Monday, February 15, 2021

Showing Truth to Power: Diane Victor at David Krut Projects, Manhattan (January 2018 Wall Street International)

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After years of addressing political corruption and the tenacity of various social evils in her native South Africa, Diane Victor arrived in the USA for a residency project just after the Trump inauguration. In the lithograph
 Little Dystopia (2017), one of two lithographs she made at the Center for Contemporary Printmaking in Connecticut, we see an older, paunchy, white man, in a business suit, seated in front of a diorama-like community, with a dreamy look of gratification on his face. He seems to have created such havoc that sharks circle the area around which he has dominion. He has added entropy to a system requiring humane vision and guidance. He wears a dunce cap, while the scarred woman next to him holds a laurel wreath behind his head as she takes a selfie with the powerful man. To his right are the huddled masses, passively waiting on the sidelines, unnoticed by this guy absorbed in his own scheming. They are the overlooked, powerless consequences of his base desires. But, is that really a dunce cap, or might it be, à la Goya’s The Inquisition Tribunal, an auto-da-fé hat for a heretic about to be burned at the stake?

Indeed, is the woman taking the selfie in order to document a corrosive influence in her life or does she want some of the absurd prestige of this man to rub off on her once she posts the image on social media? We see much of this type of ambiguity in Victor’s show at David Krut Projects, New York. In the other lithograph she made in Connecticut,
 Showing Truth to Power (2017), a man in a Hawaiian shirt is photographing a type of raging colossus. Is the man smiling because he has finally visually captured the quintessence of greed and corruption in such a compelling manner that change has to result? Or is he merely pleased to be in the presence of the self-righteous and self-absorbed celebrity that currently makes the world go ‘round?

The question of whether a knowledge of evil reflected back to evil is sufficient to change evil seems implied here. Are we spending too much time capturing images of and documenting evil instead of taking more effective action against it? Do we, paradoxically, derive so much gratification from knowing we can perceive and document evil that we stop short of the much more difficult work of changing it? Are we thinking, perhaps, that there is a division of labor in the output of social progress and we all get the easy part of photographing evil, while the harder part of actually bringing about justice and peace is supposed to be picked up by someone else? That particular help-wanted ad stays unanswered? And what is so difficult about changing evil – perhaps we do not want to commit to the unromantic principles of pacifism and non-violent resistance that are really required? To me this might be the message Victor has more strongly added to her body of work since coming to the USA and witnessing our current political carnage.

Also in the show are some recent “smoke-drawings” by Victor done at a residency in Brooklyn arranged by the gallery. These are drawings accomplished using the technique of “fumage” – capturing the carbon soot from candle smoke onto paper (which has to be, obviously, suspended face-down in the air with the burning candle under it). The process of drawing or painting requires a use of a deliberate and active force on paper. Fumage becomes a type of action-art in which the artist refrains from the traditional use of force to create. The process becomes more about reception than expression. Indeed, the process is so delicate compared to drawing or painting that the carbon soot can easily be smudged or removed from the surface of the paper and the piece must be framed immediately after completion. In the process of fumage you are also subverting the second law of thermodynamics in that you are harnessing chaos to a creative end. What should lead to a waste of energy is channeled into a recycling of what might have been lost. So the artist’s choice of using this less aggressive form of creation perhaps mirrors a choice social progressives in the past often made to renounce the use of force as being an ineffective means to bring real change. These works also possess a more ghostly and unearthly quality due to the effects of this process.

The smoke drawings can be very enigmatic. In A little matter ignored (2017) we find a relatively straight-forward political parable in which a man in a suit seems to have engaged a group in such an intensely distractive dialogue that they simply do not notice the elephant in the room. In a work, however, as mysterious as Giorgione’s Tempest, Circus lives, spinning truths (2017), we see a figure on horseback from whose finger 5 skulls emanate while a mother and child surrounded by hyenas and an alligator look on. Perhaps the skulls represent the unwelcome truth that things are just not getting better, despite previous promises, and that there is no indication that things will. A horse is often used as a symbol of transition in art, and this horse is just not moving. It is more of a platform than a horse. The woman and her child are surrounded by threatening creatures (in-between hunger spells) and the performer does not ride in with optimistic omens.

In The man who lost his head we see smoke rising from the left side of a man’s head as if he has been shot by a high impact bullet, blood and gore being propelled outward. Yet the man has such a serene expression on his face that we should probably not take this image so literally. The smoke rising from him may represent his overcoming or releasing of aggression or hatred or some other painful but compelling inner response which had been preventing his humane development. Or, since Victor seems to invite multiple interpretations in many pieces, this smoke rising out of him could be his basic life force – the serene look due to his escape from having to be complicit in a world of corruption in desperate need of a type of deliverance we may no longer find ourselves so easily able to believe in or effectively work for.

This current show at David Krut Projects, New York, runs until March 10th at the Chelsea location: 526 W. 26th Street, Suite 816. In conjunction with this show The Brooklyn College Library is also hosting some pieces by Victor spanning the years 2009 – 2017. That show will close on March 2nd.

