Friday, May 6, 2011

Singular Visions at The Whitney (Revision)

The Whitney’s installation intensifies the viewer-artwork relationships. Singular Visions, a twelve-piece summation of contemporary art’s progression from post-war years to its current condition, has refreshed the viewing experience by giving each piece its own room to accommodate its size, technique and concept. This regal approach allows the artwork to properly resonate within the viewer. The Whitney re-released these pieces from their permanent collection to remind the art community of its accomplishments and to challenge it to reinvent some of its obsolete practices. The progression of contemporary art is best articulated by the work of Gary Simmons, Ree Morton and Edward Kienholz.

Gary Simmons’ “Step Into the Arena” completed in 1994, is similar to his previous “erasure” works, which features white chalk drawings on slate painted surfaces. However, the artist incorporated his drawing technique to sculpture, which resulted in a white boxing ring with a black canvas floor, theatrically lit from above as if something greatly entertaining just ended. In its own space, the ring transforms the innocent viewers into curious spectators of a ghostly sport. The floor of the ring is marked with chalked foot instructions to the Cakewalk, a dance popular during the years of slavery. Pairs of black tap shoes are tied to the roped perimeter of the ring, increasing the feeling of recent abandonment. With adequate reflection it becomes clear that the installation is address the artist’s personal and collective experiences of race and class. A white cage has been made to entrap the black flooring. The chalk marks, although fine and two dimensional, lay heavily on the elevated, stage-like flooring. The rich blackness of the floor is polluted with the smeared white chalk and bound by the immaculate white structure around it. Simmons also includes a secondary commentary addressing the oppression of essentialism; a philosophy that claims everything has a definite purpose, cementing individuals to a painfully narrow existence. Like a boxer, Simmons found himself defensive, fighting to break free of the imposed singular definition placed on him as an African American artist.

“Signs of Love,” first exhibited by artist Ree Morton in 1976, is a piece that brilliantly displays the benefits of the one-room one-piece arrangement utilized by the Whitney. Morton entered the art world late in her life, and did so with originality and sincerity, evident in her sensitive arrangement of mundane objects that offer intimate connections with the viewer. Her ten years of creative construction was interrupted by her untimely death in 1977. However, Morton’s work continues to pulsate with her artistic energy. “Signs of Love” is as bold as a broadway set design, but emits a sensitivity typically felt in the warmth of a home or in the innocence of new love. Materials ranging from wall paint and tape to ladders and garland are arranged on a large white wall, with wordy clich├ęs about the title emotion. The installment is an interesting piece serving as both a painting and a sculpture. The collage of items may initially seem irrelevant, but the space and quietness of the room allow the viewer to interpret different associations. The freedom in which she handled mediums allowed for honest, interactive and penetrating artwork. The attention given to decorative elements such as bow ties and picture frames, make the piece visually poetic; its revealing yet still effortless in its minimalistic approach. Undeniably feminine, “Signs of Love” seems to make an individual rather then political statement. It reads as a personal reflection of how love and womanhood are experienced based on the experiences unique to the artist.

Edward Kienholz’s “The Wait,” is a main attraction in this group exhibition. The scene is familiar but unnerving, composed of aged materials, furniture and other oddities. Kienholz collected from Los Angeles’ piles of discarded objects deemed unfit or useless to the owner with the intention of making recognizable scenes that reflect social criticism. A scene that can only be viewed from the front forces the viewer to confront the central figure whose lifelessness is haunting and fragile. The observers are positioned outside the woman’s space, but the desire to intrude loiters as you silently investigate. A woman made of animal bone and completed with a small, glass-covered photograph as a head, sits below a sizable portrait of her husband. The title suggests she is waiting, but for what? The portrait of her husband seems to memorialize him. The fullness of his mustache and liveliness in his eyes makes him younger then his widow who continues to live, but does so painfully alone. Kienholz’s subject is a victim of her seemingly endless wait for death and the universal loneliness that erodes the human spirit in death’s wake. The barely recognizable objects, once members of homes and families, stand renewed and transformed as reminders of the dark realities of humanity.

