Monday, October 06, 2008

Provocative Duo, Naked and Natty (NY Times)

Dynamic duo, gruesome twosome or just plain geeks in ties and tweeds, the British artists Gilbert & George don’t seem to care what you call them as long as you pay attention, which you couldn’t avoid doing if you tried in their suffocating and disordered wraparound survey at the Brooklyn Museum.

Partners in life and work for 40 years, the artists have had a major career, particularly in Britain, where they were a sensation long before “Sensation,” and now hold a kind of national monument status. Their new show at the Brooklyn Museum, “Gilbert & George,” originated at Tate Modern in London.

Yet popular is not really the word for them. They’re too strange for that. And to perpetually temperature-taking art-world eyes, they have always stood a little outside the coolness loop, a tad beyond the pale, a touch too much.

The look-alike personal style they’ve affected, a robotic blandness, has probably had something to do with this; they are certainly no one’s idea of a glamour couple. And their sleek, photo-based, politically incorrect across-the-spectrum art is as hard to love as it is to categorize. Even if you appreciate it, you may prefer not to spend time with it.

Then there’s the perversity factor. They have a funky sense of beauty and an appetite for unsightly things, things most people come to art museums not to see. They were using images of feces back in the 1980s, long before Andres Serrano got the idea. In the 1990s, when they had reached an age at which most exhibitionists put their clothes back on, Gilbert & George, then in their mid-50s, took theirs off. More recently, when the art establishment had declared blatantly topical political art to be anathema, that’s what they made.

And they keep making it. It’s as if they can’t stop. And digital technology has only upped the output, which is one reason the Brooklyn show looks the way it does: oppressively and exhaustingly busy and dense, without even a clarifying logic of chronology to offer relief.

At the same time, for exactly these reasons, the show is a vivid experience. First look may be best look, but it’s a memorable look. And it poses a genuine love-it-or-hate-it proposition, something in short supply these days, but one these artists have been offering for years.

Gilbert Proesch (born in northern Italy in 1943) and George Passmore (born in Devon, England, in 1942) met in art school in Swinging London in 1967. It was a wild time to be there. Mild-mannered male singing duos — Peter and Gordon, Chad and Jeremy — topped the charts while the Beatles dropped acid in India. Middle-class hippies and working-class kids faced off. Pop was already old; Conceptualism was starting.

Gilbert & George fed off all of this, but also backed away from it. Self-described country boys in the big city for the first time, and a committed couple, they stayed away from the art school set and instead moved to what was then a derelict East London, where they lived cheaply, saw almost no one and did their thing.

What was their thing? Some would call it performance art; Gilbert & George called it sculpture. An early piece, “Underneath the Arches,” was a kind of tableau vivant. It entailed their posing together for long stretches — eight hours in some cases — and barely moving as they lip-synched the recorded music-hall song of the title, about the melancholy joys of the homeless life.

In London in 1970 they presented it free on the street for passers-by. In galleries, they performed it standing on tables, their skin covered with blotchy bronze makeup that made them look diseased. You can see a 1974 performance in a video in the show. Like much of their art, it is striking, then maddening, an endurance test for artists and viewers alike.

By then they had fixed on the odd-couple look they would keep: Gilbert, short, dark-haired, cute; George, taller, spectacled, blond-going-bald. With their blank faces and matching, slightly too-tight suits, they suggested overgrown schoolboys or modish clerks, part of the present but also part of some undefined past.

In the early 1970s they translated their live sculpture into more permanent mediums, first large drawings — a gallery in the show is devoted to these — and then into photographic ensembles. Initially the photographs were small, but of varied sizes and differently arranged from piece to piece. Then a set format developed: four or more same-size framed pictures — black and white, sometimes dyed red — grouped edge to edge as a rectilinear unit.

Monday, December 24, 2007

What We Talk About When We Talk About Art. NY Times

WHEN it comes to fashionably obtuse language, the art world is one of the leading offenders. Academic pretensions flash through like brush fire, without a drop of cold water splashed their way.

“Reference” and “privilege” are used relentlessly as verbs, as in “referencing late capitalism” or “privileging the male gaze.” Artists “imbricate” ideological subtexts into their images. Some may think such two-bit words reflect important shifts in thought about art, but they usually just betray an intellectual insecurity.

