Monday, January 19, 2015

The Poetry of Pia Fries

I have the Pizzuti Collection to thank for introducing me to the work of Swiss painter Pia Fries. Though widely shown and awarded in Europe, her work is in only three public collections in the US: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Detroit Institute of Art, and the Albright-Knox Museum in Buffalo. The Pizzuti's like her: The subject of this post isn't her only work in their collection. Perhaps we will see even more. I will hope. 
Pia Fries, one of five panels, Les Aquarelles de Leningrad,
2003, oil paint and facsimile on panel, 31-1/2 x 23-5/8."
(Print subject: Red geraniums and butterflies)

One of the most delectable moments of the current Now-ism show is Fries' five-panel work of paint and collage on wood, "Les Aquarelles de Leningrad," "The Leningrad Watercolors."

Each panel of blonde wood, planed to serene smoothness, has attached to it a print torn in half. (These are plates from an early 19th century book of botanical watercolors.) The halves are positioned in different ways vis-a-vis each other from painting to painting. Their placement sets the stage for extravagant, luscious streams, snakes, ridges and ribbons of oil paint, laid down with the élan of a pastry chef—Fries is sure to have used some of the same techniques and similar tools. 

The painting shown to the right includes all the elements that Fries combines in each of the panels: the torn botanical print and mounded  paint (not spread), raising the surface high above the board. There are soft, translucent designs directly on the wood that are made by oil paint so thinned that it appears like a stilled flow, as if it were marbled paper, or prepared microscope slides of simple wetlands plant life.

Pia Fries, one of five panels, Les Aquarelles de Leningrad,
2003, oil paint and facsimile on panel, 31-1/2 x 23-5/8."
(Print subject: caterpillar and moths on flowering plant)
Fries responds to the content and palette of the print with paint. But she does not engage in imitation of nature as we expect painters to do from a very long tradition of representation in various degrees of exactitude. Fries uses paint as construction material abstractly—suggestively—to imitate the shapes of the botanical and zoological life depicted on the collaged prints.  

I find it delicious that in the two paintings shown, the expression can strike us as both very abstract and strikingly literal. Above at the right, a stem breaks the print and muscles its way up to end in a crimson flower that pushes beyond the frame. The vitality is enormous, and it is buoyant too, thanks to the vernal green and brilliant yellow that shake off the shades from which the blossom emerges.

So too with the painting to the left, Fries uses her paint to imitate the subject of the print, which shows a caterpillar and moths. She creates her own, the worm ascending just as the one in the collaged picture does.
Pia Fries, detail from Les Aquarelles de

Pia Fries, detail from Les Aquarelles de Leningrad
From an angle, one can appreciate just how "real"—how substantial, how present, almost living—are the forms that Fries posits with paint. These aren't the result of trial and error, but of serene certainty: of a divine improvisation, it's so fearless. Her creation of reality from masses of paint is also rich, as in wealthy, confident that there is and will always be a sufficiency. Again, there is a divine confidence, a creative urge that takes your breath away.

Pia Fries, Les Aquarelles de Leningrad, 2003, oil paint and facsimile on panel, five panels, each 31-1/2 x 23-5/8."
These paintings, magnificent in their combined delicacy and assurance, attract the viewer to themselves by their rapturous rhythm of design and color. From across the gallery, they dance with an abandon of gesture that makes an irresistible invitation. Long before the eye can discern their botanical, sylvan, springtime subjects, the body knows them. They are a dance of sophisticated and elaborately choreographed gestures, costumed with flowing, dramatic garments. 
Pia Fries, detail from Les Aquarelles de

Fries' suite of paintings is so beautiful and so sensual that one can be completely satisfied simply with her bravura mastery of her materials. The power and freedom of her composition and her raw creativity are sources of infinite delight.

But beyond even the powerful appeal to body and eye, Fries' work packs an enormous punch to the understanding of what painting is; of what we mean by artistic representation; and of how we denominate the real and the represented—what's art and what's nature.

