Friday, October 23, 2015

Basement Youth: Douglas Rieger and Dylan Languell at 67, Lower East Side

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It’s too bad nothing was done by New York City government to try to preserve intact what was one of the greatest art gallery districts in the world.  Chelsea, as a hotbed of contemporary art, was never going to be the tourist attraction the adjacent Highline Park became, so it has been sacrificed to high rents and property taxes as the Highline transforms the neighborhood into the unthinkable. Thousands of oblivious tourists blithely walking over and past 200 free-admission art galleries has become a potent symbol of what it means for local government to pander to the out-of-towner for an extra buck instead of fortifying one’s own city’s cultural wealth and power for one’s own citizens and art lovers around the world.  I’m not sure what could have been done, but I’m guessing that when you have the richest guy in the city as mayor, whose agenda seemed to be pricing the poor out of the city, losing the country’s greatest, free visual arts resource would not seem to appear high on any official list of priorities: just another example of a lack of vision by leadership which, basically, bought its position in government courtesy of an easily manipulable, apathetic and self-absorbed electorate.

What’s a good way, then, to ensure that the orientation of your gallery retains a more genuine engagement between experimental artists and viewers, divorced from the financial pressures placed on you by the real-estate market in New York City to sell, sell and sell some more to pay your rent and keep your space? You might try what three new gallerists recently did and get space in a grimy little basement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, fix it up a bit and then begin inviting artists who still retain high degrees of integrity and enthusiasm to show work. Indeed, Maximiliano SiƱani, Kim Junsung and Selina Lin have created, through their own sense of integrity and passion for the visual arts, the perfect anti-Chelsea in ‘67’ the gallery located in the basement of a building at 67 Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side.

Apparently Douglas Rieger, one of the artists in the show and an MFA student at Yale, has been reading about Wilhelm Reich’s theories of self-development and especially the concept of character armor – actual physical responses within the body that occur to suppress feelings when individuals do not want to face challenges or address emotional states they don’t feel they can or should handle.  In fact the title of the show ‘Basement Youth’ seems to be a type of Reich-inspired psychological metaphor for processes involved in development, intimacy and sexual expression or repression. 

Rieger also seemed to discover that, coincidentally, “The Basement” is a hugely popular but controversial youth ministry program begun by a young man struggling with drug addiction, who began using the Gospel to reach other ‘troubled’ youth, first in his basement, then throughout larger and larger public meeting places. A basement becomes that extra ‘malleable’ space, as Rieger described it, in the home, sort of like Erving Goffman’s concept of ‘backstage’ – the non-public public space where issues are addressed and things worked out before an actual public performance begins. Psychologically, I am guessing, “Basement Youth” could mean the backstage portions of our lives where the malleable becomes, unfortunately, less and less malleable, often as a response to social pressures, judgments, expectations, limitations etc.

Rieger’s work seems to embody both mechanistic and biomorphic elements and he explained to me that his work is meant to depict objects reflecting desire – but desire inadvertently or maybe deliberately expressed through the process of mechanization and industrialism. He pointed out that in the early stages of industrialization aspects of machines often took on sexually suggestive or charged biomorphic forms. These days machines are streamlined and designed to appear as asexual as possible, perhaps reflecting the ultimate triumph of character armoring and the repression of the sexual and natural in our lives. 

Maybe this parallels what happened in the transition from paganism to Christianity - in early Medieval church architecture craftsmen often secretly planted images of ‘green men’ or pagan nature deities into the church decorations to reflect that the old beliefs and practices still survived among the workers. Later, in church architecture, these green men and deities were omitted just as sexual biomorphism as a type of subconscious or biological protest to industrialization and globalized commercialism is disappearing. Rieger’s objects seem to reflect the tension between the biological and mechanical and the extent to which economic processes and functions may have led to greater ‘armoring’ demands for our bodies, just as Christianity once demanded a more severe divorce between our bodies and nature (leading to the false dualism of body and mind). What the Christian religion could not fully accomplish, the globalized capitalist is here to finish.      

