Monday, May 26, 2014

Chaos curated by Yue Su and Tianqi Chen

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As Yue Su was finishing her Masters’ thesis (comparing and contrasting gallery models in China and the USA), she was also in the process of clearing out her apartment, with her roommate Tianqi Chen, for their near-future move.  As the living room became more and more sparse an idea began to form.  When they met Iris Xing, a photographer, and learned about her idea for an installation piece, the idea for their “Chaos” show, in their Roosevelt Island apartment, took root.   

The idea of apartment galleries seems to be catching on in some cities in China, and New York City, as a statement against the corporate models under which some of the larger galleries are now being run.  It’s also a protest against the process by which ‘famous’ artists are selected and promoted by the economically powerful galleries.  Basically, apartment galleries are a protest against the rabid commercialism and lust for fame one often sees in contemporary art.  A show like “Chaos” tries to refocus on meaning and connection and not on money or fame.  At this show, I actually asked a couple artists what they would charge if someone wanted to buy their art.  One said, “I don’t know.”  Another said, “A buck.”  So this apartment gallery show was more about community and the sharing of ideas and meaningful interaction than making a profit.

Indeed, this apartment building actually has some real diversity in it and some folks from the building who might not go to a traditional Chelsea gallery even ventured over to take a look.  So folks who might not see themselves as Chelsea gallery hoppers felt comfortable about coming over to a neighbor’s place and checking out Chelsea gallery quality art by three up-and-coming artists: Iris Danlu Xing, Victoria Nikaveron and Xiaoyang Jin.

Iris Xing’s installation piece “Game Over” was the inspiration for the concept and it is located in one of the darkened bedrooms of the apartment.  In her daily rides on the subway she sees so many people playing various types of cell phone games as they ride to work or school.  She’s also a bit near-sighted, so when she sneaks a peek at what her neighbors are doing on their cell phones, she often gets a blurry impressionistic image of some type of goofy, mindless video activity – little blocks falling, creatures running through mazes etc. Then, after the effort to see what a neighbor is doing, she often feels guilty that she surreptitiously struggled just to see blurry blocks or a screen that says: “Game over!”

Indeed, she noticed that “Game over!” is usually displayed after most cell phone games end and it is the point at which the person has to choose whether to put the gizmo down or to continue another game. Invariably Xing notices that the game is never really over as folks just seem to be addicted to doing these mind-numbing activities. It’s as if they cannot even spend 20 minutes with themselves alone with their own thoughts; every moment has to be filled with some electronic stimulation. A person could be reading, thinking, relaxing, memorizing a poem, jotting down journal entries – any number of more meaningful and enriching activities, but, sadly, folks go for the cheap, easy thing that provides no enrichment whatsoever.  The morning transit is time to be thrown away not precious time to be used.    

So in the completely darkened bedroom you see a series of slides dangling from a horizontal string and you are invited to use your own cell phone to provide illumination through the slides to project an image onto the nearby wall.  After struggling to get the right amount of illumination at the right distance and angle from each slide so you can read the image on the wall, just as Xing struggled to spy on the images on her fellow-riders’ cell phones, you realize that each slide is an image of the ending of one of several different video games, the most prominent ending being “Game over!”  So your cell phone itself is used as a means to illuminate the sign “Game over!” This seems to represent a possible turning point where you have finally realized that you have been doing something utterly stupid and that you can no longer go back to this.  It can also be a type of admonition that, yes, the game is over, it should be over and now it’s time to transition to something more relevant to life. 

More broadly the artist can even be criticizing the over-reliance on these electronic gizmos in our lives.  The internet and the iPhone and iPad etc. have provided a huge economic boost and tons of entertainment, yet yearly test scores and the writing skills of young people are in chronic decline.  The SAT test is now even being dumbed down for the internet generation’s lack of high-level vocabulary.  Just what are these continuous electronic innovations giving us?  So “Game over!” is not just an admonition against stupid cell phone games but an admonition that ‘information technology’ might not really be meaningful information technology and that we may have abandoned something that worked for something that is gratifying, makes life “easier” but is, in reality, harmful.

