Thursday, December 31, 2015

Genesis 2015 - Dan Hernandez - Kim Foster Gallery

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While Dan Hernandez was standing in front of the Leonardo Annunciation a few years ago at the Uffizi, he recognized similarities between the painting and the classic arcade game Street Fighter II. Leonardo has the Archangel Gabriel leaning in toward the Virgin with a stylized hand gesture indicating a greeting or blessing while the Virgin seems to be pulling back into a type of defensive posture. The placement of the two characters to the left and right of a vanishing point in aggressive and defensive postures is, in fact, mirrored by the placement of characters in Street Fighter II. Thus Hernandez began his Annunciation Fighter project, which has evolved into the Genesis series he has been showing at the Kim Foster Gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea district.

Although the current show in the series is called Genesis 2015, his work draws from many different systems and games - Genesis, as Hernandez explained to me, was chosen as a term because it “straddles the old and the new.” He seems to be interested in combining aspects of these games into early Renaissance masters like Giotto, Duccio and Pierro, but he is also interested in “…the sheer density of information in some of the work by Tintoretto, Bosch and Bruegel, illuminated manuscripts, Indian miniatures…the list goes on and on”.  

In some of his pieces you see various saints, angels and perhaps even God ‘Himself’ participating in virtual carnage against legions of adversaries.  Indeed the legions are often differentiated from each other by the giant iconic figures among them, goading and inspiring them to greater and greater glory, and sometimes zapping guys themselves with fearsome laser beams coming from eyes, hands or, potentially, wherever. Sometimes the spiritual warriors are marshalled behind inspiring iconic figures or just organized into potential battle legions waiting to suppress the infidel or maybe even members of one’s own religion who simply live across a border.

Hernandez informed me that he is not necessarily making a statement concerning any particular current political situation and that his pieces are more about the “toy box than the battle field.” He’s “playing at violence” as his children do and that this “runs deeper than current events.” Hernandez points to an early piece by Philip Guston of children play-fighting with garbage can lids as shields and small planks of wood as swords as a reference.

Yet, Hernandez’s work also can serve to satirize the use of religions of ‘peace’ being used as means to marshal armies (throughout history) and his work can also ask to what extent religion is a motivator in conflict or just a banner used to justify conflict being pursued under ulterior motives. There’s also the absurdity of individual cultures going to war just to, basically, destroy the other culture’s religious icons and bury their stories, even though the warring cultures may have icons and texts that, basically, espouse the same principles. Armies have fought to preserve icons and stories. Whose religious meme will, ultimately, survive all this carnage, since it doesn’t seem possible for differing religious memes to coexist?

Deeper to me, however, than Hernandez’s toy box analogy is the fact that his work can also potentially parody the concept of the individual spiritual ‘journey’.  We seem to enjoy thinking of our spiritual ‘quests’ in terms of violent allegories – there is something corrupting or evil inside of us, and this must be rooted out and obliterated. The goal of every religious quest seems to be the attainment of a higher level peace or equanimity, but to attain this equanimity we have to, paradoxically, fight against an adversary the way you zap guys in video games. Of course, once you establish your state of spiritual perfection, as Hernandez shows, you need an army to protect you and your methodology from the other guy’s spiritual perfection and methodology.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Top Ten Shows 2015

This past year I began collaborating with Wall Street International and Artillery Magazine, after posting for several months at Arte Fuse. This top-ten list is, however, exclusive to this blog.  

I reviewed over 70 shows this past year, and it was (REALLY) hard to narrow them down, but I chose these ten for purely subjective reasons.  I loved every show I reviewed, or I would not have reviewed it. Indeed, please scroll through the past 12 months of shows - you will see some amazing work and read some thought-provoking interpretations (with which you may or may not agree).  Here's to a better year next year for all of us...

The Proletarian Art Snob's 10 Favorite Shows of 2015! 

Without further ado, here are my 10 favorites:

1. Bradley Hart - Bubble Wrap Art at Anna Zorina Gallery

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Click for the entire review:

"Hart uses bubble wrap kind of in the way a street artist might use a wall. Indeed, the Berlin Wall before its take-down by the people of Germany is even one of the images in the show, as, perhaps, a self-reflexive gesture. But Hart’s refusal to allow something to go to waste and his desire to make use of the most useless type of cast-away thing requires that he engage in a super-laborious process of creation. He injects acrylic paint into each cell of the bubble wrap, cell by cell, methodically, in what might even be called a type of proletarian process art. 

