Saturday, 29 December 2012

The Progress of Love, The Pulitzer Foundation

This is partly about how installation can affect the response to a work of art and partly about a work I really love.

At the 2007 Venice Biennale I was completely transfixed by the French Pavilion, where Sophie Calle had installed Take Care of Yourself. Calle's work seems always to be about herself, not always interesting to me, but this installation hit home. Her lover had written her a "breakup" email. To deal with it, she sent copies to more than 100 women for their professional responses and the results make up the installation. What makes it wonderful is the range of occupations of the women chosen: a sharpshooter, various dancers, therapists, actresses, a judge, a cook, an editor, a crossword puzzle maker, a curator, a child, her mother, and more, some famous, some not. And I liked the variety of media in which the women respond. I don't often like video, but these work for me. Tom and I both loved this installation in Venice, but after an hour or so he took a break and went outside, where he sat on a bench with all the other men waiting for their women to come out. I was there another half hour or so and had to drag him back in to show him some of the items he had missed.

I made a point of going to see the installation again at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York a couple of years ago, where it was crammed into one gallery space with very little translation help. There were quite a few people there, but they looked completely bored and I was really disappointed.

So it was with interest that we had the chance to go to the Pulitzer Foundation gallery today to see The Progress of Love, a rather complicated, somewhat puzzling three-part exhibition that is being shown at the Menil in Houston, the Center for Contemporary Art in Lagos, Nigeria, and the Pulitzer. Each venue has a different show dealing with an aspect of love, the artists are not the same, and there doesn't seem to be any sharing of the various shows, for example in a unifying catalogue. I have no idea what the positive effect of doing three exhibitions in three places and calling them one can be. Anyway, I wanted to see the Calle again. And was vaguely interested in what Yinka Shonibare had contributed to it, and willing to check out the two Nigerian woman artists' work, Zina Saro-Wiwa and Temitayo Ogunbiyi.

The Calle looks almost as good as it did at Venice and it still engaged and amused us.  The range of responses to the same text; the way different women responded to the poor man whose private email has been torn up, analyzed to death, shot, and chewed by a cockatoo; the personal and yet universal (well almost universal) experience of rejection keep one looking at each response. Her mother's is one of the best, but we also love the video of the cook.I laugh and cry at the same time at this work of art.

Speaking of which, the Pulitzer provides a translation of the French email (recommended as part of the museum curator's response to the email) as a handout, plus a brochure for the exhibition that includes translations of the French texts. The videos are subtitled when necessary; they are in several languages. The Pulitzer staff were, as they always are, very helpful and tried to make sure that we saw what we wanted. (We tried to wait for "the cook" to come up on the random set of videos; we gave up and were about to leave when the museum attendant told us it was on view.)

Yinka Shonibare's video, Addio del Passato, 2011, shows a black woman in 18th-century-style costume made of Shonibare's characteristic Dutch African print material, lip-synching the aria Addio del Passato (Farewell to the past, or Farewell to the happy dreams of the past) from the last act of Verdi's opera La Traviata, while wandering through a beautiful palace and estate. It appears that the tape keeps repeating, but each repetition is slightly different and my understanding of what is happening changes a little with each version. While the press releases and other materials say this has something to do with Horatio Nelson's wife Frances Nisbet mourning his death, this makes no sense, as Nisbet wasn't black and Nelson died at the Battle of Trafalgar, not in any of the ways the man in the video is seen expiring. It gets more complicated than that, with Shonibare's photographic recreations of historical death scenes, including The Death of Chatterton in Shonibare's characteristic colorful fabric, playing roles in the video.

Shonibare replays the same scene with variations, making us reinterpret what is happening. Calle has 107 people respond to the same message, each in her own way. The two works , completely different in source and style, still seem complementary.

Federico Barocci at St. Louis

I can't remember how long it's been since I fell in love with the work of Federico Barocci, the late 16th century painter from Urbino, and I can't remember what was the first painting that caught my eye, although it might have been the breathlessly activated Deposition in the Cathedral of San Lorenzo in Perugia. I remember walking into that church and being stunned by the brilliant colors and frantic motion of that composition. I loved his brillant and unusual colors and unusual poses of his somewhat too sweet Madonnas. So I had been wanting to see the Barocci show at the St. Louis Art Museum for a while and am delighted that we finally got there yesterday. Indeed, New York and the East Coast should be mourning the fact that they didn't get this gorgeous and thoughtfully organized show, the first one in this country since a small one of Barocci drawings and prints in 1978 (I already loved Barocci then and was happy to be able to see it.)