Dylan Languell contributes pieces to this show which seem to reflect the tension artists often feel between work and creation. To me he is asking to what extent art is separated from commercial concerns or can be separated from commercial concerns. The visual arts, if I may be completely candid, seem to be among the most corrupt of the art forms. As a guy writing reviews in New York City I’ve learned – and some gallery owners will tell you this – quid pro quo rules the day. You’ve got nepotism, favoritism, back-scratching, probably little envelopes being exchanged, ‘elite’ gallery owners and buyers colluding to promote nobodies creating meaningless crap to inflate prices of crap pieces to be resold to wealthy idiots etc. Art often seems like one big con game to me, and as a conscientious reviewer I’m always looking to find the ‘real’ art by ‘real’ artists out there, and I am always grateful and sometimes ecstatic to find it, because it can be so rare. I think Languell, the folks who created this new gallery, and I all believe that there is such a thing as ‘real’ art – the challenge is to find ways to get it out there.

So Languell takes real paint…yes, the kind of paint your mom made you use to paint the living room. He then layers it and layers it and layers it to the nth degree. This repetitive action ultimately results in what might be called an emergent quality inherent in the paint itself.  The paint loses its initial function and develops its own potential for expression. So there’s a process art component of this as the artist has to painstakingly layer the commercial paint the way On Kawara painted individual dates each day or the way Peter Dreher wakes up every day and paints the same drinking glass. To me this type of dedication and perseverance is a beautiful analogue for faith. You are committed to a process, engage in this process daily and wait for some type of often unpredictable fruition. Languell gets an amazing fruition in his pieces – some look leather-like, some look as if they are taken from Baroque marble sculptures of the clothing of orgasmic saints.

Interestingly, and maybe the curators of the show realized this, the layered paint pieces also seem to reflect a type of ‘armoring’, but it’s like the armoring depicted in Bernini’s orgasmic saint - St. Theresa. So it’s not an armoring to repress, but one which reflects inner florescence. Take a look at that sculpture again by Bernini – you don’t see that woman’s body. Bernini’s got her body completely covered in undulating cloth. It’s as if the folds in the cloth represent the psychological wave patterns in her spiritual orgasm. To me, Languell’s pieces represent these same types of wave patterns that often lie locked within the paint used to create, but can be unlocked through an arduous act of meaningful commitment by the artist. He takes a potentially corrupt art form, one that can be readily exploited by the money guys, and through a sense of integrity and commitment finds a way to engage others on a deep and transformative level. This gallery is at 67 Ludlow and is currently only open from Thursday through Saturday, 4 to 8pm.  

If you wanna buy any of this cool stuff, make them an offer at:

Monday, October 19, 2015

Kelly Reemtsen at De Buck Gallery, Chelsea

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There is pressure on women all over the world to participate willingly in their own sexual objectification, but Naomi Wolf suggested in ‘The Beauty Myth’ that the pressure became more severe instead of less for women in the USA after they began gaining more and more equal rights to men. American men seemed worried that integration might mean INTEGRATION (or something even more meaningful than integration) and that men might lose control over the objects of their fantasies. A tacit tradeoff seemed to be the answer: along with gaining greater equality and freedom and being allowed to demonstrate their professional competence, women were expected to overcompensate for this and maintain an ultra-feminine and sexually seductive appearance to continue to charm and entertain guys.

Thus, despite nominal equality, women remained de facto sexual objects while being granted the privilege of doing more complex business tasks on the side. That a male presidential candidate (even an idiot like Trump) might say that a female candidate looks ugly shows how little we have progressed since Wolf’s book in the 90s. Women still seem to be trapped, to some extent, in a bind.

Reemtsen’s women in her current show at De Buck Gallery seem to reveal the impasse they may still be at in American society. She, for the most part, only focuses on the middle portion of the woman’s body.  We can see that the trim and toned woman is beautifully dressed in elegant or even vintage clothing.  The woman is also often carrying some type of heavy tool, like a chainsaw, hammer or an ax. Thus, I’m guessing, we get the title of the show – the woman looks ‘smashing’ and is predisposed to do some ‘smashing’. Unlike in her show back in December of 2013, however, these tools are no longer pink. Whereas women seemingly embraced and feminized these various implements in the previous show, they are your basic hardware store variety of tools now.

