Monday, December 28, 2015

Escape Artists

I wrote about a couple of local exhibits here that I loved a few weeks back (click here to take a look), and in the course of coming up with that post I stumbled onto a phrase that's kind of stuck with me:  "art escaping itself."  That idea inspired me to try to figure out what I actually mean.  I'm guessing the main function of art trying to get away from itself is so that it can become something else entirely while also drawing attention to the fact that it's actually still exactly what it is.  The whole concept is a reiteration of Jean Dubuffet's famous quote:  "Art does not lie down on the bed that is made for it; it runs away as soon as one says its name; it loves to be incognito. Its best moments are when it forgets what it is called."  But Dubuffet always goes a little overboard.  I want art not to be incognito as much as the face on a Most Wanted poster -- eagerly anticipating being caught for what it is while running away from what it does, or is trying to do.  That's the perfect nexus at least for me:  grand schemes at the service of never being assigned to a cell or a pigeonhole.  

So I thought:  what if I could curate a group-show called "Art Escapes Itself"?  What works would I choose?   I mean not for real of course, but in a little museum in Heaven with no restraints, no bull-shit.  Then I started to remember moments in my life when I was in museums and galleries and I came across works that allowed me that feeling of watching prisoners escaping, running across night-time fields, never looking back, but then again eventually caught and returned, some kind of gorgeous sci-fi escape route constantly reiterated, refashioned, reborn.  The pieces below are what came to my mind.

1.  David Wojnarowicz's "Earth," synthetic polymer paint and collage on Masonite, 1987.  I could look at this sucker all day long.  The imagery here is encyclopedic and comic-book, but it escapes those formats through glaring into a mythical sun.  You want to crawl into Wojnarowicz's atmosphere here, feel his fever, but also the picture has the innocent postcard nostalgia of a summer vacation, that boredom that produces dream-states.  He paints over the collage and collages over the paint, creating depth and shallowness that somehow interrelate, giving the whole enterprise an amateurish nervousness and a spot-on professional gloss; you feel Wojnarowicz's itch to say something he can't say, to see something he can't see. It's a pictograph of illusions and allusions, jokes and prayers, and yet when you look at it all you see is exactly what it is, a burial ground giving birth to the last stages of an empire, a compilation of  tropes and tattoos, an incantation that triggers bliss and sorrow.  Wojnarowicz, as in his other work, merges childhood's end with an adult's desire to create a Utopia that encompasses creation and destruction, train-wrecks and daydreams.   I think the main reason I see this piece escaping itself is that it is both elegantly simple and yet totally overwrought and still you only experience it as a fully realized picture divided into quadrants that seem to be telling one another about the transformative purposes of dirt:  digging, planting, burying, sprouting, escaping... 

David Wojnarowicz

2.  Cy Twombly's "Bacchus" series, acrylic on canvas, 2006-8.  These are so dumb you want to get dumb with them.  "Dumb" is their escape route.  The god of wine is talking drunkenly and loudly on his cell-phone at a party at the edge of the earth, and you're overhearing babble and bombast and bull-shit, getting a contact high.  Gigantic-assed doodles and loops executed in murderous, cartoonish red, these paintings don't really need to exist at all, and yet here they are, at the Tate Modern in London, big as billboards, loud as thunderbolts.  Twombly's style here helps him to reinvent abstraction (the way Mel Brooks reinvented the Western in Blazing Saddles), losing that calcified sense of meaning/non-meaning, and shooting for stupid in a way
that transcends stupid.  These big old wall-objects are jokes that turn in on themselves, jokes into galaxies.  They have an earnest funk to them, but also a scratchy sense of old-man lyricism, poetry that gets thrown into the trash and retrieved and stretched into myth. Twombly finds his way out of himself and his pretensions.  No longer trying to make scribbling an epic journey of the soul, now he's just going for it.  "Fuck it," says the god of wine.   Cue "Love Hangover" by Diana Ross.

