May 29, 2008

David Eustace, Project For Canal


A Eustace canvas (center) submerged at high tide in the Gowanus Canal

David Eustace’s recent exhibition, Project For Canal, is a literal litmus test that offers evidence from the field of the state of the environment.

Before hanging in the pristine remove of the gallery at the Brooklyn Artist’s Gym, Eustace’s canvases were suspended in the Gowanus Canal - absorbing a fetid, fecal/industrial stew that makes it one of the most toxic bodies of water in New York, no kidding. Imploring corrective action to recalibrate the human relationship to Nature, these canvases are landscape paintings in the most direct sense.

In conjunction with the exhibit, Eustace facilitated self-guided canoe trips of the Canal with the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club as well as boat tours hosted by the Urban Divers Estuary Conservancy.

I was fortunate to snag a touring spot on the 21-seat canoe with Ludger Balan of Urban Divers. After a sober warning of the dangers of coming in physical contact with the water, Balan led us on a fascinating expedition: The storied history of the Canal, components of its harrowing toxic brew and the potential that a revitalized canal presents to Brooklyn and its wildlife all figure into the tale.

Balan’s take away point was that the time for clean-up is right now – before further development hinders its likelihood.

While rowing across the freakishly still surface of the canal, thick rubber gloves averting any chance skin contact with the water, I was aware of the false security of localized prophylactics.

As we learn in school, our bodies are mostly water. Given the hydrologic cycle and the permeability of tissue, the canal is literally flowing through our veins. We may protest or yearn to find remedy in NIMBY- not in my back yard – strategies. But as Eustace’s work reminds, it’s all backyard.


Like Narcissus’ experience with the stream, the Gowanus Canal affords an insightful reflection of our collective visage.

Posted by mark at 02:48 AM

September 07, 2007

Serra Sculpture Collapses on MoMA’s Sixth Floor

With peals of thunder akin to a calving glacier, one of Richard Serra’s carefully balanced sculptures came tumbling down at MoMA on Friday night. As the galleries were closing, "1-1-1-1", 1969 (click through to 3rd image), a piece composed of four vertical lead plates held in place by a single pole, succumbed to the indefatigable patience of gravity.

With fresh-proved accuracy, Serra himself describes the piece as “hair-triggered balanced” in the audio accompanying “1-1-1-1” at MoMA’s excellent on-line exhibition site.

Nature exacted her due before a full crowd in the final weekend of Serra’s show, Sculpture: 40 Years. The piece stood out-of-reach in a central grouping of four works bordered by thick plexiglass. Despite the quaking echo and jarring shake, Tinsquo (who were on the scene) can vouch that no one was injured and apparently no one triggered the collapse.

A source inside the museum informed Tinsquo that this was actually the second time a piece had fallen during the course of the exhibition, the first occurring during off-hours.

Posted by tinsquo at 10:12 PM | Comments (1)

June 12, 2007

Brendan deVallance

Art first entered my life in the form of a trading card – a medium I’d already been primed to value on account of the baseball card precedent.

There’s no telling what trigger will set the course of a young life.

Basically, that’s why I created TINSQUO and love the web. Each post casts forth a message-in-a-bottle whose receipt may surreptitiously inspire the unsuspecting. Some of this blog’s missives have reached the shores of people googling curiosities like “whipstall,” “garland” and, most frequently, “epitaph.”

Parker Brother’s Masterpiece was my “epitaph.” Stumbling across the exotic and seemingly adult art-crime boardgame in the Penquite's basement next door revealed card after card of paintings from the Art Institute of Chicago. The images were a world apart from anything my newly minted eyes had encountered. I remember most vividly a Picasso synthetic cubist painting that was the farthest afield image I’d seen. It set a marker on the horizon – a marker towards which I would set my course. It turns out, I was not alone in this experience.

Today, the trading card - this art scaled for the hand – finds fresh invigoration courtesy of artist Brendan deVallance’s trading card-sized magazine, “Scraping Chunks from the Roof of My Skull.” It’s a true biopsy of one artist’s mind.

In the 1980s, deVallance founded the legendary P-Form magazine and was a prolific figure in the extraordinarily vital Chicago performance art scene. More recently, Brendan has stepped up to fulfill a role as historian of this artistic efflorescence.

He is still going strong. His diverse pursuits: music, printmakingvacuum cleaner documentation are perusable at his treasure trove repository, Spoolf Cough-Up. There, in this warren of a website, you can treat yourself to a nostalgic trip back to the 80s Chicago performance scene with his extensive list of the era’s contributors.

The list features archival material and links to those artists who have a web presence. You’re also invited to offer your own memories or material. DeVallance’s archive may be a Masterpiece Game-in-the-making for some unsuspecting web surfer and is fun for those of us who were there.

Posted by mark at 12:38 PM

November 01, 2006

"Dangling" at Dam, Stuhltrager

For years bloggers Barry Hoggard of bloggy and James Wagner of have offered an invaluable, lively glimpse into their experience of the New York gallery scene and art community. This month at the request of Dam, Stuhltrager, they have taken an impressive inaugural turn at curating a group show of emerging (and as yet unrepresented) artists.

