Sunday, November 26, 2006

African Comics, Far Beyond the Funny Pages , NYTimes

“It’s intense,” said the security guard as I was leaving “Africa Comics” at the Studio Museum in Harlem after an hour or more of up-close looking and reading. She was right. That’s exactly the word for the stealth-potency of this modest, first-time United States survey of original designs by 35 African artists who specialize in comic art.

Their work is intense the way urban Africa is intense: intensely zany, intensely warm, intensely harsh, intensely political. True, you could say the same of New York or New Delhi, or any major cosmopolis being shaped by globalism these days. Yet every place has very specific intensities. Africa does, and they are distilled in the art here.

I guess there are people who still can’t fit the idea of “art” and “comics” into the same frame. But why? If handmade, graphically inventive, conceptually imaginative images — which describes practically everything in this show — aren’t art, what is? The same images are topical, and are meant to be seen in reproduction; does that alter their status as art? Goya, Daumier and José Guadalupe Posada would of course say no.

In any event, Pop Art and all that followed it long ago wiped out the notion that comics are one-liner sight gags good only for the “funny pages.” “Masters of American Comics,” the ambitious historical survey split between the Jewish Museum in Manhattan and the Newark Museum, is truly a masterpiece show. “Africa Comics” edges into that territory, as does some of the work in a tiny show ending Dec. 17 called “Political Cartoons From Nigeria” at Southfirst, a contemporary gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Not that entertainment is missing from the Studio Museum selection. Just the opposite: some of the material is just plain fun. We are on familiar Marvel Comics ground with the adventures of the charismatic Princess Wella, a kind of superwoman with a ceremonial staff and braids, created by Laércio George Mabota, a young artist from Mozambique.

And even a non-African can see why the schlumpy but wily character named Goorgoolou — in a series by Alphonse Mendy, who goes by the name T. T. Fons — has become a national hero, or antihero, in Senegal. With Ralph Kramden-esque panache, he lampoons social pretensions and embodies the plight of an everyman in a baffling postmodern world. Such is the character’s fame that a television show and magazine have been built around him, and he was a star of the recent international Dakar biennial, Dak’Art, where comic art, for the first time, took center stage.

Yet far more often than not, humor is a sugar-coating for disquiet. For example, a piece by the South African artist Anton Kannemeyer, who goes by the name Joe Dog, uses a charming children’s book style — the source is “Tintin au Congo” from the classic Belgian series, its racial stereotypes deliberately left intact — to depict a black-on-white racial attack that turns out to be a paranoiac neocolonialist dream.

Mr. Kannemeyer is a founder, with the artist Conrad Botes, of the graphic magazine Bitterkomix, which has tackled some of the most pressing political issues in a still volatile South Africa. And in general African politics and popular culture are inseparable. Most of the comics in the Southfirst show are direct attacks on past and present governmental corruption in Nigeria, and nearly all of them are by Ghariokwu Lemi, an artist famous for having painted 26 album covers for the Afrobeat idol and political rebel Fela Kuti.

In some comic art, political content takes an upbeat, utopian tack. More than one piece at the Studio Museum evokes scenes of ethnic violence in order to propose an alternative vision of peace and solidarity, exhorting a new generation of Africans to learn from the mistakes of their parents.

More often the tone is skeptical, even sardonic, as in the case of a sly, graphically jazzy account by Didier Viode, an artist from Benin now living in France, of the bureaucratic roadblocks encountered by Africans applying for immigration papers. Or in a depiction by the Ivorian artist Maxime Aka Gnoan Kacou, known as Mendozza y Caramba, of a noctural mugging as an elegant shadow play in black and gold against a solid blue ground.

Visually neither style is intrinsically “serious.” You can’t know at a glance what you’re getting into. By contrast, right from its opening image — of a screaming woman carrying a bloodied child, done in full-blown social-realist style — there is no mistaking the didactic content of a story of female genital mutilation by the Senegalese artist Cisse Samba Ndar.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The showman , Guardian

Drawing on advertising, the media and pornography, Jeff Koons's art is about 'aspects of entertainment'. His latest work is an assault on the shiny, happy surface of contemporary culture "So much of the world is advertising, and because of that, individuals feel that they have to present themselves as a package." It is one of the most-quoted things Jeff Koons has said.

