Friday, February 28, 2014

Current paintings by Tim Vermeulen at the George Billis Gallery in Chelsea

In many of Tim Vermeulen’s current pieces at George Billis Gallery, we see that inner reflection and a desire to become more humane have allowed his everyman to comprehend the meanings of various religious symbols from various cultures. He has covered and surrounded himself with these. These symbols then seem to become the impetus for him to attempt to fully integrate the meanings of these symbols into his very being.  And therein lies the rub, my friend.  How do you get this stuff inside of you once you conceive of it outside of you?

The paintings, therefore, seem to be about the desire and struggle to first understand that some hidden or unspoken process of self-development exists (and is codified through symbolism and allegory) and then to struggle to find some way to internalize the basic potency and meaning of the symbols one was first able to understand and value.  We see evidence of a severe, desperate and sometimes semi-ridiculous process.  Indeed, at times the artist seems to be questioning the effectiveness of the process.  This is interesting since many people turn to art for the same reason – I know I do. We hope something in a painting will trigger an insight or something meaningful will lead to significant and beneficial change in ourselves.  The big question in Vermeulen’s show seems to be: of what value is symbolism as a transformative means? By default, he could also be asking what transformative value art itself possesses. Can symbolism and art change us, or is this just a form of arcane, higher-level self-deception and entertainment?

In “The God Realm” (above) we see Vermuelen lying in deep contemplation in a bathtub filled with small flowers, under an image of Ganesh.  By the way, do you know what aspect of an elephant makes Ganesh so meaningful symbolically?  His big floppy ears can more easily catch requests for help or assistance.  Vermeulen is engaged in a type of ritual seemingly calculated to bring inner change, but is such a symbolically laden ritual effective? Will he emerge changed?

In “Stray” we see Vermeulen taking humane action under the hamsa hand, a truly ancient symbol from the time that magical practices dominated human religion. The hand was meant to ward off ‘the evil eye’ and offer protection.  Is Vermeulen implying that humane action is a type of hamsa hand and the kind man will be protected from harm?  Is this one reason why we act with humanity (when we act with humanity)?  There's other symbolism here, of course.  The dog stands across the railroad tracks, there's a bridge, a tunnel etc. It could be that the painting is about trying to bridge the gap between the 'animal' and 'spiritual.'

Why does “Animal Realm” remind me of Otto Dix so much?  Vermeulen, bearing the brand logo of the Virgin of Guadalupe, has knocked off the head of a Buddha as two dogs copulate.  This is the type of piece which seems to indicate most forcefully that Vermeulen’s everyman might have become disheartened with his quest and is ready resort to some worldly-indulgence.  This piece seems to be a total rejection of the spiritual quest by one who has tried everything and finally succumbed to a hard truth. (By the way, Vermeulen paints himself as his ‘everyman’ in these paintings.)

In another version of “The God Realm,” Ganesh is holding different stuff and Vermeulen has added an extra element to the ritual – various burning candles.  Something tells me the candles won’t work.

In “The Hell Realm” we see Vermuelen literally staring at himself in a mirror, but gazing at himself through a type of demonic Buddhist mask.  His medication is spread out in front of him and he again displays a tattoo of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  Masks often allowed for the possession of the power of the figure represented.  Vermuelen seems to be embracing the chaos and aggression represented by demons in an attempt to pass through this stage and into a more positive realm of being.  The medication is a good symbol of healthful or beneficial change from without.  The inside of the mask, as well, seems to be a soothing blue color, in contrast with the hellish image outside.  

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Rene Magritte - The Use of Language in Visual Art

The Right Answer Is Wrong. Is the Wrong Answer Right? Magritte's Use of Language in Modern Art

There are a number of mysterious and hard-to-grasp aspects of human language that make it a perfect element in modern art.  

For instance, this work of art has puzzled and fascinated art lovers for many years:

Basically Rene Magritte painted an image of a pipe and then wrote, under it, “This is not a pipe.”

