Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Conversation at the Menil

Mix and match "Byzantine things", modern and contemporary art works, throw in a few odds and ends like a Boli from Mali, the visit of Byzantine Things in the World at The Menil Collection is full of surprises. This crude description does not reflect the goal of the exhibition stated in a brochure available at the entrance: "our purpose, at least partially, is to explore the way that modernism allows us to see new aspects of Byzantine culture" and rediscover Byzantine objects outside of their historical background. It also states what the exhibition is not, like attempting to show the influence of Byzantine art on Modern art or features of modernist art in Byzantine art. With this in mind, the visit becomes a challenging experience.

The display of Byzantine icons, crosses, pilgrims tokens, reliquaries, religious paintings and other small items is scattered in four large rooms among modern and contemporary art pieces or vice versa. Starting with  crosses, the clear symbol in the Byzantine display, hanging on walls or represented in paintings, contrasts with its representation in modern pieces like a work from Dan Flavin lighting a corner, a white composition from RauschenbergCrucifixion and Reflection, 1950, or a black painting from Ad Reinhardt, where it becomes subtle, hidden in the composition. Gold fills the next showroom. In the Byzantine paintings, it gives an aura of inner strength to the subject, a godly spiritual radiance usually associated with Saints whose relics become precious while preserved in a gold vessel. On the other hand, James Lee Byers, Robert Rauschenberg or Yves Klein are treating gold on a material level, enhancing its richness, its shine and its status as a symbol of opulence and luxury. Gold keeps its power through the centuries and across cultures.
From then on, the exhibition looses its thread, and the succession of disconnected works becomes random: a small female nude from Alberto Giacometti (Nu Debout, 1953), minimalist sculptures from Donald Judd (Untitled, 1965), Barnett Newman (Untitled, 1950), a Nkondi figure, more Byzantine "things", more works from Rauschenberg (Gold Painting, 1952) or Flavin, one painting from Mark Rothko, Vietnam, 1965, from Michelangelo Pistoletto, abstract expressionist paintings from Willhem de Kooning and paintings from Fernand Léger, a print from Kiki Smith,... by then, the goal of the visit is forgotten... maybe the pleasure of looking at the pieces, one by one, takes over.
A previous exhibition of the works from Maurizio Cattelan had put a new twist on the permanent collection with his whimsical pieces scattered through the rooms. This time, a sort of a confusion ensues and the Byzantine artifacts from the fourth to the fifteenth Century seem lost in the glass cases, overtaken by the size and number of the modernist works.  Out of their context, they also loose their aura and spiritual dimension, which, one would hope, should have been enhanced by its close proximity to the modern pieces.

What the exhibition failed to demonstrate is another of its goal: showing that contemporary art is "inert and passive, dependent upon the viewer's gaze" as opposed to Byzantine objects seen as "dynamic and changeable, fully capable of affecting the world".
The Menil offered a conversation, it was another occasion to display its unique collection.

no photographs allowed
photographs Flickr photo sharing
"MG9", Yves Klein, 1962 c.
Boli from the Bamana people of Mali
"Untitled, cornerpiece" Dan Flavin, 1969

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Southern Landscapes

Will Henry Stevens (1881-1949) is well represented at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art with the display of a rich permanent collection in a special area dedicated to his works. A new selection of rarely shown paintings has been assembled for the exhibition Will Henry Stevens: Selections from the Permanent Collection of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and the introductory piece at the entrance of the private room gives a resume of the show with its theme and colors. At first sight, a lush southern flavor exudes from the paintings lined up along the walls and a more detailed visit reveals the artist's different styles.

The short biography and the artist's statement posted on the wall allow the visitor to get acquainted with Stevens who was born in Indiana, lived ten years in Louisville, Kentucky and then moved permanently to New Orleans where he taught at the Newcomb College for twenty years. He painted exclusively the outdoors and is called a naturalist but what he looked for in nature was more than colors, shapes and landscapes. His  spiritual quest brought him to discover the Sung dynasty paintings and Eastern philosophies. In addition, in the late 20's, on his yearly trips to New York City, he was introduced to Kandinsky's work, a search for the spiritual through art. These influences are very clear in the paintings selected for the exhibition.
Mainly pastels, mixed media, few watercolors and oil on canvas, the figurative paintings evolve to abstract.

