Pedro Zylbersztajn: brickwork at Americas Society

Above, L to R: Gabriela Rangel and Pedro Zylbersztajn at Americas Society.

This article was originally published in Arte Fuse.

I love to give a work of art the benefit of the doubt that I normally wouldn’t; when something seems so obscure that I can’t figure it out. It reminds me of my first post ever on Artifactoid, and my initial purpose for art writing: to break boundaries, expand thought, contribute to the active dialogue of the field, and hone taste and values upon which to better understand both art and humanity. I recently experienced a work of performance art at Americas Society that returned me to this original idea. The performance was brickwork (2017) by Pedro Zylbersztajn, a Brazilian artist who works with technology, sound, publishing, and other media. brickwork is defined as “a physical record of the process of re/construction of language.”

When I first arrived at Americas Society for the performance, I was handed a four-page pamphlet with sections of ambiguous poetic text printed in black ink on black pages. It was difficult both to visually read and comprehend.

I then walked to the room in which the performance was being held. The performance was unintelligible, like the pamphlet. It entailed the artist sitting at a desk in the center of a room. Viewers lined the surrounding walls, looking in. There was a record player placed upon the desk, and for about 15 minutes, the artist deejayed transparent, white records on it, playing the sound of words being spoken with extremely low sound quality, almost as if the voice being sounded aloud was under water.

Witnessing this was a perplexing and frustrating experience. The words sounded aloud on the records were the artist inaudibly vocalizing the illegible text written on the pamphlet.

Zylbersztajn continued to swap out one record disc for the next in silence, until all the text had been sounded aloud in scratchy, low quality. When he placed the final disc on the player, it played the first line that the audience could hear: “this will not be my last sentence,” over and over again, until it stopped. The performance had ended. My reaction was a hope that the Q & A to follow would provide a thorough explanation, because I didn’t know how to feel after witnessing it.

Thankfully the Q & A, led by Americas Society Chief Curator and Director of Visual Arts Gabriela Rangel, revealed many intricacies of Zylbersztajn’s brickwork and contextualized it within his body of work as a whole. Rangel shared that she discovered his work while conducting studio visits at the MIT Art, Culture and Technology program, from which Zylbersztajn commenced the following day.

brickwork has to do with the process of re/construction of language. For Zylbersztajn, this relates to his “interest in the perpetual shifts and slippages in the use of language, an object [he assumes] to be individually and socially constructed and reconstructed with every new utterance, which is where this metaphor of language as a permanent building site comes from.”  Words are like bricks, which can be both building blocks and political weapons. Zylbersztajn also notes that “the text references the Tower of Babel quite a lot, and this relationship of building, bricks, mortar, and language is very present in this story.”

Zylbersztajn’s idea of the black pamphlets printed with black ink as difficult to read, and his idea of the bad quality of the records as difficult to audibly process, were intentional choices. These step-by-step blockages of comprehension, via different media, each in relation to distinct senses, were part of a structured process created by the artist.

This structure (order, reception, method, execution) and texture (printing quality, recording quality) in each part of the performance were two of brickworks‘s core elements. Zylbersztajn noted that the Brazilian poet João Cabral de Mello Neto once said, “we’re people of much texture and little structure” (referring to Brazilians). It is interesting that this quote was a factor that inspired Zylbersztajn to create an equivocal artwork that isolates structure and texture.

Additionally, the audience’s discomfort, related to both the inability to read the text and the inability to hear the recorded sound well, is representative of the artist’s emphasis on the idea of opacity, another central element of the piece. Opacity has a tradition in poetry, and it is also a political concept. It was the element that created a tension in the performance. Zylbersztajn notes, “opacity, illegibility, and the borders/limits of language are very much in the center of this work and my practice in general.” Conceptually, brickwork confronts the importance of opacity in an age of transparency, in which we are all publishing our lives via data sharing. We are accustomed to living transparently in 2018, and brickwork demands another type of interaction.

An unexpected note that Rangel’s Q & A revealed was, that the final repetition of the last line of the text, “this will not be my last sentence,” was a much more profound choice for the artist than initially perceptible. This line was inspired by a poem that the artist read following 9/11 about the tragedy’s victims, by the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, called “Photograph from September 11,” which ends with the stanza:

I can do only two things for them—

describe this flight
and not add a last line.

According to Zylbersztajn, “this sense of impossibility and futility in that statement, which is technically a paralipsis, was something I was thinking about when I wrote my own ‘not-last-line’ or ‘not-last-sentence.’”