So, is she implying that her characters can now perceive their situations more starkly and are no longer trying to ‘feminize’ tasks created by men (which is what the tools might represent)? Many radical feminists believed that feminism was supposed to be much more than ‘integration’. It wasn’t just women stepping into heretofore male roles and doing what men did. There was a belief that there were feminist values that could transform the world. Feminism was not supposed to be integration, but transformation. So in this show, perhaps, these are women realizing that feminism as integration is a huge error. These women can handle men's jobs, but they recognize them as men’s jobs reflecting values that have harmed society and the planet (notice most of the tools are for digging into the earth and cutting trees), but they still also seemed compelled to aspire to be super-feminine to appeal to the tastes of these oppressive power brokers who established the system into which they can integrate.

Among the paintings of elegantly dressed women with heavy tools, we also see some larger than life sculptures and paintings of anxiety medication. The actual physical design of the pill becomes highlighted through this method and shown to be a deliberate attempt to be aesthetically attractive to the user.  There’s basically a design principle and branding strategy behind each pill or capsule. The design principle would seem to be tailored to the urbane tastes of well-educated and professional women.  Thus is the psychopharmacological answer to the problem Wolf brought to light in the 90s – this type of life forced upon women is taking its toll.

Another change from the 2013 show involves paintings of Reemtsen’s women climbing onto chairs or climbing ladders, and there seems to be more of an emphasis on shoes as well. Reemtsen seems to be alluding to a lot of the talk involving women ascending toward and destroying the glass ceiling, and these ladies are doing so in the most expensive and most feminine of shoes. The implication would seem to be that this may not be the accomplishment many believe it to be, if it involves women embracing values that have traditionally been socially pernicious accompanying values to please and pacify men. 

Attacking the glass ceiling becomes a mechanical, greed driven and not ideological process. Indeed, prominent in the show are large tubes of lipstick which have been crushed into a surface the way a cigarette might be crushed once one no longer wants or needs it. The crushed lipstick could be an optimistic element of the show, indicating women who are rejecting corporate values and their own complicity in the ‘beauty myth’. Of course, the ultra-feminine women bearing heavy tools could also stand for a guerrilla uprising. The elegant, vintage dresses would just be a mode of camouflage now that the lipstick has been crushed and the gauntlet taken up.

It’s impossible to see the faces of the women who are carrying the various tools, so we really don’t know whether they are happy, sad, defiant, ecstatic...and that’s the point.  Reemtsen could even be implying that the desire to be powerful (holding a chainsaw confers some power) does not, in itself, negate a desire to be feminine (although the crushed lipstick seems to indicate some very disgruntled ladies).  When I read the book by Wolf, long ago, I found it hard to believe that men could be so clever as to offer such a Mephistopholean deal to women (‘We’ll give you worldly power if you’ll look and dress even sexier!’).  Perhaps Reemtsen is saying women never bought into a quid pro quo with the ‘patriarchy’ – maybe the desire to be feminine was a self-choice and buying into corporate culture and attacking the glass ceiling is a fight worth pursuing, or the only fight possible to pursue for women at this time. Maybe destroying the patriarchy is like destroying capitalism – first you give in to it and then it implodes on its own.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Propaganda Value of Money - Cash is King, Lisa Alonzo, Claire Oliver Gallery

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George Washington knew a thing or two about money. Actually, like most Virginia tobacco farmers, he knew how to borrow it, live lavishly on it on his slave plantation, and not pay it back to his English creditors. The historian who wrote the book ‘Tobacco Culture’ postulated that Washington and other Virginia farmers supported independence so much because it was the only way they knew of to get out from under their debts – nothing like a revolution to cancel the money you owe to your ‘oppressor’. As president he appointed Alexander Hamilton to run the economy and, basically, Al took care of things. When you run a slave plantation, you learn how to delegate jobs well.

But George Washington, along with a number of other dignified looking bozos, is on our money, and, in fact, the people who wind up on money and the reasons they wind up there seems to be the basis of the eye-catching paintings by Lisa Alonzo at the Claire Oliver Gallery. Unlike artists in the past who painted money as a comment on capitalism or consumerism, Alonzo is not as interested in the money per se as she is in the propaganda value of the money and the sneaky validation of ideology we see on it.

Ostensibly, the use of US government figures from the past on our currency can seem to represent the partnership between government and industry that constitutes our country. Indeed, this might be the government’s lame attempt at convincing us that they control the money and the basic financial operations of the country, despite the fact that 2008 showed, again, they have no control and no idea what’s going on. In regard to state formation, there’s always the question of what is the relationship between the state and industry and how autonomous the state might be from industry and how much control it might have over the business sector. Our currency would have us believe the state is firmly in control. The state has its guys (white guys) plastered all over the money to prove it.