He’s basically a ‘worker-artist’ or he’s like a Japanese full-body tattoo artist, engaging in a repetitive process of injecting ink over and over again into human flesh. Yet, he could also be considered to be in the tradition of the great tapestry makers of the Middle Ages, who worked with a negative image and who looped thread continually from the negative side to the front side of the tapestry and back again to get large narrative images from thousands of little stitches."

2. Kysa Johnson - The Long Goodbye at Morgan Lehman Gallery

"So my take is that we seem to be dealing with two types of decay in Johnson’s pieces – one toward stability and one toward expiration – the first type of decay involves matter being reduced to a stable form but the macro decay depicted seems to be all about the inevitable loss of energy production when hydrogen and helium burning drops and the star is overtaken by the forces of gravity. In fact, electrons and neutrons actually prevent total ‘black hole’ collapse in low and medium mass stars. So the first type of decay is being used to help visually depict the second type of decay. Actually we get ‘descriptions’ of subatomic decay being used to represent ‘images’ of astronomical superstuff: as if we can never really even see or experience natural phenomena directly anymore due to our overactive cognitive capacities. All experience comes through the mediation of the intellect now."

3. Alison Rossiter at Yossi Milo Gallery

"So what does it mean to take very old photographic paper and develop it without first going through the process of employing a camera? By engaging in this process, to me, she is rejecting or repudiating what photography normally gives us or convinces us to believe.  She repudiates a radical divide between the inner and outer worlds as well as rejecting a way of engaging what we perceive as the outer world. That the world is filled with objects separate from oneself is continually validated throughout the process of conventional photography. We believe that the photograph gives us reality and objectivity, yet, the film we use has expiration dates because the colors and sensitivity of film alter and fade throughout time. Photography is our effort to use chemicals, paper and light to create images to convince us that there is an outside world to be sufficiently understood through measurement and equations."

4. Kim Cogan - Arcadia Gallery

"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.”"

5. Erin Smith - Amy Li Projects

"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."

6. Kelly Reemtsen - DeBuck Gallery

"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."

7. Nicolas Guagnini - Bortolomi Gallery

"In Nicol├ís 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."

8. Jeenah Moon -  SoAM Studio

The photos seem to show people who perhaps have had little contact with the government and who, perhaps, have not been affected, either positively or negatively, by the policies of the junta. The people do not seem to be dying in the streets and seem to have adjusted to a lifestyle of simplicity. In fact, I think this is the key to grasping the basic truths of these images. We see a kind of timeless Burma in the photos. The residents around Inle Lake are Buddhist and live in bamboo huts. It's an image of people who have lived in this area for generations and who will live here for generations, away from the political turmoil of the big Burmese cities. 


9. Ray Bull - Ana Cristea Gallery

"The work of Ray Bull at Ana Cristea Gallery openly impugns the autonomy of abstraction. In the notes accompanying the show it is stated that, “Ray Bull’s paintings speak to the impossibility of abstraction in painting. His compositions consistently straddle the line between representation and abstraction.” So basically Bull seems to be implying that when you look at a work of abstraction, in order to get anything from it, you engage in, basically, the same thought-processes that you use for a representational piece."

10. Masumi Sakagami - Walter Wicksier


"What I liked about Masumi Sakagami’s sumi pieces at Walter Wickiser Gallery was the way she gets an expressive look and feel by overtly experimenting with how dark and how light she can get her lines merely by adding water to the sumi ink. 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?"

Friday, December 25, 2015

Ha Chong Hyun - Tina Kim Gallery

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Burlap, for Ha Chong-Hyun, seemed to represent both a force of resistance and a platform from which to express. When his “Conjunction” series was begun in the 1970s, burlap was a common material from US military bases and aid organizations, readily found in South Korea during that country’s darkest days of early economic development and dictatorship, and it became Ha’s choice for his paintings over traditional canvas. Indeed, Ha exploited the dual nature of burlap - a strong material that allowed a transfer of air – when he forced his paint through the ‘back’ of the woven material before using his own hands or worker’s tools to create the image presented to the viewer on the ‘front’ of the material. There are areas in many of his paintings where you still can see evidence of the paint having been forced through the burlap before being worked into mostly linear abstract patterns.  

