Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Whizz-Bang! Ebullient "Now-ism" at the Pizzuti Collection

Anselm Reyle, untitled, 2011.Mixed media on canvas, 89-5/8 x 88-5/8." View as one enters the building.
Everything about the second season's show at the Pizzuti Collection astounds and thrills. Ron and Ann Pizzuti, exuberant collectors of contemporary art, have turned their own house inside out so that lucky we can live with its splendors until June of 2015. The only things missing among this abundance of singular, beautiful, and high-spirited work are fainting couches and fans: Some of us may grow dizzy, exploring the carnival of brilliant colors, optical illusions, innovations and subversions inside this show's sparking energy field. 

This is the first show I've seen in which every work included was made in the 21st century: What a wonderful surprise this was to me. The Pizzuti's have been the first believers and buyers for many of these artists. The couple has been collecting others for a long time. Everything in the show was picked with love and appreciation, not only with an eye to market value. But when you're at the show, you won't have to be told that: The investment in pleasure is more than evident.

Dion Johnson, Moonlight, 2009. Acrylic on
linen, 72 x 48."
Detail, Johnson's Moonlight, showing how the
 linen'sweave modulates each color,
undercuttingthe illusion of "solid color"
I'll be writing more in the future about individual pieces and artists in the show. Here, I want to convey a sense of the vivacity that makes Now-ism so irresistible. Whatever turn you make toward a new gallery, or up the stairs, a bold, big, and brilliantly colored work greets you. If painting had hips, their hands would be on them, luring you with their defiant self-confidence, with their smirking mysteries.

The show is hung with an eye for these bravura moments. Whenever you decide to move along, you are put in the position of encountering a simplified, high-impact visual event. Each of these explosions of color and intrigue—each a feast in itself—merely opens the door to a room of excitement. There's always more to come, as my future posts about this show will illustrate.

Brian Porray, "!===FL4M3JOB===/", 2011. Synthetic polymet, spray paint, paper
on canvas. 96 x 216."
But the message that Now-ism calls from every lobby, landing, and portal is, "Come this way; come in; we want you here!" The building's gray, cool, low-affect interior does not simply not compete with the works, it actively supports their brilliance by contrasting effectively with them.

One of the truly fabulous moments is turning south from the first floor lobby and catching a view of Brian Porray's aptly named, "1===FL4M3JOB===/". Aptly-named, I say, because I'm probably not the only person rendered speechless by the size, brilliance, hilarity, and aggressive inscrutability of this painting. Its detail, viewed through the neutral lobby passage is like finding a playmate when you've been alone indoors for a week.

This is a treat that only grows, for as you approach the room, and  enter it, you discover that the painting is over twice the size you'd come to expect. It's hard not to burst out in laughs of simple high spirits when you step into the room, the work is so immense, bright, and bursting with life. It's a room of it's own; it's a life of its own in which any viewer can spend days, moving back and forth across the room for views far away—it's like intergalactic space—or close up, when it looks, despite dribbles of paint and other crude lapses of technique, like samples of the well-wrought handicrafts in paper or quilting cotton or enamel.

In door, Sarah Cain, Kiss, 3013, acrylic, beads, and string on canvas. In foyer,
Jim Hodges, Constellation of an Ordinary Day, 2002. Wood and metal panel,
ceramic sockets and lightbulbs,  in two parts.
Advancing up the stairs to the third floor, the visitor ascends into another vivid and playful scene, this time composed of two works that may as well have been installed by an interior decorator, they make such a playful and pretty pair.
This feels definitely to me as if I've come to a feminine quarter, pink and polka dotted, pastel undercoated until Cain's black band and big, red X remind us that Pirate Jenny was a girl too. Once you've passed the light installation, you can no longer see the two pieces at one time. But this lovely entrance—up the stairs and across the landing—left their similarities in my mind. The diamond shapes, the rounds with spaces between them, the dark spots mixed with light ones: These similarities left the memory of each in the other.