Nikaveron had a few pieces of differing styles present, but the piece you see pictured was my personal favorite.  You see a lot of action in this piece and she told me this work should be viewed more as process art than a representation of anything.  It basically expresses a certain inner state she was in when she completed the work.  You also see homage to Rauschenberg, the Abstract Expressionists and Russian Constructivism in this piece.  She explained that she did this work as an experiment since she is attracted to collage but had never felt confident enough about attempting it.  I like the use of the geometrical objects, implying order and reason and deductive logic, combined with the messy and uncontrollable elements representing what can’t be controlled through formal processes.

Xiaoyang Jin is a young experimental photographer who has a lot of theory behind his work, yet the work, on its own, is visually arresting.  In fact, what he showed at the Chaos show reminded me a bit of some of the work the experimental film-maker Stan Brakhage did with Super-8 film.  At one point Brakhage abandoned the concept of using film to narrate or represent and just scratched into the film stock itself with various sharp objects and then developed the film and ran it through a projector.  One then saw the colors from within the film stock itself come out randomly in brilliant abstract displays.  Like Brakhage, Jin uses a non-professional type of film – he uses the photographic film that was/is used in Polaroid instant cameras.  He literally takes the unused cassette of film and tears it open and then exposes the sheets of film to different types of sea water. 

For instance, in one amazing piece he exposed the film to seawater from Coney Island and obtained a luscious and complex blue composition.  Jin then takes the results of exposing the film and mounts the image on a type of transparency.  This is important to Jin because ‘the screen’ on or through which we look at objects is an important aspect of his work. Here the screen not only reveals an image but is viewable and noticeable itself.  A thin fluorescent light is placed behind the transparency to reveal the abstract image.  

So he abandons the digital camera completely and goes back to the type of film that was commonly used by everyday folks to record their lives (in the pre-internet era) and extracts colors and designs from that film stock. He also explained that the chemical treatment is often the result of some type of physical journey and that the key to the meaning in the art is that the results are totally unpredictable and uncontrollable. The artist shows a type of faith in the process itself, that the process will produce a type of beauty and meaning what we can’t produce through our own efforts.       

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Miller & Shellabarger at Chicago's Cultural Center: Again Gone

I was in Chicago last week and wanted to pass on some info and photos of a great show I caught.

In a previous piece Dutes Miller and Stan Shellabarger (husband/husband) dug two graves, next to each other, with an underground opening allowing them to join hands while lying apart from each other in these dirt holes.  Their work, in general, seems to be about the desire for selfless and eternal union (on a personal and perhaps even community level) and the possibility/impossibility for the fulfillment of this desire.

Their work at the Cultural Center in Chicago (Again Gone) involves two types of body outlines.  Many of the body outlines outline the union of Miller and Shellabarger’s bodies on a two dimensional surface.  The outlines one sees on the walls are due to the afterimage caused by the flash of gunpowder which had outlined their bodies.  The outlines on the floor are made of black oil sunflower seeds.

So the outlines on the walls exist as a result of the expenditure of combustible energy.  The outlines on the ground possess a type of nutrient and untapped energy.  So the wall images seem to represent the effect of our presence in the world, while the floor images seem to represent the capacity for future engagement/effect. Is this the sum total of our lives – explosive effects and a capacity to nourish and enrich each other?  If so, even these meaningful and explosive actions seem ephemeral when depicted as mere outlines of the human form.

Are the artists implying that we start with the capacity to enrich and nourish each other but this energy is expended, instead, in explosive bursts? Yet, the seeds lie on the ground as if outlines of a murder scene.  Are the artists implying a relationship between the wall outlines and the floor outlines and, if so, which is the proper sequence – wall to floor or floor to wall?

The effect of Miller and Shellabarger’s work was quite moving to me and if you are in Chicago or going to Chicago in the near future, please drop by the Cultural Center to see the work in person.  At the Cultural Center you can also see an amazing Tiffany dome and right across Michigan Avenue you can, of course, do the new de rigueur Chicago thing and snap a selfie at “The Bean.” 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Craig Norton at Jim Kempner Fine Art: These old people look so happy

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The key to understanding Craig Norton‘s work at Jim Kempner Fine Art might be in answering why all these old people are so happy.  Indeed, at the show my big question was how everyone my own age could be so miserable and stressed out while these older folks seemed so serene and fulfilled.  And, it’s not just the old folks in the Norton show:  I’ve seen this phenomenon before.

