Saturday, 24 February 2018

Pirandello on Things

In preparation for a trip to Sicily later this spring, I’ve been reading some books about the island and by Sicilians. One of them is The Late Mattia Pascal¸ an early novel by Luigi Pirandello. Today I came upon the following passage, which very clearly explains why it is so difficult to throw things away. I’m surprised that he thought and wrote this in 1904. Pirandello won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1934.

“Every object is transformed within us according to the images it evokes, the sensations that cluster around it. To be sure, an object may please us for itself alone, for the pleasant feelings that a harmonious sight inspires in us, but far more often the pleasure that an object affords us does not derive from the object in itself. Our fantasy embellishes it, surrounding it, making it resplendent with images dear to us. Then we no longer see it for what it is, but animated by the images it arouses in us or by the things we associate with it. In short, what we love about the object is what we put in it of ourselves, the harmony established between it and us, the soul that it acquires only through us, a soul composed of our memories.”

(Luigi Pirandello, The Late Mattia Pascal, translated by William Weaver, 1964. Hygiene, Colorado: Eridanos Press, Inc. 1987, p. 100).

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World, Whitney Museum

I very much wanted to see the Jimmie Durham retrospective at the Whitney Museum. I’ve known about Jimmie Durham as an American Indian artist for at least 30 years and his relocation to Europe in the 1980s seemed a loss for the art world of the United States. No one I know has heard of him. I’ve seen his work occasionally in European museums, but it was a surprise that major museums in the United States would mount a show. There has been some controversy about his self-identification as American Indian, and that aspect of his work was not emphasized in the exhibition until near the end. That made sense because his work address many subjects and aspects of his identity.

Although I was eager to see the exhibition, I expected to be disappointed because I know Durham makes extensive use of found objects and thought I would see a lot of abstract constructions of detritus. In fact, I found the exhibition riveting, fascinating, touching, amusing, and both personal and universal. The first room captured me with a video of Durham hacking away at a chunk of obsidian, making an abstract sculpture from this very hard stone, used to make amazingly sharp tools in ancient Mexico.
Slash and Burn, 2007
Collection of Mima and Cesar Reyes

Slash and Burn, detail
The first object I looked at was this one, titled Slash and Burn, 2007, and the label provides very helpful context for the work: “While in residence at the Atelier Calder in the Loire Valley, Durham found a fallen beech tree in Strasbourg, France. Inspired by its physical traces of history – it had declarations of love carved into the bark as well as seven bullets from World War II embedded in it – Durham cut the tree into several planks, which he incorporated into a series of sculptures including this work. Fascinated by the patterns and holes created by insects and fungus growth, he chose to accentuate these natural phenomena by painting them with watercolor. As he has done in a number of other works throughout his career, here Durham includes text that directly addresses the viewer and describes his process of embellishing the beech tree.” The label, the text on the work, and Durham’s additions to the plank of wood all contribute to the depth of both personal (both his own and others), natural, and national history the slab evokes. It was difficult to move away from this very simple object.

Carnivalesque Shark in Venice, 2015, glass, goat leather, piranha teeth, papier-mache and acrylic paint
Collection of Eleanor Heyman Propp

Because we love Venice and collect glass, the second object, Carnivalesque Shark in Venice, 2015 also caught my attention, a glass shark with a painted carnival mask, which was simply amusing. 

The Dangers of Petrification, detail, 1998-2007

 Many of the works are gatherings of found objects with inscriptions that suggest political issues, artistic media, or Durham’s personal issues, often all at once, so that they have both broad and specific context. Sometimes the sculpture or panel composing several found objects was uninteresting until one read Durham’s descriptions of the items. For example, I found  The Dangers of Petrification, 1998-2007, two vitrines of rocks, labeled as petrified states of various unlikely items particularly amusing. The objects played with our assumptions about what things look like, as well as the idea of scientific collecting and categorizing. The rocks seemed possible as petrified everyday foods, but it took a particular kind of vision and imagination on the part of the artist to see them as petrified German black bread, chocolate cake, cheese, or bacon.
Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst (SMAK), Ghent, Belgium

 Malinche, detail
In another gallery was a composite portrait labeled as La Malinche, the woman Cortez took up with in Mexico, considered the ancestor of mixed race Mexicans, mestizos. First planning it as an image of Pocahontas, Durham revised it and added figure representing Cortez. The face of La Malinche is remarkably expressive, considering the simple materials and abstracted style used to create it. A detail of it illustrates Holland Cotter's positive NY Times review of the exhibition, which also includes illustrations of many more works in the exhibition.

