Monthly Archives: December 2014

Nights and Days of Chris Ofili and Benny Andrews

In recent days I have posted on Facebook galleries of photos from recent exhibitions I’ve just seen, with a brief text which I typically write quickly, just enough to give readers a quick sense of the work. Since Facebook’s algorithm is notoriously unreliable, I thought I would republish two such brief reports, about works I saw in the past two days, especially since the works presented here propelled me into the studio, an effect of art work that I particularly noted when I began this blog. As is often the case, happenstance unexpectedly reveals thematics. This is a case in point.

Sunday December 21 * Here are some pictures of my visit to Night and Day, the Chris Ofili exhibition at the New Museum. I should say my first visit because I intend to go again, this is a show it is a pleasure to spend time with and the works make you spend time. I very much wanted to see the show although/because I haven’t seen that much of Ofili’s work, and my attitude was in a sense neutral because on the one hand I am not necessarily a fan of a kind of stylized style of figuration and yet I love cartoon figuration. Same duality about vivid color. So, needle set at neutral but looking forward to and anxious to see.

It’s a great show and by far the best use of the New Museum’s awkward cold space I have ever seen. Each floor tells a story and each room is not just a space to stick some work, but to consider a body of work. Important to go in order, second floor, third floor, fourth floor, and fifth floor for small exhibition of his work for ballet.

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On the second floor, first thing you see coming out of the elevator is an installation of works from Ofili’s series Afromuses, 170 small framed watercolors (looks like watercolor and ink) of silhouetted heads of African women and men, emphasizing the abstract design of hairdos, patterned textiles of clothing and jewelry. These works, a selection of a larger series, emphasizes the importance of drawing–these were works that the artist did every morning for about 10 years for about fifteen minutes as warm ups for painting, and they serve here as a warm up to the rest of the show.

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One experiences them twice, as you loop back to them after going around the corner first into a large space with a great group of large paintings from the 90s, including the notorious Holy Virgin Mary of Mayor Giuliani fame.

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These paintings have a great sense of scale, and the fact that each rests on a ball of elephant dung adorned with the title of the work rather than being hung on a wall keeps them at the level of the viewer’s body. They are intensely surfaced, vividly pigmented, very funny–at one point I started thinking about the Simpsons–and very moving: particularly striking from across the room as well as directly in front of is No Woman, No Cry about the mother of a black teenager killed in a racially motivated assault in London. This painting’s use of the ball of dung is particularly striking, as a piece of jewelry which is also a weight, a scar, a tumor, at the core of the painting.

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So already two impressive groups of works, but the show really gets impressive when one walks into the next room, lit slightly differently, with large paintings which share a color scheme of green, black, pink, red, and white, and a lush sexuality and sensuality.

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At this point in the show looking at these works I also felt strongly that these paintings were made by the artist, that he was engaged in the painting, even though these are not conventional paintings–there is neither brushwork, ton smooth flatness, the surfaces are complex, textural, layered, constructed, but they are convincingly by one person making decisions as he goes along

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The next floor is dedicated to a darkened room with dark paintings which at first are nearly unreadable, somewhat like figurative Ad Reinhardts. Strangely my iPhone camera was able to pick out forms that my eye could not. The darkness hides dark subject matter including a lynching. It is a room I particularly want to return to, must return to, to see what more I can see.

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The next floor (4th fl of the museum) is the total opposite, an emotional reversal: a knockout of color and sensuality, yet painted much more flatly than the first large paintings. No more stippling, no more varnish and glitter, no more elephant dung, in some cases figures appear to be drawn on the linen with charcoal. They bring to mind William Blake (an important artist to Ofili) and Nabis and early 20th century Viennese Orientalism, and also a lot of mid-twentieth century European artists, Matisse’s cut outs, late Picabia, Chagall even. The walls of the room are painted a light violet and blue floral pattern (based on images from Powell and Pressburger‘s movie Black Narcissus–a movie about Western sexuality repressed by religiosity and unmoored by its encounter with the exotic eroticism of the Himalayas–and painted on the wall by a team of professional scenic painters, according to the guard we spoke to). This helps transform the scale of the room in a way that is humanizing and welcoming, a large public space that one wants to spend time in, go back to, a vivid Botanical Gardens of painting.

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The way I’ve described the show here is to give a sense of the experience floor by floor. There are some critical issues, or issues one could have a discussion about: how do these work somehow radiate a sincerity opposite from works from the New Expressionist period that share some of the same references to between the World Wars European stylization of the figure? Is the role and critical reception of stylized figuration, vivid pigmentation of painting, vivid patterning and gaudy surface different when the artist is a person of color with ties to Africa , now living in the Caribbean? How is the reception different if similar images are presented by a male artist or a female artist? The work itself resists these, often unspoken problematics, and this is part of their strength and affirmation.

