The James Gallery: The House of Dust

CUNY’s James Gallery at The Center for the Humanities ushers in the fall semester with an exhibition based on Alison Knowles’s 1967 conceptual work The House of Dust. The show seeks to encompass the many limbed and generative nature of Knowles’s artwork by showing how it continues to stimulate other artists to explore its themes of translation, permutation, intentionality and inclusivity, bringing to light the work’s enduring relevance.

The House of Dust is a computer generated poem written in the programming language FORTRAN, which generates verses by randomly combining elements from four lists pre-determined by Knowles: each verse consists of four components including, and always beginning with, “a house of,” followed by a location, then a material, and finally a category of inhabitants. The poem repeats after 400 verses. In 1969, based on one of the verses, “A HOUSE OF PLASTIC/ IN A METROPOLIS/ USING NATURAL LIGHT/ INHABITED BY PEOPLE FROM ALL WALKS OF LIFE” Knowles constructed an actual “house” in Chelsea. The house was moved to Burbank, California when she took a teaching position at CalArts in 1970. Knowles also orchestrated several other projects using computer programs, involving students and community members with her house as the nexus.

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The Limits of “No Limits”

Hommage à Chu Yun—05.05.55 (Homage to Chu Yun—05.05.55) 1955 Oil on canvas 76 3⁄4 × 51 1⁄8 in. (195 × 130 cm) Private collection, Switzerland ©Zao Wou-Ki ProLitteris, Zurich. Photography by Dennis Bouchard
Hommage à Chu Yun—05.05.55 (Homage to Chu Yun—05.05.55)
1955
Oil on canvas
76 3⁄4 × 51 1⁄8 in. (195 × 130 cm)
Private collection, Switzerland
©Zao Wou-Ki ProLitteris, Zurich. Photography by Dennis Bouchard

At the entrance of the exhibition floats Zao Wou-ki’s painting Hommage à Chu Yun—05.05.55 (1955), a large canvas cloaked in fluid patches of startlingly limpid aquamarine, rust, and warm cream. The abstract work appears to conceal something underwater. Perhaps it is the ancient Chinese poet of the title, who, after being exiled, drowned himself in the Miluo River. The concentration of reddish color in the center hints at an object, yet the iridescent ripples make it difficult to identify.

No Limits: Zao Wou-ki, currently on view at the Asia Society Museum, is the artist’s first-ever retrospective in the U.S. Zao (1921-2013) is perhaps best known as the Chinese painter who moved to Paris after World War II, where he worked alongside the French Informel painters, while also maintaining a dialogue with the Abstract Expressionists in New York. Zao was not singular in his global career: many post-war painters enthusiastically communicated with an international network of artists and traveled around the world. The exhibition curators Dr. Melissa Walt, Dr. Ankeney Weitz, and Michelle Yun characterize modern abstract painting as defined by this “dynamic cross-cultural circulation of ideas and images.”

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Alma Thomas: In Space, In Time

In lock step with a series of cross-country exhibitions showcasing the marginalized work of African American abstract painters (Sam Gilliam at David Kordansky and Norman Lewis at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, to name two) The Studio Museum in Harlem has mounted a much needed, if small, monographic show titled, simply, Alma Thomas (on view July 14 – October 30, 2016). Alongside urgent contemporary debates spotlit by Black Lives Matter, such a recasting of (art) history challenges the hermeticism of academic discourse, art magazine glosses, and white-walled galleries; indeed, a New York Times feature story brought the trend to the attention of a broader public late last year. Timely, even-keeled, and sensitive without descending into hagiography, Alma Thomas presents the paintings of an artist who has emerged as a latter-day star, with her tangerine and carmine Mars Dust featured alongside Elizabeth Murray and Cy Twombly in the Whitney Museum’s inaugural downtown exhibition, and with a sunny mid-1960s circle painting on view in the White House dining room. As such, she exemplifies the latent power of repressed or silenced narratives.

Installation view of Alma Thomas at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Photograph by the author.
Installation view of Alma Thomas at The Studio Museum in Harlem. All photographs by the author.
Installation View 2
Installation view of Alma Thomas at The Studio Museum in Harlem.