Referencing — rather than referring to — is probably here to stay. It has appeared in The New York Times 295 times since 1980 (including 6 transgressions by this writer). This year it was used 42 times, a record, nearly double last year’s 22. But privileging — instead of favoring — could still be deflected; it has been used only 34 times since 1980 in these pages (O.K., once by me).

Another lamentable creeping usage is not only pretentious, but it distorts and narrows what artists do. I refer to — rather than reference — the word practice, as in “Duchamp’s practice,” “Picasso’s studio practice” and worst of all, especially from the mouths of graduate students, “my practice.” Things were bad enough in the 1980s, when artists sometimes referred to their work as “production,” but at least that had a kind of grease-monkey grit to it.

The impetus behind practice may be to demystify the stereotype of the visionary or emotion-driven artist, and indeed it does. It turns the artist into an utterly conventional authority figure.

First off, there’s the implication that artists, like lawyers, doctors and dentists, need a license to practice. Of course it could be said that too many artists already feel the need for such a license: It’s called a master of fine arts. But artists don’t need licenses or certificates or permission to do their work. Their job description, if they have one, is to operate outside accepted limits.

Second is the implication that an artist, like a doctor, lawyer or dentist, is trained to fix some external problem. It depersonalizes the urgency of art making and gives it an aura of control, as if it is all planned out ahead of time. Art rarely succeeds when it sets out to fix anything beyond the artist’s own, subjective needs. (Does Paul McCarthy covered in ketchup constitute a “practice”? Please.) If an artist’s work helps other people to fix things within themselves or, more broadly, in society, though, so much the better.

Finally, practice sanitizes a very messy process. It suggests that art making is a kind of white-collar activity whose practitioners don’t get their hands dirty, either physically or emotionally. It converts art into a hygienic desk job and signals a basic discomfort with the physical mess as well as the unknowable, irrational side of art making. It suggests that materials are not the point of art at all — when they are, on some level, the only point.

Artists turn whatever intangibles they use — including empty space, language or human interaction — into a kind of material. They mess with things, making them newly palpable and in the process opening our eyes. This point is made eloquently in the current Lawrence Weiner exhibition at the Whitney Museum, with its cryptic phrases flung across walls, and the staged interactions in Tino Sehgal’s debut show at the Marian Goodman gallery, where the atmosphere is charged by mere talk and a few choreographed poses. Both artists have wrestled mightily with language and space, structuring them in a way that makes them undeniably art.

Are they practice-ing? I don’t think so.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

