Monday, November 25, 2013

Documentary? Art?

The carefully orchestrated release of Burtynsky: Water, a body of work from the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky includes a book, a movie screened in Canada, an app for I Pads and his large chromogenic prints can be acquired through art galleries from New York to Germany and in New Orleans at the Arthur Roger Gallery. The New Orleans Museum of Art presents more than sixty pieces, located  in the Great Hall and on the second and third floor of the Contemporary Arts Center. With such a title, the exhibition cannot leave New Orleanians indifferent.  Describing the interaction between people and water from Mexico, India, China, the Gulf of Mexico and other places, Burtynsky brings us on a world tour with transcending pictures taken from high-vantage points, climbing scaffolds, mountains, riding airplanes and accomplishing technical feats to show us mainly landscapes from a point of view only he can see.

The awe-inspiring views of the land are a reflection on the interaction between people and a precious resource, water. The human presence is felt in a number of photographs, looming and threatening, represented only by its marks left on the fragile land. If people are included, like gathering along the water in India, it is always in a crowd. No emotions or personal interactions are recorded and humans are viewed as "material", seen from a distance in large number, producing a mass effect. The photographs can bring up awe but also sobering reflections when looking at Owens Lake, 2009, or Alberta Oil Sands, Fort McMurray, in Alberta, Canada, 2007, with the oil sheen  smothering the water and closer to home, the aqua green of the Gulf of Mexico spoiled by the black tar, heartbreaking.  Burtynsky clearly states his goal: " My hope is that these pictures will stimulate a process of thinking about something essential to our survival; something we often take for granted-till it's gone." He took great care to present aesthetically flawless material to make his point.

A sweeping view of the display could be deceiving at first due to the large format of the photographs (40's X 60's inches)), the colors and shapes. Could it be abstract paintings hanging on the walls, minimalist like the series of Pivot Irrigation, High Plains, Texas, 2010 or Dryland Framing, Aragon, Spain, 2010, expressionist like Xiaolandi Dam #3, Yellow River, Henan Province in China, 2011, or hyperrealist? A farmer looking at the photographs would see the result of his work. The viewer cannot avoid interpreting the pictures at different levels and by doing so, adds another dimension and intend to the photographs.
Robert Smithson was creating land art, using the land as a media to create art. Burtynsky's path is different. His background education allows him to "see" shapes, colors in nature and record his vision of the interaction between humanity and nature.
The photographs are sold by art galleries and acquired by museum, so it is art. They could as well be included in National Geographic to illustrate a documentary.

Art? Documentary? Both?

no photographs allowed
link to Burtynsky's site for photographs:

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Painting? What Next?

A trip to London should include a visit of famous art galleries like Serpentine, White Cube, Gagosian... each has several locations. It could take a few days!

Crises are the occasion to reassess and hopefully move forward. In the art world, photography, perceived as a threat by painters, allowed them to get beyond the exact reproduction of the subject and move on to abstract and conceptual art. But what is next? Is this the end of painting?
The exhibition  The Show is Over at the Gagosian Gallery on Britannia Street in London is a gathering of artists preoccupied with the subject. The question arose as early as the end of WWII with Francis Picabia's last paintings born from the nihilism engendered by the war or the Buchi (holes) and Tagli (slashes) from Lucio Fontana.
The end of painting is celebrated by vast white rooms filled with canvasses covered by different media including chewing gum, urine or colors like grey, black and every piece chosen for the exhibition brings another argument to the conversation.
A monochrome grey painting from Gerhard Richter, a flat minimalist black work from Richard Serra, an expressionist black and white painting from Christopher Wool or the ultimate, Piero Manzoni's Achromes made with cotton and gravel are included with two fiery paintings from Yves Klein, consuming themselves in front of our eyes ( a side of Klein I was not familiar with, made in 1962 with scorched cardboard and pigments) .
The material varies. Andy Warhol spread urine on copper foil or diamond dust on canvas, Nate Lowman, sugar and dirt,  Gregor Hildebrandt, casette and tapes, Adam McEwen, chewing gum, Dan Colen, tar and feathers. There are no rules to describe the end of painting. Thirty five artists are involved in the show and the period covers more than half a century. The discussion still goes on, but what is interesting, the artists did stick with the format, all the works can be hung on the walls. This is kind of reassuring.
The show is mastering the subject and the quiet atmosphere was conducive to a great visit.

