This is an archive of the ArtCat Zine, 2007-2009. Please visit our new project, IDIOM.
Illustration can be a dirty word among some collectors and art critics. For example, in her recent review of the painter Ian Davis, whose work was on display at Volta, Roberta Smith fretted that their "fussy scale also makes them feel like big, clever illustrations that would be as effective in reproduction as on a wall... Mr. Davis's efforts become especially like illustration when he turns to monstrous factories that seem intended to convey the insanity of big business. Otherwise, his images have a clarity of theme and economy that constitute a good place to start figuring out how to be less cute."
Smith is just once voice in the art world but I she's hitting upon a prejudice against illustration that others share with her. It smacks of dividing visual culture between high and low and its keeping people from buying and appreciating good work by draftsman and painters that emphasize line.
The little Hegel is all of us is tempted to dismiss pop art. It may no longer be revolutionary to appropriate commercial imagery and style into visual art, but Volta’s booths proved it still has some mileage left.
Now in its true late style, we are well aware of the strengths and -- perhaps more importantly -- the limits of Pop. Indeed, the willingness to explore and harness its weakness is precisely what sweetens these late chapters. That content, light and fluffy as cotton candy, and with half the substance, can surely backfire into the meaninglessness of elevator music or small talk. But this idea of backfire is now the point. A Pop style can visually indict its subject as a pleasant lie or polite fiction that conceals an inconvenient truth.
The paintings of Shen Jingdong at the stand of New York’s China Square gallery attack the fiction of the content army and the happy family. Casting these social ideals as smiling children’s toys reminds us that it’s a juvenile over-simplification to think in such saccharin terms: bringing up teenagers is practically masochistic for any parent and memories of combat haunt even the toughest veterans. As sparkles of light dance on new plastic, Shen Jingdon proves that not all that glitters is gold.
English Kills - 114 Forrest St, Brooklyn NY
10 January - 15 February 2009 (Update: extended through Saturday 22 February 2009)
Andy Piedilato's paintings exude a sensuous formal tension between two rival patterns. Subdued grid-like architectural structures reckon with clouds of multi-chromatic painterly smoke that surround, cover or conceal them. These wild clouds with their flourishes of multi-layered color envelop a brick chimney in one picture. Another picture casts this "smoke" as a painterly blizzard assailing a stone castle's tower.
Piedilato embraces an underlying composition that resembles images of the dragon in Asian art. The monster's scales form one cubic pattern that is juxtaposed against the circular flourishes of its breath of fire. It's a yin-yang between the meticulous organization of linear lines and the chaotic explosions of the curvilinear, between a heavy solid and a formless gas. Such polar opposites attract because they allow us to appreciate the singularity of each pattern by simultaneously experiencing its opposite so immediately. It's like an optical chocolate orange or a retinal sweet and sour sauce.
Clouds of painterly smoke or haze have a long history in 20th century abstract art. But contemporary painters sometimes follow Pollock's example too closely. Many unequivocally embrace his homogeneous approach to covering the entire picture place with one "consistently chaotic" pattern. This oxymoron in words signals a danger in the visual. Joan Mitchell, Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer have striven to fend off this risk of boring formal monotony. By interspersing his color clouds with architectural grids, Piedilato's polychromatic smoke appears scarce and precious rather than overabundant and worthless. The chaos does actually seem like chaos instead of just its own kind of order.
A blonde gives birth to a grown man on a bloody operating table. This bizarre picture drew a steady crowd during a recent benefit auction for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Such prolonged gazes were high praise; small wonder then that this picture won Troy Dunham and Jeff Eason a prize for best emerging artists in the photography category at GLAAD's 7th Annual OUTAuction NYC. The artists were stimulated by a visual pun on how drag queens "birth"; young boys discovering and giving form to the queen within. Through digital manipulation, the diva and the "oldborn" are actually played by the same model. So she's giving birth to himself?
The picture hits upon something deeper than gender games. After the initial hardwired jolt of seeing smears of blood, the scene turns out not to be as bad as it first appears. The doctors' posture is relaxed and their eyes convey the calm trance of a familiar procedure. The deliverer yelps on her phone, smiles widely and strikes a pose. The morphine bag drips. Only the emerging man screams but like an infant that doesn't understand it will fare fine in the unfamiliar.
This picture speaks to moments in which we -- as corny as it may sound -- give birth to a new self. Whether it's coming out of the closet, ending a long term relationship, or changing jobs, life transitions initially can feel bloody -- until acclimation puts things in perspective.
The Good Land
Morgan Lehman Gallery - 317 Tenth Avenue
9 October - 8 November
Eric Beltz's drawings first attract the viewer with the virtuosity of his crystal clear lines and elaborate surface patterns. When so much contemporary art smacks of an anyone-can-do-it aesthetic, this skilled draftsman wields graphite like a wand. But Beltz offers substance as well as a sophisticated technique. Viewers that dig deeper into his symbolism encounter a grisly vision of America's founding fathers. His gothic depictions may hit closer to the truth than what patriotism or good taste want us to believe.
