Tuesday, January 31, 2017

From Voguing to Collages

Rashaad Newsome is back home with his latest exhibition Mélange at the Contemporary Art Center. Born in New Orleans, the artist lives in New York City after spending some time in Europe. The month long show includes not only a display of  collages, drawings on paper, videos, but also films, a live performance and a conversation moderated by Amanda Hunt, Associate Curator at The Studio Museum in Harlem. The following review concentrates on the exhibition located in the newly  refurbished first floor of the CAC.

Heavy glass doors now enclose the first and largest gallery filled with eleven collages hung against two walls in a dull arrangement. The museum-like display includes a wall text to introduce the artist and his work. Loud music brings some commotion to the otherwise quiet atmosphere. One by one, the collages dazzle in their austere surroundings and project lavish scenes. Luxurious, opulent, flamboyant, luscious, outlandish, racy, garish, kitschy, ..., there are not enough adjectives to describe the extravagant display of riches from the inhibited decors. Made of high end glossy magazines, the collages assemble pearls, diamonds, luxury watches, gold chains,  mixed with iconic historical buildings and heavily tattooed skins, glowing mouths, open legs, entangled arms, resulting in a visual overload. A mixture of high and low, they are meticulously built and result in dynamic portraits with hints of surrealism and humor. The larger pieces are presented in matching black custom frames covered with leather and automotive paint, adding a perfect finish.
The music comes from the second room where a 9 min. video is projected against a wall. FIVE SFMOMA, 2017, is a clip of the live performance which took place at the opening of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in April last year. Its title refers to the five moves of Vogue Fem, the latest style of voguing. It includes five elements (hands, cat walk, floor performance, spin dips and duck walking) translated in a frenetic "ballet" in five parts executed by five dancers with colored wigs and matching make-ups. Five musicians build up the music parallel to the moves, improvising as they watch the performers. An opera singer is also involved. The result could be chaotic if it was not for the intervention of the multi-disciplinary artist. In a few video shots, Newsome appears behind a computer, like a conductor, synchronizing music and dance while also drawing the dancer's moves, thanks to a 3D modeling software program. The resulting "three color lithographs with 3D and photographic collage elements" are then framed and displayed on the wall in chronological order, complementing the video.
Two black arrows point to a narrow passage giving access to the smaller back gallery where two silent videos are projected simultaneously side by side, recordings of live performances which took place in the artist's studio. Untitled and Untitled (New Way), 2009, are earlier works representing the collaboration between Newsome and selected performers.

A first walk through the exhibition left me unsettled and I realized that the visit should start with the two silent videos, in the back. The earlier works represent the key to the artist's inspiration. Newsome stated: "I view these videos as drawings, with the dancers acting as my pen, creating lines, shapes, landscapes, and an array of narratives." Unfortunately, the sound from FIVE SFMOMA which invades the whole exhibition spoils some of the experience. The next stop is in front of FIVE itself. The performance combining music, dance and drawings is possible due to the artist's diverse practices which include computer programming, collage, video, music, sculpture, performance. His skills brought him to turn "movement into material, and then material into movement" through computer programming. Freezing the movement to produce drawings, he then "fills them with abundant material to create collages".
A reflection on popular culture, connecting all media, glamorous, they should be the last sight.

photographs by the author:

"Brush Stroke", 2015
"When You're Talking to Someone and You Know They Are Lying but You Keep Listening", 2015
"#1st Place", 2016

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Many Faces of Abstraction

This month, two exhibitions on Julia Street reflect the wide scope of Abstract art. The short walk from Octavia Art Gallery to Callan Contemporary represents decades of art history, bringing the visitors from expressionist to geometric abstract through the paintings of two artists: thirteen of Kikuo Saito's late works are on view at Octavia and Syn•tac•tic assembles fourteen of James Kennedy's most recent compositions.

At Octavia, it feels like a rush of colors when going through the entrance. An exuberant mixture of warm oranges, yellows, reds, moody greens or blues, covers the canvasses displayed along the walls. The late paintings of Kikuo Saito have the gestural quality of expressionism, with a twist. Ghostly stenciled letters can be found in the background while the oil paint is applied on top with vigorous brushstrokes, sometimes spread unevenly giving some texture to the canvas.  Saito was born in Japan and arrived in New York in the early 60's at a time when Joan Mitchell, a second generation abstract artist living in New York City moved to Paris. Her influence can be felt in paintings like Tilla, 2015 or Arabi, 2014, so is Helen Frankenthaler's, a Color Field abstract painter. Saito was her assistant for some time. What transpires through Saito's works is a love for life, conveyed through an explosion of colors.

At Callan Contemporary, the overall ambiance is more meditative with predominant blue and brown colors. Simple shapes and lines interact to create complex architectural landscapes patiently built through "dozen of layers of glaze-work and incised lines", providing perspective and depth. A connection to George Braque's works comes to mind due to the colors and also the woody or marbled effects of some areas. This is not a surprise as geometric abstract is born from Cubism according to the art historian Alfred Barr. It also reaches spiritual levels as described by Jorge Daniel Veneciano in his essay written for The Geometric Unconscious. James Kennedy's works meticulously composed bring serenity.

Octavia Art Gallery and Callan Contemporary allow the visitors to experience two different abstract languages, both making a lasting impression on the viewer.

photographs courtesy Octavia Art Gallery and Callan Contemporary
Kikuo Saito "Marimo", 2014.
James Kennedy "Salon Composition III", 2016.

Sunday, January 8, 2017


"Abstract art... is a universal language, and dwells in the realm of music with equivalent emotion. Its melody is attuned to the receptive eye as music is to the ear." This quote attributed to the painter Abraham Walkowitz, defines the course taken by the abstract artist Anastasia Pelias. Following her collaboration with the Jazz musician Nicholas Payton, her latest compositions are inspired by her favorite female vocalists. For the exhibition "Sisters", fourteen of her paintings are filling the entire space at the Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, immersing the visitor into her new body of works.

There is a  feeling of drama when first surrounded by the large square paintings made of black drawings and drippings on a white background. Variations for each work are brought up by touches of vibrant colors. Meandering along the creases of the textured Arches paper, the drips, like a thin veil, give fluidity and lightness to the paintings while thick drawings made with oil sticks provide focal points, subjects and action. Some evoke silhouettes, like in "Laura" or "Nina", but the paintings stay abstract. Each projects a distinct aura generated by emotions triggered by the music. The titles, first name of the singers, allude to the closeness built over time while listening to our preferred musicians. "Sisters" suggests lasting, unbreakable bonds.

While most of the artist's past compositions have been about color, this time, she chooses achromatic black on white and grey, as a common language. In Pelias's Mediterranean culture, black is about death and mourning, but in her latest paintings, black becomes a tool for expression through drips or drawings, suggesting an East Asian influence. Pelias has mastered the technique of drip painting and like Jazz musicians improvise freely after years of practice, she allows herself to be spontaneous in her gesture, letting the emotions flow. A gallery visit is essential to view "Sisters". Size, texture, adventure of the drips, vigor of the lines, nuances of the colors, are missed when looking at the paintings on a screen. While the show can be overwhelming at first, one can choose to discover a singer at a time.
These works are a chapter in the artist's experimentation with automatism and music. They are not portraits, but translate raw emotions through abstract representation.
Where could Anastasia Pelias's voyage be more suitable than in New Orleans?

photographs courtesy of the Jonathan Ferrara Gallery

"Nina", 2016
"Stevie", 2016
"Chaka Khan", 2016