The question is lingering and the parallel with music cannot be overlooked. Atonal? Abstract? What is next? One hopes that the anxiety generated by this crisis will foster creativity.
The show is over when everything has been told and there is nothing else to say. Not yet.

no photographs were allowed

"Attese", Lucio Fontana, 1961, Flickr photo sharing
"hippity flippity" (tar and feathers), Dan Colen, 2012, photograph by Rob McKeever, Gagosian Gallery

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Rediscovering Klee

Finding Tate Modern is easy along the South bank of the Thames. Getting there can be trickier and the day of my visit involved a walk through a tunnel and back streets filled with construction sites. Real estate is booming in London.

Tate presents a retrospective of Paul Klee's works and the exhibition organized in chronological order starts with a brief review of Klee's life and the display of a handwritten catalogue by the artist who kept records of his works in a meticulous way.
This short introduction is followed by an abrupt plunge into Klee's adult life in 1912-1913. Then thirty three years old, he had matured from an adventurous young man playing violin to a married painter supported by his wife, lived in Munich and was a member of Der Blaue Reiter founded in 1911. The paintings on display in the next seventeen rooms represent his legacy, allowing the visitor to retrace the artist's path and his brush with Expressionism, Surrealism, Cubism, Pointillism or Abstract. His search for color underlines his work and his skills for drawings which he developed early on, are displayed in his satirical pieces, referring to the absurdity of wars and governments. His caricatures could be categorized as Dadaist but his statements stay measured, he was not a provocateur. Each room concentrates on a particular event and its repercussion on Klee's works from the subject to the palette of colors. A series of abstract watercolors follow a trip in Tunisia, carpet inspired motives and variations in brown a trip to Egypt. Profoundly touched by the war and its atrocities, he produces a series of caricatural drawings alluding to its horrors. His poor health overshadowed the last years of his life and the progression of scleroderma left him unable to swallow or play the violin, however, he kept painting and his drawings became purified, "bare to the bones", like skeletons to support the colors.
Klee experimented with new material for his paintings on  burlap or new techniques developing his "oil-transfer" method. He was also a respected teacher nicknamed the "Bauhaus Buddha".
The visit confirms that Klee was Klee, an independent artist, involved in different movements, but who did not embrace fully any. Klee did shine in small, intimate paintings or watercolors and drawings. Some periods are more narrative, others pure geometric abstract. Rarely using primary colors, he invents new colors, by mixing them and making them bleed on each other, finding half-tones and creating a palette of chromatic colors.
What is missing in the exhibition is the human side of the painter, an aspect well presented in 2011 at the Cité de la Musique in Paris. Photographs of Klee with his students, his teaching tools at the Bauhaus... This may have been a distraction for this superb exhibition gathering works from Le Menil in Houston (with my preferred Gaze on Silence, 1932), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum Folkwang or the Kunstmuseum Basel and more. A small informative booklet was published for the exhibition and is provided with the purchase of the ticket.

The conclusion after the visit comes from Klee himself. In 1902, a defiant young artist, he stated "I am my style". True to himself, he developed his style over the next  forty years.

Coming back from the museum was even trickier. The Thames went over its banks during my visit (a few hours!) and, under a torrential rain, I had to climb fences to reach the bridge!

View of Tate Modern by the author
"Flora on Sand", 1927 and "Fire at Full Moon", 1933 from Flickr photo sharing

book review: "Paul Klee: Life and Work", Boris Friedewald, Prestel, 2011