Saturday, June 30, 2007


From Life, Perec on the (most likely) fictional painter Franz Hutting:
The wall on the left, facing the longer arm of the L, is hung with cork paper. On the track fixed about nine feet up, several metal hangers run, and on them the painter has hung a score of his canvases, mostly small ones: they almost all belong to one of the painter's earlier styles, the one he refers to himself as his "haze period" and which gained him his notoriety: they are, generally, minutely executed copies of well-known paintingsMona Lisa, The Angelus, The Retreat From Russia, Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe, The Anatomy Lesson, etc.over which he has then painted a more or less heavy haze, producing a greyish blur beneath which you can only just make out the silhouette of his celebrated originals. The private viewing of his Paris exhibition at Gallery 22 in 1960 was complemented by artificial fog, made even denser by the crowds of cigar- and cigarette-smokers amongst the guests, to the great joy of the gossip-columnists. It was an instant success. One or two critics carped, for example Beyssandre from Switzerland, who wrote: "Hutting's greys hark back less to Malevich's White on White than to bad jokes by vulgar comedians about black men in unlit tunnels." But most of them enthused over what one called his romantic meteorology, which, he said, placed Hutting on par with his famous quasi-namesake, Huffing, the New York pioneer of Arte Brutta. Astutely advised, Hutting kept nearly half his canvasses himself and will consent to parting with them only on exorbitant terms.
That's GP pictured above with his goatee and his awe-inspiring jewfro.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

nava lubelski

I have a post up at Art and Perception about eccentric abstractionist Nava Lubelski. It was supposed to be for tomorrow but I posted it today.

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A local art theft case! As reported in today's Ithaca Journal, a plaster cast replica of the Roman sculpture Sleeping Ariadne (owned by the Vatican) was stolen from Cornell's Sibley Hall some time over this past weekend. It was found missing 7:27 yesterday morning. According to the article, "the only evidence police have found relating to the suspected theft is a trail of plaster leading out of the building to a parking lot between Sibley and Rand Halls". The piece is estimated to be worth "between $5,000 and $20,000". It was purchased by Cornell in the 1890's alongside other ancient Greco-Roman simulacraby the university's first president, Andrew Dickson White. This essay has some general historical background.

UPDATE (07/03): They found it:

Investigators from the Cornell University Police Department have recovered "Sleeping Ariadne," an irreplaceable, 350-pound plaster of Paris sculpture that was taken from Sibley Hall over the June 23-24 weekend. Cornell Police recovered the statue from an off-campus fraternity house about 9 a.m. June 28.

There was slight damage to the statue, which has been moved to a university-owned facility where the extent of the damage and potential repairs can be evaluated.

Cornell Police officials have no further details available at this time, as the investigation is continuing. Anyone with information about the theft of the sculpture is urged to contact Cornell University Police at 607-255-1111.

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Friday, June 22, 2007

fabulism and pedantry

A few things on my cultural radar at the moment, no doubt indicating my isolation and insularity:

*I've been working my way slowly through Georges Perec's wondrous, labyrinthine, 500 page novel Life: A User's Manual. I've been at it for about two months and am only now approaching page 300 (it's been hot out and I'm lazy, sorry). The book is also difficult to summarize, but I'll give it a shot.

Life centers on a single moment in June 23rd of 1975: that immediately following the death of the wealthy, eccentric Percival Bartlebooth. The man has dedicated his life to a sort of absurd conceptual art project. After a decade of watercolor lessons, he embarks in 1935 on a world tour of 500 ports; in each he paints a scene on paper. Upon completion of each, he sends them back to Paris where they are turned into wooden jigsaw puzzles. He returns to France in 1955 with the intention of spending the rest of his life reassembling his pictures in the same order they were originally painted. Each completed puzzle-painting is to be congealed via an elaborate chemical process, removed from its wooden backing and sent back to its port of origin. There the sheet of paper is dipped in a solvent which removes all of the painted marks. (The point of all this remains unexplained.) Unfortunately, P.B. dies before completing all of his puzzles, a
failure encouraged by the puzzle-maker Gaspard Winckler's escalating gamesmanship.