The artist’s choice to study at MIT also had a specific influence on brickwork. The artist custom created the records using a laser cutting technique developed by fellow MIT student, Amanda Ghassaei. Zylbersztajn explains that “regular records are made by cutting the grooves onto a wax plate, in an analog process of translating the sound to movement. Zylbersztajn explains that “regular records are made by cutting the grooves onto a wax plate, in an analog process of translating the sound to movement. This plate is then used as a matrix to create vinyl copies that have the same grooves which can be ‘read’ by the player’s needle. The process that I used, which was developed by Ghassaei, converts digital audio into lines that simulate the movements of the analog grooves, and these lines are then laser etched into a surface. The needle reads it in the same way, but the material, the definition and the digital-analog conversion don’t allow for hi-fidelity, and there are some other interesting quirks, such as the fact I explored of the decaying sound quality in function of the radial dimension of the record.” Zylbersztajn decided to utilize Ghassaei’s records for this performance piece as the vehicle to play his own voice recording of the text in the pamphlet in an indecipherable and degenerative way. This comments on the materiality of the records, and presents them as objects that mediate communication. Also a professional publisher in Brazil for many years, Zylbersztajn is interested in abstract forms of publishing, and the giving and receiving of information through the manipulation of various media.

brickwork conveys Zylbersztajn as thinker, publisher, DJ, poet, and researcher. This performance piece comprehensively showcased the artist’s ability to create something unique and challenging. Regarding his future endeavors, Zylbersztajn also mentioned that he is particularly interested in the concept of “art as research” and “research as art,” which is emphasized in his MIT program.

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Terry Winters: Facts and Fictions at The Drawing Center

Above: Terry Winters, Untitled (Page), 2011, Graphite on paper, 11 x 8 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.

By Jonathan Goodman

Terry Winters, one of our very best abstract artists, quietly achieves a genuine difference in effect in his works on paper, beautifully on show now at The Drawing Center. It is quite difficult to characterize this bit of originality available in the works, which manage to be both geometric and organic at the same time. Perhaps it has to do with an organizing intellectual principle that shows up regularly in the the body of work. This has been remarked upon before; the design, then, of the images tends to read rationally even more than we see the pattern as an intuitive construction. Working like this, generally within the idiom of the New York School, makes Winters look analytically perceptive in a field that doesn’t always take such a point of view to heart. At the same time, this body of work brings up conceptual notions of pattern and organization that we don’t associate at all with the expressive abstraction that has come, more or less, to take over much of the recognized image-making available in New York. Indeed, it is best to understate the long arm of the New York School, which, tentacle-like, has established a domain that many may feel constrained by. This has nothing to do with the genuine achievements of the style, but its current ubiquity has a lot to say about the vagaries of the market, which everyone downplays but no one can afford to ignore.

But, even so, even if we acknowledge the unusually strong achievement by an artist like Winters–and we should do so–we also need to recognize the need for a new idiom, one that would neither supplant nor replace what we already have, but would rather add to the tightening conditions that have resulted from the obligation to promote sales and maintain the market. What the details of this new style might be seems impossible to imagine ahead of its time; one might argue for a hybrid recognition of figuration and abstract insight. But this is only a guess, and our chief focus here is the very good work of Winters, whose combinations of styles and patterned phenomena begin an argument for difference–even when we acknowledge his late stage of lyric abstraction. This kind of work, like all the abstraction we see today, has its origins in the consequences of modernism and its investigations into a language that would resist realism yet be visually stimulating within the innate paradigms of the genre: color, shape, line. Winters’ work is so very good it can be thoroughly enjoyed even though it is not committed, on a conscious level, to a visual idiom that repeats thinking in love with the past, nor does it demand social equity, the major focus of much art today.

The task facing the New York art community–artists, curators, gallerists, and viewers–is to engender a language that will not plummet in the face of already established visual vernaculars. The same is true in poetry–which offers a sorely needed expressiveness that is ignored because of its inability to generate assets that could yield profits greater than the high two figures! We are all more or less in a standstill in the arts, but that doesn’t mean imagery and language can’t continue to develop. Still, it is extremely hard to cut a path out of so deep, and so monetarily oriented, a forest. Some work making use of comic-book imagery, as happens in the art of Robert Williams, offers an alternative to the stranglehold of gestural abstraction, and it is also true that ambitious artists such as Nicole Eisenman and Dana Schutz are establishing a striking, if also highly idiosyncratic, style whose rawness rejects almost all historically established approaches in realism. In counterpoint, Winters clearly seems content to work out a point of view that is both intuitive and analytic, with a conceptual edge directing the overarching design he submits his individual elements to. It is the conceptual edge–a form of analytic intelligence–that saves Winters from the vapid repetition characterizing so much contemporary abstraction. It is clear he is smart, and it is clear that his intelligence saves him from a romantic emotionalism–now, sadly, keyed to the bank.

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Terry Winters, Untitled (Page), 2011, Graphite on paper, 11 x 8 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.

