This series of reviews and interviews was originally published on WhiteHot magazine and can be still found online at the following links:
Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917
Review by Marco Antonini
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53 Street
New York NY 10019
July 18 through October 11, 2010
Culminating with the endlessly re-worked, monumental Bathers by a River (1909-10, 1913 and 1916-17) and by the equally imposing The Moroccans (1915-16), MoMA’s long-due investigation of what can arguably be considered as the most interesting phase in Matisse’s life-long artistic experimentation never actually reaches a proper high point. Although the allure of the “major” pieces can be instrumental to successful exhibition narratives and dynamics, and notwithstanding the impressive scholarly effort curators John Elderfield and Stephanie D’Alessandro have dedicated to the unlocking of Bathers by a River’s intricate history, “Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917” doesn’t need to deliver a “Wow” moment. In fact, the exhibition’s breathtaking ride through constant, deliberate and quietly revolutionary artistic development is more likely to leave the visitor agape right from its inception. In my personal experience, the dramatic one-two finale arrived when my senses and intellect were already numbed, and my ability to take in even more invention, intuition and experimentation was almost fading out.
Although informed about Matisse’s “cubist” period, and a big fan of paintings like The Piano Lesson, Goldfish and Palette or The Rose Marble Table (all at MoMA, respectively 1915-16, 1916 and 1916), I never realized how coherent with the artist’s life-long research and general sensibility this extraordinary moment was. Like others, I had looked at these and similar paintings only through the obfuscating lenses of an impossible comparison with Braque and Picasso’s early cubist work, the shock waves of whose radicality must have surely rocked Matisse’s “comfortable armchair” (as he once described his own relaxed brand of poetic fauvism).
The exhibition starts with Three Bathers (1879-82), Matisse’s long-owned Cézanne. Matisse convinced his wife to get rid of family jewelry to purchase this painting; it was a talisman he would hold on for a great part of his career, through thick and thin. Cezanne’s sober composition and well-grounded bodies, stolid in their proportions and reminiscent of Giotto’s placid elegance, are enlivened by vivid texture and color, and “unfolded” by deformations that recognize not only the loose and expressionistic substance of post-Impressionism but also the radical plane fragmentation of Cubism. This painting is juxtaposed with a series of relatively early works, including Matisse’s famous Blue Nude (1907), an aggressively expressionistic portrait in which the sensual presence of African wood sculpture and the graphic abstractions of Gothic painting are reworked in a confrontationally “ugly” figure. Fatma, the Mulatto Woman (1912) lurks from the second room, and introduces the steady development of what Matisse described as construction methods applied to painting. Part of a series of paintings made in Tangiers, Fatma is an elongated vertical canvas, wrapped around the central figure of an Arab prostitute. The head and the feet of the woman are both cut by the upper and lower canvas. Her vest blends in with an indistinct green/teal background with a striking close-up effect that focuses the viewer’s attention on details such as the rich decorations on her chest and sash. Here, Matisse creates a network of construction lines that are completely independent from the anatomy of the subject and yet seem rigorously and logically organized. The line drawn by Fatma’s open veil plunges down to describe a diagonal opening over the geometry of her chest, an armor-like pattern of blues and yellows.
Two years later, these underlying, only occasionally emerging structures begin coming to the fore, sometimes turning into the subject of the painting. View of Notre Dame (1014) is striking in its quasi-absence of subject. The famous cathedral is still discernible, but only survives as a transparent volume delineated by the intersection of many visible and invisible lines. Crossing the vast expanse of grey/blue of the canvas, this network of lines is a rendering of Matisse’s window view in his studio of Quai St.Michel. The perspective can be compared to other “window” paintings to understand how the totality of the optical vision has been worked and reworked, drafted and then systematically deleted in a sort of excavation process that leads to the isolation of delicate and abstracting formal balances. The same trial by error, time-based process is applied to the surprising intense, almost disquieting Portrait of Yvonne Landsberg (1914), one of Matisse’s most uncommon paintings. The reduced palette of dark grays and green/orange accents eliminates every possible distraction. The real protagonist of the portrait is, in fact, the network of scratched curving lines that not only delineates the body of the sitter, but expands it in every possible direction, suggesting streams of pure energy via a very tangible and physical gesture.
Matisse was stepping here in a dangerous territory, maybe too close to ideas and approaches that he felt were not completely his. A few didactical, almost normative cubist canvases seem to prove this point, but the “real” Matisse is just a few steps away. The poetic tenderness of the drawing and color in Apples (1916), is a wake-up call to a more mature and personal synthesis of skill, style and experimentation. The flat, vibrant planes layered in Composition (1916) predict Matisse’s future collages; the understated elegance of The Rose Marble Table (1916) is a far cry from Cubism, and already emancipated from the literalness of visible structures. Sparse and essential, this painting is a Zen garden of pictorial composition where absence flirts with essence.
