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The Year in Art Was All in the Details

Grand narratives appear to make sense of the world, but the world doesn’t hang together as neatly as all that. Rather than honor and applaud a sum total work of art or culture, I’d rather tip my hat to the explosive detail, a move that proposes a possibility outside itself, and throws down the gauntlet to others. Some of the most vivid to me from 2017:

YOU MUST HATE BLACK PEOPLE AS MUCH AS YOU HATE YOURSELF. These words emerged from — or were otherwise drowning in — the inky blackness of the great artist Kara Walker’s canvas “Storm Ryder,” one of many gut-punchers in her fall exhibition “Sikkema Jenkins and Co. is Compelled to Present the Most Astounding and Important Painting show of the fall Art Show viewing season!” The damning word in that sentence: you, unnamed, unspecified. Standing before her work, no one is exempt from the poisoned tines of hatred — of black people, of oneself, each a mirror for, and measure of, the other.

Choreographer-slash–human hurricane Sarah Michelson shattered the quiet of West 19th Street as she welcomed her audience to the Kitchen for her performance October2017/\ by pointing at each of us and shriek-shouting “HELLO! HELLO! HELLO! YEAH!” as we took our seats. Her relentlessness smartly sharpened the edge between rah-rah enthusiasm and look-at-me desperation, taking aim (for one) at art and artists — performers and performances — for whom attention-seeking might in fact be their only real talent.

Total silence seized the audience in the moments before Doreen Garner’s harrowing performance Purge on November 30, part of her exhibition “White Man on a Pedestal” with Kenya (Robinson) at Pioneer Works. It felt as though all were held in suspended animation, not unlike the spirit of J. Marion Sims, “father of modern gynecology,” a statue of whom was — at the hands of Garner and her assistants — about to experience a taste of his own medicine: a vesicovaginal fistula, which he performed without anesthesia on Anarcha, an enslaved black woman, more than thirty times between 1845 and 1850. (The man remains honored here in New York City for his contributions to science with a public sculpture.) Garner’s re-enactment of his violence wasn’t healing so much as it was the long-overdue reopening of a wound that demands to be tended to properly.   

Laura Owens’s hare-brainy clock paintings that hang high on the wall at her outstanding retrospective at the Whitney Museum sound no tick-tocks as the hands spin at their own pace, keeping no time except their very own. (Another possible punchline: The power of painting, like comedy, is all in the timing).

The Wooster Group at once found and lost the momentum of Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s radioactive 1971 documentary, Town Bloody Hall, which recorded an unwieldy and almost unthinkable public debate on the subject of feminism between Jill Johnston, Jacqueline Ceballos, Germaine Greer, and Diana Trilling, moderated by Norman Mailer. The aim of the Wooster’s deconstruction was off, but shimmered for a moment with the appearance of Greg Mehrten as the literary critic Trilling. His eyes round and tired like hers, a haughty bun pinned to the back of his head, he embodied both her nobility and her vulnerability — her snoot, her self-possession — even as she was held up to the audience for comic relief.

“Everywhere I go I see losers. Misfits like myself who can’t make it in the world,” wrote the singular artist and writer and performer Constance DeJong in her iridescent 1977 novel, Modern Love, which was republished this year. She wrote then not about the well-documented world of men, but of a world with men, reimagining the romance novel by mapping the magnetisms that push people together, then pull them apart, in time and out of time, in characters who collapse into one another all around the I of the storm.

Joan Didion, too, in a few sentences and with a candor that was somehow surprising if not at all unexpected of the iconic woman of letters, rewrote the genre of the love story. “I don’t know what ‘fall in love’ means,” she said of her marriage to John Gregory Dunne in the tender documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. “It’s not part of my world. But I do remember having a very clear sense that I wanted this to continue. I liked being a couple. I liked having somebody there.”

“Of all stupid art, the poem is the most stupid,” quipped poet Lisa Robertson at the symposium Never the Same: what (else) can art writing do? hosted by Contemporary Calgary. There, Robertson read a passage from a titillating work-in-progress titled “The Baudelaire Fractal,” in which she imagines waking up one morning to realize that she is in fact the author of the complete works of Baudelaire. Poetry, like stupidity, obeys no outside rules, bending history and good sense to its own agenda, its own desires: another reason to pick up a pen, twist it, and see what spills out onto the page.  

Or the grass. After her father’s death, performance artist Michelle Ellsworth launched Manpant Publishing. Instead of using paper and ink, she spells the 111 words of each of her commissioned texts with her dad’s trousers as well as other pairs from the Salvation Army, laying them out on a beautiful clearing by a river in Colorado, and recording it all by tapping into a live weather cam. To think of absence as a new alphabet with which to write and circulate the words of others seems a most generous use of grief.

Michelle Ellsworth, “Impossible Motherhood” 2016

In conversation with the New Yorker’s David Remnick and playwright Tony Kushner one evening before a recent performance of A Room in India at the Park Avenue Armory, the French theater director Ariane Mnouchkine talked about the responsibilities of being an artist. “I am not paid to be desperate. I am not paid to be blind,” she explained, her current production in part mocking ISIS as inhuman and ungodly, while also taking us all to task for the fear that holds us back from the risks inherent in the creation of wonder, beauty. What is an artist to do in these harrowing times, then? “To continue to have faith in people,” she said, giving much-needed instructions on how to best rise from the ashes.

Poet Eileen Myles places her faith not in God, but in dog — right-minded creatures who allow the world to be what it is, without heaviness, just following their noses from moment to moment to moment. Her exquisite slapstick tragedy Afterglow is a radical memoir about and for and by her now-deceased but forever-beloved pitbull Rosie, who the poet believes is a dead ringer for her dead father. Myles’s words of goodbye — to her, to him — are simultaneously a hello to her own unknown future.

“Travel well, I said. All the seeds of you; and the dream of you, the rot.

“Then I stepped back into the world.”

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The Year in Overlooked Art

In 2017, more than most years, art supplied solace and refuge. The exhibition that healed my soul was “Beverly Buchanan: Ruins and Rituals,” the Brooklyn Museum’s retrospective, last winter, of the late painter, sculptor, and land artist. Buchanan’s slow, stubborn, quiet involvement through her art with the American — specifically Southeastern — landscape and its histories helped settle my agitation in the wake of the presidential election, and strengthen me for whatever came next.

The exhibition that taught me the most was “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85,” also at the Brooklyn Museum, an illuminating and necessary survey that warranted multiple visits. And the show that dropped my jaw to the floor, for sheer mastery and emotional depth, was “Nkame,” the retrospective of the Cuban printmaker Belkis Ayón, at El Museo del Barrio.

Great art opens horizons, develops alternative histories, presents ideas for the new world. I visited dozens of shows, and wrote about many. Below are ten more that time and space constraints did not allow me to cover. I wanted to note them before the calendar turns to 2018.

