I am very proud to be a part of the Singapore-based UNDERSCORE Magazine, a beautiful publication “attuned to a simple rhythm;quality of life.” With every issue, UNDERSCORE surprises me with its glorious design and lush writing. The magazine also includes work by young creatives from all over the world, and I am grateful to be included in the mix.
UNDERSCORE No. 3: THE FIGHT ISSUE has just recently been released, and its publication was celebrated with an exhibition of independent magazines at selected cafes throughout Singapore. It is incredibly exciting to be a part of a publication with such a strong creative vision that also supports similar projects, fostering a true sense of camaraderie and craft among international artists, writers, and designers.
I would like to share my contribution to UNDERSCORE No. 3, though I recommend finding a physical copy of the magazine so you can better experience Annelie Bruijn's beautiful photographs and the overall experience of handling such a gorgeous, thoughtfully-designed publication.
Gardens Contained and Floating By Lauren Palmor
Half the interest of a garden is the constant exercise of the imagination.—Mrs. C.W. Earle, Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden, 1897
People have always shaped plants. For the past 4,000 years, gardening has had a prominent place in global culture, from the ancient hanging gardens of Babylon to the Mughal garden fronting the Taj Mahal and from the gardens of Versailles to Central Park. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, gardening and the placement, care and shaping of plants have been influenced by developments in visual and ecological culture. Though plants continue to affect many aspects of our lives, they do so now through the contemporary lenses of sustainability, art, radical design, environmentalism, and the strong do-it-yourself approach of young, creative people around the world. In recent years, the way we physically shape, manipulate, and employ plants has been affected by new awareness, imagination and creativity.
Contemporary artists, designers, gardeners, and craftsmen have been exceedingly innovative in their handling of plants. Around the world, young visionaries are using a wide variety of materials and physical locations to alter our daily experience with flora, and by so doing, greatly heightening the public’s awareness of their natural environment. And, despite being raised in various man-made and even somewhat unnatural conditions, plant life continues to evolve, grow, and thrive.
Terraria are a good example of plants’ ability to grow under strict conditions tempered by the aesthetic and physical restrictions imposed upon them. Though terraria have been in existence for nearly 200 years, they have only recently undergone a contemporary revival which has altered their character and increased their popularity among a younger generation. The terrarium was invented accidentally in 1829 when a London doctor named Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward discovered plant growth in a jar which held moss and a moth’s cocoon. While waiting for the cocoon to hatch, the doctor saw small plants growing from underneath the moss, a surprise to him, given that the jar was sealed. Ward’s interest in his discovery culminated in the publication of a book on the subject in 1842 titled On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases. This led to a surge in popularity of terraria or “Wardian Cases” in England throughout the Victorian period, though interest eventually declined over the course of the twentieth century.
In recent years, the terrarium may have experienced its greatest resurgence in popularity since Ward’s day. A younger generation of craftsmen and artists has discovered the appeal of keeping and caring for a small, contained piece of the natural world within their homes. The revived interest in terraria has happened in part due to their special appeal to those who live in urban environments in which there may be little access to outdoor green space and limited space for indoor gardening projects. A terrarium requires little effort and fosters the experience of nature on a personal scale. Despite their containment, which obviously removes them from the wild outdoors, terrarium plants thrive and grow, against all natural odds.
A terrarium is a strictly controlled environment, making the plants within it completely dependent on their caretaker for air, light, water, and food. A closed terrarium, the most common type, often looks like a wondrous, miniature forest or an entire ecological universe within a bell jar. To make such a magical world, one must pick from nature those elements which would be appealing together in a small space, somewhat analogous to painting with moss and fern instead of paint and brush. A well executed container garden can convey the sense of looking down on a forest from the treetops, a snapshot of the wilderness outside.
It’s easy to imagine how terraria would hold such appeal to young designers and artists working today: these controlled environments allow for the manipulation of nature to a creative end. Though their roots are firmly in the nineteenth century, terraria have been revived in the twenty-first—and today’s versions of these miniature gardens don’t strongly resemble their predecessors. Contemporary terraria marry many recent trends in design, art, and craft. Some terrarium artists now include miniature sculpture and found art in their bell jars, while others utilize hand-blown containers designed by local artists. And, as more urbanites grow their own food and engage more actively in thinking about plant life and the natural world, so too can they create beautiful gardens on an intimate scale, bringing these ideas into their homes. Terraria have also been affected by the growing popularity of urban farmers’ markets and craft fairs, and both venues have become popular points of trade for these miniature gardens. Boutique florists specializing in terraria can be found in most major American cities, from Seattle and San Francisco to New York and Chicago, and their popularity from coast to coast can attest to the myriad ways in which plants can thrive and change our perception of the natural world.
Other young artists and designers have found ways to work with plants outside of the kind of limitations ascribed to terraria. Dutch artist and botanist Fedor Van der Valk has recently been gaining attention worldwide for his “string gardens”—plants grown without pots, suspended in the air and supported by nothing more than a ball of roots wrapped in moss, grass, and twine. If anything, Van der Valk’s string gardens function as the extreme contrast of terraria: rather than contain plant life in a small container, he grows plants in space, beyond the limitations of any pot, bowl, or jar. Despite the strange conditions under which he places his plants, Van der Valk ensures that they can grow and thrive. He’s had great success with transforming perennials, annuals, shrubs, small trees, and orchids into floating works of art suspended in space. Through experimentation, trial, and error, he has developed a system in which he can capture the beauty of plants in ways previously unseen: he uses a crochet stitch to first construct frames for the plants. Then, he bolsters the root ball of the plant with moss and earth to maintain the ball’s shape. “For a while I wanted to make animated videos with crocheted landscapes which were a kind of 3-dimensional spider web covered in moss and grass” says van der Valk. “The idea was to create bonsai-esque plants. To keep the landscapes really airy, I decided to work with hanging plants.”
The landscapes are assuredly airy, and they strongly resemble kokedama, or a green moss-covered type of bonsai popular in Japan. Kokedama are bonsai which are grown fully in a pot and them removed from their container, with the soil and roots maintaining their compact shape. They are then displayed on plates, also defying expected gardening practice. But unlike kokedama, string gardens don’t only resist containment—they also manage to escape the bounds of gravity altogether.
Van der Valk’s string gardens make an astonishing impact on their viewer: hung by itself, a small tree suspended in air is an unforgettable vision. Imagine, too, a room or a window filled with magically floating plants, suspended in the air and seemingly weightless. The impact of a hovering garden far exceeds that of the more traditional variation. String gardens form a new kind of indoor garden, a kind of floating forest which allows us to interact with plants at eye level. This is a radical alteration to the usual space between us and our potted indoor gardens. By hanging flowers and trees at eye level, we are more easily able to relate to and interact with them, as we would with our friends and family. Despite such a seemingly trivial change in the plant’s elevation, the hanging of the string gardens at eye level is quite unusual, drastically changing the way we are invited to look and interact with these gardens in the air. String gardens, when viewed in a group, create an otherworldly sensation not unlike the feeling of peering down into the miniature universe of a terrarium. Both garden types operate on an intimate scale, inviting the viewer to engage not only with plants and the natural wonder of their existence, but also their ability to thrive in extreme circumstances, whether they are contained in delicate glass jars or suspended from the ceiling by twine. The creation of these microhabitats, in glass or in air, is a testament to nature’s ability to thrive in spite of the limitations placed upon it by human endeavors.
Please excuse the lull in postings. I’ve recently relocated from Greenpoint, Brooklyn to beautiful Seattle, Washington. With the change of scenery, this blog will surely take on a slightly different shape. In the meantime, I’m happy to receive tips you might be willing to share on the art scene in my newly adopted city. Please send any inside scoop to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Art belongs to everyone. This fact is bolstered by the continual (though increasingly threatened) support for the public experience of art by international governments, public museums, and cultural policy-makers, and the subject of access to art has provoked passionate discourse for hundreds of years. Ideas about the freedom of art have been alternatively impacted by morality, politics, economics, education, and even the gender binary.
The early years of the 20th century saw an active debate over the role of art in daily public life in the United States. Many newspapers, magazines, and reports of the period eloquently and devotedly wrote about the need for art in the lives of all Americans. (For the best selections of such writings, I recommend reading the magazine Art and Progress, later renamed The American Magazine of Art, which was published from 1909–1953). A common example of this kind of text: “We have tried to show that art belongs to everyone and may be seen in every phase of life–in big buildings, in open spaces, in the streets at the hour of dusk and in the bright sunshine. This view of art gains ground slowly, but if, in the process, some color has been added to the grayness of the commonplace–to keep people from looking as they do when they “think very little, know very little, see very little, do very little”–we have accomplished more than we hoped for” (from the St. Louis Public Library annual report, 1914).
While there is a rich history of art access and its passionate support in the US, it often seems that the UK has been far more successful in truly embodying such democratic ideals of free culture. History and the arts remain a standard part of the British school curriculum today (unlike their impotent American counterpart), and British museums, galleries, and historic homes seem to be both more revered by and accessible to the general public than those in the US.
This week, the UK made another significant stride in the pursuit of art for all: the BBC, in association with the Public Catalogue Foundation (PCF) unveiled Your Paintings, “a project to create a complete catalogue of every oil painting in the national collection, on a dedicated website. In all, the national collection amounts to some 200,000 works, held in 3,000 galleries, museums, libraries and public institutions all over the country, making it probably one of the largest and most diverse collections of paintings in the world.”
When Your Paintings went live on Friday, the site already contained a database of more than 60,000 paintings by 15,000 artists from 860 collections—with more to come. The paintings are drawn from a large scope of public collections in every part of the country, ranging from iconic works from The National Gallery in London to small, unknown art from the town halls of small Yorkshire villages. Museum collections are well represented, as are the collection s of less obvious places like police stations, universities, hospitals, and county halls. The PCF searched all over the UK to locate these paintings, with 50 coordinators and 30 photographers on staff to manage the task. Together, their efforts ensure that these artworks can now be seen and shared all over the world, by anybody with the inclination and access to the internet.
The site is inviting and easy to use: images can be searched by location, artist, or by keywords. Look up “Essex Record Office,” “John Constable,” or “umbrella” and you are guaranteed to find something you’ve never seen before. Take a “Guided Tour” with famous artists and art historians, where you can view slideshows of their favorite works in public collections (I particularly liked Yinka Shonibare’s selections).
Your Paintings also needs your help tagging the nation’s paintings. The website currently only has very basic information about many of the works such as the title, artist, and date. They do not have more detailed, searchable information about subject, style, or movements represented. Sign up to assist in tagging these works and help to make Your Paintings a more useful and effective resource. Extra points to those who have studied art history in the past: they need “expert” taggers to identify dates and styles. If you have taken more than a few art history courses, please consider offering your assistance. With more input from more participants, this database will grow to become more effective—perhaps it might even influence the creation of a similar tool for the public art of the United States.
Kudos to the BBC, the PCF, and all of those who have contributed to this ambitious and important project.
Image: A Vase of Flowers by Paul Gaugin, 1896. Click here to view it at Your Paintings
A few months ago, I began giving a tour of American portrait painting at the Brooklyn Museum. The tour, titled “Fantasy and Reality in American Identities,” includes nine paintings in the Museum’s collection of American art. Though I find all nine works to be fascinating and valuable cultural documents, I must say that my very favorite painting in the collection is the last one I discuss on my tour: Walt Kuhn’s Dressing Room of 1926.
I love ending my tour on a meditation of Kuhn’s bold, arresting, and intimate image of a vaudeville performer in a quiet moment backstage. Kuhn is most closely identified with these portraits of vaudeville and circus performers, and in the early 1920s, he made his living by directing and designing stage shows as he continued to paint. He was influenced in equal measures by this experience as well as that of his travels in Europe. In Europe, he encountered the work of the German Expressionists and Cezanne, who he claimed remained his strongest influence throughout the course of his career. These elements coalesce in his best-known works, forming a word of clowns and dancers painted with exaggerated features in bold colors.
Dressing Room is a striking work. A withdrawn female performer stands in her dressing room, ready to go on stage. She is wearing a small, revealing costume, and her short, dark hair is adorned with a large, red bow. Her makeup is heavy, and the blush and lipstick on the dresser imply that she has just completed the task of getting ready. She poses in a seductive stretch, though her face is devoid of emotion and her eyes are empty. Though she is physically prepared for the stage, dressed up in her affected unselfconscious sexuality, she is not yet engaged in the task of performing for the pleasure of others.
The dressing room as a place is a curious space for the staging of self: as a space, it is neither public nor private. One enters a dressing room as their whole self and exits as a character or as an idea of a specific element of their personality. It is a tangible place dedicated to creating character, erasing flaws, putting on costumes. Kuhn subtly reminds the viewer that although the dancer looks pensive in this private moment, that this is definitely not a private space. A sign on the wall is a clue that this is a shared room, and a hat stand topped with many different hats is provides more evidence to support that fact. The dancer’s face and pose, combined with the public/private space of the painting, lends to the general air of tension and unease in the portrait.
Kuhn’s colors are also challenging and uncomfortable. The blood red of the dancer’s lips and hair ribbon scream loudly against the pallor of her skin. His strong brushstrokes and his use of bold blues and reds evoke Cezanne’s blocks of color and an interest in cubism, while he manages to pull feelings of discomfort and confrontation from whites and creams. Kuhn’s clear fascination with Fauve colors and Cubist space make this portrait an unforgettable and arresting image.
Dressing Room makes such an impact largely because he used real vaudeville and circus dancers and performers as his models. He manages to portray these characters in the quiet, reflective moments in which they are dressed in joyful stage costumes, though they remain removed from the stage and the people they are paid to play for the pleasure of others. Kuhn’s Dressing Room is a solemn incubator, holding the dancer in a world between the city and the stage, between herself and the character who dances and smiles for an audience. Staring intently out into the world beyond the walls, Kuhn’s dancer is burdened by her awareness of the impending performance and its disconnect from her interior life.
Visit Kuhn’s Dressing Room in the American Identities installation at the Brooklyn Museum. Live in New York City? Contact me if you’d like information about my gallery tour.
When someone with only a peripheral knowledge of Japanese art is asked to think about the visual culture of Japan, a few themes might come to mind: nature, history, tradition, and cuteness. A lay discussion of Japanese contemporary art is generally influenced by Hello Kitty and 19th century woodblock prints in equal measure. The art of an entire culture is surely not contained by the two isolated phenomena of Sanrio consumer products and Hiroshige’s Views of Edo, but it is the constant struggle of those in the field to push viewers’ understanding of the overlooked genius of Japanese art—most of which is not contained by these basic, widely-accepted concepts.
The Japan Society routinely mounts spectacular exhibitions of Japanese art, past and present, which challenge the limits of cultural understanding. The current exhibition, entitled Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Art, not only challenges preconceptions of contemporary Japanese visual culture—it also elegantly ties the past to the present, showcasing works by artists who are influenced by Japanese art history and modern culture in equal parts.
Bye Bye Kitty!!! features the work of sixteen contemporary artists whose paintings, videos, installations, photographs, and sculptures mix reference to tradition with critical and political views of Japan’s present and future. The work is also surprisingly grim and omniscient, considering that the exhibition was scheduled to open the week after Japan was hit by the devastating Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in March. It is hard to shake the feeling that the many dystopic visions of Japan’s future in the exhibition were informed by supernatural foresight—a fact which makes this exhibition even more important and impactful. The intensity of the exhibition is more than doubled by a complex collection of works which refer to natural disasters, devastation, and destruction.
These elements all point to a clearly underlined fact: stereotypical ideas of Japanese culture are outdated, and it is imperative that these notions be replaced by the more timely works of contemporary artists working in more intellectual and political themes. Even when the works in Bye Bye Kitty!!! borrow from traditional Japanese landscapes and printmaking, the recontextualization of the style elevates such works to the realm of conceptual and critical art. The show tells the story of the standing tension between the man-made world and the natural world, an agitated relationship which has long been dictated by the disaster-prone environment of an island nation plagued by earthquakes and tsunamis. The show is distinguished in equal parts by its beauty, intelligence, and honest anxiety.