Why would he do this?

He seems to be asking, what is it about language that provides us with what we consider to be ‘truth’?  To Magritte verbal truth seemed to be a ‘thing’ to be examined through this method.  What is it about language that gives us a ‘sensation’ or feeling of truth or falsehood?  Most of what we consider to be truth, in fact, comes from language – to what extent can we trust this?  Is ‘the truth’ always something based on how we use language?  Is there a deeper awareness or truth than language, and, if so, how are they the same or different?

At first, when we see the statement under the pipe, we think, this is wrong! This is a pipe.  But then we start to suspect that Magritte might be shooting for something deeper and 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.  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 construction; what is the basis of this process that allows us to construct such sentences?  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 wants us to realize something important about language - now when we say to ourselves  “This is a pipe.” we get a better sense of exactly what we are doing;we get a greater insight into how we construct systems of knowledge and truth.

A lot of people who write about art have pointed this out. In fact, there was a philosophical school called deconstructivism which claimed that language does not really correspond to anything – it is its own ‘self-referential' system.  However, it looks as if Magritte was shooting for more than this insight.

Here is another piece by Magritte:

Here we see he has 6 objects and they are all inaccurately labeled.  The mismatching images are meant to engender a sense of frustration in the viewer.  Frustration, of course, often leads to aggression.  Magritte seems to be calling greater attention to emotional states that can be elicited from statements, especially those we believe to be false.    We feel compelled to say egg, shoe, hat, candle, glass, hammer.  If we are confronted with ‘misinformation’ we literally feel an emotional response and 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.

I think he makes this clearer in this painting:

Here, he provides three ‘wrong’ answers and one ‘right’ answer.  He seems to be inviting us to compare how we are made to feel by these differing labels.  A viewer can literally feel a sense of relief from the ‘right’ answer as opposed to a sense of frustration and irritation from the wrong answers.  The big insight into language from these paintings by Magritte would seem to be in regard to the fact that what we perceive as false statements literally causes us pain and frustration and we are motivated by falsehood to take action to change it – on many levels.

Yet, in this painting by Magritte there is also an invitation to have a direct experience with reality – to transcend language. After all, the fact that we call a horse a door does not change the real nature of the horse.  When are these labels needed and how effective are they? What function do these labels really serve?  Magritte seems to be saying that language separates 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.

Finally, in regard to a reality that exists beneath language, Magritte seems to state that making true statements is not good enough.  We merely get a sense of satisfaction from doing this.  This satisfaction does not change anything.  Language leaves us passive onlookers at the world.  To perceive language as something distant from reality also invites us to examine the extent to which we can engage and change reality itself on its own terms, instead of as verbal ‘colonizers.’  This would seem to apply to our inner as well as our outer realities.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Jinju Lee at Doosan Gallery - Remembrance of (Terrible) Things Past

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The current work of Jinju Lee, at Doosan Gallery, derives from the type of lingering and toxic remnants of horrible experiences that remain in our memories and which can reappear, unprovoked or provoked, to wreak temporary emotional pain and harm in our lives.  These are the types of memories that periodically reverberate in us and that we seem helpless to expunge.  Indeed, the artist herself seems to have experienced more than her share of adverse experiences that stay with a person – she was, among other things, literally kidnapped at the age of four.

When we have a direct experience, we may feel various emotional states, we may deal with the experience, and perhaps we might even be changed by the experience.  Most of these experiences, however, get filed away afterwards.  The experiences that serve as the impetus for this show are those that can’t get filed away, for some reason, perhaps because they are so unique and so painful, that there is no real method to adequately deal with them on any level.  They are unresolved and unresolvable – there is no way to avoid the fact that these experiences elicited pain then and that this type of experience will always elicit pain.  It’s as if our bodies want us to continually review these experiences as memories, as if there is some hope of redeeming them…some special insight that might come from going over them one more that if we ever have the same type of experience again (in the real world outside of our memories) we might blithely sail through it unscathed. Yet, the redeeming insight does not seem to come, resolution does not occur and the memory only recedes to come back again on another day to plague us again. 