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Performing Intimacy: Lee Mingwei’s Sonic Blossom at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A soprano’s voice echoes through the museum’s quiet halls. Inside the Metropolitan’s main gallery for contemporary art, the singer stands before a large, rapt audience but performs only for one. Moments earlier, she approached an unsuspecting viewer with an offer of the “gift of song”; now accepted, the soprano delivers a moving rendition of a Franz Schubert lied—a short operatic solo derived from German poetry of the late 18th and early 19th centuries—to the chosen visitor seated several yards away. In deference to the intimacy of the performance, onlookers quietly move towards the periphery of the gallery. The visitor, seemingly lost in the soprano’s stirring song, begins to cry. After three brief minutes the lied ends and the palpable bond between performer and visitor is broken. What remains, however, is the memory of an experience that transcended mere recital or performance art to strive for something deeper and more consequential: a meaningful, if fleeting, moment of communion between strangers.

Sonic Blossom performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ® Julia Cervantes for The New York Times, 2015
Sonic Blossom performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ® Julia Cervantes for The New York Times, 2015

Organized through the Metropolitan Museum’s Concerts and Lecture series, this brief exchange was one of many—each incorporating new vocalists, audiences and one of five different lieder—enacted over the course of ten days in November 2015 as part of Lee Mingwei’s performance art piece Sonic Blossom. The work has been presented several times before, including at museums in Korea, Japan, China, Singapore and, most recently, in the United States at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Yet it strikes a particular cord in New York, a city known for its skepticism, impatience and toughness. New Yorkers have learned from experience to be wary of those approaching them wearing odd clothing with promises of ‘gifts’. Staged elsewhere in Manhattan, say in a local park or subway terminal, the performer would have been met with considerable distrust. But in the cultural setting of the Metropolitan, the only museum in the city to house both a fine art and musical instrument collection, visitors are primed for just this kind of unusual artistic behavior.

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Some Thoughts After Attending the Art on Paper Fair

What is known as “Armory Week” took place early March in New York. The roughly seven-day-long art extravaganza takes its name from the 1913 Armory Show—America’s first large-scale exhibition of modern art, which took place in the Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue. Every year, Armory Week encompasses numerous art fairs and events across the city, providing excellent opportunities to not only look at art and meet artists and art world professionals, but also to practice observing the art market and predicting forms it could take in the foreseeable future. On March 6, I attended the Art on Paper Fair. As many will likely admit, time at art shows goes by quickly and is never quite enough. Thus, I focused my visit on new, alternative uses of the paper medium, observing the gamut displayed, speaking with artists and dealers, and gauging the visitors’ reactions.

Hideho Tanaka, Vanishing and Emerging Wall, 2009, paper, 87 x 102 x 11 in, browngrotta gallery, photo by author.
Hideho Tanaka, Vanishing and Emerging Wall, 2009, paper, 87 x 102 x 11 in, browngrotta gallery, photo by author.

One thing that became noticeable early on, while walking around the space, was the number of conversations concerning the apparent two-dimensionality of most works exhibited at the fair. Such observations were offered with a tone of disappointment, as though the future of paper, as presented here, had circled back on itself and was, once again, non-sculptural and flat. Despite the public’s generalizations about the prevalence of age-old applications of pencil, ink and paint, this year’s fair was actually marked with works that pushed far beyond tradition.

There were numerous instances of artworks that toyed with both two and three-dimensionality. A fascinating example was found in the offerings of Canadian artist and author Cybèle Young, represented by Forum Gallery, whose works are sculptures trapped in a frame. Elsewhere, Browngrotta gallery exhibited only non-flat works. Of particular note was “Vanishing and Emerging Wall,” 2009, a round textile by Japanese artist Hideho Tanaka woven out of squares of paper, painted with stripes and hung in such a way as to create vertical folds. Similarly, Owen James Gallery exhibited small paper pulp sculptures by Adam Frezza and Terri Chiao. The sculptures’ whimsical colors, glitter, and coral-like structure created a playful atmosphere that made them alluring to fair-visitors of all ages. Overall, encountering works that experimented with unique applications of the paper medium made the whole visit far more lively than one could typically expect of these fairs—like a treasure hunt of art on paper.