Fresh off the plane from New York (and back on it again in under 12 hours), he had clearly given some thought to his self-presentation for an eight-hour stretch that was going to take in a picture session, interview, a private view of his latest work at the most bijoux of the American dealer Larry Gagosian's several spaces in London, a public grilling at the Serpentine Gallery, followed by a dinner at which he would be expected to, if not scintillate, at least give value to the assembled collectors and museum people in an impenetrable, Warholian, Sphinx-like manner. One of the great showman self-promoters of the past 20 years, the bridge between Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst, Koons is aware that, in a world geared to the shock of the new, spooky ordinariness - wife, children, a gee-whizz love of life and the everyday vulgar and unexceptional - can command garrulous attention.

The persona Koons had chosen to come packaged in was, like the work that has made him one of America's most influential living artists, fugitive and particularly difficult to read. The neat business suit, the clubman's tie and the salt-and-pepper brush-cut hair suggested both the head buyer in the men's apparel department at Bloomingdale's and a retired astronaut still out of joint with life on Earth.

"I believe in advertisement and media completely," Koons has said. "My art and personal life are based on it." In an interview many years ago he described his idea of pleasure: dining with a group of friends, he recalled, he was moved to propose a toast. How lucky he was, he announced, to be in a beautiful place, surrounded by people he liked ... As he stood there, he remembered, in a state of bliss, it was like being in an advertisement.

Koons had already brought ad campaigns - for alcohol and Nike trainers - into his work, and with his factory-fresh vacuum cleaners in neon-lit perspex cases, and luxury objects switched straight from showroom to gallery, he seemed to equate artworks with commodities directly. Some critics interpreted his work as a crit-ique of consumer-capitalism: he had returned the Duchamp-inspired readymade to its status as a product. For others, such as Benjamin Buchloh, Koons was "only pretending to engage in a critical annihilation of mass-cultural fetishisation". In reality, he was acting out what Walter Benjamin had predicted for capitalist society: the cultural need to compensate for the lost aura of art and artist with "the phoney spell" of the commodity and the star. By 1992, after marrying the Hungarian-born Italian ex-porn star Ilona Staller (known as La Cicciolina), he had achieved the kind of crossover celebrity only previously experienced by the artist with whom he has most in common, Warhol.

Show Koons a camera and an audience, and he effortlessly snaps into "Jeff Koons" mode. He is disarming, shy, eloquent, charming, intriguingly wacko - preternaturally knowing, yet awkward and alarmingly innocent; the whole package. Produce a notebook, however, and ask him about his work in a conventional interview situation, and something within him freezes, a light clicks off.

The Gagosian Gallery in Mayfair is a tiny space, no deeper than a department-store window. From the street, Koons's newest piece, Cracked Egg (Blue), looked like the beginning of an up- market window display that would be completed with bewigged mannequin models later. The sculpture is made of high chromium stainless steel that has been engineered to standards no less precise, and to a finish even more reflectively immaculate, than on the cars in the Porsche showroom a few doors away. The new work is in two parts - a six-foot-tall, mirror-laminated egg and its jagged "lid" - and is a continuation of the Celebration series that Koons began in the mid-1990s. Previous works in the series include kitschy inflated Valentine hearts and fake satin ribbons and bows, as well as Koons's signature sculpture, the balloon dog - "like a balloon that a clown would maybe twist for you at a birthday party".

It has been claimed that the works in Celebration "conjure up a positive fundamental view not unlike the boundless trust with which a child looks at the world". As a boy in the provincial backwater of York, Pennsylvania, where his father was an interior decorator, Koons, who went on to be a Wall Street broker, earned pocket money by selling gift wrappings and chocolates door-to-door. "I'd present the product, and people would buy it, and it was nice," he once told David Sylvester. "I felt it was a way of meeting people's needs. So I was always good in sales."