Lee’s work visually reflects the experiential inner world in which these memories remain and have their own type of reality and effects.  In “A Way to Remember” we see the visual elements that represent this type of reoccurring and unresolvable world of echoing painful experience.  We see what appears to be a type of diorama – the scene, like a painful memory, is squarely cut and boxed off to indicate this is a particular event removed from the flow of time.  Within this block of experience we see little, apparently random items in a bleak, winter landscape.  A half-naked woman lies holding a baby in the snow while two guard dogs stand by – one barking to signal alarm.  The woman, however, upon closer inspection, does not have the top of her skull.  It’s as if she is a collage figure from which a portion of her head has been removed by scissors.  She is substantial and insubstantial at the same time – as are our relived experiences in memory.  We also see that a chair has been dragged in an absurd zig zag pattern. There are flag markers to indicate that some grim and potentially ridiculous process has occurred and is being documented for some type of further investigation.  

I would highly encourage you to visit the gallery itself and see the numerous details in the paintings by Lee.  Knowing the basic background as to the rationale for her work should help make these paintings more meaningful for you when you see them.  As some background on the gallery: the Doosan Gallery is actually owned by a major corporation in Korea that seems to take its social responsibility seriously.  Among other things, they recently donated to needy Koreans and have a residency program in New York City to promote the fine artists that are emerging from Korea these days.  It’s good to see that Doosan is promoting the ‘fine art’ of Korea, a country filled with artistic talent. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Kitty - A Napping Tale by Jackie Zhu and Sanpo Matsumoto

There is a famous American short story from the 1930s called "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."  In this story a very ordinary guy leads a very active fantasy life.  Throughout the day, during his various boring activities, he imagines himself as a brave and daring soldier, a spy, a fireman etc.  His fantasy life seems to make his ordinary life bearable.  In fact, this story was recently made into a Hollywood movie (I remember seeing ads for it back in December).

There was a show recently at a gallery in New York (Resobox Gallery) that was based on the theme of 'monsters'.  It was actually called the Kaiju Exhibition. Kaiju means 'monster' in Japanese but the kaiju monster is meant to be a huge Godzilla-like creature.  

A couple New York based artists - Jackie Zhu and Sanpo Matsumoto - created a little humorous video for this show.  I mentioned Walter Mitty before because another title for the brief video could have been "Walter Kitty" - if you watch the video you'll see what I mean.

I think Jackie and Sanpo did a wonderful job of creating such a whimsical contribution to the kaiju tradition! I mean, what makes the life of a domesticated cat bearable?  Do you think that when they sleep all day their minds are inactive?  No! Cats evolved from ferocious feral creatures, so perhaps their fantasy lives can be just as fertile as Walter Mitty's.  While they are sleeping, epic battles determining the courses of civilizations are occurring.

Or, within every Walter Mitty maybe there resides the making of a true hero.  At the end of this video we see that the little kitty still may have an opportunity to put his morphing and fighting skills to use.

Or, did you ever hear that infamous quote: "Only a good guy with a gun can protect us from a bad guy with a gun?"  I have a feeling the kitty in this video would agree somewhat with this sentiment but change the quote to: "Only a transformed and beefed up kitty can protect New York City from a giant evil bi-pedal fish set on destruction!"

But, when you think of it, are the motives of this cat so altruistic?  It looks to me as if this kitty just likes adventure and is eager to wrestle with any big challenger.  Maybe this kitty gives us an insight into all super-hero monster-killers.  Do we need a cadre of adrenaline-junkie monster-fighters at the ready for possible gigantic threats to our society?  What are the true motives of giant killers?  Maybe St. George wasn't so interested in saving the innocent maiden as he was in tackling the impossible. 

