Friday, June 14, 2013

Does this mural in Chelsea reflect a sexual assault?

Actually, it's kind of hard to see from this distance but this is a version of the iconic photo from the end of WWII - taken in Times Square. 

Thousands of tourists who walk along the Highline Park in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood see this mural every day.

Does anyone else think this image is problematic?  I'm not sure this is an appropriate image to be emblazoned on a giant wall in Chelsea. 

Indeed, last year a few people began publicly criticizing the iconic photo on which this mural is based:

I tend to agree.  Basically this sailor just grabbed a woman and kissed her.  If you look at his body and her body, this looks like a very forceful event in which she simply did not have any choice.  He's basically taking her against her will and forcing himself on her. Looking at it last night, it didn't seem to be the cheerful 'war is over' image I had remembered it to be.  I think this was a bad choice of images by the artist Kobra.

Furthermore, I would argue they are celebrating the end of the war as if an athletic team just won a championship.  Lots of people died, atomic bombs were dropped and this type of celebration just seems inappropriate to me.  Maybe I'm a prude but a World War II 'celebration' might have been "more honored in the breach" (to quote from Hamlet).  Maybe a prayer service and not a sexual assault in Times Square would have been a better 'celebration.'  
When I looked at the mural last night it really bothered me and I was happy to see that others have had the same response in the past (although not many).  I just think it's a problematic image on a bunch of different levels.
Artists are no longer socially progressive? They don't analyze images? They don't question what they see?
The woman in the photo later said this for a book about the kiss:
"It wasn't my choice to be kissed...The guy just came over and grabbed me!"

"I felt that he was very strong. He was just holding me tight. It wasn't a romantic event."

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Justin Allen at The Robert Miller Gallery

Justin Allen's paintings present a strange and simple combination of images.

Very clearly and precisely painted on the left side of the small canvas you'll see the skull of a dead animal (maybe a squirrel or rat).  On the other side you'll see some type of plastic container.

To me we see two examples of permanence. Skeletons never disintegrate. Plastic never disintegrates.

So my interpretation was that the left side of the canvas represents a "dying" of something, which leaves permanent evidence of that life, while the right side represents a permanent "capacity" - the possibility for the preservation of some type of nutrient to sustain life. 

So if we want to think allegorically here, we could say the painting represents a death to an animal nature revealing the possibility for a capacity to sustain a new type, or higher type of life.  This would be a clear interpretation of the skull next to a water container - the container being an obvious reference to providing a basis for the growth of new life.

However, the artist was there and my friend Jackie Zhu (who was kind enough to take these photos) and I chatted with him.  He didn't want to give us his interpretation of the paintings, but he said he thought our interpretation was interesting.

He also told us that he created this type of painting, or the concept crystalized, after the death of his dog.  This was meaningful to me - as a guy who, as a kid, at one time had 5 dogs in my parents' house (I used to try to save strays in my neighborhood and we had a large backyard). 

Also, talking to someone else at the gallery, we learned that the plastic containers might have belonged to the artist's grandmother.

So this personal information about the artist could change the interpretation significantly.  Perhaps the piece is about absence, loss and grief.  The piece could be about the quiet, lingering, sometimes gnawing grief many of us carry with us after experiencing the deaths of those we loved.  So the objects might not signify a 'presence' but an 'absence' and the emotional pain that comes with it. Many years after my own father's death, I see things that remind me of him, and the first emotion I feel comes from my sense of loss. 

The artist could also, conceivably, be comparing the sense of loss he feels for a deceased animal and the sense of loss for a family member.  I think many of us know how painful and unforgettable the death of a pet animal can be.  The artist may be examining this phenomenon as well.

Jackie had something interesting to say about this in email she sent to me:

"Now I’m looking at the guy’s plastic container paintings. His delicate technique reminds me of the Renaissance masters. Together with the dog story, it provides the story of the artist himself. His art pieces and his story make the artist a human being for me instead of a creator of art. I feel that this humanity attracts me more than the images."

Gombrich once said, "There is no such thing as art - there are only artists."  Jackie's statement reminded me of this quote.

A brief shot of the Miller Gallery yesterday.

Now I have a bone to pick with the Robert Miller Gallery!

Thankfully I brought along a couple cans of beer in my laptop case - just in case there was no alcohol at the opening.  No alcohol at an opening!  How uncouth!

Actually, there was alcohol (red wine) in nice wine glasses, but only a few people were hand served by the staff.  Folks sitting behind a counter literally walked out and gave some people nice glasses of red wine. 