Cracked Egg is the only work in the Celebration series in which fracture or assault of the shiny, happy surface has taken place. Koons is on record as saying that he never consciously sits down to try to create a work that is optimistic but has a dark side. He wants his work to be "a support system for people to feel good about themselves, to have their life be as enriching as possible, to make them feel secure - I don't tend to be pulled towards the idea of making a menacing work". But Cracked Egg, in its shatteredness and sharp edges, seems to cry out for a reading that invokes the spirit of post-9/11 America, specifically the sense of violation evident even now in New York, the city where Koons lives and works.

"It's interesting," he says. "They're all about holidays - the hanging heart Valentines, Thanksgiving, maybe even Christmas. The egg is about Easter, birth and rebirth, in art-historical terms the Botticelli Venus. But with the egg there's a sense of loss. There was an abduction. My son was abducted. By my wife. I'm supposed to be able to see him, but I'm not able to. It's complicated. We're supposed to be able to talk, but we can't. I started the Celebration works right before Ludwig was abducted. I continued with them because I wanted to let my son know I was thinking about him. He's 14 now. When he turns 18 I hope the first thing he'd want to do is get on a plane."

Ludwig was born in 1992, the year after Koons married Staller. In addition to a son, their collaboration produced Made in Heaven, a collection of sexually explicit photographs and kitschy sculptures of Koons and Staller that marries the pornographic ("Dirty - Jeff on Top", "Blow Job") to the teeth-rottingly banal ("Cherubs", "Three Puppies"). The photographs haven't lost their power to shock. There was a frisson even among the predominantly young, laidback Serpentine audience when the painting "Ilona's Asshole" flashed up on multiple video monitors. This was followed by disbelieving glances when Koons confided that "what I love about the picture are the pimples on Ilona's ass. That openness, generosity, the sense of self-acceptance." He later told me that the works in Made in Heaven were inspired by Masaccio's The Expulsion - "the guilt and shame on Adam and Eve's faces in the painting. I wanted to make work that showed what it was like to be tranquil and not feel shame about the body. Whatever anybody's history is, it's perfect. It can't be any different. I would tie this to nature."

Koons's interlocutors in Rem Koolhaas's semi-inflated pavilion in front of the Serpentine Gallery were Koolhaas himself and the gallery's co-curator, Hans Ulrich Obrist. The two European intellectuals took it in turns to try to penetrate beyond his very American resolve to be "really friendly, and really positive and optimistic". The American pop artists were not much interested in ideas. Pop art was about "liking things", as Warhol once said. Koons, who says his art is "about aspects of entertainment" and believes that "salespeople are on the front line of culture", is the true inheritor of that tradition. "You know, Hans Ulrich," he would begin, smiling sweetly, gently refusing a question on the Baudrillardian reading of the commodity-as-sign. Or: "Well, Rem, the answer to that is quite simple: the money didn't come." I was repeatedly reminded of something he once told Sylvester: "My painting is really, for me, about my background. I was trying to show that I come from a provincial background. Eventually, over a period of time, the provincial always wins."

Koons's father had a furniture showroom, which one day would be a living room, and a week later a kitchen. "The fact that Jeff grew up around commercialism and marketing, and the fact that a kitchen wasn't really a kitchen - wasn't really anything - resonates with the hollowness we have today," his friend Tom Ford, the former creative director of Gucci, has said.

Koons has remarried. He spends time with his wife and their three children on the farm that used to belong to his grandfather in the countryside close to where he grew up in Pennsylvania. John Updike's family farm, the setting for many of his novels, is also in Pennsylvania, at Shillington. Is Koons's farm anywhere nearby? This draws a blank. "I don't read books," Koons says. "I only see magazines and newspapers. Images. The flood of images. I enjoy narrative through the visual. The great thing about art is that it brings all the disciplines of the world together - literature, philosophy, psychology, science. But, you know, I only really like to be in the studio with the people I regard as my extended family, my assistants. You try very much to be in the moment, looking at everything in the world all the time, putting it into play."

Dennis Potter wrote for television, the great indiscriminate disseminator of the visual, so I try a Potter quote on him: "Capitalism now is about selling all of you to all of you. But they don't know what it is they're selling. The only object is to keep in the game. Which is to keep selling something. And one day we're going to find out what it is."

