Sunday, April 29, 2007

A Lost New York as Seen From Way Out West, NYTimes

THE musician in the painting “The Bass Player” has long, languid arms wrapped around his instrument, his eyes half-closed. He seems lost in his own world. So at times does the portrait’s artist, Justin Bua, whose characters are from a world far away in place and time: the pregentrified streets of the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1970s and ’80s. This is where he grew up, a latchkey child hanging out on the street, sneaking into pool halls and Ping-Pong parlors, mingling with gamblers and hustlers, watching drug pushers and gun-toting passers-by.

“They were completely survival-oriented or they were crazy,” Mr. Bua said of the street denizens who have informed his art.

Mr. Bua, 39, is a Los Angeles artist whose New York City-infused images can be found in paintings and posters, on sneakers and skateboards, and in video games and music videos. His new book, “The Beat of Urban Art” (HarperCollins), pays homage to these characters from what he calls “my culture and my time.”

The book is also an ode to the birth of hip-hop — to the D.J.’s, the M.C.’s, the B-boys of a cultural movement whose energy and lawlessness, Mr. Bua said, spawned his own “distorted urban realism” style of painting.

“Hip-hop was a raw, visceral energy that amplified the social and political climate of the street,” said Mr. Bua, who was a professional break dancer for several years. “Hip-hop was not just rapping. It was a countercultural philosophy calling for change against the social inequalities of the time.”

For the last 14 years Mr. Bua has recreated the New York street characters of his childhood and adolescence while working in a downtown Los Angeles studio not far from skid row.

“My most New York pieces were created in L.A.,” he said. “I kind of exist in my bubble.”

Mr. Bua says “work, weather and women” have kept him on the West Coast, where he received a bachelor of fine arts in illustration in 1993 from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Divorced, he now lives with his 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Akira, in Echo Park. He first found jobs doing storyboards for movies and commercials, he said, and then illustrated the undersides of slick skateboards and covers for CDs and magazines.

In the early 1990s he began creating paintings, and made posters of them. Some of the posters — like “The DJ,” which depicts a turntablist in full hip-hop attitude and regalia — have made him well known among college students and young music and graffiti-art fans. At galleries like Off the Wall on Haight Street in San Francisco, Mr. Bua’s posters are consistent best sellers along with those by poster artists like Emek.

Mr. Bua says the posters have led people to his paintings, which now sell for $5,000 to $150,000 and have attracted a Hollywood following since the actress Christina Ricci bought two in 1997. His collectors include Eva Longoria of “Desperate Housewives” and her fiancé, the pro basketball player Tony Parker.

Thirty of Mr. Bua’s paintings and drawings and 12 limited-edition prints were exhibited recently at the Limited Addiction Gallery in Denver. The gallery’s owner, Dave Smith, described Mr. Bua as a leader in the growing urban contemporary-art movement.

“You see up-and-coming artists using elements of his style,” Mr. Smith said. “His art is very hip. People connect with his characters and they feel the emotion in the pieces.”

Mr. Bua said many of his characters were inspired by unlikely father figures: men he looked up to as survivors in “the harsh realities of the urban jungle.” His own father was absent, he said, and his single mother supported the family as the owner of a graphic-design business. (Her father, Herb Field, was a comics letterer who also painted and made sculptures.)

“They were shunned by society and deemed bad, but as a child I saw them as good because they were good to me,” he said of the men hanging out on the street. “These were my neighbors. They’d say, ‘What’s up? Are you working on a new move? I like your dancing. Don’t end up like me.’ You may see them against the wall, getting cuffed, but they were kind to this kid.”

Growing up on the Upper West Side until he was 16 and then in East Flatbush in Brooklyn, Mr. Bua was swept up in the hip-hop scene. “It wasn’t about what race you’re from, which is what New York City was about at the time, but about a culture bonded together creatively,” said Mr. Bua, whose background includes Jewish, Puerto Rican and Irish strands.

Mr. Bua was barely 11 when he first saw break dancing on a corner of 99th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. He was smitten and later toured with break-dancing crews in the United States and Europe.

But Mr. Bua also drew and painted, and his talent got him into the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts. By the mid-1980s, he said, he was spending most of his time transferring the rhythm of dancing to the canvas.

