Are We All Just Clowns in a Graveyard?

Thoughts about Brian Whiteley’s Mid-Career Retrospective, “I Know What You Did Last Summer” Now on View at Hashimoto Contemporary

By Alexandra Goldman

Performance Artist Brian Whiteley’s bizarre multidisciplinary works come across as very genuine and lack self-consciousness. Whether it’s his performance, video, painting, sculpture or installation, Whiteley’s work is usually either highly politically charged, related to mortality, about clowns, or a combination of all three elements. When I walked into his mid-career retrospective at Hashimoto Contemporary earlier this month, I saw his highly publicized Trump-engraved tombstone, a very well done oil portrait of Vladimir Putin sitting in front of the White House in the style of a traditional U.S. presidential portrait, and a pair of giant, spinning conehead clowns/Lucha Libre fighters that looked like Nick Cave sculptures made out of craft materials from a party supply store. I’ve never been a fan of clown art, but it’s growing on me.

Installation view, I Know What You Did Last Summer

As one may be able to quickly recognize, Whiteley isn’t a fan of the 45th president, but his parents are. He told me that he’s had to seriously struggle with an irreconcilable divide in his nuclear family because of these differences of opinion. His isn’t the only family broken up by this highly polarizing situation.

As much as you don’t like someone, is it “wrong” to make a tombstone for them? After speaking with Whiteley about the project, I realized that his intention wasn’t a death wish, but rather a call for the President to recognize his own mortality. Whiteley told me that he had a personal moment canoeing upstate in which “a wave of intense thinking about his own mortality rushed over him,” after which the thought remained a bit obsessively on his mind. When he saw Trump campaigning for President in 2016, he perceived his attitude as one of immortality and a lack of awareness of how his actions affect others. That is why he had a real tombstone created engraved with the words “TRUMP, Made America Hate Again,” and anonymously abandoned it in Central Park leading to major controversy and his placement on the U.S. Secret Service watchlist. Whiteley is now permanently legally banned from attending any political rallies in the U.S.

I found that seeing a photo of the tombstone is much different than experiencing in person. When I saw a photo of it I thought, “ok, that’s cheeky, we all hate Trump, I get it.” But, when I was at the exhibition and felt the tombstone with my hand (you can touch it), I felt its weight (500 lbs to be exact) and gravity. It’s so stable and solid. It became clear that to have it made was a serious commitment. The tactile memory sucked me directly into a time tunnel and sent me straight back to the last time I touched my own grandparents’ tombstones in in Queens. It was the moment when I realized that what Brian had on display wasn’t a prop or a replica or joke of any kind, it’s the real thing and it’s creepy. 

This also isn’t Whiteley’s only project related to mortality. He also dressed up as a clown, and paraded around a graveyard. When you get onto the homepage of his website, the cursor symbol is a hand holding a cigarette, in 2020, a well-known death wish of sorts. Not only that, but I immediately found the idea of a “Mid-Career Retrospective” to be morbid. For example the last couple retrospectives I saw at MoMA PS1… Vito Acconci…Carolee Schneemann…they both died within the year after their retrospectives ended. Calling his show a “Mid-Career Retrospective” immediately registered to me that Whiteley actively has his own lifespan on his mind.

View of Whiteley’s portrait of Vladimir Putin hanging in a Washington DC Trump Hotel suite

Whiteley is a highly committed artist in general. That’s why I’m intrigued by his work. For example, not only is his relatively large presidential oil painting of Putin technically impressive (it is evident that he is a trained, talented figurative painter), but he then went the extra mile and utilized that painting – which is already intrinsically a work of conceptual art – for a high-risk performative action. While the painting is good, it doesn’t necessarily stand on its own, but the thing about Whiteley as an artist is I think he knew that, and he pushed himself to the limit. After completing the painting he stealthily hung it in the Pennsylvania Avenue suite of a Trump Hotel in Washington DC, where it remained on the wall for a full month without anyone noticing that it wasn’t a part of the intended hotel room decor. 

With such a focus on politics and mortality in Brian’s work, I thought, where do clowns fit in? If his works aren’t physically depicting clowns, they are in a way all clown-like pranks. He’s the class clown and the world is his schoolhouse. We’re also now unfortunately used to the phrase, “The Clown in the Whitehouse,” or even regarding life in general, common phrases like “Man plans, God laughs” give some sort of hint that we’re all court jesters or buffoons here in one way or another. I did ask Whiteley on the phone, trying to hold back my own laughter, why clowns? And in a very clownlike fashion, he began the story as, “Well, when I was going through puberty, my parents sent me to summer camp…” But in all seriousness, he continued, “my parents were really hoping that at camp, I would choose activities like different team sports, but in reality I chose to sign up for art classes and clown class. I liked the way that being a clown allowed me to become a different character and play a role.” 

