Friday, March 30, 2012


The thrill of uncommon objects is best revealed in the intimacy of interaction- just as looking at pictures of a Dior gown is mundane compared to the experience of wearing one, so too Jesus Soto’s kinetic and Op Art requires interaction between the art and the viewer to impart their full achievement and meaning. New York University’s Grey Art Gallery is currently showing a collection of Soto’s work spanning the 20 years following his 1950 move to Paris from his native Venezuela. The spacious gallery gave curator Estrillita B. Brodsky room to arrange Soto’s work in five chronological sections: geometric abstraction (1949-1951), serial composition (1952-1954), overlays (1954-1956), immaterial (1957-1960) and language/perception (1960-1968). Beginning with a 1949 cubist inspired landscape, Sin titulo (Paisaje), we quickly follow Soto’s development as he sheds figurative art in favor of fully abstracted forms. Thereafter Soto experiments with repetition and variation of minimalized shapes- as in Mur blanc (1953), which is both a single work and twenty-four independent paintings- to achieve dynamism. Overall Brodsky successfully carved a path through Soto’s lesser known early works leading up to his post-1954 overlays that explore the moire effect, audience participation, stability and perception.  By mounting the foreground on plexiglas several inches above the background, overlays look different depending where the viewer stands. The pieces on the lower level use a culmination of Soto’s different techniques up to the mid 1960’s. For example, Sin titulo (Vibracion metalica) (1961) is black tangled wire, which Soto began using in his earlier assemblages of found objects, mounted on  a Klein blue background with a black square and cream colored rectangle with striated black vertical lines that echo the repetitious patterns and color from earlier work .

Despite the range of Soto’s work displayed, there are two significant omissions in this show that relate to an oversimplified approach to Soto’s oeuvre. First, the pieces after 1956  are collectively limited to black, white, cream, blues and red colors; giving the false impression that Soto severely restricted his pallet after Sans titre (Structure cinetique a elements geometriques) (1955-1956). Secondly, a much more significant omission is the regrettable lack of Soto’s chef d'oeuvre Penetrables sculptures. This show does create a foundational understanding of Soto’s work from the lesser known breadth of his earlier career. Yet, without the experience of walking through the thin, dangling, plastic tubes of one of Soto’s interactive Penetrables, it is ultimately all build up and no denouement.  

Sol Lewitt and Alfred Jensen at Pace Gallery (Revised)

Pace Gallery presented an exhibition from January 13, 2012 through February 11, 2012 that juxtaposed select works of Alfred Jensen and Sol Lewitt. The show, titled Systems and Transformation, showcased the artists' work side by side, revealing their preoccupation with grids and structural systems.

Jensen's abstract paintings address the organization of color and symbols. The paintings on view were made between 1960 and 1975, and offer a glimpse into the artists' preoccupation with kaleidoscopic, colorful patterning and basic shapes. Jensen used limited basic geometrical shapes in his work, most pieces were a combination of triangles, squares and circles. However, Pace Gallery displays works which solely utilize the square. Looking like multicolored checkerboards, the paintings were created using mathematical systems and color theories. While the actual system used by the artist is unknown to the viewer, it becomes clear that every choice of color was intentional, for you begin to see an underlying pattern emerge. One of Jensen's most complex pieces, A la Fin de l'automne (1975), exemplifies his structured, systematic style. A square grid comprised of 289 smaller squares with selected symbols painted within, creates a pattern that appears mathematical as well as grammatical. It is as if Jensen is using his own pictorial language and each square contains one word or phrase, a snippet of the whole sentence or paragraph.

Jensen's colorful checkerboard paintings were creatively placed side by side with the austere, open structures of Lewitt. On display were several three-dimensional gridded sculptures, from the mid 1970s - 1990s, minimal in color but precise in form such as Open Geometic Structure (1991). All of the sculptures on display were made from the same recognizable form, the cube. Lewitt used different mediums including wood and aluminum to form his structures and then painted them all white, creating a cohesive body of work. These pieces, like Jensen's, are also clearly governed by mathematics and structure. However, Lewitt's work, while only comprised of cubes, takes on new shapes and forms through the stacking and redirecting of the basic form. Lewitt used the geometry and physics of the structural cube to objectively organize space, creating his own visual dialogue.