There are so many reasons to venture forth into the world of contemporary art, and the Pizzutis' Now-ism makes as simple and direct a case as possible for doing show. How could any show be more fun than this? Why should you go? Because you like pink. Because you like shiny things. Because you like dramatic things, or puzzles, or things that make you laugh. This is a high-spirited, high-jinx show, where every doorway and every gallery is an invitation made as alluring as possible. This is definitely a show to bring children to, for they nearly always have to right attitude around art like this. Ask them what it's about: They'll have an answer. But you'll enjoy it anyway, even without child guides. See it soon so you'll have lots of chances to go back.

Self portrait of the writer in Anselm Reyle's, untitled, 2011

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Diana Al-Hadid at Columbus College of Art and Design: Invitation

Diana Al-Hadid, Head in the Clouds, 2014. Polymer
gypsum, Fiberglass, steel, foam, wood, plaster, clay,
gold leaf, pigment. 130 x 56 x 50." Courtesy of the 

artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery. Author photo.
Somewhere between the holiest of holies and the lowliest of lowlys, Diana Al-Hadid's gold-leaf-embellished heaps of industrial materials aspire heavenwards. They soar through our offended sensibilities to reconstruct a lost sense of awe. The material from which they are fabricated acknowledges the chaotic ugliness against which a sense of glory struggles, so improbably, to emerge. 

Put more plainly: Al-Hadid would sometimes appear to be a construction worker run amok. She uses materials like steel rods, gypsum board, mylar, Fiberglass, and plaster to create works that can appear to be literally thrown together, then disintegrated by force or time. Her major pieces in this show might be construed as collections retrieved from scrap piles where a subdivision of McMansions is rising.

This wonderful show disappears from Columbus after the 11th of October, and I regret reviewing it only now, for it's a show that should be widely seen. It's a show for Everyman, exemplary of the reasons to see contemporary work. It's shocking; it's confounding. It is fun. It stimulates one's faculty of curiosity. Any simple observation about it is bound to be right and will lead to yet more fruitful questions and observations. People who think they don't like or understand contemporary art will find that there is nothing to fear in this ultimately accessible work. Why spend time at home with a crossword puzzle, with this show to keep eye and mind lively and acute?

Diana Al-Hadid, detail, Head in the Clouds,
Fontains Abbey, Yorkshire. Photo by
draGnet, on 
I was drawn to Head in the Clouds, this droopy-winged, skeletal angel perched atop the most humble of pedestals (in fact, it sure looks like a particularly nasty, big, black mushroom to me). Certainly not a creature of the flesh, this celestial being seems to have failed the transformation to pure spirit. Or, it could be that it requires the gradual dissolution of the body to become angelic? Or, maybe angels have a lifespan too, and this one has seen better days? I suppose, given the title Al-Hadid has left us with, that the head in the clouds—and, indeed, the head retains its form—might signal a valuing of spirit over substance. 

However one wishes to interpret this sculpture, though, there is something awe-inspiring about it. The gold-leaf imparts an unquestionable sense of precious value despite its decrepit form, and the definition by multiple, slender vertical lines certainly suggests Gothic architecture—the upsurging shafts, piers, mullions, and pinnacles. The angel's body is like a deserted, derelict abbey, on which 18th century English authors built the gothic novel—or William Beckford built his own romantic monument to impossible verticality, Fonthill Abbey

And a sense of the Romantic resides in all of Al-Hadid's work in this show. It is grand in gesture and use of space. It is histrionic, theatrical, madly demonstrative. In the clarity of its contrasts and the extremes of its positions, it actively invites engagement and interpretation.

Diana Al-Hadid, Sun Beard, 2014. Polymer gypsum, Fiberglass, steel, plaster, gold leaf, pigment. 44x 96 x 6."
Collection of Dave and Nancy Gill. Author photograph.
Diana Al-Hadid, Sun Beard, detail
Another reason that Al-Hadid's work is riveting is that her own extraordinary level of engagement announces itself in every work. The artist's high levels of idea and self-awareness don't cancel an almost naive abandon with which she seems to attack her work. Sun Beard is an almost-two dimensional panel; the surface sits on a wooden frame, and the surface has the depth created by accumulated layers of heavy materials. On the top of it all, she has painted, in the upper left corner, a radiating sun in golden tones. Opposite, there's what I take to be the traditional image of North Wind, whose black "beard" is the blast of cold breath he blows. Here, the two elements appear forcefully to compete against a scrim of…icicles? rain? shadows in cosmic regions?

