Saturday, November 29, 2008


Intriguing looking/sounding work by a young Japanese sculptor reviewed in the December Artforum (sorry, no link as of now):
Delicately branching cracks and furrows that resemble river deltas are the forms that capture [Ken'ichiro] Taniguchi's interest. He uses transparent film to transfer their outlines to yellow plastic or, sometimes, to other materials like stainless steel creating an exact negative. He then transforms these raw materials into foldable sculptures by slicing through the casts, often at the thinnest possible points, and mounting hinges at each fold. And so every crack, every crevice, is transformed into a literally manifold sculpture that can be given many different configurations. Each sculpture is named for the location of the cracks that produced it, including addresses in Russia, the Netherlands, and Thailand.
The review (originally written in German by a Wolf Jahn and translated by an Oliver E. Dryfuss) covers a recent show at the Mikiko Sato Gallery in Hamburg. It contextualizes the work in terms of cartography as art, Leonardo's "chance landscapes," and traditional Japanese aesthetics. Most notable is Taniguchi's use of the concept-aesthetic hecomi: "crack, indentation, or, figuratively, exaustion."

Local reader-viewers should be reminded of the Johnson museum's recent show of mended Japanese ceramics, in which cracks were beautifully repaired with gold or lacquer (this traditional practice is also mentioned in the review). These highlighted fissures often set apart ceramic fragments of differing style and origin juxtaposed in a collage-like manner. For example, bits of more polished and/or ornate material would be grafted on to these characteristically rough, earthy vessels.

I am interested in the way Taniguchi seems intent upon preserving the natural complexity of his source material while imposing upon it a new, and specifically sculptural, kind of architecture. (Needless to say, I have not seen the work in person and it might not live up to these expectations.)

new states

Fresh Air

by Arthur Whitman

This month's show at the State of the Art features the work of four new gallery members: shimmering, paint speckled tree-scapes by Leslie Brill; carefully constructed city-views by Erica Pollock; mock-religious magazine cutout collages by Andrea King (the only non-painter); and microcosmic abstractions by Ethel Vrana.

Brill, working with oil on various supports, is the most diverse. Most typically, her paintings feature rows of stiffly vertical tree trunks, surrounded by a curtain of free-floating branches and leaves, silhouetted against a hazy sky. Brushstrokes are short and distinct, emphasizing containing forms. Seeing the Forest is a fine example in this mode. Its smooth panel support helps the glowing white background hold its own against the dense foliage. In contrast, the near abstraction Where's There? (canvas) dissolves its forms in a whitish impressionistic haze of densely overlapping strokes.

Junction sticks out for its two pale, gently curving, anthropomorphic trunks, conjoined towards the middle of the bottom edge. The trunk on the left, in particular, evokes a headless human torso, with buttocks and outstretched arms. Its companion to the right is stiffer
more like an arm, slightly bent and stretches towards the upper right corner. Canvas is visible through thinned brownish under-painting, which gives heft to the characteristic fleck-strokes. The background has the usual floating branches over a baby blue sky.

Pollock, also an oil painter, takes the street-sides of New York and San Francisco as her main subject. Intricate, puzzle-like arrangements of light and dark characterize her best work; here shadows aim to take on a life of there own, separate from the bodies and buildings that cast them. Although often fascinating, too many of her large canvases suffer from distracting brushwork
sometimes over-ostentatious (e.g. the cut-off lower bodies in Crossing Shadows), other times also without meaningful direction, as in the large, shadow-crossed "empty" spaces that fill much of her work here.

Two small oil on panel pieces are exceptional. Alley Shadows, in particular, is a gem of machine-like precision. Although impastoed
like all of Pollock's work here the brushwork is uncommonly quiet, rhyming with its containing forms rather than sticking out. Like an archetypal Pollock, it shows a passageway in sharp perspective, flanked by buildings - here abstract, anonymous and overgrown with purple shadows. The squarish Side Street might match Alley's impersonal perfection if not for its two focal cars, which seem messy and human in comparison to the towering buildings.

