Sunday, December 16, 2007

You Could Hear A Pin Drop (Amidst the Minstrel Music)

The Whitney Museum of American Art’s current survey of the prolific and controversial artist Kara Walker is not a quiet exhibition. The piercing work has the capacity to stun its audience into silence by delving below the surface of social acceptability surrounding the uncomfortable topic of race and sexuality. Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, which runs through February 3rd, takes a slice of Southern segregation and feeds a bitter truth to its audience. The highly intrusive cut-paper silhouettes create a world where ethnic features are grossly exaggerated, unspoken desires are explored, and even children are sexualized.

Spanning a decade, the survey encompasses a wide array of Walker’s art, including her sizeable installations of black silhouettes, drawings both large and small, colorful projections, and silent film. The exhibit begins with the original piece that won her both fame and condemnation, Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart (1994). At first glance the imagery is startlingly beautiful and romantic, using a cartoon-like rendering of form. On closer inspection, one realizes that this is no ordinary old-time panorama: a slave girl with exaggerated “Negroid” features fellates an adolescent white male, a slave boy with the same exaggerated physical treatment floats in the air above, carried by his swollen genitalia. Black men and women are caricatured by their nappy hair, large lips and buttocks, pendulous breasts, and other antiquated stereotypical features that are still recognizable as African American in the psyche of the most viewers. These same undercurrents carry through to the rest of the artist’s work in the exhibition, which emphasizes difference and invokes inspection of surviving unconscious racial prototypes.

For its largely white audience, it is difficult for the topic of race to remain invisible during the time that they inhabit the third floor of the museum. Walker’s silhouettes mean to provoke, to humiliate, to titillate, and to create dialogue. The exhibition is quite possibly the largest survey of an American artist solely devoted to confronting racial tensions using unambiguously brazen methods. The stereotypical, outdated, and utterly politically incorrect imagery targets the most insidious type of racism underlying contemporary culture: a liberalism that glosses over racial difference in favor of promoting a “we are all one” mentality. The danger in this utopian and na├»ve approach is that we do not all share the same experience regarding race. Racism still exists, however unrecognizable it may be in the minds of most whites. Walker’s body of work aims to remind its viewer of this fact.

Upon wandering through the Whitney’s cinematic galleries, it was observable that most people did not approach the larger-than-life shadows on the walls: they stood at a safe distance, too afraid to move or make a sound that would indicate their own personal involvement as either the oppressor or the oppressed. Discussions about the work were kept to a low murmur, if they occurred at all. The only audible comment during an hour-plus stay on the third floor was from a small child who very loudly asked his mom, “Is this about black people again?” when entering the room that contained Walker’s video 8 Possible Beginnings: or, The Creation of African-America, a Moving Picture by Kara E. Walker (2005). The sixteen-minute story is one of the most successful works in the show, activating the hand-cut silhouettes with strings and other moving parts. The eight parts of the film feature grotesque lynching scenes and an arsenal of crude sexual encounters, mostly between African American slaves and white slave owners. Walker explores sexual desire even further by adding a new homoerotic dimension to her work, with scenes in which a male slave is impregnated and fellated by his master. Another noteworthy addition is the inclusion of the artist in the video, who can be seen holding the strings of the puppets at a few different moments. The voice of her young daughter is also included, saying disturbing and somewhat disjointed comments such as, “I wish I were white,” and, “I think he’s going to hurt me. I wonder what it will feel like.”

It is apparent that Walker’s art does not address race in isolation, but in an explicit combination with sexuality and desire. In particular, Walker’s work reveals her own obsessions with and explorations of sexuality and interracial desire. The title of the exhibition, stated from the first person, clearly personalizes the art as an individual interpretation of race and sex. Walker is not attempting to represent every African American; she rejects such tokenization in favor of a self-posed, complicated, and rhetorical questioning of her own unique experience in relation to her inherited history as an African American.