Upon walking into the first gallery at Japan Society, the viewer is confronted by what at first appears to be a smoky hilltop landscape. Mountains emerge from grey mist and reach up to and endless oyster-white sky. It is only upon walking closely towards the canvas that the viewer realizes that the mountains are actually piles of bodies—an endless tower of the corpses of men in standard grey business suits, mixed with computers and cubicle parts. The large painting by Makoto Aida, titled Ash Color Mountains, is a shocking and surreal scene combining the style of a traditional Japanese ink painting with a stark (and prescient) vision of modern urban life.
Other standout works include Tomoko Kashiki’s intimate and disconcerting scenes of women and adolescents painted on delicate cloth. Her fragile subjects cling to dangerous peripheries by their toes or engage in muted exchanges with twisted fingers. Kashiki’s soft, secret worlds are about private gestures and the agonies of isolated moments of beauty. Roof Garden (2008) is particularly provocative: a young woman (wearing what looks like Comme des Garçons) stands on the edge of a rooftop, her back to the long drop. A strong breeze blows her towards the precipice, and the gusts of wind are visible rushing through her hair and against her nautical clothes. She smiles, convincingly, and the only visible tension is in the curl of her toes tight against the ledge—a soft image of the critical moment.
Manubu Ikeda’s works on paper are also a highlight: his large-scale works on paper are detailed epics of new, invented worlds. His fantasy landscapes link the worlds of heaven and hell, fabrication and documentary. Civilization seems to emerge from chaos in one square inch while succumbing to entropy merely a few pen strokes away. These works are so demanding in their detail that Ikeda devotes an entire year to each one. In Existence, the tree of life contains the true depth of life, the tree evokes all the permutations of a tree. Within its branches, this tree holds apocalypses, human life, and human destruction. It feels as though never before has so much of the natural world been said on a single sheet of paper.
Broken up into three sections, Bye Bye Kitty!!! explores the work of the other artists under the lens of “Critical Memory,” “Threatened Nature,” and the “Unquiet Dream.” All three themes similarly evoke disquiet and haunting visions of contemporary Japan—visions, which, sadly, are closer to reality than the curator or artists had intended. Though the exhibition was envisioned and organized far in advance of Japan’s recent tragedies, Bye Bye Kitty!!! may be able to offer viewers a helpful context for the contemporary Japanese visual culture which has undoubtedly been affected and which will continue to change in response to those events.
Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese ArtJapan Society, New York, E. 47th Street, Friday, March 18 — Sunday, June 12
The Japan Society is donating 50 percent of all admission fees to its earthquake relief fund between now and June 30
Minimalist director Kelly Reichardt has a certain predilection for wanderers in Oregon. In her film Old Joy (2006), two friends share a quiet hike through the Cascade mountains—weekend warriors fighting through a fog of regrets on their way to a secret hot spring. Her next picture, Wendy and Lucy (2008), is the agonizing story of a destitute young woman and her dog who are left stranded in Oregon when their car breaks down en route to a job at an Alaskan fishery. These films do not romanticize the Western landscape. Rather, Reichardt manipulates the highways, deserts, forests, and mountains to form restricting, claustrophobic spaces in the great outdoors. No other director so ably draws feelings of tension and constraint from endless expanses of land.
Reichardt’s new film, Meek’s Cutoff, is a testament to her unique vision of the Western landscape. A stripped-down Western, Meek’s Cutoff follows the path of three families traveling on the Oregon Trail in 1845. Their guide, Stephen Meek, may have misled them, and the film begins after they have already spent weeks wandering a foreboding path through the Oregon desert. Their journey is plagued by distrust and suspicion, and as their circumstances grow dire, the tension slowly builds to a frightening and agonizing conclusion.
Meek’s Cutoff is a bold and visionary film, and its point of view and execution are unlike anything in the rest of the American Western canon. The most obvious distinction is the fact that the story is told from the perspective of the women. While most films about the settlement of the west focus on the conversations of the men designing the journey, Reichardt positions her cameras with the women. When the men walk a few paces away to discuss their route, the camera remains with the women who are left holding the ropes of the wagons and cattle. We can hear only snippets of the conversations in soft whispers, privy to only as much information as if we were also standing there helplessly watching our husbands decide our fate.
In keeping with the women’s perspective, Reichardt shot Meek’s Cutoff in the square 4:3 aspect ratio instead of the usual widescreen sweeping format of classic mid-century Westerns. Speaking with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air (April 14, 2011), Reichardt explained, “I felt like the square [aspect ratio] gave you an idea of the closed view that the women have because of their bonnets,” Reichardt says. “You’d be traveling in this big community where you’d never have privacy. But also, it’s a really lonely journey. And I think cutting out the peripheral, it does leave you with the idea that something could be there that you don’t know about — and so it offers that kind of tension.”
The square frame pulls a claustrophobic feeling out of a seemingly endless desert, a directorial achievement which perfectly communicates the feeling of the film. Although the settlers are walking through endless open space, their fear limits their view, tethering them to their isolation and desperation, insulating them from the usual feeling of freedom that such sweeping vistas provoke.
Overall, Meek’s Cutoff challenges the romanticism usually associated with the settlement of the American west. Reichardt realistically portrays themes which, while mentioned in historical texts, have rarely made the silver screen: xenophobia, violence, hysteria, and the dehumanization of indigenous populations are all handled without sentimentality. John Ford and Sergio Leone it’s not. Reichardt intelligently and bravely resists the standards of her predecessors in order to forge a new genre: an honest Western which considers the frightening truths of our American history and the women who have been disregarded as its footnotes.
Meek’s Cutoff is now in theaters.
Cast: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Rod Rondeaux, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson
Can there be love without sentimentality? What happens when biology and reason, instead of emotion or desire, are the driving forces in a person’s world? ATTENBERG, a new film by Greek director Athina Rachel Tsangari, asks these questions while simultaneously riding on the new wave of cutting-edge contemporary Greek cinema. Featured as a selection in this year’s New Directors/New Films series at MoMA and Lincoln Center, ATTENBERG is enjoying a positive reception at its first American screenings.
The film takes its title from a character’s mispronunciation of the last name of Sir David Attenborough, whose films are the protagonist’s main source of social observation. Marina (a lovely and confrontational Ariane Labed) is 23-years old—a devoted daughter whose world is filled solely by the presence of Attenborough, her dying architect father, and her best (and only) friend, Bella. The characters seem to be the only people who populate the desolate industrial seaside town which her father helped design in the 1960s.
While Marina is exploring her latent sexuality through pantomiming Sir Attenborough’s nature films, her terminally-ill father tries to come to terms with the stark city he designed. Both father and daughter enjoy an exceptionally close relationship, despite the fact that their bond is not visibly emotional. Through honest debates about biology and sexuality, word games, and make-believe, their small family comes to profoundly understand sex, death, and love.
ATTENBERG co-stars Giorgios Lanthimos, the writer-director of Dogtooth, last year’s breakout Greek cinema tableaux. Comparisons between the two films are inevitable: both films explore the worlds of adult children who haven’t been given the necessary tools for negotiating the modern world (and both films include disarming, awkward dance sequences which make the viewers’ skin crawl). But whereas the parents’ impetus in Dogtooth was abuse, the driving force in ATTENBERG is love. Marina’s father didn’t instruct her to be alone—he taught her to be self-reliant.
"It would be too reductive to insist on attributing Marina’s self-willed seclusion to a matter of alienated living in a not-quite-post-industrial environment," writes Andrew Schenker in Slant. "Though unlike the film’s obvious point of comparison, Dogtooth, which depicted, by contrast, an enforced seclusion, social context is an important matter here. Finally, as Marina begins to bridge the gap of her isolation and prepares for her father’s death, her standing on the threshold of a new century (if, per the father’s words, the film takes place around 2000), as cinema then stood on the verge of its own now largely completed digital shift (ATTENBERG was defiantly shot on 35mm), is hugely significant. Tsangari’s is ultimately a film that asks how one can be expected to cope with life in what might be termed post-post-modernity. The film’s varied segments serve as the answers: an anarchic sense of play; the movies, including this one, that provide us with this manic brand of release; music; sex, of course; and, possibly even, if we’re lucky, love.”
ATTENBERG is a beautiful, arresting, and troubling film, and Tsangari’s work is a strong argument for the strength of contemporary Greek cinema. Highly recommended.
Yesterday, a fitting monument to Andy Warhol was unveiled in Union Square, not far from the site of the Factory at 33 Union Square West. The chrome-plated sculpture by Rob Pruitt is lovingly exact—it is clearly Warhol at his best. With a Polaroid camera around his neck and a Bloomingdale’s shopping bag in his hand, he is at the ready to take your picture at a party and leave you with a copy of Interview magazine before he leaves.
I’ve written before about my preference for Warhol’s ideas over his art. His legacy should be that of a philosopher or cultural theorist more than anything else, with his softcore intellectual musings and hardcore commerce, fame, and glory. I’ve written here before: “the silkscreens are for beginners: the real crux of Warhol’s position as a maker of the twentieth century is in the way he created new ideas about art, advertising, and celebrity. Warhol’s philosophy is shorthand for modern American reasoning.” I can’t think of any other monument like this in the U.S. which is dedicated to a great artist, and it seems fitting that Warhol has been made into the type of sculptural monument more traditionally dedicated to philosophers, statesmen, scholars, and other forces of the social landscape.
These words, written by John Ruskin in Modern Painters in 1843, make for a succinct meditation on art and experience. Although Ruskin was urging young British artists to paint in nature and to paint honestly (while championing the work of JMW Turner), I’ve been thinking about this idea in a larger way. I believe that Ruskin’s words can effectively be applied to experiencing art—especially contemporary art, a sphere which is unfortunately prone to rejection and selection. A stirring description of a most fulfilling approach to our visual world.
In the wake of the recession and steep governmental budget cuts, many states are cutting arts funding. Both Michigan and Texas are looking to zero out arts budgets, but Kansas may be the first state which has succeeded. On February 7, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback killed the Kansas Arts Commission. Before the cuts, the Commission funded music, theater and art education for groups all across the state. Now Kansas is one of few in the nation without a state organization promoting the arts. The KAC had a decidedly modest budget of $600,000 and received support from the NEA. Listeners to Studio 360 may have heard Kansas State Senator Roger Reitz (R) discuss the issue with Kurt Andersen. If you missed the heart-wrenching conversation, you can listen to it here.
So why should it matter to Americans in the other 49 states if Kansas loses a few arts programs? Can we imagine a country without a cultural heritage? What exactly is under threat as the government encroaches on the personal liberties inherent in art making? Just as we passionately defend more abused rights, like our ability to carry a gun and our freedom of speech, so too must we vehemently speak out against the persecution of the arts and the liberties they provide. In 1945, Henry Miller wrote “There’s no real life for an artist in America.” Sadly, Mr. Miller might be right.
At the celebrations of the MoMA’s 25th anniversary, President Eisenhower spoke of the arts the bastion of freedom and democracy: “As long as artists are at liberty to feel with high personal intensity, as long as our artists are free to create with sincerity and conviction, there will be a healthy controversy and progress in art….How different it is in tyranny, when artists are made the slaves and tools of the state; when artists become chief propagandists of a cause, progress is arrested and creation and genius are destroyed.” Eisenhower wisely viewed arts as the “pillar of liberty” that they are.
In the wake of the censorship of the Hide/Seek exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, these cuts sting even more. The government has no place in the arts, and as conservative leadership cuts, censors, and radicalizes this “pillar of liberty,” nothing may be safe. Politicians have no right to shape cultural products by discarding questionable content or by cutting supportive budgets.
When viewed through the lens of current cuts to state budgets, our American future looks bleak. We are looking at the promise of a nation with a weak educational foundation, a negligible system for cultural support, and the demise of the arts across the entire country. It is not difficult to fathom a near-Apocalyptic desecration of any remaining institutions and programs within our lifetime.
This crisis is by no means solely domestic. The UK has been fighting a similar battle, mostly through the group Save The Arts. In September, Scottish artist David Shrigley made a provocative, accessible, and humorous film illustrating exactly why we all should care about arts funding. Watch it here.
FRED Talks: “The Invention of Children’s Clothing,” January 9, 2011
In January I had the pleasure of giving a lecture on the invention of children’s clothing at FRED Talks, a series of presentations based on the TED model which is run out of the cooperative at 3B Brooklyn.
Through the course of my talk, I discussed the invention of childhood and the impact of Enlightenment thinkers on children’s clothing using the paintings of 18th century artists like Lawrence, Gainsborough, Hogarth, and Reynolds as illustrative points. You can watch it on YouTube here.
Textile arts are rarely associated with the stillness, quietude, and self-conscious theatricality of minimalism and post-modernism. Often the phrase “textile arts” erroneously encourages on to conjure visions of patchwork, crazy quilts, and large swaths of bright weavings. One of the great successes of the Textile Art Center is its persistent expansion of our understanding of textile art’s limitations and vulnerabilities through its diverse exhibitions program.
MoMA PS1 is also contributing to the reframing of textile arts in a contemporary context with its current exhibition of the paintings of Berlin-based artist Sergej Jensen. The term “paintings” here is used loosely and echoes the words of artist Ghada Amer (in a presentation recently featured on the TAC blog). Created from a diverse selection of found textiles, Jensen’s works on view include both pieces produced over the past eight years, as well as a number of new works created on site in a studio in PS1. His large canvasses echo the staunch minimalism of Callum Innes and Barnett Newman, and Jensen is remarkable in his ability to replicate the themes of classic abstraction in traditionally maximalist materials like silks, cashmere, diamond dust, and wool.
Jensen’s “paintings” invite the viewer to evaluate the traces of the artist’s mark on the fabric. Silks are pulled and stretched, wools are painted in oils, silk is powdered with diamond dust. Bleach, dye, and stitching are as important as color, shape, and balance. The intentional is lost in the accidental, a natural by-product of working with soft materials which are pulled, stressed, prodded, and manipulated. Jensen is able to physically shape images with the unique attributes found only in textiles and textile arts, balancing the forms of fabric with the classic shapes of modern art.
This exhibition is deceptively pictorial, the works challenging both as paintings and as pieces of textile art. Can painting and textile be so seamlessly combined? Is it possible to display both artistic expressions without one medium being lost or overtaken by the other? Jensen is masterful in the way he elegantly blurs these boundaries with a weighed consideration for his materials and their relationships.
A perfect example of Jensen’s talent for the balance between textile and painting isBlessed, a succinct and surprisingly poetic meditation on fabric and art history. The “painting” is simple in its composition: two pieces of sheer grey cashmere wool (one in a lighter shade, one in a darker shade) are sewn together, cutting the canvas in half horizontally. The resulting artwork looks like a horizon line—the endless expanse conjures references to traditional seascapes, Mark Rothko, and the Western landscape canon.
United Nations is another work which sums up the possibilities for merging the two-dimensionality of painting with the multi-dimensionality of textiles and crafts. The piece features a rainbow-striped, machine-knit afghan stretched and sewn on a linen ground. By framing a piece of machine-made textile as a work of art, Jensen encourages the viewer to consider the divide between high and low art and the gulf between textiles and “fine arts.” Jensen is consistent in his experimentation and thoughtful pursuit of found textile as a meaningful medium. His works are challenging, intelligent, and humorous statements about the imposed and negligible chasms between art media. Highly recommended.
Sergej Jensen is organized by the Aspen Art Museum. The exhibition is curated by Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson and organized at MoMA PS1 by Peter Eleey, Curator of MoMA PS1.
“Historically, Buddhist art has reflected the concepts of the Buddhist canon. What is interesting is the manner in which artists today internalize these concepts to create new art forms.”—Martin Brauen
Some of the most moving and memorable works of contemporary art are those which are least tangible. I’ve found works like Paul Chan’s digital projections and James Terrell’sMeeting installation at PS1 to be stirring works, despite their lack of physicality. The notions of emptiness and impermanence can be framed as aesthetic strengths, given appropriate insight and clarity.
Grain of Emptiness, an exhibition currently on view at the Rubin Museum of Art, celebrates the voids and intangibility found in contemporary art. Featuring the work of five artists influenced by Buddhist ritual practice, the exhibition explores ideas of transience and voids in a range of media, from video and photography to painting and installation. The artists Sanford Biggers, Theaster Gates, Atta Kim, Wolfgang Laib, and Charmion von Wiegand all poetically incorporate essential ideas of Eastern religious beliefs into their practice.