Twelve pieces, chosen for their unique representation of contemporary art from the past forty-seven years, occupy twelve different rooms. Allowing an individual piece to be the singular focus of a room permits the art to stand in its most powerful state. The observer’s personal reflections are intensified by this exhibits simplicity. The grand scales of the works are matched by their compelling concepts, making them suitable for such an imperial exhibit.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Glenn Ligon, "America" at the Whitney (revision)

The mid-career Retrospective of New York artist Glenn Ligon showcases approximately one hundred works by the artist, including paintings, photographs, drawings, prints, videos and sculptural installations that span nearly three decades. The variety of media and broad source material join forces to unflinchingly address cultural understandings of race and sexuality in the United States. Taking inspiration from nearly every corner of popular culture, Ligon fuses humor, curiosity, shame, rebellion and shock in his dynamic investigation of American identity. The artist, who is a gay, African American male, imparts his perspective in a boldly exploratory body of work that both activates and educates its audience.

Though primarily dedicated to the state of contemporary black America, Ligon’s emphasis on history and his often iconic modes of self-expression are familiar enough to engage an audience of all ages, races and sexualities. His characteristic use of the English language as a transformative tool reflects Ligon’s own constant reexamination of societal messages and creates a provocative group dialogue between the artist, his sources, and his audience.

Many of Ligon’s large stenciled canvases, including six paintings containing passages from African American author James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village,” powerfully portray the emotional turmoil behind racial discourse by obscuring, smearing, and loading their text with heavy traces of oil and coal dust. The words on the canvas appear legible in sections, but attempts to follow Baldwin’s accounts of life in an all-white tribal village are ultimately met with Ligon’s impenetrable veiling. Here, the physical building of paint material represents layers of meaning to be found within the narrative. The choice of a black and white color palette mirrors not only the racial issues being discussed but the austere, scientific nature of Baldwin’s documentation. Ligon’s approach to the comedy of Richard Pryor, handled in a later series of paintings, shows a similarly obscured approach to text but shockingly activates the technique through the use of bright, contrasting colors. Though less difficult to decipher than the previously discussed Baldwin canvases, the Pryor excerpts have a disorienting effect on the viewer, which relates directly to the discord of their content. The brash quotations oscillate between funny, offensive, poignant and disturbing. Ligon’s intrusive use of color and texture upon these transcriptions add significant weight to their already potent literary sources, and their play between document and abstraction exposes conflicting mental states at work in the understanding of racial prerogative.

Another powerful piece, Notes on the Margin of the Black Book, continues Ligon’s process of commentary through appropriation. It is also his most explicit statement on the marginalization of the African American gay male. Here, images from Robert Mapplethorpe’s iconic Black Book series are displayed alongside contemporary public reactions and reviews, as well as reminiscence from Mapplethorpe and his subjects. Featured quips range from accepting, to flippant, to furiously outraged. The discordant opinions juxtaposed with Mapplethorpe’s beautiful yet provocative photographs, including the infamous Man in a Polyester Suit gives a pointed historical meaning to the work that emphasizes the threatening perception of minority felt at the time of its production. While Mapplethorpe’s photos appear timelessly classical in their aesthetic, Ligon’s textural additions anchor the Black Book in its controversial cultural context. Ligon’s kinship with the subjects of the photographs and his sympathy with Mapplethorpe as a fearless creator place him in a middle position, which allows him to empower both groups through the addition of his meticulously chosen texts.

Finally, the neon sculptural installations, including “Negro Sunshine” which bravely faces Madison Avenue, provide a seemingly simple yet deconstructed view of Ligon’s America. In a darkened room, three neon tube sculptures reading “America” in typographic font encircle the viewer as if to offer some sort of advertisement. They hang in a line above the viewer’s head, large in size and weighty in implication. The first installation to the left appears a conventional example of patriotic signage, but the guise of its commercialism is somehow disturbed by the haphazard hanging of cords. The second piece, identical to the first in form, is more stark in deformation with its neon hauntingly unlit. Burned out and skeletonized, it confronts the viewer with an eerie discomfort that brings doubt upon the authority of its literal message. As the viewer continues to read the room from left to right, he or she is met with Ligon’s third neon installation, an oddly disturbing representation of the word “America,” spelled entirely with backwards letters. Here the objectivity of Ligon’s text has dissolved into commentary on the empty promise of a forward-thinking society. Ligon’s manipulation of the language is striking here in its stark compression of legibility and incomprehension.

Though the exhibition’s figural representations such as the iconic 1970s-style coloring book series and runaway slave posters are successful in their juxtaposition of stereotypical black imagery with banal, sometimes humorous language, it is Ligon’s textual representations that pack the most punch. By offering standard, even familiar information in a manner that is illegible, confusing or absurd, Ligon presses the viewer beyond the simple reception of words and into a deeper understanding of their underlying cultural, historical and artistic intentions. In this way, he challenges the viewer to take in not only the words, signs and symbols of the American experience, but the tense feelings of inner turmoil, strength and transformation central to his understanding of black culture.