Wahya, 1984, detail. Bear Skull and more
Coll. of Luis H. Francia and Midori Yamamura

Wahya, 1984 detail of other side

Then there are the totem-like constructions employing animal skulls and various found objects. Looking at my photographs I was stunned by how completely different they are from each side, as well as how powerfully expressive they are.

I Will Try to Explain, 1970-2012
Private Collection, courtesy of kurimanzutto, Mexico City

 In several of the works, Durham’s inscriptions make them almost literary and certainly biographical, always in an unprepossessing mode. I Will Try to Explain, 2007-2012, a rather simple collage, caught me with the sentence involving the cat skin, but carried through with mention of friends, the struggle to make good art, and the history of the farmer, the cat, the object itself, and the artist. It’s almost like poetry.
Untitled, 1982, baby buffalo skull, beads, goat leather, hawk feather, shells, acrylic paint
Collection Joe Overstreet and Corrine Jennings

 For many of the works the accompanying texts and the context provided by the labels add multiple dimensions to the already sculptural forms. One example is the single skull, remnant of a 1982 installation of  elaborated animal skulls, Manhattan Festival of the Dead, with texts urging the gallery visitor to purchase them for $5 each because the work of dead artists goes up in value and the artist is already approaching the life expectancy of an American Indian, and dedicating the works to the members of the American Indian Movement who were killed after the 1973 siege at Wounded Knee as well as to everyone in New York “killed by subways, .38 slugs, needles or desparate [sic] acts, without any proper ceremonies to help their passage and our passage.”

There is a particularly amusing self-portrait with identifying inscriptions, , 
from Six authentic things, 1989,  Real Obsidian (Private Collection)

Une etude des etoils, 1995
Collection of Herve Lebrun
and A Study of Stars, 1995. The little inscription above says "The Cherokee stars have seven points" in French. I particularly liked the computer key and the starleaf gum leaf.

At this point I realized that I had gone through the exhibition backwards.

Friday, 2 February 2018

January 2018 in New York, Wiener Werkstätte and Michelangelo

In five days in New York we visited eight museums, twenty-four exhibitions, four plays and the Santiago Calatrava transit hub at the World Trade Center.. We had lovely meals at the Pergola French Restaurant, The Blue Fin, and Sardi’s in the Theater District, Fig and Olive near the Whitney, and the restaurants at the Met, the Guggenheim, and the Neue Galerie, not to mention the friends who provided wonderful dinners for us. We did not spend any time in the permanent collections of any of the museums, due to lack of time, energy, and any compulsion to look again at art we have seen many times before. We expect there will be time for that later.

With so many exhibitions, I can hardly have delved deeply into any of them, but I did have responses to them all. Four were the keystones of the trip. They were Wiener Werkstätte 1903 to 1932: The Luxury of Beauty at the Neue Galerie, Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer at the Metropolitan, Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World at the Whitney, and Josef Albers in Mexico at the Guggenheim. I love the designs of the Vienna Workshops, especially Josef Hoffman and Koloman Moser. A vitrine of brooches is spectacular, as well as the room full of earlier mostly silver objects. Although some of the objects designed by Dagobert Peche are lovely, I thought he weakened the coherent image of the movement by adding more floral components and making the objects larger and more colorful. As the workshop struggled to stay afloat by designing for manufacture rather than individual artisanship, the objects became more colorful and the designs seem looser. No photographs are allowed, so I can only link to the Neue Galerie website for images. A review in the New York Review of Books provides a few more images and discussion of the economic and architectural aspects of the works.

Not surprisingly on a Saturday, the Metropolitan was packed and it was almost impossible to see the Michelangelo drawings, definitely impossible to have a leisurely viewing. It made me wish the Met would charge full price for exhibitions, with pay-as-you-wish for general admission. The narrative of the exhibition is coherent and brings up a range of aspects of Michelangelo’s practice, for example drawings for and by students, collaborative works with Sebastiano del Piombo (the subject of a major exhibition at the London National Gallery last year, also with facsimiles used as educational materials), finished drawings for and of the people Michelangelo loved, drawings for paintings by Marcello Venusti, and portraits of the artist. Among the sculptures on view I was particularly taken by the small bronze by Michelangelo’s teacher Bertoldo di Giovanni, of Apollo playing his violin and turning in space, figura serpentinata before it was a thing. I don’t remember seeing drawings showing student copies of Michelangelo examples before and found those enlightening both for the objects themselves and for the sense they provided of the master in teaching mode. The exhibition suggested the degree to which Michelangelo collaborated with other artists, to some degree revising the idea of him as an isolated genius.

