Saturday, February 28, 2015

Heroes Wanted! Mayson Pop-Up Space on Orchard Street, Manhattan (LES)

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Misha Tyutyunik

The origin of the current show at Mayson Pop-Up Space on the Lower East Side derives from the recent murderous attack against the staff of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. As Ronni Anderson of Mayson explained to me, the show was meant to address various questions like: “Who are our heroes today? Who do we look up to/idolize? And who will save us from corrupt governments, hate crimes, shallow materialism, and violence?” 


I loved the Obama as Captain America painting by Misha Tyutyunik because I think it helps answer several of these questions. Frankly, I tend to think we as citizens, to our own harm, ask too much from our leaders and expect too much from them and remove too much responsibility from ourselves. It’s almost as if we elect de facto dictators. We want to go about our own business, and many of us go about business doing remarkable things each day, but we tend to allocate all or most responsibilities to our ‘leaders’ and drop everything into their laps and expect quick solutions to complex problems, or we elect a new series of de facto dictators, who will also fail due to a lack of insight and long-range planning.


We are appalled, for instance, by the fact that, statistically, African American students perform poorly in their all-black schools, living in racially segregated neighborhoods of poverty and violence, but we, ourselves, choose to live in lily-white neighborhoods while demanding that politicians solve the problem with our school system. It’s the attitude of the townspeople in Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952) – “We paid good money for a Marshal!  Why do we have to fight Frank Miller and his brothers! That’s not my job!”


The show, therefore, might also be asking, “Do we or don’t we, as citizens, even busy citizens, have an obligation to be more engaged in our democracies and the operations of our government and policy?  How can we accomplish this? Is it really a democracy if people just vote and expect their political super-heroes to change everything while they do not fully examine, perhaps, the ethics of their own actions or choices? How different is this from putting a Mussolini into office and closing our eyes?"  So we see Obama in his Captain America outfit, stressed out and puffing on a cigarette because he’s the guy who has to fix everything and he clearly can’t do it alone.  

Technodrome 1

The show is mostly of very entertaining and thought-provoking images by Tyutunik as well as some amazing work by GG and Technodrome 1.  You have to see this cool, thought-provoking show at Mayson’s Lower East Side location at 98 Orchard.


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

7 Sinks by Maayan Strauss at Andrea Meislin

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Imagine listening to the first phone conversation Maayan Strauss might have had with the Kohler Company to ask for the donation of sinks for her installation at the Andrea Meislin Gallery.  I’m guessing it went something like this: “Why do I need sinks? OK, well, there was this guy named Duchamp…he took a urinal…yes a urinal….uh huh, yeah, a urinal from a men’s restroom and he turned it upside down and called it a fountain! Ha ha ha!...Yes, many people do consider this art...Uh, well, because one characteristic of an art object is its uselessness, so he made a bunch of useful things useless. Ha ha. He was kind of a funny guy. So, with your sinks I’m thinking…uh…hello? Are you there…hello?” So kudos to Kohler for being open-minded enough to take the chance of providing the sinks for an art installation - who knows what an artist these days might do with a bunch of sinks.

Actually, did you hear that there’s some debate now as to whether “Fountain” is really Duchamp’s work? Some researchers say it was the creation of Else Poltz aka Baroness Else von Freytag-Loringhoven. Who knows. Even if he took credit for a piece that wasn’t his, I think he still developed the theory of the ‘ready-made’ – when an artist renders a useful object useless in order to deliberately awaken and engage the interpretive capacity we all have, shining a more piercing light on how we view the world concretely and how we can also use objects as symbols to better look inside of ourselves. Through his ready-mades Duchamp basically showed that virtually anything can be interpreted on a deeper level or become a symbol for something or some process in our inner reality. Basically he seemed to say that throughout any given day we are constantly fluctuating between two basic cognitive processes – one focused outward and one focused inward, but our inward looking thoughts or concepts are based on symbols derived from ‘outward’ physical objects and their relationships to each other.    

So Strauss has created a giant block of 7 unusable and very stylish sinks, with working faucets. In fact, the faucets go on and off periodically – the whole process is beyond anyone’s immediate control. Water, of course, is hugely symbolic. In allegorical, religious literature water is huge and seems to represent a stage in our humane development.  In the symbolic story of the wedding at Cana, Jesus, for instance, has 6 stone containers filled with water, which then turn to wine. The effect of drinking wine, in the ancient world, symbolized moving to a higher level of being – when you drink wine you become more tolerant, social, forgiving and joyous – you become a ‘new man’ or you are ‘born again’ – the message Jesus kept promoting before Paul hijacked the religion. So in some religious literature water seemed to represent the second stage before the ultimate stage in humane development – water cleanses, helps create life and sustains life and prepares one for the big jump to ultimate meaning in life.