"I'm not interested in capitalism at all," says Koons. "I'm not interested in objects. I don't care about money. I'm interested in people - human desire and aspiration and having daily interconnection with the people I value. I believe in experience, and having transcendence in your life."

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Step into his world LATimes

MAGRITTE is back.

Not that the natty guy in the black bowler ever really left. He fell out of fashion long before his death, in 1967, but graphic designers and illustrators never stopped mining the Belgian Surrealist's work for visual shock and dreamy wit. Despite perpetually changing styles, new generations of painters, sculptors and filmmakers continue to assimilate his ideas in disjunctive images and enigmatic combinations of pictures and words. Nearly every floating phrase, levitating boulder and morphing body owes something to René Magritte, whose work has seeped into popular culture and still sparks irreverent inquiries into the nature of artistic representation.
"Magritte is part of the postmodern landscape," says artist Eleanor Antin.

Such familiarity tends to breed boredom, if not contempt. But the Los Angeles County Museum of Art isn't taking Magritte for granted. The big fall and winter show in the Anderson Building, opening next Sunday, is "Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images."

It will offer 65 drawings and paintings by the Surrealist master, whose bourgeois persona masked a wild imaginaton, and an equal number of works by 31 artists who have paid tribute to him or infused his spirit into their art.

And that's not all. John Baldessari, a pioneering conceptualist represented in the show, has designed an installation intended to turn the galleries — and visitors' experience — upside down. The entrance will re-create "The Unexpected Answer," a Magritte painting of a door with a cutout silhouette of a ghostly figure.

Visitors will walk through the open silhouette into galleries carpeted with a woven version of a Magritte-style blue sky with fluffy white clouds. The ceiling, where the sky should be, will be papered with images of freeway intersections. A big square window will be covered with a transparency of the New York skyline. The guards will wear derby hats.

Not the usual Magritte exhibition, but it was inspired by institutional logic.

Not just another retrospective

"IT stems in great part from the fact that we have two remarkable Magritte canvases," says Stephanie Barron, LACMA's senior curator of modern art, who organized the show with Michel Draguet, director of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, in cooperation with the Magritte Foundation.

"The Treachery of Images (This Is Not a Pipe)," one of the museum's most prized possessions, depicts a pipe with a line of French text, "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" or "This is not a pipe," reminding viewers that they are not looking at a pipe but a painting of a pipe. The other painting, "The Liberator," portrays a seated man with a straw hat but no head, holding a jeweled bauble in the shape of a woman's face.

"We felt that it was time to not do just another Magritte retrospective," Barron says. "We wanted to look freshly at his work. The inscrutable nature of Magritte's work has intrigued several subsequent generations of artists. If you look through the catalogue raisonné on Magritte, you see how many artists over time have owned his works. It's not insignificant: Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jeff Koons, Saul Steinberg, Pierre Alechinsky. Many of them still own his works. In fact, artists were generous lenders to the exhibition. I was interested in what it was in Magritte that spoke to a number of artists."

Some pieces are direct quotations or dialogues with particular Magrittes that set up incongruous juxtapositions and startling shifts of scale or turn ordinary things into objects of contemplation and equivocal meaning. Vija Celmins' 6 1/2 -foot-tall enamel-on-wood comb was inspired by an oversized comb sitting on a bed in Magritte's painting "Personal Values." Koons' steel sculpture "J.B. Turner Engine" is based on a Jim Beam bourbon bottle, but it resembles the train steaming out of a fireplace in Magritte's "Time Transfixed."

Most of the contemporary works have more subtle or suggestive relationships with Magritte, who enjoyed great success in his own day.

Edward Ruscha's interest in wordplay is related to but not directly derived from the Belgian artist's use of puzzling labels and titles.

Robert Gober's obsessively crafted sculptures of body parts and ordinary objects don't look like Magritte's paintings, but the ambiguity and vaguely ominous tone have Magrittean echoes.

Martin Kippenberger's aggressively expressionistic paintings reflect the loose style and disturbing tenor of Magritte's relatively little-known paintings from the 1940s.

Pairing two artists in an exhibition is tricky, and pairing one with a multitude is particularly dicey, Barron says. She and LACMA Director Michael Govan came up with asking an artist to design the installation. The first name that popped into both of their heads was Baldessari, an éminence grise in the world of open minds and odd ideas.

