Saturday, March 12, 2011

Empty space

The visit of Blinky Palermo's exhibition at the Hirschhorn becomes an endless walk around the second floor of the museum, with the works of the artist peppering the walls (follow the link to see the photographs.) It is an important retrospective of the works from 1964 till 1977, year of the death of the artist, deceased prematurely on a trip to the Maldive Islands.

For me, it ended up being an intellectual journey. Do not expect emotions, the place appears empty, a dead space. The works representing the periods from the Stoffbilder (fabric paintings) to the Metallbilder, are staying mute. They do not generate any energy. Chromatic, complementary, the colors are for research not for art. The progression along the gallery becomes as boring as listening a student practicing his scales. The works are tedious and at the end sterile. One hopes that the artist eventually uses the colors to send some no avail.
A student of Beuys, defined as a colorist, he also has been called a successor of Matisse and Rothko?

Photograph of the artist, Creative Common

No photographs were allowed

Friday, March 11, 2011


Alexis Rockman's nightmarish works are lining up the walls at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. " A Fable for Tomorrow" includes 47 paintings representing 25 years of the prolific artist's career. Art? Science? Fiction?

The works are talking about genetic mutations, extinction of the human specie, cross-species copulation, disasters, evolution. Apocalyptic, the message is stark, delivered sometimes with bright or dark colors. The legacy of a culture (ours) is destroyed, annihilated. The paintings describe a strange fauna and flora, peaceful, in harmony, a world populated by ferns, primitive insects or strange mammals, where mankind has no place. They also suggest sounds, like buzzing, chewing, water splashes, animals copulating... Overall, it is a quiet world.

Inspired by the dioramas he gazed at during his childhood's visits to the American Museum of Natural History, by science-fiction movies, or by the painters from the Hudson River school, Bosh, Grunewald, scientists like Von Humboldt, the resulting works are a detailed realism, almost compulsive. Like a scientist, the artist is describing creatures of the future, not created or imagined but carefully researched, at least this is the impression. For example, Evolution, 1992, is a meticulous repertory of 214 plants and animal species. A key is available for the viewer next to the work, like you would find at a museum but in several centuries.

The artist mingles with scientists and went on expeditions in Antarctica and produced "South", 2008, which I thought, is a mediocre composition made of seven panels. He also visited Guyana and brought back illustrations of plants and insects. His most recent period embraces expressionism with his "Big Weather" series depicting tornadoes and severe weather.

The exhibition is timely as the world is watching the events unfold in Japan. The breadth of the message is limited, and I think that it is due to the technique of the artist who has not built his own style to deliver it. He is making references to so many artists from different backgrounds and centuries and the encyclopedic knowledge of the artist stays at one level, weakening the piece of art. Upon leaving the museum, I wondered if I just visited an exhibition sponsored by National Geographic.

photographs by the author

Monday, March 7, 2011

Gauguin, the "sauvage"

The retrospective of Gauguin's works has reached our side of the Atlantic. The exhibition was recently a complete success at the Tate Modern. The day of my visit, the attendance at the National Gallery in Washington, DC, should predict the same enthusiasm from the visitors. Two levels of the museum are occupied with 150 paintings, sculptures, drawings, ceramics, starting with self-portraits, and progressing through the life of Gauguin. Like a biography, we can follow the painter evolving, according to new places, new friends or circumstances. I never dreamt of seeing these works , dispersed all over the world, at the same location.

The periods are well represented, the artist abandoned Impressionism rapidly, was for a short period one of the Symbolists , evolved to Cloisonnism and Synthetism. Gauguin marginalizes himself and, at the same time, develops the style he is most remembered for, Primitivism. Alone in Tahiti or the Marquesas Islands, recluse in his own world, he creates his paradise, often ill and surrounded by squalor. At times, unable to afford the supplies to paint, he uses the local woods and makes sculptures. The artist always finds a media to create. He is on a mission: " I am a great artist and I know it. It's because I know it that I have endured such sufferings".

Most of his major pieces are here: Oviri, The Yellow Christ, Spirit of the Dead Watching and so many more. Some of the works are not aging well like Ondine ( my opinion). One could regret the smaller display of his earlier and Brittany period.

The exhibition is about Gauguin, the maker of myths, transcending his surroundings and producing a unique collection of works. In parallel with his search for a sometimes confused mysticism and the Universal, he develops techniques and themes that will inspire future artists.

Most art lovers think they know Gauguin, at least I did. But I realized that my knowledge was fragmented. This retrospective, the first in the United States since 1980, gave me the opportunity to look at the works again in a more organized fashion, allowing me to understand the artist. I found the comments somewhat brief, of course the catalogue is always a good resource. Instead, I reread the book written by Bengt Danielsson " Gauguin in the South Seas" and the "Journal des Iles" from Victor Segalen who landed in Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands a few months after Gauguin's death and repatriated some of the works on the boat "La Durance".

photographs 1 and 2 Creative Commons