Friday, July 24, 2015

Franz West at Viana Art

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You might look at some of the allantoid and spherically-shaped objects by Franz West (1947 – 2012), at Viana Art, and be tempted to begin your interpretation of them as types of storage containers. That interpretation wouldn’t hold, however, since the shell of each structure seems patched together in kind of a hodgepodge manner, and there’s no way to access the contents – the stuff inside (if there is stuff inside) is layered in there for good. So then you might think, “OK, these things are meant to be some type of garbage disposal units or permanent storage for toxic materials.” No, that wouldn’t work either: why are these things not uniform and mass-produced and why are they painted such rich colors? A good interpretation has to be parsimonious – it has to explain all the elements of a piece as simply as possible. 

Looking at the figures you might even recall the quote from Matthew 23:27 when Jesus says, “Woe to you who are so committed to demanding that others adhere to religious law! You are like white-washed tombs: beautiful on the outside but on the inside you are filled with rotten bones and decaying flesh.”  For a while I really liked that possible interpretation of West’s work – we see a shiny exterior and the interior could be filled with all kinds of corruption. Indeed, if the figures are so securely bundled up, there’s got to be something nasty in there to someone, no? So the figures could represent our capacity to put a nice bright shiny sheen of moral self-justification on the most corrupt aspects of our lives and actions.

I think the key to unlocking the most parsimonious interpretation, however, lies in the fact that West is depicting a type of ‘bundling’ or covering and perhaps constricting process that probably is meant to approximate something within our inner reality. Through the wrapping process (almost like the layering of medical tape) we lose access to something and it may be wrong to assume we lose access to something malignant.  The beautifully shiny bundling process, indeed, may be the malignant element deceptively suppressing the growth of what lies inside.

I think the inner contents (or emptiness) and the outer boundary might indicate a two-step process discerned by the artist. Direct experience with the world and others engenders insights involving our motives, desires, emotions, and cognitive processes as well as goals and strategies for further humane development – this is a creative process in which something new about the world and our relationship to it is created and manifested in regard to changes in the way we perceive and act in the world. But in the process of developing insights and being aware of conflicts and obstacles involving our inner processes, we continually engage in the creation of metaphors for our inner experience. These metaphors, like the haphazardly bundled figures, become more tangible than the emptiness left by a lost experience. The creation of a metaphor or symbol for something in the inner world leaves us with a pleasing, tangible but superficial description now divorced from the real pith of life. Yet, the development of symbols for the inner world can either signify the culmination of a process of growth, or the constriction of growth through an over-reliance on symbol-creation and an under-reliance on diving into ourselves deeper and deeper.

We are now left with these immutable objects where materiality becomes a surrogate for the creative artistic process itself - the perception of the difficult to discern and the creation of external markers to be recognized by our fellows. I like to think of West’s objects as being empty (I don’t know whether they are – when you go to check them out you might be able to tell better than I was able to) because the overall work of West leaves me to believe that he was an optimist. In some of the work at Viana I believe we see the markers of a life of meaningful engagement with the world and the contemplation of our interface with the world, now shrouding the type of emptiness exalted in various accounts of the most arcane religious mysticism.

I would highly recommend that everyone drop by Viana Art to see the work of this renowned Austrian artist. Viana has an amazing space and in virtually every show they use it spectacularly.

Franz West
June 26 – August 28, 2015
Viana Art
210 11th avenue
New York, NY  10001

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Writing on the Wall – The Painting Center (Interpreting Text in Visual Art)

Kenn Kotara - click on images to enlarge them - In this humorous and thought-provoking piece someone has attempted to censor braille script. The futile attempt could represent the deep capacity we have for perceiving the truth regardless of 'official' attempts to withhold it from us. The person being engaged by the braille represents someone being reached on a deeper than normal level and the attempt to prevent the transmission of the information becomes ridiculous because it is on an irrelevant level.

There are a number of mysterious and hard-to-grasp aspects of human language that make it a perfect element in modern and contemporary visual art.  Even if we look at language or text as being linear and concrete, in conjunction with visual imagery it yields more ambiguous and thought provoking interpretations. Text plus imagery, for example, can be used to show and question how social narratives (true and false) are created or reinforced. 

Leslie Nichols

Combining text and images can even challenge the validity or primacy of the perceived world and point back to a deeper validity of inner engagement and experience. Using text in visual art pieces often calls for greater scrutiny as to what language can and cannot do, what we hope it might do and what it fails to do.

Brad Fresmire

There’s an amazing show of text in visual art currently running at The Painting Center in which the work of over 50 artists is currently displayed. This show warrants a closer look at how language has been used in the visual arts in the past to highlight how some artists might be using it in this show. 

