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.

 
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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.


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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.



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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.


 
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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



 

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.


 
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 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"