Mr. Bua’s trademark loose-jointed limbs, long lashes, twisted mouths and other distorted features often suggest a self-portrait, down to the mole on his left cheek. But there are real subjects behind his portraits, as becomes clear when he describes the ones lining his studio walls: “Tigah” is the “old-school brother” under a cap; “Dina D.,” wearing status-symbol gold-hoop earrings, is a classic tough girl from the hood with “mad attitude”; and “Daisy Checks” is the 13-year-old girlfriend who once “kept me in check.”

“The Bass Player,” a work in progress that he nevertheless recently sold for $60,000, is part of a prolific output of jazz-inspired paintings and posters. They sell more than any other theme, Mr. Bua said, but more important, he considers them “cool” to paint.

“I love cool because I’m not cool,” said Mr. Bua, a self-described neurotic whose fear of elevators goes back to being stuck in one for 14 hours in New York. Jazz and hip-hop, he added, are “super-improvisational and cool.”

Mr. Bua, who teaches figure drawing at the University of Southern California and lectures in colleges and schools, is now branching out into television and film. He’s developing an animated series for Comedy Central and is working on a reality show — a “Project Runway”-type show for both street artists and the classically trained — that he hopes to sell to a cable network.

In Los Angeles he has found an urban landscape whose population, if not the same mix as in New York, also fascinates him.

“Many artists look for the beauty,” Mr. Bua said. “I look for the ugliness that tells me the story of the street. People with crazy faces. I look for that.”

Friday, April 27, 2007

Torturer's jukebox, The Guardian

The first sound you hear is a bright, solitary trumpet. Then come rumbling tuba, rattling drums, and the familiar refrain of Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever. A behemothic guitar riff lumbers in, with a flurry of banjo, a skirl of bagpipes, a battery of percussion, and squeals of brass overlaid until they sound like a stampede of panicking elephants. And on it goes, like the devil's own mix tape. This is the sound of Clamor, an installation comprising music related to war, by Puerto Rico-based conceptual artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, who direct much of their work at the relationship between global politics and individual identity. The duo once protested against US weapons-testing in the Puerto Rican isle of Vieques: when the US bases finally closed in 2003, the artists attached a trumpet to the exhaust pipe of a moped and drove round the island capturing its triumphant "reveille" in the video Returning a Sound In Clamor, the music related to war - sometimes played live - is broadcast from inside a hulking chamber the artists refer to as "a bunker, a ruin, a cave and a sound booth". Allora and Calzadilla spent a year collating over 100 pieces of music, picking up CDs on their travels and scouring the internet. The resulting 40-minute collage, now at London's Serpentine Gallery, spans centuries and continents. Much of the music in this sonic arsenal was composed with conflict in mind, from the battle hymn of the Hussites, sung during the battle of Domazlice in 1431, to the Horst Wessel song of the Nazis. But the most startling thing about Clamor is the fact that some of the music it includes seems nonsensically out of place - until you learn the context. Among the many dubious achievements of the "war on terror" is the redefinition of what actually constitutes military music. Just ask the prisoners in the Iraqi town of Al Qa'im, incarcerated in packing crates and pounded with songs ranging from Metallica's crushingly heavy Enter Sandman to Barney the Purple Dinosaur's maddeningly perky I Love You. Or alleged 9/11 conspirator Mohamed al-Qahtani, kept awake by Christina Aguilera songs at Guantánamo Bay, according to a report in Time magazine. Or Haj Ali, the hooded man in the notorious Abu Ghraib photographs, who talked of being bludgeoned by a ceaseless, deafening loop of David Gray's Babylon until he thought his head would burst. "Forcibly exposing a prisoner to loud, discordant or relentlessly repeated music is meant to inflict suffering," says Amnesty International UK's Guantánamo campaigner Sara MacNeice. "It amounts to torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment." Despite this, the use of loud music as a method of torture is played for laughs: when news of what had taken place at Al Qa'im emerged, newspapers and TV stations commissioned jokey playlists. On the battlefield, music can serve a dual purpose: to psych up the attacking army, and to intimidate their foes. When tanks rolled into Fallujah in 2004, soldiers blasted the likes of AC/DC's Hells Bells from giant speakers mounted on their gun turrets. Although rock'n'roll was played constantly by US forces in Vietnam, it was more for their own entertainment. The weaponising of pop songs appears to have begun with the US invasion of Panama in 1989. US troops laying siege to Manuel Noriega bombarded him with everything from Led Zeppelin to Twisted Sister. Ben Abel, spokesman for the army's psychological operations command, told the Floridian newspaper that it began as a way of keeping the soldiers energised: "Then Noriega commented that the rock'n'roll was bothering him. Once the guys found that out, they cranked it up." How do the creators of this music feel about it? Interviewed on National Public Radio in the US in November 2004, Metallica frontman James Hetfield responded to reports of Enter Sandman's use by saying: "There's parts of me that want to joke about it. There's a pride also that, you know, it's culturally offensive to them. If they're not used to freedom, I'm glad to be a part of the exposure." Hearing Clamor's elaborate din in an airy gallery in Hyde Park is not the same as enduring a musical assault, but it operates on multiple levels: as unsettling noise; as a collection of culturally specific pieces; and as an illustration of how manipulative music can be. "There are moments when you're hearing little sounds and fragments of melody that trigger certain feelings," says Allora. "You can't help it because this is what you're indoctrinated into. But then it unravels, and precisely the way it is manipulating you seems silly and ridiculous. There are moments when it moves into cacophony and chaos and it renders the whole thing absurd." "All these different tunes are in conflict with each other," adds Calzadilla. "It sounds like the work is at war with itself." Having lived with the music in Clamor for more than a year, however, Allora and Calzadilla would happily never hear it again. "I have an aversion to these songs," says Allora. "It's interesting to look at the ends to which they have been applied. Any pop song could potentially be a weapon".

