Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Circle of Life

ROOTS, an exhibition featuring three artists, prompted my first visit at the Chapel Gallery on the Xavier University campus. Located on the first floor of the administrative building, the gallery is a wide open space well-suited for the display of Ron Bechet's charcoal drawings, Patrick Waldemar's paintings and Rontherin Ratliff's sculptures. From diverse backgrounds, the three artists share a common heritage expressed through their work. Ron Bechet, born and raised in New Orleans, is presently Art Professor at Xavier University, the Jamaican painter Patrick Waldemar is a recent Crescent City's adoptee and Rontherin Ratliff represents a younger generation of New Orleans artists, deeply afflicted by hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

A wall text at the entrance introduces the exhibition's theme. ROOTS is about trees and their sacred nature as perpetuated by the African Diaspora in today's Louisiana. Across the hallway, a second text describes the symbolic meaning of trees in West Africa. Connections between earth and sky, ancestors and livings, trees are also considered spirits. Walking into a narrow room lined-up with Bechet's twelve feet high drawings
(charcoals on paper), the visitor experiences the energy and power of nature. Surrounded by overgrown, contorted giant tree roots, one feels lost in a fairy tale. Farther down, smaller framed works Why Trans Formation, Restoration of Consciousness and Vulnerability, 2014, are tracing knots, arcane paths, ways to a secret initiation. They illustrate a quote from the artist painted on the wall: "Roots are passages and opportunities, a subtle dialogue between secular and the sacred."
Nature is nurturing but can also bring havoc and destruction. Ratliff experienced nature's wrath and Things That Float, 2010, three models of shotgun houses suspended from the ceiling, represent the vessels of his memories. Made of wood boards and Plexiglas, their glaucous walls expose stacks of water-damaged photographs, some flying in the houses, like blown by an ongoing storm. The weathered pictures have acquired a pinkish tint and, here and there, the shadow of a child can be seen, left over testimony of happy times. Ratliff contributed also a giant sculpture-installation Rooted, 2017, towering the largest gallery on the other side of the hallway. Built with found material, including bricks, a fireplace grate, window screens, a bicycle, discarded wood, and more, the tree, composite of inert material, becomes alive. Well anchored with its roots spreading on the floor, the trunk climbs the wall and spreads its limbs and foliage. Charged with their history, the objects loose their function and contribute to a new life form with a soul, a kind of resilience following disasters.
Ten paintings, acrylics on canvas, from Patrick Waldemar hung on the three surrounding walls add bright colors to the display. The square compositions of moderate size (50 x 50 inches for the largest) could be divided in two series according to their predominant colors and their subject. Four of them built with geometric shapes, lines framing masked actors and circles from the moon, infer magic and rituals.  Red and white on a black background add drama and mystery. The six remaining paintings are depicting white magnolia flowers on a black background with touches of yellow and green. In his artist statement, Waldemar relates his work to deeper meanings about a society "where the history of slavery still looms as a spectral presence at the racially exclusive balls and social clubs of the city."
The major themes of the exhibition, life, death, decay and rebirth, are powerfully expressed through the art works filled with Southern references.
"As the Magnolia browns, new seeds seek fertile ground. Stripped of petals, passion remains in the bones." Patrick Waldemar
" My roots are my connection to my ancestors, and my "knowing" without being told. In my landscape there is the intermingling of community, a metaphor for joy, grief, pleasure, and suffering. Death is respected here, as the continuation of life." Ron Bechet.

photographs by the author:

Ron Bechet, "Transformation: to the Question of Who" (detail), 2016-2017
Rontherin Ratliff, "Rooted", 2017
Patrick Waldemar, "Morpheus and the River of Dreams", 2017

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Master of Lights and Shadows

When Julio Le Parc arrived in Paris from his birth country Argentina, he had a mission: transform the art scene. In 1958, "art" in Europe was driven by the elite and displayed in  museums and galleries.
Le Parc and his group, the GRAV ("Groupe de Recherche d'Art Visuel" founded in 1960), were to change this, and bring art to the masses and to the streets. The artist's fame grew parallel to his work's international recognition starting with the attribution of the Grand Prize for Painting at the Venice Biennale in 1966, and his political engagement which got him briefly thrown out of France following the May 1968 events. Le Parc believed that it was the artist's responsibility to engage crowds of uninitiated people and transform their lives. A tall order he pursued during his career which spans more than 60 years. The 88 year old artist presently living in Cachan, a southern suburb of Paris, was recently in Miami for the opening of his first museum solo show in the United States taking place at the Pérez Art Museum Miami. Julio Le Parc: Form into Action occupies most of the museum's second floor gathering more than 100 works, from drawings, paintings to sculptures and installations.

