Thursday, October 31, 2013


Through November 17, Hammond Harkins Galleries in Bexley, Ohio is showing Naked, a group show featuring faculty members of Columbus College of Art and DesignChar Norman, Dean of the Faculty Emeritus at CCAD, curated the show. 

Norman's Curator's Statement in the handsomely-prepared catalogue tells us that her "call to the artists was to interpret the word ["naked"] in any way imaginable..." The variety of interpretations is broad indeed: Don't worry about crossing picket lines of the morally outraged when you come. Few of the 25 artists interpreted "naked" as "nude." In general, it appears that they interpreted the theme as another route into the problems of their own, continuing practices, in form and content both.
Gordon Lee, # Pink Princess. Acrylic and oil on canvas.
Framed: 31 1/2 x 31 1/2 inches (image: 30 x 30 inches)

Gordon Lee's # Pink Princess is a smooth-surfaced, flawless presentation of a nakedness created to be covered. Stripped to its insensate skin, the Barbie-style doll is a clothes horse with nothing of beauty or real attraction underneath. Her nakedness is either appalling or—perhaps worse?—indifferent. 

The details of the doll's ensemble are laid out around her on the blue pattern grid. She will have designer sun glasses, Italian purse, 4G phone, and 3 carat ring to accompany her pink gown, the cut of which sure looks Chinese—for the all-American beauty.

In a materialistic world, naked has no value for being literally no-thing. Were Barbie nude, would she matter more?

Doug Norman, Reclining. Graphite on paper.
Framed: 13 x 16 inches (image: 5 x 7 inches
Figure studies in graphite torn from a sketchbook are among Doug Norman's offerings to this show. The flesh they evoke is the sort that humans wear; the sort to which adding more layers is, aesthetically speaking, optional. Even in focused studies of foot and face, here is nudity.

On these two pages, the artist contrasts the darkness of areas to which he has committed the efforts of minute detail to those he has merely outlined, leading up to and out again from the focal details. In both drawings, erogenous areas are the ones hinted at, breasts and buttocks. Left almost as implications, the eye nevertheless lingers as it passes over them, delicately. 
Doug Norman, Hands and Feet. Graphite on paper.
Framed: 13 x 16 inches (image: 5 x 7 inches)

Some artists move beyond representations of the body to metaphors for either the naked figure or for its exposed parts—but they still invite us to connect the idea of "naked" to the human body.

Several pieces of Kelly Malec-Kosak's sculpture are included in this show, all executed with nylon stockings. They evoke skin (between the body and the world) or membranes and linings (demarcating the interior's soft tissues).

Kelly Malec-Kosak, Dimpling. Mixed Media: Nylon,
cotton, thread. 
2 1/2 x 6 1/2 x 20 inches
Dimpling, made from a pair of pantyhose, retains its association with legs even after considerable alteration of the stockings. In this, as in her other work in this show, Malec-Kosak employs flesh-tone (for white people) hosiery, which is made to give the impression of enhanced nudity when it is worn. Nylons are "see-through" apparel, traditionally marketed to increase the sex-appeal of a woman's legs.

If we think of this piece as legs, the dimples are lost between the growths, which appear as fields of warts with long, black hairs like one would see on a witch's face—where dimples would be for that matter. 

But think of these as legs, nose, face, fingers, or any body part, and it's hard to avoid the irony in the artists's use of a medium (pantyhose) that so effectively suggests truths about nakedness. Cover up that skin with all its disgusting flaws! 

Must naked flesh be sexy or attractive? Will cosmetic embellishments—silky sheer stockings—make a difference? What a piece of work is man.

When Char Norman takes on nakedness, there are similarities between her epidural focus and Malec-Kosak's. Both women move their viewer into territory where the values of naked and covered compete and we have to wonder about the standards: Is nakedness more authentic? Is it less pleasing aesthetically? If so, should we be ashamed to admit it? What do we keep secret and what do we display?
Char Norman, The Naked Truth.
Mixed Media: linen, flax, tree bark. 29 1/2 x 8 1/2 x 8 inches
Where Malec-Kosak's image is more disturbing than not, Norman's The Naked Tree keeps the viewer slipping back and forth between aesthetic beauty and the meaning of the natural forces that produce it. 