Monday December 22 *

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I went to MoMA yesterday and saw this really interesting painting by Benny Andrews: it is large, bold, arresting. Not a perfect painting–what appears to be a mutilated body covered by a crumpled American flag is awkward, not just disturbing, which it is, but awkwardly drawn, with strong foreshortening and the crumpled three dimensional cloth of the flag intruding into our space, and yet the painting, No More Games from 1970–is all the more powerful because of that awkwardness, a smoother painting would not be as effective, would be a contradiction. Each element means something, in the way that everything means something in a Northern Renaissance painting, there is iconography going on here, but iconography that is invented and adapted to speak to a desperate situation, a broken dream, the desperation of rebellion perhaps. Iconography is an important terms because in fact the painting also has a strong biblical reference, the painting is organized around a tree of knowledge and of patriotism that has been ravaged, leaving only the stump and the snake. Eve has been murdered for her sins–not sure about the sexual politics of this painting because its overall politics seem mainly about something other than sexual politics–and Adam sits with the body. Is it his crime?

 

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The sun shines bleakly on bare canvas, it has burned the background away to a stark empty apocalyptic desert, and the figure of the man, “Adam” has a shade, a flat black shadow silhouette who springs from the same pair of high tops as the figure. This figure is very inventively painted and very sculptural, both representationally and literally, wearing a real T-shirt stuck on him like clothes on a paper doll.

No More Games. What a title for this moment, what a day to see it, when the senseless massacre of cops in NY arrives to devastate and demonize a budding civil rights movement.

A really strong painting, it would be nice if the museum saw fit to put some more lights on it, though the lower light on the right hand side and the fact that the painting is right off the escalator, in the hallway, means one comes upon it, the way you discover something powerful in the subway or on a street wall. By the way, the hallway seems to be the installation spot of choice for–often figurative (and perhaps not coincidentally often political)–paintings by “others,” Alice Neel, Robert Colescott near the bathroom a few months ago. No More Games is by far the painting that remains with me from all the paintings I’ve seen in the past few days, it is a political essay–a trying something out, as a painting it is trying something out in painting: Rauschenbergian–that is, post-War, use of the real on a flat modernist picture plane, within a Renaissance representational program, to speak to a political history that is rarely faced, especially within painting.

The painting is on the third floor, just outside a really good installation of late 60s/70s painting, sculpture, and video. The painting’s installation outside of the illuminating historical presentation is both insulting and fitting, given its subject matter, which cannot be properly contained within the institution.

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To view embedded video

Dear subscribers, it’s been a while since I posted a video on A Year so I forgot to remind you all that embedded YouTube videos don’t work within emails, just click on the blog post title which will open up the blog post in your browser and the video will work in the browser. Or to view the lecture in December 5 blog post, click on this link:

Thanks,
Mira

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“Abstract Marriage: Sculpture by Ilya Schor and Resia Schor”-Lecture by Mira Schor

On the occasion of my mother Resia Schor‘s birthday today (b. December 5, 1910 near Lublin, Poland), I’d like to share a lecture I gave at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum August 20, 2013, in conjunction with the exhibition “Abstract Marriage: Sculpture by Ilya Schor and Resia Schor” at PAAM, August 16 – September 29, 2013

I take the liberty of sharing this video not just because I am proud of my parents’ extraordinary works-which I am!–but also because some of the histories, diverse traditions, and diverse methods of making that infuse their work are worth recalling now, and suggest models of art practice of interest and value even though they may belong to a very different era and philosophy of craft and art.

NOTE: comments during the lecture about the quality of the slide projections refer to issues that have been corrected in this version of the video.

The catalogue of exhibition available here

Selected installation images:

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Resia Schor, Lockerbie, 1990, and Ilya Schor, Lovers, c.1958

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The mice will play

If you are an artist or just about anyone participating in the art world, this is not the week to email anyone, or send announcements about anything, or, indeed write a blog post that focuses on anything but the shiny smooth surfaces presented on art media coverage of the fairs: nothing will be heard except the concentration of commerce in Miami.

The cats are away, so at what will the mice play?

Meanwhile at night the streets and highways of New York resonate with people materializing in one neighborhood and then another, chanting “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” What can the mice who are not gathered in the brightly lit agora, and those who are, do about the present injustices, if anything? What is the worth of a single artist’s voice or even the voice of a people?

This summer I was captivated by an essay by Austrian philosopher Gerald Raunig, “Josephine, Or Streaking The Territory,” in his 2013 book Factories of Knowledge, Industries of Creativity.Through it I learned of a short story by Franz Kafka, his last short story, “Josephine, the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.” The concept of an artist’s work as a “weak event,” barely different from the work of the other mice people yet vital to their sense of community, the image of the artist who is as conceited and contemptuous of her audience as she is justifiably admired and heroic, the artist whose song is at best a “gentle streaking of the territory”–all these weak indicators of the generous egotism and valiant futility of the artist offer a model for artistic engagement with the body politic which, by recognizing futility and significance alike, might give an artist some tiny bit of hope for the meaning of the work.

Here are the pages of the short text interspersed with some quotes from Kafka’s story:

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Is the artist any different than the rest of her people?

Among intimates we admit freely to one another that Josephine’s singing, as singing, is nothing out of the ordinary.

