Friday, March 28, 2014

Cruel and beautiful - CHANG jia at Doosan Gallery, Chelsea

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CHANG jia deliberately tries to make the viewers of her work feel uncomfortable.  For example, she once did a video where you see a jolly looking woman being hit continually in the head with eggs.  Periodically a man shoves her in the head, grabs her hair, yanks it, messes it up, shoves her around again.  After her initial shock each time, she recovers the jolly expression on her face.  In another piece, in a recent show in Korea, she filled intravenous bottles with human urine and she even constructed a tree-like structure bearing scientific beakers and bottles of pee.  

Her current show consists of a few representative pieces of her overall work.  For instance there is one image from her series of a woman standing and peeing.  There are also two images of a woman spanking a nearly naked man with a very ornate paddle.  On the paddle are various detailed scenes of torture.  So this is not an impetuous spanking using anything at hand, this is a deliberate act by a person who has studied the art (craft) and who has a professional interest in being an expert (the possibility for fetishism is there, but I don’t think the artist is necessarily going in that direction). 

Professional interest? Well, in Singapore, for instance, there are guys who are professional ‘caners.’ They still use corporal punishment there and guys show up to work each day to practice using a thick bamboo cane to flog the backsides of ‘criminals.’  That’s their job (Singapore being a pleasant-looking backward dictatorship).  In the photos by CHANG you can see that the guy’s backside has been seriously tanned by this lady, who seems to mean business.  Indeed, in the little card next to the piece we read that the guy’s butt is red for a reason – she has, indeed, been working his backside over. So this theme of people literally being abused recurs through her pieces. 

The most disturbing images in the show, however, involved a kit of ancient torture instruments with a placard detailing what each instrument was for. (In the video below this review you can see the torture instruments at about the 22 minute mark.) I’m not even going to relate the functions of some of the devices, but let’s just say it probably took some creative and heartless bureaucrats some amount of time to figure all that out.  In fact, that’s probably the point.  What is it that drives us to the point where we can readily inflict horrific pain on others?  Racial and religious prejudice? Personal hatred?  Class/economic resentment or contempt? Ideology?  Or, is it both cruel and beautiful, as the title suggests.  There was, after all, some controversy created last year when it was alleged that Mother Theresa, herself, had liked watching cancer victims writhe in pain because she felt it brought them closer to God.  The torture kit reminded me a bit of the scene in Godard’s Le Petit Soldat where an educated and beautiful woman sits in one room reading a book by Lenin while her male friends  employ electrical torture methods on a guy in the next room.

So what’s the point?  Well, first I like art which tries to go beyond symbolism and allegories and which reaches folks on a more visceral level.  But I think the artist is really questioning the extent to which we can use art to really grab each other in a meaningful way.  One way to reach the emotions of others is by revealing the pain of others.  John Locke, for instance, pointed out, in response to Hobbes, that when we see others suffer we suffer too.  Our suffering is not exactly their suffering, but it’s enough to motivate us to stop the suffering of others – or it should be. 

So this is not pain for the sake of pain in this show – it is pain to reach us and provoke thought and emotional responses and action.  And it does its job.  In CHANG’s video (not in this show) when you see the woman being hit repeatedly, you want to stop the violence and you feel sad that she is enduring it with a smile on her face.  You are helpless and, truly, uncomfortable knowing you can’t do anything.  Interestingly, however, CHANG may also be hinting at something darker.  She seems to imply that perhaps we all harbor, whether we want to admit it or not, sadistic and masochistic streaks and that, deep down inside, many of us like inflicting and/or receiving pain and this is a component source of the aspect of ‘official’ torture and harm in the world. So to a great extent she’s inviting each of us to look at this in ourselves and address it somehow.

But I think the big point she’s making is that art is a really limited language for human engagement.  Using art we can only reach each other to certain limited extents.  We can reveal pain, we can solicit compassion but art does not seem sufficient to create compassion or integrity or meaningful social action.  Art primarily represents or expresses and to some extent can engage, but not to the depth that some truly humane artists might want to reach others.  Still, CHANG is engaged in a thought-provoking and controversial endeavor.  She embodies the raw, performance art aspects which have often been abandoned for cheap sensationalism and glitz in the contemporary market.  If art is a limited language for human engagement, CHANG seems to be challenging us to go beyond art and to take our very humanity out into the world in order to transform it as much as is possible. 

In this video below - starting at the 15:21 mark, you can see what this New York gallery show looked like. You can see the bricks she made out of cow blood, the torture instruments etc.