But why did they choose these guys? Indeed, there is a lot of irony in the show. For instance, few Americans know much about Ulysses S. Grant’s two presidential terms. His administration is considered one of the most corrupt in the history of the country. It was during his administration that the Credit Mobile scandal occurred as well as the Black Friday of 1869 which led to an economic crisis. So throw him on the $50 bill. Why? I don’t know, he has a nice beard and looks presidential? He fought to free slaves as a general but continued the genocidal war against Indians as president – Custer died during his term (some say Grant hated Custer and wanted him to die anyway) trying to steal the Black Hills away from the Sioux after gold was found there. Generally he messed things up for 8 years. Alonzo doesn’t have Andrew Jackson portrayed because I’m guessing that would have been overkill – the guy didn’t believe in banks, destroyed Hamilton’s Bank of America, and kept his money in a box under his bed. So he gets the $20 bill.

In her notes Alonzo also points out the cavalier attitude Lincoln had toward money – often printing it as if it were going out of style, raising inflation and putting more and more of it into the pockets of the wealthy. In the book ‘Capital City’ we read that while men were dying at Gettysburg, fat-cat bankers and industrialists were covered in diamonds on Wall Street. And isn’t it time for a re-visiting of Lincoln anyway? Some historians have asked whether it might have been possible to resolve the slavery issue through peaceful means (boycotts, diplomacy, incentives) – Lincoln never considered any of this for a moment. He just rushed headlong into war. 600,000 men died in the Civil War (half of all soldiers ever killed in US wars) and after the war was over the folks who had been slaves merely moved from slavery to becoming dirt-poor share croppers for their previous masters. Lincoln had zero plans to integrate freed blacks after the war (he had speculated on shipping them back to Africa) and they became an oppressed underclass in the USA. So throw this guy on the $5 bill and shout hallelujah, Lincoln freed the slaves.

To show that the US is not the only country to do this, Alonzo also has Mao abstracted from some Chinese money: Mao, who may have been responsible for up to 80 million people being killed, and who tried to level his society through the Cultural Revolution. Nice guy for some currency. So even Commie countries put their leaders on their currency to try to make it seem as if the state knows what it’s doing; but how effective is this when the guy was an inveterate butcher? Or is that the point? Are we daily subjected to these folks to acclimate ourselves to their ilk and the processes that put them and keep them into power?

So I guess one big question is, do we even notice these political figures on the money? And, is that the point? The government wants us to tacitly accept the legitimacy of a president like Grant by using currency with Grant on it? They want me to buy into the myth that Lincoln was a genius even though he was responsible for 600,000 deaths? They want me to use a bill with a racist and genocidal maniac like Jackson on it without protest? This is some plan somewhere? Actually Alonzo highlights a process that is all around us – the glorification and lionization of utter mediocrities about whom we know little or nothing. This seems to be at the heart of her money paintings – we don’t know them nor their history, but we accept them without a word of protest or questioning. It’s all part of a docility training we have become accustomed to. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

Seongmin Ahn at Art Mora in Chelsea, Manhattan

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Seongmin Ahn is influenced by Minhwa art – a Korean folk art that has traditionally represented the experiences and desires of the common people, revealing insights only the people could know about life and society, but which would never be publicly promulgated through the media of the dominant culture. There is often sarcasm and humor in Minhwa, and perhaps some secret social symbolism and criticism, as with magpies mocking vicious and powerful tigers who suddenly look stupid and ridiculous. Minhwa is basically the raw, insightful and passionate ‘real’ people attacking the established and respected hacks who control things through connections, quid pro quo arrangements and whatever other forms of shadiness they can think of to try to seem relevant and important. The tigers aren’t really tigers in Minhwa, they are buffoons just as the aristocracy and power-brokers were, or have been, overwhelmingly, buffoons.

The paintings also manifest strong and unusual eye-popping colors, in contrast to more academically or socially approved art in Korea since the seventeenth century; the colors perhaps reflecting a greater vitality and love of life found among the people than among the (self-proclaimed) intelligentsia or aristocracy. Apparently you see a lot of Minhwa inspired art on cell phone cases and wall paper these days in Korea.