This sculpture could very well be interpreted as a reliquary, or any object of veneration. In this piece, Norman has taken extreme care to use natural materials polished and manipulated so their native beauties stand out. Suspended from the stick, finished and polished to such a degree that it looks like bronze, the beautiful cocoon dangles, its exterior is made of bark from an ash tree. The tunneling of ash borer beetles, which have gone far to kill off the tree species, is in plentiful evidence inside the "skin." Those whimsical tunnels are reflected in the woven fiber rope that loops and fills the split cocoon. Like the tree, it is blasted—beautiful, but killed by being opened. 

Nakedness is exposure, and those intimacies—the beetle in the bark, our examination of the interior of this "cocoon"—are killing. The Naked Tree is one of the most exquisite works in this show. It's as elegiac as it is beautiful.
Kathy McGhee, Cottonwood Stand
Intaglio -- photogravure using 2 polymer
Framed: 14 x 12 1/4 inches
 (image: 5 1/2 x 3 3/4 inches).
Photographed under plexiglass.

Kathy McGhee uses trees to exemplify nakedness in a way we know from Shakespeare's Sonnet 73:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold 
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, 
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. 

The naked boughs in the layered photogravure, Cottonwood Stand, form an elegant image in which each branch is in intimate, organic relationship to all the others. There appear to be systems real and reflected, all affecting one another.

What is the idea of nakedness in McGhee's print? The leaves have gone from the trees, yet being stripped, the trees don't appear vulnerable, inappropriately exposed, or reduced to a final layer. Rather we have a richly built-up image, graceful and complex. If it is naked, it is so in the way of the anatomical invisible man demonstrated in layers of transparencies. His nakedness reveals everything about him in full and specific detail, showing him at his most complex when unclothed.
Susan Li O'Connor. Inkblot No. PA150004
Microns black technical pen on Bristol board and vellum
14 x 17 inches

There are many more artists well worth discussing in Naked. I was very taken, for instance, by a series of drawings by Susan Li O'Connor—black ink on board with ink on vellum in one or two layers on top. The cellular, organic quality of the forms and the floating, receding aspect of the vellum layers are both beautiful and suggestive of microscopic life. The relationship of these images to the theme of "naked" would be worth the poetry I expect to be found at the end of further consideration.

The catalogue to Naked includes statements from the artists regarding their work in this show. I don't recommend that the visitor refer to these as aids in viewing the show, for I find that artists' comments are usually much more limiting than helpful to visitors who bring any of their own viewing history to the show.

Many of the artists tell us what their work is about or why they made it. No doubt they give truthful accounts. But when an artist tells us about specific references, and how they interpret their own work, they tell us what they are to have let go of in presenting completed work. It's for the public to interpret now. 
Julie Taggart, Bye, Baby Bunting
Oil on panel, Framed: 7 1/4 x 7 1/4 inches,
(image: 6 x 6 inches)

"It is more serious in tone and explores what it means to be psychologically naked in the presence of political propaganda; the figure is turned away to our left and trying to ignore the bluster around her..." "The white crosses I use are partly inspired by A Monument to Betty, which is a large white cross on a hill overlooking Nelsonville, Ohio, that was at one time billed as the world's largest freestanding cross. The environments suggest a world formed by our unending thirst for fossil fuels."

While these comments may be of background interest, statements like these risk being reductive. And, ultimately, do they matter to our experience of the works?

If the artists were driven by narrative or expositional ends, did they make the works as illustrations to help articulate their ideas? Was there discovery in the process? Can we find it? If not, much better to leave us to our own imaginations, references, and stories, attaching each piece to the theme as we examine and interpret works with the independent eyes and minds that one hopes all viewers bring to the gallery. Artists' stories count, but they shouldn't lead our first impressions. It's up to viewers to speak to artists, who often can't see what they have in fact done. Artists often miss how richly they affect the minds of viewers, even when it's in ways they did not set out to achieve.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The 2013 Carnegie International: Museum within a Museum

Courtyard, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. Author photo.
I felt very lucky to go to the Carnegie International exhibition in Pittsburgh when it opened for media preview on the first weekend in October. I've never been to any of the international biannual shows that seek to define the Moment in contemporary art; that make and mould the careers of artists and curators; and that satisfy the needs of art- and social-columnists for a glittering month or two. The remarks welcoming the press were delayed as people enjoyed reunions over Danish pastry. I was impatient. "Let them dawdle over coffee and pastries: Where's the art?" I left the strudel and introductions untouched. A sympathetic guard saw what I wanted. He hit the elevator button for me: "When the door opens, turn left," he said with a grin.