'Las Vegas Diaspora' at the Las Vegas Art Museum, LATimes

If it did nothing else, "Las Vegas Diaspora: The Emergence of Contemporary Art From the Neon Homeland" could claim the best title of any art museum exhibition this year. The show chronicles the scattering of 26 artists who graduated from the gambling capital's University of Nevada campus after studying in the 1990s with prominent art critic Dave Hickey. Now, 15 of those artists work in eight other regions, especially on the coasts. The remainder decided to stay in town, where the show is on view at the Las Vegas Art Museum through Dec. 30. They represent the vibrant kernel of a serious art scene in a city few would expect to have one. That's the other reason that "Diaspora" is not just a snappy name but also an apt term for this undertaking. As nomenclature, the word is usually applied to describe the fate of minorities reviled by the dominant culture. That means it fits Las Vegas art to a T. This metropolis is a distinctly American city, where modern art ideas originally forged in a European crucible often have the fit of a delicate glass slipper jammed onto the ungainly foot of an ugly stepsister. In that regard, Las Vegas is the new Los Angeles. Not so long ago L.A. was the place where culture was said to be mostly found in yogurt. Vegas, though, is still the kind of place where "Swan Lake" is assumed to be performed as a topless revue, save for the incongruous ostrich feathers. "Las Vegas Diaspora" takes that no-class, low-art slur and wisely runs with it, turning most every imaginable sow's ear into a startling silk purse. The aesthetic refinement is downright extreme. Hickey, who was guest curator for the show (his wife, Libby Lumpkin, is the museum's director), came to the forefront of American art criticism -- snagging a MacArthur prize in the process -- nearly 15 years ago, when he audaciously argued that, of all things, beauty would become the art-issue of the 1990s. It did. The topic assumes an unexpected tone of militancy in "Las Vegas Diaspora." Beauty isn't offered as some timid escape from society's crushing woes, but as a sharp rebuke: Not that; this! I surrender -- happily. The works Thomas Burke's 16-foot-long panel of undulating geometric color, "The Hots," crosses Sol LeWitt with a Navajo blanket, then turns on the neon. Jane Callister's "Cosmic Landslide" is a primordial ooze of sliding paint -- pigmented magma. It might have been the site for the Rev. Ethan Acres' "Miracle at La Brea," a digital photograph that shows the born-again preacher happily resurrecting a winged Tyrannosaurus rex from the tar pits and sending it heavenward. Shawn Hummel juxtaposes a panel enameled in cherry red automotive paint with big color photographs of a purple car hood and a late-night glimpse into an apartment building window, disturbingly illuminated by acrid yellow light. It's like a gorgeous Ellsworth Kelly abstraction that morphs into a vaguely predatory image. Nearby, lovingly described slabs of raw meat and entrails, gaily marbled with fat and painted in slick oils by Victoria Reynolds, seem right at home in their elaborate Rococo frames. No guts, no glory. Sleek, glamorous, sexy, sensational -- this art is also intellectually savvy. The artists are fluent in the complex language of contemporary art, and the best of them speak distinctive dialects. Bradley Corman's black, anodized aluminum wall relief starts with a sober, Donald Judd-style Minimalism. But the striated horizontal surface of the wide, rectangular relief is slightly bowed, almost imperceptibly engaging ambient light. Static Minimalist form careens into a speeding visual blur. Across the room, Gajin Fujita engineers a different yet related collision, pushing urban street graffiti into Japanese screen painting. With a tagger's skill he writes an angry "BURN" across the flight pattern of an up-from-the-ashes phoenix. Drawing you in Seduction is also a prominent leitmotif, with the art regularly offering come-hither glances. Philip Argent does it in luscious yet apocalyptic paintings that merge crystalline shapes with liquid color, negative space with hard-edge undulations. His paintings record the big-bang-birth of a thoroughly synthetic cosmos. In a hyper-stylized manner Sush Machida Gaikotsu paints bamboo sheltering exquisite white tigers -- an animal unknown in Japan, and thus as mythic a beast as those tamed locally by Siegfried & Roy. But the way he's packaged his nominal Asian scrolls in obsessively crafted, clear acrylic boxes turns high art into luscious consumer product. The tiger, sometimes a Nippon symbol for the West, suddenly assumes a new, ravening identity. Some of the work seems skillful but as yet unprocessed. David Reed, Josiah McElhenny and Jim Isermann were among two dozen distinguished guest faculty who taught at UNLV between 1990 and 2001, and their authority is easy to spot. Robert Acuna evinces technical mastery in painterly abstractions that read something like aestheticized consumer bar-codes stretched 7 feet wide, but the flourishes of paint echo Reed's work too strongly. McElhenny's hand-blown glass confections lurk in the background of Curtis Fairman's otherwise cheeky sculptures, assembled from discount-store candlesticks, bowls and vases and suggestive of glittery, potentially lethal erotic toys. Almond Zigmund's geometric decals on a gallery window-wall and Sherin Guirguis' jazzy, decorative wall-relief of Eames-like stacking chairs both recall Isermann's work. Guirguis manages to transform the influence into something uniquely her own, though, largely through an unexpected manipulation of materials. What looks like a raised, linear drawing is in fact painted Masonite. Sculpture, painting, drawing, relief and furniture tumble together into one marvelously polymorphic species. Odd yet effective Among the show's strangest, most unexpected works are two large, oil-on-linen "Crack" paintings by Jason Tomme. Ethereal golden-brown panels turn the show's volume way down, their shadowy hues recalling fragments of ancient wall behind the foreground action in a Caravaggio, like "The Calling of St. Matthew" or "Boy With a Basket of Fruit." Art's action lies in the breach, escaping through unexpected fissures, this canny work suggests, lurking in the illuminated void where flamboyant human dramas unfold.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

An Artist’s Famous Smile: What Lies Behind It?, NYTimes

Your first reaction upon meeting Yue Minjun might be, yes, it is indeed he! The face with the enigmatic, jaw-breaking grin, perhaps the most recognizable image in contemporary Chinese painting, is a self-portrait.

