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Six Shows to Get You Cultured This Spring

In anticipation of the spring and early-summer exhibition seasons in New York, we’ve put together a preview of six shows that are worth the trip.

The opening of “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985” at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles last September was a revelation: finally, a thoughtful, scholarly exhibition with real popular appeal that focused on a period of cultural history that was almost completely unrecorded in conservative, mainstream surveys. Just up at the Brooklyn Museum — its only East Coast venue — the show includes more than 260 works by more than 120 artists from 15 countries that underwent tremendous political upheaval in the mid-twentieth century. Those contexts — of American military interventions; dictatorships in Brazil, Chile, and elsewhere; and the rise of Black Power movements around the world — inspired artists like Anna Maria Maiolino and Victoria Santa Cruz, two of the most compelling artists in the show, to radicalize modern art to political ends. During our own moment of political turmoil, this is a timely and important exhibition. The Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, brooklynmuseum.org, through July 22

Bring Down The Walls will be located at Firehouse, Engine Company 31 in Lower Manhattan.

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Creative Time’s latest project, “Bring Down the Walls,” is more about social justice than about art in the accepted sense, but the distinctions matter little to the artist and organizer behind the exhibit, Phil Collins. Each weekend in May, the Firehouse, Engine Company 31, a decommissioned fire station on Lafayette Street, will become a hub for discussions on mass incarceration and criminal justice reform. More than a hundred collaborators, including formerly incarcerated people, activists, and educators, will lead workshops and talks and offer free legal advice. In the evenings, the station will be converted into a nightclub, which Collins designed as a nod to the days when such venues were places for not only music and dance, but also civic and political engagement. The Firehouse, Engine Company 31, 87 Lafayette Street, creativetime.org, opening May 5

Georgia O’Keeffe “Waterfall, No. I, ‘Īao Valley, Maui” (1939); Georgia O’Keeffe on Leho‘ula Beach, near Aleamai, Hāna,
Maui], 1939

Meanwhile, in a completely different setting, the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx will present “George O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawai’i”, which charts the artist’s nine-week stay in the state in 1939. That year, aged 51, O’Keeffe was sent on commission by the Hawaiian Pineapple Company to design images for a promotional campaign. During her stay, O’Keeffe made a series of paintings, seventeen of which will be displayed at the garden. There will be twenty total pieces on display. The pictures — which haven’t been exhibited in New York since their 1940 debut at the gallery of O’Keeffe’s husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, on Madison Avenue — will benefit from the garden’s conservatory, where examples of the Hawaiian fauna O’Keeffe painted — birds of paradise, ginger, and hibiscus, among others — can provide additional context. Although O’Keeffe is well-known for her floral paintings, a show like this can remind viewers how closely she looked at her subjects, something that’s difficult to convey in a gallery that has only white walls. The New York Botanical Garden, 2900 Southern Boulevard, Bronx, nybg.org, May 19–October 28

Antonio Canova, “Primo Pensiero for George Washington” (1817), “Modello for George Washington (detail)” (1818)

Just one month after the Frick Collection closes a beautiful and insightful show of paintings by Francisco de Zurbarán, it will open Canova’s George Washington, another small, focused exhibition that digs deep into a specific historical episode. In 1816, the North Carolina State House, on the recommendation of Thomas Jefferson, commissioned the Italian neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova to create a full-length statue of Washington, which was installed at the state house in Raleigh in 1821. Ten years later, a fire tore through the building and destroyed the work (the one in North Carolina now is a duplicate). Canova’s preparatory plaster version, which remained in Italy, is the centerpiece of this exhibition, which may uproot our expectations of the artist’s style. For the most part, the public knows him as one of the most naturalistically graceful sculptors of his time. Canova was an artist who was remarkably sensitive to touch; he could make marble look as soft as flesh with seemingly only the mildest exertion. But such grace takes great effort, and this show aims in part to pull back the curtain on Canova’s process. The Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, frick.org, May 23–September 23

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Maren Hassinger, “Study for Monuments” (2018)

Harlem will be the place for those looking to see art outdoors. In June, the Studio Museum in Harlem will present “Maren Hassinger: Monuments, which includes eight new sculptures, in Marcus Garvey Park, by the artist, who has a long association with the museum (she was an artist-in-residence in 1984). Similar to some of her previous works, the new sculptures will be made from tree branches that Hassinger found around the city, and which will be fashioned into objects, with help from New York high school students, just prior to when the exhibit opens. This sort of civic engagement has long been on the artist’s mind. In 2015, during a retrospective of her work in Atlanta, she said she wanted to get back to the ideals of the civil rights movement, and “to concentrate on issues and environments where we all have a common interest.” What better place to do that than in a New York City public park? The Studio Museum in Harlem, 144 West 125th Street, studiomuseum.org, opening June 16

John Akomfrah, “Vertigo Sea (still)” (2015)
John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire

Since the early 1980s, the Ghanaian-born, British artist John Akomfrah has been making films and video collages that examine the violent legacy of colonialism. For many viewers, his breakthrough came in the 2015 Venice Biennale, where he presented Vertigo Sea, an unsettling three-channel video that portrayed the oceans as sites of true savagery. In one extended section, there is horrific documentary footage of whalers destroying an animal with harpoons. This summer, John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire will be his first U.S. survey. Akomfrah is an artist of real power. Compared to the various exhibitions from other artists coming to New York in the coming months, Akomfrah’s show has the most potential to overwhelm. The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 235 Bowery, newmuseum.org, June 20–September 2

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How Ahmed Mater Reveals the Humanity of Mecca

According to Islamic tradition, the Prophet Mohammed observed that when one part of the body is wounded, the whole body feels distress. This idea is a metaphor: it enjoins all Muslims to look out for one another’s well-being. But for the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater, the comparison applies equally to another complex organism: Mecca, the holy city.

