Saturday, October 31, 2015

A Stellar Show

by Drew Martin

The Frank Stella retrospective at the Whitney is an impressive fifth-floor-gallery-packed show that opens your eyes to a lifetime of his work. I have appreciatively walked by Stellas a few times a day for the past fifteen years in my lobby at work, which could stand in for very similar pieces in this show. Stella’s work moves from precise, flat, minimalist paintings, to high-tech, space-hogging, carbon-fiber sculptures. The in-between is an explosion of colorful, intensively-constructed works that straddle the fields of painting and sculpture. Sometimes they are constructed as sculptures but work as paintings. Other times they are sculptures disguised as paintings. After circling the gallery with a friend last night, she remarked, “I am surprised you aren’t taking pictures.” I happened to have my good camera on me so I circled the gallery again and took up-close shots of the work to detail his mastery of materials.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Getting Snowed In

by Drew Martin
Ed Snowden's last name is relevant to me in this day and age considering that we used to call the static of television snow; when no distinguishable information was getting through.

I just watched Citizenfour, the documentary about Snowden's whistle-blowing on the National Security Agency, for whom he worked via Booz Allen, and where he was involved with extensive the metadata-driven information gathering on (basically) everyone. The film documents the arranged meeting in a hotel room in Hong Kong after five months of encrypted correspondence with filmmaker Laura Poitras and lawyer/journalist Glenn Greenwald. I have not been following this case so it was amazing to get the bulk of the story served up as it was originally captured before the information became top news.

It is fascinating to virtually be in the hotel room with the three of them discussing the strategy for how the story would be revealed by Greenwald through The Guardian. The core questions of freedom, freedom of speech, surveillance, and privacy come to a head in this film.

That being said, knowing that my electronic correspondence and conversation is being gathered for national security reasons is less offensive to me than the day-to-day information gathering that results in spamming emails, and advertising. My mother called me while I was watching this documentary to see if I was coming over her house tomorrow night for lasagna. I am totally fine with someone capturing that information if it also means a terrorist act can be avoided. I just don't want to see a targeted ad the next day for lasagna noodles and pasta sauce when I go on the Internet.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Occidental Tourist

by Drew Martin
A good friend invited me last minute to an art opening today that his girlfriend organized for Giuseppe Blasotta, an Italian artist who lives in Heidelberg, Germany where he paints and also studies classical philosophy and Italian literature. I brought a friend from work and to our surprise the show was in a hotel room, where Giuseppe displayed a couple dozen paper fashion bags that he had painted in an abstract style.

I would not have thought much about them in passing, other than their being pleasant to look at but earlier today I read an interview with his fellow countryman Maurizio Cattelan, the infamous prankster artist, which prompted me to approach the work with a curious eye. 

I engaged with Giuseppe - a very animated, youthful, and dapper man in his early 40s. We had a good conversation about his work and my minor insights were met with an enthusiastic "Bravo!" every so often. Artists, who so often have to explain themselves, love to not only be understood but to be expanded upon.

So let's approach these painted paper fashion bags from a different angle. They actually pose a very interesting question: does a painting diminish itself by existing on an object meant for fashion shopping that is in fact disposable? Yes, and no.

A deeper thought I had in front of the pieces was more about abstraction. Opposite to the illusion of "realistic" painting is that there really is no such thing as an abstract painting because your brain is always actively trying to make connections and once it believes it sees a meadow, a tree, a body, etc. that image ruins the abstraction.

It's interesting that the traveling Giuseppe is carrying around these objects meant for carrying other objects. I think it says something about the history of bags and crossing borders. For some reason my thoughts jump to a list of food items I once saw that my father's relatives had to bring with them for their ocean crossing from Europe to America in the mid 1800s: sacks of potatoes...and how we first perceive these bags to have practical and functional real-world presence but they are actually more like concepts of bags when compared to burlap sacks.

What I like most about Giuseppe's use of the bags is how they are both flat paintings when fixed to the wall, and at the same time sculptural objects when opened. Additionally, I like how the string handles look so purposeful when taut and used to hang the bag, but then silly and pointless when flopped over and flaccid, which you can look with Eva Hesse's work in mind.

When Giuseppe told me the show is called Made in Occident, I thought he was trying to say Made by Accident. It is this kind of understanding by misunderstanding that serves as a sub-theme of the show. It's an idea that perhaps we should approach art not from what we know or want to know but what we come to understand about something, somewhere, someone. Bravo Giuseppe!

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Humanity of Humans

by Drew Martin
I had a very out of body experience on Friday at work, which may have had something to do with only having two hours sleep the night before. I was sitting in a meeting with some pretty smart people and although I was engaged in the conversation, I felt like I was watching it happen. I was consumed by the thought that our ideas were formed in and projected from what's inside our skulls.

It's quite remarkable that inside our thick skulls, there is a handful of gray matter that makes thought possible, and organizes our bodies through eye contact, speech, hand gestures, etc. to express our thoughts. This all came to me as I listened to one fellow across the table from me. I was most surprised by all the space around his head. It's like our brains are living planets in an otherwise vastly empty universe. 
I started thinking of the brain less as a central thought generator, or even the hub of a human conscious-style Internet, but more of a processor of one's total environment.

The human brain is still such a mystery. Even though we are getting a much better understanding of how it functions, the extremes of what it can do are mind-boggling, to say the least. In the past couple days I watched two films that made me think quite deeply about what makes us tick.

The first documentary I saw was The Drop Box, which is about a South Korean pastor and his wife in Seoul who have a drop box at their house for unwanted babies. Dead babies found in the trash and the alleys of Seoul, and abandoned babies left outside their gate on freezing cold nights inspired the drop box as a way to save the little, helpless lives. Most of the mothers who leave their babies in the drop box (and then take off before they are seen) are teenage girls. And many of the babies have Down's Syndrome, mental issues, or are physically deformed. It is a heart-wrenching film.

The second documentary I saw was Project Nim, about the 26-year roller coaster life of Nim Chimpsky (yes, after Noam Chomsky) who was taken from his chimpanzee mother and raised by a series of human surrogate mothers and teachers as part of a Columbia research project to see if a chimpanzee, given the right nurturing human environment could acquire the ability to communicate at a human level through sign language. Doomed from the start, the physicality of the maturing male chimp brought a swift end to the project, which began a personal hell for Nim: first, being returned to a prison-like environment, and then even worse - being sold for a scientific research project where he was used as a lab animal for testing Hepatitis and AIDS drugs.

Both films explore the depths of what it means to be human through the cruelest actions to the most compassionate souls.