In one 2011 work, Untitled (Page), consisting of graphite on paper, the patterns are particularly evident. Looking overall like a flower, the image is composed of small diamond-shaped forms arranged in slightly curving rows. They elaborate an image of true elegance and vibrancy; the center of the bloom bulges slightly, giving the image its three-dimensional cast. This kind of drawing is deliberately arranged, so that its composition relates to systems theory as well as natural phenomena, like a beehive, that present an ordered facade. Images such as this one play with differing means of organization, both tight and free. In many of these drawings, Winters does lean toward imagistic cohesion resulting from an organized architecture. Usually, we think of lyric abstraction as something intended to be emotionally free–even liberating for a studious audience. But good art can also belong to rational procedure, which can stabilize emotion so that it does not turn wild. Perhaps we can build a point of view that serves as an opposition to the supposed liberation of feelings focused on alone. In this case, the imagery would be influenced by moderation and restraint–virtues that are suggested, if not overly weighted, in Winters’ art.

Schema57

Terry Winters, Schema (57), 1985–86. Graphite and watercolor on paper, 12 x 8 1/2 inches. Private collection.

But the argument for a rational outlook can only be taken so far. It is as much a wish as it is a perception; the extravagance of feeling often seen in art of the New York School cannot be evaded in the way Winters works. In one recent drawing, Schema 57 (1985-86), we see a dark sphere whose surface is covered with equally spaced, darker holes. Above it is a quincunx of sorts–five dots, each a different color, surround an outline of a circle. There is little overarching organization–merely a suite of dots just above a rough ball of an image. We are hesitant to openly determine meaning in this case, or in the rest of works on paper. Visual abstraction, fervent or muted, cannot have its message unpacked like a symbolist poem. It exists on its own terms, without a visible social reality accompanying it. Critics can try to socialize the conditions of formalism, but it looks like this movement is best considered on its own terms, rather than being politically contextualized.

Untitled2

Terry Winters, Untitled (2), 1999, Gouache on paper, 44 1/4 x 30 1/2 inches. Private collection.

The last image to be discussed in this review is Untitled (2) (1999), a stack of four horizontally oriented lozenges, outlined and partially filled with thin lines that are drawn on a monotone ground. It is a fine, resolutely nonabstract image–one that asserts the primacy of esthetic independence. Maybe Winters’ autonomy underlies the strength of his art; he is not easily joined to other artists’ styles. The best art both reflects and transcends the Zeitgeist, and perhaps this is the case with regard to the work we see here. To summarize, Winters is important to contemporary art, but his competence–indeed, his excellence–also indicates how stuck we have become in the protracted pursuit of a style that, like all styles, is constrained by a limited trajectory. If this point has been repeated a bit too often, it is because the need to move on is reflected in the history of the New York School–Sean Scully’s merger of abstract expressionism and minimalism is a good example of a painter’s refusal to walk the same terrain. So it can be done. Winters looks original still, but within a history we know exceedingly well. We may have had too long a romance with newness for its own sake, but this is the demand we currently place on the imagination. Winters’ very fine show demonstrates the real need to make use of a language that not only looks backward but ahead.

View Terry Winters: Facts and Fictions at The Drawing Center through August 12, 2018.

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Jonathan Goodman is an art writer based in New York. For more than thirty years he has written about contemporary art for such publications as Art in America, Sculpture, and fronterad (an Internet publication based in Madrid). His special interests have been the new art of Mainland China and sculpture. He currently teaches contemporary art writing and thesis essay writing at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

 

Louise Bourgeois’ Legacy: Four Living Women Rocking Surrealism

Above: Installation View, “Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait” At MoMA. Image © Artifactoid. 

I love artwork by Louise Bourgeois. Her recent show at the MoMA was beautiful and you can see her sculptures in the permanent collection  at Dia: Beacon. Up to and following her death in 2010, her dark, sensuous surrealism (consciously or not) continues to influence a new generation of artists. While not always as heavy nor activist as Bourgeois in their subject matter, these artists each reference certain elements of her style in original ways. Here are four that are remarkable.

1. Rita Ponce de Leon (80m2 Livia Benavides)

Rita Ponce de Leon, image from the drawings on paper series, “Nuestros, Nosotros,” 2015. 25 x 25 cm each. Image © Rita Ponce de Leon courtesy 80m2 Livia Benavides.

Rita Ponce de Leon‘s  (b. Lima, 1982) work comprises surreal drawings and sculptures that gain power from their delicate intimacy. She works with pen on ink, clay, and Papier-mâché among other media. Last year I saw her beautiful installation at Proyecto AMIL in Lima that showcased many of her techniques, including heated sculptures to hold in your hands and drawings directly on the wall that scaled from floor to ceiling in the ample exhibition salon. Ponce de Leon is represented by Galeria 80m2 Livia Benavides based in Lima, Peru.