Alfred Jensen and Sol Lewitt are two artists whose main artistic concern is the representation of the grid using systematic approaches. The work presented at Pace manages to make a very straightforward, 'square' topic seem dynamic and vibrant. It is because of the curatorial choice to combine these artists that this showing of grids and cubes feels fresh even decades later.

“Critical Fashions in Art Criticism” at the 2012 Armory Show

A panel set in one of New York’s most important modern and contemporary art fairs, “Critical Fashions in Art Criticism” participated in the Open Forum at this year’s Armory Show. The pert conversation among Nordic and New York based art writers Erlend Hammer, Pernille Albrethsen, Claire Barliant, Blake Gopnik and Eva Diaz never reached its intended premise—the presumed focus of critical attention on contextual, thematic curatorial presentation. This thought was hardly introduced by the moderator, but the resulting dialogue covered preferred approaches to critical writing, such as fashioning pieces like primary or secondary sources, the role of the critic in translating arts experiences into communicable forms, and the significance of relativism in critical work.

The assertive Blake Gopnik, New York-based writer for Newsweek magazine, responded immediately to the initial question on context-driven discourse by outlining his chosen treatment of writing as mirroring a primary source, striving to make it authentically descriptive and interpretive rather than digested, regurgitated and prone to clichés as he deems secondary sources. While primary and secondary are illusory terms since the former applies wholly to the art itself, the notion of a spectrum containing the gray area between unmediated and mulled over responses opened a dialogue on the difficult task the art critic holds of interpreting visceral experiences into text and discourse.

Addressing this burden of translation included mentioning the critic’s ability to engage numerous audiences: the general public, academics, and art world experts. Panelists disagreed on the success of such endeavors; Brooklyn-based editor and writer Claire Barliant noted that readership for art writing has not reflected the boom attributed to museum attendance and patronage. Is this because the vast majority of criticism aims at art world insiders and is ostensibly seen as dull?

Despite disagreement on the success of engaging all audiences, there was consensus on the value added by authors of discourse around created forms. The arguments they present allow others to appreciate art. Eva Diaz, writer and Assistant Professor at Pratt Institute, highlighted that what makes prose critical is claim staking, providing an argument for how the work is perceived. Relativism remains central since good and bad art does exist. Good work taps into universal truths and contributes to our understanding of our world and ourselves. Although reached haphazardly without exercising its full potential, the discussion concluded with the idea that the job of the critic is to pinpoint this good work.

Soto Paris and Beyond, 1950-1970

The Paris avant-garde movement in the 1950's and 60's was filled with experimental innovations. Jesus Soto (1923-2005) was known for his use of color combinations with lines and layers in conjunction with viewer participation to change perception of objects. Grey Art Gallery at NYU is exhibiting a collection of two decades of Soto's experiments.

Soto's Kinetic sculptures/paintings are investigations of new ways of participation. He forces the audience to change the way we view art. One must move from side to side to see the vibration of Soto's pieces. One cannot fully enjoy a Soto piece just by standing still and starring at it. Once you begin to move around each piece the many layers of lines begin to visually vibrate. This effect is intense almost too much to handle because it tricks your eye and mind into thinking the piece is in motion. The layering of vertical line over horizontal line creates vibration and movement.

One of the biggest pieces in this show is Mural 1961. Paint on wire, wood, and mixed media, (109 1/2 x 194 x 24 3/8 in.) seems to be a mix of all his experiments into one large piece. On the right side of Mural the background is painted solid black, with white vertical lines painted over the black with many wires jolting out of the painting to create a large sculpture. The use of horizontal lines placed on top of vertical white lines creates an optical illusion of vibration. The piece almost seems to breath as you pass by it. The left side of Mural is painted flat black with many wires, tar, and engine parts attached to it. The vibrations of each piece is an exciting experience and forcing the audience to have to participate in art is always a nice touch.

