Thursday, February 25, 2010
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Five From the Whitney Biennial: Lorraine O'Grady
"There are lots of twists to me, because I'm not like your usual artist," (under-)stated Conceptual performance and visual artist Lorraine O'Grady last week. Born in Boston, the 75-year-old O'Grady (she looks and acts like an incredibly bright, beautiful person half her age) has never been comfortable in the white box, leading instead a life in pursuit of new forms of knowledge. An economics major at Wellesley, she studied postgraduate at the Iowa Writers' Workshop; then she was a rock critic, before becoming a theorist of feminism and race. Shes says her most important contribution to feminism is not art, it's a 1992/94 article on the black female body in art, "Olympia's Maid," a classic in Women's Studies programs. A daughter of West Indian émigrés, O'Grady was herself a teenage mom ("I got pregnant and married, in that order")—almost 30 years and myriad identity incarnations later, she became an uncompromising artist with a resolutely political practice. And, some 30 years from that point, her work is finally being celebrated in earnest: following her conclusion in 2007's WACK show, she was selected for the 2010 Whitney Biennial.
O'Grady came to New York in 1972 ago under far different circumstances. After finishing at Iowa, she joined her boyfriend, the new head of publicity at Columbia Records, in New York. "It was all very glamorous, but for somebody with a brain in their head, it was pretty bad to just be somebody's ‘old lady'—to be dressing up as a pretty little chick and going to parties. I couldn't justify my life doing that, she says. So, of course, O'Grady became a rock critic. Earning $50 an article and selling records to augment her income, she began teaching an English class at The School of Visual Arts. "I became an artist as a result of being at SVA. Within two or three months I was so struck by the energy and attitude, I was so amazed. Some of the students couldn't even really write—but yet they were so smart."
O'Grady is best known for creating the character Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, who first appeared in 1980 at an opening at the Just Above Midtown Gallery, which primarily showed the work of black avant-garde artists. Clothed in a gown made from 180 pairs of white gloves, carrying a hand-made cat o' nine tails, she "invaded" the opening of the gallery's "Outlaw Aesthetics" show and demanded, "Black art must take more risks!" The next year, she appeared again as Mlle Bourgeoise Noire at the opening of the "Persona" show at the New Museum, and was subsequently uninvited by the museum from giving outreach lectures to school children. It was the museum's loss: O'Grady is a woman of the people, as evidenced by 1983 work, "Art Is...," a performance piece O'Grady staged at the African-American Day Parade in Harlem, wherein the artist created a large float carrying an enormous, ornate gold frame. As it passed through the streets, the float "framed" the streetscapes and onlookers, making everyone and everything art. O'Grady also held gold frames up to individuals, making the piece as much a work of Relational Aesthetics as a Duchampian comment on art objects, and a political and social comment on the nature of the artist and the art venue. Documentation of the piece went on view at Alexander Gray Associates in Chelsea this weekend, where the joy and exuberance of this caper is evident in each photograph.
O'Grady's visual works, which more often than not feature images of African American men, women and children, are deceptively lovely—which is the point, says O'Grady: "There's a lot of elegance in black culture. Elegance and style are very important. I always felt that I couldn't make anything that was ugly, no matter how tough it was being—and it was tough! But I was aware that people thought: Oh that's too pretty. But I thought, are you kidding? I am being tougher and rougher than you, but it's elegant."
"It's really been shocking to be recognized in this way," says O'Grady of her inclusion in the Biennial. "It's not something I could have ever imagined happening. I actually laughed when they told me. But I was real cool—and I'm still real cool." O'Grady kept mum about the work she'll show, allowing only that it was "about being taken seriously." Her grin made the element of surprise too delicious to spoil. "My assistant was joking," she says, unable to hold in her mischievous glee, "and she said ‘oh yeah—they're going to come and expect "little old lady" art from you.' This piece is definitely not old lady art!"
THE MANY OPENINGS OF THE WHITNEY BIENNIAL BEGIN TONIGHT. THE MUSUM IS OPEN TO THE PUBLIC THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 25. READ OUR BIENNIAL ARTIST PROFILES: LESLEY VANCE ANDBABETTE MANGOLTE.
Friday, February 19, 2010
Five From the Whitney Biennial: Babette Mangolte
The career of French artist and cinematographer Babette Mangolte, who moved to New York in 1970 and has resided here ever since, is a template for longevity by means of hard work, good friends, autonomy and iconoclasm. Almost immediately upon arriving to New York, Mangolte began to document—with film and still photography—the performance works of artists/choreographers including Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer and Robert Morris. Mangolte used her training in cinematography and filmmaking, and, more importantly, her unique understanding of experimental performance, to record seminal works, including Brown's 1973 dance performance Roof Piece, which took place on a series of roofs in New York City. Since that time, Mangolte has divided her career pursuits between cinematography, experimental film, video, photography and installation. Her own humble, intellectual, multi-faceted artistic practice has been honored in this year's Whitney Biennial, where her contribution (an installation that involves still photography and film) spans and builds on her unique career.