He agreed and proposed several alternatives.

"The one we ended up going with was the most provocative," says Barron, who laid out the show in Baldessari's setting. "It's definitely an intervention, but it's also something that speaks on its own almost as a piece by John."

The exhibition will not travel to other museums, partly because of the difficulty of securing loans for multiple venues and partly because the installation was designed specifically for LACMA, Barron says. But museum officials decided to capitalize on theirs being the only place to see this particular take on Magritte.

"It's an astonishing installation, and it's up till March," Barron says. "Let people come here and see it."

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Beirut Arts Lift Off with Political Gallery Show

How about a jam session of Israeli bombs accompanied by the trumpet? Or maybe an Andy Warhol-like pink pop work of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah?

The devastating summer war between Israel and Hezbollah has inspired a multimedia exhibition opening Beirut's artistic season at one of the Lebanese capital's leading galleries, Espace SD.

"We wanted to create a platform for artists, poets, writers and film-makers to share their work produced during or in reaction" to the July/August war, said gallery director Sandra Dagher.

"Nafas (breath of) Beirut," which runs until Nov. 17, features work by more than 40 artists, many of them under 30.

The event also offers a series of events including video screenings, concerts, poetry readings and a lecture on the oil spill along Lebanon's coast since Israeli air raids destroyed seafront fuel tanks south of Beirut.

"The Beirut art scene had been witnessing a real revival before the war," Dagher said.

"After the events, we wanted to create a new dynamic. We launched this exhibition, but it is not about militant art: It allows artists to bear witness to the war in their own way."

The works are not of bloody or graphic scenes, but rather expressions of personal anger, sadness or despair at the horrors of the war and the hardship of forced exile.

Sintia Karam searched for her native Beirut in a series of artistic photographs of Berlin while in exile in Germany during the war. She also shot sandbags, military servicemen and news bulletins about Lebanon on plasma television screens in the subway.

On a television screen, Randa Mirza shows a "self portrait with remote control" showing her next to a dead child on a stretcher. She stares back at the viewer while pressing the remote control, as if freezing the moment.

Scattered on the floor of one side of the gallery lie photocopies of leaflets dropped by Israeli warplanes during the war to warn Lebanese citizens.

Artists Fadia Kisrwani Abboud and Maissa Alameddine invited visitors to take one of the leaflets stamped in red with "return to sender," write a message back to Israel and slide it into a box. They plan to send these messages to Israel's defense ministry.

Hala Dabaji's drawing on canvas shows eight identikit satirical drawings of "politicians responsible or accomplices of the war against Lebanon."

They group U.S. President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, his Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and army chief of staff Dan Halutz.

On one large wall, a glittery pop-art portrait in bright colors of Hezbollah's chief looks at visitors with a broad smile. It reads: "superstar."

"I chose him smiling because he is always portrayed with a stern look. I chose pink because I feel it is the color of my generation. It catches the attention quickly and it is not a solid color," she said.

A dark room at the gallery throws back visitors into the realm of war through music.

Mazen Kerbaj's piece—made up of real sounds of Israeli bombing and his own improvised trumpet tunes—was recorded live on the balcony of his flat in Beirut on the night of July 15-16.

News bulletins, slogans and songs recorded during the war are mixed, manipulated and scratched by audio-visual artist Raed Yassin into a composition which wounds like someone surfing radio waves during the war.

by Nayla Razzouk, Copyright 2006 Agence France Presse

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Rauschenberg's Mystery Goat Stars in Paris Show of `Combines' Bloomberg

In 1964, after Robert Rauschenberg won the Venice Biennale Grand Prize, the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano deplored the event as ``the total and general defeat of culture.''

Since then Rauschenberg, 81, has become one of the Grand Old Men of contemporary art, with auction prices to match. ``Combines,'' an exhibition at the Pompidou Center in Paris, is on the third leg of an international tour that started in New York and Los Angeles and will end in Stockholm.

``Combine paintings'' is the name Rauschenberg gave to the three-dimensional works he produced between 1954 and 1961. At the time, they were viewed as a declaration of war against Abstract Expressionism, the movement that had dominated U.S. art since the 1940s.

