Brian D.'s Profile
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KW is Berlin's top space for exhibiting contemporary art. Since 1998 it has hosted the Berlin Biennial. This summer's edition is different from the past ones. In the downstairs gallery there is an encampment of the sort that Occupy movements have set up in cities. There are tents, brochures, graffiti, posters, and occasional assemblies. The galleries upstairs feature work that seems closer to agitprop than it does to art--a deliberate choice on the part of the curator, Artur Zmijewski, who writes in his introduction to the catalog that contemporary art doesn't interest him any more. A Powerpoint presentation by Antanas Mockus, formerly the mayor of Bogota, Colombia, discusses his campaigns against the drug business and traffic deaths that involved elements of performance art (respectively: when he got death threats from drug lords he started wearing a bulletproof vest with a heart-shaped hole cut over his heart, and he had mimes line up along sidewalks). In the presentation he says this is "sub-art = art without the pretenses of art."
Everything at the Berlin Biennial could probably be described as sub-art. For example, one room has a lopsided circle of screens, each of which displays documentation of a protest that took place somewhere in the world in the last year. It looks like a complex video-art installation, but when I was inside it I felt like I was at a protest meeting, an assembly of assemblies where I couldn't possibly see and focus on the whole thing at once but I still got an impression of a worldwide movement that I could potentially belong to. Likewise, the Occupy encampment on the ground floor looks the sprawling, cluttered installations you see at a lot of biennials, combining a variety of images, texts, and objects. But the sharp cuts between old radical documents (a printout of the 1996 "Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace") and current, useful information (a flyer with instructions on how to get from Berlin to Occupy Frankfurt next week) make it feel like something else. Maybe, because of its position right at the entrance, it's supposed to be a proposition about how works of sub-art engage each other in dialogue.
To be honest, I have never liked "political art." When art has a direct message it becomes one-sided and shallow. But I didn't want to judge the Berlin Biennial by the criteria of art because it defines itself as non-art, as sub-art that is occupying a kunsthalle. Of course, there are individual works here with legible agendas. But it's like an Occupy meeting, where there are people handing out leaflets or starting discussions to promote their own pet causes, but they're still working under the umbrella slogan of "no demands," a rejection of the present system that refuses to participate in its politics. This Berlin Biennial presents an aesthetics of "no demands." Instead of issuing the sort of bland political statement that biennials usually give when they try to get political, it rejects familiar exhibition formats and the expectations people have for contemporary art. It's a biennial and an anti-biennial--a position that has the ambiguity and richness that makes for good art but also feels different and new. That's the impression I got, and it was exciting for me.
A lot of people I talked to about the Berlin Biennial hated it. They thought it was political art and it didn't have teeth, that in spite of its good intentions it was disconnected from life, that it cheapened the Occupy movement by turning it into an installation. By doing this project at KW with funds from the German government, these critics say, Zmijewski et al are capitulating to the system that the Occupy movement rejects. To me this sounded a bit like the people who call Occupy protesters hypocrites because they use laptops made by successful corporations. But that's ridiculous. You don't start a co-op that makes its own computers from scratch to organize a protest. You don't build an Institute for Sub-Art to have a biennial. You just use the means that are available to you and in using them you remake them.
I also heard rumors about corruption, mismanagement of funds, complaints that artists were not paid fairly. These are probably true. But in the end I can only evaluate an exhibition space based on my personal experience there, and my experience at KW was very positive.
If you are set in your ideas about what a biennial or other big group show should look like then maybe KW (especially with this Biennial!) is not for you. But if you are open to new ideas and like to be intellectually challenged I would highly recommend it!
TIP: You don't have to walk through the ticket office to get to the galleries and the attendants don't check tickets so it's really easy to see the show without paying. I did it twice.
