Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Alexander Calder, absentee choreographer

Alexander Calder will make you think twice about air currents. They are the unseen forces that propel his mobile sculptures, whimsical feats of engineering in which abstract bodies of shape and line draw attention to their own balancing acts. His stabiles, or stationary sculptures, are likewise distinguished by an airy kineticism.

Calder’s sculptures were unprecedented in the 1920s, during the early years of his career. He challenged the notion of sculpture as mass by demonstrating the possibilities of sculpture as space. Responding to the groundbreaking work of artists like Piet Mondrian and Joan Miró, Calder summoned the open, biomorphic shapes out of their canvases and brought them into human space. His background in mechanical engineering undergirded his aesthetic ingenuity and boldness. Calder’s vision is epitomized in works like White Panel, a canvas-like backdrop with a mobile floating before it; or Eucalyptus, a sweeping, skeletal stabile that is quietly ebullient. They amount to nothing less than drawings in space.

Calder’s sculptures, and especially his mobiles, invite meditation. They encourage the viewer to contemplate them in motion as they rotate according to the whims of air currents, an experience not unlike watching clouds go by. Snow Flurry, a pristine work composed of jutting lines ending in white discs, is wondrously alive: it casts shadows upon itself; it resists itself; it dances. In this work, and throughout this exhibition, Calder proves that he was more than a sculptor and engineer and visionary; he is an absentee choreographer.

Alexander Calder, Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, through July 27, 2014.

White Panel, 1936.
Plywood, sheet metal, wire, string and paint

Eucalyptus, 1940
Sheet metal, wire and paint
Snow Flurry, 1948
Painted sheet steel and steel wire

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Art in schools these days

I was impressed by the artwork adorning the halls of Rosewood Avenue Elementary in West Hollywood. From dioramas to Imaginative Portraits, it was inspiring to see the level of creativity that students are expressing-- and equally reassuring to see teachers encourage it.

The Imaginative Portraits below reminded me of the American artist Romare Bearden, whose collages inject black and white photographs into a swath of color.

Yay for public schools!


Romare Bearden, Southern Limited, 1976

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Benjamin Reiss: Creating to understand

The human body is a complex machine- we know this. If a sculpture’s framework evokes the body, you can bet that it, too, is complex. Bejamin Reiss’s sculpture Automobile (2009-2012), a life-size tower of colorful gizmos and surprises, bears an uncanny resemblance to the human body in its intricacy: gears, tubes, a spool of yarn; wisdom teeth and macaroni embalmed in resin; a sliced potato; a headless chicken. These elements, all appearing to be in conversation with one another, bedeck a wooden frame on wheels. There are so many component parts one must echo the artist’s diligence in studying it. 

At once playful and sophisticated, Automobile begs to be touched and understood. Some components are more easily identifiable than others: the deformed, molten wheel at the tip of the sculpture; the ignition just beneath it; the pedals on either side of the wooden frame; the pistons in the center. They vaguely call to mind the human anatomy: the wheel, a head; the pedals, arms; the engine, a heart.  

The attempt to understand is the basis of Automobile’s inception. Around the time that his mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, it dawned on Reiss that he had no idea how a car worked. He ventured to explore this process and the corollaries of his unawareness-- deprivation and loss. 

Automobile is so kinetic in appearance you want it to come to life; you expect it to. And in a way, it is alive. It is the product of years of exploration, contemplation, and grappling. Automobile is not only an attempt to understand the body, but a creative sanctuary to explore other narratives, both social and personal. It is a mechanical organism and an emotional organism (a soundboard, as described by Reiss). It is his circle in the sand.

Just as bright eyes can reflect a healthy diet (eat your spinach and sweet potatoes), Automobile represents a similar system of complex, causal relationships. Everything is connected, evidently or not, in the tapestry of his narrative. To use another body metaphor, Reiss’s machine calls to mind the twelve meridians of Chinese medicine: systems within a system, our meridians enable chi, or energy, to flow freely through the body. Healthy meridians are integral to livelihood, just as a machine’s parts need to be in good working order to perform maximally. Perhaps Automobile is also an endeavor to understand what makes machines flourish and decay.

