Friday, July 21, 2017

Gauguin : Artist as Alchemist

It would be hard to find an artist more politically incorrect than Paul Gauguin. His work, as well as his life, can easily “appear to be a veritable encyclopaedia of colonial racism and misogyny" to either the titillation of the general public or the dismay of academics. The curators of this exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago decided to avoid those issues altogether, and focus on the artist as a craftsman in a wide variety of media. Which would be a reasonable strategy – except that his techniques in painting, wood carving, and ceramics were neither virtuosic nor innovative. Even his unusual glass transfer drawing dates back at least to the 18th century. So there’s a keen sense of failure about the show’s signage as it desperately tries to distract viewers from the elephant in the room.

Alternatively, we might also consider “Gauguin's use of religious and mythological symbols to tell stories….and invest his art with deeper meaning” – as did the 2011 exhibit at the National Gallery, “Gauguin, Maker of Myth”. That myth making begins in this show with ceramic pots that depict the Greco-Roman Arcadian memes that so enthralled French aristocratic taste in the 18th Century. As with the other avant garde artists of his day, Gauguin’s rustic nymphs are more matter-of-fact than alluring fantasy. His Leda is a peasant girl carrying a Swan to market. The piece is more expressive than naturalistic, but its eroticism is not overt. More erotic is his ceramic portrait of the wife of his friend Schuffenecker. Her face appears to be walking around on her two ample breasts. One suspects that the artist himself may have had something to do with the emotional distance in that marriage that he depicted so succinctly in the family portrait that hangs nearby.

It appears that Gauguin wanted to express something about the human condition, as well as his own, that was outside Classical stories and stylizations. He began by depicting the medieval world of the Breton peasant - painting his own hawk-like face in front of a Romanesque crucifixion. You just know, looking at his furtive eyes, that he was not going to take to Christianity. Then he moved to Polynesia – as far away from Europe and Paris as he could get while still being on French territory. Many of his subsequent pieces show the influence of South-east Asian as well as Polynesian figure sculpture.

One vitrine offers a late Gauguin wood carving, “Pere Paillard (Father Lechery)” (1902), side-by-side with a museum quality nineteenth century Tiki. The power, precision, and cosmic mystery of the Polynesian carving place it among the masterpieces of world religious art. Gauguin’s satirical portrait of his clerical adversary is more like an adolescent prank that imitates local art as it attacks an authority figure.

In other pieces, however, the French artist does seem to be sincerely addressing the cosmological questions inscribed on his monumental “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” That piece did not travel to this exhibit, but “Te Reriora”, “Te Nave Nave Fanua”, and “Manao Tupapau” also address conflations of spiritual and carnal hunger. They are on the cusp of being both beautiful and profound. Their dream like quality makes them look better when backlit on a computer monitor than when light on the surface brings out the physicality of their materials. Overall, the artist seems more concerned with an inner vision rather than with perfecting its presentation.

There is a rough awkwardness about everything he makes – as if he were eager to begin the next piece. But there is also the thrill of creating a new mythology that draws from European as well as non-European traditions, without being constrained by either or becoming too solipsistic. “Manea Tupapau” (The Spirit of the Dead Watching) does seem to present an episode from the artist’s personal life: a fourteen year old girl has moved into his bedroom. Possibly she is the somewhat reluctant object of his desire. But it also feels like he and the girl are just two of many actors in a cross-generational cosmic drama that is beyond our comprehension. It’s appealing because the characters exhibit a calm strength, dignity, and poise.  That is a contribution that Gauguin's figurative art will continue to make long after its exoticism has worn off.

Many of Gauguin's paintings found on the internet, however, seem to be more like pin-up girlie pictures. I'm sure there was a market for it back in Paris.   Only a few, like the one shown above,  accompanied this exhibit.

Many more examples, however, are shown of a narrative genre that is neither mythic nor erotic fantasy. If the artist could have taken color photographs, he might have preferred to use that media to show the world that he was discovering.  Like the American artists who were then going west to depict the lives of American Indians, Gauguin often seems more interested in documentation than in painting.