The show’s title “Dangling Between The Real Thing And The Sign In The Window” is derived from a 1973 address by the composer Morton Feldman and is reflective of the newly minted curators’ perception of a tension on display in today’s art world between substance and superficiality. The curators’ choices demonstrate that works of conceptual rigor and substance can be personal and lavishly beautiful with no diminishment of integrity.

Hoggard and Wagner acknowledge a collective interest “provoked by work that addresses humor, conceptualism, history, politics and the unexpected, so long as there is an identifiable aesthetic.” Their “organic, serendipitous” curatorial approach yields an uncalculated, unified comment on American character, both during wartime and during this aggressively redefining cultural moment.

Joy Garnett’s Rise, after Bosch (Superdome) offers a potent atmospheric swirl of the sun beam graced colosseum. The scene of gladiators and circuses becomes an icon of the abandonment by our self-proclaimed protectors. Here, painting registers as a rallying act of self-reliance and defiant beauty.

Like Garnett, Nicolas Garait’s assumption of authorship of media-stream imagery transforms distant “news” to on-the-scene reportage. Garait disentangles a double exposed film of found footage shot in Algeria during the 1954-1962 War of Independence and attaches a found soundtrack assembled from archive materials. Despite the decades of remove from their sources, these juxtaposed snippets of rescued scrap feel truer, more pertinently newsworthy than the real time war coverage presented through mainstream channels.

Ina Diane Archer re-imagines the early history of commercial film to include African-Americans as contributors “other than ciphers.” The smile-inducing film trailer for Black Ants in Your Pants of 1926 is an alternate history made manifest before our eyes, posing justice as the unassailable historical record. Archer’s work - and the show overall - reminds us that we are the ones who revise history to include or exclude possible futures.

Peter Corrie presents a wall of off-the-wall, priced-to-move drawings of cacti, clouds, disembodied limbs, politically cryptic phrases and checkered paint. His installation achieves a world of cartoon logic and nightmare visions punctuated by spirit soothing scenes of untrammeled nature.

Jacques Louis Vidal’s drawings and lightbox sculpture, The Holy Art Project, provide a thrill ride for the eye, offering a dizzyingly complex neural net of Americana spectacle, mystical profundity... and roller coasters.

One of the cumulative and unexpected effects of “Dangling” is its curatorial reminder that to look unflinchingly upon the world is to see with a detachment that encompasses joy, humor and sheer beauty even amidst destruction. Arguably, this is most apparent in the focus of three works by Jaishri Abichandani. Her glamorous images of South Asian drag queens - some of whom have sought gender autonomy by acquiring political asylum in the U.S. - remind viewers that the concept of liberty is still an active, if struggling, component of America’s ideal.

It is in this context of human possibility that the viewer encounters Susan C. Dessel’s devastating Our Backyard: A Cautionary Tale. This sculptural installation is an instance where the literal becomes transcendent. No further spoilers provided here. Just go.

With surreptitious power, the works in this show take an unflinching and earnest look at the current moment. There is a strange joy evident in embracing the complexities that garnish simple truth. It is revealed by each work contributed to and - in the site specific case of Dessel’s installation - created for this group show. At Dam, Stuhltrager Gallery - until Nov. 13th - these gems of candor and unabashed beauty radiate that so-often-hoped-for culminating synergy: As with Democracy, the sum eclipses even its most spectacular parts.

Posted by tinsquo at 04:05 PM

January 27, 2006

A Lie of the Mind

W.I.T. Series interviewee Gina DeMayo's Thriftshop Theater Workshop has just opened their sixth show. TINSQUO takes a look.

Twenty years after it’s NYC premiere in December of 1985, Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind returns to the New York stage via Thriftshop Theatre Workshop’s January 2006 production. Shepard’s prescient writing renders the past two decades a single, long moment in the familial and political strictures of our time.

While describing imagined affairs and his wife Beth’s “oiling herself” in daily preparation for rehearsal of her role in a local play, Jake explains to his younger brother, Frankie, why he beat her to death…he thinks. He believes her assertion that acting is more real than reality and reveals that he could not bear her inhabiting any living reality he experienced as separate from his own.

Here, the audience is given a first clue as to the riddles of the evening ahead as Shepard frames - in lover’s terms - the agony of Man’s choice to celebrate or obliterate each soul’s gift to the collective experience. The writing hums with an undercurrent of America's violent "globalization" of cultures.

Thriftshop Theatre Workshop’s intricate weave of eight lives knotted into a psychosis called “family” forms a strangulating web. Its actors trace the cyclical corollary between ignorance, addiction and trauma-induced narcissism, then hermetically entomb it in prairie blizzards, patriotism and desert dust storms - a monument to rural tragedy.

