Sunday, October 28, 2018

Mary Weatherford, I've Seen Gray Whales Go By @ Gagosian New York

Mary Weatherford, The Gate, 2018
Despite the narrative titles of Weatherford’s works, it’s difficult to see past the overwhelming physicality of painting that is everywhere present in these latest paintings. The result being that they work equally as abstract and figurative canvases. On entering the gallery, we come face to face with Cock Robin (2018), and are drawn in by the large swathes of green paint that have been applied to the canvas with a sponge. Weatherford likens her process “to that of a child playing with silt in the bottom of a rain puddle,” and it’s not hard to imagine her moving the paint energetically over and around the canvas. Each enormous gestural mark is executed in a colour that is typically kept separate from the others, spanning a range from dense dark concentrations of paint to transparent washes. Interestingly, the paint at its darkest and densest is never thicker, only darker, thanks to do Weatherford’s process of pouring water on the canvas before adding pigment, and then working the colour around and over the surface. 

Mary Weatherford, 2018 (2018) 
As I say, Weatherford’s body is always present to these huge paintings that she created specifically for Gagosian’s flagship New York space. While the application of paint appears smooth and continuous, each gesture reveals the physical effort involved in the often full body-sized sweeps. In some cases, we see traces of her hand having manipulated the paint. Looking at the fluid curvaceous marks on the canvas, it’s not just the presence of the artist, but the enormous energy of painting, the physical demands of interacting with paint on canvas that are revealed. This energy and strength in the application and motion of paint makes Weatherford’s work more contemporary than Mitchell’s paintings. If for no other reason that the expanse of the application of paint require huge canvases—a sign of their contemporaneity—appearing at home in the converted parking garage that is Gagosian's gallery space.

Mary Weatherford, Cock Robin, 2018
And then, across, down, or around the very painterly expressionist, coloured gestures Weatherford places a neon light of a different colour. The neon works all at once to rupture, illuminate, to violate and to rationalize the painterly expression. And at the same time, the neon is another colour, functioning as another application of paint. Visitors will be reminded of Dan Flavin’s neon tubes responding to their environment by changing colour and forcing our confrontation with our own vision. But Weatherford’s use of neon is different because the thin glass tubes are strategically laid on paintings, not on walls and floors. Similarly, the neon never erases or invalidate the painting, rather it ruptures, creates conflict, always maintaining the principles of interaction.

Mary Weatherford, I've Seen Gray Whales Go By
Installaton @ Gagosian
Together with the neon, Weatherford exposes the electrical wires that lead to the neon, extending paint and colour beyond the four sides of the frame. The wires create patterns as the works spill out onto the shiny gallery floor. This gesture is an extension of painting into our space, the real, three-dimensional world. The painting is thus engage in this process of mirroring and doubling, while at the same time technology has colonized painting as representation.

Mary Weatherford, GLORIA, 2018

Coming back to the narrative titles, the works reminded me of nature interrupted or violated by technology. It’s difficult not to see a forest of trees in 2018 (2018) or The Gate (2018). In these paintings, the colour green in all its variations verges into black and blue, as if taking us further and further into a lush forest. They do not seem to be representative of an actual place, but are more likely exploring the feeling of being in nature. The single line of blue neon becomes like an incision, its colour bleeding over its edges to taint the forest. The choice of the neon colour is everything; blue cuts through the forest, a soft pink and baby blue come together to create a gentler, nevertheless, still disruptive ethereality on a diluted red surface on another canvas. While the stark contrast of the blue on green and white on red creates violence and rupture, the pinks are absorbed by the delicate colours around them. 
And so, for her first big show in a blue chip New York gallery, Weatherford has exhibited an impressive selection of works. Certainly, she is an artist who deserves to be moving up in the estimation of the art world.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Joan Mitchell, Paintings from the Middle of the Last Century, 1953-1962 @ Cheim & Read, Chelsea

