Sunday, April 27, 2014

Peter Dreher at Koenig and Clinton Gallery - Painting a universe on glass per day

When the koto – a stringed musical instrument - was introduced to Japan from China (hundreds of years ago), it was immediately embraced by Buddhist monks.  They were not especially musically inclined, however.  They realized that mastering the koto took immense self-awareness and self-discipline and that learning this instrument would have a beneficial training effect – mastering the koto would mean the greater development of the types of skills they sought for their type of ascetic yet worldly-engaged lifestyle.  Looking at the work of Peter Dreher at Koenig and Clinton, my first thought was that his daily effort to paint the same empty glass, day in and day out, follows in this type of tradition. He has been painting the same glass every day for nigh 40 years now.  Usually artists paint to represent something or they paint to express or demonstrate an inner state or situation.  Dreher’s work seems to fit into another category completely.

I guess the significance of the work could be in the fact that just by the artist representing the same object every day, we, the viewers of the work, have to focus on what is NOT being conveyed. These individual glasses do not measure or record inner growth or development.  They do not express the inner state of the artist at the time of the painting.  If one really wants to be quite frank, one could say that, to the viewer, they just really record the continued existence of Peter Dreher.   So in painting the same benign object every day, is Dreher trying to deliberately lose himself in a process totally disconnected from himself? 

Others who have written about Dreher say that he is trying to see the same thing in a fresh manner each day.  This interpretation also seems to work.  Each day we tend to see the same things and the world slowly disappears to us through too much familiarity.  It could be that Dreher  challenges himself, each day, to be engaged in as direct a manner as possible with the objects of the world around him.  This reminds me of a quote by Teilhard de Chardin: “Throughout my life, by means of my life, the world has little by little caught fire in my sight until, aflame all around me, it has become almost luminous from within…the diaphany of the divine at the heart of a universe on fire.”   In a similar way, Dreher seems to be painting the same image in an attempt to make the outer world more luminous each day than less luminous.

A big question becomes, therefore, is this really a random object Dreher is painting?  Shouldn’t we think about the fact that he’s painting a glass especially since a glass contains several features that make it perfect for this type of exercise?  For instance, a glass not only is transparent, but it can reflect its surroundings and it also reveals itself as a substantial object.  It’s something real that allows one to look through it as well as observe reflections on it.  So every day that Dreher paints this glass, he is not really painting a glass – he is painting the limits of perceived reality.  Each painting becomes a daily contemplation of how light reveals, penetrates and is reflected.  Each painting of the glass is like an exercise in philosophical epistemology (theory of knowledge).  Furthermore, we cannot discount the fact that the glass assists in the sustenance of human life – it has a quite mundane but essential function in each of our lives.  So the glass as an aid to the daily survival of Dreher combines with Dreher’s need to keenly perceive the ‘universe on fire’ daily and perhaps this is de rigueur for the next step, looking inside of ourselves with greater confidence and vision. Perhaps the more one reflects on the limits of what can be perceived, the next logical step is to look inside.

Actually, I feel an affinity to Dreher. I often pick art to write about primarily because I really don’t understand it upon first view.  I began my own little ‘art blog’ because it began to bother me that I would go to a gallery and just vaguely understand a piece or realize that a piece ‘appealed’ to me for superficial reasons.  It dawned on me that all of us do this too much each day.  We allow the world to engage us on a surface level and do not take the invitation to take the time to dive deeper – and this invitation is always proffered.  Writing these reviews has become an exercise for me to dig deeper every time I come across a piece or a body or work by an artist which seems to possess much more that we might glean from a superficial perusal. I feel that if the artist has taken his/her process seriously enough, and has put the time into the creation of something new and potentially transformative, I ‘owe it’ to the artist (and myself) to really ‘see’ his/her work, or at least to struggle with it on a meaningful level. 

What’s shocking to me is that nobody really pushes us to dig deeper; we don’t push each other to do this.  So to a great extent I feel I understand Dreher’s hardcore approach to seeing reality is also an invitation (or push) to us to begin our own hardcore processes.  Basically Dreher invites each of us to engage the world more deeply – to see it and feel it beyond the level of routine.  Even if we are forced into a routine, there is always so much more we can draw from the experience if we make an effort that few, unfortunately, seem to make.

A video I found about the artist:

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Photos of caves where mass suicides occurred in Okinawa: Gama Caves by Osamu James Nakagawa at sepiaEYE

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To this day the governments of South Korea and China feel that Japan has never fully taken responsibility for the atrocities it committed in World War II.  For their part, many Japanese feel that amends have been made and apologies tendered and that other Asian countries may have various ulterior political motives for dredging up aspects of a war that ended almost 70 years ago.  Yet, the current right-wing government of Japan, headed by Shinzo Abe, seems to continually make or encourage provocative gestures toward countries victimized by the war. 

