Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Freedom from Meaning - Sopheap Pich at Tyler Rollins Fine Art

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As Sopheap Pich explained to a group of art students from his alma mater (Massachusetts/Amherst) a couple years ago, the last thing on his mind is infusing his work with any sense of meaning. In lieu of conveying or expressing something, Pich creates with a sense of freedom, absorbed in a process he finds fulfilling, using materials from his native Cambodia he is attracted to. This approach, in fact, forces the viewer of Pich’s pieces to examine the legitimacy of his/her own expectations, in general, for an artist, as well as the artist’s work.

Pich was born in Cambodia in 1971, the year after Nixon and Kissinger’s ‘sideshow’ bombing and invasion of that country (during the Vietnam War), which lead to civil war and the ultimate triumph of the Khmer Rouge. After Vietnam defeated the horrifically cruel Khmer Rouge government in a two-week-long war in 1978/79, and occupied Cambodia, Pich’s family was able to make its way as refugees to the US and relocated in Amherst, Massachusetts. After receiving degrees from Massachusetts and the Art Institute of Chicago, Pich (who had always missed the country he had known as a child) chose to return to Cambodia in the early 2000s, almost immediately after another Cambodian civil war, and has maintained his studio there since that time.

Pich primarily uses rattan and bamboo in his sculpture. As a child he was taught how to make grid-patterned fish traps by his father out of bamboo and, like bamboo, rattan is easily accessible throughout the country and has been used in Cambodia for ages. He ultimately returned to using these materials, however, by chance. For a gallery show in the early 2000s, he had bought easily obtainable rattan to create the structure of a pair of lungs he was going to cover with empty cigarette wrappers he had collected for this purpose (he had been smoking heavily at this point in his life). When someone involved in the show saw, however, the bare rattan sculpture, he encouraged Pich to forego the easy social commentary involved in plastering it with the empty cigarette packs and to just go with the grid-patterned or structured rattan lungs – which made quite an impact on viewers of the show.

Before turning to art Pich had, in fact, been a pre-med major and liked the shapes of the non-expressive, ‘anonymous’ internal organs of the human body and began to continue in this direction with his sculpture. Indeed, the direction that Pich has been going with his art seems to be highly intuitive and based on what he likes and what feels good to him. He began working with different types of soils, for instance, because he liked the smell. He relishes spending hours at a time wrapping wire around bamboo and rattan to create his sculptures (which have evolved from organic, biomorphic forms to, essentially, flatter grids) – the process of work seems to be soothing and almost therapeutic to him. At a talk at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where his work was featured recently, he said the hours of work he pours into a piece allows an ‘…escape from the horrible nonsense around me’. 

 At Massachusetts he jokingly said: “I want to make work that I don’t have to explain.” He does not approach a work with a fixed meaning and, in fact, works to take meaning out of his art, yet he realizes that his pieces do communicate to others and that the work itself will often tell what it means. Pich states that, more than anything, he seeks freedom in the artistic process, allowing the work to sometimes lead him, trusting in the accidental and unexpected. He is not in total control but he is connected and often brought to another level of understanding.

 Knowing that the artist is not putting meaning into his work has an effect, of course, on how we approach his work. It makes us keenly aware of the interpretive process we continually bring with us to galleries and museums. We realize more precisely what we believe ‘meaning’ is or can be in a piece of art and we have to wonder whether this is sufficient or truly meaningful. It’s a new twist on what Duchamp and Cage were doing, I’m guessing, with ready-mades and chance-operations pieces. In both cases Duchamp and Cage were saying we can derive a ‘symbolic’ interpretation from almost anything and we seem to love doing this - put a snow shovel in an art gallery and it’s no longer a snow shovel, it’s now an analog or metaphor for something inside us. 

So Pich puts no meaning into pieces, he just surrenders to the process of creation, but we come in looking for a meaning. We then begin to sense the inherent limitations of art along with its benefits. To what extent is art merely a form of (relatively empty) cognition and to what extent does it or can it reach emotion, motivation, or become truly transformative? Before we begin to engage any of Pich’s pieces, we have to question the process of engagement itself, and this allows for a more transparent understanding of any meaning in the pieces along with the value of that meaning.