“It’s a beautiful way to think about the city,” says Mater, who has mixed documentary and conceptual methods to think about Mecca for the past decade. Mecca Journeys, an illuminating exhibition of his video, sculpture, and large-format photography at the Brooklyn Museum, has been extended to June. Mater, 38, is a prominent figures in a Saudi art scene that is gaining visibility. Raised in Abha, near the Yemen border, he lives in Jeddah, the busy port and commercial hub that serves as a gateway to Mecca. “Being Saudi, from a Muslim family, Mecca was always the center of our life,” Mater says. But he is also trained as a physician, with a specialty in community health, and the principles of that discipline inform his art. “The way my eye works is to look to the city as a body.”

“Ka’aba” (2015)

Mecca is easy to get wrong—or to see through a narrow lens. For Muslims it is a spiritual destination, a place they are expected, if able, to visit at least once in their life on the five-day Hajj pilgrimage, which occurs in the last month of the Islamic year. Between Hajj and the lesser pilgrimage, the Umrah, which one can make at any time, some 10 million foreign visitors come to Mecca each year. Religious travel drives the local economy, and Saudi authorities encourage its expansion, aiming for 30 million visitors in 2030.

For non-Muslims, forbidden from entering the city, Mecca has long been mysterious, invested with all manner of Orientalizing fears and fantasies. And when Mecca makes the world news, it is usually due to a tragic event—the seizure by extremists of the Grand Mosque in 1979, for instance, or the stampede during Hajj in September 2015 in Mina, on the city’s outskirts, which according to media estimates killed some 2,400 people.

Today, digital culture has made Mecca easier to experience vicariously, thanks to the pilgrims’ Facebook posts and Instagram stories. But the Mecca that Mater documents is different. His concern is with the city, its year-round population of close to two million, its old and new neighborhoods, and the endless building frenzy that is constantly pressuring its environment and altering its shape. Mater’s Mecca is an immense sprawl: In images and video that he makes from above, aboard a police helicopter on patrol, the city pushes up hillsides and into valleys, the landscape and structures coalescing in a field of ochres and browns. These views recalls cities with similar topographies—Mexico City, or Caracas—and make obvious the challenges of infrastructure and ecology.

“Neighborhood—Stairway” (2015); “Stand in the Pathway and See” (2012)

Mater’s Mecca is also a vast construction site. There are fields of cranes, areas marked for demolition, decrepit old quarters overshadowed by soaring new edifices. The pressure to expand Mecca’s visitor capacity means the past is under constant threat, as everything from working-class neighborhoods to sites with historical and religious meaning falls prey to real estate development. Looking down on the Kaaba, the black cube that pilgrims clad in simple whites circumambulate in an ancient act of devotion, is the huge, unlovely Abraj al-Bait, a complex of skyscrapers housing luxury apartments, malls, and an enormous hotel.

Atop the central building’s massive clock tower, 120 floors high, is a huge crescent mounted on a pillar base. In the heart-stopping highlight of Leaves Fall in All Seasons, a video that Mater made out of footage that construction workers filmed for him, we find ourselves on girders high up as the crescent is about to be mounted. A worker harnesses himself to the piece; the crane hoists him up, a tiny figure clinging to a giant sculpture as it dangles in the dusty haze.

Still from “Leaves Fall in All Seasons” (2013)

It is an extraordinary moment; but just as affecting are the passages of workers on the ground, filming each other, conducting mock interviews laced with friendly jibes. These men are immigrants, from around the Arab world, from North Africa, from India, from Indonesia. Mater has spent time with them, visiting their work sites, learning their lives. He pays special attention as well to Mecca’s large Rohingya community, whose presence predates the current acute stage of the repressive conflict in Myanmar. One photograph is of a street made of steps up a high escarpment in the Rohingya part of town. There are vegetable stalls at the base in the foreground; going up, wires, air conditioning units, wall murals, litter, and assorted bric-a-brac fill the vertical streetscape. This Mecca is, simply, another city of the global South.

To enter the exhibition, the visitor walks around two large standing screens with video projections that give a sense, respectively, of the drive towards Mecca from Jeddah, and of walking among the crowds at night in the holy city. The road video is particularly rich: Along the highway are industrial areas, drab outskirt zones, advertising billboards, barren desert terrain, and finally the exit for non-Muslims and other non-Mecca traffic, the spiritual exclusivity of the place marked, in Arabic and English, in the banal visual vocabulary of highway signage.

“Workers Camp” (2015)

Mater’s take on Mecca is, in some ways, a dispassionate one. Pragmatic and attentive to material conditions and processes, he documents buildings and their makers, commerce from street stalls to shopping malls, the simplicity of workers’ and middle-class homes and the parvenu interiors of fancy hotels. He is no fan of the construction spree, which has transformed the city’s aspect and leveled many of its landmarks in his lifetime. His distaste aims less at the sometimes vulgar esthetics that at the bigger problems: Neglect of context, erasure of history. “I expect much better architecture in this location,” he says. “It should be more related to the land, and the social fabric of the people.”

A large and beautiful book, Desert of Pharan: Unofficial Histories Behind the Mass Expansion of Mecca, offers an expansive set of Mater’s photographs of Mecca; its subtitle denotes his concern with acknowledging the labor and process of transformation while maintaining a record beyond the bulldozers’ reach. In some ways a preservationist, Mater collects objects in Mecca and installs them as sculptures, including one, in the Brooklyn Museum show, made of discarded old window frames painted in lively colors.