By the way, in the interests of full disclosure, Jackie happens to be a buddy of mine, as well as a first rate illustrator and artist.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Beth Carter: Dancing with Morpheus at Bertrand Delacroix Gallery in Chelsea

As far as I can tell, Rousseau was the first philosopher to point out that humans differ from animals in their awareness of their own mortality.  Perhaps a more significant difference is that, unlike other animals, we kill with compunction.  When the cheetah runs down its prey and devours it, it relishes its meal and does not give second thought to the chase.  The cheetah blindly and blithely accepts this aspect of nature.  We question it.  In fact, it bothers us deeply. 

Indeed, the origins of human religion, in shamanism, often involved a spirit journey in which the shaman negotiated and reasoned with the leader of the animal spirits to sanction the process of hunting.  It was necessary to get the approval of the animals themselves before hunting could occur and then it was necessary to pay homage to the animal that was killed for its benevolent sacrifice. There is something inside of us that both morally rejects and accepts this basic process of nature (at the same time), and in some of Beth Carter’s pieces, she highlights this type of ambivalence in an amazingly engaging manner.

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In “Wolf with Deer” (2013), we see the wolf-headed creature is not carrying the deer in a triumphant or exuberant manner.  The posture of the human body belies the joy of the kill that seems to be reflected on the wolf’s face.  The mood seems mournful and apologetic. The face of the wolf looks wistful. Deep down inside, this creature rues the loss of the deer and involuntarily expresses grief for the killing. 

Furthermore, Carter’s minotaurs are not the bloodthirsty killers from mythology – they are pensive and introspective.   Some of her minotaurs are seated and reading books.  These are minotaurs between meals.  They are using their leisure time to engage in the examined life. They are trying to understand and come to grips with themselves - examining their actions and expressing the dolor of those who cannot change what brings them moral anxiety and pain. In “Sitting Minotaur” (2013) we see such a creature slumped over and dejected.  He is more humanlike than cheetahlike.

The visual presentation of animal heads on human bodies goes back, at least, to the Lascaux cave paintings.  It has to be one of the oldest religious and artistic ‘themes’.  The original purpose of sticking an animal head on a human body seemed to involve a magical function.  The shaman often wore the mask of an animal to adopt its characteristics in various magical rituals to alter nature or bring about some natural change beneficial to the shaman’s society.  Later, animal heads on human bodies for human gods were meant to openly express the primary characteristic of the god.  Horus was hawk-headed because he was a decisive vindicator.  Hathor bore the head of a cow, a milk bearing animal, because she was a nurturing goddess. 

Looking around the galleries, painting or drawing animal heads on human bodies has become a bit of a trend in contemporary New York City art. Yet Carter’s animal-headed humans are different in their self-reflection. She clearly wants us to focus on this aspect of what differentiates us from the rest of nature.  Instead of using these animal heads, as other artists do, to channel the power or essence of the hawk or cow or bull or wolf, she uses these animal heads to help elucidate our deep skepticism about the justice and fairness of the operations of nature itself.  By taking the head of a bull or a wolf and combining it with the ‘body language’ of despair, we get an incisive visual impact which reveals some of our deepest unresolved, and perhaps unresolveable, moral concerns.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Fay Ku, Hiba Schahbaz, Manju Shandler at Gallery Ho in Chelsea

Grace Noh has done a wonderful job of curating a show of enigmatic pieces by three women artists from Brooklyn for Gallery Ho on 27th street in Chelsea. 

In Fay Ku’s piece “Are We Having Fun Yet?” we see 6 identically dressed young Asian women sitting in a roller coaster, arms upraised, but each with a deadpan expression of apathy, and/or perhaps stoicism, in lieu of the type of gleeful anticipation we might expect. Indeed, in both of Ku’s pieces for this show we feel we should be seeing one thing – some expression of pleasure from a recreational activity – but instead we see a type of grim determination, excessive concern or even outright anxiety.