Barocci was born around 1533-35. He made a couple of visits to Rome, where he would have seen Renaissance masters and even met Michelangelo. He became sick there, possibly poisoned, and returned to Urbino, where he stayed, continuing to suffer ill health, till his death in 1612. Nonetheless he painted altarpieces and other religious works for patrons across Italy.

One might have a few quibbles with the St. Louis installation:  I wished for a bit more information about the subjects of the paintings, for example, explaining why Joseph hands Jesus a branch of cherries in the Rest on the Return from Egypt or telling exactly how each of the apostles in the Last Supper is identified. I might have liked to have a biography or clearer sense of chronology in the installation. Maybe the four very nice videos could have been run without such long credits between them. But  really I didn't much care about those details.

The exhibition is organized around the fact that Barocci was an untiring draughtsman; I was surprised that 1500 drawings by him survive. There are enough paintings in the exhibition to provide a really good idea of Barocci's work, including some large altarpieces that we were surprised the churches and museums lent. Each painting is surrounded by studies for it and the labels provide explanations of how the drawings were made, how Barocci modified his designs from one to the next, and how they relate to the finished painting.  By organizing the exhibition in this way, the curators, I think, make it much easier for a general audience to pay attention to a series of drawings and to take the time to look at them closely. It's not just one painting after another, but each gallery containes one or more painterly problems to be solved and you watch Barocci solving them through drawing.

There are sketches for various body parts, touching in the warmth of their handling and the slight movements of toes and fingers depicted. The drapery studies are luscious. Two drawings of the head and rear of a donkey (in the Rest on the Return from Egypt) capture the animal and seduce one with the texture of black and red chalk with white highlights on beige paper. (And of course I'm always interested in donkeys.) I kept looking at the drawings and wondering exactly why I was so transfixed by their beauty. Barocci captures the textures of warm flesh, soft fur and shimmering drapery without obsessive detail. The multiple lines of chalk and ink activate his forms, but are also just wonderful to look at as you watch him observing and re-observing body parts, poses, and compositions. You feel that he loves what he's doing, loves his subjects, and is just exuberant about life.

The exhibition contains a range of drawing types. The ink sketches usually seemed to be quick ideas, several on a page, for compositions or figures. Chalk, often on blue paper, is used for these quick sketches but also for more detailed investigation of exactly how a foot or two clasped hands look. He works out several individual heads using colors. Some of the drawings are squared for transfer, suggesting that he transferred the images in them to a larger scale drawing or painting. And some have the marks of incision, indicating that they were full-sized cartoons, laid on the surface to be painted and incised so the outlines would transfer and could be followed in executing the final painting.

In the context of the drawings, the paintings remain amazing. Details like the odd pose of the Madonna del Gatto, with her legs straight out and crossed and her transparent sandals; the little window bench from the Palace at Urbino in the background of that picture; the possibility that the cat and the cross above it refer to the patron's coat of arms (a lion rampant below the cross); the way the Madonna is nestled into a niche and sitting close to the floor like a Madonna of Humility, with Joseph leaning in from the shadows;  the cat wanting the European goldfinch that is the symbol of Christ's martyrdom; the green shawl around her shoulders and her green sleeve, the yellow drapery below her blue mantel, the contrast between her childish youth and Joseph's grey age; the little book in the basket on the floor, all just happy discoveries.

On Friday evening the exhibition was pleasantly occupied by attentive people. I was glad it was attended but not crowded. The exhibition is in St. Louis till January 20 and in London from Feb. 27 to May 19.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone at MOMA

In summer 2010 we visited the art museum in Wroclaw, Poland and I wrote here about the amazing works of art, dating between WWII and the present, that we saw there. Among the works I reproduced was one by Alina Szapocznikow (1928-1973). A year or so ago I learned that an exhibition of her work in the United States was planned and I was really pleased to be able to see the exhibition at MOMA: Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone (Here's a nice review). (I couldn't photograph in the show, so I'm providing links to images, but you can get a lot by just Google Imaging her name.)