Trump's Life without Art... Twit: a Show by Deborah Nehmad (January 2018, Wall Street International)

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When foreign folks in New York City ask me what the basic difference is between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party in the USA, I jokingly tell them that Republicans are evil while Democrats are corrupt. Why are Republicans evil? Well, their core principle is ‘survival of the fittest’ – which means those who inherit a lot of money survive and prosper while everyone else suffers and dies before their time. Everyone should take care of him/herself and whatever is good for business is good for America.

During the Great Depression a Republican president (Herbert Hoover) said that he was not going to help Americans who were hungry or out of work because government assistance makes 'the people' weak. Yes, there is nothing stronger than a guy who inherits millions of dollars, is profligately irresponsible, has no self-restraint, chickens out of military service while the less privileged go, employs a vocabulary that would embarrass a 4th grader, and manifests an overweening sense of malice toward anyone who does not look as if he belongs at an exclusive white country club. Which brings us to the current president of the United States: Donald J. Trump.

Deborah G. Nehmad has a show currently at Kim Foster Gallery in which she has collected and graphically represents numerous tweets from President Trump. Each tweet reflects what most of us who love art have aspired to overcome – human life at its most base, arbitrary and unexamined.

The tweets reveal Trump as someone with no capacity or desire for self-examination or self-control. This is a life without art and without the underlying impetus that drives many of us to art – to better understand ourselves and our world to ensure that we can rise above the random and arbitrary; to develop meaning and work toward humane change in ourselves, others and the world. The tweets show that the ideal of not returning evil for evil was abandoned by Trump long ago, as he was apparently taught as a child that there are only two types of people in this world: killers and losers (Norman Vincent Peale be damned). His tweets displayed by Nehmad are works of art about a life devoid of art and what one is left with in its absence. It is an installation about a “loser” who will not even try to observe, judge or change the worst in himself.

Trump simply cannot say 'no' to any urge or desire he feels, perhaps because Trump was a child of the Eisenhower Era, which was an era when consumerism and debt first began fully dominating the daily life of average Americans. This was a period of time when self-restraint and self-reflection were recognized as not being good for the economy and many Americans began abandoning the long-cherished values of thrift and moderation. You were not supposed to examine your emotions, motives, desires or thought processes, you were supposed to consume, live comfortably, get a gray flannel suit, buy a house, mow your lawn, get a lucrative job that conferred respect upon yourself (whether you actually did anything meaningful for others or not), pay your taxes, support your corporation.

It was this overall attitude that the beatniks, the hippies and the 60s youth movement rebelled against – yes, the 1960s, when Trump deftly avoided such political and personal awareness but tragically suffered from those bone spurs which prevented him from manifesting any macho heroics in the rice paddies of South East Asia. Unlike his more enlightened peers, Trump seems to have embraced the worst of the Eisenhower Era, forgetting, perhaps, that the Civil Rights Movement also took off during this time.

Sometimes his emotions lead him in one direction: “FoxNews totally biased and disgusting reporting!” and then the other: “FoxNews – totally gets it!” In these cases Nehmad has the contradictory Twitter birds attacking each other. The president of the USA is clearly not a person in control of his own life, but someone who drifts from one provocation to another. “Why isn’t the Senate Intel Committee looking into the fake news networks in OUR country to see why so much of our news is just made up – FAKE.” “The travel ban should be far larger, tougher and more specific, but that would not be politically correct!” “Bad people are very happy!” “When someone challenges you unfairly, fight back - be brutal, be tough – don’t take it. It is always important to win.”

He is incapable of understanding his own wrongs but seems capable of attacking and judging others for their faults and errors, not being able to wrap his brain around the concept of self-assessment, but still able to pontificate and give advice, often not realizing the irony involved. “I hate bullies!” “Perhaps Obama’s biggest shortcoming as president is his failure to unite the country.” “Be tough, be smart, be personable but don’t take things personally. That’s good business.” “Don’t give in to anger. It destroys your focus on goals and ruins your concentration.”

In the other part of the show Nehmad continues her focus on the effects of gun violence in the USA. As in previous work, Nehmad looks for ways to involve the viewer on a deeper level than one might be involved or affected by news reports or statistics. Therefore, she redesigns the American flag around the theme of gun violence. 50 circular targets represent each state and each target is punctured or stressed depending on the number of mass shootings in that state. The stripes of the flag either represent the prevalence of murder through firearms or, on alternating stripes, suicide by firearms. One can clearly see that the number of handgun-assisted suicides is quite large and a neglected aspect of the Second Amendment debate. To use the American flag in this manner is also to imply, perhaps, that the current flag does not adequately represent the over-riding values of the country that elected Donald Trump as president. We do not seem to value the concept of being able to handle our rage. The election of Trump and gun violence almost seem to go hand in hand. Trump is a popular culture celebrity and our popular culture revolves around the objectification of others and the resolution of problems through force. Guns exist to help facilitate or give license to our rage – against others and ourselves. An amendment allowing the purchasing of guns in a country’s Constitution is almost an admission that this is not a society built around humane personal development that can resolve conflict.

