Friday, June 7, 2019

Thomas Schütte, Three Acts @ Monnaie de Paris

Thomas Schütte, United Enemies, 1993 & 1994

It’s difficult not to overemphasize the political importance of Thomas Schütte’s sculptures. His unrelenting discourse on the machinations, exercise and hypocrisy of power is so vividly brought to life across a body of work which inhabits and then turns the knife on this same discourse. It’s a brilliant and unique oeuvre to which we should all be paying more attention. That said, I was surprised that the current exhibition at the Monnaie de Paris, Trois Actes, didn’t make more of Schütte’s ongoing contestation with the discourses of power as they are played out in political and cultural institutions and the public spaces they fashion.

Thomas Schütte, Mann im Wind, 2008

Visitors must walk through the courtyards to enter the exhibition, and rather than stopping to interact with Schütte’s monumental warriors, it’s best to start inside to familiarize oneself with his varied and extensive oeuvre. The gradual discovery of his artistic trajectory ultimately gives the monumental bronzes an extraordinary impact that they might not otherwise have. In the first rooms of this exhibition, we meet limbless, contorted aluminium women’s bodies with gaping holes where we expect to see their sex and their heads. The stage is set by this confrontation with violence and manipulation before moving into a small corridor-like room in which grotesque mask like ceramic busts are placed high up on the wall, resting on steel shelves. The exhibition flyer discusses the busts for their reminder of those of Roman Emperors and the satirical drawings and prints of the 19th century Honoré Daumier. However, these works are much more than a reach to familiar images of the past.
Thomas Schütte, Wichte, 2006

The Wichte (2006) are ceramic fired busts of gnomes with grotesque and deformed faces. Of course, they are also beautiful because they are coloured in blue and sea green, black and grey. They are also shiny and sensuous. Each gnome with its misshapen face reveals the character of the person it represents, at least this is the claim made and the narrative told by the bust of the Roman Emperor. He is as noble and perfect as the kingdom over which he rules. In reality, Schütte reminds us, faces are filled with inexplicable emotions, realities that make them human, and in this case, the dignity of dispossession. Like all of Schütte’s sculptures, the Wichte are also about display. The steel of their plinths is included in the materials of the sculpture. Thus the plinth or shelf, its placement, and where we stand in relationship to the sculpture is as important as the object itself. We look up to men of importance and power. But here we find little people placed high up, inviting us to strain our necks to see them, demanding our attention. Unlike the rich and the powerful whose busts are placed on plinths in museums all over the ancient world, we are not able to see figures creatures in their entirety; they are too high to contemplate fully. Ironically, however, men of small stature look down on us, from above. They are given the power of evasion and, simultaneously, of looking.

Thomas Schütte, United Enemies, 2011.

The United Enemies (1993-94) for whom Schütte is most well know, even though they were rejected and criticized at the time of their making, are frightening, curious, painful and touching all at the same time. Schütte re-makes them again and again over the course of his career in multiple media. They appear in the 1990s as plasticine and clay figures, put on display under glass domes. He represents these same figures in photographs, and then most recently, in 2010 they become giant cast bronze and steel sculptures who hover like wounded warriors through the courtyards at Monnaie de Paris. These figures also have deformed faces, but by the time they are cast as giants, we are so used to their unusual faces that we are captivated by their misshapen and broken bodies. As warriors, they tower over us, threatening with their power, and yet, they are tethered together, forever united but struggling to separate. They are prisoners to each other, the enemy. In the courtyards, the sculpted fabrics wrapped around metal bodies are hoisted up, exposing their peg legs, like amputated soldiers who nevertheless manage to walk. They are resilient, but fragile in their deformity and vulnerability.