So to me Strauss’ installation calls our attention to the need we have for what water might symbolize, and the awareness that in regard to our inner reality  there is a process represented by water or the flowing of water which we cannot readily control. The piece, to me, is about the anxiety of not being in control of something essential and the need for faith that a process that we might find to be indispensable is accessible, under the right circumstances, once one, perhaps, is ready for it.  I guess my interpretation is very Augustinian.

Actually there are a zillion interpretations you can take away from this installation, the one above is just what this installation meant to me. The installation also incorporates photography, video and sound, so please drop by before the show ends this weekend and take in the whole experience.  There’s actually a lot going on, on 24th street, these days, so pop into Meislin and check out what’s around it too if you get a chance.

Some of the Dada Baroness's work:


Sunday, February 22, 2015

Scooter LaForge at Munch Gallery

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In November 2013 Scooter LaForge and Johnny Rozsa set out on a cross-country car ride with Rozsa’s three dogs and a first edition copy of Steinbeck’s ‘Travels with Charley’ (1960), which LaForge occasionally read out loud seeing that the radio of the car didn’t work. They stopped periodically, wherever they felt like it, and LaForge visually recorded anything that seemed interesting or meaningful to him. He, ultimately, connected with long lost family members out west, painted portraits of his father and niece, and spent the past year and a half working on paintings based on that trip which comprise his current show at Munch. Unfortunately, it now looks as if Steinbeck made up most of his book, traveling with his wife and staying in motels or swanky hotels and creating characters to fit the various locales he traveled through, trying to make points about America he had gleaned, apparently, from reading the newspapers for many years in New York.  No matter. LaForge was deeply affected by the trip and Lillan Munch has displayed an engaging group of paintings.

So, when an artist leaves the city and takes to the road, he gains instant anonymity – for what it’s worth, even Steinbeck asserted that he was never recognized while traveling.  You also leave behind the often abrasive, sometimes labor intensive and occasionally pretense-filled social relationships of the city. You abandon this daily forced performance to become, basically, ‘some guy’.  On the road, I’m guessing, LaForge and Rozsa were some guys on the road with a NY license plate. Leaving the city for an artist also has aesthetic implications because you are now thrust, by the road, into various American landscapes.  So now, in a de facto sense, you become a part of the long tradition of city dwellers who were convinced there was a truth out there in ‘nature’ that they weren’t getting in their cities. Basically every major landscape painter seemed to be someone from the city who was sure there was something extraordinary to be tapped from nature.

So, how did LaForge choose his images from this trip? Is he documenting his trip or doing something else? How closely related are the images to their locales? How does he present these images? Can each one mean something separately or do these paintings have to be viewed en masse?

I think LaForge achieves a synthesis of the landscape and human experience as part of the process of transition. I especially liked his roadside memorial paintings. These are memorials to people who literally died on the road. In one there are a couple statues of the Virgin Mary (well, what do you bring to a roadside memorial? A Virgin Mary. But it’s like going to a wedding shower and finding out someone else also brought a toaster oven). We also see the de rigueur dollar store candles and a white teddy bear.  So I love this kind of imagery because it shows a mixture of profound sadness and the inability for most of us to reach down deep and express a sense of loss, tragedy and compassion. We meet the horrors of accidental death with furry white teddy bears. We rely on dollar store candles and cheap statues as indications of our sincerity and grief.   

So LaForge’s show is chock full of these types of images, but I don’t think they are cynical in nature, these are just images that unexpectedly struck and stuck with LaForge. These are images that go along with the experience of transition involved in leaving and returning home after a long time. In one amazing painting he has the road flanked by a tornado funnel cloud to the right and a big ol’ bear to his left, lightning cracking in the sky. There’s also the image of a bullet hole through a window that he saw in Indiana. There are a couple paintings of spider webs into which butterflies have inadvertently flown in Pennsylvania. You see a couple self-portraits LaForge did, mushrooms in Kansas, the Arizona border strung with barbed wire. At one point LaForge even seemed to see the Scooby Doo Mystery Machine getting tanked up at a gas station.

