Sunday, November 28, 2010

Paul Thek at the Whitney

Paul Thek: Diver, A Retrospective, is the artist’s first U.S. retrospective at the Whitney Museum. It is an effort to bring the underappreciated frontrunner of contemporary art into our country’s awareness. The show, which runs from October 21 until January 9, showcases the many mediums in which Thek worked. Paul Thek (1933-1988) was a sculptor, a painter and an installation artist and the all-encompassing show displays his “meat” pieces, his environments, and drawings.

Brooklyn-born Thek was a force when he entered the New York art scene, creating graphically gory objects that resembled body parts with wax, called “Technological Reliquaries.” These pieces were inspired by a trip to the Capuchin catacombs in Sicily with photographer Peter Hujar in which over 8,000 corpses lined the walls in glass caskets. Bodies, meat and bone, became a way for Thek to communicate his issues with the artworld at large. On seeing the corpses, said Thek, “I felt strangely relieved and free. It delighted me that bodies could be used to decorate a room, like flowers.”

Casts of his own body, amputated arms and legs, are futuristic, ahead of their time. Casts also present as embellished, painted, and imagined bisections. They appear wet and grotesque under clinical Plexiglas, a direct ancestor to Damien Hirst’s installations. These are specimens of life, a thing so rare in 1960s geometric obsession. This was a call to bring attention back to the body and the handmade, as opposed to the silkscreened, distant pop of Andy Warhol and clean, sterilized coldness of Minimalism. His most famous piece in the series, “The Tomb”, is a wax replica of the artist, dead, and is now only available in photographs. His fake death piece, also called “Death of a Hippie” was a possible symbol of the end of the 1960s idealism. The waning of personality was evident and Thek sought to bring about some life albeit through death and transience. In a letter to a friend, Thek wrote of “The Tomb”, "I really don't want to have to do that piece AGAIN! Oh God no! Imagine having to bury yourself over and over." But thankfully, Thek’s work is well documented. A slideshow of his work in the studio by Hujar is a striking complement to the Whitney show, a lovingly detailed look into Thek’s mode of working.

Thek moved to Europe and his installation work was well-received. He used ephemera and garbage to construct environments, never meant to last. It is for that reason that his show has been a bit of a disappointment to Thek’s followers; that his more famous pieces are not present and the ones that are seem a bit cold and contrived. He never intended his pieces to be fodder for museums at least initially. When organizing the Whitney exhibit, curators respectfully opted to re-create Thek’s ideas without attempting to replicate his originals. In fact, Thek’s original exhibitions were to be viewed by candlelight, which the museum could not accommodate. His materials were temporary so the work that is still intact is the only art curators were able to put in the show. He had a change of heart later in life and began to create a more permanent series, mundane objects cast in bronze. These pieces in the show were easy to overlook given the bizarre and fascinating nature of the other work. One installation piece present is titled “Fishman in Excelsis” in which his likeness is pinned under a table which is, in turn, hanging from the ceiling. Many showgoers paused and stared up at this effigy of Thek, so lonely hanging in the air. Like the other installations, death permeates every object, a farewell to the familiar. Another sculpture has Thek’s corpse lying in the supine position, covered in fish. The correlation to Jesus is implicit. Religion plays an interesting role in Thek’s work. A closeted but known homosexual, he had complicated but deep feelings about the Catholic Church. In Europe, it is said, he would visit monasteries between dalliances with men. He went to study with the Carthusians in Vermont but reportedly his health was so bad, he was rejected because they couldn’t care for him. He died three months later.

After returning to the U.S. after nine years, Thek’s reputation was all but forgotten. He suffered from depression and had to turn to other types of general labor to supplement his lifestyle such as janitorial work and bagging groceries. Rage pervaded him, possibly due to drugs or the state of his health, and his anger seemed to have ruined any possible chance of a reemergence. His famous friends such as Susan Sontag and Peter Hujar no longer supported him or his art and he sabotaged his opportunities and other relationships.

