Friday, October 24, 2014

"Religious" prints at the Museum of Biblical Art in Manhattan

{{{A print by Durer showing Jesus freeing people from 'limbo' (a place they had been waiting after their deaths) - click on images to enlarge}}}

As Director Richard P. Townsend explained during the press preview, MOBIA is following up its Back to Eden show with something a bit more unassuming and introspective, before rocking New York City with their Sculpture in the Age of Donatello show this coming February. The current show features prints by Durer, Rembrandt, Tiepolo, Blake, Manet and Pechstein, works collected by the Jansma family of Grand Rapids Michigan and normally featured at the Grand Rapids Art Museum.  MOBIA has been presenting amazing shows for nigh 10 years now, is absolutely free and you are welcome to drop by and stroll around at your leisure.


According to the notes for the show, printmaking started in Europe in the 15th century as a way to produce inexpensive ‘devotional’ images for folks.  Religious images could thus now be displayed in one’s home to help one focus more intently on one’s prayers.  Yet, after the Reformation, starting in the 16th century, ‘artists’ got their hands on this technology and starting moving away from devotional images toward a more secular, yet deeply meaningful, humanist narrative style. So in Durer’s print of Jesus removed from the cross, we don’t get the St. Paul machine politics line that He “…died to cleanse our sins, be grateful and pray to Him…”, we see a guy who has been tortured to death and the emotional shock of those who bore witness to the senseless persecution of an innocent and harmless whistle blower.


If you love Rembrandt as much as I love Rembrandt you could spend an hour or more looking at the various prints they have displayed. They’ve got The Three Crosses in this show, which is considered to be one of the most amazing prints ever.  I really liked, however, the print of Jesus unceremoniously teaching in a public area. 


You see his humility and the engagement of others who are clearly being influenced and moved by his message – not the message that Paul gave much later either; this is Jesus’ own message: there’s a new type of life available for you right now, a life of joy and kindness and deep humanity.

{{{Rembrandt - Three Crosses}}}

Among the other pieces there’s a remarkable print by Manet which seems to hearken back to and even answer Mantegna. We see Jesus in a type of transition during the process of his resurrection. Like Mantegna we have foreshortening of the body but unlike Mantegna we also have hope and faith in the impossible.

{{{Manet - sorry that I couldn't get a better jpeg}}} 

Blake is also represented here with some illustrations for the Book of Job.  I always felt that the Book of Job was more of a comedy than anything.  In religious wisdom literature you are admonished to be righteous and God will reward the righteous and smite the unrighteous.  But the unrighteous are often unsmote and unsmotable and the righteous get smitten.  So Job gets smitten because of some Vegas style truth or dare competition between God and Satan and his friends/comforters can’t wrap their brains around the fact that in this world, although we see it every day, the innocent suffer and the rotten guys prosper. Job is a challenge for religion to open its eyes to reality and start answering the tough questions that people want answered.  So I particularly liked the drawing of God finally presenting himself to Job – Job’s refusal to take the easy answer (his friends try to convince him that he must have done something wrong at some time because nobody gets punished for no good reason) leads to God actually meeting with Job, to, basically, transform Job and apologize. 

{{{Blake - God says, "My bad, Job, but I had to do what I had to do, baby. All's well that ends well!"}}}

{{{Blake - Blake could be such a drama  queen, actually, I guess Job was the drama queen, here ...again, click to enlarge all these images}}}

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Topsy Turvy World of Boyoung Lee at Hyun Contemporary

{{{click on images to enlarge them}}}

In 1984 E.O. Wilson wrote the book Biophilia, which theorized that there was an inherent attraction that humans felt toward the natural world.  This need to experience nature – even in the depths of the most crowded city - would help to explain why our cities are not completely concrete and steel aggregations of buildings and throughways like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Boyoung Lee, whose current show is at Hyun Contemporary, seems to focus on this type of biophilia in the ‘topsy turvy’ world she depicts.

Lee’s very sensitively drawn and captivating images show that nature is something literally transported into the city and that it serves a peripheral, decorative function, feeding our biophilia demons.  You may not know that 70 – 80% of the oxygen we breathe is actually created by photosynthetic ocean dwelling algae, so the practical oxygen-producing function of trees is basically nil in the city.  Even the flora of Central Park was imported into New York by Frederick Law Olmsted. Central Park, as you may know, is a work of ‘landscape’ art.

The most salient feature of Lee’s buildings would be the windows, through which you see little details denoting middle class, urban, professional life.  Through the windows everything seems perfectly in place and immaculately tidy. The units seem to be empty, the places of solace and comfort we seek to get to after work to get away from each other in order not to go completely nuts.  The windows become symbolic of our inability to really mesh emotionally with each other – we live separate and secluded, surrounded by the best stuff we can buy, in lieu of feeling a meaningful sense of community.  Nature seems to serve its function in this scheme - in one drawing the roof is overrun by vegetation and the stuff used to enjoy such outcroppings is strewn willy nilly. In another building nature asserts itself by growing wildly from some upper floors. Perhaps biophilia has morphed into some stronger form of dedication to the world we abandoned.

