But now I’m just interested in seeing the reaction of the public more than anything. There’s always pressure to perform. I could be naive and say I felt no pressure and that I treated it just like working in a studio, but I decided to go there and challenge myself. I feel this is a real opportunity; who knows, I might not get to make a seven-metre painting ever again, so it was the perfect moment. Everything was there and I wasn’t going to shy away from it.

”Oscar Murillo: Work” is at the Rubell Family Collection, Miami, until 2 August 2013

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BOMB MAGAZINE

Oscar Murillo

by Legacy Russell

BOMB 122/Winter 2013, ART

Order a digital or print copy of BOMB’s Winter Issue here, or subscribe.

Listen to an audio excerpt from this interview:

Murillo_01.jpg
Untitled, 2012, oil paint, graphite, oil stick on canvas, 128 x 100 1/2 inches. Images courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London, Carlos/Ishikawa, London, Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, Berlin.

When I meet Oscar Murillo for the first time, it is in Central London. Murillo lives and works in East London. Anyone familiar with this city knows that the distance between East and Central is nothing to scoff at. Yet Murillo shows up unfazed on his bike—neon yellow and neatly folded by the time he enters the café—and greets me with a quiet warmth and open ease.

Murillo has had his fair share of journeys; he is a native of La Paila, Colombia, and a resident of London, who, just a day before our meeting, confirmed our appointment via mobile from Paris and, in less than 24 hours from when we meet, is scheduled to board a plane to Miami. Distance, displacement, movement: these are all concepts that Murillo explores in his practice—a manifestation of a body in transit, an artist’s incisive inquiry into the geographies of space, both on the canvas and off, within the studio and out into the world beyond.

Born in 1986, Murillo is a recent graduate of London’s Royal College of Art. A painter with a flair for the performative, he often works with video and participatory installation. As we talk, he shows me recent work on his computer, a range of paintings, as well as documentation of what the artist refers to as “family parties”—vibrant films, saturated with motion and color, of intimate gatherings of his friends and kin. These pieces—home videos, nearly—are illustrations of localized ceremony and everyday happenings, situated eons away from the white boxes of the art world. They are a window into the celebration and ritual of a collective public.

The canonized archetype of an artist alone in his studio—quickly expiring as we wade further into the tides of a global culture—is one that this artist, refreshingly, does not seem to have much of an allegiance to. For Murillo, the act of making holds as much potential for liberation and functionality within the confines of one’s studio as it does in one’s home, on the street, or within one’s community. In his work, actions and words, paint and parties, all speak at the same volume. The objects made by his hand float buoyantly within the realm of the liminal, always here and there, inside and out, home and abroad, all at once very familiar, and yet, somehow, entirely untranslatable. Murillo’s use of text in his paintings illustrates the limits and the possibilities presented by language; words are part of histories that are not always our own, but that we cling to. The physicality of painting is one that provides a sturdy framework for making the leap into the performative realm, a showing of convivial desire. Here, the artist raises a champagne glass—and sometimes an arepa—in lieu of a looking glass, an eloquent reminder of the spaces we travel between and a reflection of these worlds and the constructs that lend them composure, and neutrality.


Legacy Russell We’re here in London just after your return from Paris last night and before you leave for Miami tomorrow. I’d love to hear about what you were doing in Paris, and what you plan to do once you hit Miami.

Oscar Murillo My Berlin gallery, Isabella Bortolozzi, is taking part in FIAC in Paris. Around the fair other projects are happening, for example, “R4” is working toward building up a museum in the outskirts of Paris on this island called l’île Seguin. The curator of the Migros Museum, Raphael Gygax, decided to commission about 20 artists to do outdoor projects on the island, among them Oscar Tuazon, Annette Messager, Ugo Rondinone, Nicolas Party, Martin Soto Climent, and me.

