Knowledge vs. Wisdom: Using Mindfulness to Connect to Art

If you saw my blog post from February, you’ll have seen that I am incorporating a more spiritual approach to my work as an art advisor; I want to empower my clients to realize they already have the tools to connect to art in profound ways—that is, they need only to cultivate their innate ability of mindfulness to “get” a work of art (to learn more, check out my short tutorial video on Mindfulness & Art). With this mindset, I consider it my duty to cultivate my clients’ mindful understanding of the art, as much as it is my duty to share my expertise on the art.

In essence, I am drawing a distinction between knowledge—information that is learned through study and investigation—and wisdom, which is the type of knowledge learned through (mindful) experience. As an art expert, I can bring my knowledge on such-and-such artist, or historical movement, or provide a market analysis on an artwork. But mindfulness must come from within the client, and so too shall the wisdom s/he gains from an art encounter.

Some art advisors or scholars might scoff at the suggestion that someone could understand art through mindfulness; how ‘woo-woo’! And aren’t I dismissing the importance of scholarship? I would answer with a resounding no: knowledge is powerful, and study is important. I am rather trying to move away from the pretentious elitism that has become synonymous with the art world (literally—if you search “pretentious” on thesaurus.com, “arty” is first on the list), to open up art to those who think it is inaccessible to them. Art is for everybody, and mindfulness is the tool to make it available to everybody.

To illustrate this distinction between intuitive understanding and what can sometimes be the blind pretention of the “experts,” I wanted to share a personal story. A few months ahead of my freshman year at Williams College, I received the thick course catalog to choose my classes for the fall semester. My father, an alumnus of the school, told me that his only regret from his college days was that he never took a course in art history—one of Williams’ most distinguished and famous departments—and he encouraged me to take a class. My family always put great value in the arts, and we took regular trips to New York City to take in museum shows, theater, and the occasional ballet. But I had no formal training or understanding of art, and it sounded interesting. So, I took his advice and enrolled in Art History 101 for my freshman fall term, which covered a survey of architecture. By the time we got to the gothic cathedrals of Europe, I knew I was hooked. I eagerly signed up for part two of Art History 101 in the spring semester—a survey of painting and sculpture. By the time spring rolled around, I knew I wanted to major in art history.

Early in the spring term, we were assigned a formal analysis paper. A formal analysis is a discussion of a work of art based solely on what you see—the color, brushwork, style, composition, etc. (these are called the “formal qualities” of a work of art). We were given strict instructions that we could not look up anything about the artist or artwork we were assigned, beyond the bare bones of the artist’s name, the artwork’s title, and its size and medium. If there was evidence we had done research, we would essentially get an F.

I was assigned an oil on cardboard work by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec called Jane Avril (1891-92), in the collection of the Clark Art Institute, the world-class museum in our sleepy little college town. Fueled by my newfound love of art, I walked to the Clark with excited anticipation to take in this artwork: what I encountered was a half-length portrait of a woman, dressed in a purple cape overcoat with a fur trim. Her grand, high collar cradled a long, white-painted face, framed by flat yellow hair, which was, in turn, crowned with a lavish hat, replete with feathers, drawn in rich blue and green hues. Hurried green and blue strokes surrounded the figure, but the artist also left much of the cardboard ground exposed.

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Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril, 1891-92, Oil on laminate cardboard, mounted on panel, 24 7/8 x 16 5/8 in. (63.2 x 42.2 cm). Collection of the Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute.

I did not know who Jane Avril was. At that point, I don’t even think I knew who Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was, either—we hadn’t gotten to post-Impressionism yet. But that was the point: just take in the art, and justify your conclusions based on what you see. I looked at her outfit: she must be outside, as she’s wearing an overcoat and hat. If she’s outside, the falling blue and green paint strokes could be rain, then, I thought. With few details in the work, I spent a long time studying her face. Her facial features were severe: a sharp, pointy chin; thin, pursed lips, painted bright red; a sharp nose leading to small, beady eyes under heavy, swollen lids. I followed her gaze, which was directed off to her left to a strong light source, unseen to the viewer. If she’s outside, perhaps it’s the headlights of a car, or possibly a street lamp, I thought. Were cars invented by 1891? Well, not sure I can look it up…Oh well, whatever the source, the light was harsh and unforgiving.

Ultimately, I concluded, this was not a flattering portrait: this woman looked haggard, and her sharp features were downright unattractive. The raking light cast shadows in the bags under her weary eyes, and made her face look gaunt. Her high, arched eyebrows and pursed lips gave her tired expression a hint of haughtiness. As she seemed finely dressed, perhaps this was an upper-class woman, putting on airs. But, with her averted gaze, she also seemed preoccupied—her mind somewhere else, off in the lights to her left. Whoever this Jane Avril was, she had seen better days.

I sat in front of the work for an hour and a half. Only recently did I realize that this time spent in front of the work was a practice in mindfulness; I was solely focused on the artwork, staying in the present moment—just me and the art. Through awareness, presence, patience and compassion—a true commitment to feel and understand the work—I unpacked the work’s meaning through mindfulness. I wrote a paper that I was immensely proud of—it was well-written, and well-argued. Nailed it, I thought.

A few weeks later we got our papers back, and I was devastated to see I had gotten a B- on the paper. As an overachieving nerd, I was unaccustomed to Bs, but I was especially shocked because as a pre-art history major, I was so invested in the subject. I requested to meet with the professor for my section to discuss my grade.

“Jane Avril was a friend of Toulouse-Lautrec’s—he wouldn’t paint an unflattering portrait of her,” this professor (who shall remain nameless) said. I was flabbergasted. I walked her through each formal quality to justify my argument. “Jane Avril was a performer at the Moulin Rouge,” she retorted. “She’s wearing heavy makeup for the stage, and that bright light is the stage lights.” I pointed out to her that every single fact she just stated was based on research that I was not allowed to do. How could I know Jane Avril was a stage performer? In the portrait, she’s dressed to be outside, so if the light is stage light, it must be symbolic. There’s no logical way I could conclude those are stage lights based on the artwork alone! And besides, these facts still didn’t detract from my primary argument: this still was an unflattering portrait of a haggard woman. But the professor refused to acknowledge my arguments, and, of course, refused to change my grade.

In the professor’s eyes, I didn’t “get” the artwork because I did not conclude that this woman was a cabaret performer. Nearly twenty years later, I still think the professor was wrong. I would argue that I absolutely “got it:” Henri Toulouse-Lautrec painted a portrait of an exhausted woman who is not present with the viewer, because she’s lost in a haze of her thoughts. If you know the context of who Jane Avril was, then those details begin to flesh out one’s understanding: she’s exhausted because she performs cabaret late into the night. So, she is dressed in her coat because she’s likely leaving the theater in the early hours of the morning, and she’s drained. The context of knowing Jane Avril’s identity helps explain her puffy eyes and tired expression, but at the end of the day, as the viewer, all you see are the puffy eyes and tired expression. There are almost no other details in the painting, other than her face. The fact that she’s a cabaret performer is ancillary.

In fact, the fact that we are not seeing Jane Avril on stage only underscores that this is a psychological portrait—that is, Toulouse-Lautrec is more interested in her interior mood offstage, not Jane-Avril-The-Performer. Compare this work, for instance, to many other depictions of Jane Avril by Toulouse-Lautrec: he created several works in which Avril is on stage singing with arms open wide, or dancing, with legs flailing. Obviously, we can conclude that she’s a performer in those! In the work at the Clark Art Institute, however, her body is hidden, contained by the heavy coat. Her expression is withdrawn, and again—tired. This is not Jane Avril of the stage.

In a more complete painting from about the same time (1892) called Jane Avril Leaving the Moulin Rouge, Toulouse-Lautrec again depicts Avril outside, in street clothes, by herself. Like the portrait from the Clark, this is a psychological portrait: without the descriptive title, you would not know who she is or what she does. The focus is on her mood: she seems lost in thought, and there’s a loneliness to her countenance as she walks the street by herself. The portrait at the Clark Art Institute is closer to this work than any of Toulouse-Lautrec’s depictions of her onstage.