2. Geng Xue (Klein Sun Gallery)

Geng Xue, “Oceans Roar,” 2016. Porcelain and sound installation. 39 3/8 x 13 3/4 x 7 7/8 in. Image © Geng Xue, courtesy Klein Sun Gallery.

Geng Xue‘s (b. China, 1983) visceral ceramics captivate the imagination and bring us closer to our humanness. Attuned to sensory experience, Geng Xue often incorporates elements such as sound into the works, as in the above pictured piece, “Oceans Roar.” Geng Xue also creates animations that bring the pieces to life.

3. C.J. Chueca (Y Gallery)

Ceramic,  9 1/4 × 3 1/2 × 2 in, 23.5 × 8.9 × 5.1 cm, Unique. Image © C.J. Chueca and Artsy.

C.J. Chueca (b. Lima, 1977) grew up moving nomadically between Perú and México, where she frequently came into contact with homeless people, nursing home residents, and psychiatric patients. According to a 2016 exhibition essay on her work authored by critic Eleanor Heartney, these experiences “stoked a deep sympathy for the dispossessed” in Chueca. Chueca’s porcelain wall reliefs are portraits of homeless men and women from her memory, modeled after assemblages of found objects.

4. Jasmine Little (Johannes Vogt Gallery)

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Installation view, “Hoodoos,” at Johannes Vogt Gallery. Image © Johannes Vogt Gallery.

Jasmine Little (b. Virginia, 1984) is a technically gifted surrealist painter and sculptor whose works draw from emotion, memory and nostalgia rather than physicality. While most often related to Chagall or Matisse, there is something about the visual style and sensitivity of the pieces that recalls Bourgeois for me. Little is currently having a solo show, Hoodoos, at Johannes Vogt Gallery on the Lower East Side through April 28th, 2018.

A Heavy Rhetoric: Leon Golub at the Met Breuer

Above: Leon Golub. “Bite Your Tongue,” 2001. Acrylic on linen, 87 x 153 in 221 x 388 cm. © The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

By Jonathan Goodman

Leon Golub’s show at the Met Breuer shows him to be an allegorical artist working by way of polemics,  although he cannot be faulted for cynical, self-aggrandizing intentions. Formally, his work is problematic. It is often muddy and unclear. This lack of clarity holds sway over the subject matter as well–it is not clear what unhappy situation Golub is referring to, although, generally speaking, we know the paintings are about torture and murder in Latin America, as well as racial contestations in South Africa. But we know these things from outside information; they are not available in the paintings themselves; this historical vagueness exists in contrast to the great political painting, whose outrage can always be dated to a specific event. Witness Goya’s The Third of May 1808, which documents Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s army during the Peninsular War. A similar particularity is not found in Golub’s art.

I am not trying to undermine Golub’s intentions, which are entirely honorable. Instead, I am criticizing the American penchant for casual political internationalism at a time when so much here in the States is so very wrong. The well-known and well-regarded poet Carolyn Forché traveled to El Salvador to document the political suffering there in the 1980s. Many see this as a noble attempt at social empathy, but I wish to counter that opinion by suggesting there is something unreal about the writer’s decision to concentrate on political events outside her culture. It is clear that Forché’s motives are of the highest kind, and it is also true that artists and intellectuals have often shown international solidarity with causes not directly affecting them–witness the extraordinary example of the British-born, American-based classicist Bernard Knox, who fought in both the Spanish Civil War and the Second War. But, even if we recognize the intensity of moral purpose in Forche’s poetry and Golub’s paintings, the implications of their supposedly empathic response to suffering so far away from them cannot survive in full trust.

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Leon Golub. “Mr. Amok,” 1994. Ink and gouache on paper, 8 × 6 in. (20.3 × 15.2 cm). © The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Why is this so? First, it is clear that other cultures are much better than American culture in addressing political suffering. Think of Pablo Neruda, from Chile, or Cesar Vallejo, from Peru. These artists managed to produce writing whose political effect is authentic. But, in America, while poetry readings given in opposition to the Vietnam War were certainly earnest, I cannot remember a single poem whose art rose to the level of work by the Spanish-speaking writers I mentioned. As for Golub–it goes without saying that his sympathies were genuine. But it is also true that his paintings of mercenaries don’t ring as being entirely believable. The paintings cannot be fully trusted–as good as they are!–because our manner of life here is both comfortable and socially autonomous, making it impossible to free ourselves from the trappings of privilege. Gigantomachy  II (1966), a huge painting facing the elevators of the Met Breuer, continues our penchant for an imagined connectedness with trouble, on a mythic level. The word “gigantomachy” refers to the battle between the giants and Olympian gods in Greek mythology, and Golub portrays the conflict in epic style. Two groups of figures, all of them naked, fill the dark-brown background. Painted as if their skin had been flayed from their body, the combatants grip and lunge and push each other in some obscure conflict, a close-to-mad attempt to establish dominance.