My piece, called Make it Happen in Steps, was based on something I had done this summer in the South of France and which involved me and a collaborator running, jogging, and dancing in an amphitheater. An amphitheater is a space that demands a spectacle. But the production value of my work is purposely low. I like to work with things that are—I wouldn’t say necessarily always around me, but I like to be resourceful, basically. I got a mirror, two empty cartons of coconut water, and a playlist of Fania All-Stars music—Latin American artists like Celia Cruz and Tito Puente, major salsa musicians. So I created a one-hour playlist and jogged and danced in front of a mirror to this music. At the end of it, I just walked off and that was the piece.

At l’île Seguin in Paris, I didn’t want to do exactly the same thing, but I wanted to use the same principles. I got myself a couple of sheets of reflective acrylic mirror, two speakers, some amplifiers, four car batteries, some disco lights, and an iPod with the same Fania All-Stars playlist. The island is a heavily industrial place, a bit like Detroit. There used to be a car factory there, and it’s quite run-down. The idea was to curate an installation that would play this music continuously, and not be dependent on someone having to turn it on and off. It’d just be there, kind of playing along—bringing some life to the place. So that happened last weekend, just before I did a two-person presentation with David Hammons at FIAC.

MURIO-00156-300.jpg
milk, 2012, oil, spray paint, oilstick, dirt on canvas, 77 1/8 x 65 3/4 inches.

LR And what about Miami?

OM I met the Rubell family for the first time in New York earlier this year. They got curious about my work, and we had a studio visit. My gallery called, “Don and Mera want to come to your studio.” And I said, “Well, I don’t have any work in the studio.” The gallery said, “We’ll get some work from storage and bring it over.” I thought, Bringing paintings back to the studio, what’s the point? For me it was an opportunity to show my work in process because the process is very important. Finished paintings they could see in the gallery. So before the Rubells visited, I stayed up all night and made a couple of paintings. Making these works created a residue of the process. And the Rubells understood that.

Every year they curate a show for their foundation in Miami; the last one was American Exuberance with four huge paintings by Sterling Ruby in the main gallery space. This year they invited me to do something there. I went to Miami this past April. They suggested this incredibly large room—I mean, it’s overwhelming! I didn’t feel comfortable making work for such a massive space without inhabiting it somehow. So I said, “I think it’s very important for me to come here and make the work from scratch.”

LR You occupied it—physically.

OM At the beginning of summer, I traveled back to Miami with all my materials and lived there for six weeks, working at the Rubell family collection.

LR So when’s the opening? When do other bodies get to occupy the space, along with you and your works?

OM The work is done and will open in December for Art Basel Miami Beach.

LR You paint, you’re doing performance, you’re recording these performances and they’re being shown as videos. All these different strands connect. Where does painting situate itself in your practice and where does it intersect with performance?

OM Paintings happen in the studio where I have my own kind of system, although there can be physical residue of performance in them. I like to cut up the canvas in different sections, work on them individually, fold them and just leave them around for months. I don’t work on a painting with the goal of finishing it or having a complete and finished painting at the end of a work process. The idea is to get through as much material as possible, and various materials go through various processes. In most parts there is this mark making that happens with a broomstick and oil paint. I make a bunch of those canvases, fold them in half, and put them on the floor. My studio is a cradle of dust and dirt, of pollution. I don’t tidy up at the end of each production process. It’s all very much on purpose; it’s continuous process, a machine of which I’m the catalyst. Things get moved around, I step on them, and they get contaminated. It’s not about leaving traces, it’s about letting things mature on their own—like aging cheese or letting a stew cook, they get more flavorful. That’s kind of how these paintings are made.

Murillo_02.jpg
yoga, 2012, oil, spray paint, oilstick, dirt on canvas, 77 1/8 x 65 3/4 inches.

LR So the textures, these layers—they’re in part done by your own hand, but also by the larger sort of “hand” of the environment they’re born into. It’s a collaboration of creative site and creative body in that way, a sort of merging.

OM The individual canvases are very much the DNA; they record that movement, the process of making. When these different processes are done, I move on to the stage of actually composing a painting. The individual canvases are laid out with the aim of making a composition. For example, the painting we are looking at right now started with different patches of bleached black fabric, then there’s this mark-making process, and then you have the word at the end. And that’s the last thing that is added to the work.