Nehmad has also done some needlepoint pieces of QR codes. If you download an app to read the codes through your smartphone, statistics reflecting gun violence against children for the 12 months following the Sandy Hook massacre pop up. Nehmad explained to me that she wanted this to be a type of mother’s approach and protest toward the fact that after the shooting massacre of over 20 kindergarten students by a mentally disturbed young man, basically no meaningful response was taken in the USA. BY using the QR codes, she seems to mock the consumerist nature of a culture that allows us to readily buy weapons to kill children and implies that it is more profitable when folks attack each other than when they try to understand and live peacefully with each other. The industry of the gun manufacturer is more important in the USA than the safety of developing children.

Yayoi Kusama Infinity Boxes at David Zwirner Gallery, Chelsea (December 2017 - Wall Street International)

The concept of infinite repetition is a center-piece of Kusama’s work. As a child she suffered brutal treatment at the hands of her mother and visions of the infinite appeared to her as a consequence of this suffering. Therefore, the essential element of the artist’s identity and work might be understood as an ordered and systematic response to cruelty which takes the form of a vision of infinite perfection that can cover the universe (and sources of pain within it) but not change its nature.

This approximates, perhaps, the vision we tend to have of therapeutic recovery or the elimination of psychological pain. When one reaches a state of peace, where one can deal with memories and actions that once caused inner pain, the once external causes of pain become harmless. Kusama renders benign all possible elements that might cause pain, through her patterns. She has even covered herself and others in polka dots, in the past, since we are the chief source of pain to each other.

We live in a universe which had a birth and which will have a death; a universe for which the questions: "How could something come from nothing?" or "How could something always have been?" cannot be answered. We live in a constant state of entropic decay and our lives are a continuous struggle for self-justification and a search for meaning and validation in a dream-like, grim and often ridiculous state. This too becomes benign and these questions are muted by the polka dots.

Perhaps this is why the artist has said repeatedly that her art is an attempt at self-obliteration. The infinity of the polka dots is an offering to her public, an offering of a therapeutic obliteration for those of us suffering due to the callousness, indifference or outright cruelty of others. The creation of her pieces allows the submerging of her identity into a meaningful process, revealing the source of psychological pain to be based on rigorous attempts to retain identity and selfhood in lieu of surrendering ourselves to the goddess of mercy. In the very creation of the polka dots, in her effort to offer peace to others, Kusama surrenders to compassion and this, alone, eliminates her pain.

In the creation of an infinity of dots there is a loss of self which subsumes the component parts of humanity and the universe which cause pain, replacing them with a deep understanding and mercy which destroys the essence of pain and is reflected in a self-generating and endless pattern. Kusama is saying that forgiveness is possible, an end of suffering is possible, we no longer have to harm or be harmed. The polka dots are a forceful “NO!” to being in complicity with that which causes pain; we refuse to be either victims or victimizers. This is also why the artist’s work is often performative in nature. The process involved is essential to the work, not the final product. The artist David Judd once even went so far as to say that a painting by Kusama is a result of her work and not a work in itself.

This also helps to explain why Kusama's spaces in galleries, especially in NYC from 58 to 68, have been totally defined by art. It was her desire to create entire environments of repetitive patterns because this is the type of life we need to surround ourselves with. This is what the world might look like if we reach that stage of remission and kindness. We can insulate ourselves in these benign patterns and attempt to structure a world accordingly. These are not the patterns from Marat through Marx to Mao that have been tattooed onto reality to forge new forms of corruption.

Kusama’s work also follows from her observation that clusters predominate in nature. If you go to a field you often see clusters of flowers and if you look to space you see clusters of stars forming clusters of galaxies forming clusters of super-galaxies. In nature, clusters of flowers form because they are competing in a life or death struggle against each other for space and resources. Animals cluster because it improves their survival chances against predators. Galaxies cluster due to fundamental laws of physics concerning gravity and momentum. Kusama’s polka dots cluster for their own palliative reasons – they are as natural as birds, social groups and galaxies.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Snow Forest: Farhad Moshiri at Perrotin New York (December 2017 - Wall Street International)

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Farhad Moshiri has quipped that “serious” does not get you anywhere. Therefore, in his current show at Perrotin New York, Moshiri continues to exploit an extreme and often absurd relationship that can be constructed between messages and their means of delivery. He has been interested in what happens, for example, when a means of expression is quite elegant, laden with tradition and powerful, but it conveys schlock while, conversely, a message is powerful and deeply meaningful, but it is conveyed through kitsch. Imagine the Chicago Symphony Orchestra doing Barry Manilow, or Justin Bieber doing MacBeth.

A lack of adequate meaning for a powerful means of expression and a lack of gravitas for a serious message used to be two hallmarks of bad art, but with Moshiri they have become ‘found flaws’ comprising deliberate choices in his work, to add extra layers to his visual art vocabulary. Indeed, the retrospective of Moshiri’s work running concurrently at The Andy Warhol Museum, in his “Go West” show, is, in large part, a celebration of how pop art has relished and exploited the extra layers of meaning that a flawed relationship between means and message can confer.

