Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Christmas at Caldbeck

Now that my blog's officially joined my website, it seems a good time to use the space for updates as well as for philosophical musings. I'm thrilled to be part of Caldbeck Gallery's Christmas festivities and their December-January Drawing Show.

They'll be showing a suite of very recent drawings done last month while I was in Austin, Texas. The medium is watercolor, ink and salt - and though process was important, I was exploring a range of images relating to imagined northeast landscapes. (Austin's another story. It has its own very specific hills that I hope to explore in more depth and height next time I'm there.)

Untitled Study #5

If it looks like meteors just landed in the ocean - well, it's possible. My latest reading has been on the subject of biocentrism, which begins an explanation of the universe at the point of probability, where quantum physics has reached an impasse. 

Friday, November 05, 2010

In Unfamiliar Places

I am such a big fan of Yoshitomo Nara (I even have the iPhone app) and glad to see his adolescent girls on Park Avenue as an lead-in to Nobody's Fool, the exhibition of his work on the second and third floors of the Asia Society. I've always loved Nara's drawing hand, and I remember the first time I saw some of the drawings a year or so ago - the sensitivity with which the eyes were rendered was completely unexpected. Clearly the time he spent in Germany influenced the way he uses graphite, and his early paintings too have a very Germanic way with narrative.

That narrative space has given way to simpler backgrounds for his dogs and children. In recent years, Nara has been working in collaboration with YNG to create shacks as sites for exhibitions of the figures he produces. Many of these "rooms" and spaces were built specifically for the Asia Society show. There's a distinct connection to medieval iconography in the isolation of the suffering or disaffected child, whether that figure is sited in a two-dimensional field of paint or in a room constructed of recycled materials.

Further wanderings yesterday took me down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass for First Thursday. I'd read two stories on Hyperallergic, one about underground art in Vegas, and the other in New York -  art created by and about people who live below the streets. This is a subject of the moment - there is also an exhibition of photographs at 111 Front Street about street people. The new Kunsthalle Galapagos on Main Street in Dumbo has the feeling of being underground, in spite of the fact that it's on the top floor of Galapagos Art Space, a former horse stable. At the Dumbo Arts Center, you can enter a labyrinth of thousands of locally sourced cardboard boxes. I reflected on the fact that this might be housing for less fortunate members of society and though I never thought I would get lost in it, I did at least lose my sense of direction, wondered whether I could slip through some of the narrower passages, and in the end came out where I went in much sooner than expected. Pigeonhole is on exhibit through November 14th.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Haystack Mountain

Last week at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on Deer Isle, Maine, the dripping trees, the fog, the moss on the rocks and even the architecture made me think about the timelessness of Japanese art, where nature is not so much looked at as it is lived in.

I was at Haystack for a gathering of Maine's arts leaders, and learned a lot that I did not know about the intersection of government, the arts, and the business sector. At the same time, I've been reading.

The Music Instinct by Philip Ball makes the case that music is something we cannot live without, that it is "a gymnasium for the mind" and that "no other activity seems to use so many parts of the brain at once." The same case could be made, I believe, for making and appreciating the visual arts. Art and music are more than candy for the eye and ear.

The other book I've been working through, a few pages at a time at odd moments, is Ludwig Tieck's Franz Sternbalds Wanderungen. Franz has been a student of Albrecht Durer, and is setting out for Italy to study with the masters there. When it comes to descriptions of the art world, this book could have been written yesterday, but the actual date of publication is 1798. In one respect however, the art world has changed radically. Artists no longer get to act like misunderstood children, but are expected to engage, if not with government, then at least with each other and with their communities.

Here's a loose translation from the book, in which the author speaks to Franz the childlike adult, the adult-like child. "How fine for you that you are still shielded from humanity's craziness and misery, that you can be wholly devoted to yourself and your first love [art].  For most people there comes a time when winter takes over their summer, when they forget themselves in order to appear right to other people, when they no longer make sacrifices on behalf of their soul, but place their own hearts as sacrifices on the altars of worldly pride."

