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.
I felt that Pulse started out a little slowly at the beginning, with the exception of the excellent GTA-inspired sculpture by Mark Shetabi. I was surprised to see one gallery near the entrance selling works by Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, and not in a good way.
Then, I hit the booth of PPOW, featuring a large baroque painting by Julie Heffernan and a couple of happily fluorescent / airbrush works by Mala Iqbal.
While I know many of us had our doubts about Saatchi Online as a participant in the fair, I was pleased to see a semi-abstract painting by Haeri Yoo, some of Amy Stein's photography referencing the conflict of people and animals at the edges of urbanization, and the photographs by Dana Lauren Goldstein.
Speaking of doubts, I've heard a couple of people say they weren't sure if the inclusion of Parsons MFA students was a good idea, but it was one of my favorite booths, including a hilarious video by Matthew DeLeon in which he poses in front of a projection of straight porn, trying to place his body in the woman's position as she has sex with a hot bodybuilder type.
Morgan Lehman devoted their entire booth to sculptural work by John Salvest, including my favorite, a slice of a door with rubber bands around the doorknobs called (I believe) "Kitchen Fetish."
Envoy featured an installation of paintings / collages by J. Williams III in the back of their booth, and across the aisle was a two-channel video installation by Paul Mpagi Sepuya titled "Christian" and inspired by the photo shoot for the seventh of his "Shoot" zines. At the end of my visit to the fair, Christian happened to be working the coat check when I picked up my coat, allowing me to complement him on his participation in the project.
DCKT Contemporary celebrated a new acquisition for their artists stable, Cordy Ryman, with several hybrid painting / sculpture works, and featured a combination beer cooler / dune buggy by Ryan Humphrey titled "Drinkin' and Drivin'." I spotted a number of people walking around the fair while drinking Budweiser tallboys from said cooler.
“… but so, Ben was in his speed monster form, but his badge powered out, and the Weather Robot was all like crazy and Grandpa Max and Gwen were about to be electrocuted and then there was this big BOOM! explosion and…”
“… experts at the Fed believe that the sub-mortgage crisis may have bottomed out with the recent Bearn-Stearns buyout by JP Morgan Chase bank, but critics of the government’s involvement in the buy-out are calling it a bail-out…*”
I click off the radio as I pull into the parking space, and listen with half an ear as Peter explains to me the latest episode of his new favorite TV show. Michelle is buckled up in her car seat, and I have to go to the back of the van and unload the stroller.
“Now hold my hand Peter,” I say while trying to push the stroller down the parking lot towards the mall with my free hand, “and remember, if you don’t feel well, say something, we don’t want a mess on the floor like last time.”
The doors slide open and we enter into the wide fluorescent expanse of the mall. They just moved to a new location, and while the new space is much more open and clean, it lacks the charm of the old location—admittedly though, the old place was getting a bit dilapidated.
Brightly colored plastic things vie for our attention, and Peter begins to wrench his hand from mine, running in the direction of the first thing that catches his interest. In the middle of Kinz Tillou & Feigen is a bright monitor with acid test colors flashing across the surface like a demented screen saver.
“Jeremy Blake,” I think to myself, while Michelle coos in appreciation in the stroller. This is the first time I’ve seen one of these in person, and I can understand why they’re tempting. A lot of the new digital stuff seems more designed for functionality than any kind of attractiveness—too bad about the poor Blake though, visionaries always die young. I make a mental note to recharge my iPod when I get back home.
I glance back at Freight and Volume where some small quirky works by Jim Lee are on display in front. They bear some resemblance to products I’ve seen from Richard Tuttle before, but I still can’t help but love the rough-hewn and off kilter precociousness. Peter, of course, can’t be bothered to glance, while Michelle seems to be drooling slightly. At least she’s content.
We head up to the Saatchi-Online booth, where they have some things culled from local entrepreneurs. Saatchi-online is like one of those E-bay stores that just facilitate transactions between small-time merchants and consumers, and I’m glad to see that they’re supporting the local economy here.
The sales staff informs me that they picked people who were just getting their start for this display, and that all proceeds will go directly to the manufacturers. Saatchi is a big brand though, and I sometimes wonder whether or not it is more about them, than the work they are supporting. While I’m distracted talking to the sales people, Peter starts picking at the sales tags on the walls, which are, shocking for such a big company, hand written. I have to hurriedly pull Peter away from the store though, and in my haste forget to note the works-- I do, however, have some fond memories of these linear geometric abstractions.
I push the stroller forward slightly before I practically run into a clear glass booth where inside a woman is demonstrating a brand new toaster. She’s a representative of Arts Corporation, a cooperative that specializes in creating unique electronics that display their own functionality. The display item imprints the name of the company on toast, but I learn I can order my own custom toaster that will imprint my name on the toast. The sales person offers Peter a bit of toast, but he is completely absorbed by the demonstration video on the side of the both, and I think Michelle has fallen asleep.
