Friday, January 30, 2015

Max Neumann at Bruce Silverstein Gallery

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Portrait painting owes its most meaningful possible impact to our ability to discern character traits and emotional states by studying the human face. Indeed, a great portrait painter can engage us to draw upon a wide array of previous experience, insights and even knowledge of our society, the world and history, to grasp the representation of his/her subject. The great portraitist invites us to construct our own narratives around the subject and often compels us to assess and pass judgment on the subject he/she paints.

For example, one of my favorite portraits at the Met, El Greco’s Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara, shows us a professional torturer (he was appointed Grand Inquisitor of Spain in 1599 and 250 – give or take a few – ‘heretics’ were burned to death during the three years he ‘served’ in this position). We can know so much about this cold-blooded and ambitious religious bureaucrat just through the surreptitious gaze to his left that El Greco gives him. There is no mercy in this calculating type of man, no milk of human kindness, but no ‘banality’ of evil either – he is resplendent in his church gowns and relishes his power and opulence.  In another room at the MET, Rembrandt’s self-portrait from 1660 evokes compassion as we perceive a deep sense of sorrow and resignation.  While we look at this painting we can experience a type of melancholic calm, searching ourselves to understand what Rembrandt felt toward the end of his life. Holbein’s painting of Sir Thomas Moore at the Frick is also one of my favorite portraits in New York and provides an engaging model for a morally uncompromising life in a city where the Mayor just called one of the worst political crooks in NY State history a “man of integrity.” Moore is portrayed as rock solid in his commitment to an ethical life and higher calling, but not devoid of warmth or kindness.

So what does it mean when a contemporary artist, in this case Max Neumann at Bruce Silverstein Gallery, abandons all this?  What effect do portraits have when they have been darkened, made to appear completely two-dimensional in appearance, and various facial features have been deliberately obscured through dark patches of paint?

To some extent, perhaps Neumann could be repudiating the history and purposes of portraiture. His art could be an attack on the limited extent to which engagement through portraiture might be a meaningful or transformative process for the viewer. Maybe he is even saying portraiture is wrong and self-deceptive. What do you hope to derive from your self-righteous insights about the political career of an Inquisitor painted by El Greco? How did understanding Rembrandt’s sense of failure and loss change you? So you admire Sir Thomas Moore while looking at a Holbein, OK, big deal, so what? Maybe Neumann asks the question: what exactly do we want from portraiture (or art in general), what do we expect to happen and why are we so satisfied with, perhaps, so little?  Are you engaging in one process, while viewing art, while neglecting another more important process? We could, therefore, possibly view Neumann’s work within a tradition of anti-art.  I tend to think, however, that it’s not anti-art but an attempt to make us more aware of an interpretative process we use often without questioning it.

The effect of seeing these large shadowy paintings comes from our sudden inability to engage in our habitual process of scanning a face, drawing upon our positive and negative experiences of others with similar facial characteristics and making quick intuitive conclusions and judgments. So looking at Neumann’s pieces we are frustrated and liberated at the same time. We are rendered helpless and even powerless to engage in a process we are used to and which provides not only gratification by also a certain amount of interpersonal survival value.  These subjects take on the aura of Cycladic figurines. They are not to be engaged by us and will not engage us because, perhaps, they are subjects who are diving deep into themselves. Indeed, we can even think of Neumann’s portraits as being a part of a type of religious tradition as these portraits become contemporary icons of the contemplative or spiritually transformative process. Perhaps they represent our concept of inner struggle and breakthrough as much as a serene-appearing Buddha sitting under a tree might have represented this in other times and cultures. This is still our concept of inner change – it comes in seclusion, involving a closing off of the senses and a process of deep reflection.  We don’t feel that we change through transformative experience, but through a self-generated inner process of rigorous self-examination.

Strangely, these portraits break down the barrier between outer and inner world and point us back at ourselves. They say: "Don’t perceive me, don’t analyze me, stop interpreting - dive into yourself as I am diving into myself."