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Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril Leaving the Moulin Rouge, 1892, oil on cardboard, 28 3/4 x 21 1/4 inches. Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut.

Can I feel my ego seeking vindication even twenty years, later? OK, yes (settle down, ego!). But my point, ultimately, is to use this example to draw the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. Learning the context of the work of art—i.e. obtaining knowledge through research and scholarship—can greatly enhance your understanding. My professor, as a scholar, searches for truth through research and investigation. But her mistake is that she believed that enlightenment only comes through acquiring the investigative knowledge—that is, without properly identifying Jane Avril as a performer, I must not have understood the painting.

In actuality, the fact that Jane Avril was a cabaret star was hardly the point of the portrait; the actual purpose of the painting was to portray an introspective moment for a weary woman at the end of a long night of work. And I did get that—I understood the painting on an intuitive level, without knowing who Jane Avril was. Why? Because she’s human, and I’m human, and I recognized the universal experience we share. And this is an illustration of wisdom: knowledge acquired through the mindful experience of being human. Knowledge and wisdom are complementary forces, and important to our understanding of the world.

I firmly believe that if you sit down in front of a work of art and apply the principles of mindfulness—that is, if you stay present, in the moment; maintain awareness; have patience and take your time (it could take hours!); and endeavor for compassionate understanding—the meaning of that work of art will likely reveal itself to you. You will “get it.” There may be historical, cultural or social references that you won’t catch based solely on what you see, but with a truly good work of art, its truth will transcend those limitations, and you will still understand the truth of the artwork.

And what is that truth? All art is an expression of our higher selves, and when we experience a work of art and truly “get it,” we are seeing our reflection of our higher selves. And it is a beautiful, transcendental feeling.

Art Fair Round Up: Spring/Break

It is strange and unsettling times we’re living in, but I will keep on posting to share good art. Because Art is Love, and Love is Healing!

Spring/Break

Spring/Break this year was huge, and I am sorry to say I ran out of steam and could not see everything, so note that my highlights may be missing some real winners. The theme of “in excess” was interpreted in a myriad of ways, although many artists took it to its more literal iteration of decadent neo-Pop (think Takashi Murakami, with more bedazzling). I get the message—it’s hard not to, it really hits you over the head—but I admit, I can only take so much of that aesthetic before I get queasy. Candylands aside, there was some really lovely works that I enjoyed:

Christopher Chan’s installation As Long as I’ve Got My Health, and My Millions of Dollars, and My Gold (room 1011) was great. It had the right amount of bedazzling in the form of the glittery, shimmery wallpaper. The real stars of the show are the painted wood dolls of stylish, urban characters. Chan, who, unsurprisingly, is also a commercial designer, activated the dolls in a stop motion animation called “Honorroller, Champion Edition” on display in a retro arcade game nearby, the paneling replaced with marbled plastic. Outside the installation, the artist created a bed in a retro-looking racecar. When I tried searching the web for more on As Long as I’ve Got My Health, and My Millions of Dollars, and My Gold, the only hit that return was a reference to an episode of the Simpsons.

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Geoffrey Owen Miller art installation, mixed media, presented by 5-50 Gallery, Long Island City. Photo by the author.

Geoffrey Owen Miller’s spectral, shimmering woodland scene, reflected in the black glass of the upside down, was beautiful and quietly unsettling. On the gallery website for this work, the artist quotes Jorge Luis Borges’s book Book of Imaginary Beings: “Deep in the mirror we will perceive a very faint line and the color of this line will be like no other color. Later on, other shapes will begin to stir. Little by little they will differ from us; little by little they will not imitate us. They will break through the barriers of glass or metal and this time will not be defeated.”

On the walls surrounding Miller’s installation were abstractions rendered intensely in graphite; the artist’s dexterity with the pencil creates an array of texture and dimensionality (unfortunately, I cannot locate the artist’s name for the graphite drawings). Both were presented by 5-50 Gallery in Long Island City (room 1035).

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Pablo Garcia Lopez, Brainvolution 2,
Natural silk, PLA filament (3D printing) and fabric.
48x29x7 inches. Photo by the author.

“Fragments of Luxury,” a group show presented by the New York Artists Equity Association (room 1044), was a selection of lovely works. I particularly enjoyed Pablo Garcia Lopez’s molded silk tableaus, recreating the decadent baroque compositions of Old Master religious scenes, like the Ascension (the artists calls the works “Silk bassreliefs” [sic]). Krista LaBella’s Pearl Necklace polaroids, in which pearl necklaces, food, flowers and other objects are tossed across the artist’s ample bosom, were a compelling commentary on decadence, sex, femininity, and various cultural associations we have for the female body as a site of consumption, and the objects themselves. Christopher Scott Marshall’s sculpture Life I Might Of (2019) is not the most arresting of the works that one can peruse on his website, but is still nice. And lastly, Aaron Miller’s coal dusted works pay homage to the coal mining heritage of his hometown in Wyoming, merged with more classical portraiture or genre scenes.

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Krista LaBella, Pearl Necklace, Polaroid photographs, presented by New York Artists Equity Association. Photo by the author.

Philadelphia-based artist Lyn Godley’s light pieces Currents blew my mind a little: these colorful scenes, reminiscent of auroras or mystical landscapes, are not in fact videos, as they seem, but an arrangement of films (Mylar, dichroic, mirrored, etc.) bending and reflecting an LED lightshow within the artwork. That’s all to say that these moving, shimmering works are happening live, and can change with adjustments to the LED light loop or the position of the film. Gorgeous.

My favorite installation of the fair was Melissa Spitz’s You Have Nothing to Fucking Worry About, curated by Ben Tollefson (room 1102). I had a nice conversation with Ben about this deeply personal artwork: the artist’s mother has struggled for years with addiction, and the Spitz began documenting it a few years ago. Interestingly, her mother supports the project, participating to the point of “directing” and collaborating with her daughter. The resulting photographs—some staged, some candid—are an intimate and complex portrait of a woman and her struggle to find herself. Especially effective is the pile of 4 x 6 photos on the table in the center of the room, for visitors to rummage through, as if dumped out of a shoe box in the closet.

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Melissa Spitz, You Have Nothing to Fucking Worry About, with random guy. Curated by Ben Tollefson. Photo by the author.
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Melissa Spitz, You Have Nothing to Fucking Worry About. Photo by the author.
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Melissa Spitz, You Have Nothing to Fucking Worry About. Photo by the author.

Fall 2019 Auction Roundup: Young Artists Bring Big Returns Amidst an Otherwise Humdrum Season

This year’s Fall modern and contemporary auctions in New York were once again a mixed bag: there were no real headline-grabbers, and there even a handful of flops. But there were also some bright spots; several records were set, and as blue-chip artists become more and more out of reach for most collectors, more buyers are purchasing younger contemporary artists’ work at auction, especially those artists for whom there’s a waiting list on the gallery circuit.

Ahead of the sales there was cautious speculation of how global turmoil—Brexit, protests in Hong Kong, and the Trump impeachment inquiry—could impact the art market. Once again, there’s mixed data on this; while there is generally some soft market contraction, there was spirited bidding this season from Asia, including Yoshitomo Nara’s smashing new auction record of $25 million at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong, despite its political upheaval. And although the fall New York auctions were more subdued than the last few years, sell-through rates were still strong, and every auction sold within its pre-sale estimate range. Ultimately, despite some soft contraction, the art industry survived 2019 with few scratches. Let’s recap some of the auction highlights, starting with the Impressionist and Modern sales, and move our way up to contemporary.

Artnet sales by price chart
Less paintings sold above $10 million in 2019 than previous years–but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Chart courtesy of artnet.com

Generally, the Impressionist and Modern category slowly continues to downshift in value; Christie’s and Sotheby’s Imp & Mod evening sales this fall were down 52% and 40% respectively from the equivalent sales in May. But it is important to remember that there were some blockbuster artworks offered in May: Monet’s Mueles (1890) set a record at Sotheby’s for any Impressionist work at $110.7 million, and works from the esteemed S.I. Newhouse collection gave Christie’s Imp & Mod sale a $100 million boost.

