Sunday, May 17, 2015

Velásquez @ Grand Palais, Paris

Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velásquez, Autoportrait, 1644-52
Without wanting to be the bringer of bad tidings, I have to be honest and say that I was disappointed by the Velázquez exhibition at the Grand Palais. While Velásquez himself did not disappoint, the staging of the exhibition did. Most disconcerting was the choice of pale grey walls, a colour that did nothing for the subtleties of the Spanish master’s dark palette. The lighting is unusually high, creating strong reflections off the grey walls. As a result, and this is the most frustrating aspect of the exhibition, the luminosity of the paintings is lost to the overexposure of their environment, and thus, visitors will struggle to appreciate the effect and force of the paintings.
Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velásquez, Infanta Margarita Teresa in a Blue Dress, 1659

The paintings were also hung very close together, making it difficult to spend any length of time with a single one of them – the temptation to move through the huge exhibition was too great. I was also disappointed because, of course, with an exhibition given the amount of publicity that this one has received, my expectation was that Las Meninas be the culminating moment. The absence of Las Meninas, Las Hilanderas and various other major paintings left an empty space at the end of the exhibition. This is especially so because movement around the exhibition encourages recognition of all the concerns for which Velásquez became so well known, all of which come together in the chef d’oeuvre of Las Meninas. From very early in his career, Velásquez is thinking about perspective, lines of sight, still lives breaking the picture space, intruding into our space. But of course, that trajectory of his career and concerns doesn’t really come together without Las Meninas.
Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velásquez, St Thomas, 1619-20
That said, there were moments of excitement walking through, most notably the renowned portrait of Innocent X, 1650, with his frontal placement, his seriously suspicious eyes watching our every move as we try to get a different perspective on his exquisite dress and robe. Even after all these years, the transformation of the Catholic Church, the diffusion of papal power, there is no mistaking his power and authority as he sits on his throne. Of course, the Infanta who is featured on the publicity material is sumptuous, and we feel much easier in her company than in that of Innocent X’s. Her constriction by the elaborate dress that weighs her down is palpable. And the self portraits are gentle and beautiful. These latter portraits are the most sumptuous because of Velásquez’s freedom to do what he wanted, free of his ambivalent relationship to power and authority as it is observed in the court portraits. The self-portraits also reveal the presence of an internal life, in contrast to the often expressionless, unemotive royals with their often sickly bodies. Even the paint is looser, the brushstroke more visible, in the more relaxed paintings of himself and his associates.
Retrato del Papa Inocencio X. Roma, by Diego Velázquez.jpg

Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velásquez, Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1650

Velásquez is a very different kind of genius from those in his midst, mainly because he doesn’t have a recognizeable style. Across the exhibition we see him constantly searching. I noticed very skillful and powerful uses of paint that made faces and hands come alive in the creation of light through the subtlety of colour. This remains constant. But he never settles on a style, or subject matter, even when the paintings are in the service of the court. Though the portraits are his most compelling paintings, he has no problem moving from horses to landscapes to still lives and mythical subjects. What is unclear here is whether this is something that results from the constraints of the court, or is it his own particular kind of search?

From the very beginning of his career, Velásquez is not much interested in story, but fascinated with character. The portraits of the saints, Paul and Thomas (1619-20), their stories are all but elided from the image in the interest of a very correct compositional design, and the precision of the light shining in their eyes, the realism of their facial expressions. It is as if background as a place to create the context and story of their place in the world is not relevant when measured against the beauty of their faces.


Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velásquez, La Forge de Vulcain, vers 1630

Throughout, there were paintings, such as La Forge de Vulcain (vers 1630) that demonstrate surprises and aspects that we do not associate with Velásquez. Again, this is testimony to his reluctance to settle on a genre. But what surprised me in this image was Velásquez' demonstration of a deep understanding for the male form. Even as he is painting a mythological scene that weaves together contemporary events in Spain, it’s the power of the male body as it is thrown into the spotlight of the luminosity created by his palette that strikes the viewer.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Mark Lewis, Above and Below, @ Le Bal