Osamu James Nakagawa has been interested in the history and geography of Okinawa for some time and has had previous gallery shows and books published of photos from this region.  Indeed, his Gama Caves photos constitute the third of a trilogy of shows and books about Okinawa (from which his wife hails). 

Inspired by a report that atrocities from the Battle of Okinawa may be edited out of Japanese history text books, Nakagawa decided to visit and photograph the Gama Caves there. These were caves where thousands of native Okinawans died during the battle in April of 1945, in which the US launched one of the largest amphibious landings of the war, preceded by one of the most brutal bombardments.

Initially Okinawans took to these caves for protection.  The bombardment by US naval guns was so severe, and so thorough, that the Okinawans called it “The Typhoon of Steel.”  US military observers expressed doubts that anyone could have lived through the bombardment.  The inhabitants of the caves, however, who survived the American onslaught, were not allowed to simply go home once it became apparent that the Japanese military was going to lose.  

Okinawans were then informed that they were Japanese citizens (they had been swallowed up by Japan in the late 1800s) and were forced to fight to the death against American forces, prompting thousands of Okinawans to simply commit group suicides through various means in the caves (often by smothering each other or using hand grenades given to them by the Japanese). There are some stories that Japanese soldiers required such suicides as they, themselves, were going to die and were not going to leave anyone else behind.

Nakagawa does not go into the Gama Caves as a historian or archeologist.  He is not looking for validation of a historical record nor is he collecting evidence.  He accepts the story of the mass suicides as legitimate as well as the facts of the American bombardment and the use of the caves by the Japanese military for defense and hospital purposes.  The caves were a great underground stage in which acts of absolute horror occurred unknown to most of the world.  There is little or any photographic documentation of these horrors from the time.  The stories have been passed down through the generations by Okinawans, not recorded in official Japanese or American history.  To me, he arrives late, but he arrives reverent and deeply sad, going into the caves as a personal act of compassion to express his deep sympathies and sense of loss and horror for those who were brutally forced to die by two superpowers who viewed the Okinawan people as peripheral to their own national concerns.

The true horror from these photos seems to be that no trace can be found of the horrors that occurred in those caves. The caves are beautiful and serene. I’m reminded of what Peter Weiss has the Marquis de Sade say in his play Marat/Sade: “Every death, even the cruelest death, drowns in the total indifference of nature. Nature itself would watch unmoved if we destroyed the entire human race.  I hate nature, this passionless spectator, this unbreakable ice-berg face that can bear everything. This goads us to greater and greater acts.”

The peace and beauty of the caves demands, however, our human response and I think this is the ‘theme’ of the photos.  In response to nature’s indifference, we are required to speak the truth and remember and to allow these horrific events to move us continually to the extent that we simply have to live our lives more meaningfully and compassionately and militantly against acts of aggression and inhumanity. To me, the caves represent every stage on which an atrocity has been committed and potentially forgotten.  We don’t remember, for instance, the 2 million Vietnamese we killed between 1964 and 1973. Or what about the Filipinos we killed in the early 20th century so we could give that country its ‘independence.’ The Philippines and Vietnam have rebuilt their societies and moved on.  But we don’t even remember slavery or the genocide against the Native Americans as anything other than factual information.  Tourists wander into the Little Bighorn and take photos of themselves among tombstones of Custer’s soldiers so they can say they were there.

So to me, these photos are a type of process art by Nakagawa.  It’s the gesture that seems most meaningful. In response to the fading memory of the horrors of World War II and in response to the utter lack of historical attention given to the suffering of the people of Okinawa, he takes a stand. He goes into the caves to pay respect and consideration for the gratuitous and unspeakable suffering that happened here.  He then offers these photos to us, for our reflection on our own attitudes toward the horrors of the past and how we view the horrors of today.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Letters from Home by Jason Bryant at Porter Contemporary in Chelsea

I have the feeling that most war movies are really religious epics in disguise.  You have the hero’s journey in virtually each one. The young man leaves home, faces adversity, risks death, kills the enemy, comes home and gets married.  In literature Odysseus was the first guy to really be represented as doing this, as far as I can tell, and he became the archetype of the reluctant warrior who is torn from home and now journeys back home.  The ‘masculine’ is separated from the ‘feminine’, wanders and kills, then rejoins the ‘feminine’ in domestic bliss.  In allegorical literature the ‘masculine’ represents a desire for fulfillment while the ‘feminine’ is the object of desire, or the fulfillment itself.  It’s the eternal allegory and Hollywood has cashed in on it royally. 