Rosaire Appel

I’m hoping the following overview can put The Painting Center show into greater perspective, since it’s just impossible to highlight and write about all the incredible pieces involved.  I basically chose five ‘famous’ artists to create a type of spectrum of how text has been used in art in the past. I think it would be interesting to keep this context or spectrum in mind when viewing the pieces at The Painting Center.  Along with my text you can also see a few samples from the current show.

Indira Morre

So we can start with Magritte who painted a pipe and under it painted “This is not a pipe”, and we think, this is wrong! This is a pipe.  But then we realize, wait a minute, there’s a distance between the object and any sentence about the object. Language can exist on its own as well as in relationship to an object.  Language is also a thing to be examined. When he says this is not a pipe, we realize the right answer is also wrong and the wrong answer is also right.  This is, in fact, NOT a pipe – the sound and symbols for ‘pipe’ are our constructions. The object exists as something ‘real’ in the world whether we can name it or not.  

This is not a pipe because language represents but does not ‘own’ the object. Magritte seems to be implying that language can separate us from the world instead of helping us engage it more directly. Indeed, he may even be implying that language can bring violence toward the real object or the real world – real and false labels are both about controlling and using external reality toward some end.

Furthermore, Magritte shows that if we are confronted with ‘misinformation’ we feel an emotional response due to frustration and a very real sense of aggression. We want to change what we feel is wrong. There is some impetus or motive within us to attack what we believe to be falsehood.  This begs the question of how statements not connected to things but to more abstract matters are accepted or rejected and how they can engender conflict instead of dialogue and resolution.

Joseph Kosuth followed from Magritte’s revelation that language is an autonomous thing to be investigated by showing an object, a visual representation of the object and then the dictionary definition of the object. 

He seemed to be pointing out the difference between a type of functional engagement with something and the extent to which we can transform an object into something abstract either for further investigation of the thing or to better use the thing.  For Kosuth the chair exists in three realms – the real, the representational and the abstract/analytical. Also, when you represent the chair, and make the chair ‘useless’ you are almost forcing a person to look at a chair differently – to look at a chair more as a metaphor or symbol (a la Duchamp). 

The chair now becomes the thing you rest on.  It is something stable and comforting.  The chair becomes a symbol of something else.  But the written words about the chair invite deeper analysis of its physical being and its components and, potentially, the factors required in altering the physical environment in the process of manufacturing the object for financial gain. Our reality is comprised, for Kosuth, of direct experience, symbolic interpretation, and analytical description for utilitarian ends.

Jenny Holzer went one step further in word art when she constructed entire sentences and separated them completely from actual physical objects.  People were challenged to look at the statements themselves and to analyze them and explore how the statements made them feel. 

Here Holzer expands further on the awareness that language can take on an existence all its own, separate from the physical world.  Language becomes an extra force in the world that we have to use, engage and deal with every day.

In regard to a statement that is presented as a ‘fact’ or truism, there are, basically, three ways we can deal with the statement:  “Yes” “No” and “I don’t know”.  The statement can be acknowledged as being true, or it can be acknowledged as being false or a person can look at the sentence and not be sure whether it is true or false.  Each of these responses seems to lead to some type of emotional response, just as Magritte’s correct or incorrect words led to differing inner responses.

Holzer’s work also has political implications. Many Americans might not agree that “Freedom is a luxury and not a necessity.”  In some socialist countries, however, it is felt that public safety, equality, stability and public well-being are more important than freedom.  The truth of this kind of statement cannot be divorced from its social context, therefore.  Whether you feel a simple statement is true or not will, ultimately, depend on your own experiences within a particular environment.  As Americans we would say, “Absolutely not!  Freedom is no luxury!”  Yet, in a country based on some type of religious legal system, freedom might even be considered to be something suspicious.  So who is right?  If ‘we’ outnumber ‘them’ are we right?  If we have more power than they do, are we right? Are we even aware of how our beliefs and principles, as reflected in language, are formed and how easily and unquestioningly we embrace ideologies formed by others?

This of course leads to the word art of Barbara Kruger, who challenged the viewer to question his/her political or social beliefs and to rethink values. In her famous “I Shop Therefore I Am” she highlights the fact that we live in a consumer culture and the value we often give to a person is (absurdly) based on his/her capacity to purchase stuff.  

Indeed, our self-worth is often dependent on the items we buy and display to others.  You literally are what you buy to most people you meet.  Indeed, in a consumer oriented society, the amount of power that you possess is contingent on the amount of buying power you have.  Who can forget that for twelve years the richest man in New York City was also the leader of New York City.