The current show at Art Mora in Manhattan’s Chelsea art district features three types of pieces by Ahn. The most interesting to me were her “Inter-relation_Selfie” series in which we see guns pointed upwards spewing forth various candies and ice cream cones along with lotuses or peonies or some types of flowers, along with an empty cartoon speaking box.  In the notes to the show Ahn states these paintings could represent her or her personality and inner conflicts between aggression and sweetness inherent in anyone.  To me these paintings work better as a visual representation of how paradoxical and bizarre our conceptions of spiritual development seem when we are forced to try to put them into visual imagery. They can also represent a type of synthesis of Western and Eastern conceptions of spiritual development.

In Eastern philosophy, enlightenment or deliverance can occur through non-violent reflection. In the Western tradition we like to think of fighting with demons and spiritual warfare where the mind and body are at war with each other and we are compelled to forcibly remove a recalcitrant evil from ourselves. There are military metaphors for spiritual warfare – gird your loins with truth and put on the breastplate of righteousness (as Paul advised). So the gun is the weapon to destroy the evil within us, we get that from the Western tradition, but the trigger is never pulled…inexplicably the gun, through some mysterious first cause, erupts into ice cream and flowers (representing in a humorous way the non-violent Eastern tradition). The empty cartoon box represents both the impossibility of articulating the process that happened and the fact that such development occurs beneath the level of language. So this too is in the Minhwa tradition – Ahn could be mocking the established formulas for salvation through these paintings.

In Ahn’s other two series she uses the peony, which in Minhwa often represented prosperity. Ahn explains in her statement that peony paintings were often hung in the rooms of girls to help them secure prosperous lives. We see that petals from the peony have been cut from the pieces and lie scattered around the gallery floor, perhaps expressing disappointment or disillusionment with what one expected or felt was due to one.

Finally in the Peony Pot series, Ahn attempts to portray a whimsical situation in which a teeny pot can paradoxically provide an overabundance of anchoring material and nutrients for a huge peony to grow.  The pot defies our expectations, the counter-intuitive occurs, but overall it seems natural given that it too can be a metaphor for spiritual development.  What ‘feeds’ or nourishes our inner growth? This is entirely insubstantial yet huge in its implications and effects on us and the world.  The show ended on 7 October.

A traditional Minhwa painting of a tiger and magpies:

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Some shots from the Banksy show at Taglialaterra Gallery

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I didn't know this show was up, I ran across it accidentally, so I just took some quick shots with my smart phone. I'm assuming this gallery 'represents' Banksy - if it does, I think it impugns his credibility, big time, as a 'political' street artist. It could be that Taglialaterra bought and collected this show from others, but the pieces were all signed by Banksy, which makes me believe he is working through this gallery.

I like socially critical, leftist political art a lot, so I guess that's why I don't like Banksy.

SMASH THE SYSTEM...after Banksy cashes in...

When he came to NY City last year, he thought it was funny that he offered many of his untitled and unsigned pieces for $60 a piece at a public stall near Central Park and that only two people bought pieces. Of course, each authentic piece by Banksy is 'worth' about $10,000, but nobody knew the pieces were by Banksy.  

To me, this proved that if people look at a work of art by Banksy objectively, they, generally, will not find it meaningful or impressive, and the only reason anyone might buy his stuff is due to economic considerations. He's been a ruthless self-promoter, using social ills to fill his pockets.

So how did he get so big? Guys with money decided he should be big. He played into their system, they realized they could make a buck from him, and now he and they are cashing in. Taglialaterra is not a struggling Lower East Side gallery - this is a gallery for artists who generate dough re mi.

So Banksy might argue that he is using their system to get radical ideas out there. He might even be laughing at the wealthy guys who have elevated him to a popular status, because they are also elevating an 'anti-corporate' or 'anti-war' attitude.

Yet, the image of the 'napalm girl' between Mickey and Ronald is not as powerful as the image of the 'napalm girl' herself - in his attempt at (a very weak and facile) satire, he's almost fostering an acceptance of corporate greed. You don't look at a Banksy painting and question the assumptions of your lifestyle, you say: "Yeah, that's true..." and go your merry way. Banksy participates in our desensitization toward corporate America. He makes too much of a caricature of it for his art to be effective. This is not art toward social transformation.

