Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Rachel Garrard - Vessel - at Gasser and Grunert

{{{Blue III - click on images to enlarge}}}

So you’ve seen Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man – the naked guy in a circle with his arms and legs spread at a couple different angles – and you’ve read Dan Brown’s novel and you know that the human body follows the ‘golden ratio’ of 1.618 (Phi - the same ratio that pervades nature).  If you haven’t, this means, for example, that if you divide the length of your upper arm into the length of your lower arm and hand you get 1.618. Divide your upper body into your lower body - 1.618. Everything on your face is in this same proportion. Indeed, the ratio of 1.618 is found throughout the basic human body. 

Vitruvius was an ancient Roman engineer who recognized the proportions of the human body and suggested that architecture would be more appealing and pleasing if it followed these human proportions. Leonardo’s drawing was an attempt to demonstrate Vitruvius’ principles. 


In Vessel by Rachel Garrard at Klemens Gasser & Tanja Grunert (curated by Mitra Khorasheh), Garrard uses her own bodily proportions to create geometric, cruciform structures often contrasted with gentle and swirling abstract backgrounds.  Did you know that almost every Catholic Church is also ‘cruciform’? Also the cruciform shape is, obviously, an abstract form of the human body.  

So when Garrard calls her body ‘a vessel’ I think there are parallels to church architecture. You enter a church and amazing things happen. The body of Christ is (theoretically) present In the Eucharist, a ritual is performed and spiritual union with the Trinity is accomplished. Within this proscribed structure of the human architecture amazing things can also occur. So the body as vessel implies that there is an interface between outer and inner reality – but, I think she is also asking to what extent our inner reality can reorder and perfect itself. Is our inner world just a response to stimulation (as science would have us believe) or is there an inherent factor or capacity within us to determine our own responses to stimuli and to what extent can that capacity be used?


For instance, I’m looking at an image of Garrard’s Blue III on the floor in front of me, and it looks like a robot floating in a sensory deprivation tank. I think this is what Garrard is shooting for. When you plunge within the architecture, then you can do the inner spiritual presto-changeo that lifts you above all the nonsense. You become capable of real love, real forgiveness, real joy. (I hope to hell I get there some day.) Garrard seems to be saying that we need to recognize both the divorce between the outer and inner worlds and the possible union of the architecture with the amazing changes possible within the architecture.


When I saw the show the images themselves just struck me deep down inside as meaningful. I would invite you to drop by as well and check out this amazing show. Garrard is also doing periodic performances, so please check with the gallery’s web site for when those will occur.


Saturday, September 27, 2014

Ai Wei Wei - Chambers Fine Art and Francis Naumann Fine Art

{{{click on images to enlarge}}}

Chambers Fine Art and Francis Naumann Fine Art have teamed up to present some of Ai Wei Wei’s latest work, along with a good look at how Ai was deeply influenced by the work of Marcel Duchamp. Naumann also presents a thought-provoking essay on his gallery’s web site, asserting that Ai is more artistic than we normally think and that Duchamp was more political than we normally think.


At Chambers we see several coffin-like objects that, apparently, contain marble sculptures of rebar – a type of reinforced steel that is often placed in concrete structures to give the structures added strength. Ai is referencing the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 in which between 5,000 and 10,000 Chinese school children died because of shoddy school buildings made of cheap material. The coffins are made of huali wood.  In some types of huanghuali wood the patterns often look like ghostly images (often the faces of ghosts), so the artist may have had this in mind while choosing the wood.  Yet, the huali used in this display seems a darker color, but still possesses the complex abstract patterns the wood is famous for.  This type of wood also seems to have had medicinal functions in the past and through over-usage seems to be rare (driving up the price of furniture built of this material in the past).