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Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913 (1972 cast), set a record for the artist.

Christie’s took in $191.9 million (with buyer’s premium) against a pre-sale estimate of $138–203 million; this was a 31% drop from the equivalent sale last November of $279.3 million. Only sixteen of the 58 lots had in-house or third-party guarantors, which accounted for about $53.3 million of the total sale. One of the great highlights of the sale was Umberto Boccioni’s Forme uniche della continuità nello spazio (Unique Forms of Continuity in Space), the artist’s undisputed masterpiece. Boccioni was one of the founding members of Italian Futurism, and just as his work was maturing, he tragically died in 1916 during a training exercise in World War I, at the age of 33. With a curtailed body of work, Christie’s specialists noted that this was a difficult lot to price; it is only the second time in a century that one of Boccioni’s sculptures has been offered at auction. The auction house conservatively estimated the work at $3.8–4.5 million, but the bronze busted past its high estimate to sell for a record $16.2 million, with fees.

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Gustave Caillebotte’s Richard Gallo et son chien Dick, au Petit-Gennevilliers (1894)

Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern evening sale outperformed Christie’s, raking in $209 million; unfortunately, this was still far below the equivalent sale from May ($349.8 million) or last November ($315.4 million). One of the gems of the evening was Gustave Caillebotte’s Richard Gallo et son chien Dick, au Petit-Gennevilliers (1894), a large, richly-painted portrait of his friend walking along the Seine. But the painting generated less interest than Sotheby’s anticipated, selling just inside its low estimate at $19.7 million, with fees. A happier outcome occurred for Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka’s La Tunique Rose of 1927, depicting a solidly-built, reclining woman in a red slip. The lovely modernist painting surpassed its high estimate of $8 million, as well as the artist’s previous auction record of $9.1 million, selling for $13.4 million with fees.

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Tamara de Lempicka, La Tunique Rose (1927), set a record for the Polish artist.

Moving on to the Contemporary market: Christie’s topped the evening sales with $325.3 million, which was squarely in the middle of its $270.3–397.8 million estimates. This is a 9% downturn from the same sale in November 2018, but it is worth noting last year’s $357.6 million sale was augmented by David Hockney’s $90.3 million Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures). 24 of the 54 lots offered this year had third-party guarantees. Despite promoting the “fresh to market” appeal of the works (all but three of the 54 lots had not been offered in at least ten years), 43% of lots hammered below their low estimate. But this contraction in the market was countered by a few bright spots.

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Ed Ruscha, Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964), was the highlight of Christie’s contemporary evening sale.

The standout of the evening was Ed Ruscha’s Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964), a great, early example of Ruscha’s more conceptual approach to Pop, which achieved $52.5 million with fees. Another lovely offering was a rediscovered Hockey painting called Sur la Terrasse of 1971, which hasn’t been shown publicly since 1973. Encouraged by last year’s record Hockney sale, the Christie’s specialists estimated Sur la Terrasse to reach $25–45 million. Unfortunately, this proved to be ambitious; the painting hammered under estimate, and only reached $29.5 million with fees.

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David Hockney, Sur la Terrasse (1971)

Sotheby’s Postwar & Contemporary evening sale brought in $270.5 million with an 89% sell-through rate, which was down 25% from November’s 2018 sale ($362.6 million). Artnet reports that the top bidders of the night seemed to be hailing from Asia: Sotheby’s head of contemporary art for Asia bid on behalf of one client who spent $54.4 million, or 20% of the value of the total sale. This buyer purchased the top lot of the evening, Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XXII (1977) for $30.1 million, as well as Clyfford Still’s PH-399 (1946) for $24.3 million, well over its $18 million high estimate. But other lots did not fare as well: one high-profile work was a Francis Bacon Pope painting deaccessioned from the Brooklyn Museum, which sold for $6.6 million against an estimate of $6-8 million. And works by Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell and David Hockney all passed unsold.

The market for artists of color and women artists continue to rise, with records set and re-set for several artists this season. On the heels of a retrospective exhibition at Mnuchin Gallery, Alma Thomas set a new record when her 1970 painting Fantastic Sunset sold at Christie’s for $2.7 million with fees. Also riding the success of his retrospective at the Whitney Museum of Art, Charles White set a new auction record, only to have it broken the next day: his painting Banner for Willie J (1976) sold at Christie’s for $1.2 million, followed by his work on paper Ye Shall Inherit the Earth (1953), which sold for $1.8 million at Sotheby’s. Also at Sotheby’s, Norman Lewis’s Ritual (1962) sold for $2.8 million, trumping his previous record of $956,000; and Kerry James Marshall had another eight-figure sale when his painting Vignette 19 sold for $18.5 million, just a few million shy of his $21.1 million record for Past Times, sold to P. Diddy a few years ago.

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Charles White, Ye Shall Inherit the Earth (1953), set a record for any medium by the artist.

As the .001% continues to push prices at the top of the market beyond the reach of collectors, more buyers are taking the risk to purchase art by emerging artists at auction, paying incredible amounts for some artists who are not quite “market tested.” Reviewing the day sales, rather than evening sales, is very eye-opening in this regard: Michael Armitage’s The Conservationists (2015), was estimated at $50,000–70,000 when offered at Sotheby’s contemporary day sale; the painting soared to $1.52 million, over twenty-one times its high estimate. Tschabalala Self’s Star, also from 2015, sold at Phillips for $350,000, nearly triple its high estimate of $120,000. Based on retail data, artnet speculates that Star probably only cost $10,000 when it was first offered in a gallery in 2015. Noah Davis, who died tragically in 2015 from cancer, had his first artwork offered at auction this year in May, selling for $47,500, well-past its $10,000–15,000 estimate. At Phillips this fall, his painting Single Mother with Father out of the Picture sold for $168,750, far outperforming its $40,000–60,000 estimate. Notably, all these young artists are also artists of color, yet again underscoring the craze for collecting artists that have, in previous generations, been marginalized.

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Michael Armitage, The Conservationists (2015), sold more than twenty-one times its high estimate.

With the presidential election on the horizon in 2020, the market will likely contract a little more, as it did during the 2016 election cycle. As has been the case the past few years, there will be some standout works that will tantalize the market, such as the likely forthcoming sale of the famous (or infamous) Macklowe Collection. In my honest opinion, it would not be the end of the world if the market contracted a little bit; to quote one of my favorite artists, Gerhard Richter, “It’s not good when [my art] is the value of a house.” Even with a slight softening, the art market will likely continue to be quite healthy; that is, Richter’s work will always be the cost of a house. A very nice, very big house. In the Hamptons. With a helipad.

See you 2020. Peace, love and art!

Artist Spotlight: Jean Dubuffet

College art history courses tend to tell a very direct trajectory for postwar art: namely that the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe instigated the intellectual and artistic “brain drain” that left a creative vacuum in Europe, enabling America, and New York in particular, to emerge as the cultural hub. Jackson Pollock and his circle dazzled the world with Abstract Expressionism, which soon gave way to American Pop, Minimalism, and so on and so forth.

In contrast to the chauvinism and surrealism favored by postwar American artists, European artists, still surrounded by rubble and ruin, were dealing head on with the existential fallout of the war. For French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985), he dispensed with the concept of beauty altogether—beauty seemed frivolous after such atrocities—and created what he called “Art Brut.” Dubuffet’s Art Brut, which translates literally to “raw art,” works highly textured materials like sand, gravel, and plaster into muddy and tar-like surfaces to make what the artist called “matterologies.” These paintings are not psychologically escapist, but rather insist on their own material presence, and, in turn, reify the viewers’ own physical presence and confrontation with reality.

