Friday, January 29, 2016

Wheiza Kim at Gallery d'Arte (Transcendence and the Möbius Strip)

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“My intention is to decipher the message of the universe delivered by the wind which has been engraved in wood grains like some secret codes, and then visualize it.” Wheiza Kim

In the transcendentalist tradition of landscape painting, it was believed that the mind should not be considered to be separate from nature, and those painters attempted to create art showing or even inviting a union between the mind and nature. Science and its method seemed to call for a division and the union sought was, therefore, not mediated through the intellect, which allowed for the desecration and exploitation of the natural. Yet, we cannot deny the effect that our experiences and knowledge of nature have on us when we attempt to feel what the transcendentalists have always promised. When Walt Whitman wrote about abandoning the lecture of the learned astronomer in favor of gliding out into the “mystical moist air” and looking up “in perfect silence at the stars,” was nature going to silently infuse him with an awareness divorced from previous experience and knowledge or was his experience of the sublime going to be brought about through what he knew or wished to know about the world in the presence of the world?

Some interesting little boxes created by Wheiza Kim at Suechung Koh’s Gallery d’Arte can be considered a response to these questions. Over various landscapes she has the painted grids or lattices of windows, which are partly open, having lifted that segment of the landscape higher than its adjoining parts, creating a void. Looking into the void one sees a little area inhabited by figures reflected back to one through a mirror. So what does it mean to have a window that can be opened in these landscapes? What is that window, where does it come from, what does it reveal?

Kim, herself, told me she would like to offer the concept of a Möbius strip – that type of long strip which you slightly turn and attach end to end so that if an ant were to begin crawling on the strip it would cover both the front and back side in a theoretically endless loop of a journey. To me the windows opening the perceivable screen of nature might represent our discoveries and insights into nature through cognition and experience – ranging anywhere from the insights of Spinoza to the insights of Schopenhauer - and this means that in our attempt to get the message of the universe, the underlying essence of the world, we are directed back into a greater exploration of our own cognition, motivation, desire and emotion.  We enter a type of Möbius strip process taking us outside and inside and back again, perpetually.

Kim explained that according to Zen masters, to attain a peaceful state, your mind has to be like a mirror, otherwise the mind becomes susceptible to a type of ‘attachment’ thinking or desire, which leads to emotional agony. Along with the little figures one also sees one’s own reflection through the open window, thus becoming a part of the piece of art. To Merleau-Ponty a subject looking at himself in a mirror experiences a ‘troubled form’ of self-knowledge in that he/she perceives him/herself from the perspective of the other and realizes the form of socializing coercive force used and sometimes embraced by the individual instead of a type of inner change and development which engenders its own momentum through self-observation. Schopenhauer believed the intellect to be a mirror to the ‘will’ allowing one’s will, itself, to move toward a greater sense of self-denial.  To me, the mirror in these pieces by Kim questions the extent to which the external mirror of troubled identity or the inner mirror of cognition motivates self-development and change and to what extent change through the external mirror may actually be possible as well as the capacity of the will or aggression to ‘recognize’ itself and initiate its own change merely based on recognition of itself.

Among other pieces in the show are those in which Kim works with the natural grain of the wood to create landscape-like images.  These pieces are often made to look like traditional Asian folding screens where mirrors stand in place of the hinges. Other works explore the symbolism of the triangle in relation to stupas, yoga and urban life. The triangle, of course, is one of the oldest symbols and may have taken its form as an abstraction of a mountain. In ancient times mountains were sacred areas and the higher you climbed, the farther you distanced yourself from the effects of others and the closer you approached the spirit realm. In Sumeria the upward pointed triangle represented ‘the masculine’ or an active principle of desire seeking its conjunction with the fulfillment of the feminine.

The triangle is, in itself, a little allegory (beginning, middle, end) encompassing the transience of movement or time with the permanence of change. In the inner core of these triangle pieces are three mirrors which create complex visual patterns, the mirrors representing the minds of three people – the very basic number of people, for instance, in computerized game theory experiments to approximate a basic social unit.

The show closed on Tuesday January 26th, but Suechung Koh can be reached at if you have any questions about viewing or purchasing Kim’s work, more of which will be on display soon in LA.   

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Li Hongbo at Klein Sun Gallery - Overreliance on the Word

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In his current show at Klein Sun Gallery, Li Hongbo calls our attention to the overwhelmingly textual basis of the world-wide globalized educational system, along with the numerous problems that come along with education systems so dependent on the written word and so lacking in meaningfully experiential components.

Li has several sculptures of placid, expressionless students carved out of stacks of cheap textbooks and workbooks. This seems to lead directly into the question of how the continual engagement with the written word, through education, translates into the behavior and self-development of each person. The best answer to this question would seem to come from Phillip W. Jackson’s concept of ‘the hidden curriculum’. In his book “Life in Classrooms” (1968) Jackson pointed out that when you take active, young bodies and restrict them behind desks for 6 or 7 hours a day, presenting them with written texts about history, science, math etc. , for which they will be rewarded for correct answers and punished for wrong answers, the students may pick up the history, science and math, but the most enduring concept they learn is ‘passivity works’ - obedience to authority figures is the way to go. Along with the knowledge that we pick up in school, in the very process of acquiring this knowledge we are also subjected to hidden values that breed passivity.