LR Is the text in the foreground meant to represent a dialogue of what’s taking place in the background? “Pizza,” for example, or “Champagne”—are these words represented in the textures and painterly gestures they are suspended in?

OM For me the words are very displaced. Like cultural displacement with performance, in painting it’s material displacement, object displacement. I’ll show you this one, which I’m really excited about. It says, “Yoga.”

LR This one is really neat because there is a physicality that is manifest in the word itself.

OM Yeah. Some words like yoga have gained a duality of meaning in my work. They are not only visually representative of their meaning but also, compositionally, there’s a formality. The canvases get folded so you get the word kind of mirrored in the paint’s absorption onto the other side of the fold, and sometimes you get a pattern. Here it almost looks like a person doing yoga. So as my practice develops, the concept of displacement is present in both my performances and in my paintings.

LR How does performance tie in, regarding the narrative of displacement? How do your physical actions find their place within open space?

OM The idea of the space, regardless of my own art, underlies all that. There’s so much movement in the world, constantly. We all move around, we all travel, and I like to think most of the population in the world has shifted from one place to another; not necessarily globally—it could just be locally from one part of the country to the other. And so things change. For example, I’ve come to appropriate music and Vita Coco coconut water as symbols of displacement. Coconut water has been incredibly well marketed as a tropical drink that comes from parts of the world like Hawaii and the Caribbean. In metropolitan cities it has a certain message attached—healthy lifestyle . . .

LR Restorative powers in some way.

OM You find it in yoga studios, in gyms, and in all kinds of fitness places. So for me, there’re all these interesting navigations. I grew up in a very small town in South America and now live in London, which I have adopted as my home. But I’m also being displaced because I don’t find complete satisfaction with one or the other. That can be a micro example of displacement. For me these paintings are by-products of being in the studio and making work. I mean, that’s one shift. I guess that happens to all artists when showing work in galleries, or showing work in one place or the other.

LR There’s also a literal displacement when you’re taking the work out of the studio—I like how you called it a “cradle” earlier—into a totally different situation, a different context.

OM Yeah, exactly. But I like to think that these paintings also imply a displacement of time. They’re like rugs. An unstretched painting is a kind of abstract thing, one that suggests that it perhaps has been found or comes from some other space or time. But while it has this aura of being a historical thing when placed out of context, it just comes from the studio.

Murillo_04.jpg
work just happens! to the noon via the beach, 2012, performance in Arles, France.

LR Let’s talk about the sort of family-party performances that you’ve done. I would also like to hear about the collaboration with Serpentine Gallery, The Cleaners’ Late Summer Party, which seems to link back to the idea of bringing people together, providing an opportunity for exchange, and maybe engaging with an audience that extends beyond the bubble of the art world. I mean, for you to have a party with your family is one thing, but to bring that into an art-world context . . .

OM I want to give you more background about the parties: they are family events for celebrating something—a birthday, a communion—or just people getting together. Like most parties, sometimes you only talk, sometimes you dance. I’ve been doing these parties with my family, but I wouldn’t exactly call them performances. I’ve been very cautious as to how I appropriate these family parties and bring them into the realm of my art practice and out to the public as an event that happens within the art world. So the spaces have to be very particular; it’s not like, “Let’s just throw a party in a gallery space.”

LR Well, the rules of a “family party,” versus an “art-world party”—at first blush they are totally different. Yet both are social spaces, both are spaces that can be politicized, that have their own vernacular and rubrics of ritualized behavior.

OM The Serpentine was very interesting because it isn’t exactly a gallery, but an institution. I took advantage of the fact that the institution was willing to host my event not in the main galleries but in the outdoor pavilion. As part of their annual commission, this year the Serpentine had the architect team Herzog & de Meuron collaborate with the artist Ai Weiwei to design a pavilion. Starting in June the Serpentine hosted a summer program there.

The pavilion itself had this interesting architecture—it wasn’t about a show of architecture, it was about an understatement of architecture. It looked like a theatrical space: you had seats, there was a kind of platform where you could speak or perform. So I decided to take over the entire space and decorate it as if we were having a family gathering.