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Jean Dubuffet, Portrait of Jean Paulhan, 1946. From the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1999.363.20)

This 1946 portrait of the artist’s friend, writer and critic Jean Paulhan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a wonderfully layered image. The childlike rendition of Paulhan’s features underscores Dubuffet’s commitment to “anti-art,” but there is far more complexity to the figure’s expression: Paulhan’s wide eyes, parted mouth and open-armed gesture gives the subject at once a vulnerable—even pleading—look, as well as one of confusion. The gesture is also reminiscent of Christ or apostolic figures in religious painting.

Scroll down to see more works by this amazing modern master.

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Jean Dubuffet, Façades d’immeubles, 1946, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Stephen Hahn Family Collection.
DUBUFFET - Tete de Heros
Jean Dubuffet, Tête de Héros, 1950
Dubuffet - Mele moments 1976
Jean Dubuffet, Mêle moments, 1976, acrylic and collage on paper mounted on canvas

Later in his career, Dubuffet’s palette narrowed onto a predominantly blue, red, and black scheme, and his subjects were typically rendered as you see below: built from flat segments of solid and striped irregular shapes.

Dubuffet - Promenade à deux
Jean Dubuffet, Promenade à deux, 1974, vinyl on canvas, Cranbrook Art Museum, Gift of Rose M. Shuey, from the Collection of Dr. John and Rose M. Shuey (CAM 2002.11)

Artist Spotlight: Jillian Mayer

Miami-based multimedia artist Jillian Mayer’s work explores our fraught relationship to technology, and its effects on our lives, bodies and identities. There is a wonderful yet unsettling tension in Mayer’s art thanks to her acute use of irony. The artist masterfully employs her media to enable our addiction to and fusion with technology, whilst also critiquing its artifice and falsity. Sometimes the work invokes cautionary fear; sometimes it invokes absurdist humor. But overall, Mayer’s art holds up a mirror to the viewer, presenting him/her with an existential challenge: do you succumb to and participate in the digitization of humanity? Or do you—can you?—resist?

Mayer’s sculptural furniture constructions, for instance, are designed to better prop up our bodies when we’re engaged with our devices. Of course, the glitter and color of these utilitarian sculptures entices and encourages phone interaction (especially selfies), yet the works are mockingly called Slumpies—a reminder of the deleterious effect technology is having on our bodies.

In her project 400 Nudes (2014), the artist staged and re-shot women’s nude selfies that she had found on the internet, merging and manipulating them into composites with her head on other women’s bodies. But Mayer then re-uploaded her own doctored images onto the web, thus participating in the consumption of these images (for a primarily male audience). This gesture adds an extra layer of complexity to the series: Mayer is contributing more “noise” to the artifice and falsity that the internet represents, but simultaneously satirizes men’s consumption of these images—little do they know this is an art project! These aren’t real! Joke’s on them!…Or is the joke on us? Is the subversive manipulation of the images irrelevant if the consumers can’t tell the difference (or don’t care)? It is this double-edged tension that pervades Mayer’s whole body of work, and makes her art very powerful.

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Jillian Mayer, Examples from 400 Nudes. Photos courtesy of the artist.

Some of Mayer’s most effective works are her videos: of particular note is the YouTube hit I am Your Grandma (2011), a music video message from the young artist to her unborn grandchildren. The Dadaist assemblage of crazy costumes is weird, funny, and affective. In the artist’s own words, “the work challenges notions of mortality, celebrity, and the universal impetus for creation and legacy. By placing the video in a public forum (YouTube) Mayer conducts a phenomenological study of why people ultimately share their personal feelings with anonymous strangers.”

Also be sure to see her collaboration with Luther Campbell, aka Uncle Luke from the rap group 2 Live Crew, called The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke. The film is described as a modern adaption of a 1962 French short film called La Jetee (The Jetty), and depicts a mostly fictionalized autobiographical narrative of Campbell through Mayer’s installations and artistic vision. Uncle Luke is excellent in it!

Mayer currently has a solo exhibition, Timeshare, at the University of Buffalo Art Gallery (on view through May 11), which will travel to the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha, NE in the fall of 2019 (preceded by an artist residency for Mayer at Bemis this summer). Mayer is co-director of Borscht Corp, a non-profit film and art collaborative in Miami, and is represented by David Castillo Gallery, Miami.

Spring Art Fair Highlights: Scope Art Fair

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The spring art fairs are like Christmas for the art world—a belated and much-needed Christmas in March to pull us out of our winter blues. “Armory Week,” as it has come to be called, is a cultural smorgasbord of art fairs, parties, openings, panel talks, lectures, and performances that happen around the city. As you can imagine, there’s so much to pack in a few days that I do not have the time to write reviews in real-time (I can’t even get to all of the fairs and events I want to go to!), but I have, in a series of posts, covered some highlights and personal favorites that I saw at the venues I was able to cover. Check out my other posts for highlights from the ADAA Art Show, the Armory Show, and Spring/Break.

Scope Art Fair

I can be a nerd for art theory. The most common of these philosophical head-scratchers is the question of whether there is good art or bad art. Who are the arbiters of taste? That is, who decides what art is good, and what is bad? Isn’t beauty in the eyes of the beholder, one might ask?

Here are my short answers: yes, there’s good art and bad art. The people who decide what’s good and bad are the experts. What makes them experts? They spend a lot of time studying that thing. This goes for a variety of fields: I can’t tell the difference between a real 1961 250 GT California Ferrari and the fiberglass prop they used in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but I bet Jerry Seinfeld can. Ergo, those with limited exposure to art may not appreciate the difference between a splashy abstract giclée painting sold at Ikea, vs. a genuine mid-century abstract painting from an avant-gardist of the New York School.

But in the end, that is OK. Because art should be accessible—both intellectually and financially. A broad range from the decorative copyists up to the museum-quality masterpieces means there is always something for everyone. And art experts should do well to remember that, because we have a reputation for being—what’s the word?—ah yes, pretentious and elitist assholes. As an art advisor, I love educating clients, and getting them excited about good art (so yes, I think taste can be learned through exposure). But ultimately, if they’re unconvinced, I’d rather see a Thomas Kinkade on their wall than nothing at all.

That’s all to say that, in this expert’s opinion, much of the offerings at Scope Art Fair this year were schlock. A fair amount of work struck me as ornamental, without much to say. In our era of social media, there has been a rise in Instagram art—works that reproduce well on your 2 x 4-inch screen, but don’t have much substance behind them. But hey, if that’s what works for you, that’s OK. To borrow from the lexicon of addiction, Scope is like a “gateway” art fair; it’s a novice’s dosage of art to which you will eventually develop an immunity. And that’s when you’ll be ready to pack your bowl with a Spring/Break or an Armory show. And if we continue with the extended metaphor, as an art advisor, I want to get everyone high! So I’d rather the Scope audience get excited about this art than be bewildered by the more experimental fare at Spring/Break and write off the arts altogether.

That said, there were some diamonds in the rough (or buds in the oregano? Nope, I’m done with drug metaphors). Below is a tasting. Bon appétit!

Serwan Baran‘s solo presentation at XOL Gallery’s booth was the cream of the crop at Scope. Baran will be representing Iraq at the 2019 Venice Biennale.

Serwan Baran Hounds of War
Serwan Baran, Hounds of War, 2017, acrylic on canvas. XOL Gallery, Baltimore and Amman. Photo by Emily Casden.
Serwan Baran Fifth Column
Serwan Baran, Fifth Column, 2019, acrylic on canvas. XOL Gallery, Baltimore and Amman. Photo by Emily Casden.

Fifth generation quilter Phyllis Stephens updates the African-American tradition of quilt-making with fresh but nostalgic urban subject matter.

Phyllis Stephens Back in the Days
Phyllis Stephens, Back in the Days, 2019, quilt with sustainable fabric, Richard Beavers Gallery, Brooklyn. Photo by Emily Casden.

Dutch artist Hans van Bentem revives glass and porcelain traditions from around the world, merging pop and antique imagery into imaginative new creations. The pieces are interchangeable, allowing for an ever-interactive and evolving sculpture.

