Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Pierre Huyghe: Unexpected Pleasures and Disappointments

To naysayers of contemporary art, Pierre Huyghe’s retrospective at LACMA is bound to be the last straw. To an open mind, it will have a positively jostling impact. Huyghe’s body of work is as contemporary as it gets: it is unpredictable, hyperkinetic, and not for the lazy. This exhibition requires an amount of effort, be it in the form of resistance or surrender. It is hard to be unaffected by what might as well be a self-governing organism: a smattering of live ants follow a trail of rat pheromone; Human, the artist’s dog, perambulates the galleries; there are a few giant aquariums, and then there is Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt), the reclining nude with an active beehive for a head. The artist is not the sole meaning-maker here.

Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt), concrete cast with beehive structure, wax. Photo courtesy Annenberg Media Center

Pierre Huyghe (pronounced hweeg) was born in 1962 in Paris and since the 1990s has been playing with the concept of “auto-generative” art. If you thought Alexander Calder’s kinetic sculptures — shown in the same pavilion earlier this year — were animated, Huyghe’s exhibition will stop you in your tracks.

The threshold into Huyghe’s world is disappointing, if not anticlimactic—you are welcomed by nothing but blank walls angled in seemingly slapdash ways. It is confounding, until the sense of disruption morphs into liberation: Ah, I see, this exhibition is here for me to play. If the artist can break boundaries so can I.

One protean space leads to another, or to a dimly lit room, or to a manufactured world outside, dripping with precipitation (fog, snow, rain). In some recesses there is so much light deprivation you get the urge for a dose of sun. Sounds echo around you, some so vivid you can’t tell if they’re real-time or from one of the handful of films rolling. 

Installation view.
Photo courtesy Esther Schipper

In Huyghe’s twenty-five year career, film has been a mainstay. His 2014 film, Untitled (Human Mask), captures the human penchant for manipulation: a monkey, wearing the mask of a woman, is being trained to work as a waitress. Huyghe describes it as a dystopic portrait of human alienation. It feels perfectly apropos for the disorienting, sometimes sparse, sometimes lonely spaces in this exhibition.

Untitled (Human Mask), 19-minute film. Photo courtesy LACMA

Even if Pierre Huyghe feels a bit like the artist’s personal play space, it is splendidly self-aware. The raw, unframed documents on the display feel like personal messages from Huyghe. L’Ecrivain public is his chronicle of the exhibition's opening, voyeuristic and full of banal observations that cannot resist amusement (celebrities and museum aristocracy, like Director Michael Govan, are mentioned). Reading it soothes the urge to be that fly on the wall.

Look up and you'll notice the ceiling doubles as a light grid that visitors can operate. Before reaching for a joystick, you have to ask yourself, Am I allowed to touch this?

This is where Huyghe’s exhibit can get infuriating. You don’t know where the lines end and begin. The synchrony couldn’t be more perfect: Huyghe is pushing you to challenge your obedience in manufactured spaces. You learn to anticipate moments of freedom, and, inversely, moments of disappointment: those beds of piled fur, begging to be sat on? Those are not for you but for Human, the artist’s Ibizan hound.

Human, dog.
Photo courtesy Autre

Pierre Huyghe is on view at LACMA through February 22, 2015.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Shangri La: A little bit of paradise in LA

It's a breath of fresh air, walking into a gallery full of pre-loved objects: an ivory door with nicks, a tapestry that has clearly seen better days. These are just a fraction of Doris Duke's collection now on view at LA Municipal Art Gallery's exhibition, Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape and Islamic Art. The eponymous spotlight of the show is the heiress and philanthropist's estate in Honolulu, envisioned after a honeymoon to India and the Near East; Hawaii was the last stop on she and her (first) husband's return home. Smitten by the landscape, Duke bought land overlooking Diamond Head and immediately drew up the blueprints. 

The heiress filled her home with a vast and varied collection: art from India, Spain, and Central Asia; a collection of Islamic art so substantial that it gave rise to the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. The objects at LAMAG are on loan from the foundation, not including the work of twelve artist residents who spent some weeks at Shangri La in 2010.

The residency clearly left an impression on its benefactors. Iranian artist Afruz Amighi described the estate as an "idyllic Eden." His installation, Rocket Gods, references the omnipresence of naval bases on the island— a strange contrast to the serenity of Honolulu. Here the rockets and missiles are in disguise as chandeliers, much akin to the spectacular ceiling lamps of the Islamic world.

Afruz Amighi, Rocket Gods, 2010
Aluminum and base-metal chain
Photo credit: Parisa Rezvani

It seems to be a trend these days, pairing contemporary art with historic. (Last year the Istanbul Archaeological Museum offered contemporary riffs on the Ravenna mosaics of Byzantium; Versailles now rotates contemporary art in its palace on an annual basis.) But the pairing of historic and contemporary is doubly apropos for this exhibition: Duke was a fan of both old and new. In fact she commissioned living Islamic artists to make work for her estate, including architectural features.

