Saturday, December 12, 2009
Text by Aimee Walleston
I see a rainbow and I want to paint it black. Men experience a curious mix of love and hate when they look at images of their celebrity brethren. They see the person they want to be and the competitor they want to destroy. Richard Phillips is known for his figurative paintings of high-gloss surface glamour fraught with questions of fame, power, and commerce. In his newest work, “Most Wanted,” commissioned exclusively by VMAN, Phillips sheds new light on some of America’s most recognized faces. Like the phases of the moon, Phillips’s portraits illustrate the temporal stages in the lives of the most in-demand male celebrities.
In these portraits, the subjects stand in front of “step-and-repeat” backdrops, the staged red carpet photo-op settings supplied by advertisers sponsoring premieres and events. Actors get press coverage by being photographed in front of walls plastered with sponsor logos. Sponsors get their brands blessed by the power of celebrity. By reinterpreting these photographs (which Phillips describes as “utterly worthless, and completely harnessed to commerce”) in pastel, Phillips has effectively brought each of these famous men into the realm of sorcery. The medium recalls ancient cave painting, where our ancestors used abstract depiction to conjure the essence of what they drew. The gestural quality makes these boys more touchable than the camera ever could, and more real, yet their poses and the Easter egg colored backdrops retain an implacable otherness. They remain above and beyond us still.
This tension seems integral to Philips’s intricately-wrought conceptual framework for the piece. “There is funny double play with this work,” the artist explains. “It’s a come-on. I’m literally inviting you up to show you my pastels.” By depicting sought-after celebrities, Phillips is repositioning power roles. What if a Versace step-and-repeat wall is truly a distillation of the ‘fuck all y’all glamour’ of Versace? What if, in front of it, Zac Efron becomes not just a teen fantasy item for sale, but the very thing his identity purports him to be—the boy every American boy wants to be; good and maybe a little bad, American to the core without a hint of pretension, and doubling over with raw ambition (to match his lady love’s naked ambition)? He is Zac Efron, with the mystical magic of Versace glamour to back him up.
Who we cannot be—scratch that, who we do not allow ourselves to be—becomes totemic to us. In our strange, animal hearts, we choose pretty young men as our leaders. We make our beautiful actors into gods only to shove them in front of step-and-repeats so that they become indistinguishable from the advertised product scrawled behind them. And then a question gets raised: to what end does it behoove a young man to have that particular label behind him? “Pick me, LV, for your next campaign—don’t we look gorgeous together?” And what happens to these pictures of icons leaning against icons? They disappear into pixel dust—forgotten upon sight and remaining as a ghostly archive on Perez or Dlisted (the fame bashing/worshipping blog whose editor lovingly captioned each portrait).
The minutes that tick by in our lives often matter far less than we hoped they would. By this standard, the moments we imagine our stars living must live up to expectations we could never fulfill for ourselves. Our culture strives to apply meaning to the meaningless—and the development of a consistently successful pose at the step-and-repeat can exist as a code for a beautiful life. What is stardom but a private trailer and an assistant handing you a fresh towel?To quote Oscar Wilde, “When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.” So what are these portraits? Critique or worship? Fantasy or fodder? Perhaps what they truly shed light on is the collective, willful naïveté in believing that those distinctions can be so easily parsed.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
WALLESTON / DECEMBER 8TH, 2009
Living forever at the crossroads of Canadian and amazing, artist and curator AA Bronson is New York’s answer to a conceptual art soothsayer and savior. Originally a member of the art collective General Idea, Bronson’s practice has always pushed the boundaries of art to its spacial and spiritual limits, and continues to do so. While other people are staging outlaw art exhibitions in salon-style environments and disused commercial spaces, Bronson is currently exhibiting an immaculate collection of artworks—by Marina Abramović, Bas Jan Ader and Scott Treleaven, among others, and themed around the idea of “Compassion”—in a seminary. The visually astounding Union Theological Seminary, to be exact. Created in conjunction with the newly-formed Institute for Art, Religion and Social Justice, the show will be on view until December 19th. Here we speak to Bronson about the organization and the show’s premise.
Aimee Walleston: Your practice, both as an artist and a curator, has often been linked to creating and distributing art beyond the confines of the museum or gallery space. Why did you decide to have this show at the seminary?
AA Bronson: I began studying at Union Theological Seminary a little over a year ago. For the last years, Union, like many seminaries, has been very shut off from the world, and almost no one I know has seen the inside of this quite amazing complex. As much as anything, the exhibition was a way to open Union’s doors, and get people moving through the spaces, to give some awareness of what is there, both architecturally and in terms of its resources, such as the extraordinary library. At the same time, I wanted to bring people’s awareness to the ways in which art addresses “spiritual” issues. None of the artists in the exhibition would be considered out of the usual in the Chelsea art world, but by framing their work in the context of the word “compassion”, and a “pilgrimage” through a seminary, other aspects of the work begin to leak out, the work is enriched by the context, and vice versa.