My family works in the cleaning industry and they used to have these really great parties in the summer and Christmas, where people would dress up. It was a big deal. It was very eloquent, in a kind of, you could say, “cheesy” way. But it was really nice. We had food, and there was an abundance. The parties don’t really exist anymore because there’s no money around, there’s no money for parties. So I thought, Well, I have this offer from Serpentine; the conditions are perfect to throw a party. I want to do this. Then there was also this other layer, which was Comme des Garçons—

LR I was going to ask about that, how to negotiate the introduction of that genre of haute couture.

OM I did a project with them; they commissioned me to do an ad for one of their campaigns and I thought, Oh this is great. But also there was a degree of discomfort because as much as I like Comme des Garçons as a label, it’s not something that I wear. The presence of the brand brings up notions of commercialism and publicity, things I’m interested in exploring in my work—hence the words that I use sometimes in my paintings.

LR Right, with the canvases like banners, the words at that scale are almost like billboards. They really speak to the culture in which they’re produced—everything bleeds together in that way.

OM Exactly. They gave me something like $12,000 in credit—it wasn’t in money, it was in credit—and that’s insane.

LR With that, you can buy one shoe there. Maybe two if you’re lucky.

OM So I thought, Well, what am I going to do with this? So I combined the two projects and it became A Late Summer Party with Comme des Garçons. The idea was that the party would be a party, and we’d have champagne. We’d make it as elaborate as possible, and then Comme des Garçons would come in as this kind of extra layer. Now, how to democratize Comme des Garçons? How to make a product that is usually very exclusive available to the masses? So we got as many items as possible with the credit offered—perfume, clothing, what have you—and then made them prizes at the party for dance competitions and games. But we also just gave it away. While the typical art audience was present, the core of the party was my family community, a community of friends.

Murillo_05.jpg
animals die for eating too much! yoga, 2011, Performance at Hotel, London.

LR It seems like this creates some permeability in the white-wall institutional space that’s not your space, that’s not public space.

OM Yeah. The pavilion was a buffer. These projects and these parties also have a sociopolitical undercurrent.

LR Would you consider it a mode of activism?

OM I don’t think it’s activism; it’s more my wanting to give some strength and purpose. It’s not about an agenda—

LR —or a cause.

OM Yeah, there’s no cause or agenda. There’s a desire to bring different facets of society together through events, and that’s very much the bottom line. It then assumes a social and political agenda because of the potency that it carries. Most of the time it’s positive, but there can be challenging elements that you have to deal with. Two days ago, on the 18th of October, there was a family party that I did in Paris—and I mean this was bourgeois, this was, like, crazy. The event took place in a beautiful private home near the Champs-Élysées in the center of Paris. You had a Picasso on the wall, you had Lucio Fontana pieces by the bedside—it proved to be the perfect setting to celebrate a birthday and I invited a friend of mine. It wasn’t his birthday and he didn’t even know about my intent. About an hour before the thing began I said, “You do know that we’re here to celebrate your birthday?” He kind of freaked out but then he really embraced it. The invitation to the performance was a birthday card; it was kind of confusing, and threw people off. Some people said, “Why am I going to celebrate this guy’s birthday? I don’t even know who he is.” So they come into this incredible Parisian apartment and there’s Latin music, really expensive champagne (Ruinart!) going around, and then tamales, which is a typical Colombian food. So there were these mixtures. Champagne and tamales don’t necessarily go together—

LR But they can, right? Because they did! (laughter)

OM Yeah, exactly. They did! I think it’s psychological. So you had this kind of mishmash of cultures, and then one minute the music stops and this guy makes an announcement to thank me for celebrating his birthday, and everybody starts to sing “Happy Birthday” to him and then we all began dancing.

LR What type of Latin music?

OM A lot of salsa. Just the sound of music in this house was weird, you know?

LR Yeah. I was going to ask you about the concept of “Latin American conviviality,” a phrase the Serpentine used in the press release for your event. It’s interesting to think about what that means, and whether you perceive your work as speaking through a particular vein of Latin American identity.