We’ve barely made it into the door here, and I can already feel myself getting fatigued. Nevertheless, we push on past PPOW, where I see they have a nice large Julie Heffernan piece and some Carolee Schneeman photos. Around the corner is a curious display of piled up military figures, which Peter immediately goes wild for, but I guess that’s the sort of thing that catches a young boys attention. It’s one of the few overtly political things we see that day, but I’m a little non-plussed by its GI Joe bravado.
We head up the way to Alexander-Ochs, a German outfit, oddly specializing in Chinese items. The sales staff seams a bit bored and I politely chat with them while Michelle gurgles and stretches her arms out towards a series of simplified heads on plinths. The woman working there informs me that their gallery has been doing incredibly well with their Chinese merchandise, and that their company has been involved with that market for over eleven years. They’ve actually been expanding into quite a few locations like this one, she says, though she is a bit surprised at how slow business is today. I look around and realize that the floor is a little empty for a brand new mall. Maybe business will pick up over the weekend.
Peter, who is easily drawn to colorful things, spies a bright orange wall up ahead with a rainbow colored stripe painting by Tim Bavington and a large red plastic sculpture out front. I run to quickly catch up with him, and brought face to face with some goopy day-glo abstractions by Ali Smith at Mark Moore. It’s a Californian establishment, and the place gives off the sunny, good vibes you’d expect from that kind of brand. That doesn’t mean, however, they shy away from a bit of the sinister side—Allison Schulnik’s painterly image of a psychotic clown adds a tastily demented edge to the bright outlook, and I practically have to swat Peter’s hand away from the painting.When I look over their desk I spot another Julie Heffernan. Her stuff seems to be popular.
Unfortunately, Michelle is getting a bit fussy, and starting to whimper, so we head on down the way looking for a place to rest. Surprisingly, the Parsons New School has a booth here showing off the quality of their program. I’m grateful, because not only are the student volunteers friendly, but they offer a brief place to rest. Brandon Nastanski, who has designed his Reading Room display, offers Peter a book to distract him, and I have a small glass of wine with him in the back room. Michelle, fortunately, calms back down and begins surveying the surroundings with eager eyes. The Reading Room has a nice personal quality to it, and I’m won over by its uniquely personal charm—if only there were more relaxing spots like this here.
We get going again, passing by a small drink stand selling Grolsch where it appears that they’ve sponsored a display by Jade Townsend. Townsend is a great craftsman, but his recent concern with consumerism has lead him to produce things that are beautiful in themselves, but wear a bit thin intellectually… this collaboration with Grolsch only seems to confirm that sentiment. Above a table piled full of white-washed hand made items hangs a chandelier of empty Grolsch bottles. Peter starts crying out that he’s thirsty, and I have to remind him that these are adult drinks, and we’ll get something for him later.
We head down another corridor and I'm confronted with a Japanese boutique-- Nanzuka Underground. Peter obviously likes the headless dancing cubist skeleton, but I'm afraid I have to only shrug. The sales person directs me to a catalogue from Keiichi Tanaami, who does incredible symmetrical psychedelic prints with a Lichtenstein-like flair-- too bad they aren't here.
Michelle, unfortunately, begins to cry, and I have to pick her up and rock her while we walk. When we reach Envoy, a local establishment with a branch on the Lower East Side, her attention is caught by some dangling rubber heads by Marc Seguin in front of an abstract cut-out by Kanisha Raja, and she begins to calm down. I myself, find Ryan Wallace's abstraction on the other side of their booth to have a quiet, but sophisticated presence.
Down the way, a little Spanish store called Espacio Líquido, was offering some clothing for sale by a small collective whose name I cannot recall for the life of me-- they've embarked on a new branding enterprise-- Marx. I couldn't help but get a little chuckle out of that. Peter really liked one of the shirts, a blue button up with imprints of Marx's face all over it, but sadly I think its a little out of my price range... what would Marx do, I wondered....
I didn't have terrible long to think, however, because Peter had already torn about half-way down the hall, and into an open area by the food court. When I caught up to him he was standing in front of a monitor playing some crazy cartoon by Federico Solmi. "See," he says, "that guy in the big hat, he's the Pope, and he sits in front of his computer all day watching something called 'porn' and then he's got these big armies that he leads around to kick butt, and... whats porn?" I could only listen to half of what Peter was saying, because I was quite taken in by the video, and it obviously caught Michelle with its crazy quilt colors, because she was gurgling a happy baby giggle, and then I realized that Peter was attentively watching all of this as well... needless to say, I had to quickly lead him away from TV.
Unfortunately, he really began throwing a tantrum, which, inevitably lead to Michelle crying. Not wishing to make a scene, I dragged the kids out, and we headed back to the van…