Tina Kim Gallery in Chelsea, New York, recently presented an overview of this artist’s work in the wake of the success Ha and his fellow Dansaekhwa (School of White or Monochrome) artists have had with collectors. Interest in Ha and those of this Korean movement (stretching forward from the 70s) seems to have finally captured the attention of collectors and museums, after long years of relative neglect, due to a book by an art historian named Joan Kee and shows at ‘influential’ galleries in Seoul and LA. This seems further evidence of a burgeoning trend and niche which may be opening in the dominant art market for meaningful and overlooked art from previously ‘marginalized’ countries – i.e. the show at the Tate Modern of Saloua Raouda Choucair, a Lebanese artist who worked for decades in obscurity, comes to mind.

In reviews of Ha’s work, he is sometimes equated to abstract expressionists, but if there are similarities, they are probably coincidental since Ha and the others in his group eschewed any western influence. The colors Ha used are muted earth tones worked primarily, it seems, in angles or straight lines. In a country under martial law, living under a sequence of dictators, the expression of a grim, regulated, limited expression became, possibly, the most potent form of political protest. To me, Ha’s work bridges the divide between an artist’s concern for the state of his society and his own humane development within a state that denied civil rights and liberties and which was riddled with corruption. In an oppressive society, for an artist to just look inward might amount to complicity. Ha’s methodology and images potently convey the struggle to strive for greater humanity within yourself and your society simultaneously, but under great duress.

The closest western analogy to what Ha was doing might actually be the Arte Povera movement (although, again, this seems coincidental).  Arte Povera artists in Italy sought to eliminate the division between art and life and did so by using common materials and tools.  The materials and tools they used were a form of protest against industrialism in that their materials were more common before the development of industry in Europe.  Arte Povera was a rejection of the current economic system due to the waste, environmental harm and corruption stemming from it (interestingly, while the US celebrated Pop, Italy celebrated Arte Povera).

{{{Here's a close-up of how the paint is pushed through the burlap weave. The burlap, itself, could represent government censorship through which an artist has to force his art, or any obstacle requiring a use of force to overcome it.}}}

So Ha uses burlap, representative of both oppression and aid. Burlap is also a commercial commodity, as visual art is, so Ha forgoes the pretense of a canvas and uses something common to commerce. The dual nature of burlap can, moreover, evoke many contradictions. In the 70s Korea, for instance, was ruled by a dictator who is still highly esteemed among many of the older generation, and whose daughter is now the president of Korea.  Park Chung-Hee is considered both a dictator and an economic savior. The US military and US government, as a further contradiction, provided both an oppressive military presence and a reassuring presence of staving off invasion from the North.

Ha does not seem to be saying these contradictions were necessary – Kim Dae-Jung did a fine job with the Korean economy and he was no dictator – he seems to frankly acknowledge, however, the existence of these contradictions through his work. That he continues using his method to this day may imply that even in what seems to be improved conditions in his homeland, sinister contradictions may still prevail on subtle or barely perceptible levels. The recent Sewol disaster, and the massive disenchantment among many Koreans generated by the government response, comes to mind. And if Ha’s method resonates with those of us outside of Korea, it could well be due to our own concerns about sinister contradictions in our own society.

The process Ha uses seems to be one of creative force (to overcome the resistance of the burlap) and workmanship (to create an image that will arrest and engage the attention of the viewer). From the facticity of his experience in his own homeland, his process and images can stimulate the imagination of a contemporary viewer anywhere to comprehend and validate the struggle he and his countrymen endured and to elicit compassion, humanity and self-recognition as a response.