01. Leon Golub. Gigantomachy II, 1966

Leon Golub. “Gigantomachy II,” 1966. Acrylic on linen, 9 ft. 11 1/2 in. x 24 ft. 10 1/2 in. (303.5 x 758.2 cm). © The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

It is clear that Golub has painted an arresting, if murky, tale of violence by men toward other men–a theme he returns to again and again. Man’s inhumanity to man is regularly lamented, but we won’t break free of the wish to overpower our opponents. Gigantomachy II owes its power to our recognition of the conflict, but its mythic origins lie at the center of the painting.  In the later works, based on actual history and places, Golub loses mythic power but gains in realism. Almost always, Golub’s audience must read the wall plaques to gain a sense of the situation being referred to. In the painting Two Black Women and a White Man (1986), two black women sit on a bench against a yellow wall. They are old and poor; both wear hats, and the woman on the left holds a cane. On the right, a vigorous white male, in his forties, looks away from the women; his gaze goes beyond the confines of the painting. He is wearing a red, short-sleeved shirt and khaki pants; as a male figure at the top of his game, he is young and powerful and seemingly indifferent to anyone’s complaint, the black women next to him included.

Leon Golub. “Two Black Women and a White Man,” 1986. Acrylic on linen, 120 x 163 inches. © The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

The man’s overt lack of feeling is both a report and a judgment. He doesn’t give exact details, so we assume it is a work reporting on conditions where segregation, or at least profound prejudice, exists–perhaps South Africa. One might argue that not knowing the painting’s circumstances helps the artist convey the general banality of evil, but the fact remains that our inability to pinpoint the situation is disturbing enough to result in a false first step in interpreting the composition. The elements of the painting seem to be at cross purposes with each other; none of the three figures interacts with the other two. There is an implicit loss of faith from the start. Whatever the particulars of this composition may be, it is clear that the main atmosphere in which the three figures are engulfed is just shy of overt hostility.

It may be that the best art contains a realism based on experience and a more imaginative view of that experience. But what if the violence is indescribable in its extent and quality? Maybe Golub is leaning toward the allegorical because a truthful report would be so troubling as to do away with its esthetic potential. The aggression in Golub’s paintings is usually indirect–although also truthful enough in its report for his viewers to be able to imagine the aggression clearly. It is true enough that art cannot match real life, but it can embellish–and deepen–our understanding of things.

11. Leon Golub. Head. 1988.jpgLeon Golub. “Head,” 1988. Acrylic on canvas, 21 1/2 × 19 1/2 in. (54.6 × 49.5 cm). © The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Golub was also interested in depicting inequalities of power in gender relations. The painting discussed implies but does not directly address gender inequalities. In Horsing Around IV (1983)–the “Horsing Around” series is based on photos of mercenaries from Africa and Central America (Golub often worked from photos)–shows a white man, with a hideous face, grinning, holding a bottle of liquor, and pulling at the white blouse of a black prostitute with short, straightened hair. The woman’s dark-brown dress ends above her thighs, and she is laughing as well, although her seeming happiness is clearly being paid for.

The prostitute sits on a bar stool, her breast revealed. Golub is making an open connection between political and sexual violence. As takes place in most of Golub’s paintings, the violence is implied rather than actual. In general, this show reveals Golub’s disgust with the behavioral excesses of power, both public and private. He is telling us that the mercenaries are more than dead souls; they are active perpetrators of malevolence. But the problem of generalization in his art remains. Violence is never generic but always specific–a particular person is doing something to a particular person. If the details are left out, the visual narrative becomes allegorical and symbolic.  Despite Golub’s claim on our sympathy, true empathy is not achieved. These works portray images meant to introduce sympathy in a nearly stereotyped manner; Golub reports more than empathizes.

But reportage, a journalistic rather than an imaginative endeavor, usually results in intellectual insight rather than empathic identification. This is the problem facing all of us who have had the good luck to evade the kinds of tragedies Golub paints. It may be that good fortune, in the form of material comfort, gets in the way of our ability to sympathize with the poor and the disenfranchised. In the last painting discussed, Contemplating Pre-Columbian (no date), we see a full skeleton drawn in red chalk. The figure is in a sitting position, bent over, and with its arms bent at the elbows but also rising upward. Beneath the skeleton is a pre-Columbian skull, with a full set of teeth. The image is distraught, though there is no way of telling so. Perhaps Golub is acknowledging his own frailties: advancing age and death.