M. Pravat, “From Today I Have No Future”
The Delhi-based Pravat had his first U.S. solo show this year, and it was a small revelation. His mixed-media works on paper often start with architectural plans, of real or imagined structures and sites. He adds color, collaged photos and images, and sometimes textural breaks, such as punctures and rips in the paper. It’s a distinct visual language, technical and lyrical, that renders the built environment as emotional geography.
(Aicon Gallery, January 20–February 18)

M. Pravat
Untitled (3)
2016
Mixed media on paper
8 x 12 in.

“High John the Conqueror Ain’t Got Nothing on Me: American Hoodoo and Southern Black American-Centric Spiritual Ways”
Hoodoo — the work of seers, healers, root doctors — is both country wisdom and a Black survival practice going back to slavery days. Here, thirteen artists added to this living tradition in works suffused with mystical information, such as Nyugen Smith’s suspended purses adorned as “Spirit Carriers,” Allison Janae Hamilton’s horse-mane staffs, and the beaded and feathered wands by Deborah Singletary.
(Rush Arts Gallery, January 21–March 18)

Paul Mpagi Sepuya, “Figures, Grounds and Studies”
Sepuya, based in Los Angeles, has a striking style of deconstructed portraiture: He uses curtains, mirrors, and other props to scramble the studio space, and assembles composite images, rich with photos-within-photos, in which his own body and tools are often seen. Sepuya photographs handsome gay men, often undressed, but we see them in fragmented, elusive ways that complicate both their role and ours.
(Yancey Richardson Gallery, February 2–March 18)

“Architecture of Independence — African Modernism”
Architecture shows demand work from the viewer, reliant as they are on models, photos, and documents; this show rewarded the effort with a fascinating study of five African countries: Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, Zambia. In the 1960s and 1970s, banks, ministries, universities were sites of architecture experimentation. Some of these modernist edifices aged poorly or got engulfed in sprawl; others are enduring landmarks.
(Center for Architecture, February 16–May 27)

La Pyramide, Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire), von/by Rinaldo
Olivieri, 1973,

Valerie Maynard, “Artist in Print”
An undersung elder whose work in multiple media stretches from the Black Arts era to today, Maynard, who was born in Harlem in 1937 and remains active, now in Baltimore, has influenced several generations of Black creators. This show in a community space tucked at the foot of Sugar Hill focused on her printmaking practice, with black-and-white works made over several decades, by turns abstract, informed by African iconography, or expressing civil rights and anti-apartheid politics.
(LeRoy Neiman Art Center, March 10–April 15)

Postcommodity, “Coyotaje”
This year’s Whitney Biennial offered an introduction to Postcommodity via their room-scale video speeding along a stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border. The collective of Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist, who live in the American Southwest, also had this small, effective show at DUMBO’s Art in General, mixing photography, sound installation, and an eerie chupacabra sculpture, glowing green in a dark space as if seen through night-vision goggles — part of their ongoing exploration of the border and its pathologies.
(Art in General, March 25–June 3)

Postcommodity Coyotaje

Sanford Biggers, “Selah”
While Kara Walker’s raw, brash, difficult new exhibition drew — with good reason — great attention this fall, her contemporary Sanford Biggers offered new work in sculpture, installation, and compositions of painted fabric rooted in the quilting tradition. The materials and motifs made this seem a softer, more sedate show than Walker’s, but one of Biggers’s methods — shooting bullets into sculptures inspired by African statuary — was just as devastating if not more so, particularly in a harrowing video installation.
(Marianne Boesky Gallery, September 7–October 21)

Meriem Bennani, “Siham & Hafida”
Hafida is an older, conservative woman, unable to read and write but steeped in Aita, a Moroccan song and dance tradition; Siham is a young, modern performer, who wants to shake up the genre and takes lots of selfies. Bennani’s thirty-minute film, presented in immersive fashion on multiple screens and projected onto objects in the Kitchen’s upstairs gallery, delved into their world, mixing documentary and animation sequences. The two women’s tension — polite but real — resolves into tenderness in a stirring, unscripted unfolding.
(The Kitchen, September 13–October 21)

Dominique Duroseau, “Black Things in White Spaces”
Garbage bags, a hand truck, a broom, mannequins, and other objects are raw material for sculpture by Duroseau. The Chicago-raised, Newark-based artist’s show appeared gloomy at first, with its evocations of racial trauma, violence, and death. Seen closer, it contained a wry but bracing humor, with its limited-edition “legacy jars” said to contain unguents and spells, and the stack of giveaway cards printed with messages like “Shut da fuck up!” to hand out when responding to microaggressions becomes too tedious.
(Gallery Aferro, Newark, September 23–October 28)

The Cleaner. 2017

Jill Freedman, “Resurrection City, 1968”
Weeks after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, the Poor People’s Campaign he launched came to Washington, D.C., where 3,000 people set up in wooden shanties on the National Mall. Freedman joined them, and photographed life in “Resurrection City” until its demolition by police in late June 1968. Her black-and-white images eschew heroism or pity; they are simply present, and deeply humane. They remain on view through next week.
(Steven Kasher Gallery, October 26–December 22)

Jill Freedman
Resurrection City, Poor Peoples Campaign, Washington, D.C., 1968
Vintage gelatin silver print, printed ca. 1968
11h x 14w in

 

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Avedon’s America

“We all perform,” the late Richard Avedon once wrote. “It’s what we do for each other all the time, deliberately or unintentionally. It’s a way of telling about ourselves in the hope of being recognized as what we’d like to be.”

In an introductory essay to his photo collection Portraits, Avedon located this instinct in the family albums of his youth. When Dick was growing up in Manhattan — most people who knew him called him Dick — his family was firmly upper-middle-class and owned a store on Fifth Avenue. But in the aftermath of the Great Depression, they lost the shop. Dick’s father, Jack, went to work as a clothes buyer, sometimes taking on two or three jobs at a time, and the Avedons relocated to a smaller apartment in the Bronx, where Dick slept in the dining alcove.

However, the family photos presented a different sort of life. “When I was a boy, my family took great care with our snapshots,” Avedon wrote in Portraits. “We really planned them. We made compositions. We dressed up. We posed in front of expensive cars, homes that weren’t ours. We borrowed dogs. Almost every family picture taken of us when I was young had a different borrowed dog in it… Looking through our snapshots recently, I found eleven different dogs in one year of our family album. There we were in front of canopies and Packards with borrowed dogs, and always, forever, smiling. All of the photographs in our family album were built on some kind of lie about who we were, and revealed a truth about who we wanted to be.”

Bob Dylan, singer, New York City, February 10, 1965

That impulse informs much of “Avedon’s America,” a new exhibition opening August 12 at Guild Hall Museum in East Hampton on Long Island. The show offers a career-spanning view of Avedon’s work that delves into the cultural, political, and sociological complexion of the United States in the postwar era, from a 1945 portrait of a young James Baldwin (with whom Avedon co-edited the Magpie, their high school literary journal in the Bronx) to 1960s studies of Jacqueline Kennedy, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, and Malcolm X to a 1971 image of a napalm victim in Vietnam. Later works include a 2004 tableau of the U.S Army’s 4th Infantry Division in Fort Hood, Texas, as well as pictures of Jon Stewart, Bill O’Reilly, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton taken in the years just before Avedon’s death in 2004.

John Cage, musician; Merce Cunningham, choreographer; and Robert Rauschenberg, artist,
New York, May 2, 1960
Gelatin silver print, 20 x 16 inches

Avedon’s approach to portraiture changed over the years. Even in his earlier fashion work for Harper’s Bazaar in the 1940s and ’50s, he sought a kind of truth in artifice. One of his favorite subjects back then was Dorothy Virginia Margaret Juba, a model from Queens with a chipped tooth; she had adopted the name “Dovima” after an imaginary friend she’d concocted when she was sick in bed with rheumatic fever as a kid.

Florynce Kennedy, civil rights lawyer, New York, August 1, 1969 Gelatin silver print, 16 x 20 inches

As Avedon moved into the 1960s, he trained his eye on the insurgent, countercultural spirit that was taking hold, and his images themselves became more challenging and transgressive: His 1963 portrait of poets and partners Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky depicts the pair nude and embracing; Warhol’s face is cropped out entirely from Avedon’s 1969 portrait, as Warhol raises his shirt to reveal the surgical scars and remnant wounds from his shooting the year prior by Valerie Solanas.

Andy Warhol, artist, New York, August 29, 1969
Gelatin silver print, 59 x 471⁄2 inches

Toward the end of the decade, Avedon began to lean more heavily on the stark white backgrounds and rough-hewn frame edges that would characterize his later work. He was drawn to what he called “the avalanche of age” and captured wrinkles and creases with great clarity. A tonal gray or black background, Avedon said, allowed the artist “the romance of a face coming out of the dark” (a romance turned menacing in his 2001 portrait of Trump, whose head appears to hover in a dimly lit environment). But the white space had the effect of creating an emptiness in the image, stripping it of the symbolism provided by clothes and surroundings, the subject appearing out of context, space, and time. “A white background,” Avedon offered, “permits people to become symbolic of themselves.”

