Saturday, April 23, 2016

Why is everyone so mean to Greece?

View From the Vlatadon Monastery

As I have walked around Thessaloniki this weekend, I kept wondering why is it that the countries with the friendliest, most hospitable people, great weather, great food, and joie de vivre are always victimized by countries that have none of the above to offer? As the Thessaloniki locals showed me smiling faces and every kindness, I couldn't help thinking how unfair it is that their salaries have been cut, their quality of life compromised, and their fiscal problems escalated because of EU policy making. Of course, I know that decisions are politically driven and Greece doesn't have the economic leeway to retaliate, but there's more to a country than the money it makes.
Byzantine Mosaics in Church of Gregorios Palamas

While finances determine the difference between the good and the bad in Europe, if cultural heritage was valued, Greece would be the most respected member of the European Union. As I stood inside the chapel of the Vlatadon Monastery, which includes stones from the place where it is said that Paul preached to the Thessalonians, the monks around me busying themselves for a service, the mosaics sparkling as the late afternoon sun streamed in, I couldn't help thinking of the European Union's blindness. Surrounded by the traces of the beginning of civilisation in the monastery, I was appalled at the treatment of Greece. How could the decision makers not go out of their way to make sure that these treasures for all of human kind are preserved and kept alive for the generations to come?
View from Starbucks
I spent my tourist time in Thessaloniki looking in churches, and mostly marvelling at the mosaics. And when I tired of being dumbfounded at the European Union's punishment of Greece, I was fascinated by the behavior of the people before the icons. People entered the church, walked swiftly around the church, stopping to kiss icons. But not all. They chose specific saints, for reasons which I am not religious enough to know. All of the icons are placed in kissing reach, at head height, quite in contrast to the raised altarpieces and frescoes of the Catholic churches all around Europe. The physical touching of the gold leaf of the icons is not only accepted, but expected. Again, I was thinking all the time of the elaborate constructions put in place in Catholic churches to separate people from the objects of veneration. All of these barriers are indicative, somehow, of the openness and ease of the Greek culture. The people do not stand for hours in adoration of images, distantly looking at the holy, they actually move to touch them. I should add, they don't actually kiss the icons, but rather, make the gesture towards them, always apparently at the hands.
Monastery of Vlatadon

And outside in the streets and on the squares, I noticed the communal use of public spaces. Everywhere I went, there are many and large public benches for people to sit and relax together. Like the churches, public space is used to come freely together, with no roping off, no guards patrolling the grass (I am thinking of the Jardins de Luxembourg here in Paris). Similarly in churches, there were no guards, chairs placed all around, in every nook and cranny, encouraging people to come into the church, be quiet, or not. I sensed a culture of freedom that may be poorer than everywhere else in Europe, but as a tourist for a weekend, it was certainly easier to be there. Irrespective of the economic climate, in Thessaloniki, the locals maintain their embrace of life, their warmth for each other, the importance of being social, their generosity of spirit. Long live Greece.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Richard Serra, Ramble Drawings @ Gagosian Gallery Paris

Richard Serra, Ramble Drawings, Exhibition Installation @ Gagoian Gallery
This exhibition has been getting five stars around town, which surprises me. I wonder if it’s the Richard Serra factor, or is that critics believe these drawings are at the forefront of contemporary art. Don’t get me wrong, I loved them, but Serra’s drawings are not easy viewing, and their meanings are not immediately obvious. His abstract art requires a large degree of understanding to access.
Richard Serra - Ramble Drawings
Richard Serra, Ramble 4-16, 2015

