Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Zombie Formalism Dies (Again) and Neo-Abstract/Figuration is Resurrected

As of late I've been pleasantly surprised that galleries have pivoted away from Zombie Formalism and resurrected 1980s Neo-Expressionism in a more abstract manner. Think of a David Salle of today, which is exactly what Skarstedt Gallery had in mind with "Nice Weather," an exhibition ironically enough curated by Salle and featuring two of his works at both the Chelsea and Upper East Side locations. The exhibition title, "Nice Weather," is taken from a Frederick Seidel book of poetry. Seidel's somewhat dissonant poetry that questions the human condition and involves the poet's longing to leave this harsh reality and seek the ideal world recalls Mallarmé and a version of Dante's "Inferno" in reverse, moving from heaven to Earth.

The theme of "Nice Weather" can loosely be described as mostly two-dimensional art that bridges abstraction and figuration. In the 80s, when "painting was dead" Salle and a number of other artists, including Jean-Michel Basquiat and Eric Fischl, resurrected the figurative in oil painting from the chasm it was found in after Abstract Expressionism had reigned supreme. 
Amy Sillman, "Someone Else's Dream," oil on canvas, 2015, 75 x 66 inches
Courtesy of Cherise Klebanov

Amy Sillman is riding the art market current having exhibited in "The Forever Now" painting show at the MoMA (Dec 2014-April 2015), solo shows at Sikkema Jenkins Co. in Chelsea, a solo show at the Kunsthuas Bregenz, and featured in the "Nice Weather" group show at Skarstedt (Upper East Side and Chelsea). Her work certainly fits the abstract/figurative description. By titling her work "Someone Else's Dream" the viewer is forced to assign a certain narrative, despite how abstract it is, to the picture. A window comes to mind, perhaps gazing into someone's bedroom. The colors are loose and somewhat haphazardly applied, suggesting a sense of urgency. Contemporary painting is not clear or obvious as representative or illusionistic art dating from the Renaissance encouraged. Forging new narratives and looking at art for form versus content is a new challenge with 'semi' figurative painting. 

David Salle, "Hot People," oil, acrylic, charcoal, and archival digital print on linen, 2016,
60 x 80 inches
Courtesy of Cherise Klebanov
David Salle was, and at 63 years old, still is known for his highly layered, immersive images. What seems as dissonant as Mallarmé, his images come together as a dreamscape would. Piecing together the fragmented components, one could come up with a narrative about an imminent phone call, the desire to reach or be reached. Lichtenstein's "Waiting" comes to mind, where a female protagonist stares anxiously at a phone. In a less obvious way, Salle presents a similar tension to the viewer. The tension is so pronounced that Salle almost forces the viewer to eschew the content and focus on form, the bright, brash colors, and the collage-like quality to the work. 

Two of the more 'figurative' paintings from the work are expressionistic kisses, the sensation of romance and ardor, instead of the full-on display. 

Nicole Wittenberg, "Red Kiss," oil on canvas board, 2015, 12 x 16 inches
Courtesy of Cherise Klebanov

This small, intimate work has an Expressionistic quality that Munch would have appreciated. The spirit of romance is reduced to red splotches, white highlights, and heavy brown outlines. The woman is captive in the man's arms, left as a crimson mush of hair and skin that is meant for the man to devour. Munch's "Vampire" series has this same carnal feeling of amour. 
Nicole Wittenberg, "Yellow Kiss," oil on canvas board, 2015, 12 x 16 inches
Courtesy of Cherise Klebanov

The yellow version offers Nolde-like colors and a more clear reading of the kiss. Chiaroscuro, highlights, and more deliberate delineations of the body render two distinct figures. The man's profile is more articulated than his partner, who again, melts to sugar in his arms. 

"Nice Weather" runs from February 25-April 16 at both locations of Skarstedt. It was a delight to see how artists flirt with figurative abstraction. Moreover, it was a joy to see contemporary painters forge a new creative paths instead of rehash old concepts, i.e. Zombie Formalism. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Let Them Eat Cake... and Paint Portraits: Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun Exhibition

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) may not be a name that trips off the tongue; in fact,Vigée is pronounced Vee-zhay, and her artistic life is equally difficult to pronounce with authority. A mix of Rococo and neo-classicism, Le Brun forged a fascinating pictorial style. Born under Louis XV's reign, she was destined to become a royal portrait painter. Her father was a professional portraitist who gave her drawing lessons. She was not permitted to study at the predominately male Academy of Arts. After marrying one of the premier art dealers at 21, she was further removed from admission to the Academy as any connection to the art world was strictly prohibited. However, her work was shown at the Salons. From there, she was summoned to Versailles to paint the Hapsburg queen, Marie Antoinette. Now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 15, 2016 you can discover her much-deserved and belated retrospective. 
Marie Antoinette in Court Dress, 1778, oil on canvas
Courtesy of WikiArt