For “Snow Forest”, Moshiri discovered that, in Iran, hand embroidered pictures to be hung on living-room walls, using cheap, plastic beads, has become all the rage among urban housewives. Of course, this is a medium that would be severely frowned upon by most folks predisposed to go to art galleries. Folks who embroider using such cheap beads are not going to speak about whether what they do is more gestural or figurative. They tend to make decorations for their living rooms – these are folks with little or no formal artistic training who are complete outsiders to the “serious” art world but who take pride in being able to engage in a time-consuming, labor-intensive process that yields images they can be proud of having made.

This type of cheap bead became the material Moshiri chose to use to convey his snow forest images, which he took as photos in Iran many years ago. The challenge for Moshiri was to take this type of bead as something that has negative artistic value, and to make it something folks on the Lower East Side would take seriously. Moshiri used what he calls ‘found persons’ (housewives) to do this embroidery for him to aid in giving extra meaning to these beads. So Moshiri appropriates, frankly, what might be perceived by his peers as ‘bad taste’ as an element in his art and as long as everybody can agree that the beads are deliberately chosen for their negative value, this ‘counter-value’ presents a type of contrapposto providing an extra layering of meaning absent when one does not move beyond traditional limits in regard to the relationship between meaning and expression.  

Moshiri uses photographic images of trees after a snowstorm which he took and stashed away with other images from which he periodically draws from. He seems to have chosen the trees because he was looking for something that would be opposite of the idiom of plastic, something that plastic would not readily point to as a working element in the piece. In his 2009 “Life is beautiful!” or “Comfort” pieces, in which these words were spelled out in giant cursive writing using lots of knives stuck in the wall, the knives militated against the message and created a type of symbolic Stroop Effect of conflict and irony. Thus, like the knives, the cheap plastic and the trees initially militate against each other. You do not tend to think of anything beautiful or serene when you reference the knife as an element of interpretation in a piece and this dissonance also applies to the relationship of plastic to snow and trees.

Through knives spelling out “Life is beautiful!” or “Comfort” one is forced to try to intuit a relationship between elements of expression and content that immediately clash. After some reflection, one can conclude that perhaps such a paradox does exist and the discord perfectly conveys something worth recognizing – there is a type of serenity that can be effected through force, violence or the threat of violence which can make life serene and beautiful. Military spending in the USA accounts for 54% of federal discretionary spending. The American lifestyle of self-absorption and ease, which is spreading throughout the developing world, comes at this heavy price. Indeed, there might even be an analog for our inner reality as much allegorical literature points to various dilemmas to humane development which are resolved through a type of struggle, conflict or violent purging of something evil. So this confrontation between material and message represents something; it becomes the perfect mixture of elements to convey the paradox represented.

The contrast between the beads and snow-covered branches requires a similar process of interpretation. Upon entering the gallery, the black trunks and branches stand out more starkly against their white background due to the shiny beads. Ironically, these cheap beads become an excellent means to capture the contrast of white and black inherent in silhouettes of the branching process. An attempt to capture the essence of the photos of the forest through the embroidered beads thus also points conspicuously to the hubris of imitation which reveals itself more clearly the more accurate imitation becomes. As imitation of the trees, snow and sky reveals itself to be a fraud, so a genuine desire for the lost experience of the woods on a snowy afternoon comes to the fore.

Yet, again on the serious side, Moshiri has also spoken of searching for possible statements that do not get confused when transported from one culture to another. The beads also create a two-dimensional flatness that encourages the viewer to look at the trees and branching as a type of ‘found calligraphy’. In 1999, when Moshiri was first starting out, he became famous for presenting common and trite Farsi phrases (tantamount to “Have a nice day!”) in lavish and splendid traditional calligraphy on images of ancient pottery. This means of communication possessed the clout ready to deliver a momentous observation potentially concerning the loss of Persian values or identity, but instead it transported the hackneyed: thus more powerfully conveying the loss in cultural authenticity represented by the partially damaged pottery.

Here, I would argue, the beads and their lack of cultural clout become imbued with humility and humanity, through the realization that married women, potentially restricted in their lives through the severe religious culture of Iran, perhaps at home much of the time in a traditional family, spend hours of their lives to create this work. The judgment of bad taste is, therefore, revealed to be an aspect of cultural elitism and the beads impart an immense amount of empathy and fellow feeling to this found calligraphy. The lives of the women subsume the cheapness or tackiness of the beads and insinuate a part of their very lives to the work. The found calligraphy of the trees and branches becomes a type of especially humane calligraphy which can be transported among cultures, because it is a calligraphy, perhaps, of our inner reality and shared humanity as well as the shared humane values that have pervaded the best of all cultures and peoples throughout history.