Currently on view at Cherry and Martin is a small selection of works by Alan Shields, who I wrote about previously in the update to my review of Paula Cooper Gallery, in New York. To recap, he is a painter from the 60s and 70s who experimented with fabrics and techniques from the realms of crafts. I discovered a new side of his work here--some concrete poems, where he took words from ads or a newspaper, repeated them and mixed them up, and typed them out on a typewriter. It was interesting to know he did that but I prefer his paintings. There was one I really enjoyed at this show, a big rough and dirty canvas with a misshapen grid of splotches, concentrated in color in the center and wetly bulging outward, as if he'd laid out a bunch of watercolor ice cubes on the canvas and let them melt as they will. I don't know how he really made it. I should have asked the people who worked there. They were very nice.
Webster's dictionary defines art as "the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects; also : works so produced." But these days a lot of art isn't about the production of objects, or even the conscious use of skill. It's more about creating an experience for the viewer. (That's what makes it fun to Yelp about!) New York's best museum, the Museum of Modern Art, is built around a history of objects, but fortunately they have the resources to support an outpost in Queens at PS1 where they can showcase performance and sound and other various kinds of experience-oriented art. It's a place for happenings that keep people coming back again and again throughout the year. While PS1 is well known for the summer WarmUp series (and I mostly agree with other reviewers that this used to be a fun party but is now overcrowded--the organizers need to rethink it a bit), there are plenty of other events, including readings and book launches, and they aren't just limited to things of interest to the art world. It seems to me that PS1 is trying to be a hub for contemporary culture, inclusive of music and literature as well as art, and I think they're doing a good job of it. The ambience of the old school building gives it all a sense of humility. There can be some esoteric stuff here, but it's all in the spirit of learning and discovery.
There tends to be a broad variety of art up at any given time--plenty of objects to anchor the events. Some recent stand-outs for me were Darren Bader's series of rooms with living animals and vegetables, with a pair of burritos basking in the sun at the end, and Janet Cardiff's motet playing from forty speakers. The latter piece was gorgeous and moving and it always had a big audience of people sitting on the benches and walking slowly in circles, listening carefully. It stayed up for so long that I thought PS1 might make it a permanent installation, like James Turrell's skylight. Alas, it had to come down, but other good things will come in its place.
A final note about the café: The reviews talking about how bad it is are obsolete. In 2012 the M.Wells diner took it over and now the food is amazing. It's not cheap, but it's a decent value, unlike the standard museum café (such as PS1's old one) that charge ridiculous prices for mediocre-to-poor-quality fare.
I had never heard of this gallery before but several people told me that the Albert York show there was a must-see and so I went to check it out. I hardly even ever go to galleries on the Upper East Side but maybe I should do it more because being situated in townhouses they tend to have a very relaxed, homie vibe, that the big boxes in Chelsea lack. This is especially true at Davis & Langdale where the floors are a dark and uneven old parquet, and when you go to the basement to see the second half of the exhibition there's a door open into the workshop, revealing a wall hung with frames--the heart of the operation, exposed! When I was there a little boy was drawing in his sketchbook, and the elderly people who run the gallery were walking around the space and talking about the show ("These paintings are hung low, aren't they?" "It's a little late for that") and even though they weren't related I felt as if I'd walked in on a family gathering. As for the exhibition the paintings were incredibly delicious. Albert York used very forceful physical brushstrokes to make simple, fresh, compositions and there's a satisfying tension to how it all comes together... you can see how the paint was applied and it looks like the painter added paint from the outside as the image itself emerged from within--from within the paint or the surface or the painter's imagination (which is organically fused with the surface), I don't know, but it's amazing. Amazing! For example, there's one landscape with a long brown snake slithering along the bottom. It's just a green space with some ordinary deciduous trees, not a jungle where you would expect to see a huge snake, and yet there the snake is, its sinewy curves looking right at home in their natural habitat of S-curve brushstrokes. In another painting a cartoonish, scribbled-in alligator grins out at you from under a patch of bushes. I can't remember the last time I felt really excited about a still life with flowers but in York's floral paintings each petal is every bit as surprising as an alligator or a snake. Unfortunately this show will be closing soon but I plan to follow up and see what this gallery is showing in the future.