At the Wroclaw museum I had felt uncomfortable and a little frightened by her work, with its frank intimacy and gritty emphasis on body parts, as well as by the materials she used, either the naturalistic color of the polyester resin or black or brown polystyrene. Learning from the labels that she died of cancer and had been in concentration camps during World War II, I started to see the deeply personal, but also universal feelings embedded in the works.

At MOMA I learned that she had been married to the photographer and graphic designer Roman Cieslewicz  (whose work I had just seen in the Quay Brothers exhibition nearby). One of the first objects in the show is a series of photographs by Cieslewicz of 25 chewing-gum sculptures she had made in 1971, proclaiming her excitement about the variety of media from which one could make sculpture. This, with a photograph of her with an impish grin on her faceholding colored cast breasts against her body, also suggested that she had a sense of humor and joy in her work.

The brown and black sculptures of bellies had bothered me in Wroclaw, but at MOMA I learned that some were prototypes for polyurethane foam pillows that were never mass produced, but seem like great fun and I wished they were for sale. I also wanted the lamps she made of cast-and-colored polyester resin lips and breasts, with bright pink lips and nipples that glow when they are lit. They also were sadly never manufactured. The lips she used for models were hers and Julie Christie's. She liked these modern mediums, which were light, inexpensive, easy to color, could be transparent, and were easy to replicate.

A pair of sculptures she made in the 1950s respond to her War experience. One, Hand, Monument to the Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto, 1957, is a monumental hand on a stand. The other, Exhumed, 1955, is a tribute to Laszlo Rajk, a Hungarian Communist activist who was executed in 1949 show trials and exonerated in 1956, a year after she made the sculpted portrait. Unlike the later body forms, these are more serious partially abstract, powerfully modeled objects that suggest perhaps the influence of Henry Moore.

On some of her sculptures she added transfer prints of the faces of family members or friends. One pedestal contains bowls with color casts of lips and breasts that are each titled Dessert. Her 1968 Bride's Wreath is a nest of lips in the grass, pink and flesh colored lips on stems that seem to grow out of a circle of grass. As her cancer developed, she made sculptures of tumors; one, Tumors Personified, of 1971 consists of sculptured lumps, each with a face on it, scattered at random on a gravel floor.

I wonder why I didn't know about this artist in the 1970s, probably because one didn't know much about Poland. She's a cheerful Louise Bourgeois, predates Kiki Smith, has been compared to Eva Hesse and Frida Kahlo, and seems to anticipate many other artists who incorporate difficult personal histories and their bodies in their work. Simply put, what I found provocative was her ability to make objects that may be seen as personal to her but also speak to me about living and dying as a human being. And I think she had a fine sense of humor. One final object is Rolls Royce II, 1971, a sculpted automobile in pink Portuguese marble with a hood ornament. She wanted one made twice life size, a perfect work of art, with no function, and "for some snob to put on his private lawn."

Thursday, 13 December 2012

More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness

In one day in Santa Fe in August, before Tom joined me, I visited 6 museums and was pretty disappointed with all their exhibitions. Nothing seemed new or particularly engaging, some work was unegaging and some of the exhibition narratives wandered away from their promises. Then the next day I decided to visit SITE Santa Fe, where I was delighted to discover that the exhibition More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness was on view. It's there till January 6 and then will be at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts from March 3 - June 9, 2013.

The exhibition is premised, somehow, on a riff on the Colbert Report October 17, 2005, where Colbert explains the term "truthiness." Although the issues in that video are past, the concept remains appropriate for the discourse of today - falsehood parading as truth for political expediency. All the works in the exhibition address issues of truth and reality, often with humor or irony.  A variety of them caused me to think and rethink ideas and reconsider what I thought I knew. The sense of play caused me to think more actively about the content of the works, as opposed to the response I had had to dOCUMENTA, where the exhibition seemed to be saying "see what awful things you've allowed to happen in the world?! Why aren't you more ashamed?!"
I watched the segment from the Colbert Report early on and it effectively set the stage for the rest of the exhibition. But before viewing that, I had walked into a waiting room where an officious-looking receptiionist told me to take a number and wait.  I took a number from a machine and sat down while she riffled through some papers and glanced at me haughtily. After a few minutes she called my number and I cautiously entered a dark room where there was no one else and saw illuminated shapes of various objects with no particular connection. Having expected something more challenging, I smiled and left. The work, by Mark Dion, was titled "Curator's office" and supposedly replicates a 1950s office from the Minneapolis Institiute of Arts that had been walled off. The imitation office is interesting, but it was the experience of being kept waiting that seemed most real, and I was amused to learn that the officious receptionist is actually the museum's director of development.
Eva and Franco Mattes, Catt, 2010

