Monday, April 30, 2012

The beauty of glass, broken and otherwise.

Those clever curators at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) are at it again, focusing their Art-world eye on Art made from unusual mediums.  Remember in 2009 when MAD dazzled us with paper works. In 2010 it was works made from materials produced by living organisms. Just recently, I wrote about the museum's exhibit dedicated to dust and dirt which is still on view.  Now, MAD has opened a new exhibit with works made from glass.

Glasstress New York: New Art from the Venice Biennales showcases work created by the glass magicians of Murano at the studio of Adriano Berengo.  Berengo engaged artists, architects, and designers from around the world to imagine works in glass which were then realized by his studio. The resulting objects were originally shown at the 2009 and 2011 Venice Biennales.

Now they've traveled to New York, which in itself is a nerve wracking concept.  I'm fascinated with the way art travels the world, largely because people tend to be hush hush about the subject. No good can come of letting people know plans for moving some of the world's most valuable objects.  But in this case, my intrigue is even greater. I can't imagine how some of these works of art made it from Italy to the USA without being destroyed.  That tension only heightened the pleasure this show delivers.

The centerpiece of the show is a stunning sculpture titled Corona (2011, Murano Glass Chandelier and stuffed crows) imagined by artist Javier Perez.  There's something romantic about this piece. Or maybe it's Gothic. Whatever it is, I like it.

Other works in the show spoke with a much softer voice but delivered just as much emotion.  Take two works that acted as miniature dioramas of some of New York's most spectacular large art works installed over the past few years.  You may recall last summer when Jaume Plensa installed his monumental sculpture Echo in Madison Square park. Here Plensa presents an even dreamier, more soothing vision that if I had to guess is based on the same person as last year's work. Cristina's Frozen Dreams (2010, glass) plays tricks with your mind. It made my eyes feel like digital cameras unable to find focus.

It was in 2010 that Doug and Mike Starn built their monument Big Bambu: You Can't, You Won't, and You Don't Stop on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Their piece at MAD, Untitled (2011, acid etched glass) is impossibly fragile as it evokes the ethereal structure that grew atop the MET.

You can also have your own mini Vic Muniz retrospective at MAD. Upstairs as part of the dust and dirt exhibit you'll find several large, intriguing photographs from the artist.  In Glasstress, Muniz attempts to stop time with a brainteaser of a work that has the viewer asking, "How did they do that?"  Untitled (2010, glass, brick, wood, and steel) is a giant hourglass in which time has frozen and turned to stone.

Several works are amazing for their incomprehensible craftsmanship. Bestiarium: Maki (2011, glass and metal), the strange creature from the mind of Marta Klownowska looks simultaneously cuddly cute and dangerously sinister.

Beauty and danger also collide in Luke Jerram's spectacular glass models of viruses like Round Swine Flu (2009, glass).

In Imaginary Architectures (2011, glass) El Ultimo Greco ponders a future so crystal clean and pure it's surely unattainable.

I'll end with a piece so fragile it made me nervous just getting close.  All I could imagine was accidentally dropping my camera and hearing the crash as the sculpture shattered. The piece is Michael Joo's Expanded Access (2011, mirrored borosilicate glass). 

This is a spectacular show that  inspired audible ooohs and aaaahs from me and other museum goers. It's open through June 10, 2012.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Of wolves, angels, and radiant babies.

If you want to relive the vibe of the late 70s and early 80s head on down to the Brooklyn Museum of Art for an exhibit that is one of the better retrospectives I've seen.  Keith Haring: 1978 - 1982 is the first major exhibition to focus on the artist's early career, from the time he moved to New York City through the time when he started his studio career and began making political art on the streets.

The exhibit has impact the minute you step into the entryway where you're greeted by Untitled (1982, sumi ink on paper) as shown in the inset photo.  There was also a small row of a dozen or more Polaroid self portraits of the artist all taken during the late 70s and early 80s and tracking Haring's changing styles. I've always said that Polaroids are magical. And in this case they were more magical than usual.  If he were alive, Keith Haring would be just a few years older than I am. And these photographs inspired a flood of memories from those years of young fun.  That feeling of joy and youth set a perfect tone for the rest of the exhibit.

I loved the portions of the exhibit that helped me better understand Haring's methodology which turns out to be surprisingly complex.  For example, early in his career he documented a set of geometric forms that could be assembled in various combinations to create patterns. Here is Haring's Alphabet presented in red gouache.

Later in the show you learn that Haring relentlessly practiced his drawing so that he could execute images effortlessly, as if muscle memory would kick in and he could paint with the finesse of a dancer.  That might sound impossible.  Until you see the videos included in the exhibit which will make anyone a believer.  Here is a still from Painting Myself into a Corner (1979, video) which provides an amazing look at Haring's talent.