He lived a short life, dying of AIDS-related complications at 54 years old. This retrospective is titled “The Diver.” In his sketches and paintings, Thek uses a solitary body to illustrate the very nature of being alive: alone and free in the vast expanse of whatever world we choose to occupy. This show demonstrates Thek’s message of life that although he might be dead (or just pretending to be), the world goes on without us. The artworld turned its back on or lost its memory of Paul Thek when he returned to the states, but his impression is omni-present in the contemporary world. His work is more resonant today than it could ever have been in his time even if the show fell a little short for some. Society turns to artists to show them their culture and Thek may have been too graphic, too visceral for the decades in which he was creating work. He may have been too grim. But he was cataloging his life and his own experience while other artists were escaping the realities of life through Minimalism and perhaps, some might say, safety. Being shunned by your own is another level of hell but New York has given Thek another chance to be accepted.

Friday, November 5, 2010

MOMA 'New Photography 2010'

­ On view at the MOMA is 'New Photography 2010,' an annual series combining work by Alex Prager, Roe Ethridge, Elad Lassry and Amanda Ross-Ho.

Gloss and bright colors pervade the space as do an assortment of subjects, methods and mediums. The exhibit's wide range of subject material includes red-lipsticked women drinking tall boys, a bowl of moldy peaches, and a manipulated 1984 Drew Barrymore movie poster. Strangely enough the variance of subject does not detract from the show but allows for the stimulation of questions surrounding the purpose and methods of photography.

One of Ethridge's photos, which really isn't his photo, is a pixellated runway shot of a model in a traditional Chanel suit taken directly from the New York Times website. Another photo is a scarf transposed with another image of a plate taken directly from Bed, Bath and Beyond's website. These two photos raise the question of authorship as well as what recontextualizing an image does to its meaning.

Lassry's photos are very pretty and colorful, and they all seem to have a lighthearted element. He has photos of shitake mushrooms and green peppers, fresh beets in front of rectangular mirrors and pretty nail polishes placed atop little green pedestals. Some images are layered with patterns or blurred, but all are framed in their dominating hue. This ends up composing a rainbow succession of frames along the wall.

The presence of cinema and fashion photography in Alex Prager's portion of the exhibit is clear. Her photos depict highly made up women in wigs and retro-style clothing. A film showing a red-headed woman in a teal dress frantically running around an apartment building, eventually jumping out of it, gives her work the melodrama the photos beg to convey.

Amanda Ross-Ho's work lacks the hyperbolic color scream of the other artists but instead has a more personal approach. Ross-Ho brings her artistic process into the show by incorporating items from her studio into her pieces. 'Expose for the Shadows, Develop for the Highlights' is a wooden board displaying, among several objects, a triangular drawing instrument, a page from a photography textbook and photos taken by her parents.

Overall, I'd say It's easy to get lost in the eye candy-- the shine, vivacity of colors and variance of subject matter, but the assortment of subject material is worth noting due to the question it raises. In an annual exhibit dedicated to the year's thought and development in photography, the question should be asked: What is the modern photo's subject and what are its limitations?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

New Photography 2010

Photographs from the real world, studio manipulated images and appropriated pictures from pop culture, cinema and fashion, embody the work of this exhibition, New Photography, presented annually at MoMA. Roe Ethridge, Elad Lassry, Alex Prager and Amanda Ross-Ho are the four contemporary photographers highlighted in the 2010 exhibition. Collectively, the thirty-six works on view blur the distinctions between images of all classifications, creating an exhibition in which imagery is intended to move fluidly between editorial photography, film and fine art.

Working in the most editorial way of the four artists, Roe Ethridge creates new images from those already in print. Comme des Garçons Scarf with Glass Plate, 2010, borrows an image of the high-fashion, checked scarf and juxtaposes it with a banal photo of a white dinner plate laid digitally on top. Similarly, unrelated pictures such as a New York Times photo of a model, taken at Chanel’s 2009 runway show, are hung next to a blown-up image of a pumpkin sticker.