“These artists are inheritors of a rich tradition that threads throughout modern and contemporary art,” says Martin Brauen, organizer of Grain of Emptiness and Chief Curator at the Rubin Museum of Art. “The ideas of emptiness and impermanence, embraced by the Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s, have since been taken up by such cultural icons as John Cage and Merce Cunningham, as well as by conceptual and performance artists and others who have sought to explore in art how the insights of Buddhism intersect with everyday life.” Works on view include a video work by Theaster Gates and several paintings by Charmion von Wiegand, a student of Piet Mondrian. Von Wiegand’s orderly and infinite flat shapes of color mirror religious forms in circles, triangles, and rainbow diamonds. Sanford Biggers’Lotus dominates the center of the gallery space—a seven-foot wide glass circle, etched with what appears to be a lotus blossom. Upon closer inspection, the blossom becomes a collection of African slave ships, detailed with the cross-section illustration of each ship’s cargo: bodies lined head-to-foot-to-head in the petals of the ersatz flower. Atta Kim’s lovely photographs of infinite layers of stillness and beauty in ice, faces, and urban centers act as meditations on emptiness and shared human identities.
But the greatest works, the most arresting meditations on nothingness, change and changelessness, and the possibilities of intangibility are those by the German artist Wolfgang Laib. Laib’s quiet installations, made of natural materials like milk, stone, pollen, beeswax, and rice, perfectly embody the possibilities of this exhibition and the curator’s intent. The best pieces in the exhibition are Laib’s Rice Meals (2003) and Milkstone (1998–2000). Both are poems written in quiet media, testaments to interconnectedness, humanness, and the nature of the natural world.
Laib’s Rice Meals is composed of a line of offering bowls, each filled with a small gift of rice. Each bowl contains an identical offering, all except for one. The odd bowl is filled with hazelnut pollen, bright gold in color, infinite and endless. The endlessness of the pollen is not only contained in its quantity, but also in the idea of the endless number of plants which could be gifted from the offering on view. Milkstone, one of Laib’s most famous works, is a solid piece of white marble with a small dip carved into the top of the stone. This small indentation is filled daily with fresh milk, creating what appears to be a solid surface. To get close to the stone, even at eye level, crouching on your knees, you can’t see where the stone begins and where the milk ends. Laib has created a way to make physical endlessness in natural materials.
Grains of Emptiness is an intelligent, beautiful, and meditative celebration of the too-often overlooked possibilities for contemporary art to be quiet, poetic, humble, meditative, and human. This exhibition is a moving antithesis to much of the chaos often associated with contemporary art in New York. Highly recommended.
“Grain of Emptiness: Buddhism-Inspired Contemporary Art” continues through April 11 at the Rubin Museum of Art, 150 West 17th Street, Chelsea; (212) 620-5000, rmanyc.org.
Esther Pearl Watson is a gifted painter, illustrator, and comics artist. Her lovely and naïve paintings of life in a small Texas town are poetic and layered in meaning. But, to most of her fans, Watson is better known for her illustration and comics than she is for her sweet and imaginative paintings.
Once every couple months, I go to the newsstand to ecstatically paw at the new issue of BUST magazine, fresh on the shelves. The first thing I turn to, like clockwork, is Watson’s brilliant comic strip Unlovable—always on the back page. Unlovable, for the uninitiated, is a raw, smart, insanely funny piece of comic genius. The strip illustrates scenes from the life of a pre-teen girl in the mid-1980s named Tammy Pierce. Based on a diary that Watson found in a gas station bathroom, Unlovable expresses the purest, most cringe-worthy aspects of girlhood, social pressure, and the strange culture of a challenging decade.
Executed in wildly loose pen and ink, Watson’s comics are primitive with a style that recalls the school-day doodles of a 14-year old girl. Written in diary format, it’s fitting that the drawings look at home next to passages about crushes on teenage boys, getting stood up at the prom, eating pizza, and shopping at the mall. But Unlovable’s simplicity is deceiving: beneath the quirky and grotesque illustrations lurk the very real anxieties of young womanhood, humiliation, and American teenage vitriol.
Tammy is a fully-formed character. She is persistently unaware, idealistic, superficial, and sympathetic. Her concerns, while completely self-involved, are timeless and sincere. Her vivid, pathetic life is dominated by mascara, acne, leg warmers, and heartbreak. She is routinely teased, her best friend is always looking to borrow a dollar, she receives endless prank phone calls, and she has to bribe boys to hang out with her by buying them burgers and pizzas. Tammy’s life is uncomfortable, and more challenging than she realizes. But Watson’s incredible ability to produce a sympathetic character from grotesque illustrations is a testament to her talent.
Unlovable’s brilliance is its honesty. Watson does not gloss over difficult memories and situations, but confronts them directly, with a faux-naïve pen. Her drawings are scratchy, rotten high-caricatures, brutal and inspired.
Japan has experienced countless revolutions in its material culture since the opening of Japan to the West by Commodore Matthew C. Perry in 1853. Before Perry visited the nation on behalf of the Fillmore administration, Japan was pure, isolated, and left to its own devices in terms of aesthetic development. In 1854, the Treaty of Kanagawa confirmed the opening of Japan to the West and marked an irreversible change in Japan’s development of style, industry, and values.
Since Commodore Perry’s visit, Japan has persisted through tumultuous shifts—from the fall of the emperor to the post-war economic miracle. These shifts have resulted in an aesthetic culture which is inventive, bold, and voraciously hungry for the next and the new. This appetite for invention was perfectly captured in the moment of the Japanese “fashion revolution” of the 1980s: a decade which dramatically shaped international fashion. For the first time, Japanese fashion was lauded around the world for its brilliance as a modern object—not as an element of Japonisme or Oriental fascination. The eighties were a time in which Japanese clothing was judged for the first time primarily by its stylistic, not cultural, factors. The 1980s saw the rise of influential and radical Japanese designers like Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, and Rei Kawakubo. Their legacy has also paved the way for the evolution of Japanese fashion now. The country still breeds innovative designers whose works are inimitable and brilliant. Japan is an undeniable voice in concepts
of contemporary dress, and Tokyo is far above the simple concept of a fashion capital. Japan Fashion Now, the current exhibition at the Museum at FIT, is the first exhibition to explore the full output of Japanese creativity from the 1980s boom to today. Two large galleries explore the roots of modern Japanese sartorial invention: an introductory gallery is dedicated to the 1980s revolution, including asymmetrical, architectural pieces by Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo as well as radical styles by Issey Miyake. The first gallery also displays more traditional-minded, “Oriental” pieces by Kenzo and pop-culture jumpsuits by Kansai Yamamoto.
The second, larger gallery features a dramatic series of designed environments which individually frame the trends which have dominated Japanese fashion in more recent years. Primary themes include ideas of construction/deconstruction, the influence of anime and J-pop, punk, and the cult of super-Kawaii cuteness. Popular themes of Japanese street fashion are also present here, and the represented designers include Junya Watanabe, Tao Kurihara, and Jun Takahashi.
Japan Fashion Now is also mindful of the contribution of Japanese designers to the field of menswear. A large portion of the exhibition is dedicated to displaying the work of a number of Tokyo’s top current menswear designers, including Arashi Yanagawa of John Lawrence Sullivan, Daisuke Obana of N.Hoolywood, Koji Udo of Factotum, Yasuhiro Mihara of Miharayasuhiro, Takeshi Osumi of Phenomenon, and Yosuke Aizawa of White Mountaineering. The display of menswear is particularly symbolic of Japan’s balance on the cutting edge of design and its fanatical attention to detail and tailoring.
A large number of the looks on display are those found in street and sub-cultural styles. Different named and referenced styles include the Kamikaze suits worn by bike gangs to the looks of “Forest Girls” who dress like modern urban pixies. Lolita and Gothic Lolita looks also get their own display, represented by brands like Angelic Pretty and Baby, the Stars Shine Bright. These girly, innocent baby doll dresses are deceptively bold, inventive, and even radical when viewed through the lens of Japan’s cultural history. Lolita fashion is clearly marked by its Victorian influence—what does it mean when a nation is stylistically married to the period in which they were ripped from their isolationist stance?
The recurring theme of the exhibition is Japanese fashion’s domestic significance and global reach. In no other country are so many people aware not only of fashion, but also of the avante-garde, of the deconstructed, and the perfection of utility. Now, more than ever, people are fascinated with Japanese cultural output, its exploding subcultures, its radical appetites for the new.
Now on view through April 2, 2011, Japan Fashion Now surveys the past 30 years of Japanese fashion with a comprehensive and breathtaking light.
Last week, MoMA presented the premier of Sharon Lockhart’s new film Double Tide (2009), a piece of endurance cinema meditating on labor, pace, and time. The 99-minute film, composed slowly of two long takes, is an intentional and contemplative portrait of a woman digging clams in Maine ocean mudflats. The film was made during a period in which a low tide occurs twice in daylight hours—once at dusk and once at dawn, and each half of the film focuses solely on the act of quiet clam digging at each of these times of day. Lockhart’s film is beautiful in its quiet and meditative depiction of backbreaking work. The sublime landscape contradicts the difficult labor of the clam digger who endlessly bends down and explores the mud with tired hands.
Double Tide also exists as a double-screen gallery installation, much like Lockhart’s previous effort Lunch Break (2008), a film which explored shipyard workers at their resting hour. Lockhart repeatedly returns to the rituals of labor and the way work framed by time. In Double Tide time is physically marked—both by the rising or setting sun, as well as by the physical marks made upon the mudflat by the clam digger as she searches for her catch.
The film opens with an uncomfortable spread of vast grayness. The empty expanse fades into mist and fog, and the landscape seems unpopulated, cold, even scary at first. The sea, sky, and land are all gray and white, though they come to be colored by the rising sun. Soon, a woman walks into the frame, bringing with her a clamming basket and the sole source of the film’s action. Throughout the next hour and a half, we watch the woman walk in circles across the mud, slowly edging toward the water’s edge and into the background. As soon as she’s nearly indecipherable from the edge of the sea and sky, she slowly begins to return to the foreground, lugging a heavy basket of catch behind her. The second half of the film is colored in reverse: instead of the sun rising and eliminating the gray mist, we watch the gorgeous warm colors of dusk become swallowed by dark night.
Double Tide is an endurance test: there is no character development, no story, music, or plot. All we see is physical labor colored by the changing light of day. The soundtrack is composed solely of the sound of hands clipping in and out of dense mud. If you are satiated by natural beauty and meditative acts of cinema, this is a monumental experience. But if you are coming to this film for escapism, look away: in unmitigated silence and still life, it’s impossible to not drift away from the purest state of observation.
At the mention of Harry Houdini, one clearly envisions images of magic, impossibility, and sheer captivation. Even members of the millennial generation are prone to feeling remarkably moved, shocked, and inspired by archival films of Houdini’s performances. His legacy shows no sign of fading, and his great escapes have inspired countless tributes, impersonations, books, and films. Houdini’s life and work also provide rich source material for the work of a number of contemporary artists.
Houdini: Art and Magic, a new exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York, is the first exhibition in a major art institution to explore his impact on visual culture and contemporary art. Interspersed between a water torture tank, handcuff displays, broadsides and archival films are twenty-six works by artists like Matthew Barney, Vik Muniz, Allen Ruppersberg, and Ray Pettibon. The surprising number of artworks represented in the exhibition range from literal paintings of Houdini’s feats to conceptual performance pieces based on his icon status.
Some of the works draw from a closer reading of the magician’s legacy, like Matthew Barney’s 1997 The Erich Weiss Suite, a closed glass room containing live pigeons fluttering around an elegiac coffin. Another Barney work, the 1999 film Cremaster 2, is also included in the exhibition. In the short excerpt on display, Norman Mailer respectfully plays Houdini with masterful grace and purpose. Vik Muniz’s portrait Houdini, Pantheon, from his Pictures of Ink series, is mysterious, shapeless, and hard to define—much like the magician himself. Houdini appeals to Muniz who similarly pushes himself and his work in aggressive and inventive ways. Muniz says, “If you think of Houdini as a man of art, you have to think of him as a man of science. As most artists in the past, he is always working at the edge of technological development. He knew the latest thing that was invented in technology. That’s why I think when you see interesting magic today you have to think about films, imagination. That is the continuation of Houdini’s legacy.”
Pettibon’s drawings seem to most fittingly relate to the sketchiness and difficulty of defining Houdini’s work and legacy. His works, like Houdini’s, are invested in creating illusions, whether it’s the act of creating a wave from a cascade of straight pen lines or trying to define the riotous sound of Black Flag through the traditionally-demure medium of drawing. More than the other artists in the exhibition, Pettibon’s Houdini-inspired work is a free interpretation. He is able to view Houdini through a conceptual lens, and is skilled in his avoidance of literal references to great escapes. A Pettibon drawing from 1991 of an intense countenance reads: “With each fading breath he (Houdini) vomited up another skeleton key. You see his memory fading upon the page. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. What you hoard you soon spit out.”
Houdini’s legacy, with its still-unsolved mysteries and lasting magic, might translate best to the realm of conceptual and performance art. Many times throughout the exhibition, a parallel is drawn between Houdini’s act and the act of contemporary conceptual performance. This correlation is emphasized by the inclusion of works by Allen Ruppersberg, the great Californian conceptualist who often refers to Houdini and his legacy. Works in the exhibition include Houdini Again, a piece composed of five overdue library notices for books on or by Houdini (only one is included in the exhibition). By checking out each book and keeping or destroying it, Ruppersberg was able to both make something “magically disappear” while also maintaining paper records of the disappearances from the library system.
Although the visual art component of the exhibition is a bit jarring and literal, a few of these works deserve worthy reconsideration in this context. The artworks in Houdini: Art and Magic are unfairly treated like footnotes, and it’s a shame—for many of these artists, the pronounced comparison with Houdini’s documented life and work shines an edifying light on their own process and intentions.
Tom Davie’s typographic posters are rare in their beauty and thoughtful consideration of type. For those of us who appreciate aesthetics and the meaning of content and form, his work is a rare gem.
Davie is an artist, graphic designer and design educator whose work can be found at studiotwentysix2. As someone who works more on the editorial side of the arts, I find his posters to be both beautiful and smart.
His series of typographic posters includes explorations of such ideas as white space (seen here), decorative borders, and ligatures. The more sculptural works are photographed in gorgeous natural light.
Some artists mine great works from the world as it is. Others are able to reach through blackness, stars, and the typology of all creatures to show an imagined world. These imagined places have been built throughout the history of art, from the painted moral playgrounds of Hieronymus Bosch to the physical cells of Louise Bourgeois.
Brooklyn artist Fred Tomaselli creates worlds, though his are distinguished by their sense of humor, inventiveness, and sheer dimensionality. Best known for his large-scale mixed-media collages coated in epoxy, Tomaselli mainly draws from the themes of psychedelia, drugs, nature, and the body. Viewing his subjects in fragments, he painstakingly crafts imagery from thousands of small magazine clippings, pills, leaves, roots, and dots of paint. He builds each work, layer by layer, until the finished product is an endless number of layers —paint, collage, and epoxy all interspersed—and then polished with turtle wax (like a surfboard).
The Brooklyn Museum is currently exhibiting a mid-career survey of Tomasalli’s work—a fitting venue for the Williamsburg-based artist. The exhibition, titled simply Fred Tomaselli, is chronological, sharp, and extremely focused. The exhibition begins with works made in the early 1990s and winds through the next twenty years to works created specifically for the exhibition this year. The first work in the exhibition, All the Bands I Can Remember Seeing and All the Extinct Vertebrates in North America Since 1492, is a brilliant and minimalist expression of personal autobiography and environmental negligence. The work looks like the night sky—black paper dotted with stars made in white pencil. On one side of the page, the stars are labeled with the names of hundreds of punk and rock bands from the 1980s and 90s. The other side of the page has the same stars, labeled with the names of extinct animals.Tomaselli’s drawing is funny and sad—like Shrigley at his best. It’s hedonism made physical: “Look at all the great nights I had while these animals were on the endangered species list.”
Fred Tomaselli is remarkable for its clear chronology. It’s exciting to see Tomaselli’s work develop piece by piece, bridging the years between Black and White All Over (an example of Op Art minimalism from 1993) and collages made on front pages of the New York Times within the past year. Black and White All Over is a deceptively smart work. The large panel contains white pills in varying sizes, snaking up into vertical stripes in the hallucinatory manner of a Bridget Riley painting. Tomaselli plays with both the idea of psychedelic perception found in Op Art with the physical psychedelic perception which would be experienced if you were able to consumed the hallucinatory drugs encased in the work.
