Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Year in Review: The Museum of Peripheral Art in 2015

To see past annual reviews for the Museum of Peripheral Art, click on the years under the blog archive. The last entry each year is the annual review.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

A Streak of Look

by Drew Martin
One project I got carried away with this year, from the beginning of fall to the beginning of winter, was my morning run photo series, posted to @peripheralart on Instagram. It consisted of 100 pictures from 100 consecutive morning runs. The first 88 images where set in a similar matrix (8 frames wide x 11 high) and turned into wrapping paper for my friends. It was lacking the last dozen because I had to send it off to the printer in order to get it back in time for the holidays. The series celebrates my 7+ year running streak of running every morning.

In the beginning I thought that this series was the perfect solution for me: a way to integrate my running and the arts, and those two separate groups of friends. But it got to the point where setting up the shot, and even the act of stopping for the photos took away from the running, and by the end it felt like I was stretching it a bit. It was a relief to end the series and was able to solely focus on running again. That being said, if I do see a great photo op when I am out there, I certainly don't hesitate to snap a picture. 

Below are all the images shrunken down and missing the stories and comments that went with each one, such as tales of my working in a northern Czech zoo in the early 1990s that accompany the images with animals. If you wish to read those just scan through my @peripheralart feed on Instagram.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi: Forging Ahead

by Drew Martin
With the art market being such a random and unregulated field of whims and speculations, the question of what is art and why certain works are worth millions of dollars gets turned on its head when a fake is introduced, especially when it takes a team of art experts, forensic scientists and chemical analysis to make the distinction between an original and a forgery.

A copy of a painting only becomes a forgery when the forger signs the name of the original artist. Wolfgang Beltracchi is a master forger who made millions by passing off works by great artists. His specialty was not an exact copy of something (that would be too easy to identify) but of works existing only in literature and not in catalogs. 

There were many paintings by artists that were written about but never photographed and are not in anyone's collection. So Beltracchi, who boasts he can paint like anyone and in any style, filled that gap. When questions of provenance came up, Beltracchi's scheme sent the collectors down a rabbit hole of his game. He and his wife, Helene, turned her deceased grandparents into fictitious collectors, and even went so far as to fake photographs of Helene, posing as her grandmother with the works: all forgeries by Beltracchi. (Second picture from the bottom)

Beltracchi's father was an art restorer and a decorative painter who used the tricks of the trade to paint plastered surfaces in churches to look like wood and marble. The young Beltracchi was a quick study and learned all these techniques but this practical approach desensitized him to art. He says his emotions are devoted only to his family and not to art. That might sound shocking to a collector or curator, but is actually quite refreshing to hear. He explains that he never did the forgeries for money but rather for the rush.

Beltracchi led himself slowly to this art-crime career by way of restoration. He had the eye and skills to fake anything. So, he reasoned, why not take it to another level? Between 1970 and 2010 Beltracchi created at least 300 forgeries, sold as originals, which supported an extravagant lifestyle and was a means to raise his family in beautiful houses and locations in Europe and Morocco. He was meticulous about the details of the forgeries but his game was exposed when he did not mix his own white paint and the too modern titanium white was used for a pre-WWI forgery of Heinrich Campendonk. After he was caught and punished, and asked if he had any regrets he could only offer that he should never have used titanium white, and ponders where it came from.

He and his wife went to prison for several years when they were found guilty and charged with forgery of 14 works of art that sold in total for $45 million. Only 50 or so of Beltracchi's works have been identified. The balance of his faked 300+ drawings and paintings are still in museums and other collections, unidentified as forgeries, with the art world non the wiser. An interesting comment he made was that it is easier to sell a fake for millions of dollars than it is to sell it for thousands of dollars because people are less likely to question the authenticity of a painting with a higher price.  