So High Romanticism has passed into the annals of cultural history, and we are all most likely better for it, though wouldn't it be nice to have uninterrupted studio time, time for wandering, and for it to be always summer, at Haystack, in Maine.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Bern Porter Found

A frog can support itself splayed out on the points of a group of rising rushes, just as if the rushes were a lily pad. There must be a metaphor here, or a haiku. Rushes are pointy but the frog does not seem to mind and even appears to be asleep.

About a month ago I began reading a book that's been on my shelves for years, James Schevill's where to go what to do when you are Bern Porter. Then I discovered that there is - right now -an exhibition of Bern Porter's work at MOMA.

Here's a Found Poem by Bern:


FAILED IN BUSINESS AT AGE                           31
FAILED BUSINESS AGAIN AT                            34
SWEETHEART DIED AT                                       35
HAD NERVOUS BREAKDOWN AT                     36
DEFEATED IN ELECTION AT                              38
DEFEATED FOR CONGRESS AT                         43
DEFEATED FOR CONGRESS AT                         46
DEFEATED FOR CONGRESS AT                         48
DEFEATED FOR SENATE AT                               55
DEFEATED FOR VICE-PRES. AT                         56
DEFEATED FOR SENATE AT                               58
ELECTED PRESIDENT AT                                     60

John Perreault's Artopia blog on the Porter exhibition is a good introduction with videos and images if you are not familiar with Bern's work - and even if you are, it's a pleasure to read.

Image credit

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Chases Daily and Weasel Artblog Two

I really mean to start work on the website updates today. However, down by the pond just now I got distracted by three dark shapes coming out of the rushes. At first I thought ducks, but these little shapes ran beside the pond edge, threading their way over and under each other, headed in my direction. After some discussion tschhk tschhk tschhk about my presence, they decided I was out of the ordinary for them and reversed direction. Back through the rushes, into and under and through the rocks, out on the other side of the pond. Now I thought I saw only two, but the third was there, swimming alongside his friends on the bank.

If weasels were charcoal and water and rushes were gesso, they would have been a drawing of line and erasures, describing the space of the pond and its surroundings. Some of my earliest drawings were done that way in description of bicycle wheels and frames. But if you want to see really impressive work in this mode, go straight to Chases Daily on Main Street in Belfast where Gideon Bok is making a drawing in charcoal, sumi ink and graphite. It both spans and describes Chase's interior, floor to ceiling. Gideon's blog has an image, and more information, but you really must see for yourself. There will be a closing reception on July 8, at which point Gideon will wash the drawing off the wall.

Pond rushes (Juncus effusus) image credit

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Days of Decadence

Tonight, the catbird's doing a great cover of the cardinal's song, the woods are alive with late evening light, and  this morning, as I was coming back up the rise from the my pond, I met a bull moose on his way down the creekbank. He was gone through Beeler's Woods before I could get to my iPhone. The combination of experiences reminds me that I haven't yet written about absinthe.

My decadent day in Portland - now a few weeks ago - started at the Salt Exchange with frogs legs ravioli on a bed of arugula and quinoa with candied garlic and balsamic vinegar. As if that were not enough, this was accompanied by the sounds of Gene Austin's 1928 hit My Blue Heaven and a Satchmo version of Mack the Knife. 

From there I went to an opening at The Bar of Chocolate Cafe where Holly Gooch has assembled an exhibition of absinthe spoons. It's an intimate grouping in a display case, of exquisite contemporary examples of the tool one uses to drizzle water over a sugar cube into the absinthe in the glass. "Absinthe has a wonderful colour, green.  A glass of Absinthe is a poetical as anything in the world.  What difference is there between a glass of Absinthe and a sunset?" So said Oscar Wilde. The absinthe spoon made art history in a cubist sculpture by Picasso, made in Paris in the spring of 1914, in painted bronze with a perforated silver absinthe spoon. I have to add that the flower pots by William Merritt Chase in a painting now on exhibit at Colby College are so individually painted that they too are as poetical as a sunset and made me long for the good old days of painting as an art, not a conceptual exercise.

There's a good long run for the absinthe spoons at The Bar of Chocolate. They are up through New Year's Eve. My pond has lily pads. So does one of the spoons. Go see - and don't wait until December 31. Order an espresso martini? What?