Next, at the entrance to the gallery was the amusing object that has been used to publicize the exhibition, an irritated-looking taxidermied cat in a cage with a canary sitting above it. This object, created in 2010 by Eva and Franco Mattes, also known as 0100101110101101.ORG, was exhibited in Houston as a work by Maurizio Cattelan, the artists having co-opted his identity. The title, Catt, may be intended as a clue. The multiple layers of reality and fiction in this work: the idea that people believe the work to be by Cattelan but it is not, that the image imitates one on the web, that the fabricator who made is it also employed by Cattelan, that Cattelan himself makes up narratives (the Pope struck by a meteorite, horses suspended from ceilings and walls, pigeons attending the Venice Biennale), the wavering between amusement at the fiction and irritation at the ruse, demonstrate what truthiness can entail.

I wasn't so engaged by the elevator that used mirrors to appear to have an endless shaft by Leandro Ehrlich; enjoyed once again seeing Ai Wei Wei's neolithic pots dipped in house paint;  noted Thomas Demand's photograph of a fictive Oval Office; and loved the accurate reproductions of paintings seen from the back by Brazilian Vik Muniz, who accurately copied the exhibition labels from Van Gogh's Starry Night, Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, and Grant Wood's American Gothic; without seeing the painting, you can see where it's been. I was amused by Korean Seung Woo Back's photographs (titled Real World, 2004-06) of the Korean park Ains World, in which he photographs the replicas of world monuments in ways that juxtapose unlikely places, putting Chinese sailboats in New York Harbor, for example. And Sharon Lockhart's large photographs of two preparators installing Duane Hanson's Lunch Break, caught my attention as I tried to figure out which figures were the Hansons and which the preparators.

More powerfully touching are the photographs of Vietnam War reenactments and Iraq war training operations in the United States, taken by An-My Le, who was born in Saigon in 1960 and I just noticed is a 2012 McArthur Fellow. Le lived through the Vietnam War and was a political refugee in the United States before participating in the war re-enactments in order to photograph them.

Sometimes it takes three times for me to "get" a work of art. I learned that about opera many years ago when Richard Strauss's Salome suddenly became powerfully moving the third time I saw it. Sometimes I just am slow to learn. This exhibition was the third time I saw Inigo Manglano-Ovalle's Phantom Truck, 2007. The first time had been at the Venice Biennale several years ago, the second was on an exhibition announcement. Both times I wondered what why anyone would be interested in that big thing in the dark and walked away. In More Real, I finally read the label and learned that Mangano-Ovalle had made it as a physical manifestation of Colin Powell's "evidence" that the Iraqis were manufacturing chemical weapons and moving them in mobile labs. This big truck form in the dark embodies one of the fictions that enabled the Bush administration to start a war against Iraq.
Inigo Manglano-Ovalle, Phantom Truck, 2007
 I have very little patience for video, so I was surprised by the power of two of the video installations. I've watched one on the web since I saw the show and it still touches me. This is Pierre Huyghe's video of Anlee, the Japanese manga character he and Philippe Parreno had purchased and then "liberated," making her available for other video artists to use. I Was Gone, 2000, in Two Minutes Out of Time, as the installation about the project is titled.

For the other video, I glanced in, as I usually do, and saw people speaking a foreign language with subtitles translating them saying things like "I think it was because I looked more Jewish," and I thought this must be some recollection of the Holocaust, except many of the interviewees were too young to be survivors. The subtitles sometimes gave two slightly different translations of what I learned was the Polish being spoken. This is Omer Fast's 2003 video Spielberg's List, in which he interviewed extras from Krakow, some of whom were World War II survivors, about how they had been chosen to play either Jews or Nazis in the movie Schindler's List (1993). The interviews were interspersed with scenes of Krakow and bits from the film. Realizing the Krakow is very close to Auschwitz and Buchenwald, I was mesmerized, and chilled, by the juxtaposition of the real and imagined histories.

 I realize that a great many of these works are not new; they date between 2000 and 2009 and have been exhibited frequently and often acquired by museums. Gathered together, they and the other objects and installations in the exhibition continue to have power, humor and intrigue and to be entertaining and feeling-provoking, I hope in a non-truthy way.