{{{from Naumann - Ai's selfie of his arrest}}}

So why put marble versions of rebar in coffin-like structures? To me, the implication seems to be that corruption is never challenged until a tragedy occurs. Only then is the evidence collected, the culprits thrown in jail, and the shoddy stuff put away and buried to finally be replaced by the good stuff.  It seems beyond our abilities to think that integrity and good government should just naturally exist – and that something is horribly wrong if it doesn’t exist (and the world would be quantum leaps better if it did exist). Instead we seem to adopt the principle that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Sure my representatives in D.C. and Albany might be as legit as a 3 dollar bill, but the sky isn’t falling, nothing is apparently going wrong, things seem to be going fine according to the newspapers, so things are OK.  But, when the stuff hits the fan and something suddenly goes horribly wrong, because there has been so much corruption and so much inefficiency for so long, then everybody self-righteously points fingers, heads roll, things suddenly change, time goes by and then we go right back to normal.  I like to view Ai’s work as applying to any society, not just Chinese society, where the current government, to try to be as fair and as objective as I can be, has declared a concerted effort against the types of corruption that lead to this horrible tragedy.

{{{from Naumann}}}

Why marble and not the real rebar (which Ai literally purchased and used in other art pieces) and why are the coffins not shaped like real coffins?  I am guessing this shows Duchamp’s influence. Duchamp made functional stuff non-functional to encourage a more figurative or symbolic interpretation of objects and relationships between objects.  A stool implies rest. If you invert a bicycle wheel and screw it to the seat of the stool, you now have a stool you can’t sit on and a wheel that can’t move forward. But by combining the concepts of rest and motion, (a modern version of the contraposto) you create an impression of something intangible, perhaps, inner motion. In the Naumann show we clearly see how Ai was influenced by Duchamp.  He has one bicycle inverted onto another to make both useless, he has little wooden stools joined together at odd angles to prevent anyone from sitting on them, and he has fancy looking cowhide covering part of the blade of a shovel. 


Naumann suggests that Duchamp’s art was embedded within an overarching belief in the freedom of the individual and non-complicity with evil. During World War I, for instance, Duchamp left Europe for America and when the US entered the war he went to a different neutral country (Argentina).  He seems to imply that Ai Wei Wei’s art begins not just with the idea of the ready-made but also with an underlying ideology which might be imputed to the ready-made.  Ai’s work seems more targeted toward his society’s government than Duchamp’s implicit blanket attack against conformity and state aggression, but the big point seems to be that it wasn’t just the 12 years in America that turned Ai’s head around, it was also his discovery of Duchamp over here.


If I may play devil’s advocate, I think the irony of all the attention being given to Ai Wei Wei is that in a ‘free’ society we have pressing and tragic social problems as well, but no real Ai Wei Weis come to mind in the US art world.  Sure we had the (amazing and creative) giant black lady/sphinx made of sugar, but that documented an evil from the past. People smiled and took cell cam shots with it.  But where’s the contemporary outcry in the art world against the fact that 1/11 black men will probably do jail time in their lives? Our artists don’t see inequality, poverty, conformity, empty consumerism, mindless competition etc.? Or if they do see it, they seem to gently mock it in an amusing manner. Who knows, maybe all the Ai Wei Wei furor will create a nice type of feedback loop. Ai was ‘radicalized’ by discoveries he made in the USA and he took them back to China. Now, perhaps, due to his influence and popularity, more American artists might be influenced to do more ‘in-your-face’ work about the stuff that needs to be changed here.


{{{photos from Naumann - Ai shooting the bird at Beijing and Washington}}}

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Brian Calvin at Anton Kern Gallery

{{{click on images to enlarge}}}

Sometimes Brian Calvin paints a slightly open mouth against a plain background.  Sometimes he presents an image of this type of mouth cropped beneath a nose and sometimes we see an entire face with this slightly open mouth. He also presents some images of nearly entire human figures which seem to be in a type of cognitive holding pattern. His focus, in fact, seems to be on a particular subjective state of ‘emptiness’ which can best be perceived, apparently, by focusing on a subject’s mouth.



When we look at the pieces that just reveal the mouth, we get a sense of the type of benign aphasia the artist seems to be shooting for (aphasia is a medical condition in which a person has trouble processing language).  We become aware of a state of mind where nothing is being processed – perhaps nothing is going on outside the person and nothing is going on inside at the same time. Or it could be that something is happening outside but we are witnessing that period of time when the person is in a state of cognitive emptiness or transition, that period when the person is just taking things in and waiting for some inner realization or response to kick in.



