travel diary: part one
Robert Rauschenberg, Baby Venice (Scenarios), 2005
As I've been saying all along, I spent most of last week on the road, and in Buffalo, New York, and Boston. Here is a record of what I did, written afterwards as an aid to my slippery memory. I'll be putting this up in installments, perhaps two or three.
I made a day trip to Buffalo on Sunday, accompanied by my old man and two old family friends. The weather was sunny and fairly warm, but you could see felled trees and other signs from an earlier snowstorm. After eating some excellent Buffalo wings (and some other food, which was not so hot) at the legendary Anchor Bar, we headed straight to the Albright-Knox Gallery.
There I saw the stylish and fascinating, if indifferently installed and perhaps conceptually confused (and certainly confusing, for the uninitiated) Andrea Zittel survey Critical Space. Zittel constructs little architectural vignettes, with a focus on interior spaces. These combine playful imagination with a generally not too heavy-handed social critique. Several small gouaches got me thinking about how I often use the familiar medium of paintings as a vehicle for understanding the big scary world of conceptual art.
Needless to say, I also got to see some amazing work from their permanent collection. The main emphasis is on American postwar modernism (through perhaps 1970 or so). My favorite piece was Arshile Gorky's The Liver is the Cock's Comb, which as another gallery visitor pointed out, has something of a Disneyesque feel. For those completely unfamiliar with it: the combination of calligraphic black lines dissolving (into) animated color forms is incredible. Classic paintings by Jasper Johns, Larry Poons, Jackson Pollock and Richard Diebenkorn were among the other highlights. I also liked Random Fire, by a younger (but unfortunately deceased) artist, Moira Dryer. A wooden panel covered with thin green streaks and punctured by holes, was accompanied by a music stand, on which sat a green target covered panel. It was a playful response to some of the high-Modernist masterpieces that surrounded it.
After a three or so hour drive back, I spent the rest of the evening and a quiet Monday, in Ithaca. On Tuesday morning, I woke up a little earlier than usual to catch a 1:35 a.m ShortLine bus from Collegetown in Ithaca to New York City. Contrary to the schedule posted on the Internet, however, there was in fact no bus leaving at the time. Around 2:00, I learned--from a bus driver arriving in Ithaca from NYC-- that my bus in fact had passed through an hour earlier. He told me that the same thing had happened the night before; for some reason he had neglected to notify anybody. I did get him to place a call, but his speech on the phone (it might have been a radio, actually) and to me and a fellow disgruntled traveller was soft and indecipherable. (This misinformation--assuming that that is in fact what it is--is still posted on their website as of this writing.) Anyway, after much drowsy pacing around, and a tasty if wholly inauthentic Greek meal in an all-night diner downtown (virtually impossible to find in Boston, last time I checked), I managed to catch the 4:15 bus and fell quickly asleep.
Arriving at the Port Authority dungeon at around 10 in the morning, I was not as bleary-eyed as I had feared. After eating the soggy remains of my diner cuisine, washed down with mouth-scalding coffee, I got my bearings (well, sort of) and walked out in search of art. I ended up, shortly afternoon, in a 57th Street gallery building, home to Pace/MacGill and PaceWildenstein. At the former was a series of cleverly re-imagined chairs by artist-musician David Byrne. These were built from unusual materials and took unusual forms. My favorite was a midget scaled love-seat, built out of molecular models. Also present were a number of related drawings and sketches, most interestingly a series embroidered on bits of upholstery (these being reminiscent of some of the work of Sigmar Polke). The oddball materialism of Tom Friedman is another point of reference for this show.
At the Wild P(l)ace, was a series of stacked shows, most prominently Robert Rauschenberg: Scenarios and the Ancient Incident. A series of nine recent "paintings"--actually done through some kind of photo-transfer process-each juxtapose a series of snapshot-like photos in a deceptively casual-looking manner. Each piece in the series depicts an iconic American scene; these range from the grittily urban to the quaintly rural. Climbing a rickety spiral straircase, I made it to their second space. While a series of Robert Mangold prints seemed to be the central attraction, I was more compelled by a small side room showing of Post-Impressionist and Picasso prints, published by the great Ambrose Vollard. The pieces in the room tie into a show at the Met, which I missed this time around. My favorites were two interior scenes from a well-known series by Edouard Vuillard (here and here). The colors, the flattened but still dynamic perspective, and the psychological dynamic of the two figures in III are exquisite. The galleries were being toured by a group of elderly Jewish ladies.
On 41st Street, I saw one of my anticipated highlights, Personal Geographies: Contemporary Artists Make Maps. The gallery is part of Hunter College. The school building, situated across the street from a large dirt lot under construction, looked bleak and unpromising from the outside. Inside were security guards, a metal detector, and line of students. Since the gallery-sitter--who was supposed to show up at 1:00--was missing in action, somebody else let me in and I had the gallery to myself for a while. It was made up of several cavernous spaces, forming something of a maze (appropriately, a color-coded map was included in the catalog). The cartographically themed work in the show went from the schematic and conceptual to the richly painterly. Although I am willing to embrace both extremes, my eye tends to be drawn to the latter more easily. This was especially true Tuesday, due to a lack of time (I'd like to go back to look at the stuff I only glanced at, but I fear this will not happen).
The best works in this vein were Joshua Dorman's paintings on old maps, affixed to panels. A long-time favorite of mine, Dorman alters these relics in ways that both echo and deviate wildly from the originals. Among the myriad modificaions and additions were painterly re-interpretations of rivers, roads, and other passageways, imaginary buildings and cities, (sometimes exotic) flora and fauna, and the assorted detritus of industrial and consumer society. He tries to use almost every kind of perspective in the book, sometimes all at once. One large, multi-paneled piece was ornate, even by Dorman's standards. One imagines that he felt there was too much there, because the piece features a large, empty white triange clearly obscuring yet more of his frenzied imaginings. Tiny Lives, Beantown, a take-off on Boston suburbia, was refreshingly straightforward. Here, he limited his intervention to delicately painted fields of pink, black, and light brown.
Another favorite of mine was a wall relief installation by Janice Caswell: a dense network, mapped with colored paper squares and dots, an eclectic assortment of push pins, and a dense web of thread and wire. Several colorful yet schematic drawings accompanied it. Also of particular interest were paintings and sculptures by Jennifer Dalton, Joyce Kozloff, Ward Shelley, and Danielle Tegeder.
A few artists presented works either not to my taste, or seemingly out of place in the show. Kim Jones' pencil maps of imagined battlefields, while interesting, seemed overly juvenile (without the skill or irony found in the conceptually related work of Kozloff). Abbey Leigh's freakish animal-vegetable hybrid drawings were appealing, but stretched the mapping idea a bit too far. "Body Maps", by the Bambanani Women's Group of South Africa were too rough and "primitive" in style and concept for my taste.
After leaving the gallery and once again getting my bearings, I hopped on a subway headed downtown, emerging a bit later in Chinatown. I found the kiosk and purchased $15 tickets for the Fung Wah bus to Boston. (Fung Wah is one of several companies providing inexpensive Chinatown to Chinatown travel. The buses are used mostly by Chinese Americans, but are also frequented by college students, hipsters, and other unsavory types.) Walking around the block, I found a fast food Chinese noodle soup place, where I got a decent made to order meal with meat and vegetables for three dollars. Being cheap paid off pretty well last week, I would say. The bus departed on-time at 4:00 p.m., and it got to Boston without anything going wrong, which is much more than I can say about ShortLine (more on them later).