Of course, the contents of our text books are often problematic as well. Jean Anyon did a landmark study of US History textbooks in the classrooms of working class American students. She discovered that in regard to the history of labor unions, only those unions which had collaborated subserviently with management were included in the texts.  The unions which took defiant stances and actively fought for the rights of workers were simply not mentioned. Anyon concluded that working class students were being sent the message – Do not protest! Collaborate! Work with your superiors! Working with your betters is always the right way to go!

We see nonsense all throughout our text books and especially our history textbooks.  The first European settlers to North America, at Roanoke, probably joined a Native American tribe but this is not reported because ‘integration’ is supposed to go the other way – people of color integrate into white, industrialized societies; white people do not ’regress’ into ‘savage’ cultures. And, of course, the biggest lie your US history book ever told was about the great president Abraham Lincoln who actively sought war with the South, thus causing the deaths of over 600,000 men, instead of seeking creative and peaceful solutions to the problem of slavery.  That the Civil War was fought to end slavery is a lie as well since there was no plan to help the freed black folks after slavery and they became powerless and dirt poor share croppers, while northern carpet-baggers flooded the South afterwards to turn insane profits (the real reason for the war).

The huge binders crisscrossing the show, to me, represent the crippling and oppressive effects of the grading system, which is the Charybdis to the Scylla of the textbook. To grade students is to degrade students. The only justification ever given for grading is that it supposedly helps to ensure motivation, which, obviously, points to the fact that force has to be used to get children to learn what others want them to learn. A system without grading would be a system of freedom and self-discovery and the realization of full human potential. We do not have a humane system of education where students are free to pursue the most meaningful and existential threads through self-discovery, we have state approved text books and a grading system to weed out who cooperates and who does not.

On the floor of the gallery a pathway is established by books and this seems to imply progress. Yet, more realistically, it signifies the limited course that formal education is. It is a process leading in a specific direction established by others to guide entire generations in specific directions.   

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Jack Stuppin at ACA Galleries: Homage to the Hudson River School

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When English painter Thomas Cole came to the US in the early 1800s, he began painting landscapes from the Hudson River Valley, attempting to capture and convey what Edmund Burke had called the sublime.  To Burke, the sublime was astonishment bordering on terror.  “The mind is so entirely filled with its object that it cannot entertain any other, nor reason on that object which fills it.” Burke also dealt with the beautiful, which was distinguished from the sublime by the capacity of the beautiful to engender a desire to possess what was being viewed.

One could argue that the environmental devastation since the time of the Hudson River School was due to a rejection of the sublime in favor of mathematical analysis and technological profiteering along with a perversion of the beautiful toward the possession of the exploitable. By revisiting the Hudson River School movement in his show “Homage to the Hudson River School”, Stuppin, therefore, revisits these two concepts in light of the development of science and technology and the ravaging of the environment for profit. He also, perhaps, questions the extent to which anyone should have bought into either extreme of transcendence or technological exploitation in regard to the American natural environment.

Stuppin uses super-enriched colors for his paintings. Sometimes the colors correspond somewhat to the colors we would expect objects to be, other times they do not. He takes the basic colors of nature, enhances them with a type of luminescence, and sometimes shuffles the colors somewhat so that, for instance, you get blue trees. Charles Burchfield admonished American landscape painters not to paint what they saw, but to paint the hidden, real presence of nature and, consequently, one might guess that these brilliant colors could be thought to reflect the élan vital we seem to sense when we engage nature on its own terms, free of cognitive and emotional baggage.

However, it could be that Stuppin points at those aspects of nature that engendered the transcendentalist tradition and hints at what gives nature its capacity to arrest and overwhelm us and con us, frankly, into believing in an élan vital. We get an awareness of our acceptance of the ancient belief in transcendence and union with nature, which has still not been destroyed through science, but which modern science seems to have refuted.  In the paintings this élan vital, therefore, is not necessarily to be believed but becomes the starting point for us to become more aware of the limits of our cognition and emotion when contemplating or experiencing nature without the aid of science.

Along with brilliant colors, Stuppin also seems to present what might be called a natural world of averages. For example, I noticed in one painting that he does not have realistically depicted small, medium and large waves or waves of many shapes and sizes vis-à-vis each other; he shuns realistic, individual depictions in favor of rolling rhythmic patterns – his waves, for instance, are basically waves you might get if you took the average size of waves in one area. We learned in the early 20th century that observation changes the thing observed and so we get objects represented by averages instead of individually depicted objects.  They are stylized waves imitating and perhaps replicating each other, perhaps intimating the concept of infinity.

