Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Berenice Abbott, Vivian Maier — Une fantastique passion @ Les Douches La Galerie

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Bernice Abbott, Pennsylvania Station, New York, 1937
I have to admit, I went to see this small exhibition of Bernice Abbott’s photographs having spent last weekend grading papers for a class on New York and the Movies. I was struck by the difficulty my students had in articulating what makes an image, and for them, a narrative, nostalgic. I thought Abbott’s celebrated photographs of New York City in the 1930s might help me to see why they were struggling. I was starting to doubt the question I had given them, thinking perhaps it’s not possible to identify nostalgia in an image. I hadn’t even stepped inside the exhibition space when I was overwhelmed by what I would, on the most superficial level, identify as nostalgia. Abbott’s photographs are hung in a former public baths also from the mid-1930s. The most striking feature of the space is the white ceramic tiled walls. Otherwise known as subway tiles from their original use in the NYC subway. As I entered beyond the art nouveau façade in a side street of one of Paris’ trendiest areas, I felt as though I had stepped not just inside another era, but I was back in New York. 

Bernice Abbott, Treasury Building, New York 1957
Like the gallery interior, Abbott’s photographs cull and appropriate the past to create her vision of the present. The images of New York City are all 1980s prints of 1930s photographs. They are like nothing we would see in photography today. The clarity of the light, the detail of the silver-gelatin printing process, the play with distinct shape, form, and shading, and the overall perspective of a city in its heyday, tell of a world that no longer exists. Hers is a New York City gone forever, even a she was in the process of recording it. The photographs taken in the old Penn station, of steel grids and lattice formations, a Columbus Circle when Trump Towers could not even be imaged, and a Coca Cola sign that lit up at night were innovations. There were also places depicted that haven’t changed much at all: the Treasury Building with Washington guarding its entrance still stands tall on Wall Street and I am sure a clever tourist could manage to photograph of the Flatiron building so as to captures Abbott’s wonder for its symbolism of this world of modernity. Even if the process of silver gelatin printing creates a light that gives buildings such as the flatiron a dimensionality we do not see in contemporary photography today, we recognize them with ease.
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Bernice Abbott, Columbus Circle, 1938
Apparently, Abbott went back to New York from Paris in 1929 to find an American publisher for Atget’s work. And it’s difficult not to see the Atget in Abbott’s own photographs:  a horse drawn cart in the 1930s side by side with cars, the Fulton Street Fishmarket and handwritten prices outside the butcher shop on 6th Av. were anachronisms even then. Their traces of a New York side by side with the building of the modern city as we know it, offer memories in the present. Abbott further emphasizes the incompatibility of old and new on the same streets and in the same images through a manipulation of light that usually places the old in the dark and the new in a high key light. Together with the swift geometrical lines of these wondrous constructions that gave New York its character and reputation as we know it, her precise handling of the light makes the city sparkle.
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Vivian Maier, Self-Portrait

Also on show here at Les Douches is a handful of photographs by the recently discovered Vivian Maier. The film, Finding Vivian Maier (2013), has now made her a household name so there’s no need to elaborate. However, what’s fascinating in this small exhibition of her work, is that the photographs represent human lives in the exact same places and on the same streets as those explored by Abbott. And yet, Maier’s New York is completely different not only thanks to the focus on the people, but because her photographs are taken twenty years after Abbott’s. In the 1950s, the sheen of all the celebrated building projects of Abbott’s New York has worn off. The wonder and magnificence of the architecture has become old. The city became known for other reasons in the later part of the century. One of them being the uniqueness of its people.  All of the figures and faces in Maier’s photographs colourful individuals. They are singular in the way that only New York City allows people to be. And, unlike Abbott, Maier took a good quota of self-portraits, in the shadows, in mirrors, as if to say “I was here.” If Abbott sees past New York from unexpected vantage points, Maier sees the same city through its unlikely characters. 

Friday, November 18, 2016

Maurizio Cattelan: Not Afraid of Love @ Monnaie de Paris

Maurizio Cattelan, Untitled, 2000

At the Monnaie de Paris, where they still make the coins in circulation today, on exhibition is one of those very rare bodies of work that moves across different audiences so convincingly that it seems incredible. Maurizio Cattelan: Not Afraid of Love was enchanting to children and horrifying to adults in equal measures. Actually, adults moved from curiosity through to revulsion and horror in a very short space of time, while children seemed to approach the works with caution and ease into fascination. Perhaps the best illustration of this comes in our approach to a wax figure of a young boy, kneeling in prayer with his back to us. He is a little inside the doorway of an ante-room in the residential palace. I was intrigued by this figure in the doorway who was surrounded by adults looking down, as if in conversation with him. Their expressions told nothing of the identity of the figure that would only be revealed on seeing his face. Adolf Hitler. And then, face to face, with 
Him (2001), Hitler in a posture of humility and vulnerability, we remain interested and accepting. Then as we process the irony of our condescension towards the great 20th century tyrant, we begin to feel intense discomfort. Rather than feeling deceived, I was horrified at my own attitude of tenderness towards the small kneeling figure.