The bottom picture is of the Beltracchis moving out of their beautiful glass house in Freiburg, Germany. This piece of property and other real estate was liquidated to compensate the collectors who bought his forgeries. This is actually a really interesting business model for art: people invest in forgeries, that money gets invested in appreciating real estate, and when the work is identified as fake, they are compensated by the sale of the properties. Compared to a Ponzi scheme the investors could have done much worse than buying a Beltracchi copy. The couple is now living freely and making millions producing art again, this time not as forgeries.

This whole story unfolds in the documentary Beltracchi: Die Kunst der Fälschung, (The Art of Forgery), which I recently watched. While he has been vilified by many, I am in the camp that thinks he's more a genius than a criminal and have more respect for him than artists like Koons or Cattelan. For one thing, he has much more sheer talent than the aforementioned businessman and prankster. In many ways he is actually more honest than them. Also, his ability to replicate the work of any artist and fool the best eyes of the art world challenges the value we place on art, financially as well as emotionally. 

If a painting-by-painting case study reveals his trickery, and exposes the experts' and collectors' naiveté, the totality of his influence questions if our interest in art is a delusion of our species. At a base level, there is also a kind of payback from an art world that too often undervalues artists while they are alive and then fans the flames of financial success among themselves when the creators are dead. Beltracchi cracks a hole into those coffers and takes what he thinks is his own value. When he is shown faking a piece by Max Ernst, an artist he does not regard as anyone special, he kicks back with his daughter, looks at the progress of the work and sighs that the real pity is that he cannot sell the painting for five million, as he could if his business was still under wraps.

The film is made during his and Helene's very loose prison years: they only needed to report to separate prisons at night but were allowed to spend their days working together in an off-site studio. Not only is Beltracchi very optimistic and cheerful in the film but he is also incredibly cooperative and takes the viewer through the whole process of forgery: going to flea markets to find old canvases, scraping off the original paint and integrating any remaining marks into the final piece. He even sifts early-20th Century dust between the stretcher bars and the repainted canvas, and tries to give a painting the smell of the place in which it would have been hung. He claims that he can tell which country a painting is from by its smell. He suggests you can hang it for awhile in bar to get the right odor, but then jokes at least your could when you were still allowed to smoke in bars.

The top picture here shows Beltracchi scraping the paint off an old, worthless canvas, which he picked up in an open-air market, as he prepares it to create a painting as if done by the hand and mind of Marie Vassilieff. The photo here under that, second from top, is the new/old painting underway while he talks to the camera, as he hides any trace of the original sub-par nude:

"I'll make the one breast into a little tree. And I'll make the second breast into a house. Voilà. Now she's gone." 

If you are interested in other articles/documentaries about individuals who turned the art world upside down, check out my post Mona Lisa is Missing.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Finding the Familiar in Foreign Films

by Drew Martin
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is most famous worldwide for their Academy Awards - The Oscars. Many American films have more explosions and gunfire than actual dialogue, and bad dialogue at that, so it's surprising that anything not in English is in a whole other category, which sits on the side of the Awards like children at the kiddie table.

The first Awards, which started in 1929 made no such separation but between 1947 - 1952, and in 1954 and 1955 Special/
Honorary Awards were given out for "foreign language films" released in the U.S. The Academy Award of Merit, a.k.a the Best Foreign Language Film Award for non-English "speaking" films began in 1956.

It is offensive to label non-English language films released in the U.S. as foreign language films. The top film of this category last year, Ida, is not a foreign language film to my wife who is an American citizen and is a native Polish speaker, or for nearly10 million Polish Americans. The same could be said for any language film.

Netflix has an International Movies section, which includes English language films that are African, Australian, British, Canadian and Irish.

I wish Netflix had an even bigger selection of international movies because if it's a good movie, it does not matter what language it's in if you can follow it with subtitles in your own language. Netflix in the U.S. only offers subtitles in English.

A couple recent releases on Netflix worth mentioning are The Lesson and Phoenix.