LaForge is and isn’t a camera. His paintings partly illustrate our desire to continuously scrutinize the outside world for meaning and to take to the road to find newer and newer experiences and images. At the same time that the images resonate as novelties, they also resonate more deeply as evidence of the process through which we find beauty and engagement in the world.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Bruce Davenport Jr's "Outsider Art" Homage to Mike Tyson at Louis B. James on the Lower East Side

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Bruce Davenport Jr. is considered an 'outsider' artist. These are artists who often have no formal or academic art training, but who have a strong desire to create. Often their work does not look as refined or polished as the work of artists with years of training, but many people like the passion, sincerity and energy of outsider art. The current show at Louis B. James consists of pieces dedicated to Davenport’s childhood hero, Mike Tyson.
The Tyson pieces, to me, not only document the pride that Tyson engendered in a young African American man living in a poor, segregated community in Louisiana, but also provoke questions about the role of the black athlete, and especially the black heavyweight boxer, as a source of pride in a community which still struggles for equality in America. Is there something about a successful African American boxer that gives him special status, above and beyond other types of athletes, as a sports star for his community? What have these great heavyweight boxers (Johnson, Louis, Ali, Tyson et al.) meant to a struggling African American community through the years?  How have the roles of these boxers for their communities changed as America has changed? To what extent is pride engendered through the heavyweight champ’s background and personality, as well as his race? Finally, have these boxing idols been more of a force, ironically, for pacification or, instead, perhaps, for motivation to face and overcome hardship?

Despite the fact that issues of poverty are generally kept out of the news, and racial discrimination and prejudice are often dealt with only after personal tragedy and social protest, many black folks in America clearly still seem to be suffering greatly. 70% of black children are born into single parent homes, black unemployment is twice that of white unemployment, about 9% (1/11) of African American men are in jail, 27% of black folks live beneath the poverty line (46% of black children under 6 live in poverty), the high school graduation rate for African American males is only around 50%, and cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases are much higher in the black population than among white folks (just to highlight a few disparities). Under such harsh and adverse circumstances, black role models regularly become a source of pride and hope for those who struggle in the city. In his pieces Davenport regularly writes about the importance of Tyson as a hero. In one piece he writes that Tyson was a blessing. In another he was the black knight on a white horse. Every African American kid in the neighborhood wanted to be like Mike Tyson.

In one of his pieces at Louis B. James, Bruce Davenport Jr. writes below an image of a boxing ring that when a Mike Tyson fight was on TV, the housing project where he grew up became as silent as a church. I loved that Davenport would reference a church and a Tyson fight in, as it were, the same breath. The so-called ‘inner-city black church’ experience has often been maligned by sociologists who claim that it is merely a pacifying and coping agent in the lives of oppressed and suffering people – they argue it reassures people that things are not as bad as they seem, when , in fact, things are actually worse than they seem.  Other sociologists cite positive and motivational aspects of this church experience and claim that the church benefits its members greatly – a source of pride and hope is necessary to one’s survival in adverse and oppressive circumstances. By, however, loosely and subtly equating a quiet housing project during a Tyson fight to a church, Davenport helps also call into question the effect the black athlete has had in the African American community during a time of struggle. The question is asked: Is the black athlete the potential double edged sword (pacifier and/or galvanizer) that the black church might also be? Does the black athlete merely reassure and mollify, or does he motivate and inspire?

Through his writings on the paper on which he has created his pieces, Davenport puts Tyson within the tradition of the very great black heavyweight boxers.  References are made, among others, to Jack Johnson, Joe Louis and Mohammed Ali.   Jack Johnson, one of America’s first pop culture superstars, flaunted convention and was ultimately maliciously arrested and imprisoned for a year for allegedly taking a prostitute across a state line for immoral purposes.  Joe Louis grew up in the Jim Crow South, during some of the worst years of lynching, moved to Detroit and became a type of All-American anti-Nazi propaganda weapon. Ali refused military service in Vietnam (‘The white man wants to send the black man to kill the yellow man.’), was nearly thrown in jail for this and was stripped of his heavyweight championship belt for three years during various legal wranglings. Tyson, abandoned by his father, bullied mercilessly as a child, living in a neighborhood of violence and crime, had been arrested over 30 times by the time he was 13.

These various “outsider-art” drawings of Tyson in various bouts throughout his career are affecting and meaningful to me in that they show the need those of us who struggle have to find proof that the system can be beat. The whole game is rigged, but a black guy from Brooklyn who would otherwise be in jail is now on TV with the whole world cheering for his victory. In a situation that could otherwise be hopeless, and lead to despair, the Tysons who defy all odds can raise our spirits and keep us going. The world had abandoned Tyson. But for one kind social worker (Bob Stewart) and one warm-hearted trainer (Cus D’Amato), who saw humanity in someone otherwise abused and discarded, Tyson would be dead or in a cell now. So it’s not just Tyson who is celebrated here. It is the belief that we can’t give up on each other and that we have to forgive and overlook the past and that in this very act of faith in ourselves and each other, we can overcome and transform ourselves and the world. 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Left Front: "Radical" US Artists between the Wars at Grey Art Gallery, NYU

Chinese artists are soon going to be required to spend one month living among poor Chinese farmers in rural villages. The rationale of the Chinese Communist Party is that it does not want Chinese artists to succumb to what it sees as the predominant Western orientation toward art production – divorce art from all real social concerns, dabble in beauty and mysticism, and produce for the wealthy art-buying market. The CCP also seems to want Chinese artists to experience various aspects of Chinese social life often neglected by the urban elite and to be influenced by the unsullied nature of the countryside and the work ethic and sense of integrity of non-urban dwellers.  Indeed, the CCP seems to want to bridge the traditional gap between the urban and rural and perhaps forcefully reveal that the farmer is to be respected as a social equal in contemporary China.