In Les Aquarelles de Leningrad, Fries seems to start with the proposition that the printed plates are already two removes from their natural subjects. They aren't watercolors at all: Any freshness of plant or insect—any connection to life that the original paintings may have had is gone by the time they have been translated into prints. The colors and unpredictability of the subjects are long gone. What relationship do these detailed, "accurate" representations of nature bear to their distant, living originals?

Pia Fries, one of five panels, Les Aquarelles de Leningrad,
2003, oil paint and facsimile on panel, 31-1/2 x 23-5/8."
(Print subject: caterpillar and moths on flowering plant)
In the space—"on the ground"—between the halved print, Fries goes not on a mission to find a better way to represent those flower- or butterfly- subjects. Representation is, of course, what we expect painters to do with their wonderful medium. Even abstract expressionist painters represent something, even if it is not tangible. Through the medium of paint, artists translate the real into Art.

Fries, though, uses her brave applications of paint to attempt creation of Reality from art "originals." Starting with the prints that are twice-removed from nature, she takes an approach that is in truth divine. She models organisms that have dimension, movement, and vigor pulsing through them. Her paint creatures/creations are suffused with an uncanny life that does not "capture" growth, movement and natural color, but performs them.

Once created, though, there's no getting around the fact that her beautiful lives have become art. But are they are like the printed watercolors? You can't close the book on these. They are specimens for a natural history museum; they come as close as a human can come to making a living thing. 

Is this Dr. Frankenstein? Is this a cloning experiment? I don't think so. It is a phenomenal exploration, though, of raw creativity; a fearless trip to the intersection of "real" and "artistic" or, as many like to say, "false." Fries is close to breaking the sound barrier in her headily original work. How magnificent I find the idea of breaking through two levels of flat representation to make life from oil paint; to evade traditional representation with an aggressive ideal of creativity. 

I can't get enough of art at this level: beautiful, masterful with materials and technique, and wildly ambitious in thought.

Friday, January 16, 2015

At the Columbus Museum of Art, Artists Making Money.

In——We Trust: Art and Money is a broad and often amusing show at the Columbus Museum of Art, continuing through February. How does a curator focus a show anchored by two words with such culturally potent and complex meanings? Art? Money? Tyler McCann, Columbus's new associate curator for contemporary art, offers us a show of almost bewildering inclusiveness. Because only a few images from the show are available, I'll print them in this review to give the reader an idea of the variety of work displayed. I want to focus, though, on the theme I was most interested in, which is artists and how their practices relate to commerce.
Paul Ramírez Jonas, We Make Change, 2008 (detail).
 Penny press machine, oak, plexiglass, one penny from each year
 minted from 1909–2008. Photography: Paul Ramírez Jonas.

 Courtesy the artist and Koenig & Clinton, New York.

In the show's opening position is Andy Warhol's wonderful little painting of both sides of a two-dollar bill, lent by the Dayton  Art Institute. Warhol made it in response to the exhortation to paint what he liked. That would be money, wouldn't it? Warhol was a master draftsman, and there's a pencil drawing of $5 banknotes that communicates the controlled emotion one feels in master drawings of the nude. The wonderful thing about his money portraits  is that they are both careful in their representation and fresh in their expressiveness: His self-awareness is clear, but there's also an innocence too that asks to be taken seriously.

Why shouldn't the artist want to make money? Everyone else does. Are his skill and his creativity in opposition to a goal shared by every normal person in society? Must he only represent money? Who decides that he is above the rest of society?

Cildo Meireles, Zero-Dollar Bill, 1978/2013. Image courtesy the artist. 
Photo copyright Pat Kilgore.
Sarah Cain, in a charming selections from a work named "$ forty three," 2012, shows several individually framed dollar bills over which she has painted brilliantly colored geometrical designs that favor equilateral triangles. We come to understand the triangles as pyramids when close inspection demonstrates that on some of the bills she has not painted over the currency's pyramid topped by the glowing eye. Aside from the suggestion in her title, this is the only detail that reveals the fact that she has actually painted on legal tender. 

Cain paints so comprehensively that sometimes only the tiny glowing eye itself peeks through. It is then the merest speck in the field of color; it's easy to overlook entirely. 