The Lesson is a 2014 Bulgarian film that starts off with an underpaid school teacher confronting a class when a student reports that her wallet was swiped. The teacher can't let the incident go until the very end of the film, after she has robbed a bank to save her house from foreclosure, which is one of my favorite movie scenes: she is going to defer payment to a loan shark through reluctant sexual favors. On her way to see him she is overwhelmed with fear and disgust about what she is about to do, and the stockings she has put on that day for him become her mask, and a realistic-looking water gun she took earlier from a student becomes her stick-up weapon for a robbery of a bank, which had previously given her a hard time when she was trying to transfer money to save her house.

is 2014 German film about a woman returning from a concentration camp to Berlin after WWII. Her face was shattered by a bullet so she is brought by a friend to Switzerland for reconstructive surgery. It's enough give her a familiar face to people she knew before the war but not to be recognized by her husband who betrayed her and gave her up to the Nazis for his own release, and thinks she is dead. It's way too complicated to explain further, but they meet and he finds her resemblance close enough to make others believe she is alive in order to go after her inheritance, without him actually knowing it's her. Sounds crazy but it's a good movie with a great ending of how he finally realizes it is indeed her.

When I sat down to write this blog I got entirely distracted by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TEDGlobal 2009 talk in London: The danger of a single story. It is a great talk about flattened stories and the problem of one story being the only story you have of a culture and an event. Her angle is literature, although she also talks about her native Nigeria's Nollywood, which produces more than 800 films a year. The take-away I got from Chimamanda's talk is that we are all guilty of summarizing another culture with a single-story that is convenient for us. And the best way to change this limited perspective is to write one's own story to share with the people who put you in a box, and to absorb as much as you can of other cultures through literature, cinema, art and music.

The nice thing about "foreign language films" is that you get to absorb more of the culture through the spoken language (if it's not dubbed) and the locations, as opposed to reading a "foreign language book" in translation to your own language.

So if you are not up for sitting through these entire films, at least take a minute to watch the trailers:

And if you have 15 minutes to spare, watch Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED talk:

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Free-Range Eggs at Kate Werble Gallery

by Drew Martin
I was at a company holiday luncheon later this afternoon in TriBeCa and one of the topics discussed was the yolk-to-egg white ratio. A young colleague, who is an engineer, was arguing that the yolk should be bioengineered to a fraction of its size. So to my surprise, walking back from our department gathering to my office in SoHo, I passed the Kate Werble Gallery full of sunny-side-up fried egg sculptures: LIVESTRONG by Christopher Chiappa. The 7,000 resin and plaster eggs (584 dozen plus a few extra) cover the floor and walls of the two-room gallery. Although I was in a bit of a rush, the eggs were playful and inviting so I stopped in for a few minutes to have a look and take some pictures (posted here).

The show is surreal and makes me think about the use of eggs in the history of painting (egg tempera) and of artists who have represented eggs: Salvador Dalí and Claes Oldenburg first come to mind. The multiplication of the eggs also conjures up sci-fi references, like the classic Star Trek episode The Trouble with Tribbles, when furry, featureless pom-pom creatures reproduce at an alarming rate and threaten the integrity of the Starship Enterprise. 

Aside from the immediate fun of this installation, the deeper meaning is of course in the idea of reproduction. The eggs we consume are unfertilized and sexless, and a chicken without a rooster can yield an egg a day. In the classic paradox, Which came first the chicken or the egg?, this installation offers a situation in which the chicken has been bioengineered out of the equation and the eggs themselves continue on through asexual reproduction.

It's a great show that put this little gallery on the map for me. I look forward to seeing what Kate has planned for this space in the new year.


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Vidal Signs

by Drew Martin
I just watched a new documentary about an old debate. Best of Enemies is a fairly new release about the televised debates between the politically and morally clashing intellectuals William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal during the ABC News coverage of the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968.

The climax is Buckley's rage to Vidal when he loses it and spouts: 
Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddam face, and you’ll stay plastered.

It's a moment that changed the course of television: the gloves were off and any chance of legitimate debate was trumped by this kind of caustic banter.

