Sunday, October 26, 2014

Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?

by Drew Martin
I just saw a film I had been hesitating to watch, Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? - an interview prompted by french filmmaker Michael Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep, Be Kind Rewind)  and Noam Chomsky, who is most popular for his political commentary and activism, and particularly for his book Manufacturing Consent.

Chomsky, however, is by education and career a linguist and cognitive scientist, which is what Gondry seems most interested in exploring, not because of a simplistic interest in languages but rather that deeper reasoning behind language as a cognitive tool.

The audio of the movie is the dialogue between Gondry and Chomsky, with occasional movie footage of either Chomsky alone or Chomsky and Gondry in the same frame, from the interview.

The title of the film comes from an language structure example Chomsky explains to Gondry about taking a sentence such as The man who is tall is happy....and about asking a child to make it into a question, which they consistently, and correctly reshape as Is the man who is tall happy?

To say that what Gondry visually creates for this movie is animation is doing him a disservice. Perhaps it can be seen as an illustration of the conversation, and I think Chomsky probably thought it was cute in that way, but Gondry is really doing something much deeper than that. At times his animation runs as a visual language parallel to the dialogue. It steps in as subtitles to aid his heavy accent, complete with edits and asides. Most importantly, its fluctuation of different purposes makes you really attuned to the visually cues.

I liked how Gondry tries to explain to the viewer the point of his unanswered questions. Chomsky is often a one-way street. He is literally a know-it-all, and seems to have little tolerance for what he views as inferior thinking. But Gondry has a lot of important questions, which I wished were answered by Chomsky.

That being said, I was quite surprised by one section when Chomsky was talking about the Frank Gehry designed building they were sitting in at MIT (pictured here at bottom). He said there are no right angles where the walls meet in the building. He offered what a friend explained; that it was as if they were in a three dimensional Piet Mondrian, which he used for his own analogy. How can someone so smart make such a comment. Not only were Mondrian's conclusive later paintings only about right angles: squares and rectangles, he even set up his studio so that everything was at a right angle, including his easel.

Thread Lines, and Head Drawings and Faces of War at the Drawing Center

by Drew Martin
I usually think about what a museum has to offer by the content of the shows but the Drawing Center in SoHo takes it to another level with superb curation of great exhibits related to drawing.

Drawing is my favorite, most intimate medium and has been a big part of my life, especially because my name is Drew, so I am always pleased when the Drawing Center expands that boundary of what drawing is, and in the case of the current show makes me realize that something else I really like, hand sewing, is part of this medium as well.

The main current exhibit is Thread Lines:

This group exhibition features sixteen artists who engage in sewing, knitting, and weaving to create a wide-range of works that activate the expressive and conceptual potential of line and illuminate affinities between the mediums of textile and drawing. Multi-generational in scope, Thread Lines brings together those pioneers who—challenging entrenched modernist hierarchies—first unraveled the distinction between textile and art with a new wave of contemporary practitioners who have inherited and expanded upon their groundbreaking gestures. 

The first thing you notice when you walk into the main gallery is an installation around the four cast iron support columns in the center of the room. It is a special project by Anne Wilson called To Cross (Walking New York), which is explained on the Drawing Center's website:

After discovering that The Drawing Center’s SoHo building was originally built in 1866 for the Positive Motion Loom Company, Chicago-based artist Anne Wilson conceived of her latest site-specific performance that will use the main gallery’s four central columns as a weaving loom. Recalling the physical structure and operations of the loom itself, the piece’s four participants “walk” around the twelve foot columns, carrying a spool of thread to form a standard weaving cross (a method used to keep warp threads in order). The durational performance, which takes place over the course of two months, will result in the fabrication of a five by thirty-four foot sculpture: a colorful cross composed of innumerable strands of thread.

On the back wall is a narrow mural with line drawings of fruit. This is highlighted with small rings of intensely detailed needlepoint that contain a reproduction of the source of the drawings with colorful and dense stitches that bring the original fruit to life in thread. And there are a dozen more needlework examples around the gallery that challenge the scale and presentation of what sewing can be, what thread can do, and once more what drawing is all about as an action and as an expression of lines.

In the back room is another, very different show called Head Drawings and Faces of War by Xanti Schawinsky, who was a first-generation Bauhaus artist. The drawings are amazing hybrids of machine and man, or at least personalities of man. They are also quite large and really well done but the problem I had with them is that you see them after walking through Thread Lines, which is a beautiful show with a lot of aesthetic sensations. So when I got to Schawinsky's work, the contrast was not a shocking difference that made me grasp the political meaning of the drawings but rather made me focus on the quality of them. They are powerful work done in a crucially important time, between 1941 and 1946 and I think they would have benefited from being part of a larger wartime show in the main gallery.