An interview with the artist:

Wine is God, Pork is Tuscany: La Dolce Vita photos by Sean Campbell at Kava Cafe

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In Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Marcelo lives the sweet life of a celebrity journalist while occasionally covering stories of simple religious faith among the ‘’common” people.  Marcelo, however, finds flaws in both the literalist religion that surrounds him in Rome and the secular hedonism that he continually indulges in. He is unable to find a meaningful third option and, as days go by, he grows more and more miserable.  PeeJay Bodoy conceived of an evening at Kava CafĂ© at MiMA (42nd street) around this theme and invited photographer Sean Campbell to submit contemporary photos from a recent trip to Italy in regard to this theme.

Sean Campbell had wanted the perfect pair of custom made Italian shoes.  Not just shoes, but shoes to end all shoes.  He heard of a master craftsman in Italy and was willing to splurge in regard to his hard earned savings for a pair of shoes worthy of a pope. Thus began his pilgrimage.  Alas, the best laid plans.  Upon arriving in Italy and meeting the master shoe-maker, he learned that this artisan only makes shoes up to size twelve.  Beyond twelve…unthinkable! Sean, a guy well exceeding six feet, left empty-handed (footed?) but availed himself of opportunities to snap some shots while backpacking around the peninsula.

The irony of the title of the film by Fellini is probably meant to impact one’s interpretations of the pieces.  Knowing this, Campbell picked out relatively simple and straight-forward examples of stuff that might connote ‘the good life’ from his recent trip.  In Montalcino, as he entered the town, 20 antique Italian cars rolled in for a show, including the Alfa Romeo he photographed.  Perhaps you are challenged to pick out what exactly the source of dissatisfaction or disillusionment might be found in a vintage Alfa Romeo.  Or, you might be invited to relish the iconic image of the ultimate car and drool over it.  Or you can just stand back in awe and savor the ostensible ease of life that type of product implies.  If a guy can buy an antique Alfa Romeo, he can buy a nice house, a couple politicians, a not-guilty verdict, a good education for the kids, a trophy wife etc.  The world is his oyster.  He is Faust and the devil answers to him.

We also see bottles of ‘wedding wine’ and a type of dried pork hanging in a shop.  Wine, of course, is a symbol of spiritual elevation.  In the ancient world it was the color of blood and when folks drank it, they were transformed. They became more tolerant, open-minded, sociable and joyous.  So in the photos of the wine and pork, the ‘stuff’ of the good life is transcended and possesses less tangible meanings.  Jesus’ first miracle in the Gospel of John is turning water into wine at a wedding.  A wedding represents a union allowing for the creation of new life or a new type of being. The pork bears the name: Tuscany.  Campbell took the photo because he had never seen pork hanging that way, with tomatoes, but also because it helped memorialize his stay in Tuscany.   It’s almost a Dada-like image to help equate a stay in a place with chunks of meat and tomatoes.  Even in exotic locales, undergoing enriching cultural and travel experiences, the priority is to sustain the human organism. Tuscany, despite everything culturally elevating, basically equals pork.  So we get Jesus and Schopenhauer in these two photos.

He also took a photo of an amazing old house at a cul de sac just because he was dazzled by the grandeur and purity of it.  Doing research later, he realized it has been used in some Hollywood films. As he pointed out in email to me:  “The huge house on Lenno, Lake Como, called Villa del Balbianello,  was featured in a few movie scenes, including Casino Royale starring Daniel Craig and in the recent Star Wars movie, the wedding scene of Princess Padama and Anaken Skywalker.” 

My favorite photo was, however, of the two empty canoes under a bridge:  the Ponte Vecchio Bridge in Florence, the oldest bridge there. To me, it represented both the possibility for and absence of the types of leisure experiences most often thought to make up the good life.  Are these boats being stored after a busy day of usage?  Are they just floating there because of the economic downturn in Italy?  Is Campbell making a comment about the economic crisis or is this more of an existential statement? The boats are there, the experience is there, the ease and leisure are there, but who can now afford this?  When the crisis is over, will we go back to this, or will we have become accustomed to austerity and other, perhaps, more meaningful sources of gratification?

