Sunday, November 30, 2014

David Rathman at Morgan Lehman Gallery (The Twilight of Testosterone in the USA?)

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The big questions for me, looking at the recent show at Morgan Lehman Gallery, were: Is David Rathman making a social statement about the loss of working-class America and the effect this has had on America’s conception of masculinity, or is he making a more general statement about changing conceptions about ‘manhood’ in America (as we lose our working class)? Or, am I misreading symbols and is there some deeper allegory afoot?

A couple of these questions stem from my own experience in regard to the types of outdoor basketball hoops he presents in many of his paintings. I grew up in one of the few racially integrated neighborhoods in Chicago (back in the day), Chicago still being one of the most racially segregated cities in America. It was a neighborhood founded originally by German immigrants who had built Holstein Park - a large park that ultimately would contain two giant baseball diamonds and an area containing several basketball hoops on a large cement court.  We working-class kids of various races and ethnicities used the park religiously and this helped me look beyond race and later allowed me to move more comfortably through different jobs and neighborhoods interacting with different types of folks freely and respectfully.

So imagine my shock coming back home a few years ago and seeing that the park looked the same, except that the basketball hoops had all been taken down.  There was just a cement court with nothing on it now. It seemed that now that the neighborhood had become gentrified, the young, affluent white folks had decided that the racial mixture of kids still lurking in the environs, who wanted to use the hoops, would be an eye-sore and potential threat to their well-being.  Word on the street (what street was left) was that the hoops were literally taken down to stop black kids from coming in to play basketball. The park seems now to be primarily used by Golden Retrievers and other yuppy dogs as a huge dog run, and I’ve seen some pathetically bad ‘soccer’ games there of all white kids with first names like Asher, Barnaby, Dashiell, Hayden etc.

So hoops mean something. Indeed, here’s an experiment you can try. Take a basketball and go to an outdoor court somewhere at 6am (when it’s totally empty) and somehow the sound of the dribbled ball will reach the finely tuned eardrums of every guy within a radius of 2 miles, will activate and boost testosterone levels, and you will have a multi-cultural pick-up game of 20 guys going within 30 minutes.   Hoops are huge to the American male psyche and, frankly, an absence of hoops in a neighborhood represents both a type of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and a type of emasculation for that neighborhood.  It was the use of old, beaten up, messed up, twisted and corroded hoops that resonated with me in this show and drew me into it more deeply as if I were looking for one last pick-up game myself. Yet, along with the rusted out hoops we also see beaten up old cars that have been abandoned and which have also become corroded. Looking closely, these are cars, I’m guessing, from the 70s and 80s, when America still had a working class and cities were predominantly blue-collar places with hoops all over the place.

So part of me thinks this show of amazing watercolor paintings is homage to the last generation of blue-collar, working class American guys and the type of ethic and strength they brought to our society. These cars were used until they literally started falling apart – they were taken as far as they could go before being abandoned (and replaced by what?).   In these paintings the terminus of the life of these cars corresponds to the terminus of the outdoor basketball court. 

Yet there are other objects that factor into some of these paintings.  There’s the big old 1970s/80s Chevy (?) van. Above it is scribbled “I deserve a little more…” The owner of the van deserves a little more in life? The van deserves a little more time to operate? We all deserve a little more than material stuff?  The driver deserves better mileage? Hmmmm. There are also the tributes to heavy metal rock music performances and in one watercolor we see rock guitars under posters showing a metal band, a basketball rebound and an artist standing before an easel. One of my favorite paintings is of a lone Converse All Star lying on the sidewalk outside of a couple garbage cans. So part of me thinks this might be a personal statement of how the passage to ‘manhood’ in America has changed. I mean, let’s be honest, the Converse All Stars that were worn by inner city kids back in the day are not the Converse All Stars that some folks are wearing today.  What All Stars represented in the 70s and 80s is not what they represent today.  It could be that the artist is pointing out that the male experience in the USA, and the development of the male, used to be dominated by working class values which are being replaced by, dare I say, more effete values?