Since all of the characters in this play occupy a medically and spiritually down-regulated state of brain function, it is horrific but no real surprise when Beth - our actress, heroine and innocent of this rural isolation - awakens to find herself hospitalized for brain damage inflicted by her rage-prone husband, Jake.

Actors Wendy Brantley and Abby Huston alternate performances of the lead role of Beth in one week stints during the run. Abby Huston’s Beth of Act One offers a finely felt expression of massive trauma in each aspect of the body and being.

The audience cringes to witness her satisfy her brother’s commands to recover by slowly rising from her bed and walking. Each bruised organ and cracked rib registers as she stands with only the use of her extremities.

Beth’s trauma has liberated her to truthteller status in the story and this actress is a truthteller before the audience. Upon standing, there is an unbearable beauty as she states observantly: “I am above my feet.”

This pure physical embodiment of void where her core had been is mirrored mentally by Beth’s Act Two certitude that her own brother, Mike, allowed the hospital surgeons to “Cut me out. Cut brain. Cut.”

The masculine banishment of the feminine and logic’s rejection of intuition are embodied, too, in the Thriftshop Theatre Workshop set by Andrew Boyce. The stage is bicameral, composed of antipodal sets housing the two families like the two hemispheres of the brain. Folk and country classics, including Dylan’s “Girl of the North Country,” link the two worlds by an unseen vibratory vessel.

This thin, emotional thread is fortified visually by Boyce’s spare, effective devices. Featured is the four by forty foot painting of a roiling, blood-purple horizon spanning the width of the stage. The characters travel back and forth across this sea on a radio-wave corpus callosum between hemispheres. In fact, Beth’s mother, Meg, advocates for the hospital trip to collect her daughter, “They got good radio between here and Billings, Dad.”

Shepard seems to suggest, in Beth’s piercing child-mind perceptions, that truth exists in between and in the eradication of these polarized hemispheres. Wendy Brantley, the actress alternating the lead with Huston, yields a performance that makes this reintegration resound again and again in a haunting offering of Beth that seems firmly rooted on that vibratory tightrope connecting two realities.

Accomplishing her jarringly natural staccato, without affect, is the lynchpin of this production. It releases her character’s words from vocal convention and allows them to hang in a different space. In fact, both Brantley and Huston manage this vocal feat with astonishing grace.

Contrasting Beth’s innocence is Jake’s convulsed snarl of a psyche. Alternately, he glimpses and seeks to escape his attempts to kill Love and all sources that inspire him to feel it. He exists as a pinball between his military father (dead from alcohol) and Beth, an embodiment of feminine wiles which he cannot accept his inability to possess or merge with permanently.

Jake’s savagery is actor Kevin Kaine’s highpoint of communication. The character and actor both seem caged by Jake’s acutely limited capacity to reason. The combination paints an enigmatic picture of lifelong abuse coupled with mild mental retardation. Or, as his mother, Lorraine, reasons, “Fell on his damn head the second he was born…That’s where it all started. Back there. Had nothin’ to do with his upbringing.”

Witnessing Jake damned to an eternity of howling in the pain of separation prompts his peace-maker brother, Frankie, to engage a volunteer mission: bridging the gap between hemispheres in hopes of returning from a visit to Beth’s childhood home with the only information that could ease his brother’s torture – news of Beth’s survival.

Act Two functions as an ideal portrait of the middle child. We witness Frankie’s link to rational thought cyclically over-ruled by the indomitable demands of the psychotically-wounded raging all around him. Frankie is lulled in and out of varying states of lucidity most of his life. But, in the second act, the effect is induced by a bullet hole through his thigh inflicted by Beth’s father, Baylor, from a deer hunting perch.

In one scene seemingly ripped from the headlines of current White House drama, there follows a strident debate as to who is culpable for the bullet wound - the person who squeezed the trigger or the person who placed themselves in the trajectory of the bullet. Meanwhile, for the duration of the play, Frankie bleeds on the couch.

Actor Scott Laska‘s compassionate, nuanced performance of Frankie successfully coaxes the audience’s surrender to accept what circumstance we share with him. And, suddenly, all are adrift in a life weary from sifting for what could be real inside the insanity of perpetual crisis.

Though Shepard resists providing any, it is tempting to seek respite in the curious beauty of Beth’s oracular lucidity or Jake’s clairvoyant, grief-induced vision closing Act Two. Here, we see his dreaming account of a naked Beth draped in satin under the lone silver moon as he describes the strange voice he hears echo back to him from across the night – a voice once Beth’s but now transformed by their violent intimacy and Jake’s own attack into that of his long-estranged conscience.

The respite of symbolic vision is brief as Act Three (and the entirety of the play) treats the audience to heavy hitting performances from all three actors ably triumphing in parental roles. The extraordinary joy of encountering these beastly portraits as intricate, robust people is delivered by Pam Tate, as Jake’s mother, Lorraine, and Getchie Argetsinger and Guil Fisher as Beth’s parents, Meg and Baylor.