“Walkway to Mina” (2012)

But this is not a pessimistic project. Rather, Mater is taking stock of the city, with a lyrical approach to photography and videography, attentive to both the built environment and its occupants, that adds a subtle political force to the work of documentation, and quietly suggests some possibilities. “Mecca has a lot of things gone, but a lot can be saved,” Mater says. The authorities have been responsive, he says. “The mayor of Mecca wants to do a lot of education about preserving Mecca so it can be an environmental and truly Islamic city.”

Mater has some influence: He is the first director of the Misk Art Institute, a new initiative launched by Saudi Arabia’s omnipresent crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to develop arts hubs in the country and run exhibitions abroad. “There is a big energy of change,” Mater says, citing social reforms, such as women being finally allowed to drive, and the pressure of generational change. Mecca may be an inherently conservative site, with worship and pilgrimage inexorably woven into its meaning. But Mater reveals it—perhaps even to its residents—as something dynamic, contemporary, universal; a place materially and culturally connected to every other place. “I’m talking about Mecca as a city in the world,” he says. “This project for me is like a voice.”

Ahmed Mater: “Mecca Journeys
Brooklyn Museum
brooklynmuseum.com
Through June 17

“Public Transit” (2015).
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Robert Longo Holds His Ground

Francisco Goya, Sergei Eisenstein and…wait for it…Robert Longo? What connects the great Spanish artist of the of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the seminal Russian film director of the twentieth century, and the twenty-first-century American who works out of a studio in downtown Manhattan? I wondered about that when I saw the announcement of the new “Proof: Francisco Goya, Sergei Eisenstein, Robert Longo” show, which opened earlier this month at the Brooklyn Museum. So I asked Longo if I could meet him at his studio and then have him walk me through the show.

Longo’s relationship to his own work and the work of other artists represents the vision of someone tasked with a higher calling. When he spends hours upon hours in museums looking at Rembrandt or Goya, thinking hard about art and the role of the artist in the world, he is on a spiritual quest. “Art is my religion,” Longo tells me. “Art history is part of my religion. And art history is the story of the religion. Art history is the thing you have to learn to help you make the bullets you put in your gun. It’s like the gunpowder.”

In Longo’s studio, works from his ongoing series of charcoal paintings are in various stages of production. Punk music blasts in the background and a team of black-clad workers looks busy enough doing what they’re doing. We pass through to Longo’s office. His desk looks like it belongs to a man who has lots to do and needs to keep it together if he wants to get it done; he is preparing for exhibitions in London and Finland.

He’s still moving paper around as we prepare to leave for the museum. I comment that he looks organized. “I gotta be,” he says. “The thing is I’m sober, I’m 64, and I think I’m making the best work of my life and I really know what I’m doing. And every day I can’t wait to fuckin’ wake up in the morning. At the same time, I can count on the world to deliver me material because the world is so fucked.”

The Goya, Eisenstein, Longo triple play, I learn, was hatched by Kate Fowle, chief curator at the GARAGE, the contemporary art museum in Moscow where the exhibition originated. “She wanted to do something about artists responding to the times they live in,” Longo says. “She heard me talk in the past about artists being reporters. And I’ve always used these guys as influences.”

In context, I get it. Goya, Eisenstein, and Longo have all made intensely political work — Goya, particularly, was scathing in his critique of the mores and politics of Spain. The show includes an artist’s proof of the “Caprichos,” a notebook of prints that were withdrawn from sale shortly after their release in 1799 for Goya’s fear of enraging those in power at the time. They’re intense to look at even today.

The Goya-Eisenstein connection is also certifiable. Longo spent many months in Russia studying Eisenstein’s world. The trip included a visit to the apartment that houses the filmmaker’s preserved belongings, where Longo noticed that the notorious bibliophile had “many Goya books around.” Eisenstein’s struggle to work under Stalin’s reign resulted in the birth of cinematic montage, as well as a number of monumental films. Seven of these are on display at the Brooklyn Museum, on seven screens in a single room, the films slowed down to one frame every six seconds, stripped of sound and subtitles. “The image of bayonets from Potemkin on the Odessa Steps?” Longo notes. “Eisenstein stole it from Goya.”

Though the Goyas amaze and the Eisenstein films and storyboards thrill, it’s the Longos that take center stage at the show, with very large pieces positioned in the museum’s high-ceilinged rooms. Longo has always liked to work in a large format, dating back to the iconic “Men in the Cities” series that launched him as an art star in the 1980s. As part of what has since been dubbed the Pictures Generation, he and contemporaries including Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince used found-media images as jumping-off points for their work. For the most part, they still do — Longo included. “Now the biggest difference is that I don’t so much respond to stuff — I search for stuff,” Longo says. “I have an idea of what I want, and I go look for it. On the other hand, I’m still responding to things.”

Robert Longo, Untitled (November 8, 2016)

Longo often works in charcoal, creating a hyper-realistic rendering of a memory that never actually occurred. The images are doctored composites of found images. They are drawn to be as dramatic as possible and presented behind glass. The light, the shading, the stark black-and-whiteness are ghostly and sinister. Their realism is an optical illusion. They look like photos, but when you get closer they break down into abstraction. “I grew up with TV, black-and-white,” he says. “All the images I saw in the formative time in my life were always behind glass.”