Is it in fact singing at all? Although we are unmusical we have a tradition of singing; in the old days our people did sing; this is mentioned in legends and some songs have actually survived, which, it is true, no one can now sing. Thus we have an inkling of what singing is, and Josephine’s art does not really correspond to it. So is it singing at all? Is it not perhaps just a piping? And piping is something we all know about, it is the real artistic accomplishment of our people, or rather no mere accomplishment but a characteristic expression of our life. We all pipe, but of course no one dreams of making out that our piping is an art, we pipe without thinking of it, indeed without noticing it, and there are even many among us who are quite unaware that piping is one of our characteristics. So if it were true that Josephine does not sing but only pipes and perhaps, as it seems to me at least, hardly rises above the level of our usual piping—yet, perhaps her strength is not even quite equal to our usual piping, whereas an ordinary farmhand can keep it up effortlessly all day long, besides doing his work—if that were all true, then indeed Josephine’s alleged vocal skill might be disproved, but that would merely clear the ground for the real riddle which needs solving, the enormous influence she has….

After all, it is only a kind of piping that she produces. If you post yourself quite far away from her and listen, or, still better, put your judgment to the test, whenever she happens to be singing along with others, by trying to identify her voice, you will undoubtedly distinguish nothing but a quite ordinary piping tone, which at most differs a little from the others through being delicate or weak. Yet if you sit down before her, it is not merely a piping; to comprehend her art it is necessary not only to hear but to see her. Even if hers were only our usual workaday piping, there is first of all this peculiarity to consider, that here is someone making a ceremonial performance out of doing the usual thing.

But we listen to the artist precisely because of her imperfections, which attract more than the artist who is trained and proficient:

She gets effects which a trained singer would try in vain to achieve among us and which are only produced precisely because her means are so inadequate. …This piping, which rises up where everyone else is pledged to silence, comes almost like a message from the whole people to each individual; Josephine’s thin piping amidst grave decisions is almost like our people’s precarious existence amidst the tumult of a hostile world. Josephine exerts herself, a mere nothing in voice, a mere nothing in execution, she asserts herself and gets across to us; it does us good to think of that. A really trained singer, if ever such a one should be found among us, we could certainly not endure at such a time and we should unanimously turn away from the senselessness of any such performance.

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The artist is the individual who steps forward at times of need and gives all her strength to the song:

Our life is very uneasy, every day brings surprises, apprehensions, hopes, and terrors, so that it would be impossible for a single individual to bear it all did he not always have by day and night the support of his fellows; but even so it often becomes very difficult; frequently as many as a thousand shoulders are trembling under a burden that was really meant only for one pair. Then Josephine holds that her time has come. So there she stands, the delicate creature, shaken by vibrations especially below the breastbone, so that one feels anxious for her, it is as if she has concentrated all her strength on her song, as if from everything in her that does not directly subserve her singing all strength has been withdrawn, almost all power of life, as if she were laid bare, abandoned, committed merely to the care of good angels, as if while she is so wholly withdrawn and living only in her song a cold breath blowing upon her might kill her.

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The audience is in part competitive and dismissive, in part enraptured:

But just when she makes such an appearance, we who are supposed to be her opponents are in the habit of saying: “She can’t even pipe; she has to put such a terrible strain on herself to force out not a song—we can’t call it song—but some approximation to our usual customary piping.” So it seems to us, but this impression although, as I said, inevitable is yet fleeting and transient. We too are soon sunk in the feeling of the mass, which, warmly pressed body to body, listens with indrawn breath.

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The artist feels “it is she who protects the people. When we are in a bad way politically or economically, her singing is supposed to save us, nothing less than that, and if it does not drive away the evil, at least gives us the strength to bear it.”

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Those who feel that art must have an objective function based on objective research that is objective, or those who both insist that art fulfill a transformative critical function yet reject fantasies of resistance, might find what Josephine gives the people a bit too idealistic:

Here in the brief intervals between their struggles our people dream, it is as if the limbs of each were loosened, as if the harried individual once in a while could relax and stretch himself at ease in the great, warm bed of the community. And into these dreams Josephine’s piping drops note by note; she calls it pearl-like, we call it staccato; but at any rate here it is in its right place, as nowhere else, finding the moment—wait for it—as music scarcely ever does. Something of our poor brief childhood is in it, something of lost happiness that can never be found again, but also something of active daily life, of its small gaieties, unaccountable and yet springing up and not to be obliterated. And indeed this is all expressed not in full round tones but softly, in whispers, confidentially, sometimes a little hoarsely. Of course it is a kind of piping. Why not? Piping is our people’s daily speech, only many a one pipes his whole life long and does not know it, where here piping is set free from the fetters of daily life and it sets us free too for a little while. We certainly should not want to do without these performances.

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What will the artist have contributed? What will be left of the song?

The time will soon come when her last notes sound and die into silence. She is a small episode in the eternal history of our people, and the people will get over the loss of her. Not that it will be easy for us; how can our gatherings take place in utter silence? Still, were they not silent even when Josephine was present? Was her actual piping notably louder and more alive than the memory of it will be? Was it even in her lifetime more than a simple memory? Was it not rather because Josephine’s singing was already past losing in this way that our people in their wisdom prized it so highly?

Georg Flegel (1561-1638), Still Life with Mouse and Parrot, Coll. Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

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