The Japanese influence is not subtle in some of them and brings a serene harmony to the compositions, especially two views of forests on each side of a video giving a glimpse of the artist's human dimension through memories of students or friends. In the same area, a well illustrated book about Wassily Kandinsky attempts to show the similarities between the works from the European master and Stevens's owns.
Influenced by Kandinsky and others, Stevens also admired Paul Klee and it  becomes a game to figure out the style and flavors, figurative, cubist, expressionist even surrealistic, found in different paintings. The lack of dates on the works is somewhat of a drawback if one is interested in following the artist's career. But ultimately, what makes Stevens so unique are his colors and his commitment to nature. He saw curves, fluid shapes and one seldom finds straight lines or geometric figures in the works.  After learning how to grind and mix his own pigments, he developed a special technique to avoid fading and smudges. His oranges, yellows, blues with subtle variations or intense, dark, vegetal greens, his earthy, generous, warm browns feel like he is sampling nature directly on his palette to create his musical landscapes.

The result of his search for spirituality is a non objective rendition of  forests, water, fishes, the Mississippi river or the sea in paintings offering the essence of the natural world. Kandinsky followed an intellectual journey, Stevens's path is through aesthetics. His communion with nature is expressed with soft shapes and dense colors in compositions bathing in southern luxuriance. Saturated with organic colors the works are almost tactile and one can feel the humidity, the heat.

A Southern master to rediscover, surprising in his variations on one theme: nature.

photographs by the author

Untitled, n.d., Will Henry Stevens
Untitled, n.d., Will Henry Stevens
Untitled, n.d., Will Henry Stevens
View of the exhibition

Saturday, July 20, 2013

From Cave to Light

James Turrell's work must be experienced and the exhibitions taking place from coast to coast this Summer with a combined retrospective between the LACMA and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, a site specific installation at the Guggenheim in New York City and a side show in Las Vegas at the Louis Vuitton City Center are an opportunity to do so. Considering the technical and operational resources involved to organize such shows, it may be an occasion not to miss.
To prepare for the visit at the MFAH to see James Turrell: the Light Inside, I read the book, James Turrell: a Retrospective published at the occasion of the nationwide event.
For once, I will relate my visit in the first person, because it is a very personal experience after all.

Upon making a reservation on the Internet for a 1:00 pm slot, the museum's site provided some practical information:
"Within the exhibition, visitors will encounter the following:
• Areas of near total darkness combined with dramatic lighting
• Optical illusions that can create a false perception of space
• Sloped flooring and raised platforms
• Narrow stairs without handrails"
Ten minutes early and not a soul waiting in line at the small entrance booth, I was told to come back exactly at 1:00 o'clock. Back on the dot, I was given a tag to put around my neck indicating my time slot and wandered in an anonymous hall reminding me of a school or a train station. A guard stopped me when I tried to follow the first sign written "Entrance" and I waited for two visitors to exit before walking in a white cave-like space. Aurora B, 2010, from the Tall Glass Series goes through a gradual transformation of colors in the course of several hours from dawn to dusk according to the comments on the wall, and at the time of my visit, the glowing light in the center was white surrounded by a pastel blue and pink aureole. The rectangular piece is the size of a small window, constructed with LED lights and frosted glass. Of course, I could not wait to witness the changes and carried on to the next cave where my eyes got hit by blue. Blinded by the light from the screen, I found a bench in the back of the white-walled space, sat and waited for my vision to accommodate and look at Rethro II Blue, 1969. The blue rectangle filling the whole wall has no focal point and the blue glow invades the room, carpet, visitors and melts away. I could see perfection, infinity, beyond blue... or nothing...just blue light.
Due to the ins and outs, the intermittent exposure to the hallway light played some tricks with my rods and cones when I looked at Rondo Blue, 1969, a minimalist construction.
Across the hall, a line of visitors had formed to see the installation reproducing the ganzfeld effect. With low voices, several guards-ushers  were instructing the visitors to take off their shoes, put on white booties... and wait. The atmosphere was quiet, full of expectations as we sat in front of an elevated stage. When it was my turn, I climbed a few steps, with a guard on each side (for fall prevention) and found myself bathing in pink, surrounded by walls dissolving in a pink fog. Some visitors were dancing and horsing around as guards (again) used arm signals to define a perimeter for their frolics. I missed the rush of adrenaline involved with the real thing experienced while flying (with instruments) in  clouds or driving through a blizzard in North Dakota when the road could be the sky and the ditches look like clouds. The colored armchair adventure is an attempt to reproduce what nature can do best, and I realized that all along a few visual cues kept me from being disoriented.
Moving on, my vision was slightly distorted, greenish for a few minutes, as I looked at the prints lining up the walls. They included  prints from the Roden Crater Site Plans, the Deep Sky and Spaces portfolio and the First Light portfolio (1989-90). The visit went on with Raethro II Blue, 1971, representative of the Shallow Spaces constructions, reverse of the earlier Projection Pieces. This time, the corner of the wall is cut and the projection of the light from inside the cavity leaves us believe that it is a flat surface with a colored shape projected on it, as opposed to Acro Green, 1968, an example of the previous Projection Pieces series, creating the illusion of shape on a flat surface. Next, Tycho White, 1967, from the Shallow Spaces series, the only work realized with two projectors is a rectangular minimalist white composition divided by a darker perpendicular line drawn by adjusting the two rays of light. I found the red and violet installation from the Wedgeworks series enthralling with its feel of immateriality and had an urge to walk through it to look beyond and discover some parallel world.
Of course, the biggest piece is the permanent installation underground between the two main buildings of the museum which gave the title to the show: The Light Inside. I always found it decorative, fun to go through when visiting the MFAH and other visitors look like they are too, playing in the space, walking back and forth.