For his latest series at Porter Contemporary, Jason Bryant draws from a forgotten canon of Hollywood war-themed masterpieces and adds skateboard iconography to many of the classic images from these films. Although Bryant explains that he is merely combining two things he has loved (old films and skateboarding) the skateboarding iconography becomes kind of an additional language or narration to the pieces. The iconography can be considered an affirmation of the image, a contradiction of the image or a further elaboration on what is happening.  The skateboard iconography is like the ancient Greek you see scribbled on Byzantine icons – you have no idea what it means, but it looks cool and adds meaning to the image primarily because you can’t understand it.  You have to investigate all the options of what language can and cannot do in relation to the iconic image.

Also, what’s interesting is that the initial image in each of Bryant’s paintings is not emotionally ‘authentic’.  That’s Marlon Brando in one painting, with a look of ethical confusion on his face, not a real Nazi officer who is beginning to question his allegiance to the Third Reich.  It’s like the Hollywood star elevates the moral conflict to a higher level for us. It’s not just a moral conflict, it is BRANDO acting a moral conflict.  This is a REAL moral conflict, baby, because Brando’s doing it!  The authentic is taken by Hollywood, made inauthentic by having an actor do it, which then makes it super-authentic.  It now becomes something for us to file away and shoot for, potentially, one day.  Hollywood takes the simple and real and makes it the ‘normative’.  This is why, I guess, when anything unusual happens, or anyone does anything out of the ordinary, the first thing people say is, “It was just like a movie! I thought I was in a movie!”  It could be that Bryant is parodying this whole process in that a tacky rainbow and cartoon figures accompany Brando in this particular piece. Or, is this, in fact, a type of ironic validation? Should we view the skateboarding symbols as judgments which are sincere or as signs of tacky contempt?

In “Knowing This Will Be the Last Time,” we have Cary Grant as the eternal masculine and Jean Harlow as the eternal feminine.  Grant is looking sharp in his military uniform, staring ahead of him, aware of the great dangers and risks ahead.  Harlow has closed her eyes and tries to savor the last moments she will experience with him. You know that they know that Cary’s not coming back.  Actually, he will be coming back because he signed a contract with Metro Goldwyn Meyer, but he won’t be back in this film.  This image is taken from the film “Suzy” co-written by Dorothy Parker.  The image of Grant staring off at his fate while Harlow looks inside herself is captured so perfectly you could scream…it’s so mawkish it’s beautiful.  This is what a departing warrior looks like. Bryant surrounds the image of these departing lovers with literal flames surrounding a burning sword.

In this show, the Hollywood images seem to tell you what ‘real’ or ‘allegorical’ situations look like (or should look like).  When we kiss, we should kiss with destiny in mind, like Garbo and John Gilbert; when we struggle with a moral issue, we should let our jowls drop and stare into space like Brando and suffer.      The skateboarding symbols always seem to provide a wry commentary on this whole process.  They can brand an image with coolness or contempt, but it is often hard to determine which judgment is being offered…in fact, many times, the symbols seem to connote a mixture of admiration and contempt,  which makes all of these pieces by Bryant very cool indeed.   


Friday, April 18, 2014

Steven Naifeh at Mana Contemporary and Leila Heller - sculpture as 'via negativa'?

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The “via negativa” (negative way) is a concept which indicates that you can only really know what God is by knowing what God is not.  By establishing a number of indisputable statements for what God simply cannot be, you begin to develop an intuitive sense of what God really is, although you cannot articulate this awareness directly.

Looking at other reviews of Steven Naifeh’s work, folks point out that he was inspired by Islamic geometrical designs and western abstraction. That’s fine, that’s true and you can win at Jeopardy! with that kind of answer, but I like to try to figure out what folks are trying to convey in their work – to find some kind of meaning for myself.  That’s the challenge of art, isn’t it?  That’s why we should have greater art education programs in our schools – if you wanna get those neurons popping and those dendrites branching, interpreting art is de rigueur. 

So, what is Naifeh potentially doing?  I’d like to focus on one type of Naifeh’s work – the pieces where squares of increasing size create a central empty space surrounded by a type of leaf pattern.  To me, this type of work by Steven Naifeh at Leila Heller and at Mana Contemporary is a type of via negativa.  We can think of the squares as ‘negative statements’ and the empty space as ‘that which can’t be articulated’.  Or we can even say that positive statements can become negative statements when we encounter various aspects of our inner lives/inner realities.  Positive statements often become utterly useless, and therefore negative, in a true process of inner discernment and humane development. When we introspect, and when we try to come to terms with our emotions, motives and cognitive processes, it’s the empty spaces we are looking for, not the categorical ‘true’ statements. 

Scientists are using brain scanners to map every cubic millimeter of the brain’s physiology and they are not telling us much which is useful.  They do not know what morality is or from where it sprang.  They can’t tell us why we believe in moral or spiritual development or whether this is even possible. The meaning that virtually everyone seeks is not touched by science or even acknowledged. They say there’s a ‘god gene’ but they can’t explain, as Dostoyevsky once wrote somewhere, how we came up with the amazing concepts of infinite forgiveness and unconditional love.  Our genes do not point to this, my friend.  Take your ‘god gene’ and stuff it.  Our genes compel us to eat, procreate and compete.  These truths, basically, become baloney sausage when we find the empty spaces that allow us to move beyond what science says we are.  