Language applied to our inner reality is often clumsy and metaphorical in nature, using objects and relationships between objects from the outer world to approximate experience. This written script is therefore layered through the embroidered beads with dignity and respect. It is calligraphy comprised of the basics involved in the process of introspection and the process of burgeoning self-awareness that leads to more compassionate behavior. This is a universal calligraphy which attempts to retain traces of appearing, disappearing and changing experience one feels to be of consequence and inherent to reflecting on the human situation. It is experience and inner change revealed through movement, space and density. It is mark-making meant to collaborate with memory as a way to commemorate but also to push one forward.  It is a cross-cultural calligraphy to, if nothing else, keep hope alive that life might be beautiful, and that there is a deep comfort to be born out of non-violent and nurturing action among our fellows.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Sign of Abandonment: Jorge Tacla at Cristin Tierney, Chelsea, Manhattan (November 2017, Wall Street International)


One might be tempted to interpret Jorge Tacla’s latest series of works at Cristin Tierney - Sign of Abandonment - as referencing the decreasing use of the book in favor of a digital world of information. Yet, Tacla’s previous work suggests, to me at least, that he is not predisposed to make such a linear, literal observation. Furthermore, the internet has clearly not decreased, challenged nor changed the cultural hegemony embodied in urban and university libraries; if anything, it has reinforced it and we now have a term like ‘digital colonialism’ describing how the internet is replacing native languages with English and promoting the American values of consumerism and political demagoguery world-wide. Given Tacla’s track record, and the fact that he often uses structures to represent systems of culture and power, I doubt these pieces could be depicting the shift away from one form of hegemony to a more potent one. Indeed, having read numerous reviews of his work, I am convinced that even critics who have tried to tackle Tacla on deeper levels have held on to too much literalism while discussing their themes of history, violence, decay and memory.


After an earthquake in his native Chile, in 1985, Tacla was able to see the faults underlying the construction of buildings which Chileans heretofore had felt were permanent. Ruins have become a pervading type of image in his work and even when he presents a structure intact, he often presents it from its most assailable position. (These ruins and buildings can also become analogs, I would argue, for aspects of our inner reality.) One should ask, therefore, what it was about Allende’s La Moneda or what it was about the Oklahoma Federal Building or the Pentagon that made it so assailable as a symbol to someone or others? Indeed, are there common denominators to these attacks by Pinochet, Timothy McVey and terrorists guided by an anti-capitalist ideology?


As I mentioned, Tacla looks at his structures and ruins within the context of the creation of culture and power systems and he could be saying that inherent in the creation of any such structures is an antagonism or a deliberate affront almost challenging an attack from someone. Tacla explains that he presents his structures in negative images to differentiate between real and pictorial space, but, to me, these images are in negative form because they are just one half of the total situation - the ultimate reality, the positive, active aspect is in the almost inevitable looming attack or the attack that occurred to create the ruins. The ruins of the World Trade Center represented a collision between ideological matter and ideological anti-matter – the depictions of the buildings and ruins are the anti-matter because they, like negative space, exist in the psyche of those intent on wreaking destruction because they feel a personal or ideological affront from these structures.


The creation of any state or religious supported structure brings with it its own instability and potential destruction due to the severe ideological divisions in the world and a lack of desire of those with differing viewpoints to coexist. What about the buildings destroyed through natural disaster in Tacla’s previous work? Playing devil’s advocate again, I could argue that the construction of cities is an in-your-face gesture to nature and the way in which humans used to live in greater balance with nature for generations. Why should there not have been a Lisbon earthquake in the 1700s or a horrific tsunami that killed thousands in a highly developed nation just a few years ago?


The library would seem to be anti-entropic, anti-decay, and nothing but goodness…but it is also a type of ruin. It seems to have done a better job than the cathedral (another image Tacla has used in the past) of disguising its intentions, but what is the flaw or fault that makes the library vulnerable to abandonment or greater ruin? Well, one of the libraries featured in this series is the Trinity College Library in Dublin. At one point, Ireland was an area of indigenous folks who were conquered and forced ‘within the pale’ by the English. It was a brutal and merciless struggle of conquest which, actually, set the prototype for how the English and Americans would subdue the native population in North America.


The library, perhaps, represents a form of social memory constructed by an elite, urban class, a form of memory and form of engagement with the world to be contrasted with that of the Irish or any indigenous population which thrived without it, in a different relationship to each other and to the Earth. Much found in libraries has been written with an agenda and various prejudices, and absorbed to predictable results. As Marx pointed out, the ideology of the upper class seems to trickle down to everyone else (Gramsci’s concept of hegemony is based on this).


But, you might say, ‘Libraries have not been abandoned – I was at the NY Public Library today and it was pretty packed.’ Sure, but when Tacla depicted the Pentagon, it was in the 1990s – its symbolism to certain folks around the world and a vulnerability created through a lack of precaution and too much self-assurance allowed it to be attacked on 9/11. Tacla presents the library and the museum at its vulnerable point now, so just as buildings can be obliterated, at one time folks lived quite well without libraries, and this remains a possibility underscoring all contemporary and future history. Modern human history is predicated on the obliteration and replacement of non-urban cultures, and this has created a huge vulnerability for urban, developed societies as ideologies conflict and nature rears its head through natural disasters and the effects of forced climate change. 

