Thursday, March 17, 2016

ART: Armory Show 2016--My Picks

Early March in New York means showtime for art all over the city, as galleries from America and around the world mount displays in many separate venues. Of course, Armory Show originally conjures up the famous (and shocking) 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art, held at the 69th Regiment Armory between 25-26 Streets...but that was over a century ago.

Much later, in 1989,  the Art Dealers Association of America used an armory further uptown, the Park Avenue Armory at 67th Street, to mount high-quality exhibitions of Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art.  I didn't attend this year, but here is one critic's recommendations of what not to miss.  I also didn't attend the several satellite art fairs, such as Independent New York, Pulse New York, Art on Paper, and Spring/Break Art Show.

The Armory Show that I did attend this year was started in 1994 when several dealers took over some mid-town piers on the Hudson River to launch the annual Armory Show.  Here one can see the work of artists from around the world, represented by more than 280 galleries.  Pier 94 shows mostly contemporary work.  Pier 92 shows mostly modern work (focusing on 20th century material). Pier 90 (Volta) focuses on solo projects by contemporary artists.

 Below are my choices, based purely on personal preference and on what images jumped out at me, "spoke" to me if you will, as I made my way down the aisles.





Sisley Xhafa, Wyatt and Sky, 2016: Pier 94, BlainSouthern Gallery.

This cowboy mannikin with helium balloons did NOT speak to me, except to say "betcha can't find nuthin' sillier'n me here, buddy." Well, I probably could if I looked reel careful-like...



Man Accompanied by "Art Poodle:" Pier 92.

...such as this feller dragging along his wheeled Art Poodle. Were his head turned sideways, you also would see his long, upturned, proboscis-like, artificial nose. He was merely one of several people who chose to attend in the guise of some live, "artsy," Dada kinetic sculpture.



Gallerist at Work, Pier 94, Josh Lilley Gallery.

I couldn't help myself with this quickly-composed shot, intended to create an adossed pairing with Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (aka. Whistler's Mother).  What can I say? The art historian may be long-retired, yet still lurks deep within my aging bones!

The small mosaic painting on the wall spoke nary a word to me; however, the gallery also exhibited a fairly interesting, larger painting by--I believe--Anne Lapin.  My apologies to her; I passed her up to capture this composition while I still could. 




Aboudia, Gri Gri III [L], 2011 & Inside Out Fox with a Cowboy [R], 2016, Gallerists, Pier 90, Ethan Cohen Gallery.

This photograph, too, is as much about a composition with two gallerists as it is about the art behind them. Aboudia's paintings have a certain raw power, but they don't hold me as much as the other artist being shown by Ethan Cohen Gallery; I'll return to his work later.

Aboudia Abdoulaye Diarrassouba is from the Ivory Coast and lives in Abidjan. His work responds to the civil war that ravaged his country, beginning in 2010.  He is one of many artists from Africa whose work has been given special attention at this year's Armory Show. I assume that the title of the big painting, Gri Gri III, alludes to an African Voodoo amulet one wears to dispel evil, although that same word--grigri--is also a rope braking device used in rock climbing.  In either case, the painting's subject would appear to be about protection.





Alfred Leslie, Theodoric [far L], 1959 & The Red Band [far R], 1959-60, Pier 92, Hill Gallery.

These two paintings by Alfred Leslie begin the presentation of "My Picks."  Leslie was a member of the New York Abstract Expressionists and developed a personal style of strong, gestural brushwork defining an asymmetrical balance of irregular oblong forms. I recommend this site for access to more of his abstract paintings.

It's refreshing to encounter such powerful abstractions from the period of Newman, Kline and DeKooning by a painter who is clearly their artistic equal. Leslie didn't enjoy the fame of his peers, in part, because he turned to representational painting after 1962 and also put some of his creative energies into filmmaking.

Born in the Bronx, Alfred Leslie is still alive (so I believe) at the age of 88. I can think of no creative artist more deserving of getting inducted into the Bronx Walk of Fame on the Grand Concourse.




Robert Rauschenberg, Nagshead Summer Glut Sketch, 1987, Pier 94, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac.

This wall sculpture includes the center section of a bicycle frame, with pedals, the tail section of a small airplane, two steel tricycle (?) seats facing each other, and some aluminum poles. All the material is salvaged, rusted, oxidized, or reveals some other clearly decrepit condition.

It's a whimsical assemblage, the making of which was never meant to function as another mode of transportation, for example. It is simply a transformation of industrial detritus into art. Rauschenberg began his series of Gluts in 1986, after a visit to Texas. The state was then suffering through a recession because of an excess glut of oil on the market, and the artist saw his Gluts as exposés of our culture of greed and waste.  He called them "souvenirs without nostalgia."





