Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Art in America/JJ PEET

No Rest for the Weary

What makes a painter paint? And what transforms the application of paint into a painting? Those questions, among other epistemologies, are at the nexus of Minnesota-born artist JJ PEET's current show of work, The Sunday Painter, at Gallery Diet in Miami. PEET compares himself with contemporaries in the worlds of marketing and advertising, to determine that the identity of a painter is, historically, a radical act of self-definition. Being a contemporary painter means building an interior psychological structure that houses the belief in creative autonomy divorced from mass-produced commodity. In order for this interior structure to function, it must be assembled with a foundational conviction that if one commits the act of painting, viewers will eventually, for better or worse, look at it as product—even if it doesn't contain images of Coca Cola or celebrities.


A few of PEET's mixed-media acrylic-on-wood abstractions do in fact feature a celebrity, if you consider Dick Cheney Us Weekly-worthy. The surfaces of PEET's small, rectangular paintings, which extend over the top, bottom and sides of each base, are a contrast of smooth, sanded-down surfaces appliquéd, in some works, with small, cutout photographs of Cheney. Other works are harassed with chewing gum, a theme that suggests a re-reading of psychoanalyst Fritz Perls' theories comparing aggression and assimilation with human chewing (in his 1947 text Ego, Hunger, and Aggression). Alternately delicate and belligerent, with carefully-wrought and coded images that the artist riddles with recurring motifs such as oblong "heads" and gestural curtains, the paintings are often hung in diptychs, and their imagery repeats the theme of duality through several pairs of ersatz "eyes."

Accompanying the paintings is a small TV screen built into a sleek, lacquered gray wooden box. On my visit, the screen displayed a hovering helicopter in slow motion (the screen also features, at different intervals, a live, close-circuit feed of the artist at work in a hidden studio he has built in the gallery). The helicopter video recalls a Predator drone. By examining artistic creation through the least romantic figure in recent American politics, Dick Cheney, PEET invites reinterpretation of the history of painting. He highlights the aggressive politics of a history of singular visions, or masterpieces. No vocations are safe: one thinks of Adolf Hitler, and his eerie aquarelles depicting gingerbread architecture and mumsy florals. One thinks equally of connotations of leisure (Churchill and Eisenhower were both amateur—Sunday—painters. One recalls George W. Bush reading Camus' The Stranger on vacation.

Complicating the traditional gallery idea that "the best stuff gets put on the wall, the worst gets hidden in back," the show also includes another body of paintings encased in portable crates, which are dropped in a pile at the center of the gallery. The artist built the crates specifically for their journey South (PEET is based in New York, and had a solo show of sculpture and video last year at On Stellar Rays), and the paintings inside them, while aesthetically similar to those shown on the walls, create the aura of an alternate reality, a show that no one can see.

PEET, who received his MFA from Yale before moving to New York, has in the past built secret studio structures, beginning with a storage space in a furniture warehouse in Minneapolis. The current iteration, titled Shadow_1, features a rather hilarious door with certain elements of the artist's understated humor: a Champ hat box is printed repeatedly with the word Champ (yet PEET repeats it again in marker) and another packing box reads "OLD R SHIT" (which one could read as the artist's impetus toward new bodies of work). A stack of Fage yogurt containers appear at the midpoint between yesterday's breakfast and tomorrow's paint receptacle. A window fan, a smushed computer keyboard and a few castoff lightbulbs add to the deliberate hodgepodge camouflage.

The studio is built with limited resources, and make a muse of economy. The doctored paintbrushes and dependence on DIY vessels (PEET is also a trained and gifted ceramicist) recalls the tools built by photographer Miroslav Tichý, whose recent show at ICP celebrated both the artist's work and his practice of making his own equipment. Tichý's cameras are revelations: Made with lenses crated from cardboard toilet paper rolls, they seem like children's toys, yet they were crafted with enough innovation and utility to allow the photographer to create his iconic body of work.

Similarly, PEET meshes the act of building with creating, and tools and structures become autonomous works of art. In a recent panel discussion at the New Museum, based around Rosalind Krauss' legendary essay Sculpture in the Expanded Field, artist Josiah McElheny used PEET's work to exemplify his belief in the actuality of Strauss' terms within the realm of young contemporary artists. PEET's secret studios and prudently crafted crates, and the relationship they have to his paintings (as artworks of equal standing), seem posed to defy structured art historical narratives and political agendas for a higher pursuit. They are physical representations of the personal, inner life of an artist.