The paintings could also be a type of allegory employing the morbidity of testosterone driven activities. Masculinity has often been used in symbolic or allegorical literature to represent a type of aggressive and wandering spirit that seeks fulfilment in the ‘eternal feminine.’ Yet, we see no or few traces of femininity in these paintings. So perhaps the paintings are just a magnified view of a type of male development which has been or is being rendered obsolete – for better or for worse.

Morgan Lehman's website:

Lisa Breslow at Kathryn Markel Gallery

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Stopping by the 529 W. 20th street building on a Saturday afternoon gallery-hopping spree (or whenever you drop into Chelsea) is de rigueur.  Virtually every gallery there has art worth seeing on a monthly basis.  This go-around Kathryn Markel is presenting a show that includes some engaging and provocative city-scape paintings by Lisa Breslow.

What I’ve noticed about a lot of city-scape paintings is that the artist often shoots for a contrast between the permanent and the transitional.  We often see structures that will seemingly last indefinitely with people flitting fugitively through them.  The structures will last far past the time we are all dead and the implication seems to be that we are the builders, users and servants of the structures all at the same time. We are psychologically molded by structures and their functions, which we created to serve our needs, in an interesting type of feedback loop.  City-scape artists will also often contrast stark buildings or structures against the sky to reveal the relative permanence of the structures within the changing framework of nature.

Breslow is doing something arrestingly novel compared to these aforementioned approaches. Even in her painting which shows cabs and trucks going down a city avenue, everything is of one ilk. Everything is of the same soft, patchy appearance: the sky, the buildings, the street, trees, vehicles. She seems to be repudiating the whole concept of permanence and transition for a more holistic vision or experience. Our sense of sight and our other senses play a con-game on us, and create the notion that the world is permanent and solid. As every good Buddhist and physicist, however, knows, the world is our illusion. To me Breslow paints the city as this type of illusion, where every visual element melts into other elements revealing to us that what seems permanent is fragile and volatile while inviting us to examine what might really constitute tangibility - namely our capacity to patch experience together, discern illusions and develop from our interaction with the illusions of the outside world. How, for instance, do these every day sensations allow for such amazing cognitive, emotional and moral development in us? How do illusions create the reality of inner experience and human development?

There is a relative or complete absence of the human figure in these works, which may, in fact, imply that Breslow wants to highlight or question which images or visual stimulation might be most meaningful to us.  One implication might be that an awareness of the illusory nature of aspects of the outer world may lead to a greater dependency on and engagement of others or other minds or, using Buddhist terminology again, everything that possesses ‘Buddha nature’ (including the natural environment).  Once we are no longer taken in by the illusion of sensuous reality, we can realize that human engagement and a submission to nature might offer the only real reality – then, perhaps, we can really begin to develop in a more humane direction and become even more sensitive to the outer world around us.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Twists and Turns (on Arte Povera?) by Nnenna Okore at David Krut Projects

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Arte Povera (Poor Art) was a movement begun in Italy in the late 60s. It was partially meant to break down the classification barrier between art and life by using common, everyday items and materials, but there was also a deeper and more radical political edge to this movement. The material that was often used by these artists was stuff that hearkened back to a Europe before the ravages of capitalist industrialization. At its core, Arte Povera attacked the waste of the industrialized era and the corruption that came forth from producing waste.

Nnenna Okore is able to add some twists to this tradition from her perspective as a woman who grew up in Nigeria. So she is interested in materials used by the poorer folks in her homeland, where the lower classes have often been forced to recycle that which was discarded by the more affluent. Indeed, this idea of recycling seems to pervade her art. She also seems interested in how materials themselves might naturally lend themselves to or suggest physically transformative processes including synthesis between seemingly incompatible materials.

Added to this we see what to me is an amazingly meaningful form of process art. Based on readings of previous interviews, the artist does not have an image of the finished work when she begins. She wants to engage the material, basically, as the material wants to be or offers to be engaged, and wants to use twisting, tying, shredding, braiding etc. techniques that are often used to create social bonds in less ‘developed’ communities. Basically these are techniques done in small groups which help to develop greater social ties.