Maurizio Cattelan, Him, 2001

Another piece that I found very disturbing, one that charmed the many children in the salons the day I visited was Untitled (2007). A horse with no head is leaping through, charging at, or slammed against a wall, depending on how we look at it. How we  perceive the piece will also determine our understanding of the absence of a head: is it already on the other side of the wall, chopped off by its own reckless jumping, or whether was it beheaded by a now absent villain?

Maurizio Cattelan, Untitled, 2007

It’s not just with a play on perspective and a command to look closely that Cattelan challenges his audience. The significance of the figures and objects he chooses (often himself) is also imbued with politics and history. The horse featured more than once—the other was hung from the splendorous entrance to the palace. The horse is of course the symbol of power and privilege of all kinds. Indeed, the taxidermied horses that Cattelan uses evoke all of the power and force of the most regal of animals. But like Hitler, they are beheaded, lynched, made vulnerable and ineffective. And moreover as much as he makes it his business to disempower the powerful, he is engaged in an empowerment of those with nothing. In one small room, again, an ante-chamber, a figure that resembles the homeless on the streets outside, sits covered under a blanket to hide its identity, or perhaps to keep warm. There is no way to see his face, and indeed, perhaps there is no figure inside the blanket. This would make it even more stirring if a blanket covering an absent figure had taken up residence in this palatial 18th century building overlooking the Seine. 

Maurizio Cattelan, Untitled (Gerard),1999

Mention must be made of the diminutive size of the figures of Cattelan himself scattered throughout the exhibition. In case we forgot who was in charge, these figures were everywhere: high above on a shelf surrounded by pigeons watching us below, hung up on the wall by a hook, clearly having been placed there by a gangster, in another room he was in bed with his double, and from behind he might even have been mistaken for Hitler. And yet, he may have been everywhere but Cattelan was always in miniature, revoking his power as the authority of this exhibition. As artist, he was both omniscient and always in the process of disappearing, in the most unique of ways.  

Maurizio Cattelan, Others, 2011 

I enjoyed the exhibition and found Cattelan’s use of the space and significance of Monnaie de Paris to be thoughtful. Similarly, I loved that children were entertained and their parents challenged by the very same works. I also appreciated that each work was given its own room, so that it created an environment and was then able to be created by the audience that surrounded it. However, I have to say, as I wandered around, I was continually reminded of the work of Juan Muñoz, the great Spanish sculptor whose diminutive figures of paper maché, resin and bronze, always moving, always in conversation, always provocative and disturbing by comparison rob Cattelan’s figures of their complexity.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Robert Rauschenberg—Salvage, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Marais

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Robert Rauschenberg, Rollings (Salvage), 1984
Continuing on my Autumn of American postwar modernist painting, today I went to Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac’s Marais space for their appetizer to the Robert Rauschenberg retrospective at Tate Modern, opening December 1. It’s called Salvage, a cryptic title that could be taken in a number of different directions. Of all the postwar American artists, Rauschenberg is probably the one I am least familiar with. Not because his work doesn’t interest me, but more because of circumstance. I haven’t seen a lot of his work since the MoMA retrospective in 2000. 
Robert Rauschenberg, Shade (Salvage), 1984
Salvage is a series of works made in 1984, but there is something about the images that makes me want to see the 1960s salvaged from the shelves of history. There is something, not nostalgic, but many traces of the lost past in both the things that are seen in the images and in Rauschenberg’s technique of silkscreening and overpainting. The remnants of the past in the images are obvious – old cars, statues, old photos, death by hanging, and worlds that have emptied out and become ghost like. In the techniques Rauschenberg uses the past is more difficult to pinpoint. I see the past, for example, in the not fully articulated–ness that results from the screen print process. The visible traces of a blade or squeegee pulled across the screen so easily translate to the remnants of a lost past. In addition, I immediately associate the technique with Warhol and Rauschenberg’s work in the 1960s. Thus, in my mind, even the technique is from another era. And because it’s got the reference to Warhol, I see death everywhere – the repetition of the press photograph ad infinitum, that can only ever indicate emptiness and superficiality. Plus, in the pictures in Salvage there are skulls, tyres hanging from hooks that immediately bring up ideas of lynching, next to a stenciled photograph of black faces. 
Robert Rauschenberg, Razzle Down (Salvage), 1984
I was struck by the relative sparsity of the painted canvas. There is a thinness of paint, especially because we, or I, immediately think The Combines when I think of Rauschenberg. His most famous works are cluttered, filled with things and objects, they are canvases that have things pasted onto them and extend well beyond the frame. Here in Salvage the flatness of screen printing is exacerbated by their contrast to our expectations. Despite the flatness and sparsity, my overwhelming response to Salvage was one of sensing their anger. Again, the anger is generated by the reproduction of violence and decayed scenes from the newspaper. But in addition, there is a proliferation of fences, barbed wire, icons, flags, cars—old, decayed smashed up. Over the top, thin and sometimes thicker layers of overpainting work to mask, erase, and cohere the fragments underneath. It is as though the anger is alleviated by overpainting. However, we interpret them, Rauschenberg’s work retains a political edge, if in a traditional form, that makes these images just as relevant today.

Robert Rauschenberg, Bumpter (Salvage), 1984