Creature at the Broad

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On the surface, museums dedicated to private art collections seem more like glorifications of investment than valorizations of creativity—though what comprises a collection makes clear on which end of that spectrum it truly is. When billionaire philanthropic and art-collecting duo Eli and Edythe Broad—whose surname appears on virtually every cultural edifice in Los Angeles—announced plans to build a museum to house their own art collection, it was more a given than a surprise. Yet the mystery lay less in the couple’s imminent desire to construct a monument to their art holdings and more in how this collection-cum-institution would actually function in an age of global museum expansion and private foundation proliferation.

At the time of the Broad’s inaugural exhibition, the reviews were almost exclusively negative, with many critics pointing out the installation’s safe, art market-approved homogeny. It is true that the collection is overwhelmingly comprised of blue-chip, auction-sanctioned art; however, “markets always distinguish between what’s salable and what’s not, but they can’t calculate quality.”1 Thus the real question is: Can vital, culturally significant exhibitions be mounted purely from such dedication to art’s established markets? If Creature, the current exhibition at the Broad, is any guide, the answer is probably not.

Regardless (or possibly because of) the collection’s oft-cited limitations, Creature’s thesis seems willfully porous. Its introductory wall text states, “We navigate constantly a fluid zone between our instincts and our learned behaviors,” and goes on to posit that “art can reframe—at times even rupture—preconceived or stale notions about what it means to be human.” Certainly, the conflict between our instinctual, desire-driven selves and the body as a physical, mental and social construct makes for an intriguing and fertile exhibition context. Yet such curatorial succinctness was either unattainable or was simply not the goal here, as the wall text goes on to state, “this exhibition examines the wide-ranging terrain of creaturely life, from everyday animals to extraordinary monsters to human beings.”

With these additional obfuscating layers, Creature becomes a nebulous, rambling display that is essentially split into three commingling divisions: tension between subjectivity and societal systems (Baselitz, Golub, Wojnarowicz), corporeal spectacle (Houseago, Koons, Murakami), and zoological allusions (Balkenhol, Basquiat, Vaisman). Unsurprisingly, the latter two’s respective sensationalistic and non-human qualities irreparably compromise the integrity of the former. For instance, Andy Warhol’s The Kiss (Bela Lugosi) (1963), which opens the show, is an appropriated image from the 1931 film Dracula, in which the titular vampire prepares to feast on his female victim. In this context, Warhol’s screenprint sets an unshakable art-as-spectacle tone, one that is echoed by Thomas Houseago’s monstrous Giant Figure (Cyclops) (2011), Tony Oursler’s suspended cloud Dust (2006), and Takashi Murakami’s inexcusably misogynistic sculpture Nurse Ko2 (Original rendering by Nishi-E-Da, modeling by BOME and Genpachi Tokaimura, advised Masahiko Asano, full scale sculpture by Lucky-Wide Co., Ltd.) (2011). The exaggerated and uncanny nature of these and other works injects the physical aspects found in the work of Kiki Smith and Cindy Sherman—to name just two—with a debased, overly theatrical tenor.

This is not to say that Creature does not incorporate exceptional artwork. In addition to excellent pieces by Georg Baselitz, Bruce Nauman, Jenny Holzer, Cindy Sherman, and Ellen Gallagher, is David Wojnarowicz’s Late Afternoon in the Forest (1986), perhaps the one work in the show that perfectly ticks all three of Creature’s thematic boxes. It makes sense, then, that it appears both at the beginning and end—due to the show’s circular layout viewers experience this particular work twice. The Broads own at least three of Wojnarowicz’s works and, according to the museum’s website, they were acquired in 1986, a time when the openly gay artist was authoring intensely personal, visceral reactions to the AIDS crisis era in which he lived (he died from the disease in 1992). His work’s inclusion here is an absolute highlight, one that is tinged with the sadness that seemingly very few works of this kind of zeitgeist vitality have found their way into this collection.

Put simply, Creature favors spectacle over substance. As a result, continually urgent issues of race, gender, sexuality, and governmental power that could have been more potently explored are either ignored completely or are dealt with in a sublimated manner indicative of “the synthesis of contemporary art, spectacle and tourism that has already triumphed in much of the world,”2 leaving the show’s potential for examinations of “the body” in any other sense than corporeally largely untapped.