The parental authorities in this world seek comfort from their children as respite from their own anguish one minute and treat them with no more care than they have for chickens and livestock the next. “We had to boil that one,” says Lorraine, about the family’s storied sadistic rooster. But one feels she could just as easily be speaking of one of her own litter.

Beth’s parents present a comic-tragic balance as mere cyclical hand-me-downs carrying on via stillborn channels of communication. Beth’s mother, Meg, epitomizes a classic Tennessee Williams character: the clear-minded, delicate, feminine voice driven to madness for lack of any validation of her view of the world.

Life in a house dominated by Baylor’s relentless deer hunting, traditions like mink oil foot rubs and the folding of the American flag hold precedent over dismissibles like curiosity, communication and intimacy. Getchie Argetsinger’s Meg has a voice and being that evokes the single perfect note of a triangle chimed, yielding observations spoken from an innocent capacity to perceive threat as meaningless.

Argetsinger and Fisher, both, inform each exchange with voices tragically, yet, sentimentally familiar to the ear. Their comic achievement and brilliance sparks fireworks within this couple’s propensity to call mutual torment, love.

Tate, as partner to a memory, conveys not merely a complex event of a person in Lorraine but, somehow, this actor subsumes Shepard to embody an entire world’s transition from the glory days of America’s Southwest through the suburbanizing sprinkle of trailer parks across the desert crossroads. Her Lorraine is a storm of failed perceptions steeped in ignorance so total, most call it insanity.

In the final act, she writhes in loss on Jake’s childhood bed as if it is a last vestige of protection from turning to face the long-cocooned crisis of her own being. Jake, himself, has escaped her “care” to find Frankie and the truth of Beth’s fate.

The suffocating cap on self-awareness renders tragic the final revelations of truth from the mouths of Act Three’s babes: Jake’s little sister Sally’s account of Jake “murdering” their father in an inebriated race to the death is a secret told too late for mother, Lorraine’s salvation. Beth's brother, Mike, brutally torturing Jake upon his arrival at the Montana homestead fails in its attempt to obtain the sanction or praise Mike has sought life long from papa Baylor.

A generation since its premiere, A Lie of the Mind still maps America’s political landscape with a father-son relationship that now echoes Bush I and Bush II with veiled irony. This Thriftshop production shies from blatant connections to issues of the day. But Alex Correia’s stark tableaux and steady direction subtly and unmistakably allow for the layering of each audience member’s political consciousness upon Shepard’s pointed tale.

In this way, for example, Mike’s torture of Jake - which originally read as a timely commentary on America’s military activities in Nicaragua and El Salvador circa 1985 - registers as a pertinent, unforced commentary on Abu Grahib and the like. Doug Goodenough's Mike is the kind of clean cut older brother whose hairline cracks are all worn on the surface. So, his sudden and prolonged torture of Beth's husband effectively renders him the epitome of "one of our fine men in uniform gone wrong" with a mere donning of combat fatigues.

Sally’s account of her father’s last night - offered by actor, producer and Thriftshop cofounder, Gina DeMayo – ends any inkling in Lorraine to move ahead. As if hunting for the inaccessible womb, she resolves to leave her son Jake’s bed only to track down unknown relatives of her grandmother’s people in some distant Irish hamlet.

Lorraine yearns for ''…one a’ them fierce, hot, dry winds… that wipe everything clean and leave the sky without a cloud… Pure, pure blue… Wouldn’t that be nice?'' Bereft of tools to initiate such a cleansing, Lorraine literally sets a match to all that has come before.

Claiming Sally as the sole keepsake of her life-to-date, Lorraine leaves the house that birthed half the drama of “Jake and Beth” to burn as a Phoenix’s nest. The fact that she neglects to include herself - the mother hen - as the mythic ingredient required to trigger this ritual’s liberation yields the final evidence in Shepard’s loving acknowledgement of our karmic inheritance.

The misguided hope and futility of this mother’s action serves the symbolic image of both America’s and Man’s blazing fury to evolve amidst the eternally harsh terrain of blame induced suffering. This flame is witnessed, mystically, a few states away by Beth’s mother. In a final act of maternal perception - closing the play and the miles between the two families - Meg observes this symbol of human determination, “Looks like a fire in the snow. How could that be?”

With acceptance and warmth, this cast offers psychologically decimated portrayals of the American family savaged by rigidly enforced but uninhabited ideals. Mirroring the American dream and landscape in many ways, Thriftshop’s production reverberates an echo of Langston Hughes’ anthemic poem across the barren stretch between Montana and the Western desert to the south, “America never was America to me,” and leaves its audience weak but yearning to spit back that famous assertion, “And yet I swear this oath: America will be!”

For four years Thriftshop has proved to be a company true to its namesake, combining ingeniously engaged resources and humble settings in which their audiences discover priceless gems. A Lie of the Mind proves just such a find in their earnest hands.