The architectural suggestions and geometric abstractions of The Moroccans look dangerously unbalanced. Even the painter’s legendary eye for color harmonization seems at risk in a composition that Matisse, as Gino Severini has noted, created by progressively stripping it down, “as you would prune a tree”. The textural richness and pervasive off-balance feel bring the canvas to the verge of a color and contrast dominated decorativism. Bathers, on the other hand, bears the signs of its interminable execution, a process that spanned from 1913 to 1917, the whole period considered in this exhibition. The historical import of the painting is certainly tremendous, both because the documents of its realization speak eloquently of Matisse’s technique and ideas and because the painter himself pointed it out as one of his most important works. Bathers by a River is without a doubt a repository of creative energy and an art historical document, but it lacks both the spontaneity and virtuosity of other major works. Its uncommonly long gestation -and the wealth of information that it helped gather- are surely part of the reason of its legendary status. The canvas brings us back to Cezanne’s Three Bathers and to the importance that this model had for Matisse. Cezanne’s solidly grounded figures, textural surface and sober composition are here replaced by four faceless standing figures, staged in a rhythmically shifting landscape of wide vertical bands of color and stylized bright green foliage. Matisse kept working on this puzzling composition until the very end, even after he sold it. The exhibition catalog reports how, in the winter of 1917, writer Ameen Rihani described Matisse as still perplexed by the painting, to the point of asking Rihani if he “thought it had anything in it of Cubism”. To this day, Matisse’s confusion permeates through the myriad layers of painting accumulated and removed over an image whose allure mostly resides in the seductive power of its convoluted complexity.
Review by Marco Antonini
SITE Santa Fe
1606 Paseo de Peralta
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501
June 20, 2010 through January 2, 2011
The artists invited by Sarah Lewis and Daniel Belasco to participate in The Dissolve, SITE Santa Fe’s Biennial, work in every conceivable medium, ranging from drawing, painting and sculpture to film, digital animation and 3D modeling. All of them, though, share an interest in animation as a means to relate their media of choice to the world of moving images. According to the curators, the impetus to animate behind many of the works can be read as an assertion of physical human presence in the immaterial realm of film/video, and a test of the shifting boundaries between handmade and high-tech artistic practices.
The exhibition includes thirty works, almost all of them presented via large projections on screens and/or suspended gauze panels. This creates a transparent and fluid exhibition space of moving images, with little or no sound seeping into the carefully crafted “picture.” This environment is the work of starchitet David Adjave. The projections remain largely silent though in some cases they mutter indistinctively to the visitor’s ear, as sound is produced by near-field speakers suspended over the few benches and seats. Sound detail and depth is almost completely lost even when standing in the designated listening areas – few of which are clearly signaled anyway. Adjave’s fabric walls and inexplicably kitschy color-codes (presumably defining different sections of the show) frame a completely visual environment in what seems an effort to bend the original multi-sensorial nature of the work into ductile, flat visual matter. Moreover, film works are presented as video projections and intimate home-videos are enlarged to pixelated, grotesque effects.
A few notable exceptions in this homogenizing spree immediately spring to mind. Federico Solmi’s Douche Bag City, for example, is presented as a composite of video game clips in gothic frames. They complement the apocalyptic scenery of the work well, while signaling the artist’s interest in the insigna and ritual forms of Catholic religion. Near by, Christine Rebet’s amateur Victorian parlor sumptuously hosts a series of enigmatic animations prone to surreal crescendos and hysterical exchanges between future and past. A major work like William Kentridge’s Drawing For Projection series (represented here by chapter six: History of the Main Complaint) is fortunately cast in splendid, dark isolation while Martha Colburn’s schizophrenic jewel Myth Labs is unexpectedly graced by a real sound system, a necessary measure given the intensity and kick of its improvisational noise-rock soundtrack. The incorporation of historical animation by the Edison Manufacturing Co., Lotte Reiniger, Dziga Vertov and Fleisher Studios is hit-and-miss, succeeding at least in expanding the conceptual framework and scope of the project. Reiniger’s 1926 stop motion collage animation film masterpiece The Adventures of Prince Achmed holds a quite unforgiving mirror to Kara Walker’s nth sex-and-violence-and-history-and-race shadow play although its hand-made quality and sophisticatedly modest technical details are largely spoiled by the larger than life, gleaming digital video projection it has been converted to.
All in all, The Dissolve suffers from a certain lack of ambition and an exhibition design that neither improves nor really radically changes the experience of the works.
Philippe Van Wolputte: We Did it / Disputed Territory
Review by Marco Antonini
The 100%-Berlin courtyard leading to Chert gallery feels dark and cold as we approach the exhibition space, passing by a succession of wall mounted, neon-lit display vitrines, the kind you find flanking old storefronts or outside movie theatres. These windows are elegantly scattered around the courtyard, anticipating the larger, brighter display of Motto bookstore and distracting from the small, beautifully designed signs demarcating the entrance of CHERT and its spin-off space, CHINO.
The entrance to the gallery is closed, its front windows revealing a sober installation of crumpled, taped photocopies, a solitary screen and a set of tilted wood steps leading to a large crack in the wall. Following the hint of a partially open door, out by the right side of the gallery space, we sneak in what seems a bike storage or boiler room. The smell of cold rancid coffee and freshly violated construction materials lingers in the devastated space. Broken tiles, graffiti, drapings of black trash-bag plastic and accumulations of rubble/dirt might initially strike one as entropic sculptures but quickly reveal their intentional nature.
We can almost feel the doppelganger presence of long-gone intruders, their hammers smashing hard against the sheet-rock wall, finally piercing it to reveal the adjacent gallery space. The work has started from the entrance door – marked in black duct tape and apparently tampered with – then proceeded to the vandalization of the room and finally focused on the separation wall, smashed open to let adventurous visitors squeeze in it to intrude the lit-up, closed gallery space and become themselves objects of the installation.