{{Photo by Yunhee Oh of Sean Campbell}}

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Harmfully Active and The Helplessly Receptive: Paperweight by Lin Yan at Gallery Fou (review co-written by Jackie Zhu)

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“Fou” is the Chinese term for “denial.”  In their press literature Echo He and Jessie Yang mention that they created Gallery Fou, and chose the name of the gallery, as a ‘denial’ of the mainstream gallery format or formula.  Both are NYU Arts Administration grads who have taken a Brooklyn apartment and converted part of it to a gallery space where they have been exhibiting small but meaningful and engaging one-person shows since last year. Last weekend we (Dan Gauss and Jackie Zhu) attended a tea party at the gallery, where we met the artist and various supporters of this venture.
So what is the greater meaning behind using an apartment as a gallery?  It’s like a Quaker approach – you don’t need a church to experience God.  You don’t need a traditional space or to be in Chelsea or Williamsburg to experience great art.  Furthermore, the folks who curate the shows are not forced to focus on attractive, glitzy or ‘saleable’ work, obviously.  There is no real pressure to attempt to sell pieces and the work can be as experimental as possible.

There is, consequently, a real shift away from the gallery geared to the art buyer toward the gallery for the art creator and lover. It’s like having a non-profit gallery without the hassle of grant proposals.  Going to a ‘home’ instead of a gallery is also a completely different feeling and creates a greater sense of community and familiarity among those who experience the art. At a traditional gallery I don’t shake people’s hands and introduce myself – at Fou we all got to know each other, sometimes pretty well.  Obviously folks who create this type of gallery need to really know the art community, to be discerning about art and they need to create amazing shows to draw people.  Creating such a non-traditional gallery probably requires more effort and discernment than running an ‘established ’ gallery and it probably requires greater people skills as well in that you don’t just have folks drifting in and out of your gallery space – you become a host and not an owner.  Gallery Fou has been meeting these challenges nicely and putting up some excellent work.
In the show we recently saw (Paperweight), Lin Yan created many pieces made of Xuan paper. This is a type of paper made from the paper mulberry plant (a tall plant used for a number of purposes in Asia) and stretching back to about 100AD. This paper is softer and more translucent compared to other types of paper. It is made from the mixture of tree bark, grass stems and other natural plant fibers, so the paper surface retains traces of these materials, and thus gives an organic character to the finished product.

According to traditional Chinese philosophy the world is the result of the energy of Yin (negative) and Yang (positive).  Thus Chinese painting on paper often is only done in black to deliver this idea in the most simple and pure way. You see white space and black strokes. Sometimes the strokes are clearly delineated and sometimes they are blurred into the paper, showing interactions of the Yin energy and Yang energy as meaningful aspects of the art. Painting on this type of paper, therefore, has a process art aspect – you are not just representing something but expressing inner states as well through the manner in which the strokes are made.
Yan, however, uses this type of paper and ink in an even more unique way.  As mentioned before, black ink often represents something active while the paper represents something receptive.  But in her pieces the ‘positive’ energy does not interact harmoniously with the paper – it vitiates or pollutes the paper. As Yan explained at the gallery, the Xuan paper is the result of an achievement during the time when China was an agricultural country. The paper – to a great extent – represents the natural environment.  The ink, which clouds and darkens and stains the paper, seems to represent the current industrial phase of China’s history.  “Yin” is, effectively, the long history of the civilization of China existing within the natural realm while “Yang” becomes the recent history of modernization, industrialization and massive pollution of the air and rivers.  We do not see a harmony of black and white but a transgression of black ink on and into white paper.  The paper is not being used, it is being damaged. This is most clearly seen in an installation piece which looks like a dark grey cloud hanging from a pipe toward the ceiling of the apartment.   Yan has made a large rolling mass of paper which has been deeply tainted by black ink.

Yan adds another dimension to her art by layering pieces of the paper in black, grey and white. Indeed, there is one piece where you see the outward impressions of steel rivets down the middle of one piece while you see layers of paper on each side as if they are waves created by the construction process.   
“Breath” actually looks like the inner structure of a lung. It has absorbed or filtered more than its capacity, like an air conditioner’s filter after a long summer of scorching days in a crowded city.  The blackness represents the harsh chemical interaction between industry and the human organism.  A little white space on the left corner and a white spot on the right reminds us how the lung should be before being subjected to the aftereffects of industrial production. The title “Breath” suggests a sense of the passive or helpless. The lungs are forced to breathe even under horrible circumstances because life depends on breathing. We just keep our fingers crossed hoping that although severely and noticeably impacted, some effective functioning of the respiratory system can still occur – so that we can continue producing and consuming industrial products.

