Monday, October 31, 2005

Artist of the Week (10/31/05)

It's very difficult to see Karen Arm's work in online reproductions, so I'll apologize in advance for the injustice done to them by these images. More than just about any painter I know, her work insists on slow, focused viewing. Epitomized best perhaps by her series of incense paintings (see a blue one from 2004 to right), what she's exploring is something so ephemeral you're not sure her paintings haven't changed before your very eyes. Again, like so many artists, I first discovered Karen's work in the flatfiles at Pierogi. She's represented by PPOW in Chelsea.

Karen definitely falls into that category of painters who seem to be arguing that the best way to deal with the barrage of information thrown at us these days is by structuring things granularly. "Systems painting" might be one term to describe it. Some artists invested in this approach focus on man-made systems, presumably attributing how overwhemled we are to technology, but Karen looks toward nature.

I would argue that, despite subject matter, this approach has as its goal one of two objectives: to let the artist disappear within a process so all consuming the outside chaos fades or to attempt to organize that chaos. Having done a few studio visits with Karen, I'd say she falls into that second category. She's organzing the bits and pieces, taming them through the strength of her patience. Here, in honor of the holiday, is one of her blood drop paintings:

Karen Arm, untitled (blood drops #2), 2001, Acrylic on canvas, 44" x 36" (image from PPOW website)

Her gallery describes Karen's process this way:

[Karen] develops her paintings from photographs used for scientific observation of natural phenomena that the unaided eye might fail to detect. She builds up layers of glazes on canvas and then applies marks to that ground that are abstractions of these phenomena: plumes of smoke caught in ambient air currents, concentric ripples of water, rhythmic crests of ocean waves, or outer-space star clusters. She applies another layer of semi-transparent ground over these marks, obscuring them and pushing them into the color field. Arm continues to alternate luminous grounds and accretions of micro-marks to create a seemingly infinite macro-world. Natural phenomena are abstracted and sealed into the canvas’s meditative illusionistic deep space.

What first impressed me about Karen's work is that illusion of space. You're drawn into these works. Karen explains that "My focus is with the intimate and the expansive -- setting up a tension between the two." For me though, whether blood or smoke or stars or abstract marks, this structure or web of familiar items, despite the implications of infinity they convey, seem comforting, nonthreatening, as if the artist is saying "It's OK...yes, there's a lot of them, but they won't hurt you." Here's one of "roots":

Karen Arm, Untitled (abstract root form #1), 2004, Acrylic on canvas 66" x 54" (image from PPOW website)

There are other images online of her work, but having seen just how exquisite they are in real life it pains me to put the ones with smaller marks up here (I have width constrictions that make it pointless). Here's one more where the marks form an image though:

Karen Arm, Untitled (green whirlpool), 2004, Acrylic on canvas, 36" x 30" (image from PPOW website)

Friday, October 28, 2005

Scary Art Open Thread

In honor of my favorite and quickly approaching holiday:

Whether the infamous painting in the attic in Oscar Wilde's cautionary tale The Portrait of Dorien Gray (Ivan Albright's version frightening The Art Institute of Chicago visitors in 1945 seen at right) or one of Francis Bacon's screaming pontifs, whether one of Cindy Sherman's freaky assemblages of discordant body parts or Bank Violette's burnt out church, there are certainly images that qualify as "scary art." Of course in the über-jaded collective consciousness of the New York Art world, most folks, if asked, would respond that, say, Thomas Kincaid makes the scariest "art" work out there, but let you inner child push that urge aside and tell me: what work (any medium) considered "art" do you find most frightful?

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Why Does the Bush Administration Hate American Culture?

US Secretary of State Condi Rice's take on what UNESCO's Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity means in real-world terms is mostly right, but not totally. She has argued that it will "incite authoritarian regimes to violate the right to freedom of expression and minority rights." I can see where it might be used toward that end. But what she didn't say in that objection (the US and Israel are the only two members of UNESCO to vote against the declaration, which was passed in Paris last week with 148 votes for, two against, and four abstentions) is what everyone knows she really means: "the real impetus behind Rice's opposition would appear to be a desire to maintain [US] cultural hegemony and the economic benefits that come with it."

Of course, I know, the way to spin Rice's position, both cynically and idealistically, is, respectively, because we dominate already, we have nothing to gain by supporting other nation's cultural protectionism and second, free market open exchange and survival of the fittest IS American culture, so we're essentially arguing for the same thing the nations who supported the Declaration are. Both of these are easier to argue while you're on top, and although the second spin is certainly arguable, it's not exactly the aspect of our culture I want to be remembered most for by future generations.

But there's another way to interpret this. The reason other nations want to take measures to protect their cultural identity is because they value their cultural identity...they're proud of it. Sure they'd love to have the monopoly on global culture that the US has, but more than that, they want their culture to survive, so their posterity can see what they've accomplished. In that context, one can interpret Rice's objection to the Declaration to be a rejection of the importance of US culture. Perhaps it's not worth protecting in her eyes. Even she must be able to imagine that US culture won't dominate forever. With China and India rising, economically and culturally, we may see the day in our life times when we're glad the initiative passed.

Living in New York, where every other week it seems, we're celebrating our Irish or Italian or Jewish or African or Carribean or Colombian or Greek or Chinese or whatever heritage, it's odd to me that we don't understand, as a nation, why those native cultures feel threatened by the money and muscle behind promoting US culture to their children. It's one thing to stand on cold-hearted capitalistic principles when dealing with cars or computers, but when the product in question symbolizes the very identity of a people, I'd rather we not be the nation leading the charge to marginalize them. I like and am proud of American culture, but I'd be bored stiff if it were the only offering available for me to learn about (it's nowhere near old enough to answer many questions). I want the older cultures that don't have the resources to promote themselves globally to survive locally. If a bit of protectionism is needed to do so, then so be it. We're not talking about refrigerators here.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Too Good Not to Share offers this wonderful summary of all you need to know in order to leave the Democratic Party and Become Republican.

My favorite line: "Remember that the more you talk about Jesus, the less you need to act like him."

via Sullivan.

