Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Back Posting, and Back in Willyburg!

Davina Semo at Rawson Projects

The title of Davina Semo’s show, BEFORE SHIFTING TO THE BLACKNESS, suggests an ominous future but it seems the “shift” has already taken place.

The show consists of industrial materials throughout the floor and walls of the front gallery, but the pieces could be divided into two distinct series. All the works are “everyday” and “non art” objects, but a narrative distinction can be made between the discarded detritus on the floor and the totemic polish of the wall pieces.

Not that the things strewn about the floor couldn’t still be mistaken for actual building materials, it’s just that they just seem less prophetic next to the intimidating regality of the pristine, hung “art”. The placed items could be unaltered, found hardware, but they have been “x”ed as if marked off a list, adding to the notion of the work being set aside rather than waiting to be used. X MARKS THE ROT, is a square slab of reinforced concrete with an X sprayed across it. The wordily titled HE DOESN’T RECOGNIZE OUR COMPULSION TO LEAVE THE HOME WE BUILT FOR OURSELVES actually is an X made from two scaffold braces.

The “X” of death from the floor becomes the diamond pattern of hurricane fencing when etched on hanging glass. THE WORLD AND THE PEOPLE IN IT HAD SUDDENLY SLIPPED BEYOND HER COMPREHENSION AND SHE FELT IN GREAT DANGER OF LOSING THE WHOLE WORLD ONCE AND FOR ALL is an etched two-way mirror that hangs facing the street window, acting at once as an advertising show sign and a security barrier. I WATCH THE ONCOMING OF THE NEW THRUST AND DO NOT CLING TO IT AS IT SUBSIDES is a square made of thirty-five hanging stainless steel chains. Modernist flatness and minimalist “it-is-what-it-isness” represent incarceration in Semo’s more traditional treatment of exhibition display and transversely, oppression fetish becomes art.

In his book The Practice of Everyday Life, Jesuit turned social scientist Michel de Certeau divides art into strategies (the commercial authority of traditional art) and tactics (the more recent practice of ephemeral and everyday non-art). The juxtaposition in Semo’s show does not encourage optimism. The tactics of cement and scaffolding aren’t meant to be used for actual rebuilding nor are they dignified as icons here. The strategic aspiration of “art” here is not of work and potential, but containment. Why bother with a double dip recession?

There is a third series of work in the backspace. Three etched transparent mirrors, one stained with enamel, hang in a row. More handmade in appearance and livelier than the front room hangings, the everyday stuff of life is, only in the second gallery, presented as permanent fixture. If the show is to be taken as political allegory, then maybe hope lies in the compromise of backroom deals.

Up through October 23

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Art Fairs? 2011?