A fun fact about Longo is that he played middle linebacker at a college in Texas. Well under six feet tall (and now a smaller version of himself since he suffered a mild stroke in 2012), he’s not a man you’d picture butting heads with fullbacks. But he is still tuned in to the sports world, and he understands its powerful hold on the American psyche.

When the killing of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson in 2014 led to riots, Longo struggled to create a work in response. “Whenever I tried to draw the images of the protesters it never felt like I gave them justice,” he explains. “In my hands, they always looked clumsy, like they were doing the ‘Macarena’ or something.”

Nothing worked until he saw the image of the St. Louis Rams receivers corps, led by Kenny Britt, come out onto the field with their hands up in homage to Brown on national TV. “It was fuckin’ mind-blowing,” he says. “It was like John Carlos and Tommie Smith with the glove at the ’68 Olympics. I kept thinking, ‘Here are these football players dressed in a uniform that’s not a whole lot different than cops, in militarized shoulder pads, helmets, playing a game based on the idea of war that basically is also a game that forms a weird oppression for young black men who think the way out of poverty is to be an athlete.’ ”

While the U.S. of the 1980s was very good to Longo, the same couldn’t be said of the 1990s. He left for Europe and set himself up in a studio in Paris. “Going to Europe saved my life,” he says, unequivocally implying both physical and professional salvation. “The Europeans were interested in my work even though they knew I was this crazy, drugged, rock ’n’ roll guy. European collectors were more open to my work, and I was able to build a European base that is still very strong.”

Another way in which Europe was good to Longo: That’s where he met and married Barbara Sukowa, a German actress best known for her work with Rainer Werner Fassbinder. “When we got married we decided to go back to New York,” he explains. “And it wasn’t easy. I would sell work every now and then. It was tough.”

With the art world unmoved by his work, he turned to filmmaking. “When I made Johnny Mnemonic [with Keanu Reeves], from ’93 to ’95, it completed my demise,” he recalls. “And Barbara said, ‘Why don’t you just go back to the studio and draw?’ I said OK.”

Coming from Europe as she did, Sukowa was amazed by Longo’s consumption of pop culture and his insatiable appetite for images. “She made me incredibly aware that I would watch two TVs at the same time with the stereo on,” he says. “How all these images we see on a daily basis enter us painlessly, hundreds of them.… How anesthetized I was to media.”

As an antidote, Longo took it upon himself to slow down. By making a drawing a day, he realized he could “make that image become accountable, take it in on the molecular level. I made this series called ‘Magellan.’ I showed it at Metro Pictures, 366 — it was a leap year — images from floor to ceiling.

“I sold maybe two drawings. It was so depressing. Then we showed it in Europe and 25 were sold, then 100 were sold….”

The rest, as they say, is art history.

Proof: Francisco Goya, Sergei Eisenstein, Robert Longo
Brooklyn Museum
Through January 7

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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

 


The Village
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This Week in Food: Latke Festival, Hester Street Market Freebies, Hydroponics Class

Eighth Annual Latke Festival
Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn)
Monday, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Grab specialty latkes (like jerk chicken or sweet potato with duck confit) at this unlimited tasting, where a $70 ticket also includes wine, beer, and cocktails. Prizes will be awarded for best latkes by celebrity judges, and there will also be a people’s choice award.

More Goodie: A Pop-Up Thing at Thelma on Clinton
Thelma on Clinton (29 Clinton Street)
Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.

Enjoy live jazz, tasty bites, and delicious cocktails (thanks to bartenders from Estela and Dutch Kills) at this all-night affair. Shareable dishes include lard bread with pickle butter, chicken fried quail, and a foie gras po’ boy among others. Guests can purchase tickets ($39 per person).

Wine Wednesday
Hester Street Holiday Market (South Street Seaport, 117 Beekman Street)
Wednesday, 5 p.m.

The Hester Holiday Market is offering free wine, cider, and snacks on Wednesday for shoppers; however, guests must make an advance reservation.

Hydroponics Class
Institute of Culinary Education (225 Liberty Street)
Wednesday, 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Study the science of hydroponics and learn to grow herbs, fruits, and more at this hands-on class. Students of all experience levels and backgrounds can participate. Early bird tickets start at $65.

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Marilyn Minter’s Dirty Pretty Things

“Pretty/Dirty,” Marilyn Minter’s retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, begins with a series of photographs that has haunted her career. “Coral Ridge Towers” was created in 1969, when Minter was an undergraduate at the University of Florida, Gainesville. The images feature her mother, a beautiful Southern belle turned drug addict, insolently smoking and primping her striking yet ravaged features. It’s a far cry from the powerful, outspoken feminist nature of Minter’s work from recent decades, though not a complete deviation. Minter is best known for pieces that visually thrust together adjectives that seem oxymoronic — shiny, grotesque, glittering, filthy — paintings and photographs featuring blurry female parts, coated with dirt, makeup, and other substances, cropped close to show pores, freckles, and flaws. It’s easy to see where a vain yet crumbling mother fits in. But Minter comes across as expert witness rather than victim. “Pretty/Dirty” is the rare retrospective that also acts as an engrossing biography, skillfully revealing the key shifts in Minter’s career, the points where the green artist transformed into skilled provocateur, the path that made her a star.

We see Minter as a young pop artist in New York City, playing with found images of women and Benday dots (in Big Girls, 1986, an iconic image of Sophia Loren eyeing Jayne Mansfield’s rack is cropped and layered with an image of young girls looking at one another — the downside of the female gaze, if you will) and dipping a toe into photorealist painting. At the press preview, Minter laughed when speaking of these works. “I thought I was so smart,” she said. “Photorealism was everywhere, and I thought I’d just paint pictures of photographs.” They certainly lack the riveting power of her later output, and art dealers deemed the paintings boring; the debt they owe to Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Rosenquist is hard to ignore. Yet these rather traditional oil-on-canvas paintings of photographs, spills, and aluminum foil on the linoleum floor reveal an obsession with materials that becomes instrument rather than subject in her later paintings.