OM I don’t think so. I mean, it’s inevitable—I’m Latin American myself. So I’m not exactly going to appropriate a different culture to—

LR Right, it’s always good to start by working with yourself, first.

OM Exactly. It has to be genuine, it has to be authentic. It can always fail, I’m not saying that it’s always going to be successful. But the success rate is higher when you have higher control over the different topics at hand. And so it was and is usually Latin American conviviality, but it has a resonance in relation to everything. For example, there are these yoga performances that I’ve done—last year I transformed the whole gallery into a yoga studio and allowed my friends and people I know to come and do yoga for free. I made these yoga platforms and installed these very makeshift mirrors. Because it was temporary, there wasn’t any reason to be elaborate about it. It simply needed to be functional. Yoga, especially Bikram yoga, is incredibly—

LR —hardcore.

OM Displaced.

LR It’s incredibly intense.

MURIO-00229-D17-300.jpg
The Cleaners’ Late Summer Party with Comme des Garçons, Serpentine Gallery Park Nights, 2012. Photo by Lewis Ronald. Courtesy Serpentine Gallery, London.

OM Yes, it’s intense on the body, a real physical workout. Bikram yoga is something that this guru, Bikram Choudhury, from India, started. Yoga as a practice is a Hindu tradition but then it was transported to Western society, where it was packaged. It started in LA and has been gradually franchised. It’s also an industry that today is dominated by women. Men do it—I do it from time to time—but yoga was something that women were not allowed to do. All these shifts are interesting to me, and I reference yoga because I know it and I’m able to talk about it authoritatively.

LR You start with yourself.

OM Yeah. It has to be personal somehow.

LR I wanted to ask you about the neoconcrete—a lot of people writing about your work have been talking about the history of neoconcretism. That movement happened around 1959 to 1961 and is often tied to artists who worked and lived in Brazil. In the neoconcrete manifesto, they talk about work being conceived as a sort of quasicorpus—the idea that a work’s reality is not exhausted by its constituitive elements. But rather that the work can have a life outside of those elements, exist within social or public space, and, in doing so, avoid a narrow specificity. Do you have any thoughts on that?

OM Obviously I think the neoconcrete movement from that period in Brazil was something quite strong. You had artists like Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, and Lygia Pape. Neoconcrete art was a catalyst at the time. I think that a lot of the work—not to say it’s derivative—is influenced by modernism. But they were able to appropriate from this stiff, rigid period of European modernism and digest it, and produce their own identity. And they opened it up and made it accessible to society. I guess you could say theirs was a multipurpose, flexible practice, making work that is almost pragmatic, something that’s useful.

LR That serves society in some deeper sense and, in doing so, hopefully avoids becoming part of a more elusive canon that escapes the culture or community the work is meant to serve.

OM This applies to the neoconcrete objects but also to the performances and other projects. They were inclusive because at the time it was normal to bring people together for a common cause. In our time it is difficult to talk about community.

LR Why would you say that is?

OM I think the word community has a stigma attached to it, no? And it’s very elusive too. Community can mean many things. There’s this idea of the art community, which is complete bullshit. Or the Latin American community. It’s just a label that is easy to put on things. These family parties are a way to be with my family and be together with people. It’s not like cultural tourism. These are genuine things that real people participate in.

LR And it’s part of your personal fabric.

OM Yeah, part of a personality. In terms of having a relationship to this period of art in the early ‘60s, the work and the participants were not forced. You can feel that there was a sense of that conviviality, as you were talking about earlier.

LR There is a part of the neoconcrete manifesto that talks about art as an instrument for creating society. It seems to me that it would ring true in talking about these worlds that you’re creating, these environments, these societies, that people can either opt into or opt out of and participate in different ways. So what do you see as your next steps as you continue to build your practice, build your work—are there directions you’re curious about exploring?

OM I want to make it more ambitious, more focused. A lot of these projects have happened between Europe and Colombia or in both Colombia and Europe. I think it would be really interesting to do something along these lines in the States. Like in New York. The idea of tuning into that particular culture is very important. So I think that’s where I see these things working out next—you know, to think about the sensitivity of the next place that I would like to do something, and then make it work there.