Walker’s transparent approach has proved to be too polarizing for many viewers, including a plethora of prominent black artists and leaders, such as Betye Saar. For many, however, the in-your-face tactic reopens a much needed discussion on race in an environment where the topic is marginalized by a (white) consensus that all is well on the Western front. Through her art, Walker points out that, contrary to the misconception of many folks of Caucasian heritage, discussing and recognizing race is not racist. Ignoring its existence, however, is indicative of a pervasive and internalized prejudice.

No matter the pigmentation of your skin, Walker’s art is meant to make your cheeks turn red and your skin get hot. It is this state of being exposed and vulnerable that her art hopes to exploit. There is no right or wrong reaction to the highly personal yet universally provoking work. The most important response is that it creates dialogue about race, relations, sexuality, and their intersections in a culture that normally shies away from such discussions. Since Walker has been extensively covered in the press (both within and outside of the art world) over the past decade and a half, it is apparent that her art has succeeded in fulfilling this purpose. With a long career ahead of her, it will be interesting to see what direction the faux-minstrel show will head. The curtain has not fallen for this art-world darling, and perhaps it never will.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Because Everyone Needs A Feminist Awakening

Back in the day, as an eighteen-year-old baby dyke and budding feminist, I thought myself something of a vagina aficionado. Somewhere along the way between adamantly denying queerdom and speaking at the Socialist Feminist Philosophers In Action (SOFPHIA) conference, I discovered the allure of vagina-art. Before I even had a theoretical framework in which to insert my fascination (no pun intended), I began to create what I called “vaginally centered art.” As a freshman college co-ed, I passed time in my droning and completely academically useless gen-eds by sketching a clit here, a labia there; sometimes a flower or some little hearts were included. A bit embarrassed, I kept most of my drawings hidden from classmates, but at the same time I felt like I was involved in a somewhat revolutionary act.

It wasn’t until my sophomore year when I begged a feminist art history professor to be my advisor that I was introduced to the work of Judy Chicago and other second-wave feminist artists. Recognizing in my doodles the core imagery that was popular amongst this group in the 1970’s, my new mentor decided to slowly ease me into the jarring reality that I was not the first female artist that had a fascination with empowering her knish.

The first piece, and perhaps the most influential, that I was introduced to was Chicago’s “seminal” The Dinner Party. One might think that my reaction would have been negative being as that I just found out I was, essentially, unoriginal, but I actually felt as though I were viewing the most important piece of art I would see in my lifetime. It is an installation that not only validated my nearly obsessive interest in vaginal images, but broadened the content and meaning of using such forms.

Consisting of thirty-nine place settings of historical women, both real and mythological, the triangular installation spans an area large enough to challenge any modernist male artist’s preoccupation with size. The collective effort of many highly skilled female artisans features porcelain plates painted and sculpted into vulva-like shapes. Recently added to the Brooklyn Museum’s collection, it permanently resides in a custom-designed gallery in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.

This summer I finally had the experience of viewing The Dinner Party in person. As with most art, the piece is undeniably more complex and beautiful in the flesh. As I entered the room, I felt as though I was a pilgrim and had reached my final destination. Although I get excited often when viewing art, I’m not usually one to get all cheesy and sentimental. Maybe it was the theatrical lighting, or maybe it was the sheer fact that this massive feminist work had found a home at a revered institution, but I was truly moved.

In a way, it was like my work had found a home too (granted it was thirty years in the past). Making vaginally-centered art might be considered unoriginal, old-news to the majority of the art world, but at least now I know my art has other pieces to converse with.

Abby Hertz, Creep, Ink and blood on paper, 2006.

If You Thought Chris Ofili’s Work Was Grotesque Before…

The remarkable trait about Chris Ofili’s current solo show Devil’s Pie at the David Zwirner Gallery is that it is entirely unremarkable. As a fan of Ofili’s earlier and more glittery work, it is difficult to swallow the massive amount of modernist regurgitation that the once original artist churned out for his critically pre-applauded exhibition. Still reveling in the light of fame that only a culture war can produce, Ofili is milking his artistic right to be lazy, which won’t expire for a few more years.