In the late Eighties, Minter made porn paintings: “Food Porn,” 1989–90, using images lifted from food magazines, and other works featuring sexually explicit acts in 1989, a year before Jeff Koons’s infamous “La Cicciolina” series, starring the male artist and his porn star partner. Both series were reviled at the time, but where Koons subsequently went deeper into high-gloss pop, Minter veered toward the transgressive. “I was called a traitor to feminism [at the time], yet I was going to abortion clinics,” she says of the porn paintings. “I think most people don’t know anything about the porn industry, [but] artists have to shine a light on the world around them.” The lasting byproduct of this period was the way Minter harnessed marketing to promote the work, subverting the form and subsequently catapulting herself to success.

Minter took the money she might have spent on an Artforum ad and spent it on television, airing thirty-second commercials for the “Food Porn” show during
Letterman and other late-night programs. “Pretty/Dirty” shows excerpts on a loop. Amid commercials for peanut butter M&Ms, Minter appears like a shock, painting, leading assistants, edgy music in the background. It’s the first indication of her intuitive sense of provocation and understanding of media, as well as how her work acts as foil against marketing images (M&Ms have never looked so disturbingly pornographic). “Food Porn” sold well, and Minter began to make paintings from self-made images, creating the original material in studio, distorting, and layering to make composites of female bodies and substances in close-cropped perspective.

<i>100 Food Porn #9</i>, 1989–90
100 Food Porn #9, 1989–90

In these fresh, confident enamel-on-metal paintings, female mouths, eyes, and feet seem almost to emerge from the ether. The links to her previous works are there, but her assumption of large-scale painting — panels extending upwards of nine feet tall — her ease and skill at directing and composing her own images, and the blurry photorealism that characterizes these pieces both stun and command. In Blue Poles (2007), glittering eyeshadow casts a woman’s face aquamarine; her abundant freckles and a noticeable pimple stand out just as vividly. From mood to material, there’s much Minter keeps ambiguous. Her latest creations have her layering photographs against glass, which is then subjected to frost or mist, adding an extra veil to both image and process (it’s easy to mistake these paintings for photographs). The results surprise, confuse, and awe.

Still, Minter’s work is most arresting when it’s a surprise. Take the video Smash, originally commissioned for the Brooklyn Museum’s 2014 “Killer Heels” exhibition. In an otherwise predictable array of towering stilettos and architectural platforms, Smash landed like a bomb. In this silver-screen-slick video, the feet of a large woman bulge through teetering, jewel-embellished platforms, splashing and stomping in chrome puddles as baubles drag and flop off. The close-up view renders things grotesque — chipped toenail polish horrifies; the silver paint appears toxic — yet the film dazzles.

Earlier venues for “Pretty/Dirty” used billboards to advertise the show, mimicking Minter’s collaboration with Creative Time in 2006, when four billboards featuring her images were prominently placed around Chelsea. In its own stroke of marketing genius, the Brooklyn Museum has partnered with Barclays Center this month to advertise the exhibition. An adapted version of Minter’s video Green Pink Caviar, from 2009, which features a lush, bulbous mouth licking and pressing against bright fluids, will play on the arena’s massive oculus screen at various points of the day. At 6 a.m. last Tuesday I happened to catch the film, or rather it caught me, its engorged mass of flesh and tongue lolling in the air and glowing in the sky, the mouth filling the height of the seventeen-meter pit of the irregular screen. I stopped, transfixed, and watched the world turn fuchsia, lime, and back again. I wrenched myself away to continue to my polling place after a few moments, returning to the world as abruptly as I’d left it.

Marilyn Minter: ‘Pretty/Dirty’
Brooklyn Museum
Morris A. and Meyer Schapiro Wing, 5th floor
200 Eastern Parkway
718-638-5000, brooklynmuseum.org
Through April 2

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A New Brooklyn Museum Exhibit Explores the Transformative Power of African Masquerade

Midway through “Disguise: Masks and Global African Art,” a compelling group exhibit on display at the Brooklyn Museum, visitors enter an installation by Saya Woolfalk that feels like a temple in a science fiction movie. Tall costumed sculptures in ritual stances and morphing faces on video screens depict a futuristic world in which people can access a “chimeric virtual existence” beyond their assigned identities.

At the edge of the installation, in a glass case, lurk two carved-wood Mende masks from Sierra Leone. Drawn from the museum’s collection, the masks date to the early twentieth century — but they feel ancient. The juxtaposition with Woolfalk’s futuristic scene is deliberate and gets to the core of “Disguise,” in which contemporary artists draw on the transformative power of African masquerade and apply it to current and speculative settings.

The show upends classic museum practice. “We’re used to seeing masks as beautiful sculptures in vitrines,” Kevin Dumouchelle, the museum’s associate curator for the arts of Africa and the Pacific Islands, tells the Voice. “We lose the sense that these were part of a performance. The masquerade involves costume, music, audience, dance.” Indeed, while the first sight that greets the visitor is a room of traditional masks presented according to the typical approach, the rest of the show overturns exactly that.

It’s also a fascinating way to showcase the work of twenty-five artists, ten of whom made new work for the show’s first iteration, at the Seattle Art Museum last year. The expanded Brooklyn version adds relevant contemporary work (a Nick Cave soundsuit, a Willie Cole triptych) and intersperses masks from the permanent collection, establishing a through-line between them and the new pieces.