The temporary activation of the gallery space has been claimed via an outdoor banner hung by the nearby Schlesisches Tor U-Bahn stop. The banner coldly indicates the longitude and latitude of the reclaimed spot in black spray paint, together with the slightly naïve, triumphant words: “We Did It!!! Undisputed Territoryy (sic)”. Van Wolputte’s loud declaration of accomplishment was almost immediately removed by mysterious hands and exists now only as document, xeroxed, crumpled and taped inside the gallery space. A seemingly faux-security camera video further contextualizes the situation by showing the artist and an accomplice as they force their way in the room they decided to elect to the status of temporary autonomous zone.
But what is this temporary space and what should it be made autonomous from, exactly? Differently from much of his previous work, in which he has addressed public space and the phenomenon of shrinking cities by reclaiming actual condemned buildings, Van Wolputte is now at work on the fictionalization of an already rather fictional gesture. As Wilfried Lenz has noted in a text reprinted on the artists’ website, abandoned, deteriorated and reclaimed spaces serve an important function in the memory and social landscape of the city, possessing a beauty of their own and, we might want to add, functioning as reminders of urbanism’s very own disfunctionalities and failures. The demolition of these spaces deletes not only their “unsafety” and/or inappropriateness but also an unwanted history of chaotic and irrational urban development.
The gallery press release remarks how the installation seems to open itself as a question towards what is public and what is private, fusing space and non-space, the art context and the temporary context made available by Van Wolputte’s hammer, tape and spray. While the superficial appearance of the work remains rough, pragmatic and direct, that very look and feel also seems to camouflage the more important issue of authenticity and intellectual honesty. Van Wolputte’s handling of the inherent fictionality of his environments/actions is complex and confusing, pointing in different directions while mainaining a consistent attention to detail as well as a rigorous overarching aesthetic. The use of “poor” materials for the reproduction and presentation of his actions, for example, radicalizes the artist’s control over what is shown and betrays a partial and -ultimately- idealistic conception of reality. The artist’s break-in cannot be considered a performance in itself. It rather suggests a synthetic re-enactment and transfiguration of countless other fictional (and real) break-ins, fragmented memories and afterimages collected from art and non-art sources and projected on the imagination and personal memories of the viewer. The broken wall and its opening onto the light of the clean gallery space is the pierced skin separating the illusion of a fictionalized reality bite from the hard cold fact of artifice, spectacle and commercialization.
Rubble and smashed walls look really great on photocopy, but in the case of this installation they actually are photocopies. One presumes that at the end of this show every single shard of broken wall, lump of plastic sheet, spray and coffee stain will be cleaned. The artist’s Disputed Territory will hopelessly get back to its normalcy.
Jonathan Van Dyke, The Hole in the Palm of Your Hand
Review by Marco Antonini
at Scaramouche c/o Fruit and Flower Deli
53 Stanton St.
New York, NY 10002
12 September through 1 November, 2009
Jonathan Van Dyke’s recent works rely on a trusted set of variables to give voice to the preoccupations and aspirations of their author. Usually mid to large size wooden sculptures, these constructions cleverly integrate materials belonging to the vocabularies of both standard and high-end furniture design. As we get accustomed to the basic qualities and physical presence of the sculptures, we discover how the surface appearance of their seat-like canvas webbings, polished or mirrored surfaces and exquisitely constructed structures is regularly (and subtly) disrupted by incongruous materials and details. Cleverly integrated and apparently necessary construction elements such as cheap masonite panels, swinging chains and plastic inserts seem to betray a lack of integrity. The mechanisms that they hide, and not so much their appearance, are what really endangers the rigorous structural and aesthetic balance that we might initially perceive as the foundation of the objects’ very existence.
In a slapstick manifestation of the stigmatic image suggested by the exhibition title, the visible or hidden, large and small holes puncturing Van Dyke’s surfaces reveal themselves as the conduits of fantastically colored, slowly dripping fluids of mysterious origin. These drippings slowly build up, affecting the sculptures by directly staining them in multicolored poodles and trickles of gooey color. This bleeding substance probes the visitor’s comfort zone by literally flowing under his or her feet, reaching for a silent, sometimes involuntary (and often unnoticed) point of contact and contamination. Carried around by the visitors’ feet, color stains the tiles of the -appositely redone- gallery floor, its presence echoed by a myriad little marks, random testimonials to Van Dyke’s silent, quirky magic.
The number and size of pieces was a little overwhelming for Scaramouche’s compact exhibition space. The general atmosphere reminded me, …well, of a second hand furniture shop basement. I have a specific place in mind: a huge, multi-floor antique store on Atlantic Avenue that’s been advertising its own going “Out of Business” since the first time I visited it, years ago. In that basement, the moldy smell of dimly lit, flickering neon tubes wraps around a myriad rotten sofas, lounge chairs and cabinets. There are no sounds, even the pipes are uncommonly quiet. Here and there, the muted whoomp of a fallen cushion, a distant creak from the retro Danish desk (buried beneath two other retro Danish desks) and its reverberation in the solid air are there to remind you that, when the lights go off, that furniture will still be there. Day or night, they will be performing a gradual transformation that is synonymous with decay and devaluation for someone, and the essence of their desirable “Vintage” status for others.
Although tempting, reading Van Dyke’s rationally designed yet lurid, sexually charged and even funny living sculptures as queer reminders of Modernism’s failure would be like kissing them with your eyes open. These perpetually climaxing avatars of decay and corruption have much more to say, and most of it seems to be hidden inside their skillfully constructed bodies and beyond the quirky exuberance of the small color streams that many visitors seem to be so superficially amused at.
