Monday, October 25, 2010

Moissei Liangleben

Moissei Liangleben – at the Palette and Chisel, through Oct. 24

Born in 1925 and emigrating to Chicago in 1991, Moissei Liangleben’s life spanned almost the entire history of the Soviet Union, surviving famines in the 1930’s, conscription into the great war of the 1940’s, and finally winning admittance to the Surikov Art Institute in 1945 and membership in the artists’ union in 1952. American museums, like the Art Institute, have limited themselves to Russian avant garde artists like Malevich, Kandinsky, and Chagall .But Moissei lived in a whole other world of 19th and 20th C. Russian creativity. His family owned a landscape by Ivan Shishkin (1832-1898), and he studied with Sergei Gerasimov (1885-1964), knew Pyotr Konchalovsky (1876 - 1956), and many other leading Soviet painters and sculptors. When Americans think of this genre, we think of propaganda like the exhibition of war posters that will come to the A.I.C. next year. But Soviet painters, just like Soviet poets, musicians, and dancers, had aesthetic agendas as well. They were a privileged class, distinguished by the very high level of classical technique required for admittance, as well as by the melancholy moods appropriate for life everywhere on planet earth, but especially in the evil empire. This exhibit by Moissei Liangleben spans the 7 decades of his career (and yes, he’s still climbing the 50 steps up to the third floor of the Palette and Chisel to paint the model several times a week). Unfortunately, there’s not much in this exhibit from his middle years, when he specialized in portraits of the intellectual elite, like Veniamin Kaverin, Viktor Shklovsky, Vsevolod Ivanov, and Anna Akhmatova (who had first been painted by her lover, Modigliani). But there are some fascinating self portraits of the teenage art student, and 60 years later, many charming views of young Chicago women. Like contemporary American Impressionists, he is interested in beauty. But his nudes are not just about flesh. Like many Russian artists, he is mostly interested in describing a unique personality. As he puts it, he wants to “show my sense of brightness and beauty in the model’s appearance”. But relentlessly, though subtly, there is also a sense of impending grief and sadness.

Above all, he is proudest of how he integrates the figure with its background to create an atmosphere, but despite his extensive training, he does not practice the kind of academicism whose smooth finish approaches that of a photograph. The Soviet school is closer to the flat, rough, expressive angularity of Cezanne. Whether new generations of painters will continue to pursue this direction remains to be seen. It’s a style that may disappear along with the idealistic but tragically flawed mega-state that sponsored it.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Luc Tuymans at the Museum of Contemporary Art

Critical response to the paintings of Luc Tuymans has fallen into three areas of concern.

First, and often foremost, is the historical subject matter. Why have right-wing Europeans (and Americans) done such terrible things? (Holocaust, Imperialism, colonialism, racism), and what should we think about them? Second, are issues of image, perception, and memory. What are the limits of memory and image recognition? Third, come issues of contemporary art history. Can painting ever reclaim the high-ground of representational territory it seems to have lost to the digital camera. Regarding history, memory, image, and perception, Regina Hackett (Arts Journal) helpfully notes that the image of each Tuymans painting is “perfectly transportable. Seeing it reproduced online is not significantly different from seeing it in person” So there’s really no need to climb the endless granite steps up to the Museum of Contemporary Art. Tuymans hasn’t revealed anything more about his historical subjects than his original source material did (much of which is conveniently displayed in a gallery adjacent to his paintings) And if you’re really interested in perceptual psychology or 20th Century European history, your time might much better be spent elsewhere.

But regarding the visual quality of his paintings, yes, you do have to see the works in person, and yes, Tuymans actually is a good painter, with a sensitive feeling for space, texture, and drama.

Compared to many local painters, his drawing and compositional abilities are limited, but he has wisely limited his palette to muted colors and his procedure to whatever he can do in a single session, much as traditional ceramicists have done. The total effect is melancholy – bordering on depression, especially as the labels and commentary connect them to thoughts about mass murder, incurable disease, Disney hucksterism, or, worst of all, the George W. Bush administration. But if you savor contempt and the dark moods of despair that accompany it, you might find this an enjoyable exhibition. (and apparently, there are quite a few wealthy collectors around the world who share that highly educated taste)

Happily, the first week of this exhibit coincided with the last week of an ebulliently buoyant exhibition of Alexander Calder. But after all that colorful, playful eye-candy comes down this weekend, you should probably schedule a few stiff drinks after the show. (just like Tuymans himself probably does. As Dorothy Spears of the New York Timesc reported, he carries around his own flask).