Fantasy Auctions 2005 (Fall Edition)

OK, so it's that time of year again. Next week or so the fall auctions will begin, and, just as I had in the spring, I'm sharing my Fantasy Auction 2005 (Fall Edition). Word on the street (that would be 10th Avenue, mostly near 23rd Street [OK, really just at the Half King]) is that Contemporary and Modern sales are expected to continue their upward spiral. Recent photography auctions certainly have surpassed expectations.

The NYT reports that the controversy this time around---what would auction season be without a little scandal now?---is how many Modern works on the block are coming from major museums' inventory. The Modigliani seen here is being sold by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and is expected to bring $4 million to $6 million:

Undaunted by the tempest over the New York Public Library's sale of a prized painting, arts institutions across the country are cleaning out their closets for auctions starting next week, stirring fresh unease among art historians and curators.

Modigliani's "Portrait of Manuel Humbert," to be sold by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is expected to bring $4 million to $6 million. Artworks going on the block include paintings by Picasso, Modigliani and Chagall, and rare photographs by masters like Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston. In December, the public library is moving ahead with the sale of two portraits of George Washington, by Gilbert Stuart, and 16 other paintings.

For these present purposes though, just like last time, I'll limit my attention to work up for sale by living artists (generally speaking). Again, how this works is, I find $3 million dollars under my mattress (every 6 months, no less), which is all I can spend, and then use the three major auction houses' online catalogs to choose what I'll bid on up to that amount. I'll use their results to report back how I did based on whether my upper limit was enough to secure a piece. Here we go:

Sotheby's (warning: the buggers now make you register...but it's free)
Contemporary Evening
Sale No. 8129
Session 1
9 Nov 05, 07:00 PM.
New York

Luc Tuymans (LOT 4)
Oil on canvas
Diameter: 28 in. 71.2 cm.
ESTIMATE: $ 350,000—450,000 (I've been a bit disappointed in Tuymans lately, but I'll have a good look at this one...if it's as nice as the photo suggests, I'll go up to $500,000)

Cy Twombly (LOT 29)
Untitled (New York City)
Signed and dated NYC 1968 on the reverse
Oil based house paint and wax crayon on canvas
68 x 85 in. 172.7 x 215.9 cm.
ESTIMATE: $ 8,000,000—10,000,000 (Yes, yes, I've only got 3mil, but maybe if I can sneak past the guards and lick the back of this, no one else will want it...or maybe a false bomb scare would clear the room...or...oh, alright...I'll go up to $3,000,000 and just have Bambino stare down anyone who outbids is called "fantasy auctions" afterall. Obviously, if I get it, all the rest of this is mute...but since that's unlikely, I'll carry on.)

Edward Ruscha (LOT 37)
You and Your Neighbors
Signed and dated 1987 on the reverse; signed, titled and dated 1987 on the stretcher
Acrylic on canvas
54 x 120 in. 137.2 x 304.9 cm.
ESTIMATE: $ 600,000—800,000 (I'll go up to $750,000)

Contemporary Day
Sale No. 08130
Session 1 10 Nov 05, 10:15 AM.
Session 2 10 Nov 05, 02:00 PM.
New York

Yes, yes, Andy's dead, but look at's fabulous (this "living" artist rule will be somewhat liberally adhered to). I have to get this for Bambino.

Andy Warhol (LOT 262)
Hammer and Sickle
Graphite and watercolor on paper.
Executed in 1976, this work is stamped by the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board Inc. and numbered A156.042 on the reverse.
40 1/2 by 28 in. 102.9 by 71.1 cm.
ESTIMATE: $ 70,000—90,000 (I'll go up to $125,000...Bambino's worth it)

Post War & Contemporary Art (Evening Sale)
Sale 1573
8 November 2005, 7:00 pm
20 Rockefeller Plaza, New York

I'd almost feel guilty buying this (I can think of other people who should have it), but if it goes under my top price, I'll take good care of it):

Elizabeth Peyton (LOT 63)
Colin de Land
Oil on canvas
60 x 40 in. (152.4 x 101.6 cm.)
Painted in 1994. This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity signed by the artist.
ESTIMATE: $ 400,000 - 600,000 (I'll go up to $750,000 but only because of the subject)

Post War & Contemporary (Afternoon Session)
Sale 1575
9 November 2005, 2:00 pm
20 Rockefeller Plaza, New York

NOTE: This is perhaps the most interesting Session for younger artists, including works by Julie Mehretu, Dana Schutz, Kehinde Wiley. Folks will be watching this one carefully.

Candida Höfer (LOT 499)
Scuola Grande Arcionfraternita di S. Rocco Venezia I
47 x 72 in. 119.4 x 182.9 cm.
Executed in 2003. This work is number two from an edition of six.
ESTIMATE: $ 20,000 - 30,000 (I'll go up to $40,000)

James Casebere (LOT 519)
Four Flooded Arches from Right with Fog
Signed 'J Casebere' (on a paper label affixed to the stretcher of the upper panel).
Diptych--digital chromogenic prints face mounted to Plexiglas.
Each: 48 x 77 in. 121.9 x 195.6 cm.
Executed in 1999. This work is number one from an edition of three.
ESTIMATE: $ 25,000 - 35,000 (I'll go up to $45,000)

Contemporary Art Part I
10 Nov 2005, 7:00 PM EST
New York, NY010505

Cy Twombly (LOT 57)
Untitled (Roma)
Signed "Cy Twombly" upper right.
Oil, graphite and pastel on canvas.
9 ¾ x 13 ? in. (24.8 x 35.2 cm).
Executed in 1961.
ESTIMATE: $ 200,000-300,000 )I'd go up to $500,000 [which I suspect it will go to easily, but...])