Reiss has created an artwork that poses the same questions he faced in 2009. How was it built? How does it work? What keeps it alive? We find ourselves in a similar process of seeking. We yearn to comprehend; we feel helpless, eager, and curious. In the end we learn that the more we venture to understand something as complex as a body’s system, the more we do not understand. It is like the sea of oblivion that artist Yasumasa Morimura describes: the world that exists beyond the sea (our immediate reality) is so vast that memories and information cannot match its scale. The best we can do is tap into our creativity and work toward embracing the mystery and magic and confusion, just as Reiss has done.

Benjamin Reiss's sculpture is on view at Actual Size Los Angeles through January 25, 2014. His work appears in the show Rogue Locomotives: New Work by Benjamin Reiss and Conor Thompson.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Re/Envisioning Women: Richard Avedon at Gagosian Gallery

For a photographer whose portfolio abounds with beautiful women, Richard Avedon had an eye for unconventional beauty. His solo exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, which spans six decades of work memorializing women with his lens, captures his remarkable ability at once to sharply define the margins of beauty and to mar them: he builds and he shatters. This tension is perhaps most evident among his many portraits. Take his shots of the young and luminous Brigitte Bardot and of Danish author Isak Dinesen, imperious in her old age: while it is clear who would win the beauty contest, Dinesen’s proud face rising from a swath of fur is arresting; it is hard not to call it beautiful.

Avedon summons the vitality from within his subjects, whoever they may be. Even his glamour shots transcend the generic, assembly-line poses so common to fashion photography. We see life behind the faces of the German model Veruschka as she leaps ecstatically, and of Marilyn Monroe, who somehow manages to look both iconic and genuinely happy at the same time—no easy feat. We discover that beauty is also a pajama-ed socialite in bed with her pet skunk and it is a pregnant woman from Las Vegas, her androgynous face and bright eyes locking onto our own. This is an exhibition so full of sly, unexpected images that it makes even Avedon’s best-known work look fresh and newly arresting.
Richard Avedon, Women, Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills, through December 21, 2013.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Common Thread: Antique and Contemporary Mosaics at Istanbul Archaeological Museum

Ravenna Mosaics, a special exhibition at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, sheds light on the robust and versatile tradition of tile work, an age-old medium.  It also raises persistent questions about the value of reproductions: because they remain in situ, these sixth-century Ravenna mosaics were painstakingly reproduced by the Academy of Fine Arts, Ravenna in the 1950s and have been traveling to various institutions ever since.  Questions of “authenticity” aside, the show creates a dialogue between these late-antique and contemporary mosaics: a short stroll from the Ravenna mosaics brings you to a collection of contemporary mosaics in an adjacent gallery, under the exhibition title Contemporary Mosaics.  Like their predecessors, they employ a system of color and rely on the texture and tactility of the tiles for effect; unlike their predecessors, they do not overtly bear religious and/or imperial iconography.  Roberta Grasso’s 25 Euros/HG Marshmallows, a delicious swirl of mosaic tiles, looks almost edible, while the Polish artist Matilda Tracewska takes a photographic approach, using grayscale tiles to articulate the effect of a photograph in her 2009 work, Istanbul.  Silvia Naddeo’s Byron’s Delight is another nod to consumption—a rendition of Luncheon on the Grass and an ode to the pleasures of British tea-time.

Various artists, Mosaics of Ravenna, Istanbul Archaeological Museum, Istanbul, through January 31, 2014.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Conserving photographs: it's hard to catch your breath

"Most photographs spend their lives in the dark." This sad-but-true maxim, spoken by Sylvie Penichon, is the least of her worries. Penichon is a conservator of photographs at the Amon Carter Museum of Art in Fort Worth, TX, but not for long: she was recently hired to replace Douglas Severson, conservator of photographs at the Chicago Art Institute.

Photograph conservation is at a critical juncture. Not only has digital format begun to swallow "older" photographic processes whole, but artists are approaching their art form in ever-expansive ways. Take Matthew Brandt, who uses a Polaroid negative as his canvas, so to speak. By opting to use a material that wasn't intended for longevity, Brandt poses a quandary for conservators and collectors.
Matthew Brandt, F416880691 A and B, 2011
Polaroids (positive and Negative)

Once conservators like Penichon devise a solution to best-preserve Brandt's work, another photographer will inevitably come along with a new combination of techniques. Back to the drawing board.