10. Leon Golub. Contemplating Pre-Columbian.jpgLeon Golub. “Contemplating Pre-Columbian,” ca. 2000. Oil stick and acrylic on tracing paper, 10 × 8 in. (25.4 × 20.3 cm). © The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Golub feels like a major artist, but a narrow one. He is uncommonly brave to direct so much attention to worldwide injustice, as well as paying attention to the long historical ascendancy of the male gender. But even so, criticism of his political vagueness seems justified in light of our need to know who did what to whom. His paintings are sometime too generalized. Golun evoked a feeling we don’t come across much in American art–a commitment to the portrayal of injustice on an international level. If Golub’s global politics prevents him from a precise demonstration of evil, it also provides him with the space to amplify the point that, these days, morality is heavily damaged everywhere. We now find acceptable, everywhere, what was once condemned. Golub even looks at the politics of gender relations, moving from the public to the private sphere. His outrage may be slightly too generic to be absolutely convincing, but his emphasis on the consequences of violence–physical, emotional, and mental–makes him an artist of high merit.

View Leon Golub: Raw Nerve on view at the Met Breuer through May 27, 2018.

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Jonathan Goodman is an art writer based in New York. For more than thirty years he has written about contemporary art for such publications as Art in America, Sculpture, and fronterad (an Internet publication based in Madrid). His special interests have been the new art of Mainland China and sculpture. He currently teaches contemporary art writing and thesis essay writing at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

Tabaimo Transforms Ancient Artifacts into Surreal Animated Worlds at James Cohan

Above: Installation view, “Tabaimo: Clue to Utsushi,” James Cohan, New York, 2018. Photo: Phoebe d’Heurle.

James Cohan Gallery on the Lower East Side is known for transforming its space for interesting installations that create an environment. You may remember Omer Fast: August, a recent controversial exhibit where the street-facing portion of the gallery was transformed to simulate a rundown Chinatown storefront, revealing video art in the back. James Cohan’s current museum-quality installation, Clue to Utsushi, comprises surreal animations by Japanese artist Tabaimo. Each animation is projected onto a wall (or custom structure) in its own shape and size relating to an ancient artifact from the Seattle Art Museum. The gallery space is transformed into an unfamiliar, austere world that invites viewers to lurk around its dark corners and discover that there is more to unfold in each animation than first meets the eye.

2018_01_15_JamesCohan_004v1E.jpgInstallation view, “Tabaimo: Clue to Utsushi,” James Cohan, New York, 2018. Photo: Phoebe d’Heurle.

Each of Tabaimo’s video projections allures with symbols of beauty, like a woman’s silhouette, a butterfly, a bird, or a set of armoires, yet leaves hints to the viewer that cohabiting with this beauty might be something sinister, and that watching and following the beautiful thing can lead you to a darker unknown place. Tabaimo creates an “Alice in Wonderland”-like universe where we are unfamiliar with where our curiosities will take us as we are drawn into the bizarre visual settings she imagined.

Utsushi1.pngStill from “Shinju Trail” by Tabaimo at James Cohan, New York, 2018. Image © Tabaimo. Photo: Artifactoid.

Clue to Utsushi is directly connected with Tabaimo’s 2016 exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), Utsusushi Utsushi. At SAM, Tabaimo discovered that ancient artifacts around the Seattle Art Museum were calling to her with different energies, leading her to create works of video art that brought the antiques to life and opened them up to reveal new narratives. Four of the resulting videos are now on display in Clue to Utsushi, plus Shinju Trail, pictured above, which was created specifically for this show.

Screen Shot 2018-02-25 at 12.03.23 PM.pngRound-corner wood-hinged Cabinets (GUI), 16th Century, Chinese, that inspired the work “Two” by Tabaimo. Image © Seattle Art Museum.

Clip from “Two” by Tabaimo at James Cohan Gallery. Video © Tabaimo. Footage: Artifactoid.

Carrying the ancient to the present, Tabaimo, an artist known for critiquing Japanese culture, speaks to the concept of Utsushi, or, emulating artwork by masters of the past. Instead of physically copying the art of the masters, Utsushi refers to keeping the same “energy” of the master’s artwork while simultaneously bringing it into a new contemporary form. Though we don’t necessarily have this exact word in English, I believe that a lot of the best contemporary artwork from around the world demonstrates Utsushi by being original while maintaining a strong dialogue with the past and ultimately connecting it with the present and future.

Screen Shot 2018-02-25 at 5.19.27 PM.pngImage of an artifact that inspired the below animation, “Crow” by Tabaimo. © Seattle Art Museum.

Clip from “Crow” by Tabaimo at James Cohan Gallery. Video © Tabaimo. Footage: Artifactoid.

James Cohan Gallery is located at 191 Grand Street in Manhattan. Today is the final day to view this exhibition.

 

Carolee Schneemann, Kinetic Painting at MoMA PS1

Above: Installation view, Kinetic Painting. Image © Artifactoid.