Many of Tomaselli’s panels are hypnotic and hallucinatory in the same way—and many also contain psychedelic drugs visible beneath layers of epoxy. He forges patterns from the same drugs which, if ingested, would probably leave a person seeing patterns. He toys with perspective, reality, and morality, all within the usually safe medium of collage.
Tomaselli challenges reality—the reality of worlds and the physicality of art. His “paintings” are nearly impossible to photograph, as layers within each work reach forward to the viewer from an infinitely endless place. It’s hard to tell where pieces of collage relate to each other between countless layers of resin, paint, plants, and pills. The images are most interesting when viewed from the two extreme perspectives of up close and far away.
The very best example of the endlessness of Tomaselli’s work in the exhibition is probablyEcho, Wow, and Flutter, an expansive, 10-foot work from 2000. The endless, layered curves are inspired by the geometrical concept of the catenary (the idealized curve made by a line suspended between two points and hanging by its own weight). Lines of lips, birds, paint, marijuana leaves, and pills are strung like long strings of pearls, intersecting and crossing in dizzying lines. Each catenary is mirrored in the opposite side of the work, and the effect is pure visual psychdelia. It’s lush and endless, both in the lines of the collage and the infinite layers of material and resin.
Although Tomaselli is best known and respected for these immense, endless collages, his small works on paper are, for some, the highlight of this retrospective. His small collages and mixed-media works were the most interesting works in terms of his skill for detail and his eye for wit and dark humor. In small collages like Greater Pewee, Tomaselli combines the nature found in field guides with the ersatz nature found in outdoor clothing catalogues. He will cut out the body of a bird from a birdwatching page, leaving only the silhouette behind. Then, he inserts a close-up image of a fleece camping jacket behind the silhouette, giving the bird the effect of having bright colorful feathers when viewed from far away. But, when viewed close-up, the collages reveal their biting humor in their mild-mannered attack of the buying and selling of the great outdoors.
The most recent works in the exhibition are also small works on paper. In the past year, Tomaselli has been scanning the front pages of the New York Times and printing the images on archival paper. He sees absurdity in the images of war, politicians, and disgraced financiers, and he manipulates those visions with watercolor and gouache. An apocalyptic scene of industrial chimneys is made even more jarring by the addition of geometric rainbows, and a scene of a financial ponzi schemer leaving his hearing with his wife is turned into the flight into Egypt. Tomaselli challenges current events by framing them in dizziness, hallucination, and manipulation.
Tomaselli’s work is worthy of this mid-career survey. He sees worlds and invents new ones, worlds which can only be seen through endless layers of everything. His work is spectacular in its revision of reality, and his imagination is a rare and refreshing dream in its own right. Fred Tomaselli8 October 2010 – 2 January 2011The Brooklyn Museum
Humor is sometimes overlooked as a significant aspect of contemporary art. But because art is so often visceral, it isn’t a surprise that wit is just as evident as violence and depravity in new artworks. Many artists today are using humor inventively, pushing the boundaries of both acceptability and standard practice. Some good examples of humorist/artists include Maurizio Cattelan, whose most recent work, L.O.V.E., is a 36-foot-tall sculpture of a hand with only a middle finger which is directed towards the Milan Stock Exchange, and Fred Tomaselli, whose brilliant small-scale collages of birds combine a love of the true typological interpretation of nature found in field guides with the ersatz promise of nature found in Eddie Bauer and Lands End catalogs.
When the subject of humor in art comes up, Scottish artist David Shrigley is often a keystone in the conversation. His iconic drawings are subtle, sometimes unsettling, and look deceptively simple. Like the best graphic novelists or most talented journalists, he is able to capture an entire sentiment or philosophy with a few brushstrokes. In his current solo show at Anton Kern Gallery, Shrigley displays his drawings, sculptures, and a black-and-white animation entitled “The Letter.” All of the works straddle the line between comic deception and boldfaced lies, and the viewer is pushed to intermittently feel uneasy, critical, depressed, and lighthearted.
Shrigley is fascinated by simple problems of morality. For example, in the video, “The Letter,” a hand slowly writes a note across the screen excusing a little boy from going to school. Although it is signed by the child’s mother at the conclusion, it is never revealed whether the note was actually written by the mother or by the child himself. Shrigley often frames questions of truth in this poignantly simple way, encouraging his viewers to question the perspective and consequences of his poorly-drawn characters’ actions.
The thirty drawings displayed in the exhibition contain many examples of Shrigley’s succinct wit and unique ability to see complex humor in simple forms. Whether he’s describing an olive green rectangle as a 19th –century workhouse or showing a man being squashed literally underfoot, Shrigley is able to condense vast ideas of language, history, and common fears into a few drawn lines. Shrigley deftly combines the wit and comically dark truths of Larry David with the nihilistic zing of a dedicated philosopher in black.
A series of sculptures accompany the drawings and video, although they are not as provocative as those shown in his previous Anton Kern show. Strewn throughout the gallery are giant ceramic gumboots, a sad white ribcage, and a series of small bronze drips and fingers pointing from the walls. The sculptures are more sad than humorous, and their weight manages to make them far more nihilistic, though less memorable, than his drawings.
While I was walking through the exhibition, an Italian woman approached me. She asked me in a thick accent, “Is this art? Why is this art?” And I explained that perhaps the show might be difficult for those who speak English as a second language, as Shrigley plays on words and common turns of phrase. She insisted “No, no. My English is good. I understand. I just don’t know why this is art.” After I explained that he’s a humorist, that he sees darkness and comedy in a few lines or a smudge of paint, she seemed content with my answer and walked away. Five minutes later, she was laughing and tugging on the sleeve of my jacket. “I get it” she exclaimed with glee. She proceeded to show me a series of drawings of boots, colors, hills, houses, and tombstones. She had finally been able to look beyond the surface of Shrigley’s work to find the brilliant, depraved wit that hides beneath.
ANTON KERN GALLERY IS LOCATED AT 532 WEST 20 STREET, NEW YORK. David Shrigley Untitled, 2010 Bronze 1 x 1 3/4 x 2 1/4 inches Courtesy Anton Kern Gallery
Art and commerce react to society in tandem. Both facets of visual culture transform as cultural touchstones flex and shift. While art persistently desires to provoke and comment on culture, some elements of consumerism take the opposite tack: they stoke the engines of what we buy, sell, and desire—they form the basis of the culture which is so widely challenged by fine arts.
Contemporary corporate and capitalist priorities persistently pervade millennial visual culture. With each passing year, the general desire to wear logos, buy brand names, and adhere to trends and their makers spreads farther and deeper within developed and developing countries. With this growing awareness of brands, logos, and markets, it is not surprising that art, once the standard means for cultural criticism, has been absorbed by the raging tide of the buying set.
Warhol shocked the art world with Brillo boxes and Campbell soup cans, and the ensuing Noachian deluge of Pop art forced down the barriers between art and commerce, blurring the lines between advertising and criticism of advertising. While art “finds its fulfillment just outside explanation” (James P. Werner), commerce finds its completion in the simplest forms of marketing and visual imagery.
Essentially, the modi operandi of art and commerce should be at odds. Yet somehow, more and more often, one becomes the other. Art is commerce in the eyes of Louis Vuitton collaborations with Richard Prince, Takashi Murakami, and Stephen Sprouse. Art is commerce when framed by Manolo Blahnik boots made in cooperation with Damien Hirst. And what is the meaning of BMW art cars? Since 1975, artists like Alexander Calder, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella and Jeff Koons have designed symbiotic vehicles which straddle the worlds of fine art and that of an international motor works.
The 1960s saw the invention and proliferation of Pop, the 1970s saw an increasing display of logos and brand names, and the 2000s have been a messy and disappointing mix of both inclinations. Logos have “changed the substance” of clothing and accessories (Naomi Klein), and artists have changes the substance of logos. While brands have come to symbolize the retention of identity for some, they mark the end of the individual for others. Where does art fit in this spectrum?
These questions bring me to the work of emerging artist and established costume designer Jason Alper, whose show PROLETARIAN DRIFT AND THE ENFRACHISEMENT OF THE BURGEOISIEIN THE 21st CENTURY has just opened at Guy Hepner in West Hollywood. The exhibition includes eight works in which Alper foists contemporary consumer visual cues onto classic and well-loved paintings from the Western canon. The Mona Lisa wears the classic brown and tan Louis Vuitton printed logo fabric, while Magritte’s Son of Man wears the popular updated version in white. “I feel Louis Vuitton’s logo…emerged as an art form in itself,” Alper says.
While Alper intends his works to be irreverent and humorous, in actuality, they seem like probable truths. Corporate sponsorship of museums is already an important element in arts funding—are we so far off from draping Gainsborough’s Blue Boy in Burberry check? Alper’s wry examination of high art and mass culture provokes an exploration of the symptoms of contemporary consumerism and its ills. His paintings, though a touch contrived, are effective studies of authorship, commerce, inauthenticity, and the high-risk dangers of art mixed with marketing.
Throughout 2010, the Museum of Modern Art in New York is presenting a comprehensive survey of films by Frederick Wiseman. Celebrating the recent acquisition of many new prints of Wiseman films, the MoMA is screening a few films each month until the end of the year. So far, many well-known and controversial Wiseman films screened at the MoMA have included Basic Training (1971), Primate (1974), and Racetrack (1985). This month, the museum is playing The Store (1983), Wiseman’s first color film.
Superficially, The Storeseems like a departure from Wiseman’s earlier, heavy-hitting subjects like public housing, army basic training, and cruel animal testing. But the expected frivolity of Wiseman’s subject soon gives in to his preternatural ability to capture and display the weaknesses of human character in all its manifestations. With uncomprable talent, Wiseman is able to equate the Dallas Neiman-Marcus department store with the prisons, hospitals, and army barracks of the films which framed his career early on.
Through Wiseman’s scrutinizing lens, we are able to see the power structure of the store and the regimental approach to controlling all levels of the workforce, from the shampoo girls to the fashion buyers and the board of executives.Wiseman’s close and considered study of the store’s employees and management focuses a lens towards the instability of a consumer culture and the inequity of the serving and the served. A particularly strong theme is that of the role of personal shoppers and the wealthy women to whom they cater. Many scenes focus on these shoppers who select incredibly expensive garments which will be worn by someone else. Desires are persistently transferred and unfulfilled in this service culture.
The Store is a thorough exploration of the perversities of consumerism: shop girls are forced to practice smiling before the shop opens; the store model (a woman who appears in nearly every other scene, each time wearing a different couture outfit) approaches each of the tables in the shop café, announcing her dress is available for purchase on the third floor; and the manager of the furs gallery calls a man to tell him the sad news that his wife is just too petite to properly carry off a full-length sable coat.The kindness of the shop girls and the lovely employees is often met with condescension from the wealthy shoppers, and the contradictory manifestations of class are apparent throughout the film.
Like many great Wiseman documentaries, authority creates an imbalance of power and the good don’t go unpunished.Wiseman is a national treasure, and his films should be the measuring rod for American life. He poetically portrays the greatest flaws of American culture without ever standing in front of the camera or saying a word. His films quietly and humanely captures the full range of American lives in a way which never loses potency or a sense of urgency, even decades after their creation. And because Wiseman never makes his presence known and refuses to influence the action on screen, he is trustworthy—a Wiseman film should be accepted as a definitive and poetic truth.
(Frederick Wiseman at MoMA continues until December 31, 2010. For a full list of screenings, please visit MoMA.org)
While recently reading some art magazines from the 1930s, I came across the work of Alexander Deineka, a wonderful Soviet painter whose works I hadn’t seen before.
There’s something incredibly seductive about Deineka’s paintings from the 1930s— although he later became synonymous with propaganda works celebrating proletariat workers and the Red Army, his earlier works also portray quiet scenes of youth and family.
The most striking element of Deineka’s work is the light. So often paintings of Soviet life are shrouded in grey mists, or we imagine only black and red propaganda posters and Cyrillic agitation. To see these brightly illuminated, almost glowing scenes is captivating— especially within the context of their creation. Some paintings feature near-impressionist sprays of light and water, others include the soft morning light of life before the dew dries. I was incredibly moved when I saw these paintings in the black and white pages of the old magazines, and to see them in color only makes them lovelier.
To fully appreciate and succumb to Rivane Neuenschwander’s art, the viewer must say “yes.” Neuenschwander’s works, ethereal, intelligent, and quiet, all thrive in an environment of acceptance and gratitude. In the contemporary art world where money trumps mindfulness, the Brazilian conceptualist’s work is refreshing and humane. In Neuenschwander’s first museum survey, “Rivane Neuenschwander: A Day Like Any Other”currently on view at the New Museum in New York, those who say “yes” to her art are rewarded with a moving and unforgettable experience.
Neuenschwander’s closest predecessors can probably be found in the work of her fellow Brazilian conceptualists and the artists who propelled Tropicalia to the forefront of South American cultural exports in the twentieth century. Like Lygia Clark who came before her, Neuenschwander embraces the organic, the small, the interactive and the experiential. The most visible work in the survey, arguably the centerpiece, is titled I Wish Your Wish. Visitors are welcomed into a white gallery space, separated from the lobby by a glass wall. The room is filled with thousands of ribbons in every color, each printed with a different wish written by previous visitors to the installation in its past stages. To fully participate, visitors are asked to write their wish on a slip of paper and put it in place of the ribbon they choose to take. The work is based on a tradition from the Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim in Bahia, Brazil, where worshipers tie ribbons to their wrists. When the ribbons eventually fall off, their wishes are granted (though a Portuguese friend of mine says that the wish won’t come true until the ribbon is tossed into the sea).
Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of I Wish Your Wish is the collective aspect of sharing our deepest desires. It’s almost an exercise in cooperative dreaming: you select a wish which was not originally yours, but you wear it, look at it daily, and experience the words around your wrist when you write a note or open a door. Eventually, after spending so much time with someone else’s desires, the wish becomes your own. When I visited the exhibition, I found a ribbon with a wish probably written by a child: “I wish I had a turtle and that there were no wars.” I exchanged a far more personal wish written on a slip of paper when I pulled the red ribbon from the wall. But after a few hours, and then a few days, I began wanting a turtle: one for me and one for the child who wrote the wish in the first place. And while I was wearing someone’s wish in a very public manner, adorned on my body, my wish had traveled elsewhere, through Neuenschwander’s art, where it will probably end up on a wall in another exhibition in months to come. In this current climate of desperation of frustration brought on by current affairs and the sagging economy, an exercise in shared dreaming is a welcome respite.
Another memorable and poetic work is First Love (2005). In an upstairs gallery, a forensic artist sits with visitors and listens to them describe their first true love. There is something incongruous about conjuring visions of love with the assistance of an FBI identification book, but the result is breathtaking. The final sketches which hang above the sketch artist’s desk are incredibly personal and sincere proclamations of memory and romance. The loveliest thing of all is that the sketches all resemble people who are about sixteen years old. The only aging factor is hairstyles pictured in each portrait, perfectly dating the era in which the visitor fell in love.
Neuenschwander has the rare ability to push her quiet and transcendent humanistic art across all media. The New Museum survey also includes two films, The Fall (2009) and The Tenant (2010). The Fall is a fast-paced point of view video of an egg being swiftly carried on a spoon. The suspense is palpable: will the egg drop? The video brings viewers’ hearts up through their throats, making us empathize with the perilous situation. The Tenant manipulates suspense in a similar fashion: a camera follows a soap bubble as it floats in and out of the rooms of a spacious, bare apartment. Again, Neuenschwander has beautifully aggrandized the simple act of watching a small, delicate object and praying for it not to break. A Day Like Any Other is a beautiful and touching display of interactive poetry.
Neuenschwander’s art is rare and special in its slow pace and quiet execution, and this survey is a welcome antithesis to most contemporary art of the millennial recession.
“Rivane Neuenschwander: A Day Like Any Other” continues through Sept. 19 at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, at Prince Street, Lower East Side; (212) 219-1222, newmuseum.org.
