Friday, December 5, 2008
Monday, October 20, 2008
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.
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
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
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
Monday, March 24, 2008
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
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
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
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
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.
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.