George Segal, Wendy with Chin on Hand, 1982, Pier 92, Galerie Thomas.

By the time I came upon this simple and gorgeous life-size, cast bronze by George Segal, patinated white to resemble his earlier plaster sculptures, I had been through many booths of overkill. 

I had seen Kehinde Wiley sacrifice his early charm for paintings of the most outlandishly-monumental scale.  I had seen large Cecily Brown watercolor/monotypes surrounding a formal arrangement of Barcelona Chairs to create a setting of utter elegance, but the art was unexpectedly boring and soulless.  I had seen a walk-in, interactive painting by the Brazilian, Delson Uchôa, and had to wonder what could possibly be done with it later, and I had seen an electronically-activated, 20+-tentacled, plastic "octopus" by Shih Chieh Huang that would require a large, permanently-darkened room for its display (see this link for some of these examples).

Then came Segal: a right hand resting on a right shoulder; a head turned gently to the right, fixing chin on wrist. In actuality, this would be a pose for a contortionist, but the resulting statement is one of peace and pure elegance. 

I suddenly found a sympathetic understanding for the critic, Louis Vauxcelles, at the Salon d'Automne of 1905. After wading through the challenging new paintings of Matisse, Derain and Vlaminck, he saw an academic sculpture and uttered: "Donatello chez les fauves."




Ilse D'Hollander, Oostende, 1996, Pier 94, SeanKelly Gallery.

Elegance and peace are also hallmarks of this small abstraction by Belgian painter, Ilse D'Hollander.  Its smaller scale (20" x 18") separates it from the bolder works of the earlier, American color field painters, some of whose work it otherwise resembles. Unfortunately, D'Hollander committed suicide at the age of 29, the year after she made this painting: a talent tragically cut short.




Hugo McCloud, Untitled, 2016, Pier 94, SeanKelly Gallery.

This larger abstraction, also shown by SeanKelly, bears little resemblance to D'Hollander's work. It's big; it's brash; it's surface is textured; and every so often it seems as if its innards are seeping out. His support is not canvas; instead, his support, those "innards," is roofing tar paper. See this video link by Kristen Boatright (4:34) for more insights on his painting and process.

McCloud goes at his support with knives, grinders and torches as well as roofing metal, aluminum, copper, black tar and paint. Using wooden blocks, he also stamps and creates intaglio indentations on its surface, thus suggesting a lost elegance by its underlying embossed pattern. McCloud's painting, to me, is like a great wine; it reveals a subtle palate with long-lasting complexity.






Elias Sime, Tightrope/Trios, 2013, Pier 94, James Cohan Gallery.



Elias Sime, Tightrope/Trios, 2013, detail, Pier 94, James Cohan Gallery.

This is a large piece, its three panels measuring 70" x 142." Although it resembles a landscape taken from an airplane, it is not a painting. It is a collage, a sculptural assemblage made mainly from old circuit boards, electrical wires, capacitors, transistors and computer input ports.

Elias Sime is Ethiopian, and his material mainly comes from the open-air recycling market in Addis Ababa. This work is one of a series called Tightrope, which he worked on between 2009-2014. It most clearly resembles the threshold between urban and rural environments, revealing in particular the complexity of the urban environment, seen here in the lower half of the work.




Matthew Monahan, Son of a Gun, 2016, detail, Pier 94, The New Museum.



Matthew Monahan, Son of a Gun, 2016, detail, Pier 94, The New Museum.

The New Museum booth contains twenty plexiglas boxes in which are displayed a three-quarter-view drawing of a generic man's face. Artist Matthew Monahan made at least 3,200 offset prints of this face, since each box contains a block holding 160 tightly-bound sheets of this drawing.

This is not the final work of art, however, shown in a edition of 20. Rather, Monaghan makes each boxed piece unique by shooting through the back of each with a .45 caliber revolver--between one and three times.  In the detail of two of the boxes shown above, the figure in the closer box gains a third eye as the top sheet has fallen away; and so, this piece assumes a family resemblance to some 1930s drawing by Picasso.  In contrast, the different bullet penetration of the more distant box (here I suspect at least two bullets) has turned that placid face into a grimace of fear.

What is so special about this work is Monahan's use of the gun as a tool for the making of art.  There is a large body of gun art, but almost all of it is sculptural and involves the welding and assembling of guns, rifles, and bullet casings.

One might say that Monahan offers a new take on the "shot heard 'round the (creative) world."




Francisco Matto, Totems, 1960-1988, Pier 92, Cecilia de Torres Gallery.

