Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Jannis Kounellis, Boîtes: 1989-2015 @ Galerie Lelong & Co

Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 2005

There is a lot going on inside and around Jannis Kounnellis’s boxes on view at the Galerie Lelong’s rue de Téhéran space. In fact, they are so full that despite their size and their often sparse contents, it’s difficult to take everything in. In typical Kounellis style, the boxes are overflowing with contradictions and offer no stable place from which to understand them. The steel box itself is the first thing that’s all wrong: the box with a  glass face surely references the cabinet of curiosities which is meant to be viewed from above, not hung on a wall. Similarly, in the tradition of nineteenth-century collecting and displaying, the vitrine is usually made of wood, connecting it to the natural world and the natural order of things. The contents of these boxes are anything but natural.

Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 2006
Each box is, on the one hand, deeply personal, and on the other hand, stridently political. Thus, when a woollen sleeve or four worn shoes walk over a splash of paint on paper, we feel the heartbreak of the individual who has lost their clothing. Where are the feet that belong in these shoes? Where is the arm once threaded through the sleeve? The loss and the melancholy of these pieces is overwhelming; clothes without a wearer are always a powerful way to convince the viewer of tragedy. And then when the shoes in question are filled with Murano glass, bound in place with wire like masking tape as if over a mouth, the silence of the missing owners reverberates. With the references to the memorials for public genocide, these pieces move into a political realm. They shift to be about violence, torture and political injustice.
Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 2009
In one of the most frightening boxed displays, a front page of Corriere della Sera has been pierced with shards of glass, and the word Notte with two definitive black lines underneath is written in thick black marker across the page. We read the additions as expressions of an opinion about what is being reported. On the page, Teheran, il pugno dell’ayatollah headlines an article that includes a photograph of a distressed woman, although it’s difficult to know why she is distressed because the marker has written over her image. Yet, the message is clear; the fist of the Ayatollah has consequences that are not all to be celebrated. Perhaps Kounellis as the violator of the paper is highly critical of the evening news, rather than the stories it carries? This would be in keeping with his lifelong concern with moral and social issues that began in his work as an Arte Povera artist.  Similarly, the head of an axe painted in the colours of the Italian flag, wedged in a block of lead might recall Kounellis’s past language -- his recurring creation of Italian flags out of everyday objects, the simultaneous weakness and resilience of lead, for example -- but next to the shoes filled with glass a mandolin filled with coal, there is an anger and a retaliation for manipulation in the name of the State.
Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 2009
Kounellis’s sculptures are often most disturbing because things are all out of place. In the vein of the unusualness of curiosity boxes made of steel, tram tracks have been soldered at midpoint of one box to form a ‘V’ ‘that I interpreted as a V for violence. And so, even though the black splash of paint (reproduced into a lithograph) may be a homage to Jackson Pollock and the later Abstract Expressionists, as is often noted in discussions of Kounellis’s boxes, I watched and imagined black become red blood. The splash as the background of a violence committed has a highly polemical significance; it is not simply black aesthetic gesture. And when a household clothes iron hangs from a meat hook of a kind that we are more likely to find in an abattoir, even though the background is covered in black abstract lines, the thought of the person chocking that has been replaced by an iron is hard to shirk. I started to have trouble breathing as I stood before the chilling contents of this box. Kounellis’s sculpture is mandatory viewing: we get a sense of our own guilt as we look at these works that are so beautiful and sensuous thanks to the materials he uses (steel and paint) but at the same time, they overwhelm with the vulnerability of human emotions, suffering, and mortality.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Tacita Dean - Julie Mehretu @ Galerie Marian Goodman

Tacita Dean, Suite of Nine, 2018

Well, I never made it to the Still Life and Landscape installations of Tacita Dean’s work at the National Gallery and the Royal Academy respectively. But I was fortunate enough to catch the Tacita Dean – Julie Mehretu exhibition at Marian Goodman this week. It’s another interesting concept exhibition in which the work of the two long-time friends is put into conversation in the upstairs gallery and two simultaneously (as opposed to collaboratively) created installations fill the downstairs gallery.
Exhibition View, Tacita Dean - Julie Mehretu
Marian Goodman Galerie
I was not entirely convinced by the juxtaposition as I found it difficult to see the connections in the work. They may be great friends, but their concerns seem quite distinct. What I loved in the exhibition was Tacita Dean’s Suite of Nine, 2018 in which she captures a solar eclipse in nine images. Dean’s familiar use of chalk on nine small slate squares is rendered differently in each piece. The chalk melts into the gouache and charcoal to produce an eerie, unexpectedly intimate view of the eclipse. Each image of the eclipse is different, and because they are displayed in a line, we are, of course, tempted to find the narrative running across the nine pieces. Standing back from the line of slate squares at eye level, I was however frustrated by the absence of logical development in the relationship between the sun and the moon.
Tacita Dean, Suite of Nine,  2018
There is something very cinematic about this set of images –one, lined up next to the other, in a search for a linear narrative on account of their placement, giving  a suggestion, but not delivering on their promise of unfolding in time. Also, the gradations of colour made possible through Dean’s use of chalk, gouache and charcoal on slate are perhaps the greatest asset of the 16mm film in which Dean insists on using.  The tactility of the images that form the piece as a whole reminded me of the presence of Dean’s films, their ability to capture a moment in time, watching it pass at the pace that it needs to.
Tacita Dean, Antigone, 2018
Dean did film solar eclipses in a section of her film, Antigone (2018) which is currently on view at the Royal Academy. The film includes volcanic vents puffing smoke in Yellowstone National Park, floodplains in Wyoming, and other extraordinary moments of nature transitioning between one state and another. In the film, we see gradations of light as the eclipse begins, the sun and moon in perfect confluence, and ending with moon and sun becoming two separate entities. Again, the nuances of light that she captures in the film are reflected on the slate tiles in full spectrum. The sense of movement and a simultaneous newness and always in another time and place are captured as well by chalk, gouache and slate as they are by light sensitive film. This ability to capture things, time, places, the sun and other natural phenomena in transition that make Dean’s choice of material and medium central to the works
Julie Mehretu, A Love Supreme, 2014-2018
While the replication of Dean’s fascination with the cinema is not the point of this exhibition, and the relationship to Mehretu’s work is vibrant, creating a dance-like performance on the downstairs walls, for me, the drawcard is Dean’s love of the tactility of an image that is nothing but the reflection and creation of light on a flat surface.