Friday, December 5, 2008

Camille Rose Garcia at Jonathan LeVine

Camille Rose Garcia’s second solo exhibition at Jonathan LeVine, “Ambien Somnambulants,” just might be the perfect exhibition for adults who like their fairy tales served with a hefty dose of quasi-nihilistic sociopolitical observations. Garcia, who is increasingly considered one of the leading ladies of the Low Brow movement, is known as much for her glossy finishes as her cultural criticism. As in her first exhibition here in 2006, “Subterranean Death Clash,” the artist paints a series of panels that warn of the planet’s imminent destruction using frilly fairy tale characters, decorative design and a spattering of glitter.

Innocent and insidious at once, Garcia weaves a story of a witch with poisonous apples who casts a spell on languid-looking swans, Bambi-esque deer, wolves, bats and butterflies. The illustrated characters are painted flatly against colorful backgrounds of splatters and drips, as if they have been collaged by a morbid Disney-dropout, or a highly-skilled teenager armed with a set of sparkly stickers and a can of spray paint.

In the 48 by 48 inch painted wood panel The Sleepwitch, one of Garcia’s signature sad-eyed, dark haired girls is metamorphosed into a flying witch with butterfly wings and a worm-like body. Set against a background of dripping and lightly blended blocks of color, the witch hovers over bottles that pour red liquid onto apples, down-turned flowers, black mushrooms, and a swan that is crying bright orange tears in a swirling pattern. The forms seem to be stuck onto the colorful background as in the flat-based field of design, without regard to depth of field or perspective.

The sociopolitical content of the series is not obvious at first glance and the work definitely has the potential to come off as purely fluff and gloss given its sheer “prettiness.” In her artist statement, Garcia describes the series as telling the story of, “a powerful witch [that] delivers apples poisoned with sleep elixir to the Ambien Somnambulents, a sleepwalking army of fancy dressed revelers, innocent and content in their dream world of complete denial.” The artist intentionally veils her dark subject matter with beauty in order to provide an entrance to difficult issues such as the destruction of the environment, abuses of the pharmaceutical industry, self-medication, escapism and an ultimately destructive conquest for shiny objects. Black, oil-like drips surround the edges of several pieces, providing both a stylized frame for the composition and a reference to the world’s dangerous addiction to petroleum. Oversized Ambien pills are cradled by swans and cartoon deer lick apples that leak blood red poison. Underneath the glitter, there is chaos.

Garcia’s first solo show at LeVine featured the same bottles of poison, cartoon swans, black drips and a fairy tale about the destruction of the planet. There are a few welcome changes in the new show, however, that demonstrate some artistic growth. For one thing, Garcia’s established palette of dark grays, smoky purples, and muddy blues is now integrated with a shockingly bright arsenal of day-glow oranges, sea-foam greens and candy-apple reds. The compositions are more filled-out, detailed, and utilize space better than before, which could be seen as a progression from her previous method of creating a central figure with surrounding embellishments. The collage-effect is taken up several notches demonstrated by an intense layering of forms and glazes of paint combined with actual collaged pieces of wallpaper. Although her forms and subject matter remain the same, Garcia is experimenting with technique, color, and space.

Because of the overtly commercial nature of most Low Brow work, many of the artists rely too heavily on what’s worked for them and don’t show sizeable artistic growth. There is some evolution apparent in Garcia’s "Somnambulants", but the question remains whether it is enough to give her a place as an important and interesting artist both inside and outside of the Low Brow world. The visual seductiveness of her paintings far outweighs any political content, which is still too vague and cookie-cutter to be the most significant element in her work. And yet, the fact that there is any underlying message to her work is refreshing in a movement that tends to fixate on glossy surfaces and meaningless symbolism. Garcia may never deviate from the method of using beauty and pop to convey sociopolitical messages, and that just may be okay: her art is greatly aesthetically appealing and the content is generally accessible. If she keeps using the same forms and characters (sad-eyed girls, swans, deer, and more swans) to express these messages, however, her art will be in danger of dying from commercially-induced repetition. Garcia, as well as the rest of the Low Brow staples, still needs to prove that she is dedicated to the same level of artistic development as more conventional artists and not just the marketability of her style.

Monday, October 20, 2008

“In the Land of Retinal Delights: The Juxtapoz Factor" at Laguna Art Museum

Come one, come all and behold a real, live art movement, right now, in the 21st century!

It’s hard to believe that in the age of fissures and post-post modern indecisiveness, a cohesive art movement exists. The idea seems to belong in a sideshow theater, as an anomaly or a relic of the past, but there is proof at the Laguna Art Museum that the practice is not yet extinct. “In the Land of Retinal Delights: The Juxtapoz Factor,” brings together 145 artists in the first large-scale display of art from what is commonly called the Low Brow or Pop Surrealist movement. Defying a concrete definition, the painting-based tendency of art is influenced by illustration, comics, car culture, street art, poster art, album covers, and many other veins of popular or “low” culture. Curator Meg Linton provides a focus for the potentially overwhelming exhibition by emphasizing the importance of Juxtapoz magazine, founded by artist Robert Williams in 1994, and its role in the dissemination of Low Brow art. Nearly all the artists in the exhibition were promoted in the pages of Juxtapoz during the first 10 years of its existence, helping to create what followers of the movement would eventually refer to as a “Juxtapoz” style.

