Thursday, May 14, 2015

Art Everywhere

by Drew Martin
I took a walk at lunch today to check out the bitforms gallery on Allen Street in the Lower East Side. I had seen a picture online of stuffed, robotic penguins being set up for an exhibit and that naturally caught my attention. They are part of Descent with Modification by Daniel Rozin. Here is an extreme truncation of their press release:

The exhibition features six installations that are shaped by Darwin’s breakthrough writings on evolutionary biology, particularly “On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” from 1859. Marked by a new visual emphasis on the mechanism of descent with modification, Rozin’s works are algorithmically based on the randomness of genetic drift.

Central to the exhibit are four software art installations that Rozin developed over a period of five years. In these works, programmed “evolutionary pressure” pushes the artworks to resemble the viewer’s mirrored image.

The largest work in the exhibition, Penguins Mirror is an installation scattered on the floor and comprised of 450 motorized stuffed performs an absurdly homogeneous system of movement...each penguin turns from side to side and responds to the presence of an audience. As they perform, the penguins’ collective intelligence is puzzling, yet somehow familiar, as the plush toys enact a precise choreography rooted in geometry.

PomPom Mirror...features a synchronized array of 928 spherical faux fur puffs. Organized into a three-dimensional grid of beige and black, the sculpture is controlled by hundreds of motors that build silhouettes of viewers using computer-vision. Along its surface, figures appear as fluffy animal-like representations within the picture the motorized composition hums in unified movement, seemingly alive and breathing as a body of its own.

The picture of the book with the butterflies and the eggs is a projected illustration of the Origin of Species, which digitally flips through its pages. This work is certainly an obvious overlapping of science and art, both of which are matters of keen observation. One thing that Darwin's expedition helped establish is that life is everywhere, and it expresses itself in a multitude of possibilities. I think the same can be said for art. On the way to and back from the gallery I was pleasantly overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of the Lower East Side, which included this art installation Uplift by Jarrod Beck in the Sara D. Roosevelt Park...

...this dapper dandy hipster in a colorful waxprint suit....

...this swath of fresh concrete (still being worked on at the far end)...

...and a serendipitous visit to this pop-up art space by the Berlin-based Circle Culture Gallery with these leather works by the Austrian conceptual artist Anneliese Schrenk.

Left To Our Own Devices

by Drew Martin
There is a great space on Varick Street a block from my work that I have somehow missed for more than a year. GEARY, which is owned and run by Dolly and Jack Geary is literally a few steps up from neighboring galleries. It is on the corner of Varick and King Street in SoHo, but this former deli space is raised several steps above the hubub without disconnecting you from it. When I noticed GEARY yesterday, I thought it was closed since the lights were not on - the artist on view wants it that way; natural light only.

The current show of David Goodman, Apparatus, is a combination of colorful, shredded paper "paintings", a number of curious wooden objects he calls devices and a backroom projection collage of colors and objects fastened to the wall.

I like most the intimacy of the projection room and the devices. Some of them are constructed to a point of teetering. As a departure from Calder's stabiles (his counterpart to mobiles), these works could be labeled unstabiles

I like how Goodman creates them as apparatuses for connecting one to art. For me they are between a shaman object (without an element of worship) and what Clarke attempts with his monoliths in 2001, which are placed on Earth and beyond to educate/advance apes, then humans to a higher level of being.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Blazing Island of White

by Drew Martin
Personally, I love this blog because it is has been my [web]log/diary for the past six years of the movies I have watched, books I have read, and the galleries and museums I have visited.

I often return to it to see what I wrote about something. Although I put it out there, I do not think anyone reads it or cares about it, and that's totally fine for me because more important than having a virtual archive and an audience is that the creation of each post truly makes me think more. Instead of just seeing/experiencing something and moving on, knowing I am going to write about a topic makes me think intensely about it. 

When I first started, I felt a great liberation from what I typically knew of content creation, which was editorial approval and fitting into certain publications at specific times. And unlike the Bill Woodman quote about cartooning and facing the blank sheet of paper as the "blazing island of white" and the panic behind that, the blank screen is more like a feeling of endless possibilities, like having all the stores, laundromats, and libraries in your area switch to a 24-hour schedule.