Unaddressed Circumventions: Folds from a Failed Suicide
Review by Marco Antonini
at Gresham’s Ghost
521 W 26th Street,
New York, NY,
May 14 through June 9, 2009
Ajay Kurian’s Unaddressed Circumventions: Folds from a Failed Suicide, is the second installment of his ongoing Grisham’s Ghost nomadic curatorial series. Selections from a suicide note – whose convoluted language often seems to cross the line with a dark, philosophy-heavy art criticism – function as a fragmented and jagged backbone to the show. The note is part of William Gaddis’ first novel, The Recognitions.
The ultimate uselessness of painting claimed by Gaddis’ text is translated into an extended skepticism towards, or re-evaluation of, visual representation. It looms large among the artworks. The dark, desperate tone of the missive, emphasized by Kurian’s radical text fragmentation, reverberates throughout the exhibition. Jason Fox and Matt Connors provide the only actual paintings. These stick to abstraction or quasi-abstraction and keep the immediacy and readability of their artistic intentions at an unfortunate minimum. Connor’s tiny paper and pen Untitledabstractions are way more convincing with their savvy use of variation over a set of almost imperceptible and thoroughly humble structural and formal components.
Matt Saunders’ contact prints, fashioned as Buster Keaton’s portraits via the simple and elegant use of the actor’s silhouette, provide a sort of visual summa of the exhibition. The gestural silvery strokes of the altered negatives delete and define at the same time, while representation and context are reduced to an evanescent, impossible minimum setting a tone that’s reminiscent the darkest passages in Gaddis’ text. This dark series of analogues, each different in the painterly treatment of the negative, leads to Saunder’s more lyrical Asta Nielsen (in the snow) a ghostly portrait of the famous Danish silent film diva. Asta is falling, whitened out by wide, ectoplasmic silver strokes. A pitch black background seems on the verge of consuming her liquid body substance, invading the pure boundaries of the snowy white. The connection between this piece and the apocalyptic language of Gaddis’ suicide note is quite immediate and rooted in the emotional quality of the image and its treatment.
Elena Bajo’s little installation/painting is another highlight of the show. The economical execution and pragmatic look of the piece, as well as its unceremonious title (one hundred watts, twelve forty seven, post meridium) conceal complex and intriguing ideas. Hung low on the wall, a small naive landscape on canvas, dominated by tones of gray, is obliterated by a central white rectangle, outlined in tape. A few inches from the canvas, an equally low tripod holds a spotlight close to the white area, its light filtering through the adjustable flaps and forming a geometric pattern of bright whites and shades of gray. Bajo’s negation and, to a certain degree, destruction of the underlying painting seems to be aimed at a transformation of its stale artistic values. The painting’s uniqueness (highly questionable, given its stock quality) lingers like a ghost behind the diagrammatical nature of the contraption, a whitewashed memento mori to painting and craftsmanship.
The conceptual framework of Unaddressed Circumventions is open and flexible enough to allow dissonant and border-line interpretations to whatever aspects of the original text Kurian was trying to stress by folding and editing Gaddis’ text. Several contributions do not seem to really relate to the words that should have inspired them. Anyhow, the exhibition vibrates with the letter’s hopeless tone, echoing its convoluted, pessimistic lucubrations. Death finally stands out as the only way of circumventing the unbearable weight of a failure that is assumed as a prerequisite of any art form.
Stretch, Riiip, Plop, Splash, etc.: Alex Hubbard’s theatre of art making.
By Marco Antonini
My reaction to Alex Hubbard’s work is usually one of pure enjoyment. This instinctive high is regularly followed by a creeping sensation of puzzlement, a slow and steady descent into a perplexity that no extended exposure to the work can help me get rid of.
Hubbard stages and documents performances that take place in his studio, the spectator’s point of view rigidly dictated by fixed shots. Moving over a flat surface, usually not bigger than the framed area and parallel to the camera lens, Hubbard spills, throws, splashes, punctures, burns, destroys and builds upon a surface that our eyes quickly convert from three to two dimensions. This conversion is what puzzles me the most. I know –I want to know– that what I am looking at is, in fact, performance: the artist (whose arms and/or body nonchalantly appear here and there) working on something in time and space, recognizable objects and physical processes. Nonetheless, somewhere in my mind the image of a flat surface of ever changing shapes and colors quickly overwhelms every attempt at a rational apprehension of the sensible data in front of me. I love Hubbard’s dynamic “painting” on both the formal and aesthetic level, and I find myself completely entangled in the reverberations of its intriguing conceptual implications.
Things got even more complicated with Hubbard’s recent works, presented at Gallery C (an independent space embedded in Team Gallery) from May 7th to June 20th, 2009. Shown on a freestanding vertical-flatscreen-on-plinth, the video Weekend Pass features a cautiously moving and –as usual– barely visible Hubbard circling another plinth, on which various materials are stacked, burned, glued, crashed. The artist’s further exploration of the sculptural side of his own technique leads to an exhilarating extension of its possibilities. Watching Weekend Pass (2009) and Screens for Recalling the Black Out (2009), a video projected in the adjacent darkroom, reality and performative action once again slowly morph into an oddly painterly, deceitfully tangible (yet dynamic) flat plane.
Two large untitled canvases flanking Weekend Pass, almost facing each other, feature a slightly confusing mix of silkscreen and painting and resemble close ups of transitional still frames of any of the artist’s videos. Their size, support, technique, palette, composition and mood are remarkably similar. Receiving the visitors as they step down the narrow ladder that leads to Gallery C these two images embrace them in an ambiguous zone where everything is nothing, past is present and effects have no apparent cause. A perfect, if slightly soft-spoken, introduction to the Slash, Rip, Spill and Burn of the videos.
