Sunday, May 26, 2013

Jill Greenberg: Horses and Swimmers

I like horses in art.  To me, the horse is a symbol of transition.  By transition, I mean transition within our inner reality as well as transition in our external reality.  Symbolically, the horse represents what gets you from one (rotten?) place to another (better?) place.  It takes you from a place of turmoil and conflict to your own hearth.  It leads you into and out of battle; it helps you escape, engage in some adventure or go home. 

St. George kills the dragon while on horseback.  Here's one version by Uccello.

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Indeed, throughout the history of western art, the horse has played an essential role in many amazing works of sculpture and painting. Here's an example by Jacques Louis David of his buddy Napoleon and his horse.

One of my favorite "horse" paintings is by Rembrandt and is found in the Frick Collection.  Here we see The Polish Rider:

Every time I see this painting at the Frick, I'm convinced that the horse looks emaciated. However, the last time I went, the person with me disputed this and said the horse looked OK.  Actually the person said that Rembrandt just probably sucked at painting horses.  My interpretation of the piece, however, was that Rembrandt was being allegorical.  We see a look of dogged resolve on the head of the horse, despite the emaciated state of its body.  It's as if the inner strength or inner qualities of the horse, and not just its outer strength, is what makes the horse such a potent symbol.  The resolve or determination of the horse is contrasted with the calm sense of command and confidence of the rider.

Here's an interesting painting I once saw at a gallery called Asian Art Piers by Zheng Hongxiang:

It's difficult to see the details from this picture, but the red boxes are covered with text from very idealistic political documents and on two boxes are drawn the face of a human while on two boxes are drawn the images of a horse head. 

An artist represented by Clamp Art (on 25th street) paints amazing close-up images of horses.  Indeed, Jill Greenberg seems to be a quite versatile painter in that the themes of her paintings often change.  She has also painted some amazing pieces of women floating in swimming pools.  First the horses, though:

What's different about Greenberg's horses? These are horses at rest showing a type of mystical or transcendental quality.   As I mentioned earlier, the horse is not a means of transition and engagement just because of its brute size.

Greenberg also dazzled me with her images of women floating in swimming pools:

Of course the big question is: why do they have their shoes on?

I think the presence of the shoes magnifies the feeling of a type of "groundless ground."  I recall a lecture by a prominent sociologist at my undergraduate school on a famous sociologist who referred to our ethical beliefs and actions as being derived from the groundless ground of ethics.

In this pool of water the body is submerged and weightless - it is almost like the root system of a plant.  The head, like a lotus flower, pierces through above the surface of the water providing an asymmetrical equilibrium.

Here I am standing next to a giant painting of Secretariat which was once part of a show of Australian art at Agora gallery. The artist is Lyn Beaumont.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Rural (Magical) Symbolism in Kathy Ruttenberg's Pieces (in Stux Gallery)

In The Golden Bough, James Frazer writes about what religion was like in pre-urban/non-urban societies. 

Indeed, Christianity was an almost perfect religion for the city, but an utterly useless religion for the countryside.  Christianity was a religion that offered a moral code and promoted values like toleration, forgiveness of strangers, justice and equality between social classes etc.  It's no coincidence that the first Christian missionaries headed out for the big cities (starting with Ephesus) and left the countryside alone.

And, of course, the biggest battle that the Catholic Church waged was against the religion of the countryside, which they termed "paganism."  A 'pagan' was literally a person who lived outside of a city.  It is no coincidence that "Satan," in the Middle Ages, began to be depicted to look a lot like the ancient Greek god Pan - an ancient rural deity. 

In the Middle Ages the church waged a war against 'witchcraft,' which was basically a magical, pagan practice that was often effectively used to aid in childbirth and fight disease through magical rituals involving quite potent herbal remedies.  One of the dirty secrets of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance was that the women who used the  magical pagan herbs were hanged and burned by the church as witches and agents of Satan, but the herbs and practices were adopted by early (male) "doctors" as the backbone of the science of medicine.

Basically men stole witchcraft from women, fixed it up a bit, and called it science.

But, more specifically, what were the characteristics of this pre-urban type of religion?  As Frazier shows, a belief in magic was the centerpiece of this religion.  The rural 'pagans' were keen observers of nature and its yearly changes and believed that certain rituals could facilitate a beneficial relationship between their communities and the forces of nature.  The pagans were interested in a 'religion' that would be good at helping women give birth, ensuring rain, ensuring the fertility of their land, protecting their society from diseases, making their crops grow etc.  These were very worldly and community concerns.  In small villages there was no great need for an elaborate moral system, since everybody knew everyone else and individual socialization techniques worked to ensure a smoothly run society.