Monday, May 17, 2010

V Magazine/Mel Ramos




“There’s nothing else in this crazy world/except for cars and girls,” sang New York punk band the Dictators on the 1975 album Go Girl Crazy. This lyric could also be the mantra for painter Mel Ramos, who is known for his depictions of streamlined female figures in pop-bright settings. In Ramos’s world, women appear as happy, nubile American dream machines, as slick and shapely as Pontiac GTOs. For decades, Ramos, who turns 75 this year, has captured women lolling around with exotic animals, decked out as sexed-up superheroes, or emerging as living treats from giant candy-bar wrappers. The artist, who continues to make paintings in this vein today, picked his eye-pleasing theme—pretty, naked women with faces and bodies airbrushed to infinity—in the mid 1960s and stuck with it, a devotion unmatched by many contemporary artists. Paging through the back catalog of his oeuvre is like leafing through a stack of Playboy magazines. (In fact, Playboy Press published a monograph titled The Girls of Mel Ramos in 1975.) But despite the campy sex appeal of these works, there remains something strange hiding in the clover. They are not pure bliss, nor are they scripted fantasy without subtext.

Like Tom of Finland’s Kake, who was endlessly put through his paces as a soldier of seduction and became an erotic icon in the process, Ramos’s women are more than blank-slate objectified longings. Ramos, a trained art historian, makes a comment on culture via his army of nude, smiling goddesses. “This notion of ‘sex sells’ is everywhere in media,” Ramos explains. And the artist’s paintings are a near-perfect embodiment of that thought, in all its pedantry and mystery. Pretty faces and bodies, in the world of Ramos, become the totems of a culture loyal to the products it creates. In each work, a Ramos vixen is typically united with a prop, be it a zebra, a huge cigar, or a giant box of Velveeta cheese. But it’s the girl (often named in conjunction with her product, as in Bisquick Barbie or Toblerone Tess) that the viewers want—and can never have. That Ramos often uses the semi-altered visage of a famous woman in Hollywood (Uma Thurman was a recent favorite, but Megan Fox might be stealing her thunder) makes this out-of-reach idealism even more revealing of our everyday, celebrity-invested lives.

Ramos drew cartoons as a child then fortuitously met painter Wayne Thiebaud—known for his poker-faced idealizations of consumer objects, and clearly a big influence on Ramos’s style and subject matter—at a career day event in high school. Subsequently he enrolled at Sacramento Junior College, where Thiebaud was teaching. “He just charmed the hell out of me,” Ramos admits. In his years of study, Ramos developed a love of abstract expressionism. Realizing “the bottom of that barrel had already been scraped,” however, he began painting the superhero characters from his youth and soon gained recognition from New York’s pop-art elite. And from that point, he says, “My so-called career was launched.” Aligned with artists including Roy Lichtenstein and Tom Wesselmann, in the ensuing years he has continued to explore our ceaseless desire for beautiful, well-designed objects. In every Lola Cola, Tobacco Rhoda, and Caramia Caramello, we find the unspoiled siren of a world in love with things. Aimee Walleston

Mel Ramos: 50 Years of Pop Art is out in May 2010 from Hatje Cantz

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Last Magazine/Rick Owens



I’ve been thinking a lot lately about The Doors’ Jim Morrison and the artist Stewart Home, and lo and behold, up pops a new exhibition by the gentleman who could have been their love child (should two men be allowed to reproduce). Rick Owens made his name in the late ‘90s as a fashion designer who took the dark shadows of dystopic, Morrison-esque California (the designer’s native state) and alchemized them into tissue paper-thin leather jackets and denim with an engagingly undernourished silhouette. Always meeting his ‘70s West Coast aura with neo-Gothic elements culled straight from Père Lachaise, the designer has lately been applying his signature Eurofornia aesthetic to furniture, creating sculptural, material-driven pieces that will be on view at a new show opening tomorrow at Salon 94. Meant to emulate the designer’s Parisian boudoir, the exhibition features a daybed constructed in part from a huge block Alabaster–which practically begs for a psychic rendering of Vincent Price en repose. While the title of the show, Pavane for a Dead Princess, is culled from French fin de siècle composer Maurice Ravel, it reminded me of English artist Stewart Home’s 2002 book 69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess. Home is a conceptual provocateur whose body of work included SMILE, a magazine that anyone, anywhere could publish at any time. In his heyday, Home created a highly idiosyncratic practice that blended humor and darkness with a heavy dusting of ‘80s and ‘90s postmodern pastiche–aligning him, in non-conformist spirit at least, with Owens, who found an early muse in performance artist Kembra Pfahler and who has always been fashion’s most reliable rebel. And he does sofas? Yes please.

