Saturday, June 28, 2014

The work of Zhang Dali at Klein Sun Gallery

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Although Tiananmen Square is referenced in the notes for the show “Square” by Zhang Dali (at Klein Sun Gallery), I think it is referenced quite loosely.  There is, on a literal level, basically nothing that directly refers to the history, function or structure of Tiananmen Square here.  Instead, Tiananmen, as the world’s largest public gathering space, might be used figuratively as a concept for what might be called the potential for the perfect or ideal public space - the type of space the sociologist Juergen Habermas dreamed of:  a meeting place for meaningful and effective discussion in which common moral and social goals can be hammered out and, ultimately, effected.  The ideal square would be the intellectual and emotional meeting place where people of goodwill gather to ensure humane and positive change for all.

In “Square” we see fiberglass casts of migrant workers who are surrounded by casts of doves which are either perched on the workers or floating above them.  It looks as if China has more than 250 million migrant workers (they often leave their rural homes for work in the cities).  They work long, tedious hours for little pay, suffer various forms of discrimination and often live far from their families in large  cities where they feel lonely and isolated.  Studies indicate that over half of them suffer from depression and/or anxiety disorders and many live with the thought of suicide constantly on their minds. In 2010, you might recall, there were a number of suicides at the plant where Apple products are made in China. Many workers literally jumped from the roof of the factory to their deaths.  So, basically, we are brought face to face with the folks who are suffering and being exploited during this amazing globalization boom.  

Each migrant worker had to sit for some time with his/her face covered with a fiberglass mixture in order for these casts to be made, so the process itself of sitting for the casting has, to my eyes, left a look of grim resolve on some of the faces of the sitters.  I’m guessing it’s hard to relax with all that stuff on your face and it sometimes shows on the faces of the sitters in these castings.  So although the eyes of each worker in the show are closed, the facial expression does not always imply a peaceful, unagitated slumber.  This seems, however, to work within the context of the show.  If these workers are depicted as sleeping, it should, perhaps, be considered to be a troubled sleep and the doves can be thought to be calming agents or agents of a higher love demonstrating concern and compassion for these abandoned and hard-working people.

The doves can also represent the dreams of freedom by the migrant workers from this kind of thankless and soul-destroying toil.  They might be self-medicating dreams of a better life.  Looking at the casts of these folks one has to ask himself/herself whether people have to be treated like this and how this is possible and even accepted – there is no possible economic or social system where we can generate wealth for all without destroying precious human life?  Workers have to jump from roofs at a factory affiliated with Apple and this is absorbed and accepted by everyone? It is news for a couple days and then forgotten instead of the basis for a long-term social conversation? I think, more than anything, the show invites us to enter the ‘square’ – to enter the space where there is meaningful and honest debate about world society and economics and the debate should be centered around the folks who are depicted in this exhibit.  These are the current ‘other half’ and they are dismissed and disregarded globally.  They are the victims of human sacrifice in a world of haves and have-nots where squares exist to determine whether we need this type of world, but the squares do not seem to have become the places of meaningful debate that they should be.  Greed has encircled and linked the world, but meaningful, critical discourse on international relationships and the welfare of all is lacking.

Also in the show are pieces from ‘Square – Sketch’. These pieces contain blue backgrounds revealing figures with decapitated heads, surrounded by birds.  I was actually reminded of the ancient paintings at Catal Huyuk of ceremonies involving vultures which picked the flesh off of decapitated corpses as part of the ancient funerary ceremonies there (the skulls were decorated and preserved). The vultures were meant to assist the soul of the departed to ascend skyward as, perhaps, these birds might be able to do.  Perhaps the decapitated person is finally liberated from the harshness of life and, optimistically, the soul finally ascends. 

Additionally, in the very back of the gallery, do not miss the casts Zhang made of migrant workers which are literally hanging upside down, as if in a butcher’s shop.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Shamanism, Meditation, Transcendence, Oblivion at Garis and Hahn Gallery, Lower East Side

{{{Painting by Gwyn Joy - click on images to enlarge}}} 

The abstract patterns that were often displayed among depictions of wild animals, in ancient cave art, had been a real mystery to anthropologists for generations. Then, one fine day, an anthropologist in Africa was allowed to drink a hallucinogenic drug while entering into a trance induced by chanting, drumming and dancing.  He soon realized that one aspect of his inner visions was a period of time in which he visualized the same types of abstract patterns he had seen in the famous caves in Europe dating back 30,000 years.  The patterns that had puzzled anthropologists had been painted by shamans who had witnessed them in trances. These shamans recorded these patterns seen in their inner journeys. So the origins of human art are not just found in paintings of bison or deer – some of the first paintings are recordings of alternative inner experiences. These alternative experiences form the origins of human religious experience and they have not necessarily been superseded by anything better.