The play runs at Access Theatre, 380 Broadway @ White, 4th Floor
January 27–30 and February 1-5 at 8pm with a closing matinee at 2pm on
Sunday, February 5.
Theater Mania for tix

Posted by janna at 02:21 PM

November 08, 2005

Julian Schnabel Is A Laughing Matter

Every time Julian Schnabel’s image appeared on screen at the New York premiere of Sydney Pollack’s documentary, Sketches Of Frank Gehry, the audience’s decorum surrendered to laughing derision and disapproving groans...of palpable intensity. This became, for me, the most intriguing part of a fascinating evening with the director.

The jeers were quite a disjunct, ripping through the awed atmosphere at the Apple Store, Soho. Such vitriol for a man whose offense, such as it is, is having once broken some plates and, without irony or embarrassment, painted on their shards.

Pollack’s film, a clear labor of love among friends, is a moving and joyous explication of Gehry’s process. Featuring interviews with the architect, contemporaries, critics and most notably Gehry’s long-time therapist, the legendary Milton Wexler, Schnabel is an integral figure in the mix. Appearing only three times, he contributes what may well be the funniest, most incisive comment of the lot - which is saying something.

But it wasn’t Schnabel’s commentary that provoked the audience’s reaction. Reclining with brandy snifter in hand, wearing dark shades and a plush white bathrobe, Schnabel performs in his own tableau as an artist of grand, unapologetic self-expression.

Yet, Gehry’s architecture does something similar. For his part, the architect speaks of a compelling application of Democracy.

In a moving passage of the film, he explicitly addresses the democratic impulse undergirding the execution of his designs. “The nature of Democracy is chaotic,” he posits, adding hopefully:

“and that chaos, we’re starting to feel, is beautiful.”

Like structurally sound castles in air, every inch of a Gehry building resonates with consideration, transmitting residuals of the architect’s focused attention. Nothing is dismissible, every part is valued, even celebrated.

The uncowed, flamboyant Schnabel-figure that so exercised attendees at Friday’s event functions in a manner comparable to Gehry’s work - but more brashly, less abstract. Schnabel’s refusal to be shamed registers as a challenge to the viewer. His audacious expression prompts the thought; “If I allow my own ‘inner-Schnabel’ full license, might not chaos ensue?”

...and might it not be a beautiful chaos?

Pollack shared, in Q & A after the screening, that one of the lessons learned from his first documentary in over forty years of filmmaking is that documentaries are made in the editing room. But his handling of the Schnabel material betrays his uncategorical cinematic mastery.

Schnabel’s hilariously triumphant line (If you’re unconcerned by a spoiler, click here for the quip) is the last thing the painter/director says in the film. And with it, all the tutting and tisks are silenced, replaced by avalanching guffaws that make the previously baffling suddenly seem self-evident. So concludes Schnabel’s bit of walk-on performance art.

A cautionary voice may counter that unbridled self-expression fails to account for the artist’s social responsibility and is akin to mere self-gratification.

For this, consider what Gehry’s therapist, Milton Wexler, offers from his decades helping people access their purpose and unleash their own unique ‘inner-Schnabel:’

“[When most people come to see me, they want to know how to fix their relationships, improve their careers, how to heal the pain from their early life, in a nutshell, how to change their lives.]

”When an artist comes to see me, he wants to know how to change the world.”

Which raises the question, artist or not, is there any course of action that doesn’t change the world?

“Sketches Of Frank Gehry” is slated to appear on PBS’s American Masters in September 2006.

Posted by mark at 03:33 PM

May 10, 2004

Willem de Kooning at 100

The painter Willem de Kooning is known to have drawn visual sustenance from late night jaunts through the city. For an immigrant from Holland - he arrived as a stowaway in 1926 - the streets of New York, even during the Depression, were a fertile riot of billboards, pinups and errant papers underfoot.

On a recent evening, I was in a similar mindset of heightened visual receptivity. Walking across the breadth of Manhattan, I was heading to the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea for the opening of a retrospective of de Kooning’s work organized in celebration of what would have been the artist’s 100th birthday.

The proliferation of concocted imagery that confronts a pedestrian today is multiplied many fold from the days de Kooning scoped this cityscape. From decals on fruit to video monitors in restroom stalls, advertising continues to breach new bulkheads of both visual and mind space.

In the interstices of this mediated visual field persists the resilient efflorescence of graffiti. Like antimatter to advertising's charge, graffiti innovates counterstrategies designed to frustrate attempts at its eradication.

In moving through the city, graffiti and sanctioned media operate in conjunction as the equivalent of figure and ground. Depending on one’s perspective, the city and all its mediated imagery might read as the backdrop or “ground” upon which the populace expresses itself in the idiom known as graffiti.

Alternatively, instead of being the “figure,” the city’s graffiti might recede from visual awareness into the background as simply part of the environment. The equal valuing of figure and ground might be called the unified field theory.

De Kooning’s work of the late 1940s pursued precisely this endeavor. His black and white abstractions - jostling interplays of figure and ground where shapes and lines share duties in each role - would long ago have been stilled as icons representing the attainment of this quest if they weren’t so successfully protean. This, of course, is the point.