“Yes, it’s me,” Mr. Yue said in a recent interview, and he smiled, though in a gentler, less face-splitting fashion than the man in his paintings — the one who drifts Zelig-like past various familiar backgrounds making a sardonic, or perhaps ironically despairing, comment on the passing scene.

Mr. Yue, 45, was in New York in October for the opening of an exhibition of his paintings and sculptures that continues through Jan. 6 at the Queens Museum of Art. The show, “Yue Minjun and the Symbolic Smile,” is the first American museum exhibition of Mr. Yue’s work and further evidence of his remarkable rise in the superheated field of Chinese contemporary art.

A few years ago, Mr. Yue was eking out a precarious existence in one of Beijing’s artist colonies, trying to figure out a way to weave China’s tumultuous experience into his works. Now, largely on the strength of that signature grin, he has achieved stardom internationally.

Most conspicuously, one of his paintings, “Execution” (1995), a satirical Pop Art-like version of Manet’s “Execution of Maximilian” that was inspired by the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square, sold for $5.9 million last month at an auction at Sotheby’s in London. It was a record sum for a contemporary Chinese painting. For Mr. Yue, the huge sums suddenly commanded by his works — “The Pope” (1997), depicting him as a prelate, went for $4.3 million in June — have involved a readjustment.

“I never thought about this in the past,” he said. “What was important to me was the creation part of painting. But it seems that something has changed. Maybe it’s the way money is becoming more important in society.”

He is not always comfortable with how his work is analyzed. The mesmerizing enigma of that reddish face painted over and over again, with the wide laugh and the eyes tightly shut from the hilarious strain, is subject to a multitude of interpretations. One Chinese art critic has identified the artist as a member of what he calls the school of “cynical realism,” though Mr. Yue doesn’t feel that he belongs to a school or movement and he doesn’t think he’s cynical.

“I’m actually trying to make sense of the world,” he said. “There’s nothing cynical or absurd in what I do.”

Mr. Yue was born in 1962 in the far northern Heilongjiang Province of China and as a child moved to Beijing with his parents. He studied oil painting at the Hebei Normal University and graduated in 1989, when China was rocked by student-led demonstrations and their suppression on Tiananmen Square in June of that year.

“My mood changed at that time,” he said. “I was very down. I realized the gap between reality and the ideal, and I wanted to create my own artistic definition, whereby there could be a meeting with social life and the social environment.”

“The first step,” he added, “was to create a style to express my feelings accurately, starting with something that I knew really well —myself.” That was the first step toward forging what has become the image that has now made him famous. The second step was to devise the laugh, which, he said, was inspired by a painting he saw by another Chinese artist, Geng Jianyi, in which a smile is deformed to mean the opposite of what it normally means.

“So I developed this painting where you see someone laughing,” he said. “At first you think he’s happy, but when you look more carefully, there’s something else there.”

“A smile,” Mr. Yue said, “doesn’t necessarily mean happiness; it could be something else.”

The smile has been variously interpreted as a sort of joke at the absurdity of it all, or the illusion of happiness in lives inevitably heading toward extinction.

Karen Smith, a Beijing expert on Chinese art, suggests that Mr. Yue’s grin is a mask for real feelings of helplessness.

“In China there’s a long history of the smile,” Mr. Yue said. “There is the Maitreya Buddha who can tell the future and whose facial expression is a laugh. Normally there’s an inscription saying that you should be optimistic and laugh in the face of reality.”

“There were also paintings during the Cultural Revolution period, those Soviet-style posters showing happy people laughing,” he continued. “But what’s interesting is that normally what you see in those posters is the opposite of reality.”

Mr. Yue said his smile was in a way a parody of those posters. But, since it’s a self-portrait, it’s also necessarily a parody of himself, he added.

“I’m not laughing at anybody else, because once you laugh at others, you’ll run into trouble, and can create obstacles,” he said. “This is the way to do it if you want to make a parody of the things that are behind the image.”

The real reason he paints himself is that it gives him a greater margin for freedom of expression, he explained.