Here's an image of the Celtic nature god Cernunnos:

Common to this tradition are "green men" or sculptures of humans turning into trees or types of vegetation:

I think that if we look at Kathy Ruttenberg's work, we can see a lot of these pre-urban or pagan symbols. 

Here is a piece called "Gifts of This World"

Indeed, a lot of Ruttenberg's work involves people morphing into trees.

Frazier believed that trees were essential in pagan worship but I tend to disagree with his interpretation of what a tree meant.  Basically a tree grows its roots deep into the earth and its trunk and branches reach up into the sky.  To me the tree is a symbolic bridge between the earth and the sky, or between our animal nature and spiritual nature, or between the lower and the higher.

For a person, obviously, to morph into a sacred aspect of nature is very "pagan" and we see this metamorphosis all over the place in Celtic and other cultures.

Here's a piece I really liked from her last show at Stux:

A person's body has been deliberately severed in several places and a tree is growing through the disembodied corpse.  Of course, in the ancient world, human sacrifice was commonly practiced. This was, of course, severely condemned by Christian missionaries, but it seems (from evidence obtained from so-called 'bog-people') that the victims were often elite members of their society and went to their deaths willingly for the community. 

Of course, in the 'pagan' religions there was no belief in a heaven and hell.  Rural dwellers were too connected to the earth.  They saw bodies decompose, they saw the process of life generating life and for the most part believed in a type of reincarnation.

Basically it looks as if "pagan" religion was a religion dealing with the relationship between people and nature, whereas the Christian religion was a religion focusing on the relationship of people with people.

Here's a piece Ruttenberg called "Heat"

In Judeo-Christian mythology the snake is a type of thief - it steals immortality.  In pagan cultures the snake embraced immortality.  Here a person has morphed into a cat, an animal of the night, and like Cernunnos, it holds a snake as if it is holding a trophy.

Here's an image called Tree Hugger

So what is Ruttenberg saying by embracing a type of outlook that predates the rise of cities?

I think she's saying that our notion of inner or spiritual development is too limited because it is too Judeo-Christian.  It is too urban.  It neglects the earth and nature.  Often our concept of inner development is too tied to our relations to others and not tied deeply enough to what nature is or can be.  We are concerned with development within a society, but we should be concerned about our development within an environmental system.

I think the work of Ruttenberg invites us to examine how limited and how urban our beliefs are, and challenges us to recognize that our perspective has to embrace all of nature along with human society.  'Love your neighbor' should not just mean your human neighbor.

You can see more of Ruttenberg's work here:

Friday, May 17, 2013

Mediocre Painting Sells For $2 Million at Christies

This is a painting, by John Currin, of Bea Arthur, a maternal and engaging TV actress who became famous in the 1970s and continued working through the 90s.  She did not pose for the photo - this is Currin's guess as to what this, basically, asexual actress might have looked like naked.

The reason I'm including this in my NY art scene blog is that I think this painting represents a lot that's wrong with contemporary art.

I see amazing work by artists in Chelsea and other neighborhoods every month, and, for the most part, it goes unrecognized.  Who are these art experts and money-guys who can elevate a truly mediocre piece like this to the status of 'great art?'

It's simply not great.  The New York Times stated Currin is one of the most provocative artists of his generation.  Provocative?  How?  Basically it's a rather trite idea:  I'll take someone who is not known to be sexy and I'll paint a nude painting of her. Does this make her sexy?  It's a type of tacky and low IQ conceptual approach to portrait painting.

(Lately it's become evident to lots of folks, based on stories in the Times involving Christine Quinn, that the New York Times is very biased politically: it goes out of its way to support certain candidates over others while pretending to be objective.  Why? Who knows?  Does money exchange hands?  Are there friends of friends involved?  Are favors owed or granted?  Who knows.  But the NY Times seems to be taking this approach to modern art as well.  Someone needs a favor?  You want us to promote this artist?  Sure: "He's the greatest artist of the past millennium and most provocative we've ever seen!" People still look to opinion-makers; even dying dinosaurs like the New York Times.)

This Currin painting actually reminded me of the controversial painting I remember from my youth in Chicago - after Mayor Harold Washington died.  An art student named David Nelson painted the mayor in a bra and panties for a School of the Art Institute Show in 1988. 