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When the Signal Becomes the Noise

To get to the Whitney’s 8th floor exhibit Laura Poitras: Astro Noise, I stood in line for about twenty minutes, taking note in the museum’s glass exterior of my reflection and those of other visitors waiting in line to see the artist’s first solo museum exhibition. I thought about Poitras’s past documentaries, including the Oscar-winning CITIZENFOUR, and wondered how her exhibition would reflect on her chief topic – the United States in the post-9/11 era – in ways that her documentaries could not. Watching my reflection slowly inch forward proved to be a fortuitous entrance to the immersive exhibit, which, according to the program, “asks viewers to actively consider their position and responsibility in the ‘war on terror.’” Indeed, Astro Noise implicates and arranges viewers in “immersive media environments” that compel active looking and embodied contemplation.

I stepped out of the elevators and into the first “immersive media environment” (the program’s reinvention of the word “room”). The space is split in half by a single screen, onto both sides of which are projected videos that respond to 9/11. Titled O’Say Can You See (2001/2016), this two-channel digital video bifurcates the room, a setup that divides viewers into opposing groups that face each other as they face the central screen, as if an audience reflected in a mirror. Playing on side A of the screen are slowed images of the faces of New Yorkers as they look upon the remains of Ground Zero days after the attacks. Here viewers confront, and perhaps even remember firsthand, the emotions of that terrorist event: disbelief, shock, fear. These same feeling could be registered on the faces of viewers looking at the other side of the screen, where uncovered U.S. military interrogation videos of two prisoners in Afghanistan, Said Boujaadia and Salim Hamdam, represent the Bush Administration’s response to the attacks.

View from “second” side of O’Say Can You See.  Photography: Connor Hamm
View from “second” side of O’Say Can You See. Photography: Connor Hamm

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Saltz Does the Armory

Taking a deep breath as I stepped through the entrance doors to the Armory Show, I braced myself for the inevitable feeling of art overload I was about to experience; for me, each booth merges with the next, resulting in a shopping mall vibe that seems anathema to a productive viewing experience. But, let’s face it, this is exactly what an art fair should be, right?

According to Jerry Saltz, a self-proclaimed lover of all things art-related, art fairs aren’t about the art at all. They’re about the people. So he claimed in a talk entitled “LIKE, SWIPE AND DOUBLE TAP: Visual Criticism in the Digital Age,” moderated by Benjamin Genocchio, Executive Director of the Armory Show. Leave it to Saltz, known for never pulling his punches, to alleviate some of the commercial art world ridiculousness … or so I thought. The following is a response to one of the most ludicrous ‘talks’ I’ve attended in a long while. (Disclaimer: Devoted Saltz fans should stop reading now, if only to save themselves the indignation for more important battles, like social media censorship.)

When asked to describe my feelings about art fairs I usually reply with general disdain, laced with stronger feelings of actual disgust. I know many art historians, perched on our intellectual high horses, feel the same way about the overt commodification of art. Such fairs seem to suggest that artworks are best marketed as swank luxury goods or smart financial investments but not cultural treasures. Is this a just assessment? Probably not, given that we are all, even those members of the hallowed academy, proponents of the art market, whether we intend it or not. My morality may also be somewhat compromised for even attending the fair (though I did so on a free day pass; heaven forbid actually paying to go!).

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Painting, Blind

Tucked amidst a spate of current shows featuring work in a particular vein of modernist painting—Stella, Olitski, Noland—Paul Barlow’s paintings, primarily of colorful frames, might seem little more than over-literal riffs on the medium’s ontology: canvas, stretcher bars, paint. And they are, undeniably, all those things, but close scrutiny reveals something else besides.