Contemporary Art Part II
11 Nov 2005, 10:00 AM EST
New York, NY010605

Zhang Huan (LOT 194)
To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond (Close Up).
Signed, dated "1997", tilted in Chinese and numbered on the reverse.
Cibachrome photograph on Fuji archival paper.
64 x 94 in. (162.6 x 238.8 cm).
Executed in 1997.
This work is from an edition of one plus one artist's proof.
ESTIMATE: $ 20,000-30,000 (I'll go up to $60,000)
Feliz Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996 [OK, so I'm breaking my "living artist" rule]) (LOT 219)
Signed "Felix Gonzalez-T" upper right corner. black and white photograph.
5 ½ x 6 ¾ in. (14 x 17.1 cm).
Executed ca. 1983.
ESTIMATE: $ 8,000-12,000 (I'll go up to $17,000)

Yayoi Kusama (LOT 392)
Nets Obsession.
Signed, titled, dedicated and dated "Yayoi Kusama 1960 Nets Obsession To Peter Rohr" on the reverse.
Oil on board.
19 ¾ x 15 ½ in. (50.2 x 39.4 cm).
Executed in 1960.
This work is accompanied by a photocertificate signed by the artist.
ESTIMATE: $ 30,000-40,000 (I'll go up to $65,000)

Olafur Eliasson (LOT 454)
Signed, numbered of seven and dated "Olafur Eliasson 1998" on the underside of base.
Stone, steel rod, motor and wooden base with glass bowl cover.
9 x 9 ½ x 9 ½ in. (22.9 x 24.1 x 24.1 cm).
Executed in 1998.
This work is from an edition of seven.
ESTIMATE: $ 4,000-6,000 (love him, but this is a chunk of change for a piece of this edition size and scale...I'll stop at $5,500)

Contemporary Thurn u. Taxis Collection Part I
7 Nov 2005, 7:00 PM EST
New York, NY010705

Martin Kippenberger (1953-1997 [yes, breaking rule again, so sue me]) (LOT 15) Verstehe.
Signed and dated '"Martin Kippenberger 90" on the reverse. Oil on canvas.
47 x 39 in. (120.3 x 100 cm).
Executed in 1990.
ESTIMATE: $ 100,000-150,000 (MK's sizzling hot right now, so it's very unlikely this will go for so little, but I'll go up to $200,000)

And, yes, I'm a bit over budget (about half a mil), even without the first Twombly, but of course, I have to quit once all the money is spent, and there's always the chance I won't get anything. Results to come...

Monday, October 24, 2005

Sobbing at Gladstone's (or Audience as Subject)

There is a scene in Shirin Neshat's new film where the title character, Zarin, a heartbreakingly thin Persian prostitute, enters a cavernous courtyard where a good dozen or more women are gathered to mourn. Sitting huddled together, rocking back and forth, a few standing behind them stirring large steaming vats of something, all ensconced in black burkas so that all the viewer sees is a field of squinting eyes and orthodontically challenged open mouths wailing as if one giant organism of grief. It's the most amazing point of prognostication I've ever witnessed, and confirms something I've suspected since watching Neshat watch the crowd watching her film at the opening of the last Documenta. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

...actually, that's not it...I'm struggling with how much to give away here. This is not meant to be a review (and certainly not a spoiler), but rather an example of something, so bear with me.... Actually, if you haven't seen this film yet, I'll recommend you turn to something else.

Below is a still from a later scene in Zarin. It's the scene where Neshat "does it" ---where she turns the table and transforms the viewing audience into her subject:

If you've seen the film you'll recognize that at this point Zarin is scrubbing herself raw in the hamam, oblivious to the fact that her towel has fallen and a young boy is staring at her. In a moment the mother of that boy will carry him away and shield him from this spectacle. Now I know just enough about Muslim culture (but not enough about Persian subtlties) to be rather wobbly informed about this, but it's my understanding that total adult nudity is highly inappropriate in the public baths. It certainly is for men, and so this scene was particularly confusing and thereby even more powerful for me.

What the other 15 or so folks watching at the same time I was thought it symbolized, I'll never know, but I do know I was not the only one sobbing at this point in the film. (Sniffles carry.)

When I entered Gladstone's last weekend, Neshat was there speaking with a group of folks in the back gallery. When I left, after seeing the film up front, she was no longer there. Whether she had left the premises altogether or was upstairs in the office, I don't know. But I suspect she had entered the cavernous projection space and was watching from the back, where the crowd, huddled on the benches or squatting on the floor or stirring in the back, appeared as one very dark mass of unsuspecting sobbing subjects, transformed via the artist's magic into another of her symbols.

This remains a work in progress...

UPDATE: Be sure and catch Todd Gibson's hilarious post about the rash of weepy art blogging recently. Personally, I think it's related to the unbearable anticipation wrt when Fitzgerald is going to announce his findings (we're in desperate need of some valve to turn and release the emotions...we art world types simply seek out the catalyst where we normally venture...I'm sure our fellow He-Men bloggers [don't laugh], who don't have easy access to art [those who blog on politics or NASCAR or what have you] have cleaned out the local video stores of all their copies of "Field of Dreams" for the same reason).

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Artist of the Week (10/24/05)

I first ran across the work of Chris Doyle back about 1998 where many people first run across the works of emerging artists in Brooklyn: the miraculous flat files at Pierogi. Here were these perfect watercolors of tiny houses on relatively huge white grounds. Joe Amrhien, director of Pierogi, explained that Chris was trained as an architect, which explained his exactness, but why the minimalizing of these buildings? They had quite a psychological punch to them, but I couldn't quite put my finger on why.

By 2002, Chris was exhibiting at Jessica Murray Projects, whose press release for that first exhibitions explains:

A modest suburban house landscaped with palm trees and decorated with a pine wreath, a serene yet ominous in-ground swimming pool, a solitary abandoned lawn chair. Converting the unused white sheet into an empty landscape, Doyle creates a juxtaposition of personal place with the void, highlighting the anxiety associated with unfulfilled domestic expectations. Together these poignant passages capture the disjointed psyche of the American landscape.
It is the void, but it's not a lonely void to's too pristine or clinical to be lonely in the way I conceive lonliness (i.e., something that clean must be maintained to remain that way, and that suggests the prescence of someone, whereas a Wyeth landscape [just to keep that topic running] for example suggests the lonliness of abandonment). It's more of a void of warmth...of heart (which is certainly not to be read as a comment about the artist, who's one of the most charming guys in the NY scene). Here are a few more of these jewel like watercolors:

Chris Doyle, Untitled (House Series), 2001-02, watercolor on paper, 9" x 9” (image from Jessica Murray Project's website)