The show closed on December 12, 2015. Please refer to the gallery’s web site for further information: 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Anti-prison art...on ostrich egg shells - Gil Batle at Ricco/Maresca

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One of the hottest shows in Chelsea these days is at Ricco/Maresca Gallery, one of New York’s premier venues for ‘outsider’ art. The show exposes the inhumane consequences and ethical absurdity of the US prison system from the perspective of Gil Batle, who spent more than 20 years incarcerated in various US facilities. Now that Batle, a Filipino/American, has moved back to the Philippines, he has begun engraving aspects of his experiences in US prisons on ostrich eggs. It is not surprising to drop by Ricco/Maresca and see people circling these individual eggs, some using the magnifying glasses supplied by the gallery, gleaning insights into a horrific experience from which we are largely shielded, but for which we are ultimately responsible.

Deterrence theory seems to be the best explanation as to why punishment occurs. Even though Kant tried to justify punishment as a moral good in itself, it seems that, in reality, we punish people purely to stop others from doing the same harmful things in the future – we punish in order to deter future actions we do not want to see again, often regardless of the state of mind or level of responsibility of the offender in the first place.

This seems proved by the fact that, in the USA, people who are obviously and seriously mentally ill are still convicted of crimes and punished by being thrown in jail instead of receiving the psychiatric help they really need. Even if someone is completely insane and not responsible for a crime, juries still feel they have to punish this person, because they perceive that others will feel they have license to commit the same acts in the future. Once there is a victim, a need for punishment kicks in and this need is not a rational choice – punishment to deter future action seems deeply ingrained in our natures, like our need to reciprocate. 

Therefore, judges, prosecutors and juries do not want to hear about the environment of violence, racism and economic deprivation which may have molded a young person into a criminal, they are simply motivated to punish. 1% of Americans are in jail. The NAACP estimates that 1 out of 3 black men in the USA may experience jail at some time in their lives if current trends continue. The USA has 25% of all the world’s prisoners, but is 5th in the world in regard to total population.

When we look at the depictions of life in US prisons in Batle’s work, we see the grimly ludicrous consequences of an entire industry based upon this unquestioned and unexamined impulse to punish regardless of any mitigating factors that would warrant mercy or compassion. The Quakers, of course, a pacifistic Christian denomination which had a huge influence on early American history, objected to the corporal punishment and executions that took place before the establishment of the penitentiary system.  The first structure that could be called a modern prison was inspired by Quaker sensibilities and was built in Philadelphia in 1829. It was to be a place of penance – a place where a prisoner would be locked away with his own thoughts to develop sorrow for his action and to change through this process. Instead this led to an illogical and bizarre concept of punishment based of chunks of time in a cage: the worse the crime, the longer the chunk of time.

From Batle’s work we see that the Quaker ideal of a place for self-reflection and change is now replaced overwhelmingly by shanks (home-made knives), racist prison groups, rape and brutal guards.  Each of the eggs Batle engraved has a story or theme and the theme is often executed with amazing creativity and figurative thought – as on one egg where two rival gangs initiating a riot are depicted totemically, each member of each differing gang bearing the head of the aggressive animal best representing his gang. The guards are depicted as bees as Batle explains, “They always seemed emotionless…but with a direct, persistent, intention to stop the war…They are organized and relentless bees.. It doesn’t matter how big, how many or how strong the animal is... The bees ALWAYS win...”  Interestingly, it seems that prison riots mostly seem to occur through rival gangs attacking each other and not through the prisoners, as a whole, realizing any type of fellow feeling and directing their anger toward the authorities locking them in. Eliminating this type of totemic, racially-inspired prison warfare would be to the detriment of the authorities, therefore.  In some prisons in the USA, apparently, black and white prisoners may even be segregated into differing units.

In Batle’s “Romeo and Juliet” he tells the story of a prisoner who fell in love with another male prisoner who had seemed to be able to smuggle female hormones into the facility and who truly looked female. His prison gang, however, ordered him to end the relationship (it brought dishonor on the gang) and when he refused, he was brutally murdered (you see several shanks sticking out of his body) and his partner committed suicide. Engraving this visual narrative onto a big ostrich egg creates a cyclical story incorporating the theme of the death and resurrection of love as the story simply repeats itself from beginning of the affair to destruction to beginning…as many times as you wander around the egg.

