Friday, December 30, 2016

Kader Attia, Prix Marcel Duchamp 2016 @ Centre Pompidou

Kader Attia, Réfléchir la Mémoire, 2016
The winner of the 2016 Prix Marcel Duchamp, the most prestigious award for a French or living-in-France artist, Kader Attia, is someone to watch. His multi-media installation Reflecting Memory is on display in the newly expanded Gallery 3, together with work by the other three finalists. The French-Algerian Attia's work stands out from the rest for its provocation, empathy and reach between the languages of art, science, history and politics.
Kader Attia, Installation View, Prix Marcel Duchamp 2016

At the centre of the installation is a documentary film, Reflecting on Memory (2016) in which doctors, psychotherapists, a prosthesis engineer, cultural workers, an art historian and a range of other people are interviewed. The interviewees are located across continents, from Lithuania to Paris, to Chicago, each relating their experience and encounter with Phantom Limbs. One health worker tells the story of a patient who complained bitterly of acute pain in his big toe. However, she then asks the off-screen interviewer, what can you say to that when the man's leg has been amputated above the knee? The interviewees discuss the presence and reality of physical sensations that are, in fact, memories of lost limbs. Another therapist tells of a patient who was silent, always. He explains that silence causes anxiety for those who live in its midst, and if the trauma is not worked through and healed, it will be passed on to the next generation: silence means that the children must deal with the "phantom limb," which in this case is a traumatic historical experience they themselves never had.

Kader Attia, Réfléchir la Mémoire, 2016
An African-American professor of theatre from Northwestern University talks of the absence of mourning for slavery in a culture in which slavery still exists. Even if it looks different from pre-Civil War slave labor on cotton farms and Sunday lynchings in town, indeed, even if it is not visible, exploitation and victimization is carried within the contemporary African American body and heart as a memory of their people's treatment by institutions and authorities. All of these different "phantom limbs," serve to create connections between people who might otherwise appear to have nothing in common, people who might not understand the burden of others' trauma. Reflecting on Memory demonstrates that as people we are all in this together and our traumas, whether with individuals or carried by a community, are shared.

Kader Attia, Installation View, Prix Marcel Duchamp 2016

In one of the most powerful interviews, a strikingly beautiful young man talks about his upbringing in France by an Algerian mother. The man tells of his practice as a choir boy, his baptisim, confirmation and so on, as she insisted on his education within the catholic church. For him there was no arabic spoken as a child, clearly as his mother made sure her trauma was not passed onto her son. However, as we know by this point in the film, it's not that simple. As he goes on to explain, the silence of the past must be unearthed and addressed if healing is to happen.
Kader Attia, Réfléchir la Mémoire, 2016

Perhaps the most powerful few minutes of the film come at the end—because the film is shown on a loop, the revelations may come at the beginning—when we learn that a number of the interviewees are in fact missing a limb. Though the discussion throughout has been about the use of mirrors for the rehabilitation of pain caused by a phantom limb, it came as a complete surprise to me that the people appear to have both legs or arms thanks only to the use of mirrors. In the end when the mirror is removed, and the figures are shown with missing limbs, of course, we look at them differently. But not in the same way that we would if we had not just spent the past 30 minutes learning of the stigmatization and pain endured by the phantom limb. The film shows these are brave and extraordinary warriors against so much more than their physical ghosts: their absent limbs come to symbolize the injuries of slavery, genocide, terrorism and the collective and individual injuries that befall us all. Thus Attia's film dismisses all notions of difference between "us" and the abstract "them" when it comes to suffering and loss. And for that reason alone, Reflecting on Memory makes a powerful statement in a contemporary political climate that would have us believe the very opposite.  

Images from Réfléchir la Mémoire courtesy Lehmann Maupin, and Galerie Krinzinger. Photo Credit Kader Attia @Adago, Paris 2016. 
Installation View images courtesy Centre Pompidou

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Gordon Matta-Clark @ Marian Goodman, 79 rue du Temple

Graffiti Photoglyph
Gordon Matta-Clark, Subway Graffiti
The press release for the Gordon Matta-Clark exhibition at Marian Goodman’s Marais gallery places architecture at the centre of the installations, photos, films and drawings. This conception of his work draws on his education as an architect. However, it’s not the first thought or connection that came to mind as I wandered through this lovely exhibition. I would rather describe them as being about the creativity and energy of destruction, decay, and demolition. Architecture is too rational a categorization for the multi-form, shifting experimental work of Matta-Clark.