Holly Gooch and Absinthe Spoons
The Bar of Chocolate, Wharf Street
Image credit

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Armory Show, MECA, and the human condition

My day began around 8 a.m. with a moose in the back field, and a little later on, a hawk soaring overhead. So I have a hard time understanding the current predilection among artists for making images that conjure up imaginatively mangled human forms that are intended to shock but generally don't. There were examples of this in gallery after gallery at the Armory Show in March, but a film there went even further - the artist nailing his own foot to the floor. Was there a point to this? Was this intended to call attention to the suffering of millions, or only to the artist's own aesthetic dilemma? Though each blow of the hammer driving the nail down further was difficult to witness, even at the remove of a filmed action, my personal discomfort then does not extend into the realm of memory today. That is, right now, I feel nothing more than I would if I were reading about Chris Burden's having been nailed to the back of a Volkswagen in 1974.

Given that art is always cutting its own new edge, I was surprised to find, at the BFA Thesis Exhibition at Maine College of Art, large-scale paintings of classically robed figures, wholly present, but with the action of the paint brushing out hands or feet or midsections. This kind of artistic obfuscation leaves more to the imagination than any careful illustration of macabre fictional details. A new web-based exhibition series permanently showcases the art and ideas of the senior class at MECA. Here I learned that Preservation, one of the contexts for their work, "reflects the joining of the artists [sic] relationship to the history of their medium while adding fresh, individualized aesthetics and viewpoints accrued from a contemporary context." In the case of the figure painter who, I think, is Gregory O'Neill, history directly references Greek and Roman art and might also include Neue Sachlichkeit and other classically inspired movements.

If the reason for depicting pain is to call attention to human suffering then the pain must be real, it must be timeless, and it must be shared. The statue of Laocoon and his sons, like the Crucifixion, puts us in the presence of all three. Contemporary art that seeks to contextualize pain will only achieve its objective if it can do the same.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Magic at MOMA

The Artist Is Present. Marina Abramovic at MOMA. My first take? Not that interesting, a lot of people waiting for her to make a move, any move, false or otherwise. And by her refusal to do so, we were all forced to wait. Crowd-at-a-hanging mentality, sheep mentality, no one moves unless the leader moves. The artist as bellwether. Being an impatient Aries myself, I was anxious to look for greener pastures in the Kentridge show. You wait here. I'll be back.

William Kentridge! Magic drawing! Magic theater! Magic music and magic lantern shows! The power of imagination and inventiveness. The three parts of The Magic Flute were so entrancing that I watched each one all the way through. In an entirely different but equally affecting way, Ubu and the Procession is a parade of South African folk, torn black silhouettes moving herky-jerky across the screen from left to right, accompanied a loop of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," a ragged-edged version delivered by a woman's voice in more than a hum but without actual words, scat-style as ragged as the torn silhouettes themselves. Audio-visualize an allelujah chorus of the wounded on crutches, refugees carrying and carting their belongings, miners, prisoners, preachers and the lynched, ghosted and blackened. As I'm a Kentuckian getting ready for another round of nostalgia tomorrow afternoon (it's Derby Day in the Bluegrass), this tableau awakened in me that painful mix of wistfulness and sorrow that comes with the singing of "My Old Kentucky Home." But more to the point is Kentridge's power as a narrator and draftsman. I remembered too that magic moment at the University of Louisville when I was handed the keys to the kingdom of drawing and realized what worlds could come alive just by putting pencil to paper.

The Abramovic performance (I told you I'd be back) is in a way a political stance. By refusing to react, she dissuades us from reacting. Ostensibly, there is nothing to react to. Should we be horrified? mollified? lulled into non-action or provoked into retaliation? A sort of Schadenfreude ensues as one watches the person sitting across from the artist. What are that person's actions, thoughts and feelings? Around the perimeter, students are drawing the event, writing about it. I'm beginning to feel it's really quite extraordinary, the power of this performance. When one sitter rises to leave, Abramovic puts her fingertips to her eyes, adjusts her body, draws within, becomes human for a few seconds. As the next sitter takes her place, Abramovic visibly re-enters her body, the goddess inhabiting the oracle space, and engages this new supplicant through eye contact alone. Magic indeed.