Linne Urbye, Untitled (1), Untitled (4), and Untitled (12), all 2015, Flashe (vinyl) and oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches. All photographs by the author.
Linne Urbye, Untitled (1), Untitled (4), and Untitled (12), all 2015, Flashe (vinyl) and oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches. All photographs by the author.

Blind Spots (on view January 14 – February 20, 2016) at Ana Cristea Gallery is a thirteen-work show of modestly-sized canvases by two painters: British artist Barlow and Norwegian artist Linne Urbye, both of whom are exhibiting in the United States for the first time. Urbye covers her canvases with repeating, often empty, abstract forms—chevrons, overlapping arcs, fleurs-de-lis, quarter-moons—in cool blues, greys, and whites. Often, her paint application discloses a prior composition below, laying bare the material’s twin function as both veil and window while simultaneously marking the support as a palimpsest of gestural maneuvers. These operations entail a certain resistance of vision on the part of the viewer, who must double down to visually excavate the logic of the marks beneath the uppermost layer. Through the interlocking arches, filled in to varying degrees in Untitled (12) (2015) we catch a glimpse of process, and wonder if we are seeing the work in an unfinished state. This transports the viewer from the space of the gallery to the space of the studio, a shift in register from the optics of viewing to the haptics of making. It is Barlow, however, who seizes most productively on the exhibition’s titular blindness as an operative term. This review, then, focuses primarily on his work.

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Walid Raad Curates Art and History at MoMA

In the first minutes of Walid Raad’s Walkthrough, a performance given throughout the run of his survey show at MoMA, the artist appears approachably nervous. Dressed down in jeans, a black t-shirt and baseball hat, he prefaces his hour-long talk by confessing that he suffers from panic attacks that often lead him to pace back and forth while speaking. Vulnerability suggests sincerity, and the works in this show—full of facts and figures about topical political and cultural issues—support the viewer’s first impression of earnestness. Nearby, an elaborate, colorful tableau visualizing years of research into the history of art in the “Arab world” uncovers connections between the Artist Pension Trust (ATP), a private enterprise offering financial security in the fickle commercial art world, its parent company MutualArt.com, and Israeli military intelligence. All of this data, part of an ongoing project called Scratching on things I could disavow (2007- ) is verifiable, Raad assures us. Yet he says the links revealed are so expected and banal that they are undeserving of an artwork. Oscillating between researcher and artist, Raad not only blurs distinctions between fact and fiction, but also implies that distilling truth from storytelling is entirely beside the point: the real end is engendering a greater awareness of the means by which history is constructed.

Walid Raad, MoMA, Exhibition view. Photography: Kara Fiedorek
Walid Raad, MoMA, Exhibition view. Photography: Kara Fiedorek

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The Great Hall Exhibition Walead Beshty: Impressions

My interest in inviting Walead Beshty to exhibit at the Institute was rooted in the nature of his work and the questions it raises for the art historical field. Beshty’s commitment to exposing systems, the movement and handling of works of art and the evolving meaning of the art object engenders timely and critical questions that challenge how we interact with, write about, and historicize art.

I also felt strongly about showing an artist whose work offered a contrast to the regality of the Great Hall but still complemented it. The glowing television, cracked glass cubes and clicking printer bring three new forms—along with novel sounds—into the space, contrasting with the Hall’s decorative mirrors, figurative sculptures, and lavish chandeliers. Between their radical transparency and diligent deconstruction, the works become a metaphor for the task of the art historian: dissecting art to offer a new interpretation of what it means.

Walead Beshty, Gret Hall Exhibitions. Photography: Institute of Fine Arts, NYU
Walead Beshty, Great Hall Exhibitions. Photography: Institute of Fine Arts, NYU

When the editors asked Eloise and I to write something about the exhibition, we were hesitant to produce a formal curatorial statement and preferred, instead, to facilitate a dialogue with the various people who have interacted with the works over the past month. As such, we embarked on the somewhat dangerous task of asking our fellow graduate students in art history—and one very special security guard—for their reflections on the show. Each impression was gathered during an informal conversation with the respondent and was impromptu. We wanted immediate reactions rather than formally-composed assessments. Both celebratory and critical, the following is what we heard:

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