Installation view, I Know What You Did Last Summer

Brian’s lifelong interest in clown work has manifested in even more of his diverse projects, including one in which he did extensive long-term research on believers in Bigfoot and Bigfoot sightings. He used his findings to accurately dress up and roleplay as Bigfoot roaming around Central Park, uncannily in character, contributing to more “sightings” and examining the Bigfoot myth. In his Mid-Career Retrospective, several of Whiteley’s small paintings and mixed media wall pieces based on clown imagery were also on display, along with his video “Clown’s Night Out II,” based on the artist’s imagined scenario of what a clown might do after a long day working kids’ birthday parties. His answer? The clown goes to a gogo bar with a male dancer (played by Whiteley). The awkwardly transfixing film was a big hit at the 2019 Spring Break art fair. 

Speaking of art fairs, Whiteley also is the Founding Director of the Satellite Art Show, which I visited during Art Basel Miami week this year. Taking an anti-market stance in all that he does in the art world, Whiteley’s model of the Satellite Art Show is different from traditional commercial art fairs. Since its founding in 2015, Whiteley annually finds different affordable, nontraditional abandoned spaces like pharmacies or old shopping centers located in the vicinity of the main fair of a given city, and rents out booths to artists at very affordable rates that they can easily recuperate. For example, while a gallery may easily spend upwards of $30,000 on fair participation (with several thousand on just the booth rental alone), some of Whiteley’s booths have rented for only $700. Whiteley said that participants have been happy with their results and return on investment, including gallery representation and institutional acquisitions. 

Installation view, Satellite Art Show 2019

Whiteley intends for Satellite to provide an antidote to what he views as the market-tested, overly distilled art that is on view at main fairs due to galleries’ pressure to sell to make back the money invested (which he doesn’t blame them for). Whiteley is creating an alternative space to feature a plurality of emerging artistic voices that otherwise may not have the chance to be seen or heard during fair weeks, due to these financial realities that many people in the art world don’t want to admit are such a huge factor in what is seen and heard when it comes to contemporary art today, at least in the U.S. I have experienced that there is more room for this type of experimentation in Latin America where, for example, rent of space may be less astronomically priced. I was personally really interested in Satellite because it reminded me of certain great Latin American art spaces like Proyecto AMIL in Lima that traditionally has a big opening during the PARC and Art Lima fair week. The next activation of Satellite is set to take place in Austin, TX, March 13-16 in tandem with SXSW 2020. 

Installation view, Satellite Art Show 2019

Throughout all of Whiteley’s work both as an artist and Director of Satellite, his anti-market stance has not been immune to consistent pushback from institutions, fairs, and galleries. When he created the Trump tombstone in 2016 while Trump was on the campaign trail, the Queens Museum was interested in acquiring the piece for their sculpture garden. When Trump was actually elected that fall, the museum dropped the acquisition because, Whiteley believes, when it became real that Trump was President, the piece became too potentially controversial to certain major museum financial donors of theirs who may support him. Another example is when in 2018, the Art Basel Miami main fair sent Whiteley a cease and desist letter in response to his use hashtag “#NotBasel” to describe the Satellite Art Show on social media. Their argument was that people might confuse it to think that Satellite is or is connected directly with the Basel fair somehow. However, Whiteley explained that the cease and desist was sent suspiciously in tandem with the main fair’s interest in adding more installation-based and experiential art to their own program, and Satellite was on the rise a growing threat. Because of that cease and desist letter, Satellite can no longer take place during Miami Art Week in South Beach, which is why Whiteley relocated the fair to Wynwood. 

Installation view, Satellite Art Show 2019

Finally, Whiteley even admitted that Hashimoto Contemporary told him that his mid-career retrospective could be a financial risk for them, since his pieces aren’t particularly what most galleries would deem sellable. However, I’m glad they hosted it, because Whiteley is an interesting artist, it’s a different kind of show for the Lower East Side, and if you haven’t seen it, I hope you catch the final day tomorrow, Saturday, February 1. 

All images and videos featured in this article are courtesy of Brian Whiteley.