Hans van Bentem sculptures
Hans van Bentem, Group of sculptures with interchangeable pieces, 2019, porcelain. NL=US Gallery, Rotterdam. Photo by Emily Casden.
Hans van Bentem Rocket 2019
Hans van Bentem, Rocket, 2019, in the style of Chinese celadon porcelain NL=US Gallery, Rotterdam. Photo by Emily Casden.

Mike Stilkey‘s clever repurposing of unwanted books creates artworks that interact dynamically with our lived space. According to his gallerist, Stilkey has become a favorite commissioned artist for libraries.

Mike Stilkey Suds in Your Eyes
Mike Stilkey, Suds in Your Eyes, 2019, acrylic on repurposed books. bG Gallery, Santa Monica. Photo by Emily Casden.

Trevor Guthrie‘s beautiful charcoal drawings hint at eerie and unsettling narratives.

Trevor-Guthrie-Wald-Taxi.-Drawing-95x65cm.-a-space-gallery
Trevor Guthrie, Wald Taxi, 2017, charcoal on paper. a-space gallery, Basel. Photo courtesy of the artist/a-space gallery.
Trevor Guthrie Crash III
Trevor Guthrie, Crash III, 2017, charcoal on paper. a-space gallery, Basel. Photo by Emily Casden.

For me, the thing that saves Laurence de Valmy‘s Impressionist Instagram works from being gimmicky is the real art historical dialogue happening in the comments.

Laurence de Valmy instagram paintings
Laurence de Valmy, Marys Joins the Impressionists, and Edgar’s Resting Dancer, 2019, acrylics on canvas. Kahn Gallery, London. Photo by Emily Casden.

Very impressive photorealistic snapshots of New York life by Yigal Ozeri. Hard to believe it’s painted.

Yigal Ozeri New York Story
Yigal Ozeri, Untitled: A New York Story, 2019, oil on paper mounted on wood. Rutger Brandt Gallery, Amsterdam. Photo by Emily Casden.

Fair-goers had a great time trying on Sarah Sitkin‘s highly realistic body suits. It was remarkable how transformative it was to those who tried on a suit, but the pieces also remind us that our sense of self is not defined by our skin.

Sarah Sitkin Body Suits
Sarah Sitkin, Body Suits, 2018. Superchief Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo by Emily Casden.

According to Laura Jane Petelko‘s website, her series “Soft Stories” was inspired by retreats in the Canadian wilderness for the “furries” subculture. With artist and designer Sara Wood providing the costumes, Petelko’s images convey a longing for connection and intimacy in a bleak and indifferent landscape.

Laura Jane Petelko Soft Series
Laura Jane Petelko, The First Time You Were in My Dream, from the Soft Series, 2018. Contemporary Art Projects, USA, Miami. Photo by Emily Casden

Spring Art Fair Highlights: Spring/Break

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The spring art fairs are like Christmas for the art world—a belated and much-needed Christmas in March to pull us out of our winter blues. “Armory Week,” as it has come to be called, is a cultural smorgasbord of art fairs, parties, openings, panel talks, lectures, and performances that happen around the city. As you can imagine, there’s so much to pack in a few days that I do not have the time to write reviews in real-time (I can’t even get to all of the fairs and events I want to go to!), but I have, in a series of posts, covered some highlights and personal favorites that I saw at the venues I was able to cover. Check out my other posts for highlights from the ADAA Art Show, the Armory Show, and Scope.

Spring/Break

For most people “spring break” might conjure images of drunk frat boys and sorority girls at Daytona Beach, but for the art world it is one of the fresher and more experimental art fairs you’ll experience during Armory week. The talent tends to be more emergent to mid-career, with all its positive and negative connotations: some works still have the undercooked whiff of a recent MFA degree, but many also show greater ingenuity than some of the commercial crap you’ll find at the grander fairs. The best part of Spring/Break, though, is that many artists are onsite to discuss the work, which is my absolute favorite thing to do. And to boot, the art of emerging artists tends to be very affordable! So many wins all around. (Note that unfortunately, I did not have time to get through the whole fair—especially when I stop to talk to each artist for a half an hour—so there is surely more great work that I don’t cover below.)

Meng Okubo installation shot
Lulu Meng and Naomi Okubo, Real Fairy Tale, installation shot at Spring/Break art show. Photo by Samuel Morgan Photography, courtesy of Lulu Meng.

The theme of this year’s fair was Fact and Fiction. In the case of Lulu Meng and Naomi Okubo, they explored the fantasies and falsities of fairytales in a joint installation of their respective work. In Meng’s work, dome-shaped cases have two-way mirrors, which, when a migrating interior light switches on, reveal an image inside each case. The images within allude to fairytale narratives, but the fragmented display disrupts the narrative, and draws attention to the imperfection of memory (the series of little display pods and wires itself mimics brain cells). Hanging from the ceiling, Okubo’s double-sided paintings feature the artist in classic fairytale stories, with mirrors on the reverse side bearing quotes. But these enchanted fables are not what they seem: the paintings have sinister overtones, and the quotes on the back are unsettling variants of fairytale excerpts (Mirror mirror on the wall, please tell me who I am…). As I discussed with Lulu, both artists feel—and I wholeheartedly agree—that fairytale narratives disenfranchise and delude girls, compromising our identities well into womanhood.

Emily Casden - Lulu Weng install
Me (Emily Casden), viewing one of Lulu Meng’s sculptures for her “Fairy Tale” installation at Spring/Break. Photo courtesy of Lulu Meng.
Naomi Okubo Fairy Tale
Naomi Okubo, from the series “Fairy Tale,” painting on canvas. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Naomi Okubo.
Naomi Okubo Fairy Tale Mirror Mirror
Naomi Okubo, from the Series “Fairy Tale,” etched mirror (on reverse of painting). Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Naomi Okubo.

Another delightful installation was the room curated by artists Jennifer McCoy, Kevin McCoy and Jennifer Dalton. The “TV Guide” theme of the room was somewhat tenuous for some works, but the living room arrangement was curated with choice art nonetheless. The crowd pleaser of the room was Dalton’s Hello, I’m (2015), a series of ten sticker dispensers, bestowing visitors with various custom-made phrases to match their mood, such as “wearing the wrong shoes,” “enjoying proximity to wealth,” and the one I chose—”in my element”! I enjoyed a lovely conversation with Jennifer McCoy about the glass sculptures she constructs with her husband Kevin, casting glass from broken shards of fancy stemware and crystal. The sculptures could be read as either the detritus of a wild, decadent party, or they can be interpreted more darkly, as artifacts of an as-yet-to-happen sociopolitical revolution. I can’t but help to see the latter.

Jennifer Dalton Hello I'm
Jennifer Dalton, Hello, I’m, 2015, custom-printed stickers and stickers dispensers. Detail image below. Photos by Emily Casden, courtesy of Jennifer Dalton.

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McCoy - Adeline 2016
Jennifer & Kevin McCoy, Adeline, from the Broker Glass Series, 2016, cast glass. Installation shot from a previous exhibition. Photo courtesy of Jennifer & Kevin McCoy.

I had an interesting conversation with artist Melissa Maddonni Haims about her knit-wrapped trophies. Melissa has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a disorder that she feels is not adequately discussed in our society. With her two-sided trophy sculptures, Haims celebrates our complex psychology, embracing the idea that anyone can hit highs and lows and come out the other side. The front side of the yellow trophy awards the owner as “super sunshiney”; when the top ornament is showing you her rear, the trophy is for “most miserable.” The sculptures are very affordable–and she takes commissions!

IMG_5585 IMG_5584

I spoke with artist Chris Cohen about his highly personal work, exploring the fact and fiction of family narratives, history and memory. Working from his own family albums, the artist remakes portraits and candid shots of relatives to mine his own fraught relationship to his highly religious family. Aptly titled “White Noise,” curator John Ros installed the work in an intimate living room setting.

Chris Cohen installation
Chris Cohen, White Noise, partial view of Spring/Break installation. Photo by Joanna Gmuender, courtesy of Chris Cohen.