Soak or stroke? Stroke or soak? This is the question that continuously, but pleasurably, bedeviled me as I viewed the exhibition of paintings by Matt Connors at Canada gallery. Many of them had thick stripes that looked like the trail of a broad brush drawn briefly along the surface of the canvas but on closer inspection they revealed no trace of brushhair or the direct application of a hand, instead having a wet look suggesting that the canvas had been dipped in wet paint so as to leave a stain. But in some the approximation of a brushstroke shape was so close I could almost see the ahirs tingling at the pigment's edges like hairs on an excited neck! Here and there I would see drips lefts by a splash yet they were so rich and saturated I imagined the paint falling on the canvas in slo-mo like in a commercial for absorbent paper towels. In my favorite painting of the lot the strange soak/stroke stripes--in soft shades of the primaries, red, yellow and blue--danced in a configuration that was architectural but also like a quilt, somewhere between a map's legend and patchwork. Connors' paintings more than any others I've seen lately remind me of mid-century abstraction and its jazzy play of paint on the surface, and yet it's not like the old expressionism at all because it doesn't have that aggressive approach to the plane, instead there's a tender treatment of the canvas saying that the painting isn't just a surface, it's a depth, and I felt my eyes sinking into it, drowning in love for these paintings.
Midtown never ceases to amaze me. I tend to avoid it but when I do go there I always come across some weird surprise. Granted, this time it wasn't such a surprise because it was what I was looking for--but surprising nonetheless. In a nondescript building on Madison Ave., on the fourth floor (up a very large stairwell that could only have been built before WWII, and had the wooden bannisters to match, but also some hideous burgundy carpeting from the 70s) is a small art gallery called Front Desk Apparatus, which has apparently been there since 2006, though I'd never heard of it until recently, when it had an exhibition of work by Carissa Rodriguez that I wanted to see.
The works were all small things or small gestures made in the space of the gallery, like a set of four slender fluorescent bulbs installed in a square around an empty light fixture. A rack of post cards featured (among other cards) photos of the works on display in other places. One shelf had a few unevenly shaped ceramic cylinders, the kind of thing you'd make in seventh-grade art class when you're supposed to produce a mug, but they were studded with rows of razor blades. So it's humble and threatening at once. One was upside down (or right-side up, if it's a cup), so you could see it was hollow. I gently tilted another one just to see if it was light as I expected, and it was, so it was surely hollow too. The way the shelf was set up made--the one glimpse into the unglazed belly of the ceramics, and the prickly garden of razors that were just barely planted into the glaze of the clay on the outside--really made me curious about the inside and the outside of the things, and left me with a sense that boundaries between the surface and interior aren't necessarily where I'd think they would be.
Art installed in a gallery office can be an awkward situation, and usually I just won't bother going up for a close look unless I know someone who is working there. Otherwise it's like you're intruding in their personal space and interrupting their work. But at Front Desk Apparatus I glimpsed a big print of a tongue on the office's back wall and decided to venture in for a look. I was glad I did. After passing the partition that blocked off the work area on my way toward the print I discovered that the guy working there was really hot (but not in an intimidating way) and he was happy to answer my questions and offer more information about the work. The print was a big photo of the artist's tongue, and she'd had her dermatologist write on it in a marker about the various health problems that aspects of the tongue indicated--the raw white and red spots that showed she'd been eating poorly, etc. What really blew my mind was the note that these scalloped ridges around the tongue's edge indicate problems with the spleen. This lump of flesh in the gateway to the inside of our bodies is relatively far away from the internal organs of the gut yet it is totally connected to them and the shape of it changes dependent on their condition. Bodies are wild.
This was the second elite event I've been to and I had a good time getting to know more members of the community. And I live in Jackson heights so it was really convenient for me! To be honest, I don't think that Delhi Heights has the tastiest Indian cuisine in the neighborhood. But that's not to say I or the other yelpers I talked to didn't enjoy it. Everyone ate up and had a great time. And that's what I love about the Yelp Elite--it's not about being a foodie, a snob, or a picky eater, as the word "elite" might suggest in other contexts. It's about positive attitude and cleanign your plate and going back for more! That's what I did.
