Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Christian Faur - Sum of Parts - Kim Foster Gallery

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Christian Faur seems to be seeking a type of language which reveals its limits as it imparts, through its limits, even greater meaning or intensity to what it expresses. Frank Lloyd Wright said that every material possesses its own message and Faur seems to seek materials that have, despite or because of severe restrictive limits, a potential for expressing more than an ordinary expressive tool like math, logic or a sound/text-based language. The unsayable is best unsaid through a flawed or highly restrictive language which points to the unsayable through its very material limitations. The language we often use is a very real thing, like something material, and other things can be used in unconventional ways to possess and convey what language cannot convey easily or at all. This is, to me, the core meaning of Faur’s amazing show at the Kim Foster Gallery in Chelsea.

Faur also seems to ask what it is about sound and/or text that allows it to hide itself so effectively and point you toward something else, some meaning which seems to be a part of, and not a construction based on, some phenomenon. Meaning exists independently of an object or process, yet the medium of spoken/written language camouflages itself so well that it becomes virtually invisible and creates a surrogate world of meanings within our minds often confused with the real world. Faur seems to imply in his show that the most expressive material possesses something that tricks you into accepting meaning but also advertises its trickster nature. He seems to imply that a language which camouflages itself so you do not notice it when you use it, does not really get to the pith of things. A ‘flawed’ or burdensome, noticeably restrictive language opens meanings to even deeper penetration than a language which remains relatively invisible.  

To me, Faur also explores the mystery of how meaning is constructed – how deeply can we perceive the intersection of the world and our minds that produces insights and conclusions? How did sounds and later scribbles (there are about 800 differing sounds in all the world’s languages) become the material that captures and expresses these insights and conclusions?

So, Faur is shooting to make the invisible visible and, in science, this is often done through mathematics. Math provides identity, elicits relationships, charts growth and decline, predicts motion relative to other objects, but what if you want to understand the real essence of a tree or an ecosystem or injustice or the weird beauty of the life of a Mud Dauber (a wasp which constructs mud structures in which to deposit spiders it has placed in suspended animation as food for baby Daubers once they hatch) or the full moon or the constellation Orion or why you respond to evil the way you do or a zillion other things? Math and the scientific method fall way short – simple description falls short. There is something more called meaning and it is bigger than description. To me Faur is saying, “If you want this bigger stuff, you have to jerry rig new communication tools. Poetry, surrealism, symbolism, zen koans, Gauguin’s use of color etc.”

So we might see one of Faur’s pieces from a distance and shrug saying, “Oh, these are sunflowers.” But then as we approach we realize, “Oh, wow, these are a load of differently colored crayons perfectly ordered as pixels.” Are they sunflowers or are they crayons? This whole process of recognizing crayons underlying sunflowers approximates the realization that everything we see is, in reality, wavelengths of light. Just as we really see the tips of crayons making up the sunflowers, we really see photons making up sunflowers in reality. My immediate response to and experience of sunflowers can be affected by this knowledge and heighted by the realization of how complex the process of perception is. It is not a knowledge of sunflowers that heightens this experience of sunflowers but an awareness of the complex processes of light and the human eye and mind and how this may have evolved that adds to the wonder of this experience of sunflowers. The crayons reveal the sunflowers but declare themselves to be tricksters in the process, the childlike joy possessed in the crayon itself becomes manifest in the process of visual revelation and so the material becomes the message.

Seeing crayons as sunflowers, therefore, approximates an insight we could possibly have, but never really seem to have, which would constantly reveal to us that whatever we see is never what we call it since it is light of differing types of wavelengths and not objects themselves. But this insight never really registers with us, we have to remind ourselves, because light, like language, camouflages itself as a messenger and makes us believe we are seeing ‘things’. Why do we never realize we are seeing light? How does light deceive us so easily? Even when we tell ourselves we are seeing light, this usually has no impact or meaning. So Faur is approximating an insight we feel we should be able to get but never really do. The way we experience the world is based on a huge deception that Faur quixotically and playfully attempts to fix with crayons.

In another piece, Faur takes zillions of little strips of text from the Quran, ‘Old’ Testament and ‘New’ Testament and uses them to construct an image of one of those buildings we have all seen in documentaries of the nuclear explosions in the desert near Las Vegas. We see a building as it stands just before it is to be obliterated by a nuclear blast. We can also see that some of the tips of the strips of text are gilded and under the image is a golden heart, apparently representing the idol of the Golden Calf. To me, we see religious text as a messenger that has not advertised its trickster nature enough so that, unfortunately, most folks wind up taking it 100% literally. A message meant to point to peaceful, individual, humane development thus becomes a battle cry to reduce other cultures, peoples and religions to smithereens.

We also see an American flag comprised of dollar bills sewn together. Yes, we have a democratic government because this is the best system to generate wealth for some. Faur also uses his crayons as pixels to represent an old photo by Dorothea Lange. When Lange was working, color photos were too expensive to make. Crayons now become the ‘arte povera’ way, perhaps, to add color to this documentary material.