The last piece I’ll address at length is an ambitious and beautiful project by Irish artist and animator David O’Reilly. When I looked up O’Reilly, I learned that he has an expansive studio practice that covers works in the entertainment industry, music industry, television and gaming (the most recognizable project to me was that O’Reilly created the animation sequences in Spike Jonze’s Her, with that little punky marshmallow puff). For Spring/Break, curator Yve Yang showed a trailer for O’Reilly’s Everything, a “video game” that isn’t really played so much as lived and experienced. In the ultimate effort to bestow and spread concepts of cosmic empathy, in Everything you can literally be anything: a speck of pollen, a lion, a plant, a universe. You can create universes within universes. In our era of tribal politics, ravaged Mother Nature, and all around dark times, the karmic message at the heart of this game/art is deeply moving. Suffice it to say it’s better to experience the trailer than have me explain it to you (click image below). In fact, you can buy it or download for your computer or Nintendo Switch for the low cost of $15! Worth every penny.

Everything_KeyArt
Click the image to be redirected to a 10 minute “trailer” for the “Everything” game by David O’Reilly.

Below are a few other works I enjoyed from the fair.

Yelena Yemchuk Lady in the Lake
Yelena Yemchuk, The Lady in the Lake. Room curated by Sara Vanderbeek. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Yelena Yemchuk.
Arghavan Khosravi She Had a Dream
Arghavan Khosravi, She Had a Dream, 2018, acrylic on found wood block printed fabric, acrylic on cotton canvas mounted on two separate wood panels. Room curated by Kristen Smoragiewicz. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Arghavan Khosravi.

Some of the more political art at the fair…

Margaret Roleke Weapons of Mass Destruction
Margaret Roleke, Weapons of Mass Destruction, 2019, light box with video (video not pictured). Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Margaret Roleke.

The translucency of this large painting by Anthony Goicolea makes for a luminous effect.

Anthony Goicolea Reverse Repoussoir
Anthony Goicolea, Reverse Repoussoir, 2018, oil paint on double-sided mylar film. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Anthony Goicolea.

I spoke with Chris Walla about this series of colorful bandanas, embroidered with models from gay magazines. Connecting to the quilting roots of the AIDS crisis, Walla crafted these in response to conservative political discourse during the Bush Jr. administration. Walla’s sculptures on view–phrases made from dangling ball-chains–are poignant and deliciously tactile. Check out my video of its beautiful movement.

IMG_5597

Spring Art Fair Highlights: the Armory Show

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The spring art fairs are like Christmas for the art world—a belated and much-needed Christmas in March to pull us out of our winter blues. “Armory Week,” as it has come to be called, is a cultural smorgasbord of art fairs, parties, openings, panel talks, lectures, and performances that happen around the city. As you can imagine, there’s so much to pack in a few days that I do not have the time to write reviews in real-time (I can’t even get to all of the fairs and events I want to go to!), but I have, in a series of posts, covered some highlights and personal favorites that I saw at the venues I was able to cover. Check out my other posts for highlights from the ADAA Art Show, Spring/Break and Scope.

Armory Show

The Armory Show got off to a rocky start this year: one week prior to opening, the fair organizers discovered that Pier 92 was structurally unsound, causing a last-minute call to postpone the Volta satellite fair that would have been at Pier 90, and move one-third of the Armory exhibitors over to that space. Despite the snafu, the art was generally strong at the twenty-fifth presentation of the Armory Show. Once again, I didn’t get to see everything, and there are too many great works to address in one blog post, but I shall highlight a few personal favorites.

Gustavo Diaz
Gustavo Díaz, Variaciones sobre un bosque hipotético previo a la Gran Bifurcación – Modelo 002/ Era Prearbolítica,” 2019. Cut out paper. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Sicardi Ayers Bacino, Houston.
Gustavo Díaz Cut Out Sculpture
Gustavo Díaz, work displayed at 2018 Armory Show.

I was delighted to see again the work of Gustavo Díaz, the Argentine-born artist who constructs incredibly intricate and delicate worlds in cut-out paper. I became enamored with his work at the 2018 Armory show, in which his gallery Sicardi Ayers Bacino displayed some of his miniature sculptural cities. On view for the 2019 edition, SAB showed Díaz’s wall-hung works: webs of cut paper that magnificently toe the line of man-made construction and something topographical or organic, like an ancient, skeletal cross-section of an anthill. The scale and method of construction (hand-cut, I believe) is technically astounding.

Moving along through the show, I loved the monumental (and difficult to photograph in its entirety) 2018 lightbox installation by Rodney Graham, Vacuuming the Gallery, 1949, apparently inspired by a vintage photograph of art dealer Samuel Kootz smoking a pipe in his gallery. The artist upends the airs of the art world, as well as gender stereotypes, in the cheeky tableau. The classic mid-century vacuum also conjured the image of Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage, Just What is it that Makes Today’s Homes so Different, so Appealing?

Rodney Graham Vacuuming
Rodney Graham, Vacuuming the Gallery, 1949, 2018, monumental lightbox installation. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of 303 Gallery, New York.

Like most visitors taking in the display of recycled plastic tapestries at Nicodim Gallery, my first thought was that El Anatsui was back in action (according to his own website, he hasn’t really had a group or solo show since 2016). But the gallerist informed us it was the work of newcomer Moffat Takadiwa, a young Zimbabwean artist. The themes of Takadiwa’s sculptures share many of the same concerns as Anatsui—reflections on consumerism, waste, colonialism and the environment—but are satisfying works in their own right, and surely more affordable than his well-established predecessor.

Moffat Takadiwa Sculpture
Moffat Takadiwa, Bottled Water, 2019, found blow molding pre-forms, plastic bottle caps, cuttings. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Nicodim Gallery, Los Angeles and Bucharest.
Florine Démosthène installation shot
Florine Démosthène, installation view of her works on paper at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery at the Armory Show. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, Seattle.

I think I have a crush on Mariane Ibrahim. The young gallerist, who has been based in Seattle but will be relocating to Chicago in 2019, has been killing it at the art fairs, promoting the work of some excellent talent from Africa and the African Diaspora. Her monographic display of glittering works on paper by Florine Démosthène sold out on the first day at $7,000 a pop—a total steal in my opinion.

One of my favorite sculptures of the fair was Alan Rath’s Yet Again (2017) at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, a dynamic pair of swinging arms resembling something sentient, like birds or snakes, engaged in a mating ritual. The artist wrote a code for the kinetic sculpture in which the movements of each arm is random, making each movement and interaction between the two unique. Photographs do not do it justice—click on my short video clip below for a taste of this dancing, flirtatious piece.

Below are just a few more works that I enjoyed—some by established artists, some by emerging artists. I wish there was time and space enough to discuss them all—if you’d like to discuss anything, feel free to leave a comment or email me with questions!

Love the vibrant palette of this Lee Mullican painting. It feels so much fresh and contemporary, but was painted over fifty years ago!

Lee Mullican Untitled 1965
Lee Mullican (1919-1998), Untitled, 1965, Oil on canvas. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York.

The artist Michael Sailstorfer cultivated a beehive inside the concrete base in the picture below; he then used the hive to create a mold to cast these delicate bronzes. He went through several attempts, and only saved a few as satisfactory for sale.

Sailstorfer bronze
Michael Sailstorfer, Kopf und Körper Marzahn 02, 2017, bronze and concrete. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Proyectos Monclova, Mexico City.

Brothers Jake & Dinos Chapman’s sardonic revision of Goya’s Disasters of War etchings, entitled The Disasters of Yoga, (an anagram of Goya), is wonderful. The violence that is obscured and denied by the glitter is, instead, present in the brothers’ bronze sculptures of suicide vests nearby (not pictured). Apologies I couldn’t get a clear shot of the whole installation together, but see some details from the Yoga series below.

Chapman Disasters of Yoga
Jake and Dinos Chapman, The Disasters of Yoga, 2017, set of 80 reworked Goya etchings from The Disaster of War series, with glitter. Below: two details. Photos by Emily Casden, courtesy of Blaine Southern Gallery, London.