Conical Intersect
Gordon Matta-Clark, Conical Intersect, 1975
Seeing the work as it is presented here—clustered around two New York films (Day’s End, 1975 & City Slivers, 1976) and two Paris films (Conical Intersect, 1975, and Sous-Sols de Paris, 1977)— it might better be described as being about transition. In all the work, not just the films, but photographs, drawings, and collages, he is preoccupied with movement and the energy of the ephemeral, the ineffability of process and that which is otherwise not seen. A series of drawings downstairs each have arrows in the middle of the page, as if the general thrust is to keep moving towards the next one, until eventually, we are in another space. In the films we see the emergence of the light, water and life through holes gouged out of walls, floors, structures that are already in a state of demolition and decay.  Matta-Clark makes demolition to be a beautiful thing. In Day’s End, 1975 for example, he intervenes in the remnants of 19th century industrial architecture built on a pier over the Hudson River along Manhattan’s West Side. This project involved both cutting the corrugated metal exterior and carving the ground until eventually sunlight penetrate and flow through the barriers.
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Gordon Matta-Clark, City Slivers, 1976
The works also focus on historical transitions. In a film that witnesses today seems quite devastating but at the time was acceptable enough to be carried through, Matta-Clark’s team hollows out a hole in a wall of the 17th century buildings being demolished to make way for the Centre Pompidou. Through the hole, the construction of the Pompidou is the focus of Conical Intersect, 1975. And once again, this simultaneous destruction and construction comes together with film, sun and light to create a somewhat romantic vision of a modern demolition. This is what would be considered the form of architectural fascination, but to me, it’s more a construction of something hopeful in the wall of a building whose destruction seems like a tragedy today.

Gordon Matta-Clark, Day's End, 1975
Matta-Clark has been quoted to assert that his art is about the absences and interstices, a concept that is captured in City Slivers, a film made to be projected onto the side wall of a building. In it we see the world of New York City pass by in the spaces that have been left by walls that do not meet, the gap made by the avenues carved between skyscrapers as the camera looks up into the light, the view from a window left open. There are also plenty of mirrors, reflections from windows, water, and the masking of the frame by walls, poles and shadows to create slivers of absence. Once again, even as the film is about the non-spaces that can be found and created by film, the magic of reflection on the surface of the film becomes a glorious abstraction that brings presence.
GORDON MATTA-CLARK, CONICAL INTERSECT 1975: incision through two adjacent 17th-century buildings.:
Gordon Matta-Clark, Conical Intersect, 1975
The films are magnificent, and there’s no doubt, Matta-Clark is using film at a time when film is at its most exciting. In the 1970s American film is interacting with the world and the New York City and the camera come together to discover things that neither would know on their own. In particular, here in Matta-Clark’s work we find movement, energy and ephemerality at a time when New York City is also changing and being challenged by the end of industrialization and economic disaster. Along these same lines, though made in a different medium, Marian Goodman also displays some of the subway photographs. Matta-Clark photographs the subway car in black and white and then hand colors his own graffiti, making a historical trajectory between now and then, across the length of a subway car in a series of images that are mounted as a frieze on the wall. And towards the tail end of the subway car, as it moves downtown along the rails, the image becomes blurred, just as it would if it were moving along rails, or in a film. Again, we see movement and energy and a world that never sits still.

Matta Clark’s is compelling work at an historical moment when everything is in flux and we struggle to come to terms with the post-industrial malaise of a post-capitalist world.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Fantin-Latour. À fleur de peau @ Musée du Luxembourg

Image result for a fleur de peau fantin latour
Henri Fantin-Latour, La Lecture, 1877
Fantin-Latour. À Fleur de Peau, the title of this exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg is—unusually for Paris—spot on. The best works in Fantin-Latour’s oeuvre as it is presented here are definitely those featuring skin and flowers. A handful of the most delicate and fascinating works greet us as we enter the exhibition. A series of small self-portraits show the young Fantin-Latour in the process of discovering his identity as a painter and the identity of his canvases. In each, the figure is in different stages of shadow, painted from different angles of vision, with varying degrees of certainty. The series of self-portraits c.1858 -1861 at the entrance show his development, a tentative exploration of painting that is so loose that his uncertainty seems to fill every stroke.  And then towards the end, in 1859, the Bordeaux self-portrait, depicts Fantin-Latour’s dissolving face as though he is holding a camera and turns it around on himself. The direct address to the viewer is startling, particularly as it follows from the face turned away, unsure of itself.