Rauschenberg had started with monochromatic paintings. In 1954, he began to attach Coca-Cola bottles, light bulbs, shoes, stuffed animals and other ``found objects'' to his canvases.

The idea was not new. Dadaists and Surrealists had already experimented with ``assemblages,'' made of various materials, often junk. The funniest example was Kurt Schwitters's ``Merzbau'' (Merz Building) in Hanover aka ``the Cathedral of Erotic Misery.'' It was destroyed by the Royal Air Force in World War II.

Relating Materials

Rauschenberg's teacher at Black Mountain Collage in North Carolina was Josef Albers, an émigré from Germany. Although a Bauhaus man, not a Surrealist, Albers insisted on the exact knowledge of different materials and the relationship between them. ``Combination'' was an important term in his lexicon.

No wonder the young painter's strange excursions into the third dimension were first dismissed as ``Neo-Dada,'' the poor imitation of an old hat. In 1958, when Leo Castelli gave him a one-man show in his gallery on New York's Upper East Side, only one item was bought -- by Castelli himself.

The MoMA indignantly refused when Castelli tried to sell the museum ``Monogram,'' arguably Rauschenberg's most famous work and one of the Paris show's highlights. Today, it occupies a place of honor at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.

``Monogram,'' a stuffed angora goat with a rubber tire around its body standing on a canvas with collages, has inspired extravagant interpretations. Some describe it as Rauschenberg's ``Rosebud,'' a memory of a pet goat killed by his father.

`Area of Feeling'

Although the combine paintings are replete with personal references and reminiscences, Rauschenberg has refused to admit that they are autobiographical statements. Instead, he has called them ``unbiased documentations of what I observed, letting the area of feeling take care of itself.''

Nor does he like to be pigeonholed as a pop artist. ``I have never belonged to them,'' he insists. He may have borrowed from pin-ups and cartoon strips, yet, he says, ``my intention was never to elevate commercials to an art form.''

In other words, the visitor has to solve the mystery of the 50 works the Pompidou Center has brought together or leave it unsolved, like the mystery of Mona Lisa's smile.

The show runs through Jan. 15, 2007. It will be on display at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm from Feb. 17 through May 6, 2007. Bloomberg

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

To Timbuktu, and beyond, The Guardian

Critics have declared it clumsy, misguided and even racist. But, argues Jonathan Jones, Paris's new Musée du Quai Branly is quite simply thrilling.
Captain Cook was impressed by the art he saw in the Pacific. Power and Taboo, an exhibition at the British Museum of sacred objects from the Polynesian Islands, includes stupendous things brought back from his voyages - that is, by the first Europeans to make contact with the peoples of these islands. Among them is a wooden bowl supported by the arms of two figures with big round eyes. It's probably the artefact Cook describes with his brand of cool approval in his journal: "A large cava bowl ... neither ill designed nor executed."

Ever since Europeans started to visit - then with brutal rapidity conquer - places across the oceans in the 15th century, they have been struck by the carved, painted, cast, woven and embroidered objects travellers brought home. But here is a terrible irony. The very contact with Europeans that destroyed so many cultures, through violence, disease and, most lethally of all, the assault on traditional beliefs by Christian missionaries, also created the collections of premodern non-western art that today are the best resources for appreciating and trying to understand them.

This creates endless controversies, as the British Museum itself can attest. This year, though, it has been able to relax. The flak has been drawn across the channel. No recent event in the world of museums has been as bitterly contested as the creation of the Musée du Quai Branly, the new French museum of "the arts and civilisations of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas", which opened in Paris this summer. Such has been the criticism of this museum that a comment piece in the Guardian compared it to the Millennium Dome.

It was Jacques Chirac's personal plan to rehouse the French national collection of ethnographic art. In the eyes of radical critics, however, the project has been clumsy at best, racist at worst, reinforcing antiquated colonial prejudices. The museum's planners made a mistake when they described its contents as "arts premiers" - first arts, a phrase critics denounced as scarcely better than the defunct "primitive art". At exactly the moment when African curators like Simon Njami - founder of the magazine Revue Noir and curator of last year's exhibition Africa Remix in London and Paris - insist on the contemporaneity and urbanity of African art, here is a museum, basically, of masks and drums.