The image that condenses an event of history

(Above: Claudia Fontes, Reconstruction of the portrait of Pablo Míguez, Water reflections from the Río de la Plata on mirror-polished stainless steel figure, 170 x 50 x 70 cm, 2000/2010, Floating on Río de la Plata, coordinates: 34° 32, 3660 S / 58° 26, 2575 W)

By Syd Krochmalny

Translated from Spanish by Alexandra Goldman

New generations of artists are required to have an excessive confidence in order to achieve an image of the present that gives meaning to history. Just as living beings demand rights, so does the past. The artist, like the flowers that turn their corolla to the sun, turns into a flash of light that illuminates the sky of history. But more than the sun is a lightning bolt that flashes in the final moment before the truth vanishes. With the necessary tools and in the kairos, an image is produced that, in the instant of being revealed, looks toward the void. To capture the image of history is not to recognize it as it is, or has been, but rather to take ownership of it. To grasp the present is like going through the moment of danger of sudden death. The artist combs history against the grain.

There is a way of making art in which its procedure can be defined as the image that condenses an event of history. It is the image which is capable of capturing the state of exception as that of a catastrophe; that of a heartrending event. But this condensation is not a representation, nor an illustration, but an interpretation. It is not an understanding of an external derivative, but the ability to produce a visual event. It is in the articulation of historical forces, language and visibility when a significant work of art is produced. In turn, this image is not linearly related to the meaning of a historical fact, but rather, establishes a poetic in the relationship between the image, its materiality and its process.

Some examples of this type of work are the Reconstruction of the portrait of Pablo Míguez by Claudia Fontes that condenses the horror of forced disappearances, especially with the case of a 14-year-old adolescent named Pablo who was abducted on the morning of May 12, 1977 by an operative group of the Argentine army that went to look for his mother and her partner, militants of the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP). Once they were all gathered in the clandestine detention center known as “El Vesubio,” in the Buenos Aires county of “La Matanza,” Pablo was transferred to the ESMA. Afterwards, his course was ignored. Nobody heard anything more about him. Pablo Míguez never appeared. To this day the Armed Forces must be accountable for an explanation.

Tomás Espina, June 26, 2002 or Los Fusilados (Homage to Goya), Gunpowder on canvas, 2002.

Another example is June 26, 2002, or Los Fusilados (Homage to Goya), by Tomás Espina that recovers, in an instant, one of the worst moments of the history of Argentine democracy: the savage police repression of a demonstration by piqueteros groups that concluded with 150 detainees, four seriously wounded with lead bullets, another 90 injured with rubber bullets, and with the assassination of Darío Santillán and Maximiliano Kosteki at the Avellaneda railway station during the interim presidency of Eduardo Duhalde.

These works are the figurative condensation of an entire set of relationships between the aesthetics of materials, procedures and contextual elements that, like a kaleidoscope, produce new constellations of meaning. Images are not facts that exist by themselves, they are produced by artists who throw them into the sea as a message in the bottle that must be translated because each image is like a hieroglyph that must be interpreted. The image, as a constellation of meaning, can condense a “monad” that allows for the emergence of an object. The object needs to open itself in a monadological insistence that reveals the meaning of the story. The monad reveals the non-identity of the object, and the story expresses itself through its negative revelation. Images can disappear like dreams, or can be objectified to condense the singularity of a revealing historical event. This way, a memorable fact is constituted that articulates history with its anguish.

Syd Krochmalny is an artist and writer. He published “Journals of Hate” by n direcciones, “Weak” by Pánico el Pánico, and edited and introduced “Dreams” by Gino Germani in Idilio Magazine with photomontages by Grete Stern, Caja Negra, 2017. His recent exhibitions include Lo prometido es deuda at Centro Cultural de la Memoria Haroldo Conti, Museo de la Memoria y de los Derechos Humanos, Buenos Aires, Argentina, October 2019-February 2020; Proyecto Casamario at Subte, Montevideo Uruguay April-July 2019;  Hate in America curated by Alexandra Goldman, SENA Space, NYC; Arte Bebo, Gallery 50, New Jersey, August 2018; Assemblage #10 Engager le corps, Paris, February-March 2018;  Useless Landscapes, Gallery 50, New Jersey; Guiñadas Gráciles: Looking Out for the Queer in Latin American Video Art, organized by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard (October 23, 2017 to April 10, 2018) and curated by Joaquin Terrones, Preceptor in Expository Writing at the Harvard College Writing Program and Lecturer in Literature and Women’s and Gender Studies at MIT; VIA VIVA, Los Angeles, Curated by Alina Perkins, etc.

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.

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.

13. Leon Golub. Mr. Amok. 1994.jpg

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.