The book itself jumps around the fictional Paris apartment building where Bartlebooth lived and worked, alongside many of his friends and accomplices. Perec represents the building schematically as a ten by ten grid (helpfully illustrated in the back). The moves correspond to ones possible by a knight in chess, with the idea that the the reader will not return to the same spot twice (a version of the so-called Knight's Tour). We get to visit each flat and learn numerous tales of the colorful people who have lived in them (most apartments consist of multiple units, so we get to return to them several times). Some people are relevant to the central plot, others have more or less disconnected stories of their own. There are numerous flashbacks tracing the history of the building and its occupants back into the 19th century and beyond. (Usefully, the book includes several appendixes: an index of names, an index of "stories" and detailed chronology.) The back-story is revealed only gradually.

The theme of people using absurd, hubristic projects in an attempt to give their lives meaning and structure is repeated over and over. Typically, these projects end in failure; the person becomes old and dies, their dreams unfulfilled. Needless to say, this is a melancholy novel. Art (often visual) is a recurring metaphor for life.

As an art-critic, the thing that impresses me most about Perec's writing is its cooly descriptive precision, its obsessive and sometimes almost pedantic attention to empirical detail. (In at least one case3 pages of small-type cataloging the products of a company selling do-it-yourself hardware tools—it actually is pedantic.) Many of the people, objects and settings described are mundane, but others are aimed towards fabulism. The overall effect—Perec's implied attempt to describe everything in the apartment—is both ridiculous and touching.

I'm exhausted at the moment but I'll put up some quotes later. In the meantime, you can read a 1987 NYT review by the similarly convoluted novelist Paul Auster. Perec died in 1982. He was a distinguished member of the (mostly French) Oulipoa group of mathematicians, writers, and others dedicated to the exploration of formal constraints in literature.

*Local painter-printmaker Treacy Ziegler has an impressive one-woman show at the Upstairs downtown. She is showing both monoprints and oil on panel pieces. There is a strong stylistic continuity between the two due to her use of a roller as the primary means of paint application. (She uses a brush too, sometimes with awkward results.) Her subjects and settings tend towards magical realismforeboding deserted villages and interiors, as well as a series of fanciful "icon" bird portraits. She uses areas of flat color, with a lot of dark and light contrast. The show is up through the fourteenth of July and I will be going back. She gets around; among other places, you can find her work in Toronto and Philadelphia and at the Chase Gallery in Boston.

*Speaking of Boston (or its suburbs anyway), I've also been enjoying the work of Somerville, MA electronic musician cum "sound artist" Myke Weiskopf. I received his recent Retrospective in the mail earlier this week. The disc is all over the place; as the name suggests, it is more of an archive than an album in the traditional sense
. Overall, it suggests a particularly artsy take on 80's synthpop. It is reminiscent in particular of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's 1983 classic Dazzle Ships, a schizophrenic mix of bubblegum pop, found sound, ambient experimentation, and balladry (a sample). Most of the more accessible material was recorded under the moniker Science Park, a largely one-man "band" with three albums to its credit (I just ordered Disinformation from Amazon, where it can be found for under a dollar). You can also hear several tracks at Myke's Myspace page.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

no place like home

From this week's stack of dead tree pulp:
The title of the Johnson Museum's exhibit "Looking Homeward: A Century of American Art" might be misleading. While strong as a collection of art, the show is scattershot as history. Its representation of the early 20th century scene is impressive but the narrative becomes progressively diluted.

Anchoring this story (such as it is) is a selection of one or more pieces by each of "The Eight": Arthur B. Davies, William Glackens, Robert Henri, Ernest Lawson, George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, Everett Shinn and John Sloan (the bulk of this work is on loan from Cornell alumnus Mina Reur Weiner and her husband Stephen). In February of 1908, these men were brought together in a show organized by Henri for NYC's Macbeth Gallery. Despite a wide range of approaches, the group is considered the nucleus of what was later dubbed the Ashcan School - so named for its focus on the sordid aspects of life in the modern city. Rough, sketchy brushstrokes were characteristic.

A pair of paintings by Henri are particularly striking. Patience (1915) is a portrait of a young boy with dark, shoulder-length hair, his skin yellow-ochre and blushing pink. He wears a dark shirt with a rounded collar and a chaotic pink swirl of a necktie. Amsterdam, Holland (1907) shares a similarly dynamic approach.

