The nude has a long history in art. From the formidable slab of marble that Michelangelo carved into the David to the various nudes presented as feminist critique in recent years, to depict a nude is to enter a long a developed visual conversation. What made many of the nudes at the Pulse Art Fair so disappointing was that they took no stock of this conversation and proceeded to present pornography masquerading as fine art. By pornography, I mean work where the entire appeal of the work hinges on the titillation of flesh. The style is weak. The technique is sloppy. The iconography is shallow. The artist's vision is vacant.
Muzi Quawson's Swimming with Diamonds from Yossi Milo Gallery was one of the few good nudes on view at Pulse. This British artist took a picture of a nude woman swimming a shimmering pool in Woodstock, New York. The backlit duratran light box emphasizes the glimmers on the water. The rough and rippled texture of the dark water contrasts well with the smooth and soft texture of the woman's pale skin. It is strong photo in which formal devices compliment the nude. It joins a long history of photographers like Robert Mapplethrope who see the nude body as one visual note to harmonize with other formal elements as they create the symphony of a captivating work of art. They do not deny the erotic appeal of the nude. However, this appeal isn't the work's only selling point. There is a soothing serenity in Quawson's photo as this woman soaks in this glistening waters.
Mark Denis' Art History Major from 2008 epitomizes the genre of the disappointing pornographic nude. In this painting, a young girl lifts her shirt in a formally evocative Girls-Gone-Wild pose. The background is Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling from Rome. The warm color of the girl's skin clashes with the pastels of the ceiling. Perhaps, there is a certain ironic appeal in juxtaposing this self-conscious flash with the seat of the Vatican, a bit of Cancun in the middle of Rome. But it is a heavy handed iconography that brings focus back again to the appeal of the pornographic. Whereas the symbolism of Quawson's work was one of a radiant aquatic providence from the worries of the world, Denis relies upon the attraction to the flash. Such works prove that the feminist enterprise is still desperately needed.
Terry Rodgers's painting The Resonance of Undergrounded Reality from Amsterdam’s TORCH Gallery was a stirring figurative work that addressed these questions of sexuality and pornography with a striking visual scene. The viewer beholds a group of half clothed magazine perfect men and women. They indulge in the joys of alcohol, cigarettes, perhaps drugs, and a luxurious interior. There is a marvelous ambiguity about what is precisely going on in the scene. It could be a brothel. It could be a night club. It could be private party. The work displays a powerful mastery of the photorealist style. Each strand of hair is visible as are the small sparkles on the wine glasses and jewelry. The haunted faces of all of these revelers suggest that despite all this hedonism, something is missing.
Terry Rodgers spoke very eloquently about his intentions regarding this work:
"The paintings are not meant to judge or criticize. I am looking closely at who we are, the density of influences upon us, the mistakes we make, and the recognitions that occur in trying to navigate a universe with no sign posts. The figures in my paintings often are seen at a moment where some recognition or self-reflection seems to be taking place. These moments of recognition are metaphors for grappling with the unknown. Perhaps something is missing from their lives and they don't necessarily know what it is. They are metaphors for the search. My reaction to the figures and their gestures is sympathy, not judgment.
My hope is that ultimately these paintings show fragile, genuine human beings trying to make something of what they are confronted with. Each of them is unique in their individuality—in their hair, their eyes, their lips, their hands—and they are all separately struggling and often finding merely surface solutions and ephemeral escapes to the timeless riddles of consciousness."
Pornography was recently addressed in a long and stimulating column of this art blog. I agree with the author that sexuality is not something we should fear in that predictable American and puritanical fashion. However, it is an open question whether valorizing pornography as a form will actually advance this enterprise of nurturing a healthier sexual paradigm in America.
Jean Baudrillard once observed that "at the heart of pornography is sexuality haunted by its own disappearance." Sexuality is a physical and emotional dance with the other. Pornography eliminates this engagement with the other and replaces it with the one way interaction with a ghost image. The cool touch of the keyboard pales in comparison to the warm touch of the lover. Something is deeply absent in the pornographic experience.
As Rodgers might put it, engaging with the other as lover is one of the timeless riddles of consciousness. Pornography strikes your commentator as an easy way out and a surface solution. Recent conversations in the gay community focus on the sequestering in a virtual closet. Many "down low" men now limit their experience of same sex desire to imagery on a computer screen. For them, pornography operates as a mechanism of sexual denial. This is but one example of the way in which pornography can inhibit rather than foster healthy sexuality.
But Porn sells - and it sells very well. The good and provocative work of Rodgers and Quawson's works was outnumbered by many pieces in the pornographic region of Denis. it is not the best work. At the end of the day, it demonstrates the underlying problem of appointing the art market as curator during art fairs. Although it may be a tired example of the market's flawed judgment, Van Gogh never sold a painting during his life. These porn pictures at Pulse smacked of the category of art that sells well in the moment but lacks the aesthetics and iconography to merit enduring memory in the art world - which is ultimately resale value.
In a recent roundup of neon art at the Armory, one writer on this blog observed that no Berlin gallery was partaking in the trend. At SCOPE, meanwhile, there was one enthralling photograph of neon lights on the façade of the Paris Cafe in Berlin. So perhaps now, Berlin too may lay claim to this fashion.