Museum retrospectives give viewers the opportunity to fully understand the career of an artist in-depth. The variation between the distinct styles of the artist’s work over decades is visible, as is their impressive generative capacity. One example of a great retrospective was the Constant Nieuwenhuys exhibit at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, where the artist’s whimsical, emotional and painterly techniques segued into highly conceptual and architectural ones spanning from the mid-century to present day.

Carolee Schneemann’s current retrospective at MoMA PS1 titled Kinetic Painting is special because it demonstrates Schneemann’s transformation from beginning in the postwar period as a female artist working within the confines of the masculine genre of abstract expressionism, to an artist who masterfully approached a diverse variety of media, fearlessly implementing new ideas. She created works, which, whether or not she intended them to be, were radical and activist.

On view through March 11, 2018, Kinetic Painting includes Schneemann’s paintings, sculptures, films, drawings and performances, ranging from interactive social experiments with friends, lovers, and pet cats, to pieces dealing with violence, mourning, grief, sex, gender, and the politics of the female body. For instance, in the below work, Vulva’s Morphia (1995) Schneemann problematizes if womens’ understanding of their own anatomy/physiology is defined in masculine terms.

Carolee Schneemann, Vulva’s Morphia, 1995. Image © Artifactoid.

Carolee Schneemann, Interior Scroll (detail), 1975. Image © Artifactoid.

Historically, Schneemann was part of the global avant-garde movement of Fluxus artists of the 60s and 70s who refuted the market and confronted the structures in place. Today, her influence continues to inspire creators such as New York-based performance artist and painter Theresa Byrnes who has previously been interviewed on Artifactoid. The above image depicts detail of the original manifesto that Schneemann pulled out of her vagina during the 1975 performance of Interior Scroll, one of her most famous and controversial works.

While Schneemann is most widely known for her performances, she has always defined herself first and foremost as a painter. Throughout her oeuvre, the two media are inextricably connected. As part of Schneemann’s love for painting, she is also interested in the limitations of painting and  ideas that may only be able to be expressed through performative action. Both this philosophy and her critique of abstract expressionism are revealed in works like Up To and Including Her Limits (1973-76), detailed in the below video clip courtesy of © MoMA:

When Schneemann debuted as a painter, the challenges for female artists were severe. After World War II, abstract expressionism emerged as a masculine, all-American painting style which flourished in the patriotic environment of the U.S. at the time and dominated the art market. Female painters were unable to reach the same level of success as male painters within this framework.

Siwin Lo, PhD Candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center, notes,
“The climate of the art world before the 1960s in New York was a profoundly masculinist one, even though there were women who managed to attain some degree of recognition. In many cases, women artists had to navigate promoting themselves in an environment where they were considered women first, and artists second. For some, such as Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler, their careers were read largely through their relationship to their male partners, a tendency that we still see in the discussion of many women artists. For Carolee Schneemann, coming up in this type of scene, the desire to be seen as herself as well as the desire to make art as herself would have been understood as contradictory. The fact that she was punished for painting herself nude really crystallizes the assumed incompatibility between the body painted, and the artist painting—for the art schools of Schneemann’s time, these two could not co-exist in the same person. By refusing to separate herself between being the object and the maker of her kinetic paintings, she points to the gendered hypocrisy of Abstract Expressionism, as if to say, “if Pollock famously locates himself within his paintings,* why can’t I?”
Confronted with these challenges, Schneemann was a pioneer and fearless visionary. However, she generally didn’t view her own work as shocking or radical even though others did. And, while she has achieved a major museum retrospective such as Kinetic Painting, she experienced a deluge of backlash and criticism throughout her entire career. There were critiques that her work was narcissistic, diaristic, and pornographic, among other things. Despite this, she kept creating, following her truth, and providing an original perspective, which I think can be a lesson to us all.

Installation view, Kinetic Painting. Image © Artifactoid.

“When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.” -Jackson Pollock, quoted in Kirk Varnedoe, Jackson Pollock (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1998), 48. Courtesy Siwin Lo.

When 1960s Sci-Fi and Surveillance Collide in 21st Century Sculpture: Björn Schülke Vision Instruments at bitforms gallery

Above: Björn Schülke, Beam Engine #1, 2016, Brass, mirror, paint, electronics, solar cells, motors, laser, 7.1 x 15 x 9.9 in / 18 x 38 x 25 cm

This article was originally published in Whitehot Magazine

Would there be world peace if aliens attacked Earth? After all, doesn’t everyone get along better once they share an enemy?

In the divisive global political environment confronting us, I find myself wishing for the aliens to appear.