Pich readily admits that the material he uses is already infused with meaning – and at the Met he seemed to admit that given Cambodia’s tragic history many will, perforce, respond emotionally to his pieces based on the horrors they are of aware of in recent Cambodian history.  Another level of meaning involves the fact that we have a guy who went from using bamboo as a child to make ‘useful’ and effective fish traps, who then came to America and was introduced to modern and contemporary art, and who now uses, basically, the technique he learned from his father to make ‘useless’ (as Duchamp would define the ‘useless’ as a necessary part of an artistic piece) grids. This would seem to mirror, in microcosm, the move from the useful to useless that provides the essence of Western art, only Pich has removed meaning from this move.

If we look for conventional or personal meaning in the pieces at this show at Tyler Rollins Gallery, the big question would seem to be what a bamboo grid would represent (although there are pieces that are not grids and some of the grids are double and separated by burlap and encaustic etc.). To me a grid is an attempt at an objective point of reference through which one can track movement or compare movement. It is an artificial construction or tool to discern difference or change. It is also a restrictive structure constructed by following the same rule repetitively.  

So I enjoyed thinking of Pich’s grid-pieces at Rollins as analogs for my inner reality, that call to light my internal cognitive ‘constructions’ employed to track emotional responses to the world and others and to maybe chart potential new and more humane responses. By doubling the grids, and separating them by burlap from rice sacks, this could reference quantum type jumps in our inner perception (just musing now – your guess is as good as mine). Why bamboo grids? Perhaps this implies that the cognitive tricks and structures I might employ now have existed through the generations and derive, themselves, from nature, to aid us in our pursuit back to a more sustainable relationship with the natural world through introspection and commitment to an innate integrity.     

Friday, November 20, 2015

Saloua Raouda Choucair at CRG Gallery

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I loved this little piece by Choucair - are the tubes supposed to expel something toxic or are they supposed to absorb something sustaining (or maybe both)?

In the 2013 Tate Modern retrospective of the work of Saloua Raouda Choucair, there was a painting that had been torn by a bomb explosion near her home in her native Beirut.  One might have expected a Lebanese artist to reference the violence, corruption and suffering of the 15 year Lebanese Civil War in her art. Yet, there seems to be no overt commentary on the war or politics in any of Choucair’s pieces throughout her long career. Indeed, this seems to point to the level of integrity Choucair brought to her art. I am guessing that Choucair’s attitude was that the war was the doing of unenlightened others and she wasn’t going to become engaged in their insanity.

Choucair might have decided that art is simply not about the overtly political and that it should not be sullied by being extended in that direction. Easy artistic attacks against transitory corruption (which might have made her more famous as a ‘regional artist responding to her times’) were a temptation she easily resisted – instead she was interested in the pith and essence of the extent to which art could capture the process of what is most meaningful and eternal in our lives.

The press around the 2013 retrospective highlighted that Choucair was one of the first artists, if not the first, of her region to begin using the techniques of contemporary abstraction. After moving to Paris after World War II, she studied at the atelier of Fernand Leger and became fascinated by the architecture of Le Corbusier. Upon returning, a few years later, to Beirut, however, it became difficult for her to show and sell her work – in part because she is a woman, in part because the work was so groundbreaking. Ms. Choucair, who is now 99 years old and suffering from Alzheimers, worked in relative silence and obscurity for decades amassing her collection in her own home (her daughter has tirelessly continued to champion her mother’s work). A curator for the Tate Modern stumbled upon her work while looking for promising Lebanese artists and, upon discovering the extent and breath of the work, immediately began organizing the retrospective which finally brought attention to this amazing and significant artist. CRG Gallery, on the Lower East Side, now represents the artist in New York City and has put together a wonderful first show for this artist in the USA.

To appreciate Choucair’s art it’s important to know that she was influenced by contemporary science, mathematics and the philosophy of Sufism.  The basic components of her work would seem to involve symmetry, line and curve and what she expresses comes from her experimentation with these elements. Her work also uses the principle of repetition which she may have taken from her study of Le Corbusier’s architecture. Much of her sculpture is, for example, ‘modular’ and it is even possible to rearrange the components of her sculpture. This also mirrors Sufi poetry in which each stanza is supposed to stand alone as well as be an integral part of the whole poem.

