James Kudelka isn’t the most scintillating conversationalist, but his dances are never dull. Cruel World, a flurry of duets made for American Ballet Theatre in 1994, divided viewers, who saw either the paragon of partnering or the musings of a misanthrope.

The self-styled ”love, sex, and death choreographer” returns to City Center Tuesday with the National Ballet of Canada, where he succeeded Reid Anderson as artistic director in 1996. It’s an odd move for a dancemaker in his prime, and an odder one for an introvert. But after years of freelancing, the clever classicist hit a turning point.

”I’m moving into a new period and I’m absolutely fearless about it,” he says, ”because I know the old ways of making ballets and running companies don’t work anymore.” In hindsight, it seems inevitable he’d take the helm. After Cruel World, he tackled trios in States of Grace and corps work in the National’s bold restaging of The Nutcracker. Running the troupe was the logical next step. ”It’s like choreographing a very big ballet.”

For a guy who’s spent half his life in and around NBC, it’s also like going home. Starting at the company’s feeder school at age 10, he joined the corps at 16, made soloist at 20, and quit at 24. He returned as artist-in-residence at 36. Now 42, he and executive director Valerie Wilder shoulder a $1.8 million deficit. As they trim casting and bookings, Kudelka believes the company can dance its way out of debt with the right material. Updated classics, like Nutcracker and next year’s Swan Lake, figure prominently in his plan. So do works outside the classical canon, like the weight of absence by soloist Dominique Dumais, and his own The Four Seasons, which explores the stages of a man’s life.

Kudelka, intent on drawing dancers into the creative process, isn’t alone in entering a new phase. ”When I danced with the company in the ’70s, we learned Ashton ballets from notators,” he says. Today living choreographers like Dumais and John Alleyne offer NBC a fresher harvest.


Drawing Room

Stay-at-home artists, introverted, obsessive, and a bit batty, are
stepping into the limelight, with work that harkens back to a handmade era and looks
forward to an increasingly digitized world. John Morris appears to be one of their number.
This self-taught artist, a 33-year-old resident of Queens, makes his debut with an
exhibition, at once vast and scaled down, of six years’ worth of drawings (his entire
oeuvre) in two rooms at D’Amelio Terras.

Laid out on tables, each accompanied by its own glassine envelope,
these small works are displayed like specimens of nature. Drawn and stamped with wax
crayon, graphite, ink, and colored pencil, each offers a microcosm of lines, dots,
ellipses, and circles, in delicately mutating color–pale yellows, milky whites, aqua
blues. At once organic and unearthly, Morris’s drawings seem like fragments that have
floated free from a parallel universe. Singly, they’re cause to linger, but their
greatest resonance lies in relation to one another, in series that recall the rhythms of
architecture or musical composition.

The artist cites Bach and Klee as influences, but his strange harmonies
also draw upon unconscious memories of the hand and body. His few titles are taken from
the names of start-up computer companies (Radiant Systems or Concentric Network, for example) or their stock-market ticker-tape numbers, and he sometimes
dedicates drawings to capitalists and entrepreneurs, revealing an interest in
self-propelled and proliferating structures. A cosmographer, his work tends toward those
remote regions where intimate cellular structure echoes the patterning of the universe.
Yet it can also seem as subtly imperceptible and personal as a fingerprint. Amid the noisy
commotion of the season’s opening in Chelsea, this quiet show commands attention in
the manner of a whisper.


Purple Nipple

Lisa Yuskavage is an extravagantly deft painter in oils of cartoonish, often anatomically impossible bimbos, nymphets, and other female travesties with hypercharged libidos and the self-esteem of cat litter. Most are young, but even the more adult ones ooze moist innocence. They would be pathetic if we could pity them or contemptible if we could scorn them. As it is, the paintings rule out such comfortable responses. To behold Yuskavage’s creatures is to dive into an existential soup with them.

Yuskavage’s pictorial universe, an important development in recent art, seems suffused with oddly passive loathing. Like static electricity, the work’s grotesquerie yields voltage without amperage–an energy that causes shocks when touched by the mind but that can’t be drawn off to turn on bright-idea lightbulbs. As for standard checklists of gender issues and so on, the critic Lane Relyea has said it well: ”To attribute a critical position to Yuskavage’s canvases seems a cowardly response, like reining in outlaws by deputizing them.”

