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

Back to the main site

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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.

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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.

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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

==

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.

The October Paintings

 

Untitled The October Paintings work #1: This work explores relations in color and light and experiments with layering down painting medium and then pushing paint directly into the medium. It is created with rags and both dry and paint soaked rags and loaded brushes. The effect is atmospheric and evocative of landscape painting.

Untitled The October Paintings work #1: This work explores relations in color and light and experiments with layering down painting medium and then pushing paint directly into the medium. It is created with rags and both dry and paint soaked rags and loaded brushes. The effect is atmospheric and evocative of landscape painting.

Untitled The October Paintings work #2: This work is created by scraping away layers of paint and applying paint with fine brushwork in certain areas. It is an abstract work that plays upon the body of abstract paintings of mythical vistas by Cy Twombly that I saw at the Menil Collection.

Untitled The October Paintings work #2: This work is created by scraping away layers of paint and applying paint with fine brushwork in certain areas. It is an abstract work that plays upon the body of abstract paintings of mythical vistas by Cy Twombly that I saw at the Menil Collection.

Untitled The October Paintings work #3: This work is is rendered impressing large areas of paint and medium into the canvas and using a painting knife to mis and redistribute the paint across the entire canvas surface. The effect is that the represented non-objective field appears to be disintegrating. Nothing appears fixed; the substrate areas seem to desire to advance to the foreground.

Untitled The October Paintings work #3: This work is is rendered impressing large areas of paint and medium into the canvas and using a painting knife to mis and redistribute the paint across the entire canvas surface. The effect is that the represented non-objective field appears to be disintegrating. Nothing appears fixed; the substrate areas seem to desire to advance to the foreground.

Untitled The October Paintings work #4: This work is about eliminates spacial depth and is another which I see a bit of Twomby's influence. The surface is heavily worked with brushes and rags, incidents of local color effectively distinguish themselves in the overall pictorial view. Its quite the opposite of the other works created in this series.

Untitled The October Paintings work #4: This work is about eliminates spacial depth and is another which I see a bit of Twomby’s influence. The surface is heavily worked with brushes and rags, incidents of local color effectively distinguish themselves in the overall pictorial view. Its quite the opposite of the other works created in this series.

Untitled The October Paintings work #5: This work segregates then enfolds layers of color with a painting knife and while releasing undercurrents of highlight colors from underneath its darkness. There is a structural integrity in the picture that allows the underneath to become visible while the overall representation is boldly dark.

Untitled The October Paintings work #5: This work segregates then enfolds layers of color with a painting knife and while releasing undercurrents of highlight colors from underneath its darkness. There is a structural integrity in the picture that allows the underneath to become visible while the overall representation is boldly dark.

Untitled The October Paintings work #6: This work represents a slow moving live red universe. It is as if a small sample of the sun were re-presented as a photographed object using paint. The overall red-orange color dominates yet color elements create the full picture.

Untitled The October Paintings work #6: This work represents a slow moving live red universe. It is as if a small sample of the sun were re-presented as a photographed object using paint. The overall red-orange color dominates yet color elements create the full picture.

Untitled The October Paintings work #7: This work adapts a more local distribution strategy in terms of paint by using loaded rags. It also confirms my interest in representing objects in formation. This is a magical forrest of color and light.

Untitled The October Paintings work #7: This work adapts a more local distribution strategy in terms of paint by using loaded rags. It also confirms my interest in representing objects in formation. This is a magical forrest of color and light.

Untitled The October Paintings work #8: This work is created by mixing wide bands of color with a painting knife, then adding a smoky middle area. The upper bands transform their colors as they move to the lower portion of the canvas. The look is that of a forrest of color.

Untitled The October Paintings work #8: This work is created by mixing wide bands of color with a painting knife, then adding a smoky middle area. The upper bands transform their colors as they move to the lower portion of the canvas. The look is that of a forrest of color.

Untitled The October Paintings work #9: This work uses a bold light blue exception recovered from the scraped away layers of paint as its centering visual anchor. Provocative and delicate colors float in the pictorial window.

Untitled The October Paintings work #9: This work uses a bold light blue exception recovered from the scraped away layers of paint as its centering visual anchor. Provocative and delicate colors float in the pictorial window.

Untitled The October Paintings work #10: This work is a dense black-green pictorial field with aspects and elements of builds of local color and white paint touches. The work appears to have both depth and a fixed surface.

Untitled The October Paintings work #10: This work is a dense black-green pictorial field with aspects and elements of builds of local color and white paint touches. The work appears to have both depth and a fixed surface.

Untitled The October Paintings work #11: This is  my gold paint picture. In it are aspects of long held influences from Japanese art. The small objects appear to be strange orbs comprised of one or two colors beyond the gold body each inhabits.

Untitled The October Paintings work #11: This is my gold paint picture. In it are aspects of long held influences from Japanese art. The small objects appear to be strange orbs comprised of one or two colors beyond the gold body each inhabits.

October Painting 1 and 2, Los Angeles, California by Vincent Johnson

The October Painting 1 and 2, underpainting stage,  Los Angeles, California by Vincent Johnson

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First stage of blue (Payne’s Grey) underpainting.

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The most recently completed work in The October Paintings suite. This particular work was painted over completely in three different directions, plus a ghostly layer in between was added. I was listening to an audiotape on German art history while making the work. This painting challenged me over and again against earlier selves. I continued to add additional layers and work the canvas, forcing it to meld and produce astonishing bands of color. Yet I did not want it to be like or look like the previous work I had just made. I don’t know if I should be making notes on how each work differs from the next; I guess I’m counting my memory of making each one and looking into each work to see where and how they vary in conception, production, style, layering. brushstroke, rag work.

Its still cool in the morning, dew on the grass. The sun is slow to rise before it spreads its wonderful light over my back yard studio.

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The October Paintings - numbers 3 and 4

The October Paintings – numbers 3 and 4 – The October Paintings (a new paintings project by Los Angeles based artist Vincent Johnson) – the paintings are at the underpainting stage. They will be allowed to dry in my studio and then a layer of white glaze will be added. That will dry. Then I will work on each work, layer by layer, allowing each layer to dry, or be worked or added to as I desire. Our car Roxy is in the background, her back arched as she defies a mushroom to move.

October Paintings 3 and 4 - three of three

The October Paintings (a new paintings project by Los Angeles based artist Vincent Johnson) – paintings 3 and 4. Taking advantage of the fabulous weather in LA.

October Paintings 3 and 4 - two of three

The October Paintings – paintings 1 and 2 (a new paintings project by Los Angeles based artist Vincent Johnson) – with our cat Roxy playing in the back yard.

October Paintings 5 and 6, underpainted on October 31, 2013. Van Nuys, CA

October Paintings 5 and 6, underpainting – layer one – October 31, 2013. Van Nuys, CA

October Paintings 5 and 6.on 11.01.13 no .3 October Paintings 5 and 6.on 11.01.13

The October Paintings, 2013, under painting layers, Los Angeles, California, by Vincent Johnson

The October Paintings, 2013, paintings one and two, under painting layers, Los Angeles, California, by Vincent Johnson

The October Paintings (a new paintings project by Los Angeles based artist Vincent Johnson)

The October Paintings – paintings one and two (a new paintings project by Los Angeles based artist Vincent Johnson)

Welcome to the Post Conceptual Artist Paintings of Vincent Galen Johnson in Los Angeles.

I am painting in my back yard studio that is about 3,000 square feet. It has a concrete patio where I work and three concrete block walls where I can lay my work on  and look at recently made work while creating new paintings.

The October Paintings are comprised of nine 4×4 foot oil on canvas paintings. These are the largest canvases I’ve worked on since my return to painting after two decades of working with photography. I was trained as a representational painter at Pratt Institute and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. My graduate degree is in critical theory and painting from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. The works are a continuation of my exploration of the history of art materials, combined with using the layering techniques of representation to create singular new abstractions. This is my first time working on several large-scale canvases at once. What I’ve noticed over the years is that every significant work I’ve made eventually finds its way into the world, often through unanticipated opportunity.  The works are visceral, visually rich, emotively engaging. They follow the six large-scale paintings in the COSMOS SUITE that is also ongoing and was started in 2012, and the NINE GRAYSCALE PAINTINGS in LOS ANGELES that I completed in 2011. In my work I have always sought to reach for and produce imagery that lends itself to a serious consideration of the ideas that come to the mind when approaching the image. For me these works seek to substantiate themselves in the world, to be both evocative and provocative, beautiful and remarkable in both concept and realization. As these works are fully developed I will continue to record the journey am taken on with them, until they are complete.

OCTOBER PAINTING - Scumble glazing, second phase of the paintings.

OCTOBER PAINTING – Scumble glazing, second phase of the paintings.

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October Paintings – scumble glazed and drying in studio.

During the scumble glazing layer of the painting, where I knock down the underpainting colors so that the next layers can deliver a fabulous punch, I thought about the magnificient, enormous paintings I saw this summer at the Menil Collection in Houston, by Cy Twombly and Mark Rothko. The high seriousness of Rothko’s chapel paintings was amazing. Yet on that day it would be my discovery of the excellence of Cy Twombly as a painter of the primordial and playful sublime that captivated my attention in his purpose built stand alone large gallery space that showcased his work far beyond the circular swirls I know but care nothing for at all. It seems that when Twombly switched to specific subject matter – whether it be abstract landscape paintings, where he had simply marvelous deep rich green works, or his overall giant abstractions, filled with playful and powerful singular and exciting moments, both satisfied in wonderful ways. I was fortunate to make two trips to Houston this summer. The Late Byzantine to Today was a marvel to behold; I also had no idea that the Menil is a world class repository of Surrealist art. I was also privileged to see the James Turrell retrospective at the MFA Houston, which itself will be expanding soon with a major new building devoted to modern and contemporary art. The Menil Collection itself will be adding seven new individual artist showcase galleries, which combined with their traveling shows will make Houston as important a center for seeing art as anywhere in the US outside of New York. I am looking at the nine 4×4 foot October paintings in my studio. Its the largest body of work I have ever produced as a painter. I can see so many possibilities in this new direction. It gives me reason to continue to push to get my work into the world, despite all of the difficulties I have experienced. Painting makes me see beyond my own being.

Vincent Johnson

Los Angeles, CA

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Vincent Galen Johnson – The October Paintings – outdoor studio Los Angeles

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Just added this final layer of paint to this painting. Now its ready. by Vincent Johnson 2014

The October Paintings in Los Angeles, 2014, painted and written by Los Angeles based painter and writer Vincent Galen Johnson.

My journey into painting has never ended, only paused during the many years my primary artistic practice moved from painting to writing, then to photography and writing. I’ve never stopped looking at painting. I went to London over the Thanksgiving holiday in 2011 to see the Gerhard Richter retrospective. It was strange to see a photorealist painter realize the power of paint being managed through sheer process and to create astonishing images of such subtle yet shocking beauty. While in London I took in a full day visit to the National Gallery, where I was swept away by such a superb landscape painting by Constable. I felt as if I were seeing an apparition as the leafy structure that represented part of a tree seemed to extend from the canvas into the gallery space. I also recall seeing Sigmar Polke, Anselm Kiefer, Eric Fischl and David Salle ‘s paintings from the 1980′s from those magnificent shows on West Broadway in Soho. Of late I’ve become a fan of Beatriz Milhaze, Nicole Eisenman, Henry Taylor, and have for years followed the work of Kerry James Marshall. Now I feel I need to feed my mind on as many superior painted pictures as I can devour.

Anselm Kiefer painting show in Antwerp

Gerhart Richter painting

This is the third year since I began painting again after two decades of making photographic works and writing in Los Angeles. Paint is a remarkable material in which to work. It offers seemingly an infinite number of ways of working the canvas, from application to scraping off even week old paint, to rubbing and applying several more layers with brushes, rags, and painting knives. It took me a while to allow myself to work abstractly. I still have about five unfinished paintings that I started in 2005 based on architectural vistas from my imagination, and they remain in my art storage, and one is in my studio, still unfinished. So its not totally true that I first started painting again in 2011; it was actually in 2005, but I gave up after a couple of months and put those canvases away for a future time. Its the sheer malleability of paint that drives me to work with it today, and its film-like capacity to be overlaid and yet see what’s underneath that enthralls. So far each of my paintings is abstract yet I continue to study the history of materials of artists as well as making my own multiple experiments on each new canvas. Some of my works have as many as a dozen layers and overlays of paint. Each one seems to inform the other as to the next possible direction to start in and then to build up to in terms of sheer quality of paint handling, image power,  and fulfillment of the mind through the eyes. Its a richly rewarding feeling to be making this new work after so many years, and to see where I had left off as a painter two decades ago. And then to see where I’ve come along since that time, using all of the tools and skills learned in Brooklyn and Chicago many years ago in school.

A painting by Nicole Eisenman
A painting by LA painter Henry Taylor.
A suite of paintings by Sigmar Polke

Painting outdoors in the California sun has been a revelation. I can allow my paintings to dry in the sun. Then store them at night in my art storage. Then bring them out again to look at in the proud light of the morning, and sit and walk among them, and think about what is the next step for each of those that are yet to be complete. Having the sky as my ceiling has been amazing, and having so much space in which to operate has unleashed so many great ideas about the direction to take my work, as I can sit the paintings in my outdoor studio and relish them in the warmth of a February day in Southern California. Next I’ll be working on a few dozen much smaller canvases, then returning to the larger 4 by 4 foot canvases. This post has been my afternoon break to record where I am with my new work.

It makes me happy to be painting again, in California.

Vincent Galen Johnson

Los Angeles

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The October Paintings by Vincent Galen Johnson in Los Angeles, March 2014

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This painting was layered with paint over several days, then scraped out with the excess paint allowed to dangle from the area of the canvas where it had been cut away. The painting now has a sculptural element of pure paint hanging from its several lawyers beneath.

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The painting on the far right was transformed with gold, blue and grey paint this evening. See the final above.

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This canvas was handled completely differently from most of the others and has a final overlay of paint that creates the image of a colorful chalk board.

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A thick impasto of dazzling color was spread with a painting knife across the canvas. in waves, in this painting.

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The painting to the left reminds me of photos of sunbursts.

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My outdoor painting studio.

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My painting studio set up.

Vincent Johnson: CV
Vincent Johnson received his MFA in Fine Art Painting from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California 1997 and his BFA in Painting from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1986. He is a 2005 Creative Capital Grantee, and was selected for the New Museum of Contemporary Arts Aldrich Art Award in 2007 and for the Art Matters grant in 2008, and in 2009 for the Foundation for Contemporary Art Fellowship, Los Angeles. In 2010 he was named a United States Artists project artist. His work has been reviewed in ArtForum, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Art in America and Art Slant, and in over fifty different publications in total. His works were shown in the inaugural Pulse Fair Los Angeles. He has shown recently at Soho House (curated by ForYourArt, Los Angeles) and at Palihouse (curated by Los Angeles Nomadic Division), West Hollywood, and most recently at Another Year in LA gallery, West Hollywood. Johnson’s work has appeared in numerous venues, including The Studio Museum in Harlem (Freestyle (2001, The Philosophy of Time Travel, 2007, and The Bearden Project, 2011-2012); PS1 Museum, New York; the SK Stiftung, Cologne; Santa Monica Museum of Art, LAXART; Las Cienegas Projects, Los Angeles; Boston University Art Museum; Kellogg Museum, Cal Poly Pomona; Adamski gallery of Contemporary Art, Aachen; Lemonsky Projects, Miami. Johnson’s work has been published in a dozen exhibition catalogs. His work was exhibited in the inaugural Open Project exhibition at the Palace of the Inquisition, Evora, Portugal, July – October, 2013 and at Another Year in LA gallery, West Hollywood.

Vincent Johnson lives and works in Los Angeles, California. He is a work member of THE WINTER OFFICE, Copenhagen. THE WINTER OFFICE upholds a creative strategy concerned with defining an intersection between art, architecture and design.

Vincent Johnson: CV

Vincent Johnson received his MFA in Fine Art Painting from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California 1997 and his BFA in Painting from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1986. He is a 2005 Creative Capital Grantee, and was selected for the Baum: An Emerging American Photographer’s Award in 2004 and for the New Museum of Contemporary Arts Aldrich Art Award in 2007 and for the Art Matters grant in 2008, and in 2009 for the Foundation for Contemporary Art Fellowship, Los Angeles. In 2010 he was named a United States Artists project artist. His work has been reviewed in ArtForum, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Art in America and Art Slant, and in over fifty differen publications in total. His photographic works were shown in the inaugural Pulse Fair Los Angeles. He has shown recently at Soho House (curated by ForYourArt, Los Angeles) and at Palihouse (curated by Los Angeles Nomadic Division), West Hollywood, and most recently in Photography 2013 at Another Year in LA gallery, West Hollywood. Johnson’s work has appeared in numerous venues, including The Studio Museum in Harlem (Freestyle (2001, The Philosophy of Time Travel, 2007, and The Bearden Project, 2011-2012), PS1 Museum, SK Stiftung, Cologne; Santa Monica Museum of Art, LAXART, Las Cienegas Projects; Boston University Art Museum; Kellogg Museum, Cal Poly Pomona; Adamski gallery of Contemporary Art, Aachen; Lemonsky Projects, Miami. His work has been published in over a dozen exhibition catalogs. He is currently working on a series of self published photography books that will focus on the U.S. cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Cleveland, Ohio, Miami, Florida and New Orleans. Johnson is also creating abstract paintings for his Cosmos Suite, that explores the practice of painting with the knowledge of historical painting practices. He is using the techniques of representation to create remarkable works of abstract art. At Beacon Arts Center, Los Angeles, he recently exhibited an entire suite of grayscale paintings. In the Spring of 2013, he exhibited a series of edgy photographic works at Another Year in LA gallery, West Hollywood, California. His work will be exhibited in the inaugural Open Project exhibition at the Palace of the Inquisition, Evora, Portugal, opening July 15, 2013.

Vincent Johnson lives and works in Los Angeles, California.

vincentjohnsonart@gmail.com

http://www.vincentjohnsonart.com

New Abstract Paintings: The Cosmos Suite 2012-2013

Hello

This is Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles.

Here are three new paintings are added to my Cosmos Suite of paintings 2.24.2013. These are the 7th, 8th and 9th paintings created in the Cosmos Suite. They are also the 4th, 5th and 6th large scale paintings in this body of work.

These Cosmos Suite paintings are created using various experiments in media and paint application. Johnson has done substantial research into the area of the history of painting materials and there use, and employs this knowledge in the production of his work.

There are now a total of nine paintings in the Cosmos Suite. Six of the nine paintings are thirty by forty inches in size. Three of the paintings – the originals in the suite, are twenty by twenty four inches in size. Each painting takes about a month to create as there is a three week drying time between the first and second layers of the painting. As the suite grows there will be additional sizes including larger works.

1A.artcat

Cosmos Suite: A Meeting Between Two Figures in Space

30×40 inches, oil on canvas by Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles (2013)

Poured Liquin in center of painting, added stripes of pure paint color to canvas, mixed with paint rags, dabbed till thick paint areas are leveled out.

Large areas of vertical yellow in painting. Layered canvas in thick paint in certain areas. Reminds me of seeing Gerhard Richter’s painting retrospective in London in the fall of 2011.

6A.artcat

Cosmos Suite: State and Grace

30×40 inches, oil on canvas by Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles

Used sponges on face of painting. Layered canvas in thick paint.

Poured Liquin in center of painting, added stripes of pure paint color to canvas, mixed with paint rags, dabbed till thick paint areas are leveled out.
Reminds me of Florida’s mysterious beauty

Shape is of Florida in part

with  matisse.artcat

Cosmos Suite: State and Grace – final – complete 2.25.2013

30×40 inches, oil on canvas by Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles (2013)

5B.artcat

Cosmos Suite: State and Grace – final – complete 2.25.2013

30×40 inches, oil on canvas by Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles (2013)

2A.artcat

 Cosmos Suite: Astral Melodies
30×40 inches, oil on canvas by Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles (2013)

used sponges on side and surface of the painting. used large brushwork. Layered canvas in paint.

Poured Liquin in between stripes of pure paint color to canvas, mixed with paint rags, dabbed till thick paint areas are leveled out. Started out with thick brush in corner to mix, abandoned this quickly.

Sensing jazz standards here – floating fields of opulent pure romantic color

Vincent Johnson received his MFA in Fine Art Painting from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California 1997 and his BFA in Painting from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is a 2005 Creative Capital Grantee, and was selected for the Baum: An Emerging American Photographer’s Award in 2004 and for the New Museum of Contemporary Arts Aldrich Art Award in 2007 and for the Art Matters grant in 2008, and in 2009 for the Foundation for Contemporary Art Fellowship, Los Angeles. In 2010 he was named a United States Artists project artist. His work has been reviewed in ArtForum, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Art in America, Art Slant and many other publications. His photographic works were most recently shown in the inaugural Pulse Fair Los Angeles. His most recent paintings were shown at the Beacon Arts Center in Los Angeles. His 2010 photo project – California Toilet, Filthy Light Switch, is in exhibition at Another Year in LA gallery in West Hollywood through early March 2013. His work has appeared in several venues, including The Studio Museum in Harlem (Freestyle (2001, The Philosophy of Time Travel, 2007, and The Bearden Project, 2011-2012), PS1 Museum, Queens, NY, SK Stiftung, Cologne, Germany, Santa Monica Museum of Art, LAXART, Las Cienegas Projects, Boston University Art Museum, Kellogg Museum, Cal Poly Pomona.
Below are some of the other paintings I have completed since returning to painting in the summer of 2011.
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Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles

New Abstract Paintings: The Cosmos suite (2012)

Golden Dream (2012), part of the Cosmos Suite of paintings

California Toilet, Filthy Light Switch (2010) by Vincent Johnson. Archival Epson print (Private Collection, Miami, Florida). I provided this image as I realized its clear similarity to Golden Dream, which I completed a week ago in my studio in Los Angeles.

Two at Night (2012) from the Cosmos suite of paintings, Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches

Cosmos. Oil on canvas  2012 by Vincent Johnson

Cosmos Red Yellow Green. Oil on canvas 2012 by Vincent Johnson

Green God. Oil on canvas 2012 by Vincent Johnson

This new painting series is part of my ongoing exploration of painting materials and techniques from the history of painting. The works combine knowledge of painting practices of both abstract and representation paintings. The works concern themselves purely with the visual power that paintings can do through the manipulation of paint. Some of the underpaintings are allowed to dry for months; some of those are built dark to light, others light to dark. None are made in a single setting. Most are worked and reworked using studio materials. Each new series takes a different approach to the painted surface from how the paint is applied, to varying the painting mediums. This suite concerns itself with the layering of paint by building up the surface and altering and reworking the wet paint with studio tools.

Two larger paintings will be completed and photographed on Sunday, July 15, 2012 and posted here.

Vincent Johnson, Grayscale painting: The Storm (2012). Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches, created in studio in Los Angeles, California

Vincent Johnson, Grayscale painting, Snow White/White Snow (2012). Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches, created in studio in Los Angeles

Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles

Vincent Johnson, Nine Grayscale Paintings, Beacon Arts Center, Los Angeles, (2001). Oil on canvas. Each panel is 20×24 inches.
photograph of silver paint on my hands in studio, Los Angeles, during the creation of Nine Grayscale paintings.
Vincent Johnson – in Los Angeles studio working on Nine Grayscale Paintings, 2011

Vincent Johnson

Los Angeles, California

Reviews of the 2014 Whitney Biennial

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THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

NY Culture

Stairmaster: Ephemeral Art at the Biennial

Charlemagne Palestine Brings a ‘Sonorous Alter’ to the Whitney

March 6, 2014 9:51 p.m. ET

Three curators — Stuart Comer, Michelle Grabner and Anthony Elms — chose the works included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, with each one taking a floor of the museum.

With nearly every inch of display space enlisted for the Whitney Biennial, which opens Friday at the Whitney Museum of American Art, one New York native went to work on the periphery.

“I’ve been coming to the museum since it was built, and I’ve always loved the staircase,” said Charlemagne Palestine, participating in his first biennial at the age of 66. “This particular kind of concrete has a fantastic resonance. It’s Taj Mahal-esque.”

For his installation in the Whitney’s stairwell, he sought to create what he called “a sonorous altar,” following visitors as they go up and down the museum’s floors. Twelve speakers, set up in corners of the stairwell, play all day. Within the din are the sounds of his singing voice, which he recorded while walking the stairs with a glass of cognac, as well as an electronic drone.

Mr. Palestine used 12 speakers adorned with stuffed animals in the hallway of the museum. Agaton Strom for The Wall Street Journal

“If it works well and the sound is encompassing enough, when people come up the staircase they will be nicely disoriented, even hypnotized,” Mr. Palestine said.

There is a visual element too: Each speaker is adorned with some of the artist’s collection of stuffed animals, or “soft divinities,” as he calls them. Among the cast are a monkey, a rabbit, a bear and a droopy pink elephant.

How many plush animals does he own? “Ten thousand and growing,” Mr. Palestine said. “I’ve become a kind of orphanage.”

Most of the animals are back home in Brussels, where Mr. Palestine now lives, but some date back to his coming-of-age in New York. He grew up in Brooklyn and established himself as an artist in the 1960s and ’70s. His activities included theatrical performances and concerts whose boundaries would blur, often with an aggressive edge that could find him destroying piano strings in recital or filming a video (“Island Song”) for which he screamed and sang while racing a motorcycle.

“At the time, it was totally unheard of,” said Antonio Homem, director of the Sonnabend Gallery, which staged a recent show of Mr. Palestine’s early work in Chelsea. “He was such a perfect example that what was going on in art didn’t just have to do with painting or sculpting in traditional terms. There were many other possibilities.”

During his formative years, Mr. Palestine held down a job performing music high above the streets of Midtown, in the bell tower at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue. “I started to play this crazy stuff when he asked me to try them out, and he found it great,” he said of the church’s retiring bell master, who hired him while he was still in high school. “Nobody approached bells like a monster except for me, which goes to how I work in general.”

Charlemagne Palestine created ‘a sonorous altar’ for the Whitney Biennial. Agaton Strom for The Wall Street Journal

For his piece on the stairs at the Whitney, Mr. Palestine channeled part of his past, as well as the past of the Whitney. For the last biennial before the museum moves to a new site in the Meatpacking District, his installation strikes up a last dance with the building itself, which was designed by the famed Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer.

“I was trying to think about what kinds of voices I felt belonged in the Breuer building,” said Anthony Elms, one of the biennial’s three curators.

“He’s a really important maker for me, and for a lot of people—curators and artists,” he added. “He seems to be on lots of people’s minds.”

As one of several older artists in this year’s biennial, which takes history as one of its themes, Mr. Palestine said he’s happy for the attention granted to timely but fleeting work that for many years had been forgotten.

“Ephemeral is in again. It’s fabulous for somebody like me,” he said. “I like to make things, but my things can always transform.”

He’s no mere elder statesman, though.

“I’m a young emerging artist at 66,” he said. “I need at least another 25 years to do all the things I want to do. It’s always in process.”

Representing New York

Six other Whitney Biennial participants with New York ties:

Zoe Leonard

A nook on the museum’s fourth floor has been transformed into a giant “camera obscura,” with a small hole in a window that projects a ghostly image of the skyline onto the walls of a darkened room.

Jacolby Satterwhite

This artist’s hyperkinetic video work makes use of computer animation that, the catalog says, can teach a viewer “to be elsewhere and present at the same time.”

A tangle of thread by Sheila Hicks. Agaton Strom for The Wall Street Journal

Sheila Hicks

A colorful tangle of thread stretches from floor to ceiling in a sculptural work by Sheila Hicks, who splits her time between Paris and New York and draws on studies of ancient textile design.

Ken Okiishi

The traditions of painting and pawing at touch screens come together in this artist’s work, which focuses on moments when creative methods and states of media begin to smear.

Semiotext(e)

This publisher of philosophy and critical theory, now based in Los Angeles but long stationed in New York, is represented by an installation and readable works by Jean Baudrillard, Eileen Myles, Chris Kraus, Sylvère Lotringer and more.

A Dan Walsh painting. Agaton Strom for The Wall Street Journal

Dan Walsh

Geometric paintings by Dan Walsh are striking in their simplicity, with shapes that align grid-like patterns with Tibetan mandalas.

—Andy Battaglia

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THE NEW YORK TIMES

Art Matters | The Whitney Biennial’s Last Upper East Side Hurrah

From left: Sterling Ruby's From left: Robert Wedemeyer; Devin Farrand. From left: Sterling Ruby’s “Basin Theology/Butterfly Wreck,” 2013; Shio Kusaka, “(dinosaur 2),” 2013.

After almost a week of previews and vernissages, today 945 Madison Avenue opened its doors for the public to descend upon the last Whitney Biennial to take place on the Upper East Side. Two years from now, the Whitney Museum of American Art will have settled into its new building beside the High Line, and the days of several hundred people in “festive attire” snaking all the way down to Park Avenue as they wait to ooh, aah and roll their eyes at the latest and greatest in ostensibly American art will be a thing of the past. In the future when the museum is at capacity, all the excess people will be pushed into the Hudson River.

Tuesday was the premiere opening, and as the witching hour struck, shrapnel of artists, collectors and socialites blasted out of the building to umpteen dinners hosted around town. A party for the publishing collective Triple Canopy, which participated in the biennial as an artist, was held stumbling distance from the Breuer Building in the restaurant of the Carlyle Hotel. Gilded frames, venerable bartenders and bloody hamburgers set a fitting scene for New York’s now thoroughly multiborough contemporary art world to make a ceremonial goodbye to its ancestral home off Central Park.

Keith Mayerson's Keith Mayerson’s “My Family,” 2013.

This year’s exhibition is a bit schizophrenic by design. Instead of inviting curators from disparate fields and institutions to collaborate on producing one sprawling survey show, three curators — Stuart Comer, chief curator of the department of media and performance art at the Museum of Modern Art; Anthony Elms, associate curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia; and Michelle Grabner, professor and chair of the painting and drawing department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — each organized their own exhibition on a single floor of the building. It is a parfait that has been met with mixed reviews, thus far. As the punctuation mark closing the museum’s nearly 50-year tenure on Madison Avenue, the show resonates as an ellipsis . . . not going out with a bang, nor confusion, nor definitiveness, but with fluidity and as a bridge to the future. There are new artists, new genres, new demographics and new regions emphasized here, all of which have long since been integral components of America art, but which have not necessarily been given adequate recognition as such.

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New York
20140307151612-leonard_photo
Group Exhibition
Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue, 75th Street, New York, NY 10021
March 7, 2014 1:00 PM – 9:00 PM

In Conversation: First Impressions of the 2014 Whitney Biennial

by ArtSlant Team

ArtSlant editors Natalie Hegert, Joel Kuennen, and Charlie Schultz met up at Agra, an Indian restaurant on Lexington Avenue, to discuss the opening of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, its surprises, best in show, and disappointments. They touch on trends and themes of scale, archives, lists, dongs, and objectness—parsing the line between artwork and artifact.

Charlie Schultz: I guess I’ll start by saying I found this year’s iteration of the [Whitney] Biennial to be far less crowded than in past Biennials, which struck me as a surprise because I thought I read that there were more artists in this Biennial than in previous years.

[Indian music plays in the background...]

Natalie Hegert: I felt like the last edition was very spacious as well…This year I was very struck by this tendency for the curators to go from very large objects to these tiny details you had to study – little notebooks and small archival photographs and things like that – so my attention was constantly being drawn from these sort of monumental sculptures and large, abstract paintings to tiny little details.

Joel Kuennen: Yeah, on [Michelle] Grabner’s floor there are large abject works like Molly Zuckerman-Hartung and Sterling Ruby, and then going into these archive pieces which are presented in tables and behind glass draw an interesting parallel between fulfilling a cult of personality while working against a cult of personality by humanizing figures like David Foster Wallace, breaking away from the idea that these are sacred objects.

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung,  Notley, 2013,  Latex housepaint, enamel, and spray paint on dropcloth (hinged, in two attached parts),  96 x 132 inches;  Courtesy of the artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago / Photography by Tom Van Eynde

 

[Someone clanks a glass, drops a fork, papadums arrive, the waitstaff says something...]

N: Thank you.

C: Yeah, the shifts in scale are definitely prominent. There’s a lot of really small stuff! [everyone laughs]

N: A lot of things to read…

C: A lot of things in vitrines, which is a pretty standard way to display paraphernalia. There was a lot of paraphernalia on account of the various archives that were curated into the show.

J: Yeah.

C: I thought the archives were a really interesting aspect of this Biennial. I enjoyed all of them, and the way they played off one another. The rooms for Semiotext(e) and Triple Canopy bookended Stuart Comer’s floor. I spent a long time hovering over Joseph Grigely’s vitrines, and listening to the experimental recordings in Malachi Ritscher’s room.  

N: Joseph Grigely’s piece was the one that surprised me most, because I didn’t know what I was getting into until I started exploring around, and then that reveal, coming later, is what I found pretty interesting.

C and J: Mmmhmm.

J: Yeah, I found it interesting that a lot of the archive pieces were kind of rock star stuff, David Foster Wallace and Allan Sekula. They were paraphernalia that literati would be really tuned into. It’s kind of an odd mix in this show but signifies at least a concurrency of research and criticism within contemporary practice.

N: I was surprised at the selection of Allan Sekula’s work—the notebooks—I did not expect that.

J: But they’re funny, they’re like [laughing] sketches on an airplane. It’s a weird gesture.

They’ve got the in memoriam thing going on.

C: Very much in memoriam, which is in line with the idea of the archive. Both David Foster Wallace and Alan Sekula are deceased. They both have literary archives. You know a notebook is just a notebook until the writer is dead, then it becomes an artifact. And it was interesting to see so many artifacts intermixing with artwork, and where the line gets blurry between the two. Between DFW and Sekula, I’d say Sekula’s notebooks have much more of an artistic flair.

N: They did, they were very graphic.

C: I was really not sure how the curatorial conceit was going to work out. With three curators and each one doing their own floor I imagined it would have been more disjointed. It didn’t really feel that way. [both agree, mmhmm] I wonder how much of a role Jay Sanders and Elizabeth Sussman, the curatorial advisors, helped unify the visions of the three curators.

Jacolby Satterwhite, “Transit,” Video Still from Reifying Desire 6, 2014. HD digital video, color, 3-D animation; Courtesy of OHWOW, Los Angeles, and Mallorca Landings Gallery.

 

J: The conceit, I think, was to produce like-sentiments, to allow contemporary cultural themes expressed in American art to come out for themselves. But you also had this really interesting sense that each curator built their own Biennial. And I guess you get that feeling with [Stuart] Comer’s floor, like it is meant to be an all-inclusive floor to showcase a real variety of works, despite him specializing in performance and media work, he definitely brought in a lot of interesting painting.

N: There were some surprises on that floor, for sure.

[twangy Eastern music persists]

C: One thing I noticed on the fourth floor that seemed somewhat thematic, and I noticed it elsewhere on the other floors, was this predilection for inventories, these lists that people were making. There was a lot of visual repetition which is a consequence of listing anything, [N laughs] and I have actually have a list here of artists who made list-type pieces: David Foster Wallace’s notebooks showed lists of names, Ben Kinmont’s Shhh Archive was list oriented, Ken Lum’s Midway Shopping Plaza and Gretchen Bender’s melted vinyl piece both incorporated lists of names.

N: Weren’t the names in Bender’s piece movie titles?

J and C: Yeah, they were all movie titles.

C: Next on my list is Shio Kusaka’s stoneware piece that was made up of so many types of pottery. Stephen Berns, who was next to Kusaka, was showing photographs that had been exposed multiple times, sequentially, and those sequences were shown as a list.

J: And the Channa Horowitz, which what was that, like sonakinatography, it was her own time-marking system. Yeah, there was definitely a lot of play with systems.

C:  Peter Schuyff’s pencil piece, Sans Paper

J: Yeah yeah yeah yeah…

C: That was another. But yeah, archives and lists are of course related to systems and structures. An archive is a system and a list is a structure.

J: There was this theme of reiterating systems; attacking those systems, changing those systems and then, finally, a process of creating new systems. The best example of this was our collective favorite, the chess conference.  [everyone laughs]

C: Best in show goes to Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess.

J: Yes.

N: I don’t think I stayed and watched that long enough.

J: [laughing] it was like a forty-five minute piece.

N: I liked it, but I didn’t stay for very long.

J: I mean it was a great period piece that totally fulfilled its role of being a little bit jocular in its portrayal of a past moment that is still relevant. It interrogates the work of man to make a machine to beat man, all within a chess conference. It’s weird, like gender identities, human identities, computer identities, it’s all there.

C: Right.

J: And everything sort of just comes into collision. [everyone laughs]

N: We’ll have to compare…the portion of the film I saw was when they were doing a press conference or something. Were there other parts? [laughs]

C: Yeah, that’s what we watched. We saw the press conference. There was more, they go from the press conference to an actual convention.

N: Oh, okay.

J: And they joke that they have one female participant this year and “she’s welcome.”

C: She’s welcome.

N: I kind of wanted to see the computers battle it out. [all giggling]

C: Yeah, I mean whoever the protagonist was provided comic relief in so far as he would say what I was thinking, at least, which is that this is as boring as I can imagine, and I find the work of all my peers trite and boring, and all his peers look over and scowl.

J: He had a great fake name too, I forget what it was.

C: Papa George.

J: Papa George [all laugh]

J: And then there was the semiotext(e) archive, which was amazing.

C: Yeah, I liked that a lot.

J: It made me really want to be in that concert in 1996. [laughing]

C: Yeah! Made me want to sit in the semiotext(e) archives.

J: And then an amazing archive done by Triple Canopy, which was really cool, working with the idea of how artwork survives in the archive, and can exit in personal archives, deaccessions and beyond through reproduction. My favorite part were the three washbasin table stands, one from the period of the original artwork that stood as the fulcrum of the exhibition, and then they had a 3-D printed copy of it, and then they had the son of the family that owned the original work make a copy of it.

N: What did you guys think about the stairwell piece [by Charlemagne Palestine]? That really set the tone for the whole experience.

C: I liked that, for one I liked the playfulness of the puppets and the droning sound in the stairwell. It functioned really well in that space because there was a lot of acoustic resonance.

N: Well that is where it derives from; that was the artist recording himself walking up and down the stairs, making these sounds.

C: I didn’t realize that. So it’s very site-specific.

N: It made me want to join in, like “WOHHHHHH,” but I held back. I probably should have just gone for it.

J: It’s kind of nice being in the Whitney and being as loud and laughy as you want to be. It seemed like there was a different kind of respect for everything, more celebratory.

N: Well at the last Biennial I was struck by this tension between works that were meant to be interactive, and works that weren’t, but looked like they were, and how much strain that puts on museum personnel. I had another moment like that in, I think the second floor, where there’s just a record player in the middle of the room with a sign on it that says, “To start, do this…” But the cover was on, so I looked over to the museum guard and said, “May I?” and he’s like, “No, no. Don’t touch.” Rather dissatisfying really.

J: Later people were fucking with it.

N: I’m always curious about that disconnect.

J: There was another moment, the artist that did the Pussy Riot mannequins.

N: Lisa Anne Auerbach…

J: Yeah, she had this giant book.

C: The Megazine

N: I loved that.

J: And she was there, fussing with things, and the security guard in the corner was watching her very intently, and she’s like, “I’m going to flip the page.” Thirty people in the room stand back as she flips the page very slowly.

C: Probably what I found to be the most visceral and abrasive installation in the show was…

N: Bjarne Melgaard [all laughing]

C: He took that cake, again.

J: It’s his cake.

C: That to me was really stepping into another person’s world.

N: Well, especially when the first thing you encounter is a giant dong, just hanging there.

J: They are all dongs. The entire installation is dongs.

N: I really loved those carpets though. I kind of want one. It gave the room a very interesting feel. Sort of cozy but abject at the same time.

C: Sexualized mannequins.

N: I think those are real sex dolls.

J: Also the projections of the cult members on the wall. David Koresh talking to one of the members. And then the reaction shots of the cult members with these vacant looks.

N: And then the mass wedding…

J: People listening with insane looks on their faces. It develops a really weird mirror between you viewing in the room with the screens making up the walls. And then, of course, the chimpanzees eating and having sex.

N: It reminds me of a George Costanza moment, where he’s in bed with his girlfriend and simultaneously leaning over and taking a bite of hoagie.

J: Classic moment. And what was behind [the chimpanzees] again?

N: Was it a gay porn?

C: Mmmhmm. Power porn. Abrasive stuff.

N: But I didn’t see any explicit moments; I just saw the banter, the forced acting…

C: There were explicit moments.

N: The dialogue was so banal, like, “We just called you over here because we heard you were a slut.” [all laughs]  

Picking back up on the topic of the presence of penises in the Whitney; I thought it was actually quite pronounced. There were a lot.

J: Plethora of Dong.

C: I can only think of two dongs.

N: There was the Gary Indiana…

C: There’s probably twelve in that piece alone.

Keith Mayerson, My Family, 2013, Oil on linen, 56 x 70 in.; Copyright Keith Mayerson / Courtesy the artist and Derek Eller Gallery, NY / Photographer Tom Powel Imaging

 

N: That painter, Keith Myerson, with the salon-style paintings that looked rather traditional, but then very prominently placed there in the middle was a guy in a tree with a unmistakably erect penis.

J: I thought it was a tree limb.

N: There were others, too. Also there were many works that were thinking about shifting sexual identities, most representative of course is the Zachary Drucker and Rhys Ernst project. There was a lot of art centered on queer subjectivity, especially in that room. Was that Anthony Elms’ [floor]? Or Stuart Comer? Those two floors blended together for me. I felt like Michelle Grabner was the most distinct.

J: I feel like Elms got pulled into the others; it wasn’t as distinct as the Comer and Grabner.

N: Anthony had Elijah Burgher. There were some dongs in there too.

J: Dong, dong, dong, dong, dong, dong.

J: I feel like his [Elms] references are a little older too, pulling in contemporary art from the last ten, twenty years. Just overall, the work seemed to represent a bit more background and lead-up than just the cutting edge.

C: I know one of the keystone works on his floor was actually not on his floor. Zoe Leonard’s camera obscura.

N: I loved that. I thought that was a really fitting tribute to the building.

J: Just titled with the address.

C: It was sleek, it was simple and it was always changing and site-specific. On a cloudy day you’re not going to see much in there.

J: There’s another over-optical reference too on Grabner’s floor, the photographer, what’s her name?

N: Sarah Charlesworth.

C: I didn’t know she died last year. That was a sad thing to learn today. Those were beautiful prints. Very simple, and I like how she referenced Alfred Stieglitz’s great magazine with her title, Camera Work. It was a sly way to bring up an archive without including another artifact.

J: It really feels like visuality and the study of the visual is embedded in the contemporary art canon now. The camera obscura was a surprise, a pleasant one.

There was a lack of critical race art aside from Pedro Velez’ work stashed in the basement by the elevators.

Dawoud Bey, Maxine Adams and Amelia Maxwell (from The Birmingham Project), 2012, Archival pigment prints mounted on dibond, 40 x 64 in.; Copyright Dawoud Bey / Courtesy of the artist

 

C: Dawoud Bey…

J: It was subtle though; the three diptychs from his Birmingham Project, they are layered, beautiful pieces, forcing collisions of identity through time and place.  Race was present, but you didn’t see an interrogation.

N: What do you think of the inclusion of Donelle Woolford?

J: It raises my ire.

N: I’m never sure what to think about that.

J: I think the idea is ill-conceived. He certainly took many steps to make it as verifiable as possible, and it’s a long-ass project, and three different actresses play the black female artist, Donelle Woolford.

And it’s a dick joke.

N: More dongs.

J: Is this work saying that this work is what a black female artist makes? Dick jokes? Is that the joke?

N: It’s hard too, because most people will pass by that and not know anything about it, if you don’t take the time to read the wall text through. Only at the end does it say, oh by the way, Donnelle Woolford is a fictional character created by Joe Scanlan! But that is the trouble in presenting an artist’s work in a Biennial. You only get a glimpse at their practice, and it’s more about how things play off of each other.

J: She was also paired next to David Robbins, an artist that specifically deals with humor. He had his nice cattywampus bookshelf with a few copies of his Concrete Comedy book on it.

C: It was right across from the really hilarious and cartoony Laura Owens painting.

J: I don’t think that was the right spot for Donelle Woolford.

N: Is she doing a performance too? Just like 2012, they say you can’t experience all of the Biennial unless you see all of the performances. [laughs]  We didn’t see “My Barbarian,” did we?

J: We have to check out Tony Tasset (400,000 Artists).

N: I’m curious about that.

C: Are they in alphabetical order?

N: They are in alphabetical order.

C: Or order of importance. [laughs]

J: And that goes back to lists.

N: That’s true.

C: One of the other interesting things Anthony said was that he wanted the work to say “hello” to the building. I liked that idea of communion with the building, especially since the Whitney is leaving the building this year. Zoe Leonard’s camera obscura was perhaps the most blatant.

N: And Charlemagne Palestine…

C: Yes.

J: And Radamés “Juni” Figueroa in the courtyard.

C: Sheila Hick’s piece with the colored threads that looked like they were being disgorged from the ceiling, that was a successful installation.

N: There was a lot of interesting textiles too. I thought there were a lot of ceramics. Because I never think of ceramics.

Sterling Ruby, Basin Theology/Butterfly Wreck, 2013, Ceramic, 28 1/8 x 39 3/8 x 41 inches 71.4 x 100 x 104.1 cm; Copyright Sterling Ruby / Photographer: Robert Wedemeyer.

 

C: There were some good Sterling Ruby ceramics.

J: It took me a minute, but then I was like, okay. Again with the abject, they were holding discarded, broken shards. They were refired, reglazed, over and over, melted together. One of those pieces where the process becomes the work. That might be the key to abject work, to appreciate it for more than its horrible physical appearance.

C: And there were three of them, so again with this repetition, listing idea.

N: What did you think was undeserving, or did you find something boring?

C: What did you think about that room of Tony Greene paintings? That took me by surprise.

J: That was very strange. It was like they had a prior installation in there, and they forgot it.

N: That one just took me back to the Forrest Bess mini show, artist curating artist thing, but I felt that this presentation felt like kind of a knockoff. I wasn’t sure it was adding to [the Biennial].

C: That piece was technically curated by Richard Hawkins and Catherine Opie. It seemed like a strange room to me.

J: The work was strange in the context of the Biennial too. It came from a decorative background. It definitely wasn’t as ostentatious as the rest of the work. I wonder if that’s a pretty reliable characteristic of the Biennial, a lot of audacious work.  A lot of work that shouts. I imagine subtle work doesn’t work well here.

C: You just miss it.

N: Yeah. I thought the most subtle work that I encountered was portraits by Paul P.

J: The blue watercolors. They were pretty but I don’t know why they were there.

N: Next to the Paul P works though, the Michel Auder voyeuristic video installation, I loved that piece. It came right after the Joseph Grigely collection of ephemera around Gregory Battcock, so I thought that was perfect, because you were first offered this glimpse into this man’s life, then you walk into another room and you’re looking into these windows at other peoples’ lives. I thought that was a really poetic arrangement.

C: That was good curating.

N: Last thoughts.

C: There were a lot of types of craft, which I think is very poignant. In our current reality where so much is virtual and everything seems digitized or ready to be digitized, the tangibility of these artifacts and archives and artworks seemed like it was a real concern.

N: The objectness.

C: Sure. [all laugh]

N: Over and Out.

 

Charlie Schultz, Natalie Hegert, Joel Kuennen

 

(Image on top: Zoe Leonard, Sketch for 945 Madison Avenue, 2014, IPhone photo, 3 x 4 in. (7.6 x 10.2 cm); Courtesy of the artist / Copyright Zoe Leonard.)

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Photography at the Whitney Biennial: Hidden in Plain Sight

Photo-spotting at the museum turns up photo-sculpture, photo-performance, and a view of Madison Avenue like you’ve never seen it

It’s been a long time since photography was considered a separate medium made by people who called themselves photographers—the medium has been thoroughly absorbed and blended with painting and sculpture, video and installation for several decades at least. But it can be fun to check in on photography in a show like the Whitney Biennial, which offers a broad look at rising trends and new directions in art. These seven artists from this year’s show, which spans three floors and was curated by three different people, prove that photography is hardly over—it’s just changed shape in one way or another, and lives on as a tool or a reference or a lens.

Stephen Berens
As a resident at the American Academy in Rome, Berens made multiple exposures of the same views of the city over the course of a summer, making pictures at different times of day for a project called 40 Views of Rome, 2005. For the series here, he combined the images into dark pictures where only slivers of ruins and silhouettes of the city’s ubiquitous stone pines are visible, making pictures as layered as Rome itself.

Stephen Berens  Top:August 4, 2005, Night, July 28, 2005, Night (Lightning), 2013, dye-based inkjet print. Bottom: August 4, 2005, Night, July 28, 2005, Night (Lightning), July 28, 2005, Night, August 7, 2005, Night, July 29, 2005, Middle of the Night, 2013, dye-based inkjet print. COLLECTION OF THE ARTIST. COURTESY THE ARTIST. ©STEPHEN BERENS.

Top: Stephen Berens, August 4, 2005, Night, July 28, 2005, Night (Lightning), 2013, dye-based inkjet print. Bottom: Stephen Berens, August 4, 2005, Night, July 28, 2005, Night (Lightning), July 28, 2005, Night, August 7, 2005, Night, July 29, 2005, Middle of the Night, 2013, dye-based inkjet print.

COLLECTION OF THE ARTIST. COURTESY THE ARTIST. ©STEPHEN BERENS.

Dawoud Bey
Bey’s portraits from “The Birmingham Project” and his picture of Barack Obama might be the most straightforward photographs in the Biennial. Clear and sober, Bey uses the camera to record the solid surfaces of his subjects, and to hint at what is solid beneath that surface.