So I think the key to understanding this stuff by Naifeh is that he uses squares and gets a kind of empty floral or solar pattern using a via negativa approach. So, why squares?

Well, I think the square represents or symbolizes ‘order’. It’s a type of perfection.  It’s also like a brick – it’s something you use to build stuff with.  It’s made of four equal sides and four seems to be a very important symbolic number. There are four seasons, four directions, there were, supposedly, four elements from which everything was made.  Four seems to be a very practical thing, an earthy, real number.  It’s something concrete, something you can touch and build with. Animals have four legs, tables have four legs – four represents stability and strength.

So the coincidence that you can take these building blocks and by arranging them in a certain order you can get a stylized version of the sun is what provides the meaning – by creating a critical mass of these squares you get the negative image of, basically, a solar body – something that is self-generating in its creativity and benevolence.

Why the sun?  Well, the sun is probably the most important religious symbol ever created.  And, speaking of the Middle East, which religion was the predominant religion of that region, until wiped out by an army?  Zoroastrianism, the religion where the sun represented everything good and beneficial to mankind.  The sun provides light and heat and is responsible for the development of all life.  It creates light itself and it is mysteriously self-generating in its heat and warmth.  Solar gods became the chief gods in many pantheons.  Indeed, some folks believe “Jesus” himself, is, basically, a type of solar god.  You know what happens on the 25th of December, don’t you?  Three days after the solstice, after three days of stagnation (death), after the darkest night of the year, the sun begins its ‘rebirth’ in the sky.  Coincidentally, and they don’t tell you this in Sunday school, Horus, Osiris, Mithra and other assorted holy folks were also all born on December 25th. On the solstice the sun seems to ‘die’ and three days later starts to gain strength again.

So we get a visual paradox to approximate an internal paradox.  The more we pile up these bricks the more we begin to value the space these bricks inadvertently create.  Stacking these squares together gives us an empty space that clearly seems to represent the sun. The more we rely on reason and positive statements, the more we realize that we have to go beyond this for real understanding and greater inner meaning and progress. The build-up or placement of the squares is like an elaborate attempt at system building, but the completely constructed system fails magnificently, revealing the truth as an opening or a passage.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Judy Chicago's Birthday Celebration at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City

As Jeffrey Deitch (former Director of MOCA) said at Mana Contemporary recently, if you were to think of the most prominent of contemporary American artists, Judy Chicago would have to be considered in the top five. This is true even though stuffy traditionalists like the Art Institute of Chicago, MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum do not have a single one of her pieces in their collections.  Why is she so important yet so neglected? 

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Well, she single-handedly challenged the old-boy network of American art, she legitimized the feminine experience/perspective in the art world in America and she virtually created the concept of ‘feminist art’.  Why she’s been neglected by the major institutions was one of the topics when Mr. Deitch sat down with her at Mana Conemporary on the 12th of this month for a Q and A session with an audience that had come for a celebration of the artist’s 75th birthday.  Judy ‘Chicago’ was, by the way, born Judy Cohen, but changed her name to “Chicago” as a way to eschew the prevalent naming-system based on the adoption of male last names.

Mana Contemporary, in case you’ve never been to this amazing place, is a huge art complex that provides exhibition space, artist studios and a performance theater.  The rationale for the place was to create a type of artists’ ‘kibbutz’ where a ‘hive’ system or ‘campus system’ allows cross-fertilization and endless inspiration as well as the meaningful production of cutting-edge art in various genres.

Deitch began the informal chat by pointing out that Chicago had “…extended art into the social realm…” and unabashedly attempted to “…use art to change society.”  Chicago explained that her orientation toward using art as a means to have an impact in the world came from her dad, who had been a labor organizer. Unfortunately, her dad was a victim of the McCarthy era and suffered greatly due to his political convictions and actions. 

Judy mentioned that due to the cruel treatment of her father she had to choose, as a child, between “…my own experience and what the world was telling me…” because folks like her father were being publicly branded as traitors and worse.  At this time she developed a sense of intellectual independence and felt that even if everyone believed one thing, she would have to have the strength to take a dissident position, if necessary. She openly attributed the strong values that she has shown in her work to her father and stated that her dad inculcated a sense in her that she needed to make a contribution to the lives of others. 

From what I understand, just as her dad inculcated a sense of moral rectitude and righteousness in her, her mom encouraged her artistic abilities.  She began drawing when she was 3 and first visited the Art Institute when she was 5. She soon began taking weekly classes there.  Interestingly, and this drew a chuckle from the crowd, she stated that when she started making weekly trips to the Art Institute of Chicago, she simply didn’t notice that all the art there was by men.