Aesthetically speaking, the exhibition of paintings, drawings, and sculptures lacks stylistic cohesion. A general Biblical theme is the only uniting factor between the three mediums, with titles running the gamut from Confession to Annunciation to many variations of Lazarus. The religious content is a nod to Ofili’s Catholic upbringing, as was his now infamous painting Holy Virgin Mary which incensed the Catholic world with its inclusion of elephant dung strategically placed throughout the large canvas. Pious titles, however, cannot save the lackluster execution of the paintings at David Zwirner. Rarely have oil paints created such a dull-looking finished product. Flatly rendered and thinly applied, the bright, clashing colors look garish and uninspired, especially when paired with the borrowed modernist stylistics of the work. Not only drawing from artists such as Matisse, but mimicking them, Ofili has officially succeeded in being incredibly boring. Following in a long tradition of amateurish art that copies the styles and techniques of modernism, the paintings in Devil’s Pie are more of an emulation than an homage.

And then there’s the sculpture. Highly polished and obviously fabricated, the bronze statues are a testament to the fact that anyone with money and a vision can become a sculptor. Unlike the few contemporary artists who successfully utilize fabricators, Ofili’s work does not directly deal with manufacturing a commodity nor are they massive pieces that require more than one hand to make its production tangible. Grand statuary such as Annunciation contains classical and Renaissance-esque undertones, which typically conjures the ideal of a single master at work with his hands. The sculpture clashes with the surrounding paintings, creating a pastiche of styles that is more harmful to the eye than it is a thought-provoking juxtaposition.

Mildly naughty graphite drawings are also added to the great melting pot of Devil’s Pie. Also under the guise of a religious theme, seven of the drawings depict the wives of Biblical male figures. The series, entitled Adam, Benjamin, Caleb, Daniel, Ephraim, Frank, and Gideon (7 brides for 7 bros), basically consists of nude women in seductive poses, with an emphasis on the display of their genitalia. The portraits are hardly virtuous depictions of devout women, which adds an unnecessary irony to the exhibit.

At the end of the day, individual judgment of Ofili’s solo show at David Zwirner Gallery is a matter of taste and an appreciation of the recycling of modernism. In comparison to the originality and depth of the artist’s previous work, it is quite a let down. The installation goes to show that even brilliant artists get stuck in a rut. A bit of divine inspiration is in order for the artist’s next attempt at creating an interesting series.

Death Is Becoming On You: Chelsea’s Heavy-Hitters Check In With Mortality

Cheim and Read’s current installation I Am As You Will Be, which runs through November 3rd, features forty-four different artists’ incarnations of the modern memento mori in thirty-three similar pieces. Partially curated by Xavier Tricot, the exhibit explores both a human and an artistic obsession with death and the skeleton through a wide chronological range of artists. More of a historical show than a presentation of new works or artists, the content borders on transforming Cheim and Read into a mini-museum with its largely secondary-market pieces. A parade of who’s who in modern and contemporary art history, the exhibition uncovers the more obscure work of household names, drawing on the notion that death is a pervasive topic every artist addresses at one point or another.

The show opens with the dynamic Jenny Holzer piece, Lustmord Table (1994), unquestionably an intelligent decision on the part of the show’s organizers. The organically mortal work consists of 149 bones, 50 teeth, and 17 engraved silver bands encircling select bones, all neatly on an antique and rustic wooden table. The skeleton is gendered female through statements inscribed on the silver bands such as “I step on her…To suck on her…Her breasts are all nipples…” placing it in a more personal and approachable context as a work of art. Along with Holzer’s sprawling bodily remains, the first room of the gallery features mostly small drawings and etchings of well-known artists such as James Ensor, Paul Delvaux, and Salvador Dali. The work of James Ensor and Paul Delvaux appear several times, reflecting an obvious bias of the contributing curator, who is an Ensor scholar and Belgian national.