Chris Doyle, Untitled (House Series), 2001-02, watercolor on paper, 9" x 9” (image from Jessica Murray Project's website)

By his next solo exhibition, Chris had gone inside (literally and figuratively). His much larger watercolors from stills of videos of his family are warmer and certainly more intimate, suggesting, as autobiographical work tends to do, an examination of the role of the Artist in various social settings (here, family life). From that exhibition's press release:

By capturing the “photograph” and creating a painting of a shared meal; the reenactment of a famous 70s performance; the artist sorting out a mess of wires; or “Friday Night Talent Nite” with the family playing amid piles of dolls and stuffed animals, Doyle aims to expand his own experience and prolong the intimacy of the moment. By combining everyday life activities with homages to the practice of art making, the artist explores the interplay between private and public histories.
And my favorite image from that exhibition:

Chris Doyle, Friday Night Talent Nite, 2003, watercolor on paper, 46" x 34” (image from Jessica Murray Project's website)

For his most recent exhibition (which recently opened at Jessica's new-ish Chelsea space, so you have plenty of time to still catch it), Chris is focussing on video works. I had heard quite a buzz about these new pieces, and when I saw them I understood why. Much like his earliest watercolors, they're jewel-like explorations within a haunting void. I asked Chris at his opening, which one was his favorite, and he said the one with the eagle:

Doyle has constructed an eagle with a 25-foot wingspan. Made from fluorescent tubes, the illuminated centerpiece of the exhibition uses this prime symbol of American patriotism to investigate the multiple associations with freedom and predator. In a related video, entitled “Power” Doyle creates a stop-action animation from the skeleton of his giant aviator. His video is then encased within the face of a sterling silver Western style belt buckle, presenting this miniaturized icon as ready-to-wear.
Here's a still:

Chris Doyle, Power, 2005, Digital file transferred to DVD, presented on a flat screen, inset into a sterling silver trophy belt buckle, running time: 1:50 (image from Jessica Murray Project's website)

There's another video in this exhibition that's sure to become a signature piece for Chris as well. Again, using stop-animation, he "flies" around his studio (or at least I think that's his studio) at about 2.5 feet off the floor. The jagged quality of the movement reveals that he's not on wires, but it's so exquisitely edited, the viewer is left wondering just how this footage was captured. Chris offers up the secret willinginly, but I won't spoil the fun for you. Go see the show.

Chris Doyle, Flight, 2005, Digital file transferred to DVD (image from Jessica Murray Project's website)

Friday, October 21, 2005

Elizabeth Murray: A Painter's Painter

About half the folks I asked how they liked MoMA's Elizabeth Murray retrospective at the opening Wednesday night said, "It is amazing." "Really great." "A wonderful show." The other half (I kid you not, it was nearly 50/50) said, almost verbatim, "I've never really been that much of a fan." I would consider that an ungracious thing to say at someone's opening if I didn't actually fall into that second category myself---although I'll admit to being a bit more of a fan now (which is why we have retrospectives, now, isn't it?).

It wasn't until I read
Michael Kimmelman's review in the Times this morning, however, that I realized that the 50% of those who loved her exhibition were mostly painters themselves. It's her focus on one exploration that Kimmelman highlights to begin his review, and it's this focus that provide clues into why she's so beloved by other pigment-on-canvas sorts:

She has pursued a problem partly inherited from Cubism, and filtered through Surrealism and comics. It is how to get movement (translating her absorption in the sensuous push and pull of pigment) into a static image - how to make a figurative painting, even when its subjects are inert objects like tables and glasses, convey instability, fracture, speed, collapse, explosion, thrust. This isn't a new problem, of course. Among others, Ms. Murray has had her great hero Cézanne to emulate.

Her inclination has been to nudge painting toward relief sculpture: to concoct and combine panels and shaped canvases that teem with goofy incident and stuff. What results can look as rickety as an old jalopy. Paint pools, congeals and drips. Sides and edges of canvases stay unfinished, like the backs of stage props, openly belying their ostensible illusions. You love them or not for their messiness.

Now I've argued for sometime that one of the advantages of Pluralism has been the carte blanche it gives artists to pick up on exploration threads dropped by previous generations (or at least dropped by the critique) because their movement had gone out of fashion. The fact that Murray never waited for the rise of Pluralism to do just that speaks volumes about her integrity as an artist. But I'm still trying to sort out what to make of the fact that the paintings in the exhibition I liked the most were some of her minimalistic earlier pieces, the ones, according to Kimmelman, she reports as being a struggle and not at all in line with her interests.
I've said repeatedly that artists should focus on what they're interested in and, as best as they can, ignore what's fashionable if what's fashionable isn't what they do. Elizabeth Murray is a good example of an artist who learned that lesson and forged her own path.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Liking What You Like

On the Andrew Wyeth thread I joked about the difference between sophistication and "real" sophistication, defining the latter as "a license to like what you like, the rest of the world be damned." I know how snobbish this will sound, but I actually feel there is something to that (bearing in mind that a license is not something you're born with, but rather something, through studying and then passage of assessments, you acquire).

I'll often run into curators or other art world authorities who'll apologize when they discuss our gallery's program for not liking this or that artist we represent. They'll preface their statement with "No offense, but...." I always assure them there's no offense at all taken. I explain that, other than our own, there's no gallery in the world for which I love every artist they represent. The subtlties of personal taste make that nearly impossible. And so I see no reason to take it personally that someone else's taste doesn't align perfectly with mine.

I mention this in response to the debate on yesterday's Political Art thread about escapism and fantasy in art. I can think of plenty of artists I love who employ elements of those in their work, but none of them would I describe as predominantly such. That may be projection or ignorance on my part, I don't know. But it's fine in my opinion to declare I don't particularly respond to escapism in art, without that having to limit my ability to love individual works by artists who consider that a central motif in their work. I can like what I like, intellectual declarations be damned.

I'll illustrate why I feel that's important with an example. Aesthetically, I simply adore Modernism. The pallettes, the gestures, the lines, the overall tone of the makes me smile and sets my troubled mind at ease. I can now rhetorically demolish most of its central arguments, but that doesn't stop me from gravitating toward (and then drooling all over) a great Modernist piece in some collection. Of the Modernists, though, the group I grow a bit iffy about are the Abstract Expressionists. I love a few of them, but, for example, Pollock leaves me cold. I've looked and looked and looked again at his paintings. Intellectually I appreciate his accomplishments, but place a Pollock "masterpiece" next to a minor Giacometti, for example, and the Pollock essentially disappears to my eye.