Enjoy some highlights below of the exquisite furniture, clothing and accessories from the LAMAG exhibition, which also appeared at New York's Museum of Art and Design in 2012.

Robe, nineteenth-early twentieth century, probably Turkey
Photo credit: Olivia Fales
Robe (detail)
Photo credit: Olivia Fales

Pair of ear ornaments, nineteenth century, India (Delhi)
Enameled gold, white sapphires, rubies, seed pearls, emerald beads, cord
Courtesy Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art

Chair, early nineteenth century, Iran
Wood inlaid with ivory, ebony, brass
Photo credit: Olivia Fales

Rosewater sprinkler, eighteenth to nineteenth century, Iran
Glass, mold blown and hand blown
Courtesy Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art
Chest of drawers, late seventeenth century, Spain
Wood, mother of pearl, ivory, ebony, metal hardware
Courtesy Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art

Doris Duke's Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape and Islamic Art runs through December 28, 2014.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Candy, etc. at William Turner Gallery

Right, more abstract paintings. That's what Carole Bayer Sager's new work makes you think; but not for long: when viewed up close they look fuzzy— even messy. But at a distance, they assume a level of clarity that verges on the photographic. A classic case of the Monet effect. You need a large space with ample leg room to show this kind of work.

Sager's subject matter is popular: in her solo show at William Turner Gallery, food is the focus. What distinguishes her work are the titles. Many aren't about the food itself but what happens to it after human intervention: TornShredded, Pulled. These stand-alone participles sound mildly aggressive. In many ways, that's what eating is.

On the other side of these actions is delight. Sampled, a delightful mess of boxed chocolates, is a case in point.

Sager makes us think about the food itself. Her Portrait of an M&M Peanut, while somewhat contrived, is an ode to mindful eating. It is the equivalent of a Ken Price sculpture: a view into the anatomy of an object. It's not often that we meditate on the viscera of delectables— and there's no need to, but it's nice to be reminded every now and then.

Carole Bayer Sager: New Works is on view at William Turner Gallery through November 8th.

Torn (detail), 2014, oil on linen, 48" x 48"
Photo: Olivia Fales

Torn, 2014, oil on linen, 48" x 48"
Photo: Olivia Fales

Shredded (detail), 2014, oil on canvas, 84" x 84
Photo: Olivia Fales

Shredded, 2014, oil on canvas, 84" x 84
Photo: Olivia Fales

Portrait of an M&M Peanut, 2014, oil on linen, 36" x 36"
Photo: Olivia Fales

Installation view, with Portrait of an M&M Peanut at center
Photo: Olivia Fales

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Modern Kimonos at LACMA

Here's a preview of some favorites from the LACMA exhibition, Kimonos for a Modern Age, on view through October 19th.

Woman's Kimono with Abstract Pattern (Japan, c. 1950)
Silk plain weave, stencil-printed warp and weft
Photo: Olivia Fales

Woman's Kimono with Abstract Landscape (Japan, c. 1950)
Silk plain weave, stencil-printed warp and weft
Photo: Olivia Fales

Woman's Unlined Kimono with Abstract Design (Japan, c. 1955)
Silk plain weave, stencil-printed warp and weft
Photo: Olivia Fales

Woman's Kimono with Geometric Pattern (Japan, c. 1955)
Silk plain weave, clamp-resist-dyed warp and weft
Photo: Olivia Fales

Woman's Kimono with Overlapping Hexagons (Japan, c. 1940)
Silk plain weave, stencil-printed weft
Photo: Olivia Fales

Monday, August 11, 2014

Larry Bell, a Venice Beach mainstay

Larry Bell, best known as a pioneer of the Light and Space movement, is also a masterful collagist. Some of his pieces are on display at his namesake restaurant in Venice, Ca., where the patrons, sun-kissed and airy, intersect with the great California Minimalist in more ways than one. His studio is also nearby.

View of Larry's
Courtesy of LA Times/Photo by Dustin Downing

One of Larry Bell's signatures are his plexiglass cubes of the 1960s, translucent and mystical. They were his channel into exploring the properties of light on surface. When light passes through a cube, it undergoes metamorphosis: it is captured, reflected, and transmitted. The artwork becomes a sort of light show.

Cube 16, 2008, coated glass
Courtesy of Frank Lloyd Gallery

At Larry's, the cubes will sneak up on you: They are the inspiration behind the bar's design, which could pass simply (and satisfyingly) as Fiestaware tiles.