Not all of the group's work conforms to the Ashcan stereotype. A pair of pastoral landscapes by Lawson come out of late 19th century American Impressionism. These scenes seem fussy and overly genteel by comparison, part of what Henri was reacting against. (See Childe Hassam's ink-painting-like etching The Broad Curtain for a much stronger example from this tradition.) More compelling is work by Davies and Prendergast, which resembles efforts by the artists' European early-modernist contemporaries.

The influence of the Ashcan School - or at least an affinity with its socially conscious themes - is all over this show. Photographer Lewis Hine's Woman Washing Next to Stove (undated, probably early 20th century) documents extreme poverty while Reginald Marsh's gouache on paper Grand Tier (1939) gently satirizes well-to-do opera-goers.

Another strong current in prewar art was formalist modernism, which drew much of its inspiration from Europe. Artists in this tradition largely eschewed topical relevance, focusing instead on abstraction and personal style. Here, pieces as diverse as John Marin's frenzied watercolor Off Cape Split: Maine Coast (1933) and William Rice's quiet, Japanese-influenced floral color woodcut Callas (1925) fit into this stream. An untitled photogram (1922) by Man Ray, is an abstraction dominated by a Slinky-like coil. Jacob Lawrence's gouache The Typists (1966) blends both traditions, showing three African-American women at work in an angular office.

Milton Avery's The Brown Hat (1941) is a standout effort. Working (unusually) with gouache painted over screenprint, Avery shows a tan-skinned girl seated on a brownish-red cushion. We see her from her left side; her head is pointed towards her lap, where she holds a sheet of paper in her left hand. She wears a white dress with red and blue decorations on the sleeves and collar, as well as a blob-like hat (black as well as brown). She appears to be drifting off to sleep. Characteristic of Avery, the areas of color and texture are flat, with minimal shading. Also characteristic is the figure's implausible anatomy - her right forearm, for example, seems to come out of nowhere. The piece is simple, unpretentious and funny.

A pair of untitled paintings by Willem de Kooning (1947) and Richard Lindner (1967) take cubism in different directions. De Kooning's piece (painted during the heroic early days of Abstract Expressionism) depicts a female nude with a wild flurry of overlapping pencil lines, some partially "erased" with white oil paint. Representing a different cultural moment, Lindner's watercolor shows a couple: a psychedelic dandy with what looks like a (female) prostitute, both with comically shrunken heads and sprouting incongruous appendages such as wings and mechanical arms.

Immogen Cunningham's photograph is intriguing. Eiko's Hands (1971), shows the arms and lower torso of a woman - wearing a dark long-sleeved blouse with puffy sleeves - reflected as a mysterious dark silhouette in a round metal tub full of water.

The selection of work from the past couple decades is comparatively hodgepodge. One highlight is Wayne Thiebaud's color intaglio print Hill River (2002), an aerial view of water and farmland turned into an angular abstraction. Others include James Siena's tiny, intricate wood-engraved Recursive Combs - Vertical (2004) and Richard Misrach's large, panoramic photo 2.21.98 4:46 pm (View from my front porch). The latter is a spectacular view of the Golden Gate bridge.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007


A postcard in the mail today: the esteemed Barbara Mink will be having a solo-show at Aurora, NY's GROVE ("an art and fine furniture gallery"). Entitled "Earthworks", the show will run from June 29 to July 29. There will be a reception on June 30th from 4 to 7 pm.

I've said good things about her work before, but truth be told, I'm a still a bit ambivalent. Her oil paintings
lately some with acrylic mixed inare dense, heavy and romantic. I think my own aesthetic sensibility tends to run a bit cooler. Still, it would be churlish to deny the impact of her best pieces. In some of her recent work, he seems to be moving away landscape allusions and towards a more straightforward fluid post-Pollock abstraction. (Icecaps, the piece above, is something of a hybrid.) I think that this helps.