Keith Haring's work undertakes a range of human conditions. Which means his work sometimes feels innocent and charming and other times raunchy and invasive.  Manhattan Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks (1978, graphite on paper) is an example where those ideas collide.  The humor of these drawings makes them almost sweet. The subject matter (penises in various cityscapes) makes them a little wicked with a big dose of humor.

One of the things this exhibit does best is present the subway drawings that Haring created in the 80s.  I can't believe that so many of these ephemeral works survive.  And there are a whole slew of them in this show. Intrusive "graffiti" art seems like it's been around forever.  But it hasn't. Haring was a pioneer in bringing art to the people.  His chalk drawings and black subway papers are fantastic, speaking with a brilliant language of radient babies, angular wolves, dolphins, angels, and aliens.  Here are just a few of the examples on view in Brooklyn.

The curators of this exhibit get a hats off for the ingenious ways Haring's work is presented. I loved this wall which features a collection of Haring's hand-made fliers that promote art shows he arranged at places like New York's Mudd Club. These photos show the installation view as well as examples of the fliers.

I'm ending with a discussion of my favorite work in the show; Matrix (1983, sumi ink on paper) is a dizzying work that can requires plenty of museum time. This is one time when I wouldn't have minded having a Keith Haring expert around. I wanted to know more about the piece. The ins and outs of its creation. Do the symbols and shapes have meanings? Does it tell a story? But even without the additional information, the is one work of art that delivers a big giant punch of emotional energy.

Considering that Haring died so young, it's not surprising that this show sparkles with youthful exuberance and sexual energy. What is a surprise is how powerful these images are and how little they've aged, still delivering impact and emotion at every turn.  It's also amazing how much influence Haring has had on visual languages.  After seeing this exhibit, I saw Haring's influence everywhere as I wandered New York.

It's not often that I just don't want to leave a museum exhibit. But I fell a little bit in love with Keith Haring thanks to the insights and images this show provided. I wanted to linger a little longer.

Pop Art from New York City to Salt Lake City.

If you want to feel really hip, spend an evening hanging out with a bunch of emerging artists in New York's East Village.  I recently did just that and it was fun. I couldn't help but think about art-historical moments like the shows Keith Haring staged at the Mudd Club or the artists who participated in "Pictures" at Artist's Space in 1977. Here's the big surprise, this just wasn't a show featuring emerging New York artists; there were not one, but two artists who live and work in Salt Lake City, Utah. The exhibit is titled POW: Pop Now and was curated by Sean Noyce, a native of the Salt Lake City area who now lives and works as an artist and curator in Brooklyn. Here is a photo of two SLC artists Felix Flores (right) and Dan Christofferson (center) with curator Noyce.

But before we look at the work of these two Utahans, let's talk about some of the other art I liked. Dafna Steinberg hales from Washington, DC and offered a delightful series of collage works with in-your-face attitude and a variety of references that merged Pop with the world we live in to today.  Her work, Little Monster II (2011, collage), also continues one of my favorite art themes; lobsters in art.

The large paintings by Jose Arenas were lovely and sinister at the same time.  And while I saw pop references, I also saw a lot of surrealist ideas presented in Tempo Completo (2011, oil on canvas).

The works that best offered a new take on Pop Art were the fiber works by Katya Usvitsky.  Like much of pop art, Katya reminds us that the immediate world around us deserves more attention than we tend to give it.  At this show it started with a pair of knitted eyeglass frames that were one of the stars of the evening. It continued with her life-size knitted bicycle that invaded the space and forced interaction with the audience. One women was compelled to park her bike in front of the work.  But my favorite work from Katya was a grouping of Poop (2011, hand-knit wool and fiber fil). This took Pop and infused it with themes that have invaded the art world right now; namely what it really means to be alive. It's like Claes Oldenburg collided with Tim Hawkinson.

The big surprise of this show may be how well the artists from Salt Lake City showed next to artists from from New York and other major metropolitan areas.  Both SLC artists had some of the most interesting works in the show.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I live with Felix Flores and I was actually around during the production of some of these portraits.  But I still think these images hold up well in a contemporary art context. In a world obsessed with personal identity, these images challenge ideas of reality, particularly when it comes to concepts of ethnicity. What the Curators of POW: Pop Now may not know is that the image of Felix in a sombrero and fake mustache was created to promote diversity in the workplace. After just minutes of being posted it was deemed too controversial and removed. Here's a picture with Felix and all of his work from the show.