The intelligent way to look at this art is dumbly.

Dumb, in fraught kinds of ways, is how Yuskavage’s characters look, though plenty smart is how she paints them. See, for instance, pubescent Big Little Laura, wearing a girly barrette and a spiked dog collar, gawk into an effusion of heavenly light. She has a red bead in place of an undeveloped breast. The background is a quilted, beaded yellow fabric, suggesting a padded cell in a fabulously expensive madhouse. Look closely at Laura’s eye: two minuscule strokes of pale orange account for a ”glazed” expression that gives the whole painting its wacked-out emotional tone.

The artist says that all of her personae are partial self-portraits sprung loose by her interminable psychoanalysis with a woman shrink whose physiognomy makes guest appearances in the paintings–most often with a button nose whose local nuances range from pert to piggish. The gallery announcement for this show is a photograph of Yuskavage’s profile in silhouette, her own nose bent back with (I am told) tape.

Yuskavage’s theater of the self points to Philip Guston and Cindy Sherman, among other artistic forebears. What’s new about it is a blazing, steely clarity in realms of lugubrious, molten feeling–the keynote of a tough-minded current revival of Surrealism by painters including Yuskavage’s friend and former classmate at Yale University John Currin. Like Currin, she takes outrageous images as a basis for operations of astonishing aesthetic and psychological subtlety. For viewers, it’s like being bopped with a bladder by a clown who turns out to be Immanuel Kant’s smarter sibling.

Yuskavage’s work is beautiful in the same way that it is dire: hanging fire, always incipient, deliberately never fulfilled. It can wear you out with unconsummated pleasure. Like Rembrandt–with Giovanni Bellini, one of this sneaky savant’s declared canonical heroes–she paints figures in shadowy atmospheres of chiaroscuro glazes ignited by expressive, daubed highlights. But her palette, even for shadows, is hardly Dutch: shrill golds, panting purples, hot pinks.

I swooned at Yuskavage’s cunning light effects in a painting called Honeymoon. Vaguely evoking Disneyish high-end animation, this work concerns a long-haired girl in an open robe who kneels on a bed, backlit at a window that gives on a lusciously painted grisaille mountain range. Riveting is the tiniest flick of a highlight on a huge, upturning, purple nipple. That’s right, I said a huge, upturning, purple nipple, which furthermore appears to be made of some translucent, hardened gel.

Yuskavage’s figures broadcast crazed sexual signals, but they are too bizarrely synthetic to be even remotely pornographic. Arousal is another content, like loathing and beauty, that raises a mysterious rumpus just offstage. Yuskavage delivers husky undertones of erotic mystery in a grating, forget-about-it squeal. Not only nipples perk violently. So do those noses. Meanwhile, the characters radiate wistful vulnerability. They seem nice sorts who have sexuality as others have the Ebola virus.

Is this why Yuskavage’s art feels so timely? Today more and more people try to maintain decent principles for and about sex, and what happens? Sex goes click-clack like a Japanese Transformer toy and stomps all over everybody’s peace of mind, not to mention each morning’s front pages. If you think that our society’s burgeoning sexual angst isn’t about you, too, you may have gone and had yourself presciently neutered.

Yuskavage, Currin, and their peers promote the wild wisdom that we must, finally and again, deal seriously with the bottomless givens of our nature. Moralistic and legalistic reductions of human motives have attained absurdity. Now we need credible public languages for raw private truths, at once untopical and very specific. The biggest artistic news of our day is the rediscovery of a nearly perfect language near at hand: painting.

Painting can square public with private experience like no other visual medium. Its main demands on an artist, in this pursuit, are only that he or she be, first, adequately skilled and, second, a sufficiently interesting person. We need to believe that every mark on the canvas is a decided, completed deed of hand and mind, capturing a vision and a sensibility and not just waving at them. If we feel that anything about the painting could reasonably have been done better or even differently, the game’s over.

Is a painting off-putting in some way? This is all to the artistic good if we are confident that the painter knows exactly what we are looking at. The repulsive element then becomes the precise hint that, hardest to take, must be taken. It becomes a warranty of urgency and sympathy, calling our own anxieties out to play. This is where being interesting comes in. It doesn’t matter how well a tale is told, if the tale won’t thrill.