For much more on Kentridge
and live video of Abramovic
MOMA's website is excellent.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Inside the Whitney

My walk through the 2010 Whitney Biennial began on the fourth floor and went downhill from there, though not quite so negatively as that may sound. In a show devoted to ways of experiencing space, there are also connections with human presence. One of the fascinations of re-viewing these works on the internet is that many of the pieces are more effective on my display than in actual fact, and that the most striking piece of all comes across as barely credible on the museum's website.

First off the elevator was a large hemp and jute tapestry by Piotr Uklanski (no image available). There is a recent time and tradition in which tapestry was bold in its imagery and reflected its roots in primitive traditions. Untitled (The Year We Made Contact) is such a tapestry and it comes across now as dated, monotonous and far too big for its wall. By contrast, Still, Untitled, Pae White's tapestry one floor down is modern in its execution but looks back even further in history to the 16th and 17th century tapestries woven at the Gobelins workshops in Paris. The same size as the tapestry a floor above, White's images of curling smoke activate the space rather than kill it. The fact that it is machine woven is so little evident that I at first took it for a painting, which is to say that the technique did not call attention to itself.

Some rooms/spaces at the Whitney are devoted to a single artist. Charles Ray's big flower paintings make a nice grouping, though each one could certainly inhabit a space of its own. Ania Soliman's NATURAL OBJECT RANT: The Pineapple, a frieze of collages and text that line the pink-painted walls of a small square room, describe the economic, politcal and ecological cost of the pineapple industry in Hawaii. The images were small enough to draw me in and spin me around the room. By the time I'd finished, I felt distinctly that I too had been sliced and canned, and was drawing personal parallels between the pineapple industry and the processing of viewers in blockbuster shows.

A site-specific installation by R.H. Quaytman that references an adjacent window by architect Marcel Breuer makes good sense visually, but on the whole this is a humdrum Biennial with much derivative work. Roland Flexner's 30 sumi ink drawings that have been mentioned by another writer as magical may have been so in the studio, but the presentation - overmatted, framed and gridded - snuffed the life right out of them.

Now almost a week later it is the breath in other pieces that stays with me: the heart-breaking photographs of Afghani women, by Stephanie Sinclair, Self Immolation in Afghanistan: A Cry for Help; the indifferent-to-human-pain smoke in White's tapestry; the hilarious video, Detroit, by Ari Marcopoulos of a couple of kids making noise rock in their bedroom. Standing in a small darkened room with this one is to know what it's like inside an adolescent boy's head: The Noise! The Color! The Lights! That's primitive, that's brash, and that for me made the show worthwhile.

Photo credit: No photos allowed of the Biennial art, but someone had left a closet door open, a stand-in for installations everywhere.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Some Answers, Some Questions

In Maine, where I spend most of the year, painting is still the gold standard. In New York, the ARTSEEN editors at The Brooklyn Rail write that followers of post-modern theory have created "a ghetto into which painting, drawing and sculpture, along with certain kinds of film and photography have been driven, the door locked and the key thrown away." Personally, I like a balance between content and form, and in thinking about why both are important, have come up with some answers:

Art is an object. Art has no physical form.
Art is presented in special places. Art is everywhere we look.
Art is made by talented people. Art is made by everyone.
Art exists in a vacuum. Art exists in the interaction between the object and the viewer.
Art is the interaction between participants.
There is no message without a sender.
There is no message without a receiver.
Art is always static. Art is always moving.

And then some questions:

Where does art start and where does it stop? What is the vantage point from which art can be seen, practiced and acted on? When is an artist not an artist? Questions of permanence/ephemerality and of commercial value are secondary to the consideration that art is a noun for which there is no verb. The verb is "to make." If I jump on a pedestal and proclaim myself an artist - that's art. If I put a pile of sofas in the middle of Second Avenue and sit there - yes, I am an artist. What makes the sardine packer different from the canner of s***? The difference lies in the ability of the artist (in this case Manzoni) to take a concept, that of putting something edible into a can, and twist the concept for his own purposes, whatever those may be. The art lies in the transfiguration of action into idea into objectification, the creation of the moebius strip that unifies the three.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Sense of Time

This Monday, so many art writers writing about each other instead of about art. Noah Becker sums it up, and says it's maybe just too hard to write about the art itself. Yes it is, and I'm going to take a stab at some art that is hugely complex. Hard to put words to what I feel about it, but here goes.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, my favorite thing to do is to wander through to the medieval section. I love those polychrome statues of saints and important persons, love them because they reveal the essence of the real people they once were. I like to imagine what their lives must have been like, birth to death and and the discomforts in between.