Perhaps a Gauguin retrospective should just be called "Gauguin: Twenty-Five Years of Making Stuff" - and then discuss relevant issues on a piece-by-piece basis - which is often what the signage in this exhibit is doing anyway.


Portrait of Emil Gauguin, 1877

This marble bust is one of the more remarkable pieces in the show - even if it's formal qualities are more appropriate for a cemetery than an art museum.

According to gallery signage, this is the second stone carving that Gauguin ever worked on - and the first that he worked on by himself (with supervision).

He never attended an art school - and apparently didn't need to.  He learned how to do things rather quickly.

Here's one of my favorite pieces in the show -- along with the exhibition signage which, one may note, does not especially relate to "artist as alchemist"

The text is quite informative - though it does not notice, as Stephen Eisenman did, that it is nearly homoerotic - as the narrow-hipped reclining nude only shows us her buttocks and face.

It also does not discuss the social context wherein a naked thirteen year old is in the bedroom of an itinerant Frenchman.

The legal  consequences of a sexual relationship between a European colonial and a young native  are explored by the Indonesian novelist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, in his "Buru Quartet".

Here's a  portrait of the same girl - more straight laced this  time - and more like a young person who does what she's been told. Galley signage fills us in on the iconography behind her.

This piece is in the Art Institute's permanent collection -- so I must have walked past it several hundred times.  But it never caught my eye. It still only interests me for its subject matter.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Jim Dine at Richard Gray

Jim Dine "Looking at the Present" at Richard Gray Gallery

The octogenarian work of Jim Dine is the kind of serious art his ‘happenings’  were mocking sixty years ago.  It’s heroic in scale and cosmic theme. It even feels liturgical,as enhanced by its display in the new Richard Gray Warehouse, a remodeled industrial facility with the nave, aisles, vault, and clerestory windows of a Roman basilica.

By his own reckoning, over the past forty years, the artist has made “a million” heart-shaped ideograms in a project that conflated popular sentimentality with the semiotics of contemporary academia and the provocative banality of PopArt.  But now, apparently in anticipation of his demise, the artist is addressing the same kind of profound questions that religions have been asking for millennia: what is the purpose of our brief, harried, passionate, conflicted, mostly ignorant and occasionally desperate human lives?  How can they be considered worthwhile?  How do each of us measure up?

With the few brilliant exceptions that made it into art history, religious art, especially of our time, has been content with the skillful and sentimental illustration of conventional, historic narratives. Meanwhile contemporary secular artists have presented the human condition as ever more fragmentary, temporary, alienated, and absurd.  Jim Dine has been no exception.  But now, as if hearing the final trumpets, he has brought that kind of modern human life – his life – to a last judgment.  And like Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, he has condemned himself to Hell.

It’s not the medieval kind of Hell full of devils and monsters.  It’s the modern Hell of the isolated, inescapable self – the artist’s own disembodied, faceless head, hovering in a maelstrom of mud  (the artist uses sand) and colors that feel too strong and too cheap – as if a newspaper’s Sunday color comics had been left at the bottom of a bird cage.  The cage’s bars are suggested by a recurring motif of vertical black stripes against a glowing red background.

These paintings are full of death, rot,and corruption. They often contain human skulls, leering and horrific. Yet they are also full of bright colors and life – of pictorial energy, on the surface and a wonderful, seething, jumping sense of pictorial space. Whatever the young Jim Dine may have thought about the Abstract Expressionism that he rebelled against, the old Jim Dine has mastered it.

He has also mastered traditional European figure drawing, and applied it in two multi-panel pieces  In the triptych, “The Funny Pleasures of War”, he ogles voluptuous female flesh. Does the title suggest that  raping women is a pleasure?  That’s outrageous, but the human psyche is a law unto itself, and lust is here presented as resulting in more entanglements than pleasure.  A similar theme is pursued in “Errant Rays and Seeds Escaping”, a five-panel conglomeration of flesh, garish junk, and leering skulls. "A Constant Reminder of  Age and Gender" is a grid of heads and skulls whose title locates this vision within his own condition.  He is aware of himself as an old man – while the teeming fullness of his depictions remind us of his social status: he is a rich old man in a stable society.  He seems to have more than enough of whatever he wants - and an appetite to go with it.