  I was fortunate enough to be invited along with Bad At Sport's (most excellent podcast) Amanda Browder for interviews at this year's Armory and other art fairs. Aside from seeing the shows and doing the interviews, the real treat was going as "press". Much has been written on the atmosphere of galleries, museums, and art openings, but art fairs are notorious for their own particular formula for tension. Fairs are not the best places to view art (Or are they? More on that in a bit) so people watching easily becomes an allowed priority . With the shield of the press pass, people watching, and  personal interaction, became an official priority. 
  The job though, was to talk about art. It's all too easy and always in fashion to turn your nose up to these events so it's a good idea to remember that they are "fairs". Off we went with our badges to the Armory opening night. But we didn't interview anyone at the opening, just catching the tail end of the non-public party. Having not been in a few years myself I wondered how long the shows had been this blue chip and conservative. No booths showing a dangled Urs Fischer crumpled pack of Camels here (not that that didn't sell in Miami a few years back for a load). The standout piece was Ivan Navarro's neon fence at the Paul Kasmin space. Does it represent a shift in the economy that the  most talked-about, indulgent f-off work of art has switched from proletariat tease to kitsch barrier? 
 It's a good thing when one piece can capture the tone of a fair like this, even if the fence really wasn't typical of the Armory works. Ambience and aura usually leave more of an impression than specific works after the mosaic soup of salon after salon. Not that the fairs aren't designed to sell specific works, but the yearly growing number of fairs, to someone with no intention of purchase, leads to an initial comparison of fairs, not art.  These are, after all, markets, and the familiarity of commerce is exactly what the public finds refreshing after the lofty concepts of museum and gallery curation. From that point on, it is up to each different fair to conjure it's distinct sense of mood and atmosphere.
 The Volta fair for one opts for the smartly recurring idea of having one artist per booth. This - right off the bat - clarifies while allowing for a hybrid effect mix of museum/bazaar. The galleries also get to stay in their comfort zone while avoiding the "everything must go" barrage that the splatter groupings display. You can walk through a mini Chelsea on a convention floor and have a decent memory of what you saw and where (it also helped that each space had a handout of their one artist). The random elements here were mock art tours where actors, complete with tourguide flags, led groups booth to booth making up whatever they wanted to about the art.
 To get a good sense of disparate atmos"fairs", we did back to back visits from Fountain to Independent. The lively Fountain was on the Hudson river's panhandle barge, so the choice of location itself was boisterous. All fairs have their own events and parties, but this one had the most Burning Man funky feel despite being set up as the most admittedly sales oriented. Bobbing on water and appearing the "craftiest" also helps. The art and crowd at the Independent came off as notably austere after the Haight St vibe of Fountain. Independent was last years upstart show, but going from the river to the former Dia space in Chelsea gave it a comparatively establishment mood. The distinction of Independent is boundless placement of work on the floor confounding connections with the galleries. Sometimes the work itself acted as divider - a freestanding hurricane fence for example. To compare these two fairs is to open a discussion of what an "outsider" fair and it's ironic contradictions can mean. One shows art that is obviously art in an art "market, set in a rowdy buoyant thunderdome haunted by LES barflies. One shows post-modern "but is it art" art, drifting from the sales desk in an arthouse visited by black turtlenecks and architect glasses. If there was a signature piece for this outsider fair paring, it was Folke Köbberling and Martin Kaltwasser cut up Saab cycle/car hybrid (best use of the word in this post) parked near the Jack Hanley area. A Saab 900 has been chopped to reconfigure parts in to a cancerous emerging motorcycle ready to give as a more energy-efficient ride back to Fountain.
 More hybrids within hybrids were found at Scope, which had everything from sales booths to bacchanalian theater stages. We ended up in Andrew Ohanesian's  walk-in bodega cooler. Originally serving free beer from a great art/life/fair/street mashup, the piece was "shut down" when the food vendors complained to Scope  that they were losing business, and their overhead, to an artwork. The interview, and drinking, had to be done inside the cooler in a space that was appropriately both cool and lively.

 I only mentioned one interview here. For the rest, please go to

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Icon Madonna

 Icon of the day

Untitled Film Still #7

  From one artist to another. John Baldessari recently wrote that sliding glass doors were one of the things he hates most about Los Angeles and I was reminded of my own old Californian backyard entrance. Just as I was picturing it, Cindy Sherman walked through. She had invaded my memory, stumbling out of my San Mateo home just as she did in her seminal photograph, Untitled Film Series #7. That's an icon. One that infiltrates your childhood like a Bladerunner programmed replicant.
  The image comes from a series of self-portraits where Sherman takes back noirish and B movie depictions of women in generally referential tropes. #7 has always stuck out for me not just because I would have loved for this to have been an actual boyhood memory, but because it best captures the re-emergence of the icon taken back. She walks out of the abyss without spilling a drop of her martini, unembarrassed, well prepared for the daylight, and not really bothered by the new audience waiting for her. Yesterday's woman is pushed to the left part of the frame, sleeping with her face covered and dreaming of kissing seahorses.
 The image of Marilyn Monroe was designed by middle-aged men for middle-aged men. The original Like a Virgin era image of Madonna was designed by a young woman for teenage girls.  Two superficially similar styles with significantly different meaning, the second being re-iconed, just as Duchamp elevated the everyday object to icon status after 19th century museums had reduced functionally ceremonial iconic objects to mere "art". 
 As a champion iconographer, Cindy Sherman has done the same thing. She has returned the objectified woman back to religious status.

Monday, February 21, 2011

More real than field

 "Nothing has really happened until it's been described"
                                                                                             Virginia Woolf