This approach by a contemporary socialist government is interesting in light of the predominant socialist aesthetic concept, developed shortly after the Russian Revolution, that an artist who lives among poverty or corruption or forms of social injustice must not blithely ignore the world around him/her and wallow in self-absorbed aesthetics.  One finds oneself in complicity with social injustice if one has a means of expression and does not publicly object to what is wrong.  Indeed, we see how strongly this concept was once embraced by some American artists at the Grey Art Gallery’s current show, at NYU, called The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929 - 1940.

In 1937 the American artist Carl Hoeckner wrote, “My art aims, up to the outbreak of the world war, were the search for and expression of beauty. During the war I became interested in truth – the bitter truth and the struggle of life in general.” This quote seems to point at the two forces that will often tug on an artist from opposite directions.  There is the need for inner exploration of the possibilities and conflicts inherent in individual humane development, and there is the world outside filled with corruption, racism, injustice and violence, just begging to be exposed for what it is. 

The pieces in this show, which do an amazing job of social criticism (they reminded me of the work of the New Objectivity movement that was occurring in Germany at around the same time) forced me to ask myself, however, whether it is possible for a visual artist to, somehow, integrate these two forces into one’s overall work.  If not, this could be due to a limitation of the visual arts medium.

In literature, after all, authors often kill two birds with one stone by engaging in social satire or the exposing of injustice while also exploring the possibilities of individual humane development. Dickens and Dostoyevsky, I believe, did this. Toward the end of his life Tolstoy’s Christian anarchist approach in that his novel Resurrection blended an attack on what passes for justice in the civilized world with an implied  concept for self-development in which the true Christian naturally evolves into a dissident role, through an enhanced sense of humanity and compassion, in his/her society.  Perhaps this type of blending is in some of the works, but the predominant approach in this show is to document the social wrongs of the time, and there’s something really amazingly exciting and fun, even 70 years down the line, about seeing artists just laying the naked truth of the corruption, exploitation and abuses of their society out there for anyone to see.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Landscapes by Eric Holzman at Lori Bookstein Fine Art

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The weathering process is the first thing that grabbed me about Eric Holzman’s amazing new landscape paintings at Lori Bookstein Fine Art.  Holzman literally adds types of dirt, sand and dust to his paints and this achieves a really arresting effect on the viewer. These oil paintings initially reminded me a bit of some of the landscape frescoes that were found on the inner walls of houses in Pompeii. It turns out, however, that Holzman is inspired by various Renaissance artists and it seems (based on previous reviews of his work) that the process he uses is meant to get the feel of that time period.  In fact, if I didn’t know that he was creating his work from rural areas in Westchester and the Hudson valley, I could imagine that he might be engaging in a type of conceptual process, beginning by selecting sections of the landscape from the background of, say, a Giorgione painting (or any number of Renaissance masters) and copying and blurring these landscapes and presenting them separate from any figuration – as if he’s trying to free Renaissance landscapes from the human figure and allow them to be experienced by themselves.  

The weathering process is important because it makes many of Holzman’s paintings look as if they were done during a time before the onset of industrialization and our reliance on science to understand and exploit nature.  It’s as if he is announcing through his process that he is hearkening back to an older vision of and engagement with nature. So we are engaging nature, first, in what seems to be a somewhat removed historical sense, but then through Holzman’s experiments with color and form we are brought back into a hyper-enriched engagement with nature.  

Science has replaced the ‘ancient’ belief in transcendence through engagement with nature with the belief that what is useful about nature can be grasped with good math skills and that this shell of reality suits our purposes just fine. Holzman’s paintings attest to the belief, perhaps, that a union with nature is still possible and might lead to a greater understanding and acceptance of what underlay perception, which might then lead to greater spiritual development.

The Romantic painters, of course, thought that if you gave yourself enough time and stood in the presence of old ruins, or huge trees or expanses of ocean etc. you could enter into a type of trance that would obliterate the distinction between the outside and inside world and bring about a type of communion with nature leading to a heightened sense of the sacred or spiritual. So I believe that when you reach a state where you can be so deeply influenced by nature, Holzman’s paintings might be what this experience looks like. At times he preserves many of the formal qualities of trees and forests and at other times these become more indistinct as colors seem to almost melt into each other, representing, perhaps, a union which shows that the mind is not separate from nature but a part of nature to be influenced and changed by nature.