Saturday, October 7, 2017

M.F. Husain at the Art Institute of Chicago







India, the largest experiment in democratic institutions the world has ever known, has many grave challenges. Pollution, communal strife, massive income disparity, and especially lawlessness continue to flourish. No wonder both M.F. Husain (1915-2011), the artist, and Lakshmi MIttal, his multi-billionaire patron, decided to live somewhere else. The awkward quality of these eight wall-size triptychs, twelve feet wide by six feet high, reflects this difficult moment in history. Executed 2008-2011, the design and drawing is crude, while the iconography wantonly conflates the personal with the national. Much of it is incomprehensible without the accompanying texts in the gallery signage which are often incomplete. Is this really how “India’s most important 20th-century artist” presents South Asia’s cultural legacy?

Mostly, what Husain has to offer is sincere affection and sentimentality. He loved the streets where he grew up, even if he could no longer walk them. Offended by how he depicted their deities, militant Hindus threatened his life. One of the triptychs in this show depicts the great trimurti, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, as Marc Chagall might have imagined them. They are more like charming characters in a folk tale than cosmic divinities who demand worship and interpretation. They feel no more sacred than the heroes of Bollywood cinema—just goofier—as if all of creation was a situation comedy.

A few pieces offer a pleasing, cheerful design – especially his depiction of “Traditional Indian Festivals” . The bold colorful pattern would look good printed on a tropical shirt, as well as hanging from the wall of a restaurant. One might note, however, that all three festivals depicted are Hindu, despite the artist’s Muslim background. Indeed, the only Muslims depicted in these eight paintings are the Mughal emperor, Akbar, and members of the artist’s own family.

For Americans, the most revealing piece might be “Indian Households.”. Grandfather and teenage granddaughter are sitting on the same bed— – he is smoking a hookah, while she is leaning back with her knees spread and a fresh green mango in her lap. That arrangement may suggest sexual transgression, – but probably not for those who grew up in small, one-room apartments. Americans might also be surprised by the prominence given in “Three Cities” to Chandra Bose. His status as a liberation leader has been undercut, for us, by his collaboration with Hitler.

For me, the most annoying piece is “Language of Stone”, a celebration of India’s tradition of stone carving. It hangs in the Alsdorf Galleries, surrounded by many examples of devotional sculpture whose qualities Husain’s stiff, awkward scrawl cannot even begin to suggest. Has India’s greatest artistic legacy really become so invisible in the modern world?

Husain’s approach to “The Indian Civilization” appears to be nostalgic both for the land of his childhood as well as the painting of early Twentieth Century European Modernists. He offers more of a suggestion than a strong connection to either one of them. His work has the content as well as the aesthetic quality of a cheap travel brochure. One of the great achievements of Hindustani classical music is that it expresses South Asian identity in a spiritual yet non-sectarian way. Husain’s attempt to do that with visual art was a noble, but not especially successful one.


“India Modern: The Paintings of M. F. Husain” shows through March 4 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan.





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Unlike most of the reviews posted to this blog,  this one was rejected by New City and an explicit reason given:

"It doesn't approach the work with the generosity of spirit that such works require, especially from the standpoint of someone who knows little about the culture from which it comes."

In other words -- I am not qualified to deliver such a scathing judgment - regardless of whether one has reasons to disagree with any of it.

I have, however, been reading the literature and history of South Asia for the past eight years, beginning here

And though I usually try to approach all reviews with "a generosity of spirit", the circumstances of this exhibit did not seem to call for it:  A presentation of one of the planet's great civilizations as commissioned by one of India's wealthiest men from one of India's most famous artists,  installed in one of America's largest art museums.  These pieces belong elsewhere - like in a high school cafeteria.













Friday, October 6, 2017

Real - Impressions at the Palette and Chisel Academy



Donna J. West


“Gracious”, my favorite painting by Donna J. West , seems to record an ecstatic moment – like the breathless aftermath of a paint-gun fight or the Hindu festival of Holi.  There are bursts and slaps and smears of color.   Her figurative work, however, reflects the life of young women finding their way in the big city.  In accord with her career in activewear fashion, West depicts the stroll of stylish young models.   They are slim and vigorous  - but there is also a  sense of anxiety, tension, and emptiness.  They are trying, perhaps too hard, to appear carefree.  Most of them are faceless mannequins, and if they have a face,  it feels disjointed or the eyes are concealed by dark glasses.  The paint is too thick and chalky. The colors are annoying and discordant. The drawing is angular and jagged.   The same is true of her floral still-lifes.  They are more about the conventional idea that flowers are supposed to be pleasing than the luxuriant growth of actual foliage.  Beneath the surface of all her work, there are the ripples of edges  painted over – echoing  much struggle and effort .  It takes hard work to appear casual and attractive– and West documents that corner of modern, urban life.


Stephanie Weidner



There is a different kind of tension in the paintings of Stephanie Weidner.  In her best work, she offers the perfect depiction of a world that is just a little strange.  Not as strange as a surrealist like Magritte might make it – but strange in an ordinary kind of way.  As when she depicts a twisty, sinuous  vine erupting from a  squat, solid vase. Or a maze of tree roots hovering over a neatly folded tablecloth. Or a flight formation of large-winged insects pinned against a checkered cloth.  Or a red vase painted beside a gray oil can that might suggest a conventional married couple: the woman tall elegant and poetic ; the man  squat, strong, and  practical.  And then there’s the totally weird “Dragon with Craspedia” – a larger work where the stability established by a solid  black vase seems threatened by a whimsical dragon emerging from a printed pattern behind it.   Weidner is not familiar with Chicago legend, Gertrude Abercrombie, but their odd, careful, claustrophobic work has much in common



“Real /Impression” is the name that  Weidner and West have chosen to denote how their styles differ. At the Palette and Chisel Academy, where they met and are now showing, one might indeed find two ongoing traditions being taught.  One group is inspired by the object-centered realism perfected by the Seventeenth Century Dutch masters.  Another group is inspired by that emphasis on light and expressive  brushstroke pioneered in nineteenth Century Paris.  But Weidner is more concerned with the mysteries of an inner world than with the perfection of an outer one.  And West is more about the drama of life in Chicago than with how light falls on a garden.  The two still make for a good contrast, though, and good examples of what contemporary painters are doing outside the contemporary artworld.


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Responding to my suggestion that her painting resembled that of Gertrude Abercombrie,  Stephanie sent me the above images.

She painted the cat on the left -- Abercrombie did the one on the right.

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.







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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.

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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



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.


 
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 Cottage House



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




Urban Farm House


 


Wilson Avenue Tear  Down