On a more personal and less literal level, the abandonment of libraries might also mean reaching the point where one can strive toward what Paul Tillich seemed to call The Eternal Now. The library can represent a cognitive process of referring to memory and imputing knowledge to the self instead of allowing self-understanding and humane growth to develop in a less coerced, guided or procrustean manner. Instead of the eternal now, memory and knowledge can intrude on our introspection and make unwarranted demands on our inner awareness or maturation. 

That being said, I would love to experience more and more of the eternal now, but I am still a huge reader who is concerned about the possible loss of the book in the future. In fact, since not all books are hegemonic, and, indeed, many are quite liberating and enlightening, you may want to stroll over to Cristin Tierney and take a look at this show yourself and see whether my interpretations above hold any water or not.  The show is up until December 16.


Inward Maine: Alan Bray at GARVEY|SIMON, Chelsea, Manhattan (November 2017, WSI)

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When Alan Bray was studying at the Villa Schifanoia Graduate School of Fine Arts in Florence, he was deeply influenced by the sincere faith and genuine spiritual aspirations in the work of the early Renaissance masters of that city. As he said before an audience in his home state of Maine, these were artists who “…actually believed in something”. It was a departure from the cynicism and irony he had experienced while studying in the US and, from this point on, Bray began to focus more on “stuff” he “cared about” – like his community and the natural environment of Maine.

He also picked up the method of casein-on-panel painting at that time; casein is a type of paint derived from milk protein which was used before oil paint. This type of paint dries so quickly that if an artist makes a mistake, or wants to change something, he/she has to use sandpaper. But this type of paint also seems to help to give nature, in his work, the exciting sheen and piquancy that elicits wows and oohs from many folks who look at it. To me his work is a bit like Andrew Wyeth mixed with Casper David Friedrich (many writers have mentioned a “mystical” quality to Bray’s work) with a little, to my eyes, Henri Rousseau eccentricity in there (although, unlike Rousseau, Bray does not create anything that does not exist in its original setting). 

Bray’s images compel an immediate, stunning engagement that allows us to absorb the image at a pre-cognitive or super-cognitive level. When Heinrich von Kleist first saw the paintings of Casper David Friedrich, he remarked that looking at that work was like having your eyelids torn off. Bray also offers that intense novelty or newness of vision. The intellect remains dazed for a while as we do not feel the need to articulate. Bray’s work is a narrative killer (although there are often stories behind individual pieces), a Broca’s area stupefier. It represents Bruno’s approach to the universe and not Galileo’s: a bridge between nature and us, lacking any potential to exploit the earth for profit. You do not tell yourself anything about what you see because this capacity for narrative now seems a bit anachronistic. The work packs a wallop beyond words, and becomes the type of art fully accessible beyond interpretation.

To me it packs the same wallop as, for example, something like Fra Filippo Lippi’s Annunciation at the Frick Collection. We have the basic knowledge of the story ahead of time, we know what the Annunciation was, but seeing the postures of Gabriel and the Virgin, the tilts of their heads in relation to each other, the ‘hot’ red of Gabriel’s cape and ‘cool’ blue of the Virgin’s, their spatial relationship within the framing of the pillars, their facial expressions and gestures – this all reaches us immediately and cumulatively with a big swoosh and emotional impact beyond any narrative. It is as if all previous knowledge has primed one for this direct experience. Language and knowledge took us only so far and now we can get walloped by color and form. Bray’s work, like all work that can reach beyond interpretation, is like an injection that yields immediate results instead of a slow-working ingested pill. Bray’s work gives us that big swoosh which comes from when an artist incorporates details for an effect on the viewer and not as elements of narrative analysis.

Another influence on Bray was the book by Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, which encouraged Bray to paint ‘natural phenomena’. Bray often will sit in an area for hours until the visual begins to reveal secrets (about structure?) to him. To me, Bray’s approach asks: What can we get from nature without imputing our knowledge back to nature? What can happen when we are patiently in the presence of and within nature, allowing the mind to become a part of nature and nature to become a part of the mind? What can we glean when we try to experience nature with no scientific preconceptions but trust that nature itself can reveal deep and transformative secrets to us? Bachelard’s book is a contribution to phenomenology, which has been called the ‘science of experience’. I would suggest, however, that phenomenology should be called the experience of experience. A phenomenological approach makes one not only aware of experience but yields insights into our experience of the world. 

The mysterious contrasts between aspects of nature, familiar structures which now look a little strange and the brilliance of the colors work together in Bray’s work to represent the super-enriched experience of our experience of nature. It is the joy of the perception of perception fueling deeper engagement with the perceived, without knowledge or desire.