On a one-dollar bill, the motto inscribed above the configuration of the pyramid and beaming eye is "Annuit Coeptis," roughly, "providence/god shines on our undertakings." We historically understand "our" to be the republic's. 

Cain removes the providential eye from its monetary setting and places it in a field of exotic color and design. As such, it becomes the reverse of an evil eye talisman. The eye of god shines out with a hopeful message: Prosperity for the artist? Increased creative potency? It seems that Cain re-values money and condenses its power to a capacity that inspires and bring good things to pass.
Superflex, Bankrupt Banks, 2008 – present, banners:
paint on fabric, 79 x 79 inches; panels: vinyl on painted MDF,
79 x 39.5 inches, Coppel Collection, photo courtesy Nils Staerk
 and Fundación Jumex Arte Contemporáneo.

On the theme of artists and money, I found the most poignant and amusing works to be two from Caleb Larsen. Fortunately both of these are pictured with captions on his website, linked above. Do look them up.

"$10,000 Sculpture in Progress" a modest piece from 2009, is a dollar-bill acceptor set into the wall. It's just like the one on a Coca-Cola dispenser or candy machine, covered with a sticker noting that it accepts "$1 & $5." The direction to Insert bill Here is illustrated with a hand holding a dollar bill in the proper position. The gallery note provided by Larsen suggests that when $10,000 is collected, then he will produce the work. What could be clearer about the connection between art and money? 

Meschac GABA, Bankivi: Housing Bank, 2014,
 Wood, decommissioned Central African (CFA)
franc banknotes, plexiglas, assorted coins 
The acceptor works, by the way. I made a donation, which it sucked right up. Being myself the recipient of largesse, I'll donate to any artist who asks. For all I know, he's on this third project by now. More power to him. But I feel confident that many react to this as to a scam: "If he's got work in the museum, he's not hurting!" Oh, if only. This work is another way of measuring public perceptions of how art is financed. It measures our illusions, assumptions, and prejudices about who artists are—tricksters? malingerers? I would love to see a follow up to this piece. Did museum goers react to it as to a piece of rhetoric? Or as a statement from a working artist?

Next to "$10,000 Sculpture in Progess" hangs a framed document, letter-press printed on fine paper, also by Larson, titled "The financial footprint of the artistic practice," 2009. This is its text: "On this date the undersigned Collector agrees to transfer the total credit card debt the artist Caleb Larsen has incurred as a result of maintaining his artistic practice.//The balance of $—————will be transferred from the artist's credit card account to that of the Collector." Lines for the signatures of Collector and Artist and the date follow.

Funny? Yes. Incisive? Yes again. Can the Collector be a patron? Can people invest in the artist's freedom to create, or only in the commodity of the artwork? Who appreciates the artist as a worker who must not only have food on the table, but space and the time for ideas to develop over uncluttered time? 

Larson implicitly asks where we think the art works come from? And the answer is not only from materials and a studio, as the IRS would have it. It's from a secure and nurtured person, a thinker and a worker secure in the value not only of great works, but of the experiments, essays, and time, time, time it takes to midwife them. One big question lingers in this work, though. It's not only framed, but under glass. No one can take the document and sign it, as one can contribute through the machine. Does Larsen have low expectations? He's already found his patron? Maybe Collectors want to think it over and have their attorneys add a few clauses?

 William E. Jones, Color Coordinated Currency (Green), 2012. Image courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, CA. Photo Brian Forrest. 