LR And continue painting.

OM And continue making these paintings. Like I said earlier: they’re fundamental to my practice. Painting for me functions as a form of mediation. You shut yourself off in the studio and make this work and there’s a relationship to everything else that happens in the practice, whether it’s directly connected or not. How do I apply that same kind of rigor and authenticity to everything else? How to show my works in new ways? How to retain control over them, even if they were sold and someone else now owns them? The dirt we spoke of earlier, well, there’s dirt everywhere—New York, London, New Delhi—all around the world, and so that’s kind of democratic. At least for me.

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In the studio with Oscar Murillo, artist

‘Most painters are terrified of painting as the same space where they are defecating’

Oscar Murillo is tucking into a lunch when I meet him across the street from his studio in east London, and we start our interview over tasty Turkish food. I ask about the press he received for his paintings going for record prices in the June auctions and he says he was in his native Colombia and the news swept through the country.

He is clear that his work is not about the market at all, but is about the experiences that he had, first in South America and now here in his adopted country. Born in 1986, Murillo and his family came to London in when he was 10. He recalls his idyllic “childhood innocence”  in a small village in Colombia with a large extended family. “My father was a mechanic  in a sugar cane factory and my mother worked for a candy factory: we had a sweet life!”

Fifty of Murillo’s relatives have migrated  to London, forming as close clan here as in Colombia. “My uncle and cousin work with  me in the studio and my mother comes and helps me cook – my auntie too.” Murillo’s past exhibitions have included “events” where  his family “play themselves”. “They are not performers, more a re-enactment of who we  are and what we do.”

Murillo studied at the Royal College of Art and says this period was important to him, even if as something to react against. He recalls insisting that his seminar would be held in the local chicken shop, admitting his peers “found it very offensive”. He wanted to use the detritus of life in his work, asking the owner to make a bin with one of his canvases to collect the rubbish in, something that he now has translated into his studio practice.

At this point, we decamp across the street  to see the practice in action. We walk down  a side passage into a surprisingly small space  – Murillo’s works can be very large – where  his cousin and uncle are casting some of the cannon balls in concrete that will feature in his forthcoming show at the South London Gallery. On the wall hang some of his paintings, unstretched, slightly grubby looking, their surfaces enlivened with words familiar from past works – coco, yoga or chorizo.

He breaks off our conversation to discuss something with his helpers who are un-moulding some of the balls and preparing others, lacing them with the debris of past paintings and dirt from the floor.

I point at the dirt, created in the making of the cement, being transplanted to the canvas, and he says, “Most painters are terrified of painting in the same space where they are eating, sleeping and defecating. This is my  idea of how the work progresses.” As I leave,  I ask if his uncle and cousin help with the paintings, and his answer is a brisk: “When it comes to making the paintings, that’s my job.”

Oscar Murillo: if I was to draw a line, this journey started approximately 400 kilometres north of the equator, South London Gallery, London SE5 (020 7703 6120) 20 September to 1 December

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GALLERISTNY

UPDATED: Oscar Murillo’s $800,000 Week in New York

The Sotheby's work.

The Sotheby’s work.

“There’s a lot of money to be made trading Oscar Murillo at this point,” Kenny Schachter told Katya Kazakina in her profile of the 27-year-old artist last week. Boy, that’s an understatement! Today and yesterday, a couple of untitled works by Mr. Murillo from last year came up at auction here in New York, and both sold for double their high estimates. These two lots come on top of a third Murillo that set a new record for the artist last Thursday at Phillips at $401,000, ten times over its high estimate.

The first, at Sotheby’s “Contemporary Curated” auction, sold yesterday for $197,000, with premium. It had been estimated to sell for between $60,000 and $80,000.

The second sold today at Christie’s “First Open” sale, and though its estimate was slightly lower ($50,000 – $70,000) it sold for around the same amount $195,750, with premium.

That Mr. Murillo only doubled his high estimate shows a degree of logic exists in his bonkers market. This past June Mr. Murillo exceeded a high estimate by a factor of eight in London when a piece of his sold for $389,199, his previous auction high.

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