The list of participants in Thread Lines includes:

Mónica Bengoa (b. 1969, Santiago, Chile), Louise Bourgeois (b. 1911, Paris, France- d. 2010, New York, NY), Sheila Hicks (b. 1934, Hastings, NE), Ellen Lesperance (b. 1971, Minneapolis, MN), Kimsooja (b. 1957, Taegu, Korea), Beryl Korot (b. 1945, New York, NY), Maria Lai (b. 1919, Ulassai, Sardinia- d. 2013, Cardedu, Sardinia), Sam Moyer (b. 1983, Chicago, IL), William J. O'Brien (b. 1975, Eastlake, OH), Robert Otto Epstein (b. 1979, Pittsburgh, PA), Jessica Rankin (b. 1971, Sydney, Australia), Elaine Reichek (b. 1943, New York, NY), Drew Shiflett (b. 1951, Chicago, IL), Alan Shields (b. 1944, Herington, KS- d. 2005, Shelter Island, NY), Lenore Tawney (b. 1907, Lorain, OH- d. 2007, New York, NY), and Anne Wilson (b. 1949, Detroit, MI).

Thursday, October 23, 2014

E'wao Kagoshima at Algus Greenspon

by Drew Martin
The Algus Greenspon gallery write-up for their current show of E’wao Kagoshima’s drawings, paintings, collages, and dioramas starts with….”Slowly, a rich and inclusive picture of Post-War Japanese art is emerging in New York.” This is followed by a list of shows that they say “have contributed important cultural and geographical context.”

I have a similar/parallel feeling, but this new clarity is frankly more a matter of my dropping a number of stereotypes that I had constructed based mainly on an image projected by Japan itself, and that is one of obedience, diligence, efficiency, modernity, and ingenuity.

These are all positive traits but they do not leave much room for reflection or begin to scratch the surface of what modern Japanese art is about. So when American media picks up on more personal revelations, they seemed oddly kinky and bizarrely over-reactive to a strict social order and a demanding business environment.

Like all cultures there are many sides to Japan and the Japanese, expatriates included. So it is important to watch films such as Fine, Totally Fine and absorb as much art by Japanese artists as possible, especially if you find yourself quick to summarize the culture and people.

Kagoshima is an interesting example of the expatriate artist.  He was born in Japan in 1945, and moved to New York in 1976. What surprised me the most in this exhibit is his range. There are both abstract and surreal/fantasy drawings, as well as quirky, naïve-art-like dioramas, paintings and collages.

The top image here is the painting on the outside of one of his dioramas, titled In God We Vote, from 2007. Three of the other dioramas have Venus in the title, one of which includes a collage with a magazine cut-out of Paris Hilton.

The untitled middle image from 1980 is his most graphic collage. It shows three young women spying on something from the bushes, that being the nude pictured beneath them. The bottom portion of the collage is of a knee-high-stocking-wearing, otherwise naked model with a large header from the original layout that still reads as SHAVE even though it is cut in half, which highlights her smooth privies.

On top of this erotic image, Kagoshima lays a thin, white line that tracks the angle of her head and shoulders, and the positioning of her right arm, and lower legs. In doing so it removes her from pornography if I read these marks as the lines you might draw to start a live nude drawing or if I think of them as something computer generated that reads only the angles but misses the flesh.

The bottom image here is one of his rich charcoal drawings from 1978, which is free of his figures and narratives.

Other Museum of Peripheral Art posts about Japanese artists/works include:

Drawn to the Fantasies of Toshio Saeki

EAST vs. WEST: The Graffiti Paintings of Gajin Fujita

This is So Hard...And it's So Fantastic...Now I've Got Nothing

Fine, Totally Fine

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Invisible Hands at Fridman Gallery

by Drew Martin
I love small galleries that give their artwork a fair amount of space. The Fridman Gallery on 287 Spring Street in Manhattan is such a place.

I am glad I got to see the current exhibit
Invisible Hands, an installation of three videos, before it is comes down on Friday.

Curated by Omar Lopez-Chahoud, the video work of Donna Conlon and Jonathan Harker deals with social and financial power, history, and unpredictability. Conlon is from Atlanta, Georgia; Harker from Ecuador. Both now live and work in Panama.

Invisible Hands is also, more specifically, the name of the first video you see when you enter the space. Very visible hands, actually, with invisible bodies, spin, gather, and stack coins: in this case Panamanian balboa coins (for the Spanish conquistador), which are synonymous there with corruption.