The wider angle and increased size of the props and contraptions used in Screens for Recalling the Black Out brings the performative aspect of the work as well as the significance of the artist’s physical presence back to our attention. Shot in full-figure and finally physiognomically recognizable, Hubbard is now impossible to ignore. He has always been somewhere around the works, his arms moving quickly over or around the various working areas, but now he IS there. He does the trick for us to see that there’s no trick and, most of all, that that’s never been the point of his work.
Francesco Clemente: History of the Heart in Three Rainbows
Review by Marco Antonini
at Deitch Projects
18 Wooster Street
New York, NY 10013
May 02 through May 30, 2009
I used to write a lot of pieces like this. Words were flowing freely, entered at night, on the keyboard of an electric typewriter first, then a crappy PC inherited by my older brother, up to increasingly contemporary second-hand Macs. I didn’t know much, but I didn’t know it and/or felt it wasn’t going to be that important. I looked at things, thought about things, wrote about things. Then they got hold of me. They told me it was basically crap, irrelevant in the best case. I went back and read some of that stuff. It was bad. I changed. I started to articulate my sentences and structure my paragraphs, fact-checking, putting intros and conclusions in the right places, all the good stuff. It all made sense. It still does, sometimes more, sometimes less.
I always looked up to Clemente. He’s such a positive, accomplished, figure. A good-faced, bright-eyed, intense, articulate and internationally acclaimed painter from my country. I was proud of him since -still in College- I first got caught in the silky red substance, sharp symbolism and flowing metamorphoses of Scissors and Butterflies (1999), on the cover of his Guggenheim retrospective of the same year. What a picture. It stayed with me for years and years. It still does. I was completely content and satisfied with it, that WAS the painter, Clemente’s whole achievement and discourse was in that painting. I didn’t felt obliged to go on and study him or see more work or whatever of the things that I usually do when I meet the work of an interesting artist.
Images of Clemente’s remarkable career came to me occasionally and mostly unexpected. Stunningly complex and yet playfully spontaneous collective works painted with Warhol and Basquiat in a group show in Avignon. Reproductions of nervous, “ugly” early drawings on the pages of some Flash Art issue. The iconic, dark, crystal clear symbolism of House of Cards (2001) reproduced on Gagosian ads and web pages. Growing up, these images kept resonating deeply with me; still, I maintained a distance from them, collecting them in an ideal drawer and never really relating them to other art. Only a few months ago, I found myself describing my feelings for Clemente’s work to a friend admitting that, if my other passions and preferences could be trusted to represented my general “taste”, I would have to deduct that I shouldn’t at all have been attracted or interested by it. My friend (who knows the painter and his family on a personal level) could not hide a knowing smile. I felt that he knew the way I was feeling. Or maybe I just wanted him to.
I met the same friend at the opening of “History of the Heart in Three Rainbows” at Deitch’s Wooster street warehouse and reminisced our conversation, while also realizing that that was, in fact, the first solo exhibition of Clemente’s work I’d ever been to. A cycle of larger than life watercolors on paper lined the open space of the massive warehouse. Set in three groups of five paintings each, the pieces were some of the brightest and more colorful works that the artist has ever produced. As the press release cleverly remarks, the thin layers of watercolor create the impression of a permanent rainbow of soft light and energy behind the paper. The ubiquitous, universal symbol of a red heart is the beginning and end of the compositions, initiator of mysterious organic processes that involve thorny branches, jeweled trees, energy streams, light explosions and abnormal growths, as well as human figures perennially in balance between love, life, struggle and death. Some figures wear Harlequin (a classic character of the Italian Commedia dell’Arte) costumes, their colorful lozenges appearing sometimes as a fragmented skin from which the bodies have magically emerged or liberated themselves. The struggle for the achievement of spiritual freedom seems to be the driving force behind each scene and arrangement of carefully chosen symbols.
I looked at them for half an hour. An exceptional suite by an exceptional painter that I seem to be exceptionally attracted to, but whose mysterious ways I will probably never manage to fully understand.
It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq
Review by Marco Antonini
New Museum, 235 Bowery
New York, NY 10002
February 11 through March 22, 2009
It Is What It Is: Report from the Road at The Cooper Union Great Hall
New York, NY 10003-7120
April 24, 2009
The scarcity of information about the war in Iraq and the impossibility of accessing valuable first-hand information about the experiences of US, Allied and Iraqi individuals involved in or affected by the conflict was the reason for Jeremy Deller’s It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq. This project relies on remarkably sparse and distilled visual components (most notably, the rusty remains of a car survived to the catastrophic explosions that destroyed Al Mutanabbi Street, the cultural and social hub of Baghdad, in 2007) and mainly pivots around a facilitated discussion platform. For this purpose, Deller gathered an impressive array of experts, artists, journalists, refugees and militaries who are either Iraqi or have been directly involved in the tragic events that followed the US-led occupation of 2003. After opening as a conversation platform/installation at the New Museum, Deller’s project hit the road for a coast-to-coast trip that would ideally extend the conversation to the whole country. Together with curator Nato Thompson (who also represented Creative Time, one of the producers of this project), Iraq War veteran Jonathan Harvey and Iraqi artist Esam Pasha, Deller toured the U.S. on RVs, trailing the destroyed car along, as a specimen and discussion-starter.