Dawoud Bey, Barack Obama, 2008, pigmented inkjet print. COLLECTION OF THE ARTIST, COURTESY STEPHEN DAITER GALLERY, CHICAGO. ©DAWOUD BEY.

Dawoud Bey, Barack Obama, 2008, pigmented inkjet print.

COLLECTION OF THE ARTIST. COURTESY STEPHEN DAITER GALLERY, CHICAGO. ©DAWOUD BEY.

Sarah Charlesworth
Photography itself is the subject of Charlesworth’s inverted and reversed diptych of a view camera with its bellows extended. The negative and positive images mimic the effects of the lens and the negative, making a self-referential picture that questions the act of looking, a longtime concern for the artist, who passed away unexpectedly last year.

Sarah Charlesworth, Camera Work, 2009, two chromogenic prints, each mounted and laminated with lacquer frames.  THE ESTATE OF SARAH CHARLESWORTH. COURTESY THE ESTATE OF SARAH CHARLESWORTH AND MACCARONE, NEW YORK. ©THE ESTATE OF SARAH CHARLESWORTH.

Sarah Charlesworth, Camera Work, 2009, two chromogenic prints, each mounted and laminated with lacquer frames.

THE ESTATE OF SARAH CHARLESWORTH. COURTESY THE ESTATE OF SARAH CHARLESWORTH AND MACCARONE, NEW YORK. ©THE ESTATE OF SARAH CHARLESWORTH.

Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst
Two rows of color photographs make up Drucker and Ernst’s glamorous Relationship, 2008-13. In the top row, a figure with long bleached-blond hair poses in heels or in a dark apartment; below, a person with short dark hair lounges in bed or wades in the ocean. The series documents the couple’s gender transitions, artist Drucker from male to female and filmmaker Ernst from female to male, in images that, like gender, walk the line between documentary and performance.

Drucker_600

Installation view of Zackary Druckers and Rhys Ernst’s, Relationship, 2008-13.

COURTESY THE ARTISTS AND LUIS DE JESUS LOS ANGELES.

Miljohn Ruperto and Ulrik Heltoft
The whimsical shapes in these rich silver gelatin prints by these artist collaborators call to mind Karl Blossfeldt’s early botanical photos, but there is something unconvincing about them, despite being printed on lush fiber paper. Based on sketches and descriptions of unidentified plants from a mysterious 16th-century text, the Voynich Botanical Studies look like plants imagined by children—they have leaves like little hands and tiny pineapples for flowers but were made using 3D software.

Left: Miljohn Ruperto and Ulrik Heltoft, Voynich Botanical Studies, Specimen 06r Jaro, 2014, gelatin silver prints. Middle: Miljohn Ruperto and Ulrik Heltoft, Voynich Botanical Studies, Specimen 23r Podzim,, 2014, gelatin silver prints. Right: Miljohn Ruperto and Ulrik Heltoft, Voynich Botanical Studies, Specimen 20v Podzim, 2014, gelatin silver prints.  COLLECTION OF THE ARTISTS AND KOENIG & CLINTON, NEW YORK. COURTESY THE ARTISTS AND KOENIG & CLINTON, NEW YORK. PHOTOGRAPHY BY ULRIK HELTOLFT.

Left: Miljohn Ruperto and Ulrik Heltoft, Voynich Botanical Studies, Specimen 06r Jaro, 2014, gelatin silver prints. Middle: Miljohn Ruperto and Ulrik Heltoft, Voynich Botanical Studies, Specimen 23r Podzim, 2014, gelatin silver prints. Right: Miljohn Ruperto and Ulrik Heltoft, Voynich Botanical Studies, Specimen 20v Podzim, 2014, gelatin silver prints.

COLLECTION OF THE ARTISTS AND KOENIG & CLINTON, NEW YORK. COURTESY THE ARTISTS AND KOENIG & CLINTON, NEW YORK. PHOTOGRAPHY BY ULRIK HELTOLFT.

Carol Jackson
Jackson’s photo-sculpture hybrids are ornate, crust-covered shapes that are sliced open to reveal a glossy photo center. Pandemonium, 2013, is a complex shape with a skin of what looks like ash-colored mud. Where the form has been bisected, an image of burning trees is revealed, suggesting a hot core to the cool piece.

Carol Jackson, Youthful Beast, 2013, wood, papier-mâché, acrylic, and inkjet print. COLLECTION OF THE ARTIST. COURTESY THE ARTIST. PHOTOGRAPH BY CLARE BRITT.

Carol Jackson, Youthful Beast, 2013, wood, papier-mâché, acrylic, and inkjet print.

COLLECTION OF THE ARTIST. COURTESY THE ARTIST. PHOTO: CLARE BRITT.

Zoe Leonard
Leonard’s room-size camera obscura makes the case that photography is a relevant tool for looking at the Biennial. Through a palm-sized lens set in the building’s front window, Madison Avenue is projected upside down on the gallery walls, turning the museum itself into a camera.

Zoe Leonard, Sketch for 945 Madison Avenue, 2014. COURTESY THE ARTIST. ©ZOE LEONARD.

Zoe Leonard, 945 Madison Avenue (installation view), 2014, lens and darkened room.

COLLECTION OF THE ARTIST. COURTESY MURRAY GUY, NEW YORK AND GALERIE GISELA CAPITAIN, COLOGNE. PHOTO: BILL ORCUTT.

Copyright 2014, ARTnews LLC, 48 West 38th Street, New York, N.Y. 10018. All rights reserved.

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Insiders Are Not Outsiders: A 2014 Whitney Biennial Review

Posted: 03/07/2014 11:38 am EST Updated: 03/07/2014 8:59 pm EST

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Thirty years in the art world and I had never been to a Whitney Biennial. That was actually something worth bragging about and especially after having been to one I can unabashedly lament that I will never be able to say it again.

The Whitney Biennial carries immense weight in the art world. There is almost nothing in visual art that exists as a gauge, a standard, a benchmark or just a simple “this is more advanced than that.” No matter what artwork you are looking at, accomplished or ridiculous, there is always a nattering nabob who will remind you that any discussion of the work in terms of it being “good” or “bad” is taboo. One of the scant retorts available at all these days is to point out that the artist one is examining had been in a Whitney Biennial. To say “so what” to that is to risk a charge of philistinism. The fear of being asked, “Are you the biggest idiot ever?” is too great — nobody can dismiss inclusion in the Whitney Biennial as anything but an accomplishment. In the land of the jaded snob, extending one’s palm open near an artwork and saying “This artist was in the Whitney Biennial,” is as close as it gets to being a bearded wizard uttering “Behold!”

And yet trudging through a Biennial is a time-honored pulling back of the curtain hiding the Wizard of Oz. The art world respects the Whitney Biennial artists and the market-gain they receive from inclusion, but badmouthing each Biennial is as predictable a ritual as champagne on New Year’s Eve; nobody can resist using critical pontification to masquerade their envy over not being included or not having their allies represented in a Whitney Biennial.

The 2014 Whitney Biennial is a pile of unadulterated shit. There is supposed to be a celebration because a lot of Los Angeles artists have been included, and indeed the show is less New York-centric than ever before. But it is not a show that represents the Los Angeles art scene as much as it represents Los Angeles art school insiders (art schools in Los Angeles ARE the establishment, the bubble that protects what status quo there even is connecting L.A. to the internationalist “big art” conformity machine). But that is no surprise — the Biennial is the ultimate art world insider exhibit. It is just that this exhibit sees so many insiders pretending to be outsiders. The language of outsider art is present in about half of the artworks (the other 50 percent are my two least favorite branches of conceptualism: dry conceptualism and conceptualism masquerading as rotten formalism). One could call it an outsider art show except that it is the ultimate insiders navigating the art world ladder of success with outsider visual strategies.

OUTSIDER BULLSHIT

The trick to being an “insider outsider” is to make it look more obvious than a thrift store. There is macrame, knit sweaters, bric-a-brac chandeliers, sloppy ceramic and lots of wood scattered about the Whitney Biennial. There is an insidiousness lurking in the simpleton charm of this work. “Oh hey that looks funky…” is what the impulse thought of a viewer is when one encounters this work, but sadly, IT’S A TRAP! Most of this work has a tsk-tsk tongue-clicking pretension to being about something other than it is — you see, if the work were about interesting-looking art that incorporated an outsider aesthetic (or heaven forbid were made by an actual art outsider), then it would be accessible and engaging — something that is not taken kindly in the cold art world climate of rarifying the shit out of every human experience into academic-objective “re-presentations” of phenomena. So this is never outsider-informed art; it is outsider-embellished stances, analyses and deconstructions. The Mike Kelley impulse to soul-killingly crush any joy out of the visual language of the non-elites was the most insidious twist to the worship of irony in the late 20th century. It stands victorious (and resiliently unattacked) as the mainstream default approach to art-making practiced by the insiders atop the shit heap called contemporary art at 15 years and counting into the 21st century.

And speaking of Mike Kelley, the Laura Owens painting in this exhibit is so derivative of Mike that it reveals a new level of curatorial naiveté that has to be singled out. Owens is long out of ideas so you cannot shame the washed-up, but a curator’s first job is to spot a cheat. Just nasty.

CONDESCENDING CONCEPTUALISM

The stark message about conceptual art in the 2014 Whitney Biennial is that the anything goes as long as it has an art history referent. Every time you turn around there is some terrible speck of nothing teetering on a curatorial insistence that it is art and justifying it by having some tepid construct about other art, artists, art criticism, art history or another construct unnamed by the academy as of yet but definitely involving the word art. The great Semiotext series is given a vast gallery for its archives and the curatorial impulse is to make its legacy as unappealing as a library trashcan — a feeble attempt at “artifying” the installation with silver wallpaper on one wall is a cowardly curatorial act of “Warholizing” an institution with no allegiance to something as presently mainstream as “The Factory.” Even when they dumb it down, the Biennial makes sure to do it obtusely — the silver wall of Semiotext pages is not half the embarrassment as is the including of David Foster Wallace journals as “artworks” by the late author — most of them are exhibited closed or open to indecipherable pages, totally uninteresting after the connection with the author. Celebrity stands in here as a substitute for curatorial rigor, hiding behind the glamor of their names and nothing else.

A BLOODLESS MAINSTREAM

Amidst the hubbub there are plenty of forgettable paintings, installations, videos that would be elevated if they were simply relegated to YouTube and too much sculpture that vacillates between appearing to be a mainstream object performing an art function or an art object performing a functional function. The aesthetic of the day is either proto-minimalism with some clever twist to make it commentary or outsider integrity as an alias for downright sloppiness. And of course, no major art exhibit these days is incomplete with out the myriad twaddle taking place “outside the institution’s walls”. The Whitney brochure for the show was chock full of detritus that will be screening on inconvenient dates and times, almost as a reflex to ensure the Biennial can never really be experienced completely, and thus, can never be ripped apart in its entirety. Well fuck it, I cannot wait. This is a gargantuan turd that, if the art world need to be re-plumbed in its entirety to flush, so be it, call the goddamned plumber immediately or just give up, set the whole institutional art world on fire and at least we can get some nice marshmallows out of the deal.

DEATH AS CAREER STRATEGY

There were four artworks in the show that made me think. Artworks that stayed with me… that made me take to google for all of 20 minutes to ponder.

All four of these artworks had death, in one form or another, as their central theme. Some were weirdly, perhaps unintentionally, poetic but the curators made sure to kill as much of that potential as possible. The four pieces were:

•The “art group” Public Collectors present a synopses of Malachi Ritscher, a musician and music-compiler who took his own life via self-immolation in Chicago in 2006 to protest the U.S. war in Iraq.

•The late Gretchen Bender had a 1988 artwork “People In Pain” completely refabricated as an artwork by Phillip Vanderhyden. The original artwork, exhibited in the 1989 museum show “A Forest of Signs” had totally disintegrated.

•Joseph Grigely discovered a caché of personal effects from art critic Gregory Battock, hidden in a studio space for decades. Battock was murdered, stabbed to death on Christmas Day in 1980 while vacationing in Puerto Rico in a crime that was never solved. Battock had an interesting life and a career in the art world that intersected with many art world luminaries.

•A “sub-curated” gallery presented a few paintings by the late Tony Greene. Richard Hawkins and Catherine Opie had been classmates of the artist in the early 1990s at graduate school. Greene passed away from AIDS complications years ago.

Each of these has an unavoidably serious topic as the pretext for the art installation. Grigley and Public Collectors have scraps from their subjects arranged in vitrines. Whether by curatorial choice or necessity, the overall effect here is about as far from maudlin and sentimental as one gets when the subject is the dearly departed. Perhaps there are among us those who would like to be remembered through unsentimental museum wall text, but both of these subjects were screaming for a documentary film or even a coffee table book to better tell the story, to acquaint us, to celebrate a random human life with whom we might connect. Nope, the Whitney made sure to freeze dry all the passion and let didactic assumptions reign free.

The Bender/Vanderhyden artwork was more complex. In her curatorial walk-thru on March 7, curator Michelle Grabner explained that the Whitney was resistant to crediting Vanderhyden; the institution houses its own restoration department and they never get credited as being artists. Grabner apparently fought the good fight and in doing so she has sent the message loud and clear to aspiring artists: be the foot-servants of those who showed in the museums a quarter century ago to cut in line on your way up the carer ladder. And on top of that, Bender’s “People In Pain” is a snide, elitist thumping of popular culture and one of the ugliest large works of art ever executed.

The paintings of Tony Greene, also almost a quarter-century old, were included by curator Stuart Comer. On his March 7 curators walk-thru he poignantly expressed that a generation of artists died and that their voices would never be heard and that it was important to include one from then who, absent that terrible plague, would conceivably be making art and engaged in the art community alongside all of the Biennial participants today. The amount of space devoted here is generous and the delicate paintings show a range, discipline and sensitivity way beyond almost any other artist in the entire show. The second greatest tragedy of Tony Greene’s passing after his death itself is that had he lived he would certainly be omitted from a Biennial (and an art world) that privileges the smarmy over the poetic, the academic over the delicate and critical distance over beauty.

So those are the choices — die or sell-out. Whether you’re a painter or whether you’re a sculptor, if you’re staying alive with an earnestness, buddy you’re nowhere by the look of the 2014 Whitney Biennial.

Follow Mat Gleason on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CoagulaMagazine

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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.

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.

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

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Continue reading the main story Slide Show

View slide show|11 Photos

2014 Whitney Biennial

2014 Whitney Biennial

Credit Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

For its 2014 Biennial, the last before taking the plunge downtown, the Whitney went a little wild with the recipe. It picked three curators from outside the museum and outside New York. (One just recently arrived.) It gave each of them free rein on a floor in the museum’s Breuer building to work solo, with no cross talk required, though, of course, there was some, and some space sharing, too.

The result is a large, three-tiered cake of a show, mostly vanilla, but laced with threads of darker, sharper flavor, and with a lot of frosting on top.

For a long time, almost any biennial concoction the Whitney came up with was critically squashed. That tradition seems to have ended with the 2002 show, when the attacks were so ferocious that a lot of people began to back off.

And the shape of the art world was starting to change. It was growing hugely bigger. There was just more of everything: more artists, more galleries, more things. Postmodern pluralism, which for two decades had made conservatives crazy, was turning out to be their best friend. It diluted political thinking and encouraged easy-on-the-eye luxe. Much of this year’s Biennial fits without resistance into the city’s concurrent art fair week. That’s the way things are.

Within this anodyne context, the show’s organizers — Stuart Comer, chief curator of media and performance art at the Museum of Modern Art; Anthony Elms, an artist and associate curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia; and Michelle Grabner, also an artist and professor of painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — have made some interesting choices, pulled in some new faces and shaped three quite different shows.

If you want to go straight for frosting, head to Ms. Grabner’s installation on the fourth floor, which has by far the most artists — about half the show’s total count of just over 100 — along with the biggest objects and the brightest colors. In an interview, Ms. Grabner said forthrightly that she did not take her primary mission to be the tracking down of young talent. She mostly chose artists in mid- or mid-late career, many of them women. Good idea.

Several are painters — Louise Fishman, Jacqueline Humphries, Dona Nelson, Amy Sillman, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung — who work in variations on gestural abstraction. Their work is hung together in one gallery, which may not have been the best move. In the enclosed space, so many energy-generating pictures short-circuit one another a bit.

Still, it’s an impressive display of formal chops, though I come to it with a handicap. I find Abstract Expressionism, a historical style referenced here, overrated and pretentious, a bore. Why would anyone want to bother with it, except maybe to do some constructive damage, which is the option that Ms. Nelson and Ms. Zuckerman-Hartung, in interestingly unalike ways, seem to take: Ms. Zuckerman-Hartung slices up the canvas (or, in her case, a dropcloth); Ms. Nelson messes up the surface with applications of ratty-looking, driplike skeins of paint-soaked cheesecloth.

In general, Modernism — recycled, retooled, whatever — hangs like a mist over the fourth floor, particularly over ceramics that might as easily date from 70 years ago as from today. So it’s tonic to encounter an inky storm cloud of a vinyl-and-neon wall piece called “People in Pain,” made in 1988 by Gretchen Bender (1951-2004) and restored (“remade” is the term on the wall label) by Philip Vanderhyden this year.

A cheerful Pop sign sculpture by Ken Lum embedded with references to the Vietnam War is half obscured by overcrowding. But three smallish paintings by the Chicagoan Philip Hanson, quoting Blake and Dickinson, are lovingly displayed. They’re directly across from a case of handwritten notes made by the novelist David Foster Wallace for a book left unfinished at the time of his 2008 suicide.

Their presence seems to come out of nowhere, but it’s smart, a wake-up injection of not-art (or maybe-art) into an installation heavy with art with a capital A. Dawoud Bey’s studio portrait of Barack Obama placed, with perfectly inscrutable intent, right up front serves a similar purpose.

Painting and language are also basic ingredients of Mr. Comer’s smaller, sparer third-floor show. And right off the bat, he introduces us to a virtuoso of both: the Lebanese-American writer and painter Etel Adnan, now 89, whose accordion-fold notebooks, dating to the 1960s, combine diarylike accounts of violence and near-abstract poetry with horizontally extendable watercolor landscapes.

Mr. Comer also gives us a chance to revisit the California artist Channa Horwitz (1932-2013), who made a memorable impression at the recent Venice Biennale with ultrarefined geometric drawings that suggest stitch work and genetic coding, and functioned as a form of dance or performance notation.

A lot of what Mr. Comer’s installation is about is the phenomenon of mixing, how everyone’s doing everything. Morgan Fisher makes film, paintings and sculptures that are also architecture. Kevin Beasley’s sculptures are products of his performance. The irrepressible Jacolby Satterwhite combines vogueing, martial arts and contemporary dance in video animations in which he is the main performer.

Within Mr. Comer’s installation, as in the Biennial as a whole, artists are curators. At his invitation, the painter Richard Hawkins and the photographer Catherine Opie have organized a mini-retrospective of paintings-on-photographs by an art school classmate, Tony Greene, who died of AIDS in 1990 at 35. Tributes to the dead — there are several in this Biennial, including, by default, one to Terry Adkins, who died just weeks ago — have a ripple effect: Most of Greene’s lavish, petite paintings are, in essence, valentines and prayers sent out to friends disappeared.

They are also, of course, inherently political statements, and in a Biennial damningly mum about politics, it is bracing to find work that isn’t. Photographs of, and by, Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, a transgender couple, put queer consciousness on the front burner, and work by the California photographer Fred Lonidier stands as a beacon of dedicated activism. Starting in the 1970s, Mr. Lonidier documented the lives of immigrant laborers on both sides of the United States/Mexican border. Rather than exhibit his pictures in galleries, he showed them in shopping malls, union halls and tractor-trailers. He got in trouble, got censored, but kept keeping on. God bless him.

The bottommost layer of the biennial cake, Mr. Elms’s installation on the second floor, is the thinnest in numbers and, at first bite, the least sweet. But it has some of the work I liked best. A piece at the entrance by Jimmie Durham — Native American by descent, in self-exile from the United States since 1987 — was a good omen. His abstract but roughly humanoid sculpture called “Choose Any Three” is made of stacked wood chips inscribed with names: Vanzetti, E. Zapata; Crazy Horse; Ho Chi Minh, Cristóbal Colón, Johnny Colón, Kay Starr, Malcolm X, etc. Mix and match and create your own political meaning for the piece.

This is also sort of the general method underlying Mr. Elms’s show, which reveals itself slowly. You spot an LP playing on a turntable, but there’s no sound. You listen closer, and maybe there is: a kind of audible vacuum, moving air. The recording was made on Sept. 11 and 12, 2001, by Matt Hanner, a member of the collective Academy Records. He lived under a flight path near a Chicago airport. When planes were grounded after the news of the Sept. 11 attacks, he taped the extraordinary silence.

An installation by Public Collectors, a Chicago group founded by Marc Fischer in 2007, is also about preserving sounds: hundreds of live experimental music performances taped over many years by Malachi Ritscher, a Chicago jazz fanatic and political activist who publicly immolated himself in 2006 as a protest against the war in Iraq. Thanks to Public Collectors, which functions as a custodian of cultural materials that no one, including museums, wants, Ritscher’s life’s work survives, including the briefcases in which he carried equipment, which are here.

The Biennial contribution from Joseph Grigely is a similar act of salvage. Some 20 years ago, in an abandoned factory in Jersey City, he found a cache of manuscripts and photographs that had once belonged to Gregory Battcock, the art critic and artist. Battcock, a ubiquitous and influential figure in the New York art world during the 1960s and ’70s, was murdered in Puerto Rico in 1980. After years of research, Mr. Grigely has pieced together an archive of this complex and personable writer’s life. The selection in the show is riveting.

And the archive isn’t all reading; there are plenty of visuals, as there are throughout Mr. Elms’s low-fat exhibition. You have to return to the fourth floor, to a space he borrowed from Ms. Grabner, to see Zoe Leonard’s crepuscular camera obscura view of the street outside the Whitney.

But back down on 2, he’s offering a dreamboat of a video called “The Beautiful One Has Come,” by Dave McKenzie; a suite of tiny collage-poems by Susan Howe; Elijah Burgher’s colored pencil drawing of three nude males, posed in front of Antonio del Pollaiuolo’s 15th-century treatment of the same theme; and a handful of pocket-size notebooks with cartoonlike watercolors by the Conceptualist Allan Sekula.

The notebooks were a surprise to me, and they are certainly of interest. But their inclusion points to a major flaw in this biennial. Sekula, who died last year, was one of the most incisive, persistent and underrated political artists America produced after World War II. For some four decades, through texts and photographs, he critically documented the everyday realities of American classism and economic inequality. He worked within the art world: He was a revered teacher but stayed clear of its fads and foolishness. His major life’s work is fundamentally un-art-fair art.

But his notebook drawings have relatively little to do with his major work, and everything to do, at least in the distorting context of this show, with the present market taste for cash-and-carry neatness, craftsiness-as-quality and political content as a kind of sweet-and-sour flavor enhancer. Despite some good work assembled for this Biennial by three bright curators, I left feeling pretty much the way I do when I leave an art fair, full but empty, tired of dessert, hungry for a sustained and sustaining meal.

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NEW YORK MAGAZINE

  • 3/5/2014 at 9:00 AM

Seeing Out Loud: There’s a Smart Show Struggling to Get Out of This Big, Bland Whitney Biennial

Sterling Ruby’s ceramic sculptures are the best thing in the show.

If you want to get the most out of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, start on the fourth floor and spend most of your time there. This portion of the exhibition — there are three, each with its own curator — was organized by the Chicago artist-gallerist Michelle Grabner, and includes the show’s visual and material high point: a central gallery crammed with colorful painting, sculpture, and handmade objects as well as ceramics and textiles. It’s wildly overfilled, radiating heat and energy. The prehistoric-like wrecked giant ceramic ashtray-objects of Sterling Ruby are maybe my favorite objects in the show; I love the chaotically woven two-sided paintings of Dona Nelson, the glimmering chain-metal beaded-curtain adorned with antique tools by Joel Otterson, the material-poetry of the collaboration between Amy Sillman and Pam Lins. There are more than a few duds, and the usual buddy-buddy inclusions of friends and former students — everyone does that, not just Grabner — but if you wander through the rest of this floor, you’ll find other artists well worth looking at.

And, apart from scattered pockets in the rest of the show, it’s the last blast of visual and material juice that you’ll get in this optically starved, aesthetically buttoned-up, pedantic biennial.

Much of the rest of the show is a nebulous tasting-menu mess that exudes an inert elegiac air. I kept hearing myself think, I see dead art: Work that looks and behaves like it is supposed to look and behave but that doesn’t make us see differently, that doesn’t rethink form, reimage structure, or explore material, color, or new orders. You’ll spend way too much time here reading long wall labels that explain what the work is supposed to be about. Never mind that Oscar Wilde said something like, “The moment that you think you know a work of art, it is dead to you.” This reading-to-see is an extension of our highly educated class of artists and curators, an urge to ape the look of art, play by the rules, and be accepted by institutions. The result is a generic, noncommittal, straitlaced show.

There’s something else. About 40 percent of the individual artists in this show are older or deceased. The average age of the artists in Grabner’s salon-gallery is around 55. On the second floor (organized by Anthony Elms), the average age is around 50. Now, let me stipulate that newness, nowness, and nextness have nothing to do with age, or with the age at which an artist emerges. I wouldn’t have a job if the art world weren’t intensely cross-generational and layered. (An artist can catch fire for the first time at age 90.) Yet such emphasis on older practitioners makes this biennial come off as a dodge, as if the curators were scared of making a wrong call. Or they haven’t spent enough time in the trenches (as opposed to flying around the world participating in symposiums with like-minded curators), and have lost touch with what might be going on beyond what they already know. Right off the second-floor elevator entrance is a sculpture by Jimmie Durham, who was born in 1940. It was made in 1989! I’ve been told that it is the last work he exhibited in New York before he decamped to Europe. I like Durham’s work enough but there’s no reason he should be taking up this biennial slot — let alone with this work. Ditto the lovely notebooks by the late filmmaker Allan Sekula.

Careful correctness abounds. Hot young artists and market favorites and spectacles have been shunned. The show is peppered with collectives and collaborations. It isn’t New York–centric, and it loves artists who’ve been in other biennials or who’ve already had museum surveys. Success is okay as long as it’s not too financial or big. Rudolf Stingel created a mind-blowing installation in Venice last summer, but he’d never be included in a show like this. Nor would more unpredictable excellent younger talents like Andra Ursuta, Josh Kline, or Lucy Dodd. The show cries out for one of William Powhida’s gigantic art-world-Babylon murals, maybe downstairs in the restaurant. The curators are so determined to stay pure, to avoid acknowledging the machinations of commerce, that the show is completely disconnected from the entire world.

Stuart Comer, who curates media and performance art at MoMA, opens his third-floor show with Dash Manley’s trailer-scale walk-in wood and metal frame with large prints or something inside. Nearby is a large ridiculous video of the artist reenacting some scene from an early American film. The work is here because it checks all the boxes: It takes up a lot of space, is momentarily engaging, has video, references film, and comes with elaborate explanatory wall text. Whole Lower East Side galleries could fit in the space this washout takes up. Nearby is a very large gallery devoted to Semiotext(e), the publishers who introduced French poststructuralist theory to the U.S. I’ll just say that I saw ten artists in galleries last month who would’ve been better and more relevant. Grrrrrr. Sigh.

The curators are also infatuated with the current institutional tic of display-mania: artists who act as curators, anthropologists, and archivists, mining eccentric informational territories. I adore this sort of idiosyncratic  exploration. Yet so much of that art begins with fabulous raw information and then does barely anything to transform it. Here, Valerie Snobeck and Catherine Sullivan have “appropriated” the extraordinary collection of anthropologist George M. Foster, who in the 1960s gathered and annotated airline menus. Magical material! You just want to look at it! And then Snobeck and Sullivan turn it into a dead display of suitcases and prints supposedly about “disseminating subversive information” and how “immutable social systems might be re-engineered.” Ben Kinmont falls just as flat by asking museum visitors to send him a note with the time and date of a conversation they have at home. He will then make annotated records of the time and date of the first 100 notes. Absolutely by-the-book bland informational-conceptualism. These artists are unwilling or incapable of presenting information whole to yield its inherent power, or they fuss it up, turning everything into artsy little displays.

Though not everything. There’s a very good small show trapped in the body of this very big, bad Biennial. Exemplary in this regard, Zoe Leonard has turned one of the largest single galleries in the museum into a beautiful empty camera obscura, using the Whitney’s distinctive prismatic window as a lens. Here we see the world projected upside-down into the darkened space; traffic runs on the ceiling; building façades reach to the floor. In this reverberating quiet, one of the Whitney’s final uses of its unusual architecture before it moves downtown, we see the place where the real meets the power of the abstract.

*This article appears in the March 10, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

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This Is Not a Survey: An Incomplete Review of the Whitney Biennial

06/03/14 5:30 PM EST
This Is Not a Survey: An Incomplete Review of the Whitney Biennial
Guests entering the Whitney Biennial 2014 press preview

(Courtesy Ben Gabbe/Getty Images)

The wall text for the 2014 edition of the Whitney Biennial opens with a defensive admonition: “The field of contemporary art is far too vast for one exhibition to encompass,” it reads, disclaiming the idea that the the biennial is actually a comprehensive survey of current practice, as most people seem to think it is. In that same spirit, let’s admit that the Whitney Biennial itself is far too vast for one so-called review to encompass—lest it become nothing more than a list of names and dates, an archive of the stuff that’s been crammed into and across three floors, a courtyard, and a lobby gallery.

This biennial is the brainchild of three curators, from three different places—Anthony Elms (Philadelphia, and formerly Chicago), Stuart Comer (New York by way of London), and Michelle Grabner (Chicago and Wisconsin)—and the floors have roughly been divvied up among them, with a few exceptions. One might expect this to give the Biennial a schizophrenic character, but it more or less holds together, with some nice call-outs and resonances from floor to floor.

Let’s start with the weird backbone of the exhibition, and the reason why you should avoid the elevator in favor of the stairs: A 12-channel sound installation by Charlemagne Palestine, emitting from a series of speakers that have been decorated, a la Mike Kelley, with an array of abject stuffed bears and elephants and strands of bedraggled scarves. The piece (which was recorded by the artist in the museum space itself) is a mantra of unease, a bed of haunted synth-like sounds humming and dying and punctuated with the occasional affected human voice. Palestine’s inclusion here (he was Elms’s choice) colors much of what you see on other floors. It’s not mood music, per se, since this Biennial’s flavor isn’t exactly Nightmarish Doom, but it does have an outsized influence on the way you experience the show.

For instance: Head up to the fourth floor, Michelle Grabner‘s domain, where the introductory wall text is paired with a straightforward, albeit intense, portrait of Barack Obama taken by Dawoud Bey. The Commander-in-Chief’s gaze is complicated by the fact that, while you’re looking at him, you’re also awash in the stairwell’s audio, and that droning miasma of sound suddenly makes Barack look like the sort of hard-assed Machievelli who could, well, order a fleet of drones to hit a country we’re not technically at war with.

But let’s start back downstairs, or at least try to make some necessarily reductive, broad-stroke characterizations about what this biennial means and how it reflects the temperaments of its respective curators. What do they care about, and why does it matter? Elms is a bibliophile, a lover of the archival and collectable, and all of that is clear from the second floor—which, and we can argue about this, is probably the smartest one here. I’d venture that everything on this level, including the sculptures and paintings, has to do with language in various forms: language that communicates, or fails to; language that is bent or broken or impotent.

The link is sometimes obvious, as in Susan Howe‘s Tom Tit Tot, 22 letterpress prints that take found writing and twist it into concrete poetics. These prints, arrayed in a vitrine, share a room with Elijah Burgher‘s excellent colored pencil drawings incorporating written spells (sigils) and a hanging acrylic-on-fabric piece that also reads like imaginary hieroglyphics. Even Charline von Heyl‘s grid of 36 drawings—incorporating appropriated images of Russian and Polish folk art, spray paint, graphite, and other media—takes on the appearance of a typographical chart, itemizing letters from a distant past or an unknown future. And  the Carol Jackson sculptures spread throughout the space—some on pedestals, some hanging from the walls—are like graffiti forms pouncing into three dimensions: a bit cheesy in a Frank-Stella-in-the-’80s way, but boldly confident in their alien funkiness.

Other rooms in this floor-covering expansion of Elms’s brain feature archives a bit like masoleums, extolling the underappreciated dead. One corner nook organized by the collective Public Collectors is dedicated to Malachi Ritscher, a Chicago audiophile known for obsessively recording live concerts, jazz and otherwise, and also for protesting the Iraq War until  2006, when he committed suicide by lighting himself on fire in a very public place while carrying an anti-war placard. I didn’t know any of this; did you know any of this? Part of the point is that you probably didn’t, and that an American man can self-immolate without becoming any sort of folk hero. But here he is in the Whitney Museum, his posters and suitcases and recording devices and Butthole Surfers’ set lists arrayed like holy objects, which is certainly a beautiful homage, but also a bit sad.

In an adjacent room, Joseph Grigely presents a dissection of the life of a deceased painter-cum-critic, The Gregory Battcock Archive. It brings together printed matter, photographs, postcards, and other materials in vitrines, as well as some posters on the wall. There’s an art review from the New York Free Press, circa 1969, the prose all bebop beatnik bounce. On the wall there’s an actual abstract painting—supposedly the only remaining work by Battcock—that is pretty bad in its generic mushiness. Is this the archive as homage, celebration, or simple oddity?

Stuart Comer’s third floor is the most self-consciously hip in this biennial, and the one most interested in tapping into new media. There’s a room-sized installation by Bjarne Melgaard—now best known for making a chair sculpture that Dasha Zhukova pissed everyone off by sitting on—featuring female mannequins, digitally-printed penis pillows, and videos of animals. (It’s colorful and energetic but somehow flat and subdued, like a Ryan Trecartin environment that’s had all the kinetic life sucked out of it.) There’s a piece by Ken Okiishi: five Samsung televisions playing generic programs, turned on their side, their screens daubed with oil paint. A Fred Lonidier work—a 1976 piece that could have been made yesterday—is a wall hung with t-shirts, their fronts custom-printed with images and news announcements related to the GAF Corporation. (The shirts get larger as it goes, from child-size to a Men’s Large, perhaps a nod to the way in which we grow up with companies, our lives colonized by their narratives.)

And an entire room is given over to ephemera from the publishing house semiotext(e)—including a fancy, silvery wallpaper that collages images, posters, announcements, and the like. Several semiotext(e) titles are propped on little shelves, as if we’re in a highbrow gift shop. (Semiotext(e) is trending right now! Fun fact: Head over to Zach Feuer right now and you can see sculptures by Brad Troemel that vacuum-seal the imprint’s monochromatically-covered mini-volumes into color field arrangements augmented by faux-dredlocks.)

Elsewhere on the floor Comer’s focus becomes a bit more diffuse. There’s a whole area that seems weirdly nostalgic for the mid-’80s—David Wojnarowicz, Martin Wong, a book by Martin Beck focused on the playlist for a party held in 1984. Which is fine, the Biennial isn’t a survey of our contemporary moment, and these throwbacks are paired with work by Danh Vo and others, but: Why? Meanwhile, Zachary Drucker and Rhys Ernst‘s photographic series Relationship, 2008-13, is one of the biennial’s true stand-outs—it tracks the pair’s criss-crossing gender transformations (male to female, female to male), and is beautifully composed, funny (some Sarah Lucas-y humor, wherein eggs stand for balls and bratwursts become penises), and unabashadedly sweet and sentimental. The only misstep is in hanging the series in the same room as A.L. Steiner‘s playfully subversive documentary images, which are close enough in style and attitude that the nearby hanging creates a sort of ghetto of photographic queerness.

Comer does include a fair amount of painting as well. Keith Mayerson‘s dozens of canvases, hung chockablock, are notable for having absolutely no defining signature style whatsoever. There are paintings of shipwrecks; of Elvis; of Tin Tin; of Times Square; of James Dean hanging out in a tree, masturbating. Individually, they’re not much; together, they’re a statement about taste (bad and good) and an obsessive work ethic.

Up to the fourth floor, which is helmed by Michelle Grabner, who touts her mission as being about “curriculum building.” That reeks of school, but Grabner’s true M.O. is to focus craft: ceramics, textile, and enough color to stun an elephant. The focus here is more on things: Ricky Swallow‘s patinated bronze sculptures, which resemble delicate little folded-cardboard constructions; Sheila Hicks‘s drooping masses of rainbow materials; Sterling Ruby‘s Lucio Fontana-aping ceramics, like oversized horrorshow ashtrays. Everything is pretty bright and immediate and there’s a mini-focus on women abstract painters: Amy Sillman, Jacqueline Humphreys, Laura Owens, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Suzanne McClelland (plus Rebecca Morris downstairs). Philip Hanson‘s paintings turn quotations from William Blake or Emily Dickinson into hippy spirals that are pretty unbearable, but they’re notable as a reminder of Elijah Burgher’s New Age vibe on the second floor, minus whatever ironic distance that younger practitioner might have. As a curator, Grabner wants to grab you by the shoulders and say: Handmade still matters—like Karl Haendel‘s intricate, realistic graphite drawings, hung in a very Baldessarian arrangement, or Shio Kusaka‘s stoneware and porcelain vessels, decorated with tear patterns or dinosaurs.

What does the 2014 Whitney Biennial mean? Who knows, really. If we had the time or inclination we could offer some conjectures about the ever-expanding field of painting (Dashiell Manley, Dona Nelson); Americans’ obsessions with early-20th century European experimental theater (Shana LutkerMy Barbarian); self-portraiture recast as space-age camp (Jacolby Satterwhite); video-as-voyeurism (Michel Auder filming people through apartment windows, Dave McKenzie filming an unaware Henry Kissinger); or the ironic importation of the tropics into bone-cold New York City (Radames “Juni” Figueroa‘s cozy, heated hut out in the Whitney’s courtyard).

But trying to draw too many cross-connections in an exhibition of 103 artists seems just plain silly, and arbitrary. So why not end in an arbitrary place? If there’s one weird object in the entire biennial to dwell on, perhaps it can be a notebook in a vitrine of effects from David Foster Wallace, who hung himself in 2008. Its cover features two blue-eyed kittens rolling around on a bed of roses, beneath the heading Cuddly Cuties. Heartbreaking in its simplicity and aura of posthumous awfulness, it’s a fitting place to stop—before you descend that staircase of dread and rejoin the wider world.

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HYPERALLERGIC

Museums

Whitney Biennial 2014: Where Have All the Politics Gone?

Lisa Anne Auerbach, "American Megazine #2" (2014), inkjet prints and staples, twenty pages (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Lisa Anne Auerbach, “American Megazine #2″ (2014), inkjet prints and staples, 24 pages (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

The 2014 Whitney Biennial has many things: oversized ceramics, big abstract and figurative paintings, experimental jazz, videos of people having sex, and bead curtains. What it doesn’t have all that much of is politics. For the most part, the art in this year’s biennial faces inward, reflecting on itself and sometimes the larger world in safe and comfortable ways. You won’t be too put out, turned off, or riled up. You’ll probably just have a good time.

Charlemagne Palestine's 12-channel sound installation "hauntteddd!! n huntteddd!! n daunttlesss!! n shuntteddd!!" (2014) fills the Whitney's stairwell. (click to enlarge)

Charlemagne Palestine’s 12-channel sound installation “hauntteddd!! n huntteddd!! n daunttlesss!! n shuntteddd!!” (2014) fills the Whitney’s stairwell. (click to enlarge)

There is some excellent work in the show. Sterling Ruby’s large, ritualistic ceramic bowls are fabulous. Zoe Leonard’s room-size camera obscura is delightful. Sculptors Alma Allen and Carol Jackson offer brain-bending formal innovations, and I felt as though I could have sat and listened to Charlemagne Palestine’s droning, mesmerizing staircase sound installation for an hour. Paintings by an under-appreciated Chicago Imagist (Philip Hanson), a sound piece made from field recordings of Chicago on September 11 and 12, 2001, when air travel was suspended (Academy Records/Matt Hanner), a gigantic magazine with text culled entirely from psychic consultations (Lisa Anne Auerbach) — there’s plenty to like. But that’s just the issue: the biennial is overly neat and likeable, scarcely messy or funny or challenging.

Carol Jackson, "Pandemonium" (2013), wood, acrylic, papier mâché, and inkjet print

Carol Jackson, “Pandemonium” (2013), wood, acrylic, papier mâché, and inkjet print

Is that a disastrous thing? No. Is it a shortcoming? Absolutely. All art need not be political, but a show that disregards politics in the United States in 2014 is a delusion — not simply because of the state of the country and the world, but also because of the state of art itself. Social practice is experiencing a moment of profound attention and criticality. Artists of color are being included more than ever in the mainstream, yet often still in a segregated way, which many of them question. Within the art world itself, certain practitioners have taken up residence at the border between institutional acceptance and an outsider stance, carving out space for satire and critique. By and large, none of that is in the 2014 Whitney Biennial.

I’m inclined to think that this omission stems at least in part from the exhibition’s lack of diversity. It’s telling that one of the strongest, most openly political showings comes from Dawoud Bey, whose two diptychs were curated by Michelle Grabner on the fourth floor. (Bey’s photograph of President Obama also hangs, lonely, at the entrance to the floor.) Bey recently spent seven years visiting Birmingham, Alabama, where, in 1963, white supremacists bombed an African-American church, killing four girls, and shot two African-American boys to death. His research led to The Birmingham Project, a series of black-and-white photo diptychs that pair portraits of African-American youths the same ages as the victims with those of African-American adults the ages the victims would have been in 2012. The gazes of the subjects are both inviting and unsettling.

Dawoud Bey's prints from "The Birmingham Project" (2012) hanging behind Peter Schuyff's carved pencils

Dawoud Bey’s prints from “The Birmingham Project” (2012) hanging behind Peter Schuyff’s carved pencils

Probably the only other artist as explicitly political as Bey is Fred Lonidier, an artist and longtime union activist who focuses on labor issues in his work. Lonidier’s contribution, curated by Stuart Comer on the third floor, consists of a 1976 piece called “GAF Snapshirts” — T-shirts obtained by the artist from a manufacturer called GAF and then custom printed with notes and images from his research into the company — and a 2003 work titled “‘NAFTA…’ Returns to Tijuana/‘TLC…’ Regresa a Tijuana,” two photos relating to a project that Lonidier undertook exploring the conditions at a light assembly plant in Tijuana, Mexico. The works (especially the T-shirts) are eye-catching, but even with their accompanying wall text seem to suffer from a lack of context.

Fred Lonidier, "GAF Snapshirts” (1976) (photo by Hrag Vartanian)

Fred Lonidier, “GAF Snapshirts” (1976), 32 photo- and text-printed T-shirts (photo by Hrag Vartanian)

Also on Comer’s floor is the much-discussed 2012 documentary film Leviathan, made by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University. Shot on tiny waterproof cameras, some attached to nets and people, others thrown into the sea, the 87-minute-long film explores industrial fishing in an unprecedented way, through dark, disorienting images and almost entirely without words. Although its origins at the Harvard lab explicitly position the work as “ethnographic,” critics have pointed out its almost de facto politics. At the Whitney, plunging underwater with Leviathan feels like bursting through the museum’s walls to let in the world outside.

Ken Lum, "Midway Shopping Plaza" (2014), powder-coated aluminum and enameled plexiglass (click to enlarge)

Ken Lum, “Midway Shopping Plaza” (2014), powder-coated aluminum and enameled plexiglass (click to enlarge)

Other artists in the show come to politics, as many of us do, by way of identity. Ken Lum’s towering “Midway Shopping Plaza” (2014, fourth floor/Grabner) is a witty amalgam of tacky signs for Vietnamese-owned shops, except all of the names relate to the Vietnam War. Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst’s Relationship series (2008–13, third floor/Comer) consists of photographs of the two transgender artists in the process of transitioning in opposite directions, a fascinating subject, although the pictures are a bit generic. A.L. Steiner (also third floor/Comer) exhibits her film “More Real Than Reality Itself” (2014) within an all-over installation of photos, “Cost-benefit analysis” (2014), both of which attempt to use the artist’s body and autobiography as a starting point for mining questions of radicalness and activism. It’s one of the few pieces in the biennial that pulls you in with a seductive complexity.

AL Steiner, "Cost-benefit analysis" (2014), pigmented inkjet prints, photocopies, and paint; "More Real Than Reality Itself" (2014), multichannel video installation, color, sound, 54 min

A.L. Steiner, “Cost-benefit analysis” (2014), pigmented inkjet prints, photocopies, and paint; “More Real Than Reality Itself” (2014), multichannel video installation, color, sound, 54 min

Part of the problem of politically minded art in a setting like the Whitney Biennial is that its surroundings are unfavorable. In a show of such scale, viewers often gravitate to larger, flashier works and don’t have the energy or time to do the reading required to understand projects such as Lonidiers’. (Why linger on wall text when you could walk fewer than 10 feet to the Bjarne Melgaard room, which the artist has tricked out with plush, trippy furniture and oversexed female mannequins?) In this biennial, too, a fair amount of the political work is from the past, making it feel less relevant to the present day. (Catherine Opie and Richard Hawkins have curated a room of appealingly strange paintings by Tony Greene, who died of complications from AIDS in 1990 and whom Hawkins calls “the first one out of all of us making work specifically about HIV.”) On top of that, some of the older work is presented in a pristine archival format, which makes it seem even more sealed-off and distant. (A room by Public Collectors on the Anthony Elms-curated second floor presents the archive of Malachi Ritscher, a Chicago experimental jazz enthusiast and activist. It contains mostly music recordings and memorabilia arrayed neatly in glass cases, above which one well-composed photograph of Ritscher protesting hangs on the wall.)

Public Collectors' Malachi Ritscher archive

Public Collectors’ Malachi Ritscher archive

There is much more to come in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, as the performances, videos, and other time-based works are unveiled. Who knows what political ideas may yet unfold. But right now the exhibition’s three floors offer a kind of cozy art cocoon — a sentiment not nearly as distanced from the art fairs as some observers would like to think.

The 2014 Whitney Biennial opens to the public on Friday, March 7, and continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 25.

HUFFINGTON POST

Your Guide To The Artists Of The 2014 Whitney Biennial

Posted: 03/06/2014 8:43 am EST Updated: 03/06/2014 8:59 am EST

The 77th Whitney Biennial opens Friday, transforming the Madison Avenue museum into a dizzying and somewhat overwhelming sketch of the contemporary art world, as well as a prediction of its future. This year’s crop of 103 participants features artists and collectives ranging from age 28 to 89, hailing from everywhere from Kingston, Jamaica to Berlin, Germany.

Offering everything from sound installations to arts and crafts, this year’s Biennial promises to be “one of the broadest and most diverse takes on art in the United States that the Whitney has offered in many years,” according to chief curator Donna De Salvo. This year’s art fest is divided into three separate floors, each designated by a different curator — MoMA’s Stuart Comer, ICA Philadelphia curator Anthony Elms, and Chicago-based artist and professor Michelle Grabner. While each curator brings a different perspective to the mix, all are focused on including artistic perspectives not grounded in New York.

How are you ever going to navigate 103 of the most exciting artists of today (and tomorrow)? We’ve picked out ten artist’s we’re particularly excited for to give you a taste of what’s out there. For the other 93, you’ll have to make your way to the Whitney. Behold, 10 Whitney Biennial artists we can’t wait to see.

1. Pedro Vélez.Born 1973 in Bayamón, Puerto Rico. Lives and works in Chicago, IL, and Milwaukee, WI.

white

White Privilege in Art CriticismWhat was the first artwork you remember really shaking you up?
Apocalypse Now. Watched with my dad when I was a kid and it fucked me up.

Briefly describe your work at this year’s Biennial.
Handmade posters and banners about white privilege in art criticism and American (USA!) society in general.
2. Victoria Fu. Born 1978 in Santa Monica, CA. Lives and works in San Diego, CA, and Los Angeles, CA.

belle

Belle CaptiveWhat was the first artwork you remember really shaking you up?
Pamela M. Lee took our “Feminist Legacies in Contemporary Art” class to a space that is now CCA Wattis Center. It was all very new to me, and when I encountered Adrian Piper’s “Cornered,” a video monitor pinned by an overturned table, it was like her video image could see right through me. Piper, looking directly at the camera, was addressing me — a feeling both alienating and intimate — collapsing her present with mine. I obviously haven’t soon forgotten the power of her words, her gaze, her moment.

Briefly describe your work at this year’s Biennial.
My roots lie in narrative cinema, and I feel very much wedged between the experimental analog films that were heavy influences on me as a student, and more recently the rabbit hole we have all fallen through — namely, the internet, virtuality and the digital touchscreen. At its very base, my work is an expression of these elements, combining both original 16mm film and appropriated, lo-res clips from the internet. I’ll be installing a moving image installation in the Lobby Gallery in early May. The multi-projection piece from the Belle Captive series plays with our actual space, cinematic projected space and computer screen space.
3. Louise Fishman. Born 1939 in Philadelphia, PA. Lives and works in New York, NY.

fishman

Crossing the RubiconWhat was the first artwork you remember really shaking you up?
On a personal level, a painting by my paternal aunt, Razel Kapustin, of starving children. I was nine or 10 years old at the time. Secondly, paintings in the Philadelphia Museum and at the Barnes Foundation by Chaim Soutine.

Briefly describe your work at this year’s Biennial.
There are two of my paintings in the Whitney Biennial: “Crossing the Rubicon” and “Ristretto.” Both were inspired by residencies in Venice, courtesy of the Emily Harvey Foundation in 2011 and in 2013. The paintings reflect the transformative power of water, light, and the formidable Titians, Tintorettos, Veroneses, etc., as well as the exquisite Murano glass of the early to mid-20th century.

