Monday, January 15, 2024

Rapping on canvas, Alexandre Diop


2022 was a big year for Alexandre Diop, the Franco-Senegalese artist now living in Vienna, Austria. Under the mentorship of Kehinde Wiley, his first exhibition in Paris "La prochaine fois, le feu" opened during the art fair Paris+ by Art Basel, in October. Following a four-month-long residency at the Rubell Museum Miami at the beginning of the year, he filled the venue with his work for a solo show in December, just in time for Art Basel Miami Beach. Presently, five of his "roaring monumental canvasses" are on view at the Rubell Museum DC, displayed in the vast luminous foyer at the entrance of the building, a renovated high school, part of a project aimed at revitalizing the neighborhood. 

First impressions are lasting. Surrounded by Diop's works I remember being overwhelmed by the dense imagery filling the vast space. I could not figure out the subject of the works other than it seemed epic, and I got closer  to Mondo Carne (2022). The huge painting (103x191 in.) describes an apocalyptic world through gruesome scenes featuring flailed bodies, skulls, screaming, disfigured faces... a pile of human misery.  One cannot avoid thinking of Basquiat when looking at the painting which also includes barely legible writing in French meaning "stop this masquerade, there is enough to eat for everyone" (according to the wall text). The disturbing picture we are looking at seems from another time or another world, and yet, is inspired by the daily struggle of entire populations to survive, as "you enjoy your $2-dollar extra shot in your venti Starbucks Coffee". Made with traditional oil paint, oil stick, pastel, acrylic, charcoal, gouache on canvas, the raw, visceral composition is a violent, gruesome start to the show. 

L'incroyable Traversée d'Abdoulaye Le Grand, Troisième de la Lignée (The Incredible Crossing of Abdoulaye the Great, Third in Line to the Throne), 2022, tells the mythical story of Abdoulaye, obviously the artist. Initially a scenario for a movie,  the fable relates the journey of the hero who interacts with different characters, some good, others bad. Black and white, good and bad, a crossing between two worlds alludes to the river Styx of the Greek mythology. Cerberus becomes a monster tamed by Abdoulaye riding the beast. The story built with themes embedded in our psyche unfolds from left to right and the white background of the triptych allows the silhouettes of the personages to stand out in lively postures. Looking at the details of the elaborate graffiti-like composition reveals the very personal technique of the artist who arranges refuses found in the streets, dumps and various indescribable places, using hammers and staplers to tack them to the wooden canvas. 

Diop starts gathering material like a sculptor and produces scenes worthy of a painter like the next triptych, a colorful composition titled L'Histoire du Monde-Le Temps et l'Espace (The History of the World-Time and Space), 2022. The ambitious subject is tackled with gusto by the artist who manages to add a dash of  humor. If Eve, the temptress and the cause of our downfall is present, the monkey on the lower right takes over the work about the past. The wise observer has a pensive gaze and a sardonic grin as he scratches his head. This is the miracle of art: how to render such an insightful expression with pieces of colored paper. The word "loco" nearby, like in a cartoon, conveys his thoughts as he looks at the history of mankind. The location for the present is in Miami as per an upside down banner on top of the second panel. The claustrophobic accumulation of images, scribbles, dribbles, snippets of advertisements, with a partly decomposed portrait of Warhol (at least his wig), alludes to a confused, stressful world filled with anxiety. A lost breasted-man occupies most of the third tableau about the  future as thriving monkeys keep watching the world led by cartels and its final apocalypse.

 Following these visionary, mythic, violent works, the two nudes side by side on the facing wall feel out of place. Honi soit qui mal y pense (Shame be (to him) who thinks evil of it), 2022 and Le Mensonge d'État (The Lie of the State), 2021 are replicas (Diop's style) respectively of the famous Grande Odalisque (1914) from Ingres and Olympia (1863-1865) from Édouart Manet. Every detail is carefully reproduced: fan, blue drapery, long spine, elongated arm. The face appears to be a mask with the same detached expression. Idem for Olympia and her erotic posture, the orchid in the hair, the black servant. I could not find the cat, and the bunch of flowers is replaced by a text "Cheikh Anta Diop, Civilisation ou Barbarie". It refers to the Senegalese historian, anthropologist , physicist and politician with the same surname than the artist. Looking carefully to each portrait, there are more scribbled messages. To quote the artist about his works: "there’s really a lot for me to talk about every time I discuss these pieces".  