Chicago also pointed out that her career was not propelled in a traditional manner; indeed, the established and respected folks of the art world made it extremely difficult for her to gain greater public access.  Deitch pointed out that half of Chicago’s UCLA art class was comprised of women, but after graduation, Judy Chicago was, basically, the only woman artist trying to make it in the LA art scene.

Chicago even mentioned the name of a famous curator who would visit a studio which she was sharing and who would look at the work of the two guys there but not her pieces.  Her goal, like the goal of most artists, was to be taken seriously.  Chicago stated, “I was not a careerist artist.”  Yet, she would continually create meaningful work and “…nothing would happen.” So in those early, dark days, Chicago felt that all she could really do was stick to her guns, create more work and wait for an opportunity for greater exposure.

In discussing the male-dominated art world, Deitch stated that many people seem to have a misconception.  He asserted that there is no “pope” of the art world and that art in America is, in fact, a very “open system” where, potentially, even one blogger can have a positive impact on an artist’s reputation.  So why the long-standing exclusion of women?  Deitch seemed to deny any overt collusion but said that the lingering situation comes from all angles, and it is not due to a small cabal.  Chicago countered by saying that this system seems to exist because “…people don’t feel they have the power to fight.”   She recommended that the progressive gallery orientation toward ‘all-women’ shows should be abandoned for a system of ‘equal public space’ in which we get a more balanced percentage of women artists vis a vis men. She stated that women artists are still forced to create around a male-centered narrative and Deitch pointed out, as I mentioned above, that Chicago’s works are not found in The Art Institute of Chicago, MoMA nor The Metropolitan Museum, although she is one of the most famous artists in America today.  Thankfully the Brooklyn Museum has provided a permanent space for her iconic ‘Dinner Party’ – a massive project from the 70s in which she created 39 ceramic plates, each bearing a different type of stylized vagina, to represent the history of women throughout the ages.

The purpose of the retrospective at Mana seems to be to show that Chicago’s work stands on its own, separate from her activism in the art world – basically she should be famous for her art and not necessarily for her activism.  Yet, it seems indisputable that Chicago’s legacy will involve the fact that she brought greater attention to ingrained sexism in the arts and she added ‘the feminine’ as an autonomous category into art.  Women had been forced to ‘integrate’ into art following male patterns or narratives, but Chicago was a part of the movement in the early 1970s that recognized ‘the feminine’ as a unique experience and something even potentially healing to society. I’m reminded of Carol Gilligan’s book (of a decade later) In a Different Voice, which showed that in regard to ethics, men believed in ‘justice’ and ‘punishment’ while women tended to believe in ‘mercy’ and ‘forgiveness’.  Chicago seems to have started this trend in the arts – the feminine artist could bring feminine/feminist principles to this field and help humanize art even more.  Indeed, implicit in developing a feminine perspective is the fact that art can be open to multiple narratives from various social, ethnic and gender sources.

Throughout the show you can see that Chicago was using forms and colors that were not a part of what goaded her to engage in what she called ‘male drag.’  In the LA art scene she noticed that there were even ‘male’ colors that were predominantly chosen by the favored artists and she bucked this trend early by using what were considered to be more feminine colors.  The show contains two of her early “Car Hoods” and progresses through to more recent work.

The two pieces that were most meaningful to me were a video of a pyrotechnic display in which Chicago had ‘feminine’ colored fireworks shot into the night sky to “soften and feminize” the environment and a large painting dealing with the birth of the universe.  Think about it – what is the prevailing scientific theory for the creation of the universe? Basically the Big Bang Theory is like a metaphor for a giant explosion of semen from an anonymous, mysterious, eternal penis from which everything in the world springs.  So even astronomy is dominated by male-centered narratives.  Chicago counters this with a narrative of creation based on ‘birth’ and not a ‘big bang.’  The ending text written on the piece is: “A last wail sounded in the universe as woman was born on earth.”   This seems to convey the extent to which the feminine has always stood as a counter-balance or force against the most aggressive and destructive of patterns, not just in humanity, but in nature itself.   

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

6 very serious Chinese artists at Klein Sun (co-written by Jackie Zhu): Simple Life Is Interesting!

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By calling the show she curated “Simple Life Is Interesting!” Janet Fong hints at the thread running through the work of all 6 Chinese artists at this Klein Sun show.  Implicitly and explicitly each artist expresses reservations about traditional methods of representation and expression and often aims for a more direct engagement with the viewer based on personal experience. My intrepid art buddy, Jackie Zhu, and I saw that within the burgeoning and lucrative “Chinese art market” you’ve got truly reflective folks who are not buying into the commercialism, greed and exploitation, but who are legitimately pursuing means by which they can live and work meaningfully while interacting on a deeper level with others.