There's really not very much that's thought-provoking here.  Indeed, this painting created an outrage in Chicago and I had a hard time even finding a copy online. Interestingly, when the painting was displayed as part of a student show at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, three Chicago politicians raided the gallery space and stole the painting.  The police chief then hid the painting in a jail cell.  The artist (David Nelson) was later awarded $95,000 by the city for the violation of his First Amendment rights.

So this Bea Arthur painting represents everything the Guerrilla Girls have ever said about the male dominated art world.  "Great art" is art chosen by guys for guys.  It's all an old boys network. 

Great art becomes great art because a bunch of guys like the work of other guys and they tell the guys with money, "Hey! Buy this!  It's great art and will increase in value over the years and then you can sell it!" It's a David Mamet-style confidence scheme.

Me at an art gallery opening yesterday (drinking soju):

Yes, I'm also the guy who created the (Wonder) scandal in Asia awhile ago. :P


And, I'm the guy who wrote the ESL bookNew York City Sucks, But You'll Wanna Live Here Anyway.

If you don't have an e-reader, drop me a line at and I'll send you a free copy via Word file. Let me know whether you have Word 2010 or an earlier version.

Other free blogs for learners of English:

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Saints and Sex, The Granite Sculptues of Oh Chaehyun

I saw some very provocative pieces by Oh Chaehyun, a very well-established sculptor from South Korea, at Able Fine Art in Chelsea.

What was interesting to me was that he uses a very traditional Korean style of sculpture to create images of a religious nature juxtaposed next to images of a sexual nature.  Indeed, he chisels these pieces out of granite.  Sometimes the sexual images seem to be so 'crude' that they are almost shocking.

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For instance here we see a woman exposing her vagina while seated between two praying figures.

Here we see the same type of figure surrounded at the cardinal points by 4 Buddha heads.

So I was attracted to this artist's pieces because I felt it was quite thought-provoking to juxtapose images in such a provocative manner.

Is the woman inviting sexual intercourse? Is she about to deliver a child?

It took some time for me to find a meaning in these pieces.  I finally concluded that you cannot have the spiritual without the sexual.  The spiritual is literally born from the sexual.  Conversely, the spiritual gives meaning to the results of the sexual process. The spiritual and sexual form a type of cycle, perhaps. 

Also, there is religious literature in which sexual processes are used to correspond (symbolically/allegorically) to spiritual processes.  In some works of visual art it is even hard to tell whether the sexual or the spiritual is occurring.  Remember this work by Bernini? That's "St." Theresa.

One of my favorite writers from the past is the Japanese novelist Mishima.  In one of his autobiographical novels (Confessions of a Mask) he writes that, as an adolescent, when he saw (in a book) the painting of St. Sebastian being executed, he involuntarily experienced his first orgasm.  Did Guido Reni deliberately add a sexual element to the suffering and helplessness of Sebastian in this painting?  Or did Mishima just read something extra into this work?

Oh seemed to be implying that we cannot radically divorce the sexual from the spiritual. Indeed, in rural societies, before the rise of cities and religious traditions ideally suited for city-life (like Christianity) the spiritual was not separated from the sexual.

If one looks at ancient Celtic symbolism for instance, one sees this goddess:

I think that Buddhism, like Christianity, is a religion for the 'city.'  "Pagan" religions were a type of religion that focused on the relationship between people and nature, whereas Christianity and Buddhism seem to focus on the relationship between people and each other.  Pagan cultures accepted sex and even embraced sexual activity in some of their rituals (according to James Frazer).  When people get moved into cities and people become divorced from nature, then sex and spirituality become radically divorced.

This artist is therefore taking a religion that does not overtly deal with sex and he shows how initially out of place its images might seem juxtaposed with sexual images.  Again, he seems to imply that this should not be the case and that it is time for urban religions and spirituality to reconnect with their rural and ancient pagan pasts.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Is On Kawara Still Alive?

In the 90s, before I decided to become involved in the social services and field of education, I became involved with a little not-for-profit art gallery in Chicago.  I did some mixed media pieces there and a little performance art - nothing ambitious (but I think it was pretty good stuff).

I was able to meet a Polish artist living in Sweden through my artistic dabblings and we began sending each other "mail art."  I would make goofy collages, put air-mail stamps on the opposite sides, and mail them to Sweden.  She would often take photos, put air-mail stamps on the other sides, and mail the photos to me in Chicago.  My mailman thought I was nuts.