Not a painting, not a sculpture, not a tapestry, not a graffiti, not a bas-relief, ... Diop has mastered a unique technique, using objects as his palette, hammers and staplers as his brushes. He also sometimes leaves his own blood and spit as he works fast and furiously on his canvasses. The scion of an ancestral Senegalese family, he has a vision of history mixed with an anti-establishment view permeating through his work. Not quite thirty years old, the artist is looking forward to a bright future, and has many projects and ideas: "There are so many things I want to do. For me, this is really just the beginning of my career. I want to develop and not repeat the same things...I think the act of painting or sculpture is to recreate [oneself] as a human... It’s also not always about art, it’s also about life. What I feel. What I see." The future will tell what is next for the multidisciplinary artist full of promises. Hopefully he does not get too close to the fire and burn his wings, like Icarus who melted his getting to close to the sun. 

photographs by the author:

Mondo Carne (2022)

L'Histoire du Monde-Le Temps et l'Espace (The History of the World-Time and Space) detail, 2022

Honi soit qui mal y pense (Shame be (to him) who thinks evil of it), 2022

Sunday, December 31, 2023

Rothko, Known and Unknown


Two major exhibitions recently opened, ending the year on a high note: Mark Rothko a retrospective at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris and Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper  at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Both organized in chronological order gather more than one hundred paintings each, some of them rarely seen, selected from renown institutions like the The Phillips Collection, the National Gallery of Art or the Tate, and from private collections. Since my memorable encounter with the artist's work at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston in 2015, I thought Rothko had no secrets for me. My peregrinations allowed me to visit both shows which left me dazzled by the richness of their content.

It would be overreaching and repetitious for me to discuss Rothko's work, subject of numerous analysis by famous art critics and historians, likewise to write a review of the flawless exhibitions organized by experts and top curators. I prefer to look back at my encounter with the paintings of the famous abstract expressionist artist and to assess what resonates within me. To "see" Rothko, I take advice from Michael Findlay who quotes the poet Wallace Stevens in his book Seeing Slowly: Looking at Modern Art in the chapter "Ignorance Is Knowledge?":

                           You must become an ignorant man again
                           And see the sun with an ignorant eye
                           And see it clearly in the idea of it.    

In preparation for my visit, I adopted some sort of mental vacuity to receive the full impact of the paintings. It is a solitary, personal endeavor. I think that Rothko would agree.  

Starting in Paris, I was struck by a self-portrait made in 1936 near the entrance. The thirty-three-year-old artist, somber and enigmatic, eyes hidden behind dark glasses, appears to scrutinize the viewer. Other than this unsettling painting, Rothko's portraits are forgettable as confirmed a few weeks later looking at his works on paper. The figurative urban scenes of the 30's are followed by the often ignored paintings from the early 40's, foundations of his practice. In search of a universal "new myth" he incorporates motives from Greek mythology, then moves to surrealistic dreamscapes as he slowly veers to abstraction with his "Multiforms" until shapes become simple colored blocks floating on limitless monochrome backgrounds filling vertical canvasses. Rothko's practice reaches its acme in the 50's and the display of such a great number of works from the period is enthralling. Being surrounded by the paintings radiating in the semi-darkness is a unique experience. Each of them stirs deep emotions through a gamut of moody blues, elating yellows, oranges, reds, a symphony of colors mostly joyous until we reach the display of  darker paintings introducing black, wine color, and a room filled with the Seagram Murals travelling from the Tate Modern in London, followed by several "Blackforms". Rothko's attempt to make black glow in the dark to let paintings "generate their own light", a rehearsal for the Rothko Chapel at The Menil Collection, engenders the same feeling of gloom and doom that besets me following my visits at the chapel itself in Houston. Braving a line of visitors, I spent a few minutes in the small gallery in which the Rothko Room from The Phillips Collection is recreated minus one painting. As a frequent visitor of the venue in D.C., I have been able to contemplate the paintings in total serenity time and again. On the highest floor, a unique display assembles iconic sculptures from Giacometti and Rothko's late acrylic paintings (1969-1970) from the Black and Grey series, highlighting the influence of Giacometti's works on the painter. I could not recall seeing these before, but if I had, the uninspired grayish masses under flat black rectangles did not catch my attention. As a final note, three vibrant paintings made in 1967 in the small adjacent gallery remind us that Rothko never renounced the use of colors in his practice. 