In many African and diaspora cultures, masquerade is a living practice deployed for all manner of occasions, such as festivals, rites of passage, or the settling of disputes. Just as varied are the masks themselves: not just face-covers but head-to-toe outfits — made of wood, leaves, hides, raffia, textiles of all kinds, plastic, found objects — that transform the wearer. And, while masquerade tends to be a male domain, there are exceptions: The Mende masks near Woolfalk’s piece, for instance, come from a women’s secret society, the Sande. (They are echoed in the artist’s speculative universe, in which agents of transformation are female characters she calls the Empathics.)

One particular form of masquerade, the masked egungun figures of Yoruba culture, appears in a series of pieces grouped in one area of the show. These include full-size neotraditional costumed figures seated on chairs, created in recent years but by unknown makers; digital prints by Beninese photographer Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou; and multimedia work by Nigerian-American artist Wura-Natasha Ogunji. In An Ancestor Takes a Photograph, Ogunji sends two futuristic egungun in Tyvek suits into central Lagos, where the performers — both women, subverting roles traditionally assumed by men — film each other and what they see. Projected side by side, with the suits themselves exhibited near the screen, the videos collapse the barrier between the spirit world and the teeming commercial streetscape.

Mntambo molds cowhide to the human form.
Mntambo molds cowhide to the human form.

Some of the work is more allusive. A sequence of drawings, photographs, and sculpture by Swazi artist Nandipha Mntambo, who works in Johannesburg, appears to have little to do with masks — and much to do with cattle — until its payoff: a self-portrait, and one of the artist’s mother, as mythic half-bovine creatures. (One is subtitled Now I’m Here.) Black-and-white charcoals by Toyin Ojih Odutola depict near-disappeared figures, while wallpaper by Sam Vernon with cell-like structures, according to the artist, “speak[s] about what can fade in and out of view.”

Economic commentary is also on display. Four stark self-portraits by Angolan artist Edson Chagas, winner of the Golden Lion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, show him wearing over his head various printed shopping bags; it’s a piece about identity amid the flotsam of globalization. An installation by Kenyan-Canadian artist Brendan Fernandes includes a herd of plastic deer wearing what appear to be white Maasai masks. It’s all artifice: The deer are hunting decoys, and the Maasai don’t have a masquerade tradition. Fernandes says the work was inspired by Canal Street, where stalls sell “African” masks actually made in a backroom.

There’s some conceptual scatter in “Disguise,” but the core fibers are strong enough to hold it together. The show’s emotional heart may dwell in work by Nigerian artist Zina Saro-Wiwa, who presents 28 photographs of Ogele maskers — a form of masquerade that arose in recent decades in Nigeria’s Ogoni community — and an affecting video triptych.

The daughter of Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was assassinated by Nigeria’s military regime in 1995, Zina returned to Ogoniland in 2013. She noticed that the Ogele masks — tiered pieces very different from past tradition — often included effigies of her father. Tracking down the secretive Ogele, she became interested in the men themselves. Her photographs show them part-costumed or in everyday clothes, in a liminal space, neither quite in nor out of masquerade.

Meanwhile, in one panel of the triptych, visibly exhausted women don masks, while in another a masked figure grows increasingly agitated, until the screen itself appears to shatter. Saro-Wiwa’s art is intervention: She has formed a women’s mask troupe and photographed herself masking. But it also traces a continuum that sidelines the old debates of tradition versus modernity, practical item versus art object. What’s left is the gesture of masking, in all its eerie strength. “Masks have power; it’s no small matter,” Saro-Wiwa says. “It’s a very strange kind of energy. I’m still making my peace with the work.”

‘Disguise: Masks and Global African Art’
Brooklyn Museum
718-638-5000, brooklynmuseum.org
Through September 18

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THE NEW CLASSICS

Kehinde Wiley, only 38 years old but with a career spanning 14 years, already has his own retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, and rightly so. The works in Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic feature young black subjects in poses associated with historical paintings. In Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps, a man wearing camo, Timberland boots, and a bandana sits on a rearing white horse. The resemblance is hardly uncanny; though the thematic skeletons are similar to those of the old masters, each of Wiley’s subjects has a character entirely of his or her own. The contrast of newness and oldness, rendered in vibrant colors, calls attention to the gaping absence of people of color in classical painting. Wiley cast his subjects by asking men and women he met on the street to sit for him. He also let them choose which iconic painting they would inhabit, emboldening the idea that representation and choice are crucial.

Feb. 20-May 24, 11 a.m., 2015

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What to Make of Kehinde Wiley’s Pervy Brooklyn Museum Retrospective?

If you think you recognize one of the paintings from the Fox evening soap Empire on the walls of the Brooklyn Museum’s Kehinde Wiley retrospective, you’re only half wrong.

By now the Wiley formula is so familiar — and so legible on TV — that it operates as a shorthand for black empowerment: His well-known portraits of young men from the projects dropped into Old Masterish settings are the black figurative equivalent of Thomas Kinkade. On the Fox show, music mogul Lucious Lyon has at least two Wileys in his New York City pad, and a monster-size canvas of a Timberland-shod swashbuckler (titled Officer of the Hussars and owned in real life by
the Detroit Institute of Art) presides over the living room of rapper Hakeem Lyon,
Lucious’s son. In the current show on view at the Brooklyn Museum, dozens
of near-identical canvases repeat Wiley’s brand of African-American uplift.