I waited longer than usual before sending this article out. After my first visit at the New Museum, I somehow had the impression that the project, and the validity of Deller’s idea, had to be tested on the road. Floating in the stark white of the New Museum’s 2nd floor gallery, Deller’s discussion platform consisted of a few IKEA couches, armchairs and ottomans, gathered around a birch-ey coffee table, resting on a large gray rug. The set’s background was a monumentally large banner reporting the title of the show in English and Arabic. It was flanked by Deller’s brilliant overlay of American city names to an Iraqi Map (and vice versa) on the left, and by the aforementioned destroyed car, as well as by some photographs of the aftermath at Al Mutanabbi Street, on the right. My initial problem with this presentation was that the makeshift living room could barely sit 10 visitors –including the daily guest expert. This made up for frequent situations where a small group (let’s say 4, 5 people) would gather around the guest expert and really get into a conversation, immediately alienating the rest of the audience, who floated between Deller’s maps, the few photographs and the bombed car, quickly losing their attention and/or heading back to the elevator. The conversation ended up feeling rather objectified and exposed to the voyeurism of the non-participating audience. I sat down for a few minutes listening to an Iraqi Architect, he was involved in a discussion that ranged from the casual to the hyper-specific and often diverged to unexpected or mundane details and scenarios. It was a weirdly unsatisfactory experience, albeit a remarkably unusual one.
Deller, Thompson’s and Pasha’s recent “Report from the Road” conference at Cooper Union’s Great Hall gave highlights on the second part of the project, revealing a much richer context and disclosing the limitations inherent to the presentation of human and intellectual exchange -based projects inside any gallery/museum frame. Recalling their experiences from the road and showing images and videos collected along the way during their many conversations, the group filled the void that many sensed inside the gallery space, presenting a bigger picture of moms, veterans, homeless, pacifists, right and left -wing activists and Christian groups that –I suspect– would have been filtered out by the glass and iron mesh of the New Museum. This unbound, non-partisan and grassroots approach to facilitated conversation really reflected Deller’s vision of the phenomenology of everyday culture as an autonomous form of Art. The artist’s distance from artistic convention eventually brought the conference to an awkward/funny impasse when Thompson tried to whisper something like “Tell them about the Art…” in Deller’s ear eliciting a reaction that, in my opinion, was among the highlights of the evening. Refusing to focus on the properly “artistic” aspects of the work, Deller claimed his right to an evidently well-pondered and strategic un-artistic presentation, inviting the audience to consider what can be gained and what is at loss by defining something as “Art” or “Not Art” and by working outside the precincts of the Art World.
Product of Italy
by Marco Antonini
Interview with Van Hanos
by Marco Antonini
Van Hanos is a New York -based painter and sculptor. A current MFA student at Columbia University, he earned his BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2001. I met Van years ago, at the beginning of my love story with this City, and we have been following each other’s work ever since. A relatively outsiderish figure in the NY scene, Van was part of many interesting shows, including the recent “What the Midnight Can Show Us” at Museum 52, “Cube Passerby” 2008 at GBE Passerby Gallery and “The Form Itself” at Priska C. Juschka FIne Arts, New York. His art is nowadays showing signs of great transformation, bringing him into the realm of concetual painting and reflecting his concern with the idea of artistic process and image making as a broad cultural phenomenon.
MA: I have been following your work for a while now, you were one of the first painters that I contacted upon moving here 5 years ago…your stile has changed immensely in the past two years, sort of splitting your production into a “before” and an “after”… can you talk about that?
VH: Well, Painting is something that I wrestle with. It’s something I have abandoned two times… and I’d never thought I would.
MA: When was the last time you did that?
VH: A couple of years ago. The first time that I abandoned it I had a lot of ideas that couldn’t be expressed through painting and so I ended up making sculpture. I was frustrated with the idea of representation versus… there’s something about sculpture, about the presence of an object… it’s something more real, you know… with painting you are always looking through the “window”. Something was still missing though, and I ended up only staging conversations, I would sit down, use visual aids.. it was a kind of performance. It was frustrating for a lot of people. The thing that triggered it was seeing lectures, Beuys was an influence, but specifically a Richard Tuttle lecture that I saw… that was a beautiful work of art of art in itself. I was concerned about the purpose of art .. for my final review I used a storm window and sat behind it … talking about painting. I drew out diagrams, then scraped it down and put the dust in a contact lens jar. The object made sense as a reference.
MA: How did you transition between this kind of approach to the first body of work that I saw when I met you, pieces like Black Portrait these were rather “proper” images and paintings…
VH: I think that there are common elements between the two bodies of work. The current works have evolved during long periods of time like the old ones, the only thing that I have tried to remove is nostalgia, and I think that that affected the work in a lot of different ways.
MA: Nostalgia weights on so much of the contemporary work that I see, especially in this city… it’s a general trend that’s been going on forever.
VH: It’s funny, today is September 11.. I think that’s a post-9/11 thing. After that point you could go in two directions: become political and confront the issues or retreat back to childhood nostalgia. As a young person I was influenced by a lot of that work because that’s what I was surrounded by, but if you’re going to do anything interesting in life, whichever form it takes you have to shed these initial influences ..any influences, at some point, but those were really heavy. I grew up in the bar of my godmother’s husband it’s called the “Broadway Central Cafe” in South Amboy NJ the logo is modeled after the Cotton Club logo and inside it was all art deco, heavy art deco, brass and checkers.. and he made these surrealist paintings and sculptures, there was something that was super nostalgic and romantic about it, and then my memory of it… Going to church was a huge influence too. With the catholic church, you tie yourself to guilt, the thing that’s presented over and over is this kind of collapsing moment of sadness and triumph, and the idea of the hero, the modern, that impossible longing.. all that was a huge influence, initially, all those sculptures, those paintings.