Another egg references the Cicada Nymph, an insect that stays buried 13 – 17 years before emerging to mate. “It is unknown what takes place underground for all those years.. I relate this idea to how civilians on the outside view inmates serving very long sentences on the inside.. Folks on the outside don’t know what we do on the inside.” “Jamestown” refers to a prison where Batle was forced to live ‘dorm’ style: “Living with 40 convicts (every day for a year) under one roof was tense to say the least.. I would rather have lived (in) a cell.. with bars to protect me from those animals.” “Fraud” depicts, on one side, the circumstances and activities that led Batle to break the law. “On the other side of this egg my time in prison where I did tattoos, tattoo patterns, portraits, greeting cards for convicts.. which they paid for with commissary food, drawing supplies, tobacco, coffee etc. My locker was always full .. This also gave me a respectable identity that kept me safe.”

“Naked” is about the ‘cavity check’ – “There is nothing more humiliating and demeaning than the ‘cavity check’.. To be told to ‘squat and cough’ so the guards can look up your anal cavity to make sure you aren’t hiding any contraband up there.. ‘Lift em' up’ is a guards' instruction to lift up your nut sack to make sure your (sic) not hiding anything under there either.” There are 19 of these engraved eggs in the show presenting a wide range of the daily fears and humiliations that constitute a significant part of prison life.

As Batle states in the notes for the show, “The prison ‘artist’ was a commodity.. He was like a magician... Even the toughest convicts were in awe at the artists’ skills ... I was that commodity.. The ability to draw, my age and the fact that I was good at faking it (toughness) to make it.. Call it performance art... is how I was able to survive behind those walls..”  On the one hand Batle depicts life in a horrific and ridiculous situation created in the name of public safety and security, a preposterous situation reified through the passage of time and now accepted and unquestioned as a social institution and source of economic gain.

On this level, he calls for an examination of the experience inadvertently created by Quakers who wanted to change the world and demands action to change something that has gone horribly wrong. His figurative experiments seem meant to bring home the horror of the experience instead of directing one toward an allegorical interpretation. Yet, there is allegory here in that people are dropped into a hell created by saints where they are forced to abandon all ethics to survive in the hopes they can rejoin and contribute to their society again. It is a warped and sickening form of the hero’s journey that only ends at the conclusion of, basically, an arbitrary period of time set by someone oblivious to the human suffering he/she will cause in the name of justice.

The show has been extended to January 9, 2016.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Ling Jian - Nature Chain (or Mao vs. the Beauty Myth) - Klein Sun Gallery

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As one enters Klein Sun Gallery, one of the first images in the new show of works by Ling Jian is of a strikingly beautiful young Chinese woman dressed, apparently, in some type of government outfit. Contrasting the effect of perfect makeup with a starched, white, official shirt collar, Ling seems to be addressing the erosion of Communist Party values dealing with the equality of women and highlighting the increasing encroachment of ‘the beauty myth’ into Chinese culture as a result of the post-Maoist open-door policy.

By extension, perhaps, he would also seem to be implying that the objectification of women is just one of those unfortunate concomitant factors that goes along with welcoming western progress – like the Chinese workers jumping from the roof of an Apple factory because they can’t bear the poor wages and slave-labor hours.  The irony is that by embracing the ‘western’ concept of beauty, the woman in the uniform puts one more nail in the coffin of one of the best ideals of the Chinese Revolution – the dignity and full human potential of women.

So a big part of what I liked about the show – and this may not be exactly what the artist’s actual statement is – highlights the fact that western-inspired globalization is not a pure, Hegelian process of inevitable, spiritual and moral improvement. It seems to have brought whitening creams to South-East Asia as well as plastic surgery and mind-numbingly exploitative K-pop to Korea.

So the one thing Mao got right becomes the first thing to die, now that Deng opened the door. Or Ling could be saying that the Revolution never really changed underlying conditions that had developed in China – for a brief time sexism was held down through a massive state apparatus. Now it’s blossoming from out of starched, white collars. About 25% of contemporary Chinese women experience domestic abuse, including marital rape. There’s a Chinese saying going back generations: “If you don’t beat your wife every three days, she’ll begin destroying your home.”