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Art’s Audiences Become Artworks Themselves, The NYTimes

Thomas Struth’s show at Marian Goodman — rapturous, magisterial photographs of museum visitors standing before Velázquez in Madrid and looking at Leonardo at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg — culminates one of the memorable art projects of the last 20 years or so. For nearly that long, Mr. Struth has been making these pictures of people in museums. They’re looking at art, although you might say the real question is what they, and we, are seeing.

The beauty of these pictures is almost a given by now. This current show forms a coda to one lately at the Prado, where Mr. Struth insinuated a dozen or more, some nearly life-size, photographs among the paintings and sculptures. It took some gall and guile. Come upon irregularly and unexpectedly, his pictures punctuated galleries of nearly unrelenting greatness.

Sometimes they intruded. Occasionally, they seemed irrelevant. Mostly they were jarring. I found myself later recalling photographs I had thought forgettable at the time, in the way you may recall somebody you just glimpsed at a museum more vividly than the art.

Mr. Struth’s work partly entails obscuring (and thereby making us focus more on) these distinctions among the spaces in the paintings he photographs, the ones occupied by people looking at those paintings, and the ones we occupy, looking at the photographs. In a room of portraits by Velázquez, Mr. Struth placed a photograph of two young Japanese women gazing at a work outside the camera’s range, which happened to be at a spot on the wall exactly where their own picture now was. Their mix of desire and reserve, measured across a clear cultural gulf, seemed gently comic and touching. The paintings on the wall glowered back at them.

Opposite Goya’s “Third of May,” with its hero before a firing squad, Mr. Struth interjected a picture of an audience in Tokyo, seen in shadowy silhouette, admiring Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People,” on loan from the Louvre, inside its huge, antiseptic-white glass box. Two scenes of historic heroism, by Goya and Delacroix, were subtly mitigated by the moral twilight of modern consumption, one kind of spectacle having replaced another.

At the Prado, Mr. Struth also put up a photograph of himself (you see only his arm and shoulder, in a blue jacket, blurred) looking at a Dürer self-portrait in Munich, which, perfectly focused, stares back at us. Dürer is the real sitter in Mr. Struth’s self-portrait, the picture’s paradox. That photograph hung next to the Prado’s own self-portrait by Dürer.

And in the catalog for the Prado show there’s also a photograph by Mr. Struth of the whole installation, a virtual Chinese box of allusions, true to what is so often the experience in a crowded, diverting museum, which is that we lose ourselves in the act of looking.