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Friday, June 15, 2007


From the Times:
Walk into the State of the Art Gallery this month and you might be struck by its unusual sparseness. The white walls of the large front roomusually covered with paintings, drawings, and photographs - are bare. On the gray carpeted floor are four roughly human-scaled sculptures, arranged in a meandering path. The pieces themselves are playful, each inviting various associations: an upright yellow smokestack, a deconstructed sailboat-tent, a skinny steel man seemingly stuck on the ground, a yellow ball-shaped head mounted on a mechanical-looking body. The pieces are predominantly steel or concrete.

Although eclectic in style, all four pieces are the work of single artist, SOAG member Ben Sherman. Together, they make up his solo show "Progressions". With one exception, they share a somewhat unusual origin. Started at various times over the past decade or so, they were put aside, uncompleted, for reasons of technical or creative frustration. With this show in mind, Sherman recently returned to these outcast sculptures, in each case making substantial changes.
Using inanimate objects as stand-ins for people is a familiar artistic strategy. Despite their abstract or inorganic shapes, The King Minus the Queen and The Dutchman both bear portrait-like titles. More importantly, seeing them together with the other two pieces brings out their figurative associations.

King stands closest to the entrance and to the gallery's large front window (which frames its view from some angles). The taller top part resembles the cooling tower of a nuclear power plant. Its material is pale yellow-colored cast concrete. It fits not quite smugly into a bottom section, a elliptical cylinder made of steel and painted indian yellow. The edges of the base are lined with an irregular pattern of shingle-like plates. Supporting the whole arrangement is a 3-by-4 grid of squarish unpainted concrete tiles.

Like King, Dutchman is not a literal portrait, but has an anthropomorphic feel. A red teardrop form, cast in concrete, rests on the ground like an overturned boat. Covering each side is a three-cornered enclosure made out of fiberglass mesh and supported by six curving metal rods - these are tied together at the top. Between the two "tents" is a gap. Hanging down from the top, there is a black rope, which supports a yellow steel ball a little over half way down. The overall shape is elegant.

Unlike the other three sculptures, Born in the Fire is a recent effort. An unpainted steel figure lies on a low, light grey box-bed. The figure is made of roughly cut steel plates, welded together and scored with lines. Its forearms are bent slightly upward and its legs extend past the edge of the box: Bent at the joints, they form an up and down zig-zag. The upper arms and main body lay flat on the base. His chest is emaciated, ribs visible. Above the shoulders, the figure is composed of separate plates stacked side to side like cross-sections ­- this dimensionality in contrast to the cardboard thinness of the body. The neck and head are relatively realistic. The figure appears to be either yawning or laughing, and it looks like he is struggling to get up.

In the back of the gallery is the yellow-skinned Stranger in Town, half cartoon gentleman and half robotic insect. The figure is made out of rough colored concrete poured directly over an armature rather than cast from a mold. The texture is intended to mimic papier mache, a silly and ironic effect highlighted by the soft foam "stuffing" leaking from the top of the creature's five legs. These limbs, which come out of the sides of a wheel-shaped base like spokes, are rigidly straight and slope gently downwards. Black feet support the figure as does a circular, table-like black steel base in the center. Mounted above, an over-scaled spherical head sports a hat (also yellow, with a black painted band) with its front brim folded up. The eyes are painted white with details in red, black and milk-chocolate brown. The nose and mouth are sculpted, with brown paint markings matching the eyes. The mouth doesn't line up with the rest of the face, an effect loosely reminiscent of Picasso. The painted additions are quite rough. Stranger's comic primitivism may not be to everyone's taste; indeed, I found it the least interesting work in the show.

Its title notwithstanding, "Progressions" doesn't offer enough in the way of continuity of theme or approach. While the pieces are mostly strong and the stylistic diversity is pleasing in and of itself, those unfamiliar with Sherman's work may be unsure how these pieces fit into a larger picture. This problem could perhaps be addressed by the inclusion of sketches or other kinds of documentation (although this is an imperfect solution, to be sure). As it was, I was left with the feeling of wanting more information before making a judgement.

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Friday, June 08, 2007


Music for a hot, summery afternoon: For Bunita Marcus (review), as performed by Syau-Cheng Lai at Cornell's Barnes Hall on the third of last February. I was there and I recall that it was a bitter cold night, the wind sounding on the cavernous roof throughout the seventy plus minute performance.

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