El Greco:



Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Take Back Vermont! at Zieher Smith and Horton

TAKE BACK VERMONT! struck me as a timely, relevant and even important type of gallery show because, among other things, it helps us better understand how social change really often happens in the USA, shines a light on how political or cultural enemies develop and are labeled by each other and how a historical narrative often gets written. TAKE BACK VERMONT! is the story of the ‘Woodchucks’ (native-born, rural folks from Vermont) and the Flatlanders (new, liberal, urban arrivals to the state) and their apparent clash of ideologies in 2000 in the first state to legalize gay marriage. Zieher Smith & Horton uses this historical confrontation as a type of ‘theme’ to present a show about the relationship between art and activism and the conflict of cultural values.

Of course, some guy with a lawyer started the commotion (actually it was 6 people with lawyers and various gay-rights organizations sponsoring them).  Indeed, that’s part of what seems to have made the “Woodchucks” so angry. To the Woodchucks, non-Vermont folks (probably from New York or Boston), who could afford going all the way to the Vermont Supreme Court, imposed their viewpoint and values on others through judicial fiat.  To the Woodchucks, there was no public discussion, no public debate - some folks went to the Vermont Supreme Court and the court ruled that the Common Benefits Clause (all citizens are guaranteed all rights equally) of the Vermont Constitution mandated that gay marriage should be allowed.  The legislature had no choice but to follow the directive of the Court and pass the first gay marriage law in the USA. Despite the fact that voting against gay marriage meant violating their oath of office to uphold the Constitution, and despite the fact that many law-makers argued they had no choice but to vote ‘yes’, the vote was still close: 76 – 69.

At the time many of the Woodchucks argued that they weren’t anti-gay. It was the way everything came about that irritated them. They didn’t paint: “Get rid of gay marriage!” on their barns, they painted “TAKE BACK VERMONT!” (which might have meant the same thing to some of them, however). There were, of course, nutty super orthodox, right wing Christian groups that said what you’d expect nutty right wing super Christian groups to say about gay folks, but based on what I’ve been able to discover 14 years down the line, the Woodchucks, in general, might have gotten a bad rap in this whole situation.

Howard Dean (remember him?) faced a backlash and had to work his butt off to get re-elected as Governor and the Republicans took control of the Vermont legislature – but, it was too late. The die was cast and, from what I can tell, to the credit of the people of Vermont, things settled down very quickly (perhaps proving that the perceived homophobia among the rural folks of Vermont may have been part of an overestimated caricature). The strategy was – gain a beachhead (previous attempts in Hawaii and Alaska had failed), show people that the world wasn’t going to end with gay marriage, and then pick up more states. The pro-gay-marriage folks had gotten their foot in the door, they had a beachhead from which to move forward, and the rest is becoming history as now 36 states allow gay marriage.

Three artists at Zieher Smith & Horton were selected to present work under this TAKE BACK VERMONT! theme.

Spangler - click on images to enlarge

Aaron Spangler is a Minnesota artist who creates sculptures out of Basswood.  As has been pointed out in previous reviews of his work, he is using a technique which bucks a number of contemporary trends in art. He also does not seem to be appealing to any urban sensibilities. Or, if he is appealing to an urban sensibility, it’s the sensibility that many of us feel which makes us want to abandon city life and go back to the country.  To me his sculptures present a certain type of élan vital inherent in the lifestyle of rural living which is absent and perhaps even disparaged among some urbanites.  

The countryside becomes an ideological fortress of solid values derived from a direct experience with the land and nature and the processes of deriving sustenance for all from the land. When we engage these huge ‘monolithic’ sculptures of Basswood we get a sense of the richness of experience and meaning that has been abandoned in urban life.

Peter Gallo is actually from Vermont and has become well known for using various found images and texts to present work which is highly charged and engaging.  

Some of his pieces in the show seem to deliberately contrast the political with the highly personal and openly question the right of others to regulate forms of sexual behavior or inter-personal relationships. For instance, he has an image from the New York Times Magazine of the conservative politician Mike Huckabee, in which he has blotted out much of Huckabee’s face with white paint, next to a very elegantly drawn image of one man licking another man’s cock. In another piece we see a letter he has received from a US Senator with red drops on it, next to a drawing of a man deeply engrossed in performing a blow job on another man.

Ellen Lesperance is an artist from the Pacific Northwest who follows and/or does research on political demonstrations and protests and, based on photos of some of the female protesters she has seen, draws and then recreates the sweaters that some of these protesters were wearing at the time of the protests they participated in. 