James Baldwin, writer, Harlem, New York, 1945
Gelatin silver print, 16 x 20 inches

In some ways, the lack of idealism in Avedon’s portraits mirrored the slow erosion of idealism in American life since World War II, as this notion that everyone holds their own truth has now become one that divides us. It’s an idea that Baldwin broached back in 1964 in Nothing Personal, a collaboration with Avedon featuring a handful of Baldwin’s essays amid a selection of Avedon’s portraits. “One discovers the light in darkness, that is what darkness is for; but everything in our lives depends on how we bear the light,” Baldwin wrote. “It is necessary, while in darkness, to know that there is a light somewhere, to know that in oneself, waiting to be found, there is a light. What the light reveals is danger, and what it demands is faith.”

RZA, producer, New York,
January 22, 1999
Gelatin silver print, 16 x 20 inches
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Revolutionary Sisters: Artwork Forged in the Crucible of Battles Over Feminism

 

The Brooklyn Museum show includes Lorna Simpson’s portrait of the Rodeo Caldonia art collective.
The Brooklyn Museum show includes Lorna Simpson’s portrait of the Rodeo Caldonia art collective.

Dindga McCannon remembers the meeting well. It took place in early 1971 in her studio, a decrepit fifth-floor walkup on 2nd Street just off Avenue B. “I was shocked that people came up the stairs,” McCannon says. “I had one of those walkthrough apartments with the tub in the kitchen. The lights were out in the hallway, water was dripping, and women actually came up. So I said OK, these women are serious about their art.”

McCannon was 23 then, a precocious Harlem-raised artist who made etchings and woodcuts of finely rendered Black figures, worked on murals, and designed dashikis; later, she would become known for her art quilts, fabric works incorporating unusual materials. Since her teens she had belonged to Weusi, a “Black Aesthetic” artists’ collective in Harlem. But the group was almost all male. “There’s another kind of connection that we as women have, and I wanted that,” McCannon says. “And I found there were other women who wanted the same thing.”

Dindga McCannon’s 1971 mixed-media work Revolutionary Sister.
Dindga McCannon’s 1971 mixed-media work Revolutionary Sister.

How to locate other Black women artists wasn’t obvious at the time. McCannon knew one in person: Kay Brown, the other woman in Weusi and her elder by fifteen years, who was working with etchings and collage, often addressing political themes such as the Vietnam War. They contacted Faith Ringgold, their most visible peer: A prolific and imaginative painter in mid-career (her sculptures and narrative quilts would come later), she was also a committed activist in support of the Black Panthers and helped lead protests against shows, like the 1970 Whitney Biennial, that made little room for female and Black artists.

In all, McCannon says, about ten women gathered in her studio that day. It would lead to what, as far as they knew, was the first-ever group show of Black women artists, an exhibition titled “Where We At,” held at the Acts of Art gallery on Charles Street in Greenwich Village. The women went on to form a collective by the same name, organizing traveling exhibitions and doing work with the elderly and incarcerated for more than a decade. Over that time the cultural landscape changed dramatically — in particular, the Black Power movement, with its patriarchal tendencies, receded. But left unresolved was the relationship of Black women — and their art — to feminism.

Lorraine O’Grady’s Mlle. Bourgeoise Noire persona crashed museum spaces years before the Guerrilla Girls.
Lorraine O’Grady’s Mlle. Bourgeoise Noire persona crashed museum spaces years before the Guerrilla Girls.

“Feminism is civilization-changing, but there are places where it hasn’t lived up to its promise,” says Rujeko Hockley, assistant curator of contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum until early this year. Hockley and Catherine Morris, senior curator of the museum’s Sackler Center for Feminist Art, have organized a show that fills in the story of that crucial time. “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85,” which opens on April 21, traces the work of Black women artists during the heyday of second-wave feminism. It includes some forty visual, film, and performance artists, plus a wealth of ephemera — pamphlets, magazines, letters, photographs — documenting their lives and concerns.

Many of these artists have only recently gotten their due, notes Brooklyn Museum director Anne Pasternak, who became the first woman to head the institution in late 2015 after 21 years leading Creative Time. “The exhibition shines light on the often overlooked contributions Black women made to a period of profound social and cultural change,” she says. “Their work lies beyond mainstream feminism, and they were as much activists as they were artists, committed to their communities.”

The Where We At collective formed in reaction to the male-dominated art world of the early Seventies.
The Where We At collective formed in reaction to the male-dominated art world of the early Seventies.

Communities are the show’s organizing principle. Morris and Hockley (now an assistant curator at the Whitney Museum) structured it around a series of groups, shared spaces, or moments that artists initiated. It opens with the mid-1960s Black Arts Movement and the prestigious collective Spiral, which included the likes of Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis but only one woman, figurative painter Emma Amos. Where We At is another hub, as is the wave of protests and counterprogramming that artists like Ringgold held in museums and public spaces under the banner of groups like the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, formed in 1969, and Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation, organized in 1970.

The show reveals how the ferment of the 1970s played out in places where race and gender intersected. One was Just Above Midtown, a nonprofit founded by filmmaker Linda Goode Bryant in 1974, which served as creative nexus for a host of Black artists, male and female. The Artists in Residence cooperative gallery, founded in 1972, and Heresies magazine, launched in 1977, were feminist projects, their leadership largely white women; efforts to wrestle with race in their programming and ideas, and the contributions of Black women, form another of the show’s nodes. Groups limited to Black women, meanwhile, had their own range of politics: While many in Where We At rejected the term “feminist” — McCannon still prefers “womanist” — the Combahee River Collective, formed in Boston in 1974, asserted itself as a group of “Black feminists and Lesbians.”

<i>Sandy and Her Husband</i>, a 1973 painting by Emma Amos, the only female member of the Sixties Black arts collective Spiral.
Sandy and Her Husband, a 1973 painting by Emma Amos, the only female member of the Sixties Black arts collective Spiral.

“We Wanted a Revolution” will stretch from the Sackler galleries (where, aptly, it will surround the permanent display of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Table, made in 1979 and likely the best-known work of second-wave, implicitly white, feminist art) and extend to the adjacent galleries, the first time a show has crossed this boundary. That’s partly for space, but it fits the idea of multiple, overlapping conceptions of feminism. For Morris, it’s more productive to think of feminist art as an approach than as a category. “There’s no fairy godmother of feminism who touches everybody with a wand, saying, ‘You’re in and you’re not,’?” Morris says. “We’re trying to think expansively about feminism as a methodology for looking.”

“It’s an argument for a broader conception of American art history,” adds Hockley. “Yes, they are all women of color, but you see the emergence of social art, of film and video, works on paper, screenprinting, the intersection of art and politics, alternative spaces — so many things where you can use this work just as well as the ‘standard.’?”

Molotov meets Mammy in Betye Saar’s Liberation of <i>Aunt Jemima: Cocktail. </i>
Molotov meets Mammy in Betye Saar’s Liberation of Aunt Jemima: Cocktail.

Ringgold, now 86 and still active, appears in several contexts: Her large-scale painting for the women’s facility at Rikers Island, For the Woman’s House, is here, along with political posters, collage, and an early oil self-portrait. There is a silkscreen of the poster she designed, based on the American flag, for a protest exhibition in 1970: black stripes of text on a red background reading, in part, “A flag which does not belong to the people to do with as they see fit should be burned and forgotten.” (This earned her a conviction for desecration of the flag, an offense at the time, and a $100 fine.) There is also Target, a 1970 bronze bust of a Black male fixed in crosshairs, by Elizabeth Catlett, a grande dame of African-American art who at the time could not re-enter the U.S. from her adopted home of Mexico, as she had renounced her citizenship and the government looked askance at her ties with Mexican communists.