I found this video to be the least interesting only because regional money loses its symbolic currency when it goes abroad and coins have a finite and modest value when you think of the more abstract transactions that happen with the big players.

That being said, when you learn that $40 million of these coins were put into circulation in Panama without retiring the U.S. dollars they were supposed to replace, then they have more weight. Nonetheless, I try to think about how they could be used in a more poignant manner. Like the way Chris Burden laid out 50,000 nickels, with a matchstick on top of each, to represent the 50,000-strong Soviet tank division in his 1979 piece The Reason for the Neutron Bomb.

What I found worked really well were the other two videos, Domino Effect, and Tropical Zincphony. Both of these are simple, but have a lot to say in their movement and the personality given to the inanimate objects that star in them: discarded colonial-era bricks and mangoes, respectively.

For Domino Effect Conlon and Harker set up a domino run with old bricks through a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Panama, which is now in jeopardy due to surrounding development.

While the video addresses a local issue, the symbolism, especially in Central America, has a greater political meaning.

It is a little bit unnerving to watch the 
bricks knock each other over because the first reaction is one you would have as a kid: it is colorful and cool. It is also a cheeky editing trick: of course this is not one continuous row. So you watch it with a kind of innocent joy, but then you realize it is symbolic, and has another meaning, which feels a bit dark; perhaps it could be about colonizing/invading. 

My first reaction to that feeling was that I do not know as much as I should about the history of Panama, and the region.

Tropical Zincphony has a similar set up but is more random and is a bit more light-hearted.

A mango falls from a tree and goes on an impossible journey over corrugated zinc roofing. Unlike the domino bricks, which have predetermined rules, the mango is more prone to chance.

For me this video is less political, more social, and much more about the journey of life. If the roofing were in good shape, i.e. ideal conditions, the path would be more predictable but the corrugated metal is dinged and dented and not perfect, like life. Additionally, the mango itself, like us, is not perfect for the journey. It is not spherical, and those distortions from the ideal rolling object, a ball, are like our own imperfections.

When I looked back at the first video,
Invisible Hands, with its stacks of coins, which seem at times to be casino chips, a theme of gambling emerges, but not in terms of a betting game, but rather more in terms of the chance that controls our destinies.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Multiple Personalities: Rob Pruitt at Gavin Brown's Enterprise

by Drew Martin
Four years ago this month I wrote about Rob Pruitt's Pattern and Degradation show at Gavin Brown's Enterprise. Today I visited his Multiple Personalities show in the same gallery, which is wrapping up in a few days.

Let me start in the back room of the three-room gallery, which is occupied by 12 dark, paint-globby cats, six of which are admiring Pruitt's scratchy automatic paintings, which look like art that cats would appreciate, or at least be able to create. There is a total of nine canvases. Nine paintings...nine lives?

Four of the cats are definitely not interested in his work but rather are looking out through a large, street-level gallery window at the real dogs, walking by, and pissing on the black plastic trash bags piled up on the sidewalk. There is another cat frozen-walking between the paintings, and the last cat is still-crawling out of the room.

In the middle room are eight, large "suicide" paintings with surfaces that fade from light to dark colors, with wide borders that fade in the opposite direction. Two little dunes of sand flank a broad pedestrian path that runs between the front and back rooms. Are they suicide paintings because they kind of reference Rothko, who slit his own wrists? Or is it because they create a mind-numbing loop if you follow the gradations back and forth?

I read the room differently. I thought Pruitt was trying to create a void, unlike but parallel to the typical nothingness of a white gallery. The fades in the painting are like the simple atmospheric perspective you see at the beach where the teal ocean deepens/darkens as it nears the horizon, and the blue sky washes out as it sinks into the water.

This effect, in conjunction with the sand, creates a mindless, beach-like environment in which you do not expect much more from what Pruitt typically serves up: not-deep art that focuses on quick images. If this is the intent, that is pretty smart - separating the viewer from a busy city that raises everyone's expectations as well as critical review.

The front room is the most intense. It is filled with 12 4'x8' sheets of plywood/upturned table tops, and seven uncozy "love seats," five of which are bland Ikea-like pieces of furniture, and the remaining two are plywood renditions of the same style. The love is actually the sex of the constant pornographic doodles that cover these little sofas as well as the plywood boards.

If you calculate all this surface space, it works out to more than 600 square feet of doodle space. Even the most graphic images fade into the colorful, playful theme, which is actually really engaging.