Beltz is picky about his graphite and prefers sticks that are jet black without the onyx shimmer of cheaper, more reflective graphite. His arsenal of erasures corrects minor flaws and enables his technical perfectionism. The astute observer can still detect a ghost limb or phantom design haunting the picture plane, but they remain largely concealed.
The artist remarked to your commentator that "color for me is superfluous to my work right now." This chromatic absence draws attention to black lines as they expand, contract, intersect, compete, and run away from each other. It also assigns a pivotal role to how shading flavors perception and formal emphasis. Shapes collaborate with one another, appearing as individual leaves in one moment and then coalescing into the gestalt of a tree. These effects are not as explicit in color and can fly well under the radar in a painting -- here, though, they energize the work. Beltz's drawings reward taste for the subtleties that formally belong most clearly to drawing.
Severed heads floating above their bodies are a recurring motif. The agenda is to symbolize the disconnect between the principles and the actions of a young America's first white rulers. These men conceived bold ideals of social equality that were often riddled with caveats and inconsistencies. A profound contradiction remains between their efforts to forge a democracy rooted in equity and the privileged class that reaped the land's riches by enslaving Africans, decimating indigenous populations, and subordinating women. These works illustrate the disconnect between the mind's thoughts and the hand's commands. With skeletons, skulls, animal carcasses, weaponry and an arresting image of a slave, tarred and feather, Beltz vividly depicts a particularly American brand of death.
Text and phrases float beside most of the figures. These words often articulate the religious and ideological promises of utopia that inspired early European settlers on the American continent. Beltz's sharp juxtaposition of lofty words and bitter violence might first seem inflammatory, but this is in fact the very disjunction between reality and its ideological context that formed the young nation and paved the trail of tears.
After listening attentively to the voices of victims muted by previous histories, one becomes more and more curious about the mentality of their oppressors. Rather than indulging in tropes of monstrosity or evil, Beltz takes the risk to depict the numbingly violent landscape and the ambitious justifications of these darkly detached early Americans. With a muscular style and technique alloyed with a clever allegorical wit, Beltz's drawings dazzle and startle in sublime tandem.
to: Night -- Contemporary Representations of the Night
Curated by Joachim Pissarro, Mara Hoberman and Julia Moreno
Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery - South West Corner of E 68 St and Lexington, New York NY
25 September - 6 December 2008
Times Sq Gallery - 450 W. 41 St, New York NY
25 September - 15 November 2008
In response to Van Gogh's Colors of the Night exhibition at MoMA, a show at Hunter College wonders how the legend would depict the starry night if he were alive today. to: Night - Contemporary Representations of the Night explores night with the digital techniques and high technological mediums of our moment. Most of the works are not paintings but share Van Gogh's wild comfort level with risks that only the future could admire.
The starry sky twinkles everywhere in the show. Stars shine beside dark surroundings with an audacity that's irresistibly admirable. The light's scarcity makes their illumination precious. There is an ancient stillness at night that lends itself to gazing up and enjoying the stars that many of these works capture.
The challenge of depicting the night sky is that it becomes monotonous to staple a dark background with evenly spaced silvery dots. That star field screensaver got to be so boring. Van Gogh was on the right track when he embraced the Milky Way. He weaves the curvilinear flourishes of art nouveau into a glowing lace at the center of his famous picture. Yellow stars orbit around that silver nebula like planets and move the eye around the picture. Only Jen DeNike and Robert Longo mined the full potential of the Milky Way and their sky's swirl with a formal density. Perhaps the light polluted city sky and screensavers deeply shapes how many artists see the night.
Vija Clemins reveals another strategy to keep the evening sky engaging. At first, it appears guilty of the screensaver's boring uniformity. But as your eyes adjust to her visual language, one starts to detect the subtle different intensities with which her stars shine and twinkle. In such an overstated era like our own, such understatement is refreshing.
Dark rooms with illuminated installations recreate that nocturnal scarcity of light that makes it so precious. The blackest space requires some retinal patience. The works are so dim and the room so dark that only dilated eyes can perceive the starry landscapes. Lauren Orchowski presents more three dimensional dioramas of nocturnal landscapes. Her works focus on that moment of twilight when the last remnants of the sunset still linger in the sky. The spindly trees and crumbly architecture hit the Halloween appeal without going overboard. Glowing trees with autumn's bright colors stand in Doina Kraal's dark room.
A Rare Breed - A Portrait Series on Redheads
NY Studio Gallery - 154 Stanton, New York NY
4 September - 27 September
Red hair was the theme of a recent portraiture show of photographer Julia Baum at the New York Studio Gallery on the Lower East Side.
