Thursday, July 16, 2009

Protests: Politics and Sex

Upon a visit to the Chelsea galleries, I took in some of the latest art work on the scene – many of the shows I saw dealt with political themes and the human figure. The political art of Aaron Johnson and Alicia Ross’ approach to portraying a female machine-like human figure caught my eye.

Aaron Johnson’s show titled Star-Crossed at the Stephan Stux Gallery, features a number of paintings on American flags that express his political views. One of his paintings, Juggler, depicts a monster-like creature dressed in a jester’s outfit as he juggles mangled heads. In a talk by Johnson, he tells us that this could be a self-portrait of himself. As a jester would give news to the king of the daily head count and what was really happening around him – Johnson is promoting to the viewer about the casualties (or head count) and the realities of the Iraq war.

Johnson’s depiction of political themes in art is not unlike any other life issues represented by other artists. Artists create works that reflect their lives – their families and friends, environments, and what’s important and happening to them. Politics are a big part of many people’s lives. Just as any other aspect of life can affect a person, so can politics.

The difference between art that uses political subject matter and political propaganda can be slight. Political propaganda is usually created to promote a politician or political regime, but it could also be seen as art by the viewer or its owner because of its beauty or significance. As I saw in the Yevgeniy Fiks exhibit – Adopt Lenin – at the Winkleman Gallery, Fiks displays Lenin propaganda memorabilia in his show as art work. An artist can create a work with political themes not only to express ideas on the subject but also for promotion of the politics. Thus, the art work could be thought of as propaganda. There is a fine line between the two and it is difficult sometimes to discern where propaganda ends and art begins.

Alicia Ross at the Black and White Gallery, depicts a number of arcane sexually-charged women in her exhibit – Sacred_Profane. She presents a series of cloth and stitching art work with voluptuous naked women. Many of the women are in provocative poses that one would see in pornography. Some of the titles of the works include the word “Motherboard,” almost making the woman into a machine, like a computer circuit board. The figures are stitched with some flesh-tones, but also greens and blacks – that might be found on a circuit board. In addition, she uses some stitching that crosses or goes away from the body and she leaves some of the cloth unstitched – or white – the color of the cloth. These aspects of her work also make the figures look like computer circuitry or pixels. Ross could be alluding to the female form reduced to internet pornography or the idea of woman as a sexual machine.

The medium she uses – stitching on cloth – resembles the samplers that women used to stitch at the turn of the century as wifely duties, and she even calls one of her series of works – Samplers. This notion of wifely duties could be another allegory for the woman as a machine. The stitching medium could also be a matronly like activity, but she mixes it with very sexually charged images almost as a pun.

The artist seems to be elevating porn into a higher status by carefully creating such detailed studies of woman’s figures that resemble photos from porn sites and exhibiting them in a gallery. She takes the viewer off guard by putting images from one environment into another.
Ross may feel that the female figure has been reduced to a machine or object for man’s pleasure and she may not be happy about that – whether be it on the internet – or anywhere else – even upgraded to a gallery. Ross’ art is possibly a way for her to deal with her angst and express protest to others in hopes of opening up a conversation.

Aaron Johnson protests the ills of American politics just as Alicia Ross promotes the female figure as man’s object for entertainment. Both artists express their anger and opinions through their art – to perhaps help them deal with their issues and awaken society to what is going on in the world. In the end, they may wish to make some sort of change in the right direction or – their direction.

Traveling the World, One Painting at a Time

The Kehinde Wiley exhibit at the Studio Museum Harlem, The World Stage: Africa, Lagos ~ Dakar, opens up an explosive commentary on the culture of the United Sates and the world. Lagos – Dakar are just two stops on Wiley’s multinational The World Stage series. In this project, he is going from country to country with his open satellite studios, picking attractive native men, and painting them in poses relating to the country’s historical sculpture or propaganda. Throw in the fact that he’s African American, gay, and glamorizes the gangsters of hip-hop, and you have a cultural ticking time bomb waiting to go off.

America is a melting pot of numerous cultural groupings that have come together over centuries and taken root in different parts of the country. These groupings include Asians, African Americans, Latin Americans, and a multitude of people from European countries and Arab nations – sharing the same race, values, and beliefs. And they also may experience the same discriminations, prejudices, and political minorities. You would think that with so much cultural diversity, being African American and gay would be socially acceptable. But for some individuals or cultural groups in the U.S., it’s not. And, although the U.S. is more accepting of individuals from different cultures coming in and setting up businesses or other organizations, some countries – like China or Russia, may be less inviting. The more Wiley’s world tour gets promoted, the more other countries may protest his studios in their cultures.