"The work is partially new and partially old," says Mangolte of the installation of black-and-white photographs and film she created or the Biennial. "In part, it's a reconstitution of a piece that was shown in 1978 at PS1, titled A Photo Installation." The 1978 work was an examination of the objecthood of photographs (which again feels timely), and a rumination on the act of making an art installation. It included a large wall full of black-and-white photographs, and a table stacked with some duplicates of these photographs printed out as playing cards, complete with a woodcut design and the artist's initials stamped on the back. In the exhibition, viewers were invited to handle the photograph-cards, which in some cases meant instigations to thievery: "The card that was the most stolen was a portrait of Richard Serra, which is not surprising, everybody knew him and he was a very nice guy," remembers the artist. "It wasn't a surprise that no one stole the picture of my nephew, a baby. But nobody did any kind of real destruction, and there was a great deal of respect." Critical recognition did not follow, however. "The PS1 show had a terrible review," says Mangolte. "No one looked at it seriously."
The exhibition's exploration of conditions of viewerhip went unrecognized, which is why the Biennial reformulation of the piece is interesting proposal, since questions of material in photography are being seriously re-addressed by a younger generation of conceptual artists who don't identify as photographers, among them Elad Lassry, Marlo Pascual and Anne Collier. In the re-constituted work, the artist has again installed a wall of photographs, amounting to more than 450 images. "What you see is not about each individual photograph," she says. "It's about how photographs blend into each other." Again, a table is organized with photograph-cards, some stacked atop each other, acting as a child's game of house of cards. But this time, the cards will not be touchable, says the artist-at least not for the museum visitors. "Every week, for the duration of the Biennial, I will reorganize [the photographs], so the order will change," says Mangolte, whose compulsive reordering of the images recalls both fugue musical composition and Fluxus art practice—as well as an aesthetic card shark reshuffling the deck. A new addition is a black-and-white film that, in part, depicts the documentation of the de-installation of the 1978 piece.
Mangolte's Biennial nod comes on the heels of the 2007 film 7 Easy Pieces, Marina Abramović'sreenactment of seminal performances from the '70s, which Mangolte documented. She says she's still friends with most of the artists of that she worked with in that era (and continues to make work with some)—and that they continue to be informed by each other's work. "It's a certain sisterhood—though that's a banal word. The work we are doing is still connected, and it is political. We have not sold out." Mangolte worked with Chantal Akerman extensively, shooting several of her films, including Hôtel Monterey (1972): "We, who were feminists in the '70s, we did not want to say 'We are women! We are here!' We wanted to say that the perspective of a woman cannot be that of the man. That's why I hated the New Wave. It was just the Hollywood crime movie or the buddy movie, but doing it in the quotidian of Paris life. Although now I see I was too hard on it."
But it was a time for strong opinions, the artist says, "In Paris, I went to a film school for cinematography, and there I was the only woman with 29 men." In the '60s, she could not get a job as a cinematographer in Paris because she was a woman. " So I came to America, which was much less misogynistic." And, in fits and starts, the New York art world has continued to walk the path that Mangolte and her contemporaries and co-conspirators paved and continue to pave. This year's Whitney Biennial features many more women artists than in past years, and the inclusion of an artist like Mangolte feels like something new, all over again.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Five From the Whitney: Lesley Vance
A painter whose abstract works gently push the medium into unexpected realms, Milwaukee-born artist Lesley Vance has developed a practice with a renewed rapture for the formal aspects of painting. Her inclusion in the 2010 Whitney Biennial speaks to a nascent interest in an exploration of classic mediums devoid of a theoretical or conceptual agenda. Her sensuous, optical oil-on-linen pieces give an alternative existential identity of the objects she is painting (and, remarkably, to paint itself).