But look closer at the 50-some objects — painting, sculpture, stained glass — in “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic,” and you’ll see predatory behavior dressed up as art-historical affirmative action. Wiley’s targets are young people of color who in these pictures are gussied up in the trappings of art history or Givenchy. Judging from Wiley’s market and institutional
success — in his fifteen-year career, this is his second solo at the Brooklyn Museum — Wiley has proven himself a canny operator seducing an art public cowed by political correctness and willing to gloss over the more lurid implications of the 38-year-old artist’s production.

Wiley’s Passing/Posing and Rumors
of War
series consist of massively scaled, color-saturated paintings that feature handsome young black men — plucked from the dicier blocks of Harlem and Bed-Stuy (back when row houses didn’t command seven digits) — astride a horse or leaning jauntily on a cane, like Napoleon or a nobleman. Instead of the rocky outcroppings and interiors that background the originals from which he borrows, Wiley deploys textile patterns that flatten time and obliterate place. Down, his series of billboard-size canvases of lounging odalisques, finds the artist’s male models with their underwear pulled down to reveal a few inches of abdomen and their lips moist and open in the manner of a classical Venus.

Wiley renders his models’ pecs, thighs, and cheekbones in warm caramels. Most wear their street clothes, so it’s Timberlands and Nikes digging into the stirrups and Hanes underwear riding low. The biceps of young Morpheus — not the Laurence Fishburne character from The Matrix but a riff on eighteenth-century French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon’s portrayal of the mythical god
of dreams — evince an almost photo-real perfection. Wiley, who says he paints the central figures himself (the painstaking labor of the patterned backgrounds he outsources to assistants in a global network of studios), layers on thin washes
of oil to luminous effect.

It’s easy to see why these images have become that shorthand. On their surface, the figures are commanding. Wiley’s juxtapositions of high and low, street and
academe, are subversive but not too much so. Their placement in look-at-me gilded frames gives them gravitas. If we wanted, we could stop right here, give two thumbs up to learned street cred, and praise Wiley for his business acumen. “I make really high-priced luxury goods for wealthy consumers,” the painter told the Art Newspaper in 2008.

Where once was a powerful white
man, Wiley inserts a firm piece of African-American flesh. Where white power aggrandized itself in official state portraiture, now young blacks from the ghetto, the ones newspaper headlines insist are without future and en route to incarceration, straddle stallions. What does it mean to put a young black man on a horse and call him Napoleon? If it isn’t dangling a fantasy and false hope, then at least it implies that young
urban blacks are in desperate need of
uplift. You call that empowerment?

And then there is Wiley’s casting-couch method. In the early 2000s, after
he graduated from Yale, Wiley did a residency at the Studio Museum and began inviting men he met on the streets into his studio to pose. “When I’m approaching these guys, there’s a presupposed engagement,” Wiley said in the 2008 Art Newspaper interview. “I don’t ask people what their sexualities are, but there’s a sense in which male beauty is being negotiated.”

Once in the studio, Wiley presents
his model with art-history books and asks him to choose which painting he’d like to be in. Straining to legitimize this method, Brooklyn Museum curator Eugenie Tsai lauds the artist in the exhibition catalog for “the subject’s active participation” in
a “collaborative encounter…co-produced by the subject and the artist.”

What Wiley and his subjects do behind the scenes may be none of our business, but his paintings kiss and tell. Saint Andrew grinds his crotch against a wooden cross, and in case we don’t quite get it, Wiley has painted free-floating spermatozoa across the canvas. The same goes for the bear of a fellow in Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps, which could be subtitled “(Through a Light Ejaculate Mist).” And if the painted
tadpoles aren’t sufficiently suggestive, several of the gilded frames contain sperm reliefs of their own. (Talk about painting outside the lines.)

In what world is a Yale-minted artist who lures young men into his studio
with the promise of power and glamour not predatory? These aren’t portraits. They’re types — to the point where
the majority of his titles reflect only the identity of the original sitter; his models remain anonymous.

Like many perpetrators, Wiley has moments of grace. Some are conjured by Tsai, who whips a fifteen-year career of deadening sameness into something vaguely dynamic by showing variously sized works and media. The most beautiful and humane images, presented in the exhibition’s final room, are Wiley’s 2013 reinterpretations of fifteenth-century Flemish painter Hans Memling’s portraits of wealthy merchants. The figures in a trio
of small panels embedded into altar-like wood surrounds possess a humanity that goes missing in the flash of Wiley’s mural-size works. After Memling’s Portrait of a Man in a Red Hat is ethereal, yet so solid that he makes a case for Wiley’s skills.
Perhaps tellingly, each painting in this
series includes the model’s name.

Do instances such as this one validate
the rest of Wiley’s output or render his methods less perverse? We’ll never know. Having discovered the art world’s weakness, Wiley has painted himself as untouchable.

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Chris Ofili’s Long-Overdue Retrospective at the New Museum Is NYC’s Comeback of the Year

The Web’s Urban Dictionary has two definitions for the verb “to giuliani.” The first, predictably, is “To sodomize with a plunger.” The second, more usefully, reads, “To shamelessly take advantage of tragedy for one’s own personal gain.” Riffs on the man who served as New York City’s mayor from 1994 to 2001, these meanings underscore the crippling effect of scandal on the great majority of artists. History has taught us that confronting political power usually results less in progressive culture-war victories (like Robert Mapplethorpe’s) than in lasting abuse (like Abner Louima’s).