IMG_5467  IMG_5468

Below, a few offerings from the excellent Yossi Milo gallery:

Pieter Hugo Hyena and Other Men
Pieter Hugo, From the series The Hyena and Other Men, Digital C-Print, from an edition of 9. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery.
Nathalie Boutte FH Hawpine
Nathalie Boutté, F.H. Hawpine, 2019, Collage of Japanese paper, ink. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery, New York.
Boutte Hawpine detail
Nathalie Boutté, F.H. Hawpine, 2019, detail. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery, New York.

Nick Cave, dazzling as always, at Jack Shainman Gallery.

Nick Cave Hustle Coat
Nick Cave, Hustle Coat, 2018, mixed media including a trench coat, cast bronze hand, metal, costume jewelry, watches, chains, and vinyl. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Mel Bochner. Still got it.

Mel Bochner Out of Your Fucking Mind
Mel Bochner, Are You Out of Your Fucking Mind?, 2018, etched and silvered glass. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Two Palms, New York.

Hard to photograph, but beautiful assemblage by Lyle Ashton Harris at David Castillo Gallery.

Ashton Harris Black Hummingbird 1
Lyle Ashton Harris, Untitled (Black Hummingbird #1), 2019, unique assemblage (Ghanaian cloth, dye sublimation prints, ephemera). Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of David Castillo Gallery, Miami Beach.

And lastly, love supporting the “young” galleries and their emerging to mid-career artists, such as Massinissa Selmani at Selma Feriani Gallery (Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia). Selmani takes images from the media and recreates them in new, drawn arrangements. The vast negative space of the drawings opens up the narrative to questioning and interpretation.

Massinissa Selmani No Plan is Foolproof
Massinissa Selmani, Untitled No.11, from the No Plan is Foolproof series, graphite and color pencil on paper. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Selma Feriani Gallery, Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia.

Spring Art Fair Highlights: The ADAA Art Show

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The spring art fairs are like Christmas for the art world—a belated and much-needed Christmas in March to pull us out of our winter blues. “Armory Week,” as it has come to be called, is a cultural smorgasbord of art fairs, parties, openings, panel talks, lectures, and performances that happen around the city. As you can imagine, there’s so much to pack in a few days that I do not have the time to write reviews in real-time (I can’t even get to all of the fairs and events I want to go to!), but I have, in a series of posts, covered some highlights and personal favorites that I saw at the venues I was able to cover. Check out my other posts for highlights from the Armory Show, Spring/Break and Scope.

The ADAA Art Show

This year the annual Art Show, hosted by the Art Dealers Association of America, kicked things off a week before “Armory week,” so as not to conflict with the grand art fair at Pier 92/94. At the Art Show you tend to find more modern art than the other fairs of Amory Week, as well as contemporary offerings. Many galleries continued their “correction” of representation, curating their booths to highlight works by women and artists of color. Overall the Art Show was, in my opinion, very strong: I enjoyed some singularly great works by established modernists, and discovered new contemporary artists. Below I share a sampling of both. Enjoy!

Dario Robleto Curious Confront Eternity
Dario Robleto, The Curious Confront Eternity, 2019. Cut paper, various cut and polished seashells, urchin spines, squilla claws, butterflies, colored powder pigments, plastic domes, prints on wood and paper, foam core, glue and frame. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Inman Gallery, Houston, Texas

One of the great joys of the art fairs is to be exposed to galleries from around the country and world (it is also a tragedy—to discover a great gallery that isn’t a subway ride away!). In this case, I must find a good reason to go to Houston to see Inman Gallery and the work of Dario Robleto. I was drawn into Inman Gallery’s booth by Robleto’s intricate collages and large, ecological installation. I had a fascinating conversation with the gallery owner, Kerry Inman, about Robleto’s interest in Victorian traditions of collection and display, but my mind was truly blown when Kerry told me about Robleto’s artist residency with the SETI Institute. That’s right: the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence Institute has an artist-in-residence program, in case we must communicate aesthetically with alien life. I loved this work so much I wrote a spotlight blog post on it—learn more about Dario’s work here.

Dario Robleto installation

Robleto_Inman_Sisyphean_detail_1

shell_install
Dario Robleto, Small Crafts on Sisyphean Seas, 2017-2018, detail. Image courtesy of Inman Gallery, Houston.

Other delightful contemporary work at the exhibition included a fantastic series of illustrations for a forthcoming edition of Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, by multi-disciplinary artist Maira Kalman at Julie Saul Gallery. Kalman doggedly went through archival material to base her gouaches on real photographs and people. The suite of thirty-five drawings lends a contemporary warmth and intimacy to the book, which should be coming out in 2020.

Kalman installation view
Maira Kalman, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, by Gertrude Stein, 2019, installation view at the ADAA Art Show. Thirty-five gouaches on paper. Image courtesy of Julie Saul Gallery, New York.
Maira Kalman - Alice & Gertrude
Maira Kalman, Alice and Gertrude in living room with Cezanne painting, 2019
gouache on paper. Image courtesy of Julie Saul Gallery, New York.

I would be remiss to not mention Susan Inglett Gallery, and the impressive cut-outs of artist William Villalongo. I have really enjoyed Susan’s recent shows, including her current Wilmer Wilson IV show, “Slim…you don’t got the juice” (catch it before it closes March 16). Villalongo’s large, velvety cut-outs are not only technically and graphically masterful, their message of the struggle and resilience of the black male body is palpable.

William Villalongo Zero Gravity 1 2018
William Villalongo, Zero Gravity 1, 2018, paper collage and cut velour paper. Image courtesy of William Villalongo.

Amid the modern art highlights at the fair, David Nolan Gallery had an exquisite exhibition of works by German artist George Grosz (1893-1959), focusing on his work during his New York years, 1933-1958. Grosz was one of the foremost German artists of the twentieth century; his modern, socio-politically charged works were among those singled out by Hitler as “degenerate,” and he fled to exile in the United States in 1933. A particularly fascinating contrast in the Art Show display are two watercolors that bookend his time in America: the first, a somber 1934 drawing called Wanderer, sympathetically depicting a cast-out Jew crossing a pond-like body of water; the second, a fiery 1956 composition, also called Wanderer, showing a blazing blue figure wading through a sun-soaked swamp. Who is the 1956 Wanderer? Is it an allegory, or perhaps Grosz himself, raging against the injustice of history?

Grosz The Wanderer 1934
George Grosz, The Wanderer, 1934, watercolor on paper. Image by Emily Casden, courtesy of David Nolan Gallery, New York.
Grosz The Wanderer 1956
George Grosz, The Wanderer, 1956, watercolor on paper. Image by Emily Casden, courtesy of David Nolan Gallery, New York.

I could go on and on about the great art I enjoyed at the fair, but alas, time does not allow for full discourse on each piece. Below are other great highlights of modern and contemporary works from the fair. If you have any interest, contact Avant-Garde and we can assist you with a purchase.

Lovely, playful collage by Jean Arp.

Jean Arp Head 1925
Jean Arp (1886-1966), Head; Object to Milk, 1925, painted collage, gold leaf and fabric on board. Image by Emily Casden, courtesy of James Goodman Gallery, Inc.

Classic Joan Semmel nude.

Joan Semmel Beachbody 1985
Joan Semmel, Beachbody, 1985, oil on canvas. Image by Emily Casden, courtesy of Alexander Gray & Associates, New York.

Part of an installation by Leslie Dill.

Lesley Dill Emily Dickinson 2017
Leslie Dill, Emily Dickinson and the Voices of Her Time, 2017. Oil on paper, thread on fabric-backed paper. The image depicts Emily Dickinson, Sojourner Truth, Walt Whitman and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Image by Emily Casden, courtesy of Nohra Haime Gallery, New York.

Toby Mug by Judy Chicago. I would love to see this on the table at The Dinner Party!