A photograph of young Le Parc and a brief text about his background printed on a ceiling-to-floor poster introduce the exhibition which starts in a dimly lit room lined up on one wall by a historical piece. Continuel-mobile, 1963/2016, hung at the entrance of the Paris Biennale at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1963. This time, half of it is on display to fit the space. Made of multiple pieces of metal hanging from nylon threads, in constant motion, it could be called a kinetic relief but the categorization would reduce the impact of the work which fills the room's black walls and floor with fleeting lights and shadows created by the reflection of spotlights. Immersed into the work of art, one feels slightly disoriented, like floating in the dark space due to the constant shift of the elusive images. In search of "instability", Le Parc reached his goal.
The exhibition progresses more or less chronologically going back to 1959. In the first room, the abundant works on display from that period are two dimensional and mainly black and white. All are made of simple geometric shapes rearranged to create visual effects, distort vision and generate illusions of motion. Ambivalent Progressive Sequences with Circles, Rotation of Squares, Visual Instability, become a lesson in Op art. The following room is filled with the fourteen "pure" colors selected by the artist for his research about  the subject. Started also in the early 60's as witnessed by the archival material courtesy of the artist, the meticulous studies recorded on school paper feature endless permutations, interactions, combinations and rearrangements of the fourteen colors. These led to larger acrylics on canvas in the 70's, like  the Ondes series, and sculptures. This period's masterpiece is a site specific wall decoration La Longue Marche (The Long Walk), 1974, displayed in a round room. The 360 degrees composition surrounds the visitor with its interacting colored lines, creating ten different patterns evoking life "unforeseen events", "expectations" and "surprises". Moving on to the 80's, the Alchimies series is in stark contrast, with its black background sprinkled with tiny colored dots, resulting in cosmic landscapes.
From then on, the visit offers some of the most iconic works from Le Parc, starting with kinetic wall pieces like Cercle en contortion sur trame, or Formes en contortion sur trame, both made in 1966. The works of the Contorsions series made of reflective metal ribbon on a background of narrow longitudinal black and white stripes, are animated by small motors swooshing softly in the background, while two larger works Cloison à lames réfléchissantes and the mural Virtual Circles, 1964-1966, (Displacements Series) are activated by the viewer's motion. These are surrounded by smaller but compelling pieces like Trame altérée, 1966/2005. Le Parc's contribution to The Labyrinth, 1963, presented by the GRAV for its landmark exhibition at the Paris Biennale includes this time Penetrable Cell, 1963/2016, Cell with Curved Mirrors and Light in Motion, 1963/2016 and  Cell with Vibrating Projection, 1968/2017. Immersed in the "environment", the visitor navigating from cell to cell through narrow passages lined up with distorted mirrors or floating sheets of metal, becomes disoriented due to the reflection of the lights producing fuzzy "uncatchable" images, twisted dancing lines and unexpected shadows. Even the ground feels unstable. Next, one can lay down on a couch to gaze at Continuel-lumière au plafond, (Continuous light on ceiling) 1963/1986, or sit down to look at two light boxes, assembly of Plexiglas and wood. With light and mirrors in constant motion, the two Continual-lumière, 1960/66, provide examples of infinite variations of light, color and form and contributed to Le Parc's influence in the kinetic movement.
The  "experience" continues with more lights and shadows, coming from large-scale works, like Lumière verticale visualisée, 1978, a fountain of light, Continuel-lumière cylindre, 1962/2003 or Lumières alternées, 1967/93. Nearby smaller pieces offer a full view of their inner parts: broken glass or mirrors, screws, bolts, springs, toy-size motors, spotlights...  a technology more adapted to tinker in a shed than to create art in a studio (would have thought art aficionados at that time!). Upon leaving the dark and quiet space, the contrast is jarring when reaching the brightly lit and noisy "Game Room" where several play stations offer interactive activities aimed at engaging the visitor directly. The conclusion of the exhibition Sphère Rouge, 2001/2012, is a gigantic red ball made of Plexiglas. Eight feet in diameter (and height), it includes 3000 red squares suspended from nylon threads. Red Sphere is a signature piece of the artist's latest works.
Fulfilling one of Le Parc's goals to physically engage the visitor, the exhibition's setting allows the viewer to become participant. It gives also the occasion to discover or rediscover the artist, starting with his studies. The hand drawn exercises on school paper, in which he meticulously rearranges shapes and colors, outline his quintessential references. Starting room 4, the kinetic pieces, small or large, represent Le Parc's legacy. One can regret that Le Parc's political and social engagement, a basic motivation for his practice in the 60's, is not more emphasized. For Le Parc, art has the power to change people's life and he thrived to democratize art. Material related to this aspect of his legacy is available in the book published at the occasion of the exhibition, including some of his writings. Movie clips from the period and a recent interview of the artist are shown in the museum's theater.
Another goal of Le Parc was to create emotionless art. Completely detached from the work, the artist leaves the viewer interact directly with the art and transform it. He succeeds in a way that his work reaches the coldness of op art. But spirituality seeps in, due to his search for infinite combinations of shapes and colors. Technically flawless, the works require careful synchronization and precise settings to allow randomness. However, Red Sphere feels like a step back in the artist's journey. Decorative, it has lost the sense of fun and experimentation of earlier works.
Julio Le Parc in museums? Times have changed, and the word "museum" expresses another reality: crowds of schoolchildren, visitors of every age and background, far from the stuffy crowds of insiders from the 60's. Artists like Le Parc contributed to these changes.

photographs by the author:

"Séquences progressives ambivalentes", 1959/91
"Trame altérée", 1965
"Continuel-lumière écran en plastique", 1960/66
"Lumière verticale visualisée", 1978, video