The current show at Garis and Hahn is subtitled: “Shamanism, Meditation, Transcendence, Oblivion” and each artist contributes pieces referring to the tradition of religious experience based on techniques that alter one’s connection to the outer world to refocus on and change the inner world.

{{{Indra Net by Phoebe Rathmell}}}

Phoebe Rathmell uses Seishin Toitsu meditation techniques to create her works.  This meditation technique allows calligraphers to make rapid and decisive moves to convey the nuances of a text. Fear or self-doubt will be readily revealed in calligraphy, and this technique, somehow, phases out anything that might hinder the production of an effectively crafted and beautiful piece.  Some samurai prized their skills as calligraphers as highly as swordsmen, since both activities seemed to derive from Seishin Toitsu.

{{{{Enso Circle 1 by Phoebe Rathmell}}}

Practicing Seishin Toitsu seems to mean that you are focused on what might be called (to borrow from Paul Tillich) the eternal “now”.  In Rathmell’s pieces you see abstract designs produced through this meditative technique, which seem to be a record of her experiencing this eternal now. The pieces seemed to require intense precision and although each piece must have taken an immense amount of time, they are all comprised of seamless repetitive patterns.  It’s a type of process art which records the mental state required to produce the super detailed work.

Michael Maxwell uses various techniques including ‘hypnosis, trance and meditation’ to also rise to a higher level of being and awareness.  Like ancient and contemporary shamans he is able to enter an altered state of consciousness and his multimedia works attempt to represent what he is able to perceive.  Maxwell also seems to seek out and embrace the concept of sacred land and incorporates this into his work.  Some of his pieces look like combinations of topographical maps and medical CAT scans. 

Perception perceives itself, loses its capacity for representational detail and gives way to transformative experiential innovation and change. 

As human social experience changed, religious experience changed. Shamanism was, initially, the religion of hunter-gatherers and the earliest type of recorded religious activity. Gwyn Joy’s pieces are based on his experiences with the Tlingit Indian tribe, which still maintains the shamanic tradition.  

The purpose of shamanism is often to attain a trance-like state in order to travel into the spirit realm in order to gain help or assistance for ailing members of one’s society or one’s entire community itself.  Shamans also were able to use various characteristics of the animal world to aid in their spirit journeys and their battles in the spirit realm.  Joy presents many pieces apparently showing the shaman in the spirit realm incorporating the characteristics of a powerful animal in various types of adventures.

{{{piece by Sky Kim}}}

Sky Kim’s pieces reflect her belief in ‘cell memory’ which is also an ancient, pre-scientific concept. Cell memory is the belief that every cell of an organism contains the basic character of the entire organism.  In Kim’s pieces she repeats basic patterns to create organic-looking objects and seems to me to be investigating what might be potential emergent properties or stagnant properties of the complexly organic.  An emergent property is when something unexpected and new just pops up from older material or combinations.  

If you wait long enough and pack enough cells into a small area will the spiritual emerge?  Was Buddha right – do all organisms contain a Buddha nature? What emergent meta-biological potential is there in bundles or repetitions of cells? Kim also paints huge scrolls of repeating small spheres in circular patterns which have to remind one of Kusama. 

The ever-repeating patterns are a type of surrogate for the eternal. They become a type of idealized concept we can superimpose on a universe of decay and decomposition.  

Finally, in the basement of the gallery is an installation piece by Joe Nanashe. Ladders are bundled together and turned upside down, pointing toward the ground.  The legs of the ladders point upward in a fan-like pattern.  Keyboards are stacked in squares and the room is filled with a static noise.  The entire area is lit up by a row of intense white light.  It’s as if we are witnessing the aftereffects of some spiritual catastrophe in which the right has become wrong and the wrong has become right.  The ladders should be pointing upward, the way basic symbols of spiritual evolution should be – ascending – and the keyboards should be accessible and producing pleasant music. Yet, maybe it’s better for the ladders to be turned toward the earth and for the room to be filled with discordant sounds (the type of sound that can induce a trance and not merely entertain) - as this was the origin of human religious inclinations.  Everything was geared to the earth and embracing a life committed to one’s community’s place in the natural environment was originally equated directly to the spiritual.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Fuzzy Geometry at Kim Foster Gallery by Sydney Blum

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As a possible descendant of Carl Friedrich Gauss (the Prince of Mathematicians, the inventor of non-Euclidean geometry and the creator of a 17-sided polygon - this was once big news in the field of geometry), I was compelled to see the show of work by Sydney Blum, at Kim Foster Gallery, called ‘Fuzzy Geometry.’