Le Brun captures Marie Antoinette in a thoughtful pose, wistfully gazing somewhere off the canvas whilst holding a single pink flower. The flower is barely visible amidst her birthday cake skirt, layered with tiers of tapestried satin and frivolous tassels. A tiny little shoe emerges from the bottom of the dress, a detail that no woman would omit. Clearly Marie Antoinette's footwear made the final version of this painting, adding another feminine detail of glitz and glamour. Le Brun was a sympathetic artist, revealing aspects of womanhood that confirm images in the popular imagination. Marie Antoinette was known for having a very narrow face with a heavy lower lip and jaw, attributed to her Hapsburg roots. However, Le Brun softened the jaw and added a rosy glow to the cheeks, creating a balance of harmony between the upper and lower halves of the face. Marie Antoinette appears as though she is bathed in light coming through an open window, creating an aural glow of divinity, power, and sensuality; all, no doubt, very appealing to the Queen herself. 

Le Brun's teacher was an artist named Joseph Vernet. He encouraged her to "paint as much as you can from nature." 

Portrait of Joseph Vernet, 1778, oil on canvas, Louvre Museum
Courtesy of WikiArt

Le Brun captures her mentor as a grand old man of the arts. His powdered wig and deep-set facial lines reveal a distinguished quality. As he holds his paintbrushes and easel, there is a glimmer in his eyes; the creative burst is about to ensue. Moments after he finishes his pose as the model, he will reverse the role and become the artist. The sincerity and purity of the expression reveals Le Brun's hearty admiration for her mentor. 

The trollop, mistress, harlot, courtesan, etc. has always been an art historical trope from Titian's Venus of Urbino to Manet's Olympia. However, where the male artists would paint the fallen woman in a lustful, lascivious way Le Brun depicted the deposed mistress of Louis XV in a clever way revealing the wiles of a woman. 

Madame du Barry in a Straw Hat, 1781, oil on canvas
Courtesy of WikiArt

Le Brun did Madame du Barry's portrait when her head was still connected to her body. The guillotine was an excellent way of jealous wives dealing with home-wreckers. Le Brun magnificently captures the spirit of the 'other woman.' She was described as having "the gaze of a coquette, her elongated eyes never opening completely." Instead of what could easily be misconstrued as 'bedroom eyes,' heavily lidded and glassy, she is rather smug and satisfied. She is proud of her sexual conquests and has her head back in slight amusement. The straw hat gives her the appearance of an ennobled peasant, proud as a peacock with her feathers jutting erectly. 

Le Brun captures her own youthful sensuality and suppleness in a self-portrait painted in 1782, when she was 27 years old, and a mother of a 2-year-old. 

Self-Portrait with Cerise Ribbons, 1782, oil on canvas
Courtesy of WikiArt

Le Brun depicts herself as a young nymph with rosy cheeks and unpowdered hair in delightful ringlets. Her pert expression and rosebud lips immediately bring her sexuality to mind. Her skin is so pure and translucent that one can see the blue-green veins underneath, revealing youthful vitality. The cerise colored bow on her décolleté draws attention to her bosom, kept under wraps by a diaphanous blouse.  Her earrings are fashionable and the pendulums dangle by her swan-like neck. As with Rembrandt's portraits, there is a strong connection between the sitter and the viewer, a tangible link from the past to the present brought by the gaze. 

Le Brun delighted in fashion, which she shared with Marie Antoinette. Le Brun took her fashion cues from Antoinette, who introduced the chemise a la reine in the 1780s. The gown was layers of thin muslins, with a belted sash around the waist. It was light, airy, and considered quite scandalous. The pastoral costume, perfect for an afternoon summer day in the countryside, was asked to be removed from the Salon exhibition. The billowy, piratesque sleeves and feathers in the cap hardly look that provocative. The flowers Antoinette is holding to make a bouquet add a girlish feminine charm and a touch of innocence. 

Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress, 1783, oil on canvas
Courtesy of WikiArt
This version was considered so provocative that Le Brun was asked to paint another version that was a bit more dignified. Much like Goya with his Naked Maja was asked to paint a clad version, Le Brun presented another version of the picture. 

Marie Antoinette with a Rose, 1783, oil on canvas
Courtesy of Google Art Project

The irony here, as with Goya's Maja, is that the clad version is just as sexy as the original naked version, if not more so. Marie Antoinette's décolleté is prominently on display, more so than in the original. Her cheeks are even rosier, revealing delightful sensual pleasure. 