In a letter from 1951, she states that one of the greatest contributions of Arabic scholars to the world was the idea of ‘distillation’. Wine was first distilled into purer or more potent ‘spirits’ in the Arabic world in the 900s and she points out that distillation is merely the process of returning substances to their true or original nature or ‘essence’.  The essence of life is repetition as it is, to a great extent, in Sufism – one who experiences a higher awareness necessarily becomes an influence in the world for peace and justice and kindness and mercy.

Choucair was based in Beirut for most of her life but was continually open to the progress going on in all parts of the world and this often made its way into her art. When a critic once asked her whether she was merely imitating European styles, she stated, “What I experience, everyone in the world experiences.” There wasn’t just regional or continental progress or innovation; any change or development from anywhere could and would become a global influence in Choucair’s eyes. This neglected artist was, in fact, an early believer in a more global and more universal outlook in which borders might be dissolved and humanity might become unified in its common search for what is most worth pursuing. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Lie of the Purely Figurative or Gestural: Erin Smith at Amy Li

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In many of the pieces of the work of Erin Smith, there seems to be a conflict between the gestural and the representational which helps bring the relationship between perception, judgment and emotional response into greater focus.  It is as if this relationship, in fact, gets in the way of pure representation, pure abstraction and/or pure process art. In fact, one flaw inherent in the type of abstraction which purports to reveal inner states of being might be that the inner states depicted are always divorced from the surrounding context generating the experience. Can we look inside ourselves and just perceive emotion? Can we look at inner states alone, divorced from everything else? Doesn’t the process of introspection involve experiencing a muddled confluence of images, dialogues, fears, desires etc.? Pure, representational visual imagery and pure abstraction both seem to become lies to Smith.

Just as it might be wrong to say there is a reality separate from the mind, it might be just as wrong to assert that there is a mind separate from the outside world. In the work of Smith we seem to see an attempt to find a point where the unity of inner and outer reality blend in the process of expression. It’s as if Smith is saying we can’t look at the inner world without reference to the outer world and vice versa. The process of introspection is multivariate and complex and, furthermore, not all of it has to be caught in the process of introspection for introspection to yield meaningful results. Smith seems to hint at what we should look for when we look inside and outside at the same time.

So an artist might choose an image because it is laden with some type of meaning, but in the process of depicting an image, Smith seems to assert that the artist must allow inner responses to the image to come to the fore and vitiate the clarity of the image.  So in the current show we have an image of some military character with a wry smile on his face. Perhaps it’s the wry smile in conjunction with the military uniform that was meant to be expressed to those who would also ‘get’ what this means on a literal or allegorical level. Yet the artist cannot refrain from confessing her own inner state in the process of sharing the image. This smile and uniform seemingly initiates raw emotion in the artist which also makes it to the canvas. The image elicits the responses, yet, one is also capable of assessing the legitimacy of one’s emotional responses, and this process also seems present in the tumult of the paint on the canvas.

Some of Smith’s work is more representational or abstract than others. In one piece salient aspects of the human figure are almost totally eliminated through harsh brush strokes of thick paint. Just a hint of the initiating factor for this emotional display is present as emotion and grappling with emotion fill the canvas and obscure the image. It’s as if Smith is saying that perfect photo-realistic clarity would equal total emotional equanimity and she seems to be asking whether this state might ever be attainable in our relationships to others and events in the world.

Amy Li does a yeoman’s job of bringing thought-provoking and meaningful art to her gallery on Mott Street regularly. She seems interested in finding real artists, engaged with real issues and creating real art. Recently I read an interview with a gallery owner who categorized artists as “emerging”, “mid-career” or “blue-chip”. At no point did he talk about authenticity of expression or the desire to really engage others on a meaningful or transformative level. He didn’t talk about artists as seekers trying to get their new findings out there to the benefit of other seekers and doers. To this owner, and maybe to many artists, the expected progression of an artist has to be expressed in terms of whether or not the artist is moving toward greater and greater economic success. The more upper-middle class you become through your art, the more ‘blue-chip’ you become.  Attaining an upper middle class life style becomes the be-all and end-all of the artistic endeavor. By this time, the artist is, however, basically just forging his/her earlier work for a market that knows what to expect and rewards one for meeting such (low) expectations.