Back in Washington, I could not miss the exhibition at the National Gallery even as I thought it might be redundant or worse, disappointing. It was full of surprises. With about a dozen paintings per room, the show unfolds in the same chronological order starting with figurative landscapes, portraits and nudes, providing a glimpse in the nascent artist's career. The wall texts add moving details about Rothko's life and the poor response to his works at the time. The next two rooms are a journey into the artist's surrealist period through a succession of paintings from the mid-40's I had never seen before. Each of them tells a story born from deep connections to mythology, prehistory, a primal world in which the artist searches for a new myth to reach spirituality. I spent some time looking at the biomorphic shapes floating in soft watery colors, savoring their content and the delicate brush strokes. Slowly, the paintings undergo some kind of purification as they become more abstract and the next works mirror those on canvas from the 50's, although smaller in size precluding a total immersion in the landscapes of colors. As we progress, the tones get darker and on the next floor, we reach the Brown and Grays series on paper echoing the Black and Grey series on canvas. Nearby, black paintings slowly appear to glow revealing drips of luminescent paint. The effect is working this time, possibly due to a careful lighting? Close by, in a separate space, a life size photograph of Rothko walking toward a huge easel gives a concrete idea of the painter's physical labor, and a few unfinished paintings on paper reveal Rothko's technique. Moving on, the last room is another delightful surprise, "an ethereal suite of paintings on paper with soft, cloudlike edges surrounded by margins of pale paper". The wall text gives a perfect description of the paintings, evoking the soft colors of the surrealist period. These late works, contemporary to his Brown and Grays series, close the show on a ravishing note.

"Why paint at all?" The answer is found in these two landmark exhibitions giving an in depth look at the path of Rothko's practice, reflection of his inner and most private life. The artist, a master of colors did not want to be called a colorist. Painting for him is not about beautiful hues, but is a catharsis in his search for the spiritual and his interest in "expressing basic human emotions". We can participate to the artist's journey as he arises a primitive angst common to all of us and translates the unspeakable through his art. A quote from Robert Rosenblum about the abstract sublime seems very appropriate: "These infinite, glowing voids carry us beyond reason to the Sublime; we can only submit to them in an act of faith and let ourselves be absorbed into their radiant depths."

Rothko was concerned about his legacy: "A painting lives by companionship, expending and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token." The unavoidable crowd of selfie takers somewhat spoils the visit, and the images of Rothko's paintings on the phone screens do not allow to "look and see". Everyone recognizes "a Rothko" and moves on. 

Just a reminder that we are responsible for the artist's legacy as the two exhibitions resonate well beyond the visit. 


photographs by the author:

1-"Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea", 1944 (Fondation Louis Vuitton)
2-"Untitled", 1948 (National Gallery of Art)
3-"Blue, Yellow, Green on Red", 1954 (Fondation Louis Vuitton)
4-"Untitled (Forest Interior)", 1933 (National Gallery of Art)

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Simone Leigh at Hirshhorn


Satellite (2022), a massive sculpture at the entrance of the Hishhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden on the southern plaza is an irresistible invitation to the exhibition simply titled Simone Leigh. Spanning twenty years, the first survey of the artist's career made its debut at the ICA Boston a few months ago, and the selection for the show includes three new sculptures, a number of artworks exposed at the 59th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, and early key pieces. Simone Leigh has received international recognition with her practice primarily focused on a Black female audience. In 2022, she was the first black woman artist invited to represent the United States at the famous contemporary art show. The thirty works exposed in the galleries include sculptures in bronze, ceramics, and videos.

Following a non chronological order, the exhibition starts with Cupboard, 2022, an imposing grass skirt made of raffia. Of perfect shape, huge, reaching the floor and toppled by a cowrie shell evoking female genitals, the piece which belongs to the Glenstone Museum close-by in Maryland, is a great introduction to the show about the role and status of Black women. The matronly figure called "cupboard" alludes to domesticity, shelter and sustenance. Further, the visitor can find a gilded version also called Cupboard, 2022,  this time with a generously breasted bust on top of a pannier skirt decorated with palms. Early in her practice, Simone Leigh made ceramics an art form and recently discovered bronze with  Brick House (2019), found on the High Line in NYCher first sculpture in the medium. Her creative process remains the same as she keeps modeling her sculptures in clay at the foundry before they are cast in bronze. My first encounter with one of her bronze was in New Orleans where Sentinel (Mami Wata) (2020-2021) was erected on Egality Circle formerly Lee Circle at the occasion of the fifth edition of the Prospect New Orleans Triennial. Her more recent sculptures seen for the first time include VesselBisi and Herm (2023). Tall, slender, ebony black, semi-abstract, they also have in common female attributes and are displayed as a group in the middle of the exhibition. Herm is clearly the female version of a Greek herm, boundary marker traditionally featuring the head of Hermes, god of fertility, on top of a squared column decorated with male genitals. Leigh's sculpture can also be interpreted as a veiled reference to a hermaphrodite with its gracile leg emerging at the back of the male post. Vessel, a uniped human creature with a standing up canoe-like shape for body and a head of mixed African-Caucasian traits with a retro hairdo, left me perplexed. The title, Bisi, gives the key to the third sculpture, a portrait of Bisi Silva, a Nigerian curator-mentor encountered during Leigh's trips to Africa. A simple shape, half a cylinder,  creates an empty space, a place to hide, a refuge for comfort. The naked torso on top supports a smooth head without eyes or ears, emotionless, like goddesses in primitive sculptures. Leigh's first portrait, Sharifa, 2022, (Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts) is approximately nine feet tall and is a full length representation of the scholar of African-American  history, friend of the artist. She appears deep in thoughts, head slightly bent, eyes wide-open looking inward. Proudly bare-breasted with her arms falling along her full-length skirt from which one foot emerges, she exudes pride, strength and determination. 