Le Brun was a master portraitist and had countless commissions besides Marie Antoinette. She spent a number of years in Russia before returning back to France capturing the images of remarkable Slavic beauties that reveal an exoticism in her oeuvre. 

Portrait of Varvara Ivanovna Iadomirskaya, 1800, oil on canvas

One need not be a psychologist to feel the longing in Varvara's eyes. She was the illegitimate child of Ivan Rimsky-Korsakov ann Countess Stroganova, who left her husband in St. Petersburg to be with her lover. Le Brun depicts Varvara in a classic Greek costume and an indistinguishable landscape, rendering her ultimately timeless and disassociated from reality. This painting reads as a Tolstoy novel, a beautiful woman with a checkered past, yearning for a better future. 

The final image that I think warrants attention is of a sensation so intensely feminine that I have never seen captured before in oil on canvas, but rather through hundreds and hundreds of pages upon pages in literature. 

Portrait of Comtesse de la Chatre, 1789, oil on canvas, 
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Comtesse de la Chatre was born into an incredibly wealthy family. She married unhappily and divorced, only to live her life with a companion. What otherwise could quickly be construed as a society portrait based upon the fine furniture and luxurious costuming, upon closer inspection, one finds the emotional abyss that lurks behind this woman's eyes. In a race between immense boredom and intense dissatisfaction, this woman looks positively trapped. The murky grey background is unpromising and offers little hope. She turns away from the book, which clearly could not keep her interest, to give a gaze of sheer desperation. I felt rather guilty walking by her canvas in the gallery and not trying to save her, extract her from the ennui and senselessness that plagues her. 

That is part of the beauty of Le Brun's work; besides the sumptuous pastel colors and intensely feminine tableaus, there is a humanism, a psychological leash that binds the viewer to the portrait subject. Le Brun takes us into a world that is filled with more than fine frocks, feathers, frivolity, and fancy... the women sitters are complex, engaging, and riveting. Le Brun looks at Rubems for formal structure of color facture, whilst incorporating the realism of Rembrandt, and providing an undeniable 'woman's touch.' 

Monday, February 22, 2016

Tripping on Tomaselli

I was in Chelsea this past weekend doing the usual gallery art crawl. The show that stood out to me for various reasons was "Fred Tomaselli: Early Work or How I Became a Painter" at James Cohan Gallery (533 W 26th St). 

For those of you who are hearing the name Fred Tomaselli for the first time, let me quickly bring you up to speed. He was born in Santa Monica, California in 1956 and incorporates the hallucinogenic vestiges of the 60s counter-culture movement in his art.  His paintings at first look abstract, swirls and tendrils of color typically on a smooth black surface, colorful stars floating in a far-away galaxy. Upon looking closer at the 'paintings,' one recognizes everyday items including Tylenol pills, marijuana leaves, and magazine clippings of birds, butterflies, and any other such creature or ingredient that has the power to fly high into the sky... 

These chemical cocktails [embedded in the paintings] can no longer reach the brain through the bloodstream and must take a different route to altering perception. In my work, they travel to the brain through the eyes.
                                                                                                                                                                       —Fred Tomaselli
The work becomes retinal and cerebral, demanding psychological engagement as to discern the materials, whilst providing intense visual stimulation. 

The show at James Cohan is interesting as Tomaselli reveals his exploration and experimentation with other forms of media besides painting. After he graduated from Cal State Fullerton with a degree in painting and drawing, he suffered an artistic crisis.  He turned to installation art and immersive environments, comprised of degraded materials and found objects. One such work forces the viewer to insert his/her head into a box with a hole in it that is affixed to the wall. Inside is nothing but blackness and twinkling stars. The viewer has the experience vis-a-vis a kinetic relationship with the object, making the inanimate object come to life. Another piece called "Current Theory" from 1984 is literally rows of Styrofoam cups, tethered to the ground by a foot-long piece of thread,  with a large fan blowing them back and forth. The cups look as though they are trembling. choppy waves at sea. 

Tomaselli eventually returned to his two-dimensional roots with his resin-based works using pharmaceuticals and marijuana leaves to form a sort of abstract figuration. His works are arresting (pun intended) and hallucinogenic. 

The show is on view until March 19; do yourself a favor and see it and then, "Turn on, tune in, and drop out." 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Peter Fischli & David Weiss at the Guggenheim: A Playful Panacea for Work

If you haven't heard of Fischli and Weiss and/or recently been to the Guggenheim Museum, then you should. Swiss artists Peter Fischli (b. 1952) and David Weiss (1946-2012) were a formidable creative duo during their 33-year collaboration. They were able to embrace and then parody art history, such as debunking the trope of the Readymade and focusing on the everyday experiences of consumer culture that the Pop artists made famous. The dichotomies of high and low art as well as the sublime and  banal reveal a fierce tension in the artists' oeuvre. This wonderful exhibition at the Guggenheim, New York features 300 sculptures, photographs, videos, and installations that reveal the intense intimacy and inventiveness shared between these two men. The exhibition is arranged in no particular order, chronologically or otherwise. Free association opens the work up for discussion, revealing the continuous collaboration these men had, like Picasso and Braque, strapped together as two mountaineers. 