She seems to start out with a gouache and graphite on tea stained paper drawing followed, often, by a recreation of the sweater itself. The sweaters are not overtly political – in fact, they are just sweaters that were probably not chosen as a way to one day represent the person’s ideology during a political protest. But the sweaters, in their various patterns, reflect, in some way, the deep humanity of folks who feel so strongly about an issue that they are willing to take to the streets and assume various risks to make their voices heard. 

These are just ordinary sweaters purchased for various utilitarian reasons, which now take on the aura of battle insignia. These are ordinary sweaters worn by ordinary people who became extraordinary when pushed a little too far. Maybe these sweaters represent the raw and inherent activism that resides in each of us and which is just waiting for an opportunity to be converted from the potential to actual. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Masumi Sakagami, Renée Lerner and Judith Shah at Walter Wickiser Gallery

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Sumi ink is made of a type of compressed soot derived from burning plant seed oils, which is then mixed with bone glue. It is still made according to a 2,000 year old process and it comes in a stick which can be mixed with water in order to dilute and lighten the ink on paper. As the ink ages, it takes on a richer look.

In a lot of Western ‘process’ or ‘action’ art, the darker the lines are in a piece, the more we can assume that the artist was in a more than usual passionate or aggressive state while making the piece. Mark Tobey, for instance, in the 50s, literally flung Sumi ink at paper, creating splashes of blackness that convey a sense of conflict, confrontation and aggression. However, since an artist using Sumi is able to continually add water to dilute the ink’s darkness, we can’t necessarily assume a state of being just from looking at the lines he/she makes. Sumi, therefore, is probably better suited to ‘represent’ and not necessarily to ‘express’.

What I liked about Masumi Sakagami’s sumi pieces at Walter Wickiser Gallery was the way she, nevertheless, gets an expressive look and feel by overtly experimenting with how dark and how light she can get her lines. In SUN SUN II we literally see hollow lines to the right of the piece. Density and hollowness become binary extremes or parameters for the rest of the action going on in this work. It gives a type of pulsing effect to the piece, of controlled appearance and disappearance happening within an overarching inner process which is being visually depicted.

Taki looked a bit to me like Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International done in a calligraphic style. Indeed, the shape of the image seems to be like a right triangle with the hypotenuse made completely of hollow twisting and turning lines. In fact, by turning the image over in the booklet that comes with the show, I realized that if you treat this figure as a right triangle, and turn the image so that the hypotenuse runs from the lower left corner to the upper right corner of the page, you see the lines becoming more hollow as they approach the line of the hypotenuse. Or, if you just keep the image positioned as it is presented, you see a movement from density to lightness from left to right. The right triangle, in the esoteric tradition, represents the creation of new life or a new being – the adjacent line on which the right triangle lies is considered masculine, the opposite side (created through the 90 degree angle) becomes the feminine and the hypotenuse is the new being (after all, ‘c’ squared equals ‘a’ squared plus ‘b’ squared). Is Sakagami playing with the triangular form here deliberately?

There are also some amazing fabric collages by Renée Lerner in the show.  Call me a film buff but looking at these complex combinations of fabrics and colors made me think of the Katherine Hepburn character in the film version of Jean Giradoux’s play The Madwoman of Chaillot. I’m pretty sure the eccentric Countess Aurelia’s closet looked a bit like some of the wonderful pieces in Lerner’s portion of the show.

For me, and you can drop by and judge for yourself, these fabric collages were laden with political meaning. Looking at elegant and expensive types of fabric among wire mesh made me think that this is the type of fabric donned by those who can, through money and power, render themselves beyond reproach. Clothing attracts but it also can intimidate.  Clothing for the well-heeled is more of a delicate armor than anything else. Although the artist was influenced by abstract painters of the mid-20th century, and previous press describes her work as ‘painting with fabric’, I don’t think clothing can be easily separated from the social or political. Seeing the differing types of posh fabrics draped so beautifully with wire mesh made me think of these pieces as a type of protective talisman, where the possessor might be able to absorb some of the power and protection such material often provides the wearer. If, however, you are not as political a creature as I am, you can also just give yourself over to the various emotional effects provoked by the creative blending of the fabrics, found objects and colors.