There are no ideals here. There is no divine plan for human redemption.  There is no compassion for others. There is no peace, there is no worship, there is no hope, there is no future.   There is only the slightly humorous, slightly annoying, possibly threatening, and definitely inescapable obsession with the voracious self – repeated again and again across the walls of the gallery/church. 

But to give the devil his due, this is painting that feels both very strong and very honest. The overall compositions of the multi-panel pieces are thrilling.  The energy never flags in the details.  And the artist has boldly turned his back on the sensibilities of the contemporary artworld.  He doesn’t examine the language of visual art – he uses it – and he uses it to say something like:  “I am a self-centered, rich, old, heterosexual white male… deal with it”. Perhaps he should have run for President. Of special note are his adaptations of Edvard Munch.  Many of Dine’s spectral faces  borrow from “The Scream”,  and he even digresses from his primary theme to offer the Norwegian master a direct and worthy tribute in “Oslo, Midsummer with E.”

For those who follow contemporary art, this show is likely tangential.  The artist is now looking backward – from fifty to five-hundred years. But that’s the same reason the show can be so thrilling. Like great historic art,  Dine is glorifying something -- his own hungry self – and that glory is as magnificent as his self is disappointing.


Black Viennese Airport

Jim Dine's disembodied head reminded me of a cartoon character from the sixties -- so I've compared these three versions of faceless heads (from top to bottom):  a photo of himself, the image of Alfred E. Newman, and the head he depicts in his current paintings.

Looking at the Present Alone

.... and all he can see is himself, as his own giant head obstructs the view of everything behind it.

But what a strange, deep, translucent, glowing,  delicious form it is.

Coming from the  Darkness, I hear you laugh!

This feels like the arrival  of the goddess of voracious appetite - an American variant of Kali.
Note the black bars behind her -- you're locked in a cage with her and there's  no escape.

A Constant Reminder of Age and Gender.

Me, me, me, me, me.
Everywhere I look it's me.

Dine could be retroactively enrolled in the Monster Roster -- which might explain  why Richard  Gray is  now showing his older work in NYC, and his recent work in Chicago.

Errant Rays and  Seeds Escaping

Active – dynamic – violent – confusing – sexual – tawdry -  exciting – confessional – profound  

And Hellish

Four Ears

The repetition of empty,  monumental heads recalls the proliferation of giant stone faces at Ankhor Thom -- possibly depicting another megalomaniac - the Khmer ruler, Jayavarman VII

Oslo, Midsummer with E.

Red Eye

The Funny Pleasures of War

That sanding female nude on the left suggests that Dine still practices life drawing.


While viewing the exhibit, it occurred to me that the cathedral-like  Gray Gallery would also be the perfect setting for the monumental Hellish paintings of Wesley Kimler.  Indeed, it would be instructive to see the work of both artists displayed side by side.

That could, of course, never happen because Kimler has been as antagonistic towards the artworld as Dine has been cooperatively engaged.

But as luck would have it --- the new Gray Warehouse is RIGHT NEXT DOOR to Kimler's studio -
so when Gray has an opening, Kimler can have an Open Studio and the same crowd  will visit both.

Here, for example an artworld paparazzi wanders into Kimler's studio after filming the Jim Dine opening at the Gray Gallery.

"Wesley who?"  She had never heard of Kimler.


The Garden of  Eden, 2003

The above earlier piece is also included in his show, but it's behind a partition at the rear of the gallery and I didn't know it was there.

Dine grew up in his grandparents' hardware store in Cincinnati.  His fond childhood memories of tools appear to constitute his idea of paradise.

But he also grew up in Walnut Hills High School, a city-wide college-prep school that I attended fifteen years later.

A  few life-size plaster casts of Classical sculpture, including Discobolus, were in the hallway, and every student had to translate Virgil's "Aeneid" and Caesar's "Gallic Wars".