Covering two floors of the museum, the show begins with spacious galleries neatly displaying blockbuster paintings. The first visible work is the Clayton Brothers’ sprawling, unstretched canvas titled Behave Be Kind (2000) that features cartoonish characters painted in a carnival aesthetic. The adjacent room holds underground icon Alex Grey’s monumentally-sized triptych Journey of the Wounded Healer, a hyper-detailed and brightly colored painting that combines anatomical drawing with psychedelic and spiritual imagery. So many of the paintings presented in the first two galleries are tour de forces exalting classical techniques and realistic rendering. Most notable is Mark Ryden’s crisp The Creatrix, a Renaissance-style portrait of a doe-eyed queen set against a surrealistic landscape containing dinosaurs, sea creatures, and a pipe-smoking Santa Claus with four arms. The painting could be the poster child for the term “pop surrealist” with its disparate images and novelty appeal.

The exhibition continues on the basement level of the museum, with a plethora of small and medium-sized works by staple Low Brow artists. Gary Baseman’s creepy-cute canvas featuring little girls clubbing strange characters greets the viewer at the bottom of the stairs, and it is set next to two small canvases from Takashi Murakami’s DOB series. While there are individual, strong pieces on the bottom floor, such as the more historical works by forefathers Henry Darger, R. Crumb, and R.K. Sloane, the rooms lack the fluidity of the first floor. The vibe is also generally thrown-off by Kevin Ancell’s noisy, chintzy installation Aloha Oe (2000) which consists of about 20 life-size, mechanized hula dancers holding guns and grenades. The swaying pieces of plastic take up far too much space in such an important exhibition.

Another weak point of the mostly well curated show is the appearance of “high brow” favorites Kara Walker, Wangechi Mutu and Patricia Piccinini, who have small pieces in side galleries on the main floor. Thrown in as references to the influence of Low Brow aesthetics on mainstream art, their inclusion comes off more as an attempt to legitimize the surrounding work than a way to diversify the content of the exhibition, as stated by Linton in the wall texts. There are valid arguments that can be made for other blue-chip artists in the show, such as Raymond Pettibon, Takashi Murakami and Andre Serrano; Pettibon was a part of the scene in the 1980s before his leap into the mainstream, Murakami is the father of Low Brow Japanese art and Serrano is featured in the exhibition as a representative of the culture wars of the late 1980s, which Linton states in the catalogue helped further Low Brow artists’ agenda of pushing boundaries. The strength of “Retinal Delights,” however, is its intense focus and the nod to the high brow world is mostly a distraction, even if a few of the artists’ involvement can be justified.

Presenting a large and complex movement for the first time is an enormous undertaking, and Linton could have easily tried to explore too much at once. Starting out with a small slice of the pie and moving forward from there is definitely more conducive than trying to tackle everything. Putting the focus on Juxtapoz, the artists that sparked its creation and the first group of artists that were, in turn, influenced by the magazine is an effective route to presenting Low Brow art to the public. Having said that, it would be wonderful to see an even larger retrospective at a major museum that outlines and organizes the movement as a whole. Although this is a West Coast-based exhibition, the influence of East Coast artists is greatly missed and the dynamic that the art of the two coasts creates is essential in providing an accurate scope of the movement. More scholarship in general needs to be dedicated to dissecting the intricacies of the multi-faceted style being that is the most cohesive and accessible movement of art in the past 20 years. Linton has planted a much-needed seed in the “established” art world, now others need to join in helping it to grow.

Anne Faith Nicholls at La Luz de Jesus Gallery

Every so often one finds a treasure amidst trash. The premise of La Luz de Jesus gallery in Los Angeles evokes the treasure hunter in us all, even if the art it presents isn’t always a gem. Located in the center of a larger, brightly colored shop filled with artsy odds and ends, the 22-year-old Low-Brow mainstay run by art guru Billy Shire continues to deliver new artists to a dedicated and appreciative public. This month a recent transplant from San Francisco, Anne Faith Nicholls, has her first Los Angeles solo show, “Neofolk.”

The aptly titled display of folksy, urban-influenced oil and mixed media paintings can be best described as cute and streamlined. The fare has stereotypically Low Brow characteristics such as an overload of tattoo-style swallows, five-point stars, poster-style letters and spray-paint drips. This borderline formulaic use of symbols is paired with an illustrative, flat perspective, and a compositional symmetry that all contribute to a design-oriented feel. Although the surface of the medium-sized canvases lacks texture, an illusion of layered media is created by painting images one-over-the-other. While there is no actual collage, the works definitely display a collage aesthetic.

Aside from the predictable application of swallows and paint drips, Nicholls’s distinct point of view shows through in her fusion of a whimsical folk-based style with urban landscapes and throw-backs to street art. Some elements are reminiscent of turn-of-the-last-century relics of pop culture, such as black paper silhouettes and ornate Victorian-style patterns, while emblems of 1950s California beach-culture make frequent appearances and a general “vintage” vibe dominates. Contemporary components are also easily identifiable, such as tattoo designs, clusters of modernistic skyscrapers, and an abundant use of spray-paint.

Described by the artist in the press release as “unapologetically autobiographical,” the content outlines her struggle for identity in paintings such as Looking Out From Within and The Plunge. Nicholls paints herself in seemingly internal conflict, surrounded by flames, lightning bolts and storm clouds in disjointed picture planes. In the former, she is trapped in a snow globe filled with rain and a burning building; in a surreal touch she has the body of a woman and the head of a pigeon. Dream-like fragmentation underlies the body of work as a whole, adding to Nicholls’s diverse pool of sources and her identification with the Pop Surrealist/Low-Brow movement.