Diana Al-Hadid, Sun Beard, detail.
The painting supports the intensity of the conflict by its utter lack of finesse. The sun, in the first place, is placed where children often put it to shine down on the scene below. It's quartered, serving as stage-lights that insure the visibility of the normal scene below. She has painted it at high speed, without mixing colors, in big, sloppy strokes, as if she just wanted to get the job done: "There it is. Finished: The Sun. Next: The Wind." And then on the opposite side, the old man with the beard is devised in the same manner: simply placed, no mixing of colors, no time taken with the drawing. She's satisfied that we recognize him, and that's enough.

In Sun Beard, then, we see Al-Hadid doing something very different than she did with Head in the Clouds. The similarities of materials and signature appearance are obvious. But in this work she shows her consummate confidence. I like the revelation of this childlike aspect of her artistic persona. She will do what she wants to, needs to, feels immediately the urge to do. It suggests that sophistication is not what she's promoting, but vision.  

Diana Al-Hadid, Nolli's Orders, 2012. Steel, wood, polystyrene, plaster, polymer gypsum, Fiberglass, alumninum foil, silver leaf, paint.
122 x 264 x 288." Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery. Author photo.

The jaw-dropping Nolli's Orders commands center stage in Al-Hadid's CCAD show. Solid cascades fall from level to level, as water in a great, natural field of slate—or as in it's opposite, a monumental, baroque fountain. The draperies that form a platform between the watery event and the "underground" structured, gothic galleries, are infused with pigments. These come across as sylvan, with pastel rose and leaf green dominating in soft, irregular patches against the white—as if this huge, theatrical structure sits on a mossy bank.

Theater it is, both set and drama. The audience provides the action in moving around and around, peering into, up and down at the amazing variety of perspectives and elements of the work.

 Nolli's Orders refers to a famous map of Rome made in 1748, made by the architect, Giambattista Nolli, so the title confirms the reference to Rome's grandeur, its monuments, and even to its partition, since Nolli's map was made to distinguish the different areas of the city. But Al-Hadid clearly doesn't want to leave anything unmixed. In the view to the left, one could be a spelunker deep inside a cave, entirely forgetful of the seeming abbey cloisters from which the whole form arises.

Yet across Al-Hadid's landscape are draped the naked forms of men in the lounging or curled poses familiar from classical sculpture. But Nolli's Orders does not rise to the climax of the Trevi Fountain's commanding figure, Ocean, before which the others are supine. The monument builds to anti-climax, in a joke about itself.

Those figures (hollow at the back, one finds) are also exceedingly disproportionate adding to the general feeling of screwy perspective and weirdly layered meanings.nate to the the layers they are draped across, adding to the general feeling of screwy perspective and weirdly layered meanings.

Are humans overwhelming the natural landscape? Are they causing the collapse of civilization? Their civilization, founded on the galleries of the Renaissance, has bloated and crumbled. Is it our task now to begin again redefine art and nature? Or, perhaps, to reintegrate them?

Al-Hadid's work, seeming at first so overwhelming, is at heart wide-open. Her world of reference is vast: The Church; art history, disappearance and resurrection (Head in the Clouds); nature and pagan folk tales (the North Wind in Sun Beard); classical antiquity and its heirs; deterioration in Nolli's Orders. And this is only half the show, loaded with more significant, unique works.

I love this show. It should be the whoop-it-up emblem for the slogan, Fear No Art. Diana Al-Hadid clearly works as hard as a construction worker, but with the fever of an artist whose mind is an explosion of ideas. This woman seems to be receptive to everything that has ever come her way, and is capable of putting any bit of experience or knowledge to use. The multiplicity of meanings we can derive from her work is bracing. The humor and poignancy; the ideas and materials brought from high and common culture alike—everything makes us wonder why we've been content with boxes when flow works so well. She strips the flesh off and lets the structure support the ideas; she lets her intentions fall into one another and sees what happens at the next level. Simply by observing her work, trying to follow the flow, we can't help but feel ourselves loosen and lighten up, to begin blending what used to be so clear, so captive.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

George Morrison's Horizons

Spirit Path, New Day, Red Rock Variation: Lake Superior Landscape, 1990, acrylic and pastel on paper, 22 1/2 x 30 1/8 in. Collection Minnesota Museum of American Art. Museum Purchase. Courtesy, Minnesota Museum of American Art.