Among the great proliferation of biennial and occasional international art shows around the world, the Carnegie stands out. It's not a "pop-up" show that lasts for a few brilliant months and then disperses again, all its works returning whence they came. 

Ever since the Carnegie Museum of Art was founded, this show has existed not only to showcase contemporary art, but to serve as an acquisitions pool for the Museum itself. Andrew Carnegie ardently collected the art of his time: He is attributed with having said that he wanted "the old masters of tomorrow." Charles Burchfield, Marsden Hartley, and Louise Bourgeois are among those the Museum acquired as contemporary artists through Internationals. During their lifetimes, they were working the cutting-edge, even if we see them now, through history, as venerable modern (old) masters. 

Pedro Reyes, Disarm, 2012-2013. Instrument made from decommissioned weapons. 
7-7/8 x 19-11/16 x 19-11/16 in.
Courtesy of the artist, Lisson Gallery, London, and Alumnos47 Foundation.

The size of the Carnegie International pushes the usefulness of the terms "show" or "exhibition." What the three co-curatorsDaniel Baumann, Dan Byers, and Tina Kukielski, have actually done, is to install a museum's worth of new art inside the existing museum. Each of the thirty-seven artists included is represented by a selection of work sufficient to stand alone as a gallery show. These are scattered among the existing Museum collection in rooms that have been adjusted—not always completely evacuated—to receive their new neighbors. The excellent  idea is to allow the existing collection to go to the game together with these new works just in off the street; to have drinks with them; sit in the same traffic jam; be coexist in such relationships as the visitors see and understand. I think it's a great idea.

I had no more chance of seeing the 2013 Carnegie International in a day than I would have had to explore the whole Carnegie Museum that houses it. And who would want to? The pleasure of looking at art is to look at it, after all, spending time to think about what the artist did delivers something useful or valuable for me. Art takes time. Still, I quickened my step; I moved like a kid in Candy Land, trying to taste as much as I could. These were my three favorites artists.

Henry Taylor, Huey Newton, 2007.
Acrylic and collage on canvas, 95 1/8 x 76 1/4 in.
Collection of Martin and Rebecca Eisenberg. Courtesy of the 
artist, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, and UNTITLED, New York

Henry Taylor.  (American, lives and works in Los Angeles).
Taylor's paintings have such freshness and energy and complete lack of preciousness. In their bluntness, they hit precisely that wonderful spot in culture where urban and rural are deeply related. You feel that the characters in his paintings could be in transition from one environment to the other, whatever the setting they are portrayed in. 

In the big gallery where his paintings congregate, Black Panthers, rural old folk, and a magnificent woman jumping hurdles  form a convincing, if random, neighborhood. Perhaps it wasn't Taylor's point, but the convinced, outspoken, sudden way he uses paint is applied to every subject and unifies them. He's peopled a multi-talented world where there's dialogue and a lot of humor.

His portrait of Huey Newton is broadly copied from a famous news photo, in which the seriousness of the Black Panther is heightened by the eyes that so conspicuously stare out from the painting: They are mesmerizing. The back of the chair is printed with snippets of news clippings about killings. Improving on the original staging, Taylor suggests in the form of the chair an outline map of Africa. The zebra skin isn't simply an exotic reminder of a distant connection, but a maze of black and white; it is lines drawn, separations, definitions. Taylor has also added a big brown cross that intersects behind Newton's head. Christian symbolism? Or, more likely, an indication of where one plugs into the energy source, in Newton's head?

