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

Monday, December 14, 2015

Thunder-Sky, Inc. 2016: Radical Approaches

This will be our seventh year in existence, and the collection of exhibits we’ve pulled together represent Thunder-Sky, Inc.’s vision and mission pretty spectacularly:  paintings, costumes, sculptures, installations, performances, shadow-boxes, songs…  All of these artists have totally different and divergent approaches, all of them “radical” in ways you’ll need to see to believe, and all with a distinct and powerful sense of authority and ingenuity in sync with Raymond Thunder-Sky’s legacy.

January 9, 2016 – February 13, 2016:  “The Garden of Restoration:  New Works by Tom Towhey and Adrian Cox.”  Two veteran, skilled painters, one from Cincinnati (Towhey) and the other from St. Louis, Missouri, create works that are disturbingly plush and whimsical but also have the depth and cunning of masterpiece daydreams.  Hieronymus Bosch and Salvador Dali can be used as reference points, but then both painters slide away from reference into their own versions of paradise and the opposite.

February 26, 2016 – April 9, 2016:  “Utopia Parkway Revisited:  Contemporary Artists in Joseph Cornell’s Shadow.”  Joseph Cornell was an “outsider artist” before “outsider art” was engendered as a label.  In the early 20th Century, he lived in Queens, New York with his mom and brother, and created a secret world of shadow boxes, movie-star dossiers, collages and home-movies that are seen today as remarkable works of art.  Local artists Jeff Casto, Marc Lambert,  Christian Schmit, Matthew Waldeck, and Matthew Waldeck Jr. make art that both mimics Cornell’s approach (collage, sculpture, assemblage, and appropriation), as well as the spirit involved in his vision, creating and recreating an aesthetic universe based in nostalgia, obsession, and pop culture. 
April 29, 2016 – June 11, 2016:  “Radically Visible:  Sky Heyn Cubacub, Lindsey Whittle, Craig Matis, and Antonio Adams.”  Cubacub, Whittle, Matis, and Adams are artists who use costume, performance, music, language, and symbol as vital ways to break down the barriers between artists and audience, and to both celebrate and invigorate the conversations and tensions around identity, appearance, and meaning.  The works in the show range from costumes, performances, songs, paintings, drawings, and collages.  

June 24, 2016 – August 13, 2016:  “Dollar General:  Installation Art by The Girls Coloring Space.”  Krista Gregory, Jamie Muenzer and Kathy Brannigan comprise the artists collective The Girls Coloring Space.  The premise of this show:  Thunder-Sky, Inc. is awarding a $100.00 grant for materials to The Girls Coloring Space with the stipulation they must spend the 100 on materials at a local Dollar General store.  That will be the only materials they can use to make art and/or to install the show outside of the white-paint and spackle and nails the gallery has on-hand.  The Girls Coloring Space has the wit, ingenuity, and sense of intuitive style needed to make “Dollar General” an aesthetic and commercial success.

August 26, 2016 – October 8, 2016:  “Well-Known Pacifically:  New Works by Antonio Adams.”  This will be Antonio Adams’ 2nd one-man show at Thunder-Sky, Inc., and his 3rd installment of a series works that began with “Unrealized & Unforeseen” in 2012 followed by “Outcasts from Hollywood” 2014.   In “Well-Known Pacifically,” Adams’ continues to explore his technicolor notions of celebrity and reality with a sense of mischief, comic grief and funky spirituality.  

October 28, 2016 – December 10, 2016:  “Flourish:  Cindy Dunham and Carla Knopp.”  Two artists from Indianapolis work in different modes and scale, but find common ground in the gallery space.  Dunham draws and makes intensely-colored digital prints from the drawings.  Knopp, a painter and sculptor, will be featuring sculptural pieces that have the shape and form of phantom wild life.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Art Escapes Itself

We went to see two shows on Friday, "Modern Living" at the Carnegie in Covington, KY, and "The Art of the Brick" at the Museum Center.  I wanted to witness both in the same day, just for kicks, and also because they seemed, at least from what I'd read, to be coming from similar places:  taking everyday objects and ideas that are normally just taken for granted, and using those ideas and objects as formats to go on humble yet surprising tangents.  The artists and collectives involved in both shows seem to have figured out how to push things in skewed directions, while staying very true to their aesthetic roots and materials.  And both gigs deliver because they luxuriate in the fact that we all love the idea of that kind of alchemy; sometimes that is all visual art can do -- transform what's just sitting around (a cluster of LEGOs, a pile of pizza boxes, and so on) into ideas and images and objects that aren't really communicating anything other than what they are, but then again delivered to us stylishly as something else entirely.