Ceramics remain the foundation of Leigh's practice and about ten of her earlier and more recent works in  the medium are on display. Usually of smaller size, they introduce blazing colors like the yellow of the untitled portrait made in 2023. Eye-catching bright blue Martinique (2022), a tall monochrome sculpture, refers to a painful history: slavery during the Napoleonic era. The headless torso on top of the cylindric skirt is also a reminder of more recent events during which the statue of the empress Josephine, born on the island, was beheaded in 1991 and totally destroyed in 2020. Jug (2022), a white monochrome stoneware piece is a direct reference to the face jugs made by Black American potters from Edgefield County, South Carolina. Oddly, a white and black film (24:00 minutes) is projected in an area of heavy traffic, without seating. Conspiracy, 2022, a collaborative project between the sculptor and the filmmaker Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich  premiered at the Venice Biennale. In a dark room, Breakdown (2011) is a nine minute compelling solo performance by Alicia Hall Moran about Black female hysteria. A third video from Simone Leigh and Chitra Ganesh titled after a poem composed by Gwendolyn BrooksMy Dreams, My Works Must Wait Till After Hell (2011) is about resilience of Black women in the face of adversity. The back of a reclining torso with a head buried under a pile of stones manages to be sensuous with the play of light on the black skin as a faint slow breathing reveals life. The end of the exhibition feels rushed. A small but powerful sculpture of a head almost faceless covered with handmade rosettes, symbols of manual labor, is faced by a glass cabinet filled with rows of sharpened teeth in memory of a man from Congo brought to America and put on display at the Bronx Zoo. The two works (respectively 2011 and 2001-04) deserve a more prominent spot earlier in the show. 

Jugs, cowrie shells, raffia, vernacular objects evocative of African cultures have become Leigh's primary resources for her practice, reflecting the artist's background. Born in Chicago of Jamaican descent, she studied philosophy and ethnography. Both nurtured her enduring interest in African and African American art, and consequently her practice. Multimedia artist she is better known for her ceramics and now bronze sculptures found in museums and public places. Her latest abundant production concentrates on Black women with a wider theme about colonization, race, feminism, through oversized goddess-like sculptures. They depict cross-cultural blends of Black women, remote, introverted and emotionless, which may make it difficult to connect with. 



photographs by the author:

1-"Herm", 2023

2-"Overburdened with Significance", 2011

3-"Satellite", 2022



Sunday, August 27, 2023

An American in London


The National Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn are customary destinations for art buffs visiting the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Recently, a stroll in the Smithsonian Gardens close by led me to the National Museum of Asian Art for a travel through time and places: Yemen, China, India, Japan,..., Hiroshige's landscapes, calligraphy scrolls, sculptures of Buddha,.... Wandering from gallery to gallery, the rather intriguing title of a wall text caught my attention: "Dirty Pictures". Furthermore, the paintings lining up the walls were definitively not Asian but Western art. I had reached the American art collection.  

The Freer Gallery of Art combined with the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery "houses one of the premier collection of Asian art". It is also famous for its unique example of interior decoration in the Anglo-Japanese style, The Peacock Room painted by James McNeill Whistler in 1876-1877. Originally commissioned by the British shipowner Frederick Richards Leyland to display his china collection, subsequently acquired by the American industrialist Charles Lang Freer for his mansion, the paneled room was finally installed in the Freer Gallery of Art, opened to the public since 1923. In the 1890's Freer became patron and friend of Whistler and sought the artist's advice to build his Asian art collection. He was also the most important collector of Whistler's works, all bequeathed to the museum. 

Whistler, born in America in 1834, had a peripatetic childhood due to his father's occupation as a railroad civil engineer. He spent some time in Massachusetts, Connecticut, St Petersburg in Russia and London. After a stint at West Point, it became clear that art was his calling and he left the United States for Paris where he adopted a free spirited lifestyle. He was twenty one years old. Despite his prickly character, he nurtured enriching relationships with artists of all venues. His peregrinations brought him as far as Chile in 1866 during the Spanish-South American War and later on, he produced a trove of works during a fourteen-month stay in Venice.  He always came back to London, his favored city, where he died in 1903. 