The artist seems to focus on that mysterious moment where we surrender to the nothingness and rely on something to just pop into our heads. This, of course, begs the question: Where do these responses come from, can we control or alter them, or are we, basically, helpless in regard to our processing and responses to outer-world stimulation?



Actually, the images cropped below the nose seem to provide a more intense awareness of this emptiness.  When we see an entire face in the show, we see that this emptiness can exist simultaneously with different emotional states. With larger eyes, slightly more open mouth and raised eyebrows indicating fear, we still see the moment of emptiness. Or we see sadness or concern or just a blank unemotional stare and…emptiness.



What I found to be really fascinating about the show is how we are challenged to investigate the process of how we perceive the emotional states of others merely by looking at the other’s facial features, and how we are immediately engaged by the facial expressions we see.  The engagement often involves attempts to replicate the same inner experience being displayed.  All of this seems to be an automatic process.


So please drop by Anton Kern and be engaged by this amazing nothingness and feel your own nothingness and come away with a greater awareness of how you have been engaging the world of other’s emotions and responses. 




Rituals by Ian Davis at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects

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In 2012 an 82 year-old Roman Catholic nun and two male companions cut through three fences at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  They then waltzed into the very center of the ‘most secure’ nuclear facility in America and conducted an anti-war/anti-nuclear ritual by writing peace slogans on the walls, throwing a little human blood on stuff, stringing up police crime scene tape, and then praying and singing for two full hours until guards at the ‘most secure’ nuclear facility in America were able to surround, capture and disarm (they took away the white roses and Bible the nun was carrying) these three elderly, pacifistic ‘saboteurs’.   The nun was sentenced to three years in jail while the guys were sentenced to five years each by a federal judge who never learned the basic humanity of tempering justice with mercy.

That’s the type of apparently futile but meaningful ritual that hearkens back to the good old days of the Berrigan Brothers of the 1960s. Indeed, my favorite anti-war ritual of the 60s was conducted by the high priest of Yippeedom, Mr. Abbie Hoffman, who, on October 21st 1967, among 70,000 anti-Vietnam War protesters, lead chants and songs by those circling the Pentagon. Their aim was to make the Pentagon float in the air and turn orange (every ritual has a goal). I’m sorry to say that the Pentagon did not turn orange.  I did hear that it floated approximately 14 feet in the air, spun around a couple of times, and landed as softly as a butterfly in exactly the same spot (OK, in reality, the Pentagon didn’t move).

All of the above musings were inspired by Ian Davis’ amazing painting Priests which is part of a show at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects.  In each piece Davis presents groups of men engaged in various types of ritualistic activities, but these don’t seem to be the sorts of activities my dad engaged in at the Loyal Order of the Moose.  There are rituals here that are so arcane and perplexing that the participants seem to be engaging in something so higher order as to not be understandable to the uninitiated.  So it’s fun to try to figure out exactly what might be going on in some of these paintings.


In Priests we see many men dressed in white robes who are pouring blood on some type of machinery. It could be some type of nuclear generating machine or it could just be your basic run of the mill factory machine.  Like the real-life activist rituals above, it’s a type of action which just highlights the futility and helplessness of the men to truly change something they feel is wrong.  It’s a meaningful, heartfelt gesture of huge symbolic significance, and no practical change.  So why do it? Well, it probably has to be done, what else is someone who opposes something that’s wrong supposed to do, sit and do nothing? It also highlights the ‘logic’ of magical rituals that Frazer wrote about in The Golden Bough – the core of any ritual is an approximation of what you want to see happen.  For instance, in some preindustrial societies people would dance and leap high in the air because they believed this would make the crops grow higher. So men in white pouring blood on a machine means, I guess, you want to see this machine bleed and die or become more human or take on more humane qualities (your guess is as good as mine!).



Broadcast is truly mindboggling.  You have hundreds of formally dressed men in a swimming arena.  On the diving platforms you have lots of microphones, as if several people might be speaking or singing at the same time.  There are also three levels to the platforms.  Will the swimming lanes be used after the speakers/singers?  Are the swimming lanes inconsequential to the event - they couldn’t get another venue with enough seats? Are the unused competitive swimming lanes a part of the ritual – as if this group has now foresworn competition altogether and is shooting for a higher-level of cooperative life? 