The one thing I do miss in this blog, is the sense of character development. I mean, there's me writing about all this stuff but I miss the creation of life. I studied biology and art, and I loved how creating cartoon characters was like creating a new organism, and you could define all the governing properties. I drew a lot, and made a lot of characters, some of which can be seen on an old blog of mine with linked sites from it: drewmartincartoons. I somehow pushed all that away and dismissed it as something in my past.

That's why I gravitated to a documentary I watched last night called STRIPPED. From the official website of the film:

STRIPPED  brings together the world’s best cartoonists to talk about the art form they love, and what happens to it as newspapers die. Over 70 interviews were conducted, including the first-ever audio interview with Bill Watterson (Calvin & Hobbes)...

It is actually a really well-done documentary, and it talks about where comics came from and where they are going. 

Watch the trailer to get a sneak peek.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Michelle Obama on Art: Sorry, No Results

by Drew Martin
For the past two weeks the new Whitney Museum of American Art has been on top of the [art] world, and rightly so; the new space is gorgeous in the amazing building by starchitect Renzo Piano, and their prescient idea to move down to the start of the High Line before it was wildly popular is like a check chess move on MoMA. They even got Michelle Obama to grace the ribbon cutting ceremony. Obama looked fantastic in a beautiful white floral dress and elegantly spoke to the small, proper crowd the Whitney had gathered for the event. 

Politics and the arts are often a bad mix: think Rudolph Giuliani and his attempt to block the Chris Ofili painting at the Brooklyn Museum. Even when politicians have the best intentions they do not get it right. I remember when President Clinton toured a museum and was asked to comment on his favorite work. He said it was a print of Abraham Lincoln because it looked realistic. The politician truest to the arts was Václav Havel (pictured under Obama) who served as president of Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic for ten years. A playwright himself, Havel was immersed in the arts. He went to concerts of all kinds of music, and attended openings of various cultural spaces, no matter how small. He even took off his shirt and danced bare chested with the Aborigines when they invited him to join their ceremony during an official trip to Australia.

I listened to the whole, almost hour-long Whitney dedication (available on YouTube, and the Whitney's site) with speeches from many speakers. I was not expecting any deep comment on art from Obama, but I was surprised that her speech was a little insulting. It all looked great on the surface and received giddy applause but it was off mark. Conservative media jumped all over it, calling it divisive. For the most part they are right.

Obama's speech is also available as a transcript from the White House's website. Here is the section that fueled the backlash:

You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood.  In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum. And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself.  So I know that feeling of not belonging in a place like this.  And today, as First Lady, I know how that feeling limits the horizons of far too many of our young people. Michelle Obama

I was surprised by this because New York cultural institutions do a fantastic job getting everyone in to see their collections and experience performances, and museums either have suggested donations or a free day. It sounded more like a personal/parenting issue than a fault of museums. The other thing is that Obama has a law degree so she should know that cultural institutions in the United States are typically set up as 501c3 not-for-profit educational institutions. This means that the underlying purpose of a museum with this status is for educational outreach. 
At the Whitney, anyone under 18 has free admittance all the time, and that includes access to educational programs and tours.

I also thought that maybe Obama was simply not comfortable talking about art. In my mind an artist has a greater influence and cultural power than a president but she ranks them, and trumps the artist. Toward the end of her speech she says,

One visit, one performance, one touch, and who knows how you could spark a child’s imagination. As the Mayor said, maybe you could inspire a young person to rise above the circumstances of their life and reach for something better.  Maybe you could discover the next Carmen Herrera or Archibald Motley or Edward Hopper... 
(then she laughs to herself and continues) or, yes, maybe even the next Barack Obama. 

This has such a weird tone to it, like much of her speech, which has a few back-handed compliments. Play that last comment back with...Pablo Picasso or yes, maybe even the next G.W. Bush...or...Georgia O'Keeffe or yes, maybe even the next Jimmy Carter to see the disconnect of her remark from another angle.