Around 1970, cultural nationalism was in high gear. In Chicago, Barbara Jones-Hogu of the collective AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) made large screenprints in vivid colors of Black women in Afros or ornate headgear, set off by decorative lettering with a blunt message, such as Black Men We Need You or I’m Better Than These Motherfuckers. Another AfriCOBRA member, Jae Jarrell, originally from Cleveland, made wearable art: Urban Wall Suit (1969) is a two-piece outfit of fabric swatches sewn like a quilt, to which she added a brickwork motif along with slogans, musicians’ names, and other text; Jarrell appears here in a photograph wearing it, with a child by her side and a baby in a shoulder sling. McCannon’s wood-and-metal Revolutionary Sister depicts a martial woman in red, brown, and green, wearing a bullet belt. McCannon got her materials from hardware stores, a political point in itself, she says: “Back in the day, a woman wasn’t all that welcome there.”

Faith Ringgold’s <i>For the Women’s House </i>was installed at the Rikers Island women’s facility from 1971 until 1999.
Faith Ringgold’s For the Women’s House was installed at the Rikers Island women’s facility from 1971 until 1999.

Later, the politics grew more oblique, personal. Senga Nengudi made flexible sculptures using nylon from pantyhose as well as sand and other materials, sometimes activating them in performances that suggested gender distortion and fluidity. While working as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, Howardena Pindell devised her own style of large, abstract canvases; in 1980 she made a video piece, titled Free, White, and 21, that related, in a matter-of-fact tone laced with quiet distress, racist (and sexist) incidents she’d endured in her professional life. That same year, Lorraine O’Grady debuted her performance persona Mlle. Bourgeoise Noire, who would show up in a dress sewn out of white gloves, brandishing a whip, to disrupt museums and Black art spaces alike — prefiguring the Guerrilla Girls by five years.

Vigilance remained necessary. In a notorious 1979 incident, a white artist, Donald Newman, held an exhibition at the downtown Artists Space of abstract charcoal works he titled the “Nigger Drawings,” offering a contorted justification for the title. Just Above Midtown’s Bryant and her colleague Janet Henry were the first to raise the alarm, mobilizing Black artists to protest. (A number of liberal art-world figures sided with Newman, on free-speech grounds.) Letters among artists and to the gallery, and the cassette tape recording of the discussion when the reconstituted Black Emergency Cultural Coalition showed up at Artists Space, figure among the period documents in “We Wanted a Revolution.”

A Ringgold collage in support of the Black Panthers.
A Ringgold collage in support of the Black Panthers.

By the show’s end, some names familiar today come into view. Carrie Mae Weems completed “Family Pictures and Stories,” her first photographic series, in 1984. In Fort Greene, where a new wave of Black bohemia was gathering, playwright (and frequent Voice contributor) Lisa Jones co-founded Rodeo Caldonia, a women’s collective centered on theater performance. One member was Lorna Simpson, the photography and video artist, who was developing her practice of conceptual studio portraits with sometimes cryptic texts; for this show, Simpson shared marked-up test prints she took of her friends in the group.

Even the most famous artists featured at the Brooklyn Museum are insufficiently known. But some are receiving belated acclaim: The remarkable sculptor and land artist Beverly Buchanan, who died in 2015, was recently honored in a powerful Sackler Center show and has work in the new exhibit as well; the undersung photographer Ming Smith had a major gallery show this year in Chelsea; Julie Dash, whose early shorts appear in the new show, recently saw her groundbreaking 1991 film, Daughters of the Dust, restored for a new theatrical release.

The promise of “We Wanted a Revolution” is to restore a collective history. “To put them all together makes an argument that none of them was the only one,” says Hockley. This assemblage of art and documentation, from a time when liberation was in the air but not always in reach, contains insights for living and creating today. “People have so many ideas about what feminism might be,” she says. “But on some profound level, it’s women being together.”

Jan van Raay (left), Michele Wallace (middle), and Faith Ringgold (right) in a protest at the Whitney Museum in 1971
Jan van Raay (left), Michele Wallace (middle), and Faith Ringgold (right) in a protest at the Whitney Museum in 1971

We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85
Brooklyn Museum, April 21–September 17
718-638-5000, brooklynmuseum.org

 


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Raymond Pettibon Transcends His Punk Roots

On the New Museum’s lobby wall, high above the elevator bank, Raymond Pettibon has painted an inscription of sorts to be read by all who enter: “I have been rewriting ‘that modern novel’ I spoke of to you…On th’ whole it is a failure, I think, tho nobody will know this, perhaps, but myself…iyt is a simple story, simply told. And yet iyt hath no name.” This particular story may not have a name, but it does have a title — “A Pen of All Work.” In this buzzing, illuminating exhibition — Pettibon’s first significant survey in New York City — the current tale’s told across 800-plus drawings, as well as a selection of paintings, videos, zines, album covers, posters, and flyers. (A triumph of the show: proving that even a mind-bogglingly prolific artist isn’t un-surveyable.) Here, think of the tens of thousands of works he’s created over three decades as an ongoing narrative — and think of Raymond Pettibon as one of the great American novelists or, more precisely, a novel-ist, a storyteller in a form of his very own design.

Pettibon was born Raymond Ginn in 1957, his now-surname once just a funny nickname given to him by his father after the football player John Petitbon. Ray Ginn: a bummer of a homophone during the Reagan era, which is exactly when he began to make a name for himself as an artist. His older brother, Greg, was the guitarist for the seminal punk band Black Flag, and Pettibon first became known for designing their iconic logo and creating their album covers, in addition to flyers for a raging music scene that included Fear, the Circle Jerks, the Minutemen, and more. Although his became some of the most iconic images of the era, Pettibon himself was more ambivalent about punk than legend would have it. Sir Drone, his comical, clunky video from 1989, stars two of SoCal’s best loved Mikes — artist Kelley, and Minuteman Watt — as aspiring musicians holed up in a dingy Hollywood apartment, writing crap lyrics, ham-jamming on electric guitar and bass, and trying to come up with a band name. (Two options: “Chairmen of the Bored” and “The Men From P.U.N.K.L.E.”) “I play real. I play myself,” Kelley defensively whines when Watt suggests that he learn some real chords. Through Pettibon’s lens, self-expression without craft just sounds like a lot of self-important noise.

This isn’t to say that Pettibon didn’t share in the spirit of the age. Like Kelley and others of his generation, he digested what the world fed him, only to spit it back out with equal parts tenderness and bile. Like any great writer, Pettibon is first and foremost a great reader, a mapper of the subcutaneous, that which lurks beneath the skin — of bodies, of myths, of systems political and cultural and otherwise — and even beneath images themselves. (He sometimes reproduces photos and scenes taken from television or movies or news or cartoons; other times, his visions are all his own.) His drawings are intense and uncomfortable and hilarious because they’re the products of a clear-eyed angst. Strange scenes, with an immediacy and indeterminacy akin to stills pulled from an unknown film, feature druggies, hippies, punks, roof jumpers, ocean surfers, world leaders, baseball players, superheroes, cartoon characters, mushroom clouds, soldiers, torturers, hearts (as in bloody organs, not frilly valentines) — each upended somehow, each punctured. In Ray’s world (most of his work bears the title “No Title”), Gumby’s got a boner; Superman’s a fascist; a fetus holds a sign that reads “Legalize Abortion”; Ronald Reagan’s asshole portends our future; Nancy Reagan inspires sexual fantasies; a father, son, and grandson swing side by side from a tree.