Also, why men all the time in all these paintings?  Well, my guess is that gender has often been used symbolically in the past.  In allegorical literature the ‘masculine’ represents a type of ‘desire’ while the feminine seems to have represented a type of ‘fulfilment’.  These are all rituals involving just one half of the symbolic union of masculine and feminine – these are rituals involving the yang without the yin. 

In Current Events Davis has NASA-like guys sitting in front of TVs in front of huge icy stalactites. Here there is the expectation of change, but no change is, obviously, going to occur.  But these guys believe that, maybe, just maybe, something big is going to happen soon among these stalactites and, you know what, part of me wants to join them.  I recall reading the old expression written on a wall in Paris in 1968, when the students of France engaged in their own futile ritual to overthrow the corrupt French government and radically change society for the better: “Be a realist. Expect the impossible!” These guys in this Davis painting are total realists. 

I would highly encourage you to see all 11 of Davis’ paintings. They are quite imaginative and thought-provoking and can be kind of a Rorschach test since anyone could come up with his/her own interpretation as to what might be going on in each painting.


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

"Real" Butterflies by Paul Villinski at Morgan Lehman Gallery

{{{click on images to enlarge them}}}

What I like about this show, by Paul Villinski, is that he suddenly realized that the symbol he had been employing for so long - the butterfly - was more interesting in itself than as an artistic symbol. Indeed, he realized that looking at efforts to raise and save butterfly species can lead to a much more engaging and relevant pursuit than the symbolism he had been pursuing for so long.

What might be the oldest symbol for the concept of ‘rebirth’?  Well, if you go back to the cave paintings of about 30,000 years ago, the butterfly is depicted among the limited number of types of animals that are represented. So this amazing insect has caught and stimulated the imagination of people from the very beginning. It has become the iconic symbol, world-wide and cross-culturally, of resurrection and transformation.


Paul Villinski has been using the image of the butterfly in his art for some time and has created a dazzling show at Morgan Lehman Gallery. Indeed, through his collaboration with the world-renowned lepidopterist Dr. Rudi Mattoni, Villinski even presents what he calls a ‘butterfly machine’ – his attempt to raise butterflies, in an artificial environment, which can be utilized in this show.  Through this ‘machine’ he also wishes to call attention to the problematic aspects of conservation efforts. 

Through his attempt to raise butterflies he has become aware of the immense difficulties involved in even approximating the natural environment which is truly necessary for the butterfly to be born and thrive. The implication is that instead of pouring zillions of dollars into animal conservation, we need to take a more conscientious approach to environmental preservation and reclamation. 


In this show you also see beautifully designed circular patterns of endangered butterfly species which Villinski cut out of discarded aluminum cans.  His artwork has always been primarily about ‘transformation’ and here he, obviously, attempts to take that which has been used and discarded to create something of value and meaning.  The natural process of decay and natural recycling is replaced by a concerted effort to take that which has been used and use it again in a valuable manner. The circular patterns of the swarms of butterflies could either mean expansion or retraction – as if our own efforts will determine the future of the butterfly, as well as our own species.

Villinski also includes a hollow, wire sculpture of a man covered in a type of mesh.  Every day newly developed butterflies are placed within this figure and inevitably each butterfly finds its way out to fly around the gallery.  During the opening some large butterflies were actually perched on the sculpture in such a way that it seemed the mesh might have been coated with some type of chemical to attract them.  In reality there is no chemical, but the effect of that image merely heightened the realization of the dependence of the butterfly, and all living species, on the ecological morality and integrity of all of us.



Sunday, September 21, 2014

Horses by Deborah Butterfield at Danese / Corey Gallery

{{{click to enlarge image}}}

One of the highlights of the Chelsea opening night last week was Deborah Butterfield’s striking sculptures of horses, apparently made out of drift wood or ‘found’ wood. This was the type of show where people entered the gallery and immediately said, “Wow, this is amazing. How did she do that?”  That’s important, of course.  The artist has to arrest the viewer visually, first, before the person will stop and begin to engage a piece.  If your pieces look boring, people won’t stop and look. Butterfield’s work is so ‘wowing’ on just a purely visual level, that virtually everyone who saw the show stopped and thought about what she was doing and discussed the work with the folks they were with.