Photo Courtesy of Cherise Klebanov

Suddenly This Overview (1981- ) uses comical clay sculptures to chronicle a selective history of the world. There is an homage to art history, psychoanalytic theory, literature, metaphysics, mathematics, folk culture, economics, etc. that cleverly and simply reveal a moment in time by means of a piece of clay and a title.
Photo Courtesy of Cherise Klebanov
(Title: Jacques Lacan at the Age of Two Recognizes His Image for the First Time in the Mirror)

My personal favorite is a masked James Ensor en route to a costume ball.
Photo Courtesy of Cherise Klebanov
(Title: James Ensor on the Way to a Costume Ball)
The Sausage Series (1979) was Weiss and Fischli's first project. The ten color photographs feature narrative scenes of household objects, brought to life in an anthropomorphic way. One could imagine Tom Wesselmann getting sausage envy...
Photo Courtesy of Cherise Klebanov
(Title: Fashion Show) 
In the late 80s, Fischli and Weiss came up with a series based on airports, not the act of traveling, but rather the anticipatory moments before the flight. Banal imagery of hangars, runways, airport lounges become atmospheric and scenic. To accompany the Airport series were Cars (1988) and Hostesses (1988-2012). The monochromatic white sculptures are anonymous, like paper doll cut-outs. The cars have a menacingly phantom-like quality.

Photos Courtesy of Cherise Klebanov

Weiss and Fischli transform monotony into a marvel. The light installation of thoughtful and inane questions written in English, German, Japanese, and other languages sheds light on the fragility of human existence. Serving as a modern day, "To be or not to be," questioning one's place in the world reminds us of those universal longings and desires. 

Photos Courtesy of Cherise Klebanov

Finally, the duo created a sculptural installation that would addle the brains of Marcel Duchamp and Jasper Johns with the lengths of creating a "Readymade." 

Photo Courtesy of Cherise Klebanov
(That's right; all 750 pieces of the table are painted polyurethane to create replicas of the original object)
Labor, whimsy, process, frivolity, intellectualism, universalism, high art, low art, would be apt words to use for Peter Fischli and David Weiss: How to Work Better at the Guggenheim. The show runs until April 27, 2016 and should absolutely not be missed. Pay special attention to the fantastic videos, The Way Things Go (1987), where in a domino-like effect, balancing acts and chemical reactions reveal balletic precision of setting off a chain reaction of absurdity. Fischli and Weiss bring a healthy dose of youthfulness to their work by sweeping away the spiders of art history as well as turning pyromania into an art form. 

The attendees were most interesting as well... 
Photo Courtesy of Cherise Klebanov
(Fischli and Weiss enthusiast in full regalia, wearing an animal print onesie)

Monday, February 8, 2016

Erotic Art Entry Part 7

Your parents probably encouraged you not to judge a book by its cover. But sometimes it's just so irresistibly tempting... Poor Olympia has been criticized, chastised, and debased by not only her appearance but who she was... 

For more information on poor Olympia, Manet, Impressionism, or the like, please contact me at
  Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, oil on canvas, Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Photo Courtesy of WikiArt

Originally exhibited in the 1865 Paris Salon, this naked woman lying reclining on a bed is being brought a bouquet of flowers by her black handmaiden. The public “oohed” and “poo-pooed” at this painting, due to the shock of seeing a naked prostitute with a confrontational gaze. The clues to detect her nefarious status include the flower in her hair as well as the black choker. Never before had a woman of Olympia’s standing (or rather laying), a courtesan, been seen loud and brashly proud in her birthday garment. Painted in a modern fashion with broad, rough brushstrokes Olympia’s body is not that of a Venus or a rotund goddess. She is muscular, lean, and even a bit androgynous. She is laying buck naked, which is a departure from the nudes that existed before her. Nudes typically were goddesses who came out of clam shells or floated atop the crest of a wave, seemingly suspended by gravity. Nudes were astral, celestial, and other worldly. Most importantly, they did not have pubic hair. Before the advent of laser hair removal and waxing, women bore the 70s genital fro. Our little Olympia is hiding her genitals, alluding to the fact she is indeed a real woman. Manet outlines Olympia’s body with a thick black line that defies the idea of chiaroscuro, or illusionistic shadowing.