Friday, January 9, 2015

Brian Porray's Big Picture at the Pizzuti Collection

It's too dazzling—too mind-bending—for even this writer to begin by wondering what it's all about. Brian Porray's painting, "|===FL4M3JOB===/", is on display until February on the first floor of the Pizzuti Collection's Now-ism show in Columbus. When I visit, it's the only work in the building. Who needs more? It's a mesmerizing world in itself. Measuring 96" x 216" (that's 8 x 18 feet), it's Porray's madcap world in two-an-a-half dimensions. Both nosed right up to it or standing across the room, the viewer is sucked right into its brilliant, revved up, op-art vortices. If it's a planet rotating on its own wonky axis, then we are zooming asteroids, drawn on collision course by its inexorable gravity field. 
Brian Porray, "|===FL4M3JOB===/", 2011. Synthetic polymer, spray paint, paper on canvas. 96 x 216."
The central section unfurls in a folding curve like an Oriental fan. It pulses with excitement like the gaudy, lit-up neon night on a crowded Tokyo street. Since we are stuck in the gallery with movement available in only one plane, the painting does the three-dimensional moving for us. Our heads swivel up and down; we look far into the distance; we may be looking into the cosmos via mysterious satellite signals. We are, at the least, the out-of-town gawkers dazzled by the colors, the brilliance, the heights. Those fanned, mashed-together columnar forms feel like skyscrapers crammed together, each refusing to be in the shadow of any other.
Brian Porray, detail, "|===FL4M3JOB===/", 2011.

Brian Porray, detail, "|===FL4M3JOB===/", 2011.
From across the room, this painting is an ebullient composition that mixes brilliant color with black and white. Close up, one sees that the black and white background  is created by what I take to be sticky-backed shelf paper with an endlessly repeated design. Grids of alternating white and black squares melt at the edges into framed spheres. This optical illusion underlies the fascination with geometrical forms—strict or skewed—that guide the eye through every neighborhood of the painting and across the whole. 

Brian Porray, detail, "|===FL4M3JOB===/", 2011.
Porray revels in geometrical games like this, testing our intuitive comprehension of perspective with silly signals and crafty cues that block it. He swings between meticulously presented geometrical forms and big, sloppy brush strokes applied devil-may-care that deny any concern with order.

Brian Porray, detail, "|===FL4M3JOB===/",
Those detailed geometrical shapes, like the concentric circles framed by the square, and the sparkling disco sphere, in details above, are collaged paper additions to the painting. The many collaged bits sit right on the surface, unprotected by layers of varnish. They could be in a scrapbook: You see their edges and detect their matte surfaces clearly. As you go back and forth, investigating this great painting, you find all sorts of amusing collage elements that either reinforce the spatial weirdness (like the disco ball) or delight like a joke—note the tiny microphone and shades nestled away in a red hat on the left. These details balance the effect of the work's sheer size. It's a feat in itself that Porray creates and maintains such levity and such joy in a canvas of extraordinary size. Size tends to read as seriousness. He got over this assumption in a big way.

Brian Porray, detail, "|===FL4M3JOB===/",
Another of Porray's surprising achievements is that "|===FL4M3JOB===/", for all its dynamism and futuristic feel, is very much a hand-made object. I find it thrilling that a work so hard and bright in appearance shows the artist's light touch. The fact that the collage elements are bare; that the spray painted swipes feel so delirious, and that the almost imperceptible layering is so cunning bespeak Porray's courage and craftsman.  

As one illustration of Porray's pains-taking, notice the paint drips all across the painting. In the photo to the right and in several above paint drips are visible. In the full view, it's clear that Porray uses drips a lot. On inspection, though, it's rarely clear where the drips actually begin, for their sources are usually disguised by new layers of collage. The reader may have to look very closely to find these, but red drips are apparent in the gray column toward the right, in the triangle-based column to its left, and about half-way up the column with diagonal stripes.

This is a mind-boggling work. How can an artist make a work that is so large, make it so electric, so vibrant, yet manage to do it over the immense amount of time it would take to make it? To create the effect of explosion, of a "flame job," over the period of months or years—to keep that energy alive—takes truly herculean effort involving as much frustration as sense of victory.

The more closely one observes the details of such a piece, the more respect one has for the patient craftsmanship and for the vast conceptual ability of the artist. The balance between his initial idea, serendipity, and improvisation is supremely difficult to maintain. Doubt and fatigue can undermine judgment over the long term.

We often forget, as viewers, to imagine this big picture, and to get lost criticizing details. When a work of art is as spectacularly successful on every level as something of this proportion, the achievement isn't the painting, but the gift transmitted through it of the artist's deep attention, deep thought, and extraordinary commitment to work. 

Thank you, Brian Porray.