The second room of the gallery contains more sketches and small works dispersed among larger and stronger pieces, all by noteworthy artists. A lithograph by Pablo Picasso, Le Pichet Noir et la Tete de Mort, and a graphite sketch of skulls of Leon Spilliaert are amongst this grouping of undistinguished works by blockbuster artists. More formidable art such as a rare bronze sculpture by Lynda Benglis, daguerreotypes by Adam Fuss, and Damien Hirst’s Male and Female Pharmacy Skeletons (1998/2004) provide a greater framework and cohesion alongside the mediocrity of the comparatively minuscule pieces by modernist mammoths.

It is in this second room that one may begin to question whether the curator randomly chose famous artists and researched whether they had ever quickly sketched a skeleton. It seems that their presence is used more to fill up space between the dominating work and as a way to showcase Cheim and Read’s staple of master artists rather than an attempt at curating a show with initially interesting pieces. The choice of using art as filler is purely practical and aesthetic on the part of Tricot, placing an emphasis on visual cohesion rather than an overarching potency.

The third and fourth rooms of the exhibition are the strongest in that they feature little "filler" art, opting for pieces that can stand independently as interesting works of art. The monumentally sized collaborative painting of Lady Pink and Jenny Holzer, Tear Ducts Seem to Be A Grief Provision (1983-84), along with the intricate and life-size multi-media painting of Angelo Filomeno are highlights of the third room. Filomeno’s embroidered silver-on-silver The Philosopher’s Woman (2007), subtly adds a reflective dimension to the other equally notable surrounding works through its monochromatic tones and glistening rhinestones. The adjoining fourth room also exhibits show-stopping pieces such as the heart wrenching sculpture Arched Figure No. 2 (1997) by Louise Bourgeois and an installation by Katharina Fritsch, Pictures With Mirror and Skull (1998). Bourgeois’ sculpture, a straining figure arched in the final moments before death, is at once intimate and monumental with its small stature and emotionally charged rendering. It is one of the few pieces in the show that successfully delve under a hard and academic exterior of mortality into an affecting and tangible realm. Fritsch’s installation, which features a skull facing a large mirror, literally reflects the contents of the room along with the face of the viewer, adding an inclusive quality to the surrounding paintings and sculptures, and the room in general.

In its totality, I Am As You Will Be is an incredibly cohesive and beautifully rendered display of a variety of greatly accomplished artists. Tricot organized the show with thought and care, the individual pieces feeding into one another’s strengths and universal message of the transience of human existence. The presentation of the show is successful in that it allows each piece its own breathing room, which is perhaps the main function of the small drawings and etchings, the weakest elements in the exhibit. The show is also consistent in its aesthetic approach, with nearly all work undertaken solely in neutral tones and matching wall texts in a complimentary bone color. The overall effect is very pleasing to the eye and lends an extraordinary flow that detracts attention from the exhibition’s shortcomings . One such weakness being that the historical elements of the show, mainly the pre-war works, were a bit of a distraction from the function of the show as a display of contemporary memento mori.

The exhibit could easily transfer into a larger, museum-based context where it could then include a plethora of historic works, rather than a spattering. The retrospective of the skeleton could outline the history of the tradition through a large span of periods and even cultures. Or, on a simpler scale, it could be more successful by excluding all non-contemporary work and, therefore, function in its original environment of a smaller, gallery-oriented exhibit. As a result of leaving out the historic art, the problem of using small (and largely uninteresting) drawings as connective filler would be solved as well since nearly all of such works were pre-war. Admittedly, even without revision, Tricot along with Cheim and Read have presented a visually satisfying blockbuster to start off the busy fall season in Chelsea. A natural critic and crowd pleaser, I Am As You Will Be feeds upon a collective fascination with the only certainty, and the greatest mystery, of life.