Judith Shah’s current work at Wickiser seems to derive from a deep trust in her own intuition when she creates non-objective pieces. In her artist’s statement she writes that she is currently taking cues from both the Abstract Expressionists and Color Field artists.  In her painting “Red Head” I like how she has delicate little tendrils both reaching upward and spreading downward at the same time. Like the Color Field artists she maintains the two-dimensional basis of the painting while conveying a deep sense of a process involving the establishing of roots with the reaching upward toward a connection to something higher. The giant blob of red becomes like an organic bridge between the animal and spiritual.  

Monday, January 19, 2015

Christian Faur at Kim Foster Gallery

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As the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner pointed out, before children can visually represent anything, they scribble. Scribbling with crayons is a form of process or action art in which the child does not even attempt to represent anything, yet the child seems to derive immense pleasure from this expressive act. With a pack of crayons the child chooses from among differing colors, discovering preferences, learning the emotional effects of the differing colors and also learning that his/her expressive actions can result in a type of beauty to be shared with others.

Christian Faur uses crayons as his medium of expression in his current work at Kim Foster Gallery (part of a group show called Heavy Lite). In fact, I’ve been waiting a couple years to see a good representation of Faur’s work again – he’s always been one of my favorite artists represented in Chelsea. Gallery hoppers at the Kim Foster Gallery are generally dazzled by the creativity and innovation in his work, even though what he does may sound pretty simple: basically, Faur takes photographic images and replaces the pixels with crayons.

So, what does this mean?

Unlike a pixel a crayon holds tons of potential expressive energy.  Each crayon is like a little chunk of U-238 (uranium) waiting to be converted from matter to energy. I am pretty sure that if you stuck a three year old kid in front of one of Faur’s works, the kid would start drooling (representing our inherent NEED to express when the opportunity to express is present). Standing in front of one of Faur’s works gives you this feeling of raw potential expressive energy that is pent up in each image. Each image could be deconstructed (and I’m not referencing Derrida here) into miles of wonderfully chaotic scribbles.  

Physically moving around these sculptural works also highlights the pent up expressive energy laden in each piece. As you move around your ability to see the images changes. Get close enough or view a piece from an angle and you no longer see the image, but, instead, the tips of the various crayons. If we use the Boltzmann-Plank definition of entropy, and view entropy as a means to assess disorder, Faur’s work represents a type of ektropy (the opposite concept of entropy) – or amazing, flabbergasting, almost Prussian, almost angelic order. Each piece seems eternal in its anti-entropic order, yet we are also hit with the realization that this could be converted at any time into frivolously joyful childlike expression. Maybe the big message here is that all art is a type of conversion of matter into energy, with the artist as the intermediary.
A better perspective to see how Faur uses crayons...

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Part File Score by Susan Philipsz at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in Chelsea (about Hanns Eisler)

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As he was being forced to leave the USA, in 1948, the composer Hanns Eisler read this statement to the press:

“I leave this country not without bitterness and infuriation. I could well understand it when in 1933 the Hitler bandits put a price on my head and drove me out. They were the evil of the period; I was proud of being driven out. But I feel heartbroken over being driven out of this beautiful country in this ridiculous way…My trouble started when I was subpoenaed a witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. I listened to the talk and the questions of these men and I saw their faces. As an old anti-fascist it became plain to me that these men represent fascism in its most direct form.”

One of the current shows at Tanya Bonakdar involves the FBI investigation of Hanns Eisler which helped lead to his deportation during the Cold War. Eisler had studied under Arnold Schoenberg and was one of the first of Schoenberg’s students to also compose in the 12-tone method. Yet, his friendship with Bertolt Brecht and his own burgeoning social conscience drew him farther away from the purely aesthetic and into a more socially oriented art. Like Brecht he was compelled to leave his homeland with the rise of the Nazis and he ultimately settled in Hollywood where he did some work providing music for films. After World War II, with the rise in paranoia concerning Communist influence in American culture and politics, he became one of the first émigré artists formerly embraced by the USA to be shown the door.