I'm looking at the other reviews for Sculpture Center and thinking, "Wow! What a great bunch of thoughtful, well-written reviews!" It just goes to show that Sculpture Center is a real magnet for intellectual types. It does exciting things that the bigger institutions in the city can't risk and as such it performs an important function in the New York art world. I don't have much to add to what's already been said here, but I wanted to give Sculpture Center some stars!
My parents are not big art lovers but they have a poster on their mantle that reproduces a painting of a fisherman on a beach, and the poster has a weird finish on it that imitates the surface texture of brushstrokes. They become visible when the light catches them, and their direction and length have nothing to do with the image underneath it. It is supposed to make the poster look fancier or more expensive but if you're paying attention it's just weird and fake.
You will not find anything like this poster at Metro Pictures but nevertheless I couldn't help thinking about when I saw Cindy Sherman's exhibition here. The backgrounds in the photos are dramatic landscapes, with forests, mountains, and volcanoes, and they have been treated to have a feathered, brushy look that reminded me of my parents' poster. Cindy Sherman stands in the foreground of each image wearing fancy dresses that have elaborate textures of their own, but they are photographed normally (I mean, the quality of the photography is obviously very high but the dresses don't look like they have been altered). The way the dresses look against the backgrounds is out of control! I loved it!
In the Cindy Sherman retrospective that was at MoMA this spring you could see how she has used digital retouching to put herself in the frame of a single photograph multiple times. But the settings are normal--expensive houses, parties, and so on. The relationship between the figures and the background makes sense in those pictures. In the new ones it doesn't make sense and that is why it's so exciting. I was really happy about this new direction in the artist's work.
The inside of Metro Pictures is shaped like a horseshoe and visiting the gallery can feel like going to a haunted house or other amusement-park ride: go in one end, follow the path, look at the stuff, go out the other end. When a show is so-so this can make it seem even more trivial than it actually is. But Cindy Sherman's new work was so good that I didn't even think about on that particular visit. I may have felt a little dizzy--but it wasn't from walking in circles!
Sometimes I think that putting a group of paintings of the same size at the same height on a gallery's wall is a boring way to hang an exhibition. But shows like Charline von Heyl's are a good reminder that this is only the case when the art is boring! (and complicated installation techniques are often only compensating for the art.) She is my favorite living painter and this new work at Petzel Gallery is truly remarkable, with gaunt-yet-bold palettes--pink, gray, pale green in one, black, yellow and purple in another and so on--and the hints of figuration and patterning that always invite some kind of identification or familiarity but never satisfy it, because it stays on the hint level. What I really love about von Heyl's paintings is that when you stand back and observe them they look so complex and layered, with otherworldly depth and aura, but if you look close up you can see there's nothing particularly mystifying or ghostly about the way she paints. The brushstrokes are evident, there's nothing that hides her hand. You can see the roughness, dare I say clumsiness, of the painting's application, and the marks of the palette knife where she cuts the paint into shapes, where applicable. It's just something about the way she combines all the elements to produce an organic whole that is breathtakingly brilliant. The one thing technique-wise that remained a mystery to me was the scratchmarks on one painting; the checklist said there was charcoal among the meida so I asked the guy at the desk if the artist had scratched into the surface of the dried painting with a knife or something, or if that was just what the charcoal looked like when it was drawn on. He didn't know, so he went to ask the director, but the director was in a meeting. He said I could email him with the question and he'd get back to me, which was very nice of him, but I doubt I will. It's not that important anyway.. just curious!
I'm going to pretend I didn't see the Allan McCollum exhibition in the small gallery--Allan McCollum is always a snoozefest, this show even moreso than usual, which I didn't think was possible--and the Charline von Heyl show is so excellent, I don't want to bring this review down.
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