The Reign of the Thirteen Year Old Boy Genius: Immaturity in Paul Noble’s Immaculate Drawings

Paul Noble’s first solo show at Gagosian Gallery, dot to dot, is a symphony of contemporary British art at its most ornery. Camouflaged in amazing technical skill, tedious detail, and seemingly grand intentions are visions of a seventh grader’s wet dream. Turds stand as monuments amidst abstracted landscapes full of tits, cock, and balls while rocks form the shapes of copulating men and women, many in the 69 position. One of the large graphite drawings in the exhibition, Villa Joe, Front View (2005-2006), is a fantasy realm of the artist’s concoction, a sort of vacationing hot-spot in the “utopian” world he has created for himself. The vulgarities in this drawing are dispersed throughout an exhaustive and other-worldly landscape featuring countless rock formations that meld into a sky full of constellations. Noble’s main body of work centers around the fictitious “Nobsontown”, from which Villa Joe and many of the other drawings in the show are pulled.

Another large drawing from the series, Paul’s Palace (1996), is the artist’s rendering of his dream home, complete with all the teenage-boy amenities. Reminiscent of M.C. Escher, the draftsmen-style work features a ping pong table, trampoline, skating half-pipe, basketball court, and a room-size box of Jaffas, one of the UK’s most popular candies. To top it off, the sculptures of eminent British artist Henry Moore lie deserted in heaps on the surrounding seashore of the palace suggesting both adolescent impudence and an homage at once. All of the technical skill in the artist’s arsenal cannot counteract the intentionally childish content of this piece.

While the front gallery is lined with monumental drawings, the smaller gallery in the back is overtaken by three tables lined with small ceramic sculptures resting on pear wood bases. Described by the press release as gonshi, or ancient Chinese scholar rocks, the sculptures are designed for meditation on form and aesthetic appeal rather than content. The ceramic pieces themselves are not much to look at. Odd abstractions that attempt to follow organic formulas end up resembling failed figures from a high school pottery class, annoyingly bright color palette included.

The accompanying wooden bases are fashioned using many of the same globular forms and designs of the graphite drawings with an emphasis on curvilinear shapes that allude to elements of landscape. In contrast to the overly glazed and vibrantly colored ceramic pieces they support, the bases are sleek, streamlined and pleasing works that could stand alone as sculptures in and of themselves. The designs surrounding the base of the work Nine (2006-2007) is reminiscent of the almost alien formations and symbols present in Villa Joe, Front View and other landscape-based drawings. Aside from the gaudy finishing of the ceramics, the intricate and diminutive scale of the work in the back gallery is a wonderful contrast to the large-scale, monumental drawings preceding them.

Lest it be forgotten, there a few elements of installation included in dot to dot. An unfortunate aside to the otherwise technically strong exhibition, the ass-oriented Positive Negative and Negative Positive include a collaged black and white photo in the back gallery and a full-blown installation in the front gallery. Executed in a carnival game aesthetic, the installation features a hole in which the viewer can stick their head only to see themselves reflected onto a Penthouse-like image of a half naked woman bent over, exposing herself. The face of the participant is centered in the crotch of the figure, placing them in a potentially uncomfortable and hilarious position. It is with this “installation” that one may begin to make sense of Noble’s quote at the top of the accompanying press release for the exhibition, “The sky is above and there is the sea below and in between is the carnival.” Alright, so the artist interprets the world as one giant circus act. Any amount of lofty interpretation cannot mask the obvious juvenility of Positive Negative. Paul Noble just wants to be a wanker; he knows he can get away with it.

The second (and thankfully last) installation in the exhibit resides in a smaller third gallery that is easy to miss/avoid. Comprised of both an audio track and custom-made rugs, the viewer is advised to remove their shoes so they can step on the rugs and place themselves immediately underneath the large edifice containing the muddled soundtrack. As much as stepping on art gives a great satisfaction, the interactive element of the installation does not compensate for the lack of depth behind the actual audio. A strange and absolutely grating voice repeats the phrase “dot to dot” continuously. The point? Oh, who knows. Paul most likely just thought it would be cool.