AW: Can you explain a bit about the Institute for Art, Religion and Social Justice, and your involvement with it?
AB: Union is known for its involvement with social justice issues, and all seminaries include some relation to the arts in their program. However, I noted that nobody at the seminary had any idea of the massive amount of activity, especially amongst younger artists, in the contemporary art world related to social justice. Creative Time’s recent summit, “Revolutions in Social Practice” is a case in point. I proposed to the President of Union that we should found the Institute of Art, Religion, and Social Justice to facilitate some sort of conversation between the worlds of art and religion and she immediately agreed, making me the Artistic Director. At the moment we have only two projects, the exhibition “compassion,” and a series of dinners in which we bring together artists and theologians for mutual benefit.
AW: Spirituality is not something broadly discussed in artistic practice anymore. Your interests have often involved shamanism and less organized methods of spiritual practice. How do you see organized religion in regard to contemporary art practice?
AB: Organized religion does not interest me, per se. And at any rate, who is to say what is “organized” and what is not. Religion exists in so many hybridized forms today, and even the most conservative Roman Catholic is liable to be studying yoga on the side. Union is a non-denominational Christian seminary that is making rapid strides toward becoming multi-faith. Two of the professors are both Christian and Buddhist, and there is a number of Buddhist students, many Unitarians, a Quaker or two, and even an occasional agnostic. My own background is in Tibetan Buddhism, which I practiced for fourteen years; and, yes, I am also interested in shamanism and spiritualism, as well as voodoo and other African diaspora religions. The exhibition includes both Hindu and Buddhist forms, although the majority of the works are more “spiritual” than they are religious. I think that the intersection between art and religion can be seen through the lens of social justice, and social justice is a theme that is occupying many young artists today, especially the more radical collaborative practices, such as LTTR, Red76, or the Center for Tactical Magic.
AW: For whatever reason, compassion seems to be a tall order to ask of people. In relation to images that are meant to evoke compassion, like war images, where do you think contemporary art stands? And how does compassion relate to passion?
AB: Compassion has always been and will always be a tall order. As the world becomes more complex and more difficult, I see an increasing interest in compassion rather than a decrease. Alfredo Jaar’s Rwanda works, for example, address genocide in sometimes very explicit forms, while Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace projects come at compassion from the opposite direction. The popularity of the Dalai Lama, whose primary message is compassion, speaks to our need in today’s world. As for passion, that is a more complex question. The word comes from the Latin for suffer or endure, but the Passion of Christ is clearly not what you are referring to here!
Union Theological Seminary
3041 Broadway at 121st Street
Rose Mandala Mirror (three reflections for HHDL), 2006
Glass, mirror, roses
Courtesy the artist, New York
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Wife and Muse: Claire Wesselmann on Tom Wesselmann
For the first time, the drawings of artist Tom Wesselmann (1931–2004), which approach two-dimensional depiction as both an aesthetic endpoint and conceptual premise, have been assembled in a comprehensive exhibition, now on view at New York's Haunch of Venison. Curated in 2003 by both Wesselmann and his wife Claire, who envisioned the show in a museum setting, "Draws" features work that spans not just the breadth of the artist's career, but also the theoretical boundaries he pushed from the position of drawing. Later Wesselmann works include "drawings" in the form of laser-cut steel and three-dimensional hand-cut paper sculpture.
The show also includes work from the artist's best known series, "Great American Nude." Many of those works feature Claire in the role of model-a role wherein the viewer can witness her identity morph seamlessly between model, muse, wife, fellow artist and creative co-conspirator. In each nude Claire posed for, she is rendered wonderfully alive. Her nudity becomes an embodiment of shameless vitality, exalted humanity, and matches her inexhaustible passion for her husband's work. In person, Claire Wesselmann is as alive as in Wesselmann's drawings, with a keen intellect and a uniquely personal take on her husband's practice:
AIMEE WALLESTON: The retrospective at Haunch of Venison is the largest compilation of Wesselmann's drawings ever shown. How did this come about, and how far back do the works span? LEFT: DRAWING FOR GREAT AMERICAN NUDES #20, COURTESY HAUNCH OF VENISON
CLAIRE WESSELMANN: Tom and I selected the drawings in 2003. We anticipated doing the show in a museum, but when my dealer joined Haunch of Venison, it did seem ideal. The show is scheduled to travel to other museums, where it may change from venue to venue. Tom and I graduated from Cooper Union in 1959, and these drawings are from then until 2004, which is the year Tom died.