So, to me, being confronted by these huge, beautifully executed canvasses morally challenges the viewer to examine his/her role in this whole process. On the artist is quoted as saying, “I attempt to multiply the power of temptation by displaying it on my canvases.”  Men who view these paintings are not challenged, as male painters used to challenge men in the past, to indulge in fantasies and derive prurient visual gratification. This is a male painter throwing a corporate-inspired sexual exploitation in our faces and asking us how stupid we could be to buy into this garbage. To women, he seems to be asking how stupid they could be to cave in to the pressures of demeaning and objectifying themselves. Sure it looks glamorous, but think!

{{{I'm pretty sure this is a shark vagina.}}}

To bring this point home as forcefully as possible, I am assuming, he also includes realistic paintings of sharks copulating in the show. There is a wry, pessimistic humor in this as well.  The show is called “Nature Chain” and I would guess it is because the folks who profit from causing women psychological torture through bizarre conceptions of female ‘beauty’ tend to argue that these forms of exploitation and abuse are ‘empowering’ to a woman and natural. So you turn a corner in the show and go from ultra-thin, sexually charged Chinese ladies to sharks fucking each other.

In the past, western artists could get away with portraying women as objects of sexual desire because the female figure was often used allegorically at the same time. In much epic literature a spiritual quest is often defined in terms of a wandering man (representing spiritual desire) seeks to return home to a loyal woman (representing the fulfilment of spiritual desire – the union of ‘active’ and ‘passive’). Ling deliberately drops the allegory and just presents the sexualized woman. He seems to be pointing toward a need to recognize the need to abandon the female subject as something overtly sexualized while demonstrating how potent the attraction is to buy into this.

Some feminist artists – like Joan Semmel - have experimented with non-sexist visual imagery of sexual relationships and sexual union. Ling’s work also seems to point to this hopeful possibility that with the disintegration of an ideology, there still may be hope for greater humane development.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Interview with Jocelyn Hobbie

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Jocelyn Hobbie is a visual artist based in New York City known for her brilliantly painted canvases of attractive young women in introspective states. She creates a situation of inadvertent voyeurism with the viewer drawn into circumstances where personal judgment becomes subsumed by an overall mood.

Gauss: How did you hit upon this approach of having these accessory-laden young women looking inward?

Hobbie: The subject of my paintings has been the female figure for a while now, but I see an evolution in what I’m interested in painting and how I go about it. In earlier works I was interested in depicting emotional/psychological states. It was not meant to be explicit or an obvious narrative, but rather very open to whatever story or understanding the viewer might bring to it. They were highly voyeuristic, for example what a woman might be doing in private, caught unaware. The paintings were also very personal. I think I wanted to express something about myself, something about difficult emotions. Even the spaces had a psychological content, often confined or claustrophobic.

As time has passed my focus has shifted a bit from the narrative/psychological content to more formal concerns. Currently the figure acts as a sort of architectural foundation for the painting. It’s my jumping off point for the process of composing the painting, but formal concerns are driving it. I’m not actively looking to depict psychological states, per se, although I am interested in the mood of the picture. Maybe the figure itself is handled more like a straight portrait (which is not to imply I’m ever painting from life). I also don’t want the subject to address the viewer directly, for example by looking back at the viewer, because that adds a different psychological level or component to the painting— not the kind of engagement or confrontation one sees in Manet’s Olympia, for example.

So nowadays the figure is like a building block or a muse that I follow from one step to the next. Everything is emerging out of what the painting presents and demands. More a process of discovery, which I’m finding to be very engaging and enlivening. The space is ambiguous, more like an atmosphere than a specifically depicted space. I’m almost eliminating the space. Of course the figures exist in the paintings and I like the warmth of the human element, it draws me in, gives me something to grasp and build off of. It is also driven by what I feel like painting, and I like to paint a face, hair, hands etc. I used to paint more nudes, but right now I’m into the clothes and other articulated elements because they are opportunities for color & shape & invented patterns. They draw me into the picture in different ways and I hope the same happens for the viewer.

Gauss: In much of your previous work you explore mother and daughter relationships. Are you finished with this? Why/why not? What drew you to this exploration in the first place?