So congratulations on your success dude - you are one of them and probably always were. Just $15,000 for this lovely Madonna feeding her child toxic will look lovely in your den and can be resold for 3 times its original value within 5 years.

Basically Banksy is the art world's version of Paul Revere and the Raiders. In the 60s and 70s it became profitable for rock and pop bands to 'attack' the system. Did they change the system this way? No, they became a part of the system in the way Foucault pointed out that real social protest can be watered down, embraced and incorporated into the dominant system to help crush real forms of criticism and protest.

Ladies and germs...we bring you Paul Revere and the Raiders...their gut-wrenching lyrical saga of the Native American: prophets of change:

It's happening!!!!!!

Monday, October 5, 2015

Kim Cogan - The Other Side - Arcadia Contemporary

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The difference between photo-realism and the realism of someone like Courbet, for instance, involves the existence of the camera.  Instead of responding to the camera with contemptuous attempts to do what the camera could not, photo-realistic painters have acknowledged that the camera and photography do, indeed, exist, that technological reproductions of reality have practically gained ascendancy over direct encounters with reality and that photography can be a starting point in the process of realistic painting. In photo-realism the painter deliberately removes him/herself from a putatively direct experience with ‘reality',  starts with the validation and permanence of reality a photograph implies and then works to make this representation become hyper-real on canvas. 


Kim Cogan contributes a meaningful and thought-provoking twist to the photo-realist tradition at Arcadia Contemporary in Lower Manhattan, as he uses photography in this show to help “reconstruct how the mind remembers”. In the notes for the show Cogan writes, “By combining old photographs with new ones, I wanted to make a complete image, very similar to how you might construct a memory in your head.” So, if we look carefully at his painting ‘Dollhouse’, we see that the dollhouse is, in fact, the house where Cogan himself was raised and not the toy dollhouse you might expect.

A dollhouse is, of course, a child’s idealized home in which fictional stories and fantasies can be played out, so the implication might be that consequent life experience and analysis of our past, along with feelings as diverse as nostalgia or resentment, can completely recast and replace a true or accurate memory with what we now believe happened or believe should have happened. Much personal memory, especially in regard to childhood, is probably vitiated in this way. Whereas photo-realism is often great at capturing or revealing a sense of transience or ephemerality, by super-realistically depicting one particular place at one particular time in the past, Cogan seems to want to go a little further and deal with emotions brought about reflecting on the past and why these emotions occur and even how these emotions can change our memories. The emotional nature of the work is reflected in the slightly more expressionistic style than one has seen from Cogan in the past.

In many of Cogan’s cityscapes, throughout his career, we see buildings in the dead of night which convey a sense of deep tranquility and restfulness along with the awareness that this peace will not last and those inside will be compelled to frantically engage again in the stresses and pressures of their daily lives.  This temporary cessation of coerced activity seems the best we can ever hope for, yet it becomes the basis for the narratives, metaphors and hope we tend to create for permanent or long-lasting peace in our lives. The feeling of tranquility engendered by Cogan’s night cityscapes is mirrored somewhat in the family photo paintings. By using family photography of the distant past Cogan presents images which evoke feelings of a security, warmth and stability all of us were forced at one point to leave but which we now wish to replicate.

This narrative of once experienced perfect security, perfect family life and perfect stability, and the feelings engendered by it, seems, however, only experienced in its fullness upon reflection and was probably never felt to that intensity at the given time. The photo presents a tranquility existing now which we did not recognize and which perhaps did not even exist in the past. This emotional state is what infuses our memories of home-life from the past with such value and creates such a longing for the past. The paintings derived from these photos further, therefore, contain the horror of not being able to reclaim that (possibly fictitious) past.

The show closes soon, October 4th, so if you can get a chance to see Cogan’s arresting and provocative paintings in person, please drop by Arcadia Contemporary at 51 Greene Street. 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

John Kelly's Irish Landscapes at O'Sullivan Antiques

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While over one million people starved to death in Ireland from 1845 – 1850, boatloads of grain regularly arrived from Ireland, through the port of Liverpool, to feed the citizens of England. The Irish people had been colonized by the English and most Irish worked for various wealthy (mostly English) landlords who never even considered stopping the transport of food from Ireland to England so that the Irish themselves might be saved while the potato crop was decimated by a fungus. The tenant farmers who were dependent on the potato starved while the wealthy landowners reaped tremendous profits from the Irish grain they exported. This was free market capitalism at its most transparently inhumane, but it has come down to us through history whitewashed as the potato ‘famine’. Yet, a famine is when there is no food – there was an overabundance of food…the Irish just weren’t allowed to eat it.   