So what’s with the giraffe?  Suechung Koh, curator of the show, told me the giraffe could be a type of bridge between the outside and inside.  I’m guessing that the long-necked, peeping Tom giraffes are nature looking through the windows at the type of life that we have adopted.

I like to think of the giraffe, however, as the ghost of Marius. Remember Marius the giraffe from the Copenhagen Zoo?  The director of the zoo determined that Marius was genetically unfit for reproducing other giraffes.  Although zoos around the world implored him to save the young giraffe, the director was resolved on killing Marius, dissecting him in front of school children and then feeding him to the zoo’s lions.  Using a bolt gun – to ensure the giraffe meat was untainted by poison – Marius was killed, dissected and fed to the lions.  I see the giraffe as his ghost coming back to the world that kept him in a cage as a curiosity and killed him because he wasn’t ‘natural’ enough.  The ghost of Marius becomes the interface of humanity and nature.  We create zoos as places of spectacle, where animals suffer from zoochosis, but we indulge in our biophilia, and we adopt a ‘conservationist’ justification for the facilities.  Don’t preserve the environment, preserve the animals.  Indeed, to me the ghost of Marius haunts the wonderfully creative and evocative drawings of Boyoung Lee. These are such nicely drawn images on such rich paper that you really should drop by and experience them for yourself.  

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Don't act like such white trash! Halley Zien: We're All in Here at BravinLee programs - Chelsea

{{{click on images to enlarge}}}

In Halley Zien’s current work at BravinLee programs, she uses a combination of collage and painting to create small spaces, packed with people, where the presence of others only seems to engender conflict and psychological discomfort. This is one part illegal Queens apartment and one part Jean Paul Sartre. These pieces immediately grab you and suck you into the white trash psychodrama that sometimes seems depicted.

Actually, it’s not that all the characters in these paintings are meant to be socio-economically white trash, but I think the artist is saying that under the right circumstances, with the right people, we can all be dragged down to this level of pettiness and malice and wallow in this white trash condition of interpersonal nastiness. In fact, it’s as if she is saying this capacity is always lurking in us, ready to be indulged in.

She creates a nightmare situation where folks are stuck in a situation where things do not mesh nicely and where the social fight or flight instinct goes into high gear – however, flight seems impossible. It’s as if everyone in these paintings knows which buttons to push for everyone else and, lacking restraint, readily pushes those buttons in a situation where nobody is beyond reproach and everybody can be reached with something emotionally harmful – everybody readily contributes to everybody else’s hell, maybe deliberately, maybe just by being themselves.

In one amazing piece one of these emotionally tortured folks is literally looking away from everyone else and into a mirror as if he is trying to understand his role in the emotional torture of others, as well as searching for a way to stay within the space and overcome the torture he is experiencing from others. We are challenged to ask ourselves whether this is, in fact, possible, or whether we have to become the victims of the malice of others and, consequently, potential victimizers in a vicious cycle.  A psychologist named Leonard Berkowitz once published a landmark paper in which he showed that physical and psychological pain often, if not always, leads to aggressive, lashing-out behavior – are we condemned to this, or is there a way to really let things go and to engage malice with greater humanity?

Lately I’ve been seeing a good chunk of work in Chelsea that shows the influence of Francis Bacon and this shouldn’t be surprising since he created such a unique and powerful style.  It seems to me that of all the post World War II artists Bacon is emerging as one of the more influential among contemporary painters.  I think it’s safe to say that you see bits of Francis Bacon in Zien’s work. I also sensed a little George Grosz and Otto Dix – but that just might be my interpretation.   Zien, however, carries this type of style a step further by not just presenting isolated ‘tortured’ individuals but by providing a context in which we can better understand the suffering that is being endured.  Zien presents some powerful but also amusing pieces which simply have to be seen in person to be truly appreciated.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Alex Gross at Jonathan LeVine Gallery in Chelsea

{{{click on images to enlarge}}}

What if Abbie Hoffman had been cryogenically frozen after his suicide in 1989 and was then brought back to life again now?  I’m pretty sure this icon of counter-culture idealism and integrity would simply kill himself again, and Alex Gross’ amazingly engaging and sardonic paintings at Jonathan LeVine Gallery would help explain why.  Branding seems to be the focus in this show and branding has become the core of the new world-wide ideology, superseding all forms of humanism and creating its own faux humanism – the humanism of the satisfied and pacified buyer of expensive ego-stroking crap. Since the 1960s we’ve been riding the moral curve downward and consumerism has been the gravitational force.

No Logo by Naomi Klein is, in my opinion, still a must read. Her book revealed that branding is almost mystical in its effects, yet totally empty in its content. A product’s brand exists to help the consumer lose his or her identity under the rubric of a product identity.  A product’s brand can create an aura that consumers want to connect to and reflect as part of themselves.  I am a Starbucks’ patron, a Mac user, a Gucci buyer, etc. Each of these brands confers something extra to the often bland personality partaking of the goods.  By choosing your brands wisely, however, you can exist beyond reproach and, indeed, become the judge and jury of those who simply have failed to realize the importance of dedicating one’s life to competition, greed and self-blindness.

