Sunday, July 14, 2019

Sally Mann. A Thousand Crossings @ Jeu de Paume

Sally Mann, Deep South Untitled (Scarred Tree), 1998
Sally Mann is one of my favorite photographers, and so I was excited to see the touring exhibition, Sally Mann. A Thousand Crossings come to the Jeu de Paume. It’s apparently the first full scale exhibition of her work, ever. It may be that all the photographs did not travel to Paris, but for the first full scale exhibition of Mann’s work, I was surprised at the relatively small scale. Indeed, a number of the photographs of her children that I find most interesting were not included; images of the children without clothes, provocative, performing precociously for the camera. When Mann first published these photographs a controversy raged that accused her of making pornographic images of her own children. The images included of her children in Sally Mann. A Thousand Crossings are much easier to view, their naked bodies placed further into the background of the photograph, thus ensuring the contemplative, as opposed to confrontational, status. 
Sally Mann, Deep South, Untitled (Stick), 1998
That said, for me, the highlight of the exhibition was her photographs of the deep south landscapes. In the 1990s, Mann set out with her 8 x 10 inch camera and tripod, journeyed alone through the land of the country that gave her a white privileged identity: Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and of course Virginia where she grew up. Mann went searching for the violence, suffering and death that her country was built on. The results are hauntingly beautiful landscapes, filled with ghosts and spirits, sometimes looking like burial grounds, at others as though the dead souls still hover over the earth. In addition to being about death, destruction and injustice, the images of the south are about time: their surfaces show the time it takes to shoot a photograph, and we cannot help but notice the time that has passed since the events that scarred the land. And because her camera seems to capture the spirits still breathing, we are confronted by the fact that time has stood still, nothing has changed since Emmett Till and his people were brutally slaughtered.
Sally Mann, Emmett's Story, 2007
A particularly profound photograph shows a tree with a scar that may have healed, but looks as though the wound could open at any moment. The tree bears the open wound of an America that has never made reparations for its treatment of its African American slaves. Let alone all those who were once and continue today to be beaten, savaged, provoked, and murdered. The tree is a direct reference to Gustave Le Gray’s Beech Tree (1855-57) both for a composition that cuts off the top of the tree, and also for the tree’s animation as the sign of all that it has witnessed. Mann’s debt to the nineteenth century is also underlined by her use of the albumen print process for this series, a process that enables her to invoke the presence of the past on the surface of the photograph. 
Sally Mann, Blowing Bubbles, 1987
In the early 2000s, Mann went in search of the battlefields of the American Civil War. Again, because America has never formally acknowledged its racial history, particularly the murder of those who fought in the civil war as well as the flogged and the lynched, the raped and the stolen, of course their sprits continue to haunt the landscape. It is as though Mann waits, sitting still in the silent landscape, until the past and its secrets come to her camera. The power of these haunted landscapes is so overwhelming that I felt tears well up in my eyes. History is caught in a broken branch, a shadow falling across the image, and also, in the flaws of the image that come with the nineteenth-century collodion process. For this series, she began her process of coating a glass plate with collodion, taking the photograph before it dries, and then bathing it in silver gelatin, to bring light to the exposure. The uneven distribution of collodion on the plate, the leftover presence of dust and other impurities on the glass, and the chance of the drying process give birth to the spirits that ravage the landscape and the surface of the image. While many of Mann’s images show a radiant light, even in the darkest of landscapes, the images speak the tragedy of America. 
Sally Mann, Memory's Truth, 2008
Later in the 2000s Mann started to photograph her husband’s body deteriorating from a muscular dystrophy. However, what is most striking about his body is not any revelation of its fragility, but its vulnerability and fragility in the eye of his wife’s camera. Knowing of their relationship, the photographs take on added power. Because in his naked body revealed to the world, it is as though their intimacy and love, his trust of her and her respect of him are made visible. His atrophying body is nothing like the image of strong, powerful men we are told are attractive, and yet, because his body is infused with Mann’s love, respect and tenderness, it is powerful. In the fall of light on his back, the delicate curve of his torso, or in the discovery of the veins on his arms, this body is so overwhelmingly beautiful. 