Who else’s work are you most excited for at the Biennial?
Without question, the paintings of Dona Nelson.
4. A.L. Steiner. Born 1967 in Miami, FL. Lives and works in Los Angeles, CA.

rachel

More Real Than Reality Itself, 2014, digital videoBriefly describe your work at this year’s Biennial.
Documentary realness.

What is your biggest distraction from working?
Clocks.
5&6. Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst. Drucker: Born 1983 in Syracuse, NY. Ernst: Born 1982 in Pomona, CA. Live and work in Los Angeles, CA.

drucker

Relationship, #____What was the first artwork you remember really shaking you up?
ZD: Arian Piper’s Cornered – one of my all-time favorites.
RE: Superstar by Todd Haynes

Briefly describe your work at this year’s Biennial.
ZD & RE: “Relationship” is a photographic series we created that documents our five plus years together. It’s 46 images on view on the 3rd floor and the work shows our evolution as people, as a couple, and throughout our gender transitions. “She Gone Rogue” is a 22-minute fantastical narrative film starring Flawless Sabrina, Holly Woodlawn and Vaginal Davis. It will play in the lobby gallery from March 26 to April 13.

Flawless Sabrina will be doing tarot readings at her apartment across the street from the museum as an auxiliary event connected to the Biennial and also to “She Gone Rogue.” Additionally, we are staging a live TV Talk show in the museum lower lobby on April 4 for the public programming portion of the Biennial.
7. Alma Allen. Born 1970 in Heber City, UT. Lives and works in Joshua Tree, CA

alma

What was the first artwork you remember really shaking you up?
The Clyfford Still paintings at SFMOMA.

What is your biggest distraction from working?
My best distraction from working is my daughter Frieda.
8. Lisa Anne Auerbach. Born 1967 in Ann Arbor, MI. Lives and works in Los Angeles, CA.

anne

Let the Dream Write ItselfWhat was the first artwork you remember really shaking you up?
The majesty of King Tut’s first visit to the U.S. in 1977, followed soon after by Steve Martin’s song abut the ancient ruler demonstrated that humor could be both a celebration and a critique. As a child, I was also quite mystified by John McCracken’s red plank at the Art Institute of Chicago and delighted by the grotesqueness of Ivan Albright.

Briefly describe your work at this year’s Biennial.
A large knitted banner, three knitted outfits, and Issue #2 of an oversized zine called American Megazine.

What is your biggest distraction from working?
Distraction is part of work.

Who else’s work are you most excited for at the Biennial?
Keith Mayerson. We’ve known one another for 25 years and we’re both thrilled to be showing in the same room together.
9. Keith Mayerson. Born 1966 in Cincinnati, OH. Lives and works in New York, NY.

abraham

Abraham LincolnWhat was the first artwork you remember really shaking you up?
When I was first out of college and living in New York in the early ’90s I saw one of the first Mike Kelley shows with the stuffed animals on the blankets, and it was a revelation, a post post modernism. Duchamp-like-readymades, but with warmth, narrative, and emotion, that addressed their context within art history, but also left room for transcendence and the ineffable. After seeing the show I wanted, in the hubris of my youth, to start an art movement called NeoIntegrity, and went to grad school in Southern California to be an artist.

Briefly describe your work at this year’s Biennial.
“My American Dream” is a salon-style installation of 42 paintings created primarily over the last 10 years (although a few others from the beginning decade of my career also slipped in), that is an open-ended, non-linear narrative of my own life with my husband and family, embedded in a comic-like arrangement of images from cultural and political histories of civil rights and personal agency that helped make our country great and gave me inspiration.

What is your biggest distraction from working?
I love teaching, but perhaps this isn’t a distraction as much as its an extension of my own work as an artist — art is about teaching, and in the still rarefied world of fine art, its incredibly edifying to help others help themselves in finding their voice in their work, hopefully also bringing their work to the world to make it a better place.

Who else’s work are you most excited for at the Biennial?
Lisa Anne Auerbach, who serendipitously is my Biennial roommate, is an old friend — she was going out with my best friend Dan Knapp, and we all worked in his mother’s house in Colorado on our art together to go to grad school in Southern California, and although we went to different schools, would all hang out together in LA in the early ’90s, and its an incredible wonder that we are now sharing the same room. Her work and sensibility is fantastic, and we are fellow travelers in our art in many respects.
10. Miguel Gutierrez. Born 1971 in Flushing, NY. Lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.

whit

Photo by Eric McNattWhat was the first artwork you remember really shaking you up?
It was probably seeing “West Side Story” on television. Or maybe it was seeing the nearly naked dancers at the Folies Bergere in Paris when I was 12. I can’t remember.

Briefly describe your work at this year’s Biennial.
“Age & Beauty Part 1: Mid-Career Artist/Suicide Note or &:-/” is a duet for dancer Mickey Mahar and myself. It’s the first of a three part series of queer pieces looking at artist burnout, mid career artist status dramas, how to queer the present and the future, and the labor of dancing.

What is your biggest distraction from working?
Answering emails like these. Endless insecurity. Facebook. Porn.

The Whitney Biennial runs from March 7 until May 25, 2014 at the Whitney Museum in New York.

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GALLERISTNY

On View

The 2014 Whitney Biennial Disappoints, With Misfires, Omissions, Only Glimmers of Greatness

'Threshold' (2013) by Walsh. (Photo by Steven Probert, courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery)

‘Threshold’ (2013) by Walsh. (Photo by Steven Probert, courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery)

From the moment that the Whitney Museum revealed that the 2014 biennial would have three curators, each organizing a show on a separate floor, I’ve been worrying. The decision sounded like an abdication of responsibility, a downgrading of the museum’s trademark show, and a recipe for a colossal disaster.

I was wrong. This year’s biennial is not a disaster, but neither is it anything close to a success. It is deeply dissatisfying—a wunderkammer-like, all-over-the-place show that offers some remarkable pleasures and far too many enervating frustrations. It pulls you in not three, but dozens of different directions, plenty of which are dead ends. The quality of the art is dramatically uneven, the tone uncertain. Some work agilely somersaults forward. Too much is frighteningly adrift. There are baffling omissions.

The thrill of the biennial has always been its attempt to capture the moment, presenting the public a view on art today. This three-part approach amounts to a dodge, an attempt to please too many constituencies that will instead please no one. With 103 participants—twice the number in 2012’s excellent, poetic edition, which was organized by Jay Sanders and Elisabeth Sussman, Whitney curators who advised this year’s triumvirate—the overstuffed biennial is back, shortchanging artists.

'Maxine Adams and Amelia Maxwell (from The Birmingham Project)' (2012) by Bey. (Courtesy the artist)

‘Maxine Adams and Amelia Maxwell (from The Birmingham Project)’ (2012) by Bey. (Courtesy the artist)

In a sense, though, it feels like an honest description of today’s art world, which is deeply riven, between money and the museum, pop culture and the underground, and marked by competing visions. The biennial captures—or is perhaps just caught up in—this fraught, tense moment, but is unable to make anything fruitful out of it.

You sense that tension from the moment you enter the show and hear Sergei Tcherepnin’s clever sound piece, made with transducers attached to the lights in the lobby of the Breuer building. It crackles and clicks and squeals—discomfiting noise made by the creaks and vibrations of the institution itself.

Climb the stairwell and you find speaker after speaker letting out harsh, buzzy drones, occasionally interrupted by frightful chanting. It’s the work of experimental music doyen Charlemagne Palestine, who spent time in the stairwell recording it (his customary glass of cognac in hand, a placard notes), evoking the artistic ghosts who haunt it, and the backdrop of history against which artists must now act.

Keep climbing. I recommend, while your eyes are still fresh, starting on the action-packed fourth floor, which belongs to the painter and professor Michelle Grabner, who is based in Chicago, runs alternative spaces in Oak Park, Ill., and Little Wolf, Wisc., and is responsible for about half the show’s participants. It’s a barnburner of an expressionist painting display, rich with women artists, and an inclusive, rollicking celebration of craft.

'Untitled' (2013) by Allen. (Courtesy the artist)

‘Untitled’ (2013) by Allen. (Courtesy the artist)

It’s mayhem up there!  Thick streams of fabric in pungent colors spill down from the ceiling, the work of artist Sheila Hicks, who is 80 this year, not far from three large, brash ceramic urns, oozing with lava, by Sterling Ruby. The excellent New Yorker Dona Nelson has two large paintings that she’s dyed wildly and stitched with rambling string. They jut from the wall, so you can savor both sides of them. They dazzle, as do two precise geometric abstractions by Dan Walsh.

Ms. Grabner comes dangerously close to overcrowding her show. These works are breathing, but barely. With 36 artists on the floor (more are elsewhere), there’s only room for a single, superb painting by Laura Owens, an Angeleno who is easily one of today’s most exciting painters, making magic out of a spliced cartoon, grids and marks, which she subtly tangles Photoshop-style on her canvases. With two or three more (at least), you could get a sense of her range (ditto for the strong, sparkling Jacqueline Humphries), but instead they have to share the floor with a bevy of weak abstractions, by Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Suzanne McClelland and Tony Lewis.

Potentially daring moments always feel close at hand, if only they could have been fleshed out. There are a few beautiful portraits that address the legacy of racial violence by Dawoud Bey (plus, speaking of tension, one of President Obama), two elegant works by the late, great Pictures Generation artist Sarah Charlesworth, a lone Gretchen Bender (lovingly remade by Phillip Vanderhyden). The stop-motion animation of an two men playing a form of proto-tennis, by Joshua Mosley, is a gem, but it’s only three minutes long. Again and again you will yearn for more.

Those who regularly mourn the lack of ravishment in biennials will at least be heartened by Ms. Grabner’s celebration of the hard-won and handmade, in a long shelf of some 70 humble ceramics by Shio Kusaka that ooze dedication, plus Ken Price-worthy walnut and marble forms by Alma Allen and slow-burn ceramics from veteran John Mason.

'Five Senses for One Death' (1969) by Adnan. (Photo by Chris Austen, courtesy the artist and Callicoon Fine Arts)

‘Five Senses for One Death’ (1969) by Adnan. (Photo by Chris Austen, courtesy the artist and Callicoon Fine Arts)

The visual punch decreases with each floor, reaching a kind of steady state on floor three, in the hands of Stuart Comer, a former Tate curator who recently became head of performance and media art at the Museum of Modern Art. He delivers the strongest section, with 23 artists, gamely mixing media and championing multi-taskers, beginning with a decisive palate cleanser in the form of 89-year-old Lebanese-born polymath Etel Adnan, whose ingenious scrolls (admixtures of painting and text) and spare canvases of the view from her Bay Area window set the tone, radiating a warmth that is intimate and personal.

Secrets are being shared on floor three; bodies are morphing, writhing and posing. Keith Mayerson has hung, salon-style, a sublime and idiosyncratic vision of Americana, with Abraham Lincoln, Superman, James Dean (masturbating in a tree) and more. Jacolby Satterwhite, who is among the youngest artists here, has a bewitching video in which he hurtles in costume through interstellar space, time and identities. Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst document, in heartrending photos, their sex changes, male to female and female to male. Bjarne Melgaard steals the show with a madcap, hellish lounge-lair filled with lugubrious sofas, absurd projections, vacuums, sex dolls, penis dolls and a holographic monitor of monkeys mating. It all apparently has to do with our overheating, out-of-control age—the anthropocene—and it does not suggest things are going to turn out so well.

'Transit,' video still from 'Reifying Desire 6' (2014) by Satterwhite. (Courtesy Monya Rowe Gallery and Mallorca Landings Gallery)

‘Transit,’ video still from ‘Reifying Desire 6′ (2014) by Satterwhite. (Courtesy OHWOW, Los Angeles, and Mallorca Landings Gallery)

Mr. Melgaard is one of the few real New York stars here. Even if biennials are no longer as much about who’s in and who’s out in any given year, it’s shocking that not one artist from the exciting, fast-emerging gangs who have been featured in recent shows at MoMA PS1—and even the 2013 Lyon Biennale—is here.

Bland conceptual-architectural works, the bane of curatorial-intensive biennials, put a drag on things in Mr. Comer’s section, particularly from Morgan Fisher and Yve Laris Cohen, who parrot institutional critiques that we’ve heard about for decades. Meanwhile, bland paintings by Dashiell Manley, which are displayed in an inconceivably large faux storage space, figure in an equally bland stop-motion video (it’s time to kill off the painting-as-prop trope).

Thankfully, these whiffs are balanced out by Mr. Comer’s thoughtful, elegiac attention to history. He has intricate geometric drawings by the late Channa Horwitz, open-ended scores for other mediums, and gives a room to Richard Hawkins and Catherine Opie to organize a show of the deliriously camp but seriously refined paintings of Tony Greene, who died in of AIDS in 1990, and another to curator Julie Ault, who features works and ephemera from her friends and collaborators, like the late Martin Wong and Matt Wolf, who recalls in an audio slide show how, as a teen in the 1990s, he typed “gay” and “art” into a search engine, and discovered David Wojnarowciz, another AIDS casualty, who was a redoubtable artist and activist. What more can we hope for from artists? (Not to mention our search engines?)

'Folk Tales' (2013) by von Heyl. (Photo by Jason Mandella, courtesy the artist and Petzel)

‘Folk Tales’ (2013) by von Heyl. (Photo by Jason Mandella, courtesy the artist and Petzel)

Anthony Elms, a curator at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, is asking something like that on the second floor, where visual delectation plummets almost to zero, saved only by two exuberant paintings by Rebecca Morris. (Even Charline von Heyl, typically a showstopper, delivers underwhelming black-and-white collages.)

A mournful tone prevails. There are stretches of white wall, empty spaces on the floor. Poet Susan Howe’s texts, lining one vitrine, are bare fragments, wasting away. Joseph Grigely includes archival materials from the late, murdered art critic Gregory Battock—iconoclastic articles and accounts of his sexual escapades (the remarkable backstory is worth reading in the biennial’s treasure-filled, if overstuffed, catalogue, to which—full disclosure—I contributed an interview). Marc Fischer, who runs a Chicago group called Public Collectors, stages a miniature memorial to Chicagoan Malachi Ritscher with iPods stocked with experimental music concerts that Ritscher taped in the Windy City from the 1980s until his 2006 death by self-immolation, protesting the Iraq War.

There are some fine moments—Michel Auder’s hypnotic, noir-filled video room (nighttime cityscapes, peeks through windows), Paul P.’s handsome desk and quiet drawings, truly odd, alluring sculptures by Carol Jackson and works by the late Terry Adkins, rods lined with cymbals that map the structure of birdcalls, all the while recalling medieval devices for violence—but they’re undercut by dry or slight works by Dave McKenzie, Gary Indiana and Allan Sekula.

Mr. Elms has vital ideas to share, like his positing an expansive definition of the artist that embraces anyone whose activities (collecting, archiving, cruising) take on aesthetic and ethical import through their care and devotion, but I kept wishing I could just read about it in a book.

'Untitled (#01-13)' (2013) by Morris. (Photo by Lee Thompson, courtesy the artist Galerie Barbara Weiss)

‘Untitled (#01-13)’ (2013) by Morris. (Photo by Lee Thompson, courtesy the artist Galerie Barbara Weiss)

More of the biennial will be unveiled in the coming weeks, with what looks like a potentially strong (and commendably manageable) video and performance program, including dance from Taisha Paggett, music from Pauline Oliveros and a new opera from the severely under-rated Robert Ashley, who passed away just days ago.

In the meantime, you can head downtown to find a monumental sculpture by Tony Tasset (part of Ms. Grabner’s section) along the Hudson on West 17th Street. It’s tiled with colored panels, engraved with almost 400,000 alphabetized names of artists from the 20th and 21st centuries. Mr. Tasset has discussed it as a way of removing hierarchy, of celebrating everyone equally. That’s of course diametrically opposed to the idea of a biennial, and so I was pretty much expecting to hate it, as a smug, self-satisfied display of overwrought conceptualism. And yet, searching through it, hunting for the names of artists who have meant a great deal to me, I found it to be a moving exercise, my eyes coasting across thousands of unknown artists and coming across other favorites along the way. It offered some consolation—a reminder that over time artists get sifted out of obscurity, that history gets reimagined. This year’s biennial may be a disappointment, but thousands of artists are hard at work, waiting in the wings. The 2016 biennial is not so far away.

(Through May 25, 2014)

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THE NEW REPUBLIC

ART MARCH 6, 2014

Whitney Biennial: The Most Narcissistic of all New York Art World Events

Does anybody actually remember the Whitney Biennial of two or ten or twenty years ago? I doubt many museumgoers remember any of them very clearly, if indeed they remember them at all. You don’t have to take my word for this. In the catalogue of the 2012 Biennial no less an authority than the Whitney’s very own director, Adam D. Weinberg, observes that “memories are relatively short.” So before I even walk into the 2014 Biennial, which is opening to the public this weekend, I thought I would try and refresh my memory about Biennials past, by pulling out of a closet the thirty years worth of Biennial catalogues that I have salted away.

Collection of the artist. Copyright Stephen Lacy
Academy Records’s still from The Bower, 2011-13.

The first thing to be said about the Biennial, which began in 1932, is how astonishing it is that after all these years people still care. Year after year, the critics and sundry cognoscenti conclude that the show is a mess of one kind or another. One year it seems to be a better sort of mess, another year worse, but there is something about the nature of the mess that keeps people coming. As Weinberg observes in the 2012 catalogue, there is a fascination in watching each new set of curators “wipe the slate clean” and “do something that contrasts with the previous one. It’s amazing that even in a short, two-year period, people want to put the prior one behind.” That remark brings us to the enduring electricity of these exhausting events. At least in the last thirty years, it’s become the out-with-the-old-and-in-with-the-new show, which sometimes involves recycling the old things as new things; after all, how much in the world is ever really new? The Biennial is the most purely narcissistic of all New York art world events, an orgy of navel-gazing that can leave a bad feeling—a sense of unease, if not disgust.  

There’s a but-enough-about-me-let’s-talk-about-me slant to a great many of the Whitney catalogues. “How can the Whitney Biennial remain relevant?” the curators asked in 2006. And in 2010, the curators explained that “if the curators of the 1993 Biennial were called to curate the 2006 Biennial, they would have shaped a completely different exhibition than the one they curated thirteen years before.” Jump to the 1993 Biennial and you find David A. Ross, the director of the museum at the time, announcing that the museum is “depart[ing] slightly from the organizing principles that have guided these exhibitions in the past two decades.” Four years later, Lisa Phillips, a Whitney curator, is announcing that the museum is “breaking with precedent,” while the Biennial after that is accompanied by a declaration that the six curators from across the country who have been assigned to organize the show will bring “fresh thinking … to a time-honored but ever-contentious exercise.”  So is it any wonder that when you open the catalogue of the 2014 Biennial you find that “the museum has taken this process of experimentation a step further?” A step, by the way, that sounds an awful lot like steps taken at one time or another in the past, “with two in-house curators acting in the role of advisors and three external curators asked to organize the exhibition.” The Biennial has been reorganized so many times that it’s a miracle it hasn’t been reorganized out of existence.

Although they nearly always contain work of some consequence, the overwhelming impression is of anxiety and hysteria.

The Whitney Biennials are restless, unwieldy, banal, belligerent, sporadically engaging, and at times just plain batty. Although they nearly always contain work of some consequence, the overwhelming impression is of anxiety and hysteria, a show that no matter how much it reaches beyond Manhattan tends to reflect the very worst of New York, the city’s vanity and one-upmanship and frenzied zeitgeist readings. It’s a show that demands a reaction, that demands to be new every time. The fever begins with the catalogues themselves, which for at least the past thirty years have been engineered for obsessive distinctiveness. No two are the same size or shape or color, and hardly any one of them can be said to be well designed. 2006 is thick and chunky, “designed and bound so that it can be pulled apart to create ninety-nine posters designed by the Biennial artists.” 2004, big and square and bound in grey velour, is accompanied by a box full of bumper stickers, decals, and assorted pamphlets and goodies by the artists in the show. 2002 sports a bright red CD on its cover, which suggests a high-tech bellybutton.

Courtesy of the artist and Petzel, New York. Photo by Jason Mandella
Charline von Heyl’s Folk Tales, 2013. Acrylic, ink, wax, and charcoal and collage on paper.

Back in 1995, when Klaus Kertess organized the Biennial, he titled his introductory essay “Postcards from Babel,” and that will do very nicely as a title for any Biennial of the past twenty years. Kertess, a man of refined sensibilities, thought to include an old-timer, the Abstract Expressionist painter Milton Resnick, in a lineup that emphasized recent stars such as Matthew Barney, Stan Douglas, Carroll Dunham, and Cindy Sherman. Something-old-something-new is a reliable Biennial trope, with this year’s sentimental favorite probably being the eighty-year-old fabric artist Sheila Hicks, whose finest work is very fine indeed. Kertess hoped that there was some kind of mysterious metaphoric language—a language that emphasized “visual plasticity, ambiguity, and multivalence”—that might knit together the Babel of the Biennial. But my exceedingly vague memories of Kertess’s Biennial—refreshed with a look at “War Stories,” an essay I wrote at the time and included in my book Eyewitness—suggests that finally Kertess didn’t do much better than any other curator before or since. I will, though, take Kertess’s hipster aestheticism in 1995 over the emphasis on “the geopolitical, the psychosocial, and the body’s politic” of the 1993 Biennial.

Courtesy of the artist
Alma Allen’s Untitled, 2013. Marble sculpture on an oak pedestal.

As for the 2014 Biennial, isn’t it a fact that everybody is approaching the show with the expectation that it’s going to be Babel all over again? Perhaps a somewhat different brand of Babel, but Babel nevertheless. Because this is the last Biennial to be held in the Whitney building designed by Marcel Breuer on Madison Avenue—the museum moves to new quarters in the Meatpacking District in 2015—there may even be more narcissism and navel-gazing than in some Biennials past. The self-reflexiveness begins with the mottled textures on the cover of the 2014 catalogue. I had no idea that there was some particular significance to these patterns, until I read the catalogue introduction by curators Stuart Comer, Anthony Elms, and Michelle Grabner, in which the patterns are said to “come from rubbings of the surfaces of the Breuer building.” This building, much maligned as an upside-down ziggurat when it first opened in 1966, is now regarded by some as an idiosyncratic architectural masterstroke. The “rubbings” from the building’s uneven surfaces (I am quoting the curators) become “a motif meant to ground the reader of the wide-ranging content in the physical facts of the exhibition experience”—a motif that appears not only on the cover but on decorative pages within the catalogue.

Anybody who has followed the Whitney’s furious battle to remodel or reconfigure or entirely reject the Breuer building will be amused by this sudden burst of sentiment. The building is being treated as if it were an old gravestone in a New England cemetery—an object of veneration. The Whitney gang hasn’t even left Madison Avenue and they’re repackaging the building for nostalgia value. That’s certainly in line with the Biennial mentality, which holds that only when you are safely speeding into the future can you afford to look back. As for the curators who are in charge this year, they’re stuck in exactly the same place as every Biennial curator has been for the past thirty years, excited to be “rethink[ing] how American art is understood, articulated, and debated.” One of these eons, the curators might try thinking instead of rethinking.

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GOTHAMIST

An Opinionated Guide To The 2014 Whitney Biennial

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Matt Hammer’s Tomorrow is Still Above You (Marc Yearsley / Gothamist)

Didn’t Gothamist already post about this?
Yes, we did, in fact! The excellent preview by Ben Miller would be a strong introduction if you stopped reading now. But you already clicked and the money is in the bank, so read on for a fuller picture of the show.

Fine. What is the Whitney Biennial?
The Whitney Biennial is a once-every-two-years (“biennial”) exhibition presented by the Whitney Museum of American Art (“Whitney”) of mostly new and emerging contemporary American artists. The Whitney has been putting on large group exhibitions for nearly 100 years, but the biennial format only began in 1973. It is first and foremost an exercise in curation, and this year the Whitney invited outside curators to put together the show, culminating in its distinct format and (sometimes) unique results.

Is it fascist?
Well, that depends on how you feel about museums. (At the Frick they force you to WEAR your overcoat if you decide not to check it!) But seriously, though the Biennial is mostly uncontroversial in a larger, more general sense, it is routinely the target of familiar and valid criticisms from within and without the art world. As recently as 2012 a parody Biennial website mocked the exhibition’s corporate ties.

The most notable (and sustained) criticisms were made by the Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous feminist art collective formed in 1985 in New York City, active through the late 1990s, and still working today, who in 1987 protested the Biennial to draw attention to the dearth of female and minority artists in the showcase. “The Guerrilla Girls Review The Whitney” was held at the non-profit Clocktower gallery, where the group denounced the systemic disenfranchisement of women in the history of the Biennial up until that point (for the seven exhibitions from 1973-1987, the number of women of color in the Biennial was a “statistically insignificant 0.3%”). In 1987, women were a mere 27% of artists in the Biennial.

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Guerrilla Girls Poster via guerrillagirls.com

2014’s Biennial is still not immune to these criticisms: by one early estimate, roughly 30% are women and 7% are black. Is it a coincidence that this year’s only female curator assembled the most diverse collection? Should I disclose that I am a white male now or later?

So? What’s the big deal?
However you slice it, it’s just one of the biggest art-world events in one of the biggest centers of the art-world in one of the most famous museums in one of the biggest cities in the United States. The Whitney Biennial exists, and you most certainly will be hearing about it.

This year’s Biennial is taking on a slightly different format: three curators from outside the Whitney were invited to organize their own show on one of the museum’s three main floors. Anthony Elms, Stuart Comer, and Michelle Grabner took over the second, third, and fourth floors respectively. Elms is an associate curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia (read a nice Q&A with him here), Comer is the Media and Performance Art Curator at the MoMa, and Grabner is an artist and professor at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Let’s get to it, then!
There is a lot to get through: 103 artists and groups make up the 3.5-ish floor exhibition, so this will mostly highlight the pieces I liked the most and try to provide a sense of the three distinct floors. Am I qualified to do so? No, but neither are art historians, because art history is saturated with hired bullshit.

The Second Floor
Each level opens with a curator’s statement summarizing their approach to their exhibition floor. Elm’s guiding question for the second floor was the same one Marcel Breuer posed to himself when designing the Whitney—”What should a museum look like, a museum in Manhattan?”

Walking out of the elevators your are confronted with your first piece, Jimmy Durham’s Choose Any Three, a wooden totem with names of famous persons in groups of three, made during his time in Cuernavaca, Mexico. He has been living and working all over Europe since the mid-90s, and his presence foreshadows one of the floors more interesting themes: Patriotism. What is an ex-pat American artist’s relationship to American contemporary art? Is he even American? Does it matter? (Yes.)

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Jimmy Durham’s Choose Any Three (Marc Yearsley / Gothamist)

High points elsewhere on the second floor: intermittent screenings of last year’s stellar film Computer Chess by Andrew Bujalski, shot entirely on some ancient Sony AVC 3260 VHS cameras…

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Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess (Marc Yearsley / Gothamist)

…Paul P.’s beautiful abstract portraiture…

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Paul P., Untitled (Marc Yearsley / Gothamist)

…and Gary Indiana’s LED curtain installation, looping footage shot inside the now-closed Presido Modelo prison in Cuba modeled after Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon design. Next to the curtain is an artist’s statement set on top of still photographs of mostly naked young men.

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Gary Indiana’s LED Curtain (Marc Yearsley / Gothamist)

The second floor is rounded out with two curated personal collections, one of art critic Gregory Battock, who was stabbed to death in Puerto Rico in a still unsolved murder, and the other of Malachi Ritscher, an underground music scholar who set himself on fire during rush hour on the Chicago expressway in protest of the Iraq War.

There are three video installations centered around looking and being watched, often without consent—feeding into an implicit dialogue on post-PRISM America—completing a second floor that, as I said above, is a question of patriotism.

The Third Floor
Stuart Comer wrote that the artists he brought to the Whitney had work that’s “as hybrid as the significant global, environmental, and technological shifts reshaping the United States.” The third floor has an apocalyptic 22nd century feel to it, with invited artists extrapolating reflections on contemporary problems with a futuristic pessimism. That’s right, it’s got it all: Place, Movement, Violence, Philosophy, Technology, Capitalism, Nature, Industry, Globalization.

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Channa Horwitz, Sonakinatrography XVIII, 1991. Casein and ink on mylar, 54 × 39 in. (137.2 × 99.1 cm). Estate of Channa Horwitz. Courtesy of the Estate of Channa Horwitz and François Ghebaly, Los Angeles. © Channa Horwitz. (Photograph by Robert Wedemeyer)

But the third floor is the standout, for me at least. Channa Horwitz’s formalized graph paper illustrations that are like complex, colorful, and highly regulated DNA read-outs (my favorite of the more traditional artwork); the trippy experimental documentary Leviathan on the fishing industry in New Bedford, Massachusetts, produced by a group from the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab; a really cool photo series from Zachary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, Relationships, of a transgender couple undergoing a gender transition in opposite directions; and a mixed media installation of feminist video and photo prints from A.L. Steiner.

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(Zachary Drucker and Rhys Ernst’s Relationships, Marc Yearsley / Gothamist)

There’s also a whole room for Semiotext(e), including an entire new series of texts commissioned for the Biennial, an excerpt of an interview with Gilles Deleuze, and some artifacts from the influential publishing house’s 40 year history.

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Still from Semiotext(e)’s Deleuze A to Z with Claire Parnet (Marc Yearsley / Gothamist)

Finally, let’s not forget the Bjarne Melgaard’s *NSFW* Real Doll room. The creepy dolls are propped up on ugly, handmade, yet equally as artificial couches. The photo is a little blurry, but it’s a keeper, accounting for the disorienting video screens looping footage of animals, humans, fighting, and fucking in a truly distopic future pleasure house. Melgaard’s room is definitely a make-or-break moment; you’re gonna love it or hate it, most likely, though there is plenty to be ambivalent about.

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(Bjarne Melgaard’s untitled installation, Marc Yearsley / Gothamist)

The Fourth Floor
Grabner’s aim for the fourth and final floor was to assemble a collection that was not framed to be a “purely subjective take on contemporary American art” but rather a “curriculum that presents identifiable themes, generalities even, that are currently established in the textures of contemporary aesthetic, political, and economic realities.” The result is the Big-A Art floor, packed with massive sculptures and installations, that Grabner identifies with “three overlapping priorities: contemporary abstract painting by women; materiality and affect theory; and art as strategy.”

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The Whitney’s 4th Floor (Marc Yearsley / Gothamist)

A very classic spread results in what is arguably the least subject-diverse floor, but the most formally and technically interesting, in a strictly artistic sense. It is also home to a small display of David Foster Wallace’s notebooks on The Pale King, including a list of 52 “Good Names” scrawled on the back of a Rugrats notebook (the best of the names, #2 on that list, is “Nugent Brian Nugent”) and some notes from his interview with Roger Federer. Even though DFW is a household name, it is a curious, but welcome, inclusion nevertheless,

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(David Foster Wallace’s Cuddly Cuties Notebook, Marc Yearsley / Gothamist)

Towards the back is a short, shifty stop-motion animation video of some clay figures playing an early version of tennis called jeu de paume by Joshua Mosley. Sports culture is gargantuan and interesting, so probing an original artifact of play is an interesting and fruitful area.

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(Joshua Mosley Je de Paume, Marc Yearsley / Gothamist)

Out of the big pieces, Gretchen Bender’s People in Pain, repaired by Philip Vanderhyden, is most impressive, filling out a large wall with distressed black vinyl, lit by neon blue LED lights illuminating various movie titles. Not getting into specifics about the rest of the pieces is not a knock; I was simply less drawn to, but no less impressed by, the large abstract canvas paintings and a rainbow-colored bunch of hundreds of thick streams of yarn pouring down from the ceiling (very cool).

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(Gretchen Bender’s People in Pain, Marc Yearsley / Gothamist)

TL;DR Version
The third floor is the most interesting, the fourth floor has the best Art, and the second floor definitely exists. It’s hard to not feel underwhelmed, always conscious that this is simply another museum, despite the prestige and buzz that surrounds the Biennial, but that may be just a common feeling with art in general. There is a lot of talk about the Whitney’s “signature windows,” and the commissioned pieces that dialogue with them, which is mildly annoying.

Wow, modern art is the worst! I could do that shit.
Nope, that attitude is the worst. That generally blasé dismissal of art is a toxic and lazy defense mechanism. Furthermore, it’s one of those dangerous statements that nearly means nothing at all; a void collapsing in on itself as it barely escapes your face.

Even being extremely conservative with the estimate, humans have been artists since, well, we started being human, so a lot has been done before—it should be no surprise that the conceptual underpinnings of a piece of art (and the non-vacuum art resides in—namely, our increasingly mediated visual culture) take on a more privileged position as time goes on. Also, people don’t have to spend 35 years learning to paint anymore, so go make some art or something.

Fair enough, but did anything suck?
Definitely! For what it’s worth, every museum has its duds and the Biennial is no exception. I offer one in particular—Morgan Fisher’s Ro(Ro(Room)om)om, a Russian egg type installation modeled after three rooms in the Whitney’s new and under construction home in the Meatpacking District. Fisher sets each one inside of the other at different scales, finishing the largest (and most useless, Museum-wise) room, a closet, at full scale.

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Morgan Fisher’s Ro(Ro(Room)om)om, (Marc Yearsley / Gothamist)

It’s just drywall and nails adorned with the unavoidable (read: not intentional) scrapes and scratches that arise during assembly and movement. It is basic, uninspired, lazy, and offensive; unimaginative, no matter how verbose you get about it. There are other misfires, of course, but I’d offer the unfortunately titled Ro(Ro(Room)om)om as the poster child of What Sucks About Art Sometimes. Other flops include oil paint on LED video screens and the stairwell installation of speakers decked with stuffed animals emitting an ambient droning sound. For the most part, though, it is usually advisable to not focus on the shitty stuff.

Well, should I go?
I don’t know. A benefit analysis is never useful for these types of things. Either someone is going to go to this thing or they are not, arguing its worth is completely subjective. How much do you need that $20? But if you like art, are interested in something that comes around once every two years, and have some disposable income set aside for recreation and edification, an afternoon at the Whitney barely costs more than a ticket to a movie, and you won’t ever be able to Netflix it. Honestly, I’d recommend it on the strength of the third floor alone. This year’s Biennial has highs and lows, everyone is going to have different tastes, you like what you like, and, as always, time is a flat circle.

Contact the author of this article or email tips@gothamist.com with further questions, comments or tips.

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Vincent Johnson: The October Paintings – Update

October Painting 1 and 2, Los Angeles, California by Vincent Johnson

The October Painting 1 and 2, Los Angeles, California by Vincent Johnson

The October Paintings – numbers 3 and 4 – The October Paintings (a new paintings project by Los Angeles based artist Vincent Johnson) – the paintings are at the underpainting stage. They will be allowed to dry in my studio and then a layer of white glaze will be added. That will dry. Then I will work on each work, layer by layer, allowing each layer to dry, or be worked or added to as I desire. Our car Roxy is in the background, her back arched as she defies a mushroom to move.

October Paintings 3 and 4 - three of three

The October Paintings (a new paintings project by Los Angeles based artist Vincent Johnson) – paintings 3 and 4. Taking advantage of the fabulous weather in LA.

October Paintings 3 and 4 - two of three

The October Paintings – paintings 1 and 2 (a new paintings project by Los Angeles based artist Vincent Johnson) – with our cat Roxy playing in the back yard.

October Paintings 5 and 6, underpainted on October 31, 2013. Van Nuys, CA

October Paintings 5 and 6, underpainting – layer one – October 31, 2013. Van Nuys, CA

October Paintings 5 and 6.on 11.01.13 no .3 October Paintings 5 and 6.on 11.01.13

The October Paintings, 2013, under painting layers, Los Angeles, California, by Vincent Johnson

The October Paintings, 2013, paintings one and two, under painting layers, Los Angeles, California, by Vincent Johnson

The October Paintings (a new paintings project by Los Angeles based artist Vincent Johnson)

The October Paintings – paintings one and two (a new paintings project by Los Angeles based artist Vincent Johnson)

The October Paintings are comprised of nine 4×4 foot oil on canvas paintings. These are the largest canvases I’ve worked on since my return to painting after two decades of working with photography. I was trained as a representational painter at Pratt Institute and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. My graduate degree is in critical theory and painting from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. The works are a continuation of my exploration of the history of art materials, combined with using the layering techniques of representation to create singular new abstractions. This is my first time working on several large-scale canvases at once. What I’ve noticed over the years is that every significant work I’ve made eventually finds its way into the world, often through unanticipated opportunity.  The works are visceral, visually rich, emotively engaging. They follow the six large-scale paintings in the COSMOS SUITE that is also ongoing and was started in 2012, and the NINE GRAYSCALE PAINTINGS in LOS ANGELES that I completed in 2011. In my work I have always sought to reach for and produce imagery that lends itself to a serious consideration of the ideas that come to the mind when approaching the image. For me these works seek to substantiate themselves in the world, to be both evocative and provocative, beautiful and remarkable in both concept and realization. As these works are fully developed I will continue to record the journey am taken on with them, until they are complete.

OCTOBER PAINTING - Scumble glazing, second phase of the paintings.

OCTOBER PAINTING – Scumble glazing, second phase of the paintings.

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October Paintings – scumble glazed and drying in studio.

During the scumble glazing layer of the painting, where I knock down the underpainting colors so that the next layers can deliver a fabulous punch, I thought about the magnificient, enormous paintings I saw this summer at the Menil Collection in Houston, by Cy Twombly and Mark Rothko. The high seriousness of Rothko’s chapel paintings was amazing. Yet on that day it would be my discovery of the excellence of Cy Twombly as a painter of the primordial and playful sublime that captivated my attention in his purpose built stand alone large gallery space that showcased his work far beyond the circular swirls I know but care nothing for at all. It seems that when Twombly switched to specific subject matter – whether it be abstract landscape paintings, where he had simply marvelous deep rich green works, or his overall giant abstractions, filled with playful and powerful singular and exciting moments, both satisfied in wonderful ways. I was fortunate to make two trips to Houston this summer. The Late Byzantine to Today was a marvel to behold; I also had no idea that the Menil is a world class repository of Surrealist art. I was also privileged to see the James Turrell retrospective at the MFA Houston, which itself will be expanding soon with a major new building devoted to modern and contemporary art. The Menil Collection itself will be adding seven new individual artist showcase galleries, which combined with their traveling shows will make Houston as important a center for seeing art as anywhere in the US outside of New York. I am looking at the nine 4×4 foot October paintings in my studio. Its the largest body of work I have ever produced as a painter. I can see so many possibilities in this new direction. It gives me reason to continue to push to get my work into the world, despite all of the difficulties I have experienced. Painting makes me see beyond my own being.

Vincent Johnson

Los Angeles, CA

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Vincent Galen Johnson – The October Paintings – outdoor studio Los Angeles

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Just added this final layer of paint to this painting. Now its ready. by Vincent Johnson 2014

The October Paintings in Los Angeles, 2014, painted and written by Los Angeles based painter and writer Vincent Galen Johnson.

My journey into painting has never ended, only paused during the many years my primary artistic practice moved from painting to writing, then to photography and writing. I’ve never stopped looking at painting. I went to London over the Thanksgiving holiday in 2011 to see the Gerhard Richter retrospective. It was strange to see a photorealist painter realize the power of paint being managed through sheer process and to create astonishing images of such subtle yet shocking beauty. While in London I took in a full day visit to the National Gallery, where I was swept away by such a superb landscape painting by Constable. I felt as if I were seeing an apparition as the leafy structure that represented part of a tree seemed to extend from the canvas into the gallery space. I also recall seeing Sigmar Polke, Anselm Kiefer, Eric Fischl and David Salle ‘s paintings from the 1980′s from those magnificent shows on West Broadway in Soho. Of late I’ve become a fan of Beatriz Milhaze, Nicole Eisenman, Henry Taylor, and have for years followed the work of Kerry James Marshall. Now I feel I need to feed my mind on as many superior painted pictures as I can devour.

Anselm Kiefer painting show in Antwerp

Gerhart Richter painting

This is the third year since I began painting again after two decades of making photographic works and writing in Los Angeles. Paint is a remarkable material in which to work. It offers seemingly an infinite number of ways of working the canvas, from application to scraping off even week old paint, to rubbing and applying several more layers with brushes, rags, and painting knives. It took me a while to allow myself to work abstractly. I still have about five unfinished paintings that I started in 2005 based on architectural vistas from my imagination, and they remain in my art storage, and one is in my studio, still unfinished. So its not totally true that I first started painting again in 2011; it was actually in 2005, but I gave up after a couple of months and put those canvases away for a future time. Its the sheer malleability of paint that drives me to work with it today, and its film-like capacity to be overlaid and yet see what’s underneath that enthralls. So far each of my paintings is abstract yet I continue to study the history of materials of artists as well as making my own multiple experiments on each new canvas. Some of my works have as many as a dozen layers and overlays of paint. Each one seems to inform the other as to the next possible direction to start in and then to build up to in terms of sheer quality of paint handling, image power,  and fulfillment of the mind through the eyes. Its a richly rewarding feeling to be making this new work after so many years, and to see where I had left off as a painter two decades ago. And then to see where I’ve come along since that time, using all of the tools and skills learned in Brooklyn and Chicago many years ago in school.

A painting by Nicole Eisenman
A painting by LA painter Henry Taylor.
A suite of paintings by Sigmar Polke

Painting outdoors in the California sun has been a revelation. I can allow my paintings to dry in the sun. Then store them at night in my art storage. Then bring them out again to look at in the proud light of the morning, and sit and walk among them, and think about what is the next step for each of those that are yet to be complete. Having the sky as my ceiling has been amazing, and having so much space in which to operate has unleashed so many great ideas about the direction to take my work, as I can sit the paintings in my outdoor studio and relish them in the warmth of a February day in Southern California. Next I’ll be working on a few dozen much smaller canvases, then returning to the larger 4 by 4 foot canvases. This post has been my afternoon break to record where I am with my new work.

It makes me happy to be painting again, in California.

Vincent Galen Johnson

Los Angeles

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The October Paintings by Vincent Galen Johnson in Los Angeles, March 2014

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This painting was layered with paint over several days, then scraped out with the excess paint allowed to dangle from the area of the canvas where it had been cut away. The painting now has a sculptural element of pure paint hanging from its several lawyers beneath.

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The painting on the far right was transformed with gold, blue and grey paint this evening. See the final above.

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This canvas was handled completely differently from most of the others and has a final overlay of paint that creates the image of a colorful chalk board.

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A thick impasto of dazzling color was spread with a painting knife across the canvas. in waves, in this painting.

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The painting to the left reminds me of photos of sunbursts.

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My outdoor painting studio.

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My painting studio set up.

Vincent Johnson: CV
Vincent Johnson received his MFA in Fine Art Painting from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California 1997 and his BFA in Painting from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1986. He is a 2005 Creative Capital Grantee, and was selected for the New Museum of Contemporary Arts Aldrich Art Award in 2007 and for the Art Matters grant in 2008, and in 2009 for the Foundation for Contemporary Art Fellowship, Los Angeles. In 2010 he was named a United States Artists project artist. His work has been reviewed in ArtForum, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Art in America and Art Slant, and in over fifty different publications in total. His works were shown in the inaugural Pulse Fair Los Angeles. He has shown recently at Soho House (curated by ForYourArt, Los Angeles) and at Palihouse (curated by Los Angeles Nomadic Division), West Hollywood, and most recently at Another Year in LA gallery, West Hollywood. Johnson’s work has appeared in numerous venues, including The Studio Museum in Harlem (Freestyle (2001, The Philosophy of Time Travel, 2007, and The Bearden Project, 2011-2012); PS1 Museum, New York; the SK Stiftung, Cologne; Santa Monica Museum of Art, LAXART; Las Cienegas Projects, Los Angeles; Boston University Art Museum; Kellogg Museum, Cal Poly Pomona; Adamski gallery of Contemporary Art, Aachen; Lemonsky Projects, Miami. Johnson’s work has been published in a dozen exhibition catalogs. His work was exhibited in the inaugural Open Project exhibition at the Palace of the Inquisition, Evora, Portugal, July – October, 2013 and at Another Year in LA gallery, West Hollywood.

Vincent Johnson lives and works in Los Angeles, California. He is a work member of THE WINTER OFFICE, Copenhagen. THE WINTER OFFICE upholds a creative strategy concerned with defining an intersection between art, architecture and design.

vincentjohnsonart@gmail.com

http://www.vincentjohnsonart.com

New Abstract Paintings: The Cosmos Suite 2012-2013

Hello

This is Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles.

Here are three new paintings are added to my Cosmos Suite of paintings 2.24.2013. These are the 7th, 8th and 9th paintings created in the Cosmos Suite. They are also the 4th, 5th and 6th large scale paintings in this body of work.

These Cosmos Suite paintings are created using various experiments in media and paint application. Johnson has done substantial research into the area of the history of painting materials and there use, and employs this knowledge in the production of his work.

There are now a total of nine paintings in the Cosmos Suite. Six of the nine paintings are thirty by forty inches in size. Three of the paintings – the originals in the suite, are twenty by twenty four inches in size. Each painting takes about a month to create as there is a three week drying time between the first and second layers of the painting. As the suite grows there will be additional sizes including larger works.

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Cosmos Suite: A Meeting Between Two Figures in Space

30×40 inches, oil on canvas by Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles (2013)

Poured Liquin in center of painting, added stripes of pure paint color to canvas, mixed with paint rags, dabbed till thick paint areas are leveled out.

Large areas of vertical yellow in painting. Layered canvas in thick paint in certain areas. Reminds me of seeing Gerhard Richter’s painting retrospective in London in the fall of 2011.

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Cosmos Suite: State and Grace

30×40 inches, oil on canvas by Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles

Used sponges on face of painting. Layered canvas in thick paint.

Poured Liquin in center of painting, added stripes of pure paint color to canvas, mixed with paint rags, dabbed till thick paint areas are leveled out.
Reminds me of Florida’s mysterious beauty

Shape is of Florida in part

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Cosmos Suite: State and Grace – final – complete 2.25.2013

30×40 inches, oil on canvas by Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles (2013)

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Cosmos Suite: State and Grace – final – complete 2.25.2013

30×40 inches, oil on canvas by Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles (2013)

2A.artcat

 Cosmos Suite: Astral Melodies
30×40 inches, oil on canvas by Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles (2013)

used sponges on side and surface of the painting. used large brushwork. Layered canvas in paint.

Poured Liquin in between stripes of pure paint color to canvas, mixed with paint rags, dabbed till thick paint areas are leveled out. Started out with thick brush in corner to mix, abandoned this quickly.

Sensing jazz standards here – floating fields of opulent pure romantic color

Vincent Johnson received his MFA in Fine Art Painting from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California 1997 and his BFA in Painting from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is a 2005 Creative Capital Grantee, and was selected for the Baum: An Emerging American Photographer’s Award in 2004 and for the New Museum of Contemporary Arts Aldrich Art Award in 2007 and for the Art Matters grant in 2008, and in 2009 for the Foundation for Contemporary Art Fellowship, Los Angeles. In 2010 he was named a United States Artists project artist. His work has been reviewed in ArtForum, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Art in America, Art Slant and many other publications. His photographic works were most recently shown in the inaugural Pulse Fair Los Angeles. His most recent paintings were shown at the Beacon Arts Center in Los Angeles. His 2010 photo project – California Toilet, Filthy Light Switch, is in exhibition at Another Year in LA gallery in West Hollywood through early March 2013. His work has appeared in several venues, including The Studio Museum in Harlem (Freestyle (2001, The Philosophy of Time Travel, 2007, and The Bearden Project, 2011-2012), PS1 Museum, Queens, NY, SK Stiftung, Cologne, Germany, Santa Monica Museum of Art, LAXART, Las Cienegas Projects, Boston University Art Museum, Kellogg Museum, Cal Poly Pomona.
Below are some of the other paintings I have completed since returning to painting in the summer of 2011.
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Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles

New Abstract Paintings: The Cosmos suite (2012)

Golden Dream (2012), part of the Cosmos Suite of paintings

California Toilet, Filthy Light Switch (2010) by Vincent Johnson. Archival Epson print (Private Collection, Miami, Florida). I provided this image as I realized its clear similarity to Golden Dream, which I completed a week ago in my studio in Los Angeles.

Two at Night (2012) from the Cosmos suite of paintings, Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches

Cosmos. Oil on canvas  2012 by Vincent Johnson

Cosmos Red Yellow Green. Oil on canvas 2012 by Vincent Johnson

Green God. Oil on canvas 2012 by Vincent Johnson

This new painting series is part of my ongoing exploration of painting materials and techniques from the history of painting. The works combine knowledge of painting practices of both abstract and representation paintings. The works concern themselves purely with the visual power that paintings can do through the manipulation of paint. Some of the underpaintings are allowed to dry for months; some of those are built dark to light, others light to dark. None are made in a single setting. Most are worked and reworked using studio materials. Each new series takes a different approach to the painted surface from how the paint is applied, to varying the painting mediums. This suite concerns itself with the layering of paint by building up the surface and altering and reworking the wet paint with studio tools.

Two larger paintings will be completed and photographed on Sunday, July 15, 2012 and posted here.

Vincent Johnson, Grayscale painting: The Storm (2012). Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches, created in studio in Los Angeles, California

Vincent Johnson, Grayscale painting, Snow White/White Snow (2012). Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches, created in studio in Los Angeles

Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles

Vincent Johnson, Nine Grayscale Paintings, Beacon Arts Center, Los Angeles, (2001). Oil on canvas. Each panel is 20×24 inches.
photograph of silver paint on my hands in studio, Los Angeles, during the creation of Nine Grayscale paintings.
Vincent Johnson – in Los Angeles studio working on Nine Grayscale Paintings, 2011

Vincent Johnson

Los Angeles, California

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THE NEW YORL TIMES

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Detail of “Untitled,” 2013, by Laura Owens, one of the women revitalizing abstract painting. Credit Private collection; courtesy the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York.
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Continue reading the main story

WHITNEY Biennials can be daunting, confounding, exhausting and sometimes even outrageous. No matter how the curators organize this sprawling survey of what’s happening in American contemporary art right now, trying to navigate the museumwide exhibition and make sense of it all is a challenge, even for the pros.