Joan Mitchell, Mandres, 1961-62
One of my best afternoons in New York was spent gallery hopping in Chelsea in the rain. After a disappointing visit to the Mary Corse exhibition at the Whitney (view from the roof excepted), it was time to head for more reliable old favorites in the galleries. At the top of my list was the Joan Mitchell exhibition at Cheim & Read. Despite my gushing responses to Clyfford Still’s paintings in Denver, there's still room for me to claim Mitchell’s work to be Abstract Expressionism at its most challenging, and simultaneously, beautiful.
Joan Mitchell, Slate, 1955
Inside these frames we see the steady control of an artist who is completely in charge of a composition that boils over with the unexpected and the aleatory happenings of paint colours and strokes colliding on the surface. At their source we recognize some deep emotional place, producing at times chaotic and at other times the calm, colourful strokes of paint on clearly defined canvases. In this, Mitchell’s work captures everything for which Abstract Expressionism became famous. Sometimes the strokes are short and almost hatched, and at others, they bear all the characteristics of light arabesques, nevertheless imbued with an unfathomable energy.
Joan Mitchell, Untitled (Blue Michigan), 1961
Standing before Mitchell’s paintings, the viewer is invited into her world, experiencing the immense frustration and inner conflict, the tears, soft warmth of the heart, and tenderness of emotions. Even the painted surfaces shift from delicate strokes making the work appear vulnerable, to the strength of frustration and turmoil, making us wary of the maelstrom. It was curious to see how many different styles Mitchell produced, making the paintings appear to have been made in different periods of her development. Works such as Slate (1959) display assertive and relative definitiveness of line while Mandres (1961-62) is agitated and uncertain, showing a suffering that cannot be overcome. And then it would seem that the those in the back rooms with their areas of single, muted and bleeding colours such as Untitled (Blue Michigan) (1961) are from a completely different period. But not so. Mitchell is one of those rare painters from this period of American art who uses multiple different techniques and styles concomitantly.
Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1953-54
I was surprised to find something quite traditional and conventional about Mitchell’s work – the size and centering of the composition, the fact that she uses paint and explores the possibilities of paint. This discovery no doubt came as a result of having seen Clyfford Still’s huge and very unconventional paintings the previous week. The longer I looked, the easier it was to see that Mitchell applied paint in very different, far more concentrated ways from Still. Mitchell rubbed the paint with her finger, threw it onto the canvas from the end of a paint brush, allowing the excess to drip, like tears, to the bottom of the frame. So for all of the conventionality of the tight compositions and framing, the works are unusual for the multiple ways that Mitchell applies paint, and the enormous variety of brushstrokes that result. They are sometimes very delicate, at others, staccato and angry. For Mitchell, the application of paint is a process that emphasizes the physicality of painting and the centrality of the artist’s body to the eventuality of the composition. And this leads to a painted surface that, for all its difficult emotions, is usually thick and luscious. There is much to mesmerize about before Mitchell's work, and just as much to touch thanks to its dense materiality.

All images courtesy of The Artist/Cheim & Read

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, Colorado

Clyfford Still, PH-623, 1929-30
Visiting the Clyfford Still Museum in downtown Denver, I felt like a pilgrim. It was the highlight of my trip to Colorado, and one of the most memorable experience of my American travels. 95% of Still’s paintings are owned and held at the museum, meaning that the only way to see and understand the work is to journey to Denver. The artist stipulated in his will that the works must stay together, and that they must be located in the American city with the courage (my word) to house the entire collection of something like 800 works. After years of back and forth, Denver became that lucky American city. They contracted a Portland architect firm, built a concrete building to house the paintings, with a light-flooded exhibition space to show them. I recognize that this is abstract painting and is not immediately accessible to a wide ranging public, but the experience of being in the space itself, surrounded by Still’s enormous paintings is ethereal and exhilarating. I suspect that even skeptics of abstract art are transported within these walls.
Clyfford Still,  TO1498, 1953
Even though there is limited exhibition space—with only nine galleries—and we therefore see only a fraction of the holdings, the museum affords a compelling experience of Still’s oeuvre. Like a chronological display of any artist’s work, we get a sense of where he began, what his concerns were, and how the execution of those concerns changed over the course of a lifetime. At the top of the stairs as we enter the first gallery we are met with paintings of the harsh landscape that surrounded him in his younger years. In a painting such as PH-623 from 1929-30 we see the tension between the vertical and the horizontal, the agitation of paint, the struggle ignited between different versions of the same color, the introduction of a color that upsets the otherwise serenity of the space around it. The resulting sense of rupture, an unsettled and sometimes tumultuous emotional state and the feeling of a harsh exterior reality are already dominant on the canvas of his early work.