Uruguayan Francisco Matto was born in Montevideo in 1911 and was mainly self-taught. Whether in painting, cartoon drawing or sculpture, as here, he showed a wonderful ability to focus on the most elemental of forms.

These totems are delightful, simple, straightforward, and yet possess something mysterious. Here are their titles (and dates), from left to right:  Máscara (Mask, 1988);  Universal Man (1988);  Tablas de la Ley (Tables of the Law, 1979);  U (1970);  Caracol (Snail, 1985);  Serpiente (Serpent, 1960);  Venus, 1969. 




Eric Aho, Ilves, 2014, Pier 92, DC Moore Gallery.

Eric Aho began as a plein-air painter of landscapes, and even as his paintings grew in scale, and as he necessarily abandoned the outdoors for the studio and became more abstract, the idea of landscape remained paramount. 

Light, naturally, is an essential component of landscape. And once technology gave artists paint in tubes and, then, the field easel, the Barbizon and other 19th-century French painters took their easels outside. But to paint big, as Aho does, one must retreat to the studio. 

Still, all of Aho's paintings are about light, and the light he depicts speaks of the outdoors and nature. The light that textures what look like pillows of snow in the foreground of Ilves appears natural, as does the light suggestive of a distant background in the upper right. At the same time, much of the painting's surface is activated by bold brushwork, much too large to be depicting actual objects. This is an abstract painting, after all, even if it evokes nature. Moreover, somewhere in it, or at least in Aho's memory, is a Eurasian lynx, which is what ilves means in Finnish.  




Gerhard Hoehme, Near the Ceiling (Bend over the Earth), 1969, Pier 92, Beck & Eggeling Gallery.



Gerhard Hoehme, Mediator E (Zwischen Zahl und Brief), 1977, Pier 92, Beck & Eggeling Gallery.

The simplicity and boldness of these two paintings caught my eye. But what really stopped me was their resemblance to an important aesthetic of the 1950s-early 1960s championed by such major artists as Robert Rauschenberg, Alberto Burri and Eva Hesse. 

These three artists, in particular, challenged a prevailing doctrine of their time, that of "medium specificity," as promoted by critic Clement Greenberg.  For Greenberg, any competent painter must remain wedded to paint and so respect the flatness inherent in placing paint on canvas or panel. 

The challenge posed by these three artists (pictured below) altered how we think of a painting today, as they attacked the sacredness of the canvas surface and built out from it with all manner of non-paint and everyday objects.

Rauschenberg gave us a new form of painting as well as coined the word for them, Combine Paintings:


Robert Rauschenberg, Canyon, 1959, New York, Museum of Modern Art


Burri, beginning with his Sacchi, stitched together old burlap bags as just the first of many ways that the European Art Informel movement challenged the aesthetic canons of high art:



Alberto Burri, Composizione, 1953, Rome, Città di Castello


Eva Hesse worked her way out of Abstract Expressionist painting by embracing Minimalism through the application of rope, string, wire and other found objects.  In this case (see below) she even dispenses with the canvas, simply retaining the stretchers (which she has wrapped with cloth):



Eva Hesse, Hang Up, 1966, Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago

It's hard not to think of Hesse's title as the ultimate snub to Greenberg's "hang up" over his insistence on the formality and inherent flatness of painting.
  
And here, on Pier 92 in 2016, I confronted the spirit of these major artists in the work of Gerhard Hoehmea German artist I had not known.

His work, Near the Ceiling (Bend over the Earth), fills the canvas with the heavy tache, or abstract brush-mark, that goes back at least as far as Cézanne:




Paul Cézanne, The Garden at Les Lauves, 1906, Washington, D.C., Phillips Collection

Then he suspends a wire over the painting. This wire, as I see it, takes the general form of a catenary, a form that ideally is devoid of any stresses or bending moments. There is much to make of this seemingly simple piece.

Hoehme's other piece, Mediator E, the subtitle of which can be translated as Between Number and Letter, consists of a big gesture of acrylic paint over stretched damask (its pattern can clearly be seen), two stitched patches, and two wires ending in some sort of roughly-molded plastic material on a lower ledge. Everything about this piece asks us to rethink the meaning and purposes of painting.





Gonçalo Mabunda, Thrones and Masks, n.d., Pier 90, Ethan Cohen Gallery. 



Gonçalo Mabunda, Mask, n.d., Pier 90, Ethan Cohen Gallery. 



Gonçalo Mabunda, Mask, n.d., Pier 90, Ethan Cohen Gallery. 



Gonçalo Mabunda, Mask, n.d., Pier 90, Ethan Cohen Gallery. 