Thomas Schütte, Dritte Schwester, 2013

One of the most powerful pieces on display is The Third Sister (2013); a woman weeping. This doesn’t sound so exciting, but the bust is made of steel. Tears fall down her cheeks from closed eyes. Sadness, suffering, melancholy and death are not such strange figures for a sculptor to capture, but steel, bronze, glass and aluminium are also not the materials in which such fragile human emotions and states are conventionally cast. The execution of the impossible—capturing tender emotions in inflexible metals—is breathtaking to behold. In another contradiction, inside the display cases around the edges of the Monnaie de Paris’s main room, glass faces removed from their heads lie on wooden plinths turning the display case into a mausoleum of which the glass door is left hanging open.
Thomas Schütte, Fratelli, 2012
Size matters for Schütte: the size, and also, where the figures are placed, if they are elevated, or if they tower over us will determine how we look at them. Moreover, the size and material of execution is often surprising, and at the very least it often adds further conflict to an already dense creation. Four busts from 2012, Fratelli, are oversized patinated bronzes on steel plinths, arranged in a circle. We have no option but to stand inside the circle if we want to see their faces. We stand surrounded by the brothers who, though wearing the coats and cloaks of popes, are threatening us with their facial expressions. They are intimidating because they are bigger than us, they are four and we are one, staring with bolts for eyeballs, smirking, and if they could talk we imagine them hurling abuse our way.
Thomas Schütte's wounded warriors @ Monnaie de Paris
Schütte’s Trois Actes includes no busts of great men or heroes, but these are its real subjects. Our mind wanders to all the statues dotting the streets of London especially, but also Paris, and we imagine their legs cut off like Schütte’s wounded warriors. As much as he represents the deformed, the outcast, the socially rejected, Schütte also makes big, noble and honoured men very small. In one of the most poignant, a soldier carries his face, making him anonymous, a nobody in the fight for someone else’s life. The great men of history manage to stand, but are always maimed on their pedestals. There is also a religious element to all these statues. I was reminded of all the Christs on the cross and other icons that are worshipped and fawned over, even though no such images are present. Nevertheless, all the weeping and wailing, the ambiguous gender of the masks, heads, faces rubbed out and multiple images of the same, repeated figures, or bodies being tied together. All of them are simultaneously critique of the ones we worship as well as an elevation of the ones we do not.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Kenneth Noland @ Almine Rech

Kenneth Noland, Version, 1982
It was with great delight that I saw Kenneth Noland’s current exhibition at Almine Rech today. I feel as though Noland is one of those artists whose work is easily recognizeable but that I know very little about. The concentric circles, stripes, and odd shaped canvases were so integral to the revolution in postwar American painting that they became household images. Yet beyond the familiar circles so central to Greenberg’s pronouncements about abstract art, very few other paintings came to mind when thinking of Noland.
Kenneth Noland, Pink Lady, 1978
The current hanging at Almine Rech is surprising for the variety of the artist’s work across the past 50 years. Although it retains the concern with color, canvas and the essentials of painting, it does so in many different ways. The familiar tensions between color and line, the dethroning of the rectangle, and of course, the circle, the vulnerability and excitement of the edges, continue to be his concern until the end of his life.

Kenneth Noland, Play, 1960

The first thing I noticed on entering the gallery was not simply the odd shape of the canvases, but also, the unanticipated use of colors. He uses both shape and color to challenge the viewer’s perception of art, questioning what we expect a painting to be, as well as what it will do, and  how we will interact with it. The role of shape in this is clear, but he also uses color in ways that completely refuse to allow us to indulge in the sumptuousness of painting. For example, the sprayed pink surface of Pink Lady, 1978 offers an area of unbroken surface and a flat picture plane.  Nothing about it makes us want to move closer, spend longer or develop intimacy with the image. As such, this and others remains the perfect example of Greenberg’s notion of post-painterly abstraction. Where the shape of the canvas, the absence of gesture, and the resultant cool acrylic surface challenge everything we know about painting. Not to mention the fact that a work such as this can be physically difficult to look at thanks to the glare resulting from the acrylic sheen.

Kenneth Noland, Comet, 1983
In one of the side rooms, we see Noland’s Comet, 1983, a work that harks back to the strips and parallel lines of the 1950s and 1960s, but not. The thick paint applied with a spatula gives the suggestion of being luscious, but is, in fact, as cold and distant as any of the thin spray painted surfaces. Even though the material has a glutinous texture, there is no mistaking its plasticity. That said, the small hints of gesture and emotion are thrilling: the paint going over the edge of the canvas, the drips and splashes that have (we assume mistakenly, but no doubt they were intentional) found their way into the colour field change everything. In addition, when the edges are no longer even, the lines no longer perfectly straight, our attention becomes focussed on the edges, the patterns, the tensions, and the chance smudges of painting. These moments become more serious than the color field itself, and we try to connect to the human hand behind its execution.
Kenneth Noland, Into the Cool No.9, 2006
I think what is most striking about these works today is that they haven’t lost their radicality. Whereas an artist like Warhol becomes Romantic in retrospect, and we indulge in his play with color and light, in his painterly gestures, Noland’s surfaces remain harsh, and difficult to look at. They are unrelenting in their commitment to challenging everything we know about painting.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Ellsworth Kelly, Fenêtres, Centre Pompidou