“Goldbatt’s way was always to go deeper, to find an oblique angle that went right to the heart of the matter: an image bespeaking loneliness, stunted aspiration, fragile pride on both sides of the racial divide, not infrequently with an intimation of imminent violence, or its result.”- Joseph Lelyveld, the New York Review of Books
David Goldblatt is one of South Africa’s most highly recognized photographers and his work is a valued South African cultural export. Growing up before the rumbles of apartheid, Goldblatt felt compelled to document and witness the social upheaval and civic organization that was implemented through the course of his young adulthood. As a Jew, Goldblatt didn’t fit into the clear divide of black and white—he was still something different or “less than.” His Jewish identity, though not viewed as intrinsic to his work when viewed in the world press, is essentially allied with his approach to photography. The Anti-Semitism that he often was subjected to made him sensitive to the humiliation and degradation suffered by other groups in South Africa’s human landscape.
South African Photographs: David Goldblatt, the current Goldblatt retrospective at the Jewish Museum in New York, surveys Goldblatt’s brilliant, nuanced, and sympathetic career behind the lens. His photographs do not rely on common imagery of riots, violence, or segregated public space. Instead, they focus on the microcosms of community and the small instances in which everything collides or tension is made visible. He has a marked talent for finding the signal of a struggle in a portrait of daily life.
In this exhibition of 150 black and white photographs, each image is annotated in precise and illuminating detail in the artist’s captions. Like Diane Arbus, Goldblatt has the rare ability to tell a life story through the combined means of an image and a few words. Recurring themes in his work include the lives of Afrikaners; daily rituals and the community of Boksburg, a small white community in Johannesburg; the makeshift puppet states or Bantustans in which many black South Africans were forced to live; the lives of black miners; and the physical landscape of Johannesburg.
The most interesting photographs are those in which both segments of the population come together in surprising ways. One of the more memorable photographs is titled The farmer’s son with his nursemaid, on the farm in Heimweeberg, near Nietverdiend in the Marico Bushveld. Transvaal (North-West Province), 1964. In the photograph, a young Afrikaner boy stands behind his sitting nursemaid, a black teenage girl. He touches her intimately, his fingers lingering on the gap between her sleeveless shirt and her bare shoulders. And the gesture is so casual—the two are clearly physically very close. But although their relationship is appropriate and accepted, it is clear that as he grows older, they will inevitably be torn apart. It just wouldn’t be appropriate for them to be together if he was not a child.
Another memorable image is Holdup in Hillbrow (Johannesburg, 1963). A young blonde boy has snuck up behind a black man in a suit. The boy is playfully aiming a toy pistol at the man’s back. The gesture is loaded and provocative: although at age four or five the boy is only playing, the game hints at the potential for a more violent end. If the boy were only a bit older, this would not be a game: this would be the terrifying violence of apartheid.
The photo Before the fight: amateur boxing at the Town Hall. 1979/80 is also a poignant one. A terrified little boy is standing still in the corner of a boxing ring. He is wearing boxing gloves, but he is perfectly still—overpowered by fear. He is given the tools to fight and expected to rage, and perhaps this is analogous to the situation of many white children who lived in apartheid South Africa—they were given the gloves and expected to fight, despite the fact that they were merely children.
Through Goldblatt’s lens, we are invitedto look at the realities of South Africa in a non-judgmental way. He does not form his viewers opinions, he does not proselytize. For Goldblatt, it is just as important to share the truths of his home country as it is to explore the life and values of its citizens. In images of crumbling black states, middle-class white social clubs, and everything in between, he is able to dissect the gestures which cohesively form one of the most complex modern countries in the world.
South African Photographs: David Goldblatt is on view at the Jewish Museum through September 19, 2010. The Jewish Museum, 1109 5th Ave at 92nd St, New York NY 10128. http://www.thejewishmuseum.org/
You are young. You are making new art. You are drunk with energy. You are probably an emerging artist in New York City.
"Greater New York," the current survey of emerging New York artists at P.S. 1, both praises and questions the status of new work being made in our nation’s art capital. Unfortunately, the dizzying showcase is more invested in shock and revulsion than it is in showcasing some of the beautiful and challenging works being made by young New York artists today.
Despite Brooklyn’s status as a world capital in the return of craftsmanship, and the returning popularity of contemporary art being made in the realms of drawing and painting, “Greater New York” focuses single-mindedly on black humor, pretension, and a disregard for execution. All four levels of the former schoolhouse in Long Island City, Queens, are full of artists who are clearly products of the newly-matriculated millennial generation. Their self-esteem is through the roof: how else could you explain an entire room full of brightly-colored masking tape or a wall covered in painted sticks?
Of the 68 artists featured in this survey, a few are monumental disappointments and a few are quiet, intelligent surprises— the rest are largely forgettable. Of the works which made the proceedings seem like a mockery, a few stand out. There is Sharon Haye’s room full of projections of gay-rights rallies. Of course gender and sexual rights are a necessary theme in contemporary art, but by representing New York art now, P.S. 1 should be showcasing something we have not seen and which must be brought to our attention. The fact of the matter is that the relatively simple task of showing gay rights rallies is not art— it’s a current event. In 2010, it is not so different from screening a video of a Critical Mass bike ride or an urban farmer’s market. There’s also Elisabeth Subrin’s silent 16mm “elegy” for lost Italian Williamsburg, Brooklyn. To the untrained eye, it’s just a quiet video of storefronts with old-fashioned signs in the windows. But, as someone who used to live in the neighborhood— well, she just walked a camera down Graham Avenue. Without context, the film is meaningless. And from the incredible number of visitors to P.S. 1 who haven’t lived off Graham Avenue, what can be garnered from a silent video of coffee shops and bus stops?
There were a few artists who stood out, however, as being more indicative of the praiseworthy trends emerging in young New York art now. Leidy Churchman is one of very few painters in the show (a negligent oversight on the part of curator Klaus Biesenbach). Fortunately, Churchman’s sweetly and forgiveably perverted paintings are a refreshing collection. As one of two figurative painters in the exhibition, he holds up his end of the bargain in acting as a representative for much of the work which was alarmingly left out. Hank Willis Thomas’ “Unbranded” is also smart, succinct, and effective. Thomas collected advertisements from black interest magazines like Jet, Essence, and Ebony, starting from 1968 to today. For each of the years (beginning in ‘68, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated), Thomas features two advertisements from that year. These images have been wiped clean of any brand images or text, leaving behind only the pure image which was used to sell an idea or emotion to an entire segment of the population. Like Ellen Gallagher, Thomas is able to tell an incredible story by forcibly removing black culture from its original context and wisely re-framing it.
Overall, “Greater New York” is prone to leaving art-lovers worse for wear. As someone who lives in this city and loves the arts in this city, it is dismaying to see so many incredible aspects of art-making today be forgotten. These works largely pay little or no regard to the specific times we are living in and the constraints of the economy, the war, and the increasing loss of individualism. Those works which I see elsewhere which do so eloquently and beautifully celebrate our times with honesty and bravery have, unfortunately, not made the cut.
'Greater New York 2010' P.S.1 22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City 718-784-2084 Through October 18
Living in an exceedingly inorganic world has pushed contemporary art towards the sphere of natural materials. In pursuit of the new, and in pursuit of the not seen, some artists now turn towards anti-technological methods and materials. Using natural substances, like hair, bones, fur, and feathers, more and more contemporary artists assert their visions of the new.
"Dead or Alive" at the Museum of Arts and Design is a smart and provocative survey of artists who work with materials found in the organic world. Viewed in the context of the technological capabilities displayed in much contemporary art (like Takashi Murakami’s robot-nymphs and Jeff Koons’ slick recent paintings), "Dead or Alive" is a refreshing return to pure objects and decoration, executed with the requisite intelligence of any contemporary work.
The exhibition is smart, playful, and occasionally grotesque. Inspired by the idea of curios and wunderkammers, “Dead or Alive” showcases mouse skeletons, butterflies, horsehair, and silkworm cocoons in the same spirit of curiosity and wonder.
Some works were exceptionally challenging, beautiful, or horrifying. One standout work in particular was Untitled (+/-) by Alistair Mackie. Two concrete platforms are placed parallel on the gallery floor, one supporting a loom, the other carrying a pile of small bones. It looks as though the loom has been stopped in the middle of weaving, and cashmere-looking fabric wraps around the spool underneath. Upon reading the wall text, the visitor learns that Mackie spent a year collecting barn owl pellets, removing the mouse fur and bones from within. He used the loom to make a fabric from the found fur, and the pile of bones correlates to the size of the woven fabric. Mackie’s medium is his message, and this work perfectly exemplified the potential for the use of such unconventional natural materials in contemporary art.
Another memorable work was Tim Hawkinson’s Point. At first glance, the sculpture resembles an arrowhead carved from white marble. But upon closer inspection, the viewer realizes that the piece is actually constructed from hundreds of egg shell pieces, turned inside out and glued together. The contrast between the object (a durable weapon), and the medium (delicate shells), is smart and beautiful.
Susie MacMurray’s cave of rooster feathers is hypnotic and dizzying, and Damien Hirst’s butterflies behind glass are surprisingly lovely (a trait not often to be expected from theenfant terrible YBA). Kate McGwire’s shaped, twisting waterfall of pigeon feathers provokes a kind of breathless, still appreciation. Keith Bentley’s Cauda Equina is an eerie form of Victorian mourning— a widow’s cape knotted from thousands of horse hairs collected from processing plants and displayed in the shape of the horse we may mourn.
The exhibition is marked by a number of acts of obsessive collecting, a given considering the materials are often feathers, small bones, insects, or spices. Such obsessiveness, though pervasive throughout, is best exemplified by the works of Lonneke Gordijn and Jochem Hendricks. For her contribution, Gordijn made a beautiful system of LED lights covered in dried dandelion seeds. The dandelion seeds were meticulously collected, dried, and then glued around the small LED bulbs in the shape they would take in their natural state— poised and ready to be blown on and to grant your wishes. Hendricks’ two pieces in the show, titled Hansi and Bubi, both collect the feathers of dead parakeets. The feathers are displayed in rings surrounding a small diamond— a diamond formed from the compressed carbon of the carcasses of each dead bird.
With a pervasive attention to detail, and an obsessive relationship with their medium, the works in “Dead or Alive” all arouse curiosity or awe. It’s an incredibly vibrant show, despite the number of pieces which were once (but are no longer) alive.
The Museum of Modern Art is currently screening its thirty-first annual showcase of contemporary German cinema. Under the banner “Kino! 2010,” the series highlights new German films at their first New York screenings, fresh from the Hof and Berlin film festivals. Included in the survey of new German feature films is a series of shorts from German film schools. A dozen films were selected for the “Next Generation 2009” screening, representing the best and brightest of young German cinematic talent.
Amoklove, by Julia C. Kaiser from the Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg, is a fast love story, a rush of feeling without pause. It tells the story of Fabian and Marie, who meet on a subway. They chase each other without reason, they eat and drink their way through Stuttgart. Nothing makes sense and it all happens so quickly— like love in real life. The shots become shorter and more punctuated as they fall more deeply in love, losing their reason and composure. The audience might lose its breath in the dizzying pace, their hearts beating as if they, too, are in love. See the Amoklove website here.
Another smart and memorable film from the Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg is Clean Up by Sebastian Mez. The film is a quiet and forthright documentary showing the cleaning process at the death chamber at an American prison. And though the viewer is not made a witness to the execution, the phone conversation between the warden and the executioner is played as the custodian cleans, bringing the difficult task of cleaning the room into the context of the event. I Don’t Feel Like Dancing, by Evi Goldbrunner and Joachim Dollhopf, takes place somewhere in a war zone. Three soliders of ambiguous nationality stalk a young girl on her way home from an ersatz disco on the base. When they turn their violence and war on her, they are shocked and weakened by what they find. Keine besonderen Vorkommnisse (No Special Incidents), by Lennart Ruff, is a short film about two German soliders stationed in a mine field in present-day Kosovo. Kosovo, the film explains, was the first German military deployment since WWII— and troops are still there on patrol. In addition to communication problems and boredom, the soldiers in Ruff’s film also struggle constantly with the physical remainders of war. They are unsure if there are any mines left, or if they really have anything to fear or protect. Lebensader, by Angela Steffen, is undoubtedly a standout in the Next Generation screening, and it was the one film everybody left the theater gushing about. In this animated short, a little girl discovers all sides of the universe in a leaf. The animation is fluid, intelligent, and gorgeous. The story itself, too, is beautiful. Steffen’s artwork is inspiring, and it will be exciting to wait and see what she does next.
Rosarot, by Ines Christine Geisser and Kirsten Carina Geisser, is a one-minute animation which so perfectly describes the joys and confusions of love. rosarot. from kiinanimation on Vimeo.Lastly, Sunrise Dacapo by Nina Poppe is an absolute standout. Another documentary short, Poppe silently shows the operations in a nature assembly line. The film shows geraniums in mass production, women planting seedlings by the dozens, machinery picking up pots and placing them on conveyor belts. Men pick off dead leaves and hand the pots back to the machines. Click- a sprinkler switches on. Sunlight is moderated. The boxes are slapped with plastic labels. This is the bounty of nature built by machines. The Next Generation films provide a diverse and egalitarian view into the world of today’s young German filmmakers. Perhaps these same directors will soon be snatching up the awards for Best Foreign Film— but for now, its enough to be causing discussion and heartache here in New York.
It’s springtime. Flowers are blooming, birds are singing, and even the Brooklyn-Queens expressway seems to hum with refreshed energy. Indoors, away from the sunshine and reverie, Maira Kalman’s work brings springtime to bookshelves and computer screens, even in the dead of winter.
An established force in design and illustration, Maira Kalman so perfectly evokes the joy and humor that best suits the season. I’ve been looking back at her work with a much deeper consideration in recent weeks, finding that when someone’s work often greets you on the cover of the New Yorker, its easy to forget its artistic merit. Kalman’s work in design, photography, and nearly performative illustration all seems effortless. Her brilliant use of color and type is overshadowed by her spirit and whimsy. Her illustrations evoke the rainbow-hued vistas of Hockney’s Hollywood Hills and recent Yorkshire landscapes, and her portraits evoke Alice Neel at her brightest and most telling.
Kalman was born in Tel Aviv and raised in Riverdale, New York. She taught herself art and illustration, forming an idiosyncratic style free of rules or limitations. Her lack of training perhaps also led to her freedom to move between media: her illustrated version of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is just as popular as the umbrellas and watches she designed with her husband, Tibor Kalman, for the MoMA. Her New Yorker covers are bright, intelligent, and inviting, and her series of columns for the New York Times (The Principles of Uncertainty and The Pursuit of Happiness) have invited praise from all over the world. There are fabric designs, clothes for Isaac Mizrahi, opera set pieces…Kalman approaches every medium with color, intelligence, and humor.
Like Saul Steinberg, Kalman treads the fine line between art and illustration, her sense of humor only serving to complicate matters further. Some would argue that hers is not high art and would not warrant display in museums. Others would say that her painterly images, her intelligent use of photography and text, and her general aptitude for expression would put her on the same pedestal as the greatest American artists.
Perhaps Kalman’s path to canonization as an artist will follow that of Alexander Calder. Calder was first associated with humorous newspaper columns, too, only to be viewed now as a major figure in the development of modern American art. Kalman would also qualify for such a rise in the ranks, and I look forward to betting on her odds.
Will Chatroulette have an impact on our culture? Since its creation three months ago by a 17-year old boy in Moscow, the simple video chat program has become a source of fascination for millions. The program is basic and spare: upon logging onto the Chatroulette website, a visitor is greeted by two boxes, one labeled “Stranger,” the other labeled “You.” By clicking the “New Game” button, you are immediately connected via webcam to a random stranger anywhere in the world. Though some predict the technology is well on its way to becoming a mere graveyard for pornographic behavior, I would like to believe that perhaps it may play a part in the growing collaborative spirit of contemporary artists.
When viewed in light of Nicolas Bourriaud’s “altermodernism,” Chatroulette displays the potential for new kinds of art making and global creative communication. Clearly visible is “the new modernity that (is) based on translation: What matters today is to translate the cultural values of cultural groups and to connect them to the world network.” (Bourriaud) Though I firmly hold belief in Chatroulette’s potential, I haven’t seen it lead to any new work so far— that is, until I saw the composite images of French photographer Pierre- Arnaud Gillet.