Now it has opened an exhibition that is a riposte, or sop, to its critics. D'un Regard l'Autre is about exactly what critics accuse the museum of crudely celebrating: the western gaze. I went to see it with some trepidation, wondering if I'd be the only person in the museum. At least I'd have plenty of space to be angry in.

I realised that news of this place has been distorted in traversing the immense cultural distance between Paris and London, as soon as I entered the jungly park over which the museum floats on bulbous legs. You queue underneath to get inside. That's right, queue. I had to compete with la toute Paris for a ticket. The excitement and eagerness can only be compared to Tate Modern - Jean Nouvel's spectacular organic building is Paris's answer to London's modern art museum - except it exhibits the antithesis of modern industrial life.

You go up a circular ramp around a transparent tower loaded with drums, to emerge into a flowing space that lets you wander from one world culture to another. The display is completely open and connected: a single stroll leads from Oceania to Africa to the Americas. Alcoves contain treasures: Ethiopian wall paintings are presented in a chapel of meditative quietness; another refuge has literary fragments from Timbuktu. It's not hard to criticise. Why imply that a small selection of works from village cultures in Asia reflects the whole of Asian art history? Why assume, in publications, a western visitor? Should we even call these objects art? Yet none of this carping seems relevant to the stunning fact of this exhilarating museum.

No other European government - least of all ours - has spent money on this scale to display what this museum rightly calls "masterpieces" of premodern global art. And what is so great about the British Museum's approach anyway? I find the Wellcome Trust Gallery, where artefacts from all over the world illustrate topics such as "respecting animals" and "coping with death", truly annoying: objects are not treated as works of art, but as part of social life. Which they are of course, but the elusive relationship of art to society is patronisingly simplified. Some of us go to the doctor, some to the shaman - it's all supposed to be perfectly logical. This rationalist social worker's anthropology is woefully inadequate in looking at works of art from any culture.

The Musée du Quai Branly takes the opposite approach. It doesn't explain much at all, but shows art - which it simply and rightly declares to be art - in dramatic, spectacular vistas, intimate close-ups, poetic juxtapositions. It's one of the most seductive museum displays I've ever seen. Its aim is to excite people about this art, to free it from dusty cases in neglected corners of museums, and make you want to see more. It is a triumph, all the braver for defying cliches of post colonial cultural studies.

The funniest thing is critics' belief that a French museum would be intellectually naive. This from the French, the inventors of structuralism? Quai Branly has American masks that come from the collection of Claude Lévi-Strauss, the founder of structural anthropology; far from being unthinking, its flowing display surely reflects his writing on art. In a famous essay, Split Representation in the Art of Asia and America, Lévi-Strauss identifies formal similarities between art unconnected in time or space; it is one of the steps on the road to his theory of a universal structure of human thought. The way this museum invites comparison between cultures - why are masks universal? - resembles the big questions asked by Lévi-Strauss, yet its belief in the mystery of art goes back further.

In the exhibition D'un Regard l'Autre you can see how the Parisian avant-garde fell in love with "the primitive" 100 years ago. Here is a mask made by the Fang people in west-central Africa that was owned by the artist André Derain, who showed it to Matisse and Picasso; according to Derain it was the first time either of them "got" African art. The similarity between the great almond-shaped mask and the masked women in Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is unmissable. Also here is a New Hebridean figure that Matisse gave to Picasso.

The exhibition takes us back further still. It shows how Europeans collected artefacts from Africa and the Americas, even in the Renaissance. Cabinets of curiosities - those Renaissance ancestors of museums - were full of exotic objects to wonder at; you could argue the Musée du Branly returns to this spirit of amazement.

Back in London, I am looking at A'a, a wooden image of the creator from the island Rurutu. There's a photograph nearby of Picasso next to his bronze cast of this work in the British Museum collection, yet here it's hard to recapture the excitement Europeans once felt for such art. There seems to be a choice, in displaying global art, between cautious introspection and full-throttle spectacle. The British Museum is too diplomatic and, as a result, Power and Taboo is scarcely one of the hot exhibitions in London. A reasonable number of people stroll about. In Paris, they're going mad for the art of elsewhere. And if they're not using the correct language, who cares?