Mr. Struth’s project links to a long, often undistinguished history of painting people looking at art. His deadpan affect and panoramic scale, simulating real encounters in real spaces, can be deceptive. The work is subtly emotional and not just about glossy visuals. You see at Goodman how the museum experience in general has evolved in recent years, how mobs have grown, along with the distractions of cellphones, but also what hasn’t changed.

The expression on the faces of two middle-aged women, heads leaning into one another, sharing an audio guide at the Hermitage, searching a Leonardo, is eternal. (Their looks are at once hopeful and wary.) At their shoulders, wearing a pink visor and lime-green spaghetti straps, is a kind of modern American Madonna, a young angel of tourism.

Mr. Struth set up his camera beside the painting so we see these people looking at a picture we can’t see. He grouped several such photographs, different, taken at different times, to make a frieze; the ebb and flow of bodies holds everything together. He did the same with combined views of people before “Las Meninas” at the Prado, which we do see, the figures in the painting staring at the people staring at them.

And we, in turn, scour the scenes as we do the art: here is the smiling tour guide, leaning into a goggle-eyed scrum of visitors who lean oh so slightly away from the Velázquez, as if intimidated by its reputation. There, Spanish teenagers, undaunted by the work, argue beneath it, absorbed by one another, oblivious to its power. Their poses unconsciously mimic the figures in the picture. (A girl, all in red, bent at the waist, perfectly echoes the handmaiden beside the Infanta; a boy with his hand behind his back mirrors Velázquez standing behind his canvas.) Space unfolds into the painting, which itself is a hall of mirrors.

And then there are the grade-school children whom Mr. Struth photographs, in their uniforms, scattered like flower petals before Velázquez’s “Surrender of Breda,” next to which the famous ancient bronze sculpture of the little boy pulling a thorn from his foot is a dry joke; he’s like one of the distracted kids. A tiny, dark-haired boy in the middle ground glares back at the camera, serious and unfathomable, a real-life sort of Velázquez dwarf. A little girl touches another boy’s shoulder. Her hand, swiftly moving, goes slightly out of focus. Like Velázquez, Mr. Struth discloses these little bits of humanity, which seem ordinary, but which leap out, collapsing time.

“The moments of the past do not remain still,” as Proust wrote. “They retain in our memory the motion which drew them toward the future, towards a future which has itself become the past, and draw us on in their train.”

Mr. Struth’s pictures are about this continuum, from artists like Velázquez into the public spaces where their works end up, and to us. What are we looking for in a museum? We go to find truth in pictures, and we end up reading one another’s faces.

We look for ourselves.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Sol LeWitt, Master of Conceptualism, Dies at 78, NYTimes

Sol LeWitt, whose deceptively simple geometric sculptures and drawings and ecstatically colored and jazzy wall paintings established him as a lodestar of modern American art, died yesterday in New York. He was 78 and lived mostly in Chester, Conn.

The cause was complications from cancer, said Susanna Singer, a longtime associate.

Mr. LeWitt helped establish Conceptualism and Minimalism as dominant movements of the postwar era. A patron and friend of colleagues young and old, he was the opposite of the artist as celebrity. He tried to suppress all interest in him as opposed to his work; he turned down awards and was camera-shy and reluctant to grant interviews. He particularly disliked the prospect of having his photograph in the newspaper.

Typically, a 1980 work called “Autobiography” consisted of more than 1,000 photographs he took of every nook and cranny of his Manhattan loft, down to the plumbing fixtures, wall sockets and empty marmalade jars, and documented everything that had happened to him in the course of taking the pictures. But he appeared in only one photograph, which was so small and out of focus that it is nearly impossible to make him out. His work — sculptures of white cubes, or drawings of geometric patterns, or splashes of paint like Rorschach patterns — tested a viewer’s psychological and visual flexibility. See a line. See that it can be straight, thin, broken, curved, soft, angled or thick. Enjoy the differences. The test was not hard to pass if your eyes and mind were open, which was the message of Mr. LeWitt’s art.

He reduced art to a few of the most basic shapes (quadrilaterals, spheres, triangles), colors (red, yellow, blue, black) and types of lines, and organized them by guidelines he felt in the end free to bend. Much of what he devised came down to specific ideas or instructions: a thought you were meant to contemplate, or plans for drawings or actions that could be carried out by you, or not.