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In the 1960s scientists did a (cruel) experiment with dogs, in which they placed individual dogs in metal cages, attached electrodes to the bottom of the cages and then turned on the electricity for a sustained period of time.  The dogs did everything they could to escape the jolts, but then, in each case, there came a point where each dog literally gave up and lay helplessly on the bottom of the cage merely absorbing the jolts.  This response came to be called 'learned helplessness' and is the response that is felt, and the attitude that is shown, when one feels one no longer has control of a situation, or can no longer change something that is wrong. (Many people do not bother voting in elections, for instance, because they feel a type of learned helplessness: “Even if I vote, nothing will change!”).  As well as Buster Keaton, these ladies seem to be channeling or expressing a type of learned helplessness, but in situations that should be naturally eliciting joyful participation.

Another possible interpretation of “Are we having fun yet?” could be that the piece is about the extent to which competition pervades and steals from our lives.  Each of these young women feels she has to be identical – same clothing, same body type, same expression - and each is engaging in the same activity, but happiness seems to be lost in this need to conform and compete.  They have reached their goal of being beyond reproach to their peers (through conformity) and cannot let their guard down to even enjoy themselves.

In “Water Bubbles” we see 5 young Asian women of similar appearance, identically dressed, swimming underwater with circular water bubbles formed around their heads.  My friend Yunhee felt that this piece looked a bit like Matisse’s Dance of Life, but, as she put it, “… with people under extreme pressure.”  One young woman seems to be swimming away in fierce earnestness while another looks toward the viewer to, perhaps, gauge whether what she is doing is acceptable.  Another seems distracted and preoccupied while two seem to be feeling some type of distress. There are obviously disconcerting external pressures that are not present in these two scenes of recreational activities, but which rob the recreational activities of any possible joy.  

In Hiba Schahbaz’ “My Selves” she experiments nicely with multiple images of herself to invite a reflection on the contrast between the transient and the permanent in our lives and to what extent anything can even be considered permanent.

In this triptych we see a flow of fish from the right side of the three pieces to the left, implying the passage of time and movement, along with what appears to be some type of mythical bird that is sailing through the air in each piece.  In the three separate settings of this triptych we also see numerous images of Schahbaz, almost as if she is the subject of an old Muybridge series of photos – she is only painted in profile, frozen, apparently, in the process of moving from left to right or right to left.  However, unlike Muybridge photos each image is possibly divorced from the other images through a significant passage of time (but not so significant that there would be a radical change to her appearance).  These seem to be images of Schahbaz passing through a setting, repeatedly, through a brief period of time.

Schahbaz is primarily nude but is also seen in various stages of being dressed. Her skin tone also differs in different images.  The multiple images in different stages of dress with the differing skin tones seem to reflect the type of transience and permanence of our very beings. This is also reflected in the settings through which Schahbaz walks.  An important aspect of nature is, of course, the fact that it exhibits traits of transience and permanence at the same time.  The trees will be there in that park long after we are all dead, but they change with the seasons.  We also see that Schahbaz seems to deliberately create images that refer to the ancient belief that all physical change is an illusion and that underlying everything are merely the four elements of earth, air, fire and water.  All of these elemental forms are clearly represented.   


In Manju Shandler’s “Tsunami 1” we see a wry revisiting of one of the most heralded works of Renaissance art – Raphael’s The Triumph of Galatea.  According to the story by Ovid, Galatea was a Nereid (sea nymph) who was married to the cyclops Polyphemos.  ‘Twas, alas, a loveless marriage that led to an affair between Galatea and Acis.  When Polyphemos learned of the situation, he trailed the lovers to their rendezvous and crushed Acis with a pillar. To redeem the situation as well as a sea nymph could, she turned the blood of crushed body of Acis into an eternal river.  Yes, I read the story twice to make sure I got it right.  Another allegorical death and resurrection story my friend – mythology is full of them. 