Then there are new modes of presentation, like exposing images onto a patch of grass, which presents an obvious problem. Even if the grass is special-grade, grown in a laboratory to last, etc., it will not have the longevity that, say, cobalt blue would on an Islamic vase. What to do? If watering the grass is out of the question, the best alternative is to delay the process of decay. But how?
Ackroyd and Harvey, Sunbathers, 2000
Grass and clay

Penichon and her colleagues face a bottomless pit of conservation challenges, not only because technology is accelerating at a rapid pace, but because artists are growing ever more experimental with these technologies. Moreover, the death of some technologies has given rise to artists' attempt to resurrect them, or at least memorialize them. How does a conservator preserve a material, like chromogenic color film ("Kodachrome"), that is nearly obsolete and for which there are few resources left to ensure its preservation?

What if the artist doesn't mind if their work deteriorates, or in fact expects it to deteriorate sooner than later? Does a curator or conservator have the authority to ignore this, for the sake of the art's posterity? These are the challenges we face as sentimental creatures with foresight.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Abelardo Morell: Reclaiming the Familiar

The Universe Next Door is a fitting description of the work of Abelardo Morell, whose photographs are now on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum through January 5, 2014. Morell reveals a world not traditionally captured in photographs, one that exists beyond the scope of the lens. One can dream up such landscapes but rarely do we get to see them within the formal confines of art.

The Cuban-born American artist employs the age-old technique of camera obscura to achieve his signature photographs. The Latin phrase for “dark room,” camera obscura refers to an enclosed space with an aperture. When light shines through the aperture, images from the outside are projected within.

Drawing of a 19th century camera obscura, Dionysis Larder, 1855
Anyone can make a camera obscura: all you need are a box and a light source. Once you insert a hole - a well-calculated hole - on one side of the box, light from the external scene will pass through and project itself onto the interior’s surface. The image will be upside down, but the colors and shapes of the scene will remain. Morell’s Light Bulb, one of the first images to greet you in the Getty exhibition, captures the fundamentals of this process.

Light Bulb, 1991
Gelatin silver print
If Morell's camera obscuras appear repetitive at first glance, don't be misled. His pictures never fail to surprise. He captures the individuality of spaces; an almost schizophrenic individuality. The same room can have an endless quotient of personalities when Morell is behind the camera. An autumnal landscape casts itself upon the walls of a quiet and pristine room; the same landscape presents itself in another photograph, yet this time it is winter.

Dream-like, too, are his photographs. A hotel room becomes extraordinary when the silhouette of an upside-down Chrysler building traverses down the wall, its spire extending across the length of the rug. Such images remind us that the elements of our familiar universe can be made unexpectedly, powerfully new.

The Chrysler Building in Hotel Room, 1997
Morell propels the outside world into domestic interiors. Public and private spaces converge. The affect is something Frank Lloyd Wright might like, who endorsed the philosophy of bringing the outside in.

Morell's projections not only render environments surreal but also theatrical. Indeed his wife, Lisa, recounts her experiences of watching the outside world projected onto their bedroom wall: “…You and I would sleep there with the black plastic on the windows, and then in the morning we could watch all the neighbors walking by and the squirrels on the telephone wires, and, it felt like a dream sometimes.”

Camera Obscura: View of the Brooklyn Bridge in Bedroom, 2009
With the curtains closed save for an opening to let the light in, the Morells engaged with the outside world in secret. I doubt Morell’s goal was voyeuristic, but it certainly allowed room for that. There is nothing wrong with innocent curiosity.

Struck by Morell's potential to spark an interesting dialogue, museums have invited him to shoot camera obscuras on their premises. The image below, taken at the Whitney Museum in New York, is a fun play on Morell's photographs of domestic interiors. It also recreates the art-viewing experience: the Edward Hopper painting is no longer seen against a traditional monochromatic wall, but a textured one that both distorts and enhances certain qualities of the painting. Note how the projected building overlaps with the wall in the painting. It makes the latter appear as though it, too, is made of brick.

Camera Obscura Image of Windows in Gallery with Hopper Painting, 2003
Morell continues to push the envelope. Most recently he has begun exploring a technique involving the use of a “tent camera.” His own invention, it enables him to achieve the effects of camera obscura entirely outdoors. In the image below, what initially looks like a sand painting is actually a projection of the Golden Gate Bridge onto a patch of ground. Morell calls it “a collision of two realities on a surface.”