Grey Art Gallery at NYU is showing a collection of two decades of Jesus Soto's experimental paintings and sculptures. Each piece requires participation from viewers which in turn causes physical displacement. The vibration and movement of each piece can make one nauseous. His use of simple colors schemes black and white with some hints of blue in conjunction with horizontal lines interacting with vertical lines causes visual vibration. His use of materials and the construction of each piece paired with participation is important. The viewer must move around each piece to understand it allowing our minds to connect what is real and what is just a visual trick. 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Panel Review: Mediatic Networks in Postwar Paris

In conjunction with its Jesús Soto exhibition — Soto: Paris and Beyond, 1950–1970 — NYU’s Grey Art Gallery organized Mediatic Networks in Postwar Paris: Art, Sound, and FIlm in Motion, a symposium providing cultural context for Soto’s mid-century work. Though speakers presented on different topics at the March 23 event, the theme of postwar instability and uncertainty united their talks.
Following opening remarks, Serge Guilbaut of the University of British Columbia explored the role of the artist in postwar France. In his presentation titled “‘Leur faire avaler leur chewing gum’ [Make them swallow their chewing gum]: Violent Art Scenes in Paris, 1953,” the avuncular professor vividly described Parisians coming to grips with the previously unfathomable loss of their stranglehold on high culture. As Guibaut relayed, for some Parisians, the most disturbing aspect was the power shift to America, a nation known more for its “sexy” cars and Rockwellian dinner scenes than for its arbitration of good taste.
In a nod to the French Marxist theoretician Henri Lefebvre, Pratt Institute professor Agnes Berecz named her presentation “There really is no substitute for participation!’: The Techno-Geographies of GRAV [Groupe de Research d'Art Visuel].”  As Berecz discussed, and to quote Lefebvre further, GRAV aspired to challenge viewers perceptions of what constitutes art by getting them to “do more than just look.”  This was evident in their 1964 Buenos Aires exhibition La Inestablilidad [Instability], in which the group’s kinetic art was set in motion through audience interaction. With Une journée dans la rue [A day in the street], the group brought their work to downtown Paris. The 1966 street fest lured rush-hour crowds with its lo-tech, schoolyard-esque activities, turning a daily commute into public art. 
Tom McDonough of Binghamton University presented “No Success Like Failure: Exhibition Practices of the Situationist International, 1960-64.” The revolutionary group's unrealized exhibition would have involved a disorienting labyrinth installation that led participants into a dérive, a meandering walk through surrounding neighborhoods guided solely by the aesthetics of the terrain. Echoing the sentiments of GRAV, the SI aimed to shake up the modern urbanite’s expectations of, and experience with, his or her surroundings.
As highlighted by the panelists, the postwar cultural dominance of France, the primacy of painting and the practices of the spectator were all impugned. With Paris in upheaval and the city’s counterculture leading the charge, the anarchic era was a hotbed for the proliferation of new artistic ideas. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Resident Artists at the 2012 Whitney Biennial, Revised

The 2012 Whitney Biennial, presenting a wide variety of artists, offers access to performance-based work in an interactive and immersive way. The Whitney dedicated 6,000 square feet of their fourth floor to performance, the most space the museum has ever offered to the medium. Artists in residence Sarah Michelson and Michael Clark are currently occupying the fourth floor, while also offering events after hours for an additional fee to the cost of museum admission. But during regular open hours, museum-goers can find dynamic performances that change throughout the day. During my visit, I witnessed a performance that seemed like preparation for a performance to come: dancers in gym clothing stretched and rehearsed on a white painted floor depicting a diagram of a floor plan. One dancer listened to headphones while warming up, another stretched on the ground near the audience with an open gym bag and towel beside him. Viewers watched from risers on one side of the space, or from behind, where one can also find the artists' dressing room. In the dressing room, enclosed by translucent, lattice-like walls, the artists are on view as they put on their make-up and costumes, which include horse-head masks and simple white clothing. The viewer-as-voyeur is given the choice to watch the dancers as they prepare themselves. The organization of the fourth floor makes the entire performance process transparent, but might leave the viewer wishing for more action and excitement.