The facsimile of the Sistine Ceiling, one-quarter size, attracted considerable attention. I think more people photographed that than the drawings Michelangelo made for it. It was supposed to be helpful in locating the figures for which the drawings were made, but the small photographs included in the labels were probably easier to connect to the drawings. I suppose if you've never seen the actual ceiling, the facsimile is pretty impressive. The labels were helpful and clearer than most of those at the Met, relatively free of jargon, at least for me, but studded with adjectives – “bold, striking, ravishing, vigorous, impressive, forceful, remarkable, finely rendered, powerful, beautifully elaborated, elegant, active” for Michelangelo and “awkward, less subtle, wooly anatomy” for not-Michelangelo. I tend to argue with adjectives in labels and they distract me from experiencing the works of art on my own. I believe that people can figure out if an object is vigorous or ravishing or beautiful without being told.

While this was a most impressive gathering of a great number of Michelangelo works, most of them terrific examples of his drawing style, I wondered still about his working process. Did he produce only this small number of drawings for the Sistine Ceiling or the Medici Tombs? Of course not, and it would have been fascinating to see more examples of how Michelangelo’s conception of figures evolved in the process of designing these monuments, and others. This is not to disparage the exhibition, which must have required near superhuman diplomacy and extraordinary funds to get the important loans on view. It’s the kind of thing that only monumental museums like the Met can mount.

A comparison between Michelangelo’s unfinished bust of Brutus (1539-40) and a finished bust of Julius Caesar (1512-14) by Andrea di Pietro di Marco Ferrucci calls the Ferrucci “delicately ornate,” setting up a contrast with the far more muscular, bulked up unfinished face of Brutus. Caesar is approximately life-size, while Brutus is about double life size and on a much higher pedestal, accentuating the curatorial position that the Ferrucci is an inferior work. I found the Ferrucci extremely touching in its expression of thoughtful honesty, and the figure seemed aristocratic as opposed to the rougher aspect of the Brutus. As the label observes, Ferrucci’s mastery of marble carving served him, and Michelangelo, well when he was “head of the workshop in San Lorenzo in 1524.” The sculpture of Julius Caesar is a pretty wonderful object, beautifully executed and not all that much more “delicately ornate” than Michelangelo works closer to it in date, such as the St. Peter’s Pietá and the Bruges Madonna.  
Michelangelo, Brutus, 1539-40, detail (Florence, Bargello)

Michelangelo, Brutus, 1539-40, detail (Florence, Bargello)

Andrea di Pietro di Marco Ferrucci, Julius Caesar, 1512-14 (New York, Metropolitan Museum)

Andrea di Pietro di Marco Ferrucci, Julius Caesar, 1512-14, detail (New York, Metropolitan Museum)

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Venice Biennale National pavilions at the Arsenale and offsite

Once we had finished slogging through the national pavilions and first sections of the Viva Arte Viva at the Giardini and Viva Arte Viva at the Arsenale, we still had some 23 national pavilions at the Arsenale and what we could see of the national pavilions tucked away in palaces, apartments, and other venues around Venice. We only got to ¼ of the 32 off-site pavilions. On the way to the Arsenale from our hotel is a building that always houses one of these. This year it was Cyprus and the subject was pigment. Unfortunately, my images do not convey the subtlety of color in the nearly abstract canvases on view there, works by Polys Peslikas (b. 1973 Limossol, Cyprus, lives in Berlin and Nicosia).
Polys Peslikas

At the Arsenal, I was at first put off by the New Zealand offering of a very long panoramic animated history that started with images that reminded me of the movie “Moana,” which I had just watched on the airplane. Then as the Europeans arrived, it seemed likely to erupt in conflict, but it didn’t and we left well before the end, again our impatience with time-based art manifesting itself. In retrospect, it seemed a contemporary version of the historical painted panoramas that were popular in the 19th century in Europe and the United States, the history gradually emerging on a very long screen.

The Italian pavilion was completely different from its previous two iterations, focusing on only three artists rather than the dozens we’d seen there before, and titled Il Mondo Magico, (The Magic World). One installation created a sort of tunnel of translucent material, with side passages that led to little rooms with cadaver-like sculptures on tables. At the end of the tunnel was a workshop, where the figures were supposedly made, and a wall with many figures hanging against it. It felt rather creepy, something about death, degeneration, maybe crucifixion, since some of the forms were posed as if taken from a cross. The artist’s statement, by Roberto Cuoghi (b. Modena 1973) calls it a factory for turning out devotional figures.
Roberto Cuoghi 
Another space was a large substructure, which I didn’t understand; it looked like some kind of warehouse, bare metal columns and wood. At the end was a bleacher-like set of stairs we were encouraged to climb. It was quite dark. From the top one looked back and saw that the substructure supports a reflecting pool that provides a mirror image of the vaulted roof of the building. The effect is something like an infinity pool and a bit disconcerting and pretty cool, but reminded me of other similar water illusions I’ve seen. My main memory is of my own unsteadiness going down the stairs, which must be traversed at an angle, and of some concern that the heavy water would break the substructure. The label explains that the artist, Giorgio Andreotta Calo, intended the substructure to be read as a church and the upper area to refer to something called the mundus Cereris, a mythical pit near Rome that served as a door between the underworld and heaven. The work is titled Sensa titolo (La fine del mondo)
Giorgio Andreotta Calo, Sensa titolo (La fine del mondo)