The outcome of the amalgamation of old and new pop symbolism is a quaint and personable aesthetic that fits well in La Luz de Jesus’s low-key setting. Nicholls is not ready to show, however, at Shire’s bigger and more professional gallery in Los Angeles, Billy Shire Fine Arts. The artist has not ventured outside of using simple aesthetic equations set by the Low Brow movement, making it apparent that her art benefits greatly from being presented amidst the fantastic ambience of La Luz’s surrounding shop. Her paintings would gain strength if they were to express her own emotional reality without clinging to familiar symbols and techniques, a practice that is holding Nicholls’s back from growing as an artist.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Marcel Dzama’s Marriage of Violence and Sexuality

Marcel Dzama’s world of disturbed characters has expanded into the third dimension and the cinematic realm. For his fifth solo show at David Zwirner, Even the Ghost of the Past, the young Canadian artist departs from his typically quaint drawings in a showy display of dioramas, film, and complex compositions. With the added complexity, the artist probes more deeply into issues surrounding the connection of sexuality to violence, violence to sexuality, and larger themes of gender-related power constructs.

The first room of the exhibition contains several of the artist’s characteristic whimsically demented drawings, where cute animals intermix with a perverted array of carnival-like men and women engaged in lascivious acts in muted colors against a white background. In Poor Sacrifices of our enmity, a cluster of female archers hunch over their drawn bow and arrows, aiming at a central bull figure or randomly into space. The women are desexualized through their plain dress and hidden bodies, representing a threatening female archetype reminiscent of the Amazons.

In the thematically rich drawing The Hidden, the unknowable, and the unthinkable, an oversized naked woman is being stretched from each limb while other naked women with masks, naked men, and a few clothed figures play on her body like a jungle gym. One man is seen lynched from her extended arm. Another naked woman crawls out of the neck of the headless body. Possibly alluding to the mythical story of the Maenads ripping their victims limb from limb, the drawing represents a vicious yet playful destruction of the female body, possibly by the male artist. A fully clothed male is suspended in the air with a paint brush and a half-finished canvas, suggesting that the stretched central figure is a model or muse.

In the drawing The ghost of Picabia will corrupt the souls of the youth, the Dadaist artist Francis Picabia, who was known for having affairs with his dancer models, is referenced through the depiction of a male figure clothed head-to-toe in black and holding a bull-whip that is directed at a line of young girls dancing. Once again investigating the relationship of male artist to female subject, Dzama creates a troubling look at sexual dynamics in relation to positions of power and submission.

The characters from Dzama’s small-scale drawings are inflated into 3-D dioramas in the second room of the exhibition, recessed into the walls and dimly lit. In First Born, a large bear figure stands holding a woman’s legless and armless body in the air while his other arm is outstretched, grasping a club-like object, ready to strike the woman. A man in a suit reaches up to stop the bear from beating the woman, a static and generally expressionless look on his face. A woman (the man’s significant other?) stands cautiously behind him, holding his hat. Strongly suggesting domestic abuse but portrayed with a surrealistic distance, Dzama’s cool depiction of violence against women is intriguing and discomforting in its ambiguity.

In what is the most disturbing piece of the show, the diorama The Underground, three masked terrorists with guns stand over a naked, squatting woman with a tube running out of her vagina and into the mouth of a man in a suit lounging in a stomach-shaped mole hole. Dzama typically leaves his art open for interpretation, but this particular piece has an accompanying artist page in a display case in the first room of the exhibit. The artist notes that there should be a yellow light shining on the tube to represent urine, erasing what could be a less provacative perception of the tube as an umbilical cord and the man as gestating in a womb-like structure. With this information the violent undertones of the scene are centralized, placing the woman in a position of shame, intimidation, and sexual victimization at the hands of the men.

The sound of a piano (live on certain Saturdays) beckons the viewer to sit in one of the two rows of theater seats to watch the silent film, Lotus Eaters (2005), in the final room of the exhibition. The most prevalent female archetype in Dzama’s drawings, the femme fatale, comes to life as the artist’s deceased wife whom he, like Orpheus, frantically searches for in the afterlife. Although the film is ultimately entertaining and enjoyable from a formalist standpoint, the puzzling sexual dynamics between man and woman, artist and subject, linger unanswered.

The suggestion of male dominance and female submission underlies Dzama’s current body of work. While a few examples of sadomasochism are present in the drawings, the overall power dynamics relate mainly to gender constructs. If the general context of the exhibition would have been sadomasochistic, then the submission of the females would have taken on a new (and less negative) connotation, representing sexual play rather than a real inconsistency in power. Aside from the overtly negative portrayal of women, the psychological complexities behind Dzama’s art are ultimately intriguing partially because they represent an innate connection between sex and violence that is often ignored but consistently present throughout human history.

Recycling the Past, Anticipating the Future

Death, sexuality, domesticity, childhood, Life. These are the themes artist Robert Gober has explored since his emergence in the New York art scene in the 1980’s, a decade known for decadence as much as for death and disease, the AIDS epidemic. As an antidote to these issues, the openly gay Gober created hand-made, non-fabricated objects that addressed the confusing connection between the activity of sex and the act of dying. Now, more than twenty years later, the artist uses his own body of work as a source for appropriation, recycling central imagery such as faucets, rifles, apples, bird nests, and isolated body parts to continue a discussion of facing life and sexuality in the face of death.

Following a large-scale solo exhibition at Matthew Marks in 2005 focused on religion and politics, Gober presents a more intimate and personal show at Marks’ two smaller galleries on West 21st and 22nd Street. Each gallery presents untitled sculptures of a partially dismantled chair mounted on the wall, with large breasts protruding outward from the seat and various other Goberian elements included.

One of the cast gypsum polymer chairs has the surreally rendered legs of a female child wrapped flaccidly around its rungs, dark human hair accenting the pale flesh on each limb. The treatment of the seemingly lifeless legs have a violent yet playful quality, provoking thoughts of either a crime scene or a jungle gym on a playground. The stark contrast between innocence and the loss thereof provides an eerie and thought provoking element that continues in surrounding works in the exhibition.