Apparently Raphael wanted to use this fresco as an opportunity to depict what he felt would be physical ‘perfection’ in a woman.  He, apparently, referred back to his own imagination (fantasy life?) to depict a flawlessly beautiful woman triumphantly being lead to her apotheosis.

Shandler keeps Galatea relatively unscathed (changing her hair color and the color of her robe) but she radically alters her surroundings. Indeed, the celebration and exultation of love in Ovid and Raphael turns quite louche, and even Shandler’s dolphins look a little horny. Whereas Raphael has various centaurs and Dionysian characters playfully clawing at women, who look on in an amused manner, Shandler populates this trip by Galatea with bestial characters who embrace and are embraced.

Galatea does not even look around at any of this – her sights are set higher as she travels through the muck and mire of an icy sludge filled with abandoned cars and other destroyed appliances reminiscent of the images we all saw after the horrible 2011 tsunami that hit Japan.

In the notes to the show it is stated that the inclusion of masterworks in Shandler’s pieces is meant to highlight the fact that we are compelled to interpret the present through “constructed ideas of the past.”  I like this statement a great deal.  How do we comprehend or absorb gratuitous and brutal acts of “god” or nature or other people?  How should we respond? How can we respond so that we can continue to whittle away at evil in the world and replace it with greater and greater humanity?  Have we ever been adequately prepared for the adversities or horrors of the world through the masterworks of the great (male) artists?

Art critics and professors act as if the great masters handed us an amazing legacy, but, maybe, just maybe, Raphael was kind of a sexist, horny guy (funded in part by a belligerent and corrupt Pope?) who liked painting women who rode on sea shells pulled by dolphins.  This stuff gets taught to children? How the hell does this help me come to grips with thousands of innocent people killed in one week, out of the blue, in an economically developed society that had taken every precaution to protect its citizens?  When I look at Shandler’s paintings (and I’m not sure whether she is saying this or not – this is just what I came away with) I think, “Yeah, there’s a lot of useless crap in our great art museums.”

All in all Grace Noh did an amazing job by bringing these three artists together.  Not one of the pieces in this show is an ‘easy’ piece.  They all require you to step back and put on your thinking cap awhile – and that’s the great thing about wondering into some of the Chelsea galleries.  This is the type of show that I really love – it presents challenging, engaging, well-conceived and even humorous art work.


Saturday, February 8, 2014

After Nature by Susan Hockaday at Soho20 Gallery in Chelsea

(After Nature by Susan Hockaday)
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Children’s books are often not really meant for children.  For example, in the Wizard of Oz, did you ever wonder why Dorothy is accompanied by a tin man, a scarecrow and a lion?  Apparently the author, Frank Baum, was a believer in the hugely popular Theosophy movement of the late 1800s.  This was a spiritual development movement created by Madame Blavatsky, who wrote that the human mind must pass through stages she labeled (for some reason) mineral, vegetable and animal. Before true awareness and fulfillment might occur, one had to go through each of these stages.  So we get the Tin Man as Dorothy’s mineral capacity, the Scarecrow as her vegetable capacity and the Lion as her animal capacity, all leading her to the Wizard.

I mention this because Susan Hockaday, in her “After Nature” show at Soho20, calls one of her pieces: Mineral, Vegetable, Animal, Plastic.  I’m guessing that to a Theosophite this would be a bit counterintuitive and pretty much mess up the whole spiritual equation – unless the Wizard symbolized the same thing as plastic…I don’t know.  But in that particular piece by Hockaday, she is literally concerned about the fact that our plastic trash is being integrated into the food chain and, ultimately, absorbed by humans.  So the food cycle also now includes plastic (which breaks down into little particles in the ocean before being ingested by fish) whether we like it or not. We dump our plastic garbage, hope it disappears, and then we eat it later.