Besides the beautifully rendered pear wood bases, another successful part of Noble’s Chelsea sideshow is the fabricated Curtains for Everyone. Colorful, oversized wooden beads painted in the shape of an hourglass hang in the entrance to the main gallery, providing a tasty clink for the visitor. Adding to the overall fun-ness of the exhibition, the curtains can literally be enjoyed by everyone, whether they are an unindoctrinated member of the general audience or a full-blown scholar.

The curtains, along with the sculptures, the carpets, and all of the installation elements, bring up the issue of authorship and production in Noble’s art. Obviously produced by a fabricator, the work joins in the grand debate on what is acceptable as art in a contemporary world where it seems that no work is fully completed by the actual artist. Surrounded by the plethora of produced objects, the authenticity of the graphite drawings even comes into question. One has to wonder whether Noble’s hand was the only one present in the creation and completion of the large and laborious works. It is, in fact, the technical skill of the drawings that legitimate the other, less talented pieces in the show. Theoretically, if none of the work in the exhibition was actually created and carried out by Paul Noble, the artist, then how does one view the works in the context of contemporary art? Easily. It would be no different from any other work lining the walls of the prestigious real estate in Chelsea. At the end of the day, dot to dot provides exactly what one expects out of any typical Young British Artist: artifice and ironic commentary with a large helping of outlandish behavior.

Here’s Your Compulsory War-Time Political Art Back

“Just because you're artists doesn’t mean you should have a platform. When Hollywood figures or artists decide to get on their platform, often that is going to do much more harm.”-Raymond Pettibon in an interview with Art:21, 2002.

Oh, Raymond Pettibon, how quickly doth recants thine own beliefs. The artist’s current exhibition at David Zwirner, Here’s Your Irony Back (The Big Picture), breaks away from his typically more ambiguous fare and borders on preachy. The show outlines the trials and tribulations of the United States’ and its steady sidekick, Israel, in their current conundrum as a world power. The show is an absolute cluster-fuck of satirical political cartoons undertaken in Pettibon’s typical style of a graphic novel, minus the organization and flow of real comics. Tacked up on the wall in a frenzied salon-style, the body of work readily takes on nearly every socio-political dilemma of the moment, from the war in the Middle East to environmental concerns to illegal immigration. In one drawing President Bush stands before the infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner with several sardonic statements placed erratically in the frame, such as “skunked ‘em, didn’t we?” In another drawing, bloodied bodies of U.S. soldiers are dragged lifeless across the ground, forming red lines. The words “No stars here…but we earn our stripes” sear out from the white space surrounding the central image. Each piece in the exhibition, out of around 100 individual drawings, contains similar messages and treatment.
The overflow of information turns the exhibit into a personification of liberal dissent rather than a direct and moving statement regarding the horrors of the world’s predicament. Many of the images in Pettibon’s drawings are strong enough to stand up on their own sans the ironic commentary. The aforementioned “No stars here…” drawing was much more successful individually because of the simplicity of its statement and its pithiness. It is near impossible for the viewer to take in all of the information presented in the whole of the exhibit, let alone treat each drawing as a singular work. The exhibit, therefore, must be treated as one totalizing piece to be considered successful. The fact that there are four sections of the gallery in which Pettibon painted directly on the gallery walls also points to the intention of the exhibit to be treated as an installation rather than a display of several drawings.

The wall-paintings are at once separate and distinct from the flow of the show and also a sort of guiding presence for the main themes and interpretations of the exhibit. Two of the four are proclamations on the corruption of the state of Israel, with the Star of David distorted or skewed and drips of blue paint seeming to bleed off the wall and onto the floor. A third painting states, “Tokio Hotel: Because Life is Worth Living” which most likely refers to the German punk band Tokio Hotel, as Pettibon is known for his affiliation and love of the punk rock scene. One of their famous singles is entitled “Don’t Jump,” to which the statement “because life is worth living” possibly alludes. In the scheme of the exhibition, the statement adds an element of optimism amidst the otherwise totalizing pessimism present.
When one considers the show as a single piece, the meaning and interpretation changes completely, along with its overall success. The execution of the drawings and the set-up of the exhibit as a whole is a brilliant representation of the quagmire that is contemporary society, especially the circumstance of the so-called war on terror and the Bush regime. The overall chaotic climate leaves the viewer feeling overwhelmed, disoriented, and frankly depressed, with questions of “how we will ever get out of this mess?” As a political art show, the statements are made a few years too late to be fresh or jarring since public opinion now largely reflects the contents of the show. If the exhibit were to have been shown two or three years ago, it could have obtained a more potent and provoking quality as public opinion was largely still in favor of the war and 9/11 was too recent to withstand criticism. It’s amazing how fast political art can stale; the artist must create and present the works before the voice of dissent becomes popular opinion or trite. Unfortunately, Raymond Pettibon and/or David Zwirner Gallery were not Johnny-on-the-spot with this particular exhibition.