On the other hand, “Breeze” seems a more relaxed piece.  Surrounded by open white space, an engraved fan is in the middle. It is reminiscent of a summer afternoon in the far past, sitting in the backyard breathing in the soft and cool wind. However the fan relief is glued within a painted grey paper, as if the fan merely represents the memory of better times and is now an unreachable dream. Taken together, “Breath” and “Breeze” also form the Yin and Yang contrast – although in the Yin/Yang symbol we are supposed to have a unity of active and receptive, not a contrast of the harmfully active and the helplessly receptive.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Transcending Boundaries, Reflecting Change: Tashi Norbu at Tibet House, NY City

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The goal of Tashi Norbu, as an artist, mirrors the goal many Tibetans have, especially those who live in exile or those living as a kind of ‘occupied’ people in China.  How do you preserve the meaning and beauty of Tibetan culture, not only in occupied territory, but in a ‘globalized’ economy where cheap and tacky American pop culture is often equated to freedom and progress? 

Well, how about painting meditating Mickey Mouses?  Or showing a Superman figure gazing at a mandala?  According to Norbu the Superman represents science’s attempts to understand reality, but I would offer that it represents science’s failed attempts to glean the real truths of the inner world that Tibetan Buddhism tries to reach.  The MRI devices that are mapping out the brain look so impressive and cost so much money, but the neuroscientists often just produce roadmaps of the trivial (“This is where you process music in the brain!”), instead of closing their eyes and diving deep into experience and memory to find out what photos of neurons can’t tell us. Tibetan Buddhism creates more detailed inner maps and helps predict which humane changes really might be possible inside of us.

This is part of the experiment Norbu engages in at Tibet House – to merge contemporary art trends with the traditional Tibetan “Tangka” techniques he learned as a student. And, basically, Tibetan Buddhists are so open-minded, they relish this type of experimentation. 

The central or predominating image of the show is an image of a couple copulating – the man sits cross-legged and the woman straddles him on his lap.  Norbu explained that this image can represent the parents of all Buddhas.  Norbu explained that he wanted to create a type of triptych showing a Buddhist interpretation of the evolution of the universe.  He told me that the Jewish and Christian religions begin with a creation story but such a story does not seem to exist in Buddhism. So he visually represents this in his painting.  The implication of the triptych is that the spiritual development for creation itself implied in Buddhism was one of the creative factors of the universe.  What made me laugh was that right under the image of the copulating parents of all Buddhas, we see two fish from “Saving Nemo” looking at each other in a flirtatious/lecherous manner.  Was this a wry allusion to sacred and profane love? Was this another form of scared love? I guess profound ideas do not have to be conveyed through pretentious symbols.  

Indeed, the artist scatters quite humorous symbols throughout his paintings, sometimes even as ‘inside jokes.’  For instance, when I asked him why he had so many images of cans of Heineken beer in his work, he merely informed me that he lives in Holland, is happy to be there and Heineken is a Dutch company.  I thought the beer might have meant spiritual elevation – when you drink beer you become more open-minded, tolerant, sociable…unlike the blood of the vine it’s the blood of the brew…but it’s really there because it’s Dutch (apparently).

The copulating couple – as well as representing a birth to a universe that does not just provide the second law of thermodynamics, but also a sense of compassion and a critical capacity to assess the workings of nature, represents the traditional union between male and female, active and passive.  Throughout older religious and allegorical literature – from The Odyssey to the Ramayana to Faust etc. - you often have a wandering, aggressive, searching, problem-solving male who, ultimately, fixes everything and returns home to join his female companion.  There is an ‘active’ searching principle that has to unite with a ‘passive’ and stable principle for spiritual union to take place.  This is even seen in the yin/yang symbol.  

That this image of the couple pervades the 3 history of the universe paintings seems to imply that in the very design of the universe compassion and spiritual fulfillment were important components to counter-balance and overcome the more problematic and violent emotions and motives. 

You know, you can’t get Heineken unless you corrupt the barley through the malting and fermentation process (before adding the hops) – so maybe the Buddhist universe is a lot like Heineken. 

To those who might be a bit perplexed or even offended by a sexual image representing a religious concept, this seemed to happen a lot in pre-industrial religious imagery.  One interpretation could even be that the spiritual is literally born from the sexual (after you are born spiritual pursuits give your life a meaning) and that the spiritual, in turn, can give meaning to the sexual and the reproductive process (it becomes the justification for continuing life).

The central image is often painted more abstractly and is often painted directly over scared texts of Tibetan Buddhism.  In one painting it looks as if this couple is literally sitting on a Rubik’s Cube which is dissolving under them.  Ah, the problem-solving skills used to resolve the cube are of no use to the act of attaining a higher-spiritual being.

In the final piece of the history-of-the-universe triptych, we literally see a robotic Buddha, implying in a humorous way that the goals of Buddhism will survive in the world under any circumstances and far into the future. Again, the open-minded attitude I found at Tibet House was amazing.  As a baptized Christian let me say: try painting a robotic Jesus hanging on a cross and see what happens! The toleration and humor, even toward their own religion, by the folks at Tibet House, was so refreshing to me. 

