April 2, 2014 Repository 133: Art is Alive | Spot Report from NYC Posted In: art practice, contemporary art, exhibition of note, museum, perspective, travel

Image courtesy CHE, follow Mindmarrow at instagram.com/mindmarrow

Image courtesy CHE,  Mindmarrow now on instagram.com/mindmarrow

I’ve just returned from a 4-day art soak in NYC – it was perfect and productive, and my consensus is that art is alive. While I would say that art seems most alive in the most venerable art institution, and some of the contemporary art galleries in Chelsea and the Bowery. There was a load of “meh” – especially in the major contemporary art “institutions”. Overall though, it felt more promising than other visits.

Art is in transition: that is one certain fact. And it is one more reason why it would be vain to attempt anything in the nature of pontifical judgement on its immediate manifestations. We should be content with the fact that art is alive – more vital and experimental than at any time since the Renaissance. – Herbert Read, Art Now

That pretty much sums it up eloquently for me. Important to note that the quote was written in 1936 regarding the “Art of This Century” exhibit in NYC of Peggy Guggenheim’s collection. The exact same could be said now in the city. A few highlights and lowlights:

1. The Met: This place is a continual reminder that no matter what time period, culture or medium, taking in any art from our history is life and perspective changing. Of note was a temporary exhibit of Jean-Baptise Carpeaux’s work on loan from the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. Carpeaux (1827-1875) was a contemporary to passionate painters such as Delacriox, and his studies remain an early example of what we later called “Expressionism”. Like his contemporary painters, his sculptures were new in their freedom and immediacy. His small clay sculptures grab the essence of a moment and include every gesture, scrape and movement of the artist’s hand.

The sensual nature of his etudes were not lost however in the pose or the subject matter of the more refined marble pieces. For example in the Ugalini and His Sons piece, Carpeaux attains somewhat of a Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Sons-moment where the hungry father sits distraught and starving while his sons swarm around him. The cherry on top of this exhibit was the inclusion of Carpeaux’s paintings – who knew?? I had no idea he was a painter, and like his small vibrant clay works the paintings are expressionistic and about 20-plus years ahead of their time.


2. The Whitney Biennial: As I entered the building for the last effort in this space for the Whitney Museum, the air was oppressive. I hadn’t started the stair climb to explore this every-other-year fiesta, when I felt the weight of heavy thinking going on. While I appreciate the thinking around contemporary art, I appreciate the efficiency of feeling over analysis. Each of the four floors of this year’s exhibit was by a different curator. The only thing holding their visions together were speakers and stuffed animals installed in the stairwells. The speakers emanated a loud and grating moan, almost monotone and extremely annoying.

Several years ago Annette Messager made a Golden Lion award-winning installation at the Venice Bienale with stuffed animals – it was exquisite. The stuffed animal represents vulnerability, innocence, the superficial and the pathetic. These little bouquets of stuffed animals (not Messager’s work) stuck on the speakers were simply sad – and were the seeming thread that bound this year’s biennial of American art. The curators appointed to the task this year insist on your making your own decisions on the work, and you doing the requisite reading and research to understand it. Some excerpts from their statements:

Within this curriculum, contours can be drawn around three overlapping priorities: contemporary abstract painting by women; materiality and affect theory; and art as strategy-in other words, conceptual practices oriented towards criticality*. Theoretically, the works that I included will each demand from the viewer a varied network of analysis.Michelle Grabner

The surfaces and spaces of the gallery respond in kind, playing multiple roles – from white cube to theater to cinema to publishing forum, and sometimes all of these at once. – Stuart Comer

I looked to answer Breuer’s question with twenty-four artists and groups that fit a statement by poet Susan Howe: “I believed in an American aesthetic of uncertainty that could represent beauty in syllables so scarce and rushed they would appear to expand though they lay half-smothered in local history.” – Anthony Elms

I was most interested in the writing instruments on the top floor, displayed next to the late David Foster Wallace’s handwritten notes, as well as Paul P.’s ghost-like drawings. The ghost I feel is the viewer – no longer present. We may only engage with the art, per the curator’s imploring, if we do our homework. Regardless, I proceeded through the exhibit with the nostalgic and misguided idea that the art was visual, and would communicate with me on this level.