One of my favorite details, which I only noticed on my way out, is the cute tubesock design painted on the legs of one couch, which matches the socks of an otherwise naked women occupied by multiple sexual acts.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

An Experiment in the Cinematic Communication of Visible Events Between The Wars and the Smell of Fresh Warpaint

by Drew Martin
Earlier today I watched the eighth best film ever made and the best documentary of all time according to recent Sight and Sound polls. The movie, Man With a Movie Camera, is 
an experimental 1929 silent documentary film, by Dziga Vertov (named in the opening credits as the "author and supervisor" of this "experiment"), and was brilliantly edited by his wife Elizaveta Svilova. The footage and editing blew me away. I have never seen anything quite like it. Even though the day in a life theme has been overplayed for decades, this seminal cinematic journal is amazingly modern.

The film presents everyday life in Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa. We see coal miners, drunks, athletes, dancers, factory workers, typists, sunbathers, horses, cars, trams, trains, is an endless montage. There is a funeral procession paired with a live birth, and a couple applying for a wedding registration followed by a couple getting a divorce. The film breathes life, even when you consider that almost everyone in it is now dead. The feeling of the film, beyond any kind of Marxist agenda, is that it is good to be alive. 

I grew up thinking that the 60s and 70s had nothing on the Roaring 20s and this film really confirms that for me. It was a positive time between two horrific world wars. Almost all the women have short hair with a modern style, and they are really active and sporty. Their smiles from nearly a century past still make you glow. The downy hair on the back of a young woman, who wakes up and puts on her bra, makes you realize this film is not only a window to the past but a macroscopic lens on the details of life at that time.

Solid machines with spinning gears drinking oil are modern symbols of the day. And even though many of these visuals are of obsolete things and bygone ways, you still get a sense of how futuristic this time seemed. This includes the obvious excitement around the presence of the camera for this ambitious project, which seems in that era even more fascinating than all of our selfie gadgets and apps today.

I love this film, and feel like it has given me a closer look at humanity than anything ever made before or after it. I think it will always feel modern and fresh despite its age because of Vertov's vision and Svilova's genius editing. In fact, this film can only get more precious as it gets older because its energy frees it from a time and place.

The movie starts with the following manifesto text...

This film presents an experiment in the cinematic communication of visible events without the aid of intertitles, without the aid of a scenario, without the aid of theatre (a film without actors, without sets, etc.). This experimental work aims at creating a truly international absolute language of cinema based on its total separation from the language of theatre and literature.

The common critique of media is that by using it to record life and by observing life through it we are missing the real thing. But this film supports media in the grandest way. The truth is that life is so fleeting and free flowing that media gives us the chance to capture some of its magic.

I was thinking about this the other day from a totally different place. A few years ago I saw a video by the band Warpaint and instantly fell in love with their music/them. They recently came through New York and were playing in a very small venue so I got a ticket to see them this past Tuesday night. The fact is I knew I would never be able to get as close to the band as you see them in the crystal clear videos and I knew the sound would be worse than a clean studio recording but there was that urge to just be in the same room with them and to cut through the layers of media separation. And then once that is accomplished there is a funny desire to record the moment even though it feels awkward doing so and you know the recording will be nothing like the feeling of the live performance.

Click below to see
 a One Minute Warpaint recording I made.

Click here to watch Man With a Movie Camera in its entirety with the Michael Nyman soundtrack, which I recommend.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Balancing Act: Alexander Calder and the Cosmos

by Drew Martin
Yesterday's selenelion, that's the total lunar eclipse opposite a sunrise, got me thinking about how the sun and moon have been represented in art throughout the ages. I first think of Vincent Van Gogh's The Starry Night and The Red Vineyard, or even his Vase with 12 Sunflowers, which is really a composition of flowers as suns. I also think about Henri Rousseau's jungle scene paintings with their perfect, distant full moons.

I think the artist who was most influenced by the relationship between the sun and moon was Alexander Calder. As the story goes, he awoke on the deck of a ship near the equator in open water with a clear view of panoramic horizon. On the eastern horizon was a rising sun, and on the western horizon was a setting full moon. Seeing those two, perfect circles, opposed to each other, with him in between them sparked an interest in their balance. A connection was made at that moment that merged his thorough artistic upbringing, and formal engineering education, which sparked a kind of revolution in sculpture. Until then, including the stonework of his father and grandfather, sculpture was massive and monumental. Calder forever changed that when he created his/the first mobile, which seemed childishly playful and whimsical.

One of my favorite stories of Calder was when he had a show, which included a kinetic, motor-driven system of sliding balls on twisted wire that referenced planetary movement. Albert Einstein showed up, was transfixed by the work, and stood staring at it through its full 45-ish minute cycle.