Resident artist, Dawn Kasper has moved her studio onto the Whitney's third floor as part of her Nomadic Studio Practice Experiment. Costumes, books, drawings, musical instruments, art supplies and electronics fill the cluttered space. An unstretched canvas hangs on the wall with painted black lettering that reads: THIS COULD BE SOMETHING IF I LET IT. Kasper can be found inside her installation or wandering the museum during open hours, and invites guests into her public studio. She says, "I'm inviting people to come and interact with me. People can come in… and draw with me, or do collage, or even bring their computer[s]". Whether Kasper is enacting a planned performance or simply working in her studio, she is always performing and encourages her audience to join her. Unfortunately, she wasn't in her studio during my visit, and without her presence, her installation left me uninterested.

The Whitney Biennial is not a static museum experience but instead is dynamic, as performance artists shift and move about, continuously in motion. Resident artists carry out their work on site and challenge the traditional concept of performance by taking it off stage and behind the scenes. While this unusual curatorial approach may be interesting conceptually, the performances themselves can be dull and uneventful depending on when you happen to catch them.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

REVISED: Werner Herzog's "Hearsay of the Soul"

Occasionally, one discovers an artwork for which there are no words to immediately explain the experience. This is the case with “Hearsay of the Soul”—filmmaker’s Werner Herzog’s video installation at the 2012 Whitney Biennal. So much of the touted Biennal felt unclear-- somewhat muddy curation that, at the very least, exists as a confusing representation of art’s current state of affairs, in terms, for example,  of the Biennal's overall aesthetic cohesion. However, there are exceptions to this complaint. Entering Herzog’s space is an arresting experience. The elements are simple: a series of five projectors acting in concert, showing magnified slides of landscape etchings by 17th century Dutch artist Hercules Segers—for Herzog, the father of modern art. Accompanying this display is an unearthly stream of music—first merely heard, then, with a great degree of reward, finally seen: performed in its own series of projections. The performance by Dutch cellist and composer Ernst Reijseger is visually spare in its minimal display, and allows the viewer to focus on the music itself, and its relevance and place in Segers’ abstracted landscapes. This resonant soundscape is deeply moving, in a manner that quiets thought and fills the body.

Herzog’s film installation warrants an entire afternoon of attention, though its running time is only about fifteen minutes. The viewer encounters a blackened recessed space, visually and physically separate from what's immediately outside its door, allowing the viewer to become enveloped by the piece. Segers' landscapes portray seasonal and atmospheric changes to his native European countryside, and with the shifting of night to day, summer to winter, Herzog elicits an awareness of transformation. On the part of an engaged viewer, there is an initial effort to try to make measured sense of “Hearsay of the Soul”—to draw connections between the scrolling landscape projections and the sonorous musical accompaniment, for instance. However, it is not long before one gives into the experience of the piece, and the art becomes encompassing. Perhaps herein lies the embodiment of that elusive concept of the sublime—when body and mind stand in unspeaking, awestruck experience in the face of some great, unexplainable thing.

“Hearsay of the Soul” communicates a great longing and sorrow in the purity of its enigmatic delivery. The space in which the installation is housed feels sanctified and upon leaving I felt stirred. It ranks for me as an art experience that cannot be fully articulated, an artwork that has changed me in some small way.  