Martin Firrell, an English artist, went even a step farther than Kruger by just shooting for a sincerity and direct engagement that rejects the need for any analysis.  Firrell is convinced that by using language he can meaningfully engage others in constructive dialogues to make the world more humane. Firrell truly believes that the use of language can make life better and he earnestly attempts to do this in his art. 

Therefore Firrell is not investigating any aspects of language or the relationship of language to objects or images.  Firrell is using language purely to engage others.  He expects everyone to realize the basic truth of his statements and to be moved by them to take greater action in the world. In London in 2009 he projected this onto a wall: “War is always a failure. It means we’ve failed in diplomacy and we’ve failed in talking to one another."

From Magritte to Firrell we see a realization of language as something foreign to ‘reality’ to language as something we don’t need to question but, instead, must use to engage others in meaningful activities. The Painting Center shows that within this spectrum, and even outside of it, artists are still fascinated by the possibilities inherent in using text to add greater depth to the visual arts experience. The show ends this weekend, so please try to stop by this Saturday if you haven’t had the chance yet.

The Writing on the Wall
June 23 – July 18 2015
The Painting Center
547 W. 27th Street. Suite 500
New York, NY 10001

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Ray Bull impugns abstraction at Ana Cristea Gallery in Manhattan

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When looking at a representational work of art – a piece that represents stuff and/or illusionistic relationships between stuff in the world - there’s a tendency to engage in a specific cognitive process that might not allow for a meaningful experience or full engagement with the piece (Susan Sontag, of course, wrote about this in her essay “Against Interpretation”). 

There is also the tendency to resort to an easy allegorical interpretation based on what we believe certain traditional ‘symbols’ in a piece might mean. So if we look at Rembrandt’s “Polish Rider” at the Frick we might verbalize something to ourselves like: “The horse in this painting is clearly a symbol of the means of transition from one state of being to another.” In this case one’s engagement with the piece seems sorely limited through that process of analysis, realization and verbalization. The purpose of abstraction was, in part, to subvert this interpretive proclivity and allow the viewer to be more deeply engaged through forms and colors and the relationships between them. That was the theory anyway. 

The work of Ray Bull at Ana Cristea Gallery openly impugns the autonomy of abstraction. In the notes accompanying the show it is stated that, “Ray Bull’s paintings speak to the impossibility of abstraction in painting. His compositions consistently straddle the line between representation and abstraction.” So basically Bull seems to be implying that when you look at a work of abstraction, in order to get anything from it, you engage in, basically, the same thought-processes that you use for a representational piece. 

Abstraction is allegory by another name in which you bring the same preconceptions and pre-existing beliefs to the work as you do with representational pieces and subject it to analysis. There is no way to move beyond this analytical process and to believe there is a way to be affected by abstraction without cognitive analysis becomes tantamount to believing, a la Carl David Friedrich, that staring at mountains long enough will integrate you into nature and help you feel the true Christian God. Being directly engaged, without analysis, by a piece of abstraction, is a myth.

Ray Bull also, in his pieces, seems to take this argument one step further. He seems to want to get at the source of our capacity to verbalize meaning and how a type of destructive interpretive feedback loop can be created through this process. If I look at a work of abstraction and can analyze it, it is due to the relationship and effect of the various elements in the painting. It seems that the awareness of the relationships between colors and forms and their effects then inevitably leads to a need to articulate or verbalize which then destroys any further capacity for direct engagement.  

Once one becomes ‘aware’ of what the piece is doing, or how a piece affects one, the real meaning of the piece is destroyed. Indeed, the tension between abstraction and representation in Bull’s pieces points to the fact that in the very process of creation of abstraction, if analysis occurs by the artist, true abstraction is destroyed. In attempting to create an abstract piece analysis of the relationships between colors and forms will, however, occur and, of necessity, the piece will lose its vitality and potential for engagement and merely invite a limited cognitive interpretation from the viewer.

So Bull’s pieces show abstraction in its flawed reality. Yet, Bull could also be pointing to the fact that a ‘real’ type of abstraction might be possible. By extension we can guess that if an artist chooses pure, unadulterated improvisation, true abstraction might be possible and true engagement of the viewer might occur. Yet, Bull could also be saying that in the deliberate choice of improvising there is also analysis and planning, which would then militate against the ultimate goal.

Ray Bull
Get Up With It
June 18 – July 17,2015
Ana Cristea Gallery
521 West 26th Street
New York, NY 10001

Daniel Gauss