At the Brooklyn Museum, I found correspondences between Kiki Smith's cast aluminum figures in the exhibition Sojourn, installed in a series of rooms on the fourth floor, and the Egyptian figures that are part of the exhibition To Live Forever. In both exhibitions, each figure imparts a sense of time transcended, of a permanent present that is rooted in the life of the person depicted. In an eerie way, the viewer senses a vision that emanates not from the artist's skill but from the statue itself. Each figure creates a tangible space around it. As I stood beside Smith's Annunciation (shown above), not knowing exactly what its blank eyes had seen or were seeing now, I knew that I too was experiencing the numinous. It came as no surprise to read that Smith has a deep knowledge of medieval art, or that her figures installed in the 18th century period rooms at the museum were right at home. I learned too that the ancient Egyptians believed that funerary statues contained the spirit of the deceased, and that a possible reason for the broken noses of so many of them was to prevent the spirit from coming back to life.

Sojourn is a new iteration of Smith's exhibition Her Home, installed in 2008 at the Kunstmuseen Krefeld and the Kunsthalle Nuernberg. In the accompanying catalog, Krefeld Director Martin Hentschel describes Her Home as "a scenario of life face to face with transience." Her work "links spirit, human and animal worlds," and in this way, I think, is very much like the art of ancient Egypt. Yet the title of the Egyptian exhibit, To Live Forever implies a different outcome to transience. At the Brooklyn Museum, transient time and eternity seem somehow the same.

Sojourn continues through September 12. To Live Forever is on view through May 2. The statuary at the Met is forever.

More on Kiki Smith
slide show
Brooklyn Museum
Flickr Source

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Kuniyoshi Tour-de-Force

Toward the latter part of 2009, this blog kind of got away from me, or I from it, but I am back and planning to make it a weekly post again. Rainy Monday seems like a good time to begin. I'm in New York, focused on Japanese woodblock and my own beginning efforts in that direction, and I am looking, looking, looking. More than 100 of Utagawa Kuniyoshi's prints from the first half of the 19th century are on exhibit at the Japan Society. I spent several hours there yesterday, and then, it being a perfect Sunday afternoon for walking, continued on to the Asia Society where two exhibitions, Pilgrimage and Buddhist Art and The Arts of Ancient Viet Nam: from River Plain to Open Sea, are on view.

The title Graphic Heroes, Magic Monsters barely begins to describe the richness of imagery in Kuniyoshi's prints. There are warlords, Kabuki actors, feuding clans, beautiful women, exemplary women, landscape elements derived from the Dutch, and indeed, monsters, demons and ghosts, along with oversized toads, cat spirits, and politicians rendered as turtles. Equally fascinating for me were the patterned depictions of nature: floating leaves on shimmering river water, pouring rain (described as a tour-de-force on the part of the block carver) and subtle color fades in skies and sunsets. For the aspiring student, most valuable of all, examples of Kuniyoshi's sketchbooks and a few of the key block drawings that provide the line elements for the prints. A related exhibition, The 36 Views of Fuji by Hiroshige is at Ronin Gallery through March 31. I will see that later this week.

Now that I've gotten started there is much I could say about what I notice as obvious contrasts between the exciting line and vigorous color of the Kuniyoshi images that have had such an influence on manga, and the quiet presence of Vietnamese objects and Chinese scroll painting. My work as viewer is different depending on what I'm seeing. Entering into the space of the scroll painting, or even standing quietly before the dun tones of a large ceremonial vessel, I am making a journey into myself. But Kuniyoshi takes me out into other worlds that mirror faces and forms of his own time and also reflect the issues and mores of the 21st century.

Image credit: Kuniyoshi Samurai Print
Japan Society

Asia Society

Friday, March 12, 2010

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