The fact that the horses seemed to be made out of drift wood or wood that had fallen from trees was fascinating to most viewers.  Actually Butterfield does use this wood initially to create the sculpture, but since wood decays so easily, she casts the sculpture from the wood and then burns the wood away with molten bronze, creating a permanent sculpture. But it looks like the real thing. I didn’t realize the sculptures were bronze until I went back a second time.


Now, I have to confess, even though I’m a city guy, I’m a sucker for horses and love all things horses. 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.  Traditionally, 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.


The horse has, in fact, been one of the most important symbols or images in the history of Western art.  St. George kills that dragon while riding horseback and who doesn’t love Rembrandt’s emaciated horse at the Frick, selflessly carrying that Polish soldier toward his quest? 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. More than anything, Butterfield is able to capture and convey this same inner strength of the horse, through her work, using dead wood.


So the big question is, why did this artist make horses out of found pieces of wood?  We can say that the horse is a symbol of transition in Western art. We can also say that these horses are a type of symbol of ‘freedom’ or inner strength, especially since they seem to be wild horses.  What I liked was the fact that Butterfield uses discarded, dead wood to convey the strength and life of these animals.  Wood, although ‘dead’, possesses potential combustible energy.  So the horse represents movement and freedom while wood can represent latent, potential energy – so the artist is combining the two most salient elements of horses and wood to convey movement, transition, freedom, and the captured potential for energy possessed in each piece. We get a sense of a composite creation that incorporates the concept of transition and the potential explosion of energy at the same time.


When you look at these pieces, it’s uncanny that the artist was able to take random pieces of branches and fit them so perfectly into the form of a horse. It’s almost as if this was meant to be and that these discarded and fallen branches should be shaped into horses.


So I’d encourage you to drop by Danese/Corey and just experience these horses.  These sculptures have a presence that affects you immediately and that will stimulate and engage you on many different levels.




Friday, September 19, 2014

The "Alter Egos" of Mark Beard at ClampArt in Chelsea

{{{Bruce Sergeant - click on images to enlarge}}}

Several months ago I wandered into ClampArt on a Saturday afternoon and saw that the gallery was primarily filled with large homo-erotic oil paintings attributed to Bruce Sargeant (1898 – 1938). There was also a nicely sized collection of his apparent mentor, Hippolyte Alexander Michallon (1849 – 1930). Sargeant’s work seemed more interesting to me, however, as it was a strange cross between hyper-realism and expressionism.  The young male bodies were lustily detailed (as only a true lover of male flesh could accomplish) but the skin tone was often a rough blending of flesh tone and grayish green.


There was such an over-the-top, seething love for the male body, merged at the same time with an apparent pessimism toward the flesh, and overall sense of dread, that I was amazed I hadn't seen this person's work in various museums.  How could the work of this obscure genius have been overlooked? But, when I wandered over to the desk at ClampArt and asked the owner of the gallery why Bruce Sargeant was not to be found in museums, he let me in on the "secret."  Neither Sargeant nor Michallon had ever existed. Mark Beard (a contemporary artist) has created his own series of fictitious artists. He paints in several different styles, purporting to be fictional artists from the past. In the show I saw, there were 'new' paintings by the 'dead' artists Michallon and his disciple Bruce Sargeant.

{{{Sergeant}}}

I was a little disappointed to find that at Beard’s latest show, at ClampArt, the gallery has given away the secret. The current show is titled “Alter Egos” and includes 7 of Beard’s artists, including Buggereau (whose work might represent Beard’s own stuff) and his latest incarnation: Princess Ormalu (B. 1979). A very kind gallery assistant informed me that, basically, ClampArt had little choice – the jig was up. By now most folks in the art world have discovered the secret, so now it’s on to transparency.

{{{Michallon}}

So why is he doing this? On one level he could be parodying trends in art, or the process of how artists become famous – how they get 'selected' to be great artists. All of Beard's fictional artists stick to one style of painting and this style becomes their 'brand.'  You can recognize a Michallon from a Sargeant from a Steeruwitz easily.  Branding your art becomes essential to success.  