King's glossy, lurid magazine cutout collages form a series. "Ignoring...Pluto's recent demotion" (according to a written statement), each personifies one of the nine planets in our solar system. Loosely echoing the traditional Greco-Roman religious symbolism of their namesakes (excepting glam nature goddess Earth), they re-imagine idol-worship though the lens of contemporary pop sensibility. In this, her work echoes that of distinguished figurative collagist Hannah Höch. The angular facets and abrupt shifts of perspective are in a broadly Cubist idiom. Androgyny and multi-racial hybrids prevail. The work is playful and loud.

Uranus stands out for it effective use of complexity. (Mars and Pluto, evidently more masculine types, are relatively stark.) The sky god's face combines the eyes and forehead of an Asian woman, a light-skinned nose, and a dark-skinned mouth and chin (black and white), with a grin revealing a metallic tooth. This composite is flanked on both sides by long black dreadlocks and crowned by a row of (b&w) female dancers, arms outstretched. His/her arms are tinted green and hold up a silver horn. The background is a dizzying but solid mélange: lurid red tomatoes and watermelons, lilacs bushes, birches, miscellaneous plant-life, more dancers - faded glare pink.

Vrana's acrylic abstractions are uneven, both in style and accomplishment. They can be divided into two main categories: wet versus chalky and dry. The former group is relatively strong while the latter
e.g. Pilobolus and Ephermeral Pool seem unfinished, like tentative efforts to sketch out a terrain. Colors tend to veer between the blue, green, and the metallic.

The muddy, pleasing Pangea is coppery overall, with an under-layer of blue and green poking through. Separate thickened areas suggest landmasses, though not the Ur-continent promised by the title. Pearl-like drops of green, red, and silvery white dot the surface. (Dots are common in Vrana's work.)

The blue-green-silver Fertile Valley makes use of a somewhat clichéd marbling effect (used less effectively elsewhere). An amorphous, bubbly cloud
white and warm blue seems to sink towards the lower left. An overall yellow-green grid gives the painting an unusually robust structure.

All in all, these four women make a welcome addition to the SOAG's roster. Pollock's work is particularly so, with its melding of abstraction and naturalism and its distinctive subject matter - big city life for a populace that clings to scenes of unsullied nature.

Also, see Wylie Schwarz's interview with Erica Pollock from a few weeks back:
Pollock: I paint in a contemporary realist style, and I am very influenced by the urban environment. I love watching people and deriving things from watching them. I've always been an introspective person and so I actually learn a lot from watching people. Most of my reference material comes from the cities. My first body of work was based on trying to take a very commonplace scene which you would ordinarily not pay much attention to and to present it to people. Once it's in the form of a painting, people stop to look the subject matter whereas in real life, the scene would have barely caught their eye.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Partner Up

by Arthur Whitman

Artist/Instructor" - up this month at the CSMA - conjoins two worlds. Since a fire forced the Ink Shop out of their old home this past January, the printmaking collective has made the second floor of the CSMA building its new one. This show highlights currently teaching artists from both institutions.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the Ink Shop is the more serious group. Craig Mains' color monotype technique involves the toy-like manipulation of cutouts. Typically, the faded "ghost" images that follow the initial impression are used to create uncanny echoes within his prints. His disjointed, free-associative style resembles Cubism and Surrealism but is distinctive. He has created a novel and fascinating iconography of natural disaster. Here he aims his vengeful-god destructions at golf courses - carts sporting cartoon-like flames and flagged holes are repeated motifs. Here, Golf Carts and Passing Storm is unusually rough and scribbly. It is divided into three upright, right-tilting sections. A cloud(s) trailing lightning heightens the piece's angular, violent quality. The larger Country Club has a sparser, more stable composition that belies its own destructions.