Yuskavage passes these minimum tests of mastery. She does so with a strenuous determination that risks brittle, tiresome overemphasis. Her surreality is never safely remote from arbitrary freakiness. And now and then, overloaded with mannerisms, a picture will go stone dead. (See the one titled Loved.) Banking everything on the accuracy and honesty of her immediate idea, she courts failure that isn’t just relative. This is exciting. Remember when contemporary art was an adventure? With the likes of Yuskavage around, it is adventurous again.


Eastern Exposure

Globalization is the buzzword of the art biz in the 1990s.
Istanbul and Sydney, Kwangju and Hong Kong, have become must-see stopovers for cell
phone–toting curators and jet-setting dealers who would not be caught dead in
Williamsburg in the name of mere multiculturalism.

But, back in 1995, when Vishaka Desai, director of the Asia Society,
and Gary Garrels, chief curator of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, first
considered co-organizing a show of contemporary Chinese art, they chose to bypass the new
crop of “airplane curators” and select one from the mainland who
knew the material inside out. Their choice? Gao Minglu, the foremost art critic in Beijing
in the 1970s and ’80s. The resulting show, aptly named “Inside
Out,” is currently on view at the Asia Society and P.S. 1.

“The thing about Minglu is that he knows China,”
says Garrels. “I think it is difficult, if not impossible, for a curator from
the West to try to come in there and get anything more than the most superficial
understanding.” When Desai recruited Minglu, he was already regarded as a hero
for his groundbreaking “China/Avant-Garde” exhibition, held at
Beijing’s National Gallery in February 1989–a show that was closed twice during
its two-week run by a Chinese government unprepared for the full force of freedom of
expression. Just four months later, Minglu attended the Tiananmen Square demonstration and
was soon dismissed from his position as editor of Meishu (Art Monthly), the
leading official art magazine in China. In 1991, art historian Julie Andrews (curator of
the modern section of the Guggenheim’s “China: 5,000 Years”)
arranged for his passage to the States via a fellowship from the National Academy of
Science. He is now pursuing his doctorate at Harvard University.

“Inside Out” is Minglu’s attempt to bring
the full range of the avant-garde movements he supported in his homeland to an
international arena. Working with Garrels and Asia Society curator Colin Mackenzie, Minglu
selected 80 works not only from mainland China but also from the Chinese
diaspora–Hong Kong, Taiwan, as well as the West–including installation, video,
photography, and performance pieces. Though most of the work could fit seamlessly into New
York’s contemporary art scene–a few of the artists, such as Cai Guo Qiang, Xu
Bing, Fang Lijun, and Chen Zhen, already have substantial careers in the
West–Minglu’s imprint can be found throughout the organization of the show. In
contrast to the Guggenheim’s compromised effort (which will inevitably be unfavorably
compared to the curatorial independence demonstrated in “Inside
Out”), the exhibition displays not only the aesthetics, but the divergent
philosophies that arose in response to the political upheavals in mainland China in the
past two decades–from the last days of the Cultural Revolution to the Coca-Cola
materialism of the 1990s. As such, it gives a context to the art, making it at once more
complex and more comprehensible than before.

In New York for the opening of “Inside Out,”
Minglu looks more like an eager graduate student than a courageous pioneer. “In
China, you are trained to look at the art as part of a bigger
culture–anthropological, political, and social,” he explains. His loyalty
to this approach clearly helped in the savvy construction of “Inside
Out.” Still, it’s a little strange to hear this defense of an education
process tinged with Maoism, given Minglu’s personal history in the People’s

Born in Tienjin in 1949, Minglu was shipped off to Inner Mongolia at
the age of 17 for a stint of “reeducation.” His father, an
accountant who wrote poetry, had already been arrested by the Red Guard for writing a
poetic response to a famous verse by Mao. His grandfather, a landowner, took his own life
in 1947, on the eve of the Communist revolution. “It was hard times, really
hard times, but I think the life of the period really gave me good training because it was
tough,” he recalls. The budding scholar worked for five years as a cattle
herder, developing close ties to the local Mongolian peasants. With a recommendation from
his “work unit,” the authorities overcame their suspicions of his
family background, and, on his third attempt, Minglu gained admission to the Normal
College in Inner Mongolia, where he studied art history as part of his general course of
teacher training.