Norbu does a great job of showing that Tangka can easily embrace modern and humorous forms while still presenting the basic message of the religious beliefs this technique serves. If you haven’t been to Tibet House, please drop by.  Right now they have a wonderful mixture of classical works of Tibetan Buddhist art and Norbu’s very clever, funny and thought-provoking show.  The folks at Tibet House are very warm and welcoming and they have free gallery openings quite often.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Triangulism - anamorphic paintings by Jamie Martinez at Con Artist Collective (Lower East Side)

(Jamie Martinez at Con Artist Collective - photos courtesy of Olya Turcihin)

If you go to the Metropolitan Museum and see Rubens' “Venus and Adonis”, you will probably think you are looking at the final effort of the artist. Yet, it turns out that you can only really see what the artist truly intended by looking at the work in a mirror.  It turns out that this painting was the template for a tapestry. Tapestry makers needed mirror images of works to be completed because they used to work from the back of the template forward, running the thread through the image on the back and looping it back through the front.

(Rubens V & A - from the Met Museum Collection)

Believe it or not, there has been a long tradition of mirror-image art or art based on distorting the finished image so that it can only be seen through special devices or at special angles.  This is called, in fact, anamorphosis.  Remember the famous painting by Holbein – The Ambassadors?  This might be the most famous example of anamorphosis.  You see a blurry image in front of a clear image of two ambassadors but if you stand at exactly the right angle, you see the blurred image is actually a human skull and now the images of the ambassadors become blurred.  This was, apparently, meant to underscore the fact that our own mortality gave a dream-like quality to life casting much of what we do, or the value of much of what we do, into question.

(Holbein's The Ambassadors at the National Gallery, London)

Jamie Martinez has been experimenting with anamorphosis in regard to his ‘triangulism’ paintings. He often takes an image of some meaningful subject – like a tiger, a dancer, a mythological figure – and he breaks the image down into numerous triangles so that the starting image can only be clearly seen through a digital camera.  So the two big questions are: why triangles and why would an artist use anamorphosis?

(Tiger/El Tigre by Jamie Martinez)

Some folks who are interested in the origins of various symbols believe that the triangle was, basically, originally an abstraction of a mountain.  In ancient times folks felt that mountains were sacred areas – the higher you traveled, the closer to the spirit realm you were.  Pyramids were also abstractions of mountains and the sole purpose of the Egyptian pyramid was to help the pharoah's soul ascend to the after-world.

Yet, in Sumeria, an upward pointed triangle represented something male while a downward pointing triangle represented something female.  When you overlap these two triangles (like in a hexagram or Star of David) you gain a union of masculine and feminine (active and passive in the ancient world) or in the "hermetic” tradition a union of the tangible world which reaches upward and the intangible or spiritual world which reaches downward.  This seems to have been the visual representation of the saying by Hermes Trismegistis: “As above, so below.”  

Four versions of triangles also represented the four basic elements of earth, air, fire and water. So triangles are among the most meaningful and oldest symbols. Indeed, triangles are often treated as little allegories which can mean beginning, middle, end or spirit, mind, body.  To break images down into triangles or to form them from triangles is to imply an underlying (symbolic) order or reality to the basic image.

(more triangle art by Jamie Martinez at Con Artist Collective)

Why resort to anamorphosis?  Well there have been practical and aesthetic reasons.  Andrea Pozzo was once challenged to create the illusion of a dome on a flat ceiling.  He created a ceiling painting whereby if you stand in a certain spot, you really can believe you are looking up at a dome.  After the Battle of Culloden, when hopes for Scottish independence were dashed, distorted images of their erstwhile leader were created and could only be seen through the use of a special instrument only possessed by those who knew what it was for (images of this leader had been destroyed and prohibited by the authorities).  I think the big reason for using anamorphosis, however, is similar to why Holbein used it.   You want to imply there is something underlying something else.  There’s what we see and what we usually wouldn’t see.  But, you might say, a triangle is a symbol, so why use a symbol to distort other symbols?  Well, I’m guessing that’s the point.

(a gentleman tries to look through a screen created by triangles to see the underlying image)

To me Martinez is saying, listen, what’s the whole purpose or point of art?  Art, in reality, serves a higher function than presenting ‘beauty’ or 'entertainment'.  Art is a form of engagement and communication of meaningful stuff that can’t be readily articulated. Indeed, this meaningful stuff is much more meaningful than anything we can say. The triangle might, in fact, be the perfect representation of one of the most, if not the most, meaningful things we can say: "Yes, there is a possibility for an elevation of our human nature." 