Notes

1 Knight, Christopher, “An early look in the Broad museum reveals a show that doesn’t quite gel,” Los Angeles Times, September 13, 2015. Link

2 McDonough, Tom, “Complacency in Crisis: On Jeff Koons at Versaille,” Texte Zur Kunst 73 (March 2009), p. 156.

Image: David Wojnarowicz, Late Afternoon in the Forest (1986). Courtesy of the Broad Art Foundation and the Estate of David Wojnarowicz.

Originally published by Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles, Issue 7 (February 2017)

Sam Durant at Blum & Poe

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Last fall, Los Angeles-based artist Sam Durant built The Meeting House, a temporary structure that served as the framework for several “lyceums” (lectures, performances and poetry readings) on the history of African-American relations to Concord, MA, where the project was staged. Build Therefore Your Own World, the artist’s current solo exhibition at Blum & Poe, largely stems from the activities that took place during the project’s run. The result is a densely layered, demanding installation in which disparate histories and narratives are woven together to form new, synthesized wholes.

Appearing first is Every spirit builds a house, and beyond its house a world…Build therefore your own world (2017), an enormous, four-part installation in the form of a wooden house that is constructed from the floorboards of The Meeting House. Painted on each partition are texts by four African-American poets that were commissioned for the Concord project, setting the literary-minded and racially-conscious tone of the show. These allusions to the inseparability of race from the written word are repeated elsewhere in the exhibition in works such as Erasure, Appearance (Garrison’s Walking Stick, Thoreau’s Pencil) (2016) and Transcendental (Wheatley’s Desk, Emerson’s Chair) (2016), in which items owned by Concord’s transcendentalist writers penetrate those owned by former slaves, astutely suggesting that the freedom of thought enjoyed by writers such as these and the history of black servitude are inextricably linked.

While Durant’s fused histories successfully underscore America’s centuries-spanning intractability with race, the exhibition frequently buckles under the weight of its myriad literary, cultural, social and historical references. Though these multifarious allusions reflect the complexity and uneasiness of the subjects explored here, reading of the checklist’s didactic blurbs and diagrams is a prerequisite for full engagement with them. As a result, navigating the exhibition can at times be more frustrating than rewarding.

Image: Sam Durant, Build Therefore Your Own World (Installation view). Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo. Photo: Joshua White.

Originally published by Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles, February 1, 2017

 

Paul Sietsema at Matthew Marks

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Los Angeles-based artist Paul Sietsema has long been praised for his film work, though recently the artist’s practice has been mostly dedicated to painting. Accordingly, of the fifteen total works that comprised his recent solo at Matthew Marks’s L.A. outpost, only two were films, both of which had already appeared in the artist’s previous show with gallery, in New York in 2014. The remaining thirteen pieces were exquisitely rendered photorealistic paintings on canvas and paper. To merely describe the impeccable illusionistic qualities of Sietsema’s paintings would do a disservice to the mobilized concepts of temporality, obsolescence, and circulation that determine their production. Regardless of medium, Sietsema’s project can be seen as a self-reflexive analysis of cultural production, specifically the distribution status of art objects—from exhibition to acquisition to their dissemination within the culture industry.

For this exhibition, Sietsema chose the color green as a catalyst. Among the color’s myriad significations are fecundity, inexperience, envy and greed, the final the show’s most salient. Most works directly address or incorporate money in the form of coins, credit cards, dollar bills and percentages, while others variously allude to age-generated value, museological effects and painterly processes. Sietsema’s chosen color emphasis plays out in the main gallery’s installation in a wittily entropic manner, commencing with the chromatically saturated Green painting (all works 2016), moving towards the lichen hues of 1997 and 1998, and ending with the relatively pallid pairing of Telephone painting and Figure ground study (50/50), both of which employ green only sparingly. This flow from purity to dilution hints at the eventual rupture of artistic, technological, and financial systems. As such, Sietsema’s indefatigably analogue works find themselves becoming increasingly relevant in the face of digital omnipotence. Indeed, his unrelenting reliance upon and allusions to outmoded technologies (as in Telephone painting’s rotary telephone) uncannily address the speed of evolution and the inevitability of obsolescence.

Image: Paul Sietsema Figure ground study (50/50), Ink and enamel on paper in artist’s frame
54 1/2 x 59 3/8 inches (138 x 151 cm)
Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks, Los Angeles

Originally published in Flash Art, vol. 49, no. 312, (January/February 2017), pp. 74-75.