In late August I was lucky to see a show at Indianapolis's Eiteljorg Museum of Indians and Western Art. Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison is now in transit to the Heard Museum in Phoenix, where it opens on October 25. I had not before known of George Morrison and could only marvel how this could be. His work—painting, drawing, wood collage, wood sculpture, lithography—responds across a sixty-year career to the art movements of his time: regionalism, surrealism, cubism, and abstract expressionism. 

Morrison moved in the 40's from Minnesota, where he grew up and studied at the Minnesota School of Art, to New York City, where he attended the Art Students League. He was close with Franz Kline, and he moved in the circle of Kline, de Kooning, Motherwell, Joan Mitchell—the New York School. He was one of them and he showed with them. He had his first solo show in 1948. 

By 1970, when Morrison returned to his home state and a faculty appointment at the University of Minnesota, he had achieved considerable recognition in the forms of purchase prizes and awards. At the University, he was appointed to two faculties: studio art and American Indian studies. 

Morrison was a Chippewa from the Grand Portage Reservation, a fact that had had little presence in either the content, materials, or techniques of his work. In New York, his colleagues had been unaware of his ethnic background, which had not been a preoccupation for him. His interests and goals were the same as the other artists around him. He was not identified as an "Indian" artist until his return to Minnesota, where knowledge of his Chippewa identity created controversies about "who he was" as an artist. Despite his excellence and eminence as a modern artist, there were curators who declined to show him with other Native artists because his art didn't look like Indian art. Morrison was comfortable with his heritage; he was comfortable too with his cosmopolitan point of view.

As he aged, Morrison's Chippewa heritage took a more prominent place in his work. This resulted not from social pressure but from the natural process of his life journey and growing understanding of his own story. In the catalogue that shares the show's name, Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison by W. Jackson Rushing III and Kristin Makholm (University of Oklahoma Press, 2013), plates show many works that arise from or include this impulse. They are consonant, though, with his work as cubist, abstract expressionist, and master of materials in traditions that relate him to Picasso more than to traditional Navajo art. Indeed, he faced the prejudice that "Indian" art was usually expected to include the iconography of the southwest tribes. Morrison's work lacked suns. What kind of Indian art was that?

Untitled (Quarry Face), 1949, pencil, pastel, and ink on paper, 18 x 24 in. Minnesota Museum of American Art. Acquisition Fund Purchase. 94.01.11. Courtesy, Minnesota Museum of American Art.
Modern Spirit is alive with beautiful and sophisticated work, much from the collection of the Minnesota Museum of American Art. It's a great pity that Morrison seems, though, to be cramped into the position of regional and Native American artist. He is clearly of the world-class stature he enjoyed when he worked in New York. It's disconcerting to see that when he returned to teach and continue his distinguished work in Minnesota, he was cast as a regional and ethnic artist. The current show toured to New York in 2013, exhibited at the National Museum of the American Indian. Its other stops are (or have been) Fargo, Indianapolis (Museum of Indians and Western Art), Phoenix, and St. Paul at the Minnesota History Center. What about the Whitney? The Smithsonian? The Hunter Museum in Chattanooga? An American art museum? A modern art museum? Evidently the dilemma of identity-based interpretation remains unresolved. He is a major Native American artist and took pride in that. To the extent that ethnic identity ghettoizes his work, it's a loss for many who would appreciate Morrison in all his breadth and would appreciate equally the inclusion of Native American artists as "normal."

 A variety of themes and visual motifs run throughout Morrison's work, from earliest to late. I was particularly attracted to his use of the long landscape with implicit or explicit horizon line. This orientation fascinates me for all the things it can signify and can invoke in feeling. His spider-covered 1949 drawing, Quarry Face, above, is both landscape (distant) and suggests by its title a surface close enough to touch; the "spiders" reinforce this latter idea. 

