Friday, March 23, 2018

Sheila Hicks, Lifelines, @ Centre Pompidou

Sheila Hicks, La Sentinelle de Safran, 2018
Sheila Hicks’ art is unusual in the context of 20th century American art. Her work is always made with textiles, most often silks, yarns, linens and cottons. And yet, the works speak directly to the developments of modernism that have taken place around her over the past 80 years. It’s unusual to find an oeuvre that engages in this twofold way—both adhering to and departing from—the avant-garde of its time.

Sheila Hicks, Atterissage, 2014
I found myself constantly seeing what the work was not. Looking at sculptures constructed out of yarn and seeing a man and a woman, or recognizing the sun rising over the horizon in an installation of balls of orange, yellow and red yarn collected in a corner. Many of the installations either appeared visually to mimic the patterns of nature, or with a little imagination, they transformed into the natural world. Knowing Hicks is from Nebraska, I also kept wanting to see the American desert in the images. Certainly, her use of a palette of earth tones encourage the similarity to the land. A series of boards covered in yarn were perhaps the most obvious example of a merging with a history of art that they were not. These works occupied the interstice with the color field abstractions in paint of the 1960s and 1970s.

Sheila Hicks, Lianes de Beauvais, 2011-12
The question I kept asking myself as I persisted in seeing the works for what they were not, was: Why? Why is it that we don’t have a language with which to write about fabrics as the substance of modernist art? And I know it’s not just me who has this problem. See, for example, Lauren Collins recent article in the New Yorker. Three quarters of this article is a discussion of Hicks’s biography, not her work. We know that a male artist exhibiting at the Centre Pompidou wouldn’t be written up as a quaint octogenarian surprised at the size of the crowd, and nor would so much space be spent on his wives. This goes without saying.

Sheila Hicks, Lifelines @ Centre Pompidou
Installation View
And yet, I want to resist the idea that Hicks's work is difficult to write or talk about because it is made by a woman. For me, what makes Hicks’s sunrises and waterfalls, abstract canvases and prayer mats difficult is actually their modernist use of the fabrics. That is, she not only uses the softest of yarns and silks, fabrics and rafias to create abstract shapes imbued with visual qualities shared with nature. But in addition, the textures and shapes and overall visuality can be harsh, forthright, and in their ability to defy gravity by standing tall and independent, the sculptural formations are powerful. There is nothing sweet and soft about these objects, nothing that would connect them to the expectations we have of their materials. And the empowerment they give to the visitor who navigates his or her way through the installations is what makes Hicks's sculptures significant. 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

David Goldblatt @ Centre Pompidou

David Goldblatt, Two people buying bus tickets in PUTCO, Pretoria, 1983

I was blown away by the exhibition of David Goldblatt’s photographs at the Centre Pompidou. I have seen his work before, but never within a retrospective that traces the arc of his career. This overview of the oeuvre is necessary because his life’s work follows the troubling history of the region in South Africa where he was raised and lived. And like Goldblatt’s photogrtaphs, while the history of late twentieth century South Africa might be familiar to all of us, when it is seen in these photographs it takes on a whole new level of meaning. As they are laid out here, the photographs tell a devastating and sobering story.
David Goldblatt, In the Blacks only bus on the way to work at 2 am in segregated Pretoria, 1983
The exhibition begins with Goldblatt’s photographs from the series On the Mines. Here we see the gaping chasm between the lives of the white industrialists and the black workers. Every aspect of the black workers’ oppression is documented by Goldblatt, from the danger of the work itself through the 8 hours of travelling to and from the mines thanks to the zoning laws that did not allow blacks to live in the cities. In images that represent a privileged access to black South Africa for a white man, Goldblatt’s images extend to the effects of racism on every aspect of the lives of black and white alike, the shape of their communities, the physical landscape, and the identity of South Africa. If ever there was a question about the poisonous results of racism, Goldblatt’s photographs remove all doubt.
David Goldblatt, from On the Mines, 1973
To give one example, there are a few photographs in which the miners are shown as a group, from behind, working on lowering the apparatus into the shaft. Their heavily clad figures are hooded and blurred through their motion and, we presume, the difficulty of getting close to their working bodies. Their facelessness, and their representation as if they are being wiped away from the image are in stark contrast to the single shots of the industrialists and the mine owners in the perspicacity of key lit, day time shots, in which they sit well-dressed in luxurious offices. The extremes of their lives are thus accentuated through the photographic composition.
David Goldblatt, Schubert Park Pretoria,  2016
Goldblatt captures the devastating and wide ranging ways that violence and racism are inscribed in and on the social and individual body politic. For example, in the images of Kas Maine, we see a poor —but unusually lucky—black farmer, his land and his meagre possessions and shelter crowded into a dimly lit frame. The series of the poor farmer directly follows a series of images in which official public buildings and monuments from the colonial years onwards emphasize the sleek lines, modernist structures of the outward facing South Africa. Similarly, we see white people in their gardens surrounded by infinite space, light and the glorious South African climate made visual. The freedom and power of the white man and the structures of his authority are shocking visions of white supremacy next to the crowded darker frames of Kas Maine’s farm showing the limitations on his movement, his ability to work and succeed, let alone move beyond his circumstances.
David Goldblatt, Kas Maine series, 1974
Even images that depict black people are working in the more recent photographs of post-Apartheid South Africa are disturbing. Huge malls are not shown as a world that we would want to visit or live in, despite the light, space, and the claim to be post-apartheid, non-segregated South Africa. In an image of a Soweto mall car park, a black man collects trolleys while a white woman sits in her car. Yes, the two may be in the same image, but still today, they are hardly equals.