Friday, March 9, 2012

Revised Sam Lewitt:  2012 Whitney Biennial 

The 2012 Whitney Biennial purports to be a core sample of the best that contemporary art currently has to offer.  While much of the work leaves the viewer underwhelmed, there are some standouts that make this exhibition, on the whole, successful.  The curatorial triumph of this exhibit is captured in an odd feeling of frenzied tranquility in which the wide-ranging disciplines coalesce in the same space.  The time-based works dovetail seamlessly with the more traditional static painting and sculpture in a way that the interwoven disciplines naturally coexist.  Despite a slight air of disorder, the exhibition succeeds on the grounds that each piece is given equal weight and allowed to retain its own identity despite the commotion of combining such disparate elements.
One such piece titled Fluid Employment by Sam Lewitt resembles a staged landscape that seems to have been transplanted straight from a laboratory onto the museum floor.  The experimental quality of this piece is highlighted by the fact that it appears to be a living entity, recalling a giant petri dish in which hybrid organisms undulate under the soft breeze of several desk fans set up around its perimeter.   Among other materials, Lewitt employs a magnetized liquid called ferrofluid in his work.  Ferrofluid is commercially ubiquitous with applications ranging from electronics devices and hard drives to magnetic resonance imaging technology in medicine.   Although it is seemingly everywhere in the technologies we rely on in the modern world, it can also have an alien presence due to the fact that it is hidden from view and unfamiliar.  In Fluid Employment, the liquid has been poured over assemblages of various types of metal, which act as weights that hold five plastic tarps to the floor.  The fluid clumps together with the magnetized weights creating masses that appear to be miniature organisms that seem to subsist off the substrate of oozing brown fluid.  In this case, the clumping fluid around the magnetized metal weights simulates the organisms.
Sparking notions of futuristic land use proposals in miniature mock-up to self-replicating Nano machines and hybrid organisms, Lewitt plays with the self-organizing properties of the material in a way that metaphorically reminds the viewer of emergent utopian-like environments still in the planning stages.  Fluid Employment succeeds as much in its beguiling range of associations as it does with its re-appropriation of technology.

Matt Hoyt and Liz Deschenes at the Whitney Biennial

This year’s Whitney Biennial features many artists who combine sculpture, painting, and photography in their work. Artists Matt Hoyt and Liz Deschenes explore the intersection of different media in their work and create relationships between traditional media that disrupt our expectations and engage us as viewers.

Hoyt’s work appears at first to be a presentation of small, precious, found objects. Arranged in groups, the objects are displayed on rectangular shelves, fixed to wooden brackets, and hung about waist high. The center shelf is titled, Untitled (Group 64) 2009-2011, and consists of two objects: a small hammer-shaped multi-colored object and a scarab-like oval disc. The materials listed include clay, pastel, and oil. The title suggests that the artist slowly formed the objects over a period of 2 years. The presentation of these artifacts on small shelves, each the appropriate height for a worktable, becomes both a window into the creative process of the artist and a presentation of the resulting art objects.

Deschenes combines photography and sculpture to create immersive works that respond to both the body of the viewer and the architecture of the Whitney Museum’s Breuer building. The first consists of a pair of large white frames, each containing a dark reflective surface set at an angle slightly off register from the angle of the frame. The work resembles a minimalist sculpture and references the window shapes of the Breuer building. The list of materials used in the work reveals that the glossy material inside the frame is silver-toned gelatin emulsion, or a photograph. The way in which Deschenes incorporates photography into the work disrupts one’s expectation of what a photograph represents. Instead of representing light and time, the photograph is used to represent perspectival space, thus the decision to use a large-format view camera typically used for architectural photography. The second piece is a set of vertical panels, each a silver-toned gelatin silver print. Unlike the first piece, this work has no frame, it exists as both sculpture and photograph at a slightly larger than human scale. Deschenes’s work allows us to experience the intersection of media that in combination have the ability to expand our sense of the architectural space of the Breuer building.

The work of Hoyt and Deschenes engages the viewer and disrupts one’s expectations through the use of unexpected relationships between traditional media.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Werner Herzog and Forrest Bess at The Whitney Biennial (final)