In ‘Drones’ we see the sad effects of a culture dedicated to narcissism and hedonism and oblivious of ethical values or the search for meaning.  The smiling broadcasters cheerily report on the latest drone strikes, Obama experiences a type of ecstasy of self-glory, a sheep passively looks on. 

In ‘Shopaholics’ the brand buyers are sheep-headed and surrounded by vultures, as if the shoppers have little to offer the world other than flesh to be consumed, someday, by carrion. Or are the shoppers ignoring this vanitas theme – recognize your mortality, repent, do penance, prioritize your values, see and engage the world and strive for meaning.

Abject nothingness registers on the face of the girl in ‘Candy Crush’ as she is tuned in to her handy electronic syringe of saccharine junk. In ‘Distractions’ we are confronted by our peers who never learned to say “NO!” and who see little to be upset about.  

In ‘Service Industry’ we see the professional deformation that occurs among those who cater to our needs, as a quite debonair Yul Brynner puffs his way to lung cancer and Bashar al-Assad lurks in the background.  Don’t worry, though, consumerism will destroy all forms of tyranny! We’ve got the drones, baby, and our president knows how to use them.

This is a must-see show.  Gross strikes at the heart of many things that are rotten in our society and does so with wit and moral strength.  This is the kind of social satire that hearkens back to the New Objectivity Movement of Weimar Germany while exhibiting a more Frankfurt School critique of contemporary culture, showing how Gramscian ‘hegemony’ and the cult of consumerism walk hand in hand.      

Friday, October 10, 2014

Viscera against Nature: Ian Hughes' Twisted Figures at 532 Gallery Thomas Jaeckel

{{{click on images to enlarge}}}

A Dada-inspired artist, Johannes Baader, once ran into a church in Germany and yelled: “Jesus is a sausage!”  I am still trying to absorb this koan-like adage, but perhaps the work of Ian Hughes sheds light on what exactly a ‘Jesus sausage’ might look like.  Indeed, we may all be Jesus sausages (or have the capacity to attain to Jesus sausageness) without even knowing it.

Hughes’ central images are like disembodied viscera which seem to continue living apart from the entire bodily system. It’s as if they have, like separatist protesters, decided that they are the core or essential aspect of the body and that other systems are just not worth supporting.  These viscera must have their independence. These are often tubes that want to ascend, but these are tubes that bend back on themselves. Often we see them bending back and then ascending before falling into line again with gravity. Or have these become eternal tubes which have learned how to beat the Second Law of Thermodynamics?

These tube-like structures seem to reveal a type of organic collapse, like a Tower of Babel of intestines that has come tumbling down, but which still functions somehow and which does not seem to be in any real pain. These are viscera aspiring, viscera rising and failing, guts and other organs meeting the dawn. 

When I first saw the pieces on opening night I immediately felt there was a definite Francis Bacon influence here, but I think that Hughes is a little more whimsical and humorous than Bacon.  He uses more subdued colors and creates greater ambiguity.  I also thought of the little baby-creature from David Lean’ s Eraser Head while looking at these images.  They are desire embodied as biological conduits, showing that bodily desire is never consummated fully, which is in contrast to our belief that spiritual desire can be consummated fully and finally, leading to eternal bliss. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

New Work by Kathy Ruttenberg at Stux Gallery

{{{click on images to enlarge}}}

Kathy Ruttenberg’s latest show of ceramic figures at Stux Gallery is largely inspired by recent trips the artist took to the North and South Poles. As in her previous work, we see that the individual human being is no longer sacred.  Tree branches sprout from people’s heads and the human head, itself, seat of our treasured intellect and personality, becomes the desired meal of a hungry penguin.

There’s symbolism in the work of Ruttenberg, but it hearkens back to the type of pre-industrial, pre-urban symbolism often equated to the pagan religions (i.e. the Celts).  Her figures have become re-embedded in a subservient and hapless manner in nature, as nature is seen to be deeply embedded, often literally, in many figures.

Has Ruttenberg gone completely Schopenhauer now that she lives upstate and can commune more easily with all creatures great and small, while watching nature’s cycles more keenly? No, she seems to be saying, however, that our notion of inner or spiritual development is too limited because it is too urban.  Our spiritual narratives often neglect the earth and nature and more meaningfully integrated relations between ourselves and the whole of life. 

Often our concept of inner development is too tied to our relations to people and not tied deeply enough to what nature is or can be.  We are concerned with development within a society, but we should be concerned about our ethical and humane development within a comprehensive environmental system. Ruttenberg invites us to examine how limited and how urban our beliefs are, and challenges us to recognize that our perspective has to embrace all of nature along with human society.  'Love your neighbor' should not just mean your human neighbor.