Nate Lowman at Maccarone

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Nate Lowman’s New York solo debut in 2005 presciently gave the art world something it dearly wanted: a brash, critically indifferent, and smug handling of subject material deployed by an aspiring artist-persona. Ultimately, what made Lowman so successful was his glib drive to appropriate common vernaculars and parlay them into structurally seductive, highly desirable art commodities while maintaining a socially aware, flippant remove. A decade on, the balance has tipped.

Immediately upon entering Lowman’s current solo at Maccarone’s cavernous Los Angeles outpost, the viewer is confronted with the gigantic Untitled (2013-2015), a 50-part, painted representation of the United States, installed on the gallery’s central wall. The canvas used in each “state” was purportedly birthed from the production of other Lowman paintings—here the artist makes rampant use of the indexicality of dripped paint on drop-cloth, not so much as a means of analyzing the material labor of painting, or even that of its socio-physical constructs, but to further the saleable combination of trite bohemian gestures and attitude-as-product ethos that has always been his trademark.

The nine serially produced paintings hung on the flanking walls manage to recall early Sue Williams and late Julian Schnabel alike, but do little of their own accord. In them, perplexing texts such as “Tae Kwan Do,” or “Ask the Dust” are slathered over images of Earth as seen from the moon. At his very best, Lowman holds a knowing mirror up to American society, exposing its base and illogical desires. Indeed, it’s not hard to draw parallels between the vapid, cocksure grandstanding that held so much sway on November 8th and Lowman’s baroque excursions on view here.

Image: Nate Lowman Untitled, 2013-2015. Mixed media on canvas dropcloth, 168 x 336 inches (426.7 x 853.4 cm)
Courtesy of the artist and Maccarone New York and Los Angeles
Photo: Joshua White

Originally published by Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles, November 17, 2016

Maggie Lee at 356 Mission

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Maggie Lee deals with memory and reconstructs her past experiences via filmic, sculptural and installation processes. Those who have not yet seen her film, Mommy (2015)the artist’s poignant and innovative ode to her deceased mother—may dismiss the defiantly lo-fi production that is Gigi*s Underground, her current solo exhibition at 356 Mission. Lee’s deskilled aesthetic belies the complex nature of her diaristic output—a collaged and repurposed reality that brims with nostalgia, aspiration, and heartache.

Gigi*s Underground is an atmospheric exploration of the unexpected quandaries when adolescence transitions into adulthood (sex, friendship, ambition). The resulting desire-infused installation is a collapsed representation of a club, a runway, a film set, and a bedroom all at once. While the polygonal and heart-shaped iconography that appears in works such as Superstar (all works 2016) and Gigi*s Friend, respectively, function as a harkening back to a more innocent life, Gigi*s mid-aughts club kid ambiance reigns supreme, subordinating the individual works to its service.

Maggie Lee once said that editing is a lot like DJing. It makes sense, then, that Gigi*s Underground haunts back to 2006, when she was heavily involved with the New York electronic music scene. It is the memories of this social milieu—and the desire to return to it while dealing with her mother’s death in New Jersey—that ultimately drives the installation. It’s rare when artists lay bare the moments that got them to where they are now, as we often cringe at the recollection of our fumbling and awkward youths instead of embracing it. In the end, if we don’t have our memories, what do we really have?

Image: Maggie Lee: Gigi*s Underground (installation view) (2016)
Courtesy of the artist, Real Fine Arts, New York, and 356 S. Mission Road, Los Angeles
Photo: Brica Wilcox.

Originally published by Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles, October 12, 2016

Andrea Büttner at David Kordansky Gallery

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Andrea Büttner’s Los Angeles debut is in many ways a replica of the artist’s recent solo exhibitions at Kunsthalle Wien and the Walker Art Center. Far from complacent mimicry, this act of reiteration is emblematic of the German artist’s ongoing reinvestigation of her core concerns and working methods.

It follows, then, that her practice deals with reproducibility, often manifesting itself in antiquated forms such as woodcuts and etchings. Through wide-ranging employment of these processes, the exhibition examines the tangled relationships between wealth and poverty, humility and pride, charity and commerce. As such, Büttner’s fragmented and disparate installation takes time to unpack.

Replication is explored most overtly in a grouping of nine woodcuts from the artist’s “Beggar” series that, unlike all other wall-based works on view, is unframed. This lack of protection, and the sense of vulnerability that accompanies it, echoes the subject’s alien plight, but also raises notions of symbolic and physical support. For instance, Büttner’s “Phone Etching” series — which marries the distinctly analogue process of etching with the digital hegemony of the iPhone — has a trifold support system: each is framed and installed on a fabric-lined wood construction, which is itself installed on the gallery’s walls. This stratified framework is a willful contradiction to that of the tenuously installed “Beggar” works, mirroring the many polarities at play here.