As well as finding amazing artists who are really involved in the significant processes of creation, Li bucks this financial orientation and trend by trying to keep the art at her gallery affordable and by working with buyers who want art for all the right reasons. I’m not a PR rep or a salesman, but if you have some extra dough and want to support genuine artists and  galleries, and want to own something thought-provoking to share with companions, visiting Amy Li Projects or other galleries of this type would be well worth your while. ‘Invest’ in pharmaceuticals, ‘support’ art. The show by Smith is going to be extended a few more days and you can see it at 166 Mott Street and you can reach Amy LI through her website at 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Rev/Action – Contemporary Southeast Asian Art

Rev/Action – Contemporary Southeast Asian Art
Curated by Loredana Pazzini-Paracciani for Sundaram Tagore Gallery, Manhattan, USA

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There would seem to be two forces that will often tug on an artist from opposite directions.  There is the need for inner exploration of the conflicts and possibilities inherent in individual humane development, and there is the tug from the world outside which is filled with corruption, racism, injustice, intolerance, violence and unresolved issues from the historical past. This show focuses on the tug from the outside world and history on Southeast Asian artists as we see artists who seem to feel that their social conditions are of such pressing concerns that the political has to trump the personal, although the show also demonstrates personal development, engagement and commitment as a means to gain greater peace and justice.

If one were interested in finding a contemporary example of what Orwell called ‘doublethink’, the concept of ‘democratic reform’ as embodied in Thailand’s People’s Democratic Reform Committee might fit the bill. Democratic reform? Sounds nice. You might think it means making it easier for the will of a majority of the people in a given society to be enacted. In Thailand, however, it seems to mean that the last five democractically elected governments were not able to complete their terms and a military junta now rules the country. Oh, please don’t forget the kangaroo court that seems to be persecuting the last fairly elected PM, Yingluck Shinawatra, and please, please, please don’t forget the numerous innocent young people who have been thrown in jail for expressing their displeasure over aspects of the Thai system. Oh, that type of democratic reform!

By the way, these sentiments about the Thai junta are mine, exclusively, and do not necessarily reflect anyone else’s opinions, except maybe the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights who pointed out: “In Thailand, which was once a force for democracy in the ASEAN context, the military authorities continue to silence opposition under martial law. More than 1,000 people have been summoned or detained since the May 2014 coup, and many of them brought before military courts.”

Montri Toemsombat seems to reference Thailand’s love/hate relationship with democracy in some of his Black Granite pieces. Among the images you see here is one piece echoing a sign once carried by a protester stating that Thailand’s system of democracy needs to be shaken well before using. Black granite was apparently chosen because it is often the type of material used for tombstones and I’m guessing the gold lettering represents a gilding process, where anything of any quality can be covered with gold to look like gold, while not even approximating gold. To me it represents the legitimizing process used by the junta to destroy democracy and establish the type of government they, and not a majority of the people, want to see.

Mit Jai Inn, another Thai artist in this amazing show, has created pieces resembling bolts of fabric. The current Thai flag is comprised of three colors: white for the purity of Buddhism, blue for the monarchy and red for the people. In the bolts of cloth represented in the current show, however, the color blue has changed to green, representing the military. Indeed, many political observers have pointed out the close relationship between the military and the monarchy and there seems to be an effective feedback loop between them so that they both seem to claim legitimacy from each other and both seem to help ensure the other’s existence. The change to the color green in the flag, to me, indicates that if the Thai military is going to destroy democracy and impose its will on the people, they should take official credit for this feat.