"Dirty" was the adjective used by aficionados to describe Whistler's series of thirty two landscapes of London at night. During a flourishing Victorian era, he was known for his portraits, and the images of the city's unalluring side were a challenge for the critics and the public. Under the low light of the Freer Gallery, five small paintings generated an irresistible attraction. Nocturne: Grey and Silver- Chelsea Embankment, Winter  (Ca. 1879) features three small boats aground on the snowy bank of the Thames at the bottom of the painting. The vertical composition is filled with the grey of the icy river turning into a slightly bluer grey sky. In the background, the city's blurry shadow with its faint lights gleaming on the river underlines the menacing profile of cranes in the center, defiantly reaching the top of the painting. The silver and grey palette suggests the moonlight's reflection on the landscape.

 Symphony in Grey: Early Morning, Thames (1871) is an horizontal composition filled with the calm river, a pale grey ribbon flowing between its banks. The painter brings us on a walk along the straight edge of the Thames, looking at an industrial site on the distant shore as a light fog blurs the contours of the land. A high chimney and puffs of smoke break the line of the horizon below a narrow strip of grey sky. The reflection of the industrial landscape in the water creates an inverted shadowy replica of a factory. Two ghostly ships drift far away. A closer look at the painting reveals a coat of brown underpaint seeping through the thin grey brushstrokes. From afar, the brown color melting into the grey gives depth and a subtle flow to the river. Whistler's butterfly signature at the bottom of the painting alludes to the influence of the Japanese masters on his works.

On a similar theme, Nocturne: Blue and Silver- Battersea Reach (1870-1875) is centered around the motionless river lined up along its banks by a row of cranes and the smokestacks of factories. The stillness of the water reflecting a bluish grey sky and the lack of life imply silence. The gloomy atmosphere defines a short time at dusk "entre chien et loup" when one cannot distinguish a dog from a wolf.

Under a pale blue wintery sky, Nocturne: Trafalgar Square, Chelsea-Snow (Ca. 1875-77) depicts residential buildings around a square covered with dirty snow. A few yellow spots of light hint to the warmth of homes amidst the cold empty outdoors. At dusk, the trees become threatening shadows and mystery invades the abandoned city.

The scene of a naval battle witnessed by Whistler from the window of his hotel in Valparaiso, Chile, has become a key work of the artist's career. Eighteen sixty-six, the first date of  Nocturne in Blue and Gold; Valparaiso (1866/ca.1874) is proof of a timely and precise recording of the action. The assault on the Chilean harbor occurred in the morning of March 31 1866, and the first version was a landscape bathed in an early daylight. Back in London, almost a decade later, it became a Nocturne. Hardly distinguishable black shapes dissolved in a threatening dark mass fill the lower half of the painting. The abstracted rendering of the action contrasts with, above it, the  view of sailboats under full attack surrounded by smoke and fiery explosions and a detailed nighttime depiction of the harbor in the background. 

"By using the word 'nocturne', I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have been otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form, and color first." In this quote, Whistler states his goal: art for art. 

Two major exhibitions (last year "The Woman in White: Joanna Hifferman and James McNeill Whistler" at the National Gallery of Art and ongoing "The Artist's Mother: Whistler and Philadelphia" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) show the interest for Whistler's portraits guaranteed to bring crowds to the museums. What about his Nocturnes, his "dirty pictures"? Greys, blues, brown colors were selected to create mood and atmosphere, more important to depict landscapes than reproducing reality.  Photography, electricity, factories, a new world of industrialization was in the making and for Whistler,  painting was not just copying a scene, but creating "an artistic arrangement". During the Ruskin trial about one of his Nocturnes, accused of messy work, quickly done and overcharged,  the painter famously replied: "... I ask it (two hundred guineas) for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime."