Blank white backgrounds stoke the fire on these scalps. The garments the subjects wear are likewise muted and resist screaming with busy patterns. The textures and colors of the vermillion strands immediately grab the viewer's attention. Baum's fauvist eye for bold color is tempered by the shutter's literalism but never entirely suppressed.
Red hair fans out across a wide spectrum of shades. But there are scant occasions to appreciate this variety as two carrot tops rarely stand side by side. Glowing bonfires of hair contrast starkly against duller heaps of terracotta. Before connoisseurship became a dirty synonym for narrow minded elitism and neo-phobia, it was once associated with relishing such subtle distinctions between colors, lines and shapes. By bringing so much red hair together, Baum taps into this presently undervalued joy of viewing.
Men in uniform touch a deep nerve in Russia. The Soviet history of heavy internal policing has certainly left behind a symbolic residue on the personal dress code of state power. This sensitivity plays out across a spectrum of current shows in Chelsea that engage with soviet history and contemporary Russia.
Russia's appeal as a timely subject for contemporary art production is driven by more fundamental factors than the recent conflict in Georgia and its contested origins. Flush with black gold, Russia's rich can afford to outbid older money on the auction block; art dealers are clamoring to tap this lucrative market by introducing edgier contemporary art that evokes this country's past and future.
What unifies these different works together is the spirit of art as critique. Each work seeks to indict the culture that lends the uniform its menacing power.
A chilling portrait of young Russian cadets by Michal Chelbin is currently on view at the Andrea Meislin Gallery. Their unconfident and awkward poses betray their adolescence and insecurity. Looking tough involves much more than pursed lips and their eyes glaze over like a deer in headlights. The black uniforms contrast sharply with the aspen's amber leaves, white speckled trunks, and dancing patches of sunlight; it looks as if they are wearing black holes. This picture invokes an inherent insecurity for which many soldiers seek to compensate with their uniform.
Richard Serra: Thinking on Your Feet
Directed By Maria Anna Tappeiner, 94 minutes
Through 2 September 2008
Film Forum - 209 W Houston St, New York NY
Editor's note: Richard Serra: Thinking on Your Feet is currently showing at Film Forum, New York, through 2 September 2008. Tonight's 8pm showtime will be introduced by Jane Panetta, curatorial assistant in the Department of the Chief Curator at Large at MoMA.
Tomorrow morning we will be publishing a previews feature for the week on occasion of the opening of most of the city's galleries for the Fall art season.
We should all applaud Maria Anna Tappeiner for realizing a film on Richard Serra that reaches for themes beyond the Titled Arc. Retelling that story of ostensible government censorship and an artist clamoring for his right to expression is beating a dead horse. Tappeiner digs deeper and has forever enriched the Serra archive by presenting a vivid glimpse into the personality behind these important works.
The opening scene depicts the artist wandering through his sculpture park at the Bilbao Guggenheim. His crumpled linen sports jacket, simple blue jeans, and butch stride reveal his salt of the earth persona. He speaks about how his undulating slabs of steel create voids. In a style reminiscent of Hitchcock giving you clues about a film you haven't yet watched, he throws in your face that you don't get his work or jargon yet. But it makes you want to grasp it by the end of the film.
Action then shifts to the German factory that fabricates Serra's imposing steel slabs. There is something Pharaonic about watching all these men toil away to create these massive 21 ton metal creations. Much like a pyramid, these works draw energy from the elaborate technical undertaking and sheer manpower of their creation.
Editor's note: Climate is currently hanging as part of Utopia/Dsytopia on view at the Leslie Tonkonow gallery through Friday 29 August 2008.
There are two different types of hell in literature and art. The first is that fire and brimstone landscape of Hieronymus Bosch and Dante with all its bloody gothic excess. The second is the hell of Baselitz and Sartre's No Exit. It’s a Twilight Zone of subtler and more ironic punishment that reveals more about human nature. An enigmatic painting by Ian Davis currently on view at the Leslie Tonkonow Gallery falls into this second category. Climate depicts an auditorium of men dressed uniformly with their attention fixed upon an old-fashioned reel-to-reel audio player. A dystopian level of conformity and obedience dominates the space.
Davis's lines achieve a convincing illusion of recession and a coherent architectural framework. The work began as a grid and the artist carefully delineated these different planes of color. The recessed stage and expansive architecture reaching out beyond the picture's edges cast the crowd as massive and almost infinite.
The ambiguous facial expressions are unfortunately not apparent in online reproductions. Gazing closely at the painting, one observes faces that are rich in expressive details but vague on precise emotion. These unclear facial expressions are more arresting because they speak of that human need to reach closure and resolution. It’s an uncommon image in a visual culture of emoticons where faces express clear sentiments and convey thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the recipient. The white uniforms meanwhile, with their subtly differing shadows and highlights, create a sensuous surface pattern across the picture plane. Their uniformity dominates the picture visually and symbolically. A herd of docile white sheep assembles into an imposing group.