Lydia Venieri’s Politically Charged Dollies

Manhattan, 2007, Archival inkjet on poly satin

Lydia Venieri’s exhibition War Games: New Photographs at the Stefan Stux gallery in Chelsea has the potential to beguile a viewer through its subversively charming political dissention. Starkly lit images of innocent dolls peer out from their static positions while active scenes of war and terror are frozen in their pupils. Printed on polysatin and stretched like canvas, the material adds a perception of physical depth to the otherwise shallow image while also lending a specifically feminine and frilly connotation to the series. At the same time the satin also conjures an image of a coffin, which alludes to the inevitable deaths that are instilled in the scenes depicted in the dolls’ eyes.

The dolls that appear in War Games are the innocuous and trendy Blythe dolls manufactured by Hasbro. Blythe dolls actually have quite the cult following and Blythe doll photography has emerged as a trend amongst numerous amateur photographers. Gina Garan, one of such photographers, published a book in 2000 titled This Is Blythe that infiltrated popular culture and launched the icon to her current venerated status. The genre of doll photography in general conjures images of the high school student who, in receiving their first high-quality camera, finds it ingenious and convenient to use their toys as subjects. Venieri’s body of work utilizes many fragments of playthings and symbols of innocence as vehicles for social investigation, and the work exhibited at Stux is no different. Previous exhibitions from the same series contained more generic, non-Blythe dolls that presented an overall less trendy voice. The result was more successful in this aspect although the images containing the Blythe dolls are visually, aesthetically, and technically rendered more successfully.

Overall, the small grouping of photographs was understated in their display allowing the work to dominate the space. Only one quality of the presentation was bothersome: the first thing that greets the visitor when they enter the gallery is the ominous wall text. Phrases such as “…genocide and suicide bombings within the innocent gaze of children’ dolls eyes” clearly state what meaning the viewer is supposed to derive from the works before they jump to any original, and therefore wrong, opinions of their own. In fact, even the most ill-informed and un-indoctrinated visitor to the gallery would be able to decipher the obvious meaning behind Venieri’s series. The wall text is completely redundant and unnecessary placed amongst work that has a clear and abrasive voice. It’s almost redundant to even discuss the content of the work in a review seeing as that the message is so blatant: innocent dolls+ images of war= disturbing. It is clear that the images are meant to provoke dissent about the war in Iraq and “the war on terrorism.”

The two most interesting pieces in the show are Explosion and Manhattan. Both seem to be depicting the event of 9/11, but in startling different stages of its occurrence. Explosion, which features the blast of a plane striking one of the towers, stages both dolls with their hands raised to their mouths in shock and disbelief. Devoid of any political leaning, this photograph captures the raw and intense moment when New York City and the country stood still. Manhattan abstractly represents the aftermath at ground zero with one doll turned to her companion seeming to share a secret, hand raised to her mouth in a cupped shape. The content of the secret could be interpreted in a variety of ways. The information or meaning of the secret is concealed from the audience, which in itself contains meaning. The shape of the tower’s skeleton is nearly indistinguishable at first glance, cloaked by a dark and muddy quality of light, alluding that the secret is so sinister it may be unmentionable. The possible significance of the secret could be a retelling of the popular conspiracy theory regarding United States government involvement in the planning of the attacks on the twin towers. Regardless of the artist’s intentions, the inclusion of these two pieces in the exhibition are powerful and their juxtaposition leave more room for interpretation than most of the other images.