This year’s edition, its 77th, which opens next Friday, is the last in the Whitney Museum’s Madison Avenue home before it decamps to its new building in Manhattan’s meatpacking district in 2015. It is also perhaps the most highly anticipated contemporary art event in a week jam-packed with gallery openings and art fairs.

For the Biennial’s finale in the Marcel Breuer building, the Whitney invited three outside curators to organize the show: Stuart Comer, chief curator of media and performance at the Museum of Modern Art; Anthony Elms, associate curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia; and Michelle Grabner, an artist and a professor in the painting and drawing department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In a break from years past, the three have each taken a floor and will present distinct visions, rather than one buildingwide narrative. Although they have coordinated in some of the public spaces, the second, third and fourth floors can be seen as independent shows and visited either in bite-size pieces — one floor at a time — or swallowed in one gulp.

“It’s as if you’re on your laptop and have three windows open,” Mr. Comer explained. “It’s not a collaboration but a conversation, a dialogue.” To drive home the point that this is “a show with three chapters,” as he calls it, the catalog gives each curator a distinct section, printed on differently textured papers.

This year’s biennial is especially dense, featuring the works of 103 participants (a word carefully chosen to include both individual artists and artist collectives), more than twice the number in 2012. Art is everywhere — in the stairwells, the sculpture court, the elevators, the lobby (where the composer and artist Sergei Tcherepnin has created a sound installation emanating from the ceiling).

Performances will be sprinkled throughout the museum, changing during the run of the show, which ends on May 25. (The schedule will be posted on the museum’s website.)

It’s not the first time the Biennial will spill out of its home, this time into Hudson River Park, at 17th Street, with a monumental multimedia work by Tony Tasset, composed of colored acrylic panels etched with the names of 400,000 artists, from Picasso and Warhol to little-known emerging artists.

For visual omnivores, the week also offers a panoply of commercial art fairs. There are the Art Dealers Association of America Art Show, at the Park Avenue Armory (at 67th Street), which opens on Wednesday, and the sprawling Armory Show, at Piers 92 and 94 (12th Avenue and 55th Street in Clinton) and the Independent Art Fair, (548 West 22nd Street in Chelsea), which both open on Thursday.

But it is the Biennial that aims to capture what’s happening in American art. Themes inevitably emerge, delivered in different ways, in different mediums, by different curators. Here are a few to look out for during your visit.

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“Five Senses for One Death,” 1969, ink and watercolor by Etel Adnan, 89, the Beirut-born cultural editor. Credit Collection of the artist; Callicoon Fine Arts, New York

Words and More Words

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The “Midwesternism” notebook, from “The Pale King” materials by David Foster Wallace. Credit Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin/David Foster Wallace Literary

PAPER is a star of this Biennial, with dozens of books and printed material. “Now that we have access to more archival material, we are all preoccupied with how we can reanimate it and create living histories,” Mr. Comer said. The independent publisher Semiotext(e) is presenting a series of books; an artist duo, Valerie Snobeck and Catherine Sullivan, have created an installation whose imagery and objects are based on a lifetime of airline menus collected by a Chicago anthropologist.

The 89-year-old Beirut-born cultural editor and artist Etel Adnan, whose accordion-folded paper books and diaries depict street scenes of New York, suggest the relationship between writing and painting. Also on view are the spiral notebooks with sketches that the writer David Foster Wallace kept while researching “The Pale King,” his last novel. (His biographer, D. T. Max, called them “an improvised bulletin board.”)

In addition to printed matter, look for literary accouterments, such as a writing table created for Nancy Mitford, the British novelist, by the Canadian-born artist Paul P.

Arts and Crafts

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“Blehh,” 2012, a delicately tooled wall piece of leather, enamel, brass and acrylic, created by Carol Jackson. Credit Collection of the artist, Courtesy the artist

The first Arts and Crafts movement, in England, challenged the taste of the Victorian era. Now the handmade aesthetic is flourishing again, Ms. Grabner said. “As so much moves to the digital world, there is a movement of slowing art and life down.”

Sheila Hicks, an artist whose career has involved melding art, design, craft and architecture, has created a monumental fiber sculpture from ceiling to floor in a spectrum of colors. Lisa Anne Auerbach, based on the West Coast, has knitted sweaters with political messages in the trim.

There is also ceramic art by Shio Kusaka, John Mason and Sterling Ruby, as well as a delicately tooled leather wall piece created by Carol Jackson. The Los Angeles artist Joel Otterson created a 14-foot-tall curtain wall of colored beads that seems straight from a hippie apartment.

Looks That Deceive

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“Relationship,” 2008, from a photographic diary by Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst that chronicles the couple’s years together. Credit Courtesy of the artists and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles

Things are not always as they appear. Genders are switched. Artists known for working in one discipline are presenting work in another. There are writers who paint; painters who write poetry; filmmakers who create sculptures; photographers who draw.

What appear to be abstract canvases by Ken Okiishi are actually oil paintings on flat-screen televisions, with a mash-up of footage from old VHS tapes and new digital images in subjects ranging from newscasts to commercials in an installation that is neither a painting nor a video.

An especially provocative photographic diary compiled by Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst in Mr. Comer’s installation chronicles the couple’s five-and-a-half-year relationship, in which one transitioned from female to male, and the other from male to female. Until now, this had been a private journal.

Toward the end of March, look for a 22-minute video by the duo called “She Gone Rogue,” described as an odyssey through a world of transgender-themed magical realism when it was shown at the Hammer Museum’s biennial in 2012.

Female Painters

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“Okie Dokie,” 2008, dyed cheesecloth and acrylic on canvas, by Dona Nelson, who lives and works in Pennsylvania and New York. Credit Collection of the artist; Courtesy of the artist and Thomas Erben Gallery, New York

Women are revitalizing abstract painting, and they are well represented here, with works by artists like Louise Fishman, Jacqueline Humphries, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Dona Nelson, Laura Owens and Amy Sillman.

“I am focusing on a handful of women artists who take on the authority of abstract painting — its history, its ambition and its relationship to power and gender,” Ms. Grabner said. “I wanted to put them together to underscore how different the language of abstract painting can be.”

She isn’t alone; Mr. Elms has included two large-scale abstract paintings by Rebecca Morris on the second floor. Long a fan of Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist architecture, Mr. Elms said the works fit perfectly with the space.

Nostalgia

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“Gone With the Schwinn” hangs in Keith Mayerson’s installation. Credit Collection of Dan and Jane Slavin. Courtesy the artist and Derek Eller Gallery, New York

In trying to grapple with the future, artists of different generations are looking to the past for inspiration. The Surrealist environment on the fourth floor, created by Shana Lutker, a Los Angeles-based Conceptual artist, is loosely based on a fistfight between André Breton — a founder of Surrealism — and two artists, Joan Miró and Max Ernst, over their sets and costumes for a ballet based on “Romeo and Juliet” in 1926. (Breton considered the production lowbrow, Ms. Grabner explained). Ms. Lutker’s stage, an abstract re-creation of the sets and costumes, from Miró’s drawing, includes hanging stainless-steel figures of dancers, two cast ballerina feet and hundreds of red fliers on a ballet bar, to symbolize those thrown onto the stage in a protest.

On the third floor, a 19th-century-style salon, the work of Keith Mayerson, is hung with images from his own modern family: he and his husband; Elvis Presley; Kermit the Frog; and Marvin Gaye, among them.

“It falls somewhere between comic books, a story board and an old-fashioned painting gallery,” Mr. Comer said. He also enlisted Triple Canopy, a nonprofit group that publishes books and an online magazine, to create an installation that explores the cultural meaning of artworks as they are collected, sold, replicated, photographed and exhibited. It focuses on the Garbisch family (Col. Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch) and its vast trove of American primitive paintings and furniture, given to many museums. (The Whitney sold its gift in 1999 to focus on the 20th century.) Objects include a wash basin on loan from the Met and carefully made reproductions.

Architecture

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An image from a camera obscura installation by Zoe Leonard at the Whitney Museum. Credit Courtesy of the artist

Perhaps because the Whitney is saying goodbye to the Breuer building — or because more artists today are preoccupied with architecture, both as a form and a discipline — watch for constructed objects and architectural images, and ideas about what a museum should be, to be addressed in myriad ways.

Zoe Leonard has transformed a fourth-floor space into a giant camera obscura. Most of the Breuer’s trapezoidal window is blacked out, with only a small hole left that projects an inverted image of the unfolding streetscape — people rushing, and taxis and buses barreling by — onto the walls, ceiling and floor of the gallery.

Morgan Fisher, a Los Angeles artist, has created a curious portrait of the Whitney’s new Renzo Piano building. His sculpture, on the third floor, is an intentionally scrappy construction fashioned from drywall, in which he has reconfigured spaces in the museum, from the lobby to a boardroom coat closet. “It’s about how we rethink the history of museums and the hierarchy of space,” Mr. Comer said.

Mining Marcel Breuer’s archives, Mr. Elms brought together 24 artists and groups to answer a question by Breuer in his earliest notes on the building, when the architect wrote: “What should a museum look like, a museum in Manhattan?”

Look for the artists’ responses to that question in Mr. Elms’s second-floor installation.

Correction: March 1, 2014
An article on Friday about the Whitney Biennial, which opens next Friday, misstated the age of Etel Adnan, an artist who will have work displayed in the show. She is 89, not 84. The error was repeated in an accompanying picture caption.

A version of this article appears in print on February 28, 2014, on page C21 of the New York edition with the headline: State of Our Art, According to Whitney.

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CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Meet artist Michelle Grabner, Whitney Biennial 2014 curator

A key figure in Chicago’s art world, Michelle Grabner takes on the highest-profile job of her career

March 07, 2014|Christopher Borrelli

NEW YORK CITY — A few months before Michelle Grabner presided over the final details of the prestigious 2014 Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art here, a white Buick LeSabre plowed into the side of her small art gallery in Oak Park. This was back in the fall, on a quiet Sunday just after dawn. She knew the car was coming, and she welcomed the impact. She even invited some friends to come over and watch.

Grabner, an artist, curator, critic and professor at the School of the Art Institute — a figure so deeply influential and ubiquitous in the Chicago art scene and beyond that artist Tony Tasset puts her at “the dead center of the art world right now” — had little to fear. As one of three curators of the 77th edition of the Biennial, arguably the most venerated trendsetting showcase for contemporary art in the world (it opened Friday and runs through May), Grabner stands atop a career apex. Explained Jay Sanders, Whitney curator (as well as co-curator of the 2012 Biennial: “Michelle, as an educator, a curator and an artist herself, defines what it means to curate contemporary art in 2014. And it means facing a hugely expanded field where a curator is expected to occupy more than one space at a time. Michelle champions the overlooked, the emerging, the conceptual, visits artist studios, can read (traditional) painting. So she’s a big voice now.”

Which was exactly why that car drove into the Suburban, the roughly 9-by-9-foot cinder block gallery, comically minuscule, that Grabner and her husband, artist Brad Killam, created 15 years ago.

Depending on whom you ask, Grabner receives one of a few familiar refrains: She’s a community builder; she’s rigorous; she’s fearless.

“But sometimes now, Michelle can also function as a kind of institutional symbol. And her reputation, her rank in the art world, is such that I wanted to let some air in there, puncture that rank, make the Suburban more visible, while providing a critique — I wanted to make an argument that allowed us to see vulnerability again.”

That’s artist Dana DeGiulio. She drove the Buick into the Suburban.

DeGiulio’s also close friends with Grabner, who once served as her SAIC graduate school adviser. But that’s not to say Grabner had no reservations about DeGiulio’s idea. The Suburban sits off Lake Street in Oak Park, a few feet from the back steps of Grabner’s small, cream-colored home. Grabner, 51, is a reasonable person with a 9-year old daughter and two adult sons; the gallery, a labor of love, has an international reputation as a forward-thinking destination for inventive artists.

“Still, I liked Dana’s idea very much,” Grabner said. “It was a jarring gesture. Brad didn’t think he could be there for it. But I liked it metaphorically, because after 15 years you lose sight of things. With the Whitney coming, I wanted to reframe stuff, re-evaluate. I hoped she wouldn’t bring it down, but I knew she had it in her.”

Indeed, DeGiulio proved methodical: To pay for the 1996 Buick, she sold a piece of Grabner’s art, which Grabner herself had given DeGiulio as a present; DeGiulio even sold it to the gallery that represents Grabner, New York’s James Cohan Gallery (leading to the awkwardness of the Cohan’s calling Grabner to inform her a friend had sold back a gift). A week before the crash, DeGiulio — who says this was the most impersonal work she’s ever done, “but I am a person, I have a history with Michelle and I felt trepidation” — removed four small trees from Grabner’s side yard and built a ramp at the curb, to ensure the ramming went off smoothly.

Around 6 a.m. Nov. 17, she angled the Buick across Lake Street, hit the gas and backed into the gallery going about 18 mph.

“She actually caught air,” Grabner remembered. The result unnerved everyone. DeGiulio said she couldn’t make eye contact with anyone all morning. Grabner said her husband became upset (Killam said he wasn’t, “just shocked at the damage”). The car tore a huge hole in one wall and buckled the others. The roof leaks now.

The Suburban’s future is iffy.

“I thought carefully about why Michelle agreed to do it,” DeGiulio said. “I got emails later that said I was a narcissistic terrorist and that I took advantage of the way Michelle will allow an artist to do what they want. But Michelle knows what she’s doing. She let me do it because she is an artist and I’m an artist and, though I had to ask something hard and dangerous of her, Michelle is the kind of person who wants it to get asked.”

The Whitney was closed. It was a Monday, Presidents Day. Light snow fell in Manhattan. Grabner moved cheerfully down Madison Avenue, then reaching the museum, shouldered open the heavy service door on the side, tugged off her winter hat and walked to security to gather her visitor’s sticker. Though the Biennial was weeks away, the lobby hummed with installers, assistants, artists, the sound of crates splitting open, the buzzing of drills. A curatorial assistant, Elisabeth Sherman, appeared at Grabner’s side: “From here, do you want me to tell you each day what artists are coming that day, that way you can prepare for each person?” Grabner smiled a secret smile and nodded: So many personalities involved.

Grabner had arrived a few days earlier to oversee installation, insisting she didn’t have much to do this late in the process. The layout of her part of the Biennial (which is the entire fourth floor of the massive museum, plus pieces spread around the Whitney, plus an off-site sculpture from Tasset in Hudson River Park, 5 miles south) had been a protracted negotiation, settled months ago. But there were still details, and many of the more than 50 artists she’d invited to the show would need something: a second opinion, an advocate, an editor. The day she arrived, Los Angeles artist Karl Haendel wanted a wall color changed; Grabner evaluated the situation, time and taste, and disagreed. “I had to talk him down.”

That Monday, in the lobby, a light and jaunty bossa nova poured from an open elevator: Union art installers were working with artist Jeff Gibson, another artist Grabner invited. His piece was a dreamy video of random consumer goods — combs, meat, sunglasses — shown on a flat-screen TV fixed to the wall of the elevator. Home Shopping Network-like displays faded in and out. Gibson’s point was unmistakable: The Whitney is just a department store, each floor holding gaudy commodities. Grabner walked to Gibson. The installers cleared out. The two watched the video, and Grabner leaned in: “Whatever you’re doing, it works.”

The music went on and on.

From the lobby, Sherman said: “I feel like I’m on hold and I’m going to yell at customer service in a minute.”

“Yes, very irritating,” Gibson said, smiling.

Grabner’s grin filled her face — until Sherman, going over the latest developments, remembered a few things. Another of Grabner’s artists, whose work is a series of postcards pre-reviewing the Biennial, wanted a live model to hand out the postcards (Grabner puffed up her cheeks and blew outward); another was trying to decide in what corner of the museum store he would place his installation (she raised her eyebrows slightly); another wanted a message printed on the museum toilet paper.

“That’s more than we can do at this point,” Sherman said. “We can’t fabricate anything, can’t add pieces and can’t produce stuff.”

“I don’t want a carnival,” Grabner said.

“And I don’t want to be rude, but toilet paper, that’s a non-starter,” Sherman said.

But Grabner was over it, moved on. She arrived at the Biennial as the first artist to curate the Whitney Biennial, and though she repeatedly said her motivation was not to push her own ideas about art but to get her artists looked at, reality intrudes. Grabner may be known for a conceptual, theory-driven taste, but the woman herself is pragmatic, straightforward. She speaks breathlessly, like a heroine in a screwball comedy. Her hair is a helmet of curls, and her outfits veer toward hoodies and Green Bay Packers green (she’s also a football-obsessed Wisconsin native). Said Chicago curator John Corbett: “There’s this sense that Michelle lords over her world. But everything about her says she humbly presents others. It’s funny she’s seen as a power broker. I doubt she likes it.”

Her down-to-earth air, on the other hand, some friends say, can be deceptive. Grabner is often blunt, matter-of-fact-direct enough to disarm you. Tasset, who lives down street from Grabner, said: “She’s in her studio at 4 in the morning, stays terribly connected to everyone, acts as a visiting critic at Yale, heads to the Art Institute, seems to bake bread with one arm and curate the Whitney with the other. In the summer, at the Suburban, it’s hilarious, these European and New York art people dressed in black, standing on her lawn eating brats, Michelle grilling. She’s an uber soccer mom. But also ruthlessly honest, a double-edged sword.”

I asked her at the Whitney if the Biennial would give her additional art-world leverage or if it made her anxious, given how the show often becomes a barometer of contemporary art, thereby prone to intense criticism.

    • 21

Grabner watched an installer drill holes into a sheet of metal and said, the words coming 100 mph: “It works against me; it leaves a bunch of corpses. And one then feels responsible for the bodies. One can’t do anything right: You invite an artist, you’re excited, they’re excited. Now they don’t want to be placed alongside that artist, they don’t like the catalog, nothing came out of it for them. It’s a thankless duty, but it’s my duty. At the same time, I do get to go back to Oak Park at the end of this, and many of these artists, they’ll feel neglected. One or two will become stars. The rest — it goes downhill from here.”

Just don’t mistake those notions for ambivalence.

Milwaukee-based artist David Robbins, whom Grabner has known for decades (and is included in the Biennial), said: “Most people are ambivalent about what they do. I know good artists who wonder if they should give it up. Most people think of paths not taken. But that’s not Michelle — she is doing what she always wanted, and when no part of you is conflicted over the role you play in the world, there’s so much energy to devote.”

In early February I visited Grabner in the large attic studio that she and Killam built in the garage behind their home and the Suburban. Grabner was hunched over one of her tondos (essentially a Renaissance term for a circular work). Behind her, the walls were plastered with her daughter’s crayon art, a large photo of a football player on television (magnified until the image had became dense and grainy) and a promotional poster featuring Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. She worked with a hypnotic rhythm, sliding a stylus filled with silver up and down a round canvas, drawing narrow line after narrow line until the artwork resembled an optical illusion.

“I like the repetition,” she said, not stopping. “People call it meditative. It’s radial. The silver is more active than my participation, because the silver will tarnish and make the work dynamic.

“It’s not uniquely inventive, but I’m not interested in invention. Showing one’s hand is not something that floors me. Making something you haven’t seen yet? That’s one definition of art for some people. But I went to art school in the 1980s, the height of postmodern art, and things were undercut, appropriated. Pop culture picked up on it better than art did. Still, I liked that stuff. I guess it makes me more of a conceptualist, because art that circulates in the world, shows in a gallery, gets assigned a price, has never interested me as much. Though that is a reality.”

Grabner grew up in the Fox River Valley, outside Green Bay. Her father painted taxidermy fish, her uncle carved duck decoys; she expected to teach art in a high school some day.

“Really, it was like coming from a socialist state,” she said. “No diversity. It’s humiliating to have too much money and humiliating to not have enough.”

The rest, her path, is so winding, reductiveness is inevitable: Undergraduate years at University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee; graduate school at Northwestern University, where she became friends with painter Ed Paschke, making sexualized drawings of Mr. Ed, photographing stills off TV screens. After college, Grabner married Killam (they met when their work was in the same Chicago show) and moved to Milwaukee.

“Having ambition, with nothing else around, you create the scene you want to see,” Killam said. By the mid-1990s, Grabner’s art was drawing acclaim and gallery interest, her acute criticism was appearing in major art publications. But also, she and Killam were curating shows in major local museums and storefronts alike.

Said Nicholas Frank, a Milwaukee artist: “Michelle and Brad were resolutely set on remaining local and connected to the wider world. That felt new. Milwaukee had a closed-off art scene, and they were can openers, learning to foster a cultural exchange between wherever they were and people they connected with.” Nevertheless, a late ’90s show of Scandinavian artists, curated by Grabner and Killam and held in museums and galleries throughout Chicago and Milwaukee, put them on the map in Chicago. So, to be closer to more opportunity, they moved to Oak Park in 1997; she had joined SAIC in 1996. Flash forward a decade: By 2009, eager to move the school in a more a theory-driven curriculum, she was chair of painting and drawing.

“Really, she revitalized the department,” said Lisa Wainwright, SAIC’s dean of faculty.

In 1999, she and Killam opened the Suburban; in 2008, they bought a 19th-century farm in central Wisconsin, naming it the Poor Farm and creating yet another celebrated destination for contemporary artists. Grabner had perfected the art of keeping one foot inside the mainstream, the other at the periphery.

“You know the thing about having to move to New York to be an artist?” asked John Riepenhoff, owner of Milwaukee’s Green Gallery. “Michelle just invited everyone to her. Which is radical. But to her, it’s normal.”

If you cast a casual eye on the art world now, there are moments when it can seem as if Grabner is everywhere at once. In the past year alone, her work was spotlighted by Chicago’s Shane Campbell Gallery; last fall, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland devoted a large survey to her work (the curator was a friend); even the small Hyde Park Art Center had a Grabner-curated show about appropriation in Midwest art. That’s just for starters. Concurrent with the Biennial, New York’s Armory Show and James Cohan Gallery will also feature Grabner’s work, which Cohan calls “a combination of intellectual rigor and beautiful objects, a marriage of appropriation and tradition, all with an unusually high curiosity toward the wider world.”

At the Whitney, one moment she was in the lobby greeting conceptual artist Saul Ostrow — she warned he could be cranky, but he exploded in toothy smiles and bear hugs when he saw her — the next she was moving briskly through cluttered, unfinished galleries, asking if a certain painting was already hung. (The assistant’s reply came fast: “Michelle, we would not hang anything without asking you first.”)

A week earlier, she was in Chicago, delivering a My-Biennial-in-40-Minutes primer to the staid board of governors of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

It was a character-revealing performance, a one-woman show delivered in her breakneck rat-a-tat: Grabner, before 50 or so board members — most in dark blue, carrying black bags — launched into a hilariously blunt deconstruction of the Biennial and how she thinks about it, complete with info graphics. Her other two curators, she told her audience, are Stuart Comer of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and Anthony Elms, a former Chicago curator now at the Institute of Contemporary Art Philadelphia (each of whom get their own floor to curate). There are about 100 artists in the show (typically it presents lesser-known artists). She invited more than 50; the others about 25 each. Her search took her to scores of studios, nearly every corner of the country. And in the end, she personally knows more than half of her Biennial invitees.

Two board members in the back threw each other knowing glances.

As if answering their probable thoughts, Grabner continued: She offers this information upfront because she wanted the process of curating a show as important as the Biennial to be transparent. In other words, she wanted people to know it is not fair: “I was looking for artists who influence art today, and influence me.” Many of the artists she invited are friends, some were students, some teachers, some Art Institute colleagues. Eight of the 17 Chicagoans in the show are her picks, though not because they are from Chicago, she stressed. (Later she said the city’s art scene does not impress her, its “provincial disposition” being a “terrible waste of energy.”)

She continued.

She is not interested in using the Whitney “as a platform for bringing someone to you that you can market and move through the (traditional art) system.” So, for example, she included elaborately annotated notebooks from writer David Foster Wallace, and another artist will fill a table with discounted catalogs of art shows that once graced the Whitney. Another moved to Amsterdam and whittles pencils into sculptures (more eye rolls from the back). She told of “summerlong” fights with the Whitney to include a piece by artist Gretchen Bender, who died a decade ago; Grabner wanted (and eventually received) permission to invite artist Philip Vanderhyden to re-create a Bender installation. She also told of endless arguments about the work of Donelle Woolford, “who is a fiction, the invention of a white New Jersey artist who hires models to play the role of ‘Donelle,’ a black, up-and-coming artist. Donelle does not exist.” (“Donelle” is also the only African-American woman in Grabner’s part of the show, which concerned the Whitney, she said later.)

The Whitney’s Sanders, instrumental in hiring Grabner, told me a few weeks later he didn’t have a problem with revealing how the sausage gets made. In fact, he sympathized: “Michelle being an artist, making value-judgments of other artists has to be intense. Transparency is how you handle it.”

On the train back to Oak Park after the board meeting, Grabner grew teary.

“They were lovely,” she said, “but they come from an affluence I don’t understand or value. I showed my graphics tongue-in-cheek, and they stayed so straight!” She said she was terrible. Later, Walter Massey, president of SAIC, sent a note: He’s on the committee for the future Barack Obama presidential library, which needs to stay up on contemporary art, and would she do her presentation for them too?

“Of course I said yes.”

    •  21

Back at the Whitney, the Tuesday after Presidents Day, long into an already long afternoon, Grabner pushed her hands into her coat pockets and surveyed the fourth floor, stepping around workbenches. Her floor, full of grand gestures and physically huge pieces — Shana Lutker, one of the artists there, said the floor plays “like a series of exclamation points” — required endless consideration of electrical cords, painters, sheetrock preparation, union rules, whether the sidewalk outside was too slushy to unload a fragile work.

She showed no exhaustion. Even when an assistant reminded her they had four days to finish installing her part of the Biennial, she looked less worried than delighted by the variety and density of work around her. She seemed as comfortable here, and easygoing, as she does back at the Suburban.

Later, asked if he imagines Grabner and her ambitions staying much longer in Chicago, Robert Storr, a South Side native, influential curator and dean of the Yale University School of Art, lamented: “Chicago, as an art center, has never thrived relative to the coasts, but then it also never used to look to the coasts for validation the way it does now. It needs the synthesizing energy that (Grabner) brings. It needs to hold on to people like her.”

Theaster Gates, one of Chicago’s most celebrated artists (and a 2010 Biennial alum), said: “A moment this big should take pressure off Michelle and lead to more opportunity — Berlin, Venice.”

But Grabner told me that she would move back to Milwaukee eventually and felt no loyalty to Chicago, and though she expected a “career unwinding now,” she showed no sign of pressure or melancholy. We walked to a ledge at the museum holding vases from artist Shio Kusaka. You might assume, for an artist who once let another artist plow into her gallery with a car, Grabner would find a row of fairly conventional vases to be overly pedestrian.

“Elegant,” she said instead.

Then added: “I enjoy them as things. But en masse, it’s compelling: Could be an art installation. Could be a display at Bed Bath & Beyond. High and low. Quite interesting, no?”

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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California Artists in the 2014 Whitney Biennial

Allan_Sekula

The 2014 Whitney Biennial line-up has been kind to Southern California. About 30 percent of the lineup include creatives who live and work in California, which almost entirely means L.A. but also includes San Francisco, Sebastopol, and San Diego. That’s actually pretty good, since the rest, while unsurprisingly New York-heavy, does its best to spread the nods around the map.

There were three curators on the team, all from outside the Museum. Interestingly, for this edition each curator gets their own floor instead of doing the whole thing collectively. Anthony Elms is Associate Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia; he worked at Performa 11 performance-art based fair; and is also the editor of WhiteWalls, an independent publishing imprint. Michelle Grabner is Professor and Chair of the Painting and Drawing Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; a senior critic at Yale in the Department of Painting and Printmaking; and active in the world of artist-run project spaces. Stuart Comer has been Curator of Film at Tate Modern, London, but he just left the Tate to move to new York and set up shop at MOMA.

Per the Whitney brand — and the personal purviews of the curators’ career specialties — you’ll find video, performance, indie publishing, and experimental installation galore — but there’s also a refreshing, almost old-school affection for straight-up photography, painting, and sculpture. For all three curators, it has been about identifying what is influential now, and that might mean a next-big-phenom or a well-established (or even, in a few cases, deceased) artist who is nevertheless on everyone’s mind. While fairly eclectic in mediums, the list is heavily (but not thoroughly) Caucasian, and about 70 percent male. The show doesn’t open until March, but in the meantime for those keeping score at home, here follows a brief overview of the California delegation. Loosely grouped into big-tent genres, and without knowing exactly what will be shown in March, the lineup promises to deliver a balanced and engaging American biennial in which the home team is poised to make a big impression in all the Biennial’s most major categories.

Zackary Drucker

Zackary Drucker
Zackary Drucker

Zackary Drucker

Performance and performance-based video: One of the most interesting artists working in Los Angeles today, Zackary Drucker — along with frequent collaborator, the filmmaker Rhys Ernst — is a writer and performance artist whose smart and sexy work is both transgressive and heartfelt. My Barbarian is a performance collective founded in 2000 by Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, and Alexandro Segade who mix up media channels and crowd-sourced movement-based installation, and are working in increasingly complex interdisciplinary formats. Catherine Sullivan works with film and live performance, producing quirky, math-based yet emotional vaudeville, upending conservative social taboos. taisha paggett creates danced-based performance art in specific locations, full of DIY urgency and modern archetypes. What Lisa Anne Auerbach does is more of a social practice than a performance practice; but her adaptation of what was once called radical craft has yielded politically-charged textiles, closely examining the cultural aspects and activist potential of all manner of public costume.

Laura Owens

Laura Owens
Laura Owens 356 Mission

Laura Owens 356 Mission
Tony Greene

Tony Greene

Painting: Laura Owens has become one of the best known figures in the LA art world; as a painter, mentor, and now exhibition space operator, her efforts to create vibrant, salient abstract paintings have never ceased to evolve, and her latest, larger-scale paintings are particularly compelling. The late Channa Horwitz was known for her mathematical drawings and installations, pursuing a rules-based geometric abstraction that communicates like conceptual semaphore on graph paper — and is a bit like seeing the Matrix in technicolor. The late painter Tony Greene (whose presence is curated by his friends and colleagues Richard Hawkins and Catherine Opie) demonstrated influences ranging from Robert Mapplethorpe to Nayland Blake and Derek Jarman. Rebecca Morris has a painting practice that is at once abstract and folksy, with an Outsider-style ritualized mosaic quality; her work is messy but urgent, measured but rough, deliberate but expressive. Karl Haendel makes these impressive realistic figurative drawings, often based on vintage photographs, that have this retro flavor and a masterful specificity that lend them an eerie nostalgia and evocative dematerialization.

Victoria Fu

Victoria Fu
Victoria Fu

Victoria Fu
Fred Lonidier

Fred Lonidier

Photography and Film: Victoria Fu makes photography and video installations, but her work seems to be after the same goals as abstraction in painting — generating vibrant op-art, crisp and ethereal at the same time. Dashiell Manley‘s videos, objects, and site-specific installations examine the relationship of space to language. The late Allan Sekula has been one of the most influential photographers and thinkers in the overlapping realms of contemporary photography and social theory for the last several decades. Fred Lonidier (San Diego) also approaches photography as a catalyst and function of social change. Stephen Berens works in photography mainly; but his reductivist, pattern-seeking, serial works are both quasi-abstract and grounded in experience and observation. Miljohn Ruperto works simultaneously in several aesthetic modes in his video and photography, creating apparently dissonant bodies of work often shown together in installation form.

Ricky Swallow

Ricky Swallow
Shio Kusaka

Shio Kusaka
Joel Otterson Wall-of-China

Joel Otterson Wall-of-China

Sculpture and Installation: Morgan Fisher’s sculptural, architectural color-blocking, deploy bright and primary colors that look like early video games melded with op-art and then turned into a room you can walk around in. John Mason is a pioneer of ceramic sculpture, whose decades of education and work embodies the history and heyday of progressive ceramics in L.A. Shio Kusaka also makes vessels, with strong influences of this innovative ceramics tradition, employing a multiplicity of techniques, and with her Asian heritage as an aesthetic touchstone. Ricky Swallow makes sculpture that defies, belies, and transcends its own materials — for example ordinary objects rendered as bronzes that look like random cardboard, in a witty Yoko Ono meets Marcel Duchamp kind of way. Joel Otterson and Shana Lutker, each in their own way, also riffs on the ordinary object, transplanting and rendered them into dystopian sculptures that resists specific narrative. Sterling Ruby loves to site serious sculptures in wacky places, and wacky sculptures in serious places, morphing monumental color-driven modernisms with pop humor and industrial scale.

John Herschend Thing Quarterly

John Herschend Thing Quarterly
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Publishing: There’s a large number of publishers and independent writers represented in the Biennial, including some surprises. A.L. Steiner works in installation, video, and performance, in addition to producing books and zines. Ben Kinmont (Sebastopol), is an artist, publisher, and antiquarian bookseller — consciously blurring the boundaries between projects, events, and publishing. Jonn Herschend (San Francisco) among other things co-curates and publishes THE THING Quarterly, as well as making short films. Semiotext(e) is an acclaimed publisher of artist books of tracts on the philosophies of art-making. Gary Indiana, while known primarily as a writer, also works as a filmmaker and visual artist. David Foster Wallace — that’s a bit of a head-scratcher. They have only said that the author will be “recognized posthumously,” but no one really knows what that will look like.

Check out more works from the California artists here:

Catherine Sullivan

Catherine Sullivan
Channa Horwitz

Channa Horwitz
Dashiell Manley

Dashiell Manley
Karl Haendel

Karl Haendel
Karl Haendel

Karl Haendel
Lisa Anne Auerbach

Lisa Anne Auerbach
Miljohn Ruperto

Miljohn Ruperto
My Barbarian

My Barbarian
Rebecca Morris

Rebecca Morris
Stephen Berens

Stephen Berens
Sterling Ruby

Sterling Ruby

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Top Image: Allan Sekula.

About the Author

Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Los Angeles.
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March 6, 2014
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The Young Guns: 8 Whitney Biennial Artists Born After 1980

“Relationship (Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, 2011)” by Zackary Drucker. Courtesy of the artists and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.
 

It is always risky for a critic or curator to lump artists together by some vague theme or age group, for fear of trampling the artists’ intentions in the attempt to proclaim connections. But the cohort of young artists in the currentWhitney Biennial are so independent and energetic in articulating their practices that there is little danger of these voices getting lost.

Seven of this group of eight were selected by Stuart Comer, whose show’s premise argues that we are currently witnessing the dissolution of the old art-historical boundaries between mediums and the birth of new hybrids, a artistic development paralleling the widespread adoption of new and hyphenated personal identities in the broader culture. Touring Comer’s third floor installation at the museum, these young artists provide some of the clearest expressions of that thesis, perhaps because they have spent most of their lives in times that have embraced the composite, the blended, the layered.

If you want to get an idea of what will be talked about not only in this Biennial, but for years to come, check out these artists with long careers ahead of them.

KEVIN BEASLEY (born 1985)

At first glance, the contribution of this New York-based artist may appear to be a pair of assemblages made from the detritus of everyday life in the city: a sneaker, a torn bit of clothing, all clinging to a grey lump of plastic or foam. In fact, these objects are a sort of sculptural recording of one of the performances at the heart of Beasley’s practice. More than merely leaving behind documentation or props, the artist is striving to encapsulate the potential of movement in a static work, aiming to freeze movement from various angles like a cubistic memory. In addition to the objects on the third floor, Beasley will be performing in the second week of May.

ZACKARY DRUCKER  (1983) and RHYS ERNST (1982)

drucker

Zackary Drucker, “Relationship (Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, 2008).”
Courtesy of the artists and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

Offering up the most literal expression of shapeshifting personal identities, Drucker and Ernst both have been undergoing gender reassignment surgery for several years, the former from a man to a woman, the latter vice-versa. A couple in their personal as well as professional lives, the Los Angeles duo have recorded the slow evolution in photos and films of their everyday lives. The means of expression is perhaps the most traditional of any of these artists—when looking at the wall covered with color photos of utterly intimate moments shared between the two lovers and artists, it is hard not to think of Nan Goldin’s photographs of a quarter century ago. Yet where Goldin’s works were praised for their honest expressions of angst and pain and frailty within relationships, the power here comes from the couple’s casual joy and easy confidence. The occasional visual jokes (two eggs held between a pair of thighs, a sausage about to be consumed) refer back to the project’s central theme with a knowing wink and reveal behind the seemingly candid shots a self-awareness that speaks to everyone’s attempts to remake themselves. Films by the pair will be on view a various times during the Biennial’s run.

RADAMÉS “JUNI” FIGUEROA (1982)

Ostensibly, Figueroa tries to offer a little bit of his native San Juan, Puerto Rico, in his humble plywood architectural installation, located in the space the museum euphemistically calls its sculpture court. In fact, the hut—decorated with a few tropical plants and items of clothing—occupies the claustrophobic basement-level pit, over which the full mass of Breuer’s Brutalist building looms. As political metaphor, this relationship of between artwork and host lacks for subtlety. But on further examination the installation reveals layers of rebelliousness and humor. In the plastic photomural of palm trees that serves as the hut’s entry curtain, one senses the artist’s embrace of the outsider’s stereotypes about the tropics, like a reclaiming of words of derision. And at least during the frigid opening week, the neon sign inside that says “breaking the ice” turned the conciliatory phrase into a well-placed jab.

YVE LARIS COHEN (1985)

Brooklyn-based Laris Cohen may win the title of most easily overlooked artwork in the exhibition—and this is a year with quite a few contenders. Only after reading the wall label might the viewer notice a deep cut in the surrounding sheetrock. On five different occasions during the show’s run, that piece of wall will be removed by art handlers and brought to the Whitney’s still-under-construction downtown space, where the artist and a troupe of dancers will incorporate the sheetrock while performing pieces with choreography derived from OSHA regulations. The performers will then take the responsibility for returning and reinstalling the prodigal chunk of plaster. Is the work about the futility of trying to document something that is as time- and location-specific as the movement of people through an ever-changing world? Or will the wall, as it becomes more and more distressed, start to speak of the way that people inevitably leave a mark, however difficult it may be to read the exact intention of the mark-maker?

TONY LEWIS (1986)

lewis

Tony Lewis, peoplecol, 2013. Pencil, graphite powder and tape on paper.
Courtesy the artist and Shane Campbell Gallery, Chicago. Photo Robert Chase Heishman.

Lewis is the only artist in this cadre to be selected by curator Michelle Grabner. His two large works on paper are formally austere yet simultaneously touching, since they embody a yearning to reach out and communicate, even as the speaker seems to have come to believe communication is impossible. The white paper is covered in smudges and footprints, the occasional smear of black pigment, and even more rare smatterings of glitterring graphite. Hovering over this gritty ground are a few stray words or individual letters and a meandering line that seems to trace one pathway connecting these signs. The text fragments are lifted from a script that Lewis does not reveal, except to say it grapples with the history and ongoing development of race relations in the United States. We are left to trace our own lines, find our own way through this bleak landscape. Like characters in a Beckett play, the drawings are driven by a need to converse, even if understanding is to be eternally out of reach.

DASHIELL MANLEY (1983) Los Angeles, CA

manley

Dashiell Manley, Scene 3 Version B 2, 2013. Gouache, ink, watercolor, linen, wood,
acrylic sheet, lighting gels, paper, tape, and steel. Image courtesy of the Artist,
Redling Fine Art, and Jessica Silverman Gallery. Photo Jeff Mclane.

Manley’s presentation includes large clear panels that have been painted on or have had colored lighting gels attached, as well as video monitors showing looped footage that seems to incorporate these semi-transparent abstractions with both old films and more recent footage, perhaps from TV advertisements. The wall label tells us that the paintings and videos were derived from the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery, and it would be easy to assume these are homages or second-level appropriations. But as one considers the relative strength of the various pieces, it becomes increasingly hard to tell what was the input and what was the output of Manley’s creative process. One might guess that the panels are byproducts of a cumbersome process of colorizing the film. Or maybe they are Minimalist reductions of the film, movement transposed into color and shape. After further consideration, the whole ensemble becomes a comment on the overlap between the concepts of inspiration and creative expression and the circularity of the artistic process.

 JACOLBY SATTERWHITE (1986)

satterwhite

Jacolby Satterwhite, “Transit,” Video Still from Reifying Desire 6, 2014. HD digital video,
color, 3-D animation. Courtesy of Monya Rowe Gallery and Mallorca Landings Gallery.

Satterwhite’s sci-fi video fantasias grouped under in the series Reifying Desire 1-6might be analyzed as a next generation riposte to Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, though I doubt that was the artist’s intention. Mixing live action and animation and incorporating his own dance performances as well as drawings by his mother, Satterwhite’s videos explode on the screen with never-ending action and indigestible waves of imagery. Where Barney’s films seemed be a desperate attempt to explain the messiness of desire—like the ego and super-ego trying to rein in and order a confusing world—Satterwhite is intent on inventing his own environments to conform to his every whim, conveying the id let loose with a set a video-game development tools.

SERGEI TCHEREPNIN (1981)

Bathing the rigid surfaces of the museum’s lobby in gentle washes of music, Tcherepnin makes music with the architectural structure itself, or at least its light fixtures. Expanding across the ceiling is a field of the concave round metal lamp shades about three feet across. They look a bit like giant cymbals, and now that Tcherepnin has rigged them to play his compositions, they sound a lot like cymbals as well. The artist’s works, or at least the ones I listened to, worked in counterpoint to the rigid grid of the architecture. Rather than following the visual clues to develop aural expression of a repetitive, minimalist bent, Tcherepnin teased from this structure a gentle harmony.

By Eric Bryant

Via Artspace

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Hello World

LA Artist Sterling Ruby: Interviews+Commentary

  • Sterling Ruby has just opened a 90,000 sq ft studio in California” Financial Times London

http://www.harpersbazaar.co.uk/guide/bazaar-art/pass-notes-sterling-ruby

Pass Notes: Sterling Ruby

Violet Hudson gives us the lowdown on fashion’s favourite artist Sterling Ruby.

Who is Sterling Ruby?

If you have been paying attention to the fashion merry-go-round, you will have already seen some of Sterling Ruby’s designs. He collaborated on a punky, collage-inspired menswear AW14 collection with Raf Simons, shown in Paris last week. But Ruby isn’t actually a clothes designer; he’s an exciting young artist of international renown.

Who is he?

A German-born artist who currently lives and works in LA.

What’s his stuff like?

Good question. Ruby doesn’t confine himself to one medium. His work has spanned many oeuvres of art, from canvases and collages to ceramics and ‘nail varnish drawings’. He works in sculpture and in textiles. Immensely versatile, there is no signature Sterling Ruby style – although there are unifying themes if you look carefully enough.

So…how would I recognise one of his pieces?

They share the same punk aesthetic, and are all influenced by societal issues. Ruby has cited schizophrenia as an inspiration, as well as gang warfare, cults and maximum security prisons.

Is he mentally stable?

He is sane, but wildly creative (if those attributes aren’t mutually exclusive).

Tell me more…

He was born on an American military base in Bitburg, Germany. He’s a bright spark: Joyce Carol Oates’ novels are a big influence, and he finds creative stimulation in everything from fascist architecture to LA graffiti.

Who likes him?

The New York Times art critic, Roberta Smith, has called him one of the most interesting contemporary artists around. The Guggenheim, MoMA, Tate and Raf Simons are all collectors.

Where can I see his work?

Apart from his work in permanent gallery collections, Ruby has created a public sculpture in Portugal. As for exhibitions, you’ll have to pop over to NY to see him this year. He’s showing at Hauser & Wirth from 9 May – 25 July. See hauserwirth.com for more details.

Images:

Installation view, ‘EXHM’, Hauser & Wirth London, England, 2013 © Sterling Ruby / Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth / Photo: Alex Delfanne

CDCR, (2011)

© Sterling Ruby / Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth /Photo: Robert Wedemeyer

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Sterling Ruby at Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens

January 7th, 2014
Sterling Ruby at Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens

Artist: Sterling Ruby

Venue: Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens, Deurle

Exhibition Title: Droppa Blocka

Date: October 27, 2013 – January 14, 2014

Click here to view slideshow

Sterling Ruby at Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens

Sterling Ruby at Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens

Sterling Ruby at Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens

Full gallery of images, press release and link available after the jump.

Images:

Images courtesy of Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens, Deurle

Press Release:

Sterling Ruby (b. 1972 Germany, lives and works in Los Angeles, U.S.A.) is a multidisciplinary artist who became renowned for his large glassy ceramic sculptures and abstract paintings.  His paintings are reminiscent of dark interpretations of the Colour Field Paintings from the sixties.  His work can as well refer to classic architecture and modern Minimalism, but also to marginality, vandalism and power structures.  His exceptional use of materials and his ability to develop a particularly powerful visual language makes Sterling Ruby one of the most important artists of the beginning of the twenty-first century.  At the museum Dhondt-Dhaenens, Sterling Ruby creates a complete project for the large patio and the garden.

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http://www.bonnierskonsthall.se/en/utstallning/sterling-ruby-soft-work/

Sterling Ruby

Bonniers Konsthall invites Los Angeles based artist Sterling Ruby to present his first solo exhibition in Sweden.

On December 15th Bonniers Konsthall opens the first large solo exhibition for the Los Angeles based artist Sterling Ruby in Scandinavia. Sterling Ruby, whose been named one of the 2000s most interesting artists, works in a mixture of materials and genres, from glazed biomorphic ceramics to drawings in nail varnish. He takes his subject matter from a wide range of sources, including maximum security prisons, urban gangs, modernist architecture, and the mechanisms of warfare.  His works can be seen as a form of assault on both materials and social power structures.

The universe of Soft Work is by first look playful, soft and humorous but will soon reveal a dimensions of fear or terror. The artist transforms pillows, blankets, and quilts from objects of comfort into ominous sculptural objects that hint at the possibility that safety and security are an illusion. Here the American flag is used as material in gigantic vampire mouths and obese stuffed animals hangs from the roof like macerated cadavers.

The exhibition is organized in association with Centre d’Art Contemporain, Genéva, FRAC Champagne-Ardenne, Reims and MACRO, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rome,

 

Sterling Ruby Soft Work, installation view, FRAC Champagne-Ardenne. Foto: Martin Argyroglo.

Program

Wed 9 Jan, The Cool School by Morgan Neville


The Cool School is an abject lesson in how to build an art scene from scratch and what to avoid in the process. The film focuses on the seminal Ferus Gallery, which groomed the LA art scene from a loose gang of idealistic beatniks into a circuit of competitive, often brilliant artists, including Ed Kienholz, Ed Ruscha, Craig Kauffman, Wallace Berman, Ed Moses and Robert Irwin.

Wed 23 Jan, Surfer Aesthetics. Liv Stoltz on LA art scene

Los Angeles is home to not only iconic artist names, but also an emerging young artist scene. In this lecture, curator Liv Stoltz talks about the younger generation that she had the opportunity to meet in Los Angeles when curating the exhibition LA Trash & Treasure at Milliken, 2006 – one of whom was Sterling Ruby.

Wed 6 Feb, Graffiti and the established art scene

Graffiti and street art and its characteristic expression has long inspired artists working in the institutional art scene. What happens when the terms change contexts? Jacob Kimvall, a doctor of art history and author of Zero Tolerance – The fight against graffiti 
in conversation with gallery owners Jonas Kleerup and Jeanette Steinsland, representing a new generation of street art inspired artists.

Jacob Kimvall is an art historian and writer. He is currently a PhD student in art history at Stockholm University and working on a thesis focusing on street art, and among other things, investigating the interplay between art institutions and street art. Kimvall himself has a background in graffiti art, and in 1992 co-founded the international graffiti periodical Underground Productions.

Jeanette Steinsland is a curator and head of the gallery Steinsland Berliner which opened in 2008. She was the first to exhibit the street artist Banksy in Stockholm and today her gallery organizes street art walks. Jeanette is currently working on an exhibition at Bomuldsfabriken in Arendal, Norway.

Jonas Kleerup is a gallerist and head of Gallery Kleerup in Stockholm. Since opening in 2006, Gallery Kleerup has represented several artists inspired by street art. Jonas also runs the project Villa Contemporary Art.

Wed 20 Feb, Jörg Heiser: Who is Sterling Ruby?

Jörg Heiser, co-editor of Frieze Magazine and co-publisher of Frieze d/e, and one of the most influential names in contemporary art criticism, gives a presentation of Sterling Ruby, putting his practice into a broader context where both Ruby’s sources of inspiration, such as minimalism, Mike Kelley and brutalistic architecture,  and Ruby’s later ”softer” works are discussed.

Jörg Heiser is co-editor of frieze magazine, co-publisher of frieze d/e, and writes for the national daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. He is a visiting professor at Kunstuniversität Linz, and teaches at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste Hamburg. His book All of a Sudden: Things that Matter in Contemporary Art (Sternberg Press) was published in 2008, and he co-edited (with Eva Grubinger) the volume Sculpture Unlimited (Sternberg Press 2011). Heiser curated the exhibition “Romantic Conceptualism” (2007, Kunsthalle Nürnberg, BAWAG Foundation Vienna). He lives in Berlin.

Wed 27 Feb, Does material play a role in artists’ practices today?