Malevich Paintings and His Influence at Gagosian Gallery (revision)

In early twentieth century Russia Kazimir Malevich was a pioneer of abstract art. He is associated with the style of severe geometric abstraction known as Suprematism, which lead to the development of Constructivism. Suprematism influenced the styles of artwork that followed throughout the twentieth century. His work was suppressed in Soviet Russia in the 1930s, and remained almost unknown during the following two decades. There was a renewed interest in his work in the West in the mid-1950s, evident in the paintings of Ad Reinhardt, and in developments such as Zero, Hard-edge painting and Minimalism. His work was most widely seen by Americans in his 1973 retrospective exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. One of the purposes behind this exhibition is to highlight Malevich's influence on American art in the later part of the century. To illustrate his influence the exhibition features works by modern and contemporary American artists including John Baldessari, Donald Judd, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Richard Serra, Frank Stella, and Cy Twombly. Although the varying art forms in the show were each created during different periods, they relate to each other through the artists' interest in non-objective styles using geometric forms derived from Malevich.

Gagosian Gallery features six rare and pivotal paintings by Malevich. In the first main exhibition room are four of Malevich's Suprematist paintings, three of which are from 1915, first exhibited in 1916. Suprematism, 18th Construction (1915) is a small (20 7/8" x 20 7/8") square painting that depicts a cluster of rectangles floating diagonally. The painting is striking, the largest black rectangular shape is narrower on its bottom right side than the top left side, giving it an animated quality, The rectangle looks like it is coming out of the painting, toward the viewer, as though the shapes in the white square plane pop out at you. His paintings do not represent real objects. Malevich's paintings attempt to get beyond the physical world; he is trying to reach beyond the third dimension with pure abstraction. Malevich's Suprematism is an art of pure form. Color and form are basic tools of art. He uses these tools in a way that glorifies them. Geometry is used as the universal language in an attempt to convey the supreme reality of existence. His passionate, what he called "pure sensation", paintings attempt to convey weightless vibrating textures in an infinite expanse.

The exhibition allows the space and time to get a close view of the paintings. Malevich's paintings in the exhibition use rectangles, triangles and other signs on a white infinite space to create magical dynamic motion. When looking closely at the works one sees the artist's hand in the canvas: pencil marks, smudges, and uneven paint. The nails along the side of the canvas fastening it to the wood frame bring to mind the force and perspiration that Malevich used to create his paintings. The small size of the paintings creates an intimate experience, versus some of the American works, which are overwhelming in size.

Further into the exhibition Malevich's Desk and Room from 1913 is featured. The painting reveals Malevich's earlier interest in Fauvist and Cubist art. The colors and forms are heavy and laborious in comparison to his later work. The dominant brown and gray paint colors are applied thickly. Many lines and angles create a complex composition. One white rectangle on the right side breathes a small amount of fresh air into the painting and hints at his later reliance on rectangles and white space. In 1913 Malevich painted Black Square on a White Ground, which seems to directly influence Ellsworth Kelly's Black Square and White Square from 1953, which are in the show. Black Square on a White Ground shows that during that time Malevich was learning to control and drastically change his painting style.

Malevich added a spiritual beauty to our sense of technology. His paintings appropriate circles and triangles from wheels and cones used to create the machines of the modern world. Malevich influenced the American artists in the exhibition, whether they were aware of his influence on them or not. Like Malevich, rather than representing something from the physical world, the American works in the show use flat geometric shapes and lines to create compositions, convey ideas, and express inner emotional worlds. Frank Stella's Luis Miguel Dominguin II (1960), from his aluminum paintings series, in which he does not use the traditional rectangular-shaped canvas, uses flat lines and creates geometric spaces. Stella was directly influenced by Jasper John's "target" paintings and the work of Barnett Newman, who is featured in the exhibition as well, however Malevich's influence can be detected. The symmetrical painting is reminiscent of a machine part, in this case a computer, or city streets due to the row of lines on a flat background. This likeness to a machine or city is further suggested by the use of metallic aluminum paint. The long straight vertical lines create an optical illusion when they each form right angles at certain points along a diagonal line then resume their original direction. Stella's use of non-representational lines and shapes create visual energy similar to the way Malevich uses his floating geometric shapes. Malevich paved the way for artists of the twentieth century to detach from the visible world. Malevich's paintings show a sense of the coming of an age of technology and a wanting to have a hand in shaping it.