The triangle represents elevation, it’s also, as I mentioned, an allegory in itself – it can mean beginning, middle, end, or mind, spirit and body among other groupings of three terms.  Perhaps underlying all artistic messages or images, we, basically, have the triangle or what the triangle represents.  Martinez breaks the image down to various triangles and when you look at the piece with the unaided eye, all you see are triangles.  When you use your digital camera to take the image, then the triangles disappear and you get a coherent image.  What does this mean?  

At the gallery Martinez held up his smart phone and showed me how one of the pieces looked perfect through the viewer. I think Martinez could also be making a statement about how we are absorbing everything or lots of things which are meaningful through our gadgets. Stuff doesn't make sense any more until we take a digital photo of it and post it on a social media site.

In the process of capturing this image, to share later, you are also transcending the basic triangle shape for a more coherent or beautiful version of, basically, the triangle.  Like the example of the renegade Scottish king, only folks who knew the image was deliberately distorted would bother to ever try to take a look at the image through a special device. Although I have to admit that on a superficial level the images Martinez creates also often appear to be quite attractive.  In his painting of the god Apollo, for instance (that image is way at the top), Martinez has over 300 individually painted triangles comprising that piece and even looking at it without the use of a camera, it is a visually appealing piece.

(It's a little hard to see but the top image is what you get when you look through a digital camera.)

In the interests of self-disclosure, and to avoid the perception of a conflict of interests, I do want to point out that I know Jamie.  I discovered his art review website: Arte Fuse and really liked the energy and content. I submitted a couple sample reviews and he, graciously, invited me to submit more.  That being said, I chose to do this review because I went to his recent show at Con Artist Collective and thought there was something really thoughtful behind the pieces.  I have not reviewed any type of anamorphosis art before and I am always looking for something new to write about.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Nothing fails like success! "Sunday Paintings" (of yuppies) by Mary Henderson at Lyons Wier Gallery


Why have ‘yuppies’ been considered to be so odious for so long?

Let me count the ways.

Actually, there seem to be two big reasons.

First, yuppies seem to represent those folks who were able to pursue their own excellence and success while blithely ignoring the plight of those who were not as privileged. Sure you voted for Obama and do volunteer tutoring at the local Presbyterian church.  But didn’t it bother you just a little bit that your prestigious university was only comprised of 4 % black and Latino students?  When you were studying for your GMAT and/or LSAT, did you ever wonder how the other half lives?  Did you ever really, really, really do pro bono work because you wanted to, or did your firm make you do it?

Secondly, well, here’s a nice quote from the artist Martin Firrell: “No one would wish suffering on themselves but equally a life with nothing remarkable in it would be a kind of bland hell.”  This is the key, I feel, to unlocking the rest of the raw hatred towards these lovable urban creatures.

Basically yuppies instill existential dread in some of us.  It’s like fighting for the perfect society and then learning it’s nothing but Norway.  Yuppies give us the “Is this it?” dread.  Like Tony Montana at the end of Scarface – as he looks around the fancy restaurant and wonders whether being able to eat there was worth it all.  Yuppies make us say, “Is this it?”  Is this the best life has to offer?  What am I living for? Deep down inside we know that kind of comfort is not the best possible life, but maybe we are not sure we’d want to endure the tumult and vagaries of a ‘real’ life.  So we resent them instead of plucking the plank out of our own eye.

So basically yuppies make us realize that nothing fails like success.

Mary Henderson provides us with various images of yuppies in public spaces.  Although these paintings are amazingly well designed and painted, it pains me too much to describe the individual images of yuppie bliss, which are so vividly depicted in a realistic style. Indeed, Lyons Wier specializes in what seems to be called “Conceptual Realism” these days.  It’s supposed to be separate from super-realism in that there is a conceptual basis to it.  Some might argue that even super-realism is not super-realism, but also contains some concept, but therein lies the unresolved controversy.

Let it suffice to say that Henderson does a yeoman’s job of throwing yuppiedom right in our faces.  There they are in all their splendor!  They stand at the farmer’s market choosing the plumpest fruits. They tote their smug little tots around while checking their smart phones.  They do stretching exercises, take cooking classes, wash dishes….oh the humanity!

What I love about the paintings is that they are painted in as objective a style as possible.  Indeed, Henderson quipped (tongue in cheek) that she was, basically, painting people like herself.  Yet, the concept behind the painting is that these are putatively benign people who are generally despised in some quarters, admired in others.  You are either with 'em or against 'em. The artist seems to challenging the viewer by saying, “OK, here we are.  Take a good look at us.  Just what the hell do you think we are doing that is so wrong?”  Oh, well, let me count the ways!