This seminar focuses on sculptural materials and asks questions surrounding what materiality can be seen as today. What information
is inherent in contemporary artists’ material choice and which shifts have influenced sculptural processes. Three artists working in three-dimensional fields discuss their view of sculpture today. Confirmed participants are Zandra Ahl and Olav Westphalen.

Zandra Ahl is a artisan and professor at Konstfack in Stockholm. Her work has often focused on taste, class and power. In her practice, she has produced and curated exhibitions, organized talks and seminars, and worked with the fanzine Slicker. She also made the documentary short film “National Museum and I” (2008). This year Nilleditions re-issued Zandra and Emma Olsson’s “Swedish Taste” (2001), and in October she will open “Family Outlet” at Gustavsbetgs art gallery.

Olav Westphalen is an artist and professor of Fine Art at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm, specializing in the performative characteristics of art.

Wed 6 Mar,
 Soft Work according Kakan Hermansson
 CANCELLED DUE TO ILLNESS

Karin ”Kakan” Hermansson, Swedish artist, tv personality, DJ and club organizer, makes a more personal tour of the exhibition. As an artist, Kakan Hermansson works with questions surrounding gender, class and sexuality. She has arranged such events as the nail-art salon Girls Club in both clubs and in the art world.

Wed 13 th Mar. Florence Derieux on Soft Work

Florence Derieux is a French art historian and curator. Since 2008 she has been director of the FRAC Champagne-Ardenne, reims where she curated the previous Soft Work exhibition and initiated the basic idea of the tour.

 

All is subject to change. Limited number of seats. 80 kr; 60 kr for students and pensioners. Free for members and everyone under 18 years. Get your ticket from 11 am the same day at the Konsthall reception desk.

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TIME OUT LONDON

Sterling Ruby: EXHM

Art

Contemporary art

Various venues

Until Sat May 4 2013

  • Free
Installation view of Sterling Ruby at Hauser & Wirth, 2013.

Installation view of Sterling Ruby at Hauser & Wirth, 2013. http://www.DELFANNE.com

Time Out says

Posted: Wed Apr 3 2013

Drip-spattered dirty monumental effigies to America dominate Sterling Ruby’s first show with Hauser & Wirth. However, the Los Angeles-based artist isn’t paying homage to the land of the free; rather, he’s exposing his misgivings.

Enormous urethane sculptures are displayed alongside debris-encrusted collages. Akin to stalagmites and missile weaponry, the floor pieces derive a corporeal quality from the poured red, white and blue pigments that run, sweat-like, down their surfaces. These glistening forms are branded with their own titles, ‘We Luv Strugglin’, ‘The Pot is Hot’, and ‘Drag On’, honouring the protest slogan. Ruby also uses acronyms to reference the very government agencies he’s questioning, most blatantly in ‘CDCR’ – California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations.

There are odes to American craft in his quilt-like soft fabric sculptures. ‘Pile (4129)’ slouches on the floor, its stars and stripes material oozing red droplets, while the bulbous form of ‘Husbands + Drops (4133)’ hangs from th gallery ceiling like a disemboweled cuddly toy.

If only the exhibition’s slick production had taken on more of the works grungy poetics, Ruby would be as much of a superpower as the organisations he’s poking at.

Freire Barnes

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  • SUPERMAX

    Sterling Ruby installation view of MOCA Focus: Sterling Ruby, SUPERMAX 2008 2008 photo by Brian Forrest


  • September 22, 2011

    Sterling Ruby and Lucio Fontana

    By KEN JOHNSON NYTimes

    Andrea Rosen

    525 West 24th Street, Chelsea

    Through Oct. 15

    Pairing Sterling Ruby and Lucio Fontana is an inspired idea. Fontana (1899-1968) was the Italian avant-gardist known for cutting neat, graceful slices into his own monochrome paintings. He violated sheets of copper, too, leaving them bent, scratched and ragged along the edges of the incisions. Three examples from 1962 are included here. Less well known and compelling in a different way are his ceramics: pedestal-size, expressionist sculptures of vigorously worked and beautifully glazed clay. In two representations of the Crucifixion from the 1950s the literally torn and gouged clay and the figuratively tortured flesh of Jesus become one.

    Mr. Ruby, who was born in 1972 and lives in Los Angeles, toys freely with multiple styles. He has the attitude of a grunge rocker with a head full of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. A big, bracingly ugly bronze sculpture resembles part of a subterranean archaeological dig. Displayed on pedestals, flat-bottomed, crudely hand-molded clay basins contain broken pieces of other basins and pours of brightly colored glazes that resemble toxic chemicals and tarry sludge. Large, framed collages are mainly made from pieces of stained and splattered cardboard that appear to have been used initially as studio floor covers.

    Fontana and Mr. Ruby share a mission to uncover violent psychic depths that genteel idealism covers up. Yet in so doing, both exercise acute conceptual and aesthetic sophistication. (Mr. Ruby might be the love child of the artists and university professors Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley.) They are mandarins masquerading as barbarians in the wishful service of convulsive beauty.

STERLING RUBY

STERLING RUBY
SUPERMAX 2008

Full color illustrations
Paperback, 152 pages, English

Introduction by Jeremy Strick
Cataogue essays by Sarah Conaway, Erik Frydenborg, and Philip Kaiser

Published by The Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-933751-10-8

30 USD

  • Monocle
    Sterling Ruby

Sterling Ruby is now at the top of the LA artworld. The Wall Street Journal recently said Ruby is the number one artist who will enter art history.

  • ========================================================================
  • 7 Dec 2012
  • The Wall Street Journal Asia

STERLING RUBY

40, lives in Los Angeles

Gestures of apocalyptic angst. Mr. Ruby is a pro at toggling several gritty series of artworks that collectively chronicle what he calls his “generation’s unrest”—from ceramic bowls that evoke ancient dig sites to drippy fang-toothed “Vampire” sculptures to neon graffiti-style paintings. At a time when some art schools still preach cerebral conceptualism, Mr. Ruby’s eagerness to get messy makes him look like a maverick. When it comes to coveted artists, London collector Tiqui Atencio says this artist is “first on everyone’s list.”

sterling ruby 5

Sterling Ruby 2

sterling ruby 1

homepage

Apr 5, 2010

Sterling Ruby

Posted by Honey
Filed in All entries, Art

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Sterling Ruby’s three dimensional structures engage with traditional considerations of sculpture being inherently relative to the human body: things which occupy real space (rather than painting’s illusionary space) are experienced physically. Measured against minimalism’s hallowed purity of the object, where form is asserted on a conceptual level, Ruby’s Kiss Trap Kismet is a radical convergence of the sublime and abject. Presented as a towering arch, Kiss Trap Kismet poses object as organism – primal, totemic, exuding a raw, animal power in its visceral aesthetic. Mounted on a graffitied plinth, Ruby’s sculpture teeters between instinctive revulsion and stounding beauty, drawing reference to contemporary ritual, aggression, and urban experience.

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Art in Review

NYTimes

By ROBERTA SMITH, KEN JOHNSON and KAREN ROSENBERG
Published: March 21, 2008

STERLING RUBY

Sterling Ruby and Metro Pictures

“Bread Basket,” a sculpture from 2007 by Sterling Ruby.

The Drawing Center

Sterling Ruby is one of the most interesting artists to emerge in this century. That’s only eight years, of course, but the claim may stick. He makes obstreperous, richly glazed ceramic vessels that suggest charred remains; totemic sculptures webbed with mucousy, macramélike drips of resin; large, dark collages dotted with constellations of tiny images of artifacts; and drawings, photographs and short videos.Mr. Ruby draws from ancient art, graffiti, sports, science fiction and the persistence of primitivism on all fronts. Minimalism and other forms of authority are frequent targets. Most important, he situates all this in a continuum of material, process, history and emotion.

Mr. Ruby, who lives in Los Angeles, stormed New York last spring with an inchoate two-gallery show at Metro Pictures and Foxy Production. “Superoverpass,” a big white Formica arch à la Tony Smith — expertly finished but grimy and incised with graffiti — turned Foxy into an eerie mausoleum. Metro displayed the drawings, several increasingly phallic totems and a large ceramic mortar with pestles swimming in glaze. It all fulfilled the battle cry of his most widely quoted anti-poster: “Finish Architecture. Kill Minimalism. Long Live the Amorphous Law.”

Now Mr. Ruby is back with a pair of slightly quieter, clarifying exhibitions. The Metro show is his first devoted entirely to ceramics, a medium he took up about 10 years ago, evolving an innovative, violent variation of “hand built” that suggests post-Schnabel Peter Voulkos. The 14 works straddle the line between decoration and tragedy. Some suggest votive objects adorned with misshapen amphora handles. Several contain small bowls, as if you were supposed to scoop up their bright, slurred glazes. “Bread Basket,” splattered with shiny oranges, black and blues and a crusty white, resembles a child’s car seat or a football helmet after some cataclysm.

At the Drawing Center Mr. Ruby has filled the small gallery with drawings, collages and photographs, as well as two enormous, Formica-covered, benchlike monoliths whose incisions include “cop” in enormous letters. Here glaze is replaced by red nail polish on paper, and the artist’s vessels are primarily tattoo-covered bodies seen in photographs.

ROBERTA SMITH

Sterling Ruby / frac champagne-ardenne

Exposition Sterling Ruby / frac champagne-ardenne

sterling ruby 3

A Hard Look during Sterling Ruby’s Cushy and Satirical Solo Exhibition in France

| June 5, 2012 |
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REIMS — ”Soft Work,” Sterling Ruby’s initial solo uncover in France, non-stop final week during a Champagne-Ardenne FRAC in Reims. It focuses on several new pieces in an garb initial recognised in 2005, and outlines a depart for a artist, who formerly worked essentially with some-more plain materials. Here, as a pretension indicates, density predominates by a use of pressed fabric — though a ideas are hard-hitting.

The muster was curated by FRAC executive Florence Derieux — a opposite chronicle of it was presented during a Geneva Contemporary Art Center progressing this year. It includes works imitative vampire mouths that hang from a rafters, red drizzling from their teeth like cushy metaphors for consumerism. The array “Husband Child” consists of beanbags made like bum and was desirous by a beanbag chairs found in standard American TV bedrooms of a 1980s. Other pieces are some-more vertical, like a set of thin, intertwined sausages that remember a bars of a prison. “This era of artists, generally in a United States though not customarily there, has stopped desiring in this antithesis between condensation and formalism,” Derieux told ARTINFO France. “There is a arrange of reusing of these strategies.”

The sculptures in “Soft Work” — that is on perspective by Aug 26 — have been sewn with several pressed and colorful fabrics, some of that are recycled, while others were purchased. Certain pieces are lonesome with dripped paint à la Jackson Pollock, while others underline tangible patterns, like a American flag. At initial peek a designation is fun and humorous — a large cushiony playground. But there’s unequivocally zero so soothing about this show; a meditative is utterly radical. Erotic though not vulgar, domestic though peaceful, a designation touches on 4 vital subjects: a United States, feminism, mercantile liberalism, and a penal system.

“‘Soft Work’ is customarily a terse term. It’s not hard, it’s not solid, it’s malleable,” Ruby told ARTINFO France. “This tenure refers to what a designation is. It’s a fiber sculpture though it’s also in anxiety to several centuries of art regulating textiles, to art therapy, and to feminism, especially. In America, there is a domesticity that is not compared with masculinity — or if it is, it’s customarily compared with a difference, a contradiction.” Ruby, who complicated French speculation in college, cites a incluence of Foucault‘s papers on a penal system, heterotopias or spaces on a margins of society, passionate norms, domesticity, and governmental constraints on a individual.

Born in 1972 to a Dutch mom and an American father, Ruby chose to work in Los Angeles, where he was an partner to a late Mike Kelley, who became a tighten friend. Derieux pronounced that some of a works are an loyalty to Kelley, who committed self-murder progressing this year. “The star of ‘Husband Child’ is utterly tighten to that of Mike Kelley,” she said. “Why certain practices, certain tellurian activities are ascribed to women, for example, sewing, etc. — they had talked about this a lot.”

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homecoming

a conversation with sterling ruby

27 April, 2011

Berlin rents might be going up, but Berliners still root for gritty ideological integrity in art. Sprüth Magers’s decision to present Sterling Ruby‘s I Am Not Free Because I Can Be Exploded Anytime during Gallery Weekend exemplifies that commitment.

Ruby is a Los Angeles-based artist working primarily with large-scale ceramics, spray-painted canvases, poured urethane sculptures and collages. He was born in Bitburg, Germany but grew up in Baltimore and suburban Pennsylvania. His background includes a degree in agriculture and experience in construction, which he applies to the massive proportions of his physically intimidating sculptures. A sense of being overwhelmed and even threatened activates his art, which largely addresses America’s methods of containment, restraint, restriction and punishment. Supermax, his 2008 exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, which evoked the feeling of being incarcerated, is the foundation for his solo show at Sprüth Magers. Here, he focuses on America’s insidious paranoia—and its use and abuse by the American government.

Ana Finel Honigman: How do you define and value freedom?

Sterling Ruby: To me, personally, freedom is always about being able to set up my own parameters and to have a private space in order to work through them. I definitely don’t see myself as an anarchist, but coming up against external limitations is where the definition of freedom becomes less abstract. Being able to work the way I do, as an artist, seems like freedom… for sure.

AFH: On ideological, not just petty logistical levels, how does America’s obsession with terrorist threats limit our profound freedom?

SR: America’s obsession with terrorism, in general, is a scapegoat for its own self-importance. What I mean is that our paranoia regarding terrorism is used to give primacy to the ideologies of America ahead of other countries. This kind of U.S. righteousness holds countries of “difference” into account for not being similar to us. We also have a real predisposition to equate fighting with freedom, which creates a situation where conflict and liberation go hand in hand with one another.

AFH: What were the circumstances when you first encountered the collaboration between Jenny Holzer and Lady Pink?

SR: I first saw these works in Munich at Sprüth Magers. Philomene Magers introduced me to this collaboration between Holzer and Pink, and I immediately fell in love with the series. Holzer is one of my all-time favourites, but her works are so clinical and polished. The Lady Pink graffiti images accompanied by Holzer’s stenciled texts seemed much dirtier, less finished, almost illicit.

AFH: Does RWB (Red, White, Blue) also involve England, France and other countries with these colours dominant in their flag? Is this show essentially referencing America, or the West in general?

RS: I suppose it could be seen as reference to those other countries, but in this instance it is an autobiographical take on being an American and associating that colour combination with American power.
For most of my youth I grew up in rural Pennsylvania and quite often I would see shirts, bumper stickers and posters that read “THESE COLORS DON’T RUN.” This slogan perfectly illustrates the symbolic attachment of Americans to the colours of the flag, and again there is that implied readiness to fight . . . it has always stayed with me.

AFH: What is your ideal for government involvement in citizens’ lives?

SR: Stay out—stay out and let us crash if we need to. I suppose that’s not a real answer. My ideal for the American government is for it to allocate more funding and tax revenue towards mental and physical health, change the drug laws, raise education levels, revise prison and correctional standards, and reverse its continued escalation of funding for the military industrial complex. But this is difficult, we are such a large and diverse country, and we have come to be seen as the peacekeeper for the world, which is very schizophrenic. You know. It often seems impossible to make this kind of change in the trajectory that we have had for so many years—we’re fucked.

AFH: How have Robert Morris, Rosemarie Trockel, Jenny Holzer and Lady Pink influenced your work and world view?

SR: That’s difficult to sum up and even more difficult to give credit where credit is due. Morris defied Judd’s Minimalism by making it psychological, physical, theatrical and personal. Trockel’s work has been very important to me, she seems like the logical figure to continue the Beuys trajectory of alchemy—political, formal and healing processes of actual art making. Holzer is militant, she is unforgiving in her subject matter and I admire that a lot. Lady Pink is the exception here, I was interested in her work because of her use of spray-paint and her themes of sexuality, which you don’t see very often in graffiti. I’ve been influenced by urban environments for a while, particularly since I moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago. This is not street art in particular, but more street expression, what happens in the streets as survival adaptation. Lady Pink is an anomaly to what is happening now in “formal” street art. I don’t know what she’s been up to recently, but I quite like this set of collaborative work from the 80s.

AFH: What attracts you to Minimalism?

SR: My first real introduction to Minimalism was in grad school at Art Center, primarily through Donald Judd’s writing, which seemed hierarchical. I understood Judd’s interest in laying out the initial discourse, which was a foundation of simple industrialised objects or sculptures with no personality. Objects that were realised without the actual hand of intervention, this was also similar to Michael Fried’s Art and Objecthood. Judd seemed to be responding negatively to Abstract Expressionism.

I started to think about simple minimalist forms in urban environments and how often I saw them demarcated, as a kind of existential “tagging”—you know, citizens trying to gain footing and legacy by placing their name on something with object presence… within their own community. Of course in Los Angeles this was primarily a gang-initiated activity—claiming that a certain territory belonged to you. For me it seemed to be similar to Judd’s possessive strategy 30 years prior. It is all about territory.

AFH: How does Berlin compare to L.A.?

SR: I’m not sure, I suppose that they are both inexpensive and somewhat sprawling. They both seem like easy artist cities. Germany seems to have a similar artist and education connection to Los Angeles—artists still teach.

AFH: How do you respond to common anti-Americanism in Europe?

SR: I completely understand it. I was born in Bitburg, Germany. My mother was from Eindhoven, Netherlands, and I still have a big “Dutch” family there that I visit frequently. I’m quite aware of the hostility that America seems to disseminate. I get it.

AFH: How does paranoia in America manifest differently from elsewhere?

SR: Well, we’re crazy—we worry about everything. There is such a tension between wanting freedom and wanting protection. We are true historical schizophrenics. Paranoia and fear serve to legitimise our actions in regard to what we produce both politically as well as culturally. I suppose that it is a good time for me to say that I wouldn’t want it any other way. I like the push and pull effect that America has had on me—it is true contemporary existentialism.

AFH: What makes political art successful?

SR: Political art only seems to be successful when it has no bias or hides its bias. I suppose that most art has an agenda, but quite frankly I don’t like art that preaches as much as I like art that calmly reveals circumstances or societal problems that most individuals ignore.

by Ana Finel Honigman

===

STERLING RUBYFALSE POSITIVE PROPHETSThe False Positive Prophets will bring light to the fact that we cannot continue in the ways that we have in the past. The False Positive Prophets will foretell of the final outcome, and herald an end to the continuum. The False Positive Prophets will cut through all cynicism, ironic contemporary endeavors and meaningless gestures to shed light on how truly fucked we are. Achieving these states will require psychotic-like divination.VISIONARY SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCESeveral diagnostic categories have been proposed for the term, psychotic-like divination, which have the potential for false-positive outcomes. Two of the most promising categories, from recent studies and limited control groups, are problem-solving schizophrenia and positive disintegration. In direct contrast to contemporary mainstream psychology, psychotic-like divination sees “disturbed” or “harmful states” (tension, anxiety, depression, psychosis et al.) as necessary conditions and conduits for growth. Further categories will include creative illness, spiritual emergencies, mystical-experience with psychotic features, metanoiac voyages and visionary states. The term Visionary Spiritual Experience from a False Positive Prophet or “VSE from FPP” is used to describe how, through the guidance of such an instructor, one can achieve these states. For the purposes of this study, the term visionary is used as it is in anthropological and religious studies to refer to a person whose mental condition leads that individual to see things more clearly than the general population and to propose radical changes for the entire society. Such visionary experiences are more likely to occur in societies undergoing rapid and devastating social change like the United States of fucking America.DEVASTATES
te, dev·as·tat·ed, dev·as·tat·ing, (see also: United·dev·a·States)
1. To lay waste; destroy.
2. To overwhelm; confound; stun: was devastated by the overwhelming amount of apocalyptic information.PROBLEM-SOLVING SCHIZOPHRENIA: A CASE STUDYThe Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow just won the 2010 Oscar award for “Best Picture”. This says something about what is going on today, here and now, but maybe not what you might be thinking. Actor Jeremy Renner plays Staff Sergeant William James. James is an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) sergeant who gets stationed as the team leader in the U.S. Army’s Bravo Company during their last month in Baghdad, Iraq. James has a deep addiction to the risk that this job entails; he has a reckless demeanor when dismantling bombs, and he continuously places his company in jeopardy while out in the field. He plays ARMA HD military simulation games while off duty. James finishes his tour of duty and returns to his wife and infant son in America. Within this domestic situation, he is uninterested, alien, and absent. He quickly requests to serve yet another year of duty in Iraq.Many film critics have praised The Hurt Locker for its accurate portrayal of contemporary warfare. The complexities and uncertainties of this film, stirred a contemplative debate regarding what side we are on, if any. But the fact is, that James doesn’t seem to be particularly patriotic, or even loyal to his task or company; instead he seems to be a pure product of his symbiotic relationship with the bombs he is dismantling. He does not exist without this relationship. Without a war zone, without an enemy, without an apparatus to disengage, he does not exist. He is a case study for contemporary schizophrenia, or Problem-Solving Schizophrenia (PSS), created by a zone of habituated risk.SUPERMAXI was born in Germany to an American father and a Dutch mother. I was raised in rural Pennsylvania, but would visit my mother’s family in the Netherlands. So, I am a citizen of the United States of America, but with a bit of a remote perspective. America revels in a kind of cultural slumming; we identify with bad behavior more than any other country. America wants to be seen as a force for good across the world. To maintain this delusion, America must keep its darkness hidden and contained. At the same time, it is almost expected for an American to have the need to consume violence, as if it were a kind of longing.The Supermax is a prison constructed to be on permanent lockdown, prisoners are kept in solitary confinement, and often under sensory deprivation. American citizens are kept in homes watching television shows like MSNBC’s Lockup, where we see what it is like on “the inside.” This is interesting because, usually, one wants to be on the inside, and the outside is the bad place. The Supermax as an allegory of contemporary American society is like a beacon of the end. I look at Supermax as the closest thing I can imagine to hell.TRAUMA THEORYRobert J. Lifton and Dominick LaCapra are two authors who have considered at length a kind of “trauma theory” by means of psycho-historical studies. Robert J. Lifton is an expert on cults and thought reform. He has identified recent generations as embodying an attitude of apocalyptic uncertainty. Dominick LaCapra wrote two books, History and Memory After Auschwitz and Writing History, Writing Trauma that examine how societal violations throughout history have launched a kind of aftermath in which the dominant society became confused about who it was or who it thought it should be. They trace this trauma through multiple generations, and expound on how history has become a kind of baggage or burden for us. This baggage impedes the growth of the society, and as the timeline of history gets bigger, so does each generation’s burden. We feel ashamed of the atrocities committed in the past, but continue to commit equal atrocities in the present and look to the future with extreme apprehension and anxiety. We see no possibility of a correction, just a continuation and a continuum. We perceive ourselves universally as both victims and perpetrators and this burden will only get heavier as time goes on.BASIN THEOLOGYI collect catalogs and books, published by private and museum collections, of knives and ceramic pottery, objects from a dirty, functional past that are now being preserved in a sterilized refuge. These objects, in a sense, have been separated from their use-value. They are remnants, signs and memories of a previous utilitarian life. It is as if these knives and vessels have been removed from one functional world and placed into another kind of world, one that worships primal significance. Which I suppose means that these pieces still have a use-value, just a different kind.I have been making large ceramic basins and filling them with broken materials that look like animal remains and architectural waste. I am smashing all of my previous attempts, and futile, contemporary gestures, and placing them into a mortar, and grinding them down with a blunt pestle. I am doing this as a way of releasing a certain guilt. If I put all of these remnants into a basin, and it gets taken away from me, then I am no longer responsible for all my misdirected efforts. I will no longer have to be burdened with the heaviness of this realization. This is my basin theology. (Visionary Spiritual Experience from Vessels and Containers/VSE-VC)THE OUTSIDER AND THE DEEP SAD PITOur generation and those who come after are going to have to redefine our relationship to “the outsider”. This is not because we will reconsider our relationship to those who we perceive to be different, oppositional, or marginal, but because we will be lamenting the loss of our belief in “the inside”. When history and conditioning disallow this generation to feel autonomous, then inevitably we will feel as though we have lost control over that autonomy. The idea- -that this generation’s particular beliefs and actions are innate and unique to its identity –will inevitably become trumped by the weight of historical precedence. This will be our burden and our baggage. The product of this final reckoning will be the Deep Sad Pit.A NEW GENERATIONYoung contemporary art, particularly in the US has become abstract and formal as if in direct opposition of 90’s post-modernist and post-conceptualist terms. This return to abstract expressions and formalism is a response to the Deep Sad Pit. This new formalism brings us out of the Deep Sad Pit and into a New Era. This new formalism will heal our current state of confusion, and our lamentations about what to do next. This new formalism is a sign of our disengagement. This new formalism is a cheap and lazy cry for attention. Are we embarrassed by our abstract expression? Do we find comfort in its excess and effortlessness. This new formalism is a False Positive Prophet that will lead to a Visionary Spiritual Experience. The new curriculum will enforce the reading of “The Spiritual In Art: Abstract Painting” in opposition to “Relational Aesthetics”. Our teachers told us that this was not possible. They said that too much was destroyed, that too much was known. But this is our generation’s burden to discover. It is our burden, it is our formalism, it is our New Era.Sterling Ruby 2010
dev·as·ta

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Sterling Ruby

STERLING RUBY: VAMPIRE: PACE BEIJING

Submitted by Wayne on Mon, 2011-10-31 22:24.

American artist Sterling Ruby’s first solo exhibition in China

American artist Sterling Ruby’s first solo exhibition in China

“In this exhibition the artist is exploring the idea of the vampire as a way of reassessing the uncontrollable and insatiable drives that inform the darker aspects of human behavior.

»
Submitted by Wayne on Thu, 2010-02-25 22:59.

"These works bring what Michael Fried forty years ago called the theatricality of Minimalist sculpture to a gruesome point." AF

“These works bring what Michael Fried forty years ago called the theatricality of Minimalist sculpture to a gruesome point.” AF

Submitted by Wayne on Mon, 2008-10-20 21:00.

Raf Simons' Tokyo store "remixed" by artist Sterling Ruby Image via kultureflash

Raf Simons’ Tokyo store “remixed” by artist Sterling Ruby Image via kultureflash

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Sterling Ruby's Ashtrays

Sterling Ruby’s Ashtrays

October 8 – November 6, 2010

Opening:
October 7, 18.00 – 21.00

15, Rue des Minimes
1000 Brussels
Belgium
www.pierremariegiraud.com

The Pierre Marie Giraud gallery organizes regularly “solo shows” of the most significant figures in contemporary ceramics. From october 7th to november 6th, the gallery will feature for the first time artist Sterling Ruby, internationally known for the large variety of media and techniques he uses. The artist will present “Ashtrays,” an intriguing series of colorful and unusually shaped ceramics.

Born in 1972, Sterling Ruby lives and works in Los Angeles. His creations are very much sought after by American and European collectors and noted by arts critics at exhibitions in New York, London, Miami, Cologne and Paris. At the last Paris FIAC, his productions were endlessly astonishing in the very diverse directions he explored in order to deconstruct the norms and assert his own freedom of creative thought.

Sterling Ruby is well known for his propensity to confront all and any power or social pressure mechanism, including the major institutional art forms. Social transgression, devious attitudes, delusion, paranoia, repressed libido, are so many subjects “constellating his work.”

The creative act, for him, asserts the individual, and lets him break away from well mannered shackles, by distorting the use of media.

Created in 2010, Ruby Sterling’s ceramic “Ashtrays” explore the traditional language of design, art brut and minimalism: we are delivered unidentifiable work, bearing the intrinsic stamp of an art that is timeless and oblivious of fashion.

At the occasion of the exhibition a catalogue will be published.

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http://www.shift.jp.org/en/archives/2008/10/sterling_ruby_zen_ripper.html

Sterling Ruby Zen Ripper

Sterling Ruby Zen Ripper

The first time I had the chance to see Sterling Ruby’s work was two years ago at Emi Fontana’s gallery historically located at the address Via Bligly 42 in Milano: the show was composed of black and white pictures based on the torsos of female body builders and candles as well as totemic, dark and vaguely anthropomorphic, sculptures recalling the dripping of the lit candles. “Recombines” – that was the name of the 2006 exhibition – suggested an interest in both the imposing and the elusive.

Sterling Ruby Zen Ripper

The same can be said of “Zen Ripper”: the gallery is invaded with big, geometric sculptures made of formica sprayed with colourful textures and, now and then, cut with symbols and phrases as the ones that can be found on trees or park benches made by teenagers who want to leave a mark of their presence. There is a sharp contrast between the sculptures which seem to come from the minimalist tradition of neat and geometric shapes and the almost camouflage-like painting that disorients the viewer visiting the labyrinthic installation.

Sterling Ruby Zen Ripper

“Zen Ripper” opened in parallel with another exhibition of the Los Angeles based artist in the area: “Grid Ripper” held at Bergamo Museum of Contemporary art GAMEC which is only an hour or so away from Milano and it’s definitely worth the visit.

ZEN RIPPER
Date: September 19th – November 10th, 2008
Opening Hours: Tue-Sat 11:00-19:30
Place: Galleria Emi Fontana, Milano
Address: Viale Bligny, 42, 20136 Milano
Tel: +39 02 58322237
http://www.galleriaemifontana.com

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Sterling Ruby

SterlingGeometricStudy.jpg
Sterling Ruby Geometric Study 2005 inkjet print with red pen on paper 13″ x 19″

Sterlingblack.jpg
Sterling Ruby 90-Degree-Cryer 2004 Lambda print mounted with sintra and plexiglas 20″ x 25″

I’ve seen Sterling Ruby‘s work in Foxy Production‘s rooms before, and it pulls me in every time. I can’t explain why. Even once inside, there seem to be so many questions unanswered; in fact I think that includes most of the questions, but you can tell he’s very serious about asking. While I admit his investigations are of a kind which wouldn’t occur to me, or perhaps to most any viewer, they manage to give his unique aesthetic an extraordinary intensity just for their being posed.

Yeah, I really like them.

One caution: The two images above don’t manage to do justice to the actual work, on view in the gallery as part of a very good small group show, “Geo,” until February 12.

[both images from Foxy Production]

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http://www.we-find-wildness.com/2012/02/sterling-ruby-soft-work/

Sterling Ruby. Soft Work

Catégorie: art, exhibition, featuresPas de commentaires
27 February 2012

STERLING RUBY, Soft Work
at Centre d’Art Contemporains, Geneva
from 24 February – 22 April 2012
all images © WFW

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For his first solo exhibition in Switzerland – that opened a few days ago at the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva,  Los Angeles based artist STERLING RUBY (1972) toys freely with a series of large-scale installations of soft sculptural works designed especially for this exhibition.

RUBY makes art of myriad forms which includes ceramic vessels, enormously phallic polyurethane stalagmites, minimalist cubes “defaced” by graffiti, photographs painted with red nail polish or video works. Alternately raw and elegant, degraded and ballsy, his works depict a fascination with the repressive overtones of minimalism, architecture and the history of abstraction.

Coming from an artist known for working in an excess of media, STERLING RUBY‘s current exhibition in Geneva is surprisingly single-minded. In fact, the exhibition focuses on a significant part of his body of work that has not received specific attention until now. Pillows, blankets and quilts are transformed from objects of comfort into sculptural objects that hint at the possibility that safety and security are an illusion. He also used his soft sculptural material to transform threatening or aggressive subject matter into playfully pop-like form. However, just as his previous exhibitions, it is all about overwhelming the viewer with objects, color and surfaces.

RUBY’s vocabulary is constantly mutating and expressing danger, as in the animal kingdom where the evolutionary expression of bright colors distinguish a poisonous creature. Similarly, in a manmade environment florescent colors are used to warn or avert, to caution or police, to highlight or even to castigate, as with the choice of a florescent orange uniform for a prisoner. Color is sometimes easy to overlook, yet considering his formal choices RUBY proves to be a well-versed student of that artistic tradition. – by STEVEN PULIMOOD for 032c #20

Soft Sculpture is currently on view at Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva until 22 April 2012

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There Is No There
Miami-based. Internationally-sourced. Contemporary art site. Primary Documents. Local Explication.

Event Horizon: Sterling Ruby at the Rubell Family Collection

by Hunter Braithwaite on Jan 3, 2012 • 10:04 am No Comments

“In Mississippi it is difficult to achieve a vista.” –Barry Hannah

“When the links of the signifying chains snap, then we have schizophrenia in the form of a rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers.” That’s Fredric Jameson, outlining what he calls subjective schizophrenia, one of them postmodern maladies that we keep hearing about. His diagnosis also fits the Down and Out in Detroit and LA work of Sterling Ruby. In his rubble, one finds chunks of the New York School’s cloudwhipped façade, discolored by the gang tags of East LA. As tangled ends of the cultural continuum, they constantly try to snuff the other out. Moreover, as once separate levels of culture, quarantined from the other, their collapse reveals not so much a negation of cultural difference, but of space.

Sterling Ruby, SP170, 2011, Spray paint on canvas, 160 x 235 x 2 in.

Viewed this way, it makes sense that the paintings are preoccupied with atmospheric perpective. Created with spray paint on canvas, the images arise and retreat into a lo-gloss haze of pigment–cue the schizophrenic dispersion of subject. The color scheme recalls a heat-sensitive camera, or Predator’s vision. The dot, a puncture wound and a structuring element, lands on the cultural register somewhere between Ben-Day and an arterial spurt. And then there is the line: vertical and horizontal, repeated. This horizon underscores the work.

A horizon provides structure, be that geospatial, or narrative (John Wayne riding off into the sunset at the end of Red River). Speaking to the border between ex- and internality, it is the easiest way to locate oneself. Sugimoto, when attempting to photograph the primitive moment of naming, photographed the line between sky and sea.

Ruby comments on the distance between the subject and the landscape in his 2010-2011 essay, American Perspectives: “Our generation and those that come after are going to have to redefine their relationship to ‘the outsider.’ This is not because we will reconsider our relationship to those who we perceive to be different, oppositional, or marginal, but because we will be lamenting the loss of our belief in ‘the inside.’” Being outside history is a condition of what Karl Jaspers defined as an Axial Age, or the brief period between social epochs where thought flourishes. It is obvious that America has come to a turning point, but many, the artist included, are not optimistic about time to come.

Sterling Ruby, SP171, 2011, Spray paint on canvas, 160 x 235 x 2 in.

But the thing about the horizon is there’s just one. What is one to make of Ruby’s paintings, where the line jitters top to bottom? One can begin with parallax. Freshman year geometry example: Look at something twenty feet away. Close your right eye. Open it, then close your left eye. The object will oscillate. This phenomenon, which becomes more pronounced on the astronomical scale, is an easy allegory for the multiplicity of self. Take this excerpt from Joyce:

“What’s parallax?…Never know anything about it. Waste of time. Gasballs spinning about, crossing each other, passing. Same old dingdong always. Gas: then solid: then world: then cold: then dead shell drifting around, frozen rock, like that pineapple rock. The moon. Must be a new moon out, she said. I believe there is…I was happier then. Or was that I? Or am I now I?” (Ulysses, Episode 8, Lines 578-608)

Sterling Ruby, SP173, 2011, Spray paint on canvas, 160 x 235 x 2 in.

So while the illusory movement of a distant (solitary) object testifies to a plurality of the subject, these paintings, with their multiple horizons vibrating in tandem, almost completely dislocate the viewer. This complication of perspective reveals much larger breakdowns. The failure is not visual, but ideological. With the single horizon, we are simultaneously inside and outside of a space that is once shifting and contained. A line across a composition provides this ontological framework. (A comparison: the meditative internal space on view at the Rothko Chapel). By multiplying the horizon, the paintings seem to place us outside the outside-removed from the entire network.

Sterling Ruby, SP170, 2011, Spray paint on canvas, 160 x 235 x 2 in.

In case you were wondering, the distance to the horizon can be identified with the following formula: distance(km)=3.856√height (from sea level). For a person of average height standing on the beach, the horizon is 5km (3.1 miles) away. However, it’s rarely the numbers that matter. My favorite description of the horizon comes from Tennyson’s Ulysses:

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades

For ever and forever when I move. (Lines 19-21)

The horizon is not just the dividing line between firmament and terra firma. It is the limit, albeit one forever retreating, of human endeavor. What was once a Sublime representation of human potential is now shattered. Think of Caspar David Freidrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818. Think of the thumbnail crest of a rising moon. Etymologically, the sublime comes from the Latin sublimis, which is a combination of sub (up to) and limis (a boundary, limit, or threshold.) Push it to the limit. With Sterling Ruby’s new paintings, this limit ceases to become a spatial term, but another bit of cultural wreckage that one can pick through if they’d like.

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International Edition
December 15, 2012 Last Updated: 10:23:AM EST

A Hard Look at “Soft Work,” Sterling Ruby’s Cushy and Satirical Solo Exhibition in France

Photo: Martin Argyroglo
Installation view of Sterling Ruby’s exhibition, “SOFT WORK,” at the FRAC Champagne-Ardenne
by Juliette Soulez, ARTINFO France
Published: June 3, 2012

REIMS — “Soft Work,” Sterling Ruby‘s first solo show in France, opened last week at the Champagne-Ardenne FRAC in Reims. It focuses on several new pieces in an ensemble first conceived in 2005, and marks a departure for the artist, who previously worked primarily with more solid materials. Here, as the title indicates, softness predominates through the use of stuffed fabric — but the ideas are hard-hitting.

The exhibition was curated by FRAC director Florence Derieux — a different version of it was presented at the Geneva Contemporary Art Center earlier this year. It includes works resembling vampire mouths that hang from the rafters, red dripping from their teeth like cushy metaphors for consumerism. The series “Husband & Child” consists of beanbags shaped like buttocks and was inspired by the beanbag chairs found in typical American TV rooms of the 1980s. Other pieces are more vertical, like a set of thin, intertwined sausages that recall the bars of a prison. “This generation of artists, especially in the United States but not only there, has stopped believing in this opposition between abstraction and formalism,” Derieux told ARTINFO France. “There is a sort of reusing of these strategies.”

The sculptures in “Soft Work” — which is on view through August 26 — have been sewn with various stuffed and colorful fabrics, some of which are recycled, while others were purchased. Certain pieces are covered with dripped paint à la Jackson Pollock, while others feature recognizable patterns, like the American flag. At first glance the installation is fun and funny — a big cushiony playground. But there’s really nothing so soft about this show; its thinking is quite radical. Erotic but not vulgar, political but peaceful, the installation touches on four major subjects: the United States, feminism, economic liberalism, and the penal system.

“‘Soft Work’ is only a didactic term. It’s not hard, it’s not solid, it’s malleable,” Ruby told ARTINFO France. “This term refers to what the installation is. It’s a fiber sculpture but it’s also in reference to several centuries of art using textiles, to art therapy, and to feminism, especially. In America, there is a domesticity that is not associated with masculinity — or if it is, it’s usually associated with a difference, a contradiction.” Ruby, who studied French theory in college, cites the incluence of Foucault‘s writings on the penal system, heterotopias or spaces on the margins of society, sexual norms, domesticity, and societal constraints on the individual.

Born in 1972 to a Dutch mother and an American father, Ruby chose to work in Los Angeles, where he was an assistant to the late Mike Kelley, who became a close friend. Derieux said that some of the works are an homage to Kelley, who committed suicide earlier this year. “The universe of ‘Husband & Child’ is quite close to that of Mike Kelley,” she said. “Why certain practices, certain human activities are ascribed to women, for example, sewing, etc. — they had talked about this a lot.”

To see works from Sterling Ruby’s show at the Champagne-Ardenne FRAC, click the slide show.

This article also appears on ARTINFO France.

o See – New York: Sterling Ruby “2TRAPS” at PaceWildenstein, West 22nd Street through March 20, 2010

March 6th, 2010


Sterling Ruby, “Pig Pen” (2009-2010), on view at PaceWildenstein.

Through March 10, Sterling Ruby has two new pieces at PaceWildenstein’s downtown gallery.  On view are “Pig Pen” and “Bus,” two industrialized traps that confine, says a gallerist, humanity’s basic primitivism. This is an artist’s apocalyptic endgame.


Sterling Ruby, “Bus” (2010) at PaceWildenstein.

More images and story after the jump…



Installation view, Sterling Ruby’s “2Traps” at PaceWildenstein.

Where “Pig Pen” is a stationary cage, “Bus” is a vehicle of transportation converted into a sculptural object, emphasizing 2Traps’s feel of ultimate stasis. They are the same size — about 10′ x 9′ x 40′ — but “Pig Pen” is almost cubist nature, comprised of smaller blocks themselves composed of the security doors found on many urban homes, where “Bus” is just that automobile fitted with speakers, sub-woofers, chrome, and confinement cages. That is, the artist in both cases confines an animalistic interior, but “Bus” comments most explicitly on societal stagnancy.  Argues Ruby, today’s transportation holds its patrons still, defines them as animals in a procedurally ordered, dehumanized/dehumanizing society.


Detail from Sterling Ruby’s “Pig Pen” (2009-2010), at PaceWildenstein.


Back view, Sterling Ruby’s “Bus” (2010) at PaceWildenstein.


Detail, Sterling Ruby’s “Bus” (2010), at PaceWildenstein.

Born in Bitburg, Germany, Sterling Ruby studied at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Center College of Design. He has had solo exhibitions at Galleria d’arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Bergamo, Italy; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and more. Ruby is recently represented by PaceWildenstein, which hosts this show. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

- R. Fogel

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frieze

Issue 122 April 2009 RSS

Who is Sterling Ruby?

Monograph

Grappling with the work of an artist who relishes multiple viewpoints, myriad materials and a slippery approach to meaning

image

‘SUPERMAX 2008′ (2008), exhibition view, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

‘And he invents spaces, of which he is the convulsive possession.’
Roger Caillois

Landscape Annihilates Consciousness
On screen: a blob of viscous matter is gathered on a palette, and then smeared against a blank field. The image is accompanied by a soft, soothing, cajoling whisper, a voice, and the sound of repetitive movement: ‘I’m gonna just tap. Just gonna tap, very lightly. I don’t want to destroy. I want to diffuse. Now very lightly, lift it upward. See now, it softens it, pushes everything back. You can continue to do this ‘til it absolutely disappears on you, if you want to. You can soften it to any degree of brightness or darkness that you want in your world.’ A picture begins to emerge from planes and volumes: a snow-covered mountain landscape, the result of this tapping, softening, and diffusing. And where the painting is elaborated progressively, the voice loops back. In repetition, the murmured instructions come to seem like a mantra of sorts. Under their spell, the painter’s steady articulation of a conventional landscape comes to be more and more ambiguous.

In its 19th-century heyday, landscape painting put forward a human confrontation with the matter and appearance of the natural world. Sterling Ruby’s video, Landscape Annihilates Consciousness (2002), shows the practice as now deformed and inverted, determined instead to idealize and ‘diffuse’ this material world, ‘’til it absolutely disappears on you.’ Conventional landscape painting is figured here as the neutralization of world and mind. Reduced to its pure semiotics, painterly modulation becomes transcendentalist death wish. The last thing the painter renders is a house: flat geometry and broadcast television now produces the picture of a rustic pre-modern cabin – a nostalgic and ideological fantasy. Sovereignty is established, and totality realized. This painted world belongs to the artist, and – through the apparatus of televisual transmission, in the form of Bob Ross’ show The Joy of Painting – his world is to be yours. And yet the video dramatizes another turn as well: in his looping narration, the painter-fantasist is stuck, inertial, repeating himself. He is prey to his own creation. Annihilated and consumed by landscape, he is the one who fades into the background.

Legendary Psychasthenic
Who is Sterling Ruby in this arrangement? Which position does he inhabit? Is he the annihilated painter, or the mesmerized viewer? Is he the absent presenter of an altered artifact – its conduit or amplifier – or does he observe with us? In this video, and elsewhere, Ruby converges with each of these identities in turn, in a universe of effects without causes. Form is infinite, and dispossesses everyone equally: producer and consumer, image-maker and the one who looks. This troubled shifting of positions casts the artist one moment as producer of a heterogeneous range of conventionalized objects and styles – abstract paintings, Dada-lite collages, Minimalist art, Situationist posters, graffiti, ceramic earthenware, and so on – and the next as the outraged and dispossessed consumer of the generic signs he has produced; a third moment might find him ironizing this hysterical reaction, lacerating its private aspirations to totality; and so on.

‘Sterling Ruby’, then, is an unstable sign for a set of convergences, enactments, and circumscriptions – indeed, in its blank preciousness his name reads like a pseudonym, as if he were a fictional character. This conclusion is affirmed elsewhere: ‘The character at work,’ wrote Ed Schad in a review, ‘is not Ruby specifically, but a person who makes art created by Ruby.’1 ‘I have always thought of Sterling as a serial killer Joseph Beuys,’ Sarah Conaway declared in the third section of Ruby’s 2005 video Transient Trilogy. ‘Each pocket of work came from a different viewpoint’, Ruby told Holly Myers in 2006. Yet they share a ‘lineage’, he continues: ‘a dichotomy of repression and expression’.

Abyss of Negative Utopias
This ‘Ruby’ has been prolific since his first solo exhibitions, which began in 2003, while he was a student at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena; a survey will include ceramics and sculpture, posters and collages, and finish up with his synthetic exhibition-forms and video works.

His work deals with the production of space, including abstracted ceramic biomorphs, polyurethane stalagmites, and stained or defaced ‘Minimalist’ objects. His 2008 exhibition ‘Kiln Works’ at Metro Pictures is emblematic of this approach: convoluted and asculptural objects reproduce the organizational logic of microcellular organisms (Clover Dear, Blackout Romeo, all works in the exhibition 2008), simple containers or tools (Mortar and Pestle, Bread Basket), and mutant artifacts (Head Artist / Archaeology). Applied with expressionistic fervour, liquid rivulets of drizzled glaze are fired into unlikely, grotesque anti-forms – flayed turkeys, uterine dissections – that shade unexpectedly into ostentatious ornaments (Pyrite Fourchette) or weird reliquaries (resonating with Paul Thek’s and Lynda Benglis’ work, among others). These objects nevertheless relate to human size, embracing their domestic status as things for us, sometimes with comic literalness: Bread Basket is no bigger than its namesake.

Installed for ‘Killing the Recondite’ (Metro Pictures, 2007) or ‘Stray Alchemists’ (Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, 2008), Ruby’s ‘stalactites’ embrace instead an architectural and geological logic of phallic verticality, somewhat effaced by the alien fragility of the polyurethane strands from which they are composed. Like the ceramic artifacts, these are borne up by support structures marked as objects in their own right: wooden gallows, beam structures, minimalist cubes, plinths, and ethnographic or consumerist display platforms. These geometrical structures are evocative of public sculpture and the relative anarchy it can provoke: works like Inscribed Monolith (EPA-Alabaster) (2006) incorporate scrawled graffiti, fingerprints, and aggressive inscriptions on their surface. But they can also act out that version of minimalism which instates an oppressive ‘inclusiveness’.2 For example, Superoverpass, (Foxy Production, 2007), a minimalist arch which compresses the space of the gallery and looms above the viewer, or the various Inscribed Plinths from ‘SUPERMAX 2008’, presented by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, which confront and structure the physical behaviour of their audience. They enact an oppressive minimalism to destroy it – to exacerbate and attack Minimalism’s perverse logic of power, its negative Utopia; even so, they are subject to the contradictory logic of iconoclasm, which reifies and glorifies the power it aims to defile. Defaced, shat upon, decapitated – titled Headless Dick / Deth Till (2008), one work presented an erect and bloodied formica shaft – and forced to bear the written language its pristine surfaces meant to forestall, 1960s Minimalist sculpture remains ineradicably and inevitably at the centre of the story. So too does the established critique of minimalist form as brutal and domineering, famously articulated by art historian Anna Chave in her 1990 essay ‘Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power,’ come to seem, in Ruby’s new context, reciprocally grotesque – paradoxically in love with the movement it means to insult.3

Gesamtzerstörwerk
Paintings, posters and digitized collages map out a second zone of heterogeneous activity, pictorial in nature: breathtakingly lurid paintings, bright, sharply-defined acrylic spatters over blurred, neon topographical maps (such as Spectrum Ripper, 2008); fungal smears of dye captured in thick blocks of translucent urethane (Absolute Contempt for Total Serenity / DB Deth, 2008); bubblegum zones of flesh and mint and orange, stained with nail polish and framing magazine clippings of military camouflage and a depiction of a dressed wound (American Soldier – Digital Camouflage Composition, 2007). Collages notice strange patterns in the detritus of culture, and assemble them for our view – for example cross-breeding high Modernist abstraction with LA gangs’ colour fixation in FEMALE GANG HANDS (2007). Or they barrel off with giddy takes on postmodern body culture that decry formal domination (‘Long Live the Amorphous Law’ reads a graffiti slogan scrawled across Anti-Print Poster 3, 2007) and locate allegories of metamorphic possibility. These include the male-to-female transsexual effacing her phallus who appears in Trans Compositional (Crimped Red Hair, Cream Satin Dress) (2006), alongside gestural droplets of red nail polish that are themselves ‘reoriented’ from horizontal to vertical; and the bodybuilder whose physique mimics an erect penis in ‘Physicalism – The Recombine series’, (2006), as their clenched bodies are paired with – or have their heads replaced by – biomorphic candles.

To describe the works in this way, however, is to present them problematically severed from their system of objects. In their synthetic forms – exhibitions, video – Ruby’s works achieve a more programmatic scenography. The installation for ‘Stray Alchemists’ is a blasted psychedelic bunker; ‘SUPERMAX 2008’ presents the spires of a living organic city emerging from the inert remains of an imperial, minimalist urbanism. Paintings and actions are related to one another allegorically and semi-autonomously; they become accreted scenes and atomized props in a larger Gesamtzerstörwerk (a ‘total work of destruction,’ as historian Hanne Bergius once described the cumulated assemblage of Johannes Baader’s The Great Plasto-Dio-Dada-Drama, 1920).4 From this allegorical terrain of exhibition we perceive both Ruby’s meaning in fragments, and a traumatized and hysterical ‘Ruby.’