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Chelsea: The Art and Commerce of One Hot Block NYTimes

Jack Fuchs remembers when the only profession being practiced along far West 25th Street was the world’s oldest.

“There were streetwalkers on 11th Avenue, and every three or four years something would go wrong, I suppose, and you’d find a body in a parking lot,” said Mr. Fuchs, a no-nonsense landlord who owns a large chunk of property between 10th and 11th Avenues. “Let’s just say it was not a place where you’d want to spend much time.”

On an unseasonably warm fall Thursday little more than a decade later, you could have found about 500 bodies, all very much alive, packed onto the same block by nightfall. Some emerged from Cadillac Escalades and Hummer limousines. Many were clothed in Prada and Marc Jacobs, accessorized by the spectral glow of their BlackBerrys. Besides English — “Sweetie! I just saw you at Gagosian!” — they spoke (and thumb-typed) French and Japanese and Russian.

They filled the street as if it had been closed down for a fair, but there was no funnel cake for sale. Instead, at Bortolami Dayan, a cavernous ground-floor gallery in a former taxi garage, you could have bought a hallucinogenic fractured-mirror sculpture by a British artist, Gary Webb, for $85,000. (You would have had to hurry; the show sold out.)

If you were looking to spend less, you could have paid $12,500 for a sleek oil painting of a red Corvette by Cheryl Kelley at the Lyons Wier Ortt gallery, a small second-floor space across the street. Or $4,500 at the Yossi Milo Gallery for a disturbing photograph by Tierney Gearon of her mentally ill mother, half-naked.

Or if you were really serious, you could have talked to the photo dealer Alan Klotz about buying a vintage print of Dorothea Lange’s “White Angel Bread Line.” At $800,000 — about the price of a nice one-bedroom co-op in the neighborhood — it has not sold yet, but Mr. Klotz is not worried.

Twelve years after the first major commercial gallery, Matthew Marks, ventured into what was then a ghostly neighborhood of truck fumes, oil stains and Soviet-size warehouses, Chelsea seems to show no signs of losing its momentum as a capital of art commerce the likes of which the city, and maybe the world, has never seen.

By one count, made by the Web site, there are now 318 galleries in the neighborhood, many more than SoHo had at its peak. Along with the garment district and the diamond district in Midtown, Chelsea has emerged as one of the largest collections of like businesses in the city’s history.

For at least the last few years the attendant questions have come along almost as consistently as new gallery openings. Has Chelsea peaked? How much bigger can it get? When will it SoHo itself and become one big Comme des Garçons store? There are plentiful signs that company is coming. Recent zoning changes are spurring rampant residential development on the avenues, and the first stage of the High Line park, atop the old rail trestle that threads through the area, will be completed by next spring. But most indications are that Chelsea’s art businesses are continuing to grow apace, both in number and in square feet.

As a way of trying to describe such a huge and baggy beast, this reporter decided to lop off a part of it, to isolate one block and all but take up residence there for several months, watching its rites and rituals, talking to its pioneers and newcomers, its ground-floor gods and high-floor hopefuls.

The stretch of 25th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues presented a good subject for study because it is, in many ways, still a block in transition, unlike 24th, which has long been the neighborhood’s gilded heart, with names like Gagosian, Matthew Marks, Gladstone and Luhring Augustine.

At the 10th Avenue end of 25th Street, by contrast, a gritty car-repair garage remains, where mechanics stand outside in the afternoon smoking and sizing up the well-heeled collectors who pass by. Midblock a free soundtrack often issues from the windows of a recording studio that has somehow resisted the pressures to move. But at the other end of the block, on what was once one of Mr. Fuchs’s parking lots, a 20-story glass-and-concrete office building called the Chelsea Arts Tower is almost completed, 75,000 square feet of commercial cooperative space for galleries and arts-related businesses. Its most anticipated resident is the venerable Marlborough Gallery, which is said to have paid more than $8 million for the first two floors, significantly increasing its presence in Chelsea. Read the whole article NYTimes