Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Stories and History

For the new "art year" in New Orleans kicked off during White Linen NightArthur Roger Gallery presents an exhibition featuring three generations of African American artists, including the famous  Life magazine photographer Gordon Parks born in 1912 and the native artist Bruce Davenport in 1972. The show gathers a large collection of works from Willie Birch and introduces new pieces from Whitfield Lovell. The four artists, through different media and languages, contribute to a conversation about memory and history in their search for roots and identity.
Starting with the black and white photographs from Gordon Parks, nine portraits of the boxing champion known as Muhammad Ali reveal the multiple facets of the athlete's character, including his vulnerable sides, through subtle manipulation of light, shadows and composition. On the opposite wall, the four colorful large-sized works from Davenport relate to the iconic fighter who we learn, is the artist's father figure since childhood. With his naive technique, Davenport draws a bird's eye view of the ring encircled by rows of spectators themselves surrounded by smaller squares filled with side line stories, quotes and artist's thoughts. The felt pen drawn pieces viewed from afar suggest abstract geometric compositions and become alive as we come closer.
The thirty-four charcoal and acrylic drawings on paper from Willie Birch fill the largest gallery, plunging the visitor into a very New Orleans world. Black, white and all shades of grey, each drawing gets its inspiration from the city: lavish chandeliers next to abandoned sneakers and empty lots. A hose becomes a snake, shoes aligned on the pavement belong to a group of veterans marching in the street, a hat laid on a shawl is the artist's self-portrait. The simple graphics tell elaborate stories built around the object, life's witness. Willie Birch brings us on a stroll around the city while he teaches us how to see.
Sixteen of Lowell's works are found in the adjacent gallery. They include a selection of portraits of anonymous African-Americans borrowed from old photographs. Detailed profiles or full faces are drawn with charcoal on vellum, wood veneer or vintage wallpaper. Meditative, they exude gravitas, an expression usually associated with Roman statues or paintings, to which the artist was exposed during his travels in Europe. The windowless space creates a museum-like atmosphere, quiet and dark. The only bright color is the red from the American flags included in the piece facing the entrance. Featuring a full-length portrait of an African-American, the official portrait is close to another figure drawn on wood, surrounded by bombshell casings. Lovell states "I want to evoke a sense of place, to be able to feel the spirit of the past for a moment, to feel the presence of these people". Some  works may have gone one step further, setting African-Americans in their country's history.
The exhibition which includes respectively, "Ali", "The Dapper Bruce Lafitte Introduces: Draw Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee", "Seen and Unseen: Coupling" and "First Impressions", manages to define common grounds between the four artists and reveals the connections between the themes of their works. Through personal experience, anonymous characters or objects, with different media and style, the four artists are contributing to the African-American history and the carefully staged display results in a show with profound content.

photographs by the author:

"You're My Thrill", 2004, Whitfield Lovell 
"Say Hello to the Dapper Say Goodbye to Davenport, Jr.", 2015, Bruce Davenport, Jr.
View of the exhibition

Monday, August 3, 2015

Lights and Shadows at the MFA Houston

This Summer, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston offers a unique display with the exhibition Cosmic Dialogues: Selections from the Latin American Collection. The artists represented  have a common interest in light and movement, with works combining futurism, light art, op art, kinetic art and constructivism. Highly inspired by European movements, they are innovative in their concepts. A large area is dedicated to Gego, a Venezuelan artist, followed by the major installation from Gyula Kosice, The Hydrospatial City, (1946-1972). The last room allows to sample works from diverse artists, among them, Abraham Palatnik and Julio Le Parc.

In the hall, two hanging sculptures from Gego introduce the display of a significant body of work, which includes wall sculptures, more suspended sculptures, drawings and prints. Built with stainless steel wire and iron, the sculptures have the lightness of spiderwebs. Enclosing an empty space, spreading their shadows on the walls of the gallery, they stay decorative. The eyes must accommodate before walking in the next room where the visitor gets immersed in the world of Kosice. He took twenty five years to realize his installation based on the premises that "Man will not end his days on earth". The habitats conceived for the survival of humans after the destruction of the earth are interesting from an architectural point of view. A total of nineteen Plexiglas models float in space surrounded by seven light boxes along the walls. Bathing in a bluish ethereal atmosphere, the transparent structures are glowing in a golden light and project their shadows on the floor and walls. Designed for a futuristic world, they are a mixture of science fiction and poetic dreams. A pamphlet available for reference, contains technical drawings about each "station" and its function. A video and photo collages dedicated to the installation follow-up in the passage leading to the last room humming with the sounds of motors and livened up by flashes of lights. Each work has its own rhythm and the two Mòviles from Julio Le Parc, 1968 and 1960-1966, caught my attention first. Made of squares of metal suspended vertically, in perpetual slow motion, they reflect the lights with a disorienting effect. The artists are represented by one or two iconic works for a total of nine: Gregorio Vardanega with his "chromatic square spaces turning in a spiral" made in 1968, Martha Boto his companion in Paris, with a kinetic op piece Optique Electronique, 1965, as well as Horacio Garcia Rossi with one of his "unstable light structure" made in 1966. Two small wall sculptures from Kosice integrate water interacting with light. A special mention should be made about Abraham Palatnik who became an innovator and catalyst for the light movement in Brazil. His five minutes video, "a kine-chromatic piece" made in 1962, features an evolving abstract landscape in constant shift of colors, orange, violet, red, fuchsia, with no obvious start or end.

The spotlight given to Gego's work results in a long winded introduction to the show, a black and white monotonous display lacking surprises in an effort to show "all the collection". The following installation from Kosice is a welcomed adventure in a cosmic world of galaxies and space stations. The subject related to the future of the human race on this planet is more than ever haunting artists, among them Dawn Dedeaux in New Orleans. Kosice's transparent dwellings bring an Orwellian flavor with their promotion of a communal life where no privacy is expected. In the late fifties and sixties, a great number of the Latin American artists migrated to France where they found a nurturing environment and associated with French artists like Victor Vasarely who founded the GRAV (groupe de recherche d'art visuel). They brought innovative ideas and introduced media like light, Plexiglas, Formica, motors, pumps, water...
The relatively small exhibition provides a review of a significant movement and allows to discover or rediscover artists sometimes overshadowed by better known Latin American artists from the same period (who also came to Paris) like Carlos Cruz Diez or Jesús Rafael Soto.

photographs by the author

"Esfera No.7", Gego, 1977
"Optique Electronique", Martha Boto, 1965
"The Hydrospatial City", detail, Gyula Kosice, 1946-1972