Save for a gem of a small gallery packed with these historical benchmark paintings, the Gagosian show focuses on the work de Kooning made following his move from the city to the far reaches of Long Island. (This means the installation does not contain examples of the very early abstractions or figure paintings, nor any of the one-time infamous Woman paintings upon which much of his reputation was forged).

In the early 1960s, de Kooning made the transition from being an inveterate urbanite to living in the rural setting of The Springs, East Hampton. There, in a landscape not dissimilar to his native Holland, he designed for himself a studio. Close to the ocean and set amongst the scrub oaks, the building has become famous the world over as a sort of ideal, an example of architecture flowing from the nature of an artist’s discipline.

Gagosian’s Chelsea gallery, with its open space, generous proportions, exposed ceiling trusses and bright, diffused natural light is not a far aesthetic remove from de Kooning’s Hampton studio. As such, this exhibition allows the paintings to be seen in an environment comparable to that in which they were created - with the paintings standing in as the views out the studio windows.

Many institutions have come together to create this show. There are masterpieces aplenty documenting the consistent high points of de Kooning’s painting evolution through the 1960s and 70s. But it is the room of paintings from the 1980s that is the irresistible draw. Especially, it is the inclusion of four paintings (only one of which has been previously exhibited} from 1988 that reward any viewer’s sojourn - no matter how arduous.

For a painter who resided within and propelled the vanguard of artistic practice for over 50 years, the capstone to his expression turns out to be paintings comprised of expansive, looping lines floating in space that are close to indistinguishable in look and purpose from the graffiti “tags,” “burners” and “throw-ups” that adorn the surfaces of the city - indeed probably even the outside walls of the very gallery within which these paintings now hang.

From the cusp of the 1980s, de Kooning’s work underwent a significant transformation. Gone were the knotted whorls of thick, sensual paint that had been a hallmark of his work since at least the mid-1940s. Prior to 1980, the preponderance of de Kooning’s work offers a tactile world across its surface. In some of its extremes, this sensual tangibility can be as familiar as your own body and as consuming as quicksand.

The space embodied in all of his works is experienced as a vast, internally coherent landscape that is awash in light - great, bright, sharp light. The paintings of the late 1970s represent the apogee of these tendencies. With their clotted, curdled, dripping surfaces, these works form a topographical tour de force.

It was in the wake of this period’s baroque, sensual verisimilitude that de Kooning shifted gears and began creating painted surfaces as smooth and wet as the surface of your eye. The change shifts his work from a depictive and literal texture to an optical tactility.

Hued lines in high-keys skim and wend across the white space and surface. The contrast packs an ocular supercharge. A phantom image burns, to varying degrees, into the retina and joins the eye’s gaze as it moves across the painting’s surface. In these works, de Kooning wields memory as a vital tool alongside his brushes - both long term and fleetingly short, both his and that of the viewer.

The movement of the painter’s hand bears tracings of the material world. The lines are armatures of perceptual experience, a mark scattering into a multitude of readings, all of which are unassailable in their veracity.

Present through a lifetime of painting remains the specificity of flesh, beach and studio accouterments. Even things that would seem immune to graphic representation - save for the evidence before one’s eyes - find their place: a precise light or time of day, an experience of a particular bodily orientation in the landscape, even vulnerability and the unquestioning quest. Present, too, is the view from before the canvas, within the glass and steel, light-filled studio of its origin.

In the ‘80s, it is as if de Kooning wanted to make it harder on himself by making it easier on himself. Surrendering to the tender impulse at the heart of his image-making pursuit, the late paintings feel like the works of a painter who - absent of artifice and unwarranted labor - is engaged in laying bare the genetic blueprint of the mysterious painting of his imagining that long ago compelled him to take up a brush and embark.

Perhaps entangled in this tender impulse are the seeds of commonality between de Kooning and the graffiti artists whose work his own came to resemble.

The eye of the painting master sees the world with a studied eclipse of preconception that mirrors the inherently inclusive, uncensoring eye of youth. As a young man de Kooning worked as a sign painter. It was the sign painter’s thin brush with its extra-long bristles that enabled him to draw whip-like strokes that flayed and narrowed in a way not far removed from how a “writer” employs a spray can.

De Kooning, working on Long Island in a sort of palace of the artistic ideal - a workplace where the valuing of art built unto itself a shrine for its own furtherance - shares sympathy with an inner-city youth art tradition so condemned that it is circumscribed with issues of legality. Despite differences of age, access and environment, de Kooning and an urban graffiti practitioner meet in a comparable visual milieu. Television, advertising, signage, photography and the line or letter that issues forth from a gesture comprise a pervasive visual fact. If you really are reflective of the environment, then mass-media distillation is going to occur.

Throughout his career, de Kooning used the complexities and difficulties of his life to formulate strategies to frustrate his facility and, in so doing, break new ground. Representative of this practice might be the period of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when - as viewed through the lens of biography - his work is often discounted as arising from a haze of alcohol.