"Modern Living" features works by Amperand, Keith Benjamin, Brush Factory, Taryn Cassella, CVG Made, Grainwell, Colin Klimesh, Matt Lynch, Matthew Metzger, Such + Such, and Chris Vorhees.  Usually group shows with this many people involved can get a little superfluous and precious, all of the work hung together because of a unifying theme that is either too pointed or too abstract or too self-involved.  But "Modern Living" takes the artists' works and combines them in ways that counteract that sense of too much going on just for the sake of  too much going on.  There's a really solid reason for bringing each artist and object into the ensemble; the works work together in ways they couldn't if they weren't juxtaposed this way.  The bottom floor of the Carnegie, a rotunda, is the white-box rendition of the show:  the artists' furniture, wall pieces, crafts, etc, hung with a lot of  care to illicit that art-world flourish, that aesthetic little tug at the heart.  While nothing actually "sticks out" because of the seamless curatorial precision you still can pick out faves.  Mine were Matt Lynch's pizza-box tower at the center of the space (see below), and Such + Such's wood-sculpture bear-rug hanging on the wall to the right as you come in.  That doesn't really matter though:  "Modern Living" isn't about showcasing artists as much as figuring out how what they do can become an integral part of your life.  The show wants you to "live with" what artists do.

To bring that point home, on the second floor of the Carnegie, the artists and collectives who have work in the rotunda were given spaces to depict 3 different kind of living situations:  each of the three arrangements have a real zany, crafty ambiance without becoming too Wes-Anderson twee.  There's a comfort in the whimsy here, and also a tempered seriousness:  a severe, naked chipboard chair with a cement-block footstool is to die for, a sort of Magritte joke on furniture that also gets at the feeling of sitting in a church pew.  In the dining room vignette are cool makeshift stools made from pickle-buckets, cushioned in stuffed old denim.  In the living is a bird bath constructed from an old satellite dish, as well as a Pee-Wee-Hermanesque log sofa that seems right at home.  All 3 of the installed environments allow each piece to ring true; there's nothing sneaky or ironic I don't think going on, outside of the fact that this is an art gallery pretending to be a superstore.  All these artists are just trying to figure out how to merge what they make with what people might want and use, and vice versa. 

In effect, "Modern Living" is an art show that escapes itself by being completely artful while also focusing on how "Art" sometimes needs to lose the capital "A" so we can see it better.  It's probably one of my favorite shows in the area this year.

As is "The Art of the Brick," the LEGO orgy over at the Museum Center, featuring the point-blank works of Nathan Sawaya, who basically builds stuff out of the primary-colored toy-bricks, using skill and tenacity and a lot of energy to transform classic works of 2-D art into 3-D oddnesses like Wood's "American Gothic" (see below).  He also does original stuff that's not really original outside of the fact that everything is made of LEGOs.  Lots of faceless human figures that seem to have escaped from Power-Point presentations, and yet powerful because of their inception.  Originality isn't the point here; it's ingenuity.  Sawaya is a slave to the brick.  His obsessiveness comes close to the "Outsider Art" trope of "fringe" artists dedicating themselves to materials normally not used for "higher purposes," as well as the kicky self-referential world he's made out of that dedication.  Sawaya also has a great na├»ve sense of his own importance (the wall-text is all about how humanity is this, and creativity is that).  At the core, though, "The Art of the Brick" is about the brick, and making wonderful things out of them.  Sawaya is a master,  The curators of the show understand this and have installed each piece with tender loving care, coated all the walls in black, lit everything like a big-budget movie.  While you walk through, you just let Sawaya's obsession take over.  You ooh and ahh, and for a second you're just amazed by the stupidity and strangeness of the whole endeavor, but also overcome by the process Sawaya created:  each title-card tells you how many LEGOs it took to make each piece.  He's building a LEGO staircase to Heaven. 

Directly below is a cloud he made.  It's beautiful in a way that you can't really describe without stating the obvious, which is what is so fantastic about Sawaya's oeuvre.  Outside of the fact that it was made from toy bricks and it's floating, there's nothing much else to say.  So just enjoy the damn thing.  It's a plastic heavy cloud that took hundreds of white LEGOs to make, and sometimes that's just all you need.       

A cloud in the LEGO show.

Matt Lynch's pizza-box tower at the Carnegie.

"American Gothic" made of LEGOs

Bottom floor at the Carnegie.

More LEGO art history.

Upstairs at the Carnegie.

A LEGO tree.

LEGO dinosaur.
The dining-room arrangement at the Carnegie.