In sum, the feeling for this year’s show: displacement + anxiety + diversity + art school = Contemporary American art

Stuffed animals and speakers in stairwell at 2014 Whitney Biennial, image courtesy Catherine Haley Epstein
Stuffed animals and speakers in stairwell at 2014 Whitney Biennial, image courtesy CHE

3. Degenerate Art at the Neue Galerie- A sad and vital memorial show commemorating one of the nadirs of propaganda over people in human history. The two floors were carefully curated giving homage to the artists included in the original show from 1937, as well as historical evidence to complete the picture of this event. Alongside empty frames representing the works burned by the Nazi’s, were photographs of people in line for the show in 1937 – the most attended exhibition in history – and pictures of people in line to depart for concentration camps. The Neue Galerie is an intimate and beautiful venue. I hope this type of re-enactment of the exhibit can be shown on a larger scale and perhaps in a more intimidating space for more people to understand the magnitude of consequence that the Degenerate Art exhibit symbolizes.

4. Marna Lassnig at MoMA PS1 – The exhibit at PS1 includes paintings from her school days (1950s) to now, and lesser known examples of her video art which she began in the 70s. This is a rare exhibit of the evolution of an important female painter’s practice. Lassnig’s work is a successful blend of figurative and abstract work which begs the viewer to confront our often conflicting internal and external worlds. Her work is brave, where she puts all of her trauma and anxieties on display, conscientiously doing this in an age of overblown social interaction. The wall text notes her journal entry which is the same question conjured when you look at her work, “how much can I be myself?”

“Wholeness is wishful thinking” – Marna Lassnig


Maria Lassnig, “Sciencia”, 1998. Oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist.

5. Sarah Lucas and Collier Shorr – Hey ladeez!! Right next to each other in Chelsea, there is an uncharacteristically pretty and funny exhibit by Sarah Lucas at Gladstone Gallery, and a more quiet and thoughtful exhibit of Collier Schorr work at 303 Gallery. Both artists play with concepts of gender, identity and sexuality. Lucas’ show “NUD NOB” is her first in the US in a decade. For it she’s revisited some of her older work from the nineties with a twist of irony and success. Where they used to be gritty, found sculptural works in the early 90′ (e.g. the brilliant piece “Au Naturel”), they are now shiny (Koon-ish), and big (Museum Please Collect-ish). Large eating banana photos and bronze penises are sure to provide a giggle or two. Schorr’s work next door is a collection of images of eight women, titled simply “8 Women”. The presentation and diversity of the types of imagery have a diary feel, as if you are reviewing the artist’s private notes on the topic. In this regard, the mix of intimacy and gloss, it is successful.

6. Imprints at Leslie Tankonow Gallery + Artist Projects – Having a slight obsession with imprints starting with Surrealist frottage and Yves Klein’s anthropometries this exhibit “Imprints” was a gem. Impressions and imprints remind me of the Rorschach test and all of its probabilities and properties. Imprints are also the things we leave behind – the trace, the ghost, the memory. Aside: while I was there, the Boxer (Ushio Shinohara), from Cutie and the Boxer documentary was there viewing the work. While his work was not included in this exhibit, his practice consists of making imprints on canvas – his paintings are made mostly by his punching the canvas with paint0soaked gloves.

7. Kiki Smith and Mingei are you Here? at Pace Gallery – In Chelsea there was a most unusual pairing of exhibitions – a cavernous spot dedicated to Kiki Smith’s recent musings and industrial size tapestries and sculptures right next to a tiny
installation within the Pace space of Japanese Mingei craft work, curated by Nicolas Trembley. The pairing on the surface seems wide, but actually Kiki Smith works a lot with her her hands – her practice consists enormously of fiddling with her hands and entering and exiting the world of craft and the domestic.

The Mingei exhibit was purposely cluttered, like a museum display of “cultural wares”. It was disarming to see this in the commercial gallery space that is Pace. I loved it, and now have Mingei on my research list. It sounds a lot like wabi sabi, though it was developed much later in 1920s by theorist Soetsu Yanagiand, and is a direct reaction to the industrial revolution and not just the aesthetic principal. The principals of Mingei are summed up by adjectives simple, natural, healthy, functional, affordable and sincere. There is irony in its placement at Pace of course, though it remains a compelling dialog.