His series “Next” explores the interiors of the random strangers who briefly let him into their homes via the internet. He writes:"Next" is my latest project, based on the amazing world of Chatroulette. Chatroulette is a very diverse world where the worst alongside the best. A microcosm of our society through the small window of our webcams, there are all due to its random mode. Unlike the practices of social networks today, you never know who or what you’re gonna fall. We manage all our image. Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Skype, our virtual image is everywhere, and multiple and we try to control it better.Because these people “gave” their self image to strangers at the other end of the world, I wondered how they would react to a goal when they are already at a goal. One of their own webcam. Camera at the screen, I press “Next”, click, I take a picture. Fingers, threats and smiles. Some hide in shame, others enjoy the game and play, laugh in his lungs had been caught in the trap. By comparing these responses, creating meetings by associations of images, I create a link between partners who have not met. I tell new stories, probable or improbable. Visually, the frame of each camera, its texture, the choice of framing the “partner” brings an incredible set of images of our world in 2010. Sex, fame, love, talent. Tout est sur Chatroulette. Everything is on Chatroulette.Via Muuuz. Read more about Pierre-Arnaud Gillet at his website.
Last night I visited the preview of the Bonhams European Paintings sale with a group of Courtauld alumnae/i. Occupying the former space of the Dahesh Museum of Art in the IBM Building, the new Bonhams space is ideally suited for the incredible collection of works currently on display.
The sale, which takes place April 21st, is full of surprising, strange, and beautiful pictures. Standout works include a stunning drawing of a male nude from the school of Rubens, a female portrait from the circle of William Dobson, and a turn of the century sledding scene by the Scottish painter George Houston.
But, between the hundreds of pictures hung in an academic style on the Bonhams walls, only one work made everyone skip a breath. The picture, titled “On the edge of the marsh,” was painted by William Page Atkinson Wells in 1917. I had never heard his name before, and the specialist did not elaborate on his biography. The painting is so modern, so quiet and curious, that I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
A woman, all alone, stands in a marsh. The sky is infinite around her, consuming all visible space between the reeds and beyond. The horizon line hovers near the bottom of the frame, sacrificing all unnecessary land for sky. Whereas in most contemporaneous pictures everything is pattern, character, story, decoration, and allegory, here it is quiet. She is not afraid and she is not alone. She is reflected in the surface of the water on the marsh, and her reflection is her only company. The way the sky and earth are so clearly and geometrically divided evokes the clear geometries and considerations of Mark Rothko, while the figure and her psychology remind the viewer of Andrew Wyeth. It’s Christina’s Worldfound in the Seagram’s murals. All this from a quiet picture, painted nearly a hundred years ago.
The European Paintings sale takes place tomorrow, April 21st at 1:00 p.m. Bonhams is in the IBM Building at 580 Madison Avenue.
In recent years, the Whitney Biennial has come to be associated with shallow, grandiose, and grotesque gestures. Every other year, the Marcel Breuer-designed modernist building on Madison Avenue fills itself with works which beg the question, “But is it art?” Cynicism routinely holds court with barbarism, often provoking visitors to wonder if the curatorial staff are not having a laugh at the expense of the art world and its followers. Even Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine writes “By now it’s clear that there is no such thing as a “good biennial.”
Recent Biennials have given us such works as Urs Fischer’s violent holes in concrete walls; Gedi Sibony’s sculpture composed of industrial carpet, plastic bags, and plywood; and musician Momus skulking in the elevator with a bullhorn. These works, though sometimes provocative when framed by context, were more often alienating and inhumane. The Biennial has long been an experiment in marketing the brazenly new, without regard for the more humanist aspects of art-making.
The 2010 Whitney Biennial, simply titled “2010,” is a completely different beast. Where one would expect to find filth, perversion, and black humor, this year’s offering is quiet and dignified. In contrast to its often maniacal scale, this year’s showing is intimate and small, evoking a more thoughtful feeling about the selection and curation of works. With fifty-five artists, the exhibition is half its usual size.
Guest curator Francesco Bonami and Whitney curator Gary Carrion-Murayari designed a more humanist, figurative, and feminist Biennial than ever seen in recent years. Since the last Biennial, the global economy has collapsed, and in light of the recession, our lives have slowed down to include more cooking and growing and thinking. In the age of the contemporary depression and environmental crisis, we have all been forced to be more considerate of our resources, our humanity, and even our artistic output. Modern life has been shifted into a gear of thoughtfulness and intentionality. The attitude, subject, and process of past Whitney Biennial artists would be patently at odds with our current pace and thinking. At its smaller scale and slower pace, “2010” reflects how art and artists have been affected by the general crisis of supermodernity, environmentalism, and the failed economy.
Just off the second-floor elevators are two mural-sized photographs by James Casebere. Like the photographs of three-dimensional models by Thomas Demand (who he influenced), Casebere constructs large environmental scenes on tabletops, which he then dramatically photographs. But unlike Demand’s work, which shows grim places like cubicles, staircases, and airport security, Casebere’s images portray a sweet (and surreal) suburban neighborhood. Modeled on the utopic homes found in Dutchess County, the images are lit to echo dawn and dusk. The homes look idyllic, quiet, and peaceful—a stark contrast to the usual Biennial cacophony and chaos. The little houses, made of paper and cardboard, seem so fragile—like they are waiting to be destroyed. The total absence of people in the homes and on the streets would make someone in 2010 wonder if there had not been a natural disaster (earthquake, hurricane, Icelandic volcano) or a man-made disaster (foreclosure).
A much-discussed work in this year’s showing is “Detroit,” a short video by Ari Marcopoulos. Shot in the city while Marcopoulos was visiting friends, “Detroit” shows two young boys experimenting with amplifiers and pedals as they collaborate on making noise. The boys, aged 11 and 14, kneel and rattle in a yellow bedroom, tackling an immense board of foot pedals. Incredible screeching, buzzing, and beeping erupts in a nefarious style—until the boys look up and you see the rapturous looks of joy on their faces. Despite the aural assault, it’s hard to disdain the boys for their passion.
Personal and provocative photography also has its place in “2010.” Two photographers particularly demonstrate a mindful and sensitive approach to politics as seen through the lives of those directly affected by unrest. Stephanie Sinclair’s photographs of women in an Afghan burn hospital portray those who, without any other options, lit themselves on fire in response to the abuse they suffer at the hands of their husbands. The women bravely share the most intimate moments from an incredibly difficult and physically painful time in their lives. There is no shyness, no awkward relationship between the camera and the sight of singed flesh being cooled by damp linen cloths.
Nina Berman’s work also successfully brings a photojournalistic approach to the artistic context of the Biennial. Her series Marine Wedding, previously seen in the world news as a piece on soldiers coming home, is shown here as art. The photographs show the daily life and recovery of Ty Ziegel, a marine who was horribly disfigured in Iraq. He came home to his small town in Illinois following a year and a half in hospital, following his second tour of duty. Berman follows Ty as he gets stared at by children, manages daily tasks without the use of an arm, and gets his dressings changed by his mother. He also marries his high school sweetheart, Renee, who looks on with a profound degree of acceptance which makes her seem so much older than her eighteen years. Though one may expect such images to be executed in an exploitative manner, Berman’s photos are sensitive and matter-of-fact. Ty clearly accepts his new life, Berman accepts him, and the viewer has no choice but to appreciate such honesty on the part of the subject and the artist.
Other works which stand out are the delicate works on paper: Charles Ray’s flower paintings and Storm Tharp’s portraits in particular. Rays flowers are seldom shown, despite their fragility and intentional, bright bursts of color. Tharp, an emerging artist from Portland, Oregon, makes intelligent and ephemeral portraits, seemingly sculpted from a foundation of ink and water. His portraits are evenly figurative and abstract, and so fragile that the characters seem to be on the brink of breaking off the page.
Aurel Schmidt’s detailed drawings provoke breathless wonder, and Dawn Clements’ full panorama is an incredibly detailed execution of space in pen on paper. Other highlights include Robert Williams’ surreal comic watercolors, and the Bruce High Quality Foundation’s video installation “We Love America and America Loves Us.”
Of course, there are less lovely and breathless things in “2010”—it would be unrealistic to expect non-Biennial behavior from the Biennial, after all. But if we focus solely on the successes of the exhibition, the great leaps and bounds of beauty and goodness that for so long had been absent from the concrete building on Madison Avenue, then there is clearly a great deal here. People will always approach the Biennial with too-high expectations. This is only natural for an exhibition which aims to show the best of the now and the current highlights of contemporary work. But if we focus on this goodness—the perfect paper houses, the boys making music in their bedrooms, the giant painted flowers—well, it says something wonderfully good about America and its creativity. Despite our current circumstances, we are still able to invent joy, beauty, and honesty.
I’m Lauren Palmor, writer of The Art Object, in conversation with Jordan Rothlein, NY DJ and music journalist. Coming from an art history background, I enjoy discussing artists and exhibitions with people in other fields. These conversations often bring up new ideas, parallel practices, and general questions which may not present themselves when art historians speak solely amongst themselves. I wanted to speak to Jordan about the Otto Dix retrospective currently on view here at the Neue Galerie in New York, both in terms of its installation and its musical undertones.
The Art Object: Jordan, what is your familiarity with Dix’s work?
Jordan Rothlein: Hey Lauren! Thanks so much for having me on The Art Object. My main internet gig is writing about electronic music, so this is an exciting change of pace. I honestly knew very little about Dix before walking into the Neue Galerie. One or two of his paintings looked familiar, and I’ve heard about him from you before, but his work was pretty much all new to me.
TAO: Before viewing the Dix retrospective, what types of images would you have imagined seeing if confronted by Weimar-era German painting?
JR: I came in with a pretty blank slate. My exposure to Weimar-era culture was more or less confined to avant garde movements like Dada, Expressionism, and Surrealism, mostly by way of a film course I took in college. I guess I knew something about the state of art in Weimar Germany, but I didn’t have a preconception about what would be represented. I could have guessed that the physical and psychological aftermath of trench warfare would be present, but I was actually a bit surprised at how Dix dealt with a lot of this by way of city life and the debauchery that entailed.
TAO: You bring up Dix’s images of trench warfare, represented in the Neue Galerie exhibition by his “War” series—fifty prints showing all subjects related to the inhumanity of World War I. I found that the exhibition design perfectly transitioned visitors to Dix’s haunting and vicious world. For the sake of readers who are not able to visit the exhibition, could you please speak to Frederico de Vera’s exhibition design and the feeling you had upon entering the show and viewing Dix’s war prints?
JR: The exhibition begins with the war prints, which have been placed in a small side gallery downstairs from the rest of Dix’s work. The museum installed a strange, asymmetrical, charcoal wall (with a small reproduction of Dix’s signature) in front of the gallery that effectively sucks you into the exhibit. This gallery feels markedly different from the rest of the museum. The lighting is noticeably darker than it is in the surrounding, which certainly adds to the mood of the “War” series (perhaps to the detriment of actually viewing the art). His paintings and drawings upstairs aren’t as acutely brutal as the drawings in this series. But seeing them first, aside from whatever chronological sense the ordering makes, really brings out the shadow this violence cast over Dix’s worldview on display in his later work.
TAO: One element of the exhibition which was not explained in the media or the show itself is its use of scent and sound. The room of war prints had the soft scent of wet earth and the quiet chirping of crickets, bringing elements of the outdoor trenches to the indoor galleries. Upstairs, one room featured cabaret music and the scent of Guerlain perfume. Was your experience in viewing Dix’s work influenced by these subtle touches?
JR: Unfortunately, I think some of these well-intentioned environmental effects were lost on me. Perhaps they were supposed to fly under the radar? I found Dix’s art visceral enough that I didn’t need too much prodding to get into the mood. I caught the music upstairs but missed the smell. And the crickets downstairs might have been drowned out by the tail-end of a docent tour.
TAO: I’d especially like to hear if you could recall any specific prints in the 1924 suite of “Der Krieg” (“The War”) etchings. Throughout the cycle of fifty prints, many of the images are exceptionally graphic, violent, or depraved. The images were sourced from Dix’s personal experience as a machine gunner in the trenches of WWI. Was the artist’s personal relationship to his subject palatable in this series? How does it read as an introduction to both the exhibition as well as his later works?
JR: There are images in the series that Dix obviously wanted seared into his viewers’ minds — lumps of messy entrails, soldiers with half of their faces blown off, one particularly macabre sketch of a rotting skull with a tuft of hair still attached. But two subtler prints really stuck with me. One was of a group of soldiers wearing gas masks, and the other depicted a line of soldiers crawling through the trenches carrying something — pails? extra helmets? — in their mouths. Both prints showed more or less able-bodied humans ceasing to act and appear like humans. In the latter print, especially, Dix gives the soldiers an animalistic quality: their expressions resemble those of ravenous dogs. These were obviously deeply personal works. Dix’s emotions about the war and its dehumanizing effects seem almost unmitigated by careful thought. I get the distinct sense he didn’t want there to be a remove between the experience and its representation. I really felt the artist as the more jagged his lines would become, like it was a sign of him editorializing. I saw a lot of that in his more refined work from after the war.
TAO: As a DJ and musician, and coming from a musical background, do you see sounds in Dix’s work? Do you find any elements of his style to be particularly musical?
JR: Some of his paintings, like one of a topless pregnant woman with her head turned away from the viewer, are eerily, disturbingly quiet. But there’s a quality to much of Dix’s work that reminds me of distortion, as if he fed too much signal onto the canvas and “blew out” his perspective, so to speak. His use of painted texture reminded me of how a guitarist or maybe a noise artist might use aural texture. I’m thinking specifically about his depictions of prostitutes here: their flesh feels almost overdriven. Dix doesn’t always make pretty art, but it’s visceral and arresting. I’ve described a lot of my favorite records the same way.
TAO: Lastly, as a DJ, could you recommend a few tracks which might complement a viewing of Otto Dix’s work?
JR: The record that immediately springs to mind is the newest 12” by Oni Ayhun, an experimental and quasi-anonymous techno artist rumored to be the Knife’s Olof Dreijer. The untitled A-side denies itself every conceivable melodic touch, opting instead for bouncing, unidentifiable percussion and jarring, bomb-like bursts of noise. There’s a lot of feeling on this record, but not much warmth/fuzziness. This one pairs best with “Der Krieg.”
TAO: Thank you, Jordan! I’ll try and get a copy of that Oni Ayhun before going to see the Dix exhibition again (as it definitely warrants a second visit).
In the wake of World War I, Germany was a playground of excess, viciousness, and sin. The war wounded mixed with prostitutes, and cabaret girls were household names. Red lips kissed scarred faces, and the music played loud and carelessly. Anything worthwhile happened at night, and artists were on hand to document any seediness, desperation, and violence which showed its face.
Otto Dix (1891-1969) was one of the greatest painters of the twentieth-century, and one of the premier documentarians of Germany’s Weimar period (1918-1933). Along with George Grosz, Dix left behind the greatest visual sourcebook for the depths of humanity struggling to find its identity between the wars.
Though many of Dix’s works are iconic, and held in collections around the world, the artist has never before benefited from a retrospective in North America—until now. “Otto Dix” at the Neue Galerie in New York is the first large solo show of Dix’s work, making his inventive and aggressive prints, drawings, and paintings seem entirely fresh.
The exhibition opens in a small, dark room. Exhibition designer Frederico de Vera designed the space, as well as its scents and sounds: the room has the perfume of wet earth, and crickets softly chirp. Though the scents and sounds can be lost in a crowd, they subtly bring the viewers into the trenches of WWI- where Dix was himself a machine gunner and found inspiration in industrial warfare. The whole room is dedicated to a suite of fifty etchings from 1924 titled “Der Krieg (“The War”). In these prints, Dix graphically describes the brutality and primitiveness of life on the front lines. Faces have been decimated, bones and flesh collide with violent anxiety. Grimness pervades and, viewed as a whole, the series only points to the depravity and grotesque images to come.
In addition to the room of prints, the exhibition showcases many portraits—perhaps the work Dix is best known for. As a founding member of the Neue Sachlichkeit, or so-called New Objectivity with George Grosz, Dix was fascinated with man’s weaknesses and the anxieties of a country about to be stomped by fascism. His characters, both the virtuous and the despicable, are all seen as grotesque through Dix’s Weimar lens. Their skin is pallid, their eyes narrowed or yellowed, with cadaverous faces and hands. In Dix’s work, all of Germany resembles a cast of walking ghosts or human monsters.