(Mineral, Vegetable, Animal, Plastic by S. Hockaday)

In her Off Shore - 2 photograms she presents the eerie fact that there are islands and colonies of plastic junk floating through the oceans, via various currents, which, basically, mimic the movements and patterns of marine life.  The functions of post-industrialized globalized capitalism work beautifully in some countries to ensure universal nutrition, healthcare, leisure, comfort and even meaningful activities, except for the one flaw in the system unique in humanity’s long history – materials are being created that are more permanent than the most permanent organic material (even more permanent than, say, bones) but these materials are not absorbed back into nature in a healthful or even benign way.  No one seems to have adequately determined what to do with these materials and the more we try to hide or bury them the more deeply they become embedded in our personal lives.

(Off Shore - 2 by S. Hockaday)

In Strange Weather she shows that even if we look at the night sky and are affected with a sense of tranquility and awe, in reality the lower reaches of space are littered with human-made objects and space junk. This ties in with the overall theme of the show: concomitant with our global economic development is an irreversible process that seems to be imitating, destroying and replacing nature.  Indeed, the process is so insidious because it is often imperceptible on a personal level. 

(Strange Weather by Susan Hockaday)

The challenge, of course, in creating socially committed art about an environmental issue, is to avoid being trite and predictable and to present the dilemma in a novel, relevant and engaging manner.  The work of Hockaday does this by making these imperceptible processes more perceptible and more unacceptable.  In some of her pieces you can identify the individual objects that are floating in colonies throughout the ocean, and you see combs, buttons, plastic spoons as part of pseudo-organic structures or patterns.  She clearly conveys the palpable realization that many previous cultures left without a trace but we are unique in that we are leaving imperishable by-products made up of the littlest bits of useless trash while adversely altering ecosystems and hastening global warming.

Soho20 began as a female-centered gallery in the early 70s, and has consistently presented socially aware and socially and environmentally committed work. Hockaday’s current show is a good example of the high quality of work this gallery has become known for.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Dzine: Born Carlos Rolon,1970 at Paul Kasmin Gallery

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Walking among the elaborately decorated and sparkling pieces at the Paul Kasmin Gallery on 27th street, I suddenly heard the voice of sportscasting legend Howard Cosell – “What!? Roberto Duran has quit! Roberto Duran has quit!” Stepping around a partition I saw a replica of a working-class Chicago basement rec room (which made me feel a bit at home), resplendent with myriad trophies, an old TV showing the Duran/Leonard boxing rematch, a huge comfy rocking chair (based on an original bought, potentially, on Milwaukee Avenue – Chicago’s erstwhile mecca for comfy furniture for the chic proletarian) and sundry other artifacts. This was, in fact, a replica of the artist’s dad’s rec room in Chicago, where the artist spent many meaningful hours, as a boy, sharing his dad’s love for boxing.

I wanted to sit down, open one of the cans of Budweiser lying next to the chair (I’m a Cubs' fan and a Bud man!) and relive the match that captivated, unified and horrified the working class of America, black, white and Latino. Yes, Duran had quit by muttering "No mas!" ("No more!") to the referee. Blue collar guys with their cans of Budweiser could be heard saying: “’No mas!’ What the hell does he mean ‘No mas!’ I had five bucks on this guy! ‘No mas!?’” 

Before the era of production outsourcing, when blue-collar was king in cities that used to have big shoulders, this boxing match was supposed to be Achilles versus Hector, Alexander versus Darius, Grant vs. Lee, but it was, instead, as if the Spartans had wimped out at Thermopylae. It was a cause of perplexity and concern for every blue collar guy, and it seemed to herald a change in America when Duran just plain stopped fighting for inexplicable reasons – it heralded a change from carrying a big stick, to carrying a smart phone. The age of the reliable and hard-working factory guy was coming to an end – the old was dying and the yuppies were being born. When Duran said, “No mas!” he might as well have been saying, “No more working class in this city. Time to stop this, time to move on.”