Another of the breasted-chair sculptures features a handcrafted rifle entering the empty space between the legs of the chair and curving (flaccidly, again) around the front so that the barrel is pointed directly between the two breasts. The curvature morphs the gun from threatening and phallic into a faucet-like object, thus emphasizing the non-functionality of both the gun and the faucet.

Of the more gentle pieces present is a chair without any presentation of violence, but of life and birth instead. The tiny, blue eggs of a robin sit in a nest that rests inside the framework of the chair, appearing as though it is delicately balanced on top of the rungs. This piece could address the struggle in becoming a woman, whether it is letting go of childlike qualities or becoming a mother, or simply the act of creation amidst life’s injustices.

Superficially, Gober’s sculptures can seem violent and misogynistic. It would be easy to dismiss Gober as a woman-loathing male due to the violent undercurrents of his representations of women, but within these pieces there also exists a tenderness, and a sense of personal struggle. Deeper investigations need to be forged in order to understand the artist’s use of gender, sexuality, and his allusions to death or violence.

The exhibition at Marks has neither a title nor a press release, even though there are a plethora of essential details in the body of work that necessitate explanation. Luckily, a surprisingly friendly gallery assistant, Jonathan, informed me that the chair featured in the show is a replica of the first piece of furniture that Gober purchased when he arrived in New York City. This little bit of information is instrumental in interpreting the rich iconography present in the sculptures, which are full of possibilities for a Freudian analysis. Sans press release, interesting details about the show such as this or that the frames surrounding small linoleum block prints are handcrafted in apple wood (the same wood as the butt of the rifle), are lost without a thorough interrogation of the gallery staff or an insider’s knowledge of the artist’s work.

After learning about the history of the chairs, a more personal interpretation of the exhibition comes into focus. Being as that the chairs represent the artist’s entrance into the New York art world, one can conclude that when combined with the incorporated symbolism they represent both the birth of his life as an artist, and the death of a child-like naiveté.

Another tidbit I received from my long conversation with Jonathan was that the artist brought his mother and his sister to the gallery the day before to revisit his pieces during an afternoon outing, and that he has a close relationship with them both. This information led me to reevaluate my Freudian analyses and conclude that Gober’s sculptures are based more on an analysis of his own experiences than a meditation on gender specifically.

The artist’s entrance into the New York art world in the 1980’s inevitably included a loss of innocence tied to harsh realities, such as the discovery of the AIDS virus and his position as a gay male in the scheme of these issues. By reusing his own arsenal of images related to death, sexuality, childhood, and rebirth, Gober continues on a path of self-discovery that is directly linked to larger and complex societal concerns.

The World Famous *Bob*'s !BadAss! Birthday Bash

photo by Stacie Joy

In case you’ve been in a cave for the past ten years, the art of burlesque has experienced a vast revival, pervading not only popular culture but the high brow halls of museums. This Neo-Burlesque is not your classic striptease but a theatrical, humorous, dramatic, intelligent, political, and sexy revision that is also a new brand of performance art. A combination of satirical sketches, modern dance, classic striptease, and avant garde theater, the end product is entertaining, thought provoking, and diverse depending on the venue and the performer.

New York City is the center of the burlesque revival, and any given day there is bound to be a performance occurring somewhere in the five boroughs. While many troupes practice a more traditional form of burlesque (stripping+comedy), a few are intent on breaking rules and expanding the definition of the nearly lost art. !BadAss! Burlesque describes itself as the underbelly of the New York burlesque scene, bringing together performers that push boundaries and are often too unusual for mainstream audiences. Producer Velocity Chyaldd has organized a monthly show for the past three years at The Bowery Poetry Club that is dedicated to politically and socially conscious performance art where almost anything goes. If you have a weak stomach, a vanilla outlook, or want to ogle perfectly proportioned bodies, you’d be in the wrong place.

This month was the third annual birthday bash for The World Famous *Bob*, whose name says it all. Perhaps the most well-known burlesque performer in New York City, the blonde bombshell chose fifteen of her favorite performers to wish her well in celebration of her 36th year (which she calls “thirty-sexy”). Hosting in a sheer, black nightgown and displaying her gigantic sense of humor, Bob proved that it is her razor sharp wit that has catapulted her to pastie stardom.

The most prominent member of the line-up was certainly high art sweetheart Julie Atlas Muz, a Whitney Biennial 2004 and Valencia Bienal 2005 artist. For her act at BadAss, Muz performed a parody of the disturbing and now infamous You Tube sensation “two girls and a cup.” First stripping with the cupcakes in front of her and then perching on top of a stool, the nude Muz somehow shat (chocolate pudding) onto the cupcakes. She then turned around, stuck her finger down her throat and puked onto both of the pastries (she had a balloon full of vomit-like material in her mouth throughout the performance which she punctured with a pin). With a big smile on her face, Muz ate the two cupcakes at the dismay of the audience. After applause, one girl in the front shouted “Oh! I get it! One girl, two cupcakes!” Bob then congratulated her for finally catching on.

Another standout was Tigger! (there’s lots of exclamation points in burlesque). Dressed as a Frenchman, the male burlesquer began his act by parading around the stage telling jokes about Americans into the microphone. Keeping in character, he began stripping and dancing in a comical yet highly skilled fashion until he was fully nude, doing what looked like horizontal jumping jacks on the floor. Combining politics, comedy, intellectual banter, modern dance, and striptease, Tigger! proved that while burlesque is traditionally a woman’s game, men can create just as dynamic of a performance.