Whereas the original materials were produced toward the goal of consumption and economic profit, the recycling of the materials follows a process where form follows the essence of the material and where the piece is produced through techniques which are generations old and socially positive and unifying in nature. Among the materials used in this show are: newspaper, acrylic, burlap, handmade paper, plaster, cloth and jute rope. So an original material has been exploited and seemingly rendered an immutable commodity, but the process employed by the artist is able to distill, as it were, the original essence of the materials for a different and non-utilitarian purpose.

This is another fine show from David Krut Projects, a gallery which originated in South Africa but which now provides access to the NY art scene to many amazing contemporary African artists.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Martin Puryear at Matthew Marks Gallery in Chelsea

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Guess who was really born on December 25th?  That’s right, baby Mithras. He was a sun god in the Roman Empire who liked killing bulls and changing the zodiac every 2,160 years (his next change will bring in the Age of Aquarius). The Catholic Church placed Jesus’ birthday on December 25th because it was in fierce competition with Mithraism for some time (in fact, the Church appropriated lots of pagan holidays and turned them into Christian holidays).

Oh, what fashion accessory did this now defunct god enjoy wearing while slaughtering bulls?  Yes, a Phyrgian cap. His followers wore them as well. Later, in the French Revolution, folks who hated tyranny and valued liberty started donning this type of cap as well because they confused it with a ‘pileus’, a type of conical hat which freed slaves in Rome wore to boast of their newly found liberty. So in the French Revolution they wore a hat meant to celebrate freedom but, in essence, celebrated bull-killing and zodiac changing, so no wonder their revolution failed.

As a lover of arcane symbolism, ancient religions and mythology, imagine my surprise upon looking into Matthew Marks Gallery and seeing a giant Phyrgian hat!  Actually, initially I thought it to be a type of biomorphic art but upon reading what the artist said about the piece online, the work really does seem to be inspired by this type of ‘liberty cap’.  Nevertheless, I realized, looking around at the other pieces by Martin Puryear, that a common theme in this show of sculpture is forms that begin by ascending but then are drawn back earthward (as is the form of the Phyrgian hat – which, honestly, can also work as a type of biomorphic sculpture).

One of my favorite pieces seems to be some type of pod or round seed that has germinated a stem which, after ascending for a bit, duly curves right back toward the earth, apparently disappearing back into it. There are also some sculptures which, to my eye, seem influenced by the ‘golden spiral’.  This is the spiral we see in the nautilus shell and which is based on the golden ratio 1.618. It could be that the golden spiral was incorporated into the shape of the Phyrgian cap.  

So this theme of initial ascendancy followed by a submission to a stronger downward force is quite engaging and powerful when one views the pieces directly.  I guess there can be positive and negative interpretations of the process being depicted.  On the one hand these pieces could represent the invisible but powerful pull which, ultimately, thwarts our desires toward a ‘higher’ level of being, beyond malice and pettiness and into the realm of pure joy, forgiveness, love and fraternity. On the other hand, these downward spirals could represent a necessary process which first takes us up and away from the truth of our humanity only to help us become embedded more deeply in the real pith of being and experience.  There are, basically, two forces at work on many of these forms which the artist calls our attention to – an intrinsic organic force within the object that propels ascendency and an earthly, mineral force that pulls downward.  These outward forces affecting the various structures translate nicely into aspects of our inner reality.

If you go to this show, and you should, please be aware the sculptures are at two locations – 522 and 502 W. 22nd street.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Peter Blume (1906 - 1992) at ACA Galleries

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One of the must-see shows, as this year draws to an end, is a sampling of work by Peter Blume at ACA Galleries. This show is in conjunction with a larger show at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and that show seems to be the first major retrospective of Blume’s work since his death in 1992. Blume was born in Belarus, of Jewish heritage, but was brought to Brooklyn as a child. He was one of the first American artists to embrace surrealism and his style seems to be a blend of various types of painting incorporating techniques that range from the Renaissance to Folk Art and, of course, to Surrealism. Blume is represented in virtually all the major American modern art museums but it seems that he has never adequately received his props – these concurrent shows demonstrate that he had created a unique style from his eclectic influences and was dealing with themes of significant cultural and historical relevance.