Cy Twombly

3.  Robert Rauschenberg, "Melic Meeting (Spread)," solvent transfer, fabric collage, acrylic, mirrored panel, wood, and comb on wood panel, 1979.  We stumbled into this beautiful thing at the New Orleans Museum of Art earlier this year.  It's Rauschenberg mid-term, 1979, and kind of like a Fred-Astaire reinterpretation of his other earlier works, without the rust and vigor and lushness, but with a strange kitchen-curtain grace that feels like dancing with your eyes closed.  There's a memory parade here, unlike the memory stockpiling and convoys in the 60s combines (the mattress, the ram, the stuff eagle and so on):  you feel elevated not submerged.  Rauschenberg has found a way to suck in all the elements and objects humanly possible into this work without having to call movers in.  It's lightweight but fabulously so, an empty apartment full of ghosts, and the ghosts can only communicate with combs and mirrors and pictures of cats.  It's wallpaper and duct-tape and sleep, migraines and half-eaten birthday cakes and ruined Polaroids after a floor.  Someone somewhere is walking down a hallway thinking about what they are going to have for lunch as well as what it means to be alive:  banality and profundity find each other and laugh about all they have in common.  Poetry usually can't get to this place he's found.  Words are just dirty clothes on the floor.  Mr. ee cummings does find a few argyle socks sometimes though that match Rauschenberg's insights and flights:

 “though your sorrows not
any tongue may name,
three i’ll give you sweet
joys for each of them
But it must be your”
whispers that flower

Robert Rauschenberg

4.  Joseph Cornell, "Celestial Navigation," found objects, acrylic, and collage, 1958.   We're doing a Joseph-Cornell tribute show at Thunder-Sky, Inc. this year, so he's always in my head somewhere, working diligently on things like this:  carefully constructed whispers (see ee cummings above) that freeze themselves into time-machine tableaus.  This one is calibrated to narrate a story only Cornell knows, and yet you can grasp the meaning without knowing the story.  You can look at it as "art,' but also as something else entirely:  talisman, crystal ball...  Cornell arranges knickknacks and toys into incantations.  I wrote a post about 4 years ago not about Cornell, but about a blue bucket.  Here's the link:  "Little Blue Buckets".  It's a short piece about a home-visit I made and I came across a school-age kid with a developmental disability who basically worshipped a little blue bucket he kept around the trailer.  I wrote:  "The little blue bucket escaped art and has become art simultaneously.  The saying goes, "If a tree falls in the forest..."  But that's not it.  I stumbled onto a happiness and a beauty that does not need documented.  It doesn't need justified.  It's just there."  I think this is what Cornell did most everyday of his life.  He searched for ways to stumble into things; he worshiped what was right in front of him to the degree that he could alchemize everyday objects and notions into totems and triumphs.  He lived for self-imposed serendipity.  It was the way he survived.    

Joseph Cornell

5.  Judith Scott, "Untitled," fiber and found objects, 2004.  There's something about revenge here, in this entangling of yarn and stuff Scott found to take hostage; she's trying to build a nest, sure, that's the easiest interpretation.  Foraging for tubes and plastic wheels, spools of thread, taking all of that and spinning it and wrapping it into a place of rest, or maybe even restoration?  But I don't think so.  It doesn't seem restful, this "Untitled" thing.  It seems almost vicious, unnerving.  Vicious and unnerving in a good way.  Unlike Rauschenberg who fashioned his obsession with appropriation, assemblage and collage into stream-of-consciousness window-dressing, Scott's work isn't theatrical or expressionistic, as much as it is conceptual and harmonic.  She's creating and obscuring symbolisms, taking away the function of things while imbuing them with an entrapped power and focus objects shouldn't have, wrapped in yarn or not.  It's accidental, what she does, but also fully intended to show us her territory, her conquest.  She's pulling the world into her grasp one little piece of crap at a time, and giving us these sonnets and villanelles made from whatever is at hand.  The structure is key.  They don't look messy.  This one especially has a firm focus, a grim and hilarious necessity.  She's swaddling, she's capturing, she's finding a way to make sense of a world made up of so much shit it's time to get out some rope and track it all down.