Faur also experiments by laying crayons flat on a birch plywood backing and melting them together using a blowtorch. The shape of the crayons causes the appearance of brush strokes while the melting of the crayons together creates a semi-abstract piece which Faur pointed out to me he cannot control perfectly and which often yields unpredictably amazing results. Faur depicts the famous photo of Wittgenstein and a photo of a woman Faur thought to be a typical working-class woman of Wittgenstein’s time, but which now turns out to be Virginia Woolf’s mother. Wittgenstein’s famous phrase is also encoded in another piece, using colors for sounds: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” Faur possibly asks what cultural elements must be inherited or learned, and by whom from whom, to ‘decode’ such encrypted insights. 

Finally, you cannot miss the umbrella made of real human hair, which seems partly inspired by Meret Oppenheim’s ‘Fur Breakfast’ at MoMA. These days human hair has become a valued and expensive commodity. A temple in India, for instance, where pilgrims have their hair shaved as a sign of humility, makes millions a year from that largesse. What better way to demonstrate your social standing through conspicuous consumption than to use the hair of poor women from developing countries to provide you with protection from a storm? 

This show ended in September 2017. Re-posted from

Maria Berrio - In a Time of Drought - Praxis Gallery

Our ability to look inside of ourselves and examine our motives, cognition, emotional responses and desire is both facilitated and complicated by the use of visual symbols. By using things and relationships between things from the outer world to represent aspects of our invisible inner reality, the inner world becomes more apparent but our understanding of it becomes more divorced from the actual, visceral processes represented. Many of our traditional symbols came from the natural world and allegorical literature from world religions is chock full of these elements that helped point to a possible inner drama and consequent personal or ethical development, i.e., snakes, ravens, horses, fish, trees, stone, water etc.

With urbanization it was no longer possible to engage, or be affected by, nature on as deep a level and this is probably where nature became fully metaphorical as opposed to being an all-encompassing system of which we were a part and which our art and rituals closely mirrored. We became divorced from nature but still had a deep need for its symbols. This seems to have become the starting point for Maria Berrio’s show at Praxis Gallery: In a Time of Drought.  For these pieces, Maria Berrio visited the American Museum of Natural History and deliberately appropriated imagery from the dioramas of the dead, stuffed animals in picturesque environments. In New York City it might not be the best connection to nature, but it is a type of connection. Apparently when Berrio grew up in Colombia, in the middle of drug wars conducted by armies in the forests, nature was also cut off to her and she had to learn what she could about the natural world from the relative safety of a relative’s farm.

Berrio, however, is not interested in using nature metaphorically. She seems to prefer to use animal representations in their pre-religious, pre-allegorical, pre-Columbian magical aspect. Just as Gauguin researched, inferred and tried to rediscover what life might have been like in a pre-colonial Tahiti and based his work on that, Berrio seems to be inferring and rediscovering a pre-industrial and more personally meaningful relationship to nature and its potential for impact in lieu of symbolism. Before religions of crowded and polluting cities necessitated that people begin to introspect, reflect on and control behavior by developing or embracing ethical systems (before the word ‘ought’), folks, perhaps, lived more pro-social and pre-ethical community-integrated lives dominated by natural processes, where behavior was much less deliberate and perhaps as insouciant as Gauguin’s Tahitian women were depicted to be. Recall that the prison, with its all-encroaching system of deterrence, was not developed until the advent of industrialized cities (the first ‘penitentiary’ was built in Philadelphia).

In pre-Columbian Meso-American culture, gods were represented by animals based on the observable characteristics of the animal and how it corresponded to the god’s function. To join an animal society meant to possess the spirit of that animal and to acquire, in super-enriched form, the abilities of that animal. To be associated with the jaguar society, for example, meant one would take on or exhibit the stealth, cunning and power of the jaguar. In the various large collages made primarily of torn Japanese rice paper, we see in Berrio’s art an everywoman surrounded by, perhaps, her ‘totemic’ figures.

In ‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon’ she holds a bear’s hand. In the ancient world the bear was a symbol of death and resurrection (due to its ability to enter the earth, hibernate and reawaken with the earth). But this was not the Christian notion of death and resurrection, it was a concept of death and resurrection witnessed in the natural world and mirrored in beliefs of reincarnation and cyclical rebirth. The program notes for the show indicate that this work might refer back to a folktale in which a woman is promised as a bride to a bear by her father. The everywoman in Berrio’s piece seems fine with this relationship, as her father has given her to a powerful and seemingly eternal natural process.

In ‘A Time of Drought’ we see that goats look on unperturbed as the everywoman holds a couple kids as if to prepare them for meals. This might go back to the shamanic belief that as members of nature humans have a right to hunt and can negotiate with the chief animal spirit to ensure bountiful hunts, in exchange for the eventual loss of elderly members of the group or members of a rival group who might die. There is no compunction shown here by the woman or the goats toward the slaughter of the kids.