Why was I struck by the five paintings during my visit? Why these Nocturnes still feel so relevant? The artist transmutes the scenes in a romantic way, filled with untold, leaving room for the imagination and dreams of a wandering mind. The paintings triggered my memories of aimless walks along the river and left me filled with emotions. After several encounters with his works, for the first time, I felt a connection with Whistler.

photographs by the author:

"Nocturne: Grey and Silver- Chelsea Embankment, Winter", ca. 1879

"Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Valparaiso", 1866/ca.1874

"Nocturne,: Blue and Silver-Battersea Reach", 1870-1875

Sunday, July 9, 2023

Stories and History: Whitfield Lovell at VMFA

a travelling exhibition, just opened at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia. The solo show features works from Whitfield Lovell who has dedicated his practice to a chapter of American history covering the period from the Emancipation Proclamation to the Civil Rights Movement. The photographs of  anonymous African Americans collected over the years provide the medium from which he creates drawings with Conté crayons on salvaged wood or paper. At home and while travelling extensively from Europe to Africa and South America, Lovell was exposed to different artists and styles. Ultimately he chose to become a storyteller as illustrated throughout the exhibition which spans from his student years in the eighties until today. Displayed in a non chronological order on the lower level of the museum, the works include two major installations, series of drawings and assemblages.

Passage evokes loss and new beginning, change often accompanied by turmoil, and the entrance through a pair of black drapes is a theatrical introduction to Deep River and Flight from Deep River  (2013), an immersive installation about a treacherous journey, the crossing of the Tennessee River to reach Camp Contraband, a Union Army site. In the dimly lit gallery, spotlights illuminate fifty-six portraits of African Americans drawn on wood drums of different sizes set around a mound of fresh dirt. Enthralled by the video of a murky river with shining ripples projected on the walls, the earthy and woody perfumes, the chirping of  birds, it is easy to forget time and place and travel in the past. A slow walk around the installation allows to look at each portrait, sometimes full length. The tondi reveal the dignified expression and posture of the sitters with perfect hairdo wearing their Sunday best photographed for posterity, quiet presence in a scene staged by the artist. Gun, worn pair of shoes, kettle, trumpet, banjo,... a few of their belongings left on the tumulus, poignant remnants of their lives, add drama to the display. The everyday objects are now relics to remember thousands of enslaved people who crossed the river, symbol of their passage to freedom. The  powerful installation leads to the portrait of a man on a voyage, standing tall above piles of worn leather suitcases, a proper transition to a sample of the Kin series, eight portraits out of sixty works on paper displayed next in a small gallery. 

The object combined with each drawing contributes to the make up of a life's story: a model ship, a flask, a rifle target, flags,... and leave our imagination wander. The series made from 2008 to 2011 is followed in the next room by several "Tableaux" started earlier, in the 1990's. The mixture of installations, arrangements spilling on the floor, wall pieces, is visually challenging and confusing at first with nine works overcrowding the space. Still (1999) reveals the peaceful domestic life of a couple while two compositions stand out: America (2000) the full length portrait of a proud man with a bunch of American flags sticking out from his guts and You're My Thrill (2004) the drawing of a cool young man who could be the hero of a movie with his well trimmed mustache, slick hair, posing with a handgun behind a row of empty shell casings. In the same vein, Because I Wanna Fly (2021) seen further in the show features an ethereal woman with black birds circling around her like bad augurs. All reveal aspirations, dreams, human stories belonging to a past ghostly world. Five colored compositions made with oil sticks and charcoal on paper bring us back to an earlier surrealistic period of the artist. They are followed by more recent works like The Card Pieces (2018-2022) in which one portrait is matched with each playing card of a vintage deck. Who is the queen of heart? At first playful, the fifty-four works displayed in a monotonous alignment of black frames on the four walls become tedious. In contrast, the series of Reds (2021) made of relatively small size drawings on a background of red paper with a token found object, the prominent red sofa, the red chair and phone, in the next gallery painted black, allude to passion and drama. However the message remains ambiguous and the emotionless expression of the sitters does not reveal a clue. 

Visitation: The Richmond Project
is home. The immersive installation created in 2001 involved a thorough research by the artist in the local archives and refers to the struggles and ultimately successes of Jackson Ward, a thriving Black community now dispersed. A female voice reads the names of sixty-three of its prominent citizens as the visitor walks through an elaborate display about five chapters of the collective history: Battle Ground features a soldier in full uniform, Restoreth a matriarch and her healing potions, Our Best a group of fashionable gents and ladies, Coins wooden coins with portraits of locals, and Visitation: The Parlor a fully furnished living room with a musical component. The decor of the parlor recreated in its minute details with furniture and accessories of the late 19th-early 20th century, is an invitation to visit a couple's most inner sanctum and share a piece of the private life of two ghostly shadows drawn on the wooden walls. Their presence haunts the room lighted by a soft table lamp as a gospel fills the air.