My grandmother was a saintly woman – I never saw her become angry and I noticed that she had the same charm and grace that the elderly have in Norton’s show.  Also, I went through the Catholic school system in Chicago, and I clearly recall some of the older nuns exhibiting this type of inner peace and equanimity.  Sister Stanislaus, you were truly an angel of God when you taught us math.  Sister Gertude, you are long gone, but you still have my thanks for your kind tolerance.  I guess that’s why I like this show at Kempner so much.  It’s as if these older folks have become privy to a secret the rest of us don’t know…yet.

Their smiles and their transparent kindness and peacefulness are so benevolent and trusting and reassuring.  We younger folks think, but wait a minute – you’ve got one foot in the grave!  Where’s your anxiety!?  Where are your regrets!?  This is so counter-intuitive!  How can you be so happy!?

So as an ex-sociology student I’ve come up with some theories as to why old folks might be happy.   1) Being old is like being fired from a crappy job.  Deep down inside you wanted to get out, and now you’re out and you can laugh your ass off.  Man, that job was stupid!  2)  No more mindless competition.  When you’re old and retired nobody even asks you what you used to do. Only idiots don’t give you unconditional respect for being elderly. You can relax and just be a goddamn human being for a change.  Ok, that’s enough. Those two reasons are enough. 

So another big question is: why does Norton draw faces and hands in a very stark manner but then surround them with colorful clothing and background features?  I don’t know.  Your guess would probably be better than mine.  The lifeless stuff around the faces and hands looks more colorful and the features that possess life are colorless.  Maybe the artist is implying that our environment and the stuff that surrounds us is an endless source of engagement and really the life-giving element for us.  Maybe he wishes to call our greater attention to the details of faces and hands by removing the color from them.

(Photos of me taken by an anonymous Russian guy, I'll just call him: Rustam)

As long as I’m writing about Kempner’s amazing gallery, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention his video series ‘The Madness of Art’.  

He’s been making short videos about what it’s like to run a gallery in Chelsea and some of these are pretty dang funny.  Also, I like the cameos with actual artists.  Off the top of my head, I loved the episode where Tony Fitzpatrick strong-arms a gallery show out of Kempner and I especially loved the episode where Robert Indiana walks into the gallery and is mistaken for a homeless bum seeking shelter.  Indiana then demands that one of his pieces be removed from the gallery because it looks like a forgery. Now that’s funny stuff!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Gregory Hayes at Nancy Margolis Gallery - Abstraction as a peaceful transition

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My friend Ekaterina Lishmanova brought the work of Gregory Hayes to my attention and I wanted to pass this work on through Arte Fuse so that it can have a similar effect on you that it had on her (and me).  Indeed, I would encourage you to drop by the gallery in person to see and experience these paintings.

Ekaterina mentioned that this work had an immediate effect on her mood and she felt it was some of the more joyous and uplifting work she had seen in a long time.  She also pointed out that the continually decreasing squares connoted or depicted, for her, a type of transition. Yet, when we think of some type of transition, we often think of some terror-fraught experience – crossing a desert or ocean or whatever allegorical hero’s journey you can think of. 

Hayes’ work implied for her a joyful, gentle and peaceful transition from one place to another.  If you do things the right way, maybe such a transition will be possible.  Or maybe this is the only type of valid transition possible – a painful transition is no is the suffering before the real journey. Hayes’ work represents, to me as well, the possibility for a safe and peaceful journey forward.

Viewing these pieces as if they depict a transition is like passing through a light-filled tunnel or cave, the walls of which are covered by candy buttons (you know, those types of candy dots that seem glued to long strips of paper).  This candy button effect is obtained by the artist literally squeezing out little drops of acrylic paint from some type of ketchup-like dispenser. 

Viewed from far away the colors tend to look bright but faded, which makes them more inviting and accessible.  We are not confronted with gaudy or overly bright and shiny colors…the faded quality is understated and is more alluring.  It gives these bright colors a greater pacifying quality and humanity. It is as if the sharp brightness has been extinguished and a residual calm now endures for eternity.  

