Sunday, March 30, 2014

Mysterious Magritte

Discover the parallel world of Magritte at the Menil Collection in Houston with Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938, a gathering of works produced during the most prolific period of the Belgian artist. He spent three of these years (1927-1930) in France where he lived in Le Perreux-sur-Marne, a Paris's suburb. Magritte mingled with members of the Surrealist movement, applied some of their techniques and began investigating the relationship between objects, words and images which gave birth to famous paintings like The Treachery of Images, 1929.
Facing the entrance, The Menaced Assassin, 1927, a large painting, engages the visitor at once. It feels like walking through a crime scene with two bowler-hatted men staged on each side as repoussoir directing the viewer's gaze toward a strangely silent drama. The scene involves an exposed female corpse abandoned on a red sofa next to a gallant gentleman and three (most likely four) expressionless onlookers surrounded by a mountainous landscape. The focal point is not the victim but the presumed assassin looking at the horn of a mute gramophone. In the same room, The Encounter, 1926, and The Midnight Marriage, 1926, give the same feeling of suspense with their theatrical props ready for a play. This is Magritte's world represented with eighty of his most famous paintings displayed in chronological order.
Reproductions in books or on the Internet (most with bright colors thanks to Photoshop or the like) will never be able to induce the reactions triggered by the view of famous paintings like The Meaning of Night, 1927, The Secret Player, 1927, The Lovers, 1928... The subjects can provoke ambivalence and worse disgust when looking at Girl Eating a Bird (Pleasure), 1927 or The Murderous Sky, 1927 and require going back to Freud 101 for interpretation. A heavy brushstroke, dark colors, dirty pink or yellowish glabrous nudes with furry islands, Magritte has found his niche with his figurative scenes. The following years, he  introduces words and his close association with the Surrealists in particular André Breton shines through his works. The daily objects become a source of associations with pictures and words. The display of  pages from La Révolution Surréaliste and manuscripts from Magritte Les Mots et Les Images enclosed in glass cases are a welcomed break from looking at the succession of paintings. We could call the following period more Daliesque, with bare compositions like Threatening weather, 1929 and the introduction of bright blue skies with heavy white clouds found on paintings, sculptures, objects, like a wallpaper. In the same room, a nude The Eternally Obvious, 1930 reveals the artist's wife in five paintings focused on key parts of her anatomy leaving the viewer fill the voids to reconstitute the whole body. The muse is not the elegant Gala but the bourgeoise Georgette. Close by, The Rape, 1934, a small painting which made the front cover of Breton's book Qu'est que le Surrealism?  (Breton had a sense of marketing)  appears tacky. The visit goes on with less known paintings like Collective Invention, 1935, an inverted mermaid or The Red Model, 1935, a pair of shoes growing into feet. Magritte declined to give the images a symbolic dimension and aimed at creating unease by their "inappropriate" juxtaposition. But it is difficult not to fill objects like the bilboquets and the jingle bells with some symbolic meanings as they recur more frequently in the compositions.
On the Threshold of Liberty,1930, a panel commissioned to decorate the house of an eccentric Briton in London is a resume of cliches: a sky, breasts, a house façade, fire, a paper cutout, all aimed at by a canon. The Song of the Storm, 1937, the only allusion to music with its title, depicts rain falling in a regular pattern and the windless storm stays silent like the other paintings.
Following the visit, it felt that the shocking, mysterious, uncanny works from Magritte lack the poetry, the humor, the wittiness and the vision of the Parisian Surrealists.