The work at the Queens Museum ranges from a grouping of 20 life-size terra cotta soldiers, grinning versions of the famous statues unearthed years ago at the tomb of China’s first emperor, to a painting of a laughing version of himself holding another self-image aloft in front of the Statue of Liberty.

There is also a series called “Hats,” in which Mr. Yue has painted himself in all sorts of headgear, from an American football helmet to a peaked cap of a soldier in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, with that unvarying laugh on his face.

“It’s not a denial of reality but a questioning of it,” Mr. Yue said of his work in general. “And that laugh — anybody who’s gone through Chinese recent experience would understand it.”

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Artwork that is truly revolutionary- LATimes

WHEN you enter the show "Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas," opening Sunday at the Pacific Design Center, one image is sure to stand out. A woman wielding a spear and carrying a rifle on her back stands poised as if ready to fight, a reddish sunburst exploding in the background. A caption reads: "Afro-American solidarity with the oppressed People of the world."

Originally created by Douglas as a poster, the image has been reproduced as a 20-foot-tall mural as part of MOCA's tribute to the agit-prop graphic artist. Douglas spent the late 1960s and the '70s creating posters for the Black Panthers, and this exhibit will feature about 150 lithographs culled from his body of work.
"Everything Douglas did was handmade," says show curator Sam Durant. "He was trained as a commercial artist and worked in drawing and collage."

For the show, the museum chose to create the wall mural because the image embodies Douglas' overall visual aesthetic.

"The sunburst pattern in the background was a trope Douglas used in a lot of his posters -- a beatification of the figure," Durant says. "You also have the figure of a female revolutionary. The Black Panthers were quite a macho group, but they also were one of the few organizations that had women in positions of authority. Women were part of the revolutionary struggle for them."

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Gallery Vandals Destroy Photos, NYTimes

A grainy video of four masked vandals running through an art gallery in Sweden, smashing sexually explicit photographs with crowbars and axes to the strain of thundering death-metal music, was posted on YouTube Friday night.

This was no joke or acting stunt. It was what actually happened on a quiet Friday afternoon in Lund, a small university town in southern Sweden where “The History of Sex,” an exhibition of photographs by the New York artist Andres Serrano, had opened two weeks earlier.

Around 3:30, half an hour before closing, four vandals wearing black masks stormed into a space known as the Kulturen Gallery while shouting in Swedish, “We don’t support this,” plus an expletive. They pushed visitors aside, entered a darkened room where some of the photographs were displayed and began smashing the glass protecting the photographs and then hacking away at the prints.

The bumpy video, evidently shot with a hand-held camera by someone who ran into the gallery with the attackers, intersperses images of the Serrano photographs with lettered commentary in Swedish like “This is art?” before showing the vandals at work.

No guards were on duty in the gallery, said Viveca Ohlsson, the show’s curator, although security videos captured much of the incident.

“There was one woman who works at the gallery who tried to stop them until she saw the axes and crowbars,” Ms. Ohlsson said. “These men are dangerous.”

By the time the masked men had finished, half the show — seven 50-by-60-inch photographs, worth some $200,000 over all — had been destroyed. The men left behind leaflets reading, “Against decadence and for a healthier culture.” The fliers listed no name or organization.

“I was shocked and horrified,” Mr. Serrano said in a telephone interview yesterday from New York. “I never expected something like this, especially in this magical town, which is so sweet I joked about it being like something out of Harry Potter.”

Mr. Serrano said he had flown to Sweden for the opening and was met with great enthusiasm by gallery visitors. “The reaction was so positive,” he said. “I could never imagine anything like this happening.”

Officials at the local police station said yesterday that the vandals had not been caught but that they were believed to be part of a neo-Nazi group.

Ms. Ohlsson said the attack was clearly well planned. “We think that they had been at the gallery a few days before,” she said. “They knew where to go.”

The show consists of photographs, made in 1995 and 1996, of various sex acts, including a depiction of a naked woman fondling a stallion. It was divided into two rooms. One had white walls, the other black. The vandals went to the black room, where Ms. Ohlsson said the photographs were a bit racier.

This is not the first time Mr. Serrano’s work has been attacked, physically or in words. In 1989 the National Endowment for the Arts came under fire from conservative politicians and religious groups for helping to finance a $15,000 grant to Mr. Serrano related to past work that included a photograph of a crucifix immersed in urine. A print of that work was attacked and destroyed in 1997 when it was on view at the National Gallery of Art in Melbourne, Australia.