The festive bar at Larry's
Courtesy of Savory Hunter

They are also appear as wall art, in the form of his mixed media collages. They are a pleasant surprise that you're only likely to find if you make a trip to the loo. The collages line the wall to your right, all cubes, all part of Bell's fraction series. They glow, radiating an aura that you never imagined inorganic shapes were capable of.

Fraction #1197, 1996, mixed media on watercolor paper
Courtesy of Larry Bell Studio

Fraction #2482, 1997, mixed media on watercolor paper
Courtesy of Larry Bell Studio

Fraction #2296, 1997, mixed media on watercolor paper
Courtesy of Larry Bell Studio

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

John Altoon, little-known giant

John Altoon in his studio, ca. 1968
Image Courtesy of the Getty and Joe Goode

The work of John Altoon is anything but innocuous- and yet, its playfulness can lead you to think otherwise. His paintings and works on paper burst with color; his ink drawings sizzle. Looking at Altoon's work is a bit like walking through a fun house: some images are abstract and distorted; others are crystal clear. It's a successful retrospective that makes you wonder "What's next?" each time you shift left or right. There's candy on every wall.

Ocean Park Series, 1962. Oil on canvas. 72 x 84 in.
Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, CA

Untitled (F-8), 1962-63
Image Courtesy of the Estate of John Altoon and The Box. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen

John Altoon, an exhibition organized by LACMA and the Rose Art Museum (Brandeis University), is the artist's first major retrospective. Altoon died young, at age 43, and his brief career has made him easy to overlook. But he is important. The vinyl quotations on LACMA's gallery walls, with quotes from big names like Ed Ruscha and Billy Al Bengston, are testament to his impact. Many referenced his uncanny ability to fluidly traverse figuration and abstraction; one friend called him the fastest draftsman you will ever meet. Indeed his quick, impassioned lines are electrifying; they enliven every room. I spent one minute following the curls and intersections of a single eye.

Another signature are his phalli, which range from conspicuous to not; some materialize only after a few moments of looking. F-24 (the F refers to "figurative") is a blend of Pop Art and personal touch: a soda can pours out a stream of sludge, the color of body fluid, catching a phallus in its wake. It is playful, grotesque, and strangely erotic-- an effect that, combined with his distinctive use of line, are quintessentially Altoon.

Untitled (F-24), 1962-63
Image Courtesy of the Estate of John Altoon and The Box. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen

John Altoon is on view at LACMA through September 14, 2014.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Notes on the history of color perception

There is a limit to our knowledge of other people. How can one articulate their own experience of color, for example? "The chair is blue." ("But what is blue?")

According to philosopher Zed Adams, that question wasn't even considered until the 1600s. The perception of color is a relatively new phenomenon, one whose history Adams presented in a talk (and promotion for his forthcoming book, The Genealogy of Color) at Machine Project in Los Angeles.

Interested in how philosophical questions become philosophical questions, Adams discovered that before the 1600s, it was believed that people experienced color in the same way. Then came a shift: a renewed interest in optics led to the discovery that color is but light reflecting off a surface; that light doesn't just make seeing color possible- it produces color. Since each pair of eyes processes light differently, color, therefore, must be a subjective experience.

Many other corollary discoveries came about from the 1600s on, and, according to Adams, five important ones in particular:

1. Light has a speed.
2. Different color experiences are caused by different sources of light.
3. There are lights that we can't see, like infrared and ultraviolet.
4. Other animals can colors that we can't.
5. Color blindness exists.

It's easy to take for granted these long-accepted facts, but it was revolutionary for thinkers like Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes. Newton believed that seeing color was analogous to hearing sound: pitch was believed to come in seven varieties, so why not color? Descartes didn't necessarily think about variation in color perception so much as the fact that our own ideas about color don't resemble their external causes (the blue chair is not produced by a blue-colored light).

That isn't to say that color wasn't thought about before the 1600s; the ancient Greeks named their colors according to how much light was emitted rather than their hue. (The entry for "colour" in the Cambridge Dictionary of Classical Civilization gives a precise account of this.) The Greek term ochron for example, included a variety of colors - red, yellow, green - because they all have a similar lightness.

Sketch from Rene Descartes, De Homine Figuris, ca. 1633 (Getty Images)

Color circles from Traité de la peinture en mignature, possibly attributed to Claude Boutet, 1708 

Adams' talk, while brimming with food for thought, was at times tiresome: using dates as a device for situating events ("color blindness was first considered in the late 1700s"; "infrared was discovered in the 1800s") is better left for reading material. Then again, he did make the historical focus of his talk clear in its title, "The History of Questioning Color Perception."

And indeed, tying together this history nicely, he concluded with an anecdote: In the 1800s, a man was surprised by the black suit his future son-in-law was wearing as it was the day before his wedding. Turns out it wasn't black; he was just color blind.