‘The Nativity’ takes a common Christian theme and repositions it into a completely natural setting filled with everything from an owl to an elephant. ‘In Cricket Song’ we see the horse, a symbol of transition, feathers as images reflecting power or ability to transcend and interact with spirits and the non-Christian form of maternity again. Indeed, in each of Berrio’s pieces we see the repositioning of woman away from an allegorical object of spiritual desire and toward something akin to an enduring force of nature, a status that may have been lost with the conquering of nature through urbanization but which Berrio seems to feel women can reclaim.

This show closed in October 2017.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Gauguin at the Art Institute of Chicago (2017)

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When Gauguin reached Tahiti, to become the ‘savage’ he always felt he was destined to become (he boasted of having Peruvian blood as proof of his innate primitivism), he found that it had already been transformed into a French colonial outpost. The native inhabitants worshiped in Christian churches, they picked fruit for French companies and they even wore clothing that had been imported from France. Yes, they wore clothing: nary a naked woman to be found basking among the lush surroundings. He had been too poor to obtain transport to any place French shipping did not go to and was now stuck in a French backwater.

No matter – he wrote back home to declare he was now living the life of a native and created paintings falsely reflecting what life on the island was like. He went out seeking ‘savage’ subject matter and that is exactly what he was going to produce. As Wagner wished to remove his art from a tradition of Christian allegories and morality and reposition it in Nordic mythology and traditions, Gauguin wanted to part ways with a Christianity that had lost so much of its pith that stale secular consumerism had been allowed to proliferate in Europe.

Gauguin’s exported conceptions of Tahiti were no different or original from those he had read about in travel books (which had lied about what was over there). In the meantime, he possibly spread syphilis around his island, regularly paying for sex with teenage girls, oblivious to the harm he was causing to this putatively pristine community of the uncorrupted. Free, pre-Christian, sexual love did not exist on Tahiti, if it had ever existed anywhere, but that did not seem to matter either. Gauguin became, basically, the worst type of European imperialist pollutant, not a valued member of the Tahitian community. He stayed there regardless, to create his ‘myth’. When he died in the Marquesas (he had to leave Tahiti because folks got fed up with him and he with them), he called the place where he lived the House of Pleasure. If you are looking for an artistic version of Joseph Conrad’s Kurz in Heart of Darkness, it is, perhaps, Gauguin.

One could argue, however, that you cannot fault Gauguin; he was ready to take the plunge into savagery but just did not have the money to do it. What else could he do but create it himself? He knew religion had lost its power and much of its meaning in his home country and he intuited that at one point the religious experience must have been stronger and more tied to the natural environment and one’s community. Sometimes intentions and gestures are better than nothing and this seems to be what has redeemed Gauguin through the ages in the art world. It is not so much what Gauguin did, but what he wanted to do, or purported to do, in the face of the nothingness colonialism had brought to once vital and dynamic parts of the world. 

The French capitalists and priests had crushed indigenous culture everywhere they had gone and all Gauguin could do was guess (to his credit he also did extensive research and reading into what life and religion had once been like in Tahiti). Gauguin was very Faust-like in his desire to abandon and transcend and a Faust is never satisfied with what Mephistopheles gives him, as Mephistopheles is often unable to deliver what a Faust truly desires.

The genesis of Gauguin’s ultimate Tahitian conceptual art project occurred in Brittany. Here he discovered a type of Christianity that still harbored elements of the old countryside paganism. Elements of magic and superstition along with this region’s ancient rituals and a deep belief system, sincerely shared by everyone, made life more interesting and compelling. If nothing else it was different and surprising to Gauguin - the way you might feel the first time you read Frazer’s Golden Bough. It helped maintain a stronger community. There was a creativity, compassion and warmth in this religion that was lost in an industrialized France and it was not reflected in the galleries or museums of Paris. Gauguin sought a lifestyle that engendered myth-making and extreme, extraordinary aspirations and longings.

From Brittany, Gauguin soon sailed to Martinique where the vibrancy of the indigenous population smacked him in the face and his desire to chuck Europe for good and find a place of pristine, non-Christian, non-industrial liberation was firmly planted. Poor Gauguin, however, lived in a paradoxical world where you had to have lots of money to potentially find real savagery. In lieu of buying himself a ticket beyond the reaches of French colonialism (where he would probably have been shunned by real natives and died of insect borne disease or a snake bite), he could only speculate and share.
The Art Institute surveys Gauguin’s artistic work from its beginnings to its final touches in Martinique. The Art Institute of Chicago is one of America’s great museums – indeed, given the fact that Chicago is such a new city, it is amazing what a thorough and engaging collection this institution has put together. The show runs until September 10, 2017.