Perhaps that is the origin of Dine's fondness for the Venus de Milo.


In his New City review Alan Pocaro writes:

but the paintings in “Looking at the Present” are far more Milton Resnick than they are Jasper Johns. It’s tempting to speculate that this late-career efflorescence is due in part to an existential gravitas brought on by old age. There is undoubtedly a conceptual seriousness present that’s lacking in a lot of Dine’s more lighthearted work of the past. Formally, however, there is a playful assertiveness to these pictures that is at odds with this reading. It is as if through art, one can be made, if not immortal, at least young again.

..with which I'd agree

In his New Art Examiner review Bruce Thorn writes:

“Looking at the Present” is an excellent and memorable exhibition. Not only is the work heroic in scale and visually strong, but Dine is also taking big risks simply by proclaiming the importance, power and relevance of abstract painting in a world of balloon dogs and technological advances. Academics have been preaching that the medium is dead since Duchamp’s earlier questionings. How is it that a contemporary artist fully knowledgeable of the brevity of his remaining years chose to pour so much time and energy into what could, at his age, be a swan song, and do it in such an obsolete language as abstract painting? This kind of commitment seems unheard of in today’s art world.

.....Think of how much more Dine might have accomplished had he always been committed to "the power and relevance of abstract painting" - instead of waiting until his final years.

This is the age of selfies and Jim Dine has been at it making self-referential art for a long time. If there is anything esoteric about this body of Dine’s work it is that he deconstructs the selfie to a nonspecific, more cosmic place closer to the collective unconscious. His work is always autobiographical, from using images of tools as references to the family hardware store, to his repetitive use of his own facial silhouette with protruding ears

The works are filled with exciting, unexpected details. In Coming from the Darkness, I Hear You Laugh, 2016, Dine surrenders sublimely to the act of painting as if surrendering to a lover’s laugh.

Emily Rapport at Firecat Projects

"Damen Avenue Nocturne"

Not every Chicago neighborhood is wealthy and trendy, but quite a few are well kept and pleasant, even if the modest homes are so close that you can’t see one without seeing its neighbors.   They stay that way because owners care for them.  This show celebrates that older architecture and the middle income people who inhabit and maintain it.  You might call it a rebirth of Regionalism that combines a love of community with a love of paint and European pictorial space.  In equal proportions.

Centered on the exterior– the public side – of a building,  there is an emphasis on things as made not worn. Each scene is an upbeat arrangement of discrete elements:  architectural, arboreal, and painterly.   There are no dings or broken glass in the cars or houses – even if the city has marked an abandoned building with a “Red X” to caution firefighters.  A “Wilson Avenue teardown” has been so cheerfully painted in its funky decrepitude, it’s hard to imagine that a replacement could look any better.  It’s also hard to imagine that this 12-inch square painting could be any more delicious with its flamboyant manipulations of thick paint worked with both ends of the brush.   “Damen Avenue Nocturne” hangs beside it and is twenty times larger.   Surface details are not as tasty, but at a distance, you can appreciate how it’s been cleverly split by a telephone pole in the foreground, effectively creating two distinct,  complementary  views.  There is much to see on both sides as the artist, as always, gives equal focus to foreground, middleground, and background.   The curious eye is led down every passageway and into every nook and cranny. 

In four separate paintings, variations on the same house document its stages of repair.  The differing details in the adjacent buildings and background reveal how much the artist is inventing.  She may begin with reality as it appears, but soon the painting begins to drive itself,  establishing its own mood in response to the season and time of day. Given the basic structure of the buildings – everything else is invented:  the size of the windows, the surrounding foliage,  the color, etc.  Receding perspective lines are bent at will. The final effect is that the energy of each painting is deep inside.   What you see are the ripples left on the surface.

There’s a sense that making art is not far removed from repairing buildings.  Both artists and building trades have inspired her.  In apparent homage to Grant Wood’s “American Gothic”, Rapport offers the glowing white austerity of an “Urban Farmhouse”.  In apparent homage to Charles Burchfield,   the convoluted  branches of surrounding trees give an eccentric personality to a “Cottage House”.  In a salute to city workers,  “Streets and San: Building a New Chicago” shows a work crew digging beneath city streets after sunset.