Years ago, when the Chinese first had a pavilion in the Arsenale, it was in a space filled with huge drums, a dark place with relatively narrow passageways between the drums. Creating art for that space was an interesting challenge. Now all but one of the drums (symbolic of the past, I assume) are gone and the pavilion is light and spacious with white walls. And the art seems more ordinary as a result. Several artists were included and it was not very easy to distinguish who had done which objects. The guide indicates that the pavilion combines folk crafts with contemporary artists. There was an investigation by Wang Tianwen of the concept of shadow puppets, including very intricately cut sculptural forms suspended from the ceiling - one of these was also on view outside the gallery - plus shadow puppet contraptions. Large videos, I think by Tang Nannan, of things happening in the sea caught my attention. I never really figured out what they were about but found the scale of the images memorable.
Wang Tianwen
Tang Nannan video, showing scale
We used to hunt for the Mexico pavilion when it was located in a palace or church somewhere in Venice. For the past couple of Biennales, Mexico has had a relatively small space in the Arsenale and its offerings have been less intriguing to us. Perhaps the act of hunting for the pavilion increased its previous interest. In this case Carlos Amorales had created his own alphabet in order to tell a story of the lynching of an immigrant in Mexico. At least that’s what the label says. I was unable to make anything of the letters, so the label seemed to define the conceptual artwork.

Speaking of immigration, a video of Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore caught my attention for a surprisingly long time. Eventually I ascertained that they were speaking the first-person experiences of various migrants crossing the Mediterranean, and I was surprised that my response to their reports of the experiences were more moving to me than the reports given by the actual immigrants, which appeared on videos in the next room. It’s mortifying but informative to realize how one responds to “the other,” as opposed to one’s “own kind.”  Titled “Love Story,” by Candice Breitz, (b. Johannesburg, 1972), it was an extremely effective work of political art, at the South Africa Pavilion, in the Arsenale.
Julianne Moore in "Love Story" by Candice Breitz

      Not far from Piazza San Marco were a small group of particularly effective spaces, in various parts of a small palazzo. In the palazzo courtyard, the path to the Mongolian Pavilion was lined with birds, cranes, actually, bronze sculptures cast as if from rifles by Chimeddorj Shagdarjav (b. 1954).  The flock, I Am a Bird, increases inside the pavilion, for a total of 60.  Cranes represent happiness and eternal youth in Asia, and the concept of the beautiful and graceful birds suggests an alternative to guns. Another Mongolian sculptural project, Karma of Eating, by Munkkh Munkhbolor-Ganbold (b. 1983)  is a kind of shamanistic gathering of the skulls of a few of the millions of animals that died in exceptionally cold winters and droughts in 2010, a disaster exacerbated by the overbreeding of goats for the cashmere business. The other three projects also address environmental degradation and exploitation.
Chimeddorj Shagdarjav, I Am a Bird

Munkkh Munkhbolor-Ganbold,  Karma of Eating

Nearby, the Mauritius pavilion proclaimed a dialogue among international artists, including work by Robert Rauschenberg, on the principle that it recreated the Edenic unity of the prehistoric Gondwanaland, one of the prehistoric supercontinents, which contained most of the southern hemisphere land mass. Traces of the continent were recently found under Mauritius. The Rauschenbergs were wonderful, better than much of the recent Rauschenberg retrospective at the Tate and MOMA. Of the other artists, I was most struck by the day-glo abstract utopian visions of SEO (b. Gwangju, Korea, 1977).
One of my very favorite pavilions was that of Andorra. Titled Murmuri, and by the ceramicist Eve Ariza, the room had black walls covered with hundreds of ceramic vessels ranging in color from black through brown and cream. The attendant explained that the vessels were the colors of human skin and that each of the vessels makes a sound if you listen quietly, i.e. they murmur, as the title suggests. Looking more closely, the bowls are crimped at the bottom, making a form that suggests lips. If I had one pavilion to recommend in Venice, this would be it.

