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 MirĂ³, 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.