The boxes created by horizontal and vertical lines, which might create the lapidary effect of a rock wall, seems to intensify the flow of the lines from left to right, where colors change at the borders. Each "box" both contains a truncated landscape view (defined by color) and extends it by line to connect with its neighbor. The several white circles with differently defined edges read like moons over different prospects. They further complicate not the landscape, but the multiplicity of stratified landscapes layered across the drawing. 

Is it landscape? It's length compared to height makes it technically so. It's an abstract drawing. Is it more? The connected sinuous line that directs itself upward from left to right in the top quadrant forms a horizon, cutting across the entire plane.

Untitled, 1978, lithograph, 30 x 44 1/2 in. Collection Minnesota Museum of American Art. Gift of Northwestern National Bank of Minneapolis. 79.42.14. Courtesy, Minnesota Museum of American Art.

Morrison's 1978 monochromatic lithograph shows some of the same features of the1949 color drawing. One of Morrison's techniques was to make large, long collages of wood. This is a print pulled from such a collage. Like the earlier drawing, there is the tension between close and far away: We might place our hands directly on this surface; perhaps it's a wall that blocks our movement. Or we might be observing an abstract, two-dimensional representation of a faraway space. Again, three-quarters of the way up, Morrison has placed a line that divides the image horizontally. It sits like a high horizon line, suggesting that we consider Above and Below as spaces with different significances.

Morning Storm, Red Rock Variation: Lake Superior Landscape, 1986, acrylic on canvas board, 6 x 11 in. Collection Minnesota Museum of American Art. Acquisition Fund Purchase.  87.17.2. Courtesy, Minnesota Museum of American Art.

Morrison's connection to the landscape of his childhood on the Lake Superior shoreline becomes literal in the horizontal paintings and pastels of his artistically fertile 70s. While the horizon where water and land, or water and sky meet are a constant subject, the energetic and fully engaged explorations of color, materials, and form are of no less interest than the spiritual content. In Morning Storm, Red Rock Variation, above, again he makes us debate about the represented space, giving this miniature, high-surfaced painting the feel of a colossal work. The blocks of color in the bottom section could, as in the others we've seen, be stones in a wall—tactile, immediate, and topped by an edge, until the merging ideas of edge and horizon soften into ambiguity.
Awakening, Time Edge Rising, Red Rock Variation: Lake Superior Landscape, 1990, acrylic and pastel on paper, 22 3/8 x 30 in. Collection Minnesota Museum of American Art. Museum Purchase. Courtesy of Minnesota Museum of American Art.
Both Awakening, above, and Spirit Path, New Day, which opens this article, were accomplished when Morrison was 71, with another ten years ahead of him. These acrylic and pastel paintings are more impressionistic now than expressionistic. His distribution of color in patches seems to describe the experience of something real, something with stunning sensory impact. These colors are reminiscent of Monet, so there's that art historical connection.

Monet was an explorer of natural light: he did not invent colors, but worked to record what he saw. Using a similar palette, did Morrison do the same? Did he record what he saw at dawn on Lake Superior in different atmospheric conditions? I tend to doubt that that was all there was to it, for what it seems that Morrison recorded throughout his career-long, multi-media work in landscape form was always abstract. He seems not to have been interested in pictorial landscape. Rather, he appears to have been concerned with artistic form and with what one associates with it or embeds in the form. His later landscapes—the ones that are acknowledged as such—are visions really of water and sky, but of water that generates fire, of flaming spirit that unifies heaven and earth. The work is intensely visionary, and those visions may have their roots in the painter's ties to the earth of a Chippewa reservation on Lake Superior and to traditional cultural ideas of the ascendent soul and its powers.

It could be. Perhaps not. Morrison was a Native American and a phenomenal artist. These landscapes seem to be directly linked to places and inspiration from his Native heritage. Morrison was also an American artist of the New York School. His work is linked to significant strands of modern, Western art. In Modern Spirit we see the work of an artist who negotiated the scene—simultaneously present and far away—through his own integrative cultural experience: only his own.