The cultural demographics of the U.S. have changed over the years as more and more individuals have immigrated from many different global communities. Fifty years ago, when one thought of an “American,” they thought of an English speaking white man or woman. Now an American can also be a black, brown, or Asian person – who speaks many languages. These assemblages of multicultural individuals have changed the culture of the U.S. drastically with their ideals, beliefs, and norms. And the result is a growing of prejudice, discrimination, and political minorities among all the different cultural groupings – crossing not only boundaries related to skin color, but also sexuality and religion. Wiley and his art could be at the center of conflict amongst different groups that may not be too keen on his glamorization of gangsters with possible gay undertones. That’s what’s so great about America – he can do what he is doing because he has the freedom to do it. And although some may be offended by his art or the way he is cultivating his works – it doesn’t matter – because he’s allowed to express his views in this country.

Wiley was not the first artist to pick up subjects for his work, both in the U.S. and abroad, planting down into foreign cultures. As far back as Paul Gauguin – exploring Tahiti, then Andy Warhol – traveling worldwide with his factory of staff, and more recently – Jeff Koons invading other countries with his Puppies, and Takashi Murakami taking over the Brooklyn Museum with his cartoon art and Louis Vuitton bags; all of these artists have delved into other cultures promoting their art and selling their wares. They have long been criticized for creating art mills and sampling foreign venues for their ends. But in reality, like any other successful business, they have often helped rather than hindered the cultures they enter. For example, Murakami at the Brooklyn Museum not only supported the museum, but also increased tourism in New York City, aiding the economy.

Acceptance seems to be the determining factor which dictates the success of an artist’s or any other individual’s business ventures in another culture. How the artist is received by the people, the media, and other financially interested parties, will either make or break their expansion. So far, against many odds, Wiley has made his world-wind tour successful. He has been embraced by the foreign cultures that he has entered and continues to exhibit his work which depicts black males in heroic stature.

The Studio Museum of Harlem Magazine makes an interesting comparison of Wiley’s work – which could be mocking accepted cultural norms – to the Balls that the queer culture put on in Harlem – where they reverse accepted norms by dressing in men’s suits playing the role of American executives. In the end it’s a gas to poke fun at the doldrums of the everyday people – no matter what culture, and flip the perceived majority into the minority – as long as you don’t get called out.

Quiet but Loud

The Sound Off exhibit at the BRIC Rotunda Gallery packs a lot of punch for such a small show. The show gives a voice to individuals that might otherwise go unnoticed – such as criminals, the homeless, and prisoners of the Iraq war. Several artists have donated their time and resources to the cause. Yaelle Amir and Jeanne Gerrity, the curators, succeed in overwhelming us with getting their message across through photos, videos, and watercolors. And the artists benefit too – as their art works in tandem with each other – creating a powerful experience for the viewer. Each of the artists have a unique presentation that lets them stand out amongst each other, but also blend together to form a stronger platform for these individuals to tell their stories.

When you first enter the show – which is in a small room in the back of the gallery – you are hit by Dread Scott’s three black and white photos of inmates from his Lockdown series, 2004. The photos are reminiscent of the old principle, to "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil," characterized by three monkeys. One monkey is covering his eyes, the other covering his ears, and another covering his mouth. The source that popularized this pictorial maxim is a 17th century carving over a door of the famous Tōshō- shrine in Nikkō, Japan.

The photos are accompanied by speakers spouting interviews of the inmates’ trials and tribulations. You have to put your ear close to the speakers to hear because the volume is so low. Scott may be trying to make you pay more attention to the stories. In a talk by Amir, she tells us that Scott had very large photos that she would like to have included, but the exhibit space was too small. But the photos in the show are still very effective. Scott and his work are enhanced by being part of this show as all of the different styles of art work together, providing a multi-media experience for the viewer. It’s like a domino effect. You take in his photos and hear the interviews, then you view Daniel Heyman’s water color portraits and writings of prisoners of war, followed by Jenny Polak’s interactive website of prisoners’ cells, and then you see the rest of the show, until you come back again to Scott’s photos.

Although the exhibit is in a small room – not Amir’s choice – it almost makes the show even more effective as it relates to minimalizing the people who are never heard. The small room also seems cell like – which could also relate to some of the prisoners in the show.
Scott is a revolutionary who obtained notoriety when his work, What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?, gained national attention when President Bush (1) declared his work disgraceful and the Senate created legislation to protect the flag. In his Lockdown series he asks government – what is crime? In one of the interviews, an inmate compares his crimes, which are forced, to the president’s, which are for luxury. Scott continues to challenge the status quo on what is right and wrong – usually those in power make decisions and get away with crime. And his work is only more elucidated amongst the catalog of the other artists’ work in the exhibit, who have similar protests and demand equal action.

Daniel Heyman’s portraits of innocent Iraqis who were tortured are the next stop for the viewer in the Sound Off show. But instead of using actual taped interviews and photos like Scott, he provides a different way to view sufferings – through paintings and writings. Upon first glance at the watercolors, you think oh -- such nice paintings, but then when you read what is written it makes your skin crawl. Heyman mixes beauty with the ills of society which makes his work more chilling – masking or hiding the torture. And this could be his point – he uses beauty as a metaphor for silence. And his work, like Scott’s, benefits from the group of other artists because it’s so different. Heyman’s colorful paintings are set next to Scott’s gritty black and white photos – offering a different viewpoint on a similar matter. Out of all of the artists, Heyman provides the only art that is one dimensional – which makes for a quite viewing – but uncomfortable and ghastly none the less.