8. PANOPTICUM and Re-Framing History: Two very well appointed group shows at the Robert Miller Gallery and Lelong Gallery resectively. PANOPTICUM borrows its title from a late nineteenth-century Viennese chamber of horrors, featuring wax figures depicting crime scenes, medical oddities, and other luridly voyeuristic entertainments. The exhibit is the first in working with the estate of photographer Herbert List. While it is supposed to resemble a collection of skewed and surreal curiosities, I found the work perfectly united to make a strong statement of the precisely discombobulated time we live in. In other words the work was a beautiful rendition of the alienating feeling one gets from riding the subway or barreling through Amsterdam airport to catch a flight. The gallery show is more palatable and safe than the realities of modern life. Artists include Michaël Borremans, Cindy Sherman, Mark Dion, Herbert List and Taryn Simon among others.

Installation photograph of Pantopticum show at Robert Miller Gallery, image by CHE

Installation photograph of PANOPTICUM show at Robert Miller Gallery, image by CHE

Alfredo Jaar’s work at Lelong’s takes the cake in the Re-Framing History show. His piece powerfully addresses media, image construction and power. There is also a haunting pile of Felix Gonzales Torres posters for the taking – though unlike his sweeties installations, these posters are not necessarily things you would like to consume – they are an image of a bomb floating through the air with the words “beautiful” underneath. Needless to say the poster pile is still very full.


9. Matthias Bitzer: Saturnine Swing at Marianne Boesky Gallery and Visions at Judith Charles Gallery – After seeing the documentary Tim’s Vermeer last week, and mulling about the concepts of eastern versus western perception in art (one static through a hole, the other moving on a scroll), I was delighted to see the group show currently at Judith Charles Gallery. The artists who were chosen in one way or another play with the concepts of perception and perspective. I’m currently trying to figure out how I can wallpaper a room in my home with Cassandra C. Jones’ “Good Cheer” wallpaper – magnificent!

While the Judith Charles artists are all two dimensional, the work of Matthias Bitzer’s at Marrianne Boesky Gallery embrace all four dimensions. Looking at his work was mesmerizing. While the curators at the Whitney are trying to combine the spatial, historical and conceptual structures in their shows, Bitzer has successfully collapsed and included all of the above in each piece. His paintings suggest objects and his objects suggest paintings. The works are refined too, unlike the grittier finish of most of the works in this years’ Whitney Biennial.

10. Pawet Althamer: The Neighbors at the New Museum – On first blush this exhibit is terrifying. Another exhibit with lots of dolls, mannequins, and life-size decrepit figurative sculptures. It grows on you however – the sea of gray zombies you walk through are punctuated with these dioramas with dolls in them. Mind you the dioramas are NOT cute – they are usually ensconced in an apocalyptic landscape or suitcase. Then there is the “interactive” part. Unlike an Ólafur Elíasson, where the interaction of the viewer creates joy and perception shifts, this paint-and-draw-on-the-walls exhibition has a more aggressive effect. Mind you this was at the end of the installation, where there was no white space left, only the crowded humanity of scribbles. It was perfect though – isn’t this pentimenti the world we inhabit? We are our history, we are all connected and we as humans have no idea how to fathom these connections however hard we try. So in reality the work is a perfect illustration of our zeitgeist – a messy and hopeful attempt at social collaboration.

*criticality (used in Michelle Grabner’s Whitney curator’s statement) is a fairly recent nuclear term that refers to the balance of neutrons in the system. I’m surprised the art system has acquired this term to apply to its weak and hesitant hybrid approach to artists, exhibits and theory. I don’t see the art system as having nuclear power, though I am hopeful one day it can.


PS. The Last Brucennial was on my list to visit when I first planned my trip months ago. However, when they announced this last rendition of show as “all female” yet refused to make any statements around the choice to do so, I decided not to go. There was a nice walk through on youtube by the gonzo art critic James Kalm which was sufficient viewing from my office. It was a seething roaring mess of female artists, yes the biggies (e.g. Barbara Kruger) are mixed with the no-names/up and coming (multiple colleagues participated), though this did not make up for it’s lame absence of a premise. If you are going to pit art with females only Bruce, I prefer to know your intentions before agreeing to engage. So far the similarities to the Whitney Biennial are obvious: both have works of art featured that are cookies on a cookie tray (really), and both are like looking into the locker of an art school student showing their inspirations past and present. While this is the last Brucennial, I will submit the following for consideration at a future date:

The author's 7-year old daughter's purse contents, image courtesy Catherine Haley Epstein

The author’s 7-year old daughter’s purse contents, image courtesy CHE

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