Ellsworth Kelly, Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris, November 1949

Although Ellsworth Kelly lived in France for six years as a young man, I don't think of his work as being particularly influenced by or of interest to the French. And yet, there it is, in pride of place on the 4th floor of the Pompidou Centre. As I spent more time with the paintings, I began to see why Fenêtres/Windows would gets its own exhibition at the Pompidou. Kelly’s window paintings are both inspired by and representations of Parisian windows. This small exhibition is delightful and will be an inspiration to people interested in both representational and abstract painting.

Ellsworth Kelly, Window II, 1949
The Parisian window is something to look at, not through or inside. Kelly shows us the window frame as an aesthetic, complete with a formal geometry and a potential to cast shadows that skew that form. The small series of Kelly’s Window paintings, together with studies and preparatory sketches invite us look at Paris’s windows differently. In the earliest examples from 1949, Kelly paints and draws the wooden frames in black, filling the glass and what would be the surrounding building façade in a thick, matte white oil paint. In Window II (1949) Kelly’s hesitant thinking is revealed in the white painting over black lines on a linen support. The unevenness of the white field that represents glass is not something that we associate with Kelly. The painting becomes an off-white, cracked surface, making it more sensuous. The paint in Window II reveals traces of time inscribed as grains of dirt might tell of a shower of rain on a window. In these early examples, Kelly is not yet fully equating the window with painting, but rather, sees the window as an object to be painted, a surface to be looked at, and represented.

In these early examples, Kelly translates what he sees into painting, from one medium (reality) into another (painting). However, the one equation he begins to make between window and painting is in the use of wooden frame of the stretcher to “represent” the frame of the window.
Ellsworth Kelly, Window VI, 1950

As the exhibition continues, Kelly starts to broaden his perspective on the window. Windows are opened and closed, they are broken, come in all different forms; with shutters, looking like doors, with curtains, sash windows. He even finds windows where they are not, for example, in a construction belonging to the International University campus in Window VI (1950). At the centre of the exhibition is the Window. Museum of Modern Art Paris (November 1949). The window itself is shown in an accompanying photograph; covered in graffiti, painted over, cracked. Kelly’s representation removes the detail and in a frame that replicates the form of the window itself, he places a white and a grey canvas beneath. In this work, the wooden representation of the window frame is brought to the fore by the placement of the grey canvas behind it the frame. As a result, the painting as glass is also emphasized, rendering the canvas an optical field.

Ellsworth Kelly, White Square, 1953

There is mention in the flyer about Kelly’s attraction to the “anonymity of Egyptian art.” I am not sure what this means, but as he continues to paint and draw windows, the object of the window loses its identity; it starts to lack objecthood, and like glass, becomes an abstract shape. This could, of course, be called anonymous. Kelly also claims the “painting is a fragment of the visual world, where the third dimension is removed.” We might conclude that as windows become painting with the third dimension removed, the canvas represents glass and we are left looking at or through nothing. Then, we see the painting as object thanks to the markings (like paint on a canvas) such as dirt left by rain, cracks made by a stone, or reflections of something or someone that happen to find it as mirror. Accordingly, when the window becomes a wall for graffiti or a mirror for a person’s image, two dimensions return to three dimensions, the glass window to a thing.

Ellsworth Kelly, White over Black III, 2015
While I see the connection being made between the two halves of the exhibition, I am not convinced. In the second half, we see Kelly’s black and white paintings. Unlike the windows, works such as Black. Two Whites, 1953  are about looking with the object of the window (and the painting) removed. The question of what we are seeing shifts from “Am I looking at a window, a picture of a window, a painting, or an abstract work?” to “What is the relationship of the white field to the black?” or in a works such as the adjacent, White Square (1953) and Black Square (1953), “are they the same size? Or does my vision deceive me?” This uncertainty comes because the placement of each color changes our perception of the canvas. Similarly, in the most recent work on display, I am reminded that the emptiness and nothingness of white is never empty and nothing on the canvas. When I stand before White Over Black III, 2015, my shadow intrudes into the painting if it is lit from behind me and the slick white surface becomes a mirror. As a result the object and surface shifts, yet again, to a whole new phenomenon.