One day I received a collage in the mail from Sweden in which Ewa wrote: "Is On Kawara Still Alive?" 

This was before the internet and I was too lazy to do extensive research, so I had no idea what she was talking about.  I thought On Kawara meant something in ancient Greek and I went to the library to look in an ancient Greek dictionary.  Finally, when I came to New York City just a few years later, and wandered into the David Zwirner Gallery, I saw a bunch of 'date paintings' and was shocked to see the name On Kawara.

Ah ha!  Now it all made sense!

So basically, every day that Kawara wakes up, he paints the date.

Recently I came across Kawara's work at the Leo Koenig Gallery in Chelsea.  They had some of his date paintings in a show called "All Is Number." 

Do I like Kawara's stuff?  I'm not sure.  One could say it's kind of a conceptual art gimmick.  It could also be argued that his art is a bit pessimistic - it reduces everything to a type of very Schopenhauerian scheme.  If we see a date, we assume we ate, worked, did whatever we had to do to survive.  What is the common denominator of each date, after all?  The common factors are that we eat, drink, sleep etc. each day. 

I guess the significance of the work could be in the fact that just by representing dates we have to focus on what the mere sequence of dates cannot convey about our lives. His work becomes a type of 'via negativa.'  The 'via negativa' is a theological term - we don't know what God is, but we know what God isn't.  These individual dates do not measure or record inner growth or development.  {If one really wants to be exact, they just really record the continued existence of On Kawara. (This is why Ewa's question to me was so clever - I now realize.)}

For example, let's say I am much more insightful and more humane than I was in 2004.  That didn't happen on a particular date though.  My inner change was due to a process, probably not an event.  These individual dates, therefore, perhaps, point in a negative sense toward this type of process.

It is, however, such an unusual experience to look at a date I lived through and just stare at the date not having any idea what I did or what happened to me on that day.  For each date that I stare at, I just have a vague idea of what I was doing those days or a vague idea of the sort of guy I was back then. 

What do we do every day? What makes a date memorable? Shouldn't each date be memorable?  When we look at a date, say October 20, 2008, what kind of sense do we get of that date?  How do we characterize the different periods of our lives?

To me the paintings call attention to how we conceive of or measure individual progress or success/failure.  Koenig wanted to focus more on social issues, however, and had date paintings showing three day sequences during which there was a space shuttle disaster and during which Hurricane Katrina happened.

I thought that was novel, but I'm not sure Kawara is concerned about his dates representing "news" events.  Who knows, I might be wrong.  For me, though, Kawara's work makes me focus on how interesting but glacial my own individual change has been and can be. 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Robert Richfield: Still Life

There used to a photography gallery in Chelsea called The Klotz Gallery.  It always had amazing shows and was quite liberal with the free wine on opening nights!

This gallery became a fatality of the changing nature of Chelsea due to the Highline Park and the real estate development going on due to the new park.  Rents are rising and galleries are dying or moving.  Alan Klotz now runs his gallery from the Upper West Side.

The Chelsea gallery district was an incredible resource for this city, but when you have a mayor oblivious to everything except helping his buddies make money, you lose cultural treasures. At one point, maybe 6 or 7 years ago, there were more than 300 art galleries in Chelsea; now there are less than 200 and the number drops each year.

Here are some pieces from a show Klotz had of the work of Robert Richfield.  The show was ironically called Still Life.

In Portugal they often place a coffin inside of a boxlike structure within a larger complex - kind of like this (this structure comes from Mexico, however):

They seal the coffin into the structure, but, in front of the coffin, there is a little area, behind a pane of glass, where family members can leave decorations, flowers, momentos, photos etc. Richfield photographed many of these "windows" at a Portugese cemetery.

For instance, here you see both a reflection from the window and the inner contents in front of the coffin:


In this photo, we see that some moisture has formed on the inside of the window, partially obscuring the photo and flowers inside.

Again, the moistened glass and partial reflection create an abstract image.

This is a beautiful photo showing outlines of the photos of the deceased person surrounded by blurred images of the flowers left by the family, as well as reflections of surrounding structures.

So why did I like this show so much?

Essentially, it was a great idea to take these photos. The photographer created unique images conveying immense love for the deceased and deep mourning.  The combination of the reflections, blurry moisture and the photos of the deceased help evoke the depth and pain of the mourning process.  Interestingly, in some windows you see that the flowers and images are old and neglected, the mourning has passed, perhaps the mourners are even gone.  In other windows you see bright, fresh flowers showing that people are still grieving and feel compelled to tend the place where a loved one has been laid to rest.

