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.