Like a memorial, the comprehensive exhibition generates a state of reflection, and the respectful visitors whisper while going through the galleries. The quiet presence of the anonymous sitters is felt from start to end as we read their stories looking at their portraits and attributes while music and sounds heighten our emotions. The artist succeeds in his quest to make us "feel the spirit of the past". 


photographs by the author:

"Flight from Deep River", 2013

"Because I Wanna Fly", 2021

"Our Best" (detail), 2001

"Deep River", 2013                                                      

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Group Show at The Kreeger Museum

Paintings from the Washington Color School's artists are found in museums worldwide and their names belong to the history of modern art. Closely associated with color field painting, the movement placed D.C. on the art scene's map, even as most of the abstract expressionist artists contributing to a roaring post-war creativity lived in or around New York City. What is happening today in the DMV area (D.C., Maryland, Virginia)? A visit at The Kreeger Museum is the occasion to get a glimpse of Washington's lively art scene. The private residence of collectors David and Carmen Kreeger built by renown architects Philip Johnson and Richard Foster now hosts their collection of paintings and sculptures mainly from the 19th and 20th centuries, displayed on two levels of the building and in the garden. In conjunction with the Hamiltonian Artists, the museum also promotes local artists through its program The Collaborative. The Hamiltonian Artists is a "career incubator program for emerging visual artists" which provides exposure for its fellows as well as more mundane support. The latest exhibition Doing The Work features creations from five Hamiltonian Fellows scattered within the permanent collection. 

Randomly, I started the visit in the library on the first floor where three photographs of Samera Paz are hung on the wood panels. At first, they seem disconnected: pages of an adolescent's diary, still lifes of beauty products or neatly folded cloths. The vivid compositions are made of objects gathered in the foreground leaving little space for the neutral background. They represent a personal history, and "I" included in each title is the link. Can they involve "Us"? Rebellious adolescence, loneliness, consumerism, pressure to fit in,... the gamut of  anxieties expressed through the accumulation of words or objects reaches a wide audience finding common ground. Activist and artist Samera Paz is known for her use of a different medium, menstrual blood. For the show, she simply exposes her vulnerability. 

A narrow passageway lined up with drawings and small paintings from masters like Paul Klee, Picasso, Kandinsky, leads to the next room. Surrounded by the lively colors and lines of the abstract works from Charles Hinman, David Urban and Thomas DowningKyrae Dawaun's piece is a surprise, on the floor. Combining copper nestled in a concrete square mound and a geometric structure made of pale bluish limestone framed by white oak, it appears indestructible. The title tells another story: a confluence toward an ill Delta (2023) evokes the fragile ecosystem threatened by climate change and human intervention. Under the playful rays of the sun, like an island on the parquet, the work found its place.  

An intimate parlor is the next stop to watch the three videos from Cecilia Kim. The South Korean artist now living in D.C. stays hidden behind a black screen to perform a slow ritual, her hands carefully handling small pieces of food found in traditional Korean dishes. Lasting twelve minutes to over one hour, the footages reveal the value of  "performed labor", title of the work (Performed Labor, 2021). With its implied respect for nutrients and cultural heritage, the slow repetitive activity leads to a state of quiet meditation, transforming manual labor into a spiritual endeavor. On the walls, still lifes from Van Gogh, Cézanne, Picasso, including the famous Café de La Rotonde (1901) complete an inspiring display.

 The landing of the staircase is a perfect site for Ara Koh's installation gathering thirteen sculptures made of fired clay. Two to six feet high, they create a landscape evoking the Southwest of the United States. Like sculpted by the elements, their rough surface even shows some cracks, underlining the fragility of the natural world. Core Sample (2020) describes an arid ecosystem, a haunting desert. Through an intense labor, the South Korean artist leaves her marks on the clay to represent "geological time and metamorphosis".

 Matthew Russo's works are found between two major paintings, Flin-Flon XIII (1970) from Frank Stella and Cape (1969) from Sam GilliamPracticed Play, Iterations #1-3 (2023), a gathering of white and fluorescent colored sculptures looks like made of playdough. Set on the floor in the center of the room, the line up of small whimsical objects brings a playful distraction to the magisterial display. On the wall, Workplace Drawings #1-15 (2021), a series of fifteen blue and red drawings of surrealistic objects floating on a white background, reveals an infinite world of dreams. 

For most of us "work" evokes enforced prosaic labor, sometimes physically or mentally exhausting , mostly dull. It feels paradoxical to use the word in the title of an art show. Here, photographs, sculptures, drawings and videos are born from a labor transcended by the artists. Their creations spread among the masterpieces enhance the visit and rejuvenate the permanent collection, transforming The Kreeger Museum into a dynamic and nurturing venue.  

photographs by the author:

Ara Koh "Core Sample", 2020

Cecilia Kim "Performed Labor", 2021 (videos)

Matthew Russo "Practiced Play, Iterations #1-3", 2023

Frank Stella "Flin-Flon XIII", 1970

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

"Drawing in Space": Richard Serra at Glenstone


Located on 230 acres in Potomac, Maryland, Glenstone, largest private contemporary art museum in the United States, is a venue where architecture and nature blend in  perfect harmony. Curves and lines from the rolling hills and the minimalist buildings, design a landscape colored by patches of violet grass and yellow wild flowers. Birdsongs are an invitation to walk along the trails and discover the collection of outdoor sculptures. Spring is a perfect time for a visit. 