Aesthetically, the works included in War Games: New Photographs are multi-dimensional and technically brilliant in their rendering. The socio-political content of the pieces is timely but a bit trite and the use of Blythe dolls is an obvious and in vogue choice. Luckily, the quality of the lighting, the content of the digital manipulation, and the clarity in its printing saves the series from staleness. While the photographs are quirky, timely, and political, Venieri should stick to sculpture and installations.

The Fantastic Furniture That (Almost) Saved the Summer of Love

Late Danish designer Vernor Panton’s Phantasy Landscape Visiona II, originally created for the 1970 Cologne Furniture Fair, dominates space at the primary entrance of Whitney’s Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era exhibition in its fresh 2007 reincarnation. A monolith amongst the surrounding items of memorabilia and kitsch on display, the futuristic room made of foam rubber and woolen fabric immediately draws the viewer in with its rounded and open windows. Fantastical colors and ethereal lighting illuminate the organic curves of the interior landscape, emphasizing the continuity and seamlessness of its structure. Floor, ceiling, and walls meld into one unremitting environment, void of linearity, joints, or corners. Once inside this cozy monument of modernity, all distinctions or delineations of space are erased. The interior forms that serve as furniture resemble a cosmic uterus of sorts, cradling the natural curves of its visitors. Reverting back to a child-like state, the viewer cannot seem to help herself from climbing and crawling on the fluid forms, turning the work of art into a playground for the hip adult.

For its modern day manifestation, the “Phantasy Landscape” resembles more of an attraction than a holistic experience. There is a line to enter that snakes around the gallery with on lookers anxious to enter the LSD-LAND theme park. Guards stand at either end monitoring the number of people allowed inside at one time (six) and making sure that shoes are taken off well before reaching the entrance. “How much to enter?” viewers inquire. Many excited and confused gallery goers try leaping into the art bounce-house through the front window, much to the dismay of the stoic and protective gallery guard. These examples of rigidity seem to contradict the laid-back environment intended for both the piece and the exhibit as a whole, not to mention the vibes the era is supposed to evoke. Summer of Love is meant to provide the viewer with an escape into a flowery, groovy, and romanticized decade.

Nostalgia tends to omit the negative and hindsight is never 20/20. As noted by critics Jerry Saltz and Holland Cotter, the show has an astoundingly selective memory; it displays a singular, homogenous culture of the 60’s and 70’s while ignoring pesky little details like the civil rights movement. While I agree with both of the critics’ conclusion that the exhibit was far from inclusive, I contest that the show was not meant to encompass the 1960’s and 70’s in its entirety. If this were the case, the show would have been titled something like Tension and Recreation: The Polarity of Cultures in the Hippie Era. The full title of the show, Summer of Love: Art From the Psychedelic Era denotes that it will not include serious (read: depressing) subjects but rather ones that provide escape. In this way I believe the show succeeded. It takes the boomer back in time to revisit the old days of tripping, rock and roll, and unprotected, free sex. It implants in us youngsters a great jealousy that we were not alive to experience this renaissance in culture and coming to consciousness. It makes life in the twenty-first century look dull and without substance. Sure, the exhibit was severely lacking in “fine” art. It probably belonged in a history museum, not at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Dated and skewed as it may be, the exhibit serves its rightful purpose: that of the summer blockbuster. Fluffy filler has become the status quo at institutions of fine art as they prepare for meaty fall and winter exhibitions. Amidst the memorabilia and pieces of nostalgia, Panton’s psychedelic jungle gym and lounge still manages to seem fresh and futuristic even after nearly forty years. Visitors have the ability to displace themselves physically from their contemporary surroundings and enter a space that is designated solely for the purpose of experience. I think that the eminent designer would have been happy with his creation’s placement in this psychedelic exhibition.