A disappointment of the night was the usually jaw-dropping Jo Boobs, who runs the NY School of Burlesque. Jo most certainly understands the dynamics of traditional and non-traditional burlesque alike, but her short performance at BadAss did not convey her strengths. A chair was set on stage with a dildo strapped on, facing conveniently upward before Jo pranced out, quickly stripped, lubed up the phallus, and sat on it for about five seconds. Penetration for penetration’s sake is not very artful and today’s desensitized audiences expect a more dynamic act, especially from the anointed high-priestess of burlesque instruction.

The World Famous *Bob* is a practitioner of a more traditional burlesque, so most of the performances at her birthday party were less unorthodox than is typical at a BadAss show. There was plenty of comedic striptease, provided by the fat-positive newcomer Della Dare, the young Kit Cat, and the beautiful Legs Malone. Although the avant garde was pushed to the side by most performers, the night was cohesively light, funny, and fitting for the celebration of the larger than life Bob.

What makes the Neo-Burlesque movement so important is the blurring of lines between high and low art, theater and performance art. Existing somewhere between the poles, the unique art form brings together humor, talent, entertainment, and creativity in a way that can expand to fit mainstream interpretations, underground sensibilities, and high art interest. So, chose your venue according to your expectations, but be assured that BadAss will provide an unusual mixture of all the spheres of burlesque, although it might not be suitable for everyone.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

A Life of Their Own

Australian artist Patricia Piccinini’s solo show at Yvon Lambert, The place where it actually happens, contains only two sculptures, Thicker Than Water (2007) and Nest (2006). While the acclaimed artist is known in the New York art world for her realistically rendered, genetically engineered mythical creatures that resemble a half baboon-half human hybrid, this small exhibition presents a sample of auto-related art that has been exhibited elsewhere for the past ten years. Continuing her investigations of the intersections of technological advances and biological life forms, Piccinini anthropomorphizes motorbikes in this series, following in the vein of previous projects Truck Babies and Car Nuggets.

In Nest a shiny, snail-like moped mother figure looks down at her baby moped offspring with a sense of tenderness, her body curving protectively around the tiny object. The rounded bicycle figures are at once life-like and clearly identifiable as mechanical constructions, conflating the space between animal and machine. Finished in candy colored pink and pearl automotive paint, the bike animals are cute enough to appeal to children (of all ages) and would fit right in at SoHo’s designer-toy-peddling Kid Robot store. It’s hard not to be completely taken with Piccinini’s sleek slugs, and to want to name them and take them home.

The smaller of the two sculptures, Thicker Than Water, features two of the baby mopeds in what might be to them, a close embrace. One of the creatures snuggles over the other in a stance that could be interpreted as either protective or playful, but loving nonetheless. It is amazing that the artist can convey such humanness in the vehicles, a quality that is both endearing and irking.

Once the cuteness factor of the two pieces is digested, the viewer is left to contemplate the connection of these life forms to the non-living technological devices in their own lives. How often do we give names to our automobiles? Have we forged real, emotional attachments to inanimate possessions before, and are they capable of these attachments as well? In the small front gallery at Yvon Lambert and in the imagination of Piccinini, these questions are explored through a disarmingly tender and aesthetically appealing format.

On an even deeper level, the mopeds represent the underlying fear of automated machines becoming more powerful and more cognizant than humans, or at least of running society through mental enslavement. It is already apparent that humans cannot function without the mechanical devices they created. Nearly every pedestrian on the streets of Manhattan is using a cellphone, MP3 player, or another technological invention that separates them from their surroundings. When one of these objects that have become extensions of the body is lost or non-functioning, daily tasks can be almost impossible to complete.

While Piccinini’s kid-friendly moped beings are fun, pretty, and smile-inducing, they also have a sinister side that probes issues that are all too relevant to our modern dependence on and use of technology. The small and largely critically overlooked exhibition packs a comparatively hefty dose of enjoyment and contemplation into these two sculptures. Piccinini once again strikes a chord that connects on a very real level, and that is visually interesting, and conceptually complicated.

Bjork, Modern Things:

All the modern things

Like cars and such

Have always existed

They've just been waiting in a mountain

For the right momentListening to the irritating noises

Of dinosaurs and people

Dabbling outside

All the modern things

Have always existed

They've just been waiting

To come out

And multiply

And take over

It's their turn now...

Monday, March 24, 2008

Yigal Ozeri's Skilled Subjugation

There’s no denying that Israeli-born artist Yigal Ozeri’s photorealistic paintings at Mike Weiss Gallery are technically stunning. Detail that only intensive labor with a single-hair brush can produce is combined with lush, naturalistic jewel-tones and a diffused luminosity in this series of 18 works in oil. Titled Genesis, the exhibition showcases a blonde, dreadlocked young woman named Priscilla emerging from vines, forests, and streams as if she were a part of the surrounding nature. Supported by a workshop of seven artists, Ozeri generates meticulously precise canvases that follow traditional standards and enter into art historical discussions.

It’s hard not to be dazzled by such skillfully rendered and aesthetically beautiful paintings, as they are a rare and prized occurrence in the conceptually-inclined, new-media driven New York art world. Yet, after one moves past the spell of Ozeri’s craft layers of meaning and multiple points of contention are discovered. Issues of gender, power, historical canons, and artist’s intent versus viewer interpretation brew under the surface of Ozeri’s mesmerizing creations.

The first three paintings in the exhibition are from a series titled Priscilla in Ecstasy and show the model/muse laying in the water amongst lily pads, mouth agape, with dewy tears falling down her pale face. The brocade on Priscilla’s dress, as well as her surroundings, are nearly identical to John Everett Millais’ famous Ophelia. The Pre-Raphaelite motif is unmistakable, as is the connection of Ophelia to aestheticization of women’s suffering and violence. The young woman appears to be in pain, either emotional or physical, although the title of the series suggests pleasure. The dichotomy of pleasure and pain is especially suspect in relation to a female subject being portrayed by a male both within preexisting societal power constructs and the history of Western art. From the very first portraits in the exhibition, one sees a woman in the role of powerless object, an archetype of feminine submission.