Among the artists, Richard Serra is represented by three sculptures closely intertwined with the history of the site. The planned addition of Sylvester, 2001, influenced the selection of material and shape of the Gallery designed by the architect Charles Gwathmey. Like an anchor, the massive sculpture permanently located near the building, was first displayed in 2001 at the Gagosian gallery for the exhibition "Torqued Spirals, Toruses, and Spheres". Named after the British art critic David Sylvester, the work, part of the famous Torqued Spiral series, offers a unique experience while walking around and in the sculpture. The entrance is a narrow triangular passage shaped by the unstable edge of the curled sheet of steel. The more than thirteen foot high walls with inward and outward twists allow the light to project like a ribbon in between, and create during the walk a succession of geometric shapes  born from the interplay between metal and sky. Visitors' voices and steps resonate in the claustrophobic space. In the heart of the sculpture, surrounded by the rough rusty metal, the only escape for the gaze is through an oculus filled with the blue-grey sky. Serra's comment "I am using a ton of steel to attain lightness" could not be more appropriate for this piece. 

The trails in the woods become a zigzaggy boardwalk set over a stream and a marshy field to reach a pavilion. Of small size, it is imposing due to its thick concrete walls and wide open dark entrance. The building was designed by the architect Thomas Phifer in collaboration with the artist to house Four Rounds: Equal Weight, Unequal Measure, 2017. Inside,  the cold grey bare concrete of the walls and the floor is warmed up by the orangy-brown Cor-ten steel of the four enormous cylinders arranged in the middle of the space. A soft natural light shines through sheaths of transparent glass supported by the ceiling's massive parallel beams. The imposing cylinders of unequal height and circumference, are of same weight "82 tons - the heaviest form that a foundry is able to forge". Numbers do not matter, they are just huge. The walk around, through, back and forth the installation provides a physical experience of the work, representation of the idea of weight. It also allows to connect with the artist as we share the awe he felt looking at the metal while visiting a boat yard with his father and later working in a steel mill. Benjamin Buchloh's statement in his essay for the catalog of the exhibition "Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years" at MoMA in 2007, feels very pertinent after looking at the work, result from a perfect harmony between the industrial material and the Minimalist aesthetic: "the artist as a designer with a renewed celebration of the artist as an industrial worker".

 Lynne Cooke calls Serra's Contour 290, 2004, "one of his most mercurial works". The site specific sculpture ensconced between two hilly meadows can be approached from different paths but stays remote, a wavy line in the landscape, sometimes obscured by trees when seen from different viewpoints. Located exactly 290 feet above sea-level, following the topography of the land, it required a meticulous mapping and engineering to secure the massive structure (15 feet high, 223 length and 165 tons). Closely involved in the process, the artist walked through the site to plan for the work embedded with nature. It introduces a three dimensional view of the landscape and Serra "was more interested in a penetration into the land that would open the field and bring you into it bodily, not just draw you into it visually". In 2006, the scene was disturbed by changes brought to the trees' alignment. If the steel wall from Te Tuhirangi Contour, 1999-2001, in New Zealand appears in harmony with the site (from photographs), Contour 290 merely acts like an accessory to the landscape.

The term "architectural promenade" coined by Le Corbusier to describe "the intelligibility of a building  given less through axonometric drawing than through the ways one moves through the space", applies perfectly to the visit of Serra's three sculptures "not objects we inspect but arrangements of space in which we move" (Buchloh). Hubris has to be part of the process of creativity, motivating the artist to redesign and domesticate nature with metal. Nature is resilient and follows its own rules but the massive sculptures, which at first sight seem eternal, show some vulnerability with their rusty haptic surface damaged not by the elements or time but by the visitors. Minimalism is about redesigning the space, here Serra "drawing in space" redesigns nature and sky.  Does the sculptures' symbiosis with nature offer more than a casual walk? A spiritual experience? The artist makes his goal clear: "I don't think public sculpture is going to change the world, but I do think it might be a catalyst for thought. To see is to think and to think is to see." 

photographs by the author:

"Sylvester", 2001
"Contour 290", 2004
"Four Rounds: Equal Weight, Unequal Measure", 2017