In 1973, Minglu went on to graduate school at the Chinese Academy of
the Arts in Beijing, where he wrote his master’s thesis on 10th- to 12th-century
Chinese literati painting, a primary tradition in Chinese scroll painting in which subtle
variations in landscapes and figures convey political commentary. Though this field
appears to be a far cry from contemporary art, it may have been the perfect preparation
for deciphering the art of the Chinese avant-garde in the post-Mao era.

Minglu estimates that after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, more than
1000 movements began to flourish in China. Western observers are most familiar with the
post-Pop painters of the early 1980s, sometimes called “double
kitsch”–send-ups of socialist realism with more than a nod to Andy Warhol.
However, in “Inside Out,” Minglu reveals the full range of radical
impulses, many of which have been overlooked or entirely misinterpreted by European
observers. He points out that, for example, while the U.S. press hailed Fang Lijun’s
surrealist paintings of screaming heads as “a cry against Communist
repression,” they were more accurately a commercial enterprise, not unlike Mark
Kostabi’s, calculated to appeal to the new leisure class emerging from the economic
liberalization. Deng Xiaoping’s reforms also brought Western art publications and
exhibitions to China for the first time in almost a century. “The joke, at the
time, was that in less than a year, we saw 100 years of Western art,” recalls
Minglu, underscoring the level of aesthetic sophistication Chinese artists rapidly

As editor of Meishu, Minglu was in a unique position to not only
discover the new movements (which reached critical mass in 1985) but to promote them.
“Literati paintings were a genuine expression for those artists in an earlier
era,” explains Minglu, “but Chinese society no longer needed this
kind of genteel art where people stand and contemplate for a long time. We needed
something very direct to have an effect on this new society.”

Even from this influential position, it took three years for Minglu to
gain approval from the government to hold the “Avant-Garde”
exhibition at the National Gallery, the same institution that had mounted the 1976 Robert
Rauschenberg show, the first exhibition of an American artist ever held in China.
“They gave us three conditions: no antiparty or antisocialist direction in the
work, no performance art, and no pornography,” explains Minglu.
“But, actually, you could find it all in the exhibition.” Growing
agitation for increased liberalization (coupled with Minglu’s diplomatic pitch for
promoting local culture) helped the exhibition finally get the necessary seal of approval
in 1989.

Just a few months later, the far chillier, post–Tiananmen Square
period began. Minglu was ordered to stay home and study Marxism to correct his
“bourgeois mental problems.” Within a year, he left for the United

Ironically, Minglu did not have to leave the avant-garde
behind–many of the participants in “China/Avant-Garde” were
already here to greet him. The commercial boom of the 1990s in China had given birth to an
art market, and artists once isolated now traveled to the Venice Biennale and the Basel
Art Fair. “The artistic gaze now looks outward as well as inward,”
Minglu writes in his “Inside Out” catalogue essay, undecided whether
the “Coca-Cola-ization” of China will continue to be fertile ground
for avant-garde art. “I do know that a lot of Chinese artists like this new
level of communication,” he concludes optimistically. “They are
trying to ask questions of Western art, rather than simply judging the West.”

“Inside Out: New Chinese Art” runs through January 3, 1999 at Asia Society, 725 Park Avenue, at 70th Street, and at P.S. 1, 22-25 Jackson Avenue, at 46th Avenue, in Long Island City.

Other shows of contemporary art have opened around town that, in effect, extend “Inside Out” into the galleries. Among them:

  • Xu Bing’s installation of live pigs in panda masks at Jack Tilton, 49 Greene Street, through October 10.
  • Fang Lijun’s paintings and woodcuts at Max Protetch, 511 West 22nd Street, through October 10.
  • Mel Chin, Arian Huang, and Bing Lee, three Chinese American artists not included in “Inside Out,” are showing new work at China 2000 Fine Art, 5 East 57th Street, through October 24.
  • Categories