My favorite work from the show was that of Salt Lake City artist Dan Christofferson. There's a lot going on with this Art, particularly when you consider how clean and simple the works are.  This work does what the best art does. It takes iconic themes and twists them into new iconic ideas. Christofferson obviously has a Mormon history. I love how he merges those ideas with Christian imagery that has been around for centuries. I see it as a warning to modern religions to not make the same mistakes that so many Western religions have made. Here's a great example, Our Lady of Moderation (2011, die-cut foil, fabricated hatchets, and installation on painted panel).

Even better are some of Christofferson's candy-colored works featuring tools and symbols. I believe that objects matter in art and these are beautifully crafted objects.  Here is Hatchets (2011, die-cut foil and fabricated hatchets on painted panel).

My trips to New York always include visits to the big museums, blockbuster exhibits, and chicest galleries.  This show taught me that maybe I should be paying more attention to galleries that focus on emerging artists. Because shows like this will force me to make judgements about Art based on what I really believe, not what the Art establishment thinks I should believe.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Nostalgia is alive and well in Shanghai.

The last stop on my recent business trip found me in Shanghai, China. For my global museum adventure, I chose to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) Shanghai. It was an unusually sunny and warm day so I chose to walk the 45 minutes to the museum.  And the locals were out in force at beautiful People's Park, the home of MoCA.

Before I get to the art, I have one little side track.  I was amazed at how Western the City of Shanghai is. There are times when I wouldn't have been able to identify the city as Chinese other than the fact that I knew I was in China. One humorous demonstration of the fact are the street signs found throughout the park. They directed me to Chinese sounding locations like Nanjing Road and Nishiyama Falls. They also helped me find MoCA or a particular park entrance. And of course, they told me how to get to the nearest Starbucks.

MoCA is a smallish museum but a beautiful space to see art. And the current exhibit was interesting in many ways.  I've often talked about how a city will seem to conspire to demonstrate a single artistic idea or theme through multiple exhibits, at multiple museums.  I don't think this is intentional. It may just be me reading something that isn't there into the art.  Or it may just be a coincidence as certain themes invade the collective psyche of the art world.

This time, I had a similar experience but on a global scale. Themes of memories and dreams infused my museum adventures in Toronto and Berlin. And MoCA Shanghai wasn't even subtle about its intention of discussing dreams and memories with an exhibit titled Nostalgia curated by Kim Sunhee.

This exhibit was swarming with artists' takes on memories of the past; some writ large with nightmarish results like Shell of Cicada (2008, installation) by Qiu Anxiong

Won Seoungwon's photos that relive memories of her childhood from age seven are weirdly emotional.  Photos may be the wrong term.  Created long before digital manipulation allowed for such convincing juxtaposition of imagery, these works combine photographic elements to create pictures that feel like distant memories.  Here are two prints from her series My Age of Seven: A Strange Playground and The Secret of Christmas Tree (both 1978, c-print)

In a work that can only be described as Cindy-Shermanesque, Sawada Tomoko explores ideas of identity and how we perceive ourselves through the eyes of the world and those around us.  This is an installation view and details of OMIAI♥ (2001, c-type print)

My favorite works in the show were large paintings by Korean artist Song Hyun-Sook. The works were surprisingly photo realistic in the way that a Gerhard Richter painting can feel strangely real. They evoke memories that are authentic to an Asian sensibility and offered a tranquility that I found comforting. The surprise of these paintings is the beautiful simplicity of Song's technique. In fact, to ensure the viewer fully understands what the artist is doing, each painting is titled with the exact number of brushstrokes required to create the image. I would love to watch one of these paintings being created. Are there multiple studies required to make such recognizable images with so few elements? Or does Song just see the image and commit it to canvas with large and sweeping strokes.  This is art you could live with for a very long time. Here are three of her paintings:  16 Brushstrokes, 9 Brushstrokes, and 7 Brushstrokes over 36 Brushstrokes (all 2007, tempera on canvas).

Hai Bo presented small photographs in an all white gallery.  The gallery was lit with a single bare bulb. As you viewed the black and white photos of people from the past, it was impossible not to insert yourself directly into the memory in the form of a dreamlike shadow.  This work is titled Friendship (1998, photography).

Before I conclude my global art adventure with Nostalgia at MoCA Shanghai, I offer one bit of museum cleverness.  The bathrooms at MoCA are tiled with ornate patterns.  The result has a Baroque attitude with a distinct modern flair.  However on closer inspection you realize that the pattern is created entirely from words.  And not just any words, these are profanities, slangs, and slurs that would be appropriate for the seediest of bathroom walls.  It might be easy to assume that this is just another bad "Chinese to English" translation.  But I'd be willing to bet that the artist was brilliantly aware of what he or she was doing. The result is pure silly museum fun. Click on the second photo to enlarge it and see more of what the pattern is really saying.