Elad Lassry’s work is heavily centered on generic things with no relationship to one another—bottles of nail polish, baguettes, ceramic figures, bell peppers and hats. You also find portraits of the artist’s friends along with a picture of celebrity Goldie Hawn in Laminated Structure (For Her and Him), 2009. These unrelated images are housed similarly however, within brightly colored frames, drawing attention to the vivid hues seen in all of Lassry’s photographs on view.

Alex Prager’s work, influenced strongly by fashion photography and cinema, features women in wigs, considerable amounts of makeup and vintage clothing. The work highlights the exaggerated emotion seen in films such as The Red Shoes from 1948, contrasting with the emotionless images presented by Ethridge and Lassry.

Amanda Ross-Ho’s work is the most distinct of the exhibition. Her images are presented, in many cases, without traditional frames but rather attached to Sheetrock and wood structures. The artist incorporates images taken by her photographer parents alongside found pages from photography textbooks confronting the duality of the craft of photography with its commercial side.

While the technical aspects of the four artists’ work are quite exceptional and seductive in their super-glossy finishes and vibrant hues, the disjointed subjects that permeate throughout the images never seem to be reconciled. It appears to be the artists’ intentions to prompt the viewer to recontextualize the images that we are confronted with everyday in their new mode of presentation, however advertising images seem to still remain as such and film stills appear unfazed by the new context in which they are viewed.

Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen - September 2010 - March 2011 at the Museum of Modern Art

Upon entry to Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen, it seems like just a kitschy and fun design exhibition. It is essentially a design exhibition, but the presentation goes beyond mere form, space, and utility. It encompasses the kitchen on every level, from its uses and physical elements to its meanings and roles within society.

The impetus for this show was the museum’s newly acquired Frankfurt Kitchen, designed in the mid-1920s by Grete Schütte-Lihotzky. Her design was based on contemporary theories about efficiency, hygiene, and workflow. At the turn of the 20th century the western world became preoccupied with progress and technology. Many new materials and innovations were being developed, including those for the domestic arena. Within this environment, society took on the new kitchen with enthusiasm. Visitors to the exhibit see this celebrated in a variety of interesting dishes, containers, utensils, furniture, and appliances. Virgilio Forchiassin’s Mobile Kitchen Unit, an all-in-one, fold-up kitchen, is particularly intriguing.

Alongside the components of design, this exhibition also presents works from practically every other artistic medium. Films from the 1930s-1980s show happy families in black and white reveling in the kitchen's domesticity. Photographers Bruce Davidson, Lucas Samaras and Philip Lorca DiCorcia, take portraits of people in kitchens while Cindy Sherman stages herself in a kitchen, playing cinematic female roles in Untitled Film Stills. William Eggleston’s color photographs present banal, yet compelling views of the insides of a freezer and an oven. Irving Penn’s Frozen Food, textural and vibrant, also has a prosaic effect. A Daniel Spoeri sculpture juts out. Looming above eye level is a chair supporting a plank of wood called Kichka’s Breakfast I. One cannot help but smile at Tom Wesselman’s pop collage, Untitled Still Life #30 or David Shrigley’s To Make Meringue You Must Beat the Egg Whites Until They Look Like This.

The selections mentioned here are only a fraction of the many art forms used to trace the functional and societal roles the kitchen has employed since the early 20th century. Design, photographs, video, sculpture, advertisements, posters, and packaging, illustrate the kitchen’s form and utility as well as the deeper issues regarding the domestic role of women, family life, and consumerism. The mood of the display ranges from mundane to profound with a fair bit of humor mixed in. Overall, it is a delight and if you have the chance to see it, its well worth the trip.

Usable Pasts: Mequitta Ahuja, Lauren Kelly and Valerie Piraino, Artists-in-Residence at The Studio Museum in Harlem, 2009–2010

In Usable Pasts, —a phrase borrowed from early twentieth-century literary critic, Van Wyck Brooks, to charge American writers and artists with the task of creating an American self-consciousness replete with its own national aesthetics— three artists excavate presumed pasts in varied ways before re-contextualizing their findings within their own present. The resulting works (all from 2010) are neither nostalgic nor sentimental, but fraught with these references to days past, establish a sense of both a shared history and an individual self-reflection.