On a superficial level, on entering Gagosian’s Paris gallery, visitors will be struck by the green that shimmers across the drawings mounted in rows. This optical effect of the lighting gives the impression that lime green powder has been spread over black crayon in some of the drawings. However, their composition in lithocrayon, paintstick and black pastel powder defies all possibility that the green exists. As I wandered around the gallery I then experienced a persistence of vision carried into the frames of those without colour. A wave begins to move from frame to frame. The lighting in the two downstairs galleries is quite different, the main gallery exposed to the light coming through the sky light, while the light in the first gallery is muted by curtains. This, together with the individuality of each image, means that each otherwise black crayon on paper drawing behaves like a unique work of art. Each is a different size, a different texture, a different resonance across the paper, and each reacts differently with its environment. Therefore, the impression, that might actually be an indication, is that each drawing is not rigidly structured, but that chance in the process of production has been key to the final product. These first reactions reminded me of the familiar Serra motivation to have his viewer question the space that she occupies, a questioning that takes place in the challenge to vision and the way that vision constructs space in the gallery. After learning that the green was not in the image, I started to question other aspects of my vision.

Richard Serra, Ramble 4-23, 2015
Given how much of Serra’s art is about the process, I was disappointed that the gallery flyer gave no information on what is one of, if not the, key moment of these drawings. Serra has always been interested in the objectness and self-referentiality of his art works, and the drawings are no different. For Serra, as we know from the steel sculptures, matter is the source and motivation of the works. Each work begins with the hand made paper -- accounting for its individual texture, size and finish. Similarly the fact that each is in black is also key to how the RAMBLE DRAWINGS here presented make meaning. Black is the non-color, the only color that refers to itself. Up close we see that the black crayon brings out the thick texture of the paper, so it becomes an interaction between the two. That I then see a lime green powder, on some, but not all, therefore immediately sparks curiosity.
Richard Serra, Ramble 3-53, 2015

The process as I understand it is one of lithography. Serra presses the crayon between two sheets of paper over a steel plate. The result of the pressed crayon on the sheets will determine which will be thrown away. Serra never knows in advance which sheet will be jettisoned. So this element of randomness in the process underlines the “ramble” in the title of the exhibition. Perhaps. The addition of the powder and further modification is dependent on the image produced. Again, the process could be said to express the aleatory of the title.
Richard Serra’s giant steel work Ramble.
Richard Serra, Ramble, 2014 
All this said, the title of the drawings reminds me that there is nothing random or aleatory about them. Their title surely casts them as relations to the enormous steel sculpture installed in Gagosian’s London gallery a couple of years ago, Ramble. The steel slabs arranged in rows, the size of each one different from the next are, typical of Serra, designed to give the impression of chance and randomness, where in fact they are carefully and consciously placed. With Serra everything is precise and thought out in advance, even if there are strains of not knowing in their performance, their reception by a viewer in motion in space. And so, we must assume that Ramble Drawings are likewise measured and methodical, though of course, it is not for us to find their logic and reason.
Richard Serra, Ramble 4-26, 2015

The drawings are sensuous, emotional, expressive, and even if they are not using a paintbrush, we feel the presence of the body, the artist’s body in their production. The hands that are so important in his early work, become felt in the weight of the crayon, or its absence on the paper in the final product. However, we do well to remember that Ramble Drawings work within an oeuvre that has engaged a set of issues over the past 50 years. Irrespective of their medium, the drawings continue that, very practiced, and constantly changing, Serra discourse on form, matter, space, light and vision.  

All images courtesy of Gagosian Gallery

Friday, March 18, 2016

Tony Cragg: Sculptures @ Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Pantin.

See original image
Tony Cragg, Hardliner, 2013
In yet another compelling exhibition at ThaddeausRopac’s Pantin gallery, Tony Cragg’s sculptures come alive in this former industrial space. If there was any doubt about Cragg’s status as a leading international sculpture, the exhibition dispels them. The sculptures do everything that great art is meant to do. The works in wood, steel, bronze and marble create connections with the past, they challenge us intellectually, warm our hearts, invite us inside them, to become enveloped by them, and to find stillness and solace in their presence. Intellectually and philosophically, they are far-reaching and touch upon every aspect of contemporary life. I found them so compelling that saying goodbye was difficult to do.