‘… ciphers of an infinite authority …’
Perhaps this ‘Ruby’ will assassinate or replace the artist who produced him. In Transient Trilogy he seems intent on erasing his twin from the story, at least judging by the quote from an essay by Roger Caillois worked into the video’s script as a voice-off: ‘If an artist is invested with what he does, then there is little possibility of disassociating the maker from the work. When work is specifically about the artist, or if the work is dependent on what the artist-figure is occupied with, then the maker can have no real distance from the work. The artist and the work are unified as a hermetic structure and isolated from outside influence.’ Alternately this artist is simply self-similar: ‘… not similar to something, but just similar.’5

Yet the ‘Ruby’ enacted by the work is hardly so hermetic or isolated; rather, pre-existing sources, references and theories pervade his work, where they are brought into a contradictory and mutually embarrassing constellation. Critical theory ruptures artistic practice, even as its aphoristic obscurity is lampooned. Every work comes readymade with theoretical armature, self-annihilations, didactic instructions, blasé refutations, rabid slogans and more. This can leave an attentive viewer confounded – wondering if theirs is just another paranoid inscription onto forms full of evident energy, but still mysterious or essentially arbitrary. Ruby is clearly aware of what Henri Lefebvre described as ‘the vanity of a critical theory which works only at the level of words and ideas (i.e. at the ideological level)’6. Yet his practice leaves both theorists and artists in place, as ciphers of an infinite authority that might be resented but never overcome.

Dark Space
The final moments of Transient Trilogy: a camera scans the graffiti-covered terrain of a ‘natural’ reserve (gravel paths are in view, and cars just out of sight) and discovers a character, played by Ruby, trousers around his knees and head tucked into his arms. This is the homeless ‘transient’ of the work’s title, who ‘makes art by marking and decorating the environment’ – though it is inevitably erased by time and entropy. So too is this character caught in a troubled flux of sexual identity: hermaphroditic and sterile, the trans-figure is discovered in a moment of doomed and autoerotic sexual congress.

Figurations of this solitary, ‘fucked’ subject appear most clearly in Ruby’s video works; he ‘invents spaces of which he is “the convulsive possession.”’ Indeed this line is quoted in Dihedral (2006), which combines a voice-over reading a Caillois quote (again from the same essay) to a film of different dye-colors falling into a clear medium, a live-action Morris Louis painting. The ‘dihedral of representation’, for Caillois, stands for that context of perception wherein ‘the living creature, the organism, is no longer the origin of coordinates, but one point among others; it is dispossessed of its privilege and literally no longer knows where to place itself.’7 This demotion is presented, in the videos, alternately as terrifying – space becomes a ‘devouring force’, the subject merely a ‘dark space where things cannot be put’ – and perversely comforting: no longer forced by abstract form to identify himself, this subject can be one amorphous shape among others in a dedifferentiated universe.

This dream, however, is impossible to grasp – abstract space keeps intervening. The video works put forward several versions of this isolated character, dispossessed by space: the hiker, followed by the camera as if by a stalker, walking through a spectacular landscape transformed by the eye’s prerogatives, and perilously close to the abyss (Hiker, 2003); the vampiric office-worker who, bearing a camper’s rucksack, craves the comforting compression of a bathroom stall, sleeping bag or heating duct (Agoraphobic, 2001); the primitive-convulsive characters acted out by Ruby in Temper Tantrum / Intimate Death Magician (2003) or Found Cushion Act (2005).

In Transient Trilogy the character marks his presence in ritual fashion: cultish constellations of talismanic objects, spatters of nail polish. These efforts are not built to last, fading soon into indistinction. Stumbling into the woods, over a thick loam of leathery animal corpses and condom wrappers, the transient soon merges with the bushes. ‘Transient’ is not put forward as a social category, but as a state in which all life and form must inevitably exist: between life and death, male and female, form and formlessness. Not content to let this melancholic allegory stand, Ruby immediately reappears in a new role: an asshole director, whose ridiculous stage direction and squabbling with his intractable actor comically annihilates the sombre narrative that precedes it: ‘Listen! Think of Hamlet! The character who could not make up his mind.’

The Ruby of 2005 dramatized and ironized this punctured subject – an artist ‘afraid of yet obsessed with what went before and neurotically pursuing [his] own symptoms.’8 ‘SUPERMAX 2008’, on the other hand, puts forward the artist as the paradoxically exuberant governor of a rotting carceral order (the title refers to specialized ‘control-unit’ prisons). Geometrical abstraction is present still – in the form of stained and defaced plinths and grids – but these seem now to undergird an alien-geological order that stretches to the ceiling. The subject of this sci-fi scene remains troubled: permeated by a dark space that ‘touches the individual directly, envelops him, penetrates him, and even passes through him,’ he inscribes on the framework of Headless Dick / TSOVM (2008), and: ‘the past has cheated me/the present torments me’. Partly obscured, the third phrase reads: ‘the future … me’. The erased word is ‘terrifies’. Such negations are all the hope we get, in Ruby’s work. But perhaps they’re enough to live on.

1 Ed Schad, ‘Sterling Ruby: Supermax 2008’, Art Review, September 2008, p. 145
2 ‘Inclusiveness’ is Michael Fried’s term for a situation, precipitated by a ‘theatrical’ Minimalism, where ‘there is nothing within [the beholder’s] field of vision – nothing that he takes note of in any way – that, as it were, declares its irrelevance to the situation, and therefore to the experience, in question.’ Michael Fried, ‘Art and Objecthood,’ Gregory Battcock, ed. Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, New York, E.P. Dutton & Co 1968, p. 127
3 Anna C. Chave, ‘Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power,’ Arts 64, January 1990, pp. 44–63
4 Brigid Doherty, ‘Berlin’, in Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, Paris (exh. cat.), Washington D.C., The National Gallery of Art 2006, p.97
5 Roger Caillois, ‘Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia,’ October 31, Winter 1984, p. 30
6 Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, Oxford, Blackwell Publishers, 1991, p. 60
7 Ibid, Caillois, p. 28
8 Sterling Ruby, ‘A Brief Rebuttal to Michael Workman’, New City Chicago, 7 February, 2005, http://www.newcitychicago.com/chicago/4075.html

Julian Myers

Julian Myers is an art historian based in San Francisco. He is an assistant professor at California College of the Arts.

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http://www.brooklynrail.org/2008/03/artseen/ruby
ArtSeen

Sterling Ruby Chron

by Shane McAdams

The Drawing Room
February 22 – March 27, 2008

For hundreds of years, artists did everything in their control to refine their studio practices to achieve a singularity of style and technique. This changed slightly over the past century as Modern artists bounced from one orthodoxy to the next, but at any given point their work would have still been cohesive. In the last two decades, however, attitudes have changed considerably. Sterling Ruby’s exhibition, Chron, at the Drawing Room in Soho is emblematic of the rejection by younger artists of the unitary vision sought by generations of artists before them. Though it is positioned as a “drawing” show, Ruby’s wanderlust takes his work outside drawing’s conventional domain into collage, photography, and sculpture, incorporating a range of media from cosmetics to spray paint to gold foil—all the finest trappings a trip to Canal Street can offer.

Sterling Ruby: CHRON, February 22 � March 27, 2008, The Drawing Center. Photo by Cathy Carver.

The wide stylistic variations of his work, however, as well as his bizarre love/hate relationship with Minimalism, sometimes result in Ruby’s goals getting lost in the noise. The question is whether there is a method to his divergent madness. In Chron, he mixes the excesses of pop glamour with elements drawn from reductive sculpture and painting. “(Mapping) Pink” for example, lays a riotous nest of drizzled nail polish over a geometric matrix of carefully inked lines. It is at once elegantly restrained and trashily expressive. The fact that the drawing is composed of nail polish can’t be overlooked, either. Its effectiveness as an innocent line drawing is quickly subverted by its materials, which transport the work from the realm of the autonomous and abstract to the referential and literal.

Other works such as “Soft Vortex” and “Prison” continue the visual duel with art history in ways that look nothing alike. “Soft Vortex,” a 60-inch-square wall object, looks like an oversized, bleach-splattered shirt ripped off an extra from Flashdance and wrapped around a small Carl Andre floor sculpture. If you approach such a work in terms of art’s past, it is clever and funny; if you don’t, I suspect it might look like trash. “Prison” collages a photo of a prison cell in the upper midsection of the paper, out of which emanates an array of slightly irregular, and slightly clumsy, colored pencil lines. One can’t help but read the prison image metaphorically in light of the geometric shortcomings of the line work (the “prison” of autonomous art?). If there is any lingering doubt whether such works are in fact guileful jabs at Minimalist dogma, and not accidental commentary, remember that Ruby exhibited a set of letterpress prints at Foxy Production two years ago, one reading “kill minimalism” and another, “minimalism tries to kill the amorphous law – geometry ends life.” Anyone who saw that show couldn’t be a character witness for Ruby if he was ever put on trial for vandalizing a Frank Stella painting.

Sterling Ruby: CHRON, February 22 – March 27, 2008, The Drawing Center. Photo by Cathy Carver.

Chron’s gaudiness is heightened by its more than occasional references to bodily fluids, body parts, and sex. At moments it has the unsanitary, faux-glamour feel of a strip club with its lights on. The use of gold and silver foil and cheap cosmetics in several of the works on paper makes it difficult to separate the cultural implications of his work from its formal characteristics—a circumstance that asserts an ongoing challenge to the rhetoric about “Primary Structures” and “Specific Objects” mouthed by Donald Judd, Robert Morris and company forty years ago. Ironically though, despite Ruby’s determined rebuke of Minimalism, his most significant achievement in Chron is his treatment of industrial material, a concern not far from the hearts of many of the Minimalists. However, Ruby and others like, say, Rachel Harrison and Isa Genzken, now seem to celebrate excess production and the accumulation of waste, rather than the mechanical possibilities of the process. Judd’s immaculate stainless-steel boxes look less utopian now, and more like precursors to the year-old, junked IKEA coffee tables waiting on the curb for the arrival of the Department of Sanitation.

Yes, there is a method to Ruby’s madness, but it is a counterintuitive method for anyone expecting unity and homogeneity. While a knee-jerk reaction would be to judge this exhibition as lacking a center of gravity, the more patient observer will recognize in its unevenness an antithetical relationship to the evenness of the past. Chron addresses the failures of the autonomous pursuits of reductive art by indulging in the excesses that seem to be our society’s—and art’s— destiny.

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ARCHIVE

RON NAGLE
interview by Sterling Ruby

Ron Nagle, Chez Monieu, 2009
Courtesy of the artist
Photography by Don Tuttle

STERLING RUBY    I am sitting here looking at a yellow work of yours that I own called Wall Street Gerbil. It has had a place in our house for a few years now, and I enjoy it quite a bit. There has been a lot of debate over whether the small hanging protrusion in the middle is a nose or a dick. I was wondering if, as a personal favor, you could shed some light on this…

RON NAGLE    I wasn’t thinking of that particular protrusion as a nose or a dick. My intention is to make images as ambiguous as possible so that viewers can create their own story. But for your own peace of mind, the protrusion has nothing to do with a nose. I would think of it as some kind of growth coming off of a field. I think the main influences on this kind of image, which occurs occasionally, are warts, skin tabs or moles, but I never make things too specific.

SR    Since we’re on the topic of titles, I keep thinking that a lot of your titling is directed toward naming or giving a kind of subjectivity to your objects.

RN    You are correct in thinking that my titles are often an attempt to vaguely personify the inanimate. My assistants and I usually have an on-going list of titles. We then put these against a group of pieces until we find one that makes some sort of sense at a vague associative level. Wordplay, non sequiturs and free association of imagery all come into play in the titles, but don’t actually affect what I make. I name my pieces like you would name your kids. I particularly love the way some words fit together phonically, which must come from my background as a songwriter. Without being too heavy-handed, most of my titles have an element of humor and, frequently, darkness. I will often hear a phrase that catches my attention and I’ll write it down because it struck some humorous note for me. For example, there was a guy from the utility company who, after performing various services, asked me to fill out a form evaluating his performance. He instructed me to “circle excellent.” This cracked me up, and there will be a piece coming soon called “Circle Excellent.”

Ron Nagle, Blue Weeorama 2009
Courtesy of the artist
Photography by Don Tuttle

SR    Your sensibility for ’50s post-war aesthetics seems more in line with artists such as H.C. Westermann or Billy Al Bengston as opposed to Peter Voulkos or John Mason. What are your thoughts regarding the interactions between abstract expressionism and things like the Hot Rod or Kustom Kulture movements during the early stages of the California clay Revolution?

RN    Even though I am strongly associated with the California Clay Revolution, the majority of my influences come from sources other than ceramic artists. I first delved into the well-crafted object when making model airplanes as a kid. I saw these guys at the rec center making Japanese fighter planes out of orange crates, sanding the wood down to a fine finish, sealing off the surface, painting the planes with Testors Dope hobby paint, and then meticulously gluing the components together. That same mentality still exists in my work. When I was making model airplanes with my father, he would always tell me two things: “Sand with the grain” and “Never do a job half-assed.” As much as I rebelled against the majority of his teachings and opinions, those two seemed to stick. After this, I was fully engaged in the hot rod culture in San Francisco and had a ’48 Ford Coupe, which had forty coats of British racing green lacquer, sanded with fine sandpaper between each coat to create a richness and depth that couldn’t be achieved without that kind of fanaticism and attention to detail. I still think that there are cars from the past, both custom and production, that are more interesting than most sculpture.

I came from San Francisco, but I couldn’t relate to the Bay Area figurative school, so I made pilgrimages to L.A. to see shows at the Ferus Gallery as often as I could. Theirs was an aesthetic, in scale and execution and surface, to which I could relate quite strongly. You mentioned Billy Al Bengston; I was unquestionably greatly influenced not only by his use of the airbrush to apply paint, but by the incredible sense of color in his paintings of the mid-’50s. Of all the California clay “revolutionaries,” my main influence was Kenny Price, whose discipline, sense of craft, and integrity have been major influences on my work.

With a few exceptions, I have a great deal of disdain for the “ceramic world” and its preoccupation with material, process and trite humor. I am much more drawn to painting. In my younger days, I looked a lot at Tàpies, Morandi, Albers, de Kooning, Rothko and Twombly. I always felt the aesthetic aspirations of painters were on a much higher level than those of the ceramic crowd. That being said, I am crazy about almost all ceramics from the Momoyama period in Japan (in the late sixteenth century) and American 1940s restaurant-ware, because of its lack of pretense.

Ron Nagle, Knights of Franconia, 2008
Courtesy of the artist
Photography by Don Tuttle

SR    I’m not sure if you are tired of talking about this, but I just found out that you did all of the sound effects for The Exorcist (1973). What were some of your favorite scenes and your techniques for producing the sound for them?

RN    I’m never tired of talking about this because its one of the best jobs I ever had. I was working with brilliant professionals in a rarified environment where I could do anything I wanted and get paid for it. The film’s director, William Friedkin, wanted the sound to be “bigger than life” so that even the smallest details were magnified. I was given a portable tape recorder to record anything that popped into my head, which could potentially used in the film. The sounds for the beginning of the movie were organic, such as the sound of a single bee in a jar tuned a hundred times to create a threatening din. That was combined with the sound of pigs being slaughtered along with some ambient machine noise that leaked into the recording. I had no idea what I was going to do with this combination of sounds once it was assembled on multi-track tape, but when it was played against the opening scenes, it seemed to work. The director flipped for it and I got the job.

One scene that stands out is when the priest goes through the window. The sound was created by smashing many, many window props and recording the smashing at various distances, as well as extending the tinkling and falling of the glass to just a little more than real time. That one window crash consisted of about forty one-inch pieces of tape spliced together to make one long crash. Later on, it occurred to me that much of the stacking or layering used in the recording process is not that dissimilar to my approach for glazing sculpture: I fire my ceramics many times and use layer after layer of glaze, underglaze or china paint to create the color. At least that is what I did until very recently. I am now using auto paint that has been matted out to paint on bisque ware. This usually requires fewer layers for the same effect, and it is a much more direct way of working. It is very satisfying to see how certain color combinations come alive immediately, before my very eyes, without having to wait to open the kiln every morning. It is just more like painting, which is something I’ve been trying for all along. I am seriously considering making my next group of work out of hollow cast plastic, using clay only to create the first immediate image and taking a mold from that.

Ron Nagle, Dr. Bob Cobbler, 2008
Courtesy of the artist
Photography by Don Tuttle

SR    I am always amazed at your generation’s craftsmanship skills. Do you think that this comes from a time when everyone learned how to fix and make things properly? You first learned ceramics from your mother, and then moved into jewelry-making. What were the gender associations at this time for someone working in ceramics and jewelry?

RN    My father was a businessman by profession, but he could make or fix almost anything, so the idea of making objects was instilled in me early. My mother was also a very skilled seamstress. I am like many people of my generation, whose parents made or fixed stuff because they came out of the Depression.

Craftsmanship, for me, does not only represent slick or finished work. It is any technique that makes the finished piece believable. I started off as a jeweler because it was considered a very hip thing to do during the Beatnik period. During that time, the majority of contemporary jewelers were men, whereas ceramics was still thought of as something that little old ladies did. It wasn’t until the studio pottery movement and then Voulkos that ceramics took on a macho image. When I started using things like store-bought glazes, china paints and decals, and began slip casting, it ran contrary to this macho image. Let’s not forget that it was Kenny Price who took these small cup and vessel forms and started bringing bright color and subtlety to contemporary ceramics.

SR    Can you explain what you mean when you call yourself a “White Devil Formalist”? Is this the same as being a “Precious Asshole”?

RN    Being a “White Devil Formalist” and a “Precious Asshole” are two separate, but similarly glib, responses to classifying myself. “White Devil Formalist” is a sarcastic way of saying that I am a white male whose work doesn’t necessarily have literal meaning. “Precious Asshole” means that I am drawn to small-scale intimate work by artists such as Morandi, Vermeer, Price, Cornell, Albers and Albert Ryder.

Having taught at the college level for fifty years, I’ve become very cynical and, in fact, resentful of political correctness, French theory and the what-does-it-mean crowd. By and large, I learned to detest academia and its left-brained approach to the arts. People forget that all of the aforementioned issues are matters of fashion and not necessarily the truth.

I come from a music background and I apply the same sensibility to both making and experiencing art. It all comes down to what it feels like, what it conjures, what associations a great piece of work can have on a vaguely, dare I say, magical level. I make no separation between high or low, pop music or oil-painted masterpieces. I would just as soon hear “River Deep, Mountain High” as look at Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa. They both do the same thing for me. I told my daughter to go to the Met and see the Turner show. She said, “Ike Turner?”

Ron Nagle, Knights of Franconia, 2008
Courtesy of the artist
Photography by Don Tuttle

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http://moussemagazine.it/muresan-ruby-geneve/

Ciprian Muresan and Sterling Ruby at the Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève

April 21~2012

Artistic and literary works are the starting point for the work of Ciprian Muresan (*1977, Dej, Romania), who appropriates them for a reflective project that intersects with the recent history of Romania and other Eastern European countries and, more generally, ponders the realities of the contemporary world.
For his first solo exhibition in Switzerland, Ciprian Muresan presents two new pieces: an installation, “Recycled Playground”, from which the exhibition takes its title and its tone, and a companion video creation. A selection of other significant works is also presented. Juggling humour and critique, the artist highlights the structures and processes of all forms of power.

Above – Ciprian Muresan. Recycled Playground
Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève
until April 22, 2012

© Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève. Photos: David Gagnebin-de Bons

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“Soft Work” is the first solo exhibition in Switzerland by the Los Angeles based artist, Sterling Ruby – described by New York Times art critic Roberta Smith in a 2008 review as “one of the most interesting artists to emerge in this century”. Taking cues from artists such as Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, Ruby works in a variety of different media. His work is a form of assault on both materials and social power structures. The show in Geneva focuses on one significant body of work within the artist’s practice that has not yet received specific attention: the “soft sculpture”.

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Sterling Ruby. Soft Work
Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève
until April 22, 2012

© Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève. Photos: David Gagnebin-de Bons

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by David Spalding

November 8, 2011

Sterling Ruby’s “Vampire”

THE PACE GALLERYBeijing24 September–5 November, 2011

Caught in that dark crawlspace between the living and the dead, hounded by a destructive, unending hunger and burdened with the need to indoctrinate: this is today’s American empire as it appears in “Vampire,” Sterling Ruby’s exhibition of new and recent work at The Pace Gallery, Beijing. Ruby has always needed to tag and topple monuments dedicated to the old order. For his 2008 exhibition SUPERMAX at the Geffen Contemporary, MOCA, Los Angeles, Ruby scratched, scarred, and defiled Minimalist-derived sculptural forms until they confessed their sins, creating a claustrophobic installation that forged links between 1960s American Minimalism and incarceration. For his first solo show in China, Ruby returns to the period’s obdurate, block-headed muteness, finding an unspoken desire for power in the geometric, reductive, and “objective” approaches made famous by Minimalists and the critics that championed them. Here Ruby reinterprets these forms, along with historically contiguous modes of painting and sculpture, dragging the whole lot squarely into a present marked by desperate consumption, global war, and economic collapse.

Ruby has a flair for the theatrical. With its star-spangled smile and dripping fangs, the soft sculpture Double Vampire 6 (unless otherwise stated, all works 2011) evokes the Rolling Stones’s lascivious tongue-and-lips logo, high on meth and out for blood. It’s plagued by a grimacing hunger without conscience, sitting in a gridlocked SUV, gobbling Oldenburg’s burgers after a visit to art history’s drive-thru. Though undead, it must continue to feast: gluttony has become its eternal curse. The only word it knows is “more.”

America’s endless conflicts in the Middle East are palpable here. An inclined, rectilinear form made of spray-painted aluminum, Predator Monolith rises from the floor as if it’s about to take flight. The work simultaneously suggests the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey and the wing or cockpit of a “hunter-killer” MQ-1 Predator, those unmanned aerial vehicles used by the US Air Force and CIA for classified bombings in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan…wherever the war on terror takes us.  A related work, Consolidator (2010-2011), repossessed from Ruby’s junkyard of spray-painted geometries, is a Euclidian take on an all-in-one cannon-cum-coffin. Predator Monolith appears to be aimed at Monument Stalagmite / Vampire Empire. The work is a monument to erectile dysfunction: a sinewy, psychedelic tower of shiny red and blue supported by an unpainted board (a “crutch,” in Ruby-speak) on which is written, in prison-jumpsuit orange, the phrase “VAMPIRE EMPIRE.”

Surrounding these works are three large bronze Debt Basins: sutured, roughly circular structures containing what look like artifacts unearthed from the site of a post-credit crisis Pompeii. Each of these reliquaries contains petrified dioramas—miniature landscapes of scavenged junk where stacked kilns become towering crematoria. Though they seem to have been sent from the tombs of an ancient, ruined culture in order to warn us, they arrive too late, foretelling a future that has already been set into motion. A series of three works called JIGS are solemnly arranged in an adjacent room: abstracted American flags made of rebar and displayed atop configurations of what looks like scrap metal—an improvised, solemn tribute to fading glory.

With their overlapping bands, scribbles and blasts of hazy, electric color, Ruby’s enormous, spray-painted canvases play at transcendence through an irreverent, day-glo nod to Rothko’s color fields. They also give a shout-out to artists such as Jane Kaufman and Jules Olitski, who continued to expand the medium of painting during the mid-60s, despite the limitations touted by Minimalism’s critical cabal. The distinction in these works is not between figure and ground, but between a series of competing planes of atmospheric color that alternately float against the painting’s surface and then recede like so many after-images. Their fuming magnetic fields draw viewers toward an imploding horizon. If the paintings sometimes suggest the luscious sunsets of Los Angeles, it’s the LA of Synanon and the Crips, seen in hindsight through the rear view mirror of an apocalyptic present.

Sterling Ruby is at the forefront of a generation of LA artists whose training enables them to successfully mine the legacy of recent sculpture, particularly Minimalism and its aftereffects—artists as different as Jason Meadows, Taft Green, Won Ju Lim, and Rachel Lachowicz. Ruby is also a storyteller, motivated by formal and ethical questions. It doesn’t matter whether Beijing audiences can identify the art historical references in Ruby’s work. His point is not to stage a solipsistic conversation about the art of the 60s, but to use his knowledge of these forms to speak to something far more pressing—the vampiric impulses of an undead empire, one that continues to devour resources because it cannot be laid to rest. To present this work in Beijing, the political heart of an economically ascendant country widely prophesized to be the next global superpower, couldn’t be more fitting.

DAVID SPALDING is an art writer and curator based in Beijing, China.

    COMMENTS

  1. morad ezzanzoune

    good work

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View of, "Vampire", The Pace Gallery, Beijing, 2011.

1View of, “Vampire”, The Pace Gallery, Beijing, 2011.

Sterling Ruby, Consolidator, 2010-2011.

2Sterling Ruby, Consolidator, 2010-2011.

Sterling Ruby, Monument Stalagmite / Vampire Empire, 2011.

3Sterling Ruby, Monument Stalagmite / Vampire Empire, 2011.

View of, "Vampire", The Pace Gallery, Beijing, 2011.

4View of, “Vampire”, The Pace Gallery, Beijing, 2011.

Sterling Ruby, Debt Basin 3, 2011.

5Sterling Ruby, Debt Basin 3, 2011.

Sterling Ruby, JIG 1, 2011.

6Sterling Ruby, JIG 1, 2011.

  • 1View of, “Vampire”, The Pace Gallery, Beijing, 2011. All images courtesy of The Pace Gallery, Beijing.
  • 2Sterling Ruby, Consolidator, 2010-2011. Bronze. 175.3 cm x 233.7 cm x 642.6 cm.
  • 3Sterling Ruby, Monument Stalagmite / Vampire Empire, 2011. PVC pipe, foam, urethane, wood,spray paint and formica. 558.8 cm x 96.5 cm x 157.5 cm.
  • 4View of, “Vampire”, The Pace Gallery, Beijing, 2011.
  • 5Sterling Ruby, Debt Basin 3, 2011. Bronze. 243.8 cm x 243.8 cm x 50.8 cm.
  • 6Sterling Ruby, JIG 1, 2011. Metal. 105 cm x 96 cm x 90 cm.

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WRITING : 2006 : STERLING RUBY

Sterling Ruby

In his 2004-5 video Transient, Sterling Ruby embodies a disheveled, homeless drifter moving through a terrain both ruinous and vacant. Along the way the eponymous character creates unsettling little ephemeral sculptures, splashes blood-red nail polish in a concrete pit, and—yikes—fucks a skull. Later in the video, Ruby adopts a second persona: the obsessive, obnoxious director of the narrative we have just witnessed. The appearance brings unexpected comic relief to a dark and knowingly unpleasant work; more importantly, it suggests Ruby’s interest in positioning the artist as an archetypal figure, a duplicitous creator-destroyer engaged in a self-induced, self-perpetuating cycle of making and unmaking.

Highly prolific, Ruby moves fluidly—like a transient—among video, ceramics, sculpture, installation, drawing, photography, and collage. Rather than obliterating the notion of medium, his sprawling practice reifies a more primitive sense of the term, structuring much of his work’s meaning around the agency of its becoming. His ceramics, with glazes that appear to be melting, suggest violent, visceral creation, retaining a sense of the material’s initial malleability in the final forms. The ceramics are visually striking but nearly impossible to apprehend in one’s memory, at once recalling wobbly three-dimensional peace signs and eviscerated rib cages. (Clearly related to the ceramics, a creepy kiln has appeared in a number of collages, appearing paradoxically as a vaginal point of origin and a deadly void.) While a recent sculpture, Orange Inanimate Torso (2005), is as grisly as the name suggests, the work also vigorously asserts its indefinite, “abstract” nature.

This engagement with form and formlessness is clearly indebted to postminimalists including Lynda Benglis and Robert Morris (both keenly aware of the artistic potential of embodiment and persona), as well as Los Angeles father figures Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy. But the scariest and most rewarding aspects of Ruby’s work, in which the artist obsessively attempts to locate sublimity at various sites of trauma—and in the horrific potential of materials—finds roots in marginalized oddballs such as Paul Thek, Lucas Samaras, Bruce Conner, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and as suggested by a recent collage, sci-fi artist-designer H. R. Giger. Giger’s signature aliens, part insect, part machine—methodically juxtaposed alongside images of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, war protestors, Linda Blair from The Exorcist, the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz, and heavily tattooed women—are agents of transference, transgression, transformation, and (perhaps) transcendence. As such, they embody Ruby’s ambition to locate trauma—and meaning—in an unfixed state.

This essay originally appeared in the catalogue for the 2006 California Biennial at the Orange County Museum of Art, October 31 – December 31, 2006.

WRITING : 2006 : STERLING RUBY

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STERLING RUBY
João Ribas

Flash Art  n.271  March – April 2010SINCERELY HOSTILEJOÃO RIBAS: I’d like to begin by discussing this post-humanist condition underscoring so much of your practice — ranging as it does from sculpture to drawing, video, ceramics, and painting.Sterling Ruby: Post-anxiety, post-cynicism, post-transgression, post-depression, post-war, post-law, post-gender, etc., etc., etc. For me it seems fitting to the purpose that all of this baggage is the reason we have to be post-humanist. There is just too much information for anything to be coherent or whole. To be quite honest I had never thought about post-humanism in relation to my work until Robert Hobbs started the discussion while preparing his essay for the JRP|Ringier book. What makes it hard is that there is no real definition of post-humanism, which seems fitting for the times and for the topic. During the ’80s and ’90s, Félix Guattari and Jean-François Lyotard were focusing on technological advancements and sociological peripheries that seemed to suggest a future transformation or liberation of some kind. At present Mike Davis sees the post-human as an entity of excess, an individual or group who can’t take any more. Even Steve Nichols who published The Post-Human Manifesto in 1988 suggested the situation might be generational.
Grid Ripper, 2008. Installation view at GAMeC, Bergamo (IT), 2008. Courtesy the artist and Emi FontanaWest of Rome, Milan / Los Angeles. Photo: Roberto Marossi.
JR: Yet somehow your work seems particularly grounded by a specific notion oftransversalitySR: Well, one outcome of this ‘post-situation’ is generating a feeling of continuum, as an adjustment or a way of coping. It certainly doesn’t feel as if it is anything other than a strategy for survival. I recently started thinking that I apply a kind of ‘transversality’ not only in theory, but also as a work ethic. My intention is to use many media as a kind of schizophrenic labor strategy. It seems very easy now to say it, but it has taken me years to convey that this scattered routine belongs within a coherent trajectory. Works may not look the same formally, they might not even be within the same medium, but there is a lineage that links everything that I do together.JR: There are two poles that emerge directly from your early sculptural and drawing work that seem foundational. On the one hand there is the masculine orthodox language of minimalism, which your work has had an agonistic relationship with, in its reappraisal, from the start. On the other hand, the notion of representing, in symbolic form, marginal states and forms of containment like the penal system and incarceration, normative sexuality, the notion of a stable social identification, as well as attempts to move out of these things that are often deemed types of ‘pathologies’ — gangs and criminality, transexuality, abjection… These are in some way the repressed otherof minimalism…SR: These two poles (formalism and representation) have always seemed to be in opposition of one another, but for me they became mirrored necessities, especially over the past decade working as a contemporary visual artist. I went to a foundation college in Lancaster,  Pennsylvania, for four full years; I learned the visual basics like perspective, color, composition and form. In that curriculum I did nothing other than still life, figure studies, mixing colors and additive and subtracted sculpture. After that my education switched completely; I wound up taking almost no studio classes, enrolling mainly in psychology and theory courses. Havingone versus the other seemed absurd and I often thought about what it would be like if I haddone neither. This is where my graduate education fell into a downward spiral, which ultimately led to not receiving a degree. I felt like I was regressing, that I had too much education, and that this was preventing me from making anything other than premeditated work. The antagonistic approach that I have taken towards minimalism started during this period. I thought that Judd’s writing was too much of a handbook and that the movement was restricted because of it. The ideas of territory and how things were deemed minimal were in dialogue with masculine authority or, more significantly, who controlled the movement, and I found that to be problematic. I have always thought of art as similar to poetry, that it can’t be proven and yet, if done right, has a sense of unmistakable aura. This idea is also in direct conflict with education and training; it brings with it my generation’s shift towards primitivism or naivety. My disobedience of the regulations that set definition to the movement manifested itself in certain pathologies. Everything started to collapse in on itself, and there became no line between formalism and representation. The minimal form was in fact no longer the item of exteriorobject-hood, but instead the vessel that contained all aspects of marginal states.JR: Is there also a sense of embracing devalued cultural forms, say like ceramics, orgraffiti — as demarcations of territory and collective identity?SR: Yes, absolutely. Ceramics in particular correspond to the therapy-driven collective identity. The medium of clay for me is universal. It holds all sorts of shared principles with reference to desire, immediacy, sexuality and repression. The malleability of the clay becomes truncated via the kiln, which is also a kind of a monumental allegory for where we are as a generation. Perhaps it characterizes our incapability to truly feel as if there is an innate expression… that even this is an incarceration of current times. It is converted through the firing into a monument of the gesture that it once had. Graffiti is similar to this as well. It seems like a kind of collective mark making, as much as it is about territorial pissing.
American Risk, 2009. PVC pipe, foam, urethane, wood, spray paint and formica, 422 x 229 x 183 cm. Courtesy the artist and PaceWildenstein, New York / Beijing.ACTS/KKDETHZ, 2009. Formica, wood, spray paint and urethane, 154 x 159 x 86 cm. Courtesy the artist. Photos: Robert Wedemeyer.
JR: One of the terms that seems to keep coming up in discussions of contemporary art practice is the idea of ‘sincerity’ — almost taken on as a positive, critical term. At the same time, your work has often been reproached for being precisely the inverse. I find it somewhat puzzling that sincerity would be taken up by a generation of artists as a critical term.SR: Yes, I agree with that completely. Sincerity seems to have become a designationfor our generation. It feels like the backlash to cynicism or even postmodernism. I guess I hadn’t thought that it was a critical term as much as a way out of conceptual pessimism, maybe even anti-critical. I get pretty down on the fact that people equate sincerity with being positive. I do think that my work is sincere, but this often gets overlooked because of its underlying hostility.
The Masturbators, 2009. 9 channel video with sound, installation view at Foxy Production, New York.Courtesy the artist and Foxy Production, New York. Photo: Mark Woods. Animal, 2009. Lambda Print, 183 x 122 cm. Courtesy the artist and Marc Foxx, Los Angeles.
JR: I’m curious about The Masturbators (2009) in terms of its structured patheticalness— the corporality is so intense and aggressive as to almost be a form of torture…SR: I started The Masturbators almost a year ago. I originally had a different idea for the work.I hired one male porn actor and asked him to masturbate to climax in a room by himself. The camera and crew were in the adjacent room with the lens being focused through a hole in the wall. I expected the actor to run through the request with ease, but the reality of it was that he couldn’t do it. His embarrassment over his profession and not being able to masturbate to climax became the project itself. I followed the project over six months by hiring an additional eight actors, shooting them all the exact same way. In the end only three of the nine actors were able to climax; the ones who could not had reactions ranging from subtle humiliation to violent disappointment. There were times during the production where it got very tense. I had focused so much on the super maximum penitentiary stuff the years leading up to this, that I had contemporary masculinity in the back of my head. I read a great line from Lorna Rhodes’ Total Confinement, which stated: “The secret of violent men is that they feel ashamed —deeply ashamed over matters that are so trivial that their very triviality makes it even more shameful to feel ashamed about them.” I thought about this quote every time I finished a shoot with one of these guys. I mean: who should be expected to climax on cue? The projectbecame like a core behavioral study once completed. It seemed brutal, but honest.João Ribas is curator of exhibitions of MIT, List Visual Arts Center, Boston.Sterling Ruby was born in 1972 in Bitburg, Germany. He lives and works in Los Angeles.Selected solo shows: 2010: PaceWildenstein, New York. 2009: Xavier Hufkens (with Robert Mapplethorpe), Brussels; Foxy Production, New York. 2008: Sprüth Magers, London; GAMeC, Bergamo (IT); Emi Fontana, Milan; MOCA, Los Angeles; Metro Pictures, New York; The Drawing Center, New York. 2007: Christian Nagel, Berlin; Bernier/Eliades, Athens; Foxy Production, New York; Metro Pictures, New York. 2006: Marc Foxx, Los Angeles; Emi Fontana, Milan; Christian Nagel, Cologne. 2005: Marc Foxx, Los Angeles; Guild & Greyshkul, New York; Sister, Los Angeles; Foxy Production, New York. 2004: 1R, Chicago; Foxy Production, New York. 2003: Art Center College of Design, Pasadena (CA); 1R, Chicago; Suitable, Chicago.

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Sterling Ruby

Sterling Ruby Painter, Mixed-media Artist, Ceramicit, Sculptor– For an artist whose hyperprolific output jumps from inchoate stalagmite sculptures covered in a urethane coat akin to a nail-polish lacquer to a refurbished bus that once transported California prison inmates; from neon-dappled semi-abstract graffiti paintings to one recent video work of masturbating male porn stars, the studio compound of Sterling Ruby is surprisingly organized. Located southeast of Los Angeles in the industrial stretches of Vernon, California (Pennzoil motor oil is produced directly across the street), the artist’s headquarters, staffed by 10 assistants, is divided into five separate workshops for drawing and collage, ceramics, paintings, urethane, and woodwork. Ruby, who was born in Germany but grew up on the East Coast and attended college in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles for graduate school, is probably one of the most accomplished material-jumping art stars of the last decade. He’s known for producing bright, pop-colored works that belie more sorrowful, failed underpinnings—as if the 38-year-old’s sculptures can’t seem to organize themselves into a form and the canvases can’t cohere to produce a single order. This, of course, can be read as a structural breakdown or the beginning of new possibilities. “I’ve found a pretty happy route in using a lot of different mediums,” he explains. “Even video. I feel very capable of picking it up without preconceived rules and regulations to make it work.” Currently, Ruby has two different bodies of work taking up most of the activity of his studio. One is a series of Mexican scrap-metal sculptures, many of which seem to be shaped like guns, which was inspired by a recent stay at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, near the Mexican border. The second is a number of large ceramic basins glazed in vibrating colors and filled with broken shards that reflects Ruby’s “basin theology” (his belief that in placing past work in these containers, he might reclaim his futile gestures). In a sense, these pieces may be the receptacles of Ruby’s past mistakes, but they are also small monuments celebrating their own subsistence.

Sterling Ruby at his studio in Vernon, Ca, October 2010. All clothing: Ruby’s own.

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PAST EXHIBITIONS

MOCA FOCUS: STERLING RUBY
SUPERMAX 2008
06.19.08 – 09.19.08
MOCA Focus: Sterling Ruby, SUPERMAX 2008 is the eighth installment of MOCA’s series of one-person exhibitions of work by emerging artists in Southern California. Presented at MOCA Pacific Design Center, the exhibition will feature new works in an installation specifically designed for the space. Sterling Ruby’s works in collage, ceramics, video, and sculpture tackle received notions of aesthetic tropes and social stereotypes that are based on visual signs. Often monumental in scale, Ruby’s works immerse the viewer in sets of formal codes and gestures that refer to transience, transgression, and transference—phenomena that are social and psychological, physical and emotional. Born in Bittburg, Germany, in 1972, Ruby received BFAs from the Pennsylvania School of Art and Design in 1998 and from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2002. After relocating to Los Angeles in 2003, Ruby received a MFA from Art Center College of Design in 2005, and his work has been featured in numerous exhibitions internationally. The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with an essay by MOCA Curator Philipp Kaiser.MOCA Focus: Sterling Ruby, SUPERMAX 2008 is made possible by generous endowment support from The Nimoy Fund for New and Emerging Artists and the Fran and Ray Stark Foundation Fund to Support the Work of Emerging Artists.Major support is also provided by a multi-year grant from The James Irvine Foundation. Additional generous support is provided by The MOCA Contemporaries, Karyn Kohl and David Hockney.
4 images

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21 Questions for Artist Sterling Ruby

by ARTINFO
Published: October 11, 2011

Age: 39
Occupation: Artist
City/Neighborhood: Los Angeles, CA

What project are you working on now? 

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I am working on a soft-sculpture exhibition for the Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève, organized by Katya García-Antón, which opens in February 2012. I’m also finishing a show titled EXHM / BC for the Frac Champagne-Ardenne, in Reims, in May 2012, working with Florence Derieux on this one.

Your solo show, VAMPIRE, is currently the first exhibition by a Western artist at Pace Beijing, and one of the first selling shows by a Western artist in mainland China. What do you make of that distinction?

I’m not sure what this means, to tell you the truth.

Why do you think they chose you?

I was very excited visiting Beijing for the first time in 2008 — there was an energy that the city had that the artists seemed to be feeding off of, it reminded me of the first time I experienced Los Angeles. I became fascinated by China’s speed and scale. It seems somewhat cliché but there really is an excessiveness and power in Beijing. The invitation to exhibit came from Leng Lin, the Pace Beijing director. We have a good rapport, and I admire what he’s done.

You are known for jumping from one medium to another, which is a rare approach among Chinese contemporary artists, who tend to cultivate signature styles. How has your work been received by the Chinese audience?

So far the reception of the exhibition has been good. The idea of Chinese contemporary artists cultivating signature styles is misleading. I don’t believe that Chinese artists are any more unidirectional than, say, American artists. That assumption might be based on the obsession with media, auction prices, and specific works. I have been to Beijing eight times over the past couple of years and realize now after getting to know many artists there and having done frequent studio visits that my perception prior to going was wrong. Someone like Zhang Xiaogang is primarily known for his paintings because of the auctions, but he has an incredibly diverse practice, which also includes sculpture, collage, and printmaking. This is something that I would not have known without visiting his studio and meeting him. I really like the work of Song Dong, whose ’90′s performative roots continues to inform his interdisciplinary practice. Even Li Songsong has made sculptures. The younger generation of Chinese artists is also working through this figurative/narrative (pre-Cultural Revolution) paradigm, which seems to be the West’s narrow definition of Chinese contemporary art.

You also have a show up currently at Andrea Rosen Gallery where your work is displayed alongside that of Lucio Fontana. Is there another historical artist with whom you would like to share a show? 

I would love to curate a show around Jay DeFeo’s “The Rose” and Bruce Conner’s assemblage works like “The Bride.”

What’s the last show that you saw?

Paul Schimmel’s phenomenal “Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981″ at L.A. MOCA.

What’s the last show that surprised you? Why?

Tatsuo Miyajima’s “Ashes To Ashes, Dust To Dust” show at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. The LED counters, projections and sculpture were so crystal clear and hypnotic. I loved watching this optically trippy set of works and thinking about their Buddhist-Existentialist subject matter. I like the fact that as long as the equipment continues to run, the works perpetually have a life of their own. I forgot to ask the Ullens folks if they turn it off at night.

Do you make a living off your art?

Yes.

What’s the most indispensable item in your studio?

The Hitachi CR18DL 18V 3.0Ah Lithium Ion Reciprocating Saw.

Do you collect anything?

I collect art and pottery.

What’s the last artwork you purchased?

I recently acquired Taryn Simon’s “Ski Dubai, The first indoor ski resort in the Middle East, Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai” (2005) and Robert Mapplethorpe’s portrait of the Baltimore writer “Cookie Mueller” (1978).

What’s the first artwork you ever sold?

I sold my first sculpture in 1999-2000 while living in Chicago. I was paid $500, which is what my rent was at the time. I spent $700 to make the sculpture. I bought the sculpture back from the collector a few years ago. I’m glad to have it in my possession again despite having lost money both times.

What’s your art-world pet peeve?

There are many, but I tend to keep them private now.

Do you have a gallery/museum-going routine?

Not really, I try to see what I can… I tend to see more shows when I travel.

What’s the last great book you read?

I just finished “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Faber and Mazlish and Murakami’s “A Wild Sheep Chase.”

What work of art do you wish you owned?

I wish I owned Georg Baselitz’s “The Big Night Down the Drain” (1962-1963).

What would you do to get it?

Almost anything, and I mean “anything.”

What international art destination do you most want to visit?

Egypt — I want to see the pyramids.

What under-appreciated artist, gallery, or work do you think people should know about? 

Three photographers: John Divola and friends Sarah Conaway and Melanie Schiff. I think Mara McCarthy’s gallery, the Box, is exceptional.

Who’s your favorite living artist?

I have always been a fan of Chris Burden, I’ve gotten to know him personally over the past few years and really admire his way of doing things. He’s up there for me.

What are your hobbies?

I’m trying to get Young Buck out of his contract with 50 Cent so that he can finally have a real follow up to 2004′s “Straight Outta Ca$hville.”

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WEEKEND UPDATE
by Walter Robinson Artnet

 
The notion of the “abject” came into the art world in an appropriately half-assed way, as a show organized for the Whitney Museum by students in its “independent study program” in 1993.Subtitled “Repulsion and Desire in American Art,” the survey focused on what might be called female troubles — those very physical and very real elements of sexuality that men don’t typically find sexy. The exhibition included works by Louise Bourgeois, Carolee Schneemann, Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith and that maestro of the anal phase, Paul McCarthy.

Since then, the idea of the abject has spread like a fungus, and today is the attribute that few avant-garde artworks can do without. Their anti-social truancy is all that separates “advanced” art from our flourishing mass culture. It makes you think: Long gone is the time that contemporary art was about abstraction taking us to new spiritual heights.

A case in point would be Sterling Ruby, the 30-something Los Angeles artist whose Minimalist sculptures defaced with smudges and scratchiti took the art market by storm in 2008. One especially clear example was exhibited at Metro Pictures, a sculpture of two geometrical forms smeared with schmutz and titled Absolute Contempt for Total Serenity.

These modest thoughts framed an evening visit to the Museum of Modern Art a couple of months ago, where curator Barbara London had arranged a special screening of five of Ruby’s videos in collaboration with his Chelsea gallery, Foxy Production. (Though shot on video, they took the form of “films,” and were projected in MoMA’s theater as part of a “Modern Mondays film screening.” )

The notion of abjection provided a way into a group of short videos — 61 minutes in all — that were otherwise fairly hermetic. Like a lot of artist’s films and videos, Ruby’s are not what you would call “narrative structures.” Rather, they’re more like drawings or sketches, in which each video tries out a single idea, rather than telling any kind of story.

For what it’s worth, though the artist likes to work across disciplines in many mediums, these five vids struck me as the work of a sculptor — though they do give a broader sense of Ruby’s artistic practice.

Thus, the short vid Hole (2002) illustrates a voice-over of some retail employee relating how he hated his job so much that he would stuff store stock into holes in the wall, costing thousands in lost inventory, with footage of several actors putting stuff through a gap in a plaster wall.

Similarly, Cartographic Yard Work (2009), shows the artist in an industrial yard, surrounded by piles of construction debris and the like, filling in small holes. (A task undertaken at the request of his landlord, Ruby informed the audience, as he himself had dug the holes, which were behind his studio, apparently as a kind of meditation).

This video especially seemed to be the work of a sculptor, particularly the “anti-form” sculptors of the 1970s, though Ruby’s approach seems more downbeat, even nihilistic, than those Postminimalist exercises in matter, volume and texture could ever be.

In Dihedral (2006), on the other hand, the image is pure prettiness, a chromophonic spectrum of color and movement presumably effected by dropping colored inks into an aquarium. The soundtrack for this nutrient-free eye candy is some gnomic scientific text, possibly about form in space but, really, impossible to follow — in its own way, nutrient-free as well.

Most abject, and decidedly avant-garde, is the final video in the series of five, called Triviality (2009), and featuring an endless — actually it was only nine minutes long — scene of a Los Angeles porno actor, Tom Colt, standing naked in a bare room masturbating, trying unsuccessfully to bring himself to orgasm. The film’s approach is all Body Art and very little eroticism (and is not at all coy like the accompanying still).

The artist said he was interested in his actor’s sense of embarrassment (at his professional failure to ejaculate on cue), but to the viewer the performance was a challenge to watch. Though the action in Triviality is utterly familiar — and certainly much can be said about it — its presentation was offensive first of all. Which is what makes it an emblematic avant-garde gesture.

The longest video, at 36 minutes, is titled Transient Trilogy (2005), and comes the closest to being a real film, with an actor, a setting and something of a narrative scheme. Ruby himself plays a bum, who transits a marginal landscape, neither nature nor manmade, where he occupies himself crafting what can only be called artworks from string, cast-offs and other bits of trash. In one scene, he makes a minor splatter painting on a rock with red fingernail polish.

As a filmmaker, Ruby lingers longingly on his “nonsites,” woods and streams on the city’s fringes, contaminated by urban runoff and trash, its trees spotted with carved initials and graffiti. He seems to be saying, as an artist, this is my place, and I love it.

The vid also has an odd interlude, in which Ruby, this time playing the filmmaker, gives impatient and loud direction to his schizophrenic performer, who is off screen, and who invariably fails to understand. The hostility and aggression here stand out. They are the actual feelings that hide beneath the affectless shield of the avant-garde abject.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.

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Best in Show | Sterling Ruby’s Caged Heat

Culture

By LINDA YABLONSKY NYTimes

February 11, 2010, 1:15 pm 1 Comment

Sterling RubyG.R. Christmas/Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York “Pig Pen” and “Bus” by Sterling Ruby, on view at PaceWildenstein in Chelsea.

Best in Show follows the peregrinations of critic and novelist Linda Yablonsky, author of The Story of Junk, and a front-line chronicler of art-world events and exhibitions.