Tent Camera Image on Ground: View of the Golden Gate Bridge from Battery Yates, 2012
Morell's experiments with camera obscura are among his many diverse pursuits. He is also known for his images that capture life from a child’s perspective, his sensuous photographs of books, and his cliché-verres ("glass pictures," referring to his hand-made negatives). You can see them all on his website.

...Wonder how Morell managed to project his images upright? I did, too. He used a prism.

Prior to opening at the Getty, The Universe Next Door made its debut at The Art Institute of Chicago. In February 2014 it will travel to The High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

Monday, October 28, 2013

A nod from The New Yorker

...100 years later, Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending A Staircase continues to inspire a legacy of artistic references:

Harry Bliss, Husband Descending a Staircase After Tripping on his Wife's Shoes
New Yorker Cartoon (Published Sept. 23, 2013)

Monday, October 21, 2013

A nod to Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending A Staircase (No.2), 1912
Philadelphia Museum of Art

First exhibited in 1913 at the Armory Show in New York, Duchamp's Nude Descending A Staircase inspired public outrage. The painting challenged expectations: it was abstract, ambiguous, and reduced the female form to what one critic called "an explosion in a shingle factory." As far as audiences were concerned, Duchamp had thrown classical nudes like Venus of Urbino and La Grand Odalisque out the window.

Officially titled the International Exhibition of Modern Art, the Armory Show was America's first grand attempt to engage with modernism. Before 1913, most Americans were unaware of artists like Picasso, Matisse, and Manet; now they were hungry for them. The kinetic pulse of Europe, so unequivocally tied to modern art, was hard to ignore.1

That isn't to say that modern art didn't exist in America before 1913. Artists who had traveled to Europe, like Marsden Hartley and Robert Henri, returned to the States with a new sensibility that penetrated their art.

Based on the critical response to Duchamp, America's nod to modernism would nevertheless be a work in progress. Art collectors were integral to the assimilation process, with names like Abby Rockefeller and Mary Quinn Sullivan at the helm. In 1929 these women, along with other collectors and philanthropists, launched the first museum of modern art in the States, today known as MoMA.

1 I'll expound on this in a later post, and also talk about America's invaluable role in preserving European modernism after WWII.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Museum Hours: So much more than art

A panorama of Viennese working class culture and a hymn to the museum, the new film Museum Hours inspires its viewers to look, yes, but also to see.

Director Jem Cohen hovers his magnifying glass over the streets of Vienna and the city's beloved Kunsthistoriches Museum. It is a privileged view for the less itinerant of us. Built in 1891 to house the collection of the imperial family, the Museum has long been a haven of history and the senses. It is also one of friendship: Johann, a gentle, middle-aged museum guard has worked at the Kunsthistoriches for six years; he comes to know Anna, a frequent visitor as of late, who has flown in from Canada to visit her ailing cousin.

The exchanges between the new friends breathe fresh meaning into the museum as a metaphor for life. The more you look the more you discover; the more you discover the less alone you feel.

Cohen invites us to notice details in the seemingly ordinary. We need not ascribe beauty or power to them, but simply notice them. That is how Johann passes the time so pleasantly at work. One of his recent discoveries is a detail in a Breughel painting: a skillet protruding from a reveler’s hat. This leads him to consider eggs, which in turn leads him on a quest to find eggs in every painting he can. This is what it means to be human: to use our powers of observation, and often patience.

Cohen puts you in uncomfortable places that you can either flee or inhabit. When confronted with an unexciting field of wheat on a hill, adorned with but a few winter-bare trees, you realize you are looking at a living painting. Suddenly you understand.

And yet, the scene continues to surprise. Once Johann and Anne approach the hilltop, only Johann is visible for some seconds. He is at the edge of the camera’s lens and Anne is just beyond it. For all the cinematic rhetoric this defies, it feels paradoxically organic. It is akin to looking at an awkwardly cropped Degas painting: it is capturing an unstaged moment in time, and it makes no effort to accommodate our expectations.

The familiar or under-looked details in Museum Hours - textured layers of paint on a canvas; a child's face - crystallize at the end of the film, in Johann’s soliloquy. The manner in which light hits an object, or the way a person expresses pleasure or pain, is worth noticing. Such details enhance our experience of the world, just as making a discovery at the art museum leaves us with a flutter in our hearts.