I started thinking about this after learning about Raumpatrouille Orion, or, “Space Patrol Orion,” (1966), the first ever German science fiction TV series, which inspired Vision Instruments, a collection of sculptures by Björn Schülke currently on view at bitforms gallery on NYC’s Lower East Side. According to bitforms gallery, Raumpatrouille Orion reflected a certain Cold-War era global attitude of idealistic utopianism, and the mentality of conquest and emphasis on space travel, which is also present in a lot of Schülke’s work.

Schülke was born in Cologne, Germany in 1967. Perhaps as an artist he was drawn to exploring the collective psychology of the environment into which he was born, utilizing Raumpatrouille Orion as his case study. But, what can we learn from Raumpatrouille Orion now? I think that some of the answers might lie in what else Björn Schülke focuses on in his sculptures.

Björn Schülke, Vision Machine #8 , 2016, Brass, steel, wood, mirrors, paint, camera, display, sensor, electronics, 15.75 x 11.8 x 14.2 in / 40 x 30 x 36 cm, Edition of 3, 1 AP (variant)

The other central theme of much of Schülke’s work is questioning the ways in which we interact with technology. To us in 2017, the “technological frontier,” its own universe without borders, can be compared to the physical universe within which exploration was idolized during the Cold War. At that time, we worshipped astronauts like rock stars. Today, we worship tech innovators like rock stars. That is absolutely not to say that we have stopped revering our astronauts, but rather to say that when it comes to astronauts versus tech innovators, the media has switched their “it girl” over the decades and the technologists are their latest sweetheart.

So, how are we interacting with technology, this thing that we worship? I think that one thing that Schülke is trying to say with his art is that we are giving it too much power.

His shiny, white, mechanical, stick bug shaped kinetic sculptures range from about the size of a football to the size of a refrigerator, and are mounted on the walls, floor, and ceiling of the gallery, surrounding viewers from all sides. They each have unique sleek, futuristic designs, but are futile in function, clearly separating them from the product design prototypes of the tech world and setting them firmly in the art category.

Although futile, they each beckon us to interact with them. For example, we look to find our reflections in the tiny circular mirrors that some of them have, and look to see our images picked up by their cameras, even though their cameras are operating in connection with a surveillance system. This evokes the Privacy Paradox, in which we are tempted to upload mass quantities of information about ourselves onto the Internet, almost like a mirror of ourselves, even if it is at the risk of our own security – which we then express simultaneous concern about.

drone9

Björn Schülke, Drone #9, 2016, Fiberglass and epoxide, wood, mirrors, aluminum, display, camera, electronics, sensors, video transmitter, 43.4 in / 110 cm, height, 118.2 in / 300 cm, diameter

In addition, many of the sculptures are equipped with small solar panels that take in light and charge the small batteries within them. Once the charge of the battery reaches a certain level of fullness, the sculpture moves, and is brought to life, like a little anthropomorphic creature that we created, but that now has a mind of its own and operates without our assistance, catching us off guard.

This is not the first time I have seen the issue of surveillance explored in art. In fact I have seen it utilized many times, and have written about it on several occasions as I consider it one of the interesting current themes that the global creative community is having an active discourse about. You can see some of my prior explorations of this topic in my articles about The Privacy Paradox 2016 group show at Reverse Gallery, the artist Joel Holmberg at New Museum, the artist Lorraine Oades and her project TV Tracker (a part of a 2015 group show of artists from Quebec at Knockdown Center). To note, there is also a radio show on NPR right now called The Privacy Paradox.

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Björn Schülke, Supersonic #3, 2008, Fiberglass, plywood, steel, motion sensors, theremin, woofer, tweeter, amplifier, paint 22 x 46 x 15 in / 56 x 117 x 38 cm

So, back to my original question, what can we learn today from Schülke’s revival of ideas from Raumpatrouille Orion? I think that the obvious conclusion is that while it was the first German sci-fi television show, from over fifty years ago, those same issues in the show apply now. Today it seems that it might still require this threatening, alien outside force to attack for all of us humans to band together to achieve peace on earth. What shape and form would that “force” take if the show were remade today? Could it be something like climate change, or related to technology?

Björn Schülke, Drone #9, 2016, Fiberglass and epoxide, wood, mirrors, aluminum, display, camera, electronics, sensors, video transmitter, 43.4 in / 110 cm, height, 118.2 in / 300 cm, diameter

Finally, it is this issue of surveillance resurfacing in both the outer space universe and the technology universe. During the Cold War era of Raumpatrouille Orion, sci-fi fear of aliens was this major allegory for xenophobia, fear of other countries, and fear of apocalyptic nuclear disaster. Sound familiar? At that time, a person might have asked, who are the aliens from outer space who are watching us, spying on us, maybe ready to attack? Today, we could think in those same terms, but digitally. Who is watching us, spying on us, maybe ready to attack, replete with our data?