The fact that Bray does not paint people within his landscapes is also significant. Often, by including a person or people, a painting merely becomes a work about transience. Nature and its cycle become the permanent or eternal and the presence of people reveals how brief our hour upon nature’s stage is. Adding people also adds ‘grandeur’ to nature as there will always be a contrast between the fleeting and puny human figure and the seemingly eternal and robust nature.

Interestingly, Bray tries something a bit different as he often, in this series, shows the traces of humans within nature instead of people themselves. The scaring effects of us puny and transient people is evident in many of his works to varying degrees of severity. We see, for instance, traces of a cross-country skier on a thawing lake. In one painting we see a circular pond which was created by a farmer as a source of water for potential fires on his property. As Joseph Gross of the gallery explained to me, by creating this type of pond, the farmer’s property insurance rates dropped. In Bray’s work showing such traces of human action, we see the working of the human mind and desire on the land and the land’s always benevolently regenerative response.


Friday, February 12, 2021

The Future Is Elsewhere (If It Breaks Your Heart): Heidi Hahn at Jack Hanley Gallery, Lower East Side (November 2017, WSI)

The women in Heidi Hahn’s latest series of paintings at Jack Hanley Gallery are presented in profile, almost like subjects in Muybridge motion studies. Muybridge, of course, did his motion study photos in order to be able to see details that normally escaped the eye. So, basically, what do we see in these paintings of women schlepping around in inclement weather, with leaves falling from trees, among big plastic garbage bags? Is there something about being in motion, carrying their groceries among the backdrop just described, that might better reveal the identities of these women or a deeper truth about their lives to us? Can we really get who these folks are by capturing them in a freeze frame on their way home from the supermarket or do we merely exercise our capacities to falsely characterize others based on our own biases? Actually, we are not exactly getting a freeze frame here; in the past other reviewers have mentioned that Hahn uses a Munch-like expressionistic style to convey her women, but the subjects are frozen, in transition, for our inspection.

So, first of all, perhaps, we are compelled to wonder why, wandering the streets with our own plastic bags of veggies and humanely killed chickens, we might play amateur sleuth and try to discern as much about the others on the street as possible. What are we looking for when we check people out on the street? Why are we doing this? And yet, one might ask whether anyone would really pay extra attention to this type of person  – she is somewhat common in New York City. If we take a closer look, however, we might see that she warrants being seen more closely because she very well could be suffering. This type of expressionistic, Muybridge motion study seems to reveal that this person we encounter everyday and dismiss, perhaps, as a benign presence, a well-heeled member of the liberal, intellectual class in New York City, may actually demand our sympathy and fellow-feeling as well. And, of course, many of us who wander through the Lower East Side galleries may recognize ourselves in her/them.

These women are not moving forward very decisively or enthusiastically. We are encouraged, through our educational system, to pursue our own excellence often to the neglect of others; has this type of person finally left school and arrived at her long-struggled-for, beyond-reproach niche in the Big Apple only to find it is not all that it was cracked up to be? Perhaps all the competition and anxiety was not really worth it? Are these folks schlepping in callous self-absorption? In liberal guilt? In longing for something or someone lost? In self-pity? In the awareness that their lives may have been altered or constrained due to their gender? Are they just schlepping while thinking of nothing? Is this just neutral wandering back home with groceries? In these periods of transition do these women reflect on the nature of their lives or do they unconsciously betray some unspoken form of distress while wandering home with their plastic bags of foodstuff?

These folks seem inaccessible and not inviting even though they are not moving forward with an aggressive purpose. They seem to have accepted things, yet they are not comfortable in this acceptance. They are clearly showing external pressures, stresses or concerns that are not currently present. They are preoccupied. They seem alienated from us through their hardship.

Other art writers have pointed out that these figures are a bit gangly and awkward. These women do not conform to the golden ratio in their body proportions and might be missing most if not all of the traits that typically confer ‘beauty’ to a woman from the traditional male perspective. Hahn’s work in the past has referenced the way women have been depicted throughout the history of art – is the perceived distress of these women due to the lack of attention these women have paid to meeting the expectations of men? Are these women who have read ‘The Beauty Myth’ and stopped trying to conform to some male expectations that if they are to be successful they must also sexualize themselves as a type of compensation? Are these women who have struck out on their own, are not trying to meet physical or beauty standards, and who are suffering the consequences, and perhaps even surprised at themselves for suffering these consequences?  We still live in a society where body shape and gender can determine success. It could well be that this is the source of the discomfort in these women.

So another important aspect of Hahn’s work might be that the history of art has been so badly tainted by negative and sexist depictions of women, that when we see women depicted in visual art, we almost always, despite ourselves, are forced to view them within the reference of the skewed perspective of art history. We have a frame of reference toward the depiction of women in art which is a distorted and sexist frame of reference and it might affect the way we see any depiction of women in art. By this, I mean that even a ‘neutral’ attempt at a depiction of a woman might be interpreted as either following a harmful tradition or diverging from a harmful tradition, and not viewed on its own terms, necessarily. Given the flawed history of the visual arts, and the oppression of women historically, maybe Hahn is asking: Can a woman just be a woman in a painting, with no historical baggage (ah, that’s what might be in the plastic bags!)? Isn’t that an interesting interpretation!? Maybe these women are figuratively carrying such baggage home with them in these pieces.