People need to look at a piece and immediately say, "That's a Koons!" or "That's a Pollock!"   Beard seems to be pointing out (from what I've read) that, in the past, artists often went through various developmental stages and experimented with various styles. Now, to feed the needs of the art buyers, you develop until you hit something new and then that's that - that's YOUR style.  

There's no further need to develop - you are at the place you need to be. Now produce, produce and produce some more of the same stuff and start smoozing it up to promote yourself.  But, if Beard is mocking artist branding, his mocking has now become his own brand.  Yet, by including the work of Buggereau, he also seems to be showing that he can stand on his own and create a unique and engaging style to convey something personally meaningful.

{{{Steeruwitz}}}

A very funny aspect of the show, however, is that we see that if an artist cannot create a style for himself, it’s always possible to freeride and just hop on the stylistic bus and imitate.  Brechtholdt Streeruwitz is painting in the Abstract Expressionist style while Peter Coulter has totally stolen a type of Jenny Holzer/Barbara Kruger type of word art.

{{{Coulter}}}


Of course, there are deeper levels of parody in this art work as well.  For instance, focusing on Sergeant, it could be that Beard is poking fun at how an artist's inner obsessions or anxieties can be so readily transferred to the canvas.  Why have there been so many female nude paintings in the history of art, for instance?  OK, a naked woman might represent something symbolically and one could even argue that the artists were experimenting by drawing the human figure.  Or it could be that there have been lots of horny guys among the “great masters”.

{{{Ormalou}}}

Walking into ClampArt for this show, I immediately realized I was looking at art by a gay man.  Indeed, there was no denying that Sergeant was flaming.  Beard goes way overboard in conveying this.  Indeed, the pessimism reflected in the greenish tones or in the paintings of young men attempting violent suicide might be interpreted as a response to the outright hostility toward gay folks during that time.   Beard, like a type of novelist, creates a gay artist working during a time when homosexuality was considered a mental illness and when you could probably get lynched for being gay.  We see the work of a conflicted person - he cannot help but express his true nature, but it is expressed dolefully and fearfully.  


{{{Buggereau}}}

So here's where I think I get Beard's real joke.  When we go to an art museum, we don't think, 'Oh I'm going to go see the sensual obsessions of the socially-repressed and anxious homosexual Michaelangelo.'  Nor do we think, "Ah, I wanna go see the unresolved sexual conflict that artist x lived with his whole life."  You expect to see 'art' but sometimes the artist presents something a little more (or less) than art on the canvas and he (she?), apparently can't help it. The ‘dirty’ stuff just pours out.


{{{Buggereau}}}

So you've got sexual conflicts, concerns, obsessions and anxieties on canvases all throughout the history of art (Guido Reni's St. Sebastian?  Any St. Sebastian!? Looked at anything by Caravaggio lately? Munch's women as 'vampires?' Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon? etc.) and people often don't even recognize this.  Indeed, if Sargeant had been a 'real' 1930s artist, unknowing, non-gay-friendly critics of the time might have missed the obviously gay orientation completely.  The focus on virile, rippling young men would have been interpreted as the artist's emphasis on American strength of character or the virile, male brawn that will pull us out of the Depression.  Or, maybe Beard is pointing out that you are only going to get this type of art during periods of oppression for gay people. If folks could openly experience their sexuality and represent it freely, you wouldn't get it in such a sublimated form on canvas.  


{{{Sergeant}}}

We don't think of some of the German expressionists or the surrealists as working out their heterosexual and/or sado-masochistic demons on canvas, we consider this great art. I think that's the big joke Mark Beard is telling (at least with Sergeant).  Art has always been a canvas for the exploration of the artist's own sexual inclinations, anxieties and development.  Sure a lot of art is meaningful in a non-sexual manner.  But there's an awful lot of sex stuff that people are (deliberately) not catching.


{{{Sergeant}}}

Nautical Sculpture by David McQueen at Kim Foster Gallery, Chelsea

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Why did New York City become one of the centers of the world banking system?  It started with shipping. Before Wall Street there was South Street, and this is where the ‘rise’ of New York City began. New York Harbor is, actually, the deepest harbor in the western hemisphere and it was easier to bring in huge cargos to South Street than it was to bring them to the other places along the coast.  Indeed, you could bring the biggest ships in the world right up to land at NY Harbor (this was a huge advantage over other coastal cities).