WALLESTON: Before attending Cooper Union, your husband served in the army, during which time he drew a lot of cartoons. Was that the beginning of his art-making?
WESSELMANN: The cartooning was simply army humor, I think, in the beginning. He did it to keep himself sane. He didn't get sent overseas, which he was grateful about. But he did come to New York to become a cartoonist, which was obviously not the case in the end. When he came to New York to go to Cooper Union, he was redirected toward art, as he was introduced to Abstract Expressionism and all of that.
WALLESTON: And before he went into the army, that he got a degree in psychology. Did you ever talk about how that related to his artistic practice?
WESSELMANN: No, I never did. I wasn't there at the time.
WALLESTON: But once he got to New York, he became fairly firmly entrenched in the art world. Despite his relationships and strong ties with other artists, however, it seems that Wesselmann was very centered on his individual practice. He and his peers weren't replicating a New York School type clique—he was very much on his own.
STUDY FOR STILL LIFE #22, COURTESY HAUNCH OF VENISON
WESSELMANN: That's very true. None of the Pop artists were really included in each other's practices. Tom was grouped with the Pop artists only after he began to have his work shown. I remember we went to a seminar in Ohio, not far from where he grew up, where Lawrence Alloway was the moderator. It was Alloway who came up with the term "Pop Art." People began to see things and identify this work as a movement. Later, Tom spent a good portion of his career trying to get rid of that title, only because it has been seen in terms of being a movement, and it was not a movement.
WALLESTON: And his work had ties to so many other time periods and genres. There are influences of de Kooning in Wesselmann's work, his "Great American Nude" series directly reflects de Kooning's "Women," though the reasons behind the creation of the works seem very different. I see the biggest departure in the fact that de Kooning could be blunt about women. There is, at times, a lack of joy and a certain cynicism in his "Women." Wesselmann's depiction of women, in contrast, never seems at all cynical; he seems want to delight in women, and to make women look appealing.
WESSELMANN: In his own words, he would say, "I'm not just some old geezer drawing nudes." He was drawing me, and I was his wife and his friend, and he said he cared very much about that.
WALLESTON: Do you remember how that process came about, that he came to draw you?
WESSELMANN: First of all, it was at Cooper. And, then, you know he drew all the time. If he wanted to explain something to you, he drew it.
WALLESTON: And when you began posing for your husband, did you see that as a collaboration?
WESSELMANN: Well, because I painted too, it was secondhand knowledge to me. I knew exactly what this was about. I felt like I was just doing what I was supposed to be doing. He needed a model, he asked me to model. It wasn't like the standard model from drawing class. If you're just a model—and I don't mean to denigrate that at all—but if you're somebody who has done some artwork, you understand the dialogue. And if it's somebody you care about, it adds another dimension. But sometimes the sitter wasn't someone Tom had a personal relationship with. Sometimes it was someone he was just fascinated with... their eyes or their look, and he wanted to get it down on paper, because it intrigued him.
WALLESTON: And he drew you off and on for the duration of his career. Do you have an idealized Wesselmann artistic period, a time when he was doing something that stands out as your personal favorite?
WESSELMANN: Not really, because I was present the whole time, so I saw how each thing led into the next. I love each period for what it resonated. The early little collages (1959–1962) are quite beautiful. I would watch him pick up scraps of paper in the street and add to them to his compositions. STUDY FOR BIG MOUTH, COURTESY HAUNCH OF VENISON
WALLESTON: And to go into Wesselmann's starting point for his major series, "The Great American Nude"... I've heard that the series started with a dream he had about the colors red, white and blue—is that right?
WESSELMANN: Yes, and then he added both gold for the stars and khaki to represent the army.
WALLESTON: And why do you think Tom wanted to explore aesthetic signifiers of America in his work?
WESSELMANN: I'm fond of saying that Tom is an Ohio boy. There is something very specific I mean about that, having met more than some Ohio boys in New York. I can remember being at parties and talking to someone who would claim to be from some exotic place, and then, when I would ask if they were born there. They would say, "No, I was born in Ohio." It's crazy, but there were many. Jim Dine was from Ohio, and there were a lot of guys during that time period that came from that part of the country. They brought with them experiences from their past, partly conservative, but also more expansive than city living. More wide open spaces. More experiences with woods. Tom was a pretty straightforward guy, and that is part of the work.
DRAWS IS ON VIEW THROUGH JANUARY 2. HAUNCH OF VENISON IS LOCATED AT 1230 SIXTH AVENUE, NEW YORK