Now very few people (in America at least) would argue that Giacometti is a more important artist than Pollock. My brain understands why, as well. If taking an oral exam, with works by these two side by side, I would make an intellectual declaration that Pollock was more important, even as my eye wandered over to adore the Giacometti. See, my eye simply does not care what the "right answer" is. My eye likes what it likes.

What that means in the context of yesterday's debate is that it's pointless to take personally declarations about this or that movement or motif when individual images are not part of the discussion. I can declare Abstract Expressionism more important than High Modernism (and rhetorically back that up). I can also declare the exact opposite (and rhetorically back that up, if I wanted to). But bring two pieces into a room, and rhetoric takes a back seat to what I see. I will still like what I like.

So go make the best escapist or fantasy-based art the world has ever seen. (as if anything could stop you ;-))

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Hot Political Art that Leaves Me Cold (or A Call for Purple)

Maybe it's because I spend an inordinate amount of time arguing minutiae on political blogs (my partner calls himself a "blog widow" and affectionately refers to the ones I post on as my "bullshit websites"), but I find most political art about as fulfilling as a styrofoam sandwich. The rash of exhibitions about 9/11 or the Republican National Convention that hit New York over the past 3 years, for example, were overall as nuanced as a cold sore and as insightful as a De La Vega scrawling. Very rarely do I see any political work whose central message I myself can't rip to shreds, although I often agree with the artist's POV (because let's face it, very little political art that gets exhibited in this town leans to the right).

I was reminded of all this again while reading
Jerry Saltz's latest review (of the Sam Durant exhibition currently up at Paula Cooper). Jerry liked this show a lot, but it had left me cold. I don't want to get in the habit of reviewing exhibitions in other people's galleries (I think it's bad form), but I'll make an exception this time to illustrate my point (besides, Paula's so far ahead of my league it hardly matters). Jerry wrote:

The idea for Sam Durant's "Proposal for White and Indian Dead Monument Transpositions, Washington, D.C." has the virtue of being simple enough to fit on the front of a T-shirt. In the handy pamphlet accompanying the show, Durant says he wants to "move monuments commemorating lives lost during the Indian Wars to the National Mall in Washington, D.C." This idea is pointed without being preachy, heartrending but not mawkish, and politically incisive [...]

Twenty-five replicas of actual monuments from all over the country -- each painted gray, made of a nondescript-looking material -- are placed like an eerie oversize chess set in Cooper's grand main gallery. None have commemorative plaques or markings, although the checklist abounds with evocative names like "Birch Coulee Monument to Faithful Indians," "Monument to Heroes of Wounded Knee," and "Okoboji Indian Massacre Monument." By presenting these monuments as uniform and nameless, Durant renders them mute, separates them from time and place, creating an uncanny forest of implacable signs.

I saw this exhibition, but my response to it was virtually the opposite of Jerry's. I considered the idea condescending and inappropriate, as if designed to alleviate White guilt via sanitized WASPish sentiments that do nothing to even hint at the cultures lost or reveal anything about the reality of the slaughters. Treating all these lost and varied people as if they were one gray, faceless tribe. I find the notion of what the monuments' namelessness supposedly represents being instantly vaporized by the detailed checklist information readily available almost comical. Moreover, the installation of the pieces imagined for the Mall in DC (see here) was as ill-conceived with regard to what that landscape is actually used for as Richard Serra's infamous Tilted Arc installation. Imagine a crowd of protesters or Fourth of July revelers trying to gather around, let alone see around, those pillars along the Reflecting Pond.

To be fair though, Durant's project is light-years ahead of most political art, but the fact that something this relatively superior is still so flawed is why I groan each time I hear of a new political art group exhibition. I look to artists to enlighten me, to help me make sense of the chaos and confusion. Far too many of them are offering only sensationalistic one-liners (a straitjacket made from a US flag...who is this for, third graders? Did it take that artist all of ten milliseconds to conceive that idea?).

The problem, as I see it, is that most artists working with political subject matters spend little to no time attempting to understand opposing viewpoints. I mean really understand them, not just read and dismiss them, but "get" why the opposition feels so strongly the way they do (without assuming it stems from some character flaw). What I see instead is artwork built around a naive POV but offered up as if it had been handed down on tablets from God. What this leads to often are laughable cartoons, easily (and rightly) dismissed as shallow by those with the opposing viewpoints.

What I'm really asking for here is art that transcends Red or Blue politics and approaches something more Purple. Art that has enough depth to be undeniable to the spectrum of viewers, not art that merely takes potshots at conservative values, or presents all faith as fraudulent or all authority as totalitarian. Smart political art would be good, but good political art would be better. And by "good," here, I mean work that begins with the assmption that all humans, even those with very different opinions and priorities, are worthy of being considered the intended audience, not just those who agree with the artist's POV. In other words, work that is made with the understanding that reaching those with opposing viewpoints is impossible through work that begins by insulting them. Not that this is what I personally do when I blog on politics, just that it's what I personally expect from "good" art.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

"The Empress"

The International Herald Tribune has a fascinating story about China's People's Liberation Army (PLA)'s intensive efforts to "repatriate" China's art heritage from collectors worldwide (including efforts to buy back work from the likes of Ronald Lauder, Tsui Tsin-tong, Jack Wadsworth, and Leon Black) and their interactions with their virtually James-Bond-esque nemesis in this competitive field, she of the infamously clandestine methods: the powerful Belgian dealer and expert on Chinese art, Gisele Croes, better known in Asian circles as "the Empress."

"The People's Liberation Army is very rich, very powerful and all-knowing," Croes said. "You must keep looking over your shoulder. This is an exceedingly jealous business, and I find pieces that others can't find, I know people they don't know."


"The Chinese art market is a $1 billion-a-year trade and it can be dangerous and frightening," she said.


