Monday, October 14, 2019

Yan Pei-Ming, Un enterrement à Shanghai @ Musée d'Orsay

Yan Pei-Ming, L'Adieu, 2019
This autumn, Paris welcomes one of contemporary art's rising stars, the Chinese-French painter Yan Pei-Ming, into two of its most prestigious and celebrated museums. In this exhibition at the Musée d'Orsay, Pei-Ming's enormous triptych, Un enterrement à Shanghai, made specifically for the museum in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Courbet's birthday, is an interpretation, or better, revivification of one of the early French realist painter's famous, Enterrement à Ornans.
A Burial At Ornans
Gustave Courbet, Enterrement à Ornans, 1849-50
One of the admirable practices of French State museums such as the Musée d'orsay is their invitation to contemporary artists to exhibit or curate within their walls. This is intended to show the ongoing relevance and inspiration of their collections. Some artists, such as Julian Schnabel, who occupied the same rooms at the Musée d'Orsay a year ago, integrate works from the collection into an exhibition together with their own works. Pei-Ming has chosen to paint his own version of a burial by replacing Courbet's dour and depressing depiction of events in Ornan (Courbet's home town), with his mother's burial in Shanghai. Pei-Ming has painted the scene of his mother's funeral in his familiar swathes of grey paint—in every possible shade and tone, applied with brushes of all sizes, rollers, spatulas. Pei-Ming's process is unique: he holds a photograph in one hand and the instrument of painting in the other, glancing at the photograph while he composes on the canvas. While the process is consistent, this and the other two paintings in room 58 at the Musée d'Orsay look to have been painted with different approaches, using different techniques to create diverse effects. In the other two images, Pei-Ming moves from the realist detail of his mother's eyes to a highly expressionist, all but abstract, application of grey paint in a landscape representing the future resting place of her spirit.
Yan Pei-Ming, Ma Mère, 2019
If Courbet breaks all the rules of painting in the nineteenth century, by placing his mother in the central panel of the triptych hung across three walls, Pei-Ming pushes convention and credibility even further. His mother, sensitively painted with soft eyes and delicate hands looks inquiringly out of the painting, and as she clutches at the bedclothes, the sheets could be mistaken as the head of a dying child. The reference to the Virgin is thus assumed. And at 5m x 4m, this painting of his mother is monumental. If Courbet put the everyday world on the map of art history, Pei-Ming blows up the importance of the intimate reality of an ordinary life with an oversized portrait of his mother as a holy figure. Until, that is, we recognize its placement at the centre, inevitably referencing the image most commonly as the centre panel: the dying Christ on the cross.

The first image, Montagne Céleste, is different again. The free and oversized strokes of paint verge into abstraction. I noticed that it was the least appealing of the three tableaux for the visitors, most of whom were fascinated by the burial scene. Of course, this makes sense because its near-abstraction gives spectators little to hold onto. However, I found it compelling; the different shades, the light and dark, the air and the earth are orchestrated across this enormous canvas in a symphony of greys. The predominantly vertical brushstrokes, have the appearance of being painted very quickly, fast and loose, some dripping their colour, others almost transparent with luminosity.
Yan Pei-Ming, L'Adieu, 2019
detail of monks
In contrast, the dark grey skies hanging over the skyline of Shanghai, the monks hovering in the background like spectres oversee a different atmosphere altogether in L'Adieu, the funeral panel. It's difficult not to see the darker  greys as a more foreboding vision of smog and perhaps even the darkness of daily life in Shanghai. That said, like Courbet's Funeral at Ornans, it's tempting to reach for metaphorical explanations, even as the events and their background are decidedly ambiguous. 

Friday, September 27, 2019

Sabine Moritz, Deeply Unaware @ Marian Goodman

Sabine Moritz, Night I, 2019
Sabine Moritz, Night I, 2019
As I perused Sabine Moritz’s abstract paintings on the ground floor of Marian Goodman, I was strangely unaffected. I was surprised that these colourful, highly abstract paintings didn’t appeal to me, but I was not convinced they were doing anything I needed to see or to know about. I have to admit, I was disappointed to the extent that I wondered if Moritz had established her name thanks to her famous husband—Gerhard Richter. I know I am meant to look at her work as independent, but it was difficult not to compare it with the complexity and ambiguity that draws me to Richter’s. Her big abstract paintings are vivid, rich in colour and paint, moving different shades of the same colour in different ways around the canvases. However, I didn’t get the sense that they were doing much more.
Sabine Moritz, Ice, 2019
Sabine Moritz, Ice, 2019