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Henri Fantin-Latour, Autoportrait, 1860
In addition to the early self-portraits, the most striking portraits depict women reading. A silence surrounds women in their own worlds, and even when there are two figures in the painting, they never interact. Their self-absorption isolates them against unremarkable backgrounds. The women in these works often hold something—a fan, a glove, a paint brush, a pen, as if their hands are occupied so they are not tempted to touch, or to reach outside of themselves. The single sitters—both men and women—like Fantin-Latour’s well-known group portraits tell of the reverence for culture in the modern world: reading, reflection, absorption, indicating a world in which culture is always put above sentiment. The alienation and isolation of modern life pervades these lonely sitters and their apparently lonely lives. In a way, this coldness makes the intimacy and emotion of the earlier self-portraits even more remarkable.  

The Reading (1870). Henri Fantin-Latour (French, 1836-1904). Oil on canvas. Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon.:
Henri Fantin-Latour, La Lecture, 1870
Fantin-Latour paints the same thing over and over and over again,  to the point where, by the end I was wondering if indeed, his paintings were original. Of course, he was a name on the French art scene, but he didn’t receive the same acclaim as those he painted: Rimbaud, Verlaine, Manet and Zola. In this exhibition, we see him continually referencing/inspired by/copying masters. The famous group portraits aside, it’s difficult to see what Fantin-Latour brought to the development of modernist painting in his time. It’s true that the paintings are lovely, but we have seen the poses before, we know the fall of light on the young artist’s face from Rembrandt, the profile of a woman against a grey background from Whistler, the woman reading from Vermeer. In addition, Fantin-Latour seems to do nothing without a model, suggesting an unswerving attachment to realism.
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Henri Fantin-Latour, Roses dans une couple, 1882
That said, some of the paintings of flowers are beautiful, rich in their colour and filled with an expression that makes flowers into people. In fact, the flowers are warm and emotional where the human figures are cold and isolated. Unlike the portraits of people, Fantin-Latour gives the flowers a range of emotions, a look, a knowledge of being observed, they even might be said to confront the viewer. There is always a flower that looks out of the portrait and implores the viewer to take pity on it, to notice it. Like the woman who is in her own world, the one flower is often lonely, in its own reality. While the portraits are filled with greys and taupes, even the women’s dresses are muted in their colour, which has the effect of not distracting from the sentiment of the study, the flowers are radiant. They are in pinks and whites, purples and their leaves of deep greens, so intense that they are tempting. They are exquisite, luscious and filled with desire.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Cy Twombly @ Centre Pompidou