Fuzzy Geometry is actually a serious subject in the field of mathematics with philosophical and ‘theory of knowledge’ implications.  All I inherited from C.F. Gauss, however, was his big nose so I don’t claim to be an expert on geometry.  From what I can tell, I’m guessing Fuzzy Geometry is kind of like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, but applied to bigger stuff than subatomic particles. I think Heisenberg said that in the process of trying to pin down the location of various particles, we change the scene so that an exact location of anything subatomic can never be precisely known.  We can have kind of a ‘fuzzy’ awareness, however.  But a fuzzy awareness seems to work – it’s good enough to do the trick.

It’s the same thing basically in Fuzzy Geometry. Essentially there is a difference between theoretical space and real space and our capacities to measure and create in these two realms. Imprecision is an aspect of any type of real measurement and it is ignored in the field of pure mathematics but it cannot be ignored if you are building airplanes. Frankly, I don’t know exactly what Fuzzy Geometry is, but the concept can still be meaningful to me in artistic terms. I think we can go with the definition that pure location and measurement is a myth in the real world and that we are always working with a type of fuzziness when we measure stuff and the relations between stuff. We want absolute precision and certainty, but we need to throw in the towel and accept the fact that we have to live with a certain amount of ambiguity: but that’s OK.

So the artist basically works and plays with the concept of ‘fuzzy’ or ‘fuzziness’.  In the past she literally used human or animal hair in her pieces.  After a while she had ethical qualms about doing this and deliberately switched to synthetic hair to connect the dots in the coordinate systems she uses in her pieces.  I think how Blum uses hair is, in fact, a key to interpreting the pieces because hair possesses a number of symbolic qualities.  Hair can represent potency – remember Samson?  Hair is also sexy - it no longer serves any real survival value for us – it’s there purely for Darwinian ‘sexual selection.’  It’s also a component of the ‘animal’ or ‘natural’ self we often attempt to deny. 

In her pieces, as I interpret them, Blum seems to be subjecting hair to a type of procrustean process.  (Quick ancient Greek mythology refresher here: Procrustes had two beds: one long and one short. If a traveler stopping by his home in the wilderness was tall, he’d be given the short bed and vice versa. At night the tall person’s limbs that overhung the bed would be chopped off by Procrustes or a short person would be stretched to death to fit the longer bed.) The hair seems to be coiled and stretched, unnaturally, between the points. It is then tied in place by wires.  The hair could be long and flowing and gently curling, but it becomes rope-like and looks to be stretched to the point of bifurcation.  The implication (to me) seems to be that intellectual systems are supposed to exist  for us, they are supposed to aid us in our development in a smooth and easy process; we should not have to try to fit into such systems or become slaves to them.  So the Fuzzy Geometry pieces, potentially, represent a kind of conflict between a natural and theoretical development – intellectual systems often expect nature to conform to the structure of thought and not vice versa. The system does not form around the hair, the hair is stretched within the system.  There might be a more natural process of perception and assessment than the purely abstract and mathematical approach. Indeed, a purely abstract approach might always be quite limiting or even destructive to a type of natural development.

Of course there can be a zillion interpretations and another could be that these geometrical shapes are kind of like Meret Oppenheim’s furry cup and saucer at MoMA. Just as the cup and saucer have absurdly transformed into something hairy, maybe the geometrical shapes, or what they represent, possess an inherent quality to morph into something more organic and lively once the need for precision and exactitude is abandoned.

Kim Foster Gallery - located at 529 W. 20th...

C.F. Gauss:


I would argue there is an uncanny resemblance between our noses.  Does this prove descent? Hmmmm.....our noses are so similar!  Actually, I have no idea whether I'm related to the great guy or not. I never really cared enough to fully check.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Philippe Pasqua at UNIX Gallery in Chelsea

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According to Mary Anne Staniszewski’s book Believing Is Seeing, “art”, as we view it, did not start developing until around the time of the French Revolution.  She argues that the rise of a middle class art market freed the artist to develop his/her own themes and concepts.  Instead of a few patrons describing the work they wanted, artists could now freely create what they wanted to and offer pieces in the market place for folks to select from – this lead to greater competition and experimentation (she argues that developments in western art have always been dependent on developments in western politics and the economy). 