James McNeil Whistler, Arrangement in
Grey and Black No. 1,
Oil on canvas. Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
In the same room, Taylor gives us a terrific portrait of Eldridge Cleaver in tight, sky-blue pants against a field of bright green. With cigarette in hand, gazing into space, he is very cool. Of course Taylor has amusingly composed this after the painting we call "Whistler's Mother," but which Whistler called "Arrangement in Gray and Black," denying that it had to do with the human subject, but with the formal and aesthetic qualities, especially the restriction of colors essentially to gray-scale.

Henry Taylor, Eldridge Cleaver, 2007. Acrylic on canvas, 75.75 x 94.75."
Collection of David Hoberman, Los Angeles, CA. Author photo.

Cleaver is a man of color and he is sitting upright in no straight-backed chair: a lounging Eames side chair befits his sophistication and ability to get things done. As for composition, he sure is composed. And self-sufficient. His chair legs, his feet don't hit the floor—he's grounded in a completely different sense than Mrs. Whistler is. He levitates as he meditates, not merely patient, but ready.                                                                                             

Henry Taylor, Mary had a little...(that ain't no
2013. Acrylic on canvas. 96.5 x 71.75 x
2.5." Collection of Lonti Elbers
 Taylor teases, too, by putting droll spins on folkloric images of rural Black folk. Mary had a little..(that ain't no lamb) presents the old woman among her drying sheets with a calf in the background. The title invokes "fleece as white as snow," a trope implicitly useless and tiresome to a Black elder undoubtedly sick of hearing about snow-white and about fleecy, wooly hair. Yes: That ain't no lamb. It's a cow, and the sheet hanging to her right, resembles in form a side of beef in a butcher's window. There's no sentiment here for lambs, little girls, or day dreams about pretty hair. It's a painting of a world of realism. Metaphor is in art, where paint drips can suggest dripping blood of everyday violence.

Nicole Eisenman. (France, lives and works in New York).
Eisenman has won this year's Carnegie Prize, the highest award given by the International. She is showing twenty-six works, seven of which are plaster sculptures, the rest being oil paintings, for which she is better known. The paintings are remarkable for their range of art historical allusion turned to the ends of poignant and absurd commentary on contemporary life's sorrow or stupidity.
Nicole Eisenman, Big Head Sleeping, 2013. Plaster and
graphite, 27 x 49 x 36." Courtesy of the artist and Koenig &
Clinton, New York. Produced in conversation with Sam Greenleaf
Miller. Author photo.

I was especially touched by her sculpture, though, which is both crude and heart-wrenchingly normal, rather in contrast to her witty and pointed painting. The larger-than-life-size statues are installed side-by-side with their genteel classical counterparts on the gallery-level rail of the stately Hall of Sculpture. For some of the Graces and goddesses that usually occupy the gallery, Eisenman's lumpy mortals have been substituted. Their extreme, bleach whiteness seems not to reflect the intrinsic beauty of pure, precious material like marble; rather, it appears to be an intrinsic deficiency of the flesh. The plaster figures have an all-too-human presence and an embarrassing lack of self-consciousness.

Eisenman's plaster people do not, above all, rest on pedestals. Their plinths are covered with rubble that not only underscores how short of the ideal these figures fall, but suggests that they are not victims of human nature alone. Circumstances thwart them. The road is rough. The shards and detritus that they stand or sit upon make life tortuous to begin with.
Base detail from Eisenman plaster statue.

From the direction I entered the gallery, I had to do some quick footwork not to stumble over the Eisenman statue of a naked, stupefied man sprawled on the floor with blackened feet and an ivy garland sagging over his slumbering brow: The morning after the Bacchanalia? The garland is also a classical symbol of personal victory, or championship. Again Eisenman reminds us how humans stagger between frailty and pursuit of great goals.
Nicole Eisenman, plaster sculpture installed on Hall of Sculpture balustrade at 2013 Carnegie International. Eisenman paintings
along the wall. Author photo.

Erika Verzutti. (Brazil)
One gallery, unconnected to any others, is dedicated to Erika Verzutti's bronze, clay, and concrete casts—small works on the floor that map like archeological sites of ancient cities where encrusted tools and dishes, vegetables and artists' brushes are to be found. Aside from a slender tower of egg-shaped units that reaches like an exotic minaret toward the ceiling, most elements of her sculptural work are small enough to make the viewer feel large. Looking into the gallery gives one the feeling of surveying an ancient plain from the sky. Mixed awareness of contemporary and ancient never left me as I explored the room. Displacement in time was like a sparking current that would jolt me if I began to grow too easy.
Erika Verzutti, Floor installation of stones and casts at 2013 Carnegie International.
Author photo.