You can see more of Richfield's work at

Robert Jackson: Gummy Lover

Here's another Gallery Henoch artist: Robert Jackson.

Once when I was riding on the subway in New York City, I saw a little boy who had a small toy shark in one hand and a small toy dinosaur (a triceratops) in the other hand.  He was gleefully entertaining himself by creating a mock battle between these two creatures.

Now, I once took an animal behavior course in college and I know that two predators of two different species rarely just fight each other for the fun of it.  Two creatures from two different periods of time, one a water-dweller and one a land-dweller, never fight it out.  So this was really amusing to me - to see this little kid staging a battle between a shark and a triceratops.  I think aggression and competition are so deeply ingrained in us that we love imagining these hypothetical battles.  I certainly did when I was a kid.

So Jackson's painting resonated with me on this level.  We see what some child might have staged - a toy dinosaur is gobbling up gummy bears. He had a dinosaur and some gummy bears and he put two and two together and came up with this scenario.

To me it represents how readily we absorb the perceptions of our environments and reify them.  This painting both makes sense and doesn't make sense.  It's absurd that a dinosaur would attack gummy bears, but on a deeper level even children understand and have no problem with the nature of a universe dominated by the second law of thermodynamics and a dog-eat-dog world, so such a bizarre and hypothetical encounter becomes real to us.

Can we also interpret this painting as an allegory?  Is the dinosaur an aggressive, violent and malicious element that must be extirpated from our lives (like the minotaur)?  Are the gummy bears innocent little sacrificial lambs that must be protected and saved? 

I think I'm spending too much time thinking about this painting....:P

Here is Jackson's latest dinosaur painting:

It's almost a parody of the obsession an archeologist might have to categorize old fossils of strange creatures.  Does this obsession come from a childhood (childish?) inclination?  After all, who made the T-Rex the "king" of the dinosaurs???!!!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Yayoi Kusama

Most of Kusama's work is shown at one of the Gagosian galleries in Manhattan, although I've seen some pieces spread around at other places.

We live in a universe which had a beginning and which will have a death. And, we live in a universe for which the simple questions: "How could something come from nothing?" or "How could something always have been?" cannot be answered. We live in a constant state of decay and our lives are a constant struggle for self-justification and a search for meaning and validation in a dream-like, grim and often ridiculous state.

Confronted with this type of life, Yayoi Kusama has created huge canvases of ever-repeating patterns. Often polka-dots. Sometimes flowers. In past pieces she is sometimes seen naked and covered in polka dots as well.

The concept of infinite repetition is the center-piece of her work. As a child she suffered brutal treatment at the hands of her mother and visions of the infinite appeared to her as a response to this suffering. Therefore, the essential element of this artist's identity can be understood as an ordered and systematic response to cruelty emerging from the pain itself. Pain becomes the source of a vision of perfection and the infinite that can only cover the universe, not change it.

Perhaps this is why the artist has said repeatedly that her art is an attempt at self obliteration. It is also as if the infinity of polka-dots has a therapeutic value. Systems of thought and art have a softening effect on the realities of brutality and absurdity. In the very creation of the infinity of flowers and dots there is a loss of self, a covering of the component parts of experience by an ideal vision of life that destroys the essence of life for a pattern engendered by the harsher aspects of life.

This is also why the artists work is often performative in nature. The process involved is essential to the work, not the final product. The artist David Judd once even went so far as to say that a painting by Kusama is a result of her work and not a work in itself. One of Kusama's canvases is the result of her embrace of the visions generated through her pain and experience, the essence of the artist's identity and art.

This also helps to explain why Kusama's spaces in galleries, especially in NYC from 58 to 68, were totally defined by art. It was her desire to create entire environments of repetitive patterns because this is the type of life we surround ourselves with. We insulate ourselves in our visionary and often idealistic patterns and attempt to structure a world that will correspond to such patterns. From Marat through Marx to the present day these patterns are tattooed onto our realities and forge our identities into pleasant experiences.

Kusama now lives in a mental hospital in Tokyo. She has stated that if it were not for art she would have killed herself long ago. This is a revealing statement from an artist who has implied that all of our identities are visions of repetitive patterns of pleasant polka-dots and flowers in the face of unanswerable yet simple questions.