A lot of reviews have focused on Rolon’s Puerto Rican heritage, but as a white guy with working-class roots, who probably grew up close to (if not in) Rolon’s boyhood neighborhood, I tend to think of his work as more ‘working class opulence’ than ‘immigrant opulence’. His work points to the creation of archetypes from the experience of working class life that defy ethnicity, although I can see the Latino influence. He helps the viewer intuit the ethics of that time and place in that social class in a major American city which has changed drastically in just one generation. He captures the sensibility and the ethic – the code of conduct, the social and personal expectations – from that milieu. Basically he captures a golden age experience of the working-class immigrant in the American city.

For instance, some reviewers have stated that Rolon’s designs in many of his pieces are ‘baroque.’ Well, actually, to me they are more like the fancy designs inner city mothers liked to see on their wall paper. The fancier the better. They were paying good money for that wall paper! Our fathers worked damn hard and wanted to see fancy wall paper too. It was a sign of working-class success, a sign that you were living comfortably and had stability in a neighborhood where you also had drunks and domestic abusers and trash of every race, color and creed. In working class neighborhoods you had the ‘good’ families and the ‘trashy’ families and the good families often had fancy wall paper. It had better be fancy! You don’t want your mom’s lady friends coming over and saying, “Why’d you buy such plain wall paper!”

My favorite piece of the show, outside of the rec room, is Cockfight or Club Gallistico. The backdrop shows an overlay of various floral patterns and dazzling bright colors. This could be inspired by our moms’ finest, baroque wall paper (perhaps purchased at Goldblatt’s Department Store), and we have two golden cocks readying for battle. One looks like kind of a runt, but in true working-class style, he is not going to back down an inch. If he loses, well, at least he fought back, and he’ll have the respect of his peers. This cockfight literally becomes the ‘golden’ rule of the lower-middle-class portion of the city. It is elevated to the status of pseudo-religious iconography.

To me, Rolon’s work also highlights the change, the pacifying gentrification, that major American cities have gone through since his childhood. When I was growing up in Chicago, there was definitely a macho, ‘Are you looking at me?’ attitude throughout the Windy City. A working class ethic pervaded the city. This was the city of Mike Ditka more than it was the city of Georg Solti. In my neighborhood, which had to be like Rolon’s, you ‘made it’ when you landed a steady job at the Schwinn Bicycle factory or the Ludwig Drum Company.

Yet, going back to my old neighborhood I now see delicate white guys pushing baby strollers, carrying cups of Starbucks and holding Paul Auster novels. One summer I watched a Little League game at the park where I once played. My team (a mixture of white, black and Latino working class kids) had been sponsored by the Tasa Liquor Store, but now the teams didn’t even have sponsors! And the team was as white as a Wisconsin ski slope. A ball rolled right between the legs of one of the second basemen and I cringed. I once played second base with a broken nose and, even injured, if I had ever let a ball get by me, I would have been berated by my manager, my teammates and the parents who were watching. Now, the manager merely clapped his hands and said, “Nice try Scott!”

So Rolon’s work, to my eyes, shows the ethos of working class life exulted and idealized. I think Rolon is pointing back to a kind of golden age in American life. I think he is expressing a certain remorse that these times and sensibilities are lost forever. We were once a production center and guys could get warehouse and factory jobs and a type of ethic developed from this (the so-called ‘blue-collar work ethic’) Now what do we have to replace the blue-collar work ethic? The tech start-up guy work ethic? I don’t think Rolon is ironically or cynically mocking the artifacts of working class (Latino) life – I think he misses that whole scene. Our dads, our uncles, our older brothers were cool. They were tough. They were stoic and strong models. His art is almost an in-your-face taunt: “These are boxing gloves. You wear them and hit other guys with them. Why? Because it shows you have guts, that’s why.” More broadly Rolan might be asking, “America…will you still have your guts without guys like my father?”