Perhaps Stuppin wants to say that when we artistically depict and interpret an experience of nature, without applying any incisive background knowledge of nature to it, with viewers just standing in the presence of the depiction of nature, we are being engaged, basically, by colors and forms, no more, no less. What do we really hope to get from the colors and forms of landscapes? How might it be possible for these colors and forms to even imply a mystical or emotionally moving concept? In the direct presence of nature, colors and forms combine with our previous experiences of the textures of nature – how stone, wood, water etc. feel – as well as sound and smell.  But is this even enough to derive that something extra, that deeper knowledge or understanding that nature seems to promise us through our contemplation of it, but which may never be disclosed? 

Therefore, Stuppin might be asking whether the transcendental ‘union’ promised through much landscape art from the past is possible. Is the mind separate from nature or is it such a part of nature that it allows a deep intuition of the essence of nature? Stuppin’s work might be saying that what we experience when we engage nature is not nature but the emotions created when we desire to understand but have insufficient tools to do so – neither intuition nor science gets us to the Faustian place we wish to go. 

Intuition from an experience in a state of nature leads to mysticism, ritual or mythology, while science leads to the physical destruction of the environment. Yet, this middle ground we want between intuition and science becomes the palpable inability to grasp what we believe is possible to grasp and it becomes a grand experience in itself. The great mystery of landscape painting illustrated through the work of Stuppin is that Burke was right – in the presence of nature we are often overcome by an intense but difficult to describe emotion which subsumes everything else we might feel. It is joyous and painful and goads us to further and deeper experiences while leading to a lingering and obscure longing. Just what we are getting when we give ourselves over to that process is brilliantly and seductively represented by these perfectly executed works by Jack Stuppin. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

Art Brut in America: The Incursion of Jean Dubuffet

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“Other artists identified with da Vinci or Michelangelo, in my head I had the names Wölfli and Muller...It was these artists whom I loved and admired. I was never influenced directly by Art Brut. I was influenced by the freedom, the liberty, which helped me very much.”  Jean Dubuffet

It was Hans Prinzhorn’s 1922 book Bildnerei des Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally Ill) which blew Dubuffet away and turned him onto what he would later characterize as Art Brut.  It was not so much what Prinzhorn had written – Dubuffet could not read German – it was the imagery itself which opened Dubuffet’s eyes to the limits inherent in what he called l’art culturel (official art) “…the activity of a very specific clan of career intellectuals.” He would begin to classify Art Brut pieces as possessing the compelling power of a unique type of expression, free from established cultural trends or influences.

The American Folk Art Museum’s show ‘Art Brut in America: The Incursion of Jean Dubuffet’ commemorates the temporary relocation of Dubuffet’s collection to the US in the 1950s, during a period of time when Dubuffet was trying to find his own way as an artist while simultaneously collecting and promoting work he felt to represent a purer impulse to create than what was found in ordinary gallery pieces – work which entailed a more immediate and compelling engagement between the viewer and the work due to the inherent sincerity of the creator of the work.

The extent to which one can be engaged by these works and derive meaningful interpretations or insights from them is a bit ironic in that leafing through the bios of the artists at the show one reads that some of these artists, who had been institutionalized, surreptitiously created their work, apparently afraid to be caught for some reason or another. Therefore, some, if not much, of this art was created with the belief it would not be seen and had to be hidden away. The implication is that an artist who wants to get to and visually express something of the utmost meaning to him/herself becomes more relevant to others through a sense of urgency and desperate need to express.

Indeed, it was not the ‘insanity’ or lack of formal education or outsider status that made these pieces remarkable to Dubuffet (there are artists in the collection who were not classified as ‘insane’ and some were formally educated). It was the ability by an individual to create a new visual language from scratch, while ensuring that any viewer would immediately be able to pick up this new language, be affected on a deep level by the image created through the language and treasure this new language beyond the prevailing dead languages of art. It was not about individuals selecting from aspects of the canon to express what they understood – it was about deliberate ignorance of the canon so that something original and true to the artist’s own experience and insight could come out. 

In his famous speech in Chicago in 1951, Dubuffet predicted “…a complete liquidation of all the ways of thinking whose sum constituted what has been called humanism and has been fundamental for our culture since the Renaissance…”.  Art Brut represented a shift in values from what had become established through various forms of corruption and educational/cultural coercion to what had been held in contempt but which possessed greater integrity and intuition. The need for this shift would still seem to be the case today.

While I wandered through the exhibit, reading of the lives of the creators of the pieces, I was deeply affected by the ‘brut’ (unrefined, uncontrived) and urgent humanity contained in many of the works and I was grateful for the effort put forth by these amazing souls. Having spent the past couple of years dealing with some of the self-absorbed, overly ambitious, and continually self-promoting artists, ‘critics’ and gallery owners in New York, and learning of the corruption inherent in this business of quid pro quo and artificial inflation of prices and the promotion of the talentless over the talented for ulterior reasons through the established press and other means, I left the museum and said a quick prayer to St. Catharine of Bologna for at least a liquidation of all this crassness  – may it come sooner than later. The show closed on the 10th...