photographs were not allowed
photographs Google images

"The Empty Mask", 1928
"The Lovers", 1928
"The Menaced Assassin", 1927

Friday, March 14, 2014

Meet Braque in Houston

For those of us who could not travel to Paris, a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is a chance to discover or rediscover Georges Braque. A shorter version of the exhibition that just took place at the Grand Palais, Georges Braque: A Retrospective is a collection of carefully selected works, each meaningfully displayed to bring the visitors on a journey of the artist's career. The first room is filled with landscapes from L'Estaque, along the littoral or the surrounding countryside and views of the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris. Influenced by Cezanne and Fauves like Derain, these were made in 1906, 1907 and the bright expressionist colors, yellows, violets, oranges, will never be seen on Braque's palette again. Rapidly, the same landscapes take subdued tones and become populated with solid masses defined by sharp lines. The transition to Cubism is subtle, but perceptible through a series of landscapes from L'Estaque again, made at a later date in 1908. A primitive figure Grand Nu, 1908, unlike Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907, did not make waves through the art world, but  introduces a new chapter marked by the close relationship with Picasso which lasted till the onset of WWI. The next paintings, landscapes and still lifes, define Analytic Cubism characterized by multiple points of view, where the object becomes fragmented and its pieces rearranged to create three dimensional works in dark browns, greens, black. Built from the inside out, the paintings become vertiginous and crowded without ups or downs, sometimes whirling in circular motions. Instruments are a recurrent theme reflecting Braque's interest in music particularly Bach which can explain not only the subject but also the rhythmic lines and patterns in his paintings. Abstraction seems to be around the corner. Taking another turn, in 1912, Braque adopts a flatter style with simpler geometric shapes cut in paper then glued or collages. Trained as a house painter, he introduces pieces of false wood, false marble, calligraphic letters, numbers, shaped canvasses and veers to a more figurative phase later called  Synthetic Cubism, a period cut short for Braque who was conscripted in 1914. His intertwined path with Picasso during these six years makes it difficult to dissociate their works usually displayed side by side in museums and for once, we can meet Braque without Picasso. Their paths will diverge for good at the onset of WWI. Braque is seriously wounded in 1916, temporarily blind. His paintings reappear in 1917.

The second part of the exhibition is about a new Braque. Colors are back, even reds but dark and muted, and the artist slowly leaves Cubism behind. Following the fashion, he produces a series of  Neo-classic Canéphore in the 1920's. His series of Ateliers or Billiards, are showing dark overcrowded interiors without windows. In 1923, when asked by a journalist what he thought of Cubism, the artist answered: "I do not know what it is." He is accepted at the Salon d'Automne in 1922, represents France at the Venice Biennale. But I cannot see life in the heavy still lifes, 1930-1940 and the late figurative landscapes appear muddy, tormented and "silty" per Braque. It may be a broad and superficial judgment but I found the post-war paintings as a whole lacking dynamism, somber, depressive, neurasthenic to use a fashionable word at the time. Braque's fame is at its highest in the 60's and the French government gave him national funerals. Shortly after, the art world proceeded to forget him.
The exhibition is an overdue resurrection of Braque's legacy, minus the sculptures and drawings which I understand were part of the show in Paris. A well-balanced walk through the artist's periods with short didactic comments to introduce rapidly evolving periods of Cubism, it is also the occasion to see post-WWI paintings, understand a painter who has been lost in the shadow of Picasso, give him back his place in the history of a movement prelude to Constructivism, Futurism and remind the world of his contribution with his collages still inspiring contemporary artists.
One can wonder what would have happened if Braque had not gone to war.

photographs were not allowed
photographs from Google images

"Violin and Pitcher", 1910
"Fruit Dish and Cards", 1913
"Black Bird and White Bird", 1960