There is, of course, much more to Chicago than its middle class neighborhoods.  There is a luxury condo building boom near the lake while many other neighborhoods suffer from crime, poverty, and neglect.  The city continues to stratify.  But the future of urban life, as well as the American art that enhances it, lies with the sustainability of its middle class.   Emily Rapport is making a worthy contribution to its psychic health.


 Cottage House

Summer's  End  .... and ... Ground Work

Urban Farm House


Wilson Avenue Tear  Down

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Classicisms at the Smart Museum



Must a tradition be defined by every adaptation made of it?  Must that definition account for things done in jest or hostility ?  Must it account for incompetent execution or things made only to be sold?  Must it account for things damaged by time or reproduction?   By  querying “the many ways in which classicism and even its opposite ideals come to be represented” , it is hardly surprising that a multiplicity  of “Classicisms” has been found for this exhibition.


The three sculpture heads at the entrance give some idea of how artworks have been selected and presented. To the left is an undated plaster cast of a Roman portrait bust originally created in the second century.   Signage informs us that such casts were once considered “an idealized model of enduring dignity”.  Whatever quality the original marble may have had, this more recent reproduction has all the enduring dignity of a tombstone – fit to signify, but not exemplify, something of value.   In the center is an original Roman bust from North Africa cut from a limestone relief carved in the fifth Century.  The nose is gone, the lips are chipped and one eye is badly mangled.  Signage tells us that it “would never do” for display in European palaces and academies.  But even in its damaged condition,  it proclaims a  fresh and powerful spiritual idealism that feels early Christian.  To the right is a plaster cast of Rodin’s portrait of Pierre de Wiessant.  It’s been scaled down from his multi-figure “Burghers of Calais”,   cast twenty five years after it was modeled, and the mould seams left uncleaned.  Signage  tells us that Rodin  “adopted the cult of the  fragment”.  But more importantly, this piece demonstrates his amazing ability to control space and express turbulent character with anatomical detail. 


The introductory catalog essay asserts that  “it would be best to consider classicism less as a quality inherent in an artwork than as a tool for understanding it.. a concept pertaining more to the beholder than to the artist”. (1)   Yet within that same catalog,  an 18th Century painter, Antoine Coypel,  is quoted as follows:  “Le dessein elegant de l'antique sculpture, Joint aux effets naifs que fournit la nature". (“L'esthetique du peintre”,1721) .  Though  written nearly a century before the word “Classicism” was first published,  that conflation of historic elegance and fresh observation of nature dates back to the Parthenon. Dramatically reborn eighteen hundred years later,  Classicism has been practiced as a way to enjoy life in the natural world without fear, despair, or attention to a hereafter.  Like concurrent achievements in Athenian democratic institutions and rational inquiry, it has echoed throughout world history,  however often it has been marginalized or adapted for other purposes. 

 Only a few good examples of Classical practice can be found in this exhibit, which does not even include the best pieces in the Smart Museum’s own collection ( for example: its two sculptures by Maillol).   Possibly the scholars involved do not relate to that practice, and evidently they prefer the conceptual to the visual aspects of art. Three of the catalog essays discuss the gender bending concept of Joel Peter Witkin’s photograph, “Canova’s Venus”.  A comparison between Tintoretto’s  “Mercury and  the Graces” and Agostino Carracci’s engraving of same focuses on semiotic details while ignoring overall visual effect. (2)   A discussion of Piranesi’s “Temple of the Sibyl” sees a “heavenly altar” but not the dark, damp,  Gothic mood. (3)


A hundred years ago, modern classicism was championed by the art department of the University of Chicago under the leadership of the sculptor and writer,  Laredo Taft.  Obviously, the university’s cultural mission is now quite different.   But the need for the visual expression of an elegant,  vibrant,  rational life style continues to be felt and addressed.  It may even become academically fashionable again some day. 