No title <i>(The war, now...)</i>
No title (The war, now…)

What has always distinguished Pettibon from certain of his predecessors — from Honoré Daumier to R. Crumb — is the way in which he sets words and images together, and apart. Text doesn’t simply describe or clarify image, and image never simply illustrates the text. Rather, they graze each other — at once marking and feeding off each other, charging the space between them, making meaning an oddball, almost offhanded thing. What more genuinely American gesture than to entwine visual and verbal cultures? “Paint the All Unutterable” he inked in 1990. It follows then that one must also utter the un-paintable.

“For a Long Time I Used to Go to Bed Early,” Pettibon quotes from Proust in a 1999 drawing, the phrase written across from the head of a wailing baby. Is the baby the reason the speaker isn’t sleeping? Or are these words “spoken” by the baby? Or or or? These pairings are like funny acts of ventriloquism, voice throwing, only who’s the dummy — who’s the mere mouthpiece — and who’s the author is to some degree muddy, muddled. In many cases, the words are Pettibon’s own, but in some, as above, they’re borrowed scripts. On display in “A Pen of All Work,” in two vitrines, are clips the artist/novel-ist has cut from books and newspapers and kept as source material, to quote from or to revise as he sees fit. Balzac, Shakespeare, and James Joyce are just some of the writers who appear throughout his work. As it turns out, Pettibon’s a true literary sort after all.

One of the revelations of this exhibition (for this viewer at least) is this plasticity of Pettibon’s voice — or rather, the fact of his many voices, his ever-shifting “I.” This artist/novel-ist is present too, always, if more complicatedly so, burrowing beneath many skins. In a self-portrait from 1990, he presents himself in a black-and-white drawing with a tear streaming from his left eye. Written below: “My Heart Tells Me That You Will Not Listen to My Words and This Is the Cause of My Tears and Cries.” We (the “you”) are now the subject of his heartbreak too, though we’re reading Pettibon’s words loud and clear.

Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work
The New Museum
235 Bowery
212-219-1222, newmuseum.org
Through April 9

 

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Digging Deep Into New York City’s Rich Tattoo History

The latest exhibit on view at the New York Historical Society, “Tattooed New York” chronicles over three hundred years of tattoo history ranging from Native American tattooing practices from three centuries ago, to the professional tattooed ladies who graced the stages of freak shows at the turn of the century, all the way through the ban on tattooing in 1961 to now. From punk rockers to hipsters and everything in between, this show has something for everyone.

Tattoo shop of “Coney Island Freddie” just prior to New York City’s ban on tattooing, 1961
Tattoo shop of “Coney Island Freddie” just prior to New York City’s ban on tattooing, 1961

The scope of the exhibition is significant and takes up an entire gallery space of the Historical Society’s first floor. The marble columns sit in stark contrast to many of the images of inked men and women who helped further a practice that was often looked down upon.

“Tattooed New York” has a comprehensive amount of artifacts, memorabilia, photographs and objects that help to illustrate the way that New York made its mark on American tattoo history. This exhibit is demystifying larger misrepresentations surrounding the practice. From the origins of Native American tattooing practices of the Iroquois to the other nations in the Northeast centuries ago, through the introduction of European tattooing, New York’s tattoo history is nothing but complex.

Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New York Historical Society said,”We are proud to present ‘Tattooed New York’ and offer our visitors an immersive look into the little-known history of modern tattooing.”

The exhibit considers each historical period of New York’s tattoo development in thoughtful detail interweaving interesting facts. For example, “Indigenous people of North America pricked or scratched the skin with sharpened bones, branches, or needles, then rubbed soot or crushed minerals into the wound as pigment.” The process resulted in beautiful ornate tattoo designs that were adorned on the bodies of those who got tattooed.

Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow, King of the Maquas, 1710
Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow, King of the Maquas,
1710

The tattoo of the past also had significant iconography. They were often the literal mark of an accomplishment and the same symbols that were permanently inked on their bodies could also be found on “carved on their wooden clubs, which recorded victories and exploits in battles.”

Another fascinating element the exhibit explores is the link to maritime culture and tattooing.

It was Captain James Cook who sailed to the South Pacific in the 1700s who first introduced the Tahitian word tautau to England. However it is the three centuries long association with tattoos and sailors that remained intact.

Prior to identification cards and photography, tattooing served as a reliable form of documentation. Tattoos as a form of ID was a frequent trick used by sailors and soldiers throughout the 1700s and beyond. During the Civil War for example, NYC tattooer Martin Hildebrandt tattooed thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers in an effort to help identify them! Hildebrandt is also the first person to set up a permanent place of business dedicated to tattooing in the 1850s in the Lower East Side. But this is not what you would think of in terms of a tattoo shop today. Martin is also known to have tattooed Nora Hildebrandt, the first professional tattooed lady, however the nature of their relationship has historically remained unclear.

New York City’s ties to tattoo history are strong. As New York Historical Society curator Cristian Petru Panaite put it, “New York City is considered the birthplace of modern tattooing. There are a number of inventions or firsts in this craft and art form that took place in New York.”

Petru Panaite continued, “The visual tattoo vocabulary was also enriched with new designs being imagined and drawn by tattooers like Lew Alberts and Bill Jones.These designs were further refined, exchanged, traded – even stolen – ending up in tattoo shops all around the country. The New York tattoo artists were also business-savvy, and New York can definitely take credit for the growth of the tattoo supply business which very much opened the industry.”

Mildred Hull was the first woman to open a tattoo shop in the Bowery. Hull who was a powerhouse in her own right, enjoyed long and prolific career. Women such as Hull, Nora Hildebrandt and others played a vital role in the larger narrative of American tattoo history, however their stories have been often overlooked. While American tattoo history has often been viewed as a hyper-masculine space it is people like Hull, Hildebrandt and others who have helped add depth to this history.

Nora Hildebrandt, ca. 1880
Nora Hildebrandt, ca. 1880

By telling the story of NYC’s tattoo history, the New York Historical Society is helping to bridge the gap between contemporary tattoo culture and it’s past. . The subculture of tattooing in NYC specifically has seen many trends over the years. In 1961, a tattooing ban was put in place by the Health Department of NYC that last over forty years. Since the ban was lifted on tattooing in 1997, this city has come to be synonymous with tattooing.

From the illegal parlors that operating along the Bowery during the 1970s such as Mike Bakaty’s famous shop Fineline, (which is still operating in the East Village today by his son Mehai, and is known as the oldest tattoo shop in the city), to the new celebrity studded shops dotting the East and West Villages, not much as changed.

When it comes to tattoo institutional memory, the exhibit also enlisted the help of several famed NYC tattooers. Tattooed New York also featured various objects that were loaned to the show on behalf of the tattooers. Brad Fink who is co-owner of the famed shop Daredevil lent some of their own artifacts to the exhibit. Daredevil which is a fully operating tattoo shop also features a a small museum of tattoo history within their space.

Co-owner of Daredevil, Michelle Myles who has also incredibly knowledgeable about American tattoo culture as well, said “Cristian Panaite [the curator contacted us and came in to see the collection at Daredevil. Brad [Fink, co-owner of Daredevil] ended up loaning them several items including the Edison pen, a Charlie Wagner tattoo machine, a sailors hand poke kit, the Ace Harlan painting of Millie Hull and Charlie Wagner, the sideshow banner and several sheets of flash.”

Myles added, “I think it’s incredible to see the history of New York City tattooing represented in New York’s oldest museum. It’s important for people to know the role the city played in fostering this art form. New York City is the birthplace of Modern American tattooing.”

Stephanie Tamez who is also a well known tattooer and co-owner of the Brooklyn tattoo shop Saved also was contacted by the exhibit’s curator to help lend her hand to the show in a slightly different way. Tamez has several of her finished tattoos on display as photographs in the exhibit and also within a video that accompanies the show.

Thom de Vita and client in his studio at 326 E 4th Street, 1976, by John Wyatt
Thom de Vita and client in his studio at 326 E 4th Street, 1976, by John Wyatt

Tamez said, “There’s a back-piece of mine that is an Egyptian/ Tibetan phoenix on my client Rebecca (photographed by Gigi Stoll), there’s a piece of flash painting of a Phoenix that I did for Mike Rubendall’s & Neversleep Publishing’s new book “Tattooing’s Guide to Symbolism.”