She said her market was also long on cloak-and-dagger. "I've been accused of being everything from a smuggler to an agent for the Chinese secret police," Croes said. "The mystery of my reputation is only painful when it's a lie."

Colin Sheaf, 53, deputy chairman of Bonhams auction house in London and the company's Chinese art specialist, spoke of Croes's reputation in the trade....

"Gisele is remarkable at finding treasure," Sheaf said. "She's part of the world's most elite group of dealers, handling a quality of Chinese merchandise that auction houses can only dream about."

Despite her skills and connections though, Croes is up against some stiff competition. Well, her and virtually ever other dealer in the masterpiece business, it seems: the PLA reportedly has access to funds totalling $711 billion for these efforts, and it's not just Chinese works they have their eyes on:

Facing an acute art shortage, the Chinese government plans to construct 1,000 new museums by 2015, including 32 in Beijing in time for the 2008 Olympics and 100 in Shanghai before the opening of the 2010 World's Fair, according to reports in China's government-controlled media.

The People's Liberation Army, or PLA, has so far targeted only Chinese art.

Analysts say the army's strategy over the next five years is to dip further into China's foreign-currency reserves - about $711 billion, the second biggest after Japan, and growing - to buy and barrack celebrated Western masterpieces, often at prices above their auction-market value.
And here I was worried about the effect of Alice Walton's art buying.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Artist of the Week (10/17/05)

There's an unfortunate reality for artists who dare to examine society's taboos in that their work's subtlties are often entirely overshadowed by the sensational response to the subject matter. The art world's response is often times little better than the general public's either (think of how "Sensation" was marketed and you'll see that overhyping "bad boy/girl" art is just another means of belittling or rejecting it...none of that work deserved the carnival barker's style marketing it received in that exhibition). Both ends of that spectrum focus on the "scandal," often entirely missing the layers of the artist's message.

One artist who's been able to transcend that response a bit though is New York-based multimedia artist Joe Ovelman. Joe's work is unquestionably dealing with taboos, but he's so thoughtful about the process and execution of his work that you end up seeing past the scandalous subject matter.

Joe works largely in series, setting up the same scenario again and again with different people. The series by him that first caught my eye was installed in the home of collectors James Wagner and Barry Hoggard (bloggers extraordinaire and on the bleeding edge of new art like few other collectors I know). It comprises 23 photographs of strangers on Miami Beach whom Joe convinced to don his father's Marines uniform (including one woman). We included this series in a group show at the gallery once; installed side by side, it offers a spectrum of bemused-to-serious faces and personalities. What's fascinating about this series is the paradox of dressing a stranger up in the artist's father's clothes (something so intimate and---given our natural associations with vintage uniforms---romantic) with such an open, public, all inclusive approach. There it is, for the whole world to see, an act that seems almost painfully personal. Here are a close-up and partial installation shot from our exhibition (I apologize for the shoddy quality, better images are not readily available at the can see better images of all 23 on Joe's website.):

Joe Ovelman, Marine Corps Uniform - 1970, 2000, 23 Black and White photographs, 14.5" X 10" each, edition of 8.

But Joe goes much (much) further in exploring intimate acts with strangers in public. Represented in Washington DC by Conner Contemporary Art, Joe is a bit infamous for his series titled "17 Strangers" (at one time this series was also titled "Subjugation," but that seems to have been dropped). The image at the top is one of the 17 in the series of men wearing a jacket (some accounts say Joe's father's jacket, but he never told me that directly) and Joe, on his knees before them wearing their jackets. The location for the series is the Rambles in Central Park, known to be a meeting place for public sex between men. You can't see any faces in the photos, but the hands of the strangers, always placed on Joe's head, express an incredible range of emotions. Joe explains that he met these strangers in the Rambles and asked them to help him with an art project. The fact that any of them agreed (and believed that he wouldn't exhibit their faces) is a testament to Joe's powers of persuasion.

Joe recently returned to the Rambles for a series of 17 images titled "Snow Queen" (as Barry Hoggard reports "If you are interested in the details of the piece, I was told by Joe that it was shot in a single night by himself with a tripod. Amazing." Dressed in his grandmother's white stag coat at 4 am, he creates a tragicomedy of glamor's emptiness exposed (in some shots, literally):

Joe Ovelman, Snow Queen #9, 2003, C-print, 11 x 17 in, edition of three (image from

Joe Ovelman, Snow Queen #8, 2003, C-print, 11 x 17 in, edition of three (image from the artist's website).

Joe's projects also include unauthorized public art, such as "Tenth Avenue Wall" where he put up posters on construction site walls. As he explains on his website, "Before they were grafiti, these large posters were part of an installation at the Islip Museum, on Long Island." Here's an image from James Wagner's site:

I've never caught one of these installations before most of it had succumbed to vandalism or weather, but even the remnants of them are's another image from the artist's website:

Finally, no survey of Joe's work would be complete without a few of his hilarious Post-it Notes pieces. They're like popcorn; I can't stop wanting more of them:

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Guys in Suits Who Can't Paint

In doing research for the first exhibition in our new location (please don't ask when... soon ... soon ...but I can reveal it's an exhibiton of amazing new work by Alois Kronschläger and, yes, I am indeed "fucking psyched" about this show), we've been talking to a fair number of architects, both in academia and out in the "real" world, and through all these conversations has emerged one clearly well-known fact that I was mostly unware of: architects and artists are not necessarily in love with each other.

Many architects seem to feel they're intellectually superior to artists, epitomized by one who suggested that "artists ask the questions, and architects provide the answers." Whereas many artists talk about architects as if they were indolent domestics, epitomized by Katharina Fritsch who
famously asked in the essay accompanying her exhibiton at the German Pavilion of the 1995 Venice Biennale: "Where are the museums that match my work?"

OK, so I get the artist's POV here. If the available exhibition spaces require you to compromise your vision, it's got to be frustrating. But what explains the architect's POV? It can't be as simple as them believing the old adage that "architecture is the mother of all art," and that then justifies a domineering attitude toward artists, can it?

On the other hand, as suggested by the title of this post, "Guys in suits who can't paint," reportedly Frank Stella's definition of architects, at least some artists view architects as more grown-up than they are. But is that all it is? Adolescent resentment?