Friday, March 7, 2014

Going Viral, Mel Chin at NOMA

A retrospective is usually a display of works in chronological order with appropriate short comments on the side. In Mel Chin: Rematch, at the New Orleans Museum of Art, this approach quickly becomes a vain attempt in light of the diversity of the artist's practice. The seventy pieces differ by size, media, subject, and the logistics  to install the show must have been a challenge for all involved.
Mel Chin is born in Houston from Chinese descent and early works like Western Dynasty Urn, 1974, with its Chinese inspired design decorated with the symbol of a Longhorn or Vertical Palette, 1976-1985, which refers to the five Chinese elements are reminders of his dual roots. The influence of Dada and Surrealists, like Joseph Cornell (who can be seen at NOMA) is quite apparent in Homage to Cornell or Magnolias in the Moonlight, both made in 1976, but already, Bird in a Cage, 1976, alludes to an extinct specie of pigeons and  forebears some of the artist's future themes.
See/Saw, 1976, a Land art project in Houston, Myrrha P.I.A, 1984, a sculpture for Bryant Park in New York City or Lecture Ax, 1988, a conceptual piece made for a lecture, illustrate the diversity of the works early on, but the opening of the show is stolen by The Extraction of Plenty from What Remains: 1823-, 1988, a large-scale sculpture which includes two broken columns, replica from the White House, surrounding a cornucopia made of tree fibers, mud, coffee and (goat) blood. The perfectly staged introduction to the political activism of Mel Chin is a critic of the policies of American administrations in South America, and after reflection, appears to favor an easy symbolism to tackle a complex problem.
Material related to the project Revival Field started in 1990 includes photographs, drawings, a model of the actual outdoor fields, a piece of corn hanging in a cage and a long description of the "interdisciplinary project combining art, science, and public affairs" to clean toxic material through hyperaccumulator plants, in short phytoremediation. This section of the exhibition and Operation Paydirt, 2006, launched following the Katrina disaster in New Orleans, represent the artist as a catalyst for projects aimed at improving community lives. Through these, Mel Chin reaches his full bloom as a conceptual artist and activist.
A major installation arranged in an oval gallery shaped by the intersection of two circles or vesica piscis, Operation of the Sun through the Cult of the Hand, 1987represents eight "planetary" sculptures, seven arranged along the walls and a free-standing sculpture for Mercury. Inspired by Greek mythology, Eastern and Western theory of alchemy, made with seventy different materials, the installation stays murky due to its density and complexity.
Upon reaching Circumfessional Hymenal Sea (Portrait of Jacques Derrida), 2005-2006, I realized that I was spending more time reading the commentaries than looking at the art.The French philosopher Jacques Derrida inspired the painted wooden sculpture, an impenetrable repository of knowledge, allusion to the closed world of academia and possibly the remoteness of philosophers. The description of the concepts behind the sculpture fills two pages of the book published at the occasion of the exhibition.
The subject becomes darker with Cluster, 2005-6, a series of jewels, copies of wounds inflicted by weapons of war. Rubies, diamonds, shine in place of wounds and blood and the allusion to the economics of war is quite direct. More on wars with a Glock-17 9mm handgun transformed in a surgical first aid kit or a pipe in a bomb and two racially charged pieces exuding violence, Night Rap, 1994, and Fan Club, 1994.
A comfortable sofa allows for a break to watch looped television clips of  Melrose Place, a soap opera.  In the Name of the Place, 1995-97, is a collaborative work between 120 artists who embedded 150 props in the sets and introduce humorous to politically charged subliminal messages. The lack of interaction and follow-up with the audience weakens an otherwise interesting project.
KNOWMAD, 1999, is a video game built at MIT consisting of tents filled with colorful carpets and a pomegranate tree. One must chase fruits through the tents and gets points... I managed to play three minutes, distracted by the beautiful designs of the carpets. The video's goal is to bring attention to the precarity of nomadic life.
A carpet is also featured in Degrees of Paradise, 1991, a three part installation which includes a vestibule decorated with a Tantrist "graffiti" and two womb-like dark spaces with decorated ceilings. On one side, a representation of the earth's atmosphere weaved on a rug and the other, a dynamic representation of clouds made with fourteen video monitors. Crossing cultures, interdisciplinary, mixing technology and tradition, the work represents the artist's hallmark.
The exhibition concludes with two major projects. The Funk and Wag from A to Z completed in 2012, the compulsive work fills a room with 524 collages made from images printed in The Universal Standard Encyclopedia of Funk and Wagnalls. Surrealist, politically charged, poetic, satirical, the association of images is filled with symbols, concepts, allusions, references, and the installation can become overwhelming  if one attempts to look at each collage. In contrast, Operation Paydirt, an ongoing project well known in New Orleans is a simplistic approach to a complicated problem, lead contamination and ultimately violence. Visitors are invited to participate and draw an anonymous Fundred.
Our Strange Flower of Democracy, 2005, could not find a better place to explode than the Great Hall. A variation of the cargo cult, the representation of a bomb made with bamboo and coconut twine can trigger a discussion about damages inflicted in the name of democracy. The provocative work relates to Mel Chin's practice who describes ideas as viruses inserted within a social realm to bring changes. The artist is not seen as a creator but as a catalyst for ideas and actions, staying remote but impacting directly on our world and lives. Chin sees the role of the artist as a facilitator, "a guide for navigation through legal, political and social worlds".
A Renaissance man or a maverick? You decide.

no photographs allowed 
photographs by the author:
NOMA's façade
"Our Strange Flower of Democracy", 2005