Fellow Inker Neil Berger is one of Ithaca's best straight-ahead realists. His brushy, black and white monotype Magnolias is characteristically sensitive. It shows a glass vase with a spartan flower arrangement placed on a ledge in front of a window. The window is a dark grid; through it, you can see only smudgy glare. This, and the fact the perspective is as if you had twisted your body about 30 degrees to your left focuses your attention on the blossoms instead. The directions of the strokes work to create a sense of depth with impressive economy.

Other Shop members are well represented. Jenny Pope's playfully expressionistic color-reduction woodcuts of animals and Christa Wolf's mini-reprise of her recent "Satterly Hill" monotype exhibit are highlights. I am ambivalent about both Caleb Thomas' photo-based prints and Kumi Korf's renowned calligraphic abstractions - here represented by her accordion fold book Hunter-Gatherer: Family Business, Mario. Their craft and visual intelligence, however, is undeniable.

The work of the CSMA instructors is collectively less riveting. Carlton Manzano and Virginia Cobey both work with oil on canvas, creating loose, painterly nature-scapes. Manzano is the more talented, although his fast approach sometimes results in a borderline slapdash filling in of color. His autumnal View From Mt. Pleasant mostly avoids this: variations of brushwork and tone emphasize trees, clouds, and perspective layers. It is difficult not to read into it a vaguely Christian symbolism: a pair of tilting phone pole crosses crown the mid-ground while smudgy beams of light shine in from the upper-left corner.

While Cobey's Upstream in Coy Glen is amateurish, her Late Fall in the Rockies displays modest ambition. Generically reminiscent of early 20th Century modernism, it pictures a row of pale trees with bits of autumn foliage on the branches and piled on the ground. The leaves and dirt are daub-y (recalling Upstream), but the rest of the scene is broken into softly rendered crystalline facets.

Benn Nadelman's uses scratchboard, a technique in which black ink is scraped away selectively to reveal bits of a lighter - here white - undersurface. Using stippling, Ten Pound Sunset shows, at some distance, a dark island covered with trees; to the right is a lighthouse. Most interesting is the sky above and the sea below. The former is flat, a thick cloud of dots and dashes, while the latter is sparser, the dots forming lines that hint at direction and perspective. The Road to Santa Fe - It Always Led Back to Me makes use of softer, hair-like shading and filling, as well as lines and blocks of solid tone. In the foreground a family of silhouetted figures holds hands. In the background: a road in sharp perspective, a grassy field, a flagpole and suggestions of city. The sky is an abstract mélange of swirls, waves, and leaf-forms. Road exemplifies the sort of folk-surrealism beloved of high school art students.

Monica Franciscus' two untitled pieces feel unfinished, like under-drawings for a painting. Done on unstretched scraps of linen pinned to the wall, they combine roughly painted fields of white paint with raw fabric areas outlined and detailed in black graphite and marker. The drawn areas are things: clothespins hanging from twists of rope. Her approach has historical precedents. The sketchiness of some impressionist work, the austere forms of Giorgio Morandi and the pencil on raw canvas grids of Agnes Martin all come to mind. However, such comparisons ultimately do little to dispel the initial impression of incompleteness.

The Ink Shop is a tightly knit group: creating, teaching, organizing and showing together in a common space. The CSMA clan is more diffuse. A greater communal effort on their part might result in a better representation of their individual talents.

Friday, November 14, 2008

drawing conclusions


Drawing Ideas

by Arthur Whitman

In the fashionable, cosmopolitan art-world, drawing has become something of a genre. "Contemporary Prints and Drawings," currently at the Johnson Museum, samples the state of the art. Given its small size, it feels surprisingly – and disappointingly – representative.

Two prints by James Siena (a 1979 Cornell BFA) offer up variations on signature motifs. His stock-in-trade is a minutely rendered geometric abstraction, both complex and methodical. Battery, a reduction linocut, is packed all over with striated (dark to light) red loops. Towards the outside they are ovals, parallel to the edges in staggered rows; in the middle they are smaller circles, packed in with increasing disorder. Often with Siena, the more difficult an image is to figure out, the better; Battery, while lively, feels a bit rudimentary.