This work could just as easily be seen as finding a frisson in the making and using of incoherence as an organizing principle or goal. The irony, of course, is that the eye can’t perceive incoherence. That’s a function of a certain quarter of the mind and is easily trumped by the reality pouring in through the eyes. It’s a challenge that asks: Is there such a thing as a bad painting? The answer might be “yes,” but only if one set out to make a “good” painting.

De Kooning in the 1980s certainly faced an unusual complexity and difficulty: he was succumbing to Alzheimer's disease. Diagnosed in 1989, he continued to paint until early 1990. It remains an ongoing debate as to which works can confidently be regarded as reflecting his conscious intent. The first great survey of this work - organized jointly by SFMOMA and the Walker Art Center in 1995 - included works up to 1987. With this current show the canon is being stretched to embrace works from 1988.

For all the variety, the numerous series, pursuits and periods, that comprise de Kooning’s work of the 1980s, no leap is as dramatic as that of 1988. Indeed, it appears that - true to form - de Kooning was using his last imaginative energies to venture forth into yet another uncharted mode.

In some analyses this new manner is attributed in large part to the undue influence of new studio assistants who introduced to his palette an array of complementary and pastel colors. If so, it wouldn’t be the first time de Kooning had his palette dictated by external factors. The extreme reduction of his palette in the late 1940s was enforced by poverty. The triumphant black and white abstractions were his response to that particular environmental determinant.

The controversy that swirls around de Kooning’s work during the final years of his productivity highlights the vexing nature of Alzheimer's itself - a disease which seems to cloud not only the mind of the sufferer but also, in this case, the mind of the viewer. The knowledge of Alzheimer's impedes direct perception in a way analogous to how questions of legality muddle the perception of graffiti.

We may well be heading to a place where compassion, rather than some notion of aesthetic valuation, may render the entirety of his production worthy of the canon and our attention and care, regardless of possible neurological impairment. For a master painter of light, a final contribution of his legacy might be the introduction of a different sunshine: that of transparency and full disclosure.

A transparency before our eyes would see in the graffiti on the walls, light poles, delivery trucks, street signs, phone booths, train windows, sidewalks and mailboxes the visual fact of art popping forth through every channel and think, now there’s some painting for ya.

A culture investing in perceiving what’s right before its eyes will acknowledge and revere the most committed visual artists in our midst.

Free of all questions, the paintings de Kooning created under the encroaching darkness stand as inviolable visual facts. His painterly tenacity in the face of peril is an act of advocacy on behalf of self-expression. In the end, de Kooning is in league with the anonymous graffiti writer who by virtue of existence alone assumes his or her own validity. Who can argue with that?

Posted by mark at 11:13 AM | Comments (1)

January 26, 2004

John Currin at the Whitney

On the occasion of the Museum of Modern Art’s great Jackson Pollock retrospective in 1998, I recall reading a particular review of the exhibit in one of the local papers. Suitably in awe of Pollock’s accomplishment, the reviewer led us through the rooms of the show. For many at the time, the final gallery of works was a cause of ill-ease, sadness and disappointment. Coming after the towering breakthrough of the drip paintings and the powerful black and white figurative paintings that followed, the works in the last room of the show appeared to some as disparate, tangential and flailing.

The reviewer in question was among those who found the conclusion to the show, and Pollock’s oeuvre, wanting. The writer said, in essence, that the probable trajectory of this painter's work was easy to imagine. He/she then proceeded to envision the unlived remainder of Pollock’s career - going so far as to describe precise (imagined) paintings complete with names for different (imagined) series'. This writer’s conjectured future for the artist undermined the credibility of the previous (actual) work and, ultimately, implied that Pollock’s premature death was a sort of blessing in that it spared us from having to look at a lot of lousy late-career paintings and spared him from becoming a parody of himself.

Concocting a future for a unique artistic genius is, of course, rampant and a fool’s mission.

It’s possible that, had Pollock not wrapped that car around a tree, he might have had a breakthrough to rival the drip paintings. Unimaginable, to be sure, but no more improbable than the emergence of the drip paintings in the first place - a development that no one could have predicted. They only seem self-evident post their physical manifestation.

With the above story as a cautionary tale, John Currin’s mid-career survey at the Whitney - perhaps because it represents the tantalizing beginning of a life’s work - got me thinking about where he might take us and his work. In contradistinction to the above author’s imagining of a future body of Pollock’s work, Currin’s future of my imagining would seem rife with possibilities that may recast everything we suppose about his present undertaking.

Currin’s work-to-date is predicated on the notion that, in fact, a reactionary approach can be the more progressive strategy. Painting in a highly accomplished realist manner is the reactionary part of the equation. When it comes to the progressive side of the calculation, though, Currin hasn’t shown his cards.

Despite a reputation that characterizes his work as intentionally vulgar, misogynistic or kitschy, what Currin seems most intent to do is reassure. The quality of his paintings register as an objective fact. They are uncommonly well painted, undeniably “good” paintings. To put it bluntly, nobody walks away from a Currin painting saying “my kid could do that.” Or, to employ a metaphor frequently used with Currin: How can the emperor have no clothes if they’re painted so well and I can, in fact, see them with my own eyes?