Vance received her MFA in 2003 from Cal Arts, and has lived and worked in Los Angeles ever since. She describes a quiet, internally-directed process that addresses painting as a timeless personal act, untouched by trend (though without retro fetishism). Explains the artist, "The works start out with still lifes—I set up a still life in a dark box in my studio. I have a collection of organic materials, like rocks, shells and horns-sometimes I use a chunk of ceramic. I do each painting in a day, so [the paint] all sits as one layer. It's strange, because the paintings almost look like collage. But I want the image to all be in one layer, so you can't trace the steps backward to the original still life. They only work as their own reality. And yet, they contain moments of the original still life: shadows that don't make sense, but that were there in the beginning." (UNTITLED (13), 2009. COURTESY DAVID KORDANSKY GALLERY)
Asked about her commitment to painting and its almost instinctive aspects—rather than as the by-product of an art historical thought process—the artist answers, "The whole history of painting is in painting—I don't see that as being something outside of my practice. There's so much in the history of painting, I can't even think of taking on anything beyond that. I just respect painting too much." And of her particular evolution towards abstraction, Vance says, "There wasn't much abstraction that felt warm and intimate. Abstraction that works like representation, that invites you in. I wanted the energy of my works to be interior. I was looking at 17th century Spanish still lifes. In Francisco de Zurbarán's Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose (1633) the lemons almost become pure form, but they stop just short. The representation pulls them back. I felt like I wanted to keep painting the lemon past the point of representation, so that it could become something else."
Regarding her upcoming inclusion in the Biennial, the artist is pleased, but well aware that such an inclusion means a variety of things to different people. Those outside the art world (and many within) sometimes have a difficult time contextualizing the exhibition. Says Vance: "Someone interviewed me from my hometown, near Milwaukee, for the local newspaper. She said that someone told her that being in the Whitney Biennial was like winning the Super Bowl. I had to explain to them that it's nothing like the Super Bowl. I had to keep telling her it wasn't a competition."
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
BY AIMEE WALLESTON / FEBRUARY 10TH, 2010
The inconsistencies and broken promises of Hawaii are fascinating. A godlike postcard of beauty made mortal by greed, war, drugs and development, Hawaii illustrates the human condition at its most destructive. For every perfect beach and unforgotten native tradition, there’s a shady real estate deal gone wrong, a tourist-trap hotel claiming an unspoiled landscape’s chastity, and a heartbreaking meth addict living in squalor—all of which brings a dose of the all-too-human to a landscape beyond imagination. In a new body of work, titled “Hawaii,” iconic Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama trains his lens on the most unknowable state, bringing his own uniquely aestheticized honesty to each image. A master of image-making that exposes as much as it exalts, Moriyama has spent the last half-century creating photographs with a vague, persistent sense of unrest percolating beneath a surface of inky black outlines. The photographer’s super high-contrast black-and-white images—the dark, devilish twins to Man Ray’s angelically haloed, solarised works—appear almost as drawings, abstractions that somehow remain devoted to knowable content. An image of a woman’s crotch in fishnet tights is, in Moriyama’s gaze, never simply an arresting, sexy picture. It is a study of form akin to Minimalist sculpture, and it’s also, like many of Moiyama’s works, an analysis and depiction of desire that doesn’t hide behind insincerity or white glove gentility. Which is why, as an emblem of paradise almost-lost, Hawaii is infinitely plausible as the master’s new muse. Moriyama reportedly visited the islands five times before feeling prepared to undertake this body of work (which took him three years to produce), and this scholarship and interest in true understanding is felt in the images. Like black cats prowling between hibiscus and birds of paradise, Moriyama’s images underscore the fact that, unlike the utopia we dream about and think we know, the true Hawaii isn’t bathed in innocent, golden light.
Hawaii opens at Luhring Augustine Gallery in New York on February 13
Saturday, February 6, 2010
Steve McQueen in New York, January 2010
“It’s not difficult at all, you’ve just got to have the balls to do it.” Thus spoke British artist Steve McQueen, on directing the visually Olympian one-take scenes in his 2008 feature film Hunger. Depicting the story of prisoner Bobby Sands, a member of the Irish Republican Army who died in 1981 in the Maze prison in after a 66 day hunger strike, Hunger is a master work that garnered McQueen—already a 1999 Turner Prize recipient—the Camera d’Or and mass critical genuflection. I’d venture to say that, for the artist, this ideology is not limited to filming 17 ½ minute long shots that cover a reported 28 pages of scripted dialogue. This having of balls seems to apply to his creative process writ large, and it should certainly apply (albeit with a more gender neutral body part, s'il vous plait) to those planning to interview McQueen. As a man, McQueen is an infinity symbol of intensity, and seemingly intent on sniffing out fools far before he would ever suffer them. And for an artist dexterous in articulating the story of those who have been denuded of their power in various contexts, in an interview he seems desirous of nothing less than total, albeit gentlemanly, control.