Guys like John Jacob Astor (America’s first millionaire) used the harbor so effectively that they made a financial killing through world shipping trade.  Soon these shipping magnates began developing banks where they could loan out their huge surplus earnings and then realized it was far easier to make money through banking than shipping. Astor built one of the first banks on Wall Street and other erstwhile traders soon followed. So shipping lead to banking and banking took root and took off as New York bankers began loaning to the world. Despite the huge harbor, the shipping scene became moribund. One lifestyle was lost and another was begun.


So you can think of New York City as being pre and post Wall Street.  Indeed, before the banks on Wall Street there was a leisurely pace in lower Manhattan and the area was filled with small houses and rustic looking neighborhoods.  The cemetery and grounds at Trinity Church sprawled through the neighborhood (Trinity was forced, over the years, to relinquish the land to businesses) and Trinity remains, to me, the chief symbol of New York as it was before it became a banking center.


Yet, as David McQueen reveals in his amazing show at Kim Foster Gallery, there are still 40 light houses to be found in New York Harbor.  This attests to the importance of shipping in NY history and also is a testament to the fact that even though we have adapted to a city of bankers, the ocean still remains as a possible source of discovery and challenge.  The light houses harken back to a pre-corporate world where ingenuity and physical challenges existed side by side.  These light houses, I am assuming, are no longer being used, but stand as a reminder of how New York City ‘evolved’ and how shipping and not capital once dominated the lives of New Yorkers. With the loss of shipping we lost a type of work-ethic, sense of adventure, desire for discovery and daring and a sense of romance that the few ships remaining, which you can see as relics at South Street Seaport, do not adequately convey.  


Interestingly, however, because the light houses have lost their practical functions, McQueen experiments with them, and other nautical objects, in more fanciful and imaginative ways, often imputing fantastical purposes and functions to them.  Indeed, it’s almost as if he has created his own allegory involving the loss and search for love through the objects in this show. For instance, two light houses stand facing each other and we are challenged to view them as if they are disgruntled and puzzled lovers at the moment just before a formal breakup. A sextant and graph and other do-dads used for navigating are used to measure the increasing amount of time one might like to spend savoring meaningful aspects of a relationship. The astrolabe becomes a device used to find one’s love again while engaged in a pursuit of self-discovery. A station pointer meant to triangulate a fixed position based on three observable points is to be used to discern emotional and inner states. An object similar to a telescope is present with 31 markers which help a person document levels of desire over the course of a month.


In one room McQueen also has an installation display of 7 rotating lights which are positioned based on his research of where the 7 lighthouses represented by these pieces functioned in relation to each other. This installation is titled “Searching Still” and could represent the ever-present and somewhat desperate search for emotional engagement with another or others. There is also a separate piece, in the room with the installation, of a lighthouse beaming its light out onto a painting of the sea.  One just sees violent, tossing waves illuminated.  


One of my favorite pieces is “Breaching Pod” which shows the hull of ships emerging from a flat piece of wood.  This is almost like a fairy tale image of a piece of wood protesting against its flat and mundane appearance and trying, instead, to morph into something more romantic.  Basically this is a floor that wants to be a ship. “Balikbayan Boat” seems to be based on McQueen’s Filipino heritage and represents a type of cargo ship that never used any type of mechanism to tie down the cargo. The skill of the sailors themselves kept the cargo within the ship as it moved across the sea and the function of the journey – to bring home gifts to family and friends – provided the extra focus and effort needed to complete a perilous task.  The boat deliberately looks overburdened and as McQueen mentions in his notes for the show the boat is “extended beyond any notion of practicality”. 


David McQueen graduated with an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University - the premier grad program for sculpture in the USA - and is clearly a rising star in the field of sculpture.  His pieces are whimsical, imaginative, fanciful and often interactive.  Coming from a family of jewelers, he also shows he learned that craft well as we see intricately detailed work in regard to the metals he uses in his sculptures.  He combines the skills of a perfectionist with a need to engage the viewer thoughtfully and meaningfully through his highly creative work. 



This is me, Daniel Gauss...