Is it true that “Tuymans' work specifically addresses the challenge of the inadequacy and 'belatedness', as he puts it, of painting. (as promoters a the Tate museum have quoted him)? – i.e. “the fallen state of painting since the 1960’s” ?

Apparently, if a painting is depressing enough, and makes enough politically and theoretically correct references, the answer is resoundingly in the affirmative as Tuymans takes over the entire 4th floor of the M.C.A.

But when will European representational painting, like Odysseus back in Ithaca, finally be allowed to throw off its gray, threadbare, stinking rags and reveal all the beauty, power, and splendor of which it has been capable?

That might take a few more decades.

(BTW - a quite perceptive and breathlessly written commentary on Tuymans has been written here by that Tory gadfly, Bunny Smedley)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Roger L. Weston Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago

Nishikawa Sukenobu

The Roger L. Weston Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago

The incredible collection of Roger L. Weston takes center stage in the premier exhibition of the newly remodeled Japanese galleries that bear his name. For the first time in recent memory, there’s a roomful of Japanese hanging scrolls and lacquer boxes, mostly made by the top names in 18th and 19th C. Japanese art: Shibata Zeshin, Ogata Korin, Chobunsai Eishi, Nishikawa Sukenobu, and even Utamaro. With 55% more floor space,

there’s also enough room now to show a large selection of tea ceremony ceramics

and ingenious bamboo baskets.

But where did this additional gallery space come from? Unfortunately, these are galleries that recently held Korean ceramics/calligraphy and Chinese painting, so unlike the South Asian, Pre-Columbian, and African displays, the far-eastern collection is not going to benefit from the all the gallery space freed up by the building of the Modern Wing. Most of the Korean ceramics (but none of the calligraphy) have been moved to the small gallery that flanks the entrance to Alsdorf Hall, but all of the Chinese paintings have been taken off view, and will not reappear until the Chinese galleries are remodeled at some unspecified date in the future. And, unhappily, certain questionable changes have been made to the older rooms of Japanese art. In order to make the Ando Gallery feel more accessible, the heavy glass entrance doors were removed, so now it also feels less intimate.

But more dramatically, the new display of medieval Buddhist sculpture reminds us just how effective the 1992 design by Cleo Nichols used to be. Fierce guardian figures once flanked the small entrance room that opened up into a dark, quiet chamber, at the center of which a Bodhisattva sat upon a raised platform, protected by a railing instead of a glass box, free to measure and control the space of the entire room, while other Buddhist statuary were dramatically lit within boxes embedded into the surrounding walls. The effect of the whole was spiritual and meditative. Like a Buddhist shrine should be – and it was quite a feat to achieve that using the disparate artifacts at hand; each originating from a different temple, province, cult, and century. Now they feel jumbled together in their glass cases, like ethnographic artifacts on display at the Field Museum. What once felt sacred, now feels clinical. But, thankfully, every museum display is built to be demolished, and we can be sure that in twenty years these rooms will be changed yet again.

Masterpieces from Ancient Mexico at the Art Institute of Chicago

Ballplayers, Gods, and Rainmaker Kings:
Masterpieces from Ancient Mexico
Through January 21,2011

Much of this display repeats the survey of Pre-Columbian cultures that is done more extensively in the permanent “Ancient Americas” exhibit at the Field Museum. But the 13 spectacular pieces from the Museo Nacional de Anthropologia in Mexico City is what makes this show indispensable. There’s a life-size, stone version of the mysterious chac-mool reclining figures that seem to have been so important to Henry Moore. Also included is the waist-high greenstone head of the goddess Coyolxauhqui, whose decapitation by her brother was reprised by the ritual slaughter of captives on the steps of the great Aztec temples.

A few feet away, is the famous Aztec statue of Xochipilli, the god of art, games, beauty, and homosexuality, seated in a trance and moaning under the influence of the psychotropic flowers that ornament his body.

But even more remarkable might be the over 40-inch high terracottas that represented various deities from the 7th through 15th Centuries. How did these enormous, intricate, fragile pieces manage to survive so many centuries of upheaval? Aesthetically, most of the work in this show is not far above the merely functional level of grabbing attention and telling a story.

But the late classic Mayan limestone ballcourt marker from La Esperanza Chiapas is a masterpiece of sacred world art. It’s only 22 inches in diameter, but its carving is monumental, and it’s ring of 12 glyphs is a festival of powerful, virtuosic visual expression that can scarcely be found in the American cultures that followed (including our own)