McQueen’s current show, at the Marian Goodman gallery in New York (up until March 6), features three short films that have neither spoken dialogue nor defined narrative arches. The most rhythmically enchanting is the lush, 30-minute diptych color film Giardini, 2009, which first premiered at last year’s Venice Biennale, where McQueen was selected to represent Britain. Showing Venice’s Giardini park off-season, the daytime footage is filled with elegant, snuffling greyhounds (with their preternatural physique of constant starvation), close-ups of bugs and berries, and other depictions in the general theme of nature photography. This sweet, simple celebration of non-human life contrasts with a night vision of predatory male figures, cruising each by only the light of street lamps and cigarettes. Searching for sex begins to feel like the animal, predatory act that it sometimes is, akin to dogs foraging for the remains of some grandly abandoned Venetian dinner. “I had this idea, for a long time, about a public space. What happens in that space during the daytime versus what happens in that space during the nighttime. I was in a public park, where people were having picnics and children were playing on swings. Eventually, those places can become nocturnal; filled with cruisers,” says McQueen. And the cruising McQueen staged for the piece also registers as a metaphor. To see the city in this context, devoid of the bustling humanity that makes Venice its epic self, is somewhat like seeing someone without clothing. All the pretense of a forced identity is cast aside in favor of intimacy.
An interest in the intimate is also evident in Queen and Country (2007-present), a non-film project wherein McQueen—the British-appointed Official War Artist—has produced a series of stamps depicting the portraits of British soldiers who have been killed in Iraq. McQueen is intent on the stamps being realized as actual, utilitarian postage stamps to be used by the Royal Mail, and the project seems to alight something fierce, loving and paternal in McQueen. In their current manifestation, the stamps are shown (they will be on view next in March at the National Portrait in London) in drawers, which viewers are invited to pull out and study—“like butterflies,” points out McQueen. By allowing them to be touched, the artist rips them away from precious artwork status, and gives them an identity closer to currency: they become a stuff of life, and the soldiers on each stamp are allowed to have an individualized identity to each person who handles them. “When you pull out the sheet of stamps, you invest your time in that image. That physicality is very important to the piece,” says McQueen. It will be heartbreaking if it is not eventually realized as usable stamps, which would allow the project “To go as far as a letter would travel, wherever that may be. [Interacting with the stamps], you’re entered into the conflict in a different psyche from, say, the media. It enters the bloodstream of the everyday,” says the artist. Equally important is McQueen’s decision to include both male and female soldiers in the piece, which allows for a recalibration of the archetypal masculine iconography of the “fallen soldier.” McQueen, says of the female soldiers: “Well, they died as well. I can’t take them out.” The work, as a whole, is a rare, important gesture of human truth, and war truth, that pushes culture forward.
Another politically-attuned piece, a film McQueen made exclusively for the Marian Goodman show, Static 2009, features an aerial view of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Seemingly shot from a helicopter that endlessly rotates around the static statue, the film questions the concept of a motion picture: what does it mean when your subject is immobile and the only movement (rickety and sick-making) comes from a flying machine’s inability to hold steady? It’s a clever riff of the formal aspects of filmmaking, and it’s also a statement to the fortitude of a director hell-bent on realizing his vision, however complicated an enterprise it may be. It may take balls to fly a helicopter around the Statue of Liberty, and to make a political comment on this strange, arbitrary symbol of freedom, but it also takes brains, guts, soul and heart. McQueen devotion to magnifying and interrogating the obvious so that we may see things differently—or perhaps see them for what they truly are—is, as always, the most satisfying feature of his work.
Thursday, February 4, 2010
Amateur Afternoon at the X Initiative
Last night, as 73-year-old poet John Giorno cast his honey and hashish-scented spell over a rapt audience at Artists Space in Soho, a group of artists-many half a century younger than the poet-were busy making their own dreams come true: getting their work shown at a prestigious Chelsea art space. For 24 hours beginning the morning of February 3 at 11 AM, any and all artists were invited to show art at the X Initiative. The result was a Relational Aesthetic mini-masterpiece, inspired by curator Walter Hopps' infamous 1978 event
"36 Hours," and a fitting conclusion to a year of improvised but accomplished programming that added a dose of beneficent, renegade energy to an art world undone by bubbles and bursts.
The artworks on view—many executed by graduate and undergraduate students from New York art schools—were as ambitious as their creators (which, for the most part, meant quite ambitious). The overall look of the show-messy but not necessarily unformed-allowed for the suggestion that the intuitive process of curation isn't in the sole possession of seasoned curators.
SVA MFA candidates Thomas Winchester and Yonatan Ullman showed notable, fully-realized works: the former exhibited a large figurative print that illustrated the formal aspects of digital imaging's RGB colorscope; the latter created large-scale paintings with an abstract, colorblock tableau that recalled both travel and comic books. Former New School student Juan David Gonzalez Monroy presented an enchanting film depicting two roads, which slowly degraded because of damage done by the projector throughout the course of the 24-hour period, providing a unique temporal record of the event. Japanese artist Yoshihito Mizuuchi's kinetic sculptures (including sealed, inflated Dunkin Donuts paper bags that magically tooled around the third floor and got underfoot like playful kittens) were clearly a crowd favorite, reaffirming that the unexpected is always appreciated.