Murmuri, detail

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Venice Biennale – The National Pavilions in the Giardini

This year we did not find much of great interest in the Giardini national pavilion exhibitions. I missed the moving tree from last time’s French pavilion, the deconstructing Russian pavilion after 1989, the Hans Haacke broken up floor many years ago in the German pavilion, and definitely “Take Care of Yourself,” the Sophie Calle from years ago in the French pavilion, which I have seen at least two more times and which Tom and I still quip about in everyday conversations.

There are several pleasures in going through the Giardini, though, despite the still very limited dining opportunities and the exhaustion and heat. The pavilions themselves are worth looking at as examples of 20th-century architecture. This year the Venezuelan pavilion paid special attention to its architect, Carlo Scarpa(1906-1978), who designed it in 1954. Scarpa was mentioned very frequently this year and his modernist architecture was much celebrated. Because of the focus, I paid attention to some of the details of the Venezuelan pavilion, which looks very simple and straightforward, but has varied materials and textures.  

Goeffrey Farmer took most of the Canadian Pavilion down in order to install an group of fountains, the central one spouting like a geyser, art nouveau iridescent glazed tiles.
and the Australian Pavilion has been demolished and rebuilt. The artist there, Tracy Moffett, exhibited fictive film stills, perhaps inspired by Cindy Sherman, but without the artist’s presence and more theatrical. Uruguay was closed for some reason although there are descriptions of the facsimile of a cattle chute Mario Sagradini had made for it. The American pavilion is neoclassical, very Washington, D.C., lending itself to the images of a deteriorating, failing structure that artists often like to give it, this year’s work by Mark Bradford being no exception.

I’ve always loved the Hungarian pavilion, built in 1909, with its art nouveau iridescent glazed tiles. And although the show itself didn't grab out attention, we appreciated the thought.

Only a few exhibitions in pavilions captured our interest this year, and I was interested in more of them than Tom. We both very much liked the Russian pavilion work by Grisha Bruskin, dystopian but tongue in cheek, I thought. Generally I find Bruskin’s work rather mannered, but in this installation it had an impact, possibly because it seemed to warn against dictatorship, representing an autocratic country. In one room huge projections flash over white sculptures inscribed with book titles, concepts, aphorisms. Another is filled with strange vessels and objects, all looking threatening.  Also in the Russian pavilion, Recycle Group did a project called “Blocked Content,” in which figures or parts of figures emerge from white angular blocks on the walls. Inspired by the ninth and worst circle of Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy (the circle of treason and betrayal), where sinners are encased in ice, the artists encased human figures in these blocks for cyber crimes – spam, retailing viruses, fake celebrities. In poetic justice, the complete figures can be seen through an I-Phone app.

Yet another book project was in the Nordic pavilion. One of the six artists exhibiting there, filmmaker Mika Taanila (b. 1965 Finland) cut through the pages of cinema books to create three dimensional versions of the book’s subjects.

I enjoyed Phyllida Barlow’s crowded installation of the Great Britain pavilion. I only learned about her at a recent Biennale, at the time when her decades-long sculptural production was coming to attention, and I appreciated that after working for so long in obscurity she was chosen to represent Britain this year. Her huge, very rough sculptures were almost impossible to see, jammed into the rooms of the pavilion, and crowding around the entranceway as well. There’s a kind of abandon to them, and I got the sense that she was going to squeeze as much she wanted in that space. Being close to the American pavilion, where Mark Bradford’s introductory sculpture left little room for the viewer, it felt a little as if the sculpture is in revolt against the viewer.

The French pavilion was transformed into a very elaborately designed working recording studio, all angled bare wood. People were working in it. I didn’t see how that was visual art, except that the angled walls in blonde wood were lovely architecture. Tom liked it.

At the Israel pavilion a huge cloud form dominated the upper level, a concrete manifestation of the cloud of vapor that results from a missile launch, by Gal Weinstein. On the walls and floor of much of the building he installed panels covered with steel wool made to represent mold he found in his studio, giving the modernist building a mood of decay, some of it in the patterns of wallpaper. I’m not sure if his intention was to suggest institutional, political or cultural decline, but that was my sense of it.

I thought the Venice pavilion, celebrating the most fabulously expensive luxury goods made in Venice, and advertising for them, was vulgar, and I left it as quickly as I could. Some years this pavilion has celebrated Venetian art and design in a much less commercial fashion; I kept thinking they must be trying to parody the excesses of wealth, but that’s not how it came over.

The German pavilion was highly regarded, but it was a performance and we did not want to take the time to wait in line for entrance, so we skipped it. I later found that its subject would have been disturbing, so I'm not sorry. We did look at the pair of Rottweilers caged in front of the building.