The show’s most engaging work is a succinct examination of disparity and opposition. The table-based work Selected images of beggars sourced from auction catalogues in the archive of the Aby Warburg Institute, London (2015–16) is comprised of colored inkjet prints of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century depictions of beggars. These reproductions are in fact pictures of the front and back of archived images — photographs of photographs — that had been documented by auction houses such as Sotheby’s. The work not only brings about a cognitive dissonance between the portrayed subject matter and the apparent market for the artworks themselves, but it also questions, as do all the works in this exhibition, the historical imperative for the original.

Image: Andrea Büttner Phone Etching, 2015, etching, 76 3/4 x 44 1/8 inches (194.9 x 112.1 cm)
Courtesy the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles

Originally published by Flash Art, October 4, 2016

Depths Plumbed: Interview with Julien Nguyen

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Julien Nguyen makes paintings that are at once referential and intensely personal, employing subject matter that ranges from Renaissance architecture to artificial intelligence to the films of Kathryn Bigelow. Nguyen’s work is of a kind of archeology that is fully cognizant of art history but also driven to disrupt assumed notions of its discourses. Accepting painting’s theatricality as a given, he uses knowledge to create fantasy, pitting familiar forms against one another. On the occasion of his West Coast solo debut, Flash Art sat down with the artist in his Los Angeles studio.

Your work has a rich, fantastical quality that has recently incorporated Renaissance painting and architectural motifs. What compelled you to employ these elements, particularly the use of perspective? 

I think this is largely motivated by a desire to move past the crisis of the nineteenth-century photographic image, which continues to occupy a lot of the discourse around representation, and which for me is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. I work with a lot of early modern idioms that coincide with the establishment of sovereignty and sovereign power, perspective being foremost among them. Perspective is a relatively unencumbered organizing tool for the construction of imaginary worlds: a subject can array a hierarchical system (of its own device!) of recognition and creation. It is also something that does not require an excessive amount of labor specialization.

This said, perspective is also a tool for establishing borders, another early-modern innovation. I think this speaks further to the idea that the development of humanism lay not in the invention of inwardness per se (which can be seen as far back as Augustine’s Confessions), but in the realization that this same inwardness afforded a means of dissimulation that in turn offered leverage against the world as given.

Humanism as subterfuge allows one to bypass the question of the subject as organizing myth of bourgeois ideology and instead trace a direct line to it as a contemporary vehicle for both encoding and navigating systems in general. The real question becomes how Bronzino established himself in Cosimo I’s household despite the purgation of homosexuals from the ducal court.

The figures in your work often have elongated features and mannered poses that seem to be a fusion of disparate approaches toward figuration — ranging from antiquity to contemporary pop culture.  

I would hope that this is not understood as style, which would be an essentially formalist reading. The difference between Velazquez and Uccello isn’t so much their particular visions of the world, but instead how they successfully interpolated themselves into their respective governing structures. That is to say, that if ideology as “imaginary representation” operates on the level of the unconscious, these distortions are not expressions of my “view of the world” but are resultant from my emergence within it: reenacting the nanosecond in which a camera captures Hillary Clinton’s light-sucking eye to reveal a reptilian underneath the human membrane.

Filmic references often appear in your paintings, though the titles seem to be the only overt reference to these films — as if they are ciphers and the role-play between title and composition enables a specific kind of dialogue. 

Yes. Pictorial composition, in its analytic or constructive capacity, is to my mind analogous to the durational character of film. In other words, the difference between photography or photo-relative art and my work is the same as the difference between making an ugly face and having one.

What affect has moving back to LA had on your painting, if any?

The idea of the sublime in art is often misremembered as a totalitarian phenomenon. Longinus (a Greek from the first century) instead proposes that only democracy can be the “careful nurse” of sublime comprehension, and cites Sapphic poetry as a primary example. Los Angeles (to my mind) is a Bermuda Triangle between the sublime, the picturesque and the uncanny: a place where metropolitan civilization, having strayed so far from home, touches a void. I also don’t drive, and I enjoy being a passenger here.

Image: Julien Nguyen I know why the caged bird sssings, 2016, Oil on panel, 45 x 70 x 1.5 inches (114.3 x 177.8 x 3.8 cm)
Courtesy the artist and Freedman Fitzpatrick, Los Angeles

Originally published by Flash Art, September 16, 2016