In an age given to cynicism and overload, this assurance of quality is an experience in rare supply. Its appearance comes as a kind of relief; aesthetic resistance falls. With the viewer’s judgment suspended by this assurance, the painting is perceived, allowing image and content to come to the fore. One of Currin’s great accomplishments is that his paintings have found an opening.

Building upon the strategy of providing reassurance through satisfying reactionary yearnings, Currin makes academic paintings catered to the moment. With a nod to the canon, his works draw their sources from the visual imagery in which the culture is fluent - that is to say the academy of our time - hence, the indebtedness to pinups, porn, fashion magazines and Rockwell inspired illustration and sentimentality.

The people who populate Currin’s paintings are from what one might call the collector class. Like the academic painters of old, he is explicitly appealing to the taste of his audience by (symbolically) painting his patrons. True to tradition, he does this, in effect, by holding up a mirror. This strategy sets up the vexing and indelicate question, “Is getting everything you want the definition of crap?”

In "Fishermen" (2002) the two figures are up to their thighs in a tiny, little boat that, as per conventional anatomy, can’t possibly contain the rest of their lower bodies. Effectively, they have “boat legs.” Boat legs...boot legs. A bootleg of tradition, tweaking the notion of proprietary originality and asking, "Would you download this file?"

The gallery label accompanying “Fishermen” takes care to direct our attention to the virtuosic rendering of the rope looped in the foreground. Often, Currin’s work is presented as a chance to practice old time connoisseurship, an opportunity to deploy the magnifying glass to scrutinize and delight over technical prowess. Thus far, this kind of fetishism has accompanied the appreciation of Currin’s paint handling. In time, though, Currin’s vaunted painting technique may be revealed to be a feint in service to his progressive ends. Technique, representing seemingly measurable, verifiable quality, may be a kind of trojan horse admitting nothing short of mastery into the mix.

In recent years, mastery as a concept and ambition has suffered a conflation with patriarchy and exclusivity. In some ways, this reappraisal would appear reactionary in the extreme. Yet, mastery doesn’t reside on any political or aesthetic spectrum. It is the constant, a wellspring. In its best sense, mastery - meaning the fluid manifestation of intent - is the province of every individual’s unique genius.

The Whitney’s gallery guide quotes Currin as saying, “The subject of a painting is always the author, the artist.” Indicative of Currin’s strategy of redirection, this statement raises the question: When standing before a painting on a gallery wall, who is the authority? The painter, nowhere to be seen, back at work on a new painting in his or her studio, or the viewer presently experiencing the work?

If we are content with marveling over technical virtuosity, then we cede authority to the absent artist. However, if it is mastery we find, we can meet the painting with our own unique genius, in effect becoming the artist. The mirror-like aspects of Currin’s work - which have been seen, in the main, as reflecting back to us our cultural tastes and desires - intimate that this bit of aesthetic jujitsu, wherein the viewer is empowered into their own artistry, is the progressive end of his enterprise.

Posted by mark at 11:52 PM | Comments (1)

December 20, 2003

Terry Winters at Matthew Marks

The just concluded Terry Winters exhibit at Matthew Marks' 22nd Street gallery was one of those great shows that provides a glimpse of a penetrating artist deeply engaged in the incorporation of new vocabulary and exploration in general.

Many of the works feature the imagery of film strip sprocket holes running across the surface. This depiction seems analogous to Winters' signature imagery of biological cells, but here the shapes imply absence (they're holes after all). The notion of a film strip suggests a sequence of projected images moving past. Intriguingly, the paintings without the explicit slide frame reference have forward planes of biological images that viscerally seem to scroll across the surface in various directions - the film strip is in motion. For genealogcal purposes it would be interesting to learn the sequence in which these paintings were completed.

Topographical maps, stained biological slides, oscilloscope plottings and the aforementioned film strip are a few of the motifs. This raises the question, "What is the scale one is looking at?" Larger than life (there's a phrase to think about) by many magnitudes seems to be the case with most of the works, but some of the fields that consist solely of linear waves, warps and wefts, devoid of floating objects, hint at vast spaces, or (and I'm out on a limb here) psychic portraits. The abstract has become representational, or, if you prefer, the representational has become abstract.

The works deploy a sophisticated game-playing strategy, setting up a system or equation and letting it run. There is a liberation in this way of working that is as palpable on the gallery wall as it, no doubt, is in the studio.

Tacitly circumscribing painterly options allows expression, quirk and randomness to gather by default in the gaps and collapses in the system, thereby drawing attention to themselves. The hand in these paintings is intense, human and stirring of gratitude. Consisting of the incremental accumulation of an innumerable, yet seemingly calculable, number of strokes and decisions, Winters' work, among its many other accomplishments, succeeds in short circuiting its own imagery, becoming a field of communicative touch.

Posted by mark at 11:41 PM | Comments (0)