One of the aspects of this multi-faceted artist’s work which I enjoyed at ACA was his fascination with the presence of rock formations and the effect rock formations still have on us. Huge, complex rock formations, either natural or altered by humans (dolmens, megaliths etc.) were huge in the history of our religious, spiritual and cultural development, and they still resonate with us.  In one of Blume’s most popular paintings, at the Art Institute in Chicago, you see a grandiose rock with several peaked and contoured projections surrounded by less magnificent construction projects and partially destroyed buildings.  The implication seems to be that underlying the rationalist approach under which our society is constructed is an ancient and direct experience that dwarfs our normal approach to our lives. 

(Blume - Rock - Art Institute of Chicago)

In the current ACA show there is a wonderful painting of a couple literally picnicking among an amazing rock formation.  One figure is sketching the formations – so at the same time this couple (a la Caspar David Friedrich?) is basking in the ineffable effect the rocks provide while also realizing there is some difficult to grasp significance and trying to capture it through imitation.  Actually, they are not trying to ‘realize’ anything, they seem to have moved beyond interpretation and are wholly comfortable and in union among that aspect of nature which probably first engendered the sense in us that there was something more to nature and our lives that could be slowly but surely discerned but not spoken of directly.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Domingo Zapata at C24 Gallery - A Bullfighter in New York

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C24 Gallery knows how to throw an opening! I was enticed to enter after seeing several ornate chaquetillas (the little jackets worn by bullfighters) and, as I was entering the gallery, a small but lively band kicked into the famous pasodoble from the zarzuela El Gato Montes (which is often played at bullfights).  It was an electric atmosphere even if only wine, and not blood, was pouring freely.

El Gato Montes (but this was not the band that was playing at the gallery - I found this on youtube).

In Domingo Zapata’s show at C24 he includes several chaquetillas which have been customized for the New York City experience – indeed, some seem to have been tagged with a type of graffiti. He has four graffiti-covered burladeros – which are the walls a bullfighter can hide behind during a fight – and a few paintings of a bullfighter going about his normal every day routine.

So why are bulls such potent symbols? Well, for one, their horns are very symbolic.  To ancient people the horns represented the waxing and waning crescent moons. If you look at the left and right horns of most bulls you see how one looks like the beginning of a new moon and the other looks like the crescent moon before the moon totally disappears for a while. So we could say that the bull embodies the type of blunt power of the moon (the sun is a creative force, the moon a type of reflective force).

These are also big, aggressive beasts. They are easily provoked and are completely irrational and even apparently malevolent in their attempts to harm once provoked. They seem to be a perfect symbol for a type of destructive, inner aggression that might thwart a type of humane development - an inner blind force that needs to be eliminated for greater 'spiritual' development to occur.  In Buddhism 'nirvana' literally means 'the extinguishing of a (inner) fire.'  So we see a type of ritualized extinguishing in bullfighting.

So on the one hand we can easily have ethical reservations about bullfighting, while on the other hand we can also appreciate the meaning of the activity. In Zapata’s show he seems to be pointing to the fact, however, that the bullfight approximates an experience that is cross-cultural or universal. I think it would be well worth it to go see Zapata’s vision of the New York City incarnation of the bullfighting experience at C24.   


Sunday, November 9, 2014

Owusu-Ankomah at Skoto Gallery

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Skoto has been a treasure in Chelsea for many years – often featuring the engaging and thought-provoking work of contemporary African artists. Currently they have an amazing show by Owusu-Ankomah, an internationally exhibited artist originally from Ghana.