So there was an apparent hierarchy at the gallery - on top: those with fancy wine, in the middle: those with no wine, on the bottom: me with my own beer.  That's not right.  We had a 'have' and 'have not' situation yesterday.  I mean, make your openings private if you don't want to give the general public free wine.  The opening was on a Wednesday night anyway, so it's not like the throng of 'Thursday-nighters' was there just to get booze.  You had ART LOVERS there. This was the only opening in Chelsea last night.

One of the things that really makes the art galleries here amazing is that, generally, the gallery owners have always seemed to embrace a dual mission. Of course, they want to sell art but, importantly, most Chelsea gallery owners want to share art.  How many times have I wandered (poor as I am) into a Chelsea gallery on a Saturday afternoon only to have an owner chat with me about the artist's work (knowing damn well I wasn't going to buy anything)?  These are really fine people.  I have to call a spade a spade and say I didn't get that ambiance last night.  I got a "we like some people and will give them wine and we have to tolerate other people" attitude.  Folks at Miller ---> that sucks. That's nasty.  There was a nasty attitude at your gallery last night - period.

To me, free wine is a part of the gallery experience.  It is part of the celebration of the artist's achievement.  I thought it was quite unfair that only a few people were served.  Indeed, there wasn't a huge throng of people - and the wine doesn't have to be great wine.  Buy a jug.  Buy three or four of those giant bottles of wine at a local liquor store and offer plastic cups.  It's just an integral part of the experience.


By the way, don't confuse the Robert Miller Gallery with Roger Miller - a very funny singer from the 50s and 60s:
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. The book was designed for English-learners, but it seems native speakers like it too for its insights into the Big Apple. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Art as ruse: Bruce Sargeant (aka Mark Beard) at ClampArt

One day I wandered into ClampArt and saw the walls covered with large homo-erotic oil paintings that seemed to be a strange cross between realism and expressionism.  The young male bodies were intricately detailed (as only a true lover of male flesh could probably accomplish) but the skin tone was often a not-so-subtle blending of flesh tone and grayish green.  Looking at the name of the artist and the date of each painting, it seemed that they had been painted by someone named Bruce Sargeant before his death in 1938.

It was such a unique style of painting for that time, with such over-the-top, seething love for the male body, merged at the same time with an apparent pessimism toward the flesh, that I was amazed I hadn't seen this person's work in various museums.  When I asked the owner of the gallery why Bruce Sargeant was not to be found in museums as an example of how German expressionism might have influenced American realists, he let me in on the "secret." 

Apparently Mark Beard (a contemporary artist) has created his own "dead artist" series. He paints in four or five different styles, purporting to be fictional artists from the past. In the show I saw, there were 'new' paintings by the 'dead' artists Hippolyte-Alexandre Michallon and his disciple Bruce Sargeant.

I'm featuring work by Sargeant today.

A young man, in the blossom of youth, muscles rippling, the moment before he commits suicide with a shotgun.

Well, you get the picture. 

Why is Beard doing this?  I can be somewhat cynical, and so my first thought was, you know, these paintings can't really stand on their own, outside of their 'conceptual' function.  As paintings from the 1930s they would be remarkable (as examples of a certain bizarre type of 'dark' style - not normally found in US art at that time), but as paintings now, they, obviously, don't work (but, of course, they are not meant to work as contemporary pieces, they are parodies). So, in any case, I initially felt this artist should be creating his own work, and not falling back on a conceptual gimmick. Well, that was my first thought. Actually, now I think the gimmick works, it's pretty funny and it's pretty thought-provoking too. Indeed, it's brilliant.  It has changed the way I look at a lot of art now, so that's an amazing thing for an artist to accomplish.

Superficially, Beard seems to have created a type of parody of trends in art, or the process which I've written about before - how do artists become famous, how do they get 'selected' to be great artists? Having done a little research, it seems that 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 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.

Interestingly, from what I've read online, Beard is in some major museums.  He's in the museums, however, because this ruse of his is felt to be so clever. Could he have gotten into the major museums without this little ruse? Possibly, if he had wanted to, but the reason he's in the big places seems due to the 'joke' he is playing in regard to art. 

The irony, of course, is that if Beard is mocking artist 'branding,' this mocking is now Beard's own 'brand.'  If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Of course, there are deeper levels of parody in this art work as well.  For instance, 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 dogs among the great masters.

Walking into ClampArt for this show, I immediately realized I was looking at art by a gay man.  Indeed, there was no denying that this guy was flaming  (the fictional artist was flaming).  Beard goes way overboard (I can see this now that I know the joke/secret) 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 lack of understanding and 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. 

So here's where I think I get Beard's "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 too?), apparently can't help it. It just pours out.

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. 

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.  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 not catching.