It is not the first time the Kulturen Gallery has seen violence, either. About 10 years ago vandals raced into the gallery and put paint on images by a Swedish photographer.

“The History of Sex” remains on view, but with bolstered security, Ms. Ohlsson said, explaining that the group had threatened on the Internet to attack the show again.

Paula Cooper, Mr. Serrano’s New York dealer, whose gallery in Chelsea exhibited his “History of Sex” photographs in 1997, said she was horrified by the attack in Sweden. “Art inflames people,” she said.

Ms. Cooper said that her gallery was working to replace the destroyed photographs as soon as possible so they could go back on view in Lund. (Mr. Serrano produced each in editions of three.)

After “The History of Sex” closes in Lund in December, it is to travel to the Alingsas Art Museum in Alingsas, Sweden.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Making art a team sport LATimes

ONE of the more intriguing art world invitations in recent memory landed in e-mail in-boxes around town in March. "Dear Friends," it read, "Friday night we will have three 2007 Escalades parked in front of Machine blasting whale songs. And other stuff. Saturday, we have a concert in the secret gallery that can be listened to on speaker phone. Both events are free. Details below. Love, Machine" Machine -- short for Machine Project -- is one of the L.A. art world's more quixotic institutions: an artist-run nonprofit in a raggedy Alvarado Street storefront in Echo Park that has become, in the four years since it opened, a haven for the hip, the nerdy and the otherwise curious. Conceived, in the words of its mission statement, "to encourage the heroic experiments of the gracefully overambitious," it plays host to exhibitions, performances, lectures and workshops on a broad and sometimes baffling range of topics revolving loosely around the intersection of art and technology. If you missed the cetacean-channeling SUVs (actually an installation by Peter Segerstrom), you might have caught "Psychobotany," an exhibition exploring "revolutionary breakthroughs in human/plant communication"; the Dorkbot Dorkbake, a bake-off in which contestants were required to construct their own ovens powered solely by the heat of a 100-watt light bulb; or the four-week Felt and Circuits Workshop, in which participants were instructed in the arts of both felt making and circuit board construction, with the goal of producing "your own noisy synthesizer creature from scratch." It's an exciting time for art in L.A., and nowhere is this more palpable -- nowhere are the reasons for it clearer -- than in a place like Machine, where the siren song of a fevered market holds little sway; anything goes, curatorially; and no one's getting paid enough to be haughty. Of all the city's cultural resources -- prestigious schools, ambitious museums, a robust gallery scene -- the most significant by far is its ever-welling population of artists, and it's from this pool that these organizations have arisen: institutions that function, to one degree or another, as art projects in themselves, driven by ideas and a spirit of collaboration, whose offbeat programming aims to challenge the boundaries of what we conceive art to be. The progenitors, most would agree, are the Museum of Jurassic Technology and the Center for Land Use Interpretation (opened in 1988 and 1994, respectively). In their wake have come Machine Project, Betalevel (formerly C-Level), Farmlab, Telic Arts Exchange, Dangerous Curve, the Velaslavasay Panorama and Monte Vista Projects. There are also nomadic organizations like Art2102, the Institute for Figuring and Outpost for Contemporary Art, as well as educational experiments like the Sundown Schoolhouse (formerly the Sundown Salon) and the Mountain School of Arts. They've opened for different reasons; they have different agendas, different vibes and different financial arrangements. Machine, for instance, has a technological bent; Farmlab's focus is environmental activism. Dangerous Curve has become a center for experimental music. Betalevel, located in a basement down an alley in Chinatown, has the furtive, secretive feel of a speak-easy; the Panorama, which occupies an old theater near USC, models itself on the entertainment culture of the 19th century. Some (Machine and Telic) are registered nonprofits, surviving on donations and grants; others (Betalevel, Dangerous Curve) are internally funded. Farmlab is wholly subsidized by the Annenberg Foundation. They are, however, very much in communication, often sharing board members, as well as contacts and audiences. As Lauren Bon from Farmlab puts it: "There's a whole mushroom spore of them. They're all connected under the surface, but they are also very independent."