His black and white engraving Upside Down Devil Variation has a weirder, more compelling tension. The dominant motif is a set of eleven "explosions," lines radiating out from empty points. The lines all have the same quality: careful, stiff, but visibly hand-drawn. They are staggered and spaced close together or far apart to create textural variety. This flying through outer space perspective effect is broken, flattened by a lightning-like lattice of empty space that divides the bursts. The fragmentary effect is reminiscent of collage.

Julie Mehretu is known for her large paintings, densely packed with geometric, architectural and elemental forms - often to the point of illegibility. They can be both utopian and apocalyptic at the same time. In contrast with Siena, she benefits (here anyway) from paring down. Her Untitled ink and watercolor is all about the classical elements: air, fire, earth, and water. Although abstract, it suggests an aerial view of a landscape in turmoil. The pen and brush strokes are varied and expressive while the palate is limited mostly dark brown, gray, and blue-gray lines with small areas of thinner washes.

As expected, some of the work is superficially pretty, mock-decorative. Laura Owens' intaglio Untitled (LO271) shows the blue-purple silhouette of a horse in profile, three of its twisty legs up in the air. Its tail is a long vine-like curl sprouting multi-colored teardrop-leaves. The ink overall is watery, with soft edges; darker, more precise lines add emphasis. Larger and more complex, but not necessarily weightier, is Beatriz Milhazes' As Irmãs (The Sisters). The screenprint is a colorful pastiche of decorative and abstract art clichés: vertical stripes and overlapping colored rectangles, flowers and Baroque swirls, targets.

Fiona Rae's collaged digital print So Lovely!, a pinky neo-Pop piece, is a tight but careless montage of patterns and imagery: canned brushstrokes, flowers, cute little dogs, typography, cartoon eyeballs, and so forth.

A good deal of work focuses on the human figure. Much of it is keyed to the fashionable theme of identity politics in particular that of blacks and women. This is a legitimate theme with an important tradition in modern art (everything from Manet's Olympia to the photo-montages of Hannah Höch). The western fine art tradition has undoubtedly excluded the concerns of minorities. Beyond any politics, the weirdness of the body is endlessly fascinating. Unfortunately, much contemporary work in this vein is lacking in wit or visual invention; the school's representation here is unsurprisingly perfunctory and weak. (This tends to happen when a species of iconography become academic cliché; a parallel could be drawn with the ubiquity of Greek mythology in 19th-century European art.)

Kara Walker's large, wide linocut African/American makes use of her signature black on white silhouette. A woman appears to be falling. Her head, face turned downward, points toward the left corner, while her legs are raised in the opposite direction. The figure in the context of Walker's work, probably a slave is dynamic in her angular profile but helpless in her pose. The hair sprouting from her genitals is grotesque. Scraps of ribbon around her waist suggest a release from bondage. The print, unlike most of the portraiture here, has some drama; it would be enhanced if she could do something more than plop her figure in an indifferent empty white space.

Ellen Gallagher's print Abu Simbel was originally commissioned by the Freud Museum and parodies a piece from Freud's library. In chalky black and white, it shows the side of an Egyptian temple with a row of oversized seated statues. Collaged elements combine racist caricature with kitschy science fiction including a yellow plasticine UFO sprouting a halo of blue hair. The appropriation of morally sketchy imagery is doubtlessly intended as satire, but in combination with aesthetic sketchiness, the results are dubious.

Despite the presence of a handful of decent or better pieces, this is a disappointing show. The over-reliance on trendy subjects and stylistic conceits is discouraging. Shows like this would benefit from more work like Siena's or Mehretu's, work that cuts against the grain a bit, offering visions that are more personal and idiosyncratic.