Even innocent children can’t escape the artistic vitriol of Dix’s brush. In “Two Children,” a boy and a girl stand in the street. They look at the viewer through the distorted and innocent faces most associated with the portraits of Alice Neel, combined with the studious and typological approach of August Sander.
Dix even subjects himself to a similarly difficult treatment, sometimes exaggerating his seriousness and resolve in his self-portraits. His classic Aryan features, his squinting eyes, high cheekbones, and slicked-back “American” hairstyle seem like only a different version of the grotesqueness he applies to all his subjects, equalizing him with the prostitutes, sailors, war-wounded, and unemployed men he was most often drawn towards.
Unfortunately, most of Dix’s most recognizable works are markedly absent: there’s the pronounced space where his portrait of Sylvia von Harden ought to be. Perhaps this is due to the Neue Galerie’s status as a smaller institution, a fact which most likely complicates securing major international loans. So although this may be the first major retrospective of Dix’s work in North America, I’m not prepared to accept it as the last.
“Otto Dix” continues through Aug. 30 at the Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue, at 86th Street; (212) 628-6200, neuegalerie.org.
Had the modernist visions of Robert Moses and Le Corbusier been fully realized, the urban residential environment might be drastically different today. Instead, many past utopian visions for post-modern apartment life have not fulfilled their initial vision. The incredible cages of towering blocks found in most large cities have led to violence, crime, and acts of aggression in their inhabitants. Mid-century Socialist housing experiments are generally regarded today as dismal failures.
Za Zelazna Brama is one of the largest Socialist housing experiments built in the center of Warsaw, Poland. Constructed between 1965 and 1972, Za Zelazna Brama was based on intensely rational and geometric principles. The entire housing project consists of nineteen apartment blocks, each towering sixteen floors above cramped outdoor plazas, all intended to house about 25,000 people. The blocks contain countless sub-standard apartments, with space originally intended to be allotted on a basis of eleven square meters per person. A husband and wife would be given a modest 22 square meters, while a family with three children would have some more space with a workable 55 square meters.
The complex was once considered a potent symbol of Polish progress and the greatness of Socialist successes, but today Za Zelzana Brama has a different meaning. The blocks now look grey and tired, they even seem isolated, despite being located in the geographical center of the city. Filmmaker Heidrun Holzfeind has made a beautiful and simple film documenting daily life in these blocks as they stand today. Her documentary feature “Behind the Iron Gate” recently premiered at the MoMA in New York. The film contrasts conversations with the tenants with images of their particular individual responses to their modernist apartments and limited space. Given the same limitations of space, how do different people maintain individualized lifestyles or homes?
Za Żelazną Bramą was built on the ruins of “the Small Ghetto,” an area which used to be a center of Jewish life before WWII. The first cycle of inhabitants came from diverse backgrounds: they were famous radio hosts, writers, doctors, laborers. All tenants lived in similarly-styled apartments on identical blocks. The housing estate was at first considered a success—a declarative symbol of Poland’s Socialist identity and as a beacon of technological innovation. But today, the cramped apartments with their windowless kitchens are viewed as substandard, unpleasant, dull, or even dehumanizing.
Holzfeind’s film is kind and patient. She takes great care in interviewing a representative cross-section of tenants: there is a yuppie couple who spent a great deal of money renovating their apartment to update it for the 2000s; there are the Vietnamese girls who are wary of their racist neighbors; there’s the elderly retired couple who fill their small apartment with antique arms and armor in “the Polish style.” Of today’s 25,000 inhabitants, many are new to Poland: there are Vietnamese schoolgirls, Israeli émigrés, and other Westerners who have been buying up apartments as an investment, making the project a kind of Warsaw Manhattan.
Holzfeind easily portrays how these cramped, outdated living conditions have different meanings for everyone who lives on the estate. The tenants and shopkeepers talk about the buildings in terms of functionality. The old man who sits at the security desk talks about the attitudes of people who go in and out. The woman selling candy at the kiosk in the lobby reminisces about the television star who used to live in the building. Some occupants talk about racism and the “problem” of the growing Vietnamese and Jewish population in the estate, others complain about noise, filth, the lack of green space. Holzfeind’s conversations are honest, paired well with gritty, unglamorous footage of daily life in the Za Żelazną Bramą blocks. “Behind the Iron Gate” is a particularly smart and respectful documentary, one which showcases the inherent struggle between man and urbanism.
Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Harold Koda, Okwui Enwezor, and Shaquille O’Neal. Finally, we can breath a collective sigh of relief and add the 7’1” Cleveland Cavalier to the list of the world’s great curators. Joking aside, it is true that Shaq has successfully curated his first exhibition of contemporary art— a move which seems only natural for a man who has been named Rookie of the Year, released four rap albums, acted in films, earned his MBA, and works in real estate development for fun. It almost seems as if he had done everything else apart from curating an exhibition in a gallery space.
"Size DOES Matter" is the aptly-named show, which opened at the FLAG Art Foundation in Chelsea in February. After being approached by FLAG founder Glenn Fuhrman and director Stephanie Roach, Shaq selected 66 works out of 200 which were shown to him over dinner after a Cavaliers game. The resulting show is centered on the idea of scale in contemporary art, a relevant topic for a someone who wears a men’s size 23 shoe.
In an interview with Linda Yablonsky in New York Magazine, Shaq reveals his art background. He says, "I used to go (to museums) a lot with my kids. Donald Trump is a great friend, and he has four or five Picassos on his plane. And that’s where I would look at them. One time, I was at a museum and tried touching a Picasso. You break it, you buy it, they said. I was told it would cost $2 million. (I’ve never tried painting) but I’ve met a lot of artists who wanted to paint me. LeRoy Neiman was one. He did it from a photograph. He made 20,000 copies, and we sold them all. Now I’m working with the greatest artist in the world, Peter Max."
It’s hard to tell, then, exactly how much “curating” Shaq did for the show— especially reading that he chose the works from a selection which was presented to him over dinner. In a way, the FLAG Art Foundation did the true curation: they chose the works, they chose Shaq. The curious people who attended the opening, like my friends and I, were expecting a much greater gesture of the basketball star’s creativity. The vision of the show, however, was filtered through that of the greater organization.
Many of the artists in “Size DOES Matter” are international stars with big names: Chuck Close, Jeff Koons, Ron Mueck, Maurizio Cattelan. Real blue chip boys and girls. The redeeming quality of the show was its diversity. It is thrilling to walk through Robert Therrien’s oversized dining room set in No Title (Table and Six Chairs) and then stop by Maurizio Cattelan’s untitled miniature elevators. Ron Mueck’s monstrous Big Man is installed downstairs from Delia Brown’s tiny Eyes No. 3 and No. 4, two pairs of tiny kitten eyes painted on 1” x 3” blocks.
The works in the show are generally humorous or inventive, though the general, arching theme is weak. Scale and its manipulation is not a strong enough link between the works to form a cohesive exhibition, and FLAG relies too heavily on the starlit name of Shaquille O’Neal. “Size DOES Matter” makes for a fun night out, if little more.
Size DOES Matter is on view at the FLAG Art Foundation through May 27, 2010.
Pablo Bronstein manipulates history’s elasticity and human forgetfulness in his imaginiative and architectural works. The London-based artist addresses the history and potential futures of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in his current solo show “Pablo Bronstein at the Met,” his first in New York. Composed of large ink drawings, small etchings, and precise hypothetical architectural renderings, Bronstein fabricates the history of the physical museum buildings in a concise exhibition.
Bronstein examines art history from the perspective of an educated joker, presupposing ideas of new chronologies and reinventing the history of the largest museum in the Western hemisphere. His abilities as a precise draftsman include a number of varied styles, and this show alludes to everything from Versailles to Michael Graves. Baroque, Postmodernism, and Pre-Columbian pastiche all fits together in an imagined development of the gallery spaces. Slipping into the role of architect and engineer, Bronstein dissects the veneer of the Metropolitan’s architecture. In response, museum visitors may spend the rest of their time in the hallowed halls guessing at each room’s degree of authenticity.
In questioning the validity of the museum’s architectural history, Bronstein undermines the power and funds which were required to build this urban temple to world patrimony. What would it mean if his imagined scenarios were true? If perhaps the Temple of Dendur was brought to the museum by a stampede of ancient Egyptian horses, through a primitive Central Park as imagined by the artist?
In the pen and ink drawing “First and Second Installation of Precolumbian Objects at the Metropolitan Museum” (all works 2009), Bronstein shows two arrangements of small sculptures strangely placed in French-style Rococo galleries, ancient gods mounted on flowery cherub sconces. He disregards practicality and scale, prefering instead to deliver a tounge in cheek gesture at the institution.
The standout works, however, are Bronstein’s Six Affordable Neo-Georgian Futures for the Metropolitan Museum. Laid on flat tables under glass, the six computer renderings show potential future plans for a very different Metropolitan. In one plan, the entire museum save for the north and south wings has been destroyed to make way for a park. In another, the basement has been given over to retail space resembling a strip mall. The juxtaposition between myth and reality showcases the tension of such an enormous place as the museum, a place so big that it could easily all be a figment of the artist’s imagination.
Most of Future System’s designs look not unlike the pod cities of the Archigram group. Many of their programs look as though at any minute, they may sprout legs and walk away, perhaps even as far away as the next urban landscape.
In 1999, the Future Systems-designed Media Centre at Lord’s Cricket Grounds was unveiled. It soon won the Stirling Prize, as well as the adoration of British cricket fans everywhere. Before winning the commission, Jan Kaplicky, the founder of Future Systems, had often experienced frustration and seldom found his designs come to physical fruition. In the years preceding the construction of the Media Centre, only a handful of his George Jetson designs had been built. But, the Media Centre ushered in a rush of accolades for Kaplicky, rising him to the ranks of international architect celebrity. Perhaps soon enough, halls will ring with the sing-song sound of “Ando, Hadid, Meier…Kaplicky.”
The Media Centre, built to accommodate 250 journalists, was Future System’s first public commission and the firm’s most important project to date. The pod-like, orbital design stands above the east side of the pitch at Lord’s. The design called for the use of a single-shell aluminum structure which was prefabricated off-site at a shipyard in twenty-six parts.
The Stirling Prize judges described the Media Centre as “a breath of architectural fresh air. It is its own thing, completely unusual and completely uncompromising…It’s a complete one-off: a wacky solution to a singular problem. It may not be the future, but it certainly works.” Some would disagree and argue that the Media Centre is indeed the future—certainly the future of cricket’s image if not the future of sporting grounds architecture itself. Many cricket fans see the space-pod Media Centre as the defining image of the headquarters of English cricket. It appears on pub TV screens whenever fans gather to watch major matches, and it is an identifier of the heart of a national game, the ultimate symbol of the ultimate English field for the most dearly English sport.
As one cricket fan writes, “(Lord’s) is a juxtaposition of Victorian and modern architecture- as so many of our towns and cities are- and yet it is so resolutely beautiful. It is eccentrically designed and laid out - the ground slopes from one side to the other and the Media Centre is raised so that the MCC members can still see the plane trees from the pavilion. Either despite or because of its foibles, it has a magic and an aura that is impossible to replicate. There is no finer place to spend time with friends on a warm summer’s day watching the best players play the best game ever invented.”
Austrian artist Markus Schinwald works with various ideas of prosthetics. In his first solo exhibition at Yvon Lambert, Schinwald built an installation of beams and pillars which serve not only as an artwork itself, but as an armature for other pieces in the exhibition as well. The beams, floating and crossing the white box space, act almost as a prosthetic, assisting the space in a visible external way.
The architectural crutch of Schinwald’s beams is paired with a series of paintings which line the walls. The paintings, all portraits he found secondhand and painted over, have been outfitted with ghastly and unidentifiable prosthetics. The painted faces smiling out of dime store frames wear bandages and mechanical parts. Schinwald’s additions to the found portraits are seamless, and the works beg the viewer to question which elements were placed there by the artist’s hand. Schinwald prompts his viewers to question these works: we ask who these people are, if they were truly ailing, and how they came to find themselves hanging on the walls of Yvon Lambert.
In addition to the paintings, there are wooden sculptures floating freely in the galley. The sculptures resemble parts of Chippendale chairs, repurposed like the portraits. And as easily as Schinwald dehumanizes painted faces by way of added prosthetics, he also humanizes chair parts, making them twist and bend with palpable discomfort.
Schinwald’s work generally explores this divide between comfort and discomfort. Floating beams cut apart the natural white box gallery, making visitors feel anxious and confused, and painted portraits express a quiet tension, begging viewers to question how they found themselves in their present state. In his experiments with discomfort, Schinwald induces general unease. Viewers of this small and overwhelming show will undoubtably leave with contrastic feelings of impassivity and anxiety, pleasure and pain.
Before synthesizers and laptop computers, electronic music was a purely analog labor. The first electronic composers of the 1950s and 1960s relied on real sounds committed to physical tape which could then be cut with razors and spliced with sellotape. Tones were fed through oscillators and equalizers, frquencies doctored in order to create new compositions.
The epicenter for this field of experimentation could be found at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, tucked away in room #13 of the Maida Vale studios. Here, an enterprising young woman with dual Cambridge degrees in music and mathematics was creating electronic sound by hand. Delia Derbyshire was one of the greatest pioneers of early electronic music. She adjusted pitches and frequencies with calculating precision, filtering white noise and manipulating quotidian sounds to create iconic electronic soundscapes like the Dr. Who theme, “Happy Birthday,” and an abstract, lilting hum of beats and waves called “The Delian Mode.” This eponymous, electronic experiment has recently lent itself as the title for the first film about Derbyshire, a 25-minute documentary by Kara Blake, titled “The Delian Mode.” The film, short and loving, profiles Derbyshire and delivers, at last, credit for her pioneering work— however long overdue.
Blake’s film is an experimental profile, an exploration of musical beats by way of filmic ones. Disguised as a traditional documentary profile, “The Delian Mode” reveals itself as a collage of sound, interview, and mystery. The director seems more drawn to Derbyshire’s process than to her biography or chronology. The sources of her noises, like lampshades and door knocks, are studied and analyzed, while decade gaps are left unanswered for, as the limits of available technology are explored from multiple angles. The film leaves Derbyshire’s darker music and moods unexplained, glazing over haunting works like “Dreams,” a sound collage collaboration with Barry Bermange in 1964.
By merely implying Derbyshire’s biography, Blake does little to shine light on a figure who has long lingered forgotten by younger generations of electronic musicians. The film only touches on most of Derbyshire’s life (she only worked at the workshop in the 1960s and 1970s). She left the BBC after frustration with bureaucrats and limitations, eventually becoming a reclusive alcoholic who died, relatively forgotten, in 2001 at the age of 64. For decades, she seemed to have left music completely, returning in the 1990s to collaborate with Sonic Boom on new electronic music experiments. It was only after her death that 267 unknown tapes of Derbyshire’s compositions were discovered in her attic. Unheard for 30 years, the tapes have been transferred to the University of Manchester’s School of the Arts. One by one, they are being digitized— and perhaps Derbyshire will finally earn her deserved recognition.
"The Delian Mode" is a sweet and succinct, despite feeling incomplete. As a documentary, it is appropriately experimental and infectious, her sellotaped analog loops and sliced abstract beats acting both as biography and epitaph.
"The Delian Mode," Canada 2009, 25 Min, Color, English, Directed by Kara Blake
This is a true wave of the avant-garde: an exhibition of dizzying abstractions of photocollage, compositions made of photographs and watercolors in the guise of the whimsical and imagined. Human heads are pasted onto animal bodies, babies sleep on cribs covered by pen and ink blankets, and dramatic shifts of scale lend some works a feeling of having been imagined by Lewis Carroll. No, this is neither Dada nor Constructivism. Rather, these are the works of aristocratic women who, in the 1860s and 1870s, played with photographs and their conventions.
"Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage" is a lovely and fascinating show of some of the most experimental photographic collages of the Victorian period. These images, made for personal albums rather than personal display, reveal the intelligence and awareness of their makers. Taking inspiration from textual sources as diverse as Punch magazine and Darwin’s "Origin of the Species," these private collages reveal the perception of photography in the era of its greatest proliferation. The women who created imagined scenes from photographs, glue and paper knives did not only challenge the physical problems of photography, but also the role of aristocratic women and their societal limitations.