Pavane for a Dead Princess opens on May 8 at Salon 94, 12 East 94th Street NYC

Friday, May 7, 2010

Art in America/Patricia Esquivias

A History of Coincidences

A historical narrative is only as compelling, and as credible, as its author. But when the credibility and accuracy of a given history take a backseat to playful but solipsistic self-interest, a new and intriguing form of fact-based, self-critical fiction is born. The work of Venezuelan-born Spanish artist Patricia Esquivias is a jaunt through the mind of an artist whose video pieces explore historical theories sieved through an idiosyncratic, hilarious and highly subjective belief system. If the cliche from Marx that history repeats tragedy as farce rings ever more true, it seems Esquivias has hit on an appealing middle ground.

In 2008, Esquivias exhibited two video pieces at Murray Guy in New York, both of which featured lecture-style narration over a charming, clunky, magazine clipping-based Power point-esque presentation of historical and pop culture still images. With, Folklore II (2006, pictured left as a still, courtesy Murray Guy), Esquivias told the economic history of Spain through a comparison Spain's King Philip II and the Spanish singer Julio Iglesias, and their inverse relationships to the sun. Under the reign of King Philip II, Spain developed a huge empire. "Spain was [known as] ‘the empire where the sun never set,' and had colonies all over the world. But Spain was obsessed with Catholic ideals, and eventually lost its fortune," condenses the artist. In comparison, the very, very tan Julio Iglesias, "represents a point where Spain started selling itself, and building a better economy through tourism. [Both Spain and Iglesias] were selling an image that was sunny and friendly. Instead of the sun draining the economy, it was building it back up."

Since Maya Deren pioneered narrative storytelling in avant-garde film, the structure of narration has been infinitely complicated. "We tell ourselves stories in order to live," Joan Didion famously wrote, and Esquivias' practice complicates this assertion further by illustrating just how important our own personal ideologies become when trying to make sense of a world filled with coincidence. Last year, Esquivias's The Future Was When? (2009) was featured in the New Museum's "Younger Than Jesus" generational. This video sought, in part, to explore the untold histories of the New York and Madrid subway systems through comparisons the artist made between her own life history and that of Susan Brown, an artist who restores the New York City subway's mosaics. (This piece is again currently on view in the exhibition "Nachleben" at the Goethe Institut Wyoming Building in New York). By analyzing, and therefore uniting, ‘80s gentrification in both New York and Madrid, and further aligning this with the personal biographies or herself and Brown, Esquivias builds upon her presumed thesis that the world continually reimagines itself by locating similarities hidden in its differences.


As she juxtaposes unexplored parallels across registers of taste, Esquivias is joined by Norwegian artist Lars Laumann, whose 2006 film Morrissey Foretelling the Death of Princess Diana also depicts a speculative narrative wherein coincidences are exalted. While Laumann discovered his quixotic Morrissey/Diana theoretical system on the Internet, and Esquivias more often creates hers on her own personal theories of concurrence, both artists utilize a combination of montaged archival images and voiceover narration to highlight the intensive research and dedication given to histories that fall outside the confines of authoritative historicity.

A new film, Folklore III (2010), will be exhibited at Murray Guy with an older work called Natures at the Hand(2006), in a show that opens Saturday. With her new Folklore, Esquivias has again created a compelling set of parallels. In the work, the artist combines "ambient" video footage of the regions of Galicia, Spain and Nueva Galicia, Mexico with a voiceover narration that tells the story of both regions, focusing on the sixteenth century Spanish Queen Juana La Loca, the legendary "crazy queen" who named Nueva Galicia in honor of its Spanish namesake. According to Esquivias, the piece explores how "The destiny of a place can be imparted. By having its name given to it by a crazy queen, [Nueva Galicia's] future had already been influenced by history." Looking at once forward and backward, Esquivias finds, in the many abbreviations, discursions and heresies that define all acts of storytelling, the straight story.



Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Art in America/T.J. Wilcox

Women on the Verge of Technology

We are a society that loves our ladies pretty, and also a society that loves to knock down the very same pretty ladies we build up. In 1975, Larry Flynt printed a paparazzi photograph of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis naked (rather than nude) in Hustler. The published images instantly swiped control of Jackie O's image from the woman lionized for her brave, controlled mourning in the wake of the assassination her own husband.

In 2007, Metro Pictures exhibited a film by TJ Wilcox, Jackie on Skorpios, that told the story of this event through archival still and moving images of Kennedy Onassis, montaged to create moving images and narrated, briefly and poetically, with what Wilcox call his "syncopated subtitles," (Jackie happily swimming gets the text "at a time in my life when"). In their brevity, these subtitles, which Wilcox incorporates in many of his films, give each image the quality of an elegy. The piece tells the story of what it meant to be Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, possessed of an innocent and ill-fated belief that she would be granted enough respect to enjoy being naked on private property without being scoped out.


Wilcox's films challenge viewers to analyze their fussy infatuation with images of beautiful, iconic women. His filmic pieces that are the epitome of lush, Baudelairean loveliness, placing him in the realm of contemporary artists—Elizabeth Peyton, Karen Kilimnik—with a neo-romantic bent. Writing in the New York Times, Karen Rosenberg said that Jackie on Skorpios "does not reveal anything new about its subject, beyond the fact that she was as chic without clothes as with them." Perhaps what the film reveals is less a truth about its chosen subject and more a truth about ourselves: What lurks in the strange American psyche that demands that our feminine idols constantly be humiliated?

Saturday, Metro Pictures opens an exhibition of three new films by Wilcox. Two of the films feature famous females, Adele Astaire and Patsy Cline. A third has a trio of narratives iabout fishing, finding an endangered turtle and making homemade L'eau de vie, and seeks to unearth the premise of objectivity underlying most nature films.

Intriguingly, the artist, who has traditionally used Super 8 transferred to digital video to translate the antiquity of analog technologies, has now begun to use HD Digital Video. The artist uses new equipment to film an interview with Deborah Vivien Cavendish, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, for The Heir and Astaire(2010). The film is Wilcox's ode to Adele Astaire, the late, lesser-known sister and dance partner of Fred. His interviewee, the 90-year-old Duchess, is the last living Mitford sister, the current resident of infamous Chatsworth House, and a relation of Astaire's late husband. The work is not simply a straightforward biopic.

Within the story is a treatise, says Wilcox, "On what it means to fall in love with a culture that is not one's own"—in this case, England, where Adele made a not-very-successful attempt to introduce American-style live entertainment to a British audience. Also explored in the film is the world of fame, and how it changes: "Adele Astaire was originally more well-known than Ginger Rogers-Ginger was at one time looked at as a stand-in for Adele. But her fame came before the movies, so it was a different kind of fame." Celluloid made fame more famous, and seemed to give it staying power.

L'eau de Vie
(2010) intersects the discovery of an endangered turtle, a historical account of ukai (Japanese fishing), and Wilcox's attempt to make pear L'eau de Vie liquor in his backyard "Nature films are created with this objectivity—it's like the camera doesn't exist," says the artist. "You are somehow just magically seeing this event in nature take place." In Wilcox's film, the human hand is manifestly evident, to the point of intrusion. His pear L'eau de Vie begins as he secures a glass bottle over a tiny, baby pear on a tree in the artist's backyard. Timelapse filming documents the fruit growing and ripening inside this glass cage, eventually becoming, by dint of human intervention, too big to remove from the bottle. This classic technique in making pear L'eau de Vie becomes, under Wilcox's lens, a study in the ways that nature is bent to both fantasy and artifice.

Rather than engage in the almost-always dialectical argument of analog versus digital, he proposes the idea that "film technologies don't have to replace each other. These technologies should be [assessed by their own merits]. When video first came out, it was not every advanced, so everything looked like an episode of Cops." Conversely, High Definition digital video has a unique, strangely mesmerizing aesthetic all its own. Digital has long been forced to emulate an aesthetic-traditional photography. Perhaps a more intriguing option would to treat new technologies as Wilcox treats his chosen methods of filmmaking and his subjects: just let them be themselves.