Installation view of the cut metal sculptures
Paris audiences will remember the wonderful exhibition of Cragg’s work at the Louvre in 2011 when they were displayed together with Franz Xavier Messerschmidt’s emotionally expressive heads. At the Louvre, Cragg’s sculptures took on all the emotional intensity of the Messerschmidt heads. Here in the industrial space at Pantin, they are much quieter, more reflective, thinking about their own place in the world, less in relationship to those around them. Unlike their installation at the Louvre, at Thaddaeus Ropac, Cragg's sculptures are deliberately shown as individuals, separated from each other. They still take on anthropomorphic qualities, they still beckon us towards them and solicit quite profound physical and emotional responses. But they are placed too far from each other to be in direct conversation. 
Detail of Contradiction, 2014

Surrounded by the white walls of Thaddaeus Ropac, my attention was drawn to the materiality of the sculptures. The point of Cragg’s work is often to push the material to places that we believe it is not, to find its opposite within it. Metals are bent and made viscous, wood is stretched, marble is animated, and the bronzes become sinuous and tender. My favourites, as always, were the wooden sculptures. I wanted to touch them, their movement was so erotic and sensuous. A piece such as Contradiction (2014) has a surface that is smooth, like silk. It pulls me towards it, close to it, to the point where I want to fall inside of it. The wood itself, even before it has been carved, is sensuous and expressive and changing and sometimes unpredictable. The trains and flaws in the wood make it expand and contract, sometimes it’s as though the form is stretching out of the material. The piece as a whole moves from monumental at a distance, to intimate and warm, filled with secrets it is dying to share once we get close.
marble detail of Willow III, 2014
The white marble is also tempting to touch. The material is filled with veins and flaws that are like blood vessels, sometimes waiting to burst. The luminescence of the marble, the trace of its veins make it vulnerable and filled with emotion. As I stood together with the marble sculptures such as Willow III (2014), up close, it occurred to me that there is something almost pornographic about the marble it is so seductive. Like an erotic tease, we can get closer and closer, but never touch. These sculptures, all of them, are always, just out of reach. Even those visitors who reached out and touched the sculptures would have found them untouchable. In contact with their delicate surfaces, their mystery is still not revealed.
Installation View
From Left: Lost in Thought (2012), Runner (2013), Contradiction 2014)
Headland (2015)

When the bronze is juxtaposed with the wooden sculpture, it’s inflexibility and intransigence is what stands out, becomes so painfully obvious. The bronze of Contradiction (2014) is so intransigent, even if up close it resembles the most intimate parts of the human body. Next to Runner (2013) it is colossal. Moving from a biomorphic form to a hard, intransigent sculpture. And then, up close, I peer inside its curvaceous forms and I see what might be the entwining of two bodies, making love. In this way, the sculptures force us to rethink our assumptions, our vision of the world. In the stainless steel of It Is, It Isn’t, 2014, I get to see distorted versions of myself, in pieces. This kind of steel, up close, also shows the world in different formations. And I am not a part of that world that it reflects.
Detail of Contradiction 2014

In this exhibition I saw the sculptures made of cut and twisted metal for the first time. Some of them look like giant jars, but they are are not. The suspension of motion makes a piece like Stroke (second from left above) inside out, inverted, opposite to how it should be. We think of metal as being fixed, static, and yet it is here, placed in infinite motion. The cut pieces could be schrapnel from another planet, themselves having the appearance of  finished products that are still waste material, made into nothing of value. In an Instant, on the other hand, is like a growth, or some kind of indeterminate creature from outer space. Whatever they are, there is a constant attempt to make them familiar. It’s not just that we are pulled to look inside them, to know them, to get intimate with them, but their animation, or anthropomorphism invites us to see in them what is never going to be there. Lost in Thought for example, is another piece that is is layer upon layer of twisted, turning wooden limbs, pipes, like the most intimate body parts.