Ereignis 16 - 2.10.2006 can be found in the brot.undspiel booth at the Armory; the responsible artist is Roland Wirtz.
This is no ordinary digital color photograph photo-shopped to perfection. Wirtz turns back the technological clock and exposes this photo using a very large format camera. The glow of the neon tubes depicted in this image is meanwhile enhanced by the picture plane's dark surroundings. The image above will contextualize this unusual machine and process.
Light sensitive paper was put inside this large box and then correctly positioned for a long exposure. Looking carefully at the photograph, one can see the marks of the exposure's extended duration. Flashing red brake lights from the cars passing by managed to register on the paper. The direct exposure is also responsible for the backward orientation of the text. The long exposure exaggerated the darkness of the dim areas and intensified the sign's luminosity.
Depicting light as it illuminates the shadows has a long history in art. Its first great moment certainly belongs to George de La Tour and Caravaggio. In an era of light pollution and excessive artificial illumination, it is perhaps hard to conceive of the time of these paintings in which it was common to do tasks by the very dim glow of a candle. Such an experience burdens these historical works in a way we can only imagine to access.
What we can still learn from the old masters is that contemporary lighting technology powerfully influences the way we see and appreciate art. From my point of view, part of the explanation for the popularity and currency of neon lights lies is the dramatic shift in technology over the past ten years. With the rise of the Internet and the computerization of the workplace, we are now spending the majority of our day in front of electronic screens. If we aren't staring at a computer monitor, we are looking at our cell phone screen, our IPod, or watching a YouTube video at home on our laptop. Most of the twenty first century is passing before luminous surfaces that emit a glowing and subtle light.
It is only natural that these everyday visual experiences of luminosity will shape the gaze and taste for contemporary art. The pale glare of neon lighting feels strangely familiar. Such light is dancing on your retina right now.
The Scope art fair is a large tent next to the Metropolitan Opera House. Although, there are some familiar New York galleries, the fair was noteworthy for its strong presence of Spanish, German and Swiss Galleries as well a few Italian and London galleries. There was not a single French gallery present. It was an excellent opportunity to see the work of European artists who are not as invested in the American trajectory and its story of modern and postmodern art that still dominates the New York Scene on some level.
The paintings of Victor Castillo stood at the Iguapop Gallery's stand. This Barcelona Gallery is presenting the works of this Chilean artist who now works in Barcelona. His style and subject is straight out of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas in the most clever and engaging manner possible. There is a certain virtuoso in paintings that imitate that crisp CIG animiation style. Like the movie, his works manage to be dark without becoming garishly creepy and light hearted without becoming irritatingly juvenile. He has struck an impressive balance between conflicting extremes. The long red noses of many of the works add comic appeal and Pinocchio reference. There is a tenebristic composition in many of the pieces, which produces that classic and entrancing glow.
The paintings of Vera Ida Müller stood out at Galerie Römerapotheke's stand. This Zurich gallery is presenting the works of a home borne Swiss artist. Black has a strong presence in her figurative and landscape pictures, which make all the other colors appear more vivid and striking. Looking at the dinner scene of Unter Sich 1, the broken brushwork and sketchy quality of some element and the more finished and sharper quality of other elements gave the picture a smoky appearance. It perfectly captured that strange ritual of the businesses dinner where agenda can be hazy and hidden.
Reading against the grain that there is no common style that defines the current moment, it seemed as thought many of the painters and photographers at the Scope Art Fair were engaging with the question of focus. There are two opposing camps that Castillo and Muller epitomize.
At the Muller end of the spectrum, there were many works with loose brush work and a sketchy feel. Such a style can be refreshing in an era where the super naturalism of the televisual reigns supreme. Muller succeeds by having this loose and fuzzy style reinforce the underlying content of her piece. Other works did not have an apparent iconographic anchor for their fuzzy depictions of figures and landscapes. The raw appeal of the broken brushwork can quickly metastasize into something that strikes the eye as feeble and unfinished. This challenge of painting goes back to Titian and it is still just as difficult to pull it off – which makes Muller all the more impressive. Pesce Khete's oil sticks on paper just came off as messy at the Flat-Massimo stand. Many paintings in this sketchy category at Scope and the current Whitney Biennial unfortunately miss the mark.
At the Castillo end of the spectrum, there was another facet that embraced a hyperrealist and clean style similar to the animation from toy story. The virtuoso appeal of painting in a hyper realistic manner still resonates. Given the popularity of the older generation of photorealist like Goings and Estes on focused on scene that reasonably emerge in every day life, the next generation of artists seems to lean now more towards a hype-realistic image on an entirely imaginary world. This approach can backfire in the works lack ease and seem over-contrived. For example, Joe Becker's still life came off as gross and heavy handed at the Christopher Cutts Gallery Stand rather than that clever mixture of dark and light heartedness that makes Castillo's work excel.
Like any art fair, is it a process of finding diamonds in the rough. In this case, some paintings were literally as sharp as diamonds while others were just rough.