Judith Scott

6.  Jean Michel Basquiat, "King Zulu," mixed media, 1986.  A theme that runs through this whole "Art Escapes Itself" motif is how the stuff I love to look at is made:  a simple, declarative ingenuity, making art out of whatever is around.  That's what I love about all of Basquiat's work, and especially this piece, which I saw in the late 1990s at the NYC Museum of Modern Art.  It's always left an impression.  That cold cobalt blue there, a wave of it splashing and focusing the picture on whatever Basquiat wants us to see; he's editing himself while also enlarging the vision.  The quality of his line and the big bang boom of his color choices give the piece energy but also a sort of sarcastic urban menace, as well as a cinematic glitter.  The thing vibrates itself out of itself, like riding a subway while on ecstasy.  His drawing has a sense of nerve leaning into nerve, an almost painful whimsy cooling into folklore.  You know what Basquiat means, but you feel the meaning like you hear music, without a sense of what is going on, that feeling/meaning/music coming through without acknowledgment, just seeping all jazzy and revved-up right into you veins, cool enough not to indicate anything other than what it wants you to know and feel head-on, rush into rush.  "Sophisticated" isn't the right word, but it's close:  Basquiat makes you understand without making you understand.   

Jean Michel Basquiat

7.  Cindy Sherman, "Untitled," photograph, 2000.  Sherman is a standup comic who isn't after laughs (even though she gets them anyway) -- she's after the feeling that comes when you can't find the laugh anymore.  This one is a fave because it harnesses the energy of a thousand suns to satirize what is already satirized and yet the disposable nature of the whole exercise gives it the kick it needs:  those sad specifics, that stupid make-up, that floppy hat.  She's making fun of the people who make fun of people, finding empathy at the end of a long day's tanning.  But it's not the kind of empathy that sells.  The woman she's depicting and objectifying has been so self-depicted and self-objectified through chemicals and other means the parody doesn't take.  That's Sherman's intention I think, and the way she escapes the easy categorizations in all of her work:  she strives for the interregnum, the in-between queasiness that's unleashed every time someone gets their picture taken, every time someone becomes a "star."  That horrible face does not know it's a face anymore.  The tan-line becomes destiny.  I even love the lush backdrop, like a popsicle melting.  But she's looking right at you.  She wants you to understand a few things.  This isn't art; it's something else, art once removed, a process of elimination.   

Cindy Sherman

8.  Mike Kelley, "Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites," plush toys sewn over wood and wire frames with Styrofoam packing material, nylon rope, pulleys, steel hardware and hanging plates, fiberglass, car paint, and disinfectant, 1991/1999.  I 've done a whole series of posts about the Mike Kelley retrospective at the MoMA PS1 space in NYC back in 2014.  That show killed me in a way no other exhibit has, pulling together almost everything Kelley made and displaying it lovingly and exhaustively throughout that huge complex:  it was Kellyland.  This installation was the centerpiece, and set the tone for the rest of the retrospective.  It truly is penultimate.  Kelley takes the same shit Scott, Cornell, and Rauschenberg do and transitions it all into a makeshift carnival of thunder-clouds and planets.  You walk around each concoction a little afraid of something jumping out at you, and yet it's all perfectly still in its floating apparatus, each plush toy anesthetized and sewn into harmony.  There are so many associations you lose count:  genocidal piles of bodies, that Princess-Diana-stuffed-toy memorial, garbage dumps, cancer-cell clusters.  And so on.   There's mystery here, telekinetic, sinister, sweet.  You know it's art, but also you don't know what to call it. Like wads of chewing gum giants have spit out. 

Mike Kelley

9.  Andy Warhol, "Little Electric Chair," acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas, 1964.  This would be the last thing you see in the "Art Escape Itself" group-show.  A whole willful of multi-color prints of a little electric chair from 1964.  Warhol knew some things.  He obscured his knowledge often by teeheeing, or over-worshipping what was already worshipped, or by instilling a darkness over all the brands, and yet the darkness that truly registered was fashioned from a simple curiosity:   what does death look like?  How does it move through the world?  He was x-raying it here, trying to get at the glamor inside it, outside of it, like a still from a snuff film, like the dream you dream the night before...  He escapes all his bull-shit here.  He stops talking about it and gets down to business.  It's better than the car crashes and better than the person jumping out of a building.  This one has a solemnity to it, an elegance enhanced by humility and sobriety, but still a little fun, right?  Party colors.  Like balloons.

Andy Warhol