Albert Yonathan Setyawan is an Indonesian artist who created terra cotta stupas on white marble sand in the form of a mandala. Stupas have a long history and the Buddha, himself, requested that his remains be placed in a stupa at a crossroads to remind people of the possibility of awakening and enlightenment. Stupas can also hold the relics of Buddhist monks and nuns and are places of reflection. This could be a work of intense process art requiring immense self-discipline and resolve, yet there could be some political meaning as Pazzini-Paracciani points out, in her notes to the show, this type of stupa arrangement also reflects a type of arrangement of villages and small towns that existed before Indonesia was forced through external pressures to develop economically.  I believe the artist could also be making a statement concerning religious toleration as less than 1% of Indonesia’s population is Buddhist and, although Indonesia used to be known as a place where religious toleration flourished, Human Rights Watch has recently pointed out that Sunni Muslim militants have recently been harassing other religious groups and even threatened to blow up Borobudur religious complex. Apparently, the government has responded to this threat to religious toleration inconsistently.

Norberto Roldan is an artist in the Philippines who addresses issues of colonization and identity. You may not know that Islam arrived in the Philippines well before Magellan arrived with Christianity from Spain in the late 1500s. Islam first reached the Philippines in the 1300s through traders from Malaysia and Indonesia. The native inhabitants of the Philippines were apparently initially converted to Islam and conflict between Muslims and Spanish Christians lasted into the 1800s, before Spain finally gained ascendency and Filipinos converted en masse to Christianity. When the US took over the Philippines, it too fought Muslim resistance. Perhaps Roldan’s work points to how Philippine history and culture was forever altered as it served as a battle ground between warring religious ideologies and states. What is or might be left of indigenous Filipino thought, religion or culture? How has the character of the Filipino people been affected by the abuses to which they have been subjected over the generations? In the piece pictured in this review we see a Muslim carpet over which are placed crosses of wood and neon. The wooden crosses were salvaged from the homes of common people, representing their acceptance of the religion, while the neon crosses might represent the colonizing ideology and force of the cross in general.

Kim Hak is a Cambodian artist who presents photos of common items that are the basis of survival stories from the time of the Khmer Rouge. For instance, the pot shown with chicken feet has been in his family since the 70s and was involved in the story of how his mother was once forced to steal a chicken to feed his ailing father, but also how the father became so terrified by her act that he could not eat the chicken.

Muhammad “UCUP” Yusuf uses woodblock prints as part of his art-based protests (woodblock prints have traditionally served as a means to spread revolutionary or socially critical art).  Chief among his concerns are land expropriation and illegal development where Indonesia is seeing, apparently, infrastructure development at the cost of rural communities. Through his art he champions the cause of the rural inhabitants of Indonesia who face the pressures of modernization and development.

Tran Luong is a Vietnamese artist who is represented with a video piece involving a red scarf. This video ‘Blink’ was inspired by a performance piece in which he allowed the wind to continually whip him with a red scarf until his body began to display little red welts. As this occurs, his body is contrasted with a background of a placid blue sky. The piece seems to be about the potentially negative effect of ideology and attempts to force change from without instead of fostering greater and more humane inner development among a people.

Leang Seckon was born in the year that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger decided to secretly bomb Cambodia (1970). He, consequently, lived through the civil war in which Nixon attempted to engage in regime change and then the Khmer terror that resulted as a counter-force to Nixon. 

We often see a blending of traditional Cambodian religious iconography and images of war showing that Cambodia has struggled for an identity divorced from its role in ideological ‘sideshows’. The piece called Bomb God seems to reference how both sides of the civil war tried to tap into Cambodian history and tradition as justifications for military force and inhuman actions.

Nge Lay and her husband Aung Ko present a video and piece of sculpture which seem to question the direction of Burma under the current military junta.  Burma has long been one of the richest of Asian countries in terms of natural resources, with the poorest people in the world. It seems to me that the current reforms by the junta are smoke and mirrors to draw international investment and further line the pockets of the military. Lay’s video is of the Irrawaddy River – Burma’s longest river. The notes to the show say that the waves and color represent the people’s memory while shadows are Burma’s history. 

A sculpture of a British colonial steamboat is presented in conjunction to the video by Nge Lay’s husband, Aung Ko. To me this signifies that Burma has gone from bad to worse and desperately needs to reclaim its autonomy from foreign powers – when the British colonized the country, at least the steamboat and its commerce were relatively benign. Now the junta is teaming up with China to potentially damn portions of the river, which will flood villages and displace rural inhabitants.