In the same article from which I pulled that Fritsch quote (from the Irish art magazine Circa, [actually the reprinted Introduction to an upcoming book on museums]), the writer, Gemma Tipton, notes:

It is unsurprising that there is often an uneasy element to the relationship between architect and artist, both engaged in the visual creation of an aesthetic, both subject to the compromises of site, materials, finance and patronage. [...]

Until now, these architectural and artistic debates have taken place in parallel, and yet they are contingent upon one another. Changes in architectural materials mirror changes in artistic media and scale. The creation and the realisation of the Guggenheim Bilbao would have been impossible without the development of computer-aided design programs (made originally for the construction of fighter planes); responding to the architecture, its vast spaces house commissions by Sol le Witt, Richard Serra, Jenny Holzer and Francesco Clemente. The Bilbao Guggenheim accommodates work on a scale that it would be impossible to show in all but a few museums worldwide. And it is this symbiosis which points to the potential held by the challenges both art and architecture offer each other: spaces and creations whose notional limitations are constantly called into question by the developments and interventions of one another. Called into question, proved false, razed and reset until the boundaries are broken again.

Architects have always played a key role in the development of this debate, both through writings and discussion of theory, and through their creation of spaces in which these discussions take place.
Suggesting, again, that indeed artists ask the questions and architects provide the answers.

So come on artists...what is it really? Is it that buildings in general (and museums in particular) represent just another part of the "establishment" you're responding to, and hence architects will never be able to stay one step ahead? Or is it that even should a building anticipate your needs, your process will always include a desire to find someway to break those boundaries, those pre-existing "answers to the questions"?

As I've noted before, I feel the grandest achievement of the new MoMA building is its underlying message: "anticipate the future." Does that, however, perpetually symbolize to some artists a tossing down of a gauntlet and provoke a "Don't fence me in!" attitude? And if that's what it boils down to, where does this cat-and-mouse game end? Or does it?

Feel free to jump in here at any point...

The Recurring Death of Arts Funding

Once again, the Republicans are suggesting that the NEA should go, entirely:

An advisory panel composed of over 100 Republican members of the House of Representatives has recommended ending all funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). The NEA is the federal government's chief source of funding for nonprofit theatre groups, dance companies, and arts presenters. The CPB is a major funder of noncommercial broadcast programming of the performing arts.

The Republican Study Committee recommended that the two agencies be eliminated as part of its "RSC Budget Options 2005" report. The 23-page analysis offers cuts in nearly every area of the federal budget, leading to savings of $102.1 billion in fiscal year 2006, five-year savings of $369.9 billion, and a decade's savings of $949.7 billion.

Presented by Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), the RSC's chairman, and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), the committee's budget and spending task force chairman, the study indicates that the lost federal funds could be made up through private sources.

"In 2001, America spent $27 billion on nonprofit arts funding: $11.5 billion from the private sector; $14 billion in earned income (tickets sales, etc.); and $1.3 billion in combined federal, state, and local public support (of which $105 million was from the NEA -- 0.39% of total nonprofit arts funding)," the report states. "The funding could easily be funded by private donations. Savings: $1.8 billion over ten years ($678 million over five years)."
I go back and forth on this issue. On one hand I think that eliminating taxpayers' support frees institutions to curate as they see fit, totally. I also believe that nations that create art welfare programs generally encourage mediocrity, because the artists/institutions can live comfortably without having to compete in a jungle of a market. Taking that argument to its logical conclusion, then, nations that don't support the arts at all produce highly competitive artists and institutions, who must excel to survive.

On the other hand, I believe that if my money's going to be spent on roads to nowhere in Alaska or (yes, here it comes) to line the pockets of Halliburton cronies, then it makes sense to fight to ensure at least some of that money is also targeted to support education and institutions in places where there's simply not enough local money to pay the bills to keep an art space open, let alone offer programming that might encourage some budding artist to follow her dreams. I mean, if I thought that by eliminating the NEA, our Congresscritters would also then eliminate the pork to their pet projects that benefit only their contributors, then I might actually consider it.

Further, you do begin to suspect that it's not the money, but the resentment, that drives efforts like this. The arts often champion liberal ideals, and Republicans can't stand having their share of such funding spent on efforts that offend them. Again, I must reference Halliburton (such a useful shorthand) in repsonse.

But the NEA's not the only arts program slated for cuts. From the
Americans for the Arts website:
House Education Chairman Suggests Terminating Arts Education Program
House Education & the Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner has suggested eliminating the Department of Education's Arts in Education program to pay for hurricane recovery efforts. Boehner's Setting Priorities in Spending Act (H.R. 4018) would eliminate a total of 14 Federal programs, including the Arts in Education program which Boehner claims "has a limited impact in integrating arts into the school curriculum." This couldn't be further from the truth. Arts in Education programs offer grants for the development, implementation, and expansion of arts education programs and the integration of arts instruction into the core curriculum.
Paying for the hurricane by ending arts funding. A hurricane that destroyed New Orleans, none the less. Sigh...back to the NEA article:
[Americans for the Arts] said in an emailed "arts action alert" that the RSC was using the devastation of Hurricane Katrina as a rationale for the recommended cuts: "Needless to say, cutting this funding would not even make a dent in the need for hurricane relief, and at the same time it would deprive the affected areas of much-needed help in rebuilding their vital cultural sectors."
The argument I hear from conservatives on this is often: If the arts were relevant to the average American, then funding would be seen in a more positive light. The blame for this animosity or at least ambivalence falls at the feet of the art world, which produces work that doesn't speak to the people.

The more cynical side of me can't help but interpret that to mean that paintings of NASCARs or three-legged kittens or wrestlers would increase arts funding, but there must be something to that argument, no?