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Thomas Houseago @ Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

Thomas Houseago is said to be a major figure in international sculpture, and though his work is certainly unusual, I was somewhat disappointed by this exhibition, Almost Human. The first couple of rooms were exciting because the works were so unique: deformed, misshapen sculptural creatures, desperately trying to move through the world in uncomfortable bodies. The figures were like a cross between Georg Baselitz’s enormous wooden sculptures, crying out to be noticed, Constantin Brancusi’s sensuous human corps without faces, and survivors of Dante’s inferno.

In the first room, I was enthusiastic about the discourses Houseago engages with: questions of the fragility of the human body, abjection, the body as a shell that, contrary to how we behave towards it, offers no more than flimsy, if any, protection. Houseago’s bodies stand awkwardly in their own skin, painfully aware of their disfigurement, thus inciting our compassion. I also enjoyed seeing  the unique way that he uses plaster and other materials. Plaster enables Houseago to mold and manipulate unfinished figures, figures that the museum text called sculptural sketches. Certainly, the notion of the sculpture as a living, breathing, always unfinished process, or an abandoned object was innovative. Also, Houseago’s plaster, hastily covering hemp with exposed frayed edges, filled with graphite scratches and scribbles contributed to the unique notion of sculpture as drawing. In a later room, a series of black paintings placed opposite masks scrawled on white canvases, extended the suggestion of sculpture as a scribble, as an idea in gestation.

Other works in the exhibition that I found conceptually, if not aesthetically, interesting were Houseago’s masks. Some were sculpted, others carved into two dimensional painted surfaces, still others scribbled onto canvases. The masks in wood, plaster and steel were said to refer to African cultures, particularly because they made no reference to or discourse on the face behind the mask. Rather, they engaged sculpture as a performance, or perhaps even an expression of the unconscious, or a symbol of life stages. Visitors will also see Picasso’s masks and figures in the shapes and expressions of these Houseago masks.

However, the later rooms of the exhibition were less convincing. There were enormous sculptures like creatures from science fiction movies, their faces on extended necks towering over us mere mortals. These creatures were frightening, as were the totem-like figures hacked out of large slabs of wood. There were also pieces that reminded me of the strange spaceships from science fiction movies, looking like wombs with vaginal openings. All around them are weird figures whose forms continue on from those in the earlier rooms thanks to their sense of being unfinished, or abandoned midway through. These later works were distinct though because the bodies were supported with iron rods, suggesting their constructedness, making them verge into architectural structures. They were very strange. As the exhibition moved on, the figures seemed to suggest increasing violence and aggression. Whether it was in their form being hacked out of a piece of wood or a giant head with scaffolding for a body, the works in the later rooms were very unsettling, less compassionate, and for me, less compelling.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Imran Qureshi, The Seeming Endless Path of Memory @ Thaddaeus Ropac, Pantin

Imran Qureshi, Love Me, Love Me Not, 2019 (on left);
Love Me, Love Me Not (Diptych), 2019
Imran Qureshi’s painting, now on exhibition Thaddaeus Ropac’s Pantin gallery, in The Seeming Endless Path of Memory, is an art of opposites colliding, connecting, flowing into and out of one another. No matter how I looked at this compelling exhibition of otherwise abstract painting I saw doubling, splitting, folding, repetition, and contradictions: each opposite comes alive through technique, form and associations both within a single painting and in their turn to the world outside the gallery. It’s a fascinating body of work that, while potentially familiar to audiences in other parts of the world, is little known here in France.
Imran Qureshi, The Endless Path, 2018
Querishi is Pakistani, an identity that influences and shapes the paintings in ways that I am not able to comment on. For example, the titles of a number of the works on exhibition are taken from the poetry of Pakistani Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984), and other works are drawn from the ornamental motifs of the miniaturist style that were traditionally commissioned by the Mughal Emperors (1526-1857). 
Imran Qureshi, The Leprous Brightness, 2019