Judy Chicago Toby Mug 2010
Judy Chicago, Two-Faced Toby Mug, 2010, multi-fired china paint on porcelain. Image by Emily Casden, courtesy of Salon 94, New York.

Check out this badass mama by Gaston Lachaise! I love the matting job, as if the figure is interacting with the mat. Really brings the work to life.

Gaston Lachaise Draped Figure
Gaston Lachaise (1882-1935), Draped Standing Figure, 1931-32, pencil on paper. Image by Emily Casden, courtesy of Debra Force Fine Art, New York.

Joan Bankemper’s whimsical and intricate porcelain constructions at Nancy Hoffman Gallery, New York.

Joan Bankemper Belmont Ceramic
Joan Bankemper, Belmont, 2018, ceramic. Image by Emily Casden, courtesy of Nancy Hoffman Gallery, New York.

Another Grosz. Man he’s good.

Grosz They Found Something
George Grosz (1893-1959), They Found Something, 1946, watercolor on paper. Image courtesy of David Nolan Gallery, New York.

Censorship in Cuba: Decree 349 and the Future of the Havana Biennial

In May of 2015 I had the great privilege of visiting Cuba for the Havana Biennial, about a month before President Barack Obama announced a restitution of diplomacy with Cuba. Just a few months prior, in April 2015, Obama and Raúl Castro had made history when the U.S. and Cuban leaders met for the first time in fifty years; just a few weeks later, I was eager to see what Cubans made of this historic moment.

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Lidzie Alvisa, Revolucion at the 2015 Havana Biennial. Image courtesy of in-cubadora.org

We were greeted at José Martí International Airport by our government-assigned tour guide, Mirelys. On the bus to our hotel she expressed joy at the thawing relations, and noted that Cubans were eager to embrace Americans. But while our bus idled at a stoplight, I looked out the window to a billboard with a morbid picture of a noose, and text that read in Spanish, “the American embargo is the noose around Cuba’s neck.” I pointed at the sign and asked Mirelys if indeed Cuba was warming up to the U.S.; she provided a nonsensical and almost certainly government-fed response that Cuban-American businessmen in Miami had paid for that billboard. Such Cold War emblems were at odds with the generally warm reception we received as tourists; I could tell this place would be rich with fascinating contradictions.

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Arlés del Río’s installation at the 2015 Havana Biennial. Image courtesy of the New York Times

Such paradoxes were only magnified on the grounds of the Havana Biennial. I was impressed and surprised by the volume of politically loaded art in a state-authorized art fair. Artist Lidzie Alvisa, a Havana native, departed from her photographic explorations of the body to install a green chalkboard with the word “Revolucion,” erased and rewritten several times. Cuban artist Arlés del Río hung colorful, elongated snorkel tubes from the ceiling, like plastic stalactites; the snorkels a symbol of leisure, but also tools for swimming underwater, undetected by those policing the shores. Another artist (whose name, sadly, I did not record and cannot locate in Google searches) presented a simple photograph of the ocean, with a black light dangling nearby. When a viewer raised the black light to the image, the ghostly letters of at least a hundred names appeared—the names of those who had died trying to flee the island in times of crisis. Perhaps the biggest illogicality of all was learning that the artist Kcho, whose frequent use of boats conjures both Cuba’s fishing economy and the desperate exodus of its citizens, was one of Fidel Castro’s favorite artists. (As a symbol of the island’s physical and socio-political isolation, the ocean is an important and consistent theme for Cuban artists.)

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Kcho (Alexis Leyva Machado), The Conversation, installation at the 2012 Havana Biennial. Image courtesy of the New York Times

But not all dissident art was tolerated. Performance artist Tania Bruguera has frequently been harassed and arrested in the past twenty years, and her “artivism” was under careful watch of the Cuban government. For the first half of 2015, Bruguera had been forbidden to leave Cuba for “disturbing the public order,” and so naturally, she opened the biennial with a public reading of Hannah Arendt’s 1951 The Origins of Totalitarianism, which landed her another arrest. (Unsurprisingly, the itinerary of my government-approved guided tour kept us away from Bruguera’s performances.)

Despite such unsettling instances of censorship, and despite the fact that Mirelys’s rosy assessment of Cuban life didn’t always line up with what we observed around us, I would say that in 2015 there was hope among young Cubans that real change was coming to Cuban society. For artists, an influx of curious (and well-heeled) American collectors was a good thing. In fact, Cuban artists were already benefiting from the global art market: they were exhibiting abroad at international galleries and art fairs; they were permitted to travel more freely than the average citizen; and they were making real money beyond the modest income afforded to them in the closed and tightly regulated economy of their native country. Arlés del Río, for instance, has gallery representation in Florida, and exhibited an installation in Times Square in 2014, among other international shows. But recent developments seem to have halted this progress for the creative community in Cuba.

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Arlés del Río with his Times Square installation Fly Away in 2014. Image courtesy of Times Square Arts

First, there was the issue of the cancellation of the 2018 Havana Biennial (since 1994 the event has in fact been triennial). News outlets reported that the biennial was postponed due to severe damage caused by Hurricane Irma in September 2017, which did indeed have a serious impact on the country’s already fragile infrastructure. But as some astutely noted, the 2018 Biennial was also scheduled to follow on the heels of Cuba’s biggest political event in nearly half a century: a transfer of power to a non-Castro family member, Miguel Diaz-Canel, who was handpicked by eighty-five-year-old Raúl Castro to take over as president. In such a delicate time of political transition, the last thing the government needed was a Tania Bruguera performance to disrupt the state’s broadcasted socio-political “unity.”

In light of the cancellation of the 2018 Biennial, a group of artists decided to put together an independent art festival—the “Alternative 00 Havana Biennial,” the first artistic event organized without the involvement of the state, which ran in May of 2018. The various artistic events took place in artists’ homes, studios, and other found spaces. Hyperallergic reported that the Alternative Biennial was approved by the Cuban government, but several artists reported harassment and, later, fines and other penalties for participating. The Havana Times published the following dismissive response from state-led artistic organizations:

“Very few people have joined this abomination of a Biennial, without any important works mostly, who, maliciously or confused, are after the fame that this mercenary platform and overexposure on social media can give them. They have announced that it will be held at non-important venues and is only a failed attempt to attack the government’s cultural policy, where quite a few of them are skirting with the law. They want to mislead artists so that they use their studios, which have institutional support, so as to provoke the government.”

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Exhibition in the studio of Walfrido Valera during the 2018 Alternative 00 Biennial in Havana. Image courtesy of Hyperallergic

Now, at the close of 2018, the Cuban government put into effect a more direct and antagonistic assault on artistic freedom of expression: Decree 349, a law that regulates the subject matter and display of art in Cuba. The law requires that artists must obtain government approval before performing or displaying their art, and certain taboo subjects—such as sexually explicit language or addressing racial discrimination—are forbidden. Government authorities are empowered to cancel shows and confiscate property, and revoke artists’ license if they deem it necessary.

The law has elicited an outpouring of rage and remonstration: 250 artists signed a letter in protest, and met with cultural officials to address the danger of such censorship. Tania Bruguera has reported that she is under constant surveillance by the state, and other artists have organized demonstrations against the new draconian measures. But few have any faith that their concerns will be addressed in a meaningful way. One exiled Cuban artist told the Wall Street Journal that the decree was in direct response to the new freedom and wealth that artists were enjoying: “The purpose of the decree is to regulate a new world: private businesses, art galleries, people working from their homes. The alarm went off because it is a sector that is not under state control.”

What will the 2019 Havana Biennial look like under Decree 349? Will it apply to just Cuban artists, or international artists as well? If the latter, surely most international artists will not tolerate such cultural regulation, and will pull out of the biennial altogether. This new crackdown on the arts is, in a word, awful. The world must do its part to pressure the Cuban government to lift this restrictive law.

To learn more about the decree, as well as a brief history of censorship in Cuba, read this New York Times piece.

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Artist and activist Tania Bruguera, performing Self-Sabotage in 2009. Image courtesy of W Magazine