We still live in a society where body shape, gender and conforming to the beauty myth can determine success. It could well be that this is the source of the discomfort in these women who walk down the street with their expressions of apparently forlorn apathy in lieu of the excitement you might expect for a young, independent woman in the city. But, then again, the beauty of this show is that one is encouraged to ruminate on various interpretations as to what is ailing these women on their way home.  The show ends on the 12th.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Hallucinatory Enhancements: Kris Kuksi at Joshua Liner Gallery, Chelsea, Manhattan (October 2017 - Wall Street International)

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In this latest show by Kris Kuksi, at Joshua Liner Gallery, it looks as if the line between Guan Yin and Jenna Jameson might be starting to blur. By my completely subjective estimation, the central godlike figures seem, overall, less pacifistic than in previous shows and the chaste Athena-like goddesses have been replaced by more sexualized figures sometimes just bearing the trappings of religiosity, sometimes just baring themselves. It is as if we are witnessing a turning point in the relationship between religion and society, where the feedback loop is changing traditional religious iconography by infusing it with human sexual desire, a lust for power and greed. Traditional images once embodying ideals to challenge egocentric predispositions seem now to negate the pro-social and exult the will to everything Schopenhauer and Nietzsche drooled over. 

My first take on Kuksi, a few years ago, based on his iconic church-tanks and pieces similar to these in this show, was that he seemed interested in the paradox in which only terrifying weapons and various types of awe-inspiring military deterrence could possibly create the possibility for a peaceful spiritual pursuit within a nation that possessed this type of might. For example, indigenous religious practices were obliterated by the force of U.S. military technology. Is Kuksi saying there can be no pacifistic spiritual quest outside of a society that does not protect that quest with a zillion-dollar weapons’ industry and military complex?

Gandhi, for example, opposed violence even against the Nazis during World War II. The implication was, I am assuming, that true pacifism and non-violent resistance must be followed even if it meant the thugs and beasts would temporarily take over the world. This would be the ground zero from which real world peace would germinate. Kuksi’s pieces might also be asking: Should we take the gamble that REAL world peace can only be ultimately created by following extreme and true pacifism (and let the monsters take over) or should we keep hedging this bet with our weapons systems (just today Boris Johnson said the free world exists under America’s nuclear umbrella)? North Korea and ISIS seem to have shown that the monsters can, however, create hopeless self-contained systems and how many Jews and others were going to be killed by Hitler before Gandhi’s pacifism really kicked in and germinated enough to change the system? Is this paradox of religions of peace propped up by weapons of war the best we can do in this imperfect world?

It could also be that the godlike and heroic idols, in Kuksi’s work, are the ones generating the warlike preparations and actions. This, in fact, seems to be an interpretation easier to gravitate to in this as opposed to earlier shows, where I feel Kuksi showed more ambiguity about who was starting what. Also, the variety of sizes of figurines, interestingly, makes it impossible for us to tell which are ‘alive’ and which are statues or dolls being worshipped or toyed with. Obviously they are all figurines, but within the context of the diorama, for the diorama to work, we need some of them to be ‘real’. Are the central images real beings surrounded by dolls and figurines of their imagination or are some of the small figurines real and worshipping giant statues while playing with dolls? Or is there another reason for the wild discrepancies in the sizes of the figures?

If this is not enough to ruminate on, Kuksi, to me, could also be parodying the idea of the allegorical spiritual fight to attain perfection, which is also a paradox. This goes way back. Seth represents an aggressive and destructive inner trait that destroys the inner peace and humanity that Osiris represents and Horus is that within us which has to knock off Seth, after Seth knocks off Osiris, to re-establish real inner peace for us. There seems to be a belief that, in order to attain peace and humanity, some battle between agents of the light and dark must happen (within us but represented by symbols). This is not always the case, however, as Buddha attains Enlightenment by sitting under a tree for 40 days and Jesus gets basically the same thing by fasting for 40 days – nary a demon, uncle, usurper or adulterer killed between the two of them. But it is always more fun when you can violently conceptualize your humane development in terms of slaughtering stuff that deserves to be slaughtered for an allegedly ‘higher’ end.

In his artist statement Kuksi says that he is fascinated by the design of pipework and mechanized systems as well as the flourishes of the Baroque. His ultimate goal, perhaps, therefore, is an abstract baroque design structured according to the principles of a piping system. You get the utilitarian structure to optimize space supplemented by a design that both obfuscates and glorifies the function of the piping. The placement of the figurines and their sizes, therefore, may have more to do with this need for Baroque design than their place in the overall spiritual war-hive. The baroque beauty is provided by the cumulative effect of figurines of violence and especially a type of violence which cannot be separated from religion. Considering that the core of the Baroque Era was the 30 Years War between Protestant and Catholic national leaders, it should be no surprise then that the medium is clearly the message in these pieces. The show closes on November 11.