Goldblatt's images and their political opinion are not without complications in South Africa. None of the tensions and discussions about the ethics of a white man building his career and renown on images of black men are addressed by this exhibition. And neither are Goldblatt's vociferous and not always unanimously accepted political views. However, this is a viewing must for those of us who have not previously acknowledged the brutal reality of Apartheid South Africa. There's no escaping it at this excellent Pompidou exhibition.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Kader Attia & Jean-Jacques Lebel, L'un et l'Autre @ Palais de Tokyo

The Culture of Fear

Kader Attia is one of the most interesting young artists working today. I first saw his work when he won the Prix Marcel Duchamp in 2016. That said, his latest exhibition, l’Un et l’autre, at the Palais de Tokyo is completely different from the works displayed at the Centre Pompidou in Reflecting on Memory, primarily because it is a joint venture with the older French artist, Jean-Jacques Lebel.
Attia and Lebel with The Culture of Fear
The blurb at the beginning of the exhibition claims that this is an encounter between the two artists/thinkers rather than an exhibition. Although I am not sure of the difference between an encounter and an exhibition, I do think it would be more accurate to call l’Un et l’autre, a document of an encounter. What we see here are theobjects representing the convergence of interests of two generations, one a French artists steeped in the traditions that motivated the radical art of the 1960s, and the other a French-Algerian whose work speaks to today’s most pressing issues: colonization, migration, social, sexual, physical non-conformism, and so on. To me, this exhibition is a visual equivalent to listening to a fascinating conversation between two artists.
L'Un et l'Autre
Display of objects made from found materials, 

The cohering principle of l’Un et l’autre might be the social construction of the other, a concept noted in the title. However, this is both too general and too specific a description of the dense intellectual ideas visualized in objects and images. The exhibition’s centerpiece is a scaffold of steel shelves supporting magazines from different decades of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in which the language and images of violence and evil are revealed through juxtaposition as fully socially constructed. When violence is done to the African other by France, the colonizer, it is understood and accepted as a form of taming the uncivilized. When the Taliban and ISIS strike the western world in the 21st century, a mass violence on a similar scale is labelled and treated as terrorism by the evil. The juxtaposition of the magazines across history, countries and the inversion of perpetrators and victims, paints an all too humiliating picture of the way we have manipulated the story to place us on the moral, political, and social high ground. And of course, the western obsession with categorization, archiving, ordering, documenting is embraced and then turned upon itself in an installation that reveals the mendacities hidden by such practices.

Dan sickness mask
Around the central space, there are objects, objects once used for violence and war that have been transformed into objects for everyday use. For example, a chair made of rifles, a beer mug made of the of ammunition casing, and German coins recycled into ritual objects by the African colonized are now transformed into objects of wonder. And then, perhaps the most fascinating of all the displays are the sculptures drawn from “the archive,” which really means found and retrieved from the oddest of places. There are some really curious objects such as twins from the Christmas Islands in which two heads have one male body and a female sex, confronting us with questions about the apparent progressive sexuality only now being accepted in the West. In this traditional culture the fluidity of sexes and genders is worshipped. In a series of “sickness masks`’ in which the face of the physical or mental condition of the patient is made visual on the face. As the wall text explains, the polarity between the western myth of facial perfection—often constructed by a surgeon—and this culture’s aestheticization of illness, representing the celebration of individual uniqueness.
A Chair made of Knives and guns
Beside each display, a small video shows Attila and Lebel in conversation about the objects contained therein. The video gives an explanation of the provenance of the object, its use, and the reasons for its inclusion. In addition, the discussion ensures there is no possibility of missing the point of the provocative wider dialogue of objects and artists. Ultimately, this fascinating exhibition shows the journey of cultural appropriation—both through objects and people—and critiques integration into our own value systems to create collective memories that are not ours to create. Along the way, we are alerted to the violence of everyday life, the use of things and people in an effort to appropriate power through economic, political, visual and poetic discourses.