Li Liao, for instance, uses a smartphone in his two pieces here. So he’s not using any specialized art stuff/equipment and he only began with a vague plan for both of his pieces in the show – he’s letting stuff happen and hoping for the best. The implication seems to be that traditional methods and concepts have failed or are now boring or trite to us, and we have to stretch the field of art by being open to unexpected possibilities that life itself gives us.

In one piece he secretly records a heated conversation between his girlfriend’s father and himself.  We hear this conversation and see the dialogue projected onto a screen in a dark room.  The dad simply doesn’t want his daughter to marry an artist – not a real artist anyway. The dad is a publicist living the good life and openly rejects his potential son in law.  The artist could just as readily be attacking the dad for choosing a safe, comfortable life, but the dad uses his high status position to attack a guy who, apparently, refused to make commercial compromises and has suffered in practical terms for doing so.  The dad is in the position of power and reproach because he dominates his daughter’s life and consequently now has some element of control over the artist’s life.  The dad sits smugly beyond reproach and berates Li for not having any ‘real’ skills or even a studio. 

When the artist points out he has been reviewed in a couple periodicals, the father denigrates the periodicals for their lack of respectability.  To make matters worse, the families are acquainted with each other and that dad openly despises the poor family that Li comes from, mocking them repeatedly.   The girlfriend has also been selling clothes on Taobao (the Chinese ebay) just to obtain funds for the both of them, which is also used as fodder against the artist.  My favorite line of the dialogue: Father: “You have no morality, no ability and no job!”  Artist: “What do morality and ability have to do with having a job?”

In another piece, Li travels from his apartment to the Windows of the World in Shenzhen – a popular tourist attraction that few locals bother going to.  The piece is called “Retreated to the Windows of the World” because Li points his iPhone 4 at his face as he walks, so as he walks forward he sees what’s ahead of him through his own eyes, but he also sees what he is leaving behind through the viewer of the iPhone at the same time (this is also what we see).  We see the stuff he passes, but we never see the stuff he’s heading toward.  The piece is over 2 hours long, and the chunks that I saw did not reveal anything overly dramatic, which was probably the point.  This was a safe pilgrimage to a safe place where all risk has been removed and you do not get any semblance of cultural authenticity.  He was journeying to a tourist trap – what kind of drama can you get from that? Does Windows of the World stand in for the current ‘safe’ and ‘respectable’ art market?  Possibly.

Liu Chuang, like Liao, refuses to use artistic stuff either.  He literally stops people on the street and tries to buy everything the person has on him/her at the time. He then takes everything from the person and displays it on a special platform on the floor.  So we look at the presentation and it’s kind of presented as if it’s art, and it’s in a gallery, but it’s not art, it’s real.  You get a real sense of the guy he bought these items from.  First of all, as Elizabeth Misitano from Klein Sun pointed out to us, you have to consider the type of person who would be willing to say yes to this proposal.   In this case, you see a cheap cotton/poly blend shirt and very cheap polyester pants (which do not even match the shirt).  You see the gentleman’s cell phone, which is a cheap, overly used probably 10 year old relic.  There is a letter the man has hand written about a need to obtain an ID card due to some type of problem he has had with the police.  His white socks are filthy from excessive walking in inexpensive gym shoes and he has very very old photos of himself with his children, from when they were all younger.  You feel a connection and a divorce from this person at the same time.  You feel his daily struggle in your guts and you are moved.  You compare your own daily struggle to his and wonder what your stuff would look like on this white board in this art gallery.

No Survivors is a duo of guys named Zong Ning and Wang Yang) and they seem a bit more openly cynical about the art world.  They provide a quite clever and amusing art board game.  You roll the dice and move forward.  You might land on a spot where your scooter gets stolen and now you have no inexpensive way to travel around the city on your limited budget (move back 3 spaces). 

Or, you might land on a space that allows you to work for peanuts as an apprentice to an established artist who has been churning out the same product for 20 years (move forward 5 spaces).  As you get deeper and deeper into the game, questions of what you are expressing or shooting for as an artist become replaced by purely commercial concerns and if you are not careful you might land on a space where your entire studio gets dismantled by the police in the middle of the night (do you move forward or back from this? When it happened to Ai WeiWei he gained international stature).  

The implication is that stepping into the commercial art world can actively vitiate the process of self-discovery and engagement that should be the basis of art. It is replaced by concerns about fame and comfort.

Pak Sheung Chuen carries around a notebook and jots down little observations or ideas for future works of art.  Statements he jotted down for a complete 7 days are recorded in English translation on some of the walls of Klein Sun. Some statements I randomly jotted down were: “Lyrics don’t make me cry, the voice does.” Top floors of buildings are temples, bottom floors are churches.” “The moon in the daytime is like the sun.” “Put yourself in someone’s eyes” “Turn a logo into a seal of Buddha.” 