The surrounding paintings in the first room of the gallery are mostly nude portraits of the muse engulfed by nature. She is bare breasted riding a horse that exists outside of the picture plane, she is completely nude hanging on a tree, and sitting cross-legged with her head turned away, face obscured by her mass of dreaded hair. Once again alluding to art historical sources in the portrait Untitled; Priscilla lying in the woods, Ozeri invokes the tradition of the lounging nude, mimicking a wide range of masterpieces such as Trutat’s Reclining Bacchante or Manet’s infamous Olympia.

In John Berger’s seminal essay Ways of Seeing, the author differentiates between being portrayed as naked and as nude. “To be naked is to be oneself,” he states, “nudity is [to be] placed on display.” The question now is if Priscilla is depicted as naked or nude by Ozeri. Was the artist attempting to depict the essence of Priscilla the individual or was he using her young, nubile figure to titillate? The answer could be as multifaceted as one’s own desire to see their image duplicated or an artist’s quest to obtain beauty in every form. The implications involved in both using the unclothed female form and allowing oneself to be the object of such use are that the (male) artist/viewer ascertains power and control over the (female) model.

The back room of the gallery is filled with portraits of the woman from the neck up. In contrast to the full-body images in the previous room, in these works Priscilla peers out from behind vines, looking directly at the viewer. The expression on her face is soft and inviting, with a provoking Mona Lisa-like half smile. Her blonde locks are barely distinguishable from the tangled, sun-bleached vegetation, and her face is bare and natural. These descriptions might sound like the schmaltzy commentary of a women’s magazine, but that is perhaps because despite their exquisite detail and immense skill, the paintings project the familiar appearance of a fashion spread.

Considering the parallels between traditional Western nudes and Ozeri’s depiction of Priscilla as desirable (and obtainable), one could conclude that the Israeli artist’s paintings closely follow an equation of male dominance and female submission in which the woman becomes the object of the male gaze. The conjunction of the art historical, Pre-Raphaelite allusions to Ophelia, which represents a weakness in femininity, and the modern high-fashion aesthetic, which connotes women’s objectification, form a structure in which the female is essentially powerless. The paintings in Genesis fit into the male-dominated canon of art history through their use of devices such as inviting the male gaze, and presenting the nude, female form as a commodity one can own.

Ozeri is no doubt a talented and dedicated artist with a great appreciation of beauty and, one could argue, of the conventionally proportioned female form. The way in which he portrays Priscilla in Genesis, however, is less than conducive to the promotion of the young woman as an autonomous being. It cannot be expected that every artist exercise a feminist consciousness in their work, but it would be refreshing to see less males utilizing and regurgitating the same patriarchal equations that have unfortunately underlined the history of art. Hopefully Ozeri will find less hokey and subjugating ways to share his technical skill with the world.

Friday, March 14, 2008

From a Distance: Shirin Neshat Continues Her Exploration of Life in Exile

Rape, revolt, suicide, dreams, magic: these are the main themes of Shirin Neshat’s current show at Barbara Gladstone, which runs through February 23rd. As in her previous solo shows at the gallery, Neshat addresses the intersection of political oppression and emotional conflict in her native Iran, from which she has been in exile for over thirty years. The exhibition contains large-scale color photographs and two short films from her Women Without Men series, which is based on the novel of the same title by fellow Persian exile Shahrnush Parsipur. The series outlines the lives of five women who are affected by the pivotal CIA-backed 1953 coup that ousted the democratic government and reinstated the Shah.

The more startling of the two films, Faezeh, depicts a young, devout Muslim woman who suffers through a brutal rape and the inevitable consequences that sexual assault implies in the ultra-religious Iran. Separated from herself by the intensity of the atrocity, Faezeh chases a figment of herself through a dream-like forest where she reencounters the crime as a bystander. As she runs through the woods, whispers in Farsi are repeated: “Where is my blue dress? What should I wear to Parveen’s wedding?” These thought-pattern fragments could represent what was coursing through her mind during the rape, as it is easier to be outside oneself and escape during such an unconscionable act, although such thoughts could also refer to the woman’s loss of hope for marriage as a result of her forced loss of her virginity in a culture of fundamentalist patriarchy.

At the beginning of the film, Faezeh and a woman who might be her sister are conversing in Farsi, and there are no English subtitles translating their dialogue. There are only select phrases that are translated in Faezeh, begging the question of what audience Neshat envisioned while creating the film. This choice causes a feeling of displacement and alienation to the non-Farsi speaking viewer, mirroring Neshat’s own experience of being forcibly detached from her culture. The artist is aware that the majority of the exhibition’s viewers will be of non-Iranian origin and that the film will not be screened in her native country. One may assume that this exclusion is meant as a tactic to keep the Western audience at arms length while simultaneously permitting an entrance into an unknown existence.

In the film Munis, Neshat tells the story of a young woman who longs to join the political activists she sees on the television and in the streets during the 1953 coup. Again, the beginning of the film contains a conversation that is not translated between the main character and a family member, who the press release discloses is her brother, in which he forcibly stops her from watching the protests on T.V. Munis is then seen on the roof where she witnesses the death of a revolutionary and then seemingly jumps to her own demise, landing beside the man who’s life she admired. Whether the scene is imagined or real, the young woman enters into a philosophical conversation with the dead man and envisions herself amongst the protesters. The dream-like confrontation between supporters of the democratic government and the military-backed Shah is filmed largely from a bird’s eye view in a way that emphasizes the choreographed, imaginary nature of the scene. As in Faezeh, Neshat prohibits the viewer from fully entering into the life of the protagonist by using filmic and narrative devices which serve as a reminder that they are watching a film of which they remain outside.