MA: The key words of what you said, in my opinion, are “my memory of it”… you have to go back to what those things meant for you, that foggy meaning is way more interesting than the actual forms… you can really build on that… You mentioned that, as a kid, your dream jobs were the garbageman (to ride on the truck and to scavenge and “find treasures” in the trash) and the ice truck driver (to make people happy)… how does that relate to your current work?
VH: As for the scavenging, a tremendous amount of research went in the background of the current body of work… it’s slow painting, in quotes… it’s the idea that you would spend so much time with the painting and as you live with it there’s all of these subliminal imagery that will “come out”, over time.
MA: one of the pieces that I was more puzzled by (and attracted to) was Portrait of Benjamin Franklin… at the beginning I was almost sure it was a copy, but at the same time it made me think of Jasper Johns, a tweaked symbol, an index of a symbol, if we can describe that image of Franklin as a symbol. I still don’t know why I like it.
VH: It still kind of puzzles me, honestly. There’s a reason why I started the painting, which is very non-artistic, and it is that I was reading his biography and I found him incredibly interesting, a unique figure that was really misunderstood and misrepresented in American history. It’s an exact replica of a painting that exists in the national portrait gallery in DC
MA: is it “exact”?
VH: well, as much as I could get it to. I used a 3rd generation image, from the cover of the book, and what I thought was that I was making a contemporary portrait of him and the likeness of the original portrait was not so important… another image I used was about 1 inch x 1 inch, I also photocopied it… so of course it is abstracted in a certain way…
MA: I googled the image and there are so many portraits of him, they are almost all the same, the expression an the mood are so consistent… even the $100 bill portrait follows in that line…
VH: in his time his was the most painted portrait and the most reproduced image… I was interested in the idea of him as a person but also in the idea of copy. It probably comes from the fact that I am a twin, me and my brother look very different but we are two sides of the same coin. He’s now using my name as a performing artist [Vanguard] and I often sign my paintings as “Van Hanos, brother of Patrick Hanos”… but also, the thing that I was initially thinking about was a homage to Franklin, something that I would have done for myself, but then I started thinking of Washington, what he symbolized was “Rip your hearts out your enemies with your bare hands”, and I was thinking of the contrast if we had chosen Franklin as our icon, if we had Franklin D.C. … what happened in the past eight years, that “We’re just gonna do this!” crap might not have happened… for a long time I tried to paint Washington in opposition, there are many representations of him painted as an angel, as a demigod, and I thought: how ridiculous and pagan…
MA: on the other hand Franklin always looks like a family guy, overweight, balding… Sometimes it is difficult to connect some of your most recent works. They all seem to be concerned with painting as a practice, creating images and propagating them…
VH: this body of work was absolutely engaged with that. I approached it dealing with the ideas of history, erosion, underlying systems… but I was also exploring painting per se. I put all of the ideas that I had at work through the medium of painting, exploring all the different techniques and how you bring meaning through them.
MA: It’s like you forced yourself out of having a certain recognizable style, which you definitely had before. Let’s talk about Faux Finish, the piece you recently showed in “The Form Itself”, at Priska C. Juschka Fine Art. I thought it was stunning, it made me feel uneasy, the imitation marble was kind of cheesy, and the symmetry…
VH: it’s not really measured out, I just started painting from the center of the canvas, without measuring it…
MA: The painting manages to convey an idea of exactitude through the technique itself, the marbling and the shape… it’s kind of diagrammatic. What did you have in mind?
VH: This was the first body of work where I thought about a series, before I made painting that were self-contained…
MA: you used to have a great stylistical continuity then and almost no conceptual continuity, the two things seem reversed now.
VH: I felt that that particular piece was needed within the body of work. That group of paintings, which is now scattered, had a structure, a skeleton … removing one would have been like removing the leg of a table. But I still think they are all very different from piece to piece… Faux Finish is an abstract painting described through a tromp l’oeil effect, the painting technique that goes by the same name. You have these techniques to describe form and volume through flatness but then you can also just keep them flat, I was sort of toying with that idea.
MA: What do you think of the self-referentiality of so much contemporary art?
VH: uhm .. that’s tough, right? (laughs) I used to think my work had a lot more in common with music than not with art, but at the same time I understand that it references art making…
MA: Who is your public? Who do you work for?
VH: The audience is most definitely the people that I look at as references. That’s who I am making art for. When I was a kid I moved around constantly, because I had a twin brother, that was an instant best friend, so I navigated through people and made friends quickly, and these become my peers and my models. I also think back to my heroes, to standards in history. Ben Franklin… I think my ideal audience would include the historical standards that I have, I have always thought about how you can be great in your own context, how that compares to the history that preceded you. I think back to these heroes, like Ben Franklin…
MA: .. he’s not going to come and see your shows!
VH: (Laughs) no he’s not. … I do think of real life, too. My friends, my brother… but at the same time I am always thinking of the absolute or the ideal. Perfection.