Mark Lewis, Above and Below the Minhocao, 2014
Being so underwhelmed by the recent installation of Lewis’ films at the Louvre, I was relieved to see that the in situ installation of some of his new works at Le Bal in the 17th arrondissment was done with more care and respect for the integrity of the films. For all the reasons the film installations did not work at the Louvre, Above and Below does. At Le Bal, the 35mm and HD works are exhibited in spaces where people can uninterruptedly watch them in comfort, see the clarity of the image, and experience their physical response. The interest in Lewis’ films is often the physical experience of watching a camera very slowly moving across and around a space uninterruptedly, creating a smooth path through impossible angles and perspectives. Most often, we experience nausea, dizziness, the unsettling experience of being taken on a journey only to end up back where it began, and having to ask, how did I get here? And in order to have this experience, the projection and viewing conditions need to be very precisely observed.
Mark Lewis, Hendon FC, 2009
While Lewis is known to work with and manipulate the materials of film, often engaging with histories of visual representation, these on exhibition at Le Bal seemed like a shift into more political territory than others that I have seen previously. Above and Below the Minhocao, 2014, the work that gives the exhibition its title, is a complex and detailed film that demonstrates this venture into the political. The moving bird’s eye views of the great auto route in Sao Paulo on a weekend afternoon is unsettling simply because of the absence of cars and the odd sense of decay and nostalgia, emphasized by the late afternoon sun. With the traffic nowhere to be seen and the long lazy shadows of bikers and runners, enjoying the freedom to run and bike along this uninterrupted stretch of highway, the contradictions are everywhere in tension along this monument to modernity. Apparently, 80,000 cars traverse the Minhocao per day, but in Lewis’ film, there are none. Below the overpass, the streets are old and worn, the houses not so up to date, there’s a tiredness and a sense of the forgotten about this apparent revolutionary structure. Lewis’ familiar slow motion tracking and focus pulling from an airborne camera underlines the laziness of the day: the camera takes us nowhere, it becomes as langorous as the people out enjoying the last vestiges of sun.
Mark Lewis, Forte, 2010
Like Forte,2010, also on exhibition here, Hendon FC, 2009, is also disorienting. A camera takes us around an abandoned football ground taken over by Roma Gypsies.  The film is unsettling because the camera ends up sweeping through the overgrown grass and we become lost, with it, in the overgrowth. This, even as the film is also a mapping of the space and the daily lives lived there by the Roma families.
Mark Lewis, Cold Morning, 2009
Another work that forces a discomfort of a different kind is Cold morning (2009). Through a fixed camera, a homeless person whose face we never see organizes his or her clothes and other possessions on the street. The figure meticulously works across the 8 minute film next to an underground steam hole while the odd figure passes by, two pigeons watch for a while. What is most striking about the person’s actions is how strong the identification is: the ordering and reordering of possessions is something I find myself doing, everyday. Cold Morning speaks to the circularity of life, the mindless routines and rituals we engage in, rituals that are the great equalizer among us. This is the preservation of life that we are all involved in, and this makes the images unsettling: it is as if the camera is turned on us as the subjects of this film.

Lastly, Le Bal is one of a number of interesting spaces recently opened in Paris that have taken over disused spaces for the exhibition of art. It’s a great place to visit as not only do they have great exhibitions and talks, there’s an excellent bookstore and of course, because it’s Paris, a café.

All images courtesy Mark Lewis Studio

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Taryn Simon, Rear Views @ Jeu de Paume

Taryn Simon, Cutaways, 2012. Single Channel Video. 3 minutes, dimensions variables.<br><br>Courtesy of the artist © 2014 Taryn Simon
Taryn Simon, Cutaways, 2012
“The photograph is just another place from which to observe” Taryn Simon

What then is Taryn Simon observing? And what for her is the photograph? Or rather, what kind of photographs are Simon’s images observing? And what is observed in those her images observe? The answers to Simon’s complicated body of work are equally complex and, at times, elusive. While these images come close to our most articulate examples of images as a political weapon, they are also much more, and much less, than that. It’s difficult to place Simon’s work because there’s something in them that is not yet resolved. I shall try to put my finger on what that something is.