Both films in the exhibition portray imagined scenarios that illuminate a harsh reality in a diffused yet honest fashion, revealing a network of complexities in the lives of Iranian women. Even the photographs are presented in a way that exposes the artifice of the image instead of creating enterable, escapist worlds. In Faezeh and Amin Kahn, the man and woman stand rigidly facing the camera, inviting the viewer to ask unanswerable questions, or at least questions that they will not answer.

Overall, the exhibit marks the beginning of Neshat’s transfer from video art to filmmaking, as the two short films that are included do not fit neatly into either category. Too linear to be perceived as traditional video art, yet still too unconventional to enter into the realm of mainstream cinema, the films straddle the line between art and entertainment in a way that may upset some viewers and excite others. Neshat’s interest in dichotomies surfaces yet again through the transition from white cube to darkened theater, proving that the artist’s ability to provoke analysis and discussion has not yet dwindled.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

His Therapist Would Be Proud

What do you get when you combine two and a half years under the spell of a Freudian psychologist and ten years building finances and relative success in the incestuous circles of the New York art world? Head to Mary Boone’s Chelsea location and you’ll find the answer: Luis Gispert’s new blinged-out and unsettling video, Smother, which will be on view until March 1. The Cuban-American artist, who spent his formative years in the cocaine-laden Miami of the 1980’s, explores the psyche of his inner little Luis through a semi-autobiographical attempt at magical realism.

Part social commentary and part self-interrogation, the 26-minute film outlines the disturbing relationship between an eleven-year-old, dark-skinned Latino boy and his blonde, Caucasian, overbearing mother whose pet name for her son is “Brownie.” The reoccurring imagery of hot-rod cars, boom-boxes, pink flamingos, and all things garish are jointly a study of the aesthetic and culture of the artist’s upbringing and a flashy effort at making high art in that tradition. The loud colors and shiny noveau-riche atmosphere may seem to be solely machismo posturing, but the theme of “auspicious wealth and cultural naïveté” is all too relevant outside the gallery walls.

Socio-political implications aside, the film is mainly a result of the artist’s recent psychological analysis by a text-book Freudian. Gispert creates a whole new meaning for the term “art therapy” through a twisted portrayal of his psyche, which apparently contains an abundant collection of the fear of castration, urination, and pseudo-incestuous love with his mother. The boy not only wets his bed, but loses control of his bladder on the kitchen floor, morphing into the family’s dog at that moment. Smother is one giant Freudian cliché that packs far too many idiosyncrasies of the subconscious to begin to list.

Even the artist’s traumatizing loss of his childhood German shepherd makes its way into the plot when a seedy butcher, who was previously seen romancing the mother’s deformed feet, gently places the whimpering animal into an oversized deep-fryer. This moment is the climax of the film, as the dog/boy is transformed into a boom box which is then given away to a Rasta man passing by on a truck full of audio equipment, thus releasing the boy from the bondage of his controlling mother.

The dream-like magical realism of Gispert’s dysfunctional film is in stark contrast with the short films of Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, which are on display at Barbara Gladstone a few doors down. While both artists utilize the genre of magical realism to portray harsh realities with underlying social critique, Neshat succeeds in providing substance beyond mere provocation. In Faezeh, a young, devout Muslim woman who suffers through a brutal rape chases a figment of herself through a darkened, mystical forest where she reencounters the crime as a bystander. The simplicity in the portrayal of a socially and emotionally complex situation is accessible to the viewer, whether they have been initiated into contemporary art-speak or not.

In order to get to the meat of Gispert’s film, on the other hand, the viewer must hack through a blindingly thick cluster of trite symbolism and random associations. Even then, the core of the artist’s fantastical adventure seems to be far less complex than the tools that are being used to convey it. Hopefully, the artist is still working with his therapist and the two of them can continue to derive complicated and perverse conclusions about Gispert’s overbearing mother and socioeconomic identity.

I Had a Monumental Seizure

The New Museum’s inaugurating exhibition of their shiny, new building, Unmonumental: An Exhibition in Four Parts, is like the recently pubescent fourteen-year old girl that wears far too many colors and accessories in an attempt to look cool and unique. Overcrowded and lacking cohesive organization, the assemblage-based sculptures and collages are purposely layered in an effort to challenge the viewer’s sensibilities. The addition of each element, sculpture, collage, sound, and an online “montage,” is planned to be added in a stagger throughout the exhibition’s run, so that the display is constantly in flux. A burst of creative intervention on the part of the curators, the plan doesn’t take into account that the majority of New Yorkers don’t have the time to revisit the museum four times in the span of two months. I’m tired of this type of quirky curating that is normally reserved for the desperate summer season. Unmonumental is a perfect example of when this technique weakens the art and the audience that it is supposed to serve.

The exhibition opened with the walls of the museum blank in an attempt to spotlight the architecture and structure of the building. Sculpture filled the floors, engulfing the white cube in a circus of disordered color. I didn’t see the exhibition until the walls were filled during the second phase and I can’t imagine that the space would have been visually interesting without the addition of the collages. The second and third floors cover the far walls of each with a single, expansive work, evening out the over-stimulation resulting from the sculpture. Mark Bradford’s multimedia Helter Skelter I and II (2007) combines a fast and furious collage with a Jackson Pollack-style continuous drip that results in an unexpectedly unobtrusive monument.