Susan Philipsz has become renowned for her sound installations and has created a 12-channel installation of some of Eisler’s film music from the 20s and 40s for Tanya Bonakdar. She also includes a number of large scale prints in which she superimposes some of Eisler’s musical scores with pages from his FBI record. By superimposing the FBI file pages onto musical scores we get a hybrid document that seems to represent attempts at artistic creativity as well as a sinister and oppressive force to control and mold thought through intimidation.

The FBI represents the force of assimilation and enculturation writ large. It represents the ideological melting pot for artists who are expected to abandon previous interests and/or ideologies and buy into the dominant American culture lock, stock and barrel. Ironically, Eisler’s whole artistic career seemed to be dominated by attempts by the authorities to curb his political and artistic messages – first in Germany, then in the USA and even in East Germany, where (although he composed the national anthem for the GDR) he was criticized for being too much of an aesthete after he attempted to compose a piece based on the Faust legend. He seemed to simply be the type of uncompromising artist and socially committed artist who was never going to completely fit in anywhere.

The effect of the often deliberately discordant music - which is played with different notes coming from the 12 different speakers at different times (in sequence) – in conjunction with the absurd injustice of the prints, created, in me at least, a sense of sadness and quiet outrage. You want to laugh at how utterly stupid and ridiculous the FBI was, but are checked by the realization of the effect this ridiculous intrusion had on the life and career of, basically, a person of goodwill who wished to contribute to the ethical development of his adopted American culture. 

Some pieces by Hanns Eisler:

Eisler before the House Un-American Committee

Monday, January 12, 2015

Reconfigured - Margaret Thatcher Projects

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Meg Hitchcock

My maternal grandmother (a truly saintly person) had immigrated to the USA from the old country and was a quietly devout Catholic. When I was a kid and used to stay overnight, I always slept in a room that had a portrait of the face of Jesus, with his crown of thorns, as he was dying on the cross (so at her place I was never afraid of a vampire climbing through my window).  I could see, however, that the entire portrait was comprised of very small words, some darker and some lighter.  So it turned out that there was a guy from the old country in the neighborhood who took the entire text of the Gospel According to John and reconfigured the form of the text and lightened and darkened the words to create different scenes from the “Passion” (death process) of Jesus – all incredibly mawkish and gruesome. That the guy would do something so labor intensive as this gave, to the elderly ethnic Catholic ladies around me, the sense that this was especially holy stuff to hang in their spare bedrooms. It wasn’t just a drawing of a dying Jesus, it was a drawing of words meticulously and perfectly arranged.

Meg Hitchcock (along with the entire staff of Margaret Thatcher Projects) is probably going to hunt me down and beat me up for even remotely mentioning her work in the same breath as a kitschy dying Jesus made of words, but I think we have a rarified and distilled and more thought-provoking version of this concept of reformatting words in the current show at Thatcher.  While I was packed in the gallery during the opening, looking at a vertically arranged, almond or boat shaped figure (a vesica piscis?) on the wall, it hit me that the figure was comprised of teeny tiny little letters. As I focused on the letters, slowly but surely I began to make out the fact that the letters comprised the beautiful Christian spiritual “Michael Row the Boat Ashore”.   

So Hitchcock takes pieces of sacred or religious texts from one holy book/source and cuts out individual letters to recreate pieces of text from another holy book/source, but in more meaningful shapes. So I’m guessing there are two parts involved in grasping why she does this. First, perhaps, from her perspective, she realizes that when we read a sacred text we are often only moved or changed by specific quotes, lines, anecdotes or metaphors. The whole text is given meaning by these little meaningful snippets within larger fluffier material.

But what gives power to these little meaningful snippets? Each word in conjunction with others which suddenly evokes something in us as we engage in the linear reading process.  And what gives power to each word? Each letter…so she seems to treat each letter of the English alphabet the way the ancient Nordic folks treated their sacred Runic alphabet – each letter possessed power and meaning and when combined with other Runes presented something more than words: a capacity for engagement that could lead to spiritual transformation (Odin sacrificed an eye and hanged for 9 days from a tree to get the Runes). Hitchcock makes you focus on what exactly gives language the capacity to engage – where is this power ultimately stored: in the letters? words? combinations of words? How is such meaningful communication possible? What separates the text of the Bhagavad Gita from the New York Post? The same letters and sentence structures are used in both. So then part two is when the viewer him/herself pieces together and is impacted by the meaning of these ‘runes’. For instance, I especially liked going through the effort to read, in one piece, the little phrase “…Him who possesses the power in ecstasy…” For Hitchcock these sacred snippets require new forms that require extra effort from the viewer.