I love the open quality of her work, which seems so primal in its features and materials that it must induce strong feelings and associations in anyone who sees it. Even those who will mutter, "How childish!" of the neatly laid-out objects— overlooking the details of the surfaces, the materials, and their particular relationships—that person can still find great pleasure in what is indeed there: the desire to collect and to order, to find meaning in arrangement and classification.

Erika Verzutti, detail of installation, above. NB cast artichoke, melon,
eggs, magnolia seed pod; paint brushes, watercolor trays?
Several elements of this installation are casts of squash and melons, vegetation rendered permanent. Also conspicuous among the contents of the walled area are paint brushes and small, subdivided dishes—the sort one would use for mixing watercolors or inks. I like the associations Verzutti sets up between nature's beautiful bounty and art-making. The artificiality of the fruit resonates with the artists' tools. The relationship between art and nature, between real and represented, natural and contrived, are suggested in a most beguiling way in this artless installation.

Another floor installation nearby is not walled like the one above, yet its creation from similar forms defines its own site. Perhaps it is an ancient ritual site, or, as I prefer to
Erika Verzutti, Installation at 2013 Carnegie International, cast bronze and concrete
with acrylic, 2013. Author photo. 
see it, a burial ground marked with shaped stones, faces forward. The shapes are intermediate, between headstones and figures. The black borders of the tall ones suggest to me women in shadours; yet the luminous foreground rocks with gleaming, mixed-color interior seem like glistening geodes. 

What are they? Who are they? What does the group of individuals add up to? The pleasure of Verzutti's work is that it can be studied through so many lenses—in the aggregate, as individual pieces, as references to the past, as au courant; for its evident sensual properties; for the many trains of thought it sets in motion. I love this work that is concrete and allusive, extremely grounded and so conducive to curiosity and dreams. Like so much in the Carnegie International, the embarrassment of riches makes me only long for more.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Barbara Vogel's Luminous Portraits

Barbara Vogel, two portraits, digital scans and encaustic, 24 x 12," 2013.
Author photo.
Luminosity is the name of Barbara Vogel's current show at the Sherrie Gallerie in Columbus. It's a show of haunting portraits that are defined by light as much as by more conventional representation. We expect to recognize peoples' features in their portraits. We expect the portrait to be a delineation of the face and body.

In these, however, the features are valleys and pools softly sunken in the auras of the sitters. Whether these subjects generate the light or the light accrues to them is indifferent. It illuminates thought and emotion that too precise and literal a focus would blind us to.
Barbara Vogel, Alex Rose, 24 x 12,"
digital scan and encaustic,
2013. Courtesy of the artist.
Vogel's portraits reveal people through their auras. What features we identify seem like shadows in the depth of luminosity—merely the traces, valleys, and pools of the everyday in something like the soul. While we might recognize people we know, Vogel's soft  focus and veils of light give each face a sober serenity that elevates it beyond the world of commonplace activities and speed.

These images are all the more haunting for their composition and framing. We feel like we are looking at antique tinted photos, or at images arriving from beyond the grave and just achieving substance. Because they are so tightly framed, the faces seem just this side of too big for their constraints. They spring out at the viewer in a way that would be alarming were it not for their benign expressions.

Even in these small, reproduced images, one can see the vertical lines that run through the works. They result from Vogel's unique process: She does't photograph her subjects, but she scans them, using a hand-held wand scanner. Because it's an implement designed to be used on books and flat materials, the portrait-sitters stand behind a piece of glass along which the artist passes the scanner. The portraits are printed, then painted with encaustic (melted beeswax infused with pigment). The surfaces retain ghost striations from the scanner and surface traces from the application of wax, which cools in patterns that follow or move athwart the scanner's direction.
Barbara Vogel, row of portraits, 24 x 12," digital scan and
encaustic, 2013. Author photo.