Hobbie: I wouldn’t say I’m finished with it. Seeing oneself and one’s own mother getting older is rich with a myriad of feelings and I just intuitively wanted to explore that. The combination of intimacy and distance, the complicated stuff. I was also interested in the juxtaposition of the old and young woman both personally and socially, and as it has historically been depicted. Maybe more extreme than that; the juxtaposition of a really decrepit old lady alongside a young, nubile woman. I love Otto Dix’s paintings on that subject. It also springs from our culture, the obsession with youth/aging and the inevitability of aging (if you’re lucky). At one point I went through a period of painting a lot of babies. My friends started having kids so there were lots of babies around all of sudden. I was naturally feeling some pressure regarding it and I guess painting could be a vehicle for exploring all those feelings….

Gauss: So, one of your influences, as you mentioned, was Otto Dix, who is an artist from the past who seems to resonate with many contemporary New York art lovers. How much of Dix did you absorb? Can you use his style without also taking his philosophical or political stance? Do you feel a philosophical affinity to him?

Hobbie: Dix has been a big influence. It’s about his way of painting. That unsayable art ingredient that I love in his work. There’s both detail, and a muscular force. Of course his paintings are inseparable from the time and political climate they came out of. The 'humanity' he captured is so powerful.

Gauss: You once mentioned in a talk that you liked the movie Rosemary’s Baby and were inspired as an artist by the acting of Mia Farrow in the film. Why is this film a bit more significant to your work and can you think of other films that are like this for you or your work? Have you referenced female characters in films very often in your art and why?

Hobbie: I think what I respond to about Rosemary’s Baby is that aesthetically it’s quite sunny to look at, but then there’s the underlying darkness of the story. I’m not into horror movies at all, but I’m fascinated by the disconnect between the way something appears and what’s really going on. Everyone does it to a certain extent. I’ve explored that a lot in my paintings. I do find inspiration in movies.

Gauss: Why are there no men in your pieces?

Hobbie: I would like to paint men, I don’t have a reason for not painting men. In general there are way more paintings of women than men. For me it’s just juicier, more colorful. Maybe I inhabit the painting more. In many cases artists aren’t always aware of why they do what they do, or why it comes out a certain way. Every moment that I’m working is a process of constant decision making, but I can’t say exactly where the decisions come from. 

Gauss: I have a goofy little theory that a work of visual art can either be about social ills/circumstances or personal insight about one’s motives, emotions, cognitive processes etc., but an artist can’t do both at the same time. Do you think your work is political or socially oriented? Is it oriented exclusively toward an exploration of inner states?

Hobbie: I’m not overtly taking on political/social concerns, but the fact that I paint what I paint at this time in history makes it inherently political. How can it be otherwise? Nothing exists in a vacuum. I can paint whatever I want, it’s my choice, that’s political.

Gauss: Do you still feel that as a female painter you are kind of like a nun?

Hobbie: I just meant that there’s a solitude and discipline that goes along with being the kind of painter I am, it seems nun-like. But it was meant to be taken in a half-joking manner. Obviously I’m not in a nunnery!

Gauss: In a talk you gave, you mentioned that you went through a bleak period of time that lasted for at least seven years. How bad were your bad days? How did you pull out of them?

Hobbie: I took it day by day, flailing around, searching. It was a lot of experimentation, frustration and throwing things out. I saved almost nothing from that time. Finally one thing led to another. That’s always the best way to work, but in the moment it’s hard to see one’s way out of it.

Gauss: You went to one of America’s premier art schools (RISD). How effective was your education there? You stated you do a lot intuitively which was never taught to you – what did you get from RISD? 

Hobbie: I have mixed feelings about art school. Some people thrive in the school environment, but it wasn’t really for me. That’s probably a personality thing. I mean, my subjects and interests came from myself, not from teachers or interacting with other students. I actually wish I had learned more concrete, practical studio information there, like how to mix mediums and properly stretch a canvas, making grounds and why one method or application of materials is preferable to another, for example, really basic stuff. But I didn’t learn things like that there. It was all trial and error. Being a fine art major was bit of a free for all. I think it was just a place for me to be and begin the idea of being an artist. But I don’t want to sound ungrateful about having the opportunity to be at a reputable school. That’s incredible, but some practical instruction would have been useful— I’m still figuring stuff out to this day technically. Who knows, I probably would have found it boring and reacted against it at the time. It’s always up to oneself to figure it out anyway.