“I’m also featured in the Ina Saltz video that shows some of my earlier work on typography. Recently I had been introduced to Bo Gehrig, who found me last year and asked me to participate in his video portrait project. So, after that I suggested him as an interesting participant to the show, which I’m happy to say that Cristian followed through with,” Tamez added.

While this show at NYHS is significant and is helping to solidify the vitalness of American tattoo history and those who have carved out this space out. Another exhibit that is also taking on this subject matter in a larger context is the Tattoo exhibit at the Fields Museum in Chicago. Tattoo looks at the larger sociocultural topic of tattoos from a more global perspective. A version of this show was first on display in 2015 as well in France then eventually made its way to North America. Tattooed New York like the show in Chicago is helping to educate the public on a topic that is not often looked at in this way. This show should not be missed and it is finally giving American tattoo culture the context it deserves.

Tattooed New York is on view until April 30, 2017 at the New York Historical Society.

 

 

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New Directors/New Films Returns to Shatter Expectations

Audiences tend to think of movies as a basically imaginative art — a means of expression by which, to invoke an enduring cliché, anything is possible. But in fact most movies refute the point. It isn’t merely studio genre pictures whose conventions today seem ironclad; the timely advocacy doc, no-budget relationship drama, and lyrical coming-of-age story have in their way become as derivative and predictable as the slasher or the western. Too often banality prevails. Inspiration is scarce. And thus rarely do we go to the multiplex anymore and leave astonished or surprised.

New Directors/New Films, the twelve-day festival mounted annually since 1972 by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, arrives, as it does every year, like a cinematic antidote — a potent tonic for the revival of the spirit. “At this point in its long history,” Film Society director of programming (and former Voice film editor) Dennis Lim writes of the fest, “it goes without saying that New Directors/New Films is very much about discovery and revelation.” Indeed it is: Finding what’s new, scouting out the vanguard, is the festival’s raison d’être. New York is richer as a consequence. No local moviegoing event affords so indispensable an occasion for surprise.

Here even a simple logline has the capacity to amaze. Interest could hardly fail to be aroused by The Challenge: Italian artist Yuri Ancarani’s singular documentary is a portrait of billionaire Qatari sheikhs and the amateur falconry (!) that is their peculiar pride and hobby. With recourse to neither narration nor talking heads, Ancarani offers a panoptic view of a landscape that defies reflection or commentary. The sheikhs chart upscale private jets outfitted with custom falcon seating, drive immaculate Ferraris through the desert next to well-behaved cheetahs, race (and gloriously flip) luxury SUVs in and around roadless sand dunes, and, of course, buy, trade, care for, and flaunt their killer birds. Ah, and did I mention the falcons wear GoPros? This is, needless to say, an original film. It is also wildly delightful.

Of course, this desire to pursue the truly original is not without risk. Take Angela Schanelec’s The Dreamed Path, whose inscrutable, radically idiosyncratic style confounded as widely as it charmed when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival’s avant-garde Wavelengths program last September — an event remembered by attendees perhaps as much for its antagonistic audience Q&A (during which bewildered viewers rather angrily demanded that Schanelec explain her intentions) as for the film itself. But this time-leaping, logic-defying drama, in which connections are tenuous and communication often thwarted, always intrigues, however vague its overarching import or elusive its apparent meaning. We should in any case welcome the opportunity to be challenged and frustrated by a movie. For every answer unprovided by Schanelec, a question fruitfully lingers.

The Dreamed Path is a bifurcated romance divided obliquely across time and place, one that brings to mind the playful approach to structure favored by Korean master Hong Sang-soo. And the influence of Hong, incidentally, looms unmistakable over Autumn, Autumn, the boozy, breezy second feature from young director Jang Woo-jin. But while Jang borrows much from the vaunted poet laureate of soju and sadness — late-night beer-fueled confessions, poorly conceived trips into and out of town, even awkward discussions over barbecue — he evinces an aesthetic panache and eye for detail entirely his own. (One wide shot in particular, of a character pinned in silhouette against the Chuncheon skyline, is uniquely stunning.) The film has a searching quality, doleful and true, that distinguishes it not only from Hong’s justly cherished oeuvre, but from a whole range of delicate indie comic-dramas to which it might otherwise be superficially compared.

Comparisons of all kinds, no doubt, will soon enough dog Beach Rats, which follows the adventures of a young man doomed to root out the true nature of his sexuality in a milieu organized implicitly to suppress it. There are worse shadows to languish in than a universally beloved Best Picture winner’s, to be sure, but it would prove a disservice to director Eliza Hittman’s accomplishment to leave it at “Moonlight on Coney Island.” Much like Hittman’s superb debut feature — the exquisite and assured It Felt Like LoveBeach Rats homes in with diaristic intimacy on adolescence in flux, cleaving so closely to its teenage subject that we seem to share his emotional space.

The teenager in question is Frankie (London theater actor Harris Dickinson, outrageously good in his first film role), an indolent, dope-smoking Adonis who’s begun to develop an appetite for cruising. Hittman follows his first tentative initiatives, as well as his more perfunctory efforts to fit in and fly straight (so to speak), with a tender and utterly nonjudgmental omniscience. She’s attuned to the delights of Frankie’s self-discovery as much as to its attendant peril, and her camera — roving, caressing, gazing back on him as in a selfie — seems to identify the difference between fleeting encounters both thrilling and treacherous, even when Frankie himself cannot. It is a film about trying to find yourself. Its secret is that not everybody does.

Finally, Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person might seem an odd choice for the program, if only because neither director nor film is precisely new. Defa had a marvelous short film of the same name screen as part of New Directors/New Films in 2014, one about a charismatic Brooklyn record collector (Bene Coopersmith) and the obstinate twentysomething (Deragh Campbell) who refuses to vacate his couch; the feature is a kind of long-form expansion on the same setting, style, and themes, and though Campbell is mysteriously (and regrettably) absent, Coopersmith happily returns to reprise his (I suspect not overly fictionalized) role. The short was a charming hors d’oeuvre. The full-course feature is sublime.

This begins at the level of casting. Defa has assembled a staggering troupe: There are indie-canon luminaries (Michael Cera, Philip Baker Hall), fashionable television stars (Broad City‘s Abbi Jacobson), and a number of minor actors and nonprofessionals whose obscurity and inexpertise don’t begin to suggest the prodigious volume of their talent. Indeed the film’s two standout performances come from the least likely sources: Tavi Gevinson, founder and editor of Rookie magazine, practically embodies Falconetti reincarnated, invigorating with near-miraculous depth and fervor every frame in which she appears; she is ludicrously, stupefyingly good, and Defa’s close-ups — of just her face, thinking, feeling — simply devastate. Coopersmith, meanwhile, remains a wonder. Any minute this man is on a movie screen is a minute’s more joy bestowed upon the world. Defa has found in this makeshift star a treasure.

 

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MoMA Explores the Rise of the Avant-Garde in Bolshevik Russia

It’s a withering irony of the human condition that decimation often lays the foundation for progress. In the early twentieth century, as it endured the ruinous repercussions of brutal and unrelenting political and ideological struggles, Russia also witnessed electrifying cultural innovation. The spirit of the avant-garde was alive and thriving. Out with the old, in with the new. The revolution wasn’t only in the streets. It was in paint and ink, on paper and celluloid.

To mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution, Museum of Modern Art curators Roxana Marcoci and Sarah Suzuki, together with Hillary Reeder, organized “A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde,” a succinct yet marvelous exhibition that makes vivid the full force and reach of the rebellious minds and hands working between 1912 and 1935. Although these artists will always stir the air in their own right, right now they pose a question and perhaps offer a model, too: In the midst of political upheaval — in the violent shaking of the social order, whether outmoded or outvoted — how might an artist be?