If you get a chance, please go to Lyons Wier to see these amazingly executed paintings.

Xie Xiaoze at Chambers Fine Art in Chelsea

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In his current show at Chambers Fine Art, Xie Xiaoze seems to combine two major trends in contemporary art. He seems to combine super-realist tendencies with tendencies to incorporate text or textual materials into visual art pieces.

In his “Both Sides Now” series, Xie Xiaoze paints newspaper front pages in which you can see the ink from the reverse side of the page literally seeping through into the images and text of the page facing you.  This is a type of super-realism and language-art combination where the readable text is simply meant to elucidate the central, lurid, image, while the seeping ink serves a more symbolic purpose.  The seeping ink could be serving as a type of graffiti, that not just calls into question the quality of the paper stock, but also impugns the purposes and content of the text presented.   There is a divorce between any act or event itself and the articulation or representation of the act, and this divorce and the consequences of this divorce can be represented by the ink seeping through the page.

The reverse text which has bled through the paper definitely becomes a type of abstraction of language representing a characteristic of language.  Another interpretation could be that the text which has bled through, as an abstraction of language, can represent our subjective responses to the types of narratives and factual information presented in newspapers or other factual sources.   In the process of reading about events, especially terrible events, there is a conjunction of the outer and inner worlds.  The story itself is absorbed as factual information, categorized somehow but it also elicits responses, judgments, motivations, fears, and/or various other possible emotions.  The ink which has bled through the paper represents, perhaps, our inner dialogue and the inner change we go through when we are engaged by text or by any type of narrative (instead of a direct experience).

But Xie Xiaoze also enjoys painting library and archive materials themselves.  You have no idea what might be contained in these materials, but you can see that they are well worn repositories of information felt to be important at that time and waiting to reveal their secrets to anyone motivated to find them again.  As a complete and total book worm, I love looking at paintings of old books and old manuscript materials and I relished Xie’s paintings of these objects.

“Chinese Library 51” seems to contain ledgers of some sort – so you can only imagine the conclusions which could be gleaned by pouring through these.  “Chinese Library 55” shows a stack of printed materials which, as the notes for the show point out, borders on abstraction.  Yet, I love how Xie uses the color red in this painting to tinge the borders between manuscript covers.  My friend Wang Jing said it looks as if the books are “screaming” in this painting. Indeed, the reddish tinges kind of look like open wounds.  To me, the reddish color almost looks like the color in paintings of butchered animal carcasses hanging from meat hooks.  He really conveys the idea, through this use of color, that there was a living source, a living experience that left these materials behind and the materials remain ready to engage a living being again. These are the results of experience but also the beginnings of engaging, living experiences for others.

Finally, Xie Xiaoze did something I thought was very clever.  The super-realist tradition stems from artists who painted directly from photographs.  This was felt to be a type of heresy by some artists, but the super-realists wished to be provocative by painting directly from an indirect source.  They took a representation of ‘reality’ and tried to create something that looked super-real from it.  In many super-realist paintings, a sense of reality often oozes from the canvas more spectacularly than in real life.  Instead of using photos, however, Xie uses Weibo – which is a Chinese social networking tool similar to Twitter.  In the show are images from Weibo postings.  We see, for instance, a typically hazy day in Beijing and, in another piece, some type of house which is labeled as a “nail house” (sorry, I don’t know the back story to that one).  In the super-realist tradition, the paintings are not realistic at all. There is an extra sheen and clarity lacking in reality itself.  Yet, Xie plays with this by not just copying an image from Weibo, but by actually providing the Weibo ‘signature’ on the image as well.  So he uses a type of super-realist technique, but instead of hiding the source for his painting, he openly displays it. The “Weibo” signature forces us to view this image differently – Xie tempts us to be attracted to and to engage the image directly (the image is so vibrant) but at the same time he also forces us to acknowledge that we are divorced from the reality of the image due to its origin from the 

Chambers has been doing an amazing job of bringing the work of Chinese artists to Chelsea.  This show is open well into April – I would encourage you to drop by to take in these amazing paintings directly.  

"Speak to me!" Paul Kolker at the Paul Kolker Gallery

Paul Kolker has one of the coolest gallery spaces in all of Chelsea.  It’s literally an underground space that one gets to by descending  a zigzag staircase.  In a review of his work I did last year, I described the space as a type of “art bunker,” but the space has benefits and detriments – the average gallery hopper might overlook it because of its unique location, and, during Superstorm Sandy, this gallery was literally inundated and much art work was ruined.