    Drag King

    Richard III lurks amid the stage’s rough-hewn boards, makeshift
    throne, and frolicsome courtiers. With a wry smile, she (yes, she) slips into her
    opening monologue. Surveying her shape, which she terms, “cheated of feature by
    dissembling nature,” the entwined pain and self-mockery of her lament nearly
    justify director Justine Lambert’s decision to stage Richard III with an
    all-female cast (Looking Glass Theatre). That a male Richard was not made “to
    court an amorous looking glass” may be duly troublesome, but in our
    appearance-obsessed culture, how much the worse for a female one. Sadly, Lambert and
    her actors let fall this compelling idea almost the moment they raise it. Insights and
    explorations get positively stanched, and the next several acts, which ought to constitute
    a bacchanalia of bloodlust, play out with all the malfeasance of an ice-cream social.
    Would that the substance of the show evoked half the spirited play of Meghan E.
    Healey’s chinoiserie-inspired costumes.


    Youssef Chahine

    In Youssef Chahine’s autobiographical Alexandria, Why? (1978), set during World War II, the young protagonist could not care less about the
    threat of Rommel’s army closing in on his port city. Yehia’s a Hollywood
    musical freak; his dreams are of going to California to break into the movies. The
    great Egyptian director had himself taken that route. Born in Alexandria in 1926,
    Chahine made his way to the U.S. at 17, trained as an actor, then returned home and
    made his directorial debut in 1950. Thirty-one features have followed. The most recent,
    Destiny (1997), his courageous attack on Islamic fundamentalism, will be given
    a theatrical run following this 12-film retro.

    His early pictures were mainstream: family comedies, bedouin Westerns,
    Sirkian melodramas, historical epics. He came of age with Cairo Station (1958),
    an idiosyncratic mixture of neorealist social commentary, grotesque horror, and
    lighthearted comedy. The crippled main character, played with searing intensity by the
    director himself, is a railroad-terminal news vendor torn between desire for and
    hatred of women. But a cross-section of the station’s passengers, employees, and
    vagabonds is accorded equal screen time.

    Chahine’s oeuvre became a cinema of ensemble pieces, dense
    with subplots. This plays out even in his most personal work, Alexandria, Why? Chahine’s young avatar is at the center of the action, but the film accumulates a
    good half-dozen stories that bid for our attention, including the romance between an Arab
    boy and a Jewish girl and the doomed passion of a gay Egyptian patriot for the English
    soldier he was going to execute.

    Less cluttered, more firmly structured, Once Upon a Time the Nile (1968) is the revelation of the series. The first Egyptian-Soviet coproduction, it had
    been conceived as a celebration of the construction of the Aswan dam. Chahine turned up
    with something else, an engrossing account of how the giant project affected a group
    of Russians and Egyptians who worked on it. Stunningly composed in Scope format, The
    ‘s richly textured mise-en-scène creates a context of social
    realism for a narrative of lush romance.


    Gehry in Gear

    The uptown Guggenheim’s big-bang motorcyle show—the most publicly successful offering in the museum’s history, we are told—raises two hot issues. Three if you count motorcycles, which I don’t. Motorcycles do only a little for me, and that little is kind of icky. Like guns, motorcycles are innately insane devices—anxiety generators, disasters in waiting, just asking for grief—and objects of unwholesome worship. Oozing displaced Eros, they are fetish machines and religious substitutes, traducing the spirit while mortifying the flesh.

    But hey, to each his or her bag. Earth in the 21st century bodes to be a bag planet, subdivided by enthusiasms. To know you, I need some sense of what you’re into. Museums can help here.

    This show’s first—or, in the order of my emotion, second—bit of breaking news is a new response of the museum to industrial culture, frankly acknowledging vernacular passion. At last a museum relates aesthetic distinctions to juicy psychology instead of arid discourse. We have wanted this development for a long time without realizing it. Now comes the but-of-course! moment.

    Bauhaus-y and MOMA-esque models of progressive Good Design have been dead on their feet for decades. But museums keep approaching manufactured goods as if in search of, say, the platonic pencil sharpener. Meanwhile, dark and brilliant, actual affairs between humans and things fill every real-world road and room. Artists get to address this universal saturnalia. Pop Art was about it. But most design departments still hang back, clueless.