I mention this because UNIX Gallery points out in their press release that as well as being deeply influenced by the work of Francis Bacon, Philippe Pasqua follows in the tradition established by Courbet in his choice to paint those who have not been fully embraced, if embraced at all, by society.  What I think is provocative is that, if you think about it, nearly the whole history of art before Daumier and Courbet utterly ignores social suffering or those who had been marginalized or victimized by other segments of society (the only suffering depicted seems to have been the suffering of Jesus, Christian martyrs, people in hell or mythological figures).  Even when Velasquez painted his peasants, they had big ol’ smiles on their faces as if everything in their lives was just fine. With the rise of the middle class and representative government in the 1800s, we also get the creation of a journalistic concern for identifying and solving social problems.  The depiction of social suffering, suddenly, in the 1800s, became desirable (or at least marketable) in art.

What I think is interesting, though, is that Pasqua’s art deviates in a meaningful way away from this tradition.  In the UNIX show there are large paintings of young people who seem to be in deep psychological pain, experiencing some type of shock or expressing some type of horror.  What helps give these portraits extra power is that they are completely separated from any context. We do not know what generated the emotional response we perceive on the face of the person depicted.  As a contrast, when we look at, for instance, the famous photo showing the expression on the face of the Vietnamese child burned by napalm, the context subsumes direct engagement with the child’s suffering.  This is a photo which is an indictment of war, it is not a photo necessarily meant to bring us closer to the experience or humanity of the child.

John Locke pointed out that when we witness suffering, we suffer as well.  We don’t suffer to the same degree, but we are emotionally hurt when we see others who are in pain.  So depicting pain allows an artist to create an immediate emotional engagement between his/her work and the viewer.  But I think that Pasqua goes even one step farther.  It’s almost as if he invites us, through his portraits, to attempt what the early psychoanalysts tried to do.  According to Jung’s concept of ‘the wounded healer’ the therapist has to move beyond mere compassion and the pain Locke described and truly feel the specific pain or specific horror that the patient is feeling.  Only by connecting on this deep level could the patient’s pain or emotional suffering be erased by the therapist.  It’s as if Pasqua’s paintings challenge us to try to connect on deep levels with those who are suffering, perhaps as a form of self-therapy or as a way to develop a greater sense of humanity and engagement with others.

Furthermore, by not knowing the context of the suffering individuals, we are engaged in a way that prevents us from removing the source of the pain.  The artists and photographers who have documented the social context causing the pain of their subjects, as well as the pain itself, imply that we, the viewer, can remove this source of pain.  This seems to be the raison d’etre for such photos – to call awareness to conditions causing pain so the conditions can be removed.  But often, we, as individuals, are helpless to remove this source of pain.  Often we live among apathy or self-absorption and can do little ourselves.  We, as individuals, are powerless to stop a war, to eliminate poverty, to end interpersonal cruelty. Perhaps Pasqua is pointing to a type of hypocrisy in the very act of documentary journalism – to what extent are these journalists exploiting those who suffer to provide viewers with a pleasing sense that a problem has been documented (by the hero artist) and will shortly be ended (somehow). To what extent is documentary photography/art feeding our lust for self-satisfied pity, while we live securely, apart from the suffering?

Also, I think an implication of Pasqua’s work could be that the artists who have depicted social suffering in the past were too deeply influenced by artists who depicted religious suffering.  When you look at Jesus on the cross or a martyr being tortured to death, you are looking at an ‘other’ - a type of superior being who made a sacrifice you’ll never make.  You are to respect and venerate this image of suffering.  You feel pity for the courageous martyr who took the step that lead to his/her death.  Basically, art and photographic pieces that show the sufferer within the social context of suffering is too close to this religious depiction of suffering.  The little Jewish boy in the Warsaw ghetto with his hands in the air and the look of fear on his face is the ‘other’ who is to be pitied just as the Vietnamese girl was to be pitied.

So the real value of Pasqua’s work, in my opinion, is that he wants us to move beyond pity and compassion. He wants us to move beyond viewing those who suffer as ‘others’ and to attempt a deeper connection. He also examines the extent to which this connection is possible and what our next moves might be, as social actors, after this deep engagement with the painful emotions of others.  Perhaps his work points to a need for greater collaborative effort on the part of those who are willing to deeply feel the horror and pain that others encounter routinely around the world.

Unfortunately, due to a hectic May, I was not able to get to this show earlier and by the time you read this the show will have closed.  Please put this artist on your radar screen however – he is doing some amazing work.