John Kelly was born in England to Irish and English parents who raised him in Australia. He now lives in Cork where the Great Hunger was especially horrific. Discovery of a letter written to the Times of London by a witness of the Great Hunger in his region lead Kelly to realize that no visual record of this tragedy existed in the art of the time. Actually, this shouldn’t have been all that surprising, since, until the French Revolution, the only suffering in Western visual art was the suffering of Jesus, some martyrs, souls in hell and maybe some mythological figures being punished for arrogance.  Suffering depicted in art due to social or economic or military oppression is non-existent until after the French Revolution and, even after the French Revolution, when artists could choose their topics for the marketplace, independent of patrons, they often chose what would sell. Real, gut-wrenching suffering that motivates social action doesn’t sell to art buyers.

Furthermore, the suffering depicted pre-French Revolution was meant to awe and inspire and fill the viewer with admiration and veneration, not a sense of outrage. This type of suffering is even, at times, very sensual - to the point where Renaissance and Baroque suffering does not only not encourage us to connect and empathize with victims, but, in fact, it encourages us to become sexually aroused by them (the Japanese writer Mishima had his first orgasm while looking at Guido Reni’s St. Sebastian). You need to stylize and sexualize suffering in the visual arts to make a buck from it.

{{{Kelly enjoys referencing the papier-mache cows made by William Dobell in WWII, which were placed near Australian airfields to confuse Japanese pilots into thinking the airfields were really farms. This piece represents a cow stuck up a tree after a flood.}}}

Kelly’s response to all of this seems to be non-linear but relevant and meaningful. He turns to landscape painting and the true horror to be derived from his paintings is that no trace of the horror can be readily found. The High and Low Islands which bore witness to the suffering on shore look tranquil and inviting. This peace, beauty and sublimity demands, however, a strong response. The Marquis de Sade once said, “Every death, even the cruelest death, drowns in nature’s indifference.” 

In response to this indifference (which parallels the indifference of the English upper classes who nearly committed genocide against the Irish), we are required to speak out and remember the atrocities that both nature and our system of social classes tend to swallow up or wipe away. So through these landscapes Kelly is not looking to validate a historical record or collect and present evidence. Yet, there is a palpable reverence and sadness and evidence of a personal act of compassion and deep sympathy for the loss of life that has never been fully acknowledged by the English government or our history texts. In the painting ‘Sticks (Moonlight)’ (pictured above) Kelly references this sense of reverence by painting what is left of artist Susan O’Toole’s site-specific sculpture ‘Tree Sentinel’ – originally 18 long tree trunks or ‘sticks’ fixed into the ground in Cork to commemorate the Great Hunger in the early 2000s.

Indeed, if we look at the paintings themselves, this seems to be landscape painting divested of any sense of romanticism or transcendence. It could be argued that landscape painting is, in itself, very ‘pagan’, hearkening back to a desire for union with Arcadia, very pre-Christian in its orientation, shooting for something non-Christian, non-allegorical and something that winds up on the canvas which has not been mediated through the intellect.   I would call Kelly’s work a type of ‘secular’ landscape – the painting technique seems affected by the knowledge of what happened on the land. You don’t have the soft blurriness characterizing the English Romantic painters – each aspect of the landscape is clearly delineated from other aspects…sea, sky, land…we see the landscape but might struggle to be affected by it in the way that we have been affected by landscape in the past.

This is landscape that swallows up human suffering instead of landscape of a harmonious, balanced and timeless mood. Yet, we can also feel that this is sacred landscape and the silence does not have to be the forced silence imposed through the censoring of history text books and the oppression of thought by dominant economic classes…it can be a silence of deep and moving reverence and horror for those who were abandoned by the world to inhumane and tortuous deaths so that some could live in economic comfort at the expense of others.

The show was curated by Seol Park of Spark Associates Art Management and it is currently being held at O’Sullivan Antiques at 51 E. 10th Street, New York, NY until October 15th, 2015.