Art is such a subjective pursuit that the next best thing to living with it may be having it to yourself in public. Sterling Ruby’s “2 Traps,” two new monumental sculptures on view at PaceWildenstein in Chelsea, offer such solitary experience in spades. “Bus” looks at first like a cross between a heavy metal band’s tour vehicle, a prison van outfitted for “Mad Max”-style siege and a nightclub from hell. Actually it is all three – and more.

The bus once belonged to the Los Angeles Police Department, which used it to ferry inmates to and from California prisons. A rock band then acquired it and painted its fiery logos on the exterior. Before Ruby acquired it from the city’s metro transportation system, the bus also did service as a mobile salesroom for stereo sound equipment.

The L.A.-based Ruby, who is 38 and a subscriber to Bus Conversion magazine, made his bus a gothic icon. He put in black vinyl banquettes of the sort common to party limos, and enclosed them behind the kind of security gates used by California homeowners in bad neighborhoods. To complete its transformation as a metaphor for a dark night of the soul, he installed multiple subwoofers and shiny chrome globes, as if it were a traveling disco engulfed in an eerie silence.

“Bus” functions as a metaphor for the suppression and release of personal demons that becomes even more pronounced with “Pig Pen,” the other monster piece in Ruby’s show. Looking like a minimalist structure conceived by Sol LeWitt in a straitjacket, or a live chicken market absent its inhabitants, it is made of 68 locked steel cages that replicate solitary confinement cells in San Quentin. Though hardly a thing of beauty, the work is somehow as sexy as it is forbidding — and best experienced alone.

Followers of Ruby’s work, which includes gloppy but fascinating ceramic vessels, enormously phallic polyurethane stalagmites, minimalist cubes “defaced” by graffiti and photographs painted with red nail polish, may be surprised by the claustrophobic extremes of the “traps.” But Ruby, whom the Times’s Roberta Smith has called “one of the most interesting artists to emerge in this century,” is nothing if not unpredictable. After all, his last show in New York, “The Masturbators,” was a video installation showing nine male porn stars doing what they do best — and mostly failing at the task. A similar sense of shame, rather than remorse, runs through both “Bus” and “Pig Pen.” Ruby thinks of them as time machines — places that stop time the moment you enter and alter it when you come out. Such rearrangement of the senses is exactly what art delivers — like nothing else.

“Sterling Ruby: 2 Traps” continues through March 20 at PaceWildenstein, 545 West 22nd Street.

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New York

Sterling Ruby

An installation about masturbation falls limp.

By Time Out editors Mon Nov 9 2009

Installation view; Photographs: Mark Woods, Courtesy of the artist and Foxy…

Time Out Ratings

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

Sterling Ruby takes the comparison of contemporary art and onanism to new lengths—eight inches or more—in The Masturbators, an installation featuring nine video projections of naked men jacking off. Each guy stands in the same alcove, its walls covered with peeling paint, and, to stress the relationship between self-gratification and art, each stands in his abject white cube on two towels of contrasting colors, like Minimalist paintings underfoot. The spectacle momentarily shocks, but that sensation quickly shrinks to mild interest as we begin appraising differences in body type and—since the models all work as professional porn actors—manner, from theatrical to affectless: A tattooed, bearded guy stands on tiptoes and pinches his nipple; one with a hairy chest plays with his balls; a third needs to lie down with a magazine. An amplified cacophony of heavy breathing, grunts and wet slapping sounds accompanies the visuals.

Male masturbation in art has a sizable history, going back at least to Vito Acconci’s Seedbed of 1971, so to think of Ruby’s work as transgressive is difficult, especially when similar entertainments are readily available on any computer without parental controls. A gallery handout’s claim that The Masturbators says something meaningful about either masculinity or performance art is merely risible. Yet nearly anywhere we stand in the gallery’s close quarters, our own shadows get cast on the sometimes life-size projections, turning viewers into actively participating voyeurs of a creepily pretentious, deadpan—and deadening—wankfest.—Joseph R. Wolin

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Sterling Ruby. Anti Print Poster (in three parts), 2007
Sterling Ruby
Anti Print Poster (in three parts)
2007
Letterpress
23 1/2 × 17 1/2 inches
Edition of 30

Sterling Ruby. Anti Print Poster (in three parts), 2007
Sterling Ruby
Anti Print Poster (in three parts)
2007
Letterpress
16 × 23 inches
Edition of 30

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STERLING RUBY AND LUCIO FONTANA

by: Robin Newman

The exhibition of Sterling Ruby and Lucio Fontana currently on view at Andrea Rosen Gallery intertwines the work of two artists, juxtaposing while illuminating their similarities. Ruby is a contemporary artist based in Los Angeles, known for his biomorphic sculptures and graphic paintings as well as collages. Fontana was a Italian-Argentinean artist who founded the Spatialism art movement in New York during the 1940′s, alongside the development of abstract expressionism.

Although separated by time and place, both artists’ works are heavily influenced by their use of bronze and ceramics, and the organic forms and qualities that these materials take on. The exhibition begins with Fontana’s spherical bronze sculpture with a violent cracked down the center, recalling land splitting during an earthquake or a planet cracking in half. This sculpture sits by a smaller ceramic piece that twists and turns as if melting. In the next room we encounter a monolithic bronze sculpture by Ruby with the words “EXCAVATOR DIG SITE” emblazoned on the front. As Fontana’s sculpture recalls land, Ruby’s piece is more literal, creating a kind of archaeological dig site. Dripping in bronze, it looks as if the site has been consumed by molten lava and is as frozen in time as the ruins it was attempting to unearth.

These sculptures are juxtaposed with Fontana’s wall pieces of metal sheets that have been slashed down the middle. They are visceral yet somehow pristine, a perfectly executed cut. Also lining the walls are Ruby’s collages of found objects and paint on cardboard. These pieces recall the landscape of a dirty floor in an artists studio. Seemingly made from the leftovers of other works, they relate to Ruby’s ceramics which make up the second half of the show. The ceramics are at once destructive, while simultaneously allowing for a new creation. As in nature where decomposition feeds growth, and in recycling where trash can be reused, Ruby uses the refuse of failed ceramic attempts to birth a new piece. Broken bowls and shards are layered and glazed over, building a haphazard but complex structure. The works take on a psychological dimension when considering Ruby’s statement that he is destroying his past attempts and “grinding them down” as a way of “releasing a certain guilt” about the failure of the pieces. All the broken pieces collected into a basin feels an apt metaphor for a fragmented psyche. The pieces excavate and monumentalize failure by trying to come to terms with it. While Ruby’s ceramics are born from destruction, Fontana’s seem to be effortlessly slab-like and fluid.

Both artists engage the primeval nature of their materials while using it to create multi-layered works that investigate their modernity and history. The show attempts to unfold the past and bring it into the present. Partnering the historical work of a deceased artist with that of contemporary is an exercise in the archaeology of artistic lineage.


Now – October 15, 2011 at Andrea Rosen Gallery, 525 West 24th Street, New York, NY 10011

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Sterling Ruby

THE PRINCIPLES OF ETERNITY
by Rachel Corbett Artnet magazine

 

Sterling Ruby (b. 1972) makes a strong impression. His esthetic is masculine and a little bruised, antisocial and smart, grounded in its materials, and seems completely unpredictable. His varied output includes 18-foot-tall phallic “stalagmites” dripping with seemingly viscous urethane; rough-hewn ceramics with primordial glazes; paintings done with Robitussin-red nail polish or graffiti-like spray-paint; sculptures of smudged and scratched white minimalist forms; bus-sized cages on wheels; and videos of frustrated male pornstars masturbating to no end. For his latest exhibition, Ruby has turned to a classic Goth theme — vampires.

“Sterling Ruby: Vampire,” Sept. 24-Nov. 3, 2011, at Pace Beijing, is an appropriately splashy entrance into what looks like something of a new phase in the Los Angeles-based artist’s career. In the six years since he earned his MFA, Ruby has seen his prices leap to unsustainable levels, has ricocheted between galleries, and has confused some collectors and advisors with his refusal to stick to any one — or even three — mediums.

But now, the painter-sculptor-ceramicist who has been labeled a “rising young star” for years — he turns 40 in January — seems to have hit his stride. He has signed with Pace Gallery, stabilized his market and suddenly looks poised to move from cult hero to a kind of “mid-career” canonization.

“Sterling is the only one who shows signs that he’s going to be on the level of the major artists Pace has shown in the past — or that he could be in 20 years,” said art advisor Lisa Schiff. “There’s a space opening up. Artists like Christopher Wool and Albert Oehlen are starting to move into seniority, so there’s room for the next wave of great artists like him.”

“This has been a particularly hectic year,” said Ruby by phone from his studio in Vernon, Calif., a few days before catching a plane to install his first solo show in China. In 2009, Ruby was one of Pace director-in-waiting Marc Glimcher’s first recruits, and now he’ll be the Beijing outpost’s debut western artist. Luckily, “I tend to make an abundance of work,” he said.

Ruby is also in a two-person exhibition at Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York, in which his ceramics are aptly paired with works by Italian maestro Lucio Fontana, who of course also made ceramics as well as his trademark punctured monochromes. Last year, in a similarly savvy bit of curating, the Xavier Hufkens gallery in Brussels juxtaposed Ruby with Robert Mapplethorpe, another chronicler of elegance and the abject.

In an even bigger consummation, Ruby has recently seen a stream of museum endorsement — traditionally the ultimate arbiter of legacy. Since just last year, his works have been acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, the Tate Collection, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and seven other major public collections around the world.

But success for the young artist whose market once teetered on the brink of too-much-too-soon has not always looked so probable. Born on a military base in Bitburg, Germany, to a Dutch mother and American father, Ruby has spent most of his life far outside the bounds of the rarified art scene. The family moved around the Netherlands, to Baltimore, and finally settled on a farm about 20 minutes south of York, Penn., because, as Ruby put it, his parents “were hippies who had a subscription to Mother Earth News.” (That also might explain his name, which, he added, “was somewhat difficult as a kid living around a bunch of rednecks.”)

After graduating from an agriculture high school, Ruby spent several years working in construction and “getting very depressed” before having his introduction to the art world. His mother’s friend, a wildlife illustrator, helped him get into the Pennsylvania School of Art and Design in Lancaster, an unaccredited college where Ruby learned, predominantly, to draw bowls of fruit and nudes.

His real artistic awakening came with the discovery of Paul Schimmel’s catalogue Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s in the tiny school library. “It was a red herring — I don’t know how it got there,” Ruby said. “I became certain that I was going to wind up in L.A., which seemed like it had more pathology than any other city in America.”

But he got his first break before he ever made it to the coast. He moved to Chicago to finish his degree at the School of the Art Institute, and it was there, at 1R Gallery, that New York dealer Michael Gillespie spotted Ruby’s work. The following year, Gillespie gave the artist his first solo exhibition in the city at his gallery, Foxy Production.

In 2006, not long after Ruby graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, he signed on with Metro Pictures gallery. But the relationship was rumored to be unsteady and they parted ways after two shows. So Ruby bounced back to working exclusively with Foxy Production (where he continues to show today on a project basis).

Then, the following year, Ruby saw a stratospheric surge in his auction prices. A spray-painted canvas, SP28, estimated at $35,000-$45,000 at Phillips de Pury, sold for $260,000. A month later, a print estimated at about $10,000 at Phillips in London went for $62,000.

“He came of age right at the pinnacle of the last decade’s market,” said Schiff. Suddenly, “a lot of people were glomming on, trying to get work out of his studio.” Gillespie remembers that “no one knew him and really no one knew us. But a small group of collectors and other gallerists started coming around. I think it was just the rawness and visceral quality of the work — it just hit you in the gut.”

Schiff stopped recommending Ruby’s work to her clients. Sure, he was popular, and the critics loved him too — that year Roberta Smith wrote in the Times that Ruby was “one of the most interesting artists to emerge in this century” — but “I couldn’t understand what was going on, and it made me nervous,” Schiff said.

Glimcher said that dealers face a problem of arbitrage when this happens. “If your public market goes above your private market, what are you going to do? Your dealer has to drop prices. Nothing hurts confidence in an artist’s work more than when a gallery has to say, ‘we’re going to drop prices.’”

And the most coveted works seemed to be Ruby’s paintings — not the sculpture or ceramics that had largely defined him thus far. Paintings, as a whole, tend to sell better than other media because they’re considered more livable, but some advisors worried he was becoming too stylistically pigeonholed.

“People are always confused by artists who work in multiple practices,” Glimcher said. “But he doesn’t really care.”

While Ruby’s primary-market prices have risen steadily over the years, he “is very conservative. He has kept his prices low and that’s a consistent trait of artists who, 40 years from now, we still know their names,” Glimcher said, citing Robert Ryman as a model of this kind of long-term prudence.

According to Pace, the majority of Ruby’s works range from $25,000-$150,000, while his large-scale sculptures go for between $250,000 and $500,000. (One dealer said that a larger ceramic work in the Andrea Rosen show is going for $75,000.)

Things seemed to settle down for Ruby in 2009. The economy was faltering, but that may have helped slow any further spikes in his auction prices. That was also the year he signed with Pace and, so far, they seem to be making smart moves. Ruby said he has intentionally held off showing ceramics for a while, maximizing the Fontana exhibition’s impact. “Ceramics are in vogue, without a doubt,” he acknowledged.

And could there be a subject with more mass-market appeal than vampires? “Twilight, True Blood, that Gucci Mane single… everyone wants to be a vampire in some way,” he said, adding that he was happy to play up to the theme, partly selected by Pace Beijing director Leng Lin.

But that’s not to call Ruby a sell-out. “Vampire” is a natural continuation of the anti-jingoistic themes he has long explored. There are 30 extremely large-scale new works, including Old Glory-printed fabric sculptures of lips and fangs; a supersized sheet-metal flag; new spray-painted canvases; a series of five-by-eight-foot bronze Debt basins filled with scraps; and an 18-foot stalagmite in which shades of empire red and blue bleed into black. It’s all housed in Pace Beijing’s perfectly Brutalist 25,000-square-foot old munitions factory.

“Society-conscious art has taken shape and risen in China,” said Leng Lin in an email. “Chinese contemporary art tends toward narrative, while Sterling Ruby’s work emphasizes shape and form. Sterling’s entrance will undoubtedly open eyes and minds and pour new life and energy into a flourishing, society-conscious Chinese contemporary art scene.”

“There’s something drastic about the vampire,” Ruby said. “It’s hyper-sexual, taboo, and there’s the existential scenario of never dying, being faced with the principles of eternity. It seems fitting for the time.”

RACHEL CORBETT is news editor at Artnet Magazine.

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-Vincent Johnson

Los Angeles, California

July 29, 2012

Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles

New Abstract Paintings: The Cosmos suite (2012)

Golden Dream (2012), part of the Cosmos Suite of paintings

California Toilet, Filthy Light Switch (2010) by Vincent Johnson. Archival Epson print (Private Collection, Miami, Florida). I provided this image as I realized its clear similarity to Golden Dream, which I completed a week ago in my studio in Los Angeles.

Two at Night (2012) from the Cosmos suite of paintings, Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches

Cosmos. Oil on canvas  2012 by Vincent Johnson

Cosmos Red Yellow Green. Oil on canvas 2012 by Vincent Johnson

Green God. Oil on canvas 2012 by Vincent Johnson

This new painting series is part of my ongoing exploration of painting materials and techniques from the history of painting. The works combine knowledge of painting practices of both abstract and representation paintings. The works concern themselves purely with the visual power that paintings can do through the manipulation of paint. Some of the underpaintings are allowed to dry for months; some of those are built dark to light, others light to dark. None are made in a single setting. Most are worked and reworked using studio materials. Each new series takes a different approach to the painted surface from how the paint is applied, to varying the painting mediums. This suite concerns itself with the layering of paint by building up the surface and altering and reworking the wet paint with studio tools.

Two larger paintings will be completed and photographed on Sunday, July 15, 2012 and posted here.

Vincent Johnson, Grayscale painting: The Storm (2012). Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches, created in studio in Los Angeles, California

Vincent Johnson, Grayscale painting, Snow White/White Snow (2012). Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches, created in studio in Los Angeles

Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles

Vincent Johnson, Nine Grayscale Paintings, Beacon Arts Center, Los Angeles, (2001). Oil on canvas. Each panel is 20×24 inches.
photograph of silver paint on my hands in studio, Los Angeles, during the creation of Nine Grayscale paintings.
Vincent Johnson – in Los Angeles studio working on Nine Grayscale Paintings, 2011

Vincent Johnson

Los Angeles, California

Vincent Johnson received his MFA in Fine Art Painting from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California 1997 and his BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is a 2005 Creative Capital Grantee, and was selected for the Baum: An Emerging American Photographer’s Award in 2004 and for the New Museum of Contemporary Arts Aldrich Art Award in 2007 and for the Art Matters grant in 2008, and in 2009 for the Foundation for Contemporary Art Fellowship, Los Angeles. In 2010 he was named a United States Artists project artist. His work has been reviewed in ArtForum, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Art in America, Art Slant and many other publications. His photographic works were most recently shown in the inaugural Pulse Fair Los Angeles. His most recent paintings were shown at the Beacon Arts Center in Los Angeles.

Jeff Koons interviews

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this issue contains
>> Jeff Koons: Interview
>> A World Full of Multiples: Richard Prince
>> The Art of Shopping
>> Painting at a Rate of 150 Beats per Minute: Michel Majerus
>> archive
Door to Door
A Visit to Jeff Koons’ Studio

Jeff Koons’ studio, New York
Courtesy Cheryl Kaplan ©Copyright Cheryl Kaplan 2005. All rights reserved. Next to Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons is probably the epitome of the “American” artist: more than any of his contemporaries, Koons confronted the artistic currents of the 20th century with the commercial strategies of the advertising and entertainment industries. He achieved his international breakthrough in the eighties with works like his sculptures with Hoover vacuum cleaners, the “Stainless Steel” series, and the famous porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson and his monkey “Bubbles.” In 2000, his painting series “ Easyfun Ethereal”, commissioned by the Deutsche Guggenheim, was on show in Berlin. Cheryl Kaplan visited Koons in his New York studio.

Jeff Koons in his studio, 2005
Courtesy Cheryl Kaplan ©Copyright Cheryl Kaplan 2005.
All rights reserved.

Walking into Jeff Koons’ studio is more like walking into a car factory or NASA. There are men in white suits hovering around objects, tag teams of painters on ladders, and paint swatches enough for neighborhoods of remodeled homes. Then there’s the clean room, where inflatable sculptures are polished and tended to behind clear plastic curtains and sealed doors. It’s Elizabeth Arden meets Vasari . Just a normal day for Jeff Koons and his 50 plus assistants. There’s a gentle, calm feeling throughout the studio despite the fact that orders are very clearly being given left and right. The Hulk and Popeye loom large. Nearby, a shelf is stuffed with beach toys and patterns; a model for a new train sculpture is also on view, a large commission for a European institution. The natural light in the studio feels like it’s dreamed up. Jeff gives me the cook’s tour.


Jeff Koons’ Studio, New York, 2005
Courtesy Cheryl Kaplan ©Copyright Cheryl Kaplan 2005. All rights reserved.

Cheryl Kaplan: The production values in your work are always very high. Why is “excellence,” a trademark of American production, so important to you?

Jeff Koons: The viewer has to trust the object. When I was younger, we’d go to a foundry and they never paid the same attention to the bottom as the front. I could never understand that. I’d lose trust. An object is an abstract thought that becomes a life energy.

So when an object doesn’t have any flaws…

…it’s in a heightened state.

 

The Japanese have that sense of the meticulous, of giving the commodity a unique history.Order and meticulousness are about caring. Art is always about the viewer. In America, people are happy without aesthetic control.
Jeff Koons, Sandwiches, from the series ” Easyfun-Ethereal”, 2000
Deutsche Bank Collection, ©Jeff Koons

The production values associated with America in the late 50s and 60s have shifted.

That’s happened for physical art, but in the high-tech world, we’re incredible. I believe in using craft to embed as much power into an object or image as possible. I don’t believe in craft for craft’s sake, it has to be able to heighten the energy. What’s so wonderful about Warhol’s work is the economy of the gesture.

How do you organize your studio? Do you meet regularly with everyone?

No, but I look into every department. It’s my responsibility to direct, educate, and inform everybody. If I print something out on my printer, I want it reproduced like it is. It’s showing them how to look closely.


Koons’ assistants in the studio, 2005
Courtesy Cheryl Kaplan ©Copyright Cheryl Kaplan 2005. All rights reserved.

Why did Greg Gorman’s photo of David Bowie in a gold suit strike you so strongly?

Because of the surface tension I felt through that photograph. I remember thinking: if you took a hammer it would shatter, the surface was so tight. I’ve always had such respect for Bowie. He’s able to bring us into contact with real power.

You’ve said that “if Spalding came to me and asked if I’d work on an ad campaign, I’d love that.” Where is the border between what’s commercial and what’s art?


Jeff Koons Three Ball 50/50 Tank, 1985, ©Jeff Koons

When I first got involved with ready-made objects, I liked things to act like advertisements for my work. If you’d see a basketball or a vacuum cleaner, you’d think of my work. I love advertising, but art isn’t tied to any other influence other than the artist’s agenda.

[1] [2] [3]

  
Have you ever shot a commercial?I shot a print ad for Calvin Klein and for Prada. Sounds like that mimicked art rather than using advertising as a form.

It’s not the same vocabulary. I’ve never been hired by Coca Cola, where you use everything you understand about sociology and images for the benefit of Coca Cola.

How did you turn the 1986 stainless steel sculpture “Rabbit” into an icon that defies association?


Jeff Koons, Tulips, 2004, ©Jeff Koons

Rabbit comes from a series called Statuary. Rabbit was art as fantasy. I was referencing indoor/outdoor sculpture; where I grew up in Pennsylvania, there were a lot of glass mercury bowls in people’s yards. The rabbit has tension and sexuality. I was going back and forth whether to make an inflatable rabbit or pig, and the rabbit won. My next body of work after Statuary was Banality.

Why the pig?

It’s an animal that’s looked down upon. The vocabulary of the Banality show was about accepting one’s cultural history. There’s a self-debasement using the pig. I’m trying to make works that people embrace for who they are – then they can start on a more objective path.


Koons’ studio, 2005
Courtesy Cheryl Kaplan ©Copyright Cheryl Kaplan 2005.
All rights reserved.

In a lot of your work, there’s a strange familiarity, like a lost relative who shows up and who’s actually not part of the family.

I want people to feel comfortable around the images. When they look at art, it’s very brief. I want to contribute to a communal life.

How did your early training as a broker help you in the art world?


Jeff Koons, Hair with Cheese, from the series ” Easyfun-Ethereal”, 2000
Deutsche Bank Collcetion, ©Jeff Koons

Long before I was a broker, when I was a child, I went door to door with my parents selling candy, gift-wrapping paper, and other products. My parents drove me around and parked the car in different communities and then picked me up. This taught me self-reliance and a sense of difference and acceptance. I never knew who would open the door or the quality of the living room.
How old were you?Eight. I wanted to sell the product, but it was a way of meeting their needs.

If they didn’t believe you, they wouldn’t buy a thing. It was also the end of the door-to-door salesman.




Jeff Koons, Bluepoles, from the series ” Easyfun-Ethereal”, 2000
Deutsche Bank Collection, ©Jeff Koons
That’s why I did the Hoover vacuum cleaner series – as a reference to the door-to-door salesman. People in sales are on the front line of our culture.

How does amusement function in your work? I’m thinking about the 2000 painting “Bluepoles” that has been shown at the Deutsche Guggenheim. It depicts a state fair where happy, but distorted characters are on a roller coaster.

I just took my children to a state fair in Pennsylvania this weekend and they saw pig races and jelly bean contests… In Blue Poles, I thought of Jackson Pollock. That painting has a darker side.

Your work rides between pain and pleasure.

As in Caterpillar Chains . Caterpillar Ladder is in the back room. You don’t know if it’s a piece of furniture for the bedroom.


Jeff Koons in front of “Caterpillar – Ladder”, 2005
Courtesy Cheryl Kaplan ©Copyright Cheryl Kaplan 2005. All rights reserved.

Or a swing set.

Or tears.

It’s predatory, but fun.

It’s more feminine, the ladder is like the Nude Descending the Staircase and the one with chains could just lay a million eggs.

You’ve said: “I love the gallery. It’s a commercial world, and morality is based generally around economics, and that’s taking place in the art gallery.” Morality and economics are completely tied together. As far as economics are concerned, morality is played out in our responsibility to each other.

Without morality, economics wouldn’t have an incentive. Economics work if I agree to your terms. I think about you going door to door, selling things – it wouldn’t work if they didn’t care enough to open the door. But Dali opened the door for you. When you met him at his hotel, what did he have to say?

When I was taking his photographs, he would say: “Hurry up kid, I can’t hold this position all day.” But he kept holding the position and waxed his moustache. I’ve always liked Dali. As a child, we had a coffee table book. My mother read that Salvador would stay at the St. Regis Hotel in New York every winter. I called him when I started art school in Baltimore. I came on a train and met him in the lobby.

He had a big fur coat, a cane, and diamond pins. He invited me to his exhibition at the Knoedler Gallery. He posed for photographs. His generosity was fantastic, I was some young artist and Dali was someone I cared about a lot. I remembered thinking I can have my life based around art and give all my attention to this. I’ve always tried to be generous if somebody contacts me.In the 1985 “ Luxury and Degradation” exhibition at International With Monument, you said the “sculptures represented a range of economic levels.” Why has “degradation” both in its physical and social sense been important to your work? The first image for the Luxury and Degradation show was the Jim Bean – J.B. Turner Train, and it was a porcelain and plastic train made of liquor decanters and it sat on tracks. I transformed it into a fake luxury. I had no desire to use silver or platinum. Stainless steel is a proletarian material that keeps us alive, like pots and pans. That was the first time I worked with an everyday material. It was the only thing that would keep the alcohol; it’s what’s used in distilleries. It gave me a luxurious surface. Abstraction used in advertising depends on the economic income levels of target audiences. The lower the target level, the less visual abstraction is used. The higher the income level, the higher the abstraction, because they don’t want to debase you. They want to get as much economic and political power out of each individual as possible. Luxury is something they want people to strive after, and that’s what that work was about. I was telling people to embrace abstraction and luxury and be free of it.


Jeff Koons in his studio, 2005
Courtesy Cheryl Kaplan ©Copyright Cheryl Kaplan 2005.
All rights reserved.

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JEFF KOONS FONDATION BEYELER BASEL

  • First Look: Jeff Koons Retrospective at Fondation Beyeler
  • Posted 21 months ago by staff · Art & Design · 4745 Views
  • Below is a close up look at some of the artworks included in the new Jeff Koons retrospective at Swiss art institute Fondation Beyeler. The exhibition is the first dedicated Koons exhibition in the country and focuses on three main collections of his – “The New”, “Banality” and “Celebration” – each of which have been formed over the course of the artist’s career, which began in the 80s. By doing this, the Fondation Beyeler give viewers a nice overview of the contrasting materials and aesthetics Koons has utilised over the years.If you’re in the area, the retrospective will be running through to 2 September, 2012.

    Fondation Beyeler
    Baselstrasse 101
    CH-4125 Riehen / Basel
    Switzerland

    Source: designboom

    www.fondationbeyeler.ch

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WWD

Pop Bottles: Jeff Koons Teams With Dom Pérignon

The first thing visitors this spring to the Gagosian Gallery, which is hosting one of the two Jeff Koons exhibitions currently on view in New York, have seen upon passing the front desk is the artist’s eight-plus-foot high chromium stainless steel riff on the “Venus of Willendorf.” Produced in the style of his “balloon” sculptures, the piece is a tribute to the 25,000-year-old fertility totem considered to be one of the earliest known depictions of the human form.


On Wednesday, Koons was in a private back room at the blue chip Chelsea gallery wearing a skinny-lapel Dior Homme suit and his perma-becalmed visage. A two-foot tall polyurethane resin version of his “Balloon Venus” lay in repose on the table beside the 58-year-old artist. A bottle of Dom Pérignon Rosé Vintage 2003 lay inside the sculpture’s bulbous belly to form an extravagant nesting doll.

“I don’t do very many product associations,” Koons said. “But you know Dom Pérignon is a fantastic brand, a wonderful Champagne. Champagne is used on many occasions for celebrating.”

It was early afternoon on a day of promotional duties pegged to the collaboration. Koons had come in that morning from his family getaway in York, Pa. Even during his final interview on the subject, he displayed the much-noted, soft-spoken and altogether earnest bearing that has made him American art’s greatest, or at least most financially successful, living cipher.

“The ‘Balloon Venus’ here in the gallery,” he said, referring to the oversize original, “even to manufacture, it’s a couple of million euros.

“So you have your Dom Pérignon, which has its own expenses in production, but this is just something more accessible to people,” Koons went on. “And even though it is still a luxury, there is greater accessibility and at the same time it’s a product that’s able to be made and to the highest standards.”

Accessible is a relative term. The Champagne and sculpture package, limited to an edition of a few hundred, will sell at retail for about $20,000. It is a staggering price tag to be sure, and one that slingshots past prior Dom Pérignon artist collaborations that have include Andy Warhol and David Lynch. (The winery will also offer two, presumably less costly, Koons gift boxes.) But in Koons’ superstrata of the art market, a place populated largely by billionaires and those well on their way there, it qualifies as a value play. (Christie’s sold one of Koons’ “Tulips” sculptures to Steve Wynn for $33.7 million last year.) It was easy to envision, as one of the half-dozen p.r. reps on hand suggested, the statuette displayed proudly in offices in certain aspirational banking circles come the holidays.

As for what the prospective Masters of the Universe will be imbibing, Dom Pérignon chef de cave Richard Geoffroy seated in separate private Gagosian chamber, described the offering with an expressiveness nearly opposite Koons’.

“To be honest, this particular vintage, specific vintage rosé 2003, will remain historic. It sounds very solemn, but I’m telling you it’s that important,” he said. “It’s about as bold, as provocative…as full bodied, intense, sensuous as can be.”

Geoffroy said that the label first approached Koons with the idea two years ago, and gave the artist free rein on the end design of the package. Given the decade lead-time of the Champagne, it appears to be a happy accident for all involved the vintage will come to market in the midst of a Koons bonanza in New York. In addition to the Gagosian show closing next week, another display of new work will wrap Saturday at David Zwirner Gallery. Next year, The Whitney Museum of American Art will close out its current Upper East Side location with a massive retrospective for the artist. There will be need for spirits to toast.

“If I’m going to celebrate something then [I] have Champagne,” Koons said. “Most often we have Dom Pérignon, but I have a total of eight children and I have six young ones at home so I’m always on call, so it’s a little less frequent than it used to be.”

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Just a few months ago, the art world watched in shock and awe as Damien Hirst skipped his gallery to hold a mammoth auction of his own work in one of the ballsiest and most successful displays of showmanship since Jeff Koons made life-size porcelain works of himself going at it with his then-wife Ilona Staller, a.k.a. La Cicciolina, back in 1989. Nearly 20 years later, long after that marriage went south and Staller fled the United States with their son Ludwig, Koons has moved on to a new plane entirely. A rare show of his “Celebration” sculptures opened in October in Berlin; one of his enormous “Balloon Flower” sculptures is the first piece of public art at Ground Zero; and his immense 161-foot-tall train-from-a-crane is on track, so to speak, to be built at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Most fascinating of all, this all-American artist enthralled (and roiled) la France this past fall when his first European retrospective went on display at none other than the Palace of Versailles, making him the first contemporary artist to be given such royal treatment. Sitting down in his amazingly colorful candy factory in West Chelsea, New York, Koons talks about how he hates the word kitsch, finds irony useless, and loves the films Bambi (1942) and Goldfinger (1964). And while the boy from the Rust Belt is as American as a Hershey’s Kiss, it turns out he has more in common with Louis XIV than with Henry Ford.

DAVID COLMAN: How did the Versailles show come about? Was it generated by you?

JEFF KOONS: No. Several years ago, a friend of mine, Jérôme de Noirmont, who’s a gallerist in Paris, said, “Wouldn’t it be great to make an exhibition at Versailles?” And I said, “That would be great.” Because when I made works like Puppy or Split-Rocker, those large floral sculptures, I always thought that they were the types of works where Louis XIV would wake up in the morning, look out his window, and fantasize about making something like that-you know, he’d want to come home that evening, and there it would be. So it turned out to be a treat to have that take place. We talked about it for years, but actually when Jean-Jacques Aillagon, who was the minister of culture and communication in France, became president of the Château de Versailles Museum, there was discussion about incorporating contemporary art into Versailles during the year. And so Jean-Jacques said, “Let’s invite Jeff.” But there’s been this underlying idea for the last couple of years among some friends in France that it would be great to show my work in Versailles.

DC: In some ways it seems so perfect for Versailles, and in some ways it seems so completely wrong. You know I say that with love. But it has this great monumentality and reflection and this over-the-top ornamentation that is so perfect for the environment, and yet at the same time it’s so American. Obviously these adjectives are open to discussion . . .

JK: I think that it worked kind of perfectly. I’m interested in sensuality. I’m interested in power. I’m interested in the kind of polarities and equilibriums that take place within sexuality and philosophy and sociology. So in Versailles, in this type of setting, you have a place that is about absolute control, where everything has been thought about.

DC: Which is very Koonsian, I must say.

JK: Well, certain aspects of it-I like to pay a lot of attention to things. There’s another aspect that then comes along, which recognizes that even when you exist with all of this control, there are certain areas where you do, in the end, have to give it up.

DC: I don’t believe you ever give up control.

JK: Well, in these sculptures, like Puppy or Split-Rocker, there is a point where you do. Whenever you finish an artwork and the viewer comes and views it, at that moment you’ve given up control.

DC: So what was the reaction? I heard there were some French people who thought, Oh, this American person shouldn’t be showing at Versailles, blah blah blah. They go off on that tangent pretty quickly.

JK: I heard about these things and didn’t get so involved in that dialogue other than to let people know that I just wanted to make something very positive at Versailles. But walking through the exhibition after it was installed, I noticed that some of the guards would be walking around huffing and puffing, you know, “How can this be here?” They were upset by it. But actually people say that in France it’s really having quite an impact. They’re getting very large crowds coming and that it’s somehow hit a nerve within French culture where they can have a dialogue about contemporary art and historical works and the decorative arts of the past.

I’m interested in sensuality. I’m interested in power. So in Versailles, in this type of setting, you have a place that is about absolute control, where everything has been thought about.—Jeff Koons

DC: Walking around your studio, the kind of creative genius that comes to mind isn’t Louis Quatorze but Willy Wonka. Do you remember that movie [Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, 1971]?

JK: You know, I did see Willy Wonka a couple of times, but it was never my favorite film.

DC: What was?

JK: It depends how young I was. I always liked Disney films. To this day I think Bambi is great. But Willy Wonka was one that I never liked so much.

DC: What didn’t you like about it? I mean, there’s just so much-especially the chocolate room. Just walking around there, it’s an incredible dream machine. All these various stages and rooms and people and things going on . . . It’s amazing.

JK: I don’t know, I guess there was some aspect of the movie that I didn’t connect to completely. I don’t know if I found it scary . . . I do like films that connect, that are positive . . . and I don’t really eat a lot of chocolate myself.

DC: It’s not necessarily a feel-good film.

JK: No. When I got a little older, I remember seeing my first Bond film with my father, and I enjoyed that. It was good, Goldfinger.

DC: Oh yeah, of course.

JK: I show that film to my kids today, and they talk about Goldfinger getting sucked out of the plane.

DC: Oh, right, right. What’s the crazy one, where somebody’s forced to swallow one of the exploding air pellets and he becomes inflatable?

JK: I didn’t see it. But that’s good. Appropriate.

DC: You love inflatable objects, that’s for sure. Do you still shop a lot for toys?

JK: No. When I was younger I used to. I would shop on 14th Street in New York and I’d be looking for a lot of visual information that was product-oriented. But over the years I became more involved in connecting to things that are archetypal and profound, things that connect you with human history. I spend much more time looking at art history and at different references to art than I do at actual objects.

DC: Let me ask you about the train-hanging-from-a-crane thingamajig planned for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. How’s that going?

JK: The train, the sculpture, a public piece, will be created for outside LACMA-for what they call the campus there. We finished our phase one and phase two engineering, which means we’re ready to build. All the designs for how to make something like that actually function and be able to be maintained and workable are finished, so it will hopefully be built in about three years. We’re very optimistic.

DC: It would be good to have something like that in the L.A. skyline because there’s nothing there.

JK: What I like about the piece is that it functions like a kind of European town center to rally people around. I think philosophically it brings people into contact with their own sense of mortality. It’s very visceral-a kind of sensual, sexualized performance that takes place with this powerful steam engine starting up and running and building momentum.

DC: So the wheels will turn?

JK: Well, everything that a real train does this train will do-but it’s hanging, you know, facing straight down to the ground. It’ll start heating up and steam will leak from one valve and then you’ll hear, like, a ca-chunk and it’ll go into a gear. And then when finally it gets close to performance time you’ll hear a ding, ding, ding, and all the patterns of a bell ringing that a real train would do before pulling out of a station. Then the wheels will slowly start turning, building a moment like an orgasmic plateau, woo, woo, woo-the same curve, acceleration, every second going faster than the moment before until it’s at full speed going 80 miles an hour, then it will decline until the last drippage of smoke comes out.

DC: Right. And then it asks for a cigarette?

JK: Yeah, well . . .

DC: It’s tempting to look at it as commentary on car culture, in the way that public transportation has been sidelined for the last 60 years in Los Angeles.

JK: I wasn’t really thinking about that, but . . . there are other powers that have replaced steam, but still it’s a magnificent machine. Very, very powerful.

DC: It’s also more dangerous and less playful than other things of yours. I know there’s a lot of playfulness associated with it, but there’s a visceral kind of dread to it, too-if you’re standing underneath it, for example. What is it being suspended from?

JK: A crane.

DC: No, I know, but like some sort of cable?

JK: Yeah. It’s suspended from cables, and it has the counterbalance, the weights. All these things are really very engineered. But there is that sense of awe and wonderment.

DC: I was just talking about you with a friend, about how you and Richard Serra seem on opposite ends of the spectrum sometimes, but you’re both kind of in that steelworkers union now.

JK: Well, I thought about Richard when I came up with the idea for the piece, especially looking at the balance in the back and how much weight we would need to have there. It seems like a nice dialogue with Richard’s work, considering mass and weight.

DC: I’m constantly having this discussion with people about your work because they always assume that you think it’s funny. People think your work is tongue-in-cheek and I’m always trying to explain to them that you don’t feel that way about it. Do you feel a constant battle to explain this to people?

JK: Sometimes I see irony in the pieces, but it’s not the intention. I’ve always loved surrealism and Dada and Pop, so I just follow my interests and focus on them. When you do that, things become very metaphysical. People have different definitions of irony. I always think of irony as basically something that’s kind of surprising, where you can maybe see an unforeseen connection to something.

DC: If you say you like something ironically, is it that you really like it ironically? Or do you like it and not want to admit it? Or do you not like it and not want to admit it?

JK: I agree that people have different ideas, emotional ideas, of what certain words mean, and they think of irony as something that’s more associated with being cynical-it’s kind of a put-down. I really believe that the end of the 20th century, beginning of the 21st century, where we are today, is about acceptance, and not about judgment. I don’t think irony is about judgment; I think irony is something like, “Oh, that’s interesting,” because it’s not something I think one starts off to achieve. I think it’s just something that presents itself. And if it does, I find it’s usually optimistic, not negative in its terms.

DC: People would be very at home grouping you with Richard Prince, for example.

JK: Well, Richard and I have known each other for years-I respect Richard’s work, and Richard himself, a lot. Richard’s work has developed more from the position of appropriation, and so appropriation has a little darker side to it, because it’s more about theft, where my work’s more associated to the ready-made, where it’s something that preexists.

DC: You’ve both been sued for copyright stuff.

JK: Oh, yeah. We come from a very similar tradition of working with things in the external world. We’ve known each other since the ’70s. But I would say that Richard’s work has always had a certain emotional feel to it and mine has always had its own certain emotional feel to it, but we’re both engaged in this dialogue about the external world.

It’s wonderful to make a lot of money, to be able to take care of my family, to have the facilities I have…but at the end of the day I’m quite simple as an artist-It’s really about the power of art.—Jeff Koons

DC: How do you define kitsch?

JK: I don’t feel close to it. I think that kitsch is a judgment and it’s using language-using the ability to classify something and to make things kind of unworthy of a certain level.

DC: I was surprised actually to see you described in ARTnews as the king of kitsch.

JK: That’s a misunderstanding. Sometimes the messenger gets confused with the message.

DC: You are finally showing the “Celebration” works in Berlin together?

JK: It’s an exhibition at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, the Mies van der Rohe building, with 11 “Celebration” sculptures.

DC: I always preferred the word celebration over acceptance, because it’s never enough to just accept something-to me it implies defeat. Whereas celebrating something really, in some perverse way, puts more of the power in your hands. Like you’re taking something slightly deflated and pumping it full of air and putting it back on a pedestal.

JK: “Celebration” involved my son Ludwig back in the early ’90s and the situation of him being taken away, and I used my art to hang on to my belief in humanity in a way. Because we had a sense of a lot of injustice during that time.

DC: Do you see your son at all?

JK: I can’t really see Ludwig, but I’m sure someday I will. I do have four really wonderful boys at home right now. And I have a wonderful daughter, Shannon. I’m sure at some point my situation with Ludwig will turn around.

DC: Do you collect art?

JK: I collect a wide range of things: old masters; I love French 19th-century work; I have some antiquities. But it’s an ongoing process. I have some contemporary works-I have a great Picasso-The Kiss. It’s a really fantastic painting.

DC: I can see that it’s very Koonsian, but what do you like about it?

JK: How profound it is. You look at it and see that Picasso is thinking about Titian, and at the same time there’s this sense of sexual conquest through thinking about Titian, and in a certain way there’s this sense of movement almost to Alexander the Great. But then it also makes reference to Donatello’s Madonna and Child.

DC: What about the art market? I mean, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith recently wrote something interesting, saying that Damien Hirst uses the art market the way you use popular culture. Do you feel engaged with the way that people invest meaning in art the same way they invest money in it? You’re an astute businessman but then sort of famously not, as well. [laughs]

JK: You know, I don’t like being naïve about the market, and I always try to make things as great as I can. Then I hope that there’s an audience that enjoys them, and that hopefully those things get protected. It’s wonderful to make a lot of money, to be able to take care of my family, to have the facilities I have and really support the people the studio’s involved with. But at the end of the day I’m quite simple as an artist-it’s really about the power of art.

DC: To what extent has having kids amplified or affected this feeling?

JK: Even before I had children I wanted the intensity of my life to get greater. I wanted to feel things more strongly. I wanted my intellectual parameters to expand. But it comes back to your own desire to be engaged and to live up to your parameters.

DC: Okay. So what is it about an inflatable pool toy that you love so much?

JK: That even though it’s printed on its side that it is not a life-saving device, actually it is. I do see it as life-saving. Do you think we’re almost done?

DC: Almost. I want to ask about impressionism.

JK: I love Manet.

DC: You do? What do you love about him?

JK: I love how he doesn’t have anger. He’s very ambitious and political, but you really don’t get a sense of anger. And there’s a sense of human warmth in Manet’s work. It’s very, very direct.

DC: But there’s a sense in Manet of the celebration of the female body, which is something you have a good appreciation of yourself.

JK: I believe in sensuality. I believe in sex. I believe in the survival of the species. I like aspects of things that are ethereal, but I like the reality of nature and embracing the way nature works, and aspects of interrelationships between male-female, aspects of the body, the way the body has changed over thousands of years . . . most of the morning I was looking at the Venus of Willendorf.

DC: Okay.

JK: This is a swan. [Koons holds up a small balloon-swan form] This swan is very totemic, very phallic. But if you look at the side view of the swan, it’s all a very sexual harmony and then the inside’s totally feminine and vaginal-and so it functions. Beauty is really sexualized. For me it was an epiphany, looking at this on the computer, two-dimensionally. I enjoy things that have a lot of layers to them and are connected. Anything that is connecting and that has a lot of different layers I become curious then . . .

DC: It’s funny because a lot of people would look at your work and think there aren’t layers.

JK: Did we speak enough about Versailles?

DC: Do you have anything else to say about Louis XIV?

JK: I was intrigued about its being a place where everything has been thought about aesthetically. Louis XIV and Louis XV, XVI, Marie-Antoinette-they lived in a world that was so fantastic. They could go to bed and their gardens would be blue. And all night long the gardeners would pick up these flower pots and put in new flowers. And they would wake up and the whole garden would be red. An amazing fantasy.

DC: Not a bad way to live. What do you live like?

JK: [laughs] I really live for my work here at the studio, so I’m not very extravagant in consumption or anything like that. I love to collect art so my extravagance is to try to collect beautiful things. But you know, I live on the Upper East Side and I have my studio down here on the West Side. And we have our weekend place in Pennsylvania because we wanted our children to be able to have an experience that’s different than just the New York Upper East Side experience. So I’m really not a person who consumes a lot. I don’t have a sports car

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NY MAGAZINE

Jeff Koons Is the Most Successful American Artist Since Warhol. So What’s the Art World Got Against Him?

Koons holding a gazing ball aloft in his studio alongside several sculptures destined for his show at David Zwirner.

Honk Honk Honk! Honk!

Jeff Koons’s 5-year-old son, Eric, is blowing a yellow plastic toy horn in his face, and the preternaturally unruffled artist is, for a human second, irritated.

“Stop,” says Koons. “No blowing the horn.”

“It’s mine,” Eric says.

“It’s not yours,” Koons says. “It’s Dad’s.” Then he deftly takes it from Eric, handing it off to one of the children’s caretakers.

We are standing in the middle of Koons’s quarter-city-block West Chelsea studio complex with the six children he has with his wife, Justine, who worked here before she married him; their nannies; and his extremely nice assistants, who exude an almost midwestern courteousness.

I’m in the capital of the Koons empire, an earnest and well-­capitalized toy-chest kingdom quite sheltered-seeming from the raucous galleryland that ends a few blocks south. The place is an industrial procession of hushed rooms, staffed by close to 130 mostly young people. Koons’s artwork is intensely labored, in order to look like no human hand was ever actually involved. There are guys at computers with 3-D-imaging programs, in front of a foam mock-up of a ballerina statue he plans on having carved in stone with lasers to get the delicate filigree of the tutu just so. There’s a tall fluorescent-lit painting hall with rolling wooden scaffolding, so Koons’s painters can reach the top of the paint-by-numbers canvases. There’s a room that looks like a robot infirmary from the far-off future where various parts of bronze-cast Hulk sculptures are being carefully attended to; there’s a storage room with containers marked for old inflatable toys that are Koons’s most well-known muses; and there’s a room behind an air-lock door in which people are dressed in protective suits like on Breaking Bad.

It is a large operation, and everyone makes way for Koons. The 58-year-old artist is polite, ­proprietary, aware of every tiny detail around him, his eye on a meticulous hunt for deviations from his vision. As he surveys the labor, he drinks from his Led Zeppelin coffee mug (he’s a huge fan) and tells me his other primary mug has a picture of the chubby totemic Venus of Willendorf, a 25,000-year-old carved figure found in present-day Austria, a longtime fascination of his and also the subject of an elaborate stainless-steel sculpture he’ll be showing this week in New York. “I believe that art has been a vehicle for me that’s been about enlightenment and expanding my own parameters, to give me courage to exercise the freedom that I have in life,” he tells me. “Every day I wake up and I really try to pinch myself to take advantage of today and to use that freedom of gesture to do what I really like to do.”

Three decades into a choppy but astonishingly high-profile career, Koons remains something of a boy wonder—a trim, soft-spoken, systematic, and tightly scheduled puppet master who speaks in a reassuring near singsong, his language all patient, bright-eyed affirmation, as if reciting from a well-worn, well-worked-out self-help text (“Removing judgments lets you feel, of course, freer, and you have acceptance of things, and everything’s in play, and it lets you go further”). He is unflappably kind, almost daydreamy, and speaks so unlike most artists, with their anxiously self-justifying obfuscatory academic jargon, that you wonder, as everyone always has, if you are encountering a sort of put-on—a Method performance of childlike mystic wonderment. (“I always have thought that kind of walking out of Plato’s cave is really the removal of anxiety and the removal of all judgments,” he says). “What he says about his work—it is an extension of his work,” says his friend and onetime dealer, Jeffrey Deitch, now the director of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art. “For Jeff, the work does not stop with the object. It’s a whole vision of the world and a whole vision of art and life which is Jeff Koons.”

The effect is a bit frustrating but also soothing. You remember his voice more than what he says, and his pastor-and-naïf affect suffuses the entire vast, white-walled studio complex, which seems as happy and purposeful as any Internet startup. Office hours start at a Bushwick-unfriendly 8 a.m., and in these last weeks of preparation before his first New York gallery show in a decade, the painting studio is running in three calm shifts.

The work being done is actually not for one show but two, at probably the city’s most powerful galleries: Gagosian, which has represented Koons since 2001, after production costs derailed his partnership with Deitch (one person who knows him says, “His perfectionism basically bankrupts everyone who works with him”), and gallerist David Zwirner, the ambitious and prosperous younger rival to Larry Gagosian, who instigated an art-world gossip kerfuffle when he announced in the fall that Koons was doing a show with him. Both shows open this week, but what one curator a few months ago called an art-world “battle royale”—the two megadealers competing over the work of a super-profitable artist—has settled into something else, and just maybe what Koons wanted all along: the beginning of a Year of Koons, culminating in summer 2014’s full-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum—its last exhibition in its ­Madison Avenue headquarters before moving to the bottom of the High Line. At the park’s other end, Koons is hoping to suspend a full-size replica locomotive from a crane, nose down.