These statements are, interestingly, placed on the wall in a box format, as if the artist is literally ‘trying to think outside of the box’ but finds a limitation in his own thoughts. His thoughts ultimately form right angles and descend or ascend into a prescribed pattern.  They take this boxlike form showing empty space within and a huge outward expanse of space without, implying the limits of language and inviting movement into broader spaces provided by real transformative experience. 

Finally, Yang Xinguang takes traditional Chinese rice paper, seems to coat a bull whip with black ink or paint and then he literally whips the paper.  You see the black imprints of the twined whip on the rice paper itself.  The obvious interpretation is that this is process art in which he is expressing scorn for this traditional means by which to represent something, but given the principle of yin and yang (active and receptive) that permeates Chinese culture, the white rice paper is the yang (receptive) element being subjected to a type of force and abuse by the not just active but violently active (yin) principle, represented by the ink applied through a whip. Art is no longer a harmonious combination of yin and yang but an abusive relationship between these principles. 

He also presents a large gold panel with scratches and indentations.  This is gold which is usually valued and hoarded, here it is violently attacked.  He presents his own little Wagnerian Ring Cycle in which he cautions against the pursuit of money and fame, indeed, he seems quite angered by the presence of the gold panel.  He also presents little dioramas of what might be called a broken forest.  He has big chunks of individual rocks on which evergreen trees have been bent through some type of force.  The implication seems to be somewhat like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle - in the process of viewing nature and representing nature, we destroy nature.  The process of art, in this case, does not serve to represent and convey something meaningful, in the very process of trying to represent and convey meaning, we can garble and wreck that which is valuable and meaningful.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Art is never just art...Magic Part II - Initiation by Alison Blickle at Kravets/Wehby Gallery

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In James Frazer’s “The Golden Bough”, he makes the theory that all mythology stems from ancient magical rituals.  This is, in fact, the ‘other’ theory about the origin of mythology – most folks are familiar with the Jungian/Joseph Campbell theory that people share subconscious ‘archetypes’ around the world.  Frazer, however, did a yeoman’s job of empirically citing and cataloguing magical practices around the world, and throughout history, to support his theory.  Among other things, he shows that the concept of ‘birth-death-resurrection’ began as a magical ritual to ensure good crops during humankind’s agricultural phase.  This ritual morphed into a story (Osiris, for example, embodied the life force of vegetation which grows, is cut down and then resurrected) and when people flooded into cites, they abandoned magic but kept the stories based on magic, which became further developed as mythology. Stripped of magic and planted in the city, mythology became the language for a new type of inner spiritual journey.

So what’s interesting about Alison Blickle’s pieces at Kravets Wehby Gallery is that she is taking the traditional concept (documented by Frazer so well) of magic and applying it to a type of inner process that seems to be the primary promise of most spiritual/religious systems. Magic is no longer the ritual to ensure good crops, better health or a smooth childbirth.  The midwife from the middle ages who brought with her various secret herbs and magical practices is, in fact, in these paintings, but seems to be there to help initiate and guide the inner journey, with the aid of stone sculptures and sundry symbols (kind of like the way folks stood by in the 60s to make sure an LSD trip would not go too far south).

We see this most clearly in her “Fighting with the Shadow” (not shown) piece where one woman seems to be undergoing a St. Theresa type ecstasy, curled toes and all, while another gently holds her down.  The ecstatic woman caresses a stone sculpture which is part orb and part staircase. Indeed, the same types of symbolic objects that one sees in the paintings are scattered all over the gallery, as if the artist is inviting the public to also partake in the journey represented on canvas.  She seems to be saying, “This stuff is real!  This journey is possible!  This stuff on the walls and on the floor really means something goddarnit! This is important! This is not just art, in fact, art is never just art!”

Many of her female figures are covered with body paint replicating art deco designs, which, it seems, were based on Navajo and ancient Egyptian patterns.  It’s as if the characters in the painting are reclaiming the arcane value of designs treated as purely decorative in our world and literally clothing themselves in this for their inner trek.  The outer-trappings represent the inner process the characters are shooting for.  They have understood the patterns and the symbols and simply need to take them from the realm of outside concepts and translate them into inner states of being. In many paintings there seems to be an expert and an initiate, thus the name of the show.

In fact, there’s a lot of interesting theory behind this show.  In the program notes it seems that Blickle has been inspired by “French occultist and writer Eliphas Levi’s 1860 book on the historical use of
sacred imagery in art” as well as by the Pre-Raphaelites, Post Impressionists and the symbolic sculptures made by James Lee Byers in the 1980s.  Indeed, in the program notes it is mentioned that, viewed broadly, the show can even be about the extent to which art can succeed or is doomed to fail as a means of capturing meaningful and transformative experiences and engaging others with them, or even ‘initiating’ others into the process being depicted.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Genesis by Daniel Hernandez at Kim Foster Gallery

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Εν Τούτῳ Νίκα - In this sign you will conquer!