  I don't know who first said "art = life", but I'll be the one snoring through their next lecture. That's right, I plan to show up just for the nap. This is meant more as a collaborative comment than an insult. The lecture will be art, the nap will be life. 
  Has anyone said that art is a "take" on life? Brooklyn based artist Patrick Jacobs "take" or takes can be seen at Pierogi in Williamsburg. In Familiar Terrain Jacobs has constructed dioramas of country landscapes behind temporary walls and viewed through small Claude glasses. Looking through the small openings, one sees fish-eyed expanses that confound with a double take of "is it real",  "is it a photograph"? The show has been mostly compared to Duchamp's Etant donnes for the use of diorama and specific viewing situation. The first difference is that Pierogi's multiple peepholes eliminate the creepy one person at a time closet of the Duchamp. Secondly, Jacobs leaves behind Duchamp's wet dream narrative. Or does he?
 The views display varying puns on a distancing from reality. Some are made in black and white, emphasizing the theatrically artificial. One gives us a view through another window, again winking back to Duchamp. The dioramas show fields with signs of civilization in the background and sometimes forefront mushroom bouquets, but more often have circular imprints in the foregound grass field. Etant donnes aims the two tiny eye holes directly at the female opening, but Jacobs' glass circles introduce us to a circle that represents a launching pad - more up from than in to. This infers an elevation to the simulacra of the landscape. Jacobs further "Americanizes" the effect by not envisioning a dreamscape rather than observing the effects of hyperreality.
 "Americanized" for a couple of reasons. The first referring to Umberto Eco's essay Travels in Hyperreality where an ahistorical U.S.A. apes and plasticizes an invented (and partly borrowed) mythology. Secondly, and truly more Americanly, Amercanized for celebrating the very brick and mortar of the effect itself. The punchline of the exhibit is a Penn and Teller style pulling back of the wizard's curtain where Jacob's cuts away a wall to show the model behind the wall - armature, toy landscape, beautifully crafted horizon lighting, and all. The revelation only adds to the awe of the portholes without leaving the viewer feeling duped. I don't think anyone would believe that pigeon footprints on the gallery's floor happened outside of artists' invention either.
  The pieces are successful not just because they are so "wow" illusionistic, but because they are about being so effectively illusionistic. Art is often successful not from channeling the visionary, but observing the granted. I am looking forward to the next time I see the work of the "visionary" William Blake, but I'll take another look, with wonder, at a field I might walk through on the way there.   

Friday, January 28, 2011

Barnes burner

  I went on a field trip to the Barnes Foundation and was chided by the  trip's matron for not having done my homework - the homework being to watch The Art of the Steal, a documentary on Philadelphia's relocation of the collection despite the will of the founder, Albert C. Barnes. Currently the collection ( well, half of it ) is on view  in Merion Pennsylvania until it is rehung in central Philadelphia come 2012. The new space will be a power structure along the line of many new Death Stars of recent years (The  De Young in SF, Tate Modern, LA's Getty....). Don't get me wrong, I like modernist monstrosities as much as the next art snob but I was happy to see the art in it's intended home. I was also happy to have seen the art free of any political situation - as one might consider if visiting the full collection in the new hangar, ignorant of the guilt the documentary would no doubt elicit. This allowed for a contemplation of the work on it's own, in it's own space, and of course, how it leads back to me and my take on it.
  The collection is mostly famed for it's impressionism era works, but beyond that it is supported by a kaleidoscope of century-bounding randomness. Tintoretto studies shoulder up with small Picassos, 19th century American folk works, and all kinds of curios ( you might yet have to make that guilt-free trek to the new building as the Barne's online collection search is about as easy to navigate as the meaning behind the groupings ). The thing is, it's the oddball corners that actually support the structure of the entire building. Usually each wall "stars" a big wet misty Cezanne or bloated foggy Renoir fatties in the center while the supporting cast does the real work and holds the ceiling up at the edges. The effect is a kind of vaporous expanse energized by the unruly gangs unified framing.  The tension uses the release and vice versa.
  How does this lead back to me and my take on it? It's this kind of situation that made me want to exhibit art that exploits the energy of a space in unison with surrounding art. I'm organizing a pop-up show called Landing Jam on a Greenpoint top floor landing with work that takes advantage of this tension. Of course the show won't be about my tale any more than the Barnes foundation is. My idea about tension will be released by work that doesn't just address the space it is in so much as a portal out. Maybe the rehoused Barnes art will also demonstrate what art does so well, create an experience beyond the room it is seen in.  

Ugly Art Room presents Landing Jam

I'm sure the yogurt was delicious, but where's the rest of the moose?