Sometimes these plans derived from a logical system, like a game; sometimes they defied logic so that the results could not be foreseen, with instructions intentionally vague to allow for interpretation. Characteristically, he would then credit assistants or others with the results. With his wall drawing, mural-sized works that sometimes took teams of people weeks to execute, he might decide whether a line for which he had given the instruction “not straight” was sufficiently irregular without becoming wavy (and like many more traditional artists, he became more concerned in later years that his works look just the way he wished). But he always gave his team wiggle room, believing that the input of others — their joy, boredom, frustration or whatever — remained part of the art.

In so doing, Mr. LeWitt gently reminded everybody that architects are called artists — good architects, anyway — even though they don’t lay their own bricks, just as composers write music that other people play but are still musical artists. Mr. LeWitt, by his methods, permitted other people to participate in the creative process, to become artists themselves.

A Dry Humor

To grasp his work could require a little effort. His early sculptures were chaste white cubes and gray cement blocks. For years people associated him with them, and they seemed to encapsulate a remark he once made: that what art looks like “isn’t too important.” This was never exactly his point. But his early drawings on paper could resemble mathematical diagrams or chemical charts. What passed for humor in his art tended to be dry. “Buried Cube Containing an Object of Importance but Little Value” (1968), an object he buried in the garden of Dutch collectors, was his deadpan gag about waving goodbye to Minimalism. He documented it in photographs, in one of which he stands at attention beside the cube. A second picture shows the shovel; a third, him digging the hole.

Naturally, he was regularly savaged by conservative critics. By the 1980s, however, he moved from Manhattan to Spoleto, Italy, seeking to get away from the maelstrom of the New York art world. (He had had a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1978.) His art underwent a transformation. Partly it grew out of what he saw in Italy. But it was all the more remarkable for also proceeding logically from the earlier work.

Eye-candy opulence emerged from the same seemingly prosaic instructions he had come up with years before. A retrospective in 2000, organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which traveled to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, concluded with some of these newly colorful wall drawings. (Mr. LeWitt always called them drawings, even when the medium became acrylic paint.)

His description for a wall drawing, No. 766 — “Twenty-one isometric cubes of varying sizes each with color ink washes superimposed” — sounded dry as could be: but then you saw it and there were playful geometries in dusky colors nodding toward Renaissance fresco painting. “Loopy Doopy (Red and Purple),” a vinyl abstraction 49 feet long, was like a psychedelic Matisse cutout, but on the scale of a drive-in movie. Other drawings consisted of gossamer lines, barely visible, as subtle as faintly etched glass.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Chocolate Christ exhibition cancelled, The Guardian

The overwhelming force of the religious right was demonstrated yesterday when an exhibition by an international artist to be held in mid-town Manhattan was cancelled after a campaign was launched against it on the ground that it was disrespectful towards Christianity.

My Sweet Lord, a 6ft representation of Jesus, was to have been unveiled over holy week in a gallery on Lexington Avenue but was withdrawn under fire from the Catholic League, an organisation of religious conservatives with 300,000 members. The group objected to the fact that the sculpture is made of more than 200lbs of chocolate and that the figure's genitalia are on display.

On Thursday the league sent emails to 500 other religious groups - including Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist with a combined reach of millions - calling on them to boycott the Roger Smith hotel in which the gallery, the Lab, is based. Within 24 hours the hotel was so inundated with calls and visiting protesters that it pulled the exhibit.

Sculptor Cosimo Cavallaro, 45, is known for his large-scale installations. In 1999 he covered a room of the Washington Jefferson hotel in New York with cheddar cheese. Two years later he sprayed 10,000lb of cheese over the entire interior of a house in Wyoming.

Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League, said the work was a direct assault on Christians. "All those involved are lucky that angry Christians don't react the way extremist Muslims do when they're offended."

That the work of an internationally renowned artist can be pulled from a gallery in Manhattan - arguably the most liberal city in the US - is an indication of the power that organised religion wields within the country.

Matt Semmler, director of the Lab, told the Guardian before the cancellation was announced that neither he nor the artist had any intention to offend. "For me this is done a place of reverence and meditation - that's why I chose the piece. This is not intended to be disrespectful."

He added that over the centuries there had been thousands of depictions of Christ in many different styles.