Pictured below Havel, in order of her listing, are the artists she references. It has been said that Hopper is the "Whitney's Picasso." In fact, when I just searched the Whitney's collection on their site, I found they own 3,154 works by Hopper. They only have one work in their collection by Carmen Herrera (detailed here, Blanco y Verde), and when I searched for Archibald Motley 
I got "Sorry, No Results." Despite this, the Whitney is planning a show from October 2, 2015- January 17, 2016 - Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Red Alert and a Blue Room on Greene Street

by Drew Martin
I stopped by the Artists Space on Greene Street today at lunchtime (there is also an Artists Space on Walker Street, which I have not been to yet). It's up on the third floor of an average building with a nondescript entrance. The modest ante-gallery with a glowing Red Alert (three Apple monitors turned portrait, with orangey-red screens) leads into a huge space dimly lit with a deep blue light. In the center of the room is a rear projection screen that you first approach as a flipped image but when you move around it you see a skaters' quarter pipe set up with huge throw pillows so you can chill out and watched Liquidity, Inc. The most intriguing piece in the gallery is Guards, which is a video projection that includes former guards/cops who explain and show how they would enter and secure spaces with their handguns in preparation to confront an armed suspect. In the video they are plain clothed, and they point their hands as guns. The twist is that they perform their maneuvers in the brightly lit galleries of the Art Institute of Chicago. Pretty brilliant.

Grizzly Man

by Drew Martin
The documentary films of Werner Herzog are not simply the products of good directing and editing. They are experiences in which he shares his deep contemplation with you. He doesn't just take you places; he makes you think very differently about a subject. With his lens he is an experienced traveler, not a naive tourist.

Grizzly Man is a 2005 documentary by Herzog about the annual expeditions that Timothy Treadwell made to Alaska to commune with wild grizzly bears. His extended 13th trip had a fatal ending. He and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard (pictured together 2nd from top) were eaten by a grizzly bear who lingered through late autumn in a last ditch effort to fatten up before winter hibernation. When the park rangers eventually shot and inspected the predator's innards, it had enough human remains to fill four garbage bags.

This documentary is a mix of Treadwell's recordings (from more than a hundred hours of footage) and interviews by Herzog with various people including Treadwell's parents, the bush pilot who shuttled him to his remote locations and discovered his remains, the coroner who did an autopsy on the what was left his body, and two woman with whom he was very close: an ex-girlfriend, and a platonic lady friend with whom he stayed before each expedition.

A young native Alutiiq from Kodiak Island speaks about Treadwell crossing the boundary that his people respected for "seven thousand" years. 

A helicopter pilot called in to clean up the remains of the attack and slaughter of the bear offered that Treadwell had not been eaten sooner simply because (just as a hunter would not bag rabid game) the bears probably saw him as a deranged creature.

Although Treadwell was empathetic and sincere about his love for bears, it was at the expense human relationships. Even Herzog is critical of Treadwell's delusion by painting a harsher picture of nature than Treadwell's bear utopia. At the same time, his film honors Treadwell and respects what he accomplished as someone trying to get closer to nature and as a filmmaker in his own right. 

Herzog seems delighted by Treadwell's companionship with wild foxes, who tag along on his adventures for his kids-show-style narrative complete with a silly voice. This, however, is tarnished by an occasional F-U paranoid rant and an equally caustic and crazy-talk desperate chase to get his favorite cap back from a young fox who runs off with it.

Halfway through the documentary I felt as if any other filmmaker would have already exhausted the topic and sensationalized the events but this is where the genius of Herzog kicks in and is able to carry the film to feature length.

What I like about his filming style is that he keeps the camera rolling after an interviewee has said his or her last word. It is when you see a person retract to a less animated state and you notice that even honest conversation is a form of acting.

I do not know if Herzog understands this but his commitment to this film pays more respect to his subject than any of the scenarios Treadwell could have envisioned to spring from his death.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Whitney Has Landed

by Drew Martin
When I went to the opening of the new Whitney Museum of American Art last Friday with a couple friends/art lovers, it felt as if an advanced alien culture had landed and invited us aboard its spaceship. Although we could not see or touch them, they communicated with us through art.

I returned to the Whitney today to become a member and spent some time walking the gallery floors by myself, taking in the things I missed during the euphoric hubbub of day one. I like to take pictures of details of artwork, and today I understood a bit more why. We view paintings and sculptures as a whole object, and even though we understand the components of a work, we seldom isolate a particular section to comprehend how that makes us feel and what we get out of it. So here are some snapshots of works and a lot of closeups without any need to identify the artist or title of the piece.