  Remembering Gabriel Orozco's show at the MOMA last year makes me think that Paul Thek really did have something to share. Thek actually makes stuff and makes it with an encouragement for others to also make stuff. Like Thek, Orozco's show also began with his take on the cube, here in the form of an empty shoebox. The difference is that one container is reliquary and the other is discard. Orozco has run off wearing the shoes and asks us to celebrate our cleanup. The  square box as container really is a great invention, but in this case (NPI) it is has nothing on the conk shell.
  Orozco's famous debut of putting up clear Danon yogurt lids on a gallery wall polarized opinions, mostly for their sheer brashness. The gesture inspired imaginative references to clear plastic emptiness, "O" design entendres, and post-colonial clutter, but all I can think of is the artist enjoying the yogurt in the next room. "Leftovers of specific situations" is what the he calls his art, boring situations. When Dudley Moore, as Arthur, sees a mounted moose head, he asks "where's the rest of that moose?". Orozco riding around on a headless moose? Now that's  a situaton.
  Maybe the banality is the point. I seem to be holding him to task for not prompting my peculiar imagination in a certain direction. Orozco came as one of the burgeoning 'global' artists on the late 80's that seemed to lit up by timely shows like the MOMA's 1984 Primitivism (a show that fueled terms like 'cultural appropriation' and political correctness) and Magicians of the Earth at the Pompidou (is it a surprise that NY had the brutally modernist show and Paris had the inclusively apologetic one?). The time was hot with fashionable political correctness and this did not hurt the new voice of art coming from outside established art capitals. Mexican and nomadic, Orozco would roll his ball of clay across the globe, mundanely indexing the filthy paths we (the colonizers) have laid for him (the exploited). In this sense his work can come off as spiteful and lazy when compared to other artists. Is it 'revenge' art when he takes something back? Rirkrit Tiravanija invited the public to come in to a gallery and eat with him. Orozco taunted musemgoers with oranges across the street. As far as invention goes the work at the MOMA show had nothing on the razor-sharp tactical design and brilliance of David Hammons. Is a trisected Citroen a redesign or a "fuck you"? Why does a whale skeleton need a tattoo? 
  The actual sculpture of Orozco's 'leftovers' show no interest in the elan of Duchamp's refocused tilts,  the wonder Rauchenberg's dusty attic discoveries, or the whimsical twist of Hammons' phoenix imagination. The 'specific situation' holds a grudge. A musician takes a piano and gives us music with it. Orozco yawns on the same piano.  

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Exemplary Diving

  In a way it doesn't matter if you missed the Whitney Museum's recent Paul Thek retrospective, the dead hippie wasn't there either. Not that it wasn't worth seeing (it was), it's just that the transient and exemplary theme of the artist's work has never really found a place, or wanted it, in the traditional sense of the museum object. The Tomb, better known as "the dead hippie" and perhaps his masterpiece, was abandoned by the maker himself.
  Mortality was a theme of Thek's and the visitor was first greeted by the ghost of the late artist himself in the form of a giant Warhol screen test head. Art history's 60's icon introduces us to history's forgotten underbelly of what it must have been like to actually have been there. It is another collaboration by these two artists that really sets Thek apart from how most textbooks remember the era. Encased in one of the famous fake Brillo boxes tipped on it's side is one of Thek's signature wax meat slabs complete with airhole. This signifies his break from and disdain for the cube that was minimalism's last try at encasing modernist history. Minimalism feared the choices that the end of art's linear trajectory offered and it clung to it's monotheism until the very end. It wasn't just a joke, turning a Judd or Bell cube in to a meat freezer, but a surgical exposure of the flesh that probably better suited the turmoil of the day - more Altamont than White Album.
  The first space of the show, with it's wax meat and cast body parts, makes tombstones of the art object. This gallery preceded a slide show about The Tomb, abandoned when Thek didn't bother picking it up from it's  European exhibition. Essentially a self sepulture, Tomb placed a cast self-portrait in a small ziggurat - an Egyptian burial complete with severed fingers (needed tools of the artist) packaged to follow the spirit to the afterlife. In the context of this show, "dead hippie" becomes a ghost that has risen from the first gallery. Emergence from the grave is already apparent with body parts rising from the first room to another state of meaning. A mouth gasps it's first breath of the afterlife and fingers reach upward, psychedelically colored with the appearance of moisture on cracked mud. 
Not a drawing by Paul Thek
  From here on the show follows Thek's continuing practice in to obscurity with a couple of appearances by his "Gandolf the White" tourguide through the underworld, Diver. Not called "Lander" for a reason, Thek's rubber fish zombie is a buoyed marker through increasingly disposable and suggestive works. Re-and-repurposed found objects (Thek was infamous for reworking older pieces) clutter spaces with flotsam and jetsam madman junkyards. Newspaper paintings line walls around garage-find dioramas. The show ends with Thek's (literal this time) death bed show of low hung paintings with pre-school chairs provided for viewing by children. The next generation is now his audience for art that will be made immortal not for existing, but for the thought it tries to inspire. 

Old fan Mike Kelley on Paul Thek