In September 1999, Chris Ofili’s elephant-dung-decorated Holy Virgin Mary — part of the Brooklyn Museum’s controversial “Sensation” exhibition — was scapegoated by New York’s lame-duck mayor during his unsuccessful Senate campaign against Hillary Clinton; Giuliani called the painting “blasphemous” and “sick stuff” and threatened to pull city funding unless it was removed from the show. After multiple tabloid headlines, the Brooklyn Museum’s First Amendment cause prevailed, but at an important cost to Ofili — who virtually disappeared from the American scene. Fifteen years later, the disappointment of seeing this English artist’s work only infrequently in the city has been substantially remedied, thanks to a vibrant New Museum survey that includes hundreds of his lyrical paintings, drawings, and sculptures. Much like the current Museum of Modern Art exhibition of Matisse cutouts, this sparkling display constitutes a sensational NYC comeback.

Titled “Chris Ofili: Night and Day,” the New Museum’s offering represents the London-born artist’s first major American solo museum exhibition. A Turner Prize winner in 1998 and the U.K.’s 2003 representative at the storied Venice Biennale, Ofili is still largely misidentified in the U.S. as a second-generation identity artist. As this retrospective shows, that characterization shortchanges his remarkable accomplishments. Beginning with his lushly confrontational Afrocentric Pop paintings in the 1990s, Ofili’s vision grew exponentially: Constant experiments with subject, materials, color, and style make his canvases crackle with rare electricity. Consequently, this two-decade show celebrates a genuinely unique achievement. It also provides a moment to reflect on what might have been, had Ofili’s older hip-hop cousin, Jean-Michel Basquiat, anticipated some of the Englishman’s exquisite control, ripe sensuality, and outright doggedness.

The New Museum’s curating team of Massimiliano Gioni, Gary Carrion-Murayari, and Margot Norton have deftly arrayed 30 major paintings, four sculptures, and 181 watercolors over three floors. Featuring several distinct bodies of work, “Night and Day” charms and enraptures by turns yet doesn’t flinch at presenting the very paintings that gave Ofili tabloid name recognition. Among these are powerhouse canvases like Affrodizzia and Monkey Magic — Sex, Money and Drugs, mixed-media portraits made from a signature combination of acrylic, oil, resin, map pins, glitter, and the aforementioned dung (a material the artist picked up after a residency in Zimbabwe). Also included among 10 other paintings that represent the artist’s output from the contentious 1990s is The Holy Virgin Mary herself: an icon-like image of a large-lipped, wide-nosed black Madonna draped in a blue tunic on a gold background, with putti made from collaged female bottoms, plus clumps of pachyderm shit that make up the Virgin’s exposed right breast (as well as the painting’s feet). Far from defacing Ofili’s Madonna, the turds turn her body voluptuously earthy. In case anyone is still shocked, it’s worth recalling Rembrandt’s 17th-century job description: “I find rubies and emeralds in a dung heap.”

A batch of related works Ofili made for the 2003 British Pavilion in Venice marshal similar painterly elements. Made using the restricted palette of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, the five paintings on view here create an immersive environment that pulsates in shades of red, black, and green. An abridged version of the pavilion designed by Ofili’s friend David Adjaye, these canvases feature jungle landscapes populated by embracing couples, tropical greenery, and a repeating starburst motif — as seen in works like Triple Beam Dreamer and Afro Love and Envy. What Ofili depicted in these pictures is a 2-D vision of a pan-Africanist Eden. What he aesthetically engineered is an enveloping experience akin to hearing bass-heavy reggae with surround-sound speakers turned up to 11. In comparison, most contemporary pictures from the era look like the synesthetic equivalent of Kraftwerk.

The last of Ofili’s works to incorporate painted dots, map pins, and elephant dung, the Venice Biennale series signified a major triumph, but also a profound shift. Change came in two ways. First, Ofili left London for the Caribbean heaven of Trinidad in 2005. Second, he quit the image sampling and magpie ornamentation that characterized his previous canvases in order to make “less complex” work that tapped into “a process of looking that was slower.” The results — contrary to sunshiny expectations — were his blue paintings: nightscapes loaded with blue-black shapes and figures that literally drift in and out of visibility. Hung in a darkened gallery on the museum’s third floor, these paintings vibrate dramatically according to the viewer’s movements. For the minimalist-minded, there are connections to be made to Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings and Rothko’s black-on-black monochromes. I, for one, prefer to think of these pictures as closer to viewing Monet’s water lilies — by moonlight.

The museum’s topmost, fourth-floor galleries are given over to Ofili’s more recent works, which feature dramatic color combinations in sinuous compositions depicting elongated Matisse-like figures disporting against Art Deco–like backgrounds. Bright, fluid, flat, and often gauzy, Ofili’s newest dreamscapes engage mythological narratives and religious figures — subject matter the artist has incorporated into his work in much the same way he once used dung and clippings. Paintings like the knockout Ovid-Destiny and Ovid-Actaeon were made for a joint commission for both the U.K.’s Royal Opera House and the National Gallery; their theme is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Other works, like the orange, teal, and purple Raising of Lazarus, take on art history directly, with a veteran’s confidence. An image that not only echoes past versions of the painting, from Rembrandt to van Gogh, Lazarus and other works like it in “Night and Day” appear to literally embrace and consume all of art history.

El Greco, Les Fauves, Gauguin, Picasso’s Blue Period, late Matisse, German Expressionism, Yves Klein, Romare Bearden, Robert Rauschenberg. Like lessons learned during Giuliani-time, this artist train is not in vain, but rather marks stages in the development of a painter who, as this retrospective amply demonstrates, became a modern master. Any remaining Ofili detractors ought to have their eyes examined.