The 76th edition of the Whitney Biennial is the penultimate edition of the event in Madison AvenueWerner herzog and Forest Bess are arguably the headliners of the exhibition. The curators Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders didn’t give a title to the event, showing more clearly that a Biennial is a matter of observing to what happens in the arts world. Most of the 51 artists are little known with the exception of few artists, including Forrest Bess and Werner Herzog . The former was a painter and fisherman, who lived isolated in Texas and died in poverty in 1977. He has a dedicated room, curated by Robert Gober. Bess was a self-made transsexual, he become an hermaphrodite on his own trying to modify his male genitals during an home surgery. Articles and documents accompany his small paintings evidencing his experimental approach to art and life. Bess’painting represent abstract elements with pesonal reference, colors and shapes evoke isolation and poverty in his recurring visions and perhaps signs of self-mutilation. Bess’ work is a small island in the Biennial, as is the work of Werner Herzog. The German artist presents an installation about the forgotten Dutch painter and etcher Hercules Pieterszoon Seghers,   a painter in the 1600s. Seghers’ techniques inspired Rembrandt, who adapted some of his landscapes. For the first time Herzog was invited to a Biennial of contemporary art. His film is accompanied by the music of the Dutch composer Ernst Reijseger. The combination of Seghers’ landscapes and Reijseger music evoke states of mind full of desolation and loneliness. Mesmerizing footage of the musician alternates with images of the painting, so the audience is able to get away from the noise of the contemporary mainstream. 

The show is marked by a generalized state of schizophrenia which allows the viewer to discover continually new artists in a pleasant labyrinthine space. It is very exciting to see how today’s artists work in territories that once belonged to the cinema, theater, music or performance, even if  mixing these art forms is not as innovative as any of Dada works. Somethimes artists seem to lack courage to go beyond the surface of the mainstream leading then to lose the freedom that comes with their underground status. If we try to confront the Dawn Kasper’s Nomadic Studio Practice with Forest Bess’ life experience, it is hard to define which is more revolutionary. Kasper arrenged a temporary studio in the Whitney Biennial’s space. She is using the museum as a public/private enviorement inviting friend to interact with her during open hours. They play instruments and stow the space with  objects and drafts, but they probably cannot do much more. They open the museum space by closing their own freedom. Bess did just the opposite, risking much more alone in his own apartment.  Who knows if he thought to write down any note during his experimental body alterations: perhaps somethig like “THIS COULD BE SOMETHING IF I LET IT”.

REVISED: The Compelling Work of Wu Tsang

Wu Tsang is the first artist to have work in both the Whitney Biennial and the New Museum Triennial at the same time, and this young, provocative, transgender filmmaker deserves the publicity. Yet “WILDNESS” and “Full Body Quotation,” each addressing issues of gender and sexuality, share few other similarities. At the Whitney, among the sterile whiteness of the other galleries, Tsang has created a welcoming viewing room for “WILDNESS,” his documentary-style video on drag culture. From a cramped hallway, visitors wind around a lattice wall and enter a dim, cozy nightclub dressing room decked with glittery wallpaper, mirrors, mismatched chairs, a couple of Ikea futons, and a dressing table scattered with half-empty water bottles and sneakers. Clothes racks are filled with sequined and feathered costumes. Videos projected on adjacent walls show Los Angeles drag performers telling stories of their personal lives and stage lives, sometimes humorous and sometimes disturbing, in English and in Spanish. Visitors shuffle to find space, perching on the futons and leaning against the walls. There is immediately a sense of community, that we are an exclusive group brought here to act as friends and confidants to those on the screen. Occasionally Tsang splits the interviewee and her English subtitles between the two screens, so the non-Spanish-speaking viewers must choose whether to look at a blank screen and understand, or watch the speaker’s face, hearing the words but missing the message. Our heads dart back and forth, anxious not to miss a second.

If one could be transported from this installation into the New Museum, where Tsang’s “Full Body Quotation” is being screened in the basement, the contrast would shock. The auditorium is huge and dark, mirroring the empty warehouse floor in the film, whose corners recede into shadows. In this space, Tsang and a handful of other actors in black leotards cycle through a non-linear combination of monologue, dialogue and chorus. The film loops almost seamlessly. As the actors trade fragmented tirades on race, sexuality, gender, and class, they engage in a series of body movements, one moment standing aggressively in a line, the next, collapsed in a collective heap on the floor. Occasionally, the theatricality of the performance is uncomfortable enough to break the tension; but mostly, the power of the words and the conviction of their delivery induce chills. This time, we are not confidants, but isolated audience members, powerless against the outpouring of negative emotion. Though this piece and its counterpart at the Whitney embody contrasting feelings, whether warm or pugnacious, Tsang is a master at drawing his audience deep into the lives of characters many of us might otherwise find barely relatable.