    The motorcycle show advises us to forget “form follows function.” In fact, forget form, which is merely function on a mental plane when it comes to things that people truly like. How such things are used, in fantasy no less than physical activity, makes their meaning. For moto-nuts, a bike’s color is at one with its horsepower. You get this or you don’t. (With motorcycles, I get that I don’t get it.) Glamour isn’t the main thing in popularly potent design. It is the only thing.

    So Frank Lloyd Wright’s seashell has been given over, body and soul, to abject mechanical idolatry, and the effect feels sublimely appropriate. The queued up, first-time museum goers who bring their families, tattoos, and tattooed families into the holy space aren’t interlopers. They are authentic American aesthetes who put their lives where their love is. They exude a raw imaginative ardor that our art institutions languish for lack of.

    They do so amid an installation by Frank Gehry that, more than worth the price of admission, is a must-see for everybody within the reach of my voice. You needn’t pay the price or view the show, even. Just mosey into the ground floor of the atrium, past the ticket lines, and gaze up and around at one of the most amazing decor coups of all time. You’ll plotz. Guaranteed.

    Now for this occasion’s Topic A, pertaining to what New York City languishes for lack of: a building or, better, buildings by Gehry. What are we waiting for? The world’s most innovative living architect is not a young man. He won’t be around forever. Poky little Bilbao, Spain, boasts a major masterpiece by him. Minneapolis, for chrissakes, has a minor one. Do none of our rich and powerful citizens, of the sort who move and shake in real estate, want to be immortalized? (Such becoming modesty! What touching loyalty to the second-rate!) It’s enough to make you scream.

    It is also stone typical of this overrated town, whose architectural norm—unrivaled scale aside—is river-to-river mediocrity, if we’re honest about it. Let’s see. Manhattan hosts a grand total of one Wright and one Mies. It bristles with no end of depressing stuff by Philip Johnson, the paradigmatic New York job getter: snappy attitude, soggy follow-through. There might as well be a city ordinance prohibiting architects from insulting our skyline with anything impertinently excellent.

    Think about it at the Guggenheim. Picture an entire, original building on one of our streets by the guy who can transform and transcend—and thereby profoundly revivify—Frank Lloyd Wright with some nonchalantly deployed sheets of polished metal. Why can’t we have that building? Are we so unworthy? Is New York a tank town?

    Let them eat week-old bagels, is that it?

    By a simple means, Gehry has reached down the Guggenheim’s throat and, grasping the tail, turned it outside-in. Dematerializing the spiral ramp with mirror facing, he defines the great atrium space for the first time ever. What was a dizzying void becomes a transparent solid. You register precisely how it is shaped and proportioned and exactly how big it is: smaller than you thought, tidier, more compact. And just incredibly good.

    When have you ever really looked at the Guggenheim’s skylight? Thanks to Gehry, that immense disk of milky glass and nested mullions descends to the eye like a flying saucer about to land. Or is it a kind of eye itself—the unblinking orb of a secular Christ Pantocrator? I never before thought of Byzantine influences on Wright. I do now.

    Meanwhile, throngs of motorcycle lovers flow upramp clockwise, as seen between the metal ribbons, and counterclockwise, as reflected. The effect is an ecstatic double helix. The loosely mounted sheets sometimes quiver a bit. As usual, Gehry shuns fussy detail. You see how the installing was done—a piece of cake technically—and that it is temporary. This design is out to welcome and exhilarate, not to overawe. It’s on our side.

    As for the motorcycles, upright on pedestals including some exuberant Gehrian wave forms, they sing zestily, as even someone who doesn’t dance to their song can perceive. Starting with piquant antiques, you breeze up the ramp past evolutionary hunks of tacitly vrooming steel. The higher you go, the more densely bikes are arrayed, becoming a heaven mainly for cognoscenti. “They sort of bunch up at the top like bugs in a swimming-pool filter,” a friend of mine remarked aptly.

    But by then, you are snugly right under the grand umbrella of Wright’s skylight. Look down. My chronic acrophobia took a day off, for once, partly on account of the balustrade-heightening metal and partly because the view was so beguilingly strange. Piled-up, bounced-around, swimmy light suggested a colossal aquarium in which motorcycles were like coral formations and people like exotic fauna. What with biker contingents, I didn’t have to squint to conjure the exotic part. Joy was general.