Cy Twombly, Sculptures @ Pompidou
I feel very privileged to have seen so much of Cy Twombly’s painting in the past few years, and it’s a treat to see another major exhibition. The sheer uniqueness of the work must be reason enough for people to flock to see this retrospective at the Centre Pompidou. I kept thinking as I walked around the vast retrospective that no one was doing what Twombly did, anywhere, in the 1960s and 1970s, in particular, in America, or in Europe. The lines, sometimes gentle, sometimes aggressive and violent, the reflections in paint, the erasures and changes of mind, all of it amounts to a body of work like no other. And my sense is that the uniqueness of Twombly’s work is what makes it difficult for the visiting public and art critics alike. Compared to the 75 minute lines to enter the Magritte exhibition, the Twombly rooms were empty. Also, the singularity of Twombly’s work might account for an exhibition that had its high and low points, an exhibition in which some aspects are unforgettable, others unforgiveable.
Cy Twombly, Nine Discourses on Commodus, VII, 1963
To begin with the remarkable high points: the most exquisite paintings of those I had not seen before were the Nine Discourses on Commodus, 1963. I have always thought the references to mythology on Twombly’s paintings were difficult to discern. Probably because they give narrative and order to works, often in a series, that are fully abstract. I went to the Pompidou with an artist friend who confidently exclaimed, “oh, but he just added those titles to satisfy the art market.” I am still trying to grapple with this idea: what if, after the pages and pages of critical exposition that search for the hidden layers of Twombly’s meaning, the endless books, the indecipherable critical essays, what if the references to mythology are no more than a throwaway crowd pleaser? And, along these same lines, what if the writing in pencil on the earlier canvases is no more than a graphic element? What if? If we jettison these inaccessible layers of history and mythology supposedly strewn all over these canvases, as spectators are we freed from the intense process of trying to understand what is, in the end, just a painter moving across a canvas?
« “Night Watch” est l’une des premières peintures grises, dites “blackboards”, qui inaugurent une nouvelle direction dans l’art de Twombly, marquée par l’austérité et l’économie de moyens. Elle fait partie d’une série de trois peintures qui voient le motif de la fenêtre évoluer vers une construction spatiale. »
Cy Twombly, Night Watch, 1966
 Without the complicated stories of an arcane Roman Emperor, the Nine Discourses on Commodus become about blood and shattered hearts. Although the cycle was hung in a room of its own, it didn’t have the movement and force of its linear display at the Guggenheim Bilboa, and so we were left to see the cycle as a collection of individual paintings, which they are not. They begin with the entrapped white form, in a Bacon-like cage, and move through the bloody, then bleeding, and onto the shattered hearts. The text accompanying the cycle notices its concurrence with the Kennedy assassination in 1963. As an historical event, the sweep of the car through Dealey Plaza is visible through the increasing energy of the clotted, coagulation of paint as it begins to bleed and drip down the canvas. The paintings are heart wrenching. Like so much of Twombly’s work, The Nine Discourses on Commodus are, to me, about the body. Twombly’s persistent concern for the inseparability of the body and paint, the body and the emotions painted. All through the works on display, and indeed, all of Twombly’s paintings, is the presence of the artist’s hand. Even when the prints of his painted fingers do not appear on the canvas, the movement of the hand across the canvas is always carrying the energy of the paintings. And so, it makes sense that Nine Discourses on Commodus are a representation of intense pain, torture, even death, and the bloodied body in paint.
Cy Twombly, Fifty Days at Iliam: Shades of Eternal Night, 1978
There are too many other works in this exhibition for me to write on all those that inspired me. Instead, I will say that I came away with a new appreciation of Twombly’s sense of the space of a canvas. Of course, we might want to draw connections between his use of the canvas and that of Pollock, or even de Koonig—there is always the temptation to see Twombly’s work within the context of Abstract Expressionism—but the way he uses the canvas is his own. There are always layers and levels to Twombly’s work, even the apparently blank or untouched areas of the canvas, that are meticulously measured with a sense of the life and emotion of space. Critics want to talk about the mathematics and logic of Twombly’s inscriptions in chalk, wax and pencil. But I am more interested in the space around these markings. For example, in Fifty Days at Iliam (1978) the white where oil, crayon, graphite, paint haven’t marked the canvas is as rich in its luminosity and intensity as the uncertainty of those spaces where blue and red and black have not gone. Again, these ten works may be about Homer’s Iliad, but I don’t understand them as an allegorical response to history. Twombly’s series seems more interested in something internal and eternal to nature. And simultaneously, the works explore the rhythms and pulsations and explosions and tensions in the apparent absence or the places where nobody looks.

« Après une période sous le signe d’Eros, Cy Twombly se tourne, dès 1962, vers Thanatos. Dans cette “peinture d’histoire”, il interprète une scène clé de l’“Iliade”, d’Homère où Achille pleure la mort de son ami Patrocle, tué par Hector dans les murs de Troie. »
Cy Twombly, Achilles Mourning the Death of Patroclus, 1962
So ultimately, it’s true, Twombly’s work might be difficult and abstract. However, perhaps more than any of the other postwar American painters, the way to approach Twombly is through getting quiet, and looking at the lines, at the way they interact with the intense moments of thick oil paint, the never quite empty spaces around them. The paintings and drawings might be about rage, or might be about a sense of the movement of time, of the layers of history and story, rather than the substance of a particular legend or story. And lastly, despite the museum’s claim that the sculptures stamp him as an anti-colourist because they are objects covered in white plaster, Twombly is devoted to colour. Throughout the oeuvre, colour is everything. I doubt he would use white paint without meaning. This is why the spaces are so important, because they are full, even if they are full with white. There is no such thing as a void on Twombly’s canvases.