Mequitta Ahuja’s Dream Sequence series is comprised of sparkling, lacquered self-portraits of the artist as a mythical figure carrying serpents, birds’ nests and meteorites. Ahuja terms these portraits as auto-mythography, employing shimmering, modern-day materials discordant with the figural forms reminiscent of those found in ancient art. In depicting herself within this fantastical dream atmosphere, Ahuja carves out a niche somewhere between the past and the present in a composite of fictionalized cave art and contemporary self-portrait.

Lauren Kelley builds elaborate sets in which dolls haltingly enact fictitious episodes in 1970s era African-American culture. The stop-motion, animated “flashbacks” depict inner monologues of nonchalant near-death experiences (Upside), and overheard dialogues of muted, latent discrimination (Prototypical Oppression/Obsession). Drawing from the more distant past, Wild Seed portrays dinosaurs moving in staccato across a garden while a calm, soothing male voice melodically recites phrases in French. The English subtitles provided by the artist do not correspond to the articulated French words. The text, “my lush horizon was rotting,” in conjunction with the simultaneously spoken, “et il fait rouge dans mon coeur” indicates a discrepancy that inconspicuously presents the potential for inaccuracies in a verbal history.

Valerie Piraino uses photographs from her family’s archive to compose minimal arrangements with a historical sensibility. In With Pen in Hand, un-filled wooden picture frames are arranged on a wall, while sideways projections of photographed street scenes, landscapes, and homecomings flash over and between the empty brown rectangles. The rotated images, instead of neatly filling the bordered space of the mounted frames, canvas across the array of cadres, and hauntingly span the wall without regard to any perimeters, highlighting the distortion and inaccuracy of memory and its inability to be orderly and compartmentalized.

Tinged with snippets of years gone by, the works in Usable Pasts appropriate fleeting, fictional memories that convincingly serve to simultaneously accentuate both a shared and singular past, invoking collective remembrances of separately experienced, but visually similar, events.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Farmers and The Helicopters at MoMA's Project Gallery

In MoMA’s Project Gallery, a three channel video by artist Dinh Q. Le explores the Vietnamese War through the affect of the helicopter. The video room is connected to another room which houses a life size helicopter built by Le Van Danh and Tran Quoc Hai, a self taught mechanic. This extension of the show gives the viewer insight to the complexities of the machine. The video begins by panning over forests and rice fields and then unfolds into a collage of Vietnamese voices and the sounds of helicopters flying through the air from clips of Western films. With the three screens ever changing, the anxiety of the helicopter is present, as are the stories of those who have suffered from them, and those who have transformed the helicopter from a vehicle of destruction to one of innovation and progress.

The Vietnamese War, known as the American War in Vietnam, is one regarded with more stigma than perhaps any other in American history. Le’s video demonstrates the disturbances of the war while humanizing its victims, and still feels emotive enough to belong in an art museum. The three channels change frequently, so that the viewer must turn their heads to read the subtitles on the bottom of the speaker’s screen. The strength of this piece is in the contrasting emotions caused by the feeling of watching an action thriller, and watching an actual war.

The generational difference between speakers affords the viewer a more clear vision of how the war, and the machinery used in it has affected Vietnam holistically. Two older women and three men speak about how the helicopter has affected them, some in war time, some on the farm. One of the most powerful moments of the video was when one of the elderly women said “They listen to our stories like they were fairy tales,” after listening to her fearful story while the sound of helicopter propellers blare in the background of her foreign voice, her comment seems sad and ironic.

What carries this video from start to finish is the transformation of the helicopters as objects of fear, and destruction, to ones that are familiar and helpful. This trajectory is traveled through the voices of the older women, the militant men, and of the younger generation’s curiosity and use of this tool to help with farming. The helicopter remains an object of wonder throughout, but is able to change as Vietnam tries to communicate to the world that they are a capable nation. Dinh Q. Le combines clips of helicopters from Western film and interviews of Vietnamese people who have experienced the helicopter in different venues to create a fifteen minute long trip into the eyes of a Vietnamese civilian affected by the technologies of the western world.