What I generally try to argue in response to that though is that art, like science, is a discipline with two audiences: the general public and the peers. It can take the peers decades (or longer) to find the metaphors/vocabulary that will provide access to the general public for a development, but eventually the public will get it (think of how Stephen Hawking's book, A Brief History of Time, made blackholes and such more widely understood or how abstract art is now more widely appreciated than it was a few generations ago). We wouldn't expect scientists to stop pushing as hard as they can into new frontiers or argue that there was no role for the state in funding their work (much of which never results in advancements the general public will understand or ever use), but somehow we expect all art, even the most bleeding edge work, to satisfy Joe Public, whether he's willing to make any effort to understand it or not.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Wal-Mart Seeking Curator

Remember last week (I can barely, so it's not a rhetorical question), when we bounced around the question of whether the Extreme Right Wing of US politics would ever embark on an effort to infiltrate the world of fine art (see post here)? I think collectively we might have underestimated how this could actually come to pass (hint: they could do it the old-fashioned way: buy influence).

Via, we learn that the Wal-Mart family's upcoming Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in Bentonville, Arkansas, (see design concept in image above) is conducting a search for a curator:

A nationwide search for a underway, [museum project director Bob] Workman said. The curator would have to be a specialist in the museum's focus, American art, and have 10 years of art museum experience.

"Hiring a curator is a lot like hiring a dean or a department head at a university. It can be a very time-consuming process," Workman said.

Alice Walton, Sam Walton's daughter, announced plans for the museum in May after she purchased the famous painting Kindred Spirits by Asher B. Durand.

Of course there's no word yet as to whether the position will include health care benefits, but...

HOUSEKEEPING SIDEBAR: Out of sheer frustration with chasing away the cockroach-like
critters (I'm talking about those filthy spambot commenters who destroy the pleasure of blogging for the rest of us and should be hounded out of the blogosphere), I've turned on the word verification tool for comments. You'll have to type in the secret code word you'll see to leave a comment now. I apologize for the inconvenience, but the vile spambots were really out of control. Please do let me know if making comments now is too bothersome this way though.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Does Anyone Want to Be the New Irascibles? Open Thread

I was talking with an artist in her studio the other day, and she mentioned how the idea of becoming an art star has trickled down to the high school level now---as a realistic path/dream to fame and riches (or as realistic as becoming a rock star or movie star, at least). This before most of them could even have a good grounding in art history or conviction about their own, hopefully still-developing, visions. Personally, I've met plenty of "artists" with nary a care about what sacrifices (or even what "art") they have to make to break into upper echelon of the art world...if it takes screwing that crusty old dealer or stealing their former boy/girlfriend's new vocabulary, well, that's all just part of the game.

But an article in The New York Times yesterday about painter/author Jonathan Santlofer's latest art world murder mystery (The Killing Art) got me to wondering about just what someone would do to get the career or acclaim that they want. Santlofer's tale seems, from the article, to be one more about revenge than active career plotting (they don't give too much away, but you get the idea that an old Ab-Ex painter who was pushed aside when the infamous "Irascibles" were getting ready for their close-up [see photo by Nina Leen for Life magazine above], begins killing everyone who stops him/her from slashing all the Abstract Expressionist paintings hanging around town).

I had someone, whom I no longer hang around with, once tell me that there's nothing he wouldn't do for his art. Whether it was some decrepit old critic who wanted him to do {unmentionable sex act...really, not for the squeamish} or a patron who expected him to play the dutiful lap dog, his art meant so much to him that he would "do whatever it takes" to promote it. I'm not sure how I feel about that really, other than it makes me want to take another shower.

So, the open thread question of the day: before the bitterness of rejection drives you to become a homicidal maniac, where do you draw the line with regards to what you would not do to pursue your dream. I know that's not a very encouraging question, so feel free to speak about your "friends" who are discouraged. I've thrown out some extremes here for entertainment value only. I don't expect anyone to disclose any secrets...I'm just curious about how much drive these starry-eyed high school students should be warned to expect their dreams to require.

One question in particular this NTY article raised for me, is are artists willing to risk the potential back-stabbing and heartache of banding together. Santlofer's story delves deeply into the little known facts that many artists who had hung around with the "Irasicles" got pushed aside when the spotlights went up. Coming out of Williamsburg where there's probably a good deal of similar betrayals, but mostly a great deal of camaraderie, I'm not sure how long any such support network can truly last. They do seem to disintegrate once success smiles on the odd member here or there.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Artist of the Week (10/10/05)

Sarah Woodfine is a lovely person, but a rather fussy artist. I note this with admiration, mind you (although her degree of perfectionism was rather tough to appreciate while we were installing her work at an exhibition I curated in London---one on a ridiculously tight schedule during a transit strike, no less). Still, without that mindset, Sarah would not be able to create her stunning pencil on paper works that have become all the rage lately. To call her drawings "detailed" is a laughable understatement.

This image to the right is from a much earlier series than for what she was awarded the presitigous
Jerwood Drawing Prize for 2004, but I have a similar piece in my collection and love these disturbing memories-via-creepy-toys-of-childhood pieces. The one I have is similar to the piece below, only smaller (this imagery is too terrifying to have one that's larger than me):

Sarah Woodfine, Teddy (A new home for Harvey), 2000, pencil on paper, 160 x 110 cm (image from website for Danielle Arnaud Contemporary Art).

Represented by Danielle Arnaud Contemporary Art in South London, Sarah began exploring architectural spaces in her drawings a few years ago. From churches in Norway, to imaginary barns in Wyoming, her buildings are mysterious, lonely, and haunting. Trained as a sculptor, Sarah has very keen instincts about presenting space in emotional terms. Here's an image from a series of flattened cabins:

Sarah Woodfine, Hall 2, 2002, pencil on paper, 41 x 57 cm (image from

Since then, Sarah has begun to explore space and landscape within dioramas of two dimesional drawings. Here's an earlier one where she was still working with buildings:

Sarah Woodfine, Chapel, 2003, pencil on paper and perspex box, 23 x 30 x 23 cm (image from website for Danielle Arnaud Contemporary Art).

But as mysterious as that piece is, it can't hold a candle to the sinister-looking landscapes she's been boxing in lately. Sarah's knack for finding that one, slightly off, but not obvious detail that taps into your subconscious and scares the bejesus out of you is what makes each piece irresistible but harrowing all the same. Here's one of her latest pieces available online, followed by a few details:

Sarah Woodfine, Untitled, 2004, pencil on paper and perspex box, 23 x 30.5 x 23 cm (all images from website for Danielle Arnaud Contemporary Art).