Following the same formula, Wangechi Mutu fashioned a site-specific installation on the far wall of the third floor, entitled Perhaps the Moon Will Save Us. Mounds of manila postage tape spill onto the floor as the lunar landscape while flying, furry pigs dot the night sky. When pigs fly, Mutu seems to be stating, is when we will be able to escape from ourselves. The center of the wall culminates in a collaged heap of minks, glitzy beads, foil coils, flaccid tubing, and a wig. The structure is a hyper-feminine growth that looks like what Eva Hesse would have made if she were a maximalist instead of a minimalist. Perhaps the most interesting work in the show, Mutu’s nightscape scene results in an elegance of both form and subject.

The third floor of the exhibition is the most visually cohesive, with Urs Fischer’s side by side untitled burning female candle and King Arthur-style sword in the stone sculpture set against the backdrop of Mutu’s installation. The fourth floor attempts to add a political voice to the show by featuring Sam Durant’s over-sized, activist mobile Hacer es la Mejor Manera de Decir (to do is the best way to speak) and chain-link enclosure For People Who Refuse to Knuckle Down. The impact of the two pieces is drowned by the mire of closely residing sculptures with over-powering visual elements, serving as a perfect example of what happens when a throng of complicated art is packed into a white cube.

Just like rummaging through a thrift store, one must page through a cluster of crap to find the treasures in Unmonumental. All three sculptures by Abraham Cruzvillegas are perfect examples of how mundane, discarded material can be composed into beautiful objects. Cánon enigmático a 108 voces (2005) consists of sea-bleached buoys clustered together in a hanging sea-grape like bunch. Simple, clean, and easy on the eye, Cruzvillegas reminds the viewer that purposely ugly art isn’t the only option available in the arte povera-influenced genre. The vast majority of the sculptures, however, makes one wonder why the art world is so amazingly unjust. Take John Bock’s untitled recyclable constructions, for instance. I’ve seen more creative junk-art in homeless people’s shopping cart-caravans.

The New Museum curators purport to have their collective finger on the pulse of contemporary art, making the gross insistence that the collage aesthetic is not only so hot right now, but that it is the direction of contemporary art as a whole. This simplistic, ballsy statement by the curators unnecessarily champions the New Museum as the savior of post-post modern indecisiveness. The preface to the catalogue states that the exhibition displays their commitment to not being, “too proper, too polite, or institutional.” Head curator Richard Flood adds in his introductory essay that, “our time demands the anti-masterpiece.” I thought we were already over the deconstruction fad, but I guess I was wrong. Maybe the curators should have just left the walls and the floor blank for their first exhibition, then we could have just appreciated the new building without the grandiose intentions. Hopefully the museum will grow out of its awkward, unreasonably confident adolescence and into the eloquently rambunctious youngster that we all envision it to be.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Introduction to the catalogue for Kevin Bourgeois: Something Wicked This Way Comes at Ch'i Contemporary, February 7-March 10, 2008

Kevin Bourgeois: The Drawing’s Advocate

by Abby Hertz

Undoubtedly one of the most skilled living artists working in graphite, Kevin Bourgeois takes the challenging medium and expands its boundaries in ways that invite inspection, contemplation, and interrogation. Through an almost painterly application of pencil on paper, Bourgeois experiments with both form and content, linking the complicated visual field with the equally complex subject matter. The successful combination of socio-political messages with a formal technique and aesthetically appealing product transgresses the association of socially explorative art with messiness and the lack of pleasure.

A natural born dreamer and analytical thinker, Bourgeois received little technical training or formal education, learning the majority of his craft through trial and error and the base of his critical knowledge through an addictive use of his library card. The writings of Hakim Bey, Jean Baudrillard, Allen Ginsberg, and Arthur Rimbaud frequently appear in the background of his drawings, and also serve as a major influence in his subject matter. Bourgeois can be said to have ascertained an unpretentious appreciation of the profound, as his work is intellectual without being overly academic, definitive without being dogmatic, and always displays a keen curiosity in what dwells beneath the surface.

An underlying theme of contrast defines the essence of Bourgeois’ exhaustively detailed drawings. The polarities of the sentimental and the cerebral, science and spirituality, poetics and politics, combine with the contrast-heavy application of the black and white graphite medium. The artist’s body of work centralizes around the juxtapositions of technology versus human nature, individuality versus consumer culture, and superficiality versus altruism. Bourgeois’ art constantly grapples with the human experience of the often emotionally sterile and multi-layered complications of contemporary existence.

One drawing can contain boundless references, counterintuitive symbolizations, and a multitude of emotions. It is in this muddle of meaning that one may see a reflection of personal experience. Even though the content contains tangible messages, it retains enough ambiguity so that the viewer can determine their own conclusions.

Over the past decade and half, Bourgeois’ work has gradually transitioned from figure-based to a more abstracted, flat, and illustrative style that incorporates photorealistic rendering with a collage aesthetic. A collector of images, the artist frequently samples from photographs in magazines, illustrations in text books and comics, and a vast array of advertising media. Reoccurring imagery includes anime characters, 1950’s style American cartoons, corporate logos, and medical diagrams which are layered with startlingly life-like male, female, and sexually androgynous figures.

In his most recent drawings, Bourgeois explores the disconnect between surface and reality with an intense fragmentation of forms. In Unsound Method (2006) a group of realistically rendered male doctors intermingle with the overlay of a stark, solid black outline that is loosely recognizable as a screaming female cartoon. Symbols and logos are drawn on top of these figures adding to the abrupt shift between realism and abstraction that occurs more frequently in the artist’s latest work.

Bourgeois probes the relationship between love and sacrifice, constriction and freedom, mind and heart. How safe is deep? Can one travel the line that faintly defines each world from the next, the barrier that can protect just as it restricts? The art of Kevin Bourgeois makes a valid attempt by both defying gravity and embracing the fall.