These were, allegedly, the Greek words Constantine saw in the sky, which led to his conversion to Christianity before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (313 ACE).  According to the legend, his troops entered the battle under the banner of Christianity and bearing the sign of the chi-rho (a two-letter symbol for the concept of ‘Christ’) on their shields.  This would, therefore, mark the first time an army was led into battle under the Christian banner.  Ostensibly, in Daniel Hernandez’s latest show at Kim Foster (as he explained it to me), he parodies this use of Christianity (throughout history) as a rallying cry to battle and a banner under which to fight.

Yet, I think there’s much more to his pieces. His work also parodies the religious quest itself – which often pits the ‘quester’ against the ‘adversary’ using military metaphors.  His work also questions what the social functions of a major organized religion are and can become and how it might become possible for entire cultures, who share the same basic values, to go after each other with the sole purpose of destroying each other’s religion.  In his pieces we see Christianity as a cultural marker that motivates confrontational and destructive action at the same time that we see the individual spiritual quest represented purely in aggressive and militaristic terms.

Modern scholars are, by the way, beginning to believe the story of Constantine’s conversion to be a hoax, in that the Arch of Constantine in Rome only bears Mithraic and ‘pagan’ religious references in regard to Constantine’s victory.  If Christianity was such a factor in his victory, why the heck aren’t there any crosses or chi-rhos on the Victory Arch?  It seems more likely that various social pressures later compelled Constantine to embrace Christianity, and like in most corrupt bureaucracies, the Roman authorities merely concocted a dramatic cover story and backdated stuff.  The Templars, believe it or not, also adopted the saying “In this sign you will conquer!” when they were battling the Muslims in Jerusalem and surrounding environs.  So folks definitely used the banner of Christendom to charge into battle – sometimes against the heathen and sometimes against fellow believers, whether Constantine was the first or not. But the Constantine story, hoax that it seems to be, clearly set the stage for the type of future Christian-inspired battle carnage Hernandez pokes fun at.

You definitely see this happening in Hernandez’ pieces.  You’ve got the religious icons and the little figures fighting under them.  The clear implication seems to be that within the overall rubric of the central religious icon, the battle rages – for the icon and under the icon’s protection.  Edward Gibbon, of course, claimed that Christianity destroyed the Roman Empire because Christians were egalitarian pacifists.  Au contraire Ed, you only studied one aspect of this religion.  Recent research suggests that Christians made up sizable portions of Constantine’s army, were dang good fightin’ men, and may have, ultimately, been THE pressure to force an adoption of their religion on the state. 

It’s true there is an egalitarian ethic in the Gospels, but who, other than Quakers, ever took that seriously, I mean, really seriously?  Christianity became the ideal religion for the Roman Empire because it allowed a social transformation that gave a moribund system one last chance at survival.  Christianity and not paganism became the perfect ‘city’ religion because of the social values it promoted – fairness, toleration, mercy tempering justice – these were the principles this religion gave the Roman Empire (not hippy free love).  Equality never meant social equality, it meant equality in the eyes of God.  So actively participating in the operations of a stratified society – including military service – was never anti-Christian, especially after Augustine’s “justifiable war” theory.  History shows Christian guys became pretty fearsome warriors a la Chuck Martel, Karl der Gross, Dick the Lionhearted, Audie Murphy et al.    

But as Kim Foster pointed out in her notes to the show, the show is called “Genesis” for a couple reasons – one of which is that the painter hearkens back to the days when the Sega Genesis hit the market and helped revolutionize computer games.  I was never into this stuff, but based on some research it looks as if the Sega Genesis made battles look more realistic and made enemies tougher to kill. 

So what I think is hilarious about the paintings is that Hernandez establishes a direct parallel between the video game soldiers destroying their enemies and the belief that attaining to Christian perfection is a type of spiritual battle in which you confront and destroy an (inner) enemy. Paul started all this military metaphor stuff in the Bible.  Gird your loins and all that!  Although Christianity is the religion of peace (aren’t they all!?), even the guys who wrote the “New” Testament liked to envision spiritual ‘combat’ with the ‘enemy’ in military terms.  This stuff is all over Paul’s letters to all the guys he wrote to.  It’s a fight or a struggle and we’re trying to gain spiritual victory the way some little kid was vaporizing monsters on his Sega Genesis.  Our metaphor for spiritual development and elevation to a higher level of being is, basically, a metaphor of conquest and destruction and essentially the same thing as some pimply-faced kid zapping aliens on a computer screen.