Koons is, by the measure of sales of new work, which is the money-mad art world’s only objective measure, the most successful living American artist, but he has never before had a museum retrospective in New York, his home base for 36 years. And it’s clear that, for him, one is not enough. “Even though the Whitney has given me the Breuer building, there still isn’t that much space,” he says, explaining why he’s staging these two simultaneous shows after such a long hiatus. “There’s a lot of work that unless people see it now, they may not see it then.”

The gallery shows will both be opening during Frieze week, when the bespoke London-bred art fair descends on New York and makes the city not just the center of the global art world but its entire circumference. And it says something of Koons’s celebrity and symbolism that artist Paul McCarthy is going to be displaying a huge joke about Koons there: his own 80-foot-tall inflatable balloon dog.

Koons has made his name manufacturing toys for rich old boys—exacting pagan monuments to mass-culture triviality, like his stainless-steel balloon animals or vibrantly colored metallic Popeye, which he calls a self-portrait—and along with Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami, he is one of a small group of power-Pop impresarios who helped define the aughts as an era of large-scale spectacle. And displayed wealth. (His collectors include Eli Broad, Dakis Joannou, Steven Cohen, and the royal family of Qatar.) A brand-new work by Koons, like the human-size bronze Hulk sculptures he’s been producing of late, is said to run between $4 million to $6 million and is usually pre-bought by his collectors. (The last decades’ bull market in art means Koons is operating in a very different price climate than Warhol, Rothko, or Pollock ever did.) Older work, at auction, goes for even more; a few years back, Adam Lindemann sold his Hanging Heart—a stainless-steel sculpture based on something Koons saw in a shopwindow display and supersized—for $23.6 million at Sotheby’s reportedly without ever even unwrapping it and taking it home. (Gagosian bought it, probably for a client.) Last fall, a Tulips sculpture was sold (to casino magnate Steve Wynn) at Christie’s for $33.7 million. The circle of collectors and dealers is so small and so awash in cash that the process can seem to an outsider a bit like a rigged game, in which a bad deal can be considerably more valuable than a good one. If you buy a giant balloon toy for $30 million, you may have spent a few million more than you had to or even expected to; but you’ve set the value of that work and also elevated the value of all of the balloon toys in your collection. Which is especially good, since there aren’t very many people who can afford to spend $30 million on a giant balloon toy, and those who can tend to take pleasure in cornering a market.

Much has always been made of the fact that Koons is in league with the plutocrats and once worked on Wall Street, selling commodities. But he’s always been quick to refuse the art world’s carefully patrolled shibboleths—that work has personal meaning, that it must contain some social criticism, that it express ambivalence about the art market. Koons does not make ambivalent work, which is his way of giving people what they actually enjoy: a lavishly elevated version of mass-cultural charisma. Koons has long aspired to the ubiquitous pop stature of Michael Jackson, whom he once paid weird (and famous) tribute to with a large porcelain sculpture of the singer and his admiring pet chimp, Bubbles. But a closer model might be Andy Warhol, who was similarly circumspect in his talk about the importance of just liking things without judgment, though he smuggled enough camp sensibility into his work to make it seem slyly subversive. There is nothing subversive in the way Koons works or the way he talks. “Self-acceptance and acceptance of others” is one of many koanlike out-of-the-blue affirmations he recites to me. “Acceptance of everything.” As Zwirner tells me: “He says if you’re critical, you’re already out of the game. ” Deitch strikes a sweeter note: “I think Jeffrey’s love of children and family—that connects to his effort to retain that childlike inspiration, to understand how children perceive.”

The idea of boyhood is everything to Koons: He’s a bit like Norman Rockwell in that way. (Think enough about Koons and you start seeing just about everybody in him.) That might seem like an odd observation to make about someone who owes his fame beyond the art world to the work that was also his greatest professional and personal heartbreak—a much-derided-at-the-time series of photo-realistic paintings and sculptures of himself and his then-wife, Ilona Staller, an Italian porn star who went by La Cicciolina, copulating gauzily (and, in some cases, not so gauzily). But to hear him tell it, he really thought he was making work anybody could identify with, to help relieve us, he says, of “guilt and shame.” When he was still married to the porn star, who hardly spoke English and to whom he spoke either through a translator or Koons’s peculiar pidgin-Italian-accented English, he told Vanity Fair that “the sculpture that I am most interested in is our child. I don’t believe that marble bust I made is my way to enter the Realm of the Eternal. To me the only way to exist in the eternal is through biological sculptures.” Later, he said he dreamed of opening a museum to which children would drag their parents.

What’s new in the Gagosian and Zwirner shows is that he’s trying to place himself in art history—quite literally, by placing art history in his work—dragging classical statues onto the canvas or casting them in plaster. His references this time are Picasso and Praxiteles. There will be a mirror-polished classical Venus statue and one that takes his big cast-in-metal balloon-animal sculpture in a different direction: Balloon Venus. His balloon-twisting consultant, an L.A. balloon artist named Buster Balloon, told me it took him 85 versions using a 60-inch-long balloon to get that one right; Koons then cat-scanned the actual balloon sculpture, to make sure he got the measurements exactly.

“One of the main reasons that I work with inflatables is that the aspect of inside/outside—if you look at an inflatable and you think about it, it seems very empty inside,” Koons tells me. “Oh, it’s air in there, so it’s empty. But that moment that your exterior space around you feels denser, it gives you more of a sense of confidence in the world. You think about your own inside. It’s denser. It’s blood, it’s guts, it’s tissue. And so if you’re not around that concept of the inflatable, it’s more of a void out there. Okay? It’s denser inside here than outside. It’s vacuums. But when you’re experiencing an inflatable, for that time, it’s vacuous inside that object and it’s empty inside.” I ask if he always talked this way about his work. “In some manner,” he answers. “I’ve had time to think about these things.”

Walking around the studio, he shows me a checkerboard piece that alternates between Titian’s Venus and Adonis and Picasso’s black-and-white The Kiss from 1969. Koons has said the Titian painting is among his favorite of all time: She’s naked, wanting Adonis to hang out; he’s dressed and heading out with the dogs to go hunt. Koons owns The Kiss and says “it really helped change my life.” An aging Picasso is having this “whole dialogue with his own mortality,” he says, explicating more than the painting, it seems. (Several works are layered over a background by the turn-of-the-­century painter Louis Eilshemius, “who screamed for 50 years for recognition in the face of an apathetic world,” according to his poetic 1941 Times obituary.) Superimposed on the checkerboard is the image of a Uli figure, a sacred wooden statue that comes from Papua New Guinea. They’re used in funerals and fertility rites and represent tribal leaders, “but they’re both masculine and feminine, because they can protect their community, they can defend the community, and at the same time they can nourish the community.”

As they do most every Friday afternoon, Koons, Justine, and their six children are gathering to drive the three and a half hours to their 650-acre farm near Koons’s childhood home in York, Pennsylvania. The oldest, Sean, is 11 and wearing neon Ray-Bans and a striped stocking cap; the youngest, Mick (“like Mick Jagger”), is just 8 months old. Koons is clearly uncomfortable having his family, and his private life, made available and public for me even for an afternoon—the anxiety of a perfectionist focused, for most of his recent career, on removing personal and subjective ­elements and delivering instead perfectly polished expressions of what he calls “objective” work. And to see him with the six children—screaming, scrambling, wanting his attention—is to see his lifelong experiment in maintaining himself in a state of childlike wonder challenged a bit by their feral reality. But then again, childlike ­wonder is a concept much more useful to adults than to children.

With his wife, Justine, and their six children.

It is often said that an artist like Koons works at the top of the art world—a single piece could pass as barter for a glass-walled condo at One57. But it would probably be more accurate to say that he works above the art world, in a rarefied, barely occupied penthouse beyond the reach of critics, curators, other artists and other dealers who make up what is usually called the art Establishment. That Establishment doesn’t just ignore the work of the unknown artist but also, for the most part, that of the world-famous—especially Koons, Hirst, and Murakami, who have become so big and so rich it no longer seems important to have opinions of them. Instead, they are talked about as cultural phenomena about which one should have ideas—balloon dogs, reality television, Occupy Wall Street. Like Warhol, Koons is a Pop artist who is himself a Pop figure, one who gets to hang out with the world’s richest collectors, who can afford to fund his visions of the unsullied magical object. “The desire that Koons creates with people is very much about possession,” says Tobias Meyer, worldwide head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s. “It’s about owning it, ingesting it. It’s proto-sexual. The ability to have the physical proximity to this object.”

“He exists as a kind of fascinating artistic limit-case,” says Scott Rothkopf, the curator of the retrospective. “Of fabrication. Of the size of one’s audience or celebrity. Or of risk-taking and impassioned commitment to one’s work.” In an essay on the “Hulk Elvis” paintings, Rothkopf wrote, “What he is selling is not just a painting or an optimistic dream of youth and love, but the dream of a perfect object … an extremely arduous and expensive process, and his paintings are about that, too … they are also about the people who are willing to pay for them.”

Most self-made people consider themselves outsiders, no matter how at the center of things they find themselves. And part of Koons’s self-understanding is that he’s keeping his past with him. The farm to which Koons is retreating with his clan was originally his grandmother’s, which he bought back in another kind of nostalgic preservation of the idea of his childhood. During the week, he and his brood live uptown near the good private schools. But you get the idea their real home is in the countryside with their sheep and Icelandic horses. “The kids don’t even like to go to Central Park anymore,” Justine tells me as she corrals them. “Too many other people.”

Koons has had a very long career. When he began making headway in the early eighties, the city was giving itself over to the painterly swagger of the neo-­Expressionists: David Salle, Julian ­Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, ­especially. Koons’s stuff was in another register, starting with ready-mades of junky plastic things he found in shops on 14th Street and in Chinatown. Later, he moved on to putting vacuums inside fluorescent-lit clear Plexi cases: This series was called “The New.”

Readymades like these can be seen as ironic critiques of commodity culture, domestic labor, generalized deep-pile-­carpeted anomie. But Koons has always had an almost animistic interest in the ordinary, store-bought thing, and to him that work is and was a deeply earnest tribute to late-industrial perfection. He paid for production (vacuums are expensive) with the money he made on Wall Street. “I was good at selling,” he once told an interviewer about that gig. “A lot of my work is about sales. And it was about being independent from the art market. So I didn’t have to kiss anybody’s ass. And that I could make exactly what art I wanted to make.”

The art he wanted to make was peculiar. First, a sink-or-swim show called “Equilibrium”—basketballs floating in vitrines of water, drolly framed Nike basketball-culture posters, and bronze casts of a lifeboat and a flotation vest. Then one about the effects of advertising, class, and alcoholism, “Luxury and Degradation”—painted ads for booze, accompanied by steel models of things like a suitcase travel bar or an ice bucket and an old-fashioned train, each car a little bottle of Jim Beam. This was followed, later in 1986, by “Statuary” (his famous “inflatable” bunny, cast in stainless steel) and then 1988’s career-making “Banality.

And then he met Ilona Staller and lost his equilibrium. He saw her in an issue of Stern magazine in 1988: She was wearing a see-through dress, and he used the photograph as the model for a sculpture called Fait d’Hiver, where a naked woman is lying in the snow, joined by a penguin and a pig. Staller was a member of the Italian Parliament as well as a porn star. The next year, he sent her a fax, and they met up. He once described meeting her backstage at a show she was performing in: “I enjoyed very much that she was standing there without any pants on.” She was “one of the greatest artists alive. She was able to present herself with absolutely no guilt and no shame.” He had the idea that they would make a porno film together, and they took lots of photos where they were having sex with each other, which Koons turned into paintings and sculptures called “Made in Heaven.” And which are, for all the ways they anticipated an age of celebrity narcissism and porn wallpaper, still shocking: horrifyingly unguarded, emotionally raw, and sexually explicit—especially hard to take at the peak of the aids crisis. “Jeff had confused fantasy with reality,” Deitch once told The New Yorker. “It was as though he felt the ‘Made in Heaven’ work wouldn’t be authentic unless they were married.”

When it came to New York from the Venice Biennial, the work generated a lot of attention but didn’t sell much. Museums weren’t interested; the art world was embarrassed by him. Koons was given only one more New York solo gallery show in the nineties. And on top of all that, he and Staller split up.

Then things got worse: He and Staller had a son, Ludwig, over whom they soon began an expensive and dispiriting custody battle. Koons split with his then-gallerist Ileana Sonnabend (who’d advised against the ­marriage). And in a fit of disappointment and self-loathing, he destroyed many of the “Made in Heaven” pieces. He had exposed himself, and been humiliated.

His comeback started with Puppy, from 1992, which finally made its way to Rockefeller Plaza in 2000. A 40-foot-tall West Highland white terrier, covered in 70,000 flowers, it was an eager and unavoidable critical and public success. New York’s Jerry Saltz named it the public art event of the aughts, calling Koons a “driven perfectionist in pursuit of unconditional love.”

In a kind of retreat-and-recovery mode, Koons began photographing simple objects that pertained to life’s transitions—cake, an egg, a diamond ring—and realized that he should make sculptures out of them. The idea was a sort of tribute to his lost son: They were also objects from a child’s party, and Koons wanted Ludwig to know he was thinking about him. This began the “Celebration” series, which allowed him to slowly crawl back to the top. But in doing so, he lost the critics—who had always been a bit skeptical, thinking of him, as the Times put it in 1991, as “one last, pathetic gasp of the sort of self-promoting hype and sensationalism that characterized the worst” of the eighties. In 2004, Robert Hughes wrote that Koons is “an extreme and self-satisfied manifestation of the sanctimony that attaches to big bucks. Koons really does think he’s Michelangelo and is not shy to say so. The significant thing is that there are collectors, especially in America, who believe it. He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida.”

All of this criticism is, ultimately, valid, if somewhat beside the point: Koons’s work is impersonal, repetitive, awe-inspiring but largely uninsightful, uninflected with any of the ambivalence about the world we live in today that animates most critically lauded contemporary art. But that doesn’t seem to be what he’s trying to do anyway. “I am very conscious of the viewer because that’s where the art takes place,” he once told an interviewer. “My work really strives to put the viewer in a certain kind of emotional state.”

What a balloon dog or a puppy made of flowers or a shiny hanging-heart sculpture offers is a picture of industrial perfection, a naïve piece of uncomplicated beauty that can be appreciated without using words like discourse. Which is one very clear reason why he is held in such unsteady regard by critics and curators and is so beloved by spectators. As a reflection of the world in which it was made—a Pop universe of digestible wealth—it is perhaps as profound a picture as the work of Warhol’s was of his.

Tobias Meyer calls Koons’s work an expression of Disney-like “pathological optimism” and compares what he does to Bernini’s work at Villa Borghese. “One of the things which comes back to him, positioning himself as a contemporary master,” Meyer says, is “perfection. Which is something that was for a long time not a part of contemporary art, which embraced the nonart of the accident or the imperfect.” And which is how Koons can be the art world’s great populist artisan, even as he operates as its most exclusive salesman.

Gazing balls are glass globes, painted on the inside, which were once quite popular suburban-garden features (versions of them sell for about $35 at places like Target.com). Koons remembers them from his childhood in York, ­Pennsylvania—simple mirrored balls that were somehow, magically, transfixing middle-class status symbols. “People put them in their yards because they enjoy the visual aspect of the ball, but they really do it for their neighbors,” Koons says. “And it really helps emphasize a place. It’s like a point, and everything is kind of reflected from that point.”

It’s hard to miss, in a collection of work harvesting classical myth, the overtones of Narcissus—the man really cannot stop working with mirrors. “Imagine little Jeff Koons walking into some backyard and seeing the world collapsing into this sphere,” Zwirner says, a little wistfully.

The balls that Koons had fabricated at a glass company in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, for his new works are dark blue, and he shows me how the tonality shifts slightly in the middle. In the series, he installs them on white plaster casts—classical museum statuary and vernacular yard objects, like an inflatable snowman and mailboxes, rendered in the same plaster cast. Each of these works are priced at $3 million or under—the smallest are in the six figures—and produced in editions of three. At these prices, they qualify as affordable.

In the last few years he put his sculptures on top of the Metropolitan Museum, at Versailles, and then amid the halls of Liebieghaus in Germany—producing an art-history-slideshow lecture leading, inevitably, to him. For now, though, he seems content to insert himself into art history in the most literal way imaginable—by making new work that collages with several-thousand-year-old work. “It’s about acceptance,” Koons tells me, monitoring his assistants across the room as he talks. “That’s the reason I like to work with these external things. I really think that the journey that art takes you on as an artist is that you first learn self-acceptance.”

But like many preaching that sort of self-help gospel, Koons seems still agitated by status anxiety. And, twenty years after being spectacularly shunned by the art world for “Made in Heaven,” by the need to find a place for himself in the canon—even as an artist rich enough to re-create it in his studio. Koons’s systematic literalism of reference, and his prodigious memory and free-associative narrative fervor make him a bit like your favorite art-history professor. (Get this man a mooc!)

“Plaster casts in the nineteenth century were very, very popular,” Koons explains, passing one sculpture inspired by mailboxes he’s seen in Pennsylvania, with flared V8 exhaust pipes sprouting like antlers out of the side, and a manifold on top. “They’ll go from these historical images to something that is everyday, like mailboxes,” Koons says, adding that this particular sculpture is about “personal identity.” There’s also an inflatable Christmas yard snowman. And more mailboxes, all lined up in a row, like at the end of a country road. “This is a sense of community, in a way,” he says. “A little bit, to me, like the art world. And it’s also at the same time you get kind of the sense of loss. The loss of, I guess, loss of a location, loss of a place, identity.”

Back in the painting studio. “Could you move back here just a bit?” he asks the painters, who silently unlock the wheels of the rolling wooden scaffolding they work on. He points to the sculpture depicted in the middle: Greek, 100 B.C., of Aphrodite, naked, swatting a shorter, cloven-hoofed Pan away with her sandal. Eros—the winged baby—floats amused above her shoulder. “He’s after her,” observes Koons of Pan with a tiny trace of relish. “He’s really being aggressive with her. If you look here at his testicles, his phallus has been knocked off. But if you look at the support …” There is a buttress between Pan’s form and her thigh. “The support’s a phallus. And the whole energy of the piece, the whole narrative, is a phallus. It’s telling you everything.”

*This article originally appeared in the May 13, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

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THE ART NEWSPAPER LONDON

Contemporary art Interview United Kingdom

Jeff Koons on his Serpentine show, his inspirations and how his studio system works

The US artist reveals what he hopes to communicate to the public through his work

Touring Jeff Koons’s gigantic Chelsea studio in anticipation of his big summer solo show at the Serpentine in London (until 13 September) is rich in discombobulation. This is partly because the place is just so large: endless cavernous rooms, one after the other, teeming with workers and assistants, more than 120 of them, all hard at work in intense silence producing paintings and sculptures, maquettes and studies, a high-tech laboratory somewhere between a James Bond set and a Warholian super-studio. But it is also because Koons himself, always unfailingly polite, gracious and soft-spoken, is a genius not so much at self-promotion as self-deflection, seemingly ignoring some questions only to later reveal that he has been pondering them secretly. Koons likes to concentrate on technical descriptions of the work at hand mixed with sudden bursts of cryptic oratory, a sort of self-help conceptualism minted from Andy’s deadpan American optimism. Just as Koons’s work remains ever-ambiguous about just how dumb or smart it really is, likewise the man can seem like a New Age huckster repeating banal platitudes only to surprise one with the sheer smartness of some observation. If Koons and his steady ascension to wealth and fame might seem reminiscent of “Chance the Gardener”, as played by Peter Sellers in the 1979 film Being There, a simpleton whose simplicity is confused with sagacity, there is no denying his current status. Indeed it is when Koons runs one briefly through a selection of his art collection on his computer—from the Poussin on loan to the Metropolitan which he keeps as his screensaver, to the Manet, the Courbet, the medieval wooden sculpture, the Pharaonic head, the Magritte and Dalí paintings, the major Picassos—that one realises not only just how rich he must be but how deep his interest is in art history and how obsessively he can talk about one image in intricate detail. This large and impressive collection may be cunningly intended to make one see his own work in the very grandest historical context, to make even the toughest sceptic grant him the benefit of the doubt. And it works.

The Art Newspaper: Your show at the Serpentine is of the “Popeye” series of paintings and sculptures, which you began in 2002, but a lot of the works are being made here, right now.

Jeff Koons: Some works have been here since 1994, it can take a very long time to complete a series. The “Popeye” series began in 2002 but most of the pieces are only just being completed and shipped directly to the show. Here’s a Triple Popeye painting sprayed completely with a reflective surface, with what looks like a brushstroke, to give that sense of gesture to it, to give a sense of movement, a sort of abstraction.

TAN: All your work has this very long incubation period?

JK: My newest work, that comes after Popeye, is all in production and will take a couple of years to be completed, there’s always this long development time. Basically if I have an idea today I have to wait at least two years [until the work is finished].

TAN: The “Popeye” paintings are hand-painted images of what look like mechanical reproductions of hand-painted images. It’s like Roy Lichtenstein painting artificial looking brush strokes.

JK: I don’t feel they’re so like Roy’s fake-gestures, each of these broad sweeps is hand-painted with very small brushes, we never use sponges or anything larger. The whole art work is a gesture and all these gestures are about doing something with your life, about what you really want to do. This is very fluid, at a distance you can see the imagery, but up close it is very abstract. They’re about [the] history of European art. I love it when there’s a revelation in art, when you see things you have not seen before, connections that you make yourself, not that you’re supposed to make, when those things are there for you. There are French 19th-century brushstrokes we’re painting alongside the Magic Marker lines…they really work together. I like the sense of warmth that comes from an actual painting and that’s why I returned to making paintings. I like a certain power of image, but it’s not that it has to look artificially made, I would like a greater warmth than that.

TAN: Can one judge the success of these paintings in old-fashioned terms of skill?

JK: We’ve really captured the richness of these gestures, I made these gestures, some my children made, they’re very well painted, some of the best painting we’ve done. Different people have different skills, but it’s about continuing to show people how to look at things. That’s why the paintings have continued to develop, when people realise they can create anything, to be able to see it, look at these sources and to understand, I don’t have to paint it wet-into-wet, I can capture that more as a printed-type image.

TAN: You own great work by Lichtenstein and Courbet, do you see your work as a sort of synthesis?

JK: Absolutely, this line drawing could refer to Courbet but you could also see it as a young man walking his dog in the Swiss alps, the dot pattern starts to almost create its own brushstrokes, to gather up and create its own fake gesture.

TAN: As a teenage student you called up Dalí to meet him.

JK: I own the wash study of the painting of tigers that Dalí stood against when I met him. I saw this other Dalí painting at a recent auction, [Untitled (Nature morte au drapé blanc), 1969], and there was something very familiar about it. The last painting Dalí made, The Swallow’s Tail, if you look at it and then the movement inside the shroud [in the painting I just bought] you can see the connection. So I was absolutely thrilled to be able to have this. I can see the same shapes that he has used repeatedly over the decades.

TAN: Dalí is an artist you always acknowledge.

JK: Dalí is very important to me. I think Dalí had moments of real genius, and he had moments of great generosity—being generous to me, a young artist from Pennsylvania who called him up and said: “I’m an artist; I’d like to meet you” and he just said: “Sure, come and meet me.” That was really generous, likewise Roy Lichtenstein. I think that sense of generosity is so important in art. I love having a sense of a connection with these artists, with those who have made art history. A connection in the sense of really being open to their vocabulary—trying to articulate and incorporate the vocabularies they spent a lifetime developing.

TAN: Your art collection is mainly of old masters and 19th-century European painting. You also have works by Jenny Holzer, Hirst and Prince, but you seem less interested in collecting your contemporaries.

JK: I used to have Kippenberger’s self-portrait that’s on the cover of the Taschen book, the one with the hammer and sickle, and also work by Albert Oehlen. I’ve always lived with Struth and with Lichtenstein. Roy was great, a tremendous man, and very supportive, I have his easel right here, which he designed himself, with the colours of the paint of the landscape Roy was working on [when he died]. But I’m so involved in contemporary art myself that I’m much more interested in art from a different time. I have a little bit of a sense what it’s like to be alive today, to try and make work today, so contemporary art isn’t so important to me. I’m more interested in what it meant to be alive, to be trying to make art, in other times, in a very different culture.

TAN: It may not be obvious to all viewers but you have this very precise sense of your own relation to art history.

JK: This sculpture is from a tiny wax gorilla from [the shop at] the Los Angeles Zoo, we have scanned it and are building it out of hand-polished black granite to an extreme finish so it will look like wax. This is a take on a 19th-century French sculpture, Gorilla Carrying Off a Woman, 1887, by Emmanuel Frémiet, really the origin of King Kong. Here’s a pink granite ballerina with live flowers planted within the stone, so the narrative really just jumps back to Pagan art, back to Venus. There’s a modern narrative in Popeye, but where the spinach normally is, there will be begonias.

TAN: A lot of artists now outsource the production of their work to Asia and you could get this work done at half the price in China.

JK: The studio for me is a sense of family, of community. One of the wonderful things about art is that you don’t have to be so conscious of the bottom line, though you have to be somewhat aware of budget, you’re dealing with the impractical, the impossible, you’re pushing things to the edge. It’s always been important to me to feel self-reliant but at the same time I like the sense of providing for a community.

TAN: It must be daunting running an operation of this scale. Are you ever tempted to go back to making work by yourself?

JK: I used to make all my own sculpture, my paintings, but if I did that it would severely limit the range of projects that I could be involved with. I follow my interests in some way that feels profound to me, those that seem to have a deeper meaning. I feel completely free to do whatever I want to do. But I have to edit my work a lot, because of the process, the amount of time it takes to actually make things, you really have to make the things you want to make, otherwise you’re wasting a lot of energy.

TAN: How important is the assumed innocence of childhood to your aesthetic?

JK: I remember my own childhood, it was just like enjoying green, green grass, breathing in and feeling its moisture and loving it. As a child, there is just an acceptance, you don’t feel that something is expected of you. Some people don’t accept themselves, their own histories, they debase themselves by external forces which want to fill them with insecurities, people end up feeling their own cultural history is insufficient or incorrect. None of that operates in childhood, it is just acceptance, you know you love pink because pink is pink.

TAN: Is there a notion of art as deception, for example, with your inflatables that should be light but are actually heavy—the opposite of Richard Serra’s notion of the integrity of weight, that sculpture must weigh what it looks?

JK: I don’t think of it as deception but as “either/or” or “Ying & Yang”, I think of the inflatables as anthropomorphic, we are ourselves inflatables, we take a breath, we expand, we contract, our last breath in life, our deflation. By contrast these objects have a permanence to them, they maintain a non-divisible sense of life, of continuity. Maybe it’s also almost like learning to swim, that extraordinary experience almost like birthing, the independence of when you can finally swim yourself. The viewer feels their own possibilities and whatever their interests are, they feel more excited to meet their own potential, that’s what I hope the viewer experiences.

TAN: Was your own sense of potential directly unlocked by coming into contact with art?

JK: When I was younger I remember that I started to draw and my parents would make me feel as though I had a gift. For some reason I could make a beautiful drawing, do something that was special. I had an older sister and because she was three years older I always thought she could do everything better than me, but with art I felt I could do something better. Art always created a certain amount of anxiety, because: What is it? What’s art? As a kid taking art lessons I enjoyed sitting round with the others making art, that sense of community, but I was never really sure what art was. It wasn’t until I got to art school that I realised how art continues throughout human history, everything opened up. For me it’s always been this journey about the removal of anxiety. Then you learn to trust in the self, developing a sense of personal iconography that gives you the ability to work in a biological way, getting people to feel certain sensations. Then eventually you just become so bored with the self you want to start looking outside yourself which leads to the ultimate, which is trusting in others…

“Jeff Koons: Popeye Series” is at the Serpentine Gallery in London until 13 September. The artist’s work will also be included in “Pop Life: Art in a Material World” at Tate Modern, London (1 October-17 January 2010)

“Art Isn’t Something That’s External”: Jeff Koons on His Whitney Retrospective, the High Line Train, and Emptiness

18/05/12 3:34 PM EDT
"Art Isn’t Something That’s External": Jeff Koons on His Whitney Retrospective, the High Line Train, and Emptiness
Artist Jeff Koons

(AFP/Getty Images)

Whether it’s the mission to bring his $25 million dollar “Train” to the High Line or calling his own artwork “empty,” artist Jeff Koons never ceases to be an art-world enigma. His appropriated sculptures, from “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” porcelain pieces to the enormous “Balloon Flower (Magenta),” incite both staunch criticism and astronomical auction records. The artist also experienced heartbreaking tragedy when his ex-wife and former muse Ilona Staller kidnapped their son Ludwig in 1994. This year, Koons has four solo exhibitions planned around the world: one in Basel, two in Frankfurt, and one in St. Petersburg, Fla. ARTINFO caught up with Koons at the Whitney Museum of Art during the Wall Street Journal’s Donor of the Day Celebration to ask him what to expect for the last show at the Whitney’s Breuer building, how the High Line “Train” efforts are going, and why he calls his art “empty.”

What did you mean when you called the art at your Fondation Beyeler retrospective “empty”?

What I was speaking about is that artwork, objects, they’re transpondent. You try to pack them with information, that when somebody looks at them, they’re able to have an internal discourse, and when I say that these objects are kind of empty, what I meant is the art’s not there. The art happens inside the viewer, and these objects direct, and communicate to people, and try to manipulate how they feel about a situation, or the type of sensations that they can have. Art happens inside them. Art isn’t something that’s external. It’s always inside the person.

How does it feel to be the last artist to show at the Whitney’s Madison Avenue space, and the only artist to take over the majority of the museum?

I’m really thrilled because I enjoy the place that the Whitney has had in my own life as an artist – of being an open door kind of place to young artists coming to New York. They always have the opportunity at the Biennials for artists. You always felt as though there was a sense of inclusion, but the exhibitions that they’ve had over the years have been really informative to a young generation of what’s possible in the dialogue of art, and so I’m really thrilled to have my New York exhibition here.

Can we expect any new works from you?

Absolutely. I’ll be showing the newest things up to that moment that I’m working on. I’ll be showing the antiquity series that I’m working on now. I’m just going to try to give an overview of my work from when I first moved to New York, which was around the very beginning of ’77 up to the present day, so by the time of the exhibition, it will be close to four decades.

Any updates on the High Line “Train”?

I’m really thrilled at the possibility, because it’s only a possibility that the train could come to the High Line, but if it would become a reality, I think it would be wonderful. It’s a piece I designed to function as a rallying point for a community that people would gather around it and be able to experience something which is moving and demonstrates the power and intensity of life experience and at the same time inform us of the warmth of our community.

Are there any fundraising efforts going on?

I’m sure the High Line would be involved with that. I’m sure that they would love to find donors to be involved with it, but if it can be a possibility here in New York in my hometown, that would be great.

With your current Fondation Beyeler retrospective and the announcement of your traveling 2014 retrospective, it feels like the year of the Jeff Koons retrospective. Where do you feel like you’re at in your career?

Being able to have the opportunities to have my work be engaged in different communities — right now this year, the work is going to be shown in Switzerland in Basel, in two exhibitions in Frankfurt, and later this year in St. Petersburg, Florida. It’s always exciting to be able to have a dialogue with the community. Also, as an artist, you always are able to view your work and see it in a different light.

Last year’s Costume Institute exhibition, “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” surpassed your 2008 sculpture show to become the eighth most-visited exhibition in the history of the Met. Do you feel threatened that this year’s show, “Schiaparelli & Prada: Imaginary Conversations,” might do the same?

I really have no idea, but I know that I enjoy so much having an exhibition at the Metropolitan, because it’s such an incredible museum, and to be able to have contemporary art and the audience for contemporary and also pull people in to look at the classical works, or to look at Baroque paintings or the Old Masters, it’s fantastic. And the same with people who go to see an Old Masters painting, to end up wandering to see another exhibition. I think Miuccia’s exhibition with Schiaparelli is fantastic. It’s an incredible installation, it’s really interesting and engaging, and it has the energy of the avant-garde of the 20th century. It has that whole feeling of “We can change reality.” And Alexander McQueen’s show was great too, but I’m very happy to be a part of the history of the Met too.

You’ve been very active with the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children and National Center for Missing & Exploited Children since your son’s abduction. Have you met parents who have gone through similar ordeals who have been able to get their children back?

Through the National Center and International Center, I’ve met a lot of different parents, and some parents have had success. These stories touch everyone, and they touch a lot of families where we’ve all known somebody and maybe there was a parental abduction or we know from just reading the papers, abduction of children in our communities, so this always touches everyone. We were hearing the numbers today … the return of 167,000 children is an amazing accomplishment.

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HARPER’S BAZAAR

  • Jeff Koons’s Inspirations

Jeff Koons’s Inspirations

The artist is interviewed by Pharrell Williams about the vision behind his fashion story and how he uses his creative powers for good.

By Pharrell Williams on Aug 10, 2011

PHARRELL WILLIAMS: I’m a huge fan of yours. How has your perspective changed since you began your career?

JEFF KOONS: I’d have to say I’ve become more aware of my communal responsibility. Seventeen years ago, my son Ludwig was abducted, and it was devastating. [During their divorce proceedings, Koons's first wife, Ilona Staller, fled to Italy with their son. An Italian court later awarded Staller full custody.] But you have to try to make something out of what happens to you. Living such a negative experience made me stronger and made me want to use my art to bring enlightenment into people’s lives. [To this end, Koons has partnered with Kiehl's on a limited-edition Creme de Corps collection, which benefits his organization for abducted children.] The Koons Family Institute, which is an initiative of the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children, would like to help victims and families and prevent this from happening.

PW: How has having a family affected your work? [Koons and his wife, Justine, have five children together.]

JK: I haven’t found anything as rewarding. My favorite activity is to be with my family.

PW: You’ve worked in so many different mediums. Is there one that you prefer?

JK: I enjoy all mediums, and I have to say, music is the medium that first made me understand how powerful art could be. I remember when I was 16 and driving around in my Firebird 400, listening to Robert Plant’s voice in Led Zeppelin and not really having a base in philosophy or psychology or sociology but experiencing the medium that pulled it all together.

PW: That’s how it was for me as well.

JK: What did you hear that informed you of the power of art?

PW: When I was a kid, my father would be in his Cadillac, and he’d play Earth, Wind & Fire or Stevie Wonder, and I’d look at the stars. I always made a connection between the twinkling of the stars and the chord changes in the songs. I realized I had been looking at music differently all my life. Most artists have some form of synesthesia; it’s easier for us to speak different metaphoric languages.

JK: Boy, you can paint a picture!

twiggy-default-this

A 1966 shot of Twiggy; Courtesy Popperfoto/Getty Images

PW: When I first saw your Balloon Dog at Versailles, I think I stood in front of it longer than anyone else. I kept asking myself, Why don’t I make enough money to afford this? What I love is that you toy with optical illusion. You’re looking at something that seems like it’s made of what it would usually be made of, and then someone says, “Oh, yeah, that’s steel.” And you are just in sheer awe. Can you tell me the inspiration behind your Harper’s Bazaar shoot?

JK: When Bazaar invited me to do a photo shoot, I wanted to do it in a minimal and open way. The set was inspired by a photo of Twiggy from the ’60s, and she had a straw top of a cabana behind her. It’s a circular effect, and I thought, That’s a symbol of Botticelli’s Venus in a way. I made a stand — because I’m making a new series incorporating Venuses from antiquity — that would reflect that type of energy. Just having that prop there would let the clothes tell their story.

PW: What art do you yourself collect?

JK: The first piece I ever collected was a Roy Lichtenstein: a sculpture called Surrealist Head II. There was a waiting list. I remember Steve Martin wanted one, and I wanted one. I got the Surrealist Head, and I was thrilled. When my son Ludwig was abducted, I was on the verge of bankruptcy, and I sold everything I ever created: my rabbit, my Michael Jackson, everything, before I sold any other artist’s work. Then I had to sell my Lichtenstein. It wasn’t until about 2004 that I was able to financially bring myself back. The first thing I bought was a Lichtenstein. I love Picasso. I have Courbet, Fragonard, Magritte, Dalí, antiquities. Most recently I acquired a Picasso Kiss painting that I am just blown away by. I hope, Pharrell, to have one of your works. I think your artwork is fantastic.

PW: Thank you. That’s a huge compliment coming from you! My last question is, what are you working on now?

JK: A series called “Antiquity.” I start with a sense of contemporary time and make references to different artists such as Lichtenstein or Dalí through to Manet, Renaissance artists, or the greatest artists of antiquity, like Praxiteles and Apelles. The aspect is the acceptance of how we exist, how nature procreates, and how we are able to sustain life.

Jeff Koons’s third collection for Kiehl’s, benefiting the Koons Family Institute on International Law & Policy, will be available in November. For more information, visit icmec.org.

Chris Fanning

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TIME OUT LONDON

Jeff Koons: interview

Best known for his marriage to La Cicciolina and his Jacko and Bubbles sculpture, Jeff Koons is one of the art world’s most divisive figures. We met him ahead of his first UK show

  • Jeff Koons: interview

    Jeff Koons © MIchael Franke

  • Off and on, for almost two decades now, Jeff Koons has been the world’s most expensive living artist, selling work for upwards of $25 million, despite many of them, such as ‘Hanging Heart’ and ‘Balloon Dog’, not even being unique pieces. He’s also been married to an Italian porn-star-turned-politician, Illona Staller (better known as La Cicciolina), not to mention the messy divorce, custody and copyright suits. Yet he’s continually produced some of the most outrageous art of the last 40 years, creating giant puppies from pretty flowers and encasing vacuum cleaners in vitrines (long before Hirst’s shark). His first solo show in London focuses on his ‘Popeye’ series, based on the Depression-era cartoon character who thankfully is now out of copyright himself at the ripe old age of 80.Do I just call you Jeff?
    ‘My real name is Jeffrey Lynn Koons, but I’ve always liked the simplicity of Jeff.’Why is this your first public show in London? Is there something about you that we Brits just don’t get?
    ‘I have wonderful friends in England and have always participated in group shows here. I like to think of myself very much as an international artist, but I also know my own cultural history.’

    But your work still polarises people, like Marmite in the UK, or Dr Pepper in the US…

    ‘I’ve always dealt with my work in a very honest manner, and so whenever someone responds that they don’t get it, I feel like I lost that person.  Every time you do or make something you do it for that singular moment of communication. It happens one person at a time, but you want it to be effective. We all have the same pleasures and desires, I just think that some people are more protective and shelter themselves from their experiences, especially if it’s sexuality, the foundation of our life experience.’You talk about acceptance, but your work still has an edge, whether it’s a porcelain model of Michael Jackson with Bubbles or images of you having sex with your ex-wife.
    ‘All my work tries to embrace visual power, and acceptance does not have to be all warm and cushy, there’s also a violence to acceptance. I was a painter until I left art school, when I started to deal with things outside the self.’Was your recent exhibition at Versailles your crowning achievement?
    ‘It was a great experience. I had been thinking about Louis Quatorze and what he would want to create. Maybe he’d have woken up in the morning and wanted to see a piece like “Puppy” created out of 60,000 live flowers, and have it finished by the time he got home that night.’Although there was some grumbling from critics and tour guides there…
    ‘People’s attitudes can be amazing. I think if the guides were more open to that experience they would have seen the colour, the charge and the extravagance come back to Versailles. Not to mention the impracticality of it all, but showing at the Serpentine is just as special to me, it can have just as much power.’

    Let’s talk about the ‘Popeye’ series. Is it straight pop art?

    ‘I don’t think so, because pop is about an externalisation of the viewer. I like to believe that what I do is very much the activity of real art, where the artist has complete freedom to do what they want and show the connections with human potential.’

    What’s your spinach?

    ‘In my own life what gets me most excited are my children. They’re energising: to be able to share your life with them and to offer them opportunity is so enriching.’What’s your life-preserver?
    ‘That would be art and being involved in this whole process. You have to trust in yourself, it takes you to a very metaphysical place and that’s all an artist can do – make connections and be involved in something profound. Instead of creating anxiety, it should be a vehicle for removing it.’To quote another of your characters,  The Incredible Hulk, why wouldn’t I like you when you’re angry?
    ‘I tend to think that the glass is always half full, and I try to show that through my work, but what makes me angry is a failure of communication.’

    Talking of superheroes, one of your personal heroes was Salvador Dali.

    ‘I met him at the Saint Regis Hotel when I was a teenager. He took me to an exhibition of his and he posed for some photos in front of “The Hallucinogenic Toreador”. I now own the gouache study of that work and it hangs in my bedroom.’Do you buy anything else with your cash?
    ‘I have some Egyptian antiquities, but I’d much rather acquire a sculpture or a painting than a sports car. I’ve bought Picasso and Magritte and a very beautiful and vaginal [painting by French artist] Bougeureau.’You also employ 120 people in your studio, but you don’t like calling it a factory, is that correct?
    ‘I don’t feel very comfortable with that term. I make about eight paintings and 12 editions of sculptures a year. It’s not that we are involved in craft – I hate craft, craft is fetishism – but it’s just the time it takes to realise them.’

    Are you recession-proof?
    ‘I don’t really have a business model other than to make the work that I want to, and downtime is good because I’ve got a backlog. People get so caught up in the recession, but it’s like a roller coaster: in good times, everything else costs so much more, so it’s all relative. “Celebration”, one of my more successful series that includes “Balloon Dog” and “Hanging Heart”, took a long time to get finished in the ’90s because their ambition was great but the economic means really weren’t being addressed.’

    How do you feel about speculators flipping your work at auction? One even said that ‘Jeff Koons has performed better than oil’.
    ‘To a certain degree, I’m honoured, but I’m disappointed that they don’t enjoy the same connection to the power of art that I have as a collector. I love the responsibility of the maintenance or preservation of art. I want to protect it.’

    But you were on Wall Street once yourself, weren’t you?

    ‘I ended up becoming a broker, and it was really more like ad work, where you’re commissioned to do something except you don’t have the freedom of your own expression. But from childhood I was brought up to be very self-sufficient, so I would go door-to-door selling gift-wrapping paper and candies. I enjoyed the experience. It was my desire to communicate.’

    Is there any rivalry between you and artists like Damien Hirst or Takashi Murakami?
    ‘I consider Damien very much a friend; I don’t know Murakami that well. I enjoy showing with artists from my generation but I’m not involved in trying to create some branded type of product, because I believe you penetrate the consciousness through the idea more than with distribution. So I like to believe that I’m in that school, and only involved in the economic aspect of art through how good of an idea I’ve had.’

    Do you enjoy the attention of the art world?
    ‘I always wanted to be involved, I enjoy having the platform of success. I don’t enjoy it unless it’s about the work, so if I’m not in my studio for a couple of days I become quite nervous.’

    What would people be surprised to know about you, apart from your cameo in Sean Penn’s movie ‘Milk’?
    ‘I think there is a misunderstanding about my work that it’s about product and consumerism. Somebody recently came to me and asked if I could design a bookstore, but that’s not for me. I never did anything to create this other persona, even in the bodies of work that dealt with luxury and degradation where I warned people not to pursue luxury because it was like the alcoholic falling under the control of alcohol. It’s confusing the messenger with the message.’

    Jeff Koons shows at the Serpentine until Sept 13 2009.

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FLASH ART

JEFF KOONS
Giancarlo Politi

REPRINT – Flash Art 132 – 1987

 

LUXURY AND DESIRE

GIANCARLO POLITI: I can’t imagine you in your studio, because many of your works are made in a foundry. How does your work come about?

Jeff Koons: When I’m at home, where my studio is also located, the studio functions as an office and as a place where I pull away from the external world and reflect on it. I’m not actually in production there; the studio is a refuge — a place where I’m in a state of rest with respect to

the outside — and a place of contemplation.

 

GP: You speak of objects, and never of sculpture. Why?

JK: First of all, I see myself as an artist, and not as a sculptor. Most of the time my work operates in a three-dimensional realm, possibly because it is more substantial than the two-dimensional realm of illusion. It defines a reality for me. In the system I was brought up in — the Western, capitalist system — one receives objects as rewards for labor and achievement. Everything one has sacrificed in life — personal goals or fantasies, for instance — in the effort to obtain these objects, has been sacrificed to a given labor situation. And once these objects have been accumulated, they work as support mechanisms for the individual: to define the personality of the self, to fulfil desires and express them, and so on…

GP: What meaning does your work have for you?

JK: In the past my work has always been about my personal, intellectual development. More recently it has involved the external world and how it functions socially. Whereas in the past I was more concerned with defining states of being that can be achieved by the individual, in more recent times I’ve extended my interest to social states of being that are more and more removed from what I could accomplish now, within my lifetime. Also, the work is being directed, since I have been defining a social state of being. I have also been redefining a personal state of being. On both the personal and the social level, though, my goals have been knowingly unachievable — biologically, psychologically and economically they just aren’t possible at this time.

Lately, the work has taken on a dimension of alienation of the physical self. In the body of work I called “The New,” I was interested in an individual psychological state tied to newness and immortality: the Gestalt came directly from viewing an inanimate object — a vacuum cleaner — that was in a position to be immortal. Now the works, particularly the cast pieces, are maintaining the integrity of the object to such a degree that my hand, my own physical involvement, disappears. Nothing is done to alter the viewer’s confidence in (or the psychological perception of) the object. Any diminishment or increase of its imperfections would affect its ability to convince in the arena of display; and total confidence, total conviction, are essential if these works are to achieve their goal.

GP: Is your work formed intuitively, or does it stem from market research?

JK: My work is intuitive, but I also expose myself to as much information as I possible can, so I think it would be fifty-fifty. It involves directly seeing the manipulation that takes place within oneself and how one’s desires are directed, but then it also relies on the biological self, an intuitive self. In this sense my work differs from, say, Conceptual art; my work is more ‘ideal’ than conceptual. Conceptual art was always creating support mechanisms to hold itself together, to cover up any lies within its structure. The intuitive quality of my work precludes all need for deception. If a flaw is there, it is part of the system. That’s what I mean by functioning intuitively instead of trying to create an artificial support for the work.

Rabbit, 1986. Cast stainless steel, 104 x 48 x 30,5 cm.

GP: Does art have a social dimension?

JK:Yes. I feel it’s the only valid way for art to exist, and the only way it can truly function. If art is not directed toward the social, it becomes purely self-indulgent, like sex without love. Whereas if art is functioning in the social sphere and helping to define social order, it’s working purely as a tool of philosophy, enhancing the quality of individual life and redirecting social and political attitudes. Art can define an individual’s aspirations and goals as other systems — for instance, economics — are defining them now. Art can define ultimate states of being in a more responsible way than economics can, because art is concerned with philosophy as well as with the marketplace.

GP: Your work is very new. Do you think you are still in the field of art, or have you gone beyond?

JK:My work, hopefully, is showing new possibilities of art. At the same time I am trying to look back, to see what attributes of art have been performing psychologically, and to work with those attributes in defining a new area, a situation in which the individual will have pure confidence in his position by virtue of the objects with which he surrounds himself. These objects will not be looked at in a contemplative way, but will only be there as a mechanism of security. And they will be accessible to all, for art can and should be used to stimulate social mobility. In fact I envisage the formation of a total society where every citizen will be of the blue blood. In such a society the individual will exist in a state of entropy, or rest, and will inhabit an environment decorated with object art that is beyond critical dialogue.

Helena Kontova: Does that mean you’re working for the present or for the future?

JK: The kind of transformation I’m talking about cannot be achieved overnight. Nevertheless, my work is being directed along these lines right now. My bust of Louis XIV (1986) is about the confidence that can be placed in a monarchic situation; it’s almost speaking about the ruins of Versailles. The stainless steel alludes to proletarian luxury, a necessary component of any political support system; and the light reflected in the shadows of the steel, which takes on a cerulean tone, reinforces a sense of intimacy and passiveness — the same kind of intimacy or passiveness one may feel, say, in a public square with a fountain or with a sculpture. Although the work is functioning in that area now, it needs time, just as the general economic situation needs time.

HK: For whom does the work function in this idle way you are describing?

JK: It functions for everyone. For the lower and middle class it will lead to an ultimate state of rest; for the upper class it will lead to an unprecedented state of confidence. So all members of society would benefit. There would be no losers.

Gregorio Magnani: Can you explain what you mean by “proletarian luxury?”

JK: The polished stainless steel has a reflective quality which is associated with a luxurious item. In my work the situation is set up so that the individual from the lower classes feels economic security in a fake situation. Polished objects have often been displayed by the church and by wealthy people to set a stage of both material security and enlightment of spiritual nature; the stainless steel is a fake reflection of that stage.

Flowers, 1986. Stainless steel, 32 x 45 x 31 cm;

Louis XIV, 1986. Stainless steel, 117 x 68 x 38 cm. Photo: Fred Scruton.

GM: Don’t you think your bust of Louis XIV and many of the other works, as well, can be seen as enbodiments of the confidence that can be placed in a multinational situation?

JK: The bust of Louis XIV is a symbol of the confidence that can be placed in an authoritarian regime but it is also a symbol of all labor exchange systems in history, including capitalism. What is being communicated is a decriticalized political situation. As Louis XIV is not performing as a monarch anymore, the lower class individual can feel comfortable that he can not be betrayed once he has gone into this state of entropy, and the upper class is able to partake in a false security and therefore can not betray the lower classes. Once the object has seduced the viewer into the acceptance of this political situation, there is no way for the lower class to revolt and there is no way for the aristocracy to betray again. If that were to occur, and it could not, the aristocracy would be biting its own tail.

GP: Is there any connection between your work and the work of the past?

JK: I’m deeply indebted to Marcel Duchamp, whose work, because it was directed outward from the artist and into the social arena, had a liberatory value for me. My work is connected with the past to the extent that it wishes to use the past psychologically, to reap the benefits inculcated in works of art by other artists — for example, the sense of entropy or equilibrium, devoid of critical dialogue, that is

present in certain statuary.

Giacinto Di Pietrantonio: A lot of people have </