(1) Larry F. Norman "Multiple Classicisms"
(2) Frederick A. De Armas "Mercury as a Messenger of the Gods"
(3) James Nemiroff "Piranesi's Imitation of the Classics"

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Norman Lewis at Chicago Cultural Center

March on Washington, 1965

Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis at the Chicago Cultural Center


Like many American artists of his generation, Norman Lewis (1909-1979) began with social realism in the 1930’s and switched to Abstract Expression after the war. As the artist once wrote  “the development of one’s aesthetic  abilities suffers by an emphasis on social conflict – the content of creative painting develops automatically with the choice of forms and colors, for the combination of composition and color is the content.. “ Yet this retrospective serves best as a chronicle of social conflict.   “Police Beating” (1943) is the most compelling image in the show,  and not just because the subject is as relevant as ever.  Taking an aerial view, as he would throughout his career,  Lewis presents a fallen black man beaten bloody by a white cop while another white man grins and a third stops to take a look.  It ironically meshes horrific subject matter with the pleasant color graphics of a Sunday newspaper’s comic strip.


Apparently it was Post-war Jazz that inspired Lewis to work with  Abstract Expression.   Be-Bop was the most dynamic eruption of  spontaneous  improvisation America had ever seen, and it was born in Lewis’s African American community of  New York.  Obviously Lewis identified with the musicians who stood up on stage and blew with all the pent up emotion they could muster. His paintings share the intensity of  great jazz solos,  but his compositions are not especially melodic,  pursuing   diversity of mark making more than unity of design.  They are not appealing, but once you enter them, the possibility for exploration among the details seems endless.



Among other painters of the period, Lewis drew closer to the delicate ambivalence of Wolfgang Paalen than the heroic display of Gorky or DeKooning.  Paalen had introduced a technique of fumage (candle smoke ) to create the kind of blurry,  nebulous form that Lewis would use in contrast to the  sharp edges and calligraphic marks that straddle the threshold of recognizability.   As suggested by the title of one of his pieces from 1948, “Rhododendrons in Winter”, many of his pieces  from that time depict a kind of somber, resilient faith and melancholy defiance.


But his spirit was raised, in both anger and hope, as he entered the 1960’s and the quickening of the Civil Rights Movement.  The strongest piece from this period is “American Totem” of 1960.  It’s title recalls a famous essay by Paalen (“Totem Art”, 1943) while its white on black image resembles the hooded garb of the Klu Klux Klan.  As history progressed, Lewis’s field of expressive marks began to resemble crowds and processions of people on the march. Eventually his gatherings were clearly celebratory, as in “New World Acoming” (1971) and “Aurora Borealis” (1976)


Outside the context of African American history, the paintings of Norman Lewis are well made, but not exceptional.  His talents lay more with calligraphy. As he once wrote: “The whole thing in a sense became calligraphy, which made me pay more attention to Chinese Art--- everybody going someplace and nobody getting anywhere”  That’s a good description of any art practice that focuses on discrete elements of detail.  Lewis’s details are comparable to the Chinese characters of the great 11th Century calligrapher, Su Shi.  And his work is all the more remarkable for having originated from his own life rather than a tradition that was already a thousand years old. 

Police Beating, 1943

Jazz Musicians, 1947

Too Much Aspiration, 1947

Rhododendrons in Winter, 1948

American Totem, 1960

Aurora Borealis, 1976

Aurora Borealis (detail)


Su Shi, "Cold Food Observance" (detail), (1084-1086)


Regarding other reviews of this show:

Stan Mir reviewed the Norman Lewis exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for Hyperallergic.  He questions why Lewis has never been included in surveys of Abstract  Expressionism, even though he was friends with Ad Reinhardt and was photographed with some of the other players.  Apparently he has not noticed that Lewis' paintings look very different. Not every abstract and expressive painting made in  that time and place belongs to the New York  school.

Stephen F. Eisenman reviewed the Chicago Cultural Center show for New City.   He has picked up the melancholy mood of Lewis' work  from the forties but apparently missed the celebratory works from the 1960's and 1970's.