Contemporary Italian Artists in New York
by Marco Antonini
The unstoppable climb of the Euro to its current status of most powerful and valuable currency on the market started more or less five years ago. At that time, I was settling down in New York after a first exploratory visit and everything, from food to clothing to, most obviously, rent, still seemed quite expensive for my Euro-lined pockets. The current high buying power of the European currency, together with the political (and social) disaster of an interrupted, flimsy left-wing government coitus interruptus, followed by the display of collective catatonia that Berlusconi’s re-election represented, are some of the reasons why so many Italians have recently moved to New York. The overall numbers are difficult to break down. As far as the art world is concerned, you will have to trust my personal experience, because I keep taking note of all the millions of times that I hear Italian spoken at openings, meet Italian tourists in the museums where I work and meet jetlagged Italian artists on the streets and in the cafes of the coolest neighborhoods. Is it a good thing? Will I end up moving out of this city? Is NY going to become a new Barcelona (a city where, reportedly, some bartenders don’t even bother addressing you in Spanish or Catalan anymore and head straight to the “Buonasera”)? Who knows.
One thing is sure: thanks to the aforementioned reasons—and to the hopeless insularity, nepotism and inbred inclination to gossipy drama of the Italian art world—New York has also become home to some really outstanding artists, eager for visibility and recognition. Some of them, like Angelo Filomeno, Federico Solmi and Francesco Simeti, have been around for a while, seizing the opportunities that New York had to offer in far different times, when coming here was a far more challenging career move and DUMBO was an almost dangerous neighborhood (would you believe that?). Their example has, in a certain way, helped to reconsider New York’s mythical status and to confirm the city as the number one choice for the entrepreneurial, risk-taking artists of the next generation.
One of the first transplants that I met, Rä di Martino has been around these streets for a while, establishing herself as one of the most interesting video artists of her generation. After landing a Fine Arts media MFA at Slade in London, she moved to NY to take advantage of the hospitality granted by the coveted New York Prize, a joint Columbia University/Italian Institute of Culture grant for emerging visual artists. Her visually so-cool, sometimes almost too polished and stylistically proper video works were featured in a handful of significant shows (including PS1’s rather stitched-up Senso Unico). Di Martino’s work is based on a creative deconstruction of cinema’s technical elements and visual tropes; her characters, scenes and situations all share a certain surreal humor and uncommon ability to linger in the viewer’s mind, lost as they are in a no-go zone of perennial second looks and afterthoughts. Another quite established presence, Anna Galtarossa has distinguished herself by distilling some truly visionary projects. After tying the knot with Spencer Brownstone and delivering an impressive, intricately environmental solo show there in 2004, Galtarossa quite disappeared from the New York radar, only to bring her dioramas of found materials, painterly colors and surrealistically biographical approach back to native Italy.
More recently, the soft, floating architectural environment Chili Moon Town (realized in collaboration with Daniel Gonzalez and with the production management of Italian curator Andrea Lissoni) inflated Galtarossa’s minutely detailed environments to the point of making them actually inhabitable: a colorful dream of a city that’s open to all, up for grabs (property lots are actually for sale and neighborhood meetings are held) and that will tour along the route of US-bound Mexican migrants, visiting Mexico City, Los Angeles and New York. After having established their name in the European art world via clever, media-savvy and sometimes amazingly daring actions and performances, Franco and Eva Mattes, (the minds of 0100101110101101.org) found a home at Chelsea’s Postmasters and started regular trips to New York, following some of their closest friends and colleagues. The move has signed a new phase in their Art, harboring projects that can be considered slightly more “conventional” (commas are de rigueur here) and that somehow brought them safely back into the art world proper. Famous for titanic non-profit pursuits like an exact—but cleverly tweaked—copy of the Vatican’s website, the emission of a computer virus in the internet and the staging of a surreal guerrilla-marketing campaign for none the less than sportswear juggernaut Nike, the Mattes are currently absorbed by whimsical Second Life performances, highly palatable avatar portraits and, most recently, large scale installations involving toys and figurines culled from every latitude of the Pop realm.
Also moving from the world of new media art and media activism and rapidly evolving into a more recognizable visual arts entity,AlterazioniVideo (a collective of artists including Andrea Masu, Alberto Caffarelli, Giacomo Porfiri, Matteo Erenbourg and represented in NY by founding member Paololuca Barbieri) started out as Location One residents in 2006. After their well receivedLight Waves performance, a live event where solar panels were used to convert the wavelength of different light sources into sound beats, they quickly escalated to a solo at qualitatively discontinuous but strategically located—and former container for the “evicted” New Museum—Chelsea Museum and to a much unexpected, career-boosting invitation to Robert Storr’s 2007 Venice Biennale. AlterazioniVideo’s interests are as varied as the backgrounds of the many involved contributors, spanning from media disobedience and activism to the broader topics of legality and illegality, their body of work is characterized by a dishomogeneity and discontinuity that result from the flexibility of their technical approach and make it impossible to easily label or confine them to this or that niche. As I write, Pierluigi Calignano has just headed back to Italy after collecting participations in both the ISCP and Art OMI residency programs and Alessandro Dal Pont is about to move back to the city after a series of exploratory visits. If Calignano’s smoothly executed, quasi-architectonic wood constructions and graphics that reference the rich local heritage of Southern Italy could easily find a place in any (good) New York gallery, Dal Pont’s irreverent, witty and twisted sculpture and multimedia installations will probably catch you by surprise with their rich web of easy/uneasy, funny/sad, serious/playful opposites.
As much as it would be impossible, if not irrelevant, to search for common lines and shared topics in such different bodies of work and artistic attitudes, it would nonetheless be tempting to try and identify the limits and contours of a surging Italian Wave in New York. The example given by the determination and professionalism of these young players could be used to some extent to stir and reinvigorate the swampy artistic scene of the Bel Paese itself, offering a breath of fresh air to the next generations while helping them to establish a more self-confident and international outlook.