Jaq Belcher starts with just a simple sheet of white paper and from the medium of the paper itself thinks of the possibilities of conveying something meaningful. Instead of adding to the paper, she finds ways to take something from the paper to express various concepts or evoke a certain awareness or sense of something normally ineffable. If I am not wrong, she seems to often slice out what is called the vesica piscis (also mentioned above). You get this shape from two circles with the same radius intersecting so that the center of each circle touches the perimeter of each circle. 

This is a very ancient symbol that goes as far back as Egypt, and maybe farther. Some folks say this is a stylized vagina – the vagina representing the fulfilment of spiritual desire symbolically represented by the penis. She carves out these vesica piscis shapes through a repetitive process which demonstrates a sense of supreme equanimity. She is capable of performing the same action producing the same effect over and over again, like continually shooting an arrow into a target’s bulls-eye.  If she is cutting vesica piscis shapes, we get designs based on these scared symbols of fulfillment where the shapes alternate with empty space, the empty space, paradoxically, perhaps, more directly representing the concept of calm and peace than the symbols.



Adam Fowler creates layers of swirling lines, in two steps, using materials he knows the viewer will be familiar with – a graphite pencil and sheets of paper. First Fowler creates his drawings and then using an exacto knife, he slices and layers what he has drawn. The swirling lines, for me, represent cognition or inner processes that are occurring or have occurred but which cannot, perhaps, be stored into memory and later expressed. 

The swirls or curly cues are a type of nervous energy, perhaps, that comes from inner engagement and the attempt to understand ourselves. We are thinking, struggling, aspiring, searching for ways to overcome obstacles and this work really seems to me to show the inexpressible internal effort we put forth in our attempt to become more humane. The swirls reminded me of P-300 waves. P-300 waves are waves that the brain produces when we have meaningful insights, or solve difficult problems - these swirls don’t look like P-300 waves but they are like P-300 waves to me.  I think Fowler’s work, to me at least, is what inner development looks like from the outside. If you have to represent the deep dive inward and what happens next, you get these layers of swirling, curving lines.


From what I have been able to tell, Nan Swid takes antique books and old ledger books, covers them with encaustic or paint, and places these materials within a square or rectangular pattern. By covering the books with encaustic she is, of course, rendering them useless.  The implication for me is that the encaustic covering represents a realization or insight that the type of engagement to be derived from text may be insufficient compared to another self-generated and more organic and creative inner process. She seems to be pointing at the limitation of textual engagement and pointing toward something more necessary.  It’s as if the books have been read, the accounts have been tabulated and now they are permanently sealed.  The person cannot and does not want to go back to the text, which has pushed the person away from text into a deeper form of engagement.


Monday, January 5, 2015

The Ambiguity of the Erect Penis: Nicolas Gaugnini at Bortolami

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All images courtesy of Bortolami Gallery

The erect human penis, in the history of art, religion and culture, once used to be of paramount significance. One of the earliest discovered painted representations of a human figure was, in fact, in a Lascaux cave, dating back thousands of years, where a human figure with the head of a bird stands with an erect penis while apparently being killed by a bison with its entrails spilling out. As James Frazer explained in his amazing work The Golden Bough, in ancient agricultural societies the erect penis was a fertility symbol and representations of the penis had magical functions to help ensure the fertility of the land. In ancient Greece and Rome erect penises abounded.  

In Nicolás Guagnini’s wonderfully penis laden show at Bortolami, though, we have to ask the question: What is the erect penis now as a raw symbol in a secular age devoid of both shamans and a belief in fertility magic? Actually, Guagnini puts the penis within the perspective of contemporary economics as he, among other things, asserts that Freud’s little boys who feared castration have evolved into the ‘spectacular patriarchy of late capitalism.’ In fact, Yanzhen, a friend of mine who is getting her PhD in business, had an interesting take on Guagnini’s use of the erect penis.  Her take was that the penis aids in the construction of male selfhood and arouses thoughts and desires for private property. Private property and the allocation of wealth is also passed on along one’s bloodline creating inequality. Allocation after production is based on maximizing the interests of one's own interest group, which is usually one's bloodline. This becomes the foundation of an economy, social structure and political system.