Friction. Destruction. Invention. Vision. Though there was a shared desire to topple tradition, there was no consensus as to how this might look. In the early 1910s, artists such as Lyubov Popova, Olga Rozanova, and Kazimir Malevich were dabbling in cubo-futurism and neo-primitivism, lively if strained hybrids of modernist gestures borrowed in part from Western European counterparts such as Picasso and Braque. (The delight of seeing a work like Malevich’s Samovar, from 1913, is knowing what would follow from the artist, at that point painting in a cubist-manqué style.)

“We leave the old art to die and leave the ‘new’ art to do battle with it,” wrote Natalya Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov in their 1913 manifesto, “Rayonists and Futurists.” Rayonism declared itself free of debts to the past and the present, forging an aesthetic rooted in “the reflected rays of various objects, forms chosen by the artist’s will.” In other words, its canvases were dominated by strokes and colors applied in rays, vigorous attacks that produced dense, vibrant abstractions to dissolve the distance between viewer and artwork.

In 1915, while Russia was embroiled in the horrors of World War I, Malevich notoriously declared “the supremacy of pure sensation” — suprematism — as the way forward for art, embracing abstraction over representation and distilling art into its most essential components: line, color, form. Why illustrate a subject when instead an artist could capture and impart its feeling? Although Malevich appears and reappears throughout the exhibition, one wall is dedicated to these earliest experiments: cool compositions of geometries — square, circle — that were supposed to elicit great feeling.

Image wasn’t everything. The written word was central to the avant-garde movements. The manifesto, the poem, the journal, the poster, the newsletter: all communiqués, often collaborations, meant to articulate and circulate ideas, sometimes to small circles, at other times more widely. From the futurists came zaum (“ZA-oom”), loosely translated as “trans-sense” or “beyonsense,” a mode of poetry that abstracted language, messy medium that it is, plucking at words not for meaning but for sound. Here in the exhibition, we “hear” zaum via humble yet stunning handmade books by its practitioners. Of particular note: Varvara Stepanova’s 1919 poem “Gaust Chaba,” which she wrote in watercolor, gouache, and crayon on newspaper — her colorful and fluid-handed “beyonsense” floating over the regimented black type of the broadsheet — transmits at least one message clearly. News reports on the world, while zaum seeks to transcend it. (It must be noted that it is thrilling to see women artists so central to an era. The Russian avant-garde feels far more advanced than the modernists for this reason alone.)

After the revolution of 1917, Lenin encouraged artists to support the new Marxist regime by creating art in the spirit of this new vision. Having initially embraced the power of total abstraction, the constructivists — led by Aleksandr Rodchenko and Vladimir Tatlin — took on the challenge of how to bring their ideas from the margins to the masses. They embraced popular forms, ones that could transmit news of the new more widely than a painting or a sculpture ever could. Film, photography, scenic design, posters, porcelain, children’s books: These were the media that would herald the dawn of the Soviet Union.

Rodchenko’s photographs — the canted angles, the foreshortened perspectives — estrange viewer from subject just enough so that the eye looks a little longer before it sees. The exquisitely collaged film posters by the Stenberg brothers (Vladimir and Georgii) likewise announce a new way of seeing. And perhaps most important of all, though represented least well here, are the Soviet filmmakers, whose lasting contributions to cinema cannot be overstated. Here in the galleries, clips from Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929), Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), and other greats are looped and projected onto the walls, reducing them to a purely graphic experience. Although frustrating, this does keep these artists inside the arc of the story rather than quarantined in a movie theater. Filmmaker Esther Shub was a pioneer of the compilation film, which she edited together from found newsreel. Her most famous, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927), is the first work in the show, and sets the tone for what’s to come. Made for the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, the film weaves a pro-Bolshevik narrative by juxtaposing images from the opulent lives of the Romanovs with those of the violence and despair of the country.

The exhibition ends in 1935, when Stalin’s administration announced that socialist realism would be the only sanctioned style of Soviet art. Artists were tasked with the glorification of communism in a representational style that felt closer to life. Ideas gave way to image-making, and image-making curdled into propaganda — what we now call “alternative facts.” Such is the other irony of the human condition: We not only write our own fates, but we paint, sculpt, photograph, and film them too.

‘A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde’
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
212-708-9400, moma.org
Through March 12

 

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This Wondrous New Workout Class Lets You Run Through the Halls of the Met

At 8:15 on Sunday morning, I sat on the Met’s front steps — the first time I could ever remember having them all to myself — watching runners cut through the fog and proprietors of not-yet-open-for-business Fifth Avenue hot dog carts study their phones. The museum wouldn’t open for nearly two hours, but I had an appointment: the Museum Workout.

I’ve experienced a broad spectrum of New York City fitness classes, but this one was unlike any other. Even calling it a “fitness class” feels a little like calling the Met the world’s fanciest storage unit. Workout is a collaboration between the contemporary dance company Monica Bill Barnes & Company and artist and author Maira Kalman, who narrates the choreographed series of exercises and curated the artwork highlighted within. Tickets start at $35, which is 53 cents cheaper than the after-tax price of one SoulCycle class.

The Great Hall would be abuzz with activity by the time the Met opened, at 10 a.m., but when my classmates and I strolled in at 8:20 the place was utterly silent, a deserted cathedral. Awaiting us on the museum’s grand staircase were two women in sequined dresses and New Balance sneakers standing at attention, their hands clasped behind their backs: choreographer Monica Bill Barnes, who wore gold, and her longtime dance partner and collaborator Anna Bass, sparkling in a dark shade of copper.

The duo offered a brief introduction as to what we were about to experience, “a physical and interactive journey” through a few of the museum’s familiar corridors and galleries. Other than that we were to never, ever, under any circumstance touch the art (again: don’t touch the art), our only instruction was to do as the dancers did, exactly as they did it. With the press of a key on creative producing director Robert Saenz de Viteri’s computer, “Stayin’ Alive” boomed into the Great Hall. After stretching back on each heel, Barnes and Bass took off at a trot, their elbows bent at their sides and bouncing in time with the music.

What followed was magical — something like a grown-up, musical version of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, or maybe Sleep No More as a light comedy. We spent the next 45 minutes in almost constant motion, the squeaks of our sneakers careening incongruously through the solemn, cavernous galleries. The dancers themselves were silent, acting as docents by means of where they chose to pause.

We performed modified jumping jacks in front of Antonio Canova’s eight-foot-tall Perseus With the Head of Medusa. We lunged as Jean-Antoine Houdon’s bust of Ben Franklin looked on. We strode through Arms and Armor with both arms raised overhead in a power pose. We squatted to the beat of the Commodores’ “Easy” in front of Madame X, positioned to make direct eye contact with John Singer Sargent’s decidedly unimpressed Lady With the Rose (she seemed to be judging my form, which admittedly could use some work).

The playful soundtrack, heavy on disco and funk — think “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” and “More Than a Woman” — would be cheesy if Barnes and Bass weren’t so earnestly committed. Instead, the implicit suggestion is that Sly and the Family Stone are a worthy accompaniment to, say, Washington Crossing the Delaware. I won’t argue with that.

The morning’s activities were far from a vigorous workout, but that wasn’t the point. The performance’s biggest draw is, of course, its once-in-a-lifetime setting. I felt giddy in the early-morning stillness, like I was getting away with something illicit. My fellow audience members–slash–backup dancers were totally unselfconscious, quick with a giggle, and occasionally unable to resist singing along to the hits.

When you’re marching in place or pumping your fists skyward, there’s no time to read labels, no time to interpret, intellectualize, or grasp for a clever observation to make to your companion. The art washes over you. And when the flesh-and-blood contingent is so vastly outnumbered by marble statues and portraits in oil, you begin to feel like maybe it’s you who’s on exhibit for their benefit. I’m a little depressed to think that, the next time I visit a museum, it won’t be under such magnificent circumstances.