This artist’s paintings are covered in various symbols which seem to have been inspired by the ancient Adinkra symbols of the Asante people. Since seeing the show I’ve been reading a great deal about these symbols and, if you get a chance, and are also interested in semiotics, history and culture, you might enjoy looking into this as well. Each symbol seems to represent a concept or even an aphorism. These symbols are often printed on fabric for clothing in Ghana but some have even been used in advertising. My favorite symbol is ‘tamfro bebre’ which seems to mean: “Don’t worry, the enemy will stew in his own juice.” A symbol that looks like two crossed leg bones means: “God never dies and therefore I cannot die.” 

If you look closely, though, at his paintings, you see that there are very powerfully built male figures that are somewhat camouflaged among the signs.  At times the symbols on a figure’s body correspond to a couple background symbols but then conflict with others. Is the figure deliberately searching for a correspondence between the patterns on his body and the patterns behind him? Does he believe that finding the right place so that his body and background naturally blend will lead to something?  Has he memorized the symbols that cover him so completely that he is now locked through symbols and memories of symbols into a type of artificial process divorced from real experience and the opportunities real experience gives for self-transformation?

The implication might be that these guys believe there is a ‘correct’ sequence, pattern or order of symbols which already exists in a perfect arrangement and once one recreates or adapts to this sequence, the end of symbolism becomes possible and the beginning of a wholly new process can begin. So the theory seems to be: succumb to symbolism to overcome symbolism. This would seem to fit in with the artist’s concept of the ‘microcon’ – a belief that there is a ‘super-symbol’ or a symbol that represents a ‘confluence’ of symbols that would reveal the nature of symbolism so clearly that we would be freed from figurative bondage and wallow completely in the muddy waters of full experience.

Eva Hild at Nancy Margolis

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Biomorphic art first seemed to appear in the early 20th century with folks like Miró, Arp and Tanguy. Basically this is art which is evocative of biological forms without really being meant to point to any particular biological organism or organisms.  Biomorphic art is usually used to highlight the absurdity of our bodily needs in comparison to our belief systems which tell us that we are ‘higher’ than our biological functions. So biomorphism has often questioned the extent to which we are noble in reason, infinite in faculty, in action like an angel and in apprehension like a god. At her latest show at Nancy Margolis, Eva Hild adds her own little twists and creativity to this biomorphic tradition.

It’s always fun to look at biomorphic pieces and see how differing biological processes, forms or functions might be used. In the series of darker sculptures we see that these figures are clearly not photosynthetic flowering plants. They seem to be more fungal, yet, unlike a fungus, these organisms do not seem to be parasitically attached to anything. How do they get energy? We don’t know. They are sort of huge, free standing, auto-generating fungi-like things, defying the second law of thermodynamics. Despite their size, however, they seem as benign as giant walruses at the zoo. In each of these pieces the apex or culmination of the organism’s development is a round hole in an olive like thing through which, I’m assuming, spores or semen or some reproductive substance may be able to shoot out. The structures ultimately become penis-like conduits. Will this lead to asexual or sexual reproduction?

Although these are benign walrus-like creatures, their function is, essentially, something active and aggressive. The entire organism is geared solely toward the reproduction of the entire organism.  It is sort of a monument to Schopenhauer’s ‘will-to-reproduce’.  This is the active and aggressive reproducing itself.  Arthur is ringing in my ears now: "The purpose of an emotional communion between man and woman is procreation, although those in love are oblivious to nature's deceitfulness, making the actual process seem more noble than it is.” Yet, penicillin comes from a fungus so who knows what properties this organism may have for ‘higher’ beings.

Hild’s white sculptures seem to celebrate the ‘passive’ or ‘receptive’ as opposed to the ‘active’ represented by the darker pieces. Her white pieces seem more bone or skeletal-like. In the ancient world it was recognized that bones do not seem to decay and can last, potentially, forever. So bones were often equated to the eternal.  In Hild’s pieces we see hollow structures that almost seem meant to be connected through some type of piping to other systems. If they are meant to be skeletal then some type of tissue must have evolved around these structures and some type of viscera may have developed within.

So, essentially, both of these pieces owe their very forms or structures to ‘principles’ – one the principle of active or aggressive desire, the other, possibly, to passive acceptance or fulfilment of aggressive desire.