Gauss: Why the intricate patterns and the flowers? Is this just to arrest our attention?

Hobbie: That kind of intricacy of form and color is how I compose the picture. Those elements started out as details but have kind of exploded out. I would love to make something beautiful. Maybe it’s the poignancy I’m after, that’s my hope.

Gauss: Your dog has made cameos in your work. I’m guessing your dog functions as a kind of symbolic surrogate for an aspect of the people depicted, but it’s your real dog among fictitious subjects. In one of your paintings your dog has the letter “P” on his dog tag and I – somewhat tongue in cheek – wrote it possibly represented the ancient Greek letter rho, the second letter in the chi-rho combination representing the name of Jesus. I like making over-the-top interpretations - how close was I?

Hobbie: I appreciate your idea, and I welcome it. However, there’s a “P” on his dog tag because his name is Pablo. 

Gauss: When and where is your next show?

Hobbie: May 2016, Fredericks & Freiser Gallery, New York City

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Luxury is a misery that loves company - Suzanne Heintz at Joanne Artman Gallery

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Almost all of the research on human ‘mate selection’ deals with those factors which ensure attraction by making one person feel good or pleasant about or to another person. You might, however, question the premise that our choice of a partner involves avoiding anything that might clash with our politics, lifestyle, personality, appearance and ethnicity. You might also question the over-arching assumption of this research, which seems to show that women tend to be primarily attracted to men based on their status while men tend to be primarily attracted to women based on their physical appearance. 

What the research fails to even investigate, however, are the social pressures involved in compelling many folks to partner up in the first place. Suzanne Heintz is a conceptual photographer who has regularly done work investigating and impugning social norms and, in her latest series of photos at JoAnne Artman’s Chelsea location, Heintz looks at the social pressures to cave into the expectations that others set for us in regard to marriage and starting a family.

Apparently in regard to constant badgering from her friends as to when she was going to get married, Heintz created her own ideal mannequin mate and child who co-star with her in numerous photos demonstrating to the world that Heintz is, indeed, married, with a child, and absolutely positively as happy as a woman can be now that she has bought into this well-trodden lifestyle. Her husband is the WASPily handsome Chauncey and the daughter is Mary Margaret (a name potentially a little too Catholic, but a woman has a right to take some risks, I suppose – interestingly, the name Chauncey is of Norman origin and became a male ‘given’ name in the US in honor of Charles Chauncey, an early president of Harvard).

So Heintz focuses on action taken not to derive any sense of meaningful gratification, but action taken to avoid ridicule and to place oneself beyond the reproach of others. You do something to avoid the stick and not get the carrot. Or, if there is joy, it is a joy from doing what has already been done and feeling pleasure that one can now say he/she did it. In this type of marriage and family the husband and child are there to serve a psychological function. They are, basically, actors recruited or molded to ensure that a person is not subjected to social scorn and attack. All three family members form one conforming unit to ensure a happy, family comfort which is not real comfort, but an avoidance of contempt that approximates and mocks true comfort and serenity. 

The partner in these photos is not defined by his amazing inner qualities, but by his ability to adapt on a visual level to an environment of affluent expectations. (And people wondered how an uneducated nobody from Germany could come to New York City a few years ago, call himself Clark Rockefeller, wear all the right clothes, use all the right idioms and marry into money while traversing the highest social circles.)

In fact, it’s not so much the marital status that is highlighted here in these photos as much as the overall upper-middle class lifestyle. It is as if a person would be insane to live unmarried and to do something that does not provide the lifestyle in the photos of travel, expensive housing, brand-name clothing etc. 

The rub, of course, is that nobody who chooses this type of life of luxury ever develops truly original or transformative ideas or lives life to its most profound level. It is basically a life exhibiting a type of cowardice toward life, where safety is the premium and those who show real courage and a sense of adventure are considered pariahs because they point to the cowardice behind affluence. ‘Solamen miseris socios habuisse doloris’ (from Marlowe’s Faustus) is usually translated as “Misery loves company.” Actually it means something like, “Unhappy folks derive happiness from folks being just as unhappy”.  These photos might warrant a slight alteration of the translation to “Luxury is a misery that loves company.”