In another body of work, Vogel uses her Hasselblad camera with traditional color film to take slightly out-of-focus, portraits with shallow depth of field. These small, square photographs are also covered with encaustic, which adds to their other-worldly, unattainable quality.

Of both sets of work, Vogel writes in her statement of their "mystery and intimacy."
I find them mysterious, but the effect on me of the lack of definition is the opposite of intimacy: I find their inscrutability distancing in a poignant way—indeed, I find them unknowable as ghosts of people who were once familiar.

In Vogel's photographic portraits, the environments in which her subjects are portrayed are ordinary, domestic settings. The sitters have been captured informally, going about their business on normal days. Were the pictures less obscure, would we find the portraits more interesting? Would we take more interest in the subjects, or learn more about them? Where would greater visual clarity get us? I'm not sure that visual focus would deliver as much information about the individuals as their retreating images do.

Barbara Vogel, Dad, 2013. Color photograph with encaustic.
Courtesy of the artist.
The image of Dad, the old man in his wheelchair, says a great deal about the subject in its composition and fuzzy focus. His dark chair and dark form are visually an extension of the shadow that cuts across the lower portion of the frame: In how much longer will he be entirely swallowed by darkness?—a question that he must know he's facing, with the sun behind him, placing him in dark silhouette against a lively pink world. His hands clutch one another in a gesture of patience or resignation. His body has shrunken until it is barely the size of the wheelchair: He has to lift his elbows to the armrests. The gates appear gigantic behind him.

Yet Dad's presence is near the center of the composition, and it is the most complex form in the picture; everything else revolves around it, no matter how wizen or obscure the person has become. Fading away, hard to reach, the elderly father remains hard to define, yet central.

Barbara Vogel, Liz, 2013, Color photograph with encaustic.
Courtesy of the artist.
Liz is another photographic portrait sharing the virtues of Dad. Again, Vogel's composition is wonderful. She divides the square vertically into halves of light and dark demarcated by a ragged line. The window, though is in the "dark" side, behind the sitter, and casting her into shadow. The light on the left seems to be reflection in glass that separates us from her; the whiteness of the reflection obscures her face even more than the shadow does.

The sitter is, again, squarely in the middle of the composition, this time looking directly at us, but the shadow and glare prevent us from seeing her features. She does nothing to hide, but circumstances render her wholly obscure. Is she in her own space? Is that a calendar on the wall, mirroring the shape of the window? 

We can't be sure of the age of this sitter, but the portrait's theme of mortality seems related to Dad's. The movement of light and shadow relate not only to the person, but to the life. This girl or woman has a quality of stillness that resembles suspension, like one sees in bottled, preserved zoological materials. If she's alive, will she live? Are the shadows closing in on her, or is the light advancing?
Barbara Vogel, Dale, Brent, and Ernie, 2013.
Color photograph with encaustic. Courtesy of the artist.

A couple of the works in Luminosity are composed in a manner familiar to anyone who's walked by the windows of commercial photographers specializing in family portraits. Dale, Brent, and Ernie fill the frame of their cheerfully-decorated, well-lit interior. They pose in pleasingly descending size, from standing, through sitting, to obliging little pet advancing a paw.

In the presence of such portraits, I usually feel manipulated in conflicting ways. On the one hand, the photographer is inviting me into the happy group. It appears so wide open, congenial, and normal. The portrait is about their agreeableness.

On the other hand, it's a triumphant picture. Placed in such a setting, how could one fail to be anything but agreeable? The smiles aren't friendly—they're satisfied. You, the viewer are not in the picture, and that's the point.

Dale, Brent, and Ernie plays with this genre of portrait by pushing everything away—the sitters and their environment both—as if they were not merely out of focus, but were receding. The brightness of the window and the illumination around the edges of the painting call our eyes to the back, and we move the foreground people back with our glances. "Everything is good," it seems to suggest, "except for the inexplicable force that won't permit us to believe this picture."

Barbara Vogel's show runs through November 9 at the Sherrie Gallerie in Columbus. It is so worth seeing: Until you are eye-to-eye with these portraits—the scanned ones especially—it's hard to understand how they can affect your heart; how they draw the viewer into the space between physical and spiritual presence. It's a big space.