The creative possibilities of being able to physically cut oneself from a photo were endless. One could place people into a scene at night, something which photography could not yet capture. Or, you could create a party scene, gluing in the pictures of all the people you’d like to attend. Don’t like the woman next door? Put her head on the body of a duck. Want to flatter the prince? Physically cut away some of his girth before you paste him in your album.
"Playing with Pictures," originally organized by the Art Institute of Chicago before its tenure at the Metropolitan, is the first to thoroughly study the little-known field of early photocollage. The works on show have rarely, if ever, been seen or reproduced. Coming from the US, Europe, and Australia, forty works are physically displayed. A further eleven more albums are accessible in facsimile on computer monitors in the gallery.
The women behind these images were largely self-taught. Photography was relatively new, far too recent an invention to invite widespread experimentation. Rather, the hobby of photocollage spread through the upper classes via private albums and correspondence.
Some collage makers stand out more than others. Georgina Berkeley’s album from 1866-1871 is a particular highlight. She liberated her friends and acquaintances from the dull, stoic studio setting of their cartes de visites and placed them instead in beautiful, lush landscapes. In one, a couple walks on a moonlit beach; in another, one woman rides a dodo bird, accompanied by a friend riding on the back of the tortoise (Ms. Berkeley was familiar with topical humor). In one picture, Ms. Berkeley even puts a gentleman’s head on the body of a trapeze artist, flying high above the audience of what appears to be the Royal Albert Hall.
These women were not only talented craftspeople, but apt painters as well. Their skills ease their characters into believable scenes, like Lady Filmer’s parlor picture, in which she shows herself working on her album with a pot of glue, while friends chat by the fireplace and children play on the carpet. In another untitled scene from Constance Sackville-West, a group of friends are gathered in a park on a lovely summer’s day to play a game of newly-popularized croquet.
"Playing with Pictures" is more than cutting and pasting. The makers of these pictures were physically altering their environments and the people in them, almost to radical ends. The exhibition is as much a commentary on the identity of photography and the history of appropriation as it is a study of parlor habits in the Victorian period. These images beg the viewer to consider the authenticity of a photograph, much like the work of Cindy Sherman or Jeff Wall might do today. By physically altering photographs, these women were able to change their personal relationships, as well as their relationships to the greater world outside their homes and families.
"Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage" is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of art through May 9, 2010 in the Howard Gilman Gallery, second floor.
The centerpiece of the recent Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) remodel is the beautiful Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, designed by Daniel Libeskind and Bregman + Hamann Architects. Out of 50 entries in an international competition, the Libeskind design is a striking Deconstructivist crystalline form. Made of glass and aluminium, the jutting, crystal-shaped atrium houses the new entrance to the ROM, as well as shops and restaurants.
The jutting walls of the Crystal do not touch the nearby heritage buildings except to close a gap between the new form and the existing walls. The jutting, abstract form of the crystal fractures the space between the public streets and the private space of the museum. Built from five interlocking, supportive prismatic structures, the Crystal looks like a natural crystal formation jutting from the older buildings. There are few right angles to be seen, and the sloping walls create fascinating, innovative interiors. Rooms are flooded with the light of the slashing, angular windows with create pyramidal views to the cityscape outside.
When the Crystal was opened in June, 2007 by Governor General Michaelle Jean, controversy erupted. The public was torn about its angular design. Some viewed the structure as angry and hellish. Others hailed it as a monument. No doubt its already become an icon, for good or bad, and its almost certain that Archigram would hail its futuristic, outer-space sensibilities and manipulation of space through innovation.
Maximilian Toth uses agression as his medium, painting sketchy scenes of adolescent cruelty on the dusty ground of schoolhouse chalkboard. His figures suggest action and inaction simultaneously: his large works are dominated by images of beatings, ritualistic hazing,and phenomenal violance, all without the presence of conciousness or emotional awareness. Toth’s process suggests speed and furious control, not unlike the characters in his works. In his most recent show at Fredericks & Freiser, titled “Little Beasts,” Toth experiments with the simulatenous physicality of both his technique and subject matter. Encompassing five large canvasses and two drawings, “Little Beasts” examines the moment in adolesence when innoncence is totally lost. His scenes are succinct and objective depictions of suburban boys stumbling through the dusty black chalkboard darkness towards some kind of general violence. These boys are newly savage, their lines repeatedly redrawn, emphasizing the constant shifts in their relation to each other and their “newfound strength and agression.”
In Breaking a Chair in Three Parts (2009), Toth shows a life-sized scene of a balcony at a raucous high school party. One boy has climbed over the balcony railing, holding the bars tight as he emphatically vomits, his can of Pabst Blue Ribbon still in his right hand. Behind him, three boys mercilessly beat another with baseball bats, some kicking him with their boots. The scene is completed by a teenage couple flirting on the balcony, so self-involved and hopped up on hormones that they notice neither the vomiting nor the beating behind them.
Another standout work is Kill the Carrier (2009), a nefarious, gut-punching gym class scene. A group of boys in matching gym clothes fights over a red rubber ball. The boy jumping towards it, suspended in the air, is about to be punched in the stomach, his t-shirt flying up with his leap. School games which had previously been played without disorder are now the scenes for a murderous vein of violence. The figures are set in space, floating on the dark ground, their dislocation making more the scene even more disjointed and disconcerting.
Toth’s works sit uncomfortably close to the liminal edges of youth. In discussing his work with Graham T. Beck of Art in America, Toth speaks fondly of a favorite YouTube video in which a boy shoots light bulbs with a BB gun. He says, “I love that kid (and whoever is supervising him). I love the way he uses the gun. He’s a decent shot, and still young enough not to think twice about walking up and slapping the glass with the barrel. Club, gun: no difference…He’s just figuring out that he’s got this potential. He’s not taking out his aggression. He’s not angry. He just likes the sound and sight of things breaking. Can you get a better image of a kid saying goodbye to childhood?”
With his thoughtful and insistent visions of aggressive and uncaged youth, Maximilian Toth accesses the most primitive recesses of masculine impulses. These scenes are the wild embodiments of the violent imagination. Painted on chalkboard, they could even be interpreted as lessons, the improvisational plans for dark ritual. Toth’s subjects focus on the delicately deviant, the secretly subversive, and the violent acts often committed in plain sight by fifteen year-old boys.
A McDonald’s restaurant is flooded: over the course of twenty minutes, water seeps beneath the door with such power and mass that the whole place eventually floods. The restaurant is empty, and as the waters rise, more detritus and fast-food ephemera rises to the top of the murky, grease trap waters. The surface is covered by an abstract gesticulation of half-eaten hamburgers, limp paper wrappers, bobbing coffee cups, and defeated french fries and packets of ketchup.
"Flooded McDonald’s" is a film by Superflex, the three-man Danish filmmaking collective of Jakob Fenger, Rasmus Nielsen and Bjørnstjerne Christiansen. In the film, a life-sized replica of a MCdonald’s restaurant is slowly flooded, completely void of customers or staff. Tables are lifted away, electric lights short-circuit, and a plastic Ronald McDonald goes for a lazy swim. Eventually the restaurant is completely submerged, recalling the apocalyptic climax of our greatest fears about waste and global warming.
"Flooded McDonald’s" is nothing if not haunting. Occassionally, the camera goes underwater, giving us the nightmarish view of perhaps the one-day Great Barrier Reef. If things continue as they are, this will be our snorkling vacations: swimming through discarded plastic chairs, unopened packets of barbeque sauce, and buzzing flourescent lights. The water rises, first to the legs of the tables, then to the top of the trash cans. A warning on yellow plastic uselessly floats by: "CAUTION, WET FLOOR." And the floating plastic clown waves and twirls, slopping in the french fries and half-chewed McNuggets. Lights dim as they short-circuit, one by one. Finally, the logo neon golden arches flicker and pop, and the whole room goes dark.
The restaurant, convincingly authentic, was created from scratch by a team of talented set designers, without the permission of the McDonald’s corporation. Over the course of two weeks, the set was costructed in a swimming pool in a Bangkok film studio, before 80,000 liters of water were pumped in and the results were filmed over the course of two days. The resulting work is, more than anything, a disaster film. Superflex begs the viewer to question the probability of this scene, and after very little consideration, it seems entirely plausible. It is more than likely that the rising tide of global warming will claim the very monuments which created it.
At first sight, the entire exercize looks so authentic, that only its very filmic nature gives it away as an artistic inquiry. Slow panning shots and handheld close-ups are almost a clue for the viewer, letting us know (with relief) that this is not authentic disaster footage. Despite the horror and apocalyptic nature of “Flooded McDonald’s,” there are moments of humor and irony as well. When Ronald McDonald topples, it brings to mind the news footage of Saddam Hussein’s statue being violently pulled to the ground.
"Flooded McDonald’s" is a deceptively simple film. Though the concept is succint enough, ("We’ll film a flooding restaurant"), the product is complex and troubling. This is not a simple study in construction, cause, effect, and camera work. Rather, Superflex understands the inherent grusomeness of the scene. The things we need (food, comfort, reliability) may be the same things that ultimately destroy us. This is filmic, lilting agitprop, but it doesn’t judge. Perhaps the greatest strength of "Flooded McDonald’s" is its humaneness. Superflex is plenty aware of both the comedy and tragedy that their scene evokes. They construct a corrective Doomsday, one which would perhaps wash away the faults of capitalism and its byproducts, leaving us with the empty shells of former monuments to waste and idleness.
SUPERFLEX: Flooded McDonald’s is on view at Peter Blum in Chelsea through March 22, 2010.
When the previous city hall was dissolved by Thatcher in 1986 (and subsequently turned into a hotel and aquarium), a void was left on the physical landscape of London politics. When London acquired a mayor once again in 1999, it needed a new center for the city government. That year, Norman Foster’s design for the new City Hall was unveiled, inviting comparisons to Lubetkin’s 1930s Penguin Pool design for the London Zoo.
With its cycling ramps (perfect for sliding aquatic birds) and glass, bulbous exterior (which some likened to the shape of a fencing mask or a giant eye), the new City Hall soon gained admiration from Londoners. Foster’s phenomenon which quickly broke the spell cast on architecture in Britain in 1984 when Prince Charles described a proposed extension to the National Gallery as “a monstrous carbuncle.” In 1999, with the help of the new City Hall proposal, a new era in London architecture was celebrated. Soon the capital city, which had long suffered as the grounds for glamourless royalty and faded replica Georgian buildings, became the birthplace of City Hall, the Tate Modern, and the Gherkin.
Now, years later, Londoners still come in large numbers to see Norman Foster’s modified sphere, a striking experiment in ramps and glass. The interior ramp (or penguin slide, if you will) measures 1,604-feet long, and coils through ten stories to a public viewing gallery at the top.
Foster’s design is nothing if not intentionally iconic. Its form is pure pop—a distorted glass bulb, its interior viewed equally well from the exterior. Yes, there are the standard metaphors for transparency in local government (another reason for the visitors’ gallery above the debating chamber). But the wildly-shaped glass is also striking, a lasting icon even when removed from its purpose-driven metaphors.
The distorted glass bulb also appeals to the Archigram futuristic, technocratic ideal. As more modern structures like City Hall blossom on the banks of the Thames, the futurist visions of Peter Cook and Michael Webb become ever more tangible.
The Beeld end Geluid Building, Hilversum, Netherlands. Designed by Neutelings Riedijk Architects with façade design by Jaap Drupsteen.
Dutch architects Willem Jan Neutelings and Michiel Riedijk draw on a wide variety of influence in their work. Their firm, Neutlings Riedijk Architects, draws from a wide variety of sources, ranging from primitive step pyramids to comic book illustration to the wildly bright silkscreen prints of Andy Warhol.
The firm’s design for the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision is destined to elevate their international status. The center is an amalgamation of popular media and design, a celebration of visual, glittering surfaces and serious marketing images. On a site in the leafy Amsterdam suburbs, the Institute (commonly known as Beeld en Geluid), opened in 2006, and is now home to the Dutch national broadcast archives. Housed in a glowing, rainbow-tinted glass shell, the center is a mesmerizing sight. With a facade designed by artist Jaap Drupsteen, the building not only physically houses popular culture, but celebrates it on its exterior as well.
The outside panels are imprinted with iconic images from Dutch television, famous stop-frames of the justice minister on a bicycle, heroic soccer players scoring a goal, and beauty queens smiling directly at the camera. The images, taken from archived television footage, were baked into bright glass for the building facade. The images are barely clear from certain angles, from some distances, they fade completely into the colored glass. The overall effect is both a beautiful and alarming commentary on the pervasiveness of the media: it’s there, woven into the fiber of the walls, even if we can’t see it. The blur of images also serve to communicate the daily arsenal of images we see in the newspapers, Internet, and movies, though here in glass they are frozen and harmless.
How witty of Neutelings and Riedijk to build a temple to images within walls made of images, with culture utilized as a shorthand for culture, with a distinct awareness of the great potential for the meta-narrative in contemporary architecture.
If its possible for a surface alone to be a popular icon, then the dimpled copper-paneled walls of the new DeYoung Museum in San Francisco must be one of the most beautiful and striking. Rising beside the Japanese Tea Gardens and over the jaw-dropping California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, a languid copper box stretches out, punctuated by a wobbly tower and surrounded by a sprawling, modern sculpture garden. One side of the roof stretches beyond the parameters, resembling a common driveway carport, and a prison-style watchtower erupts from the structure, allowing visitors 360 degree views of ‘The City by the Bay.’
The museum, which opened its new building in 2005, is now one of the most thoughtful and iconic treasures of the Bay Area. Designed by Swiss architects Pierre de Meuron and Jacques Herzog, the DeYoung is a witty and surprising project. With all of the imagination of Archigram but with a calm, languid popular image, the personality of the project matches its mellow West coast home in the park, basking in the fog and scents of eucalyptus.
The most striking element is by far the lower portion of the museum, a series of iconic dimpled coppered panels which have come to define the new DeYoung. Each panel has as many as 210 individual circular stamps, ranging in size and shape from bright, deep dimples to shallow recesses, and no two panels are alike. Some become thin, perforated screens that stretch across concealed windows, while others are thick like defensive walls. The panels are elegant from a distance, and fascinating up close. Some dimples look like tree knots, others look as though someone had stopped to carve a penny from the copper surface. In the DeYoung gift shop, visitors “ooh” and “ahh” over copper-fronted bracelets, notebooks and postcards, all resembling the textured exterior. You are encouraged to take a piece of a landmark home with you, making an icon out of the product of an icon.
Like Archigram, de Meuron and Herzog are interested in sensations, not forms. The museum design is intellectual, almost theoretical. The space values experience over image, not unlike Michael Webb’s Suitaloon. Though many Bay Area residents (myself included) are still adjusting to our new local icon, we are also savoring the process of it becoming a symbol. The DeYoung is inventive and smart, and though the novelty will wane with time, our popular romance with its design will only increase as the patina builds on its copper walls.
In using the term “instant icon” to describe successful popular architecture, the idea of “instant” can be subjective. While Holl’s chapel was quickly photographed and revered for its simple, colorful beauty after its completion, some buildings become icons before they are even finished. The best example of the building as pop imagery before its completion is 30 St Mary Axe, Swiss Re Tower, better known as “The Gherkin.”
In the very initial stages of its construction, the curved skeleton of the Gherkin slowly stretched past the London skyline. Now, six years after its completion, the structure can be seen from far and wide, its blue pickle shape rising above familiar sights like Tower Bridge and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Megan Lane of the BBC writes, “as an instant icon of 21st century Britain, it has all but supplanted the Routemaster bus and Big Ben as shorthand for London on TV, in ads, and on film. In “Love Actually,” it reared above Liam Neeson as his on-screen son told of a schoolyard crush during a stroll along the South Bank.” Though still a relatively young building, the Gherkin has already become a visual cue for the capital, something erected in the popular consciousness as a shortcut to the city of London.
The tall, spiraling building was designed by Pritzker Prize-winner Lord Norman Foster and Ken Shuttleworth, and constructed between 2001 and 2004. It has already won the Stirling Prize of the Royal Institute of British Architects— it was the first time the prize had ever been awarded unanimously.
But in spite of its critical acclaim, no one expected the Gherkin to become a popular icon quite so quickly. Even Foster is still surprised by the structure. He told the BBC, “We did all the modeling, all the computer simulations to explore how it would look and how it would sit in the City. Yet I love that I still get unexpected views of it from all over London, and unexpected reflections of other buildings in its walls.”