In allegorical literature or art the sexual union of male and female always seemed to represent the union of desire and spiritual fulfillment. So I am assuming an erect penis can more closely represent this concept of desire. An erection for a guy is both pleasant and painful – the element of pain goads the guy forward to seek a sexual partner.  Sexual gratification is one measure of the seeking of pleasure and another measure of the elimination of a painful goading. The desire for sexual gratification, in fact, seems to perfectly mirror, metaphorically, the desire for spiritual communion. The person who seeks perfection is goaded forward by the pain of imperfection. Guagnini seems interested in, however, how “Capital is desire. This condition has reduced our form of life into biopolitical submission.”  In late capitalism basic needs are not met in wide swaths of the world, wealth is not created for the benefit of an entire society and desire is produced in the consumer as a way of creating extraneous, wasteful need which triggers increases in income gaps.

So what about these giant heads with penises coming out of the eye sockets? So these figures’ eyes have been literally replaced by penises. Does this mean the figures have abandoned themselves to a pursuit of pure late capitalist desire?  Has the penis evolved from fertility object to an object representing commodity fetishism and hoarding? These figures have literally become their desire? Or have these figures dived deep into themselves to further investigate and question the desire that goads them forward? Instead of pupils to capture and process light, we see the urethral openings of the penises ready to ejaculate.  

These heads are not the only feature of this show, however.  Accompanying the show is a large free publication, designed by Bill Hayden, titled: Some Notes on Dickface by Nic (the quotes above were taken from this publication). Dickface is a new type of font (which you can see at in which the letters are made from images of penises.  While reading through the publication sometimes you can just focus on the text to get the meaning of what Guagnini is writing, while at other times you realize suddenly you are reading a text comprised of penises. You periodically shift from deriving meaning to seeing penises. Perhaps this means that the artist, himself, is engaging in a capitalist endeavor. He is, basically, selling these radical ideas. To a great extent art has become the commodification of radical ideas concerning individual and societal development.

The text deals with ethical  issues concerning capturing carnage and human suffering on film, the effects on a viewer of witnessing the horrors of mass death through photography, fetishism – in anthropological and sexual terms (as well as Freud’s belief that all men fear castration),  hoarding as a psychological manifestation of late capitalist waste, amputation of noses as an ancient punishment, Christian iconoclasts, the death of classical antiquity, identity formation, auditory hallucinations and Bosch’s use of two ears and a knife, in his Garden of Earthly Delights, as hidden phallic symbolism (among other topics). The publication is free and in a limited edition of 1,000. Images of various types of carnage are often comingled with fashion photography into which some of the artist’s ceramic sculptures have been superimposed.

Reading the publication may help elucidate the meaning of the 12 ceramic figures which are amalgams of feet, hands, ears, noses and penises.  One of the first images seen in Guagnini’s publication is an image of many severed feet and legs piled on top of each other (perhaps from an American Civil War field hospital where amputations occurred). As mentioned above, he also deals with themes of castration, severing of noses and ears etc. Many of these amalgams of body parts are set on top of closed art or art theory books.  

Feet represent movement, hands represent action, the nose and ears perception and the penis desire. So what does it mean to combine these body parts together and place them on art books? To me, when I first saw the show, these severed and recombined body parts represented kind of organic Duchamp-like ‘assisted readymades.’  Guagnini could be saying that these combinations of the features of these body parts are the common denominators of everything written in the books or that these severed and recombined parts are a common hindrance to really grasping what might be offered in the books. There’s definitely an interesting contrast between the amalgams of ceramic body parts and the books they rest on and you can get your own intuitive feeling as for what’s going on by dropping by and experiencing the show.

As a postscript - I am now wondering whether the severed hands, feet, noses, ears and penises are meant as a type of anti-art statement. Maybe the artist is saying that when we approach art, we can only approach it from a purely visual perspective. Overall experience is multi-sensory and requires movement and action and various senses. Art engages us on a limited basis, whereas transformative experience engages us multidimensionally.