However, even without these references, visitors will be struck by the range of emotional extremes the artist invites us to experience in front of the works. Many of them are about bifurcation, folding and doubling, but on another level, are violent and aggressive, filled with anger and destruction that can be seen in, for example, the explosions of red paint on unsuspecting surfaces. Then, while immersed in the same extreme emotional register, we notice a blooming flower emerging, that, in turn, becomes a heart at the centre of the image, from which waves of serenity reverberate. Over time, the flowers transform into explosions of paint, like fireworks erupting on the canvas. And before we know it, they have morphed into a memory of Anselm Kiefer’s ashen sunflowers hanging their heads before the tragedies they have witnessed. And like Kiefer’s sunflowers, there is always a glimmer of hope somewhere on Qureshi’s canvas. For example, in Love Me, Love Me Not, 2019, a delicate blue line, like a vine filled with life climbs the length of a bloody red stem, suggesting that there will always be regrowth, even after the most tumultuous of blasts. In other paintings, the explosion is so filled with dynamism and movement that there is no question life will continue even before the memories go cold.

Imran Qureshi, Separated, 2019
Speaking of memories, the title of the exhibition, The Seeming Endless Path of Memory, and the obvious references to trauma, death, murder and other violence in the show, would suggest the dominance of the past in the present. However, the application of paint, the sense of a journey to the inside of the human body, or even the impressions left on the canvas that resemble Yves Klein-like bodily movement, bring the paintings into the present. Qureshi’s unique application of paint to large canvases makes it look as though it could have been splashed on just yesterday. The large red paintings are also evocative of birth, of creation, especially when gold leaf covered egg shape supports are splattered with thick red paint, reminding us of ovaries or even unhatched eggs. Like the narrative of birth, the egg-shaped twins are as much the bloody mess of emerging into the world, about separation, division, where no half is ever the same, but always dependent on the other half, as they are about coupling, of unity, of the perfect understanding and fluidity between one half and the other. Like the single canvases which are all actually two stuck together, the paintings are about the yin and the yang, the impossibility of having one without the other: two halves of the same whole. 
Imran Qureshi, Do You Remember Still, How It Was Once, 2019 
And then we learn that some of the works – particularly that of an open Koran splattered in red – remember the shootings at the New Zealand mosque in March 2019.  Even still, it is impossible to enter Thaddaeus Ropac and not be reminded of blood splattered floors and walls that are the result of a mass murder. The red is dripped over the canvas, giving very little density to the paint, even when the area becomes dark. But with the knowledge of the artist’s expression of the Christchurch mosque massacres, the works start to become a serious critique of the ones who killed. The implication becomes that without those muslims, the 49 victims of mass slaughter, the ones who did the killings are nothing. When every half depends on the other for completion, to kill the enemy is to kill one’s self. 
Imran Qureshi, This Day and The Anguish of This Day, 2019

Visitors will also be reminded of Yves Klein’s works. Not only for the resplendent cobalt blue, but the traces, smudges and smearings of paint that recall the mistakes, the humanness of the application of paint. The body, both inside and out – its symmetry, imaged across two canvases is like an echo of Klein’s “Anthropometrie” series from 1960. Other of Qureshi’s paintings have the impression of brightly coloured x-rays. The inside of the body is on full display in blue, red and gold. But it’s the blue that most reminds us of Klein. Blue is the sea, the sky, and that long history of art that privileges lapis lazuli and gold, articulating the preciousness of painting which is, sadly, inseparable from the economic exploitation of painting. Blue is the landscape, blue is the history of a bird flying across the sky, blue is the wealth of the history of painting on a single canvas. 

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.