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Explore Food and the Immigrant Experience, Just in Time for Chinese New Year

In his poem “Model Minority,” Jason Koo relates an episode in which a young child kicks his luggage at Penn Station, calls him a “fucking Chinese,” and then stops, “thinking that was insult enough.” Koo, a Korean American, reflects on the incident ironically: “After something like this, my default comfort food is Chinese,” he reveals — “not ‘good’ or ‘real’ Chinese, but fucking Chinese.” Koo’s indisputably American heritage then floats to the surface as he describes familiar dishes like General Tso’s chicken and lo mein, “flaplocked” in warm takeout containers and typically consumed in “two volumes: Vol. 1 for dinner, Vol. 2 microwaved for lunch the next day.”

It is not by accident that, for Koo and many other Americans, a carton of Chinese takeout can be a reliable source of solace. The earliest inventors of American Chinese cuisine fought anti-immigrant hostility by cooking for a Caucasian public (a topic covered in depth in the recent Chow Chop Suey, by food writer and historian Anne Mendelson). As Koo’s descriptions attest, the contributions of these early immigrants have deeply influenced the American palate. Since the nineteenth century, individuals across the country have cooked variations on Chinese food to claim their place as innovators of American culture. A current exhibition at the Museum of Chinese in America explores how this tradition continues to evolve, perhaps now more rapidly than ever.

Neatly divided into two galleries, “Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy” tells the personal histories of more than thirty chefs, restaurateurs, and home cooks. The main gallery hosts a “dinner party” à la Judy Chicago, at which thirty-three place settings are spread across a large banquet table, each with a brief biography of a featured individual and a custom ceramic sculpture expressive of his or her cooking style. To decipher these colorful talismans, visitors are directed to a set of larger ceramics at the center of the table, which are presented on lazy Susans and sculpted to evoke foods, cultural artifacts, and topographic features representative of the main culinary regions of China. A teeming wave of red orbs, coated in crackling glaze, signifies the cresting heat of peppercorns and chiles native to Sichuan cuisine; a cone of porcelain pays homage to Yunnan’s clay steaming pots and mountainous terrain; new and old Shanghai are recalled in a doughy, hand-formed mass, dimpled like soup dumplings and drizzled in gold to capture the sheen of old wealth and modern skyscrapers alike. All part of a specially commissioned series by artists Heidi Lau and Lu Zhang, the ceramics coalesce into a spectacular landscape, beckoning visitors to investigate the geographic and gastronomic characteristics embodied in each design.

Projected onto the walls of this same gallery is a multi-channel video playing clips from interviews with the dinner guests, selected to represent a range of generations, regions, and personal and professional occupations. English is the predominant language, though subtitles are included to reach both English- and Chinese-speaking audiences. Museumgoers are invited to sit at the table, survey its spread, and watch or listen to the chefs, cookbook authors, and restaurant professionals recall the highs and the lows — or the sour, sweet, bitter, and spicy moments — of lives sustained, in many ways, by food. Moving from commercial dining rooms to private homes, the video suggests a long, intimate conversation shared among an extended family. The discrete layering of the installation tempers its seeming overabundance, allowing visitors to enter the multimedia artwork at any point and engage with it on many levels.

“Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy” notably builds on the 2004 MOCA exhibition “Have You Eaten Yet?” The earlier show traced the evolution of the American Chinese restaurant from nineteenth-century West Coast eateries to glamorous nightclubs to the sprawling network of takeout spots conjured in Koo’s poem, using a collection of menus, postcards, food products, and other ephemera to illustrate the changing conditions and representations of an ethnic minority. A decade later, MOCA curator and director of exhibitions Herb Tam sensed that the relationship between Chinese food and identity was ripe for reconsideration. “A lot of interesting chefs have been playing around with the cuisine,” he remarked, referring to figures like Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese and Jason Wang of Xi’an Famous Foods, whose restaurants highlight the diversity and adaptability — or the modernity, one could say — of Chinese cuisine. Chef Eddie Huang of the East Village snack shop Baohaus has been a prominent figure in this movement, rising to celebrity status with a charismatic irreverence that has translated into bestselling books, television shows, and web series. The new outlook has inevitably attracted a lot of “surface-level conversation” about Chinese food, observed Tam. “We were after a deeper approach, a slower conversation.”

And that’s an apt metaphor for the current exhibition, which developed out of three years of research and planning. “A major part of the mission at MOCA is conducting oral histories,” said the museum’s assistant curator, Andrew Rebatta. Rebatta, Tam, and fellow co-curators Audra Ang and Kian Lam Kho saw the show as an opportunity to solicit the participation of a broad range of individuals, from legendary ambassadors of Chinese cooking like Martin Yan and Cecilia Chiang to more recent immigrants like home cooks Jeff Gao and Biying Ni. According to Kho, one group has been particularly influential in generating new interest in the cuisine: Chinese Americans raised and educated in the U.S., who, with English as their dominant (if not only) language, have turned to food to rediscover their roots. As these chefs have started to claim their Chinese identities, restaurant diners have become more receptive to regional or diversified styles of Chinese food. China’s recent rise to global prominence plays no small part in both developments.

Representing this new wave of Chinese-American chefs, Jonathan Wu, like others in the show, earned his stripes in the kitchens of American and European fine-dining restaurants before fully dedicating himself to exploring his Chinese heritage. “When I decided to focus on Chinese food, it felt completely right,” said Wu, who opened Fung Tu in Manhattan with restaurateur Wilson Tang in 2013. “I could explore and express my familial and cultural heritage. That, I believe, gives soul to the cooking.” For Wu, the pursuit of soulful cooking has meant embracing the fluidity of American cuisine: Ho fun lasagna and China-quiles, an interpretation of Mexican chilaquiles featuring Chinese steamed egg, currently grace the menu at Fung Tu, mirroring the heterogeneity of a country built by immigrants.

For Grace Young, a native of San Francisco, food was instrumental in strengthening fragile family bonds. “This was the way that I could reach my parents,” Young said, referring to the process of writing her first cookbook. The desire to document one home-cooked Chinese New Year’s dinner — replete with symbolic Cantonese dishes like auspicious, doubloon-shaped clams stir-fried in black bean sauce and whole poached chickens (signifying the wholeness of life on Earth) — inspired Young to research Chinese cooking techniques and eventually to author three award-winning books, two of which showcase the Guangdong-province recipes judiciously preserved in her parents’ kitchen. Young’s personal journey speaks a truth central to many communities forged out of diaspora: In the absence of a shared language — be it dialect or any communication that rests on generations of tradition — food has often been the first thing to fill the void. Where words fail, a bowl of congee or a whiff of five-spice powder can sometimes be the only thing that bridges the oceanic psychic disconnect between family members, summoning a primal, irreducible love.

Hardship is never far from the surface in the stories told in “Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy.” Historical conflicts, deportation threats, assimilation struggles, and discrimination are alluded to casually, matter-of-factly, as if in knowing acceptance of the cost of progress. The second component of the exhibition, however, underscores that there is much to be proud of. Across the hall from the dinner party sits a small gallery of personal objects, one from each of the dinner guests: Prized cleavers, chef’s whites, patinated woks, and other items marking career milestones or honoring family roots are carefully displayed, shrouded in reverential silence. The atmosphere in this annex is closer to that of a more traditional museum, and yet the objects here vibrate with the stories related in the other room. In the transition from one space to the other, there is an uncanny sense that one is witnessing history in the making.

In celebration of Chinese New Year, Fung Tu will be serving special dinner menus on January 27, 28, and 30. The menus can be viewed online at fungtu.com.

‘Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy’
The Museum of Chinese in America
215 Centre Street
mocanyc.org
855-955-6622
Through September 10