Clyfford Still, PH-77, 1936
As the display continues throughout the next five decades of Clyfford Still’s production in paint, these characteristics both become more prominent on the canvas and more subtly expressed. Thus, colors erupt out of a completely different color, disturbing them, changing them, transforming them into something they could never imagine being before the process was set in motion. And so we see in a work such as PH-1034 (1973), all the turmoil and agony of red with black at its centre, bleeding into the red around it, making it dark and dirty. But before he reaches these imagescapes of total abstraction, we have to wander through the early work of the 1930s. Grotesque figures with oversized breasts and emaciated bodies, hands and feet like those of monsters, suffering their fate as workers. The vision is depressing and verges on the apocalyptic. Of course, the obvious reference is to photographs of Walker Evans, but Still’s figures show little compassion for these exaggerated human figures.
Clyfford Still, PH-1034, 1973
Then in the 1940s the figures merge with the landscape until bodies and lands become abstract forms in a hostile universe. But we never forget the agony of the 1930s paintings. Throughout the galleries, the deep inner turmoil and painful conflicts remain on the surface of the canvas. Initially, the darkness comes literally, as great swathes of thick, lush black paint with little or no other colors let alone glimpses of canvas dominate the image. At best, lightning bolts of color—white, yellow, red, green—cutting through the surface of paint rather than offering hope on a horizon. When colors other than black fill the space of the image, they are often brooding, reflective, before their form is violently shattered by a line in another color. Critics discuss Still’s paintings as landscapes, but this seems to me to be only useful as something to hold onto, something to stop ourselves falling into the brutality and aggression of these early works. If they are about landscape, the paintings are not literal representations, but more like the feeling aroused by standing in the middle of a vast and brutal expanse of snow, desert, or on an unending plain.
Clyfford Still Museum, Allied Works, Denver
It’s not only the colors that are in struggle on Still’s most incredible canvases, but the multiple techniques for applying paint create tension, to the point of anger, on the surface of the image. Black can be thick and velvety, or it can be thin, like tears and rain, expressing some kind of disturbance or upset that has nothing to do with itself. No color is a single color, and no color is a single texture, a single material. The pigments are delicately applied with a thin brush, dripped, smudged with his hands, built up with a spatula, then diluted. This is an artist who searches throughout his oeuvre for ways to apply paint, to use it, manipulate it to express the most masculine of energies, and emotions. Paint becomes anger articulated out loud, danger, fire, storms and flight from the scene of chaos and confusion.
Clyfford Still, PH-960, 1960
As Still grows older, more mature as a painter, probably more tortured and more driven as a man, the amount of paint on the canvas diminishes. It remains very carefully and deliberately applied, but with its growing sparsity, the overall composition becomes increasingly complicated. Each painting is like a world unto itself in which the gamut of emotions is run, from peace and serenity to a raging anger in the agitation of what may be a few strokes of paint to the side or falling off the bottom of the canvas. At a distance, the works can appear pretty and aesthetically pleasing and then when we move up close, they are disturbing and disturbed by the penetration and infiltration of other colors, by the dense texture of a frenzy of reds, for example. Even in the final paintings which his daughter who is the curator for this installation of the work claims he was at peace, we are struck by a collision of color when the whites meet on the canvas, when the ochre form is sliced open by the blue line in a work such as PH-960, 1960.
Clyfford Still, PH-665, 1968
In contradistinction to the man’s name, this is painting that is constantly in motion across fifty years. It is forever going somewhere, but the destination never arrives. As visitors to the museum, we are drawn into the almost frenetic, and at times, pensive search for this something. Each painting is a world unto itself, and as we stand before it, we cannot help but get caught up in its powerful energy, its ups and downs, and the surprising turn of events that unfolds before us, over time. And yet, they are a family of paintings who belong together, make sense together in their own narrative across Still’s lifetime. Like any family, we see them argue with each other, contradict each other, and yet, lay the grounds for the next painting to be born. The museum likes to say in the wall plaques and literature that Still was unique in these heroic abstract narratives of colour. I am not so sure: he may have been isolated from the art world, but there’s a reason Clyfford Still’s painting  sits at the center of what is known as Abstract Expressionism. His paintings depict the emotion of abstraction at its most exquisite, in a body of work that nevertheless speaks at every turn with the masterpieces of Motherwell, Newman, Frankenthaler, Mitchell, and de Kooning.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh's Perfect for Runners
My first ever visit to Pittsburgh offered insights into an America that I rarely encounter, and yet, one that we are all too aware lurks around every corner. I was in Pittsburgh the week following the senate hearings for the new Supreme Court Justice. And yet, I found people whose lives could not have been less connected to the drama of their politicians in Washington if they had tried. As a gritty, one time thriving industrial center, Pittsburgh is a city in transition, and with that, displays a growing emphasis of the divisions between rich and poor.
Carrie Furnace from the Homestead
I ventured out to Carrie furnaces and what is left of Homestead where the steel strikes took place in 1892. As is often the case with old blast furnaces and steel mills, they were located outside of the city and weren’t easy to get to. The journey to Rankin on buses and walking through the surrounding areas gave me plenty of opportunity to observe the social results of industrial decline. The American economy may be booming, but for many of the people I encountered, there was no sign of prosperity on the horizon. I asked people sitting on their porches with broken glass in the windows and overgrown gardens for directions to the furnace that it turned out was less than a mile away. They had no idea of what I was talking about. Once there, it was wonderful to see the great things that Rivers of Steel are doing with the mines. Their activities and tours tick the obligatory boxes of both reaching out to the community as well as educating visitors on the history of mining and milling. They run art classes using the materials of Pittsburgh industry – keeping the culture and history of industry alive in the region—have open days, stage concerts, talks, and guided tours. But getting there meant confrontation with the heartbreaking reality of America.