Larry Mayes
Taryn Simon, Larry Mayes. The Innocents. 2002
In the most compelling series in this current exhibition, Simon photographs and films The Innocents, men who have been wrongly accused of violent crimes and served a big chunk of their often lifetime sentences. When all evidence shows the men are innocent, and yet, the police still don’t have a conviction, Simon argues, photography comes to be used against the suspect most likely to be indictable. Through a series of false moves, a photograph is shown that will convince the victim to identify the innocent in a lineup, and the lie is fully fabricated, there is no turning back. Simon points to a use of photography that runs counter to all we have come to know it to be, to do and to argue: she reveals photography’s ability to blur evidence, truth and create a memory for victims looking to identify and punish perpetrators.

Taryn Simon, Calvin Washington. The Innocents. 2002
Simon then takes the accused “back” to the scene of the crime, a place or location they have never been before, and there she takes a photograph that creates a memory they (and we) did not have. She too uses photography to fabricate evidence. In her talking heads documentary of the same “innocents” they explain the trajectory to their imprisonment, life inside and the compromise to their freedom as a result of a wrongful conviction. What’s so powerful about this series and other of Simon’s photographic work is that she might be the only artist working at the intersection of text and image that leads to getting men off death row. I say “might” because Simon’s photographs and film don’t go that far. This is the “something” that I found frustrating about her work. I wanted the resolution of an otherwise motivated narrative: to effect a political change. While Simon is clearly making visible what is ordinarily kept from view, she still works within the boundaries of art, not politics. The photographs are indeed aesthetically pleasing, even gorgeous. The slickness and beauty of the photographs are somehow surprising as one might expect her to make images that are more cutting edge. That she doesn’t, takes the edge off the frightening subject matter of inmates convicted and serving time for crimes they did not commit. Similarly, there is no visual or textual context for these people’s lives. Who were they before their conviction? What led them to be caught in a line up in the first place? Why are the police keeping mug shots of their faces? Are they guilty of other, smaller crimes? This taking out of context is the prerogative of the artist, and no doubt is Simon's point. However, I was frustrated by the questions left unanswered.
Taryn Simon, Contraband, 2010
In other series, she archives, catalogues, to creates memories, rather than to hold onto or preserve memories as is the usual purpose of these practices. Simon spent 48 hours in the contraband room at JFK airport and photographed the enormous amount of confiscated and abandoned goods. Everything from guns and class A drugs and steroids to apples, pirate DVDs and fake Louis Vuitton bags are photographed and displayed in Contraband. She photographs the goods as an archive, arranging objects for display, again, making them look beautiful, artistic, appealing. Unlike The Innocents, these photographs also have an evidential/ documentary aspect to them that makes us look at them as a record of what is not allowed into the country, and we remark on the absurdity of US customs. Again, the objects are taken out of all context, shot naked against a white background, making me wonder who they belonged to, why they are forbidden.

Taryn Simon, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII, 2011
In another series about invisibility, about what cannot be seen, what will never be seen, what cannot be seen, even by the photograph, she photographs the bloodlines of a Nazi criminal, victims of Bosnian genocide, India in A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII. In the every day people including cute children, with everyday jobs and everyday lives we look for the sadistic power of the Nazi ancestor, or the inherited trauma of the Bosnian victim. Of course we can’t see them, even the photograph does not reveal the bloodlines, even as Simon has archived them and displayed their connections. In the middle panel of each bloodline she places text that explains the images, and on the right, what she calls a footnote, with various related images. It’s a fascinating work because everything is created in the connections, in the archive that Simon creates, even as nothing can be seen, known or made certain.

Taryn Simon, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII, 2011Detail, V

Simon’s complicated and very sophisticated conceptual body of work challenges our longstanding beliefs as it zooms in on the absences, the secret chambers that the security of governments and nation states are built on. I think because very little of it comes as a surprise, I found myself waiting for Simon to go further. I kept wanting her to do more than observe, that is, to show me a photograph as a place from which to act. That said, i can't be sure that this is not the response she is looking for through her photography: a spectator motivated to want more.

All images courtesy Taryn Simon