Heyman’s work has been focused on not just showing beautiful paintings, but also educating society on what is going on in the world. He has been a strong proponent against museums and galleries only showing beautiful art work. He prefers the masses to do more than enjoy art, but also learn more about issues that affect people around the world. And in his work in the Sound Off show, he overwhelms the viewer and personalizes the Iraq war with portraits of actual people and their accounts of hardships. The way he wraps the text around the portraits make the viewer work to read the stories and pay close attention to his work. This is similar to Scott who requires you to listen closely by making you put your ear up to the speakers to hear the prisoners’ interviews.

In the end, Amir and Gerrity have reported the stories of several hushed individuals in a successful way through different medias that hit you at every angle – visual, interaction, and audio – not letting you escape. They lure in the viewer and then hold them captive in their cell to hear the horrible stories of these marginalized citizens. The show empowers the individuals that have been silenced in society while also allowing the artists to keep their individuality throughout the process. Each artist portrays their take on the issue through their own interesting style and media – marrying together to provide an integrated and concise vessel for their voices. The result – you leave the exhibit with vivid memories of the people, their intense sufferings, and the artists who portray them.

Artist + Environment = Art

At the open studio visit at the Elisabeth Foundation for the Arts, I visited numerous artists’ work spaces. The artists showed diverse viewpoints in their work, and it showed in their studios -- which were very organized, but contained unique furnishings and belongings.

Tomas Pihl and Patty Cateura, two artists at the Foundation gave presentations on their work. Both artists had minimal furnishings – possibly so that they could focus on their work. Also both artists had great city views from their windows. But as there are many similarities in their studios – their were also some differences, which come through in there work.

Tomas Pihl’s studio had an area in the front that was closed off – probably storage for materials he would use for his paintings and sculpture. He explained that he researches and experiments the mediums that he uses in depth. And you can tell by his art. His paintings are simple and monochromatic at first glance, but as you study them more closely, you can see different colors coming through as the light and dark hits them in different ways. And this element of his work is well thought out by Pihl, as the paintings are made up of multi-translucent layers with very little acrylic pigment and excess medium that is poured.

You can also see different shapes and imperfections that permeate from the canvas. He told us that we are bombarded with images and esthetics 24/7 and his paintings are a response to this, a reduction of hysteria and creation of attention by small means. His sculptures are similar in color tonality and feeling. He uses the leftovers from his paintings to make organic looking shapes with depths of layered color. On the walls you can see sketches that he has drawn to help create his sculptures – although very simple looking, they have a different life in 3-D.

Pihl listens to classical music and I noticed he was reading The Boat by Nam Le. I could see how classical music would influence his work, as his work feels relaxing, yet sometimes loud at the same time – how I would describe classical music. This could also reflect his painting style, as the creation of the work could be messy and chaotic, but the end result is quiet, yet explosive. The Boat is a collection of short stories about people who are searching for happiness for themselves and the conflicts they face in their journeys. This is similar to looking into one of Pihl’s paintings and halting when you encounter a different color, bubble or mark at every bend.

Patty Cateura’s studio was more open than Pihl’s as she did not have as much storage space blocked off and this comes through in her work which is spacious. Her art is different than Pihl’s in that she includes shapes that reference nature – such as trees, rocks, the sun, and mountains. She melds nature and urbanity – trees and buildings – could be one in the same. Cateura also uses acrylics (mixed to her specifications) because she likes how the flatness lends to the openness of her work. And she showed us some little collages that she made out of fabric that she uses as bases for her paintings – which could relate to why the paintings almost seem like collages.

I spied a book on Joan Miró, whose mix of surrealism and color field painting are apparent in Cateura’s work. Her paintings are inspired by trips that she takes – such as the Grand Canyon. And much of her references are from memory – although she also takes photos and makes some sketches. Her paintings are frames for color, as most of the details are on each side, and then an expanse of color is the central focus – building space. She also sometimes uses small shapes that highlight the canvas and pull you in or draw you out as you follow their paths. This technique is also seen in Miró’s work. The overall impression I get from my visit to Cateura’s studio, is a confidence and ease with which she works and relates to her environment, producing paintings that reflect her esthetics and vision.

In Artists’ Studios – an article from the New York Times, January 5, 1873 – the author compares studios of several artists of the day, “As a rule, there is nothing half so cozy as artists’ studios, though their style and fashion are as varied as the works of their owners … Millais’ soft carpet, his classic vases, the flowing drapery, his pretty little piano, his soft lights, the well-balanced color of his furniture, and his flowers lying carelessly here and there, are apropos to the highest degree. Mr. O’Neil has a severer taste; but the silence distant fields and forests seem almost to reign in the admirably-constructed work-room…” It is interesting that the differences in those studios referenced are similar to the ones at the Foundation. Some are more snug and decorated than others, but all of them reflect the artists and their work – same as today.