Remember my fourth photograph of the two gallerists seated in front of two pantings by Aboudia?  The same gallery was showing this work of Gonçalo Mabunda. In 1992, while still a teenager, Mabunda began to collect the detritus of a civil war that had been going on ever since he was born.

The material for his sculpture includes bullet magazines, AK47s, cast-off revolvers, grenades, pieces of rocket launchers, casings from anti-tank and anti-aircraft bullets, and old pieces of cluster bombs. He welds them into highly expressive masks and symbolic thrones: in the words of the gallery handout, "a fantastical iconography derived from African fetish traditions rendered in rusting steel."

Interestingly, even though all this material is rusting and has been decommissioned, one American collector has been waiting for more than half a year for the Philadelphia Customs and Border Patrol to release one of Mabunda's thrones that he purchased. The collector mulls over the insanity of his dilemma within America's undisciplined gun culture: "I can buy a real AK-47 five minutes from my house and have it after a two-minute background check. I can buy decommissioned grenades and shells on Amazon.com for $12.99.... I am still waiting for a chance to meet my throne."






Tim Kent, Self, 2016, Pier 90, Slag Gallery.



Tim Kent, Self, 2016, detail, Pier 90, Slag Gallery.




Tim Kent, Interference, 2015-16, Pier 90, Slag Gallery.



Tim Kent, Interference, 2015-16, detail, Pier 90, Slag Gallery.

The paintings of Tim Kent take us in a completely different direction from those of Hoehme (or Burri and Hesse, et.al.). By this I mean, through the manipulation of paint alone, he manages to lure us deep into the fictive space behind the canvas (or linen). Look, for example, at the detail directly above. We see rushing water and waterfalls. We see a masonry wall, and on that wall we see a standing figure. Now, look at the photograph of the full painting above this. The detail depicts a tiny section to be found half way up the left side of the full painting. Yet, spatially, Kent's full painting seems to draw us in miles deeper than the point where this man is standing.

The space of Kent's paintings is seductive, an effect derived from his masterful handling of linear perspective. Yet, he goes on to undermine the control of that perspective by changes of scale and by passages of heavy, abstract brushwork. He also confuses our sense of space by conflating representations of built environments with those of the natural environment in ways that challenge all logic.

These works are seductive, as I already stated. Yet I worry that Kent's newer works are becoming too complicated and are conveying some sort of personal mythology with hidden meanings that tend to draw the viewer away from the pure visual power which reigned supreme in some of his earlier paintings.






Amy Schissel, Double Standard, 2016, Pier 90, Patrick Mikhail Gallery.



Amy Schissel, Double Standard, 2016, Pier 90, Patrick Mikhail Gallery.



Amy Schissel, Double Standard, 2016, detail, Pier 90, Patrick Mikhail Gallery.



Amy Schissel, Double Standard, 2016, Pier 90, Patrick Mikhail Gallery.

Finally, and maybe my absolute favorite work in the Armory Show are these drawings by Amy Schissel in the Volta section. Were this roll of paper to be opened up completely, it would stretch for forty-five feet. As we can see, it is seven feet in height....and is all drawing.

Schissel, who is Canadian, here works with graphite, ink and acrylic. She has covered both sides of her paper with her mark-making. Some of what we see is linear and graphic, mainly a pattern of lines connecting nodes. Other sections are much more painterly, depicting some indistinct, atmospheric landscape. But even within that more tonal landscape, we also find those radiating lines at work.

Were it not for that skein of lines that penetrate everywhere, the more tonal sections have some of the effect of those Odyssey Landscapes, painted ca. 50 b.c. that were discovered on the Esquiline Hill in Rome. Her linear network defines its own deep space, one intended to represent a cartography of our new, digital world. To quote from the gallery brochure, Schissel "reinvents our contemporary landscape, fostering a sense of civic legibility where the World Wide Web calls us to be everywhere yet nowhere at once."

Let me return to the fact that this is really an enormous drawing. In it, Schissel evokes some form of deep, amorphous space. One can easily stand in front of Double Standard, get lost in its depths and become a space traveler on an interstellar voyage. Only Jackson Pollock's drip paintings offer this same experience.

Stand in front of a work like Number 1A, for example (not even one of his largest), and buckle your seat belt:



Jackson Pollock, Number 1A, 1948, New York, Museum of Modern Art

What's particularly interesting is that Pollock's drip process created a skein of lines that made his paintings more like drawings.  His linear sweeps, often continuing beyond the edges of the canvas, gave a new definition to the painting surface.  Pollock essentially obscured the boundary between drawing and painting. Amy Schissel, some 60+ years later, accomplishes something similar.