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Future Ain't What It Used to Be: David Opdyke at MagnanMetz in Chelsea

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Marx bought into Hegel’s ‘historical materialism’- if you look at history you will see there has been moral progress through the ages and that history will continue to develop in a positive and humane direction. But Marx believed that history really showed three basic stages of development (epochs) and each epoch was characterized by better and better economic relationships.  1) Slave-owners and slaves morphed into 2) lords and serfs and these folks morphed into 3) factory owners and workers.  The lot of the common person becomes less horrific through human history and each epoch transitions into another due to technological changes. Advances in technology will ultimately lead to the fourth epoch of completely humane socialism, where there will be no dominant and subservient economic relationships any more (thus spoke Marx).

David Opdyke seems to focus on and examine this lingering belief that technological change can bring about advancements in human relationships or humane progress.  Indeed, he seems to have a jaundiced view of the whole concept in his show at MagnanMetz: The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be.

Opdyke focuses on the technological changes within his own life and frames the exhibit within the context of the Voyager 1 mission.  As a third grader the artist learned about this space mission which intended to carry various artifacts from earth into deep space.  The mission was launched in 1977 and Voyager made news in 2012 when it was reported to have left our solar system as our message in a bottle to whoever or whatever might, on the off chance, find it.

Dominating the show, and a real eye-catcher in the front window, is a broken utility pole.  Upon closer inspection, little organic utility pole shoots are growing out of the top of the damaged pole.  

Antonio Gramsci once wrote (about his era), “The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.”  It’s as if Opdyke is saying, “Yes, the old is dying, but the new still looks too much like the old.  Where’s the great radical changes that were going to make life so much better?  Where’s the liberty, equality and fraternity that was part of a natural historical process?”  Indeed, world poverty still exists, people still die of starvation on a daily basis all around the world and economists are warning of a new oligarchy in the USA due to the ever widening income gap. We destroy the old and replace it with newer versions of the old. 

When we look at our technological innovations, they allow us to listen to more songs, take better photos, buy things more easily.  Technology was never a force for the development of humane values, as Marx believed (even socialist theorists no longer attribute the changes Marx perceived in human history to technological innovations).  Indeed, the Voyager 1 chunk of time seems to show that technology can be a pacifying, hedonistically fueled engine that increases inequality and human suffering around the world. 

Indeed, the broken utility pole looks a lot like a broken crucifix, which is what I thought it was when I first saw it through the window.  It could be that the artist is also implying that a powerful religious inclination or movement can be broken or destroyed, but, look closely, little sprouts of the religion will begin reemerging.  Is this good or bad?  Is he saying our faith has temporarily been destroyed but can never be completely extirpated? Or is he saying we can abandon an overused, trite and ineffective concept only to rediscover and re-embrace the same thing over and over again for lack of anything better?

The other ‘major’ piece in the show appears to be a giant version of the Great Wave of Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai. This has become one of the more iconic works of art now due to the utter horror and the social and theological implications of the Japanese tsunami of 2011.  This disaster seems to be our age’s ‘Lisbon earthquake of 1755’, in which almost the entire city of Lisbon was destroyed and 40,000 people killed on a major church holiday.  The image of Hokusai’s wave now represents those nagging and unanswered questions about progress and safety and life in a universe dominated by a benevolent God – and whether any of those beliefs were ever true. If everything is OK, how does something like this happen? Or maybe I should say the image should represent these nagging questions and would represent them if people had attention spans and thought-capacities that had not been rusted, shrunk or destroyed by chronic overuse of the internet and pleasure inducing electronic junk.

Upon closer inspection of the piece, however, you see that the great wave painted by Opdyke is comprised of a zillion little images of automatic and semi-automatic rifles.  In conjunction with the broken utility pole – which could even mean the end of the Cold War, which then sprouted even more little ethnic, ideological and religious wars – this wave could represent the ever increasing development of the arms industry as a potent and ever essential aspect of the world economy.  We read about globalization and free trade and cultural and business exchanges, but then we also read about new $3 billion US stealth ships and China’s developing military strength. 

So Opdyke challenges the viewer to think about the changes that occurred between 1977 and 2012.  We went from 8 tracks to iPhones, typewriters to keyboards, books to electronic screens.  We also went from the B-52 to the Stealth Bomber.  We went from the Cold War to the War on Terror.  Where is Hegel or Marx in all of this?