The exhibition is a unique venue to see James Turrell's work from the permanent collection in a setting that allows to grasp the artist's production over the span of his career minus the Skylight series. However, I found the setting frustrating with constant interruptions and mundane details repeatedly distracting the visitor. Such a visit should flow from start to end and allow a smooth walk for the eyes, including lighting, colors of the walls and floor of the interim space between the works. Minimalism is demanding, perfection is the only option and the ambitious exhibition falls short of its goal, inspiring awe with the magic of light..

Two other permanent works are located in Houston with "One Accord" , Skylight at the Live Oak Friends Meeting House and "Twilight Epiphany", Skyspace on the Rice University campus.

no photographs allowed
photographs Flickr photo sharing

Ganzfeld effect
Skyspace, Rice University campus, Houston (detail)
"Twilight Epiphany", skyspace on the Rice University campus, Houston

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Turrell at the Bookstore

The colorful bookJames Turrell: a Retrospective, published at the occasion of three exhibitions taking place conjointly at the LACMA, the Guggenheim, NYC and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, will overshadow the display at the gift shops this Summer with its pink, mauve to violet jacket, the artist's name spelled in red on the background.
Three hundred pages long, composed of ten chapters, the coffee table look-alike book is filled with breathtaking photographs and includes a biography, an interview with James Turrell and essays written by Michael Govan , CEO and director of LACMA, Christine Y. Kim, associate curator at the LACMA and two contributors, Alison de Lima Greene, curator at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and E.C. Krupp, astronomer, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.
Each chapter is printed on a different colored paper, turquoise, mustard, dark blue, violet, red... Under the chapter's title, a statement from the artist introduces the text followed by abundant photographs to illustrate the subject. We discover skylight spaces, ganzfeld effect, the architecture of space and follow the artist's path through his projects like Roden Crater in Arizona or others in far away places like Japan, Australia, Argentina...
Alison de Lima Green reminds us of Turrell's background: California in the sixties, Minimalism, the Light and Space movement and relates his interaction with numerous artists including Robert Smithson, Dan Flavin, Malevich with a special mention for Robert Irwin and Doug Wheeler, otherwise, the book is exclusively dedicated to Turrell and his work for the past fifty years. The contribution of technology to "see the light", emphasized in the last chapter brings us back to the introduction titled "Inner light, the radical reality of James Turrell" which resumes the quest of the artist.
A book filled with colors, but a visit to the museum is required to look for the light.

photographs Flickr Photo Sharing

"Gand", 1968
"Air Apparent", ASU Campus, Tempe, AZ

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

beach book

Provenance written by the investigative reporters Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo received excellent reviews when published in 2009. The plot set in the world of gallery owners, dealers, art runners, collectors, artists, art dealers, detectives, archivists, including a Roman Catholic religious order, is dominated by the complex lead character, John Drewe "professor, physicist, man of many guises, and the brilliant mastermind of one of the greatest art frauds of the twentieth century". The non fiction story is well researched and describes the (almost) flawless scam unfolding in the three hundred pages book. From New York to Paris to London, like in a great thriller, the suspense keeps the reader engrossed, unable to put the book down till  the last word. There is also unfortunately a body.
The process of authentication of works of art is described in details and the lesson to be learned is that even provenance can be forged.

photographs Flickr Photo Sharing

"Portrait of a Woman", Elmyr de Hory in the style of Amedeo Modigliani
"Fauve Landscape", Elmyr de Hory in the style of Maurice de Vlaminck, ca. 1968