In some of them, we see flowers exploding, and apparently, they have been realized through a unique mode of paint application. I was reminded of Berthe Morissot, another painter who was known because of the men in her life, and indeed, there were moments where I thought Moritz’s paintings resembled blown up details of Morissot’s. Eruptions of colour with large (as opposed to short) expressive brushstrokes were resonant of Morissot’s impressionist creations. However, Moritz’s paintings are flat, superficial, not capturing a complexity of perspective, depth and creating intimacy with their spectator. Indeed, the absence of tension was my problem with Moritz’s paintings.
Sabine Moritz, Sea King 82, 2017
Sabine Moritz, Sea King 82, 2017
I found the figurative works in the downstairs gallery to be more interesting. The four walls were covered in helicopters. The helicopter drawings and paintings on paper are also colourful, but more subtley so. The helicopters dive and float, swooping through skies, hovering above the sea and the city, on unidentifiable paths. At the level of the image, the helicopter series is engaging for its ideas of repetition, exploration of the relationship between history and representation, as well as a resulting reflection on the changing connotation of the helicopter as machine over the years.
Sabine Moritz, Sea King 70, 2017
Sabine Moritz, Sea King 70, 2016
Most obviously, we recall the choppers of the Vietnam war, think of the use of helicopters to deliver first aid, transport the police and the army, the helicopter as a carrier of weapons and parachuters, as well as weapons. In spite of the longevity of the intellectual and technical history of the helicopter as vehicle and machine, Moritz’s drawings and paintings are spontaneous, sometimes intimate and filled with emotion. The resulting multicoloured helicopters hang in the air, fly through the sky, explode like bombs, are sometimes in the process of being effaced from the image, at others heading straight for us. Some of them are just a few lines, others, a frenzy of expressive gestures, flying through moody skies, ostensibly evoking their potential surroundings, their mission. All these qualities meant that the helicopter images were engaging and, for me, redeemed the exhibition.

copyright all images Marian Goodman Gallery

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao

Martin de Vos, The Rape of Europa, 1570-75
On my final day in Bilbao, deterred by all the rules and regulations to be followed at the Guggenheim, I visited the Museum of Fine Arts. I should have known that this museum would be all but empty and the guards relaxed, rather than rushing to berate the visitors for coming too close to or taking photographs of the art works. All round, my visit to the Museo de Bellas Artes was a much more comfortable experience than the Guggenheim and I would really recommend it to anyone interested in escaping the tourists.
Paul Gauguin, Washerwoman in Arles, 1888
The pleasure of visiting this museum begins with the organization of its permanent collection into twenty-six rooms, one for each letter of the alphabet. It sounds hokey, but this innovative way of displaying works, many of which will be little known to visitors unfamiliar with Spanish and Basque art, was delightful and informative. The theme of each room is determined by the letter of the alphabet: Art, Bilbao, Citoyen (Citizen), Desira (Desire), Espejo (Mirror) and so on. The result being that the museum’s prize artwork—Gauguin’s Washerwoman in Arles (1888) hangs in the same room as four Joseph Beuys lithographs, and archaeological finds from the Basque region. Thus, there is no privilege given to, for example, the reputation of the artist, the century in which the work was created, or the artistic material/medium of execution. The hanging encourages visitors to look at everything, to discover previously unknown art works and also to contemplate the connections between artists that, instinctively, we would have thought had nothing in common. I found this dialogue over centuries to be enlightening as well as a great way to examine aspects of the works that we might otherwise ignore.
Antoni Tàpies, Large Oval or Painting, 1955

Of course, there are problems with this kind of exhibition. First and most obviously, there is so much left out of the hanging because it draws attention to thematic elements perceived by the curators while ignoring the historical, cultural and aesthetic particularity of certain pieces. To give one example, in the room called Terre (Earth), Antoni Tàpies, Large Oval or Painting (1955) focuses solely on the role of the earth as material, and overlooks the coming together of paint and the natural environment for expressive purposes in the artwork. In another example, the works in the room entitled War share their space with Goya’s exquisite portraits of the Adán de Yarza Family, and therefore, it was impossible to look at anything else in the room.
Francis Bacon, Lying Figure in a Mirror, 1971
In addition, some of the rooms are more convincing than others. The room themed Desire is wonderful, with images ranging from depictions of prostitution, through Martin de Vos’s magnificent The Rape of Europa, 1570-75, Jose de Ribera’s San Sebastian Cured by the Holy Women, and ending up with an example of Francis Bacon’s delight for pieces of flesh in mirrors. Together, the works in this room raise questions of submission and power, ways of seeing the body, and how both themes change across centuries. Other rooms, however, are less convincing. The rooms devoted to Friendship and Otherness being cases in point. Paintings such as Goya’s portrait of Martin Zapater or sculptures like Jorge Otieza’s of his wife didn’t convince me that they were about friendship. I couldn’t help thinking that any number of art works could have been put in this room and the notion of friendship twisted around the depictions to fit the theme. In a more academic critique, the room labelled “Quiet” shows a number of still life paintings, thus assuming that still and quiet are the same thing. To think of the converse, which is also implied by the organization in this room, I couldn’t help imagining how misleading it would be to think of all those Cezanne paintings as quiet. This history of turmoil, change and confrontation that artists such as Cezanne depict through apples and oranges falling off tables would be completely erased if the still life was indeed quiet.