On the other end of the economic scale, Pittsburgh is still dominated by the Titans of Steel and Industry. There’s no mistaking who built the city: Carnegie, Mellon, Heinz, and families such as Rooney and Frick. Their wealth dominates the very skyline of the city, with their names displayed on the buildings, and when they weren’t, it’s clear their success defines them. The magnificent US Steel Tower in Grant Street with its 840 ft of exposed corten steel made at the Homestead works being a case in point. It stands tall and proud, the icon of Pittsburgh’s success. I understand that the family businesses all adhere to a philanthropic mission, but one can’t help noticing their dramatic contrast with the world surrounding the manufacturing plants.
Warhol - in the space between abstract and figurative
I was disappointed by the Warhol museum, perhaps because I have been spoiled by recent exhibitions at the Musée d’art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. I appreciated the crowds on a Sunday afternoon, telling me that the museum was alive and well. But presumably for the interest of the crowds, the exhibition installation was of a certain genre.  It was possible to appreciate his enormous creativity and his neverending curiosity, always ready to experiment in a new medium, to discover new ways of making his point. One thing that I love most about Warhol is how he was a fine artist – some of his photographs and even the paintings have a passion and ethereality that is otherwise antithetical to his renown as the don of mass cultural vision. This side of Warhol’s art is more difficult to identify in what is effectively the fun house atmosphere at the Warhol museum. The emphasis is on Warhol’s work as entertainment with interactive displays, crayons and paper for kids, an opportunity to sit before a camera and enjoy 15 minutes of fame, sit back and watch Empire and Sleep as if they are images on a museum wall, and other such activities. I missed the side of Warhol the artist that is necessarily omitted by the museum’s display.
Otherwise, I loved running along the Allegheney River. The views were amazing and the blue skies always a reminder of what they are not, that is, filled with the fires of the steel mills. Many of the local people I met were delightful, showing what I deemed a nearly mid-western friendliness mixed with east coast open mindedness and worldliness. There were also interesting, experimental art exhibitions with works by young and emerging artists, indicating that Pittsburgh is a city on the move. The cost of living and the available spaces would surely make it an attractive option to the more economically prohibitive New York. That said, Pittsburgh still has a way to go before becoming a cultural capital or artistic mecca. Though it definitely warrants a “watch this space” sticker, I hope that it also strives to grow in the social equality and justice espoused but not always practiced by the most esteemed of its industrialist ancestors.