In the epilogue of the tenth debate Vidal offers, "I think these great debates are absolutely nonsense. The way they're set up, there's no interchange of ideas, very little, even, of personality. There's also the terrible thing about this medium that hardly anyone listens. They sort of get an impression of someone and think they've figured out just what he's like by seeing him on television."

One commentator says the debate was the harbinger of the unhappy future of television. And in response to a question to Buckley, "Does television run America?" he responds that "there is an implicit conflict of interest between that which is highly viewable and that which is highly illuminating."

Television as the public square was over. A commentator suggests, "The ability to talk the same language is gone. More and more we are divided into communities of concern. Each side can ignore the other side and live in its own world. It makes us less of a nation because what binds us together is the picture in our heads. But if these people are not sharing those ideas they're not living in the same place."

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Alien Aesthetic: H.R. Giger

by Drew Martin
Last night I watched a really good documentary about the artist whose surreal and bleak futuristic imagery influences us more than we can imagine - Dark Star: H.R. Giger's World.

Hans Ruedi Giger (1940 - 2014) was a Swiss airbrush painter who created a world of biomechanical creatures that cycle through themes of sex, birth, and death. 

It is easy to look at his work and dismiss it as a certain sci-fi fantasy style, but it's a look he introduced to the world and created from his dreams. In the documentary he talks about dreams, and laments the unfinished erotic dream from which one is unfairly pulled away to awaken to reality. 

Look closer and you will see the skills of his years of study in architecture and industrial design combined with an intuitive grasp of anatomy and references to Egyptian art. A friend of his, who does not believe in the occult, says he feels like Giger was channeling another world for us to witness. A psychiatrist in the film calls Giger an artistic reporter for the darkness in us. 

It was always a personal fantasy of mine as a kid to be able to bring something physical back from my own dreamworld, and Giger did just that. A delightful aspect of the film is that it shows his chaotic, overgrown house, which is a labyrinth of rooms full of his images, sculptures based on his world, curious artifacts and skulls. 

As a child Giger was scared of a mummy at a local museum. His older sister teased him about this so he returned every day until he got over his fear. Likewise, his father, a pharmacist, was given a human skull by the Ciga-Geigy pharmaceutical company. At first it scared the younger Giger but then he started dragging it by a string around town in order to show that he was no longer afraid of it. 

Perhaps this is part of his attraction for his devoted fans: no matter how much fantasy Giger creates in his images, there is an overwhelming sense of morbid reality, which is not sugarcoated and he is a totally uncensored artist, without moral apologies. His work has an honesty to it that is unparalleled. In one of the final scenes we see Giger shortly before his death signing books and drawings for his fans. Many of them extend an arm for him to sign. A few of them pull off their shirts to reveal tattoos of his work. These same, rough-looking individuals profusely thank him with such emotional intensity that they break into tears.

Giger's paintings sold well as posters and he was hired to do album design for musicians such as the American punk band, the Dead Kennedys. The first time I saw his Penis Landscape, which is featured on their Frankenchrist album was in a friend's dorm room in college. It is an impossible motif/collage of stacks of buttocks, and penises copulating with vaginas. 

Giger broke out on the world scene when Hollywood discovered him and he was hired to create the look of the creatures and their ship in the 1979 Academy-Award-winning sci-fi horror film, Alien, by Ridley Scott. It's an aesthetic that continues with Blade Runner in 1982, and we see used countless other times in sci-fi films such as The Matrix.

The term "airbrushed" shares the same cultural meaning as "Photoshopped" as a kind of digital makeup/plastic surgery but this film restores it to the original source and has some nice scenes of Giger airbrushing his work without any preliminary sketches. It's a lost art where natural arm movements are now replaced by bezier computer curves. From a graphics point of view, the documentary is worth viewing for those moments alone.

Pictured top is Giger with Swiss actress Li Tobler. They were together for nine years before she shot herself. Tobler's face and nude body are featured in much of his work during their time together. The image second from the top is representational of Giger's biomechanical creatures. The third image from the top is his design of the alien spaceship in Alien. And finally, the last picture is an interior he created for one of two Giger-themed bars in Switzerland.