If you’ve been to Kolker’s place, you’ve probably seen what I call his ‘infinity boxes’.  Starting in the 1980s Kolker began making light sculptures using one way mirrors and LED message screens.  These are thin boxes that you look into and through which you see infinitely regressive patterns.  Kolker is a kind of electric Malevich.  He uses simple geometric patterns with his mirrors to create concrete images of infinity.  You might have been in the big Kusama infinity rooms – I think Kolker’s smaller boxes are even better. The endless repetition of the basic image creates a three dimensional structure that perpetuates itself endlessly until the repetition is lost to our vision. Infinity then becomes something lacking light and structure. Sometimes the boxes are lying flat so you have to look down and his work then gives you a sense of beauty and a type of vertigo at the same time.

Currently Kolker is drawing upon his medical background to draw attention to the recent developments in President Obama’s controversial Affordable Care Act.  As well as being a visual artist, Kolker is also a cardiac surgeon, lawyer and ex-president of an insurance company.

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The centerpiece of the show could be called a type of allegory of the history of the affordable care concept in the USA.  Kolker begins with a painting which he saw often at the Boston Medical Library while doing work at Harvard Medical School: “First Operation Under Ether” by Robert Hinkley, painted from 1882 - 1894 (no, I’m not sure why it took him so long).   It’s an obscure work in the history of American painting, but thousands of aspiring doctors have seen it and it’s a fitting painting to use as a template for what Kolker does.  Basically Hinkley was attacked by critics who pointed out that the painting was done in a realistic style but that many characters in the painting were not in attendance at the actual first operation using ether as an anathesia.  Hinkley, however, parried that he did not want to capture a precise moment, but, instead, he wanted to document the various people who had contributed to this ground-breaking moment in medical science.  He had literally cut faces out of newspapers and books to paint them onto bodies in this work.

So inspired by the methodology of Hinkley, Kolker replaces the faces of the original characters in the “Ether” painting with the various historical and political characters who were participants in the struggle to finally get some type of system up and running that would help to cover as many Americans as possible with affordable health insurance.  You see figures ranging from Teddy Roosevelt to Obama, himself, in the painting.  In fact, I think Obama should buy this piece and use it to explain to others just how difficult it was to finally get something like this off the drawing board and into practice. Obama had to, as it were, stand on the shoulders of giants to finally get this thing going.

You might ask, for instance, “Why is TR in the painting?” Well, that’s how long politicians have been mulling over this idea.  From what Paul Kolker explained to me, Canada established what was called ‘socialized’ medicine around the time that TR was president (in the early part of the last century).  Roosevelt loved the idea, but had to find a way to reframe the concept outside of the concept of ‘socialism’ which was a no-no back then (even more so than now).  He was never able to do this, and the idea languished through the generations.  The next big step forward, however, was in the Lyndon Johnson administration, when Medicare was established in 1965.  Indeed, LBJ looms large in a couple of the works at this show.  Despite his horrific mistakes (the escalation of the Vietnam War) Kolker memorializes him as a politician who could bring both sides of the aisle together and get meaningful social programs up and running. 

I liked how Kolker took this obscure painting and transformed it into a serious reflection on the factors involved in making a significant social change.  I also like the various facts and stories he presents about the ACA.  For instance, he points out that the “Individual Mandate” (the law that each person must obtain coverage) was initially a Republican idea.  Yet, for some reason, suddenly the Republicans used the concept of the “Individual Mandate” to try to stop the ACA in the Supreme Court.   Indeed, doing a bit of research I discovered that the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think-tank) first proposed the individual mandate idea in 1989.

Kolker is a strong proponent of the ACA and believes that with time all the kinks will be worked out and society, as a whole, will benefit.  If everyone is covered with something, even Medicaid, hospitals will, for instance, no longer feel compelled to pad bills for previous non-payments.  Yet, Kolker also points out that about 3 million people in NY City, out of about 8 million people, possess Medicaid.  This seems to point to the issue of the widening income gap in the USA and the inability of the business sector and government to collaborate on effective anti-poverty programs. The huge number of people using Medicaid seems to indicate that the ACA alone, will not be effective. Coming away from this show which was meant to challenge us to think about health care issues, it seemed to me that the ACA needs to be a part of a coherent program meant to ensure that more Americans can gain the financial means to live more meaningful lives.

So let’s